Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Blake's 7: Trial

“Resist the host, or your oneness will be absorbed.”

An excellent episode, this. I’m relieved that the events of last episode have been dealt with. On reflection I’ve become even more strongly convinced of Blake’s culpability for Gan’s death; we had foreshadowing in Horizon as Blake continued to push his tired crew, and the title “Pressure Point” is an obvious follow-on from that, as well as probably referring to Blake’s state of mind.

Chris Boucher is handling the scripting here; probably the wise course for such a character-based episode, with two contrasting “trials” which reach opposite conclusions but then meet at the end. Certainly, Travis’ fate is fascinatingly Machiavellian; being hung out to dry by Servalan for atrocities he committed three years previously on Zircaster. ( Incidentally, these episodes remind me of Magic Bullet’s Kaldor City audios a lot, and not just for the presence of Peter Miles, here reprising his role as Rontane from last series. Kaston Iago, played by Paul Darrow, is said to have killed “the butcher of Zircaster. This may, or not, imply who he is.)

Travis’s court martial is narrated, interestingly, through two pairs of characters; the two guards (one played by Kevin Lloyd, later to play Tosh on The Bill) give us the perspective of the poor bloody infantry (they even have regional accents), while Rontane and Bercol comment for us on the significance of this trial in the context of Servalan’s machinations; if Travis can be quickly executed, he will be unable to testify as to her recent incompetence in the pursuit of Blake. Naturally, she’s watching the trial through a secret camera and, naturally, Travis’ defence counsel, Thania, is an underling of hers.

Blake’s trial, though, is self-imposed. He needs time to think, and Gan’s death has hit him hard. He is beginning to question the wisdom of his continuous tilting at windmills and to realise the liability he has become to others. And yet, the signs are there that this will not last. He is notably reckless in his failure to gather much information about the world on which he is to plan his brief (or not) exile, and in pig-headedly refusing to carry a gun. His message to his crew is quite extraordinary; on the one hand he is risking abandonment and possible death, and on the other hand the whole situation is so staggeringly passive-aggressive. Avon is right to scorn him for self-pity. And while Avon (who earlier refers to Blake’s “three remaining followers”, a figure which seems to exclude himself) may vocally suggest abandoning him, his behaviour suggests otherwise. The detector shield he is building, to protect the Liberator from the long-range scanners of Federation ships, is not only a markedly more constructive achievement than anything Blake has had as leader, but also a sign of his continuing long-term commitment.

Blake is not alone, though. Apparently there’s a woman in a rubber suit somewhere nearby, and she seems to be taunting him with a water pistol. Eventually this ridiculous figure reveals herself to be Zil, and somewhat cryptically explains to Blake what is more usefully summarised by Orac on the Liberator: this world is a single, Gaia-style, living organism, which immediately makes me think of that recent Adam Curtis documentary, which seemed to assert that the late 1970s was when such ideas started to permeate the general consciousness. The planet is having one of its regular “purges” of parasite. Tragically, Zil, who is rather nice, dies shortly after Blake realises she was protecting him because she thought he was a newborn child.

It is Avon’s cleverness, significantly, that leads to Blake’s rescue. But Travis is already in trouble. His trial is conducted in the same way as Blake’s in The Way Back, with evidence being analysed, apparently objectively, within seconds by a computer after the evidence is submitted. But Travis manages to seize a chance to possibly change things by delivering his own closing speech, insisting that his actions are only the result of his training. This is to no avail, though; he is still sentenced to death.

Blake, predictably, is full of renewed purpose; it seems he will never see the error of his ways. This cannot end well. He proposes a quick attack on Servalan’s HQ using Avon’s detector shield to slip away again, although what value beyond a gesture that this has is, to say the least, unclear.

The predictable result is, of course, that Travis escapes in the confusion, with a pursuit ship and three “blanked” Mutoids. Travis is pursuing Blake, and Servalan is pursuing Travis…

Monday, 27 June 2011

Blake's 7: Pressure Point

“Sooner or later, I will have my chance.”
Blimey! It’s Terry Nation again. And it’s a cracker of an episode. Yet again it seems he’s a much better writer when his batteries have been recharged. Then again, of course, it’s fitting that such a pivotal episode in the series arc should be written by the series creator.
We begin with a couple of rebels, dressed rather like terrorists used to dress in the 1970s, skulking about by the Federation’s main computer system, Control. Initially I winced at the thatched cottage, but it seems Control is on Earth. In the South-East of England, it seems. Where else?
Watching them are Travis, Servalan in a rather fetching hat, and a couple of Mutoids. (Are all Mutoids women? I don’t think we’ve seen a male one yet.) Sadly, with Terry doing the scripting, their relationship is rather more one-note than it was last time. They’ve been expecting this scouting party, which seems to belong to Kasabi, a rebel leader played by Jane Sherwin off of Doctor Who and the War Games.
Blake, meanwhile, plans to strike at Control, the most heavily protected site in the Federation, and deliver a crippling blow to the Federation. It seems to be an utterly insane risk, and to mark a new stage in Blake’s recklessness. He’s even misled the crew about why they’ve been heading towards the Solar System. As we shall see, these tendencies are going to escalate, with awful consequences. This may be the episode where Blake crosses the line and starts to be genuinely in heed of psychiatric help.
Interestingly, only Cally is with Blake at the start, with everyone else needing a fair amount of persuading. Blake has apparently been secretly planning this for a year, and has already made contact with Kasabi. (Interestingly, we get some more information about the series backstory here; the Federation started its “expansion and conquest” about two hundred years previously.)
Avon’s reaction is absolutely fascinating. He makes no secret of his disdain for the scheme, deliberately keeps Blake in suspense, but nevertheless agrees to take part in what he derides as almost a suicide mission. But there’s a lot of meaning in his “I am surprised you ever doubted it.” Yet again it’s clear that his cynical exterior hides a loyalty to his friends and a sympathy with Blake’s aims, if not his reckless methods. He’d make the better freedom fighter of the two. Yes, he may claim that his motive is to get Blake leading a rebellion on Earth, leaving him in command of the Liberator. But I don’t believe him.

Servalan, unfortunately, takes Kasabi prisoner, and a trap is set for Blake. He and Gan teleport down and head for the rendezvous spot. Interestingly, this is the crypt of a church which has been left in ruins since “the Federation had them all destroyed at the beginning of the New Calendar.

In the crypt they find an injured young woman, Veron. The rather lovely Veron is Kasabi’s daughter, the only survivor of a Federation ambush during which she claims her mother was killed. She is, of course, doing the Federation’s bidding. At this point has to do a lot of convincing to get Gan to continue- he very reasonably assumes that this means things haven’t gone to plan and it will be too risky to continue. He’s right, and this will of course resonate later.

Just as damningly, Blake refuses to admit what has happened when he communicates with the Liberator, is spite of two direct questions from Avon. He has now essentially put both Avon and Vila in great danger on false pretences. He’s fully responsible for anything bad that befalls his comrades from now on.
The trap springs shut. Veron disappears, as do their teleport bracelets. Fortunately, Gan is ultimately able to force the door. From this point on we essentially have an obstacle course, and scenes rather uncannily similar to Terry Nation’s own Doctor Who story of a few years earlier, Death to the Daleks. We get a bit of foreshadowing on the monkey swing sequence, as Gan very nearly doesn’t make it…

At last they reach the centre of Control- and there’s nothing there. There hasn’t been for thirty years. This is all a massive red herring, and Blake is absolutely stunned. All that risk has been for nothing. It seems that Servalan and Travis have them, until Jenna arrives. It seems she’s handled the situation rather more rationally than Blake. Then again, at the moment that wouldn’t be difficult.

The episode climaxes with Gan dying during their escape. It makes sense to kill him at this point; as his pervert tendencies seem to have been dropped this season (where could they have taken that, though?), the character is suddenly too bland to keep around, which is no reflection on David Jackson. But this marks a turning point; Blake is entirely responsible for his friend’s death. He’s become a dangerous liability.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Blake's 7: Horizon

“Oh Hell. I’m tired of running, Jenna.”

Blimey. For the first time, we get a writer who has neither written nor script edited an episode of Blake’s 7, nor do I know of him from Doctor Who. Allan Prior: who he? He’s rather good, whoever he is.

It seems Cally is now an expert in medical matters. Either that, or the fact that she’s a woman apparently means she’s good at nurturing and stuff. But the message is clear; the entire crew is knackered, dangerously knackered for a bunch of people who live in such constant danger. So what does Blake do? Yep; go chasing a nearby Federation freighter because he’s “curious”. This is one of many recent examples of a subtle but growing trend; instances of Blake showing that he is in fact a dangerous, reckless fanatic who is a danger to his crew, who would be better off with Avon who, in spite of his outward cynicism, is a sensible chap, has their best interests at heart and is not so apolitical as he pretends.

The freighter is going to Horizon, an isolated world on the very edge of this spiral arm. Blake follows, pushing his crew hard; Jenna makes it very clear that she’s tired. They make it through a magnetic barrier- another example of how Blake’s recklessness could have got them all killed- and eventually Blake and Jenna teleport down, but not before Avon overhears Blake admitting to her that he’s taking her, as the best pilot, as insurance to stop Avon running off without him.

Being knackered, they are both promptly spotted and hit by darts from a blowpipe, meaning that Gan and Vila have to go after them.

Blake and Jenna are interrogated by the Federation’s Commissar, a nasty little totalitarian who sees resistance as a “malfunction of the genes”, suffered by “one in 100,000” which is usually “detected in infancy”. Suddenly we’re back to the overtones of Brezhnev-style medicalisation of dissent as seen back in The Way Back, and we’re reminded just how awful the Federation is.

Alongside the Commissar is a young, hesitant man called Ro, nominally in charge of this planet. He’s played by Darien Angadi, who had a rather memorable part in I, Clavdivs. There’s a tension between him and the Federation, but as a young and weak ruler, he allows himself to resist, collaborating with what he tries to pretend are not his colonial overlords. As with the European colonies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Federation are interested in Horizon for its mineral resources, in this case Monopasium 239, a rare element(?) which can send ships “into new galaxies” (Is this new? Is humanity just about on the verge of leaving the Milky Way for the first time?). This is done by slave labour, and generally by the most repressive practices possible. 1979 is surprisingly late for a colonial allegory like this one, but Ro reminds me of one of those Indian princes who went to public school and Oxbridge.

