Blakes 7 – Project Avalon

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The Liberator has travelled to an icy, inhospitable planet in order for Blake to make contact with the resistance leader Avalon (Julia Vidler).  Avalon has started resistance movements on a dozen Federation planets and has requested Blake’s help in relocating somewhere safer.

Blake is keen to assist, but when he and Jenna teleport down they find a scene of devastation – clearly the Federation has beaten them to it.  Avalon isn’t amongst the dead though – they learn from the sole survivor, Chevner (David Bailie), that she’s been captured.  So Blake sets out to rescue her, not realising he’s fallen into Travis’ trap …..

Time has obviously moved on since the events of Seek Locate Destroy and Duel and it’s interesting to note how the Federation’s plans have changed.  In Seek Locate Destroy, the apprehension of Blake was their main objective – now it appears that capturing the Liberator is just as important, if not more so.

The notion that there’s been some unseen adventures between Blake and Travis is confirmed when he bitterly mentions to Servalan he’s twice had the chance to destroy Blake, but it would have meant destroying the Liberator as well, so he was forced to disengage.  Servalan concedes this, but in an early display of the same needling relationship they’d enjoy from now on, tells him that whilst she’s defended him, he needs to capture Blake soon or he’ll be replaced (and no doubt his life will be forfeit).

It’s clearly meant to be a surprise that Avalon is female – a mere girl leading a resistance cell! – and this is reinforced by Dudley Simpson’s tinkling piano just before she’s captured by Travis.  Once she’s in his power, she’s reduced to her underwear and strapped into a very uncomfortable-looking machine for a purpose which only becomes clear later on.  Whilst it’s no surprise for a female character to become an objectified figure in a late 1970’s British science fiction series (or indeed any series of this era) it’s still slightly eye-opening.  When Blake found himself in a similar machine, his modesty was rather better preserved!

Whilst Avalon is helpless, Travis tells her that she should be flattered to receive such “special” attention.  She replies that “anyone who opposes the Federation knows what to expect if they get captured. It’s a risk we’re all prepared to take.” It’s a difficult line to deliver and it’s fair to say that Julia Vidler does struggle somewhat in depicting the idealistic young rebel (her delivery tends to stay on something of a monotone).  It’s probably a blessing that later she reappears as an emotionless android – she manages to play this rather more convincingly.

Rather more engaging is Glynis Barber as this week’s Mutoid sidekick.  I’m not sure whether it’s as scripted, or just her performance choice, but Barber’s considerably more assured and confident than Carol Royle’s Mutoid in Duel was.  This works very well –  as she operates more as an equal with Travis in the early part of the episode, rather than living in his shadow.

Director Michael E. Briant had previously filmed in Wookey Hole for the 1975 Doctor Who story Revenge of the Cybermen.  Although the caves are a lot smaller than you might think, it’s still a very good location and makes a nice change from Blakes 7′s default locations (quarries, refineries, nuclear power plants, etc).   This wasn’t the only link to Briant’s previous work on Doctor Who as he cast David Bailie (who had appeared in The Robots of Death) as the doomed Chevner.

Alas, the silly looking robot pops up again.  His first scene is priceless – since he speeds along a such a lick it’s obvious he’s being wheeled on a board.  Indeed, if you freeze frame, there’s a tell-tale flash of the board to confirm this!  Like the Daleks and K9, he was clearly a robot with serious mobility issues.

Gan’s very taken with Avalon (or at least what appears to be Avalon).  His hero-worship (if that’s what it is) does allow David Jackson an entertaining scene towards the end of the episode.  Once it’s become clear that Avalon isn’t all she appears to be, Gan attempts to strangle her – but Avalon’s super-human strength stops him.  I wonder why the limiter didn’t prevent him from hurting her?  Is his implant so clever that it knows what appeared to be Avalon was only an android or is it just a case of selective scripting?

It may come as no surprise to learn that Travis’ rather elaborate plan doesn’t succeed and he finds himself, for the first time but certainly not the last, relieved of his command.  His closing words are a none too subtle hint that he may be down but he’s far from out. “If it takes all my life, I will destroy you, Blake. I will destroy you. I will destroy you.”

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Blakes 7 – Duel

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Round two of the battle between Blake and Travis is interrupted by two mysterious and powerful characters – Sinofar (Isla Blair) and Giroc (Patsy Smart).  Both Blake and Travis are ordered by Sinofar to fight to the death.  Blake isn’t keen – he has no desire to fight for anybody’s amusement – but there’s no alternative. Sinofar also tells them that whilst half the lesson they will learn concerns the death of an enemy, the other relates to the death of a friend.

Blake is given Jenna as a companion, whilst the friendless Travis is accompanied by one of his Mutoid subordinates (played by Carol Royle).  The rest of the Liberator crew watch on helpless as Blake and Travis duel.  The question is, can Blake kill in cold blood?

