What I learned from Geoff Love

Geoff Love's Star WarsA recent Facebook discussion made me all nostalgic for a classic of my childhood, Geoff Love’s Star Wars and Other Space Themes. I wondered if it was available on Amazon and, blow me down …

It’s probably rare for a cheesy easy listening covers album to hold a special place in one’s heart, but it does for me, and I can think of at least two friends in the sf community who have admitted similar feelings. Why? Well, because I learned a lot from this album.

No prizes for guessing that my sole reason for buying it, at the age of 13, in 1978, was to get hold of the Star Wars theme. As far as I was concerned this LP was a single with an A side and a lot of B sides. I had seen the movie once by this stage, and remembered the music as being quite good. For some reason I had it in my head that it was a bit like the theme to Born Free. (At least, it goes up and down in an approximately similar way.)

And I learned …

I began to learn new things just from the cover, which featured a montage of people and ships that were obviously based on the shows depicted on the album … but weren’t. That wasn’t Luke and Leia. (‘Luke’ is more like a bizarre Luke/Han hybrid.) That ship might be based on a Federation design but it’s not the Enterprise. There’s a space station which may or may not be the one from 2001, except that it seems to have part of a third ring which somehow gets lost.

And there was a fairly straightforward rendition of Jane Fonda as Barbarella, which no 13 year old boy was ever going to complain about.

So, I learned that artists can have fun riffing off other artist’s work. I’m sure all the rights were paid – no one was getting ripped off – but why confirm mindlessly to what is when you have your own idea of what could be?

I also learned a few things from the track list, like the very existence of Things to Come, the aforesaid Barbarella, and Quatermass. I decided I would seek these things out and find out more, and am glad I did.

And then there was the music, which brings me back to the first point – artists having fun by being inspired. The title track is a straight orchestral rendition of the Star Wars theme, and as that was what I bought it for, I can’t really complain. Other straight orchestral pieces are Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War”, a thankfully abridged version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and the theme to Things to Come. But the rest … Different versions of Star Trek and Thunderbirds and U.F.O. and Space: 1999 and … and … With everything from orchestra to sax to 1970s wacka-wacka electric guitar, sometimes in the same track (and something else I didn’t know and could not have appreciated at the time: the legendary Herbie Flowers on bass. I didn’t know that bass existed, though could probably have worked out that something must be making those deep notes).

And, what the hell was Princess Leia’s theme, I wondered? I only knew the title music: I didn’t recognise any others. But the next time I watched Star Wars, now that I knew of its existence, I was able to pick it out of the background music. Since then I’ve learned to listen to what is going on as well as watch it, and that has helped me enjoy movies on a different level to simple childlike reception.

And an extremely boppy version of Doctor Who, which at first irritated the hell out of me because I accepted no substitutes. But, you know, it grew on me … And I had no idea there would come a time when I would look back on it and wish we could have that one instead of the Bontempi drek that assaulted us during the 80s. Again, artists having fun, coming up with new ideas, fresh expressions, and why not?

Don’t take my word for it.

Soon after this Geoff Love bandwagoned his way onto the other big craze of the late 70s, with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Other Disco Galactic Themes. This has been tacked onto the end of the first album in the Amazon download, so if you buy the first one you get this free. This one is … differently good.

Geoff Love's Close EncountersNo longer Geoff Love and his orchestra, note: we’re onto Geoff Love and His Big Disco Sound. Disco-tastic versions of the CE3K theme (which I will grudgingly admit actually improved on the original tune by having one) and other sf classics such as, um, Logan’s Run, The Omega Man and Flight Fantastic, whatever the hell that was last one is. Apart from the title track, the only one worth the admission price is the discoed version of Blake’s 7, which at least justifies the inclusion of a four-armed Liberator-alike on the cover. But you do rather get the idea they were running out of ideas.

And so my last lesson, which I really wish Geoff had learned too, was: quit while you’re ahead.

Because I can, I will leave you with the Geoff Love rendition of Blake’s 7.

Bright and breezy BristolCon

So, this year’s BristolCon programme is out and, guess what, I’m doing a couple of things on top of all that painful but necessary sitting in the bar and drinking beer …

17:00 – 17:45 Past Lives, Future Visions: What can SF writers learn from history? What events lurk in the past that we don’t realise have happened or don’t think about – are we recreating the past when we envision the future?
with Ben Jeapes (Mod), Janet Edwards, Dev Agarwal, Jessica Rydill, Justin Newland

19:00 – 19:45 Rogues and Ruffians, Pirates and Thieves: From Han Solo to Loki to Locke Lamora, the scoundrel has enduring appeal in SF and fantasy. What is it we all like about a bad boy (or girl?) Who are the best SFF rogues, are pirates better than thieves, and how do you write a good bad good guy without getting completely confused?
with Anne Lyle (Mod), Huw Powell, Ben Jeapes, Gaie Sebold, Lor/Rudie

Campaign for Real Space Opera

Dear BBC. Or ITV, or indy production company, or whoever gets to make TV series in today’s post-regulated media world. Doctor Who is kind of successful for the BBC. I understand – though never watched it – that Primeval wasn’t bad for ITV, as far as wannabe clones of successful series go. Torchwood … let’s just say it found its way, eventually, but even at its best it was hampered like Pertwee’s first three years by being mostly present-day and Earthbound.

Why can’t we have a decent homegrown space opera again?

You see, I’ve been rewatching Blake’s 7 on YouTube. But not all of it.

