Monday 27 January 2020

Blake's 7 - Gambit

"I can provide some very original forms of diversion."

By a significant stretch, Gambit is the craziest episode of Blake's 7 I've watched so far. Even once I thought I had a handle on it, it just kept giving and it has been my favourite episode of Series B so far.

Robert Holmes had impressed me with his first Blake's 7 episode, Killer, so I had high hopes for Gambit. Once again, he splits the crew up to run two entirely separate plots in the same location, also teaming up Avon and Vila again.

Freedom City
Freedom City looks like the kind of debauched place I was hoping to see in Shadow's Space City, so I was pleased the latter got a name check. We saw few people in Space City but the addition of a handful of supporting artists ensures Freedom City feels like a more bustling place. I pondered whether they were originally supposed to be the same locations but the Gambit script was changed after filming Shadow; either they realised Gambit’s city needed to look much better or else they found some cash left late on in the series after trying to keep a tight budget early on.

Robert Holmes makes even less use of the Liberator sets than he did in Killer, partly because Jenna and Cally are brought into the action so we don't need to cut back there once everyone is in Freedom City. The saloon bar is marvellous and made for a superb opening scene. There are good continuity touches here by having all the drinks in bright colours. In particular, that one shade of emerald green has been seen on the Liberator and in Servalan's office.

While we see no games beyond the roulette table in the casino, the Speedchess area was nice with plenty of atmosphere added by the lighting. When the first scene took place there, "Speedchess" was certainly not the word I was expecting to hear. The simultaneous explosion and disintegration of the unlucky challenger to the Klute made me jump as I think I just expected him to get electrocuted. I love having all these different characters around the outside of that chamber - they could all have had a story of their own. Although Vila later seems sure that the Klute isn't a computer, I was never certain; he's too good, Krantor's too confident in him and he seems to spend his days enjoying killing people. Elsewhere, Servalan is lying down, with a dove perched on her - it sets the tone for Gambit.

Krantor's room can only be described as a boudoir and Servalan's room 100 is similar in tone. I think one of the chairs in her room swings. As with Space City, we are never explicitly told everything that one can experience in Freedom City, but Krantor implies enough that we can presume some pretty outrageous acts have been performed there.

Slightly further down the list of sets, we have the saloon bar's backroom that appears to lead to an underground area, which makes a few appearances, mainly featuring Blake, Jenna and Cally. Then there is the area where Docholli heads to escape, decorated with a few oil drums. We never get a full view of the underground cave/tunnel-like area. It looks like a studio set to me and I'm inclined to believe the darkness is hiding how limited it is. It's decorated with a lot of tinsel blowing around and having recently watched Doctor Who's Timelash, this was an uncomfortable flashback to one aspect. The stories are also connected by Denis Carey, who is more prominent playing Docholli here than six years later when he would be the public-facing image of the Borad.

The sound of the underground
I am fond of so many of Blake's 7's sounds. I could probably go through the series again and do a blog solely about them - I've never even got round to indulging in how much I adore the titles. Gambit deserves credit for the background sounds alone as there are distinctive ones for different locations. Both Krantor's boudoir and the casino get a quiet, high-pitched tinkling, while Servalan's room is given a simple constant humming. The darkened underground area has distant chimes underneath a howling wind, which, combined with constant smoke blowing around, go a long way to making something of what could have been a fairly dull set.
Decadent dress
For once, few of the cast's costumes are purely functional and they have gone all out. Interestingly, while Cally and Jenna are royally dolled up for the occasion, Blake hasn't made any effort. Travis has become an intergalactic cowboy and I love the touch of giving him a black hat, the traditional accessory for a Wild West villain. Perhaps there is good reason that Blake wasn't given a white one at any point: I keep remembering Blake's suggestion in Shadow that the Liberator crew were the only good guys, with Avon responding, "What a very depressing thought."

