The major flaw with Countdown is the countdown itself. The planet of Albian has a population of around six million but the Federation have been able to keep control with a very small force of troops due to their ultimate deterrent. Somewhere on the planet is a bomb which will destroy all life at the first attempt at insurrection. A group of rebels, lead by the mercenary Del Grant (Tom Chadbon) manage to take control but they’re just too late to stop the countdown from being activated.
One of the odd things about the countdown is that the time remaining seems to jump about somewhat. It starts at 1,000 and as each digit doesn’t seem to last more than two seconds there should be about half an hour left to diffuse the bomb. However, we’re told that the time in hand is double that – sixty minutes.
But the main problem is that there’s very little tension about this part of the story. You know that the bomb’s not going to explode (the idea that six million people could be killed – even if most of them exist off-screen – wouldn’t be something that the series would ever contemplate). So if the bomb part is a bit of a damp squib (as it were) where does the drama come from?
It’s the meeting between Avon and Del Grant which forms the heart of the episode. It could be that Terry Nation created this sub-plot with no thought of a sequel and it was Chris Boucher who decided that the story of Avon and Del’s sister, Anna Grant, could be further developed (see the series three episode Rumours of Death). That would make sense, as the later episode does throw up some continuity issues – not least concerning Del himself ……
But here, the story of Avon and Anna seems to have been crafted purely to open up the character of Avon a little. Although he’s always completely self-contained it’s clear he does possess feelings – he’s just incredibly guarded and has never let any of the Liberator crew close enough to find out exactly what he thinks or feels.
His chance meeting with Del, a man who’s vowed to kill him, therefore provides us with a opportunity to understand a little about what makes him tick. Del believes that Avon ran out on Anna, leaving her to the mercy of the Federation and is therefore directly responsible for her death. Avon obviously carries a burden of regret but insists that the true events were somewhat different.
GRANT: There’s one thing I never understood. Why did you leave her alone?
AVON: I had arranged to buy some exit visas, but I had to go right across the city to collect them. It was safer for Anna to stay out of sight.
GRANT: What happened then?
AVON: There were patrols out everywhere looking for us. I was late at the rendezvous. And then the man from whom I was buying the visas increased the price. He wanted ten times what we had agreed. He said he could get even more if he turned me in and collected the Federation reward.
GRANT: You should have killed him.
AVON: I did.
GRANT: So you got the visas. Why didn’t you go back for her?
AVON: Killing the dealer wasn’t quite so straightforward. He was expecting something and fired first. I started back but I was losing a lot of blood. Somewhere along the way I passed out. I was lucky. Some people found me and got me under cover.
GRANT: You could have got a message to her, told her to get out.
AVON: I was unconscious for more than thirty hours.
GRANT: You used the visa and got out of the city. You left her there.
AVON: That’s right. But that was a week later. Anna was already dead.
GRANT: You’re lying. You left the city the same day, before the Federation found Anna. You could have got her out.
AVON: No. She came looking for me, the patrols found her. It was only after we got word that she was dead that I left.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Avon and Del Grant are the only two people that can diffuse the bomb and have to forget their differences and work together. And it also should come as no surprise that by the end Del Grant has accepted Avon’s story and they part on friendly terms.
The other main plot element is Blake’s search for Control. A number of episodes from now to the end of the second series contain hints and information about Star One (the new name for Control). These various plot-threads do feel a touch contrived though – we’ve been told that Star One is the most closely guarded secret in the Federation, so why have various clues been scattered about like breadcrumbs?
In Countdown, Blake arrives at Albian to find Major Provine (a boo-hiss turn from Paul Shelley). Provine served at Control and Blake hopes that he’ll be able to tell him where it’s now located. He doesn’t do this, but he does give him a lead. “Docholli. Cybersurgeon. Only Docholli knows.” Quite why Provine should decide to assist Blake with his dying breath is a mystery – and it’s even harder to swallow that he would be allowed to walk about with such a vital piece of information.
It’s very noticeable that this is the third story in a row where Blake, Avon and Vila teleport down and enjoy all the action whilst Jenna and Cally remain marooned on the Liberator. So it’s easy to believe that around this time Sally Knyvette decided not to return for series three.
Countdown is fairly formulaic stuff then, enlivened only by the insight into Avon’s character. In many ways it’s a taster for the way the series would develop once he moved centre-stage following Blake’s departure.