Saturday, January 24, 2015

Blake's 7, season 1

A personal appreciation of these works of Terry Nation, but no need for consternation, it won't all be in rhyme. That line gave me inspiration, but that kind of application needs a lot of dedication and I just don't have the time.

Sorry, sometimes when I start writing these things my mind shouts things like "Hey, 'appreciation' rhymes with 'Nation', maybe I should write the whole thing as a poem!" and I have to get it out of my system. Anyway, what I sat down to write here was a series of mini reviews of the first year's episodes of Blake's 7 (or, as the logo puts it, "Blakes 7"), the classic British science-fiction series that I've never seen fit to watch before just now. So cast your mind back to January 1978 and take in the new exciting adventures of the titular Seven. It'll be the best part of a month before we find out who the seven are...

#1 "The Way Back"
Blake is one of the drug-dazed working citizens of a futuristic dome-city who's approached by a rebel woman and told that he used to be the head of a rebellion against the Federation government, was captured, brainwashed, made to publicly repent his crimes, brainwashed again and set free with no memory of what had happened before, as an example to the masses. He's sceptical at first, but comes with her to the forbidden outside world and meets the rebellion, only for them to all be found and slaughtered by the creepy black-uniformed Federation troops. The powers that be decide to have Blake framed and convicted of child abuse to stop him being an idol to any remaining rebels, and sent to exile on the distant planet Cygnus Alpha. His court-appointed defence counsel investigates Blake's protests of innocence and discovers the truth, but is then killed by the authorities as Blake departs on a prison ship.

This is a great start to the series, which at this point is strikingly different to any of the other sci-fi shows out there. The cheapness of the sets, props and costumes doesn't detract from the extremely sharp writing and characterisation. It plays with expectations - it feels like the rebels and then the barrister and his girlfriend are going to be central ongoing characters, but then they die. Similarly, with hindsight, it's surprising that we don't see the city authority figures or the slimy Dev Tarrant again, because they look like they're going to be recurring adversaries. Instead, the continuing story just moves onward and into new directions as the series progresses.

And "molesting children"? Surprising that that idea made it into a BBC TV show, and I doubt they'd do it today. It does make the Federation look super-nasty, at least.

Blake in this episode is a bit of a Winston Smith (the 1984 inspiration is very obvious), spending the episode gradually coming out of his trance and starting to recall his past, but he doesn't really do anything except serve as a viewer identification figure. All the active heroic momentum is with characters who die for it. When Blake's put in prison awaiting transportation, he meets two fellow criminals who later turn out to be regular characters but get very little screen time here - kleptomaniac Vila and smuggler Jenna. With hindsight, their characterisation changes a little as the series progresses - Vila here is less comic than he later becomes and seems more of a weaselly smooth-talking pickpocket; Jenna never really has a chance to develop, and despite the talk of her being some kind of space pirate, the high heels, stylish hair, excessive makeup and performance already show that she's going to turn into "the ship's woman" without needing any more personality than that.

Most first episodes end with the status quo having been established and the regular cast in place, but this one, despite being a complete story in itself, is just the first part of a serial. It's cleverly written and it does leave us wanting to come back for more. Four stars out of five. ****

#2 Spacefall"
Aboard the prison ship London, on an eight month journey to Cygnus Alpha, Blake meets his fellow prisoners and attempts an escape. It doesn't work out, thanks mainly to the sadistic first officer Raiker and the general ineptitude of the (suppressant-drugged) prisoners. But fellow prisoner Avon displays his talents and there's always hope of success, until the London comes across an abandoned alien spaceship much better than anything the Federation has access to. When three crewmen are killed or driven mad when trying to get aboard, the captain sends Blake, Avon and Jenna to investigate. They overcome the psychic attacks, take control of the super-ship and fly away.

A great second episode, showing once more what Blake's 7 does best - packing a lot of plot into 45 minutes, and a lot of characters all with their own individual personality, actions and goals. The crew of the London could all be interchangeable prison guards, but instead we get the experienced and somewhat weak-willed captain, the young ambitious crewman and the downright evil Raiker (not only does he defuse the mutiny by announcing that he'll kill a prisoner every thirty seconds until Blake surrenders, after Blake does so he kills a final prisoner anyway, just because he can). Our sympathies are entirely with the crew of criminals - Vila gets some nice moments and the self-interested Avon some excellent ones. We also have Jenna following along behind Blake and being female (although she does repel Raiker's awful sexual advances nicely) and meet big strong man Gan, as well as another prisoner who looks like he's going to join the regular cast, only to die during the mutiny.

