Blakes 7 – Blake

blake 01.jpg

The opening of Blake, following on from the events of Warlord, finds Avon and the others at a low ebb.  They’ve been forced to destroy their base at Xenon, due to fears that either Zukan or one of the other members of their recent meeting might have betrayed its location to the Federation.

This rather begs the question as to why Avon decided to hold the meeting there, but by now it should be fairly clear that he’s not operating in the most rational manner.  He explains that the death of Zukan leaves them with a problem – they need to find another figurehead to lead their attack against the Federation.  This doesn’t quite tie back to the events seen in Warlord though as whilst Avon was keen to use Zukan, it wasn’t as a unifying leader.

No matter, it’s only a slight continuity error and it does neatly explain why Avon’s suddenly decided to track down Blake after all this time.  He explains to the others that Blake “is strongly identified with rebels, you see, and very popular with rabbles. They will follow him, and he will fight to the last drop of their blood.”

Blake’s apparently on Gauda Prime, a totally lawless planet which has recently made an application to restore its former legal status.  In order to do this they need to ensure that all criminals are caught as quickly as possible.  And this is Blake’s job.  As improbable as it sounds, Blake’s working as a bounty hunter.

Our first sight of Blake is an arresting one.  Viewed from the side he appears to be the same man that we’d seen at the end of series two, but it’s only when he turns to face the camera that the wicked scar running down the right hand side of his face is visible.  It’s never explained how he came by this, but it’s clear that the last few years haven’t been easy for him.  Gareth Thomas instantly commands the screen as an older, wearier, bitterer Blake, seemingly reduced to catching criminals for money.

Humour is in short supply in this story, but I like the squabble between Orac and Slave, which sees Orac exasperated that Slave would have the temerity to interrupt him.  After a few minutes, Slave sounds the alarm and after everyone’s rushed about for a few seconds he admits that there’s no danger, he simply wanted to get their attention!  This moment of amusement doesn’t last long as Scorpio then really does come under attack and the painful descent to Gauda Prime begins.

blake-02

They all throw themselves around the set with abandon whilst fairly feeble explosions go off.  It all looks a little half-hearted, but once everybody except Tarrant has teleported to the surface the fun can really begin.  That’s when the ship is comprehensively destroyed and Slave speaks his final words.  If the model shot of Scorpio crashing through the trees looks a little underwhelming, then the full size destruction of the ship is impressively done.

If Blake has a problem then it’s the fact that nothing much really happens for the first forty five minutes.  Everything’s geared up for the meeting between Blake and Avon, meaning that everything else is just preamble – apart for one important revelation.  Blake captures Tarrant and manages to convince him that he’s a fearsome bounty hunter, but it’s all a sham, revealed in this conversation between Blake and Deva (David Collings).

DEVA: These stupid games you insist on playing, Blake, will get someone killed eventually.
BLAKE: I have to test each one myself.
DEVA: No, you don’t have to! I set up systems for that. I broke the security codes on their central computer. I got us access to official channels, information, everything we could possibly need! You don’t need to be involved at all.
BLAKE: All right, I find it difficult to trust. It’s a failing, I admit!
DEVA: And any one of our people could select the people you’ve collected. You don’t need to do the bounty hunter routine, either!
BLAKE: Indulge me.
DEVA: Do I have a choice?
BLAKE: Oh, there’s always a choice, Deva.

If some of Avon’s recent behaviour has been bizarre, then so is this. Blake couldn’t foresee that Avon wouldn’t listen to reason when they met up, but Deva was quite right when he told Blake that he was playing a dangerous game. This part of the story doesn’t quite hold water anyway – we assume that Blake is recruiting an army from the criminals on Gauda Prime to fight the Federation. But is picking the scum of the earth (a group of lawless murderers) really the wisest choice? Why isn’t he going from planet to planet, inciting rebellion?  This begs another question (sadly unanswered), namely is Blake’s scar as fake as his bounty hunter story?

The fact that he doesn’t even have to be there at all – he’s simply playing games – is bizarre.  And pretending to Tarrant that he’s prepared to turn them all over to the Federation proves to be a fatal mistake. Tarrant rushes over to tell Avon (who has coincidentally just stepped through the door) which means that the reunion between Blake and Avon doesn’t quite end the way either of them hoped for.

