Blake’s 7: Blake (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Avon needs a new figurehead for his anti-Federation rebellion and thinks he’s found the ideal candidate…

Series D, episode 13. Written by: Chris Boucher. Directed by: Mary Ridge. Originally broadcast: 21 December 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* As the story begins, the gang escape Xenon base – which was bombed in the previous episode – and fly off in Scorpio. Following a plan of Avon’s, Tarrant (26) then sets course for the lawless planet Gauda Prime – but as they approach, Scorpio comes under attack! The others abandon ship via the teleport machine while Tarrant stays aboard to crash-land the craft. He’s hurt in the landing, but survives…
* Slave (12) powers down after the crash.
* At the start of the episode, Avon (51) lays out his plan to find a new leader for the rebellion movement. He needs a particular man, one who can inspire followers and is willing to fight the Federation relentlessly. Orac says he’s located the man and he’s on Gauda Prime: it’s the long-lost Blake… After the Scorpio crash, Avon is stranded on the planet with Orac, but eventually finds most of his colleagues and saves them from some bandits. They then find a small aircraft and use it to follow another flyer to a nearby base. Avon assumes the other flyer contains Blake…
* When Avon talks about his potential new figurehead, Vila (52 – therefore completing a 100-per-cent appearance record) smiles ruefully. ‘It’s Blake, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘You think you’ve found Blake.’ After the crash, Vila, Dayna and Soolin take refuge in an abandoned hut, but their fire attracts some unwanted company.
* Soolin (13) has heard of Gauda Prime. In fact, she grew up there. She only left after her farming family were brutally killed. She says it’s a ‘bad place to be; no self-respecting idealist would be found dead there.’
* Dayna (26) points out that Servalan once told them Blake was dead. Avon replies, not unreasonably, that Servalan lies.
* Orac (35) actually located Blake a while ago, but he and Avon kept the information to themselves while Avon investigated other options.
* When we see him – for the first time since season two – Blake (27) seems to be living rough on Gauda Prime. He has a scarred face and workaday clothes. He encounters and saves a woman called Arlen, who was being tracked by several bounty hunters… but then reveals that *he’s* a bounty hunter too. He takes her back to a base to claim his reward, and while there hears about a space ship that’s crashed nearby. So he flies out to the wreck of the Scorpio, where he meets an injured Tarrant – the first ever meeting between the two characters. Taking him back to the base as well, Blake then reveals that he knows who Tarrant is. He also knows that Avon must be close by, so Blake lays in wait… Tarrant soon escapes and does a runner, which means he doesn’t hear the information that the bounty-hunter routine is just a façade: Blake is still fighting the good fight and is recruiting for his own anti-Federation group. He was simply testing Tarrant, as he’d done with Arlen. Then Avon, Vila, Soolin and Dayna come bursting in. Avon and Blake see each other for the first time since the Liberator crew stormed Star One…

Best bit: The final few minutes of the episode constitute Blake’s 7’s finest scene. Writer Chris Boucher – the prime creative force behind the scenes once creator Terry Nation became distracted by other projects – does an astonishing job of setting up the climax. Expert plotting and characterisation maneuverer Blake and Avon into the perfect position for a confrontation fuelled by misunderstanding. Avon, the perennial cynic and sceptic, has actually come to believe in Blake – so is sucker-punched when he assumes Blake is now nothing more than a selfish mercenary who’s going to sell them out. And this leads to a fatal showdown, which has huge weight and impact. The most famous moment is Avon’s bitter, dejected cry of ‘Have you betrayed me?’ – actor Paul Darrow someone managing to emphasise every single possible meaning all at the same time. But the killer line comes from Blake: ‘Avon, I was waiting for *you*…’ But the appeal doesn’t work and Avon instinctively and angrily shoots Blake dead. That’s some Shakespearean-tragedy shit right there.

Worst bit: Every now and again you come across someone who’s misunderstood this episode’s ending. After Blake’s death, our heroes don’t last much longer. Arlen reveals herself as a Federation spy, but Avon barely notices – he just stares blankly at Blake’s corpse. Arlen kills Dayna, then Federation soldiers burst in and shoot Vila and Soolin and Tarrant. Avon is surrounded, alone, helpless. He straddles Blake’s body protectively and waits for the inevitable. He raises his gun and smirks…. Freeze-frame, cut to credits, and we hear a hail of bullets. It’s one of the greatest moments in all of television sci-fi. But because we cut to the end titles before we literally *see* Avon being shot, some people hold the theory that he might have survived. Give me strength. That’s missing the dramatic point of the scene on a *galactic* scale.

Review: The final episode of Blake’s 7 has an unrelenting pull. Avon and Blake’s reunion is coming from the moment the latter’s name appears in the opening titles, yet the script delays and delays to build the tension. The whole thing is also really well directed – there’s an intensity and focus to every scene, a real sharpness to the storytelling. And the overall tone returns us to the cynical edge that was more evident in the show’s early episodes. A sensational series finale.

