LIBERATOR AND ITS ORIGIN
No kind of resistance could possibly have been initiated without the Liberator. Built by `The System', Deep Space Vehicle 2 is a huge battle cruiser of far greater sophistication than anything the Federation possesses. It contains an auto-repair system which restores it to normal after damage, thus when it is found adrift and abandoned, it is apparently in fully working order. The ship is powered by energy banks, recharged by the belt of solar panels around the fuselage. Problems arise for the crew when harassment by relays of Federation pursuit ships prevent them from going into a suitable solar orbit for this purpose.
Liberator is a very handsome craft. Unmistakably a warship, the central fuselage with its slender nose and glowing bulbous stern, the three huge engine pods on their pylons, each bristling with javelin- shaped weaponry, give an instant impression of the awesome power of the advanced civilization that created it. This civilization, however, proves to be as totalitarian as the Federation. Having achieved local domination with their immense technological prowess, they are building these vehicles to expand their empire. Their attempt to repossess DSV-2 proves fatal because Orac destroys DSV-1 and their all-powerful central computer (possibly by infesting it with a plague of viruses) and eliminates their potential challenge for the foreseeable future, thus liberating the Liberator from their influence.
We never learn the identity of the contestants in the battle witnessed by London's crew. Both sides seem evenly matched, was this civil war? Why is such an advanced civilisation unknown to the Federation? Perhaps they have concealed themselves, fearing that their technical superiority does not sufficiently compensate for their numerical inferiority (only three planets according to the slave worker in Redemption). If only two DSVs now exist, it indicates that they do not yet have the capacity to build a whole fleet quickly. If the battle was a civil war, then other DSVs may have been destroyed (as suggested by the explosion which battered the London in Space Fall), setting back their expansion plans and forcing them to move by stealth. It is thus worth their while to spend a year or more searching for the Liberator to prevent it falling into the hands of the Federation, whose presence in the galaxy must be known to them. Zen has acquired a great deal of information about Federation territory before the advent of Orac, so the System has probably surreptitiously tapped into Federation databanks besides conducting its own exploration.
"Lift, you scruffy bag of bolts, lift!" mutters Tarrant on his first take-off. Dorian's battered planet hopper, although it contains some interesting and non-standard equipment, is a big come-down after Liberator. No more comfortable cabins or inexhaustible supplies of energy and food, from now on, the crew have to scavenge for necessities and slip furtively home to their base on Xenon. Navigation and control systems are likely to go phft! at critical moments (Spacedrive), force walls are shaky and the teleport may not pick up everybody at its first try (Power).
The Liberator's master computer, controller of the battle and navigation computers, the engines and weaponry, and the life support system. Zen's responsibility is to the ship itself, rather than the crew, which enables it to refuse to answer questions and ignore commands if they conflict with this mandate.
First contact is made with Zen when Jenna places her hand on a sensory pad during an exploratory session and establishes some sort of telepathic communication with it. Zen accepts her as the ship's pilot and opens a vocal channel to the others in the lofty tones of a senior civil servant. Zen's independence is sometimes dangerous, it disrupts the teleport, marooning Blake and Jenna aboard an alien craft and refuses to admit the craft to Liberator's hold, although it does not prevent Avon from performing this task manually (Time Squad). When the crew venture into forbidden territory (as defined by the ship's original owners) it shuts down completely, taking all the other computers with it, thus creating a dangerous systems instability. Avon manages to override it and restore partial service at a crucial moment. Given this amount of free will, its inability to circumvent Cally's sabotage because interference with crew activities before any damage is actually done is forbidden, is a little strange.
Casting: A dispassionate upper-class voice synchronised with flashing lights ("Your species requires a visual reference point") gives Zen a remote, austere personality. Very well done.
"Is it a computer?" asks Cally. "It most certainly is not! It is a brain, a genius," replies its inventor, Ensor. "That was its creator's vanity," maintains Avon, "Orac is a computer".
Easily the most sophisticated artificial intelligence in the universe, Orac is a handful. It has absorbed the irascible characteristics of its creator, who designed it to gather information from other computers which incorporate the `Tarial Cell' invented by Ensor in his youth, process these findings and make predictions. Orac is also capable of using its carrier waves to operate or interfere with other computers and equipment such as Liberator's teleport and DSV-1's weaponry system.
