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.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

One Summer Dream


My Big Finish audio adventure Doctor Who: The Eternal Summer was released back in 2009. Starring Peter Davison, Sarah Sutton and Mark Williams as Maxwell Edison, it went down terribly well with the fans (nobody was more surprised and delighted by this than me), a fact I entirely attribute to its excellent cast, director and music and sound designer. It concerns the Doctor and Nyssa finding themselves in the village of Stockbridge, an idyllic spot where nothing ever changes, which no one ever enters or leaves. Any similarities to any villages in Somerset where I grew up are entirely coincidental. The story is still available from Big Finish productions, and as it’s one of my better ones, please do check it out if you haven’t already done so.

(Though, at the time of writing, two of my Doctor Who ‘Companion Chronicles’, The Great Space Elevator and The Mists Of Time, are being heavily discounted in a sale, so maybe buy those first)

The re-writing on this story was quite extensive, and done in extensive collaboration with the director Barnaby Edwards. As a result, some quite large chunks of the story were heavily revised, so that barely a single line from the initial draft remained, such as this one, where the Doctor and Max are reunited for the first time: (please note: some of these deleted scenes contain major spoilers!).

MAX:
Not so many, no. But still on the look-out! Keeping the old eyes peeled for another extra-terrestrial visitation from Venus! Just in case! Planet Earth’s first line of defence!

NYSSA:
Doctor... who is your ‘friend’?

DOCTOR:
A blast from my past – or maybe my future. Max is what you might call a flying saucer nut. In the nicest possible way.

MAX:
Expert in all things paranormal, supernatural and unexplained. Have been, ever since I was a kid, watching Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World. Oh I loved that show, do you remember it?

DOCTOR: (SOTTO)
The thing is, Nyssa, he does actually seem to possess some genuine extra-sensory ability –

MAX:
Oh, I get what you’re talking about there. The telepathy. It’s a gift, a heavy responsibility. It’s spooky, actually. It’s like sometimes I know exactly what other people are thinking.

NYSSA:
Really? So what am I thinking now?

MAX:
No idea. I did only say ‘sometimes’. Most of the time, I don’t have the faintest idea. You could be thinking all sorts of terrible things about me and I wouldn’t know anything about it!

NYSSA:
That’s probably just as well.

While some scenes were found to be superfluous and dropped, such as this one from part two:

37. APPROACHING MANOR HOUSE

SCUFFLING. WALKING ALONG GRAVEL PATH. OWLS HOOT. DOGS BARK.

DOCTOR:
You don’t have to drag me, I am quite capable of walking.

HAROLD:
Release him. There is nowhere left for him to run, after all.

MAX:
I’m sorry, Doctor. I had to do it. Self-preservation. Not just for us. For you, too.

DOCTOR:
Self-preservation?

ALICE:
You’ll understand, Doctor Smith. Soon. This way!

DOCTOR:
So this is the manor... impressive. Certainly not part of any Stockbridge I remember. Tell me, do they do tours? Cream teas? Do Blue Peter badge winners get in free?

DUDLEY:
The Lord and Lady are ready for him. He is to be taken inside.

This scene was also cut, this time from part three, largely because it consists of characters telling each other things they, and we, already know by this point.

49. INSIDE MANOR

DOCTOR AND MAX RUNNING. THEN HALTING, PAUSING FOR BREATH.

MAX:
Doctor, where are we going? I’m not cut out for running up and down corridors–

DOCTOR:
Would you rather just stand there and let them consume your memories?

MAX:
Yes.

DOCTOR:
Can’t you see they’re using you? To them you’re just a... source of nourishment! A three course meal of nostalgia and bitterness... with double helpings of regret!

MAX:
You don’t know what it’s like. If you had to live your whole life again and again...

DOCTOR:
They’re not doing it for your benefit, Max. They’re doing it for themselves.

MAX:
So that’s what you dragged me away for, to tell me that?

