Friday 17 January 2020

Blake's 7 - Voice from the Past

Voice from the Past
"So much for Blake's new epoch of peace."

Voice from the Past was an interesting episode as I was intrigued by the plot immediately. The idea of Blake reverting to his pre-The Way Back brainwashed state was fear-inducing as the consequences I imagined were disastrous. I saw him covertly redirecting the Liberator and turning the whole crew over to the Federation. This is almost where we headed, only with Blake acting with much less consciousness than I pictured. While nothing seemed truly clear for most of the episode, the payoff from the final 10 minutes was superb and among the most thrilling, nerve-wracking I’ve experienced with Blake’s 7 so far.

What the plot?
I was trying to work ahead of the episode’s plot throughout but could never get there. I felt I couldn’t trust anyone – not Ven Glynd, not Shivan, not Le Grand, not Blake – and this meant I was sure of nothing and believed nothing. I had a constant feeling of dread that the crew were being led into a horrific trap. Blake’s rerouting of the Liberator was concerning, his duping of Vila made me want to bang my head against a wall, and despite the friendly demeanour of the rebels, they seemed too good to be true. As for the councillor-type woman, Le Grand, until she turned up on the Liberator I was sure she was on the Federation's side, yet then I wondered if she wasn't but maybe Ven Glynd was really in league with Servalan. There were too many possibilities.

Blake the Brainwashed
I had pondered just how easily the Federation would be able to brainwash Blake again, yet I always imagined they would need to physically get hold of him first. Therefore this remote attack using sound seemed clever, and I loved seeing Blake's 7 use continuity in the plot, as opposed to merely weaving it into lines of exposition.

I could be more annoyed at Blake, but it’s hard to justify anything when he spent the entire episode brainwashed. However, his assertion to the others that he “commands this ship” provided a stab of anger and I was glad that Jenna immediately countered with, “You lead - we don't take commands.” It is a vital distinction. Blake may not be a perfect leader and I don’t think any of the others would be either, but Avon has been eyeing up the position and from day one has had strong feelings about democracy onboard. That statement sounded utterly like Blake and I hated him for it because good grief – every time I find aspects to admire in him, he does or says something like this again.

It was hard to measure how much Blake’s decisions to ignore Orac were influenced by his altered state of his mind. He overruled Avon’s request to consult Orac before bringing Ven Glynd and Shivan onboard. Yet while I despaired over what seemed an incredibly poor judgement, this didn’t seem to make any difference in the end as Orac couldn’t accurately determine if Shivan was who he claimed to be. Even though Blake's judgement was poor and it was a foolish decision, this could be attributed to his unstable state of mind. However, turning Orac off later and taking the key was a sign of Blake wielding his power and I was livid, crying out, "Where is our bloody democracy, Blake!"

Loyalty to your commander
It feels like Series B is testing the crew's loyalty to Blake. If Blake had shown similar signs of regression in Series A, Avon would have advocated abandoning him as a security risk. They all make considerable efforts to help Blake here and it's interesting that this devotion to one another is still there, regardless of the crew's dynamic now often being Them vs. Blake.

I thought Vila would notice the clear change in Blake's tone of voice when he insisted that Avon and Cally had plotted against him. Instead, I was surprised Vila believed Blake at all, especially considering how secretive he has been this series. I might have expected Vila to trust Avon as much as Blake now - if not more - but that clearly isn't the case and Blake still has the most influence.

Cally and Jenna both had more to do than in any recent episodes, helped partly by so much of the episode being set on the Liberator. From the opening scenes, I began to think we would spend the entire episode on the Liberator and I would have been perfectly happy with that. It did occur to me that the programme’s budget might incorporate a ‘lite’ episode that forced them to set one episode entirely on the Liberator. Cally has taken on a caring, nursing role in much of Series B and she continues it in Voice from the Past as she and Avon attempt to help Blake.

Finally getting a brief opportunity to leave the Liberator did not work out well for Jenna. She has always seemed the most loyal to Blake but I had wondered if his recent actions had planted seeds of doubt in her, as she has been annoyed by his secretiveness. At the episode's climax when Blake has removed his teleport bracelet, Jenna tries to help him, even removing her own bracelet to ensure she can stay and try to save his life. It's interesting that this is the second episode in which teleport bracelets have been removed on purpose like this, and especially so because the episodes have different writers. Both actions were life-threatening, yet the still, tense atmosphere of Avon diffusing the bomb in Countdown could hardly be more different from the panicked and action-packed circumstances here. I admired Jenna for this tremendously risky act as I am unsure whether any of the others would have gone this far for Blake. It perhaps reflects the more romantic feelings she has for him, which we got a flash of from her scowl at Blake's kiss in Hostage.

Home invasion climax
Down on the asteroid, it all seemed too easy that everything should fall into Blake’s lap like this and my anxiety increased as they brought the strangers onto the Liberator.

It was hard to make anything of Shivan as the bandages ensured the only visible part of him was his eye and I struggled to understand his few lines when he spoke to Ven Glynd. I was willing to believe his miraculous survival story though and paid him little attention because Ven Glynd seemed likely to be the real double agent.

I never had a clue to Shivan's real identity, so Travis’s reveal elicited a shocked “NO!” followed by a string of expletives. That hand! Travis on the Liberator! I’d been concerned when the Liberator was infiltrated in Redemption, but this was different – this was Travis. They had let the Federation in. BLAKE LET THEM IN. The Liberator has felt like a haven; as long as the crew have got their teleport bracelets, they are safe because they can escape – we’ve seen the Liberator outrun dreadful odds. The Liberator is home.

I loved the detail that Brian Croucher appears to have a degree of stubble, implying he's spent days or more literally undercover with the rebels.

Prior to this, the appearance of the guard is a bit grim as attention is given to the knife in his back with blood on display. This is even more shocking than Avon's arm wound in Hostage. I continue to be interested in the way the show depicts violence as Series A probably had a similar amount but was bloodless.

Combined with that desolate auditorium and the appearance of Federation guards, I spent the next few minutes panicking, staring at the unfolding events in wide-eyed horror.

The reveal of the empty auditorium was magnificent. Servalan’s booming voice was imposing and the projection of her image was a wonderful addition. The letterbox shot of her eyes reminded me of the watching eyes of Big Brother in 1984 (did I imagine this poster or does the book specifically reference it?), and there can be many comparisons of the Federation’s regime made to the novel, from its undefeatability to its revisions of established history. Le Grand's tears were so sad and spoke of years of determined work vanishing in an instant, reflecting her own now-inevitable fate. Ven Glynd and Le Grand were goners and knowing the Federation, it was for the best. I think Le Grand's may even have been suicide.

Everything got far worse when Blake’s mind began to be attacked and he took off his teleport bracelet. I’ve never been so worried about the fate of the Liberator crew. It felt like the biggest trap they had ever been in. As Travis went down from the Liberator, Avon and Cally seemed safe again, yet it continued to deteriorate below. When Vila went up and Jenna had taken off her bracelet too, I thought this was it: we were about to lose Jenna and Blake! Avon and the others would have no choice but to leave them because they couldn’t get them back!

The resolution is a variant on the 'teleported just in time' trope we have seen, though it has previously tended to be the result of someone having to rush to the teleport bay. I was initially unsure why Travis needed to teleport down as I assumed his aim was to capture the entire crew, so why not force Cally and Avon to bring the others up, regardless of the message Avon managed to send. However, although Travis may have been compelled to attempt the whole crew's capture while under Servalan's formal command, he has really only ever cared about Blake. With Servalan's trap a success, she would know the Liberator was nearby so must have been poised to send in Federation ships to surround it as soon as Travis gave the word.

I had been hoping for another appearance from Servalan and Travis, the former especially, but it was all too brief and I was left longing for more. They should never appear in every episode yet I would like to see plenty of them when they do. I don't know whether I can ever expect to see more of Servalan: she wasn't a huge presence in Series A, when Travis took centre stage and she pulled the strings from afar. I think it is just the fact I adore the character so much that I feel we deserve more of her.

Voice from the Past sags in the middle. After the episode's opening intrigue (and joy of discovering the crew do team yoga sessions), we begin watching a series of political discussions until towards the end. It was only curiosity at 'what on Dell 10 is going on' that kept me interested. You then have to appreciate who Travis is for that unveiling to have an impact, so while the episode sits well in the series as a whole, it may have been a struggle for more casual viewers who gained less from the ending. I am also conscious that while I love admiring the model work, there was a lot of it this episode and I began to wonder if it was underrunning.

Voice from the Past's strength is absolutely in its exciting climax and it made me realise just how invested I had become in these characters. As much as I enjoyed this conclusion, a lot of it was down to the shock of Travis's reveal combined with the sudden cascading of events, so I don't think it is an episode that would stand up well to repeated viewings. But this is 1979 when home video barely exists, and in this instance, I am more inclined to evaluate Blake's 7 in the circumstances of its creation. Voice from the Past did its job: I was interested, entertained and gripped enough to return again next week.

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'.