Robert Holmes’ fourth and final script for the series is a belter, one that combines his trademark black comedy with the kind of life-or-death peril that makes some of his more high stakes scripts for Doctor Who (The Deadly Assassin and The Caves of Androzani for example) stand out.
He’s also very well served by Brian Lighthill, who has a two-for-two success directing the series following Gold. As with the earlier Gambit, Holmes comes alive writing for Avon and Vila but in a decidedly less breezy scenario than for that story. While the last fifteen minutes of the episode have ensured its iconic status in the series, what occurs before is just the kind of character-based storytelling that Holmes excels at. The exchanges between Avon and Egrorian, in particular, are a masterclass in unspoken agendas creating tension and drama.
I suspect that John Savident’s performance as Egrorian divides opinion, since there’s no argument that he’s hamming it up to the max. You even get the impression at times that Darrow and Pearce (neither exactly underplayers themselves) are somewhat taken aback by how unrestrained his performance is. His warty countenance puts one in mind of another Holmes grotesque, Shockeye, in The Two Doctors. Here the ghoulishness and freakery feels more of-a-piece, however. Partly due to a director who knows what he’s aiming for and partly because of the very interior nature of the story.
Complemented by Larry Nobles’ artificially aged Pinder, there’s a genuinely unsettling quality to their macabre domesticity. All sadistic scorn and bullying on one side and afflicted, vulnerable senility on the other. Thrown into this milieu the “biggest” characters of the series, Avon, Vila and Servalan, all come away looking decidedly normalised.
The “setting a trap for the crew” premise ought to have been fully played out by this point, but both Colin Davis and Holmes manage to come up with highly original variations on the scenario just as the series is reaching its closing stages.
The usual Scorpio scene-setter sees Darrow on buoyant form. Perhaps because he knows he has a script he can really get his teeth into. Holmes sets up his exploration of the relationship between Avon and Vila here, and while it might seem very obvious in retrospect (and the bookending of the conversation is unsubtle) it’s an undeniably effective move with dialogue is typical of their relationship.
Vila: You know I like to stick with you, Avon, where it's safe.
I like how Avon is almost gleeful about sending Tarrant in because he expects some sort of trap from Egrorian (this lack of concern for his fellow crew mate is clearly mutual; there’s no other way to explain that Tarrant hasn’t bothered Avon with his anecdote about the rumour that Servalan helped Egrorian escape – Tarrant being Tarrant it presumably didn’t temper his gung ho spirit in being sent in the first place). Soolin appears as calculated as ever (or perhaps just grateful that Avon didn’t suggest she goes too).
Egrorian joins the ranks of the series’ absconded scientists (Ensor and Hal Mellanby for starters) but the deranged introduction to him, and Pinder, is considerably weirder than anything we have seen before. Egrorian’s high-pitched, maniacal laugh is extremely OTT, but the two scientists are as unsettling as they are amusing.
Avon’s decision to acquiesce to Egrorian’s demand that he shuttle down to Malodar proves to be the right one in later scenes, as Egrorian clearly could have destroyed Scorpio, but Holmes’ script has a number of such developments. Something that seems like an error turns out to be intentional, or an important plot point.
The repartee between Avon and a reluctant Vila further establishes the ground work for the episode; Egrorian and Pinder are a twisted reflection of their relationship, the former constantly putting down the latter but also recognising his usefulness. Indeed, both reach a similar conclusion that self-preservation at the expense of the other is the only solution during the course of the episode (although the resolution for both is very different).
Pinder: I'm pleased to make your acquaintance, ma'am.
Vila (to Avon): I think he's talking to you.
The initial meeting between the duos has barely a duff line in it. There’s Egrorian’s amusement with Vila, Pinder’s displeasure (extending to Egrorian creepily stroking Vila), discussions of the crew’s ethics, Avon’s intelligence, and even Bidmead’s favourite; tachyonics.
