Thursday 19 December 2019

Blake's 7 - Hostage

"There's no need for violence, is there?"

Hostage’s title had me imagining one of the Liberator crew kidnapped, or even the ship itself, so the actual victim didn’t interest me very much. Yet Hostage is one of my favourite episodes so far this series as it took me through a variety of emotions and my mind whirred early on, trying to predict the next steps because I suspected Avon was up to something.

Battle stations!
Maybe I should be getting tired of episodes opening with a cry of “Pursuit ships!” but as it’s always slightly different each time, I’m still finding it enormous fun. This battle was shocking as I don’t think I’ve ever felt that the crew were in such danger. We had explosions inside the Liberator! Clouds of coloured smoke! Surely they were close to being goners? Surely the Federation’s weapons had penetrated too deeply? Yet they seemed to recover and just about manage.

I was confused about the Liberator’s lack of detection shield until the dialogue cleared it up and the revelation that the Federation has their own makes me think there could be a few more sudden, sneaky battles. Avon’s comment that they lacked equipment to repair their own detection shield showed that the Liberator does not appear to have infinite supplies.

We even gain a new Space Commander and though his stature is nowhere near as imposing as either of the Travises, I was prepared to accept this new appointment. But apparently Servalan’s patience for Space Commanders has worn much thinner and he’s out on his ear within minutes of losing the Liberator. Bad luck, mate.

Intrigue or Avon, you selfish bastard
A lot of my whirring thoughts during Hostage consisted of trying to guess Avon’s plan. As soon as Servalan received the message that Travis was on Exbar, I worked out it must be Avon who sent it. After Trial, there was no way Travis was going to be interested in getting back in her good books. Blake sprung to mind next but if he had sent it, he would be running a thousand miles and it would go right against his ‘know your enemy’ policy of keeping Travis around.

So to Avon, who eventually confesses that he sent the message, anticipating Federation ships to arrive before Blake went down. However, this wasn’t what I thought he was doing. I thought he expected the ships to approach when Blake had gone down to Exbar, so the others would hurriedly recall him and they would all be on their merry way, or another thought was that he would use the ships’ arrival to force them to quickly flee, leaving Blake behind. Either way, I thought Avon was being a selfish bastard as sending that message was an incredibly risky thing to do. Sometimes Blake seems to relish the opportunity for a confrontation, while Avon attempts to do the "rational" thing. It was probably good to see Avon fail for a change as he's come out on top over Blake a few times this series, and I'm glad to see that even Avon's logical thought processes are human and fallible.

I'm not sure how much Cally's telepathy enabled her to know, but even if it didn't tell her anything, I think she had guessed that Avon had done something. I wonder whether it will impact anyone's trust in Avon. I'm doubtful - Blake has been doing things behind their backs all series so they must be used to people playing their own game by now.

Tension climbs alongside Blake
I was curious that Avon suddenly decided to head down to Exbar after Blake. Did he feel responsible for letting him go alone? Aside from extra force or protection, there was no reason for Avon to go. Is it the old unofficial rule of no one heading out alone? Once he's seen the dodgy Uncle Ushton and knows Blake is in danger, it does make perfect sense to call Vila down.

Lovely shot: Avon moves into a wide shot from offscreen left...

...then moves down into a medium close up

With Blake caught, I was expecting a rescue operation, though it turns out this was unlikely to succeed; even if they are expecting some sort of trap, it's clear none of them expected literal ones. I actually laughed when Avon was scooped up in the net. To think of all the sophisticated systems that the Liberator crew, and Avon and Vila especially, have managed to get past, yet they are defeated incredibly easily by more primitive systems like the bear trap and the net.

When Blake was brought in blindfolded, with his hands tied, I thought this was the most vulnerable he had ever been while so close to Travis. There is a certain irony that this is the first time Travis has caught Blake with no one there to prevent him killing him, yet he is choosing not to for a chance at the Liberator. Nonetheless, a rising panic was growing in me as I struggled to see a way out for Blake, Avon and Vila.

The Crimos are an intriguing creation. Are these ordinary citizens that were identified at some stage or have they been specifically bred as criminal psychopaths? Although Travis has them as his henchmen, he's on the run now and I don't think it is explicitly said that the Crimos are used by the Federation. Are they an organised group among themselves or do you approach a mercenary agent to hire them?

It was amusing to have this tension broken by Vila whimpering while Blake and Avon pondered their fates.

Avon "At least we are still alive."
Blake "For the time being."
Vila "What does that mean?"
Avon "These gentlemen do not mean us well. Or haven't you noticed?"
Vila "W-why should they want to kill us?"
Blake "Because they enjoy it."
Avon "All we can hope for is that it's quick."

I do always love how Paul Darrow keeps such a straight face and voice with these lines.

A mini climax - Be brave, Vila
When Travis requests the weakest of the three crew members, I’m surprised he even needed to bother asking. He may only have had limited contact with Vila and Avon, but while the latter has been trigger-happy, Vila stood practically shaking in the background.

I had never felt so sorry for Vila. He hadn’t wanted to come on this adventure in the first place, knows getting caught was his own fault and feels guilty for not keeping a proper watch for Avon. He's already had a knife waved in his face by Blake's uncle and managed to hold his nerve then, insisting he was the only one to follow Blake down. He looked so pitiful as he walked past a captured Avon, saying, "Sorry."

With the sweat dripping off him, Vila's scene with Travis was the most terrified I had ever seen him. I watched Travis interrogating him, willing our coward on throughout and whispering, “Be brave, Vila. Be brave!” But his fearful instinct won through and when I saw Jenna and Cally in danger, I then found myself annoyed with Vila. Avon's kick at him afterwards felt justified.

Was that fair? Is it unreasonable to expect Vila to die for them? Vila himself points out to Travis, “You’re going to kill us anyway so why don't you get on with it!” I think that's the one line he says at all confidently. I wanted him to be able to make that sacrifice – just die a little sooner to save at least two of them. Vila probably wanted to be able to as well, but that desperate desire inside means most of us would do anything just to live a few more minutes.

Brian Croucher's Travis continued to grow on me in Hostage and it was a great episode for him to be nasty. He gets to command the Crimos, as well as threaten people and try to kill them on a much larger scale than we have seen from his Travis so far.

Whether it's just Croucher or a combination of him and the costume, he looks slimmer and less physically imposing compared to Stephen Grief. However, while Grief moved relatively slow, Croucher can be very still, then sometimes suddenly move off or turn around. Similarly, he generally speaks calmly at a normal volume, but will then loudly spit out lines. The script helps him with the interrogation of Vila. I like how he shouts, "Don't play the idiot with me!" then switches, to ask for "the word" and makes it sound like a simple, reasonable request.

I enjoyed his scenes with Blake as well. He smiles and is taking great pleasure as he tries to goad Inga and Blake, telling them that Ushton has been helping him. He easily produces a response from Inga but still has to prod Blake.

Travis "Ushton betrayed you - you must hate him! I would in your place!"
Blake "That is the difference between us, Travis."

At which point Travis suddenly stands up and moves to smack Blake, catching himself as Blake leans back, delightfully adding, "That too." Blake has clearly had far too much practice at pushing buttons with Avon, while Travis must be a tad angry with himself for losing his temper.

I'm finding Travis an increasingly interesting character in this series. He was never one dimensional before, but we are getting curious little pieces added now.

Excitement - full climax
It's full circle as we start with exciting action and end with it, only the second time around it's live-action instead of models. It's slightly annoying that Ushton manages to knock Travis out so easily, which kicks off this final segment. The more we see of Travis, the more ways we see him defeated and unfortunately that does impact the great unbeatable stature he had possessed throughout Series A.

