Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Project Avalon!

It feels highly appropriate for Blake and his pals to be running around on an ice planet. It couldn't happen every week: those thermal parkas look ridiculous. But every character in the show is, to some degree, rather glacial. Blake and Jenna might share the occasional joke about Avon being a bastard, but the rest of the time they're deadly serious about combating the Federation.

Gan and Cally occasionally try unconvincingly to get in on the whole 'mates' thing, but you never actually see them having fun, relishing the adventure, cooking dinner for everybody. After that things slowly move chillier and chillier, from Avon (who'd definitely be treacherous underfoot) to Travis (the social equivalent to frostbite) to Servalan (who ought to arrive in this episode carrying a magic wand, in a sleigh drawn by reindeer and driven by a dwarf).

Then there are the Mutoids. Good to see them back, by the way, though a pity there's not a return appearance from Carol Royle. Did she object to the script or the plastic hair? Either way, she could have made a chilling companion for Travis had she stayed. Her role – if not necessarily that of Kia-Ora herself, who one must imagine being jettisoned into space by Travis in an attempt to suppress bad PR – is taken by a promising young actress called Glynis Barber.

At the start of the show, when the Mutoids impassively zap a load of people in parkas, I got the idea that they were always and only women. I was trying to come up with theories about this, and the idea that women in the future can only assume powerful roles if they sacrifice their identity, when I spotted a couple of male Mutoids hanging around in the background of a scene. Is it the case that Travis is only accompanied by female Mutoids, while Servalan tours around with the boy vampires?

I'll have to keep an eye on this.

The story itself moved at a fairly glacial pace. Considering Nation wrote for squillions of other 45-minute episode shows, it does seem odd that he can't manage the pacing on this series. Really only about four things happen in this story, and it feels like they happen in real time.

A very good cast, on the whole, including this week's
David Bailie
who did have me on for a while that he was the traitor in the Avalon plan.

It was wonderful therefore to see Servalan again, and pretty much fully formed already: dropping her furs for her servants to pick up, toying with Travis by running a fingernail over his black leather carapace, at one point rocking a pair of 'space glasses' that received – and presumably needed – no explanation. She's quite rightly getting tired of Travis limping after Blake and co., and coming back with weak explanations like "I was abducted by two psychic sorceresses who made me chase Blake and Jenna with a pointy stick".

And at the end of this episode – shock! horror! – she actually relieves him of command. I like that things are moving relatively quickly, for backstory. I'm really hoping we do actually end the season with some narrative progression.

I do have a nasty feeling that instead the Liberator is just flying around in space doing the occasional good deed. Like the power in their spaceship's engines, the power of the Federation and its rebels feels essentially meaningless. Blake and his crew are taking Avalon to 'a safer planet' (and she's not in the following episode) but what does it mean in the long run?

Perhaps the best thing that can be said is that the show is gradually getting more personal: if we're not going to see Blake making any meaningful difference to the people of Earth, at least we'll see him battling Servalan and Travis. Nation needs to unleashed the show's suppressed soap opera urges.

Or perhaps it's sit-com I'm detecting. Everything that Villa does seems to deserve a laughter track. But I can't see that really working without Servalan and Travis recast as Patricia Routledge and Clive Swift respectively.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015


 I do worry that this blog sneers at Blake's 7 rather more than I'd like. It's so easy to laugh, so easy to hate something that tries to create its own style, albeit one modeled on the films of Flash Gordon and the strips of Dan Dare. Whatever the budget allocated to this show, it wouldn't look like it was made by Stanley Kubrick. I try not to write these reviews in wilful ignorance of that.

And this story, it should be noted, does its utmost to create something evocative and dynamic, the results being fairly unpredictable (until, I would say, the final conclusion). It deals in tragedy on a planetary scale, powers of a celestial nature. We get a lot of crazy video effects representing the slowing of time, telepathic communion, and a sort of sci-fi freakout induced by
Patsy Smart
to make Blake vulnerable, or perhaps more angry and liable to attack.

And blessings be upon my black PVC trousers, but Travis is back, and never was a King Rat more boo and hissable. Travis is commanding one of three pursuit ships, but he's more than happy for Blake to destroy the other two if it makes him vulnerable to Travis. Not only that, but he surrounds himself with space vampires with plastic hair (an intended call-back to Madeline Issigiri of The Space Pirates?).

The Mutoids are Terry Nation's more sultry version of the Cybermen. Human beings who have sacrificed their identities to be physically adapted to perfection, and now must prey on their fellow beings. There is an exchange between Travis and his Mutoid companion, when he taunts her with her previous identity ("You were Kia-Ora") and she doesn't raise to his bait, better than pretty much any Cyberman scene Blake's rival show has managed.

I wasn't too surprised to find that this story was directed by Doctor Who's A-Grade Director, military enthusiast, curly-haired sex symbol and pre-Hartnell incarnation, Douglas Camfield. From the opening scene, with two blue women bickering gnomically on a blasted heath made of jabolite, a minimal bit of sci-fi scene painting is made alive and intriguing. The story is strange and ultimately oblique (by which I mean, no real explanations by the end) but it's also got momentum. We may not understand exactly what has just happened, but we want to know what'll happen next – particularly when it might mean Blake being impaled by Travis or Jenna being eaten by a Vampire.

And credit where it's due, as well as Camfield, this is due to Nation's skill. This is a story written precisely for the 45-minute format, a story that works with and not against its meagre budget. There are good lines for Blake, Travis and (of course) Avon: "Blake is up a tree, Avon is up another tree – unless they plan on throwing nuts at one another, I don't think we'll see much of a battle before morning." This is also the moment where Avon even admits, in the terms of a computer programmer who is subtly altering code under the nose of his employer, or indeed a politician, that he cares for Blake and/or Jenna.

But even with all this said, I find this story sadly lacking, precisely because Avon's comments are so satisfying and yet so minimal compared to the slow-motion fighting and stick sharpening. Nation takes an interesting step in having the crew watching and commentating on the action below: he could have had them all frozen in time. There's a really promising moment when Jenna tells Blake the Federation will catch them in the end, and Vila and Gan have a little argument about it.

But that's it. We cut back to Jenna and Blake and they're laughing together like a couple in an advert for life insurance. I've said it before, but this show has far too many characters competing for a bit of the action. More than that, they are an interesting show in themselves but keep being diverted to take part in dumb 'stories of the week'.

Let's kill a few of them off, eh, Terry?