Blakewatch - Week 24: Gambit

All 52 episodes of Blake’s 7 reviewed, one per week

This week: Season Two Episode 11- Gambit
(1979) Writer: Robert Holmes / Director: George Spenton Foster
On the trail of Docholli, the cybersurgeon who knows the whereabouts of Star One, Blake, Jenna and Cally are in Freedom City. Meanwhile Avon and Vila decide on a trip of their own.

`Gambit` has always had the reputation of being one of the best and certainly the most outré Blake’s 7 episode, filled as it is with the gaudy decadence of a faux casino and bar.  In 2012 it looks a little bizarre but still works. We are in Freedom City, outside of the Federation so Robert Holmes and designer Barbara Kidd take their cues from an amalgam of 18th century fop fashion, Las Vegas, Westerns and the musical Cabaret. You might imagine such a mix would curdle whereas the result is actually fascinatingly realised and makes it seem like a radical place and the perfect setting for something a little different.

"Do you want to swap?"

Someone mentions it is carnival season, hence the historical finery but you like to think that people dress like this here all the time. While these costumes and antique furniture - probably borrowed from whatever costume epic the BBC were making at the time - is good, what is equally impressive is the way they choose to depict the environs beyond. Use of wind machines and smoke in what looks like an underground car park is highly effective. So the scene is very well set indeed.

`Gambit` takes the series well beyond its comfort zone. It’s surprising for example how relatively little of Blake and co we see, especially early on when their appearances occur between some lengthy scenes showing life in this archetypal pleasure palace. Most of the visitors to Freedom City seem to be unhappy souls, seeking solace in drink and gambling.  We meet Klein, a washed out cybersurgeon who seems to have Travis as a bodyguard and who in reality is Docholli, the man we learned last week knows the location of Star One. In an excellent opening scene we are given a sketch of the scenario demonstrating the efficient economy of Holmes’ television scripts is never at the expense of character. In the key role, Denis Carey is just the right mix of disillusioned but still sharp.

We also meet the owner of the joint- Krantor- whose fruity but false greetings hide a calculating manager who meets his match in Servalan. Sporting yet another ludicrously impractical garment that makes her look like a Venus fly Trap (deliberate?) she and he spend the episode outwitting each other. Director  George Spenton Foster frames scenes where they communicate over a screen as a mirror- each reflecting the other, a simple visual metaphor that even today looks fabulous. Aubrey Woods is preened beyond measure, face painted silver, false sincerity dripping from every word and the scenes he has with Jacqueline Pearce who is at her slinky best here relegate everyone else to supporting roles. 

That turns out to be a shame as it means potentially intriguing people like Krantor’s lackey Toise (a wily John Leeson), the Croupier (elderly Sylvia Coleridge dressed like Liza Minnelli) and bar owner Chenie  (Nicolette Roeg, brassy) are left slightly underdeveloped.

Jenna is bored with Blake's singing while Cally is already planning the next round.
As everyone is looking for Docholli, Avon and Vila take part in a delightful sub plot where they decide to take their chances in the casino. I like the idea that Blake and the others never find out about this and it reveals a hitherto unseen mischievous bond between the two characters plus an amusing character side to Orac as well. Their exploits in the Big Wheel are incidental but engrossing all the same. One can’t help smiling at the fact that the ultimate game in such a place though is…chess! However it is speed chess and Holmes introduces one of his trademark nasty elements to spice up ordinary things with the loser being killed.

With lashings of camp duplicity and even a pretend fight between Jenna and Cally both of whom get to glam up this week – there is every chance that `Gambit` will collapse under the weight of its hair gel but somehow it works. It’s almost a disappointment when the main protagonists meet in an ordinary corridor to resolve the plot- you can see the running time disappearing as Docholli tries to undertake some cybersurgery on Travis’ prosthetic limb while explaining about Star One. Perhaps a 2 part story might have been worth the effort? There are certainly bits when you feel a scene has been cut.

What comes across mostly from a contemporary point of view is how obvious the influences are yet how well they gel together. In the end, Docholli doesn’t actually know the location of Star One but provides another name for them to pursue which means that `Gambit` has been little more than a diversion but a consistently entertaining one.

So how come the bomb in Travis’ arm doesn’t go off? Servalan declares it is there because she knows Krantor is listening so why doesn’t she prime it? Is it because her assistant forgets? After all Servalan’s main aim is to kill Docholli and how better to achieve it?

The underground sequences were shot in the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank.


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