10 of these holes in the ground out of 10

Blake’s 7: Warlord (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Avon attempts to organise the anti-Federation rebellion, but a local planetary leader causes problems when his daughter disobeys him…

Series D, episode 12. Written by: Simon Masters. Directed by: Viktors Ritelis. Originally broadcast: 14 December 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* On Xenon base, Avon (50) has called a meeting of powerful men in order to discuss how they can combat the Federation’s pacification programme, which is being used to subdue planet after planet. He wants to coral the factions into a cohesive team, and offers them access to the antitoxin. The only problem? He needs both raw material and equipment. Then there’s a late arrival to the confab – a bombastic dullard called Zukan, who’s the president of the planet Betafarl and a man with lots of resources. The others don’t like him, but he has the raw material so an accord is reached. Zukan then flips his lid when he learns that his daughter, Zeeona, is secretly on the base. In order to keep him happy, Avon agrees to accompany her home. But when Zeeona tricks him and teleports back to the base, Avon has little choice but to continue his journey to Betafarl and keep up the pretense – he knows that moody Zukon is following in his ship. On Betafarl, though, Avon twigs he’s been conned too when he and Soolin are attacked by Federation troops! They escape and race back to Xenon; on the way, they encounter Zukon’s ship, drifting in space after an accident. He wants rescuing and says he’ll tell Avon how to save his colleagues from their base, which he’s booby-trapped, but Avon reckons he can save them himself – and leaves Zukon to die…
* Dayna (25) realises, after Zukon has left the base, that he’s planted an airborne radioactive virus in the ventilation system.
* Vila (51) does a lot of moaning and, later, some drinking. Remember when he had a personality?
* Soolin (12) goes with Avon when he attempts to take Zeeona home. (The colleagues dress like mechanics at a disco for some reason.) But when alone, Zeeona asks for help. She wants to teleport back to the base to be with Tarrant, so softie Soolin helps her. (Women!) Later, on Betafarl, Soolin pretends to be Zeeona when they bump into some Federation soldiers… and they just let her go! Don’t they have photos in the future?
* Orac (34) warns the others of an explosive device (‘A bomb?’ asks Dayna, hoping for further clarification), which Zukon has left behind after his visit.
* When Zukon’s processing equipment is being installed in the base, Tarrant (25) is shocked to catch sight of Zukon’s daughter, Zeeona. (He could hardly miss her. She has a massive, pink, Cyndi Lauper wig and a vacant look in her eye.) Her dad doesn’t know she’s there, but she and Tarrant have met before and there’s a romantic connection. The pair spend some sexy time together, but then Zukon finds out and goes ballistic… Later, Tarrant is caught in the explosion caused by the bomb Orac mentioned: despite it going off *in his face* and destroying most of the base, Tarrant survives more or less okay. But he and the others are now trapped and their air is running out. Later still, Tarrant is cut up when Zeeona is killed by radiation. (No one else seems that fussed.)
* Towards the end of the episode, Servalan (29) is… YAWN… revealed as… YAWN… being behind Zukon’s machinations. Doesn’t a plot twist lose its impact when it’s already been used 27 times?
* Slave (11).

Best bit: Surely next week’s episode will be better?

Worst bit: There’s a lot to choose from, but let’s go for an obvious one. The powwow of anti-Federationists features some of the worst and cheapest-looking costumes in Blake’s 7 history – and that’s really saying something. None of them feels like clothes someone would wear or like they represent a culture or imply a backstory. It’s just a random collection of bizarre outfits.

Review: It may be elaborately directed – a trippy opening sequence showing drugged citizenry, slow dissolves and extreme close-ups, dreadful greenscreen and crummy video effects, handheld camera and crash zooms – but all the gimmicks in the world can’t save Blake’s 7’s weakest episode. The script is fairly awful, but then we get one of the worst guest casts ever assembled. It’s a parade of bad acting. The regular actors just look embarrassed. 

Three non-aligned planets out of 10

Next episode: Blake

The Paradine Case (1947)

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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 a barrister takes on the case of a woman accused of killing her husband, he begins to fall for her – will it compromise her chances of acquittal?

The rumour is that Hitchcock only made this film to fulfil his contract with famed Hollywood producer David O Selznick, the man who’d first brought him to America. The partnership had produced at least one classic of cinema – 1946’s Notorious – but Hitch was feeling hidebound and wanted free of a producer who was all-too-keen to put his own stamp on each film. (Selznick’s name is egotistically all over The Paradine Case’s credits, even going as far as introducing two of the actors as ‘new Selznick Stars’.) Leading man Gregory Peck later said that Hitch had seemed bored with the material, and that’s not hard to believe. It’s one of his most flatly orthodox movies.

