Posts Tagged ‘SF’

If you want to watch a film with no actual ideas of its own, which exists purely as a calculated attempt to copy the tone and style of something currently commercially successful, then a Netflix original, or pretty much anything debuting on a streaming service, is usually a safe bet. (Do I sound more than usually growly? Constant reader, it’s because one of my favourite local cinemas just abruptly shut – which is why the planned review of Sisu will not be appearing any time soon – while the axe of threatened closure currently hangs over another. It’s starting to feel like the last days of cinema are upon us and if I knew where to make my stand I would be going there imminently.) For a good specific example, you could do worse than check out something like Mark Raso’s Awake, which was a big hit on its release in 2021 despite receiving terrible reviews.

Gina Rodriguez (not the porn star) plays Jill, a woman whose life seems to be a collection of exes – ex-military, ex-drug addict, and quite possibly ex-wife given she has a couple of children but no actual partner. That Jill has slipped off the path of virtue is made clear early on when we see her stealing drugs from the university where she is a security guard and selling them to a former associate. Hmmm! Is this going to be some kind of hard-hitting social drama?

Constant reader, it is not. Jill and her kids are driving somewhere when there is An Unusual Event and cars start crashing all around them. They end up in a lake and her younger child Matilda (Ariana Greenblatt) has to be defibrillated (this is a key plot point but one the film admittedly does a good job of not telegraphing too blatantly). Weird things are afoot at the hospital where they end up, as all the coma patients have mysteriously woken up.

So far, you know, the film hasn’t exactly been singing but neither has it fumbled stuff too badly. This starts to change as it gradually becomes apparent that the Unusual Event has done something weird to everyone’s brains and removed their ability to fall asleep. Now this, you might think, is not the worst problem that could be afflicting the world, and certainly not a particularly urgent one. Well, maybe and maybe not: if nothing else Awake has impelled me to do some research into sleep deprivation – this is a bit ironic as I can’t remember the last time I got more than seven hours at a stretch and I’ve been feeling permanently knackered for weeks – and apparently there is a thing called fatal insomnia, which is exactly what it sounds like. The problem is that it operates over a period of many months which is not particularly useful if you’re assembling a sci-fi thriller movie. And so the effects of sleep deprivation start to appear at an accelerated rate, for no other reason than that the plot demands it. We pass the big signpost on the border, and it reads ‘You Are Now Entering The State Of Melodrama’.

It seems that Matilda is the only person around who can still grab forty winks, but unfortunately her grandma has taken her off to church, where the increasingly twitchy congregation do not find her miraculous ability to snooze especially comforting. ‘Let’s sacrifice her!’ shouts a rather excitable member of the flock, a suggestion which is taken up by general acclaim. These people have been awake for less than 48 hours straight, probably, and so this degree of wanton looniness is entirely uncalled for. But remember where we are.

Anyway, it turns out some former associates of Jill’s in the army have got hold of someone else who can sleep and have taken them to a research institute to find out why. After some huffing and fuffing just to fill time, Jill agrees to take Matilda there as well, which entails a lengthy road-trip across the increasingly loony-filled country. For some reason Jill and other important characters have not gone quite as rapidly mad as the supporting artists. But does salvation truly rest in the hands of the US Army or will they have to figure out/stumble upon their own solution to the problem?

Well, take a wild guess, gang. You can see exactly where the idea for this film came from – somebody saw A Quiet Place and probably Bird Box and thought, wrongly, ‘we can do one of those’. Not being able to speak or make any noises is an interesting jeopardy point for a movie. Not being able to see, also, obviously. But not being able to sleep? Considerably less so, I would argue. Hence all the fudges the film is obliged to make in order to up the tension and action quotient of the movie – it’s not just that people can’t sleep, it’s that they can’t sleep and most of them are rapidly turning into raving nutters. The ‘inability to sleep’ thing is a red herring compared to the ‘random violent nutter’ problem which is what the film is predominantly about. It’s a bit like 28 Days Later, but retooled as 48 Hours Without A Nap.

All the usual notes of parental obligation and bonding are duly struck, tinnily. If Brian Aldiss were still around I would love to hear his take on the films of this kind of subgenre: it was Aldiss who coined the name ‘cosy catastrophe’ for the kind of books he claimed John Wyndham and others were writing – where civilisation falls and the bleak aftermath actually consists of living on a smallholding on the Isle of Wight with your family and friends around you. There’s something of that going on in films like this one – it doesn’t matter how much of society falls to bits, it’s a happy ending as long as you bond with your kids and nobody too close to you dies. Certainly in this film, despite the ostensibly happy ending, a vast primary kill (from sleep deprivation!) seems inevitable, and the thing is that this is not presented as a particular problem or tragedy. Distinct lack of joined-up thinking here: the film seems rather somnambulistic itself, moving vaguely around but with nothing going on behind the eyes.

The acting and direction are competent although the low budget of the movie is clearly discernible. It passes the time if you just want something to keep half-an-eye on while playing Internet scrabble or something like that. But if you actually want to watch a movie and end up sitting at home with this rather than going out to a proper cinema – well, you deserve it. If nobody ever goes to a restaurant, we’ll all end up eating take-out, and this isn’t even good junk food.

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Oh, where to start? I just want to reiterate that I really liked the last episode of Strange New Worlds that we discussed, despite the downer ending. What can I say, I’m just inherently glum, I suppose. However, perhaps that gloomy denouement does have a bearing on the subsequent instalment, The Serene Squall (possibly The Congruent Oxymoron was considered as a title but ditched), because this certainly follows the grim/serious-episode-then-high-spirited-romp-episode pattern which is starting to develop.

Things get underway, somewhat weirdly, with Spock’s fiancee T’Pring making an entry in her personal log. (She’s some sort of prison psychiatrist, so why does she even have a personal log? Does everyone in this timeline have a log? Does Uhura have a log? Does M’Benga’s kid who lives in the transporter buffer have a log? Does Pike’s horse have a log? I guess the writers were just so habituated to the use of the log as a storytelling device that they didn’t actually stop to think about it. Hmmm.) Anyway, T’Pring is looking to help their relationship by ‘spicing things up’, which involves reading some naughty books from Earth history and then attempting to discuss them with Spock. I quite empathised with Spock’s discomfort as this scene was quite like what I imagine listening to my parents talk about their own amatory shenanigans would be like.

The A-plot thankfully kicks in with the ship going out to assist some colonists stranded on the edge of Federation space; this is at the request of visiting character Dr Aspen (Jesse James Keitel – the famous Keitel’s cousin, apparently). However, when they arrive, all the signs are that the colonists have been captured by space pirates (oh, don’t worry, we will come back to this; you’d better believe we’ll come back to this) and are in danger of being sold into slavery. So Pike sends the Enterprise in pursuit of the pirate ship, which involves flying through a very dense asteroid field for a long time (The Empire Strikes Back has a lot to answer for). After avoiding a few cunning traps, the ship catches up with them and Pike decides to join the tactical squad being sent over to try and rescue them; his combat suit is, of course, thoughtfully equipped with a gold-plated chestplate, just so anyone fighting them will know who the high-value target is. Actually, this is the first time that Number One mentions that Pike is breaking protocol by leading the landing party himself – which, for all that it makes sense, doesn’t really chime with Kirk leading virtually every landing party himself just a few years later. Unless, of course, we’re in a parallel timeline.

