The best you can hope for the end of a series is that it leaves you wanting more. Blake certainly does that, so much so that I lapped up Tony Attwood’s Afterlife when it came out. I recall his speculation over who survived and who didn’t in his Programme Guide (curious that he thought Tarrant was unlikely to make it and then had him turn up in his continuation). Blakefollows the template of previous season finales, piling incident upon incident until it reaches a crescendo.
I wonder if the story was in the back of Robert Holmes’ mind when he wrote The Caves of Androzani; both set in motion a relentless unravelling of the safe underpinnings of the central characters, and both reek of finality and doom (although, I’m unsure how much of that here is reinforced in retrospect and through repeat viewings).
Mary Ridge rises to the challenge much as she did with the series’ previous possible farewell, Terminal (and notably, just as an ominous heartbeat reinforced the atmosphere there, here the final stages are underpinned by an incessant siren). It’s also another example of Chris Boucher making every scene count, just as he did with the series’ previous highpoint, Rumours of Death. One thing about the move away from the weekly challenges to Federation dominion of the first two seasons is that when we return to that playground there seems to be more to say, and it seems to be more resonant (of course, one might cite a Traitor as an argument against this). Boucher’s dialogue is superb for the most part, Avon in particular, although it might be noted that the attempt to give Soolin a personal stake in the plot falls rather flat; all it really offers her is some dialogue to set the scene for Gauda Prime.
It’s the last chance to revel in the superb model shots of Xenon base, and we get an extended sequence of take off, bookending Rescue neatly. Particularly as the whole base is promptly destroyed; it was a bit of a bungle on Avon’s part, really, as he surmises that one of the warlords would have spilled the beans to the Federation regarding the location eventually, even if Zukan didn’t.
Vila: I never liked that place anyway.
Soolin: Especially not once the wine ran out.
Aboard Scorpio, this also counts as one of the very best establishing scenes, with conversation centring on whether Zukan was essential to the alliance.
Soolin: You needed a figurehead. He was it. Or am I wrong?
Avon: You are right. But then figureheads aren't too difficult to come by. Any idiot can be one.
Vila gets nominated, of course, but it’s quite clear who Avon is talking about. Avon’s maximum cynicism when discussing his former “leader” is highly amusing.
Avon: He is strongly identified with rebels, you see, and very popular with rabbles. They will follow him, and he will fight to the last drop of their blood. Idealism is a wonderful thing. All you really need is someone rational to put it to proper use.
The revelation that he knew about Blake’s location before his attempts to form an alliance is an interesting one.
Avon: Oh, yes. And the answer to your next question is, yes, I would have left Blake where he was and said nothing if things had gone according to plan.
Do we believe him? As Tarrant and Vila rightly point out, Avon nearly killed them all and didget Cally killed pursuing Blake to Terminal. Could he really have left him be? I’m dubious. More likely, he’d have found Blake and rubbed it in that he succeeded in creating an alliance against the Federation where Blake failed. Avon, who didn’t really give a shit about overthrowing the Federation but decided to do it as an intellectual challenge.
Boucher’s explanation for the state of affairs on Gauda Prime has the same cynical logic to it that pervades the episode, and sums up the series. It had an agricultural designation until mineral wealth was discovered, at which point it was given “Open Planet” status enabling both mining corporations and criminals to move in. Now, those who have gotten rich have applied to the High Council to return it to normal legal status so bounty hunters have moved in to clean the place up. Unsaid is that many of those who are rich are likely to hold power within the Federation; certainly there’s a precedent with independent and neutral territories in the series, and if it suits the Federation’s purposes that such scenarios are allowed to thrive for a time.
Boucher just reels off the iconic dialogue in these scenes; as on the nose as it is, Avon’s speech about bounty hunters is precisely cut by Ridge.
Avon: It is the day of the bounty hunter.[close-up of Vila] Thieves, [close-up of Dayna, pan to Soolin] killers,[close-up of Tarrant] mercenaries,[close-up of Avon; he smiles] psychopaths, are as unwelcome now as the farmers once were.
Interestingly Avon demurs from giving an opinion on whether Blake has become a bounty hunter (“Does it matter?”) so presumably he believes that Blake has ulterior motives, whatever he may outwardly appear to be up to (which may go some way to explaining his response when it appears that Blake really has turned mercenary).
