Friday, 22 July 2016


Well, where to begin…?

I have a new game I play when I watch Blake’s 7. It’s not a drinking game, although I’m pretty sure the drunker you are, the better the show is. No, it’s very simple: just as the title card comes up (bwwwaaaaa…) I close my eyes (bwwwaaa…) and then I have to see how quickly I can guess who has written the episode.

Now, I was vaguely aware that Ben Steed had written more than one episode because of something muttered in the opening episode of fan podcast Down and Safe (if you get the chance, I urge you to download it and listen yourself). And I knew it couldn’t be Trevor Hoyle, because he’s just had a turn. I didn’t for a second think it was Terry Nation, but I might have guessed him before I guessed Chris Boucher or Robert Holmes. Their work, as I said in relation to 'Rumours of Death', is happening in two different eras of television. Terry Nation’s still essentially writing for the 60s. Chris Boucher’s story structures can be seen on BBC 1 today.

Ben Steed, on the other hand, writes for the era that time and taste and all right thinking people forgot. I pegged this one as his, as soon as the mysterious overseer (later revealed as Moloch, later revealed as a malignant computer, later revealed as a small felt glove puppet with one eye) told the Federation troopers what to do with the woman who has betrayed their whereabouts to the Liberator.

“Give her to your men.”

Now, it’s all very well for me to big up Chris Boucher as the better writer – but it should also be highlighted that he was the script editor for this season. I like to believe that Boucher saw strong female characters as an important element of the show – as character outlines, Dayna, Cally and Servalan are all stronger figures than virtually any other character but Avon. ‘Rumours of Death’ pivots on a strong, complex, dangerous female character – and even when Servalan is tied to a wall, she has maximum power.

So how could he let through a script where women are implicitly raped offscreen; where, in fact, there are only two female characters in the story so that this particular form of violence can be employed? Steed is, perhaps, trying to demonstrate the depravity of the planet’s rulers, an echo of the child abuse storyline in the series’ pilot episode: except that the tone of those stories was 1984, and this one feels more like a surreal episode of Allo Allo. Vila happens to befriend a misogynistic murderer, and when he’s told he’s going to be given a woman for serving the Federation, he trots along looking really quite cheerful about it.

Stinky old Carol on Vila-world wouldn’t be very pleased to hear about this.

I mean, you don’t need to hear it all again, I don’t need to say it all again, but Servalan gets humiliated by one of her officers, again. Cally spends the whole episode working the teleport, and manages to get that wrong, twice. Dayna does nothing in the episode but ask Avon questions (not very different from last episode). I’m expecting at least one of the female regulars to leave next season. And I bet there’ll be another bloody awful Ben Steed story then too.

The story is a mess, with a magic computer on an invisible planet and too many people making overly complicated plans with it. The design is lazy, the effects work is dreadful (is that really supposed to look like a human being floating in that tank?) and in the conclusion, the plot just self destructs: Moloch, the hyper advanced alien, can’t survive without his life support machine and Avon runs away from Servalan (who has a teleport bracelet, and didn’t manage to kill Vila or Tarrant when she was face to shoulder-pad with them).

What’s really sad is that I see we are nearing the end of this season. This time last season, everything was gearing up toward the destruction of Star One – this time around, there’s absolutely no continuity at all and no sense of direction. Where is Servalan going? Where is Avon going?

Come on, Chris. Prove me wrong. Two more stories to go. Surely this Ben Steed story was penance enough. Let’s get back to the good stuff.

Friday, 15 July 2016


I remember, during the Eleventh Doctor’s memorably final, unforgettably naff adventures with Amy and Rory Pond, that some fan commentators postulated the theory that the Doctor was experiencing these adventures in a different order to his companions. That the stories were, in fact, being seen out of order by the audience for some very interesting purpose. This, obviously, came to nothing. But I would be tempted to resurrect the theory and apply it to the adventures of the Liberator in season 3.

Character development seems to go backwards and forwards. Sometimes Tarrant is the Captain, sometimes Avon. Sometimes Avon is having a relationship with Cally and sometimes with Dayna, and most of the time, with Servalan, but that’s all done via WhatsApp so nobody knows. Is Cally exiled from Auron? Does anyone ever remember that her twin has died? Does Dayna remember that Servalan killer her father? Does anyone remember the aliens who were invading at the end of last season – or that guy called Blake?