But while the security team are beaming over to the pirates, some pirates are beaming over to the Enterprise, and succeed in capturing the whole ship pretty damn quick. How many pirates are there? Let us not forget there are over four hundred people on the Enterprise, most of whom are members of a paramilitary organisation and likely able to handle themselves quite well even in an emergency. But the plot demands that the Enterprise be captured and so it is. There is a plot twist here too, which I will not reveal because I am basically an honourable person even though I think this episode stinks.

The pirate captain is planning to sell the Enterprise and its crew, but not before swapping Spock for one of the prisoners whom T’Pring is involved in trying to rehabilitate. So that’s something Spock and Chapel (whom he has teamed up with this week) have to resolve. Meanwhile Pike and the others, who don’t seem particularly bothered about being captured by pirates and thrown into a cage, put the standard escape-from-pirates protocol into operation.

Gene Roddenberry, as is well known, had many strict rules about the scripting of Star Trek, especially in the TNG era: no acquisitiveness, no conflict between crew members, no prejudice, all skirts to be no longer than mid-thigh. One of the more obscure of these was ‘no space pirates’ although nearly everyone seems quite vague about his reasoning on this point. ‘They’re just corny’ seems to be the consensus, but I’m sure I remember something along the lines of ‘the crew are explorers, not policemen’. I think it may also have something to do with the fact that Roddenberry was quite high-minded in his intentions for Star Trek, and the only way you can successfully do a story about space pirates is as relatively low comedy, leaning into all the cliches about eyepatches and walking the plank and so on; exceptions to this rule are vanishingly rare (I suppose the raiders in Babylon 5 are technically space pirates, but they all get killed off pretty early on). But here comes Strange New Worlds, taking a running jump at a space pirate story nevertheless.

A space pirate, yesterday.

Although, to their credit (not much credit, this episode is deeper into the red than Black Widow’s ledger – oh, yes, friends, I can do topical pop culture references), the makers of the episode seem to have figured out the low comedy thing and so much of this episode is another (I’m tempted to say yet another) light-hearted romp with Pike mounting an escape through cooking and Spock and Chapel attempting to dissemble a relationship. And there is what I think is supposed to be a comedy villain in the form of pirate Captain Angel. ‘We wanted a character you would love to hate’ according to the production team. They are partway there, because I certainly – well, hate is a strong word for an emotion I do my best only to indulge in under very strict conditions (when confronted with the grossest moral failings of humanity – prejudice, exploitation, Boris Johnson, that sort of thing), but I would certainly be very happy never to see this character again.

And once it all resolves comes a twist ending, sort of – or a revelation, anyway. This one I am going to spoil… SPOILERS INCOMING… you see, one of the Vulcan criminals that T’Pring is trying to rehabilitate turns out to be (and let’s forget about all notions of conflicts of interest and personal involvement, because they’re Vulcans after all) Spock’s half-brother Sybok from Star Trek V! Yes, whenever two or more Trekkies are gathered together the conversation invariably turns to William Shatner’s magnum opus and how much everyone loves it and wants to see more of the characters and concepts it introduced. (Captain, sensors are detecting extremely high levels of irony.)

All right, I know I am often a miserable and reactionary old sod about the SF and fantasy franchises I loved in my distant and fading youth, but that’s not the only reason I think this episode is terrible, is it? I don’t know. I don’t think so. Anyway, I think this is a terrible episode, and the indications we’ll be seeing Sybok and Captain Angel again at some point drag my spirits down like a neutronium manacle about my soul. But apart from that, mustn’t grumble.

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I know it may be hard to believe, but I really do try hard to be a positive person; endless griping and dwelling on disappointment does nobody any good, after all. I was genuinely hoping to be able to find lots of positive things to say about Strange New Worlds, and yet time and again I have found myself stumbling into grumbling, often about the fact this modern TV series so closely resembles a modern TV series, which is probably not really grounds for complaint. (Getting the continuity so wilfully wrong week after week I will stick by as a casus belli, mainly bcause this is a choice they are making for themselves.)

The next episode, Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach, finds the show back in its default tone – not too grimdark and not trying to be too light-hearted either. The Enterprise is back in territory Pike visited back when he was a young officer when it comes across a ship under attack; being good Starfleet types the crew intervene and shoot down the marauder (somewhat by accident, but it still counts). On the ship turns out to be a woman who Pike got to know on his previous visit, a grumpy former physician, and the physician’s son (‘only biologically,’ he is at pains to point out, rather cryptically). The lad, who is naturally a rather winsome moppet, turns out to be a spiritual figure for his home civilisation, being taken from a preparatory retreat to his homeworld of Majalis where a major dedication ceremony awaits him.

According to Alora, Pike’s old friend, this is because the lad – ‘the First Servant’, apparently – is of incalculable value to the Majalan civilisation and thus a prime target for mercenary-minded aliens keen to try their hands at an abduction. As the Enterprise is already mixed up in all this, Pike volunteers to keep the boy safe until it’s time for the ceremony, even though Alora seems a bit conflicted about that.

Pike considers joining the SCA.

As you may not be entirely surprised to hear, a mystery begins to develop – just who were the attackers? Alora has said they were from an alien colony, but evidence suggests a much closer connection to Majalis itself, and a conspiracy at all levels of Majalan society to sabotage the dedication ceremony. While all this is going on, the crew is learning of the wonders of Majalan technology and culture – not only do they potentially hold the key to saving M’Benga’s own child from having to grow up in the transporter buffer, they may even be able to undo the effects of the horrific injuries Pike is due to suffer in a few years time. The snag – and of course there’s a snag – is that the Majalans don’t share their technology with aliens (that Prime Directive cuts both ways, I guess), but if Pike were to settle down there…? Certainly Alora seems very keen to get to know him a lot better…

I ended up having to watch this episode twice before writing about it, which is somewhat unusual – not because it is excessively complicated or difficult to follow, it’s just not as simplistic as some of the others have been recently. Rather than a collection of repurposed old plot points from previous iterations of Trek, it’s probably the first episode to genuinely have the sense of being an actual pastiche of the original series. The obvious reference point is The Cloud Minders, a third-season episode which, like most third-season episodes, is not exactly drowning in affection from the fanbase: both deal with apparently cultured-civilisations that have a dark secret, and – on a more superficial level – both feature flying anti-gravity cities.

Personally, I quite like The Cloud Minders – it’s not the most distinguished piece of original Trek, but there are much worse; the costume designs are fun and it has a sort of thematic-metaphorical purity to it. And I rather like Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach, too, not really for the same reasons but because it has an undeniably retro quality to it (Pike gets a bit of kissy time and a couple of fist fights) and a strange note of sweetness, in the early stages at least. What’s particularly impressive is that this isn’t overdone to the point where you go ‘Uh oh, this is all setting something really horrible up.’

