Season Three continues its mid-stages winning streak with Tanith Lee’s debut script for the series. Budget episodes featuring little aside from the regular cast were a low-brow staple of US TV for decades, often shamelessly held together through flashback sequences (clips of old episodes). If Sarcophagus is unashamed of anything it is its theatricality, but this is also one of its great assets.
In premise, it isn’t so far from an original series Star Trek episode; the crew are invaded/possessed by an alien entity who makes them act strangely/uncharacteristically until Kirk/Avon shows his mettle and repels the intruder.
But Lee, aside from a rather unnecessary dummies’ guide to the episode chaired by Vila and Dayna at the end, resists that series’ requirement to hammer any subtleties of plot in the audience’s faces. In that respect it gets the drop on Kinda in its exploration of archetypes.
In that story too, the identities of the quasi-mythical characters of the mind are left non-explicit in terms of identity. While certain of the Liberator crew’s alter-egos are clear, others provide more room for debate (certainly if my reading, as against the Den of Geek review, is anything to go by).
Can you imagine the first five minutes of an episode from the previous season given over to a piece of mystical performance art, with not a whiff of the crew (or the Federation)? And mystical performance art without any dialogue at that? One might accuse Lee and returning director Fiona Cumming of foolish bravado in such an approach, but whatever it may lack in ability to realise its ideas, like Kinda it more than makes up for in terms of its internal integrity.
What is it that we are watching? We are later given the understanding that this was a funeral rite of some sort (ending in the site, the “sarcophagus”, being sent into space) but the specifics involved and the whys and wherefores are left to interpretation. Five different archetypes appear (facets of the deceased?); a priestess (DoG suggests a mourner), a jester, a minstrel, a warrior and death (DoG suggests “the lone man” but the ritual ending with the personification of that which has overcome the deceased would make more sense – particularly as Avon is later identified in this role).
I rather like the spidery UFO coffin design. Actually, I rather like the silver-painted woman who plays one or several of the different archetypes too.
Lee doesn’t waste time once we do see the crew in setting up their dynamic for this episode. Avon comes to Cally’s door, the latter brooding over the loss of Auron. However a scene where Avon shows concern for a colleague might be played, Darrow likely would not play even a confession of undying love straightforwardly; he is rightly protective of his character.
Whatever the connection between the two (and the writers of the series certainly seem to have seized upon this since Blake introduced the idea in Voice from the Past), it seems to be more about a vague recognition than clear empathy or emotion. Perhaps both are estranged from their fellows, but in entirely opposite ways (Cally so open and feeling, Avon so remote and studying) that they cannot but have a certain understanding. Whatever the truth, what works about it is partly that it is left open to speculation. God knows, if the series was rebooted today the writers would be stricken with banal ideas for how Avon and Cally could do a Mulder and Scully.
Avon: Regret is part of being alive. But keep it a small part.
Cally: As you do?
The discovery of the sarcophagus in proximity to the ship pushes to one side Tarrant’s plan to look over an asteroid for minerals (Sheesh – have they come to this?!) It is Tarrant who is most keen; all he needs for motivation is that “It’s out there”, to which Avon observes that he is bored. Avon is, as usual when he expresses reticence over a course of action, correct in his suspicion of the object.
We also have the now regular (but it must be said enormous fun – if only for the put-downs from Avon) squabbles between Avon and hot-headed Tarrant. Tarrant doesn’t believe Cally when she claims not to have felt anything coming off the object (as it turns out, neither does Avon but he defends her). Avon, Vila and Cally teleport over to the sarcophagus.
Avon (to Tarrant): You will remain here, as back-up with Dayna. You don’t mind, do you?
Although the reason for Vila and Avon arriving several seconds behind Cally on the ship is clear in retrospect, it adds to the building mystery very nicely at the time.
And there is a solid racheting up of tension in the sequence where Cally returns to the Liberator but Avon and Vila are trapped aboard, requiring Cally to return to rescue them.
One of the pleasures of this story is Avon’s “smartest person in the room” role, particularly in the way his actions precede any explanation of just how he is being smart.
So here he is playing against Tarrant’s obnoxious attack on Cally with apparent sympathy (“His enthusiasm can be disturbing”) but is really ensuring he can study how and why she is behaving the way she is.
Cally has taken both a ring from the corpse – at least we presume so, since she has it later - and an egg-like object (at Avon’s instigation) back to the ship with her.
Tarrant is correct to scoff at Cally’s explanation for how she managed to rescue Avon and Vila, but he really has settled into becoming the ship’s charmlessly obnoxious arsehole. If that’s Pacey’s intention you can’t fault him for achieving his aim.
And while Cally withdraws to her cabin for a tripped out transcendental journey to the scene of the earlier funeral (she appears to take the role of the priestess), the crew experience the onset of their own warped realities.
