Blake’s 7: Orac (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

With their crewmates suffering from radiation sickness, Blake and Cally head to the planet Aristo, hoping to find a cure – and the mysterious Orac. But the Federation are also hunting for Orac…

Series A, episode 13. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 27 March 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Gan (12) is just one of the Liberator crew struck with lethargy and sweating fits. He has radiation sickness because of his time on the planet Cephlon (in the previous episode).
* Blake (13) has very helpfully edited together a video recapping the events of last week. He’s even recorded a stentorious voiceover. He shows it to Avon, who uncharacteristically has the grace not to point out that it’s just telling him things he already knows. Blake also figures out that Ensor’s ship was sabotaged, so sets course for his home planet where they find his dying father. And a remarkable machine called Orac.
* Avon (12) feels dizzy early on: he’s another victim of the radiation sickness. When Blake hopes Ensor’s father will have some anti-radiation drugs, Avon points out the irony that they are travelling to a planet to save a stranger’s life in the hope that stranger will then save theirs. Later, when Blake and Cally don’t return from the planet Aristo, a visibly ill Avon beams down – and that’s the term he uses – to search for them.
* Jenna (13) is also under the weather, but still finds the strength to pilot the Liberator.
* Vila (13) – another radiation victim – says he can’t die. Avon points out that he can: “It’s the one talent we all share. Even you.”
* Zen (11) goes wonky at one point, slurring his speech. Then it becomes clear that he has been taken over by an outside force: Orac.
* Cally (10) finds Jenna looking woozy in a corridor, so takes her to the medical bay (and accidentally gropes her as she does so). She then deduces why Jenna, Vila, Avon and Gan are ill – they need drugs that the Liberator stores (for once) don’t have. Later, she and Blake teleport down to the planet Aristo. They find Ensor’s father and give him the power cells he needs for his artificial heart; they also ask him if he has any drugs… Oh, and by the way, what’s this Orac thing that everyone’s talking about?
* Orac (1) initially seems to be a talking plant. But that’s just the way he’s filmed in order to disguise the truth: he’s actually a super computer designed by Ensor and housed in a portable Plexiglass box. He makes a buzzy noise when switched on and has a prissy, pedantic manner, kinda like a ruder version of C-3PO. But his capabilities are quite astonishing – he can access any other computer in the known universe and collate masses of information and analysis. After Ensor’s death, using the finders-keepers rule, Blake and the others take Orac back to the Liberator with them. (Orac is voiced by Derek Farr, the actor who plays Ensor Snr.)
* Travis (5) and Servalan (4) arrive on the planet Aristo and break into Ensor’s base via some underground tunnels. At one point, Servalan is menaced by a humanoid amphibian monster called a Phibian and is visibly shaken by the experience. She manages to pull herself together quickly, but she and Travis arrive just too late: Blake, Cally and Ensor have done a runner with Orac.

Best bit: Being the last episode of season one, it needs to finish on a cliffhanger. And we get a whopper. As a demonstration of his ability to predict the future based on available information and deductive reasoning, Orac shows Blake and co a vision of the Liberator being seemingly destroyed.

Worst bit: Between the location filming and the studio recording for this episode, actor Stephen Greif injured his ankle badly while playing squash. So Travis’s indoor scenes had to be recorded with a body double whose face is always inelegantly out of frame. Greif later dubbed his dialogue over the shots, but it really jars.

Review: The first season of Blake’s 7 ends with one its duller episodes. We’re following on from the previous episode, Deliverance, and finally get to find out what Orac is and why it’s so valuable. But everything’s a bit underwhelming. There’s a fair amount of ‘Zen explains things’ rather than actual storytelling, while Servalan and Travis’s subplot seems to go on forever.

Six decontaminate drugs out of 10

Next episode: Redemption

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Blake’s 7: Deliverance (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When the Liberator spots a spaceship crashing onto a planet, they look for survivors – but the search leads to some crewmembers being taken hostage and others making a shock discovery…

