Posts Tagged ‘SF’

There are a number of noteworthy and unusual things about Everything Everywhere All At Once, directed by ‘Daniels’ (this is the working name for the duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert); the film has apparently done unexpectedly well across a long and carefully-managed release, it is an (almost unprecedented) star vehicle for a leading lady a quarter-century on from her turn as a Bond girl; and there is the simple fact that the film is so damn weird. What is not so noteworthy or unusual is the film’s theme, which concerns an infinite multiplicity of closely connected parallel worlds and the main character’s perception of them. This is pretty standard story material at the moment, as we have already noted.

Michelle Yeoh, whose star has waxed impressively in the last five or six years despite her appearing in some (to my mind) decidedly iffy projects, plays Evelyn, a Chinese immigrant to America who has devoted her life to running a not especially successful laundrette with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan, making what is surely one of the most impressive comebacks in recent years). But her relationship with her daughter (Stephanie Hsu) and father (James Hong, a veteran actor with a remarkable CV) is not good.

Worst of all, the business is being audited by the IRS, requiring all of them to go to the local tax office and contend with a not entirely sympathetic official (Jamie Lee Curtis). But strange things begin to occur as they arrive: Waymond in particular starts acting very oddly, writing strange notes to Evelyn giving her rather peculiar instructions. When she eventually follows them, she finds her consciousness transported into the janitor’s closet, which contains another version of her from a parallel universe. Or is the whole closet in another parallel universe? (It’s probably best not to worry too much about this kind of minor detail – and the thing about Everything Everywhere All At Once is that which universe the characters are in at any given moment really does constitute a minor detail.)

Well, it turns out that a parallel-universe version of Waymond is looking for Evelyn; or, to be exact, looking for an iteration of her with the potential to defeat a tyrannical multiversal despot named Jobu Tupaki (‘You’re just making up noises,’ complains Evelyn when told of this, not unreasonably). Jobu Tupaki has created a bagel with the potential to destroy the infinity of the multiverse (I promise you that this really is the plot), which interested parties are obviously keen to stop.

Fairly soon parallel-universe minions of Jobu Tupaki and members of other factions are possessing the bodies of their counterparts in Evelyn’s universe, intent on causing her some mischief, and so it falls to her to borrow the skills of some of her other iterations in order to fend them off (given Yeoh’s pedigree in Hong Kong action cinema you can probably imagine how this turns out). But what is the secret of Jobu Tupaki and can the apocalyptic bagel be neutralised before the whole of creation suffers?

Having just read that back I am aware that Everything Everywhere All At Once sounds like one of the stupidest, or at least most bloody-mindedly whimsical films ever made – and it does contain many moments which are finely-crafted pieces of absurdism and surrealism: quite apart from doomsday baked goods, there are transcendental paper cuts, dialogue scenes between rocks, and people doing things with trophies that defy genteel description. Not for the first time, the essentially cautious nature of the Marvel project is thrown into sharp relief by a smaller movie – the Dr Strange sequel suddenly looks very restrained indeed compared to the relentless frantic daftness of this film, both of them of course playing the idea of a multiplicity of parallel worlds. (What briefly resembled a spat between the two films on Twitter is rather peculiar given that talent both behind and in front of the camera on Everything Everywhere All At Once has been involved in Marvel Studios projects.)

It’s not quite as arbitrarily silly as it sounds, for there are rules and reasons for nearly everything that happens. What it really feels like, and I’m aware I don’t usually like this kind of reductionist comparison, is The Matrix blended with an offbeat indie comedy-drama: the kung fu stuff is great, even if it is quite daft, there’s a fairly solid rationale behind it all (though you do have to hang on really tight to keep track of all of the plot), and – somehow – underpinning everything is a relatively serious story about a woman coming to terms with her life and her relationships with her family.

It takes a while to get here, naturally, and one of the criticisms I’d make is that the endless possibilities that the film explores turn out to be just a bit too endless: I’d say it was about 15-20% too long, with most of the fat coming in the second and third acts. There are still some good jokes and inspired ideas, but I found myself flagging as the film bounced through yet another new take on its characters and concepts without much going on in the way of forward motion.

This being, at least in part, a film about the Chinese-American experience, it’s not entirely surprising that it eventually resolves as a kind of family saga – this is one of those films where colossal mayhem and an apocalyptic threat proves to be mainly a pretext for the protagonist to sort out their domestic relationships. But it’s a bit deeper than that – rather as with the TV series Life After Life, it eventually tackles concepts of existentialism and nihilism – if you can have or be everything, then ultimately you reach a point where nothing means anything. I’m not entirely convinced by the film’s solution to this particular philosophical quandary, but it at least does present some kind of answer to it.

Everything Everywhere All At Once is the kind of film which looks brilliant and inspired in the trailer; the challenge is how to take such a soaringly high concept and turn it into a functional and satisfying narrative. The Daniels do a pretty good job with it, in the end, although this is not a film which is especially strong on coherence. Nevertheless, there are so many good individual bits to enjoy that I am very happy to overlook the flaws in the overall story. It’s a mad and challenging film, but I mean that in the most positive way.

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I’m starting to think that my whole thinking on the which-early-episodes-of-Blake’s-7-are-filler issue has been somewhat coloured by the collected works of Trevor Hoyle, the (one suspects) main writer of the Blake novelisations that appeared around the time of the series’ original transmission. This was not a comprehensive project: there were only three, two covering the first season and one the opening episodes of the final year, and even then Hoyle was selective in which material he covered – not The Web, and not episode seven, Mission to Destiny. (Breakdown and Bounty likewise go un-adapted from this first year.)

You can kind of see why: these episodes don’t link into the rest of the series particularly, and they’re not concerned with either Blake gathering his crew or their various clashes with Travis and Servalan. Still, this isn’t to say that Mission to Destiny is a bad episode as such – it’s a little atypical, for sure, but not necessarily in a bad way.

Much of it occurs on the spaceship Ortega, where right at the top of the episode a crewmember played by Brian Capron (later a sympathetic Grange Hill schoolteacher and a less sympathetic Corrie serial killer) is murdered by a bang on the head. The Liberator later comes across the ship, which is going round in circles and not responding to their hails. As Jenna is still not allowed to do anything interesting, Blake teleports over with Cally and Avon to see what’s up.

Well, all the crew are asleep, thanks to someone putting knockout gas in the air supply, but Blake overcomes the urge to have a nap and sees to it that everyone wakes up. The controls have been damaged and the ship will be stuck on its circular flight-path until someone can fix it. The ship is under the command of one Dr Kendall (Barry Jackson) and they are heading home to the planet Destiny, an independent world noted for its voluminous collars, which is currently experiencing a grave crisis. The problem can only be solved using a neutrotope, an immensely valuable and important plot device which they have just spent all of Destiny’s money on.

The sabotage of the ship and the murder of the pilot are clearly connected to one of Kendall’s Seven wanting to nick the neutrotope and retire to a life of luxury. Avon is supremely unmoved by the plight of Destiny, but does confess to a desire to see this mystery solved – which is just as well, because the damage means the Ortega can no longer travel at superluminal speeds, meaning someone else will have to deliver the neutrotope if it’s to be there in time to save the planet. Naturally, Blake volunteers and zips off in the Liberator, leaving Avon and Cally behind to complete repairs and ponder about the times and velocities implied by the script and their implications for the rest of the series.

(The shade of Terry Nation will probably rise screaming from the grave if I even start down this route, but: we are told that, travelling at sub-light speed, the Ortega is five months from home. The Liberator, apparently, can do the trip in four days travelling at ‘standard by six’ (which seems to be, as the name suggests, a fairly standard speed).