Blake has an interesting conversation with Ro, in which he sows all sorts of doubts into his mind; it seems he saw a friend of Ro’s die on the way to Cygnus Alpha. This isn’t allowed to go on for long, though; soon they’re both dispatched to the mines, where there’s an interesting scene where Blake organises the rationing of food fairly. There they meet Selma, Ro’s consort, who has been dispatched to the mind for vaguely “seditious” remarks. This is pretty appalling, in fact so much so that it’s a bit of a misstep on part of the script. For Ro to treat the woman he supposedly loves like this makes it hard for us to sympathise with him at all.

With four of the crew missing, Cally goes down to find them, and promptly disappears. Now there’s just Avon. Will he flee, safe aboard the Liberator, or will he rescue his friends? There’s a degree of tension, but regular viewers know by now that he’s far more loyal and reliable than he superficially seems.

Meanwhile, Cally reveals to Ro that the Federation had his father killed, and he discovers the Federation had been considering having him killed. Worst of all, he has to watch while Selma is tortured. The climax is fitting, as Avon’s highly efficient rescue mission coincides with Ro, in traditional dress, killing the Commissar with his blowpipe.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Blake's 7: Weapon

“And the other mistake I made was not getting an advance on my fee…”

So, after fourteen straight scripts by Terry Nation we get at least two in a row from Chris Boucher. Can he possibly beat the record of his illustrious predecessor? We shall have to wait and see.

After some stock rocket footage, we see two fugitives scrabbling about in a quarry. One of them, Coser, is dressed rather oddly and played by John Bennett, and the other, Rashel is a slave, freed by him after his escape. She starts out very much in this role, but it’s nice how she becomes gradually more assertive as the story continues.

We then get a rather dreamlike sequence in which Travis apparently kills Blake. Except… it’s not Travis. Yes, I know that the character is subtly different, rather emasculated, and scripted far more for comic effect than we’ve seen before, but Brian Croucher is rubbish, isn’t he? It’ll be interesting to see whether my opinion shifts over time, but right now he seems rather one-dimensional, shouty and camp, far from the genuine menace exuded by Stephen Grief.

That was just a clone, of course; the real Blake is aboard the Liberator where he’s arguing, as he often does these days, over a particularly suicidal plan of his, or rather Cally’s (she has fanatical tendencies too, of course), to attack the Federation’s Weapons Developmental Base, an absurdly high profile target.

The relationship between Servalan and Travis is evolving in interesting ways, beyond being much shoutier; it’s clear that Travis has lost all of his menace and is basically her gimp. I suspect she keeps him around at least partly because she enjoys her power over him. This script certainly brings out the best in Jacqueline Pearce, who is fantastic here. We get some exposition, too; the “clonemasters” apparently have a monopoly on cloning, and the whole subject of cloning is generally treated as something exotic, which is not quite so much the case in these post-Dolly the Sheep days.

Orac informs Blake that his plan just isn’t a goer, as security around the Weapons Development Base is currently sky high; a bloke called Coser has escaped, with a brilliant new weapon he’s invented, called “IMIPAK”. It’s all exposition at the moment, aboard the Liberator as well as on the Clonemasters’ planet. We even learn that Blake is 34, just like me.

It’s not long before the plot gets going, though, as we see Coser and Rashel take refuge in a building. Interestingly, for the second Chris Boucher script in a row we have a heavy emphasis on social class, with Rashel being a slave and Coser being the sort of “B grade” technician who isn’t supposed to be clever enough to invent something like IMIPAK. It seems the Federation operates quite a rigid caste system.

We’re introduced to Carnell, played by the excellent Scott Fredericks, a psychostrategist or “puppeteer”, a kind of uber-smug version of Hari Seldon from Isaac Asimov’s splendid Foundation novels. He’s also, of course, one of the main characters in Magic Bullet’s excellent Kaldor City audios. And yes, I know I keep going on about them! He’s great here; flirting outrageously with Servalan and showing what a massive genius he is by casually thrashing the best chess computers of his time. He really must be a genius, considering Garry Kasparov’s –performances against a computer which would presumably be far less advanced. But he lets slip that he may have made a mistake- he assumes Coser is alone. And when he later charms an underling to let him see a report, he remarks that this has “saved his life”.

We switch to an industrial location, so often seen in Blake’s 7, for the denouement. The clone tricks Coser into handing over IMIPAK to Servalan, and it seems that it consists of a gun, with which you can shoot someone to “mark” them, and then press a button to blow them up. Coser makes it sound all good and everything, what with the power one would hold over someone who’s been marked, but why not cut the crap and just shoot them? We get a rather ridiculous scene in which Blake, Avon and Gan, having teleported down, all stand still long enough to be “marked” by Travis. Why doesn’t he just shoot them?

Servalan gives them all a chance to run, for plausible and rather clever reasons; after she blows them up it will be assumed that they have IMIPAK, whereas in fact Servalan does. I love the way she has her own agenda, rather than just acting on behalf of the Federation. She’s a deliciously ambitious woman.

Fittingly, it’s Rashel who saves the day, in a pleasingly assertive manner, and ends up alone on a planet of her own with a clone of Blake as her own sexual plaything. Fittingly, this episode sees her evolve from the lowest origins possible to being the most important person in this episode. And Carnell gets away before Servalan can kill him, but not before recording a message to Servalan telling her that she’s “undoubtedly the sexiest officer I have ever known”. She can’t resist a smile.

Not quite up to last week’s standards, but this is another good ‘un.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Blake's 7: Shadow

"Where are all the good guys?"

"Could be looking at them."

"What a depressing thought..."

What’s this? Written by Chris Boucher? You mean there are writers in this world who aren’t Terry Nation? Blimey. Actually, this episode feels so extraordinary different from everything that’s gone before simply because of the change of writer. It helps that Chris Boucher is so damn good, too. This is one of the best episodes yet.

So, another space station, and a bloke called Largo. This is close enough to “Iago” to immediately tell us what sort of character he is; duplicitous and not very nice. He’s a sort of cross between said Shakespearean baddie, Mother Superior off of Trainspotting and Tony Soprano, being a middle-ranking flunky in the “Terra Nostra”. Of course, any similarity to any legitimate business organisations of Italian extraction is entirely coincidental.

Largo is having some fun humiliating two of his customers before he hands over some “Shadow”, a highly addictive gobstopper-like substance. I’m fairly sure you could get it in my village’s local sweet shop when I were a nipper. But one of these two siblings pulls a gun on him, the pair of them nick loads of stuff, and off they go.

Meanwhile, aboard the Liberator, everyone is speaking lines not written by Terry Nation, and it’s an odd yet refreshing experience. All the lines sound right (Boucher has been script editor all this time, after all), but the characters now have a bit more room to breathe. They’re orbiting “Space City, a “Satellite of Sin” controlled by the Terra Nostra, whose help Blake wants to enlist in his quest against the Federation- a sign, if there hadn’t been enough already, of how his monomaniacal obsession has skewed his moral compass. He dismisses the considerable ethical problems with a curt “Earth is all I’m interested in”; this time last season his political opposition to the Federation was far less narrowly defined than this.

Interesting that Gan should be the main one to object. Firstly because he’s always been the most loyal to Blake; he’s never before questioned his decisions and has strongly defended him to Avon. And yet here he’s on Avon’s side, an interesting development in the heightening power struggle between them. And secondly it seems to indicate a definite change in Gan’s character from the hints of extreme sexual dodginess we seemed to be getting last season. Has all this been dropped? Suddenly Gan seems to be going all moral.

Meanwhile, the desperate siblings have lost their other brother to an overdose, and found themselves captured by Largo’s underling. Our, ahem, “heroes”, meanwhile, are off to see Largo themselves, to cut a deal. Apart from Cally, that is, and Vila. Some interesting dialogue here: Blake is a privileged “Alpha Grade”, while Vila is a “Delta Service Grade” peasant.

Vila isn’t on the Liberator for long; he soon enlists the help of Orac to get himself inside the City. Meanwhile, Blake, Jenna Gan and Avon are being rather less successful with their own negotiations, which end with them all being marched into a cell at gunpoint.

Things look a bit grim, but we get a bit of light relief here; the conversation between Cally and Vila only drop vague hints as to what Vila is doing, but there’s almost certainly at least one lady present. Unfortunately, Blake and co aren’t having anywhere near as nice a time.

There’s a nice moment for Cally here as she quickly susses out from Blake’s subtle hints that his suggestion to bring loads of money over is under duress, and proceeds to go all badass and arse-whuppy. I rather like this badass Cally. It’s almost a shame that her moment of triumph is rather rudely pre-empted by Blake and co just escaping by themselves without so much as a by-your-leave. Some people just have no manners.

Blake still plans to go after the Terra Nostra, though; this time he plans to well and truly shove a stick into said hornet’s nest and again, Gan objects most strongly. It’s interesting watching Avon here; it’s strongly implied that he’s already worked out what’s going to be revealed at the end, but is deliberately allowing Blake to try and fail. He plans to go to Zondar, where Shadow is in some way grown, in spite of the plant being extinct.

Meanwhile, Cally finds Orac and ends up in a strange yet cheap-looking dream world, uncannily similar to that seen in the excellent Doctor Who story, Kinda. And it turns out that the Terra Nostra are able to trace the Liberator through the Shadow in the possession of one of their guests. This is no good to Largo, though; he’s just been assassinated and smoothly replaced by his subordinate. That sort of thing is so very Chris Boucher, and reminds me of the wonderfully backstabbing world of Magic Bullet’s splendid Kaldor City audio dramas, based on Boucher’s concepts from Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who.

Blake, Jenna and Avon teleport down to Zondar, where they find some “moon discs” from which Zondar is derived. And suddenly (and, as it turns out, conveniently), Cally wakes up, panics, runs, teleports to the surface and collapses next to a load of moon discs, nicely in position for the climax.

Anyway, Orac has gone bad, is trying to crash the Liberator, and kills Druggy Girl, although that last bit is ok; she’s no longer useful to the plot. It seems that Orac has been possessed by an extra-dimensional entity for some reason, but that Cally, with help from the sentient moon discs, is able to overpower it, which is nice.

The big reveal is rather clever, although Avon probably guessed some time ago; the Terra Nostra is run by the Federation, who thus control both sides of the law…

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Blake's 7: Redemption

“It felt personal. It always feels personal when someone tries to kill me.”

