Blake’s 7 – Shadow

“To have total control you must control totally.”

While I’ve enjoyed Terry Nation’s Blake’s 7 scripts, I had been intrigued to see what someone else would do with the programme. I wasn’t sure how long I might have to wait so it was nice to get one so soon with Shadow. I’ve been seeing Chris Boucher’s name on the credits since Series A so knew we had at least got someone who knew the show well.

At the end of Redemption, Blake had announced his intention to take everyone back to Earth and take the Federation on. Although Blake’s 7 lacks traditional three-eyed, two-headed little green aliens, it does feature humanoid aliens and yet it seems Earth is the centre of the universe. How depressing. I thought this decision was a bit rash and dangerous, and blimey, Blake – aren’t you doing enough to risk everyone’s lives? I can only imagine Vila and Avon’s offscreen reactions. It was therefore a relief to discover they were heading to Space City to get some support ready for when they reached Earth.

You should see some of the sights I’m (not) seeing

Space City is described as an almost mythical place. Vila is almost drooling over the prospect of visiting, saying it is “also known as the Satellite of Sin ” “By who?” queries Avon. “Me,” is Vila’s simple answer. He says to visit is “one of my all-time great ambitions” and Blake tries to soften the blow: “You’d probably be disappointed.” Vila is having none of it though, declaring that he’ll “take that chance.”

I was gutted for Vila when Blake ordered him to remain on the Liberator! We aren’t informed exactly what these ‘sins’ include, so naturally my mind jumped to complete filth. Vila leaves it rather open, saying, “Pick a pleasure. Any pleasure,” but Jenna’s brusque suggestion of, “Why don’t you take a cold shower or something?” tells me I’m on the right path. He also adds, “I’ve wanted to visit Space City since I was old enough to read the graffiti in the juvenile detention wards,” which is a nice little insight into Vila’s past, and far from surprising.

Once he’s snuck off later, we hear Vila over the radio and he is having a magnificent time, desperate to stay longer. He has an almost dreamy, far-away voice and between this and his dialogue, it’s plain that he’s in heaven. He tells Cally he’s removed his teleport bracelet because he’s “not going to be snatched away in the middle of… in the middle of anything.” He adds that he is, “Sightseeing. And you should see some of the sights I’m seeing. No… perhaps you shouldn’t.”

Yet upon his return, Vila just appears to have gotten drunk and Blake isn’t happy. As a fellow occasional sufferer of hangovers, I’m much more sympathetic to Vila than any of the crew seem to be, especially when he mutters, “Never again… I’m dying.” It’s disappointing that we don’t get to see more of Space City’s debauchery, yet as we are pre-watershed, I suppose Blake’s 7 is a tad limited. But in my imagination, this was an orgy of indulgence and for a very brief moment, Vila’s life peaked. It’s clever that they manage to convey so much despite showing so little.

We don’t see much of Space City at all and encounter only Largo, the druggies and a few guards there. It’s a city! Where is everyone? As with Redemption, it is a struggle to try to give these places a sense of scale and I needed to see more of this society. Where are the drug dealers? Where are the prostitutes, the bartenders, the tour guides? Blake’s 7 needs a few more supporting artists wandering around these places.

Alphas and Deltas

One of Vila’s conversations with Cally offers a few lines of dialogue that left my brain whirling. It starts when Vila dismissively says that Blake “thinks of himself as a hard man” but Vila thinks “he’s led a very sheltered life.” Cally scoffs at this and initially I did too. I’ve kept changing my mind about just how far I think Blake would go but I certainly wouldn’t describe him as “soft” and yes, especially following his interactions with Travis, I think I would accept a description of him as “hard”.

The “sheltered” part also conflicted with a lot of what we have seen and heard, but in fairness, there are a lot of blank spaces in Blake’s history. Vila reveals that Blake was an “Alpha grade” and Alphas are “highly privileged” while the “Delta service grades” where he grew up seem to be the opposite.

I was so intrigued by the idea that the Federation’s worlds had these grades that people were born into. It’s an extreme-sounding take on the class system. Vila’s wording made it sound as though these different grades lived in entirely separate places and that people like him were destined for lowly things. If the areas were like the domes that we saw on Earth in The Way Back, then they would be entirely cut off from one another, so Vila’s comment about a “sheltered life” would be accurate.

