Having given Vila a whole episode to himself, this time Cally is the focus. We learn (at least, I don’t think we knew this before) that she is not only a freedom fighter but thereby an exile from her homeworld, the oft-mentioned but never-before-seen Auron. We learn that she has a twin sister back there. We learn that Auron is not only big on telepathy but also cloning (transcendence of both the mind and the body), but most importantly, pacifism.
As part of a recurring refrain in British sci-fi television, these peaceniks are inevitably due to be roughed up by somebody big and violent and morally destitute.
Cut to: Servalan, in black.
Is this ever-constant theme (from Thals to Dulcians to the people of Michael Gough) just a World War II re-enactment narrative? And does that make Servalan, dictator of a disintegrating empire, a new version of Adolf herself? Is the story of Servalan’s children therefore a low-budget version of The Boys from Brazil shot at Leeds Polytechnic? Looking rather swish, but even so.
It’s a very strange story, for a number of reasons. There are virtually no sympathetic characters for most of the story, apart from Michael Troughton’s wonderfully cuddly Auron pilot who dies a viscerally nasty death (slumped in a space rocket, covered in lesions, leaking cheese sauce) within about five seconds (was his casting meant to be an in-joke regarding the title?), and of course Cally, who doesn’t really know what’s going on for a good long while.
Tarrant and Avon argue about whether to trust Cally’s sister, so don’t involve themselves with the plot till it’s almost too late. Servalan’s officers too are fighting amongst themselves, and it’s hard to blame them. The most you can hope for if you work for Servalan is that she won’t notice you: if you’re crap, clever or just sexy, she’ll fire you at the Liberator sooner or later.
And she tells Deral that’s what all this is about this week: she’s given an entire planet a death sentence just to get Avon in a vulnerable position. This is what is sometimes called over-planning. Or is it? The viewers are confused, and so is Deral, and perhaps that’s how she wants it – because Servalan actually has her eye on a prize she’s not going to make a big deal about.
Her plan actually works out pretty well. I suppose if you’re a megalomaniac, sooner or later things will come together for you. Where it goes wrong is just a couple of details: the infighting of her workforce (hoping for Employee of the Month, presumably never having heard how Commander Travis got on) and a that she underestimates (or just forgets about) implacable, deadly Dayna.
In the midst of all this, you wouldn’t blame Jan Chappell for feeling slightly put out. What is meant to be a Cally story is pretty much a Servalan story, and you never get much sense that anyone has time to think about what’s really going on: an exile coming home, a battle of ideologies, reunion with a twin, sudden unexpected grief. Even the twin’s death is thrown away: why is she trying to keep the incubator machine running when she knows it’s going to blow up any second?
“Even Servalan’s children must have a chance, Cally,” is a rather startling thought, though. What viewers of the episode will chiefly remember is the moment when Servalan experiences, telepathically, the death of her embryos children. There’s no two ways about this: it’s utterly shocking. That being said, it’s partly shocking simply because we’re being shown it at all. It isn’t moving – it’s startlingly strange, and perhaps it’s because it’s the most vulnerable we’ve seen the character.
(Harvest of Kairos, you’ll remember, didn’t happen, although I will admit that this whole storyline – whatever you make of it – is related to certain scriptwriters’ personal difficulty with the idea of a powerful female supervillain.)
In this episode’s strange, shocking, sad but difficult to parse moment, we see how are invited to pity Servalan. We have no idea about her past, about the true nature of her ambition or really what she plans for the Federation (there is literally no clue to what’s going on beyond the walls of that shark-shaped spaceship), but we perhaps have a reminder here that such monsters and tyrants as Servalan represents are ultimately tragic figures, isolated, paranoid and fixated on a future that will never happen.
And while we’re still reeling from that, we get a Scooby Doo comedy laughter ending. So once again, I’m facing the future and thinking that anything at all could happen…
Oh, and in case you all thought I hadn’t noticed: