You’d have thought that, as a director who knows his stuff, producer David Maloney would have handpicked only the best of the best to direct Blake’s 7. Most often, though, we’ve seen solid efforts but nothing dazzling. It takes the man in charge to show us how it should be done, returning to the director’s chair (or gallery) for his second in the last three stories (this was shot first in the season, so he actually directed back-to-back). And he delivers a tense, edge-of-the-seat episode, merrily tightening the screws until the last moments.
This is certainly up there with the best of the series, and in some ways is a mirror of the spaceship-bound second episode of season one, Space Fall. Both set up the crew of the Liberator and ended with them taking command of the ship, repelling some nasty Federation types in the process. Hats off too to Tezza (aside from whatever script editing Boucher was obliged to do) as he constructs an episode full of intrigue and action; it’s notable how short and pacy the scenes in this are, no doubt helped by having three different plotlines to spin for most of the running time.
Something I didn’t mention about the last story is the new title sequence. Possibly because it’s rather underwhelming. The initial shot of the Liberator flyby is quite nice, but as a whole it’s neither as dynamic nor as evocative as the previous sequence, nor as stylish as the following season’s. It feels a bit cheap, really, like an ice lolly advert.
Is this the first cliffhanger recap the series has seen? I think it is. Michael Sheard (he needs no introduction Who-wise, so I’ll just mention Laurence Scarman) makes an instant impression as Section Leader Klegg, gone all grizzly with a hard man voice to match. It’s a convincing performance; you could see him mucking in with the Caves of Androzani gunrunners in this persona.
This hits the ground running, with Avon thinking on his feet and making up a story to conceal that they’ve teleported aboard; he gives himself the name Chevron. The tension between Tarrant and Klegg is economically set up; it’s clear that they aren’t in the same unit and that Klegg is mistrustful of his nominated captain. I hadn’t realised that Tarrant gave his first name, Del. So, again, the characters’ alpha statuses are implied by the use of surnames; Tarrant will vie for leadership while Dayna (first name) will take commands.
Avon’s thrown a number of superb lines in this episode, and they’re worth savouring. He is told that the ship is a prize of war.
Avon: What do you want now? A deed of transfer, perhaps?
The reason the commandeering of the ship has not been a total success is that it was set to respond only to the crew, something that Tarrant has worked out in short order. Pacey looks like he should be in an ‘80s boy band, so his casting is definitely of its time. He has no difficulty holding his own against old pros Darrow and Sheard, though.
The set up of Avon hiding from the crew in plain sight is a clever one, first creating tension of whether he’ll be found out, and then of whether he and Dayna can survive the cat-and-mouse game they are playing. We’re quickly onto something being not quite right with Tarrant when he interrupts Klegg’s attempt to expose Avon as a crewmember (through asking Zen to respond to his voice), knocking out both Avon and Dayna. And it’s clear from their interplay that Klegg may be a brute, but he’s no fool; he’s no doubt survived as long as he has by being actively suspicious of everyone he meets.
The return of Vila is welcome (first heard sending a distress call to the Liberator, and initiating its change in course), but it’s a shame the episode falls back on “Vila the idiot” as a character point. He’s always better portrayed as an unabashed but astute coward, partly because the nihilistic sense of humour he arms himself with at all time doesn’t sit quite with the bouncing naivety he’s called upon to show when he needs to be duped by those up to no good.
Vila: It sounds bad-tempered. I hope it’s vegetarian.
Maloney has picked a wonderfully lush, distinctive location for filming, and his compositions show the kind of care you’d expect from him. Nation’s characterisation of the tribes on the planet is as broad stroke, slapdash good guys/bad guys as you’d expect from the guy who brought you the Thals and Kaleds, so it’s fortunate that he’s built in a bit of intrigue into the obvious “Don’t judge by appearances” (an observation Avon makes to Dayna in the very next scene) distinction between the Hi-Tecs (gawd, Terry, you’re really not trying here, are you?) and the Primitives.
Vila trusts anyone who will give him food, so initially he’s allied with the Primitives, as represented by the great John Hollis (Sondergaard in The Mutants, Lobot, and numerous Avengers appearances amongst others). It’s not a great part, but Hollis only has to show up with his shiny dome to make an impression. He’s accompanied by a beardy fat bloke, who was presumably cast for his ability to carry the tranquilised Hollis over his shoulder like a bag of spuds.
The hunters pursuing them are a bizarrely costumed bunch, like a futuristic female biker gang who base their look on Girl on a Motorcycle.
Locked up, Avon and Dayna debate what’s next. Avon says that the first thing they need to do is get out of the room.
Dayna: And once we’re out?
Avon: This is my ship!
Best line of the episode. And, as delivered, one of the best in the series.
One of the funniest in the episode comes on discovery that someone has been stabbing Federation guards in the back and leaving them sitting on duty.
Avon: That’s a difficult way to commit suicide.
In short order, Avon and Dayna are hiding out under the floor of the Liberator, effectively bathed in red light. Maloney shoots the spaces in the ship with a keen sense of geography, and the constant switching between hunter and hunted, and whatever the mysterious Tarrant’s game is, builds the tension extremely effectively.