I don't even want to start keeping track of how many quarries the series has visited but the quota for Series B seems higher than Series A. It was only a matter of time before we saw our heroes moving polystyrene rocks, though not even that could spoil the fun as they took on the Crimos and Travis.

Like many programmes with fantasy elements, Blake's 7 gets away with its violence due to a lack of consequences - no Federation guard's guts get splattered with every shot of the Liberator guns and punch-ups never result in so much as a cut lip or black eye. I was therefore left shocked by Avon's bleeding arm wound. We see a trickle from one of the Crimo's heads too, though by the time he's got back to the Liberator Avon has a fair amount of red on him.

Over in my Back in Time for TV pieces, I've enjoyed seeing how television heroes began to appear more realistically vulnerable, progressing from undefeatable to increasingly damageable. As Blake's 7 sits firmly in the fantasy camp, I certainly don't think it needs to do that to keep the audience's disbelief suspended. I think the development of several of the characters adds plenty of layers for anyone seeking more verisimilitude from their sci-fi, but it's intriguing to see this physical aspect included, however minor.

I was impressed that the battle appears to have been filmed at dusk and by the time Servalan arrives night has fallen. From the programmes I've seen, night shoots have only gradually grown during the 1970s. This makes these scenes a refreshing change and I think they are shot well, with a variety of shot types too.

The only ones I'd consider changing are when we see the first shot of Travis's boots walking, which cuts to a close up of Travis as he stops, then very quickly to Servalan and the mutoid. I'm being incredibly picky, but I don't think we need to see Travis's face here as Brian Croucher has no time to offer a reaction. Instead, we should see his boots suddenly halting then cut to Servalan and the mutoid, so that we see why he's stopped, then we can cut to his reaction.

Girls on studio videotape
Once again, Cally and Jenna are left behind on the Liberator, only getting some brief action when one of the Crimos comes aboard.

The addition of Inga, Blake's cousin, to the cast is, well, shit as far as decent representation goes. She exists to be a noisy hostage who keeps trying to run away, with Blake kissing her at the end. Marvellously, Jenna looks livid as she witnesses this. It isn't a huge surprise that she holds something for Blake. Until he started confiding more in Cally, Jenna was the only crew member who was close with him and they have usually been in the same wavelength.

Servalan remains the only female character to be given anything substantial. She gets a lovely scene with Kevin Stoney as a counsellor, who seems like an old friend of the Supreme Commander, though I must admit that I spent a lot of that scene just enjoying Kevin Stoney's voice. We then see her on a pursuit ship with mutoids. While the previous ones have all looked identical as young women with dark hair, these two are older, more middle-aged, with short blonde locks. I've imagined the mutoids as being made uniform during their creation so was curious to see a variation.

It's interesting that Servalan chooses to travel personally to Travis but the failure of the new Space Commander must have made her realise that despite everything, you can't beat Travis for determination when it comes to chasing Blake across the universe. When she offers Travis an official death and freedom in exchange for Blake and the Liberator, her trip makes sense.

I wasn't pleased with Servalan and Travis being reunited. I liked the possibilities posed by the end of Trial and this initially felt like a reset, so I was annoyed. However, after more thought, I've concluded that with Travis now entirely free of any Federation rules and procedures, he can do whatever he wants to pursue Blake. I would like it if he kept using Crimos as there seems more to be explored there. The one speaking Crimo in Hostage, Molok, is played by James Coyle, whose thin and very pale face made the character appear even stranger. I've always enjoyed Travis's own violent unpredictability and the Crimos would add to that. This series is taking so many twists and turns that I'm utterly giving up trying to second guess where Blake's 7 might go next.

Tuesday 10 December 2019

Blake's 7 - Killer

“That is self-interest - we need that crystal. Blake takes risks to help other people - sometimes people he doesn't even know.”

After the events of Pressure Point and Trial especially I was excited to continue Series B, although Killer ended up a more isolated episode compared to the last few. Knowing Robert Holmes as a Doctor Who writer, including one of my favourite stories, I was confident I was going to see something good though and I ended up being impressed by a Blake’s 7 episode constructed differently.

Several of this series’ episodes have started with shots of Blake looking concerned or pensive on the bridge. Instead, Killer begins with Cally learning how to use the teleporter – I’m unsure why Avon and Vila decided to stand with their backs to her – and we don’t see Blake for a few minutes. I’m not sure how many variations of ‘thinking Blake’ we can have so it’s good to skip that as it brings Vila and Avon to the forefront immediately for this story, as well as enabling us to crack on very quickly. The show has always made a lot of use of the Liberator sets each episode – I’ve always assumed that the budget encouraged this – yet we seemed to spend relatively little time there during Killer.

What the plot – do we need all the Liberator crew?
Team Avon-Vila's mission is to get a crystal that will enable the Liberator to decode Federation messages, but it gets derailed when they discover Avon's old friend has contacted the Federation to rat them out. Meanwhile, Blake has come to the same facility (another lovely industrial complex) after spotting an ancient spaceship nearby. It becomes a race against time when a plague starts spreading.

I was intrigued by Zen throughout the last series and it became enjoyable to rage against him. Yet with Redemption removing all the Liberator’s mystery, Zen has lost all his personality. It no longer feels legitimate to count him as a member of Blake’s 7, if it ever did. And after all the build-up at the end of Series A, Orac hasn’t had much impact, except for in Shadow. With Gan gone as well, it’s more like Blake’s 5 now.

Numerous stories have struggled to find something for all the crew to do, with us often having a Liberator subplot or just cutaways so characters get a few lines. Without totting it up, I know it’s the women who have tended to be left behind and Jenna especially loses out on any action, which has felt like an even greater shame since we saw her kick arse in Bounty.

Robert Holmes didn’t attempt to find any additional plot for Cally and Jenna, constructing almost the entire episode around the three remaining blokes, and I think it’s the key aspect that enabled me to enjoy Killer so much. Another writer would have been tempted to create another plotline and squeeze the others, or else bring the two women to the planet. But there is no need – we don’t require any more characters for Team Avon-Vila's mission nor Blake's investigation. There are brief returns to the Liberator, mainly for Blake to get information from Zen and Orac, but otherwise we stay in the facility. This was a superb decision; it enables the story to have two plots that are both substantial enough to run almost entirely separately and makes room for decent contributions from our guest actors.

I love that these two plotlines are so separate, and Team Avon-Vila barely interact with Blake. They don’t even share any scenes in person until the end of the episode, with only the briefest of radio communication over the teleport bracelets. It’s only when the effects of the disease outbreak began to spread that Avon realises he can take advantage of it for his and Vila’s mission.

Apart from Redemption, every episode this season has directly related to the Federation and the Liberator crew’s resistance plans. We have been missing something else like The Web or Mission to Destiny with a ‘discovery’ plot, where the crew just stumble across something. Blake’s curiosity in Killer gives us a strand of that, while Avon and Vila’s mission still relates to the overall arc as well as providing a good reason for the crew to be there in the first place.

Neither Blake nor Avon seem particularly interested in what the other is up to. Blake appears happy to leave Avon and Vila alone and perhaps because he has found something else to do, he doesn't insist they wait on the ship. Avon is used to Blake's whims now, remarking to Vila, "As long as he doesn't mess up our job I don't care what he does."

Team Avon and Vila
The Avon and Vila pairing became very enjoyable during Series A, so to essentially get given an entire episode of them seemed a fantastic gift because I did feel there had been slightly less of this in Series B.

One moment I liked between the two of them involved no exchange of dialogue. After examining the crystal, Avon tells Tynus he will need more than the 10 minutes that a fire alert will give them, but Tynus is unmoved, saying 10 minutes is all they've got. Vila glances over at Avon, simply offering a look that says, "Do something." Avon fiercely grabs Tynus's shoulder and pulls him back, insisting, "Tynus, you will give us all the time we need." It's a good Nasty Avon moment and when they brawl later we are reminded that Avon is a decent fighter.

