Season 4 took an intolerable amount of time to get comfortable but when it did it was very good for the most part, though by then there were only six episodes left. It's an odd thing but there's not really a transition; it's more a switch flicks. "Games" therefore marks a turning point but at the same time there's that nagging question of whether it's actually all that good or just so much better than the dross so far this year it feels good. It's the first and only script from Bill Lyons, another Z-Cars alumni, and while it's probably not anything special it's good fun.
The whole concept of the crew getting pulled into a scam by the gregarious Belkov, involving valuable Feldon Crsystals, is basically an excuse for a smashing comic book style actioner and at this point it was what the series needed. Like all good comic book villains Belkov is mad about games and models his entire operation around them, including his computer and his security system, while he's also trying to play the crew against the Federation he nominally works for. There are a couple of fun twists along the way of the faintly predictable type but it feels like the first lean, crisp and polished script of the season.
The Scorpio crew's in is Gerren, a Federation mining expert being blackmailed by Avon and also attempting to get one over on Belkov and his own employers, while Servalan is wise to the whole thing and making her own move to secure the crystals before Belkov can disappear. It makes for a fun series of shifting alliances and motivations, with Belkov taking whichever side suits him. The crew are hardly paragons here, though - their interest in the crystals is either the mere wealth or their potential as a weapon and their attempts to stop Servalan are entirely motivated by wanting them; they also abandon an injured Gerren to her non-existent mercy with no guilt.
Still, most of the regulars are well-served, even before the endgame featuring a set of four computer challenges tailor-made for the away team. Even before his door-lock conundrum Vila has his best showing for ages, being sympathetic and funny rather than clownish, with his gift of the gab being shown when talking the computer Gambit over to his side and getting to be suitably smug when bailing out Tarrant (who gets to at least show off his piloting skills compared to his usual Season 4 workout of flying Scorpio somewhere and getting shot up) and Soolin. They largely just get to shoot things and fire off sharp lines but then that's probably a fair work-out for what are basically two gun-slinging minions at this point. Avon meanwhile is, once he gets past being burdened with the exposition, smart again and actually comes off as a dynamic leader without losing his sardonic edge. Only Dayna suffers, all but removed from the plot in the important stages and sat on Scorpio looking like she's about to blub the whole time.
Stratford Johns meanwhile is charismatic enough to pull the role of Belkov off but not enough to make it his show. Yes, he's a bit silly in the wider context of the B7 universe of gritty rebels and nasty Federation officers but so far this year we've had a crap android, an assassin who couldn't kill someone strapped to a chair, Space Rats and Gunn-Sar. At least Belkov is enjoyable and has a well-reasoned plan with some nice touches. He's so jolly and matey with everyone he talks to you can see why he gets away with this stuff for so long. Servalan is again okay in these smaller doses; while you'd think she sees through Belkov easily enough the implication is she's working her way through a few loose ends and it's just his turn on the list. The whole Sleer thing is still just a mess, though - it's almost like all the different writers (by far the highest per season of the show - 11, with only Chris Boucher and Robert Holmes) thought someone else was doing an episode where this would play out and just keep her in this vague holding pattern where she's going around basically being Servalan only no-one really asks any questions about it. You'd think it would be an easy shot for Avon to get Orac to send an anonymous tip to Federation HQ as to who Sleer really was, wouldn't you? The whole thread is never really properly dealt with
The other thing that's good about "Games" is that it's well-made. There are some good model shots as the team got used to the Quantel package and the fight scenes - especially those at the mine - are very well done, and everyone gets to have a go at showing they can handle themselves a bit, even Vila (this is the first time he intentionally shoots someone on screen). It's just what Tarrant and Soolin need too; Tarrant's probably never been cooler than bludgeoning his way through the Federation security on hand here. The thing's also mercifully low on drag - which keeps it moving past some of the more questionable moments - and has a decent ending.
The ironic "no one wins" ending is becoming a little bit of a thing, though, and will be one of the season's traits - aside from getting the stardrive it basically happens every week, largely to keep the running order fluid so they can't get rich of crystals and make an episode about boosting some gold pointless. One of the problems with Season 4 is it feels like we're seeing the boring part of the story with some half-hearted attempts at resource building while behind the scenes Avon is making an anti-Federation alliance we don't see until the penultimate episode. Certainly after a first viewing it feels like we're just hanging around for the finale for much of the year.
But "Games" is one of the more entertaining diversions. It would feel lightweight in earlier seasons but in context it's a welcome boost and even out of it - if you follow the highly recommended viewing order of gritting your teeth through "Rescue" and just plonk "Games" on next it's a decent adventure even if it's low on subtlety.