First time round, I only ever got to see the first season. I was in my last year at prep school and we went to bed at – wait for it – eight o’clock. So, there was just time to squeeze in an episode once a week between end of prep and going upstairs. I still think of it in black and white. I started watching with the third episode, “Cygnus Alpha”, and was immediately hooked. (Terry Nation’s novelisation of the first four episodes later helped fill in the gaps.) I can still remember the first use of the teleport. Our heroes struggle with half understood technology on a stolen starship, so Blake materialises halfway up a slope and immediately tumbles backwards. Genius.

In those days, TV SF that wasn’t Doctor Who was original Star Trek or Space: 1999. Neither of those exactly pushed the boat out in terms of antagonism, anti-heroism, friction between the leading characters … all the things that made B7 fun. B7 was the first space show I saw where the good guys – well, the heroes – didn’t work for a uniformed organisation. Sure, the effects were risible, but not bad for what the Beeb could do in those days. And it’s not what you see, it’s what you remember. This is how Doctor Who and Star Trek made it big. You saw wobbly, cardboard sets and identikit alien planets – but you remembered epic battles across time and space.

And let’s not do the Beeb down. They had no money but a lot of vision. They made pioneering use of video effects with, for instance, the aforesaid teleport. Watch the last few minutes of “The Web”: Blake and Avon teleport out of the lab just as the little dwarfy creatures – I forget their names – break in and start wreaking havoc. It all happens in the same frame, at the same time. A dynamic, motion-filled scene. Mould-breaking stuff. The Beeb’s attitude to effects (and this goes back to Doctor Who, too) was that they knew what they could have done with a decent budget, unlimited time and state of the art equipment … so they went ahead with what they could and pretended that what they had done was what they had in mind.

The original Travis was a brilliant baddy, 30 years before the equally hissable, equally leatherclad Guy of Gisborne as played by Richard Armitage. And Servalan … Hmm. Yes, Servalan. I was entering adolescence in an all-male environment when she came along. Let’s just say I owe her a lot. (Her and Sarah Jane Smith, natch.)

But the first series, as I say, was all I saw. I then moved to big boys’ school, with no TV in the evenings except at weekends. So, I got a healthy dose of The Professionals but no more Blake, apart from the occasional episode snatched at half term or during the hols. Thus I got the start of the third season – exit Blake and Jenna, enter Dayna and Tarrant – and the end, with our heroes stranded on a hostile world as the Liberator disintegrates in orbit and Avon smiles. But that was it. I saw one, mid-run episode of the fourth season – the Headhunter one, just enough to leave me unimpressed with Scorpio as Liberator’s replacement, and wonder who Soolin was and where Cally had got to – and that was it.

The university sfsoc plugged a large hole in my knowledge with its end of term video weekends – the legendary Craig Hinton, in the days before shows were commercially available on VHS, somehow had a line into the heart of the BBC and what came out of it was pure gold, not just B7 but Doctor Who too. But even Craig only showed a couple of fourth season episodes. I don’t think he thought much of it either.

The fourth season was the season that should never have been. The series was all meant to end with the third – until the Head of BBC TV decided to uncancel it literally as the last episode was rolling, and the first anyone had heard of a fourth season came in a surprise continuity announcement immediately afterwards.

So the fourth season was the unplanned child, the one Mummy and Daddy never wanted or budgeted for. No more Liberator – our heroes are stuck on a broken down space freighter that makes the Millennium Falcon look swish. The same bloody sandpit, week in and week out for different alien worlds (even more so than before), none inhabited by more than three people. All the former spaces of Liberator compressed down to a single set on Scorpio because that’s all the budget could stretch to. Exit telepathic Cally, enter the somewhat bland but still gunslingin’ Soolin, who was never really given enough to do other than make up the numbers. Supercomputer Zen was blown to bits with the Liberator so replaced with the grovelling and deeply tedious Slave. Such are the budget restrictions that I’m pretty sure our heroes spend the entire series in the same outfits, apart from Soolin who manages one change. (Servalan continues to model a range of ever more setting-inappropriate glamourwear, and is no longer the scheming evil uberbitch of yore but the depressingly predictable surprise-surprise baddy each week.)

And so the fourth has a poor reputation, which may be why I never really bothered. Until just recently, my curiosity was piqued by Adventures with the Wife and Blake, and I snuck a look. And, you know what? The fourth season has been done down.

All the above points? Oh, true, all of them. That’s what I saw. But that’s not what I remember.

I can and will go further. The fourth season should have been the third. It broke the series out of a rut. No more smug swanning around the galaxy in their super-starship, tweaking Servalan’s nose, teleporting out of trouble and hitting Liberator’s go-faster button whenever a Federation pursuit ship hoves into view. Nope: right from the start, our heroes have lost everything and they keep losing. Avon gets madder and madder. Their situation grows more and more hopeless. The whole dynamic has changed. But there is still a feeling of continuity. Life has moved on and our heroes are having to move with it. All the way to the final, Hamletesque five minutes of the very last episode …

The attitude extended into the look of the programme. There was variety. Sometimes – literally only once or twice – we got to see Scorpio landing or taking off. It wasn’t just the teleport all over again. A story should be more than just the effects, of course (which in the case of B7 was never difficult) but if you’re going to have a TV show, you need movement. Season 4 had much more movement than 1-3. And of all the seasons, it had the best run of guest stars – Roy Kinnear, Lynda Bellingham, Stratford Johns – to add a bit of gravitas.

So, Beeb, come on. You did it once, you can do it again. Don’t let the Yanks fun off the field with Firefly. Give us an intelligent series with good actors and modern effects and good personality clashes with no guaranteed happy endings for anyone, where the drama arises from the interpersonal stuff rather than alien of the week. Go on, you know you want to.

And now a song.