Blake’s 7 – Orbit

blake's 7 orbit by robert holmes

I had known there was another episode by Robert Holmes to come and I needed him to redeem himself after Traitor let me down. The word ‘enjoyed’ feels ill-suited for Orbit because it left me disturbingly shocked. Its final act has haunted me and the execution was utterly brilliant.

A complete aside, but I loved the scientific explanations in this episode of the Tachyon funnel and Hoffel’s radiation. Avon might not need a lecture in astrophysics, but my memory of basic GCSE Science needed refreshing. Also, I’d like to know if Robert Holmes intended to reuse the mini Orac from Gambit only to be told it had disappeared.

I groaned when Avon told Dayna and Tarrant to suit up, so was thrilled shortly afterwards when I realised we were going to get an adventure with Avon and Vila after all. I noted after Gold that Vila has spent a lot of time operating the teleport this series and there have been numerous episodes with Avon seeing little action too: Traitor, Animals, Games and Sand all left Avon directing events from Scorpio or only getting involved towards the end of a story. I’d hugely enjoyed Robert Holmes’ pairing of Avon and Vila in both Killer and Gambit, so putting them together felt like it should deliver a winning formula again.

Holmes and humour

It was clear from his Series B stories that Robert Holmes enjoyed adding more humour to Blake’s 7, especially between Avon and Vila. I liked how Vila’s reason for staying on Scorpio – “You know I like to stick with you Avon, where it’s safe,” – is soon thrown back at him, so he doesn’t have to be entirely strong-armed into it:

Avon “Alright, Vila, let’s get to the airlock.”

Vila “Me?”

Avon “Well, who else? After all, you always say you feel safe with me.”

Avon grinning at argumentative Vila in the airlock face to face

By the end of the story, this moment will look much darker, but at the time it simply feels like more of the same style we’ve seen between the two characters previously.

I was also pleased by Holmes’ writing for Slave. The computer has never been given enough room to develop into a defined character like Zen or Orac and therefore seems purely functionary. I’ve presumed that the writers didn’t know what to do with Slave and perhaps they would have been helped if Chris Boucher had written more scripts to demonstrate Slave’s personality.

I feel Holmes manages to grasp Slave as an apologetic, subservient computer with an inferiority complex and wrangle a bit of humour from this. It reminds me of Marvin, the depressed robot from A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and it’s reasonable to assume this may have been a source of inspiration, as the television adaption had been broadcast at the start of 1981. There have been glimmers of Slave’s characteristics in other episodes and I can now see that Slave was probably intended as an antithesis for Orac. The smaller set makes Scorpio a less desirable place to spend much time compared to the Liberator, which is one reason we just haven’t seen enough from Slave.

Egrorian and Pinder

Over the last few years I’ve seen John Savident in a few different roles from the 1960s and 1970s, plus he had previously turned up in Blake’s 7 back in Series B’s Trial. He’s played some harsh, authoritarian characters and I’ve enjoyed watching him in these sorts of parts as they’re quite different from Fred Elliott, the loud butcher he portrayed for over a decade in Coronation Street and for which I know him best.

I had great fun watching both Egrorian and Pinder, though struggled to figure out Egrorian at first. I found his laugh quite creepy and it was deployed regularly. The majority of the cast provide facial expressions that help enhance this script, but John Savident may top the lot with his arched eyebrow action. Pinder has so few lines but the choice of shots and editing at key moments helps to tell us more.

Egrorian sitting and watching a nervous Pinder

It’s immediately apparent that there is something amiss about Pinder. I misheard him call Avon “ma’am” – I actually thought he said “man”, which I still found odd and set me thinking – was Pinder an android or something? Was there a reason he had never met strangers before?

I’d love Orbit to have been able to explore Egrorian and Pinder’s relationship more as it was enjoyable inferring things. Egrorian treats him terribly – more like a lowly, half-incompetent apprentice, and poor Pinder has had no escape for a decade.

We can presume that their relationship was more than just master and assistant. After Avon and Vila arrive, Egrorian leads Vila by the arm and later turfs Pinder out of his seat, inviting Vila to sit beside him. He strokes Vila’s arm and cups his face as they talk – it isn’t blatantly sexual and most of that stroking it just out of shot. Vila himself appears oblivious to it. Similarly, Egrorian’s tone during his flattery of Avon might be taken as flirtatious and he gets close to Servalan later too, so we might just interpret Egrorian as acting this way with everyone – or at least anyone he wants something from. However, I’m inclined to see more between him and Pinder, whom he describes before the accident as “my golden-haired stripling”. It seems likely that, post-accident, Egrorian lost interest in a youth that had rapidly aged into a man even older than himself. Pinder watches Egrorian’s interaction with Vila unhappily and it’s reasonable to see him as jealous, remembering how Egrorian once treated him.