Vila’s cowardice offers some advantages in that he is usually cautious, prefers to be sure of everything first, and can be observant. I loved that after all the emphasis about only having 10 minutes to steal the crystal (and that barely being enough), it’s only when Avon and Vila get in the room and the fire alarm is sounding that Vila pipes up, asking why they need to bother waiting for a replacement crystal. Avon’s incredulous, livid face practically screams, “Why are you asking this now, Vila?!” Instead, he hurriedly explains that the Federation would quickly work out that the Liberator had stolen it.

While there are many comic moments between them to enjoy, I also liked their chat about Blake.

Vila "You don't have much time for Blake, do you?
Avon "I could never stand heroes."
Vila "A quarter of a million volts and you're putting your hand in?"
Avon "Ah, but that is self-interest - we need that crystal. Blake takes risks to help other people - sometimes people he doesn't even know. One day that great big bleeding heart of his will get us all killed."

I do adore Avon's cynical attitude, even when and possibly because I’m agreeing with him. The way he adds "people he doesn't even know" makes it sound like the most absurd, incredulous thing. He accepts Blake's innate heroism, but I'm not sure he understands it. I also appreciate Avon's refusal to call himself a hero. He recognises self-preservation as normal and natural, while Blake's risks are unnecessary.

The final addition to the above dialogue on Blake has Vila adding, "Unless somebody ditches him first," to which Avon simply gives a blank look and Vila smiles. It's hard to make anything of it, except that Blake clearly isn't the only one to realise Avon might get rid of him. Is Vila on Avon's side or is it just a knowing I’ve-cottoned-on-to-you smirk? Vila has perhaps been the closest with Avon, though that's not saying much. Pre-Pressure Point, I would still have expected Vila to remain loyal to Blake as he's spoken up for him in the past, but there is none of that here and the last two episodes have left me so unsure of everyone. Part of me is starting to expect Avon to do something more concrete to push out Blake, while another just thinks it's the writers and/or Chris Boucher as script editor having fun.

The invisible enemy
The more Blake's plotline developed, the more involved with it I became. I just hadn't expected it to become so fleshed out. I thought he would pop by then soon meet up with Avon and Vila because Blake's 7 has never done anything like this before - the crew always end up working together, with one main plot possibly supported by a smaller one. Yet the two end up equal here.

We have met people with varying degrees of loyalty to the Federation, but I love that these scientists care more about their work than about the Federation finding them out. I don’t think we have ever seen people so readily dismiss the prospect of facing the Federation’s justice system. These guys have no hesitation and after Blake has told them who he is, happily cry, “Who?” With deep care for their work and an intrinsic curiosity, they are playing the game - to conduct research you must be friends with whoever is in charge, and they understand that this means sucking up to the totalitarian regime.

At first, it appears we are going to get a rogue alien/monster killing everyone and crikey, the sudden movement of that corpse made me jump a mile! The episode still turns into a base-under-siege story, but having an invisible killer is a nice twist.

Paul Daneman plays Dr Bellfriar and I really enjoyed him. By the end, I felt my stomach drop as he is trying to read out the antidote formula but realises: "I've forgotten how to read it." I cried out, “Ah, no!” It was such a perfectly done moment to show a man who knows he is about to die, unable to save everyone else.

Over in Team Avon-Vila's mission, Ronald Lacey plays Tynus, an old friend of Avon's. I am most familiar with him as Harris, a greasy thief in Porridge, but he also plays an old university friend of Siegfried's in an episode of All Creatures Great and Small in which they both get stupendously drunk at the races. As such, seeing him as the much more refined-looking Tynus was a startling difference and I enjoyed seeing such a different performance from him. He fears the Federation’s reach and is nervous about his old partner in crime’s threats, but he still exudes a degree of confidence and goes down with a fight. Vila even suggests that Tynus was probably planning to kill Avon before he could tell the Federation about his dirty past.

Backstory bits
There are little bits of backstory we get out of Team Avon-Vila's mission. The reason they have come to this planet for the crystal is that Avon knows one of the commanders, Tynus. It's odd to think of Avon having friends and he is probably stretching the term. Their conversations imply that Tynus was part of the 100,000 credits bank job that Avon got caught for and led to him being sent to Cygnus Alpha. He claimed he got caught because "he relied on other people", making it rather surprising that he has chosen to trust Tynus to help them. Clearly Avon did not know his partner well enough then nor now; Tynus escaped punishment and Avon's back-up persuasion plan is threatening to grass him up, which does not seem to bother Tynus, who promptly messages the Federation.

I think it's been mentioned before that there are areas of the universe that remain unknown, but the plague plotline gave us the Blake's 7 universe's equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle. I love the idea that there are still great unknowns all these years in the future - and we do have a more accurate idea of how many years now, with Blake describing the mysterious ship as around 700 years old. Supposing the 1979 production expected deep space exploration to be within, say, 50 years, then a rough guess puts Blake's 7 in the 27th century. It's a recurring theme in science fiction, but nonetheless, I enjoyed the notion that an alien species had identified humanity as the universe's greatest threat and had taken such drastic measures to wipe them out.

In tinier snippets, Vila later discovers a copy of the message Tynus sent, which led me to guess that the Federation uses a fax system. We also learn that Vila is a vegetarian.

Design disasters
I have to mention the ponchos. These plastic brown cloaks are one of the worst pieces of design in the series so far. To blend in, Avon and Vila don them too so they are on screen a lot. Aesthetics aside, my biggest bugbear is that their shininess causes frequent reflections and flare-ups on the screen. You can't just stick anything in front of a television video camera. Sensible people will avoid moving flames because these also cause flares. In the case of these cloaks, every time a character moves and catches the light in the wrong way, we get a flare. The scientists wear similar ones in white, which while not ideal, appear with far less movement so don't have as much an impact. These flares did become annoying because they were distracting when everything going on around it was so good.

I will hope for more from Robert Holmes. I found Killer enormous fun as it's a tight, fast-moving script with such a different setup for the characters. I feel slightly bad that I didn’t miss seeing much of Cally and Jenna, but there is no requirement to love all characters equally. The series has never given the female characters much room - it's felt like box-ticking at times - and Blake, Avon and Vila have been my favourites for a while. I’ve loved the pairing of Avon and Vila since the second half of the last series and to get so much felt like a real treat. The episode ends neatly; Avon had earlier shown disdain to Blake for being a hero and in the end he gets to look like one because of Avon. The two of them clash as Avon wants to let the Federation arrive to become infected by the plague, while Blake insists on broadcasting a warning that will prevent the disease leaving the planet and wiping out the entire of humanity. Blake deserves that one.

Monday 2 December 2019

Blake's 7 - Trial

"You're not going to use me anymore."

Trial was an odd experience in that I had never felt so indifferent about what the Liberator crew were up to. You could have chopped the regulars out, stuck all the Space Command scenes together, and I would probably have been happy with a half-hour episode that didn't feature the Liberator crew until the final five minutes.

Do we need the Liberator crew?
The Liberator’s activities are a sideshow compared to the episode’s main event – it’s even in the title! It didn’t take long to realise the production wanted an episode to move along Servalan and Travis’s stories but still needed to find something for the main cast to do. I’m not sure we have had an episode where so few of the crew have been off the Liberator, and I don’t think it matters. Blake’s little adventure on the planet is filler and though I didn’t find it dull, it did seem pointless. Maybe the climate change parallels didn’t seem so stark in 1979.

