Don’t pretend you didn’t see this coming.
I love Blake’s 7 in a way I don’t love Doctor Who. The latter will always play a significant role in my life; with the former it’s love-hate. Blake’s 7 is often objectively appalling. Most of the time it’s watchable, with a few moments of genius. Occasionally – very occasionally – it’s utterly wonderful. Blake’s 7 is perhaps the best example of my love for things that I can recognise as fatally flawed.
But it’s as if the nadirs are balanced out by zeniths of fleeting genius in episodes such as The Way Back, Gambit, Star One, Rumours of Death and Orbit or in characters such as Avon, Vila and Blake – and, occasionally, Servalan and Travis. The Liberator’s design, Peter Tuddenham’s multiples voices, Dudley Simpson’s wonderful theme tune and the most peculiar blend of visceral bleakness and campy, sly humour. Blake’s 7 really is something that only the BBC could have made – and it’s evidently something that only a very few people love, faults and all.
As I’m one of them I felt obliged to write something about it, inspired by a recent dash through the series (for the first time in a few years) inspired by the hilarious Wife And Blake blog. I review Doctor Who episodes by filtering them into brilliant or terrible (the titular Caves and Twins. So this is one is called Orbit and Voice, named after the best and worst B7 episodes respectively.
In the grand tradition of this blog I’ll start half way through the third series, before gradually losing interest and stopping somewhere around DeathWatch but, like the late-90s BBC2 repeat season, I’ll probably fast-forward to the final episode before finally finishing and reopening a Babylon 5 box-set.
Orbit and Voice: The Harvest of Kairos
It’s not as if Blake’s 7 hasn’t been bad before, but certain aspects of The Harvest of Kairos kicks the show into a new level of absurdity
Thankfully we’re thrown straight into the action – sparing us any further scenes where the crew play a game of intergalactic Monopoly (this actually happens in an earlier episode) – in Harvest of Kairos. Tarrant is playing a game of cat and mouse with Federation pursuit ships, in orbit above a planet, using his Federation-sponsored training and insider knowledge of its tactics.
Everyone’s favourite double-act, Vila and Avon, are down below, on an apparently-important mission, again leaving the man who – as a three-year-old – I always took for Blake in charge of the ship again. Quite what Cally – who could pull rank based on seniority in at least two different ways – makes of this is anyone’s guess, but what Cally makes of anything is something of a mystery.
Servalan, showing the disdain for bras she displays through most of her run, is being counselled by a man apparently called Duster. He informs the Supreme Commander that there is dissent in the ranks. Any fool with three pursuit ships could take the Liberator, according to Jarvik, an artisan with a powerful haircut from below stairs. Servalan smiles the smile that usually heralds someone’s death.
Meanwhile the Liberator’s very own comedy duo have returned to the Liberator with a a lump of rock. Vila is annoyed that he didn’t pack his thermals – one of those lines that begs an unanswered question as to the domestic arrangements on The Liberator. Zen reveals that the rock Avon is wielding has a complex brain and a twitchy Tarrant breaks orbit. Pleasingly the Liberator crew have dressed in muted, earth Autumnal shades, given that it’s Harvest Festival this has a winning resonance.
Servalan directs the pursuit of The Liberator from Space Command HQ and clearly expects victory – having not seen any of the episodes over the last to year it would seem – however she foolishly leaves the job to her trained combat pilots. Meanwhile Jarvik arrives on the bridge, looking a lot like an Emmerdale character actor – and the bloke from Terminus. Servalan enjoys patronising Jarvik and stalks towards him, swinging her arms as if she has weights in her hands, but even she doesn’t expect what comes next.
“Woman, you’re beautiful,” says Jarvik, laughing as he first grabs Servalan and forces his lips to hers, then smashes two hapless guards together. The other Federation guards hesitate, clearly intimidated by Jarvik’s rampant masculinity. Or sexuality. “I didn’t come here to brawl with guards,” confirms Jarvik, who looks more likely to put his feet up on a console and demand a cup of tea.
