Wednesday, November 12, 2008

REVIEW: Afterlife - Tony Attwood

Blake's 7 - Afterlife: Tony Attwood

A purchase on Amazon Marketplace. I'd heard nothing but wonderful things being said about this book, well, wonderfully derisive - well, derisive. In fact, I've not really read a singular wonderful thing about Blake's 7 - Afterlife
, so when I saw it for around four earth pounds, I decided to give it a go.

Is it bad? Not as bad as people attest. Is it flawed? You betcha, but the flaws are forgivable.

I think anyone interested in being blusteringly negative about Blake's 7 - Afterlife
needs to read Attwood's remarks before hand. He explains the background to the book and the problems it suffered.

A quick recap: Afterlife is the written, official follow-up to Blake's 7, a British sci-fi series that ran for four years between 1977 and 1981. It was a weird fusion of Robin Hood, The Dirty Dozen, 1984 and Christmas Pantomine. The finale episode was in fact broadcast before Christmas and had the entire band of freedom fighters/terrorists (take your pick) exterminated.

Afterlife was written by Attwood (who had written the Blake's 7 Programme Guide) based on a suggestion by creator Terry Nation's agent. The story was written on an agreed set of provisos that Attwood and Nation could agree upon:

  • The episodes should be such that if only one or two were required in the making of the series, that would still work in terms of TV.

  • The book would not resolve everything, thus leaving the door open to yet more TV, or if that was not forthcoming, a second novel.

  • The project must use the name Blake's 7, and there must be a clear justification for the name Blake's 7 somewhere within the novel.

  • The story would centre on Avon and Vila ("one man and his dog" as Paul Darrow said) but would have pop-in appearances by other characters, so that if there was a TV series and they were used in that, the book would not be too contradictory in relation to the series. The appearance of the characters would also serve to remind occasional viewers about the story thus far.

  • There had to be a super wonderful amazing spaceship somewhere in the story.

  • Since we were focussing on Avon and Vila we needed to incorporate a bit more background on at least one of them - and if we went into two novels, on both of them.
All of which will mean nothing if you've not seen Blake's 7 - so why are you reading this entry?

Anyhow, through issues, politics and the ilk, the book was published, but the notion of a series of books never came to fruition, meaning that the open ending that was agreed left the book - and Blake's 7 ultimately unfinished.

However the biggest problem with Afterlife isn't the ending - fairly unsatisfying as it is (given there was no follow-up as planned). Nor is it the "death" of one of the major heroes (which in the context of one book seems superfluous, but I suspect it would have proved a more revelant event if book two had gone ahead). The biggest problem is that it doesn't entirely feel Blake's 7.

There is a similar problem in one of the other spin-off stories that came after the series - two audio plays by Doctor Who writer/producer Barry Letts that were released by the BBC a few years back suffered just like Afterlife. Like these plays, Afterlife doesn't feel like Blake's 7, rather like Doctor Who. In Afterlife, we have dimension jumps and weird planets that feel like Doctor Who. What's more, these inclusions don't even feel that relevant to the real essense of the book. One feels if they had not been included and the plot had been sewn together in a different way, the book would have been better, even good.

Yes, Afterlife could have been really good. There are some nice ideas in there. I like the idea Avon would look at destroying the Federation by causing economic devastation. I even buy the idea that Servalan would cause a civil war to return to power. Even the idea of MIND isn't too bad. But there are two many awkward elements in there to allow these strong ideas to really bear fruit.

Okay, let's take negative alley in one go.

First off, I don't buy the notion that Avon despised Blake as he does in Afterlife - I think Blake and Avon's relationship was decidedly love/hate. I think even during Star One, the point where Attwood suggests Avon saw Blake as nothing but a terrorist, there was still respect there, there was still some form of kinship - look at the last scene between Avon and Blake for that chemistry. Furthermore, Terminal is far more than Avon turning to Blake for his mysterious greedy prize - again the finale scenes show there is a far greater connection even if it is an abrasive one. Avon followed Blake to the end, in series 4 his crusade mimiced Blake's and head writer Boucher has always said he saw Avon going the way of Blake if he had surived the final shoot-out. This may seem like a petty gripe, but given the drama of Avon's murder of Blake in the final episode very much hinges on the importance of Blake to Avon, to rewrite Avon so coldly takes from the finale.

