Friday, January 04, 2008

What Happened on Gauda Prime

WARNING: This entry pretty much IS a spoiler. Of course, it's a spoiler for an obscure (in the US) 1970s BBC scifi show, so if you're not in to that sort of thing, by all means... If you ARE in to that sort of thing, here is a link to the episode I'm reviewing - though I would strongly suggest you watch the whole series before watching this one. (If the video link ever goes out of scope, there's also a script here).

No question that "Blake," the final episode of Terry Nation's excellent Blake's 7, is the ballsiest way to end a TV show we're likely ever to see. Only the final episode of Twin Peaks compares - and even that one loses for me on lack of continuity (it comes across as an - admittedly well-deserved - dynamiting of a once-beautiful project that had gone off the rails). It isn't just that putting "Blake" on the screen took courage, the beautiful thing about it is that it wasn't even a gimmick: I can't honestly imagine this particular show having ended any other way.

Unfortunately, if internet chatrooms are anything to go on, I think the story has been largely misinterpreted by fans. This is about what I think they get wrong.

Some review is in order.

Avon, having failed to put together a coalition of feuding warlords on his own to fight the Federation, realizes that he's not an inspiring leader. Fortunately, he knows someone who is: Blake. Of course, Blake's been missing in action for two years; where to find him? Since this is Blake's 7, it comes as no surprise to anyone that Avon has known for some time how to figure out where Blake was.

So they tie up a lingering plot thread - why didn't they just ask Orac? - and ask Orac, who tells them that it's highly likely Blake is on Gauda Prime. Gauda Prime is a lawless world which has recently applied for readmission to the Federation, and in the next scenes we see that Blake is taking advantage of this situation to pass himself off as a bounty hunter as a front for recruiting fresh blood to his cause.

And here's the first point that a lot of viewers seem to have missed: Blake is doing a spectacularly bad job with his recruiting. It isn't just that Arlen is a Federation agent who nevertheless passed his "tests," it seems that Deva - the Federation officer in charge of paying bounty on Gauda Prime who is nominally devoted to Blake's cause - is probably a double agent too. (Remember that just as Blake's left to go find Tarrant, we get one final shot of Arlen in the brig, and she tries to buy her way out by trading information about her bounty hunter - presumably that he's Roj Blake. Since Deva already knows this and Blake clearly later thinks she's passed his test, we can only conclude that Deva never told Blake that she tried to use knowledge of Blake's identity to buy her way out of captivity. The only reason Deva would have neglected to mention such an important detail is if he's not as loyal to Blake as he pretends to be - i.e. is a Federation plant. Not to mention, Tarrant has little trouble seeing through Blake's ruse when Blake finds him. Blake's off his game.)

The Scorpio crashlands on Gauda Prime and the crew is separated: Vila, Dayna and Soolin take up shelter in an abandoned farmhut, Avon soon joins them after saving their lives from attacking bounty hunters, and Tarrant crashes with the ship where Blake finds him in the wreckage. Neither is fooled by the other: Blake seems to have figured out who Tarrant is immediately; Tarran's suspicions are confirmed on the trip with Blake back to base. On the way back to base, Blake notices that they're being tailed by a ship that's doing a remarkably good job anticipating their pseudorandom flight changes. Though he doesn't say anything just yet, this confirms Blake's suspicions that Tarrant is with Avon and that Avon is piloting the ship following them (because cracking his random flight pattern algorithm is something Orac would have no trouble with).

Back in base, Blake plays his "game" again and turns a gun on Tarrant to pretend to turn him in for bounty. There are signs that Blake isn't serious, but true to character Tarrant sees them without appreciating their significance. Avon soon enters the compound and Blake orders (through Deva) that they be allowed in. He goes unarmed to meet him, but Deva (see what I mean about Deva?) insists he take a security guard. It's Arlen (of course!), and so Arlen and Blake go off to find Avon.

Tarrant escapes (presumably because Deva let him) and goes to warn Avon that Blake is a traitor, which he does just as Blake is entering the room. Avon meets Blake and Blake approaches him unarmed, but Avon is not satisfied with his lamely ambiguous claim that Tarrant has been deceived and so shoots him in the chest - three times in slow succession. A key point here is that we see blood on Blake's shirt: there is no doubt that Blake died in this episode. Federation troopers arrive and a gunfight ensues after Vila's clever diversion in which everyone is hit but Avon. Notably, there is no blood when anyone else is shot. The episode ends on a freezeframe of Avon (who has only just realized what's going on having spent the last minute in stunned disbelief that he's killed Blake) slowly raising his gun to fight back as a grim smile forms on his face. We hear an exchange of fire as the credits roll.

Ok - so that's a lot of setup - but it's necessary to explain what I think people are missing about the significance of this exchange. The standard interpretation is that the story is about a fatal flaw in Avon: his inability to trust Blake is what got them all killed. The irony is supposed to be that despite a handful of signs of genuine caring and some more convincing signs that he's now at least partly devoted to Blake's cause, Avon has learned nothing by the end of the series: he's still the cynical, self-serving criminal he always was.

Well, maybe. But I think this interpretation not only misses who Avon really is (he isn't primarily a criminal) but also doesn't quite square with the events as presented.