Blake’s reason for going was for some solo contemplation so if he did have to meet someone, I would have liked it to link to the rest of the plot, with him seriously trying to decide whether he should carry on. Trial would have possibly worked better as a Blake-lite episode. Just have him disappear to the planet and have the tension come from the uncertainty of whether he and the other crew will choose to keep the rendezvous. Maybe Chris ‘Many Plots’ Boucher wasn’t prepared to give Blake’s 7’s eponymous lead such a small role in any episode.

I’m torn on this though as I think the scenes at Space Command headquarters work well because they are all a good length. It’s easy for courtroom scenes to get dull and repetitive. Along with the scenes in Servalan’s office, we are essentially just watching people sat around talking. Similarly, the only reason the Liberator crew must jump into any action on board is that they realise Blake’s bollocksed and going to drown on the planet. Therefore, without that little ‘filler’ plot, Chris Boucher would have had to expand those Space Command scenes and provide more in-depth debate among Jenna, Cally, Vila and Avon. I’m not sure this would have made a balanced episode as the only real excitement and action would have come at the end, with no growth to the climax.

Do we need Blake?
I struggled to work Blake out during Trial. For a moment, I thought: what if he actually does leave them? I hadn't expected us to lose a regular character barely midway through a series and now it feels like the show might do anything. That's wonderfully exciting.

Blake's voice message was convincing, but I’ve previously thought what Avon voices here – Blake feels guilty, and this drives him more than real care for his friends lives because the cause has always been more important. Yet I am no longer sure.

What would Blake have done if the crew had decided to leave him on that planet? He gave them that option and if they had done, his cause would have been lost. Why give them that if he wasn't prepared to give up everything for them?

Yet maybe he is as deceitful as Avon believes. I struggled to believe that the passionate, determined man I have watched up to now would be willing to stop fighting just because of one, albeit close, casualty. Maybe Blake is also very arrogant, so was convinced the others would never actually leave him, and only wanted it to look like he was giving them a choice about their future. Whatever Blake decides is normally what they end up doing. With Cally as his only confidant for recent plans, he may have perceived the unhappy rumblings within the rest of the crew. It is possible he believed giving them a choice for once would placate everyone. Well, everyone except Avon.

Not one of your followers
I enjoyed Avon and Blake's private chat in Pressure Point and they have a couple in Trial as well. There was no time to dwell on Gan’s death at the end of Pressure Point but I would have been surprised if Avon hadn't made some remarks eventually. I rewound a few times because I adored watching Avon's stony exterior as he riled the already highly-strung Blake. While the two of them often push one another's buttons, Avon essentially says here that he will encourage the others to leave Blake to die!

Avon "It occurs to me that if you run into trouble, one of your followers, one of your three remaining followers, might have to risk his neck to rescue you."
Blake "Then you must advise them against that, Avon.
Avon "Oh I will."
Blake "They might even listen to you this time."
Avon "Why not? After all, I don't get them killed."

Avon's words have certainly been considered and calculated - he does not include himself in Blake's number of followers. It's a nice couple of little digs one after the other. Avon's utter stillness was a tad unsettling and Blake looks like he has been on edge for a while. It’s important to pick up that Avon doesn't actually want Blake dead - he just doesn't want anyone to die for him. It would have been relatively easy to leave Blake to die on that planet when things started to go wrong, but I think Avon must see the advantages of Blake being around. He may dislike how Blake goes about things, but Avon isn't keen on the Federation either and probably still wants his idea from Pressure Point to go ahead: Blake will leave the Liberator to lead an organised rebellion movement and the ship can become his.

Follow the leader?
Gan's death is used as the driver for the events here, although I don’t think it needed to be - Blake’s adventure on the planet is incidental compared to the deliberations back on the ship. I would have liked to have seen more debate among the crew, but they do all seem to have similar feelings. At one time Jenna would have jumped to Blake’s defence and loudly insist they stay but there is none of that from anyone. They are all questioning whether they are doing the right thing.

I’m pleased that Blake’s 7 has addressed this. There has never been any real debate about what their purpose should be. Apart from Avon, none of the crew has ever questioned if they could do anything besides this crusade against the Federation. Following Cygnus Alpha, everyone has been willing to give Blake the benefit of the doubt at least. This didn't have to have come about because of Gan's death as I think the powerful shock of that empty room was enough. If Control is what they need to bring down the Federation, how are they ever going to find it now?

When Blake returns, Avon makes a point of telling him that his crew nearly abandoned him. I think, like their conversation in Pressure Point, Avon wants to ensure Blake realises he is not indispensable as a leader. Despite the humour of Avon telling Vila that while Vila is following Blake, Avon is being led by him, I think there is a difference. They may all originally have been following Blake but the dynamic on board has begun to change. The hesitation of everyone demonstrates they may be willing to be led by someone else.

Avon now carefully chooses his moments alone with Blake to deliver these comments that are designed to knock him down a peg or two, as well as reinforcing Blake's guilt. The others may have jumped in to tell Avon that his digs about Gan were harsh or that they were never really going to leave Blake. Regardless of whether they meant it, it would bolster Blake and Avon's words would lose some of their impact. I wonder if this is strategic of Avon, to make Blake doubt himself and ultimately hurry up in leaving them.

We get our best Paul Darrow grin for a while when Jenna asks Avon, "What would you know about guilt?" and he replies, "Only what I've read!" Avon is a little too confident about how much emotions affect him, turning Series A's 'machine' comments on their head, but I think he may just have been lucky so far.

Travis's trial
Despite only having appeared in a couple of episodes so far this series, Servalan and Travis’s relationship has clearly developed since Series A. She’s always been delightfully evil but this felt a new low. As she and the Major were speaking, my brain was wracking who could be on trial, and when I established it couldn’t be Blake, I knew it must be Travis.

We learn bits and pieces from the conversations of the assessors (including lovely nuggets like the poor food quality of Space Command) and they think that Servalan wants Travis dead so he can’t spill her secrets. When we also learn that there is an upcoming enquiry into “the Blake affair”, this makes slightly more sense. They reckon Travis would now be more willing to speak against her if they postponed his execution until after the inquiry. My query is: would Travis have condemned Servalan if she hadn’t managed to put him on trial? What secrets of hers would he be spilling to the Federation that he wasn’t part of himself?

In their earlier appearances, I had assumed that all their plans were Federation-sanctioned, but it became clear that this has not always been the case so Travis may have quite a bit to reveal. Space Commanders cannot simply ‘disappear’ though, hence the trial. Despite that cool exterior, Servalan must have become concerned to risk going through with this.

Travis’s genocide was mentioned when we were first introduced to the character and it appeared that Servalan had managed to make this investigation disappear because she felt he would be useful. Maybe Travis has now simply outlived his usefulness. He’s had Blake cornered on several occasions and had him slip through his fingers. This has rarely actually been Travis’s fault and indeed, the end of Pressure Point was arguably Servalan’s own fault for getting caught by Jenna.

If Servalan wanted to replace Travis, she couldn’t dismiss him and have him walk away with all that knowledge of their illegal actions. This feels like such a shift from those scenes in Deliverance when she was relaxed, had him in the palm of her hand, and confided to him about her dastardly plot to obtain Orac. Even with all the evidence so far, I think I have probably underestimated Servalan’s evilness. I presumed some degree of loyalty between her and Travis. She could have dismissed him after Project Avalon, she could have got rid of him after Orac, yet instead reconvened with him after his mysterious “conditioning”, which I have always thought she must have had a hand in. Perhaps she already felt he knew too much then, but still had hope he could stop Blake.

Travis's humanity
Prior to Trial, I considered Travis the more brutal of the two, but in Series B we have seen more of them both and there is something redeemable within Travis. We saw it in Deliverance when he was initially hesitant about ruining the surgeon who repaired his hand. It was a brief hesitation, but it was there.

