Thursday, 8 March 2018

TV Review - Blake's 7: S3E05 The Harvest of Kairos

After two set-up episodes and two absolute dogs Season 3 was looking rather wobbly; thinking through the rest of the year's stories I can actually only pick out four or five that are good, which makes it odd that I count it as a favourite. Unconscious contrarianism and a nature of rooting for the underdog? Maybe, but I think it's more that Season 3 is a state of mind; the crew's rapidly growing resentment of each other and their listless lives makes up for a lot of the weekly plots being poor, while Avon and Vila, the two best characters, get a lot more to do. "Harvest of Kairos" isn't a great episode but it is finally a step in the right direction despite a few huge problems.

The script was the first transmitted by Ben Steed, who had worked on daytime weepie serial (and Nyree Dawn Porter vehicle) For Maddie With Love and air freight drama Buccaneer. Steed wrote another episode later in the series and a third for the final year and there's a repeated thread of sexism running through them. This manifests itself in the form of Jarvik, a maintenance worker on Servalan's comedy shark ship who openly boasts of his abilities to take the Liberator with ease. When she summons him to the bridge to drag him over the coals for his insolence he charms her and is given a chance to put his talk to the test.

Some of it is pretty dicey, but some of it works. You can actually picture Servalan liking a bit of rough (though his grabbing of her by the throat and threatening her is a deeply unpleasant moment that takes things way too far) and it's probably a change for her to have someone forcefully stand up to her after all those simpering junior officers, but the dialogue is dreadful - the problem is Steed clearly sees Jarvik not as a potentially flawed character but as a paragon of manly manliness and life in general; his skills and personality are always exactly what's needed to make the episode work and he dies in a senseless accident, clearly intended to pass as a sad ending. But far too often where he could make a point about Servalan's weaknesses or Tarrant's strengths he makes it about women and men, meaning it's not a character study of the complete mess Servalan probably is under the ballgowns and mascara or Jarvik's charisma but a good old-fashioned case of putting the uppity missus back in her place. Marvellous.

To be fair at least part of this is down to the casting of Andrew Burt as Jarvik. No offence personally to him (he says before launching into offensive personal comments) but Jarvik would work better if he was handsome and charismatic. Alright, so action star hunks were thin on the ground for a BBC show of B7's period and budget but was this the best they could do? His diction is brutal and he looks like a caveman to the point where you wonder if David Maloney and Gerald Blake either got the wrong end of the stick with the casting or were actively working against Steed here by making the character look and sound like so much of an ape. It's almost subversive but the script keeps bigging Jarvik up when the production is making him look like a twat; maybe if they'd gone with it a bit more it would have been less jarring, though I'm not sure if that would be a good thing. And when he picks Servalan up and bodily carries her off it's like you're watching a Comic Relief sketch, you expect him to dump her in a gunge tank or something.

Who is this guy anyway? How does being a captain of a kairopan transporter give him huge combat instincts? Did he and Tarrant spend their time working together playing Starcraft so he knew how his underling would develop tactically as a starship pilot? Would Servalan really hand tactical control to some random worker even if she fancied him a bit and wanted to take him down a peg or two? How did he end up as a menial worker on her flagship if he's a) a rebellious loudmouth and b) this great commander of ships? Why they didn't just make him her macho Federation sidekick of the week specifically brought in because of his previous friendship with Tarrant (maybe his instructor at the academy?) I don't know; as it is it's a massive coincidence that he comes forward with this information just as Tarrant is planning a raid on Kairos. As it is it makes it look like any thug can mouth off, barge onto the ship, shove her up against the wall and tell her she loves it. Jacqueline Pearce realises she's swimming against the tide and does the thing where she cracks out the doe-eyes and stands to close to taller blokes so she's looking up all the time, bless her, and while it's a good professional job from the actress the whole escapade is a low point for the character. She usually wheels out those tricks when she's about to make an almighty twat out of Avon or Tarrant but here Servalan isn't actually up to anything. She does at least clearly relish her first trip onboard the Liberator (boarded here for a fifth straight episode).

