Blake’s 7: Duel (1978)

Screenshot 2018-01-14 21.40.09

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.
“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