Thursday, 31 March 2016

Retro Review: The Last Train

Plot Summary:  A group of strangers are travelling on a train from London to Sheffield with only one of them, a scientist called Harriet Ambrose, aware that a meteorite is on a collision course with Earth.  On her way to Sheffield to reach the safety of a government bunker before the impact Harriet is shocked to discover that the calculations were incorrect and the meteor hits early.  As the meteor hits the train is passing through a tunnel where it is thrown off the tracks and the passengers injured.  Harriet takes a canister from inside her bag and releases a cryogenic gas that 'freezes' the occupants of the train carriage.

Upon waking the passengers are unaware that they were frozen, believing instead that they were just unconscious for a short amount of time.  They manage to climb their way out of the tunnel and find the world completely changed, with subtropical vegetation growing amongst the ruins of Sheffield.

Several members of the group split off and search through the city.  Smooth talking criminal, Mick Sizer, finds the skeletal remains of his friend and girlfriend in his old hideout.  He collects tools and supplies and repairs his van, providing the group with transport.  Elsewhere, another group are attacked by a group of wild dogs, with several of them being killed.

The remaining survivors gather together and search through the city for the bunker that Harriet was heading to.  They manage to find the bunker, but instead of providing them with shelter the facility is deserted and stripped of valuable supplies.

Harriet discovers what she believes to be the remains of her boyfriend, one of the head scientists at the facility, and a cryptic message left by him encouraging her to travel to a shelter in Scotland called 'Arc'.  Harriet manages to convince the rest of the group that they were frozen for a lot longer than they first thought, and that their best hope for survival is to travel north to Arc.

At the same time that Harriet is convincing the rest of the group that they need to take the perilous journey across the country, Anita, the youngest member of the group, discovers a wild looking young woman called Hild, who brings a new set of problems for the survivors as she's being hunted by another group who want her unborn baby.

The survivors begin their journey towards Arc, struggling to stay ahead of the vicious group following them whilst trying to find enough food and water to survive in the apocalypse ravaged wilderness.

Analysis:  'The Last Train' was a six part post-apocalypse television drama produced by ITV and aired over five weeks between April and May 1999.  The series was written by Matthew Graham, who at the time was best known for brief stints working on 'Eastenders' and 'This Life', but would later go on to work on 'Doctor Who', as well as create both 'Life on Mars' and it's spin-off series 'Ashes to Ashes'.

'The Last Train' is a perfect example of television trying to capture some of the science centric fears that captured the public imagination at the time, specifically the idea of an object impacting with earth and wiping out civilisation.  With both 'Armageddon' and 'Deep Impact' released the year before 'The Last Train' proved to be a much smaller budget version of those stories, but one with a huge difference, civilisation doesn't survive.

Perhaps it's something inherently British, but it seems that where American media depicts people coming together and winning out over the outside threat, whether it be an asteroid, alien invaders or a deadly virus, Britain tends to create stories that show the aftermath of these kind of events, such as 'Survivors' in the 1970's, which 'The Last Train' takes quite a few ques from.

Another feature of British television present in the series is the relatively short, with only six episodes to tell its story.  The first two episodes very much feel like one, both of them being set in and around Sheffield and basically establishing the characters and their upcoming journey.  After that each episode deals with separate parts of the journey, episode three has the group trying to find supplies and running afoul of a big cat (no, really, they get hunted by panther), episode four gives us the first real confrontation with Hild's group and the loss of one of the survivors, episode five focuses on a walled community they find that seems too good to be true, and episode six finishes the story as the survivors reach Arc.

I can't help but feel that if this were an American show that the series would be closer to twenty episodes, filled with flashbacks to before the apocalypse to help build characters pasts.  Instead we only get brief introductions to the characters, with much of their back story being told in brief snatches of dialogue between characters over the course of the series.  Instead of being shown more than we'd want to know about these people we get to know them over the course of their journey in the same way that the other characters do.

Despite not using flashbacks and a short episode run most of the characters get given the room to grow and develop, forming new relationships and evolving to survive in the new environment.  For me, the standout character of the show is the criminal Mick Sizer, who begins very much out for himself and even wants to abandon the group in the very first episode.  By the end of the series he's become one of the groups leaders and is even willing to sacrifice himself for the safety of the group, even allowing himself to be crucified by the 'others' instead of helping them get into Arc.

My biggest criticism of the show is the final ten minutes.  The story reaches a conclusion and ends at a point where it feels somewhat unfinished.  The survivors have reached Arc, discovered that the inhabitants woke up 40 years before, and that their descendants are the people hunting them.  The two groups come together and join as one inside Arc as Hild gives birth to her baby.

That's all well and good, the show got the survivors to Arc, which is the end of the story, but we're left not knowing if the two groups are going to become one group.  We don't know if Mick and Austin have survived their crucifixion.  We don't know what's going to happen next.

Perhaps this is part of British storytelling, where quite often these kinds of short lived stories are left intentionally vague or open ended for people t make up their own minds.  But here I think that it's an ending that leaves you feeling a little deflated.  By the close of episode six I'd become invested in these characters and their survival, and finding Arc doesn't feel like the end of their story, but the beginning of the next chapter.

If the show had returned for a second series of six episodes I'm sure that a lot of these questions about what was going to happen to them next would have been answered, we'd see how the group goes on to survive in the new world, but that really wasn't the point of the series.  It wasn't about the long term lives of these people, it was seeing several strangers, some of whom hated each other, come together as friends and a family in a journey for survival.  On that end it succeeds, it tells a good, strong story with interesting characters.

The setting works brilliantly well too, with the British countryside giving us a very different post-apocalypse landscape than ones we're used to from American television and film.  It's cold and wet, with a landscape that's unforgiving and dreary.  It's shocking how easily England can be made to look like the end of the world with very little effort made.

One of the things that struck me when watching the series again was just how similar it is in a lot of ways to 'Lost', it's got a central group who survive a crash in a large vehicle who have been thrown together by circumstances outside of their control to survive while a group of unknown, almost nomadic assailants stalk them.  A lot of the characters are similar too, with the group having a doctor, a police officer, one a criminal, a lone parent, a pregnant woman, it's easy to draw similarities with the survivors of Lost.  Add into the mix mysterious underground bunkers, wild animals in habitats not their own, help from a female member of the 'others' and children being highly valued by the other group and it starts becoming unclear which show you might be describing.

If you like shows like 'Lost' or 'The Walking Dead' then 'The Last Train' is going to appeal.  Yes, it's old, and it definitely feels like a product of the 90's, but as someone who grew up in 90's Britain it just fills me with nostalgia, from the world before the apocalypse to the occasional mention of 90's boy bands it's hard to escape that 90's feel.

'The Last Train' takes a very British approach to a genre it rarely tackles, and succeeds in making an interesting addition to post-apocalypse drama that is definitely worth the watch.


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