Blake’s Seven

I grew up with Blake’s Seven. It was one of only a very few new SF TV shows on when I was a a kid. The others, for context, were Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. I avidly watched Doctor Who and Battlestar, but avoided Buck Rogers for complicated reasons I don’t remember. Repeats meant I knew of Lost In Space and Star Trek (the original series). SF at the movies suitable for a kid of my age was dominated by Star Wars.

I only mention all that to help understand why it was I loved Blake’s Seven at the time, and why it is that I currently wouldn’t call myself a fan of the series yet I do have a fondness for it. I know I read some of the tie-in books, but not the one by Paul Darrow, and I haven’t listened to any of the Big Finish audio plays.

I have interacted with the TV series three times: first as a first time audience slightly younger than the target audience yet more than able to ‘get it’; secondly as a young adult SF fan watching it with first-timers of my age group and seeing it through their eyes; and now as an older SF fan who writes critiques and fiction and is interested in seeing what influenced me.

I had intended to watch Blake’s Seven again at some stage, and was prodded to by the death of Gareth Thomas earlier this year. Or, to be strictly accurate, the mentions of the show in my Twitter feed relating to the actor’s death. I tweeted the odd ‘spoiler free’ observation on my watch, which I finished last night. I did fair rocket through them, usually watching three or four episodes in a sitting.

Overall, seasons 1 to 3, and then the last episode of season 4, have a nihilism not usually present in most SF for a general audience. I think, actually, that’s what I still like about it. The scripts, characters, acting, and direction are all generally excellent, as are the sets and model work (though very, very dated for a modern audience used to computer-generated SFX). The story arcs for each character are amazingly consistent given the episodic nature of what is really an adventure show.

Season 1 is astonishingly good as far as the role of women is concerned. Women aren’t just present, they have agency. Two friends said to me when we were talking about the series yesterday that they thought it was because creator Terry Nation was writing ciphers rather than male characters or female characters. But, Ben Steed needs to be called out for outright misogyny – more in his season 4 script (Power) than his season 3 one (Moloch).

Race is a whole other thing. In fact, during season 1 I was wondering if the Federation dystopia includes a back story of where everyone who is not white was wiped out. That carries through (was it one of the unstated reasons why Hal Mellanby left Earth?), and I wonder if this was ever conscious or not. I suspect the latter. I am interested in other people’s views on that.

Season 4 is just – odd. I remember it best because we had a video recorder by that point and could record and re-watch. (We actually got it at when season 3 was nearing the end of its run on Aussie TV, so parts of Moloch and Terminal I remember very well). It wasn’t until I re-watched Blake last night that I was so struck by how different in tone the rest of season 4 is to the rest of the show. It’s not just the set and costume changes, it’s the whole feel. The little night-club bounce in the theme tune kind of catches it – far more big 1980s pizzaz rather than the edgier political darkness that was always there in the others. Blake brings that right back, and I’m not talking about the last scene.

Anyway, highlights remain Servalan – Jacqueline Pearce is phenomenal all the way through; the Liberator; and Peter Tuddenham’s amazingly diverse voices for the various computers, and I adore the odd times when Orac, Zen and Slave interact (never the three together, sadly).

My favourite episodes are Duel, Sarcophagus, and Blake. I also like Sand, and Ultraworld surprised me in being better than I remembered. The weirdest thing was watching Killer – I know I had seen it, quite likely more than once, but I had no memory of it. Odd, because it’s very good, and has the most extraordinary costumes.

Anyway. Blake’s Seven. Very much of its time and place, and I enjoyed it more than not.

Oh, and I most definitely prefer Stephen Grief’s portrayal of Travis then Brian Croucher’s.

Reviews: Planetfall, the Ancillary series, and the Traitor Baru Cormorant

Planetfall, by Emma Newman

I follow the lovely Emma Newman on Twitter and had read with growing interest snippets about her novel Planetfall. I’ll be honest; the publicity for her Split Worlds series hadn’t inspired me to read them (I’m not a fan of romantic urban fantasy), but Planetfall intrigued me.

