The LEXX pick up Norb, the child who escaped the hillbilly clans in episode 2.8, drifting in space, and before you can say “it’s been a while since they touched base with the Mantrid storyline,” he turns out to be an undead Trojan horse for Mantrid’s self-replicating autonomous zombie arms.
This story has some great moments of genuine horror, with the sense of strangeness reinforced by the fact that, 790’s usual protestations of love for Xev aside, this is a completely sex-free episode. On the downside, they again have more episode than plot, and while the effects are again on the upward curve there’s some rather obvious repetition of footage.
The LEXX discovers an all-male monastic society who reproduce by cloning and have never seen a woman in real life, and before you can say “party’s at Xev’s place!” it is. A generally cheerful, life-affirming, sex-positive and even queer-positive story (Stan initially rebuffs the advances of one of the monks, but eventually decides, Chuck Tingle fashion, that love is love), with an interesting philosophical twist (the monks are the guardians of all the knowledge in the universe, but only one of them’s allowed to actually know what it is– and he’s the one who disapproves of all this sexual hedonism). I also liked the implication that Stan is getting over the trauma of his previous same-sex encounters and is at least theoretically capable of forming a positive relationship with a man. The CGI backgrounds are outstanding, but Kai seems to be bizarrely in angry mode, and also strangely insistent that only heterosexual sex can lead to reproduction, which is surprising since at least three of the people he shares a ship with weren’t created through it.
The crew find a camper-van full of teenagers in suspended animation. There’s a jock, a fat guy, a bully, a party girl and a virgin, and before you can say “wow, all that setup needs to become an American-style slasher-horror movie is a serial killer,” Kai’s woken up and is butchering his way through them in the classic approved horror movie order. It’s really a lot of fun, particularly after watching “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” last week, to see the tropes in reverse, with the story being from the point of view of the murderer/s rather than the victims.
Finally, this episode we get to see what toilets are like on the LEXX, which really doesn’t disappoint.
The LEXX is hijacked by a family of cannibal inbred hillbillies, and before you can say “Garth Ennis called and would like them back please”, Stan, Xev and 790 have figured out that not only is this not an impediment to their quest to get laid (at one point Stan states that their goal is to “find a home” but we all know better), it’s actually an asset, at least until the father/brother/husband finds out Stan’s banging his daughter/sister/wife, and Xev finds herself caught in a genocidal war between hillbilly clans. Light on plot but heavy on fun double-entendres, and it’s nice to see Lyekka back in the story.
The crew of the LEXX go down to a pleasure station and before you can say “isn’t this the third time they’ve done this plot?” it turns out to be a honey-trap, and Stan finds himself standing trial for war crimes, of which he is in fact guilty (not a spoiler if you’ve seen S1).
There’s some clunky bits– it takes Xev 50 minutes of screen time to realise that if Stan is executed, they can’t fly the LEXX, and although the Chief Prosecutor gets all the lines, her delivery’s so wooden you could miss them easily– but the final third is a rather deep meditation on justice versus compassion that’s impressively nuanced and ambivalent. Despite the presence of killer mealworms.
The ship encounters a TV satellite station where hapless travellers must compete for ratings in programmes with android presenters where losers meet a gruesome fate-worse-than-death, and before you can say “did Russell T. Davies watch this series by any chance?” Kai is having to climb out of cold storage and rescue Xev, Stan and 790 from their own libidos yet again.
Kai gets all the lines, for a change, and the Xev storyline does a good job of subverting the usual sexploitation tropes (as she first dominates a harem of handsome male androids and then forces the audience to recognise her humanity in a way they clearly don’t like). Nonetheless, the series still feels like it’s floundering, with the premise for going down to the station handwaved rather than emerging from the characters and situation, and the resulting action predictable.
