THE PLOT Resistance has broken out on the Federation-ruled planet of Albian. A group of resisters is attempting to overpower Federation troops led by Major Provine (Paul Shelley). The computer predicts that the resisters have a 93% chance of overpowering them and taking over, and so Provine decides on drastic measures – to activate the countdown on a deadly solium radiation device. The radiation will destroy all living tissue on the planet but the fall-out decays quickly, leaving all buildings intact for the Federation to return to.
Provine orders Tronos (Geoffrey Snell) to activate the radiation time-bomb while he attempts to escape with Selson (Robert Arnold) in the tunnels that lead to a ship that can lead them to safety. However, one of the explosions causes a rock fall, killing Selson in the process. The resisters, consisting of Cauder (James Kerry), Ralli (Lindy Alexander) and a hired mercenary Del Grant (Tom Chadbon) break into the main power room where they shoot Tronos, but in his dying throes, he activates the solium radiation device. The countdown starts to click downwards from 1000…
Blake has set course for Albian, on the lookout for Provine, who knows the new location for Federation Control. Before he can teleport down, the Liberator receives a message of help. With their mission doubled, Blake, Avon and an ever-reluctant Vila teleport down to Albian. There, they meet Cauder, who explains the desperate situation of Albians. The solium device was used as a metaphorical gun to the head of Albian by the Federation in case of any insurrection. Avon, however, says that the device is not the actual bomb, just a subetheric transmitter that activates remotely. The bomb itself could be up to 10,000 miles away…
Provine, who has knocked out Ralli, has attempted to escape by himself in the ship. However, it has been deactivated by one of Cauder’s men, Arrian (Nigel Gregory). Despite promising to allow Arrian to go with him, Provine is still forced to stay – until Provine tricks Arrian and shoots him in the process. Now forced to repair the damaged relay link to the ship, Provine disguises himself in Arrian’s clothes.
Vila manages to recover the data for the location of the bomb from a safe, as Avon is aghast to see his old acquaintance, Grant – who threatened to kill him the next time he saw the computer expert. Vila has quickly teleported up to get Orac to decode the location of the bomb, and having pinpointed it, Avon volunteers to defuse the bomb – but he is forced into an uneasy alliance with Grant who offers to go with him.
Avon and Grant teleport to the location, a freezing polar cap in the centre of Albian’s ice zone. As Avon begins work on deactivating the bomb, he explains to Grant what happened when a woman called Anna (the reason for Grant’s grudge) was apparently abandoned. Avon had arranged to escape from the Federation with Anna by buying some exit visas – unfortunately the price had been hiked up by the dealer, so Avon was late getting back to Anna, whom he had left to wait. Unfortunately, the dealer shot Avon, who by now was losing both blood and consciousness. After passing out for more than 30 hours, Avon learned that Anna was dead – a story that Grant doesn’t believe.
With time running out, Blake decides to go to the rocket to find Provine. He goes off with a guard, but the guard turns out to be Provine. After learning his real identity, Blake struggles with Provine who has a gun in his hand. During the struggle, Provine is shot. As he dies, he tells Blake that Control is now called Star One and that only a cybersurgeon called Docholli knows where it is.
Avon is nearing the end of his job – all he has to do is drill holes in the device, which contains three detonators activated by plungers. By inserting a rod in each of the three, he will be able to arrest the downward travel of each plunger. He successfully arrests the first two, but before he can continue, the roof collapses, knocking the device across the room, and burying Grant under scaffolding. Desperately, Avon manages to arrest the third plunger with just one time unit to spare. A mollified Grant asks why Avon didn’t abandon him – Avon replies that it was because Anna – Avon’s lover – was Grant’s sister…
The crisis over, Grant makes his peace with Avon on the Liberator and teleports back down to collect a substantial fee for his services.
ANALYSIS Fans of 24 should be interested in Countdown, an unusual Blake’s 7 episode in that it takes place in real time rather than a time span of a day or two. While it may not possess the snazzy visuals of the popular American export, Countdown is luckily a big return to form after Hostage.
Countdown may not be the most sophisticated of stories, but its simplicity is what makes it work. Its a clear, straight-ahead action adventure tale, that still introduces two important elements of future stories – the renewed mission to find Federation Control (which is now renamed as Star One) and the backstory of Avon and his lover Anna Grant, which will all come to a head in season three’s fantastic Rumours Of Death.
This is a strong episode for Paul Darrow, who provides another, more vulnerable side to Avon. Given that he’s shown contempt to most human beings he’s met, it’s a surprise to learn that he was once in love. Here, he shows genuine regret over Anna’s death, and you could argue that this was the trigger for his familiar aloof personality, since he neither trusts people nor wants to make close friendships in case the pattern is repeated. Darrow gives an excellent performance, and allows Avon’s more emotional side to come through.
The subplot of Avon’s backstory adds weight to an admittedly linear storyline, which nevertheless is still well constructed. Provine and his bad pudding bowl haircut is another memorable addition to the ranks of Federation crazies, and his plot to keep dissenters at bay is an effective, if OTT one. The threat of airborne radiation is actually hardly a novel one, given that we’ve had similar threats in Killer and Project Avalon – it’s a threat that’ll be reused too in later episodes like Orbit ands especially Warlord.
The countdown idea is still well handled, and director Vere Lorrimer is fortunately back on form after the flat direction of his previous assignment. He manages to keep the tension going and, like Killer, contributes a brisk, snappy direction with lots of well-staged action sequences. The cast are generally competent, with plaudits going to Paul Shelley as the evil Provine and Tom Chadbon (Duggan from Doctor Who’s City Of Death) as Del Grant.
Apart from Avon, the regulars get a mixed set of fortunes this time around. Blake is still determined to find Federation Control, even after the disastrous events of Pressure Point – it’s interesting though, that he starts to take more of a back seat in the action, the start of a run of stories in which he isn’t the main protagonist any more. In the next four stories, he’ll be mentally controlled, locked up, shot, and being on the sidelines – almost like a premonition of the next two Blake-less seasons.
Vila seems to only function as inept comic relief, while the characterisation of Jenna and Cally really reaches its nadir here. That’s five stories in a row that they haven’t done anything constructive. And once again, the record’s going round, but the needle has definitely got stuck, as all they do is operate the teleport controls and nowt else. Jenna, in particular, isn’t so much the tough, feisty smuggler of season one, more the snotty head prefect at school, especially when she chides Cally for drumming her fingers on the control base as they anxiously wait for Avon to defuse the bomb.
It all ends happily ever after though. I can’t really say that it’s a predictable denouement, given that Pressure Point managed to take the rule book of survival and tear it into tiny shreds. But even the sight of Albians, Blake, Vila, Avon and Grant being dissolved by radiation may have been too hard for the young ones to take. Even with its slight hiccups though, Countdown is still a strong, enjoyable story, and with its significant subplots, makes it one of the more essential tales of season two.
Check out our review of season 2 episode 8 here.