Friday 5 July 2019

Blake's 7 - Time Squad

Time Squad
The Full Blake’s 7

“I'm just wondering how long we're going to live to enjoy our newfound skills.”

If we were in any doubt, in Time Squad Blake firmly asserts his leadership by dragging The Liberator’s crew to a planet so they can blow up a communications system. I gather this is Blake’s plan from now on – fly around the universe to find ways of pissing off the Federation as much as possible. Although we are still not a full Blake’s 7 at the start of the episode, this does feel like the first ‘proper’ episode of the programme following three episodes of setting everything up.

There are two plot elements to Time Squad. Along with the planned attack on the communications system, their ship, named as The Liberator, comes across another ship, seemingly empty. Jenna and Blake go aboard to explore and find a couple of cryogenically frozen men with cum on their faces. Sorry, but in fairness, it’s never explained. I think they are supposed to be veins but the production could have chosen any other colour.

This provides another chance for Zen, The Liberator’s computer, to show just how utterly useless it is. Zen refuses to do anything. If I thought Avon was a bit of a stubborn sod, he's starting to look like a ray of sunshine next to Zen, who randomly decides whether it's going to answer questions or do anything the crew requests. With oxygen running out on the other ship, Zen won’t allow Blake and Jenna to teleport back so Avon has to manually move The Liberator towards the ship.

There have been some costume changes over the last couple of episodes as the convicts remove the clothes they’ve worn while travelling from Earth. Jenna got a new outfit in Cygnus Alpha and I didn’t mention it because I couldn’t think of anything positive to say about it. In fact I couldn’t think of much besides just “yuck”. Her pink top has multicoloured bits stuck on below the shoulders and reminds me of a toddler’s ‘touch and feel’ toy. Meanwhile, in Time Squad Avon has ditched his grey for an outfit of orange, cream and brown - my favourite 1970s’ shades. Sometimes you can barely tell them apart. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to add about the other characters’ various costumes as the series goes on because so far I’ve found most of them impressively vile.

Brighter colours haven’t cheered up Avon. He isn’t happy about Blake making decisions for everyone. He’s slightly grumpy throughout most of the episode and in the opening scene he winds Blake up. He, quite reasonably I think, keeps bringing up Blake’s ignorance of everyone else’s wishes. Blake does seem to just say “we’re going to do x, y, x” and then expect everyone to go along with it. His response when questioned is that they can always leave The Liberator but it’s an unfair position because he knows that that’s not a realistic options for wanted criminals. He may claim to be providing a democratic system but he isn’t really.

Avon continues querying and wants to know why Gan, who’s expressed some interest, is so keen to go along with Blake. When we met Avon, we found out he got caught by the Federation because he “relied on other people” and it’s a satisfactory explanation of why he’s so cautious now. In fairness, none of the crew have known each other very long, making it even more unfair for Blake to force them to follow him.

Eventually, Blake has had enough today. He turns to Avon and viciously snaps, "Enough!" It’s the first time he and Avon have come close to an actual angry clash; they have disagreed but their previous discussions have all been reasonable with thought out arguments. To Blake’s sudden bark, Avon seems slightly shocked and gives a look that says, "I would happily leave a trail of your intestines from Earth to Cygnus Alpha."

It’s hard to decide if Vila or Avon look the most unhappy about being persuaded to visit the planet below. Vila because he’s used to being a coward or Avon because he’s convinced Blake is going to kill them all. His open cynicism was already displayed earlier when, as the others got to grips with the Liberator’s controls, he deadpanned, “I'm just wondering how long we're going to live to enjoy our newfound skills.”

Vila decides to touch one of the alien plants, which seems like the very first thing you shouldn't do on an alien planet. I'm pretty suspicious of dodgy looking plant life since reading Day of the Triffids and Blake confirms that some of the plants here are carnivorous.

They’re hunting for rebels to make contact with. There’s only one but Blake manages to find her by just standing around in a quarry for a while. It was dark when we saw the surface of Cygnus Alpha but that too looked quarry-like. It was probably the same quarry. I feel this could become a bit of a series cliché.

The lone rebel they meet is Cally, who quickly establishes herself as being hard as fuck, though clearly not an experienced fighter, falling for Blake's simple distraction trick. Nonetheless they convince her to help them destroy the planet’s communications.

