Monday, May 07, 2007

 

Blake’s 7 Reborn

A small band of fighters for freedom, having scored years of remarkable victories against impossible odds, are finally annihilated by the overwhelming forces of a pitiless right-wing administration. But enough of the depressing world of the local elections: do you remember Blake’s 7? More than a quarter of a century since its heroes were shockingly gunned down at the series’ finale, the Sci-Fi Channel today relaunches Britain’s bleakest sci-fi as an online audio drama starring James Bond’s Colin Salmon and This Life’s Daniela Nardini alongside Derek Riddell as Blake – the only dramatic hero going labelled as a terrorist paedophile. Even more than when the series first started in 1978, it’s difficult to think of a worse combination to throw at someone.

Though the paedophile charge is fabricated by a totalitarian state desperate to destroy a political opponent, the line between terrorist and freedom-fighter in the series is likely to be more complicated; Blake was certainly veering towards the scarily messianic by some way into the TV series… And as far as the heroes go, he’s the ‘nice’ one. From political activist to convicted criminal, he’s shipped off to a prison world (a futuristic take on transportation to Australia) with, well, a bunch of criminals. So when, en route, their prison freighter encounters a mysterious abandoned space ship and Blake is able to board it, his crew won’t be a clean-cut bunch in starched uniforms. No, the people in uniforms are the ruthless galactic Federation he’s fighting, and Blake’s allies are thieves and murderers who don’t necessarily share his revolutionary ideals (if there’s an echo of a familiar old story, there’s more than a touch of the Robin Hood legend, too). Still, he looks on the bright side in an episode to be broadcast online next week:
“We need more crew. People we can trust.”
“And where are we going to find them?”
“We don’t have to. The Federation already have.”
It’s the third century of the second calendar, and just as in 1984, a future dystopian regime aims to define the past as well as the present – their smearing of Blake’s past being just the most obvious. The TV series began by depicting the Federation as a corrupt, faceless bureaucracy, communist-dreary with fascist enforcement, but before long it became personified in the figure of Servalan; with her charismatic leadership the focus of opposition more than the system itself, the totalitarianism grew to feel much more definitively fascist. Knowing that Daniela Nardini’s Servalan will be as central a part of the re-imagined series as the fabulous Jacqueline Pearce was in the original, I’m looking forward to finding out just what the political flavour will be.

In addition to the show’s political direction, I’m intrigued to hear what tone it’ll settle on. Even allowing for people’s occasionally justified sneers at the production values, the original series had a remarkably variable feel – it started and finished in a grim, gritty 1984-influenced style, but the introduction of Servalan (as well as altering the political balance) meant that much of the series in between struck a gloriously camp attitude, which is why I’ve previously described that series as “Robin Hood meets 1984, but with more frocks”. The two approaches have occasionally been termed ‘Gun’ and ‘Frock’, and though it’s not yet obvious which the new series is more likely to take, it would seem more difficult to depict someone in a fabulous cocktail frock striding across a quarry on audio… On the other hand, on noticing after Saturday’s event that the blurb in the Sci-Fi-London 6 booklet describes Daniela Nardini’s Servalan as their “arch nemesis,” I asked Ben Aaronovitch if there was any significance to the lack of the expected hyphen between those words. He agreed that she is, indeed, about as arch as a nemesis can get.

