Only a machine
"I have waited. Far too long."
I was excited for Orac. I’d had a minor spoiler in that I had seen the episode title before I rewatched Deliverance, but it had little bearing, except I knew Orac was going to be significant in the final episode. A week had passed so there had been plenty of time for me to try to guess what Orac might be. It was something that had been created or discovered and that Ensor Junior had believed was worth 100 million credits. It was something that Servalan was very keen to get hold of but didn’t want anyone in the Federation to know other than Travis.
My first thought was a machine, or more specifically a weapon. This was the option that seemed most likely. But I also wondered whether it could be a mineral or energy source – either natural or man-made to harness energy, like the 007 universe’s solex agitator in The Man with the Golden Gun. It also occurred to me that it might be a powerful drug that Servalan could utilise for control.
I name this ship
A small grammar point: The Liberator is now being referred to far more as just ‘Liberator’ and so, as I may well have been incorrect in the first place, I will henceforth cease to use its capitalisation of ‘The Liberator’. I have the feeling that Blake's 7 may not do me the courtesy of maintaining this consistency so if anyone has researched whether this depends on the writer/director/actor/sound supervisor's shade of tea that afternoon, it is exactly the sort of thing I am here for.
Previously on Blake's 7...
Liberator is on its way to Aristo and we get a recap of the events of Deliverance when Blake sits down with Avon to tell him about it. On the one hand, it’s an obvious recap, but on the other, I liked this format. You can essentially take it as Blake checking that Avon agrees with everything that Blake has entered in the ship’s log and whether he’s missed anything. I decided I preferred this brief and sufficient summary instead of a ‘previously on Blake’s 7…’ section.
Now, in the real world, this is probably just Terry Nation managing the plot but I was really intrigued by the revelation that Blake is keeping a Captain’s log. Blake’s log reminded me of Captain Kirk’s in Star Trek, though I should mention that I’ve only seen a tiny number of episodes. Is anyone else contributing to Liberator’s log or has Blake taken it upon himself? If I wanted to be critical of Blake, I’d say it was another example of him assuming authority – he is writing their history. But on the other, it could be that no one else particularly fancied this slightly dull admin task.
I’m curious why they are keeping a log. It’s the equivalent of Del Boy keeping receipts – why would you leave a trail of your criminality? I can only conclude that Blake wants this for the crew’s own reference, but it seems a huge risk. If the Federation catch up with Liberator, they will be able to discover everywhere Team Blake has ever been and everyone who has ever helped them, placing those people in danger of repercussions.
At the start of the episode Gan is unwell. Obviously no offence to Sally Knyvette playing Jenna, but I immediately thought that she looked a bit shit too. Both looking sweaty and weak, it was apparent that the same thing had happened to Gan and Jenna. Soon Vila was ready to drop as well. It didn't feel appropriate, but I could have cheered when the crew discovered they were suffering from radiation poisoning.
The first time I became aware of what this actually meant was while watching Doctor Who's 'The Daleks'. The TARDIS crew demonstrate similar symptoms and while it does slowly eat away, I had been left with the impression that this is a pretty minor affliction if sufficient drugs are available. However, I've recently watched the superb and horrifying Chernobyl series and this depicts the full range of possibilities that can result from the effects of radiation. As none of the crew had dropped dead and weren't screaming in agony, I knew we were probably at the lighter end of the radiation sickness scale, yet still appreciated the severity of the situation.
No drugs is not good. Why doesn't Liberator have any anti-radiation drugs? Maybe this is something they should have checked before they headed down to a planet with dangerously-high levels of radiation. They all seem so surprised when they discover there aren't any that it seems like these must be a standard item to have on any spaceship, which is why they were so sure there would be some. I can only compare it to British people's expectations that every hotel room will contain a kettle. I've previously pondered where Liberator may have come from and have so far concluded that it is probably from the future and created for humanoid-aliens. This felt like another hint towards that as I thought that perhaps there were no anti-radiation drugs because the aliens didn't need them.
I was so pleased by this radiation poisoning reveal though because it was a nice piece of continuity between Deliverance and Orac. Blake warned them about the high levels of radiation on the planet, something I remember clocking at the time. But we also heard that they would be able to have a few hours down there and this seemed plenty. They didn't spend very long down there on their first trip and I forgot about this when Team Avon returned, presuming they were fine. No one showed any signs of radiation sickness immediately. It's always hard to judge timing and it certainly did seem like they only spent a few hours on the planet.
