Monday, 31 October 2016


So, after all this palaver, am I a Blake’s 7 fan? Would I wear that title, own up to it as gladly as I do ‘Doctor Who fan’, 'Victoria Wood fan' and ‘Kate Bush fan’ (worlds which seemingly overlap that of Blake’s 7 like a Venn diagram)? I’ve certainly been thinking and theorising about it for a good long while. I’ve seen every episode. I’ve even written fan fiction, if you count last week’s attempt. (Actually I did try to write Blake’s 7 fanfic at school, based entirely on four episodes I'd borrowed from Dulwich Library. It was written in the 1990s and involved cyberspace, and these two facts are somewhat connected. But I digress.)

I must say, it was a struggle to watch the show at some points, but a struggle with myself more than anything. How many times had I heard my beloved Who described as slow, sexist, badly produced tat? Elsewhere I've made a case for the Hartnell era as a series of relaxation tapes with Daleks in, for Troughton’s episodes as flawed but well-meaning attempts to depict women in strong roles, for Pertwee’s trashier SFX to be more pleasurable than CGI. I’m sure if someone said that Sarah-Jane Smith enjoys zero character progression from Irongron to Eldrad, I’d say: that’s not the point!, or, That’s a narrative gap for the viewer to complete!

It turns out that however true all of this is, watching new things that operate by familiar rules is still a mental jolt. Without a prior attachment, we don’t necessarily overlook pacing issues or see past poor special effects or fill in the gaps the scriptwriter conveniently left for us. Anything on first viewing has a different look to something re-viewed, as if we need to see it stereoscopically to really appreciate its depths and shallows. Perhaps this is more natural to Doctor Who, which was retelling its earliest stories from An Exciting Adventure by David Whitaker onwards. Quickly I thought I had the measure of Blake’s 7, even if I did have to squint at it slightly to see through the fluff and crackle of time. Then there were developments, surprises, leaps forward and backward.

I love Doctor Who, not only in spite of its flaws but because of them. I tend to think of this as a moral education. Life ain’t perfect, memories do lie, stories time to be told, ‘Nothing gold can stay’, all CGI will one day depreciate in value. But could I love Blake’s 7 in quite the same way?

'Warlord' was a bit of a test.

It really is a curate’s egg, this story, and once again all the usual flaws of Blake’s 7 are on display. Regular characters behave as if freshly invented for this story – anything from last week might as well not be canon for all Avon and co. care (what happens on Virn stays on Virn, perhaps) (except it didn’t!). Underwritten characters are massively hammed up by the cast, resulting in a cheese and ham sandwich. The women in the story have little or nothing to do. The story is fairly predictable from about ten minutes in, with any important characters conveniently dead thirty seconds from the end. Avon is having another go at Servalan that will come to nothing: Servalan is laying another trap for Avon that comes to nothing.

In the story’s favour, it should be said that Servalan’s plan doesn’t fail entirely. At the end of the story, the Avon’s Five have had their base destroyed. The antidote for the Federation’s new drug will never be manufactured. The allies from the unaligned worlds – all of whom have fabulous space hairdos – are presumably dead or extremely hacked off. I think even Orac might have been smashed up. All of this makes more dramatic resonance because absolutely nothing has happened to affect the gang’s world since Soolin came aboard. In retrospect, it makes sense that Servalan simply couldn’t find them, and once she could, she trod on them, eminently casually. It’s not a bad story for Servalan as one-dimensional supervillain, just as Soolin and Avon get a juicy fight scene and Vila gets drunk and morose when things are against him.

Dayna gets to press a few buttons. Well, I did say the character stuff was a major flaw.

The whole story is shot brilliantly. From the opening, eerie vision of doped-up citizens stamped with a barcode number, gunned down on the escalators, through the desert sands of the alien planet to the destruction of Scorpio base, the director is obviously doing everything he can with the show (and the whole season has made a determined stab at raising the show’s production values). Zukan’s vision of his daughter’s anguished face and the accusing look of Servalan are cheesy, but you can’t say they’re not trying.

Ultimately, though, there is an obstacle to my fandom. I just don’t care about the characters. Not only are they not consistent with any other stories, they’re just not very impressive or imaginative. In the midst of a huge diplomatic negotiation, Avon’s friends double-cross their most powerful ally by hiding his daughter from him: this doesn't seem wise from where anyone's sitting, pink topknot or no pink topknot. They also underestimate one of the most aggressive and nefarious men in the galaxy. No Harry Sullivan's or Barbara Wright's here, no Sapphire and Steel or Steed and Peel. The Scorpio crew are more like a collection of sit-com characters in search of a laughter track, and perhaps, yes, that does make us identify with them more than ever. They're as fallible, clumsy and motivated by sex as any of their audience. But equally there is no sense from them that anything much is at stake, whether the defence of their base or the attack on the Federation. The destruction of the base is done so easily efficiently that you wonder why it didn’t happen sooner.

