Friday, 24 June 2016

Children of Auron!

Having given Vila a whole episode to himself, this time Cally is the focus. We learn (at least, I don’t think we knew this before) that she is not only a freedom fighter but thereby an exile from her homeworld, the oft-mentioned but never-before-seen Auron. We learn that she has a twin sister back there. We learn that Auron is not only big on telepathy but also cloning (transcendence of both the mind and the body), but most importantly, pacifism.

As part of a recurring refrain in British sci-fi television, these peaceniks are inevitably due to be roughed up by somebody big and violent and morally destitute.

Cut to: Servalan, in black.

Is this ever-constant theme (from Thals to Dulcians to the people of Michael Gough) just a World War II re-enactment narrative? And does that make Servalan, dictator of a disintegrating empire, a new version of Adolf herself? Is the story of Servalan’s children therefore a low-budget version of The Boys from Brazil shot at Leeds Polytechnic? Looking rather swish, but even so.

It’s a very strange story, for a number of reasons. There are virtually no sympathetic characters for most of the story, apart from Michael Troughton’s wonderfully cuddly Auron pilot who dies a viscerally nasty death (slumped in a space rocket, covered in lesions, leaking cheese sauce) within about five seconds (was his casting meant to be an in-joke regarding the title?), and of course Cally, who doesn’t really know what’s going on for a good long while.

Tarrant and Avon argue about whether to trust Cally’s sister, so don’t involve themselves with the plot till it’s almost too late. Servalan’s officers too are fighting amongst themselves, and it’s hard to blame them. The most you can hope for if you work for Servalan is that she won’t notice you: if you’re crap, clever or just sexy, she’ll fire you at the Liberator sooner or later.

And she tells Deral that’s what all this is about this week: she’s given an entire planet a death sentence just to get Avon in a vulnerable position. This is what is sometimes called over-planning. Or is it? The viewers are confused, and so is Deral, and perhaps that’s how she wants it – because Servalan actually has her eye on a prize she’s not going to make a big deal about.

Her plan actually works out pretty well. I suppose if you’re a megalomaniac, sooner or later things will come together for you. Where it goes wrong is just a couple of details: the infighting of her workforce (hoping for Employee of the Month, presumably never having heard how Commander Travis got on) and a that she underestimates (or just forgets about) implacable, deadly Dayna.

In the midst of all this, you wouldn’t blame Jan Chappell for feeling slightly put out. What is meant to be a Cally story is pretty much a Servalan story, and you never get much sense that anyone has time to think about what’s really going on: an exile coming home, a battle of ideologies, reunion with a twin, sudden unexpected grief. Even the twin’s death is thrown away: why is she trying to keep the incubator machine running when she knows it’s going to blow up any second?

“Even Servalan’s children must have a chance, Cally,” is a rather startling thought, though. What viewers of the episode will chiefly remember is the moment when Servalan experiences, telepathically, the death of her embryos children. There’s no two ways about this: it’s utterly shocking. That being said, it’s partly shocking simply because we’re being shown it at all. It isn’t moving – it’s startlingly strange, and perhaps it’s because it’s the most vulnerable we’ve seen the character.

(Harvest of Kairos, you’ll remember, didn’t happen, although I will admit that this whole storyline – whatever you make of it – is related to certain scriptwriters’ personal difficulty with the idea of a powerful female supervillain.)

In this episode’s strange, shocking, sad but difficult to parse moment, we see how are invited to pity Servalan. We have no idea about her past, about the true nature of her ambition or really what she plans for the Federation (there is literally no clue to what’s going on beyond the walls of that shark-shaped spaceship), but we perhaps have a reminder here that such monsters and tyrants as Servalan represents are ultimately tragic figures, isolated, paranoid and fixated on a future that will never happen.

And while we’re still reeling from that, we get a Scooby Doo comedy laughter ending. So once again, I’m facing the future and thinking that anything at all could happen…

Oh, and in case you all thought I hadn’t noticed:
Ronald Leigh-Hunt!

All screengrabs are from

Friday, 17 June 2016

City on the Edge of the World!

Chris Boucher is back at the helm, and quality control has been restored. I refuse to believe that Boucher even knew they were making Harvest of Kairos. I think the cast and crew made it when they were drunk during somebody’s wedding. If they turned the camera around during that scene with Dayna’s feet stuck in the web and the flea-monster waddling towards her, you’d see Jacqueline Pearce dancing to ‘Come On Eileen’ with somebody’s Uncle whilst nibbling on a big bit of wedding cake.

But now the party’s over, the hangovers have cleared (Jacqueline’s was bad, because she switched to a bluer shade of space drink last week) and we have an actual television programme once more. And it felt like proper Blake’s 7.

I mean, for one thing it starts off with everybody in a dreadful mood. Del Tarrant is a particularly nasty sort to Vila, and Vila gets a proper retort of a kind that practically made me cheer.

Vila: All my life, for as long as I can remember, there's been people like you
Tarrant: I thought I was unique.
Vila: You’re not even unusual, Tarrant.

They teleport down on a space mission, something goes wrong, and Vila can’t teleport back up. Then we have some baddies, a peaceful alien race with a terrible secret, and a surprising subplot. It’s witty, it’s nicely shot, the effects aren’t entirely disproportionate to the budget but (when we see Vilaworld) they do just go slightly beyond what they can afford, which is how I like it. Also, the Doctor Who guest stars this week outclass even Michael Gough.

