Blake’s 7 – Killer

“That is self-interest – we need that crystal. Blake takes risks to help other people – sometimes people he doesn’t even know.”

After the events of Pressure Point and Trial especially I was excited to continue Series B, although Killer ended up a more isolated episode compared to the last few. Knowing Robert Holmes as a Doctor Who writer, including one of my favourite stories, I was confident I was going to see something good though and I ended up being impressed by a Blake’s 7 episode constructed differently.

Several of this series’ episodes have started with shots of Blake looking concerned or pensive on the bridge. Instead, Killer begins with Cally learning how to use the teleporter – I’m unsure why Avon and Vila decided to stand with their backs to her – and we don’t see Blake for a few minutes. I’m not sure how many variations of ‘thinking Blake’ we can have so it’s good to skip that as it brings Vila and Avon to the forefront immediately for this story, as well as enabling us to crack on very quickly. The show has always made a lot of use of the Liberator sets each episode – I’ve always assumed that the budget encouraged this – yet we seemed to spend relatively little time there during Killer.

What the plot – do we need all the Liberator crew?

Team Avon-Vila’s mission is to get a crystal that will enable the Liberator to decode Federation messages, but it gets derailed when they discover Avon’s old friend has contacted the Federation to rat them out. Meanwhile, Blake has come to the same facility (another lovely industrial complex) after spotting an ancient spaceship nearby. It becomes a race against time when a plague starts spreading.

I was intrigued by Zen throughout the last series and it became enjoyable to rage against him. Yet with Redemption removing all the Liberator’s mystery, Zen has lost all his personality. It no longer feels legitimate to count him as a member of Blake’s 7, if it ever did. And after all the build-up at the end of Series A, Orac hasn’t had much impact, except for in Shadow. With Gan gone as well, it’s more like Blake’s 5 now.

Numerous stories have struggled to find something for all the crew to do, with us often having a Liberator subplot or just cutaways so characters get a few lines. Without totting it up, I know it’s the women who have tended to be left behind and Jenna especially loses out on any action, which has felt like an even greater shame since we saw her kick arse in Bounty.

Robert Holmes didn’t attempt to find any additional plot for Cally and Jenna, constructing almost the entire episode around the three remaining blokes, and I think it’s the key aspect that enabled me to enjoy Killer so much. Another writer would have been tempted to create another plotline and squeeze the others, or else bring the two women to the planet. But there is no need – we don’t require any more characters for Team Avon-Vila’s mission nor Blake’s investigation. There are brief returns to the Liberator, mainly for Blake to get information from Zen and Orac, but otherwise we stay in the facility. This was a superb decision; it enables the story to have two plots that are both substantial enough to run almost entirely separately and makes room for decent contributions from our guest actors.

I love that these two plotlines are so separate, and Team Avon-Vila barely interact with Blake. They don’t even share any scenes in person until the end of the episode, with only the briefest of radio communication over the teleport bracelets. It’s only when the effects of the disease outbreak began to spread that Avon realises he can take advantage of it for his and Vila’s mission.

Apart from Redemption, every episode this season has directly related to the Federation and the Liberator crew’s resistance plans. We have been missing something else like The Web or Mission to Destiny with a ‘discovery’ plot, where the crew just stumble across something. Blake’s curiosity in Killer gives us a strand of that, while Avon and Vila’s mission still relates to the overall arc as well as providing a good reason for the crew to be there in the first place.

Neither Blake nor Avon seem particularly interested in what the other is up to. Blake appears happy to leave Avon and Vila alone and perhaps because he has found something else to do, he doesn’t insist they wait on the ship. Avon is used to Blake’s whims now, remarking to Vila, “As long as he doesn’t mess up our job I don’t care what he does.”

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Team Avon and Vila

The Avon and Vila pairing became very enjoyable during Series A, so to essentially get given an entire episode of them seemed a fantastic gift because I did feel there had been slightly less of this in Series B.

