As many of you probably know, Gareth Thomas died just under a week ago from heart failure. He was a RADA trained actor, and rumour has it that he advised his friend, Patrick Stewart, not to take a part on a long running science fiction TV show, advice that (thankfully) Stewart, it would appear, ignored.
His death this week made me revisit something that I have been meaning to watch again for rather a long time – the TV series Blakes 7, which in 1978 made Thomas a household name, and perhaps even type cast him, hence his advice to Stewart. Certainly that is what I think of most when I hear his name.
So today I watched the first episode, which originally transmitted in 1978. And I have to say that I was rather shocked by how adult the content was.
Of course, the show suffers from the same thing Doctor Who (and indeed many other BBC Science Fiction shows of the era) suffered from – the fact that they had the same budget as a contemporary drama, meaning they had to create a look and feel for the future on a budget that was more designed to build a modern day house and fill it with contemporary stuff. The same budget here had to build space ship interiors and exteriors, as well as alien planets, costumes, and it all had to look futuristic.
Of course they did not quite pull it off, but that does not matter a jot, certainly not in the opening episode, called The Way Back. In this we see a totalitarian regime, quite happy to murder people who do not conform to their way of thinking. They did not want resistance leader Blake to become a martyr so instead, four years ago, they captured him, erased his memory, used him to denounce his former revolutionary colleagues and then erased that as well. But his name was still uttered with reverence on the outer worlds, so they needed something to destroy this cult of personality and find him guilty of something indefensible.
And this is where it gets dark. In the opening episode he is informed that he as been accused of indecent acts against children. But what is not often talked about in the context of this episode is the children themselves. Blake’s defence uncovers the truth of what actually happened (though his attorney did not live long enough to do anything with the information) and it is this: memories are implanted in the children that are described as so vivid that they will think of them as real. Hang on. Let’s rewind for a moment. It is fair to assume that Blake has been accused of being a paedophile (the exact nature of the acts of which he is accused are never read out loud, he sees them on a piece of paper and exclaims “but these all involve children”) which means that these kids (and they are named in the episode) are implanted with memories of that abuse that are so real that they can recount them in court as though it had really happened. That’s pretty bleak – these kids now believe that they have been abused, and it’s not like they can do what they did with Blake and simply erase the memories again, for the lies to ring true these kids need to grow up with those memories and reinforce (when the regime deems it appropriate) what had happened and who was responsible. It’s great writing but the more you think about it, the more horrible it becomes.
Terry Nation (best known for his creation of the word Dalek, as we all know Raymond Cusick actually created the iconic machines) wrote this script and I have to say it’s pretty powerful stuff. It’s bleak, it’s nasty, but most of all (despite the wobbly sets and over the top villain acting from certain people) it creates a world which is believable vile. I actually think that they would struggle to run such a plot line in a family slot now, it would be far too contentious.
The show went on for four years, and although Thomas technically appeared in every series, he was only a regular on the first two. His performance in this opening episode was very, very good, however from the second episode onwards he was eclipsed by Paul Darrow, who play the amazingly villainous Avon. It’s such a shame that Thomas only really got to star in one episode of a series in which he was cast as the eponymous hero, this was never down to his performance which was always spot on, it was just that Avon (effectively the villain of the piece) was such an unbelievable strong character from the moment he first appeared in episode two. Blake’s defining moments in this show are, amusingly, the very first and the very last episodes of the four year run, but I’m not going to review the final episode yet as I think I am going to watch the ones in between first.
Thomas initially distanced himself from the role but recently has been doing audio drama for Big Finish as Blake, plays that I hear are very good (I can’t afford them myself, Big Finish produce too much so I have to be choosy and I am first and foremost a Doctor Who fan). It is a shame he died at such a relatively early age, and sadly the poor production values on Blakes 7 means that it is unlikely to be repeated even in tribute. But the DVDs are out there, and from series one the show just gets better and better (especially once Chris Boucher takes over as script editor) so I advise everyone to take a look at these shows. Like early Doctor Who it is easy to laugh at the wobbly sets and crap special effects but, also like Doctor Who, you shouldn’t let that distract you from what is largely a very engaging, well written and thought provoking piece of classic television.
