Posts Tagged ‘Orac’

The first series of Blake’s 7 concludes with Orac, an episode which feels not so much like a triumphant finale as a near-exhausted flop over the line. If it isn’t exactly the second episode of a two-parter started the previous week, it certainly isn’t an actual standalone either. It opens with the Liberator plunging through the galaxy in photographic cut-out mode, followed by a sequence – Terry Nation revealing a casual mastery of foreshadowing – of Gan taking what is probably referred to in the script as a space aspirin.

Up on the flight deck Jenna is doing some ooh-I-am-feeling-hot acting, while Blake takes Avon to one side and shows him the fan edit he’s made of the previous episode, basically cutting out most of the fun stuff, but covering all the pertinent plot points for the benefit of those viewers unlucky enough to have missed Deliverance. Basically, the Liberator is heading for the planet Aristo to drop off some batteries for a scientist named Ensor, who has been in hiding for decades.

Complicating this situation are a couple of factors: firstly, the Federation are going to Aristo too, intent on parting Ensor from his greatest creation, the mysterious Orac. And secondly, and here the reason for the slightly odd plotting in the previous episode becomes clear, anyone who beamed down last week is now dying from radiation poisoning unless they get anti-radiation drugs PDQ (you could write a thesis on Terry Nation’s slapdash use of radiation sickness and its treatment across his writing career, but I must confess that this plot point felt so familiar when it arrived I was minded to greet it like a brother).

Meanwhile, to ensure secrecy and keep the budget down, Servalan has led a mission consisting of only herself and Travis to Aristo. (What’s that line about too small for an army, but too big for an embassy?) While Servalan shows no sign of relinquishing her dominant position, she’s clearly only in charge of planning and couture; Travis is the one who’s doing all the physical stuff. Their role is basically to wander about in some tunnels on Aristo for most of the episode and pad it out. There are some alien beasties on Aristo to be contended with; my memory tricked me and I thought these were repurposed monster suits from Another BBC Fantasy Series, but I was thinking of the thing in the climax of Rescue.

The episode kind of rambles along. We meet Ensor, who is a peppery old boffin and quite eccentric; he keeps fish and loves his plants, but Derek Farr (who plays him) does manage to hit a couple of notes of real poignancy before the episode is done. On this occasion Farr is also voicing Orac (Peter Tuddenham takes over this gig for the rest of the series). We get a clue as to why everyone is so interested in acquiring Orac when he (I shall take my lead from Ensor and refer to Orac as a he) casually takes over the Liberator‘s computers and even overrides Zen when the ship arrives in orbit over Aristo.

Blake is sceptical: ‘Ten million credits for THIS?’

We should probably take a moment to discuss the somewhat variable capabilities of Orac. As noted, it looks very much like Orac is able to remote-override any other computer, regardless of its location (a later episode indicates Orac uses a higher-dimensional shortcut to avoid awkward issues with transmission and response times); Ensor suggests that Orac is effectively a sentient artificial brain, with a near-limitless capacity for information. He can also see into the future, although this ability may only operate to create season finale cliffhangers (it’s never addressed but presumably the name Orac is derived from oracle).

Needless to see, Orac is fairly significantly nerfed within a few episodes: Blake spends most of the next season searching for the location of the Federation’s main computer complex, which would be pointless if Orac could just take control of it regardless of where it was. The predicting-the-future angle is likewise dramatically problematic. This original version of Orac – the one from this and the next episodes – is just a bit too powerful for the series to stay viable; he could conceivably shut down or hijack the control systems of any spaceship or installation menacing the Liberator. The reconception of the device/character as basically a rinky-dinky voice-operated hacking and communications gizmo with the occasional very odd plot-device power, while awkward from a continuity point of view, does make sense dramatically.

Blake and Cally beam down leaving everyone else to sit around the teleport room groaning and doing different kinds of I-have-radiation-sickness acting. Can they save Ensor and Orac from Travis and Servalan? Is there ever any actual doubt? Not really. I suppose that as runarounds go, it’s not the most awful one ever made, but the pace of the thing is notably sedate, and once again if there’s a serious theme or moral premise to the story then it’s very difficult to tell what it is (although the downbeat tone of the series persists: Blake and his followers do fail in their self-appointed mission, after all). The start of the season had a few episodes exploring relatively sombre themes of oppression, rebellion, and moral complicity; now people are just racing to grab a Maguffin before a couple who are dangerously close to being panto villains can reach it.

One of the sequences in Orac which does stand out is the one where Travis and Servalan blast their way into Ensor’s hideout and proceed to discover he’s gone, locate a map of the tunnels, and cook up a plan to intercept Blake, Cally, and Ensor. It’s fairly average stuff story-wise, but at first glance the direction is bizarre: both of them are shot only from the chest down, and in most scenes only their hands are visible. I assumed director Vere Lorrimer was having some sort of a psychotic breakdown until I discovered that Stephen Greif tore an achilles tendon playing squash the day before the studio session and was unavailable for the scene due to being under the knife (or something along those lines, anyway). It’s a decent piece of improvised problem-solving, I suppose, but still very jarring.

We must address the fact that this is Stephen Greif’s final appearance as Travis, of course, something which does give the episode a certain significance. I’m not really a fan of Brian Croucher’s interpretation of the character, so to suggest that killing Travis off in this episode might have been better may just be a case of my prejudices showing. Certainly it does seem to leave Travis a broken man (quite literally in some respects); one of the motifs of the series is someone facing dire straits (or the consequences of actual defeat) with a twisted smile upon their face – usually it’s Avon, but on this occasion it’s Travis.

In the end Orac passes muster as an episode, but only just – writing thirteen episodes in a row clearly seems to have been a bit of a challenge for Terry Nation. (One wonders if this was an attempt to avoid what happened on Survivors, which drifted away from Nation’s original conception so profoundly that he effectively quit the show at the end of the first series.) Its status as the last Greif episode, the first Orac episode, and the one with the slightly arbitrary cliffhanger gives it a stature it doesn’t entirely warrant – but it rounds off the season effectively enough.

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