If I was to list the most memorable stories from first viewing of this season, Blake and Orbit would stand out, but Sand would be a close third (mind you, Animals is pretty memorable, so that doesn’t prove anything). With thirty years hindsight, it still puts itself forward as a highly effective and atmospheric chamber piece. Where it stumbles slightly, in comparison to Tanith Lee’s previous script, is in the strength of the premise.
Unlike Sarcophagus, what needs to be worked out here is concrete and without nuance (killer sand feeding off people) and, as a result, the process of the characters reaching realisation is considerably behind that of the viewer. Additionally, the logic of how this sand operates requires some interrogation. Presumably it “survives” on the planet for decades, centuries, millennia, without sustenance. But when humans appear it still wants a tasty snack and so is intent on setting up a breeding farm. The realisation of the sand here is extremely well achieved, and remains sinister (particularly the sound effects). Indeed, this is that B7 rarity; the well-realised alien. It’s just a shame that, unless we assume the sand is slightly mad or a bit challenged in terms of commonsense, its behaviour doesn’t really hold up.
As with Sarcophagus, Lee has a flair for characterisation, and everyone here is well served; albeit this is really Tarrant and Servalan’s show. The latter hasn’t been this good since Rumours of Death. It’s been argued that the revealed motivation for her quest for power here doesn’t really wash or elicit any sympathy. I’m not sure I saw her explanation that the loss of her lover led to her power lust as truthful; rather, it’s a convenient cod-psychology reasoning she has in reserve to trot out should the occasion require it (Avon clearly thinks she’s been playing Tarrant at the end, although this is likely only partly true).
As for Tarrant, Pacey gets a meatier role than thus far in the season, and it goes to make up for, to some extent, the slaughter his character received in Assassin. I’ve read that this script was originally intended for Avon; while that would make more sense of Tarrant’s rather sudden abilities in deductive logic (he’s certainly more capable here than at any time since his debut), I’m not sure how the scenes with Servalan would have played out under the merciless gaze of Avon. Tarrant’s an emotional sap, so switching the leads would have made for a decidedly different tone.
Lee being interested in all things of the heart and soul (because, like, she’s a woman; kind of the anti-Ben Steed, but in a good way), it’s unclear how much the influence of the sand was supposed to have had on the tête-à-tête between Servalan and Tarrant. Given the effect it has on computer systems (without exception), which end up babbling semi-poetic ramblings about love, on Vila, and on Reeve, it’s reasonable to assume that they wanted the two to think cosy thoughts. But we don’t actually see this, other than in terms of the closeness of confinement that has brought similar brief liaisons with Servalan in the past.
Lee and Viviene Cozens (for other work, she seems to have been stuck on the treadmill of Angels, Grange Hill and Emmerdale Farm) complement each other, and the opening voice over from Keller against model shots of the blighted planet Virn sets the scene oppressively. Keller is played by Jonathan David (the feckless Stratton in Attack of the Cybermen).
Keller: I know a land beyond the heart of time. The sun never comes there. No moon ever shines. And man, a grain of sand, nameless and lost, blows with the dust.
I like how Lee isn’t backward in coming forward in showing off her own work. Here she presents her own poetry as recognised verse in the future. Her overt callbacks to Sarcophagusalso emphasise this as a semi-sequel.
And, for the first time this season, Servalan has good reason to be in a story. Even if, at first, it seems as if she lacks clear motivation. She is well-partnered by Steven Yardley as Investigator Reeve (Arak in Vengeance on Varos; if they were going for an actor who could convincingly replicate the brutality of Stephen Grief, Yardley would have made a much better Travis than Brian Croucher). The implication of this scene in retrospect is that Servalan has only come across the message from Keller now, five years later, and that her comment that it didn’t reach the highest authority means that it didn’t reach her. Yardely brings just the right level of caustic insolence to his scenes with Servalan, and it’s a shame that he gets offed so early in the proceedings. His “Madame Brainwasher” line is particularly disrespectful.
Also on the ship (and surviving the story, miraculously) is Chasgo (Daniel Hill, Chris Parsons in Shada). And an unnamed and doomed assistant (Peter Craze, who was Prell in Seek-Locate-Destroy and Costa in Nightmare of Eden). I’ve never really worked out why there’s such a variety of Federation uniforms. No doubt someone, somewhere, has identified and coded their differences and meanings.
The effects are variable in this episode, but even when they don’t quite work they retain a sense of atmosphere.
The realisation of the planet exteriors isn’t that remarkable (although the night time scenes are good, especially the sky) but compared to previous studio “exteriors” (Traitor) they’re something to savour.
There is also effective use of liquid in the filming of planetary conditions, which are so alien that you wonder why such techniques weren’t used more often (both here and in Doctor Who).
Vila is entirely reasonable in his wish to avoid visiting Vern. In fact, the motivation here is the slenderest possible, given the potential downside.
