Blake’s 7: Mission to Destiny (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Liberator crew find a spaceship called the Ortega, whose inhabitants are unconscious… It soon becomes clear there’s been a murder aboard.

Series A, episode 7. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Pennant Roberts. Originally broadcast: 13 February 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* When the Liberator encounters a spaceship called the Ortega, Blake (7) teleports aboard, taking Avon and Cally with him, to see why it’s circling the same area of space. They find crewmembers passed out in various rooms and deduce that the air supply has been poisoned; then a dead body is discovered. When the crew wakes up, Blake takes charge and tries to work out what happened. He soon learns that the ship is on a mission of mercy: they must deliver a vital energy reserve to their home planet in time for a new agricultural cycle. Seeing how the ship is damaged, Blake offers to deliver the reserve in the Liberator and leaves Avon and Cally behind as collateral.
* Avon (6) assesses the damage to the Ortega when he arrives with Blake and Cally. He deduces that it’s been sabotaged and now can’t travel at light speed – which is a major problem for the crew’s mission. After Blake has left with the energy reserve, Avon stays behind to help with the repairs – though he admits it’s less to do with sympathy for the crew’s plight and more because he can’t stand an unsolved mystery. To that end, he becomes a space-age Hercule Poirot and starts investigating the murder; he even has grandstanding scenes where he lays out his theories to the assembled suspects. (Although, Hercule Poirot never punched the murderer in the face and then said he enjoyed it.)
* Cally (4) is the one who finds a dead body when she, Blake and Avon first search the Ortega. It’s really not her day in that regard: she later finds a second corpse down in the storage compartments. She also stays behind when Blake leaves and uses the opportunity to do some snooping on the murder suspects.
* Jenna (7), Vila (7), Gan (6) and obviously Zen (5) all stay on the Liberator throughout the episode. Once Blake returns from the Ortega, they head off for the planet Destiny to deliver the MacGuffin. Halfway there, however, they realise its box is empty so have to return sharpish.

Best bit: Blake pitches his idea to the crew of the Ortega: he’ll take their precious cargo to Destiny while Avon and Cally stay behind to help with repairs. Cally adds, “We will regard ourselves as hostages against Blake’s return.” Avon looks askance and deadpans: “Why, thank you, Cally. What a clever idea.” She telepathically tells him, “Blake will return,” and he says out loud, “You can bet your life on it. In fact, you’ve just bet both our lives on it.”

Worst bit: The Liberator-based stuff in the second half of the episode – Blake, Jenna, Vila and Gan travelling through an asteroid field – is inconsequential filler.

Review: This is a fun, self-contained episode built on Agatha Christie clichés: a murder mystery, a small, defined group of suspects, an enclosed environment, cryptic clues, and observant, insightful detectives. The suspects are middle-management types aboard a spaceship stocked with 1970s office furniture, but they’re distinctive enough to make the puzzle engaging. Blake bosses the first half of the episode, then once he’s left the stage Avon dominates the second half. Prophetic, that.

Eight homing-beam transmitters out of 10

Next episode: Duel

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Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Charles Oakley needs to lie low, he heads to California to stay with his sister and her family – but niece Charlie soon begins to suspect why Uncle Charles is on the run…

Alfred Hitchcock said this was his favourite of his movies, and it’s very easy to see why. It’s a dark and addictive story about pervasive evil in a sweet, all-American setting. The cast is excellent. And there are plenty of twists, turns and shocks.

The film grabs you straight away: Charles Oakley (a terrifically complex Joseph Cotten) is staying at an inner-city flophouse. Two men come calling, asking after him, but he gets the landlady to tell them he’s not in. Then, clearly avoiding the heat for *something*, he leaves a film-noir Philadelphia for apple-pie Santa Rosa in California to stay with his sister, Emma (Patricia Collinge), and her husband, Joseph (It’s a Wonderful Life’s Henry Travers). The couple have three children. The eldest is the movie’s lead character – Charlie, played by a soulful, charismatic Teresa Wright.

Charles brings life and excitement to an otherwise staid and sleepy town. He wows his family with presents then flashes some cash around at the bank, where he meets and flatters a rich widow. But it’s young Charlie with whom he has the biggest connection. She was named after her uncle and idolises him; his arrival shakes her out of a bout of ennui. The two characters are also two sides of the same coin. Each is even introduced in the same way – in their respective first scenes, they’re lying down on a bed fully dressed. At one point, a smitten Charlie says they’re like twins, but there’s also an incestuous feel to their relationship. They stand just a bit too close to each other; he sleeps in her bed while he stays at the house (she moves to her sister’s room); and he even gives her a ring as a present, slipping it onto her finger himself.

However, then comes the darkness. Charles has to think quickly when Charlie spots that her new ring is engraved with the initials TS. He also turns nasty for a moment when Charlie realises he destroyed Joseph’s newspaper to prevent the family seeing a certain story. Then men who show up, claiming to be conducting a government survey. But Charles sees through them straight away and realises they’re after information on him. They blag their way into the house and he tries to avoid them. It now becomes clear what Shadow of a Doubt really is: it’s a more polished, more intriguing and more multi-layered version of the idea that powered Hitch’s earlier film Suspicion. In that movie, the lead character comes to believe that her husband is a murderer. Here, the scales fall from Charlie’s eyes as she begins to doubt her uncle.

One of the snoopers, Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), takes a fancy to Charlie and asks her out. Their sweet romance runs through the rest of the film, and is a subplot that grows Charlie up from naïve youngster to strong woman. (Her age in the story is debatable. The actress was 24.) Jack also admits that he’s a detective on the trail of a criminal, and that criminal may be Charles. Charlie doesn’t want to believe it, but the seed of doubt has been sown. She races to the local library to find a copy of the day’s newspaper: the story Charles ripped up was about a serial killer called the Merry Widow Murderer. One if his victims had the initials TS.

The menace level is now creeping up and up. Charlie’s clearly upset, so Charles confronts her, dragging her into a seedy bar to find out what she knows (the fact he picks that kind of location is a another example of their relationship being less than wholesome). It’s classic cat-and-mouse stuff: every scene is working on different levels as characters know more than they’re willing to say. Then Hitch cranks up the intensity significantly as uncle tries to kill niece…

Sometimes called Alfred Hitchcock’s first masterpiece, it might be fairer to say that it’s his first ‘modern’ film. Now established in Hollywood and working with American stars – Wright had had three Oscar nods in the previous two years, Cotten was fresh from starring in Citizen Kane – Hitch can go full throttle on suspense and darkness. But he never forgets to balance it with humour and charm. Shadow of a Doubt is an absolute marvel.

Nine men playing bridge out of 10

 

 

Blake’s 7: Seek-Locate-Destroy (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A mission to steal a Federation cypher machine results in the loss of one of Blake’s team. Then a space commander is tasked with hunting him down…

Series A, episode 6. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 6 February 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Blake (6) and his pals teleport down to the planet Centero to steal a device that will allow them to eavesdrop on Federation communications. He again acts like a team leader on a management-training course, coordinating his colleagues and chivvying them along without actually doing much himself. The mission seems to go well, but when they return to the Liberator it becomes clear that Blake didn’t count everyone back in: Cally has been left behind, seemingly killed in the explosion our heroes set to cover their tracks. Later, Blake is shaken further when he learns his old nemesis Travis is still alive.
* Jenna (6) spends the episode aboard the Liberator, manning the teleport machine like some kind of receptionist.
* Vila (6) helps in the mission on Centero, where his lockpicking skills come in very handy. He also gets a comedy moment or three.
* Gan (5) plants the explosives on Centero, then uses his brute strength to detach the cypher machine the team are stealing.
* Cally (3) has a key role in the mission: she keeps watch on the Federation scientists and stormtroopers while the others half-inch the cypher device. However, her prisoners overpower her, she loses her teleport bracelet, and she’s caught in the explosion. Her colleagues assume she’s dead, but she actually survives and is found by the Federation investigator… (Don’t worry: Blake rescues her at the end.)
* Avon (5), being the computer expert, is the one who identifies the cypher machine and then makes use of it back on the Liberator. Conveniently, one of the first secret messages he hears tells him and the others that Blake’s old enemy Travis is on their trail.
* Zen (4) imparts some exposition now and again.
* Supreme Commander Servalan (1) is a Federation bigwig in a position of authority below the unseen president. She’s a relatively young woman who dresses in a Princess Leia-like, all-white frock. Aboard her spinning space station, she’s briefed about Blake; her underlings fear that he’ll become even more powerful if the myths and legends about him continue to spread. So she appoints an officer called Travis to seek, locate and – that’s right – destroy him… Actress Jacqueline Pearce plays against the writing and gives a languid performance. This is clearly a character of enormous power and strength, but she’s not going to rant and rave about it.
* Space Commander Travis (1) has been the subject of an inquiry after he oversaw a civilian massacre. But Servalan is satisfied that the deaths were necessary so appoints him to track down and kill Blake. Travis – a man dressed all in black leather with an eye patch, a robotic hand and a John Wayne walk – was involved in Blake’s pre-amnesia arrest, and the two men clearly hate each other. He’s played by a committed Stephen Greif.

