Blakes 7 – Sand

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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.


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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