Blake’s 7 series 3 episode 9 – Sarcophagus

Blake's 7 succumbs to sci-fi's greatest nemesis: the musical interlude, but it can't damage a great episode...

Give us a tune then, Dayna...

THE PLOT On a bleak, desolate planet, a group of hooded figures are gathering for a funeral. The ceremony is taking place on board a spaceship for a regal female figure. The group of mourners gather in the spaceship as one by one, four hooded, cloaked figures are summoned in the centre of the circle: The mourning woman; The jester; The musician; The warrior. As these figures appear and disappear in succession, the ceremony concludes. And then a fifth figure appears out of nowhere – a lone, black-clad figure that the group of mourners banish. The figure fades away, and the mourners exit the ship, leaving it to take off from the planet, where it waits, suspended in space.

Cally is in mourning herself, for her home planet of Auron, the population of which has been wiped out. Avon offers Cally some comfort after she says that she’ll never see her planet again. Avon offers to take her to the bridge where Zen has picked up the mysterious spacecraft that launched into space. Tarrant wants to board it to investigate, and Avon reluctantly agrees. Cally mentally picks up a buzzing, hissing noise and is almost overcome, but is well enough to go with Avon and Vila to investigate the ship – leaving a sulking Tarrant behind.

On board the ship, a considerable amount of time has passed since the ceremony. Everywhere is covered in dust and cobwebs. Cally teleports on board, but curiously, Avon and Vila land a few seconds later. Avon asks what went wrong with the teleport, but Dayna reports that it is working perfectly.

Exploring the ship, Cally surmises that it is a tomb – especially when they find the remains of the corpse that was buried, still wearing a mysterious ring. Vila stumbles across a strange, egg-shaped device, which Avon decides to take back to the Liberator. Cally suddenly shoots at something, having mentally sensed the same sound that she heard on the Liberator. Certainly, the ship seems to come to life, now pulsing with a deep, heartbeat-like sound.

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Dayna tells Avon that their entrance has triggered some kind of security system and that they are now in the middle of a live bomb. Urgently requesting teleport, Avon and Vila are stuck on the ship, as again, Cally manages to return to the Liberator without the others. Cally urgently tells Dayna to return her to the ship with only seconds to spare. Relying on a hunch, Cally arrives on the ship, links hands with Avon and Vila, and they teleport out as the vessel explodes.

Investigating the strange egg device, Avon is distracted by Tarrant, who has started on at Cally, accusing her of knowing more than she’s telling them. Avon tells Tarrant to shut up, as silently, Cally activates switches on the device. The two men are now caught in a fully-fledged argument, which Dayna stops. Tarrant asks Avon if he wants to forget what he just said, which the computer expert coldly dismisses as unmemorable anyway.

Events are getting weirder – as Vila has predicted, it’s as if a storm was coming. The control banks have become alive with electricity. Zen has started to talk gibberish. Orac is behaving oddly. A drinks tray has started to dance around in the air. All of which culminates in the device imploding in on itself and rotting away to dust. Cally, meanwhile, is now in possession of the ring from the corpse, and has entered a trance-like state, while mentally communicating with a disembodied alien voice.

With the bridge in the thrall of some alien influence, Tarrant and Dayna look for Avon and Cally, leaving a nervous Vila alone. Keeping himself amused with some tricks, Vila’s unease is heightened when Dayna’s lyre starts playing by itself and dances in mid-air. Dayna, in the meantime, finds Cally in a catatonic state, but is knocked out by something that looks like Cally. Tarrant shakes Dayna awake, while Avon sneaks up behind them, having monitored their movements. Avon tells them that the alien has taken over Cally and is capable of draining both her and the Liberator to the dregs.

Tarrant rushes to the bridge, where he discovers that the golden alien from the ship has resurrected herself in Cally’s form. The alien has knocked out Vila, and after tempting Tarrant with a life of being her ‘pet’ along with the other Liberator crewmembers, also overwhelms him. Dayna too, is held prisoner on the bridge along with Tarrant and Vila.

Avon confronts the alien, who has established a psychic link between her and Cally, who had welcomed her. Cally had operated the device for the alien to truly manifest herself on board. The alien is confident that Cally will not struggle against her, although Cally starts to stir in her room.

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Avon tells the alien that she is taking the ship precisely nowhere – despite the alien’s promise of friendship, just as Cally likes Avon. The alien threatens to kill Avon, but despite her furious cries and psychic powers, cannot – as Cally has awoken and mentally prevents her from carrying out her threat. Avon kisses the alien in order to distract her from knowing that he has taken her ring – the real source of her power. The alien pleads with Avon to let her live and not be forced back into the darkness of death. A nonplussed Avon throws the ring into the remains of a burning console, as the alien turns back into a skeleton and fades away. A tearful Cally has made her way to to the entrance of the bridge as the Liberator returns to normal again.

