Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Blake's 7: Animals

“Why do I get all the dirty jobs?”


Another not-very-good episode, this, meaning the hit rate for Season Four has been fairly poor so far. It’s good to see a Dayna-focused episode, but Josette Simon’s performance is oddly stagey here.

Dayna teleports down to the planet Bucol Two to trace an old teacher of hers, Justin, although it soon becomes clear that their relationship had been rather more intimate than that. The planet’s surface, of course, looks like Hertfordshire as per tradition. Dayna soon encounters some men monster suits; horned, bearded, rice krispie-faced creatures which would probably have looked quite passable in 1981. It’s interesting comparing the unconvincing monsters in Blake’s 7 episodes which are new to me to similar monsters in Doctor Who at the same time; I suspect I tend to give old Doctor Who episodes a bit of a free pass because I’ve seen them so many times!

Dayna finally meets up with the odd but friendly Justin, but finds she’s unable to communicate with Scorpio. This is because Tarrant has had an unfortunate run-in with three Federation pursuit ships- once again, and ominously, noticeably faster and more dangerous than the last time- and has to return to base for repairs. Vila, naturally, has to do all the dirty work. I’m reminded of that sketch about social class from The Frost Report.

Justin, it seems, is performing dodgy genetic experiments on animals, and making a series of unconvincing excuses to Dayna. He clearly has feelings for her, but there’s an awkwardness which doesn’t seem to fit well with the idea that they were once lovers. Dayna gives him a clear description of what she and her friends are actually trying to do, something which has been lacking of late. They’re fighting the Federation, or intending to, and they’re looking for allies, equipment, experts, anything; it all sounds rather desperate. You get a real sense that they’re very much on the back foot, hiding away on their little base postponing the inevitable as the Federation grows ever stronger. The future does not look bright.

Servalan (or, as she’s still calling herself, Sleer) has spotted Scorpio after Tarrant’s unfortunate encounter. She doesn’t recognise it as Avon’s ship, but she certainly sees something odd about a planet hopper which can travel at time distort twelve. Intrigued also by the mysterious experiments said to be carried out there, she heads for Bucol Two.

She soon gets a major info-dump as to the nature of Justin’s experiments from “the man Arras”, played by Kevin Stoney, who’s oddly wasted in such a small and characterless role. He makes the foolish mistake of hinting that he’s aware of “Sleer” really being Servalan (“a non-person”), something which ends up drastically shortening his life expectancy. It seems we have the old Servalan back; from before the Intergalactic War and the presidency. It’s good to see her back where she’s best.

Meanwhile, back on Xenon, Avon has worked out that the Federation are likely to have spotted the speed at which the Scorpio was travelling, and are likely to investigate and capture Dayna. If that happens, the Federation will find their base and they’ll be finished. There’s no time to spare; they have to cut corners and get to Bucol Two. It’s here, I think, a few episodes into the season, that we’re suddenly made aware that Avon and co are in a fairly unenviable and increasingly desperate position. The Federation were weak for a while, but Avon failed to take advantage of this, and now they’re back and seem a bigger threat than ever. This situation places into sharp relief the contrast between Avon and Blake. Blake may have been a fanatic, but at least he got things done. Avon has just let things slide aimlessly. For all his tactical nous, he seems to have no long-term strategy or, indeed, goals. And it’s possible, I suppose, to look at his entire life- including his criminal career- as that of someone who’s intelligent and talented but with no real drive or ambition. And this seems likely to prove very costly. It’s a side of Avon’s character I hadn’t noticed before.          

Servalan captures Dayna easily enough and is soon interrogating her, and it’s surprising to see no reference to Dayna’s sworn vendetta against her. Has this been dropped? The interrogation is extremely totalitarian and sinister, as Dayna is brainwashed, through aversion therapy, to hate Justin and to betray him, Fortunately, and puzzlingly, she isn’t asked about where her friends are hiding.

The ending is sad, yes, but fails somewhat through the lack of conviction in Josette Simon’s performance. The aversion therapy isn’t quite reversed; she’s hypnotised into being in love with Justin. And yes, I know she said under interrogation that she loved him, but there are many kinds and degrees of love; this seems to be pretty much a full-on magic love potion. She is, of course, devastated by Justin’s death in the final; melee, but an increasingly cold and disturbed Avon (is he in denial of both his issues over Anna Grant and the direness of their situation?) is stony-faced and cold.

Monday, 29 August 2011

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

“I knew a Watson in Capri- a notorious white slaver. Nice fellow, though. A relation of yours?”

Yes, all right; it didn’t take me long to get back to Hammer. I can’t say there won’t be more in the near future, but there will be a diverse array of other films too, honest, guv.

We get the requisite lettering and weird, unsettling music as the film open with that familiar, Technicolor, stylised landscape which still manages to look unnatural in spite of the fact it was clearly filmed in your actual Dartmoor.

We open with Francis de Wolff narrating a tale of Sir Hugo Baskerville, presiding over a Hellfire Club-style decadent party during the eighteenth century. He’s evil, all right. Not only does he shove a bloke’s head into the fire for objecting to his daughter being kidnapped and abused, he also decides to have said daughter brought down to be gang-raped by all of his equally nasty mates. The girl has escaped, though, and Sir Hugo flies into a rage.

None of this detail is in the book; it’s clearly here to titillate, and makes uncomfortable viewing in our age. We may be less prudish now in 1959, but we’re far less comfortable with the use of implied sexual violence to titillate. Still, Sir Hugo is off hunting, with his sinister pack of hounds. In the dark, Dartmoor landscape we get a strong impression of the Wild Hunt, with its pagan associations of Woden or Herne the Hunter. In contrast to this, the girl takes sanctuary in a church, but this is no escape. Ultimately, though, Sir Hugo is killed by another, monstrous hound which is not quite of this world.

It is now revealed that all this has been narrated to Holmes and Watson by Dr. Mortimer, who seeks to engage Holmes on behalf of the new baronet, Sir Henry Baskerville. And here we meet Holmes (Peter Cushing) and Watson (Andre Morell). Oddly enough, the only real example of Homes’ deductive cleverness comes in his reasoning that Mortimer has really come about events on the previous Friday, glancing at a newspaper.

This film is very much in the house style of other early Hammers, although a little more faithful to the source material than most: the fast pace; the extra little moments of gore and excitement (the tense scene with the spider is a nice little addition!); and, most of all, the little digs at pre-1960s morality by the Angry Young Men generation who are making this film. It may be more deadpan and subtle than, say, the 1960s Batman TV series, but the same sort of humour is there, and Cushing is playing the part straight only in the sense that Adam West did.

Sir Henry is from South Africa, not Canada, presumably so that Lee doesn’t have to attempt a Canadian accent. He’s a rather arrogant, unlikeable, patrician sort. Then again, beneath the surface one suspects that he’s meant to be. Like The Mummy, this is conspicuously set in a world where country gentlemen hold all the power and can do whatever the hell they like. While The Mummy sees an absurdly deferential attitude on behalf of the police to the country gent hero, in this film the country gents decline to bother the pretty little heads of the constabulary at all, in spite of the numerous deaths and in contrast to Conan Doyle’s original novel. Holmes even takes it upon himself to ensure that Mrs Barrymore is not prosecuted. It’s hard not to see some class resentment in the script here; that Sir Henry is so unlikeable is, I suspect, no accident. On the way to Baskerville Hall he even expresses support for capital punishment, the bastard.

Holmes is, incidentally, very much one of these “gentlemen” here; she ostentatiously refuses Mortimer’s offer of a “generous” reward, insisting that his fees are “on a fixed scale, except where I remit them altogether”. Of course, he is in fact quite happy to accept a rather large sum at the end of the film, which rather undercuts this! This is very much the Sherlock Holmes film that Kingsley Amis’s Jim Dixon would have written.

Oh, and I love the way that everyone pronounces “Devonshire” as “Devonshaaah”!

It’s a joy to see John Le Mesurier as Barrymore but then, of course, it’s a joy to see John Le Mesurier in anything. And, much as Francis de Wolf may be playing Mortimer in a slightly red herring-ish sort of way, it’s obvious that Stapleton is a baddie as soon as we see him. Bishop Frankland, on the other hand, is a figure of pure comic relief, and reminds me very much of the sort of pomposity-puncturing absurd authority figure soon to be seen in the likes of Beyond the Fringe and the rest of the “satire boom”. There’s a particularly hilarious camp moment, played dead straight, where Holmes assures this bibulous, forgetful old dunderhead that he, Holmes, is “fighting evil, as surely as you do”.