Servalan is forced to abort her attack when her pursuit ship computers prove as useless as most of her guards. Jarvik confirms that Servalan couldn’t possibly understand Tarrant’s brain, because he’s not a computer and because she’s A Woman. And Tarrant is A Man.
Luckily Jarvik is also A Man, meaning that he can basically read Tarrant’s mind. He’s heading for the Harvest of Kairos, explains Jarvik, A Man, as we cut to hear Tarrant ordering Zen to plot a course for Kairos. Smart bloke, that Jarvik.
Kairos bears a priceless crystal for one week every 15 years, I think, but poses more dangers to human life that Gan in a nunnery – nevertheless Tarrant wants to hijack a transporter bearing the crystal, Kairopran, for reasons that are never apparent. Meanwhile a somewhat detached Avon – spending more time gazing into the middle distance than usual – wrenches an admission that his pet rock is smarter than Orac from the irascible computer.
Meanwhile Jarvik is infodumping on Servalan which, given their relationship thus far, is not hard to imagine. Turns out Jarvik used to be a starship captain, which is how he comes to know Tarrant. Revealing that his service with the Liberator’s hotshot pilot happened ‘a few years ago’, it turns out Jarvik briefed Tarrant on a delivery of Kairopran, which suggests that it was 15 years previously.
Once again this opens up the thorny question of just how old Tarrant is supposed to be – going by Steven Pacey’s age, his character would have been a Lieutenant in the Federation at the age of seven. At this rate he’ll have received his wings while still in nappies.
Servalan looks up Jarvik’s record, which reveals that his name is, disappointingly, Ven – not Baz, Tel or some other name that could be an amusing contraction of a typical 70s moniker (cf. Roj and Del). Servalan is baffled by Jarvik’s crime, which isn’t revealed to the audience but seems to represented by a digital picture of a duck.
“Why?!” demands Servalan.
“Because I’m a human being – and so are you, “ counters Jarvik, prefacing another grandiloquent speech about humanity and casual sexism.
“When was the last time you felt the warmth of the Earth’s sun on your naked back or lifted your face to the heavens and laughed with the joy of being alive? How long since you wept at the death of friend?”. Jarvik is in full flow, pitched somewhere between Ted Hughes, Ernest Hemingway and Benny off Crossroads.
“You’ve surrounded yourself with mindless men and heartless Mutoids, but when they’ve done your work and the machines have done your thinking, what is there left in you that feels?,” rounding off the most unorthodox job interview ever by hurling a hammer into the computer screen. There’s good news – he’s got the job. Perks include three company pursuit ships and a fuck with the boss. All snark aside, this scene is pretty damn good, interrogating the two-dimensional character that Servalan so often is and all-but guaranteeing Jarvik’s eventual fate – the one constant in the series being that anyone who isn’t hopelessly nihilistic is doomed.
Back on the Liberator Tarrant is closing in on his quarry, the Kairopran transport ship, while Avon – having apparently relinquished any interest in commanding the Liberator – points needles at his rock. The Kairopran shuttle launches without any of the slave labour, giving an opportunity for Stuart Fell to be shot off a fence. Tarrant makes his move – deploying the Liberator’s Mirrorlon field and rendering the shuttle stationery.
Servalan’s computer predictions suggest that Jarvik’s plan will be a glorious triumph – dooming him to failure by his own technophobic standards. But the rugged fella tells Servalan to sit down and shut up – only neglecting to add that she put her knickers back on (which she surely doesn’t wear). Like Servalan, Tarrant has left his keel exposed and a pursuit ships blasts the Liberator.
Tarrant is bemused that the force wall was not protecting the rear, but Cally’s disappearance from the command deck – and Dayna’s subsequent and wholly understandable lack of knowledge of the Liberator’s incomprehensible controls – has endangered them all.
Avon has seconded Cally to his mineralogy fan club, where she reveals that, as well as being more clever than even Orac, the rock is also telepathic, or something. Vila and Dayna manage to destroy a pursuit ship, using up an unexplained ace that Tarrant had up his sleeve (using the ship’s rarely-seen prowess as the most advanced in the galaxy perhaps?).
