Skip to main content

There are times when I miss the darkness. It is hard to live always in the light.


Blake's 7
4.12: Warlord


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. 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.

The Sound of Music (1965) (SPOILERS) One of the most successful movies ever made – and the most successful musical – The Sound of Music has earned probably quite enough unfiltered adulation over the years to drown out the dissenting voices, those that denounce it as an inveterately saccharine, hollow confection warranting no truck. It’s certainly true that there are impossibly nice and wholesome elements here, from Julie Andrews’ career-dooming stereotype governess to the seven sonorous children more than willing to dress up in old curtains and join her gallivanting troupe. Whether the consequence is something insidious in its infectious spirit is debatable, but I’ll admit that it manages to ensnare me. I don’t think I’d seen the movie in its entirety since I was a kid, and maybe that formativeness is a key brainwashing facet of its appeal, but it retains its essential lustre just the same.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.