Vila experiences a headache, “as if a storm were coming” and Avon and Tarrant get into it with a fairly cutthroat conversation. Or, rather, Tarrant gets into it. After telling him to shut up about Cally, Avon stands – hilariously - mostly silent while Tarrant mouths off (and, conveniently, Cally is able to get some one-on-one time with the egg while this is going on).
Tarrant: I don't take any orders from you.
Avon: Well, now that's a great pity, considering that your own ideas are so limited.
Tarrant: Don't try and bluff your way with me, Avon. I know what's been needling you right from the start. With Blake gone, you thought you'd got it made, didn't you? Thought you'd got control of this ship and a crew of three who'd say, "Yes, Avon. Whatever you want, Avon." But you reckoned without me.
Avon: That wouldn't be too difficult.
Tarrant: Oh, really? I don't think so. When you found me on the Liberator, it was quite a blow. And every time you look at me, it hits you harder, doesn't it? I'm faster than you and I'm sharper. As far as it goes, I've made a success of my life. But you? The only big thing you ever tried to do you failed at. The greatest computer swindle of all time ... but you couldn't quite pull it off, could you? If it hadn't been for Blake, you'd be rotting on Cygnus Alpha right now. No, you failed, Avon. But I win. Not just at games, at life.
Avon: You also talk too much.
It may have been incited by the ship’s intruder, but this argument does bring out a few tensions that have been simmering away. Avon now finds himself with usurper Tarrant in the position he did with Blake, pretty much. And Tarrant is right that Avon finds him a pain in the arse (but he never appears to consider him a real threat, certainly not an equal). But Tarrant’s “Always winning” speech is a bit much considering he’s made do as one of the crew.
Dayna’s song, positioned over shots of the Liberator hanging in space is both bizarre and somehow entirely fitting with the tone of the episode. And with the damage to Orac (from trying to communicate with the egg) and power drain from Zen and the ship in general, the scene is set for further reality bending.
With Avon gone missing and Tarrant and Dayna gone to find him and Cally, the second of the crew becomes one of the archetypes seen at the start. There might be something to be said for paralleling the characters with the tarot; the high priestess as the same, the jester as the Fool (although he carries a lyre too, like Dayna), Death, the warrior (Strength? The Chariot?), although these certainly aren’t readily designated.
Vila, nervous of the dark, hallucinates Dayna playing the lyre and intimidating him (perhaps because he lusts after her).
Keating’s very good here, running the gamut from magic tricks (echoing previous episodes) to cowering terror; he is granted more of a spotlight in his psychodrama than either Dayna or Tarrant will experience. A sound very similar to that of the Fendahl is used when Vila experiences a hand on his shoulder (that of Cally/the intruder).
Avon’s reappearance fits with his earlier silent observance of events. Tarrant discovers the unconscious Dayna in Cally’s room (Cally is in a trance reclined on her bed, but it is her image that appears to Vila) and forms some fairly obvious conclusions about Cally’s possession and what is occurring.
Avon: Do you want the applause now or will it wait?
And while Tarrant (looking easily the most plonkerish in his red “warrior” garb, legging it to the flight deck in slow motion) and Dayna are quickly cowed before “Cally” (although we do learn that the reincarnated being wishes to head for its own distant planet, and is willing to keep the crew on as its servants), Avon eventually enters with the kind of detached relish that Darrow does so well.
The scene itself is the sort that the Shat would engage in to get the better of some apparently godlike entity in a typical Star Trek episode. It should probably be diminished due to that echo, but Avon grandstanding like this is such a pleasure that I can’t find it in me to call it derivative.
It also allows for some debate as to the feelings or otherwise between Avon and Cally that are revealed here.
Avon’s tactic (that Vila and Dayna laboriously spell out in the final scene) of dismissive disobedience works as it causes Cally to fight the intruder in order to prevent Avon’s destruction (Avon’s such a cool customer that you never doubt he’s not in a danger, though). His calculated clinch with Cally is ostensibly just to grab the ring from Cally’s finger, but it means Avon’s snogged all of the show’s female leads this season. Way to go, Avon.
And the role play cycle paralleling the opening scene is complete, with Darrow looking quite hilariously Mephistophelian in his black apparel.
As I’ve said, Dayna and Vila’s banal summation of events is unnecessary, but there’s still a good line or two.
Dayna: She didn't have any influence over it except that it had to protect her. Anyway, Avon was the target then, too. You were incidental.
Vila: "Incidental"? That'll look good on my gravestone.
And what to make of lingering look exchanged between Avon and Cally before the Liberator heads off anew? I don’t tend to go for a proper romantic connection between them, but certainly a level of recognition. They share a certain distinct intelligence from their fellow crew members, even though it is expressed in entirely different ways.
Whether due to budget-conscious necessity or a genuine desire to spend time playing with the dynamics of the crew, this episode’s scenario pays dividends. Another top notch Season Three story.