Shadow

I was taken aback by the crew’s attitudes to Shadow at first. They have all seemed a liberal bunch and I didn’t think they would care about what a couple of daft young kids got up to in their spare time. The effects of Shadow are represented vaguely at first and to begin with, I just thought it was something that the Dreamheads’ race needed to live. Yet from its representation as Shadow progresses, heroin is the drug I would most align it with, and the crew’s anti-drug attitudes seemed more justified.

Jenna tells us that when she was a smuggler, she refused to carry it as cargo. Avon elaborates for the audience, telling us that “possession carries a mandatory death sentence” to which Jenna tersely says, “That wasn’t the reason,” implying she had a moral objection to it. Gan also talks about Shadow disparagingly, though Avon and Blake’s attitudes are more mixed, with neither committing either way entirely.

What kind of smuggler was Jenna exactly? I am increasingly disappointed that she isn’t the sort of ruthless pirate I originally imagined. Smugglers can’t pick and choose their smuggled cargo on a moral basis! Jenna is the nicest smuggler I have ever known and I found myself thinking back to her past form.

From her first scene, Jenna has been, well, decent – stopping Vila from robbing Blake’s watch. Back in Cygnus Alpha, the most sensible thing would have been to abandon Blake on that rock and have done a runner in the Liberator with Avon. But Jenna held off, waiting. She’s always shown loyalty to Blake and early on this probably wasn’t justified. For me, the cut-off point was Bounty. At the time, I was uncertain whether she really had betrayed everyone and this window into her past showed that she had been willing to deal with total scumbags. But she had nothing to gain except the crew’s lives and she still chose that. While I was satisfied with that outcome, showing Jenna in that situation destroyed any ‘good bad guy’ credentials she could have – she is just a good guy really and I have the feeling that she is too honest and fair deep down to have been a particularly successful smuggler. She doesn’t ever seem to prioritise selfish gains, even perfectly reasonable ones.

I was surprised by Gan in this episode, who was against visiting Space City at all because he thought it was wrong for them to do business with the Terra Nostra due to their nasty criminal reputation. This seems like the first time he’s developed any sort of personality. On the one hand it’s nice that he has, on the other it jars because we have never seen him stand up to Blake before. Later, Gan is unhappy with Blake’s plan to blackmail the Terra Nostra.

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Gan “The drug in return for their help? Blake, that would make us pushers!”
Blake “Well maybe we won’t keep our end of the bargain!”
Gan “That would make us cheats!”

I found this all so strange. First, I’ve no idea how common the term was in 1979 but Gan’s use of “pushers” has momentarily transported us to an anti-drug play from a school Drama lesson. Next, “cheats” – who the bloody hell does Gan think he jumped on to this ship with? They’re a bunch of cheats, liars and murderers! Even if we remain vague about the exact circumstances of Gan’s crime, they have all been complicit in some pretty grim stuff together now. This is far too late to find some righteousness, especially to object against blackmailing people as scummy as the Terra Nostra. This is such a bizarre way to start building up Gan’s character and makes no sense.

Avon

Avon has a fairly good episode, though his sarcasm felt almost overdone – it’s clear Chris Boucher is having good fun writing for him! He never misses a chance to put Vila down in Shadow.

Not for the first time, Avon is shown to be both capable and enjoy himself in a fight. After taking out the two silver-suited guards on Zonda, he flashes a satisfied grin and says to himself, “Next please.”

One moment I liked involved no lines at all. Having failed to negotiate a deal with Largo, Blake holds his hand out, forcing Avon to give back the jewels they had brought as payment. Avon’s face, as he stuffs the bag into Blake’s hand, is the perfect picture of pissed off.

For the most part, Avon sticks with his usual cynical, sometimes cruel outlook. When he and Gan are locked in a cell, Gan wonders what will happen to them. Avon very bluntly answers, “A pro keeps it simple. I imagine they’ll kill us. You can’t get much simpler than that.” I wouldn’t fancy being stuck in a prison with him.

In the same scene, the two Dreamheads mock Gan and as one giggles, Avon walks over, bends slightly and glares down at her, asking, “Something amuses you?” I enjoyed the delivery of this line. Avon looked and sounded intimidating. It was so villain-esque and is one of numerous occasions when I have felt that should he be so inclined, Avon could switch sides incredibly easily.

The Dreamheads are siblings and when one is later killed, Avon is horribly dismissive, saying, “She was dying anyway.” Vila had earlier made a comment implying Avon wasn’t very human and this line, delivered so heartlessly, is the perfect follow up. Maybe he really is very anti-drugs after all, but I found it unnecessarily callous for him. I’m not sure if him looking away from the brother as he says it makes it worse.

