So, Robert Holmes and Blake’s 7. There seems to be a well-tapped vein of thinking that he wasn’t quite suited to the series and that his scripts correspondingly weren’t all that. Killer, I thought was solid, but Gambit… I think is superb. A sparkling, densely constructed gem that calls back to many of his pet obsessions and even manages to give the increasingly one-note Servalan and Travis decent roles. And there’s a treasure trove of ex- and future Who supporting actors spattered across it. And George Spenton Foster rises to the occasion after not being arsed with Voice from the Past. It’s very funny too.
The first thing we see in this episode is Travis walk into a saloon dressed as a gunslinger, shooting Zeek (who’s about to get murderous with Denis Carey’s Docholli – known at this point as Kline. Carey played the Keeper of Traken, of course, and less memorably showed up in Timelash). There’s an air of “What loony thing is Travis going to get up to this week?” by now, which kind of suits Croucher’s less than threatening performance.
It also signals Robert Holmes being given a shopping list of elements to include in a script long before JN-T/Saward came a-knocking. Here we have Travis, Servalan, the cybersurgeon who will lead Blake to Star One (I suspect Docholli’s final exposition was by Boucher, though), but Holmes manages to make it all about the story he wants to tell.
Freedom City is as colourful, vital and decadent as the previous Space City wasn’t.
As for Docholli, he starts off seeming to echo one of Holmes’ rogues gallery characters, a bit Rohm Dutt without the dreadful accent. Except there’s intimations that he has a heart of gold owing to his saving lives on the crippled freighter Barlee (on which Travis was a passenger). You’re never in doubt about Travis’ motives (self-nominated protector of Docholli), because Croucher couldn’t find shade under a weeping willow.
Prospects don’t look good for the crew having an interesting time of it as Blake nominates himself, Jenna and Cally to go looking for the cybersurgeon. A repeat of leaving Vila behind when he visited Space City. Ironic, as the two who would fit in seamlessly (well, Jenna would be okay) in a world of pleasure seekers are sidelined for a couple of sore thumbs. Cally seems to be wearing Mary Tamm’s cast-offs. What ensues is that the three nominal leads don’t have much to do for most of the episode, which focuses on the supporting characters, while the most interesting and entertaining plot thread is given to Avon and Vila (Holmes would reap dividends again by pairing these two up to less jolly effect in Orbit).
More Who thesps show up in the casino; the croupier is none other than Amelia Ducat (Sylvia Coleridge, The Seeds of Doom, rather alarming but batty as ever), and gives us a taste that Holmes will be indulging his penchant for the theatrical and music hall in this episode.
And then there’s Deep Roy as Klute (the Possican Delegate from Mindwarp, but better known to all as Mr Sin in The Talons of Weng-Chiang), who’s diminutive predilection for violence recalls the Collector in The Sun Makers. The death-by-speed chess conceit is a little on the dubious side as a viable game, although it is stated that most opponents of the Klute are utterly plastered by the time they play (and Vila evidences this at the climax). The rudimentary BBC computer graphics for the chess matches seem sweetly nostalgic now.
The revelation of Servalan’s presence is hardly that, but it’s nice to see Pearce in a lusty, revealing red dress, apparently embracing the carnality of her surroundings. We quickly discover dirty sexcapades aren’t on her mind, although that doesn’t stop Krantor (Aubrey Woods, the Controller from Day of the Daleks, again – grotesquely – painted of face and loving every minute of his OTT character here – I think he’s brilliantly cast) from offering her the works. If she tells him her requirements she will receive the most sophisticated and subtle forms of satisfaction. Missus!
Holmes makes Servalan a brilliant manipulator in this one, pre-dating Trau Morgus and giving us reason to see why she has gained such eminence in the Federation. The back and forth between her and Krantor is full of playful and witty dialogue (Krantor’s “Oh, how sad. Try a Pataki cake” when she tells him she is here on business is beautifully dismissive of the all-powerful empire). Holmes seems to enjoy being more overt in his references to the illicit in this more adult-orientated series; Krantor’s not so subtle sexual innuendos and offer of drugs (the cake is highly stimulating, containing the distilled venom of a local reptile). The title refers not just to the Klute’s chess game, but Servalan’s playing of Krantor and Travis, and the agreed 8 million credits for Docholli and Travis (dead or alive) gets Krantor thinking about why she wants them so badly.
Holmes ensures the two characters despise each other’s values; Servalan threatens Freedom City’s freedom from Federation interference, while Krantor is apoplectic that she should even dares to suggest such a thing. I wonder if Krantor’s “An eyepatch? Oh, how quaint” is a dig from Holmes at how lowbrow Nation’s imagination could be at times; after all, he had to contend with the unintentional hilarity of “one-eyed” Guy Crayford as script editor of The Android Invasion. Krantor knows how to push Servalan’s buttons too, disrespectfully repeatedly dropping the “Supreme” when addressing the Commander.
And good old K9 (John Leeson) is marvellous as the camp Toise, Krantor’s right-hand man. It really isn’t a cliché to discuss Holmes and double-acts in the same breath, as his scripts almost always include at least one. Here we have Krantor and Toise, Avon and Vila, Servalan and Jarriere, and (more romantically) Docholli and Cherie. Krantor and Toise’s exchange of superficial chat over their costumes is replace by more pressing machinations concerning how best to deal with their visitors; he’s intent on extracting whatever secret Docholli holds before handing over his body (which is just what Servalan expects).
Darrow and Keating delightfully play the camaraderie of rejection indulged by Avon and Vila, in respect of missing out on Freedom City. Avon’s plan to beat the Big Wheel (the computer controlled casino that fixes the odds 5% on the house’s favour) is both right up their street and ridiculous (since it involves hoodwinking Orac into shrinking himself to one eighth size so they can smuggle him in). But the low cunning that Avon uses (Glitz and Dibber would later do the same to Drathro) is very amusing.