My historical knowledge isn't very comprehensive, but Krantor and Toise's outfits seemed like the French Revolutionary period. Krantor says his costume is supposed to be modelled on the Prince Regent, and thanks to Blackadder III I know there is some crossover there. Krantor is vague about who the Prince Regent actually was and describes the casino's theme as simply "the spirit of carnival". This is nicely all-encompassing for the variety of outfits on display, particularly in the Speedchess chamber. The croupier wears a type of black-tie, while sitting among the patrons are clowns that reminded me of David Bowie's Ashes to Ashes video. Servalan's face is hidden behind a mask at first, but her outline was instantly recognisable.

Servalan looks utterly stunning in Gambit. Her red dress is revealing and outlandish, for once perfectly suited to her surroundings, and I could hardly take my eyes off her. I love how over-the-top most the women's makeup is in the Blake's 7 universe, but I felt this episode gave us even more for Servalan, including a pile of silver, glittering eye shadow. After being introduced to her laid out in the casino, Krantor invites her, "Pray! Be seated!" and she carefully lounges herself across the enormous bed in Krantor's boudoir, providing us with one of several lingering shots of her outfit.

Krantor is a cracking character, with his inch-thick silver makeup and false eyelashes making an immediate impression. He loathes Servalan, describing what he will do to her with such venom. He gets some gorgeous lines, including, "She's as perfidious and devious as a snake." I'm unsure whether she dislikes him as plotting his death is just necessary to get rid of Freedom City. Like other "neutral" places in the series, it only takes the right price for Krantor to be tempted. On the other hand, Servalan is utterly uninterested in any pleasures on offer, despite numerous offers from Krantor: "If you find time is, erm, dragging, I can provide some very original forms of diversion which I can guarantee will give you immense pleasure." I was left uncertain whether she has no interest in any of these things or if she didn't trust them coming from Krantor.
I keep saying how much I like seeing Travis's character develop this series but I felt Robert Holmes added a whole other layer. Travis has never looked invulnerable but in Gambit he is a long way from the powerful commander we first met. Shorter hair (first seen last episode) and a change of clothes mean he isn’t as smartly groomed. His Federation uniform finally dumped, Travis has lost his armour and any notions of authority. Despite stepping in to save Docholli, shortly afterwards Travis is easily taken by Krantor's goons and beaten badly.

I loved the scene in which Servalan sits next to Travis's unconscious body, surveying him. I didn’t ever really think she was going to hurt him, but he looked exposed, unprotected. The point-of-view shot of Servalan when Travis wakes up added to this and was a good inclusion. When the shot of them on the bed pulls out slightly, we can see that Servalan has had her hand on Travis's only good hand, holding it down, leaving him fully open.

Discovering the damage to his hand makes Travis desperate as he needs the repairs urgently, and it's perceptible even with the harsh tone he uses with Chenie. When he finds Docholli, Travis doesn't even care about Blake's presence - there is nothing he can do and he needs the surgeon's work done before he flees. Jenna is the latest crew member to ask to shoot Travis and Blake's excuse for avoiding it now is that killing Travis would be a mercy. That is a hell of a blow.

Servalan is honest with her new underling that she disposed of Travis because "he outlived his value" and it appears she will now pick him up and shake him about whenever she has the need, but will swiftly toss him aside again as soon as it is convenient. Unfortunately for Travis, Servalan knows him well and he is far too predictable, so I expect her to continue using and manipulating him.

Ocean's Two
I'd be curious what sort of briefing Series B's writers had about the series and the characters, and what they had seen of Series A. Blake and Avon’s relationship was one of the most interesting aspects for me, yet in both his stories, Holmes has completely eschewed depicting any conflict between Blake and Avon by separating them. I'm left wondering whether he had little interest in that relationship, felt he had no more to add, or just wanted to contribute something different to the series. Maybe he had decided that writing Avon and Vila was far more fun.

Vila seemed the only one excited about the prospects of Space City, but Avon is equally keen to experience Freedom City and their adventure is his idea. I was thrilled when our two thieves decided to take on the casino. It's the kind of suggestion that would have been stamped out by any of the other three usually, yet with none of them around there is nothing to stop Avon and Vila having some fun. Both plot strands in this episode are set up quickly and I was impressed by this one in particular; we establish Avon and Vila's boredom and lust, then within a minute or so Avon has formulated a plan and we move on to the problem of Orac.

