Television Review

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The Independent Culture
WITH THE new millennium just around the corner, I suppose it was only a matter of time before television started sprouting end-of-the-world sagas. The Last Train (ITV) began last week with passengers aboard the St Pancras to Sheffield service getting stuck in a tunnel owing to the wrong kind of asteroid on the tracks. Frozen in suspended animation through mechanisms too silly to bear repeating, they emerged 14 years later to find that, a chunk of said asteroid having landed in Zambia, throwing up millions of tons of dust and blocking the sunlight, most of the world's population had died of cold and starvation. Sheffield had been transformed into a post-industrial urban wasteland - at times you could suspect satire - blighted by acid rain, patrolled by packs of wild dogs and dotted with tropical vegetation (the impact having dispersed seeds and spores). Last night's episode found the motley band off in search of The Ark, a bunker community holed up somewhere in Scotland.

This is a bizarre mix of the plausible and the deeply silly. An asteroid impact is a real, if remote, possibility; on the other hand, suspended animation ("micro-particulate suspension") is a daft fantasy, insufficiently thought through. There's a similarly casual air to some of the explanations proffered by Nicola Walker's oddball scientist: she seems to have known where the asteroid was going to land, but only had a vague idea about when (leave it a few hours and the Earth has spun on its axis and revolved several thousand miles further around the sun).

On top of this, Matthew Graham's script has thrown up such wince-making material as the loner forced to realise that people must stick together in order to survive and a van poised on the edge of a precipice. On the plus side, there have been some moments of loopy originality. I particularly liked the mad executive in an empty boardroom, explaining to imaginary colleagues that their membership of the executive sports club was no longer valid.

This week's action also contained a number of echoes of previous apocalypses: an apparently man-made signal that turns out to be something flapping in the wind (a trope that can be traced all the way back to Neville Shute's post-nuclear holocaust novel, On the Beach), and an extended pig-hunt that surely owed something to Lord of the Flies. I've started to wonder if the tropical vegetation wasn't just a nod to Day of the Triffids. More pervasively, there is a recollection of Terry Nation's 1970s apocalypse drama, Survivors, in which a similarly ill-assorted group was left to struggle after mankind had been all but wiped out by a laboratory-produced virus; that turned into a peculiar pre-Thatcherite free-trade fantasy, in which a sound monetary system was seen as the key to re-establishing civilisation.

This tissue of reference may just be my over-active imagination, though last week's explicit quotation from Finnegans Wake suggests otherwise. It doesn't alter the fact that The Last Train is classily made hokum. If nothing else, it makes the prospect of a world without television seem a tiny bit closer and a tiny bit more desirable.