May 27, 2008
review by Martin Odoni of season 4, episode 13
If The Way Back is one of the greatest starts in the history of television drama, then fifty-one episodes later, Blake is a candidate for the greatest conclusion to any series ever. And while it misses out on being my personal favourite by the tiniest of tiny margins, it is also arguably the greatest episode of Blake’s 7. It is a very intelligent but deceptively simple tale analysing the emotional and mental decline of the series’ two main characters, and like the series as a whole, it has a very bleak theme running through it about paranoia, and about how fallible human perception is. But it also has an equally chilling counter-theme about how dangerous attempts to off-set that fallibility can be.
Season four does not start too well, it must be said, with just about the entire first half failing to rise above mediocrity, and Stardrive and Animals being particularly bad. But the second half of the season sees things pick up enormously, with stories such as Games, Sand and Gold of a standard comparable with high points in earlier seasons (and even the much over-rated Orbit is worthy).
But it is at its culmination that the season hits its peak, as threads laced throughout of growing despair, failure and moral nihilism are tied up in a truly macabre, chilling and desolate conclusion that confirms the series’ status as a perpetual future dystopia. It is a true ending to the series, in a way that the dramatic-but-half-hearted Terminal could never be at the end of season three.
The story opens with a total defeat for the surviving rebels. Their attempt to form an alliance with various independent worlds neighbouring the Federation (in Warlord) has failed, and their base on Xenon has been destroyed through treachery. Avon has therefore decided to search for a figurehead to unite anti-Federation groups behind, and with Orac’s help he believes he has found the very man; none other than his former leader, Roj Blake. Blake has been missing for around three years by this point, after the Intergalactic War at the start of season three, and was later presumed killed on the planet Gevron. But Avon has traced him to a planet out on the Federation frontier called Gauda Prime, an agricultural world made up chiefly of forests and farms. As luck would have it, Gauda Prime – or GP as its inhabitants call it – is Soolin’s homeworld. So Scorpio and its beleaguered crew depart Xenon, and set off to find Blake.
Soolin and Avon explain to the rest of the crew that GP is an Open planet, which is the term for a Federated world where the Law and all penal codes have been suspended. This is a cynical ploy done to speed up mining; when Soolin was still a child, it was discovered that the planet had enormous valuable mineral reserves below ground. The occupants objected to the Federation moving in to dig up the ground and ruin the environment, and the Law was on their side, so the Federation simply suspended the Law and declared the planet Open. The upside of this was that the materials that the Federation wanted to extract were successfully strip-mined very quickly. The downside was that, firstly, the damage to the eco-system of much of the planet was substantial, and secondly, with no Law or penal code there, GP became a magnet for criminals and other low-life scum of the Galaxy, who knew that they would be beyond the reach of Federation Security there.
Gauda Prime has therefore become a deadly, chaotic hell-hole. Soolin’s family were murdered there when she was still very young, and she is more than a little uneasy at the thought of having to go back. Avon then makes an announcement that she finds incredible; the Federation has decided to restore law and order to the planet. GP is crawling with bounty hunters who have been assigned to capture and/or kill as many of the worst criminals and marauders at large there as possible. (And as Tarrant points out later, with Federation prices on the heads of the entire Scorpio crew, a planet awash with bounty hunters sounds like the last place they should be heading.) Avon then makes a further announcement, one that Vila finds incredible; Blake is one of the bounty hunters. It would seem that the great idealist and freedom fighter has taken up killing people for money.
In fact, Blake’s reasons for being on Gauda Prime are not entirely clear at this stage, but they do look rather ominous. So does Blake himself when we first see him. He is dressed in shabby, bulky outdoor clothing, and his left eye is heavily scarred, to the point where he can only half-open it. He is unshaven, and looks as if he has been living rough for months. Destitute and scarred, he almost resembles the one-eyed Travis after he turned renegade. The resemblance is both symbolic and ironic, for Travis was a Federation man, who after Trial became a renegade and outlaw, while Blake was for a long time a renegade and outlaw, but now has effectively become a Federation man (or at the very least has become a freelancer that the Federation is prepared to hire on-and-off).
We find Blake in a forest clearing, cooking some meat over a campfire, when he encounters a young criminal called Arlen, a woman on the run from bounty hunters who are tracking her after she was accused of a series of murders. Arlen is deeply distrustful of Blake, but she has been on the run for a long time and is starving, so she accepts when he offers her some food. This does not win her trust – nor should it, it is a classic opening gambit of a conman after all – but she is prepared to offer Blake one of her weapons as payment for the meal, showing she is enough at her ease in his company to stick to her principles, even when, as in this case, it is a dangerous principle to uphold. Even so, when taking her leave of him, she will not turn away from him, but backs away slowly, not taking her eyes off him for fear that he might draw the gun on her. This says an awful lot about the nature of life on Gauda Prime. Treachery, bloodshed and death, all without legal redress, are completely rife. No one dares turn their back on anyone else.
As she attempts to leave the clearing, Arlen is ambushed by three bounty hunters. She manages to gun two of them down, but the third one, Tando, injures her with a shot to the leg. Blake takes up the gun Arlen has given him and shoots Tando in the back before he can apply the killing stroke. Arlen warns Blake to get into cover, as she is sure there is a fourth hunter tracking her. Calmly aiming his gun at her, Blake informs her that she is correct, there is a fourth hunter; Blake himself. Arlen is outraged at the way that she has been hoodwinked, but the injury to her leg means she is helpless to fight him or run away. She snarls at him that he is scum, and he responds by revealing his real name. He drags her back to his base, a silo at the heart of the forest, from where bounty hunters are assigned missions and despatched to carry them out.
When Scorpio reaches Gauda Prime orbit, it is attacked by mercenary gunships that, as part of the campaign to restore order, have set up a blockade to prevent gun-runners from shipping weapons onto the planet. The damage caused by the attack is so heavy that Tarrant realises he will have to attempt a crash-landing, but given the speed at which the ship is plummeting through the atmosphere, it is unlikely that anyone aboard will survive. First Vila, Soolin and Dayna, then Avon and Orac abandon ship via the teleport, while Tarrant and Slave make a valiant but largely futile attempt to land Scorpio safely. The ship is wrecked in the landing, and Tarrant suffers serious injuries. On the planet surface, the crew eventually assume that he must have been killed, so they look for somewhere to shelter for the night and recuperate after their recent exertions. But they are wrong. Tarrant is alive.
Blake is still at the silo when he hears news of the freighter crashing, and he decides to investigate. On finding the wreckage of Scorpio, he overhears Slave, using his final reserves of power, speaking to Tarrant, who is unconscious. In particular, he hears the computer using the injured man’s name.
When Tarrant finally wakes, he comes under bombardment from an airborne flyer. Blake steps in and shoots down the flyer with his sidearm; clearly flyers are pretty fragile vehicles. While this is happening, Blake explains, somewhat dubiously, that the gun-runners on the flyer are not shooting at Tarrant, but at Blake himself. It seems more likely that they have mistaken Scorpio for a smuggler ship and, in hope of claiming a reward, are trying to kill off any surviving crew.
Blake finds a teleport bracelet and examines it. Although the resemblance to the bracelets on the Liberator is fleeting, it must be enough to arouse suspicions in his mind. He then performs what appears to be a morality test on Tarrant. He casually leaves a gun next to where the younger man is lying nursing his injuries, and comes up with a rather far-fetched explanation for why the flyer was targeting him. He then chucks a small bag full of precious stones to Tarrant and states that the gun-runners were trying to take them from him. The fact that the gun has been left next to him and the stones so blithely thrown his way is too obvious, and Tarrant knows straight away that he is being tested. Blake wants to see whether Tarrant will pick up the gun – which is surely not really loaded – and try to kill him in order to keep the stones. It would be senseless in Tarrant’s current plight to try and attack anyone – he needs medical treatment, not riches – but he can tell that the gun is not really loaded anyway. He just throws back the bag of stones with a sneer, and tells Blake in no uncertain terms that he knows what the game is.
Interestingly, neither of the two men show any indication at this stage of knowing who the other is, refusing even to name themselves. They have never met until now of course, as Tarrant only joined the crew of the Liberator shortly after Blake’s disappearance at the end of the war. But when pretending (or perhaps not even pretending) to be a Federation Captain in Powerplay, Tarrant did claim that he would recognise Blake straight away if he ever saw him. Equally, given how famous Avon and his crew have become – Keiller was talking in Gold about how they were big news ‘on the grapevine’, and it was shown in Orbit that even Egrorian had heard all about their exploits while he was in isolation on Malodaar (although Servalan might have told him all that as part of the plan to trap Avon) – it seems implausible to suggest that Blake has not heard anything about their deeds, or that he has no idea whom he has found. But they both have to be careful, because they might be mistaken; for all they know, each one could be looking at an enemy agent in disguise.
As dawn approaches, Blake takes Tarrant to his flyer and prepares to fly him back to the silo. Not far away, Avon and the rest of the Scorpio crew, having obtained a flyer of their own from a couple of unfortunate (now dead) bounty hunters they encountered during the night, take off in pursuit. Avon describes the pilot of the other flyer as “our guide”, although whether he realises who he is is not clear; he is only the guide because Orac recognised that the flyer was heading for the silo, making him suitable to follow.
Shortly after arriving back at the silo, Blake suddenly seizes Tarrant’s gun and aims it at him, declaring to the administrator on duty, a man called Deva, that his latest hunt has been “profitable… even by my standards.” He goes on to explain to Deva that Tarrant has a very high Federation price on his head, as do his colleagues, one in particular – by which he clearly means Avon. He also states that he is aware of being pursued on the way in by a second flyer, almost certainly under guidance from Orac. It is now clear that Blake knows only too well who his new prisoner is, and he has merely been behaving towards Tarrant in precisely the way he was behaving towards Arlen earlier; appearing nice early on to win his trust, then drawing a gun on him when he is at his most vulnerable.
Deva summons an armed guard to keep watch on Tarrant while Blake goes to confront Avon; the guard is Arlen! Tarrant suddenly fights her and Blake off and runs through the base, looking for a way out. Arlen offers to shoot him, but Blake stops her. Deva gets angry, complaining that Blake’s ways of testing people are going to get someone killed sooner or later.
It soon becomes clear that it was all an act to test Tarrant’s allegiance. Blake has become so paranoid about Federation trickery, and their many attempts to infiltrate his resistance groups, that every time he finds a new candidate to join his rebel army, he pretends to be a bounty hunter, supposedly arresting them in order to hand them over to Federation Security. He studies how they respond to this; if they are clearly in fear for their lives, he assumes it will be safe to recruit them and that they have not been ‘planted’ by the Federation.
When she earlier learned who Blake was, Arlen passed the test because she offered Deva (whom she believed at that point was a Federation Administrator and not a rebel) the information as a bargaining tool for her life. The logic Blake is following is that if she were a Federation spy she would have announced herself as such to Deva, instead of haggling privately for her freedom. Now, by running for his life, Tarrant has passed the test as well.
This is the whole reason why Blake is on Gauda Prime at all. He wishes to build a new army to fight against the Federation, and he knows that criminals will be his best source of recruits – just as they were when he was putting together a crew for the Liberator five years before – because they are already enemies of the establishment.
The rest of the Scorpio crew have arrived and find Tarrant in the silo’s main tracking gallery, where he is struggling with a technician. Soolin shoots the technician, and Tarrant announces that he believes Blake is here. Right on cue, Blake walks into the gallery, followed by Arlen, and comes face-to-face with Avon and Vila, who both look slightly shocked at how battered their old leader now looks.
At this point, his voice boiling over with contempt, Tarrant declares to Avon that Blake has sold them out. Avon demands that Blake answer this charge, to which the response is that Tarrant does not understand what is happening, and that the whole thing has been a set-up. Avon misinterprets this as meaning that Blake has set the Scorpio crew up. He raises his rifle and shoots Blake three times in the chest. There is blood everywhere. Blake falls into Avon’s arms, then slumps to the floor. He is dead.
