Sunday 3 November 2019

Blake's 7 - Horizon

"I am not expendable, I am not stupid and I'm not going."

Horizon had piqued my interest the moment I saw it on the DVD title menu as I knew it was the name of the Blake’s 7 fan club. Following the episode, I thought that was a neat idea. The episode's titles themselves also posed further intrigue as Blake's 7 has another new writer in Allan Prior.

At the expense of your friends
Prior to heading down to Horizon, Blake tells Jenna he wants her to come with him because he thinks Avon is less likely to do a runner without a “first-class pilot”. On the edge of the screen, we can see a glint of silver as Avon comes into the teleport room. Has he overheard? I believe so but Blake and Jenna don’t seem to, and it isn’t referenced later.

Blake can’t have always thought this about Avon, certainly not as strongly, so it must be a belief that has gained substance. I've usually been convinced Avon would leg it in the right circumstances but it’s interesting for Blake to voice this as a more serious concern. Blake might have thought it before, but now he feels he knows it, and I believe Avon knows he knows but does Blake know Avon knows he knows? Compared to Series A, there hasn’t been so much tension between Blake and Avon so far this series, so I’m pleased to see that this relationship is still being explored.

I am not stupid
The visit to Horizon seemed like a car crash in slow motion as various members of the Liberator crew continued to get shot with darts and captured. I fully supported Avon as he stubbornly told Vila, “I am not expendable, I am not stupid, and I’m not going.” It’s practically his slogan (I’m delighted to have been informed that this quote is available on a t-shirt). It was bad enough when Gan and Vila followed Blake and Jenna, but it was at least reasonable. Yet Cally’s decision to head down after all four of them had disappeared seemed ludicrous. We were back in Cygnus Alpha territory – give it an hour then give them up for dead and get out of there. Nonetheless, I was surprised that Avon let Cally go alone. I’ve previously noted that it’s something of a general rule that crew members don’t visit planets alone and I expected Avon to be more protective, or at least show greater indecision about remaining on the Liberator.

After overhearing Blake express his doubts about Avon to Jenna, I wondered whether Avon might be pushed into proving Blake wrong. I think Avon does have some form of loyalty to the others now and I'm not sure he would betray them all like Blake suggests. However, I think he would consider it if the action was solely against Blake.

Watching Avon talk through the possible outcomes with Orac was nice, as he worked through the logic so he could justify leaving - he wants to be sure he will be safe. There is that loyalty to the rest of the crew, yet he does seem convinced that everyone is probably dead and that’s what enabled him to seriously consider leaving in the Liberator. It doesn’t matter that he ultimately didn’t, the fact remains that he was going to and so could be pushed to do so again. I began to feel that the script might develop something to make him go down after them and I’m glad it wasn’t something naff like Avon suddenly discovering love or moral obligations. I think it would have felt out of character for anything to trump reason and logic. Avon ultimately decides to try to rescue the others due to the approach of three Federation pursuit ships, which he knows the Liberator cannot outrun.

Blake the Bloody Hero
Blake gets some lovely speeches in the series that position him as a leader. Gareth Thomas delivers them earnestly and I enjoyed his talks with Ro in Horizon. Unfortunately for Blake, he doesn’t get to be the hero and it is Avon who comes to the rescue. Having Avon nearly blow Blake's head off is a nice touch, even more so followed up by Blake's teasing line of, "Missed." I was intrigued that the original line was supposed to be, "Can't you tell your friends from your enemies anymore?" I like both.

I’m trying to like Blake more but was annoyed when he criticised Avon’s “last-minute heroics” - and not for the first time. Avon has often operated the teleport with seconds to spare and Blake is always so bloody ungrateful! Why can’t he just say “thanks”?! One day, Avon will be wondering why he bothers.

Long sleeves and bare chests
Last series I pondered about the temperature on the Liberator because the crew are permanently in long sleeves. I noticed that this has continued even with their new outfits. Did something unseen on Cygnus Alpha hideously scar them? Had the Federation branded them as convicts? It now seems unlikely because Horizon is, I believe, the first time we see a crew member's bare arm. With Vila in horrific stomach pain, Cally pulls his sleeve back to administer some pain relief.