A new series, then. There’s not much difference to start with, what with the same theme titles and the prospect of a fourteenth episode in a row written by Terry Nation. But then we see Blake, Cally and Jenna- is it me, or do all of them have much bushier hair? And why is Blake dressed like a seventeenth century farm labourer?

Vila and Avon may not have noticeably bushier hair, but they are on film for some reason. But enough of fashion matters; we have some footage of the end of the last season to replay, although fortunately the recap is less clumsy than this time, and doesn’t feel the need to hold the viewer’s hand quite so firmly as we’re once again confronted with the horrifying concept of having to remember a couple of the main points from previous episodes.

Avon strings Blake for a bit before deigning to reveal his rather clever thoughts; he’s identified the starfield in the footage of the Liberator blowing up, and it’s the other side of the galaxy. All they need to do is avoid ever going there and they’ll be fine. This piece of cleverness is, of course, a blow for him in the ongoing contest between Blake and Avon for the role of alpha male. This seems to be ratcheted up a lot in this episode, as signalled early on by Avon: “Perhaps, in future, they won’t rely on you to provide all the answers.”

Suddenly the ship is attacked by two mysterious hostile vessels of unknown origin. The Liberator is pretty much helpless, and yet they recover from an almighty arse-whupping to discover they’re all alive and well, but without weapons, without Zen and heading somewhere at huge speed. Avon (he’s on fire today) suspects that they were deliberately weakened rather than killed, and the ship is being taken somewhere very specific.

We cut to a couple of rather cold young ladies inside a swanky space station. The décor inside the space station stands on the cusp of a new era; it shows some of the ineffable hallmarks of the 1980s BBC sci-fi set, as opposed to the 1970s BBC sci-fi set we’ve been used to. Dullness is beginning to be replaced with Light Entertainment spangliness. It’ll be interesting to see if this trend develops. Or not.

On board the Liberator it’s becoming clear that the ship is under the control of some outside force, while Blake and Avon continue their rather un-macho power struggle. Even Avon’s bravely saving Blake’s life (interesting that he never acts as cynically as he talks) is quickly used by Avon to verbally bitch-slap Blake.

Meanwhile, the earlier scenes of Cally doing some engineering work, with screwdrivers and everything, is rather undermined by the sight of Jenna handing out the tea. These late ‘70s gender roles, eh? It’s women’s lib gone mad.

Finally, some mysterious unseen baddies teleport aboard and capture the whole crew, one by one. We finally learn that these people are, as we’ve suspected, the people who built the Liberator. And, just when he’s needed, Orac is busy…

The aliens are rather unpleasant, rude and not afraid to dish out a little light torture at the slightest provocation. They’re escorted off the ship to some cells to await their imminent execution, while Blake is interrogated by “the System”, the all-powerful supercomputer that rules the three inhabited planets in this system. Avon, meanwhile, immediately begins to plan escape. He realises that, as Jenna points out, they apparently have no chance whatsoever, but he prefers to be defiant and die a good death. That’s interesting- behind the cold and sardonic exterior (a mask?), there is some passion.

Blake, in travelling to his interrogation, observes that this is a rather nasty, slavery-practising, totalitarian dictatorship of the most repressive kind imaginable, and we’ve already established that Blake is not particularly enthusiastic about such things. But, as he is interrogated, the System’s, er, systems start to go wrong, and it’s not long before sporadic mini-revolutions break out. How very appropriate to be watching this in 2011, with the Arab Spring still happening.

There’s an interesting glimpse into an old-fashioned world view of computers here, I think; this is still (just!) in an age before computers were seen as cool consumer goods and when they were still seen as potentially threatening to the freedom of the individual. It seems strangely modern in the light on contemporary talk about “The Singularity” and the excellent if typically and wonderfully all-over-the-place Adam Curtis documentary (All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace) from earlier this month.

The quickest revolution in all of history is carried out, er, quickly, in spite of the fact that there seem to be about three rebels. One of them dies saving Blake, of course, but collateral damage is by now an essential part of his lifestyle.

Avon’s still on fire, though- he spots that they’re in the exact part of space where the Liberator is doomed to blow up. The crew have all escaped, but it seems their fate is certain- until they see that they’re being pursued by a ship of the exact same design. Orac has been plotting all this time to make that ship explode, and explode it does, just as in the prediction. That was rather clever plotting. We end with a bit more Blake / Avon friction…

That was really rather good. Terry Nation can write quite well when he’s had a bit of time off.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Blake's 7: Orac

“I don’t intend to sit around and wait to die.”

What a very odd beginning. Terry Nation was clearly terrified that his radical decision to introduce a bit of continuity between consecutive episodes was a wild and dangerous risk, and the viewer needs to have the concept explained in words of one syllable. Hence the arse-clenchingly contrived recap, in which for some reason Blake goes to the trouble of editing together some clips and providing a voiceover, purely so that he can tell Avon something he already knows. It’s quite a contrast from watching recent episodes of Doctor Who written by Steven Moffat, I can tell you.

That’s not the only hangover from the previous episode, either. Avon, Jenna, Gan and Vila are all coming down with radiation sickness, meaning we finally get to see one of Terry Nation’s favourite things: anti-radiation drugs! As Avon puts it, “In a couple of weeks, we’ll all recover.” Er, quite.

Anyway, the Liberator’s off to Aristo to give the cells to Ensor, who has a dicky metal ticker, and hope that he’ll give them some anti-radiation drugs in return. Ensor, meanwhile, is feeding his fish and watering his plants in a room which could only possibly have existed in 1978 and no other year. He discovers a Federation ship has landed, containing two passengers and, of course, we immediately guess who they are. It seems that Servalan and Travis have to travel through the passageways under the city where monsters called “Phibians” lurk. This episode is the most Terry Nation thing ever.

Zen explains that Aristo hasn’t got much in the way of landmass, and that while it has old ruined cities on it, amphibians have only just evolved and started to colonise the landmasses. Er, how does that work then?

We essentially get two parallel quest narratives here: Blake and Cally on the surface; and Servalan and Travis underground amongst the nasty monsters. I’m sure I could come up with all sorts of ways this is symbolic of the contrasting natures of the two pairs, and all sorts of tropes surrounding quests, but I’m too busy laughing at the rubber monster. Sorry. Still, it’s interesting watching the shifting power dynamics between Servalan and Travis. Servalan does panic and need to be rescued by Travis (she is a female character in a story by Terry Nation, after all), but is quick to assert her authority over him as soon as the danger is over.

Blake and Cally find Ensor and tell him the sad news, sensibly omitting all the hijacking stuff. For reasons of plot convenience it now becomes necessary to take Ensor, along with Orac, up to the Liberator. Orac is this fantastic machine with the ability to connect to other computers without a direct connection. Which makes it, er, a slightly crapper version of the Internet. How very futuristic.

Travis and Servalan arrive at this dramatic moment, just in time to put a bit of excitement into the last few minutes before Avon saves the day at the very last possible moment. While all this is going on, Ensor quietly dies of not-having-any-more-to-contribute-to-the-plot syndrome.

So, Blake & co now have Orac, a second smartarse computer voiced by Peter Tuddenham to add to their collection. For some reason Orac can mathematically “predict” the future, and it seems the Liberator will explode very soon….

Well, I rather enjoyed that first series, in spite of the last few episodes showing some signs of repetitive writing. A solid set of characters and a premise that works. Roll on Series Two…

Blake's 7: Deliverance

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”

The first few minutes actually look very impressive. There’s a small spaceship flying through the void, and we can actually see its two occupants through the front window. We then cut to a wheeled space station, on board which is, er, a BBC Micro. But never mind that, because the camera then draws back to reveal Servalan, who is watching the ship. For some reason it’s important.

This little ship is heading for an unknown destination, but meanwhile is passing a “primitive” planet called Cephlon. You immediately realise that this is the only reason this would have been mentioned was if the ship was about to crash and, surely enough, it does.

The crew of the Liberator, by an amazing coincidence, are watching all this too. They watch two lifeboats ejecting from the ship and resolve to teleport down and find them. It’s dangerous down there, with comedy Stone Age stereotypes posing a grave threat to everyone’s dignity.

The landing party is led, not by Blake, but by Avon, along with Jenna, Gan and Vila. And it’s interesting that, notwithstanding the mild personality clashes we’ve seen with pretty much everyone, no one questions that Avon is the de facto deputy to Blake. He’s competent, intelligent and pragmatic.

One of the two men is dead, but the other, played by some bloke off Eastenders, is alive. It’s time for them all to return to the Liberator, and we get a quick glance of Cally, next to the teleporter, listening to some groovy sounds in her rather cool shades in a way which is so quintessentially late Seventies.

At this point we’re re-acquainted with what’s becoming one of the standard tropes of Blake’s 7: the female crew member not returning with everyone else when teleporting back to the ship. Blake is clearly very worried about Jenna in a way which implies he has feelings for her which are almost certainly not reciprocated. Meanwhile, we discover that the dead man, Terry Nation style, was a “Space Surgeon”. Ha!

The survivor starts bibbling about energy cells, his dying father and the need to get to Aristo, a planet which makes me think of that Blackadder episode set during the French Revolution. The Federation was to pay 100 credits for something called “Orac”, says the survivor, in a hilarious display of overacting. He then produces a gun and hijacks the ship. They are to head to Aristo immediately, to cure his sick father, leaving the rest of the crew on Cephlon. Ah yes, another standard trope of Blake’s 7: the Liberator forced to go out of teleporter range when members of the crew are still on the planet.

There’s a great scene between Servalan and Travis which consists basically of Servalan showing how ruthless and badass she is, and making it clear to Travis that he’s her bitch. She explains that “Orac” is the creation of a scientist called Ensor, father of that bloke off Eastenders. A deal was made; 100 million credits for Orac, but also an agreement to send a surgeon, Maryatt, to cure Ensor. But Servalan has made some slight amendments to this. As soon as she knows where Aristo is, she blows the ship up and resolves to go there herself and seize Orac, without paying the 100 credits. Even nastier is that she intends to have Maryatt posted as a deserter, meaning that his family will be sold into slavery on one of the frontier worlds. Now that’s ruthless.

Meanwhile, Avon and co are having a spot of bother with some cavemen caricatures and a door. But as soon as they’re inside they meet Meegat, who is pretty, smiley and very friendly indeed, especially with “Lord” Avon. Being Avon, though, he insists on remaining a bit of a miserable git on general principles.

