The Villain (1979, Hal Needham)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

TheVillain

Watched: 17 August 2019
Format: I’d recorded the film from the amazing TV channel Talking Pictures on 3 May 2019.
Seen before? Never. I’d not even heard of it before researching this blog.

Review: Who knew that, early in his film career, Arnold Schwarzenegger played a major role in a comedy Western that mixes the spoofiness of Carry On Cowboy with the physics-defying gags of a Wile E Coyote cartoon? Not me, anyway. This movie’s tone is set up early on: after a lengthy title sequence full of Monument Valley grandeur, we’re introduced to an enigmatic loner played by a game Kirk Douglas. Jack Slade attempts to jump onto the roof of a speeding train… only to miss it and fall flat on his face. This hapless crook then does a deal with a corrupt banker to steal some cash that’s being transported across country by a woman called Charming Jones (Ann-Margret, flirty and funny).

However, she has a protector: a handsome stranger actually called Handsome Stranger, played by a spectacularly miscast Arnold Schwarzenegger. The bulk of the film is episodic nonsense as Slade makes several idiotic attempts to nab the money, often with Charming and Stranger oblivious to what’s going on. Bless him, at this stage of his career all Arnie really had to offer was his body-builder’s physique – and the role of Stranger doesn’t especially need it. His stilted line-readings and charisma vacuum are difficult issues to ignore.

The Villain is directed by stunt expert Hal Needham, who was then in the middle of making assorted Smokey and the Bandits and Cannonball Runs, but this pushes even further into childish humour than any of those movies. There’s slapstick, cartoon absurdity (even a real-life recreation of the paint-a-tunnel-on-a-rock-face gag), lots of awful ‘comedy’ sound effects, an intelligent horse, a sexist ending, and white actors playing Native Americans as if they were from the Midwest. Fun at times but the shallowness doesn’t sustain.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘The name of my character was Handsome Stranger and the rest of the movie was just as lame… The best thing I can say about it is that I improved my horse-riding skills.’

Five runaway horses out of 10

Next time: The Last Stand

Rocky II (1979, Sylvester Stallone)

rocky-2

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Boxer Rocky Balboa is forced to get back into the ring for a rematch with the world heavyweight champion…

What does Stallone do? After the success of the first Rocky film – a huge profit, good reviews, an Oscar win – Sylvester Stallone was in a prime negotiating position when it came to the sequel. So as well as again writing the script and playing the lead character, he also took over directing duties. (Rocky director John G Avildsen was busy working on Saturday Night Fever. Coincidentally, Stallone later directed that film’s sequel, Stayin’ Alive.) Sly had only made one film previously, a now largely forgotten wrestling movie called Paradise Alley, but he does a decent job here. For the most part, Rocky II is no-nonsense, well told and engaging – if familiar and predictable… As the story begins, Rocky Balboa has surgery after his battering boxing bout at the end of the previous movie (he says he doesn’t want to end up with a nose like his trainer Mickey’s). He may have lost the fight on points, but he came out of it with pride and has decided to retire. At first, thanks to his new high profile, he has the cash to flash on coats, watches, a car and a house, but Stallone generates sympathy from us when Rocky later fails as a minor celebrity and struggles to find work. The actor is oddly likeable and there’s a dignity in his performance. When Rocky’s finances get grim, he’s forced to consider fighting Apollo again…

Other main characters:
* After a recap of the first film’s climactic boxing bout, we rejoin the story later that same night. The victorious Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) approaches Rocky in the hospital and, embarrassed that his amateur opponent lasted the distance, demands a rematch. But while the world heavyweight champion is puffed-up and adversarial for the watching journalists, behind closed doors he’s downbeat and becomes obsessed with proving that he can knock Rocky off his feet. So he continues to taunt his rival in the media, urging him to fight again…
* Rocky’s girlfriend, Adrian (Talia Shire), doesn’t want him to get back in the ring so is pleased when he retires. They get wed and soon have a child on the way. But she’s worried about how quickly he’s going through the $37,000 he earned from his title bout, then later goes into labour prematurely. The baby is fine, but Adrian falls into a coma for a while. (This section sees the film at its soppiest.) After recovering, she doesn’t attend her husband’s rematch with Apollo on doctor’s orders. (In reality the actress was busy on another film.)
* Paulie Pennino (Burt Young) is still a bit of a prick. When he thinks his sister is failing in her matrimonial duties, he suggests that Rocky break her teeth. (Rocky replies that he likes Adrian’s teeth where they are.) Paulie also asks Rocky to sort him out a strong-arm job, which he does – so as Rocky’s fortunes fall, Paulie’s actually rise and he’s able to buy his brother-in-law’s sportscar from him.
* Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) now has a hearing aid to further emphasise how old, grizzled and world-beaten he is, and initially says no when Rocky asks him to be his trainer again. In a touching, low-key scene, Mick demonstrates that Rocky’s damaged eyesight is a liability. ‘You got the heart but you ain’t got the tools no more,’ the mentor says. But later, Mickey sees Apollo being arrogant on TV and comes round to the idea of a rematch: ‘I think we oughta knock his block off!’ His plan (which was actually cooked up because Stallone had injured his left arm before filming) is to train Rocky to fight right-handed, holding his southpaw power in reserve for later in the bout.

Key scene: During his attempt to make a living off his newfound fame, Rocky is persuaded to film some TV ads for Beast aftershave. The set-up has him dressed first as a caveman in a cage, then as a sketch-show version of himself with a fake-looking appliance for a boxing bruise. The director is an angry, rude, little man who has no patience for the fact that Rocky can neither act nor sight-read off the cue cards (or dummy cards, as they insensitively get called). As a storytelling tool, the sequence is the gear that shifts Rocky from laidback retirement to the realisation that boxing is his only viable way of supporting his family.

