Archive for the ‘TV Reviews’ Category

This is what you get for not staying in touch with the specialist press. I feel quite bad enough for not referring to the recent death of Stephen Greif in this voyage through the complete Blake’s 7, and now it turns out that Chris Boucher, whose praises I have been regularly singing for the best part of a year, passed away before Christmas and I’ve only just found out about it. It’s impossible to imagine a Boucher-free Blake; Terry Nation may have come up with the premise, but you could easily argue that it was Chris Boucher who ensured the show is still remembered nowadays.

Of course, we’re potentially looking at quite a long run of episodes by other people now (typical), the first of which is Stardrive by Jim Follett. Follett’s previous contribution was the horrendous Dawn of the Gods from series three, so you could be forgiven for adopting the crash position before the opening credits even roll.

One of the nice things about the previous episode was the sense of the crew genuinely putting themselves into danger: the Scorpio, we are frequently told, is still essentially a pile of old junk despite Dorian’s modifications, and not capable of mixing it with Federation combat ships. Apparently it’s even in danger of running out of petrol, as this episode opens with the crew planning to sneak into the Altern system to secure a new fuel supply.

This is where I propose my new thesis: which is that the various traumas at the end of the last season and the beginning of this (Blake’s apparent death, Cally’s actual death, the loss of the Liberator, humiliation by Servalan, etc) have driven Avon round the twist and he is now properly mad. Quite apart from his new-found resolve to stop the resurgent Federation’s advance in its tracks, he has now hit upon the scheme of avoiding the Altern system’s patrols by hiding in the sensor shadow of an asteroid – even though this will involve going within fifty yards of a lethally massive chunk of space rock (interesting to see that they still haven’t gone completely metric even in the Federation’s era).

Inevitably things go wrong and the ship gets a massive ding, sufficient to invalidate its No Claims bonus for quite some time (if Dorian had taken out a policy). Luckily Vila comes up with a cunning plan to effect repairs (especially cunning considering he manages to avoid all labour and risk himself) – but this seems to have happened in vain as a patrol turns up while Tarrant and Avon are fixing the drive.

But what’s this? The Federation ships appear to spontaneously blow up before they can do anything too unfriendly. The crew head back to base to ponder this (this seems to be mainly an exercise in filler as the Xenon base set is not used; everyone stays on the flight deck for the handful of scenes while they’re there). Luckily they have made a remarkably detailed recording of the patrol ships exploding – if the dialogue is to be trusted the frame rate is extraordinarily high, which may explain why the special effects are not entirely convincing.

At Orac’s prompting they review the tape in detail, which reveals a tiny spacecraft moving at extraordinary speed buzzing past the patrol ships and destroying them – the implication is that this thing can move even faster than the Liberator could (this is made explicit in the novelisation – this was the final episode to be novelised). Because the recording is detailed to a credulity-strangling degree, they are able to deduce it belongs to a cult of interplanetary speed freaks called the Space Rats, who have somehow managed to lay their hands on the revolutionary new photonic space drive. Avon decides he wants this very badly and the Scorpio is soon blasting off for the Space Rats’ last known address…

Well, it’s better than Dawn of the Gods, I’ll say that for it – quite appropriately for an episode concerned with speed and movement, it doesn’t hang around, with the trip back to Xenon being the only real piece of padding in the story. It’s never dull and there’s a pretty good chase through yet another sandpit at the end of the episode. There’s even a quality guest star in the shape of Barbara Shelley, although it is extremely obvious that she didn’t turn up for the location sequence in which her character appears (but has no lines) – the person doubling for her in these scenes might as well have a bag over her head, it’s so obvious her face is being deliberately concealed.

One of the criticisms thrown at the fourth season when it was new, I seem to recall, was that Servalan wasn’t in enough episodes and that even when she was, she didn’t get enough face time with Avon. Vere Lorrimer’s public response was that a) Servalan knew of Avon’s determination to kill her and would therefore stay out of his way and b) the Federation had by this point become predictable punchbag villains, hence the choice of a more diverse group of new heavies across the season.

Possibly I overstated things when I talked about the gritty naturalism of season four.

Including, presumably, the Space Rats (I first saw this episode as a rather small child and was a little disappointed when the Space Rats turned out not to be actual monsters, but men in silly costumes and wigs). They’re certainly different, but also a wildly cartoony bunch and not particularly credible on any level (the brightly-coloured costumes and ridiculous hairstyles don’t help – how the hell do they get their crash helmets on?). The least you can say about Damien Thomas, playing lead Space Rat Atlan, is that he has figured out the appropriate level to pitch his performance at as a guest Blake’s 7 baddie.

The end of the episode inaugurates a bit of a tradition where the crew spend the episode looking for a scientist or invention and end up losing them or it, although at least on this occasion they do get to keep the stardrive of the title, which is conveniently plumbed into Scorpio’s systems. One does have to wonder about the thinking going on here – saddling the crew with an old and substandard ship was a dramatically interesting choice and a worthwhile change to the format, so why put them back into the fastest ship in the galaxy only three episodes later? Never mind. This is a fairly silly episode but it knows to move fast enough to keep that fact from really registering.

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One of the perks of being the new producer of Blake’s 7 in late 1980 was the chance of a flight to Los Angeles on expenses for a chat with Terry Nation, creator of the show, who had lately relocated there to try and launch himself as a screenwriter in American TV. (All that seemed to result from this were a few scripts for MacGuyver and the occasional TV movie.) Nation couldn’t involve himself much with the fourth series in terms of the actual scripting, but he had ideas about the direction it should take. Prompted, perhaps, by the largely directionless third series, the idea that Nation and new producer Vere Lorrimer ginned up was that, faced with a resurgent Federation, the crew would be obliged to take a stand and gather the resources to stop them (it feels entirely appropriate to shorthand this as ‘Andor but on a BBC budget’).

It’s a sensible way to go and another sensible decision was to hire Robert Holmes for a couple of episodes this year, as Holmes was a writer who could always be relied upon for a solid, coherent script, usually with some nice touches to it. His first contribution was the third episode, Traitor, which kicks off the new approach in earnest.

The setting is primarily the planet Helotrix, an old Earth colony which at some point in the past threw off Federation rule – it’s not entirely clear whether this happened before, during or after the Intergalactic War, and there is even a suggestion that there was another Terran empire that predated the Federation itself. (This is also one of the very few episodes – perhaps the only one – to mention, even in part, the date when the series is set, for we hear of the ill-fated Fletch expedition of ‘twenty-nine’.) But Helotrix has recently been recaptured and the Federation command network expanded via something called the Magnetrix Terminal.

Orac has been monitoring for this sort of thing but the sheer speed of the Federation expansion alarms everyone: how are the Federation conquering planets so quickly? Vila, not entirely surprisingly, wants to run in the other direction, but Avon refuses, insisting he wants to do something about it. So the Scorpio sets course for Helotrix, determined to discover the nature of the Federation’s new advantage.

It eventually turns out that this is a drug called Pylene-50, which can be shot into people from a distance and instantly removes their capacity to resist authority. The drug is the handiwork of the enigmatic Commissioner Sleer, who is presumably travelling around taking the drug production facilities with her (the script specifies that it doesn’t stay stable for long and can’t be transported long distances). Sleer’s assistant Leitz (Malcolm Stoddard) does most of the dealing with the Federation military and Helotrix’s puppet president – but could the pair of them have anything to do with the fact that the president gets murdered in his quarters?

