Survivors: we’re bad and we deserve to die

The BBC’s new series, in which millions are wiped out by a virus, is perfectly attuned to the gloom of the moment.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

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It is an old cliché that fictional disaster epics tend to flourish in times of real-life misery. It was no coincidence that Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein or the haunting poetry of Coleridge found favour in a world still recovering from the Napoleonic wars, and which was simultaneously living through a period of global cooling that witnessed some of the harshest winters in history.

That the 1970s are famous for disaster movies is no accident, either. The hippy dream had been horrifically exposed as a fraud at the 1969 Woodstock festival. This was quickly followed by inflation, industrial strikes and the three-day week. This was a time when non-entities such as Gerard Ford and Jim Callaghan could inexplicably become non-elected heads of government and no-mark football teams such as Sunderland could win the FA Cup and Derby County won the English league. No wonder people became disillusioned in the Seventies. The results were the Airport series of disaster movies, The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Earthquake (1974) and The Towering Inferno (1974).

The appeal of the disaster movie genre is the most accurate reflection of the 1970s. But the disaster movie was finally lampooned to death by the 1980 film Airplane!. This was because, contrary to popular opinion today, the 1980s was a much more honest, optimistic and creative decade than the 1970s, and largely devoid of gloomy cinematic ham acting, dreary escapist ballads and angry punk rock. Everyone remembers the soundtrack to that iconic 1970s film Saturday Night Fever (1977), and John Travolta doing that dance, but if you read the lyrics and watch the film, you will appreciate what a tragic tale it is, and what a waste that decade was. Name me one good thing that happened in the 1970s. I can think of only two: Nottingham Forest coming from nowhere to win the European Cup and Margaret Thatcher getting elected.

So, it is fitting that the disaster genre made a high-profile comeback this week on BBC1 with Survivors. It’s just what we needed in a month in which we have been told that the UK is about to face the worst recession in the world, fathers are raping or beating to death their own children, the usual lunatics are bombing hotels in India, the situation in Zimbabwe has unbelievably worsened, and John Sergeant’s resignation from Strictly Come Dancing has caused howls of outrage from viewers who had paid their ‘hard earned money’ to vote for him (at a whopping 15 pence per call).

Indeed, we have yearned for the disaster genre to return for the same reason many have wanted this recession: like a patron of a sado-masochistic salon, we feel bad and we want to be punished.

Survivors, which started on Sunday night (1) is unsurprisingly a remake of a 1970s TV series by Terry Nation, in which 90 per cent of the human race is wiped out by a killer virus, leaving the few survivors to eke out a living in a desolate Britain devoid of electricity, petrol, running water, fresh food and so on. In other words, it’s a bit like Britain in 1978. The series has a universalistic, solipsistic and childlike appeal. Who, as a young boy or girl, did not fantasise about being one of the few people, or indeed the only person, in the world? You could live where you wanted, go where you wanted, and take from a supermarket whatever you fancied. Survivors also appeals to the dark, childish fantasy of wishing that your parents were dead.

But we live in childish times, and apart from its appalling acting, over-stylisation, rampant misanthropy, anti-government paranoia and ethnic box-ticking, Survivors is weirdly engrossing. It is also fundamentally flawed. The BBC is having a hard time at the moment, but it continues to shoot itself in the foot again and again.

Were the makers of EastEnders responsible for Survivors? First of all, we have the leader of the ‘survivors’, who is an earnest Scottish woman (because English men are bad, like Charles Dance and Alan Rickman). Then we have a nice black man, who is an eco-warrior, urging his fellow members to go ‘back to basics’ (because white men who believe in technology are rotters). Add to this a Muslim child who supports Manchester City (because Manchester United = evil corporate greed). There is a selfish, lapsed Muslim playboy who is fond of drink and fast cars, who I guarantee will find redemption and see the error of his ways at the end of the series. And then there is the northern, white working-class man. He is a murderer and goes round stabbing people. I’m surprised there wasn’t a hoodied ‘chav’ thrown in just for good measure.

Both patronising and insulting, Survivors is the kind of programme that gives succour to the morons in the British National Party and to the leader-writers of the Daily Mail. In its dramas, the BBC can be so ham-fisted and so obvious in its eco-correct, gender-correct and ethnic-correct didacticism that one cannot concentrate on the plot. Paradoxically, Survivors also betrays a mindset rampant within the liberal-left, which ostensibly idolises the working class, but which secretly hates them. The BBC and the Guardian have a relationship with the working class akin to a lover who has spurned their partner because he or she didn’t live up to their expectations; she fell in love with him upon seeing his potential, but he refused to change.

Then there was the suggestion at the end of the opening episode that this virus had been deliberately manufactured by the government in the first place. So on top of all this you have the kind of anti-statist paranoia that is usually the preserve of men with beards, plaid cardigans and an arsenal of guns who live in the forests of Montana.

In conclusion, Survivors appeals to the eternal dark side of the human psyche, and it reflects our civilisation’s current discontents. It is a mirror of the ‘credit crunch’. It is a reflection of voguish anti-humanism and eco-worrying. It is a dream-fulfilment fantasy for the likes of Greenpeace who think we should all die because we deserve it. It tells us much about the BBC and the liberal left. Survivors is fascinating and may well be viewed as a cultural signifier for historians of the future. And it is crap.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) Survivors, BBC iPlayer

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