Tuesday, 20 March 2018

TV Review - Blake's 7: S04E11 Orbit

The crew interactions during Season 4 were largely limited to Avon using the other four crew members as a unit; with Orac and/or Slave on teleport duty everyone got to go on trips off the ship more often than not. While different pairings would go off to do this or that for a few minutes there was never really much time for the dynamics of any particular couple of crew members to be explored, with the deciding factor often seeming to be that all the actors had about the same amount to do. Robert Holmes however had already shown a considerable affinity for the pairing of Avon and Vila in his two Season 2 scripts and returned to them here; the result feels like a reunion, which is odd when you think about it.

It feels strangely novel as a result, the old team back together. While there's sniping aplenty on the Scorpio none of it's particularly heartfelt for the most part but at the same time there's little positive affirmation going the other way. In contrast to Season 3 (and, in smaller doses, the first two) there's little sign of what these people do when they're not up to some sort of a scheme, no-one even really kicks back even with one of those Sony Walkman/glitter-covered shades combos or a board game anymore. Of course, you don't get much of that here either, but at least there's a sign of some sort of relationship beyond roles in a heist.

Avon and Vila are clearly friends insofar as anyone in the show is. Avon puts up with a lot more from Vila in terms of his general cowardice and his boozing than the latter's lock-picking ability merits; obviously he's still more than happy to gang up on him with Tarrant when it suits but there's no malice there. Vila for his part - as he states in this episode - trusts in Avon's survival instincts and is aware that he's unlikely to get him killed needlessly. They're both pragmatists and they both like money, which makes them about as compatible as anyone else in this odd bunch. Until this episode.

The catalyst is another potential ally, another disgraced boffin on the run from the Federation (add onto Ensor, Croser, Justin and Plaxton for a serious drip of brain-drain; no wonder the Mutoids got progressively shittier) with a neat device. This time it's one Egrorian with his mathematical prodigy Pinder and the design for a new planet-destroying tachyon funnel. It's actually a curious thing; the crew are undone at the end of Season 3 by Avon trying to get a new ally and a new weapon but he spends Season 4 doing little else. Desperate times, maybe. Of course, there's a decent variation here when the Scorpio is immediately trapped by Egrorian and the crew have little choice but to swap the tachyon funnel for their one remaining ace, Orac.

Egrorian is played by John Savident in a somewhat large fashion. Savident was a character actor at this stage of his career but you can see the potential for Fred Elliot here; it takes a bit of getting used to but his overt megalomania and theatricality are good fun on the whole and add a lot of energy to what could have been a very dull forty-odd minutes. It might just pip Colin Baker to the most fun OTT B7 guest showing, and his relationship with Pinder - a former boy parody aged by Hofel's radiation - provides some broad comedy and some depth. It's also dripping with homosexual overtones (especially his interest in an oblivious Vila), the second time of the year where a gay actor has played a likely-gay character. Of course again he turns out to be a shit but it was 1981, it's progressive that he doesn't have to mince around like John Inman in space.

There's a distinct threat in having such a broad turn when sharing scenes with Paul Darrow and Jacqueline Pearce (again separately, though for plot reasons at least) in that it often brings out their worst. But Darrow behaves himself rather well, with in-character playing to Egrorian justified by the script, and more often he undercuts Savident in a classy fashion. Pearce isn't too bad either; she has one abysmal moment (you know the one - "ohhhh, get up!") but otherwise is good at flattering Egrorian through gritted teeth; you get the impression Servalan is even relieved when the plan goes wrong and she gets to yell at him.

The set-up for the plot is a bit ropey in a couple of places, with Avon's alarm at Pinder calling him a lady a bit of a random leap of logic while Egrorian mentioning Servalan for no apparent reason and then badly covering it up making no-one look clever. Avon twigs Servalan might be involved but does basically nothing to change his plan as a result. And it is a bit weird that they only get Orac to research Egrorian's reasons for leaving the Federation until after meeting with him for the first time - and that it's Tarrant who thinks of it. Indeed, the two separate sections of the negotiation reek more than a little of padding. And in a way it is - "Orbit" is basically a forty-minute set-up for the shuttle escape set-piece.