There’s a lot going on in this script, which to its credit is agreeably pacey (it probably goes without saying that Tarrant’s performance is also extremely Pacey), even if it feels as if it’s lacking in a single big attention-grabbing idea. More than usually, Helotrix feels like a real place inhabited by characters who are doing more than just playing prescribed roles in a plot – we learn the resistance leader used to be a geologist at the local university, for instance, while Holmes, with characteristic humour, writes the Federation officers (Christopher Neame and Nick Brimble) as a parody of blimpish officer-class types.

Nevertheless, the actual storyline about the Helot resistance and the identity of the actual traitor isn’t that engrossing, although the idea of the drug has potential. Story-wise the interesting element is the subplot about Sleer, who – spoiler alert – turns out to be a deposed Servalan, working under an alias and murdering anyone who can identify her. Quite what has happened to Servalan since we last saw her is not at all clear: she is believed dead, having been ‘killed in the rear-guard action on Gedden’ according to the president (who also refers to her as the ‘Supreme Empress’, not a title I recall hearing before). Just as mysterious as what happened is when it happened – Tarrant says the Liberator was destroyed ‘fairly recently’.

It does seem as if the counter-revolution mounted against Servalan’s rule in Rumours of Death was only one of many, and one of the subsequent ones succeeded (after some kind of off-screen civil war). My guess is that this happened at some point between Death-Watch and Terminal – in the former episode, Servalan still seems to have a sufficiently strong grip on power that she’s actively contemplating invading new territory, but there must be quite long gaps between season three’s episodes. If Servalan is indeed a fugitive at the time of Terminal, it explains why her aides in that story aren’t in Federation uniform, and also – maybe – why she seems to have higher priorities than disposing of the crew in that story. Perhaps the new fleet she speaks of building in that episode is one she needs to win back power.

I’m not entirely sure what the show gains by including the Commissioner Sleer storyline, but I do know why it’s here: Jacqueline Pearce’s illness made her appearance in the fourth series look doubtful at one point, and the Sleer character was created as a replacement for Servalan (who presumably would have been killed on the Liberator). Pearce’s recovery required a change to the planned storyline.

The other notable character change in this episode is easier to spot: Paul Darrow spends the whole of it on the same set, but he still has a remarkable presence. I know people who criticise Darrow for his supposedly operatic performance style, but this is the first episode I can remember where he genuinely seems to be going over the top – his glazed delivery of a line like ‘I need to kill her myself’ is enough to give anyone pause. (The fake tan is still there; perhaps it is an element we can enjoy throughout the season.) And even beyond this, Avon seems to have become committed to fighting the Federation in a way he’s never been before, for no very obvious reason. Perhaps the events of Terminal really have pushed him over the edge. Vila accuses him of behaving in a way that would make Blake proud; Avon responds that Blake was never very bright, but doesn’t object beyond that.

In the end it is, as I say, a solid episode that takes the series back to its core themes, and it’s nice to come across one of those – especially when it isn’t written by Terry Nation or Chris Boucher. Even if it doesn’t exactly shine, it’s still more satisfying than most of the episodes we’ve seen from the second half of the series.

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In theory, the second episode of Blake’s final season has the job of taking the elements of the new format established by Chris Boucher and seeing what kind of viable standalone episode the series is now capable of producing using them. The situation is somewhat complicated by two factors: firstly, there were still perhaps just a few too many loose ends left over at the end of Rescue for the next episode to be a complete standalone, and secondly, they got Ben Steed in to write the script.

I have pondered at some length the question of exactly why the lesser lights of the Blake’s 7 writing paddock kept getting employed – in this case I suppose that the fact the fourth season was assembled in an unusual hurry may be relevant. Needless to say, Steed returns to the fold with another episode featuring what’s becoming his trademark mixture of extremely pulpy pulp sci-fi and even more extremely dubious sexual politics.

At its heart the episode boils down to the linked problems of a locked door and a ticking clock: the locked door being the one into the Scorpio hangar, and the ticking clock being attached to a nuclear bomb. Both of these are there courtesy of Dorian, who in many ways is one of the most important characters in the story, despite having been killed last week. Exercising what seems like quite reasonable caution, Dorian has voice-printed the hangar door and attached it to a bomb which will destroy the base: unless he resets the bomb every couple of days, the property value of Xenon Base will undergo a rapid downward adjustment. (For the purposes of the plot, this is one of those security systems beyond the combined talents of Avon, Vila, and Orac, unlikely as that sounds.)

It is, perhaps, telling that Ben Steed takes this premise and expands it to include one of those hoary old pulp sci-fi chestnuts, the planet which is in the process of reverting to savagery in the aftermath of a terrible war. This is the situation on Xenon, apparently, where the final stages of a conflict between the tribes of the Hommiks and Seskas is playing out. Perhaps inevitably, the Hommiks are all big, hairy men in armour made of leather painted silver, while the Seskas are, one and all, demure-looking women in Greek-style dresses.

It’s the kind of set-up which makes you inclined to sag in your seat even before the plot rears its head. Said plot goes like this: the Seskas are on the point of being wiped out – the Hommiks capture them and perform a surgical procedure to make them more docile (yes, really), at which point they stop being Seska and become just women (and wives to the Hommiks). Their only natural advantage is a form of cybernetic telekinesis, but even this is not enough to make this war of the sexes a fair fight: ‘It’s good, but it’s not good enough,’ declares Avon (caked in fake tan this week, for some reason), when he engages in his own battle of wills with one of the Seska. ‘It’s your strength, [but] a man’s will always be greater.’ A non-consensual kiss ensues.

In a nutshell.

Understandably wanting to get away from all this, Seska Pella (Juliet Hammond Hill) is planning to steal the Scorpio and leave the planet – but there’s that pesky nuclear bomb to deal with. To be honest, most of the exposition dealing with this in any detail comes in a big lump at the end of the episode at breakneck speed – there are significant pacing problems here, on top of everything else. Much of the episode is a runaround concerning the Hommik civilisation, mainly exemplified by their leader Gunn Sar (Dicken Ashworth) – you get the impression Steed was writing for Brian Blessed. Both Avon and Dayna get involved in what are supposedly duels to the death with him, where there is a good deal of cheating on both sides, but the message of the story – the cleverness and skill of women will never triumph over the brute force and ruthlessness of men – is present here as well.

Needless to say, watching this episode in the 21st century is fairly uncomfortable. It’s virtually impossible to look at Power critically and not conclude it is fundamentally a profoundly misogynistic piece of work. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise – Steed’s Harvest of Kairos was also mainly about alpha-male swaggering, with even Servalan overwhelmed and pacified by the rush of testosterone. Moloch, thankfully, didn’t concern itself too much with gender politics, but there was still a comic-relief sex offender character and various references to women prisoners being handed over to soldiers as ‘entertainment’ for them.

Was all of Ben Steed’s work like this? I had to take a look – and it seems like he spent most of his career writing soap operas and children’s TV. His CV on IMDb lists Coronation Street, Crown Court, Triangle and Gems, but also Jackanory Playhouse, Dramarama, and something called Kappatoo which remember the name of but never actually watched. It would be curious to skim through his other work and see if it’s anything like his Blake episodes, but even if I had the resources I’m not sure I could face the prospect.

Is it a coincidence that Power arguably fails to even attempt one of its most important tasks, which is to establish and develop Soolin as a new regular character? She barely even appears, only getting a couple of scenes at the end where she asks to join Avon and the others. Her reason for joining an (at this point) rather unimpressive band of space vagrants? ‘Why not?’ I mean, there’s short production windows, but it almost seems like nobody involved in the episode is trying very hard.

