Archive for the ‘TV Reviews’ Category

Oh, where to start? I just want to reiterate that I really liked the last episode of Strange New Worlds that we discussed, despite the downer ending. What can I say, I’m just inherently glum, I suppose. However, perhaps that gloomy denouement does have a bearing on the subsequent instalment, The Serene Squall (possibly The Congruent Oxymoron was considered as a title but ditched), because this certainly follows the grim/serious-episode-then-high-spirited-romp-episode pattern which is starting to develop.

Things get underway, somewhat weirdly, with Spock’s fiancee T’Pring making an entry in her personal log. (She’s some sort of prison psychiatrist, so why does she even have a personal log? Does everyone in this timeline have a log? Does Uhura have a log? Does M’Benga’s kid who lives in the transporter buffer have a log? Does Pike’s horse have a log? I guess the writers were just so habituated to the use of the log as a storytelling device that they didn’t actually stop to think about it. Hmmm.) Anyway, T’Pring is looking to help their relationship by ‘spicing things up’, which involves reading some naughty books from Earth history and then attempting to discuss them with Spock. I quite empathised with Spock’s discomfort as this scene was quite like what I imagine listening to my parents talk about their own amatory shenanigans would be like.

The A-plot thankfully kicks in with the ship going out to assist some colonists stranded on the edge of Federation space; this is at the request of visiting character Dr Aspen (Jesse James Keitel – the famous Keitel’s cousin, apparently). However, when they arrive, all the signs are that the colonists have been captured by space pirates (oh, don’t worry, we will come back to this; you’d better believe we’ll come back to this) and are in danger of being sold into slavery. So Pike sends the Enterprise in pursuit of the pirate ship, which involves flying through a very dense asteroid field for a long time (The Empire Strikes Back has a lot to answer for). After avoiding a few cunning traps, the ship catches up with them and Pike decides to join the tactical squad being sent over to try and rescue them; his combat suit is, of course, thoughtfully equipped with a gold-plated chestplate, just so anyone fighting them will know who the high-value target is. Actually, this is the first time that Number One mentions that Pike is breaking protocol by leading the landing party himself – which, for all that it makes sense, doesn’t really chime with Kirk leading virtually every landing party himself just a few years later. Unless, of course, we’re in a parallel timeline.

But while the security team are beaming over to the pirates, some pirates are beaming over to the Enterprise, and succeed in capturing the whole ship pretty damn quick. How many pirates are there? Let us not forget there are over four hundred people on the Enterprise, most of whom are members of a paramilitary organisation and likely able to handle themselves quite well even in an emergency. But the plot demands that the Enterprise be captured and so it is. There is a plot twist here too, which I will not reveal because I am basically an honourable person even though I think this episode stinks.

The pirate captain is planning to sell the Enterprise and its crew, but not before swapping Spock for one of the prisoners whom T’Pring is involved in trying to rehabilitate. So that’s something Spock and Chapel (whom he has teamed up with this week) have to resolve. Meanwhile Pike and the others, who don’t seem particularly bothered about being captured by pirates and thrown into a cage, put the standard escape-from-pirates protocol into operation.

Gene Roddenberry, as is well known, had many strict rules about the scripting of Star Trek, especially in the TNG era: no acquisitiveness, no conflict between crew members, no prejudice, all skirts to be no longer than mid-thigh. One of the more obscure of these was ‘no space pirates’ although nearly everyone seems quite vague about his reasoning on this point. ‘They’re just corny’ seems to be the consensus, but I’m sure I remember something along the lines of ‘the crew are explorers, not policemen’. I think it may also have something to do with the fact that Roddenberry was quite high-minded in his intentions for Star Trek, and the only way you can successfully do a story about space pirates is as relatively low comedy, leaning into all the cliches about eyepatches and walking the plank and so on; exceptions to this rule are vanishingly rare (I suppose the raiders in Babylon 5 are technically space pirates, but they all get killed off pretty early on). But here comes Strange New Worlds, taking a running jump at a space pirate story nevertheless.

A space pirate, yesterday.

Although, to their credit (not much credit, this episode is deeper into the red than Black Widow’s ledger – oh, yes, friends, I can do topical pop culture references), the makers of the episode seem to have figured out the low comedy thing and so much of this episode is another (I’m tempted to say yet another) light-hearted romp with Pike mounting an escape through cooking and Spock and Chapel attempting to dissemble a relationship. And there is what I think is supposed to be a comedy villain in the form of pirate Captain Angel. ‘We wanted a character you would love to hate’ according to the production team. They are partway there, because I certainly – well, hate is a strong word for an emotion I do my best only to indulge in under very strict conditions (when confronted with the grossest moral failings of humanity – prejudice, exploitation, Boris Johnson, that sort of thing), but I would certainly be very happy never to see this character again.

And once it all resolves comes a twist ending, sort of – or a revelation, anyway. This one I am going to spoil… SPOILERS INCOMING… you see, one of the Vulcan criminals that T’Pring is trying to rehabilitate turns out to be (and let’s forget about all notions of conflicts of interest and personal involvement, because they’re Vulcans after all) Spock’s half-brother Sybok from Star Trek V! Yes, whenever two or more Trekkies are gathered together the conversation invariably turns to William Shatner’s magnum opus and how much everyone loves it and wants to see more of the characters and concepts it introduced. (Captain, sensors are detecting extremely high levels of irony.)

All right, I know I am often a miserable and reactionary old sod about the SF and fantasy franchises I loved in my distant and fading youth, but that’s not the only reason I think this episode is terrible, is it? I don’t know. I don’t think so. Anyway, I think this is a terrible episode, and the indications we’ll be seeing Sybok and Captain Angel again at some point drag my spirits down like a neutronium manacle about my soul. But apart from that, mustn’t grumble.

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Even before I started in on watching the actual episode, I was a bit dubious about Spock Amok, just from the title. If you’re going to do an episode focussing on the most beloved character in Star Trek history, and include a reference to one of the most famous and – yes, for once it is justified – iconic instalments in the entire franchise, you’d better be damn sure you’ve got something special lined up to justify it.

And, while it may perhaps be fairly said that I am a reactionary old pedant with a shrivelled husk where my heart and soul should reside and no appreciation of the nature of the modern world and its culture, I must confess that the actual homage to Amok Time at the start of Spock Amok disarmed me almost completely in its charm and attention to detail. Then again, it is, as noted, iconic and already much-parodied, so there’s really no excuse for not getting it right.

The rest of the episode? Well… not so much, you probably won’t be terribly surprised to discover. This is not based on any deep ideological disagreement with the writers of the episode, or due to an egregious decision to rewrite yet more of the original series’ continuity, but something rather more basic. This is that I generally don’t like funny Star Trek.

(That said, egregious continuity rewrite of the week is that Starfleet are apparently aware that the R’Ongovians are about to go into negotiations with the Romulans. Presumably not those same Romulans that Starfleet had received no information about for nearly a century in the episode Balance of Terror, set only a few years  later… oh, hang on, it is those Romulans. Hmm. That’s a bit awkward, isn’t it? Or it would be if you cared about this stuff.)

Yes, funny Star Trek. I imagine I’m going to be writing the words funny Star Trek a lot in the course of the few paragraphs, potentially to the point where we all get a bit sick of them. So it may well be that I decide to start switching in some other, similar words just to avoid monotony for us all.

