It has to be the source, the key to all the Terra Nostra's power. If we control that, we control them.
So, the first non-Nation script of the series. In this instance written by script editor Chris Boucher (although Robert Holmes’ Killer was the first non-Nation script recorded). Shadow was recorded sixth in the season (with David Jackson still playing Gan after he had performed his death scene), and there’s a massive gulf between the look and styling of Redemption (still very much following the stark industrial locations approach of Season One) and what’s on show here. The emphasis is very strongly on heightened reality, as opposed to the gritty realism that defined the previous year. That comes across in every aspect of the story, from the studio sets to costuming and make-up. Even the location work emphasises strangeness, with its clusters of moon discs (and the crew wearing Lawrence of Arabia-style white to combat the presumed heat), taking its cue from the artificial foliage of Time Squad’s quarry. And that’s not even mentioning tripped-out Cally, whose journey of the mind pre-dates Kinda by some four years.
Despite this welter of invention, the first thing to strike you is Jacko from Brush Strokes (Karl Howman) as Bek. He and his sister Hanna (Adrienne Burgess who played Veet in The Sunmakers) are ashen-faced and panda-eyed, denoting their addiction to the terrible drug Shadow. This is a highly accentuated approach (“Look what the ravages of drug addiction have done to them, kids!”), although it has a certain pre-Gothic/pre-New Romantic pre-pre-heroin chic glamour to it. All the youngsters will want to like Bek and Hanna!
That said, I’m unclear on the extent to which Bek is an addict, as when they confront Largo (Derek Smith, who would play a doorman in Human Nature) Bek tells him “Use shadow? Do I look that stupid?” Do all the underclass of Space City (yes, it should be a Terry Nation story!) look like druggies? As one of their chums, Peety, ODs on the stuff, maybe Bek’s recently come off it (he refers to looking after Hanna and Peety so, alternatively, perhaps he’s made himself up to look like a substance abuser to rob their supplier?) Hanna is most definitely a junkie, unwittingly the source of the Liberator being tracked, as a radioactive compound in Shadow enables addicts to be traced and simultaneously reduces their lifespan. They rob Largo, who is a mid-level Terra Nostra pusher (I know, Boucher’s not making subtle analogies here).
Derek Smith has fun playing up Largo’s casual villainy, and some effort has been made to show the Terra Nostra as a well-tailored bunch (which also distinguishes them from the ‘70s-future garb we’ve seen in the series thus far). Again, the references to addicts as “dream heads” is about as subtle as a breeze block. It’s a drug that’s distinguished by us never seeing its effects or hearing of its properties (we only know that without it the user will die in terrifying agony). Even the soft-pedalling of Nightmare of Eden’s Vraxoin was more suggestive than anything we see here.
More costume changes for the crew; Avon’s wearing a bacofoil top, and Vila at doesn’t look like he’s off to a homeless shelter any more. Cally even looks quite elegant.
Blake’s plan to use the Terra Nostra to infiltrate Earth and attack the Federation shows a clear consequentialist bent, one that sticks in Gan’s craw (suddenly, just as it’s too late, he’s grown a character!) For Blake, the ends justify the means and he sees no issue with getting into bed with the Terra Nostra (they will use them, not do business with them, although this seems like a weak distinction). Avon appears to have no issues with Blake’s strategy, but then he’s never held himself up as a bastion of morality. Vila looks forward to visiting Space City (which is neutral territory, and it’s an open secret that the Terra Nostra run it).
Vila: Also known as the satellite of sin.
Avon: By whom?
Avon: It had to be someone of limited imagination.
You have to wonder about Jenna. Like a hooker with a heart of gold, it seems Jenna’s a smuggler with scruples. She knows Largo (from Calisto) but would never have dealt with him if she’d known he was a member of the Terra Nostra nor run his cargo to Earth if she’d known it contained Shadow. Just what sort of smuggler was she if she didn’t expect to be involved with criminal organisations and drugs? Perhaps she ran Bibles most of the time? We also learn that possession of Shadow carries the death penalty on Earth. Avon, Blake, Jenna and the lummox teleport to Space City.
Vila: But that’s Space City, one of my all time great ambitions.
Blake: You’d probably be disappointed.
Vila: I’ll take that chance!