This has always been a favourite episode of mine and one of the chief reasons is Douglas Camfield’s direction.  Camfield had, by this time, directed more episodes of Doctor Who than anybody else, as well as a host of other series (including The Sweeney).

He’d gained a well deserved reputation as an excellent director of action (so it’s no surprise that the fight scene in Duel is well staged) but he was also someone who looked to make all of his shots as visually interesting as possible. There’s some good examples in this episode – such as the early scenes on the barren planet of Sinofar and Giroc (it’s something of a challenge to make it look other than it is – a small studio set – but some tight camera angles and lighting effects help to create the illusion of space and depth).

Another major difference with Duel is the lack of Dudley Simpson’s music.  After a falling-out at a party in the mid sixties Camfield had declined to use Simpson from then on, so here the music is drawn from stock.  And much as I love Simpson, it really works to the benefit of the story – indeed, more variety with the composers during Blakes 7‘s run would have been very welcome.

Although the duel between Blake and Travis is the centre of the episode, it takes a while before we reach that point.  Before then, there’s an extended battle between the Liberator and Travis’ fleet of ships.  All of Travis’ crew are Mutoids – emotionless alien creatures who depend on blood for their survival.  They are also highly efficient and this is one of the reasons why Travis is able to bring the Liberator to the brink of defeat.  Blake decides there’s nothing left to do but ram Travis’ ship – but before he can carry out this potentially risky manovure, both he and Travis find themselves plucked off their respective ships.  Sinofar and Giroc explain why and what will happen to them.

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SINOFAR: Our powers grew out of a thousand years of war, out of hate, and fear and the will to survive.
GIROC: We built destruction, weapons that your peoples have not yet dreamed of. Every passing year brought new ways to kill, and throughout the centuries the war raged across our planet.
SINOFAR: With each generation there were fewer of us. The dead vastly outnumbered the living. There was not victory for either side.
BLAKE: How did it end?
GIROC: How? Another development of another weapon. We demanded their surrender, they refused, the weapon was used. Those that we call our enemy were annihilated. TRAVIS: You won, that’s all that matters.
SINOFAR: It wasn’t a victory, only the end of the war. We were left with a planet made barren by radiation. Our children were monsters, or died, or were never born. This, we won.
BLAKE: How many of you are there now?
GIROC: None. We are a dead race.

Isla Blair and Patsy Smart are both impressive – Blair is calm, whilst Smart is mischievous.  True, their main function is to provide a large infodump mid-episode, but there’s a certain poetry to their tale of a dead world.  It’s not an original concept, but in an era when the threat of nuclear attack was still an ever-present concern it must have carried a certain resonance.  Terry Nation had form for this of course (such as the first Dalek story, set on the radiation-soaked planet of Skaro).

After the fairly routine previous episode, Mission to Destiny, Duel is a major step up – especially when it comes to the dialogue.  There’s plenty of memorable lines to be found and one of my favourite exchanges is this one aboard the Liberator.  The others are able to watch Blake and Jenna but can’t do anything to help.  When Avon gets up, Vila asks him if he’s thought of a plan.

AVON: Yes. I’m going to get some sleep.
VILA: How can you sleep with all this happening?
AVON: With all what happening? Blake is sitting up in a tree, Travis is sitting up in another tree. Unless they’re planning to throw nuts at one another, I don’t see much of a fight developing before it gets light.
GAN: You’re never involved, are you Avon? You ever cared for anyone?
VILA: Except yourself?
AVON: I have never understood why it should be necessary to become irrational in order to prove that you care, or, indeed, why it should be necessary to prove it at all.
VILA: Was that an insult or did I miss something?
CALLY (smiling): You missed something.

The next day, Blake and Travis continue to hunt each other down.  Eventually, Blake has Travis at his mercy and prepares to strike the killing blow.  Gan, Cally and Vila (like us, acting as the audience) urge him on, but Avon spots Blake’s hesitation and in another lovely character moment, smiles.  Does he regard Blake’s inability to kill as a strength or a weakness?

Although Blake didn’t kill Travis, he’s won the contest and when he admits that one of the reasons he didn’t kill him was because he would have enjoyed it too much, Sinofar concedes that maybe there’s not a great deal for him to learn.  Duel is very much a vehicle for Gareth Thomas and Stephen Greif, although Paul Darrow does have some good moments, even though he’s absent from the main narrative.

Travis and Servalan tended to be joined at the hip rather, but this episode indicates that he works best on his own – too often Servalan just seems to be there to berate his bungling after he’s left slip another chance to catch Blake (which can’t do anything but seriously weaken his character). The next episode, Project Avalon, is another strong Travis tale – but it would have probably been wise to retire the character after that.  Alas they didn’t, so it’ll be a case of diminishing returns from then on.

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Blakes 7 – Seek Locate Destroy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AVON:  Didn’t you post any guards?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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