Tuesday, 6 March 2018

TV Review - Blake's 7: S2E13 Star One

It's all been leading to this one, and Chris Boucher does a Nation by writing the important episode himself. Blake's hunt for Star One, Travis' hunt for Blake and Servalan's hunt for greater power have coloured the second season. It's not been a Game of Thrones-level of intensity for sure, but these threads have been pottering away in a 1979 sort of way and here it all has to come off; aside from doing an arc on the budget of a mediocre police show within the rigid structure of the Beeb the other problem is you have to get the end right or the rest suffers. Thankfully Boucher gets it absolutely right. 

Well, actually there are some huge gaps in the logic. The plot has three massive holes in it, but somehow it's not such a problem when the story is so good. The episode famously has the Liberator find Star One just as Travis is selling out the human race, lowering the Federation's defences to let in an alien fleet. There are two problems with this; while Travis' betrayal of the whole race is wonderfully bitter and spiteful but when exactly does he set up this alliance? He only finds out Star One's location minutes ahead of Blake and he has a slower ship (assuming he just steals Servalan's after borrowing it in "The Keeper", his own being destroyed by Avon) yet his alliance with the aliens is well-developed. Sure, they haven't met face-to-face but he must have told them the location as their infiltration of the base is nearly complete and has been noticed. It's annoying, because a line here or there explaining that the Liberator had been, I dunno, badly held up by ship problems would have solved it. Or scrapping "The Keeper" for something that addressed this and was, y'know, good. To be fair it's not exactly the fault of this episode but you'd think the script editor would watch the continuity a bit more.

Secondly there's the whole technicians spending their lives on Star One thing. It's a great concept for secrecy and they cover themselves with all the talk of screening and the like but it's still problematic - what happens when they die? Are they meant to breed and raise little technicians? Even if that was viable it wouldn't be very Federation. I mean, they can presumably broadcast their location if needs be but that would undo the cool "the reason for Star One's location being secret is that no-one knows where it is" thing. And what exactly is the hold-up with taking over Lurena anyway? It's not like they asked the others; it serves as a bit of narrative obfuscation as to what's really going on and that's good but really it's so that there's an ally to explain the plot to the crew. However, it's filmed well enough that you don't mind.

The third is really something basically every sci-fi series ever is guilty of, so it's maybe a bit of a cheap shot but the Federation's defences consists of a minefield in space. This basically only works if you think space is the sea rather than something three dimensional; either the minefield is of a gigantic size along both the x and y axis or the alien fleet could just fly around it - but wouldn't you know, they line up dutifully like a flotilla of corvettes and sail through the gap Travis creates. So yeah. But "Star One" is still absolutely fantastic. The pacing is incredible - it's like a movie compacted down to fifty minutes, able to fritter away a couple of minutes with some show-off model work because it knows it's got the goods to impress you later. Then there's some exposition from both Servalan and the crew but it's all so smartly written and after that the pace just picks up and picks up. It's got everything - wit, philosophy, satire, politics, action, scale and closure. It's dense and ambitious.

Firstly there's the crew, even more strained than ever. Avon's cynicism and Blake's fanaticism are writ large; even among the hatefest of Season 3 there's nothing as barbed as Avon's open declaration of loathing for Blake. Blake himself has maybe his best episode since the first if not ever, and his justification of the attack on Star One is a superb riposte - this isn't "Pressure Point II", he's learnt lessons. He then gets unqualified redemption and steps back from the abyss of obsession when he realises the aliens pose a greater threat than the Federation and instantly makes the right decision, which really is a brilliant and unexpected turn for the character, whose intelligence is really brought out in the detail. Gareth Thomas is at his absolute peak for sheer conviction, even managing to play the stuff where he's mistaken for Travis just right (though I'd love to know what he said about the eyepatch).

Avon also has a fine turn, getting to stay at large when Blake and Cally go into the complex and go some way towards solving the mystery of the base personnel. It's all much the same as the larger roles he'd got in much of Season 2 until the end, when he suddenly gets to be the one to kill Travis and then takes command of the Liberator while series lead Blake limps off to sickbay. And it's his redemption too - for all he rants and blusters about early on he's clearly touched by Blake telling him he's always been trusted and there's no mention of bolt holes as he prepares the ship for its' Thermopylae, holding the line against a whole fleet as his friend wants him to. He almost seems happy. 