However, Avon’s whole outlook has taken an even worse turn by the end of the episode.

Avon “Ironic, isn’t it? We were hoping to use the Terra Nostra to attack the Federation, only to discover that it is already being used to support it.”
Vila “Where are all the good guys?”
Blake “Could be looking at them.”
Avon “What a very depressing thought.”

It’s marvellous that Avon doesn’t consider the Liberator crew to be the good guys. Perhaps that is the great difference between him and Blake – Blake does think they are the good guys, or at least wants them to be, while Avon has never particularly aspired to that. If Avon is some type of leader, I don’t think he’s the nurturing type – he would probably have let Vila go to the Satellite of Sin – and I still see him as being driven by the plain desire not to die.

Dancing in the red sun’s light

Once again, Paul Darrow gets a cracking outfit for Avon but this one is much more stunning than last week’s. A silver jumper over a black polo is paired with a silver-studded belt. He looks like he’s ready to shamelessly rock some moves on a Space City dancefloor. It’s a contrast to Blake, who is sticking with his green theme and looks like he’s preparing to take on the Sheriff of Nottingham. I’ll be curious to see whether this outfit of Avon’s ever appears again though, as it did seem to flare against the studio lights at times. Meanwhile, if the trousers weren’t enough in Redemption, Vila now has a full yellow outfit.

I liked the Liberator’s ‘desert’ outfits that Blake, Avon and Jenna all deploy for their visit to Zonda. This camouflage seemed a good idea. The lads have brown boots to go with theirs, though Jenna wins here as she sports some superb silver boots.

The guards on Zonda are dressed head to toe in a type of silver mesh. It has no camouflage advantage so maybe it reflects the sun’s rays – we are told there are two of them. I don’t think we ever saw more than two or three of these guards at once. I was slightly amused watching them because, well, it’s apparent that none of Zonda’s guards are the slimmest individuals, which is probably why they were so easily defeated.

What the plot?

My biggest problem with Shadow is the plot. On Twitter, Joseph Oldham suggested to me that Chris Boucher had been waiting so long to write an episode that he shoved in every plot idea he had. I’m inclined to take this seriously as it certainly looks like that’s the case.

The story starts by being about the crew visiting Space City to negotiate with Largo for Terra Nostra support, where there are a couple of Shadow addicts trying to escape, then it becomes about threatening the supply of Shadow from Zonda, then also about Orac messing with the Liberator and controlling Cally, but it’s really something from another dimension, and actually we find out that it’s the Federation controlling Shadow and therefore the Terra Nostra, so at the same time as running a black market in Shadow, they are executing people for possessing it and there is no point in trying to negotiate any support on Earth from the Terra Nostra. Wow. This is several episodes’ worth of plotting and by the end Chris Boucher has tied us in knots, while there are several loose ends.

The last five minutes are bad. Nobody wants to conclude an exciting episode with exposition. If you need to explain this much about what has just happened, it’s too complicated, or at least too much – it’s clear we ran out of time to show things. Blake, Avon and Jenna have a fight with the silver-suited guards on Zonda, yet we only see the end of it as they are tossing men into a pool and it smacks of an overrunning script.

Back on the Liberator, Cally has to explain about the ‘thing’ from another dimension that has accessed her through Orac. The whole Shadow and Federation business is tied up, somehow, when Avon reveals he has a security pass from a Federation guard he killed. When did that happen? Earlier this episode? A previous adventure? It’s unclear. Suddenly some Federation pursuit ships turn up – because those bastards get everywhere – and oh, we have to end the episode. What?! You can’t have the dullest ever few minutes at the end of the episode then deny us the chance for a space battle and burning planet!

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Terra Nostra

Is Largo really part of the Terra Nostra? I think he is supposed to be. Largo is immediately a proper nasty villain and I’d have happily seen more of him. He taunts the Shadow addicts, gloating, “I own you, Dreamheads.” He forces them to beg, rubbing his power in: “We own you, boy.” It seems appropriate that he shares his name with a James Bond villain because he borders on that over-the-top-ness.

His underling is simply called an ‘enforcer’ and both he and Largo are dressed in red velvet suits with frilly shirts, reminding me of 1960s’ Victorian hero Adam Adamant. The Enforcer doesn’t seem all that nice either. For such an enjoyably vile baddie, it’s a shame we don’t get Largo throughout the whole episode. His off-screen death is a waste and the Enforcer’s motivation appears to have only been thought up one scene before. He’s far too small a character. Prior to that, they have had no real interaction and it would have been better if we could have had this rivalry, jealously, or untrustworthiness built up from the opening scenes. Largo is a horrible guy and establishing some sort of relationship between him and the Enforcer would have made the pay off when he kills him much better.