I mean, I’ve written about my fondness for table-top RPGs before and the players in my games of Cthulhu in particular have learned the hard way that if they stumble across a cache of high-powered weapons and explosives with which to equip themselves, it means they are in for a brutally horrific time involving something completely immune to conventional weapons. In the same way, the clumsy way to do this episode would have been to overload the tweeness and cuteness until it was obvious there was going to be shocking reversal. They still manage the shocking reversal, and manage one which – while foreshadowed – still comes as a surprise.

If you’re on the ball – and here we enter the realm of SPOILERS INCOMING – the suspicious similarity between the treatment of the First Servant, and that of the Perfect Victim in the civilisation of the Aztecs, is probably fairly obvious. For, yes, the Majalans practice a technological form of human sacrifice, all in the name of preserving their civilisation in its current very agreeable form. Now, it’s interesting to consider what sort of allegorical point the episode is gunning for at this point: I just thought it was something quite general about the child labour involved in the production of a lot of luxury goods we value in 21st century western civilisation. However, I have seen it suggested that this episode is actually a very oblique statement on the whole issue of the Second Amendment and gun control in contemporary America: the founders of the Majalan civilisation organised things so their descendents have to plug a child into a machine every few years just to keep things going. Nobody knows why. I’m not sure this entirely hangs together – the writers of the Second Amendment wrote it for fairly intelligible reasons, just reasons which are now arcane and anachronistic – but it adds a degree of heft and moral content to an episode which deserves it. It does feel genuinely tragic when the Majalans turn out to be complicit in monstrosity, as the hope they offer both Pike and M’Benga has been subtly set up throughout the episode. Star Trek isn’t usually very good at downer endings, but this one works.

To be fair, most of the episode’s subtlety dissipates like mist at dawn as the climax arrives, and I thought the subtext was very on-the-nose (this was before I realised I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be). But, once again, the sense of being bopped on the snoot by the writers with respect to whatever issue they wish to explore or point they wish to make is a familiar one to those of us who have spent a lot of time with this franchise, so this is once again a rather agreeable and nostalgic sensation.  Star Trek is often at its best when it’s up on a soapbox of some sort, and the sincerity of the script is as obvious as its quality. This is the best episode yet of Strange New Worlds. 

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One of the questions you’re left with after watching Chie Hayakawa’s Plan 75 is that of exactly what kind of film this is, because it doesn’t really fit into any obvious category. Is it a socially-conscious drama? A naturalistic piece of dystopian science fiction? A rather unusual horror film? Certainly there are elements of all three going on.

The film is set in Japan in what looks very much like the present day. Japan, as you may know, is blessed with one of the longest life-expectancies in the developed world and afflicted by a problematically-low birth rate; this has created what used to be referred to as a demographic time bomb, as there will eventually be too many elderly people for the younger generation to take care of effectively. The film imagines a situation where this is causing immense social pressures, with spree killings and hate crimes targeting old people becoming a serious issue.

The response of the authorities is Plan 75, a measure deeply rooted in the Japanese traditions of social responsibility and and self-sacrifice. Anyone aged 75 or older can apply to join a scheme where they report to a facility where their life will be quietly and peacefully brought to an end; in return they will receive a grant of about $1000 as a reward, which they can spend on whatever they like (spa days and beauty treatments are mentioned).

Initially the film deals with a number of plotlines in parallel – a Filippino migrant worker (Stefanie Arianne), badly needing money for her child’s medical care, gets a job working at a Plan 75 facility. A young man (Hayato Isomura), whose job is as a junior administrator for the scheme, discovers his estranged uncle has applied to join it. And, most centrally, there is the story of an old but dignified woman, Mishi (Chieko Baisho) – she has no family, and it is getting harder to make ends meet (the implication is that the government is making it harder for older citizens to keep their jobs, presumably to pressure them towards a Plan 75 application). She wants to be a good citizen, naturally, and everyone from the plan whom she speaks to is so friendly and helpful…

The film is shot with an almost documentary-like reserve and lack of sensationalism, but it makes very clear the kind of soft power being wielded by the authorities: Plan 75, they stress, is entirely voluntary and applicants can withdraw from the process at any time. But at the same time, for an older generation which still broadly trusts the authorities, there is an unspoken sense of expectation – given it is supposedly for the good of society, it is surely selfish for an eligible person not to apply for the plan…?

The whole notion of society is at the heart of Plan 75: its nature, its purpose, what is best for it. What’s happening, of course, is that society is being treated as something separate from the people who comprise it – for if anything else were the case, the good of the elderly would be being considered, and the euthanasia of healthy old people can hardly be said to be in their best interests. Or, to put it another way – while the film is initially very detached and non-judgemental, it eventually makes it horribly clear that what Plan 75 is really about is people deemed to have no value being taken somewhere out of the public gaze and quietly gassed to death.

Through some deft slight-of-hand, Hayakawa contrives it so that the moment of realisation that this is what’s happening hits like a hammer. This is a considerable achievement, given the film is up-front about what Plan 75 involves from the start – there’s no ‘Soylent Green is people!’ twist here. The film lays its cards on the table slowly and carefully as the climax approaches – we learn that Plan 75 workers are encouraged to essentially loot the bodies of expired applicants, to reduce the amount of clothing and other personal items to be disposed of (the images of piles of possessions being rummaged through by workers in uniforms has its own historical resonance), while Isomura’s character is perturbed to learn that one of the private sector partners in the running of the scheme is a company specialising in running landfill sites. And for all that the plan is supposedly voluntary, we learn that the staff who interact with applicants are explicitly told to ensure no-one changes their mind.

The grimmest thing about the film is not that it is about what’s essentially an extermination programme, but the fact that it makes it seem so plausible and convincing. Plan 75’s training sessions and office politics are distressingly mundane: everyone involved seems to have mastered that variety of tunnel vision where they concentrate on the specifics of their job and manage not to think about what they’re actually doing. (As a former civil servant involved with the rationalisation of senior care services in a major UK county, this brought back some disquieting memories.) The treatment of the elderly is a long-standing concern of Japanese films (Ozu’s Tokyo Story dealt with the theme seventy years ago) but one can imagine similar scenes playing out in Europe or North America very easily.

Euthanasia is the hook for this film, but it felt very much to me like there was a broader question being asked here, one about how we treat the elderly in general. Just because we don’t gas them and stick their ashes in a landfill it doesn’t necessarily make us saints – I couldn’t help but remember the treatment of people in care homes during the pandemic, and the supposed ‘let the bodies pile high’ declaration from one of the UK’s foremost national disgraces. People are not very good at accepting their own mortality, and this seems to extend to a reluctance to acknowledge that everybody, one day, will get old – with luck, anyway – even us.