Deva runs in warning that Federation troops have entered the base. Then he sees the body on the floor and freezes in shock. Arlen suddenly raises her gun and shoots him down, before commanding the Scorpio crew to put down their weapons. They all do as told, except Avon, who is staring dumb-struck at Blake’s dead form, so stunned by his own actions that he ceases to notice anything happening around him. At this point, Arlen announces that she is a Federation officer, and that she is the one who has guided the troops into the base. Blake’s test, it seems, was not as watertight as he thought. What follows is a brief, horrific melee.
Firstly, Dayna makes a reckless attempt to retrieve her gun, and Arlen mercilessly shoots her down. Vila responds by knocking Arlen cold, but is then shot in the back by a Federation trooper who has burst into the room. Soolin has gathered her own gun and shoots the trooper, but is then gunned down in turn by another trooper arriving through another door. Tarrant has grabbed a gun by now and shoots the second trooper, only to be himself shot by a third.
Finally, Avon, the only one left standing, snaps out of his reverie to see dozens more troopers flooding into the tracking gallery. They close in on him, all aiming their rifles at him. They have him completely surrounded. Avon has absolutely nowhere to run. There is a look of real despair on his face as he glances down at Blake one last time. He then stands astride of Blake, as though trying to protect him, and slowly raises his gun to aim at the trooper standing directly ahead of him. Avon smiles almost crazily. The credits start to roll just as the sounds of gunfire can be heard…
Thinking back to the first time I saw the slaughter in 1981, I recall going into denial and proclaiming that Avon ducked out of the way, and that he was firing most of the shots that could be heard. I was being irrational of course; in my defence, I was only six years old and I was not quite ready to see something like that. My attitude was born from a mixture of shock and misery that my heroes had all died.
And in the cold light of day, there seems little doubt at all that the entire crew is dead. There may be a slight chance that one or two survived, but the odds are against any of them really. Tarrant, already carrying heavy injuries from Scorpio’s crash-landing, appears to have been shot in the head, so his hope of survival is close to zero. Dayna looks finished too. Vila and Soolin may have an outside chance, but no better than that, while Blake is definitely dead; it was in Gareth Thomas’ contract that his character would die on his reappearance, and all the blood leaves absolutely no room for doubt. (There are suggestions that it might have been his clone from Weapon, but it is clear for reasons of personality that the man on GP is the real Blake, and in any case there is no explanation for how the clone could have got there, or why Rashel was not.)
All of which leaves Avon. The odds for him are marginally better than they are for any of the others, but only because he happens still to be alive as the credits start to roll and we do not get to see him die; scant reassurance really, as it certainly sounds like a lot of shots are being fired his way, and he has no escape route.
One theory that began circulating not long after the episode aired – and was championed by series creator Terry Nation – was that the guns the Federation troopers were carrying were set for stun. They were certainly a different model from the para-guns/plasma rifles that they usually carry, but there are several reasons why the theory does not sound convincing.
Firstly, it would be quite a cop-out, very much at odds with what happens on-screen.
Secondly, the Federation always slaughters opposition groups, it never takes them prisoners, except more or less inadvertently. (The only other time in the history of the series when they used stun weapons was in Project Avalon in the first season, and that was not in order to take prisoners but as part of an elaborate plan to capture the Liberator.) The series is in fact ending as it began in The Way Back, with a massacre of a resistance group.
Thirdly, the troopers do not shoot Avon as soon as they see him. If their weapons were set for stun, it would only be because they were under orders to take everyone alive. If that were the case here, there would be no reason for them to close in and surround him, or wait for him to shoot one of their number before opening fire themselves; with weapons set to stun, they could simply shoot him at first glance, without any risk of disobeying the order to take him alive. Instead they wait until one of their colleagues is dead before firing back, which is senselessly passive of them.
Blake’s tests are perhaps a little cruel, but he could probably see little alternative other than to use them. His injuries and general bearing show that he has been through merry hell since his disappearance, and his paranoia is now almost total. It seems certain that he has been the victim of many of the Federation’s mind-games, and is now unsure of anyone he meets. He told Arlen early on that he can no longer tell who is Federation and who is not, which stands in stark contrast with his attitude on the Liberator, when he more or less trusted all his crew without hesitation. His last words to Avon before the war started were, “For what it is worth, I have always trusted you… from the very beginning.” Now it seems he will not trust anyone. Newcomers must be tested in a manner that terrifies them to a cruel degree, and even those he is confident are on his side he will not depend on, hence he insists on conducting the tests himself. “All right, I find it difficult to trust, it’s a failing I admit…” Even if his army eventually numbers thousands, he will do all the recruiting himself. It is often said that paranoia is a symptom of arrogance, and this would seem to prove it.
The worst aspect of this though is not the high-handedness, but that his tests are fundamentally flawed. Arlen is a Federation officer, but she still passes the test because Blake wrongly assumed when a Federation spy would reveal himself/herself. It seems he did not consider that a spy, who by definition will be an expert in subterfuge, will know better than to assume the man he/she is speaking to is a superior officer just on his say-so, and will only break cover when the terms of the mission are complete, not before. In the end, Blake’s tests failed to catch out a real Federation agent, while turning a genuine candidate for recruitment – Tarrant – against him.
Although the episode is called Blake – and indeed it is very fascinating to see what has become of the rebellion’s erstwhile leader – the analysis of Avon is every bit as interesting. His behaviour in the final scene underlines a pattern of increasingly erratic moods and amoral conduct that has become more and more pronounced throughout the fourth season, but probably stemming from the moment in Rumours Of Death in the middle of season three when he realised the true identity of the one who betrayed him in the Great Bank Fraud. The process of his mental decline has been exacerbated by events on Terminal; the electronic manipulation of his mind by Servalan, Cally’s death, and the destruction of the Liberator, all of which were to a large degree his fault, have changed Avon very deeply. His morality for instance – not exactly a dominant aspect of his character to begin with – has dissipated almost entirely; in Stardrive, he sacrificed Dr Plaxton once he had secured possession of the photonic drive, in Orbit, he nearly sacrificed Vila to survive Egrorian’s double-cross, and then in Warlord, he sacrificed Zeeona after Xenon Base was destroyed. Here, he happily sets up Soolin, Dayna and Vila, using them as bait in a trap for the two bounty hunters so that he can steal their flyer. (His claim that he had no idea that it was Soolin et al that he was setting up might be true, but it is very hard to believe it; it would be a big coincidence that he just happened to arrive in the same place as them, it is far more likely that he was consciously tracking them. And the fact that Avon was aware that Vila had been put on guard overnight suggests he had been watching them for some while.)
Avon has clearly been developing a paranoid stress disorder since the destruction of the Liberator, especially given the far greater vulnerability of Scorpio, and Servalan’s frequent – usually successful – attempts to double-cross him. Avon has become ever more uncertain of his own judgement – something he used to have no doubts about whatever – and at times he is quite unsure of what is real and what is not, paralleling Blake’s difficulties on GP almost exactly. More pertinently perhaps, Avon is less and less confident of the allegiance of the people he trusts. His reasoning on Gauda Prime seems to be that if even Anna Grant was prepared to betray him, why should Blake be any different? (It should also be remembered that another old friend, Tynus, betrayed him in Killer in season two.) The situations with Anna and Blake are, after all, very similar. Both of them are people Avon became close to (albeit in very different ways) and learned to trust without hesitation. He has also wrongly assumed them both to be dead. Therefore, Avon has started associating absent friends – especially those who have survived unexpectedly – with treachery and deceit.
When Avon demands an explanation, it is noticeable that he takes Tarrant’s word over Blake’s. Partly it is just easier for Avon to believe that everyone is out to get him as it makes the world seem less complicated (following logic that is contrary to Auron wisdom; a man who does not trust can never be betrayed), but we should also keep in mind that Tarrant has been travelling with Avon for about three years by now, and they have been in each other’s sight for much of that time. Avon can at least be reasonably confident that Tarrant is not conspiring against him as there is every probability that he would have picked up on it. But he has not seen Blake for almost exactly the same length of time, and with at least part of his mind he must be suspicious of the events on Gevron. Given that Servalan announced so firmly in Terminal that Blake was dead, Avon might have a vague suspicion that they had made some kind of deal e.g. in exchange for information regarding the whereabouts of other rebels, Servalan might have faked Blake’s death and announced to Security that there was no further point in hunting him. The whole idea of Blake agreeing to such a treacherous deal is clearly absurd, but then Avon’s state-of-mind is far more brittle than it once was. (My own belief is that Blake did fake his death in some way, but it was merely to get the Federation off his back, not as part of some self-serving bargain.)
It is an exaggeration to suggest, as many do, that Avon is mad by the end. He is on a slippery slope beyond doubt, he is unsure about what is real and what is not, but he is not mad as yet. As Paul Darrow is fond of pointing out, early in the episode, Avon smiles about the rest of the crew implicitly thinking of him as a psychopath, and no psychopath will ever smile at the accusation.
More to the point, while Avon may be the victim of delusions, they are not products of his imagination as such. It is more that his conclusions are frequently mistaken, and that, because of the nervous stress he is under, he acts without making sure that his initial impressions are correct. His misjudgements, even when gunning down Blake, are not actual madness as they are still based on the known facts. They are also misjudgements anyone could make in the same position (although whether their response would be the same is quite a separate matter). He does not just dream up absurd explanations off the top of his head and then believe them with unshakeable conviction, as a real madman would. Instead he makes a cursory but accurate examination of the details and draws his conclusions, but without making certain he has as many of the facts as possible; in the past, he would have made certain. His actions are also noticeably more violent than they used to be. He thus shows signs of a deepening personality disorder, one that could well lead to psychosis, but he is not there yet.
The other central characters have good outings too, with the possible exception of Dayna, who once again resumes her accepted role of ‘smartmouth-gun-toting-female-who-throws-unhelpful-remarks-of-savage-irony-into-other-people’s-conversations’, and the definite exception of Servalan, who does not make an appearance at all. We learn as much about Soolin as at any time in her brief run on the show, Tarrant is very much at the heart of the story from the moment of arrival on Gauda Prime, and Vila, although not getting a great deal to do, gets some very good lines, especially, “Let’s get the dignified hell out of here!” and, “The state the roof’s in, it’s the same as spending the night in the open.”
The aforementioned absence of Servalan is perhaps a surprise, and Jacqueline Pearce was famously quite disgruntled at not getting a proper send-off, but the decision to leave her out was quite correct. It was felt by the production team that Servalan had been overused throughout the fourth season, which she had, and that many of her appearances were completely superfluous, which they were; her involvement in the episodes Traitor, Gold, Orbit, Warlord, and arguably even Games were totally unnecessary, had little to do with the storyline, and undermined the presence of the guest villains in each case, villains who were quite strong enough characters in their own right.
Writer Chris Boucher even felt that sufficient surprise could be achieved in a negative way by not having Servalan show up at the last minute, in spite of numerous hints throughout about the expected arrival on GP of a Federation representative, naturally leading the audience to assume it would be her. Such a familiar ‘revelation’ was undoubtedly best avoided, especially as, yet again, the story really did not need Servalan at all. In itself, a final confrontation between her and Avon or Blake might have been interesting, but it seems fitting that the Federation should bow out as it came in; a sinister, ruthless, more-or-less faceless tyranny. Who needs Servalan?
The episode does tie up one other loose end though; the fate of the other long-time absentee from the original Liberator crew, Jenna Stannis. We only get second hand information rather than a cameo from Sally Knyvette, but Blake reveals to Tarrant that Jenna was on Gauda Prime at some point in the last three years as well, where she was operating as another smuggler. According to his story, she died when trying to get past the blockade, hitting self-destruct rather than letting herself be captured and handed over to the Federation. The bludgeoning fury with which Blake relates the story suggests he believes every word of it, although it might just have been another part of his test of Tarrant’s allegiance. There certainly is a serious logic issue otherwise, namely how Blake could possibly have known that she hit the self-destruct? She could hardly tell him about it afterwards, could she?
The impact of Blake was resounding, not only on the series, but on the country; it sent roughly one sixth of the British population into shock when it was first shown in 1981, and a lot of people had a much bleaker festive season than usual because of it; it was just four days before Christmas! It brought the series to a spectacular and very decisive end, one that confirmed the dystopic future it portrayed as being total. In this future, the good guys, such as they are, do not win in the end. Instead, pessimism and authoritarianism reign, just as they have from the outset, and every attempt Blake would ever make to defeat the Federation – be it at the head of the Freedom Party, as Commander of the Liberator, or as head of an army on Gauda Prime – would prove futile. As Jenna said back in Spacefall early in the first season, Avon could die contented, knowing that he was right.
