Posts Tagged ‘SF’

We’re going to get a bit spoilery later on. I just thought I would mention that now, so you can brace yourself – or, even, if you prefer, stop reading and absent yourself now. That’s fine by me. (I’m trying to think of a non-spoilery review to recommend to you, but there’s 1500 or so of them on the site, so have a dig about for yourself.) With that out of the way, we can now turn our attention to very important other cinematic matters.

To wit: did Shia get sacked or did he walk? What went on between Liv and Jason? Is it anything to do with Liv and Harry getting together? Is that why Flo got so annoyed with Liv? Is Flo really so busy doing the Dune sequel she couldn’t do all the usual publicity on this one? And did Harry really spit on Chris during the press tour?

Yes, it’s the strange world of the gossip swirling around Olivia Wilde’s new movie Don’t Worry Darling, which I would anticipate has been causing Wilde a great deal of exasperation in recent weeks. I mean, everybody wants their new film to have a bit of buzz and interest around it when it’s released, of course, but I suspect they would rather this was on account of its script or acting or cinematography, not who was knocking off whom behind the scenes, or indeed whether or not the leading actors were spitting at each other during the junket.

For sensible and cultured people who have missed all this nonsense (well done, by the way) – the condensed version goes like this: Shia LaBeouf was supposed to be in the movie, but ultimately wasn’t, and there is some disagreement over whether he was sacked for being difficult to work with or decided to quit of his own accord, possibly because he didn’t get on with co-star Florence Pugh. Wilde herself apparently split up with her long-term partner Jason Sudeikis while making the movie, and promptly launched into a new entanglement with Harry Styles. This apparently annoyed Pugh, which led to some shouting (if you believe all the gossip, anyway), and Pugh limiting her participation in the publicity tour. Any slack in this department was of course taken up by Styles, who heroically drew the media’s attention by appearing to spit on Chris Pine at the premiere.

(What is it with Chris Pine and these weird publicity angles, anyway? I can’t help but remember the release of Outlaw King – another project in which he co-starred with Pugh – which was dominated by what I can only describe as Winkygate.)

Anyway, we have wallowed in this scuttlebutt for long enough, so let’s drag our attention away and think about the actual film itself for a bit. Pugh plays Alice, the wife of Jack (Styles), an engineer working on something called the Victory Project, a hush-hush top-secret undertaking run by the enigmatic-but-charismatic Frank (Pine). The Project dominates the local town and gives all the men there employment; the wives have no idea what they do all day, but are certain of their own role – which is to cook, clean, nurture, and generally do everything possible to support the menfolk, looking fabulous all the time as they do so.

Needless to say, this domestic idyll does not endure: one of the other wives begins acting extremely strangely, and Alice begins to have what seem to be hallucinations, resulting in her breaking the main rule of the Project – that none of the wives ever go near its base of operations. Is Frank really the benevolent visionary he presents himself as, or is some dark secret lurking beneath the placid veneer of Victory?

Well, duh, of course there’s a dark secret lurking beneath the placid veneer of Victory, and one of the problems with Don’t Worry Darling is that this is blatantly obvious from the very beginning of the film. (Spoiler incoming; very soon indeed now.) I went to a midweek matinee of this movie and about twenty minutes in one of the people sitting a couple of seats away from me leaned over to her companion and audibly whispered ‘This is a complete Stepford Wives rip-off’, which was notable basically because I was having virtually the same thought myself.

Now, before we go any further I should say there do seem to me to be various commendable things about Don’t Worry Darling – the cinematography is beautiful, the same goes for the production design, and there are very impressive performances from Pugh and Wilde. Even Chris Pine is not too bad. There is also something very interesting and original going on with the sound design and the soundtrack. It may be that if you are not already familiar with that movie which I have thoughtfully not hyperlinked the title of, you may find Don’t Worry Darling to be a surprising and effective horror-SF-thriller movie.

But for me it did just feel very much like an uncredited rip-off or remake, and a not particularly adroit one. The thing about Bryan Forbes’ film is way in which there is a genuine sense of a mystery unfolding around the characters, and an accompanying slow rise in tension as they get closer to the truth and find themselves in more and more peril. Here, however, there’s just a succession of weird things happening and Pugh gradually getting more and more unravelled. It just gets more exasperating as it goes on. (You may note that I have not made any reference so far to Harry Styles’ accent, or possibly accents – well, it turns out that there is an in-movie reason why his vocal delivery possibly tours many different regions of the world, so I am inclined to give him a pass on that. It’s still not a great performance, but the film honestly does have bigger problems.)

In the end the film just turns out to be riffing on a rather familiar theme of misogyny and male possessiveness – which is not in and of itself necessarily wrong, but there have been so many films built around this kind of idea that it’s almost become a cliche. It doesn’t explore or upturn the notion as neatly as a film like Last Night in Soho did, coming across instead as heavy-handed and earnest.

Normally I will turn up to anything with Florence Pugh in it and have a pretty good time, but this is not one of her most distinguished vehicles – she’s played similar roles in other, better films before. If nothing else she proves, as if it were required, her genuine star quality, by being the best thing in a pretty bad film. This is a very good-looking film, but it takes an age to go anywhere, and when it eventually arrives it isn’t in a place which is new or interesting. Given how good Wilde’s first film Booksmart was, this is a substantial disappointment.

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Matters of Succession

The very first thing you notice about Aftermath, first episode of Blake’s 7‘s third season, is that Things Have Changed: gone is the old title sequence featuring the domed city and the security camera and Blake being tortured. Apart from his name in the title, Blake has been thoroughly expunged from the opening credits. He’s nearly as absent from the episode itself – but then one of the things that Blake’s 7 is famous for is having the brass neck to continue as a series even after the main, or at least title, character left. (Gareth Thomas went off to the RSC.)

Given how the previous series ended, the new one kicks off with things in a severe state of flux – though some things never change, including the series’ low budget: the savage battles of the Intergalactic War (which has been fought between series) are represented by generous use of old footage from the previous season (it looks like we see Space City being blown up at least twice). The Liberator has taken a right pounding in the fighting and is on the verge of losing life support – so everyone hustles down to the escape pods, the teleport being out of action.

(I’m going to be really picky and suggest that the episode appears to indicate that the ship only has one escape pod bay, which is the one that Avon, Vila and Cally use to get off it. So what happens to Blake and Jenna? Jenna has ‘gone with Blake’, who apparently ‘didn’t want to leave’ – which to me sounds like they’ve already got off the ship by some other method. That said, they seem to end up in different places – later on, Zen manages to locate Jenna but can’t get a fix on Blake, even though he’s obligingly been in touch. It is a bit mysterious, isn’t it, but I suppose this sort of narrative creaking is inevitable when you’re writing out a couple of major characters like this.)

