EPISODE 6: SEEK-LOCATE-DESTROY by Terry Nation
As is often the case when we settle down to watch an episode of Blake’s 7, I’m instantly transported back to 1996 when I first watched the series as a teenager. Repeated on the cable channel UK Gold on Sunday mornings, I was confident I would enjoy this series, even though I’d never really seen any of it, or really heard much about it. But as it was scheduled to come on just before my beloved Doctor Who, it was perfect. I had video tapes ready, and waiting to be filled with my new love (sorry Who). What could go wrong? I’ll tell you. Family outings.
My dad usually got one day off a week to spend with mum, my brother and me – Sundays. Dad’s always been one for going places on his day off. Late afternoons and evenings might be for cricket (in the summer) and football highlights (any other time of year) but mornings and early afternoons were for outings. It might be a local beauty spot, the swimming baths, a car boot sale, a walk somewhere, or ocassionally a full day out. Seek-Locate-Destroy was the first (but not the last) to be threatened by such outings.
Two weeks ago we arrived home from the swimming baths, ten minutes into episode three (Cygnus Alpha). My irritation was put down to teenage hormones and the possible mistake of giving me my own video recorder for chirstmas. For Seek-Locate-Destroy I knew the day out to the Brecon Beacons would also threaten my equally obsessional recording of Doctor Who as well. It would be easy enough to just press the record button moments before we were due to leave, but I calculated that I would need a four hour tape to capture both (UK Gold were showing The Horns of Nimon that week). Blake came on at 10am and Who finished a 1pm. A four hour tape would be needed. But I didn’t have a four hour tape. I complained about it for days (no doubt angling for more pocket money so I could buy one). My dad, ever the mathematician I am not, thankfully pointed out I’d got my sums wrong. He counted the hours on his finger, Ten o clock to eleven.o clock. Eleven to twelve. Twelve to one. Three hours. Ah! Hooray! And a life lesson learnt; you’re never too old to count on using your fingers.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I was busy getting ready for our day out when Blake’s 7 came on. I came into the room nearly ten minutes into the episode and completely missed the first appearance of the now infamously bad security robot.
The episode starts with some great outside filming. Dom isn’t sure about the outdoor gear Blake, Vila, Cally, Avon and Gan seem to be wearing. Matching and colour coded, as if this pyjmama-like getup came straight out of Liberator’s wardrobe section labelled ‘outdoor assault gear’. Not only does this spaceship come kitted out with every appliance an outlawed space adventurer needs – laser guns, teleport bracelets, Zen – but it also seems to give them matching outdoor gear. It doesn’t look very warming though. Thankfully for the actors, there is lots of dashing about to evade the security robot and Fed guards.
We can’t help notice that as with Time Squad a few weeks ago, this futuristic communication hub looks suspiciously like a factory compound somewhere off the M4. Why a communication hub eschews wires, cables, sattelitte dishes or anything else you might associate with communication for lots of steaming pipes is something the viewer is instantly distracted away from when the security robot shows up. It’s a ropey special effect. It’s trundled along on castors thanks to the legwork of some poor bloke inside. It flashes and beeps irritatingly and looks about as manacing as Blake does in his fluffy hood and assault pyjamas. But to anyone used to looking past the production shortcomings of Doctor Who it’s easy to ignore.
This week Blake and his band are on the planet Centero to steal a bit of technological kit that will allow them to eavesdrop on coded Federation transmissions . All they have to do is remove the cipher machine and destroy any evidence by reducing the facility to it’s constituent atoms. It’s a good plan, and it all goes well until Gan is forced to remove the cipher using his brute strength. The plan goes awry further when a nervous Vila is spotted by a Fed trooper, causing enough distraction for poor Cally who’s been charged with keeping the scientists and techinicians out of the way. When she is overpowered, she loses her teleport bracelet and Liberator flies off without her. They’ve got the cipher but it is only later that Blake realises he’s left cute Cally on the planet to be blown to her constituent atoms.
Blake’s gutted he’s left Cally behind, but Jenna is less sympathetic. Dom and I are convinced the tough cookie is truly smitten with Blake. She sees past the terrible shades of green and brown he insists on wearing, past his grumpiness and through his bossy boots-ness to the conflicted, driven, utterly barmy bloke beneath. She’s glad to see the back of the telepathic Auron Cally. When Blake laments she was the only one of them that wasn’t a conviceted criminal, she reminds Blake her crewmate had “convicted herself. You have to make peace with yourself…it’s the only way to survive.” Definitely a tough nut, that one.
I now know this would have been a rotten episode to miss on that family outing because, because this episode is the first appearance of the series’ new resident baddies. Yes, it is in this episode that we meet Supreme Commander Servelan (Jaqueline Pearce) and her grotesque henchman Space Commander Travis (Stephen Grief). Which particular bits of space he commands is never made clear, unless he commands all of it. But how do you command space? “You there – constellation 778 come on! Keep that system moving!” We learn Travis is a disgraced former officer, given a reprieve by Servelan, who has been politically damaged by what is becoming known among the high-ups as “the Blake affair” (which doesn’t haf sound a bit Man From U.N.C.L.E. ). The Supreme Commander must be seen to be doing something about this freedom fighter who’s regained his memory, stolen a fancy spaceship and made off with a bunch of rougish villians to be become a thorn in the thong of the administration. She’s got a great line in white party frocks and heavy eye-liner whilst he’s got an eye patch and a prosthetic arm, thanks to a previously unseen run-in with Blake. The motivation of these new characters is clear from the very beginning but, sadly, it will be let down by a huge info dump a few minutes later.
