Wednesday, 21 March 2018

TV Review - Blake's 7: S04E13 Blake

This is the one, this is what it's all been leading up to. I've mentioned before that the Federation could not be plausibly defeated by our heroes and it stands to reason it wouldn't be as long as the show was running (maybe a sequel series where Avon and Vila try to get to grips with the day-to-day admin of revitalising a post-fascist Earth? No?) it wouldn't be either. And the universe is something of a downer anyway - two regulars had already been outright killed off and a third has disappeared, not to mention the myriad defeats the crew have suffered. So, when Vere Lorrimer and Chris Boucher realised it was highly likely the series wouldn't be returning (audiences were healthy but 2m down on the previous year, while critical savaging of the series had stepped up) there was only one thing that could be done.



Boucher had kept his powder dry for much of the season, only contributing "Rescue" up to this point, with Season 4 as a whole showing he was forced to spent more time commissioning scripts that writing them or even getting time to do the usual levels of polish the first three years had benefitted from. However, he turned in the script for the finale and right from the start it's an absolute beauty. It's not until you sit down and watch "Blake" that you realise how dreary much of Season 4 has been; just about every line has energy and purpose to it.

The plot meanwhile has a trademark B7 downwards spiral to it as the crew are met with misfortune after misfortune, abandoning the remains of the Xenon base and heading to Gauda Prime looking for Blake, where they're immediately shot down, the ship is destroyed, the crew split up and left disorientated. Added to a perfect storm of Blake acting bloody strangely and the Federation picking exactly this moment to bust his operation open and it's the ultimate culmination of the cosmic Murphy's Law that's pulsed through the series' veins since the very start. Only this time, even moreso than "Terminal", it all goes properly wrong - there's no last-minute reprise that allows them to escape with their skins and the crew are gunned down.

Blake's role is much larger than that in "Terminal" (Gareth Thomas proving more pliant given Lorrimer's vow he would be unequivocally killed off; the part being more jaded also brings out the best in the actor, while the make-up is a good job which doesn't look like it's trying too hard) but just as teasing; aside from Tarrant he doesn't meet any of the other regulars until the final scene. The brilliance of the structure are all those tantalising moments where if various crew members had twigged who was where a little earlier (say, Blake had spotted Vila and the girls in the flier, or he hadn't freaked an injured and alone Tarrant out by pretending to arrest him) the whole mess could have been avoided. It's a tragedy of totally plausible human error.

This Blake might not have died on Jevron as Servalan claimed but he's clearly been through the wringer and is a more weary character, though he notably freezes up in the last scene with Avon - it's very strange that he's able to explain his scheme to Arlen but seems to play games with Tarrant and then seems overcome when Avon himself arrives. He's almost as paranoid as Avon by this stage but nowhere near as smart it would seem; even smashed up from the crash Tarrant of all people sees through his tests, which prove to be utterly inefficient seeing as Arlen easily gets inside his secret rebel training camp. The Federation troopers don't arrive because of the Scorpio crew (though the four of them shooting their way in doesn't help) but because they're about to shut Blake down anyway. It just goes to show that neither Blake nor Avon is particularly suited to running something without the other to play off against; since Blake's departure Avon's resolution has been spotty and he's squandered resources like the Liberator and Orac, while Blake's ardent belief that he can easily judge characters and his inability to understand subterfuge means he's never going to build something without Avon's cynical side keeping him on his toes.

Tarrant has a strong episode too, getting to show all of the many facets to his character in something approaching a cohesive whole for once rather than in rotation. His heroic side gets an airing when Scorpio is shot down and he stays at the controls so Avon can escape the ship; he seems to get a look of respect from his old rival there. He then gets to be both smart and stupid in that Tarrant way; he keeps his mouth shut and lets Blake give away information once he's been found but jumps to the wrong conclusion. It's easy to blame Tarrant for the crew's downfall but Blake's game-playing really doesn't help, and while he tells Avon that he's been sold out Blake chooses to make vague pleas instead of opening up and Avon is the one who opens fire. The brilliance is that it isn't one person's fault, just a pile-up of bad decisions by all involved.

Soolin just happens to be from Gauda Prime, which feels like a bit of a coincidence and is clumsy seeing as Avon delivers most of the exposition. It's actually a shame for her as the character's developed respectably in the past few episodes but has a poor swansong - her role here basically consists of doing stupid things and then going "I should know that because I'm from Gauda Prime!". Along with Vila and Dayna she's squeezed out by the guest role for Blake. Vila rumbling Avon's plans in the opening scene aren't bad but after that he's given little to do and he notably also locks up at the end, where Blake doesn't even seem to be aware he's in the room. It's another one of the intentional tantalising moments in the script; if Blake had spoken to Vila first before Avon caught up with him and the girls you could imagine everything being a lot calmer. Dayna is again largely just a succession of lines with no real shape in the plot, with Soolin once again winning out in the Bad Bitch stakes. Josette Simon would have been off after this one no matter what and this seems to have relieved everyone - the character's last action being her gun expert taking an agonising amount of time to pick up a gun is an apt summary.

