Blakes 7 – Shadow

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Shadow was the first Blakes 7 story to be scripted by Chris Boucher (as well as the first not to be written by Terry Nation).  Because of this it’s pretty clear there’s a difference in tone – although it is believed that Boucher had already contributed fairly considerably to series one.

Legend has it that Nation’s season one scripts became thinner and thinner as time wore on – meaning that Boucher had to add more and more of his own material to flesh them out.  But even if that was so, Shadow was the first chance he had to craft something entirely of his own making and one of the most interesting parts of his debut script is how Blake himself is portrayed.

Blake and the others arrive at Space City.  It operates outside of Federation law and is reputed to be the base of the Terra Nostra.  The Terra Nostra are responsible for virtually all the organised crime on every Federated world – and Blake can only see the positives in allying with them.  “Think what they’ve got – men, material, information. Think what we could do with a fraction of the resources they control.”

For once Avon seems to be in agreement with him, so it’s left to Gan to be the main dissenting voice.  “No, YOU think, Blake. Think what it is they control. Everything dirty, degrading, and cruel on just about every colonized world.”  Moving Gan into a position where he can oppose Blake is welcome for several reasons, especially since it gives David Jackson a more meaty role than usual.  Gan’s time was already ticking though, so it’s sadly too little too late.

Blake’s use of semantics is instructive.  He tells Gan that they’re going to use the Terra Nostra, not do business with them.  But as he later offers them money in exchange for access to their infrastructure on Earth, the distinction is far from clear.  Is Blake simply deluding himself?  He’s obviously quite happy that the ends justify the means – the Terra Nostra can help him in his fight against the Federation so he has no moral qualms in using them.

Space City might be the “satellite of sin”, according to Vila, but it’s very underpopulated.  We only see Largo (Derek Smith) and one of his enforcers (Archie Tew) on the side of the Terra Nostra whilst Hanna (Adrienne Burgess) and Bek (Karl Howman) represent the Terra Nostra’s “customers”.  Hanna is an addict and her drug of choice is Shadow – the Terra Nostra’s most successful product.

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It’s a little surprising that director Jonathan Wright Miller didn’t employ a few extras to at least give some impression that Space City was a thriving and bustling place, so you simply have to use your imagination.  As for the actors he did cast, Derek Smith is rather good as Largo – he manages to exude a rather silky menace.  Smith could sometimes go soaring over the top but is fairly restrained here and is all the better for it.  Tew has little to do for most of the episode except wave a gun around and look menacing, but he does later manage to move up the pecking order at the expense of Largo (proving that there had to be more to him than met the eye).

Karl Howman is very much the weak link, delivering his lines rather unconvincingly.  Dialogue such as “killing a Terra Nostra pusher will be the best fun I’ve had all day. You stupid murdering scumball.” is delivered with all the intensity of a first year drama student.  What’s odd is that he was already quite an experienced television actor at this time.  Much better is Adrienne Burgess as Hannah.  She’d been teamed up with Michael Keating a few years earlier in the Doctor Who story The Sunmakers, and is able to give Hannah, a hopeless drug-addict, some sort of character.

If there’s one thing that Shadow tells us, again and again, it’s that Blake’s operating way out of his depth.  Vila sums it up quite succinctly.  ” Look, he was an Alpha grade on Earth. A highly privileged group, the Alphas. Wouldn’t last five minutes among the Delta service grades where I grew up. And it’s the service grades where the Terra Nostra really operate. Without anesthetic, usually.”

This is proved when Blake, Avon, Jenna and Gan are detained by Largo, who dismisses them as “amateurs” and they only manage to escape from Space City by the skin of their teeth, taking Bek and Hannah along for the ride.  Blake’s not finished though – if he can’t buy the Terra Nostra’s co-operation then he’ll force them to help.  His plan?  To locate the planet where they refine Shadow and take control of it.

Again it’s Gan who provides the main voice of dissent.  This, he says, would make them little more than pushers.  Tellingly Blake again brushes off his protests.  Shadow may cause misery and death for millions but if it helps him in his fight against the Federation then he’s content.

The planet Zondar is supposed to be incredibly warm (the rather overcast sky in the quarry gives the lie to this, but at least it wasn’t raining!).  Whilst Blake, Avon and Jenna explore (and to be honest achieve very little) Cally has also teleported down to the surface.

