Blake’s 7: Duel (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Blake and his nemesis Travis are selected by a pair of mysterious women to fight to the death…

Series A, episode 8. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Douglas Camfield. Originally broadcast: 20 February 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Travis (2) and his mutoids – female troops who have been technologically modified – have hunted Blake down. They start to attack the Liberator, but then Travis and Blake are forcibly teleported down to a nearby, rocky, barren planet by its two inhabitants: powerful, sorcerer-type women called Sinofar and Giroc. (One’s a looker with distractingly noticeable nipples. The other is played by Miss Roberts from Upstairs, Downstairs.) They’re tired of death and destruction so insist that Blake and Travis take part in a duel – the idea is that then one only one of them will die and their respective crews will be safe.
* Blake (8) is more amused by the situation than Travis is. After a lengthy sequence in the forest venue of the duel, he manages to avoid Travis’s traps and gains the upper hand. But because he’s a hero he refuses to kill his enemy. Yay!
* Avon (7) doesn’t take part in any of the action, but more than makes up for it with witty, attitude-driven dialogue. He bickers with Vila and makes cynical quips about the duel (“Blake is sitting up in a tree. Travis is sitting up in another tree. Unless they’re planning to throw nuts at one another, I don’t see much of a fight developing before it gets light…”).
* When the Liberator crew first encounter the rocky planet, Jenna (8) explores it with Blake and Gan. Then when the duel begins she’s selected – seemingly at random – to be Blake’s companion during the event. The notion is that if she dies Blake will learn what it feels like to lose a friend. (He points out that he already knows that.)
* When Blake and Jenna are in the forest, their friends watch a representation of the events on the Liberator’s viewscreen: Cally (5) infers/intuits that it’s the real deal.
* Gan (7) is the first to see the women, who appear like ghosts while he, Blake and Jenna recce the planet.
* Vila (8) operates the teleport machine but falls asleep on the job.
* Zen (6) features occasionally.

Best bit: The Liberator is under attack from Travis’s ship so Blake and Avon discuss tactics. Blake wants to ram Travis, a desperate manoeuvre, but Avon is doubtful.
“Have you got any better ideas?” asks Blake bitterly. Then the whole Liberator rocks violently, having been hit by a bolt.
Avon catches a falling Blake, holding him in his arms: “As a matter of fact,” he says, “no, I haven’t.”
“Does that mean you agree?”
“Do I have a choice?” asks Avon softly.
“Yes.”
“Then I agree.” Avon lets go of his homoerotic embrace and walks off.

Worst bit: The duel scenes were filmed on location in the New Forest, and are generally pretty good. However, a moment or two of dialogue between Travis and his lead mutoid stand out like a sore mechanical hand because – for some reason – they’ve been shot in the TV studio against a green-screen background. Did they run out of time on location? Was it assumed that no one would notice or care about the inconsistency?

Review: There’s a different feel to this one, perhaps because this is the only Blake’s 7 episode directed by Douglas Camfield, one of the behind-the-scenes stars of Doctor Who in the 1960s and 70s. The action is a bit tougher than usual, for instance, both in the combat on the planet and in the busy, visceral and noisy space battle. Camfield’s appointment also meant a less cosy soundtrack: he didn’t like using in-house composer Dudley Simpson so Duel’s excellent music is harsher and more unsettling than in earlier episodes. The result is a lot of fun, not least because this is the show’s most blatant evocation yet of Robin Hood. The entire series could be summed up as ‘Robin Hood in space’, but Duel gives us forests, medieval weapons and traps as Blake and Travis go head to head like the Hooded Man and the Sheriff of Nottingham. After his introduction two episodes ago, in fact, it’s nice to see Travis fleshed out a bit. With no Servalan tugging at his lead, he’s free to drive his own story and gets a lot of focus. There’s also some light-heartedness: while Blake and Travis creep around a woodland, the rest of the Liberator crew watch events on a screen and comment on them like they’re in an episode of Gogglebox. They even get bored when nothing happens.

Eight stasis beams out of 10

Next episode: Project Avalon

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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

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 two men 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