London, 1946. A wealthy widow called Maddalena Anna Paradine (Alida Valli, who’s lit like a movie star but has little of the sparkle) is arrested for the murder of her husband, an older, blind man. She’s a frosty, calm, reserved woman, but when hotshot barrister Tony Keane (Peck) is hired to represent her, he can’t help falling under her spell. This causes tensions in his marriage, with wife Gay (Ann Todd) feeling increasingly sidelined and ignored…

A big problem is that neither the script nor the performances ever convince you why Tony is so infatuated with Mrs Paradine. Peck is fine enough as the blinkered barrister, but Italian actress Alida Valli – credited as simply Valli as a marketing gimmick – is too cold, too aloof, too drab to generate much interest as the defendant. (Hitch had wanted to cast Greta Garbo, but she turned it down. Hedy Lamarr and Notorious’s Ingrid Bergman were also considered.) It’s also – it must be said – a rather boring, two-suspect case. Mrs P is accused of poisoning her husband, perhaps as an act of mercy because he was unhappy with being blind. The only other person who could’ve done it is the man’s valet, a French Canadian called André Latour. Given that Tony is desperate to prove his client’s innocence, he travels to the Paradines’ Cumberland holt to meet Latour (future Bond villain and future Dracula Louis Jourdan, all brooding and intense). The valet acts suspiciously and evasively, then snaps and tells Tony that Mrs Paradine is evil.

Then, after an hour, we enter the courtroom section of the movie. We’re in the Old Bailey – still bomb-damaged after the war – so it’s a world of wigs and gowns and people sitting in place, rather than suited American lawyers Perry Mason-ing all over the place. A haughty Charles Laughton is the judge; Hitchcock regular Leo G Carroll is the prosecution lawyer. Gay Keane sits in the gallery with a friend helpfully spelling out what each story beat means. But despite Mrs P being the accused, Tony has by now gone overboard in love with her, so the scenes play more like *Latour* is on trial. Tony harangues him in the witness box, to such a degree that during a recess in the trial Latour kills himself with shame.

Courtroom stories always have built-in drama; they’re difficult things to make boring. And The Paradine Case has its fair share of legalese, barristers’ objections, semantic bickering, shock reveals and the judge intervening. But the earlier sections of the film haven’t set up the second half well enough. So when the news of Latour’s death hits Mrs Paradine hard, and she admits that she’s guilty, and that Latour was her lover, and that she hates Tony for what he’s done, it has nowhere near the punch it should have.

Five men carrying a cello out of 10

Blake’s 7: Orbit (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The opportunity arises for Avon and co to acquire a new weapon – but can they trust the man who’s selling it?

Series D, episode 11. Written by: Robert Holmes. Directed by: Brian Lighthill. Originally broadcast: 7 December 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* As the episode begins, Slave (10) reports that the Scorpio has arrived at a mostly inhospitable planet called Maldovar.
* Avon (49) initially plans on sending Tarrant and Dayna down to the surface (‘I get chilblains,’ is his excuse for not going) to seek out a renegade genius called Egrorian, who disappeared years previously with a chunk of cash. But when Egrorian then gets in touch, he insists that Avon come himself… in a shuttle… and alone. Avon manages to negotiate a concession: he’ll bring his ‘assistant’ Vila with him. On Maldovar, they meet Egrorian and his elderly helper, Pinder, then learn that Egrorian has a super-weapon to trade: a tachyon funnel, which can destroy distant and enormous objects at the push of a button. He offers it to Avon in exchange for Orac – in part, he says, because he wants the infamous rebel Avon to destroy the Federation. On the way back to Scorpio to fetch Orac, Avon infers – from a very small piece of circumstantial evidence – that Servalan is behind Egrorian’s plan. So he pretends to trade Orac, but it’s actually a mock-up Avon prepared earlier. Avon and Vila do the deal and get away, but then realise they’ve been conned too: their shuttle is too heavy and has little fuel. It’s about to crash…
* At first, Vila (50) doesn’t volunteer to go down to Maldovar – he says he likes to stay with Avon ‘where it’s safe.’ His logic then comes back to bite him when Avon has to go and insists on taking Vila with him. Later, after the exchange, when Vila and Avon realise they’re going to crash, they frantically jettison every available item they can think of…
* Soolin (11) has to be the crewmember who’s never heard of Egrorian so the others can explain. Later, it’s also clear that – for some reason – she wasn’t informed about Avon’s con. (Good old Robert Holmes. Amazing, witty, exciting writer. Seemed to have no interest in female characters.)
* Tarrant (24) takes the Scorpio into deep space – out of harm’s way – while Avon and Vila are down on Maldovar. He *then* decides to reveal a rather important nugget of information: he once heard rumours that Egrorian and Servalan were in cahoots. Shouldn’t you have mentioned that before Avon left?
* Dayna (24) and Soolin ridicule Vila when he returns from meeting Egrorian and pretends he knows all about tachyon technology.
* Servalan (28) shows up. Again. Hasn’t she got a day job?
* Orac (33) is seemingly given away by Avon – but it was just a trick.

Best bit: The episode takes a sudden, dark and gripping turn late on when Vila and Avon realise they’re going to crash unless they lighten the load of the shuttle. They get rid of everything that’s not bolted down, but still need to lose an extra 70 kilos. ‘Vila weighs 73 kilos, Avon,’ points out Orac. Avon coolly reaches for a gun and begins to stalk the ship to find his colleague. Vila hides nervously in the cargo hold… (This story beat, which only lasts about three minutes, could have been the basis of an entire episode. Eventually, Avon finds the item that’s dragging the ship down – a super-heavy cube of neutron matter planted by Egrorian – and manages to get rid of it.)

