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

Star Trek: The Original Series – season three (1968-69)

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Over the last few months I’ve rewatched all of Star Trek: The Original Series. Here’s what I thought were the notable episodes of season three…

Best episode:
* Spectre of the Gun. With viewing figures unimpressive, NBC actually axed Star Trek after its second season. Then, at least in part due to an organised letter-writing campaign by fans, it was given another year – but on a smaller budget and in a less favourable time slot. Creator Gene Roddenberry also stepped away from the production. So season three has long had a crummy reputation, not least because of its lack of ambition. (In 24 episodes, they filmed on location just once.) The lack of money is evident in several episodes, but the one that sidesteps the problem the best is Spectre of the Gun, a brilliant take on the classic Hollywood Western. Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Dr McCoy (DeForest Kelley) and Chekov (Walter Koenig) find themselves in an alien reconstruction of the Arizona town of Tombstone in October 1881. The Enterprise crew realise they’re the Clantons. The Earps are nearby and the scene is set for the Gunfight at the OK Corral… As they had to shoot this episode on a soundstage, and save cash, the production team decided to go surreal. The sets contain deliberately missing walls; the barriers between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are blurred; the sky is a vivid, bold red. It’s a brilliant effect, both heightening and supporting the script.

Honourable mentions:
* The Enterprise Incident. A tremendous espionage plot as Kirk and Spock are captured by a female Romulan officer (a watchable turn from guest star Joanna Linville), who then starts to fall for Mr Spock. There are plenty of twists and a spy-story structure.
* The Paradise Syndrome. An intensely odd episode, this. Kirk suffers from amnesia as he’s left behind on a planet populated by Native American types. He falls in love, marries, and grows sideburns in the months it takes for his colleagues to return and pick him up. (Downside: the near-constant incidental music gets irritating, and you also need to excuse a fair amount of naive 1960s racism.)
* Is There in Truth No Beauty? Ultimately a rather silly episode with some naff attitudes, but it contains a good guest appearance from Diane Muldaur (later a regular in Star Trek: The Next Generation) and a nicely disguised plot twist.
* Day of the Dove. A claustrophobic episode that sees the crew trapped on the Enterprise with a group of Klingons and an alien force that exaggerates negative and aggressive tendencies. The end is rather risible, though, as humans and Klingons alike down weapons, call a truce and burst into fake hearty laughter to outfox the alien entity.
* For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky. Merits a place on this list just for its amazing, poetic title! It’s an engaging enough story about Dr McCoy falling terminally ill (spoiler: he gets better) and having a romance.
* Wink of an Eye. It’s an intriguing concept for a sci-fi episode (aliens move at a vastly higher speed, so are imperceptible to humans), but the season’s budget restrictions mean it’s another episode that’s dragged out by scenes on familiar sets.
* Whom Gods Destroy. By this point, we’re past the point of boredom with the powerful-yet-loopy-villain cliché, but this episode at least has a fun guest star (Batgirl Yvonne Craig), lots of doppelganger scenes (cue William Shatner acting opposite his body double) and a general air of oddness.
* Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. Some rather hamfisted satire of race relations is made enjoyable by interesting guest characters (including one played by Frank Gorshin) and a tense sequence as Kirk threatens to destroy the Enterprise unless its control is returned to him.
* The Mark of Gideon. The meat of the story is a bit rancid – something about an arrogant race on an overpopulated planet – but Kirk being conned into thinking he’s on an abandoned Enterprise works well. (Spoiler: it’s actually a Truman Show-style recreation.) There are some surreal images and a strong subplot for Spock, who gets to act as both diplomat and detective.
* The Savage Curtain. A fun one, as Kirk meets his hero Abraham Lincoln (sort of). It gets a big eggy as the show a) rolls out another ‘war is bad’ metaphor, and b) yet again refuses to leave the soundstage for exterior scenes. But it’s enjoyable tosh.
* All Our Yesterdays. An enjoyable, if convoluted, concept episode. Visiting a strange library on an empty planet, Kirk is accidentally sent back in history – to a time similar to the earth’s 17th century. Spock and McCoy, meanwhile, are sent back even further and end up trapped in a harsh Ice Age wilderness. Being 5,000 years in the past begins to affect Spock’s psychology (somehow) and he becomes emotional…
* Turnabout Intruder. Star Trek’s final episode is one of its more ludicrous. A woman swaps bodies with Kirk, Freaky Friday-style. While playing the nefarious Dr Janice Lester masquerading as Kirk, Shatner overeggs it something rotten, but the gimmick plot works and it keeps the interest (which is more than can be said for many season-three episodes!).

Worst episode:
* The Way to Eden. Hippies. Hippies singing songs. Eugh.

