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Posts Tagged ‘Chris Boucher’

Genre’s a funny old thing, especially when you start playing games with it. I used to watch a lot of rather formulaic American TV shows and in some cases the only specific episodes I can remember are the ones which stirred a big dollop of fantasy or horror into an otherwise naturalistic set-up: both CHiPs and Matt Houston did episodes about alien abductions, while there were also episodes of Quantum Leap featuring vampires and the Devil. As we have recently touched upon, British series have sometimes done the same thing – just today they repeated the episode of The Saint with the giant ants in it, while we’ve been talking about those episodes of The Avengers which included things like alien plants and genuine telepathy, rather than the usual tongue-in-cheek whimsy. (I suppose it works the other way too: the various Star Trek series would very occasionally do a show which was SF only in virtue of its setting.)

In conjunction with this, I recently mentioned the Bergerac Christmas special from 1986, which is a) exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about and b) memorable for being properly scary (at least it was when I was not yet in my teens). Bergerac, for those not in the know, was a sort of precursor to modern shows like Death in Paradise and Midsummer Murders, in that it was built around competently-presented detective story plots (with perhaps a touch more action to them than usual), occurring against an attractive, escapist background. To pay for the thing, the BBC went into partnership with an Australian network, and quite possibly the Jersey tourist board too, given this is where the series is largely set.

Our lead character is Jim Bergerac (played by John Nettles), a detective with the (fictitious) Bureau des Etrangers, a usefully vague fictitious branch of the Jersey police. Bergerac has the two essential attributes of a 1980s TV detective, namely a memorable car (a 1947 Triumph roadster, it says here) and a complicated personal life (he is divorced and has a history of alcoholism).

The Christmas show in question is entitled Fires in the Fall, and was written by Chris Boucher (this must have been one of the last things he did on the show before departing to focus on Star Cops, which we have also discussed recently). The tone is quite properly set by a scene in a darkened graveyard and what sounds like a child’s voice chanting a nursery rhyme. Yes, this is going to be a bit spooky. The plot itself gets underway with Bergerac’s father-in-law, local tycoon Charlie Hungerford (Terence Alexander), asking for his help in exposing a man named Raoul Barnaby (Barrie Ingham) whom Charlie believes to be a fake medium (widescale cognitive dissonance ensues for anyone used to John Nettles himself playing a character named Barnaby in Midsummer Murders).

Barnaby has been attempting to insert himself into the good graces of wealthy local widow Roberta Jardine (Margaretta Scott), a friend of Charlie’s, by trying to contact her late husband. Jim and his partner Susan (the great Louise Jameson) duly attend the seance, something Susan is not entirely pleased about following a rather eerie experience at an old house she is involved in selling. Further odd events ensue at the seance, with the voice of a young girl being heard, strange scratches appearing, and a grave in an one of the island’s cemeteries bursting into flame at the same time.

Barnaby appears convinced he has been contacted by the spirit of the girl whose grave was interfered with, and goes to the press with this – a scummy reporter (Paul Brooke) duly appears – which in turn forces Bergerac’s boss to task him with finally closing the case on the girl’s death. Apparently she was the only victim of a spree of arsons back in the 1960s, but what is the connection to the Jardine family? It turns out the cop who was assigned to the case back then retired after it went nowhere – well, not quite ‘retired’, but took a well-paid job with Jardine’s company. There are also some irregularities involved with the firm of undertakers who handled the interment.

Bergerac thinks he’s cracked the case – the arson attacks back in the 1960s were the work of Mrs Jardine’s disturbed son, who is known to have committed suicide. Bergerac thinks he killed himself out of guilt, after being responsible for the girl’s accidental death, and the family covered up the scandal. Now Mrs Jardine’s rapacious niece (Amanda Hillwood) has uncovered the family’s dark secret, and – in partnership with Barnaby, an old associate of hers – is using it to damage her aunt’s mental stability to the point where they can fake her suicide, allowing them to inherit the family fortune.