As if this wasn't enough, we progress to shirts being completely removed for Blake and Vila when they are working in the mine. I'm not too sure how common such sights were on television by 1979. Over in Back in Time For TV, I'd seen the progression from the 1960s when married couples were depicted in bed together wearing full pyjamas and dressing gowns, yet by the mid-1970s a man could sit at a breakfast table with only a towel around his waist. Context is part of this - there is a difference between seeing couples in bed and someone getting undressed in a doctor's office for instance. That period's television still always seems far more prudish than most of real life.

The initial sights of Gareth Thomas and Michael Keating's bare chests are in the dim light of the mine, but they do later emerge into the open where we can see they are filthy from their work. Later still, Blake gets a full shot in the light. I termed this 'the Putin shot', due to Gareth Thomas's resemblance to the Russian leader's shirtless photos. Perhaps after what they had been doing with Servalan, the production felt they needed to offer something similar for the rest of the Blake's 7 audience.

Vila's shortcomings
Vila's cowardice has been emphasised less than in the first series, though his yellow outfits are an ever-present reminder for me. I enjoyed Horizon's more subtle nod to this characteristic. We don't see Vila captured and interrogated, but the Kommissar says that Vila confessed who he was at once. This wasn't so bad, but he has also told them about the Liberator's force field. There was clearly no need to see Vila's interrogation because he must have been terrified from the moment he came round. It's amusing that Vila had clearly chatted about anything they asked offscreen yet now sits in silence as they prepare to send him for the first day of work in his life.

This could not dampen my affection for Vila because it is exactly what I would expect from him. As a confirmed coward, he was never going to risk any form of pain. He stepped in to go with Gan to Horizon instead of Cally, but if only to save themselves, I think the crew should start acting more protectively towards Vila. He is emerging as a man prone to such primal weaknesses. He did everything he could to reach the ephemeral pleasures of Space City and promptly overindulged. When Cally provides him with the pain relief in Horizon, she reveals it contains Soma. As well as knocking Vila out for a while, it appears to offer a considerable amount of pleasure and he is keen to be allowed to raid the Liberator's stocks. While Vila is a coward for the most part, this makes it all the more satisfying when he does summon up bravery. Yet I'll be curious to see whether this penchant for vices does lead to more serious and dangerous problems for him, and the others.

Up until now, I don't feel like we have had much chance to see the societies of the planets we have visited and when it has been space stations like Space City or the Destiny ship, it's far too small a snapshot. The Liberator crew are generally visiting places to blow up something belonging to the Federation, so we don't see much. Cygnus Alpha and Redemption are probably the only two episodes to show us something substantial.

I was so intrigued by Ro, who appears to have sold his entire planet into slavery for the Federation. We hear of him being educated by the Kommissar, who emphasises that Ro's people are primitives and reminds Ro that he once was too. It should be obvious to Ro that he has not improved the lives of his people and has made them far worse, yet he seems blinded by everything the Kommissar tells him and I'm left pondering just what that education consisted of.

The leadership team on Horizon includes Ro, the Kommissar and the Assistant Kommissar. The Kommissar drew an "ooh" from me as he is played by William Squire, who I know best as Hunter from Callan. I think he's got a lovely voice that hints at his Welsh background but mostly I like its deep richness. It's a voice that is well-suited to authoritative roles and I enjoyed the assertiveness with which the Kommissar is able to influence Ro.

The population work in rag-like clothes in the mines, providing a fabulous visual contrast with the crushed maroon velvet worn by Ro and the Kommissars. I thought these were lovely outfits and were perfect for emphasising them as an elite, far removed from the lives of the population. Even though Blake's words have influenced Ro and inserted doubts, he seems to only decide to take decisive action once he is reunited with his fiancé, Selma, who has been among the people and working in the mine.

