Thursday, 8 August 2019

Blake's 7 - Breakdown

The edge of destruction

“I’ve just had a comforting thought. We may all be dead before we find out why this is a danger zone.”

On the surface, Blake’s 7’s Breakdown may appear to be about Gan. The episode’s plot is built around his urgent need for brain surgery, but as he is unconscious or attempting to murder the rest of the crew for the majority of the episode, there is little character development. Instead, seeing them all trapped together, I was interested in everyone else. Confining an entire episode to The Liberator could have been a disaster but I thought it was a stroke of genius at this point in the series. After several episodes of being split up, I loved watching the crew all bicker, panic, resign themselves to death, then finally start to band together, before we witnessed Julian Glover commence 20-minute brain surgery, followed by a big explosion. Some additional worldbuilding also means the Blake’s 7 universe is beginning to feel like it has considerable depth.

We open with Gan alone on the flight deck and after being racked with pain in his head, Jenna comes in and he attacks her. Eventually, the combined strength of the rest of the crew overcomes him and after administering some tranquilizers in small patches, they take him for a brain scan.

Guerrillas on film
The medical room features prominently in the episode and stands out a tad more because it appears to have been shot on film, while the rest of Breakdown is on videotape. I've been noticing this change in picture when cutting between scenes for a while. There were many dramas being made on videotape at this time. Film would usually be used for location shooting, which was limited because it was expensive, so programmes would be given a set amount they could have. Why is Blake's 7 shooting random studio scenes on film across the series then? My conclusion is that the production team took a 'use it or lose it' policy. Although some shows were allotted a total amount of location filming per series, it could be that Blake's 7 was given it per episode.



This would make sense when thinking back to other episodes, especially Duel, where I noted it took a long time before the actual duel began in the forest. Duel spends a long time on The Liberator, then in the women's basic polystyrene clearing - all studio-based. Even once in the forest, the episode cuts back to the crew left on The Liberator, cleverly serving the dual purpose of limiting location shooting slightly further as well as giving more screentime to the other crew.

Brain salad surgery
Avon examines Gan's limiter on a screen. We previously learned that this is supposed to prevent him from killing anyone. Avon can see it is damaged and says it could be "feeding scrambled impulses into his brain." A tiny point, but I like the way Paul Darrow says the word "scrambled". It's a nice word to hear and similarly, in Project Avalon, he suggested of the robot that he could "scramble its brain."

Gan needs surgery and fast. Chatting with Avon, Blake briefly considers attempting the brain surgery themselves before Avon points out what a stupid idea this is: “There are quicker ways of killing him but none as guaranteed.” Even in this future, major brain surgery is not something that can be done “by numbers”. While he can often be intelligent, Blake has also shown that he can be impulsive. This is such an absurd idea that he clearly hasn’t thought it through before voicing it. He sounds desperate and worried as he admits he doesn't know what to do. I think relying on Zen would be a mistake. As this episode will further demonstrate, it can’t always be guaranteed to help them.

Wanted and trapped
The crew use Zen to help them find somewhere they can go for Gan's surgery. Their status as major wanted criminals has been built up in the recent Travis episodes and therefore it is unsurprising that they cannot just rock up to the nearest planet. Avon declares, “There’s a price on our heads. We are all under sentence of death.” I found this comment significant because although I had presumed it was a distinct possibility, I don’t think anyone has actually specified that the Federation wanted them dead before. It is a reminder that Avon, Jenna and Vila (the three convicted thieves) could have been mere inconveniences for the Federation before but now cannot leave Blake.

Only a few episodes earlier, in Duel, Blake had said, "My crew are with me by choice." Avon was sceptical enough then. In Breakdown he questions Vila:

Avon “Why do you stay with Blake?”
Vila "I like him."
Avon “That isn’t a good enough reason."
Vila "It is for me. That and the fact I’ve got nowhere else to go."

Avon gives us a nice smile because he does now have a realistic exit plan. I would say Vila's second reason is a more pressing one. However, neither are great reasons for staying with Blake and it is presumably the same for the others too. I think Vila would be too scared to leave as he would struggle to lead himself alone. Unlike Avon, he is not a master planner and does not seem to have experience of big decisions.

The options for surgery are further narrowed because not everywhere nearby can perform such advanced surgery. Again – what was Blake thinking when he suggested the crew attempt it themselves?!

