And now the rest of that CD I reviewed earlier, though I doubt I'll be as impressed or entertained. Benji/ELSE, please, try not to be total crap. It would be a nice change. Please. I'm begging you.
Eye of the Machine
"Is that an agorhythmic equation in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?"
(No, I am NOT taking the piss that is an actual line of dialogue.)
Avon's past before the series as hinted at in Countdown and Rumors of Death are the biggest source of fanfic prelude around, only beaten by PGP stories. Even Paul Darrow himself felt there was a book in it, in the universally-acknowledged not-quite-as-crap-as-it-may-seem Avon: A Terrible Aspect which got the thumbs up from Terry Nation. (Of course, Afterlife got the same from him and Chris Boucher, but no one remembers that because slagging off Afterlife is far too fashionable).
I've read a few of course, but the wonderful thing about B7 is its sheer sparseness of tie-in media. Any fan fic is fair game as long as it synchs up with the TV series. There are no Missing Adventures to contradict, no novelizations to tie in with. Who's to say that Avon DIDN'T have a wife and child who seemingly left him one day and made him the insular git he was when we first met him? Maybe Del Grant really was a Federation agent like his sister? Did they both meet Blake at the canteen for the Aquitar Project? I've no idea and to tell you the truth I'm probably prevaricating so I don't have to listen to the thing.
See what the ELSE has done to me? Given me the ability to see the amazing amount of talent on display (come on, Keeley Hawes has to be brilliant to portray total insanity with such conviction), but not for a moment think it will dent the awfulness of the script. See how Kevin Stoney, John Alberini and the dude playing Moloch tackle Allan Prior's Hostage and don't stand a chance!
Oh all right, stop giving me that look. I'll listen to it. Tch.
Our story begins in some kind of lecture hall with Geoffrey Palmer playing Professor "David" Ensor as... well. As Geoffrey Palmer. He could be the exact same character from As Time Goes By bar the fact he's talking about artificial intelligence rather than his life in Kenya. It strikes me once again they've got a brilliant visual actor and put him on radio. Watch him in The Silurians and then in The Mutants. Amazing. Completely different people despite the fact it's the same actor playing an ineffective beaurocrat out of his depth in both. But it's down to body language, because he keeps his voice level. I sigh. Is Big Finish poaching all the actors who actually are good on audio or something? Should there be some kind of cultural exchange where B7 Enterprizes get Sheridan Smith and Doctor Who get Colin Salmon? The problem is Ensor isn't the waspish, tetchy colour-blind twat who clearly was Orac in human form. OK, this Ensor hasn't spent four decades living in the ruins of Atlantis with no human contact, but that doesn't make the reinvention any more interesting.
Yes, yes, I know, I'm stalling. On with the Motley.
It's taken three hundred years for the Cybernetic School of New Oxford to get anywhere close to a true artificial sentience, which is of course something scientists have been promising since 1963. Suddenly, out of the blue I have an idea that Anna Grant turns out be a sentient android built by Ensor who runs amock who falls in love with Avon. I'm sure that idea's been done somewhere (probably not in B7 though). Sorry. Back on track. Gosh, I'm not a minute into it yet. There's not even the opening music and narration. Speed it up.
Ensor's lecture is interrupted by a heckler insisting that the old man has nicked his best work. The heckler sounds uncannily like Avon but probably isn't as even a brooding hormonal Avon wouldn't pathetically shout abuse from the stalls but most likely do an Adonis Cnut style double cross and break the bastard live on television. Still, that would obviously be too much. Oh look, those opening credits I mention. Hello. You took your time. Now Ensor is making a statement about Kerr Avon, a mystery man from a "hick colony on the frontier" who came to Earth to make his fortune with a half-decent degree. Dude, if you're going to nick from A:ATA, why not go the whole hog? Oh, wait, I remember: Paul Darrow will sue your ass off because he considers this whole audio revival a blasphemy, and a badly-made blasphemy as well.
Ensor's monologue goes on for a long, long time and eventually turns into a kind of narration as we see a gushing young Avon rush up to Ensor claiming he's come up with a brilliant new idea. Ensor however is a snob, dubs Avon a "wannabe" and wanders off for lunch, never letting the guy get a word in edgeways.