It is quite possible of course that he was not. Blake’s failures were quite consistent and overwhelming, his successes few and very minor, but it would be wrong to assume his total defeat was inevitable. Had he been less blinkered at critical moments, and less prone to judging circumstances with his heart rather than his head e.g. when things started going wrong in Pressure Point, and had he found more followers who were as committed to his ideals as he was, he might have met with real success (although finding more idealistic followers can’t be easy when your chief source of recruits is the criminal world). But in the end, he did still lose, and the bleakness of that defeat, the manner in which it happened, and the funereal atmosphere as the final act was played out, were all stunning to behold.
Blake is therefore some of the most powerful drama the series ever produced, as well as a rare example of a long-running television show offering up a real conclusion at its end, instead of a tentative anti-climax.
May 23, 2008
review by Martin Odoni of season 1, episode 1
Roj Blake, once a resistance leader, was arrested four years ago by the totalitarian Government of the Terran Federation. Instead of executing Blake, and risking turning him into a martyr, they operated on his brain, erasing all memory of his past and reprogramming him into their idea of a model citizen. Four years on, Blake is contacted by more rebels who take him to an illegal anti-Federation meeting, where he is told of his past. Federation troops arrive on the scene and massacre the gathering; only Blake survives, and he is re-arrested. On realising that Blake’s memory is returning, the Federation convict him on false charges of child molestation, and have him deported from Earth to the prison colony on Cygnus Alpha. While in a transit cell, waiting to board the prison ship London, he meets the thief Vila Restal, and the smuggler pilot Jenna Stannis.
Few television series in history have had the privilege of a more chilling or pessimistic vision to commence their run than Blake’s 7, for The Way Back is a pilot episode that starts off a series by ending all hope. Never mind living life to the fullest, it tells us. Never mind building for a better future. Never mind fighting for freedom, or peace, or prosperity. There’s no point… the Federation is where we are headed.
For a pre-watershed adventure programme – one that doubtless had many people thinking at first that it was simply “more Doctor Who” – it is a startlingly adult and bleak vision of where the future might lead us, and certainly reflects the famed pessimism of its creator, Terry Nation. It has a powerful message about governmental corruption and how the complacency and ignorance of a population allow it to flourish, control of information, and the terrible lengths that a state will go to to keep itself in power when it is sure it will get away with it.
There are a few intellectual flaws – most of them superficial – and some plot contrivances, which prevent the story from being the very greatest episode of them all, as is sometimes claimed for it. But it is still among the best.
The story introduces us to an Earth of the distant future. We don’t know how far into the future it is, but it is clearly well over five hundred years, possibly thousands of years. (Officially, it is set in the third century of the New Calendar, although we are given no indication of which Old Calendar year was the final one.) We can tell quite a bit about the society from the earliest scenes and even from the title sequence. Everyone appears to be sealed in a city constructed as a giant mechanical dome. There are recognisably surveillance cameras on every wall, monitoring the day-to-day movements of the population. A lot of the people are drifting around looking dazed, almost in a stupor. It is noticeable that the corridors of the city are narrow and even somewhat cramped in places; the city was clearly built to make policing the population easier, and perhaps it was because the population has grown too large to govern effectively without stricter controls. There are endless streams of propaganda and high-handed announcements made over the public tannoy, one of many aspects reminiscent of Oceania in Nineteen Eighty-Four; between the tannoy and the cameras, we have a clear implication of telescreens. All-in-all we have a surveillance society of the type that we are already heading uncomfortably close to, given the public CCTV cameras that we see on every wall and street corner. It is a claustrophobic place, both physically and psychologically.
It is also a cultureless place, at least when compared with today. There is constant soothing music playing over the tannoys, and there are occasional sculptures and statues dotted here and there, but other than that the society is a mixture of rather featureless, monotonous architecture and shoddy goods (for instance, even though the clothes worn by the dome dwellers are markedly better than the tatty robes worn by the Outsiders later on, they still look drab and a little flimsy.) The architecture is colourless, the shapes of the statues generally meaningless, and so they inspire little thought in the minds of people who look at them. Keeping independent thought to a minimum is clearly a big priority round here.
Which brings us round to the central character in the story, who is more a victim of thought control than anyone. Roj Blake, when we first meet him, does not come across as a particularly charismatic or impressive figure. He is instead malleable, mild, and sometimes slightly timid. Even though his short temper, which would become so glaringly apparent in future episodes, is in sporadic evidence here, he lacks the fire and zeal of a leader of men, a fact commented on by Bran Foster, a former colleague from his past whom he meets early on at an anti-Government meeting. It is Foster who explains that Blake has a past that has been forcibly hidden from him.
One of the remarkable aspects of the story of Blake is that it is essentially half-told when we join it (indeed we probably only ever see about twenty per cent of his career as a resistance fighter). He learns that he was a major political figure, leader of a prominent opposition group, four years before, but he has no memory of anything he did at that time, thus making his perspective of the events much the same as that of the audience.
It turns out that the Federation captured Blake just as he and Foster were making progress, thanks to treachery within the ranks of the resistance. (This resistance is retconned as being called “The Freedom Party” in the second season episode Voice From The Past.)
The Administration’s whole handling of Blake four years ago is shown to be a most shrewd series of political manouevres. Realising that killing him would martyr him and thus inspire dozens – perhaps hundreds – to rise up in his place, they decided to use him to destroy the credibility of the rebellion. So they performed surgery on his mind, altering his personality and erasing his ideology, replacing it with overtures of loyalty to the Terran Administration. The show-trial of Blake and the public retraction of his beliefs are reminiscent of the humiliations inflicted on dissidents in the Soviet Union, especially in Josef Stalin’s time, but with one important difference; the confession was actually believed by the man making it, as opposed to it being very obviously beaten out of him. This must have made Blake’s sudden choice to support the Administration far more plausible and effective; nothing is more persuasive than sincerity.
The attempts on Ravella’s part to break through the conditioning are ineffective at first. At their previous meeting, she persuaded Blake to go without food or drink for over a day and a half, in order to allow the suppressant drugs to cycle out of his system, but the only effect that has, at least superficially, is to leave him hungry, thirsty, and rather crabby. But then Blake gets to drink some natural water that is not laced with suppressants, and that may have made a crucial difference. The curiosity of these opening scenes is brought down a little by Ravella asking a mindless, redundant question (not the last of the episode, sadly), quite at odds with the aura of cunning she has built up around her; “Doesn’t it bother you that you spend your life in a state of drug-induced tranquility?” If a man is tranquil, by definition, he is not bothered. Only when he hears the story of what happened four years ago, do dormant memories awaken in his mind, and he starts to break through the memory block.
The other people attending the meeting are described as Outsiders. Given how primitively dressed and unkempt they are, and the fact that they live permanently outside the dome, it seems likely that they are outcasts from society. Indications are that the Federation has aspects of a meritocratic system of order; the more talented and intellectual a civilian is, the more freedom and authority he is given. The less talented he is, the more stringently he is policed. We later see that most of the elite minority in the Administration are not subject to suppressant drugs, suggesting that they are near the peak of the pyramid, so to speak. It makes sense, as the higher up the hierarchy they are, the more the decisions they have to make, and the clearer their heads must therefore be. Lower-graded civilians are kept drugged to help maintain order, although presumably the dosage is reduced at times when labours are required from them. (Note that Blake is subject to suppressant drugs as well. In later episodes he is described as an Alpha grade, meaning he is in the top intellectual bracket, but he has a history of rebellion and so loses the privilege of a clear head.) Meanwhile the Outsiders are viewed as the lowest of the low, probably adjudged too ignorant to have any useful function at all, and not even worth the bother of feeding or sheltering. Naturally enough, given this attitude on the Administration’s part, they are cast out of the city to fend for themselves. The dome dwellers are even forbidden contact with them. Those who avoid starving are ideal recruits for rebellion against the state.
Returning to the issue of Foster, his characterisation may appear inconsistent. Initially, he comes across as a fairly streetwise man of knowledge and great experience, one who has seen a lot of bad things happen – hence he became a resistor in the first place – and who has managed to survive in hiding as a wanted man for over four years. Then when the Federation troopers arrive, he appears to be a little naive. He genuinely shows no suspicion that peaceful surrender is not going to save anyone, even though in later episodes Blake, despite trying to recover from a memory block, is fully aware that mass-slaughter of opposition is a standard Federation practise.
This is suspicious, as we have to wonder how he survived and remained uncaptured after Blake’s arrest despite having so little apparent knowledge of how the Federation conducts itself. How did he manage to avoid capture for so long, especially given how easily, suddenly and quickly he gets caught as soon as Blake resurfaces? I’m certainly not suggesting that Foster is consciously in cahoots with the Federation – we know quite explicitly from this very episode that Dev Tarrant is the double-agent (the betrayal four years ago likely being his work too, strongly implicit in the fact that he and Blake met before) – but there are two explanations that come to mind. (And it is perfectly possible that they are both true.)
The first is that Foster may have been the Ayman al-Zawahiri of the Freedom Party. He was possibly the real brains of the outfit, and might even have been using Blake as a figurehead to draw attention away from himself and to do the real dirty work, in much the same way that Zawahiri is the brains of the (utterly misnamed) al-Qaeda ‘network’, and uses Osama bin-Laden as a front. This Machiavellian approach would fit rather well with Ravella and Richie’s zero-compunction for blackmail, and would also explain Foster’s lack of experience in dealing with Federation troops in person.
The second is more insidious, and perhaps more convincing. The suspicion is that Foster may have been unconsciously in cahoots with the Federation, and that he hadn’t avoided arrest after all. What if Tarrant betrayed Foster as well as Blake four years ago, and they were both brainwashed? Foster could then be programmed to act as a provocateur, a recruiting point for potential rebels to gather around and be drawn out of hiding. Then, when enough were assembled in one place, they could be slaughtered swiftly and silently, offering no resistance, at the puppet leader’s instruction.
Whatever the case, Tarrant is an unscrupulous man of a low order, an agent provocateur in his own right. It also has to be said, however grudgingly, that he is very good at his job.
After witnessing the massacre, Blake returns to the city, clearly shaken, but is then arrested. What he has learned from Foster, and the twin-traumas of what he has witnessed and being arrested have brought the memories of what happened to him four years before back to the surface.
The scene with Blake meeting Dr Havant is again very reminiscent of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Winston Smith’s torture and mental manipulation at the hands of O’Brien. Especially similar are the metaphysical arguments about the conflicting natures of perception and reality. Now it is true that high emotions make perception and memory unreliable, but Havant is essentially arguing that, as Blake has had a shock of some kind – which is undoubtedly true – what he perceives to have happened cannot possibly be real, an attitude that has long been at the heart of totalitarian thought.
Indeed, Havant shows himself to be every bit as cynical and callous as anyone on show. Smiling deviously as he manipulates Blake, then showing complete disregard for the Hippocratic oath as he, almost casually, offers to have Blake infected with an incurable disease, as a solution to the problem of having him eliminated without martyring him. The Chief Justice, Ven Glynd (later retconned ‘Arbiter General’ in Voice From The Past), quite rightly rejects this suggestion; Blake’s apparent ‘natural’ death at exactly the time that dissent is on the increase again would be far too convenient a coincidence for opponents to be fooled, and in any case would still provoke sympathy. The decision to smear his name by accusing him of child-molestation is despicable, but it is also clever, and it must be acknowledged that it is arranged with impressive thoroughness. Many aspects of Federation society are visibly inefficient, but not Security, Law-Enforcement, or political dirty tricks. In keeping with most police states in human history, therefore, especially Marxist states like Stalinist Russia and Communist China, where show-trials of political opposition were always a standard tactic of the ruling elite.
