Blake’s 7: Gold (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eight notes drawn by the Bank of Zerok out of 10

Next episode: Orbit

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Blake’s 7: Games (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eight recalcitrant chiefs out of 10

Next episode: Sand

Blake’s 7: Headhunter (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Things go badly wrong when the team attempt to contact a cyberneticist…

Series D, episode 6. Written by: Roger Parkes. Directed by: Mary Ridge. Originally broadcast: 2 November 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Slave (6) wakes up Vila as the Scorpio approaches the planet Pharos, where the gang have come to recruit an expert to their cause. But later the computer is mysteriously incapacitated.
* Vila (45) has come on the mission to Pharos with Tarrant. Their aim is to collect a genius called Muller, who works for a robot-development cartel. When the guest’s on board, however, he acts oddly and attacks Tarrant – so Vila whacks him with a spanner, apparently killing him. They put his body in a cryogenic capsule and head back to base, but due to some bizarre problems with Scorpio the craft has to be quarantined with Vila and Tarrant still on board. When the life-support system then fails, the two men need rescuing. After he’s recovered, Vila is given the job of opening a box that belonged to Muller…
* Tarrant (19) is suspicious when Muller changes the rendezvous for his pick-up at the last minute – it seems ‘they’ are on to him. Armed, Tarrant teleports down to Pharos to collect him; he also picks up a box Muller seems wary of. After Muller’s death, Tarrant orders Vila not to open the box until they can deduce what’s inside – then the ship suffers from unexplained buffeting and power failures and a course change…
* Meanwhile, Avon (44) is keeping Muller’s wife company back at the base. When news comes through that Muller has been killed, Vena (Lynda Bellingham) is distraught and accuses Avon’s friends of being murderers; Avon reminds her that they needed him alive. Then contact is lost with the crippled Scorpio – and Avon is torn over whether to risk a mission to rescue Vila and Tarrant. Eventually he agrees and sends Dayna and Soolin to fetch their colleagues. Later, Avon and Vena go aboard too to check on Muller’s body – but it’s gone walkabouts! They find him back on the base – alive and seemingly well. But he then kills Vena. Avon deduces that Muller is able to manipulate nearby electrical circuits, hence Slave incorrectly diagnosing his decease. Then when the gang look inside the box, they find an android’s head. ‘Muller’ is actually a rebellious robot who’s propped the murdered Muller’s head on his body as a disguise. The whole thing was a ploy to gain access to Orac.
* Orac (28) mentions his creator, Ensor, who we met way back in season one and was coincidentally Muller’s teacher.
* Dayna (19) teleports over to the stricken Scorpio with Soolin to retrieve Vila and Tarrant. She later tries to deal with ‘Muller’ by throwing a grenade at him – at the time he’s conveniently in a corridor of the base that’s shot on film. Sadly for Dayna, he survives… sans head. Eventually, the gang manage to lure the robot outside and onto a metallic bridge, which they then electrocute and disable their nemesis.
* Soolin (6) consoles Vena and gives her a drink when she learns her husband is dead. But she’s later surprised when Orac begins to waffle on about philosophy and then asks to be switched off and hidden. She later has to play fox to the hounds and run around the base with Orac in an attempt to lure ‘Muller’ to follow her.

Best bit: The spacesuits worn by all the regulars at some point are beautifully retro-futurist. They’re like something from Dan Dare.

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Worst bit: Due to the actress having to time her dialogue to some 1981-style computer graphics, a six-second countdown read aloud by Soolin actually lasts for 15 seconds.

Review: It’s certainly from the pulpy end of Blake’s 7 storytelling spectrum, but this is really enjoyable stuff. A decent plot always keeps the interest. It’s also the first episode where Soolin feels like a proper part of the line-up.

Eight superstitious halfwits out of 10

Next episode: Assassin

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

Avengers: Infinity War (2018, Anthony and Joe Russo)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Avengers must spring into action when the powerful Thanos begins to acquire the Infinity Stones…

Avengers: Infinity War is the fourth massive, multi-character, multi-plot, multi-focus mash-up movie in the Marvel series – and it’s easily the most successful. A big reason for this is the structure of the plot. Avengers Assemble (2012), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and Captain America: Civil War (2016) all feature many, many heroes and sidekicks wanting our attention and yet are built around a single, unifying idea. In the first film, the team must come together to face Loki. In the second, the team must stay together to defeat Ultron. In the latter, the team are split into two camps and face off against each other.

But the script of Infinity Wars is a different kettle of superheroes. There’s still an overarching plot, of course. After several cameo appearances and references in previous films, the all-powerful god Thanos (Josh Brolin) wants to be even more all-powerfuller so is collecting the magical Infinity Stones, ancient totems that will allow him to wipe out half of all life in the universe. The extended Avengers family must work towards stopping him.

But writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely – key players at MCU HQ since 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger – break this storyline down into discrete segments. As the various characters we’ve got know over the last 18 movies react to the Thanos threat, they’re divvied up into separate groups, each one getting its own chance to shine. For example, in one thread, there’s the joy of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) butting heads and trying to out-Sherlock each other. Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (Tom Holland) also tags along like a fanboy. Elsewhere, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) crash-lands into the sarcasm-and-sassiness world of the Guardians of the Galaxy, while Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are living a mean, tough, espionage-y life. With such a big cast – the DVD cover manages to squeeze *24* of them into one collage – it’s admirable that they all feel like they have a role to play in the story. (The only notable absentees from the MCU roster are Ant-Man, being held back for the next movie in the series, and the forgettable Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton who’s said to have retired.)

All this makes for a dynamic film that keeps zipping around a huge canvas – from enormous starship battles in deep space to a kebab shop in Edinburgh’s Old Town – and always to characters you’re interested in. Each scene moves the larger plot forward and no section outstays its welcome. There’s the usual helping of action sequences, of course, including an arch moment when Tony walks out of a quiet building, down a street full of fleeing people and turns the corner to see a gigantic space ship hovering above Manhattan – all seemingly done in one uninterrupted take. Meanwhile, the script never loses sight of humour, with Thor and Peters Quill and Parker probably getting the most amount of funny lines. Black Panther sidekick Okoye (Danai Gurira) also wins a big laugh during the obligatory third-act battle. Secondary Avenger Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) had earlier been in the palace looking after an injured Vision, but now joins the fighting and blasts some bad guys with her psychic force powers. ‘Why was she up there all this time?!’ deadpans Okoye, impressed.

This is a big, brash popcorn movie that entertains so successfully that you’re distracted from the flaws. There’s the inherent silliness of the premise, which is a rather unimaginative story about a bad guy wanting to do bad things to innocent people just because he can. There’s the lazy repeat of a third-act battle taking place in Wakada (which also happened in the immediately previous film, Black Panther). And there’s the fact that the Infinity Stones are thunderingly boring and drab plot devices. But little of this matters when a movie is this much *fun*, and when it keeps throwing up telling character moments, enjoyable combinations of characters, and even an apocalyptic, how-will-they-get-out-of-that?! cliffhanger, designed to lead into 2019’s as-yet-unnamed sequel…

Eight bus drivers out of 10

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Monty Python’s Flying Circus: You’re No Fun Any More (Ian MacNaughton, BBC1, 30 November 1969)

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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: Various. The Dracula section takes place in a bedroom.

Faithful to the novel? This episode of Monty Python’s fiercely adventurous comedy sketch show merits an inclusion in this blogging project because of a 10-second gag. In the first full sketch of the show, a camel-spotter’s enjoyment is ruined by an interviewer who points out that he’s actually a trainspotter. ‘Oh, you’re no fun any more,’ he laments. We then cut to several short vignettes where someone says the same thing. One of the mini-scenes features Dracula (Graham Chapman in the classic Bela Lugosi get-up) approaching the bed of a woman (Donna Reading). As he gets near, his prominent fangs fall from his mouth into her cleavage. ‘Oh, you’re no fun any more,’ she moans.

Best performance: Elsewhere in the episode, Chapman and Reading also play an earnest scientist and his ditzy assistant – a clear spoof of boffins like Doctor Who or Bernard Quatermass and their attractive female sidekicks.

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Best bit: The bulk of this early episode is made up of Flying Circus’s first ‘feature-length’ sketch. Departing from the usual format of linked but separate ideas, around 23 minutes of the half-hour-long You’re No Fun Any More is one sustained storyline. A race of alien blancmanges invade England and begin to turn the populous into bagpipe-playing, kilt-wearing, ginger-bearded Scotsmen. The Python team would later do more and more of these long stories, but at the time it was an oddity.

Review: A lot of fun. Tremendously silly.

