Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Mission to Destiny!

A couple of weeks ago I was mean about Terry Nation and his episode titles, but perhaps I spoke too soon. The Web was nice and spooky, as well as literal, and Seek – Locate – Destroy was quite playful in referring both to Travis's mission and Servalan's command. And now we have a really cheesy title, but pretty soon we find it's perfectly adequate: there is a mission, and it is to a planet called Destiny.

Avon's having none of it, to everyone's great pleasure. The fungal infection Destiny's crops (all of them) have been suffering lately could, if he was involved, literally just mushroom. But there's a mystery surrounding the tools of the mission – a murder mystery, with an element of the locked room and the lead piping about it. Instead of Miss Marple, however, we have Cally and Avon.

Avon, like Sherlock Holmes, proves to be an aloof but alert judge of character, as well as a man capable of reading the desperate bloody scrawl of a dying man. Cally holds her end up in the business by managing to unerringly walk past people while they are doing suspicious things, without being seen. To be honest, the pair of them (along with Blake) do very well not to be arrested and/or executed within the first five minutes as the most suspicious bunch of people you could wish to find on a crime scene.

It feels almost unfair that this story should hinge upon the release of sleeping gas upon a spaceship. I'm not going to fall for such a lazy metaphor. However, this is an exceedingly dull story, which not much to recommend it beyond the strong showing from Avon throughout, a fine performance from Avon. If Blake isn't necessarily meant to fear for his position in this story, Gareth Thomas probably should have been.

It's crushingly disappointing, coming after the arrival of Blake's murderous ex-boyfriend and Avon's equally villainous future girlfriend (or do I have that wrong?) in the previous story – not to mention a story with a lively momentum and some real lawbreaking for the Libertor's crew of vigilantes. In this story, Blake and his friends explore an abandoned spaceship out of the goodness of their hearts (Blake obviously tells Avon they're just there to loot the place, but his conversation with Jenna beforehand suggests otherwise), and then embark on the titular Mission to Destiny, despite the fact they nearly all die when they run out of petrol in a very heavy hailstorm.

I'm not saying they wouldn't, just that it's a bit too nice of everybody this early in the season. At the very least, it should have been clearer that Blake is helping the Destinettes (or whatever they're called) to avoid having to join the Federation after their farming woes.

The major diversion of this story, however, is the low-key appearance of one of Doctor Who's most beloved companions. I really wish I'd kept a running tally of Who star guest appearances – we've had representatives from Revenge of the Cybermen, Robots of Death and most recently, Genesis of the Daleks itself (and please let Peter Miles have a recurring role, particularly in scenes with Servalan and Travis). But in this story we have K-9 himself in a key role.

He should be unrecognisable, being as he's a human being here and not a silver box with ears and a tail. But if you'd been told that K-9 was onscreen somewhere, you'd point immediately at John Leeson. He's not as up himself as the robot dog itself, but he's just as adorable. It's reassuring to think that in the distant nightmare future, there are still men who can be played by John Leeson.

It's just a shame he doesn't (as I hoped) turn out to be a bastard underneath the cute facade – but then, this show never has been particularly true to life so far...

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Seek – Locate – Destroy!

It's her! Finally!

And just as excitingly, though meaning a lot less to me, it's him, too!

Terry Nation makes us wait for Travis. We hear a lot about him from Servalan and from Servalan's cute young squaddie friend. He tells her that he won't serve alongside Travis, that he's a butcher and a villain who is, basically, not merely licensed to kill but driven to it as well. We hear about his ruthless effectiveness, so ruthless that (even in the nightmare future of memory wipes and random killings that we have already seen, the world in which children are abused in the name of justice and lawyers gunned down in cold blood, not to mention wet weather) there was somebody somewhere raising an eyebrow and saying, 'Ooh, bit much, I think.'

Servalan really couldn't give less of a shit. In fact, she seems to have personally intervened to ensure Travis wasn't dismissed from the security ranks. Was that because she thought he was useful to her? Did she know about Travis's history with Blake and choose him because of it? Or is she planning on using him in various future campaigns in which she can, if she needs to, deny responsibility for the outcome? Does she know what she's got in Travis?

She joins the episode's writer in making us wait for Travis, but she does it to show him who's boss. She sends a clear message for him to wait in reception. But leafing through old back issues of Bella and The People's Friend is evidently not on his agenda. He refuses her show of power. He demonstrates his maverick tendencies direct to his boss.