Worst bit: Telling a story economically is commendable. No one wants to linger on boring details. But here, we’re asked to believe that Avon is convinced of the star-destroying capabilities of a new weapon of mass destruction simply because he’s shown an easily mocked-up image on a video screen. Egrorian is then likewise conned after a very scant demonstration of Orac. (Also: why didn’t Avon and Vila just take their teleport bracelets as a back-up when they visited Egrorian?)

Review: The fact Orbit is so entertaining is somewhat strange, because it’s far from perfect. The plot is a bit too mechanical, a bit too convoluted. Servalan’s involvement is head-banging-on-desk tiresome. And some of the acting is… let’s be charitable and say dated. Fond as he was of writing pairs of characters, Robert Holmes has populated his planet with just two residents: Ergrorian and Pinder, who come off like a bickering married couple. Egrorian is the Hyacinth Bucket figure – self-obsessed, vain and a little bit cruel – while Pinder is the henpecked husband. Egrorian is played by John Savident (I say, John Savident) and is a florid, bombastic man. And the actor isn’t exactly playing against the writing. It gets even worse when Servalan enters the stage: Savident and Jacqueline Pearce seem to be egging each other on to be more and more theatrical and hammy. But stories with characters conning each other are often fun, and this is no exception. The episode doesn’t hang about and gives plenty of action and meat to Avon and Vila – the last remaining characters from the early days of season one.

Eight ruthless desperadoes of legend out of 10

Next episode: Warlord

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018, Peyton Reed)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Scott Lang is under house arrest, but must leap into action when old pals Hank and Hope need help finding a long-lost loved one…

By the mid 1980s, Christopher Reeve had played Superman in three successful movies. For the fourth instalment, he was given an opportunity to develop the story himself and he hit upon the idea of Superman tackling the world’s growing proliferation of nuclear weapons. He then went to Tom Mankiewicz, the writer of the first two films, for some advice… and Mankiewicz told him to avoid the issue like it were Kryptonite. If Superman can solve the Cold War, he argued, then surely he can do anything. As a story idea, it just opened up too many cans of worms. Why doesn’t the Man of Steel cure cancer, then? Why doesn’t he solve world hunger? Why doesn’t he stop every rapist?

In the event, the advice was ignored – and we ended up with the rotten Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. But Mankiewicz had a point. Superheroes are not real. They don’t fit well into the real world. Superhero films need to construct a context for their stories – one where, for example, it’s plausible that an all-powerful character such as Superman could have obstacles to overcome. But in Ant-Man and the Wasp, the desire to have some fun results in a film where you constantly ask, ‘If they can do *that*, why don’t they just…?’

It’s been a couple of years since we last checked in with Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), the ex-con who became the miniaturising superhero Ant-Man in his debut film. He’s under house arrest after an unauthorised sojourn to Germany in Captain America: Civil War, but is having fun visits from his young daughter and is also setting up a security business with his pals. Meanwhile, his old cohorts Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) are attempting to develop technology that will allow them to locate Hope’s mother, Janet. She was lost in the quantum realm when she shrank down dangerously small 30 years earlier. Oh, and Hope has become a superhero herself: she has her own miniaturising suit – complete with wings and blasters – and is known as the Wasp. (She’s therefore the first woman mentioned specifically in the title of an MCU movie. It’s taken 20 films.)

Hank and Hope’s quest means doing a shady deal with a rent-a-complication bad guy called Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins). They need to acquire some vital equipment for their Death Star-like quantum tunnel – a device that will shrink them small enough to find the infinitesimally small Janet. And here’s just one instance of ‘Why don’t they just…?’ Hope can reduce herself to the size of a wasp. She has a gizmo that means she can change the size of other things too – cars, salt cellars, entire buildings and all their contents – so where is the suspense meant to be when Burch reneges on the deal? Can’t she just buzz in, shrink the equipment and buzz off without anyone knowing?

Anyway, when the deal goes south, a fight breaks out – and Hope and Burch’s goons are not the only ones involved. A mysterious character referred to as Ghost shows up and is determined to claim the equipment for herself. (Ghost is patently a woman, though at first Hope and Hank assume she’s a man for some reason.) Covered in a mushroom-grey bodysuit that brings to mind tardigrades, bizarre micro-animals that grow to just half a millimetre in size, she steals the MacGuffin and legs it. We then learn that she’s Ava Starr (Hannah John-Kamen), a young woman who – due to an scientific accident when she was a child – is constantly phasing in and out of reality. She’s being helped by an old pal of her father’s, Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne, previously Perry White in the rival DC series of movies).