Best bit: On Centero, Vila needs to distract two guards. So he breezes up to them and says with a smile, “Hello there! How are you? Excuse me wandering about your premises, but I wonder if you can help me. I’m an escaped prisoner. I was a thief but recently I’ve become interested in sabotage – in a small way, you understand, nothing too ambitious. I hate vulgarity, don’t you? Anyway, I’ve come to blow something up. What do you think would be most suitable?” Then Blake creeps up behind the guards and whacks them over the head.

Worst bit: The Centero sequence also contains a laughably awful robot sentry – a cheap-looking, juddering, postbox-shaped machine that totters about the power station being used for the location filming.

Review: The mission-of-the-week is a MacGuffin, and neither Cally’s apparent death nor her subsequent return to the Liberator seems to affect her friends that much. Instead, the main purpose of this episode is to introduce two new recurring characters: it’s the series putting faces onto the previously nebulous Federation. There’s also a significant change of tone going on. In episode one, the Federation was represented by cold, cynical, humourless bureaucrats. Now, however, we have Servalan and Travis, two camp, moustache-twirling, pantomime villains. Travis even gets a hammy, maniacal soliloquy at the end of the episode (paraphrase: “I’ll get you, Blakey!”). But at least the pair complete the Robin Hood theme that’s been building across these episodes: Blake is an outlaw on the side of the downtrodden masses; his cohorts include equivalents of Maid Marian, Will Scarlet, Little John and so on; they even dress in green jerkins. Well, now we have King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Seven laseron destroyers out of 10

Next episode: Mission to Destiny

Murder! (1930)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A woman is convicted of killing a colleague, but after the trial a member of the jury begins to doubt her guilt…

There’s a brilliant opening shot to this enjoyable crime thriller. The camera tracks along the windows of a row of houses as, in sequence, people are awoken by some nearby loud banging. And that sets the tone. As the story develops – young touring actress Diana (Norah Baring) is found in a daze next to the dead body of her colleague Edna; she says she has no memory of what happened; she’s arrested and charged with murder – Hitchcock has tremendous fun in the filmmaking playpen.

Visually, the movie never stops impressing and there’s a real sophistication to the framing and camera moves. An early example sees two women discuss the murder while walking back and forth between two connected rooms, the camera swinging back and forth (seemingly through a wall) as if it’s anxious not to miss a moment of the conversation. Later, there’s a terrific scene at the local theatre as the police question actors who constantly have to break off because they’re needed on stage – it’s dynamic, well-staged stuff that tells the story and has fun at the same time. Hitch is also experimenting with the then-new technology of sound: in her jail cell, actress Diana imagines her play going on without her; later, a character’s internal monologue is set to music, while another scene is played over the constant noise of a crying baby.

Diana’s court case comes 14 minutes into the story… and we’re into the jury room for deliberations after 17. The movie then becomes a kind of Twelve Angry Men precursor. The foreman leads his colleagues into discussion, and initially there are three not guiltys. The most assertive advocate is Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall), a famous actor-manager, and the sequence of him being questioned by the others is a marvel: the timing of the dialogue builds like music, with the lugubrious Kenneth Kove playing a nervous juror who repeats the same line as if it were a chorus.

Ultimately, though, Diana is found guilty and will be hanged. The sentence weighs heavy on Sir John’s shoulders, who then begins his own investigation into the murder. After his stint as Juror 8, he now becomes Sherlock Holmes. Eventually, he fathoms what really happened and corners the actual killer in a trap inspired by the Mousetrap scene from Hamlet. It’s entertaining stuff, though Diana is played so clipped, stoically and melodramatically (and is so rarely seen on screen) that at times you do wonder why Sir John is bothering.