So far, a satisfying and clever detective story, as smart and cynical as the best of Boucher’s work elsewhere. The supernatural trappings just seem to be set dressing, fun though they are. But what was that scene with the spooky old house all about? Before we even have time to ponder that, things abruptly take a different turn. Mrs Jardine abruptly rumbles Barnaby as a fraud after he affects to receive messages from her dead son. The corrupt copper involved in the cover-up (Ron Pember) and Barnaby himself are found dead in mysterious circumstances, with a black-robed figure seen near them shortly before, both times.

It turns out that the dead son did not in fact die: he was just horribly burned and smuggled off to a Swiss sanatorium by his mother, with the story of his death put about to facilitate the cover-up. Now, it seems, he is back in Jersey, and seeking revenge on the individuals involved in his mother’s murder (quite why he offs the bent copper is a bit of a plot hole). It also seems that he used to live in the spooky old house where Susan had her scary experience at the start…

Cue a rather creepy sequence where Susan is stalked around the old house again by the cowled spectre – all of the set-piece ‘phantom attacks’ are very well directed, with Tom Clegg the gentleman responsible. Perhaps running and screaming is a bit less than Louise Jameson deserves as a performer, but Bergerac was a show with a very large and unwieldy regular cast at this point (there’s Bergerac, his girlfriend, his ex-father-in-law, his ex-wife, his daughter, his boss, his boss’ secretary, two other detectives from the Bureau, and a nightclub owner of his acquaintance) and I suppose this was as elegant a way of incorporating all of them into the plot as any. It’s almost a shame they don’t make more of this horror angle, but the script still manages to bring it into the resolution of the main story: the villain confesses to the murder after glimpsing Nemesis over the shoulder of an oblivious, genially sceptical Bergerac: an almost uncannily creepy moment.

And Boucher still hasn’t quite finished – the final twist of the episode is that the believed-dead son has not snuck back to Jersey, killed his mother’s tormentors and then escaped. According to the Swiss staff, he has been there in the sanatorium all the time. Nettles delivers this information with a completely straight face, in complete contrast to the amused scepticism about the supernatural that’s been going in. It’s very nicely pitched, in fact: it’s up to the viewer to decide whether this a simple case of the Swiss staff getting it wrong, or some sort of psychic projection, or something even stranger and more obscure. Anyone who doesn’t like Christmas ghost stories is afforded just enough wriggle-room to be able to avoid feeling peeved.

At the time this felt like a fun seasonal change of pace, but it seems that Bergerac did its first horror-tinged episode earlier in the same season (I should say that every other episode was shown in 1985) – What Dreams May Come, starring Charles Gray (and very much informed by Gray’s appearance in The Devil Rides Out). The annual excursion into something a bit supernatural became something of a Bergerac tradition (I remember my teenage sister being genuinely scared by 1990’s The Dig, about a Viking burial site with a spectral guardian), but I don’t think any of them were quite as effective as Fires in the Fall (maybe the ninety-minute run-time helps the story and atmosphere develop). No-one, I think, would describe Bergerac as a genuinely classic piece of TV, but this is a solidly entertaining episode.

 

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If we are going to talk about Chris Boucher’s Star Cops (and, you guessed it, we are) then we may as well get something out of the way and discuss the theme music right at the start. Now, I am aware my taste in such matters is not entirely in tune with the popular consensus – I am one of the few people I know who finds ‘Faith of the Heart’, a.k.a. the theme tune from Enterprise, to be quite a pleasant listen – and that no less an authority than Kim Newman, someone whose judgement I usually find impeccable, has declared that the Star Cops theme is ‘the worst theme tune of any TV show ever’. What, worse than the theme to Captain Zep – Space Detective? Sample lyric, ‘Across the stars, he’s on his way, it’s Captain Zep to save the day!’ (I know you’re curious. Go and google, I’ll be here when you’ve had enough, which could well be very soon indeed.)

