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.
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.