Friday, September 25, 2009

Blake's 7 - FIGHT THE MACHINE!!!

Nicola Mody did that, btw, not me.

OK, the year is 1980 and the global temperature has raised several degrees by the friction of the entire B7 production team's whiplash on learning there is to be a fourth season. Except for Tarrant who was so dumb he never assumed otherwise. In a desperate need for scripts stat, Paul Darrow submits a story for the new format entitled Man of Iron. Mainly he does it for the sheer hell of it. Alas, his script would never be made as, whatever Darrow's strengths as an actor, he did not have the genius of Robert Holmes when it came to sneaking past the equity laws. Actors don't write scripts, no matter what the hell Tom Baker might assure you in the BBC bar while he nicks your drink.

Darrow wasn't particularly fussed by this, and Man of Iron remained as a first draft, no more no less until the script got reproduced and sold at charity auctions. Showing how far technology and communication has come over the last few years, I managed to obtain a copy of the script within hours of googling it. Back in 1996, I probably would have killed for such an ability... oh, what a wonderful future we live in!

Man of Iron is a first draft for an episode, so we can't be as judgemental as we might, say, be with Eric Saward's "fuck you, I'm not changing a word you fat bastard" Trial of a Time Lord part 14. But even so, it's pretty obvious that Darrow was not exactly onto a winner at the start. If made as it was here, it would probably end up considered worse than Animals. Or Rebel.

There's a real air that this was typed up on notes written on the bus or a kind of stream of consciousness. The dialogue isn't really dialogue per se, more sort of shorthand to note the content of what people say in a scene and the details to be added in later. Only a few lines ring out as things that the characters would actually, genuinely say, and it's utterly ridiculous to think that Darrow was actually going to read out the dialogue he'd written for himself, unless he really fancied playing Avon as a cross between Kaston Iago and the Womp.

There are a couple of rather major hurdles that couldn't simply be dealt with, spara-style, in a later draft (for example, Servalan appears without any armed bodyguards or troopers, but that could be explained away easily as part of her bargaining). The main problem is that Orac never appears. Or is mentioned. Or even seen. Certainly he would have come in bloody useful. But, given the amount of material Slave gets, maybe when it was written the idea was to write out Orac, since Tuddenham would still get a role in the new series? Another thing is the plot revolving around how utterly shit Scorpio is - its batteries run flat so quickly, the crew are forced to flee back to Xenon while there's still enough charge to get there. Maybe this was set before Stardrive (which begins, after all, with Avon bitching they need new batteries and ends with a new engine that doesn't need batteries), but it could have been an early dramatic idea they abandoned before recording. The rebel base is never named as Xenon either. Further proof of its early genesis is the "pump-action shotguns" the rebels use, which was an early idea for Dorian's guns to have cool stuff bolted on the handgun to turn into rifles (ultimately you get to see it used in Warlord and, more memorable, to blow three holes in Roj Blake).

The most massive problem is the story seems to cover the second half of a plot, with Avon going to unheard-of extremes to murder some bloke we've never heard of for reasons that, even if explained in a fuller draft, never once come as credible to interest Avon in any case. Certainly the graphic violence in this episode would have given everyone pause to thought... or major rewrite... but one does begin to wonder, given that all the evidence shows this was written before most of the other episodes, if Man of Iron wasn't somehow cannibalized for story ideas for proper writers like Holmesy. I'd be a pathological liar to say the others didn't do the ideas justice, but that proves this script had the bones of something very cool.

Although Avon takes up most of the action, he gets just two scenes with the others and very little in the way of dialogue - it's borderline Avon-lite. Vila gets a lot to do, and indeed the episode is more about Vila and his relationship with the others than Avon blowing up androids with a pump-action shotgun. Tarrant gets to be a total asshole who surprises everyone by showing random evidence that he has a brain beyond the grin and curls. Soolin gets to be completely amoral and psychoanalyze Avon and Vila, and also being the one to confront the truth no one else wants to talk about. And Dayna gets to hang around operating the teleport. Well, she does get a token moment of characterization, so basically Man of Iron does Dayna more good than say Games. Darrow's Slave however, blew my socks off. He's not 100% in character as we know him, but when stressed comes up with some killer jokes, to the point he seemed to be like Roger out of American Dad. There's a massive scene with Servalan I'll discuss later.

None of this is really enough in the first draft, of course, but I firmly believe that this could have been awesome in the right hands.

