For the conclusion of Season 3 Terry Nation returned as writer for his third script of the year, and the last of eighteen he penned. The story was famously planned to kill off the series but watching at home was Head of the BBC Bill Cotton, who was impressed and phoned the station while the finale was still on air so the continuity announcer could relay news that it would be back for another series, bypassing the then-closed production office. Which is a bit of a weird decision when you think about it; the majority of the cast were delighted to come back and before Season 3 wrapped it had already bounced back in the ratings, which were around 9-10m compared to the 6-7m of Season 2. Why go to all the effort of reworking the format in order to then wind the thing down? Anyway; "Terminal" works as a fine episode and a fine season finale but overall I'm glad it didn't end the whole series for several reasons.
The episode brings Avon's growing paranoia and his disharmony with the crew to a head. Early on there's considerable mystery as he takes over the Liberator's flight deck and lays in a mysterious course, obsessively keeping to an unknown timetable and recklessly heading the ship through a cloud of fluid particles. Along the way things between Avon and Tarrant finally bubble over, with the former quickly nipping the younger character's attempts at forcing a showdown with a calm threat to kill him (which is ironic considering Tarrant pulled the same trick on Vila two episodes back). Steven Pacey gets to do his classic "ohshit" face and Avon wins the battle, though he does actually succeed in uniting the crew into a unit of four - this is probably the most Tarrant, Vila, Dayna and Cally cooperate all year, and they all offer to back Avon up into the unknown.
The unknown turns out to be a seriously injured Blake, stuck on a life support machine in a bunker on the egg-shaped artificial planet Terminal, seemingly at the mercy of Servalan. It's very curious why exactly he chooses to keep everyone out; he tells Servalan that their enthusiasm can be a problem but it's probably because he's expecting some degree of a trap and only wants to put himself at risk; his orders to Vila on apparently agreeing to a deal is for them to run, meaning he's prepared to be captured or killed and doesn't want them involved - but why go all this way, find Blake's alive and then get himself at best made a prisoner alongside him? His reasons for going at all at least are clear, Avon being smart enough to realise he's no leader of men and ready perhaps to get down to some work after a season's drifting.
Of course by then things are already falling apart; the decision to press through the fluid cloud leads to the corrosive liquid attacking the Liberator with Vila and Dayna still onboard; Michael Keating puts in a strong, earnest performance here and Vila (not for the first or last time) shows some initiative and guile when he's backed into a corner and seems genuinely concerned with Zen's condition. Meanwhile Cally and Tarrant follow Avon down against his orders and are captured, weakening his hand against Servalan - which was probably what he was afraid of, though unknown to him it would have made no difference anyway and in fact being able to go through with a deal with Servalan saves their lives.
Much of the episode, such as the guards with their Jimmy Saville wigs and non-standard uniforms, the sequence with the guidance unit and the Links, are mere misdirection to keep both characters and viewers intrigued as to what Avon's looking for, and most of it is basically discarded when Blake's discovered - though how weird is it that Servalan bothers answering Cally at the end as to what exactly the Links and Terminal are all about? Sure, it's good closure for the viewers at home but it feels very odd for her to just throw that out. The Blake cameo itself is nice; his Season 2 rapport with Avon slips straight back and it's very less is more with the single scene - there used to be a few rumours about this cameo going around, with Gareth Thomas (with a full beard, worn for a stage show he was in at the time) reportedly unhappy to do it and only doing so because it was expected to be the last ever episode.
The various drugs and lines about continuity (plus Tarrant and Cally discovering the empty equipment Avon was previously seen in) make it quite obvious that something's not quite right and it's probably not the surprise the script was hoping for when Servalan reveals the meeting to be a hallucination. Even aside from Thomas' desire to move on the return of Blake full-time was never really on the cards and surely it was a question of how they were going to stop him from rejoining, though Servalan's claim of seeing him die and be cremated is clearly just her stamping on Avon's balls when he's down (and again possibly something Thomas requested). However, it might have been a curious relationship had it happened - what would Blake make of the Liberator being used to steal kairopan, Jenna being abandoned and all the other non-partisan activities the crew got up to? As it is the loss of the Liberator is a bigger shock - and will create more problems for the surprise Season 4; as unpopular as the set was with crew that probably wouldn't have been the plan if anyone had thought it was coming back.
