Thursday 25 July 2019

Blake's 7 - Duel

A psychopath and bloody Blake the Hero.

"I shall enjoy taking your life, Blake."

TRAVIS IS BACK. I had loved the introduction of the sadistic Travis in Seek-Locate-Destroy so was delighted to see him return so quickly. His confrontation with Blake enables us to glimpse further into both Travis and Blake's characters. Elsewhere, I pondered how The Liberator is powered and found myself defending Avon's supposed lack of emotion.

The Liberator has been getting chased by Federation pursuit ships and is low on power, so Team Blake is on the lookout for somewhere safe to wait while the power recharges. Spotting a likely planet, a handful of the crew teleport down for a look round. Soon they must return, after spotting three Federation ships closing in on The Liberator and a battle kicks off.

It hasn't been entirely clear how The Liberator gains its power or what form it is in, but it doesn't seem to be conventional fuel. The series has mentioned 'power cells' and 'power banks’. These can run out and need time to recharge. Low power affects The Liberator's ability to travel at speed, which means they can't outrun these Federation ships. It also means they can't fire weapons, I think. I have pondered whether they are solar-powered as this seems the most realistic option, I say about a science-fiction series set several hundred years in the future with a teleport system. If not, the power units could recharge themselves - comparably, I'm imaging video games where a character's health replenishes other time. The fact it isn't entirely explained doesn't matter as it simply serves as an easily repeatable plot device. The Liberator crew will have to stop off on planets from time to time and the presence of any Federation ships will therefore pose an even greater looming threat.

As The Liberator is fired on, the tension suddenly ramps up. Blake consults Zen who says their only viable option is surrender. Avon, who never misses an opportunity for the dramatic, screams, "Logic says we’re dead!" There is lots of top wobbly acting as The Liberator gets repeatedly hit by weapons from the ships. The Liberator has some sort of shield, but it won't last forever with their low power. I loved all this - we've always jumped straight into the action in Blake's 7 but I don't think we've ever had this much excitement so early on before. How are they going to get out of this? They're doomed!

Blake beckons Avon and Cally over to explain his plan. I don't know why he doesn't involve everyone in this, although with Blake and Avon having emerged as the most prominent members of the crew, they are effectively the senior leadership of Team Blake. With Jenna being the pilot, you would have thought she should have been involved in this chat instead of Cally.

Blake takes out a small notebook and begins drawing marks to represent all the ships. I'm very impressed that this appears on Zen's display screen as he draws it. While mirroring devices on large screens has become easy enough in recent years, this is a long way off for 1978 and I'm delighted the show has managed such an accurate prediction of the future.

With one ship having done most of the firing, Blake predicts it will be low on power, with the other not far behind it. One of the three ships hasn't fired at all yet so Blake reckons it is the ship Travis is on. Blake's plan is to ram it, leaving only one functioning Federation ship. This is a terrible plan. For a start, we can see that The Liberator has long thin pointy bits on the outside that will immediately snap off. However, they all acknowledge that as no one else has any better ideas this will have to do.

As the ships are about the make contact, everything slows down until it eventually freezes. The colours onscreen are inverted and there are various other effects. Travis’s ship appears to have red emergency lighting, while The Liberator’s is both red and green. I thought the effects of all this were rather good. I was puzzled, trying to figure out what was happening. Everyone looked in great pain, then Travis and Blake were transported to the planet below.

At the start of the episode we saw a couple of women - one old, one young. The latter is wearing a very figure-hugging outfit, which I must admit I found a little distracting because you could see everything, and the blue-tinted lighting seemed to emphasise it.

If I have any criticisms of Duel, it’s that there was too much talking with these women. I was initially intrigued in them at the start and their mysterious chat, but it went on a bit once they had brought Travis and Blake down. Cutting between the women explaining the planet’s history and the Liberator crew watching, I lost interest in their backstory yarn. For fairly obscure reasons that seemed to relate to power and balance, they have decided that Travis and Blake should fight it out on the planet. This will supposedly limit the deaths of others – presumably the crew of all the ships up above.

I did like that this is set up so that they must touch their opponent. Spaceships and guns have made their killing very remote. One of the women explains: “Here you must take a life. There will be no machines to make the act unreal. You must touch the life you take.” I think their idea is that they will watch to see if the men truly hate each other as much as they think, or perhaps discover whether they are really violent, capable of holding death in their hands.