Anyway, what’s Spock Amok actually about? Well, it’s a change-of-pace episode where after various death-defiances the various members of the crew get a chance to relax. For SNW-Spock it’s a chance to hang out with his fiancee SNW-T’Pring, while some of the others go off fishing (there is the obligatory silly hat) or catching up with old friends or whatever. Meanwhile, someone in the writer’s room has noticed that SNW-Number One and Lt Khan Jr are not that far away from basically being exactly the same person – fierce, no-nonsense humourless professional – and so naturally they pair them up together for what I suppose we are obliged to call high-jinks. SNW-Pike gets stuck with the job of leading some complex negotiations with the R’Ongovians, a tricky bunch of aliens.

(It seems to be a trope, not just of Trek but other space opera TV series, that the tricky alien diplomatic contact is frequently  used as a plot challenge in one of the more bloody-mindedly light-hearted episodes. Picard got stuck in the middle of wacky holodeck shenanigans while preparing for sensitive negotiations on at least one occasion, while I can even recall a couple of Babylon 5 episodes revolving around aliens with peculiar idiosyncrasies, some of which are probably a bit cringeworthy by modern standards.)

The problem is that none of these subplots is exactly screaming with comic potential – with the possible exception of the main one, I suppose, which concerns Spock and T’Pring having an involuntary body swap as a result of an accident in the ancient Vulcan k’ate-b’ush-run-nin-up-dat-hyl ritual – it’s sort of Freaky Friday on Mount Seleya. It feels like they’re having a go at doing tummy far fleck because tummy far fleck is one of the things that is an integral part of the far fleck – sorry, Star Trek – palette. And I’m not sure that it is.

I’m not going to say ‘it’s all David Gerrold’s fault’ because David Gerrold’s dunny mar shreck script was genuinely amusing and he shouldn’t be held responsible, any more than The Beatles should be held responsible for late Oasis albums. Gerrold wrote The Trouble With Tribbles, which was the first full-blooded attempt at doing Star Trek as a comedy. It’s one of the immortal episodes of the series, but the problem – as recurred, twenty years later, when Star Trek IV was a great success as a comedy-drama and the studio decreed that all subsequent films should be funnied up a bit – was less capable attempts to repeat its success.

It’s a weird thing, but a lot of Star Trek does comic by-play between the various characters extremely well – all the main characters of the original series are well-served with funny lines that they know exactly what to do with, and the same is true for several members of the TNG ensemble. The occasional snappy line in a generally-serious episode or movie is one of the hallmarks of Trek at its best; it’s when the order is given to actually make being funny the raison d’etre of something that it can get a bit punishing for the viewer. Supposedly-amusing musical cues start to insert themselves into the soundtrack, to tell the audience that This Is Funny; characterisation tends to take second place to the rather laborious pursuit of laughs.

This is not a plea for wall to wall grim and serious Star Trek, of course: it’s an essentially optimistic franchise, after all, and it should have a sense of hopefulness and (occasionally) fun about it. If Star Trek seemed capable of consistently doing genuinely funny episodes then perhaps I would feel better disposed towards the idea. But the problem is that most comedy Star Trek is just not very funny. It’s not in the genome of the series, really: it wasn’t intended to be funny.

(Perhaps this is why parody Star Trek is such a consistent source of genuine hilarity in a way that comedy Star Trek itself seldom is. All right, I’m mainly thinking of Galaxy Quest, which probably qualifies as the funniest bit of Star Trek ever made even though it’s not technically Star Trek itself.)

There’s nothing much enormously wrong with any of the plot threads in Spock Amok, even if some of them stretch credulity a bit. It’s just that none of them are actually particularly funny. As usual, wit and subtlety depart the scene at warp speed and the episode seems suddenly to become rather pleased with itself: look at me! I’m trying to be funny! I have genuine range and depth! Trying and succeeding are not, of course, the same thing. Even if Star Trek were a one trick pony (and it isn’t), there’s something to be said for knowing the thing you’re best at and being content to excel at that one thing.

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Back in the good old days I would often make sport of the fact that the Big Book of Star Trek Plots only seemed to have a handful of pages to it: there was the plot about Time Travel, the one about a Transporter Malfunction, and so on to include Stranded On An Alien Planet, Visit To An Alien Planet That Looks Like The Paramount Back Lot, Ambassadors Cause Trouble, etc. One of these was Strange Disease Causes Regular Cast To Act Strangely/Worse Than Usual, which is such a classic piece of Trek that it’s first instance in the original series got remade in TNG.

So you can imagine my delight when it turned out that the third episode of Strange New Worlds, Ghosts of Illyria, proved to be this old favourite rising from the grave. I wouldn’t say it was a prime example of this kind of story, but hey, early days.

The story gets underway with a landing party exploring an apparently-abandoned colony belonging to the Illyrians, an alien civilisation who seem quite advanced and not actually malevolent, but who have a vexed relationship with the Federation due to their fondness for tinkering about with their own genome. They shine a light on this very firmly so you just know that it’s going to be important to the plot. All seems very routine until a violent ion storm sweeps in and everyone has to beam back up to the Enterprise – but, of course, the damn thing blows a fuse and Pike and Spock find themselves stranded on the planet and in need of shelter.

Now, at this point you’re wondering – is this going to be an A-story about Pike and Spock bonding in extremis as they struggle survive? Or is this just the B-story to keep them out of the way so that the main plot can focus on someone else back on the ship. It proves to be the latter, and this week’s winner of the spotlight award is Rebecca Romjin as Number One (I’m aware she has another name now but I can never remember what it is).

Yes, this is a virus-runs-amok episode, although of course it is a virus that doesn’t show up on the scanners, has no obvious vector of communication, and causes the infected crew to behave very strangely indeed – obsessed with exposing themselves to light, even when this involves doing really stupid things like smashing their heads through panels and setting the warp reactor on overload. The only person who seems to be immune is Number One, whose body quickly eliminates the virus by glowing.

Well, it turns out that she is Illyrian herself and has an enhanced response to viral infections. It’s hard to see something like this really being problematic, but everyone in Starfleet just can’t get over all the trouble caused by the augments back in the 1990s, or possibly the 2030s in this timeline, and for her to reveal all of this would probably end her career. What’s a first officer to do? Meanwhile Pike and Spock are engaged in some slightly perfunctory goings-on with some energy creatures down on the surface.

To be honest, I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as Children of the Comet, for all that has such a comfortingly familiar shape to it. I mean, it’s not awful, of course, but come the end of it I couldn’t help feeling that the story hadn’t quite landed properly somehow. It felt like one of those stories where the protagonist is laboriously manoeuvred into a rather contrived and problematic situation simply so they can work through their personal issues and do something clever and equally contrived to save the day.

On further reflection I think the problem really boils down to the focus on Number One and the Illyrians. Now, I am aware that there has been a lot of apocryphal material about this character and her background over the years, establishing her racial background and her name (whatever it is), and that this episode is just canonising information that a lot of Trekkies would already know (canonising in an alternate timeline, anyway).

‘You know, it’s nice, but I think the decor is just a bit too garish for me.’

The whole crux of the episode, in terms of giving Number One a big dilemma to deal with, is about whether or not she reveals her heritage and special abilities to the rest of the crew. As the alternative is to let them all die of the virus, it seems a bit of a no-brainer to me anyway, but the thing keeping her from doing this is something we’ve never seen before on this show, which could just as well have been written specifically for this episode (not unlike Captain Kirk’s involvement in crimes against humanity as a young man, which only gets mentioned in a single show).

