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Matters of Succession

The very first thing you notice about Aftermath, first episode of Blake’s 7‘s third season, is that Things Have Changed: gone is the old title sequence featuring the domed city and the security camera and Blake being tortured. Apart from his name in the title, Blake has been thoroughly expunged from the opening credits. He’s nearly as absent from the episode itself – but then one of the things that Blake’s 7 is famous for is having the brass neck to continue as a series even after the main, or at least title, character left. (Gareth Thomas went off to the RSC.)

Given how the previous series ended, the new one kicks off with things in a severe state of flux – though some things never change, including the series’ low budget: the savage battles of the Intergalactic War (which has been fought between series) are represented by generous use of old footage from the previous season (it looks like we see Space City being blown up at least twice). The Liberator has taken a right pounding in the fighting and is on the verge of losing life support – so everyone hustles down to the escape pods, the teleport being out of action.

(I’m going to be really picky and suggest that the episode appears to indicate that the ship only has one escape pod bay, which is the one that Avon, Vila and Cally use to get off it. So what happens to Blake and Jenna? Jenna has ‘gone with Blake’, who apparently ‘didn’t want to leave’ – which to me sounds like they’ve already got off the ship by some other method. That said, they seem to end up in different places – later on, Zen manages to locate Jenna but can’t get a fix on Blake, even though he’s obligingly been in touch. It is a bit mysterious, isn’t it, but I suppose this sort of narrative creaking is inevitable when you’re writing out a couple of major characters like this.)

Anyway, Avon and Orac bail out of the ship and end up on the planet Sarran, (possibly) also known as… Dunes, mainly because that’s what most of the landscape seems to be. (Location filming was apparently in Northumbria, which looks very windswept and photogenic here.) Sarran is home to another of those regressive cultures the members of which mainly enjoy hacking visitors to death. It would only really make sense for Sarran to be some obscure backwater well off the main space lanes, but – luckily for the more bloodthirsty locals – on this particular day, offworlders seem to be falling out of the sky like raindrops: Avon crashlands here, so do a couple of Federation soldiers (one played by Richard Franklin, the mildly controversial Dr Who supporting regular), and so does Servalan, who was on her way to the front. What are the chances of that happening, let alone of Avon and Servalan bumping into one another almost at once?

You just have to go with it, I’m afraid: it’s a massive and rather ridiculous coincidence, but the script this week is all about establishing the relationship between Avon and Servalan (they’ve shared scenes before, but never really spoken), so they have to meet. Almost at once it becomes clear that the show has a whole different energy now Avon and Servalan are now unquestionably the leads – Blake and Travis were both comfortingly stolid and rather predictable representatives of liberty and tyranny, but now the series is about amoral psychopaths flirting wittily with each other and it’s really very thrilling to watch. Even Avon expresses regret that he and Servalan have always been in opposition to each other; she makes clear her admiration for him in return – ‘You’d sell out anybody, wouldn’t you?’ ‘I don’t know, I never really had an offer I thought was worthy of me,’ Avon replies modestly. Needless to say, the prospect of a hook-up floats in the air but ultimately seems unlikely: ‘I’d be dead in a week,’ is Avon’s prognosis.

The backdrop to all this is basically a bit more narrative carpentry, as Avon and Servalan both enjoy the hospitality of Hal Mellanby (Cy Grant), probably the funkiest-looking dissident in the galaxy (he’s almost like a disco version of Forest Whitaker’s character from Star Wars). Mellanby is a fairly interesting character, but he and his adopted daughter are only here to get fridged, thus providing his natural daughter Dayna (Josette Simon – Floella Benjamin also auditioned) with a reason to hang around with Avon and the others. We should remember that Dayna is the first major character to be introduced since midway through the first season, but Terry Nation does his usual efficient job of sketching in the character – exuberant warrior woman, more than enough to be going on with.

Servalan is pretty much unchanged – she was so corrupt to begin with that becoming President of the Federation is unlikely to have had much effect on her – but there is something interesting going on with Avon, whose first episode this is as the lead character of the series. Paul Darrow recalled suggestions that Avon should become a bit more moralistic now he was effectively the hero of the series, which he resisted as much as he could, but there are still signs of this here and there – he stops Dayna from killing defeated Sarrans out of hand, and stipulates that Zen should rescue Vila and Cally ahead of him, should they get in touch. Darrow’s performance makes it clear that, no matter what else may have changed, Avon is still really the same loveable killer we have came to know over the previous two seasons.

And there is a suggestion that the playing field has changed in a significant way: the Andromedan blobs may have been repelled, but at the cost of most of the Federation space fleet going up like fireworks and the destruction of Star One – Avon reflects that, in the end, Blake got what he wanted, winning both wars, and that the Federation is facing an existential crisis – ‘It’s difficult to sustain a military dictatorship when you’ve lost most of the military.’ If there’s a theme to this episode, it’s that the reassuring certainties that underpinned the first couple of seasons – the unambiguous presences of Blake, Travis, the Federation itself – have all been shot away, leaving a more chaotic, ambiguous universe where the likes of Avon and Servalan are more likely to prosper. Whether the third season really follows through on this notion is something it will be interesting to see.

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Goths Go Shaky

Allan Prior’s first Blake script seemed to find him attempting to emulate the theatrical style of a writer like Caryl Churchill or Edward Bond, in an allegorical piece about the nature of colonialism. His second saw him progress to seemingly try very hard to write in the style of Terry Nation himself, which was fairly successful as a technical exercise but practically a disaster in terms of it working as a piece of drama. His third episode of the year, The Keeper, sees him moving on to bigger dramatic game than even Terry Nation.

Still pursuing the elusive location of Star One, the Liberator is on course for the primitive planet Goth, where the natives live underground to avoid toxic gases (and also the expense of filming on location). Decor and couture are all very much in the style of about 6th-century Wessex: not so much Space Age as Dark Ages. What they have learned is that one member of the ruling house of Goth has the only copy of a brain-print revealing where Star One is, which they wear on a thong around their neck (according to one report, says Cally, it’s not just the print, it’s the whole brain). Find the print and find Star One, which will give them the power (finally) to destroy the Federation.

Of course, it has occurred to Avon that they don’t necessarily need to destroy the Federation – with Star One, they could just as easily take the place over and run it between them. Blake, of course, takes the boring old principled stance that no-one should wield that much authority, and they will go ahead with the plan to blow Star One up (as it turns out, there turn out to be very good reasons for not blowing it up, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). Also on their minds is the fact that Travis is ahead of them somewhere, and is unlikely to share Blake’s selfless ethical view.

Another one of those very understated guest performances this week.