She’s been locked into her own subplot for most the episode, battling with Orac – or an unidentified entity that’s taken over Orac.  This seems to have been bolted on to the main story in order to pad the running time out and doesn’t quite work.  The shots of Cally being isolated (done quite simply with lights and a few simple video effects) is effective but it’s frustrating that the identity of the invader is never established.  It also seems something of a contrivance that Cally is able to force it back into its own dimension with the aid of the telepathic creatures on Zondar.  How fortunate that the Liberator’s next port of call was able to provide her with the allies she needed!

The ultimate revelation that the Terra Nostra is controlled by the Federation (“It’s quite logical. To have total control, you must control totally. Both sides of the law. The Terra Nostra, the Federation – two sides of the same power.”) provides a neat ending to the story and demonstrates that the Federation’s influence is more insidious and far-reaching than was previously thought.

Following on from the gung-ho space adventure of Redemption, Shadow offers a subtle re-tooling of the direction the series would take during series two.  There would be plenty more gung-ho adventures to come, but this is the first time that Blake’s decision-making has come under strong scrutiny.  And in a couple of episodes time, following the events of Pressure Point, it will again.

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Blakes 7 – Weapon

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Weapon gives us our first opportunity to see Travis Mk 2 (Brian Croucher) in action.  And he’s angry, very very angry.

One of the main character flaws with Travis is that he exists for one purpose only – to kill Blake.  And when, week after week, this doesn’t happen he can’t help but become something of a figure of fun (or contempt).  But it’s not only Blake and his friends who hold him in contempt, in this episode it’s clear that Servalan loathes him as well.

As we go through series two there will be the odd highlight (Trial) as well as plenty of lowlights (Voice from the Past is easily the most bonkers use of him).  Given that he became something of a marginalised character almost immediately,  it’s no surprise that Stephen Greif decided to bail after series one.  This leaves Brian Croucher with an almost impossible task.

Croucher has made no secret of the fact that his time on Blakes 7 wasn’t terribly happy – he’s singled out director George Spenton-Foster as someone he had serious problems with.  And since Spenton-Foster directed this episode it looks obvious that the problems start here.

From the first scene Travis is struggling with barely suppressed rage.  It’s a totally different acting choice from Greif, who had much more of an ironic detachment, and it doesn’t really work (it’s easy to imagine Greif saying the same lines, but in a very restrained way).  If Spenton-Foster wasn’t giving Croucher adequate direction then it’s probable that he just went his own way – resulting in a performance where Travis is little more than a thug.  He’ll tone things down as we move through the series, but it’s not an auspicious start.

His first scene is quite arresting though – as he kills Blake!  Or at least, someone who looks remarkably like him (is this a nod to the pre-credits sequence of From Russia with Love?).  Travis has, of course, just killed a clone of Blake – but one that’s identical to his arch-enemy in every physical way.

Clonemaster Fen (Kathleen Byron) is clearly a being of awesome power – we can tell this because Dudley Simpson goes overboard on the organ and there’s a great deal of dry ice floating about.  I do always worry when she’s walking rather gingerly down the stairs though, one false move and she could have had a nasty accident.

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In Project Avalon we saw it was possible to create a perfect android replica of someone (something that’s never done again after that episode).  In Weapon we see that it’s possible to create a perfect clone of someone (something that’s never done again after this episode).  I sense a pattern emerging here.  Given how incredibly useful both android duplicates and clones could be, it’s remarkable that once they’ve served their purpose in their respective stories they never crop up again.

Although the Blake clone will be an important figure in a great deal of post Blake fan fiction ……

I like the idea that Servalan commissions two clones of Blake, since she knows that Travis will be unable to resist killing one of them.  Their dialogue after this happens is instructive and it clearly indicates the current stage of their relationship (not good).

SERVALAN: Travis, you are pathetic.
TRAVIS: If you say so.
SERVALAN: Of all the cripple-brained idiots.
TRAVIS: Me – or you?
SERVALAN:What did you say?
TRAVIS: You’re angry, Supreme Commander. Surprised by what I did. You devious – you always have been devious. You knew what would happen.
SERVALAN: Take your hand off me.
TRAVIS: You knew if it was Blake I’d kill him. I’d have to kill him.

The clone of Blake is part of a highly complicated plan by Carnell (Scott Fredericks).  Carnell is a psychostrategist (who are unflatteringly nicknamed “puppeteers”) and Servalan appears to have commissioned him to kill two birds with one stone.  Eliminate Blake and his crew as well as acquire IMIPAK (a deadly new weapon).

