Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol

“Halfway out of the dark…”

This whole episode looks bloody fantastic, from the opening bit of CGI showing a very cloudy planet, to the many shots of fish swimming about in the air, to the brilliantly imagined futuristic yet utterly Dickensian style. Best of all, it all feels so very Christmassy, in spite of the spaceship captain saying that “Christmas is cancelled.”

The aforementioned ship is about to crash on to the aforementioned planet, which is causing a bit of bother for the captain and her crew, including one strangely Geordi La Forge- like person. Fortunately, on board the honeymoon suite are Amy and Rory Pond, both dressed rather interestingly. Never before on Doctor Who have we been given so much insight into the sexual peccadilloes of our regulars…

On the surface (which, I have to emphasise again, looks magnificent), we hear a voiceover which describes Christmas is very evocative (and very secular) terms. This is being delivered by the great Michael Gambon in tones which are far more cockneyfied, we’ll later discover, than they were in his youth. His character traits can be summed up as “right miserable git” and “mardyarse” (A word which, incidentally, cannot be legally used by anyone hailing from south of the Watford Gap. I’ve noticed much flouting of that law in recent years.). The current targets of his gittishness are a poor family whose surname may in fact be Cratchit after all (Abigail, who we haven’t met yet, is a Pettigrew, but her sister’s married name might not be). Their relative has spent a generation in suspended animation as “security” for a loan, and miserable old Kazran Sardick (great name) won’t even let her out for Christmas. Come to think of it, he won’t even lift a finger to save 4,003 people on a spacecraft above, two of whom are Amy and Rory, something he could easily do, even at the personal request of the president.

Enter the Doctor. Through a chimney, naturally. He seems to get clean rather suspiciously quickly, but makes quite an impression. Sadly, Sardick is impressed. The controls which could save the ship are isomorphic (ha!), the Doctor can’t just use the TARDIS for some reason, and Sardick is still being a git. Fortunately, the Doctor hears a Christmas carol at that precise moment and an idea suddenly comes to him. Gosh. I wonder what it could be?

The Ghost of Christmas past starts by using the fact that Sardick was unable to strike the son of the poor family, being haunted by the memory of his own abusive father. Playing timey-wimey tricks with footage may be a bit of a favourite Moffat trick but he still manages, as here, to find fresh slants on it. The scenes of the Doctor insinuating himself into the young Kazran’s life, while the older Sardick feels his memories change even as he watches the screen, are just wonderful.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Matt Smith’s Doctor has a fantastic rapport with kids; the scenes with the young Kazran are great. The best bit, of course, is when the Doctor assures him that “I think you’ll find I’m universally recognised as a mature and responsible adult”, only to find that’s a lie too big even for the psychic paper.

After doing a spot of fishing in Kazran’s room (as you do), the Doctor finds out that he may have bitten off more than he can chew. In fact, it’s a whopper, and the scenes with the Doctor and young Kazran being menaced by the shark are hilarious. I love Matt Smith’s Doctor.

But soon the shark is dying, unable to survive outside the clouds for long. Fortunately, though, there’s an “icebox” downstairs and, with a little bit of timey-wimeyness, they manage to move the shark inside one of the caskets for those poor unfortunates being frozen as “security”. The person making way for the shark, as fate and / or plot convenience would have it, is Abigail, who can certainly sing a bit. She’s the same girl, coincidentally, whom the elder Sardick was so gittish about earlier. But what do those numbers mean on the side of her casket…?

The three of them have a bit of fun travelling in the TARDIS, Kazran takes a bit of a shine to this gorgeous woman, and they end up doing it again and again, Christmas Eve after Christmas Eve, in what is a lovely advertisement of the Doctor’s lifestyle. But, as we know, the Doctor’s lifestyle carries a price, and Abigail’s fondness for the older and much more besotted Kazran is fated to end in tragedy. While the Doctor merrily enjoys his lifestyle (is the whole thing about Marilyn Monroe a bit of a metaphor about how he always runs away from commitment, or am I reading too much into this?), Abigail tells Kazran a secret which breaks his heart. Suddenly, he coldly dismisses the Doctor, never wanting to see him again. We’ve all guessed what the secret is by now, of course, but Kazran’s obvious devastation is no less affecting.

We also get a nice “Cratchit family” scene, of course, with Tiny Tim being unimpressed by the Doctor’s card tricks, and the Doctor’s advice to the adolescent Kazran on how to handle his first kiss is the funniest thing ever. Moffat’s given us some first class scripts before, but they’ve tended to be rather intricate and plotty in nature. This is his first triumph of mixing humour, sentiment and real emotional depth, I think. It’s very Christmassy and superbly judged, but there’s real emotional depth here.

Amy, of course, is the Ghost of Christmas Present, and it’s she who is told why Sardick remains unreformed. The Doctor has forced Abigail into his life and broken his life. She has but one day to live. How is Sardick to decide which day it is to be? The way the Doctor assumes the role of Ghost of Christmas Future, and breaks this impasse, is not only very, very clever in its timey-wimeyness but pitch-perfect in terms of the characters, their development and the themes. For the young Kazran to hear his older self spit out his bleak and selfish soul, bitterly asserting that “I’ll die cold, alone and afraid. Of course I will, we all do”, is quite eyebrow-raisingly powerful for a Christmas prime time family show, yet it works perfectly. The only thing left is for the plot to require Abigail to be woken, and sure enough: it happens.

There’s a happy ending; 4,003 lives are saved. But Moffat refuses the temptation to save Abigail, something I think is well-judged. This may be very sad, but beautiful things often are.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Blake's 7: Project Avalon

“Hope is very dangerous…”

We start with what looks like some stock footage of heavy snow until we see a mutoid walking through it, accompanies by a cowled figure. We cut to the studio and this cowled figure is, of course, Travis. He has another big plan to get Blake. Good for him. He seems to hang around with fit young mutoid ladies a lot, though. Does he have some kind of thing for them?

We cut between Travis and Blake & co on the Liberator, and between them they give us all the exposition we need. Terry Nation seems to be doing this sort of thing a lot lately. Travis intends to use Avalon, a previously unmentioned resistance figure, as bait to lure Blake into his latest trap. He’s captured her, and summarily murdered everyone else in her resistance group, in typical Federation fashion.

Travis’ less-than-spectacular success rate has not gone unnoticed so far; Servalan has come to check up on him, and she’s made it clear that he’s for it if he doesn’t shape up soon. Two recent assassination attempts don’t seem to have put her in a forgiving mood. Fortunately, Travis’ latest plan is apparently a good ‘un, so nothing can possibly go wrong. It seems to involve a virus, shown by means of some very weird visual effects, which is used to kill an unfortunate prisoner as an experiment. How nice.

Meanwhile, Blake, Jenna and a typically reluctant Vila are trying to break into the Federation facility where Avalon is being held without being seen by one of those hilarious-looking “Security” robots. Unfortunately the Liberator is being chased by some Federation pursuit ships, and will duly be out of teleport range until the very last second before they would otherwise get killed, as per usual. It’s early days, but this is already looking like an established trope of the series.

Our heroes break into the building, and force a guard to pretend they’re his prisoner so as not to arouse suspicion. It’s about time that hoary old Terry Nation favourite finally turned up in Blake’s 7. Before long, though, it all goes horribly wrong and a guard sets off an alarm. I think we may have established a second trope for this series.