Mostly this even extends to Mary Ridge, who directs her third episode in a row. She seems tired out, but then so much of the script doesn’t even get the basic storytelling right you can almost understand her fatigue. She does manage to muster a little energy and excitement for the climax – Pella succeeds in stealing the Scorpio, and so Avon has to fix the teleport and beam aboard to regain control of the ship. ‘That was always the easy answer for the man,’ groans an expiring Pella after Avon shoots her. ‘If you don’t like the answer, you shouldn’t have asked the question,’ says a visibly unmoved Avon. I used to think was a fairly snappy exchange of dialogue, and performed by Paul Darrow with his customary flair. On reflection, though, it’s just another expression of the contempt for women which runs through this episode from start to finish. Ugh.

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Watching Our Friends in the North again in 2022 was… strange. I apologise, because you may need to pay close attention to this next part. The series – a landmark, classic drama serial if ever there was one – depicts the lives of four people over thirty years, starting in 1964 when they are twenty, and finishing in 1995 when they are in their early fifties. I watched it when it was first on, and was in my early twenties myself. 26 years later, I am obviously much closer in outlook to the charatcers-at-the-end than the characters-at-the beginning. But, as I say, it is an odd experience to realise just how much time has passed, how much has changed, and… how much hasn’t.

Writer Peter Flannery has modestly described it as ‘a soap opera, but a soap with something to say’, and while this hardly does it justice, it is almost like watching decades of a soap artfully cut down to nine hours or so of TV. The first thing that will probably strike anyone coming fresh to the programme is the astonishing cast that the BBC managed to assemble – or so it appears nowadays, anyway. Christopher Eccleston plays Nicky, who – to begin with at least – is a fiercely idealistic young man looking to change the world for the better. Playing his best friend is a then-almost-unknown Daniel Craig; his role is that of Geordie, a more relaxed and perhaps cynical youth, coming from a troubled family background. One of Geordie’s other friends is Tosker, played by Mark Strong: Tosker’s main interest is in getting on in the world, whether as an entertainer, an entrepreneur, or something else (he seems not to care as what). Rounding out the quartet is Gina McKee, a bright young woman who only really comes to realise who she is as the story continues. So there you go: one James Bond, one Dr Who (technically, two, as David Bradley also has a significant role in the series), one much-in-demand star of numerous Hollywood blockbusters, and… well, it’s perhaps worth remembering that Gina McKee possibly had a higher profile on British TV than some of the other lead actors, even if she hasn’t become quite as big a star as the others since (she was still in Notting Hill and Phantom Thread, amongst other things).

It’s a bit fatuous to attempt to summarise the plot, but here goes anyway: with the election of a Labour government in 1964, Nicky abandons his university career to get involved in the murky world of local politics and the provision of cheap housing. Mary, who has until now been Nicky’s girlfriend, is alienated by his lack of interest in her and ends up marrying Tosker instead. Geordie, meanwhile, flees the town after a whole series of family problems and ends up living in London.

Nicky realises the housing business is horribly corrupt, which is also what Geordie discovers about the London police: he ends up working for a ruthless pornography baron, and makes the mistake of having an affair with his mistress. Mary and Tosker’s marriage falls apart, while Nicky – disillusioned with the Labour party – drifts into fringe politics. The revelation of corruption in both the Met and Newcastle is a watershed moment for all of them, and it’s still only 1974.

Nicky runs for parliament in 1979 but is defeated by a ruthless and unprincipled Tory campaign; Mary becomes a solicitor, and then a local councillor, while Tosker remarries and becomes a successful, if morally flexible, businessman. Geordie, in a beautifully subtle bit of storytelling, simply drifts out of sight for years. When Nicky stumbles upon him again, in the late 1980s, he is just one of many homeless people living in the social wasteland produced by nearly a decade of Thatcherite government. Despite being clearly mentally ill, as a result of many hard years, he is eventually sentenced to life in prison for an act of arson.

Tosker is nearly bankrupted by the financial crash of 1987 but manages to recover; Nicky, having moved to Italy in the aftermath of a failed marriage to Mary, returns for the funeral of his mother. It is this event, more than any other, which brings the quartet back together, over thirty years after the start of the story. The country feels like it’s on the edge of another fundamental change (or perhaps this is only visible with the benefit of hindsight), and perhaps from the stories of its past, we can approach the future with something akin to wisdom.

It is, as you can see, a hugely ambitious undertaking, tackling events as diverse as corruption in Tyneside housing provision and the Scotland Yard vice squad, the rise of Thatcherism and the miners’ strike, the degeneration of British society, and much more. Layered in on top of this are the more soap-opera moments, concerning the various lives and loves of the main characters and those around them. It would be remiss of me not to mention that the supporting cast is also remarkable – I’ve already mentioned David Bradley, but also playing significant roles are Malcolm McDowell as a Soho gang boss, Freda Dowie and Peter Vaughan as Nicky’s parents, Donald Sumpter, Peter Jeffrey, and David Schofield as the Met establishment, Alun Armstrong as Nicky’s first mentor, a Blair-like figure who relinquishes his principles just a little too much, and even Julian Fellowes – nowadays famous for creating Downton Abbey (a more different TV drama it’s hard to imagine), but here playing a corrupt Tory minister.

One thing about this series which is especially striking nowadays is how politically uncompromising it is: the two most traditionally heroic characters, Nicky and Mary, are both heavily involved with the Labour movement, as are their mentors. The only main character who shows much sympathy for the other side is Tosker, who is often presented as a flawed, overconfident man and a bit of a clown. The rest of the Tory establishment is shown as almost entirely corrupt and self-serving, callous and morally bankrupt. Good luck getting something like that on the screen in 2023, regardless of how truthful or not it is.

The series’ thesis is persuasive, mainly because it is mixed in with and coloured by all the other elements of the story: there is romance, humour, tragedy, sex and violence. In the end it is the sheer scale and consistency and ambition of the story which is most impressive. Watching it now it’s almost irresistible to imagine a sequel following the characters over the intervening years, and catching up with them now as they approach their eighties. Apparently the series was adapted for radio in 2020, and a ‘new’ episode tagged onto the end doing just that, but this sounds like only the barest nod in the direction of what might be possible – then again, these days hiring Daniel Craig to do a nine-hour TV series would probably bankrupt the BBC.

I suppose in a way it has something of the same fascination as The Crown, another quasi-generational drama with many different tones to it, starting as an absolute period piece but slowly advancing towards the present. Both shows mix politics with soap opera, but Our Friends in the North is subtler, and – perhaps because it is freer in its storytelling – more satisfying and moving. Not only does it provide a convincing (if partial) social history of the UK in the final third of the twentieth century, the final episode, and particularly its closing scene, capture the zeitgeist of the time it was made with remarkable truthfulness. Geordie, of all four characters the one still furthest from finding real peace, walks stoically across the Tyne Bridge, out of shot and into an uncertain future, as Oasis’ Don’t Look Back in Anger plays on the soundtrack. In real life the country was about to experience the first Labour government in nearly two decades, with the death of the Princess of Wales not much further away: September 11th, the second Iraq war, the financial crash, Brexit, and the pandemic were all beyond imagining back then. When the story of our own times is told, I only hope it is done with the same intelligence, skill and integrity as happened back in 1996.

