Blake’s 7 series 4 episode 4 – Stardrive

Outmoded space-punks and a padded-out plot bode ill for this series four entry...

Scorpio rising...

PLOTHitching a ride into the Altern System on an asteroid doesn’t quite go according to plan. In order to get Selsium Ore for fuel crystals to power up the Scorpio, Avon is adamant that the asteroid will provide the ship passage to get there.

The plan backfires though, and the main drive is lost, not to mention a breach in the outer hull. Slave luckily offers to create a blister force wall around the hull. As Avon and Tarrant start work, three interceptor ships are detected, but they are all blown up by some mysterious force.

Having recorded the explosions, a number of deductions are made from the footage. One was that the ships were intercepted by craft doing a fast speed of Standard by 12.6, which was even faster than the Liberator. Secondly, the ship responsible was only a single-seater space chopper, which has been augmented by the photonic spacedrive, or Stardrive, an innovation devised by Dr Plaxton (Barbara Shelley). And thirdly, the people responsible are the Space Rats, a race of layabout thugs.

Much to Vila’s horror, Avon suggests that they set course for Caspar, where the Space Rats and Plaxton will be – get Dr Plaxton and they can allow the Scorpio to outperform the Liberator in terms of speed.

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Vila and Dayna are teleported down to Caspar. They investigate a hangar full of space choppers, but are captured by a Space Rat called Bomber (Peter Sands). They are taken to the leader of the Rats, Atlan (Damien Thomas), but right now, Atlan is demanding that Dr Plaxton increases the Stardrive speed to 15 in real time, and that these engines should be attached to the space choppers. A protesting Plaxton is threatened by Atlan, who tells her that if she does not oblige, then the Space Rats will deal with her in their own fashion.

In Atlan’s quarters, Vila and Dayna pretend to be students of Plaxton’s, having apparently studied spacedrives. Atlan takes them to see Plaxton, who naturally enough doesn’t recognise them. Before she can protest further, Avon, Tarrant and Soolin enter the production room, after Tarrant has shot his way through with a laser. Grenades are fired, and in the confusion, the crew escape along with Plaxton, who begs them to take her and the Stardrive along, after she has become expendable.

They make their escape to the parked Scorpio in a buggy outside the silo. Atlan and a horde of Space Rats follow in hot pursuit, but they are blown up by grenades planted by Avon. Having reached the Scorpio safely, the crew take off. Unfortunately, they are intercepted by more Federation pursuit ships, who apparently think that they are Space Rats. Plaxton offers to wire in the Stardrive, an operation that would take 50 minutes.

Plaxton manages to install the Stardrive, but in order to outrun the pursuit ships, Avon slams home the main drive circuits as the doctor makes the final connection. The surge of power kills Plaxton, whose screams are drowned out by the noise from the accelerating engines. When asked about the doctor by Dayna, Avon simply shrugs: “Who?”

ANALYSISIt may look like a scruffy bag of bolts on the outside, but after Stardrive, Scorpio is now a force to be reckoned with – a Speed King of titanic proportions. Well, ish. Put it this way, it’d leave even the smug Top Gear presenters and their crap haircuts drooling in delight.

Speed’s quite an appropriate theme for Stardrive, since I kind of wished that the episode would fly by in a flash. After the loopy Dawn Of The Gods, Jim (no longer James) Follett did the unthinkable and came up with a tale that makes Dawn resemble Tolstoy by comparison. A bizarre fusion of crazy Avon schemes and even crazier Space Age punks, Stardrive boggles the mind.

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The episode begins with a lengthy prologue in which Avon risks the ship and the lives of the crew yet again. Has Avon got some kind of deathwish? Has he forgotten the disastrous events of Terminal?

Maybe there’s something in that hair gel of his that slowly worms its way into his brain. Avon’s ridiculous plan isn’t convincing at all, and seems like a far-fetched excuse to establish the need for a Scorpio upgrade. Avon’s unhinged paranoia is becoming more apparent though, especially the way in which he single-mindedly abandons Plaxton to her death at the end.

In the meantime, the remainder of the crew are still vacant cutouts. Soolin is still background furniture. Dayna is even more whiny and annoying. Vila is still a big coward, although the scene in which he pretends to be drunk in order to avoid the force wall is a rare chance for Michael Keating’s comic talents to shine this season.

Vila’s cowardice is further heightened when he discovers that they have to pay a visit to the Space Rats. God alone knows why, since they might just scare the pants off an easily terrified 2-year-old, and even then that’s pushing it. The Space Rats are – well, punks. Taking the piss out of punks was like shooting fish in a barrel in 1981, but the whole concept was somewhat outdated then.

Punk rock stopped being topical in 1978, and by 1981, was the equivalent of Don’t It Make You Feel Good by Stefan Dennis being pick of the pops in 2009. Appropriately, the Space Rats are rubbish, with fake mohican wigs and Coco The Clown makeup. They all speak in fake cockney accents, except for their leader Atlan.

Ah, Atlan. Where does he come from? Mexico? France? Germany? Spain? I can’t make out that bizarre accent for the life of me. “Weeeelll, waaat urrr yoo dooooeeeeeng hungeeng ugghhruuund??? Yoo veeesh too jun uzzz?” Damien Thomas’ odd decision to adopt this accent makes Atlan even more of a laughing stock than he should be. It’s only just hit me though. Take away the hair and makeup, and Atlan looks and sounds exactly like Gusteau’s sous-chef Skinner from Ratatouille.

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The only non-Space Rats (although Atlan oddly claims he isn’t a Space Rat, despite waddling around in the same hair, makeup and retina-busting outfit) are Napier and her boss Dr Plaxton, who is responsible for the Stardrive. Poor old Barbara Shelley is undeniably good as Plaxton, but she looks like she’s wandering around in a completely different show. Maybe that accounts for her slightly bemused facial expression, which she’s stuck with all the time throughout the episode.

Plaxton’s death scene leaves a lot to be desired though. The accompanying novel adaptation describes it in graphic detail as she opens her mouth to scream, but can’t because her face has melted away, leaving only a charred stump that looks like a burnt pygmy head. Brilliant stuff.

But what happens on screen is less grisly and more amusing. Shelley swings her head madly to and fro – probably a bit like Stevie Wonder getting his dreadlocks caught in a kitchen blender – and shrieks unconvincingly.

All in all, a mess. The plot is basically one padded-out quest to find the Stardrive, which could easily have been told in about 10 minutes – no one would have batted an eyelid. Visually, its not the best example of Blake’s 7. Aside from the ridiculous space rats, the quarries are dull, the repeated shots of cardboard cut out pursuit ships are annoying, although David Sullivan Proudfoot’s new-found habit of arty screenwipes is a commendable attempt to keep up with the original Star Wars franchise.

Totally insane, even by Follett’s standards, Stardrive lacks a decent plot and characterisation to make up for the wackiness. Good Dr Who joke at the end though.

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