At the start of this story, the Liberator is once again flying randomly through space. It encounters a mysterious object that looks a bit like a Sontaran scout ship and a lot like a mirror ball. In fact, when Cally is telepathically possessed by it – for the umpteenth bloody time – it actually manifests as a mirror ball. We get some bright lights flashing. We really ought to cross fade to Tina Charles surrounded by dry ice, but sadly that never happens.

The Liberator crew decide to teleport down and rescue her, after a bit of argy-bargy between Avon and Tarrant that makes no reference to any of their other rescue missions for Cally. Perhaps, the ship being psychic, it requires its crew to have an argument before it can power up its teleport circuits. Perhaps the entire Liberator is powered by its occupants’ internal discord. Maybe it’s inducing these arguments.

Anyway, they all head off except for Vila, who has become a complete imbecile who wants to tell Orac stupid jokes. Stupid, stupid jokes about ‘parking meteors’. The fact that this then comes to be an important factor in the plot makes me even more suspicious of the psychic ship and oracular Orac. I think Orac could see what was going to happen and got Zen to control Vila and make him behave like a numpty, in order to rescue the crew at the eleventh hour.

Why wouldn’t Orac just tell them what they need to do? Well, this is the same computer who deviously flew the entire ship into a black hole a couple of episodes prior to this. Once you accept that Orac and Zen are in control of the ship, the mass of ridiculous coincidences that power Blake’s 7 begin to make sense, as do the crew’s unstable character motivations. They’re basically action figures in the metaphorical grip of two electronic giant children.

But I digress.

My big shock this week was that as soon as the blue men arrived – yes, you remember the blue men: they’ve strapped Cally down and they’re feeding her mental powers into ‘the Core’ – I realised I had seen this story before. Cue a wibbly wobbly flashback to the young teenage Nick, drunk on The Avengers and Doctor Who and excited to find a Blake’s 7 VHS or two in his local library.

‘Ultraworld’ was on one of those videos. (The other had ‘Gold’ and ‘Orbit’ on – it’ll be interesting to see those again.) I’d completely forgotten seeing this, it all came flooding back: the disgustingly baggy giant pus-coloured brain that is the core, and the inevitable soggy explosion of the same. On the available evidence, I can see why I didn’t immediately succumb to this series. (Interestingly, and I’m stretching that definition, this story was preceded on that VHS by ‘Sarcophagus’, which I had absolutely no memory of seeing. Which means I was even more bored by that story than I was by this load of old rubbish.)

I’m happy to have a giant brain, three balding blue men and a plan to steal everyone’s minds and put them in a giant mirror ball. I’m happy for the day to be saved by telling the supercomputer stupid jokes. But Trevor Hoyle obviously sent this through to the wrong production team. This is a Doctor Who story through and through.

Of course, in Doctor Who it would make a bit more sense. Cally wouldn’t be possessed – she would teleport down to Ultraworld out of curiosity, despite Tom Baker’s boggle-eyed warnings. Then the Doctor would travel down to the ship with the crew, who would be picked off one by one – but only after he had got the chance to explain the plot to at least one of them.

We’d have a nice slow build-up to all of this, and the blue men wouldn’t be after the Liberator – I mean, what’s that all about? – but the TARDIS. Lalla Ward and K-9 would be dodging blue men – who would probably be a bit scarier, maybe they would have weird blue contact lenses in or something? And they fire blue lasers out of their eyes and turn other people blue…

You get the picture.

But instead, for no good reason, Tarrant knows everything. Exactly like the Doctor, exactly unlike Tarrant or anybody else in the show, except perhaps Orac (again, suspicious). And not only that, but Dayna knows nothing. Every time the camera cuts to her, Dayna is saying, “What’s that?” and “What do you mean?” She manages to blow something up precisely once. Apart from that, she might as well be Dodo Chaplet. She even gasps in horror at the sight of – some men. With their eyes closed.

Well, I did say it. 'Rumours of Death'. 'Sarcophagus'. There had to be a bad story on its way. But I must say, watching a story like this is dispiriting. It’s tempting to give up on the whole show. But I must not think like myself at thirteen.

I must venture forward, with an open heart…

Friday, 8 July 2016


There are two kinds of Blake’s 7 story: ones tied directly into the show’s continuity, and the Liberator’s ongoing struggle with the Federation (and Servalan in particular, of course), and what you might expect to be the more prevalent: extraneous, self-contained adventures-of-the-week. Random touchdowns on alien worlds, attacks by space pirates, detours through black holes into the weird dominion of a deposed alien genius. That sort of thing.