Weighing up the nearest places, Jenna is sceptical about one because “they don’t like humanoids in general and in particular homo sapiens.” Avon’s contempt for his own race is amusing as he asserts, “That puts their intelligence beyond doubt.” Am I being presumptive to consider the crew (barring Cally) human? Even though we saw them travel from Earth, I cannot recall if it has been confirmed. After watching Project Avalon I commented that I did not believe The Liberator was alien because it was designed for humanoids. It turns out that in the Blake's 7 universe they can be both.

Just a machine
The phrase that consistently jumps to mind for Zen is 'shady as fuck'. Avon begins to get annoyed with Zen as he knows of a nearby research facility with suitable medical expertise. But Zen refuses to take a straight route, claiming there is some sort of danger but then is unable to specify further. Zen seems to have a mountain of fail-safes and the habit of half-explaining everything makes it difficult to prevent Zen from ignoring even direct orders. I think Avon is frustrated by a machine that often appears to have independent thought, yet you can’t see where this is coming from. A Harry Potter quote springs to mind: "Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can't see where it keeps its brain." The crew don’t know who or what programmed Zen, something that has been ruminated on before. In Breakdown Avon states of Zen's programmer: “One of these days I intend to find out who that is.” Vila replies, “If you live that long,” showing a touch of his own depressing cynicism that seems to be increasing!

With Gan critical, Team Blake decide to sod Zen and take the ship on manually. Shortly afterwards, Avon suddenly realises that with Zen shut down, they have no basic safety measures. He is poor at controlling his panic, grabbing Jenna and shaking her. Although Avon is normally fairly calm in high-pressured situations, the sudden major risk to their lives appears to overwhelm him. He demands they go back and is not pleased at having to carry on, with Blake asking him to try to override systems to give them control.

Avon heads off with a bag of tools to begin prodding around in a computer room. This isn't the first time we've seen him poking around a ship's particulars. I must be used to it from other programmes because it’s taken me a while to realise that a lot of Avon’s technological adjustments are physical, manual ones, as opposed to computer coding. It's odd to see this contrasted with the small circuitboard for Gan's limiter. I was also impressed with Cally's wireless headphones that enable her to hear the others from the flight deck. Blake's 7 has a strange crosssection of technology from a time when microprocessing was just beginning to come into more people's daily lives but analogue technology was also still very prominent.

Always look on the bright side of life
There is a lot of blunt negativity throughout Breakdown and it has become apparent that Avon isn't the only cynic on The Liberator - he's just the only one who acts on it. Vila is more of a worrier and as they head deeper into the area Zen refused to take them, he shares: “I’ve just had a comforting thought. We may all be dead before we find out why this is a danger zone.”

Having neared too close to a swirling vortex of some sort, Jenna lets Vila know, "We're dead. It'll tear us to pieces." I did love how he simply closed his eyes with the hint of a sigh.

Avon later agrees that "the forces inside that will not merely destroy us; they will annihilate us.” Thanks for that comforting thought, Avon. Everyone definitely needed that extra detail, you cheery sod.

The situation really emphasises the risky nature of space travel. To quote Douglas Adams: "Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is." The Liberator has entered unchartered areas before and we continue to see the crew facing a variety of complete unknowns. I find Vila's attitude in particular interesting as he has grasped how fraught with danger their daily travel is.

Vila the Brave
I was delighted with Vila's part in Breakdown because while he is a worrier and is brazen in his cowardice, I'm beginning to see this as a similar sort of self-preservation to Avon's. Importantly, Vila has also now shown on several occasions that he can be brave. In Seek-Locate-Destroy he walked straight up to Federation guards, caught them by surprise and took them out with Blake. In Duel, he was rather fierce as Blake attempted to force a guard to move, jamming a gun into the guard's ribs and snarling, "He said now!" These were both situations where you could argue Vila had to act bravely as in both episodes Team Blake needed his thief's lock-picking skills, so he was called down to a planet from The Liberator.

But in Breakdown, when Vila has realised that Kayn is stalling for time, he turns up on his own in the medical bay with a gun, demanding Kayn get on with the operation.

Kayn "Why didn’t Blake come himself?"
Vila "Blake doesn’t know about this. I thought it was better that way. He has a conscience. He might not be prepared to kill you."
Kayn "And you are."
Vila "Yes."
Avon "And if he isn’t, I am."

As Avon suddenly appears at the door, Vila does not seem to have planned him to be there so we can assume that he had decided to take Kayn on alone.

