I felt it was the right time to watch The Last Train, the 6-part 1999 series about a group of travellers emerging from a period of suspended animation to discover that the modern world had been overtaken by a cataclysmic event. I recommend it to anyone feeling nostalgic for an innocent era when we just assumed that there were secret UK government installations ready to deal with improbable disasters. Nowadays of course we live in the awareness that there weren’t even plans for predictable crises. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?
Of course if it was made nowadays The Last Train wouldn’t be 6 episodes on ITV, it would be at least 3 13-episode seasons on Netflix or Amazon. The story up to the end of episode 4 would expand to be season 1, episode 5 in the “sealed village” has the potential to become season 2, and I think episode 6 could be season 3 and probably a season 4. But that thought would have been possible back in 1999 as well, since there had already been since a long post-apocalyptic saga running up to nearly 40 installments: the original run of Survivors from 1975-7. There was an attempt at remaking that in the same era as Last Train but it didn’t have legs and perhaps no one thought long-serials were the future.
We start at the beginning of the line, at Kings Cross, when our crew are gathering, already passing each other by unaware of how important the random passersby will soon be. It is made clear later that this is absolutely contemporary and occurred in 1999.
Each episode starts with a scene picking up shortly after the previous ending, before we cut to the overlay of the title logo. There is no “opening sequence” as such.
Harriet Ambrose is our first encounter. She plays the crucial role of Chief Explainer, but she is not in any way the emotional centre of the story or even the most likeable. Here she is in the first of many phone calls to Jonathan Geddes, her mysterious colleague.
Roe Germaine is leaving her boyfriend to go and see her family and not sure whether to tell them she’s just found out she’s pregnant. She will not get to see him again.
Business guy Colin Wallis seems to be heading back to base up North after some business work in London. Nobody waves him off nor does he seem to expect to get a warm welcome at the end of the journey.
At stops on the way we pick up others. Mick Sizer gets on board at Chesterfield after leaving a van with his mates who are involved in dubious affairs that bring in big wedges of cash.
He rushes on board to avoid detective Ian Hart who is also in a hurry but not actually pursuing him (though he knows who he is).
The Nixon children Leo and Anita aren’t happy that Mummy wants them to get on this train, especially when Leo realises that Dad doesn’t know about this because she’s leaving him and taking the kids with her.
We also pick up friendly old people: Jean Wilson and Austin Danforth.
Just before we get to Sheffield we get the Great Rupture; I wonder if Sheffield was chosen as an allusion to Threads. The train slams on the brakes suddenly when going in to a tunnel, and we see all the carriages ahead getting folded up. But then the mysterious canister that Harriet has brought along in her rucksack gets out and gets loose and discharges into the wrecked chamber, causing everyone to suddenly freeze.
….and then everyone is waking up again as the effect disperses, at some unknown time later. The survivors awake in to a shattered world, overgrown with polluted waterways and prone to acid rain. It’s a good job Harriet brought a lot of equipment along with her from her office at the MoD in the secret Department Of Post-Apocalyptic Planning.
She gives us the first of several info-dumps without which all would be hopeless and helpless. A few weeks ago a rock called SD426, which is “about the size of Birmingham”, “broke away from the asteroid belt” and has reached Earth in bloody good time and landed in Zambia, which is the reason why some African flora are now growing in central England. The freezing effect on the train was due to the release of a special “microparticulate suspension” developed to bring lifeforms down to “absolute zero” so that the Important People can survive in a special bunker and resume governance once all the fuss is over. Harriet was on her way up North to join her hero/love Jonathan Geddes at the special location of ARK. She’s still trying to ring him as she assumes they can’t have been asleep for more than a few weeks.
This is of course total nonsense in several respects. It is not possible to freeze anything to Absolute Zero, and it wouldn’t do it any favours to do it very quickly – no better than putting living tissue in a vat of liquid nitrogen. Perhaps the “microparticulate suspension” is meant to get around this by not exactly being raw freezing material, but how does it act on the whole organism, and not just the surface? Are these characters bodies without organs? Harriet would have been better just calling it “magic fairy dust, ok?” as she does in her next sentence anyway, after getting deservedly jeered at. The greater puzzle is why on Earth she was carrying a canister of this Very Top Secret material with her en route to the secret installation where it’s made under Top Secret conditions. I cannot see any reason why she would able to bring one along with her, or what she thought she needed it for. It’s not really explained why she’s in a last-minute rush since they’ve known the rock was coming for weeks. Of course there is no good reason except to allow for a bunch of randoms to get frozen at the same time; just accept that and move on.
What we move on to is an odyssey through some very beautiful ruins and also an exploration of what these modern British stereotypes are like in a crisis. What we learn is they are very lonely and vulnerable. Jean and Austin had lost their loved ones even before the disaster, so they can give support to the younger ones coming to realise they’ll never see their partners or families again. Leo Nixon is very stroppy and judgmental about mum, especially when he sees her getting close to Ian Hart. It doesn’t mean anything to him when she explains she had to leave his dad as he was an abuser. Mick is a smart guy (he gets plenty of useful gear from his gang’s old lock-up). Colin is a creep and he can think of nothing better to do in the rubble of the old world than sit in his boss’s old chair and sneer about a world well lost. Later we find out he has a nasty Peeping Tom side, and is a very clumsy predator who mumbles about “misreading signals” from the females who never sent any in his direction.
The dialogue stays with TV drama conventions of humans in a crisis, with the business-like characters talking in awful self-important announcements and overstatements, though at least with Harriet that fits her persona and role. Mick is the cool wise-cracking guy, though not all his lines are up to quality. The moments when the tension is supposed to be broken by humour do not always work, as the mood was intense irritation but not tension. The time when Mick gives an out-of-character serious speech to Colin, telling him that there are times when a man needs to decide and be… blah blah something something, would have worked well if played for laughs, as Simon Pegg and Nick Frost would have done it, but I think that was meant to be taken straight. The scene where Mick asks Leo to sing a song to break the dead silence enveloping them, and he chooses “Wonderwall”, is still as terrible as when I first saw it. I think that was the reason I didn’t make any effort to see any other episodes at the time. “Mulder And Scully” by Catatonia would have been a better choice in every respect.
Although it attempts to show the crew getting slowly dishevelled, facial hair and general untidiness doesn’t really increase at the rate it ought to do even though we’re seeing only the span of about ten days. The journey across countryside is much like that of the 1970 post-apocalypse No Blade Of Grass. The ruined cities are this show’s great achievement, and they deserved to be explored more slowly and with a sparser soundtrack than Christopher Gunning’s usual plangent scoring, which doesn’t give enough sense of dislocation and strangeness. The slow reveal that this world is further in the future than initially supposed comes with the drawback that it is less likely that it would be still so recognisable. Wouldn’t most of it have simply collapsed after decades, and what are the packs of dogs still hunting for?
The journey has an end, and the temptation to suppose Harriet was simply delusional is mistaken. But there are plenty of other questions left after the final plot twist (where did the horsemen get their supply of bullets from, since they are so casual about using them?) and also there is no assurance that anyone in this tiny world will survive much longer. It seems that back in the 90s the British government could set aside quite a lot of money for a special unit to continue, but couldn’t provision it with anything to do much reconstruction with. So it is the ultimate expression of bureaucracy, the administrators who continue the form of administration with nothing to administer. That sounds plausible and realistic and has a message that still resonates today.