Blake gets more of the leading-man role here and we start to admire him as the heroic lead, the only moral man in a universe of evil. Avon, however, quickly turns into the star of the show and we get our first examples of his sarcastic put-downs. The use of computers becomes a regular theme in the series, and here it's done well - in the seventies, there was still a tendency to think of them as adding-machines, but the computer aboard the London does actually control the ship's functions like a modern 21st-century computer would, so kudos for that. ****

#3 "Cygnus Alpha"
Blake, Avon and Jenna get to grips with their new spaceship. Its computer, reading their minds, decides to call itself Zen and the ship The Liberator, and since they've proved able to overcome its attempts to kill them in the last episode, does what they tell it to do. Mostly. Blake, despite Avon's protests, decides to rescue the rest of the prisoners from Cygnus Alpha and then take down the Federation altogether. The Liberator is equipped with teleporters allowing him to beam down to the planet and find that it's run as some kind of religious dictatorship - but a lot of the prisoners are satisfied with that and unwilling to leave for a life doing what Blake tells them instead. Eventually, he's able to rescue just Vila and Gan, and kill off the high priest when he tries to take control of the ship.

Our heroes' story continues, and the cast are beginning to fall into place. The story here, though, is weaker than the previous two, and not helped by Brian Blessed, that master of unsubtle acting, in a central role. The important moment is when Avon and Jenna, left alone on the Liberator and finding that it contains vast amounts of wealth as well as all its futuristic technology, hang around for Blake to return despite the temptation to do a runner. The relationship between Blake and Avon is well-defined already. Between them and Vila, we've got a very compelling cast, making up for the minimal contributions of Jenna and Gan.

All in all, while things are still progressing, this hasn't quite got the impact of the first pair of stories. ***

#4 "Time Squad"
Blake's first step in his campaign against the Federation is to destroy their central communication hub. In the process, he hopes to meet up with another resistance group, but they've all been killed off except alien telepath (only able to mentally project words to others, not to read minds) Cally. Meanwhile, the Liberator picks up another alien ship, this one containing cryogenically-frozen warriors who attack Jenna and Gan. Blake and the gang succeed in destroying the Federation centre and the frozen warriors are defeated too. He proudly announces that the Seven of them - Blake, Avon, Jenna, Vila, Gan, Cally and Zen - will take down the evil Federation.

Another good one in defining the characters and finally setting the status quo for the series - by the end of the episode it's clear who the ongoing cast will be and what they'll be doing each week. Gan gets to show off what makes him special (a "limiter" implant in his head that stops him killing people), but the action on the ship rather suffers from focusing on the two least compelling characters in the series and some enemies who have no personality and exist only to try to kill the heroes - not what we usually expect from the B7 well-rounded bad guys. Similarly, down on the planet there's not much individuality to be seen, just a thing to blow up and a lot of troopers to gun down.

The interaction between the crew is what makes the series special, and there's plenty of that on display here - once again, Avon is the star, but the focus on Cally shows what she can bring to the mix too. It's notable, though, that by this point the idea that Avon, Vila and Jenna are criminals has largely been dropped - Vila's skill at picking locks is more of a heroic attribute, and Avon's continuing unpleasantness is just the way he is as he goes along with Blake's plans. Gan, though we're told here that he's a convicted killer and we're free to start speculating on exactly how much his limiter has changed his personality, is the simple-minded loveable nice-guy through and through.

A fun runaround that promises more adventure for the future. ***

#5 "The Web"
On their way to the next target, Cally is mentally controlled and sends the Liberator to be trapped in a gigantic space web, forcing Blake down to the planet it orbits to investigate. There he finds a race of hostile Decimas and a base of creepy genetic-engineers who created them, and it turns out that they themselves are just the creations of a group-mind head-in-a-jar alien from Cally's planet. Blake is forced to help the genetic engineers with a supply of power cells before they'll let him leave, despite his sympathies lying with the Decimas they want to destroy. Eventually, the Decimas get into the base and brutally slaughter the engineers and their master, while the Liberator crew are freed to go on their way.