Series A, episode 12. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Michael E Briant. Originally broadcast: 20 March 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* From her clinical, cold office aboard a spinning space station, Servalan (3) is keeping tabs on a spaceship. She seems pleased when it begins to break up above a planet – and we later learn why. One of its occupants, Ensor, had offered to sell her a technological marvel called Orac for 100 million credits; rather than pay up, Servalan has plotted to kill him. She then tasks Travis with recovering Orac in secret.
* When Blake (12) and his team spot a ship crashing, they find a badly injured survivor – Ensor. He has some energy cells with him, which must be rushed to his dying father. He also says the Federation are going to pay him a fortune for something called Orac. But when Blake refuses to travel to Ensor’s home because some of his colleagues are still down on the nearby planet, Ensor blackmails him into leaving. Ensor dies from his wounds before they get there.
* Avon (11) leads what another sci-fi show might call the away team who look for crash survivors. They locate Ensor and take him back to the Liberator. But Jenna has gone missing, so Avon, Gan and Vila return to the planet to search for her. When attacked by caveman-like natives, the trio take refuge behind a metal door in a hillside. Inside they find a beautiful but naïve women who thinks Avon is a long-prophecised god…
* Jenna (12) also goes on the search team. She and Gan find an escape capsule with a dead body in it, then she’s accidentally left behind on the planet and attacked by the savage locals. They tie her up in a tent, in the way that generic savage locals often do in adventure stories.
* Cally (9) gets to operate the teleport controls this week. In one of Blake’s 7’s more off-the-wall moments, she also puts on a pair of VR goggles and listens to some jaunty piano jazz! Later, Ensor points a gun at her head to make Blake set course for his home planet.
* Zen (10) is acting much more helpfully these days. He seems to have shrugged off the petulant streak he had in earlier episodes. It’s almost as if he can sense that his role in the drama is about to be usurped by another computer…
* Gan (11) ain’t gonna win any friend-of-the-year awards after losing track of where Jenna is. When he later takes part in the mission to rescue her, he has to remind Avon and Vila that his limiter means he can’t kill any of the natives.
* Vila (12) spots a large footprint when it’s clear Jenna has gone missing. You’d think that’d be an important plot point, wouldn’t you?
* Travis (4) has – since we last saw him – gone through an enquiry due to his failure to catch Blake. He desperately wants his command back and tells Servalan he’s willing to do anything to get it.

Best bit: The episode takes a pleasingly bizarre turn when Avon, Gan and Vila are being chased by the natives. They attempt to break into the metallic door Gan found earlier – then it’s opened from inside by a woman called Meegat. She’s beaming with joy because Avon has finally arrived; she believes him to be her Lord, whose arrival was foretold in a prophecy. Our heroes soon deduce that Meegat’s home is actually a long-abandoned control room; they find a rocket ready to take banks of genetic material to a far-off world. (No phallic symbolism there at all!) Not only are there plenty of comedy looks between the regular characters – Vila and Gan can’t believe that Avon is humouring the poor woman – but the subplot has a nice beginning, middle and end. It’s also another chance for Paul Darrow to *shine* as Avon. You wouldn’t call it a naturalistic performance but it’s so, so watchable. (The number of times that Meegat genuflects by ducking down in front of Avon’s crotch is probably an unintentional gag, though, right?)

Worst bit: Not for the first time, the Liberator crew fail to notice when one of their number doesn’t teleport back from a mission. There are only six of you, guys!

Review: An uneven watch, in part because it’s doing two things. Deliverance is the first half of a two-parter to end the season, so the main plot can’t shake off the feeling that it’s just set-up for next week. But the episode is also trying to tell its own story, so some scenes form a self-contained little scenario. The latter strand is more enjoyable. (Note: I’m writing this blog on 6 February 2018, the 100th anniversary of women being able to vote in the UK. I can’t help noticing that this episode’s main action features three female characters. Two are taken hostage and one is a childlike simpleton.)

Seven micro power cells out of 10

Next episode: Orac

Blake’s 7: Bounty (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Blake visits an exiled former president and tries to convince him to return to public life. But then the Liberator crew are taken prisoner by smugglers…

