Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Stardrive

Nobody loves Stardrive. The reason’s pretty obvious – the Space Rats look very, very silly (things don’t improve when they open their mouths either). Their leader, Atlan (Damian Thomas), is briefly given a moment of character development when it’s revealed that he’s not actually a Space Rat. But since this revelation isn’t developed it proves to be something of a dead end.

Another issue with the Space Rats is the fact that Vila was given a few minutes to big them up – so after you’ve been told that they’re the baddest of the bad, the reality can’t help but be a disappointment ….

It’s nice to see Barbara Shelley, just a pity she’s wasted in a nothing sort of role. Doctor Plaxton is a very pallidly drawn character – we never really learn anything about her (especially why she’s so obsessed about perfecting the stardrive).

But if the guest cast are a little thin, at least the regulars are well catered for. Avon continues to blunder about (his wonderful plan to hitch a lift on an asteroid nearly kills them all). Quite why the others are still content to follow him after his recent string of command disasters is a bit of a mystery.

I love Vila’s drunk act – it’s an excellent demonstration of his natural cunning. Teaming Vila and Dayna up is another good move, even if Vila does revert to his more usual persona of a clumsy coward during these scenes.

The fact that Avon’s quite happy to use Vila and Dayna as a diversion is a telling moment (whether they live or die doesn’t seem to matter to him). Ditto poor old Doctor Plaxton, whose only reward for developing the stardrive is a painful death. The way that Avon comments “who?” after being asked about her, post-death, is a fascinating character touch – has he already blocked her death from his mind, or is he just attempting to?

Stardrive feels like a cheap story. Most of the new modelwork is pretty basic whilst the location (yet another quarry) doesn’t add any visual flair to the episode. But although it’s by means the series at its best, it’s not an absolute disaster either. The Space Rats thankfully aren’t on the screen for very long and the regulars (apart from Tarrant, who doesn’t do much at all) get a decent crack of the whip.

Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Power

The omens for Power aren’t good. Firstly you have two little words which strike fear into the hearts of many (‘Ben Steed’) and secondly, within the first few seconds a group of hairy tribesmen lurch into view (hairy tribesmen are always one of my least favourite B7 sights). And yet ….

Dicken Ashworth’s Gunn-Sar might appear at first glance to be a typically stereotyped tribal leader (“I am Gunn-Sar, chief of the Hommiks. I rule by right of challenge, which means I’m the biggest, toughest, meanest son of a Seska on this planet”) but there’s much more to him than meets the eye. Ashworth mines the script for comic material and surprisingly for a Ben Steed episode there are some gems to be found.

The way that Gunn-Sar becomes increasingly exasperated at having to repeat his leadership mantra, his duelling (both verbally and physically) with Avon and the revelation that he’d much sooner put his feet up and embroider a nice rug are all nice little character touches. Frankly, I was sorry to see him meet a sticky end.

Gunn-Sar’s relationship with Nina (Jenny Oulton) is something which seems like it’s been dropped into the script specifically to wrong-foot viewers who were aware of Steed’s style. In public Gunn-Sar treats Nina with contempt, but in private there’s a tender bond between them. Gunn-Sar’s public/private facades are an interesting part of the story.

Isolated from the others for most of the script, Avon swans around as if he’s in a Western (which maybe he is). Avon’s easily able to get the better of Gunn-Sar but he meets his match when tangling with Pella (Juliet Hammond-Hill). 

There’s something a little uncomfortable about the way Avon forces her to submit and – as so often with post S2 Avon – then grabs her for a quick snog. Just in case we aren’t following, Steed gives our hero a short speech which reinforces why men are best. “You see, Pella, it’s your strength, and however you use it, a man’s will always be greater. Unfair, perhaps, but biologically unavoidable.”

Slightly icky, but since Pella then levitates a computer keyboard to knock Avon out (Paul Darrow’s shocked expression and his slow descent to the floor are the funniest thing in the episode) it suggests that honours are pretty much even between them at this point. This is another moment where Steed seems to be subverting the male stereotypes from his previous stories (unless I’m just being too generous).

