Posts Tagged ‘Blake’s 7’

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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This is what you get for not staying in touch with the specialist press. I feel quite bad enough for not referring to the recent death of Stephen Greif in this voyage through the complete Blake’s 7, and now it turns out that Chris Boucher, whose praises I have been regularly singing for the best part of a year, passed away before Christmas and I’ve only just found out about it. It’s impossible to imagine a Boucher-free Blake; Terry Nation may have come up with the premise, but you could easily argue that it was Chris Boucher who ensured the show is still remembered nowadays.

Of course, we’re potentially looking at quite a long run of episodes by other people now (typical), the first of which is Stardrive by Jim Follett. Follett’s previous contribution was the horrendous Dawn of the Gods from series three, so you could be forgiven for adopting the crash position before the opening credits even roll.

One of the nice things about the previous episode was the sense of the crew genuinely putting themselves into danger: the Scorpio, we are frequently told, is still essentially a pile of old junk despite Dorian’s modifications, and not capable of mixing it with Federation combat ships. Apparently it’s even in danger of running out of petrol, as this episode opens with the crew planning to sneak into the Altern system to secure a new fuel supply.

This is where I propose my new thesis: which is that the various traumas at the end of the last season and the beginning of this (Blake’s apparent death, Cally’s actual death, the loss of the Liberator, humiliation by Servalan, etc) have driven Avon round the twist and he is now properly mad. Quite apart from his new-found resolve to stop the resurgent Federation’s advance in its tracks, he has now hit upon the scheme of avoiding the Altern system’s patrols by hiding in the sensor shadow of an asteroid – even though this will involve going within fifty yards of a lethally massive chunk of space rock (interesting to see that they still haven’t gone completely metric even in the Federation’s era).

Inevitably things go wrong and the ship gets a massive ding, sufficient to invalidate its No Claims bonus for quite some time (if Dorian had taken out a policy). Luckily Vila comes up with a cunning plan to effect repairs (especially cunning considering he manages to avoid all labour and risk himself) – but this seems to have happened in vain as a patrol turns up while Tarrant and Avon are fixing the drive.

But what’s this? The Federation ships appear to spontaneously blow up before they can do anything too unfriendly. The crew head back to base to ponder this (this seems to be mainly an exercise in filler as the Xenon base set is not used; everyone stays on the flight deck for the handful of scenes while they’re there). Luckily they have made a remarkably detailed recording of the patrol ships exploding – if the dialogue is to be trusted the frame rate is extraordinarily high, which may explain why the special effects are not entirely convincing.

At Orac’s prompting they review the tape in detail, which reveals a tiny spacecraft moving at extraordinary speed buzzing past the patrol ships and destroying them – the implication is that this thing can move even faster than the Liberator could (this is made explicit in the novelisation – this was the final episode to be novelised). Because the recording is detailed to a credulity-strangling degree, they are able to deduce it belongs to a cult of interplanetary speed freaks called the Space Rats, who have somehow managed to lay their hands on the revolutionary new photonic space drive. Avon decides he wants this very badly and the Scorpio is soon blasting off for the Space Rats’ last known address…

Well, it’s better than Dawn of the Gods, I’ll say that for it – quite appropriately for an episode concerned with speed and movement, it doesn’t hang around, with the trip back to Xenon being the only real piece of padding in the story. It’s never dull and there’s a pretty good chase through yet another sandpit at the end of the episode. There’s even a quality guest star in the shape of Barbara Shelley, although it is extremely obvious that she didn’t turn up for the location sequence in which her character appears (but has no lines) – the person doubling for her in these scenes might as well have a bag over her head, it’s so obvious her face is being deliberately concealed.

One of the criticisms thrown at the fourth season when it was new, I seem to recall, was that Servalan wasn’t in enough episodes and that even when she was, she didn’t get enough face time with Avon. Vere Lorrimer’s public response was that a) Servalan knew of Avon’s determination to kill her and would therefore stay out of his way and b) the Federation had by this point become predictable punchbag villains, hence the choice of a more diverse group of new heavies across the season.

Possibly I overstated things when I talked about the gritty naturalism of season four.

Including, presumably, the Space Rats (I first saw this episode as a rather small child and was a little disappointed when the Space Rats turned out not to be actual monsters, but men in silly costumes and wigs). They’re certainly different, but also a wildly cartoony bunch and not particularly credible on any level (the brightly-coloured costumes and ridiculous hairstyles don’t help – how the hell do they get their crash helmets on?). The least you can say about Damien Thomas, playing lead Space Rat Atlan, is that he has figured out the appropriate level to pitch his performance at as a guest Blake’s 7 baddie.

The end of the episode inaugurates a bit of a tradition where the crew spend the episode looking for a scientist or invention and end up losing them or it, although at least on this occasion they do get to keep the stardrive of the title, which is conveniently plumbed into Scorpio’s systems. One does have to wonder about the thinking going on here – saddling the crew with an old and substandard ship was a dramatically interesting choice and a worthwhile change to the format, so why put them back into the fastest ship in the galaxy only three episodes later? Never mind. This is a fairly silly episode but it knows to move fast enough to keep that fact from really registering.

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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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In theory, the second episode of Blake’s final season has the job of taking the elements of the new format established by Chris Boucher and seeing what kind of viable standalone episode the series is now capable of producing using them. The situation is somewhat complicated by two factors: firstly, there were still perhaps just a few too many loose ends left over at the end of Rescue for the next episode to be a complete standalone, and secondly, they got Ben Steed in to write the script.

I have pondered at some length the question of exactly why the lesser lights of the Blake’s 7 writing paddock kept getting employed – in this case I suppose that the fact the fourth season was assembled in an unusual hurry may be relevant. Needless to say, Steed returns to the fold with another episode featuring what’s becoming his trademark mixture of extremely pulpy pulp sci-fi and even more extremely dubious sexual politics.

