1.9: Project Avalon
As far as polished-looking episodes go, this is one of the first season’s shinier baubles. Michael E Briant, back in Wooky Hole following Revenge of the Cybermen, makes the most of his locations and gives us a few convincing snowy exteriors. The script isn’t quite up to what he brings to the table however, despite a few half-decent twists along the way. Blake’s mission this week if he’s prepared to accept it Jim is to make contact with and evacuate resistance leader Avalon from a planet (I must have missed the name.) But, of course, Travis gets there first and sets his own trap for Blake.
So the set-up already feels like the series is descending into repetition; Blake versus Travis and only so many variations on how they can lock horns. Travis doesn’t have even the potential of the Master (and he’s fairly limited himself) to get involved in various schemes, so it’s a wise decision to bring to a head his sanctioned vendetta here rather than carry it on ad infinitum.
On the surface of the planet (which we are told it is descending into an eight and a half year winter, with temperatures dropping from -120 degrees to -180 during the episode), Travis is accompanied by sexy new Mutoid Glynis Barber (Travis’ “I find this planet... unnerving” is almost showing himself vulnerable).
Blake: Does it support any intelligent life?
Avon: Does the Liberator?
There’s a strange reference to the inhabitants being Subterons (creatures living in the caves), but since we only see humans (on Avalon’s side) I’m not sure if I misheard them as being creatures or we never see them. Apparently the Federation mines the planet for ice crystals to be used in lasers.
Travis abducts Avalon in fairly short order, thanks to a traitor amongst her ranks; presumably it’s Stuart Fell who does a rather impressive stunt fall after being clouted by Travis. It looks like it hurt.
Blakes arrival with Jenna (whom Cally smiles at before she leaves, trying to break the ice?) and then Vila sees them about to be set upon by none other than The Robots of Death’s Taren Capel (Chevner, played by David Bailie, who I hadn’t realised was Cotton in Pirates of the Caribbean – check out his imdb mugshot, rather alarming). Also in this episode; John Baker as a scientist (also seen in The Visitation and Colony in Space) and John Rolfe as Terloc (seen in The Moonbase, The Green Death and The War Machines). There’s a large additional cast of extras as Subterons and Federation troops so I won’t go through all their Who appearances.
Briant’s location work is atmospheric and of-a-piece; the transitions from surface to caves to Federation complex feel like they are on the same planet.
Avalon is revealed wearing nowt but a couple of silver restraining strips. Alas, Julia Vidler who plays her really isn’t up to much performance-wise as a fearless resistance leader. More like a simpering plank. She provides some interesting exposition, commenting that 30 planets in the sector are defying the Federation and more will join. Travis’ strategy is to ensure that the Federation obtains Blake, the crew and the undamaged Liberator.
Vila: I’ve got a weak chest.
Avon: The rest of you’s not very impressive.
Servalan’s arrival in snow gear (is this Blake’s 7’s Hoth sequence? I wonder if Georgey-boy saw it?) is just in time to see Travis experiment with the Phobon plague on an unsuspecting prisoner. The disintegration into muddy clay before becoming a skeleton is intriguingly achieved, as I was unsure what exactly it was doing to him. Briant’s tricks learnt on The Robots of Death are in evidence here, as the plague ball uses the same effect as the Laserson Probe in that story.
It appears that the tide is turning against Travis already, and the critics include Servalan herself. His operation has been costly and there have been no worthwhile results, while Servalan has escaped two attempts on her life. She says that she blames Blake, but her manner indicates that she’s not going to defend another blunder by Travis. Travis’ response, that he could have killed Blake twice if it wasn’t for the insistence on capturing the Liberator, is a bit weak (since we’ve seen two occasions of his outright failure). Servalan’s unabashed comment that she never approves anything until it is a success is refreshingly blunt. Travis has her full support unofficially; officially he has her presence and her attention.
Fantastic! The return of the Shitbot, now showing that it has illuminated features in the darkened caves. Publicity photos suggest that the clunky bumbler was considered a big deal, but it’s difficult to see why.
Contributing to the slight feeling of “Been there done that” in this episode is the de rigueur Liberator sub plot. Just for a change they are pursued by Federation craft while the main action continues.
Servalan is obviously a hip chick, grooving away to the latest hits like the chap in The Way Back, complete with visor. It’s their era’s ipod. Glynis Mutoid gets directed out of the way of a monitor screen before Travis lets her report, so he’s clearly as dismissive of them as ever.
The breakout of Avalon (during which Blake appears to snap a guard’s neck when saving Vila) is well shot by Briant. Appropriate, since it has all been staged, unbeknownst to Blake. It means the reaction of “How come the guard’s weapon didn’t kill him?” makes sense. They escape to the Liberator just before the Shitbot spurts liquid flame at their spot. Poor old Shitbot.
Gan seem overly keen on carrying Avalon about the place, and certainly pays her a lot of attention when she “recovers”. Limiter or not, he exudes an Uncle Creepy vibe.
The assumption that Chevner must be the person the Federation planned to put on board is a bit iffy; it can’t be Avalon because Blake recognises her. But since he was brainwashed, why not her (indeed, I thought this would be the case before she turned out to be a robot)? Avalon’s casting is a distinct weak spot in this story, as there’s no weight to her character, or to the threat posed when she is revealed.
Fortunately she is disabled and Avon asserts that it is the best robotic engineering he has ever seen. Come on, it looks rubbish. Taking her back to the planet in order to aid breaking out the real Avalon is a nice touch (Avon thinks he can reprogram a few minor functions), and the stand-off with Travis and the sphere is a marvellous scene (there are three triggers, a word, a sound and a movement).
Blake says that the robot will crush the sphere if any of the triggers activates it, when in fact it drops it (Travis would make a fine fielder, catching it before it hits the floor). I suppose we can put this down to Avon’s uncertainty over reprogramming.
So we’re left with Travis relieved of command and a full inquiry about to be launched. Travis episodes seem to end with his pronouncements of vengeance, and this is no exception (if it takes all his life he will destroy Blake).
Like his earlier episode The Web, Michael E Briant contributes immeasurably to this being as watchable as it is, but there’s a definite sense of fatigue setting in to the storylines where Blake attacks the Federation/the Federation try to trap Blake.