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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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The first thing that strikes you about Rescue, obviously, is the change of opening credits – not necessarily much more radical than the change between seasons two and three, I suppose, but there is also the modified logo for this year. All in all I think it marks a significant shift in the aesthetics of Blake’s 7, and perhaps the storytelling too. The original title sequence, while a bit abstract, does a reasonable job of establishing the setting and premise of the series – a succession of images with a domed city, a security camera, a Federation trooper, Blake himself, and so on. The second title sequence is less abstract but does feature some lovely model work of the Liberator and some Federation ships, both of which are visually prominent in the series.

The fourth season titles are technically very impressive, as the camera swoops over the surface of a model planet while the HUD of some vessel is overlaid: the display switches as the ship soars away into space. On the other hand, the title sequence tells you virtually nothing about the premise, the characters, or the visual elements of the series; one gets the impression it’s just as it is because composer Dudley Simpson was vocally unhappy about how the original titles didn’t match his music. (The new ones obviously do.) Still, it’s very good music, as you would expect from Dudley Simpson – more than anyone else, he can claim to be responsible for the sound of British telefantasy in the 1970s, doing the themes for Blake’s 7 and The Tomorrow People, and providing incidental music for the bulk of Dr Who episodes in that decade. Somehow the theme manages to contain the mixture of the gritty and the camp which epitomise the series at its best – even if the new titles are more naturalistic than before.

There was a big shift in how science fiction looked on screen in the late 1970s and early 1980s – everything became a lot less shiny and theatrical and a lot more grimy and functional. The reason for this is the success of the first Star Wars film and also Aliens, both of which made heavy use of the so-called ‘used universe’ aesthetic (my personal suspicion is that this was originally pioneered by John Carpenter in Dark Star, but that’s by the by). With season four, this finally starts to influence Blake’s 7 – it’s there in the design of the Scorpio, many of the new costumes, and the general look of the show.

Avon was ahead of the curve, of course, with the studded black leather outfit he was wearing at the end of the previous series (and wears throughout this one). To be fair, continuity with Terminal is excellent, no doubt in part due to the fact that Mary Ridge was retained as director. Everyone is still stuck on the artificial planet Terminal, where it turns out that Servalan has been a little bit economical with the actualite – both the ship she has left the crew and her underground base are rigged to explode, which they promptly do. Cally is killed (off-screen) in the blast, though apparently Jan Chappell did come back to record her telepathic death-cry (‘Blake!’, of course).

Things look bleak, and the poor survival instincts of some of the group do not bode well. ‘Don’t you ever get bored with being right?’ asks Dayna, after Avon is obliged to rescue her from a giant carnivorous worm. ‘Only with the rest of you being wrong,’ says Avon. Some things may have changed, but not the fact that nobody else writes dialogue for these characters as well as Chris Boucher. It’s also worth noting that, despite what happened in the previous episode, Avon is back to being the dominant, cold figure we know and love.

Help, however, may be on the way, as approaching Terminal is the Scorpio, a modified freighter commanded by the mysterious Dorian (Geoffrey Burridge). Dorian is coming for the crew, but clearly doesn’t know the Liberator has been destroyed – which of course begs the questions of how he knows where to find them, and what his A-plan would have been if they’d still had transport. It is not at all obvious what either of the answers is, but given that Boucher was given the assignment of resurrecting the format of the show after Terry Nation did such a good job of demolishing it, it is at least partly forgivable.

Anyway, Dorian is captured (or lets himself get captured) and everyone blasts off in the Scorpio. Unfortunately, the flight computer Slave (Peter Tuddenham again) is voice-printed and the pre-set destination is to be Xenon, where Dorian has a base. That Dorian is a fairly exceptional individual is communicated by a longish sequence exploring the Scorpio set, which features a non-functioning attempt at a teleport system, the sophisticated AI Slave, and a locker of supposedly high-tech guns. Dayna gets a big speech about all the different ammo modes available, which in retrospect seems a bit odd as they never, to my memory, actually use any of them.

