Season Four Episode 6- Headhunter
(1981) Writer: Roger Parkes / Director: Mary Ridge
A rendezvous with eminent scientist Muller goes awry leading to a situation that could threaten the existence of humanity.
There’s nothing like exploring the big questions and `Headhunter` does not shirk from suggesting the demise of humanity and our replacement by machines. How such a well worn but always interesting theme plays out on the show’s relatively tiny budget we’re initially unsure of. It looks as if it will be a silly looking caper yet as developments pile up it proves to be this season’s most balanced and exciting episode to date.
|"I'd like to buy that head there, mate"|
How plausible any of it is in a wider context is something perhaps only the modern viewer would question. The story was written in a time when the public knew little of computer technology yet some writers played on fears that it could somehow take over. This created some classic sci-fi which you have to watch in the context it was originally intended. So, this is a very analogue sort of episode that would never work in a digital age when Mueller’s android could just plug himself into the Federation’s network. The chasing about and the very physical solution would not be needed yet you feel a modern take would be nowhere near as exciting.
When we first meet Mueller the omens are not good. Sporting a garish hoodie that even Lady Gaga would hesitate to don and growling in a manner that suggests chronic toothache it is hard to take him seriously. Yet once Tarrant and Vila appear to kill him and then things begin to go wrong we’re in sci-fi thriller territory and everything starts to fall into place. From the punning title to the final chase it works despite some moments when you think it’s all going to crumble.
An episode like this relies very much on the characters and Roger Parkes delivers some strong moments for everyone- even Soolin gets more than her usual handful of lines. The regular cast are uniformly excellent giving the impression of a real band of people who have known each other for some time rather than the uneven characters they sometimes seem. There’s an interesting push and pull between Avon and Tarrant over who is in charge while the latter’s banter with Vila early on is entertaining. Interesting too that Tarrant and Dayna destroy the android which was not what Avon intended.
Confining much of the action to either the Scorpio bridge or the cramped corridors of the base is a distinct advantage and Parkes’ story beats are well spaced. There’s enough mystery elements to keep us guessing- what happened to Mueller’s body, what’s in the box, what is causing first Slave and then Orac to become tetchy and uncooperative. The plot links neatly with Orac’s creator Ensor as well.
Once the questions are answered there is a refreshingly down to earth solution involving an old power station, water and explosives on a bridge, all of which come impressively staged. This season has suffered from a poverty of design innovation but pulls off what could be a tricky climax with aplomb. Director Mary Ridge ensures the pace picks up as we go and uses both internal and external locales to better effect than has been the case recently. She even manages to give sufficient menace to the ultimately headless android. Still not sure about that hoodie though..