Inspector Clouseau (1968, Bud Yorkin)

IC

Spoiler warning: These reviews reveal plot details

When the British authorities suspect a mole in Scotland Yard, Inspector Clouseau is seconded from Paris. Arriving in London, he begins to investigate a case involving a major criminal gang…

In some ways, this can be considered the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service of the Pink Panther series – a one-off aberration, a side-step quickly rethought. After establishing the lead role of Inspector Jacques Clouseau in two successful comedies, star Peter Sellers did what Sean Connery was concurrently doing with James Bond and skipped a late-60s sequel. Sellers preferred instead to do the film The Party, which was being directed by Blake Edwards and scored by Henry Mancini – a schedule clash that meant all three of these key players from The Pink Panther (1963) and A Shot in the Dark (1964) were unavailable. Unbowed, the Panther producers pushed on anyway, gambling that the brand was bigger than any individual names.

However, Sellers had created such a memorable and entertaining character that simply swapping in a new actor was never going to be a smooth process. In the event, Alan Arkin was signed up, largely because of his turn in the 1966 war comedy The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming. The American’s career has been significantly more impressive than Sean Connery’s replacement as 007, former model George Lazenby, and he’s clearly a much more capable performer. But the analogy with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service still stands up when focused on the present film. Arkin does a wonderful job of demonstrating just how superb Sellers had been. This Clouseau is still accident-prone, naive and has an unfounded sense of his own abilities. But Arkin lacks the romantic idealism that had made the character so appealing in the first two films. The Sellers version had a winsome nobility, whereas Arkin’s Clouseau is more of a dullard. He also fails to build any chemistry with his co-stars; a nominal love-interest plot with Delia Boccardo’s Interpol agent Lisa Morell never has any spark to it.

After the continental settings of the earlier films, the first half of Inspector Clouseau takes place in London. Called in by the British Prime Minister to root out a mole in Scotland Yard, Clouseau soon encounters gadget-obsessed police chief Superintendent Weaver (Frank Finlay), his overly flirtatious wife (Beryl Reid), and members of a criminal gang (including Frenzy‘s Barry Foster and Doctor Who‘s Anthony Ainley). The plot, which manages to be both convoluted and arbitrary at the same time, sees the gang planning a series of simultaneous bank raids in Switzerland. Once Clouseau makes his presence felt, they also come up with the additional idea of framing him for each and every heist… by all wearing Inspector Clouseau masks.

Our comparison with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service starts to fall apart here. That Bond film may have had a poor lead actor who lacked the power and charisma of his predecessor, but it was still an excellently made and very enjoyable movie. Inspector Clouseau, on the other hand, is just lacklustre. It’s an unfunny, uninspired mess, and often boring. Unsurprisingly, as with Lazenby and James Bond, Arkin never returned to the role. For the next Pink Panther, Peter Sellers was tempted back – just like Sean Connery was in the next Bond movie.

Incidentally, whether it’s a coincidence or not is unclear, but Sean Connery is actually name-checked in Inspector Clouseau – it’s revealed that Clouseau carries a signed photo of the actor around in his wallet. Perhaps the filmmakers did know what they were doing, after all.

Four humble English vacations out of 10

Next time: The Return of the Pink Panther

A Taste of Blood (1967, Herschell Gordon Lewis)

ATOB

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

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: It’s the modern-day (1960s), mostly in Florida but with a diversion to London.

Faithful to the novel? This obscure slice of trash cinema is a sequel to Bram Stoker’s story, set nearly a century later. (The earlier events are dated to before September 1883.) In 1960s Miami, businessman John Stone takes delivery of a parcel, which contains two bottles of what seems to be red wine. They come with a note telling John that he is the last surviving descendant of a Baron Vada Khron of Moldavia, and therefore now the master of Carfax, a ‘sizeable estate in Purfleet, a suburb of London’. (Dracula’s English home in Stoker’s book is indeed Carfax Abbey in Purfleet, but Purfleet is actually a town in Essex about 35 miles from the centre of the capital.) John samples the wine and undergoes a transformation. He is now a vampire with detailed knowledge of his most famous forebear, Count Dracula, and soon sets about tracking down the descendants of Dracula’s killers. This involves a journey to London, dramatised by stock footage of Tower Bridge and Piccadilly Circus as well as scenes featuring some truly abysmal English accents (from both the cor-blimey-gov’nor and upper-crust categories). We learn about the first two deaths via newspaper headlines – ‘Philip Harker brutally slain’ and ‘Dr Wayne Seward found foully murdered in laboratory’ refer to the progeny of the novel’s Johnathan and Mina Harker and their friend Jack Seward. We then see John seek out the current Lord Godalming, which is the movie’s first on-screen death. As he pounces, John turns a ghoulish blue; his lordship is soon covered in red. Back in America, the vampire next targets Sherri Morris, whose ancestor was the book’s American character, Quincy P Morris. Then a Dr Howard Helsing (obviously part of the Van Helsing clan) shows up, fearful for his life having learnt about the other deaths…