At its heart the episode boils down to the linked problems of a locked door and a ticking clock: the locked door being the one into the Scorpio hangar, and the ticking clock being attached to a nuclear bomb. Both of these are there courtesy of Dorian, who in many ways is one of the most important characters in the story, despite having been killed last week. Exercising what seems like quite reasonable caution, Dorian has voice-printed the hangar door and attached it to a bomb which will destroy the base: unless he resets the bomb every couple of days, the property value of Xenon Base will undergo a rapid downward adjustment. (For the purposes of the plot, this is one of those security systems beyond the combined talents of Avon, Vila, and Orac, unlikely as that sounds.)

It is, perhaps, telling that Ben Steed takes this premise and expands it to include one of those hoary old pulp sci-fi chestnuts, the planet which is in the process of reverting to savagery in the aftermath of a terrible war. This is the situation on Xenon, apparently, where the final stages of a conflict between the tribes of the Hommiks and Seskas is playing out. Perhaps inevitably, the Hommiks are all big, hairy men in armour made of leather painted silver, while the Seskas are, one and all, demure-looking women in Greek-style dresses.

It’s the kind of set-up which makes you inclined to sag in your seat even before the plot rears its head. Said plot goes like this: the Seskas are on the point of being wiped out – the Hommiks capture them and perform a surgical procedure to make them more docile (yes, really), at which point they stop being Seska and become just women (and wives to the Hommiks). Their only natural advantage is a form of cybernetic telekinesis, but even this is not enough to make this war of the sexes a fair fight: ‘It’s good, but it’s not good enough,’ declares Avon (caked in fake tan this week, for some reason), when he engages in his own battle of wills with one of the Seska. ‘It’s your strength, [but] a man’s will always be greater.’ A non-consensual kiss ensues.

In a nutshell.

Understandably wanting to get away from all this, Seska Pella (Juliet Hammond Hill) is planning to steal the Scorpio and leave the planet – but there’s that pesky nuclear bomb to deal with. To be honest, most of the exposition dealing with this in any detail comes in a big lump at the end of the episode at breakneck speed – there are significant pacing problems here, on top of everything else. Much of the episode is a runaround concerning the Hommik civilisation, mainly exemplified by their leader Gunn Sar (Dicken Ashworth) – you get the impression Steed was writing for Brian Blessed. Both Avon and Dayna get involved in what are supposedly duels to the death with him, where there is a good deal of cheating on both sides, but the message of the story – the cleverness and skill of women will never triumph over the brute force and ruthlessness of men – is present here as well.

Needless to say, watching this episode in the 21st century is fairly uncomfortable. It’s virtually impossible to look at Power critically and not conclude it is fundamentally a profoundly misogynistic piece of work. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise – Steed’s Harvest of Kairos was also mainly about alpha-male swaggering, with even Servalan overwhelmed and pacified by the rush of testosterone. Moloch, thankfully, didn’t concern itself too much with gender politics, but there was still a comic-relief sex offender character and various references to women prisoners being handed over to soldiers as ‘entertainment’ for them.

Was all of Ben Steed’s work like this? I had to take a look – and it seems like he spent most of his career writing soap operas and children’s TV. His CV on IMDb lists Coronation Street, Crown Court, Triangle and Gems, but also Jackanory Playhouse, Dramarama, and something called Kappatoo which remember the name of but never actually watched. It would be curious to skim through his other work and see if it’s anything like his Blake episodes, but even if I had the resources I’m not sure I could face the prospect.

Is it a coincidence that Power arguably fails to even attempt one of its most important tasks, which is to establish and develop Soolin as a new regular character? She barely even appears, only getting a couple of scenes at the end where she asks to join Avon and the others. Her reason for joining an (at this point) rather unimpressive band of space vagrants? ‘Why not?’ I mean, there’s short production windows, but it almost seems like nobody involved in the episode is trying very hard.

Mostly this even extends to Mary Ridge, who directs her third episode in a row. She seems tired out, but then so much of the script doesn’t even get the basic storytelling right you can almost understand her fatigue. She does manage to muster a little energy and excitement for the climax – Pella succeeds in stealing the Scorpio, and so Avon has to fix the teleport and beam aboard to regain control of the ship. ‘That was always the easy answer for the man,’ groans an expiring Pella after Avon shoots her. ‘If you don’t like the answer, you shouldn’t have asked the question,’ says a visibly unmoved Avon. I used to think was a fairly snappy exchange of dialogue, and performed by Paul Darrow with his customary flair. On reflection, though, it’s just another expression of the contempt for women which runs through this episode from start to finish. Ugh.

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The first thing that strikes you about Rescue, obviously, is the change of opening credits – not necessarily much more radical than the change between seasons two and three, I suppose, but there is also the modified logo for this year. All in all I think it marks a significant shift in the aesthetics of Blake’s 7, and perhaps the storytelling too. The original title sequence, while a bit abstract, does a reasonable job of establishing the setting and premise of the series – a succession of images with a domed city, a security camera, a Federation trooper, Blake himself, and so on. The second title sequence is less abstract but does feature some lovely model work of the Liberator and some Federation ships, both of which are visually prominent in the series.

The fourth season titles are technically very impressive, as the camera swoops over the surface of a model planet while the HUD of some vessel is overlaid: the display switches as the ship soars away into space. On the other hand, the title sequence tells you virtually nothing about the premise, the characters, or the visual elements of the series; one gets the impression it’s just as it is because composer Dudley Simpson was vocally unhappy about how the original titles didn’t match his music. (The new ones obviously do.) Still, it’s very good music, as you would expect from Dudley Simpson – more than anyone else, he can claim to be responsible for the sound of British telefantasy in the 1970s, doing the themes for Blake’s 7 and The Tomorrow People, and providing incidental music for the bulk of Dr Who episodes in that decade. Somehow the theme manages to contain the mixture of the gritty and the camp which epitomise the series at its best – even if the new titles are more naturalistic than before.

