“Defence data commences”
In one of my first posts, I talked about some of the links – on and off screen – between Blake’s 7 and season 15 of Doctor Who. One of the views I was keen to express is how often something can be judged by what went before. In this case, I felt judgements made about the Graham Williams era were sometimes a backlash to the characteristics of the Philip Hinchcliffe era immediately preceding it (“It’s not as good as before”) and not as commonly appraised on its own terms and production contexts.
These sentiments were at the back of my mind when I started to think about Travis mark II who was scripted by a number of writers, as opposed to one writer.
Whilst I have not completely immersed myself in Blake’s 7 fandom and commentary over the years, there has been enough discussion to suggest that second series Travis – portrayed by Brian Croucher – is not as highly regarded as Stephen Greif’s original.
With this in mind, I felt compelled to offer my own take.
Blake’s 7 is clearly no stranger to making big casting decisions. The disappearance of the title character half way through the shows lifespan is an obvious case. But the decision of the actor playing the arch nemesis to hang up his boots was its first big call. Recast or remove? I suppose both options were on the table. Whilst a key presence in series A, Travis’ story wasn’t massively developed following the events on Aristo, and there was no reason why Travis couldn’t quietly disappear into oblivion – presumably on the receiving end of a thwack of Servalan’s figurative riding crop. However there was clearly more mileage in the character and in came a new actor.
Recently I started watching ‘Out’ (1978). Made by Euston Films, this is a ‘Get Carter’ style tale of gangland, which is directed in a very distinct and dynamic way – watch the first five minutes or so and you’ll see what I mean. Croucher notes that it was his performance in this six part series that alerted him to the Blake’s 7 production team. And it is easy to see why. He plays the part of Chris, the best friend of the lead character who has just been released from prison. The performance seems to play to Croucher’s strengths, with a mix of exuberance and those moments where he uses a soft gentle silky smooth voice in a reassuring, yet slightly unsettling tone.
And it’s those characteristics that capture the feel of the second Travis. But not the first. And that is the first reason why I think the second Travis is a success story – the decision by the lead actor to make the role his own. Croucher commented on his decision not to view the episodes that Greif had recorded.
“I guess, whether season one was there or not, you have to originate it for yourself because you are the person playing it now. Even if you look at it, you’ve still got to originate it; anything else is called impersonation, and not being.” (1)
I think this was both a bold decision the part of both actor and production team. Don’t try to battle at being something that you didn’t develop, just bring your own take on it. Look at all of the incarnations of the Doctor. The shell of the character is there, but to make it work you have to give it something that is you.
Another reason – if one were needed – was that the character was changing. In ‘Weapon’ one of the first acts of the new Travis is to put his hand around the neck of the Supreme Commander, something of which was inconceivable in the first series. But this single act is a bold and clever move, as it sets the tone of Travis mark II – one of erratic instability – and also a new perspective on his relationship with Servalan. Some commentators have questioned this first episode, basing their views on how Greif played it. And the resulting conclusion made is that this is somehow a different and lesser portrayal of the commander. But it is a different character – one who has come back from the retraining therapist all “I don’t know“. The possibilities that come from this “I don’t knowness” are both fascinating and endless in terms of dramatic potential. So it is my view that both actor approach and re-imagined character in script form are excellent responses to Greif’s solid portrayal and his subsequent decision to depart.
With this weakened, more volatile character there is a new dynamic with Servalan. In ‘Pressure Point’, it’s worth noting how unconvinced Servalan appears at times at Travis’ ability to pull off the plan. There is real doubt and uncertainty. It’s written all over her face. Now compare this doubt to ‘Project Avalon’ or ‘Seek – Locate – Destroy’, where the Supreme Commander’s belief in Travis is absolute…unofficially of course. A lot has changed.
The power dynamic runs even deeper than the belief that he will succeed. ‘Pressure Point’ is the only episode where Travis is actually running the show. The rest of series two he is Servalan’s plaything, or impotent. This again suggests a completely different apprach to the character. And ‘Weapon’ establishes show he really, truly is Servalan’s toy.
Servalan: “If he’s cornered, he might destroy the weapon.”
Travis: “I should have realised.”
Servalan: “I don’t find stupidity amusing, Travis.”
