Why Blake’s 7 remains relevant today, 40 years after it was first broadcast on BBC1…

B7~titlesIn the world of Dr Who, there are fixed points in Space-Time where events have such deep effects on the timeline of the Universe that they must not be altered, for fear of damaging reality itself. In our real-world lives I believe there are similar events that become fixed anchors in our personal timelines; these are the events that shape our lives and help to define who we are. On 2nd January 1978 one of those moments happened for me.

On that day I was 10 years and 8 months old, and about to have an imagination-defining experience. Yep, you can do the maths, that makes me 51 years and 3 months old as I write this article, and that event is still shaping my imagination today!

I’m so glad that it happened and I nearly missed it! I’d told my parents that a new programme was going to be broadcast on BBC1 at 6:00PM and I REALLY wanted to see it. That evening we had all been out in my Dad’s van while my Mum finished some work and it was a rush to get home inside to see it.

We made it just in time to hear that glorious theme music, which you can enjoy here: https://youtu.be/pnautWFuEnQ

‘DAHHHH,  D DAH DAH, DAH DAH, DAHDLY DAH, DAHDLY DAH, DAHDLY DAH, DAHDLY DAH!’

… and to see the opening credits which were promising everything:

B7~DomedCity

  • The zoom out from a domed city on Earth,
  • The transition to a computer-generated, pixelated image of Blake screaming in pain, which then…
  • Morphs onto the lens of a black security camera, before we see…
  • A Federation Trooper in overalls and futuristic helmet who then fires his gun right at us!

All in the first 13 seconds!

B7~eliminate

The shot is clearly aimed at the pixelated Blake, whose face is now subtitled with one word: ELIMINATE, in computerised letters.

Blake’s face then melts into a planetary space scene before a very futuristic-looking spacecraft with a central hull and three pods on vanes bears down on us!

We then see that ship, the Liberator, moving directly away before it is replaced by the Federation logo overlain with the programme title: B7~LiberatorBlake’s 7”

WOW! What an introduction… it had it all!

Futuristic cities, spaceships, technology, computers and computer graphics, good guys, bad guys, surveillance, the threat of violence and implied resistance – what more could the ten years old me have wanted? It was PERFECT and I was hooked, even before a single line had been spoken.

B7~Trooper

 

To understand the appeal and excellence of Blake’s 7 I think you have to understand a few things about science fiction fans in general, and the state of UK society in the late 1970s to early 1980s in particular.

It has been my experience that people who don’t like sci-fi, the kind that Douglas Adams might have labelled as ‘strags’ (non-hitchhikers, see chapter 3 of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’), are often very critical of B7:

  • They say it had wobbly sets – they’re right, sometimes it did.
  • They say it had funny costumes and silly aliens – sometimes it did.
  • They say the special effects were very bad and unrealistic – sometimes they were.
  • They say you could see the spaceship models hanging from strings, and some of those models looked very childish – you often could, and sometimes they were right.

All of those criticisms miss the point of sci-fi, which is about Big Ideas… and Blake’s 7 had some Huge Ideas right from the very start.

Fans will forgive any amount of technical problems with the presentation of a story as long as that story is exceptional, and with B7 Terry Nation had created an exceptional storyline.

Today, what is perhaps an even more modern-realistic telling of the Blake’s 7 story can be found in the re-imagined audio stories ‘Rebel’, ‘Traitor’ and ‘Liberator’ penned by Ben Aaronovitch. These stories remain true to the central ideas and ideals of Terry Nation’s TV creation, and in some ways enhance them. For example, Travis’ character has more depth, while the discovery and acquisition of the Liberator seem more realistic.

So what was the UK like in 1979?

Computers were only just penetrating mainstream society. These machines had previously been exclusively technical constructs, used for such edifying purposes as helping to put a man on the moon, business data processing, weather prediction and aircraft and ship designing, to more questionable activities like cryptographic analysis (espionage, security) and nuclear weapons designs. Things were changing and this technology was soon to permeate right down to individual homes.

B7~Radio_Shack_Tandy_TRS-80_Model_I_System1977 had just seen Tandy release the TRS-80 Micro Computer System, a desktop microcomputer with a QWERTY keyboard, a 64-character per line monitor, the new Zilog Z80 processor, 4 KB of RAM and an implementation of the BASIC programming language. Costing the equivalent of about US$2500, it was a forerunner of what was coming. In the same year Apple demonstrated the Apple II, offering colour graphics and an audio cassette drive for storage. Computer technology was NEW, and it was exciting to think that we could be programming machines to do our bidding! Little did we appreciate the profound impact they would have on employment though… but that’s another story.

