Blakes 7 – Duel

duel 01

Round two of the battle between Blake and Travis is interrupted by two mysterious and powerful characters – Sinofar (Isla Blair) and Giroc (Patsy Smart).  Both Blake and Travis are ordered by Sinofar to fight to the death.  Blake isn’t keen – he has no desire to fight for anybody’s amusement – but there’s no alternative. Sinofar also tells them that whilst half the lesson they will learn concerns the death of an enemy, the other relates to the death of a friend.

Blake is given Jenna as a companion, whilst the friendless Travis is accompanied by one of his Mutoid subordinates (played by Carol Royle).  The rest of the Liberator crew watch on helpless as Blake and Travis duel.  The question is, can Blake kill in cold blood?

This has always been a favourite episode of mine and one of the chief reasons is Douglas Camfield’s direction.  Camfield had, by this time, directed more episodes of Doctor Who than anybody else, as well as a host of other series (including The Sweeney).

He’d gained a well deserved reputation as an excellent director of action (so it’s no surprise that the fight scene in Duel is well staged) but he was also someone who looked to make all of his shots as visually interesting as possible. There’s some good examples in this episode – such as the early scenes on the barren planet of Sinofar and Giroc (it’s something of a challenge to make it look other than it is – a small studio set – but some tight camera angles and lighting effects help to create the illusion of space and depth).

Another major difference with Duel is the lack of Dudley Simpson’s music.  After a falling-out at a party in the mid sixties Camfield had declined to use Simpson from then on, so here the music is drawn from stock.  And much as I love Simpson, it really works to the benefit of the story – indeed, more variety with the composers during Blakes 7‘s run would have been very welcome.

Although the duel between Blake and Travis is the centre of the episode, it takes a while before we reach that point.  Before then, there’s an extended battle between the Liberator and Travis’ fleet of ships.  All of Travis’ crew are Mutoids – emotionless alien creatures who depend on blood for their survival.  They are also highly efficient and this is one of the reasons why Travis is able to bring the Liberator to the brink of defeat.  Blake decides there’s nothing left to do but ram Travis’ ship – but before he can carry out this potentially risky manovure, both he and Travis find themselves plucked off their respective ships.  Sinofar and Giroc explain why and what will happen to them.

duel 02

SINOFAR: Our powers grew out of a thousand years of war, out of hate, and fear and the will to survive.
GIROC: We built destruction, weapons that your peoples have not yet dreamed of. Every passing year brought new ways to kill, and throughout the centuries the war raged across our planet.
SINOFAR: With each generation there were fewer of us. The dead vastly outnumbered the living. There was not victory for either side.
BLAKE: How did it end?
GIROC: How? Another development of another weapon. We demanded their surrender, they refused, the weapon was used. Those that we call our enemy were annihilated. TRAVIS: You won, that’s all that matters.
SINOFAR: It wasn’t a victory, only the end of the war. We were left with a planet made barren by radiation. Our children were monsters, or died, or were never born. This, we won.
BLAKE: How many of you are there now?
GIROC: None. We are a dead race.

Isla Blair and Patsy Smart are both impressive – Blair is calm, whilst Smart is mischievous.  True, their main function is to provide a large infodump mid-episode, but there’s a certain poetry to their tale of a dead world.  It’s not an original concept, but in an era when the threat of nuclear attack was still an ever-present concern it must have carried a certain resonance.  Terry Nation had form for this of course (such as the first Dalek story, set on the radiation-soaked planet of Skaro).

After the fairly routine previous episode, Mission to Destiny, Duel is a major step up – especially when it comes to the dialogue.  There’s plenty of memorable lines to be found and one of my favourite exchanges is this one aboard the Liberator.  The others are able to watch Blake and Jenna but can’t do anything to help.  When Avon gets up, Vila asks him if he’s thought of a plan.

AVON: Yes. I’m going to get some sleep.
VILA: How can you sleep with all this happening?
AVON: With all what happening? Blake is sitting up in a tree, Travis is sitting up in another tree. Unless they’re planning to throw nuts at one another, I don’t see much of a fight developing before it gets light.
GAN: You’re never involved, are you Avon? You ever cared for anyone?
VILA: Except yourself?
AVON: I have never understood why it should be necessary to become irrational in order to prove that you care, or, indeed, why it should be necessary to prove it at all.
VILA: Was that an insult or did I miss something?
CALLY (smiling): You missed something.