Hello followers (both of you!) it’s great to be back!
So what has made me wake up from my great sleep? It is the news that Stephen Moffat is finally leaving Doctor Who. In just over a year.
So what are my feelings on this? Well simply that it’s about time, the bloke has been there for far too long. Russel T. Davies did four years, which seemed like a sensible amount of time, and the show never totally lost it’s way under him. Moffat has helmed five (it will be six before he leaves) of the most variable quality in the history of the show. (Yes, even more variable than under Graham Williams or JN-T!)
Of course, rewinding back several years, when as fans we all discovered that Moffat was taking over we were thrilled. Had he not written some of the very best episodes under the previous regime? The Empty Child? Blink? Silence In The Library? That shit one with the timey wimey fireplaces and mechanical men that everyone else loved for no good reason? Yup, the appointment seemed to be good news.
Then something happened. We discovered that The Moff could not structure a season very well, and was obsessed with a character that he created to the exclusion of all else, sometimes including The Doc himself. Did we need to see as much of River Song as we did? Of course not but The Moff loved her so she had to be forced down our throats.
I’m not saying it has all been bad. I quite liked series five (Smith’s first) and the latest season was actually the best one since the show came back (apart the end when it copped out). The Moff has one series left to impress us – series ten, which for some reason is going out in 2017 meaning there is no new series this year. If he keeps the longer stories (which truly worked) then that will mean I will (probably) have liked half of his seasons, so in retrospect maybe he wasn’t such a disaster for the show after all.
It is reassuring to know that the show still has some life in it. The series will continue for at least two more series, as The Moffs successor has been appointed, who takes over for series eleven. Chris Chibnall is the man who has the future of the show in his hands. So how do I feel about this?
Personally, when I first heard his name I was disappointed because I could not readily name any episodes that he had written (in fact he has written some of the better stuff for the first two series of Torchwood, but I had to look that up!) But actually on reflection this is a good thing, we all knew who The Moff was when he took over, and because of the quality of the scripts that he had written under RTD there was a weight of expectation that he never actually managed to deliver. I am hoping that this means that I won’t be disappointed with Chibnall as my expectations will be lower.
On the plus side Chibnall (from here on known as The Chib) has much more experience as an executive producer before he starts on Doctor Who (Torchwood, Camelot and Broadchurch, the last of which has been massively well received although it’s not my kind of show, all Moffat did before Who was a crappy sitcom and Jekyll).
The other thing hanging over the show is the future of Peter Capaldi. There is a lot of speculation that he will go at the same time as Moffat although this has not been confirmed. I would love to see Capaldi working for a different producer so I am praying that he does that extra year, but my gut feeling is that he will go with Moffat, that seems to be the pattern that has developed.
It’s quite an exciting time. Two more series, definitely a new companion to be announced soon (they start filling in May at which point it will become impossible to keep her identity under lock and key). And possibly a new Doctor, though personally I hope Capaldi sticks around as he’s awesome, just imagine how good he could be under a decent producer? The Chib has his work cut out for him, but I think I am looking forward to series 11 in 2018 more than 10 in 2017.
My pet hate with television in general (but American TV in particular) is investing time in something only to have the show cancelled before it naturally ends. If you are really lucky, it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger. If it does you are screwed – the penny pinchers at the Networks don’t five a fuck if the thing you have fallen in love with is gone.
It all started when I was rather young. I was twelve when the unthinkable happened. I had no idea that TV shows had to achieve certain things to continue to justify an existence, as far as I knew everyone watched and loved everything. It didn’t cross my mind that someone could just pull the rug out from under me in a cruel and callous way. But that is exactly what Michael Grade, then controller of BBC1, did.