The adventures of Watson and Sir Henry as they encounter the escaped convict on the moor leads Sir Henry to start having those heart palpitations that the plot occasionally requires. Watson, of course, prescribes the traditional Hammer remedy of brandy. What else? And, given the amount of alcohol we see being drunk, most of the characters in this film must spend a fair amount of the time half-cut.

I love Holmes’ absurdly dramatic behaviour here; threateningly brandishing a dagger around in front of Mortimer, casually announcing his survival from the collapsing mine, and being deliberately rude to Sir Henry just so he can use him as bait for his final trap for Stapleton.

The conclusion is dramatic, although there is an extra twist from the book; Stapleton’s daughter (as she is here), here named Cecile, is a deliberate conspirator who relishes taunting Sir Henry at the climax, and it is she, not Stapleton, who drowns in the mire.

Another enjoyable Hammer, this, although the format is now becoming amusingly familiar.

Blake's 7: Stardrive

“There are times when even the most cynical must trust in luck.”

Another episode from Jim Follett, then. It’s a perfectly decent piece of entertainment, if a little ho-hum, and interestingly it’s a definite sign of a more ‘80s sci-fi aesthetic, with the Space Rats looking very much like something out of Warhammer 40K.

We begin with a very revealing scene showing us just how reckless- almost to the point of a death wish- Avon has become since the events of Rumours of Death. He plans to take Scorpio dangerously close to an asteroid, and “ride” it to the location of some much-needed unobtainium without being spotted by the Federation. Everyone else makes it clear just how insane they think it is.

The result is catastrophic; the Scorpio crashes and sustains serious damage which endangers all their lives. Avon loses an awful lot of face here; he’d been unchallenged as alpha male for a while to this point but this sort of humiliation can’t help him.

Interestingly, it’s Vila who comes up with the idea which saves them all, allowing Vila and Tarrant to repair the hull with a limited force wall protecting them from the vacuum. It’s fascinating that he has to pretend to be drunk and pass of the idea as someone else’s, too. This is a great example of the disconnect between Vila’s “high intelligence” (as we were told in Sarcophagus) and his sometimes literal status as court jester.

Three Federation pursuit ships suddenly appear while Scorpio is a sitting duck, but somehow they all seem to spontaneously explode. Avon has the whole crew watching slowed-down footage, in shifts, for hours, to find out why. Ultimately, Soolin (we still know nothing about her!) spots a small ship at the bottom of the screen. And Vila recognises the helmet; they’re Space Rats.

Apparently the Federation has banned all use of small ships (the equivalent of motorbikes?) for leisure travel, so the only people who use such vehicles are criminal gangs. The Space Rats are violent, joyriding thugs, according to Vila, and the nearest lot are on the planet Caspar. They seem to have access to a very new kind of advanced “photonic” space drive, however, something that a Dr. Plaxton was working on before the Federation collapsed. (Of course, the Federation is now very much on the rise again, and we see signs of this every episode. I note that Orac comments on the Federation’s ship programme being ahead of schedule).

Vila and Dayna teleport down for a spot of reconnaissance. The planet turns out to look, predictably, exactly like a quarry. But Vila and Dayna have been spotted. Avon, meanwhile, is well aware that they’re both going to be captured, and is willing to sacrifice them as a diversion. The Scorpio needs that stardrive.

The Space Rats, at first glance, look fantastic, with really, really great hair and great patterns on their face from either tattoos or make-up. This is, I’m fairly sure, the first ever appearance of any punk-derived fashions on any BBC sci-fi drama. Unfortunately, our inevitable niggling doubts about how they can possibly wear helmets with hair like that lead us to notice that their “Mohicans” are in fact crude wig / hat things. Bah!

We discover that Dr Plaxton (none other than the great Barbara Shelley!) and her underling are working for the Space Rats for some reason, developing an ever better stardrive prototype. Unfortunately, we get a rather annoying couple of lines implying that Space Rats don’t ever bathe. This is an insult commonly applied to youth culture of all kinds, and a rather nasty and unfair one. It used to drive me up the wall in my Grunge / thrash metal teens and twenties. I also notice that all of them except Atlan, their leader, are portrayed as thick and inarticulate. Not that I’m bitter at all. Of course, such over-sensitivity to this script’s patronisingly old-fashioned attitude to youth culture now marks me out as an old fart who can remember when such things existed.

Oh, and how come there’s a planet which seems to be occupied entirely by young people who belong to this youth culture? Why are there no older Space Rats? Where are there parents? How does all this work economically? I think we should be told.

Dayna reports back that they’ve found the little “choppers” and where the stardrive must be kept, but Avon is rather evasive when she asked that Vila and she be teleported back aboard. We then cut to Avon, Tarrant and Soolin; they’re on the surface too! He’s deliberately allowed them to walk into a trap as a diversion. This episode seems more and more to really be about Avon and his increasingly reckless behaviour. It’s a good job the Space Rats are a bit rubbish and not particularly scary, really.

Our heroes don’t have too much trouble, after a perfunctory chase scene, in escaping with both the stardrive and Dr. Plaxton. Unfortunately, they are immediately targeted by three Federation pursuit ships. Fortunately, Dr Plaxton offers to get the stardrive working so they can escape, and works very hard to get it ready. This is where we find out just how ruthless and dangerous Avon has become; just to give them a few more seconds, he sacrifices her life. It works, and the Scorpio breaks clear.

“What about Dr. Plaxton?”, Avon is asked. “Who?”, he replies. This episode may be notable for giving the Scorpio a super-duper hyperdrive, but it seems to be a bit of a tipping point in Avon’s continuing psychological breakdown.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Doctor Who: Let's Kill Hitler

“Well, I was off to this gay gypsy bar mitzvah for the disabled when I thought ‘Gosh, the Third Reich’s a bit rubbish. I think I’ll kill the Fuhrer.’”

Wow. Still reeling a bit from that. Also, I took a lot more notes than I usually do. Lots of writing ahead, and I want to get this review out tonight. Damn you, Moffat, with your intricate and cool story arcs.

Amy and Rory are driving about a cornfield in a rubbish old mini, making crop circles just to summon the Doctor. He arrives, and asks permission from Mr Pond to hug Mrs Pond- nice touch! We establish that the Doctor hasn’t made any progress in tracking down their baby.

Then, suddenly, in a very flash car, comes someone we haven’t met before. She’s called Mels, she’s known Amy and Rory for a long time, she doesn’t do weddings, she’s heard all about the Doctor, and she’s on the run from the fuzz. Oh, and she has a gun. And a plan. Cue opening titles.

We now get a flashback, inserting Mels into the childhoods of Amelia and Rory, whom we now discover to have been childhood sweethearts. Mels, of course, is always getting in trouble. There’s a particularly nice bit in which Mels alerts Amy to the fact Rory fancies her, which not only firmly draws her tightly into both of their lives and leads the audience to accept this new character as an old friend, but introduces a little verbal meme (“The penny drops…”) which will become important later.

In a particularly nice shot from Richard Senior, we cut from a spinning model TARDIS in Amy’s bedroom to a spinning real TARDIS in the sky. Mels has just shot the console, to test whether the Doctor’s talk about “temporal grace” really is just a “clever lie”…

Berlin, 1938, and there are already time travellers here, in the form of lots of little people controlling a chap’s body. This reminds me so much of a certain strip from the Beezer that I’m going to refer to them as the Numbskulls. The Numbskulls set about copying the body of a Nazi officer, and send the now miniaturised Nazi into the body’s head, where he is promptly knocked off by an “antibody”. I love the antibody’s officious language and instructions to remain calm!

Incidentally, is it just me or does one of the numbskulls look exactly like Peter Andre?

The numbskull body seems to be about to assassinate Hitler when the TARDIS crashes through the window. Our TARDISeers are pleasingly rude to Adolf, but are taken unawares when he suddenly shoots his putative assassin. They are rather annoyed at this, and Adolf duly spends the rest of the episode in the cupboard.