The Liberator performs a wonky barrel roll, which somehow results in the destruction of another pursuit ship. Servalan’s faith in Jarvik is failing… and then Tarrant deploys the Mirrorlon, destroying the last pursuit ship! Servalan is furious, but Jarvik reveals it was part of his plan all along, throwing her to the sofa and chopping down a tree with his bare hands.
The episode’s first use of film indicates that another Home Counties factory has been deployed to represent a spaceship, the Kairopran shuttle in this case. Incredibly the Liberator crew are easily captured – surely that’s never happened before? – but Avon arrives to massacre the Federation guards.
Once again Servalan is dubious, but Jarvik reveals that he’s familiar with Greek mythology, unlike Tarrant or Avon. Jarvik’s Trojan has worked its magic and, just as he’s about to be disappeared by the Supreme Commander, Captain Shad teleports aboard with good news.
Servalan threatens to have Tarrant’s crew killed unless he commands Zen to accept her voice command, but Avon interrupts. The crew, true to Servalan’s word, are transported to the nearest Earth-like planet and safely teleported down, as per Avon’s demands. Unfortunately that happens to Kairos – the planet of 800 deaths. Whoops! In a huff, Avon makes off alone – for about five minutes, when he’s rejoined by everyone else.
Back on the Liberator a visibly sweaty Jarvik has unzipped his jumpsuit in victory and is given The Liberator by Servalan. He doesn’t want a command – or to work for Servalan – though. Displaying some telepathic abilities of her own, Servalan leads him off to bed.
The Liberator crew stumbles across a module that looks like Apollo 13 and establish that – needless to say – Tarrant can fly it. But Avon has a plan – his pet rock. Tarrant deploys a sort of toothy, open-mouthed incredulity.
Enjoying the afterglow – and a blue milkshake – Jarvik reveals that the destroyed pursuit ships were staffed by Mutoids. “I wasn’t prepared to see men die on my account,” says Jarvik of the battle, which begs some troubling questions as to the disposability of the notionally-female Mutoids.
Servalan reveals that if Jarvik is to sit by her side he must defeat Tarrant in hand-to-hand combat, collecting their teleport bracelets. Given how utterly useless most of the Liberator crew prove to be week after week that shouldn’t be too difficult.
Jarvik, observing the muted costumes of the others and shod curiously similarly to Blake in the series’ final episode, teleports down to Kairos. The reason for the cobwebbed corpses The Liberator crew came across earlier soon becomes clear – Stuart Fell waddling about in an ant suit.
Meanwhile Dayna is being menaced – if you can call it that – by an incredibly slow-moving Stuart. Tarrant rushes to help but Jarvik appears and reveals that it’s only after the Kairopran. Having devoured the priceless crystal like a donkey munching an apple, Stuart waddles off. Jarvik sudden pulls a gun as Tarrant notices his teleport bracelet, and challenges Tarrant to a knife fight.
Tarrant quickly gains the upper hand, holding his foe at knifepoint, and Jarvik reveals the best way to disarm someone holding a knife to your throat – running at them and booting them up the arse. Dayna fights Jarvik, who eventually gains the upper hand. “You fight well – for a lady!” he says, in case anyone was under any misapprehension that he is not A Man. As Stuart Fell approaches, for no reason as neither have any Kairopran, they both teleport to the Liberator.
On board Servalan orders that the area containing the module conveying Avon, Tarrant, Cally and Vila is destroyed. Again, Tarrant deploys the Mirrorlon as the module closes on the Liberator. Avon orders an incredulous (yes, again) Tarrant to attack in their antique shed.
But Zen is fooled by Avon’s computer trickery – derived from his pet rock – that reflects a superior image to whatever perceives it and Servalan is taken in, despite Jarvik’s amusement. But Servalan can’t suspend her reliance on computers, silly woman, and Jarvik is accidentally dispatched while protecting Dayna.
“A waste,” says Tarrant as the Liberator crew return to the command deck. “He was a special sort of man.”
Ah, yes. A Man.