With the pieces now in place, the ‘plot’ becomes a succession of chase sequences as various characters attempt to gain control of Hank’s lab, which has been shrunk down to the size of suitcase. Some of them are fun, such as a comedic sequence at a school that sees Scott inconveniently stuck at either half or twice his normal size. (After her time in the Hobbit films, Evangeline Lilly has form for playing opposite actors being artificially sized up or down by CGI. The film also wisely ignores any fetish subtext of her appearing half the size of Paul Rudd.) But there are a large number of plot holes, which become more and more difficult to ignore.

The biggest comes when Hank, Hope and Scott manage to send Hank down into the quantum realm and he finally locates his long-lost wife. Janet is played by silver vixen Michelle Pfeiffer, but no attempt is made to explain how she’s survived in a desolate micro-world for 30 years. What has she been eating? Drinking? Using for moisturiser? Why hasn’t she gone insane after three decades with no human contact or external stimuli? Perhaps, having been Catwoman in a different superhero series, she’s got more than one life to play with.

Another disappointment is the drearily orthodox filmmaking. Maybe this is like criticising a four-door family salon for not being a sportscar, but Ant-Man and the Wasp is very bland cinema. Scene after scene plays out in boring medium shots and over-the-shoulder cutting. There’s no distinction or panache to anything, no visual storytelling (which is even more of a shame when you notice that the cinematographer is Dante Spinotti, who shot Heat and LA Confidential). All the movement, drama and emphasis comes from the never-ending editing. It’s by no means unique to this film, it must be said: it’s the MCU house style.

But despite these problems, this is still a zippy, enjoyable – if disposable – couple of hours. Paul Rudd is charming, funny and likeable. Evangeline Lilly is excellent, providing both sass and heart. There are some good jokes, including a few meta-gags that poke fun at the film’s clichés. Michael Peña is good value as Scott’s mate Luis, even getting a reprise of his fast-talking montage from the first Ant-Man film. And of course there’s the general Marvel sheen to everything. But it’s doubtful it’ll linger long in the memory.

Six men who miss the 1960s out of 10

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Blake’s 7: Gold (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The crew of the Scorpio attempt to steal a large consignment of gold…

Series D, episode 10. Written by: Colin Davis. Directed by: Brian Lighthill. Originally broadcast: 30 November 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Avon (48) has had Scorpio chase after and hook up with a cruiser called the Space Princess. He’s seeking out old acquaintance Keiller, who has a proposition for the team: the ship may appear to be a luxury liner, but is actually used to transport gold incognito; they could steal a cache worth 17 billion. There’s a snag, though: the gold is processed in such a way that they need a special code to restore its glistening amber loveliness. So Avon, Soolin and Keiller teleport down to the processing plant on the planet Zerok… Later, during the heist attempt on the Space Princess, Avon learns that Keiller used to work for ‘the president’ so confronts him. He admits that he was told to contact Avon and co, but is twisting the plan so he can escape with the gold for himself. Near the end, Avon is nearly caught in the air lock between the two ships, but Vila manages to teleport him to safety just before his air runs out. He then leads the gang to a rendezvous to meet the gold’s enigmatic buyers…
* Vila (49) stays aboard the Scorpio when the others go to hear Keiller’s pitch. He doesn’t want any part in the heist, thinking it’s a trap.
* Dayna (23) and Tarrant teleport to Zerok as back-up when Avon and Soolin attempt to break into the processing plant, but find Keiller unconscious and two scarred bodies. Assuming Avon and Soolin are dead, they take Keiller back to Scorpio, and he explains there was a fight and an explosion. Later, during the gang’s attempt to steal the gold, Dayna has to take drugs that make her appear desperately ill; this then gives the team an excuse to move her to the Scorpio… with the gold stored under her bed.
* Soolin (10) frisks Keiller when he comes aboard Scorpio (bet he enjoyed that). He then flirts with her, unsuccessfully. Soolin later helps Avon sneak into the processing plant. After Keiller has been found unconscious and taken away, we viewers learn that Soolin and Avon are alive and well – it was actually two security guards who were burnt to crispiness.
* During the heist, Tarrant (23) and Soolin mingle with the Space Princess’s passengers, who have been drugged to keep them in line.
* Orac (32) pipes up to explain why the team can’t just teleport the gold off the ship. After the successful robbery, however, he points out that the cash the team have gained from selling the gold is now worthless: Zerok has just ceded to the Federation, invalidating its economy.
* Slave (9).
* Servalan (27) shows up at the end of the episode – turns out, she’s Keiller’s buyer. Avon has seen the twist coming. (We all have, mate.)

Best bit: Keiller is played by Roy Kinnear, an actor who often combined slyness and guile with bumbling humour.

Worst bit: The tiresome twist that Servalan has been pulling the strings. (The revelation also means that last week’s connection between Servalan and Tarrant has to be all but ignored.)

Review: A heist episode with all the usual conventions: twists, turns, complications, booby-traps… It’s fun, fast-paced, engaging and entertaining.