The ubiquity of computers in the Blake’s 7 universe, their computational power (Zen, Orac), their ability to process massive datasets (the children’s records in the Domed City in Episode 1, for example), their huge screens and voice control, was unprecedented in mainstream public experience, and as a schoolboy I found the idea of it very exciting.

B7~RML380ZBy the early 1980s I was learning to program using Z80-based, RML-380Z computers built by ‘Research Machines’ in Oxford. These machines are now rare to find in good working order and sell for around £500 – £1,000 depending on their condition. The ones in my school had 56k of RAM, 5¼” or 8″ floppy disk drives and high-resolution graphics boards. I learnt to program in Assembly Language, BASIC, COBOL, some Pascal and Fortran, and those skills have kept me in good stead (and steady employment) for the next 30+ years, so some good came from it all!

Technology also manifested in the form of CCTV cameras that appeared during the late 1970s. These looked a lot like the camera in the show’s opening titles; they were big, clunky, robotic looking things that really intruded into the public spaces where they were deployed. Suddenly there was a new terrible feeling of being watched and followed wherever you went.  These cameras were increasingly seen as an assault on individual’s liberal rights to privacy and personal freedom. Spin forward just a few years and we see the introduction of smaller devices, night-vision / infrared capable sensors and pan-tilting mounts. CCTV spread like a rash and today the UK is the most surveilled nation on Earth, with circa 6 million cameras in use (2016 estimate). B7~CameraThis is the surveillance culture that Terry Nation tapped into during the opening scenes of Episode 1 – who can forget those black cameras pivoting to watch the Dome City’s inhabitants as they moved around?

What Terry Nation could not have predicted was how deeply the internet embedded itself in society, enabling governments and global tech-giants to know who we are, what we are reading, what we are watching, who we are talking to, where we eat, where we travel, our health details, biometric details, our phone calls, text messages… it goes on and on and on. It still surprises me that a nation which traditionally put such a high value on Privacy and Personal Freedoms allowed this situation to develop, butB7~Travis I think it happened a bit like eating a salami, one slice at a time. Today’s reality is much worse than Terry Nation predicted with B7 and just an ideological step away from the Far Right state predicted by Orwell in ‘1984’ – Travis would love this modern world, finding and eliminating Blake would have been simple.

Our understanding of the Social-Political-Economic backdrop for Blake’s 7 is completed with the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party to power  after five years of Labour Party governance under Harold Wilson (’74 – ’76) and James Callaghan (’76 – ’79). Callaghan had a tiny majority in Parliament and faced rampant Trade Union strikes that came to a head in the ‘Winter of Discontent’ (Winter ’78-’79). B7~220px-James_CallaghanPublic employees were walking out leaving food and fuel undelivered, rubbish uncollected, and bodies unburied. What government can survive when it can’t feed its people or bury the dead? Callaghan’s didn’t, and on 3rd May 1979 he was ousted in the polls by Margaret Thatcher.

B7~220px-Margaret_ThatcherThatcher was a completely different kind of political animal. She exuded a confident, indomitable spirit and would not accept weakness anywhere, in herself, her cabinet or the wider Central/Local government. Dubbed “the Iron Lady” by the media, Thatcher broke the Trade Unions’ hold over the country and re-made the UK economy with a new approach that was dubbed ‘Thatcherism’. Out went Keynesianism, belief in the welfare state ‘looking after’ the population, deeply nationalised industry and close regulation of the British economy. In came a belief that through entrepreneurialism people could quiet ably look after themselves, that success came to those who worked for it, monetarism with a priority on controlling inflation over unemployment, social conservatism over liberalism. It was a time of great opportunity for those who could reach higher into the new technological age and look after themselves. It was also a time of great suffering for those who couldn’t, and their scars still run deep in UK society today. How much of the character of Servalan was influenced by Thatcher and Thatcherism, I wonder?

Not exactly an optimistic time, and perhaps that is part of the reason why Blake’s 7 resonated with so many viewers?

This Social-Political-Economic backdrop must have helped to shape the series’ characters:

Blake – a former dissident who was brainwashed into betraying his friends and then believing that his murdered-by-the-State family were still alive. When he eventually learns some of the truth he starts to fight back. Whatever happens he will be ‘everyman’ with a unique claim on the show’s moral high ground.

