Posts Tagged ‘BBC’

Never kill anything off. – Terry Nation

Of course they all die at the end. How else could this story end? What else were they going to do? What have they ever managed to do, except scrape survival by the skin of their teeth? It has been years since they achieved anything of note in their self-appointed mission to defeat the Federation. The greatest blows against the Federation have all been self-inflicted or struck from elsewhere. They may have destroyed the odd communication centre or liberated an occasional rebel leader, but that was a long time ago. Since then they have been running and hiding, gradually dying, running out of resources, until they eventual run out of luck and places to hide.

So: Blake, the final episode of Blake’s 7, written by Chris Boucher (of course) and directed by Mary Ridge. We get underway with some rather impressive model footage of Scorpio launching, which segues into model footage of the base blowing up: Avon and the others are moving on, the security of the place having now been compromised. Is Avon’s anti-Federation alliance dead in the water now? Soolin thinks it is; the man himself disagrees. Never mind all those resources and raw materials, Zukan was also there as a figurehead, and with him gone Avon has someone else in mind: while any idiot would do (well, within reason, which lets Vila off the hook), the man in question is… ‘strongly identified with rebels… and very popular with rabbles. They will follow him, and he will fight to the last drop of their blood.’

Avon is as cynical as ever, but something has changed – where once he would simply have dismissed a political idealist as a fool, now he sees them as a potential resource to be exploited. Somewhere along the line he has become as committed to the cause as any of his associates, even…

‘It’s Blake, isn’t it?’ says Vila. Nothing explicit is in the script, but Michael Keating does a wonderful job throughout the episode of suggesting the profound wariness and distrust Vila now has towards Avon – perhaps word of what happened a couple of episodes ago has leaked out, as the others seem very ready to accuse Avon of treating them as expendable resources. But as no-one has much of a better idea, off they go to Gauda Prime, a lawless fringe world to which Orac has managed to track Blake. (Avon must have started looking – again? – post-Terminal, possibly checking to see if Servalan was telling the truth about seeing Blake’s body. My inclination is to believe that Servalan was telling the truth to the best of her knowledge: let’s not forget there’s at least one unaccounted Blake clone out there somewhere, so it could have been him.)

And the episode doesn’t hold Blake back for a cameo like last time, but treats him as the main character he is. But he has clearly been through some tough times since the battle of Star One: scarred, grimy, unshaven. And, it would seem, no longer the idealist Avon considers him to be: now he is working as a bounty hunter on Gauda Prime. Just as Avon has become more committed to a cause, could it be that Blake has become more cynical and pragmatic himself? Are the two of them become true mirrors of each other?

Gauda Prime is a strange place to find a rebel leader, being a den of scum and villainy after having the legal system suspended. Bounty hunters now make a good living there. It’s no place for thieves, killers, mercenaries or psychopaths – which means none of the crew are likely to enjoy their visit much. (It’s worth pointing out the economy with which Boucher creates Gauda Prime as a world with a sense of history and a particular situation, rather than just one of the anonymous planets with a name out of the scrabble bag which turn up in so many other episodes.)

Even getting there proves tricky, as the planet is under blockade and Scorpio comes under concerted attack: a feigned crash into the atmosphere turns into a real crash, and the crew (except for Tarrant) are forced to escape using the teleport. (The model work of the ship crashing is also excellent.)

It seems to be Boucher’s implication that Blake and Avon are circling around each other somewhat at this point – Avon has clearly been using Orac to keep tabs of Blake’s activities, and there’s a hint that Blake may have been returning the favour. When he learns that a Wanderer-class ship has been shot down, he suddenly and rather disingenuously announces to his handler Deva (played by the marvellous David Collings, who the following year would also feature in the last episode of Sapphire and Steel) he’ll pop over that way. He certainly seems well-acquainted with the names of Avon’s current associates.

Well, Blake rescues Tarrant from the wreckage of Scorpio – Slave’s final speech is clearly intended to echo the death of Zen in Terminal, but isn’t as effective – and Tarrant, despite claiming that he would recognise Blake on sight when he first arrived on Liberator, doesn’t do so with any certainty. Blake flies him back to his underground base, with Avon and the others following. (We learn along the way that Jenna apparently died running the Gauda Prime blockade as well.) Vila even observes they are all heading for a hole in the ground.

And, of course, a combination of Blake’s paranoia (sticking with his bounty hunter cover instead of telling Tarrant the truth about what he’s doing – which is recruiting an army to attack the Federation) and Avon’s paranoia (being too quick to believe Tarrant when he declares Blake has betrayed them) results in…

Here’s the thing, though: Blake and Avon’s fatal misunderstanding is heartbreaking, but also really immaterial. Blake’s already dead by this point, as there’s a Federation infiltrator on his team. How long Arlen would have waited before calling in the troops we don’t know, but the death squad turns up very promptly at the end once things start to go bad. If Avon and the others had left it even two days before deciding to go to Gauda Prime, they at least might have survived. It’s really just bad luck that kills the Scorpio crew.

And they do die; of course they die. The story doesn’t have any point if they’re all stunned or Tarrant faints or Avon ducks and all the guards shoot each other. I stand by my opinion that Terminal is a more satisfying story than this one, in terms of its theme and character development. But the whole point of Blake is that it’s messy and things seem to happen randomly or at the worst possible time (the attack on Scorpio, Blake recruiting Arlen just before Avon arrives). Of course Servalan isn’t in it, and Orac seems to vanish at the end – there’s no evil villain with a masterplan working against the characters, just a succession of bad decisions and bad luck. The message of this episode is that one really bad day is enough to kill anyone.

I think I’ve mentioned before that some people credit Blake’s 7 as an influence on Rogue One, particularly its ending: but the difference is that the end of Rogue One is all about sacrifice and hope – Blake’s 7 just ends with a slaughter and despair. No matter what happens to Servalan – and it’s easy to imagine her ending up back on the throne somehow – Blake and Avon and the others have achieved nothing worth mentioning. The Federation is stronger than ever and seemingly invincible. But the world can seem like that, and at least Avon has retained enough of his sense of humour to recognise the irony that it was his desire to find Blake that got everyone killed. Hence the series ends with its single most resonant motif: the smile on the face of the loser.


Strange to think, but there were many episodes of Blake’s 7 I hadn’t seen in over forty years prior to doing this pilgrimage through the show, and a handful I’d never seen at all (definitely not Children of Auron or Games). So finally spending a year watching the lot was satisfying for that reason. On the other hand, having watched and enjoyed parts of series three and four on their original transmissions, I was convinced that the show really got a lot more interesting once boring old Blake was off the scene and Avon got to do his thing. Discovering that most of the first half of each of those years is dross was a terrible shock.

In fact, as I’ve suggested, if Blake’s 7 splits into two halves it’s not along chronological lines – the division is between those episodes by people who know how to write fantasy and SF action adventure for a BBC budget – Terry Nation, Chris Boucher, Robert Holmes, Tanith Lee – and those with a background in cop shows and soap operas – pretty much everyone else, but with Ben Steed and Allan Prior as the worst offenders. The first show is terrific. The second is frequently risible. (My own essential seven from Seven: The Way Back, Shadow, Star One, Rumours of Death, Terminal, Orbit, and Blake, but with honourable mentions for Seek-Locate-Destroy, Pressure Point and Sarcophagus.)