Servalan is not averse to manipulating Travis, as a similar scene between the two of them in ‘Deliverance’ would demonstrate. But here we see a real sense of contempt towards him, and a slight sense of resignation in his body language. But it is his “No” that is really significant. Croucher delivers it slowly – suggesting both a slight resentment, and realisation that their relationship of old has now changed.
We can talk about the events of ‘Trial’ in the episode discussion, but obviously the biggest shock in the life of Travis comes with his dismissal from the Federation. In some of the episodes that follow we see a character who has lost his identity, and displays a very erratic persona – ranging from sadistic excitement and moments of boredom in ‘Hostage’ whilst ‘Gambit’ portrays a man who literally is down and out. But the scene at the end of ‘Hostage’ is very significant too. Servalan and Travis reach an agreement, but it’s the almost wistful or distracted tone of his character that paves the way for what is to come.
Star One is Travis’ epitaph and contains some very interesting symbolism. Whilst he had made the choice to commit the ultimate betrayal against humanity, he did it with his Federation uniform on. This gives real opportunities for the audience to interpret his state of mind for themselves. Even his death scene displays an erratic tone, as in his death throws he seems to almost enjoy the relish in delivering a fatal blast from his in-built weapon.
But he’s gone, and the battle with Blake is over and now the drama moves on to an even bigger intergalactic conflict, one that will change the series forever.
So what of the elephant in the room – Brian Croucher’s performance. Again I have read some reviews which generally centre around the theme of it’s not a bad performance, but Croucher was not right for the character. I have also read a handful of less kind reviews. So I’ll get straight to the point. I felt that Croucher’s take on the character is generally spot on.
There is something about Croucher’s delivery of lines that sometimes feels slightly laboured, or maybe over pronounced, but I feel this works perfectly with the character. Not quite naturalistic – just like the state of mind of the character. Speaking of which, Croucher is able to deliver a range of smoothly spoken but menacing lines that hint of his instability – take the climax of ‘Pressure Point’ “You see, it’s the great illusion, Blake. You give substance and credibility to an empty room, and the real thing becomes undetectable, virtually invisible.” It’s his delivery of those last words that is seductively chilling, and a nice contrast from Greif’s more straightforward – but equally effective – nastiness. If there is one personal element that doesn’t work for me in Croucher’s performance, it is when he has to shout or raise his voice. I like the quieter version of Travis – the slippery, silent snake.
There’s some excellent depictions of sadistic pleasure too – check out the determination in which he throws the fatal grenade in the explosive climax of ‘Pressure Point’ or the look on his face as he wounds Avon during the nighttime shoot out on Exbar in “Hostage’. There are moments of rage and anger – such as the confrontation with Thania in the detention cell, and later with Servalan at the end of ‘Trial’. Equally there are moments of distance and preoccupation. His delivery of ‘They’ll dig us out eventually” springs to mind. In fact, the more I think about it, this was a key trait of Travis II – someone who was often lost in thought. And perhaps that was Croucher’s real skill – his ability to turn in a powerful performance without having to raise his voice. His final appearance in ‘Star One’ springs to mind, where he virtually whispers his performance. For me this was his finest and most haunting contribution.
Of course it’s not all brilliant. But if I start tugging at the string of what I think should constitute a poor performance, then the whole universe would unravel – and broadly speaking is something I’ve tried to avoid in this blog. What I will say is that whenever there is a moment where I question Croucher’s delivery, it’s firmly the fault of the writing or direction. ‘Voice from the Past’ is an obvious contender here, but also some moments delivered in episodes could be easily fixed with stronger scripting and realisation. The voice over as Clonemaster Fen descends the stairs in ‘Weapon’, or the activation of his blaster in ‘Hostage’ or the line “These two I leave to your mercies, o Charl” complete with dubious gesticulation at the end in ‘The Keeper’ – this is all down to poor direction, more than anything else.
The continuity of his character isn’t as successful in his later episodes. Croucher has also bemoaned some of the issues that came with different writers and shifting storylines – all of which affected the natural progression of the character (2) – ‘The Keeper’ is a perfect example of this, as in the previous episode he was alone, adrift and at his lowest ebb, and then here he is side by side with Servalan, in some kind of military attire, talking freely with Federation pursuit ships.
So to conclude: Travis mark I was an excellent portrayal. Dangerous and dedicated. But mark II is different and distinctive. There are shades of grey, and a genuine feeling that anything could happen. I found a quote from Stephen Greif was interesting.
