18/05/2012

Blakewatch Week 20 - Killer

There are 52 episodes of Blake’s 7 and 52 weeks in the year.....

This week: Season Two Episode 7- Killer
(1979) Writer: Robert Holmes / Director: Vere Lorrimer
While Avon and Vila undertake a mission to steal a pulse crystal from a base on the planet Fosferon that will help them translate the new Federation message code, the Liberator detects a spaceship that could be hundreds of years old and appears to contain signs of life…

Thus far the series has largely kept away from the sort of horror influences that had made Doctor Who so successful in the mid 1970s so it is interesting to see one of that show’s architects Robert Holmes bring the different approach to Blake’s 7. Though it opens with yet another raid on a top secret security installation (you really think the Federation would have instigated more robust security by now), `Killer` takes a different turn once we are inside.


"Ronald, I can't move anything"

As soon as a corpse from a seemingly 700 year old Wanderer craft is taken in for post-mortem even the 1979 viewer would suspect it might not be as dead as it seems but the really chilling idea is what its brief revival unleashes. The make up job on the corpse is fantastic, a real horror image that pre-dates Silent Witness by decades and convinces even in the bright lights.  Equally good is the visualisation of the infection    Incidental music is used sparsely and carefully, perhaps the best deployment of Dudley Simpson’s repertoire of chimes and bonsai orchestral flourishes the series has yet managed.

With a tight script (bar a couple of contrivances we’ll forgive) that never allows exposition (of which there is plenty) to overwhelm the characters, `Killer` unwraps its surprises effectively. Director Vere Lorrimer, not always the most original of helmsmen, here rises to all the dramatic possibilities in Holmes’ story; the moment the corpse does wake up, though expected, is still a jumpy one. He utilises the sets and extras as well as sound effects to convey a sense of mounting concern and then panic and thanks to one very impressive matte shot early on- plus strong model work- the sense of place is well established.  The fact that nobody really knows quite how the virus is spreading only adds to the tension.

The cast deliver everything required- Paul Daneman commands attention as the clinical virologist Dr. Bellfriar with a stillness that underlines the way he is more fascinated than frightened by what is happening. Holmes’s script turns Blake from the reckless rebel of recent weeks into a reasoned, principled humanitarian. You could argue it’s a personality leap too fast but it suits Gareth Thomas and the scenes he shares with Daneman are amongst the best in the episode. Blake’s actions this week consider others first rather than the ego trip he seems to have been on.

"I think he died of shock when he saw our clothes"
It is Vila who takes on the role of the more selfish member of the crew. This is really the first time Vila has been used as a character rather than useful lock picker or comic relief and you can detect what might be the beginnings of a real cut and thrust between him and Avon rather than the latter just belittling him all the time. It is Michael Keating’s best episode so far by a long way. Elsewhere, Paul Darrow shines once more; this time it is he who is misled ; by his old sparring partner Tymus played by Ronald Lacey. One fulfilling aspect of the episode is the way that Bellfriar and Tymus’ different viewpoints and academic rivalry effect their actions.

It is an achievement that the production is so superb when the cast are forced to wear some of the most ludricous outfits yet conceived for the show. Quite what their designer June Hudson was thinking remains unrecorded but the scientists are lumbered with wearing what appear to be leather chair covers, the salvage team have to dress up as Michelin Man and by the time the fire crew run across the screen dressed as giant slippers, you can’t help laughing. Remarkably none of this undermines any of the story’s tension though you wonder quite why anyone would imagine people in the future would sport such silly garments.

The denouement remains bleak and, in the case of Bellfriar, rather sad. Holmes brings the plot to a conclusion with a master’s skill. ‘`Killer` takes a scenario we’ve seen many times and makes it seem original and gripping. Forensic attention to detail mixed with human elements combine in what is one of the most accomplished episodes of the series so far.

Notes
Given the nature of the base, would intruders really be able to run across the main courtyard in open view and not be seen as Avon and Villa do? The fact that there are just two of those brown suits sitting on a rail just where they enter is a bit unlikely too.

Why would the unknown aliens send an ancient spaceship to spread their contagion and how was the body of the crewman kept for potentially hundreds of years until they decided to use it?

The salvage crew costumes are actually real Michelin Men ones from the iconic 70s advert with newly made helmets to distinguish them. There is no plausible explanation for the other clothes used on the base though! June Hudson who designed them would go on to work on Doctor Who, EastEnders and, All Creatures Great and Small amongst others. Robert Hardy’s reaction to being asked to wear one of this episode’s brown outfits has gone unrecorded.  

The base sequences were filmed at Oldbury Nuclear Power Station, the same location that the series had used in `Time Squad` and `Redemption`.

Paul Daneman was a well known TV actor of the 1970s whose most famous role was in Spy Trap from 1972-75.

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