Avon – a convicted computer fraudster – an obvious choice.

Villa – a master thief, drinker, gambler, sometimes lazy coward. With those credentials he might be hard to empathise with, but Michael Keating portrayed him with a transparent working class honesty that was quite appealing. Perhaps Villa represents the fortunes of the working classes, similar to…

Gan – convicted of killing a Federation officer who had killed his girlfriend. He was big, strong, not highly educated but often the calm voice of common sense.

Jenna – a powerful, alpha-class female character. A top spaceship pilot and rather cynical smuggler. Perhaps she represents the social dialogue about self-reliance that would come with Thatcherism?

B7~CallyCally – a telepath from the planet Auron. She had been helping freedom fighters on the planet Saurian Major resist the Federation. When the Federation killed all the rebels by releasing “poison from the sky”, she decided to stay and fight, to “destroy until I am destroyed”. Cally is perhaps a purer expression of the resistance that we understand Blake was leading. Not a convicted criminal, she is initially almost fanatical about fighting the Federation before developing more into the ‘moral conscience’ of Blake’s team. In her earlier episodes she perhaps expresses the solid determination that many people wished they had to stand up against the changing world.

Cally reminds me a lot of my character ‘Lissa Blackwood’ in my thriller novel ‘Evil Eye’. Lissa Blackwood describes herself as a ‘fierce, woman warrior’. She also is a soldier with a solid moral core who will persist in the face of any challenge to get the job done and keep the UK safe. I hope I have portrayed her with as much integrity as Jan Chappell played Cally in the TV series.

It seems to me that the UK’s problems in 1978-1981, when the 4 seasons of Blake’s 7 were originally broadcast, are still present today. If anything the divide between social classes has widened and the privileged security of the elites has only increased. In the meantime the continued development of new technologies continues to leave large swathes of society unemployable, or living in fear of unemployment, while State monitoring of citizens only ever seems to expand and ‘the system’ remains as cold-hearted as in Thatcher’s days.

What in 1978 was perhaps a warning about the direction that a right-of-centre (Conservative) government could take the UK, seems more like reality each day. Maybe Blake’s 7 remains a useful prompt for future generations of imaginations, reminding us that the status quo is there to be questioned, challenged, and sometimes resisted.

Fair Use Notice: The pictures used in this article have been taken from a number of internet sources and are included as ‘fair use’ of the images for the purposes of criticism, comment, teaching. No copyright is claimed and this content is shared for study, research and educational purposes. The images and other content on this page are offered publically and without profit, to the public users of the internet for comment and non-profit educational and informational purposes. Blake’s 7 is copyright BBC television.

The first draft of “Evil Eye – A Lissa Blackwood Thriller” has been completed!

soldiers~cropped2I’m really excited to announce that the first draft of “Evil Eye – A Lissa Blackwood Thriller”, the opening book in my new series of post-Brexit Conspiracy Thrillers, has been completed.

Research for this book began towards the end of 2016, planning lasted until about May 2017, and this draft was completed today!

I’m loving writing in this genre and enjoying the adventures that these wonderful characters are having.

Book 2 should be completed more quickly as much of the initial preparation for the series is already in place. In the meantime I’m looking for beta readers for ‘Evil Eye’ and starting to think about seeking an agent to help me sell the books… exciting times!
image: “#EB Photo January challenge” by Lee Roberts – Creative Commons – http://flickr.com

James Phelan – “The Spy” and “Dark Heart”…

This is my second review of James Phelan’s “Jed Walker” stories. Last time out I wrote about “The Hunted”, which was an Ok read. That story was reasonably well drawn but did feel a bit average (scoring 3 / 5 on the ‘Cloak & Dagger’ scale.). So how did the next two books I read do?

I’m not reading the books in order, which is a bit weird I suppose. The next one I picked up was “Dark Heart” JamesPhelan~DarkHeart– I enjoyed the trail of trying to understand if the character of Rachel Muertos was a ‘good guy’ or a ‘bad guy’… you thought she was probably definitely a protagonist, but then a little slip would happen and you’d wonder if you’d got that right. The trouble is that on the whole she felt a bit shallow, Walker felt a bit shallow, and the other characters don’t have a great deal of depth – why should we care about these people?

However, the final showdown at the Society of the Cincinnati was well done, the action flowed fast and was believable.