A mention of Orac in all of this, as he’s the fellow who sets them on their mission to G-P (a rather silly abbreviation; “Prime” would have been better). What are his motives, as he must be aware of the dangers involved, and he notes during the story how his skills are underutilised by the crew? Does he wish to enable a reunion with Blake, having calculated that once on the planet his current companions are likely to come a cropper? Whatever his intentions, he is the only one who we can say – with any degree of certitude – survives the story intact, so perhaps he did have a plan and it was successful.
Blake himself looks all the more believable for a bit of stubble and a disfiguring scar, and Thomas seems to enjoy playing Blake the realist bounty hunter much more than the idealist figurehead.
Indeed, when he slips back into it later, and his true motives are revealed, it’s something of a disappointment to hear that same earnest tone in his voice. Revealed in this way, Blake achieves an iconic stature that he was previously too wholesome to carry; that’s some testament to both Boucher and Thomas, as (for example) the attempts to mature idealist young Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedinever really take root, no matter how much brooding he indulges in and sombre black he adorns himself with.
Ridge makes these opening forest scenes lovely took look at; misty and atmospheric (later scenes don’t look too good – at least on my set-up the DVD quality is not that hot). And Blake seems to be a dab hand at a spit roast now.
Sasha Mitchell’s performance as surly girl Arlen never puts us remotely on her side, and it doesn’t come as an enormous surprise when she turns out to be a real baddie. At this stage the action emphasises the supposition that Blake has forsaken his rebellious ways and given up the good fight. He “can’t really tell any more” if someone is Federation and shoots one of his colleagues, possibly to bring in Arlen’s bounty himself (but really it’s Blake’s rectitude in not letting her be killed by him).
Presumably Arlen is not explicitly positioned to capture Blake, but to expose the covert rebellion taking place on Gauda Prime. It’s not clear what the conversation she has with Deva consists of, when Blake has delivered her; she is poised to reveal Blake’s identity and presumably does so to conspirator Deva. When we next see her she has apparently joined their ranks. I can only assume she said “He’s Blake, who I actually really admire”. But it still makes Deva (and by implication Blake) pretty bad judges of character if they let someone ally herself with them who would offer turn Blake in to the Federation (whatever level of it Deva represents) to save her own skin.
The attack on, and destruction of Scorpio is effectively realised, even if the gunships aren’t the most impressive of models. This is edge of the seat stuff, although the thought does occur that, despite all of its modifications Scorpio and shit-hot pilot, it can’t manage to out-manoeuvre eight ships and an approaching planet.
As is the case throughout, Avon is central to the action. His behaviour doesn’t fall into the bracket of simple heroics but there’s a certain code of responsibility in his attempt to help Tarrant escape the ship. Until logic predicates that he leaves Tarrant to heroically go down with the ship; “Goodbye, Tarrant”.
It might have been more effective to finish off Tarrant in this sequence, with Blake meeting up with another crew member (Vila doesn’t get to say a single word to his old leader). As it is, this send-off is less impactful in retrospect when we then have Tarrant and Avon meet up again. It’s also a bit off that Avon should listen to the crew member he has the most friction with for a decisive verdict on Blake.
Regardless, Ridge does her very best to deliver a convincing crash on a budget (An over head shot of windswept Avon in the forest, looking up, intercut with model shots and then Tarrant sliding down as the floor of Scorpio lifts up).
David Collings is expectedly and effortlessly marvellous as Deva; we’re unsure of his relationship with Blake at first meeting, other than that the two of them have a certain rapport. Blake’s been made a temporary law enforcement officer (no doubt at Deva’s recommendation).
Even though he turns out to be, to some extent, the Blake of old, there’s a capability about him in this story that wasn’t previously evident. Mainly due to the sense that he’s had to spend long enough getting down and dirty that he cannot always retain a moral high ground (I don’t think this Blake would attempt to persuade his crew mates that it would be better for Travis to remain alive; he’d shoot him on sight).
Avon’s rescue of the sheltering Vila, Soolin and Dayna is a further big up to him being far more Gauda-wise than they are. Unfortunately it serves to undermine the ability of Soolin and Dayna to handle themselves.