Assuming that ‘sub-light speed’ is a fairly high fraction of C, some fairly basic maths reveals that the Liberator can travel 971,327,563,920 km a day at standard speed. This means that the trip from Earth to Alpha Centauri, at four light-years only a hop and a skip in astronomical terms, would usually take the Liberator roughly five weeks.

This meshes fairly well with the long flight times indicated in some of the other episodes of the series – the eight month trip from Earth to Cygnus Alpha mentioned a couple of times – but it does seem a bit on the long side, all things considered. The characters fly from one planet to another fairly casually, after all: Travis goes back and forth between Kentero and Servalan’s HQ multiple times in one episode, and this is on a Federation ship which is slower than Blake’s. I think we are obliged to assume that there are some other factors in play.)

Yes, we are in Agatha Christie pastiche territory here – an area which, I should say, Blake script editor Chris Boucher had previously displayed considerable aptitude for. The main downside to doing this kind of story is that, obviously, you need a fairly extensive guest cast for the whole whodunnit angle to have any interest to it – which means that many of the regulars get less to do than usual; Vila, Gan and Jenna are all minimally served in this episode.

‘You’re probably wondering why I’ve called you all here today…’

The upside, however, is that Paul Darrow gets to play Inspector Avon and crack the case aboard the Ortega, which he does with his usual sardonic panache. Darrow is clearly having great fun throughout the episode; you can almost see the writers and production team waking up to what a felicitous combination of character and performer they’ve stumbled upon here. He gets all the good lines, up to and including the unacceptable-but-still-great-the-way-Darrow-delivers-it ‘You’d better get her out of here, I really rather enjoyed that’, after punching out the villainess of the piece.

The exigencies of time mean this is only really a vague wave in the direction of an actual whodunnit – only a couple of characters are properly developed, the only motive Avon discusses (correctly, as it turns out) is financial gain, there’s only one red herring worth mentioning. It’s also notably a whodunnit in an SF setting, rather than an SF whodunnit – by which I mean a story where the murder is achieved or the killer’s identity obscured by some science-fictional means. SF whodunnits are tricky to do at the best of times, and attempting one inside fifty minutes for a BBC 1 audience would really be a big ask.

Nevertheless, it’s a solid episode that hangs together rather well – mainly around the central armature of Paul Darrow’s performance. This first appearance of a dominant Avon may be its main significance in the history of the show, but that doesn’t stop it from being rather engaging, even if many of the regulars hardly appear and the actual murder-mystery is only handled with the broadest of strokes. It’s hardly essential, but it’s hard to dislike, too.

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As we have observed, The New Avengers is not a show which is afraid to revisit concepts and storylines from the parent shows – up to and including doing a direct sequel, of sorts, to an episode from nearly a decade earlier. So for it to take another run at the notion of influential figures being replaced by enemy duplicates (previously utilised in The Man with Two Shadows and They Keep Killing Steed) is not really a surprise. The unexpected thing about Faces (a collaboration between Dennis Spooner and Brian Clemens, though I wouldn’t like to guess who did which bit) is that it should be quite so ramshackle as a piece of writing.

The premise is as follows: two tramps played by Richard Leech (fourth of four) and Edward Petherbridge are settling down to a dinner of barbecued rabbit one night when they spy a Rolls Royce cruising by – and in the back is a man who is the spitting image of one of them! Either they are providentially close to his home, or very fast on their feet, because when Leech’s double decides to take a dip in his private pool they are on the scene to put an arrow in him (Petherbridge, like many tramps, is a crack archer) so his down-and-out double can replace him.

It gets even more ridiculous: having adopted this new identity less than a minute earlier, Leech is entirely untroubled when Steed turns up, greeting him with a genial ‘Hello, John!’ How does he know Steed’s name? It’s vaguely alluded to that Leech’s character has fallen on hard times from a fairly elevated position, but there’s no suggestion he actually knew Steed in his earlier life, nor does Steed indicate he knew someone who was a lookalike for the man Leech has replaced (though, as noted, he has previously met three different duplicates of him, along with six duplicates of Edwin Richfield, four Peter Bowleses and Julian Glovers, two Peter Cushings and Christopher Lees, etc).

Anyway, from this frankly wobbly beginning we are invited to believe that the lust for power and influence seizes the two tramps, and they recruit a disgraced plastic surgeon to run a mission for the needy in London. The homeless population is apparently bursting with duplicates of the rich and powerful, whom they proceed to spend five years substituting for their originals.

Buying the premise is probably the most demanding thing about watching Faces, because it really does require you to put your disbelief in a iron death-grip. If you can put all this to one side, the episode is not unrewarding – Patrick Macnee gets some good material as an unusually driven Steed (though we meet yet another of his never-heard-of-before best friends who is basically just there to die), and there is some clever plotting – working independently of each other, Gambit and Purdey both infiltrate the mission undercover and (obviously) are recruited to replace themselves. (Given the episode is arguably making some kind of comment about class divisions and the resulting institutionalised envy in British society, there’s also a curious little scene where Steed gently but firmly puts Gambit in his place for not coming from the ‘right’ background – he has the temerity to turn up to a clay-pigeon shooting contest with a pump-action shotgun, for instance. It’s mildly done, but Steed seems quite in earnest.)

The result borders on farce, albeit with a few genuinely serious moments, but it’s well-enough played to make up for a lot, and at least it seems aware of its own ridiculousness (it concludes with Macnee near-as-dammit breaking the fourth wall and quipping to the audience). Well-enough to make up for the outrageous implausibility of the premise? Probably not, for me, but your mileage may differ, of course.

Something much more agreeably bonkers rocks up next in the form of Spooner’s Gnaws, which also has a rather familiar feel to it – it’s supposedly another riff on the central idea of the same writer’s Thunderbirds episode Attack of the Alligators, but an awful lot of sci-fi B-movies could also end up charged with inspiring the story.

Kicking the story off on this occasion are the activities of two avaricious government research scientists, Thornton (Julian Holloway) and Carter (Peter Cellier), who plan to steal a load of top-secret research materials and set up in the private sector, working on ways to grow giant tomatoes. As you would. This they manage to do, even after Thornton (who is a proper mad scientist) kills the agent routinely tailing him: the fact Thornton is never under suspicion suggests the dead man was really shoddy at his admin, although this in itself probably doesn’t mean he deserved to die. Anyway, off they go into the wide world of private enterprise, where it’s much easier to overlook little incidents like Carter accidentally pouring half a vial of atomic growth hormone down the sink…

At this point there’s another one of those awkward narrative jumps as we leap forward to the anniversary of Mr Bad Admin’s death – I don’t expect anyone’s ever attempted to write a definitive New Avengers timeline, but it would be an odd-looking beast with (presumably) up to a dozen episodes ‘nested’ inside Last of the Cybernauts..?? and Gnaws, both of which take place over more than a year.

Anyway, twelve months on, Thornton and Carter are happily growing giant solanaceae, and everyone but Gambit and Purdey seem to have forgotten about the mysterious murder of the bad admin man. Steed’s concern is with very odd seismographic readings under London – it’s almost as if something very large is moving around in the sewers…

Gambit is sent into the (reasonably clean, dry, and well-lit) tunnels to investigate, and turns up various oddities – Steed’s initial thought was that the Other Side were up to something involving subterranean bugging, but he runs into one of their security men (Jeremy Young, fourth of four) who has exactly the same idea (the Other Side have their own seismographs, it seems). He also meets a maintenance man (Keith Alexander, a supporting artist in a couple of Gerry Anderson projects) who complains that someone has been dragging enormous sacks of grain into the sewer – normally this would attract every rat in the network, but they are surprisingly thin on the ground…

A moody little squeaker. (Or maybe not so little.)