But enough circling what might have been, onto what actually happens in Man of Iron.

The episode begins quite similar to Power, with Avon going on a solo gun rampage through a patch of countryside with us having no clue what's going on, as he is promptly overpowered, captured, loses his bracelet and is dragged to an underground complex. But here, he's running across a beach being chased by "human/robots" which probably would have looked like the jet black Raston killing machines of Earthshock, but just as possibly would have ended up like the blue-faced blonde giant from Timelash.

In orbit above this planet Epsilon, Vila gives up trying to contact Avon through his bracelet (neither of them try to teleport for some reason). With Slave pointedly reminding how Scorpio's energy is running out, Vila contacts Tarrant who is back at base. Upon learning Avon has either been captured or killed, Tarrant dryly asks, "Now what's the bad news?" and tells Vila to abandon Avon and return home to recharge. Upset, Vila does so, much to Slave's relief.

The robots beat the shit out of Avon and tie him to a chair in the underground lair where he meets their creator, Algor.

Now, I'd just like to say this bit I couldn't get my head around. Algor? AL GORE?! Considering that Darrow wrote a book about Avon where his nemesis was named Axel Grease, I'm convinced the author was taking the piss - even though my educated comrade Miles Reid insists that no one knew about Al Gore back then, or his claims he single-handedly invented the internet, and the name's probably based on ALGOL, the language computes "spoke" back then. But seriously, it does my mind and, to stop me digressing, I hearby refer to Algor as "Davros".

Why? Well, there is a similarity. This bloke is crippled and buzzes around his underground lair in a specialized wheelchair (so he would have probably ended up looking like Forbus in Traitor). He's also apparently a Mengele-type psycho experimentor who has slaughtered thousands of innocents to create his cyborg army, has a tendency to rant Hitler-style, likes making rather odd moral arguments, and considers himself basically the smartest living being in the cosmos. The only real difference between this guy and Davros is that Davros was cool, whereas this guy is just a complete asshole and really a kind of third-rate bond villain.

It seems that Davros was exiled to Epsilon... or maybe exiled himself, I dunno... some six years ago and is infamous for being a complete bastard. Indeed, it's vaguely hinted the only reason he's crippled is because of all the decadent extreme kinky shit he gets up to. After six years he's built about five or six cyborgs and also mastered the ultimate robot, the indestructible Gort-like "Gabor".

And for some reason Avon wants to kill this guy very badly. I say "some reason" because the reason given, "you're an EVIL genius!" doesn't wash at all. Indeed, Avon has crossed the galaxy to blow this guy's head off and was prepared to run the gauntlet of cyborgs (who, it must be said, don't do much bar explode at the slightest provocation) to do so rather than, say, teleport into the base and kill him. Going back to the cyborgs, they're pretty shit as Davros can only control them by shouting commands into the speaker system built into the beach on the surface. I dunno how this cripple managed it with his dozen androids, as the planet seems deserted and he doesn't have any kind of handy neutron bomb to scare off, say, a pursuit ship nuking the tiny planet from orbit. Maybe I'm going too deep.

Davros is incredibly pissed off that Avon's nuked all his pathetic cyborgs, but cannot wrap his amazing brain around the idea that Avon actually wants to kill Davros himself and gives a very long speech about how Avon is freaking luddite who would doom the entire universe to ignorance and superstition. Typically, Avon is about as impressed with this self-justifying wank as you or I. So Davros has Avon taken to a cell and then brutally beaten up again and again by a cyborg guard.

But what's this? Servalan's on the planet (there's no Sleer business here) and she is here to buy Gabor and a hundred more like him to help her rebuild the Federation. She has some kind of past with Davros, and he certainly thinks of her as a scheming slut - when she admits she knows Avon, he snaps that she "knows" lots of men and he's not impressed. In return for a pension plan and immunity from prosecution, Davros will hand over the goods but, being a sensible sort of chap, wires up Gabor with a neutron bomb so if Davros dies, his android will explode and destroy the Earth. Servalan waits to watch Gabor Greco-Roman wrestle a cyborg, decides she likes it and agrees to everything.