And it’s not even introduced that well – it seems like no-one else on the ship is aware she’s even an Illyrian, which really begs a number of very big questions about Starfleet’s recruitment policy and process. Did she never get a blood test or a DNA scan? What about her home address or next of kin? As I say, it all seems just a little bit contrived for the benefit of this particular story, and you just know anyway that Pike is going to use his personal authority to keep her in post come the end of the episode anyway.

The B-character moment this week comes when it is revealed that all of this happened because Dr M’Benga is secretly keeping his terminally ill daughter in stasis in the transporter buffer (making good and seemingly routine use of a discovery made by Scotty, thirty-odd years later, mutter grumble). occasionally materialising her so he can read her a story. Once again I’m afraid there was a bit of eye-rolling on my part when this particular nugget of character-building came into view. Is the Federation so absolutely inflexible when it comes to terminal illness as well as genetic engineering? Apparently this version of it is, yes.

I should say that the bulk of this story wasn’t actually that objectionable, just that the initial conditions required for it to happen seemed very contrived. But then again it wasn’t close to being as uproariously bad as The Naked Now or probably a few other episodes from the same lineage, so I should just shut me big fat mouth and stop pretending that my opinion on hip young modern TV means anything to anyone. I say ‘should’, but if I did that I’d have to stop the blog and I’d have nothing to do during quiet moments at work. So I guess we’ll just all just carry on as we are.

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So, another episode of Strange New Worlds – not that it actually features a strange new world much this week (Captain, my phaser is jammed on ‘pedantic’, I’m afraid). This one is called Children of the Comet and is, as I had hoped, significantly more fun than the series opener.

It takes a little while to get going, with a lengthy sequence depicting Captain Pike cooking all the other characters dinner (something I can’t quite imagine the more tightly-wound Jeffrey Hunter version of Pike doing). This is because we still have characters to introduce and establish, particular the chief engineer, who is a blind Andorian, and this show’s version of Uhura, who is the central character of this episode (it is somewhat gratifying to see them go back to the old Michael Piller schema where nearly every episode focuses on a particular individual and their issue-of-the-week – I assume that’s what they’re going to be doing, anyway). It is pretty much an iron rule that whatever attitude a character displays at the start of this sort of episode, they will have executed a smart 180-degree-turn by its end, and so it is not very surprising to learn that Uhura is not sure she wants to be in Starfleet long-term.

(I’m just going to express my disappointmnt at the belief, which appears to have become entrenched at Paramount/CBS in the last 15 years, that people are only going to be interested in Star Trek if it features or somehow connects to characters from one of the earlier iterations of the franchise. Hence Disco is a prequel about Spock’s miraculous adopted sister, Strange New Worlds features various original series characters, Picard is about, well, Picard, and one of the cartoons has a holographic Janeway in it (I believe) – it looks like the funny cartoon is exempt from this, though.

My point is that I would have found Disco a lot more tolerable if it had been set twenty or thirty years after Star Trek: Nemesis and had completely new characters, and a lot of the stuff that niggles me about Strange New Worlds is connected to the fact it’s a prequel (or technically interquel) series, supposedly featuring the same characters as previous ones. This show’s version of Uhura is an engaging character, well-written and well-played. But she’s nothing like the Nichelle Nichols version and it chafes my brain. The same for their versions of Chapel, and Kyle, and so on. Even their version of Pike, although Anson Mount’s take on the character is a lot more appealing than Hunter’s rather dour interpretation – quite what Mount has got going on with his hair, however, is a different question.)

Anyway, the situation which obligingly comes along to help Uhura work through her personal issues concerns a comet which is on course to mash into an inhabited planet, and so naturally the Enterprise crew decide to intervene. But! There is some form of intelligence on the comet, which prevents their initial plan from working, and so they send down an away team (if memory serves, they do use the TNG-era formulation away team, rather than landing party as was usually the case in the original series). And inevitably there is trouble which it falls to Uhura to resolve, primarily by communicating with the comet by singing to it (‘Bam bam bam bam bam’). Spock helps her out with this, and I must be honest and confess that I was shouting ‘Do The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins!’ at the screen at this point.

The necessary complication which turns up midway through is the arrival of a group of advanced aliens calling themselves Shepherds, who see themselves as spiritually connected to the comet, and will not countenance any interference with it from uppity Federation types. It’s a very classic Trek set up, which I expect was the whole idea, and – brace yourselves – as it went on I found myself rather caught up in it and genuinely enjoying myself. Well, up to a point, obviously.

The structure of the plot is essentially very sound, although the method by which they eventually manage to redirect the comet onto a new course seemed to me to come out of nowhere – I mean, it’s scientifically sound, I just expected them all to sing it a song so it would move itself somehow. I didn’t really buy into the whole subtext about predetermination and destiny which the episode was clearly pitching hard – the conflict between the Shepherds’ view that everything is happening for a reason and one should just have faith in providence, and the Federation’s more we-make-our-own-fate attitude. It felt a bit corny, for one thing, and for another, a belief in people’s own agency to shape the world for the better is surely part of Trek‘s essential DNA. Everyone’s entitled to their beliefs, obviously, but that doesn’t mean that all beliefs are equally correct, and this felt a bit like the show trying too hard to be pluralistic.

On the other hand, the question of predetermination does obviously tie in to the ongoing plot thread about Pike struggling to come to terms with his own not entirely enviable future – this one, as they say, is clearly going to run and run. There’s a curious conflict here – Star Trek is about personal agency, as we just discussed, but on the other hand it’s also been a tenet of the Federation that history is fragile and can’t be changed (how this squares with the existence of multiple timelines – the ‘main’ universe, the one where Kirk looks like Chris Pine, the mirror universe, the Disco/Strange New Worlds one, the Disco version of the mirror universe, and so on – is a bit unclear, but never mind). Nevertheless there is no obvious reason why Pike can’t avoid his accident now he knows about it – changing the future isn’t the same as undoing the past. The issue is one of the lives his sacrifice saved – but, again, there’s nothing to stop him changing their futures either.

The obstreperous side of me says to go ahead and do this! Tear up the timeline, save Pike! In a way it would be a very Star Trek thing to do, and a genuinely bold choice. (I am sticking with my assertion that we’re already in an alternate universe and no-one will be able to persuade me otherwise, I’m afraid.) On the other hand, it seems fairly unlikely that this will be resolved within the timeframe of the series (unless it runs for a decade). Are they going to keep dwelling on this idea? It’s going to get a bit samey if so. Nevertheless, it works quite well in this context. A solid episode with no major flaws, anyway.

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From all angles I am virtually besieged by reports that the third series of Star Trek: Picard rivals I, Claudius or Breaking Bad or The Adventures of Twizzle (delete according to taste) as one of the greatest ever expressions of the televisual art. Well, maybe: I watched the first year and had severe issues with the Irish Romulans (though the one in the leather trousers I was very happy to watch), while I couldn’t quite get my head around the fact they had somehow gone from ‘building androids is virtually impossible’ to ‘reckless building of androids is such a problem they have had to ban it’. Though, if any flavour of Trek is likely to radically improve over a couple of years, history tells us it is one led by Patrick Stewart. What else is there for an open-minded enjoyer of some bits of Star Trek to do but take a deep breath and… start watching a different version of Star Trek.