Orac shows little concern for the safety of Liberator and its crew, whom it tends to regard with scorn ("I have noticed that the occupants of this spacecraft have a lamentable lack of interest in the more fascinating aspects of the universe"). However, it seems to have acquired its creator's vanity, which is neatly manipulated by Avon when he persuades Orac to miniaturise itself by feigning disbelief that it could actually be done (reminiscent of Wotan and Loge tricking Alberich into transforming himself into a toad in order to capture him - Das Rheingold).
Casting: As a complete contrast to Zen, a snappish voice (though equally upper-caste) usually manifesting scorn and impatience. A very successful characterisation by the same actor.
Scorpio's flight computer, built by Dorian who likes his computers servile. Slave spends a lot of his time in grovelling apologies which makes him dangerously slow in reporting the approach of danger.
Casting: Peter Tuddenham produces a suitably oily voice for this mechanical Uriah Heep.
Standard Federation civilian costume consists of a shirt and tabard over trousers or skirt, permitting very little individuality and emphasizing the drab uniformity of the state.
Among Liberator's facilities is an extensive wardrobe, which is somewhat strange, considering the regimented appearance of their original owners (Redemption), the crew can therefore make whatever use they like of the contents. Colour generally acts as a guide to personality. Blake is usually peasant-like in Sherwood Forest greens and browns; Cally also favours green when on active service, although she appears in some more colourful clothes occasionally. Jenna is more decorative, usually in glittering fabric top over plainer trousers or colourful long dress, frequently strong red or purple shades. Soolin, apparently uninterested in fashion, rarely ventures away from grey, but expresses her individuality with a different hairstyle each episode. Avon is generally seen in aristocratic black and silver, with an occasional diversion into red leather; Vila is usually nondescript with tracksuit variations, but in several early episodes he wears a motley jacket of coloured patches as befits the jester's role that he so often assumes for self-protection; Gan's huge frame looks best in the Renaissance outfit of his last episodes. The dashing Tarrant is often dressed for a Hollywood swashbuckler and Dayna's youthful charms are often emphasized in daring plunges.
Travis-1 wears black leather of a similar design to his mutoids, in keeping with his dour brutality, whereas Travis-2 wears a more nondescript textured cloth, rather suggestive of crocodile skin. Servalan's spectacular charms are mostly displayed in floor-length satin and cleavage, she sometimes changes into slightly more practical gear for her nefarious field trips (Orac, Pressure Point) but frequently braves the cold in low-cut dresses (Moloch, Sand) "I have a robust constitution," she assures an underling in Assassin. Let us not forget that flamboyant red dress in Gambit, her only venture into colour apart from the lavender dress she borrowed from Dayna in Aftermath, otherwise she wears white for most of the first two series, changing to black in the third series.
Green seems to be a key colour, representing hope and purity. Blake and Cally, the most idealistic members of the crew, often wear it. Travis cloaks himself in green when masquerading as Shevan the rebel leader in Voice from the Past. When, in later episodes, Avon is seen in green, it is the olive/khaki shades of camouflage suited to a pragmatic and cautious leader. Its most notable appearance is on Kezarn (The City at the Edge of the World) whose peaceable inhabitants all wear a pale spring green. Bayban's gunfighter Kerrill, changes into the same colour before she accompanies Vila to the new world, symbolising her rejection of her previous life and presaging her decision to stay there with Norl and his followers. The colours used to differentiate between the masked figures in the prophecy at the beginning of Sarcophagus reappear subtly in the clothing worn by the crew, assigning them their roles in the occupant's destiny.
As with colour, cut is often an indicator of personality. Avon's tightly buttoned character is usually symbolised by high collars, he looks oddly unfamiliar in an open-necked outfit in Warlord, barefoot and unshaven in prison overalls (Rumours of Death), the transformation is very marked. The usually unzipped Blake and Gan are clearly much more relaxed and trusting people. Cally is another high collared individual, not for her the confident decolleté of Jenna and Dayna, restraint is one of her leading characteristics. Servalan occasionally sports a high collar, but her costumes generally plunge at front and back about as far as they can go, like their wearer.
Blake's spacesuit in Voice from the Past looks dreadful. Things have much improved when Vila has to go outside in Dawn of the Gods. Footwear is mainly knee-length boots for both sexes, Avon and Vila often have tools concealed in theirs, Dayna once produces a grenade from hers (Volcano).
Although their uniform looks suitably sinister, the Federation guards cannot be comfortable in those helmets and face masks, nor do the inhabitants of