I am Milus…and this is my brother…Nutty?
It’s difficult to define a middle-of-the-road episode. What does this actually mean? Is there some kind of rule book that defines what is good and bad, is it about the collective view of fandom, or is it personal taste? Perhaps it is something else entirely. This is one of the reasons I wanted to watch every Blake’s 7 episode out of transmission order. It was my chance to revisit these episodes as new as possible, and as a stand alone experience. This is a chance to try to reinvent those lists we all like to make. The good, the not so good and that area somewhere in the middle.
The lists I tend to think about run something like this.
The ones that are perceived by some to be good. Gambit – Rumours – Avalon – Star One.
The ones that I have a lot of time for. Shadow – Moloch (sorry) – Deathwatch – Voice (yep.)
The ones that are perceived by some to be bad. Animals – Stardrive – Time Squad – Dawn.
The ones that I don’t have time for. Deliverance – Ultraworld – Assassin – Countdown.
Then there are the ‘MOR’ ones. Horizon – Bounty – Games…and Volcano.
Funny one this.
This episode, along with ‘Dawn of the Gods’, were the last two episodes I watched for the first time. The final VHS cassette purchased. They seemed at the time to be one of the more forgotten entries. It felt like less had been said about these two, in comparison to some of the bigger, more notable stories in other series. Perhaps the lack of big set pieces in these episodes relegated them down the pecking order of desirability.
Instead of big set pieces, and dramatic moments that send shockwaves through the overall narrative of Blake, this episode and the one after are both marking time. Although at least this one establishes new concepts and storylines that will be fully exploited later in the series.
We open with a oh so masterfully montaged collection of archive footage, making me expect to see the following words focusing into view.
‘INFERNO’ – ‘By DON HOUGHTON’ – ‘EPISODE 1’
But instead of seeing Jon Pertwee driving ito an industrial complex, we see some kind of archive shot of a craggy terrain that looks like it’s been lifted from a Blue Peter summer expedition to Iceland. Suddenly, before we know it, we’re in Yorkshire.
Now I may be wrong here, but those early scenes of Tarrant and Dayna shouting their way along the rocky landscape, is in fact their first recorded contribution to the show. And I can’t help but watch that scene with that in mind. I try to put myself into the minds of Steven Pacey and Josette Simon as they commit to performing in character, with it being location footage, probably very little rehearsal. Perhaps that’s why they just seem ever so slightly different from the performances we are familiar with. But I must point out that they both turn in excellent portrayals, establishing a chemistry between the two characters that is not based on mutual trust or any kind of deep connection – ala Blake and Jenna, but simply based on the fact that they are both very keen and active characters that work nicely together. It this lack of deep connection between characters is perhaps a good basis for the changed dynamics of the new Liberator crew who are currently less ‘together’ than the series 1 and 2 set up.
As they are today. Shots of Almscliffe Crag and Greenhow Hill, Yorkshire, England.
The early Liberator scenes feel like the third series has started proper, following the two part introduction to the re-formatted series. The action is split between the old and new. Whilst the latest recruits explore the rocky terrain, were are treated to almost a confessional between the three characters who we have followed almost since the beginning. It’s like we are dropping in on their first real chance to have a chat with the old guard. They make sense of Tarrant and Dayna, they discuss Blake (briefly) and fail to mention Jenna. This is a significant point. Forgetting Jenna on screen clearly indicates a shift to a new series of situations, and the mention of Blake here, is the last time he will play a present part in the dialogue (after this he is mentioned retrospectively) until…well you know when… and then again after that. This is perhaps a less successful element of series three. Jenna needed more closure, and something more needed to be made of Blake’s absence, or alternatively, a clear indication that Blake is no more part of the series.
Some might argue that the unknown whereabouts of Blake simply added an extra layer of expectation for the established audience, and this would have worked had the scripts committed to this idea throughout the rest of the series. However, what we are left with is a half hearted indication that the crew will search for Blake, and then the idea is forgotten from this point on. As a result Avon’s character is at its least certain here, as he balances reluctantly finding Blake with his new found leadership. He has never stated that he is interested in any continued fight with the Federation, as Blake was. This is the problem that series 3 will face in it’s early stages. It doesn’t seem to know where it is going (see Dawn of the Gods for more on this) – Servalan seeks the Liberator, only to discard the idea later, dismissing the Liberator crew as merely petty criminals. Tarrant and Dayna (who seem to be taking the lead here) is trying to secure a base for the group, perhaps at odds with the lack of a Federation threat, but again this is something that is dismissed quite quickly into the series. So whose strategy is this? It doesn’t sound like Avon. In fact, as Avon gets kitted up to rescue Tarrant and Dayna, it simply feels like Allan Prior is simply re-writing his earlier episode ‘Horizon’ as Blake and Jenna teleport to explore the possibility of securing a base, only for Avon to come and rescue them later. And Vila’s relationship with drink is at the foreground again, as Prior likes to establish repeatedly.
Elsewhere this is a episode that establishes other aspects of series three, namely Servalan’s attempts to reconstitute the federation, the succession of commanders with a side story of their own, and the space whale. Or is it a shark? I’m talking about her battle cruiser. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I actually find the design fascinating. I’m just intrigued as to how it ended up the way it did. For Blakes 7, it’s quite a departure.
