Blake’s 7: Assassin (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Hearing that a killer has been hired to hunt them down, the Scorpio crew decide to find him first…

Series D, episode 7. Written by: Rod Beacham. Directed by: David Sullivan Proudfoot. Originally broadcast: 9 November 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Avon (45) and the others discover that a mysterious and expensive assassin called Cancer has been mentioned on a communique of Servalan’s. Assuming that Cancer has been employed to kill them, Avon argues they should bump off Servalan before she can make the payment. So, following a clue from the communique, Avon and Vila teleport to the planet Domo and the former deliberately gets himself captured by some space pirates. He’s then placed in a cell with an elderly man called Nebrox (Richard Hurndall), who comes over all Basil Exposition and tells Avon about the slave auction they’re both due to be part of. Nebrox also recently saw someone arrive, buy a prisoner and leave – Avon reckons it must have been Cancer. At the auction, where Servalan is one of the bidders, Nebrox manages to help Avon escape. So Avon takes his new pal back to the Scorpio and the gang chase after Cancer’s fleeing ship (which handily has a painting of a crab on its hull). When they catch up and teleport aboard, Avon finds Cancer – a large, imposing man – holding a simpering woman hostage. After the assassin has been subdued, the woman, Piri, explains that Cancer bought her from the slavers for sexual purposes. Avon then lies in wait for Servalan to show up. But soon Cancer gets loose, Nebrox is found dead, and is ship is disabled. Oh no! It gets worse: Avon is then knocked unconscious and tied up. When he comes round, Piri reveals the shock plot twist that no one saw coming: *she’s* Cancer, and the large, imposing man is an actor she got from the slavers as a decoy. She tries to kill Avon with her signature weapon – a poison-delivering mechanical crab – but thankfully Tarrant and Soolin burst in and kill her.
* Vila (46) is the one who stumbles across Servalan’s message about Cancer and Domo and ‘five targets’. Later, he and Dayna take the Scorpio back to base while the others continue with this week’s plot.
* As well as Servalan (24), one of the bidders at the slave auction – which, like so many Blake’s 7 location scenes, takes place in a non-descript bit of wasteland – is played by Betty Marsden off of Carry On Camping. (Others are non-speaking white actors in various ‘ethnic’ costumes.) We’ve come a long way since the fascist psycho-drama of episode one…

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Servalan wants to buy Avon and is willing to outbid anyone – but he then scuppers her plan by escaping. Later in the episode, it’s revealed that the communique giving away her plan to hire an assassin was a plant: Servalan masterminded the whole thing, and actually ends the episode believing that Avon and Tarrant have been killed in an explosion.
* Tarrant (20) thinks Avon might be scared of Cancer – and he’s right. Tarrant later flirts with Piri, who at this point still seems to be a dippy drip of a woman.
* Dayna (20) teleports down to Domo to help with Avon’s escape. When she spies Servalan, she attempts to kill the woman who murdered her father (yes, it’s time for that plot point to be remembered!) but she fails.
* Soolin (7) has heard of Domo, the planet mentioned in Servalan’s message. Ten years earlier it was colonised by space pirates. Later, during a Die Hard section of the episode set aboard Cancer’s ship, Soolin is brilliantly cold and harsh towards the wet Piri. She’s then nearly attacked by a mechanical crab… but just as it approaches unseen, she has a eureka moment and jumps out of its reach. What has she realised? That Piri is not what she seems…
* When the initial threat is discovered, Orac (29) counsels the gang to find Cancer before he finds them.

Best bit: There’s a great sequence when our heroes are searching the ship for Cancer. It’s compelling and there’s good incidental music too.

Worst bit: Sadly, this episode has a real disparity between the quality of the location filming and the scenes recorded in the studio. The latter stuff is well paced, well lit and inventively shot. Tension and atmosphere are generated. But when the episode is outdoors, the filming style is so drab and staccato.

Review: A decent and fun episode marred by two things: the hamfisted location scenes and the spectacularly obvious plot twist, which is based on the idea that the audience won’t even consider the possibility that an assassin might be female. The characters assume Cancer is a man, and we’re meant to as well. In the plus column, Soolin has a meaningful role to play in the storytelling. A rarity.

Seven vems out of 10

Next episode: Games

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Blake’s 7: Stardrive (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Avon learns about a new, super-fast propulsion system, he insists the crew track down its creator…

Series D, episode 4. Written by: James Follett. Directed by: David Sullivan Proudfoot. Originally broadcast: 19 October 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Tarrant (17) and the team have found an asteroid that, if they shadow it, will allow them sneak into the Altern system and acquire some much-needed fuel for the Scoprio. Later, though, the craft is damaged and Tarrant and Avon have to set about fixing the problems – they work with only a force field shielding them from the vacuum of space.
* Avon (42) advocated the mission to Altern 5 to get some selsium ore, but then takes the risky decision to fly within just 50 yards of the asteroid. After the plan goes wrong and Scorpio is badly struck, his colleagues quickly turn on him. A new mission then presents itself when Avon learns about a high-tech stardrive – can they steal one for the Scorpio? Their quest leads them to the planet Caspar, home of the vicious Space Rats. (Vila explains that they’re ‘maniacs, psychopaths; all they live for is sex and violence, booze and speed.’) Avon callously sends Vila and Dayna on as a distraction, then teleports to the Rats’ base with Tarrant and Soolin. They manage to nab a stardrive and also rescue a scientist called Plaxton (Barbara Shelley, trying gamely to add some dignity to proceedings).
* Soolin (4), Dayna and Vila spot three pursuit ships while Avon and Tarrant are repairing Scorpio, but then the ships mysteriously explode. Later, Soolin watches a recording of the disaster and realises that there was another craft nearby – one so fast it must have a new type of engine.
* When the explosions are still a mystery, Dayna (17) is given the first shift of analysing the 10,000 frames per second of the recording. Later, she and Vila are sent on a mission to negotiate with the infamous Space Rats. But the Rats turn on them and kidnap them. Dayna then attempts, unsuccessfully, to pretend that she knows Dr Plaxton, the Federation scientist who developed the new drive and who has been working with the Space Rats.
* Vila (43) isn’t happy with Avon’s asteroid plan. Then, after it’s gone awry, he quickly gets drunk and leary. (Or so it seems. He actually fakes it so Avon won’t ask for his help in fixing the Scorpio.) When the team watch back the footage of the explosions, Vila recognises that the killer craft belongs to a Space Rat.
* Slave (4) does some more answering-questions-and-sounding-like-Parker-from-Thunderbirds.
* Orac (26) watches the recording of the explosions but refuses to tell the others what caused them. He does later reveal that Dr Plaxton has perfected a photonic drive that uses light to exert thrust. It’s nicknamed the ‘stardrive’.

