Tuesday 10 December 2019

Blake's 7 - Killer

“That is self-interest - we need that crystal. Blake takes risks to help other people - sometimes people he doesn't even know.”

After the events of Pressure Point and Trial especially I was excited to continue Series B, although Killer ended up a more isolated episode compared to the last few. Knowing Robert Holmes as a Doctor Who writer, including one of my favourite stories, I was confident I was going to see something good though and I ended up being impressed by a Blake’s 7 episode constructed differently.

Several of this series’ episodes have started with shots of Blake looking concerned or pensive on the bridge. Instead, Killer begins with Cally learning how to use the teleporter – I’m unsure why Avon and Vila decided to stand with their backs to her – and we don’t see Blake for a few minutes. I’m not sure how many variations of ‘thinking Blake’ we can have so it’s good to skip that as it brings Vila and Avon to the forefront immediately for this story, as well as enabling us to crack on very quickly. The show has always made a lot of use of the Liberator sets each episode – I’ve always assumed that the budget encouraged this – yet we seemed to spend relatively little time there during Killer.

What the plot – do we need all the Liberator crew?
Team Avon-Vila's mission is to get a crystal that will enable the Liberator to decode Federation messages, but it gets derailed when they discover Avon's old friend has contacted the Federation to rat them out. Meanwhile, Blake has come to the same facility (another lovely industrial complex) after spotting an ancient spaceship nearby. It becomes a race against time when a plague starts spreading.

I was intrigued by Zen throughout the last series and it became enjoyable to rage against him. Yet with Redemption removing all the Liberator’s mystery, Zen has lost all his personality. It no longer feels legitimate to count him as a member of Blake’s 7, if it ever did. And after all the build-up at the end of Series A, Orac hasn’t had much impact, except for in Shadow. With Gan gone as well, it’s more like Blake’s 5 now.

Numerous stories have struggled to find something for all the crew to do, with us often having a Liberator subplot or just cutaways so characters get a few lines. Without totting it up, I know it’s the women who have tended to be left behind and Jenna especially loses out on any action, which has felt like an even greater shame since we saw her kick arse in Bounty.

Robert Holmes didn’t attempt to find any additional plot for Cally and Jenna, constructing almost the entire episode around the three remaining blokes, and I think it’s the key aspect that enabled me to enjoy Killer so much. Another writer would have been tempted to create another plotline and squeeze the others, or else bring the two women to the planet. But there is no need – we don’t require any more characters for Team Avon-Vila's mission nor Blake's investigation. There are brief returns to the Liberator, mainly for Blake to get information from Zen and Orac, but otherwise we stay in the facility. This was a superb decision; it enables the story to have two plots that are both substantial enough to run almost entirely separately and makes room for decent contributions from our guest actors.

I love that these two plotlines are so separate, and Team Avon-Vila barely interact with Blake. They don’t even share any scenes in person until the end of the episode, with only the briefest of radio communication over the teleport bracelets. It’s only when the effects of the disease outbreak began to spread that Avon realises he can take advantage of it for his and Vila’s mission.

Apart from Redemption, every episode this season has directly related to the Federation and the Liberator crew’s resistance plans. We have been missing something else like The Web or Mission to Destiny with a ‘discovery’ plot, where the crew just stumble across something. Blake’s curiosity in Killer gives us a strand of that, while Avon and Vila’s mission still relates to the overall arc as well as providing a good reason for the crew to be there in the first place.

Neither Blake nor Avon seem particularly interested in what the other is up to. Blake appears happy to leave Avon and Vila alone and perhaps because he has found something else to do, he doesn't insist they wait on the ship. Avon is used to Blake's whims now, remarking to Vila, "As long as he doesn't mess up our job I don't care what he does."

Team Avon and Vila
The Avon and Vila pairing became very enjoyable during Series A, so to essentially get given an entire episode of them seemed a fantastic gift because I did feel there had been slightly less of this in Series B.