Best performance: Our Dracula descendant, John Stone, is played by the 6’2″ Bill Rogers. His CV is a list of forgotten B-movies such as as 1962’s Santo vs the Vampire Women, 1963’s Six She’s and a He, and 1970’s Flesh Feast (IMDB synopsis: ‘A ring of Nazis in Florida is in possession of the body of Adolf Hitler, and plan revive him so they can take over the world.’). In A Taste of Blood, what he lacks in naturalism and charm he makes up for in imposing posture and a certain vague similarity to Christopher Lee.

Best bit: There are occasionally artful moments, usually involving smoke machines and expressionist blue light.

Review: This project was originally called The Secret of Dr Alucard and naively intended as a vehicle for Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr before producer/director Herschell Gordon Lewis got hold of it. Lewis was immensely proud of his movie, calling it his masterpiece, and was keen to laud its relatively high production values. But that word ‘relatively’ is key here. Lewis was an independent who ploughed his furrow in the cheaper end of the filmmaking field. He started off making soft-porn throwaways, then moved into ‘gore’ pictures – all were aimed at undiscerning drive-in audiences. Like the rest of his output, A Taste of Blood is low-budget and feels bodged-together. It’s a two-hour film that was shot in just three weeks, with lots of simple setups, virtually no close-ups, lots of stock music, and members of the crew doubling up to play small roles. So here ‘high production values’ basically means that the interior locations are reasonably well lit. The story is simplistic, the drama scenes drably directed, the cast is appalling, and even the gore now seems quaintly tame, coming as it did before the 70s boom of blood-and-guts films like Dawn of the Dead.

Four dirty pictures out of 10

Conan the Barbarian (1982, John Milius)

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.

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Watched: 7 September 2019
Format: A DVD found in a charity shop.
Seen before? Nope.

Review: In the 1970s and 80s there was a glut of films that mixed medieval settings with magic and fantasy. This sword-and-scorcery fad took in such varied movies as Jabberwocky (1977), Hawk the Slayer (1980), Excalibur (1981), Ladyhawke (1985) and others of a less interesting aspect. Conan the Barbarian, based on the pulp stories of Robert E Howard, was one of the most successful, taking nearly 10 times its budget at the box office. Sadly, it’s possibly the most boring of the whole genre.

Large portions of the film play like a silent movie. Dialogue is sparse, with director John Milius preferring to tell his simplistic revenge story via action, violence, gesture, close-up and an awful lot of Basil Poledouris’s strident, energetic incidental music. Not a bad idea per se, but a bizarre notion if you’ve cast Arnold Schwarzenegger in his first leading role of note. Playing Conan – an orphaned prisoner in a time before recorded history who hunts down the warlord who murdered his family – Arnie certainly has the physique. But as a character he’s a big blank space where our emotional connection should be.

The film looks handsome enough, thanks to the genius of production designer Ron Cobb, and there are some striking visual sequences such as ethereal demons attempting to abduct an ill and injured Conan. You can also, no doubt, read any number of historical subtexts and precedents in John Milius’s fetishistic love of weaponry and ritual. But the story drags interminably and the cast is variable (ranging from James Earl Jones to a mate of the director’s). It’s often very difficult to care what happens next.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘For Milius, Conan was making a statement that went way beyond action movies and comic books. It all went back to Nietzsche… When Conan opened nationwide on May 14 [1982], it became the first blockbuster of what is still talked about as the best movie summer ever. That summer also brought us The Road Warrior [aka Mad Max 2], Rocky III, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Blade Runner, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The World According to Garp, Poltergeist, An Officer and a Gentleman, Tron, The Thing, and, of course, E.T. Conan the Barbarian held its own among them all.’