DOCTOR:
No. I dragged you away because I am trying to save your life. Come on...!

In the second draft an extra scene was added to the end of part three to ‘beef up’ the cliffhanger, which was as follows in the original draft:

63. WELL’S WOOD

NYSSA:
Doctor, what do you mean? The whole planet?

DOCTOR:
Don’t you understand? The temporal stasis field was the only thing preventing the warp core of the Rutan ship from exploding!

MAX:
So?

NIKKI:
Yes, Doctor, so?

DOCTOR:
So, now that you’ve burst the bubble – there’s nothing to prevent those engines from wiping out the Earth, the Solar System, and a rather large chunk of the Milky Way!

END OF PART THREE CLIFFHANGER

Later in part four I decided to cut this piece of ‘explanation’. I put explanation in quotation marks because normally explanations help make things clearer, when in this case it doesn’t, as the Doctor is clearly working from a different version of the synopsis from everyone else.  

NYSSA: 
Well, Doctor? Is it working? 

DOCTOR:
It should be, yes... but for (some)... The temporal pressure is increasing!

NYSSA:
What does that mean?

DOCTOR:
It means... they’re trying to reverse the collapse... by making the time bubble inflate.

NYSSA:
Inflate?

DOCTOR:
They’re attempting to capture the whole world in the bubble...

There's also a very large chunk of the final episode that was very heavily rewritten in the second draft, but I'll save that for another day.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Lost In France


Just finished reading another Christmas present, the play Edward III. It’s lots of fun, very clear and easy to follow (most of the footnotes are historical or textual pedantry rather than explaining the language, and when they do, they are usually superfluous). Oh, I’m talking about the New Cambridge Shakespeare edition here, which didn’t exactly inspire confidence with this howler of a typo in the second speech of the play:

Artois:
Three sons of his, which all successively
Did sit upon their father’s regal throne,
Yet died and left no issue of their lions.

The reason I was interested in reading it was, of course, that it’s recently entered the Shakespeare canon, with its entire second act (along with bits of acts one and four) widely attributed to Shakespeare, written in collaboration with one or more authors including Thomas Kyd.

The play reminded me of the Henry VI plays, as it is has a very episodic structure – the King defeats the Scots that have been besieging the Countess of Salisbury, the King attempts to seduce the Countess, the King launches an attack of France with a spectacular naval victory at Sluys and a land victory at Crecy, and for the last two Acts the narrative splits into three, one concerned with the progress of the Earl of Salisbury through French-held territory to meet King Edward at Calais, one concerned with King Edward holding Calais under siege, and the third the other with the progress of King Edward’s son Prince Edward (aka the Black Prince)  in battles against the French at Poitiers. Although there are elements that link the different episodes – for instance, the Scottish King David is captured and brought to King Edward in Act 5, and characters that only appear in later acts are mentioned in Act 1– it is easy to imagine it being a composite work.

This piecemeal structure does have some flaws. Although it is adhering to historical fact, to have Prince Edward achieving a miraculous victory practically singlehanded against overwhelming Frenchmen in Act 3 and then again in Act 4 is repetitious (and doesn’t exactly create much suspense the second time around). Also all three of the major battles are won the same way; not through any particular ingenuity of the English (save for Prince Edward’s trick with the flint-stones at Poitiers) but because both the Scots and the French are habitually disorganised and cowardly.  The play also makes the point that the English victories at Sluys and Poitiers are both partially down to freak weather conditions acting in their favour (the victory at Sluys being deliberately reminiscent of the celebrated defeat of the Spanish Armada which was 'hot' at the time the play was written). Freak weather conditions being, of course, an indicator of god taking sides.

Act 2 is regarded by those who know better than me as being the work of Shakespeare, and it’s not hard to see why, as the language suddenly becomes more poetic (and speeches become longer!), and the arguments posited by the characters become more subtle and nuanced and, in the case of King Edward, as the character himself abruptly changes from what was established in Act 1; it seems the sight of the Countess of Salisbury is enough to change a warmonger into a poet (though he does fall for her immediately in Act 1, to be fair, she has pretty eyes). He then changes back to the warmonger in Act 3, as though waking from a dream.

This Act largely concerns the idea of ‘what to do if your king asks you to break an oath’ – a theme visited elsewhere in the play, but whereas in Act 4 the arguments are quite black-and-white (honour dictates that oaths are paramount) in Act 2 things are much more complex; as King Edward uses the fact that he’s King first to effectively order the Countess into bed with him and then to order her father to order his daughter to sleep with him (the King).  Rather amusingly her father reconciles this conflict of honour  by instructing his daughter to sleep with the King, in order to fulfil her oath of loyalty to the king, and then immediately tells his daughter not to as instructed in order to fulfil her oath of loyalty to her husband and god.

Acr 2 reminded me very strongly of the interlude in Henry VI Part One where Talbot is briefly imprisoned by Auvergne, partly because of its tonal incongruity of being a chunk of light-hearted love story pasted into an otherwise battle-focused place and also because Talbot also undergoes a weird shift in personality once he’s placed in a romantic setting.

What really struck me about this Act, though, was how funny it was. The book’s introduction to the play describes it as entirely humourless which I found baffling given that the whole scene with King Edward and his poet-for-hire Lodowick (free Lodowick!) is pure comedy. The gags are broad, yes, but they work; Lodowick struggling to keep up with King Edward’s detailed and lengthy instructions on what Lodowick should put into his love poem to the Countess is clearly the struggle of any writer-for-hire trying to satisfy the demands of an unhelpful client.

My favourite part was the first big joke which consist of King Edward spending a good couple of minutes describing the subject and recipient of the poem in extravagant terms (‘more beautiful than beautiful’) while neglecting to give any pertinent details, leading Lodowick to eventually ask:

Lodowick:
Write I... to a woman?

To which the King responds:

King:
What, thinkst thou I did bid thee praise a horse?

Yes, I’m doing the thing of quoting the best jokes in the review, so sue me. Then a short while later, after the King has spent another few minutes telling Lodowick what to write in his love poem, he finally asks Lodowick to show him his finished work. Which consists of two lines! Which the King immediately finds fault with and gets Lodowick to cross out and start again. And then when the Countess walks in, there’s a funny little bit where the King pretends that he and Lodowick have been discussing battle strategies.

The rest of the play is not dissimilar to Henry V, with its various sieges and with Prince Edward a prototype Hal, though with much less personality; he is a model son, courageous and obedient, as a paragon of virtue, quite dull. King Edward is a more interesting character – even overlooking his entirely different personality in Act 2 – and recalls some of Hal’s bloodthirstier moments in Henry V (i.e. his threats to the citizens of the city of Harfleur). King Edward makes similar threats to the citizens of Calais and it’s only the intervention of his wife that prevents him executing six merchants just to make a point. His attitude to his son is also rather harsh; when the Prince  is in trouble in battle, King Edward won’t sent him help, on the basis that either the Prince will survive, and gain honour and experience, or he’ll die honourably in battle and it won’t matter much because King Edward has plenty of other sons to take his place! So King Edward is portrayed heroically, but not sympathetically – rather like the depiction of Talbot in Henry VI Part One.

The big difference, though, is that Edward III relates the battles from the point of view of the losing side; we see the French King being given the bad news of his defeat at Sluys, we see French refugees fleeing from Crecy, and the defeat at Poitiers is also depicted from the French end. By focusing on the French perspective, the play enhances the image of the English as an unstoppable, terrible force of nature; each battle begins with the French boasting (taunting from the battlements!) about how they will win, and depicts how they become unstuck due to over-confidence (their fatal flaw at Crecy and Poitiers is their assumption of an easy victory; the mere fact that the English are prepared to fight back rattles the French troops so much they flee in terror).