Eight fangs out of 10

Black Panther (2018, Ryan Coogler)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Having taken over as ruler of Wakanda, King T’Challa – aka the Black Panther – faces a challenger from his family’s past…

Black Panther is a marvellous showcase for Afrofuturism, an aesthetic that combines African-influenced art with technological motifs. Many scenes dazzle with costumes, sets, make-up and CG-created backdrops that show off this bold, beautiful, colourful look, and it gives the film a tone and mood different from any other movie of its type. As a new-to-Hollywood explosion of design it’s comparable to Blade Runner’s use of futuristic film noirism in 1982. You can feel the fresh air blowing through the genre, and this is indicative of the whole movie.

After 17 consecutive films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe built around white, male lead characters, here – pointedly, unashamedly, gloriously – is a story about black characters, featuring a mostly black cast and made by a black director. It certainly paid off financially: at the time of writing, Black Panther is the highest-grossing solo superhero film ever, the highest-grossing film made by a black director, and the ninth highest-grossing film of all time. Thankfully, it’s an enjoyable watch too.

The story begins a week after events seen in Captain America: Civil War (2016). After the death of his father in that movie, the new king of secluded African country Wakanda is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), a dignified, unflappable man who clearly cares for his nation and takes his responsibilities seriously. He’s officially crowned after an elaborate and ritualistic ceremony, which is a scene that risks dragging the movie into po-faced territory. Thankfully, there’s some comic relief from T’Challa’s cheeky sister, Shuri (a sparkling Letitia Wright), who as the story progresses acts as Q to his James Bond. The king also has an entertainingly grumpy bodyguard called Okoye (played by Danai Gurira, who has badass form after her stint in The Walking Dead), while Hollywood old hands Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett crop up in small roles.

But all is not copacetic is the world of Wakanda. Just like the Amazonian paradise seen in Wonder Woman – that other recent superhero film that broke free of the white-male paradigm – Wakanda is a highly developed society that has chosen isolationism. It hides away from the rest of the world, actively putting forth the myth that it’s a backwards country of farmers when it’s actually wealthier and more technologically advanced than anywhere else on the planet. It’s an odd situation in which to place your hero. Superman, Batman, the X-Men, Iron Man and the rest all risk their lives to help innocent strangers. T’Challa, however, is the ruler of a pull-the-ladder-up society. We don’t see him help a single person other than himself and his allies until the film’s closing moments. (It’s best not to ponder how many atrocities Wakanda has stood by and ignored over the years – just in Africa alone.)

But there’s a dissenting voice to this conservatism. T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), spends her time helping women in other countries and advocates sharing Wakanda’s wealth and resources with the world. This gets the king thinking, but his aide W’Kabi (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) is concerned. ‘You let the refugees in, they bring their problems with them and then Wakanda is like everywhere else,’ he says. Charming.

Meanwhile, the plot kicks off… At the Museum of Great Britain, two men overpower security and steal an ancient weapon from a display case. Surely the UK was chosen by the writers deliberately because of its colonial past, while the use of a museum is a neat comment on the West’s appropriation of African heritage and culture; we even learn that the weapon has been naively mislabelled. It’s a fun, slick sequence and it introduces the movie’s villain in style. Erik Stevens (Michael B Jordan) is an American with Special Forces experience. Within moments of showing up, he’s joined Loki, Guardians of the Galaxy’s Yondu and Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Adrian Toomes as one of the most effective bad guys in the Marvel series. There’s danger and attitude in Jordan’s performance. There’s fun too: as well as nabbing the axe, Stevens also steals a flamboyant mask from the museum just because he ‘feels’ it. Working alongside him is Ulysses Klaue (an entertaining Andy Serkis, returning from 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron). In another loaded reference to white oppression, Klaue has an Afrikaans accent.

When T’Challa learns that old nemesis Klaue has some Vibranium – an exclusively Wakandian mineral – and plans to sell it in South Korea, the king wants him caught and brought to justice for past crimes. We then get a sequence in Seoul that’s often reminiscent of a similar scene in the Bond film Skyfall – our heroes stalk a golden-lit casino, quipping to each other over earpieces, before the fighting begins. At this point we’re also reintroduced to CIA agent Everett K Ross (Martin Freeman), who T’Challa encountered earlier in the series and is now after Klaue for his own reasons. (When Ross and Klaue meet, it means a reunion of Hobbit actors. As somewhere far cleverer than me once joked on Twitter, Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis are this film’s Tolkien white guys.)