Interestingly, is seems Meegat (and presumable some unseen other people) have a prophecy about all this that turns out to be right, so prophecy works; it’s possible to predict the future. It’s a shame more isn’t made of this. But the prophecy comes to pass: a stock footage rocket is launched, meaning cells sufficient to re-spawn an entire race will reach their destination in just five short centuries’ time. Whoopee. If Avon’s leadership credentials weren’t already established, he successfully leads a rescue of Jenna, leaving you with the distinct impression that he’s make a much better leader than Blake, and would be a lot more loyal than he pretends to be. He’s intelligent, level-headed and heroic in spite of himself. What more do you want?

There’s another interesting Gan moment as they re-enter Meegat’s cave thingy. “You know, Vila,” he says, “For a minute out there I was actually quite beginning to enjoy myself.” Again we have this mix of thuggery and low self-esteem.

By now, Ensor’s son has died and the Liberator is back. They still have the energy cells, so it’s off to Aristo, Ensor and Orac…

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Doctor Who: A Good Man Goes to War

“I have gene-spliced myself for all nursing duties. I can provide magnificent quantities of lactic fluid.”

If we didn’t already know this episode wasn’t going to be a big ‘un, we get a massive recap. And the scene is set: Amy is in a place called Demons Run, apparently a massive spaceship, she’s “popped”, as Eyepatch Lady put it, and her baby is called Melody. She’s not best pleased, but she’s convinced that someone’s coming, someone legendary. And in a nice twist at the end, we discover that this legendary figure is Rory. And I suspect the title is supposed to be ambiguous; is it referring to the Doctor, or Rory.

It’s an odd episode, this, completely unlike anything we’ve ever seen in Doctor Who. More so even that this series’ opening two-parter, this is an episode of pure story arc, and doesn’t really exist as an end unto itself. It reminds me of Angel seasons three and four with their very heavy arc plots. So while this episode is very well executed, in terms of both script and production, it’s rather difficult to pass judgement except as part of a larger whole, much of which we don’t yet know.

It’s cool, though. I can say that. Certainly Rory has never been so badass. I love the fact that they dusted off the Cybermen costumes and got the Mill to do a whole Cyber-fleet just so that Rory could be made to look well ‘ard.

The baddies (or at least their redshirts) are the military clerics from the Time of Angels two-parter, as well as the mysterious Headless Monks, who were briefly mentioned in the same story. It looks as though the future’s gone all mediaeval, what with Space Teutonic Knights / Space Knights Templar / whatever, and a kind of Headless Spanish Inquisition. I wasn’t expecting that.

We get introduced to a few lowly soldiers; Lorna Bucket from the Gamma Forests, who’s quietly sewing and had an “encounter” with the legendary Doctor as a child; the Thin One; and the Fat One (We’re thin, fat, gay Anglican marines. Why would we need names as well?”) Unfortunately, the Fat One learns more than he bargains for during his “conversion tutorial” with the Headless Monks. A box is put over his head, and we cut to a locker coming down vertically. Ouch.

Meanwhile, we get a succession of the Doctor’s mates. First off, we have a lesbian Silurian consulting detective(!) whose name I didn’t catch, and Jenny, her maid and lover (kinky combination, that), living in the London of 1888, where she’s just killed Jack the Ripper. I noticed she referred to an Inspector Abberline, and being a card-carrying geek I recognised the name from Alan Moore and Kevin Campbell’s From Hell. That’s even cooler than the Thunderbirds reference.

Next up we have Strax, the Sontaran nurse at the Battle of Zarathustra in 4037 AD, a future where fashions are seemingly inspired by the Crimean War. He’s a great character. I love the jocular threats he makes to kill his patients.

The odd one out is River Song. She starts out in a rather jolly mood as she smugly breaks into the Stormcage. But the appearance of the Lonely Centurion, and the realisation that it’s time for the Battle of Demons Run, suddenly turn her very sober indeed. “Because this is it,” she says portentously, “This is the day he finds out who I am.” And yes, it’s particularly interesting watching Alex Kingston’s performance the second time round.

Dorium, who already feels like an old friend after just one brief appearance, gets a magnificent speech in which he gets to be rather cool while at the same time explaining the plot to our baddies, Eyepatch Lady (or Madame Kovarian) and Colonel Manton. Because the Doctor is recruiting an army, by calling in favours. And a blue box lands right by Dorium…

Lorna has a brief encounter with Amy in which we find out her allegiances are somewhat ambiguous, and our attention is drawn again to the prayer leaf she’s been knitting, with the name of the child sewn on to both sides.

Manton’s the next one to get a speech. Although it would normally be a “level one heresy”, he is able, “by the divine grant of the Papal Mainframe herself” to remove the hoods of the headless monks, beneath which is… no head, but a stump, which is more horrible than nothing would have been. But behind the third hood, making a late and typically dramatic entrance, is the Doctor.

And suddenly the Doctor and his mates, who are popping up everywhere, are winning very quickly. The Doctor fools the clerics into fighting against the Monks, while the Silurian and Jenny take care of the control room. There’s a nice, subtle little naughty bit here: “I don’t know why you put up with me,” says Silurian Lady to Jenny, before flicking her very long, undulating tongue to knock out a baddie. The look on Jenny’s face makes it clear that we’ve just seen one very good reason for putting up with her…

Manton is quick-thinking enough to put an end to the fighting between clerics and monks, but his problems are mounting; we have more Silurians, Judoon, even Danny Boy and the Space Spitfires. Rory gets his share of the glory, confronting Kovarian, as we now learn that Captain Avery now controls the ship. And Manton gets the opposite, as the Doctor makes damn sure that he’ll be known for ever after as “Colonel Run-Away”.

There’s a knock at Amy’s door, and it’s Rory… with their baby. Rory is at such a high point that he gets to call his wife “Mrs Williams”-Although the baby is Melody Pond, of course. He even gets to shout “Oi, you! Get in here now!” at the Doctor.

There’s a bit of a clue for us as the baby doesn’t like the TARDIS noise, but the Doctor is able to stop her crying by producing a cot, apparently from the days when he himself was a Time Tot.

We get a few answers: Amy was replaced with a Ganger “just before America”, but the Doctor is typically evasive about whether or not there’s something he’s not telling the Ponds.

But, away from the Ponds we learn some more: Melody, conceived in the TARDIS on the Ponds’ wedding night, has “human plus” DNA; it seems she was born with a “time head” after all. It’s suggested that perhaps she might be able to regenerate, and immediately we know that she’s the little girl in the opening two-parter, unless we’re getting a massive dose of misdirection. And, given the clips we then see, I don’t think we are.

But things aren’t as they seem; the Headless Monks are still at large, and Kovarian appears on-screen, telling the Doctor of the “endless war”. “Against who?”, asks the Doctor, who really should know perfectly well that he should have said “Against whom?” Tut tut. “Against you!” replies Kovarian, baffling the Doctor. And then the Headless Monks strike. Dorium is the first to die. Shame. I would have liked to have seen more of him.

Suddenly, the Doctor’s bloodless victory turns into a tragic loss of lives which, we soon learn, will all be for nothing. Kovarian appears again, this time through a hatch in reality, and we discover that the baby itself is just a Ganger.

It’s all going horribly wrong. Strax finds his death is not as enjoyable as he’d hoped, although at nearly twelve he’s had a decent innings. Lorna dies, and the Doctor (who may not yet have met her) doesn’t even remember her. Things are very grim indeed.

And then River appears, too late. Solemnly, she makes it very clear that all of this is the Doctor’s fault for. In the language of the Gamma Forests the word “Doctor” means “great warrior”, and that is what his reputation is becoming. He is causing alliances to be formed against him through his vanity, and innocents are killed in the crossfire.

But then, suddenly, the Doctor understands who River is. And promptly buggers off in the TARDIS, leaving a very angry and upset Amy and Rory with River. And her we learn the truth. “The only water in the forest is a river.” On the prayer leaf which Lorna made for Amy is the Gamma Forest version of the baby Melody Pond’s name: River Song. And on that bombshell…

Lots of people have told me this was obvious but, to my slow-on-the-uptake and spoiler-free self, this was a huge moment.

Right. More Doctor Who as it airs, and obviously Torchwood as that airs too. In the meantime, more Blake’s 7, followed by lots and lots of other things

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Doctor Who: The Almost People


The brief tour of previous Doctors is fairly inconsequential, I suppose, but it’s fun. And it’s good to hear Tom Baker’s voice again. And it’s fine for Cybermats to get a mention. Just let’s never see them again, ok?

There are now two Doctors; the Doctor in stereo. Both of them are loving it, bouncily encouraging each others’ Doctorish ways. Still, you can tell them apart from their shoes, of course... But why are both Doctors imploring Amy to “breathe”? And you can tell that underneath it all they’re stressed. They’d never normally use words like “yowser”.

The whole ethical can of worms opened by the Gangers’ existence is dealt with much more effectively and powerfully in this episode, although this leads us to a bit of awkwardness at the very end. Flesh Jennifer is starting to remember her previous lives: the eyes are the last bit to go, as we’ll later find out with a more horrifying wall of eyes than anything we saw (or would have, if there was any footage) in Marco Polo. But we’re getting splits; Flesh Jennifer wants all-out revolution but Flesh Cleaves, in contrast to her counterpart, just wants a quiet life. It’s an interesting microcosm of the politics of resistance- Malcolm X vs. Martin Luther King, perhaps. The only trouble is that this feels pretty much exactly like every Silurian story there’s ever been- the same ethical dilemma, reheated. It’d Old Silurian vs. Young Silurian all over again.

Amy is clearly not prepared to accept the Flesh Doctor, insisting that only the original is “really” the Doctor. Everyone else, with varying degrees of subtlety, implicitly accepts this, and they are both treated differently. It’s an interesting commentary on everyday racism; “Smith” is tolerated only conditionally, treated with suspicion and, as we’ll find, not really considered “human” or deserving of the same rights. This is the most chilling thing about this episode, and Amy is absolutely complicit.

Amy sees the eyepatch woman again, and this time mentions it to the Doctor; we know that this sub-plot is going to come to a head now, as if we didn’t already know as soon as we saw the recap of last week’s incident in the “previously on Doctor Who” bit. And even if we didn’t suspect it already then the Doctor’s pooh-poohing is a dead giveaway.

