Blakes 7 – Terminal

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As is probably well known, Terminal was due to be B7‘s final episode, but the show was granted a last-minute reprieve by BBC bigwigs who had apparently enjoyed the series so much they asked for an announcement to be broadcast over Terminal‘s end credits stating that the series would return.  Which came as something of a surprise to the cast and crew.

Having said that, it’s easy to see that Terry Nation crafted the script in such a way as to make a fourth series eminently possible.  Terminal ends with Blake and Servalan apparently dead (although both make a miraculous comeback in S4) and the Liberator destroyed (which doesn’t) but everyone else is alive and kicking.  But even if it’s not the final end it’s still an ominous, unsettling installment.  Paul Darrow’s performance (as well as the very brief return of Gareth Thomas) are the undoubted highlights and help to paper over some of the more glaring plot holes.

The main talking point has to be Avon’s bizarre behaviour. Terminal seems to look ahead to the increasingly paranoid man who’d lead the others through a number of misadventures during series four, losing just as often as winning.  If Rumours of Death started to chip away at his air of invulnerability (by revealing that he was never as close to defrauding the Federation’s banking systems as he’d previously thought) then Terminal is another nail in his coffin.  His obsession to find Blake has several consequences, the most serious is that it loses them the Liberator.  Enroute to their destination Zen detects unidentified matter in their path – he recommends going around it (“the consensus of computer systems favour a course deviation to avoid contact. In this environment, it is prudent to treat any unexplained phenomenon as potentially dangerous”) but Avon is adamant – there will be no course deviation.

Why?  It wouldn’t have cost them a great deal of time and would have been the prudent course of action.  And Avon’s always been prudent – never willing to risk either his life or that of the Liberator unnecessarily.  It’s tempting to think that Servalan’s operating a similar mental suggestion on Avon that we saw Blake suffer from in Voice from the Past.  That would also explain his burning desire to find Blake, which also seems very out of character – he spent two years trying to get rid of him!

There is the possibility that Avon is motivated to find Blake purely because of the get-rich plan that Blake was offering, although that doesn’t really hold water either – surely Avon has the ability to create his own get-rich plans if that’s what he wants?  And the Liberator is supposed to carry untold wealth anyway.

But for all the slight niggles about his motivation, the brief meeting between Avon and Blake is still magical.  It may last only a minute or so but it’s a reminder that as good as Darrow’s been during S3, he’s not had an equal – like Thomas – to measure himself against.

BLAKE: Well, you certainly took your time finding me.
AVON: There didn’t seem to be any hurry. Anyway, I always said I could manage very well without you.
BLAKE: It must have been so dull having no one to argue with.
AVON: Well, now, there were times when your simple-minded certainties might have been refreshing.
BLAKE: Careful, Avon. Your sentiment is showing.

Before teleporting down to the planet (an artificial satellite called Terminal) Avon makes it quite clear to the others exactly how he feels about them. “I don’t need any of you. I needed the Liberator to bring me here so I had no choice but to bring you along, but this is as far as you go. I don’t want you with me. I don’t want you following me. Understand this: anyone who does follow me, I’ll kill them.”  Not very friendly.

The obvious irony is that he does need them and despite the way he’s treated them they won’t just abandon him.  It’s all done in a typically understated way – no loud declarations of friendship and loyalty – but it’s there all the same.  Later, Avon explains to Servalan that he decided to do everything on his own as he felt it could be a trap – although she wonders if it had more to do with his desire not to share Blake’s mysterious treasure with them.  He smiles, but doesn’t deny it (this is a nice moment, as it offers several  different motivations for Avon’s actions).

Of course it all turned out to be a dream – Blake was never on Terminal and his image was created in Avon’s mind by some clever people working for Servalan.  This is yet another of her hopelessly over complicated schemes to capture the Liberator (in one way it’s a good thing this’ll be the last time she’ll have to do this).

