Blakes 7 – Assassin

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Assassin opens with Vila crowing to the others about the following message he’s intercepted from Servalan.  “Utilizer to Cancer, Utilizer to Cancer. Domo the ninth, five subjects.”  This allows Avon to glower and mutter “Servalan!” in a way that only Paul Darrow can, leaving the others wonder what on earth the message can mean.

Luckily it doesn’t take them long to work it out.  Domo is a planet, Cancer is an assassin who kills people for a great deal of money and the 9th must be a date.  And there’s five of them … so it looks like Servalan has hired Cancer to bump them all off.  Why she would want to go to all this trouble is a slight mystery, since Avon and the others haven’t exactly been striking many blows for freedom recently, but no matter.

Domo is a planet colonised by a gang of space pirates who capture unwary space travellers and sell them into slavery.  Avon elects to pose as one such unfortunate, which gives us an opportunity to marvel at Paul Darrow’s ability to wring pathos and emotion out of even the most innocuous lines.  Churlish folk might call this over-acting or simply bad acting, but I’ve always found there’s something compelling in Darrow’s S4 interpretation of Avon – a man constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Avon might start off by acting weak and feeble, but the goading he receives from Benos (Peter Atard) means that he can’t resist showing his true colours and so knocks a few of the pirates about for fun (I think it was the taunt about being skinny which pushed him over the edge).  Vila, watching from a safe distance, is asked by Soolin if all had gone well.  “Oh yes, wonderful. First they beat him to a pulp, then they dragged him off”. The unconvincing facial hair sported by the pirates is an early episode treat.

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Avon’s thrown in a cell with an old prisoner called Neebrox (Richard Hurndall).  He tells Avon that Servalan is here and that she purchased a member of an entertainment troupe (a plot-point which will become important later on).  As probably everybody knows, this appearance led to Hurndall being cast as the First Doctor in The Five Doctors.  It’s easy to see why, with his long hair he does have more than a touch of Hartnell’s Doctor about him. Hurndall was always an actor of depth and dignity and his presence helps to lift the story no end.  Alas, the same can’t really be said for Verlis (Betty Marsden), the slightly tipsy slavetrader in charge of the slave auction.

The auction part of the story is rather … well, it’s just rather.  The notion of Avon being paraded in chains before Servalan no doubt pleased a section of the audience (and I’m sure led to numerous fan-fiction sequels) but the actuality is a little embarrassing. The various bidders look ridiculous, all clothed in fancy dress it seems (plus fake beards of course). Servalan wins the bid for Avon, telling him that he now needs to refer to her as mistress. That was a late-night spin-off show just waiting to happen.

We can now bid the slavers a fond farewell as Neebrox comes up trumps and he and Avon hot-foot it back to Scorpio. This leads us into the second (and better) part of the story as Cancer’s ship is tracked down and they get to grips with the galaxy’s finest assassin.  Everything seems rather straightforward at first- they find a ship which contains Cancer (John Wyman) and a young woman called Piri (Caroline Holdaway).  Piri might be a rather limp lettuce but she’s invaluable in helping Avon and Tarrant overpower Cancer. Tarrant’s fight with Cancer is a hoot.

After being rather anonymous during her first few stories, Soolin has more recently developed a sharp and cynical sense of humour, which Glynis Barber plays very well.  Soolin quickly becomes irritated with the weepy Piri and gives her a well-deserved slap.  Well done that woman! Tarrant is rather upset with this, but Soolin’s comeback line is rather good. “There are two classic ways of dealing with an hysterical woman. You didn’t really expect me to kiss her, did you?”

Tarrant isn’t well served by the script, turning into a rather gauche schoolboy whenever Piri’s around.  And since Piri is really Cancer, that makes him look more than a little foolish.  Yes, the mysterious assassin Cancer is a woman, who decided to masquerade as Piri whilst Servalan bought a slave (remember the earlier plot point) to pose as Cancer.  It’s fair to say that Caroline Holdaway’s performance has come in for a little bit of stick over the years and it’s easy to see why.  True, the hysterical Piri isn’t the easiest role to play, but Holdaway never really convinces as the ice-cold killer either.

But although her casting is a bit of a problem, the concluding half of the story, set aboard Cancer’s ship, is still strong – David Sullivan Proudfoot elects to keep the lighting low, thereby creating a nice sense of tension.  Generally the direction is solid (this was his third and final B7 story following Traitor and Stardrive) although he’s a little too fond of Star Wars style screenwipes ….

Rod Beacham’s sole script for the series, Assassin is another story which signifies that after a shaky start series four was finding its feet.  This was Beacham’s debut as a television script-writer (he’d previously been an actor) and he would go on to contribute to a number of series, most notably Bergerac, before his death in 2014.  For a television debut, it’s a very solid effort.

On the negative side, Assassin would have worked better without Servalan, who doesn’t do a great deal (mind you, there are quite a few stories we can say that about) but thanks to a nice guest turn from Hurndall and some sharply scripted lines for Glynis Barber it’s still a good ‘un.