One moment I liked between the two of them involved no exchange of dialogue. After examining the crystal, Avon tells Tynus he will need more than the 10 minutes that a fire alert will give them, but Tynus is unmoved, saying 10 minutes is all they've got. Vila glances over at Avon, simply offering a look that says, "Do something." Avon fiercely grabs Tynus's shoulder and pulls him back, insisting, "Tynus, you will give us all the time we need." It's a good Nasty Avon moment and when they brawl later we are reminded that Avon is a decent fighter.

Vila’s cowardice offers some advantages in that he is usually cautious, prefers to be sure of everything first, and can be observant. I loved that after all the emphasis about only having 10 minutes to steal the crystal (and that barely being enough), it’s only when Avon and Vila get in the room and the fire alarm is sounding that Vila pipes up, asking why they need to bother waiting for a replacement crystal. Avon’s incredulous, livid face practically screams, “Why are you asking this now, Vila?!” Instead, he hurriedly explains that the Federation would quickly work out that the Liberator had stolen it.

While there are many comic moments between them to enjoy, I also liked their chat about Blake.

Vila "You don't have much time for Blake, do you?
Avon "I could never stand heroes."
Vila "A quarter of a million volts and you're putting your hand in?"
Avon "Ah, but that is self-interest - we need that crystal. Blake takes risks to help other people - sometimes people he doesn't even know. One day that great big bleeding heart of his will get us all killed."

I do adore Avon's cynical attitude, even when and possibly because I’m agreeing with him. The way he adds "people he doesn't even know" makes it sound like the most absurd, incredulous thing. He accepts Blake's innate heroism, but I'm not sure he understands it. I also appreciate Avon's refusal to call himself a hero. He recognises self-preservation as normal and natural, while Blake's risks are unnecessary.

The final addition to the above dialogue on Blake has Vila adding, "Unless somebody ditches him first," to which Avon simply gives a blank look and Vila smiles. It's hard to make anything of it, except that Blake clearly isn't the only one to realise Avon might get rid of him. Is Vila on Avon's side or is it just a knowing I’ve-cottoned-on-to-you smirk? Vila has perhaps been the closest with Avon, though that's not saying much. Pre-Pressure Point, I would still have expected Vila to remain loyal to Blake as he's spoken up for him in the past, but there is none of that here and the last two episodes have left me so unsure of everyone. Part of me is starting to expect Avon to do something more concrete to push out Blake, while another just thinks it's the writers and/or Chris Boucher as script editor having fun.

The invisible enemy
The more Blake's plotline developed, the more involved with it I became. I just hadn't expected it to become so fleshed out. I thought he would pop by then soon meet up with Avon and Vila because Blake's 7 has never done anything like this before - the crew always end up working together, with one main plot possibly supported by a smaller one. Yet the two end up equal here.

We have met people with varying degrees of loyalty to the Federation, but I love that these scientists care more about their work than about the Federation finding them out. I don’t think we have ever seen people so readily dismiss the prospect of facing the Federation’s justice system. These guys have no hesitation and after Blake has told them who he is, happily cry, “Who?” With deep care for their work and an intrinsic curiosity, they are playing the game - to conduct research you must be friends with whoever is in charge, and they understand that this means sucking up to the totalitarian regime.

At first, it appears we are going to get a rogue alien/monster killing everyone and crikey, the sudden movement of that corpse made me jump a mile! The episode still turns into a base-under-siege story, but having an invisible killer is a nice twist.

Paul Daneman plays Dr Bellfriar and I really enjoyed him. By the end, I felt my stomach drop as he is trying to read out the antidote formula but realises: "I've forgotten how to read it." I cried out, “Ah, no!” It was such a perfectly done moment to show a man who knows he is about to die, unable to save everyone else.

Over in Team Avon-Vila's mission, Ronald Lacey plays Tynus, an old friend of Avon's. I am most familiar with him as Harris, a greasy thief in Porridge, but he also plays an old university friend of Siegfried's in an episode of All Creatures Great and Small in which they both get stupendously drunk at the races. As such, seeing him as the much more refined-looking Tynus was a startling difference and I enjoyed seeing such a different performance from him. He fears the Federation’s reach and is nervous about his old partner in crime’s threats, but he still exudes a degree of confidence and goes down with a fight. Vila even suggests that Tynus was probably planning to kill Avon before he could tell the Federation about his dirty past.