Star Trek: The Original Series – season two (1967-68)

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Over the last few months I’ve rewatched all of Star Trek: The Original Series. Here’s what I thought were the notable episodes of season two…

Best episode:
The Trouble with Tribbles. A terrific comedy episode, full of wit and class. Behind the scenes, there were worries the show was going too far into self-parody with this story, but there was no need for concern. The big hitters among Star Trek’s cast – William Shatner (Captain Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Mr Spock) and DeForest Kelley (Dr McCoy) – were all capable comic actors, able to play funny scenes without undercutting the premise. (Thirty years later, spin-off show Deep Space Nine produced a tribute episode in which that show’s characters travel back in time and interact with the events of The Trouble with Tribbles. It’s an absolute marvel.)

Honorable mentions:
* The Changeling. It seems old-fashioned now, as many Stark Trek ideas do (because they’ve been copied so often), but this is a generally engaging episode about a computer that’s out to destroy all non-perfect life. Our heroes must, essentially, out-logic it to death. The less said the better, however, about the subplot where Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) has her memory wiped so must learn to read again!
* Mirror, Mirror. A fantastic, foot-to-the-throat thriller based on an imaginative idea: the Enterprises crosses into a parallel dimension where they meet their fascistic, sadistic and cynical counterparts (which obviously gives the regular cast a chance to have some fun). The concept has since been rehashed several times in other Star Trek series, but here it still feels fresh and very dangerous.
* The Doomsday Machine. A passable episode with a Moby Dick metaphor. (Rather than a whale, it’s a giant planet-killing entity from another dimension.)
* Catspaw. Another story about an all-powerful figure toying with lesser beings, which Star Trek was very keen on, but this episode has gothic trappings and fun guest characters. It perhaps loses its impact as it becomes more campy and hokey, especially when Kirk and Spock are menaced by a giant cat (ie, a normal cat filmed in such a way that we only see its enormous shadow).
* I, Mudd. Roger C Carmel returns as guest character Harry, who is now king of his own planet populated by androids, and is again an enjoyable presence. The episode contains the now-hoary idea that robots can be turned loopy if you confuse them.
Journey to Babel. There’s some good, meaty drama for Spock as we encounter his parents for the first time. His Vulcan father, Sarek (Mark Lenard), needs a blood transfusion but, with Kirk incapacitated, Spock feels his duty is to command the Enterprise rather than give blood. He should logically stay at his post.
The Deadly Years. A decent one. The key members of the crew are affected by a virus and begin to age artificially, which leads to Kirk having to be relieved of command when his memory starts to fail him. (This is one of several episodes that highlight the stupidity of sending a starship’s captain, first officer and chief medical officer on missions together!)
* Obsession. A simplistic plot, on which an engaging character drama about Kirk’s guilt for a long-ago catastrophe is hung.
* Wolf in the Fold. The famed Scotty-as-Jack-the-Ripper episode. It’s perhaps not as good as its reputation suggests (there are too many scenes of computers explaining the plot) but it whips up to a maniacal climax.
* A Piece of the Action. Near enough a comedy, but played and directed with a light touch. Not for the first time in Star Trek’s run, it’s a let’s-use-the-backlot episode: standing sets are used for an alien planet that has modelled its whole society on Al Capone-era gangsters. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy revel in the gangster idiom and are great at playing their respective characters’ differing reactions to the situation.
* Patterns of Force. Another episode where the Enterprise stumbles across an alien world that’s oddly similar to an era of Earth history (which allows the production to save some money by shooting of pre-existing sets). This time, Kirk and co go looking for a long-missing Starfleet officer and find him as the leader of an ersatz Nazi Party. It’s a gripping episode with something to say and some surprise turns.
* The Ultimate Computer. Kirk feels threatened when an ‘AI captain’ is roadtested on the Enterprise. Not the best, but it contains a wistful scene where Kirk romantically ponders the golden era of sail (quoting John Masefield’s poem Sea-Fever: ‘And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by’). Co-stars Blacula himself, William Marshall.
* Bread and Circuses. *Yet again*, the Enterprise discovers an alien culture modelled on a period of Earth history. This time: Ancient Rome, though an Ancient Rome where people have technology and guns. It’s clunky at times but generally enjoyable and contains – gleefully – a satire of the television industry when we see behind the scenes at the gladiator contests. Also, Spock and McCoy share a lovely heart-to-heart scene.
* Assignment: Earth. Not the most nuanced or fluid piece of television you’ll ever see, but interesting for its minor place in Star Trek history. A back-door pilot for a spin-off show that never happened, this episode spends a lot of time seeding the potential new characters, such as the enigmatic Gary Seven, his secretary, his intelligent cat and his idiosyncratic computer.