Review: Don’t you miss film sequels that begin with a lengthy reprise of the previous instalment? The second and third Karate Kid films give you a handy refresher of the story so far; Halloween 5 replays a cliffhanger to show you what *really* happened; while Back to the Future Part II actually refilmed the previous movie’s ending because a major role had been recast. It’s a shame this device has gone out of fashion, presumably because home video and download have made films so much easier to see more than once. Anyway, Rocky II’s recap reminds us that the Italian Stallion went the distance with – but lost on points to – world champion boxer Apollo Creed. We’re then into the new stuff… which is a conventional story made entertaining by a half-decent cast. After 80 minutes, a Bill Conti-scored training montage, which is a mini-masterpiece of rousing emotion, drives us into a final act where Rocky takes on Apollo for a second time. The fight features a ludicrous and unrealistic amount of punches, then an arch, slo-mo climax as both fighters fall to the mat at same time. But it’s difficult not to get swept up in the moment as Rocky beats the count and wins the championship…

Seven condominiums (I never use ’em) out of 10

Next: Rocky III

The Lady Vanishes (1938, Alfred Hitchcock)

TheLadyVanishes

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

On a train journey across Europe, a young woman begins to panic when a fellow passenger goes missing without a trace…

Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Lady Vanishes is an adaptation of the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White – and it’s breezy, confident and a lot of fun. Four decades later, there was another film adaptation of the same book, this time directed by Anthony Page and made by Hammer Films. Inevitably it’s tempting to view the two movies in direct comparison, so let’s do just that and see how they match up.

Story

Both films follow largely the same plot. A motley gang of passengers – a beautiful fiancée, an eccentric older woman, a couple having an affair, two cricket-obsessed men and others – board a train in central Europe, heading west. The young fiancée befriends the older woman, but is shocked when the latter goes missing… and her anxiety only increases when no one else on board seems to remember ever seeing the woman. The fiancée’s only ally is a charming young man who helps her search (perhaps more because he fancies her than he believes her story). After they spot a bandaged patient being brought aboard the train at the next station, the fiancée suspects that the older woman has been switched for the patient – and it turns out she’s right! A group of bad guys have been hunting the older woman because she’s actually a secret agent carrying a coded message back to London. Eventually, the train is surrounded by gunmen and the fiancée, her male friend and others passengers are besieged – they must hold off the bad guys until the older woman can sneak away to continue her quest…

Time

1938: Hitchcock’s film is set contemporaneously to when it was made, so the story takes place in the late 1930s.

1979: We’re in the late 1930s in the Hammer version too – an on-screen caption tells us it’s August 1939. But because these filmmakers had the perspective of 40 years, their movie has an extra level of political context. It’s the month before Germany invaded Poland, starting the Second World War, and Nazis have taken over the picturesque town where the story begins.

Place

1938: Hitchcock’s film gets underway in the fictional central-European state of Bandrika (‘one of Europe’s few undiscovered corners’), starting at an alpine inn and then following the train as it crosses the countryside. One of the stops the trains makes is at the similarly made-up town of Morshkan.

1979: The action begins in the landlocked German state of Bavaria. The passengers then board a train for Basel in Switzerland.

Heroine

1938: The lead character is Iris Henderson, who we first meet in the inn staying with two friends. One night she complains about noise coming from the floor above and has the man creating the racket kicked out of his room. Brazenly, he then walks into her room while she’s in bed and attempts to share it. The next day Iris leaves for London to get married, but we suspect that her heart is not really in it. She soon bonds with another guest from the inn, a kindly older woman. But after Iris wakes from a nap, the woman has disappeared – and Iris gets increasingly manic when no one else on the train remembers seeing her… Iris is played by Margaret Lockwood, who is a British take on the idea of a ‘Hawksian woman’: a type of female character popularised by director Howard Hawks who is both movie-star beautiful and sassy-smart. Or as Hitchcock put it when discussing Lockwood: ‘She photographs more than normally easily and has an extraordinary insight in getting the feel of her lines, to live within them.’

1979: In the later film, Iris’s equivalent is ‘madcap’ heiress Amanda Metcalf-Midvani-Von Hoffsteader-Kelly, whose introduction into the story comes when she does a daring impression of Hitler… while drunk… and wearing a slinky and revealing evening gown… in front of dozens of Nazi shits in a hotel bar. She’s nearly 30, enjoys marrying people for money, and is American rather than English, but like Iris is on her way to London for a wedding she’s not too enthusiastic about… Cybill Shepherd plays her character with a fast-talking energy and the air of someone who’s used to getting her own way. The actress had burst onto the scene with an amazing performance in drama film The Last Picture Show (1971), then starred in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in 1976.

Hero

1938: The man causing the noise above Iris’s hotel room is musicologist Gilbert Redman, who spends the whole film with a carefree, cheerful attutide. He’s a cocky individual, but as he’s the only passenger on the train willing to help Iris she’s forced to spend some time with him. He’s deflated when he learns Iris is returning to London to marry, then like so many of Hitchcock’s mismatched partnerships of the 1930s – The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Young and Innocent – they almost imperceptibly start to fall for each other. Gilbert is played by Michael Redgrave, a member of the famous Redgrave acting dynasty (he was the son of stage actor Roy Redgrave; the father of Vanessa Redgrave, Corin Redgrave and Lynn Redgrave; and the grandfather of Natasha Richardson, Joely Richardson and Jemma Redgrave). The Lady Vanishes was his first big film role, but he was an established theatre actor and brings a knowing wit to the part.