Servalan here runs the gamut. Her plan is detailed and multi-layered enough to ensnare Avon, and the moment when she's apparently furious that Avon has met Blake without her knowledge is a fantastic touch which only serves to convince Avon that he's getting one over on her. However, it's clear there's a bit of insanity in there as she totally fails to notice the damage to the Liberator; it might have worked better if she'd never been onboard the ship but she has twice - in fact Season 3 is the year for this, with hostile forces boarding the Liberator in nine of the 13 episodes; it only happened once in all of Season 2 (due to Travis disguising himself as Shivan) and three times in Season 1 (two of which were missions of mercy gone wrong). I mean, if she was going to go mad with power the second she went onboard it would have happened in "Harvest of Kairos", right? Though she has been through the wringer a bit since, which perhaps explains why she doesn't care about the absence of Zen and the lack of the crew needing to hand the system over as they did in "Harvest"; really it would have worked better if she'd been kept off. "Maximum power!" perhaps indicates she has gone off in the deep end a bit.
She even seems strangely sad beforehand that she was able to dupe Avon. Her speech to him at the end is another great moment from Jacqueline Pearce (she really has largely been a star in Season 3; without Travis restricting her she's been able to go for a much greater range) and it hammers home Avon's culpability in falling for her plan because, despite Blake's validation in "Star One" and a whole stack of adventures as queen bee, he still wants Blake there to lead and perhaps give him approval. And, just as in "Rumours of Death", he's acting like Blake as well - it's very close to the former leader's actions in "Pressure Point" as he keeps the crew out of the loop - maybe on some subconscious level he knew it was too good to be true and kept them out not just to keep them from danger but to prevent Tarrant or Cally or someone talking some sense into him.
Similarly suspect is Vila's improvisation to retrieve Orac, which requires some good timing from both Keating and Gillian McCutcheon to convince us Kostos would let Vila take a souvenir anyway and that Servalan wouldn't be looking for Orac. The rescue of the supercomputer is clearly a door left open for any possible reprieve but beyond the regulars being left alive and an escape route for Servalan it's the only one. For what it's worth I don't think it's too incongruous that Servalan leaves them on Terminal, especially once she makes it clear the ship she promised isn't really in good condition, with the news that Blake (if not dead) isn't there and Avon's lost the Liberator for nothing enough to keep the crew depressed. You could reason that she is happy to leave them alive for now, take the Liberator and return in an hour or two to extract any further information and kill them at her leisure.
In lesser hands these sort of things could have hobbled the script but it's well-written and well-made. The Terminal sets are nice, the decaying Liberator is nicely done, complete with a great final explosion for the model, and that heartbeat on the planet adds to the sense of doom and forboding. Mary Ridge shoots it all very well, notably going for only quick glimpses of the stuntmen in monkey suits that are the Links (Deep Roy was meant to be one but ran at a disorientated Steven Pacey during filming; Pacey was expecting a six foot heavyset stuntman and threw Roy with his full strength, leaving the actor with a broken collarbone). And that cliffhanger slash final scene with everyone shooting filthy looks at a smiling Avon as the last of the Liberator disappears from the screen and they contemplate their fate is perfectly pitched; who would have thought at the time that it would be happier than the real ending?
It all makes for a very fine episode; it does lose a little when you know what's coming but still serves as a fine endcap to a season marked by neuroses as the crew are finally undone by Avon trying to do the right thing in the wrong way. The year's been marked by cosmic misfortune and it's a fine touch that this eventually brings the crew down; for once there's no last minute reprieve like sofron or some unfortunate rebel blundering in; this time there's only defeat and a seemingly mortal blow to the battle against the Federation.