Well, the actually number of rats in the sewers may have been dramatically reduced, but by bodyweight the rat population is still in very good shape, because – as I’m sure you’ve figured out – Carter and Thornton’s atomic growth hormone has found its way into one rat in particular, which is now the size of a van and nibbling its way through everything in its path, including maintenance workers, tramps, and anyone else in an area adjacent to a sewer access point. Late 1976 and early 1977 was truly a blissful time to be alive if you were into this sort of thing, as – a few weeks after Gnaws first aired (this was effectively The New Avengers‘ Christmas episode) – Dr Who also did a story where a sewer full of giant rats was a key plot point. The poorness of the BBC rat costume is often criticised, but at least they took a swing at putting the actual rat in-frame with the leading actors. Gnaws‘ approach is to film a real rat on model sets and rely on slick editing for the rest of it, but I’m still not sure it completely works.

As you might expect, this is a somewhat polarising episode – I’m not sure anyone really loves it, but there are certainly some people who absolutely hate it. I agree it has its issues – it can’t seem to decide whether to be a spoof or a pastiche of 50s monster B-movies, and as a result the tone fluctuates constantly between self-mocking goofiness and genuine horror (I watched Gnaws again for the purposes of this piece not long after Behemoth the Sea Monster, and was a little surprised to find it had earned its own entry in The Illustrated Dinosaur Movie Guide, where it got a respectable two-and-a-half out of five brontosauruses – but then again the same book gives both On the Town and Bringing Up Baby five out of five, and they don’t even have monsters in them). Also, any episode of The New Avengers which basically resolves by Gambit arriving with an enormous gun has got serious foundational problems.

But on the other hand, it does have a certain kind of goofy charm to it, there are some nice performances, and the fight between Jeremy Young and Joanna Lumley is upper-bracket stuff. Possibly most importantly, this was one of the episodes I watched with young nephew not long ago, and this was probably the one he enjoyed the most – certainly he got the most absorbed by it, at several points showing a distinct desire to hide behind the sofa (decor choices prevented this from really being an option). Saying that Gnaws really succeeds as a piece of mildly scary children’s TV is an odd thing to say about an episode featuring a violent opening murder and six men being killed and in some cases devoured by a giant rat, but it’s some sort of success. In any case, I find it impossible to genuinely dislike the episode.

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Seek-Locate-Destroy hardly gets off to an impressive start, with another Federation installation that looks like a gasworks, guarded by such a naff security robot that the director feels the need to put a tannoy announcement in the story confirming that this is indeed what the wobbly prop is supposed to be. But it soon turns into pacy and involving stuff, with Blake and the gang embarking upon what is – by their standards so far – a carefully planned and crisply executed raid on the place. (We don’t get to see the various scenes of Blake persuading Vila and Avon to risk their lives in his cause, but that would get rather dull extremely quickly.)

The plan is to break into another communications centre and blow it up, but the real objective is to steal a Federation cypher unit which will allow them to monitor all the Federation signals traffic. Things go well until there is a rather contrived setback and a guard escapes: Vila has, for some reason, not been issued with a gun, and ends up having to chase the man down on foot, only catching him after he raises the alarm. Despite the this, the crew are working together with unusual smoothness and everyone fulfils their role – Vila gets them into the security zone, Avon identifies the unit and does most of the disconnecting, and Gan tears it the rest of the way out of its socket with his bare hands. Cally doesn’t get to do anything so interesting, but at least she’s allowed to beam down – Jenna’s only been off the ship once so far, and that was to another ship.

There is a bit of a prisoner rebellion and in the struggle Cally’s teleport bracelet comes off, meaning she is still there when the complex blows up. Luckily she is saved from the force of the blast and the hundreds of tons of collapsing rubble by being partly covered by some metal shelves (even in a good episode of Blake, which is what this is, the plot contrivances do pile up a bit). The others are duly appalled by their loss – although they seem more embarrassed by not having noticed they left her behind than upset at her apparent death.

So far, so capable and efficient, but the episode earns its status as a landmark by what comes next: a kind of narrative reverse-angle, as the scene shifts to Federation Space Headquarters, where the supreme commander is taken to task by a couple of politicians over exactly what she’s going to do about the Blake situation. The answer is that a senior officer is to be appointed whose sole responsibility is to hunt Blake down and eliminate him. This being a Terry Nation script, the officer in question is not called Commander Travis, but Space Commander Travis; he is played (at this point, anyway) by Stephen Greif, who makes a tremendous impression in his first appearance on the show.

We’ve talked before about Blake‘s slightly peculiar status as a partly-episodic, partly-serialised show; the format does shift, the relationships do change, some of the characters do develop – not for nothing has J Michael Straczynski acknowledged it as an influence on Babylon 5. The trap you can fall into is assuming that the series was always written with a particular end-point in mind; that it was all planned out in advance. I’ve probably been guilty of this myself in describing some episodes as ‘filler’, the implication being that others are moving on some putative continuing storyline. Nevertheless, Seek-Locate-Destroy is a game-changer for the series, in that it is intended to introduce the main villain of the series. The ironic thing is that everyone involved was mistaken about who that actually was.

Which is not to say that Travis doesn’t dominate the episode: Greif plays him as a fierce, driven, dangerously intelligent man, savage and ruthless even by the standards of the Federation military. (There’s an interesting character bit where a young officer complains about having to work alongside a man like Travis – the shades of grey in this series just keep coming.) But he’s strongly favoured by the script throughout. What’s interesting is the extent to which he finds himself obliged to share many of his scenes with Jacqueline Pearce, who is (of course) playing Supreme Commander Servalan.

We’re still in the Blake-and-Travis show, not the Avon-and-Servalan show (which is, needless to say, a much more interesting beast), but even so: Pearce takes what could have been quite a dull, transactional part, as Travis’ straight-laced boss, and finds really interesting things to do with it: she invests Servalan with unexpected glamour and sensuality. I should say that she’s helped by the script here: there’s a clear implication that Servalan is knocking off her office staff. But Pearce takes this and runs with it – lifting a supporting role and turning it into what’s as close to being a three-dimensional character as you’re going to find on this show.

Nevertheless, Servalan’s ascent to maximum power still lies some way off in the future; Travis is still centre-stage as far as the bad guys go. In this episode he’s challenging Blake for prominence. But of course it can’t last, and Travis succumbs to recurring villain syndrome harder and faster than most: the more they appear, the more reliably they can be defeated. He’s a frighteningly capable villain right up until the point where he is obliged to lose, which of course comes at the end of the episode, and from this point on, no matter what Stephen Greif tries to do with the part, he inevitably becomes a diminished and increasingly absurd figure. The seal is set on this in the moment that Blake can’t even be bothered to kill Travis – on one level this is because you can’t have the hero murdering someone in cold blood in a space adventure show that goes out early in the evening on BBC 1, but it’s also because recurring villains have to be alive in order to recur. And so Blake concludes that Travis, despite everything we’ve seen, just isn’t that much of a threat to him or the crew. If the hero doesn’t feel challenged by the villain, the audience isn’t going to feel too much concern about them either.

Up to this point, however, Seek-Locate-Destroy is probably the best episode since the series opener: not a very great deal of explicit world-building goes on, but you do get a sense of the wider universe, a setting that isn’t simply defined by the extent to which it imposes on Blake and the others. The individual set-pieces and character scenes are also generally very well handled. In a way it’s almost a shame that Stephen Greif’s performance is so good in this episode, as he’s allowed to reach peaks of competency and menace he (and Travis) are never allowed anywhere near throughout the rest of the series. But where recurring villains are concerned, this is the nature of the beast.