All is not well, though; the bullet also hit Mels, and she seems to be dying. And, interestingly, the numbskulls suddenly detect the presence of an even greater war criminal than Hitler. I thought for a moment that they were referring to the Doctor but no; it’s Mels. And she’s regenerating. “Last time I did this,” she says, “I ended up a toddler. In the middle of New York.” Suddenly, a lot of things make sense. As the Doctor says, Amy and Rory named their daughter after… herself.

Melody regenerates into Alex Kingston (incidentally, this would seem to put to bed the tiresome debate about whether or not an “ethnic” actor could ever play the Doctor with a resounding affirmative!). “Who’s River Song?” she asks. “Spoilers!”

There’s a problem, though. The Numbskulls recognise her as “the woman who kills the Doctor”, and she’s been trained and conditioned to do so ever since her kidnap as a baby. This is the fulfilment of Madame Kovorkian’s plan.

She tries to kill the Doctor in a fun little timey-wimey scene which borrows quite liberally from Moffat’s own The Curse of the Fatal Death. I love the bit with the banana, with its nod to The Doctor Dances. During all this, though, she poisons him with a kiss. He’s dying.

Melody, pausing only to get briefly shot point blank by a whole bunch of Nazis, steals a motorbike and rides off. Amy and Rory follow on another bike, only for the Numbskulls to follow.

The Numbskulls are confused. They know River / Melody kills the Doctor, but she does so in Utah, in 2011. (This seems to tell us pretty conclusively who was in that spacesuit.) And we discover that the Doctor’s death is a fixed point in time, immutable. Get out of that one, Moffat.

The Doctor utilises the TARDIS interface, which shows us briefly that he feels increasingly guilty about Rose, Martha and, especially, Donna, settling on the form of the young Amelia, “before it all went wring”. This is highly revealing about how he sees his relationships with his companions, especially in the light of what we learned in Amy’s Choice. Still, he gets the useful information that he has thirty-two minutes to live.

Melody steals the clothes at gunpoint from all the guests at a posh Nazi do, just so that she can have the equivalent of the Doctor’s own post-regeneration dressing room scene. Here she’s found by Amy, Rory, and the Numbskull. Unfortunately, Amy and Rory suddenly end up inside the robot replica, and are almost killed by an antibody before Peter Andre issues them with some bracelets.

Here we get some answers. Numbskull Amy reads out the charge: “You killed the Doctor on the orders of the movement known as the Silence and the Academy of the Question.” The Numbskulls, it seems, use time travel to find notorious criminals who historically remained unpunished, and torture them horribly just before their natural deaths. Sound like a right bunch of bloody Daily Mail readers…

Fortunately, the Numbskulls have hardly started torturing Melody when the Doctor arrives and stops it. He may be dying, but he’s still bothered to take the time to dress up in white tie. We get more answers; the Silence are not a species, but a movement, a religious order. How are they linked to the Clerics, I wonder? It seems they believe that “Silence will fall when the Question is asked”. The Question is, apparently the first and oldest in the universe. I take it the Silence haven’t heard / read / seen The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

The Numbskulls start torturing Melody again, but fortunately her parents manage to stop it. Unfortunately, this leads to their being surrounded by antibodies that want to kill them. Fortunately, they are saved by the TARDIS materialising around them. It’s piloted by their daughter, who is surprised to find that she can instinctively pilot the Ship because she’s a “child of the TARDIS”, whatever that means. Of course, she was conceived aboard the Ship…

Rule One: The Doctor dies. Except he doesn’t, because Melody somehow uses up all her remaining regenerations to save him. Appropriately, this too is done with a kiss. We leave her in hospital, where the Doctor has left her a present: a diary decorated as a TARDIS.

We end with some unanswered questions. The Doctor, we see, is well aware of the time and place of his impending death. Does River kill him? Is that why she’s in prison?

Torchwood: Miracle Day (Part Seven)

“I’m sorry, Angelo. But this is the story of my life.”

Another episode from Jane Espenson. It’s brilliant, as you’d expect, and moves the plot on quote a bit while focusing on the characters of Jack and Gwen, who have become somewhat neglected of late in their own show.

We start with a flashback to 1927, and a bunch of Italian immigrants at Ellis Island; it’s pretty much obligatory to mention The Godfather, Part II here. Jack is here on some sort of mission for Torchwood, but finds the time to meet (and seduce) an immigrant called Angelo Colasanto.

Meanwhile, in 2011, Gwen arrives back in Venice, and abruptly calls Jack outside, immediately tying him up and putting him in the back of a car, in line with her instructions from last episode. Her family is in danger; it’s very clear that she has absolutely no qualms about doing what has to be done.

In 1927, Jack gives Angelo some advice: he’s to spend the last two years before the Wall Street Crash saving money. But “Don’t worry. It gets better. Then it gets worse again.” All this must seem rather unnecessarily mysterious to any new viewers in America who may be unaware of Jack’s backstory, but it’s nice to get a bit more on Jack’s long past. These sorts of flashbacks are, after all, a Torchwood tradition.

There’s a long sex scene between two of them, the first extended gay sex scene, or sex scene of any kind, yet seen in the entire Whoniverse. The two of them connect afterwards in away which makes it clear that Jack is after a relationship, although not a permanent one. His immortality and his normal sex drive are not good, er, bedfellows; deep down he must know that he’s hurting everyone with whom he has more than a one night stand, including Ianto, of course. But, on the other hand, he’s a human being with human feelings and urges. It’s complicated.

Some lines from Angelo remind us that this is the 1920s, and that being gay was rather more complicated back then, a fact for which Jack has little understanding or empathy. We also have the two of them observing a wedding ceremony, at which Jack comments that the beauty of it is the commitment in the here and now, whatever may happen later. Of course, the only possible purpose for this scene is for it to come back and bite him later.

In 2011, Jack wakes up. Not only is he being kidnapped and probably taken to his death by probably his closest remaining friend, but he gets a tongue-lashing as well. Gwen is convinced that the whole “miracle” situation is the result of something Jack has done at some point in his “long bloody life”. As we shall see, she’s right, but under the circumstances it seems a little harsh.

1927 again, and Angelo becomes mixed up in Jack’s mission. At first he seems to be doing a spot of bootlegging (why so many people wanted to emigrate to a country you couldn’t even get a bloody drink is beyond me!!!), but it becomes clear that his real motive is to make contact with a bunch of local gangsters and learn the location of a certain box in a certain warehouse. And if I hadn’t mentioned The Godfather: Part 2 earlier, I would have had to have mentioned it now.

As per his usual habits, Jack tries to get rid of Angelo at this point. But Angelo persuades him to keep him around as a “companion”; Jack directly compares himself to the Doctor here. This makes sense. He’s certainly seemed a little more Doctorish of late.

The two of them set off, find the crate, and uncover its contents; a nasty alien worm, a parasite, set to infect FDR ready to drive him mad during his second term, throwing Earth’s history off course. This is all courtesy of the Trickster’s Brigade. Yes, that’s right. A Sarah Jane Adventures continuity reference!

Jack dissolves the nasty little thing and the two of them scarper. But then things go wrong; Jack is killed and Angelo is captured. Except that Jack gets better, while Angelo spends a year in prison.

Back to 2011, and Gwen is now angry at herself. She feels that Torchwood was “toxic from day one”, that she was horrible to Rhys, that she was basically motivated by how important she felt, and that even the deaths of her friends just made her feel more important, and unique, and “better” than them for surviving, a thought which now horrifies her. She warns Jack that she will kill him, if her daughter’s life depends on it. He, on the other hand, however long he’s lived, doesn’t want to die. He warns her that he feels the same way, and they understand each other. This is damn good writing, with the importance lying in what remains unsaid.

1928, and Jack meets Angelo outside the prison upon his release. But things have changed; Angelo saw him die, and is freaked out. So much so, in fact, that he believes him to be the Devil, and stabs him to death. Worse, he shows Jack to others, and soon there are a large group of people in Little Italy who see that he’s immortal, killing him again and again, and seeming to take samples of his freely flowing blood. The word “miracle” is used. The broad shape of what is happening in 2011 now becomes a lot clearer.

Angelo eventually feels remorseful and rescues him, but not before three mysterious behatted men seem to make a deal on the terms by which they “own” him. He even washes Jack’s feet, in a rather embarrassing piece of symbolism. But Jack’s had enough; as soon as he retrieves his coat and vortex manipulator from their hiding place, he coldly dumps Angelo and disappears.