Interestingly, it is not made clear yet what the distinction is between the Administration and the Federation, and at this stage the two terms appear interchangeable. (In subsequent episodes we discover that the Administration is merely the civil wing of Government, policing the day-to-day life of the population, while the Federation is the Empire as a whole, also including its military wing, Space Command, and ruled by a governing body called the High Council.) While the lack of an explanation here is not exactly confusing, if the distinction were made clearer it might help clear up several other issues. For one, why is Blake specified as a symbol of opposition to the Administration, and not to the Federation as a whole? Secondly, apart from the wider public, whom exactly are the Administration trying to keep the stitch-up of Blake hidden from? Very few people at all appear privy to what is really happening, even among those high up in the hierarchy.
Addressing the second question, the main explanation is that support from most in the Federation, even many in privileged positions, is dependent on them not having any remotely accurate perception of what it is they are supporting. Blake’s defence counsel is an example of this. Tel Varon is one of many Federation supporters who are honest and idealistic, highlighted by his shock at the thought of corruption in the Administration, which is naive. It shows that loyalty to the Federation and brutality or cynicism don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. His naivety is made all the more stark when he suggests going to the President with the evidence he has uncovered; he just assumes the President will be on the side of justice, for he believes that the Federation is a force for good, therefore he assumes that only good men can rise to the top, and that corruption will be the exception and not the rule. This illusion of the Federation as the embodiment of all that is good and honest in the human spirit is vital to the stability of any nation, and has been used by Governments since the dawn of civilisation to quell opposition.
But there is the further possibility that political intrigue is at play; the Justice Department may have rivals in other branches of the Federation, especially in Space Command, who might be able to use what is happening to undermine the Administration. So the conspiracy is kept very small and very quiet.
Blake’s trial gives the first mention of the society’s full name, “The Terran Federation”. The general rhetoric in the courtroom suggests that corruption among many on show – if there is any outside the conspirators we know of – is largely unconscious. The aphorism, “May justice prevail”, is a little vainglorious and subjective, and possibly one of those slogans that people use when they are not really thinking at all; in other words a clear example of what life in the Federation is all about.
The conduct of the court appears to be an early example of what today we might call ‘Digital Justice’. Everything is done by computer; the compiled evidence is inputed into the computer, the computer makes the judgement, and the computer decides on sentencing. The people involved appear to have little to do that is not ceremonial. The arbiter’s job seems largely to be one of reading out loud what the computer tells her to say. There are no speeches by the lawyers, there are no witnesses making statements to the court, and by extension there is no cross-examination. This is in fact even more plausible today than when the episode was made; lawyers are fashionably seen as society’s parasites and the chief cause of delayed justice. Therefore it is entirely conceivable that were our society to evolve into a hard-line, conformist police state, intolerant of any form of crime and with no time for the niceties of guilt-or-innocence, it would treat speed-of-conviction as far more important than making sure they got the right man. It therefore follows that the role of lawyers would be by-passed as much as possible.
Blake’s stance in court is frankly a little ridiculous. His position is that as he is not guilty he will offer no defence; presumably then, if he were guilty, he would offer a defence. His posture is therefore a little like that of a man who refuses to make dinner as long as there is a cooker in the kitchen, as though he will only take an interest in a task when the circumstances become impossible, and never mind if his disinterest in menial but necessary tasks causes everyone to starve to death. This could almost be seen as a microcosm of his forthcoming fight against the Federation. The demands of such an undertaking are absolutely enormous, the odds overwhelmingly against him, therefore he tries to do it. (Admittedly, he says his refusal to bother with a defence appears to be for the opposite reasons; he sees no point because the evidence against him has been faked so well that anyone attempting to refute it will have one heck of a job on his hands. But then we have to wonder why Blake even bothered with a not guilty plea.)
When passing sentence, the arbiter announces that the justice computer has taken into account, among other details, Blake’s loyalty to the Federation. This again underlines the subjective truism of the society that the Federation is the embodiment of truth and justice; those who are not loyal to the Federation are, ipso facto, less just than those who are, therefore their punishments should be harsher. So it is that Blake, instead of merely being placed in an institution, is sentenced to deportation to the penal colony of Cygnus Alpha, where his smeared name will slowly be forgotten (and by extension, so will the ideas he stands for, or so the Federation hopes).
The dramatic moment at the end when Blake is sedated and collapses on the floor is punctuated by a slightly unconvincing appearance from Tarrant. What is he doing in the court at all? Why is he allowed free reign in the chamber? And above all, why does he decide to step out of hiding into full view of everyone present, including Blake himself, who isn’t yet unconscious? It just seems like a plot-convenience, a way of having Blake know who his enemy is so that when Varon discovers the set-up, his investigation will have more impetus. However, there may be more to it than that.
My suspicion is that Tarrant wants Blake to be aware of who betrayed him, and that he may have a grudge against the survivors of the Freedom Party. His limp is very pronounced, and his face is somewhat scarred. Where did these injuries come from? As an agent provocateur working for Federation Security, he must rub shoulders with the enemy on a day-to-day basis, and this is bound to get him into the occasional dangerous scrape. Having infiltrated the Freedom Party, what dangers might he have stumbled into? Did his victims become aware of his treachery before they were captured and massacred, and if so, could they have been the ones who inflicted his injuries?
As we know from the later episode, Seek-Locate-Destroy, Blake himself inflicted terrible injuries on Space Commander Travis during that fateful battle (whose details do seem a little different from Blake’s flashbacks here), for which Travis developed an obsessive personal hatred of him. But perhaps Tarrant was present during the battle, or shortly beforehand, and was injured in the fighting. Or maybe he was injured infiltrating another group, and he now has a general grudge against dissidents. Certainly not as strong as Travis’ grudge of course, but either way, his impulse to gloat at the moment of defeat for the rebellion’s greatest figurehead would be strong.
Blake wakes to find himself in a detention cell with a number of other prisoners awaiting deportation with him. This is another of those things that smacks of a slight contrivance, because deportation of prisoners to distant planets must be expensive – Jenna even says so in the next episode – so the journeys cannot be made that frequently, probably only one every couple of months. And it just so happens that one such journey is coming up just as Blake is arrested? (The signs are that the time from Blake’s arrest to the time of his deportation is around a week.)
While in the cell, Blake encounters Vila Restal and Jenna Stannis for the first time. They are both noticeably different here from how they would come across in subsequent episodes; both of them seem somewhat harsher and more sinister. Vila in particular seems very devious and insinuating, even a little ferretty, stealing Blake’s watch and then making a very oily offer of a handshake when he is caught out. Jenna’s hostility, on the other hand, can perhaps be attributed to her putting up a front with strangers.
Feeling uneasy about what Blake has told him, Varon starts digging for evidence of a mis-trial. He and his wife Maja pick up clues in the public records office, having first had to bribe the man on duty. The disinterested, obstructive attitude of the officer is stereotypical behaviour for an unaccountable civil servant jobsworth, but it still has a loud ring of truth; we’ve all encountered people in public service with at least a tinge of his mentality in our time. (And some of us, if we’re being completely honest with ourselves, are prone to that very mentality on occasion, especially during a bad day at the office.)
Varon’s theory of what really happened to the children Blake is accused of molesting is worked out with impressive speed, especially given his exceptional credulousness up to this point, so perhaps there’s another hint of contrivance to it; one of those premature lines that help move the story along nice and quickly. But however conveniently he reaches the conclusion, it is the correct one, and what he describes is truly horrible, because the Administration is prepared, in order to get their man, even to ruin the lives of defenceless children. The crime is not just the act, but the damage the act does psychologically. The memory of what Blake supposedly did is permanently in the minds of the three children; even if it were ever revealed to them that it was all an illusion, the memory is still impossible to erase, at least without more physical surgery. Therefore, whether the crimes really happened is almost immaterial. The damage is real, and the damage is what counts. In any way that matters, they have been molested, it is just that the man who molested them was not Roj Blake, but Dr Havant.
These scenes are very disturbing, some of the most effective in the history of the series in fact, but some of the chill is lost, stemming from neither Michael Halsey nor Pippa Steel being particularly good at doing morbid intrigue. (In truth, their fruity voices would be better-suited to presenting television programmes for the under-5’s, especially Steel’s excited declaration, “Three unidentified admissions on the date the victims weren’t at school!!!!” which is as unnecessary and kiddie-friendly a piece of exposition as you are likely to find.) An important question is what appears to be a careless loose end left by the Administration; why were the amended school and hospital records not deleted as soon as the treatments were administered to the three children?
Varon goes to see Blake and tells him that he now believes his story after all, and that he will get a holding order placed on him. Jenna and Vila overhear the discussion, and their reactions are initially resentful. Hugely optimistically, Vila then becomes hopeful that maybe his own sentence can be suspended with Blake’s help. There is a slight weaselly, ingratiating quality in Vila that is rarely evident in later stories; even if he did have any such influence, which of course he doesn’t, why would Blake wish to put in a good word for someone whose first act on meeting him was to rob him?
Accepting that Varon has raised a reasonable doubt, as a method of avoiding a needless and awkward argument, Glynd bluffs that he will call an investigation into the trial and place a holding order on Blake to postpone his deportation. He then tries a little too hard to convince Varon to go home and get some sleep, knowing that Blake is scheduled to leave before Varon is likely to wake up. But Glynd is also careless in letting slip a mention of the tunnels the massacre took place in without Varon speaking of them first. Could it be that Glynd is testing his protege’s loyalty? That would also explain why the public records were not erased, and why Tarrant made sure that Blake could see him in the courtroom. But it sounds very unlikely, for various reasons.
For one, if Varon’s whole investigation is just a huge set-up, it sounds a ludicrously elaborate and risky way of performing such a test. There really is no way they can control the outcome of it, as he could speak to anyone along the way. There must be safer and less convoluted ways of testing him.
For another, judging by his call to Havant, Glynd is clearly taken by surprise by developments. And it is very unlikely that the call is just for show, as there is no way he can be aware that Varon is eavesdropping outside the door.
Thirdly, why would a test of Varon’s loyalty even be deemed necessary? He has, until this point, been a highly credulous, unquestioning, even naive servant of the state. If his loyalty were wavering in the slightest, would he even risk talking to Glynd about it in the first place?
A bit of chicanery allows Varon and Maja to obtain the clinical records that outline what really happened to the children. There are a couple of more quibbles about this; principally, why does Varon get Maja to ‘announce’ him as Glynd? Glynd didn’t have a secretary announce the previous call a few minutes earlier, so that could have been a give-away. As could the fact that Varon’s voice does not sound that much like Glynd’s, as could the fact that Varon asks the episode’s second really obtuse question;”Are there any clinical records about the matter? Treatment charts, medical notes?” When wouldn’t there be records for major treatment on someone’s brain? Indeed, hospitals keep records of any treatments they administer to any patient, even for just sticking a corn plaster on a graze. It just would not ring true that Glynd, at the head of the whole stitch-up, would ask a question like that, and in the face of all these indicators, it is a little stupid of Dr Havant not to pick up on it. (And even if this whole business is a test of Varon’s loyalty by Glynd, it is clear from the first call that Havant is not in on it.)
That a civilian needs formal permission to go outside, and that Maja has never been beyond the walls, says a lot about how strict the policing of the Federation is. It seems to be a major event even in Varon’s life – from what he says, he appears to have done it once before – and in any case he did not like it, because the outside world is so different from the sort of place he is used to. Interestingly, he, and presumably most of the dome dwellers, have come to view being cooped up in confined spaces as Mankind’s natural state-of-being. An understandable delusion brought on by social conditions, but there really is something horribly poignant about it.
Having said that, any society looking at any other society will find something sooner or later that leads it to say “But that’s terrible!” And we should keep in mind that people of the Federation, assuming they could learn very much about our own time, would probably think it sad that we do not view, say, an atmosphere full of foul-smelling traffic fumes as anything remarkable. The Federation may be a bad place, and we should be grateful we do not live in it, but the comparison should not lead us into mistakenly idealising our own time.
Blake and the other prisoners are finally marched onto the prison ship that will ferry them to Cygnus Alpha. The ship is called the London, a fitting name, as the ship will be the limit of the prisoners’ world for the next eight months, making it another claustrophobic dome city in space. There is yet another moment of dim-witted dialogue as the prisoners are shepherded from cell to ship – not a redundant question this time, but a redundant command – when the guard commander barks, “Single file! With one behind the other.” As opposed to single file with people walking in pairs, presumably?