Ageing populations are a real problem and it’s fair to say that Plan 75 doesn’t have an alternative answer to offer. But it does a tremendous job of suggesting that there is no such thing as ‘voluntary’ euthanasia, and that the introduction of such a scheme, rather than saving society, is almost certain to brutalise it and everyone involved. This is not a cheerful film, as you would expect, but a very well-made and profoundly humane one.

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Even before I started in on watching the actual episode, I was a bit dubious about Spock Amok, just from the title. If you’re going to do an episode focussing on the most beloved character in Star Trek history, and include a reference to one of the most famous and – yes, for once it is justified – iconic instalments in the entire franchise, you’d better be damn sure you’ve got something special lined up to justify it.

And, while it may perhaps be fairly said that I am a reactionary old pedant with a shrivelled husk where my heart and soul should reside and no appreciation of the nature of the modern world and its culture, I must confess that the actual homage to Amok Time at the start of Spock Amok disarmed me almost completely in its charm and attention to detail. Then again, it is, as noted, iconic and already much-parodied, so there’s really no excuse for not getting it right.

The rest of the episode? Well… not so much, you probably won’t be terribly surprised to discover. This is not based on any deep ideological disagreement with the writers of the episode, or due to an egregious decision to rewrite yet more of the original series’ continuity, but something rather more basic. This is that I generally don’t like funny Star Trek.

(That said, egregious continuity rewrite of the week is that Starfleet are apparently aware that the R’Ongovians are about to go into negotiations with the Romulans. Presumably not those same Romulans that Starfleet had received no information about for nearly a century in the episode Balance of Terror, set only a few years  later… oh, hang on, it is those Romulans. Hmm. That’s a bit awkward, isn’t it? Or it would be if you cared about this stuff.)

Yes, funny Star Trek. I imagine I’m going to be writing the words funny Star Trek a lot in the course of the few paragraphs, potentially to the point where we all get a bit sick of them. So it may well be that I decide to start switching in some other, similar words just to avoid monotony for us all.

Anyway, what’s Spock Amok actually about? Well, it’s a change-of-pace episode where after various death-defiances the various members of the crew get a chance to relax. For SNW-Spock it’s a chance to hang out with his fiancee SNW-T’Pring, while some of the others go off fishing (there is the obligatory silly hat) or catching up with old friends or whatever. Meanwhile, someone in the writer’s room has noticed that SNW-Number One and Lt Khan Jr are not that far away from basically being exactly the same person – fierce, no-nonsense humourless professional – and so naturally they pair them up together for what I suppose we are obliged to call high-jinks. SNW-Pike gets stuck with the job of leading some complex negotiations with the R’Ongovians, a tricky bunch of aliens.

(It seems to be a trope, not just of Trek but other space opera TV series, that the tricky alien diplomatic contact is frequently  used as a plot challenge in one of the more bloody-mindedly light-hearted episodes. Picard got stuck in the middle of wacky holodeck shenanigans while preparing for sensitive negotiations on at least one occasion, while I can even recall a couple of Babylon 5 episodes revolving around aliens with peculiar idiosyncrasies, some of which are probably a bit cringeworthy by modern standards.)

The problem is that none of these subplots is exactly screaming with comic potential – with the possible exception of the main one, I suppose, which concerns Spock and T’Pring having an involuntary body swap as a result of an accident in the ancient Vulcan k’ate-b’ush-run-nin-up-dat-hyl ritual – it’s sort of Freaky Friday on Mount Seleya. It feels like they’re having a go at doing tummy far fleck because tummy far fleck is one of the things that is an integral part of the far fleck – sorry, Star Trek – palette. And I’m not sure that it is.

I’m not going to say ‘it’s all David Gerrold’s fault’ because David Gerrold’s dunny mar shreck script was genuinely amusing and he shouldn’t be held responsible, any more than The Beatles should be held responsible for late Oasis albums. Gerrold wrote The Trouble With Tribbles, which was the first full-blooded attempt at doing Star Trek as a comedy. It’s one of the immortal episodes of the series, but the problem – as recurred, twenty years later, when Star Trek IV was a great success as a comedy-drama and the studio decreed that all subsequent films should be funnied up a bit – was less capable attempts to repeat its success.

It’s a weird thing, but a lot of Star Trek does comic by-play between the various characters extremely well – all the main characters of the original series are well-served with funny lines that they know exactly what to do with, and the same is true for several members of the TNG ensemble. The occasional snappy line in a generally-serious episode or movie is one of the hallmarks of Trek at its best; it’s when the order is given to actually make being funny the raison d’etre of something that it can get a bit punishing for the viewer. Supposedly-amusing musical cues start to insert themselves into the soundtrack, to tell the audience that This Is Funny; characterisation tends to take second place to the rather laborious pursuit of laughs.

This is not a plea for wall to wall grim and serious Star Trek, of course: it’s an essentially optimistic franchise, after all, and it should have a sense of hopefulness and (occasionally) fun about it. If Star Trek seemed capable of consistently doing genuinely funny episodes then perhaps I would feel better disposed towards the idea. But the problem is that most comedy Star Trek is just not very funny. It’s not in the genome of the series, really: it wasn’t intended to be funny.

(Perhaps this is why parody Star Trek is such a consistent source of genuine hilarity in a way that comedy Star Trek itself seldom is. All right, I’m mainly thinking of Galaxy Quest, which probably qualifies as the funniest bit of Star Trek ever made even though it’s not technically Star Trek itself.)

There’s nothing much enormously wrong with any of the plot threads in Spock Amok, even if some of them stretch credulity a bit. It’s just that none of them are actually particularly funny. As usual, wit and subtlety depart the scene at warp speed and the episode seems suddenly to become rather pleased with itself: look at me! I’m trying to be funny! I have genuine range and depth! Trying and succeeding are not, of course, the same thing. Even if Star Trek were a one trick pony (and it isn’t), there’s something to be said for knowing the thing you’re best at and being content to excel at that one thing.

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This week’s episode of Strange New Worlds is Memento Mori. (By ‘this week’ I mean ‘the episode that I watched this week’ not ‘the episode that was first broadcast this week’, obviously.) Last time I wrote about Ghosts of Illyria and was generally quite positive, in an only moderately sarcastic way, about the manner in which it happily recycled one of the old standard Star Trek plots.

Memento Mori is a bit like that but also something quite different. It starts off with the ship on the way to the colony Finibus III to deliver some important supplies; on the way the crew attend to the important job of establishing the thematic and character-based elements of the plot. This episode is clearly going to be about loss and the grieving process, and also SNW-Uhura impressing the grumpy blind chief engineer.

