The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Seven Wonders

By popular demand, some more Blake's 7 reviews from way back in 2002, originally written as emails sent out to a few friends. Health warning - this contains opinions expressed purely for comic effect which in no way represent my views then or now.


POWER

This story concerns power, it revolves around a balance of power... hang on. Wait a minute. Wait. A. Minute. No it doesn't. This story has nothing whatsoever to do with 'power'. This story is only about one thing. There's only one object around which this story revolves. There's only one item at the centre of this story.

I'll start again.

DOOR

This story concerns a door, it revolves around a door... yes, that's much better. It's a very important door, apparently, and Vila - you know, that character who can open any door in the universe - can't get it open. The problem is there is no knob, you see. On The Door, I mean, not on Vila.

I have dim memories of The Door having made its first appearance in Rescue. You know, it didn't seem that important at the time. It just seemed like any another door. How foolish I feel now.

I'm getting sidetracked again. What Ben Steed has done with this story is very clever. He has managed to put together a tale which relies very heavily on the viewer having watched the previous tale, Rescue, whilst simultaneously managing to completely contradict Rescue from start to finish. It's rather like Attack Of The Cybermen in that regard.

So we're on the planet Kwor'ry, I mean, the planet Xenon, and apparently there are a hitherto unmentioned bunch of barbarians and skimpily-clad damsels on the surface. Apparently there is an entrance from Zenon base to the surface. Apparently there is only one way of getting from the base to the spaceship hanger. Apparently Dorian - you remember Dorian, eyes too close together - has booby trapped that door [he has a natural affinity with doors, hence the name, if not a naturally affinity with boobies]. Apparently he was also going on salvage flights to feed the aforementioned scantily-clad maidens. Apparently - hang on, where the f*** is Soolin? She was there last week, I saw her in the cave with the Sea Devil and the skellington. Where has she gone? How did they lose her? Where is she hiding? How come she's not helping out with The Door? Surely she'd be able to assist in some way, holding Vila's rod or something?

Ben Steed's script is appalling. It's the equivalent of pursing your lips and going blblblblblb - and failing to even make a decent blblblblblb noise. Assuming for a moment that Chris Boucher is a real person, and not just a BBC pseudonym for 'no script editor present', why the hell did he use this writer? JN-T had just told half-a-dozen Graham Williams-era Doctor Who writers to never blacken his hawaiian shirt again - so why didn't Chris immediately phone up Bob Baker, Dave Fisher and Anthony Read and say, 'now you're not doing Who, do you want to write for the BBC's second-greatest sci-fi show? No, not Come Back Mrs Noah, Blake's 7!'

But Chris Boucher can't exist. No-one in their sane right competent mind surely would have allowed the line, 'I'm not a Seska, I'm a woman' through - TWICE IN THE SAME SCRIPT?

It makes no sense. Ideas are batted about entirely at random, nothing has an consequence or reason. The sub-plot - the plot subservient to The Door plot - concerns a race where the men have chosen to become barbarians and wage war on the women, who have chosen to wear short skirts whilst also developing telekinetic powers. So how did this war start, then? How come it never occured to any of them that it might be a silly idea? Well, don't ask Ben, he hasn't a clue, he's just sitting in the corner rocking back and forth muttering to himself.

This war-of-the-sexes idea has, of course, been done many times before - I remember being about four, and having no idea what sexism was, and still being gravely offended by The Two Ronnies' The Worm That Turned serial. Doctor Who, quite rightly, rejected this idea for the first 24 years of its existence, stories such as The Prison In Space and Mission To Magnus being thrown into the bin at the last minute, until eventually it got so desperate they had to make it under the sugary guise of The Happiness Patrol. The moral being, if a planet was ruled by women, they would immediately start wearing very, very short skirts.

Hello, that's Leela's crossbow Avon's got hold of.

Orac - you know, it's becoming a surprise to me that 'Orac' isn't just an anagram of 'complete c***'. Does he help out the Scorpio clan? No, he just goes, 'The answer is obvious, but I am far too busy to tell you!' How smug and unhelpful can you get - he does it again in Stardrive. Avon should just sit him down and say, 'No, Orac, not [that mewing noise that Orac makes when he switches himself off], listen to the question, the words in it. How did they bloody open The Door?' ...Based on his behaviour and user-unfriendliness, I suspect Orac is a Microsoft product.