Worst episode:
The Apple. A boring, naff episode about the crew wandering around a soundstage jungle set and encountering hippies who don’t know what love or sex are.

Star Trek: The Original Series – season one (1966-67)

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Over the last few months I’ve rewatched all of the original Star Trek TV series. Here’s what I thought were the notable episodes of season one…

Best episode:
Balance of Terror. The debut of the militaristic Romulans in Star Trek is a terrific episode that plays like a submarine movie. The Starship Enterprise stalks a Romulan ship in the Neutral Zone between the two empires’ territories and the story is tense and exciting. There are also subplots and an interesting villain and telling character moments. Superb.

Honorable mentions:
The Naked Time. A fun, early episode that sees the regular crew go a bit loopy after being affected by a virus. It’s well paced and has good stuff for both Sulu (George Takei), who gets some gleeful scenes where he fences topless, and Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who struggles with his human/Vulcanian psychology.
* The Enemy Within. The central concept has become a sci-fi cliché – due to a transporter accident, an evil doppelgänger of Captain Kirk is let loose on the Enterprise – but it’s very well done here. William Shatner hams it up as the evil Kirk and there’s a ticking-clock element to the plot thanks to some crewmen stranded on a desolate planet below.
* Mudd’s Women. It’s not exactly ‘woke’, being a story about a charlatan selling women to miners, but Roger C Carmel is very entertaining as the lead guest character: the flamboyant and verbose Harcourt Fenton Mudd.
* Miri. The first really great episode. (Balance of Terror wasn’t broadcast until after this one.) A set of enigmas is set up – a planet that looks identical to Earth, a society that seems to be stuck in the 1930s, no adults anywhere to be seen – then a plot with a countdown is kicked into gear. There’s good drama along the way and it’s well directed too. The subtext of the story is that, after puberty, people do ‘bad things’.
* The Menagerie (Parts I & II). An ingenious way to save some production budget by reusing footage from Star Trek’s then-unbroadcast pilot episode, The Cage, as a flashback story. The wraparound scenes have mystery and intrigue because Spock is acting so out of character.
* The Conscience of the King. An effective – if thoroughly prediactable – drama about an actor who may be a mass murderer in hiding. There are plenty of Shakespearean parallels and quotations, such as the title.
* Shore Leave. The regular characters spend some time on a planet but start to hallucinate and undergo personality changes. Fun and surreal, if lightweight.
* The Galileo Seven. A superb showcase for both Mr Spock – the show’s most fascinating character – and the actor who played him. The story sees Spock, Dr McCoy (DeForest Kelly), Scotty (James Doohan) and others stranded on a planet with no way of contacting the Enterprise. There’s a monster nearby, deaths within the group, and dissention in the ranks…
* Tomorrow is Yesterday. A fun time-travel story (Star Trek’s first ever) sees the Enterprise end up above 1960s America and encountering an Air Force test pilot. The script has a good sense of humour.
* Space Seed. An entertaining episode about a megomaniac from the 1990s coming out of suspended animation. (The second Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan, is a direct sequel.)
* A Taste of Armageddon. A society is killing its own people as part of a deal with its enemy, rather than the two states launching actual attacks. A decent story about the futility of war.
* This Side of Paradise. A good episode for Spock, who’s pacified by a weird spore and then has a romance. (It’s kind of a druggie/hippie metaphor, I guess.) The only way Kirk can shake him out of his ennui is by provoking an emotional response.
* Errand of Mercy. Kirk and Spock are stranded on a planet under Klingon occupation. Engaging stuff. (This is the Klingons’ first appearance in Star Trek.)
* The City on the Edge of Forever. It’s contrived, and needs a lot of sci-fi set-up, but this is a brilliant time-travel tragedy with a good guest performance from Joan Collins. When a disturbed Dr McCoy is flung back into 20th-century America, Kirk and Spock must give chase. There’s lots of future-men-out-of-water stuff as the two men adapt to a more basic lifestyle, then the tragic ending really packs a punch.

Worst episode:
The Squire of Gothos. It’s become such a cliché in science fiction: a capricious, arrogant, sociopathic god-like figure toys with people because he’s bored. And as well as being boring and irritating, this example gets its history wrong and has a dreadful deus ex machina ending.

30 Years of Agatha Christie’s Poirot

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In early 1989, I was nearly 10 years old. My mother was – and still is – an Agatha Christie fan, so when she spotted that a new TV series based on Christie’s work was starting on ITV, she suggested we watch it together. Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first shown on Sunday 8 January. It was a detective show with ingenious scripts, a brilliant regular cast, and wonderful production values. Each episode was a self-contained mystery plot (usually a murder mystery) adapted from an Agatha Christie short story or novel and featuring one of her greatest creations, the private detective Hercule Poirot. I loved it immediately.