Written in the first person present tense, it’s an intensely personal book. Ren, the protagonist, has a flawed view of the other characters and events, and especially herself. That leads to the terrifically tense parts of the mystery that runs through the novel. Emma has spoken and written about her own  anxiety, which is not the same illness that Ren suffers from.

It’s beautifully written, thought-provoking, and like all the great SF stories combines the great questions (does God exist, and is belief compatible with science?) with the ordinary everyday questions (how to live with an anxiety disorder?), with a curious mystery and a dash of adventure. I highly recommend it.

I am delighted to learn that Emma has been commissioned to write more of the Split Worlds series, and once I get through the rather large pile of books / collection on my Kindle I shall be adding these to my list to read. (Turns out marketing labels aren’t the best guide…)

For news about Emma Newman, her blog, audio work, and writing, check out Emma Newman.

Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie

I probably don’t need to introduce the first book of the trilogy – it’s the first and to date only book to win the Hugo, Nebula and Clarke awards in the same year. Ancillary Justice is the one with the weird genders, meaning just about everyone is referred to by the narrator as ‘she’. It also starts with chapters alternating between the past and present, and in the past the narrator is fractured. Confusingly so, until you realise what’s going on and it all clicks into place. I really enjoyed it, once I got into the swing of it. The empire building is sublime, as is the science being quite firmly in the science fiction.

The second book, Ancillary Sword, has a straightforward narrative. While the fresh ground was broken in Justice, I found Sword to be a more rewarding read. The third book, and technically the conclusion of the trilogy (other stories, including apparently another novel, are set in the same universe), also follows the straightforward narrative. However, I found it less satisfying than the first two. Almost like the story couldn’t quite live up to expectation. Having said that, and especially given the break I had between reading the first two and the last, I was pleasantly surprised by characters and situations from the first two books having extra depth added in the the third. I also appreciated what Ann was doing by stating that real life is not a story with neat endings, but still felt slightly cheated.

A fascinating universe, and I love Breq (the narrator), and the explorations of power and corruption.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

Nearly all the books I’ve read recently have been either autobiographies or fiction written in the first person. Kameron Hurley’s God’s War trilogy wasn’t, but I often surfaced from reading them feeling as though they were the writing was so intensely caught up in the lives of the protagonists.

The Traitor is written in a distancing style, and while I wanted to get in the head of the protagonist I found I couldn’t. Note I said head and not heart – it’s a fabulously cerebral book, which I adore, but it did mean that the power it should have had was diminished.

I don’t read fantasy because of the odd style its writers tend to use. It’s not the genre – I love the dramatic adaptations of these books that despite their bold and magnificent stories leave me cold – but something about the very writing. It’s a taste thing and nothing about quality.

I have found myself thinking about this book a lot since I finished it. Mostly my thoughts revolve around how I should have felt winded at the end, but I didn’t. Since I’ve stopped myself getting lost in that odd little cul-de-sac I have found myself thinking about the broader themes – about empire, and power, and the meaning of resistance. In so many ways this book and the Ancillary series by Ann Leckie occupy the same space. Both authors are, I believe, American, and I think both are prodding and poking at the ideas inherent in a great power declining slowly and painfully.

A Rumination about a Story from a Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

I was nine when Star Wars first turned up, but probably closer to ten when I first saw it. Exactly the right age to be wowed by the space battles, the simple tale of good vs evil, even not be too bored by the lovey-dovey bits between farm boy Luke and kick-butt ‘princess’ Leia. I loved the crazy creatures, and the music. I think I saw it once at the cinema proper, but then we stayed at my grandmother’s during school holidays when it was on at the drive-in. From the front of her place we could see the screen. I watched it many nights in a row.

I saw Empire Strikes Back at the cinema and it became a firm favourite. I remember the earnest discussions among my school friends about Darth Vader being Luke’s father, the blossoming relationship between Luke and Leia, and the complication of Han Solo. Empire is still my favourite of all of them.

We collected the action figures.

In 1983 my best friend and I scored tickets to the first night screening of Return of the Jedi. I still remember when the movie mags I devoured knew of it as Revenge of the Jedi. Then it changed. I remember loving the speeder bike chase, and laughing at C3PO and the Ewoks. Being dumbfounded by the revelation that Leia always knew she was Luke’s sister! Really? Er. Nope. Argh.

