If a woodchuck could chuck wood, how much wood could a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
The episode that lent itself to an Orb track, Ultraworld is serviceable and run-of-the-mill. Which is to say that it’s probably accurate to cite this one if you’re talking about the average Season 3 episode. The series in exploration mode, which means that there’s a conspicuous echo of Star Trek in contacting new worlds and civilisations. The difference here is that the crew of the Liberator aren’t on a mission; they’re stumbling from encounter to encounter. Indeed, Avon’s (intellectual) interest in investigating Ultraworld is the sort of thing Blake would have been more likely to suggest in previous seasons (if they’d happened upon such craziness in the first place) and it would be Avon who’d suggest caution.
While the enormous brain may have had a strong impression on Alex Patterson and Tom Fehlmann (A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld), it was the Vila sections of this story that remains one of my formative Blake’s 7experiences.
Indeed, these stand out as the highlight of the episode, with Avon and Cally somewhat sidelined and the ostensible leads Tarrant and Dayna proving that they don’t have the charisma or personality to carry a story. At least, not one like this where Tarrant has the role of explaining (like the Doctor) and Dayna of asking questions.
What’s most glaring about this is that Tarrant’s character seems to be stretched by the writers into whatever the requirements of the plot are this week. While his antagonism with Avon is intact (and a bit for-the-sake-of-it here), his role of logical deduction concerning the workings of Ultraworld is a much better fit for Avon (I wouldn’t be surprised if Trevor Hoyle originally had him in mind for this role).
The opening scene counts as one of the more clumsy Liberator establishing sequences. Agreement is reached just to observe Ultraworld at a safe distance, then everyone conveniently goes off to get some rest so that Cally can be abducted by the Ultra. The only relief is Vila telling jokes to Orac (also of note, Dayna is incredibly bitchy to him in this scene).
Avon: Vila is teaching Orac? No, it doesn’t make sense.
Certainly, some of Vila’s jokes are more successful than others. His opening “parking meteors” gag is a particular groaner.
The decision to go after Cally results in the usual Avon vs Tarrant power games, which feel by-the-numbers here.
With Vila willingly left aboard the ship, Avon, Dayna and Tarrant meet the Ultra. Their design is simple but effective. Ultra 2 is played by Stephen Jenn (Secker in Nightmare of Eden) and Ultra 3 by Ian Barritt (Professor Peach in The Unicorn and the Wasp).
The outline of the functioning of Ultraworld could be from a rejected Star Trek OST script, with a humanoid crew serving an unseen master on an apparent quest for knowledge. As usual in these scenarios, what appears to be a welcoming environment turns out to be anything but. The explanations for Cally’s “treatment” are not believed but Avon points out that if they wished to the Ultra could overcome them instantly (although the necessities of the plot end up showing this not to be the case).
Orac’s developing fascination with Vila’s jokes is winningly portrayed. Indeed, it seems strange in retrospect that the series took so long to develop the character properly. Perhaps Boucher noted the rapport between Tom Baker and John Leeson and decided he’d have some of that. Certainly, there’s immediate comic chemistry between Keating /Vila and Tuddenham/Orac.
Vila: All you're interested in is the idiotic tintax or something.
Orac: That's very clever.
Vila: It is?
Orac: For idiosyncratic syntax you substituted idiotic tintax. Yes, very good.
Vila: Is it?
Orac: Another one, please.
It should also be noted that Vila does a Tommy Cooper impression during his invisible man joke, so presumably he saw a black market copy of the now banned and subversive comedian’s material.
One minute in this Tarrant is explaining in great detail the workings of Ultraworld, the next he’s acting like a dick, brandishing his gun. There’s little consistency to him other than that Pacey makes him reliably brash in manner.
More sensibly he’d have used the information he heard through eavesdropping (that Cally’s memory would be wiped, placed in a tube and then she would be absorbed by the core) to hatch a plan.
Avon’s rather sidelined once he’s succumbed to the fight against sleeping, so it’s left to Tarrant and Dayna, and Vila and Orac, to win out.
The effects work for the core, the brain at the centre of Ultraworld, isn’t as effective as either those in The Keys of Marinus or The Brain of Morbius. Probably this is partly because in both those cases there was material refracting the design; the glass cases in Marinus and the liquid in the tank in Morbius.
The request by the Ultra that Tarrant and Dayna engage in a “human bonding ceremony” is all the evidence you need that Trevor Hoyle’s been taking notes from Star Trek. It’s a silly sequence, seemingly designed to give yet another pairing of the crew a titillating liaision. Pacey seems to work his tongue in there with Simon. It does give us a Roger Moore Bond film-level joke as Dayna sets off an explosion to initiate their escape.
Ultra 1: Has the bonding ceremony begun?
But it’s Vila’s struggle to resist the Ultra on the Liberator that forms the dramatic engagement of the episode. “Help, I’m being got at!” he exclaims, as a close up of disco ball signals that his mind is being attacked. We know that Orac is encouraging Vila to continue to recite jokes and limericks in order to resist the Ultra, but we don’t know why exactly. It’s an effective scene, dramatic and amusing at once.
Vila: If a woodchuck could chuck wood, how much wood could a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
It looks as if Vila has succumbed to the Ultra, with the Liberator being brought into dock and secured. And it appears that the explosions in the conveyor room are a result of Tarrant’s fight, but we must later conclude that this is a result of the resistance put up from the ship. Indeed, the brain starts cracking and spurting green snot everywhere as a rather frantic evacuation of the planet is initiated by Tarrant and Dayna.
They rescue Avon and Cally and re-implant their memories (there’s a brief concern that they may have mixed the cylinders up – fortunately this isn’t nu-Who so they didn’t go down that hilarious route).
The actual escape of the Liberator, manoeuvring to twist and bend the bars holding it secured, is presumably possible because of the general failure of integrity.
Certainly, the Ultra meet rather flaky ends (Tarrant shoots two of them down).
It’s an enjoyable trump card for Vila to be able to lay claim to saving the ship and crew and, for once, the jokiness of the final scene works extremely well, providing explanation for how they escaped in concise form and it is funny.
Avon: Tell me, Orac, how precisely did Vila confuse and distract Ultraworld?
Orac: Quite simple. With a series of random and illogical brain impulses. The planet was programmed to assimilate orderly coherent thought patterns. Anything else confused it.
Avon: You mean Vila spouted nonsense.
Vila: I resent that.
Avon: Oh, I wouldn't if I were you. Orac is saying that a logical rational intelligence is no match for yours.
A fairly humdrum premise, but enlivened by the antics of Vila and Orac. Like the earlier Volcano, though, it whiffs strongly of “What can we think of to do this week?” rather than any genuine inspiration.