Initially, the creative forces behind the scenes were producer Brian Eastman and writer Clive Exton, who between them set the tone and format and look for the show. Exton wrote many early episodes himself and also script-edited other writers, including David Renwick (One Foot in the Grave, Jonathan Creek) and Anthony Horowitz (Crime Traveller, Foyle’s War). When setting up the series, the two men made several masterstroke decisions. One was to move every story to a mid-1930s setting. Agatha Christie’s original stories take place across a half-century spread, but here the writers set almost every episode in 1936 or 1937. (An adaptation of the first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was kept in 1917 as a kind of flashback special. There was also an episode telling us about Poirot’s pre-war life as a Belgian policeman.)

If this created a rather head-scratching timeline – in just a couple of years, Hercule Poirot solves more than 60 complex cases, has a temporary retirement to the country, and makes several lengthy overseas trips – it was really worth it, because it meant the show could take place in a gorgeous Art Deco world. Episodes glisten with beautiful sets, costumes and locations that evoke a fantasyland Britain of ornate architecture, sleek 1930s cars, trains and powerboats, post-flapper fashions and modernist art. (Eastman and Exton later pulled the same trick with Jeeves & Wooster, ITV’s hootful adaptation of PG Wodehouse.)

Another insightful and cheerishable decision by the creative team was to establish three other regular characters, creating a team of sidekicks around the central detective character of Poirot. This trio came from Christie’s work, for sure, but Eastman and Exton chose to insert them into stories in which they didn’t originally appear. A radical decision, but an immensely wise one, as it created not only continuity across the episodes but a loveable gang of friends we enjoy hanging out with.

And casting of those four regular characters was absolutely perfect.

There have been many great fictional crime-solvers on television – Columbo, both incarnations of Morse, the recent Sherlock, Christopher Foyle – but the finest and the most entertaining is the fastidious, pedantic, perceptive, idiosyncratic, iconoclastic, kind, generous, insightful, arrogant, vain, Belgian private detective Hercule Poirot as played by David Suchet.

The character had debuted in Christie’s first ever novel and went on to appear in 32 more, as well as a few dozen short stories and a stage play. When he was cast in the role in 1988, Suchet read all of these stories and noted down 93 specific details about the detective gleaned from Christie’s text. The first one was ‘Belgian! NOT French.’ The actor quickly gained a reputation for fiercely protecting the all-important specifics of Poirot: the way he walked, the way he spoke, the look of his moustaches and suits. Therefore the TV version of the character stayed reasonably close to his prose origins. Even so, Suchet added a huge amount of depth, texture and enjoyable humour too. He took a character who’s compelling enough to read in a novel or short story, and brought him to life and made him feel real. In each and every scene, you can’t take your eyes off Poirot. It’s one of the *the* great performances in British TV history.

As mentioned, in most episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot made in the 20th century, there’s also a recurring group of allies. Hugh Fraser played the stoic, brave and affable Captain Arthur Hastings, a man invalided out of the First World War who became Poirot’s right-hand man, confidant and sounding board. (He’s often the audience’s proxy, asking the obvious questions and jumping to the wrong conclusions. But you always love him for his naivety.) Cast as Miss Felicity Lemon, Poirot’s endlessly efficient secretary, was Pauline Moran, who added withering sarcasm to the character’s primness and poise. Scotland Yard’s Detective Chief Inspector James Japp, meanwhile, was played with gruffness, guile and ramshackle charm by Philip Jackson. None of these sidekicks appears in every episode, but you always miss them when they’re not involved. They’re absolutely brilliant.

Yet another masterful decision made early on concerned the adaptations. The scripts were faithful to Agatha Christie’s originals… to a point. They retained the spirit and essence of Christie – the perfectly engineered plots, the mysteries, the clues, the vivid guest characters, the drama, the wit – but often made *numerous* changes. Almost every episode in the show’s first five years, for example, was based on a short story – and some of Agatha’s short stories were very short indeed. The episodes clearly needed expanding. Sometimes these extra subplots came organically out of what Christie had written. Or they could be period colour – scenes at a 1930s film studio, for example, or in the nightclubs of Chinatown. Often they were just unashamedly comedic. Whether it was Japp misunderstanding what a bidet is, or Miss Lemon spending an entire episode looking for some lost keys, these embellishments are just as important as the murders and the suspects and the country houses.