While this aspect of the Space City plot felt underwhelming, another is simply left open. They speak to the Chairman on a video screen. He’s definitely a baddie because he’s playing with a spider. After Largo has been killed, the Chairman tells the Enforcer that he can have Largo’s place.  The Enforcer tells the Chairman that Largo has been adding something to his corrupted Shadow that makes it radioactive, so he can use special equipment to track the users. We see nothing else from Space City so this seems unresolved and I’m sure the Liberator still has some of the Dreamheads’ Shadow on board.

Cally, are you still there?

One thing I am happy to commend this script on is remembering Cally’s telepathy. It isn’t the first time Cally has been possessed by something outside the ship, which may be why Chris Boucher only used it as a minor part of the plot. Yet it’s a shame as it feels like such a sideshow, with us later cutting from Cally lying down to the action on Zonda, to the others on the bridge deck. The background of Cally’s telepathy strength has to be explained by Gan. That both this and the conclusion need explaining isn’t great – you could have done an entire episode around Cally becoming possessed.

It’s Avon who has normally shown more concern for Cally but this time it’s Blake. He is very snappy and rude with the others as they head for Zonda, which seems to be his go-to setting when he’s worried. Avon, perhaps sympathising, offers a curt but clear observation: “There’s nothing you can do for Cally – even shouting at everybody else is not going to help her.”

We do get some cool effects to try to show what’s going on. It reminded me of Doctor Who‘s Kinda. One effect has Cally surrounded by darkness but she is bathed in light. Another camera or editing trick of some sort enables us to see her rise out of her own body in a ghostly fashion.

Prior to being possessed by a being from another dimension, Cally gets the chance to be a bit brutal. She’s livid with Vila for sneaking off to Space City, threatening to make a necklace from his teeth. More seriously, she is willing to blow up the controllers at Space City. In the end, she destroys an approaching gunship they have sent. She’s entirely alone on the Liberator when undertaking this and, having been more of a student in Series A, it’s wonderful that she has the confidence to pilot the ship and launch a defensive attack single-handedly.

Only a machine

Vila moans to Zen, “If you were a decent computer, you’d be able to operate the teleport system like Orac can.” Like Gan’s line about the details of Cally’s telepathy, it’s a slightly clumsy way of shoving in some plot/worldbuilding. I wonder if this script or perhaps another originally planned to demonstrate Orac’s teleport functioning ability but ran out of time or was rearranged.

Following Redemption, I had said that Orac would be better for the Liberator because unlike Zen he is separate from it and I felt the crew were more likely to retain control of the ship. Ah well, never mind! I like that we get the tiniest hint earlier on in the episode of what is about to happen as Vila threatens, “I’ll switch you off and throw away the key,” Orac quietly replies, “Soon that will be no longer a problem.” Understandably, I’m no longer so sure about Orac. I thought he would be a positive and helpful thing for the crew, but it could turn out to be a more mixed fortune. I certainly didn’t think it could get worse than Zen.

Total control

One more loose aspect is that, as Avon says, they found Shadow’s source far too easily. Why? Is the Federation happy for people to find it because they then know who will have it? Or is it because those pursuit ships can be deployed so quickly and can destroy anyone who finds Zonda? Or are they really supposed to be relying on the silver-suited guards? Is this something to play out over the rest of the series along with the Shadow that is presumably still on board the Liberator? I watched Shadow three times to attempt to follow everything because I kept feeling like I was missing things.

There are major issues with Shadow’s plotting with too much dragged in towards the end, but there were also plenty of positive elements. As explained above, I thought Largo was a good villain. Vila essentially has his own side plot with little bearing on any of Shadow’s plots, yet I thought he had a wonderful episode and he was my favourite character to watch this week. His scenes with Cally showed that his humour can work well, if differently, with someone other than Avon.

I managed to guess that the Federation would be involved with Shadow. Avon’s comments about them finding Zonda too easily instantly made me think that they were walking into a possible trap, even if it wasn’t one set down specifically for them. I was pleased and satisfied by the conclusion that the Federation operates a circle-like strategy with Shadow, both controlling its distribution and prosecuting its users. Blake’s line that, “It’s quite logical; to have total control you must control totally – both sides of the law,” was a perfect summary. This was so annoying, frustrating, and brilliant. It’s another part of the Blake’s 7 universe that makes you feel the Federation are all-powerful. They increasingly seem like an invincible evil.