Where it scores over Henry V is that it has its romantic interlude in Act 2, rather than as an anticlimax in Act 5. Of course it’s nowhere near as well-written, but I’d certainly say it was the equal of King John or the Henry VI plays and probably easier to sit through than Richard II. The main fun for me, though, was that it depicts an unfamiliar period of history (though the story of English soldiers killing lots of French soldiers is fairly familiar!) so I felt I was learning something (or remembering bits of history I’d forgotten) as well as having the novelty of a new play. I hope The Globe does a production soon, it would be ideal for that venue, and as I was reading it, I could easily imagine how it would be staged. Bring it on!

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Island Life




A few days ago I finished reading Skios by Michael Frayn. A few thoughts.

Skios is an experiment to write a farce in the form of a novel. I didn’t know this when I bought the book, as the words Michael and Frayn in conjunction above the title were enough. But clearly the thought of another Michael Frayn farce is a thrilling prospect; this is, after all, the fellow who wrote Noises Off and Clockwise.

But as an experiment it doesn’t quite work, because the farce doesn’t quite work. I hate to bang on about rules because rules are there to be broken, but in this instance, the problems of the book are all because it doesn’t follow the rules of farce.

Firstly, the inciting incident, the pebble that precipitates the avalanche, is that in an airport arrivals lounge a character called Oliver Fox sees the name ‘Dr Norman Wilfred’ being held up on a card by an attractive woman and decides to ‘become’ Dr Norman Wilfred, just to see what happens. This is the keystone of the whole novel, and it doesn’t really work, because Oliver doesn’t have a very good reason to do this – and in farce, everything has to happen for a simple, logical reason – and because through the course of the novel he can decide to stop pretending to be Dr Norman Wilfred any time he wants without incurring any negative consequences. So throughout the story, this character acts as a wobbly wheel. There should have been a good reason why he had to pretend to be someone else, and why he can’t stop the pretence. If it was an Ealing comedy, it would be because he was on the run from the law. That would do it.

Secondly, there’s the problem of pace. On film, or in a play, the audience will excuse characters making mistakes based on partial information or talking at cross purposes if there is a limited amount of time available, with no time for them to explain away the various misunderstandings. But in Skios, there isn’t that sense of pace; the events unfold over the course of several days and for large parts of the story there is such a lack of urgency that characters start sunbathing. There’s also the problem that the story unfolds at two different ends of an island, so there’s all the time taken getting from one end to the other to be accounted for; normally farces take place within one building, or one street, specifically to avoid the problem of time being wasted getting from a to b. And also because, if the action unfolds in a limited space, it’s more plausible for characters to bump into each other; without that confinement, a lot of plausibility is lost.

Thirdly, Frayn makes the odd choice of telling the story mostly through internal monologues (when he isn’t killing the pace by spending half a page by describing the sun, moon, the sea and the flowers) which means a lot of the potential for comedy is lost. Because in a novel, words speak louder than actions. Dialogue is also fast to read, whereas description is slow. When there are comic exchanges the book does come alive albeit briefly. It's why the BBC radio adaptation is markedly funnier than the novel, as the adaptor has been forced to re-write scenes to take place in terms of dialogue.

And fourthly, most disappointingly of all, there’s the ending. With a farce, the whole point is the backward-engineering from a satisfying conclusion where all the plot threads coincide and every developing problem is resolved (or at least exposed). In Skios, Frayn perversely decides not to do this. He does spend a couple of pages on a ‘what if’ scenario, where he asks ‘what if these were characters in a book’ and gives a synopsis on how the story could end neatly and comically. Having done that, he instead ends the book in a way which comes across as an authorial shrug of resignation, as if he couldn’t be bothered to finish the story at all. The end result is that plot threads are left hanging, various characters have been introduced to play no part in the proceedings, and basically you’re left wondering if the whole exercise has been a waste of time. Imagine if a plane had crashed onto Fawlty Towers 25 minutes into an episode, wiping out all the occupants in a huge fireball. That’s the literary effect that Frayn achieves.

