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The fact that season four of Blake was assembled in a considerable rush probably has something to do with the fact that the first half of the run relies heavily on writers whose work we have previously enjoyed (or not). There’s something to be said for employing people with a proven track record, but how you start with that premise and then end up giving more work to people like Ben Steed (and, on the strength of Dawn of the Gods, Jim Follett) I really don’t know. Hopefully the nadir of the series was early in season three, but I wouldn’t necessarily bet on it, for here comes Allan Prior’s final contribution to the show, Animals.

If we cast our minds back to last summer you may remember I actually was fairly gentle about his first script, Horizon, but too much time in the Blake’s 7-reviewing trenches has an effect on a person. I believe I saw Animals on its 1983 repeat showing, but under sub-optimal conditions (then again, what the optimal conditions for watching a Prior episode are, I’m not sure, given that at the end of the day you’re actually watching the damn thing in the first place), and then again at university about ten years later. I make no great claims to precocity but I do distinctly recall clocking it as being sodding awful on both previous occasions.

The episode opens with the crew about Avon’s big scheme to recruit experts to help battle the Federation – although, TV production limitations being what they were, said experts invariably end up dead by the end of the episode. This week’s prospect/victim is Justin (Peter Byrne from Dixon of Dock Green – younger readers, ask a medium), who was Dayna’s tutor at some point in the past. He is doing some research on the planet Bucol 2 (there may be a ghastly pun on bucolic here, given how peaceful the place supposedly is).

Unfortunately at this point Scorpio comes under attack by stock footage from previous episodes and Tarrant is forced to run away, the ship being severely damaged in the process. Dayna is stranded down on the surface, where she soon discovers what Justin has been up to: weird experiments in genetic engineering! We have reached another of those moments where the written word falls short and only a visual aid will do:

Need we bother talking about the rest of the episode? I suppose we should, because Allan Prior didn’t know the monster suit was going to be quite so absurd. Even if a masterpiece of make-up and prosthetics had bounced into view, this would still be a sodding awful episode; the daftness of the beast-man costumes is just a kind of additional decorative badness, bad gravy on top of an already bad meal.

Yes, Justin has been breeding these things; apparently they are completely immune to the effects of radiation, which could make them useful to Avon’s project. Justin’s genetic skill could also apparently be useful in finding an antidote to Pylene-50. But he’s not interested in choosing a side – he’s worked for the Federation in the past and doesn’t anticipate working for the rebels to be any more rewarding. But he does offer Dayna a job as his assistant, despite her revulsion at the nature of his work.

Meanwhile, Scorpio has limped home and is being repaired by the crew; this feels very much like obvious comic filler, with Vila being repeatedly obliged to climb into the glycolene ballast channel (aka a gunk tank). The other filler subplot feels like an odd little echo of Prior’s Countdown, as the great Kevin Stoney comes on for a scene with Jacqueline Pearce. This time he’s playing someone who knows about Justin’s work (the presence of Scorpio over Bucol has got her antennae twitching), but it turns into something more about Servalan’s ‘disguise’ as Commissioner Sleer, a plot element which makes less sense the more you think about it. Why does no-one recognise the former Supreme Commander, President, and Empress of the Federation apart from one blind dude? Simply wearing black instead of white isn’t that good a disguise.

There’s a curious little suggestion here that the Intergalactic War lasted longer than the single battle which we appear to see on screen – something is reported as happening ‘towards the end of the war’, implying it took place over an extended period of time. Maybe the gap between the end of Star One and the beginning of Aftermath is longer than it seems to be.

Anyway, Dayna tries to help Justin recapture his prize specimen, Og (why has Justin named him Og? Is that the best name he can think of?) but gets thrown off a cliff and captured by Servalan, who ties her to a chair. Suddenly it is revealed that Dayna and Justin are deeply in love with each other, despite this not being at all apparent when they were alone together for the first time in years. So Servalan brainwashes her to hate him (this basically involves flashing a light in her face and saying ‘You hate him. You hate him. You hate him’ a lot) and sends her off to facilitate his capture…

Eventually there is a low-octane gun battle and all the significant guest characters are killed, followed by Servalan’s ship blasting off with the main characters standing directly underneath it: all this does is ruffle their hair a bit. Dayna, who is in love with Justin again at this point, is left sobbing over his body in what was probably meant to be a poignant downbeat ending. Instead the main emotion I was feeling was relief that it was over. What makes it even less effective is the fact that, like Barbara Shelley last week, they clearly couldn’t afford to take Peter Byrne on location and all his exterior scenes are filmed on a studio set on videotape. The switching between VT and film gets quite jarring.

So it’s essentially a sort of idiot’s version of The Island of Dr Moreau mashed up with a rather icky and unconvincing May-to-December romance plot for Dayna, with some of the silliest monster suits in BBC history and a lot of obvious filler. What positive things can I find to say about it? Well, there’s Paul Darrow – even though he isn’t in it much, he decides that this week he will deliver a kind of situationist deconstruction of bad acting. The moment where he bursts through a door, goes out of his way to gratuitously kick over a chair, and nearly falls over, is probably the most entertaining one in the episode. But mostly it is just turgid and irritating.

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This is what you get for not staying in touch with the specialist press. I feel quite bad enough for not referring to the recent death of Stephen Greif in this voyage through the complete Blake’s 7, and now it turns out that Chris Boucher, whose praises I have been regularly singing for the best part of a year, passed away before Christmas and I’ve only just found out about it. It’s impossible to imagine a Boucher-free Blake; Terry Nation may have come up with the premise, but you could easily argue that it was Chris Boucher who ensured the show is still remembered nowadays.

Of course, we’re potentially looking at quite a long run of episodes by other people now (typical), the first of which is Stardrive by Jim Follett. Follett’s previous contribution was the horrendous Dawn of the Gods from series three, so you could be forgiven for adopting the crash position before the opening credits even roll.

One of the nice things about the previous episode was the sense of the crew genuinely putting themselves into danger: the Scorpio, we are frequently told, is still essentially a pile of old junk despite Dorian’s modifications, and not capable of mixing it with Federation combat ships. Apparently it’s even in danger of running out of petrol, as this episode opens with the crew planning to sneak into the Altern system to secure a new fuel supply.

