Blakes 40. Blakes 7 Anniversary Rewatch – Animals

The main plot – which seems to be drawing inspiration from The Island of Doctor Moreau – is reasonable enough, but Animals has several major problems. Let’s begin with the beasts themselves – perhaps wisely, Mary Ridge elects to show them in all their (ahem) glory within the opening few minutes. No point in attempting to create any suspense, let’s just see them and once the shock’s passed we can move on.

The Dayna/Justin relationship is put at the forefront of the story and it’s one that’s positively dripping with subtext (“my little pupil Dayna, lovelier than ever”). The icky feeling that both have been carrying a torch for each other since their teacher/pupil days isn’t confined to the dialogue – there are several instances when Dayna gives a knowing smirk, each one is worth a thousand words.

Peter Byrne’s performance is very strong – if the script somewhat glosses over the dodgy ethics of Justin’s experiments (note the way that Dayna switches from disgust to acceptance rather too rapidly) then that’s not Byrne’s fault, he does everything he’s required to do by the script.

With Dayna shouldering the bulk of the action, the rest of the regulars are relegated to playing second fiddle (indeed Vila. Soolin and Avon even sit out the opening quarter of an hour or so). Tarrant has a nice scene with the ever apologetic Slave, Vila gets rather dirty and complains a lot whilst Soolin has one good line (when Vila wonders why he gets all the dirty jobs, she responds “typecasting”). Slim pickings for Soolin then, but better would be just around the corner.

Avon’s not a barrel of laughs today. There are some who maintain that series D was one long nervous breakdown for him whilst others contend that he was perfectly fine (just a touch unlucky from time to time). I lean towards the former viewpoint – his inability to crack a smile along with Tarrant and Soolin at Vila’s grubby predicament is one reason why. In years gone by he wasn’t afraid to show his lighter side – but it’s in very short supply at the moment. Increasing pressure due to the heavy burden of command?

Not for the first time Servalan doesn’t add a great deal to the story. I also find it odd that when Dayna is captured, we don’t see the moment when she and Servalan are brought face to face. Considering their past history this is a strange omission. It’s nice to see Kevin Stoney, although he’s wasted in a role which doesn’t really develop the plot (his character imparts a few morsels of information which Servalan could have easily discovered elsewhere).

Hmm. Those new Mutoids (I assume that’s what they are) are interesting, aren’t they?

Animals isn’t a total write-off but it’s a few drafts short of being a satisfying story.

Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary rewatch – Stardrive

Nobody loves Stardrive. The reason’s pretty obvious – the Space Rats look very, very silly (things don’t improve when they open their mouths either). Their leader, Atlan (Damian Thomas), is briefly given a moment of character development when it’s revealed that he’s not actually a Space Rat. But since this revelation isn’t developed it proves to be something of a dead end.

Another issue with the Space Rats is the fact that Vila was given a few minutes to big them up – so after you’ve been told that they’re the baddest of the bad, the reality can’t help but be a disappointment ….

It’s nice to see Barbara Shelley, just a pity she’s wasted in a nothing sort of role. Doctor Plaxton is a very pallidly drawn character – we never really learn anything about her (especially why she’s so obsessed about perfecting the stardrive).

But if the guest cast are a little thin, at least the regulars are well catered for. Avon continues to blunder about (his wonderful plan to hitch a lift on an asteroid nearly kills them all). Quite why the others are still content to follow him after his recent string of command disasters is a bit of a mystery.

I love Vila’s drunk act – it’s an excellent demonstration of his natural cunning. Teaming Vila and Dayna up is another good move, even if Vila does revert to his more usual persona of a clumsy coward during these scenes.

The fact that Avon’s quite happy to use Vila and Dayna as a diversion is a telling moment (whether they live or die doesn’t seem to matter to him). Ditto poor old Doctor Plaxton, whose only reward for developing the stardrive is a painful death. The way that Avon comments “who?” after being asked about her, post-death, is a fascinating character touch – has he already blocked her death from his mind, or is he just attempting to?

Stardrive feels like a cheap story. Most of the new modelwork is pretty basic whilst the location (yet another quarry) doesn’t add any visual flair to the episode. But although it’s by means the series at its best, it’s not an absolute disaster either. The Space Rats thankfully aren’t on the screen for very long and the regulars (apart from Tarrant, who doesn’t do much at all) get a decent crack of the whip.

“What has happened to the magic of Doctor Who?”

