Monday, 30 August 2010

Blake's 7: Blake


Blake's 7 is a strange series in many ways. Frequently camp as Christmas, yet often unremittingly grim. The show was created by Terry Nation, he of the Daleks and post apocalyptic Survivors series (as well as the jobbing writer for any number of other popular telefantasy shows). The series was conceived as "the dirty dozen in space", but is as much informed by Star Trek, Doctor Who, Survivors, 1984, the second world war, the cold war and any number of folk tales.

Consistently underfunded and under-appreciated by the BBC its production values made 70s era Who look like 90s era Trek. The directorial style in particular is generally bland and lacking in flair and ambition. The show borrowed heavily from the Doctor Who talent pool with Who stalwart Robert Holmes being a regular writer. The more important writer, perhaps more so than Nation himself in later years, was Chris Boucher.

When it was at its best the show was superlatively brilliant, taught edgy plots meeting cracking dialogue spoken by iconic and complex characters. At its worst it really is bad. There's not much in between to be fair, so you probably get a ration of 3 classics to 1 stinker and 1 average show. The bottom line is that you can't consider yourself a sci-fi or cult TV fan if you've not seen this series. The show was a key influence on genre classic Babylon 5 and the premise was basically lifted wholesale for the short-live (but brilliant) Firefly series. They are all out on DVD and they are routinely on offer too.

Anyway, the story so far (in very brief):

Season One: How the band gets together, takes control of the Liberator (the most powerful spaceship in the Galaxy) and starts to fight the Federation.

Season Two: Blake goes on the offensive against the Federation and plans to bring down its main control centre. The series ends with Blake joining forces with the federation to fight off an alien invasion from Andromeda.

Season Three: Blake and Jenna are gone and Avon finale gets to be in charge. The Federation is badly disabled. Avon and Friends explore the Galaxy a bit with only occasional confrontations with the Federation until the Season finale. Servelan (camp, transexual wannabe, dictator of the Federation) springs a trap on the crew. The Liberator is destroyed.

Season Four: Cally dies and Avon is never the same again. The Federation begins to massively and aggressively re-expend. Avon gets steadily more and more psychotic as EVERYTHING goes wrong for our band. He tries to organise a counter-federation of all the independent worlds only to be betrayed by the leading faction.

Before you go any further check out this EPIC fan made trailer:

All of which takes us to the last ever episode.


The story picks up from the events of Warlord, in which Avon had tried to build an alliance against the Federation. He was sold out and the location of his base was revealed to the Federation so he and the crew decide its time to get the fuck out of dodge. They leave the base blowing it up in the process, but Avon has a new plan.

As the episode title suggests the new plan involves Blake. Avon has used Orac to trace him and they have found him on a frontier world, Gauda Prime. Gauda Prime was a Wild West type planet run by crooks and murderers. Soolin was born their and saw her parent's killed. She is therefore none to pleased to hear from Avon that the thugs in charge of the planet are petitioning to join the Federation, thereby legitimising their rule over the planet and protecting their position in charge.

As they approach Gauda Prime the ship is attacked and everyone bar Tarrant beams off. Tarrant managers to crash land the Scorpio on the planet in a sequence that was ripped-off in Star Trek Generations:

Meanwhile Blake is posing on the planet as a bounty hunter. He uses himself as bait to track another bounty hunter, Arlen, with the intention of recruiting her to the cause.

Tarrant survives the crash and is rescued by Blake. Blake takes Tarrant back to his base on Gauda Prime and we find out that Jenna died in a blaze of glory.

Dayna, Soolin and Villa set up camp in an abandoned building. Villa leaves a fire going which allows a bounty ship and Avon to trace the site. Avon shoots the ship down and they follow Blake's ship back to his base.

This is when all hell breaks loose. Tarrant completely misunderstands Blake's intentions and believes he has sold them all out to the Federation. In actual fact it is Arlen that has sold them out. The episode reaches a bloody climax:

Avon asks "Have you betrayed us? Have you betrayed me?!". Blake's answer is fatal he says "I set all this up". Avon was totally batshit paranoid by this point having been screwed over several times in the last two years and he interprets these words as "I set YOU up". He shoots Blake and Blake dies in his arms:

his last words are "Avon".

Arlen gloats that Blake was right, he couldn't tell the Federation from the rebels any more:

and the bloodbath continues:



Avon is oblivious, practically catatonic.

Soolin falls.

And finally, Tarrant.

The Federation Guard moves in on Avon:

And Avon takes his place standing over the fallen Blake:

The Camera cuts in:

And again:

And again:

And again:

And Avon smiles one last crazed, ironic, nihilistic, smile:

The picture freezes, the credits hit and we hear the sound of multiple shots over the names "Avon" and "Paul Darrow":

Then the familiar theme tune begins:

And the series is no more.

This was not just the season finale, it was the last ever episode of the show. It went out a few days before Christmas thereby traumatising thousands of children. The irony is that Season 3 was supposed to be the final episode, but the series was recommissioned. Series 4 was not meant to be the final episode at all. Chris Boucher has planned to continue into series 5 with any of the cast that signed back on, but the continuity announcer stated that it was the last ever episode and that was that.