Mainly - when have you ever seen Avon hesitate the way he hesitates when he thinks Blake might have betrayed him? Even once in the entire rest of the series? No, and that's the point. Avon HAS learned something, and he DOES have an fledgling trust in Blake - and it's the fact that he has real human feelings about Blake that gets him killed, not the other way around.

I've said before, as have others before me, that Blake's 7 is a deliberate inversion of Star Trek. And perhaps the most prominent thing being inverted is the Kirk-Spock relationship. When Spock was popular out of proportion to Kirk on Trek, the writers tried to put him in his place. When Avon was more popular than Blake, the writers ran with it. Blake(Kirk) even eventually goes missing and Avon(Spock) gets his command after all. More to the point, whereas in Star Trek it's more often than not Kirk's sentimentality that (improbably) saves the day, in Blake's 7 it's usually Avon's ability to think quickly and dispassionately under pressure - his total lack of emotional/sentimental distractions. When someone has to be sacrificed for the good of the whole, Avon doesn't waste any time whining about it; usually he just pulls the trigger himself before anyone can waste his time arguing.

The one time he didn't do that, the one time he let an emotional distraction cloud his judgment, the one time he failed to make a snap, cold decision under pressure was here at the end; it got him killed. The rational thing to do in this situation is to ignore Blake altogether, kill Arlen (the only person on the other side with a raised gun), take Blake hostage and get out while there's still time. There will be time to hear Blake's explanations later. If he is a traitor, they have a valuable hostage. If not, they have ferreted him to safety. Sure, Avon doesn't know Arlen's not one of Blake's trusted associates, but he doesn't know Blake's still on the up-and-up either. The point is Avon frequently does things like this and never apologizes. The only reason he didn't do it today because he was genuinely hurt that Blake might have betrayed him, and it caused him to hesitate. For the first time ever, Avon missed a step because of his heart, and look where it got everyone.

I think it's also telling that you rarely hear pointed out that Avon isn't the only one having trouble trusting people: Blake is - uncharacteristically - having the same problem. What's with all these deceptive screening tests he's using to pick associates now? That's never how he's done things in the past. In the past, he picked up people on gut feeling, and that always worked for him. Now he's taken on an aspect of Avon: he's cynical and suspicious. Of course, loyalty tests aren't exactly something we'd expect Avon to do either - but that's because Avon doesn't really believe in loyalty at all (to the extent he does think others are loyal, he probably takes it as a sign of bad judgment). Avon would just happily take on people he didn't trust (which is everyone), use them as long as they're useful keeping an eye on them all the while, never hesitating to kill them if he thought they had become a danger. The point is that Blake is doing a really bad job being suspicious - because it just isn't in his nature. Just as Avon is doing a really bad job being emotional (he can keep it up just long enough to do something irrational, which isn't the same as having developed useful intuition) - because that isn't in his nature either.

The message of Star Trek was always that Spock should try to overcome his true nature and get in touch with his groovy side. Blake's 7 is a deliberate inversion of Star Trek, and this episode is no exception. The "message" here, to the extent there is one, is that people should stick to what they know and not try to be something they're not. If Avon is a purely rational being who lives by his wits and that's worked for him, then that's what he should stick with. Going soft for Blake "polluted" him, and you see the predictable result. If Blake lives by his heart and his ideals and that's worked for him, then that's what he should stick with. Taking on aspects of Avon doesn't give him Avon's intelligence.

If each has taken on the worst aspects of the other (Blake Avon's suspicious nature without his cold intelligence, Avon Blake's irrationality without his higher instincts), that's because they're absorbing the final product without the developmental phases. A belief in man's better nature is a prerequisite for being able to live by feelings: Avon's "doing it backward" by having feelings before he has faith. A ruthless rationality, an ability to see things unflinchingly as they really are, is a prerequisite for a calculating intelligence: Blake's "doing it backward" by trying to be clever before he's ruthless. Blake and Avon can work together only so long as they are who they are. Once they start trying to be like each other, however much each might have (secretly) admired the other, it doesn't work anymore.

I loved this episode for so many reasons. I love it because it puts a stick of dynamite at the vanity that is at the heart of these shows. Can a rag-tag band of 7 merry men (that's 5 people plus two computers, actually) really bring a galactic empire tumbling down? Star Trek seems to think so - but not Blake's 7. At the end of the series, our heroes don't seem to be much further along than when they started. Can people overcome their natures? Star Trek seems to think so. Blake's 7 not only says they can't but that they shouldn't try. Is it our mysterious and unpredictable feelings that make us human? Star Trek seems to think so. Blake's 7 knows that that you don't succeed by cheating reality. Does the universe reward good and punish evil? Star Trek seems to think so. Blake's 7 doesn't know and doesn't care: circumstances are what they are, you should simply make the best of them.

ORAC When we reach the appropriate coordinates, I can simulate the necessary signals to open the silo and allow this flyer to enter.
DAYNA Oh, sounds good.
VILA No it isn't. Sooner or later we're going to drop into one of these holes in the ground and never come out.
AVON Sooner or later, everyone does that, Vila.

Yes, sooner or later, everyone does that. That's what happened on Gauda Prime.


At 10:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is my favorite analysis of the characters in the last episode that I've read so far.

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