Series A, episode 11. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Pennant Roberts. Originally broadcast: 13 March 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Cally (8) is sneaking round some woods with Blake as the episode begins. As they break into a building to find its inhabitant she uses her telepathic skills to silently warn Blake that guards are near. (This episode feels like Terry Nation has suddenly remembered he has a character who can talk to her colleagues without being heard.)
* Blake (11) has come to Quex Park in Kent (or whatever planet it’s standing in for) to find ex-President Sarkoff, who has been living in exile since he was voted out of office seven years ago. Well, it’s not exile really: his defeat was rigged, and he’s actually a prisoner being watched by a whole garrison of Federation troops. But Blake wants him to return and rally his people against the fascist overlords. Later in the episode, the Liberator crew, Sarkoff and his daughter are taken hostage by some smugglers. Like his friends, Blake is made to wear a metal ring round his neck; if he misbehaves, his head will be blown off. (Similar devices feature in the 1987 film The Running Man. Being a movie with an 18 certificate, rather than a BBC1 drama on at 7.15pm, we actually see what happens when they activate.)
* Vila (11) isn’t happy when an unidentified ship approaches the Liberator while Blake and Cally are down on the planet. He’s told to shut up, but says he’s entitled to his opinion. “It is your assumption that we are entitled to it as well that is irritating,” quips Avon. Later, Vila’s lock-picking skills come in useful again when he’s given the tense job of deactivating Blake’s explosive-neck-thingy.
* Jenna (11) runs point when the Liberator encounters what claims to be a civilian cruiser in distress. However, its occupants – Arab-like smugglers led by an old acquaintance of Jenna’s – trick their way aboard and take everyone prisoner. Well, not everyone: Jenna seems to switch sides and even tells Blake that their friends have been killed in order to trap him. But – and this is quite plain for all to see – Jenna is just conning Tarvin the smuggler.
* Avon (10) is against helping the ‘cruiser’, assuming (accurately) that it’s a trap. When Gan teleports over to see what’s what but doesn’t return, Avon even advocates destroying the craft with his friend aboard. Meanwhile, his sibling-like bickering with Vila continues to be a highlight of the series.
* Gan (10) starts off the episode as the Liberator’s Uhura – he has headphones on and is futilely trying to contact a nearby UFO. He then volunteers to teleport across to it to investigate, even though he knows it’s dangerous.
* Zen (9) has a few bits of exposition to impart – the most important is when he tells Vila that a message from Gan is not actually Gan’s voice.

Best bit: The first time we see Sarkoff, he’s being driven along in an Edwardian car – he has a big hat and a blonde chauffeur (who we eventually learn is his daughter, Tryce). It’s the start of an interesting theme. Sarkoff is obsessed with antiques from old Earth, such as a gramophone and a revolver. For a show set in a nebulously far-off future it’s a nice link to the past. It also gives us a surreal moment when Blake is bemused by the sound of 1950s rock’n’roll hit Singing the Blues.

Worst bit: Sarkoff is a verbose, flamboyant man. He should be memorable and interesting, but while the script is clearly reaching for something with this character – a certain melancholy, a lamenting for a ‘more civilised age’ – it just doesn’t come off. He’s more irritating than anything and it’s hard to imagine how he was that influential in the first place. Poignant moments, such as his touching anguish when Blake threatens to destroy his antique collection, are nice in themselves but don’t add up to much.

Review: Disappointing. The overly long scenes and dull storyline would be bad enough, but then we have to excuse some awful racial stereotyping when the smugglers show up.

Five microwave transmitters out of 10

Next episode: Deliverance

Blake’s 7: Breakdown (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Gan suffers from debilitating headaches and attacks his colleagues, they must find a way of fixing his malfunctioning implant…

Series A, episode 10. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 6 March 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Gan (9) is stricken by crushing headaches, then flips out and becomes violent. The implant in his brain has gone on the wonk, you see, and Jenna is knocked unconscious before the others subdue him. Later, he awakens but writhes about like a werewolf then goes on another Incredible Hulk rampage. Eventually an operation is performed. The implant remains but he’s back to normal. Phew!
* Zen (8) acts very obstructively this week, refusing to answer standard questions and then switching off when the crew need his help.
* Jenna (10) is the first to find Gan is his dangerous state, and suffers as a consequence. Later, she has to flirt with a scientist to distract him (‘Hello, hello, hello,’ he says appreciatively as they meet).
* Blake (10) tries to talk Gan down from his initial fury – then has to fight with him. Once Gan is knocked out, and it becomes clear his ‘limiter’ implant has gone wrong, Blake moots operating on him themselves. Avon points out that’s slightly risky and suggests another idea: take Gan to XK-72, an independent space station that carries out research into weaponry and medicine. (Well, it’s obvious now he says it.) Blake agrees. When they reach the station, Blake teleports aboard and finds a doctor called Professor Kayn (Julian Glover, providing plenty of knows-what-he’s-doing-ness). Kayn, however, twigs who Blake is and secretly informs the Federation…
* En route to XK-72, Avon (9) tells Blake he wants to leave the crew – Blake’s zealous streak, he says, leads to too many risks being taken. So when they reach the space station, Avon offers its leader his services and knowledge – in exchange for a guarantee that his colleagues will be allowed to leave unmolested. However, when he realises that the Federation are on the way, guilt takes over and Avon warns his friends.
* When Blake, Avon and Jenna agree to take the Liberator through a dangerous area of space to reach XK-72, Vila (10) says, ‘Don’t I get asked?’ They just ignore him. Later, he tells Avon that he stays with Blake because he likes him… and has nowhere else to go. During the climax, Vila gets a nice moment where he rumbles the duplicitous Kayn.
* Cally (7) acts as a nurse, tending to the unconscious Gan, but doesn’t spot when he wakes up with an evil look on his face. She’s also later tricked into removing his restraints. #FlorenceNightingFAIL.