2011, and Gwen and Jack make their rendezvous with the mysterious people behind the contact lenses. These people turn out to be Nana Visitor and a couple of underlings. Suddenly, a sniper’s spot appears; Rex and Esther have discovered the text on the contact lenses on the monitor screen and have been waiting.  Nana Visitor and co are apprehended, while Gwen’s family, in South Wales, are freed by Andy and his fellow coppers. They’ve won. Except… Nana Visitor claims that nothing has changed; Jack is still coming with them, and no coercion is needed. Because Angelo is waiting, and has been for a very long time…

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Blake's 7: Traitor

“Maybe we should start running now…”

Hooray for Robert Holmes! Nuanced characterisation, themes, complex narratives- how I’ve missed these things!

There are a bewildering amount of Federation officers to keep track of, mind. Just to get things straight in my heads; the chap with the eyepatch is Quute; above him is a general whom we may as well call “The General; there’s the mysterious Leitz; and the sadistic Sleer, unseen until the end. Right…

We begin with Quute sending a curiously tame captured rebel back to his mates, who are apparently led by a Star Major Hunda. The man has had a tracer placed on him so the rebel base can be blown up, but fortunately (for Hunda and co), he is blown up before reaching them. In a typical Holmesian touch, Quute and his underling blow him up while playing chess, which is not only very, very cool but pre-empts the episode’s themes.

Meanwhile, on board the Scorpio, Orac announces that yet another world has been re-integrated into the Federation’s interstellar computer network: Helotrix, home to the Helots (nice classical reference there). This clearly shocks Avon and co; the Federation is expanding with shocking speed. This scene seems to be pivotal; too late, our heroes discover how they have horribly underestimated the Federation, and that their failure to capitalise on its recent weakness may well come back to bite them. Avon insists they go to Helotrix to find the secret behind the Federation’s success.

We then have a fascinating little meal between Quute and his commanding officer. It seems to be quite a luxurious meal, complete with (real?) white wine. And the conversation- death from afar vs. close fighting with cold steel- starts a theme which is developed throughout the episode. Some exposition is cleverly mixed up here; the Helots, like other recently conquered people, have been “adapted” courtesy of a drug which renders them docile. There’s a debate about whether or not this makes them good soldiers which, again, foreshadows later events.

Back aboard the Scorpio, Dayna’s ethnicity gets mentioned for the second episode in a row, and it’s explained that Helotrix is one of the earliest settled planets, and one of the first to declare independence from the Federation. Interestingly, Soolin implies she disputes the contention that humans all originate from Earth, which seems to imply that at least some degree of historical knowledge has been lost. Then again, I suppose it’s no worse than the barmy conspiracy theories that infest the Internet today.

This comment is the only spark of personality that Soolin displays, incidentally. Three episodes in she seems to have no personality and no hinterland whatsoever. I still have no idea who she is.

A comment from Vila confirms that he Scorpio is a much, much more rubbish ship than the Liberator was, and that they have no chance whatsoever of outrunning Federation pursuit ships. Orac may be designing faster engines (or delegating the task of doing so!), but we get the sense that the days of our heroes occupying a state-of-the-art ship are long gone.

It’s Dayna and Tarrant who teleport down to discover the Federation’s apparent new secret weapon. On the surface, the new governor arrives, and we get some exposition. It seems that Servalan (who seems to have changed her title to “supreme empress”!) is no longer in charge, and presumed dead, after a coup took place against her. Still, her body is missing, and that tells us everything, including that she escaped from the Liberator.

This planet has a unique and impressive quality; foggy, marshy and oppressive, it doesn’t look at all like the South East of England. It looks as though it may well have been filmed in some truly exotic climes, such as East Anglia, perhaps. Dayna and Tarrant, hiding in the fog, have the good fortune to bump into Hunda, there on a mission of his own, who’s exactly the chap they need. He tells them what they need to know about the Federation’s mind-altering drug.

Meanwhile, the new governor is murdered by persons unknown, and Leitz turns out to be a secret rebel agent, telling Hunda of away to get into the Federation HQ through the “old monorail” (how prescient of Holmes to guess that they would become passé!), while Dayna and Tarrant are told where the drug is manufactured, which is conveniently nearby.

All is not as it seems, however; Leitz is a double agent who has lured them all into a trap. The scene in which he reveals this is a typically assured piece of writing by Holmes, as he uses the fact that he was leaking secrets to the Federation’s enemies as his alibi for the governor’s murder!

Dayna and Tarrant meet Forbus, a bloke in a wheelchair who has been forced to manufacture the MacGuffin Drug (Did he mention homeopathy as though it were a plausibly scientific process? Grr!) under duress, by Leitz and the equally sadistic Sleer. Fortunately, he has an antidote! This immediately alerts our heroes that they’re walking into a trap set by Leitz, and they set off to warn their fellow rebels.

The Scorpio is spotted, but Avon prefers to hide behind the clouds rather than bugger off. There was a time when he wouldn’t have done that; he seems a lot more impulsive these days and, dare I say it, shows some indications of a death wish. Is this the result of the devastating revelations surrounding Anna Grant? It’ll be interesting to see if this theory continues to hold water.

Dayna and Tarrant manage to warn Hunda and suggest changes to the plan of attack, which goes ahead successfully. In the mêlée, however, they spot none other than Servalan! It turns out that the previously unseen Sleer is in fact Servalan under an assumed name. Leitz is her accomplice and, it seems, her lover, but at the slightest hint of blackmail she naturally bumps him off.

Tarrant and Dayna return to the Scorpio and reveal to Avon that Servalan is alive. He’s not best pleased…

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Blake's 7: Power

“You can have war between races, war between cultures, war between planets. But once you have war between the sexes, you eventually run out of people…”

Oh dear. That’s two rubbish episodes in a row. Straight after last episode’s pointless rip-off of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Ben Steed goes and bloody gives us a “battle of the sexes episode”.

It doesn’t start well, either. You remember how I praised the new title sequence last episode? Well, this time I’ve noticed there’s no apostrophe any more in “Blake’s 7”. Grr.

Anyway, we’re still on Xenon, and Vila still has to open that door from last episode if our heroes are to have any hope of reaching Scorpio or, indeed, food. Avon, foraging, is swiftly caught by a couple of the sort of crossbow-wielding savages who have long since become one of the drearier Blake’s 7 clichés. It’s clear that Avon has fallen afoul of “hostiles” so Tarrant and Dayna go looking for him. Tarrant continues to be a total arse; knowing perfectly well that there are “hostiles” about, he loudly shouts Avon’s name!

Vila meets a rather attractive-looking Pella, one of the “Seska”, who has mysteriously got herself into the complex, and she kindly tells Vila that the door is programmed to detonate a nuclear device after forty-eight hours without Dorian’s voiceprint! Avon has less pleasant company; the tribe he’s forced to interact with are the “Hommiks”, led by Gunsar, who’s a bit thick. Using his typically adroit diplomatic skills, Avon manages to talk himself into a fight to the death with Gunsar. I like the way he chooses a glove as his weapon and manages, technically, to win before being unfairly hit from behind, but we’ve seen this sort of thing so often before.

Pella, and two of her Friends, realise they’re going to need Avon, now that Dorian is dead, to reach Scorpio, and accordingly they set out to rescue him. They don’t do very well; two of them are caught, and Pella soon joins Avon in his cell. Things still don’t look all that bad elsewhere, but the bomb goes off in not much more than three hours, and Orac, git that he is, is talking in riddles.

We learn things, though. Avon and Pella escape, and Pella escapes with Avon to prevent an operation of some kind being performed on her friend. She’s shocked to see the operation performed by a long-lost friend and Seska, Nina, who is deliberately staying with the tribe, because she wants to be a woman.

We get a bit of context for this as Vila, Dayna, and Tarrant look at some old recordings. It seems that twenty years ago a war concluded between the Seska (who are all women, apparently) and the Hommiks. It’s at this point that the horrible truth dawns on us; this is that horrible, horrible cliché of a war between the sexes.

Now that we have the context, it becomes more than a little eyebrow-raising to see Avon overwhelming Pella with his male strength and forcibly kissing her! He’s making a bit of a habit of this sort of thing.