Egrorian: Surprisingly, you don't look like the ruthless desperados of legend. But you have, of course, killed a great many people.
Avon: Only in the pursuit of liberty.
Rather liberal with the truth, given the previous week’s escapade.
Egrorian: Natural leaders are rarely encumbered with intelligence. Greed, egotism, animal cunning, and viciousness are the important attributes. Qualities I detect in you in admirably full measure.
Avon: I didn't come here to be... flattered.
Avon knows how to play out the situation with Egrorian, even though he may not apparently be in a strong position. Avon observes while Egrorian poses. There’s little choice but to agree to exchange Orac for the tachyon funnel but, given the later developments, possible plans are already ruminating in Avon’s head.
Egrorian’s sadistic torture of Pinder over cheating at chess appears to push Avon to agreement (but walking into someone’s house and seeing this sort of domestic environment is enough to make anyone want to leave sharpish), but he’s already obliquely dropping in that he’s onto Egrorian’s game.
Egrorian seems to consider setting Avon up for a position similar to the one Avon saw Blake taking over back in Star One (“Nature abhors a vacuum”).
If Ensor’s eccentricity explains some of the excesses in his plan, it’s less clear why Servalan wouldn’t just use the tachyon funnel to regain a hold within the Federation immediately. She could deal with Scorpio later. Perhaps it’s a source of pride to reclaim Orac, but she’s not learning from her strategic mistakes in the past with regard to obtaining prized items from the crew. Her remonstration over Pinder’s slip-up is simultaneous with Avon’s realisation that she must be behind what’s going on. This is fortunate since, as noted earlier, Tarrant can’t be arsed to warn Avon of his suspicions (he doesn’t appear to have mentioned anything later on either, even though Avon’s clearly informed him about the fake Orac when they return to deliver the computer).
Servalan’s not exactly in her comfort zone here, anyway. Unusually, she appears to have no back-up (presumably because her arrangement with Egrorian is so long-standing and top secret she doesn’t trust anyone). And Pearce doesn’t quite get the balance right opposite Savident during this scene; she responds to his theatrics by trying a bit of flourish herself (her “Oh, get up!”), which doesn’t really work. When he then approaches her, suggesting a connubial partnership, Pearce looks genuinely slightly phased, taking a slightly awkward step back from him. If Pearce intended Servalan to be thrown in this scene I guess she does a good job, but it seems a very un-Servalan response.
The scene of Vila being mocked by Soolin and Dayna is interesting; notably Vila was quite content to suggest that one of them accompanied Avon in the shuttle (unchivalrously suggesting that it might be a while since Egrorian had seen a woman) and here he’s attempting impress the girls with his mastery of tachyonics. While there’s no argument that he doesn’t deserve to be ejected from the shuttle, there is an underlining that it is his own ingrained devotion to avoidance of danger at all costs that ends up pushing him into the situation into the first place.
Why does Tarrant explain about Egrorian’s conspiracy to take over the Federation and Pinder’s youthfulness but not his suspicions of Servalan?
There’s another parallel realisation with Avon noting that they are using the ancillary landing pad (“SHE is never far from my thoughts.”) and Scorpio picking up a heat trace from Servalan’s ship.
Avon appears to gain the upperhand with Egrorian at their second encounter, tripping him up in discussing Servalan and, more cunningly, in our realisation that he is up to something with Orac when he flicks a switch on the box, unseen by anyone else. I suppose it’s enormously convenient that not only has Avon built a replica of Orac but he’s brought him along on Scorpio too. Certainly, building a replica is a sensible move given that he’s a machine everyone would like to get their hands on, but it was fortuitous that it should be so close to hand when needed.
Egrorian: Poor Pinder was subjected for less than a millionth of a second. He aged 50 years in as many seconds. And my golden-haired stripling became a silver-haired dotard.
Egrorian’s remembrance of the effects of Hoffal’s radiation on Pinder intimates a certain omnisexual predatoriness that might see him wish for Vila as a replacement
Egrorian: Little morbid sense of humor, hasn't he? One could become very fond of that young man.
