Here are two reviews of Blake’s 7 VHS tapes, which were published in Data Extract Number 100, which was a bumper issue of the Doctor Who Club of Australia newsletter published in May 1993, full of articles and reviews written by people who would go on to become hosts on Flight Through Entirety. It was on the “strength” of these reviews that Peter Griffiths invited me to review The SevenFold Crown five years later.
Of course, if you want to hear my more mature and circumspect takes on Blake’s 7, you’re out of luck, but you can still hear me talk a lot of nonsense about the show on the podcast Maximum Power.
Tape 22: Stardrive, Animals
Scripted by Jim Follett and Allan Prior
It is part of the received wisdom of B7 fandom these days that each Blake tape has one good episode and one not so-good episode. Tape 22 is, I’m afraid, an egregious exception.
Despite some truly awful model work, Stardrive begins with some tense and reasonably well-acted scenes. It’s when we discover the murderous, psychopathic Space Rats that things start to get silly and extremely clichéd. It’s off to the planet Quarry, where the strong-willed female scientist is being menaced by a group of definite fashion don’ts on motor tricycles — all of whom look like refugees from those seventies Glam Rock bands which we are all (thank God!) a little too young to remember. After a lot of running around, being beaten up, and burning holes in walls behind people without their noticing, it’s back to Scorpio in time to fit a new space drive.
There is not enough material here for a fifty-minute episode, and by Season D the tribe-of-murderous-savages scenario has begun to wear very, very thin. The ending is a nice one, however. Listen up carefully for the final line from Avon: damn me if Dudley hasn’t rendered it nearly inaudible with his final sting!
The second episode on this tape, Animals, is not much better. Dayna and Tarrant are off to Bucol 2 to recruit the scientist Justin, who just happens
to be an old tutor and old flame of Dayna’s. Naturally the love-birds are stranded alone with nothing but a group of hairy horned genetic experiments for company, rousing the suspicions of Julian Clary’s twin sister, the oh-so-lovely Servalan. By the time we reach the final scene and all the right guest actors have been killed and all the mind control techniques have worn off, we have seen some atrocious acting from Josette Simon and Jacqueline Pearce and some very silly gunfight scenes in which the combatants leap out from behind pylons only to get gunned down by other people leaping out from behind other pylons.
It’s a truly clunky script which no amount of cleverness from director Mary Ridge can save. Keep a special lookout, though, for the episode’s two major design highlights: Servalan’s gorgeous ostrich-feather evening frock, and those fabulous wigs worn by Servalan’s female crew. Now surely there are two merchandising opportunites for anyone brave and entrepreneurial enough to take them up…
Tape 23: Headhunter, Assassin
Scripted by Roger Parkes and Rod Beacham
Tape 23 sees us halfway through Series D of Blake’s 7, and the teething problems have been ironed out. Headhunter and Assassin are both excellent episodes.
Headhunter first — a very tense, well-written episode which takes full advantage of the new post-Liberator set-up. Once again there is no Liberator, no teleport and no Orac to help the crew out of their difficulty. They are trapped on the planet Xenon with a convincingly frightening creature that turns all their machinery against them: they have only their own ingenuity and some convenient ancient ruins to get them out of what could be a terminally tight spot. The location work is nice, [and] there are some satisfying explosions and a nice closing line from Orac, who once again proves that a perspex fishbowl full of flashing lights will beat a fluffy dog for episode completion purposes any day. Oh, and watch for Lynda (the Inquisitor) Bellingham’s appearance as someone whose relationship with [space scientist] Muller was purely “recreational”.
The second episode is the one that I remember most vividly from its screening on the ABC in the early eighties. Tense (again), atmospheric and downright scary was how I remembered it — and I was, on the whole, right. Servalan hires an assassin called Cancer, prompting the crew to intercept and kill her as she arranges to pay Cancer off. As usual, things don’t go to plan and Tarrant, Avon and Soolin find themselves trapped on board Cancer’s ship with the assassin wandering around loose.
