May 2, 2015

Blake's 7: "Orac"

It's 27 March 1978, and time for the season finale of Blake's 7.

Both Blake and Servalan travel to the distant planet of Aristo to capture "Orac", the mysterious technology for which the Federation will pay one hundred million credits. For Blake the mission becomes even more urgent: after their time on the radioactive surface of Cephlon his crew urgently need anti-radiation drugs to survive. Either the elusive inventor Ensor will provide them, or Blake's crusade ends here.

After being teased very effectively during the previous episode, Orac turns out to be a computer. Not simply any computer, however, but the master computer - one capable of hacking into and controlling pretty much every other computer in existence and exploiting its information. It also talks, and from here onwards becomes the final regular member of Blake's crew. When viewed today, it's a fairly ridiculous contraption made from perspex and Christmas lights. When viewed as a child, I thought it was one of the most wondrous technological inventions ever. I have so much nostalgia invested in this series that it's hard not to get excited when one of the more iconic elements of the series finally arrives.

The introduction of "Orac" is handled well. Derek Farr's performance as the legendary computer engineer Ensor is perfectly pitched, combining humour and pathos. Stephen Greif is particularly good as Travis: this was his final performance in the role, since he wasn't available to return the following year. It's impossible not to notice his smile at the very end, defeated once again by Blake, disgraced in his commanding officer's eyes, and yet able to see the bleak humour in it all.

The plot is, it must be said, remarkably slight. There's a lot of padding in the episode's opening minutes as it becomes clear that the Liberator crew are a lot sicker than they realised. There's also a peculiar early scene where Blake asks Avon to view a video log of their last adventure on Cephlon: it's clearly there to fill in the audience on events of the previous episode, but I can't imagine a more obvious and ham-fisted way of doing it.

The one advantage of the padding is that it provide a lot of room for character development: Avon, Vila and Jenna all get strong moments to shine. Gan, of course, appears to miss out as always. It's as if, once created for the series, he simply didn't present Terry Nation with any interesting story opportunities.

The strain of writing so many episodes in a row is clearly showing at this stage. This was Nation's 13th episode in a row, and not only is the plot extremely simple this time around it is packed with what feels like a "greatest hits" package of his earlier Doctor Who work. We have characters needing pills before they die of radiation poisoning ("The Daleks"), oceans of acid as far as the eye can see ("The Keys of Marinus"), and pointless monsters threatening characters aimlessly in caves ("Genesis of the Daleks").

The episode's climax is a bit weird. The crew sit around the lounge area of the Liberator flight deck to interrogate Orac about his abilities, the main one appears to be predicting the future based on massive quantities of data. To demonstrate Orac shows them an image of the Liberator being destroyed. It's supposed to be a cliffhanger to get audiences keen to see Season 2, yet from the way it's shot it looks as if Orac tells Blake and the others that their ship is to be destroyed, and then the ship actually is destroyed. It's an oddly sloppy piece of direction.

This is one of the episodes of Blake's 7, and they're about to become a lot more common in subsequent seasons, where the plot isn't very good and the production values are low, but where the characters are well defined and the dialogue is enormously entertaining. Against the odds, and a lot of what I've written above, I'm giving "Orac" the thumbs-up. It's faulty, and cheap, and in many respects rather lazy, but it's entertaining nonetheless. That ends Season 1 with eight good episodes out of 13, and a final quality ratio of 62 per cent.

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