Cally gets to teleport down to Star One with Blake and Avon and even use her telepathy to warn the latter (which is a bit lucky, if he'd taken Vila like he did every other time in Season 2...). She's also portrayed as Lady Compassion once again, arguing for the great harm destroying Star One would have for lots of innocent people; I still can't decide if this is character development from the kill-crazy permed fanatic of her first appearance or just bad scripting, but I suppose someone needed to say it. It might have been better to give that to Jenna, though - for her last ever appearance (which everyone surely knew by this stage) she just gets generic "be careful" team mum material. Thankfully Sally Knyvette's obvious boredom just comes across as sultriness; she's clearly done and the producers likewise. For the best; I do think it's a plus that she isn't killed off even if Sally was never going to return if the show had ran for twenty years; it would have been a bit cheap and wrenched the episode out of shape. Vila doesn't get a huge amount to actually do but Boucher's love of the character means he gets thrown some great lines which Michael Keating once again makes the best of. With so many big plot-lines going on it's a tight squeeze but Jenna aside everyone gets something to do, even Orac.

As well as the crew it's a big episode for Servalan and Travis. Servalan's political machinations come to a head here and an awful lot of work is pulled off from Jacqui looking busy, snapping at another manipulated underling as she pulls off a military coup from her desk. Pearce absolutely nails the whole business when she could have been shouty, stridey and pointy; her little half-smile as Durkim calls her "Madame President", like she's just won a beauty pageant but her parents brought her up to act modestly, is a superb moment. And as for her instant belief of the Liberator's warning and rapid mobilisation is another fantastic moment showing Servalan's intelligence and - who knows - even a faint crumb of redemption. She's a power-hungry sociopath, not an idiot. Travis meanwhile isn't actually in it an awful lot considering he basically sets everything here in motion but Brian Croucher's presence and ability to look arrogant and menacing even with a needlessly dramatic hooded cloak. With Brian Croucher it's entirely plausible that he'd be bitter enough to fuck the whole human race over, though it is perhaps a bit much that after shooting Blake he doesn't confirm the kill and in fact almost instantly forgets about him - maybe a line about wanting to keep Blake alive long enough to see humanity razed would have helped?

The episode benefits from a respectable budget by B7 standards. The opening model shots of the Nova Queen colliding with a cargo ship are a bit show-off and the detailed work is undone by Matt Irvine being just too late on the detonator, meaning a couple of awkward frames of the ships clonked together before they explode - to be fair, it's sloppy editing. However, it makes for an ambitious opening (shame they didn't save a bit more for the fleet at the end, though) and the Star One sets are among the series' best. Good guest cast too - B7 often casts rubbish actresses in the sort of female supporting role Lurena has but Jenny Twige gets it right and it's a very, very cool moment when she's surrounded by the alien technicians with a ticking bomb hidden behind her back. David Webb is nicely sinister as Stot too, while John Brown is decent as the latest in a long line of simpering lackeys for Servalan.

And it all builds up to that fantastic cliffhanger - the best of the three for my money; "Terminal" is a great episode with a great ending, but this, this is high drama. The crew fail twofold - they don't destroy Star One then they fail to stop the minefield being at least partially deactivated but they collectively man up. After two seasons of running off every time three Federation pursuit ships show up it's time for a reckoning and the hairs on your arms go up every time as the Liberator inches into position and the first crap alien spaceship judders towards the gap, brilliantly scored by Dudley Simpson and underlit in a suitably dramatic "red alert" way. For a series that makes much use of grey shades and in an episode that throws up the old "freedom fighter or terrorist" business for a sparking argument it's unabashedly heroic and a wonderful moment for human nature. And fuck it, I fucking love that it's cheap, all done by close-ups and wry, desperate lines and a couple of sparing model shots. It it was all three-dimensional CGI whizzing everywhere it'd lose a lot of the drama.

Mention of "Star One" would be remiss without mentioning Terry Nation's amazing plan to have the Daleks revealed as the aliens behind the minefield, presumably after finally realising American networks weren't particularly up for making him even richer - by a walloping great big coincidence he'd be hawking them to Doctor Who for the first time in five years around this point, so presumably a payment was due on a villa or something. Obviously it would have been terrible; it's not so much that B7 was too mature because this time last week Vila was wearing a jester's hat and prancing around for Bruce Purchase in a wig but it just would have been incompatible - the Liberator crew are the equivalent of the resistance fighters and soldiers who get wiped out in the second episode of a Dalek story. Both ideas are just plain incompatible and considering how shit the Daleks were in 1979 it would have been awful and probably much-derided now, effectively relegating the show to the role of Who spin-off.

Thankfully Boucher prevailed and was able to turn in this absolute gem of a script. It doesn't matter that rules of time and space are bent to set it up as this one delivers on every front, solving a year's worth of plot lines with considerable aplomb while setting up the show nicely for the undiscovered country of Blake's 7 without Blake. A masterpiece which functions both as a season climax and a fine episode in its' own right.

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