Watching this episode takes me back to a time when Blake’s 7 was big business rather than the cult it has since become: while on holiday in the summer of 1979, I caught a local news programme which featured a visit to the planet Chenga and featured Michael Keating being interviewed on location in Yorkshire. From this brief clip, to my young eyes it already looked a very different series from what had gone before.
The departure of two main cast members had made it necessary to reset the format. Blake’s departure had excised the moralizing angle but crucially, with the tension between Blake and Avon also removed, the writers had to find a new equilibrium. The first episode of this third series focussed solely on Avon, now clearly the central character, and introduced new action girl Dayna. Upon their return to the Liberator they find Federation troops on board under the command of Captain Tarrant… but the troops are being picked off by a mystery assassin.
Terry Nation’s plot combines three separate strands well, drawing Avon, Vila and Cally back together and introducing the two replacements, maintaining the tension right down to the wire. However it is the arrival of Dayna and Tarrant that signals a considerable change in the thrust of the series.
Tarrant immediately stands out amongst Klegg and his henchmen (clean-shaven, well-spoken, could just be the officer he purports to be) but turns out to be no less ruthless. Powerplay demonstrates that the new characters are much more bloodthirsty than those they replaced, which underlines the shift in the format. Tarrant kills several of Klegg’s men by stealth and then stands back while Dayna chokes the aforementioned Klegg to death (“She’s very good.”; “Promising, quite promising.”) – a far cry from what we’d expect from their predecessors, Blake and Jenna. It’s a clear indication that the series has (temporarily) moved away from the philosophical argument of fighting the system and all the moral shades of grey which that brings, and moved more into straightforward space adventuring. Now free of Blake and with the Federation in disarray, Avon is initially motivated by keeping control of the Liberator, and Servalan with regaining her presidency. Vila, reintroduced as the comic relief, is just concerned with staying alive. He believes anything and everything he’s told but settles on whatever the two prettiest faces tell him. Vila’s scenes are characterised by broad humour while Avon’s lines have a more amusing streak of gallows humour (for example on discovering the guard with the knife in his back: ‘That’s a difficult way to commit suicide.”).
Nation falls back on a number of familiar tropes with his brief sketch of society on Chenga. The inhabitants live in two separate factions, those who live a more primitive lifestyle and those who embrace technology – the latter exploiting the former in a quite gruesome fashion. It’s a similar scenario to Nation’s first Dalek serial with the Thals’ agrarian lifestyle threatened by the Daleks’ technology-dependent way of life.
Powerplay is one of the better episodes of the first part of the series, with an honourable mention going to the versatile Michael Sheard, known to generations of kids for playing a school headmaster, who pops up as the ruthless Klegg. Whether the series really adjusted properly to the loss of Blake and the sparks generated between him and Avon, I’m not sure, but together with Aftermath, this is an encouraging start to the new era.
Reviewed by Richard Farrell
Richard’s book Star One Compendium published by Pencil Tip Publishing is now available.