I think Robert Holmes adds humour to Blake's 7 very well, with just the right balance, and I enjoy it so much in Avon and Vila's scenes.

Vila "Oh! That is beautiful! Avon, there are times when I almost get to like you."
Avon "Yes, well that makes it all worthwhile."
Vila "I mean, you give me a warm feeling right here - right round the money belt."

The manipulation of Orac is also excellent and the short lines, delivered quickly, ensure the pace is moved along. Avon and Vila's handshake at the end is a lovely addition. Throughout these scenes, it's the reactions from both Paul Darrow and Michael Keating that really add to it. The miniaturisation of Orac is a great idea and I hope it's used again to enable more use of the character.

The duo's scenes in the casino were enormous fun. It soon becomes clear that neither of them knows the first thing about cheating a casino: don't make it obvious. I became almost as nervous as Avon, who nonetheless easily relents to Vila's implores to carry on: "Alright, just once more. But after this, I warn you, I'm walking out... to be sick."

Vila appeared drunk when Krantor led him away for a "celebratory drink", but when he returns he looks calmer, almost drugged, which he snaps out of as soon as he sits in the Speedchess chair. The sudden cut to a stunned Avon spitting his food out was great. After what Vila's put Avon through, it feels like Avon gets his own back when, with no hesitation, he tells Vila to play the game and risk his life for their five million credits. Avon's still nervy when they come to leave, displaying his usual cautiousness by drawing his gun as they walk out with the money.

On their return to the Liberator, I liked Avon's swift switching from, "Quickly, Vila - hide the money!" to calmly answering the radio with, "Reading you, Blake." Even though it's Vila who Blake is suspicious of, for me, it is Avon's gabbling of, "Oh, great, wonderful, terrific," that is greater evidence of an attempt to cover up by finding something to say.

Star One
The search for Star One continues and it now seems likely that we will be heading there for the series finale, via the planet Goth. Docholli's description of Goth was suitably grim so I'm looking forward to seeing our heroes visit it. I am also curious whether the Control/Star One ongoing plot will be properly tied up. I expect Chris Boucher or Terry Nation to be writing the last couple of episodes, but I do hope we get more from Robert Holmes again.

Servalan and Travis know exactly what Blake's up to so I expect this isn't the last of them this series - smashing. I hadn't seen enough of Servalan for my liking prior to Gambit but this really paid off and I would like to see if she keeps her new assistant, who is certainly a different sort to Travis.

Former-Space Commander Travis once had the backing of Servalan and the Federation, briefly followed by the service of some Crimos, but he is now utterly alone and there were moments in Gambit when I almost felt sorry for him. This episode gave Brian Croucher plenty and Travis has become such a differently fascinating character. I hope at some point in the last couple of Series B episodes we get just a little bit more of that.

Friday 17 January 2020

Blake's 7 - Voice from the Past

Voice from the Past
"So much for Blake's new epoch of peace."

Voice from the Past was an interesting episode as I was intrigued by the plot immediately. The idea of Blake reverting to his pre-The Way Back brainwashed state was fear-inducing as the consequences I imagined were disastrous. I saw him covertly redirecting the Liberator and turning the whole crew over to the Federation. This is almost where we headed, only with Blake acting with much less consciousness than I pictured. While nothing seemed truly clear for most of the episode, the payoff from the final 10 minutes was superb and among the most thrilling, nerve-wracking I’ve experienced with Blake’s 7 so far.

What the plot?
I was trying to work ahead of the episode’s plot throughout but could never get there. I felt I couldn’t trust anyone – not Ven Glynd, not Shivan, not Le Grand, not Blake – and this meant I was sure of nothing and believed nothing. I had a constant feeling of dread that the crew were being led into a horrific trap. Blake’s rerouting of the Liberator was concerning, his duping of Vila made me want to bang my head against a wall, and despite the friendly demeanour of the rebels, they seemed too good to be true. As for the councillor-type woman, Le Grand, until she turned up on the Liberator I was sure she was on the Federation's side, yet then I wondered if she wasn't but maybe Ven Glynd was really in league with Servalan. There were too many possibilities.