The next day, Blake and Travis continue to hunt each other down.  Eventually, Blake has Travis at his mercy and prepares to strike the killing blow.  Gan, Cally and Vila (like us, acting as the audience) urge him on, but Avon spots Blake’s hesitation and in another lovely character moment, smiles.  Does he regard Blake’s inability to kill as a strength or a weakness?

Although Blake didn’t kill Travis, he’s won the contest and when he admits that one of the reasons he didn’t kill him was because he would have enjoyed it too much, Sinofar concedes that maybe there’s not a great deal for him to learn.  Duel is very much a vehicle for Gareth Thomas and Stephen Greif, although Paul Darrow does have some good moments, even though he’s absent from the main narrative.

Travis and Servalan tended to be joined at the hip rather, but this episode indicates that he works best on his own – too often Servalan just seems to be there to berate his bungling after he’s left slip another chance to catch Blake (which can’t do anything but seriously weaken his character). The next episode, Project Avalon, is another strong Travis tale – but it would have probably been wise to retire the character after that.  Alas they didn’t, so it’ll be a case of diminishing returns from then on.

duel 03

Blakes 7 – Project Avalon

avalon 01

The Liberator has travelled to an icy, inhospitable planet in order for Blake to make contact with the resistance leader Avalon (Julia Vidler).  Avalon has started resistance movements on a dozen Federation planets and has requested Blake’s help in relocating somewhere safer.

Blake is keen to assist, but when he and Jenna teleport down they find a scene of devastation – clearly the Federation has beaten them to it.  Avalon isn’t amongst the dead though – they learn from the sole survivor, Chevner (David Bailie), that she’s been captured.  So Blake sets out to rescue her, not realising he’s fallen into Travis’ trap …..

Time has obviously moved on since the events of Seek Locate Destroy and Duel and it’s interesting to note how the Federation’s plans have changed.  In Seek Locate Destroy, the apprehension of Blake was their main objective – now it appears that capturing the Liberator is just as important, if not more so.

The notion that there’s been some unseen adventures between Blake and Travis is confirmed when he bitterly mentions to Servalan he’s twice had the chance to destroy Blake, but it would have meant destroying the Liberator as well, so he was forced to disengage.  Servalan concedes this, but in an early display of the same needling relationship they’d enjoy from now on, tells him that whilst she’s defended him, he needs to capture Blake soon or he’ll be replaced (and no doubt his life will be forfeit).

It’s clearly meant to be a surprise that Avalon is female – a mere girl leading a resistance cell! – and this is reinforced by Dudley Simpson’s tinkling piano just before she’s captured by Travis.  Once she’s in his power, she’s reduced to her underwear and strapped into a very uncomfortable-looking machine for a purpose which only becomes clear later on.  Whilst it’s no surprise for a female character to become an objectified figure in a late 1970’s British science fiction series (or indeed any series of this era) it’s still slightly eye-opening.  When Blake found himself in a similar machine, his modesty was rather better preserved!

Whilst Avalon is helpless, Travis tells her that she should be flattered to receive such “special” attention.  She replies that “anyone who opposes the Federation knows what to expect if they get captured. It’s a risk we’re all prepared to take.” It’s a difficult line to deliver and it’s fair to say that Julia Vidler does struggle somewhat in depicting the idealistic young rebel (her delivery tends to stay on something of a monotone).  It’s probably a blessing that later she reappears as an emotionless android – she manages to play this rather more convincingly.

Rather more engaging is Glynis Barber as this week’s Mutoid sidekick.  I’m not sure whether it’s as scripted, or just her performance choice, but Barber’s considerably more assured and confident than Carol Royle’s Mutoid in Duel was.  This works very well –  as she operates more as an equal with Travis in the early part of the episode, rather than living in his shadow.

Director Michael E. Briant had previously filmed in Wookey Hole for the 1975 Doctor Who story Revenge of the Cybermen.  Although the caves are a lot smaller than you might think, it’s still a very good location and makes a nice change from Blakes 7′s default locations (quarries, refineries, nuclear power plants, etc).   This wasn’t the only link to Briant’s previous work on Doctor Who as he cast David Bailie (who had appeared in The Robots of Death) as the doomed Chevner.