In the first season, the two kinds of story were almost invariably fused. Blake would decide they needed to liberate a figurehead of the rebellion or steal a superweapon or blow up an important satellite. Sometimes Blake was directly pitched against his deadly nemesis, Tarrant. In series 2, there is perhaps more division between these two kinds of story. Robert Holmes does a clever thing of having the Federation alerted and on their way, but not quite visible.

I suppose the split is symbolic of the Liberator crew itself. Do they fly toward trouble, do they rescue a stranger, do they investigate the unknown, are they motivated for themselves?

In this season, where Servalan is slowly regaining her power and her interest in the Liberator sometimes seems monomaniacal, I feel the stories are less tightly linked into the Federation narrative. Although there is a sense that Tarrant and Avon are strutting about a bit, squirting testosterone around the flight deck and getting ready to tangle their antlers, a lot of the stories could really be seen in any order. This isn’t a problem: although the Star One narrative of Season 2 gives an extra satisfaction to the faithful viewer, it can also feel a bit of a drag sometimes.

Last week, I wrote in praise of Rumours of Death, a pretty overtly continuity-tastic story, and very satisfying too. It not only built upon Servalan and Avon’s characters, but seemed to depend on a sense of moral nihilism that has crept in since the loss of Blake. What are they fighting for? Do they really have nothing to look toward but violent death or that ‘old wall’ of subjugation?

We were due something fun and colourful after that, and perhaps something a little bit life-affirming. The title of Tanith Lee’s episode might not look too promising in such a context. But I would actually give it the edge over even Rumours of Death.

It doesn’t provide any insight into the world of the Federation. There is no real sense of history for any of the characters. One scene with Cally at the beginning is slightly odd, suggesting that she is still exiled from Auron. It might have made more sense to mention the death of her sister, but instead we are in a weirdly ‘reset’ and ambiguous place at the start of the story. It’s not necessarily wrong, but it does have a different emphasis. Where the continuity-ish stories describe personal experience as cumulative, these self-contained stories suggest that we never learn, we never truly change, we are always hungry for a new adventure, always subject to chance and surprise.

And yet this becomes an incredibly personal story for Cally and, quite surprisingly, for Avon too. A psychic vampire of sorts manages to take over the ship, welcomed in by Cally’s natural instinct toward the psychically developed, non-human, and towards, in a word, a friend. Cally doesn’t do that well out of the friendship, being laid comatose in a pile of glittery cushions; on the other hand, life on the Liberator day-to-day looks pretty alienating. Look at the events of last week.

To some extent, Avon redeems himself in this story. Last week, he was betrayed in almost every sense, murdered his ex-lover in cold blood, and welcomed death at the hands of his greatest enemy. In this story, he directly challenges the invading alien to take his life: chancing (with, perhaps, a hint of a death wish) that Cally really doesn’t hate him that much. Despite testing and watching her earlier in the story, he finally gives himself up and trusts her to defy the oppressive personality.

There’s a kiss, a bit of sleight of hand, a few sad words from the alien, a slow dissolve to dusty death. There’s a comedy ending from Dayna and Vila, and a shared look of understanding from Avon and Cally. In actual fact, everything that Avon and Cally do in this story is unspoken: Avon trusts Cally, Cally trusts Avon, and Tanith Lee trusts her audience.

What takes this just beyond Rumours of Death – not that it’s a competition, but I want to make this point – is that there are plenty of bits of Sarcophagus that take the risk of looking ridiculous, and that's always good. There’s an overlong sequence at the beginning which establishes a weird narrative of dream symbology (even a little bit of Jung? No?). There are mad costumes, weird poltergeist happenings, and of course there is space folk.

Space Folk.

It’s all fabulously daring and unexpected. Rumours of Death had some great play with narrative, and lots of shooting and shouting and dark looks. You could just about show it to your parents without blushing. But knowing that Blake’s 7 can go just that bit further, knowing it can push on beyond its budget, beyond verisimilitude and realism and fear, I am always extra pleased when – as here – it goes that one step beyond.

Right then, sorry for the extra-long blog post this week. Two good stories in a row. Surely that means we’re due a duffer next time…

I took the wonky pictures of the Radio Times listings in the British Library, and the image of Cally comes from the Blake's 7 Image Library.