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Let us imagine, for a moment, that curious aliens manage lay their hands on the complete corpus of British culture for the last three decades of the twentieth century. What they might be able to learn about the state of the nation would be interesting, no doubt, but we could also speculate about the extent to which they could draw conclusions about non-British influences as well. To make it much more specific: to what extent could one reconstruct Star Trek, given only the British sci-fi series which were clearly based on it?

I feel like there’s an interesting article to be written on the subject of how Space: 1999 and Blake’s 7, two shows with aesthetics, tones and sensibilities which have almost nothing in common, both still manage to clearly be Star Trek knock-offs. (I’m thinking here primarily about first-season ’99 – which is not to say that the second season owes nothing to Trek (it has one of the original producers, after all), just that season two is much closer to Blake in some ways.) It’s as if there was some acrimonious divorce settlement (or, if you prefer, bizarre metaphysical transporter accident), and ’99 ended up with the international crew, the leading troika, and the interest in lofty science fiction concepts, while Blake got the action adventure, the spaceship, the Federation, the teleporter, and the arresting central dynamic between the main and second leads. (Avon has the same steely intelligence, dispassionate attitude and (I am given to understand) irresistible sexual allure that made Spock equally successful as a breakout character.)

Of course, the big difference in approach between the two shows is that ’99 was consciously made for an international audience, while Blake’s 7 is determinedly BBC in every respect. The generally miserabilistic tone of much of British SF seems to have influenced the majority of the BBC’s output in the genre – it tends to be bleak, cynical, even sometimes nihilistic. This certainly applies to Blake – its Star Trek trappings are largely superficial; as we have discussed, it is not really pure SF so much as an action-adventure drama set in the future, primarily concerned with a single axis of conflict – that between the crew and the Federation.

If you view the series this way, the problem with episode five, The Web, is thrown into sharper relief: episode four ends with the Liberator on the way to the planet Centero (apparently pronounced with a hard K) to commence another operation against the Federation. Episode six begins with the opening stages of that operation. So to some extent, The Web is just a detour on the way, another piece of pure filler.

At least it opens reasonably atmospherically, with the camera drifting around an apparently deserted alien installation in some web-shrouded woodlands. The effect of this is a sense that Blake is coming into the story’s world, rather than vice versa, which makes a subtle but important difference. But from here we go back to the Liberator, where something is amiss (I am tempted to say as ‘usual’). Even though she has only just arrived in the series, Cally has wasted no time in getting herself possessed by an alien influence and is sabotaging the ship, sending it off-course into an uncharted sector of space (she also lamps Vila, but most of the crew are probably regularly tempted to do this alien possession or otherwise). This is a great opportunity for Gareth Thomas and Paul Darrow to practise the delicate art of running up and down the Liberator‘s corridors; Darrow also gets a nice scene with David Jackson – Avon barely conceals his contempt for Gan’s lack of intelligence and apparently slavish devotion to Blake’s cause. Avon even gets to save Blake’s life at one point, which surprises both of them – then again, Blake later describes Avon as a friend (though not within earshot of him).

The ship eventually ends up orbiting a planet where it is entangled in the filaments of a silicon-based lifeform, which we are invited to assume has been placed there by the inhabitants of the base from the start of the episode. At this point it’s Jenna who gets possessed by the aliens (Sally Knyvette does some very entertaining I’ve-been-possessed acting) and they order Blake down to the planet to talk terms for their release. (This episode marks the debut of the Liberator kagoule rack, which is a good match with the Liberator picnic box which has already made a couple of appearances.)

Well, it turns out the aliens are exiles from Cally’s home planet Auron (it increasingly does seem like Cally genuinely is from non-Terran stock) who have come here to carry out some illegal experiments in genetic engineering, mainly to create servitor creatures and search for immortality. The main result of the latter is the fact the six aliens are now sharing one shrivelled body stuck in a fish tank; however, the slave-race angle has been going rather better and produced a fetching pair who resemble an early-eighties German synthpop duo, as well as large numbers of excitable diminutive creatures called Decima. The Decima have turned stroppy, like you couldn’t have guessed, and are running amok in the woods causing all kinds of trouble. The aliens have decided to bin this particular experiment, but wiping the Decima out will require some new batteries – which they are insisting that Blake and the others provide…

It is, as you have probably figured out, another riff on the old Frankenstein (or possibly Dr Moreau) story: life has its own imperatives and refuses to accept the primacy of its creators. It’s handled a bit simplistically here – the main plot complication is that the Decima are ugly and initially seem feral, while the aliens’ representatives are ostensibly more urbane. Even so, it doesn’t take Blake long to figure out what’s really going on, putting him in a bit of a bind – he needs the aliens to let the Liberator go, but they’ll only do this if he helps them wipe out their truculent creations.

While Googling for this image I found out there’s actually a writer named ‘Decima Blake’. It’s a funny old world sometimes.

The main problem with the script is that a good half of it is concerned with the hijacking of the Liberator and the journey to the alien planet: by the time Blake’s actually beamed down and started to get his bearings, the episode is well on the way to its climax. The result is that a set-up which is not without a certain amount of promise has to be resolved in a rush. Something approximating the following dialogue exchange ensues:

ALIEN: Give us the flutonic power cells.

BLAKE: Never! You’ll just use them to kill the Decima.

ALIEN: Give us the flutonic power cells or we will kill you.

BLAKE: Here they are.

It’s not the staunchest moral stand ever taken in the history of drama, to say the least. Virtue (of a sort) only prevails because of a risible plot contrivance – the aliens forget to close the door behind them when they go back into their base, allowing the Decima in to run amuck. (This would actually be pretty grim stuff, with a skull being kicked around like a football, were it not all rendered slightly absurd by the squeaky voices given to the Decima. It’s a bit like a peasant uprising featuring the Smurfs or a bunch of chipmunks.) Blake and Avon still get a chance to free the Liberator before bravely running away. Lord knows what the Decima end up doing with their newly-planet; knowing the general tenor of Blake’s universe, the Federation probably happen across it and nerve-gas them all from low orbit.

But of course we never find out. Nothing is picked up on again, the whole episode might never have happened. This in itself is not a problem per se – I am, after all, on record as someone who enjoys episodic storytelling. The problem arises from the fact that this only marginally feels like an episode of the same series we’ve been watching up to this point – that main axis of conflict we were discussing earlier barely features; the Federation is only present in the story as a device to exert time pressure on Blake (they need to free the Liberator before some pursuit ships turn up). This is a story of space travellers being hassled by slightly generic aliens that could conceivably have shown up in Space: 1999 or even Star Trek. It’s not especially distinctive, or well-structured – while it’s interesting to see Blake trying to push the envelope a bit in terms of its storytelling, the results are not particularly impressive.

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Bert I Gordon’s 1977 film Empire of the Ants kicks off with some close-up footage of leaf-cutter ants going about their business, while a basso profundo voice-over does its best to make them seem menacing. The nature-documentary tone of most of the commentary doesn’t help its cause much, and it winds up by pushing the dangers of ant pheromones particularly hard, which initially seems like a stretch. To anyone not familiar with the Bert I Gordon oeuvre it gives the impression that we’re in for one of those nature-strikes-back eco-horror movies.