Avon: I’ll tell him that!
The duel trickery of Avon and Egrorian represents another mirroring, although the drama aboard the shuttle quickly supercedes Servalan’s rage at Egrorian’s failure. It’s perhaps surprising that Egrorian (or Servalan) would allow the tachyon funnel to be risked in the shuttle, although Egrorian’s confidence in his own infallibility explains his willingness to take risks (Avon and Vila will be jellified when the shuttle hits a marsh, but everything else, even the shuttle, will be salvageable).
Darrow really comes into his own stressing the urgency of the need to lighten the load in order to reach escape velocity.
Avon: You start in the cargo hold, I'll start up here. We have to jettison every last nut and bolt. NOW, VILA!
In contrast, I wonder if there was a conscious decision to make him slightly mannered when he’s pleading with Vila to come out and show himself.
Certainly, it’s a situation where the drama plays entirely on Vila’s reaction (and Keating is utterly convincing). This is in contrast to the scene I mentioned earlier between Pearce and Savident where both were so OTT that there was no stabilising presence.
And what kind of little shit is Orac, eh? Following on from Headhunter, he again shows how adept he is at prioritising Number One. So he volunteers to Avon that Vila weighs 73 kilos (three more than the ship needs to lose), thus ensuring his continued existence. You have to admire his craftiness, particularly when the viewer comes away from the episode with only Avon’s actions at the forefront of their minds.
So what of Avon’s behaviour? It’s never struck me as other than consistent with his instinct for self-preservation (stronger even than Vila’s – or at least accompanied by more capability to ensure it). It’s part of what makes the scenario so compelling; we absolutely believe he would do it; it certainly doesn’t need Vila’s terror to confirm it to us.
This is absolutely one of my favourite sequences in the series, partly because it’s so completely based in the characters of Avon and Vila that have been built up over four years.
But also because it’s the sort of place very few series would go, even today. One of the series leads intent on killing another. It’s not as if they’ve been “turned evil” for an episode and all will be alright at the end and forgiven. At the climax Avon is without remorse, pretty much telling Vila that it’s his own fault. And it makes you wonder how the relations between the two would continue if there had been a fifth season. Orbit’s position, right near the end of the run, is crucial in locking the trajectory for where the series will finish.
It might have covered all bases better if Holmes had established the weightier properties of neutron material earlier in the script, although my main criticism is that it wasn’t sufficiently hidden on the shuttle (Avon suggests at the end that it was loaded via Egrorian’s automatic landing bay so this might explain the lack of finesse). Darrow does some mightily impressive “pushing a heavy weight” acting to get it off the ship.
A mention too for the mirroring scene of Egrorian agreeing to abandon Pinder on the planet. Caricatured though Pinder is, Noble does a fine job eliciting sympathy for him; particularly as the conversation between Servalan and Egrorian plays across his reactions (he has entered the room unnoticed).
Pinder’s revenge is effective; Lighthill’s decision to show the aging under red lighting makes it more dramatic and less glaring in terms of effects failings. Servalan’s exit is perfunctory, but we expect that by now.
The coded language back on Scorpio regarding what transpired on the shuttle is a wonderful additional touch;
Soolin (in reference to the neutron material): And you moved it on your own?
Avon: I couldn't find Vila.
Vila: I'm glad about that.
I don’t think any other crew member would have been shy of discussing the matter openly in front of the others (they’d be baying for Avon’s blood). Perhaps Vila doesn’t think he’d be believed. Of course, any other crew member would likely not have survived at all, since they would have been gunned down in the open, whereas Vila had the smarts to run and hide.
Vila: It's a trip I won't forget, Avon.
Avon: Well, as you always say, Vila: you know you are safe with ME.
A superlative episode, with outstanding performances from Darrow and Keating (and a suitably unhinged one from Savident). Robert Holmes at his most playfully malign.