Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘TV Reviews’ Category

Somewhere in the infinite possibilities of creation there is a world which is not experiencing a sudden spike in the number of TV shows and movies about parallel worlds. But it’s clearly not this one. Currently filling up cinemas across the land is Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (the clue is in the title), while arriving here soon (maybe even before this thing gets published) is Everything Everywhere All At Once, which has enjoyed an (apparently) unexpectedly healthy run at the American box office.

Sneaking up under the radar, however, has been another treatment of a very similar idea, this one from the BBC: the drama serial Life After Life (based on a novel by Kate Atkinson), which has recently concluded its network broadcast. I would say this qualifies as what some people call slipstream SF: something which deals with the themes and material of speculative fiction, but does so using the style and techniques of conventional or literary fiction. In short, it’s an SF or fantasy novel disguised (for the most part) as a costume drama. The BBC does costume dramas very well; it used to do SF and fantasy rather well too, so perhaps one should not be quite so surprised that this is as impressive as it is.

The story proper opens on a snowy night in 1910, with a small domestic tragedy unfolding: Sylvie Todd (Sian Clifford) gives birth to her third child, a daughter, but there are complications, the doctor has been held up by the weather, and the infant dies at birth. The screen fades to black.

And then we are back at the start of the scene, with the same events unfolding. But this time there is a different outcome: the doctor has managed to battle through the drifts and the baby survives. She is christened Ursula and goes on to enjoy a fairly happy childhood with her brothers and sisters. Until a trip to the seaside, when she and her sister unwisely go too far our while paddling, are swept away, and drown. The screen fades to black.

And we are back in the snow on that night in 1910 once more. It gradually becomes apparent that Ursula is gifted, or possibly afflicted, by some kind of dim, subconscious memory of her ‘previous’ (parallel?) existences, which means she can sometimes influence her path through life – sometimes, random chance plays a much more significant role. Many people have made the connection between Life After Life’s premise and that of Groundhog Day – the main character repeating variations on the same set of events over and over again – but for me the first episode in particular put me rather in mind of one of those government safety films like Apaches where a small child meets a horrific death every few minutes – Ursula drowns, falls out of a window, and so on, with traumatic regularity.

However, the story also serves as something of a cultural history of England in the first half of the last century, and by the end of the first episode Ursula is having to contend with the arrival of Spanish Flu: which one of the servants brings into the house. Ursula cops it from the flu at least three times before figuring out a way of avoiding this untimely death: her solution is surprisingly ruthless, given she’s still a nine-year-old girl.

Once Ursula manages to reach adulthood (from the age of sixteen she is played almost exclusively, and just as well as you might expect, by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) you feel like you’ve got a sense of the way the story works (to the extent that this actually works as a unified story). It starts to feel like a computer game or one of those choose-your-own-adventure books, where each grisly demise brings you a little bit closer to figuring out what the ‘correct’ route is. Some of the iterations of Ursula end up on wildly variant paths, meeting very grim fates indeed: the fact that the main character’s repeated demise is a core element of the story means that there is a constant tension even when things seem to be going well for her. Certainly there are some profoundly moving moments – in one of her darkest moments, Ursula seems to be desperately inviting death, so she can have another go, but for once it stubbornly refuses to claim her: she is trapped, for the time being, in the life that fate has contrived for her.

Modern TV conventions – indeed, modern storytelling conventions – lead one to expect some kind of revelation, or resolution, as the story enters its third and fourth episode. There has to be an end point, surely – some goal, which once achieved will free Ursula from this endless loop. I was actively speculating as to what this might turn out to be (part of me was probably dimly remembering the final episode of the Nicholas Lyndhurst time-travel sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart, in which it is revealed that the main character’s ability to visit the 1940s only existed so he could save Churchill’s life) and thought it might turn out to be managing to die of natural causes at a relatively happy old age.

However, in another dazzling transition where the show’s costume-drama mask momentarily slips, a scene set in the middle of the Second World War is upended by the sudden appearance of the bassline from Blondie’s Heart of Glass on the soundtrack. Abruptly the setting jumps forward to the late 1970s or early 1980s – the only scene set after the war – and an elderly Ursula reflecting on the regrets of her life. She expires, peacefully. The screen fades to black. And then we are back in 1910, yet again.

The final episode focuses on Ursula’s experiences of the Second World War – dying in the London Blitz more than once, almost starving to death in a terrified Berlin awaiting the arrival of the Red Army – and almost qualifies as a sneaky piece of misdirection. If this was a more conventional piece of fiction, you could again probably guess which way the narrative was heading – something akin to Stephen King’s 22.11.63, with the protagonist intent on a bit of hands-on historical re-engineering. Something along these lines certainly happens along, but while Ursula indeed seems to be successful in creating a radically different new timeline, neither she nor the audience get to see it. The screen fades to black. And then we are back in 1910.

Nothing she does really makes any difference: in the end, she is always back being born (or stillborn) in 1910. She always dies; her friends and family are likewise always distressingly mortal. For a while it does seem like Ursula’s strange gift really is just a curse, as she can never achieve anything permanent. But then I suppose the same could be said for any of us. The series eventually achieves a degree of existential profundity which is very rare in a modern TV drama – something reflected in the script by the appearance of many references to Nietzsche and his philosophy, especially the concept of amor fati: the acceptance of destiny as a necessary fact of existence (to simplify the concept, probably egregiously). In the end, living an infinity of parallel lives is not more or less meaningful than living a single life, and by the end of the story (to the extent that a story like this can even have an end) Ursula seems to have achieved a degree of acceptance of her strange perspective on the world.

It’s a challenging, unexpected conclusion, and one which feels like it has come much more from the world of literary fiction than much of the rest of the story. But then the whole thing benefits from the synergy and genuine sense of creative excitement that often comes when you mash the BBC’s costume-drama expertise with less traditional styles of storytelling. The acting is uniformly excellent, but it’s McKenzie who carries the whole thing, giving a string of subtle modulations to what is basically the same performance, as Ursula’s experiences impact on her character over the course of the narrative. It’s not overstating things to suggest that she breaks your heart over and over again throughout the series; her eventual attainment of something approaching acceptance also gains its power from the actress’ ability.

I don’t often write about current TV, partly because I think things usually need time and perspective in order to be properly assessed, but Life After Life contains two or three of the most powerful and exciting moments I’ve seen in the medium this year, more than any other show. It is in the nature of the one-off serial not to leave the same kind of footprint as a continuing drama, but this is so good it deserves to be remembered and appreciated.

Read Full Post »

As we have observed, The New Avengers is not a show which is afraid to revisit concepts and storylines from the parent shows – up to and including doing a direct sequel, of sorts, to an episode from nearly a decade earlier. So for it to take another run at the notion of influential figures being replaced by enemy duplicates (previously utilised in The Man with Two Shadows and They Keep Killing Steed) is not really a surprise. The unexpected thing about Faces (a collaboration between Dennis Spooner and Brian Clemens, though I wouldn’t like to guess who did which bit) is that it should be quite so ramshackle as a piece of writing.

The premise is as follows: two tramps played by Richard Leech (fourth of four) and Edward Petherbridge are settling down to a dinner of barbecued rabbit one night when they spy a Rolls Royce cruising by – and in the back is a man who is the spitting image of one of them! Either they are providentially close to his home, or very fast on their feet, because when Leech’s double decides to take a dip in his private pool they are on the scene to put an arrow in him (Petherbridge, like many tramps, is a crack archer) so his down-and-out double can replace him.

It gets even more ridiculous: having adopted this new identity less than a minute earlier, Leech is entirely untroubled when Steed turns up, greeting him with a genial ‘Hello, John!’ How does he know Steed’s name? It’s vaguely alluded to that Leech’s character has fallen on hard times from a fairly elevated position, but there’s no suggestion he actually knew Steed in his earlier life, nor does Steed indicate he knew someone who was a lookalike for the man Leech has replaced (though, as noted, he has previously met three different duplicates of him, along with six duplicates of Edwin Richfield, four Peter Bowleses and Julian Glovers, two Peter Cushings and Christopher Lees, etc).

Anyway, from this frankly wobbly beginning we are invited to believe that the lust for power and influence seizes the two tramps, and they recruit a disgraced plastic surgeon to run a mission for the needy in London. The homeless population is apparently bursting with duplicates of the rich and powerful, whom they proceed to spend five years substituting for their originals.

