Despite it only being four episodes since his debut script (well, to be fair "Killer" was meant to run second, getting bumped back when no-one could stop laughing at the costumes) Robert Holmes' second script is pretty damn confident, basically having the front to subvert the big "Search for Star One" plot to the background behind a comedy thread for Avon and Vila. Of course, as Doctor Who script editor Bob had effectively given Chris Boucher his big break, so it's perhaps not surprising he's given such a free range here.
Holmes was always one of the genre's more literate writers and the result is "Gambit" is a sort of collision between sci-fi, Casablanca and westerns. Compared to sexless boiler-suited types attacking and defending bases it's a serious shake-up to add glamour, vice and humour to the universe but the script pulls it off. And obviously it's packed with well-refined double-acts, to some degree - Vila & Avon, Blake & the Girls (yup), Krantor & Toise, Docholi & Chenie, Servalan & Jarrier, even Travis and his Freedom City opposite number Cevedic. It means a fast, witty script.
Both Paul Darrow and Michael Keating are clearly relishing the opportunities presented by their characters using a visit to neutral Freedom City and pissing off to knock over a casino with Orac the second the fearless leader's teleported down to chase up a lead in the hunt for Star One's location. Once again you have to wonder how much is being tested for the next series; the pair have always had good chemistry but here they carry what could have been a very dull padding plot is a joy. While it's simply probable the production team either forgot or ignored the line back in "Cygnus Alpha" that the Liberator has almost as much wealth as the "entire Federation banking system" onboard it doesn't actually effect things; Avon & Vila might see it as Blake's money and clearly it's as much about nipping out for thrills behind his back as the actual winnings.
Blake meanwhile takes the girls (finally properly off the ship with Blake in the week he's being ignored) to find Docholi, a drunken surgeon hiding out under the alias Klein. After the set-up they're then only in a couple of bar scenes (and has anyone ever looked more out of place than Blake down the pub?), an intentional late-in-the-day infodump scene to set up the next episode and the coda, where the trio remain oblivious to Avon & Vila's success at the casino. Still, the staged catfight between Jenna and Cally is good silly fun - both the characters and actresses seem to be enjoying doing something other than operating the teleport (which this episode will establish can be done remotely by Orac, meaning they've effectively spent most of the season manning the desk simply to save on a computer's workload).
As well as the Liberator crew naturally both Servalan and Travis are in town. Servalan has somehow picked up on Blake's quest for the information about Star One, including Docholi's role despite there being no way Provine could have told anyone else, and is along as well complete with new sidekick Jarrier, a quirky odd little bloke who's blatantly there for her to talk exposition to (and fun for it, Jacqueline Pearce and Harry Jones playing the knowing scenes well). Travis is also after the information and/or Blake with the added involvement of needing Docholi to repair his arm, in return for which he's acting as the surgeon's bodyguard.
This means there are effectively five threads in action - Vila & Avon hitting the Big Wheel, Blake, Jenna & Cally hunting for Docholi, Servalan pressuring Freedom City's administration to do the same, Travis lurking around and Docholi's own attempts to keep one step ahead of the authorities, with some overlapping. It makes for an exciting, fast-moving episode and it helps that it's peppered with a series of well-rounded characters - Freedom City's decadent, scheming leader Krantor and his assistant Toise while Docholi himself is one of Denis Carey's better doddery old duffer run-outs and sparks well off Nicolette Roeg (cinema visionary Nicolas' older sister) as a barmaid with a heart of gold.
By B7 standards it's all very opulent and the design team seem to have relished the brief of "space Vegas" as a challenge, with lots of reused background outfits found in a drunken raid on Costuming, chrome and silver facepaint around; it's tacky, but knowingly so - have you seen Las Vegas? You wonder if the production was a serious attempt to court Holmes as while it obviously looks a bit cheap there's clearly been more money put towards "Gambit" than probably any other episode this year bar the opener and closer (though the attempt was unsuccessful, the writer not returning until the fourth season). As a result, the guest cast is something of a telefantasy buff's dream - Aubrey Woods, professional robot dog voice artist John Leeson, Carey, Paul Grist (the poor man's Joe Don Baker), Sylvia Coleridge, the guy who played Blake's lawyer in the first episode and Sir Deep Roy.
You have to be in the mood for this one, though, and its' placement at the business end of the series is frustrating in some ways when you're perhaps after something more heavyweight - but that might be just knowing that "The Keeper" will be shit and fumble the ball. If you moved it earlier then you'd lose Servalan and Travis' intrigue to some degree and both are a lot of fun. It's a bit frothy and only really works because it's like no other episode but overall it's an enjoyable fifty minutes and by far the best of the "quest" segments before the season finale.