This was originally set for third in the season, and it makes sense there in terms of Avon’s attempts to bring Scorpio up to some kind of battle-readiness. Having it fourth means we get a break from Servalan, though (which we’re going to need) and stems the tide of all the necessary components for the ship falling into the crew’s lap. They still get very lucky, but at least there’s a bit of a gap here.
Stardrive stuck in the memory on first transmission partly due to the day-glo punk Space Rats and partly due to Avon’s ruthless attitude at the climax, in which Barbara Shelley’s Doctor Plaxton is killed connecting up the titular equipment. While those elements are still striking (although in the case of the former in an extremely cheesy way) it’s also notable how no-frills the central plot thread is. We don’t arrive on Caspar (no friendly ghosts there) until almost 20 minutes in. The plus side of this is that we aren’t subjected to the usual capture-and-escape padding.
On the down side, it means that there’s little time spent getting to know the supporting cast, Plaxton in particular. Barbara Shelley (Sorasta in Planet of Fire) is very accomplished and makes the most of a fairly basic character. She’s still quite striking-looking with her Hammer days some distance in the past now, and Space Rat leader Atlan certainly seems to have the horn for her.
It’s interesting that this came out the same year as Mad Max 2, as there’s definite parallels between the punk anarchy of the Space Rats and the followers of the Humungus in that film. Mad Max 2 had the good sense to dress its cast mostly in leather, though, which means it has aged better. The Space Rats are somewhere between Adam Ant and American Footballers. And for all their speed-crazy ethos, the reality of zipping about on three-wheeled trikes is about as dynamic as it was when Pertwee was chased by Ogrons on one in Day of the Daleks.
Back to the opening passage, and we’re seeing Avon’s metamorphosis from logician to risk-taker continue. There’s still a reasoned underpinning (without improvements to Scorpio, which necessitates them entering Federation space, they will be even more vulnerable in the long run) but in the first two seasons he would have been the one to instruct Blake that it was a fool’s errand and wasn’t worth it.
Something has changed, perhaps enhanced by the destruction of his most-prized asset. He isn’t exactly devil-may-care, but he seems to have lost his ethos for self-preservation as priority number one by this point. Perhaps, on some level, he realises that if he isn’t pushing against something he’s nothing, but there’s also a less predictable energy to him now; maybe a spring has slightly sprung in there.
Slave: I, uh, don't wish to speak out of turn but we're on a converging collision course with a large -
Avon: We know.
Slave: I'm sorry, Master, but as asteroids go –
Avon: Don't be sorry, be quiet.
It’s an interesting decision to have the opening gambit of riding an asteroid into Federation space fail abjectly. Everyone warned Avon it was a crazy, but we usually see a miraculous success in these instances. No sooner are they riding its tail than they hit it, causing sufficient damage to the main drive that emergency repairs are necessary.
Chris Boucher apparently said that Season Four could be seen as the start of a new series, but this is one without the comfort zone that Liberator gave in Season One. There’s a strong vibe here that the crew are permanently on the edge, that failure is just around the corner. The shadow of Terminal will always fall on them.
Vila’s “pissed” scene sees the shrewdness of the character brought to the fore again. If Avon is losing his sense of caution, Vila’s has never been stronger. He shows how drunk he is by (understandably) getting lairy towards Soolin before explaining how a similarly stricken prison ship he was on was repaired through the activation of a force wall. And as Vila is “too pissed” to do the repairs himself it is left to Avon and Tarrant. This is a very enjoyable scene, although Keaton slightly overplays the explanation to Soolin and Dayna that he wasn’t drunk at all.
Vila: Show me how to get drunk on plain water and I won't waste time.
Dayna: Well, then why pretend?
Vila: Because, my lovely Dayna and Soolin, no one ever tells someone who's drunk to volunteer. I don't like to work in main drive chambers, especially main drive chambers that are separated from space by one of Slave's force walls.
Another strong plot element is introduced with the mysterious destruction of three Federation ships while the repairs are taking place. The interrogation of Orac concerning this sees him being wonderfully crabby, although the signposting of the loss of the Federation’s top designer of drives is a bit convenient (and why are the drives of the ships inferior; why couldn’t the Federation just copy the drive design of existing craft – presumably it’s a production line?) It’s an example of underlining that stacks up coincidences unnecessarily.
Tarrant: What we want to know is how three ships can suddenly blow up by themselves.
Orac: If that had happened I would want an answer to the same question.
Avon: So what you're trying to tell us, Orac, is that those ships did NOT blow up by themselves.
Orac: I am not TRYING to tell you anything. I am simply not interested in attempting to compensate for your amazing lack of observation.
Ten thousand frames per second is certainly a lot to look through. Appropriately, it is eagle-eyed Soolin who notices the Space Chopper. And it’s Vila who identifies the Space Rats.
Vila: They're maniacs, psychopaths! All they live for is sex and violence, booze and speed. And the fellows are just as bad.
Interesting that the Federation banned all leisure transport, although I don’t quite know what this means in practice. And which ancient Earth sect do the Space Rats base themselves on? Hell’s Angels?
Avon: Speed is the key. Find the Space Rats and we find Dr. Plaxton. That's exactly what we're going to do.
It’s amusing and consistent that Avon uses Dayna and Vila as diversions (with Tarrant’s complicity), counting on Vila to spill the beans about Scorpio while unbeknownst to them the ship has landed.
Director David Sullivan Proudfoot is a fairly workmanlike director (at least he doesn’t have to juggle interior sets as exteriors this week) but there’s the odd moment of inspiration (he shoots Scorpio quite interestingly, and the visual gag of cutting from Dayna’s comment about having the advantage of surprise to an observing Space Rat shows a bit of involvement in the proceedings).
The huge Mohawks of the Space Rats are absurd, and the humorous potential of them being smelly idiots could have been played up a bit more. While their leader Atlan (Damien Thomas, who has a touch of the Taren Capel about him) has had a bit of time spent on him in make-up, the tattoos on the rest of the Space Rats look like they been put on with marker pen (or a spray can).
Why they refer to outsiders/the Federation as “gooks” is anyone’s guess; perhaps the slang has developed in meaning over the centuries.
Some of the character development for Atlan seems to have been lost at some point; he states that he isn’t a Space Rat but is allowed to lead while he provides them what they want. It appears that he has designs on controlling space trade routes, but this amounts to a couple of lines in the episode and doesn’t lead anywhere.
The incongruity of Plaxton and her assistant being in the middle of this works up to a point, but even given her willingness to exit the Federation it’s difficult to believe that she’d put up with such uncultured behaviour for long (particularly with Atlan forcing tonsil hockey on her).
The attempts by Dayna to get Plaxton to play along with the pretence of her and Vila being students is particularly groan-worthy, which makes it a relief (and a welcome example of cutting to the chase) when Avon and co break through the wall that they’ve been weakening.
Proudfoot’s staging of the action here is particularly clumsy, with Atlan’s position making it unlikely that he wouldn’t notice the wall behind him (particularly with the noise) and his escape (Soolin proving useless at close quarters combat it seems) proving rather weak. I like the way Avon strides through the hole in the wall and answers Atlan’s question, though.
Atlan (referring to the stardrive): Well, what do you think of it?
Avon: Very nice. It will be even nicer if you stand absolutely still.
Out on the surface, Soolin makes up for her crapness by shooting four Space Rats without breaking a sweat on her lovely brow.
Really, though, the chase sequence here is very much Sad Max since there’s never any real sense of danger and Avon makes short work of the pursuing Space Rats by blowing them up on their trikes.
And so the climax, with a ticking clock of Federation ships closing in while Plaxton fits the stardrive (a more powerful one than had been seen on the Space Chopper). The economy of the storytelling here makes a refreshing change; there’s a cut from the 45 minutes she has to complete her task to two minutes remaining.
With the Federation in range and firing on Scorpio, Avon programmes in the main circuit drive, meaning that it will fire when Plaxton makes the final connection.
Avon: We can outrun that bolt. She's dead either way.
The cold logic with which Avon makes his decision is to be expected of him, but what is refreshing is that (despite moving in a more Blake-like path of resistance to the Federation) rather than manoeuvre him into a more heroic position, as leader, Boucher is happy (no doubt partly at Darrow’s insistence) to underline just how anti-heroic he is. There’s no remorse or regret at the decision, making for one of the best final lines of an episode in some considerable time.
Dayna: What about Dr. Plaxton?
A no-nonsense approach to telling the story means that this moves at a fair clip, but it also makes for a rather graceless affair. Still, there’s some interesting narrative decisions (the opening section) and character choices (Avon and Vila are back on form after spending an episode in the background). It’s silly in places (the Space Rats never convince) but there are also the stirrings of a downbeat edge to the season in the attitude of Avon and the demise of Plaxton.