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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Seeking Goblins, They Find the Beast

My favourite televisual junk food recently has been Hellier, produced by the gang at the Planet Weird website and available on Amazon Prime, the Planet Weird YouTube channel, and the show’s dedicated website. It’s centred on Greg and Dana Newkirk, the co-founders of Planet Weird, and their team of fellow researchers as they delve into a paranormal mystery centred on the small Kentucky town of Hellier… or at least, they try to find a mystery.

The narrative begins simply enough: back in 2012, Greg had been contacted by an individual called David Christie, who e-mailed him about small alien creatures allegedly besieging his rural home. The initial e-mails sound a lot like a riff on the letters in The Whisperer In Darkness to me; to Greg, they seemed to be riffing on the decades-old case of the Kentucky Goblins. (Though the term “goblin” wasn’t used in the e-mails, the description of the creatures matched the earlier incident uncannily well.)

At around the same time Greg also got some e-mails from someone calling himself “Terry Wriste”, who seemed to know something about the situation, which made Greg think that there was probably enough to it to be worth looking into – but David didn’t respond to followup e-mails (much as you wouldn’t follow up, say, if you’d just written the original e-mail as a pisstake and were wrong-footed by being taken seriously), and Greg let the matter lie.

Years later, filmmaker Karl Pfieffer found himself drawn into the case through a series of curious synchronicities, prompting the Newkirks to take a second look at the case. Filling out the party with a few other trusted colleagues, the Newkirks would lead the group on an expedition to Hellier itself, where depending on your point of view they find absolutely nothing or absolutely everything.

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What If Henson Called Some Other Artist?

A big part of the appeal of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth – aside from the fact that they’re genuinely creative fantasy movies which cut the bullshit and just get on  with their plots and demonstrate the genius of Jim Henson and his workshop collaborators in their capacity to make puppets and costumes which seem genuinely alive – is their aesthetic. In both cases, the movies have a cohesive look which is clearly the work of a singular vision and in The Dark Crystal in particular gives the impression of a world with a deep history and ecosystem which we only brush the surface of.

Brian Froud is, famously, the man we have to thank for that, which makes me wonder: what would Jim Henson have produced had he instead decided to call on the talents of some other in-vogue British fantasy artist of the era? Let’s have a play and find out, for each artist proposing one movie in the Dark Crystal slot, one in the Labyrinth slot. The Dark Crystal slot is for a movie steeped in a well-realised secondary world with no apparent connection to Earth after all and a deep lore and backstory implied; the Labyrinth slot is for a movie about someone from our world having a little adventure in a world inspired by the artist in question’s work in which they come away with an appreciation of both the power of imagination and the necessity to harness it purposefully rather than wallowing in daydream or something like that, with a musical score provided by a musician popular in the 1980s who also plays a role in the film.

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3 Alternative Takes On Alternative 3

One of the more interesting categories of conspiracy theory that circulate these days is the set which deal with the concept of “Breakaway Civilisations” – the idea that the conspiratorial elite have access to a bunch of technologies and scientific knowledge which they haven’t shared with us proles, to an extent that our civilisation has essentially bifurcated, with the privileged few living a sci-fi life of leisure – often swanning about in outer space – whilst the less unfortunate don’t get any of the benefit of these technologies. (People who promote these theories seem prone to not noticing that this is actually more or less true of life on Earth, save for the space travel stuff.)

One of the things which is interesting about such theories, aside from the sheer sci-fi imagination involved with them (if you listen to them you could imagine that the action of Star Trek is already unfolding somewhere out in deep space, with crews of humans from Earth having adventures as part of the Illuminati’s space force), is the fact that they’re largely riffs on one iconic conspiracy theory, a shaggy dog story that’s some four decades old but which still manages to fool some credulous folk into thinking there’s something to it. Let’s jump in and explore the strange universe of Alternative 3…

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Highly Strung Musicians

In the 1980s the sleazier end of the Italian movie industry – especially when it came to genre movies – became known for its rip-offs of much more successful movies. Great White – AKA The Last Shark – ripped off Jaws, and Alien was ripped off by Alien 2: On Earth and Contamination (AKA Alien Contamination). The latter was the responsibility of Luigi Cozzi – famed mainly for Starcrash, a bizarre movie which somehow manages to rip off every single SF adventure movie of the late 1970s at once – who is also the director responsible for Paganini Horror, working from a script he cowrote with veteran Italian horror actress Daria Nicolodi.

Note: neither of the two character designs in the foreground are in the movie, nor is the house in the background, and undead-Paganini back there isn’t the character design they use for killer Paganini in the film.

The movie is another attempt at a ripoff, though the logic behind this one is bizarre. Rather than riffing on a Hollywood blockbuster – in retrospect, fucking with the intellectual property of the wealthiest movie studios with the biggest legal departments was a silly idea – he’d try and predict and jump on the bandwagon of the next big arthouse craze. Klaus Kinski was, at the time, infamously obsessed with completing a vanity project of his – Paganini, AKA Kinski Paganini, in which he would play the famous violinist. Cozzi was convinced that Kinski’s movie would be a monster hit, or at least stir up enough controversy to generate a brief flurry of interest in Paganini – so he decided to make a horror movie with a Paganini theme. Hence: Paganini Horror.

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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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Surprisingly Far From Greenwich

Content warning: this movie drops some rape at you from more or less out of nowhere.

Catherine Bomarzini (Sherilyn Fenn) has inherited a magnificent Italian castle with enormous statues in its gardens and interiors that seem to be constructed from second-hand sets from Labyrinth. Having lived there in early childhood before moving to America, she’s thrilled to return and catch up with Martha (Hilary Mason), the castle caretaker and her childhood nurse, as well as her old friend from art school Gina (Charlie Spalding) who moved to Italy a while back to work in painting restoration. As Gina visits, the two of them catch a travelling circus act, led by smouldering magician Lawrence (Malcolm Jamieson), and Gina is so taken with the act she gets Catherine to invite the performers over to the castle for dinner.

At this point the circus performers drug Catherine and Gina and rape them; specifically, Lawrence assaults Catherine but then switches places with his twin brother Oliver (also Malcolm Jamieson) to complete the act, and whilst Oliver is busy with Catherine, Lawrence rapes Gina for good measure. (It is also strongly implied that whilst Lawrence is busy preparing Catherine for Oliver’s attention, Gina is being gang-raped by most of the rest of the cast.)

Gina and Catherine aren’t thrilled by what happened but decide to not call the police and just deal with it themselves, and go their separate ways. However, Catherine soon finds herself adrift in waves of ghostly visions, as she tries to discern the difference between Lawrence, who looks like a gentleman but behaves like a beast, and Oliver, who behaves like a gentleman but sometimes turns into a terrifying monster. Meanwhile, when Gina gets back to work she sets to restoring an ancient painting donated to the local church that seems to depict an ancient scene that might shed some light on the tragedy of Lawrence and Oliver.

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