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 – Moloch

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Ah Moloch.  The one with Sabina Franklyn and the stupidest puppet alien you’re ever likely to see.  It’s odd, but apart from those two facts I couldn’t remember anything else about the story prior to rewatching it.  That’s surprising, since parts of the episode are certainly memorable (although not for the right reasons).

Avon’s been following Servalan’s ship for the best part of a month.  Quite why he’s suddenly taken such an interest in her movements isn’t clear, although it seems to be simply because he’s got nothing better to do.  In a way that sums up the actions of the Liberator crew during series three – a little light piracy here, some strange sci-fi adventures there, but as the Federation’s no longer the dominant menace it was you do get the sense they’re just marking time.

At the moment Vila’s taken over from Tarrant as the most annoying crewmember – no mean feat when you consider how irritating Tarrant can be.  Vila spends the first scene moaning about the time they’ve wasted following Servalan (although since nobody pays him any attention he needn’t have bothered).  If Michael Keating’s not best served by the start of the script then you have to give him full credit for throwing in a little bit of business as the Liberator looks set for a crash landing.  Most actors would just stagger from side to side as the camera shakes, but Keating gives us a forward roll.  Well done that man!

The planet, which turns out to be called Sardos, is initially depicted by a painting of some cliffs (with a little bit of smoke wafting across the screen).  Clearly the budget had run out by this point, although they did manage to build one model set – showing Servalan’s docked ship – which looks quite effective.

As it’s a Ben Stead script (writer, lest we forget, of Harvest of Kairos) it should come as no surprise that there’s more than a whiff of misogyny in the air.  Poola (Debbie Blythe), Chesil (Sabina Franklyn) and the other women are depicted as little more than toys for the men to play with.  After Poola spots the Liberator on a monitor screen she chooses not to report it, which incurs the wrath of Section Leader Grose (John Hartley).  The unseen Moloch (voiced by Deep Roy) tells him that she must suffer and orders that she’s given to his men.  Poola then receives a slap (albeit offscreen) although nothing else happens for the moment since Servalan then enters the room.  Poola pleads with her for mercy – which the former Supreme Commander naturally ignores – and Servalan then sums up the state of affairs on Sardos rather succinctly.  “Well, Section Leader, the records were accurate. Women, food, and inflicting pain – in no particular order.”  This is jaw-dropping stuff.

Grose is, well, gross.  As he enjoys a meal with Servalan and his second in command Lector (Mark Sheridan) he suggests that the attractive young waitress (no surprise that all the women are young and attractive) would look better with a “bit of dressing, and an apple between her teeth, eh?”  He then slaps her on the backside just to drive the point home.  Whether Ben Steed is satirising unreconstructed male attitudes to women or whether he’s approving of them is a moot point.

Vila and Tarrant reach Sardos by a circuitous route.  They teleport onto a T-16 space transporter carrying a cargo of convicts and, as they make planetfall, Vila makes a new friend – Doran (Davyd Harris).  Although he’s not quite the loveable rogue he appears.  “Ahh, my problem was always women” he tells Vila.  When Vila then asks if he likes them, Doran replies with a monosyllabic “no”.  He’ll fit right in on Sardos then.

Things then lurch in an even more unexpected direction as Grose reveals to Servalan the secret of his power – an energy mass transmuter which “takes ordinary planetary matter – usually rock – and converts it into energy.  The computer then restructures it into matter of every kind.”  That Servalan finds herself completely outmanoeuvred by Grose does stretch credibility, although he does tell her that “if your reconstituted Federation was worth a light, you wouldn’t have chased halfway across the galaxy to retrieve one legion. Already I suspect my fleet outnumbers yours. Soon, it’ll be the most powerful in the galaxy.”  It’s an interesting point, although this doesn’t quite tally with the impression given in previous stories that the Federation was slowly regaining its power.

As we head into the last twenty minutes, things get funnier and funnier (although not always intentionally).  Servalan is introduced to Colonel Astrid, Grose’s former commander.  It’s difficult to find the words to describe the Colonel, but imagine a tatty doll suspended in water and you’ll get the idea.  Moloch’s voice then pipes up and suggests that Servalan be given to Grose’s men.  That seems to be all that Moloch does – recommend that misbehaving women be passed over to the men to be sorted out.  Hmm, probably best to say nothing more.

Grose has been recruiting convicts like Doran to swell his ranks and Vila (his new best friend) has also been pressed into service.  Doran tells Vila that he has a treat for him – a woman.  That it turns out to be Servalan is an amusing reveal, as is the fact that they decide to briefly team up.  Since Michael Keating and Jacqueline Pearce had rarely shared any screentime together, their odd-couple partnership is the undoubted highlight of the episode.  A pity it couldn’t have lasted longer than a few minutes.

