The Challenge: 52 Weeks in The Year- 52 Episodes of Blake’s 7. Can we watch them all?
Episode 8- Duel
(1978) Writer: Terry Nation / Director: Douglas Camfield
In the middle of a space battle, Blake and Travis are transported to a planet by its mysterious two guardians who force them to duel without their usual arsenal and with one helper each while their crews watch from above.
The most infamous telefantasy duel involved Captain Kirk taking on a lizardy alien in combat whilst their respective crews watched from above. Terry Nation must have been watching too as he’s taken the same idea, sadly minus the lizardy alien. Instead we have a growling Travis and a surprisingly nonchalant Blake- whose reaction to the whole thing suggests he’s been at the Liberator’s medicine cabinet- trying to best each other with only one companion each.
|"Can you see anything?" "You're kidding, right? We're standing in front of a blue screen."|
The idea behind this sort of episode is that we learn something fresh about the characters as the ordeal brings out other sides to them. In this case, we barely know Travis at all and the time we spend with him and his mutoid assistant only underlines that he appears to be something of a one dimensional villain, obsessed with nothing more than catching Blake. In that respect little difference is drawn between him and the mutoid. She, on the other hand, thanks to a subtle performance from Carol Royle is the more interesting of the two.
In the other camp, Blake and Jenna spend the night up a tree which if the show were being made today would offer a hint of quirky love in the air or at least a philosophical debate about their situation but instead Jenna nods off and Blake is bitten by a silver bat. It’s that sort of programme.
The whole scenario is forced on both parties by Sinofar and Giroc two enigmatic figures that appear to represent Angel and Devil. The latter, an old woman played with grisly fervour by Patsy Smart favours Travis and in a very surreal sequence involving lightning speed editing nearly causes Blake to be killed. You do seriously wonder what the jiggins is going on at this point! Isla Blair is ice cool and collected as Sinofar whose billowy dress leaves little to the imagination. The duo appear to be ethereal beings but you wonder whether they have simply gone mad after decades of cackling and making portentous announcements to each other.
Quite why they initiate the duel is not too clearly put over. It seems to be some sort of moral lesson so that other races do not succumb to the catastrophic wars that destroyed their people. Instead, could a conflict be resolved by two champions? And what end is the deadly duo expecting? Had Blake actually killed Travis, what would they have done then? Whatever Nation intends, the ending fudges the issue altogether as they let both sides go so you think- what was all that in aid of?
|"Can I get you any sandwiches while you're waiting?"|
It doesn’t really matter so much though because ace director Douglas Camfield is at the helm and you can see- and hear- the difference. The duel itself is an anticlimax – all wooden traps, spears and people wandering about what looks like a tiny area of forest- as the episode has peaked early with a terrifically staged attack on the Liberator. For the first time in the series to date a sense of movement and energy comes across as the bolts being fired at the ship are realised by approaching light bursts on screen. It looks as if they really are being hit with the cast putting the effort into being buffeted.
The sound effects work is equally tremendous (as it is on the planet too) with a constant thrumming in the background giving a heft to the things we are being told about while the editing ensures we zip from one person to another. It shows what can be done despite budgetary limitations and more than that how good a director Douglas Camfield is. He seems to invigorate the LIberator set which has seemed very static up till now. Camfield takes every opportunity to add his style to the production for example when the mutoid is about to use Jenna as a blood bank or just the simple wind machine helps the studio bound part of the planet set.
It is ultimately Camfield’s direction that makes this an above average episode and demonstrates how even an ordinary script can be lifted by a touch of class.
Sinofar states how barren and desolate the planet became after the wars yet the duel takes place in seemingly untouched woodland that, judging from the nocturnal noises, is teaming with wild life. So, how did that area manage to remain so fertile if the rest of the planet is dust and rock?
When Sinofar and Giroc are exercising their powers the screen is covered in colourful effects, which during the 1970s were Top of the Pops’ special effect of choice. Because making people’s faces look as if they are glowing green and melting is always fun.
Travis gets the mutoid to make a cage thing with twigs that looks like the most rubbish trap ever.
Patsy Smart was a regular character called Miss Roberts in the original Upstairs Downstairs.
Carol Royle who plays the mutoid was in, amongst others, The Outsider (1983), Ladies in Charge (1986), Life without George (1987-89), Blackeyes (1989), 4 episodes of Heartbeat spread over several years and recently in multiple episodes of daytime soap Doctors.
Waltzing through the episode with his usual sarcasm, Paul Darrow’s Avon nabs the best line when he’s asked how he can sleep through the process “Blake is sitting up in a tree; Travis is sitting up in another tree. Unless they're planning to throw nuts at one another, I don't see much of a fight developing before it gets light.” And you think- wouldn’t it be funny if when it became light they were actually in adjacent trees.