Tuesday, 13 March 2018

TV Review - Blake's 7: S3E12 Death-Watch

Like "Moloch", "Death-Watch" was a late replacement script for a story by John Fletcher (apparently about Hell's Angels in space, though presumably not related to "Stardrive") written by Chris Boucher. This perhaps explains why the story goes over some ground uncomfortably close to that covered by other episodes - a key character is Del Tarrant's brother Deeta, with both parts played by Steven Pacey. While dialogue indicates Deeta is older the effect is that we've got another unannounced 'twin' sibling story (and twins will often call each other big/little brother even if there are only minutes in it) just four episodes after "Children of Auron". 

It might not be such a problem apart from Pacey being pressed into the double role. Why, exactly? He's really not a bad actor and does manage to make Deeta sound a little older and world-weary, with a more casual set of body language. But his voice is incredibly distinctive and every time you look at Deeta on screen he just looks like Tarrant in a wig. It's clear that they had about forty pounds to make the episode but elsewhere there are capable guest actors like Stewart Bevan and David Sibley onboard. It might be the Andrew Burt factor - handsome British genre actors were hard to come by and the show already had the best one all tied up (I'm considerably gay for Steven Pacey to be honest), but really not having the right actor for a part never stopped them casting whoever was kicking around the BBC cafe, so basically someone made the decision to go for putting Alan Partridge hair on poor Steven as a key selling point.

It's a bit shame because the rest of "Death-Watch" is really good. The concept of the Teal-Vandor convention - two champions duel instead of the planets going to war - is very smart and despite Cally's protests about this still being brutal (as opposed to millions dying, you daft hippy?). Obviously in any real world setting it would be open to abuse but here that's addressed straight away by Servalan using it to expand her empire. The latter seems in good health with mentions of an intimidating fleet conducting intimidating manouveres close to the system's border; maybe she went back to Sardos and put the planet's replicators to work? One of the things I do like about Season 3's looser overall structure is that it's possible it takes place over a much longer period than we see on screen (which would play into how relationships onboard the Liberator) so there's a lot happening behind the scenes, all of it probably more interesting than "Ultraworld". I'd actually love to "novelise" B7 by using the televised stories as flashpoints in a book with a more coherent overall narrative, similar to the Red Dwarf books but without the last two being shit.

Servalan is at her best here, her plotting to set two systems into a galactic war so she can sweep in to "cleanse" the remnants and effectively take over Teal and Vandor is smashing comment and she's clearly enjoying herself. She's actually been on an upwards bounce since "Rumours of Death" and while it's possible she's going insane to some degree - the death of her 'children' and Sula's rebellion are more personal blows than anything she's suffered before - she's no less dangerous. Her scene with Avon is somewhat sensationalist moment but shows the growing mania of both; by this stage these are two deeply damaged people all but incapable of love, trust and care; it's not even particularly clear why they're on different sides beyond hating the other seems to fuel them. Servalan is effectively a rebel against the Federation even though she runs the Federation, always looking for more personal gain while Avon has all but abandoned any revolutionary dreams but doesn't have the nerve to strike out for anything else beyond throwing a spanner in the works. The spent mumbling into his bracelet after the kiss/grab is a bit much, though.

Vila doesn't do much vital but keeps a steady flow of smart lines coming (his puzzled look when Deeta comes on the viewscreen followed by "I'm sure I know him from somewhere..." is spot on) while Dayna at least gets to show some zeal with her role in challenging Servalan but Cally is again left out of things being Team Mum with her boring moral objections - is she regretting not going to oversee the Auron rebirth. Tarrant is at the nice end of his personal scale here, a little sardonic but not particularly annoyed with anyone in particular - he even looks for Avon's consensus a couple of times and they even seem something like friends in a couple of places. More likely that Avon's not going to bother duelling with Tarrant when there's Servalan around to tilt at. It's perhaps a bit of a shame Tarrant's not being a dick for better contrast with the nobler, less impetuous Deeta but their awkward unsentimental relationship is well done and that they don't meet gives proceedings a nice veneer of missed opportunity; Deeta's dying speech over the sensor net is well done.

Of course, part of the reason why they don't meet is that this is another cheap one - simple sets (notably the interior of the transport), a machine that can simulate any combat environment but chooses an old gas works and the same ship's gallery we meet Deeta on in the opening scene, a spectacular carnival that's closed by the time the crew get there... It doesn't spoil much really and Gerard Blake directs things well, especially the duels. Though somewhere in the kitty they found the money to give everyone some awful new costumes - Avon's big circular shoulder pads, Cally's air hostess costume, Deeta's white waistcoat, the silver padded boilersuits for the duels - it's horrible.

There is a good guest cast, however. Bevan does well as Max with the right sort of nervous, reasonable person for a second in such a huge occasion while Sibley's cameo as a bitchy vis-cast announcer is very funny, fitting in with the mass media satire of the viscast system - which naturally gives a double-meaning; the role of a champion's second is colloquially referred to as a death watch while loads of people watch Deeta die. Clever. Not subtle, but still clever. And Mark Elliot is well-cast as Vinni; he's not big and not threatening but really is quite annoying and aggravating. His squaring up to Deeta and bored playing with his lapels ahead of the second duel with Del are both wonderful touches.

So "Death-Watch" is quite flawed but providing you can role with Pacey playing both brothers there's a lot to enjoy. It's funny and in places quite acerbic even if feels a bit like it could have done with another draft to tidy up the edges and the mood leaps all over the place. It perhaps feels a little out of place at the business end of the season as it's bit too lightweight in places and the crew's general mood is out of kilter with the bitchfest either side (while at the same time Avon and Servalan clearly bear the mental scars of recent events) but it's a fun episode the season's better for.

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