Four giant snakes out of 10

Next: Sabotage

The Last Stand (2013, Kim Jee-woon)

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.

TheLastStand

Watched: 21 August 2019
Format: A secondhand DVD I bought from a branch of CEX while on holiday in Whitby, North Yorkshire, in February 2019. It cost £1.
Seen before? No.

Review: Arnie’s first leading role after his seven-year stint as Governor of California sees him as local sheriff Ray Owens, a man who lives in a sleepy border town where everyone knows each other and Harry Dean Stanton is a cantankerous farmer. But the film often feels bored by this setting and its characters, because we cut away for long stretches to Forest Whitaker’s FBI agent. He inhabits a coarse, CSI/techno-thriller world and is called into action when an elaborate heist busts a drugs kingpin free from federal custody. (Meanwhile, back in Somerton, Arizona, Arnie gets a call from a woman who’s worried because her morning milk hasn’t been delivered.)

The criminal – Eduardo Noriega’s stunningly uninteresting Gabriel Cortez – then speeds off in an easily recognisable, one-of-a-kind, 1000-horsepower Corvette ZR1. It’s a sub-Fast & Furious plan to race for the Mexican border, and when Ray gets wind of it he and his cohorts (Luis Guzmán, an irritating Johnny Knoxville, Jaimie Alexander from the Thor films) prepare for the kingpin’s arrival in their town…

There are half-hearted nods here and there towards the Western genre, but the film is overwhelmed to the point of suffocation by macho A-Team action and misfiring comedy. There’s an appalling script – heavy on jarring exposition, light on any character depth – and some truly dreadful bad guys. This could have been Schwarzenegger’s Copland or Logan, a meditative drama about an ageing tough guy in an increasingly unhinged world. Instead it’s more like his Death Wish 5.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘With that movie, a lot of the pressure did fall on me. In fact, the script had been written for me… It’s a great, great role. The sheriff knows if he succeeds, it will mean everything to his town. His reputation is on the line. Is he really over the hill or can he do it?’

Four wheat fields out of 10

Next time: Collateral Damage

Zoltan, Hound of Dracula (1978, Albert Band)

Zoltan

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

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Note: This film’s original title when released in the US was the more prosaic Dracula’s Dog.

Setting: In this slice of trash cinema, we begin in a land that goes unnamed (‘the old country’), though it’s fair to assume it’s Romania. Then after a voyage across fogbound seas, events play out in Los Angeles and near a lake in San Bernardino County, California. The bulk of the story takes place in the modern day, though we also see brief flashbacks to a few centuries earlier.

Faithful to the novel? No, not at all. This film is set many years after the events of the book. (Stoker’s novel is not mentioned, but one character refers to ‘all those Dracula pictures’ made by Hollywood.) As we get underway, an army bomb-clearance team accidentally uncovers the Dracula family tomb. We see stones for Count Igor Dracula and Countessa Eva Dracula among others. A dopey soldier then pulls a stake from a long-decayed corpse and resurrects… not Dracula, but Dracula’s dog! The vampiric pooch – a Doberman pinscher called Zoltan – then removes the stake from another coffin’s inhabitant and reawakens his owner, Veidt Smit (the craggy-faced Reggie Nalder). Together the pair set off in search of the last surviving descendant of Count Dracula… That turns out to be an American called Michael Drake (Michael Pataki), who’s currently on a camping holiday with his wife, two kids and their brood of dogs. (That’s right: the ‘last surviving descendant of Count Dracula’ has children. Think that one through, movie!) Meanwhile, a Van Helsing-type investigator called Vaclav Branco (played by a slumming-it José Ferrer) is on the case and follows Smit’s trail to America, where he locates Michael and imparts lots of vague exposition.

Best performance: Michael is played by Michael Pataki, a kind of cut-price Darren McGavin who later appeared in slasher films such as Graduation Day, Sweet Sixteen and Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. His character comes across as a decent, affable family man.

Best bit: When awoken from his coffin, Zoltan has a flashback to when he was mortal, a soft-focus sequence that brings to mind that time Bouncer the dog had a dream in Australian soap opera Neighbours. Count Igor Dracula is angry when Zoltan gets in the way of him attacking a sexy woman, so he morphs into a bat and bites the hound – turning him into a vampire dog. The movie doesn’t seem to have any clue how ridiculous any of this is.