So, coming from the guy who wrote Noises Off and Clockwise, as well as the fabulous Headlong and the gorgeous Spies and Copenhagen and so on and so on, this is a weird mis-step. It’ also odd that he should think writing farce as a novel was an experiment, when PG Wodehouse and Tom Sharpe have pretty much proved that it can be done (and how it should be done). So if you want to read a great farce, I’d recommend their works, or any of Joe Keenan’s awe-inspiring novels.

Monday, 14 January 2013

A House In The Country



Today sees the release (hooray!) of Doctor Who: The Auntie Matter, written by yours truly, and starring Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor, Mary Tamm as his companion Romana. It also features a fabulous guest cast, consisting of the legendary Julie McKenzie (of Marple, sitcom and Sondheim fame), Robert Portal, Lucy Griffiths, Alan Cox and Jane Slavin.

The story is set in 1920s Hampshire and is a kind of a what-if, the what-if being ‘What if PG Wodehouse had written a Doctor Who story in 1978?’ Well, The Auntie Matter endeavours to be the answer to that question. It’s a frothy, silly, summery, farcical comedy, but with grisly undertones. I’m immeasurably proud of it and can’t recommend it too highly; you can download itfrom this site, and I hope it brightens your day. I think, through attempting to channel the voice of the master, it contains some of my wittiest writing.

Sadly, of course, this release is overshadowed by the knowledge that Mary Tamm passed away soon after this series of Doctor Who audio adventures were recorded. There’s a very moving tribute to her included on the end of the CD/download.  There’s not much more I can add, except to say that it was honour to write for her and to hear her performing words I had written, and performing them so beautifully, so precisely, with such joyful lightness of touch. I feel privileged to have been associated with her, even in a small way. We Doctor Who fans love all the actors and actresses from the show dearly, and I hope Mary realised how admired and appreciated she was.   


Sunday, 13 January 2013

Scorpio Rising

The latest in an extremely irregular series of Blake’s 7 reviews dating from way back in 2002. Smell the youth!


TERMINAL

Terry Nation's back, and he alone knows what the show is about.

I started watching Blakes 7 as a kid at some point during Season 3 – I had vague memories of City At The Edge Of The World, and very clear, fond memories of Ultraworld and Terminal. And it's fab. Even the incidental music is good; a sort of constant heartbeat. There's a real sense of impending doom.

The planet is a weird oval shape. How peculiar.

All the actors are on top form. Darrow is at his best; he's on his own a lot of the time, and not speaking, which helps his performance a great deal. Vila is sympathetic, too, as he chats with the dying Zen - he's likeable when he's out of his depth, he's annoying when he's being drunk and stupid and cowardly for no reason. I like the way he gets Orac off the ship, too. Tarrant - he's not doing hands-on-hips acting for once. Cally - boring as usual, but inoffensive. Dayna – I never quite 'got' Dayna. Blake - has put on weight and grown a beard.

Anyway. Avon says that he always thought that his death would be linked with Blake’s. A very ingenious bit of foreshadowing, considering that this was supposed to be the last episode ever.

There are only two problems. Problem one; the subplot about the Links isn't really necessary, and doesn't come much as a shock. I thought we were all supposed to evolve into Small Incredibly Feeble One-Eyed Chicken Gnomes like Moloch anyway? Servalan's big revelation about the ultimate future of mankind gets a bit lost amongst other, much more interesting and significant events.

The other problem is Servalan. She's the surprise villain AS USUAL and her plan is overcomplicated and ridiculous AS USUAL and she's waving her arms about as though she's trying to dry her nail varnish AS USUAL and she's making sly, naughty, secretive smiles towards the gays at home AS USUAL.