In retrospect what follows is actually a relatively close homage to / rip off of a classic, dare I say it iconic, episode of the original show – for a while, anyway. Finibar III is silent when the Enterprise arrives, and a landing party discovers the settlement in ruins with signs of a slaughter having occurred. A freighter arrives carrying a load of survivors, obliging the ship to dock with them (the freighter has a plot-enabling transporter-resistant hull); this proves to be a very bad idea as this whole situation is apparently a trap (a very complicated and rather improbably devious trap, if you ask me) to enable a bunch of hostile aliens to attack the Enterprise while its shields are down. And, even worse, the aliens are revealed to be…

Oh, dear. I know I’ve already made it quite clear that, as far as my own headcanon goes, Fandango, SNW, the new cartoon shows, and probably even Picard are all alt-universe versions of Star Trek – some further adrift from the original timeline than others, but none of them quite there. The discontinuities just pile up too quickly and glaringly for anything else to be the case. I’m genuinely baffled by the fact that nearly everyone who takes more than a casual interest in Trek seems to be buying into the official line that they’re all in the same continuity, even with established historical events jumping casually between centuries and regular characters mysteriously changing their personalities and ethnicities. Probably annoyed as well as baffled, but that’s by-the-by. Memento Mori has at least one minor continuity rewrite of its own: Spock performs a mind meld with Lt. Khan Jr, despite the fact that in an episode theoretically set rather later (Dagger of the Mind) he states he’s never mind-melded with a human before. Look out for some wriggling which I expect will take the form of them declaring that Khan Jr isn’t technically human, or something like that.

Every other photo from this episode I could find was rather generic.

Anyway, the major continuity rewrite this week is that the malevolent aliens sadistically lying in wait for the Enterprise are the Gorn, who we see in the episode Arena (which Memento Mori sort-of homages, briefly) but who then really drop out of sight barring a few tiny references and a cameo in one of the final episodes of Enterprise. (My suspicion has always been that this was because the rubber suit used to create the Gorn was too expensive for them to be viable as a recurring species.)

We don’t actually get a look at a Gorn in this episode, but Khan Jr seems absolutely convinced it’s them, which is weird as they don’t seem to have a very great deal in common with the Gorn from Arena. The Arena Gorn were ruthless and devious too, but they didn’t seem to go around eating people and – perhaps most crucially – they attack and destroy a Federation colony because it accidentally impinges on their territory, not because they’re homicidal maniacs. There’s a whole plot beat in Arena where the characters realise the Gorn may have a justifiable grievance with the Federation. It’s also fairly clear that, as far as Kirk’s Enterprise is concerned, the Gorn are an almost wholly unknown quantity, which would be very strange if Pike’s Enterprise has supposedly fought a major battle against them.

We’ve seen aliens – monsters – like Memento Mori‘s Gorn before, anyway, they just weren’t called Gorn. The aliens-obsessed-with-hunting-humans gag obviously brings to mind the Hirogen from Voyager; Enterprise had an episode about an evil ship that went around terrorising less advanced civilisations, too. The specific references to Treks-gone-by in this episode are fairly dismal, but when it comes to a sort of generic evocation of the history of the series it’s… well, really relentless, to be honest.

This isn’t really doing one of the classic Trek story structures, nor a very obvious homage to a specific other film or TV show, but at the same time it still feels incredibly derivative. The opening is a loose rewrite of Arena‘s first act or so. Then, the ship has to hide inside a big cloud of gas to evade its enemies? That’s a staple Trek bit, and I’m certain there’s a whole episode of DS9 based on that exact premise, I just can’t be bothered to look it up. I could go on, but I can’t believe anyone still reading this would want that. Even the bit with SNW-Uhura and Hemmer trapped in the cargo bay is surely the bit with Crusher and Geordi trapped in the cargo bay from that TNG episode where Worf delivers a baby and Data’s head falls off.

I know the point of SNW is to be the version of new-Trek that’s supposed to be comfort viewing for your more seasoned Trek watcher (which must be why I have accepted it so wholly and unreservedly, har har), but is it going to be like this regularly going forward? Claiming to be a prequel show then not really paying attention to the nuts and bolts of canon and continuity, but managing to feel – on some level – authentic, primarily through sourcing virtually every plot element and beat from a previous episode in the franchise.

I mean, on one level the episode certainly hangs together as a sort of exercise in plot-carpentry. If you’d never seen Trek before you might very well be faintly impressed by Memento Mori; it’s technically very competent and rather atmospheric. And if you have seen Trek before, well, there’s an awful lot there which seems designed to get the fans onside, one way or another. But to me it felt rather like an episode where the first draft was written by an AI that had been fed Star Trek – The Complete Collected Scripts and the second draft and polish was done by somebody who knew a lot about the series but didn’t care at all about the consistency and coherence of the fictional universe. This to me was not a good combination. I wish I had liked it more, but it mostly just wound me up, I’m afraid.

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Back in the good old days I would often make sport of the fact that the Big Book of Star Trek Plots only seemed to have a handful of pages to it: there was the plot about Time Travel, the one about a Transporter Malfunction, and so on to include Stranded On An Alien Planet, Visit To An Alien Planet That Looks Like The Paramount Back Lot, Ambassadors Cause Trouble, etc. One of these was Strange Disease Causes Regular Cast To Act Strangely/Worse Than Usual, which is such a classic piece of Trek that it’s first instance in the original series got remade in TNG.

So you can imagine my delight when it turned out that the third episode of Strange New Worlds, Ghosts of Illyria, proved to be this old favourite rising from the grave. I wouldn’t say it was a prime example of this kind of story, but hey, early days.

The story gets underway with a landing party exploring an apparently-abandoned colony belonging to the Illyrians, an alien civilisation who seem quite advanced and not actually malevolent, but who have a vexed relationship with the Federation due to their fondness for tinkering about with their own genome. They shine a light on this very firmly so you just know that it’s going to be important to the plot. All seems very routine until a violent ion storm sweeps in and everyone has to beam back up to the Enterprise – but, of course, the damn thing blows a fuse and Pike and Spock find themselves stranded on the planet and in need of shelter.

Now, at this point you’re wondering – is this going to be an A-story about Pike and Spock bonding in extremis as they struggle survive? Or is this just the B-story to keep them out of the way so that the main plot can focus on someone else back on the ship. It proves to be the latter, and this week’s winner of the spotlight award is Rebecca Romjin as Number One (I’m aware she has another name now but I can never remember what it is).

Yes, this is a virus-runs-amok episode, although of course it is a virus that doesn’t show up on the scanners, has no obvious vector of communication, and causes the infected crew to behave very strangely indeed – obsessed with exposing themselves to light, even when this involves doing really stupid things like smashing their heads through panels and setting the warp reactor on overload. The only person who seems to be immune is Number One, whose body quickly eliminates the virus by glowing.

Well, it turns out that she is Illyrian herself and has an enhanced response to viral infections. It’s hard to see something like this really being problematic, but everyone in Starfleet just can’t get over all the trouble caused by the augments back in the 1990s, or possibly the 2030s in this timeline, and for her to reveal all of this would probably end her career. What’s a first officer to do? Meanwhile Pike and Spock are engaged in some slightly perfunctory goings-on with some energy creatures down on the surface.

To be honest, I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as Children of the Comet, for all that has such a comfortingly familiar shape to it. I mean, it’s not awful, of course, but come the end of it I couldn’t help feeling that the story hadn’t quite landed properly somehow. It felt like one of those stories where the protagonist is laboriously manoeuvred into a rather contrived and problematic situation simply so they can work through their personal issues and do something clever and equally contrived to save the day.

