Blake’s 7 series 4 episode 11 – Orbit

Avon faces the choice between a fiery death and ejecting Vila into space. And we know where the smart money is...

Blake's 7 season four.

PLOT The Scorpio has picked up a signal from the icy planet of Malodar where renowned scientist Egrorian (John Savident) wants to do a deal with Avon. Despite Avon’s insistence that Tarrant and Dayna pay a visit, Egrorian demands that Avon sees him alone. Avon rejects the order, since Egrorian has an assistant, an old man called Pinder (Larry Noble). Eventually, Egrorian agrees to Avon and Vila, but rather than teleport, they must travel to his bio-dome in his own shuttle craft. Agreeing, Avon and a reluctant Vila travel to Malodar.

Tarrant is suspicious though. It was rumoured that Egrorian, once an outlaw of the Federation, was assisted in his getaway by someone at the highest level. Like Servalan…

Egrorian greets Avon and Vila, although Pinder oddly greets Avon as “Ma’am”. Egrorian offers Avon a deal. He allows Avon mastery of the galaxy with a Tachyon Funnel machine that is capable of destroying anything at the press of a button. In return, he wants to see the Federation crushed after his enforced exile on Malodar, and also Orac, which he wants for his own research. Before Avon can agree, Pinder, who has been playing chess during this banter, claims checkmate, even though he apparently couldn’t tell the difference between men and women. A suspicious Avon can only look on as Egrorian tortures Pinder, and then agree to his deal.

Flying back to Scorpio to collect Orac, Vila is dreaming of power and hand picked virgin women. Avon is still bothered about the way in which Pinder called him “ma’am” and suggests that it was a line that he had been trained to say – to Servalan, for example?

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Sure enough, Servalan is hearing of how Egrorian fooled Avon into accepting the deal. Promising both Orac and the deaths of Avon and Vila, Egrorian wants a relationship with Servalan, who is less than keen at this proposal.

Avon, in the meantime, has learned two interesting facts about Egrorian and Pinder. Tarrant tells Avon that Egrorian is power mad, and has been from his earliest days. The ruthless scientist has cheated and killed to get what he wanted. More significantly is Pinder, who disappeared with Egrorian 10 years ago when he was 18 – a young prodigy, who is now apparently 28…

With the utmost caution, Avon and Vila return to Malodar, where they present Orac to Egrorian. He is also handed the reports on his behaviour, and starts to evidently panic, even mentioning Servalan’s name by mistake. As Pinder helps Vila wheel out the Funnel, Egrorian explains that at 18, Pinder was accidentally subjected to a short blast of Hoffal’s Radiation, which caused him to age 50 years in 50 seconds. With the Tachyon Funnel aboard, Avon and Vila return to the shuttle – to the real Orac. Avon had given Egrorian a fake Orac, which he had built for a contingency such as this. Egrorian discovers this too late – much to Servalan’s fury.

Unfortunately, Avon and Vila hit a snag. The journey back to Scorpio is unattainable, because some heavy force is dragging them back to Malodar where the ship will crash. With only minutes left, Avon strips the shuttle of all excess weight down to its bare components (including the Tachyon Funnel too). With only 73 kilos left, Orac tells Avon that Vila weighs 70 kilos…

Almost against his will, Avon hunts for Vila with a gun. Avon climbs down to the hold to find Vila, who is hiding in tearful fear in a hidden compartment. Avon finds a cube of plastic, which he realises contains the weight holding back the shuttle – a speck of neutron material. Avon struggles to push the plastic out and after jettisoning it, hurries back to the flight deck to pilot the ship back to Scorpio. A sobbing Vila emerges from his hiding place.

Egrorian is aghast when his plan fails miserably. Servalan abandons Egrorian to reflect on what could have been. Pinder, who overheard Egrorian’s plan to abandon him with Servalan, reverses the control room fields in a manic fury. A protesting Egrorian pleads with him to stop, but Pinder hits the “Red Is Dead” button, causing the room to be flooded with Hoffal’s Radiation. Pinder instantly rots away to a skeleton, while Egrorian ages rapidly to an old man, collapsing to the floor, dead.