There’s a real awkwardness between Amy and “Smith” , but she still thinks of him as “almost” the Doctor, and takes the opportunity to confide in him because she saw the Doctor die at his own invitation. But that’s ok, because he’s not the “real” Doctor. Right? Certainly the real Doctor would never lash out at Amy like that.

Rory, meanwhile, gets taken for a ride by Flesh Jennifer, bless him. Still, Jennifer has a sort of point, if she can indeed remember her previous “selves” being slowly and horribly killed every single day, rotting away while fully conscious. Still, there’s no denying that Rory comes across as a bit of a gullible twonk.

There’s a very revealing scene in which “Smith” and Buzzer find the dead “real” Jenny, who’s been unconscious all this time. Buzzer just knocks him out on orders from “the boss”. After all, he’s not human.

It’s quite a contrast when “Smith” wakes up among the Gangers, who instantly accept him. After all, he’s one of their own.

We’re starting to see how similar both versions of the same character are, though. Both versions of Cleves are stuck with an inoperable blood clot. And both versions of Jimmy love the same little boy, even if he isn’t exactly the greatest of child actors.

The end of the main plot, shortly after Jenny goes all Lazarus Experiment, is sudden but well-judged. The TARDIS tumbles into the correct underground chamber in the nick of time. Everyone piles into the TARDIS, but Cleaves’ Ganger stays behind for a bit of a noble sacrifice. I’m glad to see that the character (both versions)  is actually rather more well-rounded than seemed the case last episode.

Joining her in the heroic death stakes is none other than the Doctor. Or rather the Ganger Doctor; they swapped shoes, meaning we’ve had them the wrong way round all along, a nice trick. But that means Amy told… oops. At last she comes to realise that the Flesh is as real as the original Doctor. After all, he’s managed to convince her of that for most of the episode. Interestingly, though, as she gives hem a farewell hug, he tells her to “Push, Amy. But only when she tells you to.” What’s that all about, eh?

The “real” Doctor also lets slip that he understands exactly what Amy has told him. As the Flesh Doctor muses that “My death arrives, I suppose”, the “real” Doctor adds “But this one we’re not invited to.” Oh dear.

There’s a bit of handwavium in evidence as the Doctor miraculously cures Cleaves and the TARDIS miraculously “stabilises” the surviving Ganger versions of Jimmy and Dicken. But why’s the Doctor telling Amy to breathe so often now? We find out immediately, as the contractions start. It seems both Amy and the Doctor have been keeping secrets from each other. The Doctor announces that he “needed to see the Flesh in its early days. That’s why we were here in the first place.”- he just needed enough information to block the signal to the Flesh. The Flesh, that is, that Amy’s mind is currently inhabiting while her body goes into contractions, many light years and many centuries away.

But there’s a problem with the Doctor just zapping Flesh Amy. Yes, we get a “Given what we’ve learned I’ll be as humane as I can”, and yes, it’s a quick death with no slow, fully-conscious rotting with lingering eyes. But we’re left with a very nasty sense that the Doctor has just murdered a sentient being. It’s a pity, especially as a quick line of dialogue to the effect that later Flesh aren’t sentient would have been all we needed.

Amy wakes up, and the Eyepatch Lady tells her to push…

Monday, 13 June 2011

Doctor Who: The Rebel Flesh

“I thought I was going to die!”

“Welcome to my world…”

I didn’t like Fear Her very much, which doesn’t exactly make me much of a contrarian, I know. Still, Life on Mars was very good, if not quite as good in hindsight as we all thought it was, so I was glad to see Matthew Graham get another chance,. We end up with this, a two parter which is really quite good, if nothing particularly special, with only a couple of little niggles.

Anyway… it’s a picturesque setting: a kind of Yorkshire St. Michael’s Mount being used as an acid factory in the 22nd century. It’s near Whitby, apparently- is this some sort of Dracula allusion? It’s as ruggedly industrial as any early Pertwee, but with much nicer architecture. And to add to the nostalgia factor we get quotes from The Invasion (“pettier than a computer, isn’t she?”).

The pre-titles sequence introduces us to our three factory workers Jennifer, Buzzer and Jimmy. The underwhelmed reaction to Jenny’s accidental “killing” of Buzzer hints at this story’s McGuffin, as does the reappearance of Buzzer, played by Life on Mars’ Marshall Lancaster.

The TARDIS is almost like a city centre pub these days, what with the dartboard and Muse’s Supermassive Black Hole. But the fact that the Doctor is having a sneaky scan of Schrodinger’s foetus at the beginning of the story, not the end, should alert us that something’s up, story-arc wise.

The Doctor, Amy and Rory disembark, and for some reason are instantly fascinated by a pip. Er, how very interesting. It’s a bit like the beginning of Fury from the Deep, except without all the tiresome suspicion for the TARDIS crew. Thank the heavens for psychic paper, which has delivered us from having to sit through loads of boring scenes with the Doctor being mistrusted by those in authority.

We meet the rest of the crew: Cleves, the boss, played by Raquel Cassidy off of Lead Balloon, and the strangely anonymous Dicken, who might as well not even be in the story. We’re also introduced to the Flesh, “fully programmable matter”, which is used to create “Gangers” to do all the dangerous work. Oh, and there’s going to be a big solar storm. Gosh, I wonder what’ll happen. After all, lightning striking artificially created human-type creatures isn’t in any way known in popular culture for bringing them to life, is it?

The inevitable happens, they’re all out for an hour, the TARDIS starts ton sink into the ground, and the Gangers have gone walkabout. Surprised? Thought not.

Rory, being a nice bloke and a burse, starts to comfort the terrified Jennifer, to Amy’s obvious annoyance. We really should realise, as the plot has been fairly predictable so far, that she’s a Ganger, and it’s not long until we get confirmation by CGI. And Cleves, it turns out, is a Ganger too. It’s all quite effective, even though it does little but run through an established list of tropes. The whole existential aspect of the Gangers being just as much a continuation of the previous self as the original is touched upon but not with any real passion or creativity. This isn’t a bad episode, but there’s certainly an element of going-through-the-motions with the plot. There just aren’t any real surprises.

Interestingly, the Doctor comments quite early on that “This is early Flesh- the early stages of the technology”. He obviously has some sort of agenda- even Jimmy can spot that. Then again, the Doctor seems to think there’s a word called “defendable”, so what does he know?

Jenny’s big speech to Rory is quite awkward, too. Sarah Smart delivers the lines well, but the dialogue is neither naturalistic nor poetic enough to get away with not being naturalistic. Again, the existential crisis of realising your memories are not your own (or are they?) is touched upon but not with any real depth.

The Doctor is forced to abandon his shoes (and in a script this predictable we know that’ll be important later), but manages to bring everyone- human and Ganger- together. It’s an ominous sign, though, that the Gangers have all the acid suits.

Arthur Darvill shows how great he is in portraying Rory’s embarrassment when Ganger Jennifer tells him that “Amy’s a lucky girl”. And as for Amy, she’s seeing that Eyepatch Lady again. She’s rather less convinced of the Gangers’ humanity than Rory, and I don’t think this is really to do with any jealousy for Jennifer. You can tell from glances between her and Rory that she knows her jealous instincts are just instincts. She’s actually being quite rational about the whole thing. Rory waited two thousand years for her- she has nothing to be jealous about and she knows it.

There’s an interesting scene in which the two Jimmys ponder the fact that they both have the same son but, again, the whole philosophical angle is quite plodding and superficial. And the Doctor’s northern accent has declined somewhat since the days when he was Christopher Eccleston.

If this already feels a bit like last year’s Silurian two-parter in that its quite good but predictable and never-really catches fire, we get a more blatant parallel in which Cleves becomes this story’s Ambrose. Once again it’s a woman who makes it all kick off. Hormones and wandering wombs? It’s like feminism never happened. Well, perhaps that’s a bit harsh; I’m sure it wasn’t actively meant like that. But it’s a little awkward.

Oh, and here’s a Ganger Doctor. Like everything else that happens it’s hardly a surprise, but it’s quite an appetiser for the next episode.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Blake's 7: Bounty

“Civilisation has always depended on courtesy rather than truth.”

I shouldn’t really make too much of the alien planet looking just like the South-East of England on a gloomy and wet Autumn day- I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of this sort of thing- but this really takes the biscuit. And to see a fully functioning car from the early twentieth century on what’s supposed to be another planet, many centuries in the future- I’m sorry; that’s just not remotely plausible.

Still, this is a perfectly fine episode, although a little by-the-numbers. By now there’s definitely an element of marking time until the season finale. That’s what happens when you get one writer to do the whole series, I suppose.

Blake and Cally are skulking about, trying to break into the comfortable prison where former President Sarkoff is being held, alongside a young woman called Tyce. Tyce is played by a lady who I thought was Connie Booth until I saw the credits, and Sarkoff is played, very well, by T.P. McKenna. He’s been in exile for seven years, and appears to be a rather tragic, noble but embittered figure. The thing is, the character is superficially interesting, and has some very good lines, but is a bit of a cliché, only saved by McKenna’s performance. The sheer stubborn self-indulgence of the man, given what we’re told about his past and what ultimately happens, doesn’t seem realistic. He seems to be motivated more by the requirements of the plot than anything else.

I almost groaned at the prospect of the Liberator having to go out of teleport range after a ship approaches them, no doubt to return and teleport our heroes back on board only in the nick of time. This has happened too many times recently.

There’s more interestingness surrounding Gan here though; he offers to teleport aboard the ship which seems to be in distress. If it turns out the ship is hostile, he will communicate back to the Liberator and ask Vila to destroy it, with himself aboard. The script emphasises that he really does mean it. It’s strongly implies that he has a death wish, or at least very low self-esteem.

Sarkoff’s first conversation with Blake is fascinating, as he reacts to what he supposes to be his imminent assassination with studied courtesy, indulging his ego by intending to die as the perfect gentleman. It seems he was president of Lindor, a world outside the Federation, for five years. Resisting calls for annexation by the Federation, he stood for re-election, lost, and promptly flounced off to the custody of the Federation, of which he disapproves. Er, why?

Blake insists that Lindor is on the brink of civil war, with the Federation poised to intervene under the guise of “peace-keeping”, annexing the planet by stealth. The election lost by Sarkoff was rigged. Sarkoff struggles to accept all this, choosing to believe what the Federation tells him. He seems awfully naïve and self-indulgent here- hardly the impressive figure we’re being asked to accept.