This week it’s Vila and Jenna who get to beam down with Blake to Goth, leaving Avon in charge. Almost at once the ship detects a Federation ship leaving Goth, which Avon instantly identifies as Travis’ vessel (quite how, it is not made clear, but this is something else which we will be coming back to). Scenting a chance to solve at least one problem for good, Avon takes the Liberator out of orbit to destroy the other ship – but, wouldn’t you know it, the Goths choose just this interlude to attack Blake and the others, soundtracked by a music cue in which Dudley Simpson does his best to channel the spirit of Basil Poledouris. Jenna and Vila get grabbed by the natives, leaving Blake to escape back to the ship and give Avon a proper telling-off.

Naturally, Blake still opts to go back down to Goth by himself, leaving Avon with the strictest of strict instructions not to go off the reservation again in his absence – it’s one of those casual Blake’s 7 ironies that this results, eventually, in the Intergalactic War, the destruction of Star One, the collapse and reconstruction of the Federation and ultimately arguably the deaths of Blake, Avon, and everyone else. (This time Avon is obliged to obey orders, which means passing up a genuine chance to kill Travis.) It’s not a fantastic excursion for Blake, as – despite making friends with one of the local nobility, Rod – he spends most of his time hiding in a dungeon. Goth architecture features fewer arches and flying buttresses than you might expect, but a lot more tents – erected in caves, for no immediately logical reason, and with their own dungeons. It’s a funny old planet, this one.

Jenna, meanwhile, is getting much more to do than usual, as she is (in a manner of speaking) romanced by the rough-and-ready leader of the Goths, Gola. (There is some irony to this, as it was Sally Knyvette’s good relationship with Bruce Purchase, who played Gola, that influenced her decision to leave the series at the end of the year.) Vila, meanwhile, gets a job as Gola’s court Fool, rather to the chagrin of the previous incumbent. It turns out that the children of the previous king of Goth have deposed him and then fallen out rather viciously – or, to put it another way, Blake and the others have walked into the latter stages of a version of King Lear.

You can’t fault Prior’s ambition in trying to pull a stunt like this one, and it’s not as if the roots are particularly well-concealed: there’s something very BBC Shakespeare about many of the sets and costumes – although, as was customary with a lot of the corporation’s drama of this period, it’s all very over-lit, considering. The problem is that the script just doesn’t sparkle – Blake and the others go from royal to royal, looking for the brain-print, while the royals themselves engage in fairly laborious power-politics and declaim at anyone in sight. Leaving Avon on the ship all episode probably doesn’t help much.

Somehow the setting and premise of the episode never really grab the interest: in my case, anyway, less than some of the other odd elements Prior inserts into the script. For example, Travis and Servalan are both on Goth, too, and are apparently in alliance again despite strong suggestions otherwise last week (putting a bomb in someone’s prosthetic limb is not usually a sign of affection or a good foundation for a working relationship). They are both now looking for Star One as well, having figured out they can use it to rule the Federation too. (The delineation between the generally-bad institution of the Federation and the specifically-bad prospect of Servalan’s tyranny is clearly established.) But still – when did this happen? Why are they working together once more? How come Avon can recognise Travis’ ship on sight? The whole storyline of what’s happened to Travis since Trial, his agenda, his standing, his relationships, has just been a mess virtually every step of the way. In this episode he even leaves the story half-way through, without even trying to find and kill Blake (supposedly his overriding obsession).

Well, it’s not one of the very worst shows of the season, but that’s only because some of them were so extremely bad. The Keeper kind of passes the time acceptably, and it does trail the prospect of a momentous conclusion to the series (the Liberator sets course, finally, for Star One, where the destiny of the crew and the Federation itself will be decided). But given how inconsistent this series has been – the episodes by Nation, Chris Boucher, and Robert Holmes have all been reasonably watchable, everything else not so much – expectations for the end of the year are inevitably subject to downward management.

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Docholli’s Day

After what definitely constitutes a mid-season slump of fairly significant proportions – when an episode like Countdown looks strong compared to the ones around it, you know you’ve got a crisis on your hands – Blake’s 7 is crying out for an episode that makes you remember how good this show can be when it’s on form. I’m not sure Gambit is entirely that episode, but it’s a hell of an improvement on some of the things we’ve seen recently.

Main setting for the episode is Freedom City, the nature of which is only vaguely addressed – although some dialogue suggests it is an actual city on an actual planet. Servalan describes the place as a ‘cesspit’ and a ‘pestilential rathole’ (and Jacqueline Pearce has just as much fun delivering this dialogue as you imagine Robert Holmes had writing it), while Vila and Avon take a more positive view, relishing the thought that the place is ‘wide open’ and has ‘everything a man ever dreams of’. They compare it to Space City from Shadow, and it has a very similar narrative function: a rather shady metropolis where the characters can get mixed up with the galactic underworld.

Blake has come here in search of Docholli (Denis Carey), a fugitive cyber-surgeon who is supposedly the only man who knows the secret of the location of Star One. Currently Docholli has acquired an unlikely guardian angel in the shape of Travis, who is sticking with him in the knowledge that Blake will eventually show up. Servalan has also arrived in Freedom City, partly to ensure the secret of Star One dies with Docholli, but also to further a rather convoluted and devious scheme of her own. Actually stopping Blake isn’t even close to the top of her agenda.

Blake decides to beam down with Jenna and Cally, for a change, and it’s hard to see an obvious reason for this beyond the one that Vila and Avon resentfully come up with: Blake doesn’t trust them to stay on-mission given the various distractions on offer. Showing the loyalty and restraint we have come to expect from them, the duo prove him exactly right by choosing to sneak down anyway, using Orac (which this week is a handy remote control for the teleport, a chess grand master, and a character from Puss in Boots) to knock over Freedom City’s main casino.

Meanwhile Servalan is visiting Krantor (Aubrey Woods), the boss of the city, and attempting to recruit his services in finding the men she is after: Docholli and Travis. You may recall that last week, Travis seemed to be involved in Servalan’s plan to kill all her enemies, but now they seem to have fallen out (again: the season seems to lose track of exactly what state their relationship is in more than once). Servalan and Krantor are both wily operators, but it’s the Supreme Commander who proves to be the wiliest: luckily she has brought an underling with a very brave haircut to explain things to, and reveals her Machiavellian plan to dispose of several irritating loose ends, secure the location of Star One, and gain a pretext for the Federation conquest of Freedom City.

While all this is going on, Avon and Vila are making a killing at the casino, which has as a combination of gambling opportunity and morbid floor-show something called Speed Chess – basically a blitz game against someone called the Klute (genre veteran Deep Roy), with the challenger being electrocuted if they lose. When Krantor learns of Vila’s success, he is as cross as two sticks – but there’s no possibility whatsoever of Vila being tricked into having to play the Klute himself, is there?

With such a lot of juicy stuff happening, Blake and the others inevitably feel a bit pushed into the background – though there is a fun scene in which Jenna and Cally have to fake a catfight with the insults flying back and forth: ‘Cheap little space tramp!’ ‘Ten-credit touch!’ ‘Slut!’ and so on. Nevertheless it falls to our hero to progress the ongoing storyline, which he duly manages.