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Avon and Vila, now safely back on Scorpio, muse over Egrorian’s plan and their loss of a valuable weapon. Vila is obviously devastated by Avon’s attempt to kill him, even though Avon enigmatically reaffirms his earlier promise that Vila is safe with him…

ANALYSIS Deal Or No Deal. What’s that all about, eh? An hour full of sobbing, non-existent strategies and Noel Edmonds trying in vain to convince any sane person that the whole thing is not just one long guessing game. Still, if the annoying goons in the audience and Noel’s crazy ramblings prove too much, you could always try the Blake’s 7 version of Deal Or No Deal, which is called Orbit.

Orbit succeeds on a number of counts. For one thing, its simple and easy to follow – Avon and Vila do a deal with larger than life ham-meister Egrorian, who has in turn double crossed them with – oh, what a surprise, Servalan. Simple as that, and with a big prize like that up for grabs, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Seven have finally cracked the case – even if the Tachyon Funnel looks like a rubbish second-hand TV on castors. Naturally, things don’t go according to plan, and this is where Orbit succeeds next.

What’s great about Orbit is that for the first 30 minutes or so, it’s a light hearted romp with countless funny lines and rather questionable innuendo. What Robert Holmes does is turn this on its head and make the last 15 minutes very dark indeed. Avon is placed in a situation that forces him to choose between his friend or his own life. And guess which option he chooses…

This sequence is brilliant, and superbly acted by both Paul Darrow and Michael Keating. Avon’s body language and glazed expression make it clear that his brain is telling him to kill Vila when his usually cold heart clearly doesn’t want to. Listen to his distant, almost robotic pleas to Vila to show himself. Only when he finds the speck of neutron material does he emerge from his reverie back to frenzied life (BTW, what’s Egrorian doing with a kid’s plastic toy truck?) Michael Keating is just as good as Vila, and the scenes of him curled up in a teary-eyed ball are unsettling. Both actors have been excellent throughout the episode as well, turning in flawless performances.

The Avon/Vila saga is interesting. Avon is being uncharacteristically chipper in the early scenes, although this is probably to contrast with his later betrayal. Note the repeated line of “You are always safe with me”. The first time around, Avon says it in a jokey voice, the second, he says it flatly, enigmatically, as if he wants to apologise to Vila, but doesn’t know how. Judging by Vila’s reaction in the last scene, what friendship the two had is going to be tricky to patch up. Good thing there’s only two episodes left then.

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A similar sort of thing happens with Egrorian and Pinder. Egrorian is perfectly willing to abandon Pinder to a lifetime of isolation and ice in order to start a new life with Servalan. The difference is that Pinder turns the tables on Egrorian by flooding the room with Hoffal’s Radiation. This memorably grim scene is another effective contrast to what’s gone before. The fast zoom-in into Pinder’s collapsing skeleton is a striking shot, although Egrorian inexplicably turns into a cross between Father Christmas and Dumbledore.

Both John Savident and Larry Noble are fantastic as the gruesome twosome. It must be said though that Savident is ridiculously OTT as Egrorian, and makes Brian Blessed’s Vargas look shy by comparison. Its still a hugely enjoyable performance, and you could argue that Egrorian’s cheery bluster is a badly disguised smokescreen for a power-mad, sadistic lunatic who is, for example, perfectly happy to torture Pinder for kicks. Egrorian’s – ahem – preferences also change more times than the weather, cooing after Vila one minute and then falling for Servalan. Although with a haircut that looks like it was fashioned by a demented chimp, it’s not surprising that Egrorian’s after company in any shape or form. Meanwhile, Larry Noble’s performance as Pinder is a real stand-out, because he hardly gets any dialogue, and so relies on convincing facial expressions that tell a million stories.

Jacqueline Pearce is also good, and shows great comic timing again after backing away from a lustful Egrorian. Its a shame that her next appearance only amounts to a cameo – maybe Pinder should have aged Servalan to an old woman, but of course that would be too easy.

Orbit is excellent, and a good example of why season four is actually miles better than its reputation would suggest. This is the best of Holmes’ scripts, tightly plotted and crammed full of funny, well-written dialogue. It takes place on a fairly small canvas with only two guest stars and a minimal amount of sets. Brian Lighthill carries on the good work, and makes the most of his resources with some interesting camera angles, moody lighting and a good grasp of Holmes’ script. A story that works on many levels, Orbit proves that you don’t need great big budgets to make compelling drama – writers like Robert Holmes just did the job perfectly themselves.

Check out our review of season 4 episode 10 here.

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