Avon finds the central computer room, operated by Gunsar’s adviser, Cato, without the knowledge of his rather thick boss. It seems that, after the war ended twenty years earlier, technology had to start again from the very beginning. This room, which powers the light and heat, is run secretly. We’re about to hear more, but Pella kills him by means of Avon’s trigger finger. She’s telekinetic, and goes on to further demonstrate this by knocking Avon out with a levitating object.

The episode is beyond hope now; even Dayna’s challenge to Gunsar can’t liven things up. We end with our heroes and the Seska stood by the door to Scorpio, trying to agree terms. There were never any more Seska than the ones we see; there are only two left, and Pella is about to shoot the other! She deactivates the bomb, but she has a clever plan; threatening Dayna with a gun, she heads to Scorpio to take off by herself. Avon, however, has been cleverer (isn’t he always?), and has conspired with Orac to get the teleport working. After he’s teleported aboard and dealt with her, our heroes have a new ship. But Soolin is still around…

That was utter crap. I hope this season comes up with a good episode soon; it’s been rubbish so far.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Blake's 7: Rescue

“Beneath that cold exterior beats a heart of pure stone.”

Well, it had to happen eventually; a bad script from Chris Boucher. He’s usually so full of ideas, but not here. I preferred Oscar Wilde’s version as if it needed saying. What’s the point of “homaging” something if you’ve got nothing to say about it? Also, the early 1980s BBC conception of the future being dull, functional corridors is hardly something to satisfy an aesthete.

Still… a brand shiny new season, then, with some genuinely fantastic new titles which remind me very much of an old Acorn Electron game called Starship Command. We’re following directly on from the end of last season, as Dayna and Avon watch Gerald the Gorilla head into the ship Servalan has so kindly left for them. The ship immediately blows up; it was a booby trap.

Avon immediately realises that, if Servalan booby-trapped the ship, she will have booby-trapped her headquarters to go off simultaneously, too. No wonder her terms seemed so suspiciously reasonable last episode.

We see Vila dragging an unconscious Tarrant outside just before there’s a second, huge, explosion. Cally is killed by this explosion. Jan Chappell doesn’t even appear in this episode, and we only hear her voice for two last, telepathic, lines. Her last word is “Blake”.

It’s a shame that the focus then moves elsewhere and Cally’s death is pretty much downplayed for the rest of the episode. Even Gan got more of a send-off.

Having found what’s left of Orac, our team rather foolishly split up, inevitably getting into trouble. Dayna and Vila are rescued from their Sarlacc-like predicament by some bloke called Dorian, who seems to have a bizarre S&M relationship with his ship’s computer. Our heroes are less than grateful, though; as soon as Avon arrives he pulls a gun on him and the lot of them hijack his ship, just in the nick of time as we get played loads of stock footage of earthquakes, volcanoes and stuff.

For all we know at this point, Dorian is what he appears to be; an innocent salvage chap. And this makes it seem very clear that Avon and co are committing a particularly nasty and very serious crime here: stealing someone’s spaceship by means of armed hijacking. Yes, our heroes have always been criminals, but there’s always been something of a romanticised Robin Hood quality to their crime, and this diminishes them as protagonists. Yes, I know Dorian turns out to be a baddie (he bloody well had to after this), but that doesn’t justify the hijacking.

There’s an interesting Dayna moment as she passes a connoisseur’s judgement on the adjustable weapons they find aboard. And this scene immediately tells us that this ship is going to replace the Liberator (it even has a partly-formed teleport bay), or otherwise it wouldn’t be here.

The ship, we learn, is called Scorpio, and they’re headed to a planet called Xenon. As soon as they arrive, though, they discover that the only person around, aside from Dorian, is a rather gorgeous lady called Soolin, who remains enigmatic for pretty much the whole episode. It seems, initially, that she and Dorian are a couple. It also seems that they were expected, and they receive an oddly hospitable reception for a bunch of hijackers. They even get a glass of wine each (one glass too many; that’s for Cally), which is apparently supposed to be quite good, which is odd as it appears to be rosé. Still, we learned in Moloch that “real” wine is supposed to be rare, so perhaps beggars can’t be choosers.

There follows an odd, underground scene between an inexplicably aged Dorian and some horrible creature in the underground darkness, which immediately tells us something isn’t right. I’m sure that there are plenty of viewers far more eagle-eyed from myself who immediately guessed which novel was being ripped off at this point.

The party splits up again, with unpleasant circumstances all round, especially for Dayna. Only Vila, sensibly deciding to get sloshed, is not in trouble. Avon gets the exposition; Dorian has been on the planet for two centuries (has the wine really lasted that long without being drunk?) but hasn’t aged a day, and is able to indulge all sort of unspecified vices, which would no doubt, if we could see them, be both shockingly depraved and far too expensive for the Blake’s 7 budget. Oh, and his first victim was a male “partner”. That figures; it’s inevitable that he would turn out to be gay because, like, so was Oscar Wilde and stuff (actually, both Dorian and Wilde seem to have been bisexual, but let’s not get sidetracked).

Anyway, Vila saves the day (hooray for getting sloshed!), and Soolin quickly nips upstairs…

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Blake's 7: Terminal

“Incidentally, you should always be careful about getting a second hand spacecraft. They can be very unreliable.”

Ooh, Terry Nation’s back for the season finale! Surely he would have been in California for about a year now? We are indeed privileged!

Avon’s gone all mysterious; he’s taking the ship to some mysterious location for some kind of “rendezvous”, and he goes all mardy whenever anyone else tries to go on to the flight deck. Everyone else has got the message and is leaving him alone. Dayna and Cally are playing space chess, if you believe the dialogue, or Space Monopoly, if you believe the props department.

Tarrant, of course, has a go at confronting Avon, but it’s no use; Avon is at this point indisputably top dog. He’s changed course, and he won’t say where or why. Even more strangely, he receives a message and then sets off to a new location. It’s just like a galactic treasure hunt. And Avon’s in a hurry; he’s not even prepared to avoid a possibly dangerous cloud of fluid, and proves this by pulling a gun on Tarrant. Still, what harm can a bit of fluid on the hull do?

Eventually they arrive at their destination. Terminal is an artificial galaxy, long thought destroyed, created 411 years ago in an orbit near Mars. It has now been moved right across the galaxy for reasons which remain unexplained. Whatever its origins, however, it just so happens to look like- yes, you guessed it- the South-East of England.

Avon teleports down, leaving the others with strict instructions not to follow. If he misses just one of his hourly call-backs, they are to leave on a pre-programmed course, and a pre-recorded message explaining his actions will be played on arrival. That’s it. Avon gives no further explanation before teleporting down. Naturally, Tarrant and Cally make plans to follow.

Avon is being watched by two sinister-looking mulleted Aryan types, as the treasure hunt continues. Eventually, Avon finds an entrance to some kind of underground base. Meanwhile, aboard the Liberator, the liquid is gradually penetrating the ship’s hull.     

The two mulleted strangers attempt to follow Avon, but are suddenly attacked and killed by Gerald from Not the Nine O’ Clock News. What else?

Exploring this strange underground location, Avon discovers evidence that none other than Blake himself is being held somewhere close by, and is receiving treatment for some very serious injuries. At this point, though, Avon is caught, and knocked out.

On board the Liberator, things are getting serious as the strange alien enzymes threaten to overwhelm the ship. Interesting, though, that it’s Vila who takes charge of the situation, ordering Zen to cease repairs in the hope that focusing on diagnosing the problem might save them all.

Cally and Tarrant reach the door, where they are attacked. Fortunately, Gerald and his flange of silly gorilla costumes are mysteriously much less formidable that they were against those two redshirts earlier, and are quickly disposed of.

Avon wakes up to find himself lying on a table, but somehow at liberty to wander about. Soon he finds a bearded Blake, lying on a table. It’s a shock to see Blake again; the banter between the two of them is the same as ever. Blake has discovered an exciting but vague supply of unobtainium nearby, but is unable to leave his life support and survive. Avon is rendered unconscious again suspiciously soon after this.

The following scene is fascinating; something is done to Avon, and he’s put back exactly where he was before. A lot of effort is expended to ensure he has no idea he’s been moved. This is a pleasingly metatextual scene; the comment that “We must keep the continuity right” must be a constant refrain in any television drama.     

