The penultimate episode, and Chris Boucher seems to have suddenly remembered that the original premise for the series was a crew of rebels fighting against a totalitarian regime. The detour from this, or at least the haphazard servicing of it, during seasons Three and Four has brought many of my favourite moments in the series. So it comes as a bit of a jolt to suddenly find Avon making Blake-like advances towards the leaders of planets to unite in opposition against the Federation.
If the set-up seems like a fairly traditional one, Simon Masters delivers a surprisingly slippery script that looks as if it will be one thing and then turns out to be another. It’s one I tend to forget about this season, but it’s a strong story that deserves its place in the incredibly solid run of the final half dozen episodes.
Looking on IMDB, Douglas Camfield gets a director credit along with Viktor Ritelis. I don’t know what the story is there, but there’s certainly a strong directorial eye present in the dystopian nightmare of the opening filmed sequences. It’s about as grim a depiction of the Federation as anything we have seen since The Way Back.
Perhaps there was an explicit intent to harken back to an oppressed cityscape, something we’ve seen relatively little of. The THX1138-like drones, numbed under the influence of Pylene 50 (the series picking up its continuity from Assassin), are shockingly mown down by Federation guards using them as target practice. It’s a superb sequence, and to be honest what follows can’t really match it, which effectively sets high stakes for the success of Avon’s conference. If there’s a criticism, the picture-in-picture of the guards watching the escalator-bound Zondorans was a bit unnecessary.
This sequence is presented by Avon to some variably acted and attired delegates. They are Boorva (Simon Merrick), Lod (Charles Augins), Mida (Brian Spink) and Chalsa (Rick James, every bit as masterful here as he is in The Mutants – fortunately he has about a tenth of the screen time and Chalsa’s costumes gives a hundred times the performance James does). One of the delegates has what looks a bit like a Gallifreyan seal symbol adorned on his clobber.
Dayna: It’s going badly.
Vila: Hardly surprising. Avon's idea of diplomacy is like breaking someone's leg then saying, "Lean on me."
Zukan’s the episode’s main guest star, and as a warrior with a high performance hair piece he prefigures Star Trek II’s Khan by about nine months. Roy Boyd (Driscoll in The Hand of Fear) is extremely creditable in fairly unsubtle role. When required to go big, Boyd delivers and – fortunately – it’s not the toe-curling OTT that can sometimes happen with such roles (imagine if Stephen Thorne had played him).
Chalsa: But words are no more than ... words.
They certainly aren’t when Rick James is delivering them!
Agreement appears to be reached to that Zukan will provide equipment and resources for the manufacture of the antitoxin to counteract Pylene 50; the latter requiring a trip to Zukan’s planet Betafarl to pick up an ingredient that is being harvested.
What’s most striking about the first section is that it seems to set up a different conflict to the one that is actually transpiring. We’re introduced to Zeeona (played by Bobbie Brown, who was Hedonia in Flash Gordon) whose prerogative is to fall for that great chick magnet Tarrant. Brown is fine in the part, in the craziest ‘80s fright wig this side Toyah Wilcox, but she’s hampered by the most simpering of love affairs with Crazy Legs the Crane.
And since this is relationship is at the opposition of her father it appears to establish a running order of things in the episode. Tarrant’s dilettanting will get in the way of the success of the conference and put him at loggerheads with Avon, just as the latter seems to be getting his act together in opposing the Federation. Which will also make for a likely ho-hum episode.
It looks even more as if this will be pervasive when Soolin manoeuvres herself into going along with Avon to Betafari (first choice Tarrant has been nixed as Zukan, discovering what his daughter is up to, refuses to have him escort her home). She’s actually playing matchmaker and teleports Zeeona back to Xenon base.
If Tarrant returns to something of his Season Three role as a source of friction here (pissing off Avon, getting really pissed off with Vila, who is equally disenchanted with Tarrant and his liaison – at one point he rolls his eyes at their canoodling, actively speaking for the audience), Soolin, in the first half, seems to be acting for the sake of plot mechanics rather than in character. Unless she wants to get back at Avon for things mucking up in Gold.
Again, Avon and Soolin are teamed in this one; it’s a combination that’s worked well. Barber’s not been given much of a character to work with, very much having to fill the gaps through performance, but she essays the cool and reliable Soolin far more appealingly than either Pacey or Simon do their crew members. Having her dump her back-story of a murdered father to a complete stranger is rather clumsy.
Prior to this we have fairly clearly been informed that Zukan is up to no good, as his underling Finn has been placing devices in Xenon base. He’s also the one who drops Tarrant and Zeeona in it. One of the best Avon moments in the episode occurs when Tarrant appears in the doorway, about to confront Zukan, and Avon grabs him by the shoulders and pushes him out of the room. Given how completely stymied Avon is in this one, you wonder if he would have given up any pretence of fighting the Federation if the series had carried on beyond Blake. Perhaps he would have continued, just to piss off Servalan.
Avon’s reaction to Soolin’s underhand behaviour is expectedly curt.
Avon: If it comes to a choice between the alliance and Zukan's revenge, don't think that I won't sacrifice you.
Blowing up Xenon base is a big signal that the series, or the season at any rate, is into its end game. Of the episodes that have significantly featured the base, three of them (Rescue, Headhunter and this) have seen it become a bit of a death trap.
The initial detonations don’t really impress that much; shots of close-up reactions combined with model shots and Tarrant being too ludicrously close to the explosion to be unscathed (Orac is not so lucky, getting bashed on the head by a falling beam).
Following this, though, the mood lighting and the revelation that something in the hangar bay is killing off technicians is very effective. There’s a touch of The Andromeda Strainto the realisation of an airborne killer that will eventually work its way through everyone in the base.
The tensions this creates are on the predictable side, but I always tend to support Vila when he turns defeatist and drunk in response to Tarrant’s bullying rectitude.
Servalan’s behind the plot, of course. While this is tiresome, her screen time in episodes this season hasn’t been that invasive for the most part. It’s her pervading influence that’s the problem. This is her final appearance, but there’s nothing to distinguish it from most weeks when she pops up. The logic behind Zukan not telling her the location of Xenon base is sound, and it’s made clear that he doubts the wisdom of his deception and the cost of his men.
But once he has started down the path of dishonour, the situation just gets worse for him, and his actions only compound his sins.
His ejection of Finn into space, without hesitation, when the latter has discovered Servalan’s bomb, is a superb little moment.
And his raging impotence, refusing to believe that he has put his daughter in harm’s way, while unable to escape his damaged ship, is well played by Boyd; large, but effective.
The sequence where Avon and Soolin are apprehended by Federation guards on Betafarl sets up Zukan’s refusal to believe that his daughter is on Xenon base quite seamlessly (both are wearing regulation overalls so I guess they’re expecting to get mucky). It makes sense that Soolin would claim to be Zeeona in order not to be restrained like Avon is.
Speaking of whom, he looks like he is about to undergo some sort of nasty pre-death torture, staked out in the sand. The turning of the tables is perhaps a bit too effortless on Soolin’s part, but needs of the main plot must.
The rest of the episode really belongs to Avon, convinced that he has correctly deduced the way for those in Xenon base to survive (reverse the air conditioning) despite Zukan’s protests that he is wrong. And then, with his ready acceptance of Zeeona volunteering to clear the contaminated area, over Tarrant’s protests (interestingly Soolin is on Avon’s side again by this point).
Zeeona: I want it to be me. It has to be me. [To Tarrant] Don't you understand?
Tarrant: Then I go with her.
Avon: No. She will go alone.
Avon also appears to have deduced the outcome for Zeeona. There’s an edge of sadistic relish to his smile when Tarrant teleports to find his unresponsive love.
Avon: Oh, let him go down.
Unable to deal with the shame, Zeeona has removed her glove and succumbed to the virus (somehow she has managed to both kill herself and clear the virus, quite an achievement).
It’s a bleak ending, but there’s something about Darrow’s playing of Avon in such climaxes – a wry acceptance of the ironic inevitability of failure to succeed – that has more resonance than the defeat itself.
A taut, well-performed episode with the crew up against it at every turn. Even when they follow Blake’s remit they can’t seem to catch a break.