If you’re not particularly aware of Blakes 7 fan-fiction and spin-off fiction then it might come as a surprise than Carnell (a one-shot character) has had quite an extensive after-life – appearing in numerous fan-fiction stories as well as novels and audios by Chris Boucher (superior fan-fiction you might say).  Most of his appeal has to be down to Scott Fredericks’ twinkling performance – his sparring with Jacqueline Pearce is a highlight of the episode.

The main guest star is John Bennett.  He plays Coser, the inventor of IMIPAK, who’s been manipulated by Carnell to not only have a nervous breakdown but to escape from the Federation’s weapons development faacility with IMIPAK.  Servalan then plans to use the clone of Blake to retrieve this from Coser.

The most obvious question is why go to all that trouble to create a clone of Blake when it doesn’t actually do anything?  Servalan could have simply turned up herself and taken IMIPAK (which is basically what happens – Coser gives it to clone Blake and he hands it over to her).

I always had a lot of respect for John Bennett, he was an actor who enlivened many a dull programme.  But he’s got his work cut out here as Coser is such an unlikable sort right from the start – he’s a terrible bully to the lovely Rashel (Candace Glendenning).  And once you see what he’s wearing it’s even harder to take him seriously …..

An odd story then and somewhat illogical.  Some of the banter between the Liberator crew does go some way to salvaging things and Jenna and Cally look rather fetching in their blue and red outfits so there is some small recompense.

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Blakes 7 – Horizon

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Allan Prior contributed five scripts to Blakes 7 (Horizon, Hostage, The Keeper, Volcano and Animals).  It’s fair to say that none of these episodes would feature in most people’s top tens (unless it was a top ten of least favourite stories).

Prior’s work on B7 tended to range from the competent to the mediocre, which is slightly surprising given his very lengthy list of writing credits.  He wrote over a hundred episodes of Z Cars and also contributed to many other popular series during the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s (such as Sergeant Cork, Armchair Theatre, Dr Finlay’s Casebook, Warship, The Sweeney, The Onedin Line, Secret Army, Juliet Bravo, The Charmer, etc etc).  It’s an incredibly impressive CV, but it’s notable that apart from Blakes 7 he never wrote for any other science fiction or fantasy series.

His debut script, Horizon, is possibly his best.  The science fiction in this one is laid on fairly gently – as it’s essentially a colonial story that could easily have been set in any African country (for the Federation just substitute the British Empire).

The regime on the planet code-named Horizon is one with obvious parallels in history.  The Federation needs the minerals it has in abundance (such as Monopasium two-three-nine) but a full occupying force would tie up too many people.  So the Federation “educates” the elite of the planet who remain nominally in charge whilst the Federation rule behind the scenes and siphon off the resources for their own use.

Ro (Darien Angadi) is a textbook example of a native who has been educated to think and act as a member of the Federation.  His former teacher is now the Kommissar ultimately response for the planet (played to perfection by William Squire) and he’s confident that he can continue to bend Ro to his will.

The heart of the episode is the relationship between Ro and the Kommissar.  Partly this is because the only other native speaking role we see is Ro’s finance Selma (Souad Faress).  The remainder of the natives tend to toil in the mines and are hairy, grubby and mute.  It’s slightly surprising that Ro doesn’t have a council of leaders that he has to report to – that would have created some decent dramatic tension, but restricting everything down to just a single man does work as well.

It’s interesting that Ro is aware that the mortality rate in the mines is high, but he’s just not terribly bothered about it.  To him they’re savages, little more than animals.  The fairly heavy irony that he was in exactly this position before he was lifted up by the Federation never seems to occur to him.

Blake and the others turn up to Horizon after they follow a Federation supply ship.  It’s travelling to Zone Nine – far off the beaten track – and Blake is intrigued.  But everybody else is exhausted from a series of close shaves and it’s fair to say they don’t share his curiosity.  The ratty, bad-tempered banter at the start is a nice touch and it gives all of the regulars a few decent character moments before the episode proper begins.

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Blake and Jenna teleport down and are captured.  When they don’t return Gan and Vila teleport to look for them and are captured.  Cally then teleports down to look for them all and she is captured as well.  This leaves Avon by himself (“and then there was one”) apart from Orac and Zen.  We then see Avon wrestling with his conscience – can he simply run out and leave the others?

