The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The Games We Play

 By popular demand – one person asked - 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.


It's getting quite tricky remembering the titles of Blake stories. They're always one word, and this story involves a computer called Gambit and a spaceship in Orbit around a planet of Sand where a Traitor lives. I think this complete interchangeability of plot content is one of the series' strengths.

Say what you like about `the seven', it's never boring. Superlative or awful, there's always something to enjoy in there. Except... Games is just boring. Even watched in 25-minute segments on either side of The Eurovision Song Contest [it should've been Malta], Have I Got News For You and a Kylie Minogue documentary, it really fails to inspire interest, or indeed any feelings whatsoever. There's nothing really to take the piss out of, either. It's so blah.

It feels very Doctor Who-ey too, in a way. Partly that would be because it was filmed on same the sunny seaside as Skaro [the slave workers even make the same clinky-clink banging-two-rocks-together noise], partly it's Dudley's increasingly repetitive music, and partly it's because it's got Monarch and the President Of The Presidium in it.

But what's wrong with it... it's not so much that I couldn't follow the story, it's just that I kept on expecting there to be one. Stuff just sort of seems to happen with no consequence. People turn up for scenes, say a few lines, sod off again. We never get a sense of the actions having any affect. Is there a plot? I'm really not sure. I thought I spotted one in the first five minutes but it fcked off and hid behind a rock and only appeared again in the last five minutes. "Fat bloke has a computer. He turns it off. Some people think he may have some magic space crystals, but he doesn't. No-one minds very much."

Of course, Servalan's in it, though I've got no idea why. She chats with Statford Johns [just a short car journey away from Milton `Keynes' Johns] and that's about it. Jacqueline seems to be enjoying herself though. Every line is transformed into arch banter upon her glistening, knowing lips. If only she could get her nail varnish dry.

The opening is very promising. Explosions. Soolin in a tight costume. A stagey argument on board the Scorpio where each person stands up in turn. The Darrow, delivering his lines with aplomb in his mouth. There's a point where he says, in his typically gritted way, `...Naturally!' and then turns to the camera as though expecting a spontaneous round of applause. Or a spontaneous round of drinks.

He seems on particularly shirty form this week. `The logic of its creator!' For a moment there I really thought he was going to kick Orac's smug, supercilious Christmas-lights brain in.

I remember bits of this from the first broadcast; the scene where Soolin shoots her own reflection, some of the dialogue that went around it was very familiar. Though watching it now that scene seems rather inconsequential, so I don't know why I remembered it. Probably because I could never understand how someone could out-shoot their own reflection; it's like a big `eh?' that has been hanging over my head for the last two decades. The chess sets and control rooms and computer and slave trains also had the ring of twenty-year-old familiarity.

This week the guns shoot fireworks rather than special effects, which is nice. Some of the location work is surprisingly violent; or, not so much violent, but indulgent, as though taking pleasure from its poorly-staged `action' sequences and big explosions.

Later on, Vila shoots someone. Seems odd. Is this the first time he's shot someone? I don't remember him ever being very trigger-happy. Maybe he killed someone in an earlier episode.

It's oddly convenient that the games on board the spaceship happen to match the skills of the four people who happen to teleport onboard. Though I thought Dayna was supposed to be the one handy with a gun?

As I said, I didn't really understand what was going on, or care. There seemed to be a lot of scenes where nothing happened  there were no `beats', no points where I felt the plot was advancing. It was just `there'; characters standing around giving paragraph-long speeches about things I don't care about. I mean, what's all that Avon and Soolin stuff about orbital trajectories and planetary eclipses? Just say `we'll hide behind the space station'. That's all you need, Bill, that's all you need. I'd know what you were on about then.

The only good bit  the only bit that stuck in my mind as being cool  is the scene where Tarrant asks Avon if the Feldon crystals are dangerous to handle, whereupon Avon casually tosses one in the air. Totally Darrow. 


Watched this one over at REDACTED and REDACTED’s house, so they could experience the wonder that is Jonny doing his Blake’s Watch live in their front room. Which generally involves shouting at the screen or laughing or talking about completely unrelated things. This entry will be a little briefer than usual as I didn't take notes.

Before the Watch began, REDACTED said he didn't like Sand, it irritated him, he found it annoying. I told him to stop quoting Anakin's chat-up lines from 'Attack Of The Clones' but the poor lad didn't have a clue what I was on about.

All of the non-regular cast have been in Doctor Who; is this a first? There's Young Chris Parsons [later to become the undisputed star of 'No Place Like Home', 'Waiting For God' before ending up doing voice-over narration for 'Popstars'], Costa [brother of Michael Craze] and Stephen Yardley [later to find infamy as Ken Masters in the Howards' Way].

What do I remember about this story from my first viewing? Tarrant and Servalan snogging under a green light. That's about it.

It's written by Tanith Lee, who wrote the astonishingly competent Sarcophagus. Unfortunately, whilst the script for Sand isn't bad, there seems to have been some sort of production mix-up so that scenes which are obviously written to be filmed in a quarry have to be shot in the studio. Which means we have the most laughably poor 'surface of a rocky planet' sets in the history of TV. Even worse than the unrealistic plastic knoll in City At The End Of The World. Even worse than the children's drawing from the Take Hart gallery used as a CSO backdrop in Voice From The Past. It's so bad I kept on expecting a Clanger to pop up from behind a rock and give an indignant 'ooooeeeoooeoooeoo'.

The other main problem is that the story is about sentient sand which, unfortunately, can't really be achieved on television. We see a bit of sand outside a window. We see a bit of sand being thrown across the floor towards Young Chris Parsons. We see a bit of sand that has inexplicably got into the Scorpio and decided to attack Vila's shoes. But we don't see sandstorms or stuff like that. Problem.

Of course, it begins well, with an atmospheric narration over some green rocks and valleys. And the story is interesting - Servalan being given some much-needed character development, even though we all know it's going to be completely forgotten next week. Apparently she became a hard-bitten space bitch because her boyfriend dumped her. Yes, I can see how that might happen. And we get an explanation as to how she survived the Liberator blowing up - I was wondering if they were ever going to get around to mentioning that, or they were just hoping no-one would notice. Apparently she just teleported off and found herself on a Federation world. Lucky, that.

Don't think much of Servalan's new spaceship. Too LEGO. And her nails still aren't dry.

Stephen Yardley recognizes Servalan, rather than believing her to be Governor Sleer. I was wondering when they would get round to that. And we finally get an explanation as to how Servalan has managed to get away with her feeble ruse - she's killed everyone who previously knew her. Yes, explanations are certainly coming fast and thick.

Being in an enclosed space, Servalan and Tarrant have to Get It On [see also: Vila and his girlfriend in 'City' and Avon and Servalan in, oh, I forget which episode]. However, this turns out to be all part of the Sand's cunning plan to procreate the human race for food. Meanwhile, the rest of the Scorpio gang sit around in their studio set [I note that the gaps between the desks have suddenly got larger...?] and Vila gets pissed. Very little clenched Darrow action this week. Not enough Soolin either [her main role seems to be to reminisce about how good the plot for Sarcophagus was, a story she wasn't actually in, but, hey, I won't hold that against her]. Still, on the plus side, very little Orac and Slave.

Overall, I really enjoyed it, but it's hard to say whether it's any good or not, as it's a frustrating juxtaposition of good writing and acting against some of the shakiest production values in a programme synonymous with shaky production values. Superficially, it's a bloody terrible programme from start to finish, yes, but Jacqueline Pearce gives her first decent performance and there's an engaging, if not completely watertight, story. There's the potential for excellence there, but it's being thrown away.

So yes, Sand is irritating and annoying. But it's also very entertaining.


It's a sort of general rule of thumb that the Blake’s get better towards the end of each season. They usually start quite well, then dip quite dramatically over the first half, aand then gradually build up to an explosive, cliffhanger finish. I've now hit the final upward slope of Blake. This is where it starts getting terminally good.

It was great how they always ended each series on a cliffhanger, wasn't it? Why did they never do that with Doctor Who? And, no, `I'll take you to-' does not count as a cliffhanger. And nor does them changing the lead actor. Where's the peril in that? Where's the derring-do? Where's the va-va-voom?

Were the computer graphics in the titles done by the same people who did the computer graphics in Hitch Hiker's? They're very good. Much better than the real computer graphics of the time.

Anyway, the episode. It opens with probably the best opening shot in all of Blake’s 7; the best model spaceship we have seen so far glides serenely past, in an astonishing display of special effects that, whilst not at all convincing, are not at all bad either. Accompanied, of course, by some lovely Dudley horn.

Surely, I thought to myself, it can't get any better than this. But it does.

The crew of the Scorpio are on a mission to rob some Gold. Dayna obviously thinks this episode will be as dull as the last couple of weeks', and thinks she may need some reading material to liven up the proceedings. `I'd better take a spare mag.'