The first real clunker of the series, this is what I call "a Star Trek episode". Rather than furthering the ongoing plot of the series, the team stumbles on an alien planet and solves a local problem before flying off into the night again. As a story itself, it doesn't really hold up, but there are still some nice touches that Star Trek would never consider doing - most notably, the division between good guys and bad guys is much more ambiguous; Blake sides with the Decimas just because one of them asks him not to kill it, but they are otherwise violent, nasty little things, and as Avon sneeringly points out at the end, maybe not so deserving of being labelled helpless little victims.

It's for the viewer to speculate rather than anything that's spelled out, but presumably it's Blake who deliberately leaves the base door open at the end of the episode, which says a lot about his attitude. For the first time, though, the low budget makes it difficult to really appreciate the plot - nice though the Decima costumes are (cleverly blending in with the trees), the setting is obviously an English woodland, draped with fake webs and inexplicable Rover-from-The-Prisoner-style balloons. The main bad guy, consisting very obviously of a man sticking his head through a hole with a little puppet body dangling underneath him, doesn't work at all, and the ideas about scientific advance aren't good or clear enough to overcome that.

There's some nice Avon-and-Blake interaction again, and with hindsight this episode serves a purpose in keeping the crew busy while word-of-mouth about them spreads, but since that's not revealed until next episode we can't really consider it a plus point for this one. One star. *

#6 "Seek---Locate---Destroy"
Even though they've only done one thing so far, word about Blake and his team of dashing outlaws with the super-spaceship has caught on, to the extent that Blake is now being credited with every act of rebellion against the Federation, big or small. They have to take action, and supreme commander Servalan appoints space commander Travis to the task. He's an old enemy of Blake, and gets to work immediately. Blake's crew destroy another Federation installation with the aim of secretly stealing a decoding device enabling them to spy on Federation communications. Cally is left behind and captured, and Travis uses her to lure Blake into a trap, only to be defeated in the end.

Now we're introduced to the recurring villains of the series, and presented with the first of many inexplicable refusals by Blake to kill Travis. Sadly, it doesn't make much sense, and after a very promising start (in which he investigates the scene of Blake's first raid very thoroughly and correctly deduces what they were after), his plan is badly flawed. If you're going to lure the hero into a trap, then you set the trap FIRST, and THEN send the message that lures him in, Travis! It's just common sense. That rather undermines the nice twist that was subtly and cleverly set up earlier in the episode.

Despite the flaws, this is a good one - most notably, the scientists at the station Blake attacks include one who not only makes an intelligent effort to fight back against the rebels, but helps Travis with his subsequent investigation. He's not particularly evil, even though he's loyal to the Federation, and that's the kind of detail that sets B7 apart from other series. By now the crew are interacting very nicely all the time, and the fact that every episode is written and script-edited by the same people means that they're always consistently depicted. The presence of a ridiculous-looking "security robot" and a glaringly 20th-century-Earth exterior shoot doesn't really impinge on the suspension of disbelief here, which is a great credit to the scriptwriting. ****

#7 "Mission to Destiny"
The Liberator comes across a spaceship circling aimlessly, and our heroes teleport over to find the crew all unconscious. Someone has tried to steal an item of immeasurable value that could save their planet or be sold for a profit, murdering the ship's pilot and sleep-gassing the crew. It's up to Avon to deduce who did it, while the Liberator contends with a meteor shower.

This really shouldn't work at all - it's a whodunnit that's just been transplanted into Blake's 7 with no regard for character or sense. There's no real reason why Avon should play the detective (except his desire to be clever and always right, which is very important to him) and no reason not to just bring the whole crew aboard the Liberator and take them home. Add to that the question of how, having flown through the meteors in such a way that their power and shields have explicitly been drained, the Liberator can then turn round and go back to the ship without any problem, and you've got an episode that just doesn't add up.