Nevertheless, it does feel that with Gambit, Robert Holmes is getting the transactional stuff out of the way with a minimum of fuss and enjoying himself much more with the ornamental bits of the plot that in theory don’t matter as much: the plots about Servalan and Avon and Vila are great fun; Servalan is at her most fabulous and the Avon-Vila relationship at its most winning. Holmes also gets to enjoy in some of the genre-pastiching he always seemed to revel in – there’s a touch of the western to Docholli’s storyline (you wonder if Holmes actually named the character, who was then retroactively added to Nation’s script for Countdown), while – it’s not really a valid reference, for obvious reasons – Servalan’s machinations are like something out of Dangerous Liaisons.

Blake wonders why the fancy dress invite never reached him.

The production designs seem to pick up on the cues in the script, resulting in the bizarre visual style of the episode. Most Terry Nation scripts end up featuring people in overalls or khaki or the occasional sheepskin jacket – in Gambit, there are people dressed as cowboys (Travis pairs his stetson with a full-length black poncho, which in this episode is not out of place), 18th-century dandies, pierrots, Busby Berkeley dancers – I’m pretty sure I spotted a nun in one scene. Krantor’s explanation for the fashion eccentricities of Freedom City is that it’s currently ‘carnival’, but this is really just a fig leaf for something which doesn’t need explaining: it gives the episode an impressionistic identity of its own which so many of the others just don’t have.

It’s not all good, however: the beginning and end of the episode are notably poorly directed, with situations not being properly established or resolved – it opens with Docholli being threatened in a bar before we know where we are, who he is, or why everyone looks like they’re going to a Sergio Leone dress-up party. And Servalan kind of vanishes out of the story without her own plot being properly resolved – the viewer is kind of left to work out what the fates of Freedom City and Krantor are likely to be.

Nevertheless, it’s a great improvement over everything since – well, since Robert Holmes’ last script, seeing as you asked. Why they didn’t use his talents more, I really don’t know, but it’s his writing that makes this episode as much fun as it is, and almost certainly inspired the visual weirdness which makes it so memorable.

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Episode ten of the second series of Blake’s 7 is Voice from the Past (essentially a fridge title), written by Roger Parkes. (In case you’re wondering, this is the longest episode title yet.) Parkes is a writer not-unknown to us, as he was also responsible for episodes of Doomwatch and Survivors – he seems to have been a jobbing TV scriptwriter, as there are also episodes of Crown Court, Angels, Z Cars, and so on taking up space on his CV, although he did also write a Prisoner episode (though not an especially memorable one).

Here is what happens on-screen in the episode. Everyone on the Liberator apart from Vila has been persuaded by Cally into doing some sort of yoga to help them de-stress. This is presumably space yoga, as the pose Avon has taken resembles one I commonly adopted back in my drinking days after getting home at the end of an evening: on hands and knees on the floor, with my face pressed against the carpet. Blake, meanwhile, seems to be in training to perform one of those diving headbutts that Vin Diesel used to unleash so effectively. Suddenly there is a buzzing noise and Blake starts acting very strangely: it is obvious he is somehow being mind-controlled.

Our hero wanders off to the flight deck where Vila is monitoring their progress towards the planet Del 10 (presumably so named because it feels like the tenth place or person named Del in the series so far – and this isn’t even a Terry Nation script). Blake orders a course change to a remote asteroid. Everyone is quite startled by this but Blake is in no mood for a discussion. However, he is in the mood for extensive flashbacks to the brainwashing he suffered back before the series began. Orac, which is an ace psychotherapist and neurologist this week, diagnoses a bad case of post-hypnotic mind-control, and possibly overacting, and recommends therapy. Meanwhile the ship resumes course to Del 10 and Blake is tied to a chair.

For some reason, however, Avon, Cally and Jenna don’t bother to include Vila in their thinking on all this, meaning it is relatively easy for Blake to talk Vila into letting him go, spinning him a yarn about a plan by the others to take over the ship. Vila is a moron this week, which helps Blake sell this idea. The Liberator is soon heading back to the remote asteroid. (As if all this back-and-forth plotting wasn’t enough, every time there’s a course change we have to sit through a lengthy model shot of the Liberator spinning round and then going off in a new direction.)

Thankfully, the ship reaches the remote asteroid before the others can escape and Blake teleports down. The asteroid is one of the worst-realised environments in the history of science-fiction TV, being a sort of abstract swirl which Gareth Thomas is CSOed into unconvincingly. Luckily he finds a mining outpost, which is less painful to to look at, and in the outpost he discovers Ven Glynd, the former head of Federation justice who was responsible for having him fitted up as a child molester, and Travis, who is wearing a cloak and bandages wrapped around his head and doing an accent which appears to hail from somewhere on the border between Mexico and Russia. The idea is that Travis is passing himself off as Shivan, a legendary freedom fighter we have never heard of before, but he may as well be carrying a placard saying ‘I AM TRAVIS’.

Let’s play ‘Spot Travis’ Brilliant Disguise’!

It turns out that Glynd has defected from the Federation with a dossier of evidence detailing the various misdeeds of the Terran Authority and Space Command – the murder of Blake’s defence attorney, Servalan’s plan to steal Orac and one hundred million credits, and so on. If Blake will give him and fellow idealist Governor Le Grand a lift to the upcoming Governors’ Summit Meeting it could spell the end of the corrupt Federation leadership. Blake will be the new leader, whom Le Grand – with an apparently straight face – calls the messiah. Blake takes all this remarkably stoically.

However, we already know that Servalan is up to something, and when Le Grand and Glynd turn up for the meeting they just find a squad of Federation troopers waiting for them. Things look bad for the Liberator contingent, as back on the ship Travis has revealed his true identity and is stopping anyone from beaming back up, but Avon has figured out what the black box is that Glynd has been using to mind-control Blake and breaks it. Travis, for some reason, decides to beam down, despite the fact he has effectively taken control of the Liberator, at last. Le Grand and Glynd are both killed, Blake and the others beam back up and fly off, and it turns out Blake has no memory whatsoever of anything that’s been happening since the start of the episode. I am tempted to say ‘lucky feller’.

As I say, that’s what happens on the screen. Trying to identify an actual coherent plot anywhere in there is another matter. I suppose Servalan’s scheme just about makes sense, if you take the view that she’s allowing all her enemies to gather together in one spot so she can eliminate them at the same time, though where the ridiculous notion of deploying Travis in disguise came from I have no idea – it would make more sense if Travis was pretending to be someone we’d actually heard of, but even then there would be the question of how he manages to persuade some fairly twitchy dissidents he is who he claims to be. Maybe the real Shivan was a terrible ham with a stupid accent too.

We’re still tiptoeing around the real head-scratcher for this episode, which is the fact that the Federation have apparently had a remote control device for Blake for some time but have only just got around to using it. I suppose it’s possible they’ve only recently perfected the technology, which explains why they didn’t put the ‘fluence on Blake a year ago, but the chronology here is still obscure. If Glynd is now a good guy, why is he mind-controlling Blake in the first place? It’s not exactly a great way of establishing your bona fides as a servant of liberty. Is Glynd genuinely a good guy now? It seems to be the case as the Federation troops and Travis shoot at him at the end. There’s something slightly baffling about all of this.