Alas, the silly looking robot pops up again.  His first scene is priceless – since he speeds along a such a lick it’s obvious he’s being wheeled on a board.  Indeed, if you freeze frame, there’s a tell-tale flash of the board to confirm this!  Like the Daleks and K9, he was clearly a robot with serious mobility issues.

Gan’s very taken with Avalon (or at least what appears to be Avalon).  His hero-worship (if that’s what it is) does allow David Jackson an entertaining scene towards the end of the episode.  Once it’s become clear that Avalon isn’t all she appears to be, Gan attempts to strangle her – but Avalon’s super-human strength stops him.  I wonder why the limiter didn’t prevent him from hurting her?  Is his implant so clever that it knows what appeared to be Avalon was only an android or is it just a case of selective scripting?

It may come as no surprise to learn that Travis’ rather elaborate plan doesn’t succeed and he finds himself, for the first time but certainly not the last, relieved of his command.  His closing words are a none too subtle hint that he may be down but he’s far from out. “If it takes all my life, I will destroy you, Blake. I will destroy you. I will destroy you.”

avalon 02

Blakes 7 – Breakdown

breakdown 01

Gan’s limiter has malfunctioned and it’s turned him into an uncontrollable psychopath.  Although Blake and the others manage to subdue and sedate him, it’s obvious that he needs urgent medical attention.  After reviewing the various options, Avon mentions to Blake that the nearest facility, XK-72, would be ideal.

Zen refuses to take the Liberator on a direct course (due to unspecified dangers) so Jenna has to pilot the ship without computer assistance in a desperate race against timeBut although they eventually reach their destination, can they they trust the brilliant surgeon Kayn (Julian Glover)?

Poor Gan.  Always something of a third wheel, even this episode (in which he ostensibly takes centre-stage) doesn’t really do him any favours.  The main problem was that he was just too nice and affable.  Blakes 7 thrived on character conflict – you could take any two from the remainder of the crew (Blake, Avon, Vila, Jenna, Cally) and instantly an interesting dynamic would be created.  For example, Blake/Avon, Avon/Vila, Vila/Jenna, Cally/Blake, etc.  But teaming Gan up with anyone else never worked nearly as well because of his status as a friendly everyman.  True, there was a slight edge between him and Avon, but then Avon disliked everybody!

And whilst the others were defined partly by their skills (Blake the organiser, Avon the computer expert, Vila the locksmith, Jenna the pilot, Cally the telepath) Gan had little to offer apart from his strength.  So he was fated to remain a background player, constantly overlooked in favour of the other, more dynamic, crew-members.

It’s therefore ironic that Breakdown – the one episode in which his problems are the main part of the story – doesn’t allow him a great deal of effective screen-time either – he spends the majority of it either unconscious or in a mad rage.  So basically Gan just becomes a piece of malfunctioning machinery which Blake and the others need to fix.

Having said that, he does have one good scene.  Gan is under restraint in the Medical Room (both for his own safety as well as the safety of the others).  Although the limiter is causing him extreme pain, he’s still devious enough to pretend that he’s fine.

CALLY: How are you feeling?
GAN: Tired. Very tired. What’s been happening?
CALLY: You were ill. We’re trying to get to a place where you can receive medical treatment.
GAN: I’m all right. Just that I, I can’t remember. Why am I being held down like this?
CALLY: When the pain was too much for you, you became violent, and we were frightened you might harm yourself.
GAN: I’m sorry, I just can’t remember. I’d like to sit up. Help me, will you, Cally?
CALLY: I think you should stay where you are until we can get help.
GAN: I’m all right. A bit uncomfortable. I’d like to sit up.
CALLY: There is some turbulence. You’re safer where you are.

But Cally does release him and by way of thanks he throttles her.  Although brief, it’s a disturbing moment – not only for the visual image, but also for the questions it raises.  We know that Gan was a convicted murderer – but was that a one-off crime or is the malfunctioning limiter now showing us his true nature?  This would have been a fruitful area to explore in a future story, but alas it was never exploited.

Gan’s opening fight with Blake is good fun and it’s also quite noteworthy as director Vere Lorrimer chooses to shoot it with a hand-held camera.  This style of shooting is commonplace now, but at the time it was quite rare.  It helps to add a little punch to what is otherwise a fairly static episode (that’s unavoidable since the majority of it takes place on the Liberator).

