Blake’s 7 series 4 episode 9 – Sand

Trapped on a planet with man-eating sand and Servalan, which fate will Tarrant consider worse…?

Blake's 7 season four.

PLOT

Servalan has requested to be part of a Federation mission to the sandy planet Virn to find out what has happened to an expedition that included a man called Don Keller (Jonathan Gaunt). Accompanying her are the aggressive Reeve (Stephen Yardley) and two weedy pilots Chasgo (Daniel Hill) and an unnamed assistant (Peter Craze). An unseen force pulls the Federation ship into fast orbit, causing it to crash land. An apologetic Chasgo is left to free the ship from an avalanche of sand, as Servalan, Reeve and the assistant are forced to walk to the base where Keller was housed.

The Scorpio crew have picked up signals from the Federation ship, and mount their own mission to see what is going on. Tarrant and Dayna are sent down, although Dayna is “kissed by a bullet” from a gun happy Reeve, who has been affected by some outside force. The entity has also killed the assistant, after the sand came to life and partly buried him. Dayna teleports back up, mysteriously bringing a trail of sand with her onto the ship.

In the meantime, Tarrant shoots Reeve dead outside the Virn base, leaving him alone with Servalan. Now uneasy allies, Servalan and Tarrant enter the base, as the sand takes on a life of its own. Once inside, they find the base deserted – except for Don Keller, dead, and mysteriously intact after such a long time. Servalan is affected by Keller’s death, but before she can elaborate, the base lights come on, as dinner is served.

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Over the meal, Servalan explains that she escaped from the exploding Liberator in a sudden power surge from the teleport. Tarrant works out what is going on. The sand has managed to keep two humans alive – one woman and one man – for breeding purposes, hence the cosy pen and food. The dominant male is kept alive, in this case, Tarrant, with the other males, such as the assistant, regarded as worthless and killed by the sand. A tearful Servalan confesses that Don Keller was her lover, and that after he left her, power became her only lover. All these confessions lead to a moment of madness, as the two kiss…

Strange happenings are taking place on Scorpio too. Sand has infiltrated the ship. Slave and Orac are behaving oddly, with the super computer even proclaiming his love for Avon! Vila is taking solace in booze, especially after Soolin has tactlessly mentioned the Liberator and Cally. Forced to act without Orac, Avon starts to work out what is going on down on Virn, and how to escape from their predicament.

Tarrant has found the key solution to wipe out the sand – water, after Servalan’s tears dissolve a batch of sand. Avon, having also worked this out, proposes to create a series of conditions to make the weather on Virn worse and make it rain torrentially. By doing so, Tarrant and Servalan manage to escape.

Tarrant allows Servalan to escape back to her ship (even after she has threatened to kill him). He teleports back up to Scorpio, where his revelations about Servalan are met with disgust by Soolin, Dayna and Vila, and ironic amusement by Avon. The computer expert surmises that Virn will be cooking up a new batch of sand, meaning that Servalan may not escape and that Tarrant will have been the last man in her life…

In fact, Servalan does manage to escape, as Chasgo successfully pilots the ship into space. Servalan tearfully laments her losses – Don Keller and Tarrant, the one that got away. For now…

ANALYSIS If Jaws made you think twice about going into the water on holiday, then Sand may change your mind. Tanith Lee’s second and final script for Blake’s 7 boasts a quirky, unusual concept of living sand, which is also capable of intelligent, rational thought. Lee’s sticking with a tried and tested formula though – following on from the ‘Trapped In A Lift’ scenario of Sarcophagus, Lee does the same thing with Sand, the only difference being that there are two lifts rather than one.

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Sand is very nearly as good as Sarcophagus. It doesn’t quite have the same surreal weirdness that its predecessor had, but it’s still an excellent episode, full of snappy, well-written dialogue. In theory, I should despise this episode, since it mainly revolves around one of my least favourite characters, Tarrant.

Yup, the smarmy, mophead poseur gets his own episode to share with none other than Servalan in an unusual pairing. It certainly would have made more sense to pair up Servalan with Avon, since the two have indulged in the weird love/hate relationship of Season Three. Tarrant actually comes off well though. He is shown to be thoughtful, resourceful, and amazingly, something approaching likeable. You could argue that on his own, Tarrant doesn’t need to try so hard, and can just be himself. Put him in a group situation, and it’s as if he needs to prove himself with macho posturing and bullying. Its as if Tarrant needs to compete with Avon for leadership by clashing with Avon’s authority and picking on Vila. In Sand, though, he manages to work out the problem and take control of the situation by using his brain rather than brawn.

His crewmembers certainly give him short shrift at the end though. Little wonder Dayna looks like she’s going to rip his head off after he’s been smooching with the woman that killed her dad. It would have been an interesting subplot to follow for the next few episodes, but regrettably, nothing comes of this. It’s back to being best buds again at the start of Gold, and it’s a real shame.

As for Servalan, for the first time ever, we’re allowed some glimpse into Servalan’s motivations and personality. The catalyst for her power-mad ravings is Don Keller, and with a Keller-shaped hole in her life, power became her only drug. Quite how much of this is true is open to speculation. On the one hand, Servalan has lied before many times, and could just be faking her reaction in order to get Tarrant on side. But on the other, her sombre, teary reaction to Keller’s death suggests that maybe this time she’s for real.

The only issue I have with this is that I can’t see Servalan and Keller (who bears an uncanny resemblance to the bloke from Heaven 17) in any sort of relationship. Keller seems like too much of a wet fish for Servalan, especially after the likes of Jarvik the MAN, who would have thrown a party after the computers broke down. That said, Steven Pacey and Jacqueline Pearce give outstanding performances, both of which are their best of the season, and work well together as a team.

The other crewmembers have a fun old time too. Vila’s back on the booze, and it’s a shame that he’s reduced to the role of ‘comedy drunk’ again, since it’s a waste of Michael Keating’s acting talents. Vila takes comfort in the drink even more after Soolin prattles on about the Liberator…and Cally, in a disinterested monotone (“Not. One. Word.”).

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Avon’s also having fun too, by the looks of things. His subtle glee at being the ‘Alpha Male’ (and thoughts of a threesome with Dayna and Soolin too by the looks of things…) is hilarious, as is his gloating over Tarrant at the end after he tells him that he may have been the last man in Servalan’s life. Darrow’s performance is again very enjoyable, although the delivery of “THIS IS NOT JUST A RESCUE MISSION FOR. POOOOOR. GALLANTTTTTTT TARRANTTTTTT!!!!!” is about as hammy as you can get.

The remaining characters are really only broad clichés, although Stephen Yardley makes the most of his role as the brutal thug Reeve. The other two wet blankets are less convincing, and the “C’mon darlin’! Shake yourself loose!” line is just ridiculous.

The living sand idea is in theory, quite a claustrophobic one, but it never quite comes off on the screen. For example, the shot in which the luckless assistant is killed by the sand should be terrifying, but it ends up looking daft (complete with silly face pulling by Peter Craze) and so, the threat isn’t quite as strong as it could be. The planet shots look slightly fake too, with a few false backdrops creeping in – although the moody green lighting and brilliant sound effects make up for this.

Vivienne Cozens’ direction is again tight and well judged, right from the opening panning shot and imaginative use of voiceover. Its a shame that Cozens didn’t direct more episodes, since she’s produced some stunning visuals in just two episodes.

Sand is an excellent instalment of Blake, and from now on, it’s non-stop quality, as Avon and the Liberator crew start to lose even more than they gain…

Check out our review of season 4 episode 8 here.

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