The team manage to rescue Avalon, in spite of the fact that Jenna seems to be spending an awful lot of her time playing Operation Wolf. The Liberator arrives, in the exact circumstances we expected, and that’s it. Avalon is rescued and everything is fine. Although, once again, Gan’s attentiveness towards Avalon, who just so happens to be female, could perhaps come across as creepy and once again hinting at the possible sexual nature of his crimes. Still, at least he’s not the one who says, a few minutes later, “Get something to tie her up with.”

It’s all a trap, though: this “Avalon” is in fact a robot, programmed to kill them all with that nasty little virus and then deliver the Liberator back to Travis. Fortunately, Blake is able to turn the tables, and humiliates Travis in front of his boss. (This is the first time Blake and Servalan have met- it’s actually quite exciting!) That’ll be another established trope for the series, then; Blake going back to somewhere he’s just escaped from to finish the job. Meanwhile, Travis has now been relieved of command by Servalan. That’ll improve his mood no end…

That was all enjoyable enough, but there are a few worrying signs that Terry Nation is starting to repeat himself and resort to his own tricks. Time for someone else to write an episode, methinks.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Blake's 7: Duel

“Not only is he primitive, he is pompous as well.”

It’s an odd start, with two bizarre-looking women, one of whom is played by Isla Blair, telling each other things that the other would undoubtedly know, but without leaving the viewer much the wiser. I presume that their longing to “be at peace” is essentially a death wish. Nice.

Anyway, Travis is busily chasing Blake in his pursuit ship, where he’s surrounded by some rather yummy goth girls. Except these ladies are mutoids, meaning they subsist via little green tubes full of blood. Urgh. The Liberator is running low on fuel, and needs to remain in orbit around the nearest habitable planet, for the period of time required by the plot, so that it can “recharge”. Recharge with what, exactly? Also, Travis claims to have pursued Blake “into this galaxy”. So the Federation spans multiple galaxies? Or does Terry Nation just not know the difference between a galaxy and a star system? I suspect the latter myself.

Blake, Jenna and Gan nip down to the planet to kill a bit of time, and find a world suspiciously similar to Skaro in Terry Nation’s first ever Dalek story for Doctor Who. Not only is the sight before them “Almost like the effects of a fusion bomb”, but there are stone (petrified?) statues. Suddenly, Gan sees two women, who quickly disappear before anyone else sees them. Interestingly, at this point he says “I hope my limiter hasn’t malfunctioned.” Why would he say that? Killing wasn’t an issue here, but women were. This seems consistent with the idea of his crimes having been sexual in nature.

Blake spots the Federation support ships, and they all teleport back on board. The Liberator is out of power, Travis has them surrounded, they have to ration their power, and they’re basically screwed. So Blake decides to ram Travis. What else?

Then time slows down, and the two alien women teleport Blake and Travis down to the surface. They spin a tale of a thousand year war, a “planet made barren by radiation”, and make it very clear that, like, war is bad, m’kay? They question Blake and Travis, and it’s interesting that Travis says that Blake is “An enemy of the Federation, tried and convicted.” Why not mention the child abuse charges? Surely it would be in his interests to do so?

Annoyingly, the two alien women conclude only that the two positions are irreconcilable; they don’t give a monkeys about the relative merits of both cases. I may have my doubts about Blake’s unrealistic pessimism, but I don’t like the Neville Chamberlain-style mindless pacifism being espoused here. This is very different to the message Nation seemed to be imparting in the aforementioned The Daleks.

Anyway, there’s to be a gladiator-style duel, complete with gladiator-style swords, which is supposed to, er, show that the aliens are more civilised. Right. And we get Jenna and that rather nice-looking mutoid goth lady teleported down, too. This dual takes place in a forested region of the planet which looks suspiciously like the South-East of England.

Interestingly, it seems Mutoids have no memory of their previous lives, and Travis’ sadistic attempts to tease his companion about her previous life are to no avail. Are Mutoids ex-criminals then, who are altered, have their memories wiped, and are made to serve as military slaves? And Travis clearly has a history with this Keyeira, as she was. Is he responsible for her condition?

Meanwhile, aboard the Liberator, Avon says something very interesting: “I have never understood why it should be necessary to become irrational in order to prove that you care. Or, indeed, why it should be necessary to prove it at all.” He may be a bit of a cold fish, and somewhat self-centred and cynical, but it’s interesting how he seems to imply that he does in fact care.

There’s a climactic fight scene in which, yet again, Blake refuses to kill Travis for some rather flimsy reasons. He seems to be making a habit of this. He’s returned to the Liberator where, interestingly, Gan makes a rather laddish comment about Sinofar, the younger of the two women. More evidence?

The mutoid, meanwhile, faces a bleak future of court martial and execution, yet continues to follow orders. Creepy.

I’m in two minds about this one. I really, really don’t like the central concept or message, but there’s some excellent characterisation, and the stuff about the mutoids was fascinating. And, of course, Douglas Camfield directs it beautifully.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Blake's 7: Mission to Destiny

Personally, I don’t care if their whole planet turns into a mushroom. I’m staying because I don’t like an unsolved mystery.”

A whodunnit in Blake’s 7 seems rather odd, especially at this early stage. But it works, oddly enough, and lets us have a closer look at Avon. He may be cynical and self-centred (although less so than he likes to present himself), but he’s also intelligent and intellectually curious.

We begin with a ship flying through space in a scene rather reminiscent of a low budget version of the previous year’s Star Wars, and we meet a bloke who is instantly done in. With lead piping, apparently.

In no time at all the Liberator turns up, and Blake, Avon and Cally (the only regulars who get significant screen time) start investigating the mystery. Everyone has been rendered asleep by tranquillising gas, the controls and the communicators have been sabotaged, and the murdered man managed to write “54124” in his own blood before he carked it. Our heroes get well stuck into the mystery, with Blake and Avon even finding themselves on film as they investigate the filters.

Early on we get a typical whodunit scene in which the suspects tell us their names and alibis, and we establish the two obligatory red herrings, Mandrian and Solheim. One of the suspects is played by John “K-9” Leeson, and there’s a missing person, Dortmunn (a very Terry Nation name, that), who apparently has escaped on the life raft. Except he hasn’t, as Cally and the rather pervy Solheim later find his body.

It seems this ship is from Destiny, a frontier world settled a mere century ago and which remains, for the moment at least, outside the Federation. On board is a McGuffin, vital for the future survival of the planet, but also made of priceless unobtainium, and the perfect motive for any greedy person to resort to murder. All the pieces are in place. It’s agreed that Blake will take the McGuffin to Destiny as quickly as they can, while Cally and Avon stay behind. It’s fun seeing how Paul Darrow plays his role here: people may have died but Avon is rather enjoying himself!

Cally sees loads and loads of potentially important stuff happening, much of it on film, while the discovery of Dortmunn’s body leads Avon to call everyone together and do his best Hercule Poirot impersonation. He’s definitely enjoying this.

The Liberator, meanwhile, is faced by a whopping big meteor storm (what, they’re weather phenomena?), and has to choose between going round, which will take ages, and going right through. Blake, of course, chooses the more laddish of the two options.

Avon gets a particularly cool bit of dialogue where he says he thinks Mandrian probably did it, with Sonheim next on the list, but that he’s going by instinct and so is therefore probably wrong. Now there’s a man who understands the tropes of the genre he temporarily finds himself in. Rather less cool is Jenna’s claim, on board the Liberator, that “We’re having to use a lot of power to maintain our speed and heading”. Er, I think you’ll find that in a vacuum you require exactly no power to do that.

