If "Rumours of Death" and various other Servalan scenes across Season 3 suggested her empire was constantly at risk "Moloch" (a second story of the year from Ben Steed, this one being a late replacement for a Bob Holmes story that fell through) outright confronts it. After two episodes all but Federation-free it's nice to get back to the meat of the conflict. Jacqueline Pearce appears in nine of the year's 13 episodes; it's only one more than in Season 2 but whereas some of those were effectively cameos (e.g. "Hostage", "Voice from the Past") this year she's more central - and clearly being banked upon to help ease the show past Blake's departure (in Season 4, more sure there are legs in Avon as a lead, she'll only be in eight). This would be in danger of breeding overfamiliarity (think the Roger Delgado Master in Doctor Who, an excellent villain you're sick of the sight of rapidly) but the roving format means she can be put in a variety of situations, with most of them coming off well, compared to when she was always sat in her office at Space Command yelling at Travis.
Here she's tracking down a rogue Federation unit, the fearsome Fifth Legion who have been missing since the Intergalactic War but have now made contact with news of a discovery. The unit have crashed on the planet Sardos, where two rough characters named Grose and Lector have done away with their superiors and are basically running the planet under something approaching a corrupt martial law, planning their own fleet. In short, she's so desperate for troops and ships she walks straight into a trap with just a Mutoid and a couple of pilots. It's a bit of a stretch considering usually her ship is packed with people - maybe she slipped and pressed the button she uses to immolate people in "Children of Auron" and accidentally wiped everyone out - but it does at least make her seem more vulnerable. Grose and Lector are clearly a nasty pair and there's major signs, what with "give her to your men" that we're very much seeing the "7:15pm on BBC1 with a lot of kids watching" version of Sardos being under the heel of a disgruntled unit of rogue soldiers. However, while sexism charges can be laid against Steed for his first script (and even moreso his third, Season 4's abysmal "Power") there's not as much here.
It's a bit macho but for a story about squaddies it could be worse and just about everyone throwing their weight around gets put in their place at one point or another. Grose & Lector's plan - albeit being based on the stroke of luck that is crashing on a cloaked planet packed with matter convertors and an omnipotent computer system which takes their side against the natives - isn't actually bad, and they have a genuine cunning to them, such as when Grose instantly sees through her claims of a back-up plan. The way they deal with Servalan (whose unfettered contempt for them both is brilliantly played) and out-think her is well done and while she's taken by surprise she's nowhere near as ruffled as she is in "Rumours of Death", and even being offered up as a bit of fluff for the criminals the pair have shipped in to crew their new fleet is something she comes out of well - I do love the big gesture when she throws off the guards, sometimes the excess works. Also interesting as a little aside are her reactions to the way the Legion treat the female Sardoans; she's indifferent to Poola's pleas early on but clearly mildly disgusted by Grose slapping the serving woman's arse and likening her to a meal; it seems it's more because by then she's decided she doesn't like Grose rather than having any particular affinity for a fellow woman being objectified. Servalan might be something of a feminist icon but she certainly isn't a feminist herself - considering that the BBC in the eighties basically ran on Thatcher satire the parallels are clear.
The Liberator meanwhile has been following her the whole time but the crew have trouble getting to Sardos due to the planet's shield but Tarrant and Vila hop onboard the new recruits' shuttle to get down, immediately getting separated by a bulkhead. Tarrant here is in full arsehole mode now that Steed has a better idea of the character and it's perhaps something of a validation of his first script that he sides against the tough guy. Tarrant's bullying of Vila here is perhaps even worse than "City on the Edge of the World", as firstly it shows his expressed apologies to Vila back then were hollow. While he's not quite as outright nasty it's a lot more sustained like Vila and the same pig-headedness comes out when Vila makes fast friends with Doran, one of the criminals, and Tarrant batters him against Vila's wishes. Tarrant and Vila shove at each other with the latter very nearly physically fighting back before the former pulls a gun on his crew mate. Michael Keating nails the reaction; he seems more sad for Tarrant than anything else, yet strangely at times Vila seems to be actually after some sort of approval from Tarrant - who apologises later in word only, as much to get Vila to shut up as anything else.
Vila himself gets a meaty part but it doesn't particularly show him in a great light. He's very gullible and instantly becomes best buddies with Doran having barely met him and despite all the signs being that Doran is a piece of shit. While Davyd Harries' broad performance clashes with the script there are massive hints that he was originally jailed for doing something unpleasant to women and is looking forward to doing so again - he's really better company than Cally and Dayna? Alright, it perhaps illustrates that Vila is so pissed off with Tarrant that he's willing to throw in with anyone but still. He does later make a fantastic pairing with Servalan (served up to him as a treat by Doran) though; the cowardly male hero and strident, cunning female villain have a couple of wonderful scenes with Michael Keating flapping away and Jacqui rolling her eyes; it's a shame the characters aren't paired up more often in this sort of situation, and her constant commanding of him despite being an unarmed prisoner apparently at his mercy is brilliant.
Avon gets a smaller role than usual, largely taking a backseat before getting captured and tortured but still working things out. The torture scenes aren't bad, and Paul Darrow totally lands the joke at the end of it when, after weathering the Federation interrogation, Vila accidentally twists his wrist releasing him. Cally doesn't have much to do, though, and there's probably more than a bit of meta in her sitting bored out of her skull by the teleporter - it's a second episode in a row in which Jan Chappell, nominally the female lead, does basically nothing, and this probably played as much a part in her choosing to leave as that shitty ant thing. Dayna meanwhile gets to pair up with Avon on the second away team and they actually make a good unit; I especially like her nearly losing her temper with Avon's laconic lack of manners in a couple of places, and it's a shame that sort of master/pupil angle wasn't pushed a bit more. However, Dayna also gets all wide-eyed and terrified when Lector tortures Avon - I know it's to make Avon look cool and make the whole thing seem more troubling than the Chinese Burns or whatever would actually look but considering she used to shoot people with a bow and arrow for fun it's a bit of a comedown.
The big problem with "Moloch" however is that it's dirt cheap, partly through being late in the year and partly through the rushed genesis. I mean, all B7 is cheap but this one is really cheap (the reuse of the London footage from the early episodes is somewhat jarring), and it rather naively puts a lot into two big reveals which the budget would be unlikely to back up - the reveal of Colonel Astrid in a flotation tank (why is some crap dummy used rather than someone being in the tank) and the unveiling of Moloch as some sort of shitty furry chicken. The latter was played by Deep Roy, who (having been severely smashed up by Steven Pacey during location filming for "Terminal") didn't appreciate the cast pissing themselves in the studio when the reveal was made; hopefully he was busy on March 17th 1980 so he didn't hear 10.4m other people have the same reaction. It does undermine a lot of the episode that it's leading up to this and it's not made any better when the full body of the creature is seen either - what the fuck to they do with it anyway? Just leave it on the teleport room floor? The lack of money also impacts on the guest cast to some degree; while Lector and Grose are well-enough performed there is of course Harries being a twat and two flapping interchangeable girls representing Sardos. The episode also foreshadows Season 4's trademark ally annihilation with Moloch totally randomly deciding to kill Doran and Chesil while letting the four regulars in the room survive.
But overall "Moloch" is good and solid, if short of greatness. Plenty of decent ideas with just about enough executed well to make it a positive experience on the balance. Servalan's decent showing under pressure (such a shame they didn't actually put the scenes of her freeing her pilots in the thing!) and a look at what Federation troopers get up to if left unattended make up a solid core, with some typically tetchy crew interactions rounding things off.