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If any TV series can claim to have entered the folklore, certainly on an international scale, it is probably The Twilight Zone (of course, it depends on how you define terms like TV series and folklore, and personally I can think of quite a few candidates that could credibly make such a claim). Maybe this is more the case in the US than over here, where the original series has not, to my knowledge, received anything like a complete re-run in well over thirty years, but even so – odd little instances of it keep bubbling up in quiet little corners of the TV spectrum. Once upon a time it was the after-dark small hours where you could find either the original show or the 1980s version, these days it is amongst the high-numbers channels where you are probably going to find a portal to the Zone quietly awaiting you. (On a related topic, Talking Pictures TV has been rerunning The Outer Limits for the last year, nearly, episodes of which have been quietly stockpiling on my tellybox recorder all that time. It’s almost enough to make one hope for a whole succession of rainy days.)

When I went to see the Twilight Zone stage show five years ago, one of the things I mentioned was the fact that a new incarnation of the series had just been announced, the main name attached being that of Jordan Peele (TV comedian turned great new horror director of our time, perhaps). I was, perhaps, just a bit too dismissive of the idea, but then I was hip deep in the Rod Serling version at the time, in all its inconsistency, occasional unsurpassed brilliance, and frequent pulp corniness. The new version of Zone finally turned up free-to-air over here in the summer and I finally got around to watching it recently.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, it can be difficult to explain exactly what The Twilight Zone – in any of its incarnations, all of which are essentially the same anyway – actually is. It’s an anthology series, that’s easy enough, so there are no recurring characters (unless Rod Serling himself counts as a character), no particular locations, no ongoing storylines. But what genre is it? Well, sometimes it’s sci-fi, sometimes it edges towards genuine horror, most commonly it’s fantasy of various different flavours (then again, there’s at least one episode with no fantastical elements at all). People stray out of their ordinary places into somewhere… different, where that which is usually immaterial becomes startlingly concrete. Allegory and metaphor gain flesh and bone and steel and wood. This is The Twilight Zone, always unsettling, occasionally hungry.

Lots of people have done Twilight Zone-style stories down the years, of course, not least Peele himself – Get Out could have been a Zone story, trimmed down quite a bit – and this is probably why he was tapped to get involved with the new show (other familiar names on the production team include Glen Wong (veteran X Files scribe) and Simon Kinberg (long-time influence on the X-Men movie franchise, if overseeing the slow demise of a film series counts as influencing it). The new show sticks quite close to the original format, which is sensible enough – The Twilight Zone is one of the most perfect vehicles for telling a series of stories that anyone has ever come up with, after all.

The new show ran for twenty episodes across two seasons before those involved decided to knock it on the head – a rare example of the network wanting more, but the creative personnel deciding they’d said their piece. The first season is made up of sixty-minute episodes (including adverts, etc); in the second a few forty-five minute instalments crop up, which helps with the sometimes over-stately pacing of many episodes from the first year.

So, is it any good or not? Is it a worthy successor? Well, it’s a tricky question, isn’t it, as the quality of any anthology series tends to be incredibly choppy, no matter who’s making it. Even Rod Serling owned up to the fact that, of the episodes in the original show, the percentage ratio of great/average/awful episodes ran pretty close to 33/33/33%. On a solely aesthetic level, the series is undeniably successful – the production values are excellent, with great sets, cinematography, and special effects.

Dramatically, there seems to me to be a distinct different between the first and second series. It feels like the first planning meeting included a segment where the writers sat down with a whiteboard and made a list of all the topics they wanted to make a pronouncement about: Social Media, Native American Rights, Toxic Masculinity, Gun Control, Donald Trump, and so on. You are certainly seldom in doubt about what any given episode is commenting upon, nor what the position taken by the writers is.

This can get a bit tiresomely didactic regardless of whether you agree with the script’s politics or not. The best of the first season episodes either come at their topic slightly askance, and feel more like genuine pieces of entertainment as a result, or attack their subject with such gusto they’re hard to resist. Amongst the first category is The Blue Scorpion, about a troubled academic (Chris O’Dowd) who inherits a rather strange and temperamental pistol, and Nightmare at 30,000 Feet, a riff on the famous original-series episode with William Shatner and the Gremlin,  in which Adam Scott discovers the plane he’s flying on is destined to disappear without a trace – this finds an interesting vein of post-September 11th disquiet and paranoia to mine. Other superior episodes include the opener, in which Kumail Nanjiani plays a struggling stand-up comedian who finds that drawing on his own life for material brings success, but at an alarming cost, while The Wunderkind is a bracingly impudent tale of an amoral political operator who sets out to show the world what he can really do by ensuring a spoilt child is elected to the White House (the satire here is hardly deeply buried). An exception to the didacticism of most of the episodes is the concluding one, Blurryman, a neat piece of metafiction taking place on the set of the series itself – Peele appears as himself, as does Seth Rogen. A passionate young writer on The Twilight Zone finds herself being haunted by the same enigmatic presence which has been turning up in the background of various other episodes. The revelation, when it comes, is winning, in an episode which deconstructs the series, or at least its raison d’etre.

The second year relaxes a bit and seems to be a bit less worried about sending all the right messages – the pacing picks up a bit too, in the shorter episodes at least. This isn’t to say there are no contemporary resonances or social commentary in the second year, it just seems to be growing organically out of the scripts, rather than being imposed on them. The second series as a whole is probably more consistent, but that really just means that while its worst episodes aren’t as cheesy, there are fewer really good ones. Most of them are fairly forgettable – some of them commit the regular Zone error of solely writing towards a twist, which only really works if it’s a really good twist (though this happens in the first year too).

Others have much more of a ‘classic’ Zone feeling to them – The Who of You (struggling-actor-turned-criminal discovers the power to switch bodies with other people) feels like it’s channelling the original episode The Four of Us are Dying, while A Small Town (handyman discovers a replica of his town, and changes to one are reflected in the other) feels like a remake, even though it isn’t. Less ‘classic’ but still striking is 8 (Antarctic expedition encounters a rather unusual octopus), an excursion into outright horror which unfortunately does feel constricted by a too-brief running time.

The best episodes come at the end – Try, Try is about a woman on a trip to the museum which takes a very odd turn, as the apparently-perfect man she befriends turns out to be nothing of the sort. It’s a devastating takedown of Groundhog Day, as it might appear from the Andie McDowell character’s point of view, with strong performances from Kylie Bunbury and Topher Grace. Possibly the best of all is You Might Also Like, a sort of spiritual successor to the original episode To Serve Man. It’s about advertising, and consumerism, and grief, and manages to be funny and poignant and weird and unsettling in a way none of the other episodes manage. You can see why they put it out last of all, though.

So, is the most recent incursion of Twilight Zone worth visiting? Well – much as with the original show, there is a fairly even mixture of good, okay, and bad episodes (perhaps not quite enough genuinely good episodes for comfort, though). If every episode was up to the same standard as Try, Try, The Blue Scorpion, and You Might Also Like this would be an extremely watchable and maybe even significant series. Sieving through the less-successful instalments could make watching this show more of a grind than it’s worth.

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‘Sentiment breeds weakness. Let it get a hold of you and you are dead.’

It is entirely possible that there is no other episode of Blake’s 7 I have watched as often as Terminal: I saw both the original transmission and the repeat the following summer, and then for a while in the early 90s I had a copy lent to me by a friend. And yet perhaps I have never really appreciated how good it is. Some people don’t agree with me, of course – it has a ‘very weak’ plot, according to a review on one prominent Blake-related fansite, apparently because Terry Nation didn’t enjoy writing for Avon as a lead character (despite testimony from Paul Darrow, at least, suggesting otherwise).

