Blake’s 7: Time Squad (1978)

Screenshot 2017-12-21 19.01.25

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

Advertisements

Suspicion (1941)

suspicion

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)

Screenshot 2017-12-13 20.37.30

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)

e7YtnRXZGfleWfhEAvmlK5bQswZ

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)

Screenshot 2017-12-09 12.03.52

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

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974, Roy Ward Baker)

legendof7goldenvampires_7

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: There’s a prologue in Transylvania in 1804. The main bulk of the movie is set in China 100 years later, firstly in Chongqing (or Chung King as the caption spells it) then in the countryside.

Faithful to the novel? Not in the slightest. This was Hammer Films’ ninth Dracula movie in 16 years. It ignores the modern-day reboot of the previous two entries in the series, and heads back to a turn-of-the-19th-century setting. After the prologue, in which a Taoist monk (Chan Shen) awakens a docile Count Dracula (John Forbes-Robertson, taking over from Christopher Lee, who’d finally jacked it in) to ask for his help, all the action takes place in China. This was because this film was a co-production between Hammer and the Shaw Brothers Studio of Hong Kong. Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) – seemingly the same version of the character seen in Dracula and Brides of Dracula – is lecturing at a university in China. He talks about his encounters with the famous vampire Count Dracula then recounts rumours of seven vampires who have been terrorising rural China. Most of his students are cynical, but a man called Hsi Ching (David Chiang) believes him and tells him he knows where the vamps are. Eventually, a team is assembled: Van Helsing and his son, Leyland (Robin Stewart); a rich Scandinavian woman called Vanessa Buren (Julie Ege), who agrees to fund the expedition because she needs to leave town quickly; and Hsi Chiang and his kung-fu-proficient siblings. They head to the village, intent on destroying the vampires. Various fight scenes ensue, then at the climax Van Helsing realises that the vamps’ leader is Dracula is disguise.

Best performance: As always, Peter Cushing plays his part with total commitment. You never get the sense that he’s phoning it in or just doing a film for the fee, do you?

Best bit: More than a Dracula movie, this is a Hong Kong-produced martial-arts flick. There are crash-zooms and whip pans and loud fake sound effects for every punch or slap. Great stuff.

Review: You have to admire Hammer for trying different things. After setting two Dracula movies in the modern day, they then tried to breathe new life into this series by moving the action to China and blending their house style with the kung-fu phenomenon. The result is by no means a masterpiece, but it passes the time well enough and is a fun little vampire film. Written by Don Houghton – a true Sinophile – the plot is simple beyond belief. But the mythological context (and non-European landscape) gives the story a interesting setting, while shots of zombies rising from the grave are as striking as any image in a Hammer Dracula. The film is also lit with bold, expressionist colours. Only some gnarly special effects and poor monster make-up really disappoint.

Seven bat medallions out of 10

Blake’s 7: The Way Back (1978)

Screenshot 2017-12-09 11.57.58

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Earth, the far future. Citizen Roj Blake learns of the authorities’ use of brainwashing, drugs and murder to keep the population under control…

Series A, episode 1. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Michael E Briant. Originally broadcast: 2 January 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Roj Blake (1) is living in a drab, soulless, fascist, dystopian, enclosed city cut off from the outside world when he’s approached by members of a resistance movement. They tell him he’s been brainwashed – he used to be a rebel leader but the state forced him to confess his ‘crimes’ and then wiped his memories. When he’s then caught with the resistance, Blake is arrested and framed on kiddie-fiddling charges (amongst other things). Found guilty after a trial that lasts less than three minutes, he’s loaded onto a spaceship bound for a prison planet… Actor Gareth Thomas is great throughout: you see his character believably transform from naïve bloke to forthright Blake.
* While waiting to board the transport ship, Blake is put in a holding cell with a compulsive thief called Vila Restal (1), who swipes his watch but is otherwise unthreatening. Michael Keating is a lot of fun in his one scene, playing the part with a twinkle in his eye.
* Another prisoner is the smuggler Jenna (1). Sally Knyvette plays her cool and seen-in-it-all-before, then gets a moment or two when the character admits she’s scared.

Best bit: In the scene of Blake being interrogated by an official after his arrest, the vision mixer crossfades between close-ups of the two men. The official is calm and stock-still, while Blake has his head in his hands and is jittery. It’s a striking image.

Worst bit: The title-sequence logo doesn’t have an apostrophe in the word Blake’s! Christ, that’s going to irritate me each and every episode.

Review: The first image we see is a CCTV camera keeping watch over the oppressed citizenry of a fascist state. Later, the police murder innocent people and lawyers fabricate evidence. Blake’s 7, it seems on the basis of this opening episode, is not going to be a laugh-a-minute experience. The tone is cynical, cold and humourless, and the drama seems more like a self-contained morality play than the pilot of a sci-fi adventure show. But it really works. The script has a fantastic sense of foreboding and the dread builds and builds. Blake’s fate seems cruelly inevitable, even if his lawyer (Tel Varon, played by Michael Halsey like he’s the lead character) is a decent guy with a conscience. And the fictional world is convincing and feels like it stretches out beyond the events we see. A very strong start.

Nine judgement machines out of 10

Next episode: Space Fall