Eight notes drawn by the Bank of Zerok out of 10

Next episode: Orbit

Blake’s 7: Sand (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While on a mission to find out why the Federation is so interested in the planet Virn, Tarrant has an encounter with Servalan…

Series D, episode 9. Written by: Tanith Lee. Directed by: Vivienne Cozens. Originally broadcast: 23 November 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Servalan (26) has come to the planet Virn to investigate a distress call from a pilot called Keller. He crashed there five years previously and had reported a unique trace of life on the planet. Along with an officer called Reeve (Stephen Yardley), Servalan lands on and walks across the barren, rocky desert to Keller’s prefab base. But it’s not a successful sortie: they get lost, a lackey mysteriously dies, and then they bump into Tarrant. After Tarrant has killed Reeve, Servalan flirtatiously offers a truce – and the enemies investigate the base together. There’s sand inside, the computer system has gone loopy and they find Keller dead, though his body is still warm. The base is then enclosed by shifting sands, trapping them inside…
* Vila (48) gets drunk when things start to go pear-shaped aboard the Scorpio.
* Dayna (22) and Tarrant teleport down to Virn to learn why the Federation expedition has gone there. But Reeve soon spots them and shoots Dayna in the arm, so Tarrant sends her back to Scorpio. Unbeknownst to anyone, she brings some sand up with her on her boots…
* Soolin (9) pilots the Scorpio; tends to Dayna’s flesh wound; and generally stands around looking fiercely sexy with a side-on ponytail.
* Avon (47) is the one who pitches the idea that the team should visit Virn. If the Federation are there, he argues, it must be for something useful – and he’d rather the Scorpio gang have whatever it is. Later, when Avon sees the sand that Dayna has brought up from the planet, he deduces that it’s dangerous and in some way sentient. But he also discovers that liquid can combat it, so he engineers a rainstorm on Virn.
* Once Dayna’s teleported back to the ship, Tarrant (22) encounters Reeve and kills him. After Servalan has revealed that she’s on the planet too, the pair are locked inside the base. They share a meal and flirt. (The fact the characters have barely interacted before this episode doesn’t seem to be important.) Tarrant also realises that the sand is alive – it has the ability to suck life out of people like a vampire and also has the power of reason. For example, it leaves potential couples alive so they can breed and produce more ‘food’. Servalan and Tarrant end up sleeping together, but later – after the rainstorm has dampened the sandy threat – he teleports back to Scorpio, leaving Servalan alone…
* Orac (31) has to be switched off when he’s affected by the goings-on and tells Avon that he loves him.
* Slave (8) also gets some bizarre dialogue.

Best bit: In a rare moment of sincerity and vulnerability, Servalan tells Tarrant that she was once in love with Keller. He left her when she was a teenager and, bitter at the rejection, ‘power became my lover.’ Tarrant later admits that she might have been lying to him as a manipulation, but we viewers know she wasn’t.

Worst bit: While speculating on the plot, Soolin tells the others that she ‘seems to recall you telling me of an alien trying to take over the Liberator through Cally.’ Do we think the others have sat her down and explained the storylines of all the episodes she missed? There were 39 of them, so it must have been a long evening: ‘Then Brian Blessed showed up… There was that time Avon thought he was Columbo… Dayna got menaced by a giant crab-spider-thing-type-thing… We met Cally’s sister and Tarrant’s brother, both of whom looked exactly like them… Did we mention when we got sucked into a black hole?’

Review: This is an episode high on both atmosphere and subtext, and there’s a real richness to the dialogue. It’s also plotted and paced very well and the drama is brilliantly played and directed. Sadly, the production lets the side down now and again. The scenes on the surface of Virn – a jarring, embarrassing clash of CSO, videotape, film and model shots – are pretty naff, for example. But it’s easy to forgive when the story keeps the attention, when the key scenes are so enjoyable, and when Servalan is more than just a Cruella de Vil with caustic quips.

Nine girls next door out of 10

Next episode: Gold

The Ring (1927)

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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.

An exhibition boxer is hired as a pro’s sparring partner. But then the pro makes a move on his girlfriend…

Some of the earliest ever movies were boxing films. In the 1890s, cinema pioneer William Kennedy Dickson – the man who came up with the industry-standard 35mm film format – recorded fights involving boxers such as world heavyweight champion James J Corbett. Short and basic, they were the world’s first sporting films – and they were staged specifically for the camera. So Alfred Hitchcock’s The Ring was following an established tradition. By 1927, of course, drama elements had been added to the mix – and the title of The Ring is actually a pun. As well as the boxing arena, it refers to a wedding ring. Because, for all the ways it prefigures movies such as Rocky and Ali, this is mostly a love-triangle melodrama.

At a funfair, Jack Sander (Carl Brisson, who had once been a prizefighter himself) is an undefeated boxer who puts on shows for the punters. But one day a man challenges him to a fight – and Jack is beaten. No wonder: it turns out the challenger is heavyweight champion Bob Corby (Ian Hunter). Jack’s done well enough, though, to be offered the job of Bob’s sparring partner. Bob then takes a shine to Jack’s girlfriend, Mabel (Lillian Hall-Davis). She initially returns his affections, then pulls away. She later marries Jack, but is torn between the two men. Meanwhile, Jack sets his sights on challenging Bob for the championship…

The film climaxes with the men’s bout, which seems to be taking place at the Albert Hall – a venue where Hitch used to watch boxing, fascinated by the rituals of the sport, and where he later set the finales of his two films called The Man Who Knew Too Much. We get all the now-familiar clichés of a boxing movie: the well-to-do crowd, the frantic cornermen, POV shots as the fighters square up, the camera shooting through the ropes.