This is where I propose my new thesis: which is that the various traumas at the end of the last season and the beginning of this (Blake’s apparent death, Cally’s actual death, the loss of the Liberator, humiliation by Servalan, etc) have driven Avon round the twist and he is now properly mad. Quite apart from his new-found resolve to stop the resurgent Federation’s advance in its tracks, he has now hit upon the scheme of avoiding the Altern system’s patrols by hiding in the sensor shadow of an asteroid – even though this will involve going within fifty yards of a lethally massive chunk of space rock (interesting to see that they still haven’t gone completely metric even in the Federation’s era).

Inevitably things go wrong and the ship gets a massive ding, sufficient to invalidate its No Claims bonus for quite some time (if Dorian had taken out a policy). Luckily Vila comes up with a cunning plan to effect repairs (especially cunning considering he manages to avoid all labour and risk himself) – but this seems to have happened in vain as a patrol turns up while Tarrant and Avon are fixing the drive.

But what’s this? The Federation ships appear to spontaneously blow up before they can do anything too unfriendly. The crew head back to base to ponder this (this seems to be mainly an exercise in filler as the Xenon base set is not used; everyone stays on the flight deck for the handful of scenes while they’re there). Luckily they have made a remarkably detailed recording of the patrol ships exploding – if the dialogue is to be trusted the frame rate is extraordinarily high, which may explain why the special effects are not entirely convincing.

At Orac’s prompting they review the tape in detail, which reveals a tiny spacecraft moving at extraordinary speed buzzing past the patrol ships and destroying them – the implication is that this thing can move even faster than the Liberator could (this is made explicit in the novelisation – this was the final episode to be novelised). Because the recording is detailed to a credulity-strangling degree, they are able to deduce it belongs to a cult of interplanetary speed freaks called the Space Rats, who have somehow managed to lay their hands on the revolutionary new photonic space drive. Avon decides he wants this very badly and the Scorpio is soon blasting off for the Space Rats’ last known address…

Well, it’s better than Dawn of the Gods, I’ll say that for it – quite appropriately for an episode concerned with speed and movement, it doesn’t hang around, with the trip back to Xenon being the only real piece of padding in the story. It’s never dull and there’s a pretty good chase through yet another sandpit at the end of the episode. There’s even a quality guest star in the shape of Barbara Shelley, although it is extremely obvious that she didn’t turn up for the location sequence in which her character appears (but has no lines) – the person doubling for her in these scenes might as well have a bag over her head, it’s so obvious her face is being deliberately concealed.

One of the criticisms thrown at the fourth season when it was new, I seem to recall, was that Servalan wasn’t in enough episodes and that even when she was, she didn’t get enough face time with Avon. Vere Lorrimer’s public response was that a) Servalan knew of Avon’s determination to kill her and would therefore stay out of his way and b) the Federation had by this point become predictable punchbag villains, hence the choice of a more diverse group of new heavies across the season.

Possibly I overstated things when I talked about the gritty naturalism of season four.

Including, presumably, the Space Rats (I first saw this episode as a rather small child and was a little disappointed when the Space Rats turned out not to be actual monsters, but men in silly costumes and wigs). They’re certainly different, but also a wildly cartoony bunch and not particularly credible on any level (the brightly-coloured costumes and ridiculous hairstyles don’t help – how the hell do they get their crash helmets on?). The least you can say about Damien Thomas, playing lead Space Rat Atlan, is that he has figured out the appropriate level to pitch his performance at as a guest Blake’s 7 baddie.

The end of the episode inaugurates a bit of a tradition where the crew spend the episode looking for a scientist or invention and end up losing them or it, although at least on this occasion they do get to keep the stardrive of the title, which is conveniently plumbed into Scorpio’s systems. One does have to wonder about the thinking going on here – saddling the crew with an old and substandard ship was a dramatically interesting choice and a worthwhile change to the format, so why put them back into the fastest ship in the galaxy only three episodes later? Never mind. This is a fairly silly episode but it knows to move fast enough to keep that fact from really registering.

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One of the perks of being the new producer of Blake’s 7 in late 1980 was the chance of a flight to Los Angeles on expenses for a chat with Terry Nation, creator of the show, who had lately relocated there to try and launch himself as a screenwriter in American TV. (All that seemed to result from this were a few scripts for MacGuyver and the occasional TV movie.) Nation couldn’t involve himself much with the fourth series in terms of the actual scripting, but he had ideas about the direction it should take. Prompted, perhaps, by the largely directionless third series, the idea that Nation and new producer Vere Lorrimer ginned up was that, faced with a resurgent Federation, the crew would be obliged to take a stand and gather the resources to stop them (it feels entirely appropriate to shorthand this as ‘Andor but on a BBC budget’).

It’s a sensible way to go and another sensible decision was to hire Robert Holmes for a couple of episodes this year, as Holmes was a writer who could always be relied upon for a solid, coherent script, usually with some nice touches to it. His first contribution was the third episode, Traitor, which kicks off the new approach in earnest.

The setting is primarily the planet Helotrix, an old Earth colony which at some point in the past threw off Federation rule – it’s not entirely clear whether this happened before, during or after the Intergalactic War, and there is even a suggestion that there was another Terran empire that predated the Federation itself. (This is also one of the very few episodes – perhaps the only one – to mention, even in part, the date when the series is set, for we hear of the ill-fated Fletch expedition of ‘twenty-nine’.) But Helotrix has recently been recaptured and the Federation command network expanded via something called the Magnetrix Terminal.

Orac has been monitoring for this sort of thing but the sheer speed of the Federation expansion alarms everyone: how are the Federation conquering planets so quickly? Vila, not entirely surprisingly, wants to run in the other direction, but Avon refuses, insisting he wants to do something about it. So the Scorpio sets course for Helotrix, determined to discover the nature of the Federation’s new advantage.

It eventually turns out that this is a drug called Pylene-50, which can be shot into people from a distance and instantly removes their capacity to resist authority. The drug is the handiwork of the enigmatic Commissioner Sleer, who is presumably travelling around taking the drug production facilities with her (the script specifies that it doesn’t stay stable for long and can’t be transported long distances). Sleer’s assistant Leitz (Malcolm Stoddard) does most of the dealing with the Federation military and Helotrix’s puppet president – but could the pair of them have anything to do with the fact that the president gets murdered in his quarters?

There’s a lot going on in this script, which to its credit is agreeably pacey (it probably goes without saying that Tarrant’s performance is also extremely Pacey), even if it feels as if it’s lacking in a single big attention-grabbing idea. More than usually, Helotrix feels like a real place inhabited by characters who are doing more than just playing prescribed roles in a plot – we learn the resistance leader used to be a geologist at the local university, for instance, while Holmes, with characteristic humour, writes the Federation officers (Christopher Neame and Nick Brimble) as a parody of blimpish officer-class types.