Sometimes Phelan’s style feels a bit odd. Try this line for example:

“And there’s two dead Syrians,” Walker assed. “All in the space of twenty four hours.” – Dark Heart, chapter 55.

I have no idea of what it means when someone ‘assed’, but that slang didn’t work for me.

Next up was “The Spy” – this one is “The First Jed Walker Thriller” and possibly the best of the 3 Phelan’s that I’ve read. The plot line is competent, well presented and trips along at a reasonable pace. JamesPhelan~TheSpyWe begin with Walker and a side-kick surveilling a roadhouse in Yemen where a terrorist HVT was expected to arrive. Things don’t go as Walker expects when a friendly drone does its best to kill him. A lovely plot follows about a private intelligence company starting a chain of terrorist attacks in order to convince the US government that they are still needed, even though Osama Bin Laden has been killed. Those attacks include an attempt to kill the Vice President, whose Secret Service codename is said to be ‘Zodiac’, and that name is used by the terrorists for their overall plans.

Walker ends up having to fight off every Security Agency possible as he follows the trail and trys to stop Zodiac. He eventually links up with FBI Agent Fiona Somerville, who starts off hunting him down before realising he is ‘a good guy’. Out of all the characters in the 3 books I enjoyed the scenes with Somerville the most; Phelan describes her well, she has realistic motivations, and is often in on the action.

I had 2 irritations with “The Spy”. Firstly, although Thrillers breathe suspense through a ticking clock, here Phelan does it much too overtly, often ending chapters with lines like “Twenty-four hours to deadline.” That was much too obvious for my liking and only really worked when just a few hours were left on the clock. Secondly, I didn’t like the formatting of page numbers at the bottom of each chapter opening but then at the top of every other page. In a couple of places that felt intrusive and broke my reading.

Overall these are better-than-average stories about the adventures of a fairly average protagonist. I enjoyed reading them once, but now don’t agree with the cover tag-line that ‘Jed Walker is right there in Reacher’s rear-view mirror’ – for me he’s quite a way back.

‘The Spy’ and ‘Dark Heart’ both score 3 / 5 on the ‘Cloak & Dagger’ scale.

== There’s more about my writing at russellweb.org.uk, @LeeJ_Russell on Twitter

cropped-spiesindcshrink1.jpg

“Spies in DC, Information exchange” image by Lorie Shaull from flickr.com
Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 license – see https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/number7cloud/11928350633/in/photolist-jb4V4P-jcFWpD-hjApBF-j7h1ti-jeDMSS-5nHVfr

ALICE: Where does the Solar System end and inter-stellar space begin?

NewHorizonsProbe from Nasa dot Gov
New Horizons

One of the interesting questions in Astronomy is where does the Solar System end and inter-stellar space begin? There’s a nice result being shared by NASA from the ALICE instrument on the ‘New Horizons’ spacecraft that is helping with that question and confirming observations from the Voyager spacecraft.

converted PNM file
Surface of Pluto

‘New Horizons’ is the spacecraft that flew past Pluto on 14th July 2015 and was then sent onwards towards the Kuiper belt object (486958) 2014 MU69 (nicknamed ‘Ultima Thule’ by the New Horizons team), which it should reach on 1st Jan 2019.

NASA Voyager 1
Voyager 1

‘Voyager’ was actually two probes, launched in 1977 to study the outer Solar System.

So, where does the solar system end? It depends… Based on the standard structural model (see below) we’d say somewhere near 50,000 to 200,000AU, at the far edge of the Oort Cloud. Based on the distribution of solar system hydrogen (see below), and taking Voyager 1’s results to be correct (more below), we’d say it was around 121AU, with the result to be further verified by Voyager 2 and ongoing measurements from ALICE.

In the Standard Model of the Solar System the part we are most familiar with is the inner-most region containing the Sun and the eight major planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. There is a gap between Mars and Jupiter where a planet should be which actually contains the ‘asteroid belt’, an area of rocky asteroids that are probably material that never managed to accrete into a planet. This inner-most region extends out to around 4.5 billion km (or 30AU, as astronomers term it) from the Sun.