Darrow’s delivery of the line “have you betrayed us? Have you betrayed me?” has come in for a little criticism over the years. True, he’s more than a little arch here, but in context it works if you accept this is now an Avon at total breaking point.  As Avon repeatedly shoots Blake you can see a range of expressions play across Darrow’s face which indicate that Avon realises, almost as soon as he’s pulled the trigger, that he’s made a horrendous mistake. It’s a little too late though ….

Then all the others die (possibly) in slow motion. With the destruction of Scorpio and the entire crew seemingly dead, that would appear to have been a fairly final ending. But it’s always intrigued me that Gareth Thomas agreed to return only if Blake was shown to be 100% dead at the end – that way, he argued, he’d no longer have to worry that he’d lose parts due to people assuming he was still the star of Blakes 7.  But if the series was coming to an end this makes no sense.

Was a fifth series on the cards?  There’s always a way out – demonstrated by the oodles of fan fiction which states that the others weren’t really dead, they were merely stunned (even though we’ve never seen Federation guns set to stun in the series).  True, we don’t see Avon die, but unless the guards were really poor shots it’s pretty much a certainty.  And even though Blake appears to be very dead that can easily be explained away – it wasn’t Blake, it was his clone from Weapon.  Of course ….

Whether you like to believe that they all lived to fight another day or that this really was the final end, Blake offers as uncompromising a conclusion to the series as you could possibly ever expect to see.  It’s certainly worth sitting through the first forty five minutes for the final five.

blake-03

Advertisements

Blakes 7 – Warlord

warlord-01

The Federation’s pacification drug, Pylene 50, continues to spread through the galaxy – affecting more and more planets.  Avon calls together a number of interested parties in the hope that together they’ll be able to form an alliance.  Success seems to hinge on the cooperation of the notorious warlord Zukan (Roy Boyd).

Although Zukan’s thirst for war and conquest is well known, he tells the others that he’s here in good faith and has the means to produce a toxin to combat the pacification drug.  But matters are complicated after Zukan’s daughter, Zeeona (Bobbie Brown), is found to have stowed away on her father’s ship – especially since she and Tarrant have something of a history ….

Warlord has never been a terribly well regarded B7 story, possibly because of the interesting clothes and hairstyles.  There’s no getting away from it, the delegates look if they’d be more at home at a fancy-dress party rather than a summit meeting which will decide the fate of the galaxy.  Zukan and Zeeona also sport the most amazing haircuts, especially Zeeona who looks like a cut-price Toyah.

There’s also the Rick James problem.  If you’re a Doctor Who fan then you’ll probably be aware of his idiosyncratic performance in the 1972 story The Mutants.  Nearly a decade might have passed since that unforgettable turn, but James pretty much picks up where he left off – wooden doesn’t even begin to describe him.  Mind you, given what he’s wearing it’s no surprise that it’s hard to take him seriously.

But if you can put all that to one side, there’s plenty here to catch your attention.  After being touched upon earlier in the season, Pylene 50 makes a comeback – and in a very striking way.  The opening sequence, set on the latest planet to fall to the pacification process, is an eerie and disturbing one.  The population of Zondar, heavily drugged, are mown down by Federation troops, whilst all the time encouraging words (“You are cared for. You are loved”) can be heard over the tannoy.  This has elements of the harder-edged vision of a drugged future seen in The Way Back (although rarely glimpsed afterwards).

After enduring defeat after defeat, it looks as if Avon’s luck has finally turned.  But it shouldn’t come as any surprise to learn that Zukan’s a dirty double-crosser, secretly in cahoots with Servalan.  This is where we must bid farewell to Servalan and it has to be said that she exits with a whimper rather than a bang.  It’s long been debated as to why Jacqueline Pearce didn’t appear in Blake – you’d have assumed it would have been an obvious move, especially if it was known that the series definitely wasn’t coming back.  We’ll touch upon this again next time, but maybe Chris Boucher and Vere Lorrimer were eyeing a possible fifth series – that would certainly explain why Servalan’s final appearance is little more than a not-terribly-interesting cameo.