If Servalan’s once again rather surplus to requirements, there’s two moments when she earns her money.  The first is when she tells Avon that Blake’s dead.  She appears to be quite emotional – was this Pearce’s choice or as scripted, I wonder?  And was it meant to imply Servalan’s sorrow at the death of a worthy enemy or (even though this seems unlikely) was she emphasising with the fact that the news would have upset Avon?

No prizes for guessing that the second is “Maximum Power!” as she finally gets command of the Liberator.  But by now it’s a very sick ship as the cloud of unidentified matter has caused irreparable damage .  It’s more than a little odd that neither Servalan or her underlings twig that something’s wrong – the whole ship’s covered with big gloopy blotches for goodness sake!

Her apparent death is an interesting moment – I wonder if they ever intended to keep her dead when S4 was being mooted.  Probably not, as she was such a powerful character, but her overuse during S3 had been a problem and a fresh adversary could have been what the series needed.

Is it wrong that I find the death of Zen to be more upsetting than the death of Gan?  Zen’s final words (“I have failed you. I am sorry”) always raises a sniffle and the slow disintegration of the Liberator is also mildly upsetting.

No story is ever perfect and the links (small men in monkey suits) help to keep this proud record going.  But apart from them, and a bit of a mid-episode sag, there’s not much wrong with Terminal (if you can accept Avon’s odd behaviour).

As they watch the Liberator disintegrate, Avon and the others face an uncertain future ….

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Blakes 7 – Death-Watch

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Anybody watching Death-Watch for the first time would probably wonder why Tarrant’s aboard the United Planets passenger liner Teal Star and why he’s wearing a very bad wig.  But this isn’t Del Tarrant, it’s his older brother Deeta (who could be Del’s twin).  Exactly how they can be so alike when Deeta’s several years older is anyone’s guess – but it’s the future, so things are obviously different there.

The opening moments contain quite a substantial info dump  – we’re told about Blood Feuds and an outbreak of war between the Vandor Confederacy and the United Planets of Teal – but this helps to quickly set the parameters of the episode, as does Deeta’s skill with a gun.  He’s First Champion of the United Planets of Teal, which makes him a valid target now that Vandor and Teal have declared war.  Deeta quickly deals with one assassin (whenever you see Stuart Fell you know there’s going to be some action) and then takes out another – Karla (Katherine Iddon).  Both these swift attacks help to emphasise how skilled a killer he is.

How does the Liberator crew get involved?  In a slightly contrived way, but it just about works.  Vila hears about the war between Teal and Vandor and he’s instantly excited (“break out the booze, girls. It’s fiesta time”).  It takes Tarrant to fill in some of the blanks.  Whenever Teal and Vandor declare war they both pick a champion to stand as a surrogate for their armies.  These two men meet in single combat to decide which side wins and which loses.  Cally’s not impressed, although Tarrant does his best to convince her.  “Look, two men fight for the honor of independent planetary systems of maybe twenty million people each. It’s hardly crude.”

According to Vila this means substantial festivities on the planet where the combat ground is situated.  But it shouldn’t come as any surprise to learn that B7‘s budget wouldn’t run to this – so no sooner do Vila and the others teleport down then they teleport back up, with Vila complaining that everything’s closed!  It’s possible that this wasn’t just budget-related though, as there are some sly satirical digs peppered throughout Chris Boucher’s script.  As the Liberator crew watch the viscast on the flight deck, there’s a suitably portentous voice-over (which even mentions “space, the final frontier”).  The V-O serves two purposes – it helps to explain exactly what will happen, but once it finishes we’re given a peep behind the scenes as a somewhat camp director flatters the V-O man that his speech “was your usual delicate mixture of enthusiasm and dignified cliche.”

Servalan’s about, and acting as a neutral arbiter.  She doesn’t really do much though and this is definitely one story where she could have been excised without too much trouble.  However she does share one classic scene with Avon – where you could cut the sexual tension with a cricket stump.  Avon’s not got the most flattering costume – it’s the bulky shoulder pads which are the most distracting part – but he still manages to snarl and grab another snog from Servalan with aplomb.

Once he’s done that, he too heads back to the Liberator and settles down with the others to watch the action.  Rather charmingly they’ve got a decent selection of drinks and snacks to enjoy whilst they tune in to see Tarrant’s brother fight to the death.