The leader of this weeks' bunch of barbarians is rather familiar. Maybe he played Pogo Patterson's dad in Grange Hill or something. Or am I confusing him with Mike 'Eureka' Savage? No, he was Ro-

-land Browning's dad.

Okay, so the barbarians are also dying out, but the deputy is keeping up the pretence by using computers... what Ben? How does that work then? You're lucky this show doesn't have a script editor, else you'd be out on your ear.

Note: Although I am heaping great abuse on Ben Steed, for all I know he went on to write many great and wonderful things. For all I know Ben Steed was a pseudonym for Andrew Davies or Steven Moffat.

Oh look, they've got teleportation again. That was lucky. Luck lucky luck lucky luck luck.

That bit on the video where the Seska woman's recording is interrupted by an axe falling on her desk reminded me of that time the Lesbians invaded the BBC newsroom. I think Lesbians should invade the news more often. Come on, Lesbians!

But the amount of misogyny on display is staggering. Avon points out that women are always weaker - even if they have special mind-powers - and proves this by overpowering a damsel and snogging her against her will, though she enjoys it anyway. Eh? Ben, do you have issues here?

I must've watched this story as a kid, but the only bit I remember is Avon asking for a 'glove' during the fight. However, this isn't altogether surprising given that the rest of the episode is monumentally unmemorable. It's about 12 hours later and I've already forgotten most of it. It's just this sort of blur of quarries and corridors and The Door.

Still, at least I have an answer as to why Soolin joins the Scorpio crew. 'Why not'. That's the answer given. 'Why not'. And, you know, I quite agree. Why not?


TRAITOR

We are in a control room. We see man dressed in black, with slicked back hair, a scar, high cheekbones and an eyepatch. A man who plays chess, talks slowly in a clipped accent and drinks cups of tea as though savouring every drop. He's called Sleer which sounds a bit like a cross between slimy and sneer.

D'y'know, I think he might just be a baddy!

It's a Robert Holmes plot, so ostensibly it should make sense, or at least, have enough good bits in it to distract you from that fact that it doesn't.

Ooh, I like this alien planet. It looks very weird indeed; sort of ponds and sandbanks everywhere. It's always nice when the Scorpio crew end up somewhere other than Gerards Cross quarry or Black Park.

Dudley Simpson, I've heard that bit of music before in Pyramids Of Mars, you naughty man you. Bom bom bom tch tch tch! Bom bom bom tch tch tch! That's the `Sarah fleeing from mummies theme' and you know it!

The plot is quite complicated, and just when you think it might start making sense, along comes Servalan – who is not dead, having escaped from the Liberator by disguising herself as a crow [I hate crows!] – and we bump into some mad scientist who is blind and bonkers maaad.

The mad scientist is in a wheelchair and, we are told, in permanent agony. You know, there's often this underlying current of sadism in Robert Holmes stories – a sort of pointless nastiness, a glib enjoyment in characters suffering – which I really, really don't like. I think it's immature and sensationalist and not good writing. How do we show x is a villain – oh, easy, by having them torture y.

A couple of observations in passing. I see they've now got deckchairs on the Scorpio, that Federation officers have now taken to wearing eyeshadow and cheek blusher, that Orac gives the crew of the Scorpio
away [again! The mechanical loon!] and that one of the people we see being shot and falling in a pond seems to be, on first impressions, wearing Adric's pyjamas.

Apparently, whenever saying the words, `Bunkers, strongpoints, inner city combat', it's important to say them in an entirely different, high-pitched voice. Conspicuous getting-in-a-different-actor-to-do-an-overdub-mongous.

This is another Darrow show. I've been studying the Darrow, and I think I'm beginning to understand his acting technique. Well, not so much acting, more scene-stealing and limelight-hugging.

What… [SLY GRIN, CHOPPING MOTION WITH RIGHT HAND] you should do is this. For each line you're given in the script, you want it to… last as long as possible. So leave a pause… after the first word or so – during which you can smile an evil smile, or make a sort of chopping motion with your right hand – and then say the rest of your dialogueinastaccatoWilliamShatnerfashion, always remembering that the other actors are… going to be cued by your last line, so if you want more screen time you should leave a long pause before your final …



















… three or four words.

He does it *all* the time! I notice also that he's managed to work his running-into-the room-and-skipping-around-the- console-before-sitting-down routine into it again, even though it's a completely different set design. And just listen to the way he says, `Our… Tarrant is young, brave, handsome. Three good reasons for anyone not… to like him'. It's like Peter Sellers doing A Hard Day's Night. Oi, Darrow, no!