To be fair, Former Next Desk Colleague Now Manager has been singing the praises of Strange New Worlds for a while now, but I’ve been put off by the relative inaccessibility of the thing (I’m not paying for Paramount Plus) and the fact it’s effectively a spin-off from Discovery, which I have long since lost all patience with. But a box set of the first year turned up in HMV at a reasonable price, and I was just coming off the back of Blake’s 7 and casting about for something new to watch, so…

Rules of engagement time: this is all clearly happening off in some parallel timeline, not the ‘main’ Trek universe (i.e. the one where everything from the original show to Enterprise happened). Even if it wasn’t closely connected to Discovery, with its peculiar Klingons and anachronistic technology and mushroom-powered super space drives, in the first episode alone we have two established characters mysteriously changing their ethnicity (or not so mysteriously, given the way modern culture operates), and yet more anachronistic technology (the transporter now seems to function rather like Batman’s pole, given you go in one end wearing one set of clothes and come out the other dressed completely differently). I could go on to mention that at least one character seems to have an utterly different personality, and the Eugenics Wars seem to have inexplicably shifted forward fifty or sixty years in history, but, you know, I’m hoping this isn’t all just going to be me muttering and grumbling that it’s not still 1996.

Anyway – on to the first episode of Strange New Worlds, which is entitled (potentially confusingly) Strange New Worlds. As this is the first part of a series centring on Christopher Pike, about whom we really only know three things, the episode revolves around two of them: he was the captain of the USS Enterprise before Jim Kirk, and he ends up paralysed and horribly disfigured as the result of an accident prior to his present-day appearance in the episodes comprising The Menagerie. (The third thing is about his visit to the planet Talos IV, which happens in the original Star Trek pilot.)  The story opens with Pike feeling a bit depressed by his precognizance of his eventual fate (this happened in Disco) and questioning his future in Starfleet, and the job of the plot is to perk him up a bit for the rest of the season. In this respect it sort of shares a structure with the first episode of Deep Space Nine, which has a similar premise.

The perking up happens on an assignment to rescue some colleagues who have disappeared on a possible First Contact mission, one of them being Pike’s first officer Number One (a character formerly played by Majel Barrett Roddenberry, #1). Along for the ride are all the new and semi-new characters who get some sort of moment of charm: the security chief, who is a no-nonsense young woman; the helmsman, who is a no-nonsense young woman; the nurse (a character formerly played by Majel Barrett Roddenberry, #2), who is a no-nonsense young woman… sorry, it’s 2023 now, isn’t it? I keep forgetting.

The actual plot, which concerns troubles on a planet which are basically the result of offworld tech falling into their hands, is sort of functional, more than anything else, and it does the things it needs to do – establish tone and characters – reasonably well. To be honest the thing it reminded me most was some things I wrote myself (‘That’s not a good sign,’ I hear you cry) – over the last few years I’ve played (or tried to play, don’t get me started, mutter grumble) a lot of the current Star Trek RPG, and one of the things I’ve tried doing is stories particularly about them exploring new planets. The problem with this is the Prime Directive (referred to as General Order One in this episode), which stops visitors from getting involved with alien cultures, especially those unaware of higher technologies. It’s a real pain in the neck, dramatically speaking: you do tend to end up with stories like this one, where some outside agency is responsible and the protagonists are basically trying to rectify the situation.

An unusual new malfunction as the transporter turns Captain Pike into Mark Kermode.

If the parallels between the alien planet in this episode (which is, it must be said, actually a rather familiar new world) and 21st century Earth are supposed to be a nod to the sort of social commentary that the original show has latterly become famous for, I’m not sure it quite works – both planets are deeply divided, naturally, but we don’t learn anything about the issues involved. I have a suspicion that the series is likely to play it safe and avoid taking sides on any of the issues afflicting the contemporary USA anyway – because it’s all very well being liberal and progressive, but you need the audience to stick around and watch, and there’s a good chance a large chunk of them incline towards the camp of the small-handed orange-faced vanity-monster arraignee, God help us all. An episode about gun control, even assuming it could be written so it wasn’t horribly hectoring and obvious, would almost inevitably end up alienating a large section of viewers.

The bar for the first episodes of new series of Star Trek is, of course, not a particularly high one, and this feels less corny and instantly-dated than Encounter at Farpoint, for example. But I didn’t come away from it thinking, ‘Wow, this is a set-up oozing with potential for future story-telling’ – it’s competent enough, but it feels earnest and middle-of-the-road, playing things safe. It isn’t as imaginative or as much fun as the original series when it was anywhere near its peak – and it seems to me that this is an attempt at a kind of tribute-band version of the original show, albeit with the sensibility and priorities of the 2020s firmly in the mix. If it follows the historic pattern, it will improve, and possibly quite soon. I hope so, if only because it would be nice to be able to say something wholly positive about new Star Trek; it has been long enough since I managed it, after all.

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Never kill anything off. – Terry Nation

Of course they all die at the end. How else could this story end? What else were they going to do? What have they ever managed to do, except scrape survival by the skin of their teeth? It has been years since they achieved anything of note in their self-appointed mission to defeat the Federation. The greatest blows against the Federation have all been self-inflicted or struck from elsewhere. They may have destroyed the odd communication centre or liberated an occasional rebel leader, but that was a long time ago. Since then they have been running and hiding, gradually dying, running out of resources, until they eventual run out of luck and places to hide.

So: Blake, the final episode of Blake’s 7, written by Chris Boucher (of course) and directed by Mary Ridge. We get underway with some rather impressive model footage of Scorpio launching, which segues into model footage of the base blowing up: Avon and the others are moving on, the security of the place having now been compromised. Is Avon’s anti-Federation alliance dead in the water now? Soolin thinks it is; the man himself disagrees. Never mind all those resources and raw materials, Zukan was also there as a figurehead, and with him gone Avon has someone else in mind: while any idiot would do (well, within reason, which lets Vila off the hook), the man in question is… ‘strongly identified with rebels… and very popular with rabbles. They will follow him, and he will fight to the last drop of their blood.’

Avon is as cynical as ever, but something has changed – where once he would simply have dismissed a political idealist as a fool, now he sees them as a potential resource to be exploited. Somewhere along the line he has become as committed to the cause as any of his associates, even…

‘It’s Blake, isn’t it?’ says Vila. Nothing explicit is in the script, but Michael Keating does a wonderful job throughout the episode of suggesting the profound wariness and distrust Vila now has towards Avon – perhaps word of what happened a couple of episodes ago has leaked out, as the others seem very ready to accuse Avon of treating them as expendable resources. But as no-one has much of a better idea, off they go to Gauda Prime, a lawless fringe world to which Orac has managed to track Blake. (Avon must have started looking – again? – post-Terminal, possibly checking to see if Servalan was telling the truth about seeing Blake’s body. My inclination is to believe that Servalan was telling the truth to the best of her knowledge: let’s not forget there’s at least one unaccounted Blake clone out there somewhere, so it could have been him.)

And the episode doesn’t hold Blake back for a cameo like last time, but treats him as the main character he is. But he has clearly been through some tough times since the battle of Star One: scarred, grimy, unshaven. And, it would seem, no longer the idealist Avon considers him to be: now he is working as a bounty hunter on Gauda Prime. Just as Avon has become more committed to a cause, could it be that Blake has become more cynical and pragmatic himself? Are the two of them become true mirrors of each other?