1979: Gilbert’s equivalent in the second adaptation has also has his nationality switched to American. Robert Condon is a photojournalist rather than a music expert, so we get a more subdued meet-cute than in 1938. There’s no ruckus in the bedroom above; instead the two characters simply get chatting outside their hotel. But, like Gilbert, Robert soon falls for the film’s leading lady – the fact Amanda spends the entire story in a flimsy dress and no bra is probably part of the reason. Elliott Gould, an actor who’d had a very good 1970s thanks to films such as M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye, A Bridge Too Far and Capricorn One, gives Robert a different kind of light touch from Redgrave; less smug, more affable. His Jewish heritage also adds another level of meaning to the film, of course.

Lady

1938: The eponymous character of the story is the kind-hearted and inoffensive Miss Froy, a woman in her 70s. She claims to be a governess who’s lived and worked in Bandrika for six years; she says she loves the place. But we later learn that she’s an intelligence agent who’s been tasked with delivering a message to London – the information has been coded in the form of a musical tune, which she heard from an undercover spy in Bandrika. (As Hitchcock himself later chuckled, why don’t they just send the message via carrier pigeon?) Miss Froy is played with old-woman twinkle by May Whitty, a woman who was born in the year Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

1979: When we first glimpse Angela Lansbury’s Miss Froy in the 1979 film, she’s whistling a tune as she tramps down an alpine valley (so therefore already has the coded message as the film begins). She doesn’t meet Amanda until they take their seats on the train; the former helps the latter wash off her Hitler moustache, which she hasn’t had time to deal with since her drunken night in the bar. Lansbury was only in her early 50s when making this movie and plays Froy with a more lively eccentricity than Whitty.

Charters & Caldicott

1938: Two of the other passengers on the train are a pair of unflappable, unruffled Englishmen called Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne). They’re the story’s comic relief, and an early gag has you wonder if they’re secret agents – they say they need to race home because England is ‘on the brink’. Is this a comment on the rising threat from Nazi Germany? No, the two men are actually cricket obsessives and are talking about a Test match at Old Trafford. The characters are all the more amusing because the actors never go for ‘funny’ – they play everything dry, calmly; with a straight bat. (One comedic scene has them sharing a bed, Morecambe & Wise-style.) Radford and Wayne were so successful as supporting characters in this movie that they reprised Charters and Caldicott in three further unrelated films – Night Train to Munich (1940), which also co-starred Margaret Lockwood, Crook’s Tour (1941) and Millions Like Us (1943). They also played suspiciously similar double acts in eight other films of the 1940s and various BBC Radio comedies.

1979: The 1979 versions of Charters and Caldicott are also entertaining and are played by Arthur Lowe, who’d spent the previous decade playing the self-important Captain Mainwaring in BBC sitcom Dad’s Army, and Ian Carmichael. In their opening scene, the men ask a German officer when a train is due to leave and are rather affronted that he doesn’t speak English. Later, the 1938 gag about needing to race home because ‘England is on the brink’ is repeated, but has added weight here because we know war really is imminent. After this film, Charters and Caldicott featured in their own TV spin-off, produced by the BBC in 1985 and starring Michael Aldridge and Robin Bailey. The characters were missing, however, when the Beeb made their own version of The Lady Vanishes in 2013. In that adaptation of the novel, their role in the story was given to female characters played by Stephanie Cole and Gemma Jones.

Production

1938: Hitchcock made his film entirely in London studios, but opened up the fictional world via rear-projection screens for the train windows, stock footage of moving locomotives, and – most appealingly – some beautiful model shots. The best of the latter is the film’s opening image: the camera pans across a charming, train-set model village covered in snow, tracking in towards the window of the inn. The film is in black and white, like all Hitchcock movies before 1948, and was made before the advent of widescreen cinema.

1979: Shot attractively in Panavision’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio and in colour by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Italian Job, Raiders of the Lost Ark), Hammer’s version contains plenty of location filming in Austria. Scenes aboard the train were recorded at Pinewood Studios, but the scenery passing by the windows is faked very well.

Review

Cinema was born with short films made by French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière and projected to paying audiences in the 1890s. One of their earliest works, first screened in January 1896, was a 50-second single take called L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat. It showed – at a daringly oblique angle – a train pulling into a station, and the probably apocryphal story goes that audiences fled in terror, assuming the train would burst through the screen and into the room. So trains have been a part of the movies since the very beginning, and as the art form developed into complex narratives, they were soon being used as both plot devices and settings. Think of silent-movie clichés and you’ll probably list a scene where a woman lies on the tracks in front of an oncoming train. (It did happen, of course: in a 1905 film called The Train Wreckers, for example, or in 1911’s The Attempt on the Special. But the cliché actually predated cinema, and the few silent films that featured such a moment usually did so as a spoof.) Elsewhere, trains cropped up in some vastly significant films: DW Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator (1911), one of the earliest movies to cut between different locations rather than stick to a single setting; Buster Keaton’s innovatively filmed Civil War comedy The General (1926); the British action thriller The Flying Scotsman in 1929, which featured actors risking their lives by hanging off the side of the speeding locomotive; and Shanghai Express, the seductively noir-ish thriller directed by Josef von Sternberg in 1932. (And it wasn’t just cinema, of course. Agatha Christie published her novel Murder on the Orient Express – a masterpiece of a mystery story set almost entirely on a train – in 1934, just two years before Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins.) Hitchcock had got on board with the idea too, featuring trains in films such as The 39 Steps and Secret Agent. But his adaptation of The Lady Vanishes takes things to a whole new level. The dialogue sparkles like a screwball comedy, but the director never forgets that this is a thriller and he keeps the plot speeding along with such confidence, such aplomb. Things take a dark turn when Miss Froy disappears and an added element of pleasure comes from the sophistication of the script: the characters who claim they never saw the old woman each have a plausible reason for lying. This gives us, the audience, more information than Iris, allowing us to both enjoy and sympathise with her plight. The 1979 version, meanwhile, is an efficient film in its own right, if flatter and more conventional. Shepherd, Gould and Lansbury are all good value. Nevertheless, it was made with a certain disdain for the first adaptation. ‘Hitchcock’s film had some brilliant things in it,’ intoned writer George Axelrod. ‘But as a whole picture you’d have to admit it’s pretty creaky. The four or five things people remember from the original receive a homage in our version.’ What a strange thing to say: aside from the new political context, almost every good idea in the Hammer remake is a direct lift from 1938.

