SF TV Episode Reviews: Survivors (1975-1977): Season 1, Ep. 1, “The Fourth Horseman”

In the prehistoric era of my site (2011), I attempted to conduct a watch through of Space: 1999 (1975-1977). After three episodes I quit (1, 2, 3). It reinforced my low tolerance for 70s science fiction TV/movies. As illustrated by my ratings of novels and short stories reviewed in the history of Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations, the 1970s clocks in as my favorite decade for SF texts. I’ve decided that if I’m serious about the process of constructing a morphology of science fiction in the decade, I should reattempt to tackle a TV show or two. Right?

~

For whatever perverse reason, I’ve decided to try Terry Nation’s post-apocalyptic drama Survivors (1975-1977). And yes, I’ve been in a post-apocalyptic kick for far longer than our Covid-19 era! For the background and history of the show check out the Wikipedia entry. Terry Nation might be best known as the creator of the Daleks in Dr. Who and Blake’s 7 (1978-1981).

You are welcome to watch along with me (episode 1 is on YouTube). I cannot promise how many episodes I’ll get through or at what rate I’ll watch the show. I am a reader and a watcher of whim, bound to change my mind on a dime.

This will not be a formal review but rather an informal/brief collection of ruminations.

(The origin of the virus according to the title credits)

Basic Plot

The show follows a handful of survivors who lived through a cataclysmic pandemic as they attempt to rebuild society.  “The Death” wipes out 4,999 out of every 5,000 humans on the planet within a few weeks. The terrifying title credits—a sequence of passport stamps indicating the spread of the disease around the world–suggest that it escaped accidentally from a Chinese laboratory.

In “The Fourth Horseman” we follow two women, Abby and Jenny, as their lives slowly unravel due to the virus. Abby, who lives and upper middle-class life outside London, contracts the virus, and wakes up with her husband already dead. She cuts off her hair and burns her house, a pyre for her husband’s corpse, and heads off to find her son. At his boarding school she encounters an old teacher–his hearing aide on its last batteries—who laments the future that will emerge from the empty streets. He suggests that humanity will have to learn again as the salvageable remains of the past are consumed by the survivors and decayed to the ravages of time.

Jenny, a single woman, lives in London and attempts to look after her sick roommate. Seeking assistance from a doctor, she heads to the hospital, packed with the lines of the terrified, where a sympathetic but overworked doctor tells her that little is known about the disease and the government has been pandering lies (flu vaccines, etc.) in order to keep people comforted. It appears that a small number of people are immune. The doctor begs Jenny to flee the city before complete chaos descends.

Jenny returns to her apartment, finds her roommate dead, and flees the city. She navigates streets filled with hooligans and encounters survivors in the woods either terrified by her presence as they might catch the disease or hoarding cash waiting for everything to return to normal.

Final Assessment

“The Fourth Horseman” successful conveys the relentless bleakness of an encroaching disease and its devastating aftermath when only the immune remain. “The Fourth Horseman” hammers home the impact of the disease by focuses on the breakdown of the standard information channels (radio, TV, government alerts, etc.). As Abby attempts to meet up with her husband returning from London, she notices that what she took for granted—for example, the timetables of trains—no longer function. At the dinner table she ruminates aloud, “I never thought what happens to a city […] If it all breaks down, all at the same time.” Suddenly as the radio stations flicker out, knowledge of the distant world—what is happening in China, in New York—is reduced to fragments and rumors.

Abby’s interactions with the teacher at her son’s now abandoned boarding school indicate the show’s central themes—how will humanity survive after “The Death”? What society will emerge? What can be rebuilt? With his hearing aid turned on for one of the last times, he ruminates “the real survivors will be those who will come through what fill follow.” He is resigned to the fact that his usefulness is coming to an end. He might have survived the disease, but he won’t survive what comes next.

Other than the effective (and according to viewers who watched it as a kid—scary) credits, the episode is characterized by visual functionalism. No individual scene’s composition stood out. One could argue the low-budget TV functionalism adds to brutal realism. It feels like lives are unraveling in an unglamorized documentary-esque manner.

A solid, if visually dull, beginning to the show…

I look forward to the next episode!

Next Episode: “Genesis”

(L, Jenny; R, Abby)

(Hospital with no PPE)

For a more substantial review check out this one. It gives a broader view of the series as a whole.

For book reviews consult the INDEX

For cover art posts consult the INDEX

For TV and film reviews consult the INDEX

42 thoughts on “SF TV Episode Reviews: Survivors (1975-1977): Season 1, Ep. 1, “The Fourth Horseman””

  1. You gave up on Space 1999! Fair enough. I watched this as a kid—was obsessed by it in fact. I remember sending a mail order to Starlog magazine sometime around 1980 to purchase the “Moonbase Alpha Technical Manual”. It took so long for the package to arrive—half a year maybe. Good days. There are a few good eps, including one set on a degenerated gen ship.
    Survivors though. Like you I watched this as an adult, so none of the gloss of childhood helps. It was, nonetheless, a solid show: relentlessly grim, which is a complement of sorts.