Seven men walking past the house out of 10

Note: While shooting Murder!, Hitchcock was simultaneously filming another version of the same script on the same sets. This second production was Mary (1931), a German-language equivalent (no dubbing for foreign territories in those days of course). It featured a mostly new cast, though Miles Mander played the role of Gordon in both films.

Blake’s 7: The Web (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Liberator is ensnared by an enormous cobweb in space…

Series A, episode 5. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Michael E Briant. Originally broadcast: 30 January 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Like the rest of the crew, Jenna (5) has found some more new clothes in the Liberator’s storerooms. This week, she’s sporting a rather fetching burgundy dress with pastel detail on the shoulders. Her main contribution to the plot is a moment when the antagonists psychically take over her body and speak through her, which is a bit hammy.
* When the Liberator’s systems go wrong, Blake (5) assumes that one of Avon’s private research projects has caused the issue. But once it becomes clear that someone on a nearby planet is to blame for the ship being tangled up in an interstellar cobweb (no, really), Blake teleports down to the surface. He finds two strange scientists (who turn out to be from Cally’s planet: small galaxy!) and a race of angry midgets called Decimers. The former created the latter via experimentation but now want the energy resources to wipe them out. This puts Blake in a moral dilemma: unless he helps, the Liberator will forever be trapped.
* Cally (2) only joined the crew last episode, but early on here she’s acting very strangely. She sneaks around, boshes Vila over the head, sabotages the ship… But we soon learn she isn’t herself: the scientists are using her via physic powers to trap the Liberator in the web.
* Zen (3) reports that the ship is suffering from a deliberate malfunction.
* As mentioned, Vila (5) is knocked out cold. But his day improves when he finally gets to use the Liberator’s neutron blasters – something he’s been looking forward to.
* When the craziness begins, Avon (4) deduces that Cally is responsible. Well, she did ask about a vital bit of machinery just before it went on the blink. Not for the first time, the strikingly selfish Avon saves Blake’s life (when a small explosion is triggered in the cargo bay). He later moots to Gan that they could moneytise the Liberator’s advanced technology.
* Gan (4) restrains Cally when she’s under the influence of the bad guys.

Best bit: The Decimers storm the scientists’ base and violently tear them apart. I mean, really violently. You see ripped flesh and gore and bones and everything.

Worst bit: There’s an awful lot of boring procedural dialogue aboard the Liberator. Scenes of the regulars on the flight deck and staring at a viewscreen we can’t see seem to go on and on.

Review: As it was produced at the same time, by some of the same people and in the same building, it’s not surprising that Blake’s 7 shares a lot of similarities with Doctor Who. Both were mostly made on brightly lit studio sets. Both used video for indoor scenes and film for exteriors. Both stuck largely to non-diverse casting choices. The Web, however, feels more like an episode of Space: 1999 – despite the vastness of space, our characters randomly bump into something, are threatened by some out-there sci-fi nonsense, and get caught up in the very boring storyline with drab guest characters. Then just as you’re losing the will to carry on, some poor actor has to play a withered head in a water tank. The first rubbish episode.

Four fully charged flutonic power cells out of 10

Next episode: Seek-Locate-Destroy

Blake’s 7: Time Squad (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

En route to a Federation communications installation, the crew of the Liberator stumble across a mysterious space pod containing cryogenically frozen people…

Series A, episode 4. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Pennant Roberts. Originally broadcast: 23 January 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Blake (4) has a plan: the first ‘mission’ for the newly assembled team. He’d clearly rather not discuss it, however, and forces through the idea that they travel to Saurian-Major and destroy a vital Federation communications node.
* Jenna (4) teaches the others how to pilot the Liberator, then after a mystery pod is found floating in space, she teleports aboard it with Blake. In the second half of the episode, she gets a big subplot mostly to herself: the pod’s cryogenically frozen occupants wake up and attack her.
* Avon (3) is vocally cynical and obstructive when Blake pitches his plan to knock out a Federation installation. But he knows that he’s better off aboard the Liberator than on his own so eventually goes along with it. Despite the antihero vibe, Avon even saves Blake and Jenna’s lives when they’re running out of oxygen aboard the pod.
* Zen (2) behaves very strangely, refusing to help and speaking in a fractured manner…
* …so Gan (3) suggests that the computer might have a ‘limiter’ that restricts how much he can help them. Later, Gan admits to Jenna that he killed the man who murdered his partner. He now gets headaches and we see that he has an implant in his head – presumably the same kind of ‘limiter’ he mentioned earlier.
* Vila (4) gets a few droll lines, then is coerced into accompanying Blake and Avon to the planet Saurian-Major, where they encounter…
* Cally (1) is a solo guerrilla fighting the Federation on Saurian-Major. She’s from the planet Auron and can communicate telepathically (though not read people’s thoughts). At the end of the episode, she accepts Blake’s offer to join the Liberator crew, meaning the team is now up to the number promised in the series title (as long as you count Zen, which is the intention). Actress Jan Chappell doesn’t get a massive amount to do in her debut; it’s just an introduction.

