Big Finish: Survivors series eight review

As the timeline of Big Finish’s Survivors audio adventures moves beyond the endpoint of the TV series, this latest boxset delivers an impressive mix of large scale, high stakes and small scale, intimate stories which set in motion the events which will come to an explosive conclusion in the final set in this current run of post-apocalyptic dramas scheduled for release next summer.

As well as introducing a key new protagonist whose fate becomes entangled with Abby Grant’s and Jenny Richards’ own, series eight also makes good on the much-trailed reunion between Abby and the son she has been searching for since the outbreak of The Death some four years earlier: Peter Grant. It’s a gambit that pays off brilliantly, with each of the four stories offering fresh perspectives on the world that the survivors of Britain now inhabit – as the plague recedes into recent history.

Bandit Train

Opening episode Bandit Train is a tense and fast-paced action and adventure piece, that kicks off the series with a great sense of momentum and of scale. Back in series six, Christopher Hatherall’s script for The Trapping Pit showed how much drama he could extract from having characters trapped in a confined setting as the timer ticked down to disaster. He deploys some of the same sensibility here, as the train carrying Abby, Jenny and their compatriots comes under repeated attack from raiders on horseback.

First-rate direction from Ken Bentley brings out a sustained feeling of jeopardy, while atmospheric sound design by Benji Clifford and a striking musical score from Nicholas Briggs all enhance the idea of our heroes teetering on the verge of being derailed. Their immediate predicament is a clear metaphor for the wider threats facing their efforts to create a new society upon the ruins of the old world.

Carolyn Seymour (Abby) and Lucy Fleming (Jenny) are both on excellent form. What makes their interactions all the more interesting is the unexpected but plausible inversion in the pair’s self-confidence. Abby’s preoccupation with Peter’s proximity is leading her to uncertainty and self-doubt; while Jenny’s self-belief and courage is now impressively resilient, even under fire.

Robert

There’s a sharp switch of pace and focus in the second episode, as the clock is turned back to the onset of The Death to reveal the background story of Captain Robert Malcolm – Abby’s and Jenny’s apparent saviour in episode one, and a key antagonist throughout this latest series. None of the original TV characters appear in Jane Slavin’s emotionally literate story which reveals the life events which shape (and distort) Robert’s sense of self. This was a storytelling technique that was used, to equally good effect, in the series three opener Cabin Fever (which introduced the marvellously repellent Vinnie).

The story paints a fascinating picture of the unravelling of civilisation not heard in the series before, depicting it as unfolding through a cumulative series of incremental, everyday events which together show the foundations of society crumbling. What the episode also depicts so well is the steady corrosion of Robert’s moral code, as a dystopian roadtrip confronts him with a series of unpalatable, unconscionable choices. This instalment ends with questions about Robert’s intent unanswered, as his calculation of what’s now required if he is to survive hardens.

It’s a riveting story full of heart-rending moments of drama, brought to life by a fantastic guest cast; complete with a standout turn by Wendy Craig as the host cajoled into providing Robert and his ill-assorted entourage with the sanctuary that they crave.

The Lost Boys

Lisa McMullin delivers a winning debut Survivors audio script full of shocking and distressing sequences that rises to the daunting challenge of introducing the long-sought-for character of Peter Grant. Joel James Davison gives a grounded and honest performance as the teenage boy whose feelings of abandonment have led him to lose his moral moorings entirely. Like Robert Malcolm, Peter could blame circumstance for his personal degeneration, but there’s little about the young Grant’s behaviour that invites sympathy on this first encounter.

Abby’s frustration is pushed to breaking point here as she is denied her reunion by the scheming of others. Peter’s nihilistic nature is revealed here through his encounters with Craig (George Watkins on strong form as Craig is once again put through the mill) and Ruth (Helen Goldwyn capturing Ruth’s growing dislike of her truculent host pitch-perfectly).

There are some very tough, brutal scenes which reveal the full extent of Peter’s disfigured psyche. The horrible anticipation at the disappointment and distress awaiting Abby when she finally meets her son (despite Jenny’s best efforts to prepare her) intensifies as the story unfolds.

Village Of Dust

Series finale Village Of Dust depicts a tense and thrilling armed showdown, with writer Roland Moore taking evident relish in making the eventual outcome all but impossible to predict. Moore brings mother and son together at last, in an eve-of-battle reunion which stretches Peter’s loyalties to the limit. It’s a fraught and agonising encounter, rather than the joyful one that Abby had longed for, and a brilliantly realised moment of drama which sees Seymour capture an extraordinarily powerful sense of her character’s anguish and disbelief.

There’s a welcome return for a now-emboldened Sonia Meadows (Katherine Rose Morley channels the dilemmas of “leadership in conditions of crisis” very convincingly). As the firefight rages, Clifford’s superb work on the soundscape once again comes into its own. With a whole series of payoffs delivered amidst a grim bodycount, there is growing alarm at news of a malevolent force manipulating events behind the scenes. The danger threatening to overwhelm the nascent new England that Abby, Jenny and their compatriots are trying to build once again casts a huge shadow over the survivors’ hopes.

With series nine confirmed as the end of the line for the current run of Survivors audios, Big Finish can focus on delivering a fitting final reckoning for what is indisputably one of the most compelling, insightful and thought-provoking audio series that the company has yet produced.