Thursday 19 December 2019

Blake's 7 - Hostage

"There's no need for violence, is there?"

Hostage’s title had me imagining one of the Liberator crew kidnapped, or even the ship itself, so the actual victim didn’t interest me very much. Yet Hostage is one of my favourite episodes so far this series as it took me through a variety of emotions and my mind whirred early on, trying to predict the next steps because I suspected Avon was up to something.

Battle stations!
Maybe I should be getting tired of episodes opening with a cry of “Pursuit ships!” but as it’s always slightly different each time, I’m still finding it enormous fun. This battle was shocking as I don’t think I’ve ever felt that the crew were in such danger. We had explosions inside the Liberator! Clouds of coloured smoke! Surely they were close to being goners? Surely the Federation’s weapons had penetrated too deeply? Yet they seemed to recover and just about manage.

I was confused about the Liberator’s lack of detection shield until the dialogue cleared it up and the revelation that the Federation has their own makes me think there could be a few more sudden, sneaky battles. Avon’s comment that they lacked equipment to repair their own detection shield showed that the Liberator does not appear to have infinite supplies.

We even gain a new Space Commander and though his stature is nowhere near as imposing as either of the Travises, I was prepared to accept this new appointment. But apparently Servalan’s patience for Space Commanders has worn much thinner and he’s out on his ear within minutes of losing the Liberator. Bad luck, mate.

Intrigue or Avon, you selfish bastard
A lot of my whirring thoughts during Hostage consisted of trying to guess Avon’s plan. As soon as Servalan received the message that Travis was on Exbar, I worked out it must be Avon who sent it. After Trial, there was no way Travis was going to be interested in getting back in her good books. Blake sprung to mind next but if he had sent it, he would be running a thousand miles and it would go right against his ‘know your enemy’ policy of keeping Travis around.

So to Avon, who eventually confesses that he sent the message, anticipating Federation ships to arrive before Blake went down. However, this wasn’t what I thought he was doing. I thought he expected the ships to approach when Blake had gone down to Exbar, so the others would hurriedly recall him and they would all be on their merry way, or another thought was that he would use the ships’ arrival to force them to quickly flee, leaving Blake behind. Either way, I thought Avon was being a selfish bastard as sending that message was an incredibly risky thing to do. Sometimes Blake seems to relish the opportunity for a confrontation, while Avon attempts to do the "rational" thing. It was probably good to see Avon fail for a change as he's come out on top over Blake a few times this series, and I'm glad to see that even Avon's logical thought processes are human and fallible.

I'm not sure how much Cally's telepathy enabled her to know, but even if it didn't tell her anything, I think she had guessed that Avon had done something. I wonder whether it will impact anyone's trust in Avon. I'm doubtful - Blake has been doing things behind their backs all series so they must be used to people playing their own game by now.

Tension climbs alongside Blake
I was curious that Avon suddenly decided to head down to Exbar after Blake. Did he feel responsible for letting him go alone? Aside from extra force or protection, there was no reason for Avon to go. Is it the old unofficial rule of no one heading out alone? Once he's seen the dodgy Uncle Ushton and knows Blake is in danger, it does make perfect sense to call Vila down.

Lovely shot: Avon moves into a wide shot from offscreen left...

...then moves down into a medium close up

With Blake caught, I was expecting a rescue operation, though it turns out this was unlikely to succeed; even if they are expecting some sort of trap, it's clear none of them expected literal ones. I actually laughed when Avon was scooped up in the net. To think of all the sophisticated systems that the Liberator crew, and Avon and Vila especially, have managed to get past, yet they are defeated incredibly easily by more primitive systems like the bear trap and the net.

When Blake was brought in blindfolded, with his hands tied, I thought this was the most vulnerable he had ever been while so close to Travis. There is a certain irony that this is the first time Travis has caught Blake with no one there to prevent him killing him, yet he is choosing not to for a chance at the Liberator. Nonetheless, a rising panic was growing in me as I struggled to see a way out for Blake, Avon and Vila.

The Crimos are an intriguing creation. Are these ordinary citizens that were identified at some stage or have they been specifically bred as criminal psychopaths? Although Travis has them as his henchmen, he's on the run now and I don't think it is explicitly said that the Crimos are used by the Federation. Are they an organised group among themselves or do you approach a mercenary agent to hire them?

It was amusing to have this tension broken by Vila whimpering while Blake and Avon pondered their fates.

Avon "At least we are still alive."
Blake "For the time being."
Vila "What does that mean?"
Avon "These gentlemen do not mean us well. Or haven't you noticed?"
Vila "W-why should they want to kill us?"
Blake "Because they enjoy it."
Avon "All we can hope for is that it's quick."

I do always love how Paul Darrow keeps such a straight face and voice with these lines.

A mini climax - Be brave, Vila
When Travis requests the weakest of the three crew members, I’m surprised he even needed to bother asking. He may only have had limited contact with Vila and Avon, but while the latter has been trigger-happy, Vila stood practically shaking in the background.

I had never felt so sorry for Vila. He hadn’t wanted to come on this adventure in the first place, knows getting caught was his own fault and feels guilty for not keeping a proper watch for Avon. He's already had a knife waved in his face by Blake's uncle and managed to hold his nerve then, insisting he was the only one to follow Blake down. He looked so pitiful as he walked past a captured Avon, saying, "Sorry."

With the sweat dripping off him, Vila's scene with Travis was the most terrified I had ever seen him. I watched Travis interrogating him, willing our coward on throughout and whispering, “Be brave, Vila. Be brave!” But his fearful instinct won through and when I saw Jenna and Cally in danger, I then found myself annoyed with Vila. Avon's kick at him afterwards felt justified.

