Headhunter is fast-paced and tense-enough that issues with plot logic are fairly easy to brush aside. Given that Roger Parkes’ debut was such a laughable mess, it’s quite surprising that both this and Children of Auron manage to sustain dramatic high-stakes throughout. That said, it rarely feels that it has that extra something; it’s a functional thrill-ride, and apart from Avon’s tirade at the climax it doesn’t serve its characters in a particularly distinct or memorable way (Soolin excepted, who gets her only solid involvement in an episode since, and including, her debut). Watching it, I was particularly conscious of how snappy the scenes are. It rattles along, and Mary Ridge really steps up to the plate after being handed a couple of dog’s dinners.
I’ll probably refer to my ‘80s viewing of this season a bit during these reviews; this one stuck in the memory due to the headless android on the attack. And it’s this same rather unconvincing bloke wearing false shoulders that doesn’t come across very well on this revisit. It doesn’t help that the designers seem to have gone for a headless horseman-by-way-of-court jester look for “Muller”’s ensemble. He looks a bit like a walking table cloth. If that’s an in-your-face shortcoming, Ridge doesn’t let it get in the way of ratcheting up the tension as Muller runs amok through Xenon base.
The other aspect of the story I’ll note here, which further undermines the initial sense we have of Xenon, is the climax involving the hydro plant. I’m not suggesting that the plant might not have been developed by the Hommiks at some point (or even the Seska or Dorian), but it looks sod-all like the rather arid surface we’ve been shown so far. It’s apparently a lush, rural spot just round the corner from Dorian’s base. The actual reasoning for it being a plot device comes across as solid, but it’s still a deus ex machina due to its very being on the planet. If it had been name dropped during Power, it might have come across as planned-out, but this is pure writer’s convenience.
Although we pick up the story on Scorpio, we’re some way into an Avon-inspired plan. One which continues his attempted acquisition of scientists to fight the Federation as outlined in Animals. We’re dumped a lot of background information quite speedily (Muller was tutored by Ensor and has become possibly his equal, works for the Robot Development Cartel which doesn’t want to lose him, and has been working on his perfect creation of which details are sketchy).
It’s reasonable that Avon would be particularly interested in following up this lead, given his computing background, although how he found Muller’s floozy Vena is not clarified. It’s rather disconcerting that Muller should be fulfilling his sexual needs through Bisto mum Lynda Bellingham (later, of course, The Inquisitor in The Trial of a Time Lord), and despite her cleavage-revealing top I don’t for a minute buy that she’s some kind of all-servicing space tart. It’s a fairly non-part for Bellingham; the story could quite easily survive without her, although I suppose it does reinforce various elements relating to Muller and the setting up of the mystery of what exactly is going on.
Certainly, the early stage reveal to the audience that a likely headless real Muller is lying under the table in his lab is telling us all is not well. And the mystery of what is in the head-sized box that “Muller” won’t let Vila open results in there being, apparently, two dead Mullers. One having been hit on the back by Vila with a space spanner when he was attacking Tarrant.
This frenzy was a result of his fear of the contents of the box. So why, rather than expressing fear for the inhibitor head, didn’t the android just destroy it? It might be that he got wind of Muller’s intention to leave and thought up a wheeze to abscond in his creator’s place while Muller was working on the head, but without time to destroy it before Tarrant arrived. It’s a bit thin, though (since there was time to cut off Muller’s head somehow, stick it on his shoulders, without anyone noticing how peaky he looked, and seal his real head in a black box). The idea of an android mutilating a corpse was used in the previous year’s Farrah Fawcettfest, Saturn 3.
Parkes does a good job distracting us from searching for answers, or indeed asking questions, with set pieces. So the decision to quarantine Scorpio, which is suffering systems failures every time Vila goes near the box, results in Dayna and Soolin finally teleporting aboard to rescue Vila and Tarrant on the shut-down ship. Avon’s dilemma over following the precautionary approach advised by Orac or saving his friends (well, colleagues) is well-played out.
Orac: They must be left there!
Avon: To die?
Orac: There is no option. To reopen teleport contact could expose the base to undefined systems influence.
Avon: Oh, you'll have to do better than that, Orac, if you expect me to kill them.
I also like the previous exchange between Orac and Avon, where the latter tells Tarrant that they’ll worry about the details of what is happening after the ship has returned.
Orac: It would be prudent to worry about the details now.
Avon: When did you start offering gratuitous advice?
Orac: It is not gratuitous.
Avon: I don't remember asking for it.
It’s arguable that Orac is unnecessarily cryptic regarding the threat involved. However much he doesn’t know, there are enough specifics in his comments to suggest that he is putting his own welfare above the absolute protection of the crew. Which isn’t to suggest that Orac’s not broadly correct, rather that self-preservation is his first priority.
Orac: I am obliged to do as you tell me, even though I know it to be wrong.
Avon: Only following orders. That's not very original, Orac.
Orac: There is nothing very original about domination, as you will discover.
Of course, its par for the course for Orac to be non-specific and abrasive and it’s certainly telling that the crew member who least knows his wily ways is the one that he confides in and who is willing to follow his suggestions.