Blake the Brainwashed
I had pondered just how easily the Federation would be able to brainwash Blake again, yet I always imagined they would need to physically get hold of him first. Therefore this remote attack using sound seemed clever, and I loved seeing Blake's 7 use continuity in the plot, as opposed to merely weaving it into lines of exposition.

I could be more annoyed at Blake, but it’s hard to justify anything when he spent the entire episode brainwashed. However, his assertion to the others that he “commands this ship” provided a stab of anger and I was glad that Jenna immediately countered with, “You lead - we don't take commands.” It is a vital distinction. Blake may not be a perfect leader and I don’t think any of the others would be either, but Avon has been eyeing up the position and from day one has had strong feelings about democracy onboard. That statement sounded utterly like Blake and I hated him for it because good grief – every time I find aspects to admire in him, he does or says something like this again.

It was hard to measure how much Blake’s decisions to ignore Orac were influenced by his altered state of his mind. He overruled Avon’s request to consult Orac before bringing Ven Glynd and Shivan onboard. Yet while I despaired over what seemed an incredibly poor judgement, this didn’t seem to make any difference in the end as Orac couldn’t accurately determine if Shivan was who he claimed to be. Even though Blake's judgement was poor and it was a foolish decision, this could be attributed to his unstable state of mind. However, turning Orac off later and taking the key was a sign of Blake wielding his power and I was livid, crying out, "Where is our bloody democracy, Blake!"

Loyalty to your commander
It feels like Series B is testing the crew's loyalty to Blake. If Blake had shown similar signs of regression in Series A, Avon would have advocated abandoning him as a security risk. They all make considerable efforts to help Blake here and it's interesting that this devotion to one another is still there, regardless of the crew's dynamic now often being Them vs. Blake.

I thought Vila would notice the clear change in Blake's tone of voice when he insisted that Avon and Cally had plotted against him. Instead, I was surprised Vila believed Blake at all, especially considering how secretive he has been this series. I might have expected Vila to trust Avon as much as Blake now - if not more - but that clearly isn't the case and Blake still has the most influence.

Cally and Jenna both had more to do than in any recent episodes, helped partly by so much of the episode being set on the Liberator. From the opening scenes, I began to think we would spend the entire episode on the Liberator and I would have been perfectly happy with that. It did occur to me that the programme’s budget might incorporate a ‘lite’ episode that forced them to set one episode entirely on the Liberator. Cally has taken on a caring, nursing role in much of Series B and she continues it in Voice from the Past as she and Avon attempt to help Blake.

Finally getting a brief opportunity to leave the Liberator did not work out well for Jenna. She has always seemed the most loyal to Blake but I had wondered if his recent actions had planted seeds of doubt in her, as she has been annoyed by his secretiveness. At the episode's climax when Blake has removed his teleport bracelet, Jenna tries to help him, even removing her own bracelet to ensure she can stay and try to save his life. It's interesting that this is the second episode in which teleport bracelets have been removed on purpose like this, and especially so because the episodes have different writers. Both actions were life-threatening, yet the still, tense atmosphere of Avon diffusing the bomb in Countdown could hardly be more different from the panicked and action-packed circumstances here. I admired Jenna for this tremendously risky act as I am unsure whether any of the others would have gone this far for Blake. It perhaps reflects the more romantic feelings she has for him, which we got a flash of from her scowl at Blake's kiss in Hostage.

Home invasion climax
Down on the asteroid, it all seemed too easy that everything should fall into Blake’s lap like this and my anxiety increased as they brought the strangers onto the Liberator.

It was hard to make anything of Shivan as the bandages ensured the only visible part of him was his eye and I struggled to understand his few lines when he spoke to Ven Glynd. I was willing to believe his miraculous survival story though and paid him little attention because Ven Glynd seemed likely to be the real double agent.