Soolin. Excuse me whilst I wax lyrical about Glynis Barber. She's gorgeous. In her tight grey jumpsuit with its glittery blue stripe. It's very tight, you can see everything, outlines, clear as day. Nothing left to the imagination. And she moves in such a slinky fashion. By which I mean she walks with a sort of sexy, bum-swinging gait, not that she somersaults head-over-heels down some stairs. Not that sort of slinky, no. That would be hideous. And her make-up is impeccable; a little blusher, cyan eyeshadow, eyeliner, glittery pink lipstick. She's wonderful, isn't she? She lights up every scene like a sort of very sexy lightbulb.

Why didn't they have her in it from the beginning? And, no, being a Mutoid doesn't count. Soolin's Seven. That would've been better.

Anyway, this episode also features Roy Kinnear, comedy actor of `Help!' and `TW3' fame. He's very good; he finds the comedy in every line. Competent celebrities really can give second-rate sci-fi shows a much-needed shot in the arm.

It's quite appropriate casting, because he's playing a comedy character in a witty and urbane script, full of neat one-liners and dry banter and frisky rejoinders. `Seventeen billion  that's a lot of cash'. `The mine on Zerok is underground' says Keiller, `Mines often are,' deadpans Dayna. `It's alright, it's only Keiller  but this is Avon!' And, of course, the wonderful, `Avon, would you be careful with that gun!'

Okay, so these lines may fall a little flat out of context, but at the time they seemed hilarious. By Blake's 7 standards.

Oh, and `I've never seen currency of that size' says Vila. Because those are BIG banknotes. You could exchange nine of them for a Triganic Pu.

So I've established it's fun, and funny. There's a good, concise, snappy plot underneath it all, with a neat and unexpected twist. And I don't mean the surprise reveal that this weeks' machinating villain behind the scenes is bloody SERVALAN. That was the expected, entirely predictable and heavily-eyeshadowed twist. The twist that turns up with depressing you-can-set-your-bowel-movements-by-it regularity. Ooh, who is this mysterious figure who has been manipulating events behind the scenes? SERVALAN! Oh, what a disappointment. Thought it might've been someone good.

And she is Servalan this week, not Governor Sleer. I'm glad they've forgotten that.

Apparently the Scorpio gang are becoming notorious. Quite what for, we are never told. Being a bit rubbish, probably.

Zerok is the Gold Planet, apparently.

DARROW! He's clenched! But he's holding back  he needs to keep some Darrow Factor in reserve for later episodes. But he's still quite, quite mad. He can't even walk through a door properly, he has to dart through, keeping his gun covered, ducking his head and looking back and forth through narrowed eyes, his teeth gritted.

The most Darrow of all the Darrow moments is the final shot, where Darrow has to finally go completely bonkers. The Scorpio gang have been defeated once again, and Soolin - love her - is a bit cheesed off about it. But what does Darrow do? He laughs. At length. And then he laughs a bit more, but this time overdubbed. Bwahahahahaha. I'm the Darrow, and I can laugh. Look at my lovely teeth. I'm Paul Darrow, and every episode must end on my I've-lost-but-loving-it grin. A sort of wicked, knowing smirk. An evil, here's-one-for-the-ladies-at-home grin. DARROW!

The episode also features a costume from Robots Of Death. And Tarrant looking very fetching in a black polo neck. Soolin! Soolin! I prefer Soolin! I was never confused.

Anyway. It transpires that the Kinnear is not, in fact, running a pleasure cruise, but the pleasure cruise is a cover for transporting consignments of black gold. Not oil, but gold that's been turned black by some sort of special molecular process, you understand.

The best thing about the pleasure cruise is that it is punctuated by some of the most glorious space music you've ever heard. Dadadada-da! Dadadada-da! Dudley excels himself. A sort of jaunty muzak, with a cheeky twist of oompah. The sort of music that would've punctuated a Charles Hawtrey cameo in Carry On In Space, if they'd ever made a Carry On In Space [though Blake’s 7, of course, does come pretty close].

It's a well-directed episode. The bit where the Darrow is in the airlock screaming at Drunken Sideburns to teleport him out is rather tense and exciting. I'm not used to Blake’s 7 being tense and exciting. Feels strange, somehow.

And hello, is that the buggy from Space Rats making a return appearance? Wa-hey!

Overall then, the best episode of season four so far. Superb. Fast, funny, clever, and featuring Glynis Barber in extraordinarily tight trousers.

But Orac can fck right off.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

Every now and then I’m fortunate enough to have someone say something kind to me on twitter or elsewhere about my work. It’s always massively appreciated. And the other day a particularly generous person said that they thought I was so good at writing Doctor Who stories, they had to ask, why wasn’t I writing for the TV show? 

