Sunday, 31 July 2011

Torchwood: Miracle Day (Part Three)

“You’re a member of Torchwood now, whether you like it or not.”

This is the first time since I started this blog that I’ll be reviewing an episode written by Jane Espenson (here’s a hint as to where things are headed after I finish reviewing Blake’s 7; there’ll be many, many more episodes by her!). As you’d expect, the characterisation and the dialogue just sparkle. This is where we get past the set-up and into the actual story, and it’s looking exciting. Of course, I have no idea where any of this is going. But that’s all part of the fun.

We start with a scene which looks towards how things are going to develop- Oswald Danes, again being interviewed on television, modestly declines the title of “expert” but nonetheless goes on to opine on the necessity of “free drugs” for all. We then look back to the last episode as Rex confronts Newman- er, Friedkin, threatening him rather sadistically. We learn that Newman has been paid for “decades” by some mysterious agency, but the only thing he knows about them is a phone number which turns out to be untraceable. All of this is a rather smooth operation by the “new” Torchwood team.

Gwen comes across the massed ranks of the “Soulless”, with their rather fetching masks, in central Washington, and quietly shows her competence in arranging for the practical needs of their little underground group. I love the throwaway comment about Jack’s bank account having loads of money because it’s been gathering interest since 1906! There’s some witty and amusing stuff about transatlantic translation difficulty. I love Gwen’s line about the flat lemonade!

A bit of skirmishing between Jack and Rex about which one of them is the alpha male (to be continued) is interrupted by a mini-crisis of confidence on the part of Esther; she’s used to being behind a desk, and has no experience of dealing with anything like this. But we’ve already seen (especially at the end of last episode) how resourceful she is. It’s nice to see the character getting properly fleshed out.

The team finally follow the clues to a massive warehouse, which turns out to be “bigger on the inside!” The warehouse belongs to Phicorp, which is apparently a massive multinational pharmaceutical company. And the place is full of a newly developed painkiller, one which has no narcotic side effects. It’s here in such large numbers that Phicorp must have been expecting the “Miracle” for at least a year. The plot most definitely thickens. I’m loving this.

Meanwhile, Dr Juarez and Jilly Kitzinger, during one of those serendipitous outside conversations that makes me sort of miss my smoking days, more or less accepts an invitation to a “meeting”, about which much more later. Rex, meanwhile, gets a valuable lesson in how absolutely none of his CIA contacts can be trusted any more. We then get another confrontation between him and Jack over who has the biggest cock, after which Rex buggers off. He might be the alpha male type, but he’s still had a very stressful few days and could probably do with a bit of time to process things. Also, a bit of sex would probably help. Conveniently, that’s very much on the cards as he visits Dr Juarez. Rex is not exactly a paragon of chivalry here, but the two of them end up in bed together and Rex plants in her mind the idea of acting as Torchwood’s “spy” at the Phicorp meeting. She immediately refuses and throws him out but, as we’ll see, her own tenacious nature makes the offer impossible to resist.

Jack, stopping off at a gay club, gets some action of his own in scenes which the BBC has rather obviously and clumsily edited. He insists on using a condom with particular vehemence, an interesting reminder of his new-found mortality. His semi-drunken post-coital phone call shows up the character’s extreme loneliness, though. He has no real connection with the bloke he’s just copped off with, and needs to speak to Gwen for some real emotional reassurance. But Gwen, as soon as Esther manages to connect her to her husband and daughter, just abandons the phone call halfway through.

Oswald Danes, after a bit of police brutality which shows us how unpleasant it must be to be him, conveniently meets up with the very interesting and rather attractive (I like bad girls!) Jilly Kitzinger for a trip to Dallas. They’re not the only people going to that meeting, though; Gwen still has those famed Torchwood contact lenses, and Dr Juarez has decided to help Rex after all. Gwen immediately spots Danes and Kitzinger, and it’s obvious that this is no “meeting”. A presentation soon starts, and a congressman starts pushing the idea of legislation to abolish the need for prescriptions for drugs. It’s immediately obvious who stands to benefit from this.

Gwen has a narrow escape from Kitzinger’s room, but amongst the others watching there are other problems. For one thing, Jack has disappeared. For another, Friedkin’s phone rings, and the ensuing scene is played in near-total silence, with no incidental music, and we hear nothing but Rex’s side of the conversation.

Jack, it turns out, has gone to confront Danes, at gunpoint. Jack, of course, knows what it is to murder a child and to crave forgiveness, and immediately sees the falseness of Danes’’ supposed repentance. Bill Pullman is again magnificent here, taking pleasure in goading Jack with the pleasure he takes in his crime. “She flaunted it,” he claims, and insists it was the best moment of his life. But it also seems he has a death wish; he longs for execution.

This is a trap, though; Phicorp agents seize Jack, destroy his recording of the conversation, and give him a good kicking before throwing him out. Danes appears on television again, ending the episode as it began. He comes out rather strongly in favour of private heath companies, i.e. Phicorp, and spouts some rather scarily right-wing stuff about private companies rather than “Government” (a big, abstract, capitalised proper noun with no definite article, of course). What’s in it for him…?

That was bloody good- witty, entertaining, and the story is unfolding nicely with just the right number of mysteries developing.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Blake's 7: Harvest of Kairos

“But first there is the question of that degrading and primitive act to which I was subjected in the control room.

I should like you to do it again.”

Another new writer, then: Ben Steed. IMDb tells me very little about him, but he’s come up with one of the finest scripts I’ve ever seen on Blake’s 7. We begin in media res as the Liberator faces attack from four Federation pursuit ships while Avon and Vila are on the planet below. In previous episodes this sort of scenario has formed a central part of the plot; here, it’s a mere curtain-opener.

Servalan (still on that space wheel thing even though she’s now president), while supervising the attack, is told by this week’s underling, Dastor, that a construction worker called Jarvik has mocked her constant failure to capture the Liberator. Interestingly, this is conveyed by the phrase “They say you’re afraid of Tarrant”. This is interesting; as per last episode, it’s interesting to speculate on whether or not Avon is still in effective control of “his” ship. I shouldn’t jump to conclusions, of course; one again, Tarrant doesn’t order Avon about as he does the others, and Avon does at one point explicitly comment on Tarrant’s famed skills as a space commander. It’s possible that Avon is simply delegating combat to the most skilled member of his crew, but it doesn’t feel that way, especially as Avon spends the entire episode being somewhat detached, obsessing over some rock he’s found.

We meet the construction worker, Jarvik, as Servalan demands an explanation. All she gets is a “Woman, you’re beautiful,” and an unexpected and unsought kiss! This, and the quote at the top there, are… interesting. Is the script, as opposed to the character, being misogynistic here? This isn’t just kinkiness, which would be fine; it’s non-consensual. And Servalan’s reaction might be thought to send out worrying messages that all women “want” it. I suppose the power relations between the two of them, with Servalan being an absolute dictator who is implicitly always in control, are a satisfactory mitigating factor as far as the character of Servalan is concerned; I can believe her reaction. But the subtext is still worrying.

Anyway… Jarvik gets to look clever by making snide comments as Servalan’s attack inevitably fails. And he correctly predicts that Tarrant will take the Liberator to Kairos, for its harvest. (At this point, deciding where to take the Liberator, Tarrant seems to be blatantly acting as leader. Yes, he takes a vote, and yes, Avon declines to comment when asked, but he’s taking charge.) The planet is hostile to human life for some reason, except during “harvest week”, where the fantastically valuable Kairodan crystal can be found; under Avon and/or Tarrant, the crew of the Liberator seem to be, up to a point at least, thieves interested in personal wealth. With Blake and the Federation gone, so has any clear political aim.

Our two newbies are developing in opposite ways here; Tarrant is competent, warm, and less annoying, while Dayna is showing fewer and fewer personality traits.

It seems Jarvik once knew Tarrant, and was in fact once his superior officer before being downgraded to construction worker for crimes which are, interestingly, unspecified. He’s very much the no-nonsense alpha male type, intelligent but appreciative of the textures and pleasures of life, and very much against computers; this seems to be a running theme this series. Servalan is intrigued by him, both cerebrally and sexually, temporarily promotes him to acting major, and gives him three modern pursuit ships to see if she can capture the Liberator.