AVON: If I go alone, can I pilot the Liberator indefinitely?
ORAC: With the help of the automatics, of course you can.
AVON: I know that.
ORAC: Then why did you ask the question?
AVON: I didn’t. How long can I maintain myself?
ORAC: Is that a question?
AVON: Yes.
ORAC: We have concentrated food for one person for a thousand years.
AVON: And our power is self-regenerating.
ORAC: Affirmative.
AVON: Can you plot courses to keep out of the range of any known spaceship manned by the Federation?
ORAC: The battle and navigation computers can handle that perfectly adequately.
AVON: I asked if YOU could.
ORAC: Of course, should it be necessary.
AVON: Failing that, we are powerful enough to resist all but an attack by three Federation pursuit ships at once.
ORAC: Is that a question?
AVON: No. If we go now, we can sail the universe for as long as we like in reasonable safety, provided we keep out of everybody’s way and we do not do anything rash.

When he learns that three Federation pursuit ships are en-route to destroy the Liberator he decides to stay and fight.  Was he ever seriously intending to cut and run?  Maybe not, as I’m sure the pleasure he derived from rescuing everyone else was immense!  And once he teleports down Paul Darrow looks like he’s enjoying himself as Avon turns into a Wild West gunslinger, cutting down Federation troopers left, right and centre.  He nearly blows Blake’s head off as well, but luckily(?) the shot goes wild.  There’s a lovely expression on Gareth Thomas’ face as he deadpans the line “missed”.

If there’s a weak part to the story then it’s when Blake is initially captured and interrogated by both Ro and the Kommissar.  Blake’s quickly able to gain Ro’s trust by telling him that he knew an old friend of his, Paura.  Blake and Paura were both convicts on the ship London, bound for Cygnus Alpha.  This just seems a little contrived – had Blake travelled to Horizion, armed with this knowledge, expressly to talk to Ro it might have seemed more reasonable.

This niggle apart, Horizon is a pretty good stuff.  As I’ve said, William Squire (best known as Hunter in the Thames version of Callan) is perfectly cast as the arch-manipulator.  Darien Angadi also has a decent amount of screen-time as the apparently subservient puppet ruler.  Brian Miller and Souad Faress exist to act as sounding-boards for the Kommissar and Ro respectively, so have less chance to impress – but both are capable enough.

And Sally Knyvette looks rather lovely, which is always a plus point for me.

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Blakes 7 – Pressure Point

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Whilst the initial reason for scripting Pressure Point was borne out of necessity (Gan had to be written out) in the end it proved to be something of a watershed for the show.  Since the start of series one we’ve seen that Blake is a far from infallible character –  he may have positive qualities which mark him out as a natural leader but his decision making can often be deeply flawed.

This is shown most brutally in this episode.  Blake has returned the Liberator to Earth – to howls of protest from everybody except Cally.  She, like Blake, is a fanatic.  They value their own personal safety far less than the cause they’re fighting for – you know that either would be only too willing to sacrifice their life and become a martyr.  But Avon, Jenna and Vila don’t share their burning intensity – they might be happy to ally themselves to Blake, but personal preservation is never far from their minds.

And what of Gan?  We can say for certain that he’s always been (with the odd exception, such as Shadow) one of Blake’s most staunchest allies.  But it’s possible to consider that his frequent shows of support for were designed mainly to allow Avon to score cheap points at their expense.  Blake would announce a risky scheme, Gan would give him his whole-hearted support, Avon would roll his eyes and mutter something disparaging along the lines that only someone as stupid as Gan could ever think it was a good idea.

Blake tells the others the reason for returning to Earth. “Two hundred years ago, when the Federation began expansion and conquest, the Administration established a computer complex to monitor information: political, civil, military – everything. That computer is the nerve center of ALL Federation activity. Smashing that would be the biggest single step toward the destruction of their power. I don’t think they would ever recover from it.”

This seems not dissimilar to the space control complex on Saurian Major as seen in Time Squad.  That was also seen by Blake as a vital part of the Federation’s empire – although after he destroyed it there seemed to be no change at all to the smooth running of the Federation.

Coming fresh to Pressure Point, and especially if you’re aware of Terry Nation’s history as a writer, it would be reasonable to assume that Control on Earth would be similar to the space control complex on Saurian Major – just a MacGuffin which exists for the sole purpose of giving the Liberator crew something to attack.  They teleport down, shoot some guards, lay some explosive charges and teleport back up – job done.

But this doesn’t happen.  Control is an empty shell designed to lure people like Blake into a trap and the moment of revelation is a stunning one.  Blake falls to his knees, speechless, whilst Travis explains.  “You see, it’s the great illusion, Blake. You give substance and credibility to an empty room, and the real thing becomes undetectable, virtually invisible.”