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Callan – The Same Trick Twice

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Written by Bill Craig
Directed by Peter Duguid

Callan has been sent to oversee the exchange of a Russian prisoner for two British ones.  Also present is Mr Bishop (Geoffrey Chater) who apparently works for the Foreign Office.  The handover goes smoothly and Bishop welcomes both Surtees (Richard Hurndall) and Mallory (Patrick O’Connell) back to the free world.

Later, Mallory expresses his bitterness to Callan.  He’s spent five long years in a Russan jail, thanks to Surtees (who buckled under the initial interrogation and revealed everything).  And Surtees himself plans to go public and disclose how he was blackmailed into working for British Intelligence.

The only problem is that nobody in British Intelligence has ever heard of Surtees …..

The Same Trick Twice is a dense story, where nothing is quite as it seems.  It has some excellent actors and moves at a nice pace, but there are some flaws which are hard to ignore.

The first comes right at the start.  Callan tells Surtees that he’ll be looking after him and has a nice rest laid on at East Grinstead.  The clear inference is that this is a safe house where Surtees can be intensely debriefed.  Surtees seems not to care for this and throws a cup of coffee in Callan’s face.  This allows Bishop to take charge of Surtees and he’s later allowed to go public with his claim of blackmail.  If Callan had orders to keep a tight grip on Surtees, why did he let him walk free?

Shortly after, we find that Bishop doesn’t actually work for the Foreign Office, instead he’s connected with Intelligence – not directly in the Section, but he’s certainly able to come and go there as he pleases.  Geoffrey Chater would pop up during series three and four as a semi-regular and his languid demeanor ensures that Bishop enjoys some entertaining clashes with Callan, who has a much more down-to-earth attitude.  Callan asks several times exactly who Bishop is (and he’s ignored each time by both Hunter and Bishop).  It’s never made clear what his position is, but it’s obvious that he outranks Hunter.

If you’ve got a decent selection of television from the 1960’s, 1970’s and early 1980’s, then the odds are that you’ll have some programmes featuring Richard Hurndall.  Hurndall was an intense, compelling character actor who always gave striking performances.  Off the top of my head, I can pick down from my shelf appearances he made in The Power Game, Manhunt, Public Eye, Blakes Seven, Bergerac and of course The Five Doctors.

He’s very good here as a character whose motivations remain unclear for some time.  There’s several possibilities – he could be a British agent or a double-agent working for the Russians.  Or maybe he’s simply been duped into believing he was working for the British, when actually the Russians were controlling him.

This tangle leads us to our next plot flaw.  It later becomes clear that Surtees is something of an innocent – he believed that British Intelligence had blackmailed him to work as a spy, but instead it was actually the Russians who were feeding him disinformation.  But if this was the case, how was he able to blow Mallory’s network?  Only a genuine British agent would have known specifics about the network – so did the Russians give this information to Surtees?  And if so, why didn’t Surtees mention this when he was released?

Possibly the most problematic part of the story is Mallory’s reassignment to the Section.  Callan is appalled as in his opinion Mallory is far from stable – this is understandable, since he’s spent five years in a Russian prison.  It’s clear that Bishop has ordered Hunter to take Mallory on, but why?  As with Bishop steering Surtees away at the start, he seems to have his own agenda – but it’s not clear what it is.

Time’s running out and Surtees is ready to publish his story.  It’s all lies (disinformation fed to him by the opposition) but it sounds plausible enough and would certainly be damaging if it made the papers.  Hunter visits Callan’s flat (he expresses surprise that this was the best they could do for him) and speaks to him off the record.

He wants Surtees killed, but Callan is far from happy.  “You want a chopping done, you write out a chit.  You want a killing, you give an order direct, straight, in front of witnesses.”  The unofficial nature doesn’t please Callan, but he eventually agrees.

But he doesn’t have to kill him, since he’s able to convince Surtees that he was duped.  But somebody does murder Surtees later (and whilst there’s a moment of misdirection, it’s fairly obvious who did it).  There’s a droll moment when Hunter examines the body and declares that as he was shot in the back of the head it’ll be difficult to call it suicide, unless he was a contortionist!

Although the plot doesn’t quite hold together (especially the involvement of Mallory) there’s still a great deal to enjoy here, such as Lonely’s job as the lavatory attendant at Harry’s strip bar.  Or a “hygiene operative” as Lonely defensively tells Callan. Harold Innocent is delightedly camp as Freddie, the photographer who arranged the compromising photos of Surtees and Trisha Noble is gorgeous as Jean Price, who posed in those photos with a drugged Surtees.

A cosmos without the Doctor scarcely bears thinking about. Doctor Who – The Five Doctors

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For me, The Five Doctors defies critical analysis as to watch it is to be twelve again, when it seemed like the best programme ever.  Time may have slightly tempered that enthusiasm, but I still find it’s impossible to rewatch it without a silly grin appearing on my face from time to time.

Is it perfect?  Of course not.  The Five Doctors was a party where many invitations were handed out, but several people (and one very important guest) were unable to attend.  Possibly in a parallel universe they had a story where the 2nd Doctor was partnered with Jamie and Zoe, the 3rd teamed up with Jo and the Brig and the 4th and Sarah were reunited.  Also in that parallel universe, maybe Roger Delgado decided not to travel to Turkey in 1973 to film Bell of Tibet so that he was able to return to the role of the Master for the first time in a decade.  It’s a nice dream.