And he growls too. No-one can growl the word `Damn!' as gruffly as the Darrow. But his best moment is after the line, `Message clear – report again in one hour' – for some reason we hang on to this scene for an extra three or four seconds, rather than cutting, so we get to see the Darrow doing a weird sort of hand-twitching motion to fill in the screen time.

Speaking of atrocious editing, one of my favourite unintentionally comic scenes in Nightmare Of Eden is the scene on the bridge where we see two empty chairs and we get a shock-horror-terror-drama incidental music sting from Dudley Simpson. It's what I like to think of as The Empty Chairs Of Doom scene. It's great. But Traitor tops it many, many times. The Empty Room Of Terror. The Featureless Door Of Evil. The Windswept Puddle Of Death.

Rather good, though.


STARDRIVE

Superb.

This show just gets better and better.

I loved this story back whenever it was first shown, and I love it now. Actually, didn't they show the fourth series twice? Maybe that's why I remember it so well. It was on after Triangle, I remember watching each episode on a black-and-white portable. So for many of these episodes, it's the first time I've seen them in colour.

What do I remember from this episode? The space rats of course, with their motortrikes. And the passenger buggy. And the final scenes, with the hole in the spaceship. That was definitely very familiar - I can remember thinking at the time, how come they can breathe if they're in space? Now I realise - there was a force field. Ah.

Anyway. To begin. Avon's plan is to sneak into a Federation system to steal the Space McGuffin by hiding the Scorpio behind an asteroid. Like that bit in The Empire Strikes Back but not copying. The others decide to trust him and go along with his plan. Which is a bit odd, really, because the last time they trusted him, their space ship got eaten by the space lurgy, they encountered the wrath of the villainous space monkeys, Cally died and they ended up marooned on a planet of inconsistent shape. I'm sure I remember them saying at the time, 'That's the last bloody time we trust that Avon'.

His plan fails, the Scorpio breaks down, and we're back to Xenon. Love that model footage of the landing sequence. Shown in full again, of course.

What caused the Federation pursuit ships to blow up? Dayna suggests they look at the footage back in the Xenon base. 'No,' says Avon, 'You can't do that - we haven't got the Xenon base set this week. Everyone stay on board the Scorpio!'

Next thing we know, we're off to a planet to look for some ground-breaking research scientist who used to work for the Federation but has now gone into exile to work in secret. That happens rather a lot in Blake's 7, doesn't it? The Federation seems to have a serious problem with retaining staff.

Vila has been at the rosé again. Oh no, he hasn't. It wasn't a rosé it was a ruse!

Dayna has a dreadful line, which she delivers in such a way as to make it absolutely clear that it is not a fluff, and it is absolutely not her responsibility - the subtext is obviusly 'well, I tried to get it changed in rehearsals but they wouldn't let me'. She tries to work round it, but it's an awful, clunky line. I suspect it was a typo that never got corrected.The line goes something like, 'But surely they won't attack us if they don't know who were are before they attack us?'

And a few minutes later Vila says, 'If they come at us with their space choppers we won't know what's hit us'. Back when I was seven that line only had the one entendre.

You may have noticed that I like to use the word 'space' to what I believe to be humorous effect. However, it seems someone has got there before me this time, as the story involves 'space choppers' and 'space rats'.

We beam down to the planet [and I do mean 'beam' - we've suddenly adopted a wibbly version of the Star Trek materialisation effect, rather than the white outline whoosh-thump]. The direction is a bit iffy - there's a CSO shot where we can see right through the back of someone's head, and another quite laughable film sequence where Vila and Dayna are led out of one concealed entrance, across a bit of quarry, and then back into what is obviously the same concealed entrance. I use the phrase 'concealed entrance' because that's how it's described in the script - they're big, and highly-visible, metal doors, and not concealed in the slightest.

And there's a bizarre shot where we zoom in on 'Door opening mechanism' as though it will later be of great significance. It isn't. Still, there are some quite nice cross-fades, so obviously someone's having fun with the vision mixing desk this week.

I'm under the impression that this story is not held in high regard. I can only guess at the reason why. It's the Space Rats, isn't it?