NASA PIA10231
Planets of the Solar System

The next area beyond that, extending to about 50AU is the Kuiper Belt, which contains left-over material from the formation of the inner solar system, predominantly frozen volatiles like methane, ammonia and water. That is not to say that the objects in the Kuiper Belt are all ‘small’ as it contains three officially recognized dwarf planets: Pluto, Haumea and Makemake. Overlapping the Kuiper Belt and extending beyond 100AU is the Scattered Disk, which is sparsely populated with small icy bodies like asteroids and comets. But the solar system doesn’t end there… There is then also the Oort Cloud lying at around 50,000 to 200,000AU, which is believed to contain icy planetesimals and be the source region for some comets.

So somewhere beyond the region around 200,000AU we should no longer find any solid constituents of our solar system, and that would denote one boundary to our solar system. Anything beyond that point will not be bound by our Sun’s gravity.

But what about gas? The main gas found in stars and the inter-stellar medium is hydrogen. Within our solar system these hydrogen atoms are pushed outwards by radiation pressure from solar photons. There will also be a radiation pressure applying inwards from the interstellar wind, and at some point those pressures will balance, causing solar system hydrogen atoms to bunch up in a ‘wall’ – this ‘heliosphere’ will also mark another boundary to our solar system… and this is where the latest results from the ultraviolet spectrometer ALICE (named after the Alice Kramden in ‘The Honeymooners’) on New Horizons comes in.

NASA has already reported that Voyager 1 was about 121AU from the Sun when it passed through the heliopause (outer boundary of the heliosphere) on 25th August 2012 and entered inter-stellar space. Voyager 2 has a different trajectory and has not yet crossed that boundary.

Long‐term observations made with ALICE have confirmed measurements made by the Voyager spacecraft. NASA scientists are reporting that both sets of data are best explained if the observed ultraviolet light results from BOTH the scattering of sunlight by hydrogen atoms within the solar system, AND a substantial contribution from a distant source, which could be the ‘wall of hydrogen’ at the heliosphere.

It could also be that the additional source of UV light is more distant, and more twice-yearly observations are being planned for New Horizons/ALICE. — here is a link to the abstract for NASA’s paper, which is due to be published in the journal ‘Geophysical Research Letters’.

All pictures from NASA.gov

If I could only keep 1 singer from the ’80s it would be…

Imagine that a weird time accident happened and all the singers from the ’80s never performed a single a note… except for one… who would you keep?

Sometimes you could be forgiven for thinking that the entire decade only spawned 10-15 good songs, but the reality is that it was a really vibrant period for music and there was an enormous number of top quality acts including Whitney Houston, Chaka Khan, Spandau Ballet, Tina Turner, Wham, Bon Jovi, Heart, Echo And The Bunnymen, Talk Talk, Depeche Mode, OMD, Tears For Fears, XTC, Madness, Bronski Beat, Ultravox, Pat Benatar, Culture Club, Adam And The Ants, Madonna… the list goes on and on…

But for me the answer to the question is simple: Gary Numan.

GaryNuman~singerNuman made me want the future to come, and for it to be as cool as he was making it sound. I wanted the connectivity and electronic wonders. I wanted the energy and drive he was projecting. I wanted to be as cool as the stuff he was singing.

His music captured everything the ’80s were about. It was a unique, new sound, that sounded like the future but was relevant now, that was exciting but thoughtful, that sometimes made you want to dance and sometimes to listen.

Don’t get me wrong, Numan is not a great singer, and his live recordings can be pretty bad, but his studio-produced recordings are usually superb. I’ve been listening to his album ‘Telekon’ for over 35 years and still find it as riveting today as the first time I heard it.

If you only ever listen / watch Gary Numan perform three songs, these are my recommendations:

… and for fun, try this take on “Music for Chameleons” from Alan Partridge… or the real track here.

Yeah, I know, technically that’s four songs. You didn’t think I could stick at three did you?

GaryNuman~pilotOne of my best Numan memories is from an Eighties airshow at Biggin Hill, watching him fly his AT-6 Harvard (dressed up as a Japanese Zero). How many times do you get to watch your pop star hero flying at an airshow? Thinking of that still brings tears to my eyes, he gave a wonderful performance! There are no good recordings online of him flying, this is the best I could find from Barton Airshow, 1992.

Numan’s career got going when he formed Tubeway Army in the ’70s. Initially playing punk sounds, he then moved towards sci-fi influenced synthesiser music… and that is the sound that grabbed me! From “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” and “Cars” (technically ’79 tracks but I’m adopting them for my list anyway!), to “We Are Glass”, “I’m an Agent”, “I Die: You Die”, “I Dream of Wires”, “This Wreckage” and “Music for Chameleons”, his sounds define a decade. He didn’t just stop after those successes and he has released 18 solo albums between 1979 to 2017, or roughly one every two years. How many singers can claim such a long track record (pun intended)?