A safe haven?
I had liked the realism brought into the initial setup of Horizon, with the crew mentally and physically exhausted from living their lives in a constant stressful battle with the Federation. Blake's subsequent idea about finding a base for their resistance movement hugely intrigued me. The events of the episode left me uncertain but I'm still curious to see whether they ever do return to Horizon to use it as a base or temporary hideout. Having a base on a safe planet does seem like a good idea and I was all for it at the beginning of the episode. However, I now believe it would be far too risky. How safe is any planet? If it is safe, then for how long? How long until someone finds it, or betrays them, or is threatened and blackmailed into revealing its weaknesses? Their best chance is to stay on the move and find temporary places to recuperate.

What the everything
Horizon was hugely enjoyable and I felt there was just the right balance of plot, action, character and humour. The tension built up by placing the crew in a seemingly inescapable situation was great, with it increasing as more and more of them were captured in the same way. Having them all react to it slightly differently was good too and again I was pleased that Cally's telepathy is more of a presence this series.

In Ro and the Kommissar, there were substantial roles for the guest actors. Sometimes 50 minutes has been nowhere near enough to give them chance to shine but Allan Prior did prioritise this more than other scripts have. I'll be interested to see more of his episodes.

The crew are often split into two groups for most of the episode and especially in Series A, I was able to designate them easily as Team Blake and Team Avon. But Horizon provided a slower divide and gradually separating the crew provided different types of scenes. Cally using her telepathy with Ro was unexpected and placing Avon alone with Orac was a wonderful way of offering us a stream of consciousness. Both he and Blake are the most complex characters so getting an alternative insight into Avon's thoughts and processes is a superb idea.

Friday 25 October 2019

Blake's 7 - Weapon

"You can be like God!"

I'd had small reservations about Chris Boucher after Shadow but Weapon has alleviated those. His stories have a different style to Terry Nation's and I'm reluctant to try to define that yet, but I’m finding it interesting. Bonus points for starting an episode by blowing something up. I was thrilled to see Servalan and Travis again. Frankly, sod Team Liberator in Weapon - it was Servalan's scenes I enjoyed the most, by far. It was pointed out to me that Servalan's name is never actually said onscreen during Series A, so this episode becomes the first time it's used. The clone woman's pronunciation wasn't how I had heard it in my head.

"Is there anything of me left?"
I was so disappointed to see a new Travis, who is now played by Brian Croucher. I had had such fun hating Stephen Grief’s evil Space Commander and it’s immediately apparent that New Travis is not of the same ilk. There’s an absence of menace and Grief had built up a presence, to the point where I was on edge every time he appeared, unsure whether he wanted to interrogate or kill someone. The recasting has lost that, at least for now, and I’m wondering whether it will ever return.

New Travis is introduced as 'Blake' walks into a room with him. I thought this was a great idea as it does look exactly like Blake. When I've seen fake versions of people - either robots or clones - in fiction, the creators tend to give them tells. Our heroes are supposed to have something to spot and this can be made clear to the audience, whether it's in appearance, language or tone of voice. Like the robot in Project Avalon, this version of Blake is given no apparent tell immediately. My mind suddenly raced, trying to work out what was going on. But seconds in I knew there was no way Blake would ever trust Travis enough to meet him unarmed, walking in so normally. The situation alone made me doubt it. The moment when 'Blake' drops to his knees pleading with Travis felt entirely out of character.

Seeing Travis kill Blake, even a cloned Blake, does seem the perfect way to reintroduce the character - 'This is the same guy - look how much he hates Blake.' I did feel that these scenes with the clones lasted too long - there is so much chat with Travis, Servalan and the clone woman.

Supreme Commander vs. Bryan Ferry
In Series A, I couldn't wait to see more interaction between Travis and Blake, and I was happy to see Servalan full stop. Based on Weapon, I'm looking forward to watching how Travis and Servalan's relationship progresses. This open disdain and disloyalty to one another from them both was shocking.