The theme from Star Cops, known either as ‘It won’t be easy’ or ‘Theme from Star Cops‘, depending on how imaginative you are, is a mid-tempo piece of blues-pop by Justin Hayward. It’s not really my usual cup of tea, but I must confess to finding it rather agreeable – it has a sort of lugubrious wistfulness to it which appeals to me. That said, it is an unusual choice of theme for a hard SF TV show – I believe the logic behind it was that people who wouldn’t necessarily choose to watch a hard SF TV show might stumble across the mid-tempo blues-pop, find themselves charmed by it, and stick around for the following fifty minutes or so of gritty police procedural and variably-realised zero-gravity effects.

The tune carries on playing into the opening sequence of An Instinct for Murder, written by series creator Chris Boucher himself and first broadcast in July 1987 (in the baffling slot of eight thirty in the evening on Mondays). This segment at least is strongly conceived and quite well realised: a man goes for a swim in a lake, only to be set upon and drowned by two scuba divers. This is intercut with an astronaut on a space-walk being attacked and his suit sabotaged by two other figures in space-suits. The stuff in the lake is passably done, the spacewalk sequence surprisingly good, considering this is a BBC series from the middle 1980s, and it does give the theme tune a chance to reach an epic guitar solo which doesn’t usually get heard over the credits (it’s just getting started when they finish).

Overseeing the investigation of the death in the lake is our hero, Nathan Spring (David Calder), whom we quickly learn has little time for computer analyses of incident reports or the arms-length approach to police work which has become standard at this time (it is a recognisably near future: publicity for the series indicated it was set in 2027, not that there’s a great deal of reference to this in the actual script). The computer suggests it was an accidental drowning, but Spring is not convinced, rather to the exasperation of both his underlings and his superiors.

Largely, it seems, to get rid of Nathan, his boss has forced him to apply for the post of commander of the International Space Police Force: currently a part-time force of twenty or so, which the major powers would like professionalised. Spring doesn’t want the job, and his girlfriend (a slightly shaky relationship is skilfully suggested) wants him to get it even less, but the script is very clear about the political aspects of all this, and Nathan soon find himself heading for the European space station Charles de Gaulle, in Earth orbit.

There he meets the local ISPF inspector, David Theroux (Erick Ray Evans), whose real job is as one of the station’s traffic controllers. Theroux is making his own investigation into a string of mysterious suit failures, which the computers again have decreed to be within the realms of statistical probability. However, the death of a visiting politician while on a space-walk gives the issue a sudden urgency, and Spring and Theroux find themselves working the case together.

The first job of An Instinct for Murder is to establish the world, characters and format of the show, so perhaps it’s not really surprising that the actual murder mystery here ends up feeling a little under-developed: it turns out the killings are an attempt to discredit the Russians, who currently have the contract to do space-suit maintenance, and perhaps stoke up the coals so the Cold War burns a little hotter (like virtually everyone else, even in 1987, Star Cops completely fails to anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union). Then again, this is always a problem when doing a detective story in an SF setting: you need to establish what’s normal and routine and possible in this world before you can start showing the anomalies and oddities which make up the clues the detective needs in order to break the case.

In other respects, however, the episode does a very solid job: you can tell Boucher is working incredibly hard to keep Star Cops grounded in reality and entirely free of the fantasy elements which usually dominate television SF (Boucher had previously written twelve strong episodes of the BBC’s premier science-fantasy show as well as script-editing the whole of Blake’s 7). It’s very cynical and naturalistic – even the title is meant ironically, and there’s a running gag about people quoting lines from The Magnificent Seven at each other, something which is utterly believable but the kind of thing which never happens in most TV series nowadays.

In terms of the near-future setting – well, again like everyone else, Boucher didn’t anticipate smartphones – at one point Nathan wants to watch the news in a restaurant and the waitress wheels in a small black and white TV on a trolley – but teleconferencing seems to be routine, even if people seem to favour huge wall screens over laptops or tablets (this does work well visually, though). Nathan even has his own virtual assistant, a small portable AI called Box, although it’s made clear that this is not common technology. Box mainly functions as a plot device and is rather reminiscent of Orac from Blake’s 7, though less obnoxious.

