Until Assassin, Series D has relied on writers who have written for Blake’s 7 before. Positioning a new one in the middle of the series probably felt safer, especially as Rod Beacham was not an experienced television writer, but looking back at the first half of Series D this hardly mattered.
Considering the overall series narrative so far, Assassin marks a pause in Team Avon’s wider mission. It’s quite welcome because the bodies of scientists were piling up. Assassin poses the idea I was expecting in the plot of Headhunter but it still isn’t what I thought, which was that we would see the crew on the run.
Previously, Travis filled the role of an assassin, who is generally depicted as a solo operator. Even when Travis did have the support of guards of mutoids, their anonymity meant the focus was always on Travis and when it came to showdowns he tended to be facing Blake and the others alone.
While I may have been expecting someone to fill Travis’s shoes for an episode, the difference here is that Team Blake was always running away from Travis, with Blake’s assurance of ‘better the enemy you know’. I largely agreed with that. Yet even though Team Avon do actually have somewhere to run to, Avon’s decision to go to their new assassin instead of waiting for Cancer to find them is equally valid because, as the episode emphasises, they don’t know this enemy at all.
Who do you think you are?
We’re set up well to believe in the young man who is supposed to be Cancer. Avon had referred to Cancer as “he” and dressed head to toe in black, hovering in the shadows ready to spring his trap, he’s reminiscent of Travis. If simply being there wasn’t enough to make him the villain, he’s fully branded with a silver crab on his chest!
Yet my own certainty in this man alone didn’t last long. We weren’t expecting anyone else, so what’s this woman doing here? Her sobbing quickly began to feel a bit much, just a tad too overdone, and I doubted her sincerity. I suspected she might be the slave that Servalan had bought and thought she could be working with Cancer, yet I also remembered that all the slaves we had seen on the planet had been men. There was another thing: ‘Cancer’ was too groomed and too chiselled – he was either about to play Robin Hood in that year’s panto or gain half a career as a George Michael tribute act. Maybe I need to get over my assassin stereotypes though.
After this back-and-forth, the real Cancer gave herself away to me during her chat with V. The old man might have missed her stumbling over his reference to eating mangan, but it was a clear sign for the audience if they hadn’t already twigged it.
Soon ‘Cancer’ has escaped and is wandering about the ship.
Avon “I suggest we barricade ourselves in here and fly this ship back to our base[…]”
Me “That is a terrible idea.”
Tarrant “That’s the nearest thing you’ve had to a good idea since this business started.”
Brill. Bring the spider into the fly’s parlour for a change.
I laughed more with Assassin than I had for ages with Blake’s 7. I do like it when the scripts inject some humour, but it isn’t just Vila’s puns or Avon’s scathing remarks that I enjoy – sometimes it’s simply that I’m having such fun.
I loved watching Avon take Tarrant down a peg after Tarrant decided that he was going to go and hunt ‘Cancer’.
Avon “Alright, you’ve made your impression, you can sit down now.”
Tarrant “What does that mean?”
Avon “She knows that you’re very brave, now sit down.”
Tarrant’s attempts at machismo always amuse me because of his plain desire to be seen as the alpha over Avon, who has never had to try and answers the increasingly irate Tarrant very calmly. It was a tad concerning how easily Tarrant fell for a young lady, which undoubtedly left him blinded. However, I don’t think it was just that as it was also evidence of Tarrant’s previously established rashness.
I also hugely enjoyed the slave auction, with the auctioneer’s suggestive description of Avon to tempt the buyers:
“Perhaps you’d like to send back a few details to your clients, especially the ladies. Now I know he looks soft, and he talks soft too, but you can tell your ladies that he’s strong enough to work all day and still have plenty of energy left over for any little chores you might have for him in the evenings.”
Blake’s 7’s occasional titillating depictions of women have been more obvious, so I loved that this script included something to stir other sections of the audience’s imagination. When Servalan spotted Avon – “I want him” – the effect was doubled in a way it couldn’t have been before Series C.
Servalan is having a great time while sipping a drink on the beach. It’s the happiest I’ve seen her since Gambit. She seems to be genuinely enjoying the company and looks relaxed. She has no need to curry favour here as all her plans are in place.
I liked the way Servalan was used in Assassin because each time we see her it is apparent that she holds plenty of power. I think she works best when kept at the kind of distance that allows this, so I preferred seeing her aboard Cancer’s ship in voice only.
Poor Richard Hurndall was going to have to die as soon as Avon decided to take him aboard Scorpio. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for this old man with his desperation to do anything so he could stay alive. I was surprised that Avon took Nebrox because the crew have never seemed willing to be so generous to total strangers, despite how easy it would be to offer another teleport bracelet. In Avon’s case, sometimes he’s not even been that keen to rescue the rest of the crew, let alone anyone else.
Their cautious attitude to strangers is understandable though because it’s been vital that they are careful about who they trust. Even though Nebrox does just seem like a defenceless old man, Avon is still uncertain about trusting him and treats him with the same hostility as any stranger. It’s only at the last moment that Avon relents, deciding to keep his promise, while Nebrox is literally begging on his knees.