Simon Masters’ script (his only effort for the series) is well tailored for most of the other regulars.  Avon and Soolin carry the action, although Soolin’s proactive presence does mean that Dayna rather fades into the background.  Vila spends his time drinking and seemingly avoiding Avon.  A nod back to the events of Orbit maybe, as he tries to come to terms with Avon’s actions?

Tarrant spends his time making eyes at Zeeona, although just as Zukan is obviously a wrong-‘un, so it’s clear that Tarrant and Zeeona’s love is going to be somewhat on the short-lived side.  Her death is an interesting moment.  After learning of her father’s treachery she attempts to undo some of the damage he’s caused, but a flesh-eating virus puts paid to her.  Dayna tells Tarrant that she died because she took her glove off – was this an accident or did she, wracked with guilt about her father’s actions, decide to commit suicide?  Either possibility is valid.  Bobbie Brown may be saddled with a silly haircut but is still rather good as the doomed Zukan.

After a run of disasters, it seems that only one man can unify them, so next time Avon sets out to find Blake.  I wonder if this will be where his luck finally changes?  Hmmmm …….

warlord-02

Blakes 7 – Orbit

orbit-01

A renegade scientist called Egrorian (John Savident) has an offer that Avon can’t refuse – a weapon of incredible power (the Tachyon Funnel) in exchange for Orac.  You possibly won’t be shocked to hear that there’s a catch though ….

After his previous story, Traitor, failed to hit the mark, Robert Holmes certainly bounced back with Orbit.  Maybe one of the reasons why Traitor didn’t work that well was because it was the only one of Holmes’ four B7 scripts that didn’t team Avon and Vila up.  It’s plain that Holmes saw plenty of possibilities in the Avon/Vila relationship – it’s certainly of the reasons why this one works as well as it does.

Holmes’ Doctor Who scripts tended to feature double-acts, a tradition he carries on here – apart from Avon and Vila there’s also Egrorian and Pinder (Larry Noble).  Egrorian is the sort of role that’s a gift for an actor of a certain type – i.e. one who’s not afraid to go soaring over the top.  John Savident was clearly that sort of actor.  It’s a grotesque (in a good way) turn, totally lacking in subtlety but with the occasional hint of menace to counter the fairly flippant dialogue.

This must have been a fairly cheap show to make, with just a couple of new sets and only two guest stars.  But it never feels like a bottle show or something cobbled together on the cheap because the end of season was fast approaching and the money had run out.  Holmes concentrates on just four characters – Avon, Vila, Egrorian and Servalan (yes, of course she’s lurking about) – and gives them some sparkling dialogue, such as here when Egrorian lays eyes on Avon and Vila for the first time.

EGRORIAN: Surprisingly, you don’t look like the ruthless desperados of legend. But you have, of course, killed a great many people.
AVON: Only in the pursuit of liberty.
EGRORIAN: “O Liberty! O Liberty! What crimes are committed in your name!” Do you know the source?
AVON: No.
EGRORIAN: No, why should you? Natural leaders are rarely encumbered with intelligence. Greed, egotism, animal cunning, and viciousness are the important attributes. Qualities I detect in you in admirably full measure.

Larry Noble, as Egrorian’s assistant Pinder, has very little dialogue, but he still manages to catch the eye.  Noble manages to suffer incredibly well and his hangdog expression immediately engenders sympathy from the audience, something which is increased after we see how badly Egrorian treats him.  There’s a certain cruelty and sadism that runs through Holmes’ Doctor Who scripts which is also present here – best demonstrated after Pinder beats Egrorian at chess.  Egrorian doesn’t like this and proceeds to twist Pinder’s arm.  “Can you feel your extensor muscle tearing? Can you feel your humerus grating against your radius? Hmm.? Just a little more… a little more… now you’re feeling it, aren’t you?”

It’s more than a little unpleasant, but it helps to shine a light on their dysfunctional relationship.  Quite how they’ve entertained themselves during the last ten years (they’ve been in exile together) is probably best left to the imagination, although Egrorian’s comment that “naughty boys must be punished” offers a world of possibilities.

