I don't mind playing games, but I do object when the opposition makes up the rules and decides to be the referee as well.
Following a bottom-of-the-barrel guest star in Assassin, we have Stratford Johns beautifully cast in Games, and a director (Viviene Cozens) who shows considerable dexterity where David Sullivan Proudfoot was just plain clumsy. Cozens might have made a good choice for Who, although JN-T didn’t really make the best use of Johns when he asked him to play a giant frog.
My main memory of this episode on first transmission was the games themselves (Soolin’s shoot-out in particular), which constitute a fairly minor part of the story. This approach ensures that the story is full of incident until the final frame, though, and Bill Lyons’ sole script for the series ends up as a top-notch piece of work that also serves the main cast extremely well. Although, by this point there’s nothing new to be brought to the table by apparently randomly throwing Servalan into an episode.
Most of the criticisms I had of Assassin seem to be righted here from the off, with probably the most solid opening sequence of the season for introducing the crew’s mission. Avon’s perfunctory, icy dismissal of the value of the Federation personnel, in comparison to the Feldon being mined on a planet where there was an explosion, gives us an immediate impression that the characterisations of the crew are back on form.
It seems that Feldon crystals present a potentially unlimited power resource and the Federation has been investing heavily in exploring their potential. The implication is that the rare mineral caused the explosion on Agravo (presumably the stores of it, since we are told the planet has been mined out), but Avon considers that the Federation would have likely killed the workers there anyway rather than go to the expense of transferring them (this seems rather unlikely, as in due course they would have to transport workers from somewhere to whatever new mining site they establish). The idea that unstable energy build up caused the explosion (compensated for in later power station designs) is fairly vague, but there’s enough loose sense to the idea that Avon’s deduction at the climax doesn’t seem to materialise out of thin air.
The crew divide between those who wish to use it as a fuel source for Scorpio (Tarrant), those who wish to sell it for a profit (Vila, keen on a mission for a change) and those apparently ambivalent towards either approach (Avon and Soolin, the later intriguingly positioned as a seemingly clinically-minded supporter of Avon in this episode). So the crew must engage in a heist operation, stealing a consignment of Feldon from someone who has already appropriated the crystals from the Federation; they are protected by a security system, of course.
It’s also a typical Avon touch that he has initiated his plan without informing the crew; albeit exactly the same methodology that Blake used to adopt. The difference is that Avon doesn’t promote his plan with affirmatory slogans. But Gerren, (David Neal, far more impressive as the smooth President in The Caves of Androzani than he is, hirsute, here) has fearfully initiated the attempt to procure the crystals before Avon has a chance to become involved.
Tarrant: Why should this middle-aged Federation professor want to help you, Avon?
Avon: Because apart from being a brilliant geologist and an expert in mining techniques he is also greedy, avaricious, and a crook.
Vila: Has he got any faults?
Vila is as well-catered for this time as any of his best showings; he comes up trumps with cunning, sloth, and wit.
We learn that Gerren was part of a survey team.
Avon: He was working on a deep space project, searching out mining planets. If you run the relevant sets of figures together you will see that he delayed his information just long enough to manipulate the Commodities Market.
A very modern mode of criminality, and interesting to get a bit more detail of the Federation; how stock market trading fits into their power structure is unclear. But Avon’s recounting of his persuasion of Gerren is classic stuff.
Vila: That's not really crooked.
Avon: You tell that to his Federation masters.
Soolin: Is that what you threatened to do?
Avon: I merely reminded him that since I got the information from the Federation computers, somebody else might also piece it together, in which case he would find himself in a penal colony.
Dayna: So you blackmailed him.
We’re introduced to Belkov and the defence system he’s set up via Gerren’s failed attempt to infiltrate the Orbiter that apparently houses the crystals. While the one-person shooter game may seem a bit crude by modern standards, it nevertheless retains an edge by having the contestants duelling “themselves”.
Johns is enormously appealing as Belkov, physically unimposing (girth aside) but oozing confidence in the strength of his bargaining position with the Federation. And Lyons expertly sketches out a sympathetic relationship between Belkov and his computer, Gambit; in some respects it mirrors Avon’s and Orac’s. The latter is utterly devoid of warmth, but there is mutual respect. With Gambit there is emotional content that ultimately leads to Belkov’s undoing.