It’s perhaps a bit too neat that Cally is being nursed back to health (with a crayz-ee regen visor) on neutral ship headed to precisely the planet that Vila’s fetched up on. As with the Hi-Tecs who “rescue” Vila, they seem almost suspiciously nice to Cally. And having them show complete disinterest in the demands of Servalan when she is rescued works to put you on their side.
Although, Servalan must be spinning at the synchronicity of bumping into Blake’s crew every five minutes. Just where was she picked up from, anyway? It looks like a rather uninviting spot. I can only assume that once away from Sarran’s beaches the planet is a desolate dustbowl that looks like a model sequence (the out-of-order shooting might have something to do with this mismatch, I suppose).
Avon’s ruse of launching an escape capsule so that the Federation troops think he and Dayna have legged it is a solid one, and gives us more cat-and-mouse tension. Avon doesn’t manage the same deductive results that he did in Mission to Destiny, as he doesn’t figure out who is bumping off the Federation guards. In that sense, without competing for command, Tarrant marks himself out as a contending alpha male and Blake’s inheritor.
Dayna: Avon, why do you keep everything to yourself? Why so secretive?
Avon: Perhaps I’m shy.
Cally’s catty conversation with Servalan is a bit of stir-and-repeat of what we already know about the Federation and how the latter intends to get the crew. There’s little in the way of sparkiness between the two; Vila’s sarcasm on meeting the President later is far more effective, Cally does learn that Servalan has met Avon, though.
Sneaking a chance to talk to Zen, we learn that Blake is en route for Epheron (why is Avon so keen to know, though; this is the chance he’s been waiting for, unfettered by his earnest leader) and that Jenna has superficial injuries, and is aboard a neutral cargo carrier on course for Morphenniel. She’s let it be known her treatment is not a priority. Which is basically saying, “Fuck’y’all”. Or “Sorry, I’m off to study Chaucer”.
There’s good chemistry between Darrow and Pacey (possibly, in terms of this episode anyway, better than between Darrow and Thomas). Avon’s even given a “You got me there, good one” smile when Tarrant responds to his suggestion that he deduced who he was because he was too intelligent for Vila.
Tarrant: It was an even bet.
Tarrant shoots a trooper before he joins up with Avon and his revelation that it is he who has been bumping of troops is pitched to show Avon off guard for once. His back story makes him sound like a peculiar cross between Blake and Jenna (or perhaps Del Grant would be more accurate); running contraband and getting mixed up in others’ wars. It has the whiff of thrill-seeking, as he “went in against the aliens, like you”.
He also trained as a space captain (so was presumably an alpha grade like Blake?), which helped his deceiving of Klegg. It’s okay that he’s been slaughtering Klegg’s men as they comprise the Federation’s death squad. It shouldn’t really be necessary to qualify his actions as being okay because they are “really, really bad” but I won’t be too judgemental on this as they are fairly unstinting (at this point) in making Dayna kill-happy (Dayna is probably Boucher continuing to work through his Leela fixation).
I don’t know what Michael Keating’s been up to; either he’s shat himself or he’s been sitting in a puddle as the two biker bitches see him off into their care centre. His reunion with Cally is quite sweet.
Cally: I knew you were still alive because I felt your pain.
Vila: Oh, you’ve no idea what I’ve been through. Well, it’s all right. If you don’t mind the agony.
The “Terran” Federation is name-dropped again; I’m not sure we’ve heard that since early in season one. Servalan is like the cat who’s got the cream announcing that she has ensured safe passage to Earth through making a considerable payment to the Chengans.
Vila: Wonderful. We were worried about you. Your welfare really concerned us.
Servalan: We won’t meet again.
Vila: Sounds good. I told you I like change.
I like this exchange; Vila’s so utterly beneath Servalan that his disrespectfulness is particularly sweet. Of course, Vila is rather less care free when Servalan reveals that the place is known as “the slaughterhouse” as a parting shot (an organ bank).
The stand-off between Klegg, Avon and Tarrant begins strikingly; Klegg in the teleport area, holding Dayna hostage (she was clearly all talk saying she could take Klegg’s men down earlier as she got caught without even roughing them up a bit), then Avon apparently giving up Tarrant in exchange for safe teleportation of him and Dayna to the nearest planet.
Which means that, although well-staged, the “Now!” fisticuffs that sort out the remaining troopers seems a bit perfunctory and chancy. Still, having Dayna strangle Klegg while Avon and Tarrant look on (“Promising, quite promising”) is something you’d never have seen Blake register approval of.
The episode keeps the action going right up to the last moment (there is a slight sense of “We’re running out of time, wrap it up”), and the “Just in the nick of time” teleportation to safety of Vila and Cally pushes believability a bit too much for me; it’s particularly fortunate that they were both wearing their bracelets at that point.
Avon: This one is Vila. I should really introduce him now. He’s at his best when he’s unconscious.
Very magnanimous of Avon to instantly accept Tarrant and Dayna onto his ship and have their voices recognised by Zen. Dayna, less so since they’ve built a rapport. But he seems to take Tarrant at face value (admittedly, he has saved his life on several occasions, and Avon’s probably discerned that he doesn’t possess many hidden depths).
An excellent episode, easily in the top five so far. Maloney calls the shots with great skill, the script is tense and full of incident, and the bringing together of the old, and the introduction of the new, crew members makes the whole thing very memorable.