Oh well. I suppose the series having a go at something resembling a political thriller is a positive step, and there are some decent lines as well – also welcome signs of Parkes having actually reviewed some old scripts before writing his own. But this does feel like another instance of badly-acted, poorly-paced, borderline-incoherent filler – possibly not quite as bad as Hostage, but certainly in contention.

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Ticked Off on Albian

As we have established, thoughtful and discursive episodes with a deep subtext to them are not exactly Terry Nation’s wheelhouse – but the great man can slap together a breathless action-adventure like few other writers. Countdown, ninth episode of the second season, appears to be a conscious attempt at leaning into this, even to the point where it becomes structurally experimental – most of the episode sort-of takes place in real time (i.e. within the space of a Blake’s 7 episode’s time-slot).

It all takes place on the planet Albian, which – as we join the action – is the scene of an uninhibitedly am-dram uprising by the locals against the Federation garrison. (For some reason, possibly budgetary, in many scenes it appears that only one side at a time is allowed to use guns.) Things are going poorly for the Federation, which moves local commander, Space Major Provine (ah, Terry, it’s almost like a signature flourish), to order the activation of the doomsday bomb he has thoughtfully been provided with. It eventually transpires that this a clever neutron-ish doomsday bomb, which will wipe out the local population but leave everything standing and available for the Federation colonists who will soon repopulate the planet. Anyway, the thing is switched on and the triumphant rebels discover they have less than an hour to enjoy their victory.

As luck would have it, the Liberator is already on final approach to Albian, as it turns out that Provine (Paul Shelley, by the way) has served with Central Control and may know the new location of Blake’s prime target. When they receive the rebels’ distress signal, Blake naturally springs into action and teleports down with… can you guess? Is it time for Jenna and Cally to actually get to do something in the main plot? Alas, it is not: once again Blake goes off with Avon and Vila leaving the other two to sit around the teleport room. It is no surprise at all that Sally Knyvette opted to leave the show; the real source of astonishment should be that Jan Chappell stuck around for the third season.

Down on the planet the plot neatly cleaves into two strands: Blake hunting for Provine (while, at the same time, Provine hunts for a way to avoid the impending apocalypse), and Avon attempting to locate and defuse the doomsday weapon in time. The latter is given considerable interest, particularly for Avon and Paul Darrow fans, by the fact that assisting him in this task is a mercenary hired by the Albians to lead them in their revolt: a man named Del Grant (Nation’s evident fondness for naming characters Del and Tarrant will, of course, reach its fullest and most curly-haired expression at the start of the third season). Avon, of course, is a man with A History, and Grant is a part of that – to the point where he has vowed to kill Avon, blaming him for the death of his sister (whom Avon was naturally involved with). Grant is played by Tom Chadbon.

Yup, it’s very soapy-tastic. It may not surprise you to learn that considerable effort and many words have been expended in attempted exegesis of exactly what was going on between Avon and the various members of the Grant family – the simple fact that Avon refers to Grant by his first name when they meet has been treated by some people as a highly indicative piece of evidence. What actually happened certainly seems to have been quite complex, and my understanding is that the story is further complicated by additional information that turns up in season 3, so I will spare you my thoughts on the topic for the time being. The main upshot is that it gives the various scenes of Avon and Grant risking their lives to dismantle the bomb in a collapsing chamber a bit of emotional heft, which they could probably use – after a fair bit of build-up, the bomb proves to be a rather unimpressive bit of kit, eventually neutralised with a small drill and some tiny metal rods: a bit like a game of Ker-Plunk, only in reverse (I am aware that will make virtually no sense to anyone who hasn’t seen the episode).

Meanwhile there’s a lot of stoic bravery from the Albian rebels, who have apparently collectively decided to stick around and die if the bomb goes off, and some equally stoic pragmatism from Blake, who makes it very clear that he won’t be doing the same thing – he and the rest of the crew will be pulling out well before the doomsday blast goes off. There was potential here for an interesting clash of moralities, or at least a nice character moment for one of the regulars, but Nation is in keep-barrelling-forward mode from start to finish this week and so the moment isn’t really properly exploited.

Instead this particular strand concludes with another ever-so-slightly fumbled twist – Provine, by now disguised as one of the rebels, is assigned to be Blake’s escort as he searches for his quarry – and then an unconvincingly realised action beat: if Provine continued to be as ruthlessly effective as he has been all episode, then Blake is obviously dead with a hole burned into his back, and yet (of course) he manages to turn the tables on Provine relatively easily. Needless to say, Provine discharges his plot duties before croaking it – Central Control now goes by the name of Star One, and the only man who might know the location of the place is a cyber-surgeon named Docholli. Can you hear the ongoing plot threads humming in the breeze?

Almost anything would look good after Hostage, but it’s fair to say that Countdown isn’t as good an action-adventure as Terry Nation’s last couple of contributions to the series. There’s just something ever-so-slightly contrived to many of the set-ups involved in the story, a slightly melodramatic quality. Blake’s 7 is often fairly melodramatic, but not quite this obviously. Nevertheless, it doesn’t hang about, it’s never dull, and Paul Darrow obviously gets some good material, so it has three things going in its favour no matter what its weaknesses are.

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There is an issue with the episode Killer which we should probably address before we get on to the good stuff (of which there is no shortage): this is one of those scripts where the male regulars get to do all the beaming down and running about and plot-developing, while the female characters spend the whole episode stuck on the ship playing with the teleporter controls. This happens in lots of episodes, but Killer is a particularly blatant offender – Avon and Vila get their storyline, Blake gets his, and both strands of the plot are fairly meaty. The lack of material for Sally Knyvette and Jan Chappell is rather obvious. Perhaps this is just a consequence for the shift in the format of the show – a few weeks earlier, it’s likely that one of the other characters would get sidelined, too, but with the departure of Gan there is (in theory) more plot to go around, and it’s more obvious who isn’t getting their share of it.

There’s not much you can say in defence of this, certainly from a 21st century viewpoint – suggesting that Blake’s 7 deserves plaudits for creating one of the strongest female characters in the history of TV SF isn’t much of a fig-leaf considering how badly so many of the others are treated. So let us admit that it is a regrettable fact and move on.

Killer was written by Robert Holmes, the first of four scripts for the series: possibly he was hired by Chris Boucher out of gratitude for Holmes recommending him for the script editor’s job when Blake was first being set up. Either way, it was a good call as Robert Holmes is the kind of writer that any intelligent SF or thriller series would want on the payroll. For those of my former tribe, Holmes will always be – as he was memorably and accurately described a few years after his premature death – the Grand Master of Dr Who, and while pure SF wasn’t quite his speciality, he was a great creator and handler of characters and had a knack for a brilliant set-piece, both skills which serve Blake’s 7 very well.