Saturday’s event? Oh, yes. On Saturday morning, Richard and I were at the Apollo West End for a new Blake’s 7 launch event as part of Sci-Fi-London 6: The 6th Annual International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film. With producers, writers and the star answering questions, a quarter-hour rough cut documentary (‘A Rebellion Reborn’) and a preview of one of the mini-episodes, we had an intriguing taste of the new series. New series lead writer Ben Aaronovitch (a hugely impressive author in Doctor Who’s late ’80s renaissance and the New Adventures, and an occasional but acerbic blogger about his distaste for banks) and writer James Swallow discussed whether the times and the ‘War on Terror’ had influenced what they could or couldn’t show – no – and, as the documentary put it (to one of the biggest laughs, as Derek Riddell turned in slo-mo on the big screen), how
“Blake is your worst nightmare – he’s a pragmatic idealist, and he will kill.”
Though they’ve retained the core concept of the original series, it has a different spin, and a very different style of storytelling; rather than a series of 50-minute TV productions, the new series recorded so far consists of three hour-long audio dramas… Each split into twelve individual five-minute segments to enable people to play them online – for free, incidentally, though CDs of the three complete episodes will be available to buy a little later on. The idea of telling an absorbing drama in such short bursts made me think more of comics like 2000AD than audio drama, and I did wonder about the audience: will graphic novel readers be interested in radio plays; and aren’t traditional radio listeners more interested in things that go on a bit? To be fair, James Swallow compared the fast-moving bite-sized chunks to the fast-paced storytelling of American TV ‘acts’ split for ad breaks, and I can see the similarity, along with the (not deep, but thrilling) Star Wars: Clone Wars series. I just hope they find their audience, not least as they all seemed so enthusiastic to do more… Of course, as well as the need to design the segments for an online audience, it’s impossible to imagine the series done in exactly the same way anyway, particularly after the ‘evolving story of a bunch of people in space who don’t like each other and may not survive the experience’ has been developed again in Blake’s 7-influenced series such as Babylon 5, Farscape and Firefly / Serenity. So, as well as learning from each of those to have a more modern style, the story may well go in a different direction to the original (and it’s already evident that one or two of the more convenient plot elements have been surgically removed). We know that one version ended with all its heroes brutally slaughtered and a boot stamping on the galaxy forever – now we have the joy of knowing that the new one might not. Or it might again!

In the meantime, today the first couple of chapters went online for Ben Aaronovitch’s introductory script, Rebel. Fans of the original series will discover this is pretty much a new take on the first three episodes back in 1978, as Blake is framed, tried, exiled and (in a remarkable stroke of luck) presented with the best ship in the galaxy, which he names the Liberator. Even if you’re not a fan of the original series, you’ll note that this is telling the story at three times the original pace, so it’ll have to go at quite a lick. Rather strangely, and in part because our steam-powered dial-up isn’t too good at streaming media, we’ve not yet heard the initial few chapters online now (with more added each Tuesday, Thursday and Friday), but we have heard the seventh one. About 35 minutes into the first story, this segment features Blake and a handful of others already aboard their new ship, trying to work out how to handle it and each other, while less lucky cast members are in the process of being dumped on a singularly unpleasant prison planet. From this instalment alone, it seemed very promising: the first few lines were a bit shaky – telling the audience they were on radio by painstakingly describing rather too many things to sound natural – but swiftly drawing us in with well-sketched characters and promising lines as two contrasting pairs of people explore their ship (“Shouldn’t we tell Blake?” Avon is asked of another discovery. “There’s no hurry,” observes the smoothly ruthless second lead), or as the prison ship’s computer reels off lists of crimes for the convicts, including a very funny murderer (no, really) and a superbly set-up gag from the chapter title ‘Space Fall’… And, yes, it does seem a little strange that they picked that one to preview, but that gave the people there the chance to skip the set-up, with most of us familiar enough with the original story to follow the re-imagining. And it sounded good.

The sound design is the work of the extremely talented Alistair Lock, who’s previously worked both on Big Finish’s Doctor Who audio plays and on the infrequent but gripping Kaldor City political thrillers that mixed story elements from both Doctor Who and Blake’s 7. Alistair’s preference both in audio environments and in music has always seemed to be for ‘big sound’, and he described the approach on Saturday as “audio widescreen”. Without big-budget visual effects on screen – because there are no visuals at all – it’s been up to Alistair to create the soundscape for the show, and it does indeed sound huge, with an epic theme that fits right in with modern sci-fi spectaculars (and, indeed, could easily fit in for one of Babylon 5’s seasons). Derek Riddell added that, rather than the TV sci-fi style of acting against a coloured backdrop which will be replaced by computer-generated images or the traditional style of radio drama where they do all the sound effects live, the Blake’s 7 actors are acting with just each other, and Alistair adds everything in afterwards by sound, an approach coined as “Audio Bluescreen”. I wonder if it’ll catch on? I’m commanded, incidentally, to add that the full benefit will only be reaped by listening to the whole thing on a proper surround-sound system – like George Lucas, but with hard work and talent standing in for an enormous budget, Alistair is very keen that people experience his work properly. I have to admit, though, it sounded fantastic in a proper cinema…

