THE PLOT Above a barren, desolate planet occupied by Giroc the Keeper (Patsy Smart) and Sinofar the Guardian (Isla Blair), Travis and two other Federation pursuit ships are lying in wait for the Liberator.
The Liberator has exhausted four of its energy banks running away from Federation pursuit ships, and to recharge, Blake decides to lie low by hiding as close to the Earth-type planet as possible. Along with Gan and Jenna, he teleports down to the surface to explore during a spot of downtime and to get away from Avon’s and Vila’s non-stop bickering. Noticing the monument of a figure holding a broken sword, and miles of graves, Blake surmises that the place is a memorial to the dead, although Gan has had a blink’n’miss it glimpse of Sinofar and Giroc. A far less welcome sight is the presence of pursuit ships closing in on the Liberator.
Teleporting back up, Blake, Jenna and Gan assemble on the flight deck with the others to formulate a battle strategy. Deciding to let the Liberator be used for target practice by the ships (thus draining the pursuit ships’ power at a quicker rate), Blake then chooses to ram Travis’ ship head on. Just as the Liberator Crew prepare to attack, they and Travis’ ship are stopped by a stasis beam that slows down and freezes time. Both ships are trapped, and Blake and Travis dematerialise from their respective ships to arrive on the planet before Sinofar and Giroc.
Sinofar and Giroc inform Blake and Travis that they can carry on with their fight, but on their own terms. They can only fight with primitive weapons and must learn the lessons that Sinofar’s race has learned – the death of an enemy and the death of a friend. With that in mind, Blake is joined by Jenna, while Travis is joined by a female Mutoid (Carol Royle).
Travis doesn’t give a damn about the lesson, and as soon as the duel begins in a forest elsewhere on the planet, relishes the chance to kill a disorientated Blake.
However, Sinofar pauses the attack which has been unfairly rigged by Giroc for her own amusement. Restarted on fairer terms, Blake and Travis meet respectively with Jenna and the Mutoid. Both parties formulate plans to defeat the other, and as night falls, they prepare for battle the next morning. Travis informs the Mutoid that she was once known as Kiera, a beautiful woman much admired – but when ‘Kiera’ remembers nothing of her life before becoming a Mutoid, Travis angrily changes the subject.
All the events unfold on the Liberator screen, observed by Avon, Cally, Vila and Gan. Avon sees this as a pointless exercise, and when chastised about this by Vila and Gan, he dismisses their need to prove that they care – the subtlety of which is only acknowledged by Cally.
As morning dawns, Travis sets a trap for Blake by capturing Jenna. Calling out to Blake that he has his friend, Travis aims to trap Blake in a rickety looking cage suspended from a tree. The trap doesn’t go according to plan, as the Mutoid fails to cut the rope of the makeshift cage in time, allowing Jenna and Blake to go free. All four engage in combat, with Jenna overpowering the Mutoid, and Blake on the verge of killing Travis.
Just at that point, Blake pauses – as he and Jenna are transported back to the wasteland. Sinofar congratulates Blake, as he admits that he didn’t kill Travis because he would have enjoyed it. Sinofar allows Blake and Jenna to teleport back up to the Liberator, which, now fully recharged, can leave ahead of Travis.
Travis and the Mutoid’s corpse are also brought before Sinofar, who brings the Mutoid back to life. Travis and the Mutoid also leave, although the Mutoid’s blunder means that she will probably cease to exist after her dismissal. Travis muses that Blake made the big mistake of allowing him to live…
ANALYSIS Blake vs. Travis. This can only mean one thing. In the words of Harry Hill, it’s time for a FIGHT!!!
Mind you, the two enemies don’t get to resolve their differences in a gaudy TV studio before a baying audience. Instead they’re plonked in the remote location of a freezing forest in winter.
So forms the basis of a fairly atypical Blake’s 7 episode. Despite some heavy exposition about Sinofar’s and Giroc’s background, Duel is chiefly a visual piece with extended fight scenes replacing dialogue. Dudley Simpson’s music is absent, replaced by stock incidental cuts – a result of the third atypical element: the direction of Douglas Camfield.
Due to an alleged fallout between Camfield and Simpson, the composer was never hired by Camfield after 1965. It’s jarring to hear Blake, Jenna and Gan teleport down without Simpson’s signature music cue, but the stock music works well through the story. Camfield’s stylish direction is excellent though, adding a real sense of urgency and making good use of 1970s TOTP-style psychedelic video effects. Be warned, though – the retina-busting close ups of Giroc’s distorted face and the stasis beam scenes may need a pair of shades…
Given that Camfield helmed action-packed Who stories such as The Invasion or The Seeds of Doom, he was the ideal choice for this story. The fight scenes are especially well shot, and the remote forest provides a suitably unwelcoming environment for the action, with good use of night filming thrown into the bargain.
Like Seek-Locate-Destroy though, the central plot of Duel is fairly lean – generally comprising two attack strategies by Blake and Travis, and then a prolonged battle in the planet’s forest. There is another element thrown in too – the back story of Sinofar’s and Giroc’s past. Though it’s well told and acted, regrettably, as Dr Who fans will suss out, the concept of a dead planet destroyed by war and radiation is hardly a novel one – in fact I’m surprised that Davros and the Daleks didn’t trundle onto the scene. Both Sinofar and Giroc are well played though – Patsy Smart plays crone-like parts with ease, while Isla Blair’s sensitive portrayal of Sinofar is one of the episode’s highlights.
Stephen Grief’s Travis is also at his best here. Instead of merely being Servalan’s lackey, he is allowed to take centre stage. He poses more of a threat here than in Seek-Locate-Destroy, and regularly gaining the upper hand over Blake. In fact, it’s only the Mutoid’s blundering that allows Blake to win the duel. On the subject of which, the Mutoid is an effective character in her own right – the creepy, aloof nature is perfectly captured by Carol Royle, especially in the scene where she fails to remember her past life as Kiera. The crew of the Liberator are also generally well served, with Avon’s well-timed response about the pointlessness of proving to others that you care being the line of the episode.
On paper, Duel is a good episode of Blake, but it’s elevated to near-greatness by Camfield’s direction. The central premise of the story is hardly original, but it’s well performed and slickly directed, a strong example of Camfield’s directorial capabilities.
Check out our review of episode 7 here.