The Weekend's Television: Survivors, Sun, BBC1
Einstein and Eddington, Sat, BBC2
Monday 24 November 2008
Pounding headache? Sore throat? Swollen glands? Take one episode of Survivors and you'll soon be feeling dreadful. Neatly timed for the return of the flu season, BBC1's remake of the apocalyptic drama is nicely calculated to turn a minor twinge or an achy feeling into a harbinger of imminent doom and civilisational collapse.
After all, the victims here were sure that all they needed was a hot bath and a Lemsip, but before you could say "Black Death", the hospital mortuaries were overflowing and the gears of society were beginning to grind to a halt. And although the government was at first reassuring about its capacity to cope with the mystery virus, it wasn't long before a civil servant was admitting to the minister that mortality rates were going to reach 90 per cent.
Typical bureaucratic hedging. Judging from what you saw on screen, it was much, much worse than that. There were only about 10 people left alive in all of Manchester, for example, though fortunately for the drama they showed a quite extraordinary ability to bump into one another, so that they could slowly aggregate into an unwilling tribe. A local playboy, disturbed to find his one-night stand dead in the bed beside him, teamed up with an 11-year old Muslim boy he found wandering the streets. A mother, searching for her missing son, paired up with a capable-looking type who had already loaded a Land Rover with survival gear and was heading for the hills. And Anya, a doctor, literally stumbled over Tom, a sociopathic lifer who worked out his own parole terms by killing the last guard standing. And then, near the end, everyone met everyone on a deserted stretch of motorway.
What was interesting was how rapidly the plotline itself removed any need for extensive updating. Everyone has mobile phones these days, but the networks were among the first fripperies to go. And the internet isn't going to be a lot of use either, so today's refugees are in pretty much the same position as those in the Seventies original, other than the fact that they haven't recently had a Three-Day Week to hone their black-out skills (Terry Nation's original, it's worth remembering, was a response to an era when the conveniences of civilisation really couldn't be taken for granted). There were some signs of modernity. "You're not a paedophile, are you?" asked the young boy warily when the playboy offered him a lift, a line you can't imagine being in Nation's original script, but that aside, there's not much to differentiate our apocalypse from the first one. A final coda, revealing white-coated scientists who appeared to know much more about the origins of the pestilence than was respectable, suggested that the real fun will start next week.
In Einstein and Eddington, David Tennant played a very tweedy time lord, the physicist Arthur Eddington, employed not to uncover new truths about the universe but to keep the old ones in good order. "Bugger theory... give me the best measuring man in England," barked his employer, anxious that the unassailable (and English) ascendancy of Newton be maintained. Unfortunately for scientific jingoism, theory was hatching something new in Switzerland, in the person of Albert Einstein, played by Andy Serkis as a kind of Charlie Chaplin of the higher physics. And as the First World War came to a boil, everyone wanted to know what he was up to. "There's one man they want very badly," said Eddington's boss as the Germans began to mobilise their scientists. "We don't know why... we can't see the point of him." Eddington was given the job of finding out, and soon became Einstein's point man in England, battling anti-Hun prejudice and scientific orthodoxy.
Einstein and Eddington had the familiar flaws of many science biopics: characters who had a helpful tendency to greet their friends with both names ("Max! Max Planck!"); characters who excitably distilled the essential facts for the benefit of passing laymen and children; characters who hymned their scientific destiny in a way that wasn't compatible with plausible dialogue ("This is what my whole life in science has been for"). But it got a lot in, from Eddington's suppressed homosexuality to the difficulties of pursuing scientific truth across hostile front lines. "Consorting with the enemy is a treasonable offence, Eddington," he was told when he tried to correspond with Einstein in Berlin during wartime, and suspicions about his patriotism weren't allayed by his courageous defence of a German family who were the victims of intimidation.
The drama began and ended with Eddington's expedition to Africa, where he made the observations that proved that Einstein was right and that gravity could bend light. After that, everyone could see the point of Einstein. "What kind of genius looks like you do?" asked his exasperated lover, Else, trying to tidy him up for the press photographers mobbing his apartment. Einstein, who knew something about marketing, carefully made himself look even untidier before opening the door to pose.
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