Cut to the testimony of Anna Grant - and give her her dues, she sounds enough like the original actress to make me wonder if they be related. She apparently bumped into Avon at university open day, where she's handing out leaflets about the Freedom Party or something, and her insane zeal brings back unpleasant memories of DI Drake. Anyway. Unfortunately, Avon is not a gullible twat and easily points out her 'fight the machine' blathering is entirely missing the point. "Don't concede you've lost the argument, just change what we're arguing about," muses Avon after Anna tries to bludgeon him into submission with propaganda. You know, this isn't as bad as I was expecting. Is this really by Aaronovitch? Oh. So it is. Oh well.
Back to Ensor as he bitches about... pretty much everything. Youth, society, riots, women, masculinity, gosh it's like Lawrence Miles on acid. Off this romantic image we cut to Avon gobsmacked as Anna's taken him home and jumped his bones seemingly minutes after they met. He's as taken aback by "Auntie Anna" (fuck, could that sound ANY creepier?) and her rapid switches from pro-revolutionary propaganda to "GET YER ARSE IN THE SHOWER, COLONIAL BOY!" as I am. Talk about schizophrenic... maybe Anna IS Alex Drake when that evil clown dumps her three hundred years in her future? Wierd.
Anyway, after another vigorous sex session in the shower, Alex, er, Anna goes downtown to her Freedom Party weekly meeting where no one except her speaks. I know it's down to the lack of actors, but it really gives the impression they're all just staring at her in stupefied silence as she blathers on with bitchy comments about people forgetting to appear at every meeting. It rapidly becomes clear that she's not exactly a good orator as her conspiracy rants aren't a bit like what she was SUPPOSED to be ranting about - she's horrified to learn she spent an hour insisting that cow's milk is a tool of the oppressor when she was meaning to critique the War in Iraq, that sort of thing. Is Avon a tad worried at the obvious psychosis of his new shag? He seems to find her amusing as Anna announces she intends to give Avon the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy so he doesn't look like a student and then gatecrash Ensor's private dinner party. There's probably a reason WHY she wants to do this, but I can't for the life of me work out what...
Alas, Anna's cunning plan goes awry because Ensor isn't as stupid as she is and is able to remember slagging Avon off in the cafeteria from the third scene. Awkward! I have to ask though... why does Ensor call them "Anna and Avon" rather than "Anna and Kerr" or "Grant and Avon"? Is there some kind of social thing you only address close friends by their first names? (which begs the question of why Anna called Avon "Avon" - considering she shags total strangers, you wonder why she'd stick to such formality. Paul Darrow was always of the impressiong that "Kerr" is just a really, really stupid name which is why everyone sticks to his last name, even his best friends, brother and girlfriend...)
As it rapidly becomes clear that 300 years of human progress and Oxford is STILL full of bitchy old male academics, Anna explains that Ensor's candlelight suppers offer a veritable who's who of movers and shakers - including torturers, genocidal maniacs and of course fascists. She also seems related to half the faculty, with the top cybernetists in the entire galaxy all having seemingly babysat her at one time or another (for the record, the only rival to Ensor is a woman called Lee and not Muller from the TV series and Bejing is a major political power, not quite as big as Kazakhstan though. Aww.)
After the dinner party, Anna and Avon head home for ANOTHER sordid sex session and discuss the ongoing repeated meme of the Elections. Anna wants Avon to hack into the Electoral computer to prove the votes are working, and to do it on campus so it looks just like a student prank and no one, say, gets deported to Cygnus Alpha. What's the likelihood of that happening, anyway? Avon agrees to this not-at-all doomed plan in return for lots of sex for the rest of his life. Yes, I think we've got the whole "randy student" angle down pat, but come on - they've known each other for a DAY and they want to spend the rest of their lives together? That'd probably terrify most blokes. And while this is a delightful coming-of-age romp for the Nigel Verkoff version of Avon, it's as credible to genuine article as Spara's Eleventh Doctor of Skins...
The next day, Ensor is critiquing his favorite Eighth Doctor novel, The Turing Test, and asks Avon to join his exclusive tutorials (nope, nothing sinister there) and intends to to, in his own words, "make Avon sing for his supper". This is getting kinky and suggests Avon 2.0 has a sex life that might put Captain Jack to shame.
Avon is left disturbingly buzzing after this tutorial which leaves him with a newfound love of group dynamics (well, I guess that's why he programmed Zen that way rather than making himself lord and master) while Alex is already nagging him for eying up other girls. For fuck's sake woman, you only met him YESTERDAY! And if you're such a radical, why are you determined he be utterly faithful to you?! And having Avon nagged over lunch by Anna in a traditional "fine, you obviously don't care WHAT I think" mood is more demeaning to the character than his Verkoffesque libido. God damn it, Avon you are the MASTER of the put down! I did not steal this story to listen to you pussy-whipped by one of the Gene Genie's cast offs!