In my mind this is probably the best episode of the show. It is unremittingly bleak and nihilistic. Everyone we came to care about had died before the episode or during the episode. The Federation turn out to be the winners and probably stronger than they were at the start of the show. Our hero's lost big time. This is entirely apt. It was only realistic that the tactical advantages of two superior ships and one superior computer would ultimately be overcome by the might of an entire interstellar empire. Particularly as one as ruthless as the Federation was. Nevertheless, this sort of thing does not normally happen in tele-fantasy finales and would not have happened had the show gone to a fifth series as Boucher and Nation wanted.

One side affect of the curtailment of the series is that Jacqueline "Servelan" Pearce was not present for the finale. This was because she had already starred in her contracted number of episodes for that year. This was a sore point for her, although the writers have said that they had not deliberately set out to exclude her from the last ever episode. However, the absence of Servelan serves the episode well. Just as Blake could never bring himself to kill Travis directly, so Servelan could never quiet bring herself to dispose of Avon face-to-face. Arlen had no such compunctions and also lacked the camp factor of Servelan. The result is that the conclusion is played entirely straight and is extremely bleak.

Ever since the episode aired there have been numerous stories and theories put forward to continue the story and explain how one or more members of the crew could have survived. Boucher himself intended for Avon and Villa at least to survive. Nation tried to revive the series on the basis of Avon alone surviving in exile like a futuristic Napoleon. Years later "Blake's 7 Enterprises" attempted to use a similar idea to sell a continuation to Sky (don't even get me started on their incompetence). For me though I can't help but think that Blake's 7 is now a series that would better suit a "re-imagination" rather than a continuation, particularly since several cast members have been lost over the years.

On a personal note, I first saw this episode in 1994 when I was 14. I did not have access to the net or any episode guides, although I did know from Sky's pre-advertising that Blake was the last episode. I was fully expecting a rabbit out of a hat after the events of Warlord until there was about 10 minutes left and I realised that there was no way that Avon, Blake and Co were going to beat the Federation, even then I did not see the climax coming. When it did I was utterly shocked and I experienced exactly what the contemporary viewers must have felt. Years on this episode continue to hold considerable power and holds up to repeated re-viewings. Blake's 7 had a dozen or so episode that are classic SF stories and another twenty or so that hold up as being very good indeed. For me Blake is the greatest of them all. I have used the word nihilistic several times, but this episode could be the very definition of the word. Certainly no over drama I have seen can match Blake (Life on Mars final moments are the closest, but not in the same league at all). By circumstances of intention and accident it is a classic tragedy that could easily be performed (or "re-imagined") as a standalone story in any media with precious little alteration. It is a masterpiece.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Vincent and the Doctor

Anyone who doesn't think that Doctor Who is one of the greatest shows on telly should have their telly confiscated.

I'll put my cards on the table. I have something of a weakness for Richard Curtis stuff (obv. not the Vicar of Dibley). Yes his stuff can be ridiculously middle-class and twee at its worst, but the guy did Not the Nine O Clock News, Blackadder and I Notting Hill, which I consider to be the finest fairy tale in living memory. So I was almost as pleased and surprised to read that he was doing Who as I was pleased to see that Gaiman was doing Who.

The title of the episode was clever in so far as we were all clearly meant to think "Ah this is the Celebrity Historical romp for this series". However, if anything that turned out to be Victory of the Daleks with its cartoon Churchill and Spitfires in space. This is far from a romp. It is however a wonderful character piece. I get the impression that Curtis has wanted to write this story for a while but lacked the vehicle to do so. The flexibility of Who's format allowed him to tell this story and get it on prime time TV. In some ways it reminds me of The Also People in so far as the plot and the monster is simply a reason for the characters to talk to each other. Indeed the use of the "invisible" (cheap) monster was the only thing that held the episode back. I get that the Kids probably expect a monster, but if you are barely going to show it on screen, why bother? Similarly I could have done without the Athlete track at the end. That felt like the Doctor Who confidential house style rubbing off on the parent series. It was over-egging the pudding.

Anyway these are minor flaws in what was an otherwise brilliant episode. A story of the Doctor and Amy given a deeply wounded man a few moments of joy and grace.

In many ways this was a return to the ethos of the Hartnell era. Taking the show back to the idea of following one man's travels through time and space. We need more episodes like that, they don't all have to be about the mosters of the good of the Doctor fighting the evil of the Baddy. We should have a few more bits of character based sightseeing.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood

Way back in the pre season publicity there was a lot of talk of a new approach to Who, treating it as a modern day fairy tale. To a greater or lesser extent this approach was evident in the whole of the season. In the first episode we have the orphan girl who grows up in a spooky old house with a room nobody ever sees. In the second we have the space whale carrying the whole or Britain on its back. We have vampires and dream lords and even the Dalek episode has shades of the Tin Man/Pinnochio.