It is, of course, an elaborate trap set by Servalan; what else could it have been? Avon is wonderfully unsurprised, and the conversation between them has just the right amount of flirting to keep this very interesting relationship simmering nicely.

Servalan is oddly lenient in her demands; a season ago she would have been much more ruthless. In return for the Liberator, she’s prepared to grant Avon his liberty, along with that of his comrades; Blake; and a ship. What we know, and Servalan doesn’t, is that the Liberator is dying. Zen’s last words are quite moving, and it’s interesting that it should be Vila who is most affected.

Servalan hasn’t quite kept her side of the bargain; “Blake” was an illusion, carefully engineered by the continuity artist and their mates, and the ship they are to have will require a bit of work. Servalan claims that Blake died a year ago and she saw him cremated. Of course, we only have her word for this.

Annoyingly, Servalan spouts some absolute crap about the flanges of Geralds being what man is said to evolve into. What utter arsecack!!! That isn’t how natural selection works. Sorry, bit of a bugbear of mine.

It’s a pyrrhic victory for Servalan, of course. She has the Liberator, but as soon as she orders it moved (“Maximum power!”), it starts to blow up. Servalan is last seen running into the teleporter…

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Blade Runner (1982)

“Aren’t you the ‘good’ man?”

I should probably say at the start that I watched the Director’s Cut, on one of those old DVD’s with the anti-piracy trailers that you’re forced to sit through. Grr. Also, I’m afraid I haven’t read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Anyway, this is well good.

We get a quick blurb with the backstory; there are replicants, the Tyrell Corporation have an apparent monopoly on manufacturing them. They’re stronger, and at least as intelligent as humans. They’re used as slaves on off-world colonies, but have revolted. They’re banned on Earth, and “blade runner” units exist to track them down. All this by 2019. That’s this decade!

The film has a distinctive look (and sound, all by Vangelis; it works very well). It’s always night, it’s always raining. The architecture in large scale looks like something Sauron might have designed. There’s loads of neon. It’s all stylised, not realistic; while looking impressive, there’s no real attempt to not make the street scenes look like sets, and this works, adding to the claustrophobic and alienating feel. It’s always dark indoors, too, and the lighting is never natural.

This doesn’t at all resemble the pre-existing sci-fi clichés of what the futuristic is supposed to look like. The fashions, and the interior design, reflect the 1930s and 1940s and this, alongside the presence of a hero who basically is Philip Marlowe, gives this a strong noir feel.

We begin with a rather Orwellian test to see if a nervous man is a replicant. His life depends on getting the questions right; the air-conditioning in the ceiling reminds us very much of guillotine blades. Hanging in the air is the question of whether a true human could fail this test.

The interrogator is wearing a 1930s suit and smoking a cigar. It’s the cigar that unfortunately dates this. Off-world colonies and humanoid robots by 2019 I can believe, but smoking in the workplace? Never!

Suddenly, the chap being tested shoots his inquisitor, and we switch to Deckard, played superbly by Harrison Ford, he who yields to no one in his repertoire of angst-ridden facial expressions. He’s reading a newspaper, another activity which seems likely to be archaic by 2019.

Deckard is “arrested”, but it’s soon clear that this is just his old boss’ way of getting his attention. As the hoary old cliché goes, he’s retired from the force but is being forced back because no one else is as good as him, dammit.

The following exposition scene is necessary but a bit awkward; if Deckard is an experienced blade runner then he wouldn’t need telling about the replicants’ four year lifespan. Still, we learn that there are five replicants. Roy is their leader, and we also have Zhora, Leon (whom we’ve already met) and Pris, a “pleasure model” (apparently “standard issue”).

We see a blatant coca cola ad as Deckard is flown away, with the bloke chauffeuring him maintaining the retro look by dressing like a World War Two air pilot.

We’ve established that everyone is dressed like the 1930s, and that Decker is basically Philip Marlowe, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see a femme fatale at this point. Deckard pays a visit to the Tyrell Corporation, where he’s met firstly by an artificial owl and secondly by Rachel, with her ‘40s hairstyle, played icily by Sean Young. Interestingly and, as we shall soon discover, pertinently, she asks whether Deckard has ever accidentally “retired” a human by mistake.

Tyrell, her boss, insists that Deckard start by subjecting Rachel to the test. Deckard insists they more elsewhere because “it’s too bright in here”(!), and we discover, inevitably, that Rachel is a replicant, albeit a chain-smoking one. She’s an experiment of Tyrell’s, given a set of memories and unaware of what she is. Now she knows. Cue lots and lots of existential angst.

After a scene in which Roy shows us how badass he is by torturing a bloke for information (Rutger Hauer is infinitely better here than he will be in Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Rachel pays Deckard a visit, insisting that she’s not a replicant. But Deckard insists that she is; those vivid childhood memories are not hers, but those of Tyrell’s niece. But then, as soon as he sees tears in his eyes, he takes it all back, insisting it’s a “bad joke”. This is very Marlowe.

We see a lady dressed in a way which, this being Hollywood, leads us to expect her to be a prostitute. She settles down to sleep rough, but runs into J.P. Sebastian, the very man Roy is looking for. J.P., rather than dressing in 1930s clothes like everyone else, is dressed like a civilian from Judge Dredd. He’s something of an innocent geek. He lives alone in a block of flats which seems otherwise deserted, and his only friends are eighteenth-century style automatons which he made himself. Pris is grateful for his hospitality, while she waits for her “friends”…

Deckard has a well weird dream about a white unicorn, I have no idea what this means. There follows a rather cool scene in which Deckard interrogates a piece of footage by zooming in and out, and finds a mysterious woman in a mirror. Pausing only to phone Rachel and ask her to go for a meal, he’s rebuffed, and follows the lead. The mysterious woman turns out to be Salome, and she’s a replicant.  Frankly, I could have done without her donning those pvc “angel wings” as he chases her across town and shoots her in beautifully realised slow motion. Ridley Scott may shoot this film beautifully, but this sort of symbolism is just pretentious.

Having killed the first of the replicants, Deckard is congratulated by Bryant again. He’s clearly been keeping an eye on Deckard, and makes it clear that he knows about Rachel and expects her to be “retired”. A couple of seconds later Leon turns up and starts to beat the crap out of Deckard. Just before he’s about to be killed, though, Rachel saves his life. How very convenient it is that replicants are vulnerable to bullets.

Rachel has clearly been having a long night of the soul. She knows she’s going to be hunted, and needs reassurance from Deckard that he won’t hurt her. She wants to know her incept date; suddenly she knows her life expectancy is very, very limited. And (the killer question!), she wonders whether Deckard has himself taken the Voight-Kampf test. She’s very sad, and very quiet; a long scene follows in which, while together, they are both shown to be very, very alone. Then Deckard rapes her. There’s no way round this; it’s quite blatant.

Sebastian, it seems, is only twenty-five years old, in spite of looking much older. He apparently suffers from Methuselah syndrome; he’s aging very quickly. There’s an obvious parallel here with the limited lifespan of the replicants.  It’s also heavily hinted that the reason he has no neighbours is that most other young people have gone to the off-world colonies. Surely this would have economic consequences?

Roy and Pris are now the only replicants left. Interestingly, though, they get what they want from J.P. through the use of charm rather than force, although admittedly there’s an implied physical threat.  J.P. assists Roy in getting in to meet his creator, Tyrell. The old man, surely knowing that Roy will kill him, meets his fate with calm dignity, expressing surprise that it took Roy so long. It is not possible, it seems, to extend the lifetime of a replicant, something which Roy finds impossible to accept (“It is difficult to meet your maker”). He has burned bright, but must die soon. Roy kills his “father”, horribly. It could hardly have been otherwise. Sebastian’s murder, at least, happens discreetly off-screen.

After a bizarre interlude in which his car is attacked by homeless dwarves, Deckard goes into the spider’s parlour. After shooting dead a screaming Pris, he encounters Roy, and there follows an extended sequence of cat-and-mouse. We get some extremely vertiginous scenes of Deckard climbing unaided and hanging on to the edges of cliffs for a long, long time. There’s absolutely no way a human would be capable of doing this; yes, I saw that episode of Mythbusters. These scenes convince me that he’s a replicant. Not that it matters, of course; the point is that the human / replicant division is arbitrary and meaningless, with even the test being of doubtful validity.