On further reflection I think the problem really boils down to the focus on Number One and the Illyrians. Now, I am aware that there has been a lot of apocryphal material about this character and her background over the years, establishing her racial background and her name (whatever it is), and that this episode is just canonising information that a lot of Trekkies would already know (canonising in an alternate timeline, anyway).

‘You know, it’s nice, but I think the decor is just a bit too garish for me.’

The whole crux of the episode, in terms of giving Number One a big dilemma to deal with, is about whether or not she reveals her heritage and special abilities to the rest of the crew. As the alternative is to let them all die of the virus, it seems a bit of a no-brainer to me anyway, but the thing keeping her from doing this is something we’ve never seen before on this show, which could just as well have been written specifically for this episode (not unlike Captain Kirk’s involvement in crimes against humanity as a young man, which only gets mentioned in a single show).

And it’s not even introduced that well – it seems like no-one else on the ship is aware she’s even an Illyrian, which really begs a number of very big questions about Starfleet’s recruitment policy and process. Did she never get a blood test or a DNA scan? What about her home address or next of kin? As I say, it all seems just a little bit contrived for the benefit of this particular story, and you just know anyway that Pike is going to use his personal authority to keep her in post come the end of the episode anyway.

The B-character moment this week comes when it is revealed that all of this happened because Dr M’Benga is secretly keeping his terminally ill daughter in stasis in the transporter buffer (making good and seemingly routine use of a discovery made by Scotty, thirty-odd years later, mutter grumble). occasionally materialising her so he can read her a story. Once again I’m afraid there was a bit of eye-rolling on my part when this particular nugget of character-building came into view. Is the Federation so absolutely inflexible when it comes to terminal illness as well as genetic engineering? Apparently this version of it is, yes.

I should say that the bulk of this story wasn’t actually that objectionable, just that the initial conditions required for it to happen seemed very contrived. But then again it wasn’t close to being as uproariously bad as The Naked Now or probably a few other episodes from the same lineage, so I should just shut me big fat mouth and stop pretending that my opinion on hip young modern TV means anything to anyone. I say ‘should’, but if I did that I’d have to stop the blog and I’d have nothing to do during quiet moments at work. So I guess we’ll just all just carry on as we are.

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So, another episode of Strange New Worlds – not that it actually features a strange new world much this week (Captain, my phaser is jammed on ‘pedantic’, I’m afraid). This one is called Children of the Comet and is, as I had hoped, significantly more fun than the series opener.

It takes a little while to get going, with a lengthy sequence depicting Captain Pike cooking all the other characters dinner (something I can’t quite imagine the more tightly-wound Jeffrey Hunter version of Pike doing). This is because we still have characters to introduce and establish, particular the chief engineer, who is a blind Andorian, and this show’s version of Uhura, who is the central character of this episode (it is somewhat gratifying to see them go back to the old Michael Piller schema where nearly every episode focuses on a particular individual and their issue-of-the-week – I assume that’s what they’re going to be doing, anyway). It is pretty much an iron rule that whatever attitude a character displays at the start of this sort of episode, they will have executed a smart 180-degree-turn by its end, and so it is not very surprising to learn that Uhura is not sure she wants to be in Starfleet long-term.

(I’m just going to express my disappointmnt at the belief, which appears to have become entrenched at Paramount/CBS in the last 15 years, that people are only going to be interested in Star Trek if it features or somehow connects to characters from one of the earlier iterations of the franchise. Hence Disco is a prequel about Spock’s miraculous adopted sister, Strange New Worlds features various original series characters, Picard is about, well, Picard, and one of the cartoons has a holographic Janeway in it (I believe) – it looks like the funny cartoon is exempt from this, though.

My point is that I would have found Disco a lot more tolerable if it had been set twenty or thirty years after Star Trek: Nemesis and had completely new characters, and a lot of the stuff that niggles me about Strange New Worlds is connected to the fact it’s a prequel (or technically interquel) series, supposedly featuring the same characters as previous ones. This show’s version of Uhura is an engaging character, well-written and well-played. But she’s nothing like the Nichelle Nichols version and it chafes my brain. The same for their versions of Chapel, and Kyle, and so on. Even their version of Pike, although Anson Mount’s take on the character is a lot more appealing than Hunter’s rather dour interpretation – quite what Mount has got going on with his hair, however, is a different question.)

Anyway, the situation which obligingly comes along to help Uhura work through her personal issues concerns a comet which is on course to mash into an inhabited planet, and so naturally the Enterprise crew decide to intervene. But! There is some form of intelligence on the comet, which prevents their initial plan from working, and so they send down an away team (if memory serves, they do use the TNG-era formulation away team, rather than landing party as was usually the case in the original series). And inevitably there is trouble which it falls to Uhura to resolve, primarily by communicating with the comet by singing to it (‘Bam bam bam bam bam’). Spock helps her out with this, and I must be honest and confess that I was shouting ‘Do The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins!’ at the screen at this point.

The necessary complication which turns up midway through is the arrival of a group of advanced aliens calling themselves Shepherds, who see themselves as spiritually connected to the comet, and will not countenance any interference with it from uppity Federation types. It’s a very classic Trek set up, which I expect was the whole idea, and – brace yourselves – as it went on I found myself rather caught up in it and genuinely enjoying myself. Well, up to a point, obviously.

The structure of the plot is essentially very sound, although the method by which they eventually manage to redirect the comet onto a new course seemed to me to come out of nowhere – I mean, it’s scientifically sound, I just expected them all to sing it a song so it would move itself somehow. I didn’t really buy into the whole subtext about predetermination and destiny which the episode was clearly pitching hard – the conflict between the Shepherds’ view that everything is happening for a reason and one should just have faith in providence, and the Federation’s more we-make-our-own-fate attitude. It felt a bit corny, for one thing, and for another, a belief in people’s own agency to shape the world for the better is surely part of Trek‘s essential DNA. Everyone’s entitled to their beliefs, obviously, but that doesn’t mean that all beliefs are equally correct, and this felt a bit like the show trying too hard to be pluralistic.

On the other hand, the question of predetermination does obviously tie in to the ongoing plot thread about Pike struggling to come to terms with his own not entirely enviable future – this one, as they say, is clearly going to run and run. There’s a curious conflict here – Star Trek is about personal agency, as we just discussed, but on the other hand it’s also been a tenet of the Federation that history is fragile and can’t be changed (how this squares with the existence of multiple timelines – the ‘main’ universe, the one where Kirk looks like Chris Pine, the mirror universe, the Disco/Strange New Worlds one, the Disco version of the mirror universe, and so on – is a bit unclear, but never mind). Nevertheless there is no obvious reason why Pike can’t avoid his accident now he knows about it – changing the future isn’t the same as undoing the past. The issue is one of the lives his sacrifice saved – but, again, there’s nothing to stop him changing their futures either.