All this time, Blake despairs of Varon being able to get the holding order. He realises that time is almost up. Jenna tries to reassure him that there is still time, but she probably knows that she is just making soothing noises. In fact, this shows that her attitude to Blake has changed since she listened in on the earlier discussion with Varon, and that underneath the cynical, abrasive exterior, she is a lot more cheerful and broad-minded. She has grown to respect Blake, even to like him, and of course these feelings will deepen in the months to come. For his part, Blake is quickly growing fond of her too, and part of him would probably regret it if the holding order came through, as he would never get to see her again. But at this point, he is so lost in his worries that he misses the order to buckle his seat harness. This leads to him being placed in confinement; he is restrained in his seat in a far stronger harness made of metal struts. It is so tight that it prevents him even from moving his arms.
In truth, looking at the treatment the guards on the London dish out, it has to be said that the prisoners are treated far more lightly than one might expect (certainly compared with what will happen in the next episode). The confinement penalty is not pleasant on the joints, for sure, but it is nothing terribly harsh, and is imposed for failing to follow an instruction that is meant to protect the prisoner from injury in any case. In other words, the prisoners are for the most part treated like the naughty children of exasperated parents.
Eventually, the ship takes off, with Blake still aboard. He stares over his shoulder through the viewport with a desolate expression on his face as he accepts that it is too late; Varon has failed. He does not realise – although it seems likely that he can guess – that this is because Varon and Maja have been murdered by Tarrant while hunting outside the city for more of the vindicating evidence they seek.
As Blake looks back at the sphere of the Earth retreating into the distance behind him, the Guard Commander chooses this moment to taunt him. “Take a long look. That’s the last you’ll ever see of it.”
To this, Blake responds with a declaration that sums up the man that he once was, and that he has found the way back to being again. “No, I’m coming back.” The remark is full of zeal, fire and determination, all of a type that will become very familiar over the next couple of years. It is totally irrational, as the chances of him even finding a way off Cygnus Alpha when he gets there are so remote as to be negligible, but it is also so self-assured, and so outraged by the injustice of his plight, that he has no doubt whatsoever that he is telling the truth. Neither does the audience. And that, of course, is because it is the truth.
Indeed, The Way Back is a story about the truth being allowed to live on in a tiny number of people against overwhelming odds. It is a stunningly dark and chilling vision of how far a state might be prepared to go to drown a truth it finds inconvenient in lies. Some minor plot-holes and a few scrappy bits of dialogue prevent it from being the stand-out episode of Blake’s 7, and the absence of key characters such as Kerr Avon and Servalan mean it lacks the personal charisma that would later emerge. It equally lacks some of the witty interplay that would become such a strength of the series.
But in terms of setting the dystopian scene and tone for the running storyline, it does a profound job. The Federation is established as a ruthless, paranoid, devious, manipulative and brutal machine; there are many, many aspects of it that are foreshadowed by the world we live in today, which makes it all the more disturbing. Watching it, it is impossible not to ask, “Is that where we’re heading?” Probably not anymore, not exactly – the world we are in is too skeptical of big Government and probably too corporate – but we could well be heading somewhere similar; a world of plutocratic oligarchy, rather than bureaucratic oligarchy. But much of it would be the same as we see here.
It also gives a very strong introduction to the central character of the series. It establishes him as a damaged and vulnerable man, invoking enormous sympathy from the audience. But it also shows him having the great strength of will and character needed to find himself, making him a charismatic man and potential hero-figure for the future as well.
Not quite the greatest episode of Blake’s 7, but one of the greatest pilot episodes in the history of television, and a truly remarkable and gripping way for the series to begin.
review by Martin Odoni.
Oh dear lord…
You know, this looked a fairly promising story, even though it was yet another adherence-to-formula. A murder mystery with Agatha Christie as a guest star sounds like quite a neat idea, if a little too similar to The Unquiet Dead and The Shakespeare Code, but the story in practise gets lost in a tidal wave of sloppy logic, plotting short cuts, shallow characterisation, recycled jokes, Brian Blessed-style bellowing, and self-conscious smugness. The result is one of the most tiresome episodes since the revival, too tiresome for me to review it properly.
Recycled jokes include, among others…
The companion trying to talk to strangers in their own accent, and the Doctor telling her, “No, don’t do that.”
The Doctor and Donna making a big deal about not being married.
The Doctor and companion feed plot ideas to a future titan of literature.
The Doctor being poisoned in some way and having to ‘expel’ the carcinogens by behaving like a buffoon.
On the issue of buffoonery, David Tennant puts on probably his most awful display of over-the-top yelling yet, a truly vacuous performance, and very much in keeping with the general ‘Mel Brooks’ attitude of the episode i.e. the way to be funny and exciting is to have people shouting at the top of their lungs a lot. (This attitude also probably sums up why Catherine Tate is in the series at all; her performance was hideous yet again, but even she was overshadowed by Tennant.)
Murray Gold’s music was more awful than ever; it’s a sure sign of how bad it was that the regulars were frequently yelling at the tops of their lungs and were still getting drowned out.
The idea of knowingly having an affair with a gigantic alien insect is utterly ridiculous, and the explanation for it – “It just didn’t matter to me” – is the laziest bit of non-characterisation I’ve ever seen in Dr Who, an even worse sidestep round a moral/psychological issue than Ursula claiming that it was all right being imprisoned in a paving slab because it’s a “peaceful feeling”. It’s a peaceful feeling being a slab of concrete because the writer says it’s a peaceful feeling. And sleeping with a bug didn’t matter to her Ladyship because the writer says it didn’t matter to her.
Every time the story shows any sign of progressing sensibly or in an engaging way, it seems to lose heart and go for a lazy laugh instead. But it also shows little faith in that either, and so the attempts at laughs usually degenerate into a spell of shouting. It makes for a tedious, puerile experience, one that insults the intelligence of the viewer.
I will speak up for the portrayal of the wasp, which is probably the best CGI the series has ever produced, but that’s never going to be enough to carry the episode, especially as it only appears for about three minutes of airtime. Still it’s a redeeming feature.
Other than that, the episode is a terrible waste of a good concept and an excellent guest cast. It’s certainly the most feeble episode of the season so far, and indeed, it’s one of the worst episodes I’ve ever seen, on the same dismal level as Last Of The Time Lords (albeit for different reasons). I can’t really be bothered analysing it in any more detail than this.
2/10. Please, Steven Moffat, come and rescue us!
May 16, 2008
review by Martin Odoni of Season 2, Episode 6
Knowing her position may be in danger over the Blake affair, Servalan scapegoats Travis once more, and tries to have him eliminated before he can speak out against her by putting him on trial for mass murder. Elsewhere, distraught over the death of Gan, Blake teleports alone to an uninhabited planet to mull over his struggle against the Federation. While there, Blake encounters a creature called Zil, who warns that he will be absorbed by “the Host” if he doesn’t keep moving. On Liberator, Orac determines that the entire planet is a living entity which feeds on its own lifeforms, and there is a race to rescue Blake from the surface. Afterwards, Blake, having rediscovered his will to fight on, launches a bold assault against Space Command Headquarters, where Travis’ trial is nearing its end. During the confusion, Travis, who has been found guilty and sentenced to death, forces Servalan to help him escape.
The second season of Blake’s 7 is probably the most varied in terms of quality. There are some episodes that truly scrape the bottom of the barrel of awfulness, worst of the worst being probably Hostage. There are many that are good in concept but get lost somewhere in development, such as Pressure Point and Voice From The Past (an episode that I’ve always felt is unfairly maligned, but I acknowledge it has a lot of problems with it). There are some that just don’t quite get into gear, like Horizon and the utterly superfluous story, The Keeper.
But there are one or two gems in the mix. Shadow is a marvellous dark allegory about the relationship between the CIA and the Mafia, only slightly brought down by the rather ‘tacked-on’ feel of the secondary plot involving Cally and Orac, and Killer is a very grim, effective tale about germ-warfare.
But the best episode of the season for me, indeed one of the best episodes of any season, is Trial, a clever tale comparing two arch-enemies facing up to the worst failures of their respective careers, and analysing the burden of guilt. It also has an interesting theme running through it, that of the effect of isolation.
The two enemies are of course Roj Blake himself, and his long-time nemesis, Federation Space Commander Travis. They are both in disgrace in the eyes of their fellows; Travis, ostensibly because of a brutal massacre of over a thousand innocent civilians he ordered three years before, but really because Supreme Commander Servalan has realised that he is becoming a liability and wants him eliminated before his failures to capture Blake start to reflect badly on her; Blake because his recent attempt to attack Control on Earth proved to be a disaster, one that cost the life of fellow Liberator crew-member, Olag Gan.
Of the rest of the crew, only Avon appears to be making any insinuating or resentful noises about Gan’s fate, and even these seem more like opportunistic moves to undermine Blake’s authority, than him being personally affected by what happened. Nonetheless, there is a very noticeable and ominous distance between Blake and the rest of the crew, whose confidence in him has clearly been shaken.
Their reason for this is not just Blake’s poor judgement in deciding to continue with the attack when it was clear that things were going wrong – being a fanatic he let blind faith guide him at every major obstacle – but also his dishonest handling of the crew themselves.
Before the attack, he broke a promise not to take the Liberator into Earth orbit. Then, he promised that he would call the attack off if, at any stage, it looked like there was less than an even chance of success. This was clearly the case after Kasabi’s group were slaughtered, just as Avon, Vila and particularly Gan complained, but instead, Blake pressed on, dragging them further and further into danger, only to discover at the end that it was all an elaborate set-up by the Federation, and that the Control centre wasn’t there at all. As the crew fought their way out, Gan was killed, and the only member of the crew whose life hadn’t been endangered by Blake’s recklessness was Cally.
Given that I tend to find Space Commander Travis a rather dreary villain, it is ironic that two episodes that closely analyse his relationship with Blake – this and Duel – are among my favourites. Perhaps it’s because they are both rare examples of the series doing something really interesting with him and elevating him above the level of a comic book bad guy. In fact, this is undoubtedly the best episode of all purely from a Travis standpoint.
As the story opens, Travis is in custody at Space Command Headquarters, awaiting his trial for a massacre on the planet Zircaster, which appears to have happened shortly before Servalan became Supreme Commander. It seems likely that she chose this particular crime to try him for – as opposed to the more recent massacre on Oros – because it happened before her time and so will not reflect badly on her. When Travis enters the court, he displays immense discipline while on his feet and hearing the charges read out to him, then when he sits he slouches low in his seat and almost appears not to be listening. Throughout most of the hearing, he consistently betrays no hint of emotion save the enigmatic makings of a knowing smile. This is because he clearly knows that the proceedings have been rigged almost as thoroughly as Blake’s trial in The Way Back, the only real difference being that in this case, the crime he committed was quite genuine. His defending counsel, Space Major Thania, is of course working for Servalan, and plans to conduct his defence in a way that is at best futile, and often deliberately self-defeating. To this end, she demands that the names of the victims of the massacre be listed, one-by-one, along with the causes of death in each case. Her pretext for this is that she might choose to challenge individual cases. (Whether she ever does make any such challenges is never made clear, but it seems unlikely that they would have made any positive difference if she had.) The real reason is that she knows the gory details of the massacre will sway the judges to give the maximum penalty.
This scene on its own highlights a number of interesting factors. Firstly, the political shenanigans of Space Command under Servalan’s stewardship are shown to be at least as devious as those of the High Council – represented as in Seek-Locate-Destroy by Secretary Rontane and Senator Bercol, neither of whom are obviously any match for Servalan – while the more experienced officers in Space Command, such as Par, appear very conscious of their practical superiority over the Council. The Council is spoken of as a largely symbolic authority in the Galaxy, nothing more than a procedural inconvenience to the armed forces.
