It’s the singles bar at the end of the universe, and now that Servalan has arrived: it’s ladies’ night…
I’m several stories ahead of the blog. By the time you read this, I’ll have left the dusts of Virn behind. (I’ll have passed beyond Blake’s 7 and a little way into whatever comes next. Edge of Darkness? Emu’s Pink Windmill?) I happened that, just after I watched ‘Sand’ and before I wrote this, I posted my blog about Tanith Lee’s first contribution to the show, ‘Sarcophagus’. (Click here to go back and read it if you like: you are now spiralling in time, try not to trip over that hat-stand). And rereading that was interesting.
It strikes me that I started the review talking about character. Character continuity has always beset this series. It looks like a character-driven show, and perhaps it is, but it’s driven like a go-kart round a track: however fast they go, they circle around to the beginning again. After a while, I got used to this: the same way new viewers get used to the fact that Tom never goes back for Sarah after ‘Deadly Assassin’: it’s a convention, a necessity, a loveable quirk.
In ‘Sarcophagus’, the episode pivots on an understanding of a romantic kind between Cally and Avon that might be there if you dig in the subtext of previous episodes. It’s a small fire generated by the friction of knowing glances, and the most knowing of these is shared between the viewer and the writer. Tanith Lee, like Chris Boucher before her, reveals herself to be viewer-as-writer: she doesn’t know the characters like Terry Nation, but she writes with the implicit authority and insight that all we viewers take for granted.
The Cally-Avon romance basically peters out after the end credits of ‘Sarcophagus’, but for the duration of the episode, along with some of piquant stylistic touches (cosmic folk, especially) Lee convinced me she was sharing a personal insight into the world of these characters.
I used to bemoan the huge number of regulars in the show: now I see them as multiple viewpoints on a world that needs exploring in multiple dimensions (City at the Edge of the World is a great example). And in a show like Blake’s 7, it’s not location work or special effects that create your world, not backdrops and backstory. It’s about how a character sees the world, how they inhabit it, and how they try and shape it. Lots of writers beam the characters down to the ‘planet of the week’ and have them act as disinterested participants, like gamers or tourists. It ought to be more like Chaucer: there’s a reason this story happens to this person.
This charming, brittle, beardless youth of a Federation Captain, who spends a night with the most dangerous woman in the galaxy on a planet of ghosts. This grumpy, battle-weary genius, half-seduced and half-sickened by the President’s power, hanging powerless in her orbit. This planet that engineers a story, divides and destroys and draws together its victims, and heaps up along the windows like a gestalt voyeur, as they gulp their green-ade and blue-ade and get up to who knows what. Obviously, this turns out to be a story about Servalan, and doesn’t Jacqueline Pearce shine, but Tanith Lee’s approach to Serv isn’t through a new world but a man who knows her, in every sense. Two of them, in fact, although one of them is dead as the story begins.
Green dust, black evening gown, dead man in the next room: that’s Blake’s 7.
This is the reason we have Season Four, then, to give Servalan a story in which the mask slips, if only a little. ‘Power became my lover,’ she says. And so Don Keller, the man who dumped Servalan, the warm corpse next door, becomes the reason for the events of the last three seasons. Yes, for the duration of this story, the power games of Blake, Tarrant and the rest all boil down to a lost love and a confrontation with the past in a world – a situation – where such things are briefly in focus. What else does drama do but invent the one world where one unique story can be told?
Next week, it’ll be another world, and maybe another viewpoint will open up. Somehow I doubt it - stories like ‘Sand’ don’t come along very often - but we watch on optimistically. I expect Servalan will be back, and the crew won’t mention Tarrant’s betrayal: he’ll seem to forget, and so will she. As usual, the viewer will fill in what they can remember and what they suspect, and tell their own story. One shaped forever by the particular insights of this richly beautiful, bizarre and chilly alien world…