March 3, 2015

Blake's 7: "Cygnus Alpha"

It's 16 January 1978, and time for the third episode of Blake's 7.

While Blake, Avon and Jenna explore their newly-captured alien spacecraft - which Jenna has christened "the Liberator" - Gan, Vila and the other prisoners are deposited onto the penal colony world of Cygnus Alpha. Once there they find a community ruled by a religious cult leader named Varga (Brian Blessed), and become infected by a disease that may prevent them from ever escaping.

Brian Blessed has weird shoes. They're really jarring when they appear during the climax of "Cygnus Alpha". He's wearing a sort of tatty purple sarong and has these oddly white slip-on loafers.  They don't look like the shoes of a medieval-era cult leader, which is what his character has styled himself as, and they don't look like shoes from our far future. Instead they look like what I suspect they are: the result of a cash-strapped BBC costume designer throwing any old shoes onto Blessed's feat in the mistaken impression that nobody will see them. I saw them when I was a young child, and remember thinking they were a bit weird. They have grabbed my attention every time I've seen this episode in the decades since. They really jump out at you: Brian Blessed's weird shoes.

To be honest Blessed's shoes aren't the biggest problem with "Cygnus Alpha". The series' first episode, "The Way Back", informed the audience that the London's journey from Earth to Cygnus Alpha would take eight months. The second episode, "Space Fall", was set four months into that journey, and ended with Blake, Avon and Jenna escaping captivity in the Liberator. This third episode features the London's ultimate arrival on Cygnus Alpha - except for Blake and his companions it's clearly been about two or three hours since they took the Liberator. The timing simply doesn't work. It's further proof of just how much creator/writer Terry Nation was making this series up as he went along. If you're contradicting yourself three episodes in, you probably need to take a firm step away from your writing desk for a while.

Much like the preceding episode, it's a story told in two halves. The first sees Blake, Avon and Jenna explore the Liberator. They work out it can travel extremely fast. They find a collection of powerful alien handguns. They activate the ship's talking computer, which calls itself Zen and replies to their questions in frustratingly obtuse ways. Once in orbit around Cygnus Alpha they even work out how to use the ship's teleport system, which to Nation's credit is sold pretty well as something new and unprecedented and not simply something he's shamelessly lifted from Star Trek.

The second half sees Blake teleport down to Cygnus Alpha to rescue his fellow prisoners, and coming up against Varga's medieval cult instead. That the community on this colony would lack advanced technology is fairly easy to accept. That they would revert to a medieval lifestyle - even so much as to build their own stone castle - is more difficult to swallow. Brian Blessed plays Varga by shouting a lot with a manic wild-eyed stare. I have been trying to work out if this is where this constantly shouting Brian Blessed first appeared. He didn't act like this for his entire career, but certainly from here we get shouty mad kings from him in Flash Gordon, The Black Adder, Doctor Who and a bunch of other places. This is very possibly one of his worst performances, but in his defence it's an incredibly one-dimensional part. At least he makes it entertaining on some level.

Gareth Thomas flounders a little in this episode. He's forced by the script to play a very credulous and panicky Blake, scrambling over rocks, gushing his lines at his former cellmates and generally failing to impress as a rebel leader. By contrast Paul Darrow is having a whale of a time as Avon. He gets all of the episode's best lines, and is given the most depth as well. He's at a crossroads where he could easily dump Blake on the surface, do a runner with the Liberator and be both astonishingly rich and immensely powerful for the rest of his life. He even makes jokes to Jenna about murdering her if she gets in his way. He says it as a joke, she ostensibly receives it as one, but both of them know there's a truth buried in there somewhere.

It's also interesting to see Gan (David Jackson) assume a leadership role over the prisoners as soon as Blake is no longer there. He defends Vila (Michael Keating) against other prisoners, he leads their march across the surface, and he's willing to sacrifice his own safety and even life to defend them. Sadly this is about the most authority and depth Gan is ever given in the series; it's all downhill for him from here.

Wave both hello and goodbye to Peter Childs as the London prisoner Arco: the character was originally slated to join the regular cast, but was abruptly killed off in his first episode to keep the series budget down. Arco's demise does leave the series with a bit of a ridiculous problem: it's titled Blake's 7, but the cast never climbs above six. In the next episode they add the psychic alien Cally to the cast, and a line is thrown in about Zen the computer being the seventh member of Blake's team, but I don't think viewers were ever that convinced.

All in all, this is a very hurried and poorly thought-out episode. It satisfies to an extent because it finishes the job of setting up the series premise, but that doesn't excuse the silly medieval planet or the weak character work. Or Brian Blessed's shoes.

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