And then Moloch appears.  “That is how I reasoned you would look” says Avon, incredibly.  Mercifully he’s only onscreen for a brief moment although there’s also the spectacle of dead Moloch a few minutes later, which is even sillier than animated puppet Moloch.

Apart from all its other problems, the passivity of the female characters is a major negative.  If at least one of them turned out to be a fighter and had helped to defeat Grose and his men that would have made some amends for the way they were treated.  Chesil seems to be written that way – but right at the end she and Doran appear to be killed off.  It’s never explicitly stated that they’re dead, but since we never see them again it’s a reasonable assumption.

Moloch is just bizarre.  There’s the germ of a good idea – Servalan being held captive by a rogue section of the military – but the rest veers from the forgettable to the hilarious.

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Blakes 7 – Ultraworld

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The contrast between Sarcophagus and Ultraworld is immense – in one fell swoop we move from the sublime to the ridiculous.  It’s interesting that both writers (Tanith Lee previously, Trevor Hoyle here) were novelists with no previous scriptwriting experience (and Ultraworld turned out to be Hoyle’s only work for television).  The difference between their stories couldn’t be greater though – Lee offered up a lyrical fantasy whilst Hoyle’s effort is little more than a pulp-sf runaround.

This wasn’t Hoyle’s first brush with the series as he’d penned two novelisations based on episodes from series one and would follow this up with a third novelisation adapted from selected series four episodes.  If you’ve never read them then they’re worth tracking down, especially the first one, since it looks like it was adapted from Nation’s draft scripts (there are numerous small differences).

Ultraworld is an artificial world run by the three Ultras – who are blue-skinned aliens of varying baldness.  One looks to be completely bald, one is wearing a rather ill-fitting bald cap whilst the third clearly didn’t get the memo as he proudly sports hair at the sides and back.  So if the intention was to make them into a gestalt entity, someone wasn’t on the same page.  The Ultras are humourless, logical and, no surprise, not great conversationalists.

They exist to gather information (Ultraworld is nothing more than a massive computer) and it’ll come as no shock to learn that the Ultras plan to drain Avon and the others of all their knowledge and then take the Liberator for good measure.

There’s the odd nice moment.  Cally disappears from the Liberator and the others hear her crying for help from Ultraworld.  But it’s not her voice – it’s an artificial construct and this revelation is a disturbing reveal.  The location filming (at the Camden Town Deep Level Shelter) is impressive.  Previously used for the Doctor Who story The Sunmakers, it once again effectively doubles as a strange, alien environment.

But on the debit side, what has happened to Vila?  He spends the episode attempting to teach Orac jokes.  I think once example will suffice. “Where do space pilots leave their ships? At parking meteors.”  Alas, there’s many more where that came from, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that this was rumoured to be Michael Keating’s least favourite episode (the proactive hero from City at the Edge of the World seems a long time ago).  It’s worth noting that Vila’s jokes do play an important part in the conclusion of the story, but that doesn’t make me any more disposed to enjoy them.

With Vila acting the fool and Cally and Avon sidelined, it falls to Dayna and Tarrant to carry the brunt of the action.  Although it’s not the greatest story ever, they make an attractive pair (and for once Tarrant isn’t particularly annoying).  They have to suffer the oddest part of the episode though, as the Ultras suddenly realise that Danya and Tarrant are girl/boy and decide that a bonding ceremony is in order.  It beggars belief that whilst they’ve accumulated masses of knowledge they know nothing of the ways of, ahem, human love.  So they’re keen for Danya and Tarrant to get it on, whilst they watch (yes, really!)  They do dangle a carrot – hinting they might let them go if they agree.

DAYNA: Tarrant, I think we should accept the offer. Then we can return to the Liberator.
TARRANT: You can’t be serious. You don’t believe what they say.
DAYNA: We have to believe if we hope to survive. Kiss me.
DAYNA: I said, kiss me. Come on. I can’t be all that repulsive

It’s hard to take any of this seriously, especially when one of the Ultras pops up on the screen, asking “has the bonding ceremony begun?”, as soon as they start kissing – which rather puts a damper on things.

Complete with a giant pulsating brain, Ultraworld is pretty stupid sci-fi schlock, but it’s impossible not to derive some entertainment from it.  I’m glad it was more the exception than the norm though.