The only thing worse than Blake having risked all their lives for nothing is that Gan dies as they make their escape.  And it’s the complete pointlessness of his death which is striking .  Nation could have scripted a story where Gan dies a heroic death – saving Blake and the others – instead the last shot we see of his lifeless body is deliberately anti-heroic.

It’s a far cry from, say, Planet of the Daleks (a 1973 Nation-scripted Doctor Who adventure).  In that story we see various Thals die during the course of the six episodes and each time the Doctor is on hand to deliver a short moral homily.  The Doctor’s speeches were intended to demonstrate that the Thals didn’t die in vain – they were sacrificing themselves for the greater good.  No such comfort can be drawn from Pressure Point though.  Gan did die in vain – there’s no two ways about it.

Although George Spenton-Foster (something of a bogey-man for Brian Croucher) directed this one, Croucher does seem more settled as Travis.  There’s far less of the histrionics we saw in Shadow and a touch more of the calculating Travis of old.  Possibly this is because he’s convinced that the plan to capture Blake is such a good one.

The focus is slightly more on Servalan though, thanks to her interaction with Kasabi (Jane Sherwin).  Kasabi is the rebel leader who Blake intends to contact – without her help he won’t be able to breach the outer defences.  Servalan and Travis capture her, but she proves uncooperative.  Kasabi’s previous relationship with Servalan helps to shine something of a light on the Supreme Commander.  “Don’t try and browbeat me Servalan. Or have you forgotten that I knew you as a cadet? You were a credit to your background: spoilt, idle, vicious. My confidential assessment listed her as unfit for command.  But I forgot how well-connected she was.”

As Kasabi doesn’t survive the interrogation it’s lucky that Servalan and Travis have an alternative – Kasabi’s daughter Veron (Yolande Palfrey).  This was a fairly early credit for Palfrey (who died far too young in 2011) and she’s not always entirely convincing (although we could be charitable and say this is because she was feeling the pressure of being a traitor to the cause).

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It’s notable that when Blake and the others find her it’s Gan who’s the most solicitous.  This may be a decision from Nation to bulk up his part (too little, too late if so) or it could be a nod back to Project Avalon which saw Gan rather taken with the android Avalon.  Poor Gan, never a good judge of females (real or manufactured) it would seem.

I do have to mention Jacqueline Pearce’s dress (as seen in the first picture).  Not very practical, but it’s certainly memorable.

Another point of interest is an exchange between Blake and Avon before they launch the attack.  Avon rather surprises Blake by giving him his full support, but Avon being Avon there’s a reason behind it.  “If we succeed, if we destroy Control, the Federation will be at its weakest. It will be more vulnerable than it has been for centuries. The revolt in the Outer Worlds will grow. The resistance movements on Earth will launch an all-out attack to destroy the Federation. They will need unifying. They will need a leader. YOU will be the natural choice.”

With Blake unifying the resistance, Avon will take over the Liberator.  As we’ll see, this is something that will ultimately come to pass …..

But not for a little while as Blake’s defeat here will only intensify his desire to find the true location of Control.  This will form a loose running thread which will carry on until the the conclusion of series two – Star One.

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Blakes 7 – Trial

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Travis is facing a court-martial, charged with the murder of one thousand four hundred and seventeen unarmed civilians on the planet Serkasta.  Whilst he remained useful to Servalan she was prepared to ignore his previous misdemeanors but following the events of Pressure Point she has no hesitation in throwing him to the wolves.  She also plans to make sure that the verdict is the one she requires by suborning Travis’ defence counsel Major Thania (Victoria Fairbrother).

It does seem slightly strange that Servalan decided to go to all the trouble of arranging a court-martial when she could have either simply ordered one of her troopers to put a bullet in Travis’ head or (as mentioned in Weapon) sent him to the slave pits on Ursa Prime.  It’s a pity that Blakes 7‘s script editor couldn’t have liaised with the writers of Weapon and Trial.  Oh wait ……

But although the reason for the court-martial does feel a little spurious, Trial is compelling since it asks us to consider the morality of the Federation in general.  There’s no doubt that Travis committed the crime (although he pleads not guilty, for a reason we’ll come to later) but is his action typical of a Federation officer?

In Travis’ debut episode Seek Locate Destroy, Servalan was confronted by a junior officer who registered his disapproval that Travis had been reinstated into the corps.  For him, Travis was a killer and someone who disgraced the uniform of a Federation officer.  In Trial, the court-martial is conduced by Samor (John Savident) a highly respected officer (Thania calls him “a rule book officer of the old school.”)  Are they more typical of the average Federation officer than Travis is?

