Chris Boucher completes his trio of Season Three single character-centric episodes. If Death-Watch is the least of them, it nevertheless fits into the good side of a clear divide in quality this season, between crap but fun and very good-to-great. There’s not much between those poles as there has been in previous seasons (although I’ve enjoyed the crappy fare far more than many seem to).
Ironically, much of the episode’s focus isn’t really on Tarrant at all. It’s a showcase for Steven Pacey doubling up as his brother Deeta, complete with a dodgy wig and silly silver fighting suit. This is the third such indulgence leads have had in the series (after Thomas in Weapon and Chappell in Children of Auron) and on that score it’s probably the best such vehicle. Helping considerably is Gerald Blake, whose assured direction makes up for his hit-and-miss work on Harvest of Kairos.
Boucher comes up with perhaps the purest SF premise of the season in his warring planets duelling it out through champions rather than full-blown conflict. He does this aided by a virtual reality concept that seems very current in an era of first-person gamers and reality TV, since this combines the two. Viewers can partake of the direct experience of the champions by wearing a disc of their choice of combatant (a bit bigger than a corpse marker). I expect Boucher lifted the idea from someone else, but that doesn’t detract from how fresh it feels.
One of the pleasures of Boucher’s teleplays this season has been a willingness to tell exactly the story he wants to tell, rather than feeling the need to fit it to some sort of template of how we expect the format to operate. It means that his storylines have the additional benefit of not unfolding in a predictable fashion. To some extent the Liberator crew are rather side lined in this one (no one leaves the ship for the first twenty minutes) but it gives him the opportunity to sketch out an intriguing portrait of a planetary system outside of the Federation’s grasp.
It helps too that the inevitable involvement of Servalan is based on her machinations to extend the Federation’s power, rather than chasing the Liberator again. Although it has been a not infrequent fall-back to have worlds outside their rule as the focus for stories, here it doesn’t feel stale because the set-up is involving.
The opening scene with Deeta works effectively provokes multiple questions and resists answering most of them. We have neither explanation for Pacey playing someone else, nor a clear one for the attempts on his life aboard the passenger liner. Other than mentions of rules and that he is a champion. Boucher threw us into a stories where we had to play catch up in his other entries this season and it’s a winning way of constructing a narrative. The only question mark is whether it, and we, can stand double the Pacey.
It looks as if Boucher’s going to drop the ball when conversation aboard the Liberator turns to the need for relaxation, at Vila’s instigation. His suggestion of visiting the war between the United Planets of Teal and the Vandor Confederacy at first seems like a rum kind of holiday, until we get the explanation concerning the method by which they settle disputes.
There’s a reasonable debate concerning the morality of entertaining themselves with a fight to the death between two chosen champions (Tarrant notably defends it as hardly crude, based on rules and honour and chivalry, and avoiding mass bloodshed), in which Cally is the lone voice of dissent at indulging in such unedifying behaviour. (She does have a moment of girlish fun as Vila chases her from the flight deck, though; she’s just told him she’ll enjoy remaining on the ship as he won’t be there.)
The key factor of protection for the crew as neutral honoured guests (provided they abide by the rules) is reasonable motivation as far as attending is concerned. Although, Boucher does rather push the “making it up as he goes along” with rules to fit whatever scenario he wishes to engineer as the story progresses (notables are Dayna being let off the hook and Orac’s suggestions at the end).
The crew have a bit of costuming money thrown at them this week, the most alarming result of which is Avon’s massive shoulder guards. Somehow Darrow just about pulls it off, but it looks neither practical nor particularly stylish.
The spacecast introducing events doesn’t quite work, or perhaps it’s that it now seems like something we’ve all seen many times before. The off-air friction between the commentator (David Sibley, Pralix in The Pirate Planet) and his producer is rather leaden.
Better are the seeds of intrigue sown by the news that Deeta’s opponent is someone who has no history; Deeta smells a set-up, and is convinced that Vinni is not a professional killer. Deeta’s scenes with Max (an excellent Stewart Bevan, of The Green Death) are particularly well played throughout; Max is probably the best drawn of the supporting characters, earnest and sympathetically clumsy in his appointment to the death-watch of the title.
The premise of the champion fighting a war so others don’t have to is a strong enough premise, but the added layer of virtual reality is a masterstroke (in particular it precedes Kathryn Bigelow’s underrated Strange Days, where the experience of the death of another person is also shown to be profoundly affecting). The sparkly effects on Deeta’s eyes as he downloads the virtual programme are quite nifty too.
The arrival of Servalan as an arbiter adds to that sense of intrigue. As if Gaddafi was announced as one of the judges of Britain’s Got Talent. Boucher remembers that Dayna has a history with Servalan, even if it’s a bit late to be jogging of our memories at the opposite end of the season to her murder of Hal.
Tarrant’s arrival to see his brother (who demurs until the battle is over) results in further exposition on arrangements from Max. You do get a slight feeling that, having come up with a solid premise, Boucher finds himself required to duck and weave to make the logic hold up. If Deeta loses, the Convention will require Teal to surrender two-thirds of its fleet and three of its planets. Which sounds a bit unlikely in terms of practicality.