Meanwhile, Mandrian is dead, with Sonheim so obviously guilty that he can’t possibly have done it. Avon now realises whodunnit, and assumes the role of the fictional famous Belgian for one final time: it was Sara what done it. She seems to hold all the cards, including the McGuffin, which is not on the Liberator after all. But Blake has realised this, and the Liberator races back to get back to the ship before Sara’s mates do. We end with a budget-friendly, off-screen bang.

I rather enjoyed that, but it will be good to get back to the usual skulduggery surrounding the Federation…

Thursday, 26 May 2011

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith

Part One

“Don’t think I haven’t met amateurs before.”

Just six months after it was broadcast and this title has now acquired some unintentionally tragic associations. The plot, with Sarah Jane suffering a serious illness, is quite a different experience, watching it for the first time now, than it would have seemed at the time.

The pre-titles sequence sees our Scoobies upstages by a suspiciously convenient Sarah Jane-a-like, and once the names of the writers (Clayton Hickman and Gareth Roberts) appear on screen, I can’t help but suspect that this is going to be a semi-remake of Big Finish audio The One Doctor. I simply must get around to listening to that some time. I’ve owned it for years.

Coincidence piles upon coincidence, as this mysterious Ruby White (Mary Sue, surely? They missed a trick there.) turns out to have moved into Bannerman Road and Sarah Jane seems to start forgetting things. Oh, and Ruby White refers amusingly to the mysterious goings-on within the “Ealing Triangle”.

When Sarah Jane’s mistakes almost get Clyde and Rani killed, though, Ruby White comes to the rescue. She’s now turned suspiciously friendly. Of course, we, the viewers, know that she’s up to no good, but that’s all part of the fun, and a good thing for the target audience. Ruby is almost a perfect pantomime villain in that the viewers want to shout “Oh no she isn’t!” at the characters who suspect nothing.

Sarah Jane reminisces to Ruby, confirming that she was twenty-three during the events of The Time Warrior, and if I could be bothered I could use that to date this story. Another piece of evidence for the UNIT dating debate, this. But she forgets the Doctor- unthinkable- and a scan by Mr Smith confirms it: she’s suffering some sort of mental decline.

Sarah Jane gives up suspiciously easy, handing everything she has to Ruby on a plate. Everything feels wrong; she’s leaving immediately, seemingly with nowhere to live, and absent-mindedly forgets to say goodbye to Luke before relinquishing control of Mr Smith. In an odd way the character comes across as quite strong here: she’s decisive, and acts without self-pity. But it’s shocking to see her abandon Luke because she doesn’t want to be a “burden” to him. We know she’s not herself.

And then Ruby reveals her true colours, as an alien who keeps her stomach in the cellar. As you do…

Part Two

“Sharing your big secret… don’t think I haven’t noticed!”

Heh! Ruby wants to help aliens to do naughty things. And she wants to do so while living Sarah Jane’s life, including Clyde and Rani. They’re not quite convinced, though. Believably, Clyde is upset and blames Rani for pushing Sarah Jane away: “She’s gone, like my Dad’s gone, and it’s all your fault. Just stay away from me!” This tells us so much about Clyde.

And Rani is upset. It’s only when she talks to her mother (the lovely, lovely Gita) that she realises something is wrong. Clyde, of course, suspects this from the beginning, especially once Mr Smith starts to drop some heavy hints. He confronts Ruby, but he’s overpowered by Ruby, and taken to her orbiting prison. Like Cessair of Diplos, is seems she’s escaped from prison, with the aid of, er, a kind of Space Playstation. Unfortunately, Clyde is now trapped in a place with no oxygen other than that which he brought with him…

When all seems lost, though, Luke and K-9 arrive. He and Rani start arguing (Tommy Knight is strangely unconvincing here), but K-9 soon works out exactly what’s going on. Good dog!

Meanwhile, Clyde is delivering a final message, which is really quite affecting; this is a good episode for him. But all is not lost- Rani distracts Ruby with some girly chat, which gives K-9 the chance to teleport a bewildered Clyde back to the attic. He’s still a bit bewildered, though, and lets out a “Rani, I love you!”

They all head over to rescue Sarah Jane, only to be menaced by an unconvincing stomach with sharp teeth. Ho hum. Luke saves the day, though, and Ruby’s off back to prison, this time with no Playstation.

It’s a happy ending; even K-9 and Mr Smith are getting on. There’s a bittersweet note at the end, though: Sarah Jane saying “I think I can go on forever” now seems cruelly ironic, with this being the last episode to be broadcast during Elisabeth Sladen’s lifetime.

A good episode, if lacking enough to be particularly special. And with that, I’m up to date with The Sarah Jane Adventures! Next will be a mix of Blake’s 7 and the current series of Doctor Who

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Lost in Time

Part One

“They’re dead clever where I come from.”

No messing about with this opening teaser: we’re straight into the story and no mistake. It’s a shop, full of bric-a-brac, including (it’s implied) the very arrow with which King Harold was shot. There’s a mysterious shopkeeper, played brilliantly by Cyril Nri. This chap has real charisma, is enigmatic without being annoying (not always an easy combination), and has a parrot called “The Captain”. It takes him just a few sentences to explain this story’s plot, and it’s a quest narrative. Our three heroes are to individually go back into time to find some McGuffins because, like, bad stuff will happen if they don’t.

So, as part of this history lesson for the kids, Clyde is in 1941, hiding behind a beach as Nazis come ashore. Sarah Jane is in 1889, helping a girl called Emily investigate a ghost. And Rani is with Lady Jane Grey. Ouch. Lady Jane is a pretty bloody tragic figure and what happened to her is really quite upsetting. I can’t help thinking of that painting by Paul Delaroche (all right, I googled him), showing a terrified and blindfolded sixteen-year-old girl being escorted to the nearby block to be beheaded. That’s horrible.

Emily, meanwhile, has lost her mother, and being a late Victorian she turns to Spiritualism for comfort. This “ghost” seems to be another tribute to The Stone Tape, except that these are recorded voices not from the past, but from the future. Meanwhile, Clyde and his ‘40s mate George are captured by suitably evil Nazis, and they have a secret weapon: Thor’s hammer, which for some reason has radar-scrambling properties. Meanwhile, Jane’s mate Lady Matilda seems to be plotting something…

Part Two

“This is so unfair…”

On paper this is a decent script from Rupert Laight, but there seems to be something missing. There isn’t really any overarching theme between the three historical romps, I suppose. Still, this is an entertaining bit of fluff, although perhaps they should have gone for something other than the Lady Jane Grey stuff in a kids’ programme. Perhaps I’m getting a bit soft with my relatively advancing years (I’m only 34, mind!), but the idea of a sixteen-year-old girl knowing that she soon faces execution is quite profoundly upsetting.

The full horror is hinted at early on; Rani may have saved Jane from being murdered by Matilda (oh, and the knife is the MacGuffin), but in doing so she’s condemned her friend to an imminent and much more unpleasant fate. This is done in a relatively soft way for the kid viewers, but I still think they should have steered well clear of this. Am I overreacting? I was quite upset by this!

Fortunately, Clyde’s boys’ own adventure with Nazis and Sarah Jane’s ghost story (even though it involves children dying in a house fire) are a bit of a break from the Jane story. The best thing about both of these, of course, is Clyde’s magnificent and inspiring speech to George. Shame he has to lose his phone.

Clyde and Rani get their McGuffin back from the past without much trouble, but Sarah Jane doesn’t do as well. Fortunately, we get a resolution straight out of Back to the Future II (and Blink), as Emily’s granddaughter gives Sarah the key, using the newspaper clipping handed to Emily earlier on. The shopkeeper and his parrot disappear, enigmatic as ever, while both Rani and Clyde read up on what happened to their friends from the past.

