Sunday, 11 March 2018

TV Review - Blake's 7: S3E09 Sarcophagus

Sitting awkwardly alongside hacks like James Follett, Ben Steed and Trevor Hoyle as a new recruit was fantasy writer Tanith Lee, an actual proper author who even had an international deal and part of her Tales from Flat-Earth series would win a British Fantasy Award (the first woman to do so) the same year Season 3 was broadcast. She wasn't Tolkien or anything but it was a bold and imaginative idea for David Maloney and Chris Boucher to even approach her considering the series' critical stock, and Lee would contribute a story apiece to the next two series - she would also pitch to Doctor Who around this time; actually, considering Christopher H Bidmead's drive for the middlebrow on Who would be happening, so it's perhaps more likely she was re-directed to the slightly more grown-up unofficial sister series B7. Her works are probably the most curious, divisive and individual of the whole show; whereas there seems to be a broad consensus on most B7 episodes among fandom, hers seem to be very much an acquired taste.

"Sarcophagus" is certainly unique and gives critics a fair few entry points; it's arguably more embarrassing to watch with a non-fan than any other episode, even the ones with really shit effects, because it is in a couple of places very pretentious. The opening showing the alien queen/goddess' servants (i.e. the regulars prancing around in bizarre face-covering outfits) feels absolutely endless and isn't really warranted by the pay-off; with Season 3 rocketing back up the ratings the episode was watched by a shade under ten million viewers, and you wonder if that counts the ones who turned this off before the Liberator is even seen. The other rocky moment, to get it out of the way, is Dayna getting to sing. Josette Simon has a smashing voice and the song isn't even bad exactly, but the idea of an overlaid song sang by a crew member in character as a character who I don't recall showing any sort of particular musical interest thus far (Simon getting bored already?) over shots of the Liberator and twinkling stars is just dumbfounding. On paper it's so alien to the show (Avon shot his girlfriend last week and next week they're all kidnapped by a giant brain) that it would work but in practice it's a bit syrupy.

This is the closest B7 will come to a bottle show, with only the early scenes on the titular vessel taking place outside the Liberator. It really works; Season 3 has ran on conflict and here they are, all bottled up and seriously getting on each other's tits. There's a real sense that these are five people together solely because they have nowhere else to go - no friends, no alternatives, no direction. Tarrant is back on maximum testosterone and seems to be actively trying to bring things to a head with Avon, who's smart enough to sit back and see what happens, and that seems to colour everyone else (check both actors' body language throughout, Avon is in total control). Their dynamic here is brilliant, Avon effectively yanking back on Tarrant's leash when it suits him. Tarrant blinks first and bubbles over with a rant that probably gets closer to the target than Avon lets his rival think but still again critically misunderstands how much Avon uses the younger man's desire to publicly assert his alpha male status to his own more subtle end. Ultimately Avon is the victor without raising his voice; Tarrant being Tarrant despite an apology he clearly doesn't learn his lesson. Even Cally's sniping like a bitch in this one, though it's clear Avon doesn't particularly take her early barb to heart. Very odd that Tarrant and Vila of all people choose to coordinate their clothing, though.

Cally and Avon, though. Boucher has stated in interviews there were no romantic relationships between the crew but it would seem he didn't bother telling Lee and here their long-hinted (if you watch for that sort of thing) closeness is brought to the fore. They strike me as a pair who are attracted to each other but realise they're basically incompatible and see no point in finding that out; both have also just suffered personally damaging losses and are aware that this would only make things more doomed. Of course, the heightened emotions seem to bring it all to the surface, as does the alien using Cally as a conduit (must be a Tuesday) to escape her funeral barge and then taking on her form. It's good stuff too as the alien uses the weak, isolated nature of the crew against them and forces them into subservience - filling the roles of her servants seen at the start - with the showdown with Tarrant (who puts up a typical metaphorical guns-blazing defence before folding) is especially fine, though Vila doing magic tricks to an invisible audience is another moment that makes you squirm and hope no-one walks in on.

Ultimately whatever of Cally is still inside the alien is unable to control or kill Avon, who deftly defeats her in a fashion so relaxed he might as well be sat on the sofa. The question is how much Avon likes Cally; he's clearly fond of her but the love of his life turned out to be a treacherous bitch seconds before he shot her so he's not exactly on the market. Is is perhaps more credible that he's aware Cally has some deeper feelings for him and exploits that in his trademark ruthless fashion to destroy the alien? There wouldn't ever really be any serious follow-up on this; both the characters and the show's producers seem to have thought that this was a bit too close to the brink and scaled things back afterwards, which is a good call - some sort of hook-up would have been cumbersome to the set-up and probably undermined both characters; the man with a computer circuit for a heart with a girlfriend, with Cally likely reduced to a mere appendage of Avon. 

While B7 isn't always the most imaginatively directed show Fiona Cummings' work stands out here for injecting so much mood into the Liberator scenes; alright, it's perhaps easy to do because the set's usually a bit overlit but some unusual angles and the gloomy setting make it look large and foreboding. Yeah, the floating tea tray is crap but the rest of it isn't bad, especially the weird design of the funeral barge and its' odd contents. There's also possibly the strongest all-round cast showing of the whole season with everyone on good form, though you do wonder what they all made of the opening - apart from possibly Paul Darrow the rest of them seem to have had a rather pragmatic view of the actorly merits of the series. For an episode centred on two crew members it does a good job of doling out sharp lines and moments of characterisation to everyone.

Overall I like "Sarcophagus", in part because there's nothing else like it in the series - Lee's second script was even more overtly horny but at the same time much more conventional. The claustrophobia and sparks flying off the cast make for riveting viewing and it's easy to forgive the cringier moments as a result - plus what's wrong with a bit of ambition? What, just because it's B7 you can't have elaborate mime sequences and a character who previously only likes guns playing a harp and warbling about endless midnight skies? No-one. I like it. But it's hard to really take issue with anyone who doesn't.

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