Nevertheless, the actual storyline about the Helot resistance and the identity of the actual traitor isn’t that engrossing, although the idea of the drug has potential. Story-wise the interesting element is the subplot about Sleer, who – spoiler alert – turns out to be a deposed Servalan, working under an alias and murdering anyone who can identify her. Quite what has happened to Servalan since we last saw her is not at all clear: she is believed dead, having been ‘killed in the rear-guard action on Gedden’ according to the president (who also refers to her as the ‘Supreme Empress’, not a title I recall hearing before). Just as mysterious as what happened is when it happened – Tarrant says the Liberator was destroyed ‘fairly recently’.

It does seem as if the counter-revolution mounted against Servalan’s rule in Rumours of Death was only one of many, and one of the subsequent ones succeeded (after some kind of off-screen civil war). My guess is that this happened at some point between Death-Watch and Terminal – in the former episode, Servalan still seems to have a sufficiently strong grip on power that she’s actively contemplating invading new territory, but there must be quite long gaps between season three’s episodes. If Servalan is indeed a fugitive at the time of Terminal, it explains why her aides in that story aren’t in Federation uniform, and also – maybe – why she seems to have higher priorities than disposing of the crew in that story. Perhaps the new fleet she speaks of building in that episode is one she needs to win back power.

I’m not entirely sure what the show gains by including the Commissioner Sleer storyline, but I do know why it’s here: Jacqueline Pearce’s illness made her appearance in the fourth series look doubtful at one point, and the Sleer character was created as a replacement for Servalan (who presumably would have been killed on the Liberator). Pearce’s recovery required a change to the planned storyline.

The other notable character change in this episode is easier to spot: Paul Darrow spends the whole of it on the same set, but he still has a remarkable presence. I know people who criticise Darrow for his supposedly operatic performance style, but this is the first episode I can remember where he genuinely seems to be going over the top – his glazed delivery of a line like ‘I need to kill her myself’ is enough to give anyone pause. (The fake tan is still there; perhaps it is an element we can enjoy throughout the season.) And even beyond this, Avon seems to have become committed to fighting the Federation in a way he’s never been before, for no very obvious reason. Perhaps the events of Terminal really have pushed him over the edge. Vila accuses him of behaving in a way that would make Blake proud; Avon responds that Blake was never very bright, but doesn’t object beyond that.

In the end it is, as I say, a solid episode that takes the series back to its core themes, and it’s nice to come across one of those – especially when it isn’t written by Terry Nation or Chris Boucher. Even if it doesn’t exactly shine, it’s still more satisfying than most of the episodes we’ve seen from the second half of the series.

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My default position when it comes to John Carpenter is that he is basically one of those people who did their careers backwards – most of us, when starting out in a new field, have results which are a bit hit and miss, until we figure out what we’re up to and (given sufficient time, dedication and natural talent) eventually master whatever it is we’re doing. Carpenter’s career isn’t like that. Even though his first film Dark Star is flawed, it’s still arguably the most influential science fiction movie of the last fifty years, while Assault on Precinct 13 is flat-out brilliant, and Halloween changed the face of the American horror movie. And then, at some point, he just went off the boil – by the late 1980s he was making schlocky films like Prince of Darkness, a decade later it was warmed-over rehashes like Escape from LA, and after 2001’s Ghosts of Mars (a fairly dreadful film) he more or less gave up.

A sad decline. Most people point to the tipping point being the commercial failure of his version of The Thing, which was competing at the box office with E.T. and came off distinctly second-best. I disagree: I think the last genuinely really good Carpenter film came a couple of years later, in the form of Starman. It seems to be a film that slips easily from the mind when it comes to discussing Carpenter’s work, perhaps because it is so uncharacteristic of the films he’s known for.

The film opens with the slightly hackneyed plot device of the Voyager 2 probe being intercepted by an alien intelligence. The aliens give it a good checking out, paying special attention to the gold disc placed aboard, and return the favour by sending their own probe ship to Earth to see if it’s as nice as the LP suggests. You know those Earth people, they’re devils for sending mixed signals, and the probe is shot down by the US Air Force somewhere over Wisconsin. It crashes near the home of recently-widowed Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) and the pilot – an immaterial being of pure energy – zips around the house curiously before settling on one of her mementoes of her late husband Scott; a lock of his hair. The alien uses this to grow itself a new body to inhabit, a body which is naturally the spitting image of Scott (Jeff Bridges).

Jenny herself takes this about as well as you might expect, but there is more bad news on the way – the alien Starman’s colleagues are coming to Earth to pick him up, but, for important reasons of plot, their agreed rendezvous will be in Arizona in a few days time. Road trip! The chances are it will take just long enough for Starman to learn to appreciate the beauties of life on Earth and for him and Jenny to fall in love. Meanwhile a scientist from SETI, on the government’s payroll (he is played, very capably, by Charles Martin Smith), is hunting for the visitor, but increasingly beginning to question the rightness of the uncompromising approach taken by the authorities.

As you can perhaps see, it’s a fairly straightforward story without big twists or deep complexities. It’s not an exploitation movie or an action movie, nor is it a western modulated into a different setting, and as such it’s a fairly atypical project for Carpenter to take on. Mostly it’s a romantic comedy drama about two people sitting in a car, with the qualifier that one of them happens to be an alien.

The history of Starman is fairly interesting if you’re a student of the genre: Columbia started developing it at the same time as a script called Night Skies, which eventually became E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The studio eventually abandoned the latter project, which of course went on to be a massive hit for Universal – this in turn resulted in Starman, deemed a more adult-oriented take on similar material, being put into production. (Carpenter was hired ahead of Tony Scott and Peter Hyams, and was keen to change his image as a director.) The similarities are obvious enough; this is clearly a post-Spielberg science-fantasy film. But what struck me about the film, watching it again recently, was the extent to which it also feels like it’s parallelling The Terminator in some ways – not really in terms of the trajectory of the plot, but when it comes to the imagery of some sequences – the main character materialises naked, out of thin air, at the start of the story, and the central relationship ends up becoming an archetypal James Cameron-style romance – which is to say it concludes with a one-night stand in an unlikely setting.