Indications that things may be a bit more out there come during the opening credits, which depict barrels of radioactive waste being dumped into the sea off the Florida coast. At more than one point the credits stress that this movie is based on an H. G. Wells story, which is technically true, but also in a very real sense completely fraudulent. One of the barrels of gunk (which resembles silver paint) washes up on beach, where the local ants clearly find it very tasty.

From here we find ourselves pitched into what feels like a very different kind of story. Joan Collins, in the midst of the career slump to end all career slumps, plays Marilyn Fryser, a thrusting young property developer intent on attracting new investors for her new project Dreamland Shores, a resort community on the Florida coast. (All incredibly authentically Wellsian, I think you’ll agree.) Various people duly turn up to be shuttled about by Collins, her assistant, and grizzled old boat captain Robert Lansing, and it gradually starts to feel like a conventional disaster movie, albeit one made on a punitively low budget with a cast of obscure and generally uncharismatic performers working with a pedestrian script.

A lot of horror and SF movies have to negotiate this kind of slow start and they generally do it by establishing the characters and building up atmosphere, or at least a sense of mystery. Empire of the Ants fumbles this (although I think the low budget may be at least partly to blame), which makes the opening section of the movie pretty hard going. I was rather put in mind of Frogs, another American International horror movie from a few years earlier which also concerns itself with nature getting stroppy while rich people squabble dully in the foreground.

However, this being a Bert I Gordon production (the man behind Beginning of the End, Earth Vs the Spider, The Amazing Colossal Man, War of the Colossal Beast, and other works in a similar vein), when Empire of the Ants finally kicks into gear it does so with an insane level of ambition for a low-budget film from the late 1970s. After various badly-done POV shots of compound eyes balefully watching the bickering potential investors, two of them wander off only to find themselves confronted by ants the size of horses with appetites to match. The ants themselves are realised by a mixture of composite shots mixing blown-up footage with the live actors, and – when some close-up mauling is required – giant ant puppets which are waggled in the direction of the cast.

The results are bad, but quite often not nearly as bad as you might be expecting, and the sheer guts of the film for attempting this kind of storytelling do deserve a grudging respect of sorts. In any case, I would say it’s still the case that the script and acting in this movie ends up letting down the special effects – though you should take that as more of a sign of just how awful the writing and performances are than any indication of genuine quality in the visual effects department.

Collins and the other survivors end up staggering through the jungle trying to reach a boat that will take them to safety, and at this point I did find an icy sense of horror beginning to consume me – not because the film was particularly frightening, but because I’d just looked at my watch and realised this sucker still had the best part of an hour to go.  However, the script has a bizarre left turn up its sleeve, which you might consider Exhibit B in defence of Empire of the Ants – it may be a terrible, trashy movie and an unrecognisable travesty of Wells, but it’s not entirely without some interesting ideas.

The investment party survivors pitch up in a small town not far from ant territory, where they tell their tale to the local sheriff (the ubiquitous character actor Albert Salmi) and the other townsfolk. They seem strangely unconcerned and tell them all to just calm down and relax. When they attempt to leave town under their own power, a police roadblock is in their path. The sheriff orders them dragged off to the local sugar refinery, which appears to be working flat-out.

Yes, here’s where all that opening guff about ant pheromones pays off: the queen ant of the giant brood has installed herself in a booth at the sugar refinery where she is spraying chemicals at the local people (they queue up obediently) which turn them into brainwashed slaves of the giant ants. The townspeople are producing sugar by the ton, which the giant ants turn up to munch several times a day. The ants have this in mind for Collins, Lansing and the others, of course.

Of course it doesn’t make sense in any coherent way, but it at least takes the film off in a new direction, and it sets up the conclusion – without going into details, there is a lot of running around and screaming and ant puppets on fire, and while a handful of our heroes manage to escape it is still not really clear what actually happens to Joan Collins (beyond her miraculously getting a second act to her career courtesy of Dynasty, of course). It’s a trashy ending to what’s essentially junk cinema – I suppose you could argue this is another of those cautionary tales about not messing with the environment, but that’s hardly touched upon throughout most of the story. Most of it has no moral premise or depth to it; it’s purely and simply about people running away from unconvincing giant ants.

There is surely a place in the world for stories about people running away from giant ants (convincing or otherwise). I like to think there is also a place for films which don’t let things like budget shortfalls or lack of special effects equipment get in the way of their storytelling. But Empire of the Ants is not really a great advertisement for any of these things. There is something undeniably impressive about the film’s uncompromising approach to a task for which is manifestly very poorly equipped. But that doesn’t mean the resulting movie is any less staggering to watch.

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These days the old distinction between a TV series and a TV serial has pretty much disappeared: I suppose the assumption used to be that audiences who couldn’t guarantee to catch every episode wouldn’t bother to commit to an ongoing storyline, hence the fact that virtually every series made up until the 1990s was mostly made up of standalone instalments. The age of catch-up and the big streamers means that this is all a thing of the past: virtually no-one does episodic television anymore, not least because – a nice reversal – the need to secure an audience from week to week demands an ongoing storyline to try and ensure people keep watching.

The unusual thing about the structure of Blake’s 7 is not that most of the show is barely serialised, because most action-adventure series of the period weren’t – what makes it unusual is the fact that very occasionally the episodes do link into one another, especially around the start of a new season. This wasn’t the first time that Terry Nation had done something like this – virtually half of the first season of Survivors is effectively serialised – but it does feel like a real change of pace when the series begins to shift to a more episodic format.

This starts to happen during the fourth episode, Time Squad, which at least one professional reviewer has described as easily the worst of all fifty-two. Initially it seems like the serialised storyline from the first three parts is going to continue: the Liberator is in photographic-blow-up cruise mode, Jenna has been teaching everyone else how the fly the ship, and Blake is already cooking up a plan to attack the Federation communications hub on the planet Saurian Major. Everyone but Avon seems quite happy to go along with this scheme – at least, no-one is dissatisfied enough not to participate, and even Avon eventually agrees to join Blake on the raid.

However, episodic plot element off the port bow! Zen detects a drifting alien ‘projectile’ (why it isn’t just a capsule or a ship is never really explained) and, mainly out of curiosity (it would appear), Blake decides to teleport over to it with Jenna. This despite the fact that Zen’s melodrama circuits have kicked in and the computer is acting rather erratically again. The alien ship turns out to be so cramped Blake virtually breaks his neck teleporting into it, but this is because it is a cryogenic sleeper pod with only a handful of corpsicles on board.

There’s a bit of combined plot-device-and-filler action as the teleport inconveniently breaks down as Blake and Jenna start running out of air, requiring the other three to take the cryo-ship on board – the model work in the docking sequence is reasonably done, although the question of where exactly the docking bay is on the Liberator model remains somewhat obscure. The crew are clearly unaware of the old sci-fi trope that defrosting unknown corpsicles is almost never a good idea, but while the aliens are thawing out Blake presses on with his business on Saurian Major.

On this occasion the teleporter seems to be in ‘light trim’ mode, to judge from its effect on Blake’s hair, and Saurian Major is one of those planets made up of sand pits (dressed with the odd so-so alien plant prop) and industrial facilities. Apart from a few extras in Federation gimp suits the place is almost entirely uninhabited, except for sole surviving local rebel Cally (Jan Chappell). Cally is telepathic, although not in a way you could honestly describe as useful, a trait she owes to being a native of the planet Auron: the question of whether the Auronar are genuinely alien or originated as human colonists is left open at this point. The big structural job of the episode is to get Cally to join the crew, so she is persuaded to help Blake quite easily.