Best bit: Investigating the pod, Avon attempts to deduce its purpose. “No sign of any weapons,” he says. “In fact, there isn’t much equipment at all. Either they were headed for a civilised destination where they expected a friendly reception or…” – he grins a fantastic, shit-eating grin – “…we are missing the point entirely.”

Worst bit: The spell-it-out-for-the-viewers chat to clarify the extent of Cally’s telepathic abilities.

Review: There are two plots this week, which don’t especially have anything to do with each other. Sadly, in both cases the set-up promises more than is delivered. Cryogenically frozen people from the past being found and thawed out is an idea that crops up in several science-fiction TV shows: Star Trek (Space Seed, 1967), Star Trek: The Next Generation (The Neutral Zone, 1988), Red Dwarf (Justice, 1991), Babylon 5 (The Long Dark, 1994), and more. The Blake’s 7 take on the concept leads to some good horror-movie-esque scenes of Jenna trapped alone in the cargo hold with the newly awoken people. It’s creepy, well shot, and Dudley Simpson’s incidental music is spot-on. But it’s all a bit superficial because the frozen people are just character-less plot devices. Meanwhile, the action story down on the planet sees Blake, Avon, Vila and new pal Cally complete their mission remarkably easily. At least it gets the show out on location, ticking off Blake’s 7’s two favourite landscapes: a quarry and a power station.

Seven paraneutronic generators out of 10

Next episode: The Web

Suspicion (1941)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A young heiress falls for a charming rogue. But after their wedding she begins to doubt his intentions…

While there’s a nice, rising menace in this story, events start conventionally enough. Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) comes from a stuffy, drab, middle-England life; she meets charmer Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant); he sweeps her off her feet; they fall in love and quickly marry. But then when they return from their honeymoon, Lina learns that Johnnie’s skint and a cheat and a liar.

You feel for Lina’s plight. She’s trapped in a bad situation she didn’t see coming – and sadly the modern-day solution (telling him to get lost) doesn’t seem to be an option. Johnnie is clearly a wrong’un. He pawns two priceless chairs that were a wedding present from her father, shows little concern when his best friend nearly chokes to death, then pretends to have a job just to stop Lina asking too many questions. But because he’s played by Cary Grant, he also has genuine charisma and you’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Then, on the day the increasingly worried Lina learns Johnnie was sacked weeks previously for stealing £2,000 from his employer, her father dies. Johnnie soon has designs on the family inheritance, but is visibly disappointed when they don’t get anything from the will. So he starts planning a dodgy-sounding real-estate deal with his friend Beaky (played by a fun Nigel Bruce). But then Lina suspects that her husband plans to kills his mate – in a nice Hitchcockian moment, the idea hits her while she fiddles with some Scrabble tiles and spells out the word ‘murder’. Beaky dies a few days later…

The tension’s mounting now, especially after Johnnie drives dangerously down a clifftop road with passenger Lina fearing for her life. But then comes the truth: Johnnie has an alibi for Beaky’s death. He’s a crook, yes, but not a killer. And now the film rather undercuts itself. An unsatisfying ending can undo a lot of good work – and as Lina begs her shit of a husband for another chance, you’re suddenly reminded that Suspicion was made in a bygone era. In a final moment with troubling undertones, Johnnie says they have no future but then puts his arm around her as they drive home.