Secondly, by virtue of being Supreme Commander, Servalan may in fact be the most vulnerable figure in Space Command, despite being in charge. She is the one always in the High Council’s sight, and the only one who has to answer to it directly. Thus every major decision she makes could come back to haunt her. The decision in this case was appointing Travis to the task of hunting Blake in the first place; her assumption was that his personal vendetta against Blake and record of thorough ruthlessness would make him the ideal choice. Instead, his personal feelings have frequently hindered his performance (especially since the ‘retraining therapy’ he underwent after the Orac affair), and Servalan has now had to resort to an elaborate mockery of a trial to get rid of him without her decision to appoint him being used against her by her enemies in the Council.
Thirdly, Travis, be he madman or genius – or both – is shown to be very astute when it comes to judging the people around him. For all of his discipline and decorum, he is visibly contemptuous of the proceedings, which he sees for what they are. He knows exactly what Servalan is up to, and that Thania is her lackey, but he is also well aware that in his position there is little he can do about it. So he bides his time, choosing to wait until late in the trial to spring a surprise, when he knows it will be too late for Servalan or Thania to affect the outcome of what he says.
Perhaps most of all, by underlining the quiet struggles between the different factions it is made up of (and even more maybe, the struggles within those factions), it demonstrates how ultimately the Federation will always be its own greatest enemy, far more so than Blake could ever hope to be.
While all this is happening, on Liberator Blake is consumed by guilt over his mishandling of the raid on Control. Indeed he is so cut up that, whether fair or not, Avon’s needling of him is completely unnecessary; no one could beat Blake up about it more harshly than Blake himself is doing. He decides to abandon Liberator and teleport down to the surface of a wilderness planet, without giving any real explanation to the rest of the crew, who are startled. For all the arguments that rage amongst aficionados of the series over Avon’s true nature, for me, this is a defining moment, for he loudly assumes that Blake is running out on them, and concocts a wildly implausible theory that there is a ship hidden on the surface waiting to whisk their vanished leader away. The reasons why this suggestion is absurd are too numerous and obvious to list, and it confirms that Avon is cynically taking advantage of Gan’s death to undermine Blake and increase his own chances of seizing command. He really is every bit as self-serving and heartless as he appears.
When the crew stumble on the message Blake has left for them, explaining that he needs some time alone to re-think his goals, Avon sneers at his self-pity. His words are harsh and, again, transparently self-serving. But they are still correct. Blake was the one who brought this crew together, and Blake was the one who more or less browbeat them into becoming freedom fighters (and into accepting him as their commander). More pertinently, Blake was the one who engineered the disaster on Earth, and now, rather than face his responsibilities and make amends, he is leaving everyone in the lurch. As is so often the case with Avon, he may be right for purely selfish reasons, but he is right nonetheless.
On the planet’s surface, Blake encounters an odd little creature called Zil, who seems to be trying to pester him by stealing his bracelet and communicator and making him chase her around. There is a passing resemblance, both in terms of appearance and role, to Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, fully a year before that movie was released, in that she is a mischievous little green alien who makes for an eccentric mentor. Zil, it will eventually turn out, is a parasite, and she mistakes Blake for being another of her kind. The planet, meanwhile, is not really a planet, but a gigantic single organism.
Zil is all the more interesting given she appears to be the antithesis of the friend Blake has so recently lost. Gan was slow, deep-voiced, burly, relaxed to the point of being dozy, and once complained that he didn’t like being on his own. Zil is small, lithe, shrill, wiry, nervous, can never sit still for long, and is obsessed with never being in a group. On her world there is vulnerability in numbers.
Back at Space Command Headquarters, Travis is equally vulnerable, but for the opposite reason – he is alone; his trial is adjourned overnight, at which point it appears that no one is truly on his side. His refusal to speak, or react, or possibly even to listen, during the trial is unnerving Servalan, who is anxious to know exactly what he’s planning. Thania therefore sends Par to his detention cell, carrying a bottle of something rather strong, in the hope that inebriation will loosen Travis’ tongue a little. Par, perhaps the only fairly honest person on show, chooses to co-operate, not to help Thania but out of a kind of sympathy for Travis. Even though he was not a sentimental Commander in the slightest, he at least looked after his men, not spending the lives of his charges recklessly, something Par appreciated.
There is perhaps a twinge of guilt in Par’s decision as well. After all, while it was Travis who gave the order, it was Par and the other troops under Travis’ command who carried out the slaughter on Zircaster. Travis is the only one who is about to face retribution for it, and so, in a non-deliberate sense, he is the troopers’ scapegoat. While Par is able to rationalise it to others when they ask – “He gave the order, we just did the shooting” is an all-too-familiar way of evading responsibility for an atrocity – he is perhaps not as settled in his mind about what happened. At the beginning of the story, when a junior officer called Lye asked him how much action he’d seen, Par’s answer was made up of two words. The first sounded resigned, disillusioned, the second sounded a little uneasy. “Enough… More.”
Although there is clearly enormous respect between Travis and Par, there is very little in the way of actual affection or trust, and Travis is very suspicious of Par’s intentions. He only accepts the drink once Par has tasted it for him, to make sure it isn’t drugged or poisoned in some way. It’s noticeable that, even under these circumstances, the relationship is still very much one of Commander and Trooper, and that Travis remains entirely a product of the army that has forsaken him. When Par explains that he and a friend have created a temporary ‘fault’ on surveillance, Travis sharply commands him to stand to attention – the order is obeyed instantly, without question or hesitation – and announces that Par and his friend will be placed on report. And of course, Travis never thanks Par for the gift, merely informs him curtly that he can go. The only possible sign of personal regard between them follows, when Par politely asks whether Travis really is going to report him, and Travis, almost light-heartedly, suggests that no one would believe it even if he did. (Given Federation paranoia and general attitude to military discipline, this is almost certainly untrue.) The expression on Travis’ face could almost be one of an amused big brother fondly reproaching a wayward younger sibling.
Feeling any emotion other than hatred toward an individual is rare for Travis, and it probably only happens now because of his isolation. For this brief spell, Travis is not alone, and a man who has spent his life without friends is shown to have comrades who feel a form of loyalty to him, and although it’s shown that it doesn’t mean a great deal to him – he’s just not the type – it does mean something. Long spells of being alone perhaps make him appreciate human company somewhat (as in Duel when he tried to strike up a conversation with Keera) even if he is powerless to understand that feeling.
The drink by contrast has no effect on him bar making him more hostile. He dismisses Thania when she visits him, making it clear to her that he saw right through her none-too-subtle attempt to get him talking. As Servalan said earlier, “He’s probably mad, but he certainly isn’t a fool.” And he proves it when his trial resumes. Cleverly he refuses to speak up until Thania is about to open his defence. Then he springs to his feet and refuses to let her speak any further. The timing of this move is brilliant, as it deprives Thania of an effective platform at exactly the time she was most counting on it, and at a time when it is too late in the trial for her to do anything further to affect the outcome. Politically, Travis is more astute than he might appear.
Chillingly, Travis gives his own statement of defence, and in essence it is much the same as Par’s earlier claim of “only obeying orders”. Travis contends that his decision on Zircaster was an instinctive reaction in the heat of battle, that when a military officer has no time to think his actions will be the result of his instincts, and his instincts will be the result of how he has been trained. His implication is therefore that the order he gave on Zircaster was not his fault, but the fault of the army that trained him, and so if he is to be convicted of the crime, so must the entire officer corps of Space Command. The ones who fired the weapons have passed the buck upwards, and now the man who gave the orders is trying to do the same.
The rejection of Travis’ argument is inevitable, because the arbiters are themselves officers within Space Command, and so would face personal implication in the crime if they upheld it. Even though the rejection is for personal reasons, it is still surely correct. The logic, carried to its fullest extent, dictates that any properly-trained officer in the same circumstances would have done the same as Travis. It’s theoretical of course, and so it’s not easy for us to measure such a supposition, but there does seem to be an implied pattern of brutality in Travis’ past that isn’t noticeable with his colleagues; in Seek-Locate-Destroy, Travis’ appointment to the task of capturing Blake caused real alarm among both politicians and Space Command because of the Oros massacre, which does rather make his record sound like it stands out from those of other officers. We don’t know if other Commanders ever were in the same circumstances, or what they did if they were (we’re not even sure exactly what these circumstances were), but there is certainly no indication that this degree of brutality is rife in Space Command (even the massacre in The Way Back was ordered by Federation Security, not Space Command, and in any case was aimed at rebels rather than innocents), and seeing Travis has at least two examples of it on his record, it’s also difficult to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Meanwhile, Blake learns what Zil really is and realises that she hasn’t been trying to pester him after all, but to take care of what she thinks of as a child, and it appears that she may well have done this for genuine hatchlings in the past. Thus, her role in the story arguably parallels Blake’s own in the series as a whole; taking responsibility for the masses despite not having any duty to, battling a far larger and more powerful entity for the freedom and protection of the downtrodden. Fighting for the common good. As a freedom fighter he treats the helpless, in a sense, like they are his own children. Blake sees how Zil fights against the impossible odds to survive, and endangers herself to help those more vulnerable than her; in other words, taking the responsibility that Blake is considering rejecting. Blake takes heart from Zil’s example, even as she is absorbed by the planet. Along with renewed determination, he also feels anger seeing Zil’s grisly fate. Being absorbed into something large and monstrous perhaps reminds him of the way his memory was adjusted by the Federation to make him conform – in effect, to absorb him into itself.
When Zil said, “Resist the host, or your one-ness shall be absorbed,” she was unknowingly summing up the eternal struggle between the will of society and the right of the individual. That the individual is represented by a flea is perhaps symbolic of the selfish Thatcherite attitude that was coming to the fore in Britain at the time the episode was made i.e. “there is no such thing as society,” and the damage often done by unbridled self-interest. But that the state is portrayed by such a vast colossus as a planet that will crush the parasites and swallow them whole is symbolic of society’s ravenous way of swallowing up the individuality of masses of people, regardless of whether they do harm or not.
Caught up in a powerful earthquake, Blake is teleported back to the Liberator just in time. The crew – even Avon – have decided they won’t abandon him. Blake acknowledges his recklessness, that he had made the mistake of believing his own propaganda. But he is also determined to restore it. To this end he decides that Liberator should return to Sol and launch a hit-and-run attack on Space Command Headquarters itself. Blake’s trial of himself is over, and he has rejected isolation and gone back to the mini-community of the Liberator, which, just like Zil, will always keep moving to avoid being absorbed by the Federation. Blake will remain an individual of course, as he can’t resist the Federation without that, but he won’t
try to fight alone.
As his trial reaches its end, Travis is found guilty and sentenced to death, to Servalan’s relief. Travis is offered a chance to make a final statement to the court, which contrasts noticeably with what happened at the trial in The Way Back, when Blake was sedated when he tried to make a statement. Presumably because Travis isn’t viewed as a political criminal, and he isn’t being tried in a civil court, there is less objection to him speaking out.
Travis’ statement is nothing philosophical, or even very enlightening come to that. “The Federation is run by hypocrites and supported by fools.” Given how long he has been one of its most fervent supporters, he may be half-consciously insulting himself. Equally, given the way he supported Servalan even after she betrayed Maryatt in Deliverance – a betrayal similar in many ways to the one he is fighting against now – he is being a hypocrite about being a hypocrite. (Although he isn’t far wrong. It is hypocritical to distinguish between massacres of innocents and massacres of peaceful protesters, in the way that is happening here. Hence Travis is tried for the massacre of innocents on Zircaster, but, for instance, Dev Tarrant is not tried for massacring Outsiders on Earth).
Then comes the attack. Space Command is struck by a neutron blast from the Liberator, and its hull is punctured. One of the rooms affected is the courtroom itself. Travis is the only one in the room who manages to get out before the air escapes; the emergency doors seal shut behind him to make sure the rest of the station is not affected, but also cutting off anyone else’s escape. The station is in shock because of the attack, and so hardly anyone is in a position to confront Travis. Ironically, the only one who comes close to stopping him is Par. In a stand-off, guns pointed at each other, neither can bring themselves to open fire. Travis eventually knocks Par unconscious with the butt of his rifle and makes good his escape, but pauses to mention with unmistakable admiration that not all in the Federation are hypocrites.