And yet there’s something about these characters that makes you overlook the shonky plotting and weird continuity and dodgy production values. You find yourself writing the stories in your head that the series seems to have neglected to do – such as why Travis decides, off-screen, to betray humanity, or what happens to Blake and Jenna off-screen in the second half of the series. That has to mean something: a credit to the talent of the performers, if nothing else.

You can imagine a new version of Blake’s 7 made in a modern style, and it being potentially brilliant, but perhaps that moment has passed – the deaths of most of the key cast members hasn’t helped its chances, I suspect. But the series we have is still, at its best, great, thoughtful entertainment. And at its worst it’s at least very funny. Well done, Terry; well done, Chris; well done, David – you did good.

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Pinkness and Perfidy

And the title of ‘last new writer to be hired on Blake’s 7′ goes to… Simon Masters! I must confess I thought this was just another case of Chris Boucher giving a break to a new guy starting off, but no – while he certainly doesn’t seem to have that many writing credits to his name (although he has the unique distinction of being the only person to write for both Blake and Dallas), he seems to have been a very experienced script editor on shows like Z-Cars, the old Poldark, and The Brothers. So, another graduate of the soap opera/cop show school of TV drama, but so it goes. Masters’ episode is Warlord, directed by Viktors Ritelis (a Latvian-born gentleman in the middle of a long career at the time). I seldom mention the name of the director in these things, but Ritelis’ contribution is… unique.

As noted, we are very close to the end of the series, and for once there’s even a sense of the show building up to something (for the first time in a couple of series). The Federation reconquest is continuing apace, with new and more effective variants of the pacification drug having been developed. To try and counter this, Avon is holding a conference of the leaders of the major independent worlds to discuss an alliance. Or possibly it’s that year’s Eurovision Song Contest, it’s hard to tell given the costumes on display.

(Not for the first time, you can have fun playing where-have-I-seen-this-before? with some of these outfits: for example, delegate Boorva’s robe clearly has the seal of the High Council of Time Lords from Dr Who on its chest, while I think Mida is wearing part of a guard’s uniform from The Pirate Planet – I can’t be sure, though, it’s not like I’m a fan or anything.)

Everyone is duly impressed by Avon’s big flat-screen TV and agrees that an alliance would serve all their interests, if it weren’t entirely futile: they need the help of Zukan, the warlord of the title, who has the resources and raw materials to produce an antidote to the drug. The problem is that no-one likes or trusts Zukan. It all looks a bit pointless until Zukan turns up himself (he is played by Roy Boyd in black leather and a pink topknot), bringing supplies and very ready to apologise for his past misdeeds. The alliance is go!

Zukan has also brought his daughter Zeeona (Bobbie Brown, and you may insert your own joke here) – or at least she’s stowed away, because it turns out she’s a bit fond of Tarrant. Well, it takes all sorts. Just when you thought the costume and make-up departments had already peaked for the week, they unveil Zeeona’s trichological stylings, which are sufficiently indescribable as to make me break my usual one-photo-per-post rule:

Yes, quite. It would take a performer of Dench, Blanchett, or Hepburn K.-like stature to make much of an impression under that thing, and Bobbie Brown… well, it’s obviously quite hard to do the usual research, as I end up getting pointed towards new jack swing (whatever that is) or silly Sherlock Holmes pastiches, but it looks like her only other significant role was playing the slave Hedonia in the Mike Hodges version of Flash Gordon. Based on this episode I am not greatly surprised.

Tarrant and Zeeona get very loved-up, until someone tells Zukan she is on the base, at which point he demands she is shipped off to their home planet Betafarl, well away from curly-haired despoilers of badly-wigged maidenhood. Avon happily agrees (at one point virtually wrestling Tarrant out of the room to get him away from Zeeona), and undertakes to pilot Scorpio himself, with Soolin’s help – on this occasion only they adopt curiously hideous green, beige and gold flight suits. These seem to be popular with some elements of the fanbase, apparently because you can see more of Paul Darrow’s chest. Animals, these Blake’s 7 fans, I tell you.

But Soolin has an ulterior motive for coming along and helps Zeeona secretly teleport back to Xenon behind Zukan’s back. (Why is everyone else so keen to help Tarrant get some this week?)  Avon is as cross as two sticks when he finds out, and assures Soolin that if the price of saving the alliance is letting Zukan take his revenge on her for this betrayal, he will happily hold the warlord’s coat (and after last episode you really believe it). Zukan has already left Xenon and will be on Betafarl shortly after them. (Scorpio being the fastest ship in the galaxy has apparently been forgotten about by this point.)

Still, everything is looking good – the alliance has been formed, the antidote-production gear is being set up, and Tarrant is having sex for the first time in ages. It can’t last, of course (the run of good fortune, I mean) – there is a traitor at large. We have already seen an ominous canister amongst the chemical gear, with VIRUS GAS written on it in large helpful letters. What’s worse than a virus? Worse even than gas? That’s right, virus gas!

To stop everyone just running away from the virus gas (which, by the way, is also radioactive, but I expect that wouldn’t fit on the can), every exit from Xenon Base is also bombed. It’s a genuinely startling moment and does feel like a major development: not least because part of the roof comes down on Orac, disabling it. Tarrant, Vila, Dayna and Zeeona are left trapped in the rubble, as the radioactive virus gas kills the workers Zukan has left behind. Meanwhile, Avon and Soolin have arrived on Betafarl to collect raw materials (one last trip to the sandpit) only to find a squad of absurdly acrobatic Federation troopers waiting in ambush (these guys somersault over a sand dune like nobody’s business). Zukan has sold them out!

Yes, Zukan has done a deal with Servalan whereby he will destroy Avon and the alliance in return for being allowed to conquer the other members. (All without telling Servalan where Xenon is, in a slightly awkward bit of plotting.) This isn’t anything close to being Servalan’s best episode, which is a shame as it’s her last appearance in the show. (This is so unsatisfactory that at one point I got as far as plotting a sort of novel a clef predicated on the whole question of what the arch-villain does next after the heroes all die stupid futile deaths she’s not even involved in. Spoilers for the next episode, by the way.) Still, nice frock this week, and one final piece of magnificent treachery as she bombs Zukan’s ship.

Well, everyone escapes from their immediate danger, and it does get a bit fraught, before Avon and Soolin rescue the others from the base. Zeeona teleports back down to neutralise the radioactive virus gas, but because she is a) a love-interest guest character and b) apparently even more of an idiot than her hairstyle would suggest, she gets herself killed (though even the radioactive virus gas can’t destroy that wig). ‘She took her glove off,’ laments Dayna, which is not the sort of epitaph I’d be happy with.

I have been fairly irreverent towards Warlord, which is usually a sign that I’ve been watching a bad episode. To be honest, though, the bones here are solid and effective, though the Tarrant-Zeeona romance doesn’t convince. Series four has rallied rather impressively after a wobbly start, and I can imagine a version of Warlord which undisputably continues that – but it would probably have been produced by David Maloney. This is one of those episodes of the show where the campness of the production and direction overwhelms the quality of the script. The wigs! The VIRUS GAS cannister! The other wigs and costumes! The somersaulting troopers! Most of the acting! The CSO! It’s all too much!

So this isn’t as good as the episodes preceding it, but it’s still entertaining (one way or another). You do get a sense of the series really feeling the need for more of an ongoing storyline at this point – there are references back to Traitor, but the alliance comes out of nowhere this episode and doesn’t really feature in the series finale. There’s no sense of what the concluding episode may hold, but that’s not really an issue. Anyway, it’s the only one left to talk about at this point.