Review: The B-movie producer Albert Band had a CV that includes such tantalisingly hopeless titles as Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn, TerrorVision, and Zarkorr! The Invader. For Zoltan, Hound of Dracula he also slid into the director’s chair and the result is predictably sloppy, crass and forgettable. Made by a team with a greater sense of irony, this could have been campy fun. Instead, it’s a straight-ahead horror flick that’s not ‘about’ anything in the slightest. The rotten-to-the-core storytelling soon gets muddled up in its own absurdity, the flat line-readings become tiresome, and despite a cute trick of reflecting light into Zoltan’s eyes the film is never scary or even unsettling. (Even when snarling, in fact, you can see the dog looking off-camera for approval from his trainer.)

Four berets out of 10

Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula (2000, Joe Chappelle)

DarkPrince

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

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The ‘present’ scenes are set in 1476 in Turk-occupied Romania. (The name Romania is used on screen but is an anachronism.) We then see lengthy flashbacks, beginning with Vlad Tepes’s birth in 1431. The story also drifts across the border into Hungary.

Faithful to the novel? This made-for-television movie was first broadcast in America on Halloween night 2000. It’s yet another Drac-drama that posits that Stoker’s fictional Count is really the historical dictator Vlad Tepes (1431-1477), aka Vlad Dracula, aka Vlad the Impaler. The fact that this connection was never Bram Stoker’s intention – the author simply borrowed the real-life figure’s name and it’s doubtful he knew much more about him – has not stopped dozens of films and TV shows running with the idea. As the story begins, the powerful 15th-century warlord Vlad Tepes has been combating Ottoman Turks who have invaded his country. But after he allies himself with a Catholic king of Hungary (played, rather oddly, by Roger Daltrey of The Who), he’s questioned by a panel of Orthodox churchmen. The bulk of the film is then told in flashback as Vlad explains his actions over the years.

Best performance: Vlad is played by German actor Rudolph Martin, who coincidentally played a fully formed Dracula in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer shown just a month before The Dark Prince. When the character is born, a nearby religious statue begins to cry blood – so rumours spread that he’s the antichrist. The adult Vlad denies this, but in flashback he suffers hardships as he grows older: his father is killed by his enemies; his brother is kidnapped and brainwashed. As he leads a fightback against the invading Turks, Vlad uses all this angst to justify turning into a barbaric ruler. As Prince of Romania, he kills his own countrymen, drinks their blood and impales them on spikes. Charming. Some fear him (including his wife, who goes insane when she realises what he’s capable of); some rally behind him. He’s eventually murdered by his brother, but – perhaps because he’s been excommunicated by the church – he then rises from the grave as a godless soul, condemned to walk the earth forever… (The unsaid implication: he’s now Dracula the vampire.)

Best bit: Attempts are made here and there to imbue this film with some new ideas. For example, it uses its framing-device-and-flashback structure to suggest that some of the ideas surrounding Vlad are simply myths. He’s badly hurt in battle and seems to die, so his aide begins to construct a coffin; but then Vlad recovers, leading some watching soldiers to assume he’s been resurrected.

Review: Despite some decent production values, this is humourless drivel played out by a cast stuck in second gear. The lack of a central sympathetic character means it drifts along and fails to grab your attention.

Four loafs of bread out of 10

Rocky V (1990, John G Avildsen)

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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.

Now retired, Rocky Balboa acts as mentor to a promising young boxer – but his commitment to the cause leads to a rift in his family…

What does Stallone do? He wrote the script and plays Rocky Balboa again. (Five movies in and the actor’s soppy shtick is starting to grate now.) But for the first time with a Rocky sequel he didn’t direct. As this was intended as the final film in the series, original director John G Avildsen returned, having spent most of the intervening 14 years making Karate Kid movies… Soon after the events of Rocky IV, Rocky Balboa is welcomed back to the US by excited journalists who are proud that he beat a Soviet boxer in his own back gulag. But the bonhomie falls away when the Balboas lose all of their money and are forced to move into meagre housing in urban Philadelphia. Needing cash, the now-retired Rocky considers fighting his replacement as world champion, a young guy called Union Cane, but is then diagnosed with cavum septum pellucidum (in other words: irreversible brain damage). So instead he takes over running his old boxing gym, and then encounters a promising young boxer called Tommy Gunn. The two quickly develop a bond, with Tommy even living in the Balboas’ basement (much to the chagrin of Rocky’s son, Robert, who feels ignored). But then Tommy is tempted away by a flamboyant boxing promoter, who promises him riches if he fights Cane. As the public turns against him for abandoning his old trainer, the riled and petulant Tommy feels the need to beat Rocky in a fight – and the two men end up brawling in the street… During filming the plan had been that Rocky would die at the end of his scrap with Tommy, but then Stallone changed his mind and the character lived to fight another day (in 16 years’ time, as it turned out).