Avon: If there is the remotest chance of there being anything of value on Virn, do we want it for ourselves, or are we prepared to let them get their hands on it?
It’s not really good enough. And initially, with Tarrant and Dayna volunteering for planet duties, this doesn’t look promising. The most uncharismatic away team the ship has. At least the underlying tension between Avon and Tarrant is in evidence again.
As mentioned, a problem with the story is the speed at which the characters realise what is happening compared to the viewer. This is a story called “Sand”, which is a pretty big clue.
The introduction has a character talk about how the sand gets everywhere, but they don’t know the cause of their problems, and now a sandslide mysteriously and suddenly buries Servalan’s ship.
The night encampment gives us a frosty exchange between Servalan and Reeve, intent on cosying up to her.
Servalan: There is something you should realise. There are no women like me. I am unique. That makes me rather dangerous. Good night, Investigator.
If this is designed to be a character study of Servalan, it’s not entirely successful. But it does return us to a place where we can recall why she initially had such an impact, rather than the tired black hat (or dress) that she has increasingly become since the second season.
The assistant is effectively engulfed by sand (if JN-T had a half-discerning eye, he’d have called on Cozens to direct Frontios).
The systems failures on Scorpio are quite foreboding, so soon after the fungoid destruction wreaked in Terminal. Slave sounds drunk and Orac incomprehensible.
Orac: I love you.
Orac: My emotions are deeper than the seas of space. One times one is only possible in the ultra-dimensional.
In that sense, the story links rather neatly with the Season Three finale, and the entropic effects on systems as they inevitably succumb to the laws of the universe (sooner or later). Although, Lee’s take isn’t coming from a Bidmead-type position. Nor is it a place of existential inquiry that gave us another “living” eco-system in Tarkovsky’s Solaris. Lee seems to be far more interested in the emotional and occult aspects of characters, rather than coming from a science fiction position (probably why this aspect is the least effective in the script); characters who have to engage with their environment in order to overcome it (Avon in Sarcophagus and here has to understand the system that he is up against and rather than destroy it utilise its own workings against itself).
Dayna is shot flukily by a trigger-happy Reeve and returns to Scorpio.
Vila: I never could stand the sight of blood.
Dayna: The feeling is probably mutual.
It’s a decent (very Boucher) line, but Simon ruins it with her unmodulated delivery. What does work is the cut to sand on the floor, telling us that the Scorpio isn’t safe from whatever is occurring on the planet.
The sand has managed to disorientate both Reeve and Tarrant, and the arrival by both at Keller’s base (a bit like a budget version of what we see of Khan’s lodgings in Star Trek II), stalking each other, is quite sudden (Reeve has heard something, hence his firing at Dayna, but there was no indication that he’d seen anyone).
It’s also a shame to have Reeve removed at this point, since for all Pacey’s competence he doesn’t have the same bite in his scenes with Pearce. Servalan’s pleased to have Reeve dealt with, as he’d figured out Sleer’s true identity.
Reeve: We never actually met. But I was at one of those official receptions for good and faithful servants that you occasionally graced with your presence.
No amount of obfuscation can disguise the weakness of the idea that the President of the Federation would only be recognisable to a select few. Presidents just don’t go about hiding their lights under bushels.
Pearce is at her best in the scene where she puts Tarrant’s gun to her head and tells him he won’t fire. There’d definitely be more crackle if it was a scene played out with Avon, although it could only diminish Avon at this point to have Servalan within his sights yet again and let her go. At least with Tarrant you can see something of the manly rectitude and scruples that Blake always propounded.
Talking of Avon, his description of Scorpio’s predicament is quite colourful.
Avon: Now we have introduced a brand new alien substance, this ship. We are irritating the atmosphere and it's scratching. Noisily.
But for someone so deductive (even when that’s emphasised by his probability square) you can’t help feel he’s trailing behind his usual penetrating logic a bit here. Particularly as his conclusions are reached just after, but in parallel with, Tarrant’s.
Still, his reaction to the situation is agreeably meta.
Soolin: What's the next move?
Avon: The usual one. (brushes away sand) We'll wait.
The discovery of the still fresh Keller sets up a mystery that doesn’t really have a satisfactory solution (but does indicate that Servalan is sincere in her feelings for Keller, confirmed by her last scene).
But this episode as a whole is much stronger in atmosphere and character than in reaching satisfying conclusions. Witness the eerie repetitions concerning love coming from the computer systems, basically repeating what the sand wants its prey to get up to.
Computer: Jam. Jamble. Scramble. Uncode. Declassify. Jargon. Love is the only reality.
And Tarrant and Servalan’s canoodling doesn’t reveal too much about what she’s been up to since Terminalthat we didn’t figure out already.
Servalan: The teleport. A malfunction. A power surge. Suddenly I was back on a Federation world.
If she said she’d made it down to Terminal, hidden out until after the crew got rescued and then eventually was picked up by a Federation ship I might have bought it. But the magic wand jump to a Federation world would have been better as a Master-esque non-explanation for survival.
