1.2: Space Fall
I owned a copy of the BBC video release of the butchered first four B7 stories, and it was Space Fall that made the strongest impression (I joined the original broadcast of the series during Season Three). The difference between this and The Way Back is very evident in terms of atmosphere, and as such it feels like a second pilot, or the way in which US TV commissions a pilot and then rejigs a significant number of elements (tonally, cast or otherwise) by the time the series begins. It’s interesting to note that this was shot before the opener.
Despite the first episode being very much its own beast, Space Fall is in many ways its equal. While The Way Back feels, to some extent, as if the characters are being moved about in order to meet the demands of where the plot wants to get to and the world it wants to establish, Space Fall (despite having been as well-catered for plot-wise) places the characters front and centre. This is where we get to know the future crew of the Liberator. And, really, where we get to know Blake. He instantly falls into place when squared against Avon, but more of that later. Less essentially, in just two episodes the cross-pollination of casting with Doctor Who (in many cases within a year or so of each other) is glaring, and mostly good fun to spot.
Pennant Roberts’ work on this episode is much more consistent than on his Who stints. He doesn’t bowl you over, but at no point are you acutely conscious of someone just going through the motions. Indeed, he sets his stall up from the opening shot, sweeping down from a high angle to show the prisoners’ seating deck.
The crew of the London are all recent or soon-to-be Whoveterans; Glynn Owen gives a very humane performance as Commander Leylon. Either the accent got the better of him, or he just couldn’t be arsed as Rohm Dutt in The Power of Kroll. Leslie Shofield (Caleb in Roberts’ The Face of Evil) relishes his role as the sadistic Sub-Commander Raiker while Norman Tipton as Navigator Artix is as wet as he would be in the same month broadcast of Underworld (as Idas). There’s nothing particularly polished about the setting up of the various characters, but it’s accomplished economically and without fuss. Which is important, as later their roles will be as significant as The Way Back’s defence counsel. You know when Leylon tells Raiker to be discreet in dealing with Jenna that he’s going to be a complete bastard.
A couple of other points about this scene; the prisoners have suppressants in their rations, but you’d never know this if you hadn’t been told. The crew of the ship have clipboards with strange symbols on. Just as long as they know what they mean.
The effort to make the series “realistic” is evident in the decision to have the journey to Cygnus Alpha last eight months. Raiker’s little talk with the still-confined Blake is a bit clichéd (“I didn’t hear an order, SIR”) but it serves to build the lines of conflict. Likewise, Raiker slapping Jenna when she whispers something rude in his ear is unsubtle, but it works like a charm in making you look forward to his good riddance.
Avon. There he is. Looking inscrutable.
There’s something about Paul Darrow’s effect on a scene that is very akin to the way Tom Baker imposes himself. Their energies are very different (Tom propels himself forward, Darrow rather bridles demanding your attention) but they both command their scenes effortlessly. Gotta love Paul Darrow.
The different characterisations are so quickly and confidently established that you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d been doing this for years. Jenna and Vila’s repartee is fun, although Keating’s approach to playing the fool is at times I’M PLAYING THE FOOL – maybe this changes as we move along, or maybe that exaggerated performance style was why I liked his character so much when I was younger.
When Avon opens his mouth, it’s to explain how the doors in the craft work.
Avon: Most computer-based functions are.
I love how his dry wit instantly establishes him as someone who not only thinks of himself as superior to everyone else in the room, he knows that he is. And you believe him too. The exchange also sets up his barely concealed contempt for Blake’s principles, sealed in the later exchange between the two in the ship’s computer room. He’s also given a duly mythological backstory (the Number Two computer expert in the Federated Worlds, the Number One having caught him – his reason for failure, relying on others, is quite amusing.)
We learn that Jenna’s surname is Stanis in this scene, and that Avon’s first is Kerr. (Is it significant that Jenna and the “female” Vila are referred to by their first names but the dominant Avon and Blake are on surnames basis? The emasculate Gan is too, but I’m not sure I can face discussing Gan yet.)
The conversation regarding the faking of the running log, entertaining though it is in terms of Vila’s humorous hypochondria (he thinks the prisoners will be dumped out of the airlock long before they reach Cygnus Alpha), is slightly peculiar as it is implied that Avon has been “given” the idea of suggesting this to the crew as a course of action (it’s referred to again later, months later, but I can’t see Avon doing more than dismissing it out of hand). Blake revealing that he’s planning to take the ship is not unexpected, but…
I presume the rather nifty model shot of the ship flying by a spinning globe (an asteroid, given the speed of rotation?) signals that they have been en route for four months, as Roberts does nothing to convince us of this beyond Blake’s reference in a subsequent scene. But it’s taken Blake four months to get as far as exploring the ducting? And his calculated risk approach to trying to take over the ship while it is being battered suggests that for all his moral upstanding he’s not necessarily the best at practicing what he preaches.