Secondly, Orac and his bizarre brother. Yes the computer had a younger sibling so to speak, which appeared to play no role in the story. Now again, maybe this would have changed in the follow up, but that never happened, so its hard to say.

Third, Avon doesn't sound like Avon. Quite often the writing just isn't sharp enough. To be fair, Avon is hard to write for, and I think under such tough deadlines as Attwood had, one can forgive him, but given he's the lead, it does spoil the enjoyment somewhat.

Forth, as mentioned too many of the scenarios and new characters feel uncharacteristic for Blake's 7. But I've been through that, so let's not go there again.

Fifth, the ending does feel a disappointment. Far too open ended reterospectively. At least Blake closed the book.

Sixth - some terrible typos in there. Where was the editor?

and of course, seventh... MIND is introduced in a manner that implies it was something the reader should know about. Sure, it's explained in the last few pages, but 150 pages of wondering if you've missed something is a little too much.

Given I've just attacked it so, well, derisively maybe, I should throw a counter up.

First, Vila is well written. Okay, he's a little too dumb at times - given the show often implied that he was often smart enough to play dumb, but the book does suggest his dumb routine has become a second nature, so that's a good enough justification for me. And apart from that, he's written perfectly.

Secondly, Tarrant - who has a cameo - is also brilliantly written.

Third, I actually quite like the idea of MIND's involvement in clearing Gauda Prime even if I don't like the idea of it interfering with the final scene of Blake specifically. It's novel, it works. Personally I've always felt it could be more simple - that we hear several gunshots to kill one man at point blank. You could argue some unseen attackers entered the fray - given the idea that the troops were all excessive shooting a single dead body seems a little too much for an unknown man (there was no indication they knew who Avon was) who hadn't even wounded one of their own.

Forth, I thought Servalan worked and I did like the idea of her civil war. I also agree with Attwood that she had long outserved her purpose. Though quite why he set up another character almost utterly identical was beyond me..

Five, the use of Terminal worked for me too - I wasn't expecting it and some of the postulations to the "planet" it offered made more sense that Servalan's cheesy revelation in the episode of the same name.

Six, Korell was a good character, a little like Soolin, or perhaps more like Soolin than Soolin was portrayed.

Seven, it was an easy unpretentious read and ultimately Blake's 7.

So there you go. Spoilers over. Not a terrible book, but it didn't quite hit the nail for me and I appreciate that many of the excuses Mr Attwood has offered have validity. In any regards, whose to really attack a man who loves Blake's 7 equally? Who has certainly done his researach. His view is as valid.

If Afterlife doesn't totally appeal (and as Mr Attwood has said, he'd love to rewrite it as he's not happy with it as a novel or a dead-end of his projected series), then I recommend Logic of the Empire, a fan made audio play that is not, unfortunately, out of publication but has been novelised online. This play starred the original actors and is very, very good. You can read it here.

So don't be too hard on Mr Attwood. Given the pressures, politics and strife of a tie-in media, the deadlines and the failure to get the sequel out to complete the story, it's a fun Blake's 7 book. And of course, as people forget, it was written with the creator's blessing (Mr Nation) and released through the BBC, so like it or not, technically, it is canon. That of course doesn't mean you should love it (I hate the episode Animals, and it's very much canon), but I think Afterlife is often kicked aside as people an unofficial pointless waste of time. Well, regardless of whether it is a waste of time, it is official. Deal with it fans.

Like the dodgy audio plays by Barry Letts, The Sevenfold Crown and the Syndeton Experiment, Blake's 7 - Afterlife
is imperfect, but it's still Blake's 7. That alone makes it worthwhile inclusion on my bookshelf!