While my attention was focussed on the new recruit (it’s immediately pretty clear she’s going to join Team Blake), this part of Time Squad does show us more of Vila. His cowardice is again brought up as Blake tells Cally that getting inside the Federation’s communications complex will be risky. I thought the dialogue was also a neat way of incorporating all three main characters in the scene.

Vila "I plan to live forever... or die trying."
Blake “If you can get us inside that complex, we'll provide all the destruction you want, and still get out safely.”
Avon “Or die trying.”

We also get to see Vila in action doing what he apparently does best – breaking into places. Faced with a locked door, Vila exudes confidence as he says to Avon, “Listen, Finger - computers are yours, door are mine, right?” I adore how proud he is at the chance to show off his skills, swiftly getting inside with the use of an electronic screwdriver tool-type thing. Vila has finally had the chance to contribute his skills to the team!

When Blake, Avon and Vila head down to the planet, Jenna and Gan are left with the two defrosting blokes. The whole cryogenic process seems to have gone awry though and sent them homicidal – it later turns out they were programmed to protect their own ship.

There’s a short conversation between the two crew on The Liberator that reveals Gan’s crime that got him sent to Cygnus Alpha. Apart from framed child molester Blake, the others are all thieves of sorts, so it makes quite a contrast to discover that Gan killed a man in revenge. It’s played very carefully to ensure we still think of Gan as one of the good guys, with Gan seeming a tad reluctant to admit it all while telling Jenna that "he killed my woman".

Now, the choice of dialogue does make this sound bloody awful, but in trying to understand what on Earth Terry Nation (the scriptwriter) was getting at, I had to reflect some more. I concluded that he was trying to avoid the word ‘wife’, probably thinking that marriage as the 20th century knew it would be outdated by whenever-we-are-set. The next obvious non-sexual word for me would be ‘partner’ but perhaps this sounded a bit too homosexual for Nation and the BBC in 1978, or maybe it still implied the missing word for ‘sexual partner’. I’m trying to be very generous.

We cut back and forth between Jenna and Gan and the others on the planet, but I found the action on The Liberator dull. Jenna and Gan feel like the least developed characters so far and though they do have a heart to heart, it’s mostly action so feels like a slightly wasted opportunity. We know bugger all about the thawed bodies, and any tension that may have been built into sudden shocks can’t be maintained because we keep cutting back to the more interesting events on the planet.

Although I’d have liked more of Gan, it was good to finally get some of his background. It really just leaves Jenna who still feels lacking in character for me. I liked Cally and like Jenna it’s good to see another female character who seems like she will be able to look after herself. I’m still not keen on Blake.

We conclude Time Squad with Blake declaring the crew to now number seven. He’s brought up on this and then, in what is undoubtedly the biggest cop out of the series so far, declares that the seventh crew number is sodding Zen. If Zen is part of the crew you should be considering him bleeding suicidal based on events so far.

Monday 1 July 2019

Blake's 7 - Cygnus Alpha

Cygnus Alpha
Blake's 5

"I'm free. And I intend to stay that way."

It's hard to pick one single aspect, but this was the episode that finally grabbed me enough to say, "This programme is brilliant and I am loving it." The bizarre Blessed-led religious community, the vileness of Cygnus Alpha, the emerging contrast of Blake and Avon - all and more contributed to my huge appreciation of Cygnus Alpha.

Blake spends this episode trying to rescue the other convicts from the penal colony they were all bound for - Cygnus Alpha. By the end of The Way Back I hadn't actually expected us to ever see Cygnus Alpha; I thought Blake would mount a rebellion on the prison transport ship and either escape with everyone or take off with that ship and, well, maybe dump the Federation guards in space or on the nearest planet.

I didn't have a particularly detailed idea of what I expected a penal colony to look like, but it certainly wasn't anything as desolate as Cygnus Alpha. I thought it would be a regular planet that they were banished to but it is an incredibly dreary looking place of grey rock and darkness.

Avon is reluctant to go near Cygnus Alpha in the first place, remarking, "I'm free. And I intend to stay that way." Once again, I am very much on his side. I feel bad for the others but Blake has no loyalty to them, so why put the lives of himself, Jenna and Avon in danger? They are sure to be captured, killed, and either way, end their lives on one of the most miserable planets in the universe.

