A renegade scientist called Egrorian (John Savident) has an offer that Avon can’t refuse – a weapon of incredible power (the Tachyon Funnel) in exchange for Orac. You possibly won’t be shocked to hear that there’s a catch though ….
After his previous story, Traitor, failed to hit the mark, Robert Holmes certainly bounced back with Orbit. Maybe one of the reasons why Traitor didn’t work that well was because it was the only one of Holmes’ four B7 scripts that didn’t team Avon and Vila up. It’s plain that Holmes saw plenty of possibilities in the Avon/Vila relationship – it’s certainly of the reasons why this one works as well as it does.
Holmes’ Doctor Who scripts tended to feature double-acts, a tradition he carries on here – apart from Avon and Vila there’s also Egrorian and Pinder (Larry Noble). Egrorian is the sort of role that’s a gift for an actor of a certain type – i.e. one who’s not afraid to go soaring over the top. John Savident was clearly that sort of actor. It’s a grotesque (in a good way) turn, totally lacking in subtlety but with the occasional hint of menace to counter the fairly flippant dialogue.
This must have been a fairly cheap show to make, with just a couple of new sets and only two guest stars. But it never feels like a bottle show or something cobbled together on the cheap because the end of season was fast approaching and the money had run out. Holmes concentrates on just four characters – Avon, Vila, Egrorian and Servalan (yes, of course she’s lurking about) – and gives them some sparkling dialogue, such as here when Egrorian lays eyes on Avon and Vila for the first time.
EGRORIAN: Surprisingly, you don’t look like the ruthless desperados of legend. But you have, of course, killed a great many people.
AVON: Only in the pursuit of liberty.
EGRORIAN: “O Liberty! O Liberty! What crimes are committed in your name!” Do you know the source?
EGRORIAN: No, why should you? Natural leaders are rarely encumbered with intelligence. Greed, egotism, animal cunning, and viciousness are the important attributes. Qualities I detect in you in admirably full measure.
Larry Noble, as Egrorian’s assistant Pinder, has very little dialogue, but he still manages to catch the eye. Noble manages to suffer incredibly well and his hangdog expression immediately engenders sympathy from the audience, something which is increased after we see how badly Egrorian treats him. There’s a certain cruelty and sadism that runs through Holmes’ Doctor Who scripts which is also present here – best demonstrated after Pinder beats Egrorian at chess. Egrorian doesn’t like this and proceeds to twist Pinder’s arm. “Can you feel your extensor muscle tearing? Can you feel your humerus grating against your radius? Hmm.? Just a little more… a little more… now you’re feeling it, aren’t you?”
It’s more than a little unpleasant, but it helps to shine a light on their dysfunctional relationship. Quite how they’ve entertained themselves during the last ten years (they’ve been in exile together) is probably best left to the imagination, although Egrorian’s comment that “naughty boys must be punished” offers a world of possibilities.
Hey, here’s a surprise – Egrorian plans to double-cross Avon and the others because he’s secretly working for Servalan. Bet you didn’t see that coming. So far, so familiar, but Holmes continues to give Savident some choice dialogue and he doesn’t disappoint. Here, Egrorian outlines to Servalan his vision of a shared future. “A connubial partnership, Servalan. Why not? Alone you are formidable enough, but together we would stand like mountains.” Jacqueline Pearce also seems to relish the chance to play something a little different, as we see Servalan ever-so-slightly discomforted by the effusive and fulsome Egrorian.
The key part of the story takes place during the last few minutes. Avon and Vila are heading back to Scorpio in Egrorian’s shuttle, but there’s a problem – they’ll never make the escape velocity as the shuttle’s carrying too much weight. Frantically they jettison everything they can think of, but they still need to find another seventy kilos. Avon wonders what weighs seventy kilos, to which Orac replies that “Vila weighs seventy-three kilos, Avon.”
Paul Darrow’s facial expression after Orac delivers this bombshell is a treat. He shakes his head ever so slightly, but then seems to pull himself together and goes hunting for Vila. Darrow’s S4 Avon was not known for its subtlety, and so it proves here, as he goes into “I’m not going to kill you, I’m your friend, honest” mode. It’s not terribly convincing, so you can’t blame Vila for staying hidden.
All turns out well in the end, Avon stumbles (literally) against the problem – a microscopic fragment of a neutron star, planted by Egrorian to kill them – and is able to get rid of it. But the damage has been done. Vila might not have mentioned it to the others, but he now knows exactly how far Avon will go to protect his interests. It’s a nice dramatic moment for Michael Keating, something of a rarity this late in the series.
This may be a talky, studio-based story, but it doesn’t really get any better than Orbit, thanks to John Savident’s exuberant performance and the way that Holmes skewers the Avon/Vila relationship.