Blake doesn’t come up smelling of roses either. His vandalising of Sarkoff’s no doubt priceless antiques makes him look like a thug and a bully as well as a fanatic, but then this isn’t the first time he’s shown that he can be all of these things.

This episode gave me one big surprise, I must admit: I never expected to see a car being started with a handle in Blake’s 7. Of course, this sequence, rather less unpredictably, sees all four of Blake, Cally, Sarkoff and Tyce teleported up to the Liberator. We then get a few minutes of excitement, as the ship has been captured by some old smuggler mates of Jenna’s, wanting to claim the reward money from the Federation for turning the fugitives in. For some reason, it seems, the Federation isn’t particularly likely to arrest them, although they’re obviously criminals.

Sarkoff gets a somewhat chance to be decisive, shooting dead the leader of the smugglers, Tarvin, before he gets a chance to shoot Tyce. For some reason it’s only now that we learn she’s his daughter. And for some reason this suddenly turns him into the Sarkoff of old, before he started wallowing in self-pity.

For an episode which resolves around the character and motivations of Sarkoff, this doesn’t really work. McKenna plays him well enough, but unfortunately the character seems to behave as he does purely for the convenience of the plot. Not one of the best episodes.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Doctor Who: The Doctor's Wife

“Did you wish really hard?”

No more Don’t Scare the Hare! Oh no… what are we Doctor Who fans going to talk about now? Never mind: this is utterly superlative stuff. It’s a one-off, of course. It would become quite tiresome if Doctor Who was like this all the time. But this is right up there with the very best. Neil Gaiman may be oh-so-slightly overrated in my book, but “overrated is a relative concept. He’s no Alan Moore (we long-haired blokes from the East Midlands rule!), but he’s head and shoulders above most writers.

It all looks great, too, and the visual style is very… well, Sandman. Just the opening scene, with the junkyard planet (an obvious nod to 76 Totters Lane- Gaiman, like all right-thinking people, appreciates ‘60s Who). The characters of Uncle, Auntie, Nephew and Idris come across as very endless-like, too. It’s a very atmospheric, dark, funny and, well, Gaimanesque scene. Incidentally, I’ve just looked up the name “Idris” on the ever-faithful and in all ways reliable Wikipedia. Apparently Idris was a (male) prophet and philosopher sometimes identified with the Biblical Enoch. Not sure if there’s any actual allusion there…

Anyway, on a slightly less pretentious note, we get a quick scene in the TARDIS- and another arc-related “We saw him die,” from Amy to Rory- and there’s a knock on the door. In mid-flight. It turns out to be one of those box thingies, as used by the Doctor to summon the Time Lords in part nine of The War Games. How very fannish.

So, there is at least one Time Lord still alive, it seems: the Corsair. In just a few lines, Gaiman gives us a fantastic sketch of the character, who keeps the same tattoo in all of his (or her!) regenerations. The Corsair is apparently outside the universe, though; for the first time since Castrovalva the Doctor has to burn up some TARDIS rooms to “give it some welly”. After all these years of travelling between universes being nearly impossible, it happens in two stories in a row.

The TARDIS power drains away; it’s “soul” has gone. The TARDIS crew seem to be stuck on this little asteroid in this pocket universe with no stars in the sky. And then, Idris, with her new soul (and we’ve already guessed what this “soul” is) comes running to her “thief” and kisses him, among other things (“Oh, biting’s excellent! It’s like kissing, only there’s a winner”). Idris is great, and Suranne Jones does a perfect job of making her exactly the right kind of eccentric while still being sympathetic. I love the timey-wimeyness of her speech, which gives the sense that she doesn’t quite exist in the same three dimensions of space and one dimension of time that we do.

The Doctor, Amy and Rory are taken to meet the “House”, an extremely large sea anemone creature surrounded by a massive, world-size shell. Right from the start we get the impression that House isn’t very nice. He “mends people” when they “break”, and lots of TARDISes have landed on him in the past. Already this is wonderfully fantastical and, well, Gaimanesque, always a much better fit for Doctor Who than hard sci-fi.

It seems there are lots of Time Lords here, and there’s an interesting conversation between Amy and the Doctor; he’ll have to tell the Time Lords what he did in the Time War. But that’s just it; he wants to be forgiven.

Incidentally, the Doctor seems to have told Amy an awful lot of intensely personal things about himself off-screen. He isn’t usually so open with his travelling companions. But some things about Doctor / companion relationships are timeless, and one of these is the classic “Doctor sends companions back to TARDIS when things get a bit scary” trope.

The little boxes make the Doctor angry: Time Lord have been lured here, exploited, and eventually killed, many, many times over. His confrontation with Auntie and Uncle reveals a lot; they’re patchwork people, like Frankenstein’s monster, made up of bits of other people, Auntie has the Corsair’s arm.

The Doctor finds Idris, and they start the wonderful conversation that lasts for most of the rest of the episode. The dialogue sings, and the relationship between them is so heartwarming. They’re like an old married couple, but they obviously love each other. There are so many great things here. When the Doctor first touched the TARDIS console, he said that it was “the most beautiful thing I’d ever known”. Wonderfully, he didn’t just steal her; she stole him because she wanted to see the universe and he was “the only one mad enough”!

It seems that House feeds on TARDISes, deleting the matrixes first to make them edible. As just destroying the matrixes would cause lots of unpleasantness, he simply dumps them into a convenient receptacle (or body) and feeds off the residual Artron energy once they die, usually quite quickly. This is really quite nasty when you think about it.

The nastiness continues to rack up during the middle of the episode. The moment Rory says to Amy that “We’re in the TARDIS, so we’re safe”, it turns out that they so aren’t. While they’re aboard the soulless Ship, House had an absolute godlike ability to do any sadistic thing to them that he wants to. As many people have said, House can be seen as an analogy of the power of the writer.

Just as nasty, if blackly and Gaiman-esquely humorous, is the scene in which Auntie and Uncle “pop off”. Oh, and Idris has eighteen minutes to live. But one thing that Neil Gaiman is very, very good at is mixing nastiness, humour and beautifully poignant feelings, all with a real lightness of touch (“I think you call me…sexy.” / “Only when we’re alone…”- it’s funny but it says a lot).

There’s a lot of fanwank at this point, all in the best possible way. For the first time in decades we get to see the corridors of the TARDIS. And they have old-fashioned roundels. Yay! And it seems the Doctor has been travelling in the TARDIS for “seven hundred years”, meaning that he spent his first two hundred years on Gallifrey, unless it’s more complicated than that. I’ve recently read the latest version of Timelink and it has some very interesting, and quite complicated, theories about that sort of thing. Most of it flew right over my head, but it’s a fascinating read.

The relationship between the Doctor and Idris / the TARDIS is great here- they argue like happily married couples do, in a way which is actually quite sweet and affectionate (“No, but I always took you where you needed to go.”). It’s actually quite romantic.

The scenes between our other married couple are not nearly as nice. House plays cruel games on Amy, exploiting her guilt over Rory waiting two thousand years for her. Back in The Impossible Astronaut, Moffat dealt with the psychological impact of this on Rory- his memories of all that time are quarantined away behind a door in his brain, hence his not being completely insane- but what must it be like for Amy to have the overwhelming knowledge that her husband did all that for her?

The Doctor and Idris set to building a functional TARDIS out of all the old dead ones (with old-fashioned roundels, again!), Idris communicates with “the pretty one”, and the plot chugs along. We get to see the old control room again- well, the oldest one that can reasonably survived in an HD-friendly condition- as they’re all archived. I love the fact that the TARDIS has archived “desktop themes” from the Doctor’s personal future!

The Doctor and Idris manage to outwit House rather cleverly, and the Doctor and Idris have a completely wonderful final conversation. The Doctor cries, and the Doctor never cries. It’s the end of a wonderful love story. And we end, of course, with the Doctor asking the TARDIS to take them “wherever we need to go.”

Idris has some final words for Rory:”The only water in the forest is the river”. What could that possibly mean, he asked, pretending he hasn’t yet seen A Good Man Goes to War?

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Doctor Who: The Curse of the Black Spot

“What kind of rubbish pirates are you?”

Phew. A more normal, less arc-heavy episode. That means less typing for me.

I was only aware of Steve Thompson for his slightly disappointing middle episode of Sherlock with the possibly dodgy ethnic stereotypes. I thought this script was ok, but pretty ho-hum on the whole. Still, the whole thing certainly looks great and this is a good point in the season for a bit of untaxing fun.

So… pirates. Night-time. The TARDIS crew accused of being stowaway. It all feels a bit Enlightenment, innit? And Matt Smith’s more than a bit Troughton in his facial acting just before the titles.

So, we have a pirate ship. We have lots of fog. We have Hugh Bonneville, of whom I’d better say nothing. We have Lily Cole as a siren who takes people who suffer the slightest injury, with the black spot foretelling their certain fate. And you have to love the fact that we waste no time at all in getting the Doctor to walk the plank while Amy gets a rather cool cutlass fight. Never mind that the Doctor is in imminent danger of dying (with her husband almost certainly next; of course she’s going to stop and put those piratey clothes on. It’s set piece vs. plot logic, and that’s a fight that’s always going to end one way.

We start getting some actual plot once Rory gets scratches and sees the black spot appear; suddenly, someone we actually care about is in danger. Any Amy seems decidedly miffed at his obvious temptation by this other woman, but of course, unlike Random Pirate Bloke, he isn’t disintegrated. After all, this is Rory. It’s not as if he dies all the time or anything.

From this point on, random redshirt pirates are gradually whittled down by the siren, with only the Doctor and his mates, Captain Avery, and Avery’s stowaway son Toby, are immune. We see more evidence of this Doctor’s “Ignore all my previous theories” thing in this episode than any other during the first two-thirds of this episode. There’s some good stuff, though. I love this Doctor’s thing for hats, another thing about him that reminds me of early “I would like a hat like that” Troughton (“Worried because I’m wearing a hat now?”). It’s all very dangerous, and in a relatively arc-lite episode we get a distinctly arc-related reaction from Amy to the Doctor’s “We’ve all got to go sometime.”

RTD once said in an interview, in DWM I think, that scenes in which people are introduced to the TARDIS are great, and enormous fun. The Doctor allowing notorious pirate Henry Avery into his Ship may be a bit Peter Davison Years, but it certainly proves the truth of this. His blasé reaction is well hilarious (Wheel. Telescope. Astrolabe. Compass. A ship’s a ship”).