There were, however, changes as the series developed. Occasional feature-length specials were added to the mix, then became the norm when the well of short stories had dried up. A new regime at ITV insisted that Hastings, Japp and Lemon were dropped – unceremoniously and regrettably – after the 2002 special Murder in Mesopotamia. The episodes became more filmic and more ostentatiously star-studded. And two new occasional characters were introduced: Zoe Wanamaker’s Ariadne Oliver (a mystery-story writer who Agatha Christie fairly obviously styled on herself) and Poirot’s unflappable valet, George (David Yelland). The quality remained, but in a different way. There were still many fine and enjoyable episodes, but they were a touch more earnest and perhaps less charming.

For quarter of a century, the show adapted Hercule Poirot’s entire canon. (Well, nearly. A short story or two slipped through the net. The stageplay was ignored.) Then it came to an end on 13 November 2013 with Curtain, an episode based on the novel that details Poirot’s final case…

Agatha Christie is the single most successful author in history. The fact usually trotted out in these circumstances is that her catalogue has been outsold by only the Bible and William Shakespeare. It’s such a well-quoted detail that maybe we’re numbed to its power, so let’s emphasise: that is a *monumental* achievement. Of every novelist there’s ever been, in any language you care to mention, at any point in history, Agatha Christie is the best-selling. And she didn’t publish anything until Shakespeare had been dead for three centuries.

Her work has been adapted into films and television shows countless times. Some of them are good, some of them are bad. But the David Suchet series Agatha Christie’s Poirot is easily the best.

Blake’s 7: Blake (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Avon needs a new figurehead for his anti-Federation rebellion and thinks he’s found the ideal candidate…

Series D, episode 13. Written by: Chris Boucher. Directed by: Mary Ridge. Originally broadcast: 21 December 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* As the story begins, the gang escape Xenon base – which was bombed in the previous episode – and fly off in Scorpio. Following a plan of Avon’s, Tarrant (26) then sets course for the lawless planet Gauda Prime – but as they approach, Scorpio comes under attack! The others abandon ship via the teleport machine while Tarrant stays aboard to crash-land the craft. He’s hurt in the landing, but survives…
* Slave (12) powers down after the crash.
* At the start of the episode, Avon (51) lays out his plan to find a new leader for the rebellion movement. He needs a particular man, one who can inspire followers and is willing to fight the Federation relentlessly. Orac says he’s located the man and he’s on Gauda Prime: it’s the long-lost Blake… After the Scorpio crash, Avon is stranded on the planet with Orac, but eventually finds most of his colleagues and saves them from some bandits. They then find a small aircraft and use it to follow another flyer to a nearby base. Avon assumes the other flyer contains Blake…
* When Avon talks about his potential new figurehead, Vila (52 – therefore completing a 100-per-cent appearance record) smiles ruefully. ‘It’s Blake, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘You think you’ve found Blake.’ After the crash, Vila, Dayna and Soolin take refuge in an abandoned hut, but their fire attracts some unwanted company.
* Soolin (13) has heard of Gauda Prime. In fact, she grew up there. She only left after her farming family were brutally killed. She says it’s a ‘bad place to be; no self-respecting idealist would be found dead there.’
* Dayna (26) points out that Servalan once told them Blake was dead. Avon replies, not unreasonably, that Servalan lies.
* Orac (35) actually located Blake a while ago, but he and Avon kept the information to themselves while Avon investigated other options.
* When we see him – for the first time since season two – Blake (27) seems to be living rough on Gauda Prime. He has a scarred face and workaday clothes. He encounters and saves a woman called Arlen, who was being tracked by several bounty hunters… but then reveals that *he’s* a bounty hunter too. He takes her back to a base to claim his reward, and while there hears about a space ship that’s crashed nearby. So he flies out to the wreck of the Scorpio, where he meets an injured Tarrant – the first ever meeting between the two characters. Taking him back to the base as well, Blake then reveals that he knows who Tarrant is. He also knows that Avon must be close by, so Blake lays in wait… Tarrant soon escapes and does a runner, which means he doesn’t hear the information that the bounty-hunter routine is just a façade: Blake is still fighting the good fight and is recruiting for his own anti-Federation group. He was simply testing Tarrant, as he’d done with Arlen. Then Avon, Vila, Soolin and Dayna come bursting in. Avon and Blake see each other for the first time since the Liberator crew stormed Star One…

Best bit: The final few minutes of the episode constitute Blake’s 7’s finest scene. Writer Chris Boucher – the prime creative force behind the scenes once creator Terry Nation became distracted by other projects – does an astonishing job of setting up the climax. Expert plotting and characterisation maneuverer Blake and Avon into the perfect position for a confrontation fuelled by misunderstanding. Avon, the perennial cynic and sceptic, has actually come to believe in Blake – so is sucker-punched when he assumes Blake is now nothing more than a selfish mercenary who’s going to sell them out. And this leads to a fatal showdown, which has huge weight and impact. The most famous moment is Avon’s bitter, dejected cry of ‘Have you betrayed me?’ – actor Paul Darrow someone managing to emphasise every single possible meaning all at the same time. But the killer line comes from Blake: ‘Avon, I was waiting for *you*…’ But the appeal doesn’t work and Avon instinctively and angrily shoots Blake dead. That’s some Shakespearean-tragedy shit right there.

