Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Cygnus Alpha!

You may have noticed the minor typographical improvement I've added to this week's episode title. It's an exclamation mark. I feel like Blake's 7 calls for exclamation marks: frankly, there should be one at the end of the series title (and an apostrophe) but I will settle for one in the title this week. And every week henceforth.
            Justifiable especially in this case, I think, because after a week on Earth and another in a series of grey boxes, we've arrived at our first alien planet:
            Cygnus Alpha!
            Well, it's unprepossessing, I must say. A bleak, quarry-like vista. Could this perhaps be the beginning of a theme? I don't want to make too many presumptuous statements, otherwise why watch the show at all – and it was still exciting to see, even from space, looking like a great wintry blue moon.
            Swirling mists. Ghastly misshapen corpses. Beautiful silent women in long capes. A mysterious fortress. Oh yes, this episode has it all.

            Three episodes in, and I still don't know who Blake's 7 are. I presume an assortment of glamorous space pirate and arch computer hacking psychopath, and some of those prisoners we rescued at the end of this episode. It would be nice if the seventh member of the gang was a Jack Russell Terrier, like in Enid Blyton's Famous Five (surely a direct inspiration to the series).
            Maybe a psychic Jack Russell Terrier?
            But whoever they are, they arrive separately on the remote prison planet of Cygnus Alpha. (I wonder what happened to the Lunar Penal Colony with the blue silk pyjamas, in Colony in Space? Or has that not happened yet?) Vila and Gan (who are definitely in the seven) have the worst of it, I think. Poisoned and brainwashed into thinking they're dying of an incurable space disease, there's a horrible moment when they say they can't leave the sinister citadel and its medication. They look like they'll happily lynch lovable Roj Blake, simply to stay alive in this grim hell-hole.
            Meanwhile, Blake's Two are up on their new spaceship, behaving like people who've just arrived at an Air B'n'B holiday rental: they go through the cupboards, fiddle with the Wi-Fi, experiment with the teleport and try on someone else's clothes (what's all that about, with Jenny putting on some random blouse she's found?) (and a nasty blouse, to boot).

            This aroused my interest. I always assumed the Liberator was some standard-issue bit of human technology. After all, episode two shows it has the same squishy sofas that Evil Morag was parked on in episode one. Instead, it's the mysterious technology of an enigmatic people, mysteriously adrift in the depths of space. It's not even called the Liberator until its wonderfully smug-sounding computer makes telepathic contact with Jenna and reads her unconscious thoughts.
            Basically, Blake's 7 is a much more interesting show than I ever gave it credit for. Is this ship from the future? Or does it belong to a super advanced people – and this is the first contact with the human race, having their spaceship stolen by three sarcastic vigilantes with nice hair?
            It's also an opportunity for some more really lovely dialogue between the three leads: 'Don't philosophise with me, you electronic moron!' 'I don't think it likes you.' 'I may have to reprogram this machine.' 'That still won't make you likeable!'
            Once the story-of-the-week gets going, things are a little less interesting, especially for Blake who is strapped to a chair and shouted at by Brian Blessed. Yes, Brian Blessed! Another reason for an extra exclamation mark! And people told me I shouldn't get used to the dour, cerebral tone of the opening episodes...

             I don't want to sound dopey (or like I wasn't paying attention), but exactly how long have Earth been using Cygnus Alpha as their prison planet if Brian Blessed's family (The Blessed's, if you will) have lived there for generations? Long enough to found the society he refers to? What does this society do, besides knit capes? What do they eat? Are there cornfields over the hill? Does Cygnus Alpha look nicer in the light?
            But these are details. In fact, this whole episode – though it ends in a punch-up and Blessed shouting himself to death – was promising. The interplay between the leads is fun, the mystery of the ship is tantalising, the fact we can have 60s-style SF with telepathic spaceships side-by-side with a world of Hammer Horror extras, is reassuring.
            Maybe we can risk pushing on – to Episode 4...!

