After the last episode I mentioned that there were a couple of writers I was hoping to see again – Robert Holmes was one of them.
What the plot
One aspect I liked from Robert Holmes’ previous stories was his ability to write two separate but fun, compelling plots. This worked particularly well in Gambit where all the crew – even Orac – had something to do. It’s sadly lacking in Traitor and I was doubly disappointed because it’s the second episode in a row where most of the crew have had little to do; Power‘s plot could have progressed with only Avon and Vila, but at least there was something weaved in to take Vila, Dayna and Tarrant away from the base.
It’s a downer so far compared to Series C as I had become used to the majority of the crew being more involved, with only one person left behind usually. Prior to that, there was often a second plot incorporated for those left on the Liberator, such as approaching pursuit ships or Federation scanners that may force them to move the ship out of range and leave the others. There was extra jeopardy or conflict of some sort offered and in Traitor it’s missing entirely, with Avon, Vila and Soolin having virtually nothing to do.
Vila does complain considerably about being in danger and insists that they should get the hell out of there, though Avon ignores him completely – the malfunctioning bracelets work well to prevent them from recalling Dayna and Tarrant. The communication issues are the only symptom to demonstrate how unreliable Scorpio is. I did like the inclusion of Vila’s speech to Avon that explicitly tells us that the Liberator was outstanding while in comparison Scorpio is an old piece of junk. However, we need to see evidence of the peril this supposedly provides: they need a close call, they need to almost lose Scorpio – better still, lose it, then just about manage to get it back.
Location, location, location
Down on the planet, the muddy hills are a fantastic location and are one of the most alien-looking landscapes Blake’s 7 has had. I’ve never seen anything like them and am glad they featured so prominently.
The battle on location – when a group of guards expect to easily wipe out the resistance – is fantastic. Everyone is really going for it – throwing themselves backwards, rolling down hills and plunging into the water. I hope they had a field day filming these scenes as it doesn’t look particularly warm in among that wet mud. If the deaths start to seem overdramatic, it’s too much fun for me to care much and I think the tone by the end sets us right. The smoke effects add atmosphere to a place that already looks grimly dim and there are several shots that linger on the corpses, with one floating in the water and another slowly sliding down the mud.
Unfortunately the scenes in the city are shot in the studio and therefore look poor in comparison. I don’t think they look cheap but they are tiny and lack depth for what’s needed. These scenes ideally needed to be on location at the edge of a forest and near some caves. There is talk of the city’s walls being closed off, but we need something visually to provide this scale – a point of view shot of a model city in the distance would have helped.
After lauding the effects with Scorpio over the last two episodes, it’s positively gutting to see the production using some sort of dodgy CSO while the ship is in flight. It looks like they have performed shots that zoom in or out of the model, which have then been put onto the starry background to give the impression of Scorpio moving through space. It looks annoyingly naff compared to the model work that was used for the Liberator and appalling after the wonderful pieces on Xenon.
It was interesting to watch so much of the Federation’s functioning without Servalan being around. I think the officers’ uniforms are grand – they are clearly reminiscent of Travis’s in Series B. We even have the Colonel in a matching eye patch, looking extra evil with a scar visible below.
I liked listening to the two officers relax over a sophisticated dinner; it’s been far more common to see the anonymous masked guards and it enabled us to see how they behaved in a slightly more informal setting. I gasped when one diner began puffing on an after-dinner cigar because I’d previously noticed that no one appeared to smoke in the Blake’s 7 universe. This had seemed incongruent with other 1970s’ visions of the future and now I see that even the 1980s had limited faith in humanity’s willpower. Yet cigarettes and cigars must be a pain for continuity so I’ve no expectation of Avon chomping away next week like Hannibal leading The A-Team (although that crossover sounds amazing now I’ve thought of it and I want a fix-it-up montage before Vila emerges riding a battered SUV-cum-tank while holding Orac aloft as a tactical navigator).
I enjoyed the murder of Practor with the perpetrator kept in the shadows. I spotted feathers around their shoulders, yet reasoned it couldn’t be Servalan because it was clear that the murderer was not wearing a dress. The squared shoulders resembled the uniforms of the officers, which did not narrow it down.
Suddenly seeing Servalan in the middle of a skirmish in the city was marvellous. It was unexpected to have her turn up so far into an episode and in the kind of dangerous situation from which she normally stays well back.
I liked the use of Leitz as a triple agent and it would have been good to have seen even more from him. He seems dedicated solely to his own survival in the middle of a war, ready to switch his loyalties to the greatest victor. Briefly, I was excited when he suggested to Servalan that he would support her as I fancied him sticking around. But the moment it became blackmail I knew he was a goner.
Servalan’s murder of Leitz seemed nasty, though a literal stab in the back is appropriate for her. Despite the fact we have seen Servalan kill several people herself now, I still find it fascinating to watch. She carries it out so coldly – it isn’t an indulgent gratification, nor is there a hard, determination; she’s simply happy that something is out of her way. I think I find that removed contentment disconcerting.
The description of the slow, torturous death that the scientist Forbus has been undergoing is probably grimmer than any instant one we could see on screen. There might have been an expectation from the audience that he would escape this, that Tarrant and Dayna would be able to save him from the fate he laid out earlier, but it’s not a triumphant ending at all; it’s a scramble to get out of there and they now know that Servalan is alive.
This is obviously a great shock to the characters, but I thought it inevitable from the closing moments of Terminal – it would have been a bigger surprise if Servalan was really dead and I’d have needed a confirmed corpse disintegrated before I began to doubt her chances of returning. Even for viewers who weren’t reading Blake’s 7 Monthly‘s guide to the show’s characters, I would expect Servalan to feature in a series trailer or other publicity – unless my present-day expectations are amiss. Yet regardless of this, I would have preferred it if we the audience had glimpsed Servalan in Traitor but Dayna and Tarrant hadn’t – Avon’s reaction to this secondhand news would have had a greater dramatic impact if we had built up to a reveal in the future.
I was thrilled to see Robert Holmes’ name in the titles as I’d adored both Killer and Gambit, but Traitor fell short in comparison to such high standards – I just didn’t find it as utterly compelling.
Several people have told me that the second half of Series D is stronger than the first. At the moment, I’m holding on to this because I’m finding everything ok but not great. I had some similar feelings at the start of Series C because I couldn’t sense where the series was going; however, I’d been wowed by the first couple of episodes so was happy to sit back and enjoy the ride – that’s proving a tad harder here. Even though this hasn’t been the best start, I’m still looking forward to each new episode and it’s fun just to be back with the characters. I haven’t even had cause to call Tarrant a twat yet.