After a fun car chase, with Shuri remotely operating a vehicle from back in her lab and T’Challa suiting up as his Black Panther alter ego, Stevens nabs Klaue from under the noses of new allies T’Challa and Ross. Stevens then kills his former ally and delivers his corpse to Wakanda. We learn that – although raised in America – Erik is actually N’Jadaka, the king’s cousin, so he has a claim to the throne. And he’s a far more radical personality than T’Challa. He’s seen the hardship suffered throughout the world by people ‘who look like us’ and wants to use Wakanda’s resources to help them fight back. Swaggering into a meeting of the king’s retinue, he demands a challenge of combat. T’Challa feels he has no option but to fight; Stevens wins, seemingly kills our hero, and takes over running the country.

There’s then, sadly, a rather leaden period of the film as it tries to pretend that T’Challa is dead. (Does that cliché *ever* work in a film?) Meanwhile, Stevens starts to enact his aggressive policies, much to the chagrin of the other Wakandians. It’s a bit like those episodes of The West Wing where CJ, Josh and the others react badly as John Goodman takes over as President. No one’s happy, but they don’t feel as if they have a choice. (Perhaps a fistfight in a lagoon is not the best way of choosing a nation’s executive officer, guys.)

Eventually, after it’s revealed that T’Challa is alive (yay!), he and his friends mount a huge assault on the capital and we head into one of those loooong superhero-movie climaxes of fighting, jumping, crashing, fighting, flying, quipping, fighting and lots of CGI-ing. But you forgive the film the indulgence. Firstly because Black Panther has been – for the most part – an engaging and enjoyable action flick. But secondly because it’s patently an important movie. Hollywood has been maddeningly slow to recognise the need for diversity, and superhero films have not been immune to that. Black Panther is a proud, confident step in the right direction.

And as it nears its end, it becomes apparent that the stylish design work is not the only echo of Blade Runner. There aren’t many films where the bad guy steals the scene as he realises he’s about to die, but it happens in Black Panther. After T’Challa and Erik have fought for the future of Wakanda, the latter is mortally wounded. The king says he can get help. ‘Why?’ says Stevens, tears in his eyes. ‘So you can just lock me up? Nah. Just bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage.’

Eight gamblers in the casino out of 10

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Stage Fright (1950)

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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 young acting student in London attempts to prove that her friend is not a killer…

A curtain rises up the screen to reveal not a theatrical stage, but the bomb-damaged London of 1950. It’s a cheeky way to begin in the film, Hitchcock winking at us and telling us that this is an artificial world – and it’s not to be taken at face value.

This is a movie about lies and deceptions, about acting and pretending. No one can be fully trusted, whether they’re the student who poses as a dresser to spy on a famous actress, or her smuggler father, or the self-obsessed star, or the man who kicks the plot off with a torrid tale of murder.

As the story begins, a frantic Jonathan Cooper asks for help from his friend and fellow acting student Eve. She has a crush on him, so is happy to drive him out of London as he explains what’s happened. In flashback, we learn that he’s been having an affair with the noted stage actress Charlotte Inwood, and that she showed up at his flat with blood on her dress after killing her abusive husband. Jonathan then headed to her house to clear up the mess but was spotted by Charlotte’s maid and now fears that he’ll be accused of the crime.

Sensing an injustice and suspecting that Charlotte has tried to frame Jonathan, Eve resolves to investigate herself. She stashes Jonathan at her father’s seaside hideaway, then accidentally-on-purpose gets to know a private detective who’s looking into the case. She also seeks out Charlotte’s assistant and bribes her into feigning an illness so Eve can masquerade as her replacement. To do this, she uses her acting talents to adopt a new persona: the meek, cockney-voiced Doris Tinsdale. (There’s a great gag when, after carefully putting on clothes, make-up, a wig and glasses, Eva bumps into her mother… who doesn’t bat an eyelid: ‘Oh, there you are, Eve darling…’)

Eve is played by American actress Jane Wyman, whose mid-Atlantic accent is explained by saying the character was educated abroad. She has expressive eyes, which get archly lit in the revelation scene towards the end of the film. But she’s perhaps a bit too tightly bound to be the lead of a thriller. We rarely get a sense of her being pushed to extremes emotionally. Hitch wasn’t a fan for another reason, later arguing that the part had needed a more ‘real’ look. ‘[She] should have been a pimply faced girl,’ he said. ‘[Wyman] just refused to be that and I was stuck with her.’ Despite knowing that the director wanted her to appear frumpy and plain, Wyman was putting on flattering make-up in secret.

