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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – Redemption

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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.

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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.

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Minder – The Smaller They Are

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When Scotch Harry (Phil McCall) and his faithful friend Big Stan (David Jackson) steal a case from the airport they get more than they bargained for – it contains half a million dollars. And when Arthur learns of this he’s keen to offer his services, for a small commission naturally.

He tells Harry they’ll have to give it back, whoever these people are for this sort of money they won’t hesitate to get very nasty indeed.  Arthur agrees to negotiate the case’s return, although the presence of DC Rycott (Peter Childs) is an added complication.

It’s clear that The Smaller They Are is a very early Minder episode for several reasons – one of the most obvious is Arthur’s lecherous nature.  He casts an appreciative eye over a young woman wearing a tight pair of jeans in the Winchester and later attempts to chat up the pleasant airline receptionist (played by Hilary Ryan, probably best known for playing Rodan in the Doctor Who story The Invasion of Time).  Arthur’s roving eye is something that’s phased out pretty quickly, shortly after this he’ll leave that sort of thing to Terry!

We also see the first appearance of Peter Childs as Rycott.  Another sign that it’s the early days of the series is the notion that Rycott is corrupt.  After nabbing Scotch Harry, Rycott delivers him to the gang – rather than taking him to the nick – and on the way offers an oblique justification why (after years of solid service he’s still only a DC, due to a previous indiscretion).  Maybe Rycott was planned as a one-off character and when it was decided to reuse him his previous corruption was forgotten.  There’s certainly no suggestion after this episode that he’s a wrong ‘un.

Scotch Harry is such an unlikeable character (especially when he’s drunk, although he’s pretty bad when he’s sober) that it’s no surprise Terry’s keen to give him a slap to sort him out.  David Jackson (Gan from Blake’s 7) is his loyal, but none-too-bright friend.  Hans Meyer (best known as Hauptmann Franz Ulmann from the classic BBC series Colditz) is suitably intimidating as Bonnett, the leader of the money smuggling operation.

Although Meyer radiates intimidation, the episode does rather end in farce after Arthur, Terry and Big Stan return the case to him.  Stan’s upset to find that Harry’s been badly beaten up and attempts to retaliate – he’s not very successful, but Terry’s rather more so.  In the melee, Arthur attempts to take the case back (given all he’s previously said about how dangerous these people are, that does seem rather reckless).  He doesn’t succeed, but in the general confusion Bonnett ends up dropping the case on his foot and hops around the room in pain, whilst Arthur manages to take another wad of money before leaving!

But it has to be shown that crime doesn’t pay and it’s down to Dave to break the bad news – the notes are forgeries and therefore worthless.  Even this early on, it’s clear that Arthur’s only going to end up on top very infrequently.

Blakes 7 – Orac

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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.

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Blakes 7 – Deliverance

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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 – Bounty

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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.

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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.

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Blakes 7 – Breakdown

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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.

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Blakes 7 – Project Avalon

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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.”

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Blakes 7 – Duel

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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.

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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.

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Blakes 7 – Mission to Destiny

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The Liberator’s sensors pick up a ship, Ortega, which is drifting in a circular pattern.  After getting no response from their hailing call, Blake, Avon and Cally teleport over to investigate.  They find the entire crew unconscious, incapacitated by a tranquilising gas called Sono Vapour.  Once roused, Blake and the others question the crew.

Dr Kendall (Barry Jackson) believes that somebody is attempting to steal an energy refactor which they are taking back to their planet, Destiny.  Destiny depends on agriculture for its survival and has been hit hard by a fungal disease.  The energy refactor will eliminate this problem, but without it Destiny is doomed.

The sabotage aboard the ship means that they won’t reach home for five months, so Blake offers to take the refactor in the Liberator (this will only take four days).  The crew agree and Avon and Cally remain behind as hostages.  As the Ortega slowly drifts along, there is another death – and Avon finds himself in the unfamiliar role of detective as he unravels the mystery ….

Nobody’s favourite story, Mission from Destiny is a rather dull murder-mystery.  It does boast a decent supporting cast though – Barry Jackson, Stephen Tate, Beth Morris, John Leeson, Brian Capron, Nigel Humphreys, Carl Forgione, Kate Coleridge – most of whom are familiar television faces.  The problem is that most of their characters are only sketchily drawn, so it’s hard to invest a great deal of interest in their fate.

This week’s plot contrivance, which keeps the Liberator crew involved in the plot, is the MacGuffin-like energy refactor.  Without it, it’s hard to imagine Avon sticking around (he admits that “I don’t care if their whole planet turns into a mushroom”).  Although in the next breath he does tell Cally he’s staying because he doesn’t like an unsolved mystery.  This is rather uncharacteristic – until now, Avon has appeared to be motivated mainly by self interest.

Whatever the reason, Avon and Cally begin to investigate the crew.  It’s the first time that Avon and Cally have teamed up and Darrow and Chappell’s interaction helps to lift the episode.  There aren’t that many quotable lines in the story, but I do like this short exchange –

CALLY: My people have a saying, a man who trusts can never be betrayed, only mistaken.
AVON: Life expectancy must be fairly short among your people.

Avon also gets to demonstrate the special way he has with women, when he punches Sara, played by Beth Morris.  “You’d better get her out of here, I really rather enjoyed that.”

Despite the strong supporting cast, most of the performances are perfunctory at best.  Nigel Humphreys and Stephen Tate spend most of the time skulking around in a suspicious manner, John Leeson appears to be friendly and helpful, Beth Morris is hysterical and tearful, whilst the others don’t seem to have any particular personalities at all.

Mission to Destiny reuses the spaceship set from Space Fall, suitably redressed, so it was obviously planned as one of the cheaper series one episodes.  It’s therefore odd that some of the interiors were shot on film at Ealing.  This would be understandable if there were explosions or other effects, but there’s nothing of this type – so it seems an unnecessary expense.

I noted that in The Way Back that Dudley Simpson’s music was on the sparse side, but that’s not an observation that can be made of this episode’s score.  Like most of Simpson’s work on Doctor Who and Blakes 7 around this period, it’s very much a case of Dudley’s Greatest Hits.  Many of the cues are very familiar (it has more than a hint of Spearhead from Space, for example), but since there’s stretches where not much of interest occurs on screen, playing spot the cue does help to pass the time.

Somewhat of a filler episode then, particularly since it’s sandwiched between two key Blake/Travis showdowns.

Blakes 7 – Seek Locate Destroy

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The Liberator crew teleport down to Centero to steal the Federation’s cipher machine.  They achieve this successfully, but Cally is left behind and is apprehended by Federation troopers.  Blake, of course, vows to rescue her, whatever the cost.

Blake’s devotion to his crew will be used by Supreme Commander Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce) and Space Commander Travis (Stephen Greif).  Servalan has been tasked with the job of capturing Blake and she assigns Travis (who has history with him) to carry out the mission.  Using Cally as bait, Travis lures Blake into a trap, where he plans to destroy him …..

Everything changes in Seek Locate Destroy.  Until now, the Federation has provided Blake with rather faceless opposition.  But here, Servalan and Travis are strong, defined characters who will obviously be much more of a challenge to overcome.  And for those who regard Blakes 7 as a sci-fi version of Robin Hood (Blake = Robin, Jenna = Maid Marion, Gan = Little John, etc) the parallels are strengthed by the arrival of Servalan (the Sheriff of Nottingham) and Travis (Sir Guy of Gisbourne).

As with most Robin Hood series, we’ll see how regular returning villains tend to lose their effectiveness over time (due to overexposure).  Of the two, Travis was always going to be harder to write as a continuing character.  When Greif decided to leave at the end of the first series it probably would have been best to create a new character, rather than recast, since there’s only so many times that Travis can be bested by Blake before it becomes monotonous.

But Greif certainly does his best with the material he’s given – he even manages to invest his ripe closing speech with a striking intensity. “Run, Blake. Run. As far and as fast as you like. I’ll find you. You can’t hide from me. I am your death, Blake.”  His replacement in series two, Brian Croucher, was rather less successful unfortunately.

What gives the Blake/Travis conflict extra spice is the history the pair have.  Blake explains to the others exactly what happened.

BLAKE:  The group had arranged to meet in a sub-basement. There were about thirty of us. I was very particular about security. I had our people watch the entrances and exits for a full twenty-four hours before we were supposed to meet. No Federation forces came anywhere near the place. I was absolutely sure that we were safe. That night we were assembled and about to begin, and Travis and his men suddenly appeared from nowhere.

AVON:  Didn’t you post any guards?

BLAKE:  Of course I did. Travis was already there. He’d been hiding in that basement for more than two days. We made no attempt to resist arrest. There was no point, we had no chance. I said to Travis, “We will offer no resistance.” And he just stared at me. And then he ordered his men to open fire. Everybody was diving for cover that wasn’t there. I, I ran, I found myself grappling with a guard, and I managed to get his gun away from him, and then I was hit in the leg. But as I went down, I saw Travis. And I fired. I saw him fall. I was sure I’d killed him.

Another character who would suffer from overuse is Jacqueline Pearce’s Servalan – plus she would become camper and camper as the series progressed.  She’s quite different here – efficient, charming (when she needs to be) but also capable of barely suppressed fury (when speaking to her old flame Rai who dares to question the appointment of Travis) as well as showing occasional moments of hesitancy.  It’s a controlled performance which works very well.  In this episode we see Servalan the politician, manouvering others to do her bidding.  Later, she’d become more mobile and would appear to run into the Liberator crew nearly every week, which didn’t always work.

Pearce and Greif help to bolster what is a fairly flimsy story – Blake steals the cypher machine, realises Cally has been captured and then rescues her.  The location filming (at Fulham Gasworks) does help matters – Blakes 7 always loved an industrial setting – but several minus points for the rather silly-looking robot.  Sadly it reappears in a later story – presumably (despite appearances) it was expensive to make, so I assume they felt they had to get their monies worth.

It’s difficult to believe that nobody realises Cally hasn’t returned with the others, but given the excitement of the raid it’s just about believable I guess.  Jan Chappell’s fight with the trooper, which results in her losing the teleport bracelet, is rather ineffectual – had it been shot on film there would have been time to cut it together properly, but the unforgiving medium of multi-camera VT simply didn’t allow this (so it’s less a fight, more a series of shoves!).

Afterwards, it’s interesting to see the Federation trooper remove his helmet – to reveal a fairly nondescript looking man.  The masked troopers have a nightmarish and dehumanised appearance, so this moment (whilst understated) helps to show us that the troopers aren’t monsters, they can be just normal people.

A similar point is touched upon later, when Rai (Ian Oliver) expresses to Servalan the disquiet that he and his fellow officers have concerning the reappointment of Travis.  Travis has been suspended after another massacre of unarmed civilians and in Rai’s opinion he should have been dismissed from the service.  Whilst the series in general tends to paint the Federation en-masse as tyrants and killers, here we see Rai presented as a decent and honourable officer, disgusted with the return of a psychopath like Travis.  And the fact he’s not the only one to feel this way about Travis does suggest that maybe the Federation isn’t quite as black as Blake believes.

Although Travis is the centre-point of the story we don’t actually see him until more than half way through the episode.  His first scene in priceless though – to the strains of Dudley Simpson at his most dramatic, Grief strides in, hands on hips, as he confronts Servalan.  He’s already spoken a good few lines before the camera cuts to his face and we see the signs left by his last tussle with Blake.

Any episode is always enlivened by a touch of Peter Miles (at his most cutting here),  He forms a nice double-act with John Bryans and the pair will also return in the series two episode Trial (Bryans also pops up in series three, in a different role, in Rumours of Death).  Ian Cullen (formally a Z Cars regular) is rather wasted as Escon and Peter Craze (brother of Michael) is Prell.

Solid stuff then and it’s obvious that Travis will be back again and again – only death, it seems, will end the feud between him and Blake.

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Blakes 7 – The Web

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Cally, under the control of a mysterious alien, pilots the Liberator to a distant planet where it becomes ensnared in a strange web.  Blake teleports down to the surface, finds more of the web-like substance and meets Geela (Ania Marson) and Novara (Miles Fothergill).  They are under attack from a group of diminutive aliens called the Decimas (as is Blake when he arrives).  But as Blake begins to assess his surroundings, he finds that his sympathies lie more with the Decimas than the distinctly odd Geela and Novara.

Exactly why the two humanoids are on the planet, their relationship with the Decimas, and the involvement of the mysterious Saymon (Richard Beale) are all puzzles that Blake finds he has to solve.

The Web is a story that seems rather out of place in series one (although you could imagine it fitting into series three or four quite easily).  But on the other hand, since the majority of the first series from now on will be dominated by Servalan and Travis, it’s probably not a bad idea to have a couple of non-Federation/pure SF stories.

True, it’s not one to watch in the company of non-fans, as there are various production choices (the Decimas, Saymon, etc) which will no doubt only generate derision.  But digging deeper underneath, there’s a creepy SF story here – which makes a nice change from the Blake versus the Federation yarns.

Cally’s only been onboard the Liberator for a short while and she’s already taken over by a mysterious alien force (this certainly won’t be the last time it’ll happen either).  As previously discussed, it’s easy to spot various plot contrivances that have been put into place in order to shape the drama and Cally’s possession is another.  In Doctor Who, the TARDIS could simply land at random on a planet and then the adventure would begin.  This can’t happen in Blakes 7, so another way had to be found to involve Blake and the others in Saymon’s affairs.

Michael E. Briant’s direction is very effective – the story opens with a nice panning shot of Saymon’s laboratory and the film sequences (recorded at Black Park) have a spooky atmosphere.  Miles Fothergill had previously played the emotionless robot SV7 in the Doctor Who story The Robots of Death, which was clearly good practice for his similar role here.

Richard Beale has a somewhat thankless role.  Saymon’s dialogue (here’s a sample – “They must come. They must. They must. They must come. They must. They must. They must. They must come. They must come. They must. They must. They must come to us” etc) is rather repetitive and his appearance – which should be shocking – can’t help but be rather comical.  Beale’s clearly just poking his head through a wall, so it’s hard to take him seriously.  But he is a very good actor, so he’s still able to make something out of the fairly unpromising hand he’s been dealt.

The dubious morality of genetic engineering is debated and it’s pleasing that there’s no pat, neat solution at the end.  Blake sides with the Decimas, but not everyone share his sympathies.  “These are what you wanted to protect” comments Avon, with Blake retorting that the Decimas are fighting for their lives.  “Who isn’t” counters Avon.

The early part of the story takes place on the Liberator, which allows everybody to enjoy some more character development.  It then becomes more of Blake’s story as he meets Geela, Novara and Saymon.

Highlights of the first part of the episode include the controlled Cally knocking Vila out, which happens just after he asks her what she thinks of his new outfit.  My opinion?  Not very good.  Also of note is the scene between Cally and Avon.  She’s still under the control of Saymon at the time (although Avon doesn’t realise this until later) and there’s an intimacy to her words which clearly rattles the cold, logical Avon.  It’s one of the few times thus far that we’ve seen him wrong-footed, so it’s a nice character moment.  Jenna’s possessed acting is also interesting, shall we say …..

The Web probably isn’t a particularly highly regarded episode, but it’s certainly not without merit and is a step-up from the tedious run-around antics of Time Squad.

Blakes 7 – Time Squad

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The Liberator is en-route for Saurian Major.  Blake explains that it’s home to the Federation’s transceiver complex.  “It’s a vital nerve centre in the Federation space control system. Destroy that, and you blind, deafen and silence them.”

On the way, they stop to pick up a capsule which contains several people in deep cryogenic sleep.  Jenna and Gan remain on-board as their visitors slowly return to life, whilst Blake, Avon and Vila teleport down to the planet.  The three of them meet Cally (Jan Chappell) – the last surviving member of Saurian Major’s resistance group.  She guides them into the complex whilst Gan and Jenna tussle with the now very awake and very deadly aliens ……

Time Squad opens with Blake asserting his authority over the others.  He unilaterally decides to attack Saurian Major and expects the others to follow him, although he does say that anybody is able to opt out at any time, which he obviously considers closes the debate.

Nobody decides to leave, so for the present they all seem content.  Jenna, as we’ve seen, might be happy to remain because of her growing relationship with Blake – there’s further small examples of this during the episode (in addition to the fact that she seems very put out when Cally joins the crew!).  Vila seems to go with the flow, whilst Gan later admits that he can’t be on his own – he has to be around people he can trust (although the reasons for this aren’t immediately clear).  And Avon, by far Blake’s staunchest critic, remains on the sidelines, tossing the occasional barbed comment Blake’s way.

As previously touched upon, because Blakes 7 has such an abundance of technological wonders (and there are more in this episode, such as the device which instantly mends Jenna’s broken arm) ways have to be found to limit their effectiveness – lest the dramatic tension of the stories are completely eroded.

There’s two direct examples in Time Squad – and indeed, the word “limiter” is mentioned in both cases.  The first occurs when the Liberator encounters the floating projectile – it seems clear that Zen senses it contains danger, but can’t or won’t directly state this.  For dramatic purposes this makes sense – had he told them it contained several homicidal lunatics who were programmed to destroy all life, it’s a fair bet they would have left it where it was!

But it doesn’t make any logical sense for Zen to have this limit placed upon him (by, presumably, the Liberator‘s creator).  It just feels like slightly clumsy plotting, as is the fact that nobody seems to take the slightest heed to Zen’s strange behavour anyway.  You would have assumed that someone would have twigged that maybe the sleepers were bad news (a look at their faces should have been proof enough).

The second limiter has been placed in Gan’s head.  I assume this was done after he was convicted of murder, since it means he can no longer take a life.  His inability to kill will have serious consequences when the sleepers are running amok – although it didn’t seem to be a problem in the previous few episodes, where he was happy enough to crack any number of heads together.  Why couldn’t Gan aim to disable, rather than kill?  Again, this feels like a plot contrivance – in order to make him less effective (and place Jenna in direct peril) a way had to be found to neuter him.

With Gan below par, this leaves Jenna at the mercy of the aliens.  Whilst it’s true that the concept of a woman stalked by several stronger men is a familiar, if not very progressive, trope, it does at least allow Sally Knyvette a decent amount of screen-time.  In later episodes she would become progressively marginalised, ending up as little more than the teleport operator.  The Blake/Avon/Vila combination seemed to be the most appealing for many of the writers, which unfortunately meant that Jenna and Cally had very little to do at times.  In Time Squad though, she’s able to carry part of the narrative by herself.  Jenna may be frightened, but she’s also resourceful and independent.

Whilst Gan and Jenna have their hands full aboard the Liberator, Blake and the others teleport down to Saurian Major (which you may not be surprised to learn is a quarry) and meet Cally.  She will prove to be an asset – as she’s a hardened fighter and someone who’s just as fanatical, if not more so, than Blake.

Blake says he needs Cally’s help to infiltrate the complex, but it’s hard to see why, since they appear to just stroll in with no trouble at all.  This is more than a little bizarre – if this really is a top-security installation, how are they able to reach their goal without anybody challenging them?  It’s just too easy and therefore there’s no tension to these sequences.  And though Blake tells us that the transceiver complex is a vital piece of Federation hardware, its destruction doesn’t seem to make any difference to the Federation’s ability to hunt the Liberator down in later episodes.

Since this part of the plot isn’t very effective (and the lumbering sleepers plotine drags on as well) it’s fair to say that the crew interactions are the main pleasures to be taken from Time Squad.  Everybody gets some space to develop their characters – especially Gan, as we learn some of his back-story (which unfortunately is never touched on again).  Vila continues to wisecrack.  When told that some of the plant-life on Saurian Major has an intelligence rating, he says “that’s a comfort. I should hate to be eaten by something stupid.”

Blake/Jenna/Cally is an intriguing triangle which was never really developed in the series (although I’m sure there’s plenty of fan-fic out there, should you wish to find it).  We’ve seen Blake and Jenna develop a closeness and also observed how she seems put out to see Cally join the crew.  It’s hard to imagine anything romantic developing between Blake and Cally, but their fanatical nature makes them two of a kind.

Blakes 7 – Cygnus Alpha

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Once Blake, Avon and Jenna have learnt a little about the new spaceship they’ve “acquired” (and also tangled with the mysterious super-computer Zen) they set a course for the prison planet Cygnus Alpha.  Once there, Blake is keen to free as many of the prisoners as he can – he needs a crew to start fighting the Federation.  But the charismatic ruler of Cygnus Alpha, Vargas (Brian Blessed), needs new recruits to serve his god and he isn’t going to give them up without a fight …..

Cygnus Alpha is a story of two halves.  Later we explore Cygnus Alpha and Vargas’ weird religion, but to begin with we follow Blake, Avon and Jenna as they start to evaluate the Liberator and slowly begin to understand its capabilities.  Blake remarks that the design is alien – it certainly doesn’t appear to be of Federation origin.  In story terms of course, it’s handy for Blake’s small group to have such an advanced ship – otherwise their battle against the Federation would have been rather brief.

If you accept this as a dramatic requirement, then you also have to turn a blind eye to the fact that the Liberator has a well stocked arsenal of weapons and a teleport system which means they never have to land the ship, handy that!  At this point, they can only remove one gun each (“single function isomorphic response” as Avon puts it) although this is a convention that’s later blithely ignored.

The teleport system is the closest link to Star Trek – and as in the American series it’s a device that is frankly just too useful.  The ability to teleport anybody out of danger at any time is a problem, so during the course of the series we’ll see various ways used to limit its power.  Sometimes the Liberator will be forced to leave teleport range (because of incoming Federation ships) and on other occasions, like here, the loss of a teleport bracelet will prevent a quick escape.

One oddity in this story is that at the end there appears to be two teleport areas.  We see Blake, Vila and Gan appear in the usual one and then Vargas seems to materalise in another teleport area on the opposite side.  Although it’s possible this is just a bad piece of editing, since this secondary teleport area (if that’s what it is) is never used again.

Shortly after finding the guns they encounter Zen (voiced by Peter Tuddenham) for the first time.  As he’s got such a clear personality it’s no surprise that Blake later claims him as one of the seven.  But as the following exchange illustrates, Zen has boundaries that he’s not prepared to cross.

BLAKE: Zen, how does the teleport system work?
AVON: Would its function be injurious to our species? Have you the necessary data?
ZEN: Wisdom must be gathered, it cannot be given.
AVON: Don’t philosophise with me you electronic moron. Answer the question.

Zen doesn’t answer Avon’s question which infuriates him no end.  Avon vows to reprogram the computer, but it’s probable that he’s met his match.

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Down on the surface of Cygnus Alpha things are grim – as might be expected of a penal planet it’s a pretty bleak environment.  There is a smidgen of civilisation though – led by Vargas and Kara (Pamela Salem).  They, and the others, worship their god in a quasi-medieval setting.  New prisoners (or as Kara refers to them “new souls for the faith”) are therefore always welcome – though it may not come as a surprise that Vila’s far from keen.  When Gan spies a building, he asks Vila what he thinks.  “The architectural style is early maniac” he responds.

Apart from Gan and Vila, we see a couple of new prisoners – Arco (Peter Childs) and Selman (David Ryall).  Well, I say new, but they must have been aboard the London, so we have to assume they were always just out of shot in the previous episode. Either of these actors would have livened up Blake’s crew (I certainly would have taken Arco over Gan).

Whilst Blake’s recruiting members for the cause on Cygnus Alpha, Jenna faces a moral dilemma aboard the Liberator.  She’s discovered a room with untold riches, which certainly appeals to Avon.  He’s keen to take the money and run as he tells her that Blake would “look upon all this as just one more weapon to use against the Federation. And he can’t win. You know he can’t win. What do you want to be, rich or dead?  We might never have this opportunity again.”

Jenna agrees, although she decides to wait for an hour to see if Blake contacts the ship.  But when it comes to the crunch she can’t leave him – and neither, it appears, can Avon.  Why Avon doesn’t jump ship at the next available port with as much wealth as he can carry?.  Could it be that he too is beginning to believe in Blake’s crusade?  It seems improbable, but Avon’s motivations aren’t always easy to read (compared with how transparent Blake is) so it’s hard to say for sure.

The surface of Cygnus Alpha might only be a quarry, but the location benefits from extensive night shooting, atmospheric dry ice and some decent matte effects.  The interiors are more conventional and look like they could have been drawn from stock, but are reasonably solid.

Just two episodes after the nihilistic opener, we’re into something totally different here. Cygnus Alpha is much more conventional adventure series fare – complete with an over-the-top villain in Vargas. Brian Blessed could do this sort of performance in his sleep (possibly he did!) and whilst he’s undeniably a powerful actor, it’s hard to take Vargas very seriously as we know it’s only Brian Blessed dialing it up to eleven.

By the end of the story, Blake has been able to rescue Vila and Gan, so his band of brothers has got slightly bigger. It still seems that they’re very few to be thinking about launching an all-out attack on the Galactic Federation, but for a true fanatic like Blake that’s not something that’s going to bother him.

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Blakes 7 – Spacefall

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Blake and the rest of the prisoners have started their eight-month journey to the prison planet Cygnus Alpha on the ship London.  Blake doesn’t waste any time in attempting to work out a way to take control of the ship – but he’ll need the co-operation of Avon (Paul Darrow).  Whilst Blake and the others plot, they have to contend with the sadistic second-in-command Raiker (Leslie Scofield) who places little value on any of their lives.  After an aborted attempt to hijack the ship, the appearance of a highly advanced and apparently abandoned spaceship seems to offer an escape route ……

One of the interesting things about watching Spacefall for the first time is pondering who will survive to join Blake on his crusade.  Since Vila and Jenna were introduced in the previous episode, it’s a fair bet that they’ll make the cut.  And from his opening appearance it’s quite clear that Avon is going to be a significant character.  He’s an expert in his field – computers – and is easily able to explain to Blake how the security doors operate.  “It’s simple enough. All authorised personnel have their palm prints filed in the computer. The blue sensor plate reads the print. If it conforms, the computer opens the door.”

Later Blake asks him if he could open all the doors on the ship.  Avon, who we’ll soon discover is never one to suffer from false modesty, tells him that “I could open every door, blind all the scanners, knock out the security overrides, and control the computer. Control the computer and you control the ship.”

Even this early on there’s a nice bite to the scenes between Thomas and Darrow.  Avon’s highly dismissive of the small group of people that Blake has been able to recruit – Vila, Jenna, Gan (David Jackson) and Nova (Tom Kelly).  “You’ve got an army of five, Blake. Five and HIM!”  The “him” is Vila – even the short time that Avon and Vila have spent together seems to have been enough for Avon to have formed a healthy loathing of him!  Although it’s true this is rather negated later on when he realises just how talented Vila is at opening any kind of locked door or security system.

So what of the other two potential recruits to Blakes 7 – Gan and Nova?  It’s quite a while into the episode before we hear Gan speak, until then it’s quite possible to imagine he’s just another non-speaking extra (like the majority of the prisoners).  Nova seems quite a personable chap, but he doesn’t last very long.  He suffers a rather grim fate – trapped in the ship’s infrastructure during a meteorite attack, he’s suffocated by the sealing foam triggered to repair the breaches to the ships hull.

Thanks to Avon’s efforts, Blake is able to take control of the ship – but can he keep control?  Glyn Owen gives a wonderfully weary performance as the London‘s commander, Leylan.  He’s a fair man who doesn’t want any trouble, unlike his subordinate Raiker who’s happy to kill off the prisoners at thirty second intervals until Blake, Jenna and Avon give themselves up.

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Blake, of course, sees no alternative but to surrender – whilst Avon naturally takes the opposite view and later makes this point very forcefully to Blake.  “What a fiasco. You could take over the ship, you said, if I did my bit. Well, I did my bit, and what happened? Your troops bumble around looking for someone to surrender to, and when they’ve succeeded, you follow suit.”

Before they surrender, Blake, Avon and Jenna discuss what they’ll do if they manage to escape. Blake tells them he wants to return to Earth and explains why.

BLAKE:  They butchered my family, my friends. They murdered my past and gave me tranquilized dreams.
JENNA:  At least you’re still alive.
BLAKE:  No! Not until free men can think and speak. Not until power is back with the honest man.
AVON:  Have you ever met an honest man?
JENNA:  [Glances at Blake] Perhaps.
AVON:  Listen to me. Wealth is the only reality. And the only way to obtain wealth is to take it away from somebody else. Wake up, Blake! You may not be tranquilized any longer, but you’re still dreaming.
JENNA:  Maybe some dreams are worth having.
AVON:  You don’t really believe that.
JENNA: No, but I’d like to.

Blake wants to fight and nothing will stop him.  Avon lacks Blake’s idealism and simply wants a quiet life, once he’s stolen enough money to live comfortably.  Jenna doesn’t share Blake’s views, but there’s something in what he says which strikes a chord in her.

After Blake and his friends are recaptured, it does seem like they’ve blown their only chance.  But all this changes when a fantastically advanced spaceship drifts alongside the London.  The first appearance of the Liberator in space (complete with Dudley Simpson’s fanfare) is an impressive moment.  And the first scene on the Liberator‘s flight deck is another moment of wonder – especially after the bleak, utilitarian decor of the London.

After only one of the ship’s crew sent over to explore the strange ship comes back (and he appears to be quite mad) it’s decided by Raiker and Leylan to send Blake, Avon and Jenna over to explore.  Yes, it’s probably not the wisest move to send the three of them over to the ship unsupervised.

How were Blake, Avon and Jenna able to survive the ship’s defences which killed the others?  Blake was the only one of the three who was able to realise that the images created were an illusion – maybe his recent traumas and the retention of his suppressed memories had something to do with it?

Whatever the reason, they were able to survive and take control of the ship.  And with a ship like that they could go anywhere in the Universe – but Blake wants to head to Cygnus Alpha.  He plans to free the other prisoners – once he’s done that he’ll have a full crew and can really start fighting back.

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