Nevertheless the film has a kind of understated sweetness and authenticity to it which isn’t quite there in any of the films it resembles – the road movie element also helps to make it distinctive, Carpenter apparently keen to explore the Americana of the story. It only really has four significant characters (the other is Richard Jaeckel’s Air Force heavy) and most of it is about two of them sitting in a car or a diner together. Both Allen and Bridges are really excellent; you do wonder why Allen didn’t have a more significant career considering she’s so good here and in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Everyone seems to accept now that Jeff Bridges is one of the best actors of his generation – he remains, to the best of my knowledge, the only person ever to be Oscar nominated for playing an alien. He’s not afraid to come across as initially weird and unsettling as the Starman, before gradually toning it down and creating a credible and sympathetic character. It is, I think, one of the best ‘playing an alien’ performances anywhere.

There are lots of good things about Starman, even if the story feels a bit low-octane and familiar in places. The real flaw that jumps out at me, however, is that the script is so keen on the character-building, phatic scenes between Jenny and the Starman that some of the connective tissue that allows the script to function is a bit skimped on. For example, one scene ends with Jenny getting a fright as she bumps into the Starman, who has only just appeared in her house. The next time we see them both, he is wearing her late husband’s clothes and she is preparing to drive him to Arizona. A whole lot of quite significant stuff seems to have happened between scenes, which one would quite like to have seen. How did he explain all this to her? How does she feel about it? Is she down with the alien turning himself into a clone of her husband? And so on.

Nevertheless, the scenes we do have retain a considerable charm, and you can usually figure out for yourself what happened off-screen in the bits we’re not privy to. It’s a well-made, entertaining film for a mainstream audience, and as such fairly unrecognisable as a John Carpenter project. As I say, for me it’s the last really good film he directed – but despite good reviews, it wasn’t particularly successful and within a couple of years the director was back to making more energetic and derivative schlock. A shame – on the strength of this road movie, the road not taken by Carpenter would surely have been at least as interesting as the way his career actually went.

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If you dive back deep into the stacks of this blog you may come across some good-natured grumbling from your correspondent about a certain lack of imagination in the titling department of some SF movies from, mostly, the 1960s. I refer to films like The Day the Earth Caught Fire, The Day the Sky Exploded, and Crack in the World (the situation being somewhat confused by the existence – more accurately non-existence – of the Hammer-Harryhausen collaboration When the Earth Cracked Open).

At the time I was, as far as I can tell, completely unaware of the existence of Charles Eric Maine’s The Tide Went Out (‘a novel for adult minds only’, according to the original blurb), a 1958 novel which fits so smoothly into the narrative space between all these films it’s scarcely credible. This book was reissued in 1977 under the punchier (if less representative) title Thirst!; I imagine it would have felt fairly dated 45 years ago – it certainly feels like historical literature now. And yet it is back on sale as part of a new British Library imprint which boldly declares itself to be ‘Science Fiction Classics’. On the evidence I’ve seen this is only accurate if you accept a fairly generous definition of ‘classic’ – all the really good stuff has been snapped up by Orion’s long-running SF Masterworks range.

Maine’s tale concerns the travails of Philip Wade, a hard-bitten writer and journalist with a drink problem, a mildly unhappy marriage, and a young son who’s not much more than a plot device. The book doesn’t hang about and opens with a bit of a crisis at the office – the latest edition of Wade’s magazine has to be recalled and one of the articles replaced, on the orders of the government. How come? Well, the offending article is a speculative, sensationalist piece wondering if a spate of recent earthquakes and apparent falls in sea level in the Pacific region could be linked to Anglo-American H-bomb tests in the same area. Could, in fact, the bomb have cracked open the ocean floor and allowed the water to start draining away?

Needless to say, it looks like Wade has inadvertently hit the nail on the head, and those in high places don’t even want the suggestion of this getting out. His publisher, Stenniger, reveals that he is selling up and moving to Canada, a country blessed with much snow and ice, while it is intimated that in return for his cooperation Wade will be given a job with a new government department concerned with the control of information to avoid unnecessary public panic (i.e., an official censorship and propaganda bureau). All this duly begins to come to pass, even as earthquakes begin to affect Britain.

The government’s plan (and that of the other world powers) is to retreat to the polar regions, where the vast reserves of ice will allow some form of civilised existence to exist for quite a while. The vast majority of the population, however, is to be abandoned to die as water and food supplies are exhausted; Wade’s job, in part, is to jolly the masses along with fake good news stories and thus allow the authorities to quietly pull out without risking uproar and civil disturbances. But he will be one of the last of the lucky ones to leave the country – if anything goes wrong, his own survival may be in peril…

As a book in its own right, The Tide Went Out is fairly competently done. Every review of it I’ve read has commented on the implausibility of the central premise (where exactly is all the world’s water draining away to?), but the focus is not really on what is happening, but the effect this has on the characters and society at large. This is briskly, credibly done, although there is a bit too much telling rather than showing. Events lose their impact as a result – at one point Wade is dragged from his car and attacked by an angry mob, which Maine describes in the detached manner of a background event. Occasionally he slips into a mode where Wade is effectively talking to himself, roughly and angrily, and this is effective, but too much of the book is cool and distant.

It’s also, as noted, very much a book of its time – it certainly feels like it was written for a male audience, although this is probably a textbook case of unconscious bias. Wade and the other male characters are in charge of getting stuff done; the female characters are mainly there as either objects of sexual interest, or nuisances, or both. Not that they are any different from the men when it comes to cigarettes and alcohol – until supplies of both run out, Wade meanders through the book in what feels like a permanent boozed-up fug: every time he meets another character some variation on ‘they both lit up’ makes an appearance.

I’ve read worse, but the main problem with The Tide Went Out is that – if you know much about British SF literature of the mid 20th century – you’ve almost certainly read better books in an extremely similar style. And not just books – I’d be prepared to bet a substantial sum that this was the primary inspiration for the wonderful 1961 movie The Day the Earth Caught Fire. The similarities between the two stories are too numerous to list in detail, but they both depict the news media dealing with an apocalyptic environmental event caused by H-bomb testing and the ensuing collapse of society (the main character in the film is named Stenning; compare with Stenniger, a character in the book).