Gauda Prime is a strange place to find a rebel leader, being a den of scum and villainy after having the legal system suspended. Bounty hunters now make a good living there. It’s no place for thieves, killers, mercenaries or psychopaths – which means none of the crew are likely to enjoy their visit much. (It’s worth pointing out the economy with which Boucher creates Gauda Prime as a world with a sense of history and a particular situation, rather than just one of the anonymous planets with a name out of the scrabble bag which turn up in so many other episodes.)

Even getting there proves tricky, as the planet is under blockade and Scorpio comes under concerted attack: a feigned crash into the atmosphere turns into a real crash, and the crew (except for Tarrant) are forced to escape using the teleport. (The model work of the ship crashing is also excellent.)

It seems to be Boucher’s implication that Blake and Avon are circling around each other somewhat at this point – Avon has clearly been using Orac to keep tabs of Blake’s activities, and there’s a hint that Blake may have been returning the favour. When he learns that a Wanderer-class ship has been shot down, he suddenly and rather disingenuously announces to his handler Deva (played by the marvellous David Collings, who the following year would also feature in the last episode of Sapphire and Steel) he’ll pop over that way. He certainly seems well-acquainted with the names of Avon’s current associates.

Well, Blake rescues Tarrant from the wreckage of Scorpio – Slave’s final speech is clearly intended to echo the death of Zen in Terminal, but isn’t as effective – and Tarrant, despite claiming that he would recognise Blake on sight when he first arrived on Liberator, doesn’t do so with any certainty. Blake flies him back to his underground base, with Avon and the others following. (We learn along the way that Jenna apparently died running the Gauda Prime blockade as well.) Vila even observes they are all heading for a hole in the ground.

And, of course, a combination of Blake’s paranoia (sticking with his bounty hunter cover instead of telling Tarrant the truth about what he’s doing – which is recruiting an army to attack the Federation) and Avon’s paranoia (being too quick to believe Tarrant when he declares Blake has betrayed them) results in…

Here’s the thing, though: Blake and Avon’s fatal misunderstanding is heartbreaking, but also really immaterial. Blake’s already dead by this point, as there’s a Federation infiltrator on his team. How long Arlen would have waited before calling in the troops we don’t know, but the death squad turns up very promptly at the end once things start to go bad. If Avon and the others had left it even two days before deciding to go to Gauda Prime, they at least might have survived. It’s really just bad luck that kills the Scorpio crew.

And they do die; of course they die. The story doesn’t have any point if they’re all stunned or Tarrant faints or Avon ducks and all the guards shoot each other. I stand by my opinion that Terminal is a more satisfying story than this one, in terms of its theme and character development. But the whole point of Blake is that it’s messy and things seem to happen randomly or at the worst possible time (the attack on Scorpio, Blake recruiting Arlen just before Avon arrives). Of course Servalan isn’t in it, and Orac seems to vanish at the end – there’s no evil villain with a masterplan working against the characters, just a succession of bad decisions and bad luck. The message of this episode is that one really bad day is enough to kill anyone.

I think I’ve mentioned before that some people credit Blake’s 7 as an influence on Rogue One, particularly its ending: but the difference is that the end of Rogue One is all about sacrifice and hope – Blake’s 7 just ends with a slaughter and despair. No matter what happens to Servalan – and it’s easy to imagine her ending up back on the throne somehow – Blake and Avon and the others have achieved nothing worth mentioning. The Federation is stronger than ever and seemingly invincible. But the world can seem like that, and at least Avon has retained enough of his sense of humour to recognise the irony that it was his desire to find Blake that got everyone killed. Hence the series ends with its single most resonant motif: the smile on the face of the loser.


Strange to think, but there were many episodes of Blake’s 7 I hadn’t seen in over forty years prior to doing this pilgrimage through the show, and a handful I’d never seen at all (definitely not Children of Auron or Games). So finally spending a year watching the lot was satisfying for that reason. On the other hand, having watched and enjoyed parts of series three and four on their original transmissions, I was convinced that the show really got a lot more interesting once boring old Blake was off the scene and Avon got to do his thing. Discovering that most of the first half of each of those years is dross was a terrible shock.

In fact, as I’ve suggested, if Blake’s 7 splits into two halves it’s not along chronological lines – the division is between those episodes by people who know how to write fantasy and SF action adventure for a BBC budget – Terry Nation, Chris Boucher, Robert Holmes, Tanith Lee – and those with a background in cop shows and soap operas – pretty much everyone else, but with Ben Steed and Allan Prior as the worst offenders. The first show is terrific. The second is frequently risible. (My own essential seven from Seven: The Way Back, Shadow, Star One, Rumours of Death, Terminal, Orbit, and Blake, but with honourable mentions for Seek-Locate-Destroy, Pressure Point and Sarcophagus.)

And yet there’s something about these characters that makes you overlook the shonky plotting and weird continuity and dodgy production values. You find yourself writing the stories in your head that the series seems to have neglected to do – such as why Travis decides, off-screen, to betray humanity, or what happens to Blake and Jenna off-screen in the second half of the series. That has to mean something: a credit to the talent of the performers, if nothing else.

You can imagine a new version of Blake’s 7 made in a modern style, and it being potentially brilliant, but perhaps that moment has passed – the deaths of most of the key cast members hasn’t helped its chances, I suspect. But the series we have is still, at its best, great, thoughtful entertainment. And at its worst it’s at least very funny. Well done, Terry; well done, Chris; well done, David – you did good.

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Pinkness and Perfidy

And the title of ‘last new writer to be hired on Blake’s 7′ goes to… Simon Masters! I must confess I thought this was just another case of Chris Boucher giving a break to a new guy starting off, but no – while he certainly doesn’t seem to have that many writing credits to his name (although he has the unique distinction of being the only person to write for both Blake and Dallas), he seems to have been a very experienced script editor on shows like Z-Cars, the old Poldark, and The Brothers. So, another graduate of the soap opera/cop show school of TV drama, but so it goes. Masters’ episode is Warlord, directed by Viktors Ritelis (a Latvian-born gentleman in the middle of a long career at the time). I seldom mention the name of the director in these things, but Ritelis’ contribution is… unique.

As noted, we are very close to the end of the series, and for once there’s even a sense of the show building up to something (for the first time in a couple of series). The Federation reconquest is continuing apace, with new and more effective variants of the pacification drug having been developed. To try and counter this, Avon is holding a conference of the leaders of the major independent worlds to discuss an alliance. Or possibly it’s that year’s Eurovision Song Contest, it’s hard to tell given the costumes on display.

(Not for the first time, you can have fun playing where-have-I-seen-this-before? with some of these outfits: for example, delegate Boorva’s robe clearly has the seal of the High Council of Time Lords from Dr Who on its chest, while I think Mida is wearing part of a guard’s uniform from The Pirate Planet – I can’t be sure, though, it’s not like I’m a fan or anything.)

Everyone is duly impressed by Avon’s big flat-screen TV and agrees that an alliance would serve all their interests, if it weren’t entirely futile: they need the help of Zukan, the warlord of the title, who has the resources and raw materials to produce an antidote to the drug. The problem is that no-one likes or trusts Zukan. It all looks a bit pointless until Zukan turns up himself (he is played by Roy Boyd in black leather and a pink topknot), bringing supplies and very ready to apologise for his past misdeeds. The alliance is go!

