The Blake’s 7 regulars are all a fairly bestial lot. Snarling, snapping, scrabbling about. Vila’s dialogue is more or less analogous to either a mucky grunt or a wheedling yelp. Tarrant and Avon spent series 2 yapping at one another. Servalan would bite your head off, soon as look at you. What’s more, things seem to be getting worse. Avon is getting more savage, his pack seems to be continuously turning on itself, and Servalan – well, I’m not sure what she’s doing and why she hasn’t been recognised yet. Perhaps everybody’s just pretending they don’t know her so they don’t get killed. I’m sure that happens in certain workplaces and even certain bars. But nobody in this show is behaving in a recognisably human way.
It’s nice, then, to get a reminder of Dayna’s father and to meet one of her old teachers. After space Vikings, space rebels and space punks, this is a story about one of those very specific Blake’s 7 characters: an important human who stands on the borderline between the Federation and its opponents. This time he’s important because he’s a genetic scientist and, a little like Davros, Professor Justin has created a new race of soldiers that thrive in radioactive environments. Unlike Davros, Justin’s creations hate him and have rebelled.
Dayna, partly the product of his teaching, is also in revolt against her mentor. (It’s not clear exactly what he was teaching her: the important bits of their relationship seem to have been extra-curricular, which I had to keep blotting out throughout the story.) Justin’s eugenic Lego-building doesn’t just involve existential dilemmas but pain, experimentation and conditioning. And that’s before he mentions also experimenting with deserters from the Federation. There’s really not very much to like about Professor Justin: even his tabard’s ugly, and that’s saying something for this show.
Conveniently, Scorpio needs extensive repairs back at the base, giving Dayna plenty of time with wrestle with her emotions, and Servalan enough time to deduce that something is happening on Justin’s planet, investigate, find the one man who knows about Justin’s experiments, fly him over, interrogate him, kill him, and beam people down to abduct Dayna. How long was Vila mucking about in the Scorpio’s engines? A fortnight?
Jacqueline Pearce does some great work with Servalan this week. The script’s pretty shonky but the ex-President delivers every line cool enough to administer frostbite. When she realises that Dayna has a personal attachment to Justin, she turns this human strength into a vulnerability: not through blackmail but brainwashing, replacing every loving feeling with animal hatred. After this, Dayna is more Blake’s 7-y than ever: cold, watchful, obsessed with hardware. Servalan has Avonised her, and together they’re unstoppable.
The test subjects are actually fairly good, costume-wise. Or are they? I can’t tell any more. I’ve passed an event horizon where I have no idea whether something is actually good or just good for this era in British sci-fi television, or even just good for Blake’s 7. After all, we should have met our fair share of alien beasties and strange people in this show and they’ve been relatively few. The denizens of Ultraworld, with their blue leotards and even bluer hair, are not very impressive. The flea-monsters of Kairos are eyebrow-raising for all the wrong reasons. These inventions of Justin, with their presumably radiation-proof golden locks, at least look relatively solid and weird. They are all fairly sensible too, if we go by their complete avoidance of their creator.
I wasn’t surprised to see Justin go the way of all Blake’s 7 guest characters, and nor was I saddened very much. There was something rather suspicious about his relationship with Dayna. She was terribly upset when he died – and I do mean terribly – but is that down to having Jacqueline Pearce sweetly murmuring: “You love him… You love him… You love him…” while bombarding her with images of the Professor and, presumably, his tabard? Jacqueline could make anybody do anything.
Especially in a universe like this one, where lives are cheap and victories short-lived. It’s probably hard to stay human in such conditions, particularly when the writers don’t know what they’re doing. We go round and round, getting more bitter, our characters less definite with each trip around the same old plot points. If the series doesn’t end with Avon and Servalan scrapping, eye-to-eye, in a grubby cellar with only a jawbone or a sharp bit of rock to win the day, it’ll only be because the series is so wonkily put together at this point that it doesn’t even follow the rules of its own moral universe.