I found this incredibly brave from Vila, especially because he has chosen to go behind Blake's back. Other than Avon, I don't think we have seen any of the other crew do this before. Perhaps even if Vila says he likes Blake, he too can see the man's faults.

Vila and Avon's comments here were extremely exciting for me. Although we have seen the Liberator crew all helping to shoot down and blow up faceless guards of the heartless Federation, this is different. Are Vila and Avon truly both prepared to shoot a man in cold blood? They’re a pair of convicted thieves, not violent criminals. I may have been less surprised to hear this from only Avon. Killing Kayn would get them nowhere but would at least be good revenge for Kayn having called in the Federation ships. Part of me thinks Avon would do it for this reason. There is a hint of nerves in Vila's voice but with nothing to lose and some confidence gained from waving a weapon around on Team Blake's recent exploits, when I was watching in that moment I believed he might do it.

Bloody Blake
Vila saying Blake wouldn't kill someone in those circumstances was thought-provoking. I will now continue to wonder what Vila might be prepared to do in the future if he thinks Blake wouldn't. Separately, I am unsure if I agree with Vila. I think Blake has shown he is prepared to go far to achieve his aims. He could have killed Travis in Duel. One reason he didn't was that he thought, "I would have enjoyed killing him." I don't trust Blake. He gives an impression of being all moral and noble but I am going to be trying to watch him more closely because I find him so contradictory.

Blake has to be made aware when Gan's operation is about to begin because the ship cannot be moved. He comes to the medical bay and throws in his own threat to Kayn. Knowing how to ensure it has maximum effect, he tells the highly-skilled neurosurgeon, “I shall destroy your hands.” Kayn's face drops. I will give it Blake that he knows how to push buttons well and he gets shit done.

This is evident by the number of examples when Blake has assumed authority. First and foremost, he became the crew's unelected leader. In Mission to Destiny, I was surprised when the Destinians took his word for who Team Blake was - they could easily have accused them of being the mysterious killer. I mentioned his amusing challenge of a guard in Project Avalon. It's similar here when Blake initially brings Kayn over to The Liberator. He teleports over to the facility, asks for Kayn, briefly explains that they have a sick crew member and Kayn joins him, all within a minute.

There are times when Blake does show himself as a good strategist. After leaving Kayn with Gan, he has the foresight to head to the flight deck where he consults Zen and requests a list of the Federation's nearest bases and flight times. While this mindset may give him credentials for being a decent leader, it still annoys me that he has always assumed the role.

The many faces of the Federation
Kayn is played by Julian Glover, giving Blake's 7 the most awesome guest star since Cygnus Alpha's Brian Blessed. It's a shame we don't see more of him as he doesn't come in until the second half of the episode. He's on top form as the cold Kayn. In contrast, Kayn's assistant is irritating, perving on Jenna. I don't think the young man is a great actor and next to the superb Glover any slight looks even worse.

The research facility is at first described as neutral, being neither for or against the Federation. But they tread carefully nonetheless, pretending to be a Federation ship. As Kayn walks off with Blake, praising the Federation and its technology, Avon describes him as, “One of the many faces of neutrality.”

It therefore isn't a great shock that when Kayn realises who Blake and the others are, he gets a message to the Federation - probably through the Blackberry we see him playing on. After his swift reaction to step aboard, we find ourselves faced with a doctor disregarding human life to help the Federation. I'm not sure if he's trying to ingratiate himself with the Federation or just properly admires it, but he is a terrible doctor and person. Gan is on the edge of death and Kayn does not care at all. It's another notch in the growing evidence of Federation cruelty.

Team Avon
Discovering that Avon has researched a “bolthole” is wonderful. When he first mentions the research station, he simply says that he "looked it up in the databanks" as "it was information that I thought might prove useful to me." It's Vila who smirks as he adds, "Somewhere to run to if things get too hot here?" But Avon doesn't care to deny it, answering: "The thought had crossed my mind." We have known for a while that The Liberator has detailed databanks and it is unsurprising that Avon has been reading and researching. I imagine his technological mind would have wanted to find out more about the ship, it’s technology, and Zen early on. He likes problem solving so the research base would be a suitable place for him to safely live out his days. Avon has made several vague threats to leave or to try to take over from Blake, but this is proper confirmation that he is serious.