“Later on I would have just broadened him out a bit, but at the time it was fairly clear he was a pretty psychotic army man who always accomplished what he took on. He liked killing, he liked orders, and the more killing that the orders involved, the better. If it was someone who had duffed him up, then it was meat and two veg to him, so that was all. But in retrospect, it would have been nice to just pepper him occasionally with a bit more humour…you know, not so black and white.” (2).
What Grief is describing here is Croucher’s portrayal.
But the last word has to go to Croucher himself.
“It was tough, but that’s what had to be done. There is always going to be someone who is going to compare you to the other person. And you are not going to be the same, so it is tough, you know, but in the end that’s the way it had to be done.” (3)
That single bold decision was not the easiest route – and along the way he would struggle with reportedly difficult directors, and inconsistent character plotting. Time was clearly a luxury that was seldom afforded Croucher, but he reacted instinctively, rather than duplicating what had gone before. His actions, his decisions, all instinct – nothing more.
We open with Lye and Par – two troopers who provide some nicely written exposition. I didn’t twig it was Tosh from ITV’s police drama The Bill until several years after I had first watched this.
It’s another nice example of smaller characters being used to help explain the main plot, and gives us some understanding of the life of Federation troopers. In fact it’s the first time since ‘Seek-Locate-Destroy’ that we get a sense that under the helmet there is actually a person. We get a completely different take. It also offers us the first taste of the internal conflicts that were starting to divide the Terran Federation. Therefore this episode will be extra significant.
It’s also great to see Rontane and Bercol once more. John “It’s. A. Laser. Probe” Bryans delivers a brilliant reaction when looking down the end of a Federation blaster. It’s the little huff he gives beforehand – barely audible but sets up the whole thing beautifully.
And then ‘Star Killer’ arrives, fresh from his highly polished flagship. This time the tables are turned, and it is Par who is on the receiving end of a very subtle correction. What a brilliant entrance, of a brilliantly set up character.
In Servalan’s office there is a nice scene involving a discussion with Travis’s defence – Major Thania. I often imagine Thania getting the call, and immediately opening the draw of her desk, and knocking back a few dry ones, in an attempt to deal with her now very limited life span. Whilst the whole exercise is to cover up Servalan’s failings, it is satisfying that Chris Boucher writes the Supreme Commander as never losing face, or her cool. In fact she uses language that almost suggests she is giving clear orders to the defence counsel, rather than a strategic discussion.
Oh, and isn’t that Tosh again getting an extra little voice over fee as Servalan’s receptionist?
Back in the corridor the defendant himself – the eyepatched one – is marshalled into the courtroom by a very military sounding officer. Colin Dunn delivers his lines perfectly. In fact he will be quite experienced at this kind of thing, as he plays a lowly Corporal in ‘Tenko’ a couple of years later. The look of contempt on Travis’s face is priceless. This corridor is eliciting a whole range of facial reactions and behaviours. Yes I like this corridor. Brilliant stuff.
And in to the courtroom we go. I’m loving the little ‘bing bong’ of Dudley Simpson’s score as Travis stamps his feet to attention.
I very much enjoyed the opening dialogue between Thania and Samor. In fact the juxtaposition between Thania’s subtle manipulations, Samor’s battle weary inquiry and Travis’s non committal expression makes this a fabulous range of character expressions.
For a supposedly stoney faced judicial scenario – director Derek Martinus is really bringing some excellent emotive touches.
I’ve been so engrossed in what is going on in Space Command that I have totally forgotten about the Liberator and its crew – and what a time to forget. Having lost a crew member, it’s time to explore how the rebel unit deal with their first real crisis.
And the observation I make is that Avon is having a ball. He’s never looked happier. Recent episodes, namely ‘Horizon’ and ‘Pressure Point’ have focussed on the idea that the Liberator could ultimately be Avon’s one day, or that he will lead in some capacity. This is a real opportunity for him to turn the screw further without having to lift a finger.
But in those first scenes it is clearly Blake and Cally who are suffering the most, having emotionally invested the most in the idea of destroying the Federation control centre. Jenna and Avon handle it as hard-nosed smugglers and embezzlers do.
Down on an unknown planet Blake finds some time to think. I love the collection of insects and animals in the soundtrack. It’s worth mentioning that this is Richard Yeoman Clark’s final contribution to the show (in production order) – so it is good to see him bowing out on a high.