I certainly never thought Travis was subservient to Servalan in the last series - it was what made his quieter, more reserved appearance in Deliverance so strikingly different - but while proud and assertive, he didn't seem arrogant and there was still unspoken respect for the Supreme Commander. Any trace of deference has now vanished and for a man who has been beaten by Blake on several occasions, humiliated by him and Avon in front of Servalan, he's far too cocky.

After he's shot the Blake clone, Servalan tells him, "Travis, you are pathetic," adding, "Of all the cripple-brained idiots." He puts his hand around her throat and she threatens to send him to a slave pit. The arguing between Servalan and Travis does make a marked difference to Series A when I got the feeling that Travis held back some strong feelings, or at least toned them down. Servalan must retain the upper hand in their relationship though as he needs her - so he can take revenge on Blake - far more than she needs him.

There are references to Travis having undergone some sort of conditioning and I'm curious what this was exactly. Travis tells Servalan, "My visits to the retraining therapist have left me... I don't know... Is there anything of me left?" So he still had enough value for the Federation to try to improve him, instead of chucking him on the scrapheap of failed Federation officers. I imagine replacing skilled and ruthless Space Commanders can't be an easy task - not everyone's got multiple mass murders in them. Surely such treatment should have made him easier for the Supreme Commander to control! It appears the results are somewhat unpredictable. It currently seems a huge change in personality for Travis, so I am glad that it is explained.

I do feel that Blake's 7 missed a trick as this conditioning experience could have been used to explain his change of face; after the events of Series A, it might have been helpful for Travis to become unrecognisable to the Liberator crew. Having seen enough of this universe, swift plastic surgery certainly seems within easy reach of the Federation. It's a loss I'm going to have to bear it seems and perhaps the production team just wanted to be able to crack on with the show, without having to dwell on such a major cast change.

The sexiest officer
Servalan has recruited the services of a psychoanalyst, Carnell, to predict Coser's actions. Initially, these seem to hold up, but it starts to unravel for him when things go wrong. I was amused by how much of a coward he is, quite reasonably scarpering rather than face Servalan's wrath. But he does leave her a video message to explain, which leaves her satisfied. I really enjoyed their scenes together. With Servalan walking around the seated Carnell, their height difference helps to emphasise her power and she seems so relaxed.

As in Series A, in Weapon Servalan continues to be dressed in pure white silky materials with furs. She always looks utterly stunning and her outfit in Weapon is probably as teasingly revealing as you can get away with at this time in the evening, with a small top hanging down that is cut off high and surely only just covering up her breasts - I'm pretty sure I could see a skin-coloured bra. We get to see a lot of different angles for this outfit in her scenes with Carnell. It was a tad distracting, in a nice way. If there weren’t already a generation of teenage boys (and a few girls) watching Blake’s 7 solely for the chance of a glimpse of Jacqueline Pearce every week, then they should be from now on. It certainly made an impression on Carnell, who finishes his video message by telling Servalan, "You are undoubtedly the sexiest officer I have ever known."

I love that while presenting a sexual image, I don't think Servalan ever appears the stereotypical vulnerable female. I mention further on in this post about the cast appearing comfortable in their costumes, and Servalan looks so at ease in every scene. After seeing things slip through her fingers in Orac last series and seeing her fearful for the first time, in Weapon she seems in control again. She's incredibly confident and despite Travis's cockiness, she's the one who continues to exude power. I think Servalan also uses her sexuality with men. Though we have really only seen her with Travis up to now, repeatedly with him and here with Carnell, she takes the small action of placing her hand on their chests.

Team Liberator
I've enjoyed Chris Boucher's scenes with the whole crew over the past two episodes. Blake and Avon do often tend to dominate conversations on the flight deck, punctuated with the occasional witticism from Vila. But there seems to have been an effort to give the others more lines. I have no doubt that some of the reasoning for this would have been behind-the-scenes discussions with the actors. It's much more natural for the conversations to have this type of back and forth.

I thought this worked well in their first scenes for Weapon, from which Blake is absent at the start. Instead of all being seated at the controls, they are sat or stood around the sofa area. This was good too as we must assume that even on the Liberator, there are quiet days for relaxing, perhaps odd evenings and weekends when they are not on standby for fleeing Federation pursuit ships or attacking strategic bases.

Blake the Bloody Hero
None of the crew is happy when Avon reveals, "another of Blake's little schemes he hasn't thought fit to tell us about," although it turns out Cally does know, and it was in fact her idea. The others are not pleased by this either. Blake has always gone ahead with his "little schemes" and I have always been on Avon's side about their imposition without consultation.

I don't think it bodes well that Cally and Blake have effectively been plotting together. As Avon puts it to Cally: "On Earth, it is considered ill-mannered to kill your friends while committing suicide." When Blake's ultimate plan to return and attack the Federation on Earth is referenced, Vila hopes it will be "later, much later" and Avon reckons Blake will be attempting it alone. Jenna and Gan's loyalty is shown when they refute that, but nonetheless, neither of them - who have both been keen fans of Blake - was happy that he and Cally had been making plans behind their backs. This feels like something that will continue to fester until someone (definitely Avon) has had enough.

What the plot
In Series A, I had noticed that Blake’s 7 often spent a long time on the Liberator in the first half of episodes. I was concerned that this might become a problem, but I’ve always been alright with it because Terry Nation still always brought in action, the plot does start moving, and I’ve never felt like the crew were spending 20 minutes wading through exposition or expressing simple drivel while sat on the flight deck. Nonetheless, in Shadow, Chris Boucher swiftly got us off the Liberator to Space City and it was interesting to have this different dynamic.

For Weapon, we return to Nation's usual format and are easily over halfway through before the crew head down to the planet, yet this isn’t because we are watching the Liberator. The script spends a while with Servalan, Travis and the clone masters, which is probably longer than necessary. In a way, it reminded me of Deliverance, when the Servalan and Travis scenes were used to demonstrate how Travis’s failed mission in Project Avalon had impacted him. He had been under investigation then and a broken man. I expected something similar here, but there wasn’t, and I couldn’t quite work this new man out. It just seems to be used as a slight character reboot, emphasising Travis’s loathing of Blake.

Time is also taken up with us following Coser and Rashel on the planet. These were the only scenes that felt weak as they don’t add much, with the two escapees squabbling and pondering whether they can hear something. If it was an attempt to build up tension before the reveal of a giant crab-like claw, this is lost by repeatedly cutting away to Servalan and Travis or the Liberator. We aren’t at all invested in Coser at this point and the way he treats Rashel means he comes across as a prick, so I couldn’t give a shit what happened to them.

"IMIPAC! It's called IMIPAC."
Coser's destruction of the crab does show us the potential of IMIPAC and was possibly an easier special effect to achieve than on a human being – the murder of the guard later on isn’t as horrifyingly disgusting as the melting crab made me think it would be. We cut away from Coser's own death altogether, which did make me feel cheated. One could argue that after seeing the remains of the crab claw, the audience's imagination could come up with something far more vile, yet this is taken away when we do cut back to see Coser's intact corpse.

IMIPAC isn't a fighting weapon for shoot-outs and duels, so I do think its gun-like design is misleading. I thought it was a marvellous strategic concept and Servalan seems the most perfect person to own it, as it gives a fantastic hold over people. I loved it when she shot Travis and thought this could be something that, with their altered relationship, dragged out over the series. Likewise, once Blake, Avon and Gan had been shot, I felt sure they were all doomed and might have to spend the series trying not to get too close to Servalan. When confronted with this fact, the three of them are uncertain initially - it could be a superb bluff, yet it really isn't a risk they can take. Gan had earlier posited, "Is there a defence against IMIPAC?" with the reply coming from Avon, "Yes, it's called slavery." This possibility hadn't occurred to me - I guess I just expected Servalan to want to kill people! It would have been ironic if the evil Supreme Commander had been the one to turn them into something resembling the Wicked Witch of the West.