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Blakes 7 – Sarcophagus

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Tanith Lee was a prolific novelist whose output covered many genres, including fantasy (both children’s and adult), science fiction, horror and historical fiction.  Her two Blakes 7 scripts were her only ventures into television scriptwriting so it’s obvious that Chris Boucher took something of a chance when he commissioned her (writing a novel and writing a script are two very different disciplines).

We have to be grateful that Boucher did take the risk as Sarcophagus is unlike any previous Blakes 7 script.  If you favour the action/adventure model of B7 then this one may not be to your taste – it’s a fantasy tale that includes a musical interlude and a dialogue-free opening scene featuring hooded characters performing strange acts.  Although some of the plot elements are familiar – the Liberator spies a strange craft drifting in space/Cally gets taken over – Lee is able to take this hackneyed material and fashion something quite different from the norm.

Sarcophagus opens with a funeral aboard an alien vessel.  Various masked characters perform different rituals – we see a musician, a soldier, a conjurer, etc – and later we see the Liberator crew dressed in the same garb, performing the same actions.  The mysterious alien who takes over Cally’s body later reveals that she enjoys being attended to by intelligent minions, so it would appear that she is visualising how each of the crew would best serve her.  No surprise that Vila is the jester or that Tarrant is the soldier (shoot first, think later seems to be his motto in this story).  Unexpectedly, Dayna turns out to be musical (there’s a brief song mid-way through the episode, although this isn’t Blakes 7’s – The Musical, you may be glad to hear).

Since most of the action takes place aboard the Liberator and the only speaking roles are taken by the regulars, the script is a dense, dialogue heavy affair which has plenty of time to study how the various characters interact with each other.  The relationship between Avon and Cally is key to the story and early on there’s a revealing moment in Cally’s cabin.  She’s spent the last ten hours alone, thinking of her home planet and how she’ll never see it again.

AVON: I wish I could promise you that the sparkling company on the flight deck would take you out of yourself.
CALLY: I’m all right.
AVON: No, you’re not. But you will be. Regret is part of being alive. But keep it a small part.
CALLY: As you do?
AVON: Demonstrably.

Coming so soon after the events of Rumours of Death, it’s possible to argue that Avon’s referring not only to Cally, but also to himself.  Either way, it’s a quiet, reflective moment that’s handled well by Darrow and Chappell.

The most fun to be had comes from the clashes between Avon and Tarrant.  Tarrant’s still being irritating and obnoxious – although he’s correct when he surmises that something came back with Cally from the alien vessel.  It’s his bull-in-a-china-shop approach that wins him few admirers though.

AVON: Shut up, Tarrant.
TARRANT: Did you say something to me?
AVON: I said, shut up. I apologise for not realising you are deaf.
TARRANT: There’s something else you don’t realise. I don’t take any orders from you.
AVON: Well, now that’s a great pity, considering that your own ideas are so limited.

Darrow’s at his laconic best here, and it’s clear that Avon considers Tarrant to be no threat to his dominance at all (despite Tarrant’s claims to the contrary).

As the alien draws power from the Liberatordirector Fiona Cumming elects to turn the lights down.  This not only indicates that the ship is stricken, but it helps to increase the tension – which is furthered by the fact that both Orac and Zen are put out of commission.  There’s something particularly disturbing about hearing Zen’s speech get slower and slower (he’s such a solid, reassuring presence that it’s jarring when he’s no longer there).

If the flashbacks (or flashforwards, maybe) of the Liberator crew dressed in strange costumes are odd, then even odder is Vila’s decision to do some conjuring tricks, mid episode, on the flight deck.  It’s reasonable to assume that he decides to amuse himself in order to keep his spirits up (he’s alone and frightened of the increasing darkness) but after each trick there’s a massive round of applause.  Do we suppose that this non-diegetic sound was only heard in Vila’s head?  It’s only a throwaway moment but it’s another unusual, non-realistic touch.

The alien who takes over Cally remains an indistinct character.  We learn that for her race, death is merely an interim state and that she requires Cally’s body in order to attain corporeal form once again.  She proves to be no match for Avon though – or rather it’s the part of her that’s still Cally who can’t bring herself to harm him.  Unexpectedly he kisses her, although all becomes clear when he uses this as an excuse to wrench a ring from her finger.  It’s the ring that’s allowed her to drain energy from Cally and when it’s removed, her power is broken.  Darrow’s excellent again here as he refuses her entreaties to return it (“That would be a little foolish, when I just went to so much trouble to get it”) as is Chappell, as the alien senses her end is nigh.

