Blake's 7 series 1 episode 3 - Cygnus Alpha

News John Bensalhia 21 Apr 2009 - 10:36

Finally - finally! - our Blake's 7 episode reviews pick up again, with our heroes making a bid for freedom...

Many Blake's 7 fans rightly complained when I began but did not continue an episode-by-episode review of the original 1970s series last year, for which my belated apologies - I just didn't anticipate what it would add to my workload. But fear not, for Blake's 7 uber-fan John Bensalhia has come to our rescue and is picking up where I left off! - Martin Anderson

THE PLOT
The prison ship London is due to arrive on the penal planet Cygnus Alpha. Its arrival is viewed by Laran (Robert Russell) and high priestess Kara (Pamela Salem) from below, who proclaims that "New souls for the faith" are due. On board the London, Leylan (Glyn Owen) and Artix (Norman Tipton) mull over the implications of Blake's, Avon's and Jenna's escape, as Leylan prepares a report to send to Federation base.

The three escaped prisoners themselves are getting to know their brand new ship, finding a wall full of weapons - they're only allowed one each, if they don't want to burn their hands. Having found the acceleration button which causes them to momentarily black out, Jenna - much to Avon's worry - presses another switch that this time introduces them to their host, a giant talking computer called Zen (Peter Tuddenham). Blake requests that the ship takes them to Cygnus Alpha to reclaim the other prisoners, to which Zen duly obliges. However, Blake is sceptical about a machine with a mind of its own, and so decides to explore the ship further.

They find the teleport system, a possible means of transportation, although Avon - who has formerly worked on a matter-transmission project involving Aquatar, an alloy that allows instant transportation - is unsure if human beings can teleport and survive. The decision is taken out of their hands when Zen announces that the newly christened Liberator (by Jenna and Zen) has arrived 1000 spatials above Cygnus Alpha with no other means of reaching the surface but the teleport.

The other prisoners, including Vila, Gan, pessimistic Selman (David Ryall) and whinging Arco (Peter Childs) are left on Cygnus Alpha as the London departs. They explore the surface, as "cold as a corpse's armpit" according to Vila, where they find a bleak warning of what happens to unbelievers in the form of a charred skeletal corpse hanging on a cross. A more appealing vision appears to them in the form of Kara, who gives Gan an especially warm welcome. She takes them to their "God", who has apparently prepared a place for them...

Blake, who after an initial four-minute dummy run, teleports down to Cygnus, where he explores a gothic, castle-like building. Having witnessed Kara communing with her "god", Vargas (Brian Blessed), Blake finds the prisoners, who tell him that they have contracted a disease which can only be cured by a drug on Cygnus. Looking to find someone to bargain with to help cure the disease, Blake is knocked out and brought before Vargas, who demands ownership of the Liberator in order to spread his power across the galaxy. When Blake refuses, he is tortured and thrown into the cell along with the other prisoners. There, despite initial reluctance from the others, he forms an escape plan to get back to the Liberator by disguising himself, Vila, Selman and Arco as acolyte guards with Gan as their "sacrifice" for Vargas. Before Vargas can kill Gan, the others shed their disguises and fight with the other guards to get the Liberator bracelets back. Selman and Arco are killed in the melee, as is Kara, who is accidentally stabbed with a spear meant for Gan.

Avon and Jenna - despite Avon's insistence that they abandon Blake to live a life of wealth - teleport Blake, Gan and Vila up in the nick of time, although Vargas is accidentally teleported up too. Vargas reveals that the sickness is a sham, the symptoms created by a mild poison that clears itself, and so has simply ruled by terror. Insisting that the ship be taken back to Cygnus, Vargas creeps unknowingly back into the teleport, at which point, Blake transports him into space where he explodes into fiery pieces.

With the crew safely on board, Blake instructs Zen to set a course to take the Liberator away from a fleet of Federation pursuit ships. Avon is sceptical about the Federation's relentless pursuit of them, but Blake replies that when they have successfully managed to control the Liberator, they will stop running and instead fight...

