Possibly the least exciting title in a series that has had its fair few dull ones, this is also another episode in Season Four where, yes, the crew abjectly fail. It’s been suggested that this is a depressingly downbeat aspect of the final season. I’d argue, however, that the only depressing aspect of this story is the inevitable appearance of Servalan and the failure by the crew of Scorpio to do anything to put the kibosh on her.
We don’t expect success because this a classic heist gone wrong plot, in the spirit of The Italian Job or The Lavender Hill Mob, with a gang of thieves beset by double dealings, failures of plans and remounts of plans; it’s pretty rare for a classic heist to go right. In fact, you watch such capers waiting for the screws to tighten; put of what sustains them is the fallibility of the protagonists. It’s also impossible to come away from an episode on a downer when Avon, always one to recognise the irony of defeat, ends it with the most uproarious laugh of the series.
Possibly it would have been better to have Gold and Games positioned at different ends of the season, as their robbery plot premises and larger-than-life guest stars draw superficial attention to the repetitions. However, having them this close underlines in the clearest terms so far that this crew is no longer considering rebellion as a primary motive. It may feature in their objectives, but so does the accumulation of prizes and laying their hands on anything that may be rare or sought after (if it pisses off the Federation, so much the better).
This can lead to stumbling speculations (Sand) or calculated risks (here); a clear plan of attack has not been nominal leader Avon’s style. His approach is more about intellectual challenge and curiosity (although this also means that there are occasions when his penetrating logic should just say no while the demands of the plot say yes). At no point in this story is there any suggestion of the crew putting all this money to good use. After all, if they had that in mind it would have made for a particularly sour ending – they may have come away empty-handed, but they have also remained intact. Not so for one rather rotund guest star.
There’s a huge amount to enjoy in this episode, and it’s striking generally how well-paced the last half of the season is proving to be, both in terms of tight scripting and direction. Brian Lighthill does fine work throughout. If he had an eye on the model work too, it wouldn’t surprise me. It’s some of the best the series has seen, and the muzak of the Space Princess played over such shots creates a wonderful ambience to the piece. It’s something that Hyperion III in Terror of the Vervoids, 5 years later, singularly failed to achieve. It’s also superior to the on-a-budget Nightmare of Eden’s Empress (though I like the inventiveness there).
Colin Davis’ sole script for the series is tightly coiled. In relation to the ultimate failure of the crew, it has also been noted that this a feature throughout the story. The initial raid on Ziroc comes a cropper, so the gold is turned black anyway. Then there is the doctor substitution resulting in Dayna getting dosed, the security camera cube being knocked and Avon, knowing it’s a set-up, continuing in the hope of coming out on top.
While the model work in this is mostly very good, I did wonder about the scale of Scorpio when it docks with the Space Princess; a bit large next to a passenger liner? The docking harks way back to Space Fall, albeit with a somewhat sturdier linking mechanism. Vila’s pretty much relegated to a ship bound supporting role, although he does get credited for his suspicious nature by Avon, and rightly so. Of course, he and Avon will be less pally next episode.
Keiller: Your friend, Vila, he wants no part in this?
Soolin: He doesn’t trust you, Keiller. He thinks it’s a trap.
Avon: And frequently right.
Roy Kinnear’s a consummate scene-stealer, and while typecast as the fat comedy sidekick (The Three Musketeers), he gets to show a malevolent glint occasionally here (most notably when he guns down the ship’s doctor in cold blood).
I wonder if this episode lodged in Eric Saward’s brain, as Keiller’s repeated greeting to Soolin of “Pretty one” (he’s not wrong) is very similar to the way Mr Jobel addresses Peri in Revelation of the Daleks.
Interesting too that he refers to the crew as “getting to be big news”. I wonder what this comment relates to; presumably not the Blake-led Liberator crew as they had already become big news. But Avon and co haven’t been up to all that much on-screen Federation-bashing this season.
The set-up for the ship’s status is well-considered.
Keiller: I told you, it’s incognito. Listen, every so often they send up a highly armed ship with security written all over it, bristling with guards. And every so often someone attacks it and gets killed. Which is crazy. Because that ship’s carrying fruit. We carry gold with hardly any guards.
The changing of the atoms of the gold for transit is a neat twist, and is perhaps a spin on the alchemist’s dream of converting lead to gold. That said, the plan to visit the mine and tamper with the processor to prevent the conversion from taking place is rather clumsy, certainly as executed by the crew. They couldn’t be drawing more attention to themselves, and the first thing you’d expect the guards to do would be to check the shipment thoroughly if they’d succeeded with their plan (perhaps they did anyway).
It’s also a throwback to the first couple of seasons to have location shooting on an industrial location. The status of Zerok as independent from the Federation never comes under much scrutiny until the revelation at the end of the episode that it has ceded to them. One wonders how the Federation allowed it to remain so for such a long time when it held invaluable assets.
It’s interesting to see the unreserved approach Avon and Soolin take to killing the guards here; even if the suggestion is that they were justified as they were actually Federation (the different weaponry), they weren’t to know that from the outset and were therefore showing quite a ruthless streak in killing for gain (particularly since Soolin later recriminates Keillor later for shooting the unarmed doctor).
This whole sequence has an edge to it, partly because it culminates in the fake-out of Avon and Soolin’s deaths but also because you can see that the crew is struggling against the tide in trying to make The Ziroc Job work.
And we’re with the crew back on Scorpio in wondering just how Keiller was involved and what – if anything – he did to Avon and Soolin, until we find out they’re safe. It’s a bit lazy of Tarrant and Dayna not to even check the bodies, though.
