Tuesday 25 June 2019

B is for Blake's 7 - The Way Back

Blake’s 7 is something I have been planning to look into for years but I didn't actually know much about it - a BBC science-fiction series with a bunch of people on a spaceship. Was it just going to be a duller, dryer, version of Red Dwarf? I'd first come across it in the pages of Doctor Who Magazine, where it frequently appeared under actors' 'other television appearances'.

I must admit that I had low expectations. I thought it might resemble everything subpar about 1980s' Doctor Who. Overall, I expected low production values, average writing, acting and nothing particularly impressive.

Back In Time For TV is a series of articles I have written for Transdiffusion in which I spend a week following the schedules of each year, starting in 1960. When I reached 1978, BBC1 was broadcasting series 1 of Blake’s 7 so it seemed the perfect opportunity to dip my toe in the sterile atmosphere. I enjoyed the episode; the plot was interesting, some scenes had me gripped, and in the context of the 1970s I was excited to see some special effects on screen. There were a lot of characters and a single episode wasn’t enough time to get to know them all, but I’d detected some tension between Blake and another man – I was curious to discover if there was more to it.

The Way Back
Blake: the unlikely rebel

I’d expected the first episode to whizz us along, getting Blake and his seven together and into space! Instead, we are led down something of a false trail as our leading man Blake heads off to meet with some dissenters who have news of his family that live on one of the outer worlds. It’s a bit of a con as they are actually holding a meeting to encourage rebellion against the Federation - the government of, it seems, the entire planet.

With Blake the only character from this episode set to become a regular, it makes sense that most of our time is spent with him. The episode also does a lot of worldbuilding and I was intrigued by this as I think it's a wonderfully despicable world that I'm going to love seeing more from.

The Federation is positioned in a bad light from the opening scenes of the episode when we learn that they drug the food and water with suppressants. Blake scoffs at this suggestion, which in fairness seems like a reasonable response to casually being told that your government is drugging the entire population. However, if a great big dome over the city isn’t enough to convince you that the government wants to keep you under control, the fact it’s illegal to talk to anyone from outside surely should be. I’m willing to give Blake some leeway though, as we are told he was part of the rebels but after being betrayed and captured, he was brainwashed and his memories altered to forget that life and eschew his beliefs.

Blake tries to get his head around the information that his family is dead and he’s being asked to become a figurehead for a newly-enthused anti-Federation movement. While he's mulling this over, some Federation guards show up and massacre everyone else. Blake can do nothing but hide and listen to everyone dying. After the people try to surrender, the looks on their faces as they are each cold-bloodedly shot is close to surprise. I’m shocked and impressed that the show has murdered at least 20 people only 15 minutes into the first episode!

After Blake is captured the Federation decide they can’t execute him as it would make him a martyr, so instead they fit him up on various charges, all related to children. It’s never explicitly said – there are words like ‘corruption’ and ‘assault’ – but it’s pretty clear from the reaction on Blake’s face alone that they are making him look like a child abuser. That is enough to put even the most committed government rebel off joining him.

The trial involves the prosecution and defence putting their evidence, which seems to consist of glass orbs, on a machine that weighs up both before handing down an objective judgement. I’m taken back by how swift this happens as I’d expected a proper show trial with witnesses. It’s all in the orbs though and the event is over in minutes. Blake doesn’t stand a chance and doesn’t even get the opportunity to say anything.

By the end of the first episode, Blake is a prisoner on a ship, heading off to Cygnus Alpha, a penal colony. We are teased that there might be a last minute reprieve as Blake’s solicitor does some digging and discovers the pile of bodies – apparently Federation clean-up squads aren’t as efficient as the justice system. But there is no happy ending for the good guy. The solicitor and his partner have been followed and we don’t even see their deaths – just their bloodied bodies. It’s a depressing outlook as the Federation appears this all-knowing, all-powerful, corrupt and impenetrable ruler.

The episode spends a lot of time with characters who are one-offs, and several end up dead. Blake has been loaded onto the ship with his fellow convicted criminals, a couple of whom he met in a holding cell. But surely our do-gooder hero isn’t going to team up with the likes of these reprobates? Jenna is a smuggler and he only ended up speaking to another one, Vila, because he was robbing Blake while he slept!

Blake comes across as such a quiet, reasoned fellow that I initially find it incredibly hard to believe that this same man had a rebellious youth. He seems like an ordinary fellow, content to go with the flow usually, who has got himself caught in something, which does at least make me feel sorry for him being convicted and receiving such a harsh sentence. Although I suppose it is only harsh because we know Blake is innocent – most people would consider lifelong banishment to a penal colony a reasonable, perhaps even lenient punishment for child abuse. I’m trying to keep in mind the mind altering he’s undergone but am struggling to believe his personality could have changed so much.

Blake's 7 has already gone up in my estimations. I am really taken by the background of this world and the ruthlessness of the Federation. I completely forgot about my keenness to get Blake's gang together as I enjoyed the world-building and there was plenty else to keep me gripped.