The main difference comes at the end, which in the book’s case surely makes clear its own inspiration. The first name which comes up in any discussion of the apocalyptic British SF novel is usually that of John Wyndham, but this overlooks the contribution of John Christopher. There’s certainly a touch of Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes to the decline of civilisation in Maine’s book, but its bleakness and psychological clarity are pure Christopher – taken, I would guess, from his The Death of Grass (famine destroys civilisation!), published two years earlier, but also evident in The World in Winter (a new ice age destroys civilisation!) and A Wrinkle in the Skin (immense earthquakes destroy civilisation!). All these explore the death of civilisation through the loss of the protagonists’ civilised values as they adapt to their new circumstances – something Wyndham touches on but never really examines rigorously.

I’m such an admirer of Christopher’s work in this genre that I spent a month in 2010 writing an 80,000 word pastiche of this type of story (a gaseous alien life form colonises the upper atmosphere, gradually causing the destruction of civilisation!). There was a flawed main character, a gradual collapse in civilised values, an eventual apocalypse, and all the usual stuff. Maybe it wasn’t quite as bad as I remember it being (my writing coach at the time eviscerated my outline for its non-adherence to the standard story structure), but The Tide Went Out is still probably a better book. That’s not much of a recommendation, I admit, but there you go. I’d recommend any number of John Christopher or John Wyndham books, or indeed The Day the Earth Caught Fire, ahead of it, but if you’re already familiar with those it might make an interesting example of the same material treated differently. But not that differently.

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In theory, the second episode of Blake’s final season has the job of taking the elements of the new format established by Chris Boucher and seeing what kind of viable standalone episode the series is now capable of producing using them. The situation is somewhat complicated by two factors: firstly, there were still perhaps just a few too many loose ends left over at the end of Rescue for the next episode to be a complete standalone, and secondly, they got Ben Steed in to write the script.

I have pondered at some length the question of exactly why the lesser lights of the Blake’s 7 writing paddock kept getting employed – in this case I suppose that the fact the fourth season was assembled in an unusual hurry may be relevant. Needless to say, Steed returns to the fold with another episode featuring what’s becoming his trademark mixture of extremely pulpy pulp sci-fi and even more extremely dubious sexual politics.

At its heart the episode boils down to the linked problems of a locked door and a ticking clock: the locked door being the one into the Scorpio hangar, and the ticking clock being attached to a nuclear bomb. Both of these are there courtesy of Dorian, who in many ways is one of the most important characters in the story, despite having been killed last week. Exercising what seems like quite reasonable caution, Dorian has voice-printed the hangar door and attached it to a bomb which will destroy the base: unless he resets the bomb every couple of days, the property value of Xenon Base will undergo a rapid downward adjustment. (For the purposes of the plot, this is one of those security systems beyond the combined talents of Avon, Vila, and Orac, unlikely as that sounds.)

It is, perhaps, telling that Ben Steed takes this premise and expands it to include one of those hoary old pulp sci-fi chestnuts, the planet which is in the process of reverting to savagery in the aftermath of a terrible war. This is the situation on Xenon, apparently, where the final stages of a conflict between the tribes of the Hommiks and Seskas is playing out. Perhaps inevitably, the Hommiks are all big, hairy men in armour made of leather painted silver, while the Seskas are, one and all, demure-looking women in Greek-style dresses.

It’s the kind of set-up which makes you inclined to sag in your seat even before the plot rears its head. Said plot goes like this: the Seskas are on the point of being wiped out – the Hommiks capture them and perform a surgical procedure to make them more docile (yes, really), at which point they stop being Seska and become just women (and wives to the Hommiks). Their only natural advantage is a form of cybernetic telekinesis, but even this is not enough to make this war of the sexes a fair fight: ‘It’s good, but it’s not good enough,’ declares Avon (caked in fake tan this week, for some reason), when he engages in his own battle of wills with one of the Seska. ‘It’s your strength, [but] a man’s will always be greater.’ A non-consensual kiss ensues.

In a nutshell.

Understandably wanting to get away from all this, Seska Pella (Juliet Hammond Hill) is planning to steal the Scorpio and leave the planet – but there’s that pesky nuclear bomb to deal with. To be honest, most of the exposition dealing with this in any detail comes in a big lump at the end of the episode at breakneck speed – there are significant pacing problems here, on top of everything else. Much of the episode is a runaround concerning the Hommik civilisation, mainly exemplified by their leader Gunn Sar (Dicken Ashworth) – you get the impression Steed was writing for Brian Blessed. Both Avon and Dayna get involved in what are supposedly duels to the death with him, where there is a good deal of cheating on both sides, but the message of the story – the cleverness and skill of women will never triumph over the brute force and ruthlessness of men – is present here as well.

Needless to say, watching this episode in the 21st century is fairly uncomfortable. It’s virtually impossible to look at Power critically and not conclude it is fundamentally a profoundly misogynistic piece of work. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise – Steed’s Harvest of Kairos was also mainly about alpha-male swaggering, with even Servalan overwhelmed and pacified by the rush of testosterone. Moloch, thankfully, didn’t concern itself too much with gender politics, but there was still a comic-relief sex offender character and various references to women prisoners being handed over to soldiers as ‘entertainment’ for them.

Was all of Ben Steed’s work like this? I had to take a look – and it seems like he spent most of his career writing soap operas and children’s TV. His CV on IMDb lists Coronation Street, Crown Court, Triangle and Gems, but also Jackanory Playhouse, Dramarama, and something called Kappatoo which remember the name of but never actually watched. It would be curious to skim through his other work and see if it’s anything like his Blake episodes, but even if I had the resources I’m not sure I could face the prospect.

Is it a coincidence that Power arguably fails to even attempt one of its most important tasks, which is to establish and develop Soolin as a new regular character? She barely even appears, only getting a couple of scenes at the end where she asks to join Avon and the others. Her reason for joining an (at this point) rather unimpressive band of space vagrants? ‘Why not?’ I mean, there’s short production windows, but it almost seems like nobody involved in the episode is trying very hard.