Backstory bits
There are little bits of backstory we get out of Team Avon-Vila's mission. The reason they have come to this planet for the crystal is that Avon knows one of the commanders, Tynus. It's odd to think of Avon having friends and he is probably stretching the term. Their conversations imply that Tynus was part of the 100,000 credits bank job that Avon got caught for and led to him being sent to Cygnus Alpha. He claimed he got caught because "he relied on other people", making it rather surprising that he has chosen to trust Tynus to help them. Clearly Avon did not know his partner well enough then nor now; Tynus escaped punishment and Avon's back-up persuasion plan is threatening to grass him up, which does not seem to bother Tynus, who promptly messages the Federation.

I think it's been mentioned before that there are areas of the universe that remain unknown, but the plague plotline gave us the Blake's 7 universe's equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle. I love the idea that there are still great unknowns all these years in the future - and we do have a more accurate idea of how many years now, with Blake describing the mysterious ship as around 700 years old. Supposing the 1979 production expected deep space exploration to be within, say, 50 years, then a rough guess puts Blake's 7 in the 27th century. It's a recurring theme in science fiction, but nonetheless, I enjoyed the notion that an alien species had identified humanity as the universe's greatest threat and had taken such drastic measures to wipe them out.

In tinier snippets, Vila later discovers a copy of the message Tynus sent, which led me to guess that the Federation uses a fax system. We also learn that Vila is a vegetarian.

Design disasters
I have to mention the ponchos. These plastic brown cloaks are one of the worst pieces of design in the series so far. To blend in, Avon and Vila don them too so they are on screen a lot. Aesthetics aside, my biggest bugbear is that their shininess causes frequent reflections and flare-ups on the screen. You can't just stick anything in front of a television video camera. Sensible people will avoid moving flames because these also cause flares. In the case of these cloaks, every time a character moves and catches the light in the wrong way, we get a flare. The scientists wear similar ones in white, which while not ideal, appear with far less movement so don't have as much an impact. These flares did become annoying because they were distracting when everything going on around it was so good.

I will hope for more from Robert Holmes. I found Killer enormous fun as it's a tight, fast-moving script with such a different setup for the characters. I feel slightly bad that I didn’t miss seeing much of Cally and Jenna, but there is no requirement to love all characters equally. The series has never given the female characters much room - it's felt like box-ticking at times - and Blake, Avon and Vila have been my favourites for a while. I’ve loved the pairing of Avon and Vila since the second half of the last series and to get so much felt like a real treat. The episode ends neatly; Avon had earlier shown disdain to Blake for being a hero and in the end he gets to look like one because of Avon. The two of them clash as Avon wants to let the Federation arrive to become infected by the plague, while Blake insists on broadcasting a warning that will prevent the disease leaving the planet and wiping out the entire of humanity. Blake deserves that one.

Monday 2 December 2019

Blake's 7 - Trial

"You're not going to use me anymore."

Trial was an odd experience in that I had never felt so indifferent about what the Liberator crew were up to. You could have chopped the regulars out, stuck all the Space Command scenes together, and I would probably have been happy with a half-hour episode that didn't feature the Liberator crew until the final five minutes.

Do we need the Liberator crew?
The Liberator’s activities are a sideshow compared to the episode’s main event – it’s even in the title! It didn’t take long to realise the production wanted an episode to move along Servalan and Travis’s stories but still needed to find something for the main cast to do. I’m not sure we have had an episode where so few of the crew have been off the Liberator, and I don’t think it matters. Blake’s little adventure on the planet is filler and though I didn’t find it dull, it did seem pointless. Maybe the climate change parallels didn’t seem so stark in 1979.

