Whilst I’ve always held Season Four as my favourite of Blake’s 7, there’s little doubt that it doesn’t get off to as strong a start as any of its predecessors. And the return of Ben Steed and his curious obsession with rather mundane explorations of sexual politics doesn’t bode well for this second episode.
Indeed, I can’t really make much of an argument to counter anyone who regards this as a bit shit. But I did enjoy it for the most part. Despite the rather literal take on a battle of the sexes, the daft plotting and the rather ill-fitting marriage between what we just saw in Rescue and the civilisation outside the base. I wonder if the creators of Lost ever saw this, and designed an inverse world where we discover the exterior before the interior environment.
We’re presented with a decidedly lunk-headed depiction of warring “tribes” but there’s a fair amount of humour on display (one can only speculate on how much of this was Boucher) and a highly enjoyable swathe of exposition from Avon at the end when he gets to do his best Hercules Poirot since Season One’s Mission to Destiny (one might read into the climax that also he gets to shoot his hot death spunk into an unyielding she-bitch as a display of masculine superiority if one was to interpret this along Ben Steed lines).
There’s also a lot of creaking, groaning and toe-curling in places. Primitive tribes never tend to fare well in sci-fi, and there are hints of Hostage’s unenlightened environment here as well as that of Deliverance. Fortunately, Mary Ridge keeps the pace snappy and the introduction of a countdown clock is usually a good move if all else fails.
We sort-of pick up where Rescue left off, in that the crew are trying to break through to the hangar bay (well, Vila is). But Avon is preoccupied with activities involving Orac that don’t become fully clear until later (he tells the computer he needs teleport now, but I’m not sure how he was expecting it to suddenly work). Avon’s not being that sensible here, quickly getting captured by Hommiks who show that this season’s communication bracelets are as crappily made as the Liberator’s. We’re told that Soolin has disappeared and see that there’s also a trio of wandering ladies who know about Xenon base.
Steed sets up the Hommiks as “When men were men!” types, except that he seems to be attempting a critique of some description by having a semi-self aware thick chap as their leader. Dicken Ashworth (Sezon in Timelash) makes Gunn-Sar quite entertaining, and his dialogue is frequently amusing (the discussion over whether Gunn-Sar can claim victory over 25 or 26 challengers). All this testosterone appears to bring out Avon’s chivalrous side at first, as he prevents Gunn-Sar from striking a wench. I suspect a first season Avon would have remained uninvolved.
Avon: You have a fetching way with women.
This devolved society has the whiff of a careless take on Boucher’s The Face of Evil, but Steed is more interested in his ongoing sexplorations (instead of Sevateem and Tesh we have Hommiks and Seska). Which means that Gunn-Sar can name a petroscope without a second thought but needs to be reminded by Cato of his speech preceding a challenge.
The business involving Dynamon crystals doesn’t seem sufficiently well-developed for making the leap from the telekinetic powers of the Seska to the teleportation requirements of Avon’s system. Avon suggests that Pella lacked the technical skills to develop a teleport for Scorpio, but she clearly had enough knowledge for Avon and Orac to make it functional once the Dynamon crystal was added to the equation.
Juliet Hammond gives a strong performance as the scheming Pella, by turns warm, brittle and fearsome. Her scene with Vila trying to break through the hangar door works well.
Pella: You must be very clever.
Vila: That’s what I keep telling everyone.
It establishes the ticking clock for the episode (a nuclear compression charge will go off in 48 hours) and the misdirection of how she got in and out of the base through a locked door. We’re also set up for the connection between Dorian and the Seska (he’d bring them nutrients to subsist on, but we don’t learn in exchange for what until later).
However, Power never feels anything other than an afterthought on what the outside world of Xenon must be like; a bit like the way that The Sontaran Experiment is forced to jigsaw with The Ark in Space but not quite yielding. Wouldn’t Dorian have attempted to prey on the inhabitants of the planet, or have built up a disturbing reputation over 200 years (like Solon/ Morbius on Karn)? Rescue feels like we’re being shown an uninhabited planet and, while the teleport plot works in terms of explaining Dorian’s lie about the ship in Rescue (not knowing what it was), it nevertheless seems like a quick fix to get the show up to speed rather than something crafted with due care.
Mary Ridge has been thrown a bit of a duffer, but directs with due diligence. With Vere Lorrimer in the producer’s chair we’re fortunately saved his workmanlike approach, as this is just the sort of story we’d expect him to have helmed in previous seasons.
Orac is well-catered for (Steed’s scripts make a point of providing a significant role for him), showing suitable disinterest in the fate of the base until his existence is in danger, and coming over all cryptic when a straight answer concerning how Pella got in and out of the base would have expedited sorting things out (Dayna notes that Avon is the only crew member whom he shows any respect to, and that’s likely because Avon gets all threatening if Orac doesn’t cut through the shit).