Well, I suppose there’s a case to be made there, but you can look at Terminal from a number of perspectives – as an episode of fairly low-budget BBC sci-fi, as the season finale, and as the script intended to conclude Blake’s 7 as a whole. Not all of these should necessarily be held to the same critical standards. Certainly, after easily the most uneven series of the three, and one which has often felt sorely lacking in a sense of identity or purpose, it is good to have Nation back: firmly bringing in hs own ideas of what this series is actually about.

It starts quietly enough: Avon is acting a little strangely, even by his standards, staying on the flight deck for thirty hours straight and refusing to explain himself to the others. It eventually transpires he is following instructions delivered by a mysterious signal, but he refuses to divulge what they are or where they’re coming from, to the point of threatening to kill Tarrant when he involves himself in the situation. Avon seems driven, obessional, even reckless: when a cloud of mysterious matter obscures the ship’s flightpath, he orders the Liberator to stay on course, regardless of the possible risk. The ship duly emerges from the cloud, coated in some kind of fluidic matter, its hull sensors disabled.

They are now above an artificial planetoid known as Terminal, constructed in solar orbit centuries earlier and long thought destroyed. Whatever Avon is in search of is here, and he beams down in search of it alone: ‘I don’t want you following me. Understand this: anyone who does follow me, I’ll kill them.’ The crew being as fractious a bunch as ever, of course, Tarrant and Cally follow him down, though whether out of curiosity, a desire to potentially save Avon from himself, or sheer contrariness is not clear. The surface of Terminal itself is a chilly wasteland inhabited by savage, violent hominids (the only major brick I can throw at the production of this episode is that the gorilla suits worn by the actors playing the Link creatures are terrible).

But beneath the surface is more advanced life, and Avon finds his way into a complex of tunnels and laboratories – one of which contains a teleport bracelet. There are images of Blake, and medical records for him. Could the former leader of the group finally have resurfaced?

Back on the ship, however, Vila and Dayna have much more serious concerns: it has often been implied that the Liberator is, on some level, a piece of living technology, and it turns out the fluidic matter is an enzyme capable of digesting it. Chunks of the ship are dissolving into greenish-brown slime more quickly than the auto-repair systems can cope with; even Zen is beginning to malfunction. No matter what happens down on Terminal, it looks like the crew may have made their last voyage together…

Star Trek was saved from its initial cancellation by a massed write-in campaign from thousands of fans. Blake’s 7 was saved, so the legend has it, by a single phone call, which took place at some point between 7.15 and 8pm on the 31st of March 1980. When this episode started transmission, there was no doubt that it was to be the last of the entire series – but Bill Cotton, controller of BBC 1 at the time, was so impressed with it he rang in and ordered that the return of the series be announced during the closing credits (rather to the surprise of the cast and crew who were watching at the time). The whole existence of the fourth series, for good or ill, is solely down to the fact that Terminal is as good as it is. The irony of this – and Terminal is an episode steeped in irony – is that Terminal is a much better series finale than a season finale, and from a historical point of view, it’s something of a victim of its own success.

Am I over-labouring the point that Terminal was designed to conclude the series? Possibly, I suppose, but I do think it’s important. Not only is it a good series finale, I think it’s a better, more satisfying series finale than I remember the actual last episode of the series being (come back in about three months and we’ll talk again). Maybe it does stress dramatic irony over plot coherence, but this is understandable if you view it as a piece of – if I call it the opposite of a classical tragedy, you’re just going to think it’s a comedy, and it’s not, so we have a problem here.

The classical tragedy is a form about a heroic protagonist with a single flaw, which ends up destroying them. Whatever Avon is, it’s not a heroic protagonist: he’s an anti-hero, basically a bad guy, only redeemed by the fact he’s usually opposing someone who is even worse. Morally speaking, Avon has almost no positive qualities – except perhaps one, his loyalty to some of his companions, past and present. Terminal is the story of how this brilliant, ruthless, self-sufficient man is destroyed by his only redeeming feature.

Here’s where the irony starts to come in. Avon himself warns of the dangers of sentimentality (quoted at the top of this piece) and yet throughout the episode this is the primary driver of his behaviour, even if he doesn’t realise it. As Servalan says towards the end of the story, Avon has willingly flung himself into a fairly obvious trap simply because he has an urgent desire to believe Blake is still alive. Even then, he is prepared to sacrifice his own life to save the others (or at least confound Servalan), warning them to get away when the truth is revealed: personal loyalty again.

Of course, another level of irony is already at work – neither Avon nor Servalan is aware that the prize they are fighting over is already worthless, for the Liberator is beyond salvation. And why? Avon’s fierce adherence to Servalan’s own instructions regarding his flight-plan. To a lesser extent, Servalan is also the author of her own failure. It’s worth mentioning, I think, just how effective the slow dissolution of the Liberator is, dramatically: the creeping spread of the slime across both the model and the studio sets. The deterioration and death of Zen is also quite remarkably moving and poignant, in the circumstances, although – in addition to Peter Tuddenham’s usual exemplary voice work – Michael Keating really works hard to sell these moments. (It’s worth noting that he is back to being Nation’s conception of Vila this episode – the very clever, devious man who affects foolishness as protective camouflage, rather than the half-wit some of the other writers seem to think he is.)

(Credit due also to Gareth Thomas, of course, for gamely coming back for what must only have been an afternoon or so’s work. He doesn’t do a great deal, but it does seem entirely fitting to see Blake again for the conclusion of the series, and I did actually found that I had missed the character, probably because his replacement turned out to be so underwhelming.)

‘We all came out losers,’ observes Tarrant near the close of the episode, and this is true. Nevertheless, the sheer extent of the bleakness and nihilism of the episode takes some beating, even from other Terry Nation scripts. Blake, it turns out, has been dead for over a year, apparently dying on the planet Jevron from wounds presumably suffered either during the War or immediately preceding it. (Yes, I know, this fact is directly contradicted later on, but let’s remember the original conception of the episode.) Even with Servalan also seemingly dead at the story’s end, it seems unlikely the Federation will do anything else but continue to rebuild and reassert itself. All the struggles of Blake, Avon, and the others have been pointless. There is even a kind of cosmic nihilism in the throwaway revelation that the savage beasts of Terminal are the hyper-evolved descendants of human beings – not the first time Nation had used such a notion, although previously what usually happened was that people evolved into Daleks.

It’s such a powerful and complete conception that you’re entirely willing to overlook some of the flaws in the plot – isn’t it just terribly convenient that the ship should encounter the enzyme cloud at this particular moment? Why should Servalan lie about Blake being dead? Why is Avon so uncharacteristically gullible? Why doesn’t Servalan just shoot the lot of them rather than abandoning them on Terminal? The answer, mostly, is that the episode would be less effective as a piece of drama if things were different.

By the end of the episode, Blake is gone, the Liberator is gone, and Servalan is gone: the conflict at the heart of the series not resolved, but dissolved in a cloud of enzymatic gas. And also in tatters, I think, is Avon’s position as the leader of the group, and his conception of himself as a man not subject to sentimental attachment. ‘Let’s see if we can’t find a way off this planet,’ suggests Tarrant, adopting the role of leader without any objection from Avon, for once. One by one the others leave him – even Vila doesn’t speak to Avon, only sparing him a look which borders on the contemptuous. You would expect Avon to be a broken man at this point, but as he turns – a brilliant touch, at the end of a very powerful and accomplished episode – we see the smile on the face of the loser again. Avon has kept his sense of humour, and can clearly still appreciate irony, so perhaps he is not quite lost, even now.