Mostly this even extends to Mary Ridge, who directs her third episode in a row. She seems tired out, but then so much of the script doesn’t even get the basic storytelling right you can almost understand her fatigue. She does manage to muster a little energy and excitement for the climax – Pella succeeds in stealing the Scorpio, and so Avon has to fix the teleport and beam aboard to regain control of the ship. ‘That was always the easy answer for the man,’ groans an expiring Pella after Avon shoots her. ‘If you don’t like the answer, you shouldn’t have asked the question,’ says a visibly unmoved Avon. I used to think was a fairly snappy exchange of dialogue, and performed by Paul Darrow with his customary flair. On reflection, though, it’s just another expression of the contempt for women which runs through this episode from start to finish. Ugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It would feel a bit inappropriate to be launching into the final season of Blake’s 7 just before Christmas: let’s take a pause and consider… well, what’s actually more or less the last gasp of anything bearing the Blake’s 7 name, to date anyway. The series finished its run in December 1981, enjoyed a repeat in 1983, and then that was it, pretty much, until the VHS releases got under way round about 1990. There were rumours of a full repeat showing in 1994 (this came to nothing) and then two rather peculiar radio plays in the late 1990s, written by Barry Letts (a fine, wise, and multifariously talented man, but one with no track record with this series). Then a repeat of series 1 in 2000, and then… well, silence, pretty much…

Apart from the bizarre appearance in 2005 of Blake’s Junction 7, directed by Ben Gregor, from a script by Tim Plester. I get the sense that this little film (fifteen minutes long) is not much beloved by Blake’s 7 fans, perhaps because they feel it was not as much made for them as aimed in their direction, and is, not to put too fine a point on it, taking the piss out of the series. Mmm, well, maybe.

For rights-related reasons Dudley Simpson’s stirring theme is not heard, but there’s some generic SF-type music playing as a caption reminds us of the premise of the series, more or less: the band of seven rebels on the run from the Federation, their leader lost in action. Mist swirls and out of it steps Avon, looking very much like Mark Heap on this occasion (Heap was a ubiquitous presence in British TV comedy around this time, perhaps most prominently as Brian the artist in Spaced). The replica of Avon’s fourth season costume is actually pretty good.

Avon surveys the scene before him, which is… Newport Pagnell motorway service station, late at night. (I’ve always found motorway services at night rather creepy places, though this may just be because of what happened at the end of Sapphire and Steel.) He joins the others, who are crammed into an old station-wagon which is pulling a caravan. Everyone is hungry; Vila (Martin Freeman) needs to go to the bathroom – so they disembark and go across the bridge to the restaurant.

On the team for this rather unusual episode are Avon, Vila, Jenna, Dayna, Cally, Gan and Orac, a combination which inevitably draws moans from a certain subset of the series’ fans. The film-makers didn’t do their research, apparently, because Jenna, Gan and Dayna were never all in the show at the same time. Personally, I think that some of costumes and props on display in this episode make it very clear that the film-makers did do their research, it’s just that this isn’t intended to fit into the continuity of the series – a fact which one might reasonably infer from the fact that it features the characters visiting Newport Pagnell motorway services.

So, they buy some food; Orac wants a bottle of brown ale. Vila is teased relentlessly by Dayna and Cally. Gan tries to do a crossword (he’s not sure how to spell inhibitor, which I think qualifies as a subtle gag). Meanwhile, in another part of the services, Servalan (Mackenzie Crook) has arrived with the troops, including a guy who looks like Travis (more continuity upheaval!).

Also present in this scene is Simon Farnaby playing the chef – Farnaby has risen to rather greater prominence in recent years due his work as the writer of the Paddington movies, amongst other things. One of those other things is Rogue One (he plays a rebel pilot), which I’ve had described to me as ‘Blake’s 7 in the Star Wars universe’, something which I think is both accurate and funny. So there’s a significant connection there, maybe. But more likely not. (Other folk who achieved this particular double more authentically include Deep Roy and Julian Glover, who were both in real Blake’s 7 and The Empire Strikes Back.)

The climax, such as it is, arrives when Avon bumps into Blake (Johnny Vegas) in the toilets, rather to his embarrassment. Blake asks if he’s seeing anyone and tentatively suggests they stay in touch, but Avon isn’t keen (an interesting take on the subtext of the series). Avon gets back in the car with the others, and it and the caravan blip off into hyperspace.

It does seem very mean-spirited of Blake fandom to have treated this film so coolly, as in some ways it does feel remarkably faithful to the original series: the costumes are convincing replicas, as are the props – if that isn’t the original Orac, it looks very much like it – and, in perhaps the film’s biggest coup casting-wise, Peter Tuddenham reprises his role as Orac, in what was apparently his last engagement before his death. (Some would say that casting two actors – Freeman and Crook – who have gone on to appear in major Hollywood franchises was a big coup, but let’s get our priorities straight.)

On the other hand, it has the Blake’s 7 characters turning up at a motorway service station in the present day, which doesn’t seem to bother any of them; they inevitably appear somewhat absurd as a result. Perhaps this is why the film is unloved – it doesn’t take the series as seriously as the fans do. Even so, apart from the suggestion of a Blake-Avon romance, and the off-the-wall gag of casting Mackenzie Crook as Servalan, there are no actual jokes at the expense of the series itself. Let’s face it, as we have learned over the last nine months, if you really want to ridicule Blake’s 7 you have plenty of potential ammunition at your disposal (hair-dryer spaceships, ludicrous plotting, and so on). Blake’s Junction 7 just settles for the comedy resulting from juxtaposing the fantastical with the mundane. One might reasonably have hoped for it to be rather funnier, given some of the talent involved.

It is probably fair to say that Blake’s Junction 7 scores most highly simply for sheer curiosity value, because once you’ve got past the stunt casting it’s not that entertaining – it’s neither a straight-faced continuation of the series or a merciless take-down of it. It’s somewhere in between; an odd little thing which probably doesn’t warrant in-depth analysis (oops). The fact that people have made something of a small fuss about it just speaks to the modest but distinct place the original series made for itself in British culture.

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If any TV series can claim to have entered the folklore, certainly on an international scale, it is probably The Twilight Zone (of course, it depends on how you define terms like TV series and folklore, and personally I can think of quite a few candidates that could credibly make such a claim). Maybe this is more the case in the US than over here, where the original series has not, to my knowledge, received anything like a complete re-run in well over thirty years, but even so – odd little instances of it keep bubbling up in quiet little corners of the TV spectrum. Once upon a time it was the after-dark small hours where you could find either the original show or the 1980s version, these days it is amongst the high-numbers channels where you are probably going to find a portal to the Zone quietly awaiting you. (On a related topic, Talking Pictures TV has been rerunning The Outer Limits for the last year, nearly, episodes of which have been quietly stockpiling on my tellybox recorder all that time. It’s almost enough to make one hope for a whole succession of rainy days.)