It was 1985. I was in London with my parents. We were going to see a stage play (I don’t recall what it was, but there was a spate of God Awful stuff starring pop stars of the time – it was possibly Mutiny On The Bounty starring David Essex or Time starring Cliff Richard) when my Mum just happened to mention that the BBC weren’t making the third and final series of The Tripods, which I utterly loved. I genuinely felt betrayed by the BBC – at the end of the second series there had been a massive “to be continued” style ending, and they even interviewed a couple of the actors on Blue Peter (a popular kids magazine show which has been running since the 1960s), and made a point of telling the viewers not to worry, although all seemed bleak for our heroes, it would have a happy ending in the final series next year. Auntie Beeb had lied to me. The story now ended with the good guys returning home to find that their base of operations against the aliens in the White Mountains had been destroyed. Had it all been for nothing? Apparently yes.
So 1985 was already shaping up to be pretty bad when my Mum gave me some other news – on the same day out in London. The Tripods may have been removed from my life, but at least I still had my favourite show, Doctor Who. Except that I didn’t. Because Michael Grade had decided that it was performing badly and needed an overhaul. Which involved an eighteen month break from the air whilst it was revamped. I have to say that it felt personal. There were only two shows that I would go out of my way not to miss, and Michael Grade had taken them both from me. The following year he fired Colin Baker from playing the Doctor. If I saw him on the street even now I would not be able to resist yelling “wanker” at him.
So that was my first taste of the pain of cancellation. It is actually for it to be a British show, because as I was to learn as I got older, this was more normal for American shows.
My next bad experience was six years later. I got into the US show Twin Peaks. The first season was (and still is) a masterpiece of characterisation and drama, and the second season started well. In fact it stayed brilliant until the story revealed who had killed Laura Palmer, the selling point of the show. And then you could see the stories falling off the rails – it just didn’t know where it was going. Consequently it shed viewers – by the end of the second season it had regained it’s mojo, and it ended with a superb multi layered cliffhanger never to come back. We still don’t know what Killer Bob did with Agent Cooper’s body.
I loved Millennium. A creepy show that, in hindsight, was never that popular as it had to reinvent itself every year, but I loved it. It was all building to a big story set at the turn of the century… only it got cancelled in 1999.
And it keeps happening. Firefly, The Sarah Connor Chronicles. When I was younger I enjoyed American shows like Earth 2 and Space Above And Beyond, both of which finished clearly expecting to be back the following year.
So I don’t watch so much US TV now. Or at least not when it is aired. I have become a DVD boxed set watcher – and I only watch shows that I know end properly. I am currently watching Fringe (which itself was cancelled at the end of its fourth season only to get a reprieve in the form of a truncated fifth season). Next up I will be watching Lost – another show that almost didn’t make it to conclusion (it was almost killed off at the end of season three). I am sure that there is some great stuff out there at the moment (Joss Whedon’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. looks promising) but I cannot and will not risk getting emotionally involved in those characters only to have them taken away from me prematurely. The Tripods was the first time that I understood that the world was cruel and the people holding the purse strings don’t give a damn about the viewers.
It has changed the way I watch TV, meaning that I no longer contribute to ratings. Which is a shame. But on the other hand, only having to wait long enough to change the disc to see how the cliffhanger plays out has it’s advantages. Or am I missing out there too?
I am not a Halloween person. I love the idea of costume parties and that kind of thing, but the activity that puts me off the whole thing is the ghastly door to door beg fest that is Trick Or Treat.
It actually makes me nervous. I suffer from anxiety, and that knock on the door genuinely stresses me out. It’s not about being anti social or miserable, I just think it’s plain wrong. It’s teaching kids that it is okay to knock on the door of a stranger and ask for something for nothing.