Avon: The fire was stupid. Putting Vila on guard was suicidal. What's the matter, is staying alive too complicated for you?
Not only can’t they handle a few bounty hunters, they have no bearings (Avon could call on Orac to direct him, of course). He’s accused of using them as bait when Orac put out a distress call that brought them looking.
Avon: I had no idea it was you. And it shouldn't have been. As a matter of interest, you've been walking in the wrong direction if you want to get out of this forest.
Peter Tuddenham gives his second rather affecting death scene in as many seasons, as Slave gives up the ghost.
Slave: I'm sorry, but I will have to close down now. Crash damage and power loss make it impossible for me to continue. May I express the humble hope that the same is not true for you, Tarrant.
Poor Slave. He wasn’t as well used as Zen, but I liked his line in obsequious humour.
There’s a certain level of mirroring between Avon and Blake in their ability to take care of business. Avon finishes off a gang of bounty hunters while Blake blows up a flier by shooting out its undercarriage (more effective use of overhead shots from Ridge as a budgetary needs-must).
If I’m unconvinced of the merit in having Tarrant survive the crash, Boucher does makes an effective choice in resisting an encounter between Blake and anyone he knows from his former life until the end. Because there can only be one instant impact, after that there would be a danger of reminiscence and the balloon deflating.
We also get the lowdown on the fate of Jenna, who it seems was with Blake until quite recently, dying while attempting to run a blockade of gunships of the type that saw the Scorpio meet its end. Officially Blake would be on the other side of the “law” to her (as Tarrant suggests to him), so Blake must have been playing a crafty game (making his behaviour here seem all the more reckless).
Deva: The representative from the Federation High Council could come at any moment. We can't afford mistakes.
I suppose one might speculate that a representative would be Commissioner Sleer, although I’d take a representative to be an actual member of the High Council. But it does raise the question of just what Deva and Blake planned to do; the Federation enter the control centre with ease and no resistance is apparently offered (it’s not clear how many individuals who man the centre are with Deva and Blake but you’d expect it not to be merely a three person force, one of whom is really Federation). I’m not sure what Deva means when he tries to tell the dead Blake “They’ve found us” at the climax; surely the control centre was official anyway? They’ve found us out, perhaps?
It’s a pretty good episode for Pacey, and a decidedly nondescript one for Dayna (she heroically tries to reach her gun to shoot Arlen, the consequence of which is that bloody Arlen kills her). There’s a certain irony to the rashness of the Blake replacement bringing about the downfall not just of Blake but the entire crew. Okay, that might be a bit unfair as it looks like the Federation would have overpowered them all no matter what, but there might have been a chance to retreat to a less conspicuous spot if Avon hadn’t lost himself momentarily on shooting Blake.
The arrival at the centre is preceded by dual flier sequences (not far off from the approach taken to flying vehicles in The Pirate Planet), with Avon following Blake’s craft. Even here, Boucher is lacing the dialogue with foreboding.
Vila: Sooner or later we're going to drop into one of these holes in the ground and never come out.
Avon: Sooner or later, everyone does that, Vila.
Once he’s in the centre, there’s really little reason for Blake to continue the pretence with Tarrant (there was little enough once he’d established Tarrant’s bona fides); as Deva levels at him, Blake’s undoing is his own resistance to delegate.
Deva: These stupid games you insist on playing, Blake, will get someone killed eventually.
Blake: I have to test each one myself.
Deva: No, you don't have to! I set up systems for that. I broke the security codes on their central computer. I got us access to official channels, information, everything we could possibly need! You don't need to be involved at all.... And any one of our people could select the people you've collected. You don't need to do the bounty hunter routine, either!
All of which significantly calls into question Blake’s soundness of judgement (even if his combat skills are rock solid), something that was never his strongest suit when aboard the Liberator. Of course, Blake is a man of action and could never sit back observing. But here’s he actively putting himself in serious harm’s way daily for no real purpose, almost as if he has a death wish. If he hadn’t played silly buggers with Tarrant he wouldn’t have got himself shot by Avon. Would he?