One of the reasons I enjoyed this episode so much is that we get some greater insight into Avon, learning that he worked in research before turning to more profitable enterprises. Although he and Jenna don't feature in any of the action on the planet, the scenes with them on the ship are revealing.

They discover a pile of jewels and after not hearing from Blake for some time, they begin to suspect he may not be returning. Avon is keen to leave the area and suggests they head off, splitting the jewels, which will be worth a fortune to both of them. It is Jenna who insists on waiting a while longer, against Avon’s repeated protestations.

When first exploring the stolen ship, Blake's 3 (as I'm currently calling them) discover a stubborn computer and bracelets that enable them to teleport nearby. Jenna and Avon remain on the ship while Blake teleports down to the planet. It is not that the other two are to be excluded from fun and adventures, rather that they don't have much clue how to control anything on the ship. Blake takes the risk of teleporting.

I like the shuddery special effect as Blake disappears from the ship, but am less keen on the thick white outline that appears when he is on the planet. Actors cannot keep still when you need them to (Gareth Thomas can't at least) and Blake stumbles outside the outline, which rather ruins the effect.

The other convicts have stumbled upon a skeleton tied to a wooden cross with a sign stating, 'SO PERISH UNBELIEVERS' so are pretty keen to bow down when a couple of hooded figures start demanding it. They are still prisoners here, with Blake later finding them in a cell, supposedly to contain them because of a disease they have contracted.

Gan's assertion that "all new arrivals get it" and the information that they will need a drug for the rest of their lives immediately flagged my bollocks alarm. If all new arrivals get it, how did the first arrivals survive before the drug was invented? I expected Blake to see through this ploy as it is clearly designed to dissuade anyone from trying to leave the quasi-religion that has sprung up.

Blake himself ends up a prisoner after a bonk to the head and wakes up in the company of Brian Blessed. Ouch. But - BRIAN BLESSED. Had the Blessed achieved the respect he now holds by 1978? I would never have expected such an actor to appear in the show and I'm pleased to see him. He plays the religion's leader, Vargas, and easily forces information out of Blake by crushing teleport bracelets. Blake has no poker face and Vargas relishes the anguish it is causing his prisoner. Blake says he can't bring down the ship (he genuinely doesn't know how) and Vargas's response is that he will sacrifice one of the prisoners.

There are a couple of prisoners we have got to know in this episode - Arco (Peter Childs) and Selman (David Ryall). Another prisoner had had a speaking role in Space Fall, but hopes of him becoming part of Team Blake were dashed before I had even learned his name when he nastily drowned in a compartment filled with foam. I know both Peter Childs and David Ryall from appearances in several programmes, mainly Public Eye for Childs and Goodnight Sweetheart for Ryall. I liked both characters with Selman rather nervous and Arco's cockiness put in place by the sheer presence of Gan. I started to see how they could both become part of the crew. Unfortunately, and much to my frustration, they're doomed. At this rate it will take us most of the season to get to magical number seven.

Just before Gan's sacrifice/execution, Blake, Vila, Gan, Arco and Selman rise up and attack. Blake manages to wrestle his gun back from Vargas but Arco and Selman are killed in the struggle. It's a bit of a mess of bodies so it was hard to tell who was still alive. Having nabbed a teleport bracelet, Vargas accompanies Blake, Vila and Gan back to the ship. But while busy laughing manically, they teleport him into space and he dissolves into atoms. Now that is a Blessed level exit.

This was a fun and exciting episode, going in a completely unexpected direction with the medieval-like setting. Importantly, we are also getting to know the regular characters. I feel I need to see a tad more of Gan who is part muscle, part softly-spoken gentle giant. The same goes for Vila, whose cowardice continues to be built on for light comedy - he was scrabbling underneath a table during the big fight. We spend most of our time with Blake, who I am not the biggest fan of - his sheer bloodymindedness comes at huge risk. Jenna seems to trust him for some reason but I am still leaning towards Team Avon. He's a realist and this seems like a more life-prolonging characteristic to have in a reality overseen by the Federation.