Sunday, February 15, 2009

Survivors

(This is proof that I'm so desperate to avoid talking about the Obama Follies or the Economic End of Days that I'll even review a 30 year old TV series.)

Survivors is a mid-70s BBC TV series, set in the aftermath of a worldwide plague. The plague, apparently the result of an overly enthusiastic and careless Scientist of Asian Extraction, seems to be a particularly virulent sort of bubonic/pneumonic plague. Released in a lab accident, the infected Scientist of Asian Extraction apparently covers up his little faux pas and then road trips it to to Moscow, spreading good cheer along the way. From there, it follows the airline routes and spread over the entire globe. Hilarity Ensues.

The scenario and sensibilities are very 70s. At that time, things weren't going so well in the world, either politically or economically. The rise of liberalism and the attendant errors by those newly elevated to power caused great upset in the world balance of power and equally serious economic problems. People of the time were concerned that it was The End Of The World As We Know It (TEOTWAWKI, as it came to be known in survivalist/preparedness circles), and much time, effort and fear were devoted by some folks to being sure that if there were survivors, they would be among them. As a teenager during those years, I suppose they have predisposed me toward being the way that I am on many subjects.

(It's interesting, if disturbing, to note the similarities of those years to our current situation.)

The plague was worse than decimating to the human population. One of the main characters estimates that, based on the pre-plague population and his own post-plague observations, perhaps as many as 1 in 5000 survived. Doing the math, that comes out to a 99.98% mortality ratio. To put in in terms that might mean more to us, that would mean that the post-plague population of a 350,000,000 United States would be 70,000 people. In New York City, the number of survivors would number some 1,655. In a small town of 25,000, they would number 5. Humanity is reduced to a very thin veneer on the land.

This is before the post-plague die-off. Surviving small children, those who are younger than say 10, would likely be nearly totally gone. Babies would die unattended, and younger kids would fall to any number of causes, ranging from other survivors to misadventure, hunger and illness. Older folks, dependent on modern medicine, would also face a situations that many if not most could not deal with. (Know how to dispense your own blood pressure meds from a modern pharmacy?) Some, unable to deal with the situation at hand, would kill themselves; others would die in accidents; still others would contract illnesses that would kill them without medical assistance.

Then we have those who survive that are just not nice people, and who would prey on other survivors. The plague will not be selective in who it takes and who it leaves. In proportion to the population there are likely to be as many criminals as there are now. They will likely be less restrained than they are currently.

I'd estimate that perhaps half, give or take, of the remaining population would die within 6 months after an event of this magnitude. In the series, it appears to run about 1/3, rising to 1/2 after 18 months or so.

However, it isn't the mechanics of the plague that make the show interesting. It's the issues that the survivors have to deal with that make the show worth watching. First, of course, are food, shelter and protection. Even with a drastically reduced population, scavenging doesn't work for long. Much food is spoils when the power fails, and more is wasted by the scavengers themselves in their carelessness. Much is hoarded by groups that quickly form and specialize in stripping every store within their area so that they can live as comfortably as possible. Protection is made difficult by a lack of firearms and ammunition (it is the UK, after all).

Towns and cities rapidly become off limits due to disease and another plague, one of rats. Well fed on the bodies of the dead, the rat population explodes. As their food source is consumed, they become increasing dangerous to the unwary human.

Later on, the survivors deal with the complications of life without modern medicine, the dangers of individuals and groups that are out for power in the transformed world, religion, transportation and attempting to save as much technology as possible. Much is made of the necessity of relearning the old ways of doing things, especially when all you have to teach you are books. Raising food, making soap, tending to and butchering livestock and preserving food are all skills that have to be relearned, and quickly.

However, I think the thing that makes the show is the story of the day-to-day difficulties of groups of strangers, possessing various skills (useful or not), who have been thrown together at random and are trying to deal with the enormity of the situation while trying to build a civilization that can provide a basis not only for their own lives, but for the continuation of the human race.

Nah, no pressure at all.

The Survivors series has been revived and modernized by the BBC. I don't know if the revival is as good as the original, as I haven't seen it. Neither it nor the original series are available in the US, although it is available by alternative distribution methods (cough, cough, BitTorrent, cough).

The original is well worth the time to watch, even for those who don't have the preparedness bent. The premise has held up well, and the show was forward-thinking enough that the issues it raises are as important to the discussion now as they were then. It's unfortunate that the discussion is also as timely now as it was then.

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