It’s good, claustrophobic thriller material, and as tempers start to flare all the cast get an opportunity to shine, particularly the often weak and underused Soolin (although she does have one narrow escape from Cancer which is nothing short of laughable). Guest star Richard (The Five Doctors) Hurndall is gentle and sympathetic as the aging slave Nebrox, while Caroline Holdaway’s Piri is a suitable silly girly thing for Tarrant to get all macho about. Only at the end does her performance start to get a little too over the top. (I don’t know, the sexual politics of this programme are a worry sometimes.)
So, two good tense episodes. And wedged as they are between the rather patchy opening to Series D and the gruelling succession of disastrously failed missions (but excellent episodes) that concludes the series, they are not the best of Blake’s 7’s last year, but perhaps they’re the least gloomy. Enjoy.
It’s the last day of this 2½-month overseas trip: by this time tomorrow I will be back in Australia.
We’ve been in Bangkok since Monday, mostly shopping and visiting Calvin’s family monk to get some statues and amulets blessed and to receive a blessing ourselves, which entailed being drenched with a lot of very cold water. (I sometimes just suspect the monk is trolling us.)
I met up with Calvin in Delhi just over a month ago. And I’ve described all of the important things we did on the trip, but there’s still a lot I’ve left out. How much we loved our driver Pappu, who was with us for 23 days in India. Some of the terrible food and terrible hotels we enjoyed. Many many forts and palaces. Driving around lost in the countryside of Bihar because the government had shut down the internet. Getting caught unwittingly smuggling alcohol into our hotel in Patna, a crime which usually doesn’t result in a prison sentence for a first offence. Giving up nicotine replacement therapy. The horrible hotel porter who threatened Calvin because he was unhappy about his tip. Getting our hair cut and being made fun of by two cute young barbers in Jaisalmer. Being sent away from Lumbini by security guards because our car was too big, only to drive past them moments later, triumphantly waving from the back of a tuk-tuk. Trying not to snigger when our tour guide in Jodhpur kept going on about Prince Albert. The guy sleeping in a corridor in Kolkata Airport who I was convinced was dead. Drinking our first lime soda in the baking heat while looking across Jaisalmer from the very topmost point of the fort that overlooks it. Calvin’s realisation about the important role that money plays in organised religion.
Anyway. It’s been fun. Really fun. But I’m ready to come home.
In the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta, the Buddha tells Ānanda that Lumbini, Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar are the four places that merit being seen: where the Buddha was born, where he was enlightened, where he set the Wheel of Dhamma in motion and where he was totally unbound. But, of course, there are many more destinations for Buddhist pilgrims than these.
Even in Northern India and Nepal, there are four second-tier pilgrimage destinations. Rajgir, where the Buddha preached at Vulture Peak and where he miraculously calmed an angry elephant who was intent on killing a child. Vaishali, where he spend his last rainy season before his Total Unbinding, and where he was once miraculously fed with honey by a monkey. Shravasti, the site of the Jetavana monastery, where the Buddha spent many rainy seasons preaching and where he proved his credentials to some skeptical religious leaders by performing the Twin Miracle. And Sankissa, where the Buddha descended by ladder from heaven, after spending a rainy season in one of the heavens teaching his deceased mother about the Dhamma.
(We managed to visit the first three of these; the last one is near Agra, I think, but we weren’t really aware of it when we were there.)
But there are other places to visit as well. Kapilavastu, where Siddharta Gautama was brought up in a palace, which he fled in order to become a monk. (There are two Kapilavastus, one in India and one in Nepal, understandably.) The Dungeshwari Cave Temple, where the Buddha spent six years practising asceticism before finally rejecting it. The Matha Kuar shrine, on the spot where Ānanda got the Buddha his last drink of water from a miraculously clear stream. And the Kesariyra Stupa, where the Buddha gave away his begging bowl before going to Kushinagar for the last time.
We’re a long way away from all those places now: we’re in Sri Lanka, with just a few hours to go until our five-day trip is over. But we’ve still been able to visit local Buddhist pilgrimage sites — including some very sacred ones — even though the Buddha himself never came anywhere near here.
According to one story, Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka in the third century BCE by a son and a daughter of King Ashoka, a Buddhist monk called Mahinda and a nun called Sangamitta. Accompanied by a group of Buddhist monks, they encountered the king and his hunting party in the hills of Mihintale.