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Egrorian stroking Vila's arm

After we discover what happened to Pinder, it’s apparent that Egrorian has horrifically abused his power over his assistant. There is little reason to presume that any relationship between the two men was physical; I interpreted it as close and affectionate, but Egrorian took advantage of that and I felt sorry that Pinder had suffered such mental abuse in the years that followed. As a result, I found Pinder’s revenge wonderfully satisfying. Chalk up two more dead scientists.

Servalan

Servalan is here again because it’s become blatantly obvious that Jacqueline Pearce was contracted for a few too many episodes. I’m glad Robert Holmes manages to avoid having any scenes with Servalan meeting Avon and Vila as I continue to feel that overuse diminishes her impact. She’s still present a great deal though. This is definitely an episode that would have benefitted from Series B’s style of having Servalan tune in via video from her headquarters because there is no real need for her to see Egrorian in person. I’d happily have exchanged some of Servalan’s screentime for more of Pinder.

Best at being bad guys

This is another episode that emphasises the reputation the crew have built themselves and I adore Egrorian’s description of them as “the ruthless desperados of legend”. It’s reminiscent of the days under Blake when the crew seemed more like Robin Hood characters, and even if “ruthless” is not a word associated with the good guys, they have never been traditional heroes.

Pinder, Vila, Egrorian and Avon survey the Tachyon funnel

And why should they be decent types when dealing with people like Egrorian? There is a low-level tension throughout the episode as we wait for Egrorian to pull the rug from under Avon and Vila’s feet – it seems inevitable, but we just don’t know how or when. Egrorian’s insistence that it must be Avon who comes and his initial demand that he come alone screams TRAP. The disgraced scientist’s reasoning for swapping the Tachyon funnel never quite convinces, especially once we know he’s working alongside Servalan, and I don’t think Avon needed to conclude of another ship’s presence to become so suspicious. Being cut off from communications with Scorpio makes him and Vila seem even more vulnerable and this is emphasised during their final trip back when the action cuts between the small craft and Scorpio, with the panic rising for both parties.

Avon and Vila panicking

Only 70 kilos…

Watching Avon and Vila’s escape in the failing craft was nail-biting. As they attempt to reach Scorpio, it keeps feeling like they’re so close each time they check how short they are. The repeated checks with Orac wrench up the tension as well as any countdown timer would while they try to bridge the gap of a few minutes. I’m gutted when Avon chucks the Tachyon machine – it seemed too valuable. Vila’s panicking but that’s normal. The minutes go from double figures to single ones. Avon’s panicking so now I am too. Suddenly I begin to worry we might lose them both – it’s getting so close! They must have stripped out most the ship to lose its weight by now. They’re within a hair’s breadth – yet it still isn’t enough! They need to lose 70 kilos more and my first thought is, ‘How heavy is Orac?’

Orac “Vila weighs 73 kilos, Avon.”

Avon standing over Orac as the door closes behind him

How could you, Orac? Did Vila hear that before the door shut?

Everything changes in an instant. The worst thing about it all is that I don’t doubt for a moment that Avon would do it. When he draws his gun I am pleading with him to think about this for a few – admittedly precious – seconds. Ask Orac again! Come up with something else – anything else!

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I watch, gripped in horror, as Avon goes hunting for Vila. I hope and hope that Vila can’t possibly be fooled by Avon’s creepy, high-pitched calls for help. The sight of a petrified Vila crouched in hiding, silent tears streaming down his face, nearly breaks me. I want to hug him and tell him it’s all going to be fine. Please let it be fine. We can’t see exactly where Vila is so have no idea how near Avon might be. My heart is pounding. Please, please don’t let Avon find him. I’ve never been more scared for any of the crew. Make it stop. Please not Vila. I’m terrified for him. Oh, Avon, stop! Give up! Hunt for something else to throw out! C’mon!

scared Vila eyes closed in hiding

I was relieved when Avon found the object that had been weighing the craft down and I instinctively wanted Vila to help him, but I’m so glad he didn’t try to. The whole sequence is simply stunning. Almost at the end of the episode, it’s such an unexpected leap from exciting space thrills to horror-movie terror and a truly nasty turn for the series.

