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Who Corner
For collectors of Dr. Who and British science fiction
Strange New Worlds  Issue 12 - February/March 1994

Blackadder Chronicles
by Tom Beck

Picture a slimy, worm-like man dressed in black, slinking around the castle. Could this possibly be a Prince of royal blood? Yes. It is Edmund, Duke of Edinburgh, known as the Black Adder. He is the youngest son of Richard IV.

What? You don’t remember the glorious thirteen year reign of Richard IV from your English History? That is probably because the Monarch exists only in the fevered imagination of Ben Elton, Richard Curtis, and Rowan Atkinson.

Blackadder is British "alternative comedy." These comedies, mostly running on BBC Two, parody traditional television and society. They appeal to viewers with a decidedly warped sense of humor. Blackadder offers an inspired series of spoofs of British history from the 1480s through the first world war. In four separate series (and two specials), Blackadder parodies Shakespeare, Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh, Cromwell, Samuel Johnson, the French Revolution, Charles Dickens, and the Red Baron. It’s not science fiction, but if you are a fan of Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, or Red Dwarf, you’ll love Blackadder.

The series showcases some of Britain’s finest comic and acting talents: Brian Blessed, Peter Cook, Frank Finlay, Miranda Richardson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Tom Baker, Nicola Bryant, William Russell, Chris Barrie, Rik Mayall, and others. Rowan Atkinson plays the Black Adder (and his descendants) through the entire series.

American audiences first saw Blackadder on the Arts & Entertainment cable network; more recently PBS is its home. All twenty-four episodes of the four series are available on videotape with three episodes per tape.

The four Blackadder series depict a wide range of British social history. In Blackadder, Rowan Atkinson plays a royal prince. Edmund is cowardly, conniving, and corrosively witty. He is so slimy you wonder how he sleeps without slipping out of bed. In each succeeding series, he takes a step further down the social scale. In Blackadder II, though no longer royal, he is still an aristocrat, the Earl of Blackadder, courtier to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. The Earl is handsome, brilliant, sophisticated — and no less calculating, greedy, and acidicly witty. In Blackadder the Third, he is even more declassé, becoming Mr. Blackadder, household steward to the Prince Regent. In Blackadder Goes Fourth, he is Captain Blackadder of the British Army in France.

Blackadder is accompanied throughout history by various associates, principally his servant Baldric (Tony Robinson), who degenerates from a cunning lout in Blackadder to a shuffling idiot in the three sequels. The magnificent comic actor Stephen Fry appears in the second and fourth series as Lord Melchett, Blackadder’s rival. Fry’s partner-in-comedy Hugh Laurie appears in the last three series.

The first series, Blackadder, "Filmed in Glorious Television," is a parody of the costume dramas of the 1930s and ’40s that starred Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power as heroic young noblemen. The three sequels are more parodies of history and famous people than of the medium itself. Classic episodes include "The Archbishop," in which young Edmund is forced by his father to become Prelate of All England; "Beer" in which the Earl must entertain his drinking buddies at an enormous drinking fest at the same time he is attempting to win an inheritance from his abstemious aunt; and "Potato," in which Tom Baker plays a bizarre explorer and rival of Sir Walter Raleigh (played by Simon Jones of A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy). A highlight of Blackadder II is Miranda Richardson’s Queen Elizabeth I, whom she portrays as a frizzy-haired ditz with screeching voice, pop eyes, and insouciant vanity.

The principal attraction of all four series is the enormous comic talents of Rowan Atkinson. He has recently been seen on HBO as Mr. Bean, a sad sack with a talent for ruining other people’s lives. Blackadder has a talent for ruining his own life.

The BBC also produced two Blackadder specials: "The Cavalier Years," a half-hour set during the English Civil War and "A Blackadder Christmas Carol," a brilliantly nasty mangling of Dickens’ classic in which Ebeneezer Blackadder, the world’s nicest man, learns the true meaning of Christmas.

Doctor Who news

The current hot rumor among Whovians: Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment is negotiating with the BBC for the rights to Doctor Who. BBC has confirmed the existence of preliminary discussions with Amblin. It is also rumored that Amblin is seeking the rights to the Doctor Who movie. The previous option-holder, Green Light Productions, let its option expire at the end of October.

Virgin Books has decided to launch a series of original Doctor Who novels collectively called " The Missing Adventures." These will involve the first six Doctors. Previous "New Adventures" dealt with only the Seventh Doctor. The first book in the new series, Goth Opera, will feature the Fifth Doctor; it is written by Paul Cornell, author of three previous "New Adventures." John Peel will write Evolution. The new "Missing Adventures" will be released quarterly beginning next summer.

These newer "New Adventures" represent a departure for editor Peter Darvill-Evans. He was adamantly opposed to the idea of original novels with previous Doctors, saying it would be bad for Doctor Who fans to look to the past rather than the future. However, overwhelming fan support for new stories with "old" Doctors persuaded him to change his mind.

A great deal of new Doctor Who merchandise was unveiled at Visions ’93, the superconvention held in Chicago last Thanksgiving weekend. New books included Doctor Who: Timeframe by noted Doctor Who historian David Howe; The Sixth Doctor Handbook (a sequel to last year’s excellent Fourth Doctor Handbook); and several "New Adventures." Other new merchandise included audiotapes of "The Paradise of Death," last summer’s terrific BBC Radio 5 Doctor Who episode starring Jon Pertwee and Elisabeth Sladen. No word yet on when "Paradise of Death" will be available in the U.S.; a novelization is due in March. Many magazines featured stories celebrating Doctor Who’s Thirtieth Anniversary. Now available on video in the U.S. is "The Airzone Solution," Bill Bagg’s latest alternative video starring Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant, Peter Davison, Sylvester McCoy, and Jon Pertwee.

In my next column, I’ll be taking a look at Doctor Who on audio. Until then, remember me to Gallifrey! l

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