There was a big shift in how science fiction looked on screen in the late 1970s and early 1980s – everything became a lot less shiny and theatrical and a lot more grimy and functional. The reason for this is the success of the first Star Wars film and also Aliens, both of which made heavy use of the so-called ‘used universe’ aesthetic (my personal suspicion is that this was originally pioneered by John Carpenter in Dark Star, but that’s by the by). With season four, this finally starts to influence Blake’s 7 – it’s there in the design of the Scorpio, many of the new costumes, and the general look of the show.

Avon was ahead of the curve, of course, with the studded black leather outfit he was wearing at the end of the previous series (and wears throughout this one). To be fair, continuity with Terminal is excellent, no doubt in part due to the fact that Mary Ridge was retained as director. Everyone is still stuck on the artificial planet Terminal, where it turns out that Servalan has been a little bit economical with the actualite – both the ship she has left the crew and her underground base are rigged to explode, which they promptly do. Cally is killed (off-screen) in the blast, though apparently Jan Chappell did come back to record her telepathic death-cry (‘Blake!’, of course).

Things look bleak, and the poor survival instincts of some of the group do not bode well. ‘Don’t you ever get bored with being right?’ asks Dayna, after Avon is obliged to rescue her from a giant carnivorous worm. ‘Only with the rest of you being wrong,’ says Avon. Some things may have changed, but not the fact that nobody else writes dialogue for these characters as well as Chris Boucher. It’s also worth noting that, despite what happened in the previous episode, Avon is back to being the dominant, cold figure we know and love.

Help, however, may be on the way, as approaching Terminal is the Scorpio, a modified freighter commanded by the mysterious Dorian (Geoffrey Burridge). Dorian is coming for the crew, but clearly doesn’t know the Liberator has been destroyed – which of course begs the questions of how he knows where to find them, and what his A-plan would have been if they’d still had transport. It is not at all obvious what either of the answers is, but given that Boucher was given the assignment of resurrecting the format of the show after Terry Nation did such a good job of demolishing it, it is at least partly forgivable.

Anyway, Dorian is captured (or lets himself get captured) and everyone blasts off in the Scorpio. Unfortunately, the flight computer Slave (Peter Tuddenham again) is voice-printed and the pre-set destination is to be Xenon, where Dorian has a base. That Dorian is a fairly exceptional individual is communicated by a longish sequence exploring the Scorpio set, which features a non-functioning attempt at a teleport system, the sophisticated AI Slave, and a locker of supposedly high-tech guns. Dayna gets a big speech about all the different ammo modes available, which in retrospect seems a bit odd as they never, to my memory, actually use any of them.

Naturally, it turns out that Dorian built all this stuff himself, as the cavern beneath his base contains an unpleasant secret, one which is responsible for his greatly extended lifespan (it is implied he has spent centuries building the guns, Slave, the teleport, and so on). His rescue of the crew is partly motivated by the fact that Orac could help get the teleport working – but he has another reason, too, which is not entirely humanitarian…

About fifteen years after this episode was first broadcast I was sitting in the pub with a couple of acquaintances and the subject of old culty TV shows came up – and this episode in particular. ‘I remember watching Blake’s 7 – and thinking, this is The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ said one of my companions, bemusement colouring his voice. He was right, and perhaps right to be bemused – ripping off other plots quite so specifically is a Dr Who trick, not really a Blake’s 7 one, and this is the only episode to do it this openly. But a sci-fi reworking of Oscar Wilde’s novel is what this is, although rather than a portrait, this Dorian has a slightly manky old Dr Who monster suit to project his various sins onto.

It’s a solid enough plot, well-written, played, and directed, especially when you consider all the other stuff the episode has to do – re-establish the characters, kill off Cally, introduce a new ship, come up with an explanation for a new teleport system, and so on. The only point where Chris Boucher runs out of space is in introducing the new character, Soolin (Glynis Barber). He doesn’t get far beyond ‘steely blonde gunslinger’, unfortunately. It’s interesting that the novelisation of this episode features an extra scene at the very end, which deals with a few points of plot carpentry quite deftly – Avon blows up the cavern under the base, which seems sensible enough, and there’s a nice character bit where the group reflect on Dorian’s claim that Avon and the others share a bond after what they’ve been through together. ‘Quite insane,’ says Avon. This looks very much like a chunk of script that got cut for timing purposes, which is a shame.

Given that the fourth season was commissioned and assembled under rather more time pressure than the previous ones, and the need to effectively reformat the series, Rescue is an impressively confident and competent episode. But then you sort of expect that from Chris Boucher by this point; what will be interesting is seeing what other people do with the new possibilities created here.

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‘Sentiment breeds weakness. Let it get a hold of you and you are dead.’

It is entirely possible that there is no other episode of Blake’s 7 I have watched as often as Terminal: I saw both the original transmission and the repeat the following summer, and then for a while in the early 90s I had a copy lent to me by a friend. And yet perhaps I have never really appreciated how good it is. Some people don’t agree with me, of course – it has a ‘very weak’ plot, according to a review on one prominent Blake-related fansite, apparently because Terry Nation didn’t enjoy writing for Avon as a lead character (despite testimony from Paul Darrow, at least, suggesting otherwise).

Well, I suppose there’s a case to be made there, but you can look at Terminal from a number of perspectives – as an episode of fairly low-budget BBC sci-fi, as the season finale, and as the script intended to conclude Blake’s 7 as a whole. Not all of these should necessarily be held to the same critical standards. Certainly, after easily the most uneven series of the three, and one which has often felt sorely lacking in a sense of identity or purpose, it is good to have Nation back: firmly bringing in hs own ideas of what this series is actually about.

