Servalan has elected to join a Federation mission dispatched to the sandy planet Virn. Together with Reeve (Stephen Yardley), Chasgo (Daniel Hill) and an unnamed assistant (played by Peter Craze), she intends to find out what happened to a research party last heard from some five years ago. They find the going treacherous after their ship crash-lands a fair distance away from the research base. Avon is intrigued to learn that the Federation, after all this time, has decided to send a ship to investigate this most inhospitable of planets. He decides that if there’s anything of value on Virn, they should have it rather than the Federation. It quickly becomes clear that the sand has a form of sentience as strange things start to happen ….
Like Tanith Lee’s previous script, Sarcophagus, Sand is something of a bottle show which delights in putting the regulars under the microscope. Most interestingly, we see a much more human Servalan than usual. The reason for her emotional state becomes clear after it’s revealed she’s come to the planet in order to find out what happened to Don Keller (Jonathan Gaunt). Keller, via a recording, is the first voice we hear.
I know a land beyond the heart of time. The sun never comes there. No moon ever shines. And man, a grain of sand, nameless and lost, blows with the dust. I apologise, HQ, but that’s what this place makes me think of. The sun never comes here. Just sand and mist. Virn, the green planet. Never rains here either. There’s something strange. Not just the way the ship was affected when we came down. Not just the way all the machinery plays up. Not just the way we’re dying. You still listening, HQ? This is Don Keller, remember me? On Virn, where we have a plague on our hands. On my hands. So when do I get something from you?
Unlike Sarcophagus, this story boasts a guest cast – although not all of them make it to the final reel. Unsurprisingly, Peter Craze’s unnamed assistant is the first to bite the dust (or sand) with Reeve following shortly after. Yardley has the most substantial guest-star role, although Investigator Reeve isn’t a terribly interesting character – he’s an alpha male who takes a shine to Servalan (her disinterest is total and cutting). It’s hard to command authority when you’re dressed in a shiny silver spacesuit, but Yardley does have some good lines and makes the most of the role.
The deaths of the ship’s crew enables the narrative to be split in two – Servalan and Tarrant remain isolated on Virn whilst Avon and the others are also trapped, but on Scorpio.
If Servalan was going to be locked up with anyone then Avon would have been the obvious choice. But I’m glad that Lee avoided the obvious, since Sand gives Stephen Pacey a long overdue chance to do a spot of acting. Throughout series three Tarrant was incredibly smackable, but this hasn’t been a problem during series four (mainly because Tarrant has been underwritten so badly that he’s hardly contributed at all). Sand enables Tarrant to step out of Avon’s shadow and Pacey doesn’t disappoint.
Here, for example, he posits a reasonable explanation for the current state of affairs. This is a rare occurrence – normally Avon would be the one with all the answers. “The trace of life on Virn was the sand. Some emanation from it affects the atmosphere, even the magnetic fields of the planet, and causes the rest of the trouble: ships crash, instruments fail, nobody can protect himself. And when the sand comes into contact with a human body it sucks out the cellular energy, sometimes fast, sometimes slowly. I imagine that depends on how much sand is in the vicinity. But that’s what Keller’s plague was.”
Tanith Lee serves both Tarrant and Servalan well, delivering up some very quotable dialogue. This is how Tarrant describes his room-mate. “I’d say you’re possibly the most unscrupulously venomous woman in the galaxy. Being shut in here with you is rather like being locked in a cage with a panther: a black cat with large golden eyes and long silver talons.” Servalan’s rejoinder is that she’s just the girl next door! Tarrant’s next line is a good one too.
Lee also takes the opportunity to fill in a few blanks, such as how Servalan escaped from the Liberator at the end of Terminal, but Servalan’s revelation that Don Keller was the only man she ever loved is the stand-out moment from this part of the story.
SERVALAN: Don Keller, he was my lover. I was eighteen.
TARRANT: He’s the reason you’re here.
SERVALAN: He left me. I grew up. Power became my lover. Power is like a drug. It is beautiful. Shining. I could destroy a planet by pressing a button. I loved him.
Do we believe her? She seems genuine, but we’ve seen before how Servalan is able to manipulate others with ease, so it’s possible that self preservation made her adopt the pose of a victim. That’s what Tarrant claims to believe at the end (although is he only saying this to appease Avon?) Whatever the truth, Jacqueline Pearce impresses here – which proves that given good material, the character can still be as compelling as she once was.
If Tarrant and Servalan are having an interesting time down on the planet, then so are Avon and co up on Scorpio. Vila is reduced to a drunken state (not the first time this has happened). Michael Keating does drunk acting very well, but it’s rather an obvious choice – although the mention of Cally strikes a nerve. “If I died it’d be a real joke. Who’d care? Who cared about Cally?” Orac’s acting very oddly too, telling everyone that he loves them!
Avon’s enjoying himself and so is Paul Darrow. Avon has a theory that the sand eliminates the weak and keeps the strong alive in order to maintain a healthy breeding stock. “Presumably the sand up here has compared Vila’s wits and stamina with mine and concluded that I am the dominant male. On the herd principle therefore, it decided that Vila was superfluous and it could kill him. You two, of course, would have been allowed to live”. Vila’s not dead of course, but Avon doesn’t seem terribly unhappy at the thought of a ménage à trois with Dayna and Soolin ….
A solution is eventually found and Tarrant returns to face a less than warm welcome. He’d allowed Servalan to escape, which is bad enough, but his intimacy with her disgusts Dayna (understandable since Servalan killed her father). This is the sort of theme that would have been an interesting one to develop, but unfortunately B7 wasn’t the sort of series for complex character arcs, so as the credits roll a big reset button is hit and the matter is never mentioned again.
Haunting and well-realised, Sand is a memorable story. Not quite as compelling as Sarcophagus maybe, but it’s still several cuts above the norm.