Buying the premise is probably the most demanding thing about watching Faces, because it really does require you to put your disbelief in a iron death-grip. If you can put all this to one side, the episode is not unrewarding – Patrick Macnee gets some good material as an unusually driven Steed (though we meet yet another of his never-heard-of-before best friends who is basically just there to die), and there is some clever plotting – working independently of each other, Gambit and Purdey both infiltrate the mission undercover and (obviously) are recruited to replace themselves. (Given the episode is arguably making some kind of comment about class divisions and the resulting institutionalised envy in British society, there’s also a curious little scene where Steed gently but firmly puts Gambit in his place for not coming from the ‘right’ background – he has the temerity to turn up to a clay-pigeon shooting contest with a pump-action shotgun, for instance. It’s mildly done, but Steed seems quite in earnest.)

The result borders on farce, albeit with a few genuinely serious moments, but it’s well-enough played to make up for a lot, and at least it seems aware of its own ridiculousness (it concludes with Macnee near-as-dammit breaking the fourth wall and quipping to the audience). Well-enough to make up for the outrageous implausibility of the premise? Probably not, for me, but your mileage may differ, of course.

Something much more agreeably bonkers rocks up next in the form of Spooner’s Gnaws, which also has a rather familiar feel to it – it’s supposedly another riff on the central idea of the same writer’s Thunderbirds episode Attack of the Alligators, but an awful lot of sci-fi B-movies could also end up charged with inspiring the story.

Kicking the story off on this occasion are the activities of two avaricious government research scientists, Thornton (Julian Holloway) and Carter (Peter Cellier), who plan to steal a load of top-secret research materials and set up in the private sector, working on ways to grow giant tomatoes. As you would. This they manage to do, even after Thornton (who is a proper mad scientist) kills the agent routinely tailing him: the fact Thornton is never under suspicion suggests the dead man was really shoddy at his admin, although this in itself probably doesn’t mean he deserved to die. Anyway, off they go into the wide world of private enterprise, where it’s much easier to overlook little incidents like Carter accidentally pouring half a vial of atomic growth hormone down the sink…

At this point there’s another one of those awkward narrative jumps as we leap forward to the anniversary of Mr Bad Admin’s death – I don’t expect anyone’s ever attempted to write a definitive New Avengers timeline, but it would be an odd-looking beast with (presumably) up to a dozen episodes ‘nested’ inside Last of the Cybernauts..?? and Gnaws, both of which take place over more than a year.

Anyway, twelve months on, Thornton and Carter are happily growing giant solanaceae, and everyone but Gambit and Purdey seem to have forgotten about the mysterious murder of the bad admin man. Steed’s concern is with very odd seismographic readings under London – it’s almost as if something very large is moving around in the sewers…

Gambit is sent into the (reasonably clean, dry, and well-lit) tunnels to investigate, and turns up various oddities – Steed’s initial thought was that the Other Side were up to something involving subterranean bugging, but he runs into one of their security men (Jeremy Young, fourth of four) who has exactly the same idea (the Other Side have their own seismographs, it seems). He also meets a maintenance man (Keith Alexander, a supporting artist in a couple of Gerry Anderson projects) who complains that someone has been dragging enormous sacks of grain into the sewer – normally this would attract every rat in the network, but they are surprisingly thin on the ground…

A moody little squeaker. (Or maybe not so little.)

Well, the actually number of rats in the sewers may have been dramatically reduced, but by bodyweight the rat population is still in very good shape, because – as I’m sure you’ve figured out – Carter and Thornton’s atomic growth hormone has found its way into one rat in particular, which is now the size of a van and nibbling its way through everything in its path, including maintenance workers, tramps, and anyone else in an area adjacent to a sewer access point. Late 1976 and early 1977 was truly a blissful time to be alive if you were into this sort of thing, as – a few weeks after Gnaws first aired (this was effectively The New Avengers‘ Christmas episode) – Dr Who also did a story where a sewer full of giant rats was a key plot point. The poorness of the BBC rat costume is often criticised, but at least they took a swing at putting the actual rat in-frame with the leading actors. Gnaws‘ approach is to film a real rat on model sets and rely on slick editing for the rest of it, but I’m still not sure it completely works.

As you might expect, this is a somewhat polarising episode – I’m not sure anyone really loves it, but there are certainly some people who absolutely hate it. I agree it has its issues – it can’t seem to decide whether to be a spoof or a pastiche of 50s monster B-movies, and as a result the tone fluctuates constantly between self-mocking goofiness and genuine horror (I watched Gnaws again for the purposes of this piece not long after Behemoth the Sea Monster, and was a little surprised to find it had earned its own entry in The Illustrated Dinosaur Movie Guide, where it got a respectable two-and-a-half out of five brontosauruses – but then again the same book gives both On the Town and Bringing Up Baby five out of five, and they don’t even have monsters in them). Also, any episode of The New Avengers which basically resolves by Gambit arriving with an enormous gun has got serious foundational problems.

But on the other hand, it does have a certain kind of goofy charm to it, there are some nice performances, and the fight between Jeremy Young and Joanna Lumley is upper-bracket stuff. Possibly most importantly, this was one of the episodes I watched with young nephew not long ago, and this was probably the one he enjoyed the most – certainly he got the most absorbed by it, at several points showing a distinct desire to hide behind the sofa (decor choices prevented this from really being an option). Saying that Gnaws really succeeds as a piece of mildly scary children’s TV is an odd thing to say about an episode featuring a violent opening murder and six men being killed and in some cases devoured by a giant rat, but it’s some sort of success. In any case, I find it impossible to genuinely dislike the episode.

Read Full Post »

Let us imagine, for a moment, that curious aliens manage lay their hands on the complete corpus of British culture for the last three decades of the twentieth century. What they might be able to learn about the state of the nation would be interesting, no doubt, but we could also speculate about the extent to which they could draw conclusions about non-British influences as well. To make it much more specific: to what extent could one reconstruct Star Trek, given only the British sci-fi series which were clearly based on it?

I feel like there’s an interesting article to be written on the subject of how Space: 1999 and Blake’s 7, two shows with aesthetics, tones and sensibilities which have almost nothing in common, both still manage to clearly be Star Trek knock-offs. (I’m thinking here primarily about first-season ’99 – which is not to say that the second season owes nothing to Trek (it has one of the original producers, after all), just that season two is much closer to Blake in some ways.) It’s as if there was some acrimonious divorce settlement (or, if you prefer, bizarre metaphysical transporter accident), and ’99 ended up with the international crew, the leading troika, and the interest in lofty science fiction concepts, while Blake got the action adventure, the spaceship, the Federation, the teleporter, and the arresting central dynamic between the main and second leads. (Avon has the same steely intelligence, dispassionate attitude and (I am given to understand) irresistible sexual allure that made Spock equally successful as a breakout character.)

Of course, the big difference in approach between the two shows is that ’99 was consciously made for an international audience, while Blake’s 7 is determinedly BBC in every respect. The generally miserabilistic tone of much of British SF seems to have influenced the majority of the BBC’s output in the genre – it tends to be bleak, cynical, even sometimes nihilistic. This certainly applies to Blake – its Star Trek trappings are largely superficial; as we have discussed, it is not really pure SF so much as an action-adventure drama set in the future, primarily concerned with a single axis of conflict – that between the crew and the Federation.

If you view the series this way, the problem with episode five, The Web, is thrown into sharper relief: episode four ends with the Liberator on the way to the planet Centero (apparently pronounced with a hard K) to commence another operation against the Federation. Episode six begins with the opening stages of that operation. So to some extent, The Web is just a detour on the way, another piece of pure filler.

At least it opens reasonably atmospherically, with the camera drifting around an apparently deserted alien installation in some web-shrouded woodlands. The effect of this is a sense that Blake is coming into the story’s world, rather than vice versa, which makes a subtle but important difference. But from here we go back to the Liberator, where something is amiss (I am tempted to say as ‘usual’). Even though she has only just arrived in the series, Cally has wasted no time in getting herself possessed by an alien influence and is sabotaging the ship, sending it off-course into an uncharted sector of space (she also lamps Vila, but most of the crew are probably regularly tempted to do this alien possession or otherwise). This is a great opportunity for Gareth Thomas and Paul Darrow to practise the delicate art of running up and down the Liberator‘s corridors; Darrow also gets a nice scene with David Jackson – Avon barely conceals his contempt for Gan’s lack of intelligence and apparently slavish devotion to Blake’s cause. Avon even gets to save Blake’s life at one point, which surprises both of them – then again, Blake later describes Avon as a friend (though not within earshot of him).