After preaching on of the suttas, Mahinda convinced the king of the truth of their religion, and he promptly converted, building Sri Lanka’s first Buddhist stupas and temples in his capital Anuradhapura. Today, 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s population are Buddhists.
Sangamitta brought a sapling of the Bodhi tree from Bodhgaya to Sri Lanka, and today, over two thousand years later, it can be seen among the ruins of Anuradhapura, where it is still an object of devotion for Buddhist pilgrims.
(In fact, the bodhi tree we saw at Bodhgaya is a descendant of this tree, brought from Sri Lanka to India by the archaeologist Major-General Sir Alexander Cunningham, who had a massive role in unearthing many of the sites that I have talked about here.)
So: a story and a physical relic, linking a far distant pilgrimage site to the life of the Buddha himself.
And here’s the story of a second physical relic: a bone from the Buddha’s body that survived his cremation. When Mahinda told his father King Ashoka that there were no relics in Sri Lanka, Ashoka agreed to send over the right collarbone of the Buddha, which was housed in a stupa built for the purpose, the Thuparamaya.
And a third: one of the Buddha’s canine teeth was brought from India and housed in the Abhayagiri Monastery in Anuradhapura. After Anuradhapura was abandoned, it was moved to the new capital Polonnaruwa, where it may have been housed in a round temple whose ruins are still visited by the occasional pilgrim. (It may actually have been housed in a different building nearby.)
Over the centuries, the tooth travelled all over Sri Lanka as political and military events demanded, but it’s now in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, another former capital of Sri Lanka, which we visited on the first day of our stay here. It’s a beautiful building — a converted palace — and twice a day, patient devotees endure an hour of being squashed together in small rooms, climbing up and down staircases, and politely listening to shirtless locals banging away on very loud drums: they are rewarded with a glimpse of an ornate gold box which may or may not contain the tooth in question.
Bangkok tomorrow. Three nights there, eating and doing Buddhist things, before I catch the plane home on Thursday night. I’ll try and write once more before then.
Rajendra has told us that we’re going to the river twice today. Once in the morning, once in the evening. In the morning, we will be rowed down the river; in the evening, we will watch a Hindu ceremony.
We get up at 5 AM. There’s already traffic on the road, but not much. (During the day, the traffic in Varanasi is worse than any traffic we’ve ever seen, even in New Delhi.) The only people walking along the street at the time seem to be Muslim men, on their way to morning prayer, I suppose.
Calvin, Rajendra and I leave the car with Pappu and walk a couple of kilometres to the river. We are at a place called Dashashwamedh Ghat. Wide concrete stairs lead from the road all the way down to the water. By the time we get there, there is a bit of a crowd, nothing big. But some ceremony is already underway. A handsome young man, a Brahmin priest, is standing under a metal frame; he has an oil lamp which looks like a snake looming over a fire, and he is waving it around. Some bells dangle from the frame, and a man is pulling on a rope to ring them. They ring at a frequency that sets something vibrating uncomfortably below my right ear, and I have to stick my pinky finger in my ear to stop it. Down at the river, people are stripping off to bathe in the water.
After watching the young man for a while, we follow Rajendra down the steps to the river and walk across a few small wooden boats before reaching a boat with one occupant, who will be rowing us across the river. We get in. Rajendra gives us each a small basket containing some flowers and a small candle. During the ride we will light the candles, make a wish and set the baskets to float on the surface of the water. I can’t remember if I made a wish at all, but I do remember wondering about the content of Calvin’s wish.
Rajendra points out the other ghats along the bank of the river. A ghat is a site where a cremation takes place. Dashashwamedh Ghat, where we embarked, is the most important ghat, but there are other ghats all along the river.
We travel down the river and part of the way back. We disembark and ascend to the road above the river and walk among some new buildings — a temple complex, I think. But we stop for a second to look down towards Manikarnika Ghat, where some cremations are taking place. Calvin starts taking photographs, but a young man with an impressive moustache tells him to stop. “Look with your eyes. Camera doesn’t always work. Eyes work all the time.”
After a brief stop to buy essential oils for some reason, we rejoin the car and arrive back at the hotel before breakfast.