Zukan has also brought his daughter Zeeona (Bobbie Brown, and you may insert your own joke here) – or at least she’s stowed away, because it turns out she’s a bit fond of Tarrant. Well, it takes all sorts. Just when you thought the costume and make-up departments had already peaked for the week, they unveil Zeeona’s trichological stylings, which are sufficiently indescribable as to make me break my usual one-photo-per-post rule:

Yes, quite. It would take a performer of Dench, Blanchett, or Hepburn K.-like stature to make much of an impression under that thing, and Bobbie Brown… well, it’s obviously quite hard to do the usual research, as I end up getting pointed towards new jack swing (whatever that is) or silly Sherlock Holmes pastiches, but it looks like her only other significant role was playing the slave Hedonia in the Mike Hodges version of Flash Gordon. Based on this episode I am not greatly surprised.

Tarrant and Zeeona get very loved-up, until someone tells Zukan she is on the base, at which point he demands she is shipped off to their home planet Betafarl, well away from curly-haired despoilers of badly-wigged maidenhood. Avon happily agrees (at one point virtually wrestling Tarrant out of the room to get him away from Zeeona), and undertakes to pilot Scorpio himself, with Soolin’s help – on this occasion only they adopt curiously hideous green, beige and gold flight suits. These seem to be popular with some elements of the fanbase, apparently because you can see more of Paul Darrow’s chest. Animals, these Blake’s 7 fans, I tell you.

But Soolin has an ulterior motive for coming along and helps Zeeona secretly teleport back to Xenon behind Zukan’s back. (Why is everyone else so keen to help Tarrant get some this week?)  Avon is as cross as two sticks when he finds out, and assures Soolin that if the price of saving the alliance is letting Zukan take his revenge on her for this betrayal, he will happily hold the warlord’s coat (and after last episode you really believe it). Zukan has already left Xenon and will be on Betafarl shortly after them. (Scorpio being the fastest ship in the galaxy has apparently been forgotten about by this point.)

Still, everything is looking good – the alliance has been formed, the antidote-production gear is being set up, and Tarrant is having sex for the first time in ages. It can’t last, of course (the run of good fortune, I mean) – there is a traitor at large. We have already seen an ominous canister amongst the chemical gear, with VIRUS GAS written on it in large helpful letters. What’s worse than a virus? Worse even than gas? That’s right, virus gas!

To stop everyone just running away from the virus gas (which, by the way, is also radioactive, but I expect that wouldn’t fit on the can), every exit from Xenon Base is also bombed. It’s a genuinely startling moment and does feel like a major development: not least because part of the roof comes down on Orac, disabling it. Tarrant, Vila, Dayna and Zeeona are left trapped in the rubble, as the radioactive virus gas kills the workers Zukan has left behind. Meanwhile, Avon and Soolin have arrived on Betafarl to collect raw materials (one last trip to the sandpit) only to find a squad of absurdly acrobatic Federation troopers waiting in ambush (these guys somersault over a sand dune like nobody’s business). Zukan has sold them out!

Yes, Zukan has done a deal with Servalan whereby he will destroy Avon and the alliance in return for being allowed to conquer the other members. (All without telling Servalan where Xenon is, in a slightly awkward bit of plotting.) This isn’t anything close to being Servalan’s best episode, which is a shame as it’s her last appearance in the show. (This is so unsatisfactory that at one point I got as far as plotting a sort of novel a clef predicated on the whole question of what the arch-villain does next after the heroes all die stupid futile deaths she’s not even involved in. Spoilers for the next episode, by the way.) Still, nice frock this week, and one final piece of magnificent treachery as she bombs Zukan’s ship.

Well, everyone escapes from their immediate danger, and it does get a bit fraught, before Avon and Soolin rescue the others from the base. Zeeona teleports back down to neutralise the radioactive virus gas, but because she is a) a love-interest guest character and b) apparently even more of an idiot than her hairstyle would suggest, she gets herself killed (though even the radioactive virus gas can’t destroy that wig). ‘She took her glove off,’ laments Dayna, which is not the sort of epitaph I’d be happy with.

I have been fairly irreverent towards Warlord, which is usually a sign that I’ve been watching a bad episode. To be honest, though, the bones here are solid and effective, though the Tarrant-Zeeona romance doesn’t convince. Series four has rallied rather impressively after a wobbly start, and I can imagine a version of Warlord which undisputably continues that – but it would probably have been produced by David Maloney. This is one of those episodes of the show where the campness of the production and direction overwhelms the quality of the script. The wigs! The VIRUS GAS cannister! The other wigs and costumes! The somersaulting troopers! Most of the acting! The CSO! It’s all too much!

So this isn’t as good as the episodes preceding it, but it’s still entertaining (one way or another). You do get a sense of the series really feeling the need for more of an ongoing storyline at this point – there are references back to Traitor, but the alliance comes out of nowhere this episode and doesn’t really feature in the series finale. There’s no sense of what the concluding episode may hold, but that’s not really an issue. Anyway, it’s the only one left to talk about at this point.

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Here’s a hypothesis: the reason that Blake’s 7 has a reputation for being a festival of camp unintentional comedy is because it is a science fiction (or at least SF-adjacent) series frequently made by actors, writers and directors who would probably have been happier making soap operas or cop shows, with a budget that would definitely have been a better fit for a soap opera or cop show. The reason that it’s sometimes much better than that sounds is because, every now and then, it’s made – or at least written – by people who really understand how to do science fiction on a BBC budget.

Imagine, if you will, someone coming to Blake with an open mind and just being shown a selection of episodes by Terry Nation, Chris Boucher, Robert Holmes and Tanith Lee – say, The Way Back, Shadow, Pressure Point, Gambit, Rumours of Death, Sarcophagus and Terminal. They’re watching a whole different show from the poor sod who gets stuck with all the Allan Prior, Ben Steed, and Roger Parkes episodes.

You will perhaps have noted that there is nothing from series 4 in the ‘best of Blake‘ selection I just suggested – perhaps this is because Vere Lorrimer, who produced the final year, is not one of those people who really knows how to do BBC SF, while David Maloney, who did the rest of the series, had a track record that suggested that he really, really did. Well, maybe Sand gets onto the list, and it definitely finds episode 11 there waiting for it: this is Orbit, by Robert Holmes, a terrific writer who’s at close to his best on this occasion.

Scorpio has been summoned to the vicinity of the planet Malodar, summoned there by someone claiming to be Egrorian, a brilliant scientist who has been on the run from the Federation for the last decade. But now Egrorian (John Savident) has a proposition to make to Avon – in person, in his dome on Malodar, to which he will have to travel by shuttlecraft (Egrorian is a very particular sort of renegade scientist). This at least saves Tarrant and Dayna from teleporting down, which they have already volunteered to do. Vila, of course, has done nothing of the sort. ‘I like to stick with you, Avon, where it’s safe,’ he says, in something that sounds like an innocuous little line but is actually setting up the whole crux of the episode.