The ship eventually ends up orbiting a planet where it is entangled in the filaments of a silicon-based lifeform, which we are invited to assume has been placed there by the inhabitants of the base from the start of the episode. At this point it’s Jenna who gets possessed by the aliens (Sally Knyvette does some very entertaining I’ve-been-possessed acting) and they order Blake down to the planet to talk terms for their release. (This episode marks the debut of the Liberator kagoule rack, which is a good match with the Liberator picnic box which has already made a couple of appearances.)

Well, it turns out the aliens are exiles from Cally’s home planet Auron (it increasingly does seem like Cally genuinely is from non-Terran stock) who have come here to carry out some illegal experiments in genetic engineering, mainly to create servitor creatures and search for immortality. The main result of the latter is the fact the six aliens are now sharing one shrivelled body stuck in a fish tank; however, the slave-race angle has been going rather better and produced a fetching pair who resemble an early-eighties German synthpop duo, as well as large numbers of excitable diminutive creatures called Decima. The Decima have turned stroppy, like you couldn’t have guessed, and are running amok in the woods causing all kinds of trouble. The aliens have decided to bin this particular experiment, but wiping the Decima out will require some new batteries – which they are insisting that Blake and the others provide…

It is, as you have probably figured out, another riff on the old Frankenstein (or possibly Dr Moreau) story: life has its own imperatives and refuses to accept the primacy of its creators. It’s handled a bit simplistically here – the main plot complication is that the Decima are ugly and initially seem feral, while the aliens’ representatives are ostensibly more urbane. Even so, it doesn’t take Blake long to figure out what’s really going on, putting him in a bit of a bind – he needs the aliens to let the Liberator go, but they’ll only do this if he helps them wipe out their truculent creations.

While Googling for this image I found out there’s actually a writer named ‘Decima Blake’. It’s a funny old world sometimes.

The main problem with the script is that a good half of it is concerned with the hijacking of the Liberator and the journey to the alien planet: by the time Blake’s actually beamed down and started to get his bearings, the episode is well on the way to its climax. The result is that a set-up which is not without a certain amount of promise has to be resolved in a rush. Something approximating the following dialogue exchange ensues:

ALIEN: Give us the flutonic power cells.

BLAKE: Never! You’ll just use them to kill the Decima.

ALIEN: Give us the flutonic power cells or we will kill you.

BLAKE: Here they are.

It’s not the staunchest moral stand ever taken in the history of drama, to say the least. Virtue (of a sort) only prevails because of a risible plot contrivance – the aliens forget to close the door behind them when they go back into their base, allowing the Decima in to run amuck. (This would actually be pretty grim stuff, with a skull being kicked around like a football, were it not all rendered slightly absurd by the squeaky voices given to the Decima. It’s a bit like a peasant uprising featuring the Smurfs or a bunch of chipmunks.) Blake and Avon still get a chance to free the Liberator before bravely running away. Lord knows what the Decima end up doing with their newly-planet; knowing the general tenor of Blake’s universe, the Federation probably happen across it and nerve-gas them all from low orbit.

But of course we never find out. Nothing is picked up on again, the whole episode might never have happened. This in itself is not a problem per se – I am, after all, on record as someone who enjoys episodic storytelling. The problem arises from the fact that this only marginally feels like an episode of the same series we’ve been watching up to this point – that main axis of conflict we were discussing earlier barely features; the Federation is only present in the story as a device to exert time pressure on Blake (they need to free the Liberator before some pursuit ships turn up). This is a story of space travellers being hassled by slightly generic aliens that could conceivably have shown up in Space: 1999 or even Star Trek. It’s not especially distinctive, or well-structured – while it’s interesting to see Blake trying to push the envelope a bit in terms of its storytelling, the results are not particularly impressive.

Read Full Post »

It’s entirely possible I haven’t watched The Midas Touch since the last time The New Avengers was on terrestrial TV; it’s certainly not one of the episodes I would automatically reach for as an example of the series at its best. Why this should be is all in the carpentry of the story, I would suggest: the premise is a decent one and there are some nice touches, but the core of the episode is somehow not quite sound.

The plot proper gets underway with a squad of armed men searching some wasteland near London, under the command of this week’s villain, Professor Turner (David Swift, second of two). They are watched with some concern by a tramp (John Carson, fourth of four) whom has already been established as a burnt-out former colleague of Steed’s (this is done in a very nicely written and played scene between Carson and Patrick Macnee). The gag is that the heavily-armed and cautious bad guys are actually searching for a cute little white bunny – the further gag is that when the little critter nips one of the soldiers on the hand while being picked up, Turner has the man shot on the spot.

Off in another part of the story, Steed and his partners have received word that emissaries are on their way to London to negotiate for the services of someone or something known as Midas, for which substantial sums will be changing hands. They apprehend one of the envoys after an attempt is made on his life; he is played by Ronald Lacey (third of three), which would be fine were he not meant to be from Hong Kong. Lacey’s attempt at a Chinese accent – he sounds like a bad Peter Lorre impression – just makes a really awkward element of the plot even worse.

Oh well. With the Chinese off the scene the field is wide open for someone else to hire Midas, who is of course Professor Turner’s creation: Turner is an expert in bacteriological warfare, late of ‘Pilton Down’, and has hit upon the idea of making someone who is an asymptomatic carrier of every deadly disease known to man – just touching Midas’ skin results in a rapid and painful death (‘They died of everything!’ cries a bizarrely-accented Chris Tranchell, playing a doctor examining some of Midas’ victims). But who is Midas’ target and how can they stop him?

Well, the idea of the assassin as a sort of pandemic on two legs is an arresting one, but it obviously doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny (at least not as a precision weapon – even Midas’ own handlers have to wear a 70s version of a hazmat suit around him). Nor does much of the rest of the plot, which is convoluted without being especially interesting and heavily reliant on coincidence (Steed’s old friend just happening to stumble across Turner’s plan, for instance). On the other hand, this is something of a showcase for the stunt team (some good car chases and running around – lots of the action shots from the first series’ opening credits come from this episode) and there are some witty moments (Gambit and Purdey casually discuss John Huston movies in the middle of a hot pursuit). On the other other hand, there’s all the stuff with the non-Asian Chinese casting and yet more tacky moments with people lusting after Purdey. In the end I suppose it just about passes muster, but it does feel like a central gimmick in search of a better plot.

Someone else finally gets their name on a New Avengers script next, in the person of Dennis Spooner and the shape of Cat Amongst the Pigeons. The facts that this is possibly the best episode yet and that Spooner is, in my opinion, one of the great underrated geniuses of British fantasy TV may not be unrelated – though the fact it seems to be consciously trying to emulate the style of a Philip Levene script from the old show may have something to do with it, too. It opens with a pet shop owner hearing an eerie whistle, which is closely followed by the mysterious disappearance of all his bird stock. Elsewhere, this week’s doomed-colleague-of-the-trio is trying to call in a plan to assassinate one Hugh Rydercroft (Basil Dignam, second of two), a senior figure at the Ministry of Ecology. He hears the same mysterious whistle and next he is jumping off a cliff to escape… something. (At least he doesn’t actually die, but he’s too injured to spill the beans.)

Steed and the others double-check Rydercroft’s travel precautions, much to the annoyance of his own security people, and eventually let him fly off on a trip to Europe, piloting his own plane. But at the appointed time something happens and the plane falls out of the sky for no immediately apparent reason. But the wreckage is festooned with feathers and a guest character with something to prove finds a bird ring from a nearby sanctuary, which he promptly goes off to investigate alone without telling anyone else. Will he survive to the closing credits? Or even the last ad break? (Hint: no.)

Once it is revealed that Rydercroft and a few colleagues have been working on a plan to savagely cull bird numbers (doesn’t sound very ecological to me, but I digress), old hands will probably be able to write the rest of the episode for themselves. A bird fancier and former magician named Zarcardi (a great role for Vladek Sheybal, probably best known for playing SPECTRE’s strategic genius in From Russia With Love) is trying to stop the plan using his uncanny ability to control birds with a special flute: he can cause bird-strikes, sneak birds of prey into people’s offices and cars, call down ravenous flocks to peck people to death, and so on. Needless to say someone makes a reference to The Birds at one point.