This sudden snatching of the safety net was well planned as we are reminded that our heroes are not invincible and I like this kind of realism. Having watched a number of earlier adventure series, you never feel any real harm will come to the lead characters and this is a refreshing change. I suppose I also noticed this more because I don't know how the series will turn out. At this point in television history, I don't think you expect drama programmes to kill off regular characters - it's rare. But we are at the end of the series and I wouldn't have been too surprised to see Gan or Jenna go, so the threat to their lives felt real. It was also an innovative way of splitting up Liberator's crew as it forced last week's Team Avon to remain on Liberator while Blake and Cally head down to Aristo.
"Die? I can't do that!"
Gan takes it all rather stoically while I'm sure Jenna will be at least partly protected by the substantial weight of her silver eyeshadow - it's been awesome all series. In fact, I said she looked like shit, but Jenna does sometimes come across as a 'something for the dads' element of Blake's 7. Her hair always looks grand, even when she's dying, and this week both she and Cally are wearing outfits with belts around their waists that emphasise their figures.
Vila doesn't take the news particularly well. It's interesting that Blake tries to hide the severity of the situation, insisting they will have drugs on Aristo, while Vila nervously squeals, "But if they don't?!" Yet Avon reckons, "There's no point in hiding; our condition will deteriorate rapidly. If we don't get drug treatment very soon, we shall die." This prompts a moment of light relief as Vila replies, "Die? I can't do that!" Avon briefly smiles as he answers, "I'm afraid you can. It's the one talent we all share. Even you." I thought this was a nice follow up from previous references to Vila's 'talents' and 'skills'.
Maybe Avon was right to be open with everyone about the severity of their illness, especially as we soon see how swiftly it begins to affect them. I've always been on Avon's side for being transparent with the whole crew, but for once I can understand Blake's intentions. It does no benefit for everyone to know they are dying and could have caused a lot of panic. Vila rushes off to be sick and proceeds to hide out, probably writing his will.
Later on, Avon remains the best looking of the sickly bunch. The pessimistic Vila is wallowing, convinced he's close to death and unfortunately, despite some exaggeration, he's probably right. Blake and Cally have been gone a long time so Avon decides to head down after them and drag poor Vila with him. He may well have chosen Vila because they have developed a close, reliable relationship, but I suspect it is more due to the fact that Gan and Jenna are struggling to stay conscious.
I initially thought this was a big change for Avon and he actually cared about Blake - it would be quite a swing from his attempts to disappear with Jenna in Cygnus Alpha. However, I had momentarily forgotten that delivering the power cells was not Blake's only purpose - the others desperately need the anti-radiation drugs and Avon says, "I'm not going to sit around and wait to die." Unlike other high-pressure situations, Avon isn't actually panicking but he's had a long time to worry. Vila is raging to have been woken up as Avon gets guns together.
Avon "You and I are going down to the surface - put that on."
Vila "Are you out of your mind? I'm finding it hard enough just to stay on my feet.”
Avon "Then CRAWL but put that on!"
While many of Vila's comments are delivered in a flippant tone, he is rather serious in this scene. It helps emphasise the urgency of the situation, along with the great insistent delivery from Avon. He really looks like more of a leader here.
I’m not sure if it’s just a sensible precaution or if he’s also scared, but Avon could have gone alone. I think this may be against unofficial Liberator policy though - while Blake went down to Cygnus Alpha alone, since we reached full Blake's 7, they have done their best to stick together and have generally gone in pairs at least.
We are told that the seas on Aristo are acidic but nothing ever comes of this. When we first see Servalan and Travis begin to traverse the caves, there is water down there but it doesn't seem to affect them through their boots. Then when Avon and Vila teleport down, Vila has only had time to shove one boot on so his socked foot teleports into water. As nothing happened immediately, I was expecting something to begin to affect him later. I can see now that there really wasn't time, yet it felt a waste of a potential plot point.
I enjoyed seeing Ensor Snr. and for a man who appears to have spent several decades alone with just his son for company, he could have been far more eccentric, but I felt the balance was just right. He clearly kept himself busy and I was amused by his fondness for his plants and fish. I expected him to react more to the death of his son, but he took it well, which I was glad about because we really didn't have time for his grief - sorry, Ensor.
I thought his chest piece was done superbly. I was shocked when it was first revealed and a tad horrified, yet it soon reminded me of Iron Man. Unfortunately Ensor is not as tough as that and is on his way out. I initially wasn't sure if he would survive but knew he was a goner the moment he told his plants and fish that he'd be back.
Location, location, location
I don't know if it is just my perception but it felt like Orac contained a lot of scenes on location. There are only the two of - hey! Another quarry! And the caves, but the cutting between them all made it seem like we spent plenty of time out of the studio. I liked the caves and the use of different camera angles helped make me unsure whether we were in the same corridor or not. The bubbling water on the floor and the dimness helped add to the atmosphere. For once, I felt that Servalan and Travis were on the back foot, as the audience has learned about the risks in the caves.
Keeping the Phybians out of sight for much of the episode was a good idea because I knew the costumes were not likely to be fantastic. They are built up just by noises for a while and this a better idea. Nonetheless, I was fascinated in a disgusted sort of way by the giant black lizard-fly hybrid. Although I was hoping to see a terrified Travis attacked, it was Servalan who got caught. It was strange to see this powerful woman scared for the first time, with the realisation that she was alone and could die. It’s very different to the moments when we have seen Travis facing death as this has been at the hands of Blake; I don’t ever expect to see Travis prepared to show fear to his nemesis and I wouldn’t expect to see Servalan faulter to a human enemy either.
This was the first time we had seen Servalan out in the field, which further emphasised how important Orac must be to her. But also, perhaps, she had seen Travis fail too many times and wanted to watch over him.
Blake the Bloody Hero
I have slagged off Blake a lot. After being impressed by his heroism in the first few episodes, I quickly decided Blake was a prick. I wanted to see him go ape-shit and tear a viscous lump out of the Federation because Blake’s 7 had done a good job of swiftly making clear how evil it was. I was so frustrated with Blake for not killing Travis when he first had the chance. Also, he had a nasty habit of risking everyone’s lives for his cause. As the rivalry between Blake and Avon developed, I moved further against Blake. Avon’s reasoned challenges made it clear how controlling and undemocratic Blake was as a leader and this seemed at complete odds with his mission to bring down the totalitarian Federation. This has combined with the fact that we know very little about who Blake was in his previous life. He was an anti-Federation rebel before but just because he wasn’t in favour of the Federation doesn’t mean he was a good guy.
While this last point is always in the back of my mind, I have found myself starting to warm to Blake a little. I was sympathetic to him when he wanted to keep the radiation risks from Vila. Then in the caves with Cally, he gently forced her to go on with Ensor, simply saying, "Let me do it my way, Cally." Blake stays back to try to bring the roof down and block off Servalan and Travis. This is an ambitious idea, by which I do also mean bloody stupid.
The roof is crumbling but I was concerned that even if he did succeed in bringing it down in time, Blake wouldn't be able to control the swift collapse and could find himself trapped on Servalan and Travis's side. Suddenly, I gave a shit about Blake again. This felt like a genuinely heroic gesture of him putting others before himself - he wasn't trying to save them to avoid his own guilt, and he wanted to make sure that Servalan didn't get her hands on Orac.
The final confrontation on the beach between Blake, Cally, Servalan and Travis was fantastic. The excitement had been building for me ever since Travis suddenly spotted Blake in the corridor and shot at him. After Blake reached the surface, he moved a single rock onto the trapdoor and I was panicking, screaming, 'You'll want more than one of them, mate!'
As Blake and Cally raised their hands in surrender I was gutted. There had been a lot of moments that prompted me to shout 'oh shit!' at the telly in Orac, but, along with the corridor encounter, this was top. It’s the first time since The Way Back that Blake has been caught by the Federation and it was terrifying. I didn’t think Travis would actually kill them both (partly because we do have several more series to go), but he might have hurt them. It would be just like Travis to painfully but not fatally wound Blake. I couldn’t see a way out. All I could think was that maybe Cally had already switched on her radio to message Liberator, and hopefully someone would hear what was going on, and quickly and very soon and oh god please hurry and teleport them up now, now, NOW!
I had of course been so caught up in this scene that I had completely forgotten about Avon and Vila. We had seen them appear on Aristo’s surface but then couldn’t be sure what had happened next. The part of me that has disliked Blake for half the series was thrilled that it is ultimately Avon who saves the day. Seeing him blast Travis's hand to bits was very cool. It was such a relief too. Avon says, "I was aiming for his head," but I do think he is just being flippant. It's quite satisfying hearing Travis cry out in pain.
Avon didn't keep his gun trained on Travis and Servalan so I was expecting Travis to take advantage of that and try something, but clearly he didn't fancy his chances and once we see the full state of his hand it becomes apparent that he would have been taking on Blake and Cally literally single-handedly.
Servalan looks utterly livid with Travis, which seemed a little unfair as she had witnessed everything and I didn't think Travis stood a chance. Maybe she could have been keeping a lookout while he kept a gun trained on Blake and Cally. But Servalan really does come across strictly as an observer. Travis should probably have realised that. It was always going to be his fault if something went wrong.
Travis tries to goad our good guys, saying, "Well what are you waiting for? Come on, man - why don't you kill us?" Crikey, if it was down to Avon they would have been on the floor in two seconds flat. It's actually slightly amusing how fast he raises his gun again - Servalan and Travis must have thought they were goners. A micro-second of a reaction shot would have been nice, but perhaps it is best missed out, considering that I've already thought it out and don't really believe either of them would give their enemies that satisfaction.
Blake, wisely, interjects very quickly to stop Avon. His "better idea" of telling the Federation that Servalan and Travis let them escape is pretty poor. Anyone who has spent five minutes with either of those two heartless sadists would never believe it. I think it is just a cover. Maybe Blake does have an issue with killing in cold blood, or maybe, like he stated in Duel, he doesn't want to feel responsible for Travis's death because he would enjoy it - that guilt issue again. Maybe he is hoping for a more painfully humiliating end for Travis. Yet with my growing liking for Blake, I am more inclined to see the benefits of another of his previous comments: “I know who is chasing me and I know I can beat him.” Blake has proven that again.
It became plain that Terry Nation had really struggled with plots throughout some of the series. How bothered I have been has depended on how much I was enjoying things but even with an appreciation of T.P. McKenna, Bounty was just bloody ridiculous. Orac felt like the first episode in a while where every minute was used well and I wanted more. Still, I've been relieved to learn that Terry Nation won't be writing every episode next series because this clearly isn't sustainable.
I don't know the show's production background but, despite the odd drops, Terry Nation appears to have created an entire tangible world over the last 13 episodes and that is quite an achievement. I think this blog demonstrates that I have become very swept up in it and all of that has come from having such fascinating characters. I've also adored the way the Federation's evil credentials were established. Looking back, it seems odd yet perfectly fitting that we don't meet Travis and Servalan until halfway through the series. I was having so much fun that I had forgotten they would be coming up. I think the following episodes struck a good balance of episodes with and without them.
Just a machine?
The discovery that Orac is a computer was not a great surprise, but nonetheless was slightly different to what I had expected. I love the idea that Ensor realised he could connect to virtually any computer in the world. It obviously now feels like a foreshadowing of the internet, which is pretty forward-thinking for 1978. I’m curious what Ensor might have done with Orac as I don’t think he knew what his son had agreed with Servalan. I don’t believe he would have been willing to sell it to the Federation because I believe he was hoping to use it against them.
Discovering what Orac was was exciting as I immediately realised its potential is enormous. If you can connect to any Federation system anywhere in the universe, could you force some of it to self-destruct? Could you take control of weapons and spaceships? Surely you would be able to change data? So then you could alter the course of trials like Blake’s. They could confuse the Federation about Liberator’s whereabouts.
What has Servalan been hoping to use it for then? She’s kept it secret from the Federation. What is she not getting legitimately from the Federation then? What shitty things does she want to happen that not even the Federation will sanction?
I had expected that discovering what Orac was would tie things up but instead it has left me with a million more questions. Another one is: how the hell can Orac predict the future so specifically? I think this is something I might just have to accept – everything must logically point to a certainty somewhere.
Anything can happen in the next 50 minutes
The image of Liberator exploding on screen was an absolutely superb way to end the series. While watching, I thought, ‘That’s it - Liberator is doomed,’ but I’ve since pondered other possibilities. Does Orac lie? We’ve already met one shady fucker in the form of Zen, who doesn’t lie but hasn’t always told the whole truth either. Could Orac be mistaken - could this be one of many possible futures? I don’t think so – it was made clear that this will happen. Some of them might die on board Liberator, but I’m doubtful of this. Maybe they blow Liberator up on purpose – a trick for the Federation.
My first thought prompted the idea that the crew must find another ship, so maybe it will be time to say goodbye to Zen. This seems likely anyway as I don’t think Zen and Orac can exist alongside one another for long. Besides an overlap of functions, I don’t think they will get on. Orac seems like he will be rather different to Zen, who, despite every name I’ve called him, hasn’t developed much of a personality. Orac already appears a bit cheeky and forthright, while we have had to infer a lot about Zen - often from what he doesn't say.
There might be a few members of Blake’s 7 who don’t get on with Orac. He seems like even more of a sarky sod than Avon, who laughed at Orac but I think he could get more frustrated with him than Zen. On the other hand, maybe he and Orac are well-matched as Avon thinks very logically compared to the rest of the crew – I’m reminded of Vila calling him a machine, which Avon took as a complement. Avon dismissed Zen as "just a machine" but Orac already seems a far more intelligent one.
Orac’s potential seems so vast currently because we know so little about it. Maybe it does have limitations. I’m not certain that Orac can actually do anything or whether it can just access the information. Yet from what has already been demonstrated I believe that whoever holds Orac will from now on have the upper hand in the battle of Team Blake vs Servalan/the Federation. I’m expecting series two to be about Servalan and Travis’s attempts to recover Orac, perhaps while still trying to hide its existence from the Federation. At the moment I’m unsure whether I think they or the Federation will ever manage to get hold of it. But I hope they do – that would be fun.
VISUAL MUTTERINGS WILL RETURN.