I never had a clue to Shivan's real identity, so Travis’s reveal elicited a shocked “NO!” followed by a string of expletives. That hand! Travis on the Liberator! I’d been concerned when the Liberator was infiltrated in Redemption, but this was different – this was Travis. They had let the Federation in. BLAKE LET THEM IN. The Liberator has felt like a haven; as long as the crew have got their teleport bracelets, they are safe because they can escape – we’ve seen the Liberator outrun dreadful odds. The Liberator is home.

I loved the detail that Brian Croucher appears to have a degree of stubble, implying he's spent days or more literally undercover with the rebels.

Prior to this, the appearance of the guard is a bit grim as attention is given to the knife in his back with blood on display. This is even more shocking than Avon's arm wound in Hostage. I continue to be interested in the way the show depicts violence as Series A probably had a similar amount but was bloodless.

Combined with that desolate auditorium and the appearance of Federation guards, I spent the next few minutes panicking, staring at the unfolding events in wide-eyed horror.

The reveal of the empty auditorium was magnificent. Servalan’s booming voice was imposing and the projection of her image was a wonderful addition. The letterbox shot of her eyes reminded me of the watching eyes of Big Brother in 1984 (did I imagine this poster or does the book specifically reference it?), and there can be many comparisons of the Federation’s regime made to the novel, from its undefeatability to its revisions of established history. Le Grand's tears were so sad and spoke of years of determined work vanishing in an instant, reflecting her own now-inevitable fate. Ven Glynd and Le Grand were goners and knowing the Federation, it was for the best. I think Le Grand's may even have been suicide.

Everything got far worse when Blake’s mind began to be attacked and he took off his teleport bracelet. I’ve never been so worried about the fate of the Liberator crew. It felt like the biggest trap they had ever been in. As Travis went down from the Liberator, Avon and Cally seemed safe again, yet it continued to deteriorate below. When Vila went up and Jenna had taken off her bracelet too, I thought this was it: we were about to lose Jenna and Blake! Avon and the others would have no choice but to leave them because they couldn’t get them back!

The resolution is a variant on the 'teleported just in time' trope we have seen, though it has previously tended to be the result of someone having to rush to the teleport bay. I was initially unsure why Travis needed to teleport down as I assumed his aim was to capture the entire crew, so why not force Cally and Avon to bring the others up, regardless of the message Avon managed to send. However, although Travis may have been compelled to attempt the whole crew's capture while under Servalan's formal command, he has really only ever cared about Blake. With Servalan's trap a success, she would know the Liberator was nearby so must have been poised to send in Federation ships to surround it as soon as Travis gave the word.

I had been hoping for another appearance from Servalan and Travis, the former especially, but it was all too brief and I was left longing for more. They should never appear in every episode yet I would like to see plenty of them when they do. I don't know whether I can ever expect to see more of Servalan: she wasn't a huge presence in Series A, when Travis took centre stage and she pulled the strings from afar. I think it is just the fact I adore the character so much that I feel we deserve more of her.

Voice from the Past sags in the middle. After the episode's opening intrigue (and joy of discovering the crew do team yoga sessions), we begin watching a series of political discussions until towards the end. It was only curiosity at 'what on Dell 10 is going on' that kept me interested. You then have to appreciate who Travis is for that unveiling to have an impact, so while the episode sits well in the series as a whole, it may have been a struggle for more casual viewers who gained less from the ending. I am also conscious that while I love admiring the model work, there was a lot of it this episode and I began to wonder if it was underrunning.

Voice from the Past's strength is absolutely in its exciting climax and it made me realise just how invested I had become in these characters. As much as I enjoyed this conclusion, a lot of it was down to the shock of Travis's reveal combined with the sudden cascading of events, so I don't think it is an episode that would stand up well to repeated viewings. But this is 1979 when home video barely exists, and in this instance, I am more inclined to evaluate Blake's 7 in the circumstances of its creation. Voice from the Past did its job: I was interested, entertained and gripped enough to return again next week.