Any episode where the crew of the Liberator don’t get involved in the main action until 35 minutes in (they don’t even leave the ship) is asking for trouble. In spite of this, Chris Boucher manages to make Weapon compelling. Part of it may be because, as in Shadow, he’s inventive both in terms of plotting and characterisation. You aren’t quite sure where the story will go and it ends up not suffering from Blake’s gang being almost surplus to requirements.
Weapon was both recorded and transmitted third, and it looks something of a midway point between Season One and what we end up with in Shadow. We have extensive use of a 1970s industrial facility, but also extended sequences in the set-bound (minimalist) environment of the Clonemasters. In terms of characters and worlds, Boucher’s eager to push the boundaries of what we know of the Federation, such that we’re introduced to the puppeteers, get some further information on the class systems (there’s slaves below the worker grades) and insight into technologies (cloning).
On direction duty is George Spenton-Foster, who’d taken the reins of Image of the Fendahl and The Ribos Operation for Who very recently.
The slow motion explosion of Cozer’s spaceship at the start is quite dramatic; in general, B7’s model work has stood the test of time reasonably well.
Cozer’s costume has more than a touch of Ming the Merciless about it. Which is appropriate, as John Bennett (Li’Hsen Chang in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, of course, and Invasion of the Dinosaurs) would have made a peerless Ming. He’s accompanied by very pretty ex-slave (ex as in, he just set her free) Rashel, played by Candace Glendenning.
Where better to hide from the Federation than a disused industrial facility? One rather disconcerting, but oddly pleasing, aspect of the location work in this story is that there’s a constant background sound of birdsong.
Oh gawd. It’s Brian Croucher. Proving for all to see that Borg in The Robots of Death wasn’t a finely judged rendition of an ignorant brute. As that seems to be how he plays everyone. Others have noted the stark difference between Greif’s Travis and Croucher’s, so not a huge amount needs to be said. A character that in Season One was never the most subtle or nuanced becomes so in retrospect due to the petulant, snarling thuggery that Croucher emotes in every scene. He’s less a Space Commander than a ranting schoolyard bully and it’s this aspect of Weapon that’s the weakest.
His relationship with Servalan appears to have changed since his face and character-lift too. His contempt for her is unconcealed, whereas previously he respected her as long as it furthered his quest to kill Blake.
The conceit of his first scene, with him gunning down a Blake clone, shows Boucher’s crowd-pleasing sensibilities. We don’t really doubt that it isn’t Blake, but it hooks us.
Quite a coup to cast Kathleen Byron as Clonemaster Fen (so memorably deranged in Black Narcissus). And Dudley Simpson gets to break out his organ music to good effect.
What’s going on with the costuming of the show? Has the budget increased? It’s like the anti-JNT approach. Blake’s basically wearing the same clobber as in Redemption, but Avon ends up in a red leather number.
Talking of whom, his constant sniping at Blake’s plans is getting a little repetitive; perhaps he’s just biding his time until he can take the Liberator for himself, but if he’s as disinclined to follow as he says he is he should really just do a runner. Mind you, Blake’s now typically dumb plan of attacking a Federation weapons development base actually comes from Cally (in order to get some weapons with which to attack Federation Control on Earth... Okay. Are you going to get hold of a better weapon than the Liberator? What exactly are you after?)
Avon: Auron may be different, Cally, but on Earth it is considered ill-mannered to kill your friends while committing suicide.
There’s also the underlying tension that Blake keeps making decisions without discussing anything with the rest of the crew (he gave Orac some calculations to chew on), but morons like Gan will follow him to the end of the Earth (a sign here that his tension with Blake in Shadow was a result of rejigging the running order, rather than having consistent character development).
Servalan: Travis, you are pathetic. Of all the cripple-brained idiots.
The lack of chemistry between Pearce and Croucher also detracts from their relationship; it was enjoyable to see them plotting in the first season, but not now. To some extent that’s signposted in the script, but there’s always different ways of playing a scene and Croucher opts to bludgeon it to death. It’s hard to see why Travis is so riled up by being manipulated into killing the Blake clone, but you’d certainly not expect to see Greif lose his cool and be on the verge of strangling her (threatened with the slave pits of Ursa Prime).
The building Cozer and Rashel enter looks convincingly filthy and rat-infested (well, there’s two of them), and it’s clear that Cozer is a contrary, unbalanced so-and-so. He releases Rashel from slavery but then continually barracks her.
