The post-apocalyptic tale has been used by a number of writers in fiction, most notably by John Christopher, but on British television the genre most famously formed the basis of Terry Nation's Survivors (BBC 1974-1977). It also applied to the 1970's series The Changes (1975), and Barry Hines' horrific one-off nuclear holocaust drama Threads (BBC 1984), but until The Last Train the subject had not been dealt with for some time by television.
With the working title of Cruel Earth (and actually transmitted in Canada under this name), The Last Train debuted on ITV in April 1999 in a prime-time slot, and was promoted at the time by Granada as one of (if not the) most expensive drama productions they had ever invested in. More daring than the majority of television drama output, it was a welcome change from the usual diet of police and hospital series.
Told in six parts, and written by Matthew Graham (one of the main writers on BBC2's This Life), The Last Train concerns itself more with the theme of the 'quest', rather than showing characters having to face the practicalities of surviving in an empty world. Whereas Survivors was an ongoing series, showing people facing ordinary, mundane problems that had to be overcome, and Threads was a harsh lesson about the dangers of nuclear warfare, The Last Train follows a more straightforward pattern.
The series partly shares the same setting as Threads: Sheffield. It is to Matthew Graham's credit that he chose to set the story in the North, and have the eponymous last train travelling from London to Sheffield prior to the asteroid strike, and not the other way around. Setting the tale in the South would have made their journey to Ark much easier: they would not have had very far to travel if the secret base had been located close to London, rather than having it hundreds of miles away somewhere in Scotland.
The journey is akin to the one undertaken by the characters in the John Christopher novel The Death of Grass. In that story a similar group of disparate people have to travel from London to Westmoreland following a destructive grass-killing virus.
The Last Train begins with a group of ordinary people going about their everyday business, with them all eventually finding themselves on the train that is due to leave the capital for Sheffield. The central character is that of Harriet Ambrose, a government technician who is aware of what is going to happen, and is desperately trying to get to Ark.
Fortunately for some of the passengers on the train she has a canister of a freezing agent that is set off when the asteroid hits the planet. As the train enters a tunnel, the giant piece of rock strikes the Earth. The canister is ruptured and the passengers all enter a state of cryogenic hibernation. This magic fairy dust protects some of them during the long sleep that they endure.
We soon learn that the asteroid hit the planet far away in Africa with the resulting tremors and shocks being felt right across the globe. Emerging from the railway tunnel the lucky (or unlucky) few who have survived the long sleep find themselves in a very different world to that which they are used to. The shot of them appearing from the dark to see a previously busy main railway line overgrown with huge exotic plants that never used to be native to Britain is very effective and gives a real sense that they have been 'away' for a lengthy period of time.
Sheffield is found to be completely deserted. Buildings are ruined shells, crumbling skeletons are strewn all over the streets and packs of feral dogs scavenge in the shattered city. Not knowing quite what to do, the group take their lead from Harriet, who after some initial reluctance tells them of the potential sanctuary of the mysterious Ark. For want of anything better to do they all decide to join her on her trek to Scotland.
The scenes inside the tunnel featuring the wrecked train are probably where most of the series' budget went. Equally as impressive are the scenes set in the ruins of Sheffield, with destroyed buildings, festering bodies and wrecked vehicles everywhere. Most of the actors do well with what they are given, with Treva Etienne and Steve Huison playing their parts very well. Mick Sizer is one of the more interesting characters, and is well played by Treva Etienne.
At the start of the story he was a criminal who was being pursued by another of the few that are left - Detective Ian Hart, and initially wants nothing to do with the group. However, he quickly develops into the series' most obvious example of a 'hero'. Mick seems to be the nearest equivalent to Ian McCulloch's Greg in Survivors.
It's a shame that most of the characters in The Last Train are so thinly sketched though. In her Radio Times review of the series, Alison Graham describes them as a group of stereotypes. Harriet has only one motive, Austin has very little to do at all, Jean barely speaks, Leo growls a lot, Jandra is bland, and Anita's point of view is shown mostly through her diary, which forms part of the narrative. The only really interesting characters are, Mick, Ian, Colin and Roe. Roe is quite a feisty and aggressive sort, and the scene of her attempting to cause the abortion of her baby in the church, knowing that there is no civilisation left in which to raise it, is quite harrowing.
Colin is the 'weird' one of the group. Wearing his business suit at all times and carrying a briefcase, it is obvious that he has been affected deeply. He quickly develops psychological problems and there is a good segment early on where he goes back to the office block where he worked and acts as if nothing has happened. Later in the story, out of jealousy of Mick and Roe's growing relationship, he deliberately prevents Mick from reaching the safety of Ark by closing the door and abandoning his 'friend' to a pursuing mob.
When the viewer finally gets to see the mysterious Ark it too is something of a disappointment. We are told that it is supposed to a huge secret government bunker, packed with all of the necessary materials required for long-term. However, all we get to see is a few steel doors and a couple of the rooms that it contains. The idea that the people who managed to reach Ark placed themselves in cryogenic suspension only for Harriet to discover that they defrosted themselves and left less than ten years after the asteroid hit is a good one, but it would have been good to have seen a bit more of the complex than we ultimately did. As it was, Ark could have been any underground bunker anywhere.
The end leaves some questions unanswered and it seems as though Matthew Graham has simply forgotten about them. Why, for example, was Hild running away from the hunter group? And what happened to Roe's baby? The series has a few plain daft moments too. Is the viewer really supposed to believe that the wild boar survived a thirty-foot drop into the abandoned underground factory? How did the panther in the same factory survive down there? Did it sit under the hole and wait for unfortunate pigs and humans to fall in? When the group head North, how exactly did they manage to get the transit van across the river in the boat that they find? And as for the idea of an abandoned holiday camp on the River Tees?