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Here’s a hypothesis: the reason that Blake’s 7 has a reputation for being a festival of camp unintentional comedy is because it is a science fiction (or at least SF-adjacent) series frequently made by actors, writers and directors who would probably have been happier making soap operas or cop shows, with a budget that would definitely have been a better fit for a soap opera or cop show. The reason that it’s sometimes much better than that sounds is because, every now and then, it’s made – or at least written – by people who really understand how to do science fiction on a BBC budget.

Imagine, if you will, someone coming to Blake with an open mind and just being shown a selection of episodes by Terry Nation, Chris Boucher, Robert Holmes and Tanith Lee – say, The Way Back, Shadow, Pressure Point, Gambit, Rumours of Death, Sarcophagus and Terminal. They’re watching a whole different show from the poor sod who gets stuck with all the Allan Prior, Ben Steed, and Roger Parkes episodes.

You will perhaps have noted that there is nothing from series 4 in the ‘best of Blake‘ selection I just suggested – perhaps this is because Vere Lorrimer, who produced the final year, is not one of those people who really knows how to do BBC SF, while David Maloney, who did the rest of the series, had a track record that suggested that he really, really did. Well, maybe Sand gets onto the list, and it definitely finds episode 11 there waiting for it: this is Orbit, by Robert Holmes, a terrific writer who’s at close to his best on this occasion.

Scorpio has been summoned to the vicinity of the planet Malodar, summoned there by someone claiming to be Egrorian, a brilliant scientist who has been on the run from the Federation for the last decade. But now Egrorian (John Savident) has a proposition to make to Avon – in person, in his dome on Malodar, to which he will have to travel by shuttlecraft (Egrorian is a very particular sort of renegade scientist). This at least saves Tarrant and Dayna from teleporting down, which they have already volunteered to do. Vila, of course, has done nothing of the sort. ‘I like to stick with you, Avon, where it’s safe,’ he says, in something that sounds like an innocuous little line but is actually setting up the whole crux of the episode.

So, for the first time in what seems like an age, Avon and Vila, the last surviving original characters, get to go on an adventure together. (To be fair, the script does suggest that Avon has been actively trying to avoid putting himself in harm’s way, thus explaining why he’s been a less active presence in many of the episodes since Terminal.) As a writer elsewhere, Holmes acquired a reputation for his facility with double-acts, and when writing Blake he seems to have locked onto Avon and Vila as the relationship with the most potential. Paul Darrow and Michael Keating apparently used to look forward to Holmes’ scripts in particular, and it shows in their performances. The repartee between them is utterly winning, in an episode which – for its first two thirds at least – seems to be functioning as a black comedy as much as anything else. Avon and Vila obviously know and understand each other, and even if they’re not really friends, there’s an amused tolerance on Avon’s part and a sort of dependency from Vila.

Down in Egrorian’s dome they meet the man himself and his apparently-senile assistant, Pinder. Egrorian has summoned them here to offer them the Tachyon Funnel, a super-weapon he has invented apparently capable of instantly destroying anything, anywhere. The scientist claims this is because he wants to see the Federation toppled, but can’t be bothered to do it himself. All he asks for in exchange is Orac…

(The main plot hole with Orbit is that the Tachyon Funnel genuinely seems to work – which means that whoever controls it effectively controls the galaxy. In which case, why worry about Orac at all? Why risk trading the Funnel away when you could simply use it to extort anything you wanted? One could accept Egrorian doing something weird, as he is clearly a perverted lunatic, but he’s being backed up by Servalan, whom one would expect to be more pragmatic.)

Avon accepts the trade, and sets about thinking up a way of double-crossing Egrorian, while trying to work out in turn how Egrorian is going to screw him. Meanwhile Servalan is giving Egrorian a hard time over how complicated his plan is (which I suppose answers my criticism up the page somewhat), in what is another very funny scene: Egrorian is an over-the-top grotesque in the classic Holmes style, and Jacqueline Pearce gets to do a lot of eye-rolling in the face of his fawning and flattery – ‘My steel queen! My empress!’ ‘Oh, get up!’

The trade is made, Avon supplying a replica Orac he happens to have lying around, and Vila starts planning what to do with the galaxy – starting with an imperial palace made of diamonds and a bodyguard of a thousand virgins. But the real Orac reports that the shuttle won’t have enough power to escape Malodar’s gravity, Egrorian having secreted a speck of ultra-dense neutron star he happens to have lying around aboard the ship. To avoid crashing, they need to dump as much weight as possible, losing all unnecessary baggage – which, Orac suggests, includes Vila himself…

Getting to this point has involved a degree of contrivance (and eliminating Egrorian involves some more, this concerning radiation which makes people age at an accelerated rate), but I suspect the black comedy elements of the episode are partly here to smooth things along. Anyway, it’s worth it for the climactic sequence in which a gun-toting Avon hunts a terrified Vila through the shuttlecraft. Michael Keating was crying at one point when this was being filmed, though it was dropped for potentially making the episode too disturbing. It’s shocking and yet completely in character for Avon to be quite so ruthless when the chips are down; Darrow’s performance just makes it more plausible that he has actually become totally psychopathic – he adopts an unnaturally calm and gentle voice while trying to persuade Vila to reveal himself, which probably would only have made him suspicious even if he wasn’t aware of the real situation.

It’s a shame the Avon-vs-Vila element of the story doesn’t last longer, but the denouement feels very briskly done in every respect. What’s interesting is that neither of them has told the others what happened on the shuttle. ‘I couldn’t find Vila,’ says Avon matter-of-factly when explaining how he moved the dwarf star material. ‘I’m glad about that,’ says Vila, deadpan. ‘It’s a trip I won’t forget, Avon.’ ‘Well, as you always say, Vila, you know you are safe with me,’ replies Avon, his usual smooth and cool self. But Vila has dropped his usual pretence of being an amiable halfwit and is looking at Avon with genuine wariness.

Whether this change in one of the series’ central dynamics would have ultimately led anywhere if the series had continued, we will never know: there are only two episodes left, after all. But even as a standalone it’s still an immensely entertaining and interesting story, making expert use of limited resources and finding a wholly new way of exploiting one of the show’s central relationships. If this doesn’t prove to be the best episode of the season I’ll be very surprised.

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Ocean’s Seven

There’s another new name on the charge-sheet for episode ten of series four: that of one Colin Davis, who is one of the less prolific writers to work on the show. Apart from Blake, the only credits for him I have managed to turn up are a couple of episodes of Dramarama and Triangle, together with an ‘additional material by’ on It’s Cliff Richard! from 1974. It is not necessarily a CV to fill one with much expectation.

Which only goes to show, because Davis’ episode, Gold, certainly has stuff going for it, enough to lift it into the upper echelon of the season. It opens with some pretty good model-work depicting a space-liner named the Space Princess, which is central to the episode; Scorpio duly turns up and docks with it. It turns out the crew are here answering an invitation by the liner’s purser, a man named Keiller (who affects to be an old friend of Avon’s).

