Sunday, 25 September 2016


One of the stories waiting to be told in Blake’s 7 is that of the cosmic couturier of Fantabulo 6. I like to imagine the planet is a bit like Logopolis, only in this world – which Christopher H. Bidmead wouldn’t have dared imagine – the dusty red rock caverns (or do they have a fresher, pinker hue?) are filled with dressmakers, hunched over their pattern cutting tables, Singer sewing machines and ancient, pedal-operated looms. What do they weave all day and all night, these mysterious machinists? What could it be but the stuff of the universe. Like the Fates of ancient time, the Fantabulosians measure, colour and cut the threads of great lives. The heroes, the villains, the Vila’s of this world too, we’re all woven in the tapestry waistcoats and coat tales of their nimble fingers. It is not through coincidence that the woman who ascended to the greatest heights in the cosmos is the one who buys her wardrobe exclusively from Fantabulo. If the frock fits, wear it. Servalan – or whatever she’s calling herself this week (and is there a blog post in the fact that there are seemingly no such things as photos in the world of Blake’s 7, or is it more of a parenthetical observation sort of a thing?) has a loyalty card for the frockmasters of Fantabulo. She has shares in the place. They’ve named a public square after her.

Servalan's Pressure Point outfit, by Demi-Goddess of Design, June Hudson
            It would sound mealy-mouthed to say that Servalan changes her plans as often as she changes her dress, but I would put money on the fact that she actually lets every new garment inspire her next act of galactic villainy. See her fastening the little black belt on this week’s little black, off the shoulder Bardot dress, considering the way it hugs her slender figure and complements her signature black crop, as two muscle-bound Avon lookalikes in studded leather hot pants hold up the full-length, scroll-edged mirror for her to study herself. What is this dress, this evening dress designed for the last evening in the world, trying to tell her? It’s simple, black as deep space, no froufrou or frills. Perhaps it looks like something she might wear to a funeral. But of course, it has that sexy tie around her throat, and a very daring reveal. She’d wear it to the sort of funeral where she’s in a good mood. That suggests the deaths of that pesky Scorpio crew, of course. She’s been trying to kill them for years and years, and it’s never quite come off. Time to pay a professional?
In all this time, the Federation has fallen, tried drunkenly to get up, toppled over again. Now it’s hard to tell what’s actually happening outside Servalan’s boudoir. Thankfully for the Universe, the house of Fantabulo 6 has stood proud and resolute. For a while – Season 2 – they were doing particularly good business. They even sold stuff to the Liberator crew, and they had a factory seconds outlet in Freedom City that did a roaring trade. For a while since, they’ve had to streamline their business. The Liberator crew are less fashion conscious in Season 4. Avon’s got a lot of wear out of the same studded leather outfit (it’s easily wipe-downable, and just needs a good polish with some Dubbin if he’s been out in the wet) while everybody else generally gets by on velour tracksuits with ribbed turtle-necks or (if you’re Soolin) plenty of cleavage on display. There is a chance that Blake and Jenna are hovering around, longing to join forces again, but can’t quite face being seen with them. Judging by their outfits in Season 1, however, the chances are narrow (certainly narrower than Blake’s old shoulder pouffes).
Judging by the opening of this episode, in which they gather around to listen to a suspiciously transparent message from Servalan to her hired help, Avon and his friends might well have been ordering from the Fantabulo 6 catalogue again. Tarrant’s hasn’t turned up yet (he’s still in the velour tracksuit) but Avon is in a black and silver fighting outfit, with little motifs of (I think) playing card emblems round the collar: hearts and clubs, very Avon. Soolin’s got a very restrained grey outfit with glittering beaded blue sleeve cuffs, belt and a single giant lapel: shades of Visage, reimagined for the office. Dayna is the most exciting: it’s Toyah Wilcox, doing panto but still as Toyah Wilcox.
But who is the mysterious Cancer? And why do astrological signs persist in the age of interstellar space travel?
The guest cast get the best deal from Fantabulo 6. Of course, it’s a shame that Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick were both unavailable, but a joy to see Betty Marsden in a late role. Joy overflows to see her in a dress made of mirrors and a headdress of costume jewellery and silver dreadlocks. If ever there were an origin story for the Movellans, their creator is surely Betty Marsden. Just a pity she’s not in it longer, but she is surrounded by space pirates and auction agents dressed in home-made versions of the Mission to the Unknown aliens. In fact, it is my personal canon that these are Malpha, Trantis and co. with a new look for the 1970s. She is also there for the best moment of Blake’s 7 so far:

