Blake’s 7 – Traitor

Blake's 7 Traitor by Robert Holmes

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, Soolin and Avon doing bugger all on the Scorpio deck

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.

Dayna and Tarrant look down across the muddy hills

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.

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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.

CS-Oh no

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.

Federation dining

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.

Eye patch Federation officer drinks wine over dinner

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).

Murder mystery

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.

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Leitz smooching Servalan's neck as she smiles

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.

Comments

  1. Reggie

    The run from episode 6 to the show’s ending is genuinely the best series of Blake’s 7 episodes there is. Episode 4 is also a lot of fun. 1-3 and 5 are the rough ones this year in my opinion.

    I think they tried to use the CSO to give Scorpio a different effect from the Liberator, and to do something similar to Remembrance Of The Daleks where they levitate the coffin, but it just doesn’t work.

    What I did really enjoy about episode 3 was Vila, specifically his ranting against Tarrant. It was so catharctic after all the BS Tarrant put him through in Series C(namely in City At The Edge Of The World!). Avon’s teasing description of Tarrant cracked me up too. Avon is *amazing* this season. He’s out of fucks to give.

    1. Reggie

      Series C was my least fav in the series.

      Blake’s 7 has never been a very narratively driven show. With the exception of the Star One arc, episodes rarely impact one another. In the early days, it was clearly influenced mostly by Robin Hood. Blake/Robin would bother Servalan and Travis/the Sheriff of Nottingham and Sir Guy of Gisborne by doing something that supposedly diminishes the power of the Federation/the nobles. It’s not meant to add up to anything, but merely show on a thematic level that the villains have no power over the hero. That by being an example of goodness, he’s making the universe a better place to live in.

      Occasionally there would be a change in status quo such as the acquisition of Orac or the death of Gan, but for the most part, they’re very self-contained stories. But what makes them tick, at least for me, is the sense of initiative. In most episodes, Blake would start out on a mission. “We have to destroy the communications centre!” “We must convince President Sarkoff to return!” “We must make contact with Avalon!”

      They’re very clear, coherent objectives that obviously have a negative impact on the enemy. We never see that impact save for the occasional mention of Blake becoming a legend, but we can imagine it’s there and that what our characters do matters. The changes in status quo mark the passage of time since the quest began. Basically, the show fools you into feeling that there is a progression by having our heroes know what they want and do what they want, or at least try.

      And then there is Series C or as I like to call it, “the anthology season”. It opens promisingly enough. Blake and the Federation are both gone, the galaxy is in shambles, nothing is as we knew it. It’s exciting and original. Anything could happen! Over the course of two episodes, Avon fights tooth and claw to regain command of the Liberator and then… nothing.

      The galaxy remains pretty much as it was during the Blake years, except there’s a lot less of the Federation, which means it’s not worth fighting and even if it was, Blake isn’t around to fight it. The crew still have the Liberator, which is full of jewels and mostly impregnable, therefore they need nothing. The sense of progression grinds to a standstill. Let’s look at what inspires our crew in these episodes:

      *In Volcano, The Harvest Of Kairos, Children Of Auron and Terminal they do nothing until Servalan pokes at them in another attempt to get the Liberator.

      *In Dawn Of The Gods, Sarcophagus and Ultraworld, they do nothing until running into something alien in space. I’d lump Moloch in here as well, because they just stalk Servalan without much explained provocation until finding the hidden planet.

      *In Death-Watch, they literally take a vacation(from what???).

      That leaves two episodes with some sense of initiative – City At The Edge Of The World and Rumours Of Death. One of which is nothing more than Tarrant’s trade deal gone wrong and the other a personal revenge hunt for Avon.

      I’m not saying they’re bad episodes – in fact, a lot of them are series highlights – but it gives me the impression that unless outside forces impact them in some way, the Liberator crew would literally just sit around and play board games all the time. So why should we care? If it wasn’t for the good scripts, the show would be running on the fumes of the previous two seasons. As if the show ended and we’re just left watching a few characters hang around after the fact in the longest epilogue ever.

      It’s doubly disappointing if you consider the build-up to Avon’s command. He spent two whole seasons pining for it under Blake, constantly promising to put the ship to better use(mentioning the acquisition of riches on more than one occasion). Yet when he finally proclaims “it’s my ship!” in Powerplay, nothing really comes of it. He’s apparently content to sit around and do nothing with his newfound freedom.

      Now, on one hand, this does make sense if you consider how much he loathed Blake’s style of leadership, like the way Blake would put people at risk and not consider their own opinions in regards to his great cause. It’s sensible to suggest that as commander, Avon would be more considerate and not rush off to potential danger all the time.

      Still, I think there’s a difference between being cautious and doing nothing at all. Avon may not be the hound that Blake was, but given his focused personality and established desire for wealth in spite of the Liberator’s riches(think back to Gambit for example), it’s more than likely that he would at least proposition the crew with ideas of what to do next.
      “Why don’t we go to X planet to rob Y bank? Here’s a plan I worked out with Orac that is likely to get us in under minimal threat.”
      “I think we should teleport onto that ship carrying Federation treasures and then beam out again. Vila, you can open the safe.”
      “I read about this interesting planet, let us see what it’s all about to expand our knowledge.”

      You know, something. Anything!

  2. Ed

    The next two episodes are generally considered the series’ low point (though in view of something you said in this review, it wouldn’t surprise me if you enjoyed at least part of the next one), but if you make it through them, things will improve. A lot.

  3. Joe

    I’m not a fan of “Traitor”; It’s one of Robert Holmes rare misfires I think. “Gambit” showed he is very confident using Avon and Vila; it was game of him to try doing something with Dayna and Tarrant instead. Fortunately there is another Robert Holmes story in this series (and in the second half, where everything gets much, much better) – but again it’s one of those ones where you don’t want to find out a single thing about it before you see it.

    (You are doing really well on that front, H.E. It’s entirely your call of course, but my recommendation is still to keep away from the B7 Monthlys and anything else until you’ve seen all the episodes. Contemporaneous reading of the Monthly doesn’t really add anything to the viewing.)

    The cigars over dinner and talk of the Fletch Expedition of ’29 make parts of it all seem a bit colonial.

    There are still one or two turkeys coming up – very soon – but there’s always something redeeming in every episode. As others have said, although it takes the writers a way to figure out how to handle this new series, it really hits the straps and starts clicking in the second half.

  4. Joe

    I’m also pleased to know you are enjoying “Whodunnit” and “The Indoor League”.

    You’ll see changes in every episode of “Whodunnit” S1 as they work to bed down the format. The biggest change is the change of chairman in S2, which makes the show infinitely more enjoyable. I think S3 however is the best of all the series. Everything really clicks and there are a couple of regular panellists who are good at playing the game. The show doesn’t work when none of the panellists has a clue as they usually descend into comedy questioning and things go nowhere. The terrific two in S3 (and spot appearances later) really drive the show along and help the home viewer to move forward in solving things too. There was more tinkering with the show in S4 and S5, though not necessarily to the benefit of the programme.

    “The Indoor League” is so fascinating I couldn’t take my eyes off it when I first got the DVDs. The darts didn’t interest me, but the arm wrestling, bar billiards, pool and table skittles sucked me right in, and no sport did it more so than shove ha’penny. I’ll sithee!

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