Friday 10 January 2020

Blake's 7 - Countdown

"You wouldn't understand."

I spent the first scenes of Countdown wondering if any of these masked fighters were our heroes - we've had this sort of opening before. There was one fellow with a similar build to Gareth Thomas that had me almost convinced. Federation guards dress more or less the same all over the universe and, combined with that lovely logo, I now always immediately know who the bad guys are. As I watched the green figures fighting their way through, I noticed that they did not move like soldiers - they’re not cautious or efficient enough in their movements, which then made sense once we learned they are guerrillas.

We don't see beyond any walls in Countdown and it doesn't appear there was any location filming done. I do find it hard to get a sense of scale when we see little of a planet or its people, like during Redemption in that enormous but fairly empty industrial facility. Yet during an exposition dumping scene on the Liberator, Avon's description of this planet with its two poles made it sound similar to Earth and I instantly had something similar pictured.

Vila is not thrilled about visiting another freezing cold planet and there do seem to have been a few, probably so the production can make the use of those thermal suits. He continues to despair over being forced into each adventure: “Yeah, terrific, I’m really looking forward to this. Danger, excitement, sudden death - I can’t wait.” Honestly, I would be Vila. I want to be Avon but I reckon all that peril must get wearing.

The purpose of the Liberator’s visit to this week’s planet is to locate Major Provine. This picks up the plot leftover from Pressure Point when we learned that Control had been moved from Earth. I was expecting this to become the arc for the rest of the series, so I’m glad they have returned to it. Whilst it had felt like a sudden choice to attack Control when I was watching Pressure Point, on reflection I can see that it fits well into Blake’s wider plan - since the start of Series B - of making more significant hits against the Federation.

In the end, I didn’t feel that engaged with this aspect of the story. There were some wonderful scenes in Pressure Point emphasising the importance of Control but we don't have that build up here. Provine is not the most vicious Federation officer we have encountered, which is a little surprising considering it was he who made the decision to wipe out the planet. I would have liked to have seen some cold-blooded first-degree murder. I couldn’t loathe him and I couldn’t sympathise with him either.

When we saw Provine ditching his now-dirty credentials, I thought he would try to take those of the more junior guard but instead he just sneaks off. Provine’s negotiation with the guerrilla who catches him trying to launch the getaway craft is probably his best scene as after the opening ones he has no other proper conversations with other characters. I thought he was going to persuade this guerrilla to join him as Provine gave a convincing argument and the guard seemed hesitant. But I mistook the guerrilla’s silent moments for thoughtful ones when they were in fact stubborn ones.

In his dying moments, Provine tells Blake where Control has been moved to. Why? He was dying and had literally nothing to lose. Unless that’s the reason: I’m inclined to think Provine is not meant to be the epitome of Federation evil. It’s arguable he had no choice but to set that bomb – what would his superiors have said if he had escaped without setting it? Following this, he only attempts to kill people when he is truly threatened, instead choosing to knock-out the young guerrilla woman and hide her in the secret tunnel.

Avon and Grant
Without a doubt, the most interesting strand of Countdown was the relationship between Avon and Del Grant. I was interested to discover why Grant would want to kill Avon and I liked that their story was drawn out across the episode. Upon us being introduced to Grant I thought he looked too nice to be a mercenary. Perhaps this is his great advantage for his chosen profession.

Avon stands rather awkwardly when the two of them meet. I realised he was holding his fingers against his teleport bracelet, apparently nervous and ready for a quick getaway. I wondered if Avon had been partnered with Grant and had perhaps betrayed him for some reason. Yet this seemed un-Avon-like; he would just avoid partnering with anyone. We hear Grant’s side of the story first - that Avon caused a woman’s death – but we are forced to hold on to learn any more and the tension between them remains.

Grant is a lucky man as he’s the first non-Liberator crew member to wear one of the silver thermal suits. I think these are smashing and I love the idea of being able to adjust the temperature inside. However, they are a rather snug fit so I’m not sure how comfortable they would be – the crew never plan to wear them for long.

My favourite scenes from Countdown were those between Avon and Grant at the polar ice cap. For a start, it’s a super set. It’s lit well and I’m curious how they filmed it because the light looks so natural – like it’s coming through a transparent roof, rather than being lit solely by studio lights. The dripping icicles eventually become a heavy rainfall, accompanied by falling ice, and add to the mounting tension as the timer ticks down. I love how the two men are forced into close proximity, with one having to recount his loss and the other blinded by anger.

Avon sounds tired telling the story of Anna. He doesn’t want to drag up the memory, reliving it hurts and yet I think he has thought about it a lot in the past. It was fascinating watching and listening to him reveal a different side to himself. “If there had ever been a time when I could have given my own life to save her I would have done it,” he says. Avon has never looked willing to do that for anyone before.

The revelation that Anna was Grant’s sister is not especially shocking, yet it is treated like it should be. Grant doesn’t sound like a lover who lost, so the next obvious assumption is a sibling and my only minor gripe is that this information probably could have been brought in earlier.

Blake attempts to listen in during Avon and Grant’s first chat. Like us, he only hears part of the story. He tries to elicit more from Avon in Countdown’s final scene but is politely dismissed. I am glad that Avon doesn’t end up telling Blake about Anna. He could have shared it; such a history would have easily stopped any further accusations of him lacking emotions. But I don’t think this has ever been implied by Blake – Vila and Gan are the two I remember suggesting it. I was happy with Avon’s choice as this was something private and Avon has always been careful about when he chooses to display his emotions. It would also have been uncharacteristic for Blake and Avon to start having heart-to-hearts. The whole way this plot strand was constructed was an interesting approach to revealing more about our regular characters. It means that only we the audience have learned that Avon once loved someone.

The name's Blake

"I’m Blake. This is Avon and Vila."
"Blake? You mean the Blake who’s been giving the Federation so much trouble?"

I have a problem with this exchange and it's starting to become repetitive. Roj Blake is James Bond, an undercover man known everywhere. The entire universe now seems to know who Blake is and what he has been up to. A few episodes ago Servalan was told that people were talking about Blake and she seemed shocked, which was surprising - just how well did she think all his escapades could be kept from word of mouth? Blake now only has to say his name and he is instantly recognised. That everyone has heard of Blake is not surprising; that he is apparently the only Blake in the universe is, as is him still using his real name when he doesn't know if who he's speaking with is friend or foe. The Federation ought to get on to this. They merely have to send someone into a rebel hotspot, have him tell people he's Blake and it would be the easiest undercover infiltration of the year.

Despite this niggle, I had an entire episode in which Blake was not a prick. Sure, I've warmed to him and like Blake a little now - his determination alone is impressive - but I still often get annoyed with his actions risking everyone's necks. Yet his plan to get all his crew out when the timer hit 50 is one of the most sensible he’s ever put forward. What’s more, he sticks to it, when earlier I would have expected him to push to the last seconds. Additionally, prior to Avon and Grant heading off, Blake warns Grant, “If anything happens to Avon, I will come looking for you.” I did not expect that.

While Blake and Avon's relationship in Series B has been more restrained than seen in Series A, there has still been an undercurrent of distrust there and plenty of scheming going on. Avon made his ideas for the Liberator's future clear to Blake in Pressure Point. Yet we've now gone from the aftermath of Gan's death in Trial, when Avon made it clear he would dissuade anyone from risking their liFE for Blake, to Hostage where Avon may have followed Blake to the planet to ensure he hurried back safely. Now, Blake is saying he would take revenge for Avon's death. What is happening? Is this loyalty? Do they both consider each other as part of their Liberator family now? Or do they simply see one another as useful? Possibly a little of both.

Do we need all the Liberator crew?
Blake's passion is certainly useful and he's good at getting shit done when they team up with others. Avon's technical skills have been established as not just good but as second to none and Countdown is another episode to add to the list of those in which he comes out the greater hero, with him saving an entire planet's population. Vila spends plenty of time this week working on locks, something he's always proud of and often overlaps with Avon's expertise.

Our three men all have practical attributes and skills, but the series continues to struggle to find anything for the women to do. Jenna’s characterisation as a pilot means she is only useful on the Liberator, while Cally’s interesting telepathic abilities have ultimately proved difficult to work into plots, though I’ve enjoyed it when they have. Recently it hasn’t made any difference though - she sensed Avon had done something in Hostage but couldn't be specific and didn’t act on it. Her knowledge ultimately had no bearing on the story at all.

I put off pondering it last episode but... when did Jenna and Cally last leave the Liberator? Jenna last came off in Pressure Point and for Cally it was Horizon. The more I look, the more I see just how bad it is. Of the nine episodes so far this series, Jenna has left the Liberator during four and for Cally it's only three. Unless the Liberator is being attacked, they just have nothing to do but act as switchboard operators for the teleport.

Dressed to kill
I'm not expecting any new costumes for the regulars at this point in the series and am happy with the number of changing ones we've seen throughout the season. I may not be keen on all of them, but most are stunning in their way. There is certainly a firm colour scheme established for many of the regulars and I continue to like the green and browns picked for Blake. I wonder if it was intentional for those of the guerrillas’ uniforms to match this? The only other organised rebels we have met this series were those in Pressure Point and, thinking back, their camouflage army-style uniforms matched Blake's palette too.

Countdown is probably my lowest ranked episode of Series B so far, solely because I have had more enjoyment from all the others. Provine wandering around never seems a threat and I felt there should have been a brief recap on Control to bring in why Provine's knowledge was so vital. The bomb added little tension for the majority of the episode as we know our regulars can just teleport away. The only aspect I was gripped by was Grant and Avon. Even there, we learn something about Avon but practically nothing of Grant; he’s an anti-Federation mercenary who cares about the money enough to risk his life, and he had a sister who Avon loved – that’s it. Countdown was lacking and I'm satisfied with deeming it merely 'ok'.

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.