Anyway, Avon and Orac bail out of the ship and end up on the planet Sarran, (possibly) also known as… Dunes, mainly because that’s what most of the landscape seems to be. (Location filming was apparently in Northumbria, which looks very windswept and photogenic here.) Sarran is home to another of those regressive cultures the members of which mainly enjoy hacking visitors to death. It would only really make sense for Sarran to be some obscure backwater well off the main space lanes, but – luckily for the more bloodthirsty locals – on this particular day, offworlders seem to be falling out of the sky like raindrops: Avon crashlands here, so do a couple of Federation soldiers (one played by Richard Franklin, the mildly controversial Dr Who supporting regular), and so does Servalan, who was on her way to the front. What are the chances of that happening, let alone of Avon and Servalan bumping into one another almost at once?

You just have to go with it, I’m afraid: it’s a massive and rather ridiculous coincidence, but the script this week is all about establishing the relationship between Avon and Servalan (they’ve shared scenes before, but never really spoken), so they have to meet. Almost at once it becomes clear that the show has a whole different energy now Avon and Servalan are now unquestionably the leads – Blake and Travis were both comfortingly stolid and rather predictable representatives of liberty and tyranny, but now the series is about amoral psychopaths flirting wittily with each other and it’s really very thrilling to watch. Even Avon expresses regret that he and Servalan have always been in opposition to each other; she makes clear her admiration for him in return – ‘You’d sell out anybody, wouldn’t you?’ ‘I don’t know, I never really had an offer I thought was worthy of me,’ Avon replies modestly. Needless to say, the prospect of a hook-up floats in the air but ultimately seems unlikely: ‘I’d be dead in a week,’ is Avon’s prognosis.

The backdrop to all this is basically a bit more narrative carpentry, as Avon and Servalan both enjoy the hospitality of Hal Mellanby (Cy Grant), probably the funkiest-looking dissident in the galaxy (he’s almost like a disco version of Forest Whitaker’s character from Star Wars). Mellanby is a fairly interesting character, but he and his adopted daughter are only here to get fridged, thus providing his natural daughter Dayna (Josette Simon – Floella Benjamin also auditioned) with a reason to hang around with Avon and the others. We should remember that Dayna is the first major character to be introduced since midway through the first season, but Terry Nation does his usual efficient job of sketching in the character – exuberant warrior woman, more than enough to be going on with.

Servalan is pretty much unchanged – she was so corrupt to begin with that becoming President of the Federation is unlikely to have had much effect on her – but there is something interesting going on with Avon, whose first episode this is as the lead character of the series. Paul Darrow recalled suggestions that Avon should become a bit more moralistic now he was effectively the hero of the series, which he resisted as much as he could, but there are still signs of this here and there – he stops Dayna from killing defeated Sarrans out of hand, and stipulates that Zen should rescue Vila and Cally ahead of him, should they get in touch. Darrow’s performance makes it clear that, no matter what else may have changed, Avon is still really the same loveable killer we have came to know over the previous two seasons.

And there is a suggestion that the playing field has changed in a significant way: the Andromedan blobs may have been repelled, but at the cost of most of the Federation space fleet going up like fireworks and the destruction of Star One – Avon reflects that, in the end, Blake got what he wanted, winning both wars, and that the Federation is facing an existential crisis – ‘It’s difficult to sustain a military dictatorship when you’ve lost most of the military.’ If there’s a theme to this episode, it’s that the reassuring certainties that underpinned the first couple of seasons – the unambiguous presences of Blake, Travis, the Federation itself – have all been shot away, leaving a more chaotic, ambiguous universe where the likes of Avon and Servalan are more likely to prosper. Whether the third season really follows through on this notion is something it will be interesting to see.

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These days, doing a series of sequels is so often part of the game plan when a movie is made that the key personnel are frequently signed up on multi-film contracts right from the outset. Sequels weren’t always so respectable, nor profitable, and so it’s rare to find all the major cast members coming back in older films of this type. Sometimes, the reappearance of even a relatively minor cast member can feel like a pleasant surprise.

So it is when Nestor Paiva reappears as Lucas the boat captain in Jack Arnold’s 1955 movie Revenge of the Creature, reprising his performance from the same director’s Creature from the Black Lagoon. Paiva’s the only speaking character to come back (Ricou Browning is still in the monster suit for the underwater sequences), but it’s still a welcome touch of continuity when he does. Following all the shenanigans of the original film, word has got out of the existence of the prehistoric gill-man, supposedly a missing link between terrestrial and marine life (though Lucas declares it to be nothing less than a being of demonic power, stronger even than evolution itself!). Ocean Harbour, a water park in Florida, has hired fish-wrangler Joe Hayes (John Bromfield) to bring it back alive for study and display. With admirable briskness he does just this, even though it involves the customary bout of wrestling with the gill-man and the use of what I believe is sometimes known as dynamite fishing. The gill-man is dragged back to civilisation (Black Lagoon, we hardly knew ye) and installed in a tank, manacled to the bottom.

It turns out that Joe Hayes is not in fact the hero of the movie, for this honour goes to animal psychologist Clete Ferguson (John Agar, something of a fixture of Jack Arnold’s SF films). Clete decides to head on down to Florida and check the gill-man out, but not before the moment for which Revenge of the Creature is probably best known and perhaps most notable. One of Clete’s lab assistants gets a theoretically amusing bit about some of the experimental rats: the actual gag is pretty lousy, our interest stems from the fact that the assistant is played by Clint Eastwood, making his big-screen debut. Well, you gotta start somewhere, I suppose: there’s not much here to suggest that Clint would go on to become one of the most popular and acclaimed film-makers of the late 20th century, but there’s only so much you can do with a duff gag about rats and a lab coat. (For his next movie with Agar and Arnold, Clint was promoted to jet pilot, playing the guy who bombs the monster at the end of Tarantula!.)

Anyway, Clete arrives in Ocean Harbour where he quickly becomes fascinated by the gill-man, and very nearly as interested in glamorous icthyology student Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson) – who, to be fair, is extremely pretty and meets the ‘must look good in a bathing suit’ requirement of this kind of film with flying colours. While Clete and Helen are supposedly studying the gill-man, what they actually seem to be doing more closely resembles a rather cruel training regime, heavily dependent on the use of what looks like an underwater cattle-prod (I’m sure there must be health and safety issues with that). Poor old gill-man clearly hasn’t figured out that these surface girls are nothing but trouble and that age-gap relationships never work (especially when the gap in question is between the Devonian Age and the Anthropocene), and falls hard for the lovely Helen. Eventually he busts out, jumps in the sea, mysteriously doesn’t die from osmotic shock, and starts causing all sorts of trouble.