1938: Nine men at Waterloo station out of 10
1979: Seven poker games with Karl Marx and Jean Harlow out of 10

Acknowledgment: This blog post was helpful with details about trains in silent cinema.

Love at First Bite (1979, Stan Dragoti)

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An occasional series where I watch and review works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: We start in Castle Dracula in Transylvania, then events move to New York City. It’s the modern day.

Faithful to the novel? No, this comedy film is set later than Stoker’s story. As we begin, Count Dracula (George Hamilton) is living in his gloomy castle with a servant called Renfield (Arte Johnson), who has a dirty laugh and enjoys eating insects. When the Count is evicted from his home by the local communist authorities, he flees to New York City in order to find his long-lost love: a woman who has been reborn into successive bodies over the years. He first met her in Poland in 1356, then when she was called Mina Harker in 1930s London. (This last incident is a nod to Universal’s famous 1931 film adaptation.) Her latest incarnation is successful fashion model Cindy Sondheim (a fun Susan Saint James). Dracula woos her and sleeps with her. But then her therapist, Jeffrey Rosenberg (an increasingly demented Richard Benjamin), becomes jealous of the relationship. Rosenberg’s real name is actually Van Helsing (he changed it for professional reasons), and he sets about trying to prove that Dracula is a blood-sucking vampire.

Best performance: George Hamilton, who was also a producer on the film, plays Count Vladimir Dracula with a Bela Lugosi accent and cape – and a fantastically straight face. There are no nods or winks to the audience; it’s a performance that works and is funny because of Hamilton’s commitment to staying in character. This version of Dracula is at least 700 years old and can turn into a bat and a dog.

Best bit: The film’s tone is set up in the opening scene. Dracula sits alone and playing his piano. Outside his castle window he can hear howling wolves. ‘Children of the night,’ he says, a frustrated look on his face. ‘Shut up!’

Review: There was a vogue in the 1970s for contemporary-set Dracula films – and especially for dropping Dracula-ish character into busy, thriving, modern cities. Hammer rebooted its long-running series with the marvellous Dracula A.D. 1972, shifting the Count from a vague Victoriana setting to modern-day London. Comedy film Vampira (1974) was also based in the UK capital in the 70s, while Blaxploitation movie Blacula (1972) and its 1973 sequel took place in an up-to-date Los Angeles, and the risible Nocturna: Granddaughter of Dracula (1979) in New York City. So Love at First Bite is not doing anything especially new or different. But thanks to some amusing performances and general air of easy-going-ness, it’s a very entertaining hour and a half. The script toys with the usual Draculian clichés, but there’s never any sense of smugness about the humour.

Eight black chickens out of 10

Blake’s 7: Star One (1979)

Screenshot 2018-05-19 19.15.11

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Blake and his colleagues find the Federation’s secret and all-powerful control centre, but there’s a shock in store…

Series B, episode 13. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: David Maloney (uncredited). Originally broadcast: 3 April 1979, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Servalan (12) learns that various accidents and freak weather conditions are occurring across the Federation. The cause? The top-secret Star One facility, which essentially runs the entire galaxy, is going haywire. And fixing it is doubly difficult because no one knows where it is. Servalan, ever the plotter, sees an opportunity and openly revolts against the president. A coup has begun, with Servalan declaring herself the new leader…
* Blake (26) has the coordinates of Star One and says he’s going to destroy it – in part, to see whether he was right to fight the Federation in the first place. He leads his colleagues to a remote star all on its own in the vast openness between galaxies (er…what?), which is orbited by a single planet. He, Avon and Cally teleport down and are surprised to learn that they were expected. Blake plays along until he realises that Star One’s crew have assumed he’s Travis, who has done a deal with them and plans to trigger the ‘final act’: the destruction of humanity. Later, the real Travis arrives, rumbles Blake’s deception, and shoots him. Blake is badly injured…
* Avon (25) angrily tells the others that he wants an end to their crusade. He also wants to be free of Blake. ‘I never realised,’ says Blake. ‘You really do hate me, don’t you?’ Avon reminds him of their arrangement: if Blake’s rebellion works, Avon will take control of the Liberator. (What Jenna, Vila and Cally think about this isn’t important to him.) When the gang reach Star One, Avon points out a huge minefield positioned in space between the planet and the next nearest galaxy – but is it there to keep humanity in, or aliens out? Down on the planet, Avon bumps into Travis then discovers that the crew are actually dead and have been replaced by alien agents in human form. After Blake’s injury, Avon effortlessly assumes command of the Liberator. Passing the baton, Blake tells him: ‘For what it’s worth, I have always trusted you, from the very beginning.’
* Vila (26) makes lots of wry, cynical jokes.
* Cally (23) questions Blake’s plan to destroy Star One. After all, it may result in many innocent deaths. When the crew find Star One, however, she uses the Liberator’s scanners to find its entrance, then joins Blake and Avon in teleporting down. She later uses her telepathy to warn Avon that she and Blake have been captured by the base’s crew. Despite being prisoners, the pair still manage to sneakily set some explosives…
* While Blake, Avon and Cally are on Star One, Jenna (26) realises that a huge alien attack fleet is coming their way. She has no choice but to send a message to Servalan asking for help…
* Zen (22) confirms that the Liberator is crossing the barrier of the galaxy and entering the intergalactic void.
* Orac (11) investigates the minefield and deduces that it was set up over many years, as much as an alarm system as a defensive set-up.
* Travis (13) shows up at Star One (he found out its location in the previous episode too) and shoots Blake. In a nihilistic kind of mood, he’s done a deal with aliens from the galaxy next door: he’ll arrange for the Milky Way’s defensive minefield to be deactivated and they can sweep in and destroy humanity. (You’re presumably intended not to consider the fact that space is rather enormous and three-dimensional, so how effective could a manmade minefield be?) Later, Blake regains consciousness and shoots at Travis; Avon then kills him.