It starts quietly enough: Avon is acting a little strangely, even by his standards, staying on the flight deck for thirty hours straight and refusing to explain himself to the others. It eventually transpires he is following instructions delivered by a mysterious signal, but he refuses to divulge what they are or where they’re coming from, to the point of threatening to kill Tarrant when he involves himself in the situation. Avon seems driven, obessional, even reckless: when a cloud of mysterious matter obscures the ship’s flightpath, he orders the Liberator to stay on course, regardless of the possible risk. The ship duly emerges from the cloud, coated in some kind of fluidic matter, its hull sensors disabled.

They are now above an artificial planetoid known as Terminal, constructed in solar orbit centuries earlier and long thought destroyed. Whatever Avon is in search of is here, and he beams down in search of it alone: ‘I don’t want you following me. Understand this: anyone who does follow me, I’ll kill them.’ The crew being as fractious a bunch as ever, of course, Tarrant and Cally follow him down, though whether out of curiosity, a desire to potentially save Avon from himself, or sheer contrariness is not clear. The surface of Terminal itself is a chilly wasteland inhabited by savage, violent hominids (the only major brick I can throw at the production of this episode is that the gorilla suits worn by the actors playing the Link creatures are terrible).

But beneath the surface is more advanced life, and Avon finds his way into a complex of tunnels and laboratories – one of which contains a teleport bracelet. There are images of Blake, and medical records for him. Could the former leader of the group finally have resurfaced?

Back on the ship, however, Vila and Dayna have much more serious concerns: it has often been implied that the Liberator is, on some level, a piece of living technology, and it turns out the fluidic matter is an enzyme capable of digesting it. Chunks of the ship are dissolving into greenish-brown slime more quickly than the auto-repair systems can cope with; even Zen is beginning to malfunction. No matter what happens down on Terminal, it looks like the crew may have made their last voyage together…

Star Trek was saved from its initial cancellation by a massed write-in campaign from thousands of fans. Blake’s 7 was saved, so the legend has it, by a single phone call, which took place at some point between 7.15 and 8pm on the 31st of March 1980. When this episode started transmission, there was no doubt that it was to be the last of the entire series – but Bill Cotton, controller of BBC 1 at the time, was so impressed with it he rang in and ordered that the return of the series be announced during the closing credits (rather to the surprise of the cast and crew who were watching at the time). The whole existence of the fourth series, for good or ill, is solely down to the fact that Terminal is as good as it is. The irony of this – and Terminal is an episode steeped in irony – is that Terminal is a much better series finale than a season finale, and from a historical point of view, it’s something of a victim of its own success.

Am I over-labouring the point that Terminal was designed to conclude the series? Possibly, I suppose, but I do think it’s important. Not only is it a good series finale, I think it’s a better, more satisfying series finale than I remember the actual last episode of the series being (come back in about three months and we’ll talk again). Maybe it does stress dramatic irony over plot coherence, but this is understandable if you view it as a piece of – if I call it the opposite of a classical tragedy, you’re just going to think it’s a comedy, and it’s not, so we have a problem here.

The classical tragedy is a form about a heroic protagonist with a single flaw, which ends up destroying them. Whatever Avon is, it’s not a heroic protagonist: he’s an anti-hero, basically a bad guy, only redeemed by the fact he’s usually opposing someone who is even worse. Morally speaking, Avon has almost no positive qualities – except perhaps one, his loyalty to some of his companions, past and present. Terminal is the story of how this brilliant, ruthless, self-sufficient man is destroyed by his only redeeming feature.

Here’s where the irony starts to come in. Avon himself warns of the dangers of sentimentality (quoted at the top of this piece) and yet throughout the episode this is the primary driver of his behaviour, even if he doesn’t realise it. As Servalan says towards the end of the story, Avon has willingly flung himself into a fairly obvious trap simply because he has an urgent desire to believe Blake is still alive. Even then, he is prepared to sacrifice his own life to save the others (or at least confound Servalan), warning them to get away when the truth is revealed: personal loyalty again.

Of course, another level of irony is already at work – neither Avon nor Servalan is aware that the prize they are fighting over is already worthless, for the Liberator is beyond salvation. And why? Avon’s fierce adherence to Servalan’s own instructions regarding his flight-plan. To a lesser extent, Servalan is also the author of her own failure. It’s worth mentioning, I think, just how effective the slow dissolution of the Liberator is, dramatically: the creeping spread of the slime across both the model and the studio sets. The deterioration and death of Zen is also quite remarkably moving and poignant, in the circumstances, although – in addition to Peter Tuddenham’s usual exemplary voice work – Michael Keating really works hard to sell these moments. (It’s worth noting that he is back to being Nation’s conception of Vila this episode – the very clever, devious man who affects foolishness as protective camouflage, rather than the half-wit some of the other writers seem to think he is.)

(Credit due also to Gareth Thomas, of course, for gamely coming back for what must only have been an afternoon or so’s work. He doesn’t do a great deal, but it does seem entirely fitting to see Blake again for the conclusion of the series, and I did actually find that I had missed the character, probably because his replacement turned out to be so underwhelming.)

‘We all came out losers,’ observes Tarrant near the close of the episode, and this is true. Nevertheless, the sheer extent of the bleakness and nihilism of the episode takes some beating, even from other Terry Nation scripts. Blake, it turns out, has been dead for over a year, apparently dying on the planet Jevron from wounds presumably suffered either during the War or immediately preceding it. (Yes, I know, this fact is directly contradicted later on, but let’s remember the original conception of the episode.) Even with Servalan also seemingly dead at the story’s end, it seems unlikely the Federation will do anything else but continue to rebuild and reassert itself. All the struggles of Blake, Avon, and the others have been pointless. There is even a kind of cosmic nihilism in the throwaway revelation that the savage beasts of Terminal are the hyper-evolved descendants of human beings – not the first time Nation had used such a notion, although previously what usually happened was that people evolved into Daleks.