I can’t put my finger on much that’s wrong with this one, but it didn’t quite do it for me. I admit, it’s mostly because I find the thought of a sixteen-year-old child facing being beheaded profoundly upsetting, but there was something a bit by-the-numbers about this story.

Monday, 23 May 2011

The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Empty Planet

Part One

“Your aunt likes rubbish biscuits.”

There’s been a brief hiatus in these Sarah Jane Adventures reviews, as I’m watching them on the hard drive on the communal television downstairs. It’s not so easy to get a clear run at that television with a notebook for fifty minutes, hence the switch to Blake’s 7, which I can easily watch upstairs on DVD. I’m ploughing on, though: after this one there are two more episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures, plus of course a Christmas special and the current series of Doctor Who. It’s just that I’m watching them when I can, and switching to Blake’s 7 when I can’t.

Anyway… we begin with a shot of the Earth from space, by now an almost disturbingly frequent visual motif, and a normal evening for Clyde and Rani, in both cases with some rather touching encounters with a parent.

Then, it’s the following morning, and we follow both Rani and Clyde as they discover that they seem to be the only people left in the world. This might be cheap television, and several minutes of very little dialogue, but it’s effectively done, with lots of nice touches. Finny, from all those episodes ago, gets another mention. The question of why cars and planes don’t seem to have crashed is raised. Clyde leaves cash on the counter when getting breakfast. But the best thing is the rapport between Rani and Clyde. I love the way that neither of them will admit that they fancy each other, lines about Adam and Eve notwithstanding.

We discover that there’s a third person still around, Gavin, and incidentally get confirmation that Rani and Clyde are both sixth formers. This Gavin bloke is obviously important. But the coolest thing about this bit is, of course, the revelation that Clyde can’t stand Chris Moyles. Sensible chap.

There are some more nice scenes between Rani and Clyde, as first they fall out and then they start to reflect, worrying if perhaps they’re just hangers-on, only kept around by Sarah Jane because they’re nosey. It’s great to see that they love what they do.

Suddenly, though, they’re both attacked by robots which look considerably cooler than the one I saw on Blake’s 7 last night…

Part Two

“Jordan love rat shock. Labour backbencher. Lady Gaga. Aston Villa striker. Partly cloudy.”

The plot thickens; Clyde and Rani realise the robots don’t seem to have any sensors to track them down. They work out that they may be left on Earth only because they’ve been grounded by the Judoon, in which case Gavin needs explaining. They’re showing themselves to be very smart and resourceful. And Clyde kisses Rani on the cheek. Well, well, well!

The robots finally make contact; they don’t want to fight, only to bargain. They want the return of their exiled king, who is of course Gavin. Clyde and Rani duly track him down, and everything works out happily. Gavin’s off to be king of an alien planet with CGI rather similar to that of New Earth- nice work if you can get it. And Clyde and Rani are now “lord” and “lady”. Good job this worked out ok; things could have gone all Shrek the Third.

We end happily; Rani and Clyde are closer together, Sarah Jane is bloody proud of them both, and there’s some more amusing red herring stuff about Haresh finding out what’s going on. Another good ‘un.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Blake's 7: Seek-Locate-Destroy

“I’ve come to blow something up. What do you think might be suitable?”

Now that’s more like it. An incredibly action-packed episode full of menace, tantalising bits of backstory, intriguing bits of world-building and not one but two great baddies.

We begin on the planet Centero, which oddly seems to be a gas giant. On the surface (for there is one, gas giant or no) is a 1970s industrial complex patrolled by a hilarious toy robot which half reminds me of the robot from Doctor Who and the Sontaran Experiment and half reminds me of one of those obscure Kenner Star Wars toys, a robot that didn’t seem to appear in the film.

Into this surreal situation teleports Blake, soon joined by Vila. As well as showcasing his skill with locks, Vila also takes the time to remind us that Terry Nation is writing his words: the scene where he distracts the Federation guards is suspiciously similar to a scene in Doctor Who and the Genesis of the Daleks.

Blake is looking for the Federation cipher room, so he can build a kind of Enigma machine. He’s soon joined by Cally, Gan and Avon and a tense hostage situation develops while our heroes try to remove said Enigma machine, which has apparently been screwed down very well indeed. Top marks to the Federation’s collective DIY skills there.

The mission, after some tension and some time bombs (very Terry Nation, that) is accomplished, but Cally is left behind. Of course, we then get one of those faintly implausible scenes, inevitable in these situations in all TV drama, in which it takes everyone a good few minutes to realise that she’s missing.

Elsewhere, on a circular space station, extreme coolness is happening. Not only does the splendid Jacqueline Pearce make her really rather excellent debut as the wonderful Supreme Commander Servalan, but we also get the bizarre combination of Peter Miles and Peter Glaze as Administration politicians, visiting on behalf of the President. This scene actually gives us a fair bit of new information on how the Federation operates. The outer planets are run by “controllers” whose loyalty to the Federation can be “delicately balanced”. The powers that be are nervous that Blake is starting to become a legend; real pressure is now being brought to bear that he be caught, and quickly.

The introduction of Travis is masterfully handled; before we meet him we get a lot of talk about him, and how notoriously cruel and ruthless he is. This really serves to build him up. Not only do we get the scene with the two political flunkies, but one of Servalan’s underlings expresses concern. There’s a subtext here that I didn’t catch before; Travis later refers to Servalan’s “decorative staff men”, and I rather suspect that, when Servalan refers to her underling as a “friend”, this is a euphemism for certain perks of her position. This is all a bit Catherine the Great or, to be more topical, a bit Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The point is, Servalan is powerful, clever, ambitious, dangerous, and takes what she wants. And her willingness to use a monster like Travis underlines her utter ruthlessness in pursuit of her aims.

Travis, incidentally, would perhaps be more menacing if not for the very Terry Nation title of “Space Commander”. I take it there are also Space Chiropodists and Space Accountants. Still, his arrival (to ominous chords) is effective, and Stephen Grief both looks and acts the part. Travis promises to be a great and very nasty baddie.

Meanwhile, on the Liberator, Avon has finally got the Space Enigma Machine working. Our heroes are recording everything on to “micro tape”- how very futuristic. Fortuitously, this causes them to overhear a conversation stating that Travis is off to Centero to investigate. This is a bit of a blow to Blake, who thought he killed him.

Travis shows himself to be a highly intelligent and effective investigator, and also something of a workaholic. He takes time out to provide some exposition for us as well, though, coincidentally at exactly the same time as Blake. After Blake almost killed him, he turned himself into the Bionic Man and started hanging around with “Mutoids”, whatever they are. It seems they met when Travis foiled a plot be Blake to attack a “political rehabilitation centre”, where dissidents are sent for “indoctrination treatment.” This sort of thing reminds us just how nasty and totalitarian the Federation is.

Blake’s memories from before his treatment seem to be returning. He is certainly now able to bear a huge grudge against Travis for killing large numbers of his friends before his own capture. He has more things to hold against him, too; Cally has been caught and it’s very heavily implied that she is tortured.

Travis shows himself to be very clever indeed, not only realising that Blake has the Enigma machine, but also realising the potential opportunity to use disinformation to set a trap for his nemesis. Cally, of course, is the bait. But, in a neat reversal, Blake was already there and waiting, the same trick Travis earlier pulled against him. Conveniently, though, Blake doesn’t kill Travis on the grounds that “You don’t matter enough to kill.”