Meantime, Vila is arguing with the others about returning for Avon. None of them are particularly eager to risk their necks, with Tarrant bitching repeatedly that Avon wouldn't do the same to any of them. Dayna suggests they wait until evidence Avon is actually alive to be rescued but Vila refuses to compromise. With the aide of a shotgun he convinces the others to help him return to Epsilon. Tarrant, asshole as ever, immediately folds like a house of cards and spends the whole journey bitching that Vila's a pathetic tool. I really get the feeling this plot thread was written to balance out Avon's ruthlessness in the season, and show that the others are no better than he when it comes to back-stabbing. However, it's good that Vila's complaint is not that they abandoned Avon, but that they wouldn't go back to rescue him - like so often on TV, Avon makes it clear that its his longterm goal to keep his crew alive. Running out on them on Mekron or leaving Vila and Tarrant quarantined is acceptable, but not rescuing them from clear and certain death is just wrong. In any case, it's ridiculous to think that Vila would really be able to order Soolin, Tarrant and Dayna at gunpoint and NOT, say, instantly get overpowered. As Soolin notes, Vila's got the moral highground and they shouldn't need to be blackmailed in the first place.

Leaving Dayna to mind Scorpio, the others teleport down to the beach and start following Avon's tracks. Meanwhile, Servalan has a last visit to Avon in the cell where they discuss his imminent demise. It's very different from the flirting witty exchanges they usually have - no jokes, no come ons. Servalan bluntly says that Avon is fucked, Avon agrees, and Servalan announces that, quite frankly, she thinks he's gone absolutely bloody insane. And when Servalan is questioning your mental health, it's time to seek psychiatric help. Mind you, this random vendetta against Davros doesn't exactly prove Servalan wrong either. Admitting that, once, they might have been somewhere, Servalan strides off to leave Avon to get gutted like a pig with a sharp knife.

It's a very powerful moment. No gloating. No death traps. Servalan's disappointment and lack of interest in defeating Avon screams volumes and really made me worried for old KA's fate as I honestly couldn't see how he was going to get out of this one without the Bitch in White, say, buying him as a sex slave.

Oh, wait, of course. He simply attacks the knife-wielding cyborg and, despite being at death's door, manages to break its neck with his bare hands, then uses one of his funky silver studs to pick the lock (which somehow slides back bolts on the other side of the door the exact same way the sonic screwdriver can't), then limbs off to... actually, I'm not sure. The next scene he's on the surface.

Watching this on Davros' widescreen TV, Servalan sighs and notes "You're fucked then, aren't you?" (well, words to that effect). Davros almost shits himself in terror at this change of fortunes and must ACTIVATE GABOR!!! For some reason, Gabor seems to spend his entire life on top of rocky promontories like the Electronic Monk in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, but soon he's lumbering off to join the fracas.

The seemingly-on-the-verge-of-death Avon is busy being hunted down by the last two remaining cyborgs (you know, for someone who loves these things so much, Davros really doesn't mind wreckling the things for a laugh, no wonder his army's so small...) when Tarrant and Soolin save his sorry ass, with Soolin forgoing her sharp-shooting skills to use a random plank to smash the cyborg down a hill. However, all it takes a fresh pump-action-shotgun and Avon is revitalized enough to run back into the base to kill Davros, telling the others to stay behind and distract the unstoppable death machine chasing them. For some reason, all three agree rather than knocking Avon out and teleporting to safety.

As Avon runs back for revenge, Servalan decides the best thing to do is run like fuck and leave Davros to face the Dudley Simpson theme music. Davros takes it on the chin by having a quick bath and attaching Uzi sub machine guns to his wheelchair, like Ian McKellan in the Dead Ringers skits where he tries to kill the bazookoid-weiling Alan Rickman... alas, Davros is seemingly the worst evil genius since the similarly-wheelchair-bound Alistair Miles. In fact, Milesy could probably kick Davros' ass. Not content with wiring up a beach full of speakers, wiping out his entire cyborg army, and attaching neutron bombs to random objects, and then flirting with Servalan even though he knows her, it turns out he's rubbish at care and maintenance of Uzi submachine guns. When Avon comes in, all Davros manages to blow up his widescreen TV before the guns jam and he's totally screwed.

Avon, despite being fueled by the Power of Fist, has lost the use of a hand in all the excitement and thus is unable to properly use a pump-action-shotgun. He is, however, capable of doing an Olympic gymnastic routine to leap across a swimming pool, spinning Davros in his wheelchair like John Simms singing with the Scissor Sisters, throwing the evil genius into the pool, diving into the pool afterwards, drowning the cripple and snapping his neck simultaneously. But not using a shotgun or a knife. That would require TWO hands.