Cold War memories…

I have very strong memories of the closing days of the Cold War which often resonate in my writing. The invention of the internet and social media means that today I can connect with people from all around the world who have an interest in Cold War history, and in many cases who also retain a fear of ‘the bomb’.

Some places that I have found really helpful and informative include the Facebook groups ‘History of the Cold War’, ‘Aircraft of the Cold War’, ‘Cold War Bunkers’ and ‘Britain’s Cold War’, and also the excellent ‘Cold War Conversations’ podcast, which is really worth listening to.

Three factors really shaped my fear of total destruction during the Cold War:

  1. The film ‘Threads’, which showed the aftermath of a nuclear attack on the UK. When it was first shown the film was very shocking. As a teenager I was sure that I wouldn’t want to live in a world like that. I had real nightmares about what it would be like to build some kind of refuge in our house and then, assuming we had lived, to step outside and try to survive.

Manston 1MT blast map

I live close to RAF Manston. The declassified 1972 “Probable nuclear targets in the United Kingdom” paper by Air Commodore Brian Standbridge lists it as being targeted with 3 x 1MT airbust weapons. If the dispersals for nuclear bombers had been reactivated the suspected targetting would have been 3 x 1MT groundburst weapons.

The problem I have with ‘Threads’ is it maintained the idea that some people could survive a nuclear attack. “Nukemap” (https://nuclearsecrecy.com/nukemap/) indicates that even a single 1MT airbust bomb over Manston would be enough to collapse my home through overpressure from the blast.

2) News reports of US Cruise Missile launchers prowling the UK countryside on manoeuvres, practicing for the day that they might need to rain nuclear hell on the USSR. To be clear: I don’t think the UK should be an advanced launch pad for US nuclear weapons and I very much resented becoming a target due to the policy of allowing US GLCMs on UK soil.

3) Volatile global politics including anti-nuclear protests by CND, the Falklands War, the Reagan Administration’s ‘Star Wars project’ (ie SDI) , social uprisings in Eastern Europe, the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification – ‘The World’ seemed like a very dangerous place… and a single mistake was all it would have taken…

GenerallOppenheimery speaking the UK public still seems to believe the message of the old Civil Defence films that survival is possible, even though the government knew for decades that it was untrue. With the thousands of nuclear weapons stored in the arsenals of the US and Russia, survival in the event of a hot war between the superpowers seems pretty unlikely.

I think it is important for the debate about the Cold War to continue and for people to discuss the massive danger that nuclear weapons pose for all of mankind. It is too easy for shallow soundbite politicians like Trump to threaten to destroy their enemies with nukes – the reality behind that threat is much more dangerous. Anyone who wants to know what it would really be like should take look at the links above, watch some films on YouTube and read John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima’…

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

… and if you are still not convinced, watch the recording of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s reflection of the weapon he had created at Los Alamos during the 1965 television documentary “The Decision to Drop the Bomb” – he looks haunted by his creation and I never want to feel as much fear as I can see on his face.

From ‘Evil Eye – A Lissa Blackwood Thriller’: A walk across London in the footsteps of the Head of SIG, Colonel Peter Carson, DSO with Bar, MC…

Towards the start of my new Lissa Blackwood thriller called ‘Evil Eye’, her boss, Peter Carson, faces the challenge of knowing that on that day he will be the target of an assassination attempt.

Now fifty eight years old, as a young man Carson had originally intended to train as a chemical engineer. However, in his final year at Cambridge he was recruited by the army to train as an intelligence officer. 20180718_101218_edit4Carson found his natural niche in the army. He rapidly developed a ruthless flexibility, instinct and cunning on missions that eventually made him a highly decorated, front line, special forces Colonel.

His record and total devotion to the Crown, regardless of party politics, spoke for itself, and three Prime Ministers ago he was appointed as ‘R’, the head of SIG, remaining there ever since.

Where the security of the realm is concerned there are the MI5/MI6 assets and missions that sit above the line, and then there is the ‘Special Investigations Group’. SIG is the Prime Minister’s covert intelligence unit, answerable only to the PM’s conscience.