Breakdown was clearly written as a budget-saving show.  Apart from the regular Liberator set, we only see a small office on XK-72 (which looks like Servalan’s office, redressed) and there’s just three guest actors.  But it’s a great consolation that one of them is Julian Glover.  Glover is someone who seems incapable of giving a bad performance and his presence helps to boost the second part of the episode considerably.

Before they reach XK-72, they have to brave the terrors of the unknown.  This is a fairly blatant plot device to slow their journey down and if it works at all it’s because the regulars convince us that they’re in danger.  Although this section of the story does drag a little, there’s the odd dialogue gem, such as –

AVON: Blake, in the unlikely event that we survive this …..
BLAKE: Yes?
AVON: I’m finished. Staying with you requires a degree of stupidity of which I no longer feel capable.
BLAKE: Now you’re just being modest.

The other interesting part of Breakdown is the way in which it shows us where Avon’s loyalties lie.  Blake and Avon discuss various likely places that could treat Gan.  Avon dismisses one and tells Blake that because it’s six hundred hours away “you haven’t anything like that much time.”  It’s a moment that goes unremarked, but the fact Avon says “you” and not “we” helps to highlight that he still sees himself as an outsider – Gan is Blake’s problem, not his.

Later, his loyalty is put to the test when he considers leaving the Liberator and remaining on XK-72.  Whilst visiting the facility, he’s told that Federation pursuit ships are on their way.  He knows he could stay in safety on XK-72 but decides to go back and warn the others.  When he returns he also backs up Vila who’s persuading the reluctant Kayn to begin his operation on Gan (Kayn is the one who’s called for the Federation and earlier declared he had no intention of operating).  Avon’s decision to return to the ship is a key moment, but it’s another character beat that’s underplayed – he’s the only one who knows he had a chance to escape and it’s obvious he won’t share this information with the others.

The operation succeeds, but the bad shooting of the Federation pursuit ships has serious consequences for XK-72 (“say goodbye to one bolt hole” remarks Avon).  Minus points for the final scene featuring all the Liberator crew having a good laugh – partly because these endings are reminiscent of Star Trek (Spock and McCoy clashing, whilst Kirk looks on with a grin) but mostly because it seems a little off, especially since XK-72 is now a smouldering ruin.

breakdown 02

Blakes 7 – Bounty

bounty 01

Sarkoff (T.P. McKenna) was formally the president of Lindor, but following a crushing election defeat he now lives a comfortable, if restrictive, existence on an unnamed planet as an effective prisoner of the Federation.  Blake and Cally attempt to persuade him that he needs to return to Lindor as he’s the only man who can unite his people and resist the Federation’s plans to invade.

But Sarkoff appears to be a broken man, haunted by his past defeats.  Eventually Blake does convince him, but when they teleport back to the Liberator they find it eerily deserted.  The ship has been captured by a number of Amagon bounty hunters, led by Tarvin (Mark Zuber), who plans to sell the crew and the ship to the Federation …..

Bounty is the first example of a Blakes 7 episode that opens “cold” – we see Cally in a forest, hiding from Federation troops, and shortly after she’s joined by Blake.  We don’t know where they are or what they’re doing – which gives us a strong hook into the story.  Previously, we’ve opened with at least several minutes exposition on the bridge of the Liberator (as in Project Avalon) before they teleport down.  The absence of this helps to move the story along a little quicker.

To be honest, this is very much an episode of two halves – the first concerns Blake’s attempts to persuade Sarkoff that he needs to return to Lindor and the second takes place on the Liberator as Blake and the others attempt to overpower the Amagons.  The first is by far the stronger, helped no end by T.P. McKenna.

McKenna was an incredibly prolific actor, with a list of credits far too numerous to mention (although his appearances as Richmond in the final series of Callan are especially good).  He’s perfect as the ex-politician who lives in comparative luxury (surrounded by various treasures from 20th Century Earth) but appears to have an inability to grasp the reality of his situation.