They are bizarre, I'll admit it, and quite ludicrous. However, they're servicable villains. They look like. well, they look like sort of thing you would imagine punk rockers to look like if the only time you had seen punk rockers was Mel Smith doing 'Spit On You' for Not The Nine O'Clock News, Kenny Everett doing Sid Snot, and Animal from The Muppets. They look like a bunch of parrots.

In fact, to be more precise, they look like the results of an edition of Blue Peter, presented by Janet Ellis and Sarah Greene, on 'how to dress like a space punk rocker'. If there ever was such an edition, may I humbly suggest that it would make an ideal 'Easter Egg' for a Blake's 7-Stardrive DVD?

And yet. the Space Rats are possibly the most 80's thing I have ever seen. It's not just the shoulderpads. Although they are ostensibly punks - they use rude words like 'gook'! - they are far closer in look to the New Romantics.

The New Romantic movement was burgeoning at this time. In a club in London, people like Steve Strange and Boy George were getting together to listen to a certain pop musician's latest German-influenced music. Later on, various bands appeared at the club - Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, The Belle Stars. And so the New Romantic movement was born. Which led to the Space Rats.

Who's music were they listening to? David Bowie. So, my hypotheses is, not only was David Bowie responsible for Spandau Ballet and Visage, he was also responsible for the Space Rats in Stardrive. They're all his fault.

[Please note that when I say 'New Romantic' I mean 'New Romantic' and not the *futurist* movement of The Human League, Depeche Mode and OMD, which was a completely different thing entirely, which involved side-partings and thick, Kubrick-esque beards.]

But they're not that bad, the Space Rats. They look like Dave Gibbons illustrations come to life. But. and this is the big conundrum - how on Earth *do* they get those mohicans into those helmets?

I remember there being much more of the Space Rats in the finished episode. It's a shame - I'm sure we saw more of them on their motor-trikes.

And then the Scorpio throng, plus the scientist woman Doctor Plaxton, make their getaway in a space buggy. Now, that buggy holds sentimental memories for me. I shall explain.

You see, when I was about eight, I visited a theme park - I don't recall where it was - where you could actually see this space buggy and go for a ride on it over some rocks. They even had a black-and-white photo of the Blake's 7 crew sitting in it to prove it was the same one. So I have ridden in that buggy, sitting exactly where Vila was sitting. It was quite a bumpy ride, but fun. I don't think they'd allow that sort of thing nowadays, it was a bit dangerous - no seat belts or anything. [The theme park also had a 'ride' where kids were basically dropped down a steep wooden slope and left to slide for their lives.] There may even be a photo of me in the buggy somewhere.


But for that reason, if no other, I think this is a Top Episode.

What else? My other abiding childhood memory of this episode is that inspired the 'Blake's 7 game' in the school playground. The 'Blake's 7 game' was basically the same as 'Armies' but with a couple of crucial differences. Firstly, the guns made a different noise. And secondly, it was vitally important that you moved by running, then striking a dramatic legs-apart pose with your gun raised, then running, then striking a dramatic legs-apart pose and so forth. If you moved normally and forgot to do the dramatic poses, you were Out.

Because it is quite astonishing, watching Avon, Tarrant and Soolin running through the quarry. They are constantly adopting new, ludicrous, stances for the camera. Avon has got it so bad he can't even run in a straight line any more - he has to spontaneously scramble up a hill, strike a dramatic pose, then run back down again. He's starting to get a touch of the Shatners in some scenes, too.


One final point, re: the last few scenes. The scientist person - Doctor Plaxton - is killed whilst fixing the new Star-Drive. The whole episode has been building up to this moment. It will all culminate in one killer gag. We cut to Avon. He has to deliver the final line... The funniest line in the history of science fiction. And he goes and blows it!

I'll set the scene. Doctor Plaxton has just been killed because Avon decided to set the engines to start as soon as she touched two wires together. We cut to the bridge of the Scorpio:

Dayna gives Avon the feed, setting up the gag, 'But what about Doctor Plaxton?'

Cut to Avon.

A long pause.

Avon look around, casually, and replies, 'Who?'

Aaaargh! You ruined it! You idiot!

You were supposed to say 'Doctor who?'

It would've been the greatest moment in science fiction ever.

1 comment:

  1. I have never seen an episode of Blake's Seven - this makes it sound so bad it's good. In a trashy, that was my childhood, sort of way. I am intrigued by it though despite what I heard!

    Also, I hear Colin Baker appears in it as a baddy.

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