Duel, by Terry Nation
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.