So even in this opening episode, there is a game of cat and mouse going on even between the aggressor's. I like that. There's flirtation too, of course, and how could there not be? Servalan and Travis are sex kittens who have found themselves in the most sterile environment you can imagine, beasts of the savannah in a future where the wilderness has been paved over. But do they want to mate or kill one another, or something else...?

Servalan finds Travis's missing eye 'displeasing'. Travis, I suspect, is not much of a ladies man ('I'm always in the market for a rough analogy,' he purrs at a male technician) and only has eye for Roj Blake. After all, as neither of them can forget, he waited for him for two days, in a basement and, what's more, presumably in that skin-tight black PVC outfit. No wonder he was so aggressive when it came to it: nobody likes to be stood up, and that outfit must be a very snug fit. When Servalan comes across him, seated in front of some giant blow-up photos of Blake in pain, he can, we assume, barely contain his excitement.

What does she make of it all? We know everything about Travis, from his criminal record to his hot temper, not to mention the missing eye and the gun in his finger (are the Kraals the great evil behind the Federation?). Servalan is onscreen from the get-go, but giving nothing away. She asks the questions, gives the orders, even gives the episode its rather Dalek-tastic title. Yet we barely catch her job position, hardly understand her power or her plans.

What with the nifty pacing at the start of the episode, it all adds up to a rather satisfying episode. There's not enough for Avon to do – to be honest, there's barely enough for anybody to do: "Blake's Three" would have been a much tenser ensemble, but there you are – but at last we have more characters of his calibre.

I'm looking forward to seeing how this develops.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The Web!

Being as I'm currently Googling images for this blog, reading reviews  and background (such as the aforementioned Alwyn Turner biography of Terry Nation) and of course the wonderful and hilarious Wife in Space blog,  not to mention having conversations with people who don't know what I don't know, it's hard to avoid spoilers for Blake's 7. Simply through a process of osmosis, I know what happens at the end of the series. I know that Servalan is FINALLY in the next episode. I know about Gan, but not where and when.

But somehow, I sure as hell wasn't expecting whatever this was.

Early expectations were, strange as it may seem, that this might be co-opted somehow into the history of Doctor Who's Second Doctor-bothering Great Intelligence, perhaps the even older Animus, based on their capacity for snatching down spacecraft out of the ether with an unearthly and indestructible cobweb (making The Web a partner with The Web of Fear and The Web Planet respectively) (and there is a precedent in Who fandom for weaving together the respectively gauzy tendrils of the Great Intelligence and the Animus as some sort of Lovecraftian interdimensional evil being).

Then, of course, there was a slow pan through what looked like the New Forest after a Zorbing day out gone horribly wrong. A camera explores a proper sci-fi-looking base, with people wrapped in bacofoil sleeping on very uncomfortable-looking futuristic sun-loungers. A whispering voice – like the Animus!, I thought, like the Great Intelligence! – and then: Saymon.

Cut to Roj Blake, all in his déshabillé, perhaps to arouse the viewer, perhaps to symbolically represent vulnerability. Blake's crew seem peculiarly incurious about the mysterious spaceship they've stolen, more preoccupied with its physical trappings: Jenna's blouse, Avon's jewels, and this time Villa's first words onscreen being a gawky, 'What do you think of the outfit?', to which Cally (whose shimmery green gear is presumably also 'off the peg' in the Liberator's wardrobe room) responds with a heavy object to the head.

The clunky technobabble jeopardy that takes up a great part of the first half of this story – "Standard drive plus auxiliaries can be sustained for ninety hours. Each neutronic discharge reduces that capacity by three hours." Aarrgh! – seems a long way from the sinister meta-psychological stuff we saw in the opening episode, where brainwashing was the most fundamental nightmare of the future dictatorship. But we do see a survival of those themes in Cally: the huge physical prowess of the auto-repairing ship can be invaded and overpowered through the vulnerable and mysterious mind.

There's a first note of something interesting with Cally's alienness, when Avon cites it as a reason not to trust her, and the strange description of her as a 'daughter' of the exiled Auronar scientists. Ham-fisted as the story is, and it's really another issue of wonky pacing, Nation was clearly being strategic about its placing: a new crew member on the ship, but can she be trusted? Does she share the common creed of the crew? Do they have a common creed?

Unfortunately, despite a veritable buffet of interesting characters to play with, Nation makes us starve for interpersonal drama. Instead, he reformulates some of the highlights of Genesis of the Daleks, with arch-villain Davros replaced by what looks like a cheap gimmick from a very outre cabaret act. Hard to describe what the Daleks are replaced by. 'If someone pointed out a child dressed as a woodlouse carrying a spear, and told you that that child dressed as a woodlouse carrying a spear would grow up to be utterly evil...'