Clonemaster Fen gives us some backstory of her “people”, which is essentially that she is them, cloning herself to pass down the duties. It’s a neat idea from Boucher, to turn something so very scientific into something that bears all the trappings and ritual of a religious order. The Federation seem to believe that clones were abandoned as they were inefficient and led to genetic stagnation (Federation scientists are able to produce clones) but Fen says that this is not the case; leaders feared the use of clones as a weapon so entrusted them to the Clonemasters and the ethos of “I believe in the Rule of Life” was passed down. I’m not sure I can really swallow the hands-off approach taken by the Federation, but the implication is that the Clonemasters at least see effective clone production as something of an art, rather than merely a clinical procedure.
The Blake clone (a second one was also made, who is present now; he’s much more polite than Welsh Blake) is not one in the true sense, as he has been produced without the original’s DNA profile. The Clonemasters may copy life, but they cannot create new forms; this Blake is only a physical copy and does not have Blake’s experience so cannot be Blake.
He has some background knowledge and the beginning of an identity. It’s the cusp of an interesting conversation on what the actual production of a fully formed clone would possess in terms of faculties (the implication is that using a cell of Blake would produce a copy with identical memories, experience etc, but this is never interrogated further). This copy was born five hours ago but is 34 years old (a whippersnapper).
Servalan tells Fen some guff about Travis being under arrest for killing the first clone. I like Fen’s penetrating response, “You understand the Rule of Law, Servalan. Almost as thoroughly as you understand trust”.
IMIPAK sounds more like a hair removal cream than a gun.
Jenna: Maybe IMIPAK is another Orac. If we captured him maybe we could breed them.
Blake: What a disgusting idea!
Is Cozer’s reaction to the slithering sound he can here an in-joke on Bennett’s role in The Talons of Weng-Chiang?
Rashel: Perhaps it was a rat.
So Cozer was a Beta-class technician (presumably this corresponds to the Alpha and Delta grades referred to by Vila in Shadow?) with skills above his grade.
The despatch of Travis to locate Cozer drops in that he will place small proximity mines in random orbit round the planet Cozer’s on; good call of Boucher to throw this in so early, and then use it once we’d forgotten all about it later in the episode.
The best character of the episode by a considerable distance is Carnell, played by Scott Fredericks (Stael in Spenton-Foster’s Fendahl, and Boaz in Day of the Daleks), a “brilliant psycho strategist”. It shows Boucher again being tricksy with his plotting, as suddenly we learn that everything is planned out by Servalan (with Carnell’s necessary deductive reasoning). It also emphasises (and even more so by episode’s end) how Servalan no longer has any confidence in Travis, and certainly wouldn’t confide anything important in him.
The presence of a rank of such qualified individuals in the Federation does beg the question of why they aren’t used all the time (even if there are always variables that it may not be possible to account for). After all, Carnell calculated that Orac would intercept the message concerning Cozer and that Blake would seek him out, for which moment the Blake clone was prepared (although, the bit about Cozer being so psychotic that he would accept a folk hero showing up out of the blue and then probably wouldn’t even notice a second Blake appearing seems like very slender reasoning for one so sure of himself). Even given that his strategy is based on Cozer being alone, I can’t quite see it. I like how Boucher throws the audience the seed of how the plan will unravel. Carnell’s calculations are based on Cozer being solitary.
Carnell: I’ve taken everyone and everything into consideration, believe me.
Mind you, anyone could predict Blake’s blundering approach to securing the mysterious IMIPAK.
Vila: We don’t know what IMIPAK is.
Blake: Exactly. The least we can do is find out what it is.
Vila: Why have we? I can live without it.
Blake: It’s just conceivable that you can’t.
Avon: Unless, of course, you want your last words to be, “So that’s IMIPAK”.
It’s lucky for Vila he doesn’t get teleported down.
Boucher seems to have more fun with Carnell’s plot thread here than anyone else’s and there’s a strong sense that this is more a Federation episode than a rebel one. Fredericks is enjoying his part too, far more erudite than the OTT Stael. His scene with a Federation officer (Graham Simpson, who was the Hiker in, again, Image of the Fendahl), who lets him see a vital document which makes him realise he miscalculated, is riveting. We also hear the slang for psycho-strategists (“You’re a puppeteer?”) and he makes a present of his chess computer (“A small return for saving my life”); it’s second only to the final scene (Carnell again) as the best in the episode. Carnell’s the sort of character whose wit and intelligence makes you pleased he survives even though he is nominally a bad guy.
Carnell: Always remember, the Officer Corps will forgive anything it can understand. Which makes intelligence about the only sin.
After the officer has left:
Carnell: And the other mistake I made was not getting an advance on my fee.
The attack of the giant claw (obviously an unhappy Macra) allows us to see IMIPAK at work; Cozer shoots it and only afterwards triggers its demise.