It’s such a powerful and complete conception that you’re entirely willing to overlook some of the flaws in the plot – isn’t it just terribly convenient that the ship should encounter the enzyme cloud at this particular moment? Why should Servalan lie about Blake being dead? Why is Avon so uncharacteristically gullible? Why doesn’t Servalan just shoot the lot of them rather than abandoning them on Terminal? The answer, mostly, is that the episode would be less effective as a piece of drama if things were different.

By the end of the episode, Blake is gone, the Liberator is gone, and Servalan is gone: the conflict at the heart of the series not resolved, but dissolved in a cloud of enzymatic gas. And also in tatters, I think, is Avon’s position as the leader of the group, and his conception of himself as a man not subject to sentimental attachment. ‘Let’s see if we can’t find a way off this planet,’ suggests Tarrant, adopting the role of leader without any objection from Avon, for once. One by one the others leave him – even Vila doesn’t speak to Avon, only sparing him a look which borders on the contemptuous. You would expect Avon to be a broken man at this point, but as he turns – a brilliant touch, at the end of a very powerful and accomplished episode – we see the smile on the face of the loser again. Avon has kept his sense of humour, and can clearly still appreciate irony, so perhaps he is not quite lost, even now.

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Duel Roles

As ever, we fall upon the appearance of Chris Boucher’s name as the writer of this week’s episode with the same kind of relief felt by people lost in the desert who happen across an ice-cream van or possibly a pop-up juice bar – the episode in question is Death-Watch, which (as you can see) opens up whole new vistas of punctuation when it comes to Blake’s 7 story titles. We’re still sort of in pulp sci-fi mode, but as usual Boucher can be trusted to find something interesting to do with it. (Some of my research indicates that this was a quickie fill-in episode written by Boucher when another script fell through, which explains why the show’s script-editor was writing so much for the show – the BBC frowned on this sort of thing. If you ask me they could have done with a few more scripts falling through.)

The episode opens with a scene which is a really impressive example of way to do exposition briskly and subtly: on a space liner, a professional gunfighter named Deeta is ambushed by a couple of strangers but still manages to deal with them without breaking a sweat. Threaded into all of this is the important plot information that Deeta is the current champion of the planet Teal, which is on the brink of war with the planet Vandor, and that his job is fairly central to the conflict-resolution system Teal and Vandor have settled upon. This is war as single combat, in a computer-controlled environment, under strictly monitored rules – later on we learn that spectators can vicariously experience the duel through a form of VR where the sensory impressions and emotions of the combatants are relayed into their brains.

Strange as it seems, the outbreak of hostilities between Teal and Vandor proves to be good news for the Liberator crew – they are apparently in need of another good rest (all the bad pulp sci-fi this year would wear anyone out), and anyone visiting the combat grounds during hostilities is treated as a neutral observer (and an honoured guest). Vila in particular is looking forward to settling back with a drink and some snacks and watching two men fight to the death, while Tarrant and Avon are not averse to the idea. Cally, as you might expect, finds the whole notion slightly repellent.

Naturally, there turns out to be a complication or two – firstly, that the supposedly neutral arbiter of the upcoming combat is Servalan, who naturally has her own agenda (and a fair fight has nothing to do with it). If either side breaks the rules, genuine war will break out – which will give the resurgent Federation a pretext to sweep in with its battle fleets and annex both sides’ territory. So, naturally, Servalan is up to her neck in a conspiracy to ensure the rules are broken – the champion of Vandor has been replaced by an android, whose synthetic reflexes give him an edge no human gunfighter can match without assistance.

The other issue is that the crew find they kind of have a dog in this fight – Deeta, the champion of Teal, is Tarrant’s brother. This becomes very obvious quite early in the episode, as Deeta is played by Steven Pacey in a slightly peculiar wig. Yes, it’s another case of one of the crew having an identical sibling, though on this occasion the reason for the double role seems to be wholly financial – Deeta Tarrant is supposed to be some years older than Del Tarrant, and it’s not as if their resemblance is a plot point (they never even meet on-screen).

One of my recurring gripes about season three has been about the inconsistency of Tarrant’s characterisation – quite who this guy is supposed to be and what makes him tick seems to change from episode to episode – but Steven Pacey’s performances have always been competent enough, and as Deeta he’s actually pretty good – this isn’t just another version of Del Tarrant in a wig, but someone subtly different. It’s enough to make to wish someone had kept a better eye on regular Tarrant’s role in the other scripts.

And on the whole this is a pretty good episode, not just by the standards of this season – where simply being coherent and not actively stupid means a script is in with a good chance of ending up in the top half of the table, quality-wise – but in terms of the series overall. Chris Boucher has the ability to write pulp sci-fi and make it feel like it’s not actually pulp sci- fi – his characters are well-drawn enough to ground a script, and his habitually dark sense of humour also helps. He also usually manages to find the points of connection between the world of the story and that of the viewer which make it feel ‘real’ – in this case, there’s a TV commentator who pops up to comment on the pre-contest build-up, which feels plausible enough, but he’s a recognisable cousin to the self-regarding TV professional who’s almost a stock character in a lot of drama from the 1970s.

Boucher also writes the regulars well – he hasn’t forgotten that Dayna wants to kill Servalan, and why, and he provides another cracking scene between Avon and Servalan (she claims she still views Avon as a ‘future friend’), and there are plenty of good lines to share around. There’s a slightly odd, Benny Hill-ish moment where Vila pursues Cally off the flight deck which suggests either a more playful and friendly relationship than we’ve previously seen, or Vila being a sex pest, but on the whole it is premium Boucher: ‘I trust you have no tedious scruples about cheating and lying?’ Avon asks Tarrant as they prepare to rig the upcoming combat. ‘None at all,’ comes the answer. ‘Oh good!’ says Avon with a big smile.

The direction is also solid – Gerald Blake isn’t quite Fiona Cumming, but he creates an interesting atmosphere and digs into some of the more unusual moments of the episode: the mortally-wounded Deeta gets a voice-over monologue which pushes the boundaries of naturalism in exactly the same way as some of the more interesting moments in Rumours of Death.