Dayna gets to challenge Gunn-Sar, Tarrant stands around a lot whist Vila becomes increasingly hysterical. All three do their best with what they’re given, but this one is really Paul Darrow’s episode. And what of Soolin? The way she turns up a minute before the end is unforgivable (just what has she been doing for the previous 48 minutes?). It would have been nice had Chris Boucher rewritten the script to give her at least a little something to do.

The Western theme is seen again in the closing minutes as Avon proves to be quicker on the draw than Pella. It’s a shocking moment, which Avon sums up thus. “You can have war between races, war between cultures, war between planets. But once you have war between the sexes, you eventually run out of people”.

If that’s the case, then he shouldn’t have killed her. Oh well. 

Overall Power‘s not as bad as it might have been (even if the ease at which they gain a teleport system beggars belief). It’s never going to be a favourite, but the series did far worse.

Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Rescue 

The first ten minutes or so are fascinating. Dayna and Tarrant – two people who you’d assume would both be good in a crisis – somewhat go to pieces. Dayna has to be rescued several times (first by Avon and then Dorian) whilst Tarrant seems to have turned into a drunk, wallowing face down in the snow. I might be doing him a disservice though, possibly the canister contained nothing stronger than water and he’s simply feeling the side-effects from their Terminal adventures.

Even more unexpected (although welcome) is the way that Vila’s temporarily recast as the hero – not only rescuing Tarrant (“If I’ve broken my back hauling a corpse about, I’ll never forgive you”) but also saving the day at the end of the episode.

As for Avon, well he’s still Avon, although given their reduced circumstances it’s maybe not surprising that he’s even more ruthless than usual. Although Dorian is later revealed to have unfriendly plans for them all, Avon wasn’t to know that at first – so the casual way he cheerfully hijacks Dorian’s ship is a reminder that he isn’t a very nice person at all ….

There’s not a great deal of plot in the episode, but I don’t have too much of a problem with this. Since there’s only six speaking parts everyone is given a good share of the action (although it’s ironic that Soolin – later to become a regular – comes off the worst). Geoffrey Burridge is more than memorable as Dorian, although things do go slightly awry around the thirty minute mark (when he starts to age). It’s then that all pretence at subtlety goes out of the window.

When Dorian tells Avon that “you really are most welcome here, my friend” it’s possible to read considerable subtext into those simple words. An acting choice or as scripted? I wonder.

I do like the way that once Dorian reveals the truth about his secret room he suddenly starts speaking like a character in a florid 19th century melodrama (“all the madness and rotting corruption which would have been mine”). There’s an obvious reason for that, but it’s nice that the script doesn’t feel the need to hammer the point home. Had this been a contemporary Doctor Who story it’s easy to imagine the Doctor muttering something about Oscar Wilde just before the TARDIS left the scene.

The plot isn’t exactly watertight. How fortunate that Dorian – who has been searching for Avon and the others for a while – happens to find them immediately after the Liberator has been destroyed (and therefore at a point when they’re at their most vulnerable. The reason why he needs them, rather than any other group, is a little puzzling too. Dorian requires people who are close to each other (“You care for each other. After what you’ve been through together, you couldn’t fail to care for each other. Even you, Avon”.). Only Avon and co fit this bill? Hmm, okay.

The cut price monster at the end is a bit of a disappointment and it’s a pity that Soolin isn’t given more to do, but all in all this is a solid season opener.

Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Series Three, Episodes Eleven to Thirteen

Moloch

Any clues that this is a Ben Stead script? Well, one or two ….

Sardos is a planet where the gross Section Leader Grose (John Hartley) rules with an iron hand although the unseen Moloch seems to be pulling most of the strings. Moloch doesn’t do much though, apart from occasionally piping up off-screen to advise that any miscreant female should be handed over to Grose’s men. It hardly needs to be spelled out what their fate will be.