It’s obvious to Blake that Sarkoff is a prisoner of the Federation and that they’ll return him to his planet only after they’ve taken it over – so he can rule as a puppet President.  Sarkoff, on the other hand, tells Blake he’s merely their guest and the guards are there to prevent his assassination.  But Tyce (Carinthia West) is convinced that Sarkoff knows the truth of the situation, even if he won’t admit it.

bounty 02

But whether Sarkoff is a guest or a prisoner, he declines Blake’s invitation to return to Lindor and he tells him why.  “I’ve wasted my life listening, listening to people who are arrogant, or vacuous, or just plain vicious. I smiled and acquiesced in the face of prejudice and stupidity. I’ve tolerated mediocrity and accepted the tyranny of second-class minds. But now all that is over. I am ready to die, here among the things I value.”

Sarkoff is a spent force and even though he redeems himself at the end of the episode, the question has to be, will he ever be anything more than a figurehead?  He could very well unite his people in the short-term, but beyond that there’s the uncomfortable possibility he’ll find himself manipulated by others for their own ends.  It’s interesting that Blake latches onto Sarkoff as a unifying figure.  Later in Blakes 7 (especially in the final episode, Blake) Roj Blake himself becomes a figurehead capable of inspiring trust and loyalty in others – which is the reason why Avon attempts to find him again.

Whilst I like Bounty (mainly for McKenna’s performance) it’s fairly sloppily scripted.  Firstly, Sarkoff is guarded by very inept Federation troops.  Although they know that at least two intruders are at large, they don’t exactly leap into action (and one of them also misses the fairly obvious sight of Cally climbing a wall and pulling a rope up behind her!).  It’s also baffling that none of them decide it might be a good idea to check on Sarkoff – thus allowing Blake plenty of time to win him round.  Added to this, the actor (Mark York) playing the guard commander is, shall we say, not terribly impressive.

Whilst Blake and Cally are down on the surface, the others discover a ship which seems to be in distress.  You’d have thought that by now (especially after the events of Time Squad) they’d be rather cautious – but instead they just blunder straight into the trap.  Gan teleports over and a few minutes later we hear him report back that everything’s fine.  It’s clear that something’s not right – he’s talking in a slightly strange, emotionless way – but nobody twigs.  And by the time they do, it’s too late and the Amagons (all three or four of them) have taken over the ship.

It’s difficult to take them seriously, mainly because of their exotic clothing.  Mark Zuber does do his best though and Tarvin’s past relationship with Jenna is an intriguing touch – as it allows her a reason to apparently change sides.  Had this been earlier in the series, her shifting allegiance might have been more believable, but it’s not really a surprise that she hasn’t really betrayed her friends.

An interesting part of Bounty is that it shows us that Blake does have some purpose.  So far in his fight against the Federation, he’s actually done very little – destroying the transceiver complex on Saurian Major (which seemed to have little effect) and stealing the Federation’s cypher machine (which was detected almost immediately) have been his main achievements.  But although they weren’t able to get a great deal of useful material from the cypher machine before the Federation changed the code, at least they managed to learn about the Federation’s plans for Lindor, which initiated Blake’s visit.  In the general scheme of things, helping to keep one planet out of the Federation’s clutches is still pretty small beer, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Apart from McKenna, another noteworthy appearance comes from Carinthia West as Tyce.  Late on, it’s revealed that Sarkoff is her father – prior to this, the exact nature of their relationship (older man, younger woman) was open to other interpretations.  Tyce operates as her father’s conscience and there’s good reason to suppose that she’ll be as important, if not more so, than Sarkoff himself when the new government on Lindor is established.

One odd moment occurs after Blake, Cally, Sarkoff and Tyce teleport back to the ship.  Blake and Cally are captured and locked up with Avon, Gan and Vila, whilst Sarkoff and Tyce are allowed to remain on the flight-deck with Tarvin.  What’s strange is that despite all the commotion, Tyce is able to change her top and hairstyle!

Thanks to T.P. McKenna (and some nice banter between the regulars) Bounty is a decent watch.

bounty 03

Blakes 7 – Deliverance

deliverance

Approaching a planet called Cephlon, the Liberator crew comes to the aid of a stricken ship.  Avon, Jenna, Vila and Jenna teleport down to the surface to see if anybody survived the crash-landing.  Of the two-man crew, one of them, Maryatt (James Lister), is already dead, but the other, Ensor (Tony Caunter), is alive – although badly injured.