Well, it’s a difficult question to answer, because clearly whether or not I write for the TV show is not up to me. It’s not as if they’ve asked and I’ve turned them down! And whilst it is clearly intended as a compliment, it’s difficult not to also take it as a criticism. It’s the equivalent of saying to a singer, ‘You’re really good at singing, why aren’t you at number one?’

Thing is, I’m bloody proud of all my work in books, audios and comics, and I don’t consider them to be second-best to the TV show. I work hard, I put in lots of effort, and I wouldn’t do that if I thought I was wasting my time. I do it because I know there are readers and listeners out there who, like me, care a great deal about how well-written something is.

Of course – it totally goes without saying – I would love to write for the TV show. It would be lovely to have a larger audience, and more money, and to be able to spend months honing a script to perfection through multiple drafts (other writers sometimes moan about that sort of thing, I’d consider it a luxury). But it’s not in my gift. The fact of the matter is, Steven Moffat either a) is not in a position to commission writers with little broadcast TV experience or b) thinks that if I was commissioned, I would not be up to the task. Or, most likely, c) both.

Both of which are entirely understandable and reasonable things, about which I have no complaint. I know how these things work. And whilst I may find it hard to disagree with people when they tell me that something that I wrote is better than something that was on TV, as far as the people who decide who writes Doctor Who on TV are concerned, they are commissioning the very best scripts from the very best writers available.

Now, of course, given the opportunity, I think I would do a damn good job. What I may lack in experience I would more than make up for in enthusiasm and effort; there is not, I think, a human being alive on this planet who would work harder. I can take criticism, I know the show backwards, and – if I’m going to be totally honest – I think that if Steven had brought me on board when he'd started he’d now have more time to spend on his own scripts and take much longer holidays.

But there is no point in complaining or wondering what might have been. The onus is on me to demonstrate that I am good enough, not on anyone else to give me a break. And if I haven’t demonstrated that yet, then there is no-one responsible but me. And, yes, there are things I regret, opportunities I didn’t take. The main one being that I didn’t start writing until I was in my late twenties, because I had no confidence in myself  (you may have noticed that I’ve kind of been trying to make up for lost time ever since). And I failed to maintain friendships I should have maintained, and, yes, once or twice, I was a complete dick.

All I can do is to keep plugging away, writing spec scripts, and getting my (marvellous) agent to send them off to people. But like anyone, I have to go where the money is, and given the choice between spending a month writing scripts that will get made and paid, and a month writing stuff which almost certainly won’t get made and for which I almost certainly won’t get paid, I have to choose the former. I try to make space to do spec scripts, but I’m not going to turn down paid work to do so.

You see, there was a period a few years ago, when it looked like I had an ITV sitcom ‘definitely’ commissioned, and so I spent half a year or so writing the scripts, secure in the knowledge that when the show was made, I would get paid very well indeed. But then there was a reshuffle at ITV and, anyway, long, tiresome and very depressing story cut short, the whole thing fell apart and I found myself severely financially embarrassed. And I never want to find myself in that situation again. I can’t afford to write in the hope of maybe getting paid one day, I can’t take that risk any more.

Of course, in my head, I now disagree with what I’ve just written. Because even as I typed it, I was thinking, ‘But you can always find more time, Jonny. You can always do more work!’ because that is how I think, and part and parcel of being a writer. The job is not about making excuses why you can’t write, it’s about making excuses so that you can. So, sod the excuses, I remain determined to do more spec scripts. I have a sitcom I’m desperate to write, a drama series, a film, a whole list of things. And I will write them!

If you look to the list to the right - I have written quite a few other things, and that’s not the whole list. If you think I write a lot of Doctor Who stuff, oh, that’s just the tip of the iceberg! For every two or three Doctor Who scripts, I write one of my own. And because those scripts are me writing what I want to write, with my original characters and so forth, they tend to be some of the best things I’ve ever written, above and beyond any of my Doctor Who things, and yet the irony is that only a handful of people have ever read them.

But I can only keep plugging on, and if you want the answer to the question why I’m not writing for the TV show, it’s because I haven’t written enough spec scripts of my own, that they haven’t been good enough, or they haven’t been read by the right people, but if I keep going, if I find more time, if I work hard and write more, better, spec scripts, then maybe, one day, I’ll get somewhere. That's how it works. As I said earlier, there’s no-one responsible for my career but me. No-one else to take the credit and no-one else to take the blame.