One moment I liked between the two of them involved no exchange of dialogue. After examining the crystal, Avon tells Tynus he will need more than the 10 minutes that a fire alert will give them, but Tynus is unmoved, saying 10 minutes is all they’ve got. Vila glances over at Avon, simply offering a look that says, “Do something.” Avon fiercely grabs Tynus’s shoulder and pulls him back, insisting, “Tynus, you will give us all the time we need.” It’s a good Nasty Avon moment and when they brawl later we are reminded that Avon is a decent fighter.

Vila’s cowardice offers some advantages in that he is usually cautious, prefers to be sure of everything first, and can be observant. I loved that after all the emphasis about only having 10 minutes to steal the crystal (and that barely being enough), it’s only when Avon and Vila get in the room and the fire alarm is sounding that Vila pipes up, asking why they need to bother waiting for a replacement crystal. Avon’s incredulous, livid face practically screams, “Why are you asking this now, Vila?!” Instead, he hurriedly explains that the Federation would quickly work out that the Liberator had stolen it.

While there are many comic moments between them to enjoy, I also liked their chat about Blake.

Vila “You don’t have much time for Blake, do you?
Avon “I could never stand heroes.”
Vila “A quarter of a million volts and you’re putting your hand in?”
Avon “Ah, but that is self-interest – we need that crystal. Blake takes risks to help other people – sometimes people he doesn’t even know. One day that great big bleeding heart of his will get us all killed.”

I do adore Avon’s cynical attitude, even when and possibly because I’m agreeing with him. The way he adds “people he doesn’t even know” makes it sound like the most absurd, incredulous thing. He accepts Blake’s innate heroism, but I’m not sure he understands it. I also appreciate Avon’s refusal to call himself a hero. He recognises self-preservation as normal and natural, while Blake’s risks are unnecessary.

The final addition to the above dialogue on Blake has Vila adding, “Unless somebody ditches him first,” to which Avon simply gives a blank look and Vila smiles. It’s hard to make anything of it, except that Blake clearly isn’t the only one to realise Avon might get rid of him. Is Vila on Avon’s side or is it just a knowing I’ve-cottoned-on-to-you smirk? Vila has perhaps been the closest with Avon, though that’s not saying much. Pre-Pressure Point, I would still have expected Vila to remain loyal to Blake as he’s spoken up for him in the past, but there is none of that here and the last two episodes have left me so unsure of everyone. Part of me is starting to expect Avon to do something more concrete to push out Blake, while another just thinks it’s the writers and/or Chris Boucher as script editor having fun.

The invisible enemy

The more Blake’s plotline developed, the more involved with it I became. I just hadn’t expected it to become so fleshed out. I thought he would pop by then soon meet up with Avon and Vila because Blake’s 7 has never done anything like this before – the crew always end up working together, with one main plot possibly supported by a smaller one. Yet the two end up equal here.

We have met people with varying degrees of loyalty to the Federation, but I love that these scientists care more about their work than about the Federation finding them out. I don’t think we have ever seen people so readily dismiss the prospect of facing the Federation’s justice system. These guys have no hesitation and after Blake has told them who he is, happily cry, “Who?” With deep care for their work and an intrinsic curiosity, they are playing the game – to conduct research you must be friends with whoever is in charge, and they understand that this means sucking up to the totalitarian regime.

At first, it appears we are going to get a rogue alien/monster killing everyone and crikey, the sudden movement of that corpse made me jump a mile! The episode still turns into a base-under-siege story, but having an invisible killer is a nice twist.

Guests

Paul Daneman plays Dr Bellfriar and I really enjoyed him. By the end, I felt my stomach drop as he is trying to read out the antidote formula but realises: “I’ve forgotten how to read it.” I cried out, “Ah, no!” It was such a perfectly done moment to show a man who knows he is about to die, unable to save everyone else.

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Over in Team Avon-Vila’s mission, Ronald Lacey plays Tynus, an old friend of Avon’s. I am most familiar with him as Harris, a greasy thief in Porridge, but he also plays an old university friend of Siegfried’s in an episode of All Creatures Great and Small in which they both get stupendously drunk at the races. As such, seeing him as the much more refined-looking Tynus was a startling difference and I enjoyed seeing such a different performance from him. He fears the Federation’s reach and is nervous about his old partner in crime’s threats, but he still exudes a degree of confidence and goes down with a fight. Vila even suggests that Tynus was probably planning to kill Avon before he could tell the Federation about his dirty past.