They teleport him back to the ship, but when the others realise that Jenna hasn’t returned, Avon, Vila and Gan return to look for her.  Ensor is insistent that they leave straight away (to the planet Aristo and his seriously ill father) and he forces Blake at gunpoint to comply.

This leaves the others stranded on a planet high in radiation and surrounded by distinctly unfriendly primitive types …..

Like several previous stories, Deliverance has two main plot-threads running throughout the episode.  The first, concerning Ensor and the deal he’s made with the Federation, is set up here, but won’t be concluded until the series finale, Orac.

Ensor and his father have enjoyed a long period free from Federation interference, but his father’s declining health has meant they now need to trade something to pay for the medical attention he desperately needs.  They offer the Federation Orac and in return the surgeon Maryatt travels back to Aristo with Ensor Jr.

There’s several major flaws with this.  Are we to suppose there’s no non-Federation surgeons available?  Even more ridiculous than this is Servalan’s plan.  She’s rigged Ensor’s ship with a bomb and once it detonates (killing both Ensor and Maryatt) she plans to travel to Aristo and take Orac.  Ensor Snr will be dead by then, since the medical attention he requires wouldn’t have arrived, so she foresees no difficulties.

The obvious question is why didn’t she simply detain Ensor Jr after he’d approached her.  Why go to all the trouble of allowing him to leave and with a top Federation surgeon who she needlessly sacrifices?  When she later discusses this with Travis, he expresses a twinge of conscience when he realises that Maryatt has been killed – he was the surgeon who saved his life.

Travis is more subdued in this episode, no doubt this has something to do with the loss of his command during the Project Avalon debacle.  After he enters Servalan’s office, she deliberately ignores him for a moment.

TRAVIS: You sent for me?
SERVALAN: You’ve lost some of your fire, Travis. Whatever happened to your pride?
TRAVIS: My pride, Supreme Commander?
SERVALAN: I ignored you. A calculated insult. You obviously recognised it as such.
TRAVIS: I did.
SERVALAN: And yet you remained silent. There was a time when you wouldn’t have taken an insult like that from anyone. Not even me.
TRAVIS: True. I want my command back. To get it I’ll do whatever’s necessary. If you think my silence is weakness, you mistake me.

Both Jacqueline Pearce and Stephen Greif are excellent in this scene.  Travis is more restrained and rational than we’ve previously seen – though he still has an intense desire to hunt Blake down.  Servalan’s murder of Maryatt clearly disturbs him, but he’s prepared to ignore that (and help Servalan steal Orac) if it means he’ll get his command back.  By now, hunting Blake is his sole motivation and he’ll do anything which will ultimately lead to Blake’s destruction.

As for Servalan herself, she oozes ruthless, smiling villainy in a way that would become very familiar over the next three series.  This is highlighted when she tells Travis that Maryatt will be posted as a deserter (ensuring that his family will be sold into slavery into one of the Frontier Worlds).

The second plot, on the surface of Cephlon, has its problems, mainly centered around the shambling, skin-covered primitives.  Once you’ve seen them, you know you’re in for a rocky ride – articulate conversationalists they’re not.  The most interesting game to be played when they pop up is to try and identity them, as the likes of Harry Fielder and Pat Gorman are amongst their number.

But the last fifteen minutes or so are livened up by the arrival of Meegat (Suzan Farmer).  She is convinced that Avon is an all-powerful Lord, sent from another world to aid her people.  “Counting yourself, that makes two people who think you’re wonderful” says Vila acidly.

Paul Darrow has some nice moments here.  He manages to show us that Avon is both uncomfortable and slightly flattered to be worshiped as a God.  And Avon lives up to his God-like status by reactivating a dormant spaceship, which contains genetic banks and brood units.

GAN: Do you really think we could launch that ship?
AVON: If the people who built it did their job properly, I don’t see any reason why not. And it does seem we have a reputation to live up to.
VILA: Oh, you certainly do, Lord Avon. I wonder why she picked on you?
AVON: Well, now, you are hardly the stuff that gods are made of.
VILA: And you are, I suppose?
AVON: Apparently.

On its own, Deliverance isn’t that impressive, since it’s mainly concerned with setting up the plot for the final episode (and the stand-alone part of the episode, with the grunting primitives is quite tiresome – although Meegat is some consolation).

