After finally getting the three or four episodes that should have set the Scorpio format up properly at the start of the season all of a sudden we get six episodes of arc material squeezed into fifty minutes. Simon Masters chipped in with his first and only script for the show; he had written odd episodes of this and that but his main body of work was as script editor for The Brothers, a sort of proto-Dallas about a British haulage business that did very well but is now only remembered for making Colin Baker famous enough to be in the running for the Doctor Who job. You wonder if these skills at compacting were necessary to make "Warlord" work after so much time treading water.
All of a sudden after killing basically everyone they've met so far this series Avon has an alliance of anti-Federation planets he's head of, made up of whoever was hanging around the BBC canteen dressed in whatever a 4am raid on the Dramarama studio turned up. Genre fans should keep their eyes peeled for Queeg getting basically no lines and looking like he'd been told they'd be sitting at the conference table but once the camera started everyone began moving around. Genre fans won't be able to miss Rick "Cotton from The Mutants" James, though, back from the dole queue to make Dean Lerner look like John Hurt. "Words... are no more... than
You can appreciate the production reasons for these guys not being seen before but it's a shame a few inserts weren't slotted into earlier episodes, even if it was just a shot of Avon saying Tarl are interested in an alliance but, say, a big stack of gold or feldon crystals would really help things along so let's get raiding. Here it seems like Avon's anti-Federation zeal suddenly comes back out of nowhere; in the previous two episodes he seemed happy enough to just fuck Servalan over on a personal level. Still, it's harsh to decry motivation and means just because they only show up here; the problems with "Warlord" are largely caused by the first seven episodes of the year being shit - and the only half-decent Federation-orientated one, "Traitor", feels a long time ago... it perhaps would have worked better later in the season in an ideal world (with Sleer's identity kept a secret for longer), maybe swapped with one of the heist episodes; actually, in an ideal world Season 4 would probably have more than the running order changed.
The alliance is greatly boosted by the arrival of Zukan of Betafarl, with the resources to mass-manufacture a cure for pylene-50 - still the Federation's key tool of conquest and framed by a very spooky sequence of two bored troopers gunning down zombified citizens on moving elevators. I mean, who's to say Zondor's architecture wouldn't look strangely similar to an early-1980s shopping centre through parallel evolution? Anyway, Zukan's actually planning to double-cross Avon and leaves a series of traps at Xenon base as part of a deal with Servalan to leave his sector of space alone. He's actually decently-developed with a set of strong personal values - he acts this way because he feels it has his best chance of preserving his people, he refuses to give Avon's location away to Servalan and sacrificing a score of his own men to convincingly spring the trap clearly pains him. At the same time he's more than happy to literally blow right-hand man Finn out of the airlock and plays hardball with Avon about undoing the traps, so he is a bit of a dick.
The relationship between the Scorpio crew and Zukan is further inflamed by Tarrant, who's dicking his daughter Zeeona. He's not best pleased about that and Avon is clearly irritated by Soolin choosing to help Tarrant hook up again at the possible cost of the alliance. If Zukan wasn't already planning on screwing them over it would be another dumb Tarrant moment but as it is it's nice to see him get a little of his fire back and he gets to boss everyone around at the base once things go wrong as well. Soolin is again paired up with Avon for most of the episode and has a half-decent reason for helping out with Tarrant - it's a nice touch that her quick thinking on Betafarl unwittingly complicates things for those back on Xenon. Vila meanwhile gets to be whiny and cowardly when trapped in the Xenon base, but it's interesting that Tarrant is - despite being frustrated by his negativity - a lot nicer to him than usual, at least until he gets drunk and lays into Zeeona, needing the girls to bail him out of Tarrant smashing his face in. Dayna meanwhile gets to flap and overact at a screen; I'm guessing by this time Josette Simon had told the production team she was off at the end of the year, and their response seems to have been "great, we don't need to worry about giving you anything to do."
Of the rest Roy Boyd is rather good as Zukan while Bobbie Brown is probably one of the better young actresses to appear in B7, though it's hard to see past the dreadful orange Toyah-esque wig she's forced to wear; it says something that she actually looks more ridiculous than she did in Flash Gordon. The character isn't quite as wet and flapping as she could have been, or maybe she just doesn't look it next to Dayna. And I've seen "Warlord" a dozen times and I'm still not entirely sure what the thing about the glove is about; the removing of the glove of her suit and Avon's knowing response makes it look like suicide (ashamed of her father, I'm guessing) but to do it at that point after pleading for the lives of herself and the other four on Xenon base then beaming up to Scorpio and then going back down makes it feel like a case of odd timing, and up to this point she seems more angry with Zukan than ashamed. It's the only option but it does seem a bit odd.
The destruction of Xenon base is an odd thing though. It's not been used much beyond the opening episodes where the crew acquire it and "Headhunter" so it's never felt like home, with both characters and writers preferring to treat Scorpio as a surrogate Liberator for the most part. However, is it just me or does this episode seem to think it's on an asteroid or something with no breathable atmosphere? It seems very easy to trap everyone in a building with several exits and a giant launchpad on an Earth-type planet, though the actual scenes are nicely claustrophobic.
The other main reason "Warlord" is well-known is as the last appearance of Servalan. Like many of her Season 4 appearances she's very low-key, only being in a couple of scenes with Zukan and Finn and once again being revealed as a mover behind the scenes (it's not even directly deduced by the crew that she's behind it all, though to be fair they are busy). Jacqueline Pearce doesn't get much chance to stretch her legs as a result and the proxy engagement makes for a weak final showdown in the grand scheme of things but while it's easy to imagine a more satisfying end-game it's more than possible to also see the show fucking up some sort of conclusion to the rivalry so on the balance there's a certain consistency to proceedings.
Some of the action is very good thanks to Viktors Ritelis' direction - the massacre on Zondor as mentioned above is a stand-out while the scenes in Xenon base are tense and claustophobic, making good use of some not-great sets strewn with polystyrene boulders. The action scenes on Betafarl are nice too, a respectable running gun battle despite a couple of the stuntmen overdoing their entrance - though you wonder if all this effort was worth it if the trap was going to be sprung by about a dozen soldiers . Ritelis and Masters keep the action moving rapidly and despite a couple of gaudy pieces of design it's respectable enough.
"Warlord" isn't bad by any stretch but it is a drop in quality from the previous three or four. The script is required to do a lot of lifting and the plot needs are accomplished efficiently with space for some decent characterisation for both the regulars and the guest cast but it feels crammed in some places and dumb in others. Despite the efforts in upping the ante with the alliance and the destruction of the base it feels like a serious drop in intensity compared to "Orbit" - though fair's fair, penultimate episodes of the season have been a dicey thing - "Deliverance" set up the plot for "Orac" but was largely trite, "The Keeper" was a shocker and "Death-Watch" didn't even try to prepare the ground, so maybe it's a bit hard to pick on this workmanlike, watchable episode.