Servalan gets to show how deliciously evil she is by ordering the harvest ship on Kairos to abandon the labourers to certain death so she can fit more Kairodan on to the ship. There’s a great scene as a guard gloats at their inevitable deaths, until he realises he’s being abandoned too!

Servalan observes and commentates, despairingly, as Jarvik carries out his cunning plans. That it is, until Jarvik tells her to “Lie there and keep quiet until I tell you otherwise!” Tarrant and co teleport to the cargo hold where the Kairodan is being held, where they are ambushed. In a brilliant scene, Avon then rouses himself briefly from his study of the rock to casually rescue them all, stating, devastatingly, that “They were an obvious possibility, Tarrant!” But, of course, this is a ruse; the real trap is in the crates, a sort of Trojan Kairodan. Servalan is on the point of arresting Jarvik for failure when the capture of the Liberator is reported.

Servalan demands that the ship register her voice pattern on pain of killing the crew one by one. Tarrant naturally refuses, but Avon is very clever indeed. Forcing Servalan to order Zen to drop them off on the nearest planet, he seems to have outsmarted her, until it turns out that the nearest planet is Kairos, and the harvest is over.

Jarvik rejects command of the Liberator and, although television convention dictates that we next see them fully clothed in bed, quite obviously proceeds to have some rather good sex with Servalan. For motives which are by now almost entirely sexual, though, Servalan persuades him to teleport to Kairos and grab all of the former crew’s teleport bracelets, “If you’re to me man enough for me.” Jarvik agrees, and insists on going alone, cos he’s well ‘ard.

On the surface we see an archaic landing module- lucky, that, as it turns out- and the secret of the planet: some extremely large grubs have hatched. Passing over the awkward fact that they look rather less convincing than the pantomime horse off Rentaghost, we learn that they eat Kairodan, and will kill anyone who’s touched it. There is fighting and macho posturing aplenty as Jarvik arrives, and he returns from his mission with all of the bracelets plus Dayna as an added bonus. Servalan orders the local area of the surface to be bombarded, and our heroes are in very big trouble.

Appropriately, it’s Avon who saves the day, with the rock. Its means of self-preservation is to convince any attacker that it’s a slightly bigger and better version of itself. Zen is convinced that this tiny little capsule is, in fact, a massive and far superior ship, in spite of the scanner image showing that it blatantly isn’t. Jarvik isn’t fooled, but Servalan is, and she calls off the attack. Jarvik’s accidental death by friendly fire is a little contrived, but this doesn’t really detract from an outstanding episode.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Blake's 7: Dawn of the Gods

“Perhaps he had an unfortunate experience with a computer.”

“Haven’t we all?”

This one is written by James Follett. Wikipedia tells me he’s a very successful novelist but he’s done very little TV. His script here is an intriguing sci-fi concept, and starts to develop the interactions of the new crew in interesting ways.

We start with a sitcom-like scene as everyone plays Space Monopoly and Orac is extremely competitive. Fortunately, things soon improve as a mysterious force starts to act on the ship, although both Zen and Orac, being computers and thus pedantic, insist that all is normal. In fact, the pedantry, annoyingness and frustration of computers seems to be something of a subtext.

The stress of the situation highlights an interesting development; Tarrant, with his military background, seems to be acting as the leader. This is very interesting; so far this season the Liberator has unambiguously been Avon’s ship! I wonder where this is going? Will there be conflict? Is Tarrant going to take over? Have the writers decided that having Avon as leader isn’t good for the character’s development? It’s intriguing, anyway. Unlike between Avon and Blake there seems to be no ideological dimension, at least not yet. And I notice Avon is the only character who isn’t ordered about by Tarrant.

Another interesting development is the obvious mild racism felt by our two newcomers towards Cally, an alien. It’s a small sign that Dayna and Tarrant are not quite settled in yet.

The ship is being drawn “outside” the galaxy, “into spiral space”. I’m not sure what this means- are we being told that the spiral arms are not part of the proper galaxy? Because Earth is in one! As well as all the Population I stars with the heavy elements needed for life…! Never mind. Whatever it is, it’s uncharted space, from whose bourn no traveller returns.

Eventually we realise that the ship is falling into a black hole, which is a bit of a problem. Worse, it turns out to be Orac’s fault; the black hole is not emitting x-rays, which makes it unique, and so Orac was curious! I must say, whatever the kamikaze characterisation of Orac, it’s a very science-literate script. Although of course I say that as an English graduate who got all my physics from television and A Brief History of Time

Interesting that, as the ship faces what seem to be its final moments, Avon tries to get into a spacesuit and Tarrant fights to stop him, although he wouldn’t be any more or less dead if Avon were to survive! Afterwards he even says that “One day, Avon, I may have to kill you.” Ooh!

Initially, we seem to have that hoary old sci-fi cliché of the ship being the other side of the black hole in a kind of nothing dimension. But this is nicely undercut by the realisation that the ship is just in a very big, dark cave! There’s another nice, metatextual touch when the big, nasty monster turns out to be just special effects!

Eventually, though, the crew meet a man dressed in strange ancient regime type clothing. He says this is Krandor, an artificial planet, home to the mighty Thaarn. And he is the Caliph(!) of Krandor. What a bizarre choice of title! I wonder what Muslim viewers thought.

The Caliph, extremely polite though he is, is essentially enslaving Avon and co and stealing the Liberator, which he wants to break up for its precious unobtainium. His neuronic whip is rather nasty, although at least it only gets used on the rather annoying Tarrant. It’s distressingly early, but I’m taking quite a dislike to the character. Perhaps I’m intended to, though? Interesting to see if this looks plausible in the longer term.

Of course, Dayna and Tarrant are both rather clever in what they say about Orac, not lying (on pain of death!), but not revealing who or what he truly is. This means, of course, that Orac and Zen are able to kill the two redshirts who come to cut up the Liberator. No wonder the mighty Thaarn, Auron god or otherwise, hates computers.

This use of mythology is a nice spin on the old Arthur C Clarke idea of sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic, but I have to say the idea of an advanced technology having banned computers looks a lot less plausible in 2011 than it would have done in 1980.

Thaarn, in the end, turns out to be a rather vulnerable, lonely old man, defeated by Cally and her resourcefulness in a Wizard of Oz type climax. I love this kind of metatextual stuff, and there’s some nice character stuff too; it’s a good episode. Still, a non-arc episode seems odd at this point!

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Torchwood: Miracle Day (Part Two)

“The next six hours are gonna be filled by boredom, followed by monotony…”

Last episode, inevitably, had a lot of introductions and exposition to get through. However well these things are done (RTD does them very well indeed), such episodes are too easily dismissed if allowances are not made for the complicated job such episodes have to do. Fortunately no such allowances are needed here- we’ve only reached the second episode but the series is flying. This instalment is exciting, action-packed, witty and dammed entertaining. I’ve not seen anything written by Doris Egan before (although my good friend Wikipedia informs me that she has worked on stuff like House and Smallville), but on this evidence I’m bloody impressed.

We start with Jack and Gwen being, er, rendited(?) by Rex, representative of a foreign power which is riding roughshod over our national sovereignty. Grr. Annoyingly, though, Rex is not only very cool indeed but has managed to up the coolness quotient considerably from last episode.

It’s a Rhys-lite episode as Rex sends him off back home (no doubt so he can brood Welshly and come up with some sort of plan in a later episode). But from here on the episode, although admirably balancing light and dark in its tone, is where we start to burrow into what will no doubt end up as a massive CIA conspiracy. We finally get to meet the mysterious Mr Friedkin, and he’s… Newman from Seinfeld (Wayne Knight). I find it impossible to judge his performance- it’s unfair, I know, but he’s an actor I associate very strongly with one part and it’s hard to accept him playing anyone else. Hopefully that’ll fade.

We get one quiet moment between Gwen and Jack, establishing their close relationship (which does not go unnoticed by Rex) and, importantly, acknowledging that Jack’s been travelling and hinting that there’s something he needs to atone for. It’s not dwelt upon so as to alienate new viewers, but it’s important that the enormity of what he’s done is acknowledged. Still, aside from that it’s all action-cum-thriller fun. And I suspect Jacks point about morphic fields will prove important.