The film’s been a bit of a mixed bag so far, but at this point it takes a definite turn in the direction of Jaws – The Revenge. Clete and Helen decide to take their minds off things by going on a bit of a holiday together (it’s all outwardly very respectable so as not to outrage the censor, but they’re clearly going to be at it like rabbits), and check into a motel on the edge of the Everglades. What a very extraordinary coincidence it is that it is next to this very establishment that the gill-man should clamber out of the swamp and come sniffing around. Clete and Helen try to get on with their holiday, but the finny stalker just won’t quit, and there is bound to be trouble before the film reaches the end of its 82 minute running time…

Even post-Shape of Water, it’s hardly as if Creature from the Black Lagoon is an unequivocally acclaimed movie, so it’s hardly surprising that its sequels have an equally schlocky reputation. This is no great injustice, however, as Revenge of the Creature (I think the working title Return of the Creature from the Black Lagoon has a better ring to it, but it is fairly on-the-nose) is not some great overlooked classic, either as sci-fi or as a monster movie. It starts off sort of acceptably okay and then quickly becomes quite variable – the middle section, in which the gill-man is chained up in his tank while Clete and Helen blandly romance each other in between bouts of shock therapy, goes on for a long time without very much happening, while the final section is just a bit silly, and saddled with an ending which is abrupt and unsatisfactory – you can almost see the film-makers hitting the 82-minute point and then calling it a day.

Taking the creature from the Black Lagoon out of the Black Lagoon was probably a necessary step for the sequel, but it does rob the film of something of the original’s atmosphere. I can see there’s something to the school of thought that the first film is, on some level, an eco-fable about the destruction of the environment, but that doesn’t seem to have carried over as such – what is interesting, though, is that there seems to have been a deliberate attempt to make the gill-man more sympathetic this time around. He is blown up, dragged off to civilisation in a coma, chained to the bottom of a tank, repeatedly electrocuted, and so on – if only he didn’t have these wildly over-optimistic designs on pretty girls in bathing suits, the audience would probably be rooting for him.

As it is, the film is just too silly to really get that involved with. The script and setting aren’t as interesting as in the first one, but in every other respect, while it’s a step down, it’s no more an outright disaster than Creature from the Black Lagoon. It doesn’t do anything particularly interesting or original with the gill-man, but it’s sort of mildly diverting – no more than that, though.

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I’ve been rather negative about the second season of Blake’s 7, particularly the second half – there are a lot of dud episodes, and, of the two ongoing storylines, the search for Star One is pretty lightweight (and prone to being switched off), while the travails of Travis don’t actually make sense and seem to be being made up as the season goes along. I should probably come clean and admit that my recollection of the season is that it was an improvement on the first – and while it’s true that the best episodes (Shadow and Pressure Point, for example) are better, even at his most stolid Terry Nation never wrote anything as bad as Hostage or Voice from the Past.

I get the impression that some of this may be the result of behind-the-scenes turbulence, anyway: the story goes that after suffering badly from writer’s block during the latter stages of the first season, Nation, though contracted to write a two-part season finale, found he had completely run out of ideas (well, perhaps he had one rather startling idea, but we’ll come to this in a bit). As a result the two-parter was scrapped and replaced by The Keeper and Star One, another Chris Boucher script.

Star One doesn’t get off to the best of starts, as it opens with a lengthy model sequence – some of the model work in this episode is quite effective, but some of it definitely isn’t. Two spacecraft collide in orbit over a Federation colony, resulting in a catastrophe. It’s all the result of computer control failure, apparently – at least, this is what Servalan’s advisors are telling her. Similar disasters are occurring all over the Federation, all due to computer breakdowns. The only common factor is the involvement of the Federation computer network – and the conclusion the boffins have drawn is that something has gone horribly wrong with Star One, the central computer hub.

Servalan’s job in this episode is basically to help with the exposition and raise the stakes, but Jacqueline Pearce manages to find interesting things to do with it anyway. Possibly as a result, Boucher throws her a bone – with the Federation apparently under attack and the politicians proving their usual feckless selves, Servalan decides to get rid of them and seize power for herself (finally). It’s a logical and potentially interesting development, but it’s a bit throwaway here.

Meanwhile, Blake and the others are finally closing in on Star One, which is on an icy planet orbiting a pale star, far out beyond the galactic rim (the model shots suggesting this are the best in the episode). They still haven’t reached an agreement on what to actually do once they find it: Blake wants to destroy it, breaking the power of the Federation, even though this will result in chaos and cost untold lives (Cally in particular has issues with this). Avon still seems to think that taking control of the Federation would be more sensible, but also understands that Blake will never accept this. And he’s fine with that: ‘As far as I am concerned you can destroy whatever you like. You can stir up a thousand revolutions, you can wade in blood up to your armpits. Oh, and you can lead the rabble to victory, whatever that might mean. Just so long as there is an end to it. When Star One is gone it is finished, Blake. And I want it finished. I want it over and done with.’ There is a genuine drama and tension to these scenes between the crew which only seems to be there when Boucher is writing the scripts – it almost feels like a different programme to the last few weeks. It’s also quite clear that everyone involved knew that they would be going forward into series three without Gareth Thomas as Blake – Avon gets lots of good lines and important things to do as the story proceeds.

However, not all is well down on Star One – Lurena, one of the small team of technicians who has effectively been exiled there to maintain the systems (if literally no-one is supposed to know where the place is, who’s going to do the maintenance once this lot die off?), has noticed her colleagues are acting strangely and sabotaging some of the systems, even though their conditioning is supposed to make this impossible. She ends up having to hide from them after they decide to get rid of her.

Blake, Cally and Avon beam down and it quickly becomes apparent that Star One has fallen into enemy hands. Isn’t this good news for our heroes? (The enemy of my enemy, and all that.) Well, maybe not – Avon has already noticed that out beyond Star One, in the intergalactic gulf, is an enormous anti-matter minefield, clearly intended to defend the Milky Way against incursions from the galaxy of Andromeda. The Andromedans have already taken on human form (they are naturally a bit blobby, it would seem) and replaced most of the Star One techs. They are planning to shut down the minefield and bring in their invasion fleet (I have to wonder about the extent to which this storyline resembles one from Deep Space Nine, twenty years later).

One of the main Fun Facts about Star One in general circulation concerns Terry Nation’s original idea about the identity of the aliens wanting to invade the galaxy and, ahem, exterminate all humans. Have I given you a clue? Yes, never averse to a bit of cross-promotion, Nation’s first choice for the extra-galactic threat was the Daleks, but Maloney and Boucher apparently squashed the idea as soon as it was suggested. You can see why, but it’s still an intriguing idea and you can kind of imagine it working, despite the headaches it would cause continuity cops. (Other Blake’s 7 characters – including, it is implied, Avon himself – ended up appearing in some of the more obscure Dr Who spin-offs, many years later.)