Vila: Beautiful! Avon, there are times I almost get to like you.
Avon: Yes. Well, that makes it all worthwhile.
It feels like there’s a missing scene in here somewhere as the cut from Travis, no longer in the bar to being down in a loading bay, is quite sudden. He gets jumped by Krantor’s men (nicely not shown in a red-lit silhouette on the wall). One of whom, Cevedic, is played by Paul Gist (Bill Filer in The Claws of Axos).
Giving Servalan a fawning stooge seems obvious with hindsight, but it’s Holmes who realises that it boosts her character. Cedevic is an idiot, but no doubt indulged by Servalan because he is loyal; her later intricate explanation of how she has considered everything and whatever Travis or Krantor do, she wins, is a lovely piece of doublethink that understandably leaves Cedevic reeling in bafflement. Servalan really is at her best here; devious, witty and immensely likeable in her intelligence. Which is fortunate, as her character has really been slumming it so far this season. The colourful bile spewing from her mouth is also pure Holmes.
Servalan: When the Federation finally cleans up this cesspit, I shall have that vulpine degenerate eviscerated with a small, very blunt knife.
She should get a hamster to do the eviscerating.
Perhaps the tinsel in the loading bay wasn’t the best creative decision of the episode, but the design is mostly very rich (Ken Ledsham also worked on Spenton-Foster’s The Ribos Operation).
The croupier’s patter recalls the Vorg and Shirna in Carnival of Monsters, while the setting up of the rules of speed chess in the first 20 minutes, then not returning to it until the last ten, mean that we’ve forgotten all about it until Holmes deftly reintroduces the plot element. To recap, players must make a move in five seconds or lose a pawn. If a player forces a draw with the Klute or wins they get 1 million credits. If they lose, they get electrocuted by the Klute, as the unfortunate who challenges him at this point does. Dudley Simpson composes a jolly bit of electronica for the chess match.
The reveal that Avon and Vila have been watching proceedings is a nice touch too.
I wasn’t completely sure about the bomb-in-Travis’-arm plotline, as we learn at the end that it wasn’t rigged to blow. It’s clear that Servalan wanted Krantor to eavesdrop on this plot, so presumably it was just there to give impetus to Krantor’s search for Docholli. Holmes writes Travis like he thinks he’s in an episode of The Sweeney, which is appropriate.
Travis: Is that your new muscle, Servalan? Looks like a powder poof.
Servalan: Yes. Well, let’s forget the pleasantries.
Halfway in, and there’s hardly been any of Blake, Jenna and Cally, not that you miss them. They have made their way to the bar where Cevedic, threatening Cherie, gets a typically Holmesian line in verbal violence; “If you’re lying to me, I’ll tear your face off!”
Possibly none-too-wise of Avon to let Vila play the roulette wheel while he relays Orac’s instructions through the Liberator bracelets, as Vila is getting increasingly plastered on blue milk and making more bets than Avon would like.
And the cheating is very obvious, such that Krantor notes Vila’s behaviour even if he’s oblivious to how exactly he’s winning. As a scam, it’s none-too-subtle, but the joy is in them beating the house rather than examining whether it holds up under analysis (the later chess match is even more in-your-face).
There’s a touch of Binro the Heretic to Carey’s wistful performance and his scenes with the sympathetic Cherie are quite touching (their goodbye, “See you again, Cherie” “Maybe” is as appropriate as their underplayed affection). Making room for an aging almost-romance is unusual in itself.
The staged fight between Cally and Jenna is without doubt the least convincing thing in this episode, and neither Knyvette nor Chappell put much into it.
This sets up the convergence of Blake, Travis and Docholli in the landing bay. Having been unceremoniously duffed up earlier, Travis proves surprisingly adept at taking out Krantor’s men this time (more of a Greif Travis there).
The progression from victory at roulette (fortunately for our anti-heroes the wheel is shutdown before Vila can push it too far) turns amusingly into likely disaster as Vila, under the influence, agrees to play Klute at speed chess.
Complete with a reaction shot of Avon spitting out his food! I had genuinely forgotten Deep Roy by this point, and it really shows how well-rounded this script is that Holmes pulls him out of his hat as a final challenge.
I like how Avon, faced with the choice of giving up their five million credits or encouraging the now sober Vila to play a death match, chooses the latter.
And the sight of the Klute realising he’s being bested is great fun. As is John Leeson calling out Krantor.
The exposition given to Docholli regarding Star One is rather unwieldy, and it smacks of Boucher needing to set up The Keeper. I get the idea of him wiping the memories of those who worked there, but the rest is rather clunky; explaining that the last person he operated on was also a cybersurgeon who went to ground on the planet Goth and then a tribal chief had his brain print on a thong round his neck? It smacks of a desperate set up and is rather unwieldy.
As if underlining his lack of prowess, Croucher makes no attempt to hide his real arm in his pocket (his fake one has been removed). And on the subject of Travis groaners, yet again Blake lets him go. At least Jenna gamely offers to shoot him.
For once, the comedy antics with everyone back on the Liberator feel entirely appropriate. Avon and Vila have returned in the nick of time.
Blake: We managed to reach Docholli.
Avon: Oh, great. Wonderful. Terrific.
And, of course, they wouldn’t indulge in a cheap shot cut back to Orac, having returned to normal size and crushed his carry box.
Hugely entertaining. Not just the best episode of the season, but the best episode of the series so far. Maybe hardened fans regard it as a bit of a cheat to fete an atypical episode, but they are often the ones in series that are the most memorable due to placing tried and tested characters in an original scenario or format. Certainly, that would later be true of The X-Files.