Best bit: The plot is structured around some fun ironies that put characters in odd positions. Blake and co end up having to *save* Star One from destruction (so it can be used to defend the galaxy). Servalan has to send help to the Liberator crew. Avon has to pick up Blake’s role and fight for defenceless people.

Worst bit: It doesn’t seem as if the idea was considered for too long, but Terry Nation famously mooted that the invading aliens could be the Daleks from Doctor Who. It’s a shame the notion was vetoed. Would have been a laugh.

Review: The story arcs that have been running throughout the second series – Travis’s fall from grace, the search for Star One – conclude in an engaging and appropriately epic season finale. The tension and pace ratchet up more and more as we progress, then things peak with a final scene of mighty energy. As we see our heroes in Sergio Leone-style close-ups, the alien fleet approaches their position. The galaxy is under attack with the Liberator on the front line. ‘Fire!’ orders Avon. Roll credits…

Eight psycho-manipulation teams out of 10

Next episode: Aftermath

Blake’s 7: The Keeper (1979)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Liberator crew head for the planet Goth, looking for information that will lead to the secretive Star One base. But Travis and Servalan have beaten them there…

Series B, episode 12. Written by: Allan Prior. Directed by: Derek Martinus. Originally broadcast: 27 March 1979, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Vila (25) accompanies Blake and Jenna on a mission to Goth, a planet with a thick, toxic atmosphere and medieval-level people living underground. He and Jenna are soon captured by the locals and taken to see the chief, who’s a bombastic, arrogant man called Gola. Vila uses close-hand magic tricks to appease Gola’s aggression, but this enrages the official court Fool. (Demarcation! Everyone out!)
* Blake (25) has come to Goth to find out what happened to former Federation surgeon Lurgen, a man who knew the location of the all-important Star One installation. His digital ‘brain print’ – or maybe his actual brain – is now in the possession of someone called the Keeper. But Blake doesn’t know who that is. On Goth, Blake’s friends are captured by the natives then he bumps into the chief’s brother, Ron. With Ron’s help, Blake gains access to the chief’s tent but eventually discovers that the Keeper is not the chief, nor Ron, nor their soothsayer sister… It’s their dad, a decrepit old man Blake had earlier seen in some cells. In the meantime, the brain-print has been stolen by Travis. But – and how’s this for a spot of luck? – the chief’s Fool also knows the location of Star One.
* Avon (24) points out that, instead of destroying Star One, the Liberator crew could take it over and run it themselves. Blake says something about power corrupting. Avon then stays on the ship while Blake, Jenna and Vila are on Goth. On two separate occasions he sees Federation ships nearby – he destroys the first, assuming Travis is on board, then assumes Servalan is on the second. Er, Avon… What’s that saying about never assuming things?
* Jenna (25) reminds Blake (and us) that Travis will be looking for the brain-print too. Down on Goth, she’s caught and tied up by the locals. But then Gola takes a shine to her (in that way that primitive, tribal chieftains always do in stories when they meet an attractive blonde woman), so installs her as his consort. He also wants to ‘pair bond’ with her to produce a son. Jenna plays along as a chance to search for the brain-print and soon realises that both Gola and his sister are wearing amulets that could contain the information.
* It’s not a great week for dogsbody Cally (22). She operates the teleport, pilots the Liberator, fetches Blake a glass of water, defers to Avon…
* Zen (21) reports that some Federation pursuit ships are nearby. That’s all he seems to do some episodes.
* Travis (12) wasn’t on the ship that Avon attacked – he had stayed down on the planet, having arrived before the Liberator. Like the others, he’s searching for Lurgen’s brain-print. But then he vanishes from the story after just a couple of scenes. We later learn he found the print and scarpered.
* Servalan (11) is *also* on Goth, though spends most of her time lazing around eating grapes. She and Travis have reached an uneasy truce, then Travis pitches a new idea: why don’t they seize control of Star One and command the galaxy together? He next borrows her ship so he can send a message to the Federation. At least, that’s what he tells Servalan…

Best bit: The first and last scenes of the episode are both nicely directed in single, uninterrupted takes. We start with an 88-second shot featuring all five members of the Liberator crew moving choreographically in and out of frame as they discuss the plot. Then the episode concludes with a simpler but still effective 16-second shot as the same characters return to the flight deck and set course for Star One…

Worst bit: The OTT, panto performance from Bruce Purchase as Gola.