When I went to see the Twilight Zone stage show five years ago, one of the things I mentioned was the fact that a new incarnation of the series had just been announced, the main name attached being that of Jordan Peele (TV comedian turned great new horror director of our time, perhaps). I was, perhaps, just a bit too dismissive of the idea, but then I was hip deep in the Rod Serling version at the time, in all its inconsistency, occasional unsurpassed brilliance, and frequent pulp corniness. The new version of Zone finally turned up free-to-air over here in the summer and I finally got around to watching it recently.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, it can be difficult to explain exactly what The Twilight Zone – in any of its incarnations, all of which are essentially the same anyway – actually is. It’s an anthology series, that’s easy enough, so there are no recurring characters (unless Rod Serling himself counts as a character), no particular locations, no ongoing storylines. But what genre is it? Well, sometimes it’s sci-fi, sometimes it edges towards genuine horror, most commonly it’s fantasy of various different flavours (then again, there’s at least one episode with no fantastical elements at all). People stray out of their ordinary places into somewhere… different, where that which is usually immaterial becomes startlingly concrete. Allegory and metaphor gain flesh and bone and steel and wood. This is The Twilight Zone, always unsettling, occasionally hungry.

Lots of people have done Twilight Zone-style stories down the years, of course, not least Peele himself – Get Out could have been a Zone story, trimmed down quite a bit – and this is probably why he was tapped to get involved with the new show (other familiar names on the production team include Glen Wong (veteran X Files scribe) and Simon Kinberg (long-time influence on the X-Men movie franchise, if overseeing the slow demise of a film series counts as influencing it). The new show sticks quite close to the original format, which is sensible enough – The Twilight Zone is one of the most perfect vehicles for telling a series of stories that anyone has ever come up with, after all.

The new show ran for twenty episodes across two seasons before those involved decided to knock it on the head – a rare example of the network wanting more, but the creative personnel deciding they’d said their piece. The first season is made up of sixty-minute episodes (including adverts, etc); in the second a few forty-five minute instalments crop up, which helps with the sometimes over-stately pacing of many episodes from the first year.

So, is it any good or not? Is it a worthy successor? Well, it’s a tricky question, isn’t it, as the quality of any anthology series tends to be incredibly choppy, no matter who’s making it. Even Rod Serling owned up to the fact that, of the episodes in the original show, the percentage ratio of great/average/awful episodes ran pretty close to 33/33/33%. On a solely aesthetic level, the series is undeniably successful – the production values are excellent, with great sets, cinematography, and special effects.

Dramatically, there seems to me to be a distinct different between the first and second series. It feels like the first planning meeting included a segment where the writers sat down with a whiteboard and made a list of all the topics they wanted to make a pronouncement about: Social Media, Native American Rights, Toxic Masculinity, Gun Control, Donald Trump, and so on. You are certainly seldom in doubt about what any given episode is commenting upon, nor what the position taken by the writers is.

This can get a bit tiresomely didactic regardless of whether you agree with the script’s politics or not. The best of the first season episodes either come at their topic slightly askance, and feel more like genuine pieces of entertainment as a result, or attack their subject with such gusto they’re hard to resist. Amongst the first category is The Blue Scorpion, about a troubled academic (Chris O’Dowd) who inherits a rather strange and temperamental pistol, and Nightmare at 30,000 Feet, a riff on the famous original-series episode with William Shatner and the Gremlin,  in which Adam Scott discovers the plane he’s flying on is destined to disappear without a trace – this finds an interesting vein of post-September 11th disquiet and paranoia to mine. Other superior episodes include the opener, in which Kumail Nanjiani plays a struggling stand-up comedian who finds that drawing on his own life for material brings success, but at an alarming cost, while The Wunderkind is a bracingly impudent tale of an amoral political operator who sets out to show the world what he can really do by ensuring a spoilt child is elected to the White House (the satire here is hardly deeply buried). An exception to the didacticism of most of the episodes is the concluding one, Blurryman, a neat piece of metafiction taking place on the set of the series itself – Peele appears as himself, as does Seth Rogen. A passionate young writer on The Twilight Zone finds herself being haunted by the same enigmatic presence which has been turning up in the background of various other episodes. The revelation, when it comes, is winning, in an episode which deconstructs the series, or at least its raison d’etre.

The second year relaxes a bit and seems to be a bit less worried about sending all the right messages – the pacing picks up a bit too, in the shorter episodes at least. This isn’t to say there are no contemporary resonances or social commentary in the second year, it just seems to be growing organically out of the scripts, rather than being imposed on them. The second series as a whole is probably more consistent, but that really just means that while its worst episodes aren’t as cheesy, there are fewer really good ones. Most of them are fairly forgettable – some of them commit the regular Zone error of solely writing towards a twist, which only really works if it’s a really good twist (though this happens in the first year too).

Others have much more of a ‘classic’ Zone feeling to them – The Who of You (struggling-actor-turned-criminal discovers the power to switch bodies with other people) feels like it’s channelling the original episode The Four of Us are Dying, while A Small Town (handyman discovers a replica of his town, and changes to one are reflected in the other) feels like a remake, even though it isn’t. Less ‘classic’ but still striking is 8 (Antarctic expedition encounters a rather unusual octopus), an excursion into outright horror which unfortunately does feel constricted by a too-brief running time.

The best episodes come at the end – Try, Try is about a woman on a trip to the museum which takes a very odd turn, as the apparently-perfect man she befriends turns out to be nothing of the sort. It’s a devastating takedown of Groundhog Day, as it might appear from the Andie McDowell character’s point of view, with strong performances from Kylie Bunbury and Topher Grace. Possibly the best of all is You Might Also Like, a sort of spiritual successor to the original episode To Serve Man. It’s about advertising, and consumerism, and grief, and manages to be funny and poignant and weird and unsettling in a way none of the other episodes manage. You can see why they put it out last of all, though.

So, is the most recent incursion of Twilight Zone worth visiting? Well – much as with the original show, there is a fairly even mixture of good, okay, and bad episodes (perhaps not quite enough genuinely good episodes for comfort, though). If every episode was up to the same standard as Try, Try, The Blue Scorpion, and You Might Also Like this would be an extremely watchable and maybe even significant series. Sieving through the less-successful instalments could make watching this show more of a grind than it’s worth.

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‘You know, there is no sequel. There’s only the one story. You can have another picture about further adventures among the monkeys, and it can be an exciting film, but creatively there is no film.’ – Charlton Heston, about Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Crikey, you wait thirteen years for an Avatar sequel and then… well, only one comes along, but look at the size of the thing. This is the kind of big studio release where the sheer scale of the movie forms one of the main planks of the publicity strategy. Three hours long! A budget of knocking on for $500 million! Filmed using specially-developed technology! It needs to be one of the most successful films in history just to stand a chance of breaking even!