The obstreperous side of me says to go ahead and do this! Tear up the timeline, save Pike! In a way it would be a very Star Trek thing to do, and a genuinely bold choice. (I am sticking with my assertion that we’re already in an alternate universe and no-one will be able to persuade me otherwise, I’m afraid.) On the other hand, it seems fairly unlikely that this will be resolved within the timeframe of the series (unless it runs for a decade). Are they going to keep dwelling on this idea? It’s going to get a bit samey if so. Nevertheless, it works quite well in this context. A solid episode with no major flaws, anyway.

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From all angles I am virtually besieged by reports that the third series of Star Trek: Picard rivals I, Claudius or Breaking Bad or The Adventures of Twizzle (delete according to taste) as one of the greatest ever expressions of the televisual art. Well, maybe: I watched the first year and had severe issues with the Irish Romulans (though the one in the leather trousers I was very happy to watch), while I couldn’t quite get my head around the fact they had somehow gone from ‘building androids is virtually impossible’ to ‘reckless building of androids is such a problem they have had to ban it’. Though, if any flavour of Trek is likely to radically improve over a couple of years, history tells us it is one led by Patrick Stewart. What else is there for an open-minded enjoyer of some bits of Star Trek to do but take a deep breath and… start watching a different version of Star Trek.

To be fair, Former Next Desk Colleague Now Manager has been singing the praises of Strange New Worlds for a while now, but I’ve been put off by the relative inaccessibility of the thing (I’m not paying for Paramount Plus) and the fact it’s effectively a spin-off from Discovery, which I have long since lost all patience with. But a box set of the first year turned up in HMV at a reasonable price, and I was just coming off the back of Blake’s 7 and casting about for something new to watch, so…

Rules of engagement time: this is all clearly happening off in some parallel timeline, not the ‘main’ Trek universe (i.e. the one where everything from the original show to Enterprise happened). Even if it wasn’t closely connected to Discovery, with its peculiar Klingons and anachronistic technology and mushroom-powered super space drives, in the first episode alone we have two established characters mysteriously changing their ethnicity (or not so mysteriously, given the way modern culture operates), and yet more anachronistic technology (the transporter now seems to function rather like Batman’s pole, given you go in one end wearing one set of clothes and come out the other dressed completely differently). I could go on to mention that at least one character seems to have an utterly different personality, and the Eugenics Wars seem to have inexplicably shifted forward fifty or sixty years in history, but, you know, I’m hoping this isn’t all just going to be me muttering and grumbling that it’s not still 1996.

Anyway – on to the first episode of Strange New Worlds, which is entitled (potentially confusingly) Strange New Worlds. As this is the first part of a series centring on Christopher Pike, about whom we really only know three things, the episode revolves around two of them: he was the captain of the USS Enterprise before Jim Kirk, and he ends up paralysed and horribly disfigured as the result of an accident prior to his present-day appearance in the episodes comprising The Menagerie. (The third thing is about his visit to the planet Talos IV, which happens in the original Star Trek pilot.)  The story opens with Pike feeling a bit depressed by his precognizance of his eventual fate (this happened in Disco) and questioning his future in Starfleet, and the job of the plot is to perk him up a bit for the rest of the season. In this respect it sort of shares a structure with the first episode of Deep Space Nine, which has a similar premise.

The perking up happens on an assignment to rescue some colleagues who have disappeared on a possible First Contact mission, one of them being Pike’s first officer Number One (a character formerly played by Majel Barrett Roddenberry, #1). Along for the ride are all the new and semi-new characters who get some sort of moment of charm: the security chief, who is a no-nonsense young woman; the helmsman, who is a no-nonsense young woman; the nurse (a character formerly played by Majel Barrett Roddenberry, #2), who is a no-nonsense young woman… sorry, it’s 2023 now, isn’t it? I keep forgetting.

The actual plot, which concerns troubles on a planet which are basically the result of offworld tech falling into their hands, is sort of functional, more than anything else, and it does the things it needs to do – establish tone and characters – reasonably well. To be honest the thing it reminded me most was some things I wrote myself (‘That’s not a good sign,’ I hear you cry) – over the last few years I’ve played (or tried to play, don’t get me started, mutter grumble) a lot of the current Star Trek RPG, and one of the things I’ve tried doing is stories particularly about them exploring new planets. The problem with this is the Prime Directive (referred to as General Order One in this episode), which stops visitors from getting involved with alien cultures, especially those unaware of higher technologies. It’s a real pain in the neck, dramatically speaking: you do tend to end up with stories like this one, where some outside agency is responsible and the protagonists are basically trying to rectify the situation.

An unusual new malfunction as the transporter turns Captain Pike into Mark Kermode.

If the parallels between the alien planet in this episode (which is, it must be said, actually a rather familiar new world) and 21st century Earth are supposed to be a nod to the sort of social commentary that the original show has latterly become famous for, I’m not sure it quite works – both planets are deeply divided, naturally, but we don’t learn anything about the issues involved. I have a suspicion that the series is likely to play it safe and avoid taking sides on any of the issues afflicting the contemporary USA anyway – because it’s all very well being liberal and progressive, but you need the audience to stick around and watch, and there’s a good chance a large chunk of them incline towards the camp of the small-handed orange-faced vanity-monster arraignee, God help us all. An episode about gun control, even assuming it could be written so it wasn’t horribly hectoring and obvious, would almost inevitably end up alienating a large section of viewers.

The bar for the first episodes of new series of Star Trek is, of course, not a particularly high one, and this feels less corny and instantly-dated than Encounter at Farpoint, for example. But I didn’t come away from it thinking, ‘Wow, this is a set-up oozing with potential for future story-telling’ – it’s competent enough, but it feels earnest and middle-of-the-road, playing things safe. It isn’t as imaginative or as much fun as the original series when it was anywhere near its peak – and it seems to me that this is an attempt at a kind of tribute-band version of the original show, albeit with the sensibility and priorities of the 2020s firmly in the mix. If it follows the historic pattern, it will improve, and possibly quite soon. I hope so, if only because it would be nice to be able to say something wholly positive about new Star Trek; it has been long enough since I managed it, after all.

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Never kill anything off. – Terry Nation

Of course they all die at the end. How else could this story end? What else were they going to do? What have they ever managed to do, except scrape survival by the skin of their teeth? It has been years since they achieved anything of note in their self-appointed mission to defeat the Federation. The greatest blows against the Federation have all been self-inflicted or struck from elsewhere. They may have destroyed the odd communication centre or liberated an occasional rebel leader, but that was a long time ago. Since then they have been running and hiding, gradually dying, running out of resources, until they eventual run out of luck and places to hide.

So: Blake, the final episode of Blake’s 7, written by Chris Boucher (of course) and directed by Mary Ridge. We get underway with some rather impressive model footage of Scorpio launching, which segues into model footage of the base blowing up: Avon and the others are moving on, the security of the place having now been compromised. Is Avon’s anti-Federation alliance dead in the water now? Soolin thinks it is; the man himself disagrees. Never mind all those resources and raw materials, Zukan was also there as a figurehead, and with him gone Avon has someone else in mind: while any idiot would do (well, within reason, which lets Vila off the hook), the man in question is… ‘strongly identified with rebels… and very popular with rabbles. They will follow him, and he will fight to the last drop of their blood.’