I think, if you don’t mind, I would prefer my slave to address me as ‘mistress’…

            Meanwhile, there’s a fab performance from (perhaps) the ultimate Doctor Who Guest Star, Richard Hurndall. Perhaps if he had played the Doctor in The Five Doctors with a dirty face and a brown sarong, he would have been that bit more convincing as William Hartnell. It really is a lovely performance from Hurndall, and I was totally taken in by the red herring of him as Cancer.
            I didn’t think for a second it was ‘the Mighty Ajax’, with his burning eyes and – well, burning everything in fact. No, as soon as I clocked Piri the dancing girl in her spangly purple cruise chanteuse outfit, I knew what was going on, and no amount of jiggery-pokery with people being locked up and set free and locked up could throw me off the scent. At the last minute, I was proven even more right than I knew I wanted to be, as Piri emerged into the ascendant with a full Fantabulosa off-the-peg black cocktail dress with beaded black stole, mauve lippie, and a beehive like a factory chimney (I actually had to check that she wasn’t played by Mari Wilson). Having attempted to murder the helpless, over-confident, hyper-masculine (well sort of) Kerr Avon with what should have been a deadly crab, Mari Wilson is hoist on her own arachnid by super-cool Soolin (i.e. the best thing about Season 4) and dies with the wildest scream this show has ever seen. It’s a scream that comes right from the dress. It’s worth rewinding and watching again.

 Star Studded: Avon's 'Killer' Outfit, by the costume superstar June Hudson
            In summary: everyone was making more of an effort this week. Servalan had an actual plan, and for about five minutes she actually had Avon where she wanted him (and he looked quite pleased about it). The guest cast were fun, there was a twist, hair was high, there was a blood-curdling scream.
            TLDR: It was bloody awful, but my favourite episode of this season so far. Bring on next week’s offering, and may the frockmasters never die – or the Universe itself might unravel. Or worse, grow drab and uninteresting…

Alongside my shonky photos of Radio Times listings, these two June Hudson designs were found on this blog after they were auctioned by Bonhams. 
Hudson is a creative genius who helped make the golden age of BBC television look as fabulous as it did. She's still creating, teaching and modelling and you should treat yourself to a look at her web-page, here.