To be honest, the mid-section of the episode unravels into a collection of set-pieces rather than a developing plot, but they are such good set-pieces: directed like a horror movie, with good work from the bird trainers (though it’s obvious on subsequent viewings the actual number of birds involved is minimal) and some good performances from the guest cast: Peter Copley (third of three) is one of the scientists, Hugh Walters plays a nervous crash investigator, and the great Kevin Stoney (second of two) doesn’t get enough to do as a creepy plot-expositor who’s been blinded by (we presume) a bird attack. It follows the structure of a classic Levene script very closely, even concluding with a reprise of the ‘Pussy Galore!’ gag from The Hidden Tiger (perhaps its most obvious antecedent). It’s not surprising that this is an episode which bears comparison with the original series.

The same is true of Target!, which I originally wrote about towards the end of 2014: it’s the one where the robot firing range has been suborned by enemy agents. What can I add at this point? Well, only a few things: research now indicates it is quite unlikely that the police box in this episode is the one from the Dalek movies. Also, in an attempt to drag my young nephew away from brain-rotting YouTube videos, we ended up watching a handful of episodes of The New Avengers together, including this one. I am happy to say he seemed to find it entertaining and engaging. Also, when you watch these episodes in order it is quite obvious that most of the action sequences are being given to Joanna Lumley and Gareth Hunt (perhaps understandably, given Macnee was in his mid-fifties at the time) – Gambit getting the hero role and saving the day isn’t quite as incongruous in context.

Read Full Post »

These days the old distinction between a TV series and a TV serial has pretty much disappeared: I suppose the assumption used to be that audiences who couldn’t guarantee to catch every episode wouldn’t bother to commit to an ongoing storyline, hence the fact that virtually every series made up until the 1990s was mostly made up of standalone instalments. The age of catch-up and the big streamers means that this is all a thing of the past: virtually no-one does episodic television anymore, not least because – a nice reversal – the need to secure an audience from week to week demands an ongoing storyline to try and ensure people keep watching.

The unusual thing about the structure of Blake’s 7 is not that most of the show is barely serialised, because most action-adventure series of the period weren’t – what makes it unusual is the fact that very occasionally the episodes do link into one another, especially around the start of a new season. This wasn’t the first time that Terry Nation had done something like this – virtually half of the first season of Survivors is effectively serialised – but it does feel like a real change of pace when the series begins to shift to a more episodic format.

This starts to happen during the fourth episode, Time Squad, which at least one professional reviewer has described as easily the worst of all fifty-two. Initially it seems like the serialised storyline from the first three parts is going to continue: the Liberator is in photographic-blow-up cruise mode, Jenna has been teaching everyone else how the fly the ship, and Blake is already cooking up a plan to attack the Federation communications hub on the planet Saurian Major. Everyone but Avon seems quite happy to go along with this scheme – at least, no-one is dissatisfied enough not to participate, and even Avon eventually agrees to join Blake on the raid.

However, episodic plot element off the port bow! Zen detects a drifting alien ‘projectile’ (why it isn’t just a capsule or a ship is never really explained) and, mainly out of curiosity (it would appear), Blake decides to teleport over to it with Jenna. This despite the fact that Zen’s melodrama circuits have kicked in and the computer is acting rather erratically again. The alien ship turns out to be so cramped Blake virtually breaks his neck teleporting into it, but this is because it is a cryogenic sleeper pod with only a handful of corpsicles on board.

There’s a bit of combined plot-device-and-filler action as the teleport inconveniently breaks down as Blake and Jenna start running out of air, requiring the other three to take the cryo-ship on board – the model work in the docking sequence is reasonably done, although the question of where exactly the docking bay is on the Liberator model remains somewhat obscure. The crew are clearly unaware of the old sci-fi trope that defrosting unknown corpsicles is almost never a good idea, but while the aliens are thawing out Blake presses on with his business on Saurian Major.

On this occasion the teleporter seems to be in ‘light trim’ mode, to judge from its effect on Blake’s hair, and Saurian Major is one of those planets made up of sand pits (dressed with the odd so-so alien plant prop) and industrial facilities. Apart from a few extras in Federation gimp suits the place is almost entirely uninhabited, except for sole surviving local rebel Cally (Jan Chappell). Cally is telepathic, although not in a way you could honestly describe as useful, a trait she owes to being a native of the planet Auron: the question of whether the Auronar are genuinely alien or originated as human colonists is left open at this point. The big structural job of the episode is to get Cally to join the crew, so she is persuaded to help Blake quite easily.

But all is not well back on the ship, as the frozen aliens are bad’uns looking to use its energy banks to reproduce on a massive scale. They beat up Gan  and have a go at beating up Jenna too: Gan reveals there is a limiter in his brain that prevents him from killing, and you could be forgiven for thinking the cryo-aliens put it there, so clumsily is the notion introduced. (I think the idea is that Gan was operated on before being packed off to Cygnus Alpha.)

Gan starts practising for his First Aider badge.

To be honest, the whole plotline with the cryo-aliens is a duff one, largely consisting of reskinned horror movie tropes about bad people sneaking into your house, and only interacting with the planetside stuff inasmuch as it means there may not be anyone there to beam Blake and the others back up once the communications centre starts exploding. Long before I ever saw this episode on tape, I read the first Blake’s 7 novelisation (Terry Nation’s name was on it but I suspect most of the work was done by credited co-writer Trevor Hoyle), and the way this story is handled there is markedly different: the contrived filler about Zen playing up is cut back, and rather than mass-reproducing lunatics, the cryo-aliens are a team of assassins. This makes a bit more sense, I suppose.

The problem either way is that the cryo-aliens plotline is the A-story for the episode (which is why it’s called Time Squad rather than Picnic on Saurian Major or something like that) and it has nothing to do with Blake’s stated goal, which is to be beastly to the Federation (the fact the episode doesn’t really have any guest characters is also arguably a flaw). It’s just generic space-opera, without the bleakness or the strong characterisations that make the first episodes memorable and go a long way to make up for the budgetary shortcomings of the series. Even new character Cally doesn’t get anything to do in her first episode which is particularly interesting.

Here perhaps we are starting to see a distinctive thing about Blake’s 7, which is that it’s framed as a thriller or action-adventure series set in space, rather than a science-fiction series per se: Terry Nation seems to have been interested in SF as a means of exploring a certain kind of allegory, but not in using the genre to explore different kinds of new ideas. When the series is focusing on the struggle against the Federation, it at least seems to have some kind of focus to it. As soon as it abandons that, it quickly becomes very, very generic, which is an increasingly visible problem as it settles more into episodic mode. Time Squad is an episode as bland and indifferent as its own title.

Read Full Post »

What did you do during those dim and distant days when lockdown was something new and unprecedented? One of the things I did was watch every surviving episode of The Avengers, which I’d had on DVD for nearly a decade but never really gone through in a systematic way. It was a lovely way to pass at least some of that peculiar time, and following up by watching the sequel show, The New Avengers, was always on my radar. But you know how it is, and only now do I find myself with a decent chance of taking a run through those 26 episodes.

The obvious place to start, naturally, is with the first one, but – perhaps a bit of a mixed blessing – I’ve already written about The Eagle’s Nest, nearly ten years ago. I largely stick by my initial thoughts on this story, with the following additions – firstly, for a series which is supposedly more down to earth than its precursor, the plot (revolving as it does about an attempt to revive a comatose eighty-something Hitler by a fanatical group of Nazis disguised as monks) is not notably tethered to anything resembling gritty realism. It also, obviously, subscribes to that trend amongst telefantasy series of the sixties and seventies by doing its Nazi episode: it seems like virtually no SF or fantasy show with a contemporary setting (not to mention a few without one) could resist dipping into the Third Reich dress-up box. Nevertheless, the whole enterprise, fun as it is, has a heavy-handed, slightly crass quality to it you can’t really imagine in peak Avengers.

Anyway, the next episode is House of Cards by Brian Clemens (a name which turns up with almost metronomic regularity on New Avengers scripts) and, after a rather offbeat start it turns out to have more of that realistic tone we were discussing earlier. Steed, Gambit and Purdey stop the kidnapping of (we presume) a Russian scientist who’s defected: this involves Gambit dressing up as a pop star and the deployment of a gaggle of screaming young women. The Russian agent responsible for the kidnapping (Peter Jeffrey, fourth of four Avengers appearances) is terribly disgraced and embarks upon a convoluted revenge scheme.