Review: Notwithstanding the fun shots mentioned in ‘Best bit’ above, The Keeper is a badly staged episode of television. At several points, important pieces of storytelling are fumbled. For example, we’re seemingly shown Travis being destroyed… but then there he is in a later scene, with no comment or focus or attention. Similarly, Jenna’s realisation that Servalan is on Goth – a rather big piece of information – is simply skipped over. Less vitally, there are also scene transitions that break the ‘law of re-entry’, the theatrical convention that says a character can’t appear in consecutive scenes without some time ‘off stage’. The script is no masterpiece, admittedly, but it’s not being given a chance. In its favour, the episode is a rare chance for Jenna to drive some plot and it’s also another example of how well Blake’s 7’s serial format works.

Five torches (I don’t like the dark!) out of 10

Next episode: Star One

Blake’s 7: Gambit (1979)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

On the hunt for a doctor who knows the location of the Federation’s Star One facility, the Liberator crew visit the hedonistic Freedom City…

Series B, episode 11. Written by: Robert Holmes. Directed by: George Spenton-Foster. Originally broadcast: 20 March 1979, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Travis (11) is now working as a bodyguard for a man in hiding – although the man is using a pseudonym, he’s actually Docholli, a cyber-surgeon and one of the few people who know the location of the Federation’s vital Star One control centre. Travis is duffed up by some heavies and taken to see his old boss Servalan, who’s recently arrived in the Las Vegas-like Freedom City. She wants him to identify Docholli so she can eliminate him before he blabs what he knows. She also secretly hides a bomb in Travis’s robotic arm.
* Blake (24), Jenna (24) and Cally (21) teleport down to Freedom City to look for Docholli. Blake needs to know Star One’s location so he can attack and cripple it. During their search, Jenna and Cally stage an argument (“You slut!” “A 10-credit touch!”) as well as a sadly unseen cat fight so Blake can sneak into a back room unnoticed. Eventually, they track down Docholli – he confesses that he doesn’t know where Star One is (d’oh!), but tells them that a colleague called Lurgen did. The problem now is that Lurgen may have been killed…
* Vila (24) is killing time on the Liberator, playing computer chess and having a bitching session with Avon (23), when they come up with a plan. While Blake, Jenna and Cally are looking for Docholli, why don’t the pair visit Freedom City’s casino? Eventually, Vila – with some secret help from Orac – wins five million credits. But he was drinking while playing, and in a drunken stupor agrees to a double-or-nothing (nothing meaning death) bet on a game of speed chess with a grandmaster called the Klute. When Avon realises what’s happening he spits out his food. But he needn’t have worried – again with surreptitious guidance from Orac, Vila is able to tie the game, survive and waltz off with the cash.
* Servalan (10) has come to meet Krantor, Freedom City’s flamboyant casino boss, because she needs help to find both Docholli and Travis. She has with her a never-mentioned-before sidekick called Jarriere – basically so she has someone to collude with. When she has Travis brought to her, Servalan offers him a deal: if he points out Docholi, she’ll let him kill Blake. But she’s actually double-crossing her old colleague (obviously!) and secretly plants a grenade on him…
* Orac (10) is tricked by Avon and Vila into – and this is a real head-scratcher of a moment – reducing his size to an eighth. The men can then smuggle him into the casino and use his amazing abilities to cheat at the roulette table. Let’s reiterate that: Orac, the universe’s most complex, most amazing, most perfectly productive computer, is conned into doing something because Avon and Vila use reverse psychology on him.

Best bit: Krantor has an ornate dressing mirror that, at the swipe of a hand, turns into a video phone. It’s a fab piece of direction, allowing us to see both characters as they FaceTime each other.

Worst bit: At one point there’s a tiresome scene – admittedly played for laughs – as Servalan tries to explain the plot. It takes *two minutes* of exposition and Jarriere asking questions. Jacqueline Pearce really earnt her money that week.

Review: I’m taking neither the credit nor the blame, but this was the first episode of Blake’s 7 broadcast after my birth. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that, at four days old, I was near a television while Gambit was being transmitted. Obviously it wouldn’t have made much sense to me then. But it doesn’t *totally* make sense to me now. Writer Robert Holmes, director George Spenton-Foster and especially the design team worked hard to create an interesting, entertaining and playfully postmodern setting for the story – and Freedom City is a very enjoyable place to visit, not least because we viewers can spot the influences. We start in a bar that combines a Western saloon with a 1920s speakeasy. In the casino, the aging hostess emcees proceedings like she’s in the film Cabaret. Krantor models himself on the Prince Regent. There are definite echoes of Star Wars too, especially from the 1977 movie’s famous cantina. In its exterior scenes, Freedom City feels like a precursor of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles, with decent filming in an underpass near the Royal Festival Hall in London – a wind machine, a smoke machine, some set dressing and sound effects making the location feel otherworldly and textured. There’s also a close-up of Jenna that looks like something from an ABBA video.