Sunday, 18 September 2016


Avon’s Servalannish tendencies finally abate a little in this story, and as a viewer it’s all for the better. Not that he suddenly becomes a second Gan, or even a Jenna. And it’s not because of anything that his human comrades says to him – it’s an argument with his laptop.
It’s interesting to consider what a major role the machines play in the BBC’s two big SF shows: when this story aired in November 1981, Doctor Who had only very recently (in fact, January of that year) bid farewell to his second-best friend, K-9 the robot dog, and Sarah-Jane Smith was only one month away from receiving her own model of the same machine in her very own Christmas special. The TARDIS herself is “more than just a machine”, and although the show has only very recently given form and voice to the ship’s psyche, the idea that the TARDIS’ computer system ‘thinks’ for itself and is in some ways psychical, self-willed and even moody, has been around since its inception (particularly the telepathic-tastic early 70s).
            Both Avon and Vila are computer experts of differing sorts, depending on whether this is season one or not and what the plot demands. Avon is an expert with big systems and Vila is all about codes, passwords and locks. Avon, like some of the Doctor’s futuristic companions (and the Doctor himself) is somewhat analogously like the computers he operates on: a gunslinger, yes, but one who contemplates and calculates before kicking that chair or letting that engineering scientist get blown up. Cold, unreadable, insufferably clever yet also somehow ineffably desirable, Avon is like the personal computer soon to be appearing in homes across the country. One of the reasons he seems, and always has, to have a strange affinity with the dark side is that the Federation are the ones with the programme for humanity. Like the scary regimes of Orwell and Huxley, the Federation wants to treat the people of the universe like a giant electronic equation. They even use a computer for justice, in the opening episode at least.
            Avon, we feel, like every hard disc ever invented, is entirely corruptible.
            We get an early reminder in this story that Orac, one of the crew, and no less hard and chilly than Avon or Soolin, embodies the personality of his creator, Ensor. Remember him, and his robot canary? Left for dead among the slimy reptiles of the tunnels beneath an acid sea, pursued by still more slimy reptiles (Servalan and Travis) who had decided to triple-cross Ensor and the Federation in their hunt for Orac. It was worth a gamble of everything on Orac, because he was the be-all and end-all of computer thought. Servalan evidently felt she could rule the Universe and squish the Liberator crew with Orac in her talons. Blake, and then Avon, have had Orac for many years now and they’re still racketing aimlessly around the universe with evil on the throne. It does make you wonder if he’s all he’s cracked up to be – though it can’t be denied that he secretly made Avon and Vila millionaires one night, and has solved a couple of riddles in his time (although whether he tells his operators what the answer is, and for what reasons, is a riddle in itself).

This story features another expert in computers and another super-weapon, not so very different from Og the hairy barbarian of ‘Animals’: a soldier that can mess up any electronic equipment it meets, with genius intelligence and a special inhibitor that can control its actions. Like Og, the creation has rebelled against his creator (making Professor Mullen the third Davros-a-like in a row, by my count) and in a fairly grotesque way.
The most dramatic bit of the episode, for me at least, was the android’s takeover of Scorpio’s computer system via the Life Support booth. Roger Parkes signals fairly obviously to the audience that the ever-so-‘umble Slave has gone awry in a significant way, but Vila and Tarrant carry on bimbling around unaware of how vulnerable they suddenly are. The story had the potential for a general recycling of Season 3’s wonderful Tanith Lee Cally-takeover psychofantasy, but things are made more interesting through splitting the crew. There’s a real sense of crisis when the ship shuts down all life support systems. Who understands the situation best? What does Orac know? Dare we break in and find out more or do we stay at a safe distance?
Throughout the story, as the nature of the threat grows clearer, Orac and Avon grow more tactical, more calculating, more personally concerned. Dayna, Soolin, Tarrant and Vila are caught up in the middle, and each of them gets something important to do in the plot (I always award brownie points when a writers achieves this on Blake’s 7 because there are so many bloody lead characters). There’s some especially nice interplay between Vila and Soolin, when the sci-fi story turns into cod-Hammer Horror but Parkes flips the conventional gender roles and has Soolin tough and implacable while Vila hides in a cupboard. (A quick note here that Soolin gets some great lines and Glynis Barber is fab.)
It’s hard nowadays to feel the same paranoia about ‘thinking machines’ that lies at the heart of this story. We are simply too close to them nowadays: we fell in love with the K-9’s, Orac’s and Slave’s of the world. (I asked Cortana about this, and she agreed.) The ending of the story feels rather peculiar now: the threat of the android is such that Dayna and Tarrant blow it up with big relieved smiles. Avon, the calculating bugger, is very cross – but even he is given a bit of side by Orac in the last line of the story. The tension endures, and the show is ever so slightly more on the side of the human. It’s a lovely moment when Avon, of all people, overrides Orac’s instructions and defies the possessed Slave to put on a silly space helmet and ride to the rescue of his pals.