Travis was set up well during Seek-Locate-Destroy. We were told and then shown how vile he can be, but Duel is the chance to see more of his sadistic and callous nature in actual ‘action’. He’s confident before they have begun, describing the idea as “pathetic”. He goes on: “I don’t give a damn about their lessons. I shall enjoy taking your life, Blake.” Based on his last appearance, I’m convinced this is true.

The duellers are transported to a forest, having only been given a large knife/cleaver/sword weapon. The forest makes a nice change after a couple of episodes of concrete and metal. Blake seems to have lost his weapon very quickly because he's barely got over the transportation when Travis has come for him, saying, "Come on, Blake. You don't want to die on your back." But Blake appears to have been put off and Travis uses his upper hand to grab Blake by the neck and prepare to slit his throat. It's only the intervention of the women that stop it - everything freezes again. The old woman seems to have been gleefully enjoying the spectacle. She says Travis is like her own people, whom I gathered had been wiped out, maybe - I'm afraid this was during the talking bit where I struggled to stay interested. She's clearly like them too. She insists to the younger woman that she "only wanted to see how vicious he really was."

I found this a startling moment, especially as it happens so quickly. Blake is the hero - of course we think he's going to win. To have the tables immediately turned is a surprise. I continue to be amazed by the show's subject matter for an early evening programme that would have had plenty of children watching. This was going out at the same time as Coronation Street. It seems astounding not just that the BBC was able to show such violent viciousness at this time, but that they decided it would be a good idea to attempt it in the first place. I believe it was probably justified by the fantasy setting of the series.

If we ever doubted what a brutal killer Travis was, this feels like the moment that shows him fully. “You talk a good fight” Blake had told him earlier, but it's evident that despite a life fighting with guns and spaceships, Travis no qualms about killing anyone - and certainly not Blake. I have the feeling he would do it for any cause he could find.

Within his earlier speech, we get a reminder of his loyalty to the Federation as he insists, “Nothing concerns me but my duty.” I found myself thinking back to the end of Seek-Locate-Destroy when he’s shouting at the guards to shoot at Blake, saying, "It doesn't matter about me!” It’s interesting that Travis seems willing to sacrifice himself for his ultimate cause of maintaining the superiority of the Federation, when similarly, Blake is willing to risk his life for his cause. His composure is marvellously cool in Duel as he states of the Federation, “I will destroy it.”

Both also have varying degrees of disregard for their companions. Travis’s is blatant. We’re introduced to mutoids in this episode, which seem to be some sort of adapted humans. They have no memories of their earlier lives and need ‘blood serum’ to survive. This comes in a green vial that they insert into their chests. Not everyone likes the idea of mutoids and Travis has complete disdain for them. He certainly doesn’t consider them proper living beings – more like robots. The old women bring in a 'friend' for each dueller, and in Travis's case they clearly had few options and a female mutoid is brought down (actually the only ones we see are female, so they may all be). Despite her insistence that her functioning will be impaired without blood serum, Travis ignores her and then blames her when things go wrong later.

Blake stands in front of the two women very calmly, slightly amused that Travis is unable to harm him after they have initially been transported down. He tries to take the moral high ground as the women explain what will happen, telling them, “I’m don’t think I want to kill for your entertainment.”

Blake ultimately beats Travis but doesn't kill him. He finds himself transported back to a clearing with the two women who want to know why. “I know who is chasing me and I know I can beat him” is the answer. The first part was essentially Blake's reason for not killing Travis in Seek-Locate-Destroy and I was frustrated with this as I found it a poor argument. The "I know I can beat him" addition is a good justifier. Blake is demonstrating that he has learned from Travis's techniques, commenting in Duel that he knows Travis will try to lure him into a trap. Yet with Jenna (his friend brought in) captured, he actually ends up doing this anyway.

The other reason for not killing Travis is much more interesting: “I would have enjoyed killing him.” It did elicit an 'Ooh!' from me. It was a nice chink in the armour of this moral man, who I'm beginning to have doubts over. Would Blake ever kill Travis? Even if not, would there be a situation where Blake would let him die? What if it advanced his campaign against the Federation significantly enough?

Apart from odd references, we know little about Blake's prior life - before his mind was altered by the Federation and he spent a while as a "reformed character". We only know what he's told us about what he got up to during his first time as an underground Federation rebel. Just because he was anti-Federation does not mean he was a good guy. Considering he’s very much Mr Moral now, I suspect he may have been the same in his younger days. Yet I think Blake picks and chooses when to apply these morals.

