This is the first time I’ve ever struggled with Blake’s 7 and I needed something from Stardrive, just a little bit, to liven up Series D.
Just a machine
I’ve given up entirely on Orac, whose personality increasingly resembles his creator: a grumpy old man who wanted to be left alone to get on with his work. We always knew that Orac was designed to resemble Ensor, yet I didn’t expect him to gradually become even more alike. Since realising this though, I am more at ease and accepting of Orac. In fact, it’s perfectly reasonable that his crotchetiness has got worse after spending his days at the beck and call of a bunch of troublesome subversives. On the other hand, he is a computer and I wouldn’t take this shit from Alexa.
I was pleased that Stardrive addressed the complaints I had for Traitor about Scorpio’s decrepit condition being undersold. We spend a fair amount of time on Scorpio and I had missed that sort of lengthier set-up on the ship. Finally seeing somewhere besides the bridge also offers some scale to the ship. However, I find Scorpio’s interior considerably duller than the Liberator’s – I never thought I’d clamour for 1970s’ brown but 1980s’ grey is far less aesthetically pleasing for me. The design of the new ship doesn’t help either – it’s smaller and as the set lacks depth there is a limit to how much fits on screen. I preferred the shots with the crew standing down the front as these seem more interesting than those with them seated.
Location, location, location
The episode makes great use of the location with the trikes and I like that we get some wide shots that don’t just include people; as well as the trikes racing by, there are a couple of doors into the Space Rats’ base and this helped make it feel like a more realistic place. As enjoyable as some of the filming locations are, the Blake’s 7 production often needs to find suitable sites that are devoid of any recognisable trace of the 20th century. This does tend to result in a lot of relatively plain, natural areas like fields and the ubiquitous quarry, with forests coming out slightly more interesting. This partially explains my excited exclamations every time we see an industrial complex – there is inevitably a lot more going on.
Seeing Scorpio on location was a highlight as I had got used to the Liberator hovering in space – the teleport system became a good way of avoiding the need for shots of it on any planets. It’s superb to have Scorpio looking like it’s really there and I hope we see similar shots in the future.
I don’t think it’s ever explained why the crew could not all teleport back to Scorpio (no matter how much I willed them to), though I presumed that Orac could not operate the teleport in the same way he had been able to on the Liberator. Additionally, as established, Orac’s become a stubborn sod and I would be sceptical about risking such a crucial responsibility at the moment.
One of my favourite parts of the episode was the trike chase, which helped form a climactic conclusion. It was wonderfully thrilling, especially as Blake’s 7 has never done a grounded pursuit like this before. As a fan of series like The Sweeney and The Professionals, I love an action sequence on wheels. It could have been shot better as I think there are some wider shots where the vehicles look much too tiny. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this as an opportunity to make the best use of the Space Rats trikes, as well as showcasing the location – the landscape was broken up by numerous different levels and if you’re going to shoot in a quarry, you may as well use as much of it as you can.
The Space Rats themselves feel wasted as their supposed menace is all words: we have Vila’s nervous explanations of who they are, followed later by similar descriptions from Doctor Plaxton about what they are like. Vila’s stories do give us some nervous expectations when Vila and Dayna try and then fail to avoid getting caught, but the Space Rats hardly live up to the crazy, vicious image that’s been created. Moved earlier, Doctor Plaxton’s details could have potentially replaced the need for background details from Vila. However, we need Vila’s tales in before we reach the planet because when we see the Space Rats they look laughably absurd.
If you are going to be excessive in the costumes – and this is far from Blake’s 7‘s first example – then everything else has to be deadly serious and I don’t think there is enough intensity in Stardrive‘s script. We need to see the Space Rats ruthlessly killing someone, we need to see them dumping corpses in a ravine (too much?), at the very least we need to see them refusing to show mercy before someone is dragged off-screen with a blood-curdling scream. This programme has pushed the boundaries of the watershed before so there is no excuse for not showing something that depicts the Space Rats as a reckless force to be feared.
The Space Rats are barely intimidating as most of them seem to spend their time lying around stoned. Apart from that, we see just a couple going by on their trikes, which ticks the ‘speed junkies’ box but there are no close-ups of a hardened thug to offer an insight. I get that the production is going for a Hells’ Angels vibe, but my original thought remains my preferred description: Blake’s 7 let an eight-year-old loose with felt tip pens and the BBC Costume Department’s old ‘punk’ dressing up kit.
Vila’s first description of the Space Rats made them sound like teenage hoodlums with the space-equivalent of a souped-up boy racer car, and that’s exactly how they appeared – immature, fundamentally lazy little sods. They aren’t dismissed entirely but they are taken for daft lunatics who are then easily deceived and outmanoeuvred.
Dayna Wonder Woman
I’ve primarily seen Dayna as an action woman and have thoroughly enjoyed watching her match or exceed the men’s capabilities there. While she has certainly shown intelligence as well, I appreciated it far more in Stardrive – perhaps because I saw her and Vila as somewhat abandoned by Avon, and Vila was always going to be useless in front of the Space Rats.
After Dayna and Vila are captured, I loved Dayna’s quick-thinking as she pretends that she and Vila know Doctor Plaxton. I felt an ounce of panic when Plaxton refused to play along, but then loved Dayna’s continued confidence. She’s observant under pressure too, making sure she points out the Stardrive to demonstrate that her claims are credible. She does this all with such enthusiasm that Vila doesn’t have to summon much effort to join in.
It threw me completely when Avon set up Dayna and Vila to act as bait, giving him and the others time to land and get closer. I think it hurt slightly more that he was willing to do this to Vila as I feel, with the two of them being the only original crew, that that should act as some extra mark of loyalty between them. And obviously if you are going to throw anyone under a trike it should be Tarrant. Yet Avon must have carefully calculated this move: he clearly knew there would be objections if he suggested it to the group as a whole, but then had to ensure he was left with the two who would not object afterwards and insist on recalling the others. We know Tarrant’s a nasty bastard, so what has Avon assessed about Soolin?
The other shocker from Avon was his swift and casual decision to let Doctor Plaxton die. I was conflicted because I could see no other option – they were struggling for literal seconds – but it still seemed cruel. Yet I know it wasn’t. It was cold and it was removed but it made perfect sense for one person to die instead of all of them.
Both of these moments contributed to my enjoyment of Stardrive. By Series C I felt I knew Avon and Vila increasingly well and there is a comfort in being with familiar characters – it’s part of what I have looked forward to at the start of each new series. I liked that we seemed to discover layers that depicted more of what we already knew about them. Then Stardrive unravelled a roll and it was like finding a slightly uncouth tattoo – I thought you’d got rid of that. I thought you’d changed. I think I liked it at the time but… I’m not sure how I feel about it now.
Avon’s actions have left me incredibly curious to go on – properly excited again actually, but also a tad nervous. I’m worried about where it might go. It was alright for Avon to be a selfish bastard when Blake was around – Blake was a stupid twat and Avon kept himself (and the rest of them) alive. Yet I came to have different expectations of Avon after a series of him being an – initially surprisingly – decent leader. He’s also never acted properly callous towards the other crew; I’ve never forgotten that Avon was the first to suggest they were friends.