On hand to observe events are Bercol (John Bryans) and Rontane (Peter Miles).  Like a space-age Waldorf and Statler they exist to provide an ironic commentary on events.

RONTANE:One almost has to admire that woman.
BERCOL: What, Thania?
RONTANE:Servalan.
BERCOL: Oh.
RONTANE: We know that she’s sending Travis to his death in order to keep his mouth shut, but she is doing it with such an impeccably honest and painstaking tribunal that her real motives can’t even be hinted at.
BERCOL: Has a date been set for the Blake inquiry?
RONTANE: Does it matter? Without Travis’ evidence the mishandling of the Blake affair becomes a matter of conjecture. The inquiry becomes a formality.

The idea that the court-martial has been convened to silence Travis before he can implicate Servalan in the inevitable enquiry that will no doubt shortly be held into the continuing inability to capture Blake is a compelling one, but as I’ve said it would have been easier to just quietly dispose of him.

Bryans and Miles are once again a great double-act in this, their second and final appearance.

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Trooper Par (a slim-looking Kevin Lloyd) served with Travis for five years.  He tells Thania that he could always guarantee that Travis would not “get you killed unnecessarily. He never wasted troopers.” He’s certain of Travis’ guilt though – he heard him give the order – but it’s telling that he doesn’t feel any personal responsibility (“he gave the order. We just did the shooting.”)

Given that the Nazis often featured in Terry Nation’s scripts (most famously disguised as the Daleks) it’s not a particular stretch to assume that Chris Boucher was also drawing parallels between Federation troopers and, say, SS soldiers (who would also no doubt insist they were only obeying orders).

Brian Croucher has said that he wished Trial had been his debut episode as it would have allowed him to get a much better grip on the character of Travis.  He’s certainly very good throughout and is never better than the climatic scene where Travis offers his defence.

A field officer, like myself, is frequently required to make fast, unconsidered decisions. You were all field officers, you know that’s true. Time to think is a luxury battle seldom affords you. You react instinctively. Your actions, your decisions, all instinct, nothing more. But, an officer’s instincts are the product of his training. The more thorough the training, the more predictable the instinct, the better the officer. And I am a good officer. I have been in the service all my adult life. I’m totally dedicated to my duty and highly trained in how to perform it. On Serkasta I reacted as I was trained to react. I was an instrument of the service. So if I’m guilty of murder, of mass murder, then so are all of you!

It’s no surprise that Samor does not accept this.  “Space Commander, we have considered your sentence at some length. Your contention that what happened on Serkasta was a direct result of your training concerned us greatly. We accept that you are trained to kill. As are we all. What we cannot accept is that this training leads inevitably to the murder of innocents. Your behavior was not that of a Federation officer, but rather that of a savage, unthinking, animal.”

Since Samor is never presented as an officer that Servalan could influence, this must be his honest opinion.  If so (and if it’s also held by his brother officers) then it shows the Federation in a very different light from the unthinking murderers that Blake considers them to be.  It’s therefore deeply ironic that Blake decides to attack Servalan’s headquarters (where Travis is being tried) partly to regain some confidence after the death of Gan.

His attack kills the majority of the people present at the trial (including the reasonable Samor) and allows Travis to escape.  And as the credits roll, the question must be which was the greater crime?  Travis’ murder of the unarmed civilians on Serkasta or Blake’s murder of the unarmed Federation personnel on Servalan’s base?  Exactly how many are killed by Blake’s attack isn’t certain (although it’s presumably a lot less than Travis’ massacre) but it’s a uncomfortable possibilty that the scene was designed to show that Blake and Travis aren’t that far apart.

As for Blake himself, he also finds himself on trial in this episode – although in his case it’s a self-imposed one.  He spends most of the time having an odd adventure with a creature called Zil (Clare Lewis).  This would be a strange interlude in any story but it really jars here when it interrupts the drama of Travis’ trial.

Avon, of course, gets some good lines at Blake’s expense – such as this one, after Blake announces his plan to teleport down to the planet alone. “It occurs to me that if you should run into trouble, one of your followers – one of your three remaining followers – might have to risk his neck to rescue you.”

Following Gan’s death there had to be some pause for reflection, but it doesn’t last long and by the end of the episode everyone pretty much carries on as before.  This might seem a bit callous or it could just be that Gan was someone who was tolerated by the others as a work-colleague might be, rather than a close friend.

Minus points for the episode ending on a shot of Avon and Blake laughing after a rather weak joke.  Not only for the sub-Star Trek feeling but also because it feels a tad inappropriate after they’ve just killed so many people.  A similar thing happened at the end of Breakdown though, so maybe it’s a running theme that I’ve not picked up on before.