The rest of the Liberator crew can see and hear what is happening on Zen's screen. The younger woman tells Blake and Travis, "15 people could die because of your beliefs." When Blake replies, “My crew are with me by choice”, we cut to Avon's stony face and he merely says, “Really?”

I wonder if Blake genuinely believes that? I think he possibly does. I think that is maybe why he goes about things with such conviction - because he truly thinks his crew have chosen to join his crusade. In reality, despite their varying levels of loyalty to Blake, all the crew are stuck with him through a lack of any other viable options. In fact, Blake’s crusade has made it increasingly difficult for them to leave. While originally they were all known and wanted for the crimes that got them sent to Cygnus Alpha (aside from Cally), Blake has ensured they are now caught up in what seems to be becoming a significant rebellion against the Federation. It will be much more difficult for any of them to slip under the radar now. Maybe Blake is aware of this.

The last couple of episodes have made me ponder that if the titles appeared suddenly calling it Avon’s 6, I’d probably cheer while they stuffed Blake into an airlock. It isn’t that I dislike Blake. Rather, I find him quite an irritating hero to be leading us. The Federation is evil (and I do love the utter horridness of it) so I want to see Blake lose his temper and do something vengeful and nasty. He’s selfish, too bloody moral and he isn't even consistent.

Instead, I find myself supporting Team Avon. Despite the fact he's shown himself to be a bit of a bastard, I love him for it, probably partly because I've been on his side of reason and logic from the start, and partly due to my frustration with Blake. It would come as no surprise if Avon found a way to leave The Liberator with a number of valuable items, abandoning the rest of the crew to their fate of spending the rest of their days as the conscripted recruits of Blake’s Cause.

It's a good touch that in an episode where mutoids are introduced, there are comments questioning Avon's emotional capacity. I know I've just described him as a bit of a bastard, but I think it's important to remind ourselves that he isn't the inhuman psychopath that Travis is.

A reply from Zen makes Blake light-heartedly wonder if he "offended Zen's professional pride" to which Avon answers, "It's just a machine, Blake." Vila then comments to Gan, "He should know." Gan is a bit thick and doesn't get this at first. Avon walks over and clears it up for him: "He was calling me a machine. But since he undoubtedly defines himself as a human being, I will choose to accept that as more of a compliment than anything else." Even if Vila has touched something, it's a nice comeback from Avon and gets no further reply from Vila, who busies himself looking down at some interesting controls. There’s a great moment afterwards where Vila gets up and Avon doesn’t move, forcing him to brush past his chest. Avon stands there smiling, knowing he's made his position clear. I don’t see them getting in a barroom punch-up but still wouldn’t fancy Vila’s chances and he's certainly never going to win in a battle of wits with Avon.

As darkness sets in, the crew back on The Liberator are still watching the screens showing the planet below. Avon is prepared to give in for the night. Gan challenges, “You’re never involved, are you, Avon? Have you ever cared for anyone?” Vila adds, “Except yourself?” Avon replies, “I have never understood why it should be necessary to become irrational in order to prove that you care. Or indeed why it should be necessary to prove it at all.” I have previously described Avon as selfish, in a logical way - his most pressing concern does tend to be, and usually has to be, preventing Blake from killing them all. So initially it would seem that Gan and Vila's comments are fair.

But I found Avon's answer masterful as his entire outlook is based on acting rationally for survival. His rather removed personality is a demonstration of the other half of his statement and I do find it really intriguing that he doesn't understand why you might need to demonstrate that you care about other people. He is not concerned that showing such compassion might help build relationships and make others more inclined to care about him. I have previously referenced Avon's very first scene from Space Fall in which he reveals that he got caught by the Federation while trying to rob a bank because he "relied on other people" and so his comments in Duel make perfect sense. I don't think Avon is bothered whether or not other people know he cares about them because even if he does, he probably doesn't expect them to care about him.

While it is true that Avon is fairly reserved when it comes to expressing emotions outside of anger and cynicism, he is capable of doing so. The moment that has stayed with me is the end of Seek-Locate-Destroy when Blake and Cally return to The Liberator. Standing with Avon, Vila says to them, "We're glad you're safe, aren't we? Aren't we?" Avon is still starring over towards Blake and Cally, and softly says, "Yes, I'm glad you're alright." He says it like he means it and my interpretation was that even if Avon dislikes Blake, he does share concern for the other crew and is relieved Cally returned from Travis safely. I think Avon could be afraid of showing much emotion, fearing that it would make him vulnerable. Yet even if the others do see him as somewhat robotic, it is evidenced that he simply chooses when and if to show he cares.

