Blake’s 7: Third Front

The story so far: show creator Terry Nation and his loyal script editor sidekick Chris Boucher had managed to shepherd Blake’s 7 through its first season, by the skin of their teeth – Nation having unexpectedly being landed with the task of writing all the episodes, and getting through the deadlines largely by passing his first drafts to Boucher and relying on the latter to punch them up to shape. This resulted in a season which, at its best, has some actually incredible moments, and a few extremely strong episodes. The Way Back, the debut episode, has seared itself into my brain with how powerful it really is, and the season did a great job of establishing its cast (and has the best version of Travis). At the same time, at its worst season 1 Blake’s 7 is clearly struggling to find itself and work out how to do the sort of show it wants to be.

It was good enough to snag a second season for the show, at which point a broader range of writers were drafted in and the overall quality improved. Yes, season 2 has the crap Travis – but it also has the show finding its feet properly, adjusting as it went to cast members’ departures as it went. With everyone’s contracts up for renewal at the end of the season and some cast members intending to leave – including Sally Knyvette, who was finding that she didn’t have that much to do as Jenna, and Gareth Thomas – AKA Blake himself.

Not knowing who’d come back, who’d depart but leave the door open for a potential return, and who would leave forever, Nation crafted the end of the second season around an alien invasion from Andromeda – an invasion with the avowed end of total human extinction. This prompts the Liberator crew to gallantly interpose themselves between the Andromedans and their point of attack – Star One, the Federation’s isolated computer centre – in order to give the Federation time to muster a response, because despite their hated of the Federation the Andromedans were clearly an even bigger threat.

The season ended mere seconds before the eruption of an almighty space battle, which of course was a situation where any character could plausibly end up killed or separated from the others to cover for their actors’ exits. The battle would also allow for an adjustment to the status quo of the series to be made – arguably necessary, if you were going to continue the show without its title character. Would they pull it off? Let’s take a look at season 3 and find out…

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Blake’s 7: Second Insurrection

As you might remember from my thoughts on season 1 of the show, Blake’s 7 was the brainchild of Terry Nation and he ended up writing the entire first season all on his ownsome, establishing the series’ unusually dark tone for a 1970s space opera television series along with a beloved cast of core protagonists and recurring enemies. This was actually more than originally planned – the initial intention had been that he’d write the first seven episodes and a two-part finale for season 1, and the remaining four episodes would be written by other hands.

As a result of having to pen more episodes than expected, Nation had to rush it, turning in only a first draft of each script and giving script editor Chris Boucher a very free hand in script revisions, which explains why the first season is a bit shonky in places. (Apparently Bounty was especially badly affected, to the point where on set director Pennant Roberts had to improvise ways to pad out scenes to reach the target running time.)

Clearly, it was time for other hands to get involved, so on season 2 more writers ended up getting involved. In fact, Terry Nation only wrote three episodes for the season – each of which a significant tentpole episode setting up the action for the next third or so of the season – whilst Chris Boucher ended up turning in 4. (By this point Boucher, in his script editor role, had become so conversant with the series continuity that he actually wrote the terminology guide to assist other writers in churning out Blake’s 7-flavoured technobabble.) Let’s see if the additional hands boosted the quality of the series whilst retaining its consistency of tone – or whether they steered it right into a ditch.

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Blake’s 7: First Flight

Some things you don’t want to leave up to chance. Whilst all of Blake’s 7 seems to be freely available via YouTube, with no particular effort by the BBC to get it taken down, at the same time I’d wanted a physical copy of the thing just in case all that changed in the immediate future – plus, getting the proper DVDs likely meant better quality than the YouTube copies. Lo and behold, after Christmas HMV went bust (again), and in the midst of the fire sale I was able to get a boxed set of the complete series for a fraction of the usual price.

I’m going to share my thoughts on Blake’s 7 here, and like my mammoth article on Babylon 5 way back when I’m not going to flinch at dropping spoilers. If you’re averse to spoilers for a show which is now over 40 years old, then to be honest I’m not that fussed about your feelings because there’s a statute of limitations on these things, but don’t complain if you read deeper into the article and encounter spoilers.

Other sources of comparatively fresh Blake’s 7 discussion include the excellent podcast Down and Safe, featuring various professional SF authors taking it in episode by episode, but don’t get your hopes up for them to ever actually finish the damn thing – the update schedule got increasingly glacial, until their season 2 wrapup got released nearly a year and a half ago, so I suspect the odds of them actually getting to the end of season 4 are so remote as to be not worth considering. (Dear Down and Safe crew: I love your work but if you don’t want me saying mean things about your schedule, prove me wrong, mamajamas.)

A non-spoilery observation, by the way: as much as American hegemony is problematic, I am really glad that American English has given us this distinction between “series” and “seasons” in talking about television. In British English, it is the case – or at least used to be the case – that “series” was used to mean both “series” (as in the show as a whole) and “season” (as in a particular run of the show), which in retrospect is tremendously awkward because whenever you mentioned a “series finale” it was unclear whether you meant the final episode of a series ever or just the last episode of the latest run. It feels like we’ve had a bit of a sea-change lately, possibly due to the boxed set/Netflix streaming era making it more common to consume TV by the season and so much of the fodder for that coming from America.