Hey, here’s a surprise – Egrorian plans to double-cross Avon and the others because he’s secretly working for Servalan.  Bet you didn’t see that coming.  So far, so familiar, but Holmes continues to give Savident some choice dialogue and he doesn’t disappoint.  Here, Egrorian outlines to Servalan his vision of a shared future.  “A connubial partnership, Servalan. Why not? Alone you are formidable enough, but together we would stand like mountains.”  Jacqueline Pearce also seems to relish the chance to play something a little different, as we see Servalan ever-so-slightly discomforted by the effusive and fulsome Egrorian.

The key part of the story takes place during the last few minutes.  Avon and Vila are heading back to Scorpio in Egrorian’s shuttle, but there’s a problem – they’ll never make the escape velocity as the shuttle’s carrying too much weight.  Frantically they jettison everything they can think of, but they still need to find another seventy kilos.  Avon wonders what weighs seventy kilos, to which Orac replies that “Vila weighs seventy-three kilos, Avon.”

Paul Darrow’s facial expression after Orac delivers this bombshell is a treat.  He shakes his head ever so slightly, but then seems to pull himself together and goes hunting for Vila.  Darrow’s S4 Avon was not known for its subtlety, and so it proves here, as he goes into “I’m not going to kill you, I’m your friend, honest” mode.  It’s not terribly convincing, so you can’t blame Vila for staying hidden.

All turns out well in the end, Avon stumbles (literally) against the problem – a microscopic fragment of a neutron star, planted by Egrorian to kill them – and is able to get rid of it.  But the damage has been done.  Vila might not have mentioned it to the others, but he now knows exactly how far Avon will go to protect his interests.  It’s a nice dramatic moment for Michael Keating, something of a rarity this late in the series.

This may be a talky, studio-based story, but it doesn’t really get any better than Orbit, thanks to John Savident’s exuberant performance and the way that Holmes skewers the Avon/Vila relationship.

orbit-02

Blakes 7 – Gold

gold-01

Avon is contacted by an old acquaintance called Keiller (Roy Kinnear), the purser of a pleasure liner called the Space Princess.  The Space Princess has a secret cargo – gold, mined from the planet Zerok.  Because it’s travelling incognito there’s very little security, so stealing it should be a doddle – except for one snag.

Before the gold is put aboard the ship it’s processed in such a way that it turns black and is therefore worthless unless you have the computer code which will change it back.  Keiller suggests they tamper with the processing machine on Zerok so that unprocessed gold is loaded aboard the ship instead.  It seems like a foolproof plan, what could possibly go wrong?

Roy Kinnear is great fun throughout as Keiller.  One of those actors who just seemed to generate goodwill from the audience, he plays rather to type as the cowardly Keiller.  Kinnear gives him such a shifty and untrustworthy air right from the start that it seems obvious he’s going to double-cross Avon and the others.  Or is that too obvious?  Since this is a heist tale there’s a number of twists and turns, so when it’s revealed that Keiller used to work for the Federation it’s possible to wonder if this is actually the truth or just more disinformation.

Keiller’s relationship with both Avon and Soolin has some nice comic moments.  He continually refers to Avon as his old friend and Soolin as my pretty one.  No surprises that Avon regards him as no friend or that Soolin is unimpressed with Keiller’s attempts at flattery.

We’re told that Vila doesn’t trust Keiller and wants no part of the scheme.  Michael Keating only has a handful of lines throughout the story, which is slightly strange – although the next episode is more tailored to his talents.  This leaves Avon and Soolin paired together whilst the familiar combination of Tarrant and Dayna also team up yet again.  All four teleport down to Zerok, Avon and Soolin travel down to the bowels of the planet with Keiller, whilst Tarrant and Dayna remain up top, keeping an eye on the guards.

The Zerok processing plant (actually a refuse disposal centre in Poole) is one of those typically industrialised Blakes 7 locations that featured regularly during the first few years of the show.  It gives Soolin a chance to demonstrate just how sharp a shooter she is as she merrily mows down multiple hapless guards.  The combination of Avon and Soolin is a good one – a slight pity it wasn’t seen on more occasions – his brain and her brawn (as well as the fact they both have a sardonic sense of humour) appeals.