The reteaming of Avon and Soolin here echoes Games. It may just be a matter of convenience on the part of writers, as Dayna and Tarrant have become something of a mission team themselves. But they do seem like a natural fit in their no-nonsense approach and lack of warmth (tellingly, Soolin is the most pissed at Avon come the climax).
It’s certainly asking for trouble for Avon to proceed with the heist, but the episode moves at such a pace that you can only really dwell on his strategic failings in retrospect.
The further details on the operation of the Space Princess show a fairly elaborate cover story; the ship goes straight to Earth, with faked planetary flybys and permanently drugged-up passengers. Avon’s even more on to Keiller once he discovers he was on the President’s personal staff (“But which President?”)
Back on Scorpio, the revelation that they cannot teleport the gold due to the process it has undergone is an inevitable obstacle but one that fits with the set-up.
The kick-off of the pleasure liner part of the story comes with Dudley’s (I presume it was Dudley) rather wonderful muzak, and the incognito crew entering into the spirit of things. Avon lasciviously eyes up a blonde in a blue dress (the extras here circulate rather frequently) while Pacey goes for it with his drugged-up acting, predicting the end of the decade’s ecstasy-craze.
There is also some getting us up to speed that requires attention; Dayna being dosed (to appear to be a drug addict) by Keiller because a replacement doctor came on board. This perhaps doesn’t pay off as it should, partly as the execution is rather confused when it comes to Avon bursting out of a door with a gun raised (why intervene with the doctor at that moment?) and partly because Dayna gets to play gumby again (making a habit of it this season; it’s like she’s the new Vila) by flailing at Avon, asking for help (and how come she’s completely fine a scene later – presumably Avon gave her the antidote, but it’s a rare fumbled moment in the episode).
Before that, Keiller and Avon’s movement of a container of black gold is not without its pitfalls. Firstly, Keiller manages to switch off the video loop of the cube camera device, and then he sets off a booby trap within the crate.
This appears to be a device to put further suspicion on Keiller (that he’s doing it on purpose) as the mistakes don’t actually go anywhere (and usually slip-ups like this come back to haunt heisters).
While the idea of requiring the ship to return to Ziroc (and thus requesting help from a neighbouring vessel – Scorpio – to transfer the stricken Dayna) is a clever one, the reasoning that “Being an alien she won’t be given drugs on Earth” seems a rather convenient and unlikely scenario (why exactly won’t they be given drugs on Earth?) Tarrant mugging happy-happy-joy-joy to the doctor is good fun, though.
I wasn’t sure how Captain Kennedy (Norman Hartley, of The Time Meddler and The Invasion) figured in this; did he just represent a computer voice that could be used to say whatever was necessary as part of the ship’s masquerade? I suppose this must be the case.
The disengaging docking tunnel also echoes Space Fall, but this time it is Avon in danger. For the second time in the episode Vila teleports him to safety. It’s a tense sequence, and well edited (although Darrow does like his operatic falls – it probably saves on the knees to do them that way).
As I said, the twist of Servalan’s involvement is nothing of the sort, and given the inventiveness elsewhere (and the regaining of this in the final scene), it’s a shame something better than her showing up couldn’t have been thought of. Particularly when it’s in a sand pit (is this the same one as in Stardrive?) At least Dayna doesn’t deliver a really inept display of outrage at her again while completely failing to kill her (although she seems to be on the verge of a fit of histrionics).
The Mexican stand-off, with Avon told he will be the first to die if anyone fires at Servalan, is all-too predictable if just about a reasonable cop-out. Really, though, they should have taken the kind of risk they did with the Season Three climax and just offed her for good, unexpectedly, in one episode.
Another fake-out that any caper aficionado would expect is a switching of suitcases. But Avon doesn’t even appear to check that the money is in the case (and that there isn’t a bomb in it). As it turns out, Servalan has pulled off one of her best schemes, but it might have been better if the crew were seen to be considering all possibilities for being duped.
By this point Keiller hasn’t shown enough lovability for it to be a sour note when Servalan has him killed, although I do think it might have been more fitting to leave him stranded.
Soolin: Avon, why didn’t you tell us that you knew who it was who was setting us up?
Avon: Would it have made any difference if I had?
Tarrant: You know damn well it would. Servalan’s not just some greedy gangster.
Avon: Surely that is exactly what she is.
It should be Avon’s last moment of triumph in the episode, as the look of seething contempt that Tarrant shoots him (no doubt as a result of his up-close-and-personal encounter with Servalan the previous episode) is a wonderful moment. But then it all falls apart. Orac’s presence in this episode has been perfunctory and always issuing bad tidings. Not only has Ziroc joined the Federation (if this had been Season One it would have focussed on Blake preventing this with Avon after the loot) …
Orac: The Federation banking system will now take over that of Zerok. All bank notes drawn by the Bank of Zerok will be declared invalid within seven days and all private transactions will be illegal directly. The consequences of this are clear.
Tarrant: Yes, they’re clear all right. Aren’t they, Avon? We’ve just risked our lives, for nothing.
Soolin: Not for nothing, Tarrant. We risked our lives to make Servalan rich.
Another great moment with the shower of worthless notes that she throws over him, underlined by the pure Darrow of the static pose he adopts throughout the revelations and while the paper flies. And then, his response in defeat is so unbowed you have to love the guy more than ever.
The third top class episode in a row, and the highlight of the season thus far. A great script, assured direction and only the ubiquitous Servalan to really gripe over.