This changes quite a lot. Rather than being up against a powerful but faceless enemy, Blake has now acquired a rather cool arch-nemesis with whom there’s clearly going to be quite a due. And there’s an even bigger and cooler big bad lurking in the background…

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Blake's 7: The Web

“We gave them life. We have the right to take it from them.”

What an odd episode. It feels strange, after a four episode arc, to go into a standalone story with hardly any Federation involvement and lots of alien weirdness. In fact, this has a lot more in common with Terry Nation’s Doctor Who stuff than anything we’ve seen so far.

We begin on the surface of an alien world which just happens to look like the South-East of England. There are webs and a rather cheap looking bouncy castle. Inside the bouncy castle is some stuff, including two plastic chairs and a bloke putting his head through a piece of cardboard with a little embryo-like body drawn on it. Scary. Not for the last time this episode, I’m reminded of Nation’s rubbish Doctor Who story The Keys of Marinus.

Meanwhile, the Liberator is being controlled by forces unknown. More worryingly, so is Cally. Also worryingly, Jenna is still expressing doubts about having an “alien” on board. Refreshingly, though, it’s night, and most people are asleep. That’s something which notoriously never happens on television spaceships, so well done to Terry Nation for that at least.

Still, a bomb? Very Terry Nation, that is. It’s an interesting scene, though; Avon saves Blake’s life, probably, by instinctively grabbing him. He insists it was just reflexes and he’s as surprised as Blake is, but Blake replies “I’m not surprised.” Blake is seemingly quite convinced that Avon is basically trustworthy and not as amoral as he seems. This certainly makes a nice contrast to Avon’s later comment to Gan that “There will come a time when [Blake] won’t be making the decisions.”

The Liberator is drawn to an uncharted system (for the first time it’s confirmed that they exist within Federation space). By now we’re a good way through the running time; I believe Trekkies refer to this sort of thing as a bottle episode. But then some aliens possess Jenna, announcing that the ship cannot escape. The crew are to follow a beacon signal and land. Cally then, conveniently, proves her worth with some much needed exposition. (She’ll be developing a personality next, just you watch.) Apparently there’s an old legend on Auronar of something called “The Lost”. Ooh.

Blake finally makes it to the alien planet. It looks every bit as embarrassing as the opening scene, except that there are blokes wearing some arse-clenchingly embarrassing rubber suits. They seem to be laying siege to the bouncy castle, inside which there is a laboratory. Yet again, I’m reminded of a particularly dull episode of The Keys of Marinus.

Blake is welcomed by a rather odd couple, a brother and sister. They explain that they are genetic engineers, the webbing in space is one of their experiments which has got out of control, and that they are able to release the Liberator if Blake will replace their dwindling power supply. How convenient that a ship should pass by just as they’re about to run out of power. What are the chances of that, eh?

There’s a snag though. The unconvincing rubber suits are called Decimas, and they are a genetic experiment, intended to be slaves, who have had the effrontery to show independent thought. Our rather cold scientist couple intend to destroy them all once their power is restored, yet Blake can see a group of them mourning their dead friend, who got nastily done in by one of the scientists a few minutes earlier. Now, I don’t want to be accused of reading things into things here, but don’t you think there might be a slight subtext here about the ethics of genetic experimentation? Just throwing that one out there.

Blake is appalled, of course. He soon discovers that the scientists are also artificially engineered slaves controlled by the bloke with his head through a bit of cardboard. Mr Cardboard Body is a gestalt entity comprised of six separate scientists, all of dubious morals, and they are indeed who Cally says they are. Avon, who has now turned up, is not quite as bothered by this as Blake is. Still, it’s interesting to hear Blake refer to Avon to the two scientists as “my friend”.

The ending is a bit disappointing; a group of Decimas just get through the door after it’s carelessly left open. They then proceed to ransack the place while Blake and Avon bugger off back to the Liberator, where they manage to evade some Federation pursuit ships. They then carry on with what they were doing before they were so rudely interrupted.

That one was a bit rubbish, really.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Blake's 7: Time Squad

“I plan to live forever. Or die trying.”

So, we’re now at an interesting point in the series. The crew of the Liberator are now off into the universe, and we can start to find out more about the show. Is it going to focus entirely on the struggle against the Federation? What sci-fi tropes are going to be allowed in this series? Are there aliens, for example? And is there any more evidence of Gan being a sex offender?

Certainly this episode starts like the last one, with a rather naff painted starfield. But now our newly assembled crew are united, sort of. They can fly the ship together. But Avon remains semi-detached, and in his constant alpha male sparring with Blake he remains the most interesting character by far. Gan, on the other hand, is bizarrely uber-loyal to Blake.

Blake, dangerously charismatic as usual, sends them all off to orbit Saurian Major, an essential communications hub for the Federation, to blow some stuff up. Avon points out that his insistence that decisions are made democratically isn’t quite what’s happening.

But there’s a distress call; a small capsule, which Blake and Jenna go to explore together. Not that there’s much to explore. Zen is behaving oddly; is it something to do with the capsule? We know very little about “him” yet. Gan seems to think he has some sort of “limiter”. Hmm.

The crew are dormant; Blake and Jenna seem to believe this is a “cryogenic capsule”, presumably from one of the early space flights “centuries ago”. This is in accordance with what we heard last episode about roughly how far we are into the future, although it’s odd that Blake and Jenna would be able to manipulate this technology so easily if the technological gulf is so vast. I’m getting hints about their relationship, too. Jenna seems to have liked Blake earlier, given her body language and behaviour towards him in earlier episode, but seems to have concluded by now that he’s a bit too intense and, well, weird to be potential boyfriend material.

The air’s running out, and the teleport has shorted. Zen really doesn’t want the capsule on board. Still, Avon gets to manoeuvre it into the hold, thereby both saving Blake and Jenna and managing to look cool at the same time. His reaction to the capsule is interesting, too- he posits that it might be from a “technically backward culture”- aliens? We don’t know yet whether there are supposed to be aliens in this fictional universe. All sorts of rules and limits have to be established.

Blake seems to think it’s ok to re-animate three people while he, Vila and Avon bugger off down to the planet’s surface for a quick spot of terrorist sabotage. Er, OK then. And it seems there’s such a thing as “neutral space” as opposed to Federation territory.

So, Blake’s plan is to hang around being blatantly obvious and hope to be contacted by any passing rebels? Er, OK. He must be really charismatic. Meanwhile, there’s an interesting scene where possible sex attacker Gan and Jenna (who, in case you haven’t noticed, is a woman) are alone together. He’s staying with Blake because “I have to. I want to stay alive, and to do that I need people I can rely on. I can’t be on my own.” This is interestingly ambiguous. His crime, apparently, was to kill a security guard because “he killed my woman”. Is this the whole truth? Is it true at all? Interestingly, after saying this, he has a headache. What induces this?

Never mind that, though; the sleeping beardies are awake, and the directing suddenly goes a bit slasher movie. Only a bit, though. This might be the same year as Halloween but it’s still a late 1970s spaceship corridor with masking tape on the walls.

Gan’s limiter means he can’t kill, apparently. This is a bit awkward, seeing as Jenna rather needs him to drop exactly that to shoot her attacker. Is that all that it limits? Did it give him that headache earlier? Was it because he started having sexually violent thoughts about Jenna and it reacted?

Meanwhile, Blake, on Saurian Major, a planet bathed in permanent red light, encounters Cally, a telepath, and an alien (so there are aliens) from the planet Auronar. Everyone’s acceptance of her, and her involvement with resistance against the Federation, implies that aliens are not entirely unknown, and that at least some of them have some sort of political existence within the Federation. And her alien status has enabled her to rather conveniently be the sole survivor of a rather nasty bout of chemical warfare, thus cutting down on cast members required. Handy, that.