So, for the first time in what seems like an age, Avon and Vila, the last surviving original characters, get to go on an adventure together. (To be fair, the script does suggest that Avon has been actively trying to avoid putting himself in harm’s way, thus explaining why he’s been a less active presence in many of the episodes since Terminal.) As a writer elsewhere, Holmes acquired a reputation for his facility with double-acts, and when writing Blake he seems to have locked onto Avon and Vila as the relationship with the most potential. Paul Darrow and Michael Keating apparently used to look forward to Holmes’ scripts in particular, and it shows in their performances. The repartee between them is utterly winning, in an episode which – for its first two thirds at least – seems to be functioning as a black comedy as much as anything else. Avon and Vila obviously know and understand each other, and even if they’re not really friends, there’s an amused tolerance on Avon’s part and a sort of dependency from Vila.

Down in Egrorian’s dome they meet the man himself and his apparently-senile assistant, Pinder. Egrorian has summoned them here to offer them the Tachyon Funnel, a super-weapon he has invented apparently capable of instantly destroying anything, anywhere. The scientist claims this is because he wants to see the Federation toppled, but can’t be bothered to do it himself. All he asks for in exchange is Orac…

(The main plot hole with Orbit is that the Tachyon Funnel genuinely seems to work – which means that whoever controls it effectively controls the galaxy. In which case, why worry about Orac at all? Why risk trading the Funnel away when you could simply use it to extort anything you wanted? One could accept Egrorian doing something weird, as he is clearly a perverted lunatic, but he’s being backed up by Servalan, whom one would expect to be more pragmatic.)

Avon accepts the trade, and sets about thinking up a way of double-crossing Egrorian, while trying to work out in turn how Egrorian is going to screw him. Meanwhile Servalan is giving Egrorian a hard time over how complicated his plan is (which I suppose answers my criticism up the page somewhat), in what is another very funny scene: Egrorian is an over-the-top grotesque in the classic Holmes style, and Jacqueline Pearce gets to do a lot of eye-rolling in the face of his fawning and flattery – ‘My steel queen! My empress!’ ‘Oh, get up!’

The trade is made, Avon supplying a replica Orac he happens to have lying around, and Vila starts planning what to do with the galaxy – starting with an imperial palace made of diamonds and a bodyguard of a thousand virgins. But the real Orac reports that the shuttle won’t have enough power to escape Malodar’s gravity, Egrorian having secreted a speck of ultra-dense neutron star he happens to have lying around aboard the ship. To avoid crashing, they need to dump as much weight as possible, losing all unnecessary baggage – which, Orac suggests, includes Vila himself…

Getting to this point has involved a degree of contrivance (and eliminating Egrorian involves some more, this concerning radiation which makes people age at an accelerated rate), but I suspect the black comedy elements of the episode are partly here to smooth things along. Anyway, it’s worth it for the climactic sequence in which a gun-toting Avon hunts a terrified Vila through the shuttlecraft. Michael Keating was crying at one point when this was being filmed, though it was dropped for potentially making the episode too disturbing. It’s shocking and yet completely in character for Avon to be quite so ruthless when the chips are down; Darrow’s performance just makes it more plausible that he has actually become totally psychopathic – he adopts an unnaturally calm and gentle voice while trying to persuade Vila to reveal himself, which probably would only have made him suspicious even if he wasn’t aware of the real situation.

It’s a shame the Avon-vs-Vila element of the story doesn’t last longer, but the denouement feels very briskly done in every respect. What’s interesting is that neither of them has told the others what happened on the shuttle. ‘I couldn’t find Vila,’ says Avon matter-of-factly when explaining how he moved the dwarf star material. ‘I’m glad about that,’ says Vila, deadpan. ‘It’s a trip I won’t forget, Avon.’ ‘Well, as you always say, Vila, you know you are safe with me,’ replies Avon, his usual smooth and cool self. But Vila has dropped his usual pretence of being an amiable halfwit and is looking at Avon with genuine wariness.

Whether this change in one of the series’ central dynamics would have ultimately led anywhere if the series had continued, we will never know: there are only two episodes left, after all. But even as a standalone it’s still an immensely entertaining and interesting story, making expert use of limited resources and finding a wholly new way of exploiting one of the show’s central relationships. If this doesn’t prove to be the best episode of the season I’ll be very surprised.

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Ocean’s Seven

There’s another new name on the charge-sheet for episode ten of series four: that of one Colin Davis, who is one of the less prolific writers to work on the show. Apart from Blake, the only credits for him I have managed to turn up are a couple of episodes of Dramarama and Triangle, together with an ‘additional material by’ on It’s Cliff Richard! from 1974. It is not necessarily a CV to fill one with much expectation.

Which only goes to show, because Davis’ episode, Gold, certainly has stuff going for it, enough to lift it into the upper echelon of the season. It opens with some pretty good model-work depicting a space-liner named the Space Princess, which is central to the episode; Scorpio duly turns up and docks with it. It turns out the crew are here answering an invitation by the liner’s purser, a man named Keiller (who affects to be an old friend of Avon’s).

Keiller is played by Roy Kinnear, a ubiquitous British character actor for over twenty years (usually in comic roles). Kinnear was a great talent, and a familiar face, but undeniably rather odd casting for a show like Blake (he was much more at home in The Avengers, which he appeared in four times – once as a character called Bagpipes Happychap). Then again, the whole of the BBC’s sci-fi and fantasy output seemed to be prey to this sort of light-entertainment casting policy in the 1980s: Betty Marsden appeared earlier in this season of Blake, and people like Beryl Reid and Ken Dodd would turn up in supposedly dramatic roles in Dr Who – whether this was down to the Dr Who producer copying one of Vere Lorrimer’s policies or not I’m not sure. On this occasion, it more or less works – while the casual viewer’s guide to Blake’s 7 probably lists Gold as ‘the one with Roy Kinnear in it’, he gives a typically adroit performance as a sweaty, nervous, untrustworthy little man (a bit like Vila, only not as needy or intermittently bright).

Anyway, Keiller has a scheme to get very rich he needs Avon’s help with: the Space Princess is secretly being used to transport gold from the planet Zerok to Earth, the thinking being that no sane person would move bullion on a cruise liner. The problem is that, prior to transit, the gold is transmogrified into a black substance which is a) worthless and b) impossible to teleport. This necessitates a rather more complicated heist plan than would otherwise be required. And there’s a further question – it soon becomes clear that Keiller is working for someone else, who apparently has the means to de-transmogrify the gold again. But who could this be? Could the fact that Keiller used to work for the Federation President be pertinent?

There’s a peculiar sort of dog-leg to the plot of Gold: the initial plan is to beam down to Zerok and cunningly nobble the transmogrification equipment, thus allowing them to teleport the still-golden gold off the liner. This ends up just being padding, but it’s relatively lavish padding, with lots of running about on location (Kinnear is one of the few major guest stars this year to actually turn up for the location shoot). The only downside to it, really, is that it eats up time and so the actually robbery on the liner isn’t as well-developed as it could have been. Nevertheless, this is all good, pacey stuff.

It also sets up one of the season’s most notable climaxes, with the identity of Keiller’s shadowy backer being revealed – to no-one’s surprise, probably, it’s Servalan (a location-only appearance by Jacqueline Pearce in the couple of scenes involved). One of the complaints raised against series four at the time was the fact that there are hardly any scenes between Avon and Servalan – she meets Tarrant and Dayna in person for extended periods, but only interacts with Avon briefly or via a communicator link. Vere Lorrimer’s explanation was that it would be stretching credibility for Avon not to kill her the first chance he got, and so keeping them apart was essential if Servalan was to stay on the show. Well, maybe, but good writing finds a way round that kind of problem, and the scene here is a great reminder of how good Paul Darrow and Jacqueline Pearce are together – far from genuinely wishing for homicide, they seem to be delighted to see each other again, with a lot of playful repartee.