The conspiracy begins to show itself in both story threads as both Esther and Rex find themselves excluded from the world on which they’ve relied, and forced to adopt the unfamiliar role of outsider- although I suspect this would be easier for Rex than for Esther, who seems very much an establishment person. The exchange about her always maintaining a neutral viewpoint and having to eventually pick sides is, I suspect, commenting on her character arc.

Oswald Danes, meanwhile, gets some interesting development, again played superbly by Bill Murray. His deeply felt regret, live on television, seems all the more genuine because of its suddenness. Danes seems genuinely relieved to be able to say these things; before, he was “scared”. This is an acting masterclass, it really is. There’s so much riding on Pullman’s performance, and he really delivers.

The subsequent scene in the lift, with gorgeous yet sinister PR lady Jilly Kittinger, is brilliantly written and performed, and I’m not just saying that because the scene confirms all my prejudices about PR! Pullman is brilliant, again.

Dr. Juarez gets a much meatier role this week, showing herself to be a truly awesome individual. Not only does she completely rearrange the way her own hospital deals with the new reality, but she decides to gatecrash a high level panel, only to find that they’re desperate for as many doctors as they can get. Also, of course, she’s still in touch with Rex. Again, I’m sure this will prove important to the plot.

There are some fascinating and terrifying ideas thrown about here; the sick, without dying, are simply incubators for bacteria. This being so, antibiotics will last for mere months as resistances develop faster. Worse, people still age. Everyone ultimately faces horrible physical suffering- the classical allusion is entirely appropriate.

But the main stuff happening in this episode is on the plane, where Oswald has Jack and Gwen tied to chairs with only himself, a sinister CIA lady, a stewardess and a definitely-not-gay steward (a bit excessive on the staffing front?) for company. Of course, we know that sinister CIA lady is going to try and kill the now mortal Jack- the fact that it’s so blatantly obvious is why it’s so fun- and the ensuing hi-jinks surrounding the poisoning are hilarious and great. I love the way Dr Juarez makes sensible use of the array of medical talent available to her, the slapstick, that punch by Gwen (“I’m Welsh!”), and Eve Myles’ general awesomeness.

Esther, until now a tenacious but essentially loyal CIA agent, finds herself ruthlessly cut off for Knowing Too Much, and makes a magnificent escape, flirting her way through the final checkpoint on her way to the end of the episode. Dr Juarez, more sinisterly, finds herself talking to Jilly Kittinger while having a ciggy, and doesn’t entirely reject her suggestion. That’s what I’ve missed about smoking these last six-and-a-half years- the social element of having one outside…

Jilly Kitzinger represents Phicorp, who are clearly either a big bad or a red herring. They manufacture painkillers, and stand to benefit materially from the new situation. We now have a fair few intriguing plot threads bubbling away nicely.

We get a carefully choreographed climax, with Esther phoning Rex to warn him as the plane lands; they’re after him too. Both Esther and Rex are now persona non grata. There’s nothing for it but to join forces with Gwen and Jack and fight their way out.

Oh, and I love Gwen’s comments on US immigration! Lovely people, the Americans, very hospitable, open and friendly. I have to make an exception of their immigration officers, though, who in my experience are a bunch of humourless bastards who seem to have declared war against their own country’s tourist industry…!

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Blake's 7: Volcano

“If that’s winning, I’ll take losing every time.”

An Allan Prior script, this time. It’s something of a by-the-numbers, mildly disappointing episode, but it’s fascinating to see how Tarrant and Dayna continue to develop and relate with their new comrades. It’s such a shame that Servalan seems to have permanently changed from Machiavellian schemer to stereotypical scenery-chewing baddie.

Stock footage of a volcano to start with, as Dayna and Tarrant teleport down to the planet Obsidian to find some friends of Dayna’s father. Meanwhile, also on this planet are Michael Gough and a robot that, firstly, looks ridiculous and Lost in Space-y and, secondly, looks like a man in a suit. Not good.

Meanwhile, on the Liberator, Avon and Vila are theorising about the planet, its volcano, and how come it has managed to avoid being colonised or dragged into the Galactic War. Is it me, though, or has Vila lost a few IQ points this series? He seems at times to be as stupid as Avon keeps saying he is.

Oh, and there are rumours of Blake being on this planet, apparently. He’s only been away a couple of episodes and now he’s some kind of mysterious, legendary figure.

Dayna and Tarrant are an interesting pair. Dayna entirely trusts her new comrades (especially Avon!), but Tarrant is still finding it hard to trust anyone completely. He seems to be a loner at heart. It’s not long before they’re captured, but their captors don’t seem all that hostile. The chap played by Michael Gough is called Hower, and his rather bland son is Bershar. Fortunately, the old man knew Dayna’s father. They’re friendly pacifists, socially engineered to be that way because of electric shocks and constant propaganda. This bit troubles me. Isn’t this all a bit totalitarian? The script doesn’t seem to have much to say on the debate between peace and free will. That’s particularly disappointing for a programme based on the theme of freedom vs. tyranny.

Servalan is nearby and, although Travis is dead, there are still Mutoids. She seems to know exactly where to find the Liberator. I wonder why that is? At last, a bit of a mystery. It’s not as though Hower and his lot are the only suspects! It’s interesting to see how the politics are changing, too. Now that Servalan is President, and therefore less interesting with no greasy pole to climb, her new underling, Mori, is the new Servalan, a potential Supreme Commander, with the Liberator as potential prize. This gives a real sense of things being in flux, but at the same time the series is feeling a little unsettled and uncertain.

Avon gets a good episode, though. Being leader has given him a sense of responsibility he never had before, but he’s entirely the same person. His closet heroism may be more obvious now without Blake to hide behind, but he still tries to hide behind cynical comments. Still, he’s the one who’s teleporting all over the place, finding out what’s going on, and co-ordinating everything. He’s a more efficient leader than Blake ever was, and underneath it all he’s far more concerned for his crew.

Tarrant and Dayna are, inevitably, betrayed by Michael Gough’s son, who is not quite the pacifist his father is. Meanwhile, Servalan has a fleet of eight ships in orbit.

Things start to get very pear-shaped indeed, with the Liberator surrounded, and boarded by four soldiers. They’re driven away, but not without taking Cally and Orac with them. At least, as it turns out, Dayna and Tarrant were never really in much danger; they’re soon freed by Michael Gough, who soon calmly kills his own son(!) in a not-entirely-pacifistic manner. Even less pacifist is the massive nuclear bomb we’re now told lurks under the volcano, waiting to be operated by means of a Big Red Button. That’s how the planet has avoided unwelcome attention; no one’s called their bluff. Except they’re not bluffing. As soon as our heroes are all back on board, the planet goes boom. This story might not have much to say on the blatantly tyrannical nature of their society, but I’m guessing that Allan Prior was no great fan of nuclear weapons.

It doesn’t lead anywhere, incidentally, but Servalan muses at one point that, without Blake, the crew of the Liberator are “merely criminals” and “they’ll keep!”

Monday, 18 July 2011

Blake's 7: Power Play

“This is my ship!”

This time around it’s a little less surprising to see Terry Nation’s name in the credits, and things are settling down to a smaller scale after the recent epic events. The status quo is still very much in flux though, and that makes for an exciting episode.

We get a little reprise and carry directly on from the cliffhanger; Avon soon discovers there’s not only this Federation officer chap (Del,Tarrant, the most Terry Nation name ever!) but a full half dozen Federation troops. There’s also a rather thuggish second in command called Clegg. Fascinatingly, he’s played by Michael Sheard, a far from obvious choice for this part. And yet Sheard manages to show what a brilliant range he has by being possibly the best thing in the episode.

Shipping alert: interesting that Avon should describe Dayna as his wife. Let’s face it- they are, aren’t they?

Avon manages to bluff his way through for a short while, but eventually he and Dayna end up locked into a rather familiar-looking cell. But these Federation types aren’t in control; the Liberator will answer only to the existing crew, and they are powerless to control the ship. We hear Vila trying to communicate; evidently he’s in trouble. By this point we think we know what’s going on from the set-up. Rather cleverly, though, we’re going to be wrong-footed by the time the episode ends. The situation is not what it seems. Terry Nation might be a bit basic with his characterisation, but when he wasn’t trying to write two many episodes at once he was a bloody good plotter.