Keiller is played by Roy Kinnear, a ubiquitous British character actor for over twenty years (usually in comic roles). Kinnear was a great talent, and a familiar face, but undeniably rather odd casting for a show like Blake (he was much more at home in The Avengers, which he appeared in four times – once as a character called Bagpipes Happychap). Then again, the whole of the BBC’s sci-fi and fantasy output seemed to be prey to this sort of light-entertainment casting policy in the 1980s: Betty Marsden appeared earlier in this season of Blake, and people like Beryl Reid and Ken Dodd would turn up in supposedly dramatic roles in Dr Who – whether this was down to the Dr Who producer copying one of Vere Lorrimer’s policies or not I’m not sure. On this occasion, it more or less works – while the casual viewer’s guide to Blake’s 7 probably lists Gold as ‘the one with Roy Kinnear in it’, he gives a typically adroit performance as a sweaty, nervous, untrustworthy little man (a bit like Vila, only not as needy or intermittently bright).

Anyway, Keiller has a scheme to get very rich he needs Avon’s help with: the Space Princess is secretly being used to transport gold from the planet Zerok to Earth, the thinking being that no sane person would move bullion on a cruise liner. The problem is that, prior to transit, the gold is transmogrified into a black substance which is a) worthless and b) impossible to teleport. This necessitates a rather more complicated heist plan than would otherwise be required. And there’s a further question – it soon becomes clear that Keiller is working for someone else, who apparently has the means to de-transmogrify the gold again. But who could this be? Could the fact that Keiller used to work for the Federation President be pertinent?

There’s a peculiar sort of dog-leg to the plot of Gold: the initial plan is to beam down to Zerok and cunningly nobble the transmogrification equipment, thus allowing them to teleport the still-golden gold off the liner. This ends up just being padding, but it’s relatively lavish padding, with lots of running about on location (Kinnear is one of the few major guest stars this year to actually turn up for the location shoot). The only downside to it, really, is that it eats up time and so the actually robbery on the liner isn’t as well-developed as it could have been. Nevertheless, this is all good, pacey stuff.

It also sets up one of the season’s most notable climaxes, with the identity of Keiller’s shadowy backer being revealed – to no-one’s surprise, probably, it’s Servalan (a location-only appearance by Jacqueline Pearce in the couple of scenes involved). One of the complaints raised against series four at the time was the fact that there are hardly any scenes between Avon and Servalan – she meets Tarrant and Dayna in person for extended periods, but only interacts with Avon briefly or via a communicator link. Vere Lorrimer’s explanation was that it would be stretching credibility for Avon not to kill her the first chance he got, and so keeping them apart was essential if Servalan was to stay on the show. Well, maybe, but good writing finds a way round that kind of problem, and the scene here is a great reminder of how good Paul Darrow and Jacqueline Pearce are together – far from genuinely wishing for homicide, they seem to be delighted to see each other again, with a lot of playful repartee.

The sense of this being a series which really isn’t about a clash of good and evil is reinforced by what happens next: Avon abandons Keiller to Servalan’s not-so-tender mercies, on the reasonable grounds that he can’t be trusted. In a nicely understated touch, we don’t see Servalan subsequently disposing of Keiller: her vehicle just pulls away to reveal his corpse sprawled on the ground.

And this isn’t even the punchline of the story. Most of the fourth series operates on a sort of zero-sum basis where the plot is concerned, with the crew usually not getting exactly what they’re after – the various scientists they try to recruit all end up dead, the valuables they are after prove unattainable, and so on. Gold takes this a step further, with the crew eventually losing outright: having sold the supposedly worthless gold to Servalan for a tidy sum, it turns out that Zerok has just been annexed by the Federation, meaning she will be able to re-transmogrify the gold and all the currency they’ve been paid in is worthless. We get our first smile-on-the-face-of-the-loser moment since Terminal, as Avon permits himself a broad grin as useless cash floats down around him.

It’s a strong, if downbeat ending to an episode with a lot going for it: the whole heist concept, with faint echoes of Mission Impossible to it, works really well; the plot is good enough; and there’s a strong guest turn from Kinnear. The only downsides, I suppose, are the lack of any really strong moral or political complexity, and the fact that the whole thing (model-work excepted) is afflicted by a cheap and tatty disco aesthetic. But then the same has been true of every episode for some time. Gold may not live up to its title, but it’s still significantly north of average at this point.

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The Grain Drain

Sand opens with what sounds very much like someone quoting a classic poem over a moody effects shot of an arid landscape, which in itself is enough to make it distinctive as a Blake’s 7 episode. But who is the poet in question? Is it Keats, perhaps, or Byron? It is not. It seems very much as if the poem was written by Tanith Lee, who wrote the rest of the episode as well. But, in the context of the story, is someone actually quoting Lee, or some other, fictitious poet? Has she put herself into her own script?

We never get an answer (unsurprisingly) and it doesn’t really matter much anyway, but the simple fact that the question arises should be a flag that this script is going to be as distinctive as the one Lee wrote for season 3, even if the results are perhaps not quite as impressive. To begin with the omens are good, for this time Lee is allowed to introduce characters outside of the regular cast, and also include Servalan – whom the episode is really about.

As the story starts, Servalan is off to the planet Virn to investigate a long-lost expedition, in the company of a brutal Federation operative named Reeve (Stephen Yardley, perhaps best remembered as powerboat tycoon Ken Masters in Allan Prior’s nautical soap Howards’ Way). Reeve (whose bacofoil costume perhaps renders him less sinister and threatening than Lee intended) is naturally curious as to why the head of the pacification programme is interested in something like this, a question Servalan pointedly doesn’t answer. Further discussion is rendered impossible when their ship experiences severe turbulence on its approach to Virn.

Meanwhile, Avon and the others are reduced to following Servalan around again, on the principle that if the Federation is interested in something, they should be interested too. (The irony here is that if they’d just stayed at home, Servalan would likely have been out of their hair in perpetuity.) So Scorpio likewise flies off to Virn, also experiencing strange equipment malfunctions and electromagnetic anomalies.

Virn seems like a hostile environment, to say the least – a landslide buries the Federation ship, one of Servalan’s aides turns up dead mysteriously, and so on. Visitors seem prone to sudden bouts of debilitating pain or confusion. The corpse of the lost expedition leader, when it turns up, is peculiarly fresh. The arrival of Tarrant only confuses things further (although the arrival of Tarrant into almost any situation is likely to raise the ambient confusion level a bit). Soon enough Servalan and Tarrant find themselves thrown together and forced to co-operate in order to survive, for Virn conceals a lurking and sinister threat… (Hint: the episode’s called Sand.)

Lee’s previous episode, Sarcophagus, was so good that it’s hardly a surprise that the writer was invited back and given the chance to do something more ambitious – whereas the previous episode was largely a chamber piece taking place on the standing sets, this is, on paper at least, a much more expansive piece of SF-horror, with plenty of space left for some character development. As ever, with Blake, words like ‘ambitious’ and ‘expansive’ don’t translate very well to the screen, however: you can only imagine Lee’s frustration when, having a written the perfect story to be filmed in the traditional sandpit, the decision was made to actually shoot the exterior scenes on what’s obviously a sound-stage covered in sand. It gives the episode a weird, dreamlike quality (if you’re charitable) and probably made the special effects easier to do, but even so…

Speaking of special effects, you could certainly argue that Sand goes for low-hanging fruit in this department. Then again, given some of the less than stellar monster suits featured in previous episodes (the insect-thing of Kairos, Og the cowboy, and so on), making your monster literally a pile of sand is probably a respectable artistic choice. This is the sort of monster which is conceptually scary rather than viscerally so. Sentient vampire sand with enough cunning to keep humans alive as a food supply is a creepy idea, as well as a rather bizarre one; certainly good enough to form the basis of an episode, even if the sand grasps the basics of human reproductive biology with surprising speed.

