Thursday, 1 March 2018

TV Review - Blake's 7: S2E09 Countdown

After his mammoth role in writing all of Season 1 Terry Nation only wrote "big" scripts for the series - the opener for Season 2 concluding the cliffhanger he'd set up, the death of regular Gan, the two linked episodes overseeing the cast reshuffle at the start of the third season and would-be series finale "Terminal". The one exception was "Countdown", on the face of it a run-of-the-mill mid-season actioner. 

It features several Nation staples - another resistance group, a narrative gimmick which would work as part of almost any other series, dicey science, someone called Del, a prominent "could have been a bloke" role for a woman (not all of Nation's tropes are bad things and this was one of his more progressive traits), a planet that seems to almost totally consist of a base, et cetera. But there are a few interesting tweaks that make it feel slightly less like something that was hurriedly pulled from the first season when they didn't have the money for it.

The episode officially launches the search for Star One, the new location of the Federation's Control computer. While this has been on the cards since "Pressure Point" this officially sets the crew off following what will in theory be a complex chain of clues to divulge the system's secret location. In actuality it requires a chain of three people and is basically used as an excuse to run a series of MacGuffin episodes. Here it's a Federation officer called Provine, who worked at Control before it was relocated, and is rumoured to know the new location. How this chap knows things that Servalan and Travis don't and now the fuck Blake and company know about him knowing this (did we miss some dreadful episode where they were trying to prise clues out of people on a twee planet full of badly lit bad actors? Could we miss a couple more later?) are not questions we should be asking, though the idea of Blake, Avon and Vila (aside from the codas in "Hostage" and "Pressure Point" Jenna hasn't left the ship as part of the away team since "Horizon", while Cally's Season 2 days out have been limited to capture by the Altas, being under the influence of whatever it was in "Shadow" and her doomed rescue mission in "Horizon) nipping off for a pint at some sort of crap Cantina (populated by Zil, a resprayed Sea Devil, Alta-2 and Deep Roy, maybe?) when someone sidles up to them and goes "pssst, you wanna know where Star One is?" has a certain charm. Maybe we could have had it instead of "Hostage"?

Anyway, somehow they know but when the Liberator rocks up in orbit over Provine's current posting Albian the natives are in the middle of an uprising. It's a bit of a coincidence I suppose but then to be fair three weeks ago the crew freed a guy who would go on to sell out the species by accident so they're clearly not lucky people. It means there's a decent cat-and-mouse hunt around the wreckage-strewn base as Blake and others try to find Provine while the officer himself tries to escape the planet before he's discovered.

Adding to this the Federation, having found Albian to be a hard conquest and the people difficult to subjugate, fitted the planet with a bomb which is armed seconds before the rebels storm the Federation offices, meaning a race against time to either disable it or for them to find Provine to disarm it. It's jolly exciting actually even if there's loads of cheating about how long the bomb's going to take (i.e. it's always going to be one second longer than it takes to sort it) but the BBC have thrown some money at this by B7 standards, with Vere Lorrimer shooting the whole thing well and a fairly capable guest cast, several of whom get a respectable thumbnail personality.

The main guest star is an interesting bit, though. Okay, so it's only Tom Chadbon and he does that thing where he doesn't act but he's playing a guy named Del (seriously, was Terry just a big Fools fan?) Grant, a hired hand of the Albian rebels who has a rather interesting history with Avon. Del's sister Anna was due to elope with Avon after the heist that the latter was busted for, but while he was recovering after it all went wrong she was captured and died under interrogation after refusing to give up information on him. Which was a bit futile because he then presumably got caught anyway, but carry on. While Avon's subsequent pairing with Grant to disable the bomb and his redemption in Del's eyes by saving his life is predictable it's a further spotlight role for Avon, fleshing out his personality and history even more. Is this a result of positive viewer reaction to the character or again is it becoming clearer that Gareth Thomas is leaving? I've read some speculation that Grant was even a test for a new regular to join up (which might explain Nation's role as writer) but I'm not sure what this is based on, or where the professional mercenary would fit into the set-up when that sort of material gain is already a big factor for both Avon and Vila. As it is it's hardly a missed opportunity; Chadbon and Paul Darrow have zero spark and their characters' little arc is finished off neatly here, and it's likely this was made up for the internet anyway.

A good role for Avon and the obligatory adventure plot-line for Blake (who also reaffirms his loyalty to Avon despite the sniping by threatening Grant on his crew-mate's behalf) as he hunts the base for Provine means very little for anyone else. Season 2 suffered from this a lot, due to trying to give Blake a full leading role and Avon a secondary lead role while also cooking up plotlines for Servalan and Travis - but when the Federation pair have a week off the rest of the regulars don't really get any more to do. Vila teleports down and opens a couple of doors while giving Blake someone to talk to but again doesn't fit with Nation's prosaic style; while he's come off the rail a bit in Season 2 there's still no real sign yet of his forthcoming promotion to second lead. And as for the girls; Sally Knyvette getting sidelined when she'd told everyone she was off in four episodes isn't a surprise but considering the producers felt the 3/2 gender ratio was important to keep both Jenna and Cally off the table as potential sacrifices in "Pressure Point" and something that they'd jump through hoops later on to maintain it's amazing Jan Chappell is again given so little to do when she was surely being planned as a constant for the third series.

But really it's not this episode's fault and both Blake and Avon carry their plotlines well. The story is entertaining in a slightly trashy way and by the show's standards is well-made with some of the better mass fight scenes it would muster. And Provine's actually got a sort of hunted charisma to him, making for some fun prey. It's not a bad start to the low-key arc and a decent 'baseline' actioner.


  1. My memory may be a bit hazy here, but as I understand it...

    The original plan was that a character called The Captain would join the crew at the end of Pressure Point (their role in the final episode taken by the daughter), who would be a mercenary style character who would eventually be a traitor.

    So Del Grant wasn't going to be a regular, but likely uses vestigal ideas from that abandoned character because Terry Nation never met a concept he didn't like to reuse.

    Of course, a lot of that wound up Tarrant.

    1. Ah yes, that very much rings a bell. Glad it didn't get used to be honest, at that stage it probably would have felt very forced. You wonder how Avon might have gone if Gareth Thomas had signed up for another year or two, though - mind, his popularity probably nixed that.

      As for Tarrant he seems to be a composite from every single dropped male character. The early plan for Vila (when Avon was Arco's simpering sidekick) was that he was a sort-of straightforward dashing type whose impulsive macho heroics tended to get the crew into scrapes...

  2. I think the main reason The Captain was dropped is someone realising there was little point killing Gan because 6 characters was too much, only to introduce a new sixth character and hey! They've already established computers count.