In Trial, we see a small bond between the Federation Trooper who had fought under Travis during the genocide, and who smuggles him a hipflask. When Travis comes to escape, he and the Trooper both seem willing to shoot one another but Travis clearly doesn’t want to and ultimately chooses not to kill the man, instead karate chopping him unconscious. Why? Why not just shoot him? The Trooper had said that Travis never showed care for his men – his respect was due to Travis being a good fighter. Yet it appears Travis does have a tiny ounce of selfless humanity in him.

For anyone else, a demonstration that they aren't a complete psychopath would be a Very Good Thing. However, for Travis I think this could be a weakness and Servalan is good at exploiting people's weaknesses.

The Federation
We haven't seen a great deal of the Federation's internal workings. We've heard about them but apart from tons of dispensable guards, the Federation's hierarchy has been represented only by Servalan. As such, it's been relatively easy to just stamp it all as evil. Yet in Trial I got the impression that the Federation began with good intentions, yet its corruption became so widespread that it inevitably went irretrievably wrong, until such things became normal.

There is a trial and unlike Blake's, it doesn't look like a foregone conclusion. The assessors are frustrated that Servalan seems able to get away with doing whatever she wants. They judge that Travis definitely is a terrible person, and, something that I found surprising, say that the Federation don't want people like that representing them. Penal colonies, slave labour, a Big Brother society - fine, but blatant genocide is a step too far. I still don't doubt that the Federation as a governing system is bloody horrific, but there do appear to be people within it who are trying to do good-ish things. After this episode, it looked as though the Federation may be dreadful, but Servalan is downright appalling. I'm not set on this at all and look forward to seeing how it plays out further.

Dastardly design
I know the Federation may be the greatest source of evil in the Blake's 7 universe, but it does also possess some superb designers. I am a big fan of the logo of the Federation and the series. However, last series the version on the guards' uniform was incredibly naff and looked like it had been sellotaped on their chests. Thankfully, this has now been rectified and it looks much smarter.

If this impressed me, I was even more thrilled when the assessors turned up for the trial sporting silver Federation logos. SILVER. I thought they were gorgeous. And John 'I say, I say' Savident is here to wear one. Are there other variations? Are there gold logos for higher ranking people? Is it purely for official events like trials and ceremonies? Can I get one?

I would also be happy to possess the trial room. I love how the silver, white and black complements the uniforms of the assessors. I like that the room is not simply round or square but both its shape and the furnishings are constructed around semi-circle and curved designs. The assessors sit on a raised area with a silver, almost dripping, effect behind them. Everything looks open and bright, yet the accused sits in the middle of the room, with everything built to look at them, judging.

I like the symmetry going on with the white and coloured pedestals on each side - I think these were used to accept evidence. This is also present in the lovely black chairs on white, round platforms, which are extended versions of Travis's single black chair. That curved high back looks great.

Winners and losers
Series A often felt triumphant. The Liberator crew were knocking little chunks out of the Federation and it was such a joy as Blake’s 7 established the regime’s vileness so quickly. Yet these were mere flesh wounds and in contrast, Series B has shown how hard it is to have any larger, significant impact against the Federation. It feels so far-reaching, impenetrable, and, I keep coming back to that word – invulnerable. Blake especially has realised the importance of having a more organised rebellion, but Shadow, Horizon and Pressure Point have been repeated knock-backs. It must be increasingly detrimental for their morale. At this point, Trial is a well-placed episode for everyone to stop and consider whether they should go on. As this appears to be settled, I will be interested to see if Blake looks to alter his strategy. While they do all appear willing to continue for now, I am not sure everyone shares Blake’s passion – it really is an obsession, and his complex history with the Federation likely means his dedication to its destruction will always be the strongest.

I was incredibly excited by the end of Trial. Well, not the very end - this is the second episode that has ended with the crew laughing together and it's nastily cringey. My brain has lingered on the scene when Travis burst into Servalan's office. I never expected to be cheering Travis on but I was so bloody pleased. Although we had seen their relationship change this series, I hadn't been expecting it to develop so quickly and I wouldn't have predicted them to part ways either. This really is grim for Blake, who doesn't even know about it yet! He will now be pursued by two enemies. Travis may not be as creatively-vile as Servalan every day of the week, but it's different when it comes to Blake. I cannot wait to see the next time they meet, with Travis completely unrestrained from Servalan and the Federation. I'm also excited to see how this situation develops - will Servalan care more about capturing Blake or Travis?

Sunday 24 November 2019

Blake's 7 - Pressure Point

Pressure Point
"It is a challenge!"

After a few episodes from other writers, I felt bad that the appearance of Terry Nation’s name in Pressure Point’s titles sent a pang of disappointment through me. I had been enjoying different types of episodes and didn’t want that unknown variety to end. Weapon and Horizon had both impressed me, so Terry was going to have to seriously up his game.

Back to Earth with bloody Blake
Although there have been times when Jenna seemed the closest crew member to Blake, Cally is emerging as a confidant. At the start of Pressure Point, she is the only one who appears to be aware of his full plans for returning to Earth. Avon had suspicions but everyone else expected them to merely take a nearby look at the Federation's defences.

This secretiveness of Blake's has always annoyed me and is why I will continue to curse him. The crew should be equals and I think he should be completely open with them. I have made my efforts with Blake and have felt less disgruntled with him in Series B, but these actions make me distrustful of him. Nonetheless, I do understand his reasoning for hiding his true intentions on this occasion. The others would never have agreed to return to Earth in the way he has planned, but now that they are actually so close and he has established plans with a resistance group, all of them come around to the idea.

Blake has never had to convince all the crew to take part in a mission before – there have always been a few of them, usually Jenna and Gan, who are happy to do whatever he suggests. That every one of them is against it demonstrates how ludicrously dangerous it is and also that there is only so far that the loyalty of even the most loyal can stretch.

I may dislike Blake at times, I may think he can be an arse, but he remains a superb character to watch and I adored Gareth Thomas in the opening scene. He wonderfully showcases Blake's passion and determination: "I want to hit at the heart and the heart of the Federation is Earth!" This works even better next to the lacklustre attitudes of the others. Avon may afford him a sarcastic little clap, but I loved watching Blake eulogise about the importance of attacking Control - "It's a challenge!" Cally is the only one who is interested and she clearly knows little about it compared to the others. The assertion that the Federation "advertised" its existence is a massive alarm bell, as it appears the Federation has complete confidence in its impregnability.

Despite all this, Blake convincingly conveys why they need to attack Control: "All the might and the power of the Federation is represented by Control. While it exists, the Federation is invulnerable!"

I want it all
At first, it appears that Avon might not join the others in agreeing to Blake's plan, though he soon says he will. The chat between Avon and Blake on the sofas was fascinating. They spent Series A scheming and plotting everything out in their heads, yet now feel able to be more open; it didn't take much prodding from Blake for Avon to reveal his thoughts. I felt a tension to their discussion but nothing either of them said seemed to take the other by surprise. Avon predicts that if Blake's plan is a success, the resistance movement on Earth will need a leader and Blake is the natural choice. This would leave the Liberator free for Avon.

I'm not entirely sure what Avon would do with himself if he had the Liberator and/or a crew for it. I know he ideally wants to be able to roam freely without constantly looking over his shoulder for Federation pursuit ships. If Blake's resistance movement was keeping them occupied, Avon would probably have that. Avon likes being challenged, he likes solving problems, he likes exercising his intelligence and technological skills. I am not sure how great a leader he would be. After what he's got up to as part of the Liberator crew, I imagine going back to robbing banks may seem below par. The only concrete desire he expressed was in Breakdown when he tried to join the research organisation. Will that still satisfy him now that he's been through a bit more freedom fighting or does he need something with more action? Perhaps while the Federation has any power the events of Breakdown and Horizon have made the idea of remaining in a single place less attractable.

