Saturday, 10 February 2018

TV Review - Blake's 7: S1E03 Cygnus Alpha

The last of the opening arc, "Cygnus Alpha" marks the end of the initial imprisonment/escape arc and the beginning of a shift to more episodic traditional sci-fi adventuring. It also marks the beginning of what would be a recurring format for the show, that of "A" and "B" plots; with five to six human regulars at any one point in order to give everyone something to do the crew would be split in half, typically with one group teleporting down to the surface of a planet on some mission and the other half staying on the ship and typically having some kind of minor drama. The general rule of thumb was that this format would only be eschewed for big episodes, though it would also come into play when the writers ran out of things to give the female characters to do.

Here one plot concerns Blake, Avon and Jenna exploring the Liberator and learning the basics of the system while arguing about their next steps. Some of the dialogue here is good stuff, with the trio sparking off each other nicely enough. There are some nice little touches with Avon from time to time when his cynicism breaks down at some wonderful feature or other while Jenna seems to cool on Blake just a fraction, though it's never really convincingly posited even at this early stage that she would abandon him on Cygnus Alpha. Blake himself is also nicely developed further; his immediate thought of carrying on after the London to keep raising an army again shows his idealism and complete lack of subterfuge or subtlety, and Avon's reading of his theoretical response to the wealth on the ship is a solid reading even at this early stage. On the other hand there's a lot of the three pressing buttons and explaining jargon to each other; a necessary part of establishing the setting but not exactly riveting television. It does lead to one of my favourite B7 flubs, though, when the three investigate the isomorphic guns, going to great pains to establish everyone can only hold one at a time without being burnt. This firmly established Blake hands two guns to Jenna while literally stating they can only have one each.

The other plot concerns Gan, Vila and the rest of the London prisoners on the surface of Cygnus Alpha. The penal colony itself is both smart and dumb; having basically no facilities is a fine idea in a way - what better way to make an inescapable prison than a primitive planet is a good basic starting point but Blake shows immediately how easy springing prisoners would be. Also the idea of the population turning into some sort of religious cult is a bit dippy and sixties Star Trek, a serious shock to the system compared to the banal evil of the Federation. And while it's a cheap shot it's basically a handful of guys in robes in a castle. Is this it? The Federation send ships of dissenters over how often? The set-up suggests the London group are the first in some time, the rest descended from the first colonists. Do they kill them all each time? Why? Maybe everyone but Leylan (who pleasingly makes a brief early appearance to deliver a not-too-clumsy recap, adding to the arc feeling) really does flush everyone out of the airlock early on. Lucky Blake & co if that's the case.

Anyway, Gan gets something of a lead role here as the unofficial leader of the remaining prisoners but once again there's not much for him to do beyond being big and calm. Vila fires off a few good lines but really the pair are trotting around waiting for Blake to pick them up. Among the extras who probably can't be spotted on London are two named characters, Selman and Arco. Both of these were initially planned to be part of the 7 but dropped and die here; I would suspect neither the casting nor characterisation were left by this stage, with their names just used because Terry Nation had thought them up. Arco was initially going to be an even more untrustworthy version of Avon, with the original Avon as his cowardly sidekick - a role which evolved into Vila, with the original Vila being a macho, athletic, handsome guy (not a million miles away from the bare bones of Del Tarrant). 

So the Liberator only adds Gan and Vila to its' strength at this point, and this time there's not much suspense. I couldn't even really tell you which one's Selman and which one's Arco; they serve to mildly antagonise the other prisoners on the surface and establish that Vila and Gan get along but there's never any bluff that they're going to be regulars. As well as the prisoners the show gets its' first real big name guest star in Brian Blessed. He's part of the problem here, however - big and loud, if not exactly bad, he's cartoony and again adds to the feeling that it would take minimal retooling to drop the plot into Space: 1999.

It's not all negative and the episode isn't exactly bad per se, even if the ending - with Vargas inexplicably blurting out the secret about the 'sickness' of the prisoners for no reason and also somehow appearing from a different teleport bay opposite the usual one that's never seen again - is very weak and seems to come about when someone realises they have 50 minutes of material, but there are some good scuffles and smart lines. It's more than it's the point the show begins to transition from Orwellian critique to space opera. Not that I don't love a bit of space opera and not that I consider the rest of the show without merit but I really do like the early set-up and style; it's a shame that it would be all but abandoned from hereon in.


  1. It's not a wrong comment as I'm the only person who seems to think contrary, but I always view it as an opening 4 part arc rather than a trilogy. It just seems more natural for it to conclude with the regular cast all established. Maybe Time Squad being terrible is why no one but me ever goes with that.

    At what point did Brian Blessed become BRIAN BLESSED? There are other shows where he's the big guest star name thanks to Z Cars before this (most recently in cult terms Survivors), but it does feel like something changes or gels in this where he stands out far more.

    I'm still amazed that when he was on Live and Kicking to promote The Phantom Menace ("George looked at me and said "You crazy limey bastard!", sorry, can I say bastard?") him shouting and exploding in SPACE was played as his main pre-Star Wars highlight.

    1. I can see it either way but I find "Time Squad" feels more like a 'standard' episode where the ally of the week for once doesn't die and actually does the logical thing of joining up with the crew.

  2. Ohhh, and why the "Only one gun each" thing anyway? It's never mentioned again. It doesn't even become a plot point in this episode.

    1. I think it's just absurd padding, like the way the vast sums of treasure onboard (if they're nearly as wealthy as the Federation hire a bloody army) only get mentioned twice more.

      The thing with the guns is that they plug into the belts and you probably couldn't wear two anyway.