But all is not well back on the ship, as the frozen aliens are bad’uns looking to use its energy banks to reproduce on a massive scale. They beat up Gan  and have a go at beating up Jenna too: Gan reveals there is a limiter in his brain that prevents him from killing, and you could be forgiven for thinking the cryo-aliens put it there, so clumsily is the notion introduced. (I think the idea is that Gan was operated on before being packed off to Cygnus Alpha.)

Gan starts practising for his First Aider badge.

To be honest, the whole plotline with the cryo-aliens is a duff one, largely consisting of reskinned horror movie tropes about bad people sneaking into your house, and only interacting with the planetside stuff inasmuch as it means there may not be anyone there to beam Blake and the others back up once the communications centre starts exploding. Long before I ever saw this episode on tape, I read the first Blake’s 7 novelisation (Terry Nation’s name was on it but I suspect most of the work was done by credited co-writer Trevor Hoyle), and the way this story is handled there is markedly different: the contrived filler about Zen playing up is cut back, and rather than mass-reproducing lunatics, the cryo-aliens are a team of assassins. This makes a bit more sense, I suppose.

The problem either way is that the cryo-aliens plotline is the A-story for the episode (which is why it’s called Time Squad rather than Picnic on Saurian Major or something like that) and it has nothing to do with Blake’s stated goal, which is to be beastly to the Federation (the fact the episode doesn’t really have any guest characters is also arguably a flaw). It’s just generic space-opera, without the bleakness or the strong characterisations that make the first episodes memorable and go a long way to make up for the budgetary shortcomings of the series. Even new character Cally doesn’t get anything to do in her first episode which is particularly interesting.

Here perhaps we are starting to see a distinctive thing about Blake’s 7, which is that it’s framed as a thriller or action-adventure series set in space, rather than a science-fiction series per se: Terry Nation seems to have been interested in SF as a means of exploring a certain kind of allegory, but not in using the genre to explore different kinds of new ideas. When the series is focusing on the struggle against the Federation, it at least seems to have some kind of focus to it. As soon as it abandons that, it quickly becomes very, very generic, which is an increasingly visible problem as it settles more into episodic mode. Time Squad is an episode as bland and indifferent as its own title.

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Cygnus Alpha doesn’t muck about and opens with a sequence set on Cygnus Alpha, which is certainly towards the top end of the planets-filmed-in-a-slate-quarry pile. It really does seem an entirely horrible place of bleak stone and perpetual twilight, the only redeeming feature being Pamela Salem, who despite being almost wholly ornamental does manage to get her own minimal sort of character arc. With typical efficiency Terry Nation establishes that Cygnus Alpha is under the control of a fanatical religious cult, and that the soon-to-arrive prisoners on the London will be receiving the hard sell once they disembark.

From here we cut back to the London itself and encounter a sizable continuity issue: it’s hard not to conclude that about four months elapse between the end of Space Fall and the beginning of this episode – we repeatedly hear it’s an eight month trip, and it’s also indicated that the London encountered the drifting Liberator four months into that journey. So here we are with Commander Leylan just about to touch down on Cygnus, four months (give or take) since the escape of several of his prisoners and numerous deaths on board, and he’s only just getting around to filing a report on this for his superiors. The narrative reason for this, of course, is that it isn’t a report for his superiors as much as a recap of Space Fall for the benefit of anyone who missed the previous episode. But even so, it’s clunky.

It’s still not as clunky as the ensuing scenes on the Liberator itself, which the conventions of TV drama dictate must likewise take place four months after the end of the last episode. What have Blake, Jenna and Avon done in those four months? Well, they’ve taken off their survival harnesses, and… er… that’s about it, really. It’s another excruciatingly awkward narrative convention, but it does start pointing us toward the main problem with Cygnus Alpha as a script – which is that it is very heavily padded.

There are stories in circulation about some of the issues involved with using Terry Nation as a scriptwriter, some of them contested – he wasn’t much fussed about continuity, would cheerfully attempt to sell the same storyline on multiple occasions to the same series, and on occasions didn’t even turn in a full script (script editors getting a short synopsis with ‘finish it yourself’ written on the last page shoved through their letterbox). The third episode of the series is a bit early for Nation to be running out of steam, but when you consider the narrative duties required of Cygnus Alpha – Blake goes to Cygnus Alpha, figures out how to use the teleport, and rescues Gan and Vila from a mad religious cult) it may simply be the case that there’s just not enough story here to fill fifty minutes.

One wonders just how involved script editor Chris Boucher was in getting Cygnus Alpha to the screen, because there are a number of moments in the story – mostly amongst the scenes set on the Liberator – that do feel very much to have the acid darkness to them which becomes much more of an element of the series as it continues. There’s initially some nonsense about the gun cabinet and the ship experiencing massive acceleration, accompanied by bafflegab dialogue about ‘negative hyperspace’ and the ‘anti-matter interface’, and then a bit more nonsense introducing Zen – who is all-powerful, all-knowing and instantly obedient, except when the script requires him not to be – and then (finally) the trio actually venture off the flight deck and make their way to the teleport bay. After some more leisurely exposition (including the revelation that the brainwashed ex-rebel Blake was allowed to work on a large and significant research project) and Blake beaming down to the planet, we get to a (with hindsight) arresting exchange of dialogue between Jenna and Avon: ‘Could you kill someone? Face to face?’ she asks. ‘I don’t know,’ Avon replies. These days it would be a dead cert that the final confrontation between Blake and Avon, forty-nine episodes down the line, is intended to pay off on this. If nothing else it speaks to the tonal consistency of the series.

Meanwhile, down on the planet, the other prisoners are having a grim time of it. There’s a guy called Arco (Peter Childs) who seems to think he’s in charge, but the de facto role of leader is taken by Gan, who exudes a kind of quiet authority and presence which makes this entirely plausible: quite different to Blake’s leadership technique, which mainly involves being very intense and telling everyone else what to do. Even Kara takes a bit of a shine to Gan: possibly Cygnus Alpha is short on enormous bits of rough. Neither Arco nor the other featured prisoner, Selman (David Ryall) were visible in Space Fall, by the way.

Elsewhere we are introduced to the main treat of the episode, the plimsoll-wearing megalomaniac leader of the cult of Cygnus Alpha (or at least the video-taped parts of it), Vargas, who is played by Brian Blessed at his most Brian Blessedish. Given that ‘megalomaniac leader of the cult of Cygnus Alpha’ is the extent to which Vargas is developed on the page, it’s not surprising that Blessed opts to go big rather than subtle with his performance. Personally I think that Blessed is a rather more skilled actor than he is often given credit for, and capable of great subtlety, but there is also great fun to be had when he’s in window-rattling mode as he sometimes is here.

As far as the A-plot goes, the main complication is the so-called ‘curse of Cygnus’, a deadly virus endemic to the planet which requires regular drug treatments. These are only available from Vargas and his followers, ensuring their control of the population – but (spoiler alert) the virus is actually only mild and naturally burns out after a day or so. It’s all a massive con trick to ensure the church of Vargas maintains its power. There’s a bit of social commentary implicit in this, which the episode has drawn praise for – Blake’s 7 isn’t noted for this sort of thing, after all. If they’d developed the idea more fully somehow, the episode might feel a bit tighter and more substantial. But they don’t, leading me to conclude this was another one of Terry Nation’s throwaway ideas which he either didn’t spot the potential of or dismissed as being too cerebral for his space adventure show.