Servalan later sums up the state of affairs on Sardos. “Well, Section Leader, the records were accurate. Women, food, and inflicting pain – in no particular order”. At least with Power, Stead would subvert expectations from time to time – sadly there’s no examples of that here. When Grose slaps a serving wench on the bottom and suggests that she’d look better with a “bit of dressing, and an apple between her teeth” we have to take his comments at face value.

The expectation is that one of the downtrodden females, such as Chesil (Sabina Franklyn), will be the one to strike the killer blow and bring Grose’s misogynistic empire crashing to the ground. That would have been something, but it wasn’t to be.

Vila later makes friends with Doran (Davyd Harris), an initially affable rogue who later turns out to be far less affable (that fact he hates women shouldn’t really come as any surprise – even though he’s not one of Grose’s men). Michael Keating is a little better served by this script than the previous one. His best moment comes when Vila runs into Servalan and the pair form an uneasy (and very brief) alliance. A whole episode featuring a team-up between Vila and Servalan would have been delicious, a pity it never happened.

The fortunes of the Federation have fluctuated during series three, mainly depending on who was writing the script. In Moloch, things seem so bad that Servalan has traipsed across the galaxy in order to retrieve Grose’s legion of ships. That doesn’t exactly chime with what we’ve seen previously, but that’s the least of this episode’s problems …

As we lurch towards the conclusion, things get more and more lunatic. The appearance of Colonel Astrid, Grose’s former commander, is bad enough but then we finally get to see Moloch himself. If you’re going to hold something back for a shock reveal at the end, you need to make sure that it’s worth waiting for. Oh dear.

Mind-boggling stuff. What were Chris Boucher and David Maloney thinking?

Death Watch

Armed with nothing more than a bad wig, Steven Pacey very credibly manages to make Deeta Tarrant seem like a very different character from his younger brother Del. The Deeta scenes give Pacey better material to work with than he’s had for most of series three and it’s one of the obvious highlights of the episode.

Vila’s amazing range of drinks and snacks is another and I also like the rare example of playful banter between Vila and Cally – which ends when the pair, acting like a couple of children, chase each other off the flight deck!

There’s some nice self-referential touches in this story. The commentator (David Sibley) serves a dual purpose – not only does he info-dump a considerable amount of detail about the upcoming combat, but when that’s over there’s time for a few sly digs at the artifice of television broadcasting (“it was your usual delicate mixture of enthusiasm and dignified cliché”). The portentous voice-over (“Space, the final frontier”) is another obvious bit of mockery.

Servalan does very little, but her scene with Avon is worth the price of admission alone. Paul Darrow manages to overcome the handicap of looking ridiculous (that jacket isn’t the best thing he’s ever worn) as he spits out his dialogue in trademark fashion. You just knew that another snog was around the corner and he didn’t disappoint on that score. Two other moments are especially delightful – the way Avon holds Servalan in an embrace whilst at the same time calling the Liberator for teleport as well as Servalan’s smile after he departs.

The POV shots during the Deeta/Vinny battle are nicely done, as are Deeta’s final moments which the audience are invited to share. A pity that the space suits are all a bit glam rock though.

Overall, there’s not a lot wrong with this one. It’s certainly rich in small character moments which means that it’s a rewarding story to revisit.

Terminal

Terminal offers us a preview of the irrational Avon we’d see in series four. The destruction of the Liberator is a direct consequence of his overweening hubris – had he taken the advice of the others and steered the ship around the unidentified particles then the Liberator would have lived to tell the tale. But Avon knew best, or thought he did …..

“Well, you certainly took your time finding me”. It’s the briefest of scenes, but even this small dose of Gareth Thomas is a sharp reminder of what the series has lacked this year. Although a few half-hearted attempts had been made to strike up a rivalry between Avon and Tarrant, it never sprung into life. Had – as originally intended – an older actor been cast as Tarrant then possibly their spats might have been more impressive. But Steven Pacey always seemed like a lightweight when lined up alongside Paul Darrow.

The plot’s a little loose in places. Did Avon really just track Blake down in order to take part in his get-rich plan? We’ve previously been told that the Liberator contains untold wealth, so this seems unlikely. Or did Avon – even after all their squabbles – really want to reconnect with his former ship-mate? Again, this is slightly hard to swallow but it seems the more likely reason of the two.