Other main characters:
* Adrian Balboa (Talia Shire) insists that her husband has retired after his bruising battle with Ivan Drago in the last film – even when Rocky is tempted by a huge payday if he gets back into the ring.
* Robert ‘Rocky’ Balboa (Sage Stallone) has magically aged a few years during the weeks his father spent in Russia – he now appears to be about 12. When the family move into inner-city Philly, he starts at a new school but is soon bullied. (You know, in that way that sons of world heavyweight boxing champions are often picked on…) As Rocky becomes more and more distracted with training Tommy, Robert is beaten up and feels isolated and alone. He wants to learn how to fight but his dad is too busy to teach him.
* Pauline Peninno (Burt Young) has mucked things up in a big way. He naively signed away the family’s power of attorney to a crooked accountant, who has now wiped out all their wealth. (Does this make sense? Since when did layabout Paulie have that kind of authority?) Rocky and Adrian’s only remaining asset – thankfully, because it keeps the plot going – is the old gym once owned by Rocky’s mentor Mickey Goldmill. Characteristically, Paulie shows little remorse for his fuck-up. He also moots moving to Miami to work as a gigolo.
* The flamboyant, loud and arrogant George Washington Duke (Richard Gant) styles himself as a promoter extraordinaire, and is pretty obviously based on boxing impresario Don King. He wants Rocky to fight one of his young clients, a guy called Union Cane (Michael Williams, a real-life boxer giving a truly dreadful performance). But Rocky resists the idea, so Duke hounds him in the media and in person then later turns his attentions to Rocky’s new protégé.
* The late Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) appears in some newly filmed flashbacks. Set during the timeframe of Rocky II, and featuring Mickey giving pep talks to Rocky, the scenes are so heavy-handed they very nearly rip through the screen and flop onto the floor.
* Tommy ‘the Machine’ Gunn (Tommy Morrison) is a boxing hopeful from Oklahoma who introduces himself to Rocky on the street and wants him to be his trainer. A walking collection of muscles with a mullet on top, Tommy is a savage brawler who impresses Balboa enough that the older man takes him in, shows him the ropes, encourages him… However, Tommy’s head is then turned by the flashy Duke (and his cleavage-on-legs moll). Morrison gives a pretty flat performance of a one–note character.

Key scene: When Tommy gets a chance to fight world champion Union Cane, Rocky watches the bout on television – and he throws or ducks every punch along with his friend. When a victorious Tommy then gives a speech, he says he wants to thank one man in particular and Rocky’s chest puffs out in pride… only for Tommy to say he owes everything to Duke.

Review: If this lacklustre film is about anything, it’s about fatherhood. At one point, Rocky says that having his son was like being born again; it gave him a second chance. Rocky himself has lost his own father figure (trainer Mickey, who died in Rocky III) and is now attempting to take on the role of a parental mentor. However, the person who he should be focusing on – his son, Robert – gets ignored because Rocky has acquired a surrogate in the form of Tommy. (All of this has an extra level to it: Robert is played by Sylvester Stallone’s real-life son.) But the choice of storyline has an odd emotional effect. Rocky is the film’s lead character and yet is behaving so appallingly – being such a poor father – that we don’t have any sympathy for him. Tommy, meanwhile, is soon revealed to be a selfish chancer. Robert should be the one we root for, and it’s actually not a bad performance from 13-year-old Sage Stallone, but he gets relatively little screen time. It constantly feels like the movie, not just Rocky, is distracted. Elsewhere, the clunky plot that strips the Balboas of their wealth overnight is pretty laughable. The high times of the previous sequels (flashy cars, mansions, robot butlers) has gone, and now Rocky and co are back in a working-class ghetto. (‘This neighbourhood’s coming down with tooth decay,’ says Paulie.) Director John Avildsen is going for the kind of stark realism he used in the original movie, but it now comes off as artificial. Rocky might start wearing his old hat, old locations might get reused, old scenes echoed. But it’s all undercut by a cast who are either coasting or not good enough, a hip-hop-flavoured score that feels out of place, and lots of soft Hollywood lighting. Then the finale is just risible. Tommy goads Rocky into brawling on a Philadelphia street and the resulting fight is shot with tricksy frame rates, irritating editing and the kind of staging you usually only see in music videos. Rocky wins and everyone around him acts like a 45-year-old man beating up the world heavyweight boxing champion in the gutter is a perfectly reasonable thing to happen.