So she's got Avon to come to Terminal to meet Blake. Having spent months [!] convincing Avon that Blake is alive but on a life-support, she then tells him that, in fact, Blake is dead and she faked it all. So what was the point of all that, then? Her plan, to convince Avon to hand over the Liberator to her in exchange for Blake, rather depends on her not explaining her plan to Avon at the first possibly opportunity, doesn't it? Still, the banter is good. Good banter, Terry.

Tarrant and Cally discover the brainwashing trolley, but this turns out to be unnecessary because they never find out what it's for, and by the time they meet up with Avon Servalan has already explained her madcap scheme anyway. It would've made been better for Avon to have been made suspicious by some 'continuity' error between his artificially-induced dream and reality and to piece together Servalan's plot with Tarrant and Cally. But I don't think there was time for that to be slotted in.

That's a bit of the Jagaroth spaceship / Pirate Captain's desk next to Blake, that is.

The real Servalan problem, though, is her utter credulity. She's on board the Liberator. It's covered in slimy gunk. Zen isn't working. Yet she never for a moment considers that there might be something amiss. No, because she's totally loopy. Maximum power! And then, just as she's finally got her nails dry, it explodes. A bit of the floor lifts up and someone slides off.

It's the end of an era. We'll never again see Zen. Never again will there be that photo of the Liberator UPSIDE DOWN. No more will Avon do a little skipping dance as he runs around a desk. No more will Jenna steer the ship with two anglepoise lamps. No more will there be that bit of footage of the Liberator shooting. No more will Servalan say 'Bring me the Lib-er-ator'.

It's the end of Blake's 7. Zen has died and the Liberator is gone. Servalan is dead, probably. They haven't won, they've both lost. One by one, the crew walk past the camera looking cheesed off.

And then... Darrow smiles. How cool is that? All is right in the universe again. Avon may have lost, but he's still a complete bastard. Hurrah!

Still, a good ending to a series of three years of middling sci-fi. What's that? The Director General's mum liked it and wants another series? Better get the continuity announcer on the phone now...


RESCUE

Now this is when I really started watching Blake's 7 regularly. I haven't seen any of these episodes for twenty years, but what is really frightening is how much I still remember. I remember Cally's death – how sad, how perfunctory - I remember the spiral staircase with dry ice at the bottom. Even more oddly, I remember snatches of dialogue! I even remember, as a 7-year old, drinking Ribena because I wanted to be funny like Vila.

And the guns! I remember the guns. The only thing I have ever made after they showed you how on Blue Peter. You had to write in for a factsheet for plans on how to make one of the Blake's 7 space guns. And I made one, painted it silver and everything. And I made one of those chunky silver and grey teleport bracelets as well, the new ones. God, I haven't thought about that for twenty years, and yet there it is, still in my brain. Frightening.

So a few hours have passed since the end of Terminal. Generally speaking, the continuity is good. Okay, so everyone now has subtly different hairstyles, but at least we're filming on the same hill. Okay, so it's been snowing, but that just makes it more like The Empire Strikes Back. Everyone has the same costumes, the story follows on seamlessly, there's even the same heartbeat noise... but...
 
...but now the planet is spherical. What the F!

And I've seen that volcano footage before somewhere. Love the big worm, though. I hope he becomes a regular fixture. He could be the new Travis.

Okay, so the Blake crew - sans Cally, but oddly, not sans Orac [who somehow survived the big explosion] are wandering around the planet before being picked up by Dorian. Dorian the space salvager. Now, immediately their suspicions are aroused because Dorian's eyes are too close together. They are. They are far too close together. The distance between his eyes is not adequate. He's like a living Picasso. There is barely room for the bridge of his nose between his peepers. If he looked left and right quickly, his pupils would bang together. The proximity of is eyes is just far too small. His eyes are simply too close together. And so obviously, obviously he's up to something.

Before I continue, the new title sequence. Love it. It's like playing a computer game. Love the new logo, too. Suddenly we're in the 1980s.