Vila, on a “primitive” planet which bears an odd resemblance to Hertfordshire or some such place, befriends a couple of rather nice “primitives”. It seems they’re being hunted by someone or something which uses searchlights, eerily scanning the forest. Much to Vila’s surprise, they turn out to be rather nice seeming young ladies. Of course, Vila’s relieved to be taken to civilisation. It seems that the original settlers on this planet split into “hi-techs” and ”primitives” in a situation rather similar to The Face of Evil, a Doctor Who Story from a few years earlier by none other than Chris Boucher. Clearly, absolutely nothing can go wrong now.

Cally seems to be all right, too; she’s being cared for on a medical ship, from a neutral planet, staffed by rather nice nurses dressed in strange green nurses’ uniforms. All right, that is, until the next patient to be picked up turns out to be Servalan, who is again acting rather more like Thatcher than she did in the previous two series.

Avon gets to sneakily talk to Zen, and is told that Blake is heading for some planet called Epheron, while Jenna is going to somewhere called Morphenniel for some reason. That’s the last we’ll be hearing from them, then.

Things start to go pear-shaped, though; Dayna gets caught by Mr Bronson, while Avon is caught by Tarrant, who turns out to be a clever chap and to have worked out who he is. Fortunately, Tarrant turns out be a bit of a rebel disguised as a Federation officer and, seeing as he’s rather helpfully been bumping off the troops one by one, there are now only three Federation bods on the ship. I’m not sure about this Tarrant, though. Bit bland, isn’t he?

Vila and Cally meet up just as they’re both about to be taken into the “Hi-Tech” city to make their “useful contribution”. What could possibly go wrong now? Quite a lot, it seems. The Federation may be a shadow of its former self, but Servalan, after a little light humiliation, is able to bribe her way out, and gleefully informs the pair of themselves that they’re about to be vivisected- humanely, of course.

In the end, after a bit of negotiation, plotting and intrigue between Mr Bronson and our heroes, it’s brute force than wins out, as Avon, Dayna and Tarrant simply stop trying to be clever and simply beat the crap out of Mr Bronson and co. Cally and Avon are teleported up seconds before their certain death, and the new status quo is established. We now have two crew members, the rather sexy and likeable Dayna and the yawn-inducing Tarrant…

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Blake's 7: Aftermath

“You were with Blake?”

“Yes, but it hardly seems to matter now, if it ever did.”

Ooh, brand new opening titles! Not very good, are they? I’m surprised to see this episode is written by Terry Nation; hadn’t he gone to America by now?

The opening scenes, with lots of spaceships shooting at each other, look great, and epic, and very, very Star Wars-y, as per last episode. Blake’s 7 is still very much in epic mode, right to the end of this episode, at least, but things are a bit calmer, and there’s a lot of reflection on what the new status quo is going to be.

We’re told in just one line of dialogue that Jenna has “gone with Blake”, and it’s clear that both of them have suddenly left the series. Everything’s in flux, though; the Liberator is very badly damaged and the remaining crew- Cally, Vila and Avon have to get on the lifeboats. This being Terry Nation, there’s a countdown, and they make it only at the last second. But that’s the last we see of Cally or Vila- this episode is all Avon.

The planet below is not safe, though. We get a quick scene where two Federation redshirts (one of them played by Richard Franklin) get to spout some brief exposition, to the effect that the Federation has won the war and destroyed all the aliens, but only at the cost of 80% of the Federation fleet being destroyed. Having fulfilled this brief function, these two characters are no longer needed, and are duly killed by the planet’s resident mediaeval warriors, who really do look rather cool.

Avon, too, comes a cropper in this way, until he’s saved by Dayna, a rather cute young lady with a bow and arrow. During his descent he was clearly not expecting things to turn out well, but soon he’s being looked after by a gorgeous girl with an obvious sense of fun, who tells him he’s beautiful and slowly kisses him out of “curiosity!” It’ll be interesting to see, as the series goes on, whether the two of them come across as a couple or not.

It seems that Dayna and her father are from Earth, the only people from “civilised” territory to be living on this planet. Having stopped off to collect Orac, Dayna takes Avon to her home, under the sea. But, as we see, Servalan is also marooned on this planet, alone and unable to communicate to her underlings. She unexpectedly pulls a gun on an unsurprised Avon, only or Dayna to turn all this into a Mexican standoff, which soon gains an extra layer of complication as the natives attack. Forced to co-operate, Servalan cheerfully admits that her gun isn’t loaded anyway.

They’re taken to Dayna’s rather stylish home, where Avon meets her father, Hal Mellaney, with his afro and cool shades. Mellaney is some kind of rebel, exiled from the Federation, and he’s somewhat awed to find that Avon was with Blake. Servalan, meanwhile, pumps Dayna for information in an extremely sinister fashion. Is it me, or is Jacqueline Pearce basing her performance more on the equally sinister Margaret Thatcher than she used to?

Mellaney further reveals that Dayna, in spite of her penchant for old-fashioned bows and arrows, is something of a genius when is comes to weapons engineering. He reveals that, after being caught running weapons to some rebels, he lost his sight after being tortured by the Federation, and needs a special device to give him partial vision. His position as an exile may no longer be necessary, though; the Federation’s military has been decimated, and it is falling apart. As Avon says, it seems as though Blake has won both of his wars.

We briefly meet his adopted daughter, Lauren, and Avon hears from Zen, via Orac. Jenna is on a hospital ship being taken away from the series, Cally and Vila are missing, and an unknown ship is trying to dock at the Liberator.  Servalan, of course, overhears all this, and we get a simply awesome and erotically charged scene between her and Avon. Servalan starts by articulating her deep misunderstanding of Avon’s personality, assuming that the surface cynicism, rather than being the defence mechanism of a passionate and principled man, is who he is. She’s making an obvious miscalculation in assuming that he will ever agree, now that Star One has been destroyed, to make use of Orac and the Liberator to restore the Federation and share power with her. As Avon wisely notes, “I’d be dead in a week.” But still, before he refuses we get that kiss! There’s real sexual chemistry between them, although they’re always going to be enemies. There’s something rather exciting about that!

Hal mentions to Avon that he’d like Dayna to leave (the implication is with Avon) to see the universe. This has something of the last wish about it- we know at this point that he won’t survive the episode. And, sure enough, he catches Servalan sneaking into the room to steal Orac. Servalan taunts him quite nastily before killing him. This episode demonstrates more clearly than ever before that she really is a textbook psychopath.                                      

Dayna is devastated, and she and Avon set off to find Servalan. And, just to make her day even worse, her sister Lauren has been crucified by the natives. Suddenly she has nothing but Avon. She promises Servalan to her face that she’s going to kill her.

There are further stand-offs between the two of them Servalan and the natives. We end with Servalan about to shoot the two of them, but they are both rather fortuitously teleported aboard the Liberator as Avon has pre-programmed. All is not well, though; there’s a stranger aboard. He declares the ship to be Federation property and threatens them both with summary execution…

Friday, 15 July 2011

Torchwood: Miracle Day (Part One)

“Wales is insane!”

Now that Torchwood has started airing in the UK I’ll be reviewing it pretty much as it airs for the first time- hopefully in a day or two at least. Blake’s 7 will continue for the rest of the week; though; series three will probably start on Sunday.

It’s a dramatic start; Oswald Danes, a convicted murderer and child rapist, about to be judicially killed. It looks painful. Next we get introduced to CIA operative Rex, who’s pleased his career is going to benefit from a colleague’s wife contracting cancer. Nice. He’s talking on the phone to another new character, the tenacious Esther Drummond. There’s also another apparent regular, Dr. Vera Juarez, who understandably spends much of this episode reacting.

Oh, and there’s Gwen and Rhys, now quietly living in a farmhouse with their baby daughter. They’re still the beating heart of the show and this is completely and utterly the Torchwood we know and love.

It’s hard to judge this episode, really, as it understandably consists mostly of set-up. But set-up should be judged on its own terms, and this is a typically assured example of the beast from good old RTD. All of the new characters feel like real people very, very quickly, there’s plenty of action, and it’s all as pacey as ever. It’s also extremely well directed by Bharat Nalluri of Life on Mars fame.