Despite all that, it's fun! Avon is brilliant as always, and the explanation of the vital clue, although it would be more at home on Jonathan Creek than Blake's 7, is nicely done. Significantly, all the crew of the ship have the usual complex and interesting personalities, which works well in making them all suspects and in making it a believable story. (Two of the men share quarters, and a modern mind can't help wonder if they're a couple, for all that one of them seems to try to chat up Cally at one point - they certainly bicker like an old married couple, anyway). Not a Blake's 7 episode by any stretch of the imagination, but entertaining enough to merit two stars. It would be three if not for the ending in which Blake casually mentions that he's set a bomb to kill the villain and whoever might come along to meet up with them. **

#8 "Duel"
The Liberator has been caught by Travis's pursuit ships and is in trouble until the inhabitants of a planet nearby use their astonishing powers to transport Blake and Travis down to the planet, freeze their ships in their tracks, and force the two leaders to fight to the death, throwing Jenna and a Mutoid crewmember into the mix just to make it a bit more interesting. The helpless remainder of the Liberator crew can do nothing but watch as Blake and Jenna struggle against their enemies and the environment they find themselves in. In the end, despite the urging of the more bloodthirsty one of the planet's inhabitants, Blake refuses to kill Travis, and by doing so is declared the winner and set free. Travis doesn't learn any lesson from the experience and vows to destroy Blake once and for all.

I categorise "The Web" and "Mission To Destiny" as Star Trek episodes, but I don't give this one that title, even though the basic plot is a staggeringly blatant rip-off of an actual episode of Star Trek. "Duel" develops Travis and the relationship between him and Blake (with hindsight, Travis's time in the spotlight here only leads to future episodes when he plays the part of Servalan's sidekick, but that comes later) and shows the real talent for characterisation that we've got used to by now. Particularly good is the Mutoid, one of Travis's vampire cyborg subordinates, and his attempt, stuck on the planet with no other company, to engage her in conversation and see what kind of emotions and reactions he can provoke.

Travis goes about the task of defeating Blake in an intelligent way, and that he doesn't win out in the end is down to a miscalculation - maybe if he'd let the Mutoid suck Jenna's blood, she would have had the strength to cut the crucial rope with the first swing, or maybe Travis is right to think there wouldn't be time for that before Blake arrives. He's still presented as a plausible enemy, although once again we're given a feeble and insufficient justification for Blake not wanting to kill him at the end of the show.

Also nice is that the godlike being who creates the scenario is assisted by a sidekick who clearly just wants the two opponents to kill each other because she's entertained by the idea, adding a typical B7 ambuiguity to the moral and the good/evil definition. Poor Jenna is still just a damsel in distress, though, and the rest of the crew are sidelined. ***

#9 "Project Avalon"
A mission to meet up with a resistance group headed by Avalon turns into an attempt to rescue her from a Federation base, because Travis got there first and wiped out the rest of the resistance. Servalan is also present, with a killer virus designed to wipe out Blake's team and leave the Liberator undamaged and a trick up her sleeve in the form of a perfect robotic duplicate Avalon.

The biggest flaw with this one is Avalon herself - for one thing, she's supposed to be an interplanetary resistance leader, but from what we see of her her only talent is to stand around and look pretty. For another, the episode ends with Avalon on board the Liberator and her resistance unit wiped out, but then she's never mentioned in any subsequent episode.

Servalan and Travis by this point have rather degenerated into ineffective villains - Travis's whining that he was hindered in his two previous attempts to kill Blake by being under orders to capture the Liberator intact seems like a last-minute justification shoved into the script here, and the plan to let Blake's team into the base to rescue the robot Avalon which will then eventually unleash the virus seems much more convoluted than it needs to be. And once again Blake tries to justify why he doesn't kill Travis at the end, only to leave them in a situation where they would have been killed anyway if not for a quick reaction from Travis to catch the virus-containing sphere safely. Also, the security robot returns and looks stupider than ever.

The interactions between the crew salvage it a little, though there's nothing too special in this episode, and I do appreciate the fact that the planet isn't an "ice planet", it just has a particularly cold bit where the action is set, and also the way that Travis is fired by Servalan at the end, which gives us a sense of progression rather than repeating the same old stories over and over. Still only gets two stars, though. **

#10 "Breakdown"
Gan's limiter is giving him pain, and when Jenna tries to help, he attacks her. When he's subdued in the medical bay, the crew find that he needs intricate neurosurgery to save his life. Their attempts to get to a neutral space station are hindered by Zen's refusal to travel through a 'prohibited' area, forcing Avon to try to override the systems before the Liberator is torn apart by a magnetic field. And then when they get to the station, the doctor sees more profit in letting Gan die and selling Blake and the gang out to the Federation. It takes the whole crew working together to save the day, and Gan.