This is fair. Par is possibly the only one on show who is prepared to admit what the Federation really is. He makes no bones about the corruption of Space Command, and he is rightly skeptical about attempts to dignify the corruption with ceremony and procedure. While he has no inclination to work against the system in any way – he speaks of the importance of Space Command’s rules and even if those rules are uneven, they are still all that matters – at least he can acknowledge how it all really works. Even if his shrug-of-the-shoulders attitude is not to his credit, he isn’t a hypocrite about it. He is perhaps a little dishonest about the repercussions – he won’t accept any degree of responsibility for the massacre – but he doesn’t turn on Travis, or betray him, or lie to him, or even avoid him. He is something of a quietist, which is cousin to being a coward, but he is not a hypocrite.
Irony of ironies, something Chris Boucher was always very good at, Travis was about to die, but Blake’s intervention has saved his arch-enemy’s life. Also ironically, the only one in the court-room who was facing death is the only one to leave it alive. Travis’ trial has largely taken him in the opposite direction from Blake’s; he was once just an instrument of an enormous Federation, but, bar his tiny crew of mutoids – which are really just drones anyway and so can hardly count – he is now alone. He will have to resist the Federation as Blake does, but he will have to do so in isolation. This isolation will make him plunge into the depths of madness. Rontane was wrong to refer to him as a psychotic, but he is a psychopath, and his condition will get a great deal worse as he fights for his life.
Trial convincingly shows remarkable parallel development for two of the most prominent characters in the series in very short order, and establishes new impetus for the second half of season two.
There are a couple of flaws in the story. In fairness, the more serious one is the fault of the generally botched ending to Pressure Point, rather than of Trial itself. Servalan’s decision to ‘legalise’ Travis’ murder seems needlessly complicated; given what happened during Blake’s attack on Control, it should have been perfectly possible to get rid of Travis – for instance, by commanding the mutoids to strangle him – in the underground bunker, out of everyone else’s sight. Any suspicion over the death could have been easily allayed by blaming it on the Liberator crew.
Less serious, but still spoiling the effect of Blake’s revival-of-spirit somewhat, is that when he retrieves his bracelet, it doesn’t occur to him simply to contact the ship and tell them to teleport him up, earning him a stupid point that really shouldn’t have a place in this story.
But these are minor quibbles, and do not detract from the episode in any real way. Sub-textual and allegorical, Trial is a very skilfully-constructed storyline, and an engrossing comparison of two mortal enemies in the darkest moments of their lives. It is the high point of season two beyond doubt.
May 16, 2008
review by Martin Odoni of season 1, episode 8
Space Commander Travis and his three Federation pursuit ships have tracked the Liberator to an uncharted planet, where Blake, Jenna and Gan are exploring the ruined surface. On realising that the Federation ships are closing in, they hurriedly return to the Liberator to fend off the attack.
With the Liberator low on energy reserves, Blake decides not to run but face his enemy head-on. Suddenly a being with psionic powers on the planet’s surface, Sinofar the Guardian, who is intolerant of warfare, cripples the two ships and brings Blake and Jenna back to the planet where they are forced to battle Travis and his mutoid co-pilot to the death. Sinofar wants them to learn the inner meaning of killing. Eventually, after hours of the two enemies hunting each other, it is Blake who wins the duel, but he refuses to apply the killing blow, because, in his own words, he “would have enjoyed it.”
This is an episode whose esteem forever elevates in my thoughts. Its long-running status as a mere rip-off of Arena from Star Trek is unfair, as although the scenarios are very similar, there is infinitely more depth in the Blake’s 7 story. (And in truth, the duel-to-the-death ordained by a higher power is a staple of science-fiction far beyond either series.)
Ten years ago I got the episode on video and saw it for the first time since not long after it was first broadcast – which effectively meant I was seeing it for the first time again, so to speak – and while I was entertained, I wasn’t all that impressed. With my post-Star Wars Special Edition mind, I was put off by the lack of effects in the early space battle, and I felt the engineered showdown between Travis and Blake was a bit linear, while Giroc and Sinofar seemed like thoroughly generic sorcery-babbling mystics.
I watched it a few more times in the months that followed and slowly began to appreciate it better. I realised that the limited effects in the space battle were arguably a benefit; with events shown almost entirely from the perspective of the two flight decks, it successfully emphasised the claustrophobia of the Liberator’s predicament, backed up against the atmosphere of a planet, and hemmed in by three Federation pursuit ships. I also had the dubious benefit of seeing the awful slow fighting in some other episodes and realised that the showdown in Duel gave a rare example of a fairly convincing fight scene. Much of the production has a real style to it, at least by 70’s BBC standards.
Since then, repeated viewings have led me to regard this, not just as badly under-appreciated, but as one of my five or six favourite episodes – second in season one only to The Way Back – because it has a lot to say about human psychology, and in particular about the futility of trying to coerce people into becoming what they are not. And this analysis leads me to an interesting conclusion, namely that in his long dispute with Avon over whether resistance to the Federation was just a futile gesture, Blake was right all along.
A major theme running through the story is people being completely non-plussed when others attempt to make them learn something about themselves that they have no inclination to learn. The most obvious and explicit example of this is the one that sets up the duel itself. Giroc and Sinofar, observing the space battle raging above their planet, choose to intervene and to teach the two opposing commanders, Blake and Travis, a lesson in the true enormity of killing, by effectively forcing them to try and kill each other with their bare hands.
In the event, their lesson proves to be a total failure, and even a waste of time. This is because Blake clearly doesn’t need their lesson, while Travis, equally clearly, is incapable of understanding it. This does suggest that the Keeper and Guardian aren’t as wise as they think they are. It seems unlikely, given Travis’ background and animalistic bearing, that killing a man with his bare hands is anything very new to him, and it’s perhaps odd that they assumed it would be.
What’s noticeable however, is that this animalistic quality is certainly not confined to Travis. Ironically, one of the self-appointed teachers, Giroc, played with a perpetual and probably-deliberate drool by Patsy Smart, appears not merely to share Travis’ aggression, but also to revel in it, displaying almost a sexual thrill when she sees the ‘primitive’ instincts on display. Travis is the animal in his aggression, but machine-like in that he applies his aggression as a tool. Giroc on the other hand is animal all the way, taking irresponsible pleasure in violence. At various points in the story, Sinofar, in a long-suffering tone, expresses despair and anger at Giroc’s habit of behaving in a manner that encourages bloodshed, especially when she interferes in the opening moments of the duel to put Blake at an immediate and unfair disadvantage. It is clear that Giroc, not Blake, is the second person on show who needs Sinofar’s lesson, and it’s also clear that Sinofar has failed in various attempts to teach it to her. Further, at the beginning of the story, Giroc laments that she never wished to be the Keeper. Being made one against her will has been no more successful in making her responsible than Sinofar’s lessons have been. Sinofar’s track-record as a teacher is therefore poor, and foreshadows her failure with Travis.
A later scene sees Travis and one of his mutoids, Keera, sat in a tree, waiting for night to pass. A conversation between them shows that he is not as divorced from sexual awareness as he is often painted, but again demonstrates the futility of trying to coerce someone into being what they are not. His wish, probably brought on by the tension of knowing his life could be in danger, is to coerce an emotional response from Keera by discussing her past life before she was modified. When he realises that she can’t oblige, he becomes exasperated and even annoyed.
The irony is that at the end of the story, when he fails – arguably refuses – to learn Sinofar’s lesson, he doesn’t notice that her annoyance with him and with Giroc almost exactly mirrors his own with Keera. He described their lesson as ‘pathetic’ early on, and in a sense he was shown to be right, but it was no more pathetic than his own attempt at educating the mutoid. Keera was resistant to what Travis was telling her, and Travis was equally resistant to what Sinofar was telling him.
It should be noted that the parallel works because the mutoid is to Travis what Travis is to Sinofar; far more limited and mechanical in nature. Travis has been so heavily conditioned and indoctrinated by his military background that any worldview from outside that background is incomprehensible to him, and even repels him. In turn, the mutoid’s brain has been physically-altered, to the point where emotion ceases to have any meaning for it, and so it can’t understand or respond to any appeal to sentiment, even the very limited aspect that passes for sentiment in Travis’ character.
While all this is going on, Vila and Gan try to appeal to Avon not to leave the flight deck when he declares his intention to get some sleep. Their appeals are more scornful than sentimental, implying that Avon doesn’t care about anyone except himself. Avon’s response is equally withering, but also cannier. “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.” The point he makes is a good one, but the wording of it is brilliantly ambiguous. He could be insulting Vila and Gan by saying that their gesture of staying awake all night to watch nothing happening is utterly naive and counter-productive. Or he could be making a more general point about the ridiculous gestures people in a powerless position will make when friends are in danger. Or he could be protesting that in fact he does care and that the accusations they are aiming at him are unfair, he just knows he’ll be of no use to Blake or anyone else if he goes without sleep for thirty-odd hours. (If only he’d remembered that in Terminal…) Which one he really means is left open to the audience to judge, but whatever the case, he successfully defuses any danger of further argument without being made to analyse his inner feelings in any real way at all, and the upshot is that another attempt at coercion – Vila and Gan’s desire to make a loner like Avon act the emotional team player – has failed.
In all these cases, coercion of the inner self is attempted, although the motivation and method are different. Sinofar’s motive for coercion is high-mindedness, her method is to engineer scenarios that her subjects are forced to participate in. Travis’ motivation appears to be loneliness, his method is something approaching cajolery. Gan and Vila’s motivation is camaraderie, but their method is scorn, almost emotional blackmail. What the failures all demonstrate is that, while you might be able to coerce someone into performing an act, you can never coerce them into wanting to do it, or even into understanding it.
The implications of this run deep when you look at the Federation as a whole, and it does suggest that Blake’s quest for Galactic freedom needn’t have been as futile as it was made to look in the long run. The Federation, after all, is the ultimate tool of coercion. Its aim is total control, and that can only be achieved by controlling its population, not just bodily, but in heart and mind as well. As later episodes like Horizon demonstrate, in a population of billions, no matter how heavily they are policed, no matter how intense the propaganda they are indoctrinated with, no matter how rigidly society is stratified, there are bound to be some who simply will not conform. And just like Blake, Travis, Giroc, Keera and Avon in Duel, their inner selves cannot really be coerced. The nearest the Federation will ever come to achieving such control is by drugging its population, and this doesn’t so much control hearts and minds as switch them off completely. The Federation’s ultimate objective is therefore impossible.
And this means that Blake’s objective is not. Yes, we know now that he would fail in the end, fail entirely, to destroy the Federation, and for sure the odds were always against him. It is therefore quite fashionable among fans of the series these days to agree with Avon that Blake’s ambitions were always the impossible dream. But what Duel tells us about human nature should remind the cynic in us that his failure was not inevitable after all, and his rebellion was not pointless. Even after the events of Blake, there is still be hope for those who might follow, because it is only total control in its most literal sense that can prevent opposition. And as Duel implies, such control is not possible.
Visually both simple and splendid, Duel is coherent drama, gripping action, rich characterisation, and a psychological masterpiece.
review by Martin Odoni.
You know, I’m probably gonna be appalled at myself in the morning for saying this, wondering what the hell possessed me, but I have to admit it. I really, really liked this episode. It’s not saying much, but it’s easily the best episode so far this year, and although it was laden with cliches, it handled most of them in ways so fresh and imaginative that they seemed like brand new ideas. Oh yes, and Peter Davison’s daughter is absolutely gorgeous, which helped.
In answer to my own question from last week’s trailer, it turns out that no, she isn’t Susan’s mum. Thank goodness. Randomly encountering a powerful and dangerous warrior who turns out to be a family member is a sci-fi cliche as old as the Star Wars films, but making her out to be a brand new entity instead makes a big difference – even if genetic engineering is a pretty tired sci-fi concept in its own right. But I can forgive that, because it’s done differently. And because Georgia Moffett is absolutely gorgeous.
Jenny Raytion (I’m assuming that’s her full name from Donna’s words) is a very likeable character – played by a stunningly gorgeous actress, in case I forgot to mention it – but her name is clearly ripped off from Genny the Genetic Mutant in the Red Dwarf episode Polymorph. And comparisons with Buffy The Vampire Slayer are inevitable, and probably correct. But what the hell. She’s too gorgeous for me to care…
Sorry! Must concentrate!