Rashel: It’s still alive.
Cozer: I haven’t told it it’s dead yet.
It’s a great idea, and it shows Boucher firing on all cylinders. If Cozer isn’t the best-drawn of characters (he is signified by unbalance and obsession with his status; “Not bad for a Beta-grade!”), Bennett imbues him a certain tormented humanity.
The subsequent appearance of cloned Blake doesn’t really fool us for more than a few seconds (it could have been played with a bit more; there’s not even a scene with the two Blakes confronting each other, which is usually obligatory with doubles) and having Servalan and Travis arrive seconds after Cozer has explained the deal with the gun and handed it to Blake is rather clumsy. Is Cozer really that familiar with him that he’d just give it away, no questions asked, even with his burgeoning psychosis?
The explanation for IMIPAK (if the key is used it triggers the molecules made unstable by firing it in the first instance, and has a range of 1,000,000 miles) makes it sound more like a tool for political purposes than something that would be much use in an affray, so you can see why Servalan wants to get her manicured paws on it.
The character of cloned Blake is economically set out in these scenes; we learn that he is imbued with the value system of his Clonemaster (he knits his fingers and says “All life is linked” when informed of IMIPAK’s capacity to kill) and exchanges a meaningful look with Rashel when Servalan kills Cozer. I don’t blame Blake clone for wanting to bump uglies with Rashel, but only a few hours after he’s been born? The filthy young pup.
I did laugh at Servalan shooting the unsuspecting Travis; the self-amusement at setting a train of events in motion. She then starts merrily firing on Federation guards, before giving IMIPAK to Travis to shoot Blake, Avon and Gan. Which he does; another thing I like about Boucher’s set up. There’s no real resolution to IMIPAK, the crewmembers just have to hope the weapon doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.
Servalan’s “I may not kill you after all, Carnell” did make me wonder. Was she referring to her general attitude of disposing with those who know too much, or was she talking about his failure to factor in Rashel?
But consider this; all Blake and co have done is teleport down, get shot and now realise that they have fallen into a trap.
They then teleport back to the ship under threat of being IMIPAKed (Servalan gives them a head start). In the space of five minutes.
It’s a massive failure for Blake, this one. Servalan coming up with the same rather rubbish “Blame Blake” reasoning as she did last season when she planned to steal Orac is a bit thin.
Blake’s desperate plan to use the planet as a shield (what, he’s hoping that the 1,000,000 miles range only works if there’s a clear line of sight?) is feeble, but the setting off of proximity mines effectively distracts us from his reasoning. The line about “Almost as if we’re on strings and she’s the puppeteer” is unnecessarily on-the-nose, though.
Having Rashel claim her freedom by shooting Servalan with IMIPAK and then threatening her and Travis is an appealing development too, as she ends up fully emancipated; more expected would be a pessimistic death here. But Weapon offers hope for several of the supporting characters, making it a strangely optimistic episode. That clone Blake comes in and prevents Travis from shooting Rashel only adds to this; they only get to share a rather drab Eden together, but it’s better than nothing (and Blake clone really is Adam here, an innocent obeying the Rule of Life, so it’s up to Rashel to tutor him in carnality).
I’m not too sure that Servalan wouldn’t just have the planet precision-bombed after she and Travis were a safe distance away, but it’s a change to have an almost romantic, certainly with the potential of a happy, ending; Dudley even has a little moment as Rashel and Blake’s hands touch. It’s nice of Rashel to call up Blake on a subspace communicator and give him the lowdown (does she tell him she’s going to be shagging his clone? As far as I can tell, there’s no reason Blake should be aware he even has one).
The final scene where Servalan listens to Carnell’s farewell message elicits a lovely performance from Pearce, and there’s some very playful dialogue from Boucher to complement it. Carnell says he overlooked Rashel, but her people should have included her in the information he was presented with. He tells Servalan she hasn’t lost anything.
Carnell: Whereas I have lost my career, my position, the respect of my peers. Come to think of it, I haven’t lost anything either... One last thing, Supreme Commander. I must tell you this. You are undoubtedly the sexiest officer I have ever known. Goodbye, Servalan.
The smile on Servalan’s face tells you everything about what a charmer Carnell is, and it’s a superb way to finish the episode.
The Liberator crew are hardly in it, so it’s the first story that really works on the basis of the supporting characters. You couldn’t play so fast and loose with the formula every week (or it would cease to be Blake’s 7) but it shows Boucher continuing to play with the format to interesting effect. It’s also thematically rich, the “All life is linked” theme running through the major plot points of clones and the capabilities of IMIPAK. And nice to have a happy ending for a change, too. It’s just a shame about Travis.