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I’ve recently been re-reading Licence Denied, Paul Cornell’s 1997 anthology of Doctor Who fanzine articles. The first entry in the book was Jan Vincent-Rudzki’s 1976 demolition of The Deadly Assassin.  Reproduced in full below, it’s an absolutely fascinating read.

Few Who stories go very much against what has been done before, but recently this has changed. First, there was “Genesis of The Daleks,” then “Revenge,” “Morbius,” and now “Deadly Assassin,” or rather “Deadly Continuity.” But first let us look at the programme as someone who hardly ever watches. The costumes and sets are quite effective, but a little too Flash Gordon. It has a good cast and was well acted. The story was fair but did not hold together too well.

Now let’s look at the story as Doctor Who viewers. The following is not only my view, but that of many people (including people who aren’t avid fans). First, congratulations to Dudley Simpson for using Organ Music for the Time Lords, but thumbs down for not using his excellent Master theme. Then there’s the more than usually daft title. Have you ever heard of an assassin that isn’t deadly?

On to the ‘story’. Before we even started we heard the same boring cliche: ‘the Time Lords face their most dangerous crisis’. I suppose Omega was a minor nuisance! The next blunder was the guards. Why were there any? The Time Lords were supposed to be very powerful, so much so that anyone strong enough to invade would swat the guards with ease, and Time Lord technology should be able to deal with minor intrusions. Then came the TARDIS. Before, it was MK 1 and the Master’s and Monk’s were very different marks of type 40 TT capsule, but why only one missing? As for such and advanced race being unable to find someone in 52 (sometimes 53) storey building. Ridiculous! I’ve always thought Time Lords names were secret and unpronounceable, so why do we suddenly know their names? ‘C.I.A’ was certainly not appreciated, nor Time Lords with bad hips. There is a time and place for humour and this wasn’t it. Particularly Runcible whose demise I was certainly not sad about. This story really showed up the infatuation for Earth people in Doctor Who. It could have been set on Earth and no one would have known the difference. Doesn’t R. Holmes realise that Time Lords are aliens and do not need to conform to human motivations whatsoever? This fact was well brought out in ‘War Games’, but ignored here.

Elgin said that premonition does not exist. Yet the Doctor had them in ‘Time Monster’, ‘Frontier In Space’, ‘Evil of The Daleks’ and ‘War Machines’. I was surprised by the Doctor saying that Time Lord machinery was ‘prehistoric’. Mr Holmes seems to have forgotten that the whole Time Lord way of life is to ‘observe and gather knowledge’. So apart from the fact that they are supposed to be one of the most advanced civilisations (brought out so well in ‘War Games’ and ‘Genesis’) they could have easily copied more advanced races. For instance in ‘The Three Doctors’ the Time Lords were amazed that there was a force more powerful than themselves. They were pretty powerful pre- ‘Deadly Assassin’.

In ‘Deadly Assassin’ the Time Lords seem to have forgotten the Doctor yet we’ve always been led to believe it’s very rare for a Time Lord to leave Gallifrey. So he should be remembered, particularly as in ‘Three Doctors’ he saved Gallifrey (and the universe of course!) from destruction, and Borusa said they needed heroes. The trial of the Doctor was another R. Holmes farce. The ‘War Games’ trial was so excellent, but of course this had to be in Earth norms, and was pathetic. Then later the Doctor and co. go to look at the public register system to see that really happened at the ceremony. Now we were, I believe, dealing with Time Lords, so why couldn’t they and look at a time scanner and see the truth? Also, why need the brain machine to predict the future? Another fact forgotten is that Time Lords are immortal. In ‘War Games’ the Doctor said they could ‘live forever barring accidents’. This had never been changed until ‘ Morbius’ where we learnt that the Time Lords used the Elixir if they had trouble regenerating. So why didn’t the Master use the Elixir? We also saw in ‘Morbius’ eleven incarnations of the Doctor (‘though in ‘Three Doctors’ Hartnell was rightly the first) so now we’re left with one more Doctor, according to ‘Deadly Assassin’.

Then there wasn’t Part 3 which must be the biggest waste of time ever in ‘Doctor Who’. A ten-minute trip into the matrix would have sufficed, but 25!