Although it’s fair to say that there’s nothing too original about any part of Boucher’s script, it’s interesting that some of the concepts (which would have been science fiction then) are closer to reality now.  Everybody has the option to feel exactly what one of the two champions feels, via the sensor net.  Deeta’s second, Max (Stewart Bevan) explains.  “Both men have had microsensors implanted in the brain. These are connected to a conductive mesh which is actually etched into the bone of the skull. When this mesh gets charged up it becomes a sort of transmitter.  You put it on your forehead. It’s activated through the optic nerves. Close your eyes and it feeds the signal directly into the brain, open them and it cuts out.  You can see what Deeta sees and feel a lot of what he feels, physically and emotionally.”  Our Virtual Reality isn’t quite there yet, but maybe one day ….

Once Deeta and Vinni (Mark Elliott) enter the killing ground, the camera often acts as their “eyes” allowing us to view the area as they would see it.  In this way it anticipated generations of first-person shooter computer games.  This choice of shot is used most effectively just after Vinni has fatally wounded Deeta – we see Vinni stand over the stricken Deeta and watch as he aims his gun directly at his opponent (i.e. the camera) to deliver the killing blow.

Whilst Deeta was hardly given any screentime to be developed as a rounded character, there were a few nice touches – such as the fact that he felt fear (so he wasn’t simply a mindless killer).  Stephen Pacey does do a good job to portray his pain at his brother’s death, although as is the way with B7 there’s no time to reflect – unfinished business has to be attended to.

Vinni’s an android and looks to be Servalan’s handiwork,  She has plenty of incentive for ensuring that Vandor and Teal go to war for real (the Federation would be handily placed to pick up the pieces and subdue the survivors).  Under the rules of Blood Feud Tarrant is able to challenge Vini and it’s probably not too hard to guess what happens next.

Most memorable part of the episode must be the silver combat suits that both Deeta and Vinni wear.  Remember this was 1980 not 1973, so quite why costume designer Nicholas Rocker decided to create something that Alvin Stardust could have worn is anyone’s guess.  Wembley Exhibition Halls and Southhall Gasworks make an excellent venue for the Deeta/Vinni battle (and should be familiar from numerous other television shows of the time).  I’d forgotten that Stewart Bevan was in this one, but then he wasn’t talking about mushrooms and didn’t have a Welsh accent, so that’s fair enough.

Death-Watch is a good opportunity for Stephen Pacey and it’s a decent sci-concept, well produced.

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Blakes 7 – Rumours of Death

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Rumours of Death features Blake 7‘s most effective cold opening.  Avon is a prisoner of the Federation and he’s in a pretty bad way.  Unshaven and in pain, he’s been a captive for five days and during that time he’s proven to be rather uncooperative.  He’s visited in his cell by the Federation’s top torturer, Shrinker (John Bryans) who is determined to get the truth out of him – one way or another.

Set-wise, this opening section is simply staged.  Avon’s cell is bare and we never venture any further into the Federation detention block.  But the illusion that Avon isn’t the only prisoner is effectively created by the off-camera screams of another poor unfortunate.  And as Shrinker brandishes a laser probe it seems likely that Avon will also be screaming soon.  Director Fiona Cumming chooses to keep the camera angle in this scene quite low – with Avon seated on the bed and Shrinker standing over him it helps to create the impression of the Federation man’s dominance.  A simple trick (like the off-camera screams) but nonetheless effective.

The attentive viewer wouldn’t have been fooled by Avon’s plight for too long.  It now becomes clear why he mentioned Shrinker in the previous episode (he’d told the rest of the crew that Shrinker was the key to understanding why Anna Grant, the woman he loved, died).  So when Shrinker appears here it’s clear that Avon’s plan is in full swing.  That he was prepared to withstand days of torture (it’s never explicitly stated what happened to him, but it clearly wasn’t pleasant) in order to lure Shrinker to his cell speaks volumes.  Whether for good or bad is debatable though.  Avon’s always been a driven, single-minded character, but the events of this episode seem to clearly indicate his future, tragic path – the loss of the Liberator, his inability to ever trust again and the cataclysmic events on Gauda Prime.