The end is surprising. Roy pulls Deckard up and delivers some poetic last words, before expiring gracefully at his appointed hour. He dies, and everything he has experienced is lost. But it eventually happens to all of us.

It seems the film ends with our rapist hero eloping with his victim. The pilot’s shout of “Too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?” seems to make a certain implication about Deckard, the man with no apparent hinterland. I wonder which replicant will die first?

Torchwood: Miracle Day (Part Six)

“Never question a miracle. You might not like what you find.”

There’s a definite change of focus here from the very start, as we begin with Phicorp middle manager Stuart Owens and Janet, his assistant and bit on the side. He’s curious about what his employers are up to, but as soon as his bloke in Shanghai discovers something big, which we don’t see, he’s so horrified he commits suicide by jumping from a very high building. The “forty-five club” is just the latest of many brilliantly horrible concepts which have followed on from the main theme of the season.

We turn to Rex, recording a message about what he’s seen in the San Pedro Overflow Camp. He’s deeply affected by what he’s seen happen to Vera, and the awful reality of the extermination camp. He has a very clear idea of the implications, noting that it may start with the Category Ones, but will soon spread to convicted felons, illegal immigrants (there’s a subtly disturbing later dialogue echo of this), and so on. It may sound extreme, but all of this has of course happened before.

Marc Vann is superb as Colin Maloney, struggling to come to terms with the reality and the consequences of his actions. The conversations between him and his agonised underling, a kind of Lady Macbeth, are gripping drama. The banal, Pooterish little man from last episodes, with his golf buggy and liking for Phil Collins, is long gone. This is the banality of evil writ large.

Gwen, meanwhile, is trying to get her father out of another camp, on South Wales, and one of her scenes in particular is at the very heart of what this episode is about. As soon as Dr. Patel washes her hands of what she’s doing with a simple “I don’t make the rules, you know,” Gwen lets rip, and she’s magnificent. “Don’t you dare look at me and tell me you’re obeying orders,” she says, “Don’t you bloody dare.” There’s no answer to that. And the parallels are very, very stark.

Jack, meanwhile, might be rather clever in what he’s doing but he doesn’t really discover much. Still, it’s fun to watch how he cleverly manoeuvres himself to confront Owens in a plush restaurant, only to discover that Owens, much though he’d like to, doesn’t know anything, and is no more “evil” than most of us. But this middleman, this ordinary man, nevertheless gets a magnificent speech in which he makes clear just how deep this conspiracy has to go, and how long it must have been planned. We do learn one thing, though; “the blessing” has something to do with it. We know, because we have a basic understanding of how serial drama works, that this will eventually prove very, very significant.

This is an episode full of scenes paralleling other scenes through a series of one-on-one conversations. Dr Patel, seemingly decent, has her hands deep in the blood whereas Owens is hard to particularly condemn.  Rex’s scene with Maloney is different, though. In direct contrast with Jack, he assumes he’s dealing with a decent man who can be reasoned with, and only we, the audience, realise the danger he’s put himself in; the scene where he’s looking for a weapon and alights on a simple pen is the single scariest moment in this episode. Maloney has had a very long day.

Esther has been very self-assured thus far, but as soon as she finds herself in a situation of physical violence she pretty much loses it, only eventually being saved by a change of heart from Private Lady Macbeth. Esther has another crisis of confidence after this, getting a hug from Rex. Is something going to happen between the two of them?

Gwen and Rhys are every bit as magnificent as we expected, not only rescuing Gwen’s dad but blowing up the ovens, and using the Torchwood contact lenses to reveal the truth to the world. Mission accomplished. Except… it’s not. Yes, there’s public revulsion, but the authorities refuse to budge and the situation continues. It’s horrible, but I suspect it’s realistic.

Gwen returns to America, and the lenses are turned against her to provide quite a cliffhanger: “they” have her mother, her husband and her daughter. And they want Jack…

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Blake's 7: Death-Watch

“Space. The final frontier, as it was once called…”

Chris Boucher is back, and this is a bloody good ‘un. These two facts may well be connected.

The opening scene, with spaceship models floating through the ether as we hear voices communicating electronically, echoes Boucher’s own Star One. But then we move to a fascinating scene. Aboard a luxury starliner is one Deeta Tarrant, played by none other than Steven Pacey. This man is clearly a massive celebrity in these parts, a fact that becomes very clear indeed when an attempt is made to assassinate him. It seems he’s some sort of “warrior”.

The Liberator, meanwhile, has escaped from Servalan’s fleet just like that. There was a time when a fleet of Federation pursuit ships would have presented at least some sort of threat, but those days are apparently gone. Instead, the crew amuses itself with current events. Apparently Orac has discovered that the United Planets of Teal and the Vanlor Confederacy are at war. Almost as good as the Internet is old Orac…

Tarrant is keen to head straight to the “combat grounds” although it’s interesting, in the light of this season’s personal interactions, that he looks for Avon’s permission first. Apparently, a war between these two powers is resolved by the simple method of each side appointing a champion to fight in a dual to the death, provided over by a neutral computer. Cally may find it barbaric (and, to be fair, the way it appears to be pushed as entertainment is certainly that), but it certainly cuts down on the casualties of war.

The crew of the Liberator then settle down to watch a bit of telly. We then get a wonderfully metatextual set of scenes as our television characters watch the television, and we get to see a presenter doing a piece to camera, and then talking to his extremely camp producer afterwards. A lot seems to have changed in the future, but television hasn’t, it seems.

It seems both champions have “seconds”; Deeta’s is Max (Stuart Bevan), a local diplomat. There are three arbiters for the process, it seems- one for each side, and a neutral arbiter, in this case none other than Servalan. The weapons, in an amusing nod to the Western, are “ancient” pistols. We meet Deeta’s opponent, the supremely confident Vinni, and through Max we get to see rather effectively just how nervous Deeta is.

A planned excursion by our heroes to the planet’s surface is cut short by the fact that there’s sod all going on, but not before Avon has a most interesting chat with Servalan, protected by the fact that all violence among visitors is forbidden during the duel. Avon threatens Servalan, ascertains she’s hiding something, and then kisses her(!) before leaving. Interesting relationship we have there. Also interesting to wonder how Dayna would react if she knew, especially given Vila’s later faux pas, which makes it clear that she still very much has it in for Servalan.

Tarrant is unable to speak to his brother before the fight, but has an interesting chat with Max, discovering that the absence of apparent festivities is because everyone is using a disc to tap into one of the contestants’ feelings as “catharsis”, and in no way as entertainment. Showing some initiative for once, he grabs one of each.

The duel begins, and the environment, naturally, is uncannily similar to the sort of thing that might be considered a cheap location. Deeta shows himself to be chivalrous, passing up an easy shot from behind in order to accept a challenge to a straight-up, Western style, quick draw challenge. He loses, and the camera goes into slow motion as he is killed. Tarrant and Dayna have respectively been monitoring both opponents. Tarrant is devastated, but Dayna notices something wrong with Vinni. He seems to have no instinct, just superhuman reflexes. It’s clear he’s an android, put there by Servalan to get caught and invalidate the contest. This will lead to a full-scale, traditional war, which can only end with Servalan stepping in to “restore order”, eventually annexing both entities. She’s a clever one, that Servalan. Even cleverer, the android won’t even be aware it isn’t human. It’s just like Blade Runner, two years early. Clever, clever Avon for working all this out.

There’s a solution, though; as the dead man’s brother, Tarrant has the right to challenge the android to a rematch, and Avon sets a trap. Tarrant cheats, shooting Vinni, and the evidence is conveniently vaporised away. We end with Avon and Tarrant explaining a version of this to Max; a version which, naturally, implicates Servalan. If Max makes an objection, the contest will be void, and a new contest can start. This time, of course, Teal will insist on full prior medical examinations, and a new neutral arbiter will be appointed. It’s time for Avon and Tarrant to make a sharp exit, though; Tarrant is now legally Teal’s First Champion…

Blake's 7: Moloch

“The Liberator? That’s Blake’s ship.”

“He liked to think so…”

So, Ben Steed has another script after his excellent Harvest of Kairos. This isn’t as good, but it’s still a quality script. Mercifully, after last episode, the characters are well-handled and there’s some movement of the season arc.