Blake’s 7 reached its penultimate episode leaving me hugely unsatisfied. A show pivoting on its disreputable anti-heroes has quickly become one where the lead characters are under-emphasised and underwritten. 'Warlord' is brainless, heartless and vaguely good-looking, but I’m afraid both the show and I are ready now for its concluding episode.

But does that mean I'm not a fan? Perhaps it only reiterates my attachment to the show, my deep investment, my curiosity. Because I care about something innate and ineffable about the show, something  that's not really there in the script or onscreen, but between the two, read between the lines. I'm really curious about how they're going to end this thing and draw everything together. I'm even wondering what stories fans have told about what happens next...

Am I a Blake's 7 fan? The jury is still out...

For the penultimate time, blurry snaps of the Radio Times are by me (thanks to the British Library). Screencaps are from this excellent site (thanks to Lisa).

Monday, 24 October 2016


SUBJECT: Room on top?

Dear Servalan,

Hope you are quite well. Or, to be absolutely consistent, quite mad, bad and dangerous to know as ever you were. Sorry to have missed you on down there on the planet Malodar, a world that lived up to its name by stinking to high heaven. And yes, I got your scent, right enough, amidst the stench of deceit, regret, frustrated eroticism and Deep Heat. That evil genius Egrorian had certainly pressed against somebody who wears ‘Suspiria’ perfume, and in these circumstances at least, it wasn’t his ex-boyfriend Pinder (it was him with the Deep Heat). I wouldn’t have thought Professor E. was your type, but I can hardly talk, having taken myself and my colleagues to Malodar and the brink of destruction on nothing more than the promise of his giant weapon.

So yes, I got away, and more than that, I know it was you who tried to kill me, and more than that, I know that you know that I know, in fact: you know that I know that you knew that I know that you knew that I know that you knew, and so ad infinitum. I don’t think there’s anything we don’t know about each other. Never was the chance of a mate allowed to grow so stale.

For a long time we’ve been in the same orbit, you and I, going around and around. To an observer, it might look as if you were in pursuit; to a political theorist, it might seem that I’ve been deliberately giving you the runaround. Only an astrophysicist would know the truth: we’re both swinging in circles because that’s how the universe holds together. But whose orbit is holding us, Servalan, and if he’s not around anymore – are we free to go our own way?

To be frank, I’m writing to see if you’ve got any jobs going free at the Federation, or wherever it is you work at the moment. If you can get away with an assumed name, not even growing your hair out, I’m pretty sure I could slip into some secret niche. No, it’s not a trap. What would be the point?

Once upon a time, I’d have scorned to ask such a question. You were the enemy, pure and simple – well, not at first. Servalan, you were a target. You made yourself our opposition, pursuing and antagonising us and generally looming large. You and Travis put a face on the forces that Blake and Jenna were set against. We all came to obsess over that face, one way or another.

Nowadays, I’ve no idea what you stand for or what you want. You’re hardly in power any more, and all your schemes generally come to naught since my leather-trousered arse is still sitting safe and sound on board the Scorpio as I write this. You’re no opposition and certainly no target. If you want to get anywhere, you’re going to need better allies than Pinder and Egrorian.

More to the point, and speaking off the record, I’m not entirely sure what my place in the universe is any more. I don’t need money or glory. The woman I loved, as you know, is dead. My old friends sell me out, my new friends make me sick. Somewhere in the middle is Vila. I’ve never quite been able to make up my mind about Vila, but last Monday evening in the heat of the moment, everything to play for… to my surprise, I found my mind was made up. Oh, we laughed about it afterward, but since then, it’s given me pause. I’ve caught myself staring into space with even more gravity and melodrama than usual.

I can’t keep flying around in circles, Serv. Something has to give. You know what I’m talking about: you nearly made it out, left for dead twice, and you clambered back onto the horse and where did it get you? Pressing yourself against Egrorian, hatching another pointless scheme. I know you know what I’m talking about. You know I know, and I know that you know that I know.

Sooner or later there has to be a decisive move on someone’s part. I could send along my CV but I suspect you have all the salient details.