The central concept is great, too- suddenly, everyone is immortal- and as yet we have no idea where any of this is going. People still get sick, they still get old, they still get injured, but they can’t die, not even when blown up, or when their head is removed. And we have no idea whether people, including Rex, who have survived certain death, will just drop dead if this situation should end.

Our new American viewers are introduced to Wales via some sweeping vistas of the countryside, and we see Gwen and Rhys’ idyllic, if isolated lifestyle. It’s not a life that this urban person would fancy, and I do wonder how they’re supporting themselves. But it’s established that Rhys, domestic as ever, is extremely determined that Gwen’s extremely dangerous life should never again intrude on their lives, especially as they now have a baby daughter. And there’s a real potential for terrible things to happen if they ever get found, as their reaction to an innocent knock on the door makes clear. Except… the last shot of the scene makes us wonder whether those two “tourists” are as innocent as they appear.

There’s a great scene with Oswald Danes insisting that, as his sentence has been successfully carried out, he should be released, or he will sue the Governor of whatever state he’s in, personally, with a good chance of winning. As we later discover, this works, and he’s freed on parole. Bill Pullman nails it here; I’ve never seen him play such an unlikeable character before, but he manages to be both convincing and charismatic here. It’s a superb performance.

Esther, meanwhile, is following up a mysterious email about a hush-hush old British organisation called Torchwood, which is “classified under the 456 regulations”. Her search for scarce information on this organisation leads her to some documents, including photographs of Gwen and Captain Jack Harkness. It’s at this point that Jack arrives, and saves her from a mysterious (and, as we’ll find out, unfortunate) suicide bomber by grabbing her and jumping out of the window. Esther now learns that it’s Jack who’s been destroying all Torchwood records to protect Gwen, and that Torchwood is a kind of defunct British X-Files. Unfortunately for her Jack has, of course, used retcon.

Jack is carrying out investigations of his own, though (at one point posing as “Owen Harper” of the FBI- nice!), and Gwen can’t help but be drawn into things. It starts with her dad suffering a heart attack, leading her and Rhys to travel to Cardiff. Here she learns about Miracle Day from now-Sergeant Andy. Apparently TV and Internet reception is not much good in West Wales and, in spite of owning such a nice house, neither she nor Rhys can afford a smartphone. It’s a nice scene, though and, as ever with RTD, the little touches of the family’s relationship are wonderful.

Sneaking away with Andy to do some investigation (which Rhys has declared verboten), Gwen soon discovers that the “miracle” is only affecting humans, and that population growth is such that society has four months until it collapses. At this point we get a blazing row between her and Rhys, who doesn’t want his wife and daughter getting involved in any of this very, very dangerous stuff.

Esther’s forgotten the previous night’s events, but as soon as she (eventually) gets into work she’s handed a file which will, presumably, jog her memory. While speaking to Rex on the phone she discovers the connection between Miracle Day and Torchwood; that mysterious email arrived at exactly the same time as the last recorded death on the planet. With this, Rhys discharges himself out of hospital and, in some very amusing scenes, hops on a plane and comes to Blighty.

Using information on Gwen, who joined Torchwood in October 2006 (hmm… surely that doesn’t fit with the “one year ahead” continuity?), Rex manages to rather efficiently find out where Gwen lives. He’s not so clever with the Severn Bridge toll, though; why doesn’t he just take a detour and drive around it?

As soon as Rex finds the house, all Hell breaks loose. There’s an initial stand-off, but the still-injured Rex soon collapses. Tying him up doesn’t work, but soon they’re all faced with a bigger problem; a mysterious helicopter, here to assassinate them. This leads to much coolness, with Gwen holding a big gun in one arm and a baby in the other. But this is the point at which Jack turns up, and his gun is even bigger. Still, it’s Gwen who eventually blows up the helicopter. And that’s not the only way in which she’s one up on him; now she’s immortal, and seemingly he’s not.

Just as their troubles seem over, though, Rex has them all kidnapped by the police (including a reluctant Andy), ready to be taken to America...

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Blake's 7: Star One

“Avon, for what it’s worth, I have always trusted you, from the very beginning.”

The final episode is written by Chris Boucher, which is fitting; a symbolic changing of the guard at script level which mirrors the changing of the guard aboard the Liberator in this bold, amazing and pivotal episode. Whoever said that season finales weren’t supposed to have been invented in 1979?

The first tension-filled scene, with a ship being rammed by a mysterious small vessel, looks amazing. It’s uncannily similar visually to the opening scene from Star Wars, and that’s deliberate: this is 1979. And it’s the perfect indication of the epic nature of what we’re about to see unfold over the next fifty minutes.

We get the backstory from Servalan thereafter. (And this is where I first notice the prominent Federation symbol; interesting how closely it resembles the symbol for the Federation in Star Trek, but from an entirely different perspective on what such a Federation would be like!) The attack is just one of many catastrophic events happening throughout the Federation’s outer worlds, most of which seem to involve weather control malfunctions. Ah, weather control! Such a very old-fashioned sci-fi trope, isn’t it? It belongs to a past era which believed in progress more than we do, an era of Concorde and Butskellism where the state spending money was seen as a Good Thing, chaos theory (which nixes weather control) had yet to enter popular culture and people believed that it would one day be possible for mankind to explore space. Happy days, or at least I’m told. Alas, I was born in 1977.

Er, anyway, Servalan’s underling tells her that all this can only mean problems at Star One, something which Servalan refuses to believe. She has to; not only does she not know where it is, no one knows where it is. Even the scientists living there are marooned forever, and both selected and conditioned to be the types of people who would never attempt to communicate with outside.

Er, is this wise? If Star One is so important, and disorder in the universe is always increasing (the good old Second Law of Thermodynamics, says that clever Professor Brian Cox), then surely there will be problems in store when the scientists are all dead and Star One inevitably starts to go wrong?

Blake and co know where it is, though. The co-ordinates take them to a spot a little outside the galaxy, into the dark, intergalactic board. They’re off the edge of the map. Here be monsters, inevitably.

And this where we get an incredible, pivotal scene. We’ve seen lots of arguments between Blake and Avon, but this time it’s final. Things are said which cannot be unsaid. “Show me something who believes in anything, and I’ll show you a fool”, says Avon. He doesn’t mean it, of course. By now we know that he doesn’t like tyranny any more than Blake does. It’s just that he’s horrified by Blake’s recklessness and is deliberately saying the most hurtful things he can. Beneath the exterior, Avon is a very moral man who is loyal to his friends and cares a lot. That’s why he loathes Blake’s casual attitude to other peoples’ lives.

He basically Admits, too, that all that stuff at the end of last episode about using Star One to rule the galaxy is just him lashing out at Blake and again trying to be hurtful. This would be quite as morally objectionable to Avon as it would be to Blake. No; Avon has an ultimatum for Blake: they destroy Star One, and then they’re finished. It’s over. Blake gets dropped off on Earth and the Liberator is Avon’s. He even calls Blake a fanatic to his face.

But Blake lacks the confidence to really argue back; this is the episode where he comes the closest to what he wants, and yet he’s racked with doubt, as are others; even the normally loyal Cally points out that with out Star One, many people would die. Is all this really worth it? There are some powerful ethical issues at work. Yet, the end of the scene, whatever the supposed caveats, Avon gets exactly what he wants. He, not Blake, is the Alpha Male now.

Meanwhile, Servalan speaks of chaos spreading across the Federation leadership. She has decreed the President and the Council to be incapable of dealing with the crisis. She has launched a coup and had them arrested, no doubt to be “disappeared”. The scene ends with her senior underling addressing her as “Madame President”.

Avon and his crew discover Star One to be a tiny, barely habitable world orbiting an isolated white dwarf. Avon notes that this is the nearest point to the Andromeda Galaxy. Implying that, with human technology, it would take thousands of years to travel there, he has nevertheless spotted that there are thousands of satellite generators lying beyond it; a “minefield” place there by the Federation! Does this imply a known threat from the direction of Andromeda, a threat which would most likely arrive through this exact point? Orac confirms that these minefields extend around all those parts of the Galaxy’s edge which are occupied by humans, and this implies that the Federation (and humanity) does not occupy all of the Milky Way or even necessarily very much of it.