Best bit: A nifty, never-seen-before stellar map on a sheet of Plexiglas – shot from behind, of course, as is the cinematic cliché. (Quite how useful a *two-dimension* map of fucking space can be, however, is another matter.)

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Worst bit: The ‘dangerous bit of space’ subplot feels terribly artificial. Zen builds up a big mystery about the area for no reason, then the Liberator travels through it unscathed. It’s just padding, which is a real shame because if this enjoyable episode has a major flaw it’s the fact it’s so lopsided. The first 32 minutes are set aboard the Liberator and feature just the regulars, then we race through *a lot* of plotting in the last two-fifths of the episode.

Review: After being in the background for so long, at last Gan is the focus of a storyline! And he spends almost all of the episode unconscious. So instead of a character study on a character who doesn’t really have a character, we get plenty of good, inter-team drama with the other regulars and guest stars. Blake, Avon and Jenna have believable, plausible opinions about what to do with Gan and this creates some engaging conflict. They all want to help their friend, but not at any cost, and crucially none of the characters is a moron so you can see their points of view. The inhabitants of XK-72 are an interesting bunch too and the story develops and twists when we meet them.

Eight unstable magnetic fields out of 10

Next episode: Bounty

Blake’s 7: Project Avalon (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When resistance leader Avalon is captured by the Federation, Blake and his colleagues mount a rescue attempt…

Series A, episode 9. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Michael E Briant. Originally broadcast: 27 February 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Travis (3) has a new second-in-command: a dead-eyed, cold-blooded and undeniably sexy mutoid played by Glynis Barber. As the story begins, the two of them are on a cold planet looking for a rebel leader called Avalon, who Travis knows has been in contact with Blake. After tracking her down and imprisoning her, Travis uses Avalon as bait to catch Blake – but the plan goes wrong and Travis is relieved of his command.
* Blake (9) tells us that Avalon has started resistance movements on a dozen worlds, and he plans to transport her to a new planet. He arrives too late, though: the Federation have captured her. So Blake and co break into a command base to rescue her. When they return to the Liberator, however, they realise ‘Avalon’ is a robotic imposter.
* Zen (7).
* Jenna (9) is the only member of the team who has seen Avalon before, so she accompanies Blake on his mission.
* Gan (8) spends the episode on the Liberator flight deck. Sadly, all too often he feels like one regular character too many – it seems as if writer Terry Nation has no idea what to do with him. The pull of the number seven is admittedly strong in popular culture: seven deadly sins, the movie Seven, Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, 007, the Seven Dwarves, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Seven Year Itch, 7-inch singles… But in this case it’s more of a hindrance.
* Vila (9) has to teleport down to the planet and join Blake and Jenna when they need his breaking-and-entering skills.
* Cally (6) is now adept at piloting the Liberator. Jenna jokes that she’s taught her too well.
* Avon (8) says, sarcastically, that while he’s eager to meet the famous Avalon it doesn’t mean he wants to travel down to a snow-covered planet where the temperature is 180 below. While Blake and the others are on the planet, the Liberator is found by some Federation pursuit ships. So Avon convinces the others to flee, lose the ships, and hopefully return in time to pick up their colleagues.
* Servalan (2) wafts into the planet’s command bunker in an all-white outfit with furry wrap. She’s come to oversee the captured Avalon’s interrogation, and also to remind Travis that she wants the Liberator as well as Blake. In the episode’s final scene, she actually meets Blake for the first time.

Best bit: Blake tells a reluctant Vila to teleport down to the planet. “It’s cold out there,” moans Vila, “and I’m very susceptible to low temperatures. I’ve got a weak chest.” Avon: “The rest of you’s not very impressive.”

Worst bit: Blake needs to demostrate to his colleagues that a gun is firing less-than-lethal shots. He does this by shooting at a cup on a nearby table. Sadly, actor Gareth Thomas puts the cup down so deliberately and so specifically that it’s obvious he’s placing it on a special-effects lever that’ll flip it into the air at the required moment.