The only real problem with the episode is that all of Boucher’s painstaking world-building, characterisation and exposition takes a while to do properly, with the result that the initial challenge between Deeta Tarrant and the android Vinni happens towards the episode’s end, meaning that the actual climax does feel quite rushed. An unsympathetic viewer might also raise an eyebrow at the fact that Del Tarrant’s confrontation with the android takes place on a set we’ve already seen earlier in the episode: it makes much more budgetary sense than narrative sense. But after a number of episodes which it was frankly a relief to see the back of, it’s a nice change to come across one which it would have been nice to see more of.

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Rhymes with Pollocks

One is sometimes forced to wonder about just what kind of privations of time and money the makers of Blake’s 7 were forced to work under – I mean, it’s obvious just from looking at the screen that they didn’t have access to the BBC’s most prestigious facilities, but even so. Quite apart from the production values, what kind of creative team looks at a script like Hostage or Voice from the Past and thinks ‘Hmmm yes! We’ll have more from this guy, yes indeedy!’

It’s a poser. And one which we are obliged to consider as this week’s episode, Moloch – number eleven of season three, for anyone not keeping track – is another script from Ben Steed, who previously brought us the truly remarkable (in exclusively negative ways) Harvest of Kairos earlier in the year. (This is another episode I have no memory of, and also one which didn’t get a 1981 repeat – but I do remember Dawn of the Gods, which likewise didn’t get reshown. So it looks like I saw at least some of the third season on its first run.)

Your heart immediately sinks at the start of the episode, as it opens with a shot of the rather ugly spaceship Servalan’s been trundling around in all year crossing the screen while Dudley Simpson plays some tension music over the top of it. Leave yourself space to get even more despondent, however, as it turns out that the Liberator crew have been following her for pretty much four weeks without a break. Since when are they so interested in what she’s up to? Why don’t they just blow up her ship? Since when does it take four weeks to get anywhere in this series?

It turns out Servalan is literally on her way to the middle of nowhere: the concealed planet Sardos, smack in the middle of a region known as the Outer Darkness. (The surface of Sardos is initially presented as a painting, which floats the possibility of this episode going somewhere really weird, but it just turns out to be the usual quarry.) How come she’s here? Well, it turns out that a ship belonging to one of the old Federation’s most feared legions has also discovered Sardos, by crashing into it (the planet has a cloaking device). Now they have whistled Servalan up to… well, we’ll get back to that. Getting past the cloaking device without being spotted involves Tarrant and Vila teleporting onto a Federation cargo ship which is also heading for Sardos (the old London model gets dusted off one more time): it turns out the Federation officers ruling Sardos are importing convicts from a nearby penal colony. But why?

It looks very much like we’re in for more knuckle-dragging pulp sci-fi, but Steed has hit upon a genuine science fiction idea, possibly even two of them, although the results of this are rather akin to someone happening across a Steinway grand piano and then using it to play chopsticks for fifty minutes straight. It turns out the Sardoans have invented something which is a close cousin to the Star Trek replicator – it scans things and can then mass-produce them from basic raw materials like rocks and soil. (As is generally the case, replicating living things is not usually possible, although the explanation given here is a bit more bafflegabby than usual.) The Federation commanders here have summoned Servalan not so they can reaffirm their allegiance to her, it’s because they want to use her command ship as the blueprint for a new fleet created using the replicators. (The plot gets fairly involved this week, albeit in a wildly-all-over-the-place sort of way.)

But who or what is Moloch, you may be wondering? Well, initially it’s supposed to be the computer control system of the replicator, but… it turns out that the Sardoans, for slightly obscure reasons, have been attempting to predict the course of their own future evolution (a notion which Terry Nation himself will return to, more successfully, in his final contribution to the series), and the advantage of their replicator over the Trek version is that it’s not limited to pre-existing objects, you can use it like a 3D printer and make stuff up. They have managed to create a being from two million years in the future, which is Moloch (getting around the no-live-replication rule turns out to be a sort of plot point). Moloch is realised on-screen using a puppet, or perhaps muppet is more accurate, which it is difficult to do justice to in prose. (Moloch is voiced by the noted short actor Deep Roy (previously seen in Gambit), which leads me to suspect the muppet was a late replacement for what was supposed to be a monster suit.) Normally I would show you a picture of the Moloch muppet, but it isn’t even the worst special effect in the episode: Moloch has dispensed with the services of the previous Federation commander by turning him into a sort of life-sized troll doll floating in an aquarium. Here we go:

Believe it or not, it looks better in a photo than the moving image.

Well, maybe it’s a dead heat. Anyway, there’s a lot of the usual running around, some more of the appalling sexual politics which made Harvest of Kairos such a special experience (female underlings who fail the current Federation commander are given to the garrison as recreational aids, while Vila gets a new best friend who’s a comic relief violent sex offender), and an amusing, panto-style team-up between Vila and Servalan.

It’s not completely terrible (we’ve reached the point in Blake’s 7 where ‘not completely terrible’ actually constitutes a positive note), but there’s no sign of a systematic exploration of how a society with access to replicators might actually function or differ from our own (to be fair, Star Trek has always steered clear of this too, but I’m sure there’s a novel in it somewhere), and the story comes badly unravelled towards the end – virtually every guest character gets perfunctorily killed off, while the plot resolves by Moloch, genius brain from the distant future, making a very silly mistake. Then Servalan – who has almost literally disappeared out of the story – reappears in command of some rather mysteriously-acquired ships and the crew all run away. (It looks very much like the replicators are still working at the end of the episode, but they never get mentioned again, even though you would expect them to give the Federation a tremendous tactical advantage.)

What to say about Moloch that isn’t a reprise of my moaning about the duff episodes from earlier in the season? At least this one has a faint glimmer of some decent ideas in it, some mildly funny moments, and it hasn’t completely forgotten that the series is (or was) about the conflict between the crew and the Federation. But, and not for the first time this season, those bits which are not unintentionally funny are pretty tough going.