Cally is being very soft and tender towards Vila – albeit in trying to coax out Blake’s trigger signal. This suggests a shift in character – perhaps the failure of the mission on Earth has a lasting effect on her freedom fighter instincts.
As for Rontane and Bercol – their characters are given more flavour as they talk about Servalan’s ambition and the appalling Space Command cuisine. It’s easy to forget that military headquarters still need toilets, cleaning cupboards mops and canteens. In fact it got me thinking about what space age catering exists in the Blake’s 7’s universe. I entertained the idea that it might be like 2001: A Space Oddessy – a self-service approach with aircraft type presentation. But in the end I could only imagine something closer to home, where a member of the canteen staff – probably a demoted Keyeira the Mutoid, from ‘Duel’, slaps a load of cosmic slop onto the Servalan’s plate and asks “Would you like carrots with that?” As the Supreme Commander looks disappointedly down to the plate, Keyeira asks her if there is something wrong, to which Servalan says, as she once said to Travis – “I find it…unpleasing.”
Servalan’s “Pathetic” is brilliantly delivered – a real looking down her nose moment. Even at this crucial point where she could be toppled, this is the Supreme Commander at her most uncompromising. An excellent depiction in both writing and acting. It got me thinking about how Servalan is portrayed in each series. In the first and third series Servalan is generally ‘the star’ – overtly dramatic and at her most delicious. But there is something distinctly cold, impatient and intense about second series Servalan – her portrayal in ‘Weapon’, ‘Trial’ and ‘Star One’ are stand out examples of this, and as much as she is rightly lauded for her flamboyant qualities, this more intense approach should be treasured.
Blake’s video message is well measured, not relying on over histrionics or sentiment. In fact it’s is interesting how controlled everyone’s emotions are in these scenes.
As Avon delivers his “Is it that Blake has a genius for leadership, or merely that you have a genius for being led?” line I noticed that he is playing with some kind of dice in his hands, just as he is playing with something in ‘The Keeper.’ This gives an extra something to his performance – perhaps this is a Derek Martinus characteristic.
Back in the jungle, something keeps urinating on Blake – sideways. Good skill. But I was drawn to how good the location is, with added dry ice and lighting effects. Filmed in the grounds of the Royal Alexandra and Albert School in Surrey, it reminded me a little of the masterpiece of alien jungle designed by Roger Murray Leach for Doctor Who ‘Planet of Evil (1975)
Back at Space Command there are interesting conversations involving Travis. Firstly Par sneaks in a drink, then Tharnia checks in on the result. Croucher really shines in these scenes, without really trying.
It’s interesting to hear Par’s observations about how Travis tried to ensure his men didn’t get killed under his watch. It adds a complexity to his comments in ‘Seek-Locate-Destroy’ about giving a Mutoid priority over a man every time.
So now it is time to talk about Zil. It is really quite memorable. Both balletic and distinctive, I must applaud Claire Lewis’ performance, even if it is perhaps not my cup of tea. Somehow this kind of alien doesn’t feel it should be in Blake’s 7 – I can’t quite put my finger on it. Perhaps its the fact that something so obviously alien can speak Terran. But I do recognise how her instinct for survival and comparative innocence compared to Blake is a nice dramatic touch allowing him to come to his resolution.
Avon recognises that the game is lost in terms of ditching Blake, and the episode moves nicely onto how to recover him through the traditional witty and sharp dialogue – always a Blake’s 7 forte.
I do find myself tiring a little at the scenes involving Blake and Zil – it took long enough for Zil to make an appearance. But the underbelly of the planet is a nicely handled visual effect, and adds to the mystique of the oceans of spit.
By the time Zil meets her maker, there is a twinge of sadness, but that doesn’t last long as typically we move on to other urgent matters, namely how many fillings does Gareth Thomas have.
Martinus’s direction is solid – which is a complement. Whilst it is far removed from the visual pace of Jonathan Wright Miller for example, he is able to bring some nice creative touches, such as the technique of overlapping the first lines of dialogue from the next scene over the end of the previous one – see Vila’s ’Saliva?’ His ability to make the planet feel alive is nicely done too. But it’s his ability to bring out emotion to a po-faced political situation that is notable.
I felt the whole host/parasitic theme is a nice context to this episode, and as the planet cleanses itself of the parasites, it did make me think further about the symbiotic relationship between Blake and the rest of the crew, particularly in the light of Gan’s death.