A few years back (before the anxiety, which was not caused by Trick Or Treating by the way!) four out of the five Trick Or Treaters were teens that had not even made the effort to dress up. Bored teenagers, some who looked drug or booze addled, most with stinking cigarettes hanging from their dirty mouths. I gave them something more out of fear of reprisals than because they deserved it. What I really wanted to do was to tell them to fuck off, but of course that would have been foolish. Of all the visitors I had that night, the only ones that deserved anything were the little kids that came round, dressed up, with their parents. But that led me to be annoyed with the parents for teaching them this was all okay! The last few years I have managed to be away from home for Trick Or Treat night. This year I forgot it was on and hid in the kitchen as the dogs barked their heads off at the sounds of the first annoying beggars. Right after that I closed all my curtains and went out.
So what did I do? I went to see Thor 2 of course (or The Dark World as we are meant to call it). I had plans to see the film this evening anyway, I just left the house earlier in order to avoid the Trick Or Treaters. If I am honest, before this week I had only seen one other film in the Marvel Avengers series, the first Iron Man. I had not especially hated it, but I had not really liked it either. When the other films came out, I don’t think I twigged that they were all leading up to something bigger (I did not see the Nick Fury post credits scene in Iron Man until this week!) and never got around to watching them.
A friend suggested Thor last week, so I have spent the time in between watching as many of the films in the series as I could. And I have been rather impressed by this universe that Marvel have created. From the subtle (Stark Industries products in non Iron Man films) through to the obvious, Marvel have managed to weave a massive and interesting tapestry that even a massive cynic such as myself cannot fail to be impressed by. Up until these movies I have never really liked the super hero genre (don’t get me wrong, I loved some of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies as a kid but they really have not dated well). Whilst a lot of what happens still kind of falls into the realm of science fiction or fantasy, there is a pseudo scientific base behind it. I would argue that Iron Man is not really a super hero, and neither is Captain America. They are people that have been enhanced by technology – the same as Hulk, although he feels more like a super hero than the others. This might have something to do with the fact that he gets all massive and green, but until I watched these movies I thought all superheroes had powers that could not really be explained (I’m sorry, I just about buy an alien from Krypton being strong, but all of his other powers are just a load of bollocks). The characters in these films are Heroes in my mind rather than superheroes, which makes them far more real and engaging.
Even Thor, who is the closest to what my mind determines as a Superhero, can be explained through technology. The film I watched tonight was perhaps the best in the series that I have seen (I just have Iron Man 3 and Avengers left to watch now). It mixed characters that I have started to like with amazing effects (Malekith’s attack on Asgard was brilliantly realized) and some nice comic moments as well. Christopher Ecclestone was really good as the Dark Elf Lord (I usually can’t stand the bloke, he is an up himself luvvie and his attitude towards Doctor Who stinks) and there are some clever moments throughout the film which will definitely stand out more on a second watch.
So, a week ago I had no real interest in this universe. Having watched the majority of the films now, I have to conclude that Marvel Studios understand the art form that is cinema better than anyone else producing movies at the moment, the shared universe is a stroke of genius. Thanks to the teaser scene at the end of tonight’s film (well, one of them, I did enjoy watching the cinema empty after the first so that only five people and the staff that had come in to clean the place saw the second!) I am looking forward to the next movie in the series – the Captain America sequel – as much as the one I saw tonight, even though I thought the first Captain America was the weakest in the series so far!
Thor: The Dark World has cemented my appreciation of this series and turned me into a fan, it was the first one that I had seen in the cinema but from now on I will make sure I see them all there.
One of the things that I have been thinking about rather a lot of late is how genre fans seem to have isolated themselves from each other. I am not quite sure why this has happened. When I was younger I was a member of a local branch of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society in my local town. I cannot recall if it was officially affiliated with the larger organisation, but I do remember it being an awful lot of fun. I was one of the younger members at the time, but the group introduced me to other people who had the same interests as me. We could talk the finer points of Kaled culture or interpretations of things that happened in various episodes. It also introduced me to something much, much cooler – episodes to watch on VHS. This was a point where official VHS releases had only just started, and the BBC were keen to rip off fans. (Does anyone else remember the way that they split six part stories over two cassettes so they cold charge us twice as much? Had the robbing bastards not heard of the E180?). I remember seeing videos of episodes I had hereto only read about – proper tenth generation copies where you had to squint to see the picture and every other word was open to interpretation due to the sound quality. But it was so exciting when these guys played an episode that I had not seen before, irrespective of the quality. Of course, they did not play episodes all that often because all of the older guys had seen them all and could never agree which one to watch, which meant they could tease myself and the younger guys about what they had seen and we had not. But it was never malicious, and I loved those monthly meetings.