Comments

  1. AndrewP

    It's fascinating to see an episode written by somebody who's *not* Terry Nation isn't it? I remember back in 1979 being rather wrong-footed by this show because the pace and content seemed so different, and at that juncture I didn't even have the luxury to rewind the Betamax and watch it again! It's a very different style of story-telling, crammed with ideas and notions; in retrospect, it may have been better simply to focus on the Space City/Shadow/Terra Nostra narrative and save the Cally/alien narrative for a separate show… but 10/10 for attempting something different.

    Love the other points you raise. For me, I recall that the 'grade' notion linked in with a US TV mini-series of "Brave New World" which BBC1 aired in early 1981. "Pushers" *was* a term which was in usage by then – certainly I was aware of it from the media and its use in other contemporary drama by the late 1970s. Jenna *is* the nicest smuggler you could wish to deal with – you get the impression that she'd give discounts and cashback. And Chris Boucher *does* have an awful lot of delight in writing for Avon – a factor enhanced in a performance from Paul Darrow who now knows how to fully exploit the character in the best possible way.

    Thanks again – much appreciated!

    Andrew

  2. H E Cooper

    It will be interesting to see some of his other stories and how the rest of the series develops because it already is starting to feel quite different. I'm so very glad I was able to rewind because I did a lot of it!

  3. Mrs Underhill

    "Shadow" was baffling for me too, I remember. Wasn't sure what to make of it, especially of Orac subplot, but it got more rewarding on rewatch. We are lucky indeed that we can rewind!

    It's brimming with ideas, it added at least 4 major things to B7 lore: Terra Nostra, Federation class system, Shadow drug and Cally's Moon Disk (that's an example of a non-humanoid alien, by the way, and it captured imagination of many viewers :)).

    Also, everyone is so pretty in it! June Hudson's outfits are especially stunning and flamboyant in Shadow. Oh yeah Jenna's silver boots! And Avon's silver tunic – I thought he looked like a prince. Also he wears outrageous thigh-high boots but they are not in focus enough, sadly: blink and you miss it. Here are screencaps. 🙂
    http://static.diary.ru/userdir/5/5/1/9/551988/85636265.jpg
    http://static.diary.ru/userdir/5/5/1/9/551988/85636264.jpg

    Vila is really great in this! Was so happy for him living his dream despite Blake's party-pooping. Also him calling out Blake as a middle-class revolutionary was fascinating, as were his comments about class system.

    AndrewP mentioned grade system in Huxley's "Brave New World" – I didn't realize it was inspired by it! Didn't read the book but the Wiki page offered an insight into that system (eugenics, rigid castes Alpha through Epsilon based on intelligence ratings) and also this fascinating quote:

    "Any residual unhappiness is resolved by an antidepressant and hallucinogenic drug called soma."

    Soma is a drug in B7 universe too, though its effects are more medicinal.
    B7 grade system also doesn't have to be exact replica of "Brave New World" but it's left open to interpretation. Maybe grades were assigned on tests like 11yr olds exams, maybe they were hereditary. Similar grade system was also mentioned in "Sun Makers" in Doctor Who.

    Gan's developing a personality – a bit late, true, but at least it was consistent throughout S2. I wish they thought about it earlier, as he went from someone vaguely enjoying violence in S1 to an Everyman and a voice of common sense and decency in S2. But I liked his S2 development.

    Avon, Bek and Hanna conversation in the holding cell – ohh, it was interesting, isn't it? Avon felt on the same wavelength with those two, fitting in their criminal world. And yes, interesting about him enjoying physical fight.

    Also, to your question on where did Avon get the ID of the President's personal guard: my guess was that those fat silver-wrapped guards on the planet were from President's personal guard, and Avon got their IDs after killing them.

    Avon not being quite human – loved his line about Cally: "She's more human than I am". Can be read in so many ways. And yes, he worried about her and understood that Blake was being so mean and shouty because he was worried too.
    And oh – poor hungover Vila, yes! With Blake shouting at him like that.

    The overall plot – agree that it doesn't hang together well, it's a collection of jumbled pieces, some of which are very good, like Cally threatening Space City; Avon, Jenna and Blake confronting Largo etc.

    Ah, about Largo's outfit (and the Enforcer's): it reminded me vaguely of medieval Italy.

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