Tuesday, April 23, 2024
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Science fact is scarier than science fiction


WHEN the full impact of coronavirus started to become apparent over the last few weeks, one of my more alarmist thoughts was: Is Survivors about to come true?

Survivors was the drama series about a global pandemic that ran on BBC television for 38 episodes from April 1975 to June 1977, the brainchild of Dr Who writer Terry Nation.

The plotline, of a virus being unleashed on the world and spreading swiftly and unstoppably, had parallels with today’s all-too-true Covid-19 crisis. Mercifully, the resemblance ended there.

You see, in Survivors, the killer bug was definitely man-made – released by accident, apparently from a Chinese laboratory – and it was staggeringly lethal.

In short order, it wiped out 99.9 per cent of the world’s population (even better than Domestos’s performance for killing household germs). Would lockdowns, self-isolation and social distancing have beaten it? No chance, not with this malevolent microbe.

The few who survived The Death, as the pandemic catchily became known, did so by recovering after being infected, or by being naturally immune. Those who had somehow escaped contact with the virus were still susceptible to infection from the survivors. All in all, a rather grim scenario, you’ll agree.

I and many others found it gripping stuff and sat down faithfully every week – Wednesdays, I think – to watch it. In those far-off days of 1975 BC (Before Computers) there was no video recording, catch-up, iPlayer, endless repeats, box sets, etc. You had to see a programme when it was broadcast, or miss it.

(First, though, you had to endure the sheer hell of switching on, adjusting the volume and changing channels by getting out of your chair and having physical contact with the buttons on the TV set. The remote control was at that time remote).

Anyhow, Survivors was excellent. The main characters were middle-class Abby Grant (Carolyn Seymour), engineer Greg Preston (Ian McCulloch), waif-like Jenny Richards (Lucy Fleming) and commune leader Charles Vaughan (Denis Lill). Dozens of other heroes and villains came and went as the series progressed.

I won’t go through the whole story here. You can see it all for yourself if you can find a three-series DVD set. Suffice it to say there were lots of adventures, some triumphs and many tragedies, all highly watchable to those of us who were hooked on it.

I must admit the series did start to tail towards the end, getting rather samey. After all, there’s only so much you can do in the depths of the post-apocalypse English countryside, the cities being forever off-limits because they’re full of decaying corpses.

But one of the underlying themes was the survivors realising their only hope for some sort of future was ensuring a sustainable food supply through husbandry and farming. Spoiler alert: They were finally helped by recommissioning a hydro-electric power station in Scotland.

As to whether there were enough people left to procreate and secure the long-term survival of humanity, that looked problematical. 

So Survivors painted a pretty bleak picture, unlike the current non-fiction crisis, where – as far as we know – there’s a good chance that things will get better again, albeit at a daunting economic and social cost.

I’m recalling the series mainly as a bit of nostalgia that’s struck a chord because of what’s happening now. However, I suppose one point that it drives home is that we’ve known for a long time that a pandemic such as the present one was a distinct possibility. We didn’t need Survivors, or any other science fiction drama, to tell us that.

So could we have been better prepared to combat coronavirus? That question will doubtless be hotly debated for years to come. The more important issue is that we need to be better prepared when the next one comes along. For all that I loved Survivors, it’s not much fun being an unwilling extra in a real-life science fact drama.

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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