I found myself comparing Blake’s 7 to Doctor Who and am struck by the differences. The Doctor also frequently travels to different worlds, saving people by bundling them away in the TARDIS, then dropping them elsewhere. In the modern series, I’m reassured that some characters will be fine because the Doctor can always easily take them home. Yet watching Blake’s 7, the opposite occurs – in Series D every guest the crew have invited onto Scorpio has ended up dead. Nebrox didn’t seem likely to become the latest member of Team Avon, so was doomed.
I’d enjoyed finally getting to see something substantial of Soolin in Headhunter, particularly liking her bits with Orac. I felt like we got even more of Soolin in Assassin and I’ve decided I like her.
Blake’s 7 doesn’t have hysterical sobbing. It’s a grim universe, everyone knows it – no point getting overwrought too often. If someone you loved has died then there might be time for a heart-to-heart later, but when there’s shit to do everyone needs to crack on. Therefore, I was fully behind Soolin when she slapped Piri. It’s a rather slow slap and doesn’t look all that hard. Shortly afterwards, Avon feels similarly, fiercely grabbing Piri and telling her, “You remember, you are just a passenger on this ship. Your unnecessary emotion only clouds the issue.”
Soolin had already acted a bit harshly. Earlier, during a chat with Nebrox, he’d said it was a shame for someone so young to be a slave and Soolin commented, “I suspect a little suffering will make her a better artist.”
I’ve found Soolin practical, with a no-nonsense approach. I like that she challenges Tarrant’s sexist remark that she is jealous of Piri – jealous of what exactly? The chance to snog Tarrant? What a twat! She then interrupts Tarrant and Avon’s sniping to point out that division is exactly what Cancer wants. They may not have identified the right Cancer at that point, but she isn’t far wrong as the real Cancer’s hysterics seem designed to unsettle everyone into panic.
It’s wonderful to have another strong woman in the series and I was pleased that Soolin is shown as an intellectual equal too. In fact, she’s arguably superior in this instance as it’s only her who works out the identity of the real Cancer. There are similarities between her and Avon, noted with Cancer’s comment, “You’re too clever, Avon – you and Soolin,” yet Avon still doesn’t figure out the truth, even when the corpse of the fake Cancer is staring him in the face.
Soolin is the only one who gets to act much of a hero this week. She easily usurps Avon, who finds himself at the mercy of others – whether planned or not – and has to be rescued from the slave auction as well as from Cancer’s clutches. In perfect Blake’s 7 heroics, Soolin arrives with Tarrant in the nick of time.
The crab’s parlour
As much as I enjoy seeing big shoot-outs and chases or a rush to get away from stuff blowing up, I got satisfaction from Assassin‘s slower approach. Setting the second half of the episode on Cancer’s ship enables a level of claustrophobia in an unfamiliar location. Avon’s reluctance to leave the bridge at one stage is reasonable – they’ve already walked into one trap and they themselves have previously taken advantage of facing an enemy on a ship they know well.
When they do decide they have no choice but to hunt for Cancer, the tension starts to mount properly. I do wish it could have built for longer but unfortunately I think Piri’s constant blarting prior to this doesn’t allow it. Cancer’s lethal mechanical crab creeping up on Soolin is a nice extra thing to bring in, especially because we aren’t entirely sure what it will do.
Despite normally being so cautious, Avon’s luck has run out at the climax. Tied down with Cancer looming over him, Avon looks nervous and a tiny bit scared. I’m not used to seeing that. He’s not angry and there’s no room for his arrogance while speaking to Cancer and Servalan.
There’s that part of my brain screaming that Avon’s got to be alright and we can’t be that far from the end now so any moment something will happen, something has got to happen to get him out of this… But I’m also watching anxiously, concerned because I can’t see a way to solve this unless Tarrant and Soolin hurry up and it does feel like time is ticking away. Ultimately, Cancer’s truly grim death by her own device is a nasty demonstration of the fate that both Soolin and Avon only just escaped.
One of the few things that put me off Assassin (alongside the magically transforming brooch) was the use of different transitions, with lots of wiping instead of the usual simple cuts between scenes. This is the third episode directed by David Sullivan Proudfoot (and the last programme he would direct) so initially it seems odd that he introduced these techniques only for this episode. However, I’ve pondered whether he was inspired from elsewhere and perhaps trying to pay homage, with Star Wars (1977) being the most obvious subject: both science-fiction stories have scenes split between sand and spaceships. I’m normally interested to see different angles or editing, but unfortunately I found it distracting here because it seemed so out of character for Blake’s 7.
Other than this, I did like much of Proudfoot’s direction. The tight two-shot of Servalan and Verlis is ideal for their gossipy chat on the beach while the slow fades between shots of Avon, Soolin and Tarrant prowling the ship help add to the atmosphere as they hunt for Cancer.
I’m delighted and frankly relieved that Series D has got into gear properly. I enjoyed Headhunter and I think I probably enjoyed Assassin even more. I love a runaround but I’ve missed episodes where I worry and fear for the characters – it’s good to be reminded again that I care about them. Soolin’s development was the other satisfying element of this episode and I hope it continues.