Worst bit: Every now and again you come across someone who’s misunderstood this episode’s ending. After Blake’s death, our heroes don’t last much longer. Arlen reveals herself as a Federation spy, but Avon barely notices – he just stares blankly at Blake’s corpse. Arlen kills Dayna, then Federation soldiers burst in and shoot Vila and Soolin and Tarrant. Avon is surrounded, alone, helpless. He straddles Blake’s body protectively and waits for the inevitable. He raises his gun and smirks…. Freeze-frame, cut to credits, and we hear a hail of bullets. It’s one of the greatest moments in all of television sci-fi. But because we cut to the end titles before we literally *see* Avon being shot, some people hold the theory that he might have survived. Give me strength. That’s missing the dramatic point of the scene on a *galactic* scale.

Review: The final episode of Blake’s 7 has an unrelenting pull. Avon and Blake’s reunion is coming from the moment the latter’s name appears in the opening titles, yet the script delays and delays to build the tension. The whole thing is also really well directed – there’s an intensity and focus to every scene, a real sharpness to the storytelling. And the overall tone returns us to the cynical edge that was more evident in the show’s early episodes. A sensational series finale.

10 of these holes in the ground out of 10

Blake’s 7: Warlord (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Avon attempts to organise the anti-Federation rebellion, but a local planetary leader causes problems when his daughter disobeys him…

Series D, episode 12. Written by: Simon Masters. Directed by: Viktors Ritelis. Originally broadcast: 14 December 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* On Xenon base, Avon (50) has called a meeting of powerful men in order to discuss how they can combat the Federation’s pacification programme, which is being used to subdue planet after planet. He wants to coral the factions into a cohesive team, and offers them access to the antitoxin. The only problem? He needs both raw material and equipment. Then there’s a late arrival to the confab – a bombastic dullard called Zukan, who’s the president of the planet Betafarl and a man with lots of resources. The others don’t like him, but he has the raw material so an accord is reached. Zukan then flips his lid when he learns that his daughter, Zeeona, is secretly on the base. In order to keep him happy, Avon agrees to accompany her home. But when Zeeona tricks him and teleports back to the base, Avon has little choice but to continue his journey to Betafarl and keep up the pretense – he knows that moody Zukon is following in his ship. On Betafarl, though, Avon twigs he’s been conned too when he and Soolin are attacked by Federation troops! They escape and race back to Xenon; on the way, they encounter Zukon’s ship, drifting in space after an accident. He wants rescuing and says he’ll tell Avon how to save his colleagues from their base, which he’s booby-trapped, but Avon reckons he can save them himself – and leaves Zukon to die…
* Dayna (25) realises, after Zukon has left the base, that he’s planted an airborne radioactive virus in the ventilation system.
* Vila (51) does a lot of moaning and, later, some drinking. Remember when he had a personality?
* Soolin (12) goes with Avon when he attempts to take Zeeona home. (The colleagues dress like mechanics at a disco for some reason.) But when alone, Zeeona asks for help. She wants to teleport back to the base to be with Tarrant, so softie Soolin helps her. (Women!) Later, on Betafarl, Soolin pretends to be Zeeona when they bump into some Federation soldiers… and they just let her go! Don’t they have photos in the future?
* Orac (34) warns the others of an explosive device (‘A bomb?’ asks Dayna, hoping for further clarification), which Zukon has left behind after his visit.
* When Zukon’s processing equipment is being installed in the base, Tarrant (25) is shocked to catch sight of Zukon’s daughter, Zeeona. (He could hardly miss her. She has a massive, pink, Cyndi Lauper wig and a vacant look in her eye.) Her dad doesn’t know she’s there, but she and Tarrant have met before and there’s a romantic connection. The pair spend some sexy time together, but then Zukon finds out and goes ballistic… Later, Tarrant is caught in the explosion caused by the bomb Orac mentioned: despite it going off *in his face* and destroying most of the base, Tarrant survives more or less okay. But he and the others are now trapped and their air is running out. Later still, Tarrant is cut up when Zeeona is killed by radiation. (No one else seems that fussed.)
* Towards the end of the episode, Servalan (29) is… YAWN… revealed as… YAWN… being behind Zukon’s machinations. Doesn’t a plot twist lose its impact when it’s already been used 27 times?
* Slave (11).