Cally was introduced with telepathy skills but we haven't really seen any of this since. There were a few lines in Mission to Destiny that I noticed she gave without moving her lips. In Duel we get a small hint of it when, as the crew watch on The Liberator, Avon wonders aloud, "How are we seeing this?" It is of course the camera's viewpoint, but we are told it is through the old lady. Cally assures the others that what they’re seeing is the truth and just seems to know somehow.

One important event of this episode was Jenna leaving the ship to visit a planet, something that I previously noted hasn't happened since The Way Back. She gets herself captured by Travis's mutoid friend, and the sight of her tied up and gagged on the forest floor was the final nail in the coffin of my hope she would be this awesome kick-ass ex-smuggler, who had had to look after herself and could comfortably take on anyone.

An explanation for Jenna rarely venturing from the ship was provided when I considered a comment from Vila, who has the reasonable worry that they’re all screwed if Blake and Jenna don’t make it back. He informs us that they are the only people who know how to operate the ship. This is bad, gives a tad more tension to proceedings and could be why Jenna hasn't gone off before now - if Blake is off the ship, they need someone else on board to operate it. I'm concerned. With such a small crew, it would make more sense for everyone to be able to do everything. But they do seem to have fallen into roles with Vila being the main person to operate the teleporter (though others do too), Cally assists Jenna sometimes, and presumably Avon is the only person who could do anything technical. I'm not sure what, if anything, Gan does.

I've mixed feelings about Duel. There are moments of fantastic excitement that I loved, like the whole space battle and when Travis almost kills Blake – just for a moment I was thinking, “What if he does it?”. However, I couldn’t summon much interest in the planet’s backstory and the duel in the forest feels lacking. By the time we’ve had the introductory scenes, the space battle and Blake and Travis have been briefed by the two women, a good chunk of the episode is gone. While it always seems like Blake’s 7 immediately gets on with a story, I’ve realised that we spend 10-20 minutes on The Liberator. If this continues, it may impact the ability to build up plots. In Duel, I felt that had the actual duel occupied more of the episode, there could have been more time to create tension in the forest and, following his near-death, possibly been able to dwell on Blake’s vulnerability there.

On the other hand, I've enjoyed having some of Travis's development compounded and the opportunity to compare him and Blake side by side. I'm still unsure about Blake and Duel has given me even more to think about. Yet he remains predictable to those who know him. As he stood holding his weapon over Travis, we cut to Avon who slowly shook his head, knowing Blake wouldn't kill him. I'm curious if Avon will try to use this predictability against Blake.

Avon continues to fascinate me as so many of his lines seem to come back to his innate cynicism. Back with Space Fall I first began to consider what sort of world could have bred his attitude. Since then, Blake's 7 has been gradually revealing parts of this world to us and it's become clear to me that Avon's outlook is quite justified.

Friday 19 July 2019

Blake's 7 - Mission to Destiny

Mission to Destiny
Marple in Space

“I don’t like an unsolved mystery.”

Someone described Blake’s 7’s Mission to Destiny as ‘Marple in Space’. Avon is definitely playing the role of little old sweet detective. With a spaceship as isolated as any country house, the programme’s step into murder mystery made perfect sense.

The episode opens with the murder of a spaceship’s pilot. I enjoyed the way this scene was partly shot from the point of view of the killer, enabling us to see exactly what had gone on while keeping the culprit secret.

Team Blake discovers a mysterious ship going around in circles. It doesn’t respond to any signals, so they decide to take a look. This is the first actual ‘exploring’ type of plot the show has done so came as a little surprise. Other episodes have been driven by Blake’s desire to rescue people and blow Federation stuff up, while landing on the planet in The Web was something they were forced into.

Blake, Avon and Cally teleport over to look round the spaceship. Once again, I notice that Jenna never seems to leave The Liberator.

As they start to explore the first room, Blake remarks that there is a “sickly sweet smell” in the atmosphere. My first thought was that they were about to discover a bunch of stoned space travellers who have passed out after too many intergalactic reefers. Avon is unconcerned and reckons it is just a different type of air filtration system.

They come across some of the crew sleeping and after starting to feel lethargic themselves they eventually figure out that something is being pumped through the air filters to knock everyone out. Soon it is shut off, the crew are awake and the pilot, Rafford, has been found dead.