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But as much fun as all this is, the episode feels punch-drunk with its fictional world and its flamboyant guest characters. The episode weaves about between science fiction, the heist genre, Blake’s 7 politics and various levels of camp, never really knowing which area it prefers. The Liberator crew are all squeezed out to the edges, feeling like interlopers in someone else’s story. And the performances are hardly what you’d call consistent. There are two plots – the search for Docholli and the casino con – yet both are overshadowed by actors indulging in so much ham you could revive the pig with the kiss of life. What a maddeningly perplexing episode of television. For the first time in over 500 blog reviews, I honestly don’t know what score to give something…

God knows how many trekkers ready to challenge the Klute out of 10

Next episode: The Keeper

Blake’s 7: Voice from the Past (1979)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Blake begins to act oddly, his colleagues deduce he’s being controlled by an outside force…

Series B, episode 10. Written by: Roger Parkes. Directed by: George Spenton-Foster. Originally broadcast: 13 March 1979, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* The episode begins strangely. Cally (20) has convinced her pals to try some exercises, so she, Avon, Jenna and Blake are in a small gym room aboard the Liberator. When Blake claims he can hear a tone, then changes the ship’s course without explanation, Cally realises what’s going on. Her leader is haunted by memories of what happened to him five years previously (when he was brainwashed by the Federation), and Cally realises that his trauma has been triggered by an outside force. She has this insight because people from her home planet of Auron developed the technology.
* Jenna (23) looks amused during the early exercise scene: Cally, Blake, even Avon are taking things more seriously, while she just lies on her front, smiling coquettishly. When everyone finds out that Blake has made yet another executive decision – and turned the ship around – she points out that, while he leads, the rest of them don’t take commands. Blake is essentially ill, however, and Jenna agrees to help. This involves undergoing the same hypno-treatment, as a kind of control case. She therefore shares his nightmares and is clearly shaken by the experience.
* Blake (23) sets course for an asteroid called PK-118 – without any discussion. Wracked by nightmares (and voices in his head), he’s in a bad way. The others try to help, but Blake is clearly troubled. He privately tells Vila that Avon and Cally are a) a couple, and b) colluding against them. He then locks Avon, Cally and Jenna in a room, teleports over to the asteroid and encounters a resistance cell. They want him to act as their leader… At the end of the episode, Blake is left with no memory of what happened.
* Avon (22) has to punch Blake when he gets unruly during his treatment – bet he enjoyed that! He then takes command when Blake is incapacitated. After Blake tricks them and escapes down to PK-118, Avon follows and finds Blake with the rebels. He’s suspicious, but reluctantly goes along with the group’s plan…
* Vila (23), sadly, has to be a bit of a moron this week. Despite Blake clearly being unhinged and lying, Vila sides with him and helps him. Perhaps he enjoys being included; he’s certainly proud when the rebels assume he’s Blake’s deputy.
* Zen (20) explains that PK-118 has been mined out, so while abandoned it still has buildings, life-support systems and an artificial-gravity field.
* Orac (9) carries out a diagnosis of the tone Blake can hear. It’s a trigger noise used by the crimino-therapists who brainwashed Blake years previously. It’s now being sent remotely to order to control him, so Orac suggests a process that involves a friend of Blake’s being hypnotically linked to him; he reckons Jenna would be the best candidate due to their ‘closer’ origins (ie, they’re both from Earth).
* The most revered member of the group of rebels is a man called Shivan. He’s a legendary figure in the anti-Federation community and had been thought dead. Covered in bandages and speaking in a croaky voice, he has a plan to expose Servalan’s crimes at a conference of regional governors. However, after everyone else has left for the conference, Shivan whips off his bandages and reveals that… he’s Travis (10) in disguise! Oh no! It was a trap! None of us saw that coming! He’s in league with Servalan (9), whose forces then ambush the rebel leaders and kill them.

Best bit: Servalan’s long-con plan is revealed when the rebels reach a plush auditorium (in reality: Wembley Conference Centre). They realise they’re in trouble when pre-recorded footage of Servalan is projected onto the cinema screen. She gleefully tells them they’re fucked in a short film that contains avant-garde editing and extreme close-ups.

Worst bit: Blake’s visit to the surface of the asteroid is dramatised by some of the cheapest-looking visual effects ever broadcast on British television. Greenscreened against what seem to be paintings, Gareth Thomas looks like he’s in an episode of Mr Benn.

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Review: This demented episode is incredibly difficult to fathom. For about half of its running time, it’s a bottle episode: the Liberator crew are involved in a slice of sci-fi gibberish that requires a lot of explaining and calls for Gareth Thomas to give a mannered, theatrical performance. We then switch to a political plotline with lots of connections to Blake’s 7 continuity. But despite the presence of Travis and Servalan, the references to Blake’s backstory and a return of a minor character from episode one (unfortunately played by a new actor), Voice from the Past doesn’t feel very Blake’s 7-ish. The storytelling is too formal, too aloof. There’s no bite to what’s happening, no guts to it. Some moments are also oddly directed – such as when guest actress Frieda Knorr delivers dialogue straight down the camera lens – and there’s some strangely contemporary filming locations. Most irritatingly, we get the lame television convention of disguising a character’s identity by covering his face and having the actor muffle his voice.

Five so-called course interceptors from Auron out of 10

Next episode: Gambit

Blake’s 7: Countdown (1979)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Avon encounters an old friend with a grudge when the Liberator crew stumble across a bomb that could destroy an entire planet…