But I do like the way that Avon’s motives are rather cloaked – when Servalan (shock, horror) makes an appearance, she wonders if Avon teleported down alone because he didn’t want to share Blake’s spoils with the others (Avon maintained it was because he didn’t want to put them in danger). The brief smile on his face after Servalan’s comment leaves this point moot.

Of course, there was no Blake, it was all an illusion conjured up by Servalan in order to (yawn) capture the Liberator. The only good thing about the destruction of the ship in this story is that we’ll be spared any more of these Servalan-hatches-a-crazy-plan-to-steal-the-Liberator plotlines in the future.

Best not to question why neither Servalan nor her minions notice that the Liberator’s not exactly looking in tip top shape. She’s been onboard before, so surely all the gloopy pustules on the walls should have started the alarm bells ringing.

Terminal’s ominous and constant heartbeat (which only increases the closer that Avon gets to his prey) works well and it’s nice to see Vila take charge for once. Left on the ailing Liberator with Dayna, he hatches a plan to hopefully buy them some more time.

The death of Zen (“I have failed you. I am sorry”) has always been more upsetting to me than the death of Gan. Sorry David.

Terminal does sag in parts (it takes an awfully long time for Avon to reach faux-Blake and the less said about the links the better) but it’s still a good’un.

So that’s that. The final end. At least until there was a last minute reprieve ….

Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Series Three, Episodes Eight to Ten

Rumours of Death

I love the cold opening – a pity that the show didn’t do more of this. Unshaven and in pain, we share Avon’s disorientation as he’s visited in his cell by Shrinker (John Bryans). The prison cell is a simple set, but off-camera screams from other, less fortunate, inmates helps to create a sense both of scale and oppression. Fiona Cumming’s direction here, and throughout the episode, has some nice choices – with Shrinker standing and Avon sitting, the low camera angle reinforces the Federation man’s dominance (at least initially).

Avon’s ruthlessness is perfectly demonstrated in this episode (as well as his single-minded desire to withstand anything – even days of torture – to achieve his ultimate goal). Whether this is a good or bad thing is debatable – it’s easy to argue that the seeds of his eventual downfall were sown here. After killing the most important woman in his life (who betrayed him) it surely would make killing the most important man in his life (whom he believed had betrayed him) much easier.

After some of the more pulpy sci-fi stories of series three, Rumours of Death is a pleasingly straightforward thriller/spy yarn. And whilst the palace revolution – and Servalan’s temporary dethroning – was achieved rather easily, this could be taken as an illustration of just how tenuous her grip on power was at this point.

Jacqueline Pearce doesn’t have a great of screentime, but her scenes with Avon are pulsating (especially “It’s an old wall, Avon, it waits. I hope you don’t die before you reach it.”). Although once again it’s remarkable that Avon and Servalan keep on running into each other when they’ve the whole galaxy to play with.

Greenlee (Donald Douglas) and Forres (David Haig) are a couple of interesting characters – Federation types who also seem like fairly ordinary people. The fact they’re a likeable double-act helps to blur the lines between the “good” and “bad” sides. Sula (Lorna Helibron) is another example of this – is she a pure rebel, keen to restore democracy with a People’s Council, or does she just have her eye on replacing Servalan?

The revelation that Sula was Anna (and therefore everything Avon thought he knew was wrong) means that he has – in his own mind – no choice but to kill her. Whether she did really love him (as her dying words suggest) is another of those moments that’s open to interpretation. And that’s one of the reasons why Rumours of Death is such a good episode – few B7’s have this level of nuance. Who do you trust and who do you disbelieve?

Although the episode Blake wasn’t even a gleam in Chris Boucher’s eye when he scripted this one, in retrospect it’s easy to see how even at this point Avon was firmly set on the road to Gauda Prime.

Sarcophagus

You can’t help but love and respect a story which begins in such an oblique and bewildering fashion. Sarcophagus‘ first five minutes pass by with no explanation, although the roles of the masked servitors will become clearer later on (when we see the Liberator crew occupying the same positions).