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Duel Roles

As ever, we fall upon the appearance of Chris Boucher’s name as the writer of this week’s episode with the same kind of relief felt by people lost in the desert who happen across an ice-cream van or possibly a pop-up juice bar – the episode in question is Death-Watch, which (as you can see) opens up whole new vistas of punctuation when it comes to Blake’s 7 story titles. We’re still sort of in pulp sci-fi mode, but as usual Boucher can be trusted to find something interesting to do with it. (Some of my research indicates that this was a quickie fill-in episode written by Boucher when another script fell through, which explains why the show’s script-editor was writing so much for the show – the BBC frowned on this sort of thing. If you ask me they could have done with a few more scripts falling through.)

The episode opens with a scene which is a really impressive example of way to do exposition briskly and subtly: on a space liner, a professional gunfighter named Deeta is ambushed by a couple of strangers but still manages to deal with them without breaking a sweat. Threaded into all of this is the important plot information that Deeta is the current champion of the planet Teal, which is on the brink of war with the planet Vandor, and that his job is fairly central to the conflict-resolution system Teal and Vandor have settled upon. This is war as single combat, in a computer-controlled environment, under strictly monitored rules – later on we learn that spectators can vicariously experience the duel through a form of VR where the sensory impressions and emotions of the combatants are relayed into their brains.

Strange as it seems, the outbreak of hostilities between Teal and Vandor proves to be good news for the Liberator crew – they are apparently in need of another good rest (all the bad pulp sci-fi this year would wear anyone out), and anyone visiting the combat grounds during hostilities is treated as a neutral observer (and an honoured guest). Vila in particular is looking forward to settling back with a drink and some snacks and watching two men fight to the death, while Tarrant and Avon are not averse to the idea. Cally, as you might expect, finds the whole notion slightly repellent.

Naturally, there turns out to be a complication or two – firstly, that the supposedly neutral arbiter of the upcoming combat is Servalan, who naturally has her own agenda (and a fair fight has nothing to do with it). If either side breaks the rules, genuine war will break out – which will give the resurgent Federation a pretext to sweep in with its battle fleets and annex both sides’ territory. So, naturally, Servalan is up to her neck in a conspiracy to ensure the rules are broken – the champion of Vandor has been replaced by an android, whose synthetic reflexes give him an edge no human gunfighter can match without assistance.

The other issue is that the crew find they kind of have a dog in this fight – Deeta, the champion of Teal, is Tarrant’s brother. This becomes very obvious quite early in the episode, as Deeta is played by Steven Pacey in a slightly peculiar wig. Yes, it’s another case of one of the crew having an identical sibling, though on this occasion the reason for the double role seems to be wholly financial – Deeta Tarrant is supposed to be some years older than Del Tarrant, and it’s not as if their resemblance is a plot point (they never even meet on-screen).

One of my recurring gripes about season three has been about the inconsistency of Tarrant’s characterisation – quite who this guy is supposed to be and what makes him tick seems to change from episode to episode – but Steven Pacey’s performances have always been competent enough, and as Deeta he’s actually pretty good – this isn’t just another version of Del Tarrant in a wig, but someone subtly different. It’s enough to make to wish someone had kept a better eye on regular Tarrant’s role in the other scripts.

And on the whole this is a pretty good episode, not just by the standards of this season – where simply being coherent and not actively stupid means a script is in with a good chance of ending up in the top half of the table, quality-wise – but in terms of the series overall. Chris Boucher has the ability to write pulp sci-fi and make it feel like it’s not actually pulp sci- fi – his characters are well-drawn enough to ground a script, and his habitually dark sense of humour also helps. He also usually manages to find the points of connection between the world of the story and that of the viewer which make it feel ‘real’ – in this case, there’s a TV commentator who pops up to comment on the pre-contest build-up, which feels plausible enough, but he’s a recognisable cousin to the self-regarding TV professional who’s almost a stock character in a lot of drama from the 1970s.

Boucher also writes the regulars well – he hasn’t forgotten that Dayna wants to kill Servalan, and why, and he provides another cracking scene between Avon and Servalan (she claims she still views Avon as a ‘future friend’), and there are plenty of good lines to share around. There’s a slightly odd, Benny Hill-ish moment where Vila pursues Cally off the flight deck which suggests either a more playful and friendly relationship than we’ve previously seen, or Vila being a sex pest, but on the whole it is premium Boucher: ‘I trust you have no tedious scruples about cheating and lying?’ Avon asks Tarrant as they prepare to rig the upcoming combat. ‘None at all,’ comes the answer. ‘Oh good!’ says Avon with a big smile.

The direction is also solid – Gerald Blake isn’t quite Fiona Cumming, but he creates an interesting atmosphere and digs into some of the more unusual moments of the episode: the mortally-wounded Deeta gets a voice-over monologue which pushes the boundaries of naturalism in exactly the same way as some of the more interesting moments in Rumours of Death.

The only real problem with the episode is that all of Boucher’s painstaking world-building, characterisation and exposition takes a while to do properly, with the result that the initial challenge between Deeta Tarrant and the android Vinni happens towards the episode’s end, meaning that the actual climax does feel quite rushed. An unsympathetic viewer might also raise an eyebrow at the fact that Del Tarrant’s confrontation with the android takes place on a set we’ve already seen earlier in the episode: it makes much more budgetary sense than narrative sense. But after a number of episodes which it was frankly a relief to see the back of, it’s a nice change to come across one which it would have been nice to see more of.

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Rhymes with Pollocks

One is sometimes forced to wonder about just what kind of privations of time and money the makers of Blake’s 7 were forced to work under – I mean, it’s obvious just from looking at the screen that they didn’t have access to the BBC’s most prestigious facilities, but even so. Quite apart from the production values, what kind of creative team looks at a script like Hostage or Voice from the Past and thinks ‘Hmmm yes! We’ll have more from this guy, yes indeedy!’

It’s a poser. And one which we are obliged to consider as this week’s episode, Moloch – number eleven of season three, for anyone not keeping track – is another script from Ben Steed, who previously brought us the truly remarkable (in exclusively negative ways) Harvest of Kairos earlier in the year. (This is another episode I have no memory of, and also one which didn’t get a 1981 repeat – but I do remember Dawn of the Gods, which likewise didn’t get reshown. So it looks like I saw at least some of the third season on its first run.)

Your heart immediately sinks at the start of the episode, as it opens with a shot of the rather ugly spaceship Servalan’s been trundling around in all year crossing the screen while Dudley Simpson plays some tension music over the top of it. Leave yourself space to get even more despondent, however, as it turns out that the Liberator crew have been following her for pretty much four weeks without a break. Since when are they so interested in what she’s up to? Why don’t they just blow up her ship? Since when does it take four weeks to get anywhere in this series?

It turns out Servalan is literally on her way to the middle of nowhere: the concealed planet Sardos, smack in the middle of a region known as the Outer Darkness. (The surface of Sardos is initially presented as a painting, which floats the possibility of this episode going somewhere really weird, but it just turns out to be the usual quarry.) How come she’s here? Well, it turns out that a ship belonging to one of the old Federation’s most feared legions has also discovered Sardos, by crashing into it (the planet has a cloaking device). Now they have whistled Servalan up to… well, we’ll get back to that. Getting past the cloaking device without being spotted involves Tarrant and Vila teleporting onto a Federation cargo ship which is also heading for Sardos (the old London model gets dusted off one more time): it turns out the Federation officers ruling Sardos are importing convicts from a nearby penal colony. But why?