But anyway, we’re left with the blobs, and their not-very-impressive battle fleet. The Andromedans have teamed up with Travis, who duly arrives to switch off the minefield and seal the fate of the human race. Travis also gets to (finally) shoot Blake, though he makes a predictable hash of it – our hero survives, mainly because Travis doesn’t bother to check he’s dead. From zealously loyal Federation officer to willing participant in a conspiracy to destroy human civilisation – it’s been an interesting character arc for Travis, and a potentially great one – but, as we have noted, the scripts just haven’t been up to scratch.

As it is, Avon kills Travis, the Andromedan infiltrators are all shot or blown up, and everyone returns to the ship – but the minefield has been partially disabled, creating a gap the blobs can use to invade. It’s Casual Blake’s 7 Irony time again, as the crew find themselves thrust into the role of defenders of the Federation, with Avon commanding the Liberator in an attempt to hold them off until the Federation battle fleets can arrive. Why is he doing this? Apparently he gave his word to Blake: what almost gets lost in all this is the fact that Avon and Blake, who seemed barely able to tolerate each other’s presence at the start of the episode, conclude it with a demonstration of loyalty: ‘For what it’s worth, I have always trusted you, from the very beginning,’ says Blake, famously.

It’s a strong and impactful conclusion to the series, with big changes to the status quo clearly in prospect – and a genuinely suspenseful cliffhanger, with the Intergalactic War on the verge of breaking out. It’s only when you actually sit down and reflect that it becomes apparent that this episode is rather frantic and riddled with plot-holes and convenient story developments. If there’s a minefield keeping them out, how did the blobs infiltrate Star One or get in touch with Travis? What exactly is his end of the bargain? It seems unlikely that the Andromedans need him to tell them where Star One is, given it’s literally the first place you come across when you arrive in the Milky Way from their home galaxy. Why haven’t they killed Lurena along with all the other techs? Why is Lurena’s file photo apparently current given she’s supposedly been in exile at the edge of the galaxy for years? Once you actually sit down and engage your brain there are many elements of Star One which don’t actually make sense, but for once this isn’t enough to ruin the episode – it has a tremendous pace and sense of significance, and Boucher writes great scenes for all the characters. It just about gets away with it – it’s very flawed, but also undeniably watchable. Which is a fair verdict for the whole of the second season, to be honest.

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Some movies don’t really need a directorial credit on them: the identity of their creator is imprinted on every frame, every casting decision, every line of dialogue. It’s the brushstroke of an artist or some other mark that a great stylist is about his or her craft.

Crimes of the Future (the new version) is mostly concerned with the doings of Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and his partner Caprice (Lea Seydoux), who are performance artists. The duo live in a strangely-divergent world where digital technology does not appear to exist and the process of human evolution has become somewhat fractious. One of the forms this takes is that Saul’s body spontaneous generates new and mysterious organs – causing him some discomfort in the process – which Caprice then extracts on-stage using a device which resembles a sort of bone coffin sprouting bio-mechanical arms.

This has earned Saul and Caprice something of a following, amongst both other art-lovers and the people running the National Organ Registry, which keeps track of new pieces of internal human architecture (they are played by Don McKellar and Kristen Stewart). He is invited to enter the forthcoming Inner Beauty Contest, where he is likely to stand a good chance in the Best Original Organ category. But he has other things on his mind, such as an encounter with members of a cult with a very strange dietary restriction, and their idea for a new show in which the victim of a shocking murder is autopsied on stage…

Do I even need to tell you who wrote and directed Crimes of the Future? Does their identity not blaze forth from even this simple description? It’s David Cronenberg. Of course it’s David Cronenberg. It’s such a David Cronenbergy film that if anyone else had come up with it (a fairly unlikely eventuality, of course) they would have been greeted with derision for such a blatant act of plagiarism. As it is, it is the most David Cronenbergy film that even Cronenberg himself has made in over twenty years – which I suppose is another way of saying that Cronenberg has, fairly effortlessly, managed to shed the trappings of his early films in favour of a less instantly recognisable mode of storytelling.

But here all those trappings return: gristly, throbbing bits of bio-machinery, a morbid fascination with rebellious organic matter, strange pseudo-erotic interactions between human and technology… at one point Kristen Stewart’s character says ‘Surgery is the new sex,’ which is almost certainly the most Cronenbergy line you’ll hear in a cinema this year. Needless to say this is followed up by a moment in which Mortensen and Seydoux, in what looks very much like a post-coital embrace, recline ecstatically together in a skeletal sarcophagus as robotic scalpels carve into their soft flesh. Someone tells an artist ‘Seeing you makes me want to cut my own face open’, as a compliment.

Needless to say it is extreme and provocative, and arguably less well-mannered than most of Cronenberg’s recent films. Apparently this was an old script that he fished out of his bottom drawer and reworked, which may explain why it seems to have more in common with a film like Videodrome than anything from this century. Then again, rumour had it that Cronenberg was actively contemplating retirement from film-making, such was his disillusionment with the whole process of raising finance, so we must be grateful for his making anything at all. (The strange world of film financing means that the new version of Crimes of the Future (Cronenberg’s debut movie from over fifty years ago was also called Crimes of the Future, but the two are distinct entities – this isn’t a remake) is a Greco-Canadian co-production, filmed on location in Athens, giving it a very distinctive atmosphere and visual style.)

I must say that it is a real treat to see Cronenberg making this return visit to an area where he has previously produced so much of his most distinctive work. The visceral impact of the various strangenesses and outright horrors that he unleashes only gains in power from the fact that the director is clearly not just attempting to shock or nauseate the audience – even though there are moments in this film where I thought the director was in genuine danger of going too far – everything is in service to ideas and metaphors with real heft to them. At the heart of this film is a grotesque metaphor for the creative process; it also deals with questions of consumerism, ecology, and political freedom. The stew of ideas is almost overwhelming, both in its richness and in the casual way that Cronenberg presents the individual elements to the audience.

This is very reminiscent of what I suppose we should refer to as Classic Early Cronenberg – the string of unambiguous horror movies running through the 1970s and early 1980s that includes such famous works as Rabid, Shivers, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly, all of which found new ways to employ the notion of body-horror as a metaphor. The new Crimes of the Future does this, but I do feel compelled to admit that it resembles some of the earlier films in another way, too – when Cronenberg is really in full flow, the onslaught of ideas and images can be so irresistible that the actual plot can become a little oblique or, on the initial viewing at least, somewhat incoherent. That’s the case here too: there’s a plot about a cult and a couple of assassins that I never really felt like I entirely understood. It’s solely the fact that parts of Crimes of the Future seem a bit obscure and oblique that keeps me from suggesting the film contains rather more gratuitous nudity than is generally the case these days, even in a horror movie – for all I know the naked female cast members are all vital to the plot and theme of the movie, I’m just not recognising the connection.

