The Hero Falls

I spent a good portion of last night thinking about old British shows where the main character dies early on. Well, actually, I spent much of the night drinking scotch and trying to make my living room as dark as possible. At about 1am, I ended up hammering blankets over all the windows and, thankfully, fell asleep before I could get to the black paint.

I can’t explain what drove me to conduct this experiment. The only record I have is this article, which was scribbled on the backs on envelopes I had scattered on the floor. Incoherent obsessive ramblings on the death of heroes.

The most notable main character deaths, I think, are Blake, from Blake’s 7, and Robin Hood, from Robin of Sherwood.

Sure, Blake didn’t really die…the first time around. The crew was split up after saving the galaxy in a terrific second season finale and the show, which remained “Blake’s 7”, shifted focus onto Paul Darrow’s wonderful anti-hero Avon. Blake wasn’t seen again till the final episode, two years later.

Avon was the unwilling member of Blake’s freedom fighting team of rebels and unashamedly hostile, anti-social, and homicidal. When he took over as leader of the pack, his character just seemed to get worse. Even into the final season, after all the shit they’d been through, he was still a cold, murderous bastard. All the more delicious come the series finale, which has to be one of the best endings in TV history. I think I’m still traumatized. This cheesy sci-fi show with about a $5 budget managed through four fantastically plotted years and ended better than any Shakespearian tragedy.

Next up is Robin of Sherwood. Here’s this hippie, mystical, pagan crap show where Michael Praed’s moody yet manly Robin is the most memorable character. Well, and Nasir, because he’s cool. And Marion, because Judi Trott was a willowy redhead. While Nickolas Grace did a wonderful job as the Sheriff of Nottingham, he’s recently been eclipsed by Keith Allen’s occasionally Rickman-esque over the top performance in BBC’s current Robin Hood series.

When Robin was killed in a hail of arrows at the end of the second season, it was crushing. Even more so when the show returned for a final season where Jason Connery was summoned by the forest god Herne the Hunter in a great “huh?” moment. What the hell was going through the minds of the creators? At least try to get someone who looked like Praed. Baby Connery was pretty fruity. He was sort of a proto-Legolas, which was immediately tiring, especially when new Robin went about reuniting the gang. He wasn’t meant to be Robin, anyway. He plays an entirely different person, so it’s not a James Bond or Dr. Who thing. Connery is Robert of Huntingdon, and somewhat shanghaied into the position left after Robin’s death. The final Connery season was always in danger of careening off the rails and down the mountainside with several unresolved story arcs, such as the revelation that Connery’s character was Guy of Gisborne’s half brother. Yawn.

I should also mention a third show that I dearly loved, even though it started to fall apart almost before the first episode ended: Survivors. Terry Nation’s apocalypse project, which he abandoned in favor of Blake’s 7, enjoys a strong(ish) first season, a confused second season (after Nation left), and a third season that requires lots of booze and, perhaps, partial paralysis so you’re not able to turn off the television.

Terry Nation might just be the greatest TV writer in history. Not because of quality or influence (though he did create the Daleks), but because he took us to the extreme. As noted in Blake’s 7, no character was safe from Nation’s pen. Not only was Blake absent for the last half of the series, when we do see him again it’s not pulling the punch…it’s punching us a second time. And maybe kicking us in the teeth.

With Survivors – nobody was safe. There was no Avon character to fall back on. Each episode, usually cast against the dreary English countryside, started as a post-apocalypse Little House and could easily end up with the casual slaying of a major character.

Survivors is the type of apocalypse drama that end of the world nerds like me love. Jericho came close, in the end, but was still a bit too saccharine. Jeremiah was a train wreck. Nobody else has dared to juggle the apocalypse in darker terms.

The first great element of Survivors is that we don’t really know what happened. The end of the world is reviewed in the opening credits – some Chinese scientist is making something in a lab, he drops a vial, then we see him collapsing in an airport. He’s unleashed a plague that wipes out the entire world except for a handful of survivors. The first season is all about a group of survivors coming together – led by pretty Jenny, manly Greg, and driven Abby. Whatever Nation’s masterplan was, it was lost when he left the show. Abby’s tiresome search for her missing son overshadows much of the excellent first season and, correctly, was identified as a problem when the show changed hands, so she was simply written out come the second season. Though there are haphazard mentions of her here and there, so it’s nothing like the Space: 1999 changeover where the entire cast, except for the top three, vanished without explanation.

Greg, in turn, leaves after the second season, and becomes the subject of a search in the third season that ends in a very Nation-like demise. Poor, dumb Jenny gets to stay on till the end, though she never felt like a major character after the first season since she spent most of the second season lulling around pregnant.

Standing in after Abby leaves is Charles, who first appeared briefly in season one as a distasteful character and returned, suddenly reformed, as the head of the new community in season two, following a mass-kill season premiere shakeup that cleaned out all of the deadweight secondary characters from the first season. (Hope you didn’t get attached to anybody while watching the first season!) Charles, who you learned to hate when he first appeared, does end up being the hero of the series and, eventually, the king of England. Which should give you an idea of how silly season three was.

All in all, the combination of brutally killing characters (most of the regulars from the first season are trapped and burned alive), and the unrelentingly grim post-apocalypse world, redeems the series.

One thing is for sure – After watching Michael Praed get turned into a pin cushion, and dealing with the fate of revolutionary hero Blake, and four seasons of Avon’s inhumanity, and the steady march of death through Survivors, modern sci-fi just can’t hold up. You can have as much steam and shadows as you want, the main characters will always succeed in the final act. The most daring we get today is Battlestar Galactica, but I’ll hold off on the comparison until more people start to die in the upcoming final season. Of course, unless the final episode is a long, drawn-out, close-quarters shooting battle where everyone on both sides gets wiped out, it’ll never catch up.

(It is worth noting that an entire universe was wiped out in Lexx, but no one takes that show seriously, do they?)

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