Was that fair? Is it unreasonable to expect Vila to die for them? Vila himself points out to Travis, “You’re going to kill us anyway so why don't you get on with it!” I think that's the one line he says at all confidently. I wanted him to be able to make that sacrifice – just die a little sooner to save at least two of them. Vila probably wanted to be able to as well, but that desperate desire inside means most of us would do anything just to live a few more minutes.

Brian Croucher's Travis continued to grow on me in Hostage and it was a great episode for him to be nasty. He gets to command the Crimos, as well as threaten people and try to kill them on a much larger scale than we have seen from his Travis so far.

Whether it's just Croucher or a combination of him and the costume, he looks slimmer and less physically imposing compared to Stephen Grief. However, while Grief moved relatively slow, Croucher can be very still, then sometimes suddenly move off or turn around. Similarly, he generally speaks calmly at a normal volume, but will then loudly spit out lines. The script helps him with the interrogation of Vila. I like how he shouts, "Don't play the idiot with me!" then switches, to ask for "the word" and makes it sound like a simple, reasonable request.

I enjoyed his scenes with Blake as well. He smiles and is taking great pleasure as he tries to goad Inga and Blake, telling them that Ushton has been helping him. He easily produces a response from Inga but still has to prod Blake.

Travis "Ushton betrayed you - you must hate him! I would in your place!"
Blake "That is the difference between us, Travis."

At which point Travis suddenly stands up and moves to smack Blake, catching himself as Blake leans back, delightfully adding, "That too." Blake has clearly had far too much practice at pushing buttons with Avon, while Travis must be a tad angry with himself for losing his temper.

I'm finding Travis an increasingly interesting character in this series. He was never one dimensional before, but we are getting curious little pieces added now.

Excitement - full climax
It's full circle as we start with exciting action and end with it, only the second time around it's live-action instead of models. It's slightly annoying that Ushton manages to knock Travis out so easily, which kicks off this final segment. The more we see of Travis, the more ways we see him defeated and unfortunately that does impact the great unbeatable stature he had possessed throughout Series A.

I don't even want to start keeping track of how many quarries the series has visited but the quota for Series B seems higher than Series A. It was only a matter of time before we saw our heroes moving polystyrene rocks, though not even that could spoil the fun as they took on the Crimos and Travis.

Like many programmes with fantasy elements, Blake's 7 gets away with its violence due to a lack of consequences - no Federation guard's guts get splattered with every shot of the Liberator guns and punch-ups never result in so much as a cut lip or black eye. I was therefore left shocked by Avon's bleeding arm wound. We see a trickle from one of the Crimo's heads too, though by the time he's got back to the Liberator Avon has a fair amount of red on him.

Over in my Back in Time for TV pieces, I've enjoyed seeing how television heroes began to appear more realistically vulnerable, progressing from undefeatable to increasingly damageable. As Blake's 7 sits firmly in the fantasy camp, I certainly don't think it needs to do that to keep the audience's disbelief suspended. I think the development of several of the characters adds plenty of layers for anyone seeking more verisimilitude from their sci-fi, but it's intriguing to see this physical aspect included, however minor.

I was impressed that the battle appears to have been filmed at dusk and by the time Servalan arrives night has fallen. From the programmes I've seen, night shoots have only gradually grown during the 1970s. This makes these scenes a refreshing change and I think they are shot well, with a variety of shot types too.

The only ones I'd consider changing are when we see the first shot of Travis's boots walking, which cuts to a close up of Travis as he stops, then very quickly to Servalan and the mutoid. I'm being incredibly picky, but I don't think we need to see Travis's face here as Brian Croucher has no time to offer a reaction. Instead, we should see his boots suddenly halting then cut to Servalan and the mutoid, so that we see why he's stopped, then we can cut to his reaction.

Girls on studio videotape
Once again, Cally and Jenna are left behind on the Liberator, only getting some brief action when one of the Crimos comes aboard.

The addition of Inga, Blake's cousin, to the cast is, well, shit as far as decent representation goes. She exists to be a noisy hostage who keeps trying to run away, with Blake kissing her at the end. Marvellously, Jenna looks livid as she witnesses this. It isn't a huge surprise that she holds something for Blake. Until he started confiding more in Cally, Jenna was the only crew member who was close with him and they have usually been in the same wavelength.

Servalan remains the only female character to be given anything substantial. She gets a lovely scene with Kevin Stoney as a counsellor, who seems like an old friend of the Supreme Commander, though I must admit that I spent a lot of that scene just enjoying Kevin Stoney's voice. We then see her on a pursuit ship with mutoids. While the previous ones have all looked identical as young women with dark hair, these two are older, more middle-aged, with short blonde locks. I've imagined the mutoids as being made uniform during their creation so was curious to see a variation.

It's interesting that Servalan chooses to travel personally to Travis but the failure of the new Space Commander must have made her realise that despite everything, you can't beat Travis for determination when it comes to chasing Blake across the universe. When she offers Travis an official death and freedom in exchange for Blake and the Liberator, her trip makes sense.

I wasn't pleased with Servalan and Travis being reunited. I liked the possibilities posed by the end of Trial and this initially felt like a reset, so I was annoyed. However, after more thought, I've concluded that with Travis now entirely free of any Federation rules and procedures, he can do whatever he wants to pursue Blake. I would like it if he kept using Crimos as there seems more to be explored there. The one speaking Crimo in Hostage, Molok, is played by James Coyle, whose thin and very pale face made the character appear even stranger. I've always enjoyed Travis's own violent unpredictability and the Crimos would add to that. This series is taking so many twists and turns that I'm utterly giving up trying to second guess where Blake's 7 might go next.

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.