But what we have is still very decent fare.  Richard Hurndall isn’t attempting to impersonate William Hartnell, Hurndall is playing the first Doctor, which is an important distinction.  The only Hartnell story to be repeated in the UK was An Unearthly Child in 1981, so for many of us Hurndall’s was a perfectly acceptable performance.  And it still is.  He captures the essence of the Hartnell Doctor, there’s certainly the hard edge Hartnell could show from time to time, for example.

Troughton’s back! He may look older, but he’s the major highlight of this story and it’s hardly surprising that they offered him another one shortly after.  He has a wonderful partnership with Courtney and all of their scenes fizzle with memorable dialogue.  Frankly, I could have watched a story with just these two and been very content.

Pertwee’s back! Although his hair’s a little whiter, he’s still recognisably the same Doctor that we last saw nine years previously.  But his sequences don’t quite have the same appeal as the Troughton ones and it’s difficult to put my finger on why this is.  Terrance Dicks had, of course, been script editor for the whole of the Pertwee era so he should have had no problem in recreating the 3rd Doctor’s characterisation.  But he does has some nice moments whilst traversing the Death Zone though, insulting the Master and finding an appropriately heroic way to enter the Tower, for example.

Pertwee benefits from being matched up again with Elisabath Sladen.  We’d seen Sarah two years previously in K9 and Company which was lovely, but to see her back with Pertwee’s Doctor is something else altogether.  Like everyone else, her lines are rationed so she has to make the most of everything she’s given, and this she certainly does.  The fact that her mittens are sewn onto her jacket is incredibly adorable as well.

"Jehosaphat!"
“Jehoshaphat!”

Tom’s not back! The reason for his non-appearance is well known and it does leave a hole, but we still have a very good story without him.  For many people, Tom Baker was the series, so it’s possibly not a bad thing that he wasn’t here – that way it’s possible to see that there can be a decent tale told without him.

Davison’s still here!  Terrance Dicks said that he was keen to ensure that Davison got the best of the action and he does have some good scenes, although the Gallifrey section is a bit limp and it’s a pity that he wasn’t teamed up with Troughton and Pertwee a little earlier on.  The Doctors were kept apart since there were concerns that egos would clash.  I don’t think that Davision would have been a problem, but Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker certainly would have been an explosive combination.

One slight problem I have with The Three Doctors is the way that Troughton is sometimes written down in order to make Pertwee the dominant figure.  Since Pertwee was the current incumbent it’s sort of understandable, but I doubt that Pertwee would have been happy to play second fiddle to Davison.  And the prospect of Pertwee and Baker together is even harder to imagine.  Pertwee never made any secret of his dislike of the way the series progressed after he left (those cynical souls put this down to the fact that Tom Baker was more popular with both the fans and the general audience than Pertwee ever was) so Tom’s non-appearance was possibly a blessing in that respect.

As for the monsters, we have a rather tatty looking Dalek but we finally get to see that the Pertwee Doctor was right when he said that: “inside each of those shells is a living, bubbling lump of hate”.  Given that it stays in the shadows, presumably the Yeti was rather shabby, but it gives Troughton another lovely comedy moment when he’s rummaging through his pockets in a desperate search for something to sort it out with.

Since they only appeared eighteen months previously, it’s a little disappointing that the Cybermen are so prominent here but it makes both economic sense (the costumes were in stock) and also practical sense (it’s difficult to imagine the likes of the Daleks trundling through the Death Zone).

Mention of the Death Zone brings us to one of the major plus points of this story – the locations.  NuWho has exhaustively mined Wales for locations but as the original series was based in London, trips to Wales were much rarer.  Various locations in Gwynedd were used in March 1983 and they help to give The Five Doctors an expansive, epic feeling.

If Leonard Sachs in Arc of Infinity wasn’t the best Borusa ever, then neither is Philip Latham here. It’s hard to understand how the Borusa of The Deadly Assassin and The Invasion of Time could have ended up as the lunatic obsessed with ruling forever that we see here.  So that makes his corruption (which should be shocking) something of a damp squib.

And if the Old-King-Cole Rassilon is another odd move, we do get to see the Doctors together at the end of the story, which is something to be treasured.  The rarity is why it’s so special, if it had happened more often then the shine would have been taken off it.

"I know what it says, but what does it mean?"
“I know what it says, but what does it mean?”

As it was, it’s Pertwee’s final bow as the Doctor (sorry, Dimensions in Time isn’t canon, and isn’t even a story) whilst Troughton was to have one more appearance to come.  Therefore, while The Five Doctors is a celebration of the first twenty years, it also marks something of an end as over the following years we would start to bid farewell to some of the actors who had done so much to ensure that the series had reached 20 not out.  And while they may be gone, thanks to the magic of DVD their adventures live on forever.  So for me, that’s the best way to approach this story, as an appreciation and celebration of some of the people that made this programme so special.