Terry Nation was a hack par excellence. The term has come to be inferred by some as an insult, but it is nothing of the sort. Instead it’s recognition of professionalism, the ability to write tightly, efficiently – to recycle material while creating something original and engaging. In Duel, Nation’s hackery is perhaps more evident than usual.
The plot owes much to a familiar genre trope, the most frequently cited examples of which is the Star Trek episode, Arena: a hand-to-hand battle to the death between two foes. In Duel we have perhaps the best representation of the low regard in which Travis and Blake hold one another – and the very different ways in which they choose to express it.
The framing device of an ancient civilisation wiped out by an atomic holocaust is another set-piece straight out of the Nation playbook, though the spectral presence of Sinofar and Giroc – two sides of the same coin – forever embodying the duality of foe versus foe is an interesting device.
The atmosphere in Duel can’t pass without comment. As usual Douglas Camfield brings an urgency and edge to direction – and creates a wonderfully ethereal atmosphere in the opening scenes, another detour for Blake’s 7 into fantasy SF territory.
The dreamlike ambiance of the episode – is it real or in some sort of dreamscape? – makes for a notably different episode of Blake’s 7.There are rather more close-ups on individual actors in Duel, with plenty of focus pulls – and rather more thought has gone into how to block out the tricky Liberator flight-deck scenes.
Blake’s identification of pursuit ships, followed by the camera pulling back to allows Jenna and Gan to share the frame, is very Camfield and feels radically different.
Travis gets several close-ups that allow Stephen Greif to shade in some more of his character’s drives and instincts. And perhaps the most telling if Avon’s smile and slow headshake as he realises Blake won’t kill Travis.
Adding to this is the music, or rather the musical effects that combine sound design with music here, created using stock music due to Camfield’s refusal to work with Dudley Simpson. While the composer’s work is one of Blake’s 7’s trademarks, Duel certainly benefits from a change in tone.
The escalating echoes as Travis pounds The Liberator with plasma bolts and the oppressive musique concrète that accompanies any of the scenes on the planets are effective in moving Blake’s 7 outside of its usual ambiance.
So too the level of violence. When Travis yanks back Blake’s head and puts a huge knife to his exposed throat it’s a startling moment. Similarly eye-catching is the moment the Mutoid extends a syringe towards Jenna’s throat.
The fight scenes are much more convincing here too, in terms of space and ground combat. Bested by Blake Travis is happy to discard the dead Mutoid, like a broken doll, in another display of his offhand brutality.
When Travis is asked by Servalan about his preference for Mutoids in Seek-Locate-Destroy his answer is not wholly convincing. Here Stephen Greif does allow Travis some small inflections of fascination, disgust – and even a sadistic pleasure in teasing the Mutoid with whom he works.
It suggests that Travis is somehow simultaneously repelled and drawn to them – perhaps, as he suggests himself, he feels vaguely akin to them. But it has certainly crossed his mind that the Mutoid might come to view him as a source of fresh blood, on which they depends for survival.
Blake, Avon and Jenna are clearly identified as the parent figures here, who choose to leave the others to their bickering. Towards the end of the episode Blake teases Jenna, asking her about the beauty of Sinofar, and shares a laugh with Gan. Meanwhile the big man and Vila jibe at Avon, who is back to his withering self following Mission To Destiny.
If Blake has learned anything by the end of Duel, despite having refused to kill Travis, it is not evident. Despite the warning that his crew could die because of his beliefs, he is still determined to destroy the Federation.
The only difference between Blake and Travis is the latter identifies Blake as his enemy; Blake sees past Travis to the entire Federation. Even his hatred of Travis is subordinate to it.
Blake also believes his crew to be there by choice, but it is Hobson’s choice. Cally’s people are dead; Avon, Jenna and Vila are wanted criminals at the mercy of the Federation; Gan can’t be on his own.
Neither Blake nor Travis heed the warnings of Sinofar and Giroc. Both have bound their crews to their own personal destinies: against an implacable enemy, to mutual destruction.