On the subject of series 3, I do sometimes wonder with the uncertain start of this series, whether there was a chance to explore the aftermath of the war a bit more. Vila’s comment about some planets apparently resorting to cannibalism made me wonder about the fate of some of the worlds affected by Star One, and the subsequent war. I’m guessing that Palmero (mentioned in ‘Star One’) will never recover it’s crown as the Federations leading provider of tropical fruit.
From strength to unity.
From Cantaloupe to cannibalism. (Sorry.)
So what has changed for the Federation?
Does space command HQ still exist? In Volcano, Servalan plots a course for it, suggesting something exists, and later in Kairos we see the satellite revolving as usual, and she ends a call with ‘Command HQ out’.
I have to comment on Servalan’s new command set (wherever it is.) I hate it. It’s ghastly. Clunky and chunky metallic control panels compete with a horrid dark green background with awful decorative touches in the form of charts and maps. This is made worse by the addition of a shrill and intrusive sound effect that often clashes with the dialogue in this, and the episodes that follows. It’s a poor substitute for the simplicity of the space command sets in the first two series, which itself was a perfect counterpoint to the Liberator flight deck.
So it’s an important episode, whilst not necessarily the most effective one.
I’ll comment more on the contribution made by director Desmond McCarthy in the critique of ‘Dawn of the Gods’ – however there are some observations I noticed about the production here. We have the location footage that makes good use of the landscape of northern England, and the camerawork is interesting at times – from some nice camera movement, and low angled shots of Bersher and his party – to an not altogether successful long zoom out of Tarrant and Dayna leaving the Obsidian base from afar.
The sound mix is muddy here, with the music and effect work being too high up in the mix, making the some of the dialogue not as easier to pick up as it could be.
There is a strange moment during the second half of the episode where Servalan, realising that the crew of the Liberator are not an urgent priority, flies off into the distance with her voice echoing in the vastness of space. It feels like the end of her contribution to this episode, only for her to turn up again later on, and decide to destroy the Liberator – another unexplained decision.
So is it any good? There is some good stuff here, and the pacifist idea is is interesting, and the devotion to creativity and creation is intriguing (trivia fans take note – actor Russell Denton who played Milus reportedly quit acting to become a gardener. True to the cause.) But there is nothing great, and some elements that that prove to be the proverbial cul-de-sac. When Tarrant asks about the nature of the nuclear device, Hower says ‘No more questions.’ I remember feeling frustrated by this. I don’t demand answers to everything in drama, and the unexplained can often be an effective plot device (see ‘Sarcophagus’.) But here there is nothing to be gained by not explaining the device. It’s as though it was laziness on the part of the writer. And perhaps that’s the problem with this episode. It doesn’t quite go far enough.
Performances are a mixed bag here, with Mori, the Space Commander and the Mutoid all suffering from dialogue and stage directions that would appear uncharacteristic and performed in a peculiar manner. Ben Howard as Mori seems to lurch from geezer, to comic fall guy, to ambitious and over zealous officer. The Space Commander appears to be reading his lines from the side of the camera, and displays some fine stage school relish when offering the chance of destroying the Liberator. And whilst I enjoyed the performance, when did Mutoids have an opinion of something? (Another fact – actor Judy Matheson, famous for her involvement in many a Hammer Horror film, appeared in the very first colour episode of Coronation Street, alongside Paul Darrow. Oh the trivia!) Even Servalan – at least in the studio scenes – appears to lost some of her characteristic deadly charm, and Avon shows Mori around the Liberator like an estate agent would show a prospective buyer around a potential new home.
Judy Matheson and Paul Darrow in the first colour episode of Coronation Street in 1969.
On the flip side Michael Gough and Malcolm Bullivant as Bershar perform with sensitivity, especially in the early confrontations with Tarrant and Dayna – check out when Hower has his annoyance kept in check when Tarrant asks agreement for Obsidian to be their base. As an aside, it looks like Bullivant is suffering from the flu in some of the location footage – he’s a white as a sheet!
The robot – I understand it even had name at one point (Robi) – is a cut price C3P0, whose movements are based on how robots are mimicked on something like ‘Give us a Clue’ or even worse, on the dance floor. And then at other times, the movement is just a guy (actually, his name was Guy…Guy Hassan) just bumbling along a studio floor dreaming of bigger roles.
This isn’t one of Dudley Simpson’s better episodes, as we are treated to lumbering deep brassy motifs, much of which trombone heavy – hardly conveying the excitement quota of the episode. It’s worth noting that this is, I think, the first time we hear Cally’s telepathic score, laden with violins, subtle synth, vibraphone, and tons of reverb. It is also the introduction of a new Federation motif for Servalan.
Pretty good. OK, I’m not a fan of Servalans command set, but there is a level of detail and texture in the Obsidian base, that suggests the world of creation that Hower mentions. It is worth noting Gerry Scott’s contributions to the series here. There are some intricate patterns and details to be seen. BBC designer Jim Clay, in his appreciation of Gerry Scott, noted ‘her finely crafted eye for detail, texture and her manipulation of space and light provided the reality and drama that allowed characters to unfold in the inspired worlds she created.’ The Obsidian base is one of the best, supported by both sympathetic and creative lighting.
HOW TO SELL THIS TO A NON BELIEVER?
It’s got Michael Gough in it.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
Avon’s resigned ‘Oh yes, now we’re here’ when discussing the rumour that Blake is on the planet.
THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
Mori’s death. It lingers too long. Travis’s death was far better (and rapid) in Star One.
VERDICT IN 10 WORDS EXACTLY
Not a bad episode, just a bit in the middle.
And because of that – it remains in the middle of the road list.