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

The Way Back / Space Fall

So we begin with two gripping episodes in the life of Roj Blake. Its themes of repression and corruption realised through some impressively nightmarish imagery, this is a solid ninety minutes of sci-fi adventure. 1984 retold with the possibility of hope (if you're not dead in a puddle by the end of episode one).
            A little voice tells me these stories will prove to be, how to put it... atypical?
            We begin on what I presume was Earth; the talk of outer worlds does more to tell us this is 'home' than the episode itself. But immediately we have a sense of scope. The Federation's control is felt not simply across the globe, but on untold far flung worlds: that's quite an ambitious conceit.
            It does make me wonder exactly how such control is exercised. We know the Earth population are subdued by drugs in the tap water. Is the rest run on propaganda? I suppose you could point at a culture of oppression shown being played out at practically every level: abuse of children by proxy, corrupt medical archivists, prison guards gleefully gunning down hostages.
            That said, there's mystery around the ruling members of the Federation. Who are they? What do they want? What are they afraid of? Why can't the populace go outside? What was the cataclysm?
            I'd have liked to see a little more of Earth, especially as we won't be going back there. For the most part, all we ever get are city streets, or rather, corridors (the rebels meet in another set of corridors, without the paint job). One could assume this what the human race have come to: brainwashed into walking up and down corridors all day, looking busy but without destination. It's only the elite who get to sit down on squishy leather sofas.
            The closest we get to seeing actual life on Earth is the rather peculiar bedroom scene between Blake's defence lawyer and his girlfriend ('Ooh, nothing turns me on more than discussing the trial of a paedophile I'm defending...'). I think this is why, of all the characters introduced in these opening episodes, the one I warm to least of all is Blake himself. We know Jenna is a notorious smuggler, Villa a professional conman, and so on. But what was your life before you were lured outside, Blake? What exactly did you do in the resistance?
            The other characters are fun, more for the work of the cast than the script (understandable at the beginning). I'm not sure who the rest of the '7' are going to be, and that does seem a lot of characters for one TV show. I'd have settled for Avon, Jenna and Villa, with Blake's brain in a box. Or something.
            But like I say, this is clearly not a series which does things by halves.
            In 'Space Fall', the corridors are replaced with grim looking cells, pokey control rooms and (hooray!) a ventilation duct. When the crew of the prison ship London are being bounced around by the turbulence of an unexplained space battle, it does look a bit like a bunch of hikers in a camper van going over a badly tarmacked road having taken the wrong turning out of Rhosgadfan, especially with the space thermos wobbling on the dashboard.
            But all of this looks in retrospect like calculated preparation for the revelation of the Liberator flight deck. Evil overlords in a dystopian future Earth, corridor acting, ventilation ducts: it all sounds so Doctor Who. But compared with the Tardis console room (which, lest we forget, had until recently resembled Captain Nemo's private reading room) the Liberator ship looks halfway to Hollywood.
            And it's not simply the physical size and grandeur of the set, but the way the crew plan to use it. They're going toward something. They're on something of a mission. We're not simply whizzing about aimlessly, stumbling upon Satanic covens in 15th Century Spain or angry green plant monsters in Antarctica. There's a sense of linear narrative drive to add to that broad canvas.
             It's going to be hard to maintain this sense of grandeur, seriousness and mystery as the series develops. I won't be too disappointed if some of them drop out of the equation as we go along. I suspect that if the series had been four years of The Way Back and Spacefall (both titles, by the way, meaning what?) the show would not be remembered with the affection currently held for it.
            So, where next...? 


Nick Campbell

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The Way Forward

The Amazon man cometh. He knocketh on my front door very loudly because the doorbell has gone (in actual fact, it's gone peculiar: yesterday, with nobody at the door, it rang itself, not with a Big Ben chime but a burst of saxophone). The Amazon man handeth me a parcel.

Sandwiched between layers of cardboard: a bold new future!


I've never watched 'Blake's 7'. It's become increasingly clear that this is as an oversight on my part, perhaps even a serious character flaw. A bit like being a committed churchgoer who's skipped a great wodge of the Bible, or an enthusiastic carnivore who's never tried sausages.

I've been a 'Doctor Who' devotee since I was 10 years old; being nearly 33 (though still looking, I like to think, a beardy 29) that not only makes me a fan of 20-odd years standing but, if you do the maths, a fan who spent his formative years in the wilderness between TV shows. I'm dedicated; I put in the hours.

Besides 'Doctor Who', I have written 'Avengers' fan fiction (we're talking Mrs Peel, of course) and would happily recreate the Sapphire and Steel intro for you with singing and interpretive dance ('Space:1999' and 'Ace of Wands' also available on demand).

But I've never watched 'Blake's 7'.

It's not true to say I've never seen it. In my teenage years, I borrowed the odd episode from Dulwich Library on VHS. I remember a couple of details from Gold – well, I remember the title. And about five years ago I tried to watch the Pilot Episode. Got bored. Switched it off.

And here it is, in my house, on my kitchen table right now. Some sort of Dutch collection which gathers all four seasons together like a stack of silver pancakes with a delicious, tempting aroma. What will it taste like?

Will I be captivated? Will I be bored? Will it feel like watching hours of the opening scenes in 'Doctor Who' episodes before the Tardis arrives? Will it all be in Dutch?

What do I think it will be? Judging by the Pilot episode, rather serious for the first season. Probably with some nice terse angry exchanges when Chris Boucher is writing, and a few cynical loners when Robert Holmes takes over. I don't know when Jacqueline Pearce turns up, but I reckon it changes the whole series when she does, and I think I'll be rooting for her, the way one does Roger Delgado's Master – or Michelle Gomez's Master, come to think of it.

I expect to find the Liberator crew rather earnest and awful, like the Archer family members in 'The Archers', while most alien planets will be populated by the Grundy's. I'm fairly certain there has never been anyone like Servalan in 'The Archers', but please do write in.

Will there be anything as gorgeous as a Dalek, as lovable as Alpha Centauri, as cherishable as Beryl Reid in Space?

I'm going to found out, and I'm going to try and blog about it. You out there – you just wish me luck.


PS: You may wish to read my exploits with theSecond Doctor, or the Third Doctor, or just ogle my reading blog. Grab a cup of tea and a sponge finger and settle back.

All the best,
Nick Campbell