After a brief rest, the crew prepare to make ready for their next destination. Tarrant asks Cally and Avon if they are all right, and after an exchange of meaningful glances, Avon instructs Zen to take them to their next destination.

ANALYSIS Opening on a planet that’s apparently been designed by someone that’s been listening to too many Yes albums, Sarcophagus is an oddity. It’s a standout in a whole number of ways. There’s no dialogue for the first five eerie minutes. There are no guest stars. The plot is fantasy-based rather than gritty sci-fi. Heck, Dayna even gets to warble a dirge in the middle of the episode to the strains of what sounds like a dog trying to poo out a harp. What show is this, The Monkees?

These different quirks all add up to another fine episode of season three (apart from Dayna’s song). After a lull with Volcano and Dawn Of The Gods, this season has turned out to be an excellent one so far, chiefly for two reasons. Firstly there’s been greater variety in the type of story – love comedy, action adventure, revenge thriller and now sci-fi fantasy. Secondly, this season has afforded greater scope for the main characters, with in-depth profiles of what make all five work.

This is very much Cally’s episode, and Jan Chappell steals the show, both with a good performance as Cally and the doppelganger alien. The contrast between the two is very real, and the alien is portrayed very well as a being that simply wants life, and regards it as a luxury. The alien’s royal status is seen in the way in which she regards the Liberator crew as ‘pets’. But despite her power, there’s still a vulnerability to the alien, especially in her last few minutes, and her final desparate pleas are very well put across by Chappell.

Getting back to Cally, this episode deals with her loss from Children Of Auron (curiously ignored in Children Of Auron) and her relationship with Avon. The death of the Auron race has left Cally vulnerable, and so allowed easy access for the alien to form a mental link. However, she manages to overpower the alien mentally, and prove where her real loyalties lie.

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It’s interesting that Cally really only acts when Avon’s involved. The rather sweet scene at the start when Avon consoles Cally over her loss sets the tone for the episode. It’s telling that the alien says to Avon that Cally likes him, and judging from the kiss that he gives the alien, it’s possible that he likes Cally too. After all, they’ve paired up the most on their assignments, and are on the same sort of mental level as each other. Unfortunately, this isn’t dealt with after Sarcophagus again. Quite what the ambiguous looks between the two are meant to mean, I’m not sure of, but Cally’s demise at the start of Rescue means that we’ll ever know.

The meaning of the hooded characters at the funeral become clear after they are revealed to be the Liberator crew. Cally is the woman in mourning; Vila the jester; Dayna the lyre player; Tarrant the warrior (although the unflattering getup makes him look a right prat) and Avon the lone man – easy to see why the mourners wanted him banished. These personality traits are explored in detail in Sarcophagus, which amounts to the old Trapped In A Lift episode or – heaven forbid – Big Brother. Just thank your lucky stars that we’re left with the Liberator crew rather than the current crop of BB fools.

That said, though, Tarrant’s being more annoying than ever – starting on at Cally for knowing more than she’s saying, and then at Avon in a full blown row. It’s safe to say that this is not Tarrant’s finest hour – his self-proclaimed success is somewhat misplaced, since he’d have been in the same boat as Avon if he hadn’t invaded the Liberator.

The Afro of Arrogance may think way too much of himself, but it’s all just a blatant fib, since for all his bravado, Tarrant is later overpowered by the alien, much as he’s been overpowered all season. Avon’s dry “Well now…” replies are amusing though, and it’s quite clear that he doesn’t regard Tarrant as a threat, more an annoying, immature kid that’s posturing in a 20something’s body.

Vila is still playing the fool and takes time out in the middle of the chaos to play at being Paul Daniels. It’s interesting that one of his greatest fears seems to be being put down by Dayna. He should get used to it, since in Season Four, Having A Go At Vila becomes Dayna’s number one pastime for no good reason.

Sarcophagus boasts an excellent script from Tanith Lee, who gives the regulars some sparkling dialogue to work with. All the cast do really well with the workload, considering that there are no other guest stars to share the lines with. Fiona Cumming brings Lee’s script to life with real style, adding a surreal edge to proceedings with subversive camera angles, cross fades and flashbacks.

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Even though the sets are limited to just the Liberator and the tomb spaceship, this is a rich production, with eye-catching visuals and incidental touches such as the alien’s well-designed appearance, excellent lighting, and marvellous sound effects from Elizabeth Parker. The evocative noises of the tomb spaceship are very well done, and add greatly to the atmosphere.

A brave experiment, Sarcophagus succeeds on every level. It’s imaginative, witty, well acted, well designed and perfectly realised. A class act all the way.

Check out our review of season 3 episode 8 here.

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