 Thank goodness for not knowing: that when I put this in the DVD player last night, I would see this. I still can't quite believe that I saw it. (And I bet Terry Nation couldn't, either. Another potential 'new Dalek' idea, up in smoke.) But how sad to know. To know that Servalan is on her way. To know that Saymon is not coming back. Not the returning villain who becomes the iconic epitome of Blake's 7.

And if he is, and he does, I'm telling you now: keep it to yourself.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Time Squad!

This weekend I had the pleasure of reading Alwyn W. Turner's excellent biography of Terry Nation. As well as emphasising the dramatic flash and sociological wallop of Nation's drama, Turner acknowledges certain Nation motifs: countdowns, automated cities, 'a virus that would wipe out all life...' He doesn't mention one of the more endearing hallmarks of a Terry Nation script, and one that somehow creates a picture of the great writer as the cogs begin to turn. We're at his elbow in an office in Shepherds Bush, there's a deadline ringed on his calendar and a cup of coffee half-consumed.

A sheet of paper in the typewriter. Clackety-clack. 'THE END OF TOMORROW' ... 'THE WAKING ALLY' ... 'THE DEATH OF TIME' ... Yes, that's the title out of the way. Better than 'The Ordeal' or 'The Rescue'. Now, let's get the episode done. Has it anything to do with the title? Who cares? We're in the jet age. We're linear and progressive types. We don't linger or look backwards. 'THE WAY BACK', 'SPACEFALL'. Sound great, don't mean much. Bit of a wild card with 'CYGNUS ALPHA', but we're on track again here.

Given Nation's long acquaintance with Doctor Who and the 'thrill-a-move race through time and space!', the prospect of a 'Time Squad' can't help but set the heart a-beating. Things get going with a nice slow scene about technobabble, but whoosh, soon enough we're off with a mission. We're going to bomb a strategic radio signal booster; it's on a planet that happens to have an active cell of anti-Federation rebels: we're going to make contact with them too. Now there's a mysterious space capsule with two mysterious aliens in cryogenic suspension. Let's get them defrosted while we're at it...

I must say, I'm still finding Blake a little too sober and earnest, and the way he plans this particular mission (as though they were heading over to the Lake District for a bit of shoplifting in Keswick, oh and we can meet up with these students round there who like to party; hang on, there's a camper van parked in the lay-by off the A591 with two men (probably murderers) asleep under a tartan rug: let's investigate that too, it's on our way) doesn't help.

As with the previous week, though, there's a nice mix of genres. Running about on the planet (an orange quarry contrasting last week's blue one) would be a fun sci-fi story in itself, but it's nice to counterpoint it with a rewrite of Blood From The Mummy's Tomb up in orbit. It's good to know the show isn't afraid to use a variety of styles and genres, while maintaining its world of Federation insurgencies and telepathic computers.

The drama of Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. scampering around the Liberator in pursuit of Jenna and Gan, is hokey but effective. I'm already a fan of David Jackson (though his fruity vowels sound a bit Matt Berry at times, particularly, 'They killed my woman...') and particularly Sally Knyvette, who manages to put sincerity of drama into a variety of tense situations this week, whilst dressed as a children's entertainer booked to perform at a pig farm.

And what's actually going on with Zen? Four stories in is early for him to be behaving in a scary, suspicious, unknowable way. Out of all the Seven, he's currently the most intriguing one.

The story on the planet's surface is okay, if you can convince yourself you don't know who Cally is (perhaps start by telling yourself it's Kate Bush). I like Jan Chappell, and there's something exotic about her telepathic powers, not to mention the fact (not dwelled on here) that she's not human. But the narrative is just too straightforward. We're really wanting some sort of figurehead for the Federation, a villainous leader who can personify the evils of the state and provide a proper opponent to Blake and his (increasingly numerous) gang. Perhaps she could wear the occasional nice frock.

To instil a last note of drama, Blake and co. light the blue touch-paper without checking if it's possible to jaunt away, for the second time this episode and already third in the show itself. Let's hope they've learnt their lesson by now.

But what can you do when there's a 'time squad' of some sort on your case. Or is there? No, somehow I don't think there was in the end.

And on balance, I'm glad.

PS: I'm making an early acknowledgement of this wonderful website, http://www.framecaplib.com/b7lib.htm which I will be using to illustrate my postings in future. That should make things easier for me, and better for you...