Oh, and I’m not sure about the concepts of minefields, what with space being three-dimensional and all, but never mind. I think a bit of handwavium is justified, because this is great.

Avon, Blake and Cally teleport down, and are separated. Blake and Cally do the “take me to your leader” thing while Avon walks around being cynical. But another ship is landing, one identical to the small vessel form the opening scene. Blake, meanwhile is expected, but it soon becomes apparent that he’s been mistaken for Travis.

Events start hurtling forward apace; Blake sets his bombs, but other things are afoot. All of the scientists but one are impostors, alien beings from Andromeda sent as an advance party to destroy the minefields. Gazillions of alien ships are heading towards Star One, from Andromeda, to launch an invasion. Oh, and Travis is here, in league with the aliens in a betrayal of his own species- and it’s implied that the aliens intend on committing genocide, or something pretty damn close.

Blake is a lost figure by this point, forced to abandon all hope of fighting against the Federation because of the need for humanity to unite against this greater enemy. Even his being shot and seriously injured by Travis, which should be dramatic in itself, is almost merely a symbol of his more general impotence from this point on.

Servalan has a big decision to make, too; given the new threat, she contacts Servalan and asks for Federation military back-up. Suddenly, all previous quarrels have become a luxury which no-one can afford.

One quarrel is ended for good, though. It’s fitting, given the constant tension between Blake and Avon about whether to kill Travis, that Avon should shoot him dead so casually and irrevocably. It’s yet another moment which signifies which of the two of them is now on top.

Servalan sends a fleet, but it will take an hour to arrive; the Liberator, facing hopeless odds, is the only thing which can possibly fight them. Blake briefly tries to return, but he’s yesterday’s man; Avon insists that he buggers off back to Star One. Accepting his new lack of status, he agrees and duly sods off. It’s Avon, showing his true heroic colours, who leads the crew of the Liberator in what must surely be a hopeless last stand against the invading hordes…

What an episode!

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Blake's 7: The Keeper

“Don’t you trust me?”

“No, of course not!”

Allan Prior does his best with making the dialogue sound realistic, but the first few lines of this episode consist of possibly the most blatant case of “as you know, Bob” syndrome ever. Characters keep falling over each other to explain things all of them already know for the viewer’s benefit; a surgeon called Lurgen left his brain print on the planet Goth, and this brain print is being worn around the neck of a tribal chief. It apparently contains the location of Star One and, given that this is the penultimate episode of the series, we know damn well that they’re going to find it.

This is a bit of an Avon-lite episode, but there’s plenty of the ongoing tension between him and Blake, with Avon winding Blake up by asking why they don’t just take over Star One and rule the galaxy rather than destroying it. But he and Cally are this weeks teleport operators, while Blake, Jenna and Vila get to teleport down. This may not be entirely unconnected with the fact that Sally Knyvette and Gareth Thomas are leaving soon.

As is traditional, the planet Goth bears an uncanny resemblance to the South-East of England, although I’m glad to see some more of the recent tendency to give all alien planets an interesting natural feature; in this case it’s a sulphurous atmosphere, poisonous in the long-term. This doesn’t really affect the plot, but it’s a nice touch.

The only locals we see are a tribe called “the Goths”. As this is also the name of the planet are they the only people living on this world or is their name of the tribe just a big coincidence. Whatever, they’re great. Bruce Purchase chews the scenery magnificently as Gola, the chieftain. He has a sister, a mysterious seeress, and a fool, in good mediaeval tradition. The whole look of the costumes, sets and hairstyles are all way cool, too, partly mediaeval but with a large hint of the Gauls of Asterix, complete with a drug-addled religious figure.

Unfortunately, our herpes are all captured fairly quickly because the Liberator, in typical Blake’s 7 style, has gone out of teleporter range. This has happened because Avon has spotted Travis’ ship and, in sharp contrast to Blake’s constant shilly-shallying about killing him, coldly sets out to shoot him in the back. He apparently does this, as the ship blows up.

Except Travis isn’t aboard, as we soon discover after Blake is finally teleported up to have a bit of a shouting match with Avon before buggering off back to the surface again. Travis is staying with Gola, as is Servalan, and they’re also on the trail of Star One for reasons of their own personal gain, a fact which should entirely fail to surprise us.

Blake rescues a big shouty bloke called Rod, who proceeds to speak of a brother and, er, shout a lot. Both of them head towards the chief’s tent, where Jenna is to be “pair-bonded” with Gola (isn’t she lucky!) although apparently she’s not supposed to touch him- being chief doesn’t seem all that much fun in that case! Vila, meanwhile, is expected to become the new fool. Naturally, he proves to be quite brilliant at this.

Sally Knyvette is brilliant in her scenes with Gola; her facial acting is particularly superb. You always feel that, despite appearances, she’s always in control of the situation, but the mysterious seeress is another matter. Still, Jenna eventually discovers that the seeress’ amulet is not the one they want.

Vila is thrown into a cell after an unfortunate incident with some ventriloquism, where we discover that his neighbour is a mysterious old man. I wonder if there’s anybody who’s ever seen this episode and didn’t immediately work out that he’s Gola’s father and the ousted previous chief?

Jenna continues to manipulate the rather thick Gola, to Servalan’s great annoyance, and soon discovers that his amulet isn’t the one they want either. So, it must be someone else. Cue the arrival of Rod, who we all worked out was Gola’s brother from the get go. They proceed to fight a dual with rather odd weapons, but are both killed, and Rod’s amulet isn’t the right one either.

We end in the old chief’s cell as he dies. The royal line is extinct and it seems the amulet has gone, until a verbal trigger leads the fool to start chanting the location of Star One. Time for a season finale…

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Blake's 7: Gambit

“An eyepatch? Oh, how quaint!”

The fantastic Robert Homes is back. This time he gets an arc episode, and it’s typical Robert Holmes, with everyone double-crossing each other and loads of wonderful dialogue.

The setting is Freedom City, an underworld den of pleasure said to be far superior to Space City from earlier in the series, and lying just outside the Federation. We certainly get a much richer idea of what the place is like than in the earlier story, and this is thanks to both the excellent script and the wonderful realisation. It’s said that Blade Runner invented the sci-fi trope of fashions being cyclical, allowing us to present a retro future. But it’s done earlier and so very effectively here. Krantor, the wonderfully quotable old queen and big boss of the establishment, played by the wonderfully mellifluous Aubrey Woods, and John Leeson’s Toise, dress both themselves and their quarters (shared, I presume!) in Regency finery, while the establishment abounds in historical costumes of all kinds, including, at one point, a nun in the casino.

All this is fascinating; it tells us that knowledge of history has survived all these centuries into the future, as have chess, the casino and the French language. But there’s a story arc to advance, too; this space surgeon can only be the Docholli we heard of last episode, especially as he is accompanied by none other than Travis.

Blake and co have traced Docholli here and, in an almost unheard of departure from recent convention, he actually takes Jenna and Cally down to the surface with him, leaving Avon and Vila to operate the teleport, something he seems usually to consider as women’s work. But Blake and co are nowhere as interesting as what’s going on elsewhere, such as the speed chess tournament against Deep Roy’s wonderful Klute. To win or draw against him means a prize of two million credits but, as we see when Klute is later challenged by a Restoration fop(!), failure means electrocution and vaporisation. It is, as Avon says, the ultimate risk and the ultimate thrill to the true gambler. We end, not with a laughing cavalier, but with a laughing Klute. It’s the same distinct laugh that became so familiar as that of Mr Sin in Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng Chiang.

Servalan is also here, of course, and for the same reason. This being a Robert Holmes story, she has an ever-present underling called Jarriere to form the other half of this Holmesian double act and marvel at her cleverness. In a wonderful scene between Servalan and Krantor, we establish their relationship as they politely carry out their scenes against each other. Servalan makes a deal with Krantor for the delivery of both Doccholli and Travis, in the full knowledge that he will seek Docholli’s secrets first. Krantor will have no use for this knowledge, but Servalan will then have a casus belli to annex this world to Federation, and to “have that vulpine degenerate eviscerated with a small and very blunt knife”. (Interesting choice of words- shades of Nazi Germany versus Weimar Berlin?) Naturally, they’ve both bugged each other. Oh, and I simply love that mirror.