I couldn't help but keep wondering whether Avon could have shot Servalan before she pressed the button. As at Orac's conclusion, he's immensely trigger-happy around her and Travis, quickly analysing the situation when they walk through the door: "They're too confident, Blake. This looks like a trap. Let's kill the bait and get out of here." Again, it's Blake who holds him back. In a way, I can start to see how the two of them benefit each other, with Avon pushing back against some of Blake's most risky propositions, while Blake prefers Servalan and Travis alive so that he knows who his enemies are.

There are a few bits of worldbuilding given to us by these scenes, with Coser repeatedly referenced as of "Beta grade", added to the Alpha and Delta ones mentioned in Shadow. Rashel is described as a "Labour grade slave". I don't think this is the first time Blake's 7 has mentioned slaves - it's no surprise at all that the Federation has them. Interestingly, Blake himself, or at least his clone, is recognised by Coser. I'm hoping this is due to Federation 'WANTED' posters else the crew have got no chance of ever impersonating their way into anywhere.

Blake's 7 meets glam
As a collection, Weapon's costumes have been my favourite so far. I'm finding all the costumes from Series B so entertaining. It's a superb step-up from Series A and I love that the regular cast is getting something different every week. So many fantasy-type series keep their costumes the same for every episode or make only minor adjustments, and perhaps it is seen as an unnecessary budget expenditure. The sheer variety of outfits is making Blake's 7 stands apart and they are impressive. I can't believe that in one week we've gone from World of Leather to glam rock. I'm also impressed by Costume Designer June Hudson's attention to character, as I increasingly find everyone's outfits are so suited; nothing jars and for me, that's how it should be - the cast look comfortable and natural, despite having outfits that were probably quite different to their usual 1970s' clothes.

The word for Weapon is GLAM. Travis should be fronting Roxy Music on Top of the Pops, being a dead ringer for Bryan Ferry (I can’t get over this), while Coser and Rashel could easily blend in as someone’s guitarists.

Stephen Grief’s Travis had an awesome Federation uniform, although I do think it’s good to have changed it for a different actor; there will be comparisons anyway and it helps the new actor put their mark on the part. New Travis’s outfit remains black but it’s much sleeker and, like everyone else’s in this episode, looks that touch more glamorous. Travis’s eyepatch has also been updated and I prefer this design. The previous version was bulky and the hole for Grief to see through was blatantly obvious. I'm certain it must have been difficult to keep on because it looked like it would fall off at any moment. This one seems more bespoke.

This week Avon has come dressed as an all-black gentleman thief - Paul Darrow has that slightly chiselled face - while Vila could be his bumbling sidekick, being also in black, but more of a silky shirt. I can't make my mind up about Avon's totally red outfit - at least you aren't going to lose him. Meanwhile, Cally and Jenna are done up beautifully and could be ready to walk onto Dallas. The ladies really add a touch of sophistication this week. Blake is still playing Robin Hood.

Heroes and villains?
I’m aware I have said relatively little about the Liberator crew in Weapon, though, in fairness, they get a limited amount of screentime. Maybe this was planned. It’s been a whole year since the 1979 audience has seen Servalan and Travis and while it has been barely a couple of months for me, I was keen to watch them again.

Having such compelling recurring villains is a huge part of Blake’s 7’s appeal. When your heroes are criminals with some questionable morals, they need truly despicable opponents. The further we see the Liberator crew go, the further we need to see their enemies go.

I love how outrageously heartless both Travis and Servalan are, yet both display it in different ways. Travis is an aggressive and blatantly sadistic man of action, while Servalan enjoys surveying results with a satisfied smirk. He is a mercenary while she is a strategist, taking enormous pleasure as she delicately moves pieces into position. I loved her line, "When you know an enemy’s strengths and can use them against them, they become weaknesses." It's interesting that this is close to Blake's strategy, having repeatedly said in Series A that he knows he can beat Travis. So often Servalan seems one step ahead of everyone – either Travis had too much trust in her, or it never even occurred to him that she might use IMIPAC on him. Both Orac and Weapon have shown Servalan willing to get more involved in missions on the ground, overseeing operations more closely. I do wonder whether this is putting her at risk. I’d like to see whether the Liberator crew begin to realise this and try to take advantage of it.