We’re picked up from the hotel at 5 PM. As I said, I know that we’re seeing a Hindu religious ceremony, but for some reason I haven’t asked Rajendra for any more information and I have no idea what to expect.
The streets are packed, and we have to walk through a massive crowd for a few kilometres, trying not to lose sight of one another. It’s a diverse crowd: young people, families, old people. Women tend to be wearing traditional clothes, but the men are wearing just about everything. Some people are riding motorcycles through the crowd; other people are making their way through the crowd on tuk-tuks and rickshaws.
Soon we reach Dashashwamedh Ghat. It’s packed with people, thousands and thousands of them. Rajendra leads us into a concrete building and up a flight of steps, where there is a rooftop balcony with rows of plastic seats. We sit down; there are more white people here than usual. On the river is an additional crowd of people, on boats like the one we travelled in this morning. This crowd is massive too — hundreds and hundreds of people
We wait for things to start. Behind us somewhere, the sun has nearly set.
I’m not sure how to tell you what happened next: there’s so much that I don’t understand and can’t confidently describe. There is a band: a pipe of some kind, sitars, a harmonium, drums and bells. There is a singer, but I can’t actually see him. A young man with a beautiful voice. The people recognise the songs, I think. Sometimes they raise their hands and respond, but I’m not sure what they say.
There is a row of mats, seven of them, under the frame where the young Brahmin was standing this morning with his lamp. They are covered with yellow petals, except for the middle one, which is soon covered with pink ones. There is something like a bolster or pillow at the head of each mat (a pulvinar?); on the middle one there is a statue of a god, robed and decorated, and a framed picture hung with garlands of flowers.
By the time the sun sets, there is a young man standing on each mat, like the young man this morning. Each man has a cone-shaped lampstand like a Christmas tree, with 108 individual burning lamps (I learn later). Each man also has a lamp like the man this morning, with the snake looming over a fire. The men lift the lamps in turn, moving in unison while the chanting continues.
On the building to our left, two women are fighting, and the young son of one of them is crying and fanning himself dramatically. This distracts us for a while. But basically everyone is attentive. They are watching the men, listening to the music and occastionally joining in with a response or some rhythmic clapping.
I think I become aware that things are winding up somehow. In any case, after about an hour, Rajendra hurries us off the balcony and down the stairs. Soon all three of us are travelling through a massively thick crowd on a rickshaw, whose driver is able somehow to drag more than a quarter of a tonne of large men through the heaving mass of people.
“Wow,” I say to Rajendra. “That was incredible. What was that?”
He laughs. “I’ll explain it to you in the car.”
The ceremony is called the Ganga Aarti, and it takes place every day after dusk. Tens of thousands of people attend. Varanasi has nearly 100,000 pilgrims a day, and so most of the people attending are tourists from other parts of India. When I asked Rajendra how often a local would attend the ceremony, he laughed again, and said that most locals would only attend if they had a friend or relative visiting Varanasi.
Rajendra said that the purpose of the ceremony was to ask the god to be present in some way — the god of the river or Shiva himself, I wasn’t sure. He said that a similar ceremony is performed behind closed doors in a temple to invite a god to embody itself somehow in the temple’s statues. Or something. I could easily have misunderstood. He said that the people participating raised their hands to receive grace or good vibrations — a blessing.
Anyway, I’ve attended my fair share of religious rituals over the decades, Christian and Buddhist mostly, but I have never seen anything like this. The unity and unanimity. The atmosphere, like a festival or a concert or a religious revival or a dance party. Fire and music and voice, echoing into the surrounding darkness.
We arrived at Bodhgaya on Thursday evening; we woke up hungry on Friday morning, ready to travel to the Mahabodhi Temple Complex. But by the time we reached the hotel’s breakfast room, there was nothing left to eat — the breakfast buffet had been cleared out by a group of hungry Sri Lankan pilgrims who had arrived the previous night, woken up that morning at 4 AM, gone downstairs for breakfast, and then gone off to visit the temple complex themselves.