Given the rather natty space suits we’ve seen the Liberator equipped with, it’s disappointing that these are utterly cheesy. But it’s an nice touch to have Scorpio’s command deck icing over when Dayna and Soolin arrive, with ice forming on Vila and Tarrant.
While the scene of Avon and Vena investigating Scorpio might conceivably be seen as padding, it serves to establish that “Muller” is no longer there, as we intercut with Soolin being persuaded by Orac to hide him.
Orac: You must then conceal me, securely, until you destroy the intruder, if you can destroy the intruder.
Soolin: Anything's possible when you are as insane as I obviously am.
Frankly, that’s a pretty horrendous line and it’s a bit criminal that an actress as good as Barber plays second fiddle to a plank like Simon for most of the time. But Soolin does have a decent presence in this episode, and Barber plays her as calm under duress, with a headless android in hot pursuit. There are a few moments in here where there’s a fall-back on stereotype “female behaviour” (Soolin and Dayna have a girly exchange at the beginning that seems as incongruous as when Cally and Jenna did the same, Avon looks to Soolin to comfort Vena) that don’t really fit with the supposed character (as limited as our knowledge of Soolin is).
It’s fairly abrupt ending for Lynda when “Muller” finally reveals himself, crushed into gravy granules when she goes to embrace him. If “Muller” can render inoperable the crew’s weapons, why doesn’t he just take control of the base’s doors and prevent them from escaping? Particularly since he does this to open the doors after they have pegged it. Some lip service is paid to this later by having a door jammed open, so perhaps the idea is just that the doors don’t have sufficient electric force to prevent manual opening.
The timing of the dual reveals of who Muller actually is works quite well, although it’s a shame more effort didn’t go into bluffing the audience (or alternatively, having someone like Avon suspect from the limited possibilities available). Vila finds the android’s head in a box just as the body loses Muller’s when Dayna blows it up.
The conceit of an android that lacks a conscience without its head is such a stretch that if it wasn’t played straight and as a thrill-ride it would likely end up as ridiculous as Parkes’ Voice from the Past.
While the appeal of the android to Avon is understandable, I’m not sure how much of an advance it represents over Orac, whose capabilities of influence have been demonstrated decisively in the past (Redemption) and whose threat to the crew has been mooted (Shadow). I suppose the difference here is that the purpose of the design is more specific and direct in its potential. Certainly, even if the enslavement of mankind as the end result of the android’s reign seems like a bit of a stretch, the episode does well to suggest the possibility, with the oppressive, darkened base and Orac’s apocalyptic mutterings.
Avon: Think of it. It is already as powerful as Orac, and it is mobile, and it has the circuit influencer. That android can control anything that has electronic circuitry.
It’s Soolin who does most of the legwork in baiting the android and luring him into Avon’s trap. She also has to contend with Vila falling into his coward routine and trying to offer Orac to the android. The pursuit is dramatic, and made more atmospheric by Orac, switched on to attract the android and now under its influence.
Orac: Accept your domination, Soolin! Surrender to your God!
The staging of the trap for the android, Avon’s struggle to put its head in place while fighting an electromagnetic field, is only marred by the sudden rurality of Xenon, complete with hitherto unseen rivers and bridges.
With Avon rendered unconscious, Soolin suggests getting him back to the base.
Orac: Requisite action must be carried out first. It is imperative!
Is it now imperative, though?
Regardless, Dayna and Tarrant initiate the destruction of the android, much to Avon’s chagrin. The question is, was Avon wrong to think the android was now safe? And if he was, does that mean that the inhibitor circuit didn’t work, that attaching the head made no sustained difference? It’s more than possible that Orac wanted to ensure his “supremacy” and insisted that the threat remained until the android was destroyed (after all, it represented a force that could control him, irrespective of what it could potentially do to the human race).
It’s a disconsolate place for Avon to be at episode’s end, enraged at the loss of a potential asset (and scientific advance) while (at least three of) the crew are actively pleased about its destruction.
Avon (to Tarrant): You fool! It's superstitious half-wits like you who hold back every advance we make.
Orac: And arrogance, Avon, like yours and Muller's which threaten to destroy...
Avon: SHUT UP!
Orac: Yes, master!
Orac’s sarcastic tone shouldn’t disguise the implication that, by his logic, the same danger existed in his development by Ensor (after all, he actively put the Liberator in danger and had a bomb implanted in him by the very person he now appears to be taking the moral high ground with).
I’m inclined to think Orac overreached in commanding the destruction of an android now rendered non-hostile (it would hardly have lathered itself up into such a frenzy about the box coming along if the head would not have impeded it once reattached). For one so concerned about humanity, Orac was certainly quite accepting of the necessity of the deaths of Tarrant and Vila (and coy about the nature of the threat that existed on the Scorpio – as he always is with such things). That said, you wouldn’t want to risk a situation down the line where its head became detached...
Season Four finally ups its game. This is by no means perfect, with plot holes in abundance, but as an exercise in sustained tension it works extremely well. They’re not having much luck in their attempts to press scientists into their service, though.