The special effects - gorgeous. Suddenly we've entered the sort of Season 17-18 / Hitch-Hikers' Guide To The Galaxy-era, so the spaceships have a sort of plastic, shaky, video-effect look. The look that Doctor Who had up until about season 20, and inexplicably brought back for the Vervoid story. But I love that look. So much better than the rubbish Captain Pugwash-style animations that we got in the first couple of seasons.

And the Scorpio landing sequence! Wow! How sexy is that! How. Sexy. Is. That! It goes down a canyon, into a cave, lands on a platform, goes down a shaft, rotates and then sits in this sort of Batcave. Wow. I hope they show that bit over and over again in the next few episodes. It could never get old.

However, the interior of Scorpio - oh dear. That's nowhere near as good, is it? I mean, that set really doesn't look at all convincing in close up - the controls look like meal trays glued to the desk, and you can see *all* the joins in the corrugated iron desks. Lots of sharp edges, not very practical for bumpy space travel. It looks like it was made from left over bits of the space ship from Nightmare Of Eden. And the monitors have yellow sellotape around them! Good grief. And Slave - god, he is blooming annoying, isn't he? He looks just like the computer SID from Galloping Galaxies, but without the wit and integrity of Kenneth Williams. And it has teleport booths too - what were they odds against that, eh?

Now, I realise it is the sole preserve of the twit to criticise a science fiction show for having shaky sets. That said, though, there's a wonderful scene when Dayna is searching for a secret passage and the viewer thinks, 'Ah - It's behind you - I saw that wall distinctly move!' But as shaky as the sets are, they're not the shakiest things in Blake's 7 by any means.

The story doesn't make much sense or hold much interest. A gestalt? A gestalt! A gestalt? A gestalt! I like Sue-Lynn, though, she's almost as sexy as the Scorpio model, even if she doesn't say much or seem to have much reason for being there except to make up the numbers. I've seen those costumes somewhere before, too - Warrior's Gate or Frontios or somesuch.

Luckily Dorian's pet Sea Devil - it's a blooming Sea Devil! - is killed by Vila and we get a very protracted death sequence. It's the same old story - villain ages to death, becomes a skellington, becomes a pile of dust which is then blown away by a guff of ghostly wind. However, I've never seen it before with such a variety of interim stages. Quite impressive, though the ghostly guff seems to be just Swap Shop's Mat Irvine with a hair dryer and is, therefore, a bit desultory.

And Vila makes a final joke about how unbelievable it all is. Which is quite telling, actually, because that's probably what most Blake's 7 fans and viewers were thinking, too. Suddenly they're watching a show with different titles, a laughable bossa-nova easy-listening version of the end theme tune, poor sets and only two original cast members, both of whom have stopped acting as though they want to maintain careers beyond this show. Suddenly they're watching endless scenes of the crew rocking back and forth in their seats due to space turbulence whilst the camera remains rock-steady and scenes of the crew sitting perfectly still in their seats whilst the camera jiggers around the place like a demented kangaroo. Suddenly we're getting absurd, contrived shots like that one from The Five Doctors where everyone looks archly to their right, one after each other. And then there’s the finale - some mad psychic fish-monster facing our heroes in a jabolite cave. What has the series come to? We've spent three years working our way towards... *this*?

But this is when I started watching it as a kid. So I love it. This, as cheap and absurd as it is, is the *real* Blake's 7 for me. This is what all that nonsense about Travis and Blake was leading up - the crew of the Scorpio on Xenon. My childhood Blake's 7 has now begun!

ADDITIONAL NOTE 14 JAN 2013

I am indebted to a Mr Jim Smith of London who has texted in to point out that it is quite simple to resolve the continuity problem regarding the planet's shape, as it could be an oval when viewed from the side (as seen in Terminal) and appear circular when viewed end-on due to foreshortening (as seen in Rescue).