March 6, 2015

Blake's 7: "Time Squad"

It's 23 January 1978 and time for episode 4 of Blake's 7.

Now armed with a ship and a crew, Blake makes his first strike against the Federation: a massive communications centre on the enslaved world of Saurian Major. While en route the Liberator picks up a small drifting capsule containing three cryogenically frozen passengers. While Blake, Avon and Vila teleport down to contact Saurian Major's resistance forces, Jenna and Gan are left onboard to greet the sleepers once they are revived.

"Time Squad" will always be best remembered as the debut of Cally (Jan Chappell), the telepathic alien freedom fighter who joins Blake's cause and becomes a key member of the cast for the next three seasons. What's surprising is just how little Cally features in this episode: she first turns up more than halfway through, and even then her storyline has to be shared with what's going on in the Liberator at the same time. This juggling of two disparate plotlines makes "Time Squad" quite a messy episode. The individual parts could probably work just fine if given room to move, but jammed up together and it's all a bit underwhelming.

So what the hell happened? The original fourth episode, "Seek and Destroy", was not working sufficiently well to enter production. As a result the sixth episode, "Time Squad", was hurried forward and completed in a rush. Jan Chappell had been cast and needed to be introduced - she is central to episode 5, for one thing - so the cryogenic sleepers plot was compressed and a quick espionage mission to Saurian Major inserted purely to get Cally onto the Liberator by episode's end. The main plot elements of the abandoned "Seek and Destroy" were subsequently rejigged and redeveloped into a new sixth episode - now titled "Seek Locate Destroy". It's at this point in the series that it has become clear that the BBC's contracting Terry Nation to write all 13 episodes of the first season was a really bad idea: he simply wasn't a fast enough writer.

Let's look at Saurian Major first. It's the series' second quarry standing in for an alien planet, and the second in two episodes at that. Director Pennant Roberts has mixed things up a little by applying a red filter to the camera, so that everything on the planet has an eerie pinkish hue. It's actually rather effective. Less effective are the odd polystyrene plants, which are described by Blake as carnivorous and occasionally intelligent, but sadly we never get to see them display either quality. There are other odd moments that show off the series' remarkably small production budget: Vila's pack of explosives and lock-picking tools is visibly an esky, and the Federation's seemingly unpickable lock is an obvious common-or-garden yale lock.

Look, they do their best, and it's one of the unavoidable facts of Blake's 7 that they were making a series for which they did not have a sufficient budget. To enjoy the stories and the characters you just have to accept that when you see a yale lock it's a high-tech electronic lock, and that the equipment packs of the future just happen to look like an esky you'd pick up cheaply at K-Mart.

Vila's cowardice is re-emphasised this episode, but Nation also weaves in his tremendous skill with picking all manner of locks. This pretty much solidifies Vila's character right here: coward, good with locks. Future episodes and seasons will simply add sleazy lothario and functioning alcoholic to his character qualities. Given the events of later seasons the alcoholism is not a surprise.

Avon, meanwhile, is shifting slightly. We've had two episodes of self-interest and distrust, but the problem now is that he needs to be incorporated into the crew in a long-term and sensible fashion. We see glimmerings of that strategy here: Avon wants the Liberator. He missed his chance to steal it during "Cygnus Alpha" so now his best hope is to bide his time until Blake is either dead or victorious. His first encounter with Cally also beautifully illustrates the difference between him and his companions: Blake challenges Cally out in the open, Vila immediately surrenders to her, while Avon lurks quietly in the background, out of sight, able to shoot her stone dead at any time. Paul Darrow is also well on his way to patenting his classic Avon performance, which largely consists of long moments of stillness followed by an immediate sharp turn or movement. He's basically the William Shatner of British telefantasy.

As with "Cygnus Alpha" Gareth Thomas is largely left to flounder with an underwritten part. This is Blake running on automatic: noble, reasonably intelligent, generally quite boring. It's a very difficult sort of character to write well, and sadly thus far Nation has settled on making him competent and generic.

Back up on the Liberator, Jenna and Gan experience a completely unrelated episode. They defrost the pilots of the derelict spacecraft, who then go on a murderous rampage in an attempt to kill them. Gan has difficulty defending himself because the Federation installed a 'limiter' after he murdered one of their soldiers: he is hardwired not to kill, and attempts to do so cause crippling pain in his head. It's an odd thing to give to a character: he's in a group of freedom fighters that are just starting to shoot their way into every Federation facility they can find, and he's the biggest and most intimidating member of the bunch, yet he's incapable of participating in the core narrative of the series. It does give David Jackson some nice moments to play in this episode, particularly when explaining to Jenna why he needs people around him that he can trust, but long-term it cripples the character's potential. Still, while Gan groans and clutches his head, Jenna (Sally Knyvette) gets to be nicely pro-active and physical in defending the ship.

This is all a hell of a mess. It's enjoyable to a large extent, but not so much that it's must-see television. Quite frankly you could get told "Blake enlists the help of a telepathic guerilla fighter, who stays on the ship at the end" and skip the episode entirely. Four episodes in, and Season 1 is running at 50 per cent.

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