Six men posting letters out of 10

Blake’s 7: Cygnus Alpha (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Having escaped, Blake, Avon and Jenna use their new spaceship to travel to Cygnus Alpha, intent on rescuing their colleagues. But a religious cult is ruling the prison planet…

Series A, episode 3. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 16 January 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Blake (3) is being defined as the crusader of the regular cast – a leader of men, an almost messianic figure. Having said that, he’s not *totally* altruistic: he wants to rescue Vila, Gan and the others stranded on Cygnus Alpha not because of their suffering but because he needs a crew for his rebellion against the Federation.
* Having found a firearm aboard their new ship, the Liberator, Avon (2) points it at Blake and Jenna. But they simply shrug the incident off – as Jenna later admits, the fact Avon is clearly out for number one would be unsettling if she thought he didn’t mean it. When Blake later heads down to the planet to look for the others, Avon advocates leaving him behind – especially after finding a fortune stored aboard the Liberator – but Jenna won’t let him. Paul Darrow continues to make his character endlessly interesting: this is a man who doesn’t even push a button in a conventional manner.
* Jenna (3) is biding her time, working out how to pilot the Liberator and operate its controls, while alpha males Blake and Avon take the lead. She also gets a colourful new blouse after finding a storeroom full of clothes.
* Zen (1), voiced by Peter Tuddenham, is the artificial-intelligence programme that runs the Liberator. He knows who Blake, Avon and Jenna are, so computer expert Avon is therefore suspicious of him.
* Vila (3) and Gan (2) arrive on Cygnus Alpha with other prisoners from the London. They’re soon told by the religious cult who act as jailers that they’re now infected with a condition called the Curse of Cygnus, which means they’ll need special medication for the rest of their lives. Thankfully, after Blake has arrived and rescued them, we learn the curse was just a cover story to keep the prisoners in check. Phew!

Best bit: If I were condemned to a lifelong prison sentence on a barren, rocky planet run by religious nutters, I’d still take solace from the fact I’d be near Pamela Salem. She plays Kara, one of the cult, and is extremely attractive.

Worst bit: The super-ship that showed up so conveniently in episode two continues to unashamedly provide our heroes with advantages. When Blake, Avon and Jenna explore the craft, they find complex weapons, an AI computer, a teleport device, a cache of enormous wealth and an ability to travel through space at high speed. Aren’t characters meant to achieve things themselves rather than just randomly be given the upper hand?

Review: For episode three, there’s a nice change of tone. So far, the show has taken place in a cold, colourless, metallic, sci-fi world of totalitarianism. But now we arrive on Cygnus Alpha, which is a windswept, mediaeval world run by a monastic-like cult. Its leader, Vargas, is played by Brian Blessed in a pre-Flash Gordon performance that’s not *quite* as bombastic as those he later indulged in. Enjoyable stuff.

Seven human souls are the only currency (our god is bankrupt without them) out of 10

Next episode: Time Squad

Jamaica Inn (1939)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A young Irish woman travels to Cornwall to meet her aunt, but soon encounters a local gang of smugglers…

Alfred Hitchcock’s last film before he moved to Hollywood is the first of his three adaptations of Daphne du Maurier novels. Readers of her 1936 book, however, will spot many differences. It’s still the wild, windy Cornish coastline of the early 19th century, and the plot is still ignited when a young woman arrives to live with her aunt. But Hitch and his team of writers added a new master villain and tweaked the romance subplot. The result never quite comes together, sadly.

It begins impressively. The opening dramatises a ship drawn off course by a nefarious light in the night and purposely wrecked on the ragged rocks. It’s amazing well staged with models, full-size sets and gallons of water sloshing around. The sequence then takes a even darker turn as the survivors of the wreck are murdered by the gang of smugglers who caused it.

We then cut to the beautiful, feisty heroine of the story: Mary Yellan (Maureen O’Hara). Her mother has died back home in Ireland, so she’s travelling to Jamaica Inn, a Cornish coaching house, to live with her aunt. However, she ends up being stranded on the moor, so knocks on the first front door she can find. It turns out to be the house of the local squire: the bloated, erudite hedonist Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton, theatrical), who’s hosting a dinner party but agrees to take her to Jamaica Inn.