The Liberator is discreetly visiting the planet Fosforon (dress code: chocolate-brown pleather ponchos and white pleather Michelin Man outfits), for Blake is set upon acquiring something called a TP crystal, which he needs to monitor coded Federation transmissions (if a question beginning something like ‘Why don’t they just use Orac to…?’ is heading for your consciousness, hush. Just hush, all right? It’s Plot). The command technician of the Federation base there is an old friend (using the term somewhat loosely) of Avon’s, and so he and Vila are sent down to talk (i.e. bully and/or blackmail) him into helping. The old friend is played by Ronald Lacey, an actor probably best remembered for his role in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and someone quite capable of holding the screen against Paul Darrow. For his part, Holmes seems to have very quickly figured out the potential for some cracking dialogue between Avon and Vila – more than any other two members of the crew, these two seem to have an understanding of each other’s outlooks and abilities, although this obviously doesn’t mean there’s any love lost between them.

Meanwhile, back on the ship, another storyline is bubbling up: an ancient Earth ship, lost for centuries, has appeared on approach to Fosforon. Cally senses something malevolent on board, while Orac’s research in the main Federation ship registry (hush again, it’s still Plot) reveals it went missing on the fringes of the Darkling Zone, an area of largely-unexplored space believed to be the home of a hostile alien civilisation.

Let’s be honest and admit that Blake’s 7, for all that it is on some level an SF show, does not do aliens especially well. Partly this is a production value issue, of course – and it may be that an awareness of the show’s limitations may be responsible for the decision to stick largely to aliens who are essentially indistinguishable from Terrans – like the Auronar, the inhabitants of Spaceworld, and so on – or aliens who stay permanently off-screen, like the ones here. Both of these are sensible policies, but even so, you still get the sense that the show isn’t really about alien civilisations in the way that Star Trek or Babylon 5 often are – they’re included because the makers of the show believe they’re a necessary feature of the genre, not because they have anything particularly interesting or important to add to the central narrative of the series (which is the conflict between the main characters and the Federation).

Killer makes you aware of this more than most episodes, because on the one hand it’s a rather bleak story about an attempt by aliens to wipe out the human race (or at least, that portion of it which has travelled beyond the solar system), but on the other it’s essentially another filler story – very good, effective filler, but not contributing substantially to the ongoing storyline of the series.

It’s not initially clear, but the plot about Avon and Vila’s Mission: Impossible-style shenanigans to steal the TP crystal turns out to be the B-story of the episode, which is relly about the aforementioned alien plot. On the old ship is a cybernetic zombie, who is infected with a virus that is rapidly and nastily lethal to any human being who’s travelled into deep space. The zombie and the plague outbreak give Holmes a chance to indulge himself in some of the genuine horror which is often a feature of his best work – there are some genuinely disturbing moments as guest characters succumb to the lurgy.

Of course, one has to point out that it doesn’t seem to be exactly the most thought-through plan on behalf of the aliens – the nature of the virus is such that its R-number must be pretty low, so the chances of it wiping out more than just this one planet seem vanishingly low. The script also plays it fast and loose when it comes to the regular characters’ miraculous immunity to the virus: people around them contract it and rapidly die, but Blake, Avon and Vila are barely touched. Slightly tighter scripting, or possibly just a line about the teleport having an automatic decontamination function, would have fixed this quite easily.

Nevertheless, it’s a strong episode with a lot to enjoy, even if you’re always quietly aware that its events, momentous though they surely are, are probably not going to be mentioned again. Holmes gets the series’ downbeat, mordantly witty style pretty much from the word go, and it’s a shame he didn’t write more for it. This is still a confident and impressive first contribution.

 

 

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Re:Trial

My original review of Trial is to be found at the other end of this link.

Trial was the only episode of Blake’s 7 I’d written about prior to the start of this year, and that was basically because one of my few friends who actually read the blog requested it: Gareth Thomas had just died, after all, and it seemed very appropriate. Reading that review again now, there’s a fair deal I’d still stand by. In the wider context of the series, I wonder if I wasn’t just a bit harsh on some elements of it.

In a sense this is another villain-centric episode: though in this case the spotlight is very much on Travis rather than Servalan – an attempt to make him more than just the Supreme Commander’s frothing attack-dog. The sad thing here, I suppose, is that the Stephen Greif incarnation of Travis did somehow manage to be much more rounded than Brian Croucher’s interpretation of the part – so the task it attempts is one of restoration rather than innovation.

I’m still not sure it completely works, but it tries damned hard, and the backdrop to the story of Travis’ court martial for his crimes on Auros and/or Zircaster is an effective bit of Federation power politics – the reappearance of Rontane and Bercol, probably not something most viewers would pick up on, is an effective touch, allowing Boucher to comment on what’s really going on behind all the machinations in the court.

What’s interesting is that Blake himself seems to have tumbled down the list of the topics the Federation leadership is concerned about – rather than sending envoys to Servalan about the problem of Blake and his followers, the President is now more interested in using Servalan’s failure to catch Blake as a weapon against her – Servalan wants Travis executed so he can’t testify against her at the upcoming ‘Blake enquiry’ (which, regrettably, I don’t think the series really covers in any detail). The internal struggle between Servalan and the President seems to be much more of a live issue than Blake’s insurrection.

The Space Commander takes it easy in one of those open-plan courtrooms of the future.

The discovery that, after all their struggles, the crew barely registers as a genuine threat to the Federation might have been an interesting plot element – though in a rather existential and very un-Terry Nation-ish way. As it is, they have other stuff on their minds, primarily coming to terms with Gan’s recent death. (It must be said that almost at once the ship feels less crowded with Gan out of the way – everyone else has a chance to breathe as a character, with Vila for some reason the most obvious benefactor.) Blake in particular seems to be suffering, which Avon ascribes to a sense of guilt. ‘What would you know about that?’ asks Jenna, sourly. ‘Only what I’ve read,’ twinkles Avon, who barely seems bothered at all by the loss of a comrade. There is some customarily strong Boucher dialogue and character development throughout the episode.

Looking back I think I’ve been a bit harsh on the planet-based elements of the story: crammed into the episode as it is, effectively as the B-story, it never really has a chance to breathe – but this is another example of Chris Boucher trying to introduce genuine elements of idea-based SF into popular BBC drama. The challenge facing Blake isn’t just the environment but the communication barrier between him and Zil; he has to put himself into an entirely different philosophical headspace to succeed. I expect I’d draw ridicule (and possibly rightly) if I say this is almost a proto-Darmok (a celebrated TNG episode about the difficulties of alien communication), but there’s a definite resemblance nevertheless.