While he has by no means the largest role, Avon is used for maximum effect. By this point I’m sure Boucher could write him in his sleep and, from his cryptic remark to Vila and Dayna (returning to the Liberator, finding proceedings to be disappointingly dull) that he’s gone to visit a sick friend to working out a strategy to prevent Servalan from organising an actual war between the planets (and thus the need for a Federation incursion), he’s well catered for. Even his support of Tarrant’s situation is shrewdly judged, galvanising the crew into taking necessary approach to aid him but not offering any uncharacteristic words of sympathy.
His cheeky scene with Servalan, teleporting down to confront her, snog her, then teleporting away again with a warning that he will stop her, is enormous fun. And characterised consistently, with Avon’s involvement centring on the challenge of defeating his opponent rather than any particular sense of moral outrage.
Dayna: How was your friend?
Avon: Sick as ever.
So from this point Boucher balances the script between the emotional investment of Tarrant in his brother’s physical challenge and the intellectual puzzle that Avon must solve in order to prevent the rules of the contest being violated. And, of course, these two threads dovetail in the final act.
While Pacey isn’t given strong character distinctions between Deeta and Del, he acquits himself well in suggesting subtle differences. Mainly in the relationship between Deeta and Max, we sense a slightly softer, more likeable brother (perhaps Boucher opted not to make them twins to avoid obvious parallels with Cally; fortunately, although both stories ended in the death of a sibling, it never feels like the episode is treading the same ground as Children of Auron).
Boucher finds time to recall characters’ broader defining points with the viewing of the tournament. Avon asks Dayna to experience Vinni’s actions (Tarrant and Vila follow Deeta); as an instinctive fighter she will notice anything odd about his behaviour (although Cally gets in there with a few feelings on events too).
Despite being outfitted in silly silver suits begging for the casual viewer to ridicule the show, Blake stages the encounter between Deeta and Vinni tautly. The industrial wasteland is an atmospheric location, and the director sets up distinctive shots such as framing through a broken window. The death of Deeta, thrown backwards in slow motion accompanied by thundery sound effects, is also arresting. As are the responses of Vila (a stunned “No!”) and Tarrant (silent tears).
Orac’s deduction that Vinni is a highly sophisticated android is perhaps a bit of an obvious explanation for the match-fixing (a drug heightening the reactions might have been less blatant). But we also see something of a first this season; Tarrant (seeking revenge) and Avon (seeking to prevent Servalan’s plan from succeeding – which involves testing Vinni to reveal there has been cheating) working to one goal without any bickering.
While Dayna’s arrival in the arbiter’s room and threatening of Servalan (in order to allow enough time for Tarrant to get his challenge to Vinni in) makes for a dramactic scene, there is a cumulative sense of there being as many rules as Boucher needs to make his plot work (so Tarrant has the right to challenge Vinni as this represents a blood fued, while Dayna is only banned from the planet because she committed a minor technical violation). I’m none too sure about Tarrant being allowed to carry a gun designed by Dayna either, since the earlier rules required weapons chosen by the arbiters.
That said, the showdown between Tarrant and Vinni is tense, and his disintegration makes for a neat solution; it’s a testament to Boucher’s ability with pacing that most of the more suspect elements of the plot are easy to wave by.
I like the entirely logical dig at corporations that Boucher throws in too; very predictive of ‘80s “greed is good” mentality and resulting cynicism. Servalan may have been involved, but so was an arms-manufacturing cartel; after all, they’re the biggest losers under the current code of engagement. And one of its directors is a member of the High Council of Vandor. This is the kind of plotting that creates a far more interesting, textured future environment than the black-and-white villainy of Travis every week.
Avon’s reference to Orac as the crew’s legal advisor is an amusing touch but, as I mentioned earlier, some of the intricacies of the rules don’t bear much scrutiny.
Avon: Well, as a matter of fact, our legal advisor, Orac, suggests that as Servalan called for a medical examination that never in fact took place, the result of the contest between Vinni and Deeta is technically void. If you lodge an objection, that contest will have to be fought again.
Avon: Orac has two other suggestions to make. First, you use your veto to get a change of neutral arbiter. Second, you make it clear from the outset that Teal will require a medical examination of both contestants before the fight.
It’s a wonder such a precedent had never been established before this, and unlikely that it wouldn’t be de rigueur afterwards. And, while it provides a neat finish, the parting “gag” complicates matters further:
Avon: Orac had another interesting legal point to make. According to the rules of the Teal-Vandor Convention, you are now the new First Champion of Teal.
Since Tarrant was responding to a personal blood feud, I don’t see why he’d be elected champion. Certainly, their rule book sounds insanely complicated and could probably trip anyone up.
Boucher completes a hat trick of quality Season Three episodes, and manages to wrest Tarrant from a mire of inconsistent characterisation and general wankerishness. If he changes somewhat in Season Four, this represents a reasonable motivation, with the loss of a sibling (the third crew member to say goodbye to family during this run) and an arrival at a certain unvoiced understanding with Avon. The script has a quite a number of holes, but unlike the lesser efforts of the season it is written and directed confidently enough that it is easy to let them pass.