Belkov’s strategic flourishes require the combined strengths of the crew to win through; even Orac flounders somewhat when called on to infiltrate Gambit. While Avon manages to anticipate Belkov’s plans up to a point, he still needs the individual skills of his fellows to close in on the object of their desire (and qualities he would never consider drawing on, such as Vila’s lazy affability, prove vital to this). If Belkov leads the crew to a false “win” in the final stage, it is also at the cost of his own bid for victory.
Servalan’s arrival on Melkon Two is wearily inevitable, but this is a rare example of Pearce having scenes completely stolen from her.
She looks visibly more tired at this point in the series too, quite possibly due to her illness between seasons. She certainly seems to be going through the motions in this one, although in fairness there’s nothing engaging for her to do anyway.
Servalan: This isn't a game Belkov. We want those crystals and we want them now.
Belkov: And I'm the only one who can get them for you. It is a game Commissioner, and I hold the winning hand.
As with most good capers, the various factions attempting to out-anticipate each other is a key ingredient. So the crew, aware of Servalan’s arrival, consider how best to proceed while Belkov contacts them and promises them half the Feldon in the Orbiter if they rescue him.
Vila: Well, what do you think?
Dayna: I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him.
Vila: That wouldn't be far.
Gerren: As I see it, we don't have much choice.
Avon: Which is exactly the way he wants you to see it.
But as good as Avon is, he can’t out-anticipate Belkov. He’s busy offering the crew of Scorpio to Servalan in an attempt to sweeten a deal he hopes to make with her (while planning her and her troops demise by sending them to the location of the crew, which is full of Mecronians).
Tarrant, Dayna, Vila and Geren teleport down to the planet. Cozens stages and frames the action that ensues with some accomplishment. This is the same location used for Destiny of the Daleks a couple of years earlier.
Dayna, for a change, looks like she can actually handle herself, while Vila continues to get some zingers. He is discovered by Federation soldiers with a Mecronian knife.
Vila: I found it.
Vila: It was stuck in one of your men.
Avon and Soolin get a bit of one-on-one time this episode, maintaining watch on Scorpio, and she appears willing to go along with his bright ideas.
Avon: I don't mind playing games, but I do object when the opposition makes up the rules and decides to be the referee as well. I think we should try and even things up a bit.
It’s a nifty idea of Avon’s to move Scorpio out of orbit and then return with the moon of Mecron Two lodged between them and any of Belkov’s scanning systems.
Avon: Oh, it's a calculated risk. But at least you and I can be certain that we can get away when we want to.
Orac’s explanation of the functioning of Gambit is well-considered by Lyons, with due deference to Greek myth in discussing the problems posed in extracting information from Gambit.
Orac: The difficulty is not technical. It's more one of, uh, attitude.
Avon: Ah. You mean the logic of its creator.
Orac: Exactly. Let me remind you of ancient Earth mythology. The Delphic Oracle would answer questions truthfully without giving a true answer.
Avon: So what we need is not the right answer, but the right question.
Belkov continues to play all sides by announcing to Tarrant, Dayna and Gerren (Vila remains up top) that he has informed Servalan that he will give them to her.
With Avon apparently departed he asks their assistance in escaping to his ship, but then locks them under the rocket silo.
The script’s continual twisting and turning is highly enjoyable; Belkov’s had ample time to plan ahead, while the Scorpio crew must react on the hop. In all this Servalan is highly reactive; aside from her initial threats to Belkov her presence is mostly from the wings.
On the action staging again; there are some impressive explosions from the rock face entrance where the Federation troops are sent down, and a money shot of a Federation guard running ablaze.
The function of the computer circuit that Avon sends Vila to fetch isn’t specified, I don’t think, but the presumption must be, given the conversation with Orac and the subsequent sequence on the Orbiter, that its removal enables communication with Gambit concerning the game-play specifics.
It leads into one of the most enjoyable sections of the episode, as Vila charms and manipulates Gambit into aiding him (and giving up a circuit), and even results in his rescuing the confined Tarrant and co and finding a way out of the base.
That sequence follows Belkov’s farewell to Gambit, having instructed her to go to self-destruct once other instructions have been performed.
Belkov: I shall miss you. I don't suppose that concept could possibly mean anything to you. I just thought I'd mention it.