We have Pacey to blame for the worst dialogue of the episode:
Servalan: Oh, Tarrant. I'm just the girl next door.
Tarrant: If you were the girl next door, I'd move.
Apart from being toe-curlingly “cute”, it sounds anachronistic. Perhaps the Federation still has the equivalent of girls next door, but it feels like what it is; an ad-lib that should have been left out.
Although they have the B-plotline, Lee’s paying sufficient attention to the Scorpio crew that that they don’t just get the table leavings. Vila’s sand and drink-amplified despair has a good outing, while Soolin, if she’s never given a really nourished character, has more of the slightly clinical detachment we saw in Games. Her idle speculation about the ship being cursed may be partly Lee bigging herself up for Sarcophagus but it also serves the character.
Avon: Do you believe anything of what you've just said?
Soolin: Not one word of it.
Continuity across the first season was taken as read, but it’s suffered a bit in Season Four. The balance seems to be redressed all-at-once here, with references to Tarrant’s brother, Vila’s distress at Cally’s demise, and the fate of the Federation.
There’s an amusing exchange as Avon attends to his probability square.
Vila: Avon the machine.
Dayna: Oh, go away, Vila.
Vila: I thought I liked you.
Avon: You do like her. Now go and sit down.
Tarrant info-dumps his explanation on Servalan for what’s going on.
Tarrant: It appears the sand can nourish itself on the dead too so it makes sure the dead stay edible. And there's the unique element we came here to find, a preservative that acts indefinitely without dehydration or freezing. Oh it could be incredibly useful. It's also completely unget-at-able under Virn's built-in conditions... Suppose the sand can reason in some rudimentary but quite logical way. A food source here can last for years but it seems reasonable to think that it would like more food available -- fresh food... It was keeping them alive to breed a race of food animals for itself, a herd. And that's our function, yours and mine. So we get a cosy pen and good food. Now I suppose I should be flattered. The vampire tested me and thinks I'm superior stock to Reeve and the others. It reckoned it could afford to kill them if it saved me. And you, of course. Yes, any number of women would be safe. A herd.
It’s a flawed plan on the part of the sand (wouldn’t it be better to have a few men about to ensure a larger herd/guard against accidents), and smacks strongly of trying to think out the logic for a premise after the fact (“Killer sand... But why?”) And Servalan about to cry and Tarrant’s reference to rain is a bit on-the-nose (as it’s the next deduction reached).
Similar realisation is occurring on Scorpio, rescuing Vila from sandy feet.
Soolin: His pulse is very weak.
Avon: Well that should go very nicely with the rest of him.
Avon: Presumably the sand up here has compared Vila's wits and stamina with mine and concluded that I am the dominant male. On the herd principle therefore, it decided that Vila was superfluous and it could kill him. You two, of course, would have been allowed to live.
Soolin: Don't say it, Avon.
Avon: I wasn't going to say anything.
And he doesn’t; all Darrow has to do is smile like the Cheshire Cat in response to Soolin and Dayna (his delivery of “poor gallant Tarrant” has particular relish):
Avon: Where we are now we are causing massive atmospheric disturbance. Let us get closer. Let us make it worse. Eventually there may be enough of a build-up to create some kind of rain.
Soolin: Or to knock us out of the sky.
Avon: This is not just a rescue mission for poor gallant Tarrant! While the sand remains active, the planet will not let go of US. The instruments are unreliable. We have Virn hanging on our heels. How do you think WE are going to get away? (Dayna and Soolin assume their positions) I take it that means yes.
Dayna: Well, how could we refuse, Avon? You are the dominant male, aren't you?
There’s an interesting cut from Tarrant shooting out the windows in the base (to allow the rain in) to Vila awaking and being told the sound was some glass breaking (referring to his glass breaking a bit earlier).
With Tarrant returned to Scorpio (another good shot, Tarrant teleporting with Servalan holding her hand up to his mouth), further references to the preservative feel more like an encumbrance on the plot than worthwhile explanation.
But Tarrant’s revelation that he was with Servalan provokes a suitably disgusted reaction from the rest of the crew (Soolin, Vila and Dayna leave silently – but where to? Isn’t the rest of the ship still depressurised?), although Avon has a gloat; if she snuffs it on Virn it will make Tarrant the last man in her life.
We finish on Servalan, but this is not the most effective of final lines. It makes clear that Keller really did mean something to her, despite Tarrant’s speculation to the contrary, but the threat to Tarrant is rather vague and lame. If it had been Avon, there might have been more conviction there.
Servalan: Don Keller. You waited five years to show me you were dead. And Del Tarrant. I had the gun but I didn't kill you, Tarrant. Yet.
Despite the issues this episode has in terms of plot mechanics, it works extremely well in creating an uncanny atmosphere. Servalan just about redeems her previous appearances in the season, while Tarrant really gets a much better vehicle than his character deserves.