There's space for a decent part for genre giant David Collings as Deva, Blake's co-conspirator. It's expert casting as he has just the right knack for his lines being ambiguous and he has a good rapport with Blake. It's easy to picture this man being swept up in Blake's fervour. Sasha Mitchell is a bit terrible as Arlen, which is a shame as it's an important role, but her sub-Grange Hill gob-on can't quite derail the thing when it's this good. It's also worth discussing who isn't here; it's nice to see Cally get a mention early on and while Blake is clearly telling Tarrant about Jenna to gauge his reaction there's no reason to disbelief the actual content of the story. It means every crew member bar Gan (and Zen, if he counts) gets a namecheck. The destruction of Scorpio and Slave's shutdown are also surprisingly affecting; Slave's been a bit of a pain in the arse across the season - the sychophantic thing quickly ran its' course - but even he's alright in this one, squabbling with Orac. Even the destruction of the Xenon base adds to the air of finality that runs through the whole episode; "Blake" isn't just an adventure with butchery slapped on the end.

The other absentee is Servalan (for the first time in a season finale), which seems to have caused something of a stir. There was definitely some tension between Jacqueline Pearce and Paul Darrow while the decision to leave her out of the episode has been called "Boucher's revenge", though the writer has denied a rift and simply noted all her contracted episodes had been used. Pearce for her part has said that she would have loved to have walked in for a gloat at the end. While there were clearly shenanigans at play it works to the episode's strengths. If Servalan had walked in at the end there would be questions as to whether the gunshots over the credits were for her, which basically changes the mood of the episode. But the most important reason for me is the irony; she's spent 4 years or whatever chasing them and setting complex traps without particular success only for the crew to blunder into an unrelated operation; you wonder if the faceless troopers (how great is it that they found a few of the old uniforms in storage?) gunning them down even realise who they are, and that enhances the brutality and nihilism of them all.

Because they're all dead, there's absolutely no reason for them not to be. Whatever Lorrimer and Boucher have said, as filmed, with the thudding slow motion and Tarrant's reaction to Dayna after she's shot they're dead, and Avon is as well unless he's fucking Django. God, can you imagine what it would have been like if they'd just been stunned? And then Season 5 comes along and in an episode they have another new ship with Peter Tuddenham voicing the computer and a new female crewmate to make it up to seven, with Blake out of the picture permanently even as an abstract goal? No thanks. And the ending is part of what makes Blake's 7 so brilliant and brutal. Just this once it's utter defeat for the forces of good - there's no Pyrrhic victory, no brave sacrifice, just the top five enemies of the Federation and Vila getting gunned down in some ridiculous misunderstanding for absolutely no gain.

The actual shoot-out itself is an all-round masterpiece. The set for the base control room is brilliantly designed, allowing for everyone (the technician who attacks Tarrant; the rest of the crew; Blake & Arlen; Deva; the Federation troopers) to pour in naturally without anyone looking stupid. The crew don't exactly cover themselves in glory either, shooting the technician and Blake's receptionist without really knowing what's going on. Despite its' brevity the meeting between the crew and Blake is breathtaking, both simply being too overcome to simply talk properly, and Avon seems stunned when he shoots Blake. The irony is that while Gareth Thomas gets the ridiculously graphic death he wanted he's the one with a clone kicking around somewhere.

The rest of the shoot-out is just as biting - Deva shot just to make sure Blake's project can't be continued, Vila's little bit of feigned cowardice, Arlen not being distracted and blowing Dayna away, Tarrant dropping her limp body... But it's when Vila, Mr "All 52 episodes", goes down that it really sinks in that this is going to be it, with Soolin and Tarrant following moments later. Which leaves Avon, who's either gone completely insane or has finally cleared his head, to stand over Blake's body as the alarms finally stop with his gun (which Paul Darrow has always insisted is empty and I like to think it is - he empties the whole magazine into Blake through simple panic, then raises the empty gun to ensure he joins him), surrounded by troopers and there's just time for one last ironic smile before the titles start and a volley of fire rings out. It's a genuine tour-de-force and while B7 would probably still be remembered if the ending was less final or if it had stopped at "Terminal" it's undeniable that part of the programme's lasting fame is this bloodbath.

It is probably the best final episode of any science fiction show and a damn sight finer than a great deal else as well for it's bravery in working as a definitive, downbeat endcap for the show. It's brutal and upsetting but strangely satisfying at the same time, not feeling like an arbitrary raising of the stakes but the natural conclusion of a small group of people getting fucked over too many times and finally getting caught out by circumstances. "Blake" single-handedly justifies the show's recommissioning and cancellation all at the same time and stands out as a genuinely brilliant piece of television.

2 comments:

  1. Think you pretty much nail it there.

    I always thought it was Vere Lorimer who had the problem with Pearce and ordered both the dropping of the sexual tension with Avon and downplaying her role? Either way, coupled with some bad health (IIRC that's why Sleer was originally going to be a new character) it seems to have been a depressing time for her.

    Never bought the contract excuse though, if that was the issue they'd have just not put her in Warlord and given her the end of episode cameo here surely?

    I love the panning shot showing the guards, making it very clear the do really have that many troopers there and there's no editing trickery involved to pump up the numbers.

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    1. I don't know how many times I've watched the shoot-out but I'm always blown away by how good it is technically as well with all the different entry points. And yeah, it's amazing just *how* surrounded Avon is at the end - which makes it all the more awesome when he brings the gun up.

      IIRC Jacqui spent most of the eighties with health issues before ending up moving to Africa after filming "White Mischief" and since then spends as much time over there as she can, staying over here for a few months a year because most of her work is here.

      Agree that the contract thing is rubbish (a lot of her S4 appearances could have been cut and moved to another episode - e.g. Games, her role could have been played by someone else representing the Federation) but I don't think there's anything personal, just that there wasn't space for the character in the episode. I like the way it ties in with the series' habit of obvious endings being avoided, like the way Travis is killed by Avon.

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