It looks very much like we’re in for more knuckle-dragging pulp sci-fi, but Steed has hit upon a genuine science fiction idea, possibly even two of them, although the results of this are rather akin to someone happening across a Steinway grand piano and then using it to play chopsticks for fifty minutes straight. It turns out the Sardoans have invented something which is a close cousin to the Star Trek replicator – it scans things and can then mass-produce them from basic raw materials like rocks and soil. (As is generally the case, replicating living things is not usually possible, although the explanation given here is a bit more bafflegabby than usual.) The Federation commanders here have summoned Servalan not so they can reaffirm their allegiance to her, it’s because they want to use her command ship as the blueprint for a new fleet created using the replicators. (The plot gets fairly involved this week, albeit in a wildly-all-over-the-place sort of way.)

But who or what is Moloch, you may be wondering? Well, initially it’s supposed to be the computer control system of the replicator, but… it turns out that the Sardoans, for slightly obscure reasons, have been attempting to predict the course of their own future evolution (a notion which Terry Nation himself will return to, more successfully, in his final contribution to the series), and the advantage of their replicator over the Trek version is that it’s not limited to pre-existing objects, you can use it like a 3D printer and make stuff up. They have managed to create a being from two million years in the future, which is Moloch (getting around the no-live-replication rule turns out to be a sort of plot point). Moloch is realised on-screen using a puppet, or perhaps muppet is more accurate, which it is difficult to do justice to in prose. (Moloch is voiced by the noted short actor Deep Roy (previously seen in Gambit), which leads me to suspect the muppet was a late replacement for what was supposed to be a monster suit.) Normally I would show you a picture of the Moloch muppet, but it isn’t even the worst special effect in the episode: Moloch has dispensed with the services of the previous Federation commander by turning him into a sort of life-sized troll doll floating in an aquarium. Here we go:

Believe it or not, it looks better in a photo than the moving image.

Well, maybe it’s a dead heat. Anyway, there’s a lot of the usual running around, some more of the appalling sexual politics which made Harvest of Kairos such a special experience (female underlings who fail the current Federation commander are given to the garrison as recreational aids, while Vila gets a new best friend who’s a comic relief violent sex offender), and an amusing, panto-style team-up between Vila and Servalan.

It’s not completely terrible (we’ve reached the point in Blake’s 7 where ‘not completely terrible’ actually constitutes a positive note), but there’s no sign of a systematic exploration of how a society with access to replicators might actually function or differ from our own (to be fair, Star Trek has always steered clear of this too, but I’m sure there’s a novel in it somewhere), and the story comes badly unravelled towards the end – virtually every guest character gets perfunctorily killed off, while the plot resolves by Moloch, genius brain from the distant future, making a very silly mistake. Then Servalan – who has almost literally disappeared out of the story – reappears in command of some rather mysteriously-acquired ships and the crew all run away. (It looks very much like the replicators are still working at the end of the episode, but they never get mentioned again, even though you would expect them to give the Federation a tremendous tactical advantage.)

What to say about Moloch that isn’t a reprise of my moaning about the duff episodes from earlier in the season? At least this one has a faint glimmer of some decent ideas in it, some mildly funny moments, and it hasn’t completely forgotten that the series is (or was) about the conflict between the crew and the Federation. But, and not for the first time this season, those bits which are not unintentionally funny are pretty tough going.

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The winner of this week’s ‘Write Blake’s 7‘ Lottery is… well, let’s hang on a minute, for Trevor Hoyle (the man responsible), while not an established writer on the show, is the fellow responsible for writing the three Blake’s 7 novelisations accompanying the series (covering the bulk of season one and three early episodes from season four). In the days when VHS or DVD releases were by no means routine, these book adaptations had a special magic of their own, as many a nostalgic old git will happily tell you. The Dr Who novelisations of Terrance Dicks gave many young fans a new appreciation for reading; while the Blake’s 7 novelisations of Trevor Hoyle gave other young fans a new appreciation for how good Terrance Dicks was at writing novelisations.

Well, perhaps that’s a bit unfair, for the Blake novelisations are solid enough. You can see why the makers of the TV show, looking for people who were familiar with the format and characters, might get Hoyle on board for a script – but it almost looks as if they forgot to specify they wanted a Blake’s 7 script. Well, again that’s possibly a bit unfair, as – and we have noted this repeatedly – the third season significantly abandons the idea of the series as the story of insurgency against the Federation in favour of slightly tacky pulp SF. This is certainly what Hoyle delivers with Ultraworld.

The episode opens, once again, with the crew doing nothing in particular but being distracted from this by the plot-of-the-week, which initially takes the form of a strange signal registering on the detectors. ‘Pulsar?’ wonders Avon, getting the episode’s genuine-science quotient in early. It isn’t, nor is it a Federation beacon, even though it’s implied these are starting to pop up again (this is the first episode to refer to the reinvigorated and aggressively-expansionistic Federation which forms the backdrop to the final series). The signal turns out to be coming from an artificial planet (not the last one we’ll see this season), one which looks a bit like a Christmas decoration.

Avon comes over very Spock and gets very interested in the artificial planet. ‘You’ll be telling us next we can learn a lot from whomever built it,’ says Dayna. ‘We certainly have nothing to teach them, unless it’s how to remain ignorant,’ replies Avon. Meanwhile Vila is teaching Orac jokes and riddles, for no particular reason. Having been taken over by an alien influence last week, not to mention on at least one previous occasion, this week Cally gets taken over by an alien influence from the strange planet and teleports down without telling anyone (or so it is implied: most of this happens off-screen).

Avon, Dayna and Tarrant teleport down after her and find themselves in a warren of tunnels and corridors (which the cast take every opportunity to hurl themselves down at high speed), which according to Avon resemble the interior workings of a computer. (They more closely resemble the deep-level underground shelters beneath London, much seen in BBC SF and fantasy shows of the late 1970s, mainly because this is where the episode’s location filming took place.) Here they meet a trio of aliens who call themselves the Ultras, who appear to be in charge; they resemble the Blue Man Group with just a dab of glitter.

The Ultras are the masters of Ultraworld, which they initially claim is essentially benign – a data acquisition and storage system, albeit on a planetary scale. However, when they discover that Cally’s brain is being drained and most of the work is done by remote-controlled zombies, the others quite properly suspect this is a load of old hooey. It duly proves to be the case that Ultraworld is a cross between Wikipedia and the Borg Collective – all data it encounters ends up getting stored in its vast memory banks, while biological specimens are either converted into zombies – ‘Menials’ – or rendered down to nutrient paste and fed to the core of the planet.

Yes, there is the core, a huge ever-growing pulsating brain which rules from the centre of the Ultraworld. And if you think that description trips off the tongue, so did the BBC, which used it as the title of a track on BBC Sound Effects #26: Sci-Fi Sound Effects. (Other crucial cuts on this release include the dance-floor banger ‘Black Spaceship Oscillates’, the moody ‘Time Winds’ and the classic family favourite ‘Machine Monster with a Black Sense of Humour! (Who Chases our Heroes Around, Winking). Needless to say I am not making any of these up.) And so did ambient house beat combo the Orb, who used it as the title of their debut single in 1989. Who says Blake’s 7 hasn’t left its mark on the culture?

