Avon’s Servalannish tendencies finally abate a little in this story, and as a viewer it’s all for the better. Not that he suddenly becomes a second Gan, or even a Jenna. And it’s not because of anything that his human comrades says to him – it’s an argument with his laptop.
It’s interesting to consider what a major role the machines play in the BBC’s two big SF shows: when this story aired in November 1981, Doctor Who had only very recently (in fact, January of that year) bid farewell to his second-best friend, K-9 the robot dog, and Sarah-Jane Smith was only one month away from receiving her own model of the same machine in her very own Christmas special. The TARDIS herself is “more than just a machine”, and although the show has only very recently given form and voice to the ship’s psyche, the idea that the TARDIS’ computer system ‘thinks’ for itself and is in some ways psychical, self-willed and even moody, has been around since its inception (particularly the telepathic-tastic early 70s).
Both Avon and Vila are computer experts of differing sorts, depending on whether this is season one or not and what the plot demands. Avon is an expert with big systems and Vila is all about codes, passwords and locks. Avon, like some of the Doctor’s futuristic companions (and the Doctor himself) is somewhat analogously like the computers he operates on: a gunslinger, yes, but one who contemplates and calculates before kicking that chair or letting that engineering scientist get blown up. Cold, unreadable, insufferably clever yet also somehow ineffably desirable, Avon is like the personal computer soon to be appearing in homes across the country. One of the reasons he seems, and always has, to have a strange affinity with the dark side is that the Federation are the ones with the programme for humanity. Like the scary regimes of Orwell and Huxley, the Federation wants to treat the people of the universe like a giant electronic equation. They even use a computer for justice, in the opening episode at least.
Avon, we feel, like every hard disc ever invented, is entirely corruptible.
We get an early reminder in this story that Orac, one of the crew, and no less hard and chilly than Avon or Soolin, embodies the personality of his creator, Ensor. Remember him, and his robot canary? Left for dead among the slimy reptiles of the tunnels beneath an acid sea, pursued by still more slimy reptiles (Servalan and Travis) who had decided to triple-cross Ensor and the Federation in their hunt for Orac. It was worth a gamble of everything on Orac, because he was the be-all and end-all of computer thought. Servalan evidently felt she could rule the Universe and squish the Liberator crew with Orac in her talons. Blake, and then Avon, have had Orac for many years now and they’re still racketing aimlessly around the universe with evil on the throne. It does make you wonder if he’s all he’s cracked up to be – though it can’t be denied that he secretly made Avon and Vila millionaires one night, and has solved a couple of riddles in his time (although whether he tells his operators what the answer is, and for what reasons, is a riddle in itself).
This story features another expert in computers and another super-weapon, not so very different from Og the hairy barbarian of ‘Animals’: a soldier that can mess up any electronic equipment it meets, with genius intelligence and a special inhibitor that can control its actions. Like Og, the creation has rebelled against his creator (making Professor Mullen the third Davros-a-like in a row, by my count) and in a fairly grotesque way.
The most dramatic bit of the episode, for me at least, was the android’s takeover of Scorpio’s computer system via the Life Support booth. Roger Parkes signals fairly obviously to the audience that the ever-so-‘umble Slave has gone awry in a significant way, but Vila and Tarrant carry on bimbling around unaware of how vulnerable they suddenly are. The story had the potential for a general recycling of Season 3’s wonderful Tanith Lee Cally-takeover psychofantasy, but things are made more interesting through splitting the crew. There’s a real sense of crisis when the ship shuts down all life support systems. Who understands the situation best? What does Orac know? Dare we break in and find out more or do we stay at a safe distance?
Throughout the story, as the nature of the threat grows clearer, Orac and Avon grow more tactical, more calculating, more personally concerned. Dayna, Soolin, Tarrant and Vila are caught up in the middle, and each of them gets something important to do in the plot (I always award brownie points when a writers achieves this on Blake’s 7 because there are so many bloody lead characters). There’s some especially nice interplay between Vila and Soolin, when the sci-fi story turns into cod-Hammer Horror but Parkes flips the conventional gender roles and has Soolin tough and implacable while Vila hides in a cupboard. (A quick note here that Soolin gets some great lines and Glynis Barber is fab.)
It’s hard nowadays to feel the same paranoia about ‘thinking machines’ that lies at the heart of this story. We are simply too close to them nowadays: we fell in love with the K-9’s, Orac’s and Slave’s of the world. (I asked Cortana about this, and she agreed.) The ending of the story feels rather peculiar now: the threat of the android is such that Dayna and Tarrant blow it up with big relieved smiles. Avon, the calculating bugger, is very cross – but even he is given a bit of side by Orac in the last line of the story. The tension endures, and the show is ever so slightly more on the side of the human. It’s a lovely moment when Avon, of all people, overrides Orac’s instructions and defies the possessed Slave to put on a silly space helmet and ride to the rescue of his pals.
Once again, blurry Radio Times pictures were taken by me, screengrabs are courtesy of http://www.framecaplib.com/b7lib.htm