After a painfully innuendo-laden discussion ("The thingy?" "The thingy. I did it last week. When you were asleep.") Avon meets up with Ensor and explains he's not going to hand in his essay because he's discovered that the entire basis of the topic is completely flawed. Mmm. I should have tried that excuse once or twice. Nice one. Avon proves this by waving what sounds like a copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in Ensor's face until he realizes the computer genius is right. Get used to it, old man. Nevertheless, this doesn't actually excuse Avon who STILL has to do the essay. Bummer.
Cut back to Ensor's police statement or whatever as he gives a borderline Nazi-esque eugenics speech, insisting that Avon wasn't a genius but just some dumb nigger who noticed something the white folk shoulda known right from the beginning - he ain't clever, he just got lucky. Fuck you too, Ensor.
Ensor and "the Hick from the Sticks" Avon then visit an art gallery to teach him "culture" which they can teach their artificial intelligence. Avon doesn't see the point and Ensor reveals that Orac-style sentiences have been successfully created for centuries... the trouble is they all end up going insane and either kill themselves or trying to conquer the world. Adding a human factor, so to speak, might actually make them work better.
Avon is next seen at Anna's weekly Freedom Party meeting. With the cunning addition of free beer and a rave party, attendence has really shot up and Anna believes this is a sign of the imminant social revolution. Avon points out reasonably that it's more a sign that students like booze, music and shagging. Proving his point, he and Anna immediately start to bonk once again. We NEEDED to hear this, we REALLY did.
Next, Avon and Ensor are arguing on how to develop Orac but every suggestion Avon makes has been done before and failed spectacularly according to Ensor (hey, since YOU know so much about it, why not make a suggestion of your own, dickhead?). Avon thinks an organic brain could helpt the computer think like a human, prompting an anti-religion rant from Ensor, but his next idea - download a human brain off bit torrent and tinker with it - gets an awestruck "It CAN'T be that simple!" from the computer genius. "I feel a Nobel Prize beckoning!!!" Sheesh...
Three days later, Avon finally comes home to Anna (...they've moved in, have they? When did that happen?) and is so knackered from all this meddling with the laws of nature immediately falls asleep, forcing Anna to take advantage of his unconscious body. Yes. They have lots of sex. I GET THIS.
Ensor meanwhile leaves a message on the answering phone (which Anna has recorded for him, cute). To cut a long story short, he's getting sole authorship of the paper on AI they've been working on and doesn't quite promise to acknowledge Avon's contribution... ever. Wow, could this be what causes that truly pathetic bit of protest in the pre-credit sequence? Well, fancy that, we get a replay of the scene itself!
(I have to say I have little sympathy for Avon. Even when doing the HSC for art we had to pile up a shedload of evidence proving we'd not only done the artwork, but all the creative process before hand. The idea that in the future, anyone can print off whatever they like without hard evidence as to authenticate it and that Avon hasn't kept copies of his work... dear me, that's incredibly unlikely.)
Anna bails Avon out of jail for his public nuisance (calling him "Kerr", so it has to be serious) and Avon is rather pissed off that Anna never warned him what an asshole Ensor would be even though she knew. He suspects he has merely been a puppet to aide her revolutionary desires and her response ("It's not ALL about you, you know!") doesn't exactly dispell this particular notion. Anna quickly starts ranting that Ensor's betrayal of Avon is the Federation in miniature - before listing "Gammas" as the lowest of the low, which is confusing for me if you lived through my review of When Vila Met Gan - and tries to turn Avon to the path of communism or something of Roj Blake. I dunno, the idea Avon would be scarred for life by a teacher nicking his work doesn't ring with me. OK, the woman he loved betrayed him, I can get that, no hassle, but a teacher? Avon 1.0 would have downright expected to be cheated, and Anna 2.0 is too much of a casual girlfriend to emotionally cripple Ben Chatham let alone Kerr Avon. Yes, yes, this isn't supposed to be the TV series but the author insists that he wasn't going to change the main troika because they didn't need changing - lying bastard!
Like Torchwood, this series can only get better once it's established what the hell its premise is.
Where were we? Oh yes. Avon's passion for "Miss Grant" (oh, that sounds so wierd and try NOT visualizing Katy Manning when you hear it) has dimmed somewhat as it's clear she's as brain damaged as her Ashes to Ashes alter ego - she has no proof at all that Roj Blake will be a worthy leader, but is confident that she can just vote him out at the next election. Wow, cause that NEVER fails, does it Mr. Mugabe? In retaliation she goes to art gallery with Ensor and discuss culture, art, and the fact Ensor is a cheating bastard. Can he justify himself?