ANALYSIS
Gothic, mist-shrouded planets. Insane gods. Barbaric sacrifices. No, you haven't stumbled across an episode of prime-cut Hinchcliffe/Holmes Who, but rather the third instalment of Blake's 7, Cygnus Alpha.

Cygnus Alpha takes a stylistic detour after the bleak, Orwellian nightmare of The Way Back and the straightforward space-bound power struggles of Space Fall. Choosing a gothic, nightmarish setting, Terry Nation steers Blake's 7 into new territory, while maintaining the uncompromising aspects of the previous two stories. We're shown a fast zoom in into a badly burned corpse, Blake is tortured (albeit offscreen) by Vargas' disciples, while Kara bears the brunt of a whacking great spear. Sadly, Vargas' ultimate fate isn't quite as grisly as Brian Blessed's character Cabot Rowland in the Space 1999 episode Death's Other Dominion, but you can't win them all.

Oddly, Vargas isn't introduced until halfway through the episode. The occasional mention of this enigmatic god throughout the first half manages to build up the intrigue over who actually rules the planet - unfortunately, Blessed's shouty performance blows that potential out of the water. It's impossible to take Vargas seriously as a credible threat to be honest. Stomping around in an overgrown potato sack and white tennis plimsolls, Blessed hisses, bellows and yells his way through the episode with the subtlety of balloons at a wake.

Now Blessed is by no means a bad actor and has delivered some great performances in his career (the aforementioned Space 1999 guest slot being a good example), but here he's relying too much on high volume shouting. Vargas' backstory - he has maintained the religion that his great great grandfather established, but twisted the concept to suit his own power-mad ambitions - is well written by Nation, but the story really needed a more subtle performance that would have brought out the menace of the character a lot more. Vargas' final scene is especially ridiculous (is it just me or is Gareth Thomas trying desperately not to laugh when he confronts Vargas in the teleport?) and his final OTT cry of "A GOOOOODDDDDD!!!" as he's beamed into space lessens the impact of his death scene.

Shame, since the rest of the episode is very good indeed. Blake's 7 may have acquired a reputation for low production values, but they're actually quite high in Cygnus Alpha. Vere Lorrimer's direction is strong with highly effective night filming and good use of projected backdrops which blend in well with the quarry. The interiors are also excellent with Robert Berk's set designs adding much to the atmosphere of the story. The only jarring effect is the obvious switch between film and video for the otherwise well staged final battle between Blake's crew and Vargas' acolytes.

One of the clever things about the early Blake's 7 episodes is the guessing game as to who will make up the eponymous final seven. After earlier characters such as Ravella, Ritchie and Nova have bitten the dust (and in Nova's case swallowed the shaving foam), Cygnus Alpha still doesn't provide forthcoming answers. Initially, we're led to think that Arco and Selman are introduced as strong candidates, along with Zen (voiced brilliantly by Peter Tuddenham). In the end, it's only Zen that makes it to the end along with the established Gan and Vila. It's no great loss, since Arco and Selman are, despite the best efforts of Peter Childs and David Ryall, rather clichéd characters, and it would have been hard to sustain the non-stop putdowns and hand-wringing anxiety for one more episode, let alone 49.

Rather better is the interplay between Avon and Jenna, who are here, both testing the water and sussing each other out. While Jenna is all for Blake's idealism, Avon definitely isn't and after chancing upon a roomful of riches, urges Jenna to abandon Blake and the others. Jenna ultimately teleports them back up, but it's interesting to see her nearly succumb to Avon's suggestion, a far cry from her later devotion to Blake. There's some great dialogue between the two, with Sally Knyvette and Paul Darrow playing these scenes perfectly. And note the irony of Jenna's question to Avon about whether he could kill someone in cold blood...

Cygnus Alpha is a successful combination of both traditional action and human drama, and in that respect it paves the way perfectly for some of the best of Blake's 7 to come.

Just don't watch this episode with headphones on, or you'll be deafened by Blessed's relentless bellowing.

Check out Martin's review of episode 2 here.

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