Vila (emerging from hiding as Belkov exits): Look, you'll probably say it's none of my business, but if anybody told me to kill myself for them, they'd get a short answer.
We don’t see any more of Servalan in the episode after she’s encouraged a freshly re-wounded Gerren to spill the beans regarding the Orbiter. It’s safe to say that Gerren isn’t going to recover, though. The ever present approaching Federation ships add a frisson to the finale, but as an element in isolation we’ve been there many times before.
No time is spent on pleasantries aboard Scorpio; we cut to Avon, Tarrant, Vila and Soolin aboard the Orbiter, where Soolin makes short work of the marksman programme, Tarrant the flight simulator, Vila a lock (well, a thumbprint activated lock) and Avon the brain works out that it was all a fix.
It might be said that the skill set required is remarkably convenient for the distinctly challenged crew, or that the tests themselves aren’t that remarkable.
I found them satisfying enough, and the pace at which they were engaged with makes criticisms somewhat redundant; some stories might have spent the entire running time on rather pallid tests (just look how weak the entertainments in Vengeance on Varosare); here they’re just another part of Belkov’s game of wits.
Orac: The Orbiter is preprogrammed. Flight power depends on the distance and intensity of each star the Feldon panels are locked into. The successful completion of a game continues the sequence. To regain control, you must complete the coded sequence of star sources.
I don’t think I fully grasped where the Feldon was located in terms of the climax. There were clearly crystals used in making up the Orbiter’s panels, and Avon indicates there weren’t any on the Orbiter itself. Did Belkov have any on Alpha Three (his craft)? If not, where did all the “missing” crystals get to that Servalan and Gerren asserted were produced? Unless they all went into the Orbiter’s panels?
That aside, I found the “simplistic” solution (Orac’s words) that Avon comes up with is satisfying. Partly because it draws attention to its own appropriation of rudimentary scientific babble by having Orac call it out, but also because it means the crew continue to show themselves more than capable of thinking their way out of a cliffhanger situation.
Soolin: All we have to do is lock on to the right star.
Orac: It is possible that we've just received the right answer to the wrong question.
Avon: I calculate that the next star in the sequence is Cygnus XL. That's a black hole.
It’s a neat call back to Orac’s earlier advice. Even though Belkov has trumped them and they are forced to return to Scorpio empty-handed, everyone has showed smarts throughout.
Avon: There aren't any damned crystals. There never were any damned crystals. They're like everything else on this ship: a game. That's why the last one has to be impassable. We have got to get out of here!
If I wasn’t sure where the Feldon was, neither was I certain on what followed the final conversation between Belkov and Gambit. Gambit was going to let Belkov die when she initiated self-destruct, but she relents.
Belkov: Ah, Gambit, this is no way to end our game. Lock my controls into Cygnus XL and Orbiter's. Please?
Gambit: Belkov has opened the door.
Avon: Into the black hole. That is an infinite power source for the Feldon to draw upon. There is nothing that won't be dragged in.
Since the Feldon panels are on the Orbiter, was it Belkov’s plan to dock with it and use the energy created to make off, destroying everything? What exploded when Belkov opened the door? Alpha Three? If so, why?
Avon: But a huge negative force a long way off could be balanced by a positive force close to the crystals.
Orac: A somewhat simplistic theory.
Avon: Slave, I need all the power we can muster. Sacrifice everything except life support. Blast those Feldon panels with everything we've got.
Avon’s gamble pays off.
Orac: Apparently so. It would appear that positive and negative inputs were balanced by the Feldon crystals. Indeed, the balance was so perfect, that they simply ceased to exist, along with everything in their immediate vicinity.
Whether he died earlier or not, Belkov was finished off at that point for certain. Vila’s deflation at learning the necklace of crystals he swiped is a fake leads Avon to claim, “End game to Belkov” but that’s more of a neat last line than a truly accurate summary of what happens.
I’d suggest that, in this case, there’s no resounding sense of failure in not obtaining the crystals. Rather, it’s a case of “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game” and the crew played the game extremely well.
Season Four breaks into a final run of quality material. Well-paced and filled of incident and strong characterisation, this is also accomplishedly directed by debutant Cozens. But anyone with a clear understanding of the climax, please pipe up...