It’s unclear what exactly the operation on the Seska consists of (presumably the crystal in the neckbands amplify whatever “chakra” in the neck that is deactivated through the operation). How did the Seska reports in Xenon base end up there? Did the Seska provide them to Dorian? I’m assuming that Dorian wasn’t lying when he said he built the base.
Certainly, the timeline wouldn’t work for it to have belonged to the Seska, but the timing on all this is rather skew-whiff. The history on the discs stopped 20 years previously, and Pella says that the Seska came to the planet because it was Earth-like. But how did they arrive and why didn’t they make tracks as soon as the hostility of the Hommiks was known about? Presumably the Hommiks are indigenous and, despite their penchant for “converting” Seska, they have their own women (or they’d die out). But it’s not been thought through properly, nor clearly explained.
Steed attempts some kind of differentiation between the attitude of Nina, a Seska convert who enjoys being a “woman”, and Pella, who sees her as corrupted and abused. And while the actual relationship between Gunn-Sar and Nina is surprisingly touchingly portrayed, there’s a stacking up of elements that don’t really help Steed’s case if he doesn’t want to be accused of (at very least) promulgating sexist viewpoints.
This is most evident in the relationship between Avon and Pella. True, it’s not the greatest story for Avon in some respects; he gets knocked on the bonce a couple of times and spends a good deal of the proceedings unconscious. But he also acts the alpha male and conqueror of those women who want to be free from the oppression of men. His scene when he overcomes Pella’s telekinetic powers and then seals his victory by planting a smacker on her lips is incredibly cheesy.
Avon: You see, Pella, it’s your strength, and however you use it, a man’s will always be greater. Unfair, perhaps, but biologically unavoidable.
And later, after he’s well-and-truly penetrated (killed) her, he comes to the tritest sub-Kirk of conclusions (only relieved somewhat by Slave’s fawning response that he has no opinion on the matter).
Avon: It’s a problem, isn’t it? You can have war between races, war between cultures, war between planets. But once you have war between the sexes, you eventually run out of people.
If Steed’s trying for insight, he fails completely by making his female protagonist clumsily unlikeable (despite Hammond’s performance), someone who’s willing to kill one off her sisters to succeed.
While we’re discussing identification, it’s curious that in the fight with Gunn-Sar she comments that the black woman must win; since there are no other women fighting it seems like an unnecessary qualification.
On the other hand, Steed’s cack-handedness also reaps unexpected dividends; the scene where Nina comes to see Gunn-Sar and he’s embroidering a shirt is an unexpectedly hilarious touch.
So Cato’s been killed by Avon (at Pella’s will) while explaining the history of the tribe; I can’t help think it happened at the precise moment he was going to discuss the Seska because Steed couldn’t be arsed to work it all out.
And then we get Dayna fighting it out with Gunn-Sar in a decidedly mucky clay pit. How everyone must have loved filming this (particularly as Avon had to duke it out earlier).
Avon’s fight deserves a mention, not just for his shit-eating grin before getting down to the scrap but also for the brassiness with which he announces he will be fighting with just a glove.
At least Dayna’s got her balls back this week, so to speak. Well, until it proves necessary for the Seska to do in Gunn-Sar (couldn’t they have engineered the deaths of the Hommiks when their numbers were so much greater?) And unfortunately, she gets probably the cringiest line in the episode:
Gunn-Sar: Don’t be foolish. You’re, well, you’re a…
Dayna: A woman? Yeeesss. Take a GOOOOD look.
If it wasn’t for the relish with which Darrow takes command of the last five minutes, I’d probably give this only two stars. While Pella is attempting to manipulate the rest of the crew in order to make her escape (in the ten minutes remaining) Avon has put everything together, including somewhat unbelievably a working teleport.
He confronts Pella, saying that she was taking Dorian for a ride with claims of constructing a teleport. And it’s good to see suspicious old Avon present and correct in not trusting anyone not to take off without him (hence making up a false password and instructing Orac to relate it). Darrow even delivers “tele-ergotron” as if he believes there is such a thing.
Effectively, the suddenly working teleport is a magic wand effect; we never get an idea of the leap that needed to be made between whatever Pella didn’t come up with and the finishing touches that Orac and Avon connived.
Avon arrives on Scorpio and shoots Pella. So, of course, Steed makes a tedious comment about men and guns but also has the hero, Eastwood-style, “shoot the bitch”.
Pella: That always was the easy answer for the man — the Hommik!
Avon: If you didn’t want the answer, you shouldn’t have asked the question.
It’s a curious choice to have everyone teleport onto Scorpio at the end. Presumably to go for a spin around the solar system? Soolin’s announcement that she doesn’t show allegiance rather she sells her skill doesn’t have much oomph as a last line, but I’m glad to see Barber back.
(The script online for this says that Avon is pointing his gun at her when she whips hers out, but he isn’t; he’s just looking at her nonplussed).
Yes, it’s shit, and makes bugger all sense. But I did rather enjoy it for the most part. Thank goodness that’s the last of Ben Steed, though. Crazy, messed-up kid.