This involves him faking his own death and then activating a program of sleeper agents (the gimmick of the episode, such as it is, is that just about anyone could turn out to be a Soviet killer: Gambit’s old karate teacher, Purdey’s stepdad’s chauffeur, an old friend of Steed and one of his girlfriends, and so on). The first sleeper woken up promptly decides he’d rather stay asleep and runs off to Steed to confess everything – which I would have said was a flaw in this kind of set-up, but the villain is weirdly delighted. This initially just looks like ridiculous scripting, but the episode turns out to be somewhat cleverer than it initially appears.

It doesn’t really have the big central gimmick you associate with the best Avengers episodes, but it’s notably well-directed and solidly entertaining, on the whole. On the other hand, there are a couple of bits which are basically quite awkward for the modern viewer – there’s a scene where Steed appears to paying tribute to his partners from the old show, but turns out to be talking about some horses he used to own, which is either sweet or cheesy, while Purdey is basically objectified and letched over in a few places – she’s basically the prize in a bet that Gambit and his karate sparring partner make (Joanna Lumley does that serene smile that indicates she’s basically just indulging the boys, but even so), and later there’s a rather gratuitous scene where she strips down to her underwear, not realising that Gambit (again) is enjoying the show. But I guess that’s the seventies for you, even though – and I suspect this will be a theme as we progress – the difference in tone between the end of the original Avengers and much of the new series is not really as great as you might think.

The sense of The New Avengers as a direct continuation of the original show is inevitably strengthened by the next episode to be broadcast, The Last of the Cybernauts…?? (an oddly-titled episode, or at least a title with some odd punctuation). This was an episode I was dying to see when the series had a re-run in my area back in 1990, mainly because I missed both of the original Cybernaut episodes when they’d been repeated a few years earlier and, at the time I was basically treating The Avengers like a more conventional SF series, with recurring monsters and a coherent continuity. I was delighted when it eventually came on and was duly impressed.

These days it feels like much more of a mixed bag: some terrific set pieces, but saddled with a weirdly disjointed structure. It opens with the first proper appearance of a regular New Avengers trope – a mortally-wounded junior agent gets in touch with Steed or one of the others in order to pass on some plot-inciting information. On this occasion the dead fellow crashes into Steed’s birthday party, revealing the identity of a double agent – one Felix Kane (played by Robert Lang).

The rest of the episode plays rather like an offbeat play entitled Felix Kane, as he and his associates are by far the most pro-active people in it. Steed’s attempt to nab Kane results in him crashing his car into a petrol tanker, which spectacularly explodes. Kane is horribly mutilated, losing both legs and an arm, but still somehow manages to evade the authorities. One year later – this is established by Steed having another birthday party, the obvious conclusion being that many other episodes occur during the gaps in the story in this one – Kane and his henchman Malov (a very sly and clever performance by Oscar Quitak, who has clearly put real thought into his line readings) kidnap a man named Goff (Robert Gillespie), who has just got out of prison.

Knock knock!

Why? Well, Goff was the mechanic who built the actual Cybernauts used by Dr Armstrong and later his brother back in the two sixties episodes, not that he showed up on screen, and Kane has a scheme to use Cybernaut technology to get revenge on Steed, Gambit and Purdey. (‘Goff’ is a homonym for Gough, the surname of the actor who played Armstrong, and I can’t believe it’s taken me over thirty years to notice that.) This involves retrieving a couple of Cybernauts from a hidden cache and using one of them to kidnap a cyberneticist capable of progressing Armstrong’s work even further.

The actual Cybernaut attacks are very well-staged and with actors like Lang, Quitak and Gillespie, the performances are also very engaging. But the problem with the episode is that it really leaves the star trio with virtually nothing to do beyond recapping the plot, engaging in comedy relief running gags, and waiting for something else to happen. Only comparatively late-on is there a sequence with Gambit and Purdey taking on a Cybernaut face-to-face.

So, as I say, a bit of a mixed bag – there’s another clumsy narrative jump near the end, indicated by Gambit breaking his hand karate-chopping the Cybernaut and it coming out of plaster a couple of scenes later, and once again a couple of slightly crass scenes where the director seems to be letching just a bit too much over Joanna Lumley (and just what Kane’s going to do to her). The denouement is perhaps a touch gimmicky and unconvincing too. I’m not sure Philip Levene, creator of the Cybernauts, would have been especially thrilled by it, had he still been around (the prospect of The New Avengers as written by Philip Levene is an honestly fascinating one). But while it’s a very inconsistent episode, when it’s good it’s very good.

Read Full Post »

Cygnus Alpha doesn’t muck about and opens with a sequence set on Cygnus Alpha, which is certainly towards the top end of the planets-filmed-in-a-slate-quarry pile. It really does seem an entirely horrible place of bleak stone and perpetual twilight, the only redeeming feature being Pamela Salem, who despite being almost wholly ornamental does manage to get her own minimal sort of character arc. With typical efficiency Terry Nation establishes that Cygnus Alpha is under the control of a fanatical religious cult, and that the soon-to-arrive prisoners on the London will be receiving the hard sell once they disembark.

From here we cut back to the London itself and encounter a sizable continuity issue: it’s hard not to conclude that about four months elapse between the end of Space Fall and the beginning of this episode – we repeatedly hear it’s an eight month trip, and it’s also indicated that the London encountered the drifting Liberator four months into that journey. So here we are with Commander Leylan just about to touch down on Cygnus, four months (give or take) since the escape of several of his prisoners and numerous deaths on board, and he’s only just getting around to filing a report on this for his superiors. The narrative reason for this, of course, is that it isn’t a report for his superiors as much as a recap of Space Fall for the benefit of anyone who missed the previous episode. But even so, it’s clunky.

It’s still not as clunky as the ensuing scenes on the Liberator itself, which the conventions of TV drama dictate must likewise take place four months after the end of the last episode. What have Blake, Jenna and Avon done in those four months? Well, they’ve taken off their survival harnesses, and… er… that’s about it, really. It’s another excruciatingly awkward narrative convention, but it does start pointing us toward the main problem with Cygnus Alpha as a script – which is that it is very heavily padded.

There are stories in circulation about some of the issues involved with using Terry Nation as a scriptwriter, some of them contested – he wasn’t much fussed about continuity, would cheerfully attempt to sell the same storyline on multiple occasions to the same series, and on occasions didn’t even turn in a full script (script editors getting a short synopsis with ‘finish it yourself’ written on the last page shoved through their letterbox). The third episode of the series is a bit early for Nation to be running out of steam, but when you consider the narrative duties required of Cygnus Alpha – Blake goes to Cygnus Alpha, figures out how to use the teleport, and rescues Gan and Vila from a mad religious cult) it may simply be the case that there’s just not enough story here to fill fifty minutes.

One wonders just how involved script editor Chris Boucher was in getting Cygnus Alpha to the screen, because there are a number of moments in the story – mostly amongst the scenes set on the Liberator – that do feel very much to have the acid darkness to them which becomes much more of an element of the series as it continues. There’s initially some nonsense about the gun cabinet and the ship experiencing massive acceleration, accompanied by bafflegab dialogue about ‘negative hyperspace’ and the ‘anti-matter interface’, and then a bit more nonsense introducing Zen – who is all-powerful, all-knowing and instantly obedient, except when the script requires him not to be – and then (finally) the trio actually venture off the flight deck and make their way to the teleport bay. After some more leisurely exposition (including the revelation that the brainwashed ex-rebel Blake was allowed to work on a large and significant research project) and Blake beaming down to the planet, we get to a (with hindsight) arresting exchange of dialogue between Jenna and Avon: ‘Could you kill someone? Face to face?’ she asks. ‘I don’t know,’ Avon replies. These days it would be a dead cert that the final confrontation between Blake and Avon, forty-nine episodes down the line, is intended to pay off on this. If nothing else it speaks to the tonal consistency of the series.

Meanwhile, down on the planet, the other prisoners are having a grim time of it. There’s a guy called Arco (Peter Childs) who seems to think he’s in charge, but the de facto role of leader is taken by Gan, who exudes a kind of quiet authority and presence which makes this entirely plausible: quite different to Blake’s leadership technique, which mainly involves being very intense and telling everyone else what to do. Even Kara takes a bit of a shine to Gan: possibly Cygnus Alpha is short on enormous bits of rough. Neither Arco nor the other featured prisoner, Selman (David Ryall) were visible in Space Fall, by the way.

