Survivors – The Fourth Horseman

survivors titles

After getting so much enjoyment from Blake’s 7, I was keen to explore other work from its contributors. I’d seen various versions of Terry Nation Bingo and 1975’s Survivors seemed to tick the kind of boxes I liked. A box set emerged from my stocking on Christmas Day 2020…

terry nation bingo card with squares listing items such as dystopian future, crushed by rocks, main character gets sick, plague, nazi allegory, twisted ankle

I initially liked the idea of watching a drama about a devastating worldwide plague while in the midst of one myself; I hoped it would offer me perspective of: “Well, it could be worse.” However, in the bright light of a pessimistic new year, as I undertook yet more bloody walks within the same few miles of my house that I’d exhaustively explored over the previous year, Survivors suddenly seemed like it might be too depressing. I mean, at least there was hope in Blake’s 7, however misguided.

With the distance of time, I eventually did feel ready and blimey I’m glad I waited.

I wish I had been able to watch Survivors before our real-world pandemic so I could compare the experience of seeing it afterwards.

The opening episode reminded me of Threads as it establishes the world’s normality. We know something dreadful is coming, so inevitably watch it all with a sense of foreboding. Terry Nation is pulling no punches here, even naming the episode The Fourth Horseman – and for those familiar with biblical stories (or perhaps, like me, with Neil Gayman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens), we know the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse represents Death. Nonetheless, I find myself already getting drawn in to the characters, expecting these to be the handful we follow throughout the series.

Abby’s life looks wonderfully middle class. We meet her at her country house, where she’s been practising with a tennis machine. She has a housekeeper, a son at boarding school, and a Peter Bowles husband, David, who works in London. They live in a village where the local GP recognises their car. Most things are running smoothly here, although the doctor is busy and he vaguely mentions that his wife hasn’t been well.

We don’t learn a great deal about Jenny in the first episode. She is sharing a flat in London with a friend, Patricia, who is already quite ill. Jenny is young and rather well-spoken but we don’t know her background or what kind of job she has. When Pat’s boyfriend, a doctor, tells Jenny she needs to get out of London, she doesn’t have a plan to seek out any family.

Jenny looks shocked as Andrew looks down at Pat's dead body in bed

Impending doom

In the village, David has struggled to get a train back and when he finally arrives he is a typically irritable, put-out commuter. So Abby takes him home and they both have a drink while she cooks a quick late supper. As they discuss the current situation, Abby reasons that the travel disruption isn’t unusual as it’s simply similar to when there is a snowfall or a rail strike on – “It all takes time but it gets itself sorted out in the end.” Interestingly, my delayed viewing in early 2023 means I’ve experienced numerous train and postal strikes, so I can identify with this 1970s’ idea of regular disruption seeming normal. The GP has said he will visit to give them both flu shots. David has resolved to work at home for the next few days and wait for it all to blow over.

They are wonderfully, blissfully ignorant of the impending doom. But watching post-Cold War, I’m aware of some emergency protocols that these characters probably are not; David’s inability to find a radio broadcast from anywhere means things are very bad – if there isn’t even an emergency broadcast network going out on BBC Radio 4 they should be far more worried. Instead, Abby and David simply sigh at the power cut and head to bed full of bacon, eggs, cheese and booze.

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abbey sips a whisky while david messes with the radio

Throughout the day there have been radio reports and other pieces of information that tell us we’re on the brink of something: the housekeeper hasn’t been able to get hold of her sister, the train times are a mess and the GP’s wife is unwell. Abby suddenly finds herself exhausted and falls asleep in the car, only awoken by David knocking on the window. In the real world, I think everyone has moments from early 2020 that they can look back on as more significant in hindsight. These are those for the characters in Survivors, except as viewers we know this is a drama, we know this is building up to something, so I don’t feel compelled to shout through the screen at the characters.

David knocks on Abbey's window

Fleeing

Everything gradually ramps up, with events moving far faster than I anticipated. Jenny knows Pat’s boyfriend Andrew is a doctor working at a hospital, which is a way for Terry Nation to move the action there. We realise the serious extent of this new illness as the staff are overwhelmed, with people queued up for flu shots, and we hear about the numbers of dead and dying, plus the absence of so many hospital staff themselves. Andrew admits to Jenny that the flu shot is useless – it’s solely to reduce panic. It’s an interesting choice to depict the government as outrightly lying to people in order to maintain some control. It’s clear by now that the virus is indiscriminate, highly contagious and basically killing people too fast for them to do anything about it. I’m surprised Andrew finds time to leave the hospital and come to Jenny and Pat’s flat, but perhaps he felt increasingly useless at the hospital anyway, especially having realised he’s ill himself.

people queue for flu shots as Jenny and Andrew chat

I wonder what Jenny’s plan is as she walks the dark and deserted streets of London. What has she managed to pack in terms of food and supplies in that small bag? She doesn’t look well wrapped up. How far from London is she expecting to get on foot in one night?