Nice of Avon and Vila to stand in the way of Cally’s view as they attempt to teleport Blake back. And in the subsequent conversation with Avon, I’m reminded of Blake’s second series characterisation – quite a reserved and detached performance, with the removal of much of the theatrical edge of old.
I’m very interested in the origins of the Jenkin-one-oblique-three judgment programme. What and where did that come from? Perhaps Chris Boucher took inspiration from David Bowie’s cut-up word technique.
Travis’ defence is a wonderfully dramatic moment and the cutaway to Servalan reacting to his “NO” is excellent. As you can see in the images below, Martinus cuts rapidly in these three or so seconds. And it is crucial that he does – it’s all very intense.
I also love the way this Martinus circles the camera around Travis and Tharnia, capturing Rontane and Bercol in the background before going in close as they whisper their disagreements.
The Liberator makes its move on Space Command with a suitably ‘Knight Rider’ type riff.
As Samor delivers his verdict, the cutaway to Servalan is very nicely done. This is Jacqueline Pearce at her absolute best. The line about ‘It really is a pity he’s got to die. He’s so much better than anything I’ve got left’ is delivered with real conviction.
Again Martinus cuts his action carefully to give each element in this chess game a chance to be seen.
The attack is made, and Blake saves Travis bacon, ensuring that it won’t be on the menu in the canteen that evening. We even get to see a little tool box on the flight deck.
I’m glad Par didn’t die, and the final scene between Travis and Servalan is well directed as the camera zooms right into both faces – re-enforcing the intensity of their relationship.
And the episode ends with another laugh. I’d say this ending is only slightly dreadful, rather than being cringe inducing.
Looking back I can see that ‘Trial’ is important for many reasons – the Travis story, the introduction to Federation division, and the aftermath of Gan’s death. But it is also significant for how it continues to highlight Avon as the central character as this show develops. His ’then he’s gone for good’ to Cally is partially noticeable.
I’m well disposed to this episode. Sure the scenes with Zil cut into the high tension on space command, but I recognise its importance to the theme of the story.
The performances are very believable and this is definitely one of Croucher’s finest moments, along with the menace he achieves in ‘Star One’. The late Kevin Lloyd’s performance is excellent, and it is easy to see why he found fame in ‘The Bill’ later in his career. Claire Lewis is a little trickier to find, although ironically it is an appearance in ‘The Bill’ that allows us to get a sense of her real voice and face. There is a Brian Croucher connection in finding another contemporary performance of Victoria (Pam) Fairbrother, through her appearance as Eve Ross in ‘Out’. Both Fairbrother and Graham Sinclair have enjoyed a long running career on stage and screen. Otherwise this is a story that features a number of performers who appear in other Blake’s 7 episodes. I’ll talk about Miles and Bryans in ‘Seek – Locate – Destroy’, and John Savidant in ‘Orbit’.
Gerry Scott designs this one with a mix of military functionality and decorative design. The corridors of space command are both curved and feature motifs, which are almost cathedral like in nature. The main courtroom also contains some subtle majestic details, such as a curved platform that the arbiters sit behind, adorned with church organ like tubing scattered throughout. It’s the balance between back-lit walls and bright lighting that works with this episode, not falling into the trap of many an overlit 1980’s Doctor Who episode. Plenty of modernist looking chairs are scattered around, but identifying some of them have proved to be tricky. Finally I want to say that Servalan’s office has never looked better than in this episode.
This episode is notable for some nice motifs that pop up, but it’s the use of Simpson’s Yamaha synthesiser that stands out. Here he uses a string/harpsichord sounding tone, backed up by some melodic woodwind. On the mysterious planet he uses some suspenseful pan drums and deep brass notes.
HOW TO SELL THIS TO A NON-BELIEVER
As a wider take on institutional culture and symbiotic relationships. For the uninitiated it would be difficult to see this episode as a stand alone – you’d need a wider understanding of the Blake’s 7 story arc.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
Avon’s “Which only leaves one question to be answered. Is it that Blake has a genius for leadership, or merely that you have a genius for being led?” And also Cally’s understated reaction to this.
Oh, and Saymor’s tidying up of Par at the beginning.
THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
The ending. It’s not actually that bad, but it is a reflection on how good the rest of the episode is.
VERDICT IN TEN WORDS EXACTLY
Space commander, you have been found guilty of all charges.