    1. I’ve given up on a lot of TV shows. In recent years, the only one’s I’ve completed are those I watch with my wife. I can plow through bad books but I can’t plow through TV I’m not in the mood for….

      But yes, Star Trek in all shapes and forms is my nostalgia. I understand its power! And its comfort….

      I’m not sure I watched anything as dark as Survivors as a kid. I might have mentioned before that I didn’t have TV until I was 6/7 and never had cable. The only shows I could watch were those friends had recorded on VHS or that we rented from the library/video store.

      1. One I never see mention of which I still have a soft spot for, although I’ve hardly seen any of it since, is the short-lived Adventures of Don Quick from 1970. It’s about a maintainance team of some sort visiting different planets.

  2. Survivors is one of my all-time favorite TV series. I even bought it on DVD to keep. The production values are not great, and the third season is weirdly rushed, but overall I thought it was great. British post-apocalypse times are much different from American. We believe everyone will start shooting each other in a Mad Max lawlessness. The British seem a bit less likely to shoot. It’s a shame that Survivors is widely available to stream. I liked the remake, but they didn’t stick with it. The novelization is pretty good too.

    1. British post-apocalyptic fiction can go the Mad Max direction though — Mick Farren’s The Texts of Festival (1973) for example: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2019/11/30/book-review-the-texts-of-festival-mick-farren-1973/

      I look forward to future episodes. I slowly came around a bit on this one as I wrote my thoughts.

      Have you seen this more “family” British 70s take post-apocalyptic scenario? I suspect, from what I’ve read about it, that it too fits the pattern.

      https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0072484/?ref_=tt_sims_tt

  3. It’s visually uninspired, indeed. The weirdest thing, from my American PoV, is the music…theme doesn’t match the show, and there’s lots of silence which there isn’t much of in US shows of that (or any other) era.

      1. To me, that feels more like a calculated decision than an oversight. It sounded as though I was kvetching about the sound before; only partly true. I think the sound on most UK tv is muddy, but I’m not as fast at decoding British accents as I am American ones. It’s a good choice to let the civilized world’s clangor drop away after the Death. Too bad no one was able to take advantage of the same situation for a show during the current plague’s lockdown.

        1. I’m watching it on youtube where it certainly sounds muddy — but, it’s a low quality upload. I’ve never purchased a DVD (other than as a gift) in my life!

          I too think the reliance on nature sounds–streams, the crackle of a fire, etc.—is deliberate. I like that element.

  4. It was essential viewing for me as a teenager at the time, and my mother was a fan as well. I watched it all again a few years ago when it was finally repeated and still liked it, although it definitely moved more slowly than more recent tv shows.
    I never really took to Space: 1999 orMoonvase 3 but I seem to recall quite liking The Guardians, although i recall nothing about it now. Might all come back to me if I watched even a little of it though!
    Blake’s 7 was another favourite and, from a bit later on, the 6 episode Day of the Triffids.I have it on dvd and still enjoy seeing it occasionally. (The 1981 version, not the 2009 one, which I didn’t like, but which may improve on a second attempt)

    1. I tried to like but ultimately quit Blake’s 7 after three episodes about a month ago. Much to the chagrin of antyphayes (the commenter above) — hah.

      I looked and looked and looked for The Guardians online and can’t find it. Alas.

      1. Chagrin—ha! More sadness that you’ve cheated yourself out of one of the true gems of tv sf…
        Moonbase 3 and the Guardians were just a bit before my time. Survivors was on in Australia in my yoof but not in the big cities, only some regional stations for some reason, so i only heard about it and never saw it until the last decade—mores the pity.
        The 1981 adaptation of Day of the Triffids was a firm fave tho. I use to got back and forth between the novel and the videos i diligently recorded.
        Speaking of Blake’s 7. One of the best writers of the show, and sometime show runner Chris Boucher, was responsible for the not bad though horribly named “Star Cops” tv show in the late 1980s. Worth a look.

        1. Doesn’t seem Moonbase 3 seem interesting though? It might be my next watch if I get through Survivors.

          “Star Cops” is a title that I automatically skipped while looking through lists on imdb.com. I’ll take a peek — and at least read a bit about it.

      2. The first three episodes of Blakes 7 are atypical. They’re setting up the story arc, and are not representative and not as good as what comes later. Maybe try three more episodes…

        1. Did you watch it as a kid? I didn’t. I adore Star Trek because in part because I watched it as a child — on VHS — and nostalgia is powerful (I’d like to think that’s not the only reason I enjoy it but it certainly makes me look past its faults). I utterly understand why people now would dislike Star Trek: TOS or TNG (especially the first season as it’s pretty shlocky).