One minute Elgin was saying there’s no way to tap the machine, the next he was taking the Doctor down the other ‘old part of the city’ which looked just like all the other parts. When Goth was discovered we heard the daft reason for him helping the Master, for an exchange of knowledge. Again ignorance of the Time Lord way of life is shown by R. Holmes. Goth should have been quite able to go to the extensive library and sit at a Time Scanner for a few decades or so, and find out everything himself. He could even have followed the Master’s travels on the scanners! Borusa recognised the Doctor, but since the Doctor and the Master were at school together wouldn’t Borusa remember the Master? Also what’s this rubbish about the Doctor being expelled? We know he has a Time Lord degree in ‘Cosmic Science’ (and that was revealed in R. Holmes story!)

I was stunned to discover that the Doctor doesn’t know his own people’s history! The Time Lords would have their own history completely documented. After all, they can look back at time, so what’s all this nonsense about myths? And surely somebody would have wondered what that lump and two holes in the Panopticon floor were.

Of course, part 4 saw the return of the same old story. It couldn’t just be Gallifrey in danger, it had to be a hundred other planets in danger.

You’d have thought that not much else could be wrong with the story, but there was more to come. Time Lord power sources are well known to be novae etc., as Omega produced, not some silly black box with tubes. I would also like to know how the Doctor managed to climb up a 100′ shaft with smooth side and with plastic ricks falling on him. Also, even if the Master was protected by the sash when everything was to be swallowed up, what point would there be to floating around in space – not much! Things get even more ridiculous when the Master falls down the deep hole (his yell lasted a long time) and he’s back very soon, regenerating (due to absorbing energy). If all he needed was energy why didn’t he use his TARDIS, like anybody else, to regenerate?

For some of these blunders you could argue that the story was set far into the future eat a time when the Time Lord race is degenerating. but it can’t be as the Doctor was recognised. No, the new rule for Doctor Who seems to be the reason, which is ‘anything pre-Holmes needn’t exist’, which can’t be good for a script editor.

What must have happened was that at the end of ‘Hand of Fear’ the Doctor was knocked out when the TARDIS took off, and had a crazy mixed-up nightmare about Gallifrey. As a Doctor Who story, ‘Deadly Assassin’ is just not worth considering . I’ve spoken to many people, meany of whom were not members, and they all said how this story shattered their illusions of the Time Lords, and lowered them to ordinary people.

Once, Time Lords were all-powerful, awe-inspiring beings, capable of imprisoning planets forever in force fields, defenders of truth and good (when called in). Now, they are petty, squabbling, feeble-minded, doddering old fools.

WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO?

 

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TV Comic – The First Doctor. On The Web Planet

The Doctor returns to Vortis – only to tangle once again with the Zarbi. Thanks to TV Comic’s usual brisk efficiency we only have to wait until the fourth panel on the first page before Doctor Who confronts his old enemies.

But wait! Now they can fly … and that’s not all. “LOOK! The Zarbi have a new weapon – A STING THAT CAN DESTROY A ROCK!” Easy Doctor, no need to shout ….

But there are familiar allies on Vortis as well.  The friendly Menoptera (who unlike their television counterparts don’t have names) quickly befriend Doctor Who and explain to him that all the trouble seems to emanate from a mountain area. It’s from there that the Zarbi have somehow learnt to fly ….

That the Menoptera aren’t the most proactive of races is made clear after the Doctor discovers a spaceship on top of the mountain. “We did not know this was here” exclaims the Menoptera.  That’s a little hard to believe, just how long have the Zarbi been flying about and blasting them to atoms? Surely after a while someone would have thought it might just be worthwhile to explore the mountain?

A mysterious mushroom-like object suddenly rains down a hail of gunfire on our heroes.  But Doctor Who is beginning to see the light (after ducking for cover).  Picking up a piece of rock, he declares that it’s Glavinium X – the rarest mineral in the universe.  It just looks a mouldy old piece of rock to me, but I’ll bow down to the Doctor’s greater scientific knowledge.  He then explains that the mineral could be used to build bombs of terrifying power.

Gillian, who so far has done precisely nothing (at present we’ve reached the final panel of the second instalment, so we’re four pages in), is given a close-up as part two ends on the cliffhanger of a Zarbi menacing her.  But John quickly bops it on the nose with a rock at the start of part three, so this mild crisis is averted.

We then see the Doctor casually handling a spacegun as he amuses himself by picking off the Zarbi. “Got it! That’s one less to deal with!” Possibly it’s the Doctor’s trigger-happy nature which makes him a target – as shortly afterwards a passing Zarbi drops a rock on his head (“grandfather has been struck by a flying rock” says John, stating the patently obvious) and swoops down to carry him away.  The sight of the Doctor in the clutches of the Zarbi is a striking image.