When Tarrant and Dayna teleport into the cell and take Avon and Shrinker back to the Liberator it’s remarkable how quickly Shrinker devolves into a whimpering, pathetic character.  The cliche that he was only a man who followed orders is aired, but there’s a faint sense of unreality about his total collapse.  Yes, it’s reasonable to assume that such a man would be powerless when stripped of his authority, but it might have played better had he kept a faint air of defiance.

The reactions of Tarrant, Dayna and Vila are noteworthy.  They surround the cowering Shrinker and goad him, causing a disgusted Cally to snap at them.  That Shrinker’s a mass-murderer is unquestionable and Tarrant tells her that he’s nothing more than an animal.  “Yes, and it’s contagious, isn’t it?” responds Cally.  With series three of Blakes 7 having largely abandoned the freedom fighter/terrorist attacks of the first two series, this brief exchange taps into some of the more interesting character moments from previous stories like Star One.  Shrinker is a monster, but if they behave like him can they claim to be any better?

Whilst this part of the plot is bubbling along nicely, we jump to Earth.  Sula (Lorna Helibron) and Chesku (Peter Clay) are two high-ranking officials in the Federation (and are also married).  Chesku is clearly a man with a great regard for his own oratorical skills and gives his wife a demonstration of part of a speech he plans to deliver later.  “The rabble which sought to challenge the established order lacked our inspiration, our unity, our leadership. They are crushed. Earth and the Inner Planets are once again united. Gentlemen, I give you a toast. Our inspiration, our unity, our leader: President Servalan.”

Sula responds that “I’m sure Servalan will be delighted. She is, after all, a tasteless megalomaniac.”  The faintly off-key nature of the episode continues after two Federation troopers turn up and, on Sula’s orders, shoot Chesku dead.  Peter Clay’s death (all flailing arms as he crashes into a bush) isn’t the most impressive, but never mind.  It helps to set up the events for the rest of the episode as it looks as if a palace revolution is taking place.  The power-struggles within the Federation following the war with the aliens is certainly something that could have been developed more during series three.  As it was, Servalan seemed to spend far too much time tussling with Avon and the others instead of attempting to secure her position.

Things get even stranger when Avon starts to question Shrinker.  Avon shows him a picture of Anna Grant, but he claims he doesn’t know her.  “I’ve killed hundreds and remembered them all, all of them, every last whining traitor. And there wasn’t one that died without telling me what I wanted to know. Not one.”  We then flashback to scenes of Anna in bed with Avon.  It’s maybe not immediately clear, but this is the same woman who now calls herself Sula.  In Space Fall we were told that Avon was nearly responsible for the greatest banking fraud in Federation history, but Shrinker now tells him that he was monitored right from the start (he was under the observation of an agent called Bartolomew from Central Security).  It’s another small moment which helps to emphasise that Avon’s not as infallible as he might appear.

Avon leaves Shrinker a prisoner in a cave with no escape and a gun for company.  Avon promised him a way out and this is it (“It’s a better deal than you gave any of your victims”).  With Shrinker’s information, he now decides to set course for Earth to confront Servalan and demand that she reveal the identity of Bartolomew.  This is the weakest part of the script – that Avon would decide to return to Earth seems foolhardy enough but that he chooses to do so on the same day that Anna/Sula decides to take out Servalan is one coincidence too many.

Greenlee (Donald Douglas) and Forres (David Haig) are two career officers who are on security duty at the lavish country house that serves as Servalan’s headquarters.  It seems that Chris Boucher took a leaf out of Robert Holmes’ book as Greenlee and Forres act as detached narrators for the first half of the episode – they help to fill in the blanks of what we’re seeing.  Although unlike most Holmesian double-acts they don’t make it to the end as they’re both mown down by Sula’s men.  The palace revolution is far from bloodless, but it’s comprehensive.