Naturally, it turns out that Dorian built all this stuff himself, as the cavern beneath his base contains an unpleasant secret, one which is responsible for his greatly extended lifespan (it is implied he has spent centuries building the guns, Slave, the teleport, and so on). His rescue of the crew is partly motivated by the fact that Orac could help get the teleport working – but he has another reason, too, which is not entirely humanitarian…

About fifteen years after this episode was first broadcast I was sitting in the pub with a couple of acquaintances and the subject of old culty TV shows came up – and this episode in particular. ‘I remember watching Blake’s 7 – and thinking, this is The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ said one of my companions, bemusement colouring his voice. He was right, and perhaps right to be bemused – ripping off other plots quite so specifically is a Dr Who trick, not really a Blake’s 7 one, and this is the only episode to do it this openly. But a sci-fi reworking of Oscar Wilde’s novel is what this is, although rather than a portrait, this Dorian has a slightly manky old Dr Who monster suit to project his various sins onto.

It’s a solid enough plot, well-written, played, and directed, especially when you consider all the other stuff the episode has to do – re-establish the characters, kill off Cally, introduce a new ship, come up with an explanation for a new teleport system, and so on. The only point where Chris Boucher runs out of space is in introducing the new character, Soolin (Glynis Barber). He doesn’t get far beyond ‘steely blonde gunslinger’, unfortunately. It’s interesting that the novelisation of this episode features an extra scene at the very end, which deals with a few points of plot carpentry quite deftly – Avon blows up the cavern under the base, which seems sensible enough, and there’s a nice character bit where the group reflect on Dorian’s claim that Avon and the others share a bond after what they’ve been through together. ‘Quite insane,’ says Avon. This looks very much like a chunk of script that got cut for timing purposes, which is a shame.

Given that the fourth season was commissioned and assembled under rather more time pressure than the previous ones, and the need to effectively reformat the series, Rescue is an impressively confident and competent episode. But then you sort of expect that from Chris Boucher by this point; what will be interesting is seeing what other people do with the new possibilities created here.

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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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‘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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I don’t as a general rule go in much for navel-gazing, but I find I have to ask myself: why did I watch Inside Man? And, furthermore, why do I feel the need to write about Inside Man? I am not talking about the 2006 Spike Lee movie with Denzel Washington and Clive Owen, by the way, but the recent BBC drama serial.

I mean, there are crime dramas by the cartload on TV nowadays; the crime drama is to mainstream TV drama what the superhero film is to mainstream cinema. So why this one? What made it distinctive? Certainly it had a very good cast, including a few people you might just as easily expect to find in movies as on the box: David Tennant and Stanley Tucci, most obviously, as well as a few people who would more comfortably fall into the ‘rising star’ bracket – well, here I’m mostly thinking of Lydia West, if we’re honest. Dolly Wells is in it too: I’d never heard of her before she was in Dracula, to be honest, but she clearly knows her business.

The different threads of the plot initially seem to be wilfully disparate: West plays a journalist who befriends a private maths tutor (Wells) after a nasty outbreak of toxic masculinity (which is putting it mildly) on a train. Wells is tutoring the teenage son of amiable C of E vicar Tennant (fairly high church C of E, from the look of things, though it is possible the writer just doesn’t really grasp the distinction between the Churches of England and Rome). Meanwhile, West is flying off to the south-west of America to interview a rather unusual subject: a convicted killer (Tucci) who has developed an interesting sideline. The man used to be a professor of criminology before he was arrested for murdering his wife, and now works as a (and here’s a tip-off) consulting detective from Death Row.

And it all kicks off from here. Tennant does his verger a favour, which involves a mix-up with a USB stick and results in Wells concluding Tennant’s son is guilty of one of the most revolting crimes imaginable; to protect the lad Tennant ends up attacking her and locking her in his cellar. If he lets her out, she’s bound to go to the police, and his son’s life will be destroyed. He and his wife are really all out of options – if they can’t let her go, surely their only option is…?

What they don’t realise, of course, is that Wells was able to send one last quick text message before it all went south for her: West is aware that something is up and manages to recruit Tucci to point his mighty intellect in the direction of this peculiar incident. Will anyone get out alive and with their moral principles intact…?