See you next Monday,

Sunday, 16 October 2016


Always believe in your soul
You've got the power to know
You're indestructible

This little blog post should really be entitled ‘Why On Earth Wasn’t Roy Kinnear Ever in Doctor Who?’ But we’ll get to that. I need to preface everything by saying that this story was hugely enjoyable. It’s the perfect fulfilment of, I like to imagine, Terry Nation’s vision for the series: that is, an ITC Saturday night drama of the kind he spent many years scripting improbable adventures for: The Avengers, Department S, The Baron, The Persuaders. All these shows are crime dramas with a fantastical twist, bold characters but little continuity, and a healthy respect for the intelligent viewer. ‘Gold’ perhaps overestimated the intelligence of this particular viewer – I got a bit lost amid the triple crossing and whether the booty was legit or not – but it was all great fun. Four series of this sort of episode would make total sense: amoral professionals get into a con, react smartly to every development, and narrowly escape a show-down with the perpetual villain.

Glad that you're bound to return
There's something I could have learned

But like I said last week, Blake’s 7 is never at its best when it behaves like it should. There’s something inconsequential about ‘Gold’: it entertains you, you go home, and what was it about again? Its biggest problem is how it handles Servalan: at one point Avon reads Roy Kinnear’s curriculum vitae and sees that he did some work for ‘the President’. “But which President…?” snarls Avon to himself. This is like a production of Cinderella where Baron Hardup and the Ugly Sisters, on receiving an invitation from the Prince, turn to the audience to say: “But which Prince…?” (Perhaps the Wicked Queen from Snow White would have been more appropriate.) ‘Gold’ could at least play with its audience’s anticipation of Servalan, rather than making it a plot twist that immediately untwists itself with some sexual tension and a quadruple cross.

I hope you find a little more time
Remember, we were partners in crime

It’s a great scene though. The leader of the rebels meets the dark heart of the establishment, and magnetic waves are whirling. Will they draw irresistibly together, fly apart, combust? We’re into the home stretch of this series, and I find myself wishing it was all about these two. Kill the Scorpio crew now: then where would our stars be, what would they do? If there was no chance of Servalan becoming President once more and she was just like Avon, on the run with a small gang, subsisting and seeking revenge or just money and sex. What an amazing, unpredictable conclusion to their four-year arc that would be: it makes you long for a remake, to do it ‘properly’. But they can’t remake it, not really. The secret of this show is, however good the ideas and scripts are, if it wasn’t Darrow and Pearce it wouldn’t really be Avon and Servalan.

The cast has always been central. If Blake, Gan or Cally are sometimes dull, you know it’s nothing to do with the casting and everything to do with scriptwriters struggling to provide material for ‘nice’, ‘principled’ and ‘sensitive’ characters. Even the more interesting characters only truly come alive when, say, Sally Knyvette or Michael Keating get to play outside of their ‘type’. (Decades later, Russell T. Davies talks in ‘The Writer’s Tale’ about ‘turning’ characters, but you see instances of it in all the best Blake’s 7 episodes). ‘Gold’ benefits from having the characters undercover and out of their comfort zone. It’s another great showcase for Glynis Barber as Soolin: probably the best ‘goodie’ the show has produced, besides Avon.

The man with the suit and the pace
You knew that he was there on the case

The guest cast has been top throughout this series, though once again, they’re frequently under-served. Kevin Stoney, Valentine Dyall and Michael Gough are all amazing character actors, miscast as worthy heroic figures. Female guest stars are relatively thin on the ground (correct me if I’m wrong) but we do have some treasurable appearances by Betty Marsden and Sylvia Coleridge. But if this story sticks in my memory, as I think it will, it’s all down to Roy Kinnear. It’s a brilliant performance: it feels totally natural, but it’s heightened enough for him to be in conversation with the other characters without breaking the thread that the audience’s suspended disbelief is dangling from. Right from the start, you’re fascinated by him, entertained, suspicious. He’s pitiable and deadly at the same time.

It had me checking back over Kinnear’s screen history. He’s one of those faces, one of those names, but I could only think of one thing I’d seen him in (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). Then of course there was Help!, alongside the Fab Four and the even fabber Eleanor Bron and Victor Spinetti. Lots and lots of TV comedy. The Three Musketeers. Taste the Blood of Dracula. Watership Down (yes, Watership Down). Superted. And much much more. So why wasn’t he ever in Doctor Who? What was JN-T thinking? Imagine him in ‘The Leisure Hive’, ‘Meglos’, ‘The Keeper of Traken’, each of them instant classics. Imagine Tom Baker’s deep joy at sharing the screen with him.

My love is like a high prison wall
But you could leave me standing so tall

So, Servalan and Avon (and Tarrant). The President Sleer storyline. Robert Holmes. Blake. Dayna’s father. I think I’ve got three episodes left. What will they be? Bronze? Silver? Gold? See you next week…

Once again, blurry snaps of the Radio Times are by me (thanks to the British Library). Screencaps are from this excellent site (thanks to Lisa).