Likewise, Blake’s ordeal on the planet (the ‘trial’ of the episode title isn’t just Travis’ court martial, of course) does kind of tie in to his character development. There’s definitely a suggestion that he’s contemplating giving it all up, which as it involves marooning himself on an alien planet is essentially surrender, and almost tantamount to suicide. But, of course, when faced with a rising tide of malevolent spit, Blake realises he isn’t prepared to lie down and die: ‘I am not ready to surrender anything!’ he declares, although his actual survival is thanks to Avon’s ingenuity rather than his own resolve and determination. One element of the story which really doesn’t get enough development is the rest of the crew’s decision to stick with Blake – we’re told much more than we’re shown.

One of the things I’d stick by is that the final irony of the script – Blake ends up saving Travis’ life, inadvertently – doesn’t feel stressed enough by what happens. But it’s as good a script as any for Brian Croucher, and while I still don’t think he holds a candle to Stephen Greif, he does the best he can with it. In the end I’d say this was a decent mid-table episode of the series, which is of course no bad thing to be.

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Dwindling budgets and fragmenting audiences mean that terrestrial UK TV channels play it very safe when it comes to commissioning drama nowadays – prestige costume dramas aside (these are usually co-productions anyway) you’ll struggle to find anything which isn’t a thriller, a cop show, or some sort of relationship-based melodrama. (The BBC soldiers on with Dr Who, though one gets the impression this is more out of a reluctance to let a massive cash cow slip into dormancy than any definite sense of knowing what to do with it as a piece of fantasy drama.)

It was not ever thus, and in the outer reaches of the high-numbered TV channels you occasionally come across a reminder of this. Until it recently vanished from Freeview, Forces TV usually served up a diet of nearly-forgotten ITV and BBC sitcoms, together with marathon showings of CHiPs and Spenser: For Hire, but now and then something more interesting popped up – selected repeats from the original run of Dr Who, Blake’s 7 (honestly, who’s still watching that these days…?), and some genuinely off-the-wall ITV dramas from when the network wasn’t quite so risk averse: they showed the mystical yuppie psycho-fantasy The One Game, and (at least three times) Chimera (directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, perhaps best known for his work on the BBC’s long-running Ghost Story for Christmas strand).

This is a serial I took a particular interest in – possibly you’d call me an early adopter, not a phrase people usually send my way – after seeing the writer, Stephen Gallagher, at a local SF group meeting while the show was still in production (I also interviewed him for a fanzine shortly afterwards, but we’re absolutely not going to go into that in any detail). Due to this the whole family sat down to watch it when it was eventually broadcast in the summer of 1991, leading to a degree of trauma for those less desensitised to such things.

Gallagher is a writer whose career comfortably straddles numerous genres and media – he’s written both novels and TV scripts, ranging from police procedurals to horror and SF (he was involved in the development of what eventually became Farscape), with the occasional genre mash-up. This probably qualifies as one of the latter. It opens with a piece of moderately deft narrative sleight-of-hand, as we meet young nurse Tracy Pickford (Emer Gillespie), who trades in a hectic career in a London A&E department for what seems like a cushier number, working at the Jenner Clinic, a private facility in the Yorkshire Dales doing fertility treatments. This means leaving behind her sometime boyfriend Peter Carson (John Lynch), a fairly feckless individual who spends all his time writing about old movies (yes, I know).

The first episode has a leisurely pace, as we get to see Tracy packing up her life, moving up to Yorkshire, and getting to know her new colleagues. This turns out to be a slow burn, as slowly it becomes apparent that something’s going on at the clinic which Tracy is not privy to. One wing is full of chimps and other lab animals (an odd feature for a fertility clinic). There’s a crisis one night, which concludes with someone or something being dragged back to the clinic in the rear of a minibus and then hit with a cattle-prod; Jenner himself (David Calder, doing another of his smoothly ambiguous establishment figures) alludes to letting Tracy know what the real business of the place is.

And then what’s been a fairly mild mystery, with perhaps a touch of romantic melodrama to it, takes a sharp left turn: the clinic’s chimp keeper is ambushed by the former occupant of one of his cages, his throat slit on camera; the clinic is soon ablaze, Jenner, his staff, and a residential patient ruthlessly hacked down, and Tracy… well, Emer Gillespie discovers she’s not playing Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween but Janet Leigh in Psycho (something about Gillespie clearly made people want to cast her in this kind of role: she meets an equally tragic and arguably even nastier fate in an episode of Ultraviolet from 1998).

When ITV repeated Chimera a year or two later, they carved it down from four 60 minute episodes to a rather briefer duration (one source indicates this was a two-hour TV movie, I seem to remember it being slightly longer and being split across more than one episode). Either way, what’s notable about the repeat is that virtually all of the first episode was cut: it opens with the police and other authorities moving in to deal with the aftermath of the disaster at the clinic, and Carson’s attempts to discover what happened to Tracy and the others.

The slasher movie vibe that concluded episode one continues, modulated into more of a creature-feature feeling – it’s gradually made apparent that the killer is not entirely human, as a local farmer and his wife come across something nasty in their barn and pay a grisly price for the discovery. Mixed in with this is more of a police-procedural, as the cops try to make sense of what’s happened, and the beginnings of a conspiracy thriller: overseeing the authorities’ response is a shadowy figure named Hennessey (Kenneth Cranham), who is one of those sinister, all-powerful civil servants you often find in stories like this one. D-notices are in effect, the police have been taken off the case, and government special forces are monitoring the area, armed to the teeth. (I should say that Chimera isn’t quite the succession of genre-hops I’m probably making it sound like: tonally, everything melds together very agreeably.)

Carson, at least, has learned enough to commence his own investigation into whatever Jenner was up to, and – dodging the cops and more shadowy government operatives along the way – finds the trail leads to Liawski, a retired former scientist who was a victim of Jenner’s own ruthless ambition. Jenner was out to push back the boundaries of scientific knowledge, but not out of any reverence for knowledge – he just wanted to become vastly rich off the patents he could register. His objective was the creation of a transgenic hybrid primate, a mixture of human being and ape – the chimera of the title. (When the series was shown in the US, it was inelegantly retitled Monkey Boy.) A flashback shows Jenner casually referring to this as a product, suitable for mass-production; another character comments on how such a creature could be experimented on without there being ethical concerns – they could easily be put to work as an expendable work-force.

Watching the second half of the series again now, it very much feels like something in the shadow of Edge of Darkness – a paranoid conspiracy thriller, albeit with a much more explicit SF-horror edge to it. The investigation into Jenner and his work is very engaging, and it’s a shame this element wasn’t expanded a bit more – one thing about this series, which no doubt explains the decision to cut down the repeat showing, is that it does contain quite a bit of extraneous material.

In the best traditions of miserabilist British SF, everything resolves in a tragic, downbeat climax, followed by a suitably ominous epilogue (suffice to say that the mass-production of ape-men has quietly begun). It’s not so much a cautionary tale, really, as another riff on Frankenstein (complete with a partly-sympathetic ‘monster’), mixed up with some uncompromising criticism of the moral bankruptcy of governments and commercial scientific concerns (Gallagher returned to this theme in his novel Oktober, which he also adapted for TV in the 1990s).