Elsewhere we are introduced to the main treat of the episode, the plimsoll-wearing megalomaniac leader of the cult of Cygnus Alpha (or at least the video-taped parts of it), Vargas, who is played by Brian Blessed at his most Brian Blessedish. Given that ‘megalomaniac leader of the cult of Cygnus Alpha’ is the extent to which Vargas is developed on the page, it’s not surprising that Blessed opts to go big rather than subtle with his performance. Personally I think that Blessed is a rather more skilled actor than he is often given credit for, and capable of great subtlety, but there is also great fun to be had when he’s in window-rattling mode as he sometimes is here.

As far as the A-plot goes, the main complication is the so-called ‘curse of Cygnus’, a deadly virus endemic to the planet which requires regular drug treatments. These are only available from Vargas and his followers, ensuring their control of the population – but (spoiler alert) the virus is actually only mild and naturally burns out after a day or so. It’s all a massive con trick to ensure the church of Vargas maintains its power. There’s a bit of social commentary implicit in this, which the episode has drawn praise for – Blake’s 7 isn’t noted for this sort of thing, after all. If they’d developed the idea more fully somehow, the episode might feel a bit tighter and more substantial. But they don’t, leading me to conclude this was another one of Terry Nation’s throwaway ideas which he either didn’t spot the potential of or dismissed as being too cerebral for his space adventure show.

Back on the ship we get one of the series’ defining and most celebrated scenes – having beamed Blake down, Avon and Jenna have a deadly serious discussion about the possibility of leaving him there, selling the Liberator to the Federation and retiring to their own private planets to live lives of sickening luxury. If any part of it fails to fully convince, it’s Jenna’s resistance to the notion, simply because the attraction Blake’s idealism has for her doesn’t appear to have any basis in the rest of her characterisation. Needless to say, Blake gets beamed back up in the nick of time, along with Vila and Gan (Arco and Selman cop it in the preceding fight scene, along with Kara, who effectively sacrifices herself to save Gan).

So the episode does its job, even if it does it in a kind of awkward and clumsy way: Blake is well on the way to having his army of seven (I’m sure I read somewhere that the initial plan was for Arco and Selman to survive, meaning that the ‘seven’ of the title would not include Blake or Zen). I’m reluctant to be too harsh about it, despite all the padding and the plimsolls, because it’s usually good, diverting padding, and those are Brian Blessed’s plimsolls, after all.

Read Full Post »

With Space Fall (an oddly-titled episode, nominally written by Terry Nation, like the rest of the season) we find Blake’s 7 beginning to take on something of the shape it will ultimately assume for the next couple of seasons at least: the Orwellian bleakness of the opening episode eventually being diluted by a strain of pure space opera.

Blake is aboard the prison ship London, being transported to the penal colony on Cygnus Alpha, from where no-one has ever returned. The journey will take eight months – a fairly hellish prospect, considering the confined quarters on the ship. (A throwaway line suggests that four months quietly elapse between scenes quite early on; if you miss it, it appears that Blake manages to mount a nearly-successful takeover of the ship on the first or second day of the voyage.)

Much of the episode focuses on the senior officers of the London, which is of interest as it presents another early example of an insight into what it’s like to actually live and work in the Federation itself. (Like Star Trek and Star Wars, the series shies away from any presentation of ‘normal’ day-to-day life in the society it depicts – action and adventure are restricted to the fringes, for budgetary reasons.) The most junior officer foregrounded, Artix (Norman Tipton), is essentially innocuous. Giving a rather good performance as Commander Leylan is Glyn Owen, who is essentially representing the banality of evil – he doesn’t appear to be a wholly bad or malevolent individual, but he’s clearly never going to take a stand against the strictures and requirements of his position. Playing the heavy, first officer Raiker (an amusing homophone for decades now), is Leslie Schofield (another familiar TV face). Raiker is effectively an out-and-out psychopath and thoroughly repellent character, whom even Leylan doesn’t try to hide his contempt for. And yet when Raiker mentions, with anticipatory creepiness, that there is a woman amongst the prisoners, Leylan’s only response is to wearily instruct Raiker to be discreet.

It’s not even as if these men are career Federation military: one of the plot points raised early on is that the deportation of prisoners has been privatised, and that the London is a commercial vessel carrying out a government contract. The Federation may be an oppressive autocracy, and functionally totalitarian, but it clearly still has some form of market economy – one of those interesting touches that you wish the series had delved into a little more fully. The importance of this to Blake and the group of followers he’s putting together is that the crew get paid whether they spend (presumably) sixteen months going to Cygnus and back or not: if Leylan and his men dump the convicts into space and then fake the records, they can massively increase their profit margins. Fortunately for the prisoners, none of the crew are capable of the necessary computer forgery.

But one of the prisoners is, and his name (of course) is Avon, played by Paul Darrow. One of the things about rewatching Blake’s 7 is that you can never completely recapture the experience of watching it for the first time, simply because you know that Avon is, essentially, the central character of the series, even if the producers, writers, and actor haven’t realised this yet. I originally started watching with series 3 (I had been too young to watch the first two) and do recall being slightly confused by the fact that a series called Blake’s 7 didn’t actually feature a character named Blake; for me, Avon was always the dominant figure on the show. The only comparable instance I can think of is Steed’s rise to be the star turn on The Avengers, but this happened relatively early in the run of a bizarrely protean series. Blake’s 7 is much more tonally consistent, Avon becoming the lead isn’t (so far as I recall) that much of a wrench, and so the assumption might be that Paul Darrow is one of those actors who is always trying to give a leading man’s performance even in a supporting role.

Well, he’s relatively restrained here, but even so Avon arrives in the series more or less fully-formed: brilliant, sardonic, totally amoral, and with a great capacity for ruthlessness. Even allowing for the more prominent role he’s assigned in the plot – he’s the key figure in the escape attempt Blake cooks up – he’s a much more charismatic figure than any of the other featured prisoners. This is one of the areas in which Blake’s 7 very quickly transitions from drama into melodrama: the mob of hardened criminals on their way to life-long exile are a grey and nondescript bunch at best. Apart from Avon and the other characters we’ve already met, the only ones fleshed out at all are Gan, who at this point is essentially muscle, and the suspiciously-named Nova, who comes across more like a supply teacher who’s got lost than a professional or violent criminal. (It’s not impossible to imagine Nova committing a crime that would get him deported, but only something so unsavoury that Blake would likely refuse to have anything to do with him.) Then again Nova’s one and only plot function is to meet a gratuitously horrible death just to pep up the middle section of the episode.

The actual prison break (or attempted takeover of the ship) is acceptably well done, provided you buy that Blake is a charismatic and inspirational leader who can motivate and unite the other prisoners (the main problem is that all the bits with him actually being charismatic and inspirational presumably happen off-screen; we just see Gareth Thomas telling people what to do and them obeying). Inevitably it fails, partly because Vila has transformed from a potentially interesting character to a clownish idiot, and Blake, Jenna, and an understandably hacked-off Avon are clamped into their chairs, awaiting probable execution.

Of course, running alongside all of this is a subplot about the London skirting the edge of a mysterious space battle between two alien fleets, which concludes with something enormous drifting out of the battle and parallelling their course. Here again the profit motive rears its head, as Raiker persuades Leylan to attempt to board the immense derelict, simply because of the salvage value of the ship.

Blake is upstaged by Avon, not for the last time.

It is, of course, the soon-to-be-Liberator, quite often represented by still photographs encountered by a rostrum camera – but at least these show up some of the detail of the rather lovely model. The London connects an umbilical and various crewmen are sent over – we’re still in 1978, so any resemblance to Alien is obviously a coincidence, but we’re not a million miles away – something on the ship responds to the intruders’ presence with a notable degree of hostility, and their screams echo over the comlink.

