Fighting for Tomorrow – BBC’s Survivors (1975)


Created by Terry Nation
Produced by Terence Dudley for the BBC
Aired from 1975 – 1977 on BBC 1
Available on DVD or select episodes on Youtube

An artificial plague sweeps across the globe, killing most of the world’s population with quickening speed. Those who are left now face the biggest obstacle in their lifetime, survive. “Survivors” is a post-apocalyptic fiction television drama. It first aired on BBC 1 in 1975 and ran for three seasons ending in 1977. The show is a realistic look at survival after a massive plague eliminates 99.98% of the world’s population. As viewers, we witness the end of modern civilization as its survivors adapt to a new way of life. The show is grim with elements of hope for a lasting future. What I find most appealing about this show is the level realism it portrays. Its focus on real-world problems and the learning of primitive skills sets this post-apocalyptic drama apart from all others.

The first season focuses mainly on three central characters. Abby Grant, a middle-class suburban housewife who is desperate to find her son who was at a boarding school at the time of the plague. Jenny Richards, a young woman in her early 20s who fled London before she became infected. And Greg Preston, a resourceful engineer whose talents are in constant use. The beginning of the first season involves the characters exploring on their own before deciding to travel together. Along the way, they find other survivors who share their philosophy and form an agrarian community that faces many challenges. In the second season, we say goodbye to several characters as well as the creator of the show Terry Nation. Terry leaves the show due to disputes with the show’s producer Terence Dudley.  The second seasons carries over some of the cast from season one as they settle into another self-sustaining agrarian community. Additional characters join the cast, some who briefly appeared in season one, return. Season two focuses heavily on the day-to-day business of the community and its struggle to survive. The third season launches with the same line-up as season two, this time we follow them individually searching the countryside for one of their own. It’s more in line with the first season as we see how other people have survived and adapted to this new way of life.

The Opening of the Show
S-ScientistThe camera zooms out to a Chinese scientist dressed in protective gear. He reaches for a glass beaker filled with a white substance, but his bulky gloves cause him to drop it. The glass beaker falls to the floor and shatters, scattering its contents. The scene cuts to the same scientist walking through an airport. He travels by commercial plane to the Soviet Union. Upon arrival, he raises his a hand to his head indicating he is not well. He falls down dead as others walk past. His journey has ended but the plague that infected him continues on. It quickly travels by plane around the world. Its journey marked through custom stamps of a passport, Berlin, Singapore, New York, Montreal, Rome, Paris, Greece, Madrid, and lastly London.

Without spoiling too much of the show’s content, there are several elements to use in a viral post-apocalyptic RPG setting. RPGs like The Morrow Project and Aftermath are two RPG that use our world as their settings. These would be the easiest to apply elements of “Survivors” to.

A Fast Destruction
The viral apocalypse in “Survivors” was fast-moving. Once a person becomes ill it took only a day or two before the victim succumbed to its effects. With the quick infection and mortality rates, there was little time for destruction of property. Much of the news of the coming plague and the rising death toll was kept obfuscated from the public. The plague spread so quickly that people had little time to react or panic. What we see in the show are clearer roadways and untouched resources. It also leaves behind a lot of unburied bodies to rot.

S-ThreatsAt first, resources are abundant for the survivors. There are plenty of houses or shops to raid for supplies. Since law and order no longer existed, they were free to stockpile as they see fit. Though as time passed survivors organized themselves into militias to protect those resources. Leading to newly formed armed communities who developed their own laws and forms of justice. They arbitrarily took control of areas. Anyone caught breaking their laws could face banishment or execution.

Roaming Thieves & Opportunists
Some armed survivors take to the road to prey on weaker communities. In the first season after the main characters established their own community when newcomers come knocking on their door, they are always wary. They often do not answer questions about their resources or numbers. They never knew if the strangers that showed up at their door were friends or an enemy sizing them up. Each guest received the same greeting, the barrel of a shotgun.

Loss of Knowledge and Skill 
When lives are lost so quickly and in great numbers, their specialized skills and knowledge die with them. Sometime in the future, items left behind will no longer function. Will the new generations have the knowledge and skill to replace them? In one of the best scenes of season one, Abby Grant brings forth this question. In the beginning before joining up with the other main characters, Abby encounters a newly formed society by a well-known businessman with government ties. The two enjoy a cup of tea in a kitchen of a cozy farmhouse and talk of how society is to rebuild itself. Abby has the idea of creating a society where the occupants will be completely self-sufficient from the resources left behind. She goes on to point out that all the items within view are the effort and knowledge of many tradesmen working together. As an example, she asked the businessman if he could build the table at which they sit. Without hesitation, the man feels even without any prior carpentry skill he could recreate a working table. Abby then presses his knowledge and skill further. She asks him if he will cut down the trees necessary for the lumber, mill the timber, forge the ax head when all cutting tools in the world have broken? Does he have the skills to mine the ores and the knowledge to refine it into steel? Teacups, paper, glass all creations of countless individuals working at different trades to create a single item. All of that skill and knowledge now lost. As a society that can place a man on the moon, as individuals, we barely hold the knowledge to survive the bronze age. For the human race to survive we must learn these skills once again.

Repopulating a Lost Generation
The plague swept through so quickly that any child below the age of five that survived the initial plague would have succumbed to neglect. With no one to care or look after them, they surely would not have survived long. A whole generation lost. This issue is what Abby, Jenny, and Greg faced when they met Charles Vaughan and his newly formed community in season one. Charles’ vision of survival depended on procreation. To have a future you must have a replaceable labor force as well as pass on the knowledge and skill to others. Children are the key to survival and every man and women must do his part in producing children. But in this new/old age without hospitals or medical personnel, pregnancy and childbirth are once again extremely dangerous.

Crime and punishment
In season one when faced with the crime of murder within their community, our main characters wrestle with how to handle it. The community in which they exist depends on each person doing their job. The community can’t afford to lose anyone, much less two able bodies. But the question is what to do with the offender? They don’t have the means of permanently confining the guilty party. Plus not all are willing to carry out capital punishment by execution or banishment from the community. In an RPG game, the act of execution would be the simple solution but if the survival of the group is dependent on each other, the players might have a difficult time in deciding on how to handle it.

Unmanned power plants and other automated industrial facilities will continue to run until they break down from lack of maintenance. At those moments of breakdown, toxins spill forth into the surrounding landscape. In season one a whole community of survivors is nearly wiped out when they consume fish from a river contaminated by an industrial facility upstream. In a community where every able body person is important losing just one hurts but losing a great number can spell death for all.


Threats From Animals
In the show, we don’t see a large population of animals succumbing to the plague. When we do see the death of animals it’s usually livestock due to confinement and neglect. In this new world, animals outnumbered humans. In a way that is good as there’s more wild game to hunt. Though in other ways it’s bad. Rat, mice and wild dog populations rise. Rats are the biggest animal threat in large population centers. Feasting on the corpses left unburied and carriers of disease. Swarms of rats can overtake an individual, inflicting wound after wound which becomes infected if not treated. Similar to rats, mice threaten survivors’ irreplaceable food stores and grain seed. In the countryside, there is a rise of feral dogs. Attacking in packs which threaten livestock and travelers alike.

Lack of Medicines and Medical Practitioners
As mentioned before with the great loss of life, there is a great deal of knowledge and skill that dies with it. At the forefront of these lost skills is medicine. It doesn’t take long for the manufactured pharmaceuticals to run out or lose their potencies. With each passing day clean bandages and even soap to sterilize wounds become scares. Compound that with the loss of medical practitioners and the common cold, a broken bone, or a simple cut can become life-threatening. Early in season one, Greg discovers two survivors, a man, and women who have managed to amass a great hoard of resources and secure a defendable location. Unfortunately, an accident befalls the man, crushing and trapping his legs beneath a tractor. Greg is able to free the man using his engineer’s knowledge of leverage, but with no medical knowledge to reset the man’s bones properly, he will be forever crippled assuming he survives his injuries. In later episodes, a young medical student becomes the communities doctor. Her unique set of skills is in such high demand she often has to travel to aid other communities. Her special talent also makes her a target for abduction.

Due to the high number of unburied corpses left to rot, cities were often avoided. The cities became centers for diseases that could kill anyone not protected from them. Some entrepreneurs with bio-suits or other protection venture into these areas to secure the untouched resources, but many survivors know the risk is too high. In the second season, to save one of our main character, a brave young man ventures into a neighboring city in search of life-saving medicines. Upon his return, he goes into quarantine to protect the community. Unfortunately, he has contracted a disease similar to the bubonic plague and dies in quarantine. The community learns a valuable lesson. From this point on any visitors and anyone who ventures to another community must go into quarantine upon their return. A routine practice used on all new arrivals to the community. They are held in a special quarantine building until a determined time. Once again losing even one able body person can hurt the community. A contagious and deadly disease would destroy it completely.

The Threat of Natural Elements
The Earth’s natural elements and weather can have devastating effects on survivors. Luckily at first, the survivors have plenty of well-built structures to protect them from the weather. But unless they are properly maintained they can turn the tables on them. In season one after a heavy rain, the drains around the building which funnel the water away from the house are clogged with debris. This lack of water control causes water to collect in the basement where valuable food supplies are kept. Water damages the irreplaceable supplies which threaten the community’s ability to survive.

Final Thoughts
Most of my examples originate from season one where most of the struggle occurred.  Season two and three are also a great resource for other styles of campaigns. Season two is great when roleplaying the building and maintaining of a community. The internal problems and politics of holding a community together were the loss of labor affects the community’s chances for survival. Season three is good if the players choose to not settle down into a community but wander the countryside. There are lots of threats or individuals they may encounter while on the road, as well as different types of communities.

Survivors” is sure to delight the post-apocalyptic fan especially if they enjoy viewing it from a realistic point of view. The show takes a grim and realistic look of what survival might be like after a fast-spreading viral plague. There are plenty of RPGs ideas one can mine from this TV show. Unfortunately, “Survivors” is no longer broadcast on TV. Some episodes from season one and two appear on youtube, but not all them. If you wish to view them all, you’ll have to track down the DVDs. Online retailers have various options and availability.  “Survivors” is a fantastic and realistic look at the struggles of surviving a viral apocalypse and a great resource for a post-apocalyptic RPG setting!

~Stephen Pennisi

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Heruca says:

    Hadn’t heard of this show. Too bad it’s already cancelled. Sounds like it might have been an interesting series, kind of like Walking Dead but without the zombies.

    Liked by 1 person

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