Collage2~shrink

Now Carson is facing a real life or death dilemma. An attempt on the Queen’s life was barely thwarted by his actions and he has just been warned that the same group are seeking to kill him. The warning comes from a potential defector within the terrorist group. Carson isn’t told exactly how the attempt will be made, just that they are relying on his normal routine to pull it off. Carson still has to function as the head of SIG but is starting to suspect that the terrorists have a mole in his organisation:

“I suspect everything and everyone,” – he tells Janet Audlish, one of the few people he feels he can trust.

“I’ll be back in two hours to ask about your progress on the searches. Get this sorted by then, eh? My next appointment will be at the Palace to talk with Her Majesty, and I suspect they already know that. If I was going to kill me, that’s when I’d do it.The irony would make up for some of their failure at killing her. The game’s on as soon as I leave VX.”

London is a crowded city and the attack could happen anywhere..Collage1~shrink

Carson is relying on Audlish to work with SIG’s Quartermaster (another trusted individual, they served and fought together), to find a way for him to be seen heading towards his meeting with the Queen and survive the attack he knows will be coming.

I’m not going to spoil how that all plays out, but when he leaves the SIG headquarters in the SIS Building at Vauxhall Cross, heading across Lambeth Bridge and onto Horseferry Road, he is placing his life in their hands…

It was fun to walk in his shoes in London, seeing the places that I had imagined in real life, wondering how it would feel if you were Peter Carson, perhaps crossing Lambeth Bridge for the last time? …

Collage3~shrink

All pictures (c) Lee Russell, 2018, except the Union Jack backdrop to Tower Bridge which is public domain (see https://www.flickr.com/photos/762_photo/2233328580 )

Space 1999: the problem with Victor Bergman…

When I was a boy I really enjoyed watching the TV series ‘Space 1999’. I was fascinated by space exploration and the ‘realism’ of an Anderson creation featuring real people made a strong impression on me. Moonbase Alpha

At that time creating a moonbase seemed like an obvious next step towards mankind stepping out properly into space and colonising the solar system.

I think many people still see the Moon as a viable next-step into space but I’ve long moved away from that idea. The Moon is a harsh place to survive on, a poor analogue for the other planets or moons that are better candidates for a colony, and even though its gravity is low, it still presents a gravity-well that makes its a poor candidate for a way-station… why stop there when remaining in an orbit could take less fuel?

As with all of the Andersons’ creations, the machinery looks functional and you could imagine it working… in space. Eagle

For example, the Eagle spaceships look like viable, adaptable workhorses for many kinds of missions.  For tasks around Moonbase Alpha they are believable, but the series didn’t work so well when they had it flying into planetary atmospheres… it’s not aerodynamic, looks very underpowered for direct lifting from the surface like a rocket, and lacks the ablative shielding that it might otherwise need for a landing. Unfortunately, the more the Eagles are used like that in the programs, the less believable they become…

Which brings me onto the the problem with the character of Victor Bergman, base scientist… Bergman was acted very convincingly by Barry Morse. I have complete respect for the energy and empathy that he put into the role. However, the scripting for Bergman was not convincing, and that’s where the character’s credibility breaks down.Space1999_Bergman

As a boy watching the show I wanted to be Victor Bergman. My friends wanted to be an astronaut or Commander Koenig, but I was struck by how great it would be to have all the answers, to have Koenig’s ear, and be able to solve the massive problems now facing Moonnbase Alpha after it streaked away into space on 9th September, 1999.

The trouble is, watching the show years later as an adult, Bergman looks like a shaman, a bit of a fool spouting pseudo-science at best, when he’s not frequently confessing to not having the answers. Here’s a couple of examples: firstly from Episode 1 – “Breakaway”:

Koenig: “All right, no virus. Then what is it?”

Bergman: “John, I just don’t know. It looks very much like radiation, but…”

Koenig: “But what?”

Bergman: “There is no radiation.” < what? >

and then later…

Bergman: “Hmm. Look at this. It’s a monitoring device from the old Area One. It was used to record the magnetic output from the < Bergman fake science alert! > artificial gravity system  there. When the area was closed down it had nothing to record for five years but now look at it.”