Meanwhile, in the magazine, Avery Junior is threatening some mutineers with a cutlass. To this user of subtitles, this scene proves two things: the redshirts are definitely all doomed; and Red Bee Media Ltd don’t know how to spell “blackguard”. Tut tut.

It seems that the ships of both Avery and the Doctor are becalmed. If we conveniently ignore the stated fact that Avery has murdered thousands of innocent people, I think we’re supposed to see some sort of parallel between them.

The arc interposes yet again as the Eyepatch Lady from last episode appears to Amy and informs her that “It’s fine. You’re doing fine. Just stay calm.” At this point I shall do as I did in my review for last episode and pretend that I haven’t seen A Good Man Goes to War yet. It’s less complicated that way.

After some comic relief with Avery barking orders to Amy and Rory which sound as though they’ve come straight out of one of Patrick O’Brian’s splendid Aubrey / Maturin novels (“What we really need is some sort of phrase book”), Rory goes overboard. He’s going to drown.

Suddenly the Doctor seems to make a not-quite-convincing intuitive leap, and firstly releases the siren to get Rory, and then insists that Amy, Avery and himself succumb too. I can see why Amy would do this (as per Amy’s Choice) and Avery (his son has been taken), but the Doctor seems to be taking a crazy risk.

It turns out that the siren is just some sort of computer avatar space doctor thing from a “ghost ship”, piloted by now-dead aliens, in a parallel universe (which seems quite accessible; not exactly consistent with what we were told in the RTD years) and that no one has actually died (very, very consistent with Moffat’s scripts in the RTD era). We end with Rory nearly dying (again!) and Avery and his crew being trapped aboard the ship, fated to travel the stars…

We end with a reminder that “Schrödinger” is still a good name for a baby…

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Doctor Who: Day of the Moon

“We are not fighting an alien invasion. We’re leading a revolution.”

I’ve just looked at my notes and we’re looking at three and a half pages. This is going to be epic.

Steven Moffat does what RTD did in Last of the Time Lords, having a considerable amount of time (three months in this case) pass. It’s now July 1969, the month of the moon landing, and all three of our regulars are hunted fugitives whose time is running out. A bearded Doctor, meanwhile, languishes in Area 51 as a gloating Canton supervises the constriction of a dome of Dwarf Star Alloy (nice bit of continuity porn there), the perfect prison.

Things look pretty grim, although they also look pretty amazing. Certainly the Valley of the Gods in Utah, where Amy meets the end of the road, looks utterly sublime. Not that you’d notice as you waited to be shot, eyeing the empty body bag on the floor. Rory gets a very similar scene, this time among the spectacular scenery of the Glen Canyon Dam. River’s exit gives us a sliver of hop, though. Just before Canton is about to shoot her, she jumps from the top of a very tall building. We all know what happened when River leaps backwards from the tops of very tall buildings.

All three of them have covered their arms with tallies of the Silence they’ve sighted, a cleverly self-explanatory indication of what they’ve been up to. But the Doctor and Canton have been even cleverer. As soon as the Dwarf Star Alloy igloo is complete and the door closes, the tables turn and they spring into action. Canton was in on the plan all along, and the invisible TARDIS is right behind the Doctor. As soon as Amy and Rory get out of their body bags, and River is rescued in the usual way, we start to get some answers.

There’s some significant stuff here, too. So significant, we even get flashbacks from the mentions of the Silence last series. But we have it confirmed that you forget the Silence as soon as you hear them, they have the power of auto-hypnotic suggestion, and that, after you’ve seen them, you “sometimes feel a bit sick” but “not always”. This isn’t explained in this episode, so it’ll probably be important later. Oh, and it now seems that Amy is not pregnant.

The Doctor’s explanation of the nano-recorder, using an image of the Silent from Amy’s camera phone to trick Canton and underline his point, is very creepy indeed. Possibly even creepier is the orphanage where the little girl seems to have lives. The surroundings are creepy for a start, and then there’s all the writing on the walls. The only person present, Dr. Renfrew, is in a state of constant confusion from the constant memory wipes, still thinking 1967 is in the future and only being half-aware that he’s been in charge of just one child for years.

There’s a bit of light relief as we cut to the Doctor, having just made adjustments to Apollo 11, although there is of course a bit left over. But the creepiness intensifies in the orphanage as Amy and Canton split up. The scenes with Amy, alone, gradually realising through the increasing tally marks and her own voice message that the ceiling is crawling with Silence, is the scariest thing ever. Renfrew explains to Canton that “the child” must be cared for, because that’s what “they” said. Amy, meanwhile, sees a hatch in reality popping open. A woman with an eyepatch then pokes her head through and announces “No, I think she’s just dreaming.” How very weird. This happens shortly after Amy splits from Canton: there’s been scope for stuff to happen between then and now, let us note. We’re soon back to the usual weirdness, though. Amy enters a child’s room- presumably the little girl’s room, as it looks as though it’s in current use. There are photos of the little girl- and of Amy, holding a baby. This immediately hints at who this little girl may be.

Speaking of whom, here she is. She’s still in her spacesuit; Amy missed. Parallel to this, Canton finds a Silent. Being the capable type, he records it, and is told that “This world is ours. We have ruled it since the wheel and the fire.” Judging by the fact he immediately shoots it, we can probably assume he’s displeased to hear this. The Silence seem to be perfectly susceptible to bullets.

Taping (broadly one of Moffat’s personal tropes anyway) is central to this episode- the Doctor even urges Nixon to tape everything that happens in the Oval Office. That’ll turn out well.

The Doctor and Rory arrive to find Amy gone, but still able to communicate with them, Miss Evangelista-like, via a chip. Why has this chip been left behind to be found? Again, something which could be significant.

The Doctor’s chat with the Silent shot by Canton gives us another “Silence will fall”. What does this mean? Is it predicting the defeat of the Silence at the end of the episode, or something deeper? It’s something deeper, innit?

The little girl has disappeared, but River is able to find out a lot about the spacesuit. It can sustain its occupant through sunlight alone- no need for food, or presumably oxygen. It can hack, and communicate, and defaults to the highest authority, hence the calls to the President. The little girl seems to be human, but incredibly strong. As for where it came from, the Silence don’t make anything themselves. They’re parasites. And the Doctor insists that the only reason the Moon landing is happening now is because the Silence needed a spacesuit. What’s so important about this little girl and what do the Silence propose to do with her?

I like what’s not being said here: the Silence are getting humanity to do things by hypnotic suggestion, but all the ingenuity and brilliance is 100% human. This isn’t one of those annoying Death to the Daleks / Erich von Daniken theories which propose humans couldn’t possible be responsible for our own achievements.

That humans are in fact a bit clever is demonstrated by Canton, happily recording the Silent with Amy’s camera phone as it gloats that “We have ruled your lives since your lives began. You should kill us all on sight.” That’ll come in handy later. River, meanwhile, has worked out that the suit could possibly move on its own, and recalls that the little girl said that the “spaceman” was “coming to eat” her.

There’s an interesting scene where Rory listens to Amy’s voice from far away- is it him or the Doctor she loves? This is unresolved as he and the Doctor have one of those chats which avoid the issue but somehow don’t. Rory remembers his two thousand years of waiting, but “not all the time”- there’s a door in his head that he can open to reach the memories. This is probably necessary to give him a realistic psychology. It’s also very fairytale.

Amy awakens, as it’s implies she has done many times over several days, in a room, surrounded by Silence. She’s told, interestingly, that “We do you honour. You will bring the Silence. But your part will soon be over.” How will she “bring the Silence?” Is this connected to her pregnancy? Is she pregnant with the little girl? Is the Silence plan something much deeper than we expect?

The Doctor arrives, and notices the continuity to The Lodger.” Very Aickman Road. Seen one of these before. Abandoned. Wonder how that happened.” I bet this is significant, too. I notice, too, that he tells River and Rory to “keep one Silent in shot at all times”, confirming that the singular form is indeed “Silent”, plural “Silence”. Sorry. I’m a bit of a grammar freak. I have to know these things.

The Doctor seems ok with River shooting people, although he again insists on not doing it himself. He’s unlike his previous incarnation, too. This Doctor ostentatiously doesn’t offer his foe a chance to surrender before carrying out his plan. He also flirts outrageously with River. His plan is very clever, though: apparently the footage of Neil Armstrong stepping on to the moon, which we’ve all seen and which countless generations will also see, carries a post-hypnotic suggestion to “kill us all on sight.” Very clever, and very ruthless. River is pretty badass, too, shooting Silence left, right and centre just like, well, the Doctor in Frontier in Space.

It’s a satisfying ending, and there are some nice codas, too. There’s a heartwarming reunion between Mr and Mrs Pond, with any though of a love triangle involving the Doctor now firmly banished. The Doctor feeds Nixon’s paranoia. Canton wants to get married. And River, returning to prison (“I escape often enough, thank you. Besides, I have a promise to live up to. You’ll understand, soon enough.” Bet that’s significant.) kisses the Doctor. For him, it’s their first. And then she realises that for her, it’s their last.

The penultimate scene has the Doctor speculating on the identity of the little girl but then changing tack: “Or we could just go off and have adventures.” This seems deliberate. Has the Doctor realised or guessed something which he wants to delay facing up to? It wouldn’t be the first time. Oh, Amy should perhaps name her baby “Schrödinger”.

Six months later… that’s quite a scene. And that was quite a story. Doctor Who doesn’t get much better than this.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Blake's 7: Breakdown

“I’m finished. Staying with you requires a degree of stupidity of which I no longer feel capable.”

These obviously painted starscapes that we keep seeing at the beginnings of most episodes are starting to feel normal by now, but they really date the programme for me. I’m also starting to realise just how brown Blake’s 7 looks.

Gan’s the centre of attention this episode, even though David Jackson spends most of it just lying down and doing nothing. It’s also another interesting opportunity to look at the theories put forth in Liberation, that Gan was a sex offender. Certainly, his sudden violence against Jenna at the start would be consistent with this, but he’s just as violent towards everyone else.

Clearly something’s wrong with his limiter, and the scenes in the sickbay are so tense that for some reason they’re on film. Everyone knows that Gan is in serious trouble, something has gone badly wrong with his limiter, and that he urgently needs a neurosurgeon. Blake states at this point that “The limiter is supposed to cut in when stress drives him to the point where he might kill”, which doesn’t sound too consistent with the sex offender theory.