The ship has been following Servalan for twenty-seven days, just to find out what he’s doing. This shows us, firstly, that Avon is still very much top dog at this point and, secondly, that although he doesn’t have the political commitment of Blake he’s certainly driven by curiosity. And yet, recently, there’s the sense that he’s aimlessly allowing Servalan to become a bigger threat over time. It’s notable that his only motivation for following Servalan’s ship to the mysterious hidden planet is sheer curiosity. He’s still much more sensible than Tarrant, though. He’s a much diminished figure, it seems, after recent events. His plan to teleport down through a barrier which repels all electromagnetic waves is typically reckless and stupid.

The Liberator makes it through, just avoids crashing, and ends up outside the barrier again. We see just enough of the planet to see that the surface in close-up consists of a couple of obvious drawings. Meanwhile, two women, Chesil and Poola (the only natives we ever in fact see) are on monitoring duty, and choose to erase all records of the incident, in the hop that the intruding ship may offer them help.

Avon asks Zen for a printout (how very quaint!), for information on the planet. Meanwhile, Poola, having been caught erasing evidence of the Liberator’s arrival, is punished by being “given to the men” for a purpose which is quite clear. Even more horrible is the fact that she isn’t seen again.

Servalan at last arrives, but something isn’t right. The two officers in charge, Lector (appropriately close to “lecher”) and Grose, are of oddly junior rank. They also have strangely easy access to such apparently rare things as “real wine, from grapes” (which Servalan doesn’t appreciate, the philistine), and “coffee too, from beans”. Never mind the blatant tyranny; I wouldn’t want to live in a future without wine in it. That’s true dystopia.

Servalan’s less than subtle digs at her hosts’ gluttony, lust and sadism are followed by some probing questions about mysterious accidents that seem to have befallen their senior officers, and the glaring absence of the massive fleet which is the reason for her being here. She declares that they are both under court martial. But their obvious lack of concern already makes it clear that all is not as it seems.

Orac reveals that the hidden planet is called Sardos, and its small population have predicted their own evolutionary future. Er, how? Evolution isn’t predestined! It’s merely the survival of those random mutations best suited to the many and unforeseeable circumstances faced by a species. Never mind; somehow they’ve done this, and seek to gain control, of their own evolution. This is clearly going to be relevant later on.

Orac also reveals a nearby transport ship which will offer a way of arriving on the planet unseen. Tarrant bullies Vila into teleporting down with him, just as he did earlier in the season; is this pointing towards his eventual comeuppance, I wonder? Typically, Tarrant arrives all right while Vila is soon caught. Less usually, he is instantly invited to join in the party!

The fun doesn’t last long; Tarrant soon prises Vila from his new friend Doran, pulling a gun on him; that’s some comeuppance coming! It seems this ship was full of escapees from a penal planet, and that they’re nothing to do with Servalan who, it is increasingly clear, is not in charge. Avon and Dayna (increasingly the two who are at the top of the pile on the Liberator), teleport down to find their missing comrades. Meanwhile, Vila discovers that Doran is perhaps not such a nice guy, after all (“My problem was always women.” “You like them?” “No…”.). He reminds me of Gan, circa Series One.

Servalan is told that the planet is run by a massive computer which is able to replicate any item it has scanned, transmuting rock into gold, or teleport bracelets, or indeed dead mice. This is controlled by something called Moloch, and is part of a criminal enterprise planned by Lector and Grose. The escaped criminals are to be the crew of their pilot ship, and Moloch declares of Servalan that they should “Give her to your men!”

Fittingly, Servalan is “given” to Vila, who is not exactly going to rape her. The two of them promptly escape, and make a rather amusing double act. Meanwhile, Avon and Dayna find the replicator machine, where clever old Avon starts to work things out. We know he’s gaining quite a lot of knowledge because he bites into an apple in a rather clumsy little Biblical metaphor.

Servalan ends up escaping, while Vila meets up with Doran and Poola. Avon’s theorising is briefly interrupted by a little light torture from our two erstwhile pirate captains, but he swiftly points out to them that Moloch isn’t telling them everything; who’s in charge? Tarrant, Vila and co soon promptly rescue them (with the rather nastily misogynistic Doran getting a suitably meaningless death), but they are soon under the control of the computer, itself controlled (as clever Avon expected) by Moloch, a living projection of the natives’ evolutionary future. Er, ok. Anyway, he’s a Muppet.

It turns out the whole thing was a trap, arranged for the Muppet to get his paws on the Liberator. His plan works perfectly, and he promptly teleports over and immediately dies, having made the elementary mistake of failing to realise the separation from his life support system would kill him. Pillock. Avon, meanwhile, rather cleverly replicates them all a load more teleport bracelets.

We end on what seems to be a cliffhanger, though; the Liberator is surrounded by Servalan’s pursuit ships, and is poised to run. How will they get out of this one? After all, it’s not as though they’ve got out of this sort of situation many times before, is it?

Monday, 15 August 2011

Blake's 7: Ultraworld

“Kiss me!”

What a stupid title.

I’ve never before encountered Trevor Hoyle; it seems he’s another novelist, and this is his only TV script. I wasn’t impressed with this at all; artifact sci-fi by numbers with Hanna Barbera characterisation.

The establishing scenes at the very start are getting increasingly good; the starscapes and the model of the Liberator at the start of the episode look fantastic, the most impressive example of a recent trend. It’s such a shame that what follows is so rubbish.

This episode seems to have been put into this slot to tread water before we start the final stretch to the end of the season. We do get an interesting arc-related comment from Tarrant though: “The rate Servalan’s empire has been expanding, anything is possible!” It seems that, while the Liberator’s crew have been aimlessly arsing about under Avon, the Federation has been quietly re-establishing itself under a particularly effective dictator.

The dynamics of the crew are interesting here, too. Fitting, after Tarrant’s belittling in the last episode, that Avon should be so unambiguously in charge here. It’s such a shame that Vila, after his recent chance to shine, should be such a cartoon character here.

The ship comes across a mysterious, spiky, artificial planet. Cally is feeling telepathic vibes from this. This is all distressingly familiar; how many artefact-centred episodes have we had recently, and how many times has Cally had some vague telepathic response to something outside the ship? After a good run of episodes the series suddenly seems to be stuck in a rut.

Everyone except Vila (whose every action and every line is excruciating) teleports down to the artifact to find the suddenly missing Cally, and discover that they’re inside a massive computer, a concert that seems anything but modern in this day and age. They are accosted by three rather amusing, and rather chatty, stereotypes of officialdom.  This computer world exists for no other purpose than to gather knowledge (yeah, right!) and apparently it’s alive and, er, “It built itself”. How does that work then? Oh, and Cally is just having a little nap.

Tarrant wanders off and overhears said officials talking about “the core”, and that Cally is in fact to be “wiped clean, ready for absorption”. Subtle as ever, Tarrant reveals himself and starts shouting, only being rescued from his utter twonkishness by the much more sensible, and cooler, Dayna. I like Dayna. She’s capable, up for a bit of arse-kicking and won’t take any crap. I find her rather sexy. Still, after Avon is captured, and with Cally still out of it and Vila just spouting stupid jokes, the only hope lies with Dayna. And, to make things worse, she’s encumbered with the useless Tarrant.

Things get even worse when the two of them find (oh dear) a Giant Rubber Brain which apparently eats the thoughts of its victims before literally eating their bodies for nourishment. Er, right. The episode has pretty much jumped off a cliff by this point, although at least we het some amusing remarks from the three officials. Avon, apparently is to be absorbed, as the Core has need of brains of “such high calibre”. Dayna is to be absorbed, too, but Tarrant will be a “menial”. Heh!

Things get even sillier as Dayna and Tarrant are captured and forced to perform a “human bonding ceremony” for the voyeuristic pleasure of the Core. The foreplay begins with a bit of kissing although, this being Blake’s 7, they are of course both fully clothed. Still, this must be a pivotal episode for any Dayna / Tarrant shippers out there, although I can’t imagine any kind of shipping involving Tarrant could possibly exist.

Mid-snog, Dayna manages to throw off a bomb so they can escape. The Earth certainly moves for the officials as they ask “Is that the bonding ceremony?” Sadly, that the last moment of the episode which is in any way entertaining. Thankfully, they all escape and the episode finally ends, as “Ultraworld” is somehow killed by Vila’s riddles.