The battering is, of course, the space battle that leads to the discovery of the Liberator. There’s something endearingly Great Escape/WWII about Vila distracting a guard with coin tricks while Blake emerges from the ducting. You half expect Blake to drop sand from his trousers. It’s Terry Nation all over. I’m frankly surprised that Avon would agree to go down the ducting while the ship’s hull is getting punctured (“Control the computer and you control the ship”).
Vila: I’ve got this problem with confined spaces. There’s a medical name for it.
For some reason the computer room (like the ducting) is shot on film (later the docking tube will be too); I can’t see the reason in this case (in the others, it marks out that texturally they’re close to an “exterior”), although it probably makes Avon’s fight sequence more dramatic and it certainly does the death of Nova (Tom Kelly, who had roles in The Face of Evil, The Sun Makers and The Invasion of Time), in the ducting as it fills with sealing gel.
It’s a mystery how Gan’s inhibiter (unmentioned at this point) inhibits him, since he all but strangles a guard in the attempt to gain control of the ship. Okay, Olag Gan. No… I’ve got nothing. The failure of the take over – dropping his gun when the crew are ordered and saying “I got confused” – really makes Vila too much of a buffoon.
Seven prisoners were killed in the attempted insurrection (so Blake’s doing well on the body count thus far) and Raiker’s free hand to prise Avon, Jenna and Blake out of the sealed computer room results in three more deaths. This gambit (Raiker shoots a prisoner every 30 seconds until they give themselves up) is very Destiny of the Daleks, so I assume that scene in Destiny was not one of the ones written by Douglas Adams.
Raiker is hissably off-the-leash by this point, set to reap an unspeakable revenge on Jenna until Leylon intervenes (“Mr Raiker have you gone completely mad?”) And Leylon facing up to the implication of his allowing Raiker carte blanche (everything will be in the report) means that we continue to be engaged by the plotline involving the crew.
The earlier scene in the computer room sees Blake setting out his agenda, and thus that of the series, so it’s worth noting that he wants to return to Earth and “tear the heart out of the Federation”, putting power back with the honest man. Avon’s disgusted response (“Have you ever seen an honest man?”) and Jenna’s acknowledgement that Blake might be that man gives us the season’s dynamics right there. Avon and Blake have a complete absence of common ground in terms of ideology. (Blake appeals to Avon’s responsibility to his fellow man, but Avon is having none of it; he would steal his 100 million credits and everyone else has the same chance as him.) Indeed, Avon’s pronouncement “Wealth is the only reality” is a particularly chilling ethos in the perspective of the past 30 years of capitalism.
Avon: What a fiasco! Your troops bumble around looking for someone to surrender to and when they’ve succeeded you follow suit.
36 minutes in and this our first sign of the Liberator. It’s a great design, and I’ll big up Pennant Robert’s competence in this episode again. The transfer tube sequence works very well, both as a model sequence and the corresponding interior. Even if the boiler suits and daft helmets of the crew sent on board are on the cheap and cacky side.
The exploration of the abandoned ship precedes the one in 2010: The Year We Make Contact by about seven years. Having the events related only by audio is an especially effective device. The manoeuvring to persuade Blake, Avon and Jenna to go aboard is quite deft, if foolhardy; the promise by the Captain that their sentences will be quashed if they succeed is unlikely to hold much sway as it seems unlikely that he would have the influence to ensure this occurred. There’s a decent shock effect as mad crewmember Krell bolt from the tunnel, foaming at the mouth, just before the trio enter.
The hallucinations encountered on the bridge are something of a damp squib after that build up, but it’s been such a lean, taut episode that this scarcely matters. I guess the sequence serves to mark out Blake as the alpha male (he resists the images, knowing that his brother is dead). It also suggests that Avon cares about someone (his brother) although this seems somewhat atypical of his later behaviour. Blake’s “It seems I can recognise dreams” in response to Avon’s earlier computer room put-down is a bit pat.
The sequence of Raiker getting sucked into space is another very well executed set piece. I wasn’t quite sure how to read Blake’s “I had a disagreement with Raiker. And then the hatch closed”, directed at Avon. Is it an admonishment, as Avon assumed command, or just a comment on the good timing involved (Blake had just been shot, after all)? Either way, it sets a precedent for the sparring between the two that will often finish episodes. So it’s off to Cygnus Alpha, to release the rest of the prisoners and “then we can start fighting back”.
Tightly scripted, commandingly performed and directed with accomplishment. This is another first rate episode. Blake is already playing second fiddle to Avon in his own show, as there’s no doubt Darrow knows it’s all about him (even if the producer, writer, script editor and director are not yet aware of this). I’ll probably comment more on this as the season progresses, but the approach to character and event is already marked out as very modern. This is an ongoing story, not one where the characters and plots are reset each week.