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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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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Revisiting the X-Files, Part 2: The Second Encounter

It’s often the case that the first season of a television show involves a certain amount of workshopping to get the central concept polished and refined, before the series really hits its stride in a subsequent season. To an extent, this is true of The X-Files, which spent most of season 1 establishing the show’s status quo and then started really delivering on that concept’s promise in season 2- but at the same time, there’s a decent chunk at the start of the season where it looks like they might be rethinking the entire concept.

As of the start of season 2 of The X-Files, the X-Files division has been shut down, Agent Mulder’s stuck in a stultifying post listening to wiretap evidence, and Scully’s teaching trainees at Quantico how to unpack corpses. In the series opener, Little Green Men – another excellent episode from the star writing team of Glen Morgan and James Wong – Mulder isn’t even sure he believes in the old crusade any more, and ponders whether his memories of his sister’s abduction are really all they’re cracked up to be. Scully, for her part, seems to want to see where the chase takes them regardless of the reality or otherwise of Mulder’s memories – working on the basis that it doesn’t necessarily matter whether the inspiration for a project is rational or not if leads you to an interesting and illuminating end result.

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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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Revisiting the X-Files, Part 1: The First Step Into the Shadows

So, we’re dealing with an iconic 1990s TV series here, in the pilot episode of which (Pilot) we have a young woman showing up dead on the outskirts of a small woodland town in the Pacific Northwest of the US. Thanks to parallels with a number of deaths elsewhere, the FBI become involved, represented in part by a handsome agent who reveals slightly eccentric habits and even more eccentric beliefs. The death turns out to be part of a web of local intrigue that belies the bucolic charm of the town, and there’s frequent hints than higher powers are involved in all this.

This is not, despite all of the above, Twin Peaks; instead we’re dealing with the start of The X-Files, lovingly crafted by Chris Carter, though he’s letting his Peaks fan flag fly here. The first episode sets the formula for most of the series’ “mythology” episodes: Mulder and Scully zoot about uncovering evidence of creepy alien activity, Mulder buys into the supernatural interpretation of events, Scully resists it but increasingly finds herself coming around to Mulder’s point of view step by baby step, they discover some incontrovertible evidence that something outright fuckabooie is going on but the sinister government conspiracy as represented by the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) manages to destroy the evidence yet again.

That’s a formula we’ll see repeated over and over during the run of the series, with incremental bits of additional motifs and recurring thingamuffins creeping in here and there to give the impression that we’re getting somewhere, but a quarter-century later and we all know goddamn well that it isn’t really going anywhere impressive – and with Gillian Anderson comprehensively fed up of the whole thing and no longer willing to come back after the mytharc episodes in 2018’s season 11 bombed, it looks like short of a full reboot we’ve had all the X-Files we’re ever going to get. (Conveniently, nice blu-ray sets of the TV episodes are widely available at a reasonable price, and the HD-remastered episodes are available on iTunes and other platforms at that.)

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The Decanonised Clones

Once upon a time, in between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, George Lucas got Genndy Tartakovsky of Dexter’s Laboratory and Powerpuff Girls fame to produce a fun little cartoon series chronicling the events of the Clone Wars that unfolds between those two movies. The series was well-loved, which meant that Lucas had to jump on the bandwagon with a followup/retelling in horrible CGI (including a tie-in movie that everyone’s been glad to forget exists), and naturally whilst the awesome Tartakovsky Clone Wars animated series has been declared not-canon by Disney, the Lucas-helmed CGI’d The Clone Wars TV series has been endorsed as canon. I guess Disney either are contracturally forbidden from declaring certain things not-canon, or simply lack the spine to say “No, Lucas made a mistake, this thing he made is not canon and this thing he didn’t make is canon”.

Still, Disney can’t make our DVDs of the Clone Wars series disappear; so, how do they hold up over a decade later?

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