Once again, blurry Radio Times pictures were taken by me, screengrabs are courtesy of

Monday, 12 September 2016


How human is Kerr Avon anyway?
The Blake’s 7 regulars are all a fairly bestial lot. Snarling, snapping, scrabbling about. Vila’s dialogue is more or less analogous to either a mucky grunt or a wheedling yelp. Tarrant and Avon spent series 2 yapping at one another. Servalan would bite your head off, soon as look at you. What’s more, things seem to be getting worse. Avon is getting more savage, his pack seems to be continuously turning on itself, and Servalan – well, I’m not sure what she’s doing and why she hasn’t been recognised yet. Perhaps everybody’s just pretending they don’t know her so they don’t get killed. I’m sure that happens in certain workplaces and even certain bars. But nobody in this show is behaving in a recognisably human way.
            It’s nice, then, to get a reminder of Dayna’s father and to meet one of her old teachers. After space Vikings, space rebels and space punks, this is a story about one of those very specific Blake’s 7 characters: an important human who stands on the borderline between the Federation and its opponents. This time he’s important because he’s a genetic scientist and, a little like Davros, Professor Justin has created a new race of soldiers that thrive in radioactive environments. Unlike Davros, Justin’s creations hate him and have rebelled.
            Dayna, partly the product of his teaching, is also in revolt against her mentor. (It’s not clear exactly what he was teaching her: the important bits of their relationship seem to have been extra-curricular, which I had to keep blotting out throughout the story.) Justin’s eugenic Lego-building doesn’t just involve existential dilemmas but pain, experimentation and conditioning. And that’s before he mentions also experimenting with deserters from the Federation. There’s really not very much to like about Professor Justin: even his tabard’s ugly, and that’s saying something for this show.
            Conveniently, Scorpio needs extensive repairs back at the base, giving Dayna plenty of time with wrestle with her emotions, and Servalan enough time to deduce that something is happening on Justin’s planet, investigate, find the one man who knows about Justin’s experiments, fly him over, interrogate him, kill him, and beam people down to abduct Dayna. How long was Vila mucking about in the Scorpio’s engines? A fortnight?
            Jacqueline Pearce does some great work with Servalan this week. The script’s pretty shonky but the ex-President delivers every line cool enough to administer frostbite. When she realises that Dayna has a personal attachment to Justin, she turns this human strength into a vulnerability: not through blackmail but brainwashing, replacing every loving feeling with animal hatred. After this, Dayna is more Blake’s 7-y than ever: cold, watchful, obsessed with hardware. Servalan has Avonised her, and together they’re unstoppable.
            The test subjects are actually fairly good, costume-wise. Or are they? I can’t tell any more. I’ve passed an event horizon where I have no idea whether something is actually good or just good for this era in British sci-fi television, or even just good for Blake’s 7. After all, we should have met our fair share of alien beasties and strange people in this show and they’ve been relatively few. The denizens of Ultraworld, with their blue leotards and even bluer hair, are not very impressive. The flea-monsters of Kairos are eyebrow-raising for all the wrong reasons. These inventions of Justin, with their presumably radiation-proof golden locks, at least look relatively solid and weird. They are all fairly sensible too, if we go by their complete avoidance of their creator.
            I wasn’t surprised to see Justin go the way of all Blake’s 7 guest characters, and nor was I saddened very much. There was something rather suspicious about his relationship with Dayna. She was terribly upset when he died – and I do mean terribly – but is that down to having Jacqueline Pearce sweetly murmuring: “You love him… You love him… You love him…” while bombarding her with images of the Professor and, presumably, his tabard? Jacqueline could make anybody do anything.
            Especially in a universe like this one, where lives are cheap and victories short-lived. It’s probably hard to stay human in such conditions, particularly when the writers don’t know what they’re doing. We go round and round, getting more bitter, our characters less definite with each trip around the same old plot points. If the series doesn’t end with Avon and Servalan scrapping, eye-to-eye, in a grubby cellar with only a jawbone or a sharp bit of rock to win the day, it’ll only be because the series is so wonkily put together at this point that it doesn’t even follow the rules of its own moral universe.
            PS: Although this episode was truly dreadful, it gets points for a return from Kevin Stoney. Such a pity this stupid programme keeps killing him off!