Yes, it’s Avatar: The Way of Water, directed once again by Jim Cameron (with any of Cameron’s projects, ‘directed’ always feels like such an inadequate phrase – perhaps ‘willed into existence’ would be better), which at the time of writing is probably inescapable at every cinema near you. Cameron, as ever a man not short on self-belief, seems to think his little baby is going to do the business, thus opening the door for Avatar 4 and 5 a few years down the line (Avatar 3 is already in the pipeline, so cancel any holiday plans for next Christmas). Even the gargantuan length of thing may indeed be part of his cunning plan: people can apparently ‘see the scene they missed [due to going to the bathroom] when they come see [the film] again.’

Well, we carefully prepared for our visit to watch Way of Water by going onto a low-fluid intake regime and draining all our bodily cavities during the commercials (this wasn’t terribly popular with the people in the next row, but at least we weren’t crunching popcorn all the way through). We’d sat down and rewatched the first film not long ago, which turned out to be a wise move as not many concessions are made to anyone who isn’t up to speed on what happened the first time around.

So: Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is now a full-time feline Smurf living on the paradise moon of Pandora with his partner (Zoe Saldana) and their gaggle of offspring. (Saldana’s character does seem prone to going off on one, so it is appropriate she has spent the gap between films having kittens.) Scholars of the dark arts of Hollywood will be amused to note that Worthington and Saldana now share top billing, rather like Paul Newman and Steve McQueen in The Towering Inferno, presumably because Worthington hasn’t really made a notable film in a decade while Saldana is an established member of the Marvel ensemble.

Needless to say, a serpent finds its way into this particular Eden with the return of those nasty humans, whose dying planet is apparently not quite dead yet. The humans now want to come to Pandora and colonise it, not just strip it of its natural resources, and here to help them is a new incarnation of Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the bad guy from the first film (who, yes, is technically dead, but the loophole Cameron finds to revive him is acceptable enough).

Quaritch’s vendetta against the Sully family eventually forces Jake into moving house, and they all go off and live with some island-dwelling Na’vi in a part of the planet which looks rather like Hawaii: the leaders of their hosts are played by Kate Winslet and Cliff ‘Maori Jesus’ Curtis. Slowly the forest-dwelling visitors come to understand how to be one with the water and understand the wisdom of the oceans (or, to put it another way, hold their breath, swim, and fish). Needless to say, there impressive CGI beasties with those bio-USB ports for them to ride around on, too. It will perhaps not entirely surprise you if I reveal that the Sully’s pelagic idyll does not endure, for Quaritch and the other heartless exploiters of the planet eventually show up for the big third-act set pieces and climax…

You know, it’s as easy to be snotty about the new Avatar as it was the first one, for these are not subtle or complicated films, and they have an earnestness about them which is not particularly fashionable these days. The stories themselves are really not very distinctive; they exist as a visual experience more than anything else. This one is as pleasing to look at as the original, although the ‘weird alien ecology of Pandora’ element is perhaps suffering from diminishing returns, probably due to the marine setting – many Terran fish look weird, so weird alien fish are that bit less striking.

Either way, while Cameron may see himself as a visionary and an innovative artist, it’s the sequences with the full-auto gunfire and things blowing up that really pay the rent in this movie – I was getting quite restive by the point the bad guys showed up near the end, but the ensuing battle is tremendously well-executed on all kinds of levels, even if it (and the climax of the film) do feel a bit overlong.

Then again, what is overlong in this context? ‘The Way of Water has… no ending,’ says one character in the hushed tones which many people use quite a lot in this film, and it certainly feels that way while you’re watching it. If you subscribe to Cameron’s belief that the visual and sensory experience of Avatar is the main reason to see it, then you probably won’t care whether there’s enough story there to support three-hours-plus of screen time. If you think that beautiful CGI should be there to service a solid story, on the other hand, you will probably conclude that Avatar: The Way of Water is very slow in parts, sometimes repetitive (‘I can’t believe I’m tied up again!’ complains one character near the end), and doesn’t have particularly interesting characters.

Jake, for example, has lost the tension between his human and Na’vi identities which was central to the first film, and Cameron can’t find anything as interesting to replace it with: he’s just a stern, frowny dad most of the time. Something similar happens to Neytiri. Their kids are a bit interchangeable as well, with the possible exception of the one played by Sigourney Weaver, who clearly has a Special Destiny. The one character with the potential to be interesting is the new version of Quaritch, who faces a similar choice to the one Jake did in the first film – but as he is essentially a two-dimensional villain, this isn’t really explored. Most of the bad guys are lucky to make it into two dimensions; the same goes for most of the humans – although Jermaine Clement manages to make a tiny bit of an impression as a conflicted scientist.

Of course, beyond their visual appeal and adventure storylines, the Avatar movies work on another level, as environmental parables. The snippy thing to say at this point would be that James Cameron has spent thirteen years and $500 million making a film which presents the astonishing revelation that hunting whales is bad, something which Leonard Nimoy managed to communicate at least as entertainingly in Star Trek IV, in two-thirds of the time and for 5% of the budget. All right, yes, the film is very persuasive (and there’s a not-entirely surprising nod to Moby-Dick at one point), but… the sci-fi presentation of the whales here is mawkish and twee in a way that the ecological ideas of the first film usually weren’t. Having done his bit for the rainforests in Avatar 1, and now whales in Avatar 2, one wonders what Cameron has left up his sleeve for the next three episodes – I predict the Na’vi will reveal themselves as space Wombles and teach the humans the value of recycling.

I enjoyed watching the first Avatar again because it turned out to be a film with some interesting ideas embedded in its storytelling, and the resonances with Aliens were fascinating. My joke ahead of seeing Way of Water was that it was going to be another visit to Cameron’s back catalogue – watery setting? Kate Winslet? This was going to be Avatar meets Titanic. Well, rather to my surprise it turned out I was right, in several respects – but I should say that for me, Titanic was a rather pedestrian romance elevated by some terrific special effects, in terms of ideas it’s rather vacuous. Watching The Way of Water I was reminded of the Charlton Heston quote we opened with. It’s a good-looking film, often very entertaining, but there are no new ideas here, nothing that needed to be said, and certainly not in such a grandiose way. I’m curious to see if the other sequels get made, but even if they are I suspect it will all be more of the same.

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