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Blakes 7 – Killer

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Killer was the first of four Blakes 7 scripts written by Robert Holmes.  He’d recently finished a lengthy stint as script-editor on Doctor Who and was looking for some freelance writing jobs.  Chris Boucher, who’d been commissioned by him on Doctor Who, was naturally keen to bring him aboard.

Holmes’ strengths were many, but strong characterisation was always key.  It’s therefore no surprise that he latched on immediately to the possibilities of teaming up Avon and Vila (three of his stories feature them together).  It’s a joy to watch Darrow and Keating sparking off each other and it’s one of the main pleasures of the episode.

Killer is an interesting script for several reasons.  It does feel slightly different to what we’ve previously seen (although it’s not as much of a departure as Holmes’ next story, Gambit).  This difference is mostly due to the way Blake is portrayed.

The Liberator has travelled to the planet Fosforon where Avon and Vila teleport down to meet with Tynus (Ronald Lacey).  Tynus is the commander of a Federation scientific research base and is an old friend of Avon.  Vila’s delighted to hear that Avon has a friend (“I always knew you had a friend. I used to say to people ‘I bet Avon’s got a friend, somewhere in the galaxy'”.) but within minutes we learn their friendship doesn’t run very deep.

Avon and Tynus were involved in a fraud some years back and Avon kept quiet about Tynus’ part.  Now he expects Tynus to do him a favour (otherwise he’ll have no qualms about reporting him to the authorities).  The reason for Avon’s visit (he needs a TP crystal) is little more than a MacGuffin to pad the story out – the main plot concerns a mysterious and deadly virus which is unleashed on the base.

Whilst orbiting the planet, Zen picks up a Wanderer spacecraft apparently drifting.  Blake’s amazed to see it – since it must be over seven hundred years old – and he’s also baffled as to how it reached this part of the galaxy.  There’s some brief debate about whether they should investigate (clearly nobody remembers the problem they had in both Time Squad and Bounty when they were curious about derelict crafts).

Luckily for them it’s salvaged by a colleague of Tynus, Dr Bellfriar (Paul Daneman).  But Blake remains worried that it could be dangerous (thanks to a rare display of Cally’s telepathy) and decides to warn the base.  This is highly unusual – it’s a Federation base so it’s strange that he should be concerned.

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Whilst it’s possible to argue that this is due to Holmes’ unfamiliarity with the series (although presumably Chris Boucher would have rewritten the script had he felt it didn’t fit with established continuity) maybe it’s actually another stage in humanising the Federation.  Exactly what research they do is never really specified, but Bellfriar is both urbane and welcoming.  Blake does tell him he’s a wanted criminal but Belfriar responds by muttering that he’s an absent-minded scientist who’s forgotten his name already.

But presenting the Federation as rounded characters, rather than mindless killers, does create something of a problem – it makes Blake’s various attempts to disrupt the natural order (especially as seen in Star One) seem much more like acts of terrorism than blows for freedom.

If his interest in the fate of the people on the base is a touch uncharacteristic, so is his explanation about what he thinks is happening.  It’s the first and last time that Blake ever referenced old-Earth history and is pure Holmes.

BLAKE: Have you ever heard of Lord Jeffrey Ashley?
BELLFRIAR: Who?
BLAKE: Mm, pre space age, planet Earth. He was the commander of a British garrison in America, having trouble with hostile natives, redskins. Ashley ordered blankets from smallpox victims to be baled up and sent to the hostile tribes.
BELLFRIAR: Germ warfare.

Killer is an excellent story for Thomas, Darrow and Keating.  Alas, it’s much less satisfying for both Jan Chappell and Sally Knyvette, both of whom remain on the Liberator not doing much.  Ronald Lacey is typically slimy as Avon’s fair-weather friend whilst Paul Daneman is impressive as the acceptable face of the Federation.  His eventual fate (and that of everybody else on the planet) is very grim.

There’s some bizarre looking costumes (Michelin Men in space!) and a rather unconvincing matte painting at the start which looks like it was put together by a child in about five minutes, but apart from these minor niggles it’s a solid production and an impressive debut script from Holmes.

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Blakes 7 – Hostage

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Hostage was something of a troubled production.  Duncan Lamont had been cast as Ushton but he died after completing the location filming, necessitating a remount with John Aberini stepping into the part.

The episode opens brightly enough though, with the Liberator coming under attack from a mass of Federation ships.  The unnamed Federation commander (played by Andrew Robertson) seems close to destroying the Liberator, but Blake and the others just manage to sneak away.

The all-out attack does contradict the likes of Project Avalon, which saw Servalan insistent that the Liberator had to be captured, not destroyed.  But if her objectives have now changed it does beg the question as to why she hasn’t ordered attacks of this magnitude before, as it’s clear they stand a good chance of succeeding.

Servalan is seen to be under some pressure in this episode.  It was hinted in Trial that the enquiry into the continuing inability of the Federation to catch Blake could be damaging for her and the visit of Councillor Joban (Kevin Stoney) restates this.  He’s only onscreen for a few minutes but it’s a pleasure to watch Stoney at work, especially since Hostage tends to be blessed with fairly indifferent performances from the guest stars.  John Aberini was a fine actor, but his part was rather limited.

There’s another lapse in continuity during the following exchange between Servalan and Joban –

JOBAN: Some members of the council are concerned. Many of our citizens now know of Blake’s activities, and those of the renegade Travis.
SERVALAN: But there have been no public spacecasts on either Travis or Blake.
JOBAN: People talk, Servalan. There’s no way of stopping them.
SERVALAN: This is a major breach of security. The punishment is total. Who are these people who have been talking? I want their names, councillor.
JOBAN: All sorts of citizens from Alphas to labour grades know of Blake’s defiance of the Federation. They talk of him as a sort of hero, many of them.
SERVALAN: What rubbish.
JOBAN: His men impede progress and more importantly order. Order, order Servalan. It is all that matters.

It seems strange that Servalan should react with surprise to the news that Blake has become something of a hero, since she’s commented on this fact several times before.  Only a minor point, but it does appear that Chris Boucher’s attention was elsewhere when this script was written.

Following the attack on the Liberator, Blake is surprised to receive a message from Travis.  He’s on the planet Exbar and he is holding Blake’s cousin Inga (Judy Buxton) hostage.  He asks Blake to come to Exbar to talk and maybe join forces – if he doesn’t, the girl will die.

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Five of the last six stories of series two feature Travis and that’s at least two too many.  Hostage is one of the episodes when it would have been nice to take a break from Travis’ painfully obvious villainy (and Brian Croucher’s not at his best in this one anyway) but it wasn’t to be.

The notion that Travis might be interested in teaming up with Blake was a fascinating one which I’m sorry wasn’t developed.  With them now both renegades it would have made sense – plus it would have provided the later stories with a great deal of dramatic tension.  But Travis (as might be expected) wasn’t really interested in an alliance – he merely wanted to steal the Liberator.

What happened to his Muto crew from the end of the last episode is never made clear, instead he’s recruited a number of crimos (criminal psychopaths).  They’re hardly the most threatening bunch – despite the odd half-hearted attempt to show how truly evil they are (slapping the unfortunate Inga, for example).

Also present on Exbar is Ushton, Blake’s uncle.  It’s revealed early on that he’s working with Travis (who’s agreed not to hurt Inga if he co-operates).  His betrayal of Blake is rather pointless as Blake was coming to meet Travis anyway.  John Aberini does his best, but Ushton isn’t much of a part and his mild betrayal is later forgotten when he and the others battle with Travis and the crimos.

Forty four minutes into the episode, Blake, Avon and Ushton send a number of the most painfully obvious polystyrene rocks ever seen on film down a slope to frighten away Travis and the crimos.  It’s a moment that never fails to amuse – not least for the crimo who runs away with his hands high in the air.  The scene where they throw a crimo down a cliff (so obviously a dummy) is comedy gold as well.

Yet another odd lack of continuity occurs when Travis asks Ushton which of the three members of the Liberator crew he holds prisoner (Blake, Avon, Vila) is the weakest.  Travis has been pursuing them all for some considerable time, can we really believe he didn’t know the strengths and weaknesses of all of them?

The final scene is nice though, with Jenna very huffy towards Blake.  This always seems to happen whenever he meets or talks to an attractive woman, clearly her unrequited love remains unrequited.

But all in all this is a somewhat forgettable episode.  The brief meeting between Servalan and Travis at the end is possibly the most significant moment.  He asks if they’re still enemies and she replies that “officially, yes. Unofficially, you lead me to Blake whenever you can. If you help me get him I’ll see you officially listed as dead. There’s no one as free as a dead man.”

Although his next appearance (in Voice from the Past) shows him working closely with Servalan, which is a far cry from how matters were left here.  Maybe that’s another case of slightly inconsistent script-editing.

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