“I can provide some very original forms of diversion.”
By a significant stretch, Gambit is the craziest episode of Blake’s 7 I’ve watched so far. Even once I thought I had a handle on it, it just kept giving and it has been my favourite episode of Series B so far.
Robert Holmes had impressed me with his first Blake’s 7 episode, Killer, so I had high hopes for Gambit. Once again, he splits the crew up to run two entirely separate plots in the same location, also teaming up Avon and Vila again.
Freedom City looks like the kind of debauched place I was hoping to see in Shadow‘s Space City, so I was pleased the latter got a name check. We saw few people in Space City but the addition of a handful of supporting artists ensures Freedom City feels like a more bustling place. I pondered whether they were originally supposed to be the same locations but the Gambit script was changed after filming Shadow; either they realised Gambit’s city needed to look much better or else they found some cash left late on in the series after trying to keep a tight budget early on.
Robert Holmes makes even less use of the Liberator sets than he did in Killer, partly because Jenna and Cally are brought into the action so we don’t need to cut back there once everyone is in Freedom City. The saloon bar is marvellous and made for a superb opening scene. There are good continuity touches here by having all the drinks in bright colours. In particular, that one shade of emerald green has been seen on the Liberator and in Servalan’s office.
While we see no games beyond the roulette table in the casino, the Speedchess area was nice with plenty of atmosphere added by the lighting. When the first scene took place there, “Speedchess” was certainly not the word I was expecting to hear. The simultaneous explosion and disintegration of the unlucky challenger to the Klute made me jump as I think I just expected him to get electrocuted. I love having all these different characters around the outside of that chamber – they could all have had a story of their own. Although Vila later seems sure that the Klute isn’t a computer, I was never certain; he’s too good, Krantor’s too confident in him and he seems to spend his days enjoying killing people. Elsewhere, Servalan is lying down, with a dove perched on her – it sets the tone for Gambit.
Krantor’s room can only be described as a boudoir and Servalan’s room 100 is similar in tone. I think one of the chairs in her room swings. As with Space City, we are never explicitly told everything that one can experience in Freedom City, but Krantor implies enough that we can presume some pretty outrageous acts have been performed there.
Slightly further down the list of sets, we have the saloon bar’s backroom that appears to lead to an underground area, which makes a few appearances, mainly featuring Blake, Jenna and Cally. Then there is the area where Docholli heads to escape, decorated with a few oil drums. We never get a full view of the underground cave/tunnel-like area. It looks like a studio set to me and I’m inclined to believe the darkness is hiding how limited it is. It’s decorated with a lot of tinsel blowing around and having recently watched Doctor Who‘s Timelash, this was an uncomfortable flashback to one aspect. The stories are also connected by Denis Carey, who is more prominent playing Docholli here than six years later when he would be the public-facing image of the Borad.
The sound of the underground
I am fond of so many of Blake’s 7‘s sounds. I could probably go through the series again and do a blog solely about them – I’ve never even got round to indulging in how much I adore the titles. Gambit deserves credit for the background sounds alone as there are distinctive ones for different locations. Both Krantor’s boudoir and the casino get a quiet, high-pitched tinkling, while Servalan’s room is given a simple constant humming. The darkened underground area has distant chimes underneath a howling wind, which, combined with constant smoke blowing around, go a long way to making something of what could have been a fairly dull set.
For once, few of the cast’s costumes are purely functional and they have gone all out. Interestingly, while Cally and Jenna are royally dolled up for the occasion, Blake hasn’t made any effort. Travis has become an intergalactic cowboy and I love the touch of giving him a black hat, the traditional accessory for a Wild West villain. Perhaps there is good reason that Blake wasn’t given a white one at any point: I keep remembering Blake’s suggestion in Shadow that the Liberator crew were the only good guys, with Avon responding, “What a very depressing thought.”
My historical knowledge isn’t very comprehensive, but Krantor and Toise’s outfits seemed like the French Revolutionary period. Krantor says his costume is supposed to be modelled on the Prince Regent, and thanks to Blackadder III I know there is some crossover there. Krantor is vague about who the Prince Regent actually was and describes the casino’s theme as simply “the spirit of carnival”. This is nicely all-encompassing for the variety of outfits on display, particularly in the Speedchess chamber. The croupier wears a type of black-tie, while sitting among the patrons are clowns that reminded me of David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes video. Servalan’s face is hidden behind a mask at first, but her outline was instantly recognisable.
Servalan looks utterly stunning in Gambit. Her red dress is revealing and outlandish, for once perfectly suited to her surroundings, and I could hardly take my eyes off her. I love how over-the-top most the women’s makeup is in the Blake’s 7 universe, but I felt this episode gave us even more for Servalan, including a pile of silver, glittering eye shadow. After being introduced to her laid out in the casino, Krantor invites her, “Pray! Be seated!” and she carefully lounges herself across the enormous bed in Krantor’s boudoir, providing us with one of several lingering shots of her outfit.
Krantor is a cracking character, with his inch-thick silver makeup and false eyelashes making an immediate impression. He loathes Servalan, describing what he will do to her with such venom. He gets some gorgeous lines, including, “She’s as perfidious and devious as a snake.” I’m unsure whether she dislikes him as plotting his death is just necessary to get rid of Freedom City. Like other “neutral” places in the series, it only takes the right price for Krantor to be tempted. On the other hand, Servalan is utterly uninterested in any pleasures on offer, despite numerous offers from Krantor: “If you find time is, erm, dragging, I can provide some very original forms of diversion which I can guarantee will give you immense pleasure.” I was left uncertain whether she has no interest in any of these things or if she didn’t trust them coming from Krantor.