You can sense a lineage from all this to, say, Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film Raging Bull. But nonetheless The Ring has dated. How could it not? It was released 91 years ago and everyone involved in the production is long gone. There are six actors credited in the opening titles, for example, and five of them died in – respectively – 1933, 1945, 1958, 1967 and 1975. (London-born Harry Terry’s date of death is unknown, but given that he was in born in 1887, we can safely assume he’s no longer with us either. The most tragic death was the first: depressed after a downturn in her career, Lillian Hall-Davis took her own life, aged just 35.)

Perhaps the most old-fashioned elements is the lack of dialogue. There are very few title cards containing speech, so as a modern viewer you’re left to infer an awful lot of the detail. It doesn’t help with engaging with the drama, and after a while you wish you could get inside the heads of the characters just a little bit more. This paucity of words may be explained by the fact the script is credited to just Hitchcock himself. (Other people did work on it, however, including his wife, Alma Reville.) He was much more comfortable with and interested in visual storytelling, so while the story, characters and situations are conventional and predictable, there is the usual array of dynamic shots and effects. Crowd scenes at the funfair always have a waltzer rotating in the background; some shots have superimposed images so we can know what a character is thinking as well as what they can see; and at one point Mabel and Bob are filmed reflected in the gently ebbing waters of a river.

The best piece of narrative-by-pictures comes when Jack’s success in the boxing world is dramatised by a montage that shows his name being given more and more prominent placings on successive posters. A fantastic Hitchcock grace note has the seasons changing too.

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Seven bracelets out of 10

Blake’s 7: Games (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Attempting to steal a valuable resource of energy, the crew of the Scorpio encounter both an old foe and a man who enjoys playing games…

Series D, episode 8. Written by: Bill Lyons. Directed by: Vivienne Cozens. Originally broadcast: 16 November 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Avon (46) has heard about a new power source – Feldon crystals, which provide an infinitely inexhaustible supply of energy – so has devised a plan to steal a large stash worth 900 million credits. Without telling his colleagues, he’s even made contact with an expert to help them – an academician called Gerren. The geezer who runs the crystal mine then gets in touch and offers to give the gang some Feldon if they help him escape the clutches of the Federation… Belkov is a fruity, charismatic man who enjoys playing all manner of games and puzzles. (If this episode were made today, he’d be a teenage hipster who gulps Red Bull as he bashes away at a keyboard.) However, when Avon and co finally reach where the Feldon crystals should be, they’re not there. The whole thing was a con: Belkov just needed someone to take the blame for his theft of the loot.
* Dayna (21) doesn’t trust Belkov as far as she could throw him, which as Vila underlines wouldn’t be very far. (Well, he is skimming millions of credits’ worth of profit off the top of his Federation-sanctioned mining operation.) Later, she stealthily comes to the rescue when Tarrant and Vila are caught by guards near the mine – but soon after, Belkov betrays the team and locks them up, hoping they’ll be blamed for some Feldon he’s swiped.
* For the most part, Soolin (8) has another episode where she hangs around on Scorpio, looks pretty, and asks male characters questions so they can appear clever. Her one moment of focus this week is when the gang attempt to break into Belkov’s ship, Orbiter. He’s booby-trapped it with interactive computer games (of course he has), so Soolin uses her quick-draw skills to win the first round.
* Orac (30) explains that Feldon is the hardest substance in the universe. (‘And currently the most valuable,’ adds Avon.)
* When Avon lays out his plan, Tarrant (21) has a concern: he wants to ensure they’re stealing the crystals in order to use them, not to sell them and risk them ending up back with the Federation. When the crew arrive at mining planet Mecron II, Tarrant, Dayna and Vila take Gerren with them to find the cache of crystals. Tarrant also has to try his hand at one of Belkov’s booby-traps: a flight simulator not too dissimilar to that land-a-jumbo-jet game they used to have on The Krypton Factor.
* Vila (47) is initially bored by Avon’s lecture about Feldon, but perks up when he learns how much money they could make On Mecron II, he uses his lockpicking skills and then is given a side mission by Orac: steal a complex circuit from Belkov’s female-voiced artificial-intelligence unit. He tries talking her into giving up the circuit and letting his friends free from their prison… and he succeeds on both counts. Yay, Vila!
* Servalan (25) has come to Mecron II because she – rightly – assumes Belkov is on the take. But when she makes it clear that he’s in deep shit, he uses the fact he’s made contact with Avon and co as a bargaining chip.
* Slave (7).

Best bit: Pitching his plan to steal the Feldon crystals, Avon lists the problems they face. One is the fact that the prize is ‘protected by a security system that’s supposed to be impassable.’ Vila replies, ‘They’re *all* supposed to be impassable.’ That’s an amazing pun, that is.