          1. I loved the first season of Star Trek back in 1966/1967 and I was also a big fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Over the years I’ve had this reoccurring dream where I find an old tube-style TV and I’m flipping through the channels and I discover old episodes of those shows to watch. This would generate such intense nostalgia in my dreams. I’d wake up with a tremendous longing to see those shows again. But when I actually try to watch the old episodes I can’t even sit through them. I guess my subconscious wants to return to the past, but my conscious mind can’t find its way back.

            1. That sounds like a delightful dream. I have three main nostalgic longings — gardening, Star Trek, and hiking. In times of extreme stress I return to Deep Space Nine or TNG. I’ve watched TOS twice through but it doesn’t generate the same sense of calm that the others do.

          2. No, growing up in the US, I didn’t watch it as a child. I didn’t become aware of its existence until long after. Then again, I didn’t watch Star Trek until it went to syndication when I was in high school (go ahead and do the math). To be fair, I don’t think Blakes 7 was pitched at kids, although that might not be apparent in the first three.

            FWIW, looking past the faults is even more necessary to appreciating B7 than ST, especially its even lower production values. (Case in point, the hand-drawn-looking teleporter effect.)

            1. It wasn’t hand drawn! They used chroma key for the teleport effect, which was fairly technically advanced for the time. I’m not sure if comparing production values of ST OS and B7 is such a great idea. I find that B7 both exceeds and fall shorts of ST OS from episode to episode. However, it utterly surpasses ST OS in terms of writing and acting.

            2. replying to antyphayes. Sorry, I don’t see a reply link under your comment.

              I know it wasn’t hand drawn. I said hand-drawn-looking. I was referring to the thick white outline appeared and shrank down around the figure.

              I agree with you. Better acting, plots, and dialog than Star Trek (which I also liked). But cheaper production values–sets, effects, and alien makeup.

  5. I think the most nostalgic thing about the episode for me was the Jensen Interceptor Abby drives at the beginning of the episode; the doc’s Bentley is pretty corking as well! That slightly dreary Volvo 145 wagon in Disco Beige was a reminder of how little I liked the palette of the 70s.
    James’s dream reminded me of my car-past, as that’s usually how I dream my comfort-past…the cars I drove and loved.

    1. I have no fond car memories — yet. My first car was a 1998 VW Jetta with clutch problems that once stalled out going 30 and stranded my sister and I on the side of road multiple times driving to and from from my high school (30-35 min away in rural Texas).

      1. Heh, no that’s not a good memory at all! Mine are a mixed bag, of course, but there are some terrific ones in there.

  6. BTW is anyone else bothered by the fact that no one seems to notice the smell of dead people? It’s pungent, unmistakable, and indelibly etched on anyone who’s even experienced it once. In this world, they should all be overwhelmed by it and not need to approach the corpses to know they’re dead after about a day.

    1. Who knows. You’d think it would be an easy way to add to the general tone. According to what I’ve read about the show, the lack of petrol becomes a major issue — which also makes no sense. The number of gas stations that would remain and other major gas stores would be immense with 99.9 percent of the population dead.

      1. But without electricity how does it get out of the station tanks? And what about the huge refineries? They blow up with regular maintenance…was there time ti shut them down?

        etcetcetc

        1. I suspect that a siphon or a standard well hand pump could be installed — somehow… if it was super important. Also, you could open up the tank and get it out another way.

  7. Nostalgia can be a false friend when it comes to assessing the worth of childhood faves. But having said that, I’m not sure that we need always assess things on the basis of imputed “quality”, whether judged as an adult or child. What I like runs the gamut from “high” to “low” in cultural terms, and is often hard to assess on any purported objective scale. Having said that, Blake’s 7 has passed the test of time! Whereas my watch through of DS9 has become a bit of a slog (roll on the Dominion War..). Still, I was in my 20s when I first watched DS9, so I have none of the rosy thoughts of childish obsession to help.

    1. Of course, I do think it’s worth pointing out the power of nostalgia when reviewing something one loved as a kid. We are more inclined to look past their faults — and, at the very least, stick to it a bit longer than we might otherwise. And as that’s a problem I’m having, stopping shows (both old and new) if I’m not immediately drawn into them. Which is something I should get better at!

    2. I’d agree with that. I loved B7 when I was a kid, grew disgusted with memories of its cheapness as I got older, then watched it again recently and rediscovered it through new eyes. And to be honest, the cheapness of it now I actually find sort of refreshing, especially given the ambition of where it tries to take its stories. It’s not hiding behind money, it’s right there with all its faults! And given that, I’m amazed by how good it is. Plus it’s basically worth watching for Jaqueline Pearce’s performance alone.

      1. Well, maybe I’ll give a another shot — soon. We shall see.

        Episode 1 of B7 put me off immediately. The traitor with a limp…. way to start with a disabled man as villain trope!

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