The Liberator is an extremely powerful and advanced ship - maybe that is enough for Avon to play with. "Sooner or later I will have my chance," he tells Blake. It's a slight threat. "There's no hurry," Blake responds, and I struggled to work out what he meant. This is one of the most reasonable discussions they have had and their great clashes from Series A have truly mellowed - I do miss that a little. Perhaps Blake means that he will eventually be happy to hand over the Liberator. After all, his goal is to destroy the Federation so what use would he have of the ship once that is achieved?

Blake's long-term ideas do not seem concrete. When Avon tells him he is the most likely leader for a revolt, his answer is, "Perhaps..." This modesty is surprising. Blake so easily assumed the leadership of the Liberator and is the most ardent enthusiast for attacking the Federation that I assumed he would jump at the chance to lead a properly organised movement against it. What is making him hesitate? We have started to see how much his name has spread across the planets and how much people admire him. Why is he unsure of himself? Is he starting to feel the pressure of leadership?

One vision
Blake’s plan to attack the Federation’s central monitoring complex looks suicidal from the outset. As the episode progresses, the odds are increasingly bleak. The crew’s provision for helping him is that they will pull out if there is less than an even chance. Even as Blake was agreeing to this condition, I was sceptical that he would stick to it, however, I was imagining they would all be on the ground together and he could be forced into pulling out. After Blake and Gan discover the resistance group’s sole survivor, Veron, Blake chooses to carry on, lying to the others by not revealing what has happened. Vila and Avon are immediately suspicious so perhaps they are learning from Blake. He only tells them what he needs to in order to get his own way. I thought this was a scummy, selfish move on Blake’s part, as they have gone from having an army to support them, back to going it alone, something the crew would not have agreed to.

What the plot
I found Pressure Point good fun overall, though there were some plot elements that jarred. We had heard Servalan telling the mutoids to take Veron so when Blake and Gan found her, I knew it must be a trap of some sort. This is a fairly easy one for the audience to figure out, though impossible for the two crew. We have seen robots and clones, though it seemed too little time to produce one of these, so I assumed some type of brainwashing. It slipped my mind that they might just have blackmailed her. They should have become suspicious when she seemed baffled by the word 'teleporter' - even if it is only a reality for the Liberator, I am doubtful that it had fallen out of fictional use and no other Blake's 7 characters have been confused by it.

After being trapped in the cave, the crew’s escape then seemed a little too easy. They spent all of five minutes trying to get out! Surely Travis should have been standing by much closer.

As the audience had witnessed the earlier destruction of two resistance members, there were definitely some nerves when the crew came to cross the minefield. As one of the episode's opening scenes, I let out a number of surprised expletives as the two men were blown up. I continue to be impressed with the kind of violence that Blake's 7 manages. Yet despite the initial challenge, it didn’t take Avon long to overcome the defences by simply shooting at it. These obstacles consist of strips on the ground, vaguely resembling a motherboard but mostly they reminded me of rainbow belt sweets. I thought the self-repairing function of the strips was marvellous. Running the film backwards is a simple enough technique but I thought it was a clever idea that looked realistic and was therefore really effective.

I can brush past these minor aspects. The deceit with Veron was obvious to the audience but not the characters, and if the episode had spent too long in the cave or overcoming the minefield I would probably be moaning that it was dragged out and dull. However, the plot’s final conclusion was frustrating.

Let me out
Terry Nation has spent the episode getting Blake inside Control so he can fall into Travis’s trap. Having done so, Terry Nation now has a problem. There are only a few minutes left but we can’t end on a cliffhanger (we haven't so far, so let's presume not for now), therefore Terry needs to get everyone out. Cue Jenna with a gun to Servalan for a sudden rescue. We haven’t seen Jenna since she teleported from the Liberator – I don’t think we even saw her get down and safe. How did she even get inside Control? How did she find Servalan? How did she get past the guards or any other defences? I felt cheated.

The crew have had a last-minute win against Travis several times under Terry Nation and I've generally been happy with them. The endings to both Project Avalon and Orac humiliated Travis so were immensely satisfying. The sudden reprieve in Orac worked because we had cut back to the other crew so much during the episode, and we did actually see Vila and Avon come down. The rescue in Pressure Point is similar, with an extra crew member appearing to turn a gun on Travis and Servalan. It makes me wonder whether scenes of Jenna arriving on Earth had to be cut for timing - this is a pretty packed episode.

We are the champions
If Pressure Point had ended there in that empty room after Travis had appeared, it would have been perfect. I was so pleased with that. The twist of that empty cavernous room and its stunning silence was lovely. Blake had been so sure and spent a year building up towards this, convinced it was the way to knock a significant chunk out of the Federation's power. The sheer determination in Blake is evident in the moments before they enter as he furiously tells Vila that he has to get them in. They have overcome both the above and underground defences, the resistance movement risked their lives to help them and Blake had promised to get everyone out if it looked too bad. Now it looks disastrous and Travis and the mutoids have been racing what feels like mere inches behind them.

The mighty Travis has had a bad run of luck against Blake, to the extent that it was beginning to look too easy to defeat him. Travis managed to trick Blake and it worked. It never even occurs to Blake or the other Liberator crew that this could be a trap. Blake's escape is not his own doing - it is sheer luck and he knows it as he doesn't even waste time gloating. It was horrifying to see Travis finally have Blake in his clutches, his appearance in the scene marked perfectly by his out-of-shot pantomime villain laughter. Despite what Blake has repeatedly said about the advantages of knowing his enemy, it was wonderful for Pressure Point to show that this isn't a foolproof strategy. Blake's cries of, "We've done it!" upon entering the room change to, "I've done it!" showing that he's not the team player he likes to think he is and perhaps ignoring other opinions once too often is part of his downfall.

I had mixed feelings about the direction all episode, which is courtesy of George Spenton-Foster. There are several scenes where I thought I should be seeing something else or have a shot from a different angle. In this one, with Blake on his knees, there is a missed opportunity to point the camera up at Travis and have him gloating down at us. Instead, we get a profile shot of his eyepatch side and I feel we are missing something. When Servalan appears, all of Travis's dialogue is from offscreen as we don't cut away from her at all. I began to get the impression that the episode was on a tight schedule either throughout or at least by this scene.

I felt myself warming to Brian Croucher during Pressure Point, even if I am still mourning Stephen Grief. I think I need to see him being a bit more vicious and evil though - a repeat of a close encounter like that in Duel may help seal the deal. But this is definitely Travis as I loved how the episode emphasised his hatred of Blake. When Jenna and Servalan arrive, Servalan tells Travis to release Blake and the others. A stunned Travis hesitates, reluctant to have to let his prize go so soon after gaining it. He hesitates. "You hesitated! My life was in danger and you hesitated!" screams Servalan afterwards with a slap. That slap! Glorious, deserved and exactly how Weapon had made me hope their relationship would head. Last series I would have said that Travis's loyalty was absolute and I still think it is, yet clearly his desperate desire to capture Blake is starting to cloud his judgement, becoming all-encompassing.

Servalan: A history
The emotions that this personal vendetta elicits in Travis are his greatest weakness. He may even realise this to an extent, as he earlier warns Servalan about making things personal when they have captured her old teacher-turned-resistance-leader, Kasabi. This plot strand was very interesting as we have hitherto never learned much about Servalan's past. The discovery that she has always shown loyalty to the Federation was hardly a surprise, even though I believe she has now largely forsaken this in favour of personal gains.