Worst bit: Servalan’s appearances got monotonous and unimaginative a while ago. It’s also dreary that the show has distilled the entire threat of the galaxy-wide Federation into one character – the regulars never come up against other officers or officials.

Review: There’s an awful lot of plot for a 50-minute episode of Blake’s 7. It’s a nice change from previous stories that take half an hour to gear up, but maybe there’s too much here. Games is occasionally so swift it’s hard to follow. Some moments – the rescue of an injured Gerren, for example – are simply skipped over. But things are kept enjoyable, thanks in part to a fun, detailed performance from Stratford Johns as Belkov. He’s a game-player, a manipulator, so it ain’t a huge shock when he betrays our heroes. But he’s very entertaining along the way.

Eight recalcitrant chiefs out of 10

Next episode: Sand

Blake’s 7: Assassin (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Hearing that a killer has been hired to hunt them down, the Scorpio crew decide to find him first…

Series D, episode 7. Written by: Rod Beacham. Directed by: David Sullivan Proudfoot. Originally broadcast: 9 November 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Avon (45) and the others discover that a mysterious and expensive assassin called Cancer has been mentioned on a communique of Servalan’s. Assuming that Cancer has been employed to kill them, Avon argues they should bump off Servalan before she can make the payment. So, following a clue from the communique, Avon and Vila teleport to the planet Domo and the former deliberately gets himself captured by some space pirates. He’s then placed in a cell with an elderly man called Nebrox (Richard Hurndall), who comes over all Basil Exposition and tells Avon about the slave auction they’re both due to be part of. Nebrox also recently saw someone arrive, buy a prisoner and leave – Avon reckons it must have been Cancer. At the auction, where Servalan is one of the bidders, Nebrox manages to help Avon escape. So Avon takes his new pal back to the Scorpio and the gang chase after Cancer’s fleeing ship (which handily has a painting of a crab on its hull). When they catch up and teleport aboard, Avon finds Cancer – a large, imposing man – holding a simpering woman hostage. After the assassin has been subdued, the woman, Piri, explains that Cancer bought her from the slavers for sexual purposes. Avon then lies in wait for Servalan to show up. But soon Cancer gets loose, Nebrox is found dead, and is ship is disabled. Oh no! It gets worse: Avon is then knocked unconscious and tied up. When he comes round, Piri reveals the shock plot twist that no one saw coming: *she’s* Cancer, and the large, imposing man is an actor she got from the slavers as a decoy. She tries to kill Avon with her signature weapon – a poison-delivering mechanical crab – but thankfully Tarrant and Soolin burst in and kill her.
* Vila (46) is the one who stumbles across Servalan’s message about Cancer and Domo and ‘five targets’. Later, he and Dayna take the Scorpio back to base while the others continue with this week’s plot.
* As well as Servalan (24), one of the bidders at the slave auction – which, like so many Blake’s 7 location scenes, takes place in a non-descript bit of wasteland – is played by Betty Marsden off of Carry On Camping. (Others are non-speaking white actors in various ‘ethnic’ costumes.) We’ve come a long way since the fascist psycho-drama of episode one…

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Servalan wants to buy Avon and is willing to outbid anyone – but he then scuppers her plan by escaping. Later in the episode, it’s revealed that the communique giving away her plan to hire an assassin was a plant: Servalan masterminded the whole thing, and actually ends the episode believing that Avon and Tarrant have been killed in an explosion.
* Tarrant (20) thinks Avon might be scared of Cancer – and he’s right. Tarrant later flirts with Piri, who at this point still seems to be a dippy drip of a woman.
* Dayna (20) teleports down to Domo to help with Avon’s escape. When she spies Servalan, she attempts to kill the woman who murdered her father (yes, it’s time for that plot point to be remembered!) but she fails.
* Soolin (7) has heard of Domo, the planet mentioned in Servalan’s message. Ten years earlier it was colonised by space pirates. Later, during a Die Hard section of the episode set aboard Cancer’s ship, Soolin is brilliantly cold and harsh towards the wet Piri. She’s then nearly attacked by a mechanical crab… but just as it approaches unseen, she has a eureka moment and jumps out of its reach. What has she realised? That Piri is not what she seems…
* When the initial threat is discovered, Orac (29) counsels the gang to find Cancer before he finds them.

Best bit: There’s a great sequence when our heroes are searching the ship for Cancer. It’s compelling and there’s good incidental music too.

Worst bit: Sadly, this episode has a real disparity between the quality of the location filming and the scenes recorded in the studio. The latter stuff is well paced, well lit and inventively shot. Tension and atmosphere are generated. But when the episode is outdoors, the filming style is so drab and staccato.

Review: A decent and fun episode marred by two things: the hamfisted location scenes and the spectacularly obvious plot twist, which is based on the idea that the audience won’t even consider the possibility that an assassin might be female. The characters assume Cancer is a man, and we’re meant to as well. In the plus column, Soolin has a meaningful role to play in the storytelling. A rarity.

Seven vems out of 10

Next episode: Games