It seems the nearest neurosurgeon is to be found at a space laboratory called XK-72, which had been noted by Avon as a possible bolthole if life aboard the Liberator was to become too dangerous. (Like it isn’t as dangerous as it could possibly be anyway…). Apparently this laboratory specialises in weaponry and that old Terry Nation favourite, “space medicine.” There’s just one problem; Zen insists that the quickest route crosses a “prohibited space zone”. He won’t say what the danger is, but he refuses to fly through it and flies off into a sulk until the end of the episode. It becomes clear that something out there is affecting the Liberator…

In the sickbay there’s an interesting scene in which Gan calmly persuades Cally to release hi, and promptly goes on a rampage. This manipulative behaviour is most interesting; Kayn later refers to Gan as a “psychopath”. He hasn’t been seen behaving like this before- it this part of his personality, like the violence, normally inhibited by his limiter?

The ship is heading into a “gravitational vortex”, which would presumably be a black hole. Can it really be plausible that this wouldn’t be known about? It seems to lie in-between fairly important and well-used areas of space, after all. At least someone would have noticed all the ships which mysteriously disappeared.

Blake eventually decides the best thing to do it to head, at full speed, right for the centre. Er, ok. I’m sure this is scientifically rigorous. Anyway, for some reason they manage to survive. I think perhaps we should not think too hard about this. After all, Terry Nation clearly didn’t.

More interesting is what looks like a complete breakdown in relations between Blake and Avon (one of the reasons for the title?) as Avon, dismayed by Blake’s increasing recklessness, says that he can no longer stay. There’s a real frostiness between the two of them for the rest of the episode.

The Liberator finally reaches XK-72, which appears to have a population of just three. We have the officious but decent Farren, the brilliant but obnoxious Professor Kayn, played rather brilliantly by Julian Glover, and Kayn’s underling. Kayn agrees to perform the operation, mainly to annoy Farren, but seems to have a worryingly high regard for the Federation. It’s not long before he realises who Blake and co actually are, and promptly tips off the nearest Federation base.

Avon, meanwhile, looks as though he’s going to stay behind on XK-72; he spills the beans to Farren, and offers him the secret of teleportation in return for being allowed to stay. It looks as though it’s going to happen…

Kayn really is a bit of a git. He deliberately delays the start of his operation on Gan so the Federation have time to get there. News of this reaches XK-72, but it looks as though Avon is still going to stay; he’s been guaranteed that the Federation won’t be told. He just needs to return and collect a few things…

The crew of the Liberator end up forcing Kayn to perform his operation at gunpoint, with Blake threatening to destroy his hands if he refuses to co-operate. We finish with the now-traditional altercation with Federation pursuit ships. XK-72 ends up destroyed by a bolt from one of the pursuit ships, yet more collateral damage from Blake’s actions. Avon won’t be going anywhere. But surely something has now changed between him and Blake? It’ll be interesting to see whether this is followed up.

I had to raise an eyebrow at the line where Blake takes over the navigational duties with the words “I’ll handle this, Jenna- you can help Gan.” The Liberator is not exactly a feminist paradise, then. We finish with a Hanna Barbera cartoon-style forced laugh, with Gan safely back to his usual lobotomised self.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Doctor Who: The Impossible Astronaut

“I’m going to need a SWAT team ready to mobilise; street level maps covering all of Florida; a pot of coffee; twelve jammie dodgers and a fez.”

Right. Well, I was going to do both this and Day of the Moon in a single post, but my notes for this episode alone stretch to more than three pages, so there’s no way I’m doing that. This is going to be long.

I watched this from a recording I made at the time, so I’ve just been briefly reminded of Don’t Scare the Hare and its cutting-edge animatronics and gripping quiz show suspense, surely the very high point of Sue Perkins’ career. My, wasn’t the world a rather odd place a few weeks ago? Anyway, we get quite a bang of an opening, don’t we? Cavaliers, The Great Escape, silent comedy- it all looks rather swish. And those days of people imagining the Doctor might possibly be asexual are a long way behind us. Time has passed and things have happened, though: Amy and Rory have set up house together, and surely that must have taken a few months; their house seems quite fully furnished. It’s made clear that this isn’t permanent, though; they’re confidently expecting the Doctor to explode back into their lives at any moment. And sure enough, in a scene resonant with Back to the Future II and, indeed, Moffat’s own Blink, someone at the door has an invitation, with a time and a place…

Elsewhere and elsewhen, in the Stormcage, River Song has received the same message. In a rather amusing comment on how often she seems to escape these days, there’s an awful lot of hoo-hah over the mere fact that she’s packing.

We get our first shot of the location scenes shot in America next, and it’s truly magnificent, as are a lot of shots to come. Amy and Rory get off a big American yellow bus into the red Utah desert with all those fantastic sticky-uppy things. And there they meet the Doctor (“I wear a Stetson now. Stetsons are cool.), and then River. It seems that was a pistol she was packing. And her opinions of the Doctor and headgear are as firmly expressed as ever.

The Doctor’s being a bit cryptic, though. He was 908 when Amy and Rory last met him; now he’s 1,103. Not only that, but he seems to remember a lot of the events from River’s diary. And he says ominous sounding things, like “I’ve been running faster than I’ve ever run. I’ve been running my whole life. Now it’s time for me to stop.”

The scene switches from a diner (how American!) to a picnic by a lake, surrounded by some breathtaking landscape. The Doctor, sadly, still needs educating about wine. But Amy sees a watching figure: a Silence. (An aside: my hearing is a bit dodgy and I watch pretty much all telly with subtitles when I can. The subtitles always have the Silence as “the Silence”, not “The Silents”: singular “Silence”, plural “Silence”. Are subtitles canon?). And then an older bloke in a car pulls up nearby and waits.

A figure in a late 1960s NASA spacesuit emerges from the waters like a Sea Devil, and the Doctor sees that the time has come. “Stay back,” he warns Amy, Rory and River. “Whatever happens now, you do not interfere.” So the astronaut shoots him point-blank. Twice. He starts to regenerate. The astronaut shoots him again. Dead. At this point the bloke in the distance (Canton Everett Delaware III, who has also received an invitation) helpfully assures us that the Doctor is “most certainly dead.” And Amy, in voicing aloud the clone / duplicate hypothesis, seems to have ensured it can’t happen. Oh dear. It’s all looking rather unambiguous.

Except that, back in the diner, they find a fourth envelope. And the Doctor. It’s his earlier self- he’s only 909- but River slaps him anyway. We now have a situation where Amy, River, and Rory can’t tell the Doctor what just happened in case bad timey-wimey stuff happens. This is a problem, as the Doctor is bound to notice that they’re hiding something big. He does. And he’s not pleased. In fact he’s only convinced by Amy swearing on fish fingers and custard, as you do. And yet… surely the Doctor would have correctly guessed what this would mean? He’s not the type to be satisfied with not knowing, and surely he already knows enough for the possibility to have occurred to him?

In 1969, a young Canton has been called in by President Nixon. Tricky Dicky is being telephoned, every day, by a child who’s afraid of the “spaceman”. The child seems to be called Jefferson Hamilton Adams. Oh, and the Doctor is taking notes, right there in the Oval Office, which gets quite a reaction. But the Doctor, soon joined by the Legs, the Nose and Mrs Robinson, is soon able to get everyone on his side by Being Very Clever. Midnight this ain’t.

That doesn’t mean they’re safe though: Amy sees a Silence again, and remembers the earlier time. Does this imply that the earlier time was the first time she’d seen one? She doesn’t wait long until the next time either; there’s a Silence in the ladies’ loo. A male one, too. What a perv. It’s quite horribly effective how the other woman in the room sees it, forgets, sees it, forgets, and is then dismissively and shockingly killed by a lightning effect similar to that we saw at the end of The Lodger. Amy keeps her wits about her; she takes a pic on her phone, and the Silence doesn’t seem to know what it is any more than would anyone from 1969. There’s an interesting exchange, too. Amy must tell the Doctor “What he must know. And what he must never know.” Interesting. I wonder if we’ve all been understanding this correctly at all? The vague wording suggests some prior conditioning. And it seems that Amy is being told to actively tell the Doctor both what he must know and what he must not, instead of just telling him one thing but not another. Am I reading too much into this?

The Doctor traces where in Florida the calls are coming from (somewhere close to Cape Kennedy), and drops heavy hints at Canton that he should come along for the ride. He knows, of course, that it’s an obvious trap, but it’s intriguing; why is so much ultra-modern, yet indisputably NASA, technology found around here? There’s a manhole cover, too, which River decides to investigate. She’s “quite the screamer”, apparently. Ooh er.

River sees loads and loads of Silence just underneath, and then returns to pronounce the all clear. Interestingly, though, she goes back underground, this time with Rory, and feels momentarily sick. Is this significant?

These tunnels are “really, really old”, and have been here for “centuries” and run underneath the entire planet. Yet no one has ever noticed them, implying one of Moffat’s perception filters. Yet, if that is the case, how come the Doctor & Co noticed this one?

River’s conversation with Rory here is most interesting and tragic. When she first met the Doctor, this mysterious and unflappable stranger, he knew everything about her, and she found him irresistible. But every time she meets him, he knows her less and less: the Doctor’s confrontation with her earlier, in which he made it clear he didn’t trust her, must have really hurt. She knows that one day the Doctor won’t recognise her at all, and “I think it’s going to kill me.” Certainly ironic in the light of Silence in the Library. Speaking of which, about that title… you don’t think? Naaah…

They emerge into a control room exactly the same as the one in The Lodger. They’re surrounded by Silence, all identically dressed. Why are the Silence wearing suits, by the way? Do they dress like humans, or is it the other way around?

Amy and Canton have an interesting little chat too, and Amy says that she hasn’t seen the Doctor for “a while”- I’m asking this a lot, but is this significant? She then chooses one precise moment, just after they all hear the little girl’s voice, to tell the Doctor that she’s apparent. The exact timing of this bombshell certainly is significant: Amy even says that “It has to be now.”

Inside the spacesuit is a little girl. And Amy shoots her. The credits roll. And... one of the actors was playing “The Silent”. You should probably ignore what I said earlier about the Silence / Silents thing. Subtitles might not be canon after all…

That was well good.