The episode follows the season’s pattern of leaving many of the cast stuck on the Scorpio set for most of the story; this is getting a little bit tedious as even Paul Darrow’s I’m-still-going-to-call-it-acting can only lift this sort of material so far. Darrow still has some fun with the lines Lee provides for him, especially the moment when he seems rather delighted that the sand has selected him as the dominant male on the ship. On the other hand, there’s a peculiar and somewhat intrusive call-back to Sarcophagus, suggesting that in the wake of that episode everyone was the recipient of a supernatural curse (leading to Cally dying, the Liberator destroyed, and so on).

It’s a fannish sort of moment, along with the one planetside where Servalan finally explains how she escaped with her life but lost the presidency (still not sure the chronology works here). But then there’s a fannishness about both these episodes, in a good way – Sarcophagus feels in part like a Avon/Cally shipper fanfic, and Sand in turn sometimes feels like it’s on the verge of turning into Tarrant/Servalan slash. (But who would honestly think that Servalan would see Tarrant as anything more than a disposable bit of rough?) The dialogue is good enough to make their scenes together work, though.

Lee also has a valiant attempt at giving Servalan the kind of depth she’s only previously had when written by Chris Boucher (and occasionally Terry Nation), and trying to explain why she is the kind of person that she is: abandoned by her lover as a teenager, she settled on power as an acceptable substitute for emotional intimacy. I’d buy that, at least in principle, though I can’t help thinking how interesting it would have been to do a proper solo episode just about Servalan and her back-story. If nothing else, this is one of Jacqueline Pearce’s best performances in the series; compared to someone like Reeve, Servalan comes across as positively sympathetic.

Even so, there’s something about Sand that doesn’t quite hang together, but I’m struggling to put my finger on it. Perhaps the very fact it’s attempting psychological depth and proper SF in a show not known for them means it feels a bit weird. Or it could just be that the plot feels just a bit too contrived and introspective, or the production too stagey and artificial. Still a good episode, of course – but nevertheless it doesn’t completely satisfy.

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We are getting to the point where anyone making their first contribution to Blake’s 7 as a script-writer is also making their only such contribution – not that there aren’t a couple of distinguished previous writers still lined up before the end of the series. This week’s episode is Games, written by Bill Lyons – at first glance a bit like Rod Beacham, for he’s another Dr Who bit-part actor turned jobbing script-writer. However, Lyons is, in his own way, one of the most notable writers ever to work on the series, almost certainly the most prolific. For one thing, he’s still going today – his last credited episode went out less than a month ago, as I write, over forty years after his work on Blake. Then there’s the sheer volume of his work: ten episodes of Z Cars, fourteen episodes of Angels, 116 episodes of EastEnders and 376 (and counting!) episodes of Emmerdale. (That’s 375 more than I’ve ever willingly watched.)

All very nice for Bill Lyons and his bank manager, you may be thinking, but being a hugely experienced soap writer nowadays doesn’t necessarily mean he was the man to do gritty hard-hitting sci-fi back in 1981. And you make a good point. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Games is a few degrees north of average, certainly by series 4 standards – it tries to do too much of the right sorts of thing, rather than not enough, or the right amount of something inappropriate.

It opens with a slightly convoluted scene (completely with model explosion), establishing that this week’s pulp SF plot device is going to be something called feldon crystals: immensely valuable, but also with unusual properties that will, in theory, facilitate some sort of clever twist or resolution to the plot. Hmmm, well, keep your fingers crossed on that one.

The source of feldon crystals everyone spends the rest of the episode getting in a tizzy about is on the planet Mecron II, where the mine is being run by a man named Belkov, who seems to be an independent contractor. The main plus point for the episode is that Belkov is played by Alan Stratford Johns, a huge British TV star in the 60s and 70s (and deservedly so based on virtually every performance of his that I’ve seen). Belkov is a man who loves to play games, whiling away the time on what must be a pretty dreary job by playing against his computer, Gambit (voiced by Rosalind Bailey). (Gambit is a fairly remarkable computer by Blake standards, apparently quite close to being a full AI – something only previously seen in exceptional circumstances.) Belkov’s latest game involves Avon and his crew and the Federation, as both playing pieces and the opposition – and needless to say the stakes are high.

Belkov has been ripping off the Federation and skimming many of the crystals off for his personal profit – these he has hidden in his private, heavily deathtrapped space station. However, the Federation are smelling a rat and have sent Servalan in to investigate – Stratford Johns is yet another of this year’s guest stars who didn’t go to the location shoot (the feldon mine was filmed in Winspit, Dorset, in a slate quarry which die-hard Dr Who fans (I’m not one) will instantly recognise as the planet Skaro from Destiny of the Daleks). Jacqueline Pearce, however, did, and sashays around a sandpit in a cocktail dress with her usual imperious cool.

Servalan isn’t the only person who’s been sent for a shufti, however – also in the area is someone called Gerren (David Neal), a corrupt middle-aged academic whom Avon has blackmailed into working with the crew. This seems a bit out of character given what we’ve seen over the previous forty-five episodes or so, but there are acceptable dramatic reasons for it – basically, when the villain has an automated set of deathtraps, you want to see them in action before the heroes go in and outwit the system. So Gerren and his unnamed assistants are here as deathtrap-fodder, which is fair enough.

All this is setting up a slightly frantic plot in which Belkov attempts to play Avon and Servalan off against one another while sneaking out from the crossfire with his ill-gotten gains. Perhaps ‘frantic’ isn’t quite the right word for it – it’s more a sort of let’s-throw-everything-we-can-think-of-at-this-script-and-hopefully-enough-of-it-will-stick-for-the-results-to-be-worthwhile. And Lyons really gets away with it, even if some of the throwaway ideas feel like the remnants of whole subplots that have been clumsily hacked out. There is the requisite amount of running about and cynicism, certainly, and the practically obligatory climax in which Avon and the others take on the deathtraps. Fair enough, there’s a rather programmatic element to this – Avon brings along Soolin, Tarrant and Vila for this, and it’s just a stroke of luck that beating the traps involves gunslinging, piloting and opening locks: presumably, if Gan had lasted this long and turned up, one of the challenges would have involved picking up heavy objects.

The usual zero-sum plot resolution works out, in the end – neither Avon and company or Servalan get their hands on whatever or whoever this week’s Maguffin is, and the main guest character ends up dead too. This is a shame, given the extent to which Stratford Johns dominates the episode and finds unexpected ways to make it work – there’s a scene in which Belkov is obliged to ask Gambit to self-destruct, to cover his trail, and is clearly genuinely conflicted about doing this to his closest companion. Stratford Johns finds startling depths of poignancy in this, and is generally so good I couldn’t help imagining the alt-hist in which the series got picked up for a fifth year, in which Belkov joined the crew as a superb foil for Avon and Vila. Not to be, of course.

It’s not really a great episode – there’s just a bit too much going on for everything to work – but there are certainly enough elements of high quality to make this a promising debut for Lyons. Then again, much of this impression may just be down to a strong guest spot. Further scripts from Lyons would hopefully have seen him realise some of the potential hinted at here – but, of course, the loss of Blake’s 7 turned out to be Emmerdale Farm’s gain. And that’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.