Back on the ship we get one of the series’ defining and most celebrated scenes – having beamed Blake down, Avon and Jenna have a deadly serious discussion about the possibility of leaving him there, selling the Liberator to the Federation and retiring to their own private planets to live lives of sickening luxury. If any part of it fails to fully convince, it’s Jenna’s resistance to the notion, simply because the attraction Blake’s idealism has for her doesn’t appear to have any basis in the rest of her characterisation. Needless to say, Blake gets beamed back up in the nick of time, along with Vila and Gan (Arco and Selman cop it in the preceding fight scene, along with Kara, who effectively sacrifices herself to save Gan).

So the episode does its job, even if it does it in a kind of awkward and clumsy way: Blake is well on the way to having his army of seven (I’m sure I read somewhere that the initial plan was for Arco and Selman to survive, meaning that the ‘seven’ of the title would not include Blake or Zen). I’m reluctant to be too harsh about it, despite all the padding and the plimsolls, because it’s usually good, diverting padding, and those are Brian Blessed’s plimsolls, after all.

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Reckless use of atomic energy upsets the natural order of things, spawning a terrible monstrosity which rises from the sea and threatens the dominion of man, devastating a famous city while scientists work desperately to find a way to resolve the situation. Given a capsule synopsis like that, it’s entirely surprising that Behemoth the Sea Monster is often dismissed as simply a low-budget rip-off, a minor work cluttering up an already overcrowded genre. Well, maybe. In some ways I feel it’s the very familiarity of many features of this film which make it interesting, if not exactly essential. (This film also trades under the title The Giant Behemoth, which is just a bit too close to a tautology for my tastes.)

Okay, so, basic information first – this is a British-American film, released in 1959, and co-directed by Eugene Lourie and Douglas Hickox (Hickox’s debut production). Already connoisseurs of the loopier kind of genre film (and sometimes it’s hard for me to imagine anyone else hanging around this blog) will have pricked up their ears, for Hickox would go on to make the brilliant (and almost entirely different, in terms of sensibility) Theatre of Blood, while Lourie’s name appears on a number of interesting and accomplished films, most obviously The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Gorgo.

It’s over a decade now since I made my first vaguely systematic attempt to write about American sci-fi B-movies of the 1950s, but watching Behemoth get underway brought it all flooding back – it so closely adheres to the conventions of the genre that one could make a pretty good case that this is an archetypal exemplar of it (despite not actually being an entirely American film itself). It opens with the requisite cod-Biblical quote, declaimed over stormy seas, before a montage of A-bombs going off and a rather poetic monologue about scientists investigating the aftermaths of such blasts. This comes from imported American star Gene Evans, playing (but of course) visiting nuclear physicist Dr Steve Karnes, who is addressing some sceptical establishment scientists. The scene is a familiar one, but the dialogue is unusually well-written and the substance of Karnes’ speech is still strikingly on-point today – the ocean is not some bottomless dustbin for all the world’s rubbish and poison, but part of our environment, and what affects the tiny creatures at the bottom of the foodchain will eventually reach us, with unforeseeable consequences. Needless to say Karnes gets a cool reception, but local eminence Professor Bickford (Andre Morell, basically reprising the same performance he gave in Quatermass and the Pit on TV a few months earlier) is sympathetic and respectful.

Nevertheless, in terms of establishig the theme of the film, this whole scene is a bit on-the-nose and is basically just there to introduce the two lead characters nice and early on. When a bit of actual plot becomes essential, we go off to Cornwall where a nice old fisherman, checking his tackle on the beach one evening, is killed when… well, it’s initially unclear, for there is some radiophonic noise and a sudden flare of intense light. But we know this movie is called Behemoth the Sea Monster so we suspect the answer will prove to be an outlandish one.

The old man’s death is followed by masses of dead fish washing up on beaches all around Cornwall. Mixed in with the fish is something which looks a bit like mashed potato but virtually burns the hand off one young fisherman who tries to pick it up; we are left to conclude for ourselves what the lethal mash actually is. (The experienced viewer will not be surprised by the strict delineation in the movie between the working class (brave, headstrong, essentially helpless), the military (brave, organised, essentially helpless), and the scientific establishment (brave, brilliant, and capable of doing virtually anything if given enough time and resources). The few women characters in the film don’t benefit from such careful character development, though they are certainly less brave.)

Karnes and Bickford hit the scene and eventually conclude that something big and radioactive is lurking off-shore – unfortunately it proves to be undetectable by radar or sonar, which pads out the movie a tad. But, like any respectable sea monster, Behemoth rapidly gets bored with hanging around out in the sticks and sets course for London, though not before frying a local farmer and his son first. The trail of car-sized footprints tips our heroes off to what they’re up against, and they check in with eccentric paleontologist Dr Sampson (Jack McGowran), who seems more delighted than anything else by the prospect of seeing a live relict dinosaur (Behemoth is, we are informed, a paleosaurus from the fictitiosa group – a close relative of the rhedosaurus, if one were inclined to be ungallant). Suffice to say he probably changes his opinion when Behemoth nukes his helicopter while he’s attempting to observe the creature.

Well, you get the idea – and even if you haven’t, the chances are you’ve probably seen another film with something very similar going on. Thankfully the film is soon able to stop counting the pennies, abandon its attempts at something approaching documentary realism, and splurge on the big stop-motion monster rampage stuff which is what the audience is here for: Behemoth sinks the Woolwich car ferry (this would probably have been a big deal at the time), tears down a few cranes, appears to demolish Westminster Bridge, and generally wreaks havoc in London, while the scientists are desperately concocting a means to eliminate this menace… but is it already too late?

I fished out my dog-eared copy of The Illustrated Dinosaur Movie Companion to refer to while watching Behemoth the Sea Monster and found it received only a distinctly average rating of two brontosauruses out of five. This strikes me as a bit unfair, but also perhaps understandable, as this is in many ways the awkward middle child of three very similar films directed by Lourie in the course of a decade – it doesn’t have the bravura animation sequences of Ray Harryhausen to boost its climax, just some quite primitive and clearly underfunded work from an elderly Willis O’Brien and his team, nor does it have the colour or scale or brilliant central twist of his final film. So what’s the point of it, if it brings nothing new to the party?

Well… new is a relative thing, after all, and what makes Behemoth quite striking, if you’re not prepared for it, is quite how seriously everyone is taking the story. This kind of film is often dismissed as basically just kiddy-fodder nowadays, simply because even the best effects have dated so poorly they now seem laughable, but the film is trying to make serious points about the environment and ecology, albeit in a monster-horror-movie idiom. It seems to me that Lourie wasn’t just repeating himself – he’d clearly seen what Ishiro Honda had done with the ‘atomic sea monster’ idea in the first Godzilla film, producing an movie of extraordinary resonance and bleakness, and was attempting to incorporate some of that atmosphere back into an English-language genre movie.

This is most obvious in the sequence where the monster first comes ashore and attacks London. Some of the acting from the extras is charmingly awful, it’s true, and the monster is notably less charismatic than other equivalent beasts, but there’s a real sense of panic and terror in some of the scenes featuring fleeing crowds – the camera is much closer to them than is usually the case with a crowd-fleeing-from-giant-monster shot – and as Behemoth blasts them with atomic rays we see them tumbling to the ground, flesh covered in gruesome radiation burns. This is not kids’ stuff; nor is the way that (in the ferry sequence) it is firmly established that women and children are amongst the victims. In terms of monster-related grimness, I’ve seen nothing like it except in the original Godzilla.

All that said, I still found Behemoth to be slightly hard work – it’s not a complete rip-off of any single film, but that doesn’t mean there is a single element of it that is genuinely original. All of its ideas come from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, or Godzilla, or other sci-fi monster movies of the period – whatever creativity is involved just concerns how the different ingredients are mixed together. If you’re genuinely interested in atomic monster horror movies, then the subtle difference in the formula here will probably be enough to make it a rewarding watch for you. If not, then there are several other movies telling basically the same story with much more impressive results.