I keep saying how much I like seeing Travis’s character develop this series but I felt Robert Holmes added a whole other layer. Travis has never looked invulnerable but in Gambit he is a long way from the powerful commander we first met. Shorter hair (first seen last episode) and a change of clothes mean he isn’t as smartly groomed. His Federation uniform finally dumped, Travis has lost his armour and any notions of authority. Despite stepping in to save Docholli, shortly afterwards Travis is easily taken by Krantor’s goons and beaten badly.
I loved the scene in which Servalan sits next to Travis’s unconscious body, surveying him. I didn’t ever really think she was going to hurt him, but he looked exposed, unprotected. The point-of-view shot of Servalan when Travis wakes up added to this and was a good inclusion. When the shot of them on the bed pulls out slightly, we can see that Servalan has had her hand on Travis’s only good hand, holding it down, leaving him fully open.
Discovering the damage to his hand makes Travis desperate as he needs the repairs urgently, and it’s perceptible even with the harsh tone he uses with Chenie. When he finds Docholli, Travis doesn’t even care about Blake’s presence – there is nothing he can do and he needs the surgeon’s work done before he flees. Jenna is the latest crew member to ask to shoot Travis and Blake’s excuse for avoiding it now is that killing Travis would be a mercy. That is a hell of a blow.
Servalan is honest with her new underling that she disposed of Travis because “he outlived his value” and it appears she will now pick him up and shake him about whenever she has the need, but will swiftly toss him aside again as soon as it is convenient. Unfortunately for Travis, Servalan knows him well and he is far too predictable, so I expect her to continue using and manipulating him.
I’d be curious what sort of briefing Series B’s writers had about the series and the characters, and what they had seen of Series A. Blake and Avon’s relationship was one of the most interesting aspects for me, yet in both his stories, Holmes has completely eschewed depicting any conflict between Blake and Avon by separating them. I’m left wondering whether he had little interest in that relationship, felt he had no more to add, or just wanted to contribute something different to the series. Maybe he had decided that writing Avon and Vila was far more fun.
Vila seemed the only one excited about the prospects of Space City, but Avon is equally keen to experience Freedom City and their adventure is his idea. I was thrilled when our two thieves decided to take on the casino. It’s the kind of suggestion that would have been stamped out by any of the other three usually, yet with none of them around there is nothing to stop Avon and Vila having some fun. Both plot strands in this episode are set up quickly and I was impressed by this one in particular; we establish Avon and Vila’s boredom and lust, then within a minute or so Avon has formulated a plan and we move on to the problem of Orac.
I think Robert Holmes adds humour to Blake’s 7 very well, with just the right balance, and I enjoy it so much in Avon and Vila’s scenes.
Vila “Oh! That is beautiful! Avon, there are times when I almost get to like you.”
Avon “Yes, well that makes it all worthwhile.”
Vila “I mean, you give me a warm feeling right here – right round the money belt.”
The manipulation of Orac is also excellent and the short lines, delivered quickly, ensure the pace is moved along. Avon and Vila’s handshake at the end is a lovely addition. Throughout these scenes, it’s the reactions from both Paul Darrow and Michael Keating that really add to it. The miniaturisation of Orac is a great idea and I hope it’s used again to enable more use of the character.
The duo’s scenes in the casino were enormous fun. It soon becomes clear that neither of them knows the first thing about cheating a casino: don’t make it obvious. I became almost as nervous as Avon, who nonetheless easily relents to Vila’s implores to carry on: “Alright, just once more. But after this, I warn you, I’m walking out… to be sick.”
Vila appeared drunk when Krantor led him away for a “celebratory drink”, but when he returns he looks calmer, almost drugged, which he snaps out of as soon as he sits in the Speedchess chair. The sudden cut to a stunned Avon spitting his food out was great. After what Vila’s put Avon through, it feels like Avon gets his own back when, with no hesitation, he tells Vila to play the game and risk his life for their five million credits. Avon’s still nervy when they come to leave, displaying his usual cautiousness by drawing his gun as they walk out with the money.
On their return to the Liberator, I liked Avon’s swift switching from, “Quickly, Vila – hide the money!” to calmly answering the radio with, “Reading you, Blake.” Even though it’s Vila who Blake is suspicious of, for me, it is Avon’s gabbling of, “Oh, great, wonderful, terrific,” that is greater evidence of an attempt to cover up by finding something to say.
The search for Star One continues and it now seems likely that we will be heading there for the series finale, via the planet Goth. Docholli’s description of Goth was suitably grim so I’m looking forward to seeing our heroes visit it. I am also curious whether the Control/Star One ongoing plot will be properly tied up. I expect Chris Boucher or Terry Nation to be writing the last couple of episodes, but I do hope we get more from Robert Holmes again.
Servalan and Travis know exactly what Blake’s up to so I expect this isn’t the last of them this series – smashing. I hadn’t seen enough of Servalan for my liking prior to Gambit but this really paid off and I would like to see if she keeps her new assistant, who is certainly a different sort to Travis.
Former-Space Commander Travis once had the backing of Servalan and the Federation, briefly followed by the service of some Crimos, but he is now utterly alone and there were moments in Gambit when I almost felt sorry for him. This episode gave Brian Croucher plenty and Travis has become such a differently fascinating character. I hope at some point in the last couple of Series B episodes we get just a little bit more of that.