Normally I’m very harsh on movies with incoherent plots, and it may indeed be the case that I am letting my respect for David Cronenberg get in the way of treating this film objectively. But I don’t watch his films for the details of the plot, I watch them for the ideas, the squelchy bits, the metaphor. Crimes of the Future has all of those things in abundance, together with some excellent performances from a talented cast. It’s a grisly, potentially disgusting, deliberately obscure and really rather challenging film. But it also feels like a bit of a treat.

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Goths Go Shaky

Allan Prior’s first Blake script seemed to find him attempting to emulate the theatrical style of a writer like Caryl Churchill or Edward Bond, in an allegorical piece about the nature of colonialism. His second saw him progress to seemingly try very hard to write in the style of Terry Nation himself, which was fairly successful as a technical exercise but practically a disaster in terms of it working as a piece of drama. His third episode of the year, The Keeper, sees him moving on to bigger dramatic game than even Terry Nation.

Still pursuing the elusive location of Star One, the Liberator is on course for the primitive planet Goth, where the natives live underground to avoid toxic gases (and also the expense of filming on location). Decor and couture are all very much in the style of about 6th-century Wessex: not so much Space Age as Dark Ages. What they have learned is that one member of the ruling house of Goth has the only copy of a brain-print revealing where Star One is, which they wear on a thong around their neck (according to one report, says Cally, it’s not just the print, it’s the whole brain). Find the print and find Star One, which will give them the power (finally) to destroy the Federation.

Of course, it has occurred to Avon that they don’t necessarily need to destroy the Federation – with Star One, they could just as easily take the place over and run it between them. Blake, of course, takes the boring old principled stance that no-one should wield that much authority, and they will go ahead with the plan to blow Star One up (as it turns out, there turn out to be very good reasons for not blowing it up, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). Also on their minds is the fact that Travis is ahead of them somewhere, and is unlikely to share Blake’s selfless ethical view.

Another one of those very understated guest performances this week.

This week it’s Vila and Jenna who get to beam down with Blake to Goth, leaving Avon in charge. Almost at once the ship detects a Federation ship leaving Goth, which Avon instantly identifies as Travis’ vessel (quite how, it is not made clear, but this is something else which we will be coming back to). Scenting a chance to solve at least one problem for good, Avon takes the Liberator out of orbit to destroy the other ship – but, wouldn’t you know it, the Goths choose just this interlude to attack Blake and the others, soundtracked by a music cue in which Dudley Simpson does his best to channel the spirit of Basil Poledouris. Jenna and Vila get grabbed by the natives, leaving Blake to escape back to the ship and give Avon a proper telling-off.

Naturally, Blake still opts to go back down to Goth by himself, leaving Avon with the strictest of strict instructions not to go off the reservation again in his absence – it’s one of those casual Blake’s 7 ironies that this results, eventually, in the Intergalactic War, the destruction of Star One, the collapse and reconstruction of the Federation and ultimately arguably the deaths of Blake, Avon, and everyone else. (This time Avon is obliged to obey orders, which means passing up a genuine chance to kill Travis.) It’s not a fantastic excursion for Blake, as – despite making friends with one of the local nobility, Rod – he spends most of his time hiding in a dungeon. Goth architecture features fewer arches and flying buttresses than you might expect, but a lot more tents – erected in caves, for no immediately logical reason, and with their own dungeons. It’s a funny old planet, this one.

Jenna, meanwhile, is getting much more to do than usual, as she is (in a manner of speaking) romanced by the rough-and-ready leader of the Goths, Gola. (There is some irony to this, as it was Sally Knyvette’s good relationship with Bruce Purchase, who played Gola, that influenced her decision to leave the series at the end of the year.) Vila, meanwhile, gets a job as Gola’s court Fool, rather to the chagrin of the previous incumbent. It turns out that the children of the previous king of Goth have deposed him and then fallen out rather viciously – or, to put it another way, Blake and the others have walked into the latter stages of a version of King Lear.

You can’t fault Prior’s ambition in trying to pull a stunt like this one, and it’s not as if the roots are particularly well-concealed: there’s something very BBC Shakespeare about many of the sets and costumes – although, as was customary with a lot of the corporation’s drama of this period, it’s all very over-lit, considering. The problem is that the script just doesn’t sparkle – Blake and the others go from royal to royal, looking for the brain-print, while the royals themselves engage in fairly laborious power-politics and declaim at anyone in sight. Leaving Avon on the ship all episode probably doesn’t help much.

Somehow the setting and premise of the episode never really grab the interest: in my case, anyway, less than some of the other odd elements Prior inserts into the script. For example, Travis and Servalan are both on Goth, too, and are apparently in alliance again despite strong suggestions otherwise last week (putting a bomb in someone’s prosthetic limb is not usually a sign of affection or a good foundation for a working relationship). They are both now looking for Star One as well, having figured out they can use it to rule the Federation too. (The delineation between the generally-bad institution of the Federation and the specifically-bad prospect of Servalan’s tyranny is clearly established.) But still – when did this happen? Why are they working together once more? How come Avon can recognise Travis’ ship on sight? The whole storyline of what’s happened to Travis since Trial, his agenda, his standing, his relationships, has just been a mess virtually every step of the way. In this episode he even leaves the story half-way through, without even trying to find and kill Blake (supposedly his overriding obsession).

Well, it’s not one of the very worst shows of the season, but that’s only because some of them were so extremely bad. The Keeper kind of passes the time acceptably, and it does trail the prospect of a momentous conclusion to the series (the Liberator sets course, finally, for Star One, where the destiny of the crew and the Federation itself will be decided). But given how inconsistent this series has been – the episodes by Nation, Chris Boucher, and Robert Holmes have all been reasonably watchable, everything else not so much – expectations for the end of the year are inevitably subject to downward management.

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Docholli’s Day

After what definitely constitutes a mid-season slump of fairly significant proportions – when an episode like Countdown looks strong compared to the ones around it, you know you’ve got a crisis on your hands – Blake’s 7 is crying out for an episode that makes you remember how good this show can be when it’s on form. I’m not sure Gambit is entirely that episode, but it’s a hell of an improvement on some of the things we’ve seen recently.

Main setting for the episode is Freedom City, the nature of which is only vaguely addressed – although some dialogue suggests it is an actual city on an actual planet. Servalan describes the place as a ‘cesspit’ and a ‘pestilential rathole’ (and Jacqueline Pearce has just as much fun delivering this dialogue as you imagine Robert Holmes had writing it), while Vila and Avon take a more positive view, relishing the thought that the place is ‘wide open’ and has ‘everything a man ever dreams of’. They compare it to Space City from Shadow, and it has a very similar narrative function: a rather shady metropolis where the characters can get mixed up with the galactic underworld.

Blake has come here in search of Docholli (Denis Carey), a fugitive cyber-surgeon who is supposedly the only man who knows the secret of the location of Star One. Currently Docholli has acquired an unlikely guardian angel in the shape of Travis, who is sticking with him in the knowledge that Blake will eventually show up. Servalan has also arrived in Freedom City, partly to ensure the secret of Star One dies with Docholli, but also to further a rather convoluted and devious scheme of her own. Actually stopping Blake isn’t even close to the top of her agenda.

Blake decides to beam down with Jenna and Cally, for a change, and it’s hard to see an obvious reason for this beyond the one that Vila and Avon resentfully come up with: Blake doesn’t trust them to stay on-mission given the various distractions on offer. Showing the loyalty and restraint we have come to expect from them, the duo prove him exactly right by choosing to sneak down anyway, using Orac (which this week is a handy remote control for the teleport, a chess grand master, and a character from Puss in Boots) to knock over Freedom City’s main casino.

Meanwhile Servalan is visiting Krantor (Aubrey Woods), the boss of the city, and attempting to recruit his services in finding the men she is after: Docholli and Travis. You may recall that last week, Travis seemed to be involved in Servalan’s plan to kill all her enemies, but now they seem to have fallen out (again: the season seems to lose track of exactly what state their relationship is in more than once). Servalan and Krantor are both wily operators, but it’s the Supreme Commander who proves to be the wiliest: luckily she has brought an underling with a very brave haircut to explain things to, and reveals her Machiavellian plan to dispose of several irritating loose ends, secure the location of Star One, and gain a pretext for the Federation conquest of Freedom City.

While all this is going on, Avon and Vila are making a killing at the casino, which has as a combination of gambling opportunity and morbid floor-show something called Speed Chess – basically a blitz game against someone called the Klute (genre veteran Deep Roy), with the challenger being electrocuted if they lose. When Krantor learns of Vila’s success, he is as cross as two sticks – but there’s no possibility whatsoever of Vila being tricked into having to play the Klute himself, is there?

With such a lot of juicy stuff happening, Blake and the others inevitably feel a bit pushed into the background – though there is a fun scene in which Jenna and Cally have to fake a catfight with the insults flying back and forth: ‘Cheap little space tramp!’ ‘Ten-credit touch!’ ‘Slut!’ and so on. Nevertheless it falls to our hero to progress the ongoing storyline, which he duly manages.

Nevertheless, it does feel that with Gambit, Robert Holmes is getting the transactional stuff out of the way with a minimum of fuss and enjoying himself much more with the ornamental bits of the plot that in theory don’t matter as much: the plots about Servalan and Avon and Vila are great fun; Servalan is at her most fabulous and the Avon-Vila relationship at its most winning. Holmes also gets to enjoy in some of the genre-pastiching he always seemed to revel in – there’s a touch of the western to Docholli’s storyline (you wonder if Holmes actually named the character, who was then retroactively added to Nation’s script for Countdown), while – it’s not really a valid reference, for obvious reasons – Servalan’s machinations are like something out of Dangerous Liaisons.

Blake wonders why the fancy dress invite never reached him.

The production designs seem to pick up on the cues in the script, resulting in the bizarre visual style of the episode. Most Terry Nation scripts end up featuring people in overalls or khaki or the occasional sheepskin jacket – in Gambit, there are people dressed as cowboys (Travis pairs his stetson with a full-length black poncho, which in this episode is not out of place), 18th-century dandies, pierrots, Busby Berkeley dancers – I’m pretty sure I spotted a nun in one scene. Krantor’s explanation for the fashion eccentricities of Freedom City is that it’s currently ‘carnival’, but this is really just a fig leaf for something which doesn’t need explaining: it gives the episode an impressionistic identity of its own which so many of the others just don’t have.

It’s not all good, however: the beginning and end of the episode are notably poorly directed, with situations not being properly established or resolved – it opens with Docholli being threatened in a bar before we know where we are, who he is, or why everyone looks like they’re going to a Sergio Leone dress-up party. And Servalan kind of vanishes out of the story without her own plot being properly resolved – the viewer is kind of left to work out what the fates of Freedom City and Krantor are likely to be.

Nevertheless, it’s a great improvement over everything since – well, since Robert Holmes’ last script, seeing as you asked. Why they didn’t use his talents more, I really don’t know, but it’s his writing that makes this episode as much fun as it is, and almost certainly inspired the visual weirdness which makes it so memorable.

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Episode ten of the second series of Blake’s 7 is Voice from the Past (essentially a fridge title), written by Roger Parkes. (In case you’re wondering, this is the longest episode title yet.) Parkes is a writer not-unknown to us, as he was also responsible for episodes of Doomwatch and Survivors – he seems to have been a jobbing TV scriptwriter, as there are also episodes of Crown Court, Angels, Z Cars, and so on taking up space on his CV, although he did also write a Prisoner episode (though not an especially memorable one).

Here is what happens on-screen in the episode. Everyone on the Liberator apart from Vila has been persuaded by Cally into doing some sort of yoga to help them de-stress. This is presumably space yoga, as the pose Avon has taken resembles one I commonly adopted back in my drinking days after getting home at the end of an evening: on hands and knees on the floor, with my face pressed against the carpet. Blake, meanwhile, seems to be in training to perform one of those diving headbutts that Vin Diesel used to unleash so effectively. Suddenly there is a buzzing noise and Blake starts acting very strangely: it is obvious he is somehow being mind-controlled.

Our hero wanders off to the flight deck where Vila is monitoring their progress towards the planet Del 10 (presumably so named because it feels like the tenth place or person named Del in the series so far – and this isn’t even a Terry Nation script). Blake orders a course change to a remote asteroid. Everyone is quite startled by this but Blake is in no mood for a discussion. However, he is in the mood for extensive flashbacks to the brainwashing he suffered back before the series began. Orac, which is an ace psychotherapist and neurologist this week, diagnoses a bad case of post-hypnotic mind-control, and possibly overacting, and recommends therapy. Meanwhile the ship resumes course to Del 10 and Blake is tied to a chair.

For some reason, however, Avon, Cally and Jenna don’t bother to include Vila in their thinking on all this, meaning it is relatively easy for Blake to talk Vila into letting him go, spinning him a yarn about a plan by the others to take over the ship. Vila is a moron this week, which helps Blake sell this idea. The Liberator is soon heading back to the remote asteroid. (As if all this back-and-forth plotting wasn’t enough, every time there’s a course change we have to sit through a lengthy model shot of the Liberator spinning round and then going off in a new direction.)

Thankfully, the ship reaches the remote asteroid before the others can escape and Blake teleports down. The asteroid is one of the worst-realised environments in the history of science-fiction TV, being a sort of abstract swirl which Gareth Thomas is CSOed into unconvincingly. Luckily he finds a mining outpost, which is less painful to to look at, and in the outpost he discovers Ven Glynd, the former head of Federation justice who was responsible for having him fitted up as a child molester, and Travis, who is wearing a cloak and bandages wrapped around his head and doing an accent which appears to hail from somewhere on the border between Mexico and Russia. The idea is that Travis is passing himself off as Shivan, a legendary freedom fighter we have never heard of before, but he may as well be carrying a placard saying ‘I AM TRAVIS’.

Let’s play ‘Spot Travis’ Brilliant Disguise’!

It turns out that Glynd has defected from the Federation with a dossier of evidence detailing the various misdeeds of the Terran Authority and Space Command – the murder of Blake’s defence attorney, Servalan’s plan to steal Orac and one hundred million credits, and so on. If Blake will give him and fellow idealist Governor Le Grand a lift to the upcoming Governors’ Summit Meeting it could spell the end of the corrupt Federation leadership. Blake will be the new leader, whom Le Grand – with an apparently straight face – calls the messiah. Blake takes all this remarkably stoically.

However, we already know that Servalan is up to something, and when Le Grand and Glynd turn up for the meeting they just find a squad of Federation troopers waiting for them. Things look bad for the Liberator contingent, as back on the ship Travis has revealed his true identity and is stopping anyone from beaming back up, but Avon has figured out what the black box is that Glynd has been using to mind-control Blake and breaks it. Travis, for some reason, decides to beam down, despite the fact he has effectively taken control of the Liberator, at last. Le Grand and Glynd are both killed, Blake and the others beam back up and fly off, and it turns out Blake has no memory whatsoever of anything that’s been happening since the start of the episode. I am tempted to say ‘lucky feller’.

As I say, that’s what happens on the screen. Trying to identify an actual coherent plot anywhere in there is another matter. I suppose Servalan’s scheme just about makes sense, if you take the view that she’s allowing all her enemies to gather together in one spot so she can eliminate them at the same time, though where the ridiculous notion of deploying Travis in disguise came from I have no idea – it would make more sense if Travis was pretending to be someone we’d actually heard of, but even then there would be the question of how he manages to persuade some fairly twitchy dissidents he is who he claims to be. Maybe the real Shivan was a terrible ham with a stupid accent too.

We’re still tiptoeing around the real head-scratcher for this episode, which is the fact that the Federation have apparently had a remote control device for Blake for some time but have only just got around to using it. I suppose it’s possible they’ve only recently perfected the technology, which explains why they didn’t put the ‘fluence on Blake a year ago, but the chronology here is still obscure. If Glynd is now a good guy, why is he mind-controlling Blake in the first place? It’s not exactly a great way of establishing your bona fides as a servant of liberty. Is Glynd genuinely a good guy now? It seems to be the case as the Federation troops and Travis shoot at him at the end. There’s something slightly baffling about all of this.

Oh well. I suppose the series having a go at something resembling a political thriller is a positive step, and there are some decent lines as well – also welcome signs of Parkes having actually reviewed some old scripts before writing his own. But this does feel like another instance of badly-acted, poorly-paced, borderline-incoherent filler – possibly not quite as bad as Hostage, but certainly in contention.

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Ticked Off on Albian

As we have established, thoughtful and discursive episodes with a deep subtext to them are not exactly Terry Nation’s wheelhouse – but the great man can slap together a breathless action-adventure like few other writers. Countdown, ninth episode of the second season, appears to be a conscious attempt at leaning into this, even to the point where it becomes structurally experimental – most of the episode sort-of takes place in real time (i.e. within the space of a Blake’s 7 episode’s time-slot).

It all takes place on the planet Albian, which – as we join the action – is the scene of an uninhibitedly am-dram uprising by the locals against the Federation garrison. (For some reason, possibly budgetary, in many scenes it appears that only one side at a time is allowed to use guns.) Things are going poorly for the Federation, which moves local commander, Space Major Provine (ah, Terry, it’s almost like a signature flourish), to order the activation of the doomsday bomb he has thoughtfully been provided with. It eventually transpires that this a clever neutron-ish doomsday bomb, which will wipe out the local population but leave everything standing and available for the Federation colonists who will soon repopulate the planet. Anyway, the thing is switched on and the triumphant rebels discover they have less than an hour to enjoy their victory.

As luck would have it, the Liberator is already on final approach to Albian, as it turns out that Provine (Paul Shelley, by the way) has served with Central Control and may know the new location of Blake’s prime target. When they receive the rebels’ distress signal, Blake naturally springs into action and teleports down with… can you guess? Is it time for Jenna and Cally to actually get to do something in the main plot? Alas, it is not: once again Blake goes off with Avon and Vila leaving the other two to sit around the teleport room. It is no surprise at all that Sally Knyvette opted to leave the show; the real source of astonishment should be that Jan Chappell stuck around for the third season.

Down on the planet the plot neatly cleaves into two strands: Blake hunting for Provine (while, at the same time, Provine hunts for a way to avoid the impending apocalypse), and Avon attempting to locate and defuse the doomsday weapon in time. The latter is given considerable interest, particularly for Avon and Paul Darrow fans, by the fact that assisting him in this task is a mercenary hired by the Albians to lead them in their revolt: a man named Del Grant (Nation’s evident fondness for naming characters Del and Tarrant will, of course, reach its fullest and most curly-haired expression at the start of the third season). Avon, of course, is a man with A History, and Grant is a part of that – to the point where he has vowed to kill Avon, blaming him for the death of his sister (whom Avon was naturally involved with). Grant is played by Tom Chadbon.

Yup, it’s very soapy-tastic. It may not surprise you to learn that considerable effort and many words have been expended in attempted exegesis of exactly what was going on between Avon and the various members of the Grant family – the simple fact that Avon refers to Grant by his first name when they meet has been treated by some people as a highly indicative piece of evidence. What actually happened certainly seems to have been quite complex, and my understanding is that the story is further complicated by additional information that turns up in season 3, so I will spare you my thoughts on the topic for the time being. The main upshot is that it gives the various scenes of Avon and Grant risking their lives to dismantle the bomb in a collapsing chamber a bit of emotional heft, which they could probably use – after a fair bit of build-up, the bomb proves to be a rather unimpressive bit of kit, eventually neutralised with a small drill and some tiny metal rods: a bit like a game of Ker-Plunk, only in reverse (I am aware that will make virtually no sense to anyone who hasn’t seen the episode).

Meanwhile there’s a lot of stoic bravery from the Albian rebels, who have apparently collectively decided to stick around and die if the bomb goes off, and some equally stoic pragmatism from Blake, who makes it very clear that he won’t be doing the same thing – he and the rest of the crew will be pulling out well before the doomsday blast goes off. There was potential here for an interesting clash of moralities, or at least a nice character moment for one of the regulars, but Nation is in keep-barrelling-forward mode from start to finish this week and so the moment isn’t really properly exploited.