Review: Great stuff. This is a very well-structured script, the storytelling has good energy and pace, and there’s even a nicely disguised plot twist. It’s Blake’s 7 doing an action movie in 50 minutes and everything is impressively staged by director Michael E Briant. Locations are used to their fullest, for example, while a busy fight scene is shot with a handheld camera. There’s also an inventive use of the greenscreen technique to make a phial containing a virus seem strangely alive. Well… *nearly* everything is impressively staged. Sadly we get another glimpse of the shaky, cheap-looking patrol robot last seen in Seek-Locate-Destroy. As well as being beyond naff, it also begs the question why are the Federation using a mechanical sentry that shuffles along at two miles an hour? Elsewhere in the episode is a dextrous, lifelike android who can be programmed to do anything.

Nine Phobon plagues out of 10

Next episode: Breakdown

Blake’s 7: Duel (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Blake and his nemesis Travis are selected by a pair of mysterious women to fight to the death…

Series A, episode 8. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Douglas Camfield. Originally broadcast: 20 February 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Travis (2) and his mutoids – female troops who have been technologically modified – have hunted Blake down. They start to attack the Liberator, but then Travis and Blake are forcibly teleported down to a nearby, rocky, barren planet by its two inhabitants: powerful, sorcerer-type women called Sinofar and Giroc. (One’s a looker with distractingly noticeable nipples. The other is played by Miss Roberts from Upstairs, Downstairs.) They’re tired of death and destruction so insist that Blake and Travis take part in a duel – the idea is that then one only one of them will die and their respective crews will be safe.
* Blake (8) is more amused by the situation than Travis is. After a lengthy sequence in the forest venue of the duel, he manages to avoid Travis’s traps and gains the upper hand. But because he’s a hero he refuses to kill his enemy. Yay!
* Avon (7) doesn’t take part in any of the action, but more than makes up for it with witty, attitude-driven dialogue. He bickers with Vila and makes cynical quips about the duel (“Blake is sitting up in a tree. Travis is sitting up in another tree. Unless they’re planning to throw nuts at one another, I don’t see much of a fight developing before it gets light…”).
* When the Liberator crew first encounter the rocky planet, Jenna (8) explores it with Blake and Gan. Then when the duel begins she’s selected – seemingly at random – to be Blake’s companion during the event. The notion is that if she dies Blake will learn what it feels like to lose a friend. (He points out that he already knows that.)
* When Blake and Jenna are in the forest, their friends watch a representation of the events on the Liberator’s viewscreen: Cally (5) infers/intuits that it’s the real deal.
* Gan (7) is the first to see the women, who appear like ghosts while he, Blake and Jenna recce the planet.
* Vila (8) operates the teleport machine but falls asleep on the job.
* Zen (6) features occasionally.

Best bit: The Liberator is under attack from Travis’s ship so Blake and Avon discuss tactics. Blake wants to ram Travis, a desperate manoeuvre, but Avon is doubtful.
“Have you got any better ideas?” asks Blake bitterly. Then the whole Liberator rocks violently, having been hit by a bolt.
Avon catches a falling Blake, holding him in his arms: “As a matter of fact,” he says, “no, I haven’t.”
“Does that mean you agree?”
“Do I have a choice?” asks Avon softly.
“Yes.”
“Then I agree.” Avon lets go of his homoerotic embrace and walks off.

Worst bit: The duel scenes were filmed on location in the New Forest, and are generally pretty good. However, a moment or two of dialogue between Travis and his lead mutoid stand out like a sore mechanical hand because – for some reason – they’ve been shot in the TV studio against a green-screen background. Did they run out of time on location? Was it assumed that no one would notice or care about the inconsistency?

Review: There’s a different feel to this one, perhaps because this is the only Blake’s 7 episode directed by Douglas Camfield, one of the behind-the-scenes stars of Doctor Who in the 1960s and 70s. The action is a bit tougher than usual, for instance, both in the combat on the planet and in the busy, visceral and noisy space battle. Camfield’s appointment also meant a less cosy soundtrack: he didn’t like using in-house composer Dudley Simpson so Duel’s excellent music is harsher and more unsettling than in earlier episodes. The result is a lot of fun, not least because this is the show’s most blatant evocation yet of Robin Hood. The entire series could be summed up as ‘Robin Hood in space’, but Duel gives us forests, medieval weapons and traps as Blake and Travis go head to head like the Hooded Man and the Sheriff of Nottingham. After his introduction two episodes ago, in fact, it’s nice to see Travis fleshed out a bit. With no Servalan tugging at his lead, he’s free to drive his own story and gets a lot of focus. There’s also some light-heartedness: while Blake and Travis creep around a woodland, the rest of the Liberator crew watch events on a screen and comment on them like they’re in an episode of Gogglebox. They even get bored when nothing happens.