While Jenna and Gan are in a spot of bother with their rather ungrateful guests, Blake and co have reached the Federation communications thingy. The Federation are clearly great fans of 1960s industrial architecture. Few things have dated this episode (aside from Jenna’s hair) more than the use of this location footage to represent an alien planet.

We learn that Vila’s very good at opening doors, Avon’s still good with computers, and things are about to go boom. Gan just manages to teleport them all away at the last possible moment, which is good news for Jenna as Blake proceeds to do the same for her.

Cally joining the ship’s crew gives rise to some resistance from Jenna; it seems aliens aren’t entirely accepted within what is clearly an overwhelmingly human society. But with the addition of Cally and, er, Zen, our gang can indeed now be described as Blake’s seven. That’ll be permanent, right?

Good stuff, although drags a little in places and doesn’t quite maintain the high quality of the previous three eps.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Blake's 7: Cygnus Alpha

“Wisdom must be gathered. It cannot be given.”

A bloke is a cloak, a sunset which is clearly a painted backdrop, a night sky which is even less convincing… hardly an auspicious start. And yet this episode is quite as brilliant as the first two. The Captain is subdued as the London is about to land; he’s not exactly shrouded himself in glory of late, as we’re reminded by a quick flashback.

Blake, whose recent achievements have been rather more impressive, is still with Jenna and Avon in their cool and mysterious new ship. The ship has some powerful weapons. There’s a nice scene where Avon points one at Blake, only for Blake to turn around and ignore him. This is a nice little scene, mainly about who’s the alpha male, of course, but also showing us that Blake has decided that much of Avon’s amoral cynicism is just a front.

The ship goes through “negative hyperspace”, meaning it’s “crossed the anti-matter interface”. Well, quite. What’s interesting here is that this is technology far in advance of the Federation, and presumably humanity. It’s alien, then. And yet so far we’ve had no explicit mention of aliens. Presumably, then, they’re known to exist (this isn’t Isaac Asimov’s human-only Galactic Empire), but few spacefaring civilisations are known to exist within explored space, although the concept is considered plausible? Certainly, it seems as though this new ship, the Liberator as Jenna christens it in a revealingly Blake-sympathetic moment, must be alien. And yet we know little of its origin is that it was involved in some sort of altercation last episode. Perhaps.

Oh, and we’re introduced to Zen. And he says “confirmed” for the first time, while remaining effortlessly, enigmatically cool. He really gets on Avon’s tits, which helps. Oh, and “spatials” are apparently a unit of measurement.

Before long we come across what appears to be a matter transmission room, and triggers another contest between Blake and Avon over who is the alpha male. Blake wins this quite easily by being the only one of the two of them who’s man enough to risk using this untried technology to teleport down to Cygnus Alpha. Jenna’s impressed, I can tell. She certainly gives him a big hug when he teleports back.

Meanwhile, Cygnus Alpha is not what we were expecting. There are no guards and it can only loosely be termed a prison; convicts are simply dumped there and forced to fend for themselves, a bit like people who’d finished their sentences on Devil’s Island. We also get a bit of a closer look at Gan, who has really only been a supporting character thus far. And I’d like to get a look at him, having read the rather splendid Liberation by Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore. This excellent fan guide to Blake’s 7 posits, rather fascinatingly and convincingly, that Gan is some sort of sex offender, and it’s going to be interesting to watch what he does with this in mind. Certainly his threats to the bloke being nasty to Vila hint at some possible psychopathic tendencies, but generally he comes across as a nice chap.

Vila, Gan and their redshirt friends encounter a rather grisly corpse, and Pamela Salem in a cloak, looking particularly lovely. She orders them to kneel, which they do. Fair enough. I probably would have done the same. I mean, she kisses Gan.

Interesting religion they have here; monotheistic, practised in what looks very much like a church, with an altar and candles and everything. It looks as though it’s been largely ripped off from Christianity which, to give the designers their due, seems to fit in rather nicely with what we’re later told.

Oh, and let’s talk about Brian Blessed, shall we? Apparently in Z-Cars, which I haven’t seen, he was a talented actor. Certainly in I Clavdivs, which I have seen and enjoyed very much, he’s outstanding. But at some unspecified point (arguably The Black Adder is the point of no return), he seems to lose the ability to play anything other than loud, shouty, bearded barbarian kings. Is this where the rot begins to set in? Beard? Check. Shoutiness? Check. And yet there are still several scenes here where he still has that Augustus-like ability to be quietly menacing. I miss that side of Brian Blessed.

Back to some rough kind of chronology, the prisoners are apparently suffering from the “Curse of Cygnus” to which, conveniently, only the priests have the cure. It’s not long before Brian is telling Blake that the priests are all descended from convicts, making him some kind of Great Space Australian. Interestingly, he admits that society used religion to bind together a society which had become conflicted, over fifty generations, between newly arrived convicts and those born on the planet. So, is he a true believer, someone consciously using religion as a tool or, as I suspect, both?

“Fifty generations” is interesting, too, as it gives us a clue as to how far into the future we are. It seems humans broke “the light barrier” at least, say, 650 years ago if a “generation”= 25 years.

Meanwhile, there’s conflict between Avon and Jenna; they’ve discovered untold wealth on the ship. Avon persuading Jenna to give Blake just an hour before abandoning Blake generates a lot of dramatic tension, of course. But it’s much more interesting than that. Jenna is being torn between two ideologies here. And Avon is persuasive. Blake is a “crusader”. He can’t win. Does she want to be rich or dead? He has a point.

Blake gets to be cool, too, though. Placed in a cell with the other prisoners, who know perfectly well that if he doesn’t agree to give Brian their ship then one of them will be sacrificed, Blake manages to get them on his side through sheer force of will. He’s definitely the alpha male here. But also, perhaps, again showing signs of being a charismatic and dangerous fanatic.

We get a final showdown with Brian who reveals, perhaps too easily, that the “disease” is a mild and artificial poison, and dies, most certainly too easily, before he can get started on all that space evangelism. Still, nice episode.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Blake's 7: Space Fall

“They murdered my past, and gave me tranquillised dreams.”

The story follows directly on, but this episode is spent entirely on board ship, and our cast of characters shifts accordingly. We’re on the “Civil Administration Ship” London, staffed by a captain, the competent and ambitious Artix, and the rather unpleasant Raiker, played by Leslie Schofield, who seems to have been in everything in the late ‘70s. It’s amusing to hear some of the series technobabble we’ll presumably be hearing on a regular basis, with all this “hyperdrive speed” and “time distort seven”. Interestingly, even with faster-than-light travel, the journey is to take eight months.

Raiker delivers a nasty speech to the prisoners, in which he warns them of all sorts of arbitrary nastiness which will be coming their way. This, of course, informs the viewer that he’s a right baddie, and is almost certainly get his comeuppance. This becomes all the more certain after his initial attempts to sexually abuse Jenna. As the only woman on board, she’s in a very dangerous and vulnerable position, but shows herself to be extremely dignified and strong. She’s lucky that all of her male fellow prisoners are by some strange coincidence such solidly middle-class RADA-trained types, though.

Blake, of course, is already plotting escape. And there’s a rather interesting new character: a computer expert and fraudster called Kerr Avon. Already he’s by far the most interesting character, and Paul Darrow is just incredible.

Some kind of mysterious space battle nearby somehow causes “turbulence”. Meanwhile, Blake gets a film sequence as he crawls around the ship, looking for the main computer. Meanwhile, in the studio, Vila and some bloke called Gan are distracting a guard in a scene which reminds me of bits of The Great Escape.