Instead this particular strand concludes with another ever-so-slightly fumbled twist – Provine, by now disguised as one of the rebels, is assigned to be Blake’s escort as he searches for his quarry – and then an unconvincingly realised action beat: if Provine continued to be as ruthlessly effective as he has been all episode, then Blake is obviously dead with a hole burned into his back, and yet (of course) he manages to turn the tables on Provine relatively easily. Needless to say, Provine discharges his plot duties before croaking it – Central Control now goes by the name of Star One, and the only man who might know the location of the place is a cyber-surgeon named Docholli. Can you hear the ongoing plot threads humming in the breeze?

Almost anything would look good after Hostage, but it’s fair to say that Countdown isn’t as good an action-adventure as Terry Nation’s last couple of contributions to the series. There’s just something ever-so-slightly contrived to many of the set-ups involved in the story, a slightly melodramatic quality. Blake’s 7 is often fairly melodramatic, but not quite this obviously. Nevertheless, it doesn’t hang about, it’s never dull, and Paul Darrow obviously gets some good material, so it has three things going in its favour no matter what its weaknesses are.

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You know how you can be completely oblivious to something for a really long time, but then (once you become aware of it) it suddenly seems to be everywhere? That’s how I’m starting to feel about some of the script problems with Blake’s 7. I say ‘problems’ because that’s very much how they appear, four decades on; I suppose there are people who might disagree and insist on calling them ‘tropes’ or ‘conventions’, but, you know, when it comes to the splitting of hairs there’s a time and a place. Last week’s episode was Killer, in which Blake, Avon, and Vila got to beam down to the planet and have all the fun. This week’s episode is Hostage, in which.. I think you may be ahead of me. (The current tendency for Blake episodes to be named after New Avengers episodes does not last and is probably just a weird double-coincidence.)

Hostage is another episode from Allan Prior, coming fairly closely on the heels of Horizon, about which I was mildly positive: the episode had a heavy-handed staginess about it which I found hard work, but at least it was genuinely trying to be about something. Watching this one, one gets the impression that Prior was thanked for his work and invited to the production office, where David Maloney and Chris Boucher very gently strapped him to a chair and forced him to watch fifteen Terry Nation episodes in a row, just to help him catch the style of the show. The results are… well…

The episode opens with a major space battle as the Federation sends in a fleet of twenty pursuit ships to destroy the Liberator. This is about as exciting as one could hope for, given the palpably low budget and shortage of models involved; needless to say our heroes eventually manage to escape after pulling off the requisite death-defying feat. Unfortunately you could tune in just after the big battle sequence and not really feel like you’ve missed much: it doesn’t inform the plot at all.

What does get things kicked off is a message the crew receive in the next scene: it’s from Travis, who is on the planet Exbar, a former penal colony and home to Blake’s uncle and his cousin. Travis wants to team up with Blake (or so he says) and asks Blake to come to Exbar so they can talk. If he doesn’t come, then Travis will kill his cousin Inga (Judy Buxton). This is not how I would go about convincing someone of my bona fides, but there you go. ‘It’s a trap!’ shouts everyone but Blake, but our hero is not swayed by Avon’s talk of unacceptable risks. ‘The risk is not unacceptable because I accept it,’ says Blake, and while everyone is trying to work out that cryptic bit of semi-logic the ship gets under way.

The script’s odd habit of including quite nice bits that don’t actually connect with the plot continues, as back at Space Command HQ Servalan has a meeting with Councillor Joban, a man we must assume is very near the top of the Federation pyramid. What gives the scene that cachet of quality is the fact that Joban is played by the wonderful Kevin Stoney, a peerless character actor who in his time delivered terrific performances in shows ranging from I, Claudius to Space: 1999. Sadly he’s only in the one scene here, which largely consists of him and Jacqueline Pearce purring implied threats at one another – once again, it barely informs the plot. Once Joban clears off, however, she gets a mysterious message telling her that Travis is on Exbar.

Blake, meanwhile, beams down to Exbar, which he apparently visited as a boy. We should probably consider this rare insight into Blake’s formative years more closely, but it’s all too easy to get sidetracked by the fact that the episode reveals Blake has close blood relatives still alive and (prior to this episode) unmolested by the Federation. The Federation obviously knew they were here (Travis has hardly stumbled upon them by chance) so why have they not been interned or used as leverage? Why are they still alive at all, given what we learned of the fate of Blake’s immediate family in the first episode of the series?

These are all questions which firmly go unanswered as the first person Blake meets turns out to be Uncle Ushton. Ushton is played by John Abineri, another terrific character actor – this episode comes in the gap between his roles as action-yokel Hubert in Survivors and mystic shaman Herne the Hunter in Robin of Sherwood, but his CV also includes a Bond film, one of the Godfather movies, a guest spot as Rimmer’s father in Red Dwarf and – perhaps most iconic of all – playing the butler in the only Ferrero Roche commercial that matters. (Apparently Abineri was a last-minute replacement for Duncan Lamont, who passed away shortly before – some even suggest during – filming.)

Travis contemplates calling his agent.

Ushton knows exactly where Inga is being held by Travis and his henchmen (who are all ‘crimos’, or criminal psychopaths, which doesn’t seem like the best recruitment strategy), but he’s got a bad leg and so packs Blake off to rescue her unassisted. Needless to say, he soon gets into trouble with the crimos (who wear rather fetching colour-coded tops and balaclavas for some reason), as do Avon and Vila, who have followed him down – this is because Avon feels guilty for secretly sending the message summoning Servalan, a slightly confused bit of storytelling the script seems to be trying to bury.

This is largely because Uncle Ushton is selling Blake out to Travis, on the grounds that his first loyalty is to his daughter. This isn’t an impossible sell as a plot development goes, but everyone is just a bit too forgiving of Ushton once they learn of it and he rejoins the side of the angels. This episode is all action and plot in the second and third acts, with not much attention paid to anything resembling character or emotion. It really is a very shallow and rather unrewarding watch, at least as the kind of entertainment the production team were doubtless aiming for.

The bits of it that I enjoyed were the misjudged or silly ones – the bad costuming, the running about, supposedly heavy boulders bouncing like beach balls as they supposedly crush the bad guys. It plays rather like a bad, foolish western, without a great deal of depth or subtext to it. The only real interest in the episode is the opportunity it has to reveal some of Blake’s background – and what’s striking is how little of this potential gets realised. The only exception comes when it addresses Blake’s relationship with his cousin Inga. According to Blake, ‘she meant a lot to me once’ and when he eventually says goodbye to her, it takes the form of mouth-kissing. I repeat, it’s his cousin (admittedly, she’s rather comely), and just to drive the point home Jenna is allowed to beam down just to look jealous of her. It’s a very appropriate conclusion to the episode – which is another way of saying it’s clumsy, thick-headed, and just feels not quite right. Perhaps we get a glimpse not just of Blake’s past, but of the future Blake is fighting for – a future where the Federation is gone, where people are free, and where the childrens’ toes are webbed.

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