The war-that-has-continued-for-generations scenario is another idea that’s so overused and so dated it should be embarrassing, Terry Nation-fodder at his recycling worst. But the stunning revelation that the war is also only seven days old casts it in a totally different light. And speaking of stunning, that’s the word I have for Georgia…
The Hath weren’t especially scary or original aliens – aquatic or piscine creatures have been used in stories like The Sea Devils before – while the theme of human enslavement of other species in Planet Of The Ood is picked up on and taken further here, as the humans appear the more bigoted and aggressive of the two species at war. There’s a possible subtext here, quite a rarity in new Who, as the Hath may possibly be another race of slaves, like the Ood before them, and the reason the terraforming device will be so decisive in the war is because the signs are that it will turn the planet into a world more suitable for the Terrans than the Hath. It’s good to be reminded that humans, so quick to insult people who do harm as being ‘like animals’, are the only species on Earth that is capable of genuine evil.
The performances from the regulars were uniformly the best they’ve produced all year – David Tennant finally takes himself off autopilot, and even Catherine Tate was remarkably self-contained and composed as Donna (except when going on about past temping roles on her CV again) – while the guest cast were uniformly mediocre; Nigel Terry, most famous for playing King Arthur in Excalibur in 1981, was predictably silly-sounding and unconvincing as General Cobb (and I’m speaking as a fellow West Countryman there), The exception among the guests is Georgia of course, who was, is, and always will be, the most perfect example of perfection EVER! And I don’t want to hear any arguments, got it? Leave her alone. *Folds arms stubbornly and pouts.*
There were a few cliches and contrivances that didn’t work so well.
Firstly, Jenny seems to be talked into becoming a non-militant rather too quickly and easily. Perhaps I’d have felt more persuaded if she had seen more examples of mercy in action first, rather than just deciding it must be true because the Doctor said so; given how nasty he was generally being to her, I’d have thought she would have been more resistant to his hypocrisy about soldiers.
The great treasure of religious adoration that just happens to be a scientific instrument – usually referred to in mythology as “the boon” – is a very staid plot device. That it was a terraforming unit is nothing terribly original either (although as my brother points out to me, there really was no way it could be anything else, given the situation).
The moment when Jenny snogs the lucky b*stard to steal his gun has been done so many times in the past they might have held up a placard from A Question Of Sport asking “What happens next?” at the start of the scene. I mean, seducing-your way-out-of-prison was even done at least twice in Buck Rogers In The 25th Century, and heaven help any series that feels the need to copy ideas from there.
Martha’s sideline role with the Hath, especially her detour to the planet surface, was almost totally irrelevant to the plot, and feels like enormous padding, like a typical Episode 3 from the old series. And it was sad that there was no follow-up on her Hath companion falling into the tar-pit. Her reunion with the others – she just happened to run into them after getting into the tower – was brought about entirely by coincidence rather than by rescue or ingenuity, underlining how throwaway her role in the story was; there really was no reason for her to be in the episode at all, as any part she had in helping to explore the Hath race could just as easily have been given to Donna.
Speaking of Donna, the “We’re-not-a-couple!!!” gag wasn’t funny to begin with, and has now worn out completely. No more. Please!
The scene when Jenny is gunned down was another excuse for a blubber, but for once the tears didn’t actually flow, while the emotion arose entirely naturally from the storyline. This is a refreshing contrast with the usual tack of putting the story on hold for superfluous emotional exposition. The Doctor’s eventual acceptance of his daughter parallels Pete’s eventual acceptance of Rose in season 2, but seems more convincing, and certainly more relevant. The Doctor pointing the gun at Cobb didn’t fool me for a moment, I knew he wouldn’t do it in cold blood. And thankfully his follow-up speech, rather than spilling over into sanctimony or demagoguery, was the simple, blunt anger of a man who clearly feels too tired and hurt to bother explaining.
The resolution, sadly, just began to veer towards deus ex machina, although without quite being guilty of spilling over the edge completely. A kind of bomb that turns a lifeless planetoid into a teeming paradise is at least as old as the second Star Trek film, probably older, and how it works so fast and on so wide a scale is not really explained. (They might just as well have had Rodimus Prime walk in and unleash the power of the Autobot Matrix Of Leadership.) And the manner in which Jenny was revived was both a little predictable and, not for the first time, distinctly sorcery-like. I’ll be generous and assume that it was exposure to gases from the terraforming device, possibly aided by her Time Lord physiology… or something. It’s reasonable enough to give it the benefit of the doubt anyway. I admit I was delighted to see her revived – oh she’s so gorgeous – and her enthusiasm for adventure certainly resembles the Doctor’s own. Almost certainly she’s going to have her own spin-off series, which isn’t good news really, because you just know it’s going to be a lazy Buffy rip-off for the sake of cashing-in a bit further. But Georgia will be in it, so I’ll watch it!
Overall, a terrifically clever way of breathing new life into a number of tired old plot ideas, as well as breathing desperately-needed life into a season that’s been dying in the fires of its own triteness. For the first time all year, we have a break from formula, even though it did a good job of disguising itself as the absolute opposite. It also underlines the importance of taking the series away from Earth more often, as it allows room for so many different scenarios and ideas.
I give The Doctor’s Daughter a rare mark for me, 8/10.
Oh and in case I haven’t made myself clear; Georgia… yes, definitely.
EDIT: I’ve downgraded it from 9 to 8. Since writing the review, I’ve realised that, while the idea that the entire war happens in a week is very clever, it in fact has almost no bearing on the plot at all. It would’ve been neater and more relevant if one of the original crew of the ship were still alive, and the war had been over a hunt to find him.
review by Martin Odoni.
Okay, fair’s fair, this episode was a reversal of the two-parter trend in new Who where the second part is usually greatly inferior to the first. On this occasion, it is the second part that comes close to rescuing the whole.
I slagged off much of The Sontaran Strategem, and with good reason, but The Poison Sky isn’t just an improvement in the title, it manages to repair a substantial amount of the damage. Some of the ridiculous logic errors from part one have been explained away fairly soundly, and the episode was also paced far better, probably because the zaniness and suffocating sentimentality of part one were both toned down enormously (the clone’s death-scene apart). Meanwhile, there was a marked improvement in some of the performances, especially Freema Agyeman and Catherine Tate. Freema was still a shadow of her old self, and Catherine again never reaches the dizzy heights of average, but even so, they weren’t a pain to listen to this time. And Bernard C was back to his best, head-and-shoulders above all the other regulars on show.
However, let’s not get carried away, because although many of the inner details of the Sontaran plan – such as the nature of the poison gas – now make some kind of sense, the fundamentals still scream, “CONTRIVANCE!!!!!” in a very loud voice. Chiefly, I just don’t get why the Sontarans chose to do things in the order that they did them.
Okay, they decided to infiltrate Earth to turn it into a breeding ground for clones, which I can buy. But why did they start out by doing that, and not leave it until after they had control of the Earth? They knew all too well that the humans would resist them. And the Sontarans, as they demonstrated once more, love a fight to the finish against an enemy that doesn’t just surrender. So, why didn’t they just invade Earth at the outset, destroy the military and exterminate the population, and then begin the work of seeding the planet? I suppose we might be able to infer from the conversation the Doctor had with Staal that the Sontarans were too few in number, thanks to the ravages of the war against the Rutans, to have a real chance to win, but this doesn’t really tally with the way they were speaking previously about how helpless the primitive humans would be.
On the subject of the Sontarans not being quite as dominant as we were led to believe, the UNIT counter-attack with their airborne battle-cruiser rather came out of nowhere. So after all that talk about their primitive, inadequate military resources, the humans just happened to be well-enough armed after all? That’s a bit feeble isn’t it? Bit of a cop-out, in fact?
Rousing echoes of the credibility gaps in Aliens Of London/World War Three, we appear to have a rather bizarre situation where the defence network of an entire alliance of nations can be hacked into on someone’s personal organiser. That it took Donna’s mum to spot the blitheringly obvious way to rescue Wilfrid from his car means I’ve decided to give the Doctor an extra couple of stupid points. A stupid point also goes to Colonel Mace for somehow not noticing the Doctor supposedly contradicting himself with the “Code Red Sontaran!” / “Don’t engage the Sontarans under any circumstances!!!” business.
The scenes with the newsreaders were pretty empty, and that tiresome routine with the camera zooming in really close to a TV screen so you can see the dots the picture is made up of is becoming yet another modern cliché the series has fallen in love with.
Luke Rattigan redeeming himself by sacrificing his life was also a cliché, and predictable, but I didn’t mind it in fact. I guess it’s just after seeing his bug-eyes routine and hearing his, “I’m-cleverer-than-you!” ranting, it was a real pleasure to see him get blown up.
Which leads me onto the latest resolution-approaching-technobabble. Not too bad this time, but the atmospheric converter perhaps needed a smidgeon more explanation to convince me that it isn’t another deus ex get-out. Its effects in particular need a lot more clarifying. For instance, if the device caused a chain reaction that set fire to the gases in the upper atmosphere, why didn’t it set fire to the gases at ground-level? Oh, and er, seeing it didn’t set fire to the gases at ground level… where exactly did they go? How come no people appear to have been burned alive? Why did the Atmos gases get burned up, but the oxygen in the atmosphere, which should also be flammable, appears completely unaffected? Did the fires not destroy the satellites orbiting the Earth, rendering international communication impossible?
Oh, still on the subject of the wildly-unconvincing, why didn’t the Martha clone just shoot the Doctor as soon as she drew the gun on him? Another repetition of the eternal question that has plagued Dr Who for decades. “Doctor, why is it they always capture and imprison you when it’d be easier if they just killed you?” – “I’ll explain later.” It’s happened so many times, old Who and new. Really, the series should have grown out of the ancient “I-will-kill-you- but-only-after-I’ve-pointlessly-explained-my-plans-to-you- and-given-you-enough-time- to-stop-me” routine by now.
Pity Ross died. He was quite a smart, level-headed kid, I really quite liked him.
Couple of minor observations…
The Doctor was having another bad hair day, especially when he and Martha’s clone were in the alley just after the TARDIS disappeared. And did anyone else spot a brief image of Rose on the TARDIS communication screen just before the Doctor spoke to Staal?
Colonel Mace’s motivational speech sounded suspiciously like it was lifted from President Whitmore’s address to the pilots in Independence Day, while the flames filling the sky also looked reminiscent of cities being burned to the ground in that same movie.
Was the mention of the Brigadier anything other than a superfluous, unnatural continuity reference? I mean, when was Lethbridge-Stewart ever any use in these situations? Most of the time he’d come up with the same unimaginative methods the Colonel was resorting to, usually resulting in a blazing row with the Doctor. So why would the Doctor now assume that help from him of all people could save the day? “Are you my Mummy?” could be seen as another continuity shot, but at least it flowed naturally from what was going on, more or less.
Some extra pluses…
The Doctor’s pomposity about guns thankfully didn’t dominate the episode, and I suppose you could even argue that the story demonstrates a sad truth that George Orwell once noted; in many situations, those who are self-righteous about violence can only be so because others are committing violence on their behalf. The portrayal of the Sontarans was again terrific; they’ve got to get Chris Ryan back if they appear in another story in the future. “Have I ever told you how much I hate you?” was a great line for a reunion moment, and again Tate was rather convincing in the scenes with her family. And I think DT was pretty good, didn’t pull the crank too hard in the now Obligatory Doctor-Has-A-Dramatic-Revelation moment – or perhaps I’m just too used to it by now to react violently to it anymore – and over the piece he played the part with a kind of nervous authority that the story probably needed. Still get the feeling he looks a bit disillusioned with the series though.
Aaaaahhhhh, not another “What?! What?! What?!” moment at the end. And is Martha about to become the new incarnation of Tegan, always screaming at the Doctor to try and get her home? As for the trailer… wow! The Doctor’s daughter is hot! Can she really be Susan’s mum?
Overall, it’s still far too silly and the flaws are too fundamental to rescue it. But individually this episode stands up okay; indeed it almost feels like it’s the second half of a better story than the one it’s actually latched onto. I’ll give it a 7/10. Taking the story as a two-parter, however, it’s still less than the sum of its parts because the entire basis of the plot was completely out-of-kilter, and so I can only give it a 5/10.