Monday, 14 November 2016


Wow! Massive typo or what? 'Bleak', this should be called. Charles Dickens had nothing on Chris Boucher. Bleak House, you say? How about Bleak Planet? You’re on a quest to find Bleak. Bleak is waiting for you. Bleak has built an entire base that’s a magnet for pain, betrayal and anger. Bleak wants to enlist you. Bleak is back and stronger than ever. Do you recognise Bleak? Does Bleak know you? Are you prepared to shoot Bleak in the tummy? Oh no, now there’s Bleak everywhere, all over the floor, all over the TV screen. Bleak death. Bleak last words. Bleak last look at the world.

Buzz. Beep. Woop. Whoosh. Cue theme tune.

Before I knew how this show began, I knew how it ended. Whether it was in TV Zone or Dreamwatch or some book about cult telly, or maybe from my Dad, who watched the show with my Mum when they first set up house together, and who once saw that woman who played Jenna in Marks & Spencer's. I knew that they all die horrible meaningless deaths in the last reel, Blake included. I always wondered how that would be shot (if you know what I mean), what the last images would suggest, what the big idea was.

My expectations were fairly low. This season, like every season of Blake’s 7, has been so variable that a graph of relative episode quality would resemble a line of jagged teeth. 'Warlord' was a turn off too, and looking back to the previous season cliffhanger didn’t inspire huge confidence, despite some fun bits like the Liberator turning into a poo, “Blake is dead” and of course, “Maximum power!” I do like that at its big dramatic moments, the show returns to Blake. He was never used quite as he should have been, but he was a good character and a good actor and he provides a pivot for Avon and Vila’s aimless characters to work on.

Gareth Thomas is brilliant here: unpredictable, dangerous, even a little scary, but still with a little sweetness. I enjoyed the plot reversals and double crosses, and it was brilliant to see David Collings in the show at last. A Doctor Who Guest Star who could have/should have been the Doctor. It would have been good to see him alongside the rest of the crew, even joining them for a few episodes. Sad to hear about Jenna’s somewhat meaningless death too – like Cally, a great character thrown away and then blown up offscreen.

And speaking of off-screen characters, what the hell happened to Servalan? Did Jacqueline Pearce have an emergency dentist appointment or something? You could say that Boucher cleverly suggests her power by hinting at her arrival throughout, that she is more suggestively omnipresent through our anticipation of her, right up to the last minute. But really, that’s bollocks. She’s the star of this show. She’s been trying to engineer a situation like this for years. Leaving her out of this coda – so we don’t know if she’s satisfied or saddened, even if she’s in power any more – is just writerly cowardice, I think.

I mean, what was going on with that Commissioner business? Was anything supposed to be made of it at all? Not even an aside from Blake to Deeva: “I’ve made contact with a Federation official. It sounds like we could rely on her. Her name’s Sleer…”

And yet it’s a great story. It's clever and gripping and packs a huge punch. In the extremes of the episode, we see all the characters come completely alive for one last half an hour, and I found Dayna’s death particularly shocking. Seeing Vila die is just horrible, likewise Soolin. Tarrant I could just about handle, if I’m honest.

It could have been told slower, perhaps. Two episodes would have made Gauda Prime a more convincing locale, and Avon’s journey a little less rushed and hard to follow. And really, even in silhouette, we should have seen Serv again. But perhaps they were aiming for a cliffhanger ending? Whatever the intention, there is a lingering feeling of unfinished business. One last conversation, one last glass of green, one last evening dress.

It was never purely a show about the central battle, Blake vs Federation: at its best, it was about Avon and Vila’s seduction by power, their inability to trust even one another, about Servalan’s obsession with Blake and then Avon, and the many triangles of resentment and desire that tied these egomaniacs together and made them fight for others (frequently in vain, it must be said). So for me, it feels as if one whole dimension of the story’s conclusion remains as yet unwritten.

But come on, – how brave, how deft, what a punch in the kidneys this story is. Perhaps what Servalan did or wanted was never the issue. Perhaps she was never more than the lip-gloss on an essentially faceless operation of power, ideology and fear. From the first episode to the last, the so-called Federation has been messing with people's heads. Nobody really has to pull the trigger. Sometimes that's the reality of fascist ideology, that people tear themselves apart in the midst of their own blind terror. Perhaps it’s the most faithful episode to the original, 1984-style episodes of the series. 

Strange, though, that we never found out what brought about the monolith of the Federation or what its objectives are. We never truly made it back to Earth. Never explored the mysteries of the Liberator, either. It’s a show full of shadowy mysteries, ambiguous motivations and unresolved questions, so perhaps the final cut away from Avon’s grin fits well.

Maybe I need to check out some of that fan fiction... 

Thank you more than most weeks to the Blake's 7 Image Library. I like how the blurry image of Max Boyce in this snap of the Radio Times listing looks like Roj Blake with an acoustic guitar. Thanks for joining me on this fluff through eternity. Next week -- my top ten...

Monday, 31 October 2016


So, after all this palaver, am I a Blake’s 7 fan? Would I wear that title, own up to it as gladly as I do ‘Doctor Who fan’, 'Victoria Wood fan' and ‘Kate Bush fan’ (worlds which seemingly overlap that of Blake’s 7 like a Venn diagram)? I’ve certainly been thinking and theorising about it for a good long while. I’ve seen every episode. I’ve even written fan fiction, if you count last week’s attempt. (Actually I did try to write Blake’s 7 fanfic at school, based entirely on four episodes I'd borrowed from Dulwich Library. It was written in the 1990s and involved cyberspace, and these two facts are somewhat connected. But I digress.)