The director has great fun with his camera angles, hiding Travis’ patched up face for a good few minutes. But of course we both recognise actor Stephen Grief the minute he stomps on to the screen as protection racketeer Harry Fenning from the Robert Lindsay sitcom Citizen Smith. “All right Trotsky,” we both say, mimicing his character from that series. We actually enjoy our Harry Fenning impressions a bit too much and end up having to rewind most of his first scene, as if proving that no amount of leather and prosthetics will protect an actor from typecasting.
The Liberator crew are enjoying their newly installed code breaking machine, it reminds me of the day we first had Sky TV installed at home. They’ve got more things to do than watch repeats of The Incredible Hulk however. Listening to a standard comms traffic on his new toy our leader hears a name he recognises, the name of the officer Servelan has despatched to Centero. Turns out this is the very same Space Commander Travis he tried to kill back in his freedom fighter days. Before the Federation did their mind wipe, before the conditioning broke down and before he was convicted for being a paedophile. Their history is delivered in one beautifully acted but horribly scripted info dump.
Years ago, Travis apparently waited three whole days in an underground passage in order to trap Blake and his followers. Only Blake survived. This sounds identical to the massacre he witnessed in the first episode, which was what led to the breakdown in his conditioning. Whether this is a coincidence or not is hard to say but it was series creator Terry Nation who wrote this episode, in fact he wrote all of the episodes in the first season (quite a feat), but he seems to have forgotten a big rule of story telling; show, don’t tell. There’s no fun in Blake sitting down to explain to his friends what happened years ago, no matter how well Gareth Thomas performs these revelations. You wonder why none of this has been mentioned until now, none of this was even hinted at in the first episode which, as we discussed in the first entry of this blog, is a kind of stand alone pilot for series that followed, even though it was actually made after the first two installments had gone before the camera. It’s awkward and clunky and fudges the Blake / Travis rivalry from the beginning.
Of course Travis finds our curly haired friend Cally unconscious in the wreckage and one of the survivors recognises her as the girl who was keeping him and his fellow scientists prisoner. Travis stomps about the remains of the comms facility in his macho black leather, shouting instruction and shoving people out of his way but he’s no dummy. He knows Blake didn’t just want to blow the place up, if he did why get all the scientists out the way? Soon he’s armed with an inventory which he sets about checking with all the righteous zeal of a letting agent trying to find any reason to fleece a deposit from their departing tenant. Ah but he’s on to something. “Blake stole the cipher machine,” he growls. And with Cally his prisoner, he knows he can use the machine and cally to lure Blake into a trap.
Ah but Blake’s too wily for Travis. He waits patiently for Blake, who, it turns out, has been there some time. “I got here first,” says the insurectionist, delighted to not only rescue his friend but use his enemyis strategy against him. He’s so delighted he doesn’t kill a dissarmed Travis but he does brutually bash in patch boy’s prostehtic arm when his head nearly gets blown off by the in-built laser gun. As Travis’s arm is repaired by some helpless lacky, he vows (to nobody in particular) to follow Blake and kill him. Who can blame him. Blake is so unbearabley smug and self satisfied sometimes but of course he’s pleased as punch to get Cally back. “Too many friends are already dead,” he says, cheering her up no end. Of course he probably hasn’t realised the cipher machine they risked everything for is now only useful as an ugly step stool.
Again this week we see the crew getting to grips with Liberator and all her baffling alien tech but we’re also are reminded these people are still getting to grips with eachother. There’s all the explosions and running around in the first quarter, some fun get-to-know-you bits for the new baddies in the next half and a solid (if ever-so-slightly) rushed ending to ensure everyone survives for next week’s installment,
Dom had fun. “Yeah that was good,” she says as the (muted) credits roll, “I thought she was dead.” She’s got the measure of this series, it seems. It isn’t surprising, people do tend to get killed off in quite a perfuntory manner. This was a big imporvement on last week’s episode, The Web and actually the best episode of the series so far. No big character moments for the Liberator, but there are plenty of feisty interactions. Vila continues to be Dom’s favourite, his slightly cowardly and bumbling ways have endeared him, and we are both agreed the writers are doing nothing with Gan. But perhaps we should forgive this for the splendid introduction of the new bad guys. Servelan is played with obvious relish by Jaqueline Pearce, milking every bit of diologue until everything about her drips with cool menace. And Stephen Grief makes a fine impression as Travis. He’s an obcessive, just like Blake, blaming him for being a scarred wreck of the man he once was. He is more ‘stock baddie’ than Servelan, unfortunately. There isn’t a lot for the actor to get his teeth into but in fairness to him, he elevates what could have been just another scenery chewing nutter in the hands of a lesser perfromer.
This episode earns its essential status for introducing Servelan and Travis. At last the somewhat faceless Federation is represented by two excellent characters who get on with eachother about as well as Blake gets on with his crew. Two sets of fractious relationships for us to look forward to in future then. So do come back next week for Mission to Destiny and a planet that’s apparently turning into a giant mushroom. Sounds like a must-watch to us. See you next time!
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This watch-through actually took place a little while ago and prepared for publishing shortly after but it has not been published until now. A new entry in this blog is posted every Sunday evening, so don’t forget to come back January 31st when we look at episode seven, Mission to Destiny.
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Copyright Martin Gregory. 2021