The series has stood the test of time pretty well: perhaps it doesn’t look quite as lavish as it once did (the title sequence resembles someone shining a laser down a plughole, probably because this is what they filmed), but Gallagher’s knack for convincing, drolly humorous dialogue is still in evidence and even the make-up job on Chad the chimera still looks quite impressive (Dougie Mann gives quite an affecting performance as the man-beast). There’s a bit of an issue with one of the lead characters, Alison Wells (Christine Kavanagh) – a member of Jenner’s team, it’s unclear exactly how sympathetic or morally culpable she’s supposed to be – but on the whole the characters in this story are well-written and effectively played.

It also scores quite highly on the ‘hang on, is that…?’ front, for there are various familiar faces popping up in minor roles throughout the show. George Costigan, mainly remembered for sitcoms these days, plays a Yorkshire cop trying to make sense of what’s going on, David Neilson (a Corrie lifer for the last 27 years) plays a farmer who ends up as one of Chad’s victims, Sebastian Shaw (the original face of Anakin Skywalker) plays Liawski, Liza Tarbuck has a small role as a garrulous woman who helps Carson out, and – perhaps most startlingly – Paul O’Grady (credited as Paul Savage) appears as a sign-language interpreter called in to help interrogate the lab chimps.

It’s a well-told tale, about something, and it’s genuinely fascinating to be reminded of a time when mainstream TV drama was permitted to include elements of horror – even slasher movies and creature-features. Watching it again, I was honestly expecting to find myself a bit embarrassed by my original enthusiasm for it, but it still hangs together and looks pretty good doing it. Worth checking out if it crosses your path and mainstream horror is your thing.

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I’ve said some fairly unkind things about Terry Nation’s scriptwriting over the last couple of months, but I would stand by them: he has little real feeling for genuine science fiction, his plotting can be laborious, and subtlety is hardly his strongpoint, either. But if you want a rock-solid action-adventure plot with some solid characterisation, then on his day there is no-one to beat Nation. When the story suits his strengths and he’s on form, he rocks.

After being absent for three weeks since the opening episode of season two, Nation makes his comeback with Pressure Point, which is a surprisingly modern-feeling piece of TV, in some ways at least: I was about to suggest it resembles an episode of Babylon 5, which I now realise is not most people’s idea of modern TV (the last episodes were broadcast in the 1990s). Nevertheless, virtually all modern TV owes a deep and inarguable debt to Babylon 5, so I stand by the point. Babylon 5 was a mixture of ‘status quo’ episodes and instalments where something would happen that profoundly changed the substance and direction of the series – a major character would undergo significant changes, a war would begin or end, that sort of thing. Pressure Point feels very much like one of these game-changers. (I feel it is pertinent that J Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5, always acknowledged the influence of Blake’s 7 upon it, and during a visit to one UK convention received an award for his work presented by Gareth Thomas himself, in full costume and make-up as Blake.)

The episode opens in duly ominous style with a couple of Earth-based resistance fighters carrying out a quick recce of the notorious Forbidden Zone (which we haven’t actually heard of before, but never mind). Suffice to say they quickly fall foul of the defence systems and are spectacularly despatched. Yes, no wonder the name of the Forbidden Zone is synonymous with dread and despair – or, to put it another way, Abingdon, where the location filming for this story took place.

(Full disclosure: we moved to Abingdon about seven months ago, and it’s actually a really nice place to live, not nearly as boring as Jerome K Jerome suggested in Three Men in a Boat. I had no idea of the pivotal role it played in the history of Blake’s 7 until a couple of weeks ago when my co-spousal unit noticed a Blake’s 7 convention was taking place just down the road and a number of the attendees were detouring to our neck of the woods to visit the filming locations. It is, as they say, a small world.)

It comes as no surprise when we learn that Travis is lurking in the vicinity, very characteristically lying in wait for his quarry. Servalan is also on the scene, this week wearing a spectacularly chic hat. Needless to say they are anticipating the arrival of Blake, who is in touch with the Earth-based resistance and their leader Kasabi (Jane Sherwin, then-spouse of writer, actor and producer Derrick Sherwin). If you can think of a weak pun linking Kasabi and her fighters to a long-established Leicester-based indie-rock band, please let me know in the comments.

The Liberator is indeed on approach to Earth, supposedly to get detector readings of the perimeter defences, but Blake has other things in mind: things he has neglected to inform the rest of the crew about. With admirable deftness Nation plants the seed: Blake doesn’t seem to be acting completely objectively or even rationally, letting his desire to strike at the heart of the Federation overrule his common sense. Rather than a surveillance pass, Blake is planning to launch a strike against the most vital part of the Federation’s computer network, Control, which is located behind impenetrable defences in the Forbidden Zone (aka Abingdon).

The others have profound reservations about this plan, but agree to go along with it: even Avon, although he has his own reasons. If Blake can destroy Control, the Federation will be thrown into chaos and someone will be needed to co-ordinate the different resistance factions during the ensuing uprising. With Blake thus occupied on Earth, the Liberator will, by default, fall into Avon’s possession.

Meanwhile, back in Abingdon, Servalan and some mutoids have captured Kasabi (the rest of the Kasabian group have had their tour permanently cancelled). Nation finds time for a telling little bit of back-story: Kasabi used to be a senior political officer in Space Command, until she made the mistake of reporting Cadet Servalan as being unfit to command – ‘spoilt, vicious, and idle’. By this point, Servalan’s transition from a convenient face of the oppressive Federation to a genuinely malevolent and rounded villain in her own right is complete; Travis increasingly seems very two-dimensional next to her.

Having interrogated the necessary code signal out of Kasabi, Servalan and Travis are able to lure Blake down to the surface, even though there is every sign that things are going wrong – signs which he seems determined to ignore. Gan follows him down almost at once, presumably to maximise his presence in the episode. The duo meet up with Kasabi’s daughter in a ruined church, where Gan does Cally’s usual job of first-aiding while Avon and Vila teleport down to investigate Abingdon’s automated defences. ‘I’m going to be a big handicap,’ warns a craven Vila. ‘I’m used to that,’ says Avon, reassuringly.

No sooner have they all met up than Kasabi’s daughter turns out to have been flipped by the opposition: she gasses the four of them, steals their bracelets, and locks them in the church. It really does seem like Blake’s recklessness is going to get them all killed – even when they manage to escape (Gan breaks the door down bare-handed), Blake is determined to go ahead with the raid on Control.

The supposedly-impenetrable defences of Control are actually penetrated rather easily, but the episode is barrelling along with such confidence and such a sense of imminent doom that you barely notice it. The fact that the whole of the Control complex is basically just the same two corridors, lit in different colours (an idea I suspect they pinched from The Andromeda Strain), is a bit more noticeable, but just about scrapes a pass on the grounds of inventiveness under pressure.