As far as the actors go, the very “contemporary” and quite big-name cast is impressive, too. We saw Derek Riddell in action on Saturday, and I’m also particularly keen to hear more of Colin Salmon as Avon – the cold, cynical anti-hero of the original – and Daniela Nardini as the villainous Servalan, but then there are also Queer As Folk’s Craig Kelly, Crusade’s Carrie Dobro, Robin of Sherwood Michael Praed (a series not unlike Blake’s 7 set in the forest), Hellraiser’s Doug Bradley and even Big Finish’s fabulous India Fisher. Derek Riddell, of course, has been in tons of dramas in the last few years – the BBC’s modern Shakespeare retellings, No Angels, Spooks – but you’ll not be surprised that I particularly remembered him as Sir Robert MacLeish in last year’s thrilling Victorian werewolf episode of Doctor Who, Tooth and Claw. All right, I admit it. Forewarned who’d be at Saturday’s event, I hummed and hawed over bringing books for the authors to sign (with another I recognised but wasn’t expecting sitting, surreally, directly behind me the night after we’d listened to his latest Doctor Who commentary; I won’t name him, as Richard’s rather embarrassed that he continued his occasional series of saying unfortunate things in authors’ hearing by observing that he “looks like Mooncat” without realising the man was about two metres away), decided that would be altogether too gauche, but did bring along just the one Doctor Who DVD booklet in case I got the chance to collar Derek Riddell. I did, surprised as he was that anyone remembered him from just one episode. “You don’t realise,” I chipped in brightly, “that now you’ve done Doctor Who and Blake’s 7, you’ll have two sets of stalkers who’ll never let you go for the rest of your life.” From the flash of animal terror that inspired, I somehow think that may not have been my most well-timed truism. So, if he flies off to LA and never, ever comes back, look, I’m sure it won’t be my fault, OK?

Blake, Avon and Servalan had always been very striking parts, but several of the other regulars were on occasion rather anonymous. The new cast may go some way towards rectifying that, but the writers and producers have made it clear they’re giving their cast more to work with than some of the ‘originals’ sometimes got. On Saturday, they promised that they’re not going to fiddle with already strong characters, but to put the work in on neglected ones. Appropriately for the reinvention of a series that helped inspire Babylon 5, a character they regarded as a particular waste of a good actor and promising backstory – Jenna, the show’s pilot – has had a lot of work put into her character and is now played by Carrie Dobro, not only a sassy former New York stand-up but a former cast member on (doomed) Babylon 5 spin-off Crusade. The series’ other early female lead, alien telepath Cally, will join the new team eventually in a story centring round her, so in the meantime there’s a new character, disgraced but still “true-blue” Federation Section Leader Laura Mezin (bound to be the cause of a little friction with the rest of the convicts). Thief Vila and big dim strongman Gan sound like they’ve been given a very different interpersonal dynamic, too, though from an excerpt we heard I suspect this version of the story doesn’t go along with the notion that Gan’s a sex killer, compellingly advanced in Fiona Moore and Alan Stevens’ intelligent critical study of Blake’s 7, Liberation (easily the best book to get hold of on the original series).

The other two stories already recorded are Traitor and Liberator, by James Swallow and Marc Platt (another creative powerhouse from late ’80s Doctor Who and the New Adventures). I suspect the triptych of Rebel, Traitor, Liberator both describes Blake and gives a clue into the subjects: Rebel giving Blake’s story as political criminal; Traitor perhaps seeing him from the Federation’s point of view and introducing their Supreme Commander Servalan; and Liberator, the name given to their mysterious ship and likely to involve ‘weird stuff’ hinted at by Ben Aaronovitch on Saturday as he praised the work of Marc Platt:
“He’s a very underused writer. I think he should be writing everything! He’s incredibly versatile, very funny, and quite cheap at the moment.”
Providing we hit on a way to listen to them smoothly – or when the CD comes out – we’re very much looking forward to them…

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