There are two kinds of Blake’s 7 story: ones tied directly into the show’s continuity, and the Liberator’s ongoing struggle with the Federation (and Servalan in particular, of course), and what you might expect to be the more prevalent: extraneous, self-contained adventures-of-the-week. Random touchdowns on alien worlds, attacks by space pirates, detours through black holes into the weird dominion of a deposed alien genius. That sort of thing.
In the first season, the two kinds of story were almost invariably fused. Blake would decide they needed to liberate a figurehead of the rebellion or steal a superweapon or blow up an important satellite. Sometimes Blake was directly pitched against his deadly nemesis, Tarrant. In series 2, there is perhaps more division between these two kinds of story. Robert Holmes does a clever thing of having the Federation alerted and on their way, but not quite visible.
I suppose the split is symbolic of the Liberator crew itself. Do they fly toward trouble, do they rescue a stranger, do they investigate the unknown, are they motivated for themselves?
In this season, where Servalan is slowly regaining her power and her interest in the Liberator sometimes seems monomaniacal, I feel the stories are less tightly linked into the Federation narrative. Although there is a sense that Tarrant and Avon are strutting about a bit, squirting testosterone around the flight deck and getting ready to tangle their antlers, a lot of the stories could really be seen in any order. This isn’t a problem: although the Star One narrative of Season 2 gives an extra satisfaction to the faithful viewer, it can also feel a bit of a drag sometimes.
Last week, I wrote in praise of Rumours of Death, a pretty overtly continuity-tastic story, and very satisfying too. It not only built upon Servalan and Avon’s characters, but seemed to depend on a sense of moral nihilism that has crept in since the loss of Blake. What are they fighting for? Do they really have nothing to look toward but violent death or that ‘old wall’ of subjugation?
We were due something fun and colourful after that, and perhaps something a little bit life-affirming. The title of Tanith Lee’s episode might not look too promising in such a context. But I would actually give it the edge over even Rumours of Death.
It doesn’t provide any insight into the world of the Federation. There is no real sense of history for any of the characters. One scene with Cally at the beginning is slightly odd, suggesting that she is still exiled from Auron. It might have made more sense to mention the death of her sister, but instead we are in a weirdly ‘reset’ and ambiguous place at the start of the story. It’s not necessarily wrong, but it does have a different emphasis. Where the continuity-ish stories describe personal experience as cumulative, these self-contained stories suggest that we never learn, we never truly change, we are always hungry for a new adventure, always subject to chance and surprise.
And yet this becomes an incredibly personal story for Cally and, quite surprisingly, for Avon too. A psychic vampire of sorts manages to take over the ship, welcomed in by Cally’s natural instinct toward the psychically developed, non-human, and towards, in a word, a friend. Cally doesn’t do that well out of the friendship, being laid comatose in a pile of glittery cushions; on the other hand, life on the Liberator day-to-day looks pretty alienating. Look at the events of last week.
To some extent, Avon redeems himself in this story. Last week, he was betrayed in almost every sense, murdered his ex-lover in cold blood, and welcomed death at the hands of his greatest enemy. In this story, he directly challenges the invading alien to take his life: chancing (with, perhaps, a hint of a death wish) that Cally really doesn’t hate him that much. Despite testing and watching her earlier in the story, he finally gives himself up and trusts her to defy the oppressive personality.
There’s a kiss, a bit of sleight of hand, a few sad words from the alien, a slow dissolve to dusty death. There’s a comedy ending from Dayna and Vila, and a shared look of understanding from Avon and Cally. In actual fact, everything that Avon and Cally do in this story is unspoken: Avon trusts Cally, Cally trusts Avon, and Tanith Lee trusts her audience.
What takes this just beyond Rumours of Death – not that it’s a competition, but I want to make this point – is that there are plenty of bits of Sarcophagus that take the risk of looking ridiculous, and that's always good. There’s an overlong sequence at the beginning which establishes a weird narrative of dream symbology (even a little bit of Jung? No?). There are mad costumes, weird poltergeist happenings, and of course there is space folk.
It’s all fabulously daring and unexpected. Rumours of Death had some great play with narrative, and lots of shooting and shouting and dark looks. You could just about show it to your parents without blushing. But knowing that Blake’s 7 can go just that bit further, knowing it can push on beyond its budget, beyond verisimilitude and realism and fear, I am always extra pleased when – as here – it goes that one step beyond.
Right then, sorry for the extra-long blog post this week. Two good stories in a row. Surely that means we’re due a duffer next time…
I took the wonky pictures of the Radio Times listings in the British Library, and the image of Cally comes from the Blake's 7 Image Library.