Of course, Vila finds a way to visit Space City, with the aid of Orac. The Orac plotline in this episode is a whacked-out one. As it’s early days, we’re not yet clear what his motivations are (and as he’s previously shown to be extraordinarily powerful, it’s something of a surprise to have him possessed so completely by a non-corporeal entity).
Interesting to note that Vila was a Delta service-grade and that Blake was an Alpha-grade. Basically implying that Blake was some sort of privileged student type rebelling against his relative luxury. Whereas Vila was one of the true downtrodden. Which does translate, to be fair, despite Roberts’ Welshness. The gradings recall Keating’s previous role in The Sun Makers. Vila also calls Cally a “miserable alien” for not letting him leave.
Vila: Are you in there, Orac?
Orac: Am I in where? What precisely do you imagine I am? Some sort of tamed rodent in a cage?
Orac: Am I in where? What precisely do you imagine I am? Some sort of tamed rodent in a cage?
Vila: That’s precisely what I imagine you are. A rat in a box.
Blake’s meeting with the Terra Nostra goes abysmally, which suggests Vila was right (even if his motives were shady). Whether Blake keeps making mistakes because Avon is constantly grumbling about how useless he is or he was always a bit of a crap rebel, I’m not sure.
Zen appears to suss out that Orac is up to no good early on (“The one called Orac is not concerned with the safety of the Liberator”). Vila’s hidden him and Orac (speaking into Cally’s mind) threatens to destroy the life support if she attempts to find him. This suddenly ups the ante for mystery and intrigue. Is Orac really bad? Has he always been? And suddenly, after doing nothing with the character for most of the previous season, Cally has a substantial role to play in proceedings.
Perhaps that’s because she was Boucher’s baby and Nation never much cared for her? I doubt that it’s a coincidence that his first script throws her with a significant B-plotline all of her own.
Avon and Gan are locked up with the now captured Bek and Hanna. Blake’s turning of the tables on Largo seems initially to be quite clever (referring to Zen as if he’s a person to tip off Cally) but it ends up relying on her telepathic abilities to work (she has to confirm his lie about the Liberator having four shuttle craft) so it’s probably not that smart overall. But suddenly she’s magic psychic girl! The series has shifted from gritty to trippy. And this episode will only get trippier.
Avon insults Largo’s enforcer:
Avon: Your professional simplicity is beginning to irritate me.
Cally going apeshit destruction-crazy on a Space City gunship hastens the escape of the crew and again her character echoes the steel of Boucher’s other warrior, Leela. With Hanna and Bek allowed to accompany them, it seems that everyone has escaped a rather botched job (by this point Vila has already returned, in a state of “alcoholic remorse”, so either they have very strong brews, he’s a quick drinker, or he can’t take his drink).
When Cally finds Orac things go all Deva Loka as she’s suddenly cast into a mindscape. Bonus points for Boucher sending the episode lurching in such an unhinged direction. Thematically it links with the altered consciousness of Shadow in the A-plot, but we never see that manifest.
Blake, flailing about for what to do next, has fortunately hit upon something, with input from Avon. Working out that planet Zondar is the source of the drug (an organic compound from a cactus that grew there, the moon disc), the question arises of why the Federation has not wiped out the supply as they could easily have found the same information as the crew of the Liberator. This leads to the explanation at the end of the episode that the President is implicated; to have total control, the Federation must control totally. Both sides of the law; the Terra Nostra and the Federation. There are (deliberate?) echoes of the rumours of CIA involvement in drug running in the 1970s in Boucher’s script. Certainly, the cynical logic of the situation ties in with frequent conspiracy theories of satellite government agencies being involved in black economies in order to increase funding.
Boucher’s really trying to make amends not just to Cally but to Gan, as he again takes the moral high ground, accusing Blake of trying to make them pushers.
The sinister Orac plot only becomes more disturbing as Cally is found by Vila lying next to the machine, and Orac pronouncing that “Obviously she is insane”.
Avon’s deduction that as Orac is a computer and computers do not lie, so whatever is at work is not Orac turns out to be correct, kind of. But at this point, it still isn’t apparent that Orac hasn’t just became deranged, or wasn’t always so.
The killing of Largo by his enforcer is appropriately gruesome, the former lying on the floor foaming at the mouth (the enforcer answers to the chairman, played by Vernon Dobtcheff who was a scientist in The War Machines). So Boucher’s been watching some gangster movies.