It’s later revealed that the Space Princess is a fake cruise liner – it travels straight from Zerok to Earth whilst the passengers (all drugged up) are shown pictures of various sights which, in their chemically altered state, they believe to be real.  Whilst Avon busies himself with the gold, the others pose as passengers.  Stephen Pacey seems to be enjoying himself as a doped-out passenger.

Although Roy Kinnear provides the story with a veneer of comedy, underneath it’s quite a dark little tale.  The bodycount is quite high (at least a dozen or so guards are killed before the gold is stolen).  It’s also fair to say that the ending doesn’t really come as a great surprise – Servalan turned out to be behind the plan right from the start and turns up to taunt Avon.

SERVALAN: Congratulations, Avon. I see you worked it out.
AVON: Keiller was once on the personal security staff of the president of the Federation. That just had to be you. It wasn’t hard to work out. But it wasn’t meant to be, was it?
SERVALAN: I don’t know what you mean.
AVON: You wouldn’t leave me a clue like that. Not unless you really wanted to. You knew I wouldn’t be able to resist it. You planned everything, every move, you even knew that Keiller would disobey you, and you hoped that I would trust him because of that.
SERVALAN: Very good.
AVON: I almost did trust Keiller. When I found out it was you, I knew I was safe from him, at least. After all, he has nothing to gain from obeying you. Only in the end, it occurred to me that he might possibly imagine that you would keep your side of the bargain and pay him his reward instead of just killing him. He doesn’t know you as well as I do.

It’s the only time that Avon and Servalan have a meaningful face to face conversation during series four. Avon’s final reaction to their dismal failure is characteristic – he laughs hysterically whilst the others look on stony-faced. Another sign that Avon’s losing it? It could have been worse I guess, they all could have had a giggle, which thankfully only happened on a few closing scenes (Breakdown is probably my least favourite example of this).

Not quite the best that series four has to offer, but Kinnear is entertaining and the story is solid enough.

gold-02

Blakes 7 – Sand

sand 01.jpg

Servalan has elected to join a Federation mission dispatched to the sandy planet Virn. Together with Reeve (Stephen Yardley), Chasgo (Daniel Hill) and an unnamed assistant (played by Peter Craze), she intends to find out what happened to a research party last heard from some five years ago. They find the going treacherous after their ship crash-lands a fair distance away from the research base.  Avon is intrigued to learn that the Federation, after all this time, has decided to send a ship to investigate this most inhospitable of planets.  He decides that if there’s anything of value on Virn, they should have it rather than the Federation. It quickly becomes clear that the sand has a form of sentience as strange things start to happen ….

Like Tanith Lee’s previous script, Sarcophagus, Sand is something of a bottle show which delights in putting the regulars under the microscope.  Most interestingly, we see a much more human Servalan than usual.  The reason for her emotional state becomes clear after it’s revealed she’s come to the planet in order to find out what happened to Don Keller (Jonathan Gaunt).  Keller, via a recording, is the first voice we hear.

I know a land beyond the heart of time. The sun never comes there. No moon ever shines. And man, a grain of sand, nameless and lost, blows with the dust. I apologise, HQ, but that’s what this place makes me think of. The sun never comes here. Just sand and mist. Virn, the green planet. Never rains here either. There’s something strange. Not just the way the ship was affected when we came down. Not just the way all the machinery plays up. Not just the way we’re dying. You still listening, HQ? This is Don Keller, remember me? On Virn, where we have a plague on our hands. On my hands. So when do I get something from you?

Unlike Sarcophagus, this story boasts a guest cast – although not all of them make it to the final reel.  Unsurprisingly, Peter Craze’s unnamed assistant is the first to bite the dust (or sand) with Reeve following shortly after.  Yardley has the most substantial guest-star role, although Investigator Reeve isn’t a terribly interesting character – he’s an alpha male who takes a shine to Servalan (her disinterest is total and cutting).  It’s hard to command authority when you’re dressed in a shiny silver spacesuit, but Yardley does have some good lines and makes the most of the role.

The deaths of the ship’s crew enables the narrative to be split in two – Servalan and Tarrant remain isolated on Virn whilst Avon and the others are also trapped, but on Scorpio.

