Blake’s 7: Sand (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While on a mission to find out why the Federation is so interested in the planet Virn, Tarrant has an encounter with Servalan…

Series D, episode 9. Written by: Tanith Lee. Directed by: Vivienne Cozens. Originally broadcast: 23 November 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Servalan (26) has come to the planet Virn to investigate a distress call from a pilot called Keller. He crashed there five years previously and had reported a unique trace of life on the planet. Along with an officer called Reeve (Stephen Yardley), Servalan lands on and walks across the barren, rocky desert to Keller’s prefab base. But it’s not a successful sortie: they get lost, a lackey mysteriously dies, and then they bump into Tarrant. After Tarrant has killed Reeve, Servalan flirtatiously offers a truce – and the enemies investigate the base together. There’s sand inside, the computer system has gone loopy and they find Keller dead, though his body is still warm. The base is then enclosed by shifting sands, trapping them inside…
* Vila (48) gets drunk when things start to go pear-shaped aboard the Scorpio.
* Dayna (22) and Tarrant teleport down to Virn to learn why the Federation expedition has gone there. But Reeve soon spots them and shoots Dayna in the arm, so Tarrant sends her back to Scorpio. Unbeknownst to anyone, she brings some sand up with her on her boots…
* Soolin (9) pilots the Scorpio; tends to Dayna’s flesh wound; and generally stands around looking fiercely sexy with a side-on ponytail.
* Avon (47) is the one who pitches the idea that the team should visit Virn. If the Federation are there, he argues, it must be for something useful – and he’d rather the Scorpio gang have whatever it is. Later, when Avon sees the sand that Dayna has brought up from the planet, he deduces that it’s dangerous and in some way sentient. But he also discovers that liquid can combat it, so he engineers a rainstorm on Virn.
* Once Dayna’s teleported back to the ship, Tarrant (22) encounters Reeve and kills him. After Servalan has revealed that she’s on the planet too, the pair are locked inside the base. They share a meal and flirt. (The fact the characters have barely interacted before this episode doesn’t seem to be important.) Tarrant also realises that the sand is alive – it has the ability to suck life out of people like a vampire and also has the power of reason. For example, it leaves potential couples alive so they can breed and produce more ‘food’. Servalan and Tarrant end up sleeping together, but later – after the rainstorm has dampened the sandy threat – he teleports back to Scorpio, leaving Servalan alone…
* Orac (31) has to be switched off when he’s affected by the goings-on and tells Avon that he loves him.
* Slave (8) also gets some bizarre dialogue.

Best bit: In a rare moment of sincerity and vulnerability, Servalan tells Tarrant that she was once in love with Keller. He left her when she was a teenager and, bitter at the rejection, ‘power became my lover.’ Tarrant later admits that she might have been lying to him as a manipulation, but we viewers know she wasn’t.

Worst bit: While speculating on the plot, Soolin tells the others that she ‘seems to recall you telling me of an alien trying to take over the Liberator through Cally.’ Do we think the others have sat her down and explained the storylines of all the episodes she missed? There were 39 of them, so it must have been a long evening: ‘Then Brian Blessed showed up… There was that time Avon thought he was Columbo… Dayna got menaced by a giant crab-spider-thing-type-thing… We met Cally’s sister and Tarrant’s brother, both of whom looked exactly like them… Did we mention when we got sucked into a black hole?’

Review: This is an episode high on both atmosphere and subtext, and there’s a real richness to the dialogue. It’s also plotted and paced very well and the drama is brilliantly played and directed. Sadly, the production lets the side down now and again. The scenes on the surface of Virn – a jarring, embarrassing clash of CSO, videotape, film and model shots – are pretty naff, for example. But it’s easy to forgive when the story keeps the attention, when the key scenes are so enjoyable, and when Servalan is more than just a Cruella de Vil with caustic quips.