As with most of S3, there’s a definite feeling of ennui hanging over the crew. With no particular goal in sight, they spend their time doing relatively little (you know things are desperate when Vila and Avon are indulging in a game of space draughts). Tarrant’s asteroid (“something else to chase” as Cally says) is the latest example of a mission which seems to be designed more to keep them busy, than for any other pressing reason.

Largely set aboard the Liberator and (apart from some non-speaking extras) solely centered around the regulars, Sarcophagus may have been designed as a cheap show, but Tanith Lee was able to work with these limitations and unlike, say Breakdown (another Liberator heavy story), ensure that everybody was well served by the script. Avon and Cally top and tail the story (with other intriguing scenes scattered throughout), Tarrant might be his usual annoying self when interrogating Cally early on, but he gets a decent scene with the alien later (although largely it feels like he’s just softening her up for Avon’s killer blow). Dayna gets to warble a tune(!) whilst Vila’s conjuring tricks (with a dose of non-diegetic sound) ends up as a decidedly creepy moment.

Easy to see why this is a slightly marmite story, since it’s almost totally a tale of dialogue and concepts with little or no action. But I’m glad that Boucher took a chance on a television novice like Tanith Lee, as both of her B7 stories are ones which repay multiple viewings.

Ultraworld

Vila seems to have had a nervous breakdown, that’s the only possible explanation I can find for his behaviour in this episode (chuckling with Orac at a series of lame riddles and gags). One sample will suffice – “Where do space pilots leave their ships? At parking meteors”. True, in the end this becomes an important plot point, but it’s still incredibly lame (you can’t blame Michael Keating, he could only work with the material he had, but the script gives him little scope to portray Vila as anything over than a childish buffoon).

Jan Chappell, who spends most of the episode unconscious, also has limited room to shine. So with Vila out to lunch and Cally asleep, that leaves the trio of Avon, Tarrant and Dayna. This does have its compensations – especially as we’re treated to some typical Avon jibes (when Tarrant declares that he takes calculated risks, Avon counters “calculated on what? Your fingers?”). And with Avon sitting most of the second part of the episode out, this leaves Tarrant and Dayna at the forefront – it’s notable how Tarrant takes control (even if you sense he really doesn’t know what he’s doing).

Although Ultraworld had a fairly small guest cast, it doesn’t seem to have been a particularly cheap show. The modelwork is impressive (the huge pulsating brain is gloriously icky whilst the capture of the Liberator is another nice sequence – albeit a bit wobbly). Location filming at the Camden Town shelter also helped to create a sense of space.

Of course the story is a very silly run-around (Trevor Hoyle, like Tanith Lee, was a science-fiction novelist and a television novice, but their two S3 stories couldn’t be further apart – one was lyrical and layered, and the other was called Ultraworld). This is a story that you sense Hoyle wasn’t taking terribly seriously.

Especially played for laughs is the scene where the Ultras decide that Tarrant and Dayna should demonstrate the human bonding ceremony. Dayna seems up for it (“kiss me. Come on. I can’t be all that repulsive”) as she, ahem, sets to work on Tarrant. The way the Ultras are looking in (“has the bonding ceremony begun?”) sets the tone of this sequence.

Everything’s sorted out with embarrassing ease – Cally and Avon might have had their memories stolen but luckily Tarrant was able to find their data stores just lying about. A pity they weren’t swopped around, as an episode with Avon stuck in Cally’s body (and vice-versa) would have been very interesting.

It’s silly, but it’s fun.

Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Series Three, Episodes Five to Seven

Harvest of Kairos

This one is odd, very, very odd. For just this episode, Tarrant has become the unopposed leader of the group (Servalan keeps chuntering on about his command skills, and when she boards the Liberator once again reminds everybody that Tarrant’s the boss). Wat’s Avon doing whilst Tarrant’s running the show? He’s staring at a rock he’s found (Darrow plays this episode like the Avon of S4 – whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on how much you enjoy S4).