My favourite episode of the series, just because it gives everyone a moment in the spotlight. Avon is particularly wonderful - his sardonic response to Blake's speculation that one of them could perform brain surgery by having Zen give them step-by-step instructions is hilarious, but his best moment is when he's struggling to make sense of the alien computer technology to re-establish control of the ship and Blake keeps pestering him by asking how long it would take. "I can talk or I can work!" And when he calls back a little later and snaps "Blake, I can't do it, we have to go back," you feel for him, because it's been built up so often that he so much hates to admit failure. When he finally decides to leave Blake's crew, only to come back to them in the end, we're right behind him all the way.

And everyone else is wonderfully on form, too. Blake's threat to the doctor, "I will destroy your hands," is chillingly delivered. Vila's unexpected heroism in deducing that the doctor is 'clever' and taking steps to stop him is very nice. Cally telling Blake that his treatment of Gan is 'barbarous' is her moment of individuality, and this one gives us the best exploration of Zen's occasional frustrating unhelpfulness. He has been programmed to consider a vast swathe of space 'prohibited', and doesn't tell the crew about this because they don't know to ask. Only when it turns out that his estimated travel time to a certain destination is four times longer than Avon knows it to be do they eventually manage to establish what's going on, and he is quite prepared to disable all his control systems when they overrule him and go into the prohibited zone anyway, even if it will kill the crew to do so. It somehow makes Zen into more of a character.

As for Gan, it's intriguing how he cleverly tricks Cally into releasing him, and then goes after Avon, the crew member who dislikes him the most. Makes you wonder if that's his 'normal' personality and the limiter is what makes him into the amiable dimwit we know and love. And then there's the doctor, his assistant and the space station commander, who all get well-rounded and complex personalities and motivations. Brilliant stuff all-round. *****

#11 "Bounty"
Blake and Cally attempt to recruit the former leader of an independent planet to their cause, to forestall a Federation plan to take over the planet and install him as puppet ruler. However, the Liberator is then taken over by Space Arabs who intend to sell the ship to the Federation - and what's more, Jenna is an old friend of their leader and seems to have switched sides!

This one really doesn't work at all. Avon actually sums it up quite nicely - "None of us showed conspicuous intelligence on this occasion." The crew are quite spectacularly stupid, allowing the Space Arabs to capture them and take over the Liberator without the slightest difficulty. Also, what happened to the tradition of giving the guest characters individual personalities? The Space Arabs are cardboard cut-out baddies, the politician is just annoying and serves no purpose in the story except padding it out a little bit longer, and there's just not much to the plot here at all.

Jenna is the weak point more than anything else, though - her story would work if we'd had even the slightest hint that she was the space pirate smuggler that the first episode suggested she was, but there's been nothing else to suggest that ever since then, and she just isn't an interesting enough character or (to be brutally honest) a good enough actor to take the lead role here. Also, the Space Arabs are just as stupid and offensive as I make them sound. *

#12 "Deliverance"
A small spaceship explodes and crashes on a planet where the inhabitants have been reduced to Space Cavemen by a war. It turns out that this is part of Servalan's plan to acquire something called Orac, and she calls a reluctant Travis into her service to help her accomplish it. The Liberator happens on the scene, and searching for survivors, Avon, Vila, Jenna and Gan find a hidden ancient rocket launch base with a guardian who hails Avon as a god. They're left stuck on the planet when the survivor of the crash hijacks the Liberator and orders them to take him to his father and Orac straight away.

It is great to see Avon's reaction to being worshipped; a situation that finally brings out some modesty and even compassion in him. Another episode where we see that he's really started to like Vila, but definitely not Gan. We're given no explanation as to why Blake uncharacteristically doesn't come down to the planet with them, and the dialogue even flags it up as unusual - presumably the real-world explanation is the needs of the plot of the following episode, or the fact that Blake and Cally were in the location filming for the previous one, or both.