The subplot between Avon and Vila is great too, of course. I love the way they both prey on Orac’s arrogance to manipulate him into playing along, and Vila’s hopeless inability to hide his obviously improbable run of luck.

I’m a bit confused about Travis- last episode he seemed to be on the brink of being captured by the Federation, yet here no allusion is made to this, and he seems to have been following Docholli for a long time. Still, Servalan captures him this time, and rather cleverly turns him into a walking bomb, so as to kill both birds (and possibly Blake) with the one stone. I love the way Holmes seems to gently mock the character’s pomposity here.

Docoholli is being pursued by Cevedic, a character played by an actor instantly recognisable as one Bill Filer to us Doctor Who fans. But the inevitable barmaid-with-a-heart-of-gold hatches an escape plan for him. It’s a good plan, and almost works, but on this story everything is overheard. Bill Filer catches up with him, only to be killed by Travis. Also turning up are Blake, Jenna and Cally, who have remarkably little to do this episode. The bomb doesn’t go off for some reason, and Docholli admits to Blake that, although he can’t tell Blake where Star One is, he knows a man who can. That’ll be the same as the end of last episode then.

Oh, and Blake once again fails to kill Travis, which the script is by now openly mocking him for; “If you’re man enough, kill me now”, goads Travis. Blake isn’t man enough, although Jenna is, it seems. Travis lives to fight another day.

Meanwhile, Vila is rumbled, and drugged into playing speed chess against Klute. With Orac’s help, though, he wins, and he and Avon are rich. They arrive just in time to convince the others they’ve never been away. This script is so good it can even get away with such a clichéd sitcom ending.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Blake's 7: Voice from the Past

“It doesn’t make for the most reliable of leaders, does it?”

I’d never heard of writer Roger Parkes before, until glancing at IMDb just now, but there’s something a little off about this story. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that the tone of this political intrigue is a little off, and that the revelation that there are idealists in high positions rather undermines the Federation’s credentials as a Big Faceless Invincible Totalitarian Thing.

The crew of the Liberator begin, rather sensibly in the light of both how knackered they were last episode and what happened last time they over-tired themselves, by heading for a bit of a rest. But it’s not long before Blake, behaving even more oddly than usual, orders Zen to head towards an obscure asteroid instead, and haughtily refuses to explain this to anyone. I don’t think this attitude can be entirely blamed on external influences and, as we’ll see, the episode ends by pointedly not absolving him.

The crew (with a lot of guidance from Avon, clearly the alpha male in Blake’s absence) soon discover that Blake is being controlled in some way related to the brainwashing he received after his trial some years ago. Things go a bit mad for a while, but eventually Blake is restrained and the Liberator resumes course for the Planet of the Health Farms.

Except that Vila is a bit of a gullible muppet- which is, I’d say, just a little out of character. Nevertheless, Blake manages to convince him to lock everyone else up and resume their course towards the obscure asteroid.

Blake teleports down to the surface, in a short scene which is quite the most cringe-inducing yet; Blake is clearly stood just a foot or so in front of some god-awful matte painting. It’s the sort of sci-fi exterior set you’d expect to see at an infant school assembly, not from the BBC. Arse-clenchingly embarrassing stuff.

Mercifully, though, Blake eventually finds some indoor sets, rather safer ground for the production. There are also a load of people, apparently rebels, led by a chap called Ven Glynd, a former senior Federation politico who seems to have defected. Unfortunately there’s also an utterly absurd bandaged figure with silly false eyes, who is apparently the legendary Shivan, a revolutionary hero who has been presumed dead.

Blake is quickly persuaded- rather too quickly persuaded according to Avon, who is invariably right about these things- that the group have a foolproof plan to legally expose various pieces of Federation skulduggery, including Servalan’s dodgy dealing with Orac at the end of last season and the killing of Blake’s defence barrister. Blake seems to swallow this, simply because of the mention of an apparently “sane” Federation ambassador called Le Grand. And yet, if the Federation can indeed be successfully challenged through its own legal system, and with the help of apparently decent and reasonable Federation apparatchiks, does this not undermine the sense we’ve always been given that the Federation is an extremely nasty, arbitrary, 1984-via-Brezhnev, totalitarian police state? The revelations we later discover in no way make up for the fact that our image of the Federation as an uber-scary and powerful entity has been badly damaged by the fact that this sort of thing is even considered plausible by the characters we know.

Still, Avon’s having none of this and Orac backs him up; Blake is still being mind-controlled. We begin to receive hints that he’s intended as a figurehead in a “triumvirate between himself, Le Grand and Ven Glynd, with Ven Glynd clearly seeing himself as the Octavian.

Le Grand’s ship lands on the planet Atlay, where the conference is due to be held, in a magnificent piece of model work from the one and only Mat Irvine. But it’s a trap; the arena is empty apart from a load of Federation troops and Servalan on a screen; Le Grand’s treachery has been known all along, and she lets out a few tears at the end of her dream. Then the shooting starts. Meanwhile, on the Liberator, it’s revealed that the bandaged figure was Travis all the time. He seems to be losing more and more dignity with each appearance.

The melee ends with everyone (except the redshirts from the asteroid, who all die) back aboard the Liberator, and Travis about to be arrested by Federation troops. Blake has forgotten all of these events, and immediately abandons all thought of his crew’s much-deserved rest in favour of renewed action against the Federation; they need to find this Docholli. Once again he’s pushing his crew hard, and the consequences will no doubt be tragic; if they are, then

Monday, 4 July 2011

Blake's 7: Countdown

“That thing is ticking away the lives of everyone on this planet.”

Terry Nation’s back, and to celebrate this we get the most appropriate episode title possible. This entire episode is the most Terry Nation thing ever, what with both the countdown and the quest to an inhospitable location. And yet, this is another good ‘un.

It’s another exciting start, with a rebel raid on a Federation base on the planet Albion. There are some rather unconvincing cave sets, but otherwise this is fast-paced, engaging stuff, climaxing in the Federation leader starting the timer on an ominous-looking device, a device which will kill everyone on the planet. It’s the ultimate in scorched Earth tactics.

Coincidentally, the Liberator is already heading for Albion, as Blake wants to talk to a senior Federation officer, Space Major Provine. There are rumours that this Provine fellow knows where Federation Central Control is and, as we’ve established, once Blake’s obsessed with something he sees it through to the end.

Albion was “colonised in the last century of the old calendar”- nice bit of world-building there- and it’s been under Federation control for yonks. It’s cold and inhospitable at the poles and, as surely as the proverbial revolver in Act One always gets fired in Act Three, we know this is going to be relevant.

Following recent precedence, it’s the men who go down while the women just, er, man the teleporters. The Liberator is not exactly an equal opportunities ship.

Blake and co discover a rocker clearly meant to function as an escape raft, and again we know this going to become relevant, especially as Provine is on the loose. But soon they make contact with the rebels, a friendly lot, and Avon gets a good look at the bomb. It’s not good news; the actual device is somewhere else, and it could be anywhere on the planet. Worse, the rebels have hired a mercenary by the name of Del Grant- the excellent Tom Chadbon- an old acquaintance of Avon’s who has sworn to kill him. Oh, and Provine is loose, disguised, and armed.

Apparently the bomb will kill only people, leaving all infrastructure intact and, rather interestingly, is seemingly guaranteed to leave no trace of radiation after a day. Er, I’m no scientist, but I suspect this to be rather dodgy science. Still, it’s very Terry Nation.

The first meeting between Avon and Grant is, as expected, most interesting. Our first impressions of the reasons for the feud don’t exactly make Avon look good; apparently he abandons his girlfriend Anna, Grant’s sister, to suffer a week of torture at the hands of the Federation, a week during which she refuses to betray him and eventually dies. But there’s little time for this; Orac has found the bomb and, inevitably, it’s right under one of the polar ice caps. Equally inevitably, it’s Avon and Grant who end up going to defuse it- for impeccable plot reasons, of course. Also inevitable is some stock footage of some tundra. Still, all this inevitability doesn’t make the whole thing any less dramatic. This episode is a textbook example of how even the most hoary of old clichés can make good drama if written well.

