Friday, 9 February 2018

TV Review - Blake's 7: S1E02 Space Fall

"Space Fall" is a direct continuation of the first episode of Blake's 7, part of a tightly plotted trilogy that opened the series. Few episodes later would be quite so closely connected either in the narrative sense or in the tonal sense; while Season 2's quest for Star One nominally provided a longer arc it was more of a macguffin chase with a sometimes questionable connection. Here though we catch up with Blake on the transport ship London as per the end of "The Way Back", and most of the action would take place on the vessel. The rough gist is that Blake is being transported to the penal colony on Cygnus Alpha, soon banding together with a few allies - the previously introduced Jenna and Vila plus the new additions Avon, Gan and Nova.

There's a big central problem with the episode, though - with Blake discredited as a paedophile and the regime not above disappearing people (such as Blake's family or the Varons) it's difficult to swallow that the Federation would sink considerable resources into transporting prisoners halfway across the galaxy to live on a prison world instead of simply flushing them into space. It's bad economy with pickpockets and murderers let alone with a wildcard rebel-rouser like Blake - you'd have to ask who would find out if Blake was murdered, whether they'd still care if he was discredited and what they'd do about it anyway. It's clear that while the Federation's power is huge they don't have quite the hold on society that, say, the Party do in 1984, so the mere exposure of inconsistency wouldn't bring the thing crashing down. Incidentally, Rayker's line about "molesting kids" is the last direct mention of what Blake's alleged crimes actual entail. Whenever he meets anyone from this point on they know him either from his first rebellion or his deeds with the Liberator, though whether this is because those he interacts with know the Federation's later charges were trumped up or not or if it was just down to trying to avoid mentioning the hero was a convicted child abuser (however falsely accused) every couple of episodes being awkward. Anyway, within half an episode he's inspired a handful of fellow detainees and comes within an ace of taking control of the London but still he's not simply killed and even gets picked to try and salvage the strange spaceship the transport runs into.

It's a big blow against credibility; Blake and his new allies live (for the most part) because otherwise there would be no series. To be fair "Space Fall" is written well enough to make the necessary format-establishing contrivance less distracting than it could be. The "honourable professional" writing of Leylan and a well-pitched weary performance from Glyn Owen in the role is a big component; Terry Nation often lacks subtlety but here the portrayal of the captain as a guy doing a job who isn't a monster and won't kill needlessly is pitch perfect, crucial to the episode working. He's backed well by the similarly human Artix, though some villainy is provided by Leslie Schofield's psycho warden Rayker and sidekick Dainer. As with the guest characters in "The Way Back" a mixture of careful writing and solid casting gives them all some depth and provides a few shades of grey; Nation and Chris Boucher had yet to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of their task in writing the whole season yet.

Blake displays the same earnest, plaintive drive as in the first episode and the next 24 to be honest. Within moments of being released he's planning and executing an uprising on the ship. It shows his charisma and belief that sheer willpower will win the day - and also his complete lack of patience or subtlety. Once again Gareth Thomas is perfectly suited. Jenna meanwhile gets to show off her space-moll cred with her sassy handling of Rayker, Sally Knyvette pulling off the not inconsiderable feat of being the dominant one in the exchange even when being slapped in the face but again otehrwise she's too nice, her rapport with Blake too frictionless.

This hands a huge amount of the attention to the debuting Avon. Played with the reserve that marked his first two years on the show by Paul Darrow, Avon is given a big show-off introduction, gets to show off his computing skills, wins a serious scrap and gets to figuratively butt heads with Blake from start to finish. Of particular note even at early doors is Avon easily seeing through Blake's attempts to manipulate him into helping the rebellion on the ship; Avon parries easily at which point Blake metaphorically collapses and begs for his help. It sets much of the dynamic for the first half of the whole show, with Avon frequently faintly amused at Blake's inability to bluff but realising that for the time being their needs coincide.

The rest get much less to do. Michael Keating puts a fine spin on everything that comes his way, even managing to pull off cocking up the uprising with a certain charm, and his briefly-glimpsed double-act with Nova allows for some fun exposition. Nova is an interesting little guy, though - not in himself but in his function. While he doesn't get much character beyond being enthusiastic he's given a little bit of dialogue and with the amiable Tom Kelly in the role (best known to telefantasy fans as Private ESS Pearce in the superb second Sapphire and Steel serial) it's plausible to the first time viewer that he might just be a regular. Obviously we know he doesn't and his rather nasty end - suffocated in the ship's crawlspace by a rapidly-hardening foam repair agent - comes as little surprise now but you wonder how successful the bluff was on broadcast. I also think it's a bit harsh that his chum Vila never even asks about him. As for Gan, well... I like the gentle giant more than most fans but here he's muscle and little else.

It all of course ends with the as-yet unnamed Liberator being boarded by Blake, Avon and Jenna. the loss of three officers trying to salvage it just about hides the walloping plot necessity of sending the three of them - dangerous prisoners who've already done their best to take over the London - over to a strange, powerful and much-desired spaceship totally unescorted. They then overcome the ship's psychological defences and head off, dropping a chasing Rayker into open space (a sequence that results in the show's first major effects failing beyond the weird choice to treat all weapons as sparkler guns). 

Narratively "Space Fall" has a lot to do in transitioning Blake from the near-total defeat seen at the end of the first episode to a free man with resources so we can get on with the action and it does this with considerable zip and enough subtlety to offset occasional clumsiness.

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