Carter: “A twenty-fold increase in the magnetic field.”Brekaway

Bergman: “And that’s before it burnt out. We’ve been obsessed with radiation. Wrong. This instrument’s given me a lead. < Bergman fake science alert! > I think we’re facing a new effect, arising from the atomic waste deposited here over the years. Magnetic energy outputs of unprecedented violence. < That’s not a very scientific explanation, is it? >

Koenig: “Magnetic energy responsible for the flare-up at Area One?” < looking unconvinced >

Russell: “Magnetic energy causing brain damage?” < looking like she doesn’t believe a word of it >

… later:

Bergman: “Area One burnt itself out in a < Bergman fake science alert! > magnetic subsurface firestorm. < a what? > What worries me now is that the same thing could happen at Area Two.”

So in episode 1 we’re given a pretty good idea of what to expect for Bergman: sometimes he doesn’t know, and what he says he does know can be pretty unscientific with healthy dollops of pseudo-sci-verbage verging on the hope for magic!

Episode 3, “Black Sun” is even worse. It becomes clear pretty quickly that Alpha is heading towards a black hole. Somehow we’re asked to accept that this is a previously undetected black hole lying close to Earth… sigh….

Initially the Alphans don’t know what the Black Sun is. Bergman disappears into his study where he completes some calculations faster than Alpha’s main computer < of course he does! > and discovers a danger that must be reported to the Commander… he rushes back to Main Mission just in time to see astronaut Ryan’s Eagle torn apart by shearing forces across some kind of horizon… and then he tells Koenig…

Bergman: “If anyone’s to blame, it’s me. I suspected it hours ago.”

Koenig: “A Black Sun.”

Bergman: “Right. So, what are we going to do about it?”

Koenig: “What can we do? We’ll all be dead in three days.”

… so Bergman goes off to have another think and work with the computer… and then tells an assembled group of Alpha’s senior staff that…

Bergman: “It’s gravitational pull can become so immense that just a hatful of the stuff can weigh several Alphas. But it doesn’t stop there. The gravitational force goes on getting stronger so that nothing, not radiation, not heat, not even light itself can escape…

Black Sun… then  “… as you know, < Bergman fake science alert! > these eight anti-gravity towers stabilise our gravity here inside Alpha. <yeah, right > And we’re going to use them to < Bergman fake science alert! > create an entirely new force-field effectWe’re going to re-program our main unit generators so that instead of negating the pressure from the black sun, it will simply reverse it. < Presumably powered by an endless supply of unobtainium >

So if the Black Sun is a neutron star (or similar) we’re being told that the Moon and Alpha stands a chance of passing through it? I don’t think so!

And if it is actually a black hole, that not even light can escape from, we’re to believe that they can pass through it? I don’t think so!

Unless the Black Sun is something else, with the mass of a black hole but without a core? That they can pass through? I don’t think so!

Undetected near-Earth black holes, working faster than the computer to ‘save the day’, anti-gravity, new force-field effects… it’s all in a day’s work for Alpha’s science-shaman!

Fortunately I was impressed enough by Bergman to get a science degree myself… so something came from it… and it was (still is) quite exciting! Just don’t expect realism!

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Pictures from http://catacombs.space1999.net  (fair use)

Space: 1999 is copyright ITV Studios Global Entertainment

Crawling around inside Nuclear Bunkers…

Kelvedon Hatch entrance

I was stuck on how to make a section work in the closing scenes of ‘Evil Eye’ (my latest thriller novel) – it all revolves around moving unseen inside an active nuclear bunker – but these are intimate places and, looking at images online, I was getting very bogged down. The (now) cliched fiction solution is to crawl around in the air vents/ducting (Alien / Aliens / Die Hard), bit I like to base my fiction in reality and I wasn’t feeling sure about that…

So I reached out to the “Cold War Bunkers” closed group on Facebook for advice and they just blew me away with the depth of their knowledge and sharing… my thanks to all the guys in the group … you were great and all your help is much appreciated – I now have a solution to the problem!

DDR missile bunker

Thanks to Al McCann, Ben Cooper, Bob Ames, Craig Robertson, Dave Salloway, David Godfrey, Ed Combes, Gareth Baldybloke, Grant More, Jim O’Neill, Michael Scott, Mirko Krumm, Nick Carrière, Nick Lofty Combes, Roger Griffiths, Steve Gardener and anyone else I’ve missed…

Image of entrance tunnel to Kelvedon Hatch bunker by Scott Wylie on flickr.com (‘Nuclear Bunker’)
Image of entrance to ‘Abandoned Russian nuclear missile bunker in former DDR’ by Nicole von Trigoburg on flickr.com
– both images are Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licensed.