The return of Ben Steed, who follows up the batty Harvest of Kairos with an equally batty tale. I found this quite enjoyable viewing, even intriguing in places, but I wouldn’t call it “good”, any more than I would Kairos. Steed seems to get by writing clunking caricatures, so the men here are mostly violent rapists and the women fairly useless and subservient (Servalan aside).
I’m not sure if he’s intending for there to be some level of commentary in this, but if he is it’s lost in the sketchy characterisations and uneven production values. As for the premise, it revolves around a very Star Trek highly advanced computer that I’m not sure bears close analysis. Certainly, the script seems riddled with logic holes. But generally entertaining, and that’s before the Jim Henson puppet appears as its crowning glory. As for the contender for worst Blake’s 7 alien design, there’s so many to choose from.
Presumably because they’re bored ambling along all season, the crew have decided to re-engage with the Federation. Or, at least, Servalan in her Geiger ship.
So they’ve been following her for 27 days. Zen tells them that on the present course there is no material destination. Before they bump into a shielded planet, that is.
Of note is that Dayna is becoming increasingly bullying of Vila, telling him to shut up for moaning, while Tarrant is just as bullying as ever. We get the usual debates about investigating versus caution – between Avon and Tarrant, surprise, surprise. Tarrant’s all for getting in there, which allows Avon to be witheringly dismissive.
Avon: It will be interesting to see what that energy field does to a teleport beam.
What this doesgive rise to is quite a nifty bit of Trojan horse plotting, as Tarrant and a reluctant Vila teleport aboard a transporter en route for the planet.
Dayna: Isn’t this a bit precipitous?
Avon: Tarrant is always precipitous, or hadn’t you noticed?
By this point we’ve been introduced to two of its inhabitants, Poola and Chesil, dressed for curvature and cleavage. I’m rather surprised that, even with a shortage of troops, rogue Federation soldiers Lector and Grose are willing to employ them. They seem to spend most of their time attempting rebellion or subterfuge.
Even given the debauched attitude of Grose to his female “staff” (slapping a servant wench on the buttocks is a signpost of an introduction), it’s a rather foolhardy approach.
The Fifth Legion sounds like a deliberately Roman parallel, and Servalan’s summary of their attitudes is right up Steed’s street in his take on the male psyche.
Servalan: Well, Section Leader, the records were accurate. Women, food, and inflicting pain -- in no particular order.
The less blundering of the dynamics here are quite interesting; Servalan’s steely disinterest in the coarse insubordination of Grose and his inability to intimidate her to some extent make up for the episode’s otherwise rather shoddy portrayal of women. And it’s interesting to see another presentation of the instability of Servalan’s rule here, even if the threat is very satellite and slightly absurd in origin.
But Grose’s uncouth brutality does make an effective counterpoint to Servalan’s finesse, and the abrupt manner in which he announces that she was only invited here to be usurped suggests that the episode may go in interesting directions. As it is, we never hear any more about Grose’s fleet or what happens to the replication process after the end of the episode. It’s not something you’d have thought Servalan would just leave when her authority requires consolidating.
Grose: Madame President, if your reconstituted Federation was worth a light, you wouldn't have chased halfway across the galaxy to retrieve one legion. Already I suspect my fleet outnumbers yours. Soon, it'll be the most powerful in the galaxy.
As far as the exposition regarding the computer replication process is concerned, at its heart it’s science as magic. But it manages to layer itself with a veneer of believability by being presented as a flawed process; it cannot replicate life forms (or so we think).
The revelation of Commander Astrid (who we are told designed the computer – Moloch – to look after the process) in suspended animation is distinctly underwhelming, a crappy effect that recalls Saymon in The Web. I’m not clear why Moloch is necessary anyway; the process works irrespective of a “computer” controlling it, and it’s never really satisfactorily explained. It does provide the episode with a rather naff “reveal”, though.