Backstory bits

There are little bits of backstory we get out of Team Avon-Vila’s mission. The reason they have come to this planet for the crystal is that Avon knows one of the commanders, Tynus. It’s odd to think of Avon having friends and he is probably stretching the term. Their conversations imply that Tynus was part of the 100,000 credits bank job that Avon got caught for and led to him being sent to Cygnus Alpha. He claimed he got caught because “he relied on other people”, making it rather surprising that he has chosen to trust Tynus to help them. Clearly Avon did not know his partner well enough then nor now; Tynus escaped punishment and Avon’s back-up persuasion plan is threatening to grass him up, which does not seem to bother Tynus, who promptly messages the Federation.

I think it’s been mentioned before that there are areas of the universe that remain unknown, but the plague plotline gave us the Blake’s 7 universe’s equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle. I love the idea that there are still great unknowns all these years in the future – and we do have a more accurate idea of how many years now, with Blake describing the mysterious ship as around 700 years old. Supposing the 1979 production expected deep space exploration to be within, say, 50 years, then a rough guess puts Blake’s 7 in the 27th century. It’s a recurring theme in science fiction, but nonetheless, I enjoyed the notion that an alien species had identified humanity as the universe’s greatest threat and had taken such drastic measures to wipe them out.

In tinier snippets, Vila later discovers a copy of the message Tynus sent, which led me to guess that the Federation uses a fax system. We also learn that Vila is a vegetarian.

Design disasters

I have to mention the ponchos. These plastic brown cloaks are one of the worst pieces of design in the series so far. To blend in, Avon and Vila don them too so they are on screen a lot. Aesthetics aside, my biggest bugbear is that their shininess causes frequent reflections and flare-ups on the screen. You can’t just stick anything in front of a television video camera. Sensible people will avoid moving flames because these also cause flares. In the case of these cloaks, every time a character moves and catches the light in the wrong way, we get a flare. The scientists wear similar ones in white, which while not ideal, appear with far less movement so don’t have as much an impact. These flares did become annoying because they were distracting when everything going on around it was so good.

I will hope for more from Robert Holmes. I found Killer enormous fun as it’s a tight, fast-moving script with such a different setup for the characters. I feel slightly bad that I didn’t miss seeing much of Cally and Jenna, but there is no requirement to love all characters equally. The series has never given the female characters much room – it’s felt like box-ticking at times – and Blake, Avon and Vila have been my favourites for a while. I’ve loved the pairing of Avon and Vila since the second half of the last series and to get so much felt like a real treat. The episode ends neatly; Avon had earlier shown disdain to Blake for being a hero and in the end he gets to look like one because of Avon. The two of them clash as Avon wants to let the Federation arrive to become infected by the plague, while Blake insists on broadcasting a warning that will prevent the disease leaving the planet and wiping out the entire of humanity. Blake deserves that one.

Comments

  1. AndrewP

    “Killer” is still one of my favourite TV scripts – I love how the two different plot strands for Blake on the one hand and Avon and Vila on the other intertwine, never really directly meeting in the confined base, and yet impacting on each other at critical junctures during the programme. Terrific plotting. It’s sad to see two characters effectively side-lined, but it makes the plots tighter.

    I suppose that the need during Series A to cram six regulars into each story was a hang-over from “Softly Softly: Task Force”. Of course, in that show the script could just use whichever characters were needed to tell that week’s story – it didn’t matter if PC Snow or DCI Hawkins didn’t appear because they were presumably off duty or on another case. But when it’s just six people living aboard one spaceship, you can’t really do that.
    Interesting to read your observations about Zen and Orac. Yes, there is a change in Zen presence by this time that I don’t think I’d realised at the time, and I think you’ve nailed it perfectly.

    I remember loving all the material with Tynus in the Avon/Vila narrative – and brilliantly played by Ronald Lacey. In retrospect, I realise how the Blake strand benefits enormously from Paul Daneman as Bellfriar as well.

    It’s lovely to see these shows – and particularly episodes like this one which I regard as one of the best – continuing to engage audiences and provide so much enjoyment.

    All the best

    Andrew

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