Avon! Avon, give it back to me. You must. You don’t know. I HAVE to keep this body. I have to live. I’ve waited so long. Centuries. More time than you could comprehend. How can you imagine what it must be like to be dead, to exist in nothingness, in nowhere. Blind, deaf, dumb, and yet to be sentient, aware, waiting. Centuries of waiting. I have to find my world again, my people, my home. I want to breathe and see and feel. And know. Don’t send me back into the dark, Avon, let me live.

With a dual role for Jan Chappell, this is very much her episode but it’s equally a good vehicle for Paul Darrow.  After a shaky few episodes early on, series three has hit a rich vein of form.

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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 – City at the Edge of the World

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Most of the regulars take centre-stage in at least one series three episode.  Avon features heavily in Aftermath and Rumours of Death, Cally’s the main character in both Children of Auron and Sarcophagus whilst Tarrant (and his identical twin brother) stars in Death-Watch.  Danya is the only one who doesn’t really have an episode of her own, unless you count her introductory tale, Aftermath.

For everybody’s favourite thief, City at the Edge of the World is a chance to see a more proactive and heroic Vila.  Even when the script didn’t really feature him, Michael Keating could always be guaranteed to take whatever material he had and make it work to the best of his ability.  Unlike some actors he didn’t do this by upstaging others – it was simply down to his natural comic timing.  A great example can be found in Powerplay.  Vila, wounded and alone in a strange forest, attempts to frighten off any would-be attackers by pretending to be a whole troop of fighting men!  It’s an old gag – and only a throwaway moment – but Keating’s a delight to watch.

But there’s no doubt that it’s good to see Vila right in the thick of things for once.  Too often he tended to end up as either the butt of other people’s jokes or simply blissed out on adrenaline and soma.  In City at the Edge of the World he’s witty, resourceful and gets the girl.  What more could you ask for?

We open with Tarrant being irritating (yet again).  The Liberator needs crystals for its weaponry systems and he’s struck a deal with the mysterious inhabitants of a nearby planet.  It’s simple enough – the crystals in exchange for Vila’s help.  When Vila disappears and the box of crystals turns out to be a booby-trapped bomb, Tarrant is forced to eat humble pie (not before time!)

Vila’s been brought to the planet by Bayban the Butcher (Colin Baker).  A vision in black, Baker is clearly having a ball (Paul Darrow later repayed the favour by going even further over the top in the Doctor Who story Timelash).  It’s a cartoony performance but it works perfectly in this context.  Following a couple of stories that were played too straight, City bubbles along with an infectious sense of humour and many quotable lines.  This is one of my favourites, courtesy of Bayban who’s peeved to find out that he’s top of the Federation’s Most Wanted list – after Blake.  “What do you mean, ‘after Blake’? I was working my way up that list before he crept out of his creche. WORKING my way up. I didn’t take any political shortcuts.”

Bayban has a crack force of mercenaries, led by Kerril (Carol Hawkins) and Sherm (John J. Carney).  Carney, who’d previously given an excellent comic performance as Bloodaxe in the Doctor Who story The Time Warrior, is just as good here.  He’s got little to do except react to the others – but he does it so well.  Hawkins plays the unlikely love interest (or at least it’s unlikely to begin with).  Their first meeting is memorable – we see Vila cowering at her feet, whilst she mocks him (“little man”).  He then suggests she bathes more regularly (and uses mouthwash too).

The unexpected thaw in their relationship seems to happen after she changes out of her black leathers and into something more feminine.  Possibly Chris Boucher was attempting to make a point here.  She spends the early part of the story attempting to be one of the boys (and acting aggressively) but once she changes clothes she becomes a more passive and submissive character – effectively acting as Vila’s assistant.

To be honest the story isn’t the strongest – a mysterious race seek entry to a new world, but rather carelessly they’ve lost the key to the door.  Only their leader Norl (Valentine Dyall) ever speaks, so they remain rather undeveloped – but then they’re not really the focus here (it’s more of an excuse for Vila to demonstrate his skills and Colin Baker to chew the scenery).  Dyall is compelling though.  He had the sort of voice that instantly commanded attention, so whenever he speaks it’s hard not to listen.

Vila is given a chance to cross over to this new world with Kerril.  It’s a beautiful, unspoiled planet where they could live out their lives in peace.  He declines, and his reason gives an insight into what makes him tick.  “There’s nothing there worth stealing. You know why I neutralize security systems, open safes, and break into vaults? It’s because I can and most people can’t. It’s just that, it’s what makes me, me. Kerril, a thief isn’t what I am, it’s who I am.”

After a couple of average stories, City at the Edge of the World gets us back on track.

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