Eight stasis beams out of 10

Next episode: Project Avalon

Blake’s 7: Mission to Destiny (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Liberator crew find a spaceship called the Ortega, whose inhabitants are unconscious… It soon becomes clear there’s been a murder aboard.

Series A, episode 7. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Pennant Roberts. Originally broadcast: 13 February 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* When the Liberator encounters a spaceship called the Ortega, Blake (7) teleports aboard, taking Avon and Cally with him, to see why it’s circling the same area of space. They find crewmembers passed out in various rooms and deduce that the air supply has been poisoned; then a dead body is discovered. When the crew wakes up, Blake takes charge and tries to work out what happened. He soon learns that the ship is on a mission of mercy: they must deliver a vital energy reserve to their home planet in time for a new agricultural cycle. Seeing how the ship is damaged, Blake offers to deliver the reserve in the Liberator and leaves Avon and Cally behind as collateral.
* Avon (6) assesses the damage to the Ortega when he arrives with Blake and Cally. He deduces that it’s been sabotaged and now can’t travel at light speed – which is a major problem for the crew’s mission. After Blake has left with the energy reserve, Avon stays behind to help with the repairs – though he admits it’s less to do with sympathy for the crew’s plight and more because he can’t stand an unsolved mystery. To that end, he becomes a space-age Hercule Poirot and starts investigating the murder; he even has grandstanding scenes where he lays out his theories to the assembled suspects. (Although, Hercule Poirot never punched the murderer in the face and then said he enjoyed it.)
* Cally (4) is the one who finds a dead body when she, Blake and Avon first search the Ortega. It’s really not her day in that regard: she later finds a second corpse down in the storage compartments. She also stays behind when Blake leaves and uses the opportunity to do some snooping on the murder suspects.
* Jenna (7), Vila (7), Gan (6) and obviously Zen (5) all stay on the Liberator throughout the episode. Once Blake returns from the Ortega, they head off for the planet Destiny to deliver the MacGuffin. Halfway there, however, they realise its box is empty so have to return sharpish.

Best bit: Blake pitches his idea to the crew of the Ortega: he’ll take their precious cargo to Destiny while Avon and Cally stay behind to help with repairs. Cally adds, “We will regard ourselves as hostages against Blake’s return.” Avon looks askance and deadpans: “Why, thank you, Cally. What a clever idea.” She telepathically tells him, “Blake will return,” and he says out loud, “You can bet your life on it. In fact, you’ve just bet both our lives on it.”

Worst bit: The Liberator-based stuff in the second half of the episode – Blake, Jenna, Vila and Gan travelling through an asteroid field – is inconsequential filler.

Review: This is a fun, self-contained episode built on Agatha Christie clichés: a murder mystery, a small, defined group of suspects, an enclosed environment, cryptic clues, and observant, insightful detectives. The suspects are middle-management types aboard a spaceship stocked with 1970s office furniture, but they’re distinctive enough to make the puzzle engaging. Blake bosses the first half of the episode, then once he’s left the stage Avon dominates the second half. Prophetic, that.

Eight homing-beam transmitters out of 10

Next episode: Duel

Blake’s 7: Seek-Locate-Destroy (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A mission to steal a Federation cypher machine results in the loss of one of Blake’s team. Then a space commander is tasked with hunting him down…