The line about the high levels of radiation (always a favourite Terry Nation trope) on Cephlon seems to be merely a throwaway one – but we’ll see how it pays off in Orac.

Blakes 7 – Orac

orac 01

The Liberator is en-route to Aristo, to deliver medical supplies to a seriously ill man called Ensor (Derek Farr).  He isn’t the only sick person though, as Avon, Jenna, Vila and Gan all display signs of radiation poisoning following their time spent on the planet Cephlon.  Since there aren’t any anti-radiation drugs on the Liberator they have to hope that Ensor will be able to help them.  Also travelling to Aristro are Servalan and Travis, who are keen to acquire the mysterious Orac, an invention of Ensor.

Orac was the second episode of a two-part story (a unique occurrence in Blakes 7).  Rather helpfully, for the benefit of anybody who might have missed the previous installment Blake spends the first few minutes recapping the events of Deliverance to Avon (and of course the people watching at home).  This is a rather obvious device (there’s no logical point for Blake to tell Avon what he already knew) but it sort of works.

The lack of anti-radiation gloves (sorry drugs) on the Liberator is hard to swallow.  It’s the most fantastically equipped ship in the galaxy and there’s nothing suitable?  Hmm, okay.  Even odder is that they make no attempt to stop off at any other planet before visiting Ensor, which means they pin all their hopes on the possibility he’ll be able to help them.  Yes, they know that Ensor’s life is at stake, but so are theirs – you’d assume they’d put their own interests first.

Derek Farr was a very familiar face with numerous television and film appearances to his credit.  On television he had decent guest spots in the likes of Bergerac, Rumpole of the Bailey and Some Mother’s Do ‘Ave ‘Em whilst his film credits included The Dam Busters.  He also appeared with Gareth Thomas in Star Maidens, but I doubt that’s a credit either would have put at the top of their cv’s!  He’s rather good as the seemingly cranky and bad-tempered Ensor, who displays a much more human side when he realises that his son is dead.

CALLY: We went to the aid of a spacecraft that had crashed, one of the crew was already dead and the other man was dying, but before he died he asked us to get these to you.
ENSOR: Both men dead, you say?
CALLY: Yes.
ENSOR: One of them was my son.
CALLY: I’m sorry. He tried desperately to reach you. He did everything he possibly could.
ENSOR: Oh, such a waste. He had a good mind. Death is such a waste. You were with my son when he died?
CALLY: Yes.
ENSOR: It’s always too late, isn’t it? I wonder if he knew how much I loved him?
BLAKE: I think he did.
ENSOR: Oh I, I’m sorry if I snapped at you. It’s, it’s just my way. Thank you, for doing all you could to help.

Orac isn’t a story that serves either Servalan or Travis especially well.  Neither are central to the story and the sight of Jacqueline Pearce being mauled by a man in a rubber suit (one of the Phibians) isn’t one of her finest moments, although the concept of Servalan not being in control is an intriguing one.

It’s probably just as well that Greif’s role wasn’t especially large, as an accident meant he was unable to shoot the studio scenes.  A body-double was used and Greif dubbed Travis’ dialogue a few months later (though he was far from impressed with the actor they used, remarking that he had flat feet!)

Blake offers to take Ensor back to the Liberator so he can perform the operation that’ll save his life.  Travis’ arrival forces them to escape via the tunnels and Ensor dies before they reach the surface.  His death is rather perfunctory alas, but it’s necessary in story terms – since it allows Blake to take charge of Orac.

And once Orac is back on the Liberator, everybody is keen to test his limits.  They know it can draw information from any computer without a direct input (not very impressive in the modern internet age, but this was 1978, remember) but what else can it do?  Orac boasts it can effectively see into the future and demonstrates this by showing the apparent destruction of the Liberator ….

Thanks to Terry Nation, the first series of Blakes 7 had a consistent tone, although he would later admit that he found difficulties in finding ideas for some of the later stories in this first run.  So he fell back on some familiar storylines (radiation poisoning, for example) and also had to rely on Chris Boucher to take more of an active scripting role.