I’ve rather coyly mentioned ‘the writer’ of Inside Man when the creator of this show is, of course, Steven Moffat. Twenty years ago I would have said, ‘Oh, yes, Steven Moffat, the guy who did Chalk and Coupling and wrote a pretty good Dr Who short story, he’s not bad.’ Fifteen years ago I would have said, ‘Steven Moffat, of course, the guy who wrote the one with the gas masks and the scary statues, he’s terrific.’ Ten years ago I would have said, ‘Yes, Steven Moffat, great writer, not so good as a showrunner.’ And five years ago my opinion of Moffat would have been unprintable on a website intended for a general audience.

On reflection, I suppose that part of my reason for watching Inside Man was to see if I was still capable of engaging with a Moffat project, giving it a fair crack of the whip, and perhaps even enjoying it. (I know I watched his version of Dracula, but that was co-written with Gatiss, a less obviously brilliant writer but also a somewhat less divisive figure.) My view of the guy has mellowed a bit in recent years – possibly I’m just a big softy, but I just can’t help thinking that the inside story of Moffat’s relationship with BBC drama management over the last ten years must have been far more turbulent than anyone involved has been prepared to let on – Moffat was showrunning two big, high-profile shows simultaneously, but both of them appeared quite irregularly, possibly less often than the BBC would have preferred. Then there’s the fact that Moffat’s interviews have hardly been consistent with things he actually did – I may be too keen to cut the guy a break, but I’d honestly like to imagine there was a degree of arm-twisting from the management. Of course, I could be wrong and he genuinely loved and believed in everything he wrote. We may never know for sure; such is the nature of NDAs.

Inside Man is a bit of a departure for Steven Moffat as it’s not a sitcom and not his take on an established character. Nevertheless, it’s still very Moffatty, and not just in the way the dialogue zings and crackles cynically along – the plotting is playfully convoluted in that familiar Moffat way. Above all else, Inside Man sticks with the idea that seems to have been at the heart of most of his writing over the last fifteen years – that brilliant intellects reside in flawed people, and the greater the brilliance, the more profound the flaws. Moffat’s take on Sherlock Holmes was that he wasn’t just someone disinterested in most social interactions, but a man with some sort of profound behavioural disorder – a sociopath, in his own words (if memory serves, anyway). In a similar vein, on Moffat’s watch Dr Who referred to himself as a ‘psychopath’ on at least one occasion and a running theme of some of the later seasons overseen by Moffat was the depths of the character’s self-hatred. It’s probably psychologically quite illuminating, and may also say something about the conventions of contemporary drama, but both of these things always seemed a bit jarring to me. Weirdly, it’s less of an issue with Grieff (Tucci’s character here) as he is a (theoretically) original creation, even if his almost-magical deductive powers clearly owe a lot to that other famous detective.

Moffat seems to be doubling down on his usual theme, as one of the subtexts of Inside Man is clearly the idea that the difference between an ordinary law-abiding citizen and a murderer is simply one bad day. Tennant’s character is clearly meant to exemplify this – he starts off as an amiable, much-loved, very laid back Home Counties vicar and by the end of the serial is prepared to smash an innocent person’s skull with a hammer. It’s a bit like Breaking Bad, I suppose, but whether or not it works is all down to how well they sell the transition to you. Breaking Bad had sixty episodes to transform its protagonist from mild-mannered teacher to ruthless crime lord; Inside Man has only a tiny fraction of the time and has to rely on some frantic, convoluted plotting (and Tennant’s predictably good performance) to make it work. The results are not particularly plausible, though always entertaining to watch: the storyline is ingenious, but you never really believe that these are real people behaving in the way that real people actually behave – they’re just stick-puppets being manipulated in the name of a rather dark flavour of entertainment.

And what do you know, in the end it pretty much hangs together. It’s essentially absurd (‘bonkers’ in the words of one proper TV critic) but the relentlessness of the plot, the strength of the performances, and the cleverness of the dialogue kept me watching very happily (even as I frequently commented on how essentially absurd the whole thing was). Clever: that’s Moffat’s thing, and the thing he probably does better than anyone else in British TV today. Clever isn’t everything, but neither is it something negligible or especially common in modern culture. It would be very interesting if Moffat ever collaborated with someone with a real grasp of characterisation or less of a desire to show off how witty they can be (I realise this probably constitutes a massive criticism of Mark Gatiss, which really wasn’t my intention), but even working alone on a project like this he can produce something which is certainly diverting and often amusing, though probably never as profound as Moffat thinks it is.

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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.

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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.

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