Four butts in the buckets, asses in the seats, out of 10

Next: Rocky Balboa

The Skin Game (1931, Alfred Hitchcock)

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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 rivalry between two families leads to a dangerous secret being revealed…

When this movie was made, audible dialogue was still something of a novelty. The opening title cards, in fact, advertise that it’s ‘a talking film’. But to modern ears, you sometimes wish it were silent: the first scene is an awful clipped and stilted chat between two young people from rival families. You half expect Miles Cholmondley-Warner to wander in.

The plot concerns some farming land, which has been sold on the proviso that the existing tenants are allowed to stay. When the new owners renege on the deal, however, it causes tensions. And this leads to the murky past of the new owner’s daughter, Chloe (Phyllis Konstam), being revealed: she once earnt money by pretending to be the ‘other woman’ in divorce cases.

The obvious theme hanging over the film is a fear of progress, of industry, of change. A bucolic landscape could soon be eaten up by new smoky, mucky, dirty factories; ‘scandal’ could soon destroy a family’s all-important reputation. But it’s fairly run-of-the-mill stuff. Some interest comes from the casting of Edmund Gwenn – later Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street (1947) – as the nouveau riche Mr Hornblower. He’s reprising the role from a silent 1921 version of the same story.

Four trees in Longmeadow out of 10

Blake’s 7: Moloch (1980)

Screenshot 2018-08-18 11.35.10

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Liberator crew follow Servalan to a planet with a secret…

Series C, episode 11. Written by: Ben Steed. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 17 March 1980, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Vila (37) is moaning as the story begins: they’ve been tailing Servalan’s ship for 27 days and he’s bored. He’s injured when the Liberator nearly crashes, then has a sleep. But he awakens when he hears his name being put forward (by Orac) as the best person to sneak onto the planet where Servalan’s landed. On the surface, he eventually bumps into a group of prisoners masquerading as Federation troops. (One of them is called Doran and is played by Davyd Harries like he’s in a Carry On film.) They’ve been brought in by the episode’s bad guy as muscle for a rebellion against Servalan. Later, due to circumstance, Vila has to team up with the president…
* Avon (36) is curious where Servalan’s ship is heading, especially as it skirts past a penal planet and carries on into uncharted space. When the ship suddenly vanishes, Avon demands they follow the same course – and it leads them to a planet hidden behind an energy shield. Avon and Dayna teleport down and locate a massive central computer capable of producing perfect copies of any material. But Avon’s soon captured and tortured…
* Dayna (11) advocates blasting Servalan out of the sky rather than just following her ship: they should kill her while they have the chance.
* In order to sneak past the planet’s energy barrier – which may cause havoc with the Liberator’s teleport – Tarrant (11) and Vila secretly beam across to a ship they see approaching it, then escape once on the surface. Later, Tarrant is able to save Avon and Dayna from Section Leader Grose, an officer who’s rebelled against Servalan. Then, however, Moloch is revealed…
* Cally (34) – after a few starring roles in recent episodes – is back to being a not-so-glorified secretary.
* Zen (31) reports early on that the Liberator’s course has no material destination. Cheers, bud. Great help, that.
* When Servalan (19) arrives on the planet, she finds an officer called Section Leader Grose (an underwhelming John Hartley) and his pals treating the local women appallingly. There have been several deaths in the fleet, and this gang of twats have put themselves in charge. Servalan threatens them with court martial, but then Grose shows his hand: he now has access to the planet’s prized computer system, which can replicate anything you ask it to. His plan it to copy Servalan’s ship and create an entirely new fleet – with him in charge. Servalan is tied up, but then Vila finds her and she manipulates him into letting her free.
* Orac (21) fills in some exposition: the planet is called Sardos and is actually a fixed meteoroid populated by isolationists.