Series A, episode 6. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 6 February 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Blake (6) and his pals teleport down to the planet Centero to steal a device that will allow them to eavesdrop on Federation communications. He again acts like a team leader on a management-training course, coordinating his colleagues and chivvying them along without actually doing much himself. The mission seems to go well, but when they return to the Liberator it becomes clear that Blake didn’t count everyone back in: Cally has been left behind, seemingly killed in the explosion our heroes set to cover their tracks. Later, Blake is shaken further when he learns his old nemesis Travis is still alive.
* Jenna (6) spends the episode aboard the Liberator, manning the teleport machine like some kind of receptionist.
* Vila (6) helps in the mission on Centero, where his lockpicking skills come in very handy. He also gets a comedy moment or three.
* Gan (5) plants the explosives on Centero, then uses his brute strength to detach the cypher machine the team are stealing.
* Cally (3) has a key role in the mission: she keeps watch on the Federation scientists and stormtroopers while the others half-inch the cypher device. However, her prisoners overpower her, she loses her teleport bracelet, and she’s caught in the explosion. Her colleagues assume she’s dead, but she actually survives and is found by the Federation investigator… (Don’t worry: Blake rescues her at the end.)
* Avon (5), being the computer expert, is the one who identifies the cypher machine and then makes use of it back on the Liberator. Conveniently, one of the first secret messages he hears tells him and the others that Blake’s old enemy Travis is on their trail.
* Zen (4) imparts some exposition now and again.
* Supreme Commander Servalan (1) is a Federation bigwig in a position of authority below the unseen president. She’s a relatively young woman who dresses in a Princess Leia-like, all-white frock. Aboard her spinning space station, she’s briefed about Blake; her underlings fear that he’ll become even more powerful if the myths and legends about him continue to spread. So she appoints an officer called Travis to seek, locate and – that’s right – destroy him… Actress Jacqueline Pearce plays against the writing and gives a languid performance. This is clearly a character of enormous power and strength, but she’s not going to rant and rave about it.
* Space Commander Travis (1) has been the subject of an inquiry after he oversaw a civilian massacre. But Servalan is satisfied that the deaths were necessary so appoints him to track down and kill Blake. Travis – a man dressed all in black leather with an eye patch, a robotic hand and a John Wayne walk – was involved in Blake’s pre-amnesia arrest, and the two men clearly hate each other. He’s played by a committed Stephen Greif.

Best bit: On Centero, Vila needs to distract two guards. So he breezes up to them and says with a smile, “Hello there! How are you? Excuse me wandering about your premises, but I wonder if you can help me. I’m an escaped prisoner. I was a thief but recently I’ve become interested in sabotage – in a small way, you understand, nothing too ambitious. I hate vulgarity, don’t you? Anyway, I’ve come to blow something up. What do you think would be most suitable?” Then Blake creeps up behind the guards and whacks them over the head.

Worst bit: The Centero sequence also contains a laughably awful robot sentry – a cheap-looking, juddering, postbox-shaped machine that totters about the power station being used for the location filming.

Review: The mission-of-the-week is a MacGuffin, and neither Cally’s apparent death nor her subsequent return to the Liberator seems to affect her friends that much. Instead, the main purpose of this episode is to introduce two new recurring characters: it’s the series putting faces onto the previously nebulous Federation. There’s also a significant change of tone going on. In episode one, the Federation was represented by cold, cynical, humourless bureaucrats. Now, however, we have Servalan and Travis, two camp, moustache-twirling, pantomime villains. Travis even gets a hammy, maniacal soliloquy at the end of the episode (paraphrase: “I’ll get you, Blakey!”). But at least the pair complete the Robin Hood theme that’s been building across these episodes: Blake is an outlaw on the side of the downtrodden masses; his cohorts include equivalents of Maid Marian, Will Scarlet, Little John and so on; they even dress in green jerkins. Well, now we have King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Seven laseron destroyers out of 10

Next episode: Mission to Destiny

Blake’s 7: The Web (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Liberator is ensnared by an enormous cobweb in space…

Series A, episode 5. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Michael E Briant. Originally broadcast: 30 January 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Like the rest of the crew, Jenna (5) has found some more new clothes in the Liberator’s storerooms. This week, she’s sporting a rather fetching burgundy dress with pastel detail on the shoulders. Her main contribution to the plot is a moment when the antagonists psychically take over her body and speak through her, which is a bit hammy.
* When the Liberator’s systems go wrong, Blake (5) assumes that one of Avon’s private research projects has caused the issue. But once it becomes clear that someone on a nearby planet is to blame for the ship being tangled up in an interstellar cobweb (no, really), Blake teleports down to the surface. He finds two strange scientists (who turn out to be from Cally’s planet: small galaxy!) and a race of angry midgets called Decimers. The former created the latter via experimentation but now want the energy resources to wipe them out. This puts Blake in a moral dilemma: unless he helps, the Liberator will forever be trapped.
* Cally (2) only joined the crew last episode, but early on here she’s acting very strangely. She sneaks around, boshes Vila over the head, sabotages the ship… But we soon learn she isn’t herself: the scientists are using her via physic powers to trap the Liberator in the web.
* Zen (3) reports that the ship is suffering from a deliberate malfunction.
* As mentioned, Vila (5) is knocked out cold. But his day improves when he finally gets to use the Liberator’s neutron blasters – something he’s been looking forward to.
* When the craziness begins, Avon (4) deduces that Cally is responsible. Well, she did ask about a vital bit of machinery just before it went on the blink. Not for the first time, the strikingly selfish Avon saves Blake’s life (when a small explosion is triggered in the cargo bay). He later moots to Gan that they could moneytise the Liberator’s advanced technology.
* Gan (4) restrains Cally when she’s under the influence of the bad guys.