From series two onwards, Boucher’s voice in the series would be even stronger and he also bought on board a group of different writers (some better than others) who would take Blakes 7 into various different directions.

orac 02

Blakes 7 – Redemption

red 01

The easiest way of knowing we’ve reached series two of Blakes 7 is to look at the costumes of the Liberator crew.  In series one you could best describe them as drab, but now June Hudson’s been recruited things have certainly changed (and this is only the beginning).  Highlights are Avon’s natty black studded number (which he later donates to Tarrant) and Blake’s rather extraordinary green plastic jacket with enormous puffy sleeves.

But if the costumes are different then the story is much more familiar (not surprising since it was Terry Nation’s fourteenth script in a row).  Like The Web or Breakdown it’s a story of two halves.  The first takes place on the Liberator and the second kicks into gear once they’ve reached their destination.

Before things start happening there’s an interesting exchange between Blake and Avon.  Blake is still concerned by Orac’s prediction that the Liberator apparently faces imminent destruction.  He’s been poring over the data, only for Avon to provide him with the solution.  They can pinpoint exactly where the event will happen by the starfield shown behind the ship – so all they need to do is to ensure they never travel to that part of the galaxy and the prediction will be null and void.

When Avon admits that he worked this out several hours ago, Blake asks him why he’s not said anything to the others. “Well, all they had to do was ask. Perhaps in future, they won’t rely on you to provide all the answers”.  This battle of wills between the pair of them will bubble on for the remainder of the second series.  As to who will gain the upper hand, Vila puts it best when he says that “if it ever comes to a showdown, my money’s on Blake. Well, half of it. I’ll put the other half on Avon.”

Another fascinating little moment occurs just after Avon’s scored this point over Blake.  An explosion rocks the ship and as they fall to the ground Avon puts a protective arm around Blake.  I wonder if this was scripted or something worked out in rehearsal?  It’s only a throwaway thing, but it’s a lovely touch – proving that although he may profess to despise virtually everything Blake stands for, Avon still seems to have an automatic reflex to protect him.

red 02

Shortly afterwards, the ship comes under attack and they then lose all control of the Liberator, ending up as little more than helpless passengers (any repairs are rejected by the ship).  Avon tells the others his theory.

AVON: Think of the ship as a living entity with massive networks of electronics acting as a nervous system.
JENNA: All linked into a central computer.
BLAKE: The brain.
AVON: Carry the analogy a stage further. When a living creature is hurt – a cut or a wound – antibodies gather around the injury to repair it and to fight infection.
VILA: You mean the computers are treating us like germs.
AVON: Crude, but accurate.

Blake has first-hand experience of this when he’s attacked by a cable in one of the service areas.  Yes, the wires holding it up are rather obvious but it’s not as bad an effect as it could have been.  Once again it’s Avon who saves the day and he’s not slow in telling Blake that one day, probably quite soon, he’ll require payback!

The Liberator is under the control of its creators and soon all the crew are prisoners.  Blake has a chat with Alta 1 (Sheila Ruskin) and Alta 2 (Harriet Philpin).  This is a part of the story that doesn’t quite hold together.  Both Alta 1 and Alta 2 are linked to the System (a supercomputer which controls the three planets in this sector).  We’re told that the System has ruled for several generations.  As Blake discovers when he speaks later to a slave (played by Roy Evans) this means that whilst there’s no war or famine, there’s also no freedom.

Could the System have been responsible for designing the Liberator?  Surely if they had it would have been much more functional.  And if they did create it, what was its purpose?  The Federation has clearly never come across a ship like the Liberator before (even though it’s established later that it’s not unique) so it doesn’t appear that the System is interested in expanding its empire or has very often ventured into Federation territory.  Visiting the civilisation that designed the Liberator was an obvious thing to do, it’s just a pity that it falls rather flat.

The System also bears a passing resemblance to the Conscience of Marinus as seen in Terry Nation’s Doctor Who story The Keys of Marinus – proof that Nation was never averse to reusing a good idea.

Neither of the Altas are great conversationalists, but they’re dressed in tight blue lycra which is some consolation.  Another plus-point is the filming at the Oldbury Nuclear Power Station which adds a little gloss to what otherwise is a fairly routine story.

But Redemption is still an effective season opener.  It reignites the Blake/Avon power-struggle as well as giving the rest of the regulars a moment or two to shine.  And although the plot, once we reach the System, feels a little undercooked there’s still enough going on to ensure that the story never seems to drag too badly.

red 03