Series B, episode 9. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 6 March 1979, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Avon (21) is shocked when he, Blake and Vila teleport down to the planet Albion. Their mission had been to find and capture a Federation officer called Provine, who has vital information about the Federation’s main command centre. But they discover a local resistance group trying to defuse a bomb set by the authorities during a rebellion – and one of their number is a mercenary called Del Grant (a reliable Tom Chadbon). Years before, Grant’s sister Anna had been Avon’s lover. But she was captured and tortured by the Federation, leading to a feud between the two men. Once Avon deduces that the ‘bomb’ is just a remote trigger, he and Grant teleport over to the location of the explosives. By the story’s end, thanks to a heart-to-heart, the two men come to a mutual respect.
* Blake (22) soon realises that, after setting the bomb in motion, Space Major Provine is now loose in the compound. He’s actually masquerading as a rebel and – wouldn’t you know it? – is assigned to help Blake in the search. When Blake deduces who he is, they fight. Just before he dies, Provine mentions that the Federation command centre is called ‘Star One’ and that someone called Docholli knows everything…
* Jenna (22) operates the teleport. (No wonder actress Sally Knyvette was considering quitting the show around this point. The creative team have such little interest in her character. It’s actually getting embarrassing.)
* Vila (22) gets more lock-picking to do: a door and a safe. Later, he also realises that the missing Provine is right under Blake’s nose.
* Early on, Cally (19) relays a message to the others. It’s from the planet Albion, which is handy as that’s where they were heading anyway. Then, yet again, the male members of the Liberator crew go on a mission while the women stay behind and look after the ship. (I imagine there’s plenty of slash fiction out there detailing what Jenna and Cally get up to while the men are away.)
* Orac is mentioned but does not appear.

Best bit: Avon and Grant are about to head off together to defuse the bomb, so Blake calmly but forcibly tells Grant that if he harms Avon there’ll be serious consequences. Despite everything, despite every row and snipe and blatant betrayal, Blake still has a duty of care – and possibly even affection – for Avon.

Worst bit: Trial, Killer, Hostage, Countdown… The creatives weren’t putting a huge amount of effort into episode titles at this point, were they?

Review: You don’t need to check the opening credits to know that Terry Nation wrote this one. Before long, it’s possible to play a game of bingo with his storytelling obsessions: an oppressed local population, po-faced rebels, fascist overlords, extreme situations, radiation, and thin, simple drama. The meat of the story should be Avon and Grant’s relationship, and it is excellent once we get to it, but the episode uses up half its running time before the two men interact. Having said all that, this is still a fun 50 minutes of hokum.

Eight laser lancers out of 10

Next episode: Voice from the Past

Blake’s 7: Hostage (1979)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Blake receives a message from Travis, who has taken Blake’s cousin hostage and wants to talk…

Series B, episode 8. Written by: Allan Prior. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 27 February 1979, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* After being attacked and chased by Federation pursuit ships, Blake (21) learns that his old nemesis is on the planet Exbar. Travis is now on the run from the authorities. He wants to talk and maybe join forces with Blake – so takes Blake’s cousin Inga hostage as a bargaining chip. Blake heads to Exbar and teleports down alone, despite his colleagues (and the audience) all telling him it’s clearly a trap. He finds his uncle, Ushton, then climbs a hill to search for Travis – but yes, it is a trap and Blake is captured…
* When Blake says he has to try to save Inga, Avon (20) reminds him that while he’s off the ship the others may just leave him behind. (That’s nice.) However, after Blake has gone down to the surface, Avon gets jittery. He decides to follow his colleague, and soon discovers that Ushton has betrayed Blake to Travis.
* Vila (21) is actually open to negotiations with Travis, which is grimly ironic considering the fact that he’s later captured and intimidated by him.
* When the episode begins, Zen (19) warns the Liberator crew that Federation pursuit ships are nearby. He later fails to spot, however, that a single ship is just a few hundred metres behind them. Aboard it is Travis’s replacement as Servalan’s space-commander-of-choice.
* Jenna (21) pilots the Liberator to avoid the pursuit ships (one of the controls seems to be the arm of an adjustable table lamp). Later, she’s tricked into teleporting a ‘crimo’ – one of Travis’s new gang of criminal psychopaths – aboard the Liberator. But she then manages to re-teleport him into space, killing him.
* Cally (18) gets very little to do. She’s mostly taken over Gan’s function in the team: stand around, beef up the numbers, and occasionally say something that doesn’t really develop the plot. Her one moment in this episode is just before Blake leaves the ship. Telepath Cally gets a Deanna Troi-style vague sense of danger.
* Orac (8) picks up the coded message from Travis.
* Travis (9) has been on the run since his interrupted trial a couple of episodes ago. The real reason he’s taken Inga prisoner and coerced Ushton into helping him is because he wants the Liberator. The plan seems to be going well: he manages to capture Blake, Avon and Vila, but then Inga and Ushton turn on him. Blake and co escape, leaving Travis tied up with Servalan on the way…
* Servalan (8) ain’t happy that Blake is becoming a folk hero. To make matters worse, Travis’s replacement turns out to be rubbish at hunting down Blake. She then gets word where Travis is… Once she finds him, they do a deal. If he gets her Blake, she’ll officially list Travis as dead (thereby allowing him to disappear and avoid his execution sentence).

Best bit: Pretty much anything Avon says or does. It’s another terrific episode for the show’s most enigmatic character. He acts cool and disinterested in Blake, but then risks his life to save him (again). This is clearly a man with a complex psychology. He’s also part of the episode’s best plot twist – it’s he who sends an anonymous message to Servalan telling her where Travis is.

Worst bit: During an action scene on the surface of Exbar, there’s a *very* polystyrene-y avalanche of rocks.

Review: One of the pleasures of Blake’s 7 is the way it develops across the episodes. This is not a show with a reset button at the end of every adventure. Travis, for example, has a character arc – once a respected and feared officer in the Federation military, he’s now reduced to a mercenary on the edge of society. And that kind of thing makes the series more interesting. (He certainly fairs better than Jenna and Cally do: this is yet another episode where the male crew members get action and story, and the female crew members get standing-around-on-the-Liberator.) Too simple to be really enjoyable – we all know it’s a trap and it is – Hostage passes the time well enough.

Six kissing cousins out of 10

Next episode: Countdown