Co-star Marlene Dietrich, who plays Charlotte, also didn’t warm to Wyman. ‘I heard she’d only wanted to do [the film] if she were billed above me and she got her wish,’ the German star was once quoted as saying. ‘Hitchcock didn’t think much of her. She looks too much like a victim to play a heroine, and God knows she couldn’t play a woman of mystery – that was my part. Miss Wyman looks like a mystery nobody has bothered to solve.’

In Stage Fright, Dietrich gives a big, theatrical performance of a big, theatrical character. For the role of Charlotte, Hitch had originally wanted Tallulah Bankhead, who had been in Lifeboat for him six years previously, but the studio lobbied for someone more bankable. It was Dietrich’s only role for Hitchcock, and he must have been pleased to have the legend on board because he – uniquely – allowed her a far-ranging freedom over the way her character appeared on screen. She insisted on artfully lit Hollywood close-ups, even telling cinematographer Wilkie Cooper where to put his lights, and also was also given a song specially written by Cole Porter and costumes designed by Christian Dior.

Stage Fright is well cast generally, in fact, with even interest in the smallest parts. Richard Todd is sturdy and believable as Cooper. Alastair Sim is especially fruity and likeable as Eve’s father, while Sybil Thorndike is her uptight mother. There’s a nicely comedic cameo from Joyce Grenfell as an eccentric stallholder at a funfair. Irene Handl plays Charlotte’s maid, and even the Major from Fawlty Towers, Ballard Berkeley, shows up as a nonplussed copper who shares a scene with Marlene Dietrich. Hitch also cast his daughter, Pat, as one of Eve’s RADA pals. (The character is called Chubby Bannister, which was an in-joke – she’s the girl you can always lean on. Pat Hitchcock went on to appear in several episodes of her father’s TV show and had a small role in Psycho. In recent years, she’s been a well-informed and welcome presence on many documentaries about Hitch’s work.)

And the cast get an intriguing thriller plot to play with. Hitchcock and his writers – including wife Alma Reville, who worked on almost all of his films as a writer/producer – often reveal their characters’ motives and secrets, allowing the audience to know what they’re thinking even if other characters don’t. This not only raises the suspense levels – we usually know what’s at stake in a scene – but it also makes the film great fun because we have to see characters (especially Eve) improvise their way out of trouble.

But one element of the movie caused trouble. Hitchcock even later said it was the second biggest mistake of his career (after a plotting misstep in 1936’s Sabotage). Towards the end of the film, as the truth starts to seep out, we discover that the flashback we saw at the start – Jonathan’s story of Charlotte killing her husband and his attemp to cover it up – never actually happened. In reality, Jonathan killed the husband.

‘A lot of people complained because the opening flashback was a lie,’ said Hitch 13 years later. ‘Now, why can’t a man tell a lie?’ His argument is sound in theory. Storytelling – especially Hollywood narrative cinema – is all about point of view. We experience stories through characters’ eyes, so when Jonathan tells Eve what had happened, he’s simply lying – and characters lie in fiction all the time. However, by *showing* us the fantasy, Stage Fright breaks a vital convention.

The greatest writer ever to tell mystery stories, Agatha Christie, understood that. Characters can lie, yes. But her books don’t; the authorial voice doesn’t. The audience must be given a fair crack of the whip, and by dramatising a sequence that didn’t happen, this film cheats. It doesn’t ruin the movie, which is still a very enjoyable thriller. In fact, it fits the theme of deception and theatrical trickery. But it stops Stage Fright being one of the very best Hitchcocks.

‘You see, if you break tradition,’ said the director about this film, ‘you are in trouble every time.’