If Servalan was going to be locked up with anyone then Avon would have been the obvious choice.  But I’m glad that Lee avoided the obvious, since Sand gives Stephen Pacey a long overdue chance to do a spot of acting.  Throughout series three Tarrant was incredibly smackable, but this hasn’t been a problem during series four (mainly because Tarrant has been underwritten so badly that he’s hardly contributed at all).  Sand enables Tarrant to step out of Avon’s shadow and Pacey doesn’t disappoint.

Here, for example, he posits a reasonable explanation for the current state of affairs.  This is a rare occurrence – normally Avon would be the one with all the answers.  “The trace of life on Virn was the sand. Some emanation from it affects the atmosphere, even the magnetic fields of the planet, and causes the rest of the trouble: ships crash, instruments fail, nobody can protect himself. And when the sand comes into contact with a human body it sucks out the cellular energy, sometimes fast, sometimes slowly. I imagine that depends on how much sand is in the vicinity. But that’s what Keller’s plague was.”

Tanith Lee serves both Tarrant and Servalan well, delivering up some very quotable dialogue.  This is how Tarrant describes his room-mate.  “I’d say you’re possibly the most unscrupulously venomous woman in the galaxy. Being shut in here with you is rather like being locked in a cage with a panther: a black cat with large golden eyes and long silver talons.”  Servalan’s rejoinder is that she’s just the girl next door! Tarrant’s next line is a good one too.

Lee also takes the opportunity to fill in a few blanks, such as how Servalan escaped from the Liberator at the end of Terminal, but Servalan’s revelation that Don Keller was the only man she ever loved is the stand-out moment from this part of the story.

SERVALAN: Don Keller, he was my lover. I was eighteen.
TARRANT: He’s the reason you’re here.
SERVALAN: He left me. I grew up. Power became my lover. Power is like a drug. It is beautiful. Shining. I could destroy a planet by pressing a button. I loved him.

Do we believe her? She seems genuine, but we’ve seen before how Servalan is able to manipulate others with ease, so it’s possible that self preservation made her adopt the pose of a victim. That’s what Tarrant claims to believe at the end (although is he only saying this to appease Avon?)  Whatever the truth, Jacqueline Pearce impresses here – which proves that given good material, the character can still be as compelling as she once was.

If Tarrant and Servalan are having an interesting time down on the planet, then so are Avon and co up on Scorpio.  Vila is reduced to a drunken state (not the first time this has happened).  Michael Keating does drunk acting very well, but it’s rather an obvious choice – although the mention of Cally strikes a nerve.  “If I died it’d be a real joke. Who’d care? Who cared about Cally?” Orac’s acting very oddly too, telling everyone that he loves them!

Avon’s enjoying himself and so is Paul Darrow.  Avon has a theory that the sand eliminates the weak and keeps the strong alive in order to maintain a healthy breeding stock.  “Presumably the sand up here has compared Vila’s wits and stamina with mine and concluded that I am the dominant male. On the herd principle therefore, it decided that Vila was superfluous and it could kill him. You two, of course, would have been allowed to live”.  Vila’s not dead of course, but Avon doesn’t seem terribly unhappy at the thought of a ménage à trois with Dayna and Soolin ….

A solution is eventually found and Tarrant returns to face a less than warm welcome.  He’d allowed Servalan to escape, which is bad enough, but his intimacy with her disgusts Dayna (understandable since Servalan killed her father).  This is the sort of theme that would have been an interesting one to develop, but unfortunately B7 wasn’t the sort of series for complex character arcs, so as the credits roll a big reset button is hit and the matter is never mentioned again.

Haunting and well-realised, Sand is a memorable story.  Not quite as compelling as Sarcophagus maybe, but it’s still several cuts above the norm.

sand-02

Blakes 7 – Games

games 01.jpg

Avon’s hot on the trail of Feldon crystals, one of the most precious minerals in the galaxy, but it’ll come as no surprise to learn that so is Servalan.  Both the Scorpio crew and Servalan end up on the mining planet Mercol 2, which is run by the duplicitous Belkov (Stratford Johns).  Suspiciously low production yields and a tendency for members of the survey team to die in strange and unexplained ways are two reasons why Servalan is interested in Belkov, but he attempts to broker a deal – promising to deliver up the Scorpio crew in exchange for his life.