Well, now we've seen the hero commit cold-blooded murder for the feeblest of excuses on a cripple (Kaston Iago, Where Are You?) lets cut to his sidekicks as they run away from the Tinman, with Tarrant proving typically useless as he continually falls into pits, twists his ankle and demands breathers. Just when Soolin and Vila are wondering if Tarrant's a bigger danger than Gabor, our curly-haired twat comes up with the answer: they teleport their sorry asses out of danger! Bugger me sideways, never thought of that before!

But it seems that Tarrant, in a credible bit of idiocy, doesn't want to admit defeat and gets Dayna to teleport all three back to Epsilon at different locations, back and forth until Gabor gets dizzy, then throws away his laser gun. Why? I have no idea. Nor do I know why Tarrant and the others abandon this strategy in favor for more running for their lives.

Aboard the Scorpio, the lights are starting to go out as Slave and Dayna have a heated discussion about calling her "Mistress" and the flight computer starts making increasing unsubtle (and funny) hints that he would really like to get the hell out of here before the engines shut down.

On the surface, the very wet Avon climbs out of the bath when he has an epiphany. Yes, he didn't even do it in the pool like any normal person! Avon uses the handy quadraphonic sound system Davros installed to contact Tarrant (yes, no one bothered to give him back his bracelet) and tell him the secret of defeating Gabor:


Yes, it turns out that Davros wasn't so much an evil genius as the mental equivalent of Peri Brown in The Kingmaker. This non-functional retard actually built the ultimate robot complete with laser-reflection, inbuilt neutron bombs and go faster stripes but didn't water-proof the bastard. Tarrant and the others, as you can imagine, can't believe ANYONE would be so fucking stupid, but Avon switches off the mike and goes to have a little nap, leaving the others to sort it out. Now, rather than, say, teleport back to Scorpio and leave this easily-confused, non-water-proof android to pose on rocky promontries for the rest of eternity, Tarrant and pals decide to swim out to sea.

Even though Gabor isn't water-proof and, more importantly, knows it's not water-proof, it appears that Davros is so damn stupid he didn't even program Zza Zza here with Asimov's basics. Gabor decides that killing three puny meatbags of greater import than its own survival, and after hovering on another damn rocky promontry for five minutes, dives into the water and tries to swim after them. But...

...brace yourself...

...Gabor can't float!

He sinks like a stone!

And then the earth-destroying neutron bomb (which, we should remember, was supposed to go off the moment Davros died) detonates...

...producing a spout of water as impressive, or more likely less impressive, than the one in Battlefield when Ace blows up a living spaceship and hugs the Brigadier. Both done without any kind of embarrassment. Dear God I hate that story, I really do.

Anyway, the wet and bedraggled Tarrant, Soolin and Vila wade ashore to meet the equally wet and bedraggled Avon (who has once more forgotten he was dying from internal injuries and blood loss earlier in the episode) and awkwardly do the catchup. Just then, they hear Servalan's voice over the loudspeakers - by some "freak of electronics", her desperate "get me the hell off this planet" calls to her spaceship, are being heard across the planet. Maybe Davros demanded Servalan land on Epsilon alone to do the deal, but one has to wonder how he was able to enforce this as he seems to have no weapons, and even his neutron bombs do less damage than one of Eddie Hitler's exploding carrots.

Avon wants to rip the bitch's lungs out but Vila suggests they don't for all sorts of reasons - they're all exhausted and on the point of collapse; they don't want to annoy Servalan's flotilla; Scorpio's almost out of juice so they have to leave right away; Servalan's got to be in the rest of the series...

They prepare to leave and Soolin bluntly explains that if Vila hadn't done something, they would all have left Avon to die horribly and our cripple-strangling death machine owes Vila something chronic. Alas, before Avon can say absolutely anything at this revelation, Dayna announces she is completely fucking sick of this and teleports them up to the ship. Alas, the cunning random teleporting earlier has stuffed up the mechanism, so they disappear one by one until Vila keeps getting relocated around the beach for five minutes before finally the episode ends.