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The winner of this week’s ‘Write Blake’s 7‘ Lottery is… well, let’s hang on a minute, for Trevor Hoyle (the man responsible), while not an established writer on the show, is the fellow responsible for writing the three Blake’s 7 novelisations accompanying the series (covering the bulk of season one and three early episodes from season four). In the days when VHS or DVD releases were by no means routine, these book adaptations had a special magic of their own, as many a nostalgic old git will happily tell you. The Dr Who novelisations of Terrance Dicks gave many young fans a new appreciation for reading; while the Blake’s 7 novelisations of Trevor Hoyle gave other young fans a new appreciation for how good Terrance Dicks was at writing novelisations.

Well, perhaps that’s a bit unfair, for the Blake novelisations are solid enough. You can see why the makers of the TV show, looking for people who were familiar with the format and characters, might get Hoyle on board for a script – but it almost looks as if they forgot to specify they wanted a Blake’s 7 script. Well, again that’s possibly a bit unfair, as – and we have noted this repeatedly – the third season significantly abandons the idea of the series as the story of insurgency against the Federation in favour of slightly tacky pulp SF. This is certainly what Hoyle delivers with Ultraworld.

The episode opens, once again, with the crew doing nothing in particular but being distracted from this by the plot-of-the-week, which initially takes the form of a strange signal registering on the detectors. ‘Pulsar?’ wonders Avon, getting the episode’s genuine-science quotient in early. It isn’t, nor is it a Federation beacon, even though it’s implied these are starting to pop up again (this is the first episode to refer to the reinvigorated and aggressively-expansionistic Federation which forms the backdrop to the final series). The signal turns out to be coming from an artificial planet (not the last one we’ll see this season), one which looks a bit like a Christmas decoration.

Avon comes over very Spock and gets very interested in the artificial planet. ‘You’ll be telling us next we can learn a lot from whomever built it,’ says Dayna. ‘We certainly have nothing to teach them, unless it’s how to remain ignorant,’ replies Avon. Meanwhile Vila is teaching Orac jokes and riddles, for no particular reason. Having been taken over by an alien influence last week, not to mention on at least one previous occasion, this week Cally gets taken over by an alien influence from the strange planet and teleports down without telling anyone (or so it is implied: most of this happens off-screen).

Avon, Dayna and Tarrant teleport down after her and find themselves in a warren of tunnels and corridors (which the cast take every opportunity to hurl themselves down at high speed), which according to Avon resemble the interior workings of a computer. (They more closely resemble the deep-level underground shelters beneath London, much seen in BBC SF and fantasy shows of the late 1970s, mainly because this is where the episode’s location filming took place.) Here they meet a trio of aliens who call themselves the Ultras, who appear to be in charge; they resemble the Blue Man Group with just a dab of glitter.

The Ultras are the masters of Ultraworld, which they initially claim is essentially benign – a data acquisition and storage system, albeit on a planetary scale. However, when they discover that Cally’s brain is being drained and most of the work is done by remote-controlled zombies, the others quite properly suspect this is a load of old hooey. It duly proves to be the case that Ultraworld is a cross between Wikipedia and the Borg Collective – all data it encounters ends up getting stored in its vast memory banks, while biological specimens are either converted into zombies – ‘Menials’ – or rendered down to nutrient paste and fed to the core of the planet.

Yes, there is the core, a huge ever-growing pulsating brain which rules from the centre of the Ultraworld. And if you think that description trips off the tongue, so did the BBC, which used it as the title of a track on BBC Sound Effects #26: Sci-Fi Sound Effects. (Other crucial cuts on this release include the dance-floor banger ‘Black Spaceship Oscillates’, the moody ‘Time Winds’ and the classic family favourite ‘Machine Monster with a Black Sense of Humour! (Who Chases our Heroes Around, Winking). Needless to say I am not making any of these up.) And so did ambient house beat combo the Orb, who used it as the title of their debut single in 1989. Who says Blake’s 7 hasn’t left its mark on the culture?

Having put the ‘fluence on Cally, the Ultras proceed to do the same to Avon, and with Vila stuck on the flight-deck set talking to Orac, it’s down to Tarrant and Dayna to carry the rest of the episode. This they do by running around a lot, stoically, albeit with a brief pause for a scene in which the Ultras promise to let them and the others go if they let Ultraworld record the pair of them having sex (this being pulp sci-fi from 1980, the Ultras dignify this by calling it ‘the human bonding ceremony’, but it’s obvious what they’re after). Maybe Ultraworld is less Wikipedia and more like the internet in general. Luckily Dayna keeps a bomb in her mouth, which they use to escape before things get any more tacky (this is one of those BBC love scenes where everyone keeps all their clothes on).

Ultraworld was directed by Vere Lorrimer – later the producer of the final season, presumably because he knew the show and was available – one of whose previous contributions was the second-season opener Redemption. I mention this because the script for Ultraworld basically turns into a reprise of Redemption in its closing stages: the ship has been brought on board a vast, alien space construct which runs on slave labour, overseen by a slightly prissy elite (Altas there, Ultras here). Luckily Orac is able to screw with the systems of the place and allow everyone to make a run for it – just through being clever in Nation’s script, through the slightly corny device of jamming the core’s operations with Vila’s bad jokes and riddles this time around. Everything blows up. (Though some of the model work is better this second time around, by which I mean there actually is model work.)

And in the end, it’s never slow, and has clearly had much more money spent on it than Sarcophagus, and possibly even Rumours of Death (even though those were two much better scripts). The location filming and some of the effects also help proceedings be less irksome than they might have been (the pulsating ever-growing brain is impressively icky when it blows a gasket towards the end). But it’s not what you’d call deep, more a collection of tropes than anything else. Nevertheless, of all the bad pulp SF episodes from Blake’s 7‘s third season, this is probably the least annoying (so far, anyway).