Kasabi's assertion that Servalan quickly worked her way up due to family connections was more thought-provoking. I find myself regularly reassessing what sort of totalitarian dictatorship I think the Federation is and of course, it is a composite of all the worst elements of all of them. I suppose this element took me by surprise a little because I have never considered the bland, emotionless face of the Federation as somewhere in which loving families help each other up the greasy pole of power.

The interrogation of Kasabi seemed like the first time that Servalan has been more sadistic than Travis. She really enjoyed having that power over Kasabi, who was impressively tough at resisting. Though sadistic is possibly not the right word; while Travis likes hurting people, I think Servalan does just like having power over them. It was interesting that they didn't particularly rub Kasabi's death in with her daughter Veron. Both just stated it matter-of-factly, perhaps because they expected to gain nothing further.

One bites the dust
Poor Gan and poor David Jackson. Gan's death was completely unexpected. I didn't pick up on any sense of foreboding - the episode just got on with the plot as usual. I knew we couldn't have much of the episode left and thought we would just see everyone leg it to the exit before teleporting up. As a regular character, Gan has had the rawest deal and I've discussed previously how underdeveloped he has felt. Blake's 7 barely explored his background and I do think more could have been done with the Liberator's gentle giant. His death was a last-minute shock but I don't expect the show to dwell on it and sadly I don't think we will notice his absence too much. Gan dies saving everyone, which is a noble exit for a man who never hesitated to step up, had great loyalty to Blake especially, and was willing to put his brute strength in the firing line to aid the rest of the Liberator crew.

Delightful and distasteful design
Servalan's costume is one of her least revealing and with her jacket and wide-brimmed hat, I couldn't shake the impression that she looked dressed for her wedding. There must have been something contractual that required Jacqueline Pearce to show a certain amount of flesh because said jacket and hat are gone for her final scenes. Instead we get a superb dress with a stunning silver lizard-like creature appearing to hold it together in the centre. A shot of her standing in the doorway of Control's empty room ensures a full view, satisfying viewers for another week.

On the other end of the scale, Vila's costume has been altered for the worst this week. While the budget has undoubtedly increased this series, there comes a time when economies are needed so Vila's grey outfit has been brightened up this week with the addition of a white belt and yellow bits of plastic. He's gained some large cuffs and a half-cape-half-waistcoat thing. Unfortunately the episode's direction meant we were several scenes in before I was able to work out what the cape-waistcoat thing actually was. The first few scenes only featured Michael Keating from the waist up so we couldn't see this new addition properly. Once we can, it remains unimpressive and seems utterly pointless.

The episode's design winner for me was the doors inside Control. Bathed in blue light, the sliding double doors are etched with the Federation's symbol. I love this symbol as I find it such a nice piece of design. I enjoy spotting it used throughout Blake's 7 and usually the subtler the better, but on this occasion, you know what - go for it and stick a great big symbol on a set of doors. More please.

Under pressure
Pressure Point flew by for me and was action-packed. From the beginning, Blake's plan seemed destined to go wrong but it did not happen in the way I expected. The word 'challenge' recurs throughout the episode. Blake wants to take on Control partly because, "It is a challenge!" and Avon agrees to join him because, he says, "I like the challenge," - something we have seen in Avon before. When they finally reach Control's empty room, Travis tells Blake that the Federation, "used [Control] as a challenge to our enemies." Being unable to resist a challenge has become a weakness and even worse, a predictable one. After outsmarting Travis for some time, Blake has once again become predictable: "You believed it, Blake, like all the other fools before you."

I like the idea of the crew joining together with resistance groups as it ties in with Blake's idea of a base on Horizon - I think any resistance movements are going to have become more unified and organised to stand any chance against the Federation. These isolated pockets will only ever be able to do so much damage. I know he's an evil sod, but seeing Travis get so close to beating Blake was marvellous and leaves more uncertainty for the future. Our heroes are supposed to always win in the end, yet they have just lost one of their regular characters, proving no one is truly invulnerable in the Blake's 7 universe, except, it would seem, the Federation.

Wednesday 20 November 2019

The Saint - The Latin Touch

The Latin Touch
First broadcast 11th October 1962

On holiday in Rome, Simon is witness to the kidnap of a US diplomat's daughter. A mafia man, Tony Unciello, is responsible. His brother is about the be executed in the US and Governor Inverest has the power to stop it.

Guest stars
Alexander Knox plays the governor and is the only who is credited as a 'guest star' on screen. However, much more familiar to me was Warren Mitchell, playing a taxi driver, Marco. He appears in a few other Saint episodes and can frequently be found throughout 1960s' dramas as foreigners of various nationalities. I'm always pleased when he turns up and it often helps provide some comic relief.

The Famous Simon Templar
"That's the famous Simon Templar!" is delivered by a tourist from Missouri, Ada, who spots Simon while visiting the Colosseum. She tells her husband that she read it in the papers that Simon Templar was in Rome, which presumably means he has the kind of celebrity status that ensures his presence in gossip columns.

It's early days but we are already going to have to gloss over the utter absurdity that Simon Templar is simultaneously famous yet on other occasions manages to easily disguise himself or impersonate someone. Similarly, Roger Moore pointed out that his other famous character, 007, was a secret agent but could supposedly walk into any bar in the world and they would know who he was and how he liked his vodka martini. It's ITC-land - anything goes.

The Saint in...
The entire episode is set in Rome. The opening shots of the episode are taken from the real Rome with Roger Moore the only main member of the cast to feature in them. As he enters the Colosseum we move into the studio, where we stay for most of the episode.

While the change was obvious, I thought the Colosseum set was impressive enough considering its brief appearance. I wouldn't be surprised if it had been left over from another production.

Painted backdrops
I didn't spot any.

Period features
This section is for aspects that place us within the show's period, or would otherwise seem alien to someone from the present coming to the episode.

There are fewer details to pick up on this week so I've had to be picky. Tony first gets in touch with the governor to ask him to meet him at a remote location outside Rome. Simon's response on being told the name of the place is to ask for some maps - actual physical maps. Nowadays, many of us would just quickly type the name into Google Maps.

Tony adds soda or water to Simon's drink using a siphon. I love these and would like one of my own but as I take my whisky neat, I feel I'd get minimal use from one. There must be a cut-off point during the 1970s when they start to disappear.

Simon drives Governor Inverest in a Chevrolet Impala Sport Coupe - it's a great big American car so the US embassy probably brings them in to have as pool cars. Tony's car is much grander though. The Mercedes Benz 200 S looks posh and fancy, making it a good fit for the wealthy mafia man. Back down to earth and as it's Italy, Marco's taxi is a Fiat - a Fiat 600 Multipla.

Tony gets my favourite quip when Simon is phoning the governor, telling him, "Remember - just one wrong word and you'll be a real saint."

The Ungodly
No reference to the ungodly, though Simon does quote Jesus, telling Tony that, "The meek shall inherit the earth." I presumed this was Jesus because I've seen Life of Brian.

The Sinners
Tony Unciello has an inside man in Inspector Buono as well as some plain henchmen. Tony is an Italian-American and is supposed to induce fear across Italy, although it was something I struggled to see in him. We don't see him have so much as a fight until the end of the episode. He's an acceptable villain but not a particularly memorable one.

She Was a Lady
Simon briefly spends time with Sue before she is kidnapped so has no time to make any proper moves, having only just met her. He stepped in as a true gent to stop Marco fleecing her for the taxi fare. By the end of the episode, he's confident enough to offer her, "the best dinner in Rome and dancing until dawn."

The Volvo
Not seen - he gets around in Marco's taxi.