The Mahabodhi Temple Complex is another of the four places that merit being seen by a clansman with conviction: it marks the site where the Buddha was enlightened. The first temple there was built by King Ashoka in the third century BCE; the current temple dates from the fifth or sixth centuries CE. It’s a brick temple, not large, decorated with ornate carvings. Inside is a small chamber, large enough for a few dozen people. There’s an altar table, and an image of Buddha in a glass case. He’s making the bhūmisparśa mudra, his left hand in his lap palm upwards, his right hand touching the ground, calling on it to witness the insight he has gained. (Although it’s hard to see this, as the statue has been draped in golden cloth; we watched this happening when we were inside the temple.)
Outside the temple is an enclosure marked off by a stone fence. Inside that fence is a bodhi tree, with a complex history linking it to the original bodhi tree that the Buddha himself sat under. There is also a short walking path marked with stone lotuses, set there by King Ashoka to mark the Buddha’s footsteps.
The enclosure is part of a bigger precinct. Inside are stupas and trees and walkways. On one wall is a series of golden plates containing the text of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, and opposite them are a series of prayer wheels inscribed with Tibetan script. A gate leads out to a pool, with a statue of the Buddha meditating, protected from a thunderstorm by a giant cobra, the naga-king.
Calvin wanted to make an offering to the statue in the temple — a bowl of honey from his own hives and some kheer, a kind of rice pudding provided to the Buddha by a farmer’s wife called Sujātā, ending his six years of ascetic practice. He searched the markets of Patna for vessels appropriate for the occasion, ordered the kheer from the hotel, and filled and packed the vessels. When we arrived he quickly joined the queue to enter the temple to make his offering. Once the offering was complete, he searched the entire precinct, looking for stuff to photograph. He had lots to do.
Of all the Buddhist sites we’ve visited (and it’s been many more than just this main four), this one was the most alive. There were hundreds of people in the precinct — many of them monks and nuns, many tourists, locals, and groups of pilgrims in special outfits, arriving by bus, like our Sri Lankan friends. Rows of monks sat ouside the stone fence chanting. Others sat inside the fence, retracing the Buddha’s steps. Some visitors were carefully following a series of signs, directing them to contemplate the seven weeks the Buddha stayed here after his enlightenment and the seven different activities he performed.
But despite the business and the crowds and the activity, it was not impossible to take a few minutes to sit quietly and watch and think.
We came back again later in the evening. It was less crowded, and just as beautiful, but in a different way. Calvin had more photographs to take.
And when the Blessed One had set the Wheel of Dhamma in motion, the earth devas cried out: “Near Vārāṇasī, in the Deer Park at Isipatana, the Blessed One has set in motion the unexcelled Wheel of Dhamma that cannot be stopped by contemplative or brahman, deva, Māra, or Brahmā, or anyone at all in the cosmos.”
The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56:11)
The Buddha travelled from Bodhgaya to a place near Varanasi called Deer Park, or Sarnath. That’s where he preached his first sermon, the sermon in which he first conveyed his insights to his five disciples. It’s an event called Setting the Wheel of Dharma in motion; it’s described in the Sutta quoted above.
We visited Sarnath yesterday. It’s an archaeological site: there are the usual brick remains of monasteries and temples and votive stupas all over the park. The most salient feature is another giant stupa, the Dharmek stupa, which over 40 metres high. Its base was built by King Ashoka, but built and rebuilt over the centuries to reach this height. It marks the place where the Buddha preached that first sermon.
It was Easter Saturday, so there were a lot of people there. But most of them were tourists or locals, and the site lacked the vibe of the Mahabodhi Temple Complex, the feeling a you get at a place that has been animated by millions of visiting worshippers over hundreds of years.
Still, it’s a beautiful site in its own way, and over the fence you can still see some deer — I would have been deeply disappointed if there had been no deer left. And there’s a small museum containing artefacts found during the excavation of the site, including the capital of an Ashokan pillar, beautifully preserved and polished, whose iconography has been adopted as a representation of India itself.
As we were leaving, our friends the Sri Lankan pilgrims arrived in their bus, after travelling more than eight hours to get here. By now, some of them were probably hungry.
That’s the end of our week-long tour of major Buddhist pilgrimage sites. This morning we went to the Ganges to watch a Hindu ceremony before taking a boat ride along the river and seeing how cremations are performed. Tonight, back to the Ganges for one last look.