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The very least you can say about The Way Back, the first episode of Blake’s 7, is that it is notably well-directed (the person responsible was Michael E Briant, whose name is on a lot of British TV from the 1970s). The first shot of the episode proper once the credits have faded (and, if I end up writing about all of Blake over the coming months, we will return to the topic of the credits and theme) is one of the surveillance cameras which – we are invited to assume – keep tabs on the inhabitants of the domed city where most of the story takes place.

We are in an unspecified future – suggestions by other watchers of the show that this is the 28th or 29th century are basically just shots in the dark – where everything is very well-lit and the tabard has apparently made a comeback as a fashion mainstay. People shuffle seemingly aimlessly around the corridors of the dome, usually singly, while a tannoy booms out public service announcements (the behaviour of most of the dome citizens may just be a question of the extras on the episode not being very well-wrangled).

Soon enough we meet Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas), whom we eventually learn has been working as an Alpha-grade citizen in a fairly important job. But for now he just seems to be something of an everyman, albeit a tetchy one: he is meeting two apparent strangers for the first time, and they have asked him not to eat or drink for a day and a half. It transpires this is because the food and water is dosed with tranquilisers to keep the population docile and obedient, and they want Blake to have a slightly better command of his faculties.

That Blake is usually fairly docile himself is apparent from his shock when his new acquaintances propose going outside the dome, which is a serious crime. But, believing they have news about his family, Blake goes along with them and soon they are moving across the apparently bleak countryside around the dome (for valid special-effects-related reasons, it is night; the shot of the actors with the dome in the background is acceptably achieved).

Blake is shocked to be taken to a meeting of outsiders and other undesirables, and confused when the key speaker, a man named Foster, greets him as an old friend despite having no memory of having met him before. Foster is played by Robert Beatty, who (along with actors like Shane Rimmer and Edward Bishop) was one of British TV’s go-to Americans for many years, and it’s interesting to speculate as to why Foster, almost uniquely in Blake, is played by an American actor.

In many ways Foster is the episode’s key guest character, even though Beatty doesn’t get much more than a cameo; it’s Foster’s info-dump as to Blake’s true identity and past that is the inciting incident for the whole series. These days you’d expect a fairly heavyweight actor in the role, to signal this fact, but Beatty wasn’t that big a name. Perhaps Foster is made to stand out, given extra presence, simply by being cast as American.

Anyway, Foster reveals that four years before Blake was a key figure in resistance to the authoritarian oppression of the Administration (which we eventually surmise is the Earth-bound government of a larger polity known as the Terran Federation, or just the Federation for short). However, the movement was betrayed and Blake was essentially brainwashed, first into recanting his political beliefs in public, and then into forgetting his entire career as an activist. His family, whom he believes to be on a colony planet, have actually been executed. (One wonders why, given the opportunities for leverage they would offer in the event of Blake showing signs of being troublesome again. Perhaps they were also involved in the resistance and any real contact with Blake would potentially undo his memory-wipe.)

The flashbacks to Blake’s conditioning and torture by the Administration are another effective sequence, initially book-ended by the camera zooming into Thomas’ eye and holding on Beatty’s mouth; there is an element of genuine psycho-drama to this first episode which is never present to the same degree again.

Naturally Blake needs time to process these revelations, and wanders off for a walk – which means he is not present when a platoon of Federation troopers arrives and massacres nearly everyone present – a sequence which is somewhat hobbled by the less-than-impressive pyro effects on the troopers’ guns, but already the budgetary restrictions on Blake’s 7 have become quite clear. On returning to the dome, Blake himself is captured.

We should pause here to consider a couple of things: mainly, the yawning logical chasm in the heart of Blake’s back-story. Four years ago he was a figure of such notoriety and influence in the resistance that it was deemed useful to get him to make a public renunciation of his former beliefs and activities. The fact he has been brainwashed to forget all about that was presumably not public knowledge. And yet no-one in the intervening time has passed him in the corridor or another communal space and gone ‘Oooh, you’re Blake, the ex-rebel!’ Maybe the citizens are kept docile, but they’re presumably not completely stupefied by the drugs, so why not? (Could it be that Blake has been given some kind of face-change to conceal his new identity? But it would be strange to do so and not change his name as well, which doesn’t seem to have happened.)

You can see why Terry Nation has gone for this idea, as it establishes Blake as a freedom fighter of integrity and experience, not to mention as a damaged, angry man, while at the same time making him an everyman who learns about all of this along with the audience – but it’s still an awkward narrative contrivance and not something the series ever really addresses ever again. This whole episode is just setting things up and getting Blake exiled into deep space, anyway.

The episode takes, for modern audiences at least, an eye-opening turn as Blake is put on trial facing trumped-up charges of child abuse. Given Blake’s 7 has a reputation as cheesy, camp nonsense the very presence of a storyline about child abuse is startling. In the context of the story, the really grim element – not much dwelt upon – is that the alleged victims have had false memories of the supposed offences implanted, with all the trauma associated with that. It makes the ruthlessness and corruption of the Federation so horribly explicit it’s a surprise they don’t focus on this aspect more, but then again this was a series shown well before the watershed.

Anyway, Blake is sentenced for transport to a prison colony in deep space, but not before his insistence that this is a cover-up plants a seed of doubt in the mind of his defence lawyer, Varon (Michael Halsey). At this point the narrative splits – Varon and his wife start investigating the cover-up properly and discover it extends to the highest echelons of the Administration, while Blake is left to stew in custody.

To be fair, Varon’s sleuthing and conversion to Blake’s side happen very rapidly, but this is only a fifty-minute episode, and for the brief amount of time the story is operating as a conspiracy thriller it does so quite effectively. Blake’s time in the jug, on the other hand, mainly serves to introduce two of the other characters who will be prominent on the show: Jenna (Sally Knyvette), a tough smuggler who isn’t afraid to let her more vulnerable side show occasionally (it’s a thin characterisation that Knyvette can’t do much with in the short amount of time she’s on screen) and Vila (Michael Keating), a light-fingered kleptomaniac. Keating does manage to make an impression, but in this first appearance Vila is much less of a clown than he quickly becomes – his intelligence and utter lack of scruples are both foregrounded, making him a rather more unsettling character.

We should of course remember that, back in 1978, no-one watching really knew for sure what shape Blake’s 7 would turn out to have, so there may have been some genuine tension involved in waiting to see if Varon manages to find the evidence that will clear Blake’s name. But of course he doesn’t, and in another well-handled plot development both he and his wife – who have simply but effectively been established as decent, sympathetic characters – are murdered off-screen by Federation troopers – we just see their sprawled bodies.

It all leads up to Blake’s effectively underplayed declaration, made as the prison ship leaves the planet far behind, that he will come back one day. Establishing Blake’s character and his motivation are the main job of the episode, which it does very effectively; but it is also creating a world and an atmosphere. There is always a lot of pulp sci-fi in the mix with Blake’s 7, and that’s true in this episode too, with its trial-by-computer, domed cities, and prison planets, but what makes this series distinctive is the collision between glittery BBC pulp sci-fi and a much darker and grimmer undertone, recognisably part of the miserabilist tradition of British science fiction. (Let’s not forget that this series effectively replaced Survivors in the schedules, another frequently very bleak show.) Few subsequent episodes are quite as dark and grim as The Way Back, but perhaps they don’t have to be: the premiere episode very effectively establishes the mood of the series, at least as effectively as the premise of the story. In the end that is much more important than any of the gaps in the story.

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