Games is another B7 tale which boasts a heavyweight guest star – in this case Stratford Johns.  Elsewhere on this blog I’ve waxed lyrical about how good Johns always is in Softly Softly: Task Force and indeed he’s such a fine actor that he even convinces as a frog with a funny hairdo in the Doctor Who story Four To Doomsday.  But he’s got his work cut out here as Belkov isn’t a character of great depth.

The basic concept of the story is sound enough though.  Belkov enjoys a good double or triple cross and he’s also an expert games player, so with the aid of his computer Gambit (voiced by Rosalind Bailey) he’s able to set multiple traps for the unwary.  There’s a similar vibe with Belkov/Gambit as there was between Ensor/Orac, only not as well defined.  Gambit seems to lack Orac’s free will and argumentative nature, but the ending suggests that Gambit was more than the logical machine she appeared to be, although this isn’t something that’s really developed.

Servalan once again does little of note.  Had Jacqueline Pearce been held back for three or four significant appearances per year then I think it would have benefited the character enormously.   There’s still the odd writer – such as Tanith Lee in the upcoming Sand – who are able to do something interesting with her, but that one’s pretty much the exception now rather than the rule. Having said that, Servalan’s first appearance is memorable – striking a pose whilst masked Federation troopers (who we haven’t seen very often recently) mass behind her.  But it’s odd that she never meets Avon or the others, meaning that her role could have been played by any Federation officer.

Vivienne Cozens’ direction is very sure-footed – there’s some nice film work and the odd gruesome death (one of the Federation troopers is reduced to pink dust after falling down a mine-shaft).

Vila gets to be a little more proactive than usual – rescuing Tarrant, Dayna and Gerren (David Neal).  Gerren’s been brought along for the ride by Avon, who’s blackmailing him into helping them (nice chap, Avon). It’s characteristic of Avon that he secretly made contact with Gerren, meaning that the others were none the wiser until he deigned to tell them what was going on. Neal’s a good actor, although he’s hamstrung with a painfully obvious fake beard. But it’s a nothing role, since Gerren doesn’t really bring any knowledge to the table that Avon didn’t already possess.

Games is a bit of a runaround but things pick up towards the end when Avon, Vila, Tarrant and Soolin play Belkov’s endgame.  The prize – should they live – will be the Feldon crystals, but first they all have to win their various challenges.  Conveniently, each game is suited to one of them (Soolin excels at the sharp-shooting challenge whilst Tarrant tackles a flight simulator with ease).  This section of the story reveals that the episode title has something of a double-meaning as eventually Avon realises that there won’t be any crystals at the end of their quest.  “There aren’t any damned crystals. There never were any damned crystals. They’re like everything else on this ship: a game.”

With no crystals and Belkov dead after Gambit initiates a self-destruct sequence, Games is a typically downbeat S4 yarn where everybody loses.  It should be a better story than it actually is, but some parts feel a little perfunctory (especially the games section at the end) which is a problem. And even Stratford Johns’ freewheeling performance can’t hide the fact that the plot is fairly pedestrian (the Scorpio crew get captured, escape, get captured again, etc).

But there are compensations – the location may be a quarry, but it’s a very nice one. And there’s a number of rather impressive explosions which are certainly more substantial than the standard BBC bangs of the time. It’s this sort of visual sheen which helps to make Games an above average S4 entry.

games 02.jpg

 

Blakes 7 – Assassin

ass-02

Assassin opens with Vila crowing to the others about the following message he’s intercepted from Servalan.  “Utilizer to Cancer, Utilizer to Cancer. Domo the ninth, five subjects.”  This allows Avon to glower and mutter “Servalan!” in a way that only Paul Darrow can, leaving the others wonder what on earth the message can mean.

Luckily it doesn’t take them long to work it out.  Domo is a planet, Cancer is an assassin who kills people for a great deal of money and the 9th must be a date.  And there’s five of them … so it looks like Servalan has hired Cancer to bump them all off.  Why she would want to go to all this trouble is a slight mystery, since Avon and the others haven’t exactly been striking many blows for freedom recently, but no matter.