Vila meets a rum chum on the transporter, Doran (David Harries, Shapp in The Armageddon Factor, again cast in the comedy supporting character role). I’m not sure whether Harries’ interpretation of Doran as a drunkenly likable oaf fits with the dialogue (he doesn’t think much of Vila being a thief, commenting that his problem was always women which suggests he’s a rapist, and notes that in 15 years he’s never seen the sun or a woman), but at least it counters the overpowering odour of malign testosterone that Steed seems intent on smothering the episode with. The gang of convicts (to be employed to swell Grose’s ranks) seems to be modelled on the nautical ranks, complete with drunken sea shanties.
Vila’s friction with Tarrant has been consistently shown during the season, and here we have Vila essentially dare Tarrant to kill him, choosing to join Doran rather than submit to continued barracking. And, just as in City at the Edge of the World, it’s Avon who proves Vila’s unlikely defender (and Cally surprisingly positioned as uncaring).
Avon: He was under pressure. It's all very well for Tarrant to play the hero; that's his decision. But Vila?
Fittingly, Tarrant is captured while Vila joins the enemy, kitted out in a Federation uniform by Doran. If the reproduction of inanimate objects is a stretch, the method by which Tarrant’s (or anyone else’s) skills can be scanned and fed into a flight computer is as big a one.
The rapey approach to characters taken by Steed continues when Moloch suggests that Grose gives Servalan to his men. Which seems to be about to happen when Vila happens upon her. It should also be noted that Doran clearly expects Vila to force himself upon Servalan.
I’ve found the mismatched interaction between Servalan and Vila this season to be quite amusing, but the opportunity here is somewhat squandered. Vila releases Servalan, Vila fails to deal with guard, Servalan shoots guard, Servalan buggers off.
Dependable as ever, Avon wastes no time in deducing the function and parameters of the replication machine, also concluding half an off-screen dialogue that Orac evidently had before Avon and Dayna teleported down to the planet. This concerned the detailed computer projection made into the future of the evolution of the Sardoans in two million years time. There’s something quite Tom Baker-like in Darrow’s apparent spontaneity when he eats a replicated apple against Dayna’s objections.
One wonders if there were some running time issues with this episode. Certainly, Tarrant relating to Vila Servalan’s escape attempt and how she – for some reason – didn’t kill Tarrant feels like a set piece that was originally intended rather than Servalan suddenly disappearing from the action.
This episode manages a strange feat of being intriguing and dumb at the same time. So Avon’s interrogation by Grose has an edge because Avon’s has worked out what Grose hasn’t (that Moloch is withholding information for a reason).
Dayna: All right. Enough. We're from the Liberator.
Grose: The Liberator? That's Blake's ship.
Avon: He liked to think so.
The arrival of Tarrant, Vila, Doran and Chesil results in the deaths of Lector, Grose and his guards in short order. And then Moloch causes Doran and Chesil to be killed (Eric Saward would be proud).
Ah yes, the reveal of Moloch, and the return of Deep Roy. He really is a daft looking muppet; did anyone think the design would provoke anything other than mirth? Avon gets a big up from the wizened one-eyed waster, but the news that all he wants is the Liberator is a “Not a-bloody-gain!” moment.
If the ship’s is that sodding great we should really get a bit evidence of it (apart from the design and the teleport, there’s never really been much pay-off in terms of the set-up of the first few episode of Season One – even the powers of the ship seemed to fluctuate according to the need to make the crew remain vulnerable).
It also rather beggars belief that Moloch would be such a bonehead as not to realise that he couldn’t survive outside of his life support system. You’d have thought he might have tried strolling around the room where he’s been living first. And given the unclear influence of the little muppet, I’m not sure that that the Sardoans will really notice much difference not having him around. They still have the same basic technology.
Indeed, presumably Moloch’s only been about for as long as Season Three has lasted as the Federation didn’t crash down until the time of the war with Andromeda. I’m not sure how the Sardoans will fare with (presumably) a continued Federation presence – a fleet even – and a load of rape-happy criminals about. Never mind, eh?
Entertaining but stupid, wall-to-wall with Ben Steed’s macho bullshit and his now obligatory crap alien.