I say this felt like familiar territory, but in a significant way it didn’t. This was a story about Vila for a change. It actually gave us a story told from his perspective, and was full of people trying to see things his way. The result was lovely and human. I don’t want to sound too predictable, but having a human, trickster hero did remind me of the mothership: i.e. Doctor Who.

It was so niftily written. From Vila’s point of view, Villains like Baban the Barbarian aren’t rivals or existential threats or mirrors or anything like the villains in other stories: they are, simply, stupid bullies. And Baban was great fun in that role. The city puzzle box transmat space ship – well, it didn’t make perfect sense, but it was different: a riddle, a battle of brain rather than brawn.

Vila really talked and acted like a clever guy this week, talking about the architect of the riddle as if he was still around. He didn’t just point a sonic suitcase at a lock.

And this was a story that benefits so much from happening in this time of upheaval, Tarrant jostling for captaincy, Avon quietly asserting his authority. I don’t know what happened with Jan Chappell’s performance, but she was suddenly more assured and steely – and I put this down to the more interesting group dynamic amongst the crew. Where might this lead?

It’s a credit to Boucher, and a reminder that the show hasn’t yet exhausted all its potential, despite the last few stinkers.

Speaking of stinkers, there was Carol: though she did, admittedly, take a shower halfway through the adventure. Of course, this being his story, Vila had to finally get a romantic storyline. Maybe I’ve just had too much blue space cocktail, but I found it very touching, even though it happened on fast forward. It would have been nice for Carol to stay as tough and smelly as she was when they first met, but it was also nice that Vila got to play the matinee idol hero. Nothing approaching this is going to happen again to Vila again.

One of my most persistent gripes with this show is that it’s overloaded with lead characters. In this story, Chris Boucher demonstrated how a story could emphasise one particular lead above the others – while still giving everyone something to do – and subtly colour the narrative a different hue to others in the series. Since they can hardly vary the settings and locations very much, this seems to be a skill the other writers should get the hang of quickly.

Most ridiculous of all, I actually welled up a bit when Vila said he couldn’t come to ‘Homeworld’ because there was nothing to steal there. I couldn’t help feeling that Chris Boucher was talking about being a writer. Most other professions are transferable to other situations – or perhaps people don’t feel defined by them. But could a writer survive in a world without a past, without riddles and challenges and stuff to do. Who would he be?

Of course, Vila is more a trickster than a thief. So maybe there is a kind of dignity in the analogy. All I know is, however little he might fit into other people’s stories, I’m glad that there is someone like Vila in the world of Blake’s 7, and that now and again he scores a victory over someone like Tarrant.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Harvest of Kairos!

At last, a great wrong has been righted. A powerful female lead character has been humiliated by a very tall man in an unzipped tracksuit. Finally! I don’t know how the BBC let that state of affairs drag on so long.

Too long this series has been obsessed with images of flawed masculinity. Its hero, Blake, was an ineffectual fanatic who frequently risked his crew-members’ lives for the opportunity to rescue one of his friends or commit a minor act of sabotage. Gan was a liability. Vila is a side character from Open All Hours. Avon is a robot with a permanently curled lip.

But now we have Jarvik. Jarvik is a human being in a world of computers, a man in a world of mutoids, a Milk Tray man in a lactose intolerant age, in a tracksuit in an age of leather tabards and clingy evening dresses, on a space station, with a desire to see Tarrant zapped into the middle of next week and Servalan panting before him and telling him what a man he is.

Del Tarrant, incidentally, has suddenly become the hot name in Federation circles. He’s the man to beat. Blake – Blake who? Avon who, for that matter. It’s all about Tarrant. Maybe they’ve mistaken him for Dev Tarrant (last seen in The Way Back, betraying Blake to the Federation). Or Jill Tarrant (star of 1974’s Death to the Daleks).

Whatever the case, this is a story about humiliation. Jarvik’s first act when he is brought before the President of whatever-it-is-they’ve-got-going-since-the-Federation ended (it really might just be that one room of Servalan’s, we just don’t know) (I mean how big is that spinning space station we see in the establishing shots, after all? It could be the size of a bungalow and we wouldn’t know a darn thing) is to humiliate Servalan with dirty talk and an impulsive snog. He then calculatedly humiliates Tarrant.

Servalan likes being made to look and feel like an idiot, it seems. But what about Jacqueline Pearce? Is she gone by Season 4? I wouldn’t blame her in the slightest.

Of course, the person who feels really humiliated by all of this carry on is, well, me. After watching 45 minutes of this stuff, I felt like an utter fool. I could have had Tarkovsky on instead, or a BBC3 documentary. I could have been reading poetry or learning how to make pastry from a YouTube video.

I will say one thing for this story, and although it’s not about the giant flea monster, I will go easy on that (lest we forget, this story was televised a week after The Horns of Nimon, and years before the Plasmatons, the Ergon, the Garm or the Myrka reared their ugly heads). But there is a great scene with Servalan taking control of the Liberator – at last! – and Avon superseding Tarrant (hooray) for a little battle of wills with her. It’s nothing, really, scriptwise – but those characters go brilliantly together, and the actors have fantastic chemistry.

In the first series, I thought we could make do with three crew members and the talking computer. Now I think all you really need are Avon and Servalan. At the very least, they need to be at the centre of the series. Terry Nation knew that in the opening episode of this series, and if he has any sense, he’ll return to it. I was certainly pleased to see that Ben Steed wasn’t allowed to get away with making Jarvik and Tarrant the alpha males of the show.

It’s Avon with a bit of copper wiring and an intelligent rock who saves the day. Ultimately, that’s all you need.