Blake's 7 series 2 episode 11 - Gambit
The review that many Blake's 7 fans have been waiting for, as Blake & Co. go gambling-happy in space-Vegas...
The race is now on to find the man with the knowledge of Star One - Docholli (Denis Carey). Blake, Jenna and Cally teleport down to Freedom City, a neutral territory outside the Federation, believing that this is where he is to be found. And indeed the man himself is sitting in one of Freedom City's bars, going by the name of Kline and pouring out his woes to barmaid Chenie (Nicolette Roeg). He even has himself a bodyguard - Travis.
Servalan is also down in Freedom City and is making negotiations with its owner Krantor (Aubrey Woods). Unofficially on business, Servalan requests Krantor's help in recovering both Docholli and Travis - she is prepared to pay eight million credits for both. Krantor's assistant Toise (John Leeson) reports that there is no one going under the name of Docholli but the recent arrival of Kline is worth investigating.
Supposedly on teleport duties, Vila and Avon form a plan to visit Freedom City's casino, The Big Wheel, where they can use a miniaturised Orac to win lots of money. In the meantime, Blake, Jenna and Cally make for the cheaper bars - Blake believes that Docholli will have spent a great deal of money on maintaining a false identity and will not have enough left to socialise in high circles.
Travis is captured by Krantor's right hand man Cevedic (Paul Grist) and taken to Servalan. The Supreme Commander decides to turn Travis into a walking bomb by fitting a nitro grenade into his false arm - she lets him go, and in doing so, Travis will realise that his arm isn't working and go straight to Docholli, killing both in the process.
Avon and Vila are in the Big Wheel casino, watching a foolhardy trekker called Thrills taking on the Klute (Deep Roy) at a game called Speed Chess. The Klute proves to be too formidable an opponent, and wins - Thrills' consolation prize is to get vaporised in his chair. Undeterred, Vila gets to work and manages to notch up half a million credits in a matter of minutes.
Chenie helps Docholli to escape after Cevedic demands to know his whereabouts. Jenna and Cally stage a catfight to allow Blake to look in the back room where Docholli was hiding - but it's too late. However, after Travis has demanded Docholli's whereabouts from Chenie - Loading Bay 10 - he goes after the surgeon - along with Blake, Jenna, Cally and Cevedic in hot pursuit. Travis kills Cevedic, as Blake demands the location of Star One from Docholli - unfortunately, Docholli doesn't know where it is. The only man that does is a man called Lurgen, a former technician that built Star One. Docholli erased the Star One technicians' minds, but faked the operation on Lurgen, who is now to be found on a planet called Goth.
Vila is not having much luck either. Krantor has got suspicious of his actions, and has invited him for a celebratory drink. Unfortunately, Krantor has spiked the drink and has tricked Vila into playing Speed Chess. Horrified, Vila is reluctantly persuaded to play by Avon (otherwise his winnings will be forfeit). Amazingly, with the help of Orac, the Klute concedes defeat and offers a draw, leaving Vila and Avon ten million credits richer (and Krantor in financial ruin by the looks of things). An innocent Vila and Avon teleport back first, leaving a suspicious Blake to lead the hunt for Lurgen on Goth.
What's this? Blake and the Liberator crew having fun? Wonders will never cease. Next thing you know, Leonard Cohen and Coldplay will do a duet cover version of Black Lace's Agadoo.
In a season populated by cynicism, power struggles, never-ending bickering between Travis and Servalan, not to mention Gan's death, it's refreshing to see Blake and the Liberator crew actually having a good time. They may have an important job to do, but they do so while sampling the experiences of Freedom City, a location that makes Space City look like a mausoleum by comparison.
Gambit itself is the polar opposite of the preceding Voice From The Past in fan circles. It has had a rapturous reception and has acquired a high status in regular polls. But while there's no doubting that it's a highly entertaining episode, I'm just wondering if maybe it isn't just a tiny bit overrated.
For one thing, George Spenton-Foster's direction never really does the episode justice. The whole thing looks cheap (Yes, I know this is Blake's 7 we're talking about), especially the set designs, which look like the whole thing was shot on the set of Larry Grayson's Generation Game. The costume designs show a great deal of imagination, but sometimes these ideas just don't come off. Servalan looks ridiculous in her OTT red outfit, and looks like she's been in a fight with Cuddles The Monkey (and lost).
Toise has a candelabra on his head. And the less said about the wizened croupier the better, one of the less palatable sights in Blake's 7's second season. Spenton-Foster's rushed direction also results in some less than impressive takes, including the clanger of a scene in which Denis Carey can't get his jacket on, and so has to make do with putting it over his shoulder. Kudos to Carey for improvising, but you can't help wonder if maybe they could have reshot the scene - pressures of time I guess.
For those that like their drama on the gritty side, Gambit will definitely disappoint. Let's make no bones about this, Gambit is camp - so camp that it makes The Graham Norton Show look like Waking The Dead. As Brian Croucher points out on the accompanying commentary, actors John Leeson and Aubrey Woods attempt to out-camp each other at the cost of presenting believable performances. And while there's no doubt that Woods delivers a hugely enjoyable performance, Krantor's relentless staginess does get a little wearing after a while. And again, the tacky visuals are so bright that they're in danger of setting the studio alight.
The commentary also raises an interesting point - and a valid one at that - in that for all its staginess and outlandish visuals, Gambit is actually quite slow moving. In keeping with episodes such as Weapon, Hostage and Horizon, Gambit is chiefly a talky piece, with lots of discussion among the characters about their actions - and yet, nothing much seems to be achieved. Servalan's dastardly scheme never really gets anywhere, despite her boastful claims to afro-headed lackey-of-the-week Jarriere. Even the main mission of the episode - to find Docholli - is a wasted one, since the man himself doesn't even know where Star One is.
Fortunately, Robert Holmes' script is bursting at the seams with wit and flair and many memorable one-liners. The best part of the episode is the subplot of Avon and Vila busting the casino for a few extra million credits to their name. Hilarious, and Michael Keating and Paul Darrow make a marvellous - if unlikely - comedy double act, with Darrow playing straight man to Keating's excellent comic lead. These sequences are very well scripted and acted, and manage to combine drama (the death of Thrills) with humour.
Although the others get less to do, Sally Knyvette and Jan Chappell still make the most of their bar scenes, especially the amusing catfight. Poor old Blake though - he's hardly in this one, gulping the odd drink and lurking in the shadows as he makes his next move in finding Docholli.
When all's said and done though, despite the less than stellar direction and the relative lack of action, Gambit is still great fun. It makes a refreshing change from some of its rather po-faced Season Two stablemates, and while you wouldn't want every Blake's 7 episode to be like this, Gambit still makes for a worthy and amusing experiment.
Check out our review of season 2 episode 10 here.