It's full of holes and way too similar to say, Headhunter and Orbit, to be truly distinctive. The action sequences are utterly ridiculous, with exploding androids and Avon somehow forgetting his mortal wounds to become Bruce Lee on a guy who can't actually walk. In what seems to be a plot emphasizing that Avon isn't alone in being an asshole, he acts worse than in any episode I've seen. Is he supposed to be a foaming-at-the-mouth psycho? Yet why is his whole vendetta based on Algor not being a very nice person? Davros' bitching about Avon's ludditism rings strong - it would be far more credible and cynical if the Scorpio crew came to Epsilon to buy Gabor for the rebellion rather than murder the bloke who built him. The androids themselves are seemingly more pathetic than any human troops, and it boggles the mind that Davros thought that his planet-destroying neutron bombs weren't a better draw than his cut-price mutoids. Mmm. Actually, if he was the guy who created the Mutoids, it would make it a lot easier to buy someone was after his blood - like, say, Soolin? She'd be a hell of a lot better than Avon (who is, let us remember, not actually a soldier or combat trained) at this business, and not make stupid mistakes...

Ah well, I could spend the rest of the blog listing improvements to a first draft, but I'll be honest and say I see Man of Iron as easier to fix for the series than Animals, despite my nostalgic affection for it. Dayna certainly gets a more wholesome role in this episode...

DAYNA: How much fuel have we Slave?

SLAVE: I regret to say - very little, Mistress.

DAYNA: I'd rather you didn't call me that.

SLAVE: I'm very sorry, but I don't understand.

DAYNA: Never mind.

SLAVE: I hate to be a nuisance, but it is as well you are appraised of Scorpio's heavy fuel consumption.

DAYNA: All right, Slave, you've told me.

SLAVE: I really do hate to be a nuisance, but...

DAYNA: Then don't be!

SLAVE: A very few minutes and we shall not have sufficient fuel to return to base. You notice that I refrain from calling you Mistress? I'm getting very worried about the fuel situation.

DAYNA: You're getting worried?

SLAVE: I just said that!

DAYNA: (into communicator) Tarrant - Tarrant, where the hell are you?

SLAVE: Language! (beat) I'll say just one word - fuel!


Jared "No Nickname" Hansen said...

You notice that I refrain from calling you Mistress?

Love it. Love that, at least.

The story... sounds quite bizarre. But then you already knew that.

Don't know if I mentioned it, but I thought about re-writing Animals and I thought if it were all about Mutoids rather than the weird doormat-men it could have been quite an interesting script... combine it with some of the elements of this and you'd have something..

Youth of Australia said...

Love it. Love that, at least.
I thought you might.

The story... sounds quite bizarre. But then you already knew that.
Yes, I think "bizarre" covers the multitude of sins that was the plot.

Don't know if I mentioned it, but I thought about re-writing Animals and I thought if it were all about Mutoids rather than the weird doormat-men it could have been quite an interesting script... combine it with some of the elements of this and you'd have something..
Sounds like a good idea...

Jared "No Nickname" Hansen said...

The thing that really gets me is that Darrow seems, by all accounts, to be ultimate responsible for about 50% of Avon's finished on-screen personality and, therefore, the character itself. So... how could he write a script where Avon is COMPLETELY out of character? It gives it a real surreal quality...

Youth of Australia said...

The thing that really gets me is that Darrow seems, by all accounts, to be ultimate responsible for about 50% of Avon's finished on-screen personality and, therefore, the character itself.
According to Terry Nation and Chris Boucher. And they'd know.

So... how could he write a script where Avon is COMPLETELY out of character? It gives it a real surreal quality...
Well, I can't answer directly. I don't actually know much about this, but I DO know that Darrow was determined not to write an episode that gave himself all the best material and made everyone else useless groupies. It's quite possible that, Rob Shearman style, he got to the end of the episode and decided "fuck it, I'll drown the bastard" for the sheer fun of just typing it out.

In terms of dialogue and action, Avon's pretty much as he should be - he undercuts Algor's ranting with his usual deadpan wit, is quite clearly disturbed at the idea he might give a crap about the others or visa versa, and although he goes almost Steve Foxx style psychotic on his enemies is shown to not actually ENJOY any of the violence he doles out.

The only real out of character stuff is his vendetta against Algor for such a shaky reason - apparently this guy makes Caligula look like a boy scout, but we only ever hear about it in one scene.

If there was a real reason that Algor had to die - I dunno, he was going to destroy the universe or something - I might be able to buy the lengths Avon goes to. So it's not that Avon's behaving strangely, we're just not told why he's behaving like Algor is the Apocalypse Chaser making out with the corpse of Cally and Anna Grant.

Maybe all would have been fixed in a second draft?