Dialogue tells us that four months have suddenly elapsed, long enough for Blake to gather his information and make his plans. All that remains is to persuade Avon, a highly intelligent and fascinating character, do help them. It’s quite gripping to watch the two of them verbally sparring, something we’ll be seeing rather a lot of.

Avon agrees, and is rewarded with a film sequence of his very own as he crawls towards the computer room. A redshirt prisoner follows to see what he’s up to, and rather impudently demands a film sequence hardly befitting to such a minor character. Quite rightly, he soon gets killed. From this point, only Avon (and that bloke he fights) is deemed cool enough to be on film.

Not everything goes well, and we soon have a stalemate. Blake, Jenna, and Avon control the computer, but all the others, including Vila and Gan, are recaptured. At this point we get an intense debate over what to do next, and thus is crucial, establishing the relations between the three of them. Blake admits the true intensity of his desire to overthrow the Federation. Heroic, perhaps. Idealistic, certainly. But Gareth Thomas plays it in such a way that we’re already a little troubled. Has Blake crossed the border into fanaticism? Are his goals at all realistic? Is he, if you’ll excuse the cliché, a freedom fighter or a terrorist?

Avon is quite different, concerned only with his own material welfare. This is amoral and cynical, yes. Self-centred, certainly. But between Avon’s rational self-interest, and criminal activities which could be seen as victimless if one were feeling generous, and Blake’s possible fanaticism, which is likely to do more harm to the innocent bystander? These are very interesting questions.

Jenna’s reaction is interesting, too, and perhaps mirrors ours. She admires Blake, wants to believe him, but isn’t quite convinced.

The impasse is broken by a trick which Nation will re-use the following year for Doctor Who in Destiny of the Daleks. Raiker simply threatens to shoot one prisoner every thirty seconds until Blake gives in. It works, of course, and leads to a lot of whingeing from Avon, but makes the viewer even more convinced that Raiker isn’t going to survive the episode. This is a Terry Nation script, after all.

It looks as though our heroes have lost. But then the London comes across a whopping great ship, apparently something to do with this space battle they came across earlier. Everyone is keen to claim it as a prize (I’m getting echoes of the great Patrick O’Brian here), and so an hilariously flimsy-looking “transfer tube” is sent across. Two redshirts seem to go mad and die. What else to do than to send our three erstwhile mutineers after them? Blake, Jenna and Avon are duly introduced to this ship, and we, the viewers, can see from this shiny and expensive new set that it’s obviously going to be re-used a lot. It’s all a trap, of course, but Blake is able to resist it. I’m sure there’s some sort of Biblical or literary allusion there but I’m buggered if I know what it is.

Raiker gets his long-anticipated come-uppance and our three heroes (well, two heroes and Avon) have a rather splendid ship with which to liberate their mates on Cygnus Alpha…

That was really rather brilliant.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Blake's 7: The Way Back

“Reality is a dangerous concept.”

It feels a bit weird reviewing something that’s not related to Doctor Who, sort of. Although of course it’s made by much the same people, and is a welcome return to watching some older television, which gives me more things to comment on. I watched Blake’s 7 before about five or six years ago, but only got a few episodes into Series Three. I’m quite excited this time round: lots of old-fashioned fun, lots of links to Who, and a chance to take the mickey out of Terry Nation’s clichés once again!

Let’s begin with the obligatory comments on the theme tune (legendary!) and title sequence (er… it’s embarrassingly obvious that starfield is just a matte painting, isn’t it? Even by 1978 standards). But we then immediately establish the moon with a few seconds focusing on a CCTV camera before we pan out. I know I’m always going on about CCTV cameras in old telly always symbolising the most awful extremes of totalitarianism (good job we’ll never have them on every street corner, eh?) but it’s never been more true than here. This opening shot foreshadows so much of the theme and mood of the episode, most obviously in that it’s effectively telling the viewer that they’re about to see a story about a totalitarian 1984-style state.

The 1984 parallels start early. We’re introduced to Roj Blake as an anonymous, quiescent drone, effectively lobotomised by the suppressants that the “Administration” puts in people’s food. Presumably the drab décor contributes to this as well- but wait, this is 1970s studio-based telly, isn’t it? We’re back to that curious 1970s vision of the future, all grey corridors and dull clothing, waiting for Blade Runner to come along and give screen sci-fi a kick up the aesthetic.

Blake is persuaded by a couple of rebel types to venture outside with them, something which is of course forbidden. This is not the last time there’s a clear debt to literary sci-fi; I can think of more than one Isaac Asimov novel in the Foundation series alone with such a scene.

Blake is introduced to Foster, played by Robert Beatty off of Doctor Who and the Tenth Planet. Foster, who is incidentally the only character who doesn’t sound as though he’s been to RADA, delivers an awful amount of exposition before getting killed. It seems that four years ago Blake’s relatives, who he believes to be sending him videos from the planet Ziegler Five, a thinly veiled Siberian gulag, were in fact executed four years ago after his own trial. The authorities have ensured that he no longer remembers leading a big rebellion before being caught and subjected to psychiatric treatment- this reminds me very much of the similar practices in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, contemporary in 1978, in which dissidents were put into mental hospitals and officially said to be insane. And Blake’s show trial is awfully reminiscent of Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. These echoes are fascinating; I think they stand for a hell of a lot more than just the fact this was made during the Cold War. I tend to think of early Blake’s 7 as a prime example of the dystopian British sci-fi of the post-war decades, with J.G. Ballard and 2000 AD also being examples, along with Orwell, obviously. It’s as though this country’s wartime experiences of Nazism, of never being invaded but of Nazi controlled territory being visible from the south coast and of constant fear of invasion, led to a fear of Nazi tyranny which remained a fear of the unknown, a fear untempered by real experience. There’s a particular British paranoia and fascination with totalitarianism which transfers to Communism after 1945. Terry Nation’s Doctor Who scripts are also full of this sort of thing.

Oh, and on the subject of Nation, we have a character called Dev Tarrant. That’ll be our first Terry Nation cliché for this series, then. I’ll be maintaining a tally sheet, just as with his Doctor Who stuff.

One of the most effective parts of this episode is immediately after the rebels are all massacred, having just tried to peacefully surrender. We hear several seconds of silence as Blake looks upon their corpses, bringing home to us the shock of the moment and the cruel, arbitrary power of an unaccountable State. Blake is then quickly arrested, and experiences, er, flashbacks of the flashbacks we’ve already seen. This is powerful stuff. Nation can’t do dialogue, perhaps, or characterisation with any depth, but he sure as hell can do ideas. The scene between Blake and the shrink, who makes it clear that it is the all-powerful State, and not the individual, that defines “reality”, is deeply affecting television.

And the State’s solution to Blake is the most appalling example of this; Blake is presented with trumped-up charges of sexually abusing children and packed off to some gulag in an outer-space Siberia. Worst of all, the children have been implanted with false yet vivid memories, meaning the authorities are in effect child rapists themselves. Horrifying, and not a subject you would ever see on television in such a way now. Still, it’s odd, here and later, that Blake is not treated by others as a “nonce”; he acknowledges himself that mud sticks. I assume the charges are not widely believed.

The courtroom scene is interesting in that two sealed packages of evidence are weighed by computer- very totalitarian indeed. Blake is, of course, convicted, and arrives in a cell where we quickly meet a thief called Vila and an ice maiden called Jenna. Jenna, interestingly, soon thaws under Blake’s charms and confesses to him that she feels scared, hinting at the potentially very unpleasant fate of a woman living among male criminals and at the mercy of male prison officers.