Andrew Burt’s not a bad actor, but he’s woefully miscast as Jarvik (mind you, any actor would struggle with this role). From his first words (“Woman, you’re beautiful” as he grasps Servalan for a quick snog) it’s hard to keep a straight face whenever Jarvik has any dialogue.

How he temporarily humanises Servalan is interesting, but it’s a pity that it’s done in such a ham-fisted way. “When was the last time you felt the warmth of the Earth’s sun on your naked back? Or lifted your face to the heavens, and laughed with the joy of being alive? How long since you wept at the death of a friend?” Another actor might have delivered this with a little more subtlety, I’m afraid that Burt’s line reading only generated tears of laughter from me ….

Jarvik is a man. Tarrant is a man. Therefore they have to do what men do – face each other in combat. It’s possible that there’s an element of satire in Ben Steed’s script, but I don’t really think so – it seems we’re required to take everything at face value. The climax of the story (Jarvik is accidentally shot dead) is incredibly unconvincing (I assume the clock was ticking round to ten pm). But it does allow Tarrant to remind everybody that Jarvik was a special kind of man. A man’s man, you might say.

The creature is monumentally silly as well, but that’s the least of this episode’s problems. And yet, like Voice from the Past this is an episode that I still derive some pleasure from. It’s illogical and made on the cheap (Servalan seems to be flying around in a space station) but whatever else it is, it’s not dull.

City at the Edge of the World

Whether by accident or design, all the regulars get at least one starring episode during series three (Cally is especially lucky as she gets two – Children of Auron and Sarcophagus). City is Vila’s chance to shine and it’s nice to see Michael Keating given more to do for once than just act as the comic foil. The episode’s a bit of a run-around, but Colin Baker’s performance as Bayban helps to keep things ticking along nicely. Subtle his turn isn’t, entertaining it is.

Always nice to see Valentine Dyall, although he isn’t called upon to do much more than stand around looking noble. Carol Hawkins looks lovely, although Kerril’s sudden mood swing (from hating Vila to loving him) is a little hard to swallow. Maybe this was all just one of Vila’s soma induced dreams?

The relationship between Vila and Kerril is delightfully chaste (their ‘sex’ scene seems to mainly consist of them lying on adjoining couches). An agreeable romp then – not a story with great depth or impact but thanks to the performances it breezes along nicely.

Children of Auron

Oh no, not another story where Servalan attempts to steal the Liberator ….

On the plus side, Liberator pinching does very much play second fiddle to her other (frankly bonkers) plan – feeling a little broody, she intends to wipe out vast swathes of Cally’s people just so she can use their cloning facilities to create a race of mini-Servalans. But compared to Roger Parkes’ previous script (Voice from the Past) this seems quite sensible.

Auron never really comes alive as a planet. Their isolationist nature is touched upon (but if this is the case, why was a pilot tootling around in space?) and Ronald Leigh-Hunt does his usual gruff act, but it’s hard to really connect to the tragedy that befalls them.

Cally has a twin! I love Chris Boucher dearly, but sometimes his script-editing was odd. Cally has a twin? Fair enough, but pulling the same trick with Tarrant a few episodes later makes this harder to swallow (you can’t help but expect the same thing to happen with Avon, Vila and Dayna too).

Odd that Zelda wasn’t given more to do, although her final scene with Cally was touching.

All the regulars get some decent lines (plus Paul Darrow has some serious brooding time) but it’s really Jacqueline Pearce who gets the best of the script. Even though Servalan once again displays an astonishing lack of judgement, it’s impossible not to feel something after she’s tricked into destroying her embryos. “They were mine, I felt them die”.

Rio Fanning and Ric Young (as Deral and Ginka) offer some light relief (although I’ve a feeling this wasn’t intended). Poor Servalan, good men must be hard to find if these two are the best she can come up with.

Serious points off for the chucklesome ending (almost as bad as Breakdown – we’ve just witnessed a catastrophe, so let’s have a bit of a laugh). Children of Auron is a bit static and wordy (and the plot isn’t exactly watertight) but it’s a solid character piece.