Blake’s reason for going was for some solo contemplation so if he did have to meet someone, I would have liked it to link to the rest of the plot, with him seriously trying to decide whether he should carry on. Trial would have possibly worked better as a Blake-lite episode. Just have him disappear to the planet and have the tension come from the uncertainty of whether he and the other crew will choose to keep the rendezvous. Maybe Chris ‘Many Plots’ Boucher wasn’t prepared to give Blake’s 7’s eponymous lead such a small role in any episode.

I’m torn on this though as I think the scenes at Space Command headquarters work well because they are all a good length. It’s easy for courtroom scenes to get dull and repetitive. Along with the scenes in Servalan’s office, we are essentially just watching people sat around talking. Similarly, the only reason the Liberator crew must jump into any action on board is that they realise Blake’s bollocksed and going to drown on the planet. Therefore, without that little ‘filler’ plot, Chris Boucher would have had to expand those Space Command scenes and provide more in-depth debate among Jenna, Cally, Vila and Avon. I’m not sure this would have made a balanced episode as the only real excitement and action would have come at the end, with no growth to the climax.

Do we need Blake?
I struggled to work Blake out during Trial. For a moment, I thought: what if he actually does leave them? I hadn't expected us to lose a regular character barely midway through a series and now it feels like the show might do anything. That's wonderfully exciting.

Blake's voice message was convincing, but I’ve previously thought what Avon voices here – Blake feels guilty, and this drives him more than real care for his friends lives because the cause has always been more important. Yet I am no longer sure.

What would Blake have done if the crew had decided to leave him on that planet? He gave them that option and if they had done, his cause would have been lost. Why give them that if he wasn't prepared to give up everything for them?

Yet maybe he is as deceitful as Avon believes. I struggled to believe that the passionate, determined man I have watched up to now would be willing to stop fighting just because of one, albeit close, casualty. Maybe Blake is also very arrogant, so was convinced the others would never actually leave him, and only wanted it to look like he was giving them a choice about their future. Whatever Blake decides is normally what they end up doing. With Cally as his only confidant for recent plans, he may have perceived the unhappy rumblings within the rest of the crew. It is possible he believed giving them a choice for once would placate everyone. Well, everyone except Avon.

Not one of your followers
I enjoyed Avon and Blake's private chat in Pressure Point and they have a couple in Trial as well. There was no time to dwell on Gan’s death at the end of Pressure Point but I would have been surprised if Avon hadn't made some remarks eventually. I rewound a few times because I adored watching Avon's stony exterior as he riled the already highly-strung Blake. While the two of them often push one another's buttons, Avon essentially says here that he will encourage the others to leave Blake to die!

Avon "It occurs to me that if you run into trouble, one of your followers, one of your three remaining followers, might have to risk his neck to rescue you."
Blake "Then you must advise them against that, Avon.
Avon "Oh I will."
Blake "They might even listen to you this time."
Avon "Why not? After all, I don't get them killed."

Avon's words have certainly been considered and calculated - he does not include himself in Blake's number of followers. It's a nice couple of little digs one after the other. Avon's utter stillness was a tad unsettling and Blake looks like he has been on edge for a while. It’s important to pick up that Avon doesn't actually want Blake dead - he just doesn't want anyone to die for him. It would have been relatively easy to leave Blake to die on that planet when things started to go wrong, but I think Avon must see the advantages of Blake being around. He may dislike how Blake goes about things, but Avon isn't keen on the Federation either and probably still wants his idea from Pressure Point to go ahead: Blake will leave the Liberator to lead an organised rebellion movement and the ship can become his.

Follow the leader?
Gan's death is used as the driver for the events here, although I don’t think it needed to be - Blake’s adventure on the planet is incidental compared to the deliberations back on the ship. I would have liked to have seen more debate among the crew, but they do all seem to have similar feelings. At one time Jenna would have jumped to Blake’s defence and loudly insist they stay but there is none of that from anyone. They are all questioning whether they are doing the right thing.

I’m pleased that Blake’s 7 has addressed this. There has never been any real debate about what their purpose should be. Apart from Avon, none of the crew has ever questioned if they could do anything besides this crusade against the Federation. Following Cygnus Alpha, everyone has been willing to give Blake the benefit of the doubt at least. This didn't have to have come about because of Gan's death as I think the powerful shock of that empty room was enough. If Control is what they need to bring down the Federation, how are they ever going to find it now?