Best bit: As tempting as it is to be crass and say the very pretty Sabina Franklyn, who plays a non-entity of a character called Chesil, the best aspect is actually the teaming up of Vila and Servalan. Their odd-couple comedy pairing is a delight.

Worst bit: Moloch itself is the computer system that runs the planet. Towards the end of the episode, there’s a reveal of what’s inside it. If any viewer doesn’t immediately burst into laughter then they’re a better man than me.

Screenshot 2018-08-18 11.35.56

Review: Nonsense propped up by technobabble and misogyny.

Four life-support systems to carry them through the trauma of molecular integration out of 10

Next episode: Death-Watch

Blake’s 7: Sarcophagus (1980)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A mysterious entity uses Cally’s telepathic abilities to board and take control of the Liberator…

Series C, episode 9. Written by: Tanith Lee. Directed by: Fiona Cumming. Originally broadcast: 3 March 1980, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Cally (32) is suffering from ennui as the episode begins, and has been hiding in her bedroom. Well, I suppose her entire planet was wiped out two episodes ago: she’s bound to be a bit maudlin. When an alien ship drifts close to the Liberator, she clearly senses something telepathically but denies this when her colleagues call her on it. Cally then teleports over to the craft with Vila and Avon – they find it long-abandoned and containing a desiccated corpse. It’s not a ship; it’s a tomb. They then trigger a booby device and have to scarper pronto – but something goes wrong with the teleport and only Cally gets home. Thankfully she thinks quickly, returns to the ship and saves her friends. Yay! Panic over, Cally then falls asleep but hears a strange voice in her dreams…
* Avon (34) shows sympathy to grieving Cally (he was too busy on a revenge mission last week). After visiting the alien ship, he becomes interested in an artefact they recovered from it, which turns out to be a conduit that allows a spectre of some kind to cross over from the alien craft to the Liberator – the ghost takes Cally’s form and starts messing about with the crew’s sanity. (He couldn’t have just left the bloody thing alone, could he?) Avon is the one who’s most able to stand up to the invader and distracts her long enough to steal her ring, which she’s using to focus her physic energy. She then fades away into nothingness.
* Vila (35) is one of the first to be affected by the spectre’s bizarre influence. When the lights go out on the Liberator flight deck, he experiences hallucinations and starts performing sleight-of-hand magic tricks. (There’s appreciative applause added to the soundtrack.) He then sees the interloper: a woman who looks like Cally wearing face paint because she’s played by Jan Chappell in face paint.
* Dayna (9) operates the teleport, realises something’s wrong when she feels static electricity on the flight deck, and is knocked unconscious by some kind of energy beam.
* At the start of the episode, Tarrant (9) has identified an asteroid full of profitable minerals, but argues for postponing that mission when the alien craft hoves into view. He’s distrustful of Cally when she acts oddly and openly questions her motives, then has a row with Avon – it’s real alpha-male stuff. Later, he confronts the strange entity on the flight desk and learns she needs Cally’s life force to escape her tomb.
* Zen (29) and Orac (19) get some basic exposition to impart.

Best bit: Avon and Tarrant’s argument is a testosterone-fuelled thing of wonder. Tarrant is hot-headed, frustrated and full of angry-young-man-ism, while Avon is withering and dryly sarcastic.

Worst bit: Not a huge amount of the episode impresses, but especially tiresome is the scene near the end where Dayna explains the plot to Vila. If you need such a scene, surely there’s something wrong with your storytelling?

Review: Jan Chappell plays an additional character for the second time in three episodes. After the wet fish Zelda in Children of Auron, now she camps it up as that hoary old sci-fi cliche: an arrogant, capricious god with nebulous powers who enjoys toying with lesser life forms. Sadly, as with a lot of genre stories that can be summed up as ‘weird shit happening’, the episode can’t build any tension or jeopardy. The characters rarely know what’s going on and neither do we viewers, so the stakes are vague and the peril uninteresting. At least Fiona Cumming – who also directed the previous episode, Rumours of Death – makes sure we get some style and fun. There’s a peculiar, dialogue-less opening scene scored by whimsical music, a bizarre song sung over photographs of the Liberator model, and filmed cutaways of the regular cast acting out metaphors… It might not be much good, but you can’t claim Sarcophagus is boring.

Four intelligent menials out of 10

Next episode: Ultraworld