I must say, it was a struggle to watch the show at some points, but a struggle with myself more than anything. How many times had I heard my beloved Who described as slow, sexist, badly produced tat? Elsewhere I've made a case for the Hartnell era as a series of relaxation tapes with Daleks in, for Troughton’s episodes as flawed but well-meaning attempts to depict women in strong roles, for Pertwee’s trashier SFX to be more pleasurable than CGI. I’m sure if someone said that Sarah-Jane Smith enjoys zero character progression from Irongron to Eldrad, I’d say: that’s not the point!, or, That’s a narrative gap for the viewer to complete!

It turns out that however true all of this is, watching new things that operate by familiar rules is still a mental jolt. Without a prior attachment, we don’t necessarily overlook pacing issues or see past poor special effects or fill in the gaps the scriptwriter conveniently left for us. Anything on first viewing has a different look to something re-viewed, as if we need to see it stereoscopically to really appreciate its depths and shallows. Perhaps this is more natural to Doctor Who, which was retelling its earliest stories from An Exciting Adventure by David Whitaker onwards. Quickly I thought I had the measure of Blake’s 7, even if I did have to squint at it slightly to see through the fluff and crackle of time. Then there were developments, surprises, leaps forward and backward.

I love Doctor Who, not only in spite of its flaws but because of them. I tend to think of this as a moral education. Life ain’t perfect, memories do lie, stories time to be told, ‘Nothing gold can stay’, all CGI will one day depreciate in value. But could I love Blake’s 7 in quite the same way?

'Warlord' was a bit of a test.

It really is a curate’s egg, this story, and once again all the usual flaws of Blake’s 7 are on display. Regular characters behave as if freshly invented for this story – anything from last week might as well not be canon for all Avon and co. care (what happens on Virn stays on Virn, perhaps) (except it didn’t!). Underwritten characters are massively hammed up by the cast, resulting in a cheese and ham sandwich. The women in the story have little or nothing to do. The story is fairly predictable from about ten minutes in, with any important characters conveniently dead thirty seconds from the end. Avon is having another go at Servalan that will come to nothing: Servalan is laying another trap for Avon that comes to nothing.

In the story’s favour, it should be said that Servalan’s plan doesn’t fail entirely. At the end of the story, the Avon’s Five have had their base destroyed. The antidote for the Federation’s new drug will never be manufactured. The allies from the unaligned worlds – all of whom have fabulous space hairdos – are presumably dead or extremely hacked off. I think even Orac might have been smashed up. All of this makes more dramatic resonance because absolutely nothing has happened to affect the gang’s world since Soolin came aboard. In retrospect, it makes sense that Servalan simply couldn’t find them, and once she could, she trod on them, eminently casually. It’s not a bad story for Servalan as one-dimensional supervillain, just as Soolin and Avon get a juicy fight scene and Vila gets drunk and morose when things are against him.

Dayna gets to press a few buttons. Well, I did say the character stuff was a major flaw.

The whole story is shot brilliantly. From the opening, eerie vision of doped-up citizens stamped with a barcode number, gunned down on the escalators, through the desert sands of the alien planet to the destruction of Scorpio base, the director is obviously doing everything he can with the show (and the whole season has made a determined stab at raising the show’s production values). Zukan’s vision of his daughter’s anguished face and the accusing look of Servalan are cheesy, but you can’t say they’re not trying.

Ultimately, though, there is an obstacle to my fandom. I just don’t care about the characters. Not only are they not consistent with any other stories, they’re just not very impressive or imaginative. In the midst of a huge diplomatic negotiation, Avon’s friends double-cross their most powerful ally by hiding his daughter from him: this doesn't seem wise from where anyone's sitting, pink topknot or no pink topknot. They also underestimate one of the most aggressive and nefarious men in the galaxy. No Harry Sullivan's or Barbara Wright's here, no Sapphire and Steel or Steed and Peel. The Scorpio crew are more like a collection of sit-com characters in search of a laughter track, and perhaps, yes, that does make us identify with them more than ever. They're as fallible, clumsy and motivated by sex as any of their audience. But equally there is no sense from them that anything much is at stake, whether the defence of their base or the attack on the Federation. The destruction of the base is done so easily efficiently that you wonder why it didn’t happen sooner.

Blake’s 7 reached its penultimate episode leaving me hugely unsatisfied. A show pivoting on its disreputable anti-heroes has quickly become one where the lead characters are under-emphasised and underwritten. 'Warlord' is brainless, heartless and vaguely good-looking, but I’m afraid both the show and I are ready now for its concluding episode.

But does that mean I'm not a fan? Perhaps it only reiterates my attachment to the show, my deep investment, my curiosity. Because I care about something innate and ineffable about the show, something  that's not really there in the script or onscreen, but between the two, read between the lines. I'm really curious about how they're going to end this thing and draw everything together. I'm even wondering what stories fans have told about what happens next...

Am I a Blake's 7 fan? The jury is still out...

For the penultimate time, blurry snaps of the Radio Times are by me (thanks to the British Library). Screencaps are from this excellent site (thanks to Lisa).