If the story wasn’t strange enough, then things then get a little stranger.  John discovers that the Zarbi are nothing but hollow shells, operated by a warlike race called the Skirkons who don’t believe in small talk. “Soon we will be masters of the universe”. It’s always good to think big.

Quite why the Skirkons (who piloted the mysterious mountain ship to Vortis of course) elected to masquerade as the Zarbi is a puzzle that’s never answered.

The concept of a hollowed out Zarbi seems to have been a popular one, since it also featured in a story in the first Doctor Who annual. What’s interesting is the fact that this TV Comic strip was published during March and April 1965 whilst the annual wasn’t released until September 1965.  Was David Whitaker, who wrote all the stories in the first annual, inspired by this story? It might have been so ….

Zarka, leader of the Skirkons, taunts Doctor Who and then straps him to a table. Unless the Menoptera surrender, the Doctor will be neatly sliced in two by the venom ray.  This is so reminiscent of a scene from Goldfinger that it’s a great shame that the Doctor doesn’t ask Zarka if he expects him to talk. 

But John and Gillian, disguised in a Zarbi suit, are on hand to rescue the Doctor. John keeps the Skirkons covered with a gun, although Zarka remains confident.  “You won’t get away with this. No one can stop my plans, no one”. He’s not the most interesting of conversationalists, that’s for sure.

How does the story end? With a rather large explosion of course, as once again Doctor Who delights in blowing his enemies to pieces. Not quite in the spirit of the television series, but there you are.  The Menoptera are chuffed though and as the TARDIS goes spinning off into space, they have the last word. “They have gone – into the mysterious depths of time and space again!”

Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Power

The omens for Power aren’t good. Firstly you have two little words which strike fear into the hearts of many (‘Ben Steed’) and secondly, within the first few seconds a group of hairy tribesmen lurch into view (hairy tribesmen are always one of my least favourite B7 sights). And yet ….

Dicken Ashworth’s Gunn-Sar might appear at first glance to be a typically stereotyped tribal leader (“I am Gunn-Sar, chief of the Hommiks. I rule by right of challenge, which means I’m the biggest, toughest, meanest son of a Seska on this planet”) but there’s much more to him than meets the eye. Ashworth mines the script for comic material and surprisingly for a Ben Steed episode there are some gems to be found.

The way that Gunn-Sar becomes increasingly exasperated at having to repeat his leadership mantra, his duelling (both verbally and physically) with Avon and the revelation that he’d much sooner put his feet up and embroider a nice rug are all nice little character touches. Frankly, I was sorry to see him meet a sticky end.

Gunn-Sar’s relationship with Nina (Jenny Oulton) is something which seems like it’s been dropped into the script specifically to wrong-foot viewers who were aware of Steed’s style. In public Gunn-Sar treats Nina with contempt, but in private there’s a tender bond between them. Gunn-Sar’s public/private facades are an interesting part of the story.

Isolated from the others for most of the script, Avon swans around as if he’s in a Western (which maybe he is). Avon’s easily able to get the better of Gunn-Sar but he meets his match when tangling with Pella (Juliet Hammond-Hill). 

There’s something a little uncomfortable about the way Avon forces her to submit and – as so often with post S2 Avon – then grabs her for a quick snog. Just in case we aren’t following, Steed gives our hero a short speech which reinforces why men are best. “You see, Pella, it’s your strength, and however you use it, a man’s will always be greater. Unfair, perhaps, but biologically unavoidable.”

Slightly icky, but since Pella then levitates a computer keyboard to knock Avon out (Paul Darrow’s shocked expression and his slow descent to the floor are the funniest thing in the episode) it suggests that honours are pretty much even between them at this point. This is another moment where Steed seems to be subverting the male stereotypes from his previous stories (unless I’m just being too generous).

Dayna gets to challenge Gunn-Sar, Tarrant stands around a lot whist Vila becomes increasingly hysterical. All three do their best with what they’re given, but this one is really Paul Darrow’s episode. And what of Soolin? The way she turns up a minute before the end is unforgivable (just what has she been doing for the previous 48 minutes?). It would have been nice had Chris Boucher rewritten the script to give her at least a little something to do.