Having put the ‘fluence on Cally, the Ultras proceed to do the same to Avon, and with Vila stuck on the flight-deck set talking to Orac, it’s down to Tarrant and Dayna to carry the rest of the episode. This they do by running around a lot, stoically, albeit with a brief pause for a scene in which the Ultras promise to let them and the others go if they let Ultraworld record the pair of them having sex (this being pulp sci-fi from 1980, the Ultras dignify this by calling it ‘the human bonding ceremony’, but it’s obvious what they’re after). Maybe Ultraworld is less Wikipedia and more like the internet in general. Luckily Dayna keeps a bomb in her mouth, which they use to escape before things get any more tacky (this is one of those BBC love scenes where everyone keeps all their clothes on).

Ultraworld was directed by Vere Lorrimer – later the producer of the final season, presumably because he knew the show and was available – one of whose previous contributions was the second-season opener Redemption. I mention this because the script for Ultraworld basically turns into a reprise of Redemption in its closing stages: the ship has been brought on board a vast, alien space construct which runs on slave labour, overseen by a slightly prissy elite (Altas there, Ultras here). Luckily Orac is able to screw with the systems of the place and allow everyone to make a run for it – just through being clever in Nation’s script, through the slightly corny device of jamming the core’s operations with Vila’s bad jokes and riddles this time around. Everything blows up. (Though some of the model work is better this second time around, by which I mean there actually is model work.)

And in the end, it’s never slow, and has clearly had much more money spent on it than Sarcophagus, and possibly even Rumours of Death (even though those were two much better scripts). The location filming and some of the effects also help proceedings be less irksome than they might have been (the pulsating ever-growing brain is impressively icky when it blows a gasket towards the end). But it’s not what you’d call deep, more a collection of tropes than anything else. Nevertheless, of all the bad pulp SF episodes from Blake’s 7‘s third season, this is probably the least annoying (so far, anyway).

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Here’s a hypothesis to mull over: the reason that so much television science fiction, particularly that from the 1960s and 1970s, is not very good, stems from the fact that it simply wasn’t possible to make a living writing SF TV scripts back then. (And this was when TV SF was a much more frequent element of the TV schedules.) As a result, most ostensibly SF TV shows ended up with scripts written by journeyman authors who were likely much more comfortable knocking out episodes of Z Cars and Crown Court. As we have discussed, Terry Nation, arguably one of the most prominent creators of SF throughout the 1960s and 1970s, actually spends most of his time writing nothing of the sort – if you’re an SF purist, anyway. Nation writes action-adventure stories, often very well, but genuine science fiction? Not so much.

And so it is something of a surprise whenever an actual genre writer gets tapped to contribute to broadcast SF. Christopher Bidmead had a go at getting proper SF writers on board to write Dr Who for its 1980-81 season (perhaps in the process misunderstanding the essential nature of that series, but not being a Dr Who fan it’s not for me to comment); one of the names Tom Baker mentioned in an interview as a possible candidate was Tanith Lee, a prolific writer of fantasy and SF novels and short stories.

It never came to pass, but the very fact Lee’s name was in the frame at all was probably the result of her having already been employed by Chris Boucher to write two episodes of Blake’s 7. Given that just the other day I was suggesting that Blake’s 7 isn’t really a proper SF show, Lee’s first contribution, Sarcophagus, has a damn good try at proving that it can be. Put together with Rumours of Death, it constitutes a major late-season spike in quality for the show – the fact that both episodes are directed by Fiona Cumming is clearly not a coincidence.

The quality of Sarcophagus (yes, let’s not beat about the bush, this is another good one) is even more surprising given it is that usually ill-favoured beast, a bottle show – an episode constructed to take place largely on a programme’s standing sets and featuring a minimum of guest characters. This is usually done for budgetary reasons, though Cumming manages to squeeze a fairly lengthy film sequence into the opening moments of the episode.

This takes place in what looks like an exotic pavilion on an eerie alien world, where robed and masked figures perform a strange ritual; it’s all a bit interpretative dance-y and (initially at least) wilfully impenetrable, until the figures all withdraw and the pavilion lifts into space – yes, it was a spaceship all along.

The alien ship eventually crosses the path of the Liberator, which is on the way to do a little speculative prospecting on an asteroid with unusual properties (the crew still seem to just be wandering about doing different things from week to week). However, the appearance of the alien, apparently a derelict, puts an end to this, as they decide to go aboard – even after it seems to start sending psionic messages to Cally. Almost at once things get a little bit ominous, as the teleport seems to be malfunctioning and the alien ship is completely unmanned, except for a dessicated corpse. Something causes the ship to explode, and Avon and Vila are only saved from the blast by Cally’s bravery.

Before the crew can get back to their plan originally in progress, it becomes apparent that they have brought more than dust back with them from the alien craft: a presence which has somehow bonded with Cally by means of her telepathy and has the power to disrupt the functioning of both Zen and Orac. The intruder takes Cally’s form and proceeds to have a good try at taking over the ship, informing the others that she has a liking for ‘intelligent menials’ – slaves, to you or me – but this is not an essential requirement. If need be she will kill them all and operate the ship alone…

This almost sounds like a Star Trek plot – in some ways it’s about as close together as the two series ever get – but it’s hard to imagine a Trek episode indulging in the same extravagant weirdness which makes Sarcophagus so memorable. This is here in the episode right from the beginning, with the long scene at the start of the alien’s funeral. The episode is crediting the audience with both intelligence and attention span here, as the significance of this only becomes apparent later (and even then is partly implied). The masked figures seem somehow to be archetypes, performing ritual functions – the Clown, the Troubadour, the Warrior, and a more ambiguous individual dressed entirely in black. On-the-ball viewers may guess what’s coming and not be entirely surprised when members of the Liberator crew later appear in those same robes – it’s no surprise that Vila is the Clown and Tarrant the Warrior, though presenting Dayna as the Troubadour feels like a stretch (though Josette Simon even gets to sing a bit this episode and does not disgrace herself). Avon, of course, is the man in black.

In the end the episode turns out to be as much about Avon as it does Cally – or about their relationship, anyway. One gets the impression that Tanith Lee was a fan of the show before coming on board to write it, as she certainly seems very familiar with the characters and their past history – she still struggles to find anything to do with Tarrant beyond just making him a loud alpha-male bully though, but he does get a fairly good speech acknowledging the fraught nature of his relationship with Avon. There’s a sense in which the episode almost feels like a certain flavour of fan fiction, in that it’s predicated on the existence of an unspoken attraction between Avon and Cally which, to be perfectly honest, there has been very little sign of in past episodes (I suppose if you look hard at Mission to Destiny there may be something going on there, but Blake’s 7 is very much a show of its time where this sort of thing wasn’t wallowed in). It’s implied that Cally is incapable of killing Avon, due to her feelings for him, which turns out to be rather important given the alien’s bond with her. Jan Chappell makes the most of an unusually good episode for her, and Paul Darrow supports her well.

Once again Fiona Cumming lands all the key beats and gives the episode the atmosphere and treatment it deserves; as I’ve mentioned, the direction really shines in both this and the previous episode. (Now that I think about it, her work on the various Dr Who stories she did was also pretty good, though my non-fannish recollection is that the scripts usually weren’t as good as the ones she has to work with here.) So far she seems to be the only third-season director who’s found a way to make the scripts sing – though she has been given unusually good ones. The fact she was never invited back to work on the show again seems to me a terrible oversight, though we seem to be approaching something of a changing-of-the-guard as far as the series’ directorial staff goes, as it enters its final phase. Nevertheless, Cumming’s work on the series is an outstanding testament to her talent.

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