At the eponymous inn, the plot twists come thick and fast: Mary’s uncle, the slovenly Joss (Leslie Banks), is the leader of the wreckers; and although no one but the two men know it, his boss is Sir Humphrey. The gang, by the way, is full of distinctive, memorable character actors having fun with little screentime. When they suspect their newest member of stealing from them, they hang him and leave him hung – but shocked Mary cuts him down and they flee. We then get another plot twist: the man, Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton), is actually an undercover lawman. However, he chooses to reveal this information to the local justice of the peace, Sir Humphrey…

But for all its snakes-and-ladders plotting, the film lacks something. Hitchcock directs with a good pace, but you never feel for the characters’ plights. It’s all atmosphere and shock reveals. The poor treatment of the female characters is also a problem. Mary is the lead character, yet is absent for long stretches, while both her and her aunt make lame excuses for the brutish behaviour of the male characters.

Five rum-rotten sailors out of 10

Blake’s 7: Space Fall (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Blake, Jenna and Vila are aboard the spaceship London, en route for a prison planet, but Blake is plotting to escape. Then the London comes across another craft drifting in space…

Series A, episode 2. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Pennant Roberts. Originally broadcast: 9 January 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Seeing how he’s being taken to a prison planet, Blake (2) doesn’t waste any time in trying to escape. He recruits Jenna, Vila and others to a plan to seize control the ship, but it only goes half-right: some of the prisoners are caught and the sadistic crew start to murder them until Blake gives himself up. Then the London stumbles across a strange, highly sophisticated and abandoned ship in deep space. The scout party are seemingly killed, so the London’s captain orders Blake, Jenna and Avon to go aboard to see what’s happened. They manage to survive the experience and – didn’t the captain see this coming? – bugger off with the new ship.
* Jenna (2) is not surprised when the sub-commander of the London, Raiker, takes a special interest in her. She’s the only female prisoner… and he’s a prick. But when he hints that he can make her life easier in return for a favour, she whispers an insult into his ear and he slaps her. She looks back defiantly.
* Vila (2) has a key part to play in Blake’s escape plan: distract the naïve guard with magic tricks while the others are doing sneaky-sneaky stuff involving an access panel. He already feels like the comic relief.
* One of the other prisoners aboard the London is computer expert Kerr Avon (1), who initially wants to keep himself to himself but can’t resist showing off his knowledge. We’re told he nearly stole five million credits, but he ‘relied on other people’ and the plan went wrong. Blake eventually persuades him to help with his rebellion, and Avon sneaks into the ship’s access shafts to fiddle with the central computer. Paul Darrow is incredibly watchable, using an acting style that’s total bravado and confidence and commitment.
* Olag Gan (1) is another prisoner. His defining characteristic is ‘big, tall bloke’, which enables him to help the escape attempt by threatening to cut off a guard’s hand. David Jackson doesn’t have much substance to play.

Best bit: The combination of Blake and Avon is fantastic straight off the bat. The clash of the two characters’ attitudes – and the two actors’ performances – creates a fascinating dynamic. Puritanical Blake says power should be back with the honest man. ‘Have you ever met an honest man?’ quips the cynical Avon.

Worst bit: Yes, this series was made in the inflation-heavy 1970s. Yes, the BBC is a cost-effective public-service broadcaster. Yes, tastes and expectations change over time. But nevertheless the studio sets of the London are really, really crummy. Drab, flat, grey walls and bodged-looking fixtures. It’s easy to see why Blake’s 7 has so often been ridiculed for looking cheap.

Review: A fine episode that again focuses on the lead character but also expands the cast of regulars. Blake quickly becomes the leader of the prisoners, but not through violence or intimidation or resources or because his name’s in the show’s title. It’s because of his powers of persuasion. He issues orders and plans strategies, while the others – Jenna, Vila, Avon – fall into line because he’s talking sense. It’s good writing and smart acting. The London, meanwhile, is crewed by guest actors from the Tom Baker era of Doctor Who (Glyn Owen from The Power of Kroll, Norman Tipton from Underworld and Leslie Schofield from The Face of Evil). One of them, Raiker (Schofield), is clearly a nasty piece of work who considers sexual abuse then murders prisoners for sadistic fun. Just in case you were still in any doubt, this is another indicator that Blake’s 7 is not a cosy, safe sci-fi romp. It’s dangerous and cruel, and that makes it interesting and unpredictable. This is such an enjoyable episode, in fact, that you forgive it the *enormous* deus ex machina of a super-ship landing in our heroes’ laps just when they need to escape.

Eight hull punctures out of 10

Next episode: Cygnus Alpha