When Blake returns, Avon makes a point of telling him that his crew nearly abandoned him. I think, like their conversation in Pressure Point, Avon wants to ensure Blake realises he is not indispensable as a leader. Despite the humour of Avon telling Vila that while Vila is following Blake, Avon is being led by him, I think there is a difference. They may all originally have been following Blake but the dynamic on board has begun to change. The hesitation of everyone demonstrates they may be willing to be led by someone else.

Avon now carefully chooses his moments alone with Blake to deliver these comments that are designed to knock him down a peg or two, as well as reinforcing Blake's guilt. The others may have jumped in to tell Avon that his digs about Gan were harsh or that they were never really going to leave Blake. Regardless of whether they meant it, it would bolster Blake and Avon's words would lose some of their impact. I wonder if this is strategic of Avon, to make Blake doubt himself and ultimately hurry up in leaving them.

We get our best Paul Darrow grin for a while when Jenna asks Avon, "What would you know about guilt?" and he replies, "Only what I've read!" Avon is a little too confident about how much emotions affect him, turning Series A's 'machine' comments on their head, but I think he may just have been lucky so far.

Travis's trial
Despite only having appeared in a couple of episodes so far this series, Servalan and Travis’s relationship has clearly developed since Series A. She’s always been delightfully evil but this felt a new low. As she and the Major were speaking, my brain was wracking who could be on trial, and when I established it couldn’t be Blake, I knew it must be Travis.

We learn bits and pieces from the conversations of the assessors (including lovely nuggets like the poor food quality of Space Command) and they think that Servalan wants Travis dead so he can’t spill her secrets. When we also learn that there is an upcoming enquiry into “the Blake affair”, this makes slightly more sense. They reckon Travis would now be more willing to speak against her if they postponed his execution until after the inquiry. My query is: would Travis have condemned Servalan if she hadn’t managed to put him on trial? What secrets of hers would he be spilling to the Federation that he wasn’t part of himself?

In their earlier appearances, I had assumed that all their plans were Federation-sanctioned, but it became clear that this has not always been the case so Travis may have quite a bit to reveal. Space Commanders cannot simply ‘disappear’ though, hence the trial. Despite that cool exterior, Servalan must have become concerned to risk going through with this.

Travis’s genocide was mentioned when we were first introduced to the character and it appeared that Servalan had managed to make this investigation disappear because she felt he would be useful. Maybe Travis has now simply outlived his usefulness. He’s had Blake cornered on several occasions and had him slip through his fingers. This has rarely actually been Travis’s fault and indeed, the end of Pressure Point was arguably Servalan’s own fault for getting caught by Jenna.

If Servalan wanted to replace Travis, she couldn’t dismiss him and have him walk away with all that knowledge of their illegal actions. This feels like such a shift from those scenes in Deliverance when she was relaxed, had him in the palm of her hand, and confided to him about her dastardly plot to obtain Orac. Even with all the evidence so far, I think I have probably underestimated Servalan’s evilness. I presumed some degree of loyalty between her and Travis. She could have dismissed him after Project Avalon, she could have got rid of him after Orac, yet instead reconvened with him after his mysterious “conditioning”, which I have always thought she must have had a hand in. Perhaps she already felt he knew too much then, but still had hope he could stop Blake.

Travis's humanity
Prior to Trial, I considered Travis the more brutal of the two, but in Series B we have seen more of them both and there is something redeemable within Travis. We saw it in Deliverance when he was initially hesitant about ruining the surgeon who repaired his hand. It was a brief hesitation, but it was there.

In Trial, we see a small bond between the Federation Trooper who had fought under Travis during the genocide, and who smuggles him a hipflask. When Travis comes to escape, he and the Trooper both seem willing to shoot one another but Travis clearly doesn’t want to and ultimately chooses not to kill the man, instead karate chopping him unconscious. Why? Why not just shoot him? The Trooper had said that Travis never showed care for his men – his respect was due to Travis being a good fighter. Yet it appears Travis does have a tiny ounce of selfless humanity in him.