Domo is a planet colonised by a gang of space pirates who capture unwary space travellers and sell them into slavery.  Avon elects to pose as one such unfortunate, which gives us an opportunity to marvel at Paul Darrow’s ability to wring pathos and emotion out of even the most innocuous lines.  Churlish folk might call this over-acting or simply bad acting, but I’ve always found there’s something compelling in Darrow’s S4 interpretation of Avon – a man constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Avon might start off by acting weak and feeble, but the goading he receives from Benos (Peter Atard) means that he can’t resist showing his true colours and so knocks a few of the pirates about for fun (I think it was the taunt about being skinny which pushed him over the edge).  Vila, watching from a safe distance, is asked by Soolin if all had gone well.  “Oh yes, wonderful. First they beat him to a pulp, then they dragged him off”. The unconvincing facial hair sported by the pirates is an early episode treat.

ass-01

Avon’s thrown in a cell with an old prisoner called Neebrox (Richard Hurndall).  He tells Avon that Servalan is here and that she purchased a member of an entertainment troupe (a plot-point which will become important later on).  As probably everybody knows, this appearance led to Hurndall being cast as the First Doctor in The Five Doctors.  It’s easy to see why, with his long hair he does have more than a touch of Hartnell’s Doctor about him. Hurndall was always an actor of depth and dignity and his presence helps to lift the story no end.  Alas, the same can’t really be said for Verlis (Betty Marsden), the slightly tipsy slavetrader in charge of the slave auction.

The auction part of the story is rather … well, it’s just rather.  The notion of Avon being paraded in chains before Servalan no doubt pleased a section of the audience (and I’m sure led to numerous fan-fiction sequels) but the actuality is a little embarrassing. The various bidders look ridiculous, all clothed in fancy dress it seems (plus fake beards of course). Servalan wins the bid for Avon, telling him that he now needs to refer to her as mistress. That was a late-night spin-off show just waiting to happen.

We can now bid the slavers a fond farewell as Neebrox comes up trumps and he and Avon hot-foot it back to Scorpio. This leads us into the second (and better) part of the story as Cancer’s ship is tracked down and they get to grips with the galaxy’s finest assassin.  Everything seems rather straightforward at first- they find a ship which contains Cancer (John Wyman) and a young woman called Piri (Caroline Holdaway).  Piri might be a rather limp lettuce but she’s invaluable in helping Avon and Tarrant overpower Cancer. Tarrant’s fight with Cancer is a hoot.

After being rather anonymous during her first few stories, Soolin has more recently developed a sharp and cynical sense of humour, which Glynis Barber plays very well.  Soolin quickly becomes irritated with the weepy Piri and gives her a well-deserved slap.  Well done that woman! Tarrant is rather upset with this, but Soolin’s comeback line is rather good. “There are two classic ways of dealing with an hysterical woman. You didn’t really expect me to kiss her, did you?”

Tarrant isn’t well served by the script, turning into a rather gauche schoolboy whenever Piri’s around.  And since Piri is really Cancer, that makes him look more than a little foolish.  Yes, the mysterious assassin Cancer is a woman, who decided to masquerade as Piri whilst Servalan bought a slave (remember the earlier plot point) to pose as Cancer.  It’s fair to say that Caroline Holdaway’s performance has come in for a little bit of stick over the years and it’s easy to see why.  True, the hysterical Piri isn’t the easiest role to play, but Holdaway never really convinces as the ice-cold killer either.

But although her casting is a bit of a problem, the concluding half of the story, set aboard Cancer’s ship, is still strong – David Sullivan Proudfoot elects to keep the lighting low, thereby creating a nice sense of tension.  Generally the direction is solid (this was his third and final B7 story following Traitor and Stardrive) although he’s a little too fond of Star Wars style screenwipes ….

Rod Beacham’s sole script for the series, Assassin is another story which signifies that after a shaky start series four was finding its feet.  This was Beacham’s debut as a television script-writer (he’d previously been an actor) and he would go on to contribute to a number of series, most notably Bergerac, before his death in 2014.  For a television debut, it’s a very solid effort.

On the negative side, Assassin would have worked better without Servalan, who doesn’t do a great deal (mind you, there are quite a few stories we can say that about) but thanks to a nice guest turn from Hurndall and some sharply scripted lines for Glynis Barber it’s still a good ‘un.

ass 03.jpg