Nine girls next door out of 10

Next episode: Gold

Blake’s 7: Games (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Attempting to steal a valuable resource of energy, the crew of the Scorpio encounter both an old foe and a man who enjoys playing games…

Series D, episode 8. Written by: Bill Lyons. Directed by: Vivienne Cozens. Originally broadcast: 16 November 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Avon (46) has heard about a new power source – Feldon crystals, which provide an infinitely inexhaustible supply of energy – so has devised a plan to steal a large stash worth 900 million credits. Without telling his colleagues, he’s even made contact with an expert to help them – an academician called Gerren. The geezer who runs the crystal mine then gets in touch and offers to give the gang some Feldon if they help him escape the clutches of the Federation… Belkov is a fruity, charismatic man who enjoys playing all manner of games and puzzles. (If this episode were made today, he’d be a teenage hipster who gulps Red Bull as he bashes away at a keyboard.) However, when Avon and co finally reach where the Feldon crystals should be, they’re not there. The whole thing was a con: Belkov just needed someone to take the blame for his theft of the loot.
* Dayna (21) doesn’t trust Belkov as far as she could throw him, which as Vila underlines wouldn’t be very far. (Well, he is skimming millions of credits’ worth of profit off the top of his Federation-sanctioned mining operation.) Later, she stealthily comes to the rescue when Tarrant and Vila are caught by guards near the mine – but soon after, Belkov betrays the team and locks them up, hoping they’ll be blamed for some Feldon he’s swiped.
* For the most part, Soolin (8) has another episode where she hangs around on Scorpio, looks pretty, and asks male characters questions so they can appear clever. Her one moment of focus this week is when the gang attempt to break into Belkov’s ship, Orbiter. He’s booby-trapped it with interactive computer games (of course he has), so Soolin uses her quick-draw skills to win the first round.
* Orac (30) explains that Feldon is the hardest substance in the universe. (‘And currently the most valuable,’ adds Avon.)
* When Avon lays out his plan, Tarrant (21) has a concern: he wants to ensure they’re stealing the crystals in order to use them, not to sell them and risk them ending up back with the Federation. When the crew arrive at mining planet Mecron II, Tarrant, Dayna and Vila take Gerren with them to find the cache of crystals. Tarrant also has to try his hand at one of Belkov’s booby-traps: a flight simulator not too dissimilar to that land-a-jumbo-jet game they used to have on The Krypton Factor.
* Vila (47) is initially bored by Avon’s lecture about Feldon, but perks up when he learns how much money they could make On Mecron II, he uses his lockpicking skills and then is given a side mission by Orac: steal a complex circuit from Belkov’s female-voiced artificial-intelligence unit. He tries talking her into giving up the circuit and letting his friends free from their prison… and he succeeds on both counts. Yay, Vila!
* Servalan (25) has come to Mecron II because she – rightly – assumes Belkov is on the take. But when she makes it clear that he’s in deep shit, he uses the fact he’s made contact with Avon and co as a bargaining chip.
* Slave (7).

Best bit: Pitching his plan to steal the Feldon crystals, Avon lists the problems they face. One is the fact that the prize is ‘protected by a security system that’s supposed to be impassable.’ Vila replies, ‘They’re *all* supposed to be impassable.’ That’s an amazing pun, that is.

Worst bit: Servalan’s appearances got monotonous and unimaginative a while ago. It’s also dreary that the show has distilled the entire threat of the galaxy-wide Federation into one character – the regulars never come up against other officers or officials.

Review: There’s an awful lot of plot for a 50-minute episode of Blake’s 7. It’s a nice change from previous stories that take half an hour to gear up, but maybe there’s too much here. Games is occasionally so swift it’s hard to follow. Some moments – the rescue of an injured Gerren, for example – are simply skipped over. But things are kept enjoyable, thanks in part to a fun, detailed performance from Stratford Johns as Belkov. He’s a game-player, a manipulator, so it ain’t a huge shock when he betrays our heroes. But he’s very entertaining along the way.

Eight recalcitrant chiefs out of 10

Next episode: Sand