For anyone else, a demonstration that they aren't a complete psychopath would be a Very Good Thing. However, for Travis I think this could be a weakness and Servalan is good at exploiting people's weaknesses.

The Federation
We haven't seen a great deal of the Federation's internal workings. We've heard about them but apart from tons of dispensable guards, the Federation's hierarchy has been represented only by Servalan. As such, it's been relatively easy to just stamp it all as evil. Yet in Trial I got the impression that the Federation began with good intentions, yet its corruption became so widespread that it inevitably went irretrievably wrong, until such things became normal.

There is a trial and unlike Blake's, it doesn't look like a foregone conclusion. The assessors are frustrated that Servalan seems able to get away with doing whatever she wants. They judge that Travis definitely is a terrible person, and, something that I found surprising, say that the Federation don't want people like that representing them. Penal colonies, slave labour, a Big Brother society - fine, but blatant genocide is a step too far. I still don't doubt that the Federation as a governing system is bloody horrific, but there do appear to be people within it who are trying to do good-ish things. After this episode, it looked as though the Federation may be dreadful, but Servalan is downright appalling. I'm not set on this at all and look forward to seeing how it plays out further.

Dastardly design
I know the Federation may be the greatest source of evil in the Blake's 7 universe, but it does also possess some superb designers. I am a big fan of the logo of the Federation and the series. However, last series the version on the guards' uniform was incredibly naff and looked like it had been sellotaped on their chests. Thankfully, this has now been rectified and it looks much smarter.

If this impressed me, I was even more thrilled when the assessors turned up for the trial sporting silver Federation logos. SILVER. I thought they were gorgeous. And John 'I say, I say' Savident is here to wear one. Are there other variations? Are there gold logos for higher ranking people? Is it purely for official events like trials and ceremonies? Can I get one?

I would also be happy to possess the trial room. I love how the silver, white and black complements the uniforms of the assessors. I like that the room is not simply round or square but both its shape and the furnishings are constructed around semi-circle and curved designs. The assessors sit on a raised area with a silver, almost dripping, effect behind them. Everything looks open and bright, yet the accused sits in the middle of the room, with everything built to look at them, judging.

I like the symmetry going on with the white and coloured pedestals on each side - I think these were used to accept evidence. This is also present in the lovely black chairs on white, round platforms, which are extended versions of Travis's single black chair. That curved high back looks great.

Winners and losers
Series A often felt triumphant. The Liberator crew were knocking little chunks out of the Federation and it was such a joy as Blake’s 7 established the regime’s vileness so quickly. Yet these were mere flesh wounds and in contrast, Series B has shown how hard it is to have any larger, significant impact against the Federation. It feels so far-reaching, impenetrable, and, I keep coming back to that word – invulnerable. Blake especially has realised the importance of having a more organised rebellion, but Shadow, Horizon and Pressure Point have been repeated knock-backs. It must be increasingly detrimental for their morale. At this point, Trial is a well-placed episode for everyone to stop and consider whether they should go on. As this appears to be settled, I will be interested to see if Blake looks to alter his strategy. While they do all appear willing to continue for now, I am not sure everyone shares Blake’s passion – it really is an obsession, and his complex history with the Federation likely means his dedication to its destruction will always be the strongest.

I was incredibly excited by the end of Trial. Well, not the very end - this is the second episode that has ended with the crew laughing together and it's nastily cringey. My brain has lingered on the scene when Travis burst into Servalan's office. I never expected to be cheering Travis on but I was so bloody pleased. Although we had seen their relationship change this series, I hadn't been expecting it to develop so quickly and I wouldn't have predicted them to part ways either. This really is grim for Blake, who doesn't even know about it yet! He will now be pursued by two enemies. Travis may not be as creatively-vile as Servalan every day of the week, but it's different when it comes to Blake. I cannot wait to see the next time they meet, with Travis completely unrestrained from Servalan and the Federation. I'm also excited to see how this situation develops - will Servalan care more about capturing Blake or Travis?