The episode doesn’t get everything right – for some reason Boucher doesn’t name the two most important guest characters, who are billed simply as ‘Commander’ and ‘Controller’, which is an odd touch, and while the special effects (‘Weightlessness by Eugene’s Flying Ballet’ – though, to be fair, the same company had the same gig on 2001) are as good as the BBC could manage on this kind of budget at the time, that’s still not saying a great deal. But the setting is intriguing, Calder is an engaging lead, and you do want to see where they take the series next. For a series which was essentially strangled at birth by the BBC, and marked the end of serious science fiction on British TV (at least, for many years afterwards), this is much more promising than its reputation might suggest.

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I’m not usually in the habit of doing requests on this blog, but when a plea/request came in for me to do something to mark the recent passing of Gareth Thomas, it seemed entirely reasonable. Thomas was best known, probably, for playing the title role in twenty-eight episodes of Blake’s 7 between 1978 and 1981. I know there’s been quite a bit of Trek content on the blog recently, but permit me one more reference for the time being: the closest thing to a British Star Trek ever made was Blake’s 7.

That said, of course, Trek remains a pop-culture colossus, while Blake has never been much more than a tiddler, comparatively, derided and mocked even while it was being broadcast. It remains a byword for cheap effects, dubious acting, and questionable design choices – to paraphrase the writer Gareth Roberts, not entirely unlike a version of I Claudius which has been rammed from behind by Footballers’ Wives.

If we’re talking about Thomas’ contribution to the series, it seems reasonable to choose a Blake-centric episode, and so I settled on Chris Boucher’s Trial, the sixth episode of the second season. This finds the show in change-of-gear/character study mode – in the previous episode, an ambitious attack on the Central Control complex of the evil Federation went badly pear-shaped, resulting in the demise of ship’s lummox Gan. Wracked with guilt and self-doubt, Blake decides to teleport down to an unnamed planet for a bit of soul-searching, while the rest of the crew of the somewhat-misnamed starship Liberator (it never really liberates anything, just blows things up – Detonator might be a better name) likewise have a chance to think about their situation.

It’s actually a rather long time before we get to all this, however, as the episode is also concerned with the court-martial of Blake’s arch-nemesis Space Commander Travis (these characters were created by Terry Nation, so every job title has ‘Space’ stuck in front of it just to reinforce that this is a sci-fi show we’re watching). This is Travis Mk 2, played by Brian Croucher, who is good at shouting but otherwise not a patch on Travis Mk 1. Complicated political intrigues are afoot as Supreme Commander Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce) wants Travis dead and silent, to keep her own culpability in allowing the Blake situation to get out of control from being revealed. (Just exactly what Travis is on trial for is a little confused, as the precise details differ in the various episodes it is mentioned.)

There is some interesting stuff here and a new perspective on Blake‘s universe, but it doesn’t really give Gareth Thomas a chance to shine as the star, mainly because he’s not in any of these scenes. Back on the Liberator, the crew are – as usual – squabbling, and – also as usual – Avon (Paul Darrow) is getting all the best lines, as a sort of utterly ruthless and self-serving analogue of Spock. Not for the first time, the crew are practically on the verge of flying off and leaving Blake to a sticky end, but decide to stick around – ‘is it that Blake has a genius for leadership, or merely that you have a genius for being led?’ ponders Avon, characteristically.

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However, even this stuff doesn’t give Gareth Thomas much to do in terms of star muscle-flexing, mainly because he’s down on the planet, in a BBC jungle (actually not a bad one). Here he meets a somewhat annoying native from the interpretive-dance school of alien civilisations, and to the palpable confusion of all concerned an actual piece of proper SF breaks out – there’s clearly something very odd about this planet, but Blake and the alien don’t share enough of the same terms of reference to be able to communicate about it (even though they both, inevitably, speak English).