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Here’s a hypothesis to mull over: the reason that so much television science fiction, particularly that from the 1960s and 1970s, is not very good, stems from the fact that it simply wasn’t possible to make a living writing SF TV scripts back then. (And this was when TV SF was a much more frequent element of the TV schedules.) As a result, most ostensibly SF TV shows ended up with scripts written by journeyman authors who were likely much more comfortable knocking out episodes of Z Cars and Crown Court. As we have discussed, Terry Nation, arguably one of the most prominent creators of SF throughout the 1960s and 1970s, actually spends most of his time writing nothing of the sort – if you’re an SF purist, anyway. Nation writes action-adventure stories, often very well, but genuine science fiction? Not so much.

And so it is something of a surprise whenever an actual genre writer gets tapped to contribute to broadcast SF. Christopher Bidmead had a go at getting proper SF writers on board to write Dr Who for its 1980-81 season (perhaps in the process misunderstanding the essential nature of that series, but not being a Dr Who fan it’s not for me to comment); one of the names Tom Baker mentioned in an interview as a possible candidate was Tanith Lee, a prolific writer of fantasy and SF novels and short stories.

It never came to pass, but the very fact Lee’s name was in the frame at all was probably the result of her having already been employed by Chris Boucher to write two episodes of Blake’s 7. Given that just the other day I was suggesting that Blake’s 7 isn’t really a proper SF show, Lee’s first contribution, Sarcophagus, has a damn good try at proving that it can be. Put together with Rumours of Death, it constitutes a major late-season spike in quality for the show – the fact that both episodes are directed by Fiona Cumming is clearly not a coincidence.

The quality of Sarcophagus (yes, let’s not beat about the bush, this is another good one) is even more surprising given it is that usually ill-favoured beast, a bottle show – an episode constructed to take place largely on a programme’s standing sets and featuring a minimum of guest characters. This is usually done for budgetary reasons, though Cumming manages to squeeze a fairly lengthy film sequence into the opening moments of the episode.

This takes place in what looks like an exotic pavilion on an eerie alien world, where robed and masked figures perform a strange ritual; it’s all a bit interpretative dance-y and (initially at least) wilfully impenetrable, until the figures all withdraw and the pavilion lifts into space – yes, it was a spaceship all along.

The alien ship eventually crosses the path of the Liberator, which is on the way to do a little speculative prospecting on an asteroid with unusual properties (the crew still seem to just be wandering about doing different things from week to week). However, the appearance of the alien, apparently a derelict, puts an end to this, as they decide to go aboard – even after it seems to start sending psionic messages to Cally. Almost at once things get a little bit ominous, as the teleport seems to be malfunctioning and the alien ship is completely unmanned, except for a dessicated corpse. Something causes the ship to explode, and Avon and Vila are only saved from the blast by Cally’s bravery.

Before the crew can get back to their plan originally in progress, it becomes apparent that they have brought more than dust back with them from the alien craft: a presence which has somehow bonded with Cally by means of her telepathy and has the power to disrupt the functioning of both Zen and Orac. The intruder takes Cally’s form and proceeds to have a good try at taking over the ship, informing the others that she has a liking for ‘intelligent menials’ – slaves, to you or me – but this is not an essential requirement. If need be she will kill them all and operate the ship alone…

This almost sounds like a Star Trek plot – in some ways it’s about as close together as the two series ever get – but it’s hard to imagine a Trek episode indulging in the same extravagant weirdness which makes Sarcophagus so memorable. This is here in the episode right from the beginning, with the long scene at the start of the alien’s funeral. The episode is crediting the audience with both intelligence and attention span here, as the significance of this only becomes apparent later (and even then is partly implied). The masked figures seem somehow to be archetypes, performing ritual functions – the Clown, the Troubadour, the Warrior, and a more ambiguous individual dressed entirely in black. On-the-ball viewers may guess what’s coming and not be entirely surprised when members of the Liberator crew later appear in those same robes – it’s no surprise that Vila is the Clown and Tarrant the Warrior, though presenting Dayna as the Troubadour feels like a stretch (though Josette Simon even gets to sing a bit this episode and does not disgrace herself). Avon, of course, is the man in black.

In the end the episode turns out to be as much about Avon as it does Cally – or about their relationship, anyway. One gets the impression that Tanith Lee was a fan of the show before coming on board to write it, as she certainly seems very familiar with the characters and their past history – she still struggles to find anything to do with Tarrant beyond just making him a loud alpha-male bully though, but he does get a fairly good speech acknowledging the fraught nature of his relationship with Avon. There’s a sense in which the episode almost feels like a certain flavour of fan fiction, in that it’s predicated on the existence of an unspoken attraction between Avon and Cally which, to be perfectly honest, there has been very little sign of in past episodes (I suppose if you look hard at Mission to Destiny there may be something going on there, but Blake’s 7 is very much a show of its time where this sort of thing wasn’t wallowed in). It’s implied that Cally is incapable of killing Avon, due to her feelings for him, which turns out to be rather important given the alien’s bond with her. Jan Chappell makes the most of an unusually good episode for her, and Paul Darrow supports her well.

Once again Fiona Cumming lands all the key beats and gives the episode the atmosphere and treatment it deserves; as I’ve mentioned, the direction really shines in both this and the previous episode. (Now that I think about it, her work on the various Dr Who stories she did was also pretty good, though my non-fannish recollection is that the scripts usually weren’t as good as the ones she has to work with here.) So far she seems to be the only third-season director who’s found a way to make the scripts sing – though she has been given unusually good ones. The fact she was never invited back to work on the show again seems to me a terrible oversight, though we seem to be approaching something of a changing-of-the-guard as far as the series’ directorial staff goes, as it enters its final phase. Nevertheless, Cumming’s work on the series is an outstanding testament to her talent.

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