Dayna and Tarrant have teleported down to the surface of Obsidian. It’s a planet that has managed to remain unaligned from the Federation and also emerged unscathed from the recent galactic war. Tarrant believes the planet would make a good base for them, but their pacifistic leader Hower (Michael Gough) isn’t interested.
Bad news, it’s an Allan Prior script. Good news, it’s not Animals. It’s not that much better though as Prior’s dialogue doesn’t exactly sparkle and few of the guest cast emerge with much credit. Michael Gough, of course, is able to instill Hower with a certain dignity but Malcolm Bullivant, playing Hower’s son Bershar, is wooden in the extreme. Frankly there’s more animation to be found in the extremely silly looking silver robot. The Graham Williams era of Doctor Who (with its slapstick air) has many critics but the alternative is something like Volcano – an episode delivered with such an air of relentless earnestness that it becomes impossible to take it seriously.
Pacifistic planets are something of a sci-fi cliche. Hower explains to Dayna how they’ve arrived at this state. “We have taught them peace from the cradle, and we have blocked, usually with a minute electric shock, every tendency towards an aggressive act. Plus of course, daily psychological propaganda. We have no war, no fights among ourselves, no lawlessness, no crime. Our people devote themselves to creation and not destruction. We are at peace here on Obsidian.”
This is all well and good, but what happens when the Federation turns up? Although we’ve been told that the Federation are in disarray they seem in fine fettle here. Led by Servalan (of course) their first act is to attempt to capture the Liberator. This rather begs the question as to how Servalan knew the Liberator would be there. And with an empire to rebuild you’d assume she’d have more pressing things on her mind than settling scores with Avon and co. Volcano is one of those series three scripts that seems a little out of place, although it would have worked during series two (when the Federation was dominant).
The Federation, led by Mori (Ben Howard) are able to take over the Liberator with embarrassing ease. This should be a dramatic highlight of the story but it’s pretty much a damp squib, even after we see Avon shot by Mori. Ben Howard, a regular in the last series of Dixon of Dock Green, is the first of Servalan’s Travis substitutes and, bless him, he’s almost bad enough to make you pine for Brian Croucher. The Battle Fleet Commander, played by Alan Bowerman, offers another amusingly rotten performance.
The Federation don’t hold the Liberator for very long and amazingly Servalan then decides to run away and fight another day.
SERVALAN: Without that ship we’ve lost a strategic advantage.
SERVALAN: But, no one else has gained it. Without Blake the Liberator’s no immediate threat to our plans.
MUTOID: No, Madam President.
SERVALAN: Well the crew have no political ambitions.
MUTOID: They are merely criminals.
SERVALAN: So they’ll keep. Until the rule of law has been restored. Until my rule of law has been restored.
This doesn’t ring true – if Servalan doesn’t believe the Liberator poses a threat without Blake, why go to all that trouble to try and capture it? The capture-the-Liberator sub-plot seems to have been rather awkwardly bolted onto the episode in order to pad out the running time.
One interesting part of the script is that Servalan’s assessment of Avon and the others seems spot on. Tarrant tells Hower that they’re mercenaries and in exchange for the use of his planet he’ll offer them a percentage of their spoils. I wonder if serious thought was ever given to turning them into a gang of intergalactic criminals? This notion tends to be downplayed as we move through series three – pure sci-fi takes over – and when we reach series four there’s a return to the theme of the struggle against the Federation.
Hower’s decision to destroy his planet rather than see it colonised by the Federation should be a powerful one, but it’s another moment that doesn’t have a great deal of impact since we’ve never been given any cause to believe that Hower’s people are a real, functioning society. Unfortunately, they’re just a series of faceless extras.
Although Volcano‘s problems are many, it’s by no means unwatchable. It has its fair share of bad acting and illogical plotting, although that hardly makes it unique in the Blakes 7 universe. It’s undemanding stuff, but it’s frustrating as the series can do so much better.