The moment the looters step out of the shadows becomes horrifying. Jenny’s a relatively small and slight woman and there are several young men. I feel her vulnerability as one tells her, “Kick up all the fuss you like, lovely. There’s no one about.” It’s impossible to know how seriously they mean their ‘jokes’ as they laugh and encourage one another on. They are purposefully intimidating and take turns to grab her. There is an implicit suggestion of what could happen. Fortunately, the drama doesn’t choose to go there, but surely she will never feel entirely safe again.

Jenny faces the looters in the dark

Back in the village, Abby is ill and David heads out to find the doctor, who has been out on calls all day and night. The moment the doctor says his wife is dead really hit me. His earlier remarks about her being ill were so casual that it sounded like little more than a rough cold. Mere hours ago. He has realised his efforts and all his years of medical experience mean nothing. He looks so defeated.

A new dawn

Time elapses and after nearly a week of being virtually comatose in bed, Abby emerges (with some truly dreadful bed hair) into a new world.

I’m really shocked when I see they’ve killed Peter Bowles. It’s Peter Bowles! I was expecting him to stick around! He’s a leading actor kind of bloke by this point, surely, and he’s a goner already. I soon realise that this episode has introduced me to several people just so I can see them die.

abbey sits in her nightdress looking at david's body on the soda

At first, it’s as though everyone has disappeared. There is deathly silence throughout the village. There are grim moments as Abby visits the doctor’s house and we see just the feet of a corpse inside. The church is a sad sight, with bodies sat in the pulpits. Did these ones know they were dying? Is that why they came here? Did they want to be close to God or did they just want to be close to other humans for the last time?

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After going to find her son, Peter, and finding him missing, Abby meets the sole survivor still at the school, who is presumably one of the teachers. Her conversation with him proves interesting. He has resigned himself to his fate, believing that as an older man he will be useless once his hearing aid batteries run out. With time on his hands there, he admits he has given humanity’s future a great deal of thought. Abby is still optimistic that it will be relatively easy to rebuild things, but as he forces her to think about how she would make even a basic candle and metal holder she starts to realise what faces them. His summary that, “We’re of the generation that landed a man on the moon and the best we can do is talk about making tools out of stone. What you call a stockpile of things will simply give us a little breathing space,” is a depressingly bleak outlook. It does feel like it’s setting us up for the rest of the series.

abbey and the school master stare at a simple candle and metal holder

Meanwhile, Jenny has been wandering the countryside alone. Her attempts to chat to a Welshman, Tom, are met with slight hostility as he’s very wary of anyone getting too close. His outlook couldn’t be more at odds with the school teacher’s, remaining convinced that it’s only a matter of time until the Americans sort out a cure and everything will go back to normal. Cutting directly between him and the conversation at the school emphasises how unrealistic this seems.

Tom and Jenny stand on a hill several metres away from one another

I’m already feeling sorry for Jenny, who has been wandering around alone for a week by now. She later finds a man by a fire to share a warming evening with. He’s ill though and by morning he’s dead. Rigor mortis has set in and she can’t pull one of his bags away. I presume she’s checking for food. When she empties a second bag, it’s full of cash. It’s amazing how quickly things have adjusted: Jenny understands how useless the money is and leaves it behind.

I can’t entirely understand Abby’s reasons for burning down her own house. To get rid of David’s body? To tell herself that this life really is over? To stop anyone else taking it? The second of these appeals to me more. Her shortly shorn hair shows me that she has thought through the practicalities of her new life.

I’m curious how the series will continue to portray these two women. Abby is practical and in the aftermath has a clear purpose immediately: find Peter. Yet Jenny is literally wandering aimlessly. She doesn’t have anyone specific in mind, but clearly wants some companionship.

This opening episode of Survivors is fairly different to what I had expected; I thought we would see the plague’s growing spread over at least a few episodes, establishing a gradual, growing panic. Essentially, I thought they would all have more time and this fictional virus would reflect my real-world experiences. Perhaps the episode’s title should have been a clue: it isn’t called ‘The First Horseman’ – Pestilence, the representation of plague – because the plague had already arrived and now the Fourth Horseman is due. The virus’s spread is rapid and dramatic. It moves so swiftly that it never even has an official name, simply being referred to as “the illness” or “the fever”. It’s shocking just how fast everything has happened. This has impressed me.

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