Avon is as cynical as ever, but something has changed – where once he would simply have dismissed a political idealist as a fool, now he sees them as a potential resource to be exploited. Somewhere along the line he has become as committed to the cause as any of his associates, even…

‘It’s Blake, isn’t it?’ says Vila. Nothing explicit is in the script, but Michael Keating does a wonderful job throughout the episode of suggesting the profound wariness and distrust Vila now has towards Avon – perhaps word of what happened a couple of episodes ago has leaked out, as the others seem very ready to accuse Avon of treating them as expendable resources. But as no-one has much of a better idea, off they go to Gauda Prime, a lawless fringe world to which Orac has managed to track Blake. (Avon must have started looking – again? – post-Terminal, possibly checking to see if Servalan was telling the truth about seeing Blake’s body. My inclination is to believe that Servalan was telling the truth to the best of her knowledge: let’s not forget there’s at least one unaccounted Blake clone out there somewhere, so it could have been him.)

And the episode doesn’t hold Blake back for a cameo like last time, but treats him as the main character he is. But he has clearly been through some tough times since the battle of Star One: scarred, grimy, unshaven. And, it would seem, no longer the idealist Avon considers him to be: now he is working as a bounty hunter on Gauda Prime. Just as Avon has become more committed to a cause, could it be that Blake has become more cynical and pragmatic himself? Are the two of them become true mirrors of each other?

Gauda Prime is a strange place to find a rebel leader, being a den of scum and villainy after having the legal system suspended. Bounty hunters now make a good living there. It’s no place for thieves, killers, mercenaries or psychopaths – which means none of the crew are likely to enjoy their visit much. (It’s worth pointing out the economy with which Boucher creates Gauda Prime as a world with a sense of history and a particular situation, rather than just one of the anonymous planets with a name out of the scrabble bag which turn up in so many other episodes.)

Even getting there proves tricky, as the planet is under blockade and Scorpio comes under concerted attack: a feigned crash into the atmosphere turns into a real crash, and the crew (except for Tarrant) are forced to escape using the teleport. (The model work of the ship crashing is also excellent.)

It seems to be Boucher’s implication that Blake and Avon are circling around each other somewhat at this point – Avon has clearly been using Orac to keep tabs of Blake’s activities, and there’s a hint that Blake may have been returning the favour. When he learns that a Wanderer-class ship has been shot down, he suddenly and rather disingenuously announces to his handler Deva (played by the marvellous David Collings, who the following year would also feature in the last episode of Sapphire and Steel) he’ll pop over that way. He certainly seems well-acquainted with the names of Avon’s current associates.

Well, Blake rescues Tarrant from the wreckage of Scorpio – Slave’s final speech is clearly intended to echo the death of Zen in Terminal, but isn’t as effective – and Tarrant, despite claiming that he would recognise Blake on sight when he first arrived on Liberator, doesn’t do so with any certainty. Blake flies him back to his underground base, with Avon and the others following. (We learn along the way that Jenna apparently died running the Gauda Prime blockade as well.) Vila even observes they are all heading for a hole in the ground.

And, of course, a combination of Blake’s paranoia (sticking with his bounty hunter cover instead of telling Tarrant the truth about what he’s doing – which is recruiting an army to attack the Federation) and Avon’s paranoia (being too quick to believe Tarrant when he declares Blake has betrayed them) results in…

Here’s the thing, though: Blake and Avon’s fatal misunderstanding is heartbreaking, but also really immaterial. Blake’s already dead by this point, as there’s a Federation infiltrator on his team. How long Arlen would have waited before calling in the troops we don’t know, but the death squad turns up very promptly at the end once things start to go bad. If Avon and the others had left it even two days before deciding to go to Gauda Prime, they at least might have survived. It’s really just bad luck that kills the Scorpio crew.

And they do die; of course they die. The story doesn’t have any point if they’re all stunned or Tarrant faints or Avon ducks and all the guards shoot each other. I stand by my opinion that Terminal is a more satisfying story than this one, in terms of its theme and character development. But the whole point of Blake is that it’s messy and things seem to happen randomly or at the worst possible time (the attack on Scorpio, Blake recruiting Arlen just before Avon arrives). Of course Servalan isn’t in it, and Orac seems to vanish at the end – there’s no evil villain with a masterplan working against the characters, just a succession of bad decisions and bad luck. The message of this episode is that one really bad day is enough to kill anyone.

I think I’ve mentioned before that some people credit Blake’s 7 as an influence on Rogue One, particularly its ending: but the difference is that the end of Rogue One is all about sacrifice and hope – Blake’s 7 just ends with a slaughter and despair. No matter what happens to Servalan – and it’s easy to imagine her ending up back on the throne somehow – Blake and Avon and the others have achieved nothing worth mentioning. The Federation is stronger than ever and seemingly invincible. But the world can seem like that, and at least Avon has retained enough of his sense of humour to recognise the irony that it was his desire to find Blake that got everyone killed. Hence the series ends with its single most resonant motif: the smile on the face of the loser.


Strange to think, but there were many episodes of Blake’s 7 I hadn’t seen in over forty years prior to doing this pilgrimage through the show, and a handful I’d never seen at all (definitely not Children of Auron or Games). So finally spending a year watching the lot was satisfying for that reason. On the other hand, having watched and enjoyed parts of series three and four on their original transmissions, I was convinced that the show really got a lot more interesting once boring old Blake was off the scene and Avon got to do his thing. Discovering that most of the first half of each of those years is dross was a terrible shock.

In fact, as I’ve suggested, if Blake’s 7 splits into two halves it’s not along chronological lines – the division is between those episodes by people who know how to write fantasy and SF action adventure for a BBC budget – Terry Nation, Chris Boucher, Robert Holmes, Tanith Lee – and those with a background in cop shows and soap operas – pretty much everyone else, but with Ben Steed and Allan Prior as the worst offenders. The first show is terrific. The second is frequently risible. (My own essential seven from Seven: The Way Back, Shadow, Star One, Rumours of Death, Terminal, Orbit, and Blake, but with honourable mentions for Seek-Locate-Destroy, Pressure Point and Sarcophagus.)

And yet there’s something about these characters that makes you overlook the shonky plotting and weird continuity and dodgy production values. You find yourself writing the stories in your head that the series seems to have neglected to do – such as why Travis decides, off-screen, to betray humanity, or what happens to Blake and Jenna off-screen in the second half of the series. That has to mean something: a credit to the talent of the performers, if nothing else.

You can imagine a new version of Blake’s 7 made in a modern style, and it being potentially brilliant, but perhaps that moment has passed – the deaths of most of the key cast members hasn’t helped its chances, I suspect. But the series we have is still, at its best, great, thoughtful entertainment. And at its worst it’s at least very funny. Well done, Terry; well done, Chris; well done, David – you did good.

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