Leylan is all for cutting his losses and the soon-to-be-Liberator loose, but – crucially – Raiker is again thinking of the money to be made, and suggests sending Blake and the others across to investigate what’s happened. Again, this stretches credibility a bit, but not to a terminal degree, and this is in many ways the moment which allows the rest of the series to take place. Blake, Jenna and Avon cross to the derelict, where the security system attempts to deal with them like the earlier crewmen – but Blake’s treatment by the Federation has left him able to resist the mind-controlling alien tech somewhat, and he’s able to shut the system down. Raiker gets a suitably nasty death as he tries to ensure Blake doesn’t steal the ship, and Blake steals the ship. Blake makes his intentions very clear: they’re going to follow the London to Cygnus Alpha, use the convicts to make up a full crew for their new vessel, and then start fighting back against the Federation.

Well, it’s not an out-and-out terrible plan, I suppose, but even so – on their showing so far, nearly all the exiles look to be desperadoes, deadbeats, or generally damaged individuals, hardly premium spacecraft crew material. And we’re once again obliged to accept that Blake’s towering self-belief in his abilities as a leader is somehow matched by his actual talents in this department. As I say, it’s a fair bit to swallow, but such is the stuff of action-adventure melodrama sometimes, and by the end of the second episode this is definitely the course that Blake’s 7 seems to be taking.

Read Full Post »

The very least you can say about The Way Back, the first episode of Blake’s 7, is that it is notably well-directed (the person responsible was Michael E Briant, whose name is on a lot of British TV from the 1970s). The first shot of the episode proper once the credits have faded (and, if I end up writing about all of Blake over the coming months, we will return to the topic of the credits and theme) is one of the surveillance cameras which – we are invited to assume – keep tabs on the inhabitants of the domed city where most of the story takes place.

We are in an unspecified future – suggestions by other watchers of the show that this is the 28th or 29th century are basically just shots in the dark – where everything is very well-lit and the tabard has apparently made a comeback as a fashion mainstay. People shuffle seemingly aimlessly around the corridors of the dome, usually singly, while a tannoy booms out public service announcements (the behaviour of most of the dome citizens may just be a question of the extras on the episode not being very well-wrangled).

Soon enough we meet Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas), whom we eventually learn has been working as an Alpha-grade citizen in a fairly important job. But for now he just seems to be something of an everyman, albeit a tetchy one: he is meeting two apparent strangers for the first time, and they have asked him not to eat or drink for a day and a half. It transpires this is because the food and water is dosed with tranquilisers to keep the population docile and obedient, and they want Blake to have a slightly better command of his faculties.

That Blake is usually fairly docile himself is apparent from his shock when his new acquaintances propose going outside the dome, which is a serious crime. But, believing they have news about his family, Blake goes along with them and soon they are moving across the apparently bleak countryside around the dome (for valid special-effects-related reasons, it is night; the shot of the actors with the dome in the background is acceptably achieved).

Blake is shocked to be taken to a meeting of outsiders and other undesirables, and confused when the key speaker, a man named Foster, greets him as an old friend despite having no memory of having met him before. Foster is played by Robert Beatty, who (along with actors like Shane Rimmer and Edward Bishop) was one of British TV’s go-to Americans for many years, and it’s interesting to speculate as to why Foster, almost uniquely in Blake, is played by an American actor.

In many ways Foster is the episode’s key guest character, even though Beatty doesn’t get much more than a cameo; it’s Foster’s info-dump as to Blake’s true identity and past that is the inciting incident for the whole series. These days you’d expect a fairly heavyweight actor in the role, to signal this fact, but Beatty wasn’t that big a name. Perhaps Foster is made to stand out, given extra presence, simply by being cast as American.

Anyway, Foster reveals that four years before Blake was a key figure in resistance to the authoritarian oppression of the Administration (which we eventually surmise is the Earth-bound government of a larger polity known as the Terran Federation, or just the Federation for short). However, the movement was betrayed and Blake was essentially brainwashed, first into recanting his political beliefs in public, and then into forgetting his entire career as an activist. His family, whom he believes to be on a colony planet, have actually been executed. (One wonders why, given the opportunities for leverage they would offer in the event of Blake showing signs of being troublesome again. Perhaps they were also involved in the resistance and any real contact with Blake would potentially undo his memory-wipe.)

The flashbacks to Blake’s conditioning and torture by the Administration are another effective sequence, initially book-ended by the camera zooming into Thomas’ eye and holding on Beatty’s mouth; there is an element of genuine psycho-drama to this first episode which is never present to the same degree again.

Naturally Blake needs time to process these revelations, and wanders off for a walk – which means he is not present when a platoon of Federation troopers arrives and massacres nearly everyone present – a sequence which is somewhat hobbled by the less-than-impressive pyro effects on the troopers’ guns, but already the budgetary restrictions on Blake’s 7 have become quite clear. On returning to the dome, Blake himself is captured.

We should pause here to consider a couple of things: mainly, the yawning logical chasm in the heart of Blake’s back-story. Four years ago he was a figure of such notoriety and influence in the resistance that it was deemed useful to get him to make a public renunciation of his former beliefs and activities. The fact he has been brainwashed to forget all about that was presumably not public knowledge. And yet no-one in the intervening time has passed him in the corridor or another communal space and gone ‘Oooh, you’re Blake, the ex-rebel!’ Maybe the citizens are kept docile, but they’re presumably not completely stupefied by the drugs, so why not? (Could it be that Blake has been given some kind of face-change to conceal his new identity? But it would be strange to do so and not change his name as well, which doesn’t seem to have happened.)

You can see why Terry Nation has gone for this idea, as it establishes Blake as a freedom fighter of integrity and experience, not to mention as a damaged, angry man, while at the same time making him an everyman who learns about all of this along with the audience – but it’s still an awkward narrative contrivance and not something the series ever really addresses ever again. This whole episode is just setting things up and getting Blake exiled into deep space, anyway.

The episode takes, for modern audiences at least, an eye-opening turn as Blake is put on trial facing trumped-up charges of child abuse. Given Blake’s 7 has a reputation as cheesy, camp nonsense the very presence of a storyline about child abuse is startling. In the context of the story, the really grim element – not much dwelt upon – is that the alleged victims have had false memories of the supposed offences implanted, with all the trauma associated with that. It makes the ruthlessness and corruption of the Federation so horribly explicit it’s a surprise they don’t focus on this aspect more, but then again this was a series shown well before the watershed.

Anyway, Blake is sentenced for transport to a prison colony in deep space, but not before his insistence that this is a cover-up plants a seed of doubt in the mind of his defence lawyer, Varon (Michael Halsey). At this point the narrative splits – Varon and his wife start investigating the cover-up properly and discover it extends to the highest echelons of the Administration, while Blake is left to stew in custody.

To be fair, Varon’s sleuthing and conversion to Blake’s side happen very rapidly, but this is only a fifty-minute episode, and for the brief amount of time the story is operating as a conspiracy thriller it does so quite effectively. Blake’s time in the jug, on the other hand, mainly serves to introduce two of the other characters who will be prominent on the show: Jenna (Sally Knyvette), a tough smuggler who isn’t afraid to let her more vulnerable side show occasionally (it’s a thin characterisation that Knyvette can’t do much with in the short amount of time she’s on screen) and Vila (Michael Keating), a light-fingered kleptomaniac. Keating does manage to make an impression, but in this first appearance Vila is much less of a clown than he quickly becomes – his intelligence and utter lack of scruples are both foregrounded, making him a rather more unsettling character.

We should of course remember that, back in 1978, no-one watching really knew for sure what shape Blake’s 7 would turn out to have, so there may have been some genuine tension involved in waiting to see if Varon manages to find the evidence that will clear Blake’s name. But of course he doesn’t, and in another well-handled plot development both he and his wife – who have simply but effectively been established as decent, sympathetic characters – are murdered off-screen by Federation troopers – we just see their sprawled bodies.

It all leads up to Blake’s effectively underplayed declaration, made as the prison ship leaves the planet far behind, that he will come back one day. Establishing Blake’s character and his motivation are the main job of the episode, which it does very effectively; but it is also creating a world and an atmosphere. There is always a lot of pulp sci-fi in the mix with Blake’s 7, and that’s true in this episode too, with its trial-by-computer, domed cities, and prison planets, but what makes this series distinctive is the collision between glittery BBC pulp sci-fi and a much darker and grimmer undertone, recognisably part of the miserabilist tradition of British science fiction. (Let’s not forget that this series effectively replaced Survivors in the schedules, another frequently very bleak show.) Few subsequent episodes are quite as dark and grim as The Way Back, but perhaps they don’t have to be: the premiere episode very effectively establishes the mood of the series, at least as effectively as the premise of the story. In the end that is much more important than any of the gaps in the story.

