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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Inspector Morse – The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn

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The first few minutes of The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn give us something of a guest star overload.  Michael Gough, Barbara Flynn, Clive Swift, Roger Lloyd-Pack, Frederick Treves and Elspet Gray all appear – which bodes well for the remainder of the episode.

But the star of the opening scene is the eponymous Nicholas Quinn (Phil Nice).  Quinn is a relatively new member of the Overseas Examination Board, an Oxford syndicate dedicated to producing quality examinations for overseas students.  He, along with the other members of the Board, are attending a sedate party organised by their boss, Dr Bartlett (Clive Swift).  There’s a disorientating feel about this scene – Quinn is deaf and the audience is allowed to hear only what he can hear.  This is muffled and indistinct (and at times completely inaudible).  What Quinn can (or can’t) hear will become important later on, but for now he’s convinced that Bartlett is selling the Examination Board’s secrets – and tells Philip Ogleby (Michael Gough) so.

Shortly afterwards Quinn is found dead – it looks like suicide, but Morse is convinced it’s murder.  There’s no shortage of suspects as virtually every member of the Board is seen to behave in a suspicious manner.  Donald Martin (Roger Lloyd-Pack) and Monica Height (Barbara Flynn) are conducting an affair and decided to lie about their movements on the day that Quinn was last seen.  Both Ogleby and Roope (Anthony Smee) are interested in the contents of Dr Barlett’s office (whilst Bartlett’s not there, naturally) and we’ve already heard that Dr Bartlett has been accused of corruption.

Barbara Flynn gives a memorable performance as Monica Height.  She’s a character who’s put through the emotional wringer and seems to make something of a connection with Morse.  Michael Gough has a smaller role, but does share a key scene with Thaw.  Morse is delighted to learn that Ogleby sets crossword puzzles and admits that he’s been wrestling with his puzzles for years.  Roger Lloyd-Pack is somewhat off-key as Martin – this might have been as scripted, or simply Lloyd-Pack’s acting choice (he did make something of a habit of playing people who were somewhat disconnected from reality).

The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn offers more opportunity to see Morse’s unique brand of detective work in action.  He admits that he makes intuitive leaps which sometimes prove to be incorrect, or as Morse memorably puts it.  “The trouble with my method Lewis is that its inspirational and as a result I sometimes, sometimes, get things arse about face.”  It’s only a chance remark that puts him on the right track (and by then he’s already arrested the wrong man).  The “fake” ending had long been a popular staple of detective fiction and it’s used effectively here.  Just when you think the story’s over, a last minute revelation forces us to reassess everything we’ve learnt to date.

There’s a few nice moments of humour.  Morse and the murderer have something of a battle towards the end of the episode.  Lewis discovers the pair of them locked in combat and coolly enquires if Morse needs any help!  Dr Bartlett’s interest in visiting the cinema to see Last Tango in Paris becomes something of a plot-point (with the tone of the conversations suggesting that the only reason anybody would see a film like that would be for the sex scenes).  Morse and Lewis are offered free tickets, but Morse declines – declaring that Lewis is too young.  Later Morse changes his mind and is furious to find that the film has now changed – it’s 101 Dalmatians.  Lewis is delighted and sets off home to fetch the wife and kids, leaving Morse to walk off to the pub alone.

A typically convoluted Dexter plot, The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn does suffer from having too many suspects – and the fact they all have similar possible motives doesn’t help.  But the exemplary guest cast is more than adequate compensation for the sometimes confusing plotting.

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