Trial, by Chris Boucher
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.