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He Was Turned To Steel, In a Yaoi Magnetic Field…

The Tetsuo movies by Shinya Tsukamoto get mentioned whenever you look at the Japanese cyberpunk genre. “Japanese cyberpunk” is simultaneously a very apt and a very misleading term; on the one hand, it does touch on a whole heap of the same themes as the rest of cyberpunk, but on the other it does so with such a different and idiosyncratic approach that sometimes those links aren’t so apparent. That’s especially true of the Tetsuo material, where Tsukamoto has this regular habit of slowing the plot down to an absolute crawl so he can communicate a particular idea in excruciating detail, usually by throwing in a surreal sequence comes across more as an Einstürzende Neubauten music video than an attempt at conventional cinematic narrative.

This is especially true of the first one, Tetsuo: The Iron Man. It wears its Eraserhead influence on its sleeve and it’s widely seen as being similarly plotless, but I actually think the plot here is much more straightforward than Eraserhead – it’s just that the plot is sufficiently thin that if it weren’t for the highly unusual manner of its delivery, the movie would be done in 10 minutes (and as it stands it barely breaks an hour in running time).

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Kickstopper: Big Trouble In CyberChina

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Back when I started doing these Kickstopper articles, the first one was for Shadowrun Returns, a rather successful bid to redeem the Shadowrun IP on the videogame front. I’d actually played Shadowrun: Hong Kong, its sequel, a while back, and had even written the review, but I inadvertently didn’t get around to posting it. Better late than never, though…

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

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Nirvana In Mirrorshades

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

If you’ve enjoyed the Persona games – I’ve previously provided reviews of the first, third and fourth – then odds are that sooner or later you’re going to want to explore the wider Shin Megami Tensei series of demon summoning-themed JRPGs. What you discover is a mixed bag; most of the other branches of the series eschew the high school life simulation visual novel and dating sim influences of the Persona games (and only Persona 3 and Persona 4 actually focus on that), and whilst sometimes their surreal takes on fairly standard JRPG plotlines can be quite interesting, other times the games can get bogged down in repetitiveness and tedium. On top of that, there’s a sprawling morass of side-series which, like Persona, take the demon-summoning concept and put their own spin on it.

One of these is Digital Devil Saga – not to be confused with Digital Devil Story, the strapline for the original NES-era Megami Tensei games. Digital Devil Saga was a Playstation 2-exclusive duo of games which emerged after Lucifer’s Call – the sole game of the core Shin Megami Tensei series to get a PS2 release – and before Persona 3 came along to both redefine the gameplay of the Persona series and radically expand the bounds of what you could do in a Shin Megami Tensei game.

Consequently, what you might to expect to deal with here – both from the title being highly reminiscent of the original series and the fact that it preceded Persona 3 – is a more traditional Shin Megami Tensei game, and for the most part that’s what you get. So any of y’all who were hoping for another life simulation will probably be better off waiting for the recently-announced Persona 5.

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Kickstopper: The Three Stigmata of Ada Lovecraft

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

All Good Crowdfunds Must Come To An End

Kickstarter is a big deal these days. Sooner or later, we’ll all collectively get tired of it and the bubble will burst. For the moment it’s just about sustaining itself, but sooner or later we’ll all get tired of blindly pumping money into whatever projects happen to catch our eye.

When that happens, the Kickstarter projects that thrive will be those with credibility behind them – and what better way to build credibility than to have a previous successful Kickstarter project already under your belt? That’s why I think reviews of completed Kickstarter projects have an unusual importance: not only are they about offering a critique of the product that’s been delivered, but they’re also a chance for the reviewer to give their opinion as to whether it’s worth the risk backing subsequent Kickstarters from the same creators. This is relevant not just because of the large sums that are riding on Kickstarters these days, but also because more and more people are becoming serial Kickstarters. For instance, InXile are two Kickstarters deep in the isometric RPG field, for instance, with their earlier Kickstarter project (Wasteland 2) still not finished, though to be fair we’re still months away from the originally projected Wasteland 2 release date and inXile have given a fairly credible explanation of why they’re timing things the way they are. Conversely, Double Fine – who catalysed the Kickstarter videogame boom with Double Fine Adventure – still haven’t delivered on that one, are looking to go way, way over schedule, and are confessing to some mild budgeting problems, but are pushing ahead with a new Kickstarter for Massive Chalice anyway.

Because I’m arrogant and like to grandstand, I’ve decided that a new series of Ferretbrain articles are the solution to all this. The idea is that Kickstopper is all about reviewing the detritus of Kickstarter projects I and other Ferretbrain contributors participate in: when all the excitement of the funding period is over, when the thrill and frustration of waiting is in the past, when we’ve hit the point where either the products are in people’s hands, the refunds have been distributed, or the project creators have vanished in a puff of acrimony and threatened lawsuits, Kickstoppers are about gathering the detritus of what’s left behind and asking the question “was it worth it”?

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