After investigation, they discover the controls are stuck. Avon delights in telling Blake, “We can fit things together and we can make repairs…” but “there is, however, a problem.” He flashes his grin and clearly enjoys savouring the moment. Avon's slightly 'off' sense of humour became one of the reasons I enjoyed Mission to Destiny.
It’s curious that the crew don’t go for the obvious idea from the start; they’ve woken to find three strangers on board and don’t ever accuse any of them of being the murderer. It’s nice to see the series avoid this as it seemed to happen several times in Doctor Who. Quite why this crew are so trusting of them, including the extreme liberty of letting Avon examine the ship’s engine and controls, is a bit odd though.

The ship can’t head back to the crew’s home planet except by manual control. This will take five months, but they need to get a ‘neutratrope’ thing there to stop the planet’s crop from failing.

We get some more subtle Federation background from Mission to Destiny as we learn that the crew’s planet, Destiny, is independent from the Federation. However, the Federation has been trying to convince them to join. Destiny’s crops were previously hit by problems and it is heavily implied that Federation sabotage was responsible. It’s interesting to gain the insight that the Federation’s methods aren’t always so blunt and violent.

Blake offers assistance, saying The Liberator can reach Destiny in four days to deliver the neutratope. To assure he won’t just run off with this incredibly valuable item, he proposes that Avon and Cally can remain with them and help make repairs to their ship. It isn’t entirely clear whether Blake ran this past the other two beforehand, but as neither looks particularly shocked nor mount any instant fierce objections, I presume they talked offscreen.

While Cally says they need to remain on board because “we must help these people”, Avon’s sole reason is curiosity, with him callously replying, “Personally I don’t care if their entire planet turns into a mushroom. I shall stay because I don’t like an unsolved mystery.” Avon has always shown himself to be selfish, but in a life-prolonging sort of way, so I suppose it is no real surprise to see an extension of that; he was dismissive of The Web's Decimas too. I'm not in agreement with him here though and am glad that they helped the stranded travellers.

By the end of Seek-Locate-Destroy, Blake had been growing on me. But he pissed me off again when he returned to The Liberator and was initially so evasive with Vila and the others about what had been happening. Vila asks what's in the box, indicating the neutratope container, and wants to know where Cally and Avon are. Blake ignores him and tries to dismiss the subject with, "It's a long story." Just bloody tell them! He's got four days to travel to Destiny and presumably another four to come back so he's going to have to explain why. It's a small, pointless thing that irritated me as it just feels like another example of Blake's stubbornness. He'll end up as bad as Zen.

As stated, the trip is supposed to take four days and we cut back and forth between the two ships during this. There is nothing in the dialogue to indicate when a day or two has passed and no handy on-screen captions to help either, so you can kind of forget that this is all meant to be happening over days rather than hours. It isn't the first time Blake's 7 has had time passing without me being able to follow it. In Space Fall and Cygnus Alpha the ships are supposed to take eight months to reach the penal colony but it isn't made entirely clear when a significant amount of time has passed.

As more bodies start dropping down (quite literally), everything begins turning to shit and there in the middle of it all is Avon, bloody loving it. The group meet to discuss things and someone comments that the pilot’s death “was a misfortune”, followed swiftly by Avon quipping, “well it was for him.” He takes it all in his stride and is rather nonchalant about corpses cropping up everywhere.

By the time we are reaching the episode’s conclusion, he’s in his element, confronting the female murderer in a physical struggle. She puts up a good fight before he manages to knock her out with a punch. Out of breath, he tells the others, “You better get her out of here. I really rather enjoyed that.” This elicited a sharp laugh from me, but I don’t know how much to read into it. Is Avon referring to the fight or the whole detective drama that has just concluded? Even if it is the former, I’m reluctant to criticise him for smacking a woman because despite her smaller stature she put up a decent fight and was after all a serial killer.

Mission to Destiny seemed an unusual episode and hopefully it would seem obvious that you can't just repeat 'murder on a spaceship' every few episodes. Yet, like Avon, I was initially drawn in by the mystery. I’ve usually slagged of Blake for leading the crew into danger. Avon’s love of a mystery has the potential to be a disaster in a ‘curiosity killed the cat’ way but, so far, he’s acted far too sensibly for that to seem a large risk.

I can't help but think of Blake in my head as 'Blake the bloody hero'. I feel I can only stand so much of him being so bloody good and moral so as it felt like Avon had more focus, I enjoyed the second half of the episode especially.