Jacqueline Pearce doesn’t have a great deal of screentime in this episode, but that’s not really a criticism.  Servalan’s been something of an overexposed character (especially during series three to date) so Rumours of Death works well by keeping her as more of a background character.  But her scene with Avon towards the end (she’s chained up in the cellar, helpless) is another key Avon/Servalan meeting that has no doubt launched a thousand fan-fics.

AVON: Is that it? Have you finally lost your nerve?  Have you murdered your way to the wall of an underground room?

SERVALAN: It’s an old wall, Avon, it waits. I hope you don’t die before you reach it.

That Avon is prepared to set Servalan free when Sula and others are close to destroying her power forever is intriguing (it looks as if everything that Blake fought for is within their grasp).  This is open to interpretation though.  Is Sula keen to replace her (as suggested earlier on) or does she really support the notion of a People’s Council?  If it’s the latter, then it’s ironic that Sula has been fighting for the same things that the Liberator crew did for so long.

It’ll come as no surprise that Anna = Sula = Bartolomew or that Avon kills her.  So Anna was a fiction who only existed for Avon.  But Sula’s dying words seem to suggest that she genuinely did love Avon.  But in the hall of mirrors that’s Rumours of Death can we believe her this time?

This is clearly a great vehicle for Paul Darrow, who makes the most of the material. There’s a few niggles (for example, Servalan is taken prisoner rather too easily and if Anna Grant never existed who was the man who claimed to be her brother in the series two episode Countdown?)  but overall this is a classy episode.

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Blakes 7 – Children of Auron

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Servalan’s always been insanely ruthless, but Children of Auron is extreme, even by her standards.  She infects the whole population of Auron with a deadly pathogen to achieve two goals – firstly to capture the Liberator and secondly to continue her bloodline.

She explains why capturing the Liberator remains such a high priory – with the Federation in tatters she’ll be able to take control again quicker with the most powerful ship in the galaxy.  Does this really make sense?  The galaxy’s a big place and the Liberator, powerful though it is, is only one ship.  I can’t see that it would make that much difference (and anyway, it’s not ships she needs but good men).  The fact that she effectively wants to have children (although the technique on Auron is only able to create clones of herself) is even more startling.  Servalan’s never shown any sort of maternal instinct, so this revelation is rather hard to take.

It was perhaps inevitable that we’d return to Cally’s home planet one day and although there isn’t a great deal of time to develop its backstory, we still learn a little.  C.A. One (Ronald Leigh-Hunt) has kept Auron strictly neutral – any contact with outsiders has been discouraged, but the unfortunate result is that the pathogen is able to spread unchecked (few of his people have any sort of resistance to space viruses due to their strict isolationist policy).  It’s a shame that Leigh-Hunt doesn’t essay a subtler performance, as C.A. One ends up as little more than a bluff blusterer.

Cally has an identical twin, Zelda.  Given Auron’s skills in cloning this is reasonable enough (although credibility is stretched later in the series when we meet Tarrant’s identical twin – no cloning involved there).  Zelda isn’t a very proactive figure and doesn’t do a great deal to further the plot (although she has an inevitable and pointless death).  It’s a pity that more couldn’t have been done, as her demise does feel like a wasted opportunity.  Jan Chappell is, of course, excellent as both Cally and Zelda – especially when we see Cally take on Avon.  Avon is keen to head to Earth for a mission of vengeance (sowing the seeds for Rumours of Death).  Even when the plight of the Aurons is known he’s still disinclined to get involved, so there’s a nice tension that exists between them (which pays off later in Sarcophagus).

If Servalan’s going to rebuild the Federation then she needs good men, but alas they seem hard to find.  In Children of Auron she’s lumbered with a right pair – Deral (Rio Fanning) and Ginka (Ric Young).  They spend most of the episode bickering (Ginka’s unhappy that Deral was promoted ahead of him) and generally bumbling about.  Deral is unable to capture the Liberator even when only two of the crew are aboard and one of them is Vila, now back to his default setting of cowardly.