Eight men in the street out of 10

Blake’s 7: Powerplay (1980)

Screenshot 2018-06-03 12.03.41

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While Avon and Dayna attempt to wrestle command of the Liberator away from an enigmatic Federation officer, Vila and Cally find themselves in danger…

Series C, episode 2. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: David Maloney. Originally broadcast: 14 January 1980, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Del Tarrant (2) – who seized the Liberator in the previous episode – tells Avon and Dayna that he’s a Federation captain; he and his men found the ship abandoned. He also warns them that he may execute them for trespassing. Avon plays dumb, pretending that he and Dayna are a married couple and that he’s only vaguely heard of Blake. It’s clear Tarrant has a fractious relationship with his second-in-command, a snarling thug called Klegg (Michael Sheard). And when some Federation soldiers are killed off, observant viewers should be able to work out that Tarrant is not all he seems… It’s eventually revealed that he *isn’t* a Federation captain. He’s a rebel who found a Federation uniform so posed as an officer.
* When he first encounters Tarrant, Avon (27) thinks quickly and claims to be an innocent civilian caught up in the recent space battle. He and Dayna are locked up but soon escape. After learning who Tarrant really is, Avon seemingly betrays him to Klegg. But it’s actually just a ruse: Avon, Dayna and Tarrant are now working together…
* Dayna (2) boarded the Liberator for the first time at the conclusion of the previous episode. Now she proves to Tarrant and Klegg that she’s not one of its famous crew by demonstrating that Zen doesn’t recognise her voice. Later, after being knocked unconscious and locked up, she takes her revenge by killing the sadistic Klegg with her bare hands. Avon and Tarrant look on appreciatively. In the episode’s final scene, she and Tarrant are officially welcomed as new members of the Liberator crew, in effect replacing Jenna and Blake.
* After abandoning the Liberator in the previous episode, Vila (28) has ended up alone on a planet in some woods. He’s first found by some more of Terry Nation’s medieval-natives-played-by-middle-class-actors, who tell him they’re being hunted for sport. Vila is then separated from them and meets the hunters: two not-unattractive women in sci-fi helmets and cloaks, who explain that they’re not killers; they just tranquilise the locals and help them with their superior technology. It’s a big social-divide subtext, you see – the hi-techs versus the low. The women are seemingly very kind to Vila and take him to a nearby city, where he bumps into Cally…
* At the start of the episode, Cally (25) is aboard a hospital ship, having been picked up after the space battle. She suffered burns but they’re on the mend. Then the ship lands on a planet to collect another patient… Servalan! After also meeting up with Vila, Cally and he learn the awful truth: the doctors and nurses are actually organ harvesters and intend to operate on them. Thankfully, the Liberator then arrives and the pair are teleported to safety.
* Servalan (14) – still wearing the hand-me-down frock she was given in the previous episode – is determined to regain her authority. The fact the Federation has been crippled by the destruction of its Star One facility doesn’t deter her, and by the episode’s end she’s managed to coerce the hospital ship’s captain into getting her back to Earth.
* When Avon sneaks onto the flight deck and talks to Zen (24), the computer fills him in on his crewmates’ statuses. Blake is safe and en route to a planet. Jenna was injured, though not badly, and is now aboard a neutral cargo carrier. There’s been no contact from Cally, while Vila is in trouble so the Liberator is heading to pick him up.

Best bit: While alone in a strange forest, Vila hears the gurgles and rumbles of a monster nearby. So he mimics the voices of a well-armed military team to scare it off.

Worst bit: At the start of season three, the regular characters were scattered to the four winds by a massive space battle. But ever since, for plotting expediency, they keep bumping into each other – Avon and Servalan last week, now Cally and Servalan, then Cally and Vila.

Review: There are three strands to this episode: Avon and Dayna’s Die Hard dealings with Tarrant; Vila’s rather odd encounters in the woodlands; and Cally’s experiences on the hospital ship. The whole thing moves well and is never boring, but the standout element is clearly the character of Tarrant. He only appeared briefly last week, so this is our first chance to see him in action. He’s terrific. The storyline is a great way to introduce a new regular character, showing him off in several different situations, and while Steven Pacey was joltingly young – just 22 when the episode was recorded – the character feels older, with authority and steel.