The sense of this being a series which really isn’t about a clash of good and evil is reinforced by what happens next: Avon abandons Keiller to Servalan’s not-so-tender mercies, on the reasonable grounds that he can’t be trusted. In a nicely understated touch, we don’t see Servalan subsequently disposing of Keiller: her vehicle just pulls away to reveal his corpse sprawled on the ground.

And this isn’t even the punchline of the story. Most of the fourth series operates on a sort of zero-sum basis where the plot is concerned, with the crew usually not getting exactly what they’re after – the various scientists they try to recruit all end up dead, the valuables they are after prove unattainable, and so on. Gold takes this a step further, with the crew eventually losing outright: having sold the supposedly worthless gold to Servalan for a tidy sum, it turns out that Zerok has just been annexed by the Federation, meaning she will be able to re-transmogrify the gold and all the currency they’ve been paid in is worthless. We get our first smile-on-the-face-of-the-loser moment since Terminal, as Avon permits himself a broad grin as useless cash floats down around him.

It’s a strong, if downbeat ending to an episode with a lot going for it: the whole heist concept, with faint echoes of Mission Impossible to it, works really well; the plot is good enough; and there’s a strong guest turn from Kinnear. The only downsides, I suppose, are the lack of any really strong moral or political complexity, and the fact that the whole thing (model-work excepted) is afflicted by a cheap and tatty disco aesthetic. But then the same has been true of every episode for some time. Gold may not live up to its title, but it’s still significantly north of average at this point.

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The Grain Drain

Sand opens with what sounds very much like someone quoting a classic poem over a moody effects shot of an arid landscape, which in itself is enough to make it distinctive as a Blake’s 7 episode. But who is the poet in question? Is it Keats, perhaps, or Byron? It is not. It seems very much as if the poem was written by Tanith Lee, who wrote the rest of the episode as well. But, in the context of the story, is someone actually quoting Lee, or some other, fictitious poet? Has she put herself into her own script?

We never get an answer (unsurprisingly) and it doesn’t really matter much anyway, but the simple fact that the question arises should be a flag that this script is going to be as distinctive as the one Lee wrote for season 3, even if the results are perhaps not quite as impressive. To begin with the omens are good, for this time Lee is allowed to introduce characters outside of the regular cast, and also include Servalan – whom the episode is really about.

As the story starts, Servalan is off to the planet Virn to investigate a long-lost expedition, in the company of a brutal Federation operative named Reeve (Stephen Yardley, perhaps best remembered as powerboat tycoon Ken Masters in Allan Prior’s nautical soap Howards’ Way). Reeve (whose bacofoil costume perhaps renders him less sinister and threatening than Lee intended) is naturally curious as to why the head of the pacification programme is interested in something like this, a question Servalan pointedly doesn’t answer. Further discussion is rendered impossible when their ship experiences severe turbulence on its approach to Virn.

Meanwhile, Avon and the others are reduced to following Servalan around again, on the principle that if the Federation is interested in something, they should be interested too. (The irony here is that if they’d just stayed at home, Servalan would likely have been out of their hair in perpetuity.) So Scorpio likewise flies off to Virn, also experiencing strange equipment malfunctions and electromagnetic anomalies.

Virn seems like a hostile environment, to say the least – a landslide buries the Federation ship, one of Servalan’s aides turns up dead mysteriously, and so on. Visitors seem prone to sudden bouts of debilitating pain or confusion. The corpse of the lost expedition leader, when it turns up, is peculiarly fresh. The arrival of Tarrant only confuses things further (although the arrival of Tarrant into almost any situation is likely to raise the ambient confusion level a bit). Soon enough Servalan and Tarrant find themselves thrown together and forced to co-operate in order to survive, for Virn conceals a lurking and sinister threat… (Hint: the episode’s called Sand.)

Lee’s previous episode, Sarcophagus, was so good that it’s hardly a surprise that the writer was invited back and given the chance to do something more ambitious – whereas the previous episode was largely a chamber piece taking place on the standing sets, this is, on paper at least, a much more expansive piece of SF-horror, with plenty of space left for some character development. As ever, with Blake, words like ‘ambitious’ and ‘expansive’ don’t translate very well to the screen, however: you can only imagine Lee’s frustration when, having a written the perfect story to be filmed in the traditional sandpit, the decision was made to actually shoot the exterior scenes on what’s obviously a sound-stage covered in sand. It gives the episode a weird, dreamlike quality (if you’re charitable) and probably made the special effects easier to do, but even so…

Speaking of special effects, you could certainly argue that Sand goes for low-hanging fruit in this department. Then again, given some of the less than stellar monster suits featured in previous episodes (the insect-thing of Kairos, Og the cowboy, and so on), making your monster literally a pile of sand is probably a respectable artistic choice. This is the sort of monster which is conceptually scary rather than viscerally so. Sentient vampire sand with enough cunning to keep humans alive as a food supply is a creepy idea, as well as a rather bizarre one; certainly good enough to form the basis of an episode, even if the sand grasps the basics of human reproductive biology with surprising speed.

The episode follows the season’s pattern of leaving many of the cast stuck on the Scorpio set for most of the story; this is getting a little bit tedious as even Paul Darrow’s I’m-still-going-to-call-it-acting can only lift this sort of material so far. Darrow still has some fun with the lines Lee provides for him, especially the moment when he seems rather delighted that the sand has selected him as the dominant male on the ship. On the other hand, there’s a peculiar and somewhat intrusive call-back to Sarcophagus, suggesting that in the wake of that episode everyone was the recipient of a supernatural curse (leading to Cally dying, the Liberator destroyed, and so on).

It’s a fannish sort of moment, along with the one planetside where Servalan finally explains how she escaped with her life but lost the presidency (still not sure the chronology works here). But then there’s a fannishness about both these episodes, in a good way – Sarcophagus feels in part like a Avon/Cally shipper fanfic, and Sand in turn sometimes feels like it’s on the verge of turning into Tarrant/Servalan slash. (But who would honestly think that Servalan would see Tarrant as anything more than a disposable bit of rough?) The dialogue is good enough to make their scenes together work, though.

Lee also has a valiant attempt at giving Servalan the kind of depth she’s only previously had when written by Chris Boucher (and occasionally Terry Nation), and trying to explain why she is the kind of person that she is: abandoned by her lover as a teenager, she settled on power as an acceptable substitute for emotional intimacy. I’d buy that, at least in principle, though I can’t help thinking how interesting it would have been to do a proper solo episode just about Servalan and her back-story. If nothing else, this is one of Jacqueline Pearce’s best performances in the series; compared to someone like Reeve, Servalan comes across as positively sympathetic.

Even so, there’s something about Sand that doesn’t quite hang together, but I’m struggling to put my finger on it. Perhaps the very fact it’s attempting psychological depth and proper SF in a show not known for them means it feels a bit weird. Or it could just be that the plot feels just a bit too contrived and introspective, or the production too stagey and artificial. Still a good episode, of course – but nevertheless it doesn’t completely satisfy.

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