Best bit: With the Scorpio damaged and drifting in space, Slave reports that the life-support system will last a further 151 hours. ‘By the time the oxygen runs out we’ll be bored as well as dead,’ quips Soolin. (The episode’s Star Wars-style screenwipes for passages of time are quite fun too.)

Worst bit: The Space Rats. They should be violent, threatening, sneering, dangerous Hell’s Angel punks – like something out of Mad Max. But they just come across as silly with their Day-Glo costumes and love of words like zap and splat.

Review: It takes around 20 minutes for the Space Rats to show up, and this is emblematic of episode as a whole. It wants to be an urgent, visceral, life-on-the-edge thriller, but there’s no drive, no momentum. The Scorpio crew don’t actually affect what’s happening on Caspar until the last few minutes of the story.

Six gooks of 10

Next episode: Animals

Blake’s 7: Traitor (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Scorpio crew investigate why the Federation is rebuilding so quickly and encounter a mysterious figure called Commissioner Sleer…

Series D, episode 3. Written by: Robert Holmes. Directed by: David Sullivan Proudfoot. Originally broadcast: 12 October 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Avon (41) hears that the expanding Federation has annexed another planet, and wants to know why they’re making so many gains all of a sudden. So he sets course for Helotrix, one of the oldest Earth colonies. Despite his burning curiosity, however, Avon is happy to stay aboard Scorpio while his colleagues teleport down and investigate. Later, he’s stunned when Dayna and Tarrant return and tell him that while on the planet they encountered Servalan…
* Orac (25) is working on a redesign of the Scorpio that will increase its speed – and rather naively hacks into the local Federation network to glean some information. Prat.
* Dayna (16) is also concerned by how many worlds are being brought under the fascistic wing of the Federation. Once at Helotrix, she and Tarrant beam down and do some snooping. They find a population who have been pacified by drugs, allowing the Federation to take over with ease, then hook up with local resistant leader Hunda. (For the second episode running, there’s also a reference to Dayna’s skin colour – which was never an issue in the third season.)
* Vila (42) moans about the Federation expansion, fears the gang will soon be caught, laments that they no longer have a ship as fast as the Liberator, advocates fleeing, and generally spends the episode being a whiny little bitch.
* Soolin (3) is now part of the gang but spends the whole episode sitting around, occasionally saying something disposable and not actually doing anything. (The story goes that Glynis Barber is saying lines written for Cally before Jan Chappell quit the show. No wonder the latter left.)
* On Helotrix, Tarrant (16) and Dayna also meet a Federation officer who’s supplying information to the resistance and learn that the pacifying drug is being synthesised nearby. (They don’t know, however, that Officer Leitz is a double agent working for a shadowy Federation figure called Sleer.) The pair head for the refinery and find a blind man in a wheelchair. He invented the drug that ‘adapts’ people, but only did it under duress from Sleer, who’s been torturing him. Before they escape the planet, Tarrant and Dayna catch a glimpse of the elusive Sleer…
* Slave (3).
* At first, Federation bigwig Sleer is only discussed – and anyone who’s ever paid attention to how dialogue works will spot that every character refers to Sleer in an unusual way. Whenever mentioning Sleer, the person will call Sleer by Sleer’s name, pointedly avoiding any personal pronouns that would give the game away that Sleer might possible be – how’s this for a monumental plot twist? –  a *woman*. A woman in a position of authority and power? Imagine! Later, someone sneaks into a local politician’s office and kills him, but the scene is shot in such a way that we don’t get a good look at the assassin. Then we hear Sleer’s voice over a radio and it’s been artificially disguised. Even though we’re told by a Federation character that Servalan (22) was killed recently, it’s not a huge surprise when it’s revealed that she’s on the planet, bumped off the politician, and is now going by the name Sleer.

Best bit: Christopher Neame’s performance as a calculating Federation officer called Colonel Quute. He obsequiously goes along with what his superior says, but you can see the snarl and sneer behind his eyes.

Worst bit: Poor Soolin. She was a secondary character in the season opener, and then crowbarred into a perfunctory scene in episode two. Now, she’s seemingly been accepted by the regular team… but between episodes. So there’s no getting-to-know-you scenes, no focus on her as a character. Surely she could have taken Tarrant or Dayna’s role in this story, which would have given more screentime, more dialogue and a chance to interact with someone meaningfully.

Review: This is a typical Robert Holmes script, in that the dialogue is peppered with telling references to unseen locations, events and people that imply a larger world without us having to know the context. The incidental music, meanwhile, often makes you think of a stiring, stiff-upper-lip war movie. Enjoyable enough stuff.

Seven red-hot filaments through his nerve centres out of 10

Next episode: Stardrive