Eight inspiring epitaths out of 10

Next episode: Volcano

Blake’s 7: Aftermath (1980)

Screenshot 2018-05-26 15.23.46

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Liberator is attacked and its crew dispersed. Avon finds himself stranded on a planet where he encounters some fellow rebels, some aggressive locals, and Servalan…

Series C, episode 1. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 7 January 1980, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* As the third season gets underway, Zen (23) reports that the alien attack force seen at the end of season two have destroyed the Federation base Star One. He also urges the crew of the Liberator to abandon their damaged ship. Later, while off-ship, Avon contacts Zen and the computer tells him that Blake is uninjured but his location is unknown, while Jenna is aboard a hospital ship.
* Cally (24) and Vila (27) feature in the early scenes aboard the chaotic Liberator as the ship comes under attack from the aliens. Cally gets dialogue to explain why Blake and Jenna aren’t in this episode – saying they’ve decided to remain on the flight deck – while Vila is now the last remaining character who’s been in every episode of Blake’s 7.
* Avon (26) is knocked unconscious aboard the Liberator, so Cally and Vila bundle him into a Star Wars-style escape pod and activate it. He crash lands on a nearby planet called Sarran. He’s challenged by some natives – the kind of vaguely Anglo-Saxon/Viking-ish locals that Terry Nation seemed to like so much – but is saved by a young woman called Dayna. The pair then form a shaky alliance with Servalan, who has also been stranded on Sarran. Dayna takes them to her home (a space craft submerged under the sea) and introduces them to her father and sister. Servalan then offers Avon a deal: with the Liberator and Orac at their disposal, and the Federation in tatters after the loss of Star One, they could build a new empire. Avon wisely deduces that she’d be bound to double-cross him. So when the repaired Liberator arrives in Sarran’s orbit, Avon and Danya teleport aboard, leaving Servalan behind. But there’s a shock in store: the ship has been taken over by a Federation officer…
* Orac (12) is also loaded into Avon’s escape capsule. He’s later able to keep Avon apprised of the Liberator’s condition.
* Dayna Mellanby (1) was born on Earth. Her father is a weapons developer called Hal, who has long been on the run from the authorities. She’s a smart and capable young woman who enjoys using basic weapons like knives and bows and arrows – actually, there’s more than a hint that she’s sexually excited by the danger they provide – but also has a skill at building complex guns. When she rescues Avon and takes him to the safety of a cave, she kisses him – purely out of curiosity. Later, her father is killed by Servalan so she vows revenge, but Avon talks her out of killing the Supreme Commander because she’s hidden the vital Orac. After her sister is also murdered (talk about a bad day…), Dayna joins Avon when he returns to the Liberator… Dayna is played by Josette Simon, who was only about 20 but gives the character confidence and energy.
* Servalan (13) soon stumbles across Avon when she ends up on Sarran after the space battle above. (He isn’t surprised to see her: after all, the chances of them bumping into each other are so remote that it was bound to happen.) She doesn’t initially remember who Hal Mellanby is, but subtly grills his daughter for information. This happens during a scene where the two girls chat about fashion and Dayna gets changed behind a screen with her silhouette cast upon it. After she remembers who Mellanby is, Servalan kills him and steals Orac. She’s soon captured by the plot-device locals, but Avon and Dayna rescue her and force her to reveal where she’s hidden Orac. She’s then left behind on Sarran…
* When Avon and Daya arrive on the Liberator, they’re confronted by a Federation officer (1) who tells them the ship is now his… Actor Steven Pacey gets one line of dialogue in the episode’s final scene.

Best bit: For two seasons Servalan has been a one-note panto villain. Admittedly, that one note entertains a lot of people, but it’s hardly been dynamic storytelling. Aftermath, however, adds a bit of drama by giving her some concrete obstacles. Shorn of her power, her resources, her back-up and her underlings, she now has to be *an actual character*, rather than someone who just makes dry quips with a withering look in her eye. Actually, coupled with the debut of the entertaining Dayna, it feels like a feminist has had a word in Terry Nation’s shell-like between seasons.

Worst bit: Two Federation soldiers are introduced into the story *solely* to give us some badly written, badly played and badly directed exposition about the massive space battle. They’re then promptly killed off.

Review: Blake’s 7 without Blake. Or Jenna. In fact, given that Gan and Travis were killed off in season two, we’ve now lost half of the human regulars introduced in the first season. So this episode is doing some very specific things in order to refurbish the format. Most obviously, Paul Darrow is taking centre stage. Avon is now the de facto lead, the character who drives the story and who we identify with. (This is a season opener and, significantly, Vila and Cally barely feature.) As mentioned above, Aftermath also works to adapt Servalan into someone more interesting and introduces two new regular characters. It’s admirable that it also manages to be a fun, enjoyable story in its own right. Well, mostly. The guest cast are quite variable. (Cy Grant as Hal and an overacting Alan Lake as the native chieftain are especially poor.)

Eight usual punishments for boarding a Federation ship without authority out of 10

Next episode: Powerplay