"Optimism is an attractive quality in the young and naive. I was a child prodigy, you know. When I was a young man, even younger and more naive than your Kerr Avon, I studied under Alice Tarrial at the Cybernetics Dept of the University of Boggertar. You should know the name Tarrial, young lady. Tarrial Cells, does that help? It's the key component in any distributive data processing unit. It's what runs everything from the holograms in this room to the thinkpad in your pocket and the life support systems that keep us breathing. I've been rather thoroughly written out of that bit of chapter of Cybernetics. I didn't help create Tarrial Cells, I created them from the ground up! Everything from the basic theory to the final design of the prototype, that cell was ALL my work. MINE! Teachers have always stolen from their students, all the way back to when Socrates corrupted Plato! This time, it's MY turn! Avon can steal from his followers when his own turn comes! My work changed the face of cybernetics! Kerr's work might, just might, solve an intellectual puzzle."
Mmm. I refer you to my "fuck you, Ensor" comment.
Still, remarkably good stuff from Aaronovitch there, it must be said.
Suffice it to say, Anna is not impressed and Ensor uses her own technique of evasion on her by mentioning the elections. He for one does not believe Blake will remain a passive figure if he loses the elections and Anna... well, we've established how blindly loyal and optimistic she is, so she loses the argument and goes away.
Now it is the night of the election, the night that all hell breaks loose and the night that Travis, Vila and Gan spent in remarkably different circumstances. And on Channel English 77, the polling booths across the galaxy are counted up (uh huh...) and Avon and Anna sit and watch it on TV with nibbles. Alas, Avon has voted for the Futile but Cooly Ironic and Well Dressed Party (the undoubted evolution for the Standing At The Back Dressed Stupidly And Looking Stupidly Party) in a fit of joy, having realized that his theory what Ensor stole was actually wrong! HAH! Karma delivers!
Cut to Ensor bitching about how the most powerful knowledge is only held by those without without control or somesuch bollocks, so we cut to him waking up in the middle of the night with Avon holding a knife to his wrinkled neck and a stark reminder to all the redneck jokes he's recieved over the course of the play. Anarchy has broken out and the troopers are killing everyone, while Anna's mother the chanceller has been arrested and Anna is missing. Yes, the corrupt Federation forgot to tamper with the ballots so when Blake won the election, they siezed military control of Earth. Just in case that retarded plot development from WVMG had been blessedly forgotten. Ensor's not remotely fussed about the death toll as he is too useful for the regime for them to kill. "You really are a bastard!" whispers Avon in the lamest insult since the last time that exact phrase was used in these audios. Does someone out there think it's actually a cutting quip?
But twist after twist - not only does Ensor know about Avon's hacking, Avon deliberately sabotaged the theory Ensor stole, and is willing to part with the true formula so to speak in return for Ensor using his links to save Anna! The deal is made and, surely some mistake, Anna is found in time and recovers in the Radcliff Hospital. Well, her right hand is completely stuffed, there's a bootprint on her stomach and her central nervous system is completely and utterly screwed from tazer jolts and mindless brutality. Her idealism finally snaps and she collapses in tears at the horribleness of human beings.
Er... what? Shouldn't she be dead? Or betrayed Avon? And Avon arrested? Hell, even her injuries can be healed. What kind of crap is this? It was going so well too! What was the point of this story if not to see how Avon became a cold hearted bastard and wanted fugitive? Come to think of it, these Early Years stories really do miss their mark often then not. They seem to get the Blake's 7 Babies mixed up with the genre of origin stories. We end up knowing less about the characters than we should - we don't know how Vila and Gan met or got arrested, what happened to Anna or when Travis got a nasty obsession with Roj Blake!
Despite this total broken premise, I was incredibly impressed by Eye of the Machine. Bar two or three excruciating lines, the dialogue was great and the plotting more or less fine (if the first few scenes occured over weeks rather than hours it'd be a lot better) and I am left with the conclusion that Aaronovitch and the ELSE are clearly not the same person. Either that or there are two Ben Aaronovitches.
All in all, if I could buy this commercially and legally... I would. I was THAT impressed.
The wild track with the rave band didn't quite have the same effect. I can barely decipher the lyrics. It's like the theme to a James Bond film played through two layers of balsa wood. Something about underestimating people for crimes they don't commit or something. I'll take Dayna's Song any day...