Get Out And Push

Martin wonders if glossy production values are an irredeemable pre-requisite of good sci-fi shows...

Travis in Blake’s 7: A bizarre cookery accident, or a frightening villain?

I am depressed.

Much as I’ve lamented the plight of actresses stamped with premature sell-by dates, I am now beginning to realise just how serious the less-ancient (than me) are as regards tolerating the production values of yesteryear, and by now I am figuring that we might as well trash the BBC’s attempts to recover all the Doctor Who episodes that Auntie ignorantly wiped to make way for Match Of The Day et al. But let me explain.

During last Saturday’s chat with Peter Davison, the issue of the Murka came up; for those of you not familiar with the Davison 1984 Who story Warriors Of The Deep, the Murka is a shambolic, utterly and unintentionally hilarious attempt by BBC effects guru Matt Irvine to create a convincing full-scale ten-foot monster on a budget of about £14.

The result is a shambling pantomime horse affair with the green paint still drying on it during shooting, and possibly the least effective screen monster ever to be operated by two people who can’t see where they’re going (the Murka, incidentally, featured in the clip employed by Michael Grade to justify Doctor Who going into Room 101 on that show).

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Davison stated matter-of-factly that production values of that nature, whilst arguably adequate at the time, would never be accepted now, and I have to admit this made my heart sink, because – if true – it sounds the death knell for the freedom to experiment with television sci-fi away from the world of market-shares and the anodyne anti-ethics of international marketing.

If all TV sci-fi has to look like Lord Of The Rings, the stakes begin to get too high to take any kind of risk. I’ve said before that I believe the cost of producing Doctor Who – as a proportion of BBC income vastly increased from 1970s/80s levels – risks to genericise the program.

But the true outrage occurs when sci-fi shows are done on the cheap and the producers go for the main chance anyway. I have to admit that the three episodes I have seen so far of the Sci-Fi channel’s Flash Gordon re-boot fall into that category, and that this is a show aspiring to higher production values than it can muster, and a higher and more lucrative market-share than it deserves. Desperate to abandon the principles its low budget might permit in favour of capturing a broader audience, it has so far proved to be nothing but a gimp that Galactica is keeping in the cupboard.

And this is disappointing, particularly as I am re-watching the first and second series of Terry Nation’s Blake’s 7 at the moment, and finding a gritty and challenging science-fiction show that effectively turned Star Trek upside down: here the ‘federation’ is evil, the galaxy-trotters hunted, and – far from being perfect and well-adjusted – the heroes are bickering among themselves and even conspiring against each-other.

There’s a lot of wobbly aluminium in the sets and many of the secondary models are literally made out of washing-up bottles and discarded hairdryers; but just as slick effects failed to save the likes of Babylon 5, bad ones can’t degrade the quality of the writing and characters in early Blake’s 7.

I’m not saying that starving TV sci-fi of money is the way to get a classic series – the likes of Jupiter Moon, Star Maidens, Andromeda and many many more belie that romantic notion – just that good writing can survive low budgets, bad special effects, and even bad acting, because engagement in good narrative and believable characters are capable of suspending more disbelief than four months in a render-farm.

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Blake’s 7 itself, in a manner typical of the cynicism that pervaded the show’s characters, was quite capable of covering its arse by uncovering attractive actresses and dipping in and out of cliché, but inevitably homed back to the integrity and rock-solid character-studies (and conflicts) that it was founded on. But I know that if you are in your twenties, you may never bother with it because you have heard about the ‘cardboard sets’.

I am therefore depressed, and the reasons mount up:

– A friend of mine recently said that his children wouldn’t watch anything in black and white as it was ‘too old’ , and I realised instantly how the horror of ‘colorization’ [sic] came into the world.

– I read Dickens a lot, which fact prompted an acquaintance in her twenties to say, ‘but that’s old stuff’.

– Steve Jobs has damned Amazon’s Kindle eBook reader device, not because it’s bad technology, but because he says, in a non-judgemental way, that people don’t read books anymore, citing figures to the effect that 40% of the US population read less than one book last year. Some of the most heart-stopping and profound narrative experiences of my life have been cast, directed and lit by me, on trains and buses and planes, as the image-less words of novels have woven amazing spells upon my imagination. And, conversely, I have fallen asleep in cinemas in front of the biggest guns ILM have to offer because…I just didn’t care.

– Engrossing as was the main documentary extra on the BBC’s recent Beneath The Surface Doctor Who release (where the infamous Murka is to be found), I was alarmed to find that its entire purpose seemed to be to persuade younger Who viewers that old Doctor Who episodes are not shit just because they are slower-paced and less pristine in their production values than those of the Tennant-era.

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Did a case have to be so earnestly presented? Is the BBC speaking to a generation that got its first fables from Fox Kids rather than a book of bedtime stories? A generation with so little imagination and energy that it will not fill in any gaps in the production budget? That has no dreams to add to the mix?

Get out and push, you lazy bastards. Otherwise we are destined for nothing but the easy gloss, slick vacuity and homogeneity of the mainstream.

Martin writes his (mostly) sci-fi column every Friday at Den Of Geek.