The final scene on Scorpio is also marvellous. I love the hark back to the earlier lines as Avon recalls, “Well, as you always say, Vila: you know you are safe with me.” One reason Orbit‘s sudden shift from adventure to terror shocks the audience is because there are no strong dramatic hints throughout the episode that anything like this is coming up; the previous lines about Vila feeling safe appeared to be the set-up for a joke followed by its punchline once Avon drags him along.

Following this, there is no reason for the audience to suspect they will see anything more than Blake’s 7‘s usual dangerous adventures. But by the end there is a chasm between the tone in those early scenes and that of this one and recalling the lines so closely emphasises it.

“At the expense of your friends?”

I remain horrified by what Avon has done, the bastard. While that is exactly what I called him in Series A, it felt as though Avon had changed slightly – mellowed, perhaps. Avon seemed less of a bastard and more of a nasty sod. Yet the hints have been there this series that Avon has either reverted to his former self or else he never changed in the first place. Back in Bounty, Avon felt able to refer to the crew as friends, but by Gold he was telling Keiler that they were nothing of the sort and “merely together for mutual convenience”. Maybe Blake’s influence was better than I realised, yet he’s been gone a long time now.

Reflecting on Series D, I realise how much more often Avon has been happy to send others to explore somewhere unfamiliar, with him remaining aboard Scorpio, including at the start of Orbit when he admits he wants to send Tarrant in case it’s a trap. Avon always had strong self-preservation instincts, but this is the first time we’ve seen them displayed so cold-bloodedly. After dwelling on Orbit‘s events a lot, the one thing that redeems Avon for me is that, knowing they had only minutes to live, I believe anyone would do anything they could just for the chance to live a bit longer.

It’s always been easy to call Vila a coward but he was always brave and I think he’s been somewhat hardened by his experiences. Vila has been the sort to seek out rough friends that will protect him from the even rougher bullies. Avon in particular filled that role well and after all they have been through together, I think it’s that betrayal of trust that angered me most.

In Orbit‘s final scene, Avon and Vila exchange only a few words but Vila’s face says plenty. Both men have chosen to say nothing to the others and while it’s obvious why Avon wouldn’t, I’m curious to see whether Vila has any sort of plan now. He didn’t look nervous at the prospect of continuing to live with someone who wouldn’t hesitate to kill him; he looked like he would readily see Avon perish given half the chance, and possibly carry it out himself.

Comments

  1. Joe

    Hi Hannah,

    I’m so glad you ‘enjoyed’ Orbit and made it to the episode without knowing what was going to happen. It’s probably a shocking moment on its own, if you never saw any other episodes, but the intensity is magnified when you have lived through the series and really come to know the characters.

    There is so much humour at the start, with Avon as jolly as anything. In a heartbeat, the rug is pulled from under the viewer and it becomes deadly serious.

    I love the out-the-window views we get from the shuttle. Scorpio departing and the overland flight show the VFX crew were really getting to grips with what they could do in this new-look series. It’s one of the many reasons I wish there had been at least one more series. Egrorian is another loony scientist trapped on a base; perhaps the deadly shadow of Professor Ensor, and there’s some points where Robert Holmes seems to be making a comparison between Avon & Vila and Egrorian & Pinder.

    The moment where Orac plays the Speak Your Weight machine is astonishing. The timing of the remark, the perfect sliding door and Vila’s reaction as he just catches Orac’s comment is absolutely brilliant.

    In a way, Avon’s attempt to find Vila is Dr Plaxton all over again – “(S)he’s dead, either way.” I like to think that the strange wheedling voice Avon uses to call Vila is a subconcious attempt to warn Vila. There’s not many places Vila could hide, and Avon finds the little red trolley Vila was carrying when he left the flight deck.

    Other interesting ‘solutions’ proposed to save the day include having Avon & Vila try to land the shuttle, or even using the Tachyon Funnel to destroy Malodaar, thus removing the source of the gravity trapping them.

    Two more episodes to go. Looking forward to your thoughts and reactions.

    Merry Christmas!

    Joe.

  2. Susan

    Quite possibly the best episode of Blake’s Seven – for all the reasons you state in your review. Some nicely sketched relationships that leave a lasting impression, some lovely comedy moments, and then the turn of events between Avon and Vila that totally blindsides the viewer and changes one of the shows core relationships. Brilliant drama – full stop.

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