Thursday 30 August 2018

Callan - Wet Job

Bringing back a popular show can be enormously tempting. It worked once, so why wouldn't it work well again? I wasn’t keen on the idea of a revival and reviews from others set my expectations low, then lower again, so I had put off watching this for some time.

Wet Job does start reasonably well and the set up with the Section manipulating Callan is good. How he came to retire is left rather murky, allowing us to plough on with the present. The idea of an old job coming back to haunt him seems the best way to drag Callan back into the espionage world. The new Hunter fits in well. He's just as upper class and slightly removed as the others, and I think Hugh Walters does a reasonably decent job in the part. If Wet Job was a way of testing the waters for another series, I would have been pleased to see Walters again.

Callan's current occupation, running a military memorabilia shop, fits well as Callan was always depicted as having a great deal of knowledge as well as passion for the subject. The Nazi items on display seem a tad out of his area but perhaps he’s just decided to go with what sells well, as opposed to making friends with his local NF branch.

The scenes between Lonely and Callan are undoubtedly the best in the production. They both effortlessly slide back into their old roles and the two are wonderful together. I love how proud Lonely is at finally going straight and I only wish we could have got a look at the photo of his beloved. Gawd knows how he got her. It seems losing Mr Callan from his life has benefitted Lonely in the long run, which makes it all the greater shame that he honestly believes their meeting again is pure coincidence. While they do recreate much of their old on-screen rapport, I think scripturally their relationship is more reflective of the literary Callan, where James Mitchell depicts them as better friends. Callan treats Lonely much nicer here than he normally did in the TV series and Lonely himself has developed the confidence to stand up to Mr Callan a little. It’s lovely seeing Russell Hunter and Woodward so comfortable together.

In fact, I think Woodward is fantastic throughout. Despite those massive, ageing, we’re-definitely-in-the-1980s glasses, his old ‘Callan’ expressions shine through and there are intonations in his voice that immediately bring the character back into the room. Considering how physically different Woodward looks compared to Callan's last outing seven years earlier, I think easily establishing the character this well is important for the audience. This is probably the main thing that makes Wet Job slightly bearable because, well…

There is so much bad stuff. So, so, very much and so, so, very bad.

The script is a mess. After a promising start, it all goes to pot. Meres’ replacement, Thorne, is pointless and seems to be there to plug a gap that doesn’t need to be filled. Apart from tailing Callan and giving him a lift to Oxfordshire, he is utterly useless. He blags his way into Lucy Smith’s conspiratorial flat and learns precisely bugger all. It was undoubtedly an enormous mistake to believe that Anthony Valentine's wonderfully cold Toby Meres could be so easily replaced.

George Sewell could have been a marvellous villain but partway through his character decides to chuck out the whole plot so far, abandon his plan to kill Callan, and murder a Czech dissident with the KGB instead.

The KGB bloke. You need a high-profile enemy of the people to disappear in a foreign country on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Apparently you send a short fellow with a ‘tache who can barely use a gun.

There is also an awful lot of padding to bring this up to length as a TV movie. It's 80 minutes long, running in a 90-minute slot when broadcast, which seems like something today's advert-drenched prime time can only dream of. It needs to shave a good 20 minutes off though. Instead, things really start to drag, and we have too many minor characters like the KGB man and Lucy's communist friends that fail to make an impression. I was stunned to learn from Robert Fairclough and Mike Kenwood's The Callan File (an impressive and enthusiastically recommended tomb) that the Wet Job we got had already had 20 minutes cut. What did they cut for us to still end up with this monstrosity?

Who knows what was going on at ATV because the picture quality is noticeably worse than that of the Thames series a decade earlier. Everything in the studio seems to have a dark hue and I found myself squinting to make out details that should definitely be there. Yet outside on location everything is far too bright and sunny. Apart from the contrast between the two being terrible on the eyes, the brightness doesn’t suit the traditional dark colour palette of Callan at all. Bring back the grey and brown.

I've held back on what I believe is the worst aspect of the production and I only wish he had because the composer's incidental music on Wet Job is enough to make you want to cut off your ears, put them through a shredder and boil them in acid. Callan never really needed incidental music and the damning silence in scenes often spoke louder than a hundred of these electronic noise machines ever could. It sounds cheap, poor, and none of it, not one single note, is appropriate for the tone of the programme. If this wasn't enough, he, that ruinous bastard Cyril Ornadel, never lets up. There is not a moment of silence that he won't fill. It's infuriating. I just wanted it to end.

Wet Job is a poor revival for Callan. Cut the music, tighten the script and make it on film instead of whatever videotape atrocity ATV are utilising and I think it could have been great. It has nothing to do with the passage of time - indeed, Woodward makes a considerably better older Callan than I would have expected - and everything to do with what's gone on offscreen. Wet Job is frustrating because it feels like such a waste and it's a shame that Callan's final television outing is so far off the series' high standards.