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Nebulous Crabs

This week, for the first time in what feels like an age, we find someone new warming up in the writer’s paddock for Blake’s 7 – it’s Rod Beacham, bit part actor (inevitably, probably his most accessible work these days is four episodes of Dr Who he made back in the 1960s) turned jobbing writer (his most regular gig was on Bergerac, where he created the popular character Philippa Vale – this may have been down to Chris Boucher being script editor at the time). Not, therefore, someone you would necessarily expect to be familiar with literary SF, and so it is not entirely surprising that his only contribution to Blake finds us firmly down the pulpy end of the trenches. The episode is Assassin, which certainly gives you a sense of what the plot is going to be about.

The episode opens with the crew taking a break from planning the accidental death of another boffin, and listening to a message Vila has managed to intercept, originally sent by Servalan (the plot strongly suggests the message itself is the bait for the trap which the episode is mostly concerned with). Servalan has hired Cancer, supposedly the greatest assassin in the galaxy, to get rid of the Scorpio crew.

(Inevitably one wonders why: it’s not like Avon and the others pose anything like the threat they did when they had the Liberator as a ride, nor have they been particularly active in fighting the Federation for, well, about a season and a half now. You could probably put together a case that Servalan suspects they have the Pylene-50 antidote and are working to halt the Federation’s advance, not to mention the fact that both Avon and Dayna are very motivated to hunt her down at some point. But even so, it feels odd and generic and not quite in touch with where the series is currently at.)

Servalan is due to be meeting Cancer on the planet Domo, however, so the crew head there with the intention of taking out Servalan before she can pay him – their logic being that he will then just leave them alone, being a professional and all. This seems to me to be a solid plan, but the details of how they go about executing it are a little baffling: Avon and Vila teleport down and Avon lets himself be captured by the slave traders who run the place. (Domo is realised through the miracle of an upper-tier sandpit: the planet is noted for its role in galactic slavery and, possibly, fake facial hair.) The next step in this strategic masterpiece is somewhat unclear, but probably reliant on the slavers not taking Avon’s large and obvious teleport bracelet off him. Needless to say, they take his teleport bracelet off him.

To get it back, he is forced to make a deal with an elderly slave named Nebrox, played by Richard Hurndall. Hurndall was a jobbing actor for most of his career, appearing in The Avengers and Ripping Yarns amongst other things, but achieved a certain sort of celebrity as a direct result of his appearance in Blake’s 7: someone watching the show (it’s not entirely clear who) noticed his resemblance to William Hartnell, as a result of which he was cast as a new version of the original Dr Who in that show’s twentieth anniversary special. To be completely fair, Hurndall’s similarity to Hartnell mainly consists of having hair resembling the latter’s wig and a sort of vaguely similar surname, but he’s reasonably like Hartnell’s regular stand-in I suppose. (Rumours suggest that Hurndall died before he even got paid for the Dr Who gig, which is an interesting bit of trivia but not really pertinent to a review of Assassin.)

Anyway, Nebrox helps Avon escape from under the noses of Servalan and various people running and bidding on the latest slave auction. (Two points of interest: running the slave planet is Betty Marsden from Round the Horne, a bizarre bit of celebrity casting almost up there with recruiting Beryl Reid to play a hard-bitten space freighter captain (which the BBC did at around the same time), while devotees of the BBC’s sci-fi output can have a lot of fun identifying all the old costumes that get dragged out of storage to clothe the people at the auction.)

So the whole trip to Domo has been a waste of time, except for the fact that they have managed to acquire a slightly needy old man in a smock: Cancer has clearly been and gone already (the others spotted a sinister black ship cruising off). Just so the whole trip isn’t an entire waste, Avon decides to follow the black ship, just on the off-chance. This pays off when it seems that Cancer has had a space flat-tyre and broken down in the void. Avon decides to beam over, where he and Tarrant discover that the sinister black ship has equally evil interior decor: black on black with occasional black highlights. After a fine late-period example of one of the slow-motion fights Blake’s 7 is renowned for, they capture Cancer (John Wyman), and release Piri (Caroline Holdaway), a dancing girl he purchased on Domo.

Episode over, surely? Well, perhaps not, for Avon decides to go for the double by using Cancer to get to Servalan herself – at which point all sorts of strange and ominous things start to happen on Cancer’s ship. It is just possible that you’re not familiar with the episode, and so I won’t go into too much detail on this occasion. Yes, I know I spoiled Headhunter last time by giving away the twist, but the difference is that I think Headhunter is a good enough episode to still be enjoyable if you know the twist, or on the second and subsequent viewings: Assassin is just a duffer, as is very obvious even while you’re watching it for the first time.

Avon catches a crab.

We can probably pass over the terrible acting and the questionable direction – though it is worth pointing out that this was the final work of the credited director, David Sullivan Proudfoot, with Vere Lorrimer apparently stepping in to complete the episode. Was the experience of making Assassin so dreadful it prompted Proudfoot to quit the profession? It must be a possibility. No, the problems are mostly with the script, as usual.

We’re off in the realm of fridge logic here – by which I mean that the story sort of hangs together while you’re watching it for the first time, maybe, but as soon as you stop to think about the details of it, the whole thing with Cancer’s peculiar modus operandi deliquesces. Is this how Cancer usually operates? An absurdly convoluted scheme incorporating doubles and remote-control spaceships, which relies on your victims behaving precisely the way you want them to, and one of them being thick and easily swayed? To say nothing of costume jewellry which magically transforms into venomous rubber crabs. I find it hard to get on board with this.

The thing about Assassin is that, apart maybe from the rubber crabs and some peculiar editorial choices (various wipes which feel a bit light entertainment), there’s nothing here that’s outstandingly bad to look at, in terms of the production values – there’s nothing like the Space Rat or cow-boy costumes, or the headless droid. The episode’s badness is all in the script, and a few nice Boucherisms are not enough to salvage it this time. This is what Blake’s 7 bereft of any good ideas or interestingly-written characters looks like.

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Another of the old guard writers gets a cheque from the BBC for this week’s episode – Roger Parkes is back again (previous contributions: the almost totally incoherent Voice from the Past and the frantic Children of Auron). To be fair, this new episode is definitely a cut above those in terms of focus and pacing, not to mention dialogue (I detect the hand of Chris Boucher), but it is heavily reliant on one of the stupidest and least convincing plot devices in the whole of the series. The episode’s name is Headhunter, which sounds cool but doesn’t make a great deal of sense in context.

As we have discussed, the running storyline of the season concerns the crew seeking out leading scientific experts and then inadvertently murdering them before the closing credits roll. Headhunter has an innovative twist on this, but we’ll come to that in due time. The boffin due for recruitment this week is Muller, an expert in cybernetics and robotics, and a pupil of Ensor, the creator of Orac. Muller is working for the Robot Development Cartel, a group with a very on-the-nose name, but has agreed to defect – Vila and Tarrant have been sent to collect him, while his girlfriend (Lynda Bellingham) is already back at base, where she is passing the time trading vaguely loaded banter with Avon.

For once, the collection goes relatively smoothly, thanks to the teleporter, although the on-the-ball viewer may already be smelling a rat when Muller turns up wearing an Emperor Palpatine-style cowl and what I can only describe as a sort of demi-cloak. This is mainly to enable the plot and cut the special effects department some slack for later on. The spectre of melodrama rears its head when Tarrant, for no particular reason, decides to grab a big black box off Muller’s workbench before beaming up.