The crew for their part seem to have decided that they're into piracy this week with their plans to lift valuable kairopan ore. Which is in a way stupid as the Liberator still has plenty of wealth onboard (reaffirmed recently in "Powerplay") but then I let this slide in "Gambit", didn't I? Plus Avon in more interested in investigating the sopron rock he brings onboard at the start and only takes a passive role in the planning of the raid, so maybe he's just letting them all blow off some steam while he gets to work? Again there's coincidence at play, though, as Avon sits back and lets Tarrant call the shots throughout in the episode where Tarrant's old mentor is using Tarrant's Tarrantness against him.

Tarrant meanwhile is suddenly thrust forward as the lead this episode, with Servalan talking about him like an old enemy when they've only met each other once; considering the lack of links to any other episodes this could perhaps have done with being bumped back a couple of episodes in the running order. While the previous two episodes have done a little work on building up his bullish side and lack of nous here he's a straightforward hero, which misses the point. Tarrant's really a bit of B7 version of Han Solo, set in a more cynical universe where being instinctive and gung-ho can cause problems. The first reaction is to wonder if this was actually written for Blake but the whole space commander and pirate wannabe aspect doesn't really fit him either, so it's more likely Steed took the character at face value and just wrote him as a foil to Jarvik.

Avon is one of the best bits of the episode, however, and you wonder how much of it was Boucher trying to undercut the stench of testosterone and the emphasis on Tarrant. Paul Darrow shows a surprising talent for absent-minded comedy when the sophron blows out something electrical at a tense moment or he swipes Cally mid-space battle to test the rock, while Avon gets to show Tarrant up despite barely paying attention and then swoops in to save the day. It's a clear summation of their relationship; Avon has no need as of yet to challenge Tarrant's bossy side as it has yet to bring him into conflict and he feels no need to rattle sabres meaninglessly anymore; he's been a lot more assured and balanced since the conflict with Blake's been resolved. Darrow also nails it when he seems to have outflanked Servalan by putting a condition on letting her take the Liberator only to be caught out by her being even cleverer about it; his face is perfect. The others are variable, just Tarrant's dutiful minions, though as usual Vila gets and nails some great lines. Dayna's already over the place, cheering like a child with Vila after destroying a Pursuit Ship and then randomly deciding to fight Jarvik to keep her useless bracelet - which does turn out to be fortuitous. While it's theoretically fun watching Dayna trounce Jarvik in hand to hand a bad stunt arrangement and a series of naff poses make it more funny.

The other big problem with "Kairos" is the big fucking ant monster. Even by B7 standards it really is shit (rumour has it Jan Chappell decided to jack the series in after seeing the thing) and even a one-legged child could plainly outrun it. Other cheap moments are using a lunar lander replica as a spaceship; it's a logical extension of using NASA stock footage I suppose but the thing's one of the most recognisable pieces of Earth technology ever, they might as well pretend the Wright Flyer is some random spaceship.

But somehow, somehow it's not actually that bad to watch. The crew interactions are nice and fluid for the most part despite a couple of silly moments, the Kairopan heist and double-trap is nice, Servalan being forced to spare Dayna is a fun moment because the former really has had enough of this for one day and the whole sopron thing is so absurd it's actually fun and imaginative. Plus there are some decent space battles in it by the standards of the show and it is pretty funny when Servalan summons Jarvik to the bridge to show off her tactical skills and then gets soundly defeated.

Basically the episode is never boring. Jarvik and Servalan, Tarrant and Avon, Dayna and staying in character scene to scene, these are all fascinating dynamics that inspire discussion and reaction even if it's just about how messed up they are. And watching back at home whatever Steed's intentions and the script's protestations it's very clear that Jarvik is an utter dick; when he's not on screen and the ant isn't on screen the episode isn't bad. Avon sitting back and letting the crew do whatever is also an incredible amount of fun; Blake never would have put up with all this.

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