The tension as they defuse the bomb is unbearable; if the bomb, the ticking clock and the threat of the ice falling on their heads weren’t bad enough, there’s also the tension between them. Avon reveals that he was genuinely unable to help Anna as he was genuinely unconscious, and never gave up on her until he knew she was dead. Grant doesn’t believe him but, I think, we viewers do. We’ve seen the vast gulf between his surface defensive cynicism, a cover for deep pain and vulnerability, and his actual behaviour, which is generally honourable, loyal and, yes, heroic, and laudably modest with it. This is a decent, good man who doesn’t want to admit to any emotional attachments, either to people or things, because in the end they hurt too much is this harsh universe.

While the two of them talk it through, Blake wins a shoot out with Provine, and hears his dying words. Apparently Federation Central Control is known as “Star One”. Provine can’t say where it is, but he knows a man who can; a cyber-surgeon called Docholli…

Avon and Grant show how heroic they both are by removing their bracelets, forcing them to keep trying until the end, risking their lives. But it’s Avon who proves the most resourceful and honourable, stopping the countdown with just a second to spare. With this, he earns Grant’s respect, and the two eventually part with a handshake.

We end with Avon rebuffing Blake’s attempts to bond with him over Anna. The two of them are not friends, and while Blake seems to respect Avon I don’t think the reverse is true. And it’s clear that Avon is in fact capable of feelings we might not expect him to be capable of from his surface demeanour. But there’s an awful lot going on beneath the surface part of the iceberg.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Blake's 7: Hostage

“Personally, I like the edges a little blurred.”

Here’s another script by Allan Prior, and rather surprisingly the first “arc” episode to be written by someone other than Chris Boucher or Terry Nation. We start with an extended sequence with the Liberator being in a spot of considerable bother from an extremely large number of pursuit ships. They escape only narrowly, with both the ship’s and crew’s energy levels being drained. Once again we’re made very aware of the extreme stress and danger of their fugitive existence. The last time they were under this much pressure, a member of the crew died. The stakes are high. Things can’t just continue like this. Right now, the life expectancy for Blake and his crew looks rather short.

It’s a novelty to see a different Space Commander doing the things we’re used to seeing from Travis, but the result is the same, only over a much shorter time-scale; Servalan simply orders Space Commander Redshirt to place himself under arrest for failure. No doubt we’ll never hear of him again.

Things are shaken up with a message to Blake from Travis, who is holding Blake’s cousin hostage. He claims that, with both of them being fugitives, it’s an alliance. It is, of course, a blatant trap. It seems that Inga and her father Ushton, Blake’s uncle, live on the former penal colony world of Exbar. It’s nice to get a slightly more imaginative description of the surface conditions than usual, with the thin envelope of atmosphere and air running out at high altitudes meaning, as we see later, that gas masks are used. I like this sort if thing. Yes, by necessity all planets have to look like the South of England, but this kind of thing helps to counteract that and give an impression that we are indeed on another planet.

Servalan has also received a similar message, from a mysterious source later revealed to be Avon in the latest consequence of his rival with Blake. She also receives a very interesting visitor: the senior politician Joban, played by the utterly splendid Kevin Stoney. Their sparring conversation is an absolute joy, and it’s becoming clear that from this point onwards Servalan is under pressure to get results, or bad things may happen.

Blake teleports down and is warmly greeted by his uncle, played by the ubiquitous John Abineri although we know, of course, that Ushton has to be doing Travis’ bidding. More surprisingly, Avon, having scorned the whole enterprise as a typically stupid risk by Blake, and angrily told Blake that he shouldn’t expect anyone else to risk their own lives over his actions, suddenly and unexpectedly teleports down. He says only that he “feels responsible”, and it’s only later that we discover why: it was he who sent the message to Servalan.

It’s not long before Avon insists on bringing Vila down too, but they are all eventually captured by Travis and his “crimoes” (why do we keep getting silly words like this in Blake’s 7?). Travis interrogates Vila as to how to use the teleport bracelet, revealing how he missed his vocation as a travelling preacher (“The word! The word! The word!”). A Crimo teleports aboard the Liberator, gloats to Jenna and Cally about how intelligent and sadistic he is, and is promptly duffed up good and proper by both of them, being teleported into space for good measure.

Inga escapes, meaning Ushton no longer has to do Travis’ bidding, and the tide is soon turned. Yet again Travis is defeated, yet again Blake refuses to kill him for the usual flimsy reasons, and once again Avon clearly disapproves. Blake’s foolishness here is soon proves as, far from arresting him, Servalan strikes a deal; if Travis successfully leads her to Blake, she’ll have him officially listed as dead. This is quite daring of Servalan, especially after she deliberately ignored a message from Joban a little earlier. Could it be that she is now skating on some rather thin ice.

Another excellent episode, this, both on its own terms and in where it leaves the characters. What a shame that it has to end with an incestuous kiss between Blake and his own first cousin.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Blake's 7: Killer

“Yes, but then we're absentminded scientists, you see. In fact, we've forgotten your name already.”

Ooh, it’s a script by the great Robert Holmes! Seeing his name come up had me quite excited, I can tell you. What we get here is a seemingly effortless piece of storytelling, with the pacing, characterisation and plotting all just masterful.

We start the story in media res, with Avon and Vila teleporting down to the planet Phosphoron to embark on a mission of some kind. Phosphoron, like all planets we’ve seen so far, bears an uncanny resemblance to Hertfordshire or Surrey, and is home to a small Federation base. All of this is established with the kind of narrative efficiency and avoidance of blatant exposition that we don’t always get from Terry Nation, bless his cotton socks.

There’s another factor, though; a Wanderer class vessel spotted by the Liberator. This ship is six to seven centuries old and “infraluminal”; incapable of faster-than-light travel. Its position is a mystery; it should take much more than seven centuries to get to this part of the galaxy, and Cally detects a “malignant” presence.

This vessel has been spotted on Phosphoron, and preparations are being made to bring it to the surface for study. Meanwhile, Avon and Vila manage to break into the complex, which looks very similar to the many contemporary 1970s industrial locations we’ve seen on Blake’s 7 up to this point.

Robert Homes gives us his trademark well-rounded, worldly wise characters, with both Tynus and Dr Bellfriar having rather more depth than we would normally expect from characters of this type. We’re told that Avon plans to exploit his powers of blackmail over Tynus to force him to help them break a new Federation code which will allow them to listen in to all Federation communications. A plan is hatched, but it will take ten hours…

Orac has some information on the missing craft; the only Wanderer craft not accounted for disappeared in the area of 61 Cygni, the “darkling zone”, the only region of space near to earth which remains uncharted, and from whence no traveller returns. That’s nowhere near as alarming as the events on the surface; there’s been an invasion of Michelin men.

Oh, and Blake, motivated by nothing other than curiosity, teleports down and is immediately spotted and caught. Yes, Dr Bellfriar turns out to be friendly, but this doesn’t alter the fact that Blake is an utter plonker.

A body is found aboard the ship, and an autopsy is carried out, but the pathologist- nicely imbued with personality by both the script and Morris Barry in spite of such a minor role- is suddenly killed as the corpse comes to life, breaks his neck and promptly carks it again. Unfortunately, this lets loose a plague throughout the facility, which will mean that all of the guest characters, uniquely, die in this story.

Blake has theories; the virus is airborne, and not even those ridiculous masks with the dark shades and bubble wrap over the mouth are going to save and of the many redshirts. He quotes an historical instance of Lord Jeffery Amherst deliberately planning to use blankets infected with smallpox against, er “redskins” in North America during the Seven Years’ War. It seems that pre-space flight history is still remembered more than seven centuries in the future.

This is a deliberate attempt, it seems, by a hidden civilisation in the Cygnus 61 era to ethnically cleanse the galaxy of humans. Dr Bellfield’s concluding monologue seems to confirm that the virus will only affect those who have been exposed to deep space, in an attempt to confine humans to one planet. He is unable to finish the chemical formula for the antidote, however, and we have a very downbeat ending as Blake launches a plague warning to alert anyone approaching the planet.

Absolutely brilliant.