Was I a fan? Yes, to the level of loving the films. I read the books, and listened with fascination to the extended radio play versions of Star Wars. I watched them when I could, but while I played with the idea of writing some fanfic, I never completed any. Stopped collecting all the novels. Kept an ear out for news on the other six movies and then stopped thinking they would.

Then in the 1990s they announced they were making the first set of three films, and I didn’t believe them.

I saw the Phantom Menace at a midnight screening on its first day of release in Sydney, and wasn’t exactly blown away. It had some good set pieces, like the pod race that just went on a bit. I can see why people hate Jar Jar Binks, but I found him okay. The only thing was the odd possible racism, which I’m not sure about. Don’t want to reject it, but equally not sure it was intended as a bad thing. My main thought was: it was a dull movie. I wanted to be wowed, and instead we got slightly cod socio-economics and politics that didn’t quite add up. And as for Anakin Skywalker being that young? Nope. Didn’t work for me. And while the C3PO joke was fun I’m not sure it was entirely worth it. Suitable retconned later, though, so hey. [Imagine a shrug.]

But, the SFX were amazing, and the music. I don’t not watch it in re-watches of them all, but it leaves me cold. I did watch the DVD documentaries when I first got the releases and I remember the Lucas-chosen kid over another who looked a more credible age and from his show reel could act. Ah well.

The Clone Wars were something referred to in reverent tones in the various other movies and ephemera I had loved as a kid and young teenager. I keep renaming the Attack of the Clones to the Clone Wars, and I haven’t actually seen the series. I thought the film better than Phantom Menace, but still felt a bit flat. Hayden Christensen is terrible, but I enjoyed the whole Kenobi plot uncovering the strange order of a clone army. Laughed with joy at the idea that the Stormtroopers are all Maoris.

Revenge of the Sith plots the creation of Darth Vader and should leave us at a decent jump off point for what will always be the original Star Wars – A New Hope. Now if Anakin was played by someone who could act that might have been achieved. But, the horrors that Anakin unleash on the Jedi order in his service to Palpatine (who is brilliantly played by Ian McDiarmid) don’t quite work. Padme’s record-breaking pregnancy, and the strange dying of a broken heart thing. Just not quite right. Christopher Lee is brilliant, of course, and his casting brings a nice symmetry to the series that started with Peter Cushing as Vader’s man on the Death Star.

And that was that. Two excellent films, three okay films, and one dud – all in terms of my enjoyment levels. I’ve watched all of them more than once so there’s that.

Am I a fan? No.

Do I have a fondness for the films? Yes.

I was very sceptical when news broke about The Force Awakens. The title didn’t grip me (still doesn’t), and I’ve only seen one of the many teasers. The proper ones. The first one I did watch in its Lego version, and did shiver at some of the old tropes. The old music.

I didn’t book a seat immediately. Yeah, once bitten.

Then people started to tweet positive things about it. It was fun. Back to basics. I thought I’d book a seat before spoilers started to to leak, and I’m glad I did.

I’ve seen it twice now (and shall leave it at that at the cinema – I’m no longer the kid I once was and time is precious), and both times I was taken back to that time a long time ago, when I visited that galaxy for the first time.

No spoilers now, but what I love about the film is the fine balance of new (I love Rey, Finn and BB8) and old (ah Chewie, Han, Leia, Luke, C3PO and R2D2 – original actors back, too!), but also because it’s fun. Space battles, simplistic good vs evil (or is it?), and old mystics. Desert sands and lush jungles. That music.

There’s a lot more I want to say, but I won’t because of spoilers. But, I will share this little thing. First go around I laughed at Kylo Ren – so cardboard and arch, but a failure. (I love Emo Kylo Ren on Twitter). Then I watched all the films in this order: IV, V, II, III, VI and VII (I had seen I recently enough, so shush! But, you can watch I before II and it’s cool – it all works as a rather good flash back between all the revelations between Empire and Jedi). I was prepared to giggle at Adam Driver’s wooden performance only to notice he isn’t. Watch when Ren and Rey first battle each other and you’ll see what I mean.

Oh, last one I promise – but Snope or Snape? Am I the only one who things Snope is a little too much like Voldemort?