We have an interestingly long strand in which Blake’s defence lawyer, a decent chap, and his equally nice girlfriend, become convinced of Blake’s evidence and slowly uncover the truth, including a scene with an amusingly low-tech computer which needs a bloke to operate it for some reason. As soon as they discover too much, they are “disappeared” by an uncaring and all-powerful State. For Blake, on his way to Cygnus Alpha, what hope can there possibly be?

The future of this blog...

Hello, everyone!

I'm very, very nearly up to the present with Doctor Who, Torchwood, and The Sarah Jane Adventures after my recent spurt of activity. That means I need to think about what to do next. I'll carry on reviewing episodes of those three series as they're broadcast, of course, but that's not enough to sustain my compulsive need to write a load of nonsense about what I've been watching! So I need something else to write about.

I first started this blog as a mirror of the reviews I was doing for a thread on the splendid Gallifrey Base forum, in which a bunch of us decided to do a massive Doctor Who Marathon, starting with An Unearthly Child and finishing with the end of Matt Smith's first series. I passed that milestone a week or two ago, but I felt a compulsion to carry on. I'm enjoying the experience of getting to indulge myself with writing of a sort I otherwise don't get to do, and I can feel myself developing all the time. It's also gratifying to see the pageviews I get- people actually read this blog too, which is a bit of a bonus!

So, what next? Simply that I'll be moving on to other TV series, one by one, and so keep this blog going forever(!), to fill the gaps between broadcasting of the three series I'm already reviewing. That means changing the title and blurb of this blog a bit, which I'll do tonight if I can be arsed. I may also start a second blog for movies...

The new era starts (hopefully) tonight, with the first of my Blake's 7 reviews, which will go right through to the end. After that it could be anything- perhaps Firefly, The Wire, Sherlock... the possibilities are endless!

I realise I'm still not quite to the end of Series Four of The Sarah Jane Adventures, but don't worry; they're going to continue. It's just that I'm watching them on Sky Plus on the telly downstairs, which other people watch too. That sort of limits the time I can spend watching stuff for this blog. The same goes for Doctor Who and anything else which is currently on the telly. Stuff on DVDs, on the other hand, I can watch on my telly upstairs. So look out for my first Blake's 7 review, coming right up...

Monday, 2 May 2011

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Death of the Doctor

Part One

“Faster. Shuffle for your life!”

Again we begin with a brief conversation with Luke, at uni, on a screen. Interesting that, although Luke isn’t a full member of the team any more, they’re not severing the links completely. Does this indicate limited availability for Tommy Knight?

This is a special episode; the first RTD script for The Sarah Jane Adventures since it began, and his first script for anything since he left Doctor Who. It’s also, of course, fanwank of the very best kind.

The plot wastes no time is getting started, as UNIT surround Sarah Jane’s house and inform her that the Doctor has snuffed it. His remains have been brought back to Earth by a race of space undertakes known as the Shansheeth. They, er, look like vultures. This not only tells us they’re up to no good but reminds us who wrote this. Likes his aliens to look like animals, does RTD.

The early moments, with Sarah Jane in denial and Haresh’s nice little comments about bereavement being hard to accept are well-judged, however much they may be more than a little undermined by later events! Very soon the gang are ensconced in a rather dark and claustrophobic base under the supervision of the suitably sinister Colonel Karim.

It seems there’s not going to be much of a turnout. The Brig’s in Peru (again!), and Liz Shaw is on “the moonbase”. There are some comedy Graske at UNIT too, or rather “Groske”. I rather like the little darlings. They seem to think Clyde “smells of time”. Hmm.

Sarah Jane sits in silence by the coffin with nothing to comfort her in her grief apart from a couple of clips from Pyramids of Mars and Death to the Daleks. Just as things are really getting a bit mournful, Jo Grant makes her entrance, and it’s quite an entrance. Katy Manning is clearly as lovely and as mad as ever. Although the lines about needing her glasses seem to somewhat blur he distinction between actress and character. Still, I like in-jokes. In-jokes are good.

It’s great to see Jo and Sarah Jane finally meet. Jo’s life since The Green Death rings true; forever wandering, uber-leftie, loads of sprogs, grandson called Santiago. Who, incidentally, has recently travelled through somewhere called “Las Malvinas”. Ooh, controversial!

There are a lot of echoes of School Reunion, of course. Jo feels sad that the Doctor never returned and, when Sarah Jane lets slip she’s seen him several times, Jo is clearly hurt. This is all the more heartbreaking because Jo is so nice and not- jealous about it (“He must have really liked you.”). Great stuff. We see the two of them reminiscing over Peladon, and there’s a moment of true fanwank joy as Jo finally mentions Karfel.

We soon discover the Shansheeth are up to no good. Now there’s a surprise. It seems they intend to “drain the minds” of the two “wise old women”, which is not very nice.

We finish with Clyde’s body exchanging places with… the Doctor. This is all really rather exciting.

Part Two

“Come along, Smith!”

It’s rather pleasing, after the shocking recent news of Elisabeth Sladen’s unexpected death, that Sarah Jane and Matt Smith’s Doctor got their chance to meet. Both Sarah Jane and Jo are overwhelmed by the “Wasteland of the Crimson Heart”, their first alien planet for ages.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Clyde is back. Rani hugs him (definitely something going on here!!!), and that sinister Colonel Karim turns out to be a baddie.

There are some nice character moments in between the fast-paced action. The Doctor and Sarah discuss his recent regeneration (it always hurts), and the Doctor and Jo have a good catch-up. Once again it’s clear that Jo feels sad that the Doctor never returned for her, and once again this is so much sadder because of her lack of bitterness. The Doctor’s response provides a sort of catharsis, but it’s still implied that he didn’t think to look up Jo until “the last time he died”. I’m reminded of the things the Dream Lord said about his abandonment of his friends once they stop their travels.

Back on Earth, there are cool things happening. The Groske’s cunning plan is… to hide in a room and eat some pizza, on the entirely reasonable grounds that the Shansheeth are a bit scary, and Santiago is a bit jealous of the exciting lifestyles of Clyde and Rani, with all the “aliens, and cheese, and stuff”.

It’s just about time for the climax, but just before we get to that RTD lobs in a grenade of a line about the Doctor being able to regenerate 507 times. Bet you he was chuckling while he wrote that, and sent an email to Ben Cook about how naughty he was feeling.

It turns out the Shansheeth’s cunning plan is to get Jo and Sarah Jane to remember the TARDIS key, which they can then conjure into existence. They will then be able to use the TARDIS to stop anyone ever dying, ever. Just like that episode of Family Guy.

Fortunately the Doctor has a cunning plan for Sarah Jane and Jo to show lots of brief clips from the 1970s and stop the Shansheeth in their tracks. Fitting that the alien baddies should be defeated by nostalgia!

We then end with Jo getting to see the inside of the TARDIS, generally being lovely, and saying goodbye to everyone in a rather adorable way. She’s as mad as a pencil, mind.

And call me a sentimental old fan, but I just love learning what all of the old companions have been up to! Tegan’s in Australia campaigning for Aboriginal rights; Ben and Polly are running an orphanage in India; Harry became a campaigning Doctor, although he sadly seems to have died; “Dorothy” is running some charity or other; and Ian and Barbara are married, are both professors at Cambridge, and haven’t aged at all. Love it!

That may have been a load of old fanwank, but I loved it. Matt Smith may not really have had the screen time to really shine, but I’m glad he was there. And it was so, so great to see Katy Manning again.