Read Full Post »

I finally find myself in a position to address a nagging piece of unfinished business: to wit, the three outstanding episodes of the original 1960s version of The Avengers that we didn’t manage to look at last year, back when the pandemic and its effects still had the occasional shreds of a silver lining about them (should anyone be wondering, the prospect of doing something similar with The New Avengers is on my psychic radar, but I’ve no idea when it will happen). All of these come from the first season – now, when I was nobbut a lad, there was only one extant first season episode, which Channel 4 duly repeated back at the start of 1993. Since then, two more have turned up, which in the case of Girl on the Trapeze virtually qualifies as miraculous considering it was broadcast live back in February 1961 (this was only the sixth episode to be shown).

The episode opens in a sort of recognisable early Avengers vein with a young woman turning up at the dressing rooms of a touring state circus from one of those fictional countries on the Other Side, having been invited there by an old friend. However, she is set upon by a sinister clown (Kenneth J Warren, first of four).

From here we are transported into the social life of GP-with-a-sideline Dr David Keel (Ian Hendry), who is on his way to a reunion when he comes across an apparent attempted suicide: a young woman has hurled herself into the Thames. Keel springs into action and assists in fishing her out, but what we know that he doesn’t is that the woman who jumped into the river is not the same one who was pulled out. He’s pretty sure he recognises her from somewhere, though.

After a lengthy trawl through the day’s papers with his assistant Carol (Ingrid Hafner, a semi-regular at this point), Keel realises the girl was a trapeze artist with the touring Other Side circus, and whisks Carol off there to check the place out. They soon arouse the suspicion of a suave circus member (Edwin Richfield, in the first of his six villainous appearances on the show, one per season). It all turns out to be about a plan to kidnap the daughter of a defector in order to apply pressure to him, which involves getting rid of one of the circus artistes so the abducted girl can take her place and use the group visa.

Quirky borderline fantasy, this ain’t, but it’s early days, after all. This is, at least, a pretty brisk and coherent thriller (which you don’t always get in the videotaped episodes) – given that it was written by Dennis Spooner, one might have expected a few more gags, but you don’t get those either.

The absence of jokes is less striking than the fact that Patrick Macnee and Steed only appear in the opening credits: Macnee got the week off on this occasion. In his memoirs Macnee recalled that Hendry had a circus background, and came up with the idea for the episode himself – and omitting Steed from the story was done at Hendry’s behest. If nothing else it gives us a good chance to see how Hendry rolled in what at this point was the lead role of the series: and he carries the show rather well, even if it is clear that Keel is interestingly played, rather than an inherently interesting character. It’s also notable that even Carol the receptionist gets some agency and the chance to tackle a bad guy or two, although it would be pushing it to suggest she’s some kind of proto-Cathy Gale.

I was expecting this very early, Steed-free incarnation of The Avengers to be quite hard work; it actually rattles along quite nicely and certainly engages the attention. I’m not sure I’d have stuck around for twenty-six episodes in this same kind of vein, but considering its age it holds up quite well.

The next surviving fragment of the first series is The Frighteners, by Berkeley Mather, which now I reflect on it feels like the kind of Avengers script Graham Greene would have contributed, had he been up for it: lots of nasty, sweaty gangsters and class conflict. A wealthy tycoon, Sir Thomas Weller (Stratford Johns, first of two), pays a ‘massage contractor’ known as the Deacon (Willoughby Goddard, first of two) to have his daughter’s suitor beaten up. The Deacon duly despatches a couple of his boys (one of whom is Philip Locke, first of three) to deliver the requisite hard knocks – but somehow (the episode is necessarily very vague about this) Steed has got wind of the affair and is looking to shut the Deacon’s operation down.

Naturally, he brings Dr Keel along to assist, collecting him in a taxi. It is clear the two have a slightly wary relationship – ‘Good of you to come,’ says Steed; ‘Yes, I thought so’ replies Keel – and while there’s a suggestion that Steed is looking to use the doctor’s surgery for a few activities best not performed al fresco, it may just be that Keel is also convenient muscle. Anyway, Locke’s character is apprehended, along with the intended victim, Jeremy de Willoughby (Philip Gilbert, best known for voicing Tim the computer in The Tomorrow People) – but both men seem equally keen to avoid entanglements with the law…

Solid cops-and-robbers stuff, this, with an interesting wrinkle: the Deacon and Weller are obviously bad’uns, but so, it turns out, is de Willoughby himself – he’s a con man with a long history of swindles behind him. Is it not incumbent upon our heroes to do something about this before Weller’s innocent (and possibly a bit dim) daughter falls victim to his charms?

Well, needless to say, they do: Steed has the police in tow for part of the episode, but for the most part he and Keel do a very good impression of a couple of rogue agents, tricking, threatening, and bashing the opposition in the name of a good cause (even Keel admits what he gets up to is a bit melodramatic). Perhaps the most interesting bit of the episode comes at the very end, when they con Weller’s daughter into abandoning him by fooling her into thinking he is – gasp! – really a working class bloke named Briggs, with ideas above his station. She flees the room in tears. So much for social mobility in 1960s Britain.

Fifteen episodes in, and Patrick Macnee already seems to have Steed more-or-less nailed down: the charming slipperiness is there, the bowler is in place, the ruthless edge occasionally displays itself, and Macnee knows when to go slightly over-the-top when Steed is undercover (he has a couple of scenes here as a professional chaperone). Solidly engaging stuff, as well as obviously being of historical interest.

Oh well, we bring things full circle, finally and definitively (unless any more episodes resurface, of course) with John Kruse’s Tunnel of Fear, the twentieth episode. It opens with what looks like another classic Avengers hook, as a stuffy-looking gent gets on the ghost train at a Southsea fun fair only to mysteriously vanish into thin air. In a filmed episode he would turn out to be a colleague of Steed’s, but not this time. The plot proper gets going when a man bursts into Dr Keel’s surgery demanding first aid after a supposed hit-and-run, but Keel suspects there is more going on. It indeed transpires that the man, Harry Black (Anthony Bate, first of two) is an escaped convict who claims to have been framed for a robbery, and who mutters something about being made to do things in his sleep. Steed turns up quite by chance in the middle of all this and sees a possible connection to something he’s working on: secrets are being leaked to the Other Side out of Southsea, where Black used to co-own the ghost train at the fun fair.

For the first time we get to see Steed doing his usual thing of finagling his current partner into undertaking a potentially risky investigation on his behalf, which Keel goes along with surprisingly meekly. Down in Southsea, however, he encounters what seems to be a collision between The Manchurian Candidate and Play for Today, as there is one plotline about someone potentially being brainwashed while a prisoner during the Korean War, and another about Black’s strained relationship with his girlfriend (Black isn’t the only one who’s been banged up, as she has apparently had a child in his absence). Neither of these plotlines really gets fully developed, though.

Dr Keel suggests that Steed try a different hat in future – perhaps a bowler?

Keel does a lot of sneaking and occasionally charging about with Black in tow; all the fun stuff arises after Steed appears on the scene in the guise of the new and slightly dodgy barker for the funfair belly-dancing show, wearing a kaftan and a sparkly turban. Needless to say he hurls himself into the role, and Macnee has enormous fun with it. It doesn’t stop there: it turns out the gang of enemy agents running the fair includes a hypnotist, who tries to put the ‘fluence on Steed to get some information: either Steed puts them on, or turns out to be monumentally slippery and unhelpful even when hypnotised – when asked who he works for, the answer is ‘No one’ – a curious answer, unless he really is faking it. Finally, the episode concludes with some business about Steed bluffing the villains with an exploding cigarette.

Probably a better episode for Steed than Keel, then, but a reasonably good one if you overlook the fact that various plot ideas go nowhere – I would say not quite up to the same standard as The Frighteners, while it’s hard to fairly assess a Steed-free episode in comparison with the others. Maybe it’s just with the knowledge of how the show developed – and an instalment like Girl on the Trapeze has almost nothing in common with anything from the final season, apart from the title of the series – but you can see that Steed is the character with potential, and the tiny off-beat moments that are present even here are usually the ones that make the stories sing. First season Avengers only very occasionally resembles the show in its legendary incarnation, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth checking out.

(There will now follow a suspension in blogging activity, hopefully a brief one. See you on the other side.)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »