Blakewatch - Week 35 Sarcophagus

Season Three Episode 9- Sarcophagus

(1980) Writer: Tanith Lee / Director: Fiona Cumming

The Liberator encounters an unusual craft apparently drifting in space but it seems to have made some telepathic connection to Cally. When she, Avon and Vila bring an object back with them from what seems to be a tomb, they find the Liberator’s power being drained and their lives under threat from an unknown force.

If the plot sounds familiar that’s because it is a fairly standard TV sci-fi one, but it is in the delivery that `Sarcophagus` stands out from the crowd. The mood is set by a wordless six minute opening sequence in which we seem to be seeing some sort of quasi religious ceremony. Figures masked in coloured material appear and disappear, each seemingly representing an aspect of life whether a musician, a warrior, a leader and so on. Most unusual music further heightens the woozy atmosphere though some viewers in 1980 probably wondered what was in their coffee. This atypical beginning is shot on film and director Fiona Cumming uses inventive angles to complete the sense of other worldliness.

"That's the biggest jelly bean I've ever seen"

When we do get to the Liberator the crew are squabbling again over diverting from their planned mission in order to investigate the ship and it becomes clear that the previous scene took place centuries ago. It’s not difficult to work out what is happening because Cally keeps staring into the middle distance and hearing voices, Avon is doing that `I know what’s going on but I’m not saying` grin, they are all being even more antagonistic which can only mean something wants to take over the Liberator. When Cally, Avon and Vila pop over we see everything on the alien ship has atrophied but they end up bringing back what resembles a giant jellybean. Eyebrows might be raised as to why it takes them any time at all to work out this could be the cause of their problems.
Inevitably the filmed sequences in the sarcophagus craft are more evocative than attempts to convey the same mystic power in the video filmed studio sequences. Some things work better than others; for example the atmospherics accompanying the strange things happening on the Liberator. It’s a shame a key moment involving Vila being traumatised by a lyre is betrayed by some ropey effects. As for the song in the middle which shows nothing more than the Liberator from different angles, its significance is likely to escape even the savviest viewer. Plus it’s a dreary song- maybe Tanith Lee had a folk album to promote; you imagine it’s the sort of thing she would make.
Nonetheless the sound effects compensate for some of the visual shortfalls. Also, the decision to film some of the crew’s reactions as fantasy sequences in the sarcophagus is a plus as we get to see who looks the silliest in silk robes and head scarves. It’s probably Tarrant.

"Anyone up for clubbing?" Cally's new look took the crew by surprise

For the second Cally-centric episode of the season, Jan Chappell does get a full opportunity to shine and her calmly malicious villain is very well played. There is a real tension in the air in a confrontation with Avon, whose behaviour during the emergency is even more secretive than usual.
How much script editor Chris Boucher added is unknown but some of the crew’s bickering feels more like his work. The episode does serve the regulars well though with Vila again standing out, his deadpan delivery of amusing lines undercuts any pretension that might otherwise emanate from Tanith Lee’s story. Having established her approach the ending is a refreshing change from the usual shoot outs and sees Avon overwhelming the never named intruder by force of his personality and words. If his victory and her capitulation seem a little too easy then the actors manage to convey it strongly.
It seems the writers wanted to create some sort of attraction between Avon and Cally hinted at occasionally in previous episodes and used as the basis for the climax of this story, but it seems less convincing than the more plausible Avon / Servalan scenario. Overall, writer and director weave a smokescreen to cover the generic aspects of the plot very well and the end result is that you feel you have been watching something quite different.

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