Where it suffers is the plot with the hijack of the ship. Ensor the hijacker has to be seriously deranged for it to make much sense, and then it's just a case of Blake and Cally sitting around and waiting for him to die, then going back to pick up the others. Down on the planet, Jenna's contribution is to be kidnapped by cavemen (who have access to an enormous amount of animal skins to make their clothes and tents, even though there are no animals in evidence). But we're set up nicely for the final episode. ***

#13 "Orac"
With the crew having picked up a bad case of radiation poisoning having been down on the planet for too long in the last episode, Blake and Cally need to hurry to find Ensor senior and get the drugs they need from him, as well as saving his life and keeping the super-computer Orac from the clutches of Servalan and Travis. Having done so, they're faced with Orac's prediction of the future - the Liberator explodes.

Super-computers that can predict the future are something I associate with late-1950s Superman comics, but Orac's personality is quite entertaining, making it more of a crew-member than a plot-device. Ensor is an interesting character, too, if a little silly, and his death is nicely written. Servalan, meanwhile, is excellent in this one - out from behind her desk and on her own unauthorised mission, we have the one moment when she's knocked out of her comfort zone by the monster attack, and it shows that she's human after all.

The interaction between the dying Liberator crew is as great as ever, and makes up for the questions like 'where did Servalan get the map' and 'why can't Ensor's impenetrable force field block the tunnels too'. It's a shame the story has to end with yet another instance of Blake declining to kill Travis, seeing as it's the end of the series and that would have given a bit of finality. It doesn't really feel like an ending, so it's a good thing they went ahead and commissioned a second series for the next year... ***

The BBC are trying too hard

Having got the rights to FA Cup coverage back this season, all their commentators and website-news-article-writers are clearly under strict orders to say how awesome the FA Cup is at every opportunity. Even a dull game like the 0-0 draw between Cambridge and Man Utd's second-string players last night was enlivened by the commentators remembering every five minutes to say what a cracking game it was!

Thing is, the FA Cup IS awesome! They don't need to go to such extremes to convince people it's great, it does that naturally. Calm down, BBC people, please.

In other news, we're nearing the end of XMT qualification. Here's my best attempt at remembering 80 digits in under a minute:

A bit annoying that I didn't manage to remember all 80 in my next four attempts at doing a faster time, but 29 seconds is a reasonable kind of time to aim for in the competition itself (with my system, it works out to 27 images, whereas a pack of cards is 26, so under 30 seconds is still a great result - people with a basic two-digit, one-card system will use fewer images with numbers than in cards so might do better times here).

The thing about numbers is that you don't rearrange things into the right order in the recall (like you do with cards and images), you have to remember them all perfectly without any prompts. Despite finding my own "qualification" attempt a bit annoying, I think I still come down on the side of this being a good thing, just because it makes it a bit different and forces people to think about the right strategy to go for in head-to-head competition...

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Der der DER der der, der der DER der der...

That was the Blake's 7 theme tune, if you couldn't tell. Possibly it's not as obvious as I thought it might be, even to people intimately familiar with the series.

Anyway, the point is that I am now, officially, a huge obsessive fanatical Blake's 7 fan. Is there a name for fans? I'll look it up. I am one, anyway. I've only watched the first ten episodes in the past week or so, but even if the other 42 turn out to be rubbish (and the online consensus seems to be that they tend that way as the series progresses), I'm sufficiently enraptured by season one that I'm pretty sure I'm a fan for life. With hindsight, I really should have watched it when it was first on telly, and even the fact that I was 15 months old when it started really isn't much of an excuse. Shame on me.

Episode 10, "Breakdown", is the one I've been watching tonight, and it's a perfect example of what I love about the show. On a minimal budget, ten actors on a couple of sets in BBC Television Centre produce a real masterpiece of character drama. That's what the best episodes of B7 (if that's what the official way to abbreviate it is) do - every person who appears in the story has a full, rich, individual personality and they interact in clever and interesting ways. This one is especially good at giving each one of the Seven full scope to explore their characters and motivations in depth (well, except maybe Gan, who spends most of the episode either unconscious or homicidally insane, but even he has his moments).

I won't spoil the story for anyone else who might want to check it out, but I urge you all to go and become a Blake's 7 fan too, please. I'm going to the next convention. If there aren't conventions, I'm organising one. I'll start working on my Avon costume.