Ginka’s lack of judgement is even more striking.  Avon, Cally and Tarrant are taking refuge in the replication plant – they know they’re safe there, as Servalan wouldn’t destroy her own clones.  But Ginka is able to convince her that Deral switched her genetic material for his, so she gives the order to fire.  As the plant is destroyed Jacqueline Pearce gives one of her finest performances in the series – Servalan clearly feels intense pain as her clones go up in flames.  But Ginka obviously never stopped to think that possibly, just possibly, Servalan wouldn’t be terribly pleased when she discovered that he’d tricked her (as I said, he’s not the sharpest knife in the draw).  So he’s not long for this world (and neither is Deral) which leaves Servalan with yet another staffing crises.  Possibly she’s pining for the good old days with Travis.

If Auron remains a rather undeveloped world and Servalan’s schemes are barmy, that doesn’t stop Children of Auron from being a strong mid series episode.  Sandwiched between City at the Edge of the World and Rumours of Death it probably slightly pales in comparison, but it’s still much stronger than the likes of Volcano and Dawn of the Gods.

Ten points docked for the final scene though, as everybody has a good laugh on the bridge of the Liberator.  It’s not the first time it’s happened (the crew had a chuckle at the end of Breakdown, seemingly oblivious to the loss of life they’d just witnessed) but again it just feels so out of place.  We’ve just witnessed a planet devastated, so a little show of solemnity wouldn’t have been out of place.  Apart from that, this is decent stuff.

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Blakes 7 – The Harvest of Kairos

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The Harvest of Kairos has a feel of a hastily rewritten S2 episode.  Otherwise, how do you explain that Tarrant seems to have become Enemy Number One in Servalan’s eyes?  She spends the opening few minutes musing about what he’s going to do next, whilst her cringing subordinate Dastor (Frank Gatliff) hesitatingly breaks the bad news that there’s dissent among her crew.

Some believe that she’s too afraid to attack Tarrant(!).  Chief amongst the dissenters is a worker from the construction grades, Jarvik (Andrew Burt).  Since he’s clearly designed to be an alpha-male, Burt’s casting is eccentric (to put it mildly).  Burt, the original Joe Sugden from Emmerdale Farm, also has to battle with Ben Stead’s script and his first line to Servalan sets the tone.  “Woman, you’re beautiful” he says, before grasping her for a quick snog.  There’s always the possibility that Stead had his tongue in his cheek, but I’m not so sure (there’s the evidence of his subsequent B7 scripts for example).  The sexual politics are skewered towards the dominance of men, with even Servalan seeming to melt under Jarvik’s winning ways (“But first, there is the question of that degrading and primitive act to which I was subjected in the control room. I should like you to do it again”).

Jarvik also attempts to humanise the very inhuman Servalan.  “When was the last time you felt the warmth of the Earth’s sun on your naked back? Or lifted your face to the heavens, and laughed with the joy of being alive? How long since you wept at the death of a friend?”  It’s a decent enough line and if delivered well it could have some impact (it brings to mind similar comments from Kasabi during Pressure Point) but Burt rather torpedoes it.  He’s a good actor, just hopelessly miscast.

Meanwhile, onboard the Liberator Tarrant is being his usual annoying self.  He intends to steal a cargo of Kairopan (a highly valuable crystal found on the planet Kairos).  Kairos is a dangerous planet, so Tarrant plans to hijack the freighter after it’s left the planet.

As the Liberator comes under attack from Federation ships commanded by Jarvik (he’s been given a chance by the clearly impressed Servalan) Avon is strangely distracted.  Maybe this is as scripted, or possibly Paul Darrow simply wasn’t interested that week.  Avon’s absorbed with a mysterious crystal called sophron – it’s no ordinary rock, as it seems to have a capacity for reasoning that slightly exceeds Orac’s (and many other qualities as well).  No surprises that we never hear of it again, so its only function is to operate as a get out of jail free card.  After Jarvik’s plan to capture the Liberator succeeds, the crew are exiled to the definitely unfriendly Kairos.  Escape seems impossible, until Avon’s magic rock saves the day.

It’s jarring to see Servalan in control of the Liberator (a warm up for the apocalyptic events of Terminal) and once Avon and the others have been exiled to Kairos her victory seems complete.  We then lurch into the next unexpected event – Servalan is so taken with Jarvik that she’s keen to make him co-ruler, but first he has to prove himself.  And how does she decide to test him?  He has to take on Tarrant, man-to-man, and defeat him.  Yes, okay then.

Just when you think you’ve seen everything, up pops the silliest looking giant insect …..

The Harvest of Kairos is dumb fun.  It’s never less than entertaining (if you can stomach all the “ah well, he’s a man” talk) but it doesn’t fit as an early series three episode (had it come towards the end of the third series then Tarrant’s status would have been more credible).  Chris Boucher seems to have taken his eye off the ball, script-editing wise, but luckily he’d also been penning a number of decent stories and the next episode will see a marked upswing in quality.

Blakes 7 – Volcano

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Dayna and Tarrant have teleported down to the surface of Obsidian.  It’s a planet that has managed to remain unaligned from the Federation and also emerged unscathed from the recent galactic war.  Tarrant believes the planet would make a good base for them, but their pacifistic leader Hower (Michael Gough) isn’t interested.

Bad news, it’s an Allan Prior script.  Good news, it’s not Animals.  It’s not that much better though as Prior’s dialogue doesn’t exactly sparkle and few of the guest cast emerge with much credit.  Michael Gough, of course, is able to instill Hower with a certain dignity but Malcolm Bullivant, playing Hower’s son Bershar, is wooden in the extreme.  Frankly there’s more animation to be found in the extremely silly looking silver robot.  The Graham Williams era of Doctor Who (with its slapstick air) has many critics but the alternative is something like Volcano – an episode delivered with such an air of relentless earnestness that it becomes impossible to take it seriously.

Pacifistic planets are something of a sci-fi cliche.  Hower explains to Dayna how they’ve arrived at this state. “We have taught them peace from the cradle, and we have blocked, usually with a minute electric shock, every tendency towards an aggressive act. Plus of course, daily psychological propaganda. We have no war, no fights among ourselves, no lawlessness, no crime. Our people devote themselves to creation and not destruction. We are at peace here on Obsidian.”

This is all well and good, but what happens when the Federation turns up?  Although we’ve been told that the Federation are in disarray they seem in fine fettle here.  Led by Servalan (of course) their first act is to attempt to capture the Liberator.  This rather begs the question as to how Servalan knew the Liberator would be there.  And with an empire to rebuild you’d assume she’d have more pressing things on her mind than settling scores with Avon and co.  Volcano is one of those series three scripts that seems a little out of place, although it would have worked during series two (when the Federation was dominant).

The Federation, led by Mori (Ben Howard) are able to take over the Liberator with embarrassing ease.  This should be a dramatic highlight of the story but it’s pretty much a damp squib, even after we see Avon shot by Mori.  Ben Howard, a regular in the last series of Dixon of Dock Green, is the first of Servalan’s Travis substitutes and, bless him, he’s almost bad enough to make you pine for Brian Croucher.  The Battle Fleet Commander, played by Alan Bowerman, offers another amusingly rotten performance.

The Federation don’t hold the Liberator for very long and amazingly Servalan then decides to run away and fight another day.

SERVALAN: Without that ship we’ve lost a strategic advantage.
MUTOID: Madam?
SERVALAN: But, no one else has gained it. Without Blake the Liberator’s no immediate threat to our plans.
MUTOID: No, Madam President.
SERVALAN: Well the crew have no political ambitions.
MUTOID: They are merely criminals.
SERVALAN: So they’ll keep. Until the rule of law has been restored. Until my rule of law has been restored.

This doesn’t ring true – if Servalan doesn’t believe the Liberator poses a threat without Blake, why go to all that trouble to try and capture it?  The capture-the-Liberator sub-plot seems to have been rather awkwardly bolted onto the episode in order to pad out the running time.

One interesting part of the script is that Servalan’s assessment of Avon and the others seems spot on.  Tarrant tells Hower that they’re mercenaries and in exchange for the use of his planet he’ll offer them a percentage of their spoils.  I wonder if serious thought was ever given to turning them into a gang of intergalactic criminals?  This notion tends to be downplayed as we move through series three – pure sci-fi takes over – and when we reach series four there’s a return to the theme of the struggle against the Federation.

Hower’s decision to destroy his planet rather than see it colonised by the Federation should be a powerful one, but it’s another moment that doesn’t have a great deal of impact since we’ve never been given any cause to believe that Hower’s people are a real, functioning society.  Unfortunately, they’re just a series of faceless extras.

Although Volcano‘s problems are many, it’s by no means unwatchable.  It has its fair share of bad acting and illogical plotting, although that hardly makes it unique in the Blakes 7 universeIt’s undemanding stuff, but it’s frustrating as the series can do so much better.

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Blakes 7 – Powerplay

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With the departure of Gareth Thomas, Blakes 7 needed a new central dynamic.  It’s easy to see how the Blake/Avon relationship was recreated with Avon/Tarrant, but there’s one major difference.  Tarrant, like Avon during series one and two, is presented as the questioning figure of the group – often wondering if the plan they’re embarking on is wise – but he clearly lacks Avon’s experience and so ends up as a much less forceful figure.

So whilst Blake/Avon was more of a meeting of equals, Avon/Tarrant has something of a father/son feel with poor Tarrant coming off second best more often than not.  No doubt this is also a consequence of the slow rise of Avon’s megalomania – as we’ll see (especially during series four) Avon becomes increasingly disinclined to listen to anyone – with disastrous results.

Stephen Pacey, like Josette Simon, does his best with the hand he’s dealt, although Tarrant does sometimes come over as intensely annoying (Harvest of Kairos, springs to mind).  But he does start off with an interesting character dynamic.  He’s presented as the enemy (so it comes as a surprise when he joins the crew at the end of the episode).  Tarrant is the leader of a Federation raiding party who’ve taken control of the Liberator (much to Avon’s barely concealed disgust) but in the end it turns out he wasn’t a Federation type after all, he was only pretending.  Hurrah!

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To be honest, there’s something of a lost opportunity here.  Tarrant claims that he’s a fugitive from the Federation but we’ve only got his word for it.  Could he really have been a Federation officer all along?  He’s certainly very convincing in the role.  The possibility that Tarrant may be untrustworthy and liable to sell them out at any minute would have provided a nice spark of tension, but this angle was never explored.

But if Tarrant is faux-Federation, then his second-in-command, Section leader Klegg (Michael Sheard), is Federation through and through.  With several day’s stubble and a perpetually irritated expression (like he’s just swallowed a space-fly) it’s a highly entertaining performance from Sheard – a cult film and television favourite of many, including me (he had umpteen Doctor Who‘s to his credit, along with films like Star Wars and Indiana Jones).

I wonder what Michael Keating and Jan Chappell felt when they received the first two scripts of series three?  They were barely in the first episode and spend episode two languishing in the sub-plot.  Both Vila and Cally seem to have landed on their feet after they’re taken to what appears to be a spotless hospital on the planet Chenga.  Vila thanks the two attractive young women – Zee (Primi Townsend) and Barr (Julia Fiddler) – most effusively for rescuing him. “You get paid for helping me? That’s what the primitives meant when they said that you get a bounty. You see, they’ve got it all wrong, they just don’t understand. You look after yourselves and thanks once again. I really, really mean that.”

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Vila and Cally are being set up to take a fall.  The Chengans plan to harvest them for their organs – and wouldn’t you know it, the happy news is broken to them by Servalan.  If credibility was stretched to breaking point in the previous episode when she turned up on the same planet as Avon, there’s no words to explain how ridiculous it is that she just happens to bump into Vila and Cally.  Small universe, isn’t it?  Luckily the Liberator picks them up just before they’re sliced and diced.

Like Aftermath, this is a story that works well on a character level.  Terry Nation doesn’t provide us with any major surprises, but whilst it’s not subtle stuff it does clip along at a decent rate.

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