And they were pretty common. The next town over had something similar, and I was also involved in setting up a Star Trek local group not many years later (from which I gained some of my most enduring friendships).
Perhaps I am having a midlife crises, or just indulging in the “things are just not as good as they used to be!” nonsense that seems to occupy the older, but none of that local fandom seems to exist any more. When I was involved in fandom as a younger chap, you had to find out about these groups either through word of mouth, seeing a flyer in a specialised shop, or seeing an advert in Doctor Who Monthly or TV Zone. (Or Starburst Magazine, anyone remember that? Though of course it would now be called Opal Fruit Monthly.) I remember good old photocopied newsletters that had to be posted out to members with information about new members or meetings and events. Of course now you can just set up a Facebook Group, you can update people instantly via twitter or other social media. Setting these things up and communicating their existence and news is so much easier than it used to be, and, just as importantly, it’s free!
And yet there seems to be very little out there. I just did a search on Meetup for Science Fiction and Fantasy related groups within twenty five miles of where I live, and found nothing. I expanded the search to fifty miles and found five groups, all a long way away. Get when I was younger I could name four groups that would have fallen into that search area, hell I was a member of two of them!
I searched on Facebook for local groups, using combinations of place names and phases such as “Doctor Who”, “Star Trek”, “SciFi”, “Fantasy” and other variations. The closest I got was an acknowledgement that Matt Smith was born in one of those local towns! I tried similar searches on Google and Bing, and found nothing.
So, why is this? I am aware of a few groups that ran for a while (there was a Firefly club in Leeds that tried to meet monthly but ran out of steam when general apathy prevented attendance and it eventually stopped). It’s not like modern organisers need to slave over a photocopier or printer in order to print the newsletters, or write out envelopes and lick stamps. The part that made it hard work can now be done in a matter of seconds for free online. Logic suggests that, since it’s easier, it should be more prevalent rather than less. Yet it isn’t.
Is it because the Internet has actually caused us to distance ourselves from other people? I knew who my neighbours were ten years ago, I have no idea now.
And could it be a cultural thing? Here in the UK these groups are scarce, but perhaps in the USA they are still very active? Would love to know, if any of my foreign readers (or indeed my local ones) have any thoughts I would be very interested to hear them.
Next month sees the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who and includes many live simultaneous showings of the anniversary episode in cinemas. I am going to see it in London specifically to feel what it is like to be surrounded by like minded people again. I am just steeling myself for all of them to be half my age.
I am in the process of trying to set up something local to my area now. I have made a couple of abortive attempts in the past year, relying on the goodwill of social media friends to share the message. They didn’t, and I gave up after we gained a total of four people other than myself, all of whom I knew and three of whom I had personally invited to the group.
So what am I going to try differently? Well, I am going to go old school. I am going to place ads in local papers and the relevant magazines. There are probably people living doors away from me who have this common interest (heck, someone on my street has “Property Of Starfleet Academy” embossed on his four by four, but I don’t have the balls to talk to him!) Unlike the groups I have been involved with in the past, I can run this one for free (once it has been advertised). I can put at ads at the local library. I can put some fliers in local comic shops. I am convinced that such groups could function again, the person behind it just needs to think outside of the Internet in order to launch it.
I suppose that is sort of part of the mission statement of this blog (the other is to comment geeky media stuff that I am enjoying now). I wish to set up a local group in Northamptonshire and get people involved. I want to publicise other local groups so that more people know that they are there. Ultimately I want to recapture the thill of meeting like minded people locally and enjoying banter with them, just like I used to twenty years ago.