Due to teleport to Zondar, Blake acts like a bit of a tosser.
Avon: Are you ready to go? There’s nothing you can do for Cally. Even shouting at everyone else is not going to help her.
The planet-bound sequences are fairly standard quarry business, although the moon discs themselves have a certain Tribble-ish quality, making noises and moving of their own accord.
They resemble bars of soap than balls of fur, though. And the silver ones on sticks have a certain psychedelic sci-fi novel cover quality. Jonathan Wright Miller, debuting as director on the series (I say that, but Horizon was recorded before this), does a good work in both studio and on location, such that Avon tackling a couple of guards (“Next, please”) is pulled off with gusto.
Cally’s rush to teleport herself to the planet is entirely unexpected, pursued by the portentousness goading of the possessed Orac; “Run, last of the humans before my darkness engulfs you” to an ominous heart beat sound effect. And then the strangeness is heightened further as the wee moon discs climb around and onto her. The gradual revelation of what is happening is split between both Orac on the ship (“The bridge is almost complete”) and Cally, where she has a spooky out-of-body encounter with the unseen force.
The electrifying of his key by Orac, causing Vila to recoil and then the death of Hanna when she tries to remove it, is perhaps slightly unsuccessful in creating drama. It comes across as a “we need to do something dramatic, kill someone off” moment.
As such, the subsequent distress of Bek (ending with an offer by Blake to wreak revenge on the crop on Zondar) never really has much bite to it (although it’s understandable that he doesn’t want Orac to be allowed to “live”). Consequently, Avon’s callous “She was dying anyway” seems about right. I doesn’t help that Howman’s not altogether convincing in the role (and I don’t think it’s just because of my familiarity with Brush Strokes).
It never becomes clear who or what this discarnate entity is, other than it being a bad egg. Cally comes to the realisation that her powers extend into its dimension and that Orac’s carrier waves are its bridge. But the later discussion, in which it is posited that Orac has no consciousness in its dimension, rather the computer “drives a beam through it” doesn’t make a great deal of sense (although it has the sound of a clever idea) . Cally’s victory over the entity (“You will stay in your universe of darkness!”) comes through the allying of her power with the moon discs, so Boucher ensures the plotlines dovetail quite neatly. Her success is evidenced by the materialisation of Orac’s key in her hand on the planet. Having straight-out “magic” in the series is fairly surprising, however it’s dressed up; Avon comments that the use of telekenesis seems unlikely, to which Cally responds that she was most likely supported by the moon discs in achieving this. And the entity’s plan to power itself into this universe is obscure enough that even Vila’s layman’s version isn’t very helpful:
Avon: The explosion (of the ship) in the planet's atmosphere would have provided the rest.
Blake: Yes, I hadn't thought of that.
Vila: So you see, Bek, this thing tapped into Orac's channels, sucked up all his energy, so that it could come squirting out and swallow us all.
Avon: The plain man's guide to alien invasions.
Presumably Orac never gets messed with by external forces again, or he’d blow up.
Avon: I have set a small disruption bomb to precise limits within Orac's energy range. Any variation above or below and there will be a rather satisfying little explosion. The slightest attempt to tamper with the communication channels will reduce Orac to a heap of spare parts.
We never hear how Orac feels about this.
Ending an episode with Federation pursuit ships closing in on the Liberator isn’t exactly unusual by this point, but it seems rather callous (and we don’t hear a peep from Cally) of Blake to lay waste to all the sentient moon discs on the planet. But then, it’s consistent with the attitude he’s expressed throughout the episode regarding relations with the Terra Nostra.
Avon (talking about a moon disc): Whose is this?
Avon: Is it alive?
Jenna: I thought they died if they left the planet.
Cally: No, you have to talk to them.
Avon: That’s like talking to Vila. A complete waste of time.
wonder if Blake upheld his promise to visit Bek three years later to see how his rebellion was going (I’m sure there’s a Big Finish there somewhere, with Karl Howman starring)? If the series’ timeline mirrors the number of years it was broadcast he’d have been too dead to, though.
A densely written script from Boucher, certainly compared to those we’ve seen up to this point, and with a secondary plotline for once managing to maintain more interest than the primary. Visually and format-wise it’s pushing the show into more colourful territory, even if that means there’s the occasional misstep in writing and execution. If there's a message here, presumably it's that drugs are bad unless you're a naturally tripped-out alien.