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The things that used to be

Over the last couple of months, Phil and I have been rewatching the classic BBC tv series, Blake's 7, which was originally shown between 1978 and 1981. Back then, as a teenager (yes, I'm old), I would watch or read anything that had 'science fiction' on the label. Some of it was dreadful - Buck Rogers Across the 25th Century, anyone? Some of it - Zelazny, Delany, LeGuin - was wonderful. And there were all sort of things in between.

Blake's 7 was, for me, at the upper end of the tv shows. And it still has a lot going for it. Yes, the props were sometimes poor, the scenery wobbled (and so, sometimes, did the acting). Seasons 3 and 4 had some seriously poor scripts. But for all that, the core of it remains. It was, at heart, egalitarian, socialist even - the mode of resistance to autocracy was communitarian and populist, the aims of the rebels to install widespread democracy and equality, not a new oligarchy. The loss at the end of season 2 of Gareth Thomas, who played Blake, weakened this - the overarching plot became more concerned with the powerplay between Avon and Servalan - but the loss of rebellious focus became itself a trope in the show, and provoked the final stages of the final series, in which Avon descends into madness and the worlds of the show into chaos.

But what I loved most of all, what I still love, is the women. Jenna and Cally, Dayna and Soolin and Servalan. They were there, front and centre, in every episode. They were, by and large, portrayed as competent, intelligent, efficient and equal. The plots sometimes revolved about rescuing crewmembers, but the captives were as likely to be the men as the women. The male characters patronised them at their peril - occasional guest stars did and were slapped down. Their plot arcs never focused on romance or their childbearing abilities, and seldom on family. These women, and the bulk of the female guest stars, were there as people, not eye candy.

Watching this, I realised something. This kind of female character, the kind that are genuine equals, not just in the eyes of the other characters (supposedly) but in the eyes of the scriptwriters and directors, is rarer and rarer in tv sf. Show after show plays the 'strong female character' card upfront, and cheats on it in the details. Star Trek, in most of its reboots: women as nurturers, women who are forever falling in love or wanting comfort, women who are written as cardboard. Babylon 5: a future where you can be any race or sex or sexual orientation, but if you're female and human, you can't be over 25 or over 90lbs unless you're an alien or an actor liked by the director, but in any case, your role will come back, in the end, to who you're in love with. Old style Dr Who was blessedly free of love and family, but the reboot recycles those themes over and over. And then there's Torchwood, about which all I can say is that at least the men are equally ruled by their hearts, but they get to be shown as tough a lot more often - and they are, overall, less likely to die. (Torchwood loves to kill women.) Buffy, which I love with a deep and abiding passion, did better. Its female characters are people. But the only point to Angel (the character) was as a love interest, and a heavy-handed one at that. I will own at once to not being a fan of David Boreanaz, and I never found Angel remotely interesting or plausible. But the show worked overtime to provide romantic interests, when it could have had just as much fun without.

And then there' the remade Battlestar Galactica. Like Buffy, it did do much right - and it went further, presenting the women as capable of both good and evil acts, as fully rounded complex people. I could have lived with that. But they had to have Starbuck fall in love with Lee, a move which had no plot value whatsoever, no real function safe to add sentiment and soap. They had Dee marry, divorce and die, because they had run out of ideas for her. All the women, sooner or later, fell in love. That wasn't required of all of the men (though some did, and Tigh came with that wonderfully twisted back-story). Over and over, faced with a female character, writers seem to be unable to find any storyline for her that isn't about romance, that doesn't reduce her to biology. That tells me something. It tells me that in the mind of that show, women aren't people. They can only have specific types of story. All the other stories - revenge, greed, honour, fear, ambition - are for men only.

Blake's 7 never did that to me. I miss that. And you know, I want my real women back.

(I've off to worldcon tomorrow morning, so will be travelling and not able to check back on comments for a while. My apologies.)

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This page contains a single entry by Kari Sperring published on August 28, 2012 6:32 PM.

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