The plot, for those of you not wanting to sit through two hours of mid-Eighties American cell animation, is as follows: Doctor Mindbender, a high-ranking and somewhat kinky member of terrorist organisation Cobra, has concerns about the leadership of the organisation by its current shrieky CIC, Cobra Commander. After a trippy dream involving a DNA helix, he decides the best thing for it is to manufacture a Cobra Emperor out of the DNA of various famous past leaders, gets Cobra senior management on side, and spends the next three episodes raiding a bunch of tombs, finally succeeding in producing an individual called Serpentor, of whom more later. GI Joe, allegedly the heroes of the story, singularly fail to prevent any of this happening (even though the Cobra operatives all repeat over and over in very loud voices that they’re after the DNA of historical figures, it takes the Joes several episodes to finally catch on). Owing to an intervention by Joe alpha male Sergeant Slaughter, however, Sun Tzu’s DNA remains uncollected; Doctor Mindbender manages after great effort to obtain Sergeant Slaughter’s instead, but is thwarted in including this in the mix as well. The implication is meant to be that the throughly insane and irrational being which results would have been less so had things gone according to plan, but, given that Sergeant Slaughter is hardly the most stable electron in the atom, one doubts the logic.
It’s hard to know where to start with all this, but perhaps it’s best to begin with the observation that Doctor Mindbender is clearly an advocate of the behaviourist school of leadership: namely, that good leaders have certain traits, which can be acquired, and that acquiring these produces a good leader. Mindbender himself says early on that he intends his creation to have “the military genius of Napoleon; the ferocity of Genghis Khan; the leadership of Alexander; the evil of Ivan The Terrible.” Sun Tzu is of course included because it’s 1986 and every Yuppie worth their brick-sized cell phone is reading The Art of War and convinced, using the same fallacy as Doctor Mindbender, that it’ll make them a better manager. The rest of Mindbender’s wish list includes Montezuma, Julius Caesar, Hannibal and Geronimo, as well as somewhat more dubious examples of leadership as Vlad Tepes, Rasputin, Erik the Red (I don’t know, maybe Doctor Mindbender thinks his creation should have a good sense of direction?) and Xanoth Toth-Amon (allegedly an Egyptian general, but actually a character in Conan The Cimmerian, probably the result of letting a group of English graduates loose on a cartoon series with few instructions other than “mention the new battle tank toy, don’t suggest Vietnam was a bad idea, and try not to include any naughty words”).
However, let’s consider Cobra Commander’s leadership style. While he’s got issues with interpersonal relations, has problems inspiring loyalty among middle management, and really ought to be delegating his military leadership function, he has all the hallmarks of a perfectly good transactional leader. He motivates Scrapiron, Sergeant Slaughter and even Serpentor to do things for him over the course of the story (bargaining with them to do so– a classic transactional-leadership move). He has been doing a pretty good job of getting Cobra outfitted with cool planes, mini-tanks and battle androids thus far, and the only reason Cobra loses the battle at the start of the story is because Sergeant Slaughter appears to be a human mutant capable of smashing said androids with his bare hands, which Cobra Commander could hardly have anticipated. And at the end of the story, the main reason the Cobras lose their battle is that they run out of fuel and ammunition, such logistical considerations apparently being beyond Serpentor.
This rather suggests that what Doctor Mindbender is actually after is charismatic leadership, since this is the main trait that Cobra Commander lacks. It might also make sense of the more unexpected names on his wish-list, such as Rasputin (arguably not much of a leader, but famously popular with the Moscow chicks), and also why he thinks Sergeant Slaughter might make a good candidate for inclusion, since he’s the most charismatic member of GI Joe’s leadership team. And it has to be said, Serpentor certainly is charismatic, inasmuch as the Cobra members all seem irrationally inclined to follow him. The problem is that, as noted elsewhere on this blog, charismatic leaders can also be toxic, or, as in this case, mad as a bag of frogs.
Finally, it’s worth noting that leadership among Cobra’s opponents, GI Joe, is basically nonexistent. There are four official leaders: Hawk, in overall charge, Duke and Flint, who seem to run most of the on-ground activities, and Sergeant Slaughter, who one would expect would be Senior NCO but actually seems to be a bit of an anarchist. The former three characters don’t actually seem to do any leading, bar basic troop deployment. Sergeant Slaughter provides some leadership in that, as noted, the Joes find him charismatic, and he does force them onto a training programme at the start of the story which, we are told, puts everyone back on their game (somewhat belied by the fact that Cobra then score four easy victories in succession, but never mind).