Best bit: Surely next week’s episode will be better?

Worst bit: There’s a lot to choose from, but let’s go for an obvious one. The powwow of anti-Federationists features some of the worst and cheapest-looking costumes in Blake’s 7 history – and that’s really saying something. None of them feels like clothes someone would wear or like they represent a culture or imply a backstory. It’s just a random collection of bizarre outfits.

Review: It may be elaborately directed – a trippy opening sequence showing drugged citizenry, slow dissolves and extreme close-ups, dreadful greenscreen and crummy video effects, handheld camera and crash zooms – but all the gimmicks in the world can’t save Blake’s 7’s weakest episode. The script is fairly awful, but then we get one of the worst guest casts ever assembled. It’s a parade of bad acting. The regular actors just look embarrassed. 

Three non-aligned planets out of 10

Next episode: Blake

Blake’s 7: Orbit (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The opportunity arises for Avon and co to acquire a new weapon – but can they trust the man who’s selling it?

Series D, episode 11. Written by: Robert Holmes. Directed by: Brian Lighthill. Originally broadcast: 7 December 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* As the episode begins, Slave (10) reports that the Scorpio has arrived at a mostly inhospitable planet called Maldovar.
* Avon (49) initially plans on sending Tarrant and Dayna down to the surface (‘I get chilblains,’ is his excuse for not going) to seek out a renegade genius called Egrorian, who disappeared years previously with a chunk of cash. But when Egrorian then gets in touch, he insists that Avon come himself… in a shuttle… and alone. Avon manages to negotiate a concession: he’ll bring his ‘assistant’ Vila with him. On Maldovar, they meet Egrorian and his elderly helper, Pinder, then learn that Egrorian has a super-weapon to trade: a tachyon funnel, which can destroy distant and enormous objects at the push of a button. He offers it to Avon in exchange for Orac – in part, he says, because he wants the infamous rebel Avon to destroy the Federation. On the way back to Scorpio to fetch Orac, Avon infers – from a very small piece of circumstantial evidence – that Servalan is behind Egrorian’s plan. So he pretends to trade Orac, but it’s actually a mock-up Avon prepared earlier. Avon and Vila do the deal and get away, but then realise they’ve been conned too: their shuttle is too heavy and has little fuel. It’s about to crash…
* At first, Vila (50) doesn’t volunteer to go down to Maldovar – he says he likes to stay with Avon ‘where it’s safe.’ His logic then comes back to bite him when Avon has to go and insists on taking Vila with him. Later, after the exchange, when Vila and Avon realise they’re going to crash, they frantically jettison every available item they can think of…
* Soolin (11) has to be the crewmember who’s never heard of Egrorian so the others can explain. Later, it’s also clear that – for some reason – she wasn’t informed about Avon’s con. (Good old Robert Holmes. Amazing, witty, exciting writer. Seemed to have no interest in female characters.)
* Tarrant (24) takes the Scorpio into deep space – out of harm’s way – while Avon and Vila are down on Maldovar. He *then* decides to reveal a rather important nugget of information: he once heard rumours that Egrorian and Servalan were in cahoots. Shouldn’t you have mentioned that before Avon left?
* Dayna (24) and Soolin ridicule Vila when he returns from meeting Egrorian and pretends he knows all about tachyon technology.
* Servalan (28) shows up. Again. Hasn’t she got a day job?
* Orac (33) is seemingly given away by Avon – but it was just a trick.

Best bit: The episode takes a sudden, dark and gripping turn late on when Vila and Avon realise they’re going to crash unless they lighten the load of the shuttle. They get rid of everything that’s not bolted down, but still need to lose an extra 70 kilos. ‘Vila weighs 73 kilos, Avon,’ points out Orac. Avon coolly reaches for a gun and begins to stalk the ship to find his colleague. Vila hides nervously in the cargo hold… (This story beat, which only lasts about three minutes, could have been the basis of an entire episode. Eventually, Avon finds the item that’s dragging the ship down – a super-heavy cube of neutron matter planted by Egrorian – and manages to get rid of it.)

Worst bit: Telling a story economically is commendable. No one wants to linger on boring details. But here, we’re asked to believe that Avon is convinced of the star-destroying capabilities of a new weapon of mass destruction simply because he’s shown an easily mocked-up image on a video screen. Egrorian is then likewise conned after a very scant demonstration of Orac. (Also: why didn’t Avon and Vila just take their teleport bracelets as a back-up when they visited Egrorian?)

Review: The fact Orbit is so entertaining is somewhat strange, because it’s far from perfect. The plot is a bit too mechanical, a bit too convoluted. Servalan’s involvement is head-banging-on-desk tiresome. And some of the acting is… let’s be charitable and say dated. Fond as he was of writing pairs of characters, Robert Holmes has populated his planet with just two residents: Ergrorian and Pinder, who come off like a bickering married couple. Egrorian is the Hyacinth Bucket figure – self-obsessed, vain and a little bit cruel – while Pinder is the henpecked husband. Egrorian is played by John Savident (I say, John Savident) and is a florid, bombastic man. And the actor isn’t exactly playing against the writing. It gets even worse when Servalan enters the stage: Savident and Jacqueline Pearce seem to be egging each other on to be more and more theatrical and hammy. But stories with characters conning each other are often fun, and this is no exception. The episode doesn’t hang about and gives plenty of action and meat to Avon and Vila – the last remaining characters from the early days of season one.

Eight ruthless desperadoes of legend out of 10

Next episode: Warlord

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

Blake’s 7: Sand (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While on a mission to find out why the Federation is so interested in the planet Virn, Tarrant has an encounter with Servalan…

Series D, episode 9. Written by: Tanith Lee. Directed by: Vivienne Cozens. Originally broadcast: 23 November 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Servalan (26) has come to the planet Virn to investigate a distress call from a pilot called Keller. He crashed there five years previously and had reported a unique trace of life on the planet. Along with an officer called Reeve (Stephen Yardley), Servalan lands on and walks across the barren, rocky desert to Keller’s prefab base. But it’s not a successful sortie: they get lost, a lackey mysteriously dies, and then they bump into Tarrant. After Tarrant has killed Reeve, Servalan flirtatiously offers a truce – and the enemies investigate the base together. There’s sand inside, the computer system has gone loopy and they find Keller dead, though his body is still warm. The base is then enclosed by shifting sands, trapping them inside…
* Vila (48) gets drunk when things start to go pear-shaped aboard the Scorpio.
* Dayna (22) and Tarrant teleport down to Virn to learn why the Federation expedition has gone there. But Reeve soon spots them and shoots Dayna in the arm, so Tarrant sends her back to Scorpio. Unbeknownst to anyone, she brings some sand up with her on her boots…
* Soolin (9) pilots the Scorpio; tends to Dayna’s flesh wound; and generally stands around looking fiercely sexy with a side-on ponytail.
* Avon (47) is the one who pitches the idea that the team should visit Virn. If the Federation are there, he argues, it must be for something useful – and he’d rather the Scorpio gang have whatever it is. Later, when Avon sees the sand that Dayna has brought up from the planet, he deduces that it’s dangerous and in some way sentient. But he also discovers that liquid can combat it, so he engineers a rainstorm on Virn.
* Once Dayna’s teleported back to the ship, Tarrant (22) encounters Reeve and kills him. After Servalan has revealed that she’s on the planet too, the pair are locked inside the base. They share a meal and flirt. (The fact the characters have barely interacted before this episode doesn’t seem to be important.) Tarrant also realises that the sand is alive – it has the ability to suck life out of people like a vampire and also has the power of reason. For example, it leaves potential couples alive so they can breed and produce more ‘food’. Servalan and Tarrant end up sleeping together, but later – after the rainstorm has dampened the sandy threat – he teleports back to Scorpio, leaving Servalan alone…
* Orac (31) has to be switched off when he’s affected by the goings-on and tells Avon that he loves him.
* Slave (8) also gets some bizarre dialogue.

Best bit: In a rare moment of sincerity and vulnerability, Servalan tells Tarrant that she was once in love with Keller. He left her when she was a teenager and, bitter at the rejection, ‘power became my lover.’ Tarrant later admits that she might have been lying to him as a manipulation, but we viewers know she wasn’t.

Worst bit: While speculating on the plot, Soolin tells the others that she ‘seems to recall you telling me of an alien trying to take over the Liberator through Cally.’ Do we think the others have sat her down and explained the storylines of all the episodes she missed? There were 39 of them, so it must have been a long evening: ‘Then Brian Blessed showed up… There was that time Avon thought he was Columbo… Dayna got menaced by a giant crab-spider-thing-type-thing… We met Cally’s sister and Tarrant’s brother, both of whom looked exactly like them… Did we mention when we got sucked into a black hole?’

Review: This is an episode high on both atmosphere and subtext, and there’s a real richness to the dialogue. It’s also plotted and paced very well and the drama is brilliantly played and directed. Sadly, the production lets the side down now and again. The scenes on the surface of Virn – a jarring, embarrassing clash of CSO, videotape, film and model shots – are pretty naff, for example. But it’s easy to forgive when the story keeps the attention, when the key scenes are so enjoyable, and when Servalan is more than just a Cruella de Vil with caustic quips.

Nine girls next door out of 10

Next episode: Gold