The punchline of the episode comes when they finally make their way into the heart of the Complex and find… ‘There’s nothing here,’ says Avon. Control is a trick, a trap, a lure. Blake seems to be almost in shock as it sinks home – the real computer control nexus was relocated decades ago, to the most secret location in the Federation. The risk has been for nothing – perhaps worse than nothing, as Travis and the mutoids turn up to apprehend them.

It’s been such a strong episode so far, and Nation has done a sterling job of letting Blake’s obsession get the better of him – if the story has a weak link, it arises from the need for the characters to survive into the next episode. The reversal that Nation pulls to facilitate this is one that stretches credibility – but he still doesn’t let them get away scot free.

It is fairly well-known that, when the decision was made to kill off one of the crew midway through the season, Terry Nation’s first choice was for it to be Vila (apparently he didn’t like Michael Keating’s performance). Vila was spared solely due to his popularity with the audience, and the axe came down on Gan instead. (I must confess to being a little surprised – Gan is just the kind of marginal, stoic, somewhat underdeveloped character who often becomes a cult favourite amongst a certain type of hardcore fan – see also Sergeant Benton in Dr Who and Ianto Jones in Torchwood.) To be honest it would have had more impact if Gan had actually got to do more, but so it goes. The efforts to foreground him in this episode are a little clumsy, but whether you subscribe to the ‘Gan is a simple, decent, straightforward man’ school of thought or the ‘Gan is a violent psychopath with an artificial personality maintained by his limiter’ viewpoint, there are still enough glimmers of potential in other episodes for his death to feel like a shame: there was a lot of untapped material in Gan.

But his death feels entirely appropriate for the episode (not surprisingly given that it’s one of Pressure Point‘s two objectives, the other being to establish the mystery of where Control has gone). The result is one of the strongest episodes of the series, not quite as witty as Boucher at his best, but with an unusually effective atmosphere and tension to it. Abingdon has seldom looked like such an exciting place.

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With Horizon (written by Allan Prior, who co-created Z-Cars and Howard’s Way and was the father of Madelyn Prior, who I believe was one of the X-Men for a while), we enter a run of Blake’s 7 episodes I’ve mostly only seen once, and a while ago at that. My memory of it was that it wasn’t much cop, but obviously one can’t go around skipping episodes no matter what the excuse. So – how did it match my recollection?

Well, it starts with a slightly odd, needlessly arty opening shot, with headshots of Vila and Jenna being superimposed over a starfield, along with a model shot of what long-time viewers will immediately recognise as the London from the start of season one. Here the model is (perfectly acceptably) reused as a standard Federation freighter which the Liberator happens across.

This is a surprise, as the ship has apparently travelled out to the fringes of human space, mainly because the entire crew is knackered (given all most of them did last week was sit around on the flight deck, one wonders what has been going on off-screen). Nevertheless, Blake is curious as to what the Federation is doing out there (there’s also a throwaway reference to the fact that Blake is looking for a base for his resistance efforts), and trails the freighter to the remote planet of Horizon, so-named precisely because it is on the edge of the Federation (apparently the original name was Silmareno – a factoid you can thank someone who’s done transcripts of every episode for).  Whether the locals are indigenous or human colonists is a bit unclear; thematically it would make much more sense if the former was true, as we shall see.

The situation on Horizon is a little bit awkward, for both the characters and (these days, probably) the viewer: it’s a weirdly claustrophobic place, where – ironically enough – the horizon is never visible. It’s all tropical plants and high cliffs and mines outdoors, while indoors everything seems to have been carved from stone. There isn’t really a consistent set of visual cues built into the design to let the viewer know what’s actually going on.

What seems to be going on is an allegory about the British Empire, which I suppose was a semi-live topic back in 1979 when Horizon was originally broadcast – the UK was still hanging on to a few foreign possessions, even if the bulk of the Empire had evaporated by then. Running the place is Ro (Darien Angadi), a native of the planet who has been educated elsewhere (the Central Education Complex, no less) so he can administer the place for his Federation ‘allies’. Assisting him in this are the Assistant Kommissar (Brian Miller) and the Kommissar himself (William Squire). Why the slightly odd spelling? I don’t know; it’s not apparent until the closing credits roll, so if the effect is to put us in mind of Soviet-era political officers it’s a bit of a non-starter. Needless to say there’s a lot of slightly stagey dialogue – ‘I’ve been stuck in this pesthole for two years,’ etc – but the authorial intent. This is not just a pulpy space adventure, it is a seriously-intentioned drama about the realities of empire.

It’s broadly speaking anti-imperial, of course, which is not to say there aren’t a few wince-worthy moments as the story unfolds. Blake and the crew beam down a few at a time to investigate this mysterious world, and are all promptly nabbed by Federation guards working with local auxiliaries – which is great, apart from the fact that the locals are using blowpipes and poisoned darts. I’m afraid some of the extras are blacked up, too, although they try to obscure this by also issuing dreadlocked wigs (it gets more and more awkward).

If nothing else, this sets up another engagingly stagey sequence on the Liberator, which Avon finds himself in sole possession of (earlier, when the question of his joining one of the search parties comes up, his reply is ‘I’m not expendable, I’m not stupid, and I’m not going’). Allan Prior was clearly watching Cygnus Alpha and the issue of Avon’s desire to steal the ship is referenced here several times – earlier on, Blake makes Jenna beam down with him, partly because he thinks Avon is less likely to take the Liberator without a trained pilot to assist him. Now we get a rather histrionic sequence in which Avon contemplates abandoning his crewmates. With anyone other than Paul Darrow this would probably be unwatchably corny, and even Darrow discovers whole new flavours of flamboyant ham. But at least it puts this particular plot thread to bed for a while.

Meanwhile, down on the planet, Blake is single-handedly talking Ro into rebelling against the Federation after years, probably decades, of servility. It’s a big ask and not helped much by the fact it hinges around the idea that a dissident from Horizon was on the London and filled Blake in about the planet’s situation: something which happened entirely off-screen and has never been referenced before. At least the dialogue is decent and Prior works hard to make it as credible as he can. The performances are not bad, either.

The episode resolves with Avon overcoming his existential crisis, beaming down, zapping all the security cameras and killing about four Federation guards in less time than it’s taken me to type this sentence. Having been rescued, Blake pops back to the palace to stop the Kommissars from liquidating the increasingly troublesome Ro; there’s a sort of Royal Hunt of the Sun vibe to his eventual rebellion – he’s wielding another blowpipe and wearing a hat which makes it look like a peacock is squatting on his head – which just adds to the theatricality of the whole episode.

There’s an inconsistency about the whole episode which stops it from being entirely satisfactory, but most of the regulars get something decent to do and the fact it’s clearly meant to be About Something does elevate it a tiny bit. The whole allegorical political angle, clumsily executed though it frequently is, keeps this from being just a filler episode rolled out to fill the gap before the season’s big storyline finally gets underway. It doesn’t exactly sparkle, but it’s usually interesting. Still no idea why the most prominent Blake’s 7 fan club was named after it, though…

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