Some to-ing and fro-ing between the three parallel plotlines ensues and while Travis seems destined to be the victim of a fit-up, the crew have worked out that the planet is a single giant organism, complete with vast oceans of spit, a concept striking and unexpected enough to make even the most jaded TV SF fan go ‘Yeucch, that’s disgusting.’ The spit-planet is infested with sentient parasites, one of which is the odd creature Blake has encountered, and does its best to devour and digest them all (the ground occasionally cracks open to reveal vast, slightly-suspect-looking fleshy chasms). Blake figures all this out but still looks odds-on to be digested himself until Avon does something clever with the teleporter and rescues him.

Meanwhile, back at the other plot, Travis has indeed been sentenced to death, but manages to escape and go on the run when the Liberator decides to bring the two storylines together by attacking the station where the trial is being held. The script seems entirely aware of the irony that the attack marking Blake’s return to the battle against the Federation mainly results in saving his arch-enemy, the man who actually killed Gan, it just doesn’t really do anything with the fact. It just sort of plops it in front of the audience and figuratively shrugs. Travis goes on the lam, Blake and the team have recovered their will to win, cue closing credits.

Now, the thing is that Gareth Thomas was an actor with both presence and technique – he’s notably good in a Sherlock Holmes episode with Jeremy Brett, and emerges with as much dignity as anyone from a guest spot on early Torchwood, to say nothing of his work for Big Finish – but you really struggle to notice that just from watching him in Blake’s 7, the show of which he was the ostensible star. The joke is, I suppose, that Blake was so superfluous to requirements that Blake’s 7 ran for twenty-four episodes (nearly half its run, in other words) without him appearing at all. Even in this episode, which starts off supposedly being about Blake’s self-doubt and crisis of conviction, everyone else gets more interesting things to do and much better dialogue. Thomas’ role in the plot is almost entirely expository/procedural – there’s no indication that his experiences on the spit-planet have helped him rediscover his determination to defeat the Federation, he gets no big character moments, no great speeches.

I suppose you could also argue that it’s out of character for a hardened rebel leader like Blake to throw a wobbler just because one member of the crew has died, but then arguably the big problem with Blake is that the character has to serve¬†such different¬†functions he never really coheres into a convincing whole. The character is, effectively, Roger Blake, a name better suited to a chartered accountant or an advertising copywriter than an interstellar insurrectionist, and there is something oddly suburban and non-threatening about Thomas’ performance – the main priority seems to have been to produce a character who could lead a mainstream TV drama without alienating the casual audience. As a result Blake is always a bit bland, certainly compared to some of the supporting cast.

They do try to insert moments suggesting Blake is actually a very hard, ruthless man, sometimes verging on an obsessive fanatic – ‘[help me or] I will destroy your hands,’ is his ultimatum to a reluctant surgeon when one of the crew needs urgent medical attention, while in another episode, he shows no qualms about seizing control of the galactic drugs trade in order to finance his revolution. ‘Won’t that make us pushers?’ wonders gentle Gan. ‘That will make us winners!’ is Blake’s response. But it seems that at this point, such an uncompromising lead character was not something the BBC was compared to consider, and these bits inevitably seem a bit jarring, so polite and unexceptionally heroic is Blake the rest of the time.

You can see why Thomas jumped ship at the end of the second season: when an episode is theoretically about your character having a personal crisis, and yet all you end up doing is wandering around a jungle set with an actress in a body-stocking, exchanging slightly cryptic dialogue with her, it can’t be very rewarding creatively. Blake himself was always one of the least interesting things about Blake’s 7, and this episode is no exception to that. Thomas was a talented performer, who always seems to be doing his best with the material he’s given, but he could definitely be forgiven for hoping to be remembered for the entirety of his body of work, which taken as a whole is impressive. I suspect, however, that people coming primarily to Blake and then discovering his other roles as a consequence is probably the best one could hope for. RIP.

 

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