This story therefore strikes a discordant note being a love letter to the Pertwee era of the show. The choice or writer is equally discordant. Why Chris Chibnall was chosen to write this one is unclear to me. He is a competent writer, but one who seems to write to the level of the brief he is given. Its arguable that nothing improved Torchwood in season 3 so much as his absence from it. The first two seasons certainly varied wildly in tone and approach and at times in season 1 the show took a positively bizarre approach to its arc and character development eschewing the resent switch but similarly failing to deliver conclusions to any of the character's individual story arcs. On the other hand Chibnall's finale to season 2 worked as a neat conclusion and, by RTD's own admission, crystalised what the show would go on to be. Similarly I have always been rather fond of 42 and episode unfairly maligned because of Michelle Collins' performance.

Nevertheless it seems to me that this story would have been the perfect story for Mark Gatiss (far more so than the Dalek one). Gatiss already has already demonstrated the chops for such a tribute in his novel Last of the Gaderene and the 2 episode format would appear to be far more suited to his style of storytelling.

It was never entirely clear to me what the production team were trying to achieve in bringing back the Silurians. I can't see that they have a huge nostalgia factor for Joe Public. Their first appearance is highly regarded by fans of a certain age and a certain style of Doctor Who. Their second is almost universally reviled by all fans. Neither story were big hits with the viewing public of the time. They do not fit the mould of being a classic monster in the way the Daleks or the Cybermen or Master do. I don't even think they rate in terms of B divisions monsters like the Sontarans, Ice Warrior or Rani. Arguably, your average punter on the street would be more likely to remember "the one with the maggots" than "the one with the Cave Monsters" if asked to recall some classic monsters. Furthermore any attempt to trade of the nostalgia factor of the Silurians as monsters is completely undermined by their "re-imagining" as a Trek/B5 style alien. The originals may now look cheap (or more accurately DO now look cheap) but in some ways humans in rubber and a mask are better than humans in makeup. Similarly the original story presented us with "scientific", "political" and a "military" leaders. The implication of this story is that the Silurians have a caste system. Whilst this is a logical development from the earlier story, it is to my mind an unwanted formalisation of the society. Human governments tend also to be comprised of leaders of specific groups and interests, but that does not mean our society is comprised solely of those groups and interests. It seems to me that Who does Monsters and Aliens. The monsters are monolithic cultures and the aliens are multi-cultural. It is for this reason that, to my mind, the sea-devils were always the much better antagonists. Being much dumber than the Silurians they basically fall into the monolith monster category.

I take the point that the Silurians are intended to be a proper society and that they have a perfectly valid point of view and a perfectly legitimate aim in wanting the Earth back. This is all well and good in theory. In practice there is never enough complexity shown in the species for them to be a truly believable alien society (as opposed to a believable monster) and there's no way the show is ever going to feature an earth run or shared with the Silurians. Even the right on lefty New Adventures continuity didn't have that happen for another thousand years or so. The consequence of this is that the end of any Silurian story set in modern times is either (1) they all die, (2) they all go back into hibernation. Dramatically then they are a dead end of an antagonist. On top of that the comparatively luxurious length of the modern two parter is still shorter than a Pertwee (or Davision) four parter and is nowhere near long enough to offer an effective presentation of the Silurian culture or the ethical dilemma posed by the story. In view of this, again, I can't help but think the Sea-Devils would have served this story better (or even the Ice Warrior as our nearest solar neighbours).

On top of all this we have the bizarre ending. The decision to kill off Rory is another part of this story that baffles me. Was there anyone who saw it that wasn't expecting him to be revived in some SF fashion by the season finale? Dramatically it doesn't really take us anywhere. We already know from the previous episode that he DOES really mean something to Amy. It doesn't even have the fun and entertainment factor of Adric death. Even those that don't like the character don't loath him as much as Adric! It seems he dies only so he can be resurrected in an "unexpected" way so Steven Moffatt can show how "clever" he is.

So yeah, there's a lot in this one that doesn't sit well with me. That being said there were a good few things I did enjoy. On a purely superficially level the throwbacks to the Pertwee era were a nice change from the RTD era "London and soon the whole world will be in peril and its all on CNN and everyone knows about it" motif. Matt was great (again) as was Meera Syal. I was surprised by that to be honest. I fully expected a painful "ernest" and/or "I'm above this" turn from her akin to Keeley Hawes in season one of Ashes to Ashes (or indeed Meera herself in Jekyl) but she put in one of the best performances of any of the guests since the shows return. This was particularly impressive and creditable given some of the dialogue she was given. The design work for the underground Silurian base was wonderful too (and yes I know they went to the same place as the Doctor's Daughter and no I don't give a toss). Although the death of Rory may have been the nadir of the season, the moments in the TARDIS immediately after the death were beautifully written and acted.

I'm not usually one for ranking episodes on a scale. But overall I cannot recall a story that ever fit so comfortably at 6 out of 10. This was the epitome of average with a few great moments being weighed down by a total lack of original though, clear direction or consistent tone.