Muller is really very unhappy about this, it seems, and attacks Tarrant, leading to Vila whacking him from behind. Muller seems to be dead, so they stick him in cryo for the trip back (hoping for a resuscitation back at base). But odd things start happening: Slave becomes surly and resentful, to the point where they have to switch him off, and every time Vila goes near the box the ship experiences sudden turbulence. (Meanwhile, the Robot Development Cartel have concurred that Muller is dead, for the surprising reason that they’ve found his headless corpse hidden under a table in his lab.)

Luckily, there’s plenty of space in the Scorpio fridge.

It’s a day for strange events, as Orac – usually at best irascible, and at worst actively sociopathic – starts making warnings of a grave threat and warns that Scorpio must be kept isolated until the reason for the odd systems behaviour is found and dealt with. This is sufficiently weird for even Avon to take note of, at first – but as the ship arrives in orbit over Xenon, the life support systems suddenly start shutting down. If the ship remains in quarantine Vila and Tarrant will die. ‘They must be left there!’ squeaks Orac. ‘Oh, you’ll have to do better than that… if you expect me to kill them,’ says Avon.

(What is going on with Paul Darrow this year I really can’t figure out – I don’t just mean the big hair and the fake tan, all his performances have taken on a weird, operatic quality. To begin with on this show, he was regularly giving genuinely good turns as Avon, but this year… I mean, it’s magnificent, supremely entertaining ham, but it’s still ham.)

Possibly Vila and Tarrant’s problems are partly down to the duff spacesuits on Scorpio, which are visibly not even close to being airtight. Nevertheless they are brought down and revived, but opening the teleport connection has allowed something else to beam down off the ship – something malevolent and lethal, which is targetting Orac. Yes, Muller walks again (wearing sensible brown shoes) – or does he…?

Clue: no, he doesn’t (though the shoes are real). Apparently he has been following in Ensor’s footprints by producing a new system very similar to Orac, although it only seems capable of influencing electronic circuitry over relatively short distances (it can make guns blow up in people’s hands, which Orac presumably can’t). The new AI is an advance on Orac in two key respects: it’s built into an android chassis, and it’s a proper homicidal megalomaniac (the kind of programming flaw I suppose even a genius can make). The android wants to join up with Orac (who is susceptible to its control), and has hit upon the scheme of using the crew to get them together. To facilitate this it has decided to disguise itself as Muller by killing him, chopping off his head, and then balancing it on top of its own shoulders. (The android’s own head is detachable. Stay tuned.)

This macabre twist is usually the point at which the casual viewer, or even the non-casual, says ‘Hang on a minute.’ How is Muller’s head fixed there, exactly? The head is clearly speaking and emoting at the start of the episode, and I can think of no credible explanation for how this can be possible. This is before we even get to Muller’s bizarre decision to make the bit of the android which keeps it from being homicidally evil detachable, and then not attaching it. The conscience-head of the droid is the thing in the box. (Who put it in there and why? Again, a logical explanation is not readily obvious.)

These are not minor or peripheral problems with the script, which is a shame, as the rest of the episode is – decapitations notwithstanding – a jolly romp, with the crew obliged to work together and run up and down corridors a lot to deal with the menace of the killer android. Proceedings are further enlivened by a couple of additional positives, which are linked – happily, Glynis Barber has finally decided how she’s going to play Soolin, the answer being ‘flip’. She is helped in this by some dialogue which – to me – strongly suggests that Chris Boucher was involved in polishing Beacham’s script, giving us moments like the one where a controlled Orac tries to make her change sides: ‘Join us! We can fulfil your every desire!’ ‘You wouldn’t know where to start,’ is her response. Meanwhile, who will get the hazardous assignment of trying to put the restraint-head on the murderous droid? ‘It will be Vila, or it will be me,’ declares Avon. ‘It’ll be you!’ cries Vila in alarm. As ever, the performances are what really make it sing.

In the end it is just a very pulpy story about a killer droid, distinguished by a gimmick or twist which manages to be simultaneously creepy and rather daft. I should probably point out again that the whole fighting-the-Federation idea has vanished off into the backdrop somewhere. Nevertheless, while the story is badly flawed, it still has a lot to commend it in terms of pace and energy – we’ve seen much worse by this point.

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The fact that season four of Blake was assembled in a considerable rush probably has something to do with the fact that the first half of the run relies heavily on writers whose work we have previously enjoyed (or not). There’s something to be said for employing people with a proven track record, but how you start with that premise and then end up giving more work to people like Ben Steed (and, on the strength of Dawn of the Gods, Jim Follett) I really don’t know. Hopefully the nadir of the series was early in season three, but I wouldn’t necessarily bet on it, for here comes Allan Prior’s final contribution to the show, Animals.

If we cast our minds back to last summer you may remember I actually was fairly gentle about his first script, Horizon, but too much time in the Blake’s 7-reviewing trenches has an effect on a person. I believe I saw Animals on its 1983 repeat showing, but under sub-optimal conditions (then again, what the optimal conditions for watching a Prior episode are, I’m not sure, given that at the end of the day you’re actually watching the damn thing in the first place), and then again at university about ten years later. I make no great claims to precocity but I do distinctly recall clocking it as being sodding awful on both previous occasions.

The episode opens with the crew about Avon’s big scheme to recruit experts to help battle the Federation – although, TV production limitations being what they were, said experts invariably end up dead by the end of the episode. This week’s prospect/victim is Justin (Peter Byrne from Dixon of Dock Green – younger readers, ask a medium), who was Dayna’s tutor at some point in the past. He is doing some research on the planet Bucol 2 (there may be a ghastly pun on bucolic here, given how peaceful the place supposedly is).

Unfortunately at this point Scorpio comes under attack by stock footage from previous episodes and Tarrant is forced to run away, the ship being severely damaged in the process. Dayna is stranded down on the surface, where she soon discovers what Justin has been up to: weird experiments in genetic engineering! We have reached another of those moments where the written word falls short and only a visual aid will do:

Need we bother talking about the rest of the episode? I suppose we should, because Allan Prior didn’t know the monster suit was going to be quite so absurd. Even if a masterpiece of make-up and prosthetics had bounced into view, this would still be a sodding awful episode; the daftness of the beast-man costumes is just a kind of additional decorative badness, bad gravy on top of an already bad meal.

Yes, Justin has been breeding these things; apparently they are completely immune to the effects of radiation, which could make them useful to Avon’s project. Justin’s genetic skill could also apparently be useful in finding an antidote to Pylene-50. But he’s not interested in choosing a side – he’s worked for the Federation in the past and doesn’t anticipate working for the rebels to be any more rewarding. But he does offer Dayna a job as his assistant, despite her revulsion at the nature of his work.

Meanwhile, Scorpio has limped home and is being repaired by the crew; this feels very much like obvious comic filler, with Vila being repeatedly obliged to climb into the glycolene ballast channel (aka a gunk tank). The other filler subplot feels like an odd little echo of Prior’s Countdown, as the great Kevin Stoney comes on for a scene with Jacqueline Pearce. This time he’s playing someone who knows about Justin’s work (the presence of Scorpio over Bucol has got her antennae twitching), but it turns into something more about Servalan’s ‘disguise’ as Commissioner Sleer, a plot element which makes less sense the more you think about it. Why does no-one recognise the former Supreme Commander, President, and Empress of the Federation apart from one blind dude? Simply wearing black instead of white isn’t that good a disguise.

