Recently I have been rewatching the excellent and underrated series The Last Train (Cruel Earth for Canadian viewers). The old DVD cover opposite gives a nice brief overview of the story which, despite being done a million times before and since, retains its appeal with some memorable scenes.
Now I watched this when it originally came out in 1999 so it wasn’t entirely surprising that it deals with the narrative that it does. Irrespective of that though, I loved it but now with older and more squinty eyes I can see it in a new perhaps slightly more impartial light.
Six episodes were all we British could do back in the day, with only one writer and the financial constraints of a tiny budget compared to our US brethren. I believe it cost something like £4 million to make the whole thing overall. These days it goes by the title ‘mini series’ and I’m sure would garner a lot of attention if remade and elongated, although this obsession with milking TV shows until viewers turn off in droves is very vexing in TV these days, at least some do have the foresight to go out on a high.
Being typically British, everything about this production is low tech but this is also its strength. Many apocalyptic shows these days, seem overly polished, like the detritus in the aftermath of a world shattering event has been set up to make it look like a ruin. The sets on The Last Train actually do feel real, they feel gritty and desolate, in fact just like post recession England (topical!). Apart from the mercifully rare CGI shots it does look like a dead world, there is no need for a buried Statue of Liberty or anything of that nature because the focus is on real relatable people and the predicament that they find themselves in.
Even after all these years and improvements in technology, it’s still an immersive watch mainly due to some great settings. Apart from the usual sort of places one sees in these sorts of shows, we are treated to a few lesser travelled to places. I’m loathe to mention them but the actors do get some all to brief moments to flesh out their characters within these barren, yet often arresting locales.
There are some really emotive parts scattered through the show, some of the set pieces are truly poignant and often disturbing as well. The whole saga is made even more atmospheric with the soundtrack, a sort of melancholy lament to the terror of a hell that we never saw take place and the civilization annihilated in its wake. Like all the best TV, It’s emotion driven and even though certain areas are skimped upon it still works.
For all the waxing of the lyrical variety that I have just espoused, there are some drawbacks to the show, most of which can be blamed on the shortness of its run. Although the plot is racily paced, this has the drawback of not allowing much in the way of character development, some of which does seem forced…it’s a shame when there are some wonderful moments of characters recalling the past which passes by all to briefly.
Really the show needed to have been a slow burner, hammering into the viewer week after week, just how grim everything and sad everything is and what depth these everyday people have, the background to how they lived, what they miss and how they choose to deal with it. Having said that there is a fair amount of caring about the gang to be had, that again has everything to do with the backdrops that seem to ooze the feeling that bad things will happen and there will be nobody to help them…ever.
It’s that feeling of mortality blended with a small amount of humour that makes you want to carry on watching. Whilst some characters evolve, some are extremely two-dimensional but what would be a notably stark contrast in a series with a longer run, doesn’t matter quite as much here. More frustratingly there is the odd leap of plot logic and stupid behaviour of certain characters that will have you sighing or rolling your eyes. Having said that where would the plot development be if everybody acted sensibly?
You may have noticed the 18 rating, which is probably inaccurate these days, there is little sex and only one bit of visual ‘nastiness’ which you will probably see coming a long time before it happens anyway…most of the bad things that happen to the bunch are left to the imagination, which is probably worse if you think about it. I’m all for skipping a bit or muting the TV if needs be but when you are left to ponder on a thing it becomes more magnified and much worse than any bit of filming could make it.
I remember the hype for this show, there were adverts for it everywhere and then once the first episode aired they just stopped which is an intriguing way of doing things and in common with this review I find the ending of the show to be slightly rushed but does tie up all the plot threads. Viewed as a show of its time and leaving some leeway for the odd bit of hammy acting – that still runs through British acting today – if you see this on the televisual box or find other means of watching it, you can’t go far wrong.