Best bit: The Decimers storm the scientists’ base and violently tear them apart. I mean, really violently. You see ripped flesh and gore and bones and everything.

Worst bit: There’s an awful lot of boring procedural dialogue aboard the Liberator. Scenes of the regulars on the flight deck and staring at a viewscreen we can’t see seem to go on and on.

Review: As it was produced at the same time, by some of the same people and in the same building, it’s not surprising that Blake’s 7 shares a lot of similarities with Doctor Who. Both were mostly made on brightly lit studio sets. Both used video for indoor scenes and film for exteriors. Both stuck largely to non-diverse casting choices. The Web, however, feels more like an episode of Space: 1999 – despite the vastness of space, our characters randomly bump into something, are threatened by some out-there sci-fi nonsense, and get caught up in the very boring storyline with drab guest characters. Then just as you’re losing the will to carry on, some poor actor has to play a withered head in a water tank. The first rubbish episode.

Four fully charged flutonic power cells out of 10

Next episode: Seek-Locate-Destroy

Blake’s 7: Time Squad (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

En route to a Federation communications installation, the crew of the Liberator stumble across a mysterious space pod containing cryogenically frozen people…

Series A, episode 4. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Pennant Roberts. Originally broadcast: 23 January 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Blake (4) has a plan: the first ‘mission’ for the newly assembled team. He’d clearly rather not discuss it, however, and forces through the idea that they travel to Saurian-Major and destroy a vital Federation communications node.
* Jenna (4) teaches the others how to pilot the Liberator, then after a mystery pod is found floating in space, she teleports aboard it with Blake. In the second half of the episode, she gets a big subplot mostly to herself: the pod’s cryogenically frozen occupants wake up and attack her.
* Avon (3) is vocally cynical and obstructive when Blake pitches his plan to knock out a Federation installation. But he knows that he’s better off aboard the Liberator than on his own so eventually goes along with it. Despite the antihero vibe, Avon even saves Blake and Jenna’s lives when they’re running out of oxygen aboard the pod.
* Zen (2) behaves very strangely, refusing to help and speaking in a fractured manner…
* …so Gan (3) suggests that the computer might have a ‘limiter’ that restricts how much he can help them. Later, Gan admits to Jenna that he killed the man who murdered his partner. He now gets headaches and we see that he has an implant in his head – presumably the same kind of ‘limiter’ he mentioned earlier.
* Vila (4) gets a few droll lines, then is coerced into accompanying Blake and Avon to the planet Saurian-Major, where they encounter…
* Cally (1) is a solo guerrilla fighting the Federation on Saurian-Major. She’s from the planet Auron and can communicate telepathically (though not read people’s thoughts). At the end of the episode, she accepts Blake’s offer to join the Liberator crew, meaning the team is now up to the number promised in the series title (as long as you count Zen, which is the intention). Actress Jan Chappell doesn’t get a massive amount to do in her debut; it’s just an introduction.

Best bit: Investigating the pod, Avon attempts to deduce its purpose. “No sign of any weapons,” he says. “In fact, there isn’t much equipment at all. Either they were headed for a civilised destination where they expected a friendly reception or…” – he grins a fantastic, shit-eating grin – “…we are missing the point entirely.”

Worst bit: The spell-it-out-for-the-viewers chat to clarify the extent of Cally’s telepathic abilities.

Review: There are two plots this week, which don’t especially have anything to do with each other. Sadly, in both cases the set-up promises more than is delivered. Cryogenically frozen people from the past being found and thawed out is an idea that crops up in several science-fiction TV shows: Star Trek (Space Seed, 1967), Star Trek: The Next Generation (The Neutral Zone, 1988), Red Dwarf (Justice, 1991), Babylon 5 (The Long Dark, 1994), and more. The Blake’s 7 take on the concept leads to some good horror-movie-esque scenes of Jenna trapped alone in the cargo hold with the newly awoken people. It’s creepy, well shot, and Dudley Simpson’s incidental music is spot-on. But it’s all a bit superficial because the frozen people are just character-less plot devices. Meanwhile, the action story down on the planet sees Blake, Avon, Vila and new pal Cally complete their mission remarkably easily. At least it gets the show out on location, ticking off Blake’s 7’s two favourite landscapes: a quarry and a power station.

Seven paraneutronic generators out of 10

Next episode: The Web