Perhaps this is all the symptom of a midlife crises after all!
It really is a good time to be a Doctor Who fan.
I have followed the show since I was a kid (I am in my early forties now). My first memory was my Mum telling me that there was a TV show that she thought I would like coming on soon. Until I was six we had lived abroad, and so I had never ever seen Doctor Who. The first images that I recall where of giant stones killing people, which of course turned out to be The Stones Of Blood.
I stayed faithful to it until it finished when I was seventeen. I was there for the twentieth anniversary, and still recall The Five Doctors being shown during Children In Need (in those days the fundraiser was done between shows rather than dominating the entire schedule for the whole tedious evening). In fact technically I was there for the tenth anniversary story, The Three Doctors, but I suspect I was hanging from my mothers teat at the time and unable to appreciate what was happening.
Merchandise was always available when I was younger. I remember buying both the Peter Howell and Dominic Glynn versions of the theme tune when they were released as seven inch vinyl singles. I had a Doctor Who mug with the neon logo from the eighties on it. My Mum started buying me Doctor Who Weekly not long after it started. Every holiday that we spent on the south coast used to involve me checking out the second hand book shops and markets to increase my Target Doctor Who novel collection. (I even found one that was autographed my Tom Baker. It was The Cave Monsters. Weird!)
Doctor Who Weekly evolved into Doctor Who monthly. The Radio Times issued a twentieth anniversary special magazine. My family bought their first VHS video recorder and I started taping as many episodes as I could afford given the price of a blank tape compared to my pocket money. I used to edit the episodes live into feature length stories so that I could get two four parters on one 3 hour tape. Peter Haining started writing those big hardback books that taught me about the history of the show. All was good.
Then Michael Grade took it away from me (The fucker also cancelled The Tripods one year before the end. I’d still yell abuse at him now if I saw him on the streets) for eighteen months. And it all seemed a little sour from that point on. The twenty fifth anniversary came and went with little or no interest from the BBC or the general public. The magazine and the books were still going, but little else. And the year after that, the final humiliation, the show just stopped. It was ever properly cancelled, they just never got around to appointing a new producer when John Nathan~Turner left and it just faded away noiselessly (like the Tardis apparently should, according to that lying bitch River Song).
Of course it’s all gone a little too far the other way now. Big Finish produce amazing quality Doctor Who audio and have been for fourteen years. I own everything they have produced but it will be many years before I catch up and listen to it all, and if they never stop then I never will catch up! The BBC have also had a go at Classic Who original audiobooks as well as New Series audiobooks and regular books. Things have gone full circle and we have a weekly magazine again as well as the Monthly one. You can’t go into a stationers without seeing branded folders, pens, rulers, toys – it seems endless. And now you can collect figurines in a two weekly part work magazine series (and annoyingly they’re actually rather good, especially the monsters!) The fiftieth anniversary is being shown simultaneously in over seventy countries around the world. You can go and see it at the same time it is broadcast in the cinema in 3D in several countries. When it came back in 2005 you would never had guessed that it would get this big this quickly. And at Christmas we have a new Doctor to look forward to, the amazing Peter Capaldi. It’s almost too good to be true.
And is often the truth behind things that seem too good to be true? Well, usually they are. We have already gone from two spinoff shows to none (although I have a feeling The Sarah Jane Adventures would still be with us if the amazing Lis Sladen still was). There were also two magazine shows at one point – Doctor Who Confidential (which went into the making of the show in what was arguably too much detail) and Totally Doctor Who which went out during kids TV. That is also gone. So although the BBC are pushing the show relentlessly now, what about after the fiftieth? The show is arguably in decline, but wow look at what you can still get. And next year we have a Doctor who, if written for properly, could be the best yet. Yes, it really is a good time to be a Doctor Who fan.
Unless you want well written stories that make sense. In that case, you can go and do one. But style and content is a discussion for another time.
So hello, my name’s Robert, and I’m a geek by name and nature.