However, for most of the story the Joes, Slaughter included, seem to operate very much on an individual or small-team basis, with no real need for leadership, making ad-hoc decisions and with leadership roles being similarly rough-and-ready. Nobody seems to have much respect for rank either. The same, incidentally, seems to hold true for their Russian counterparts, the October Guard, who make a cameo in Episode Three; I’m reasonably sure the tall dark and handsome one’s officially in charge, but since he barely does any actual leading, it’s hard to tell.
The secret of GI Joe is out: they may look like they’re a propaganda vector for the US military, but in fact they’re a small-scale anarchist-terrorist collective.
Welcome back to The Colour Out of Space Opera, a serial essay on colour symbolism, structuralism, and their uses in space opera television series (links to parts one, two, three and four for those of you just joining us).
This instalment: Blake’s 7. Like original Star Wars, and both series of Battlestar Galactica, there’s a clear nature/culture divide. Because it’s 1978, we get organic, warm nature on the side of our protagonists (they’re not exactly heroic), with their partly-living ship and green-clad leader:
And cool, technological culture is on the side of our antagonists, with a minimalist aesthetic straight out of Gary Numan’s stage performances:
In Season Four, our heroes take on a more technical/cultural aesthetic (more on why next episode) but it’s worth noting that they still keep touches of nature symbolism, for instance the lush houseplants around Xenon Base:
What Blake’s 7 also does, though, is something else you see colour doing in space operas. Take a look at this picture from Forbidden Planet, and see if you can tell, based on it, anything at all about the characters’ individual jobs:
Apart from the man at third from left, who’s clearly the cook (and also, just as clearly, going to be the comedy figure), nothing. You can’t tell at a glance who’s the doctor, who’s the captain, who’s the engineer, whatever. Which is problematic enough in Forbidden Planet, where your audience only has to keep everyone straight for ninety minutes, but it’s likely to be absolute murder for a television space opera, where casual and intermittent viewers will be tuning in all the time, and to keep them from tuning out again just as quickly, you need an easy way of differentiating characters and jobs. But you also can’t make it obvious and laboured, or you’ll alienate your regular viewers. Hence:
With the addition of a simple colour palette, it’s plain just from looking at the picture that we’ve got three groups of people, differentiated somehow, but probably by function. After a few minutes of watching, viewers should be able to have a rough idea of what the classifications are (blue is science/medicine; yellow for command and navigation; red for engineering and getting shot at by aliens). Regular viewers, though, aren’t being constantly whacked over the head with the distinctions. Much better.
Blake’s 7 used this sort of device to differentiate its human characters according to the functions and emotions we associate with different colours. Take a look at Season One’s space-anorak getups: dark green for our Space Robin Hood, Blake; paler green for telepathic nature-girl Cally; brown for earthy strongman Gan; pink for femme-fatale Jenna; blue for computer-expert sociopath Avon (not pictured: Vila, the comedy thief, in orange):
Later, when June Hudson takes over, she eschews the colour-palette symbolism, but does much the same sort of thing using clothing styles. Spot the Robin Hood, the femme fatale, the strongman, the telepath, the comedy thief, and the sociopath:
Finally, in the Season Three surrealist tour-de-force Sarcophagus, the characters’ alignment with their archetypes (musician, magician, priestess, warrior and death-bringer) is again symbolised through their colours:
Blake’s 7 does something else with colour and costume, though, which we’ll look more closely at next episode.
As well as presenting a paper at Worldcon last month, I also got to present one at the Royal Geographic Society’s annual conference, on Doctor Who’s serial “The Mutants” and its take on postcolonialism– a rare instance of a 1970s serial being post- rather than anti- colonial.
I’m back! Between attending Worldcon, attending the Royal Geographical Society conference and teaching in Singapore, I’ve been busy of late. As a start on updating you on my activities, I include a video of me presenting my paper “Comparing Colonialisms in The Terror“, contrasting the treatment of colonialism in Dan Simmons’ 2008 novel and AMC’s 2018 adaptation. You can read the draft paper on my Academia.edu site here.