Clearly feeling they have nothing to lose, Blake eventually decides to go straight for the centre of the mysterious, probably deadly vortex. A small part of me is on Blake's side in this moment. If they don't they are dead anyway. Yet while they did all initially agree to ignore Zen and go into the potential danger zone, Avon’s early protests to come out when they realised their safety control was gone were ignored. It is Blake’s fault they didn’t turn around. Cally hasn't enough lines this week to contribute. Jenna went along with him because she always does, then immediately acted on his command to head for the vortex, announcing it to the others as she did so. Vila just seems to be constantly worried so is happy to absolve himself of any contribution to decisions. Additionally, Blake's reasoning for this decision is that, if they do die, it will be quicker this way. Well, mate, if we are all going to die together in a space vortex, and have an option about how it will happen, I would like a vote on it. Perfectly reasonably, perfectly naturally, most people would do anything they could just to live another minute.

Following this decision from their not-so-revered leader, Avon says:

“Blake. In the unlikely event that we survive this...”
Blake "Yes?"
Avon “I’m finished. Staying with you requires a degree of stupidity of which I no longer feel capable.”
Blake "Now you’re just being modest."

It's a marvellous little face-off and Blake the bloody hero enjoys his own witty response, but I am firmly Team Avon. From early on, I've been slagging off Blake's selfishness, bloodymindedness and impulsiveness and I am thrilled that Avon has finally told him to get stuffed. For some time now, there has been an increasing sense that he has had enough.

Later, Cally believes Blake is angry with Avon because he has said he wants to leave. Blake tells her he will do nothing to try to convince Avon to stay. I think this is quite a big mistake. In fact, it is potentially catastrophic. I would argue that Avon's technological expertise makes him the most valuable member of the crew. Several of Team Blake may know how to fly The Liberator and some rather well, but if anything goes wrong, they are utterly screwed without Avon. His logical, stubborn nature is also one of the main reasons Blake has not succeeded in killing them all yet. Like it or not, they need Avon far more than he needs them.

Team Blake
Most of the crew are starting to seem more whole. Blake and Avon continue to feel like the show’s main protagonists, but Vila and Jenna are also featuring slightly more now. After being consigned to The Liberator’s flight deck for the first few episodes, Jenna has started to get a decent amount of screentime. However, I find it hard to assign any particular characteristics to her. She often simply goes along with Blake. After Avon, she seems like she could be the most strong-willed. I would like to see her argue a differing opinion and stand up to Blake over something, anything. She changed her outfit midway through this episode - not for the first time - which should surely have been the last thing on her mind when she's supposed to be piloting the ship. It seems to serve solely to allow her to draw the attention of Kayn's lusty assistant and I feel the production team are not doing justice to her potential.

Likewise, Cally’s development has also been a bit of a letdown. Aside from a few references to “my people”, the show has almost forgotten that Cally is an alien and it’s a shame little use has been made of her telepathic abilities. She spends a chunk of Breakdown tending to Gan and sometimes I feel that she and Jenna are there to ask questions or otherwise enable dialogue from Blake. Maybe my attention is drawn to these instances more because I don't think there is much else there with them. It’s undeniable that the time the show was made, and the fact it has been written by a man, could be having an impact on its female characters.

Yet in fairness, Gan has had little to do either. He’s the brawn of Team Blake, but they haven't used this much, preferring to favour stealth and technology where possible. Gan has the potential to be an interesting character and I remain curious about his backstory, but nothing has been done with him. In Breakdown, he becomes animalistic and while obviously not at all himself, it is hard to say much about what sort of person Gan is exactly. He's very much been brushed aside. It certainly looks like Terry Nation is struggling to try to write for so many regular characters. The need to combine this with providing substantial enough parts for the guest cast makes it even harder.

One additional point to mention after this episode is that the series continues to push the limits of its special effects capabilities. This week the vortex is represented only on a screen, with red moving swirls reminiscent of Jon Pertwee's Doctor Who titles. They employ camera effects to stretch and alter the onscreen images, as well as relying on good old shaky camera acting.

I immensely enjoyed Breakdown, as I hope is evident above.  There are triumphs of dialogue - TRIUMPHS - and I liked the ticking clock element to the plot that was then ramped up once we knew Federation ships were approaching. This drip-drip-drip approach to constructing the Federation as an evil empire is excellent. I've had fun exploring Blake and Avon all series, but I was truly impressed with Vila this week and his confrontation with Kayn was one of my favourite moments. I felt so proud of him! His attitude has also, I think, given us a potential recruit for a proper Team Avon.