The Western theme is seen again in the closing minutes as Avon proves to be quicker on the draw than Pella. It’s a shocking moment, which Avon sums up thus. “You can have war between races, war between cultures, war between planets. But once you have war between the sexes, you eventually run out of people”.

If that’s the case, then he shouldn’t have killed her. Oh well. 

Overall Power‘s not as bad as it might have been (even if the ease at which they gain a teleport system beggars belief). It’s never going to be a favourite, but the series did far worse.

The British Home Front At War – Simply Media DVD Review

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The British Home Front At War is an engrossing five disc set, collecting over 60 short films which are all linked in one way or another to the travails of the British home front during WW2.

Discs one and two are subtitled The Home Guard and Britain’s Citizen Army. One of the earliest films, Citizen’s Army, is in many ways pure Dad’s Army. Its portrait of a plucky groups of individuals, armed with rudimentary and improvised weapons, could have easily fitted into one of Perry and Croft’s scripts.

Rubbing shoulders with these real-life shorts are dramatised pieces which utilise an impressive roster of talent. For example, Dangerous Comment is an Ealing Studios production, directed by John Paddy Carstairs and starring the likes of Frank Lawton, Ronald Culver and Alec Clunes.  This one has a slightly odd tone it must be said – designed to demonstrate that careless talk costs lives, it features a jokey coda in which one young man (after breathlessly listening to the story recounted in the film) seems not to have learnt any lessons at all ….

Possibly my favourite from the first few discs is Miss Grant Goes to the Door.  Played out like a miniature version of Went The Day Well?, it focuses on two genteel English ladies who are forced to take decisive action against a German paratrooper, disguised as an English officer, who has dropped from the skies.  Luckily the Hun gives himself away (due to his inability to pronounce ‘Jarvis Cross’) and after a tense stand-off, harmony is restored to their quiet English village.

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The Home Guard and Britain’s Citizen Army would be worth the price of admission alone – it features over thirty films, averaging ten minutes duration each – but this set is bolstered by another three discs.  Disc three – London Can Take It! – features that celebrated short film as its centrepiece.

Made by the GPO film unit in 1940 and co-directed by Humphrey Jennings (a documentary film-maker of distinction) it’s a pure slice of propaganda. Narrated by US War correspondent Quentin Reynolds, it serves a duel purpose. Firstly it presents a positive picture of the chirpy and phlegmatic Londoner (keeping calm and carrying on as the Blitz does its worst) whilst also attempting to bring home the plight of Britain to an American audience who at the time seemed to have little interest in the conflict taking place far away from their shores.

Other films – such as Neighbours Under Fire – also reinforce the notion that the whole country was pulling together, keen to help one another during the dark days of the German attacks. It’s another skilfully put together piece – and whilst it may not be telling us the whole truth, there’s no denying the impact that it makes.

Women and Children At War is the theme of disc four. There’s plenty of interest here – such as Jane Brown Changes Her Job, in which Anne Firth (a familiar actress during the 1940’s) plays Jane, a woman keen to do her bit.  So she decides to leave her job as a typist and instead goes to work at an aircraft factory.  As with a number of the other films it might look a little stilted today, but it’s still easy to appreciate just how potent these shorts would have been during wartime.

Whilst factory work is central to a number of films on this disc, there were other vital wartime occupations for women as well and Ladies Only (produced by the Southern Railways Film Unit) makes the case for working on the railways.  Given how British society seemed to reset its gender patterns very quickly following the conclusion of WW2, it’s always slightly eye-opening to see – as here – the cheerful gusto shown by groups of women tackling the sort of manual labour which for decades afterwards was seen as a male-only preserve.

The final disc – Words For Battle, Writers At War – features some big names, pressed into service to help the war effort. The opening film Words For Battle is stirring stuff – Laurence Olivier intones the likes of Jerusalem over carefully selected pieces of footage.

Many notable British writers of the era are also included. J.B. Priestley wrote and narrated Britain At Bay, an inspirational piece which has a similar tone to his BBC wartime broadcasts.  Also of interest is A Diary For Timothy, written by E.M. Forster and narrated by Michael Redgrave.

The only negative with this release is that it doesn’t feature a list of the films included (a booklet would have been nice as well, but a basic listing on the back of the sleeve would have been very useful). That niggle apart, this is an absolute treasure trove of material and comes highly recommended.

The British Home Front At War was released by Simply Media, RRP £29.99.  It can be ordered here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

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