There’s a curious little suggestion here that the Intergalactic War lasted longer than the single battle which we appear to see on screen – something is reported as happening ‘towards the end of the war’, implying it took place over an extended period of time. Maybe the gap between the end of Star One and the beginning of Aftermath is longer than it seems to be.

Anyway, Dayna tries to help Justin recapture his prize specimen, Og (why has Justin named him Og? Is that the best name he can think of?) but gets thrown off a cliff and captured by Servalan, who ties her to a chair. Suddenly it is revealed that Dayna and Justin are deeply in love with each other, despite this not being at all apparent when they were alone together for the first time in years. So Servalan brainwashes her to hate him (this basically involves flashing a light in her face and saying ‘You hate him. You hate him. You hate him’ a lot) and sends her off to facilitate his capture…

Eventually there is a low-octane gun battle and all the significant guest characters are killed, followed by Servalan’s ship blasting off with the main characters standing directly underneath it: all this does is ruffle their hair a bit. Dayna, who is in love with Justin again at this point, is left sobbing over his body in what was probably meant to be a poignant downbeat ending. Instead the main emotion I was feeling was relief that it was over. What makes it even less effective is the fact that, like Barbara Shelley last week, they clearly couldn’t afford to take Peter Byrne on location and all his exterior scenes are filmed on a studio set on videotape. The switching between VT and film gets quite jarring.

So it’s essentially a sort of idiot’s version of The Island of Dr Moreau mashed up with a rather icky and unconvincing May-to-December romance plot for Dayna, with some of the silliest monster suits in BBC history and a lot of obvious filler. What positive things can I find to say about it? Well, there’s Paul Darrow – even though he isn’t in it much, he decides that this week he will deliver a kind of situationist deconstruction of bad acting. The moment where he bursts through a door, goes out of his way to gratuitously kick over a chair, and nearly falls over, is probably the most entertaining one in the episode. But mostly it is just turgid and irritating.

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One of the perks of being the new producer of Blake’s 7 in late 1980 was the chance of a flight to Los Angeles on expenses for a chat with Terry Nation, creator of the show, who had lately relocated there to try and launch himself as a screenwriter in American TV. (All that seemed to result from this were a few scripts for MacGuyver and the occasional TV movie.) Nation couldn’t involve himself much with the fourth series in terms of the actual scripting, but he had ideas about the direction it should take. Prompted, perhaps, by the largely directionless third series, the idea that Nation and new producer Vere Lorrimer ginned up was that, faced with a resurgent Federation, the crew would be obliged to take a stand and gather the resources to stop them (it feels entirely appropriate to shorthand this as ‘Andor but on a BBC budget’).

It’s a sensible way to go and another sensible decision was to hire Robert Holmes for a couple of episodes this year, as Holmes was a writer who could always be relied upon for a solid, coherent script, usually with some nice touches to it. His first contribution was the third episode, Traitor, which kicks off the new approach in earnest.

The setting is primarily the planet Helotrix, an old Earth colony which at some point in the past threw off Federation rule – it’s not entirely clear whether this happened before, during or after the Intergalactic War, and there is even a suggestion that there was another Terran empire that predated the Federation itself. (This is also one of the very few episodes – perhaps the only one – to mention, even in part, the date when the series is set, for we hear of the ill-fated Fletch expedition of ‘twenty-nine’.) But Helotrix has recently been recaptured and the Federation command network expanded via something called the Magnetrix Terminal.

Orac has been monitoring for this sort of thing but the sheer speed of the Federation expansion alarms everyone: how are the Federation conquering planets so quickly? Vila, not entirely surprisingly, wants to run in the other direction, but Avon refuses, insisting he wants to do something about it. So the Scorpio sets course for Helotrix, determined to discover the nature of the Federation’s new advantage.

It eventually turns out that this is a drug called Pylene-50, which can be shot into people from a distance and instantly removes their capacity to resist authority. The drug is the handiwork of the enigmatic Commissioner Sleer, who is presumably travelling around taking the drug production facilities with her (the script specifies that it doesn’t stay stable for long and can’t be transported long distances). Sleer’s assistant Leitz (Malcolm Stoddard) does most of the dealing with the Federation military and Helotrix’s puppet president – but could the pair of them have anything to do with the fact that the president gets murdered in his quarters?

There’s a lot going on in this script, which to its credit is agreeably pacey (it probably goes without saying that Tarrant’s performance is also extremely Pacey), even if it feels as if it’s lacking in a single big attention-grabbing idea. More than usually, Helotrix feels like a real place inhabited by characters who are doing more than just playing prescribed roles in a plot – we learn the resistance leader used to be a geologist at the local university, for instance, while Holmes, with characteristic humour, writes the Federation officers (Christopher Neame and Nick Brimble) as a parody of blimpish officer-class types.

Nevertheless, the actual storyline about the Helot resistance and the identity of the actual traitor isn’t that engrossing, although the idea of the drug has potential. Story-wise the interesting element is the subplot about Sleer, who – spoiler alert – turns out to be a deposed Servalan, working under an alias and murdering anyone who can identify her. Quite what has happened to Servalan since we last saw her is not at all clear: she is believed dead, having been ‘killed in the rear-guard action on Gedden’ according to the president (who also refers to her as the ‘Supreme Empress’, not a title I recall hearing before). Just as mysterious as what happened is when it happened – Tarrant says the Liberator was destroyed ‘fairly recently’.

It does seem as if the counter-revolution mounted against Servalan’s rule in Rumours of Death was only one of many, and one of the subsequent ones succeeded (after some kind of off-screen civil war). My guess is that this happened at some point between Death-Watch and Terminal – in the former episode, Servalan still seems to have a sufficiently strong grip on power that she’s actively contemplating invading new territory, but there must be quite long gaps between season three’s episodes. If Servalan is indeed a fugitive at the time of Terminal, it explains why her aides in that story aren’t in Federation uniform, and also – maybe – why she seems to have higher priorities than disposing of the crew in that story. Perhaps the new fleet she speaks of building in that episode is one she needs to win back power.

I’m not entirely sure what the show gains by including the Commissioner Sleer storyline, but I do know why it’s here: Jacqueline Pearce’s illness made her appearance in the fourth series look doubtful at one point, and the Sleer character was created as a replacement for Servalan (who presumably would have been killed on the Liberator). Pearce’s recovery required a change to the planned storyline.

The other notable character change in this episode is easier to spot: Paul Darrow spends the whole of it on the same set, but he still has a remarkable presence. I know people who criticise Darrow for his supposedly operatic performance style, but this is the first episode I can remember where he genuinely seems to be going over the top – his glazed delivery of a line like ‘I need to kill her myself’ is enough to give anyone pause. (The fake tan is still there; perhaps it is an element we can enjoy throughout the season.) And even beyond this, Avon seems to have become committed to fighting the Federation in a way he’s never been before, for no very obvious reason. Perhaps the events of Terminal really have pushed him over the edge. Vila accuses him of behaving in a way that would make Blake proud; Avon responds that Blake was never very bright, but doesn’t object beyond that.

In the end it is, as I say, a solid episode that takes the series back to its core themes, and it’s nice to come across one of those – especially when it isn’t written by Terry Nation or Chris Boucher. Even if it doesn’t exactly shine, it’s still more satisfying than most of the episodes we’ve seen from the second half of the series.

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