Undoubtedly the most famous moment in the episode and probably the second best known of the series this features Avon and Vila duping Egrorian with a fake Orac (knocking up a spare one of these while at a loose end an indeterminate time before is very plausible for Avon) and high-tailing it in a shuttle with the tachyon funnel, only to find the craft inexplicably overweight. After stripping out what they can and still being short, Orac pipes up to point out to Avon that Vila is almost exactly the right weight. Again this is a bit of a cheat, though Orac might have thought he'd be next - maybe still pissed off about Tarrant being rescued first on Terminal?

It's one of those things that gets a pass as the subsequent sequence of an overly-nice Avon calling out to Vila, gun in hand, while his best (only?) friend cowers crying in part of the cargo deck is shocking and at the same time totally plausible. For all Avon's posturing this is the first time his "everyone but me is dispensable" ethics are properly put in such a situation and, well, he's clearly not been bullshitting, and Vila being stunned and feeble enough to have no better idea than to hide also rings true. The hum of the shuttle and the false kindness in Avon's voice only add to how unsettling it is.

There's something of a convenience to get them out of it, though - the embedded speck of dwarf star material is a good idea but Avon being able to simply push it into the disposal chute himself (and is it me or is that a very large and well-equipped space taxi?) feels like a bit of a cop-out. Interesting that Vila doesn't tell anyone else on Scorpio; presumably he knows that Avon will just lie his way out of it (I do like the way Avon says "I really do know..." once he finds the material, which must have removed any doubt in Vila's mind) and maybe he's not sure the others would back him up. What's interesting is that in recent episodes (like "Gold") Avon's gambled with the crew's lives but this is such a direct threat that they might actually have backed Vila.

By default or design after this the pair don't share any scenes without at least two other crew members around, which works out nicely. Paul Darrow has suggested in interviews that the crew should have been killed off over several episodes and that Vila could have met his end here at Avon's hands but he's wrong. Firstly that would diminish the events on Gauda Prime (where Vila's death is very much the "oh fuck, they're going to do this, aren't they?" moment) and secondly Avon wouldn't be able to swim back from that with the crew or the audience. And it adds a layer to the character that he finds another solution and then simply acts like he wasn't about to shove Vila out of the airlock. That's a big scary line at the end; he knows what he means and Vila knows what he means but to the other three it's just another big dramatic Avon epithet. One annoying dangling thread, though - Egrorian suggests the tachyon funnel would survive the shuttle crash so why don't the crew go back for it once Avon and Vila are safely onboard at the end?

Vila gets some other good moments. As said him being completely unaware that Egrorian fancies him is brilliantly played while Michael Keating gets to show his dramatic chops on the shuttle, while his conversation with a giggling Dayna and Soolin is one of the best comedy scenes in the whole show, even if Soolin's incessant need to show how tough she is mucks up the end. She's like the slightly thick macho kid in school who goes along with a joke until it gets beyond them and then tells everyone they're going to get a dead arm. She and Dayna get to mind the ship with Tarrant; the latter grows his balls back a little bit and Holmes remembers he's meant to be smart as well, the result being the character doesn't have a bad outing exactly. In fact, all three don't do too badly considering all they're doing is basically the same as us and reacting to the events on the Scorpio's telly. Pinder's well-played by Larry Noble as well - he's got a good expressive face for the role and his childlike mannerisms get the point across without looking like an old man acting like a child.

But it's the Avon and Vila relationship and that cargo bay scene which makes "Orbit", and it's more than worth the shortcuts taken to get it to that stage. There's a lot more wrong with the episode than there is with, say, "Games" in terms of the plotting but those last five minutes or so really are so incredibly intense that I'd forgive a lot worse to have them. Season 4 continues its' late rally and this one adds a layer of darkness that hasn't been there since the year before; this is the one where you get the first real inkling that something big and bad is on the horizon.

1 comment:

  1. Robert Holmes: There, I've definately written the darkest and best remembered ending to any Blake's 7 episode.

    Chris Boucher: Hold my beer.

    Incidentally, when hanging with Cally and Travis 1 at the weekend I saw the BBC have finally had the budget to put the "'" in the Blake's 7 logo for the new DVD set.