Blake certainly seems ambivalent at Deva’s protestations that he is needed to lead (exactly the reason Avon sets out for going to Gauda Prime) their “base, the beginnings of an army”, and it is perhaps this that has prevented him from making much impression on the Federation since Star One. It’s not that he doesn’t have same view of the Federation, he just doesn’t have the same attitude to his role in fighting it.
The congregation of Tarrant, Avon, Vila, Soolin and Dayna in the main tracking gallery (Orac is nowhere to be seen) to the sound of sirens and the ensuing carnage is paced in a deliberate fashion; fast enough that you don’t have sufficient time to collect your thoughts, but not so that you become lost in the turns of what transpires.
Is Klyn one of Deva’s trusted army? Either way Avon guns her down without hesitation once she tries to alert security.
The arrival of Blake and Arlen introduces the electrifying showdown between Blake and Avon, which plays in the most part off Darrow. And Darrow is phenomenal; his delivery is anything but understated, but every intonation has maximum impact.
Avon: Stand still! Have you betrayed us? Have you betrayed me?!
Blake: Tarrant doesn't understand!
Avon: Neither do I, Blake!
This is a telling admission from Avon, since it’s very rare that he is in such a position.
Blake: I set all this up!
Blake: Avon, I was waiting for YOU. (Avon shoots him three times) Avon...
Watching the scene again, I wonder if Avon actually doesn’t want to understand on some level. He seems to have no inclination to give Blake a chance to explain further; he has the chance to put a line under their relationship and takes it. There’s another take as well, although not one I’d ascribe to Avon (or Blake) consciously; Blake’s chosen a godforsaken hellhole as the centre for developing a rebellion, and expects to draw his former crewmates into this web? It goes back to the death wish idea; if Blake wanted to make contact with Avon again there were less extreme methods of initiating it (even taking the arrival of the Federation at almost precisely the same time as Scorpio out of the equation).
The following sequence – Arlen shoots Deva, then she shoots Dayna as she goes for her gun, Vila (very deftly it must be said and, aside from Tarrant’s plaintive “Avon” [Pacey gets the last line in both seasons three and four], he has the last substantial dialogue in the series) knocks out Arlen then is shot himself, Soolin shoots and is shot, Tarrant shoots and is shot – strains credibility on one level. What, they all get it now – after so many near scrapes? Something I remember thinking even on first broadcast. On another it, just has to be embraced as a Wild Bunch-esque glorious last stand.
What really sells it is Avon, motionless throughout, staring at Blake’s body, not even conscious of the onslaught around him.
On the subject of first viewings, I remember it was the popular opinion amongst my peers that Avon smiles at the end because Servalan has just entered the room. Now I don’t think so. It’s the same ironic detachment and amusement at what the fates have decided that he’s displayed throughout the series, as he raises his gun (his standing astride of Blake is slightly ridiculous, but as gestures go it’s certainly effective).
As for the sound of gun fire as we cut to credits, I’m happy to read it literally but, given that one shot brought everyone else down, that’s a lot of sustained gunfire to topple Avon.
And are they dead? Most obviously, there’s no blood seen with anyone but Blake, so that’s a lot of bloodless kills if they’re all goners. Wasn’t there a suggestion that it was left so that if the series came back they could pick and choose who survived? The question would be, why would the Federation troops use stun guns? While Blake has good reason not to want Tarrant and the rest of the crew killed, the Federation had no advance knowledge that they would be there. Of course, if Arlen had contacted the arriving troops and told them that Blake was there (a reasonable assumption), they – and she – would likely want to ensure that he and his accomplices were interrogated before execution took place.
On the other hand, if Arlen had real bullets and the Federation troops had stun guns, then only Dayna and Deva would be definitely dead. It doesn’t seem quite right that a character as unappealing as Arlen should be the only one we definitely know survived the finale, even though that appears to be the case. I supposeBlake might be knocking about still; maybe the one we saw here was the Blake made by the Clone Masters? A bit of a stretch, I admit.
Few series finish with their best episode, but I think this one probably qualifies (The Prisoneris another). We’ve been set up for Avon’s bittersweet reaction to failure since Terminal, and this ending reflects that one. But here the loss is all-pervading, making Avon’s smile even more gratifying.