Simon is knocked out in the Colosseum while talking to Sue and for the rest of the episode, it's more about the threat of violence. He goes to speak to a club singer who knew Tony and she reveals a nasty scar on her neck that he gave her. When Tony's henchmen pick Simon up, they force him into a car at gunpoint and there is also a gun on him when he's phoning the governor. Finally, the climax gives us some action as the police burst into Tony's place all guns blazing and the henchman bear the brunt of it. Simon quickly springs into action, delivering a couple of punches to Tony.

Four, including one in the Colosseum. While it may be permissible, all I could think was that Simon would be littering an ancient monument with cigarette butts.

Simon is rather reserved. In the club, he and Marco have wine glasses and coffee cups on their table, but we don't see them take so much as a sip. It seems likely that they are the remains of the end of a meal. At a cafe, he has ordered a glass of white wine but due to the arrival of Tony's henchmen, he never gets chance to touch it. Finally, with Tony we see him having something with either soda or water from a siphon (probably whisky) and a glass of red wine with their spaghetti meal afterwards.

Wednesday 6 November 2019

The Saint - The Talented Husband

The prospect of watching all of The Saint is daunting - there are 118 episodes. In recent years I have discovered more ITC shows, but I have always had a fondness for The Saint and am looking forward to spending more time with him again.

Simon Templar travels the world, either being called upon or simply stumbling into trouble as he takes on bad guys. He is usually accompanied by beautiful young women, luxurious locations, a fast car and excellent suits. His charm gets him far and throwing a decent punch helps sometimes too. Beginning in 1962, The Saint became a huge success for its production company, ITC, and propelled its star, Roger Moore, to international fame.

The Talented Husband
First broadcast 4th October 1962

Following an accident, Madge Clarron is confined to bed at home, though her husband John is telling a mountain of lies to prevent people from seeing her. An old Irish housekeeper, Mrs Jafferty, arrives to help look after her. Simon travels to the village, where he meets Adrienne, their new neighbour. Having discovered that both of John's previous wives died suddenly, Simon is concerned for Madge. Adrienne turns out to be an insurance investigator and both she and Simon begin keeping an eye on the Clarron house together. Mrs Jafferty turns out to be John in disguise, who has planned an elaborate alibi so he can get away with murdering Madge for her money.

Guest stars
Derek Farr, Shirley Eaton and Patricia Roc. Shirley Eaton is the only one of these I know from elsewhere, primarily for her role as Bond girl Jill Masterson in Goldfinger, where she became famous for being painted head to toe in gold paint.

The Famous Simon Templar
"You're the famous Simon Templar!" is how many of The Saint's pre-title sequences end, but not this one. Instead, Madge introduces him to Clarron by simply saying, "This is Simon Templar."

The Saint in...
This week the Saint spends the pre-titles sequence in a theatre bar, while the rest of the episode takes place in Cookham, a typically picturesque English village.

Painted backdrops
Lacking the budget to travel to all of the Saint's favourite spots around the world, the series, like others from ITC, utilised painted backdrops in scenes to convey a sense of global scale. Some stock footage and a caption were the only other things needed to whisk us away. This staple of The Saint isn't so easy to spot in The Talent Husband and it actually has a fair amount of location footage compared to some episodes. The only time any sort of backdrop is used is for the trees seen through the windows of Adrienne's house.

Period features
This section is for aspects that place us within the show's period, or would otherwise seem alien to someone from the present coming to the episode. The Talented Husband includes a steam train, an everyday part of life that would become rare by the end of the decade.

The rat poison costs "three and six", meaning three shillings and sixpence, usually written as 3/6. It's a small sum and I can't find much advertised in this month's TV magazines for so little - it won't even buy you a packet of 20 cigarettes (3/10). Weetabix has an offer on for EPs at that price, with a choice of Western Songs or Cindarella/Jack and the Beanstalk. Westerns are all the rage on TV at this time, so I'd recommend the former.

Mrs Jafferty is also asked to sign "the poison book" - simply a record for who has bought poison. I have never had to buy poison but I don't think such things exist anymore.

On the train, John Clarron meets Madge's doctor, who is reading the Evening Standard. The date isn't readable but above the headline it says, 'As Kennedy's marines head into Siam/Premier explains where we stand' with the main headline reading 'MAC: READY TO SEND IN RAF'. This references US President John F. Kennedy, who first issued orders to deploy US Marines to Siam (Thailand) in March 1961, which certainly helps with the dates of the newspaper. At the time, the US was concerned with the growing influence of communism in the region. 'Mac' is British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.

Madge's looming murder is referenced in a couple of lines of dialogue. John tells Adrienne that Madge is "dying to meet you" and Madge lovingly tells John, "Sometimes I think if I weren't married to you, I'd die."

The opening episode gives us a wonderful summary of the Saint's outlook, perfectly setting up his character: "I don't like being a cog in the machine. Being one of the ants who devour the dragon is all very noble, but it's not half as much fun as being St. George, is it?"

The Ungodly
In these earlier episodes, Simon often refers to "the ungodly" as having set characteristics, lumping all criminals in together. It is a phrase from the Leslie Charteris novels and does seem to get phased out later on. It is used in The Talented Husband.

The Sinners
We see a lot of the Clarrons and following the pre-title sequence, it's a while before Simon even turns up. There are flaws in John Clarron's murder plan (he prepares a meal with rat poison to be heated up later, then heads to London for the day), mainly - why did he leave the empty tin of rat poison at home? He could have taken it with him and dumped it from the train, or else when he got to London. Also maintaining the Mrs Jafferty lie to cover his exact leaving times, he returns to Cookham with the disguise in his bag. Why? She is supposed to have committed the crime as part of a robbery, then fled, so he wasn't going to need it anymore. Like the poison, he could have dumped it before he returned. They are the two things that catch him out yet could have been disposed of easily.

Derek Farr was the most enjoyable performance for me. He switches from the caring husband to anger in an instant and these moments made his villainy much more believable. When Simon confronts finally him, the use of close-ups enables our Saint to look much more powerful, with Clarron quickly become a jibbering wreck. Simon is slightly menacing as he angrily glares down the camera and we wonder what he's going to do with Clarron.

She Was a Lady
The charming Simon Templar is definitely a ladies man and manages to find some company during most episodes. He and Adrienne hit it off in the pub when she invites him to have dinner with her. Later, Simon goes back to her house and the next day we see them about to have coffee and breakfast together, which prompts me to ponder whether he stayed the night. At first, it seems unlikely as plenty of people had already seen him arrive at the pub and living in such a small village community, Adrienne surely wouldn't want tongues wagging. Yet as she is only in the village while she investigates John Clarron, perhaps she wouldn't care what people had to say about her.

The Volvo
The Saint drives a white Volvo P1800. It's a gorgeous car and perfectly suits a playboy. I thought I'd clock just how often it turns up and how much action it gets. Here, Simon drives it into Cookham, almost knocking down Mrs Jafferty as he races through the village.

Little. John Clarron accidentally-on-purpose knocks a large concrete flower pot onto Madge from a balcony.

I've always thought Simon Templar smoked considerably, if not constantly, but it's a good 20 minutes into this episode before he lights up. In total, he smokes three cigarettes.

1960s' drama is always a good representation of how much the nation's drinking habits have changed. Simon is partial to a drink or two and in The Talented Husband he is drinking when we first meet him, sipping at something in the theatre bar. At a guess from the colour and the glass type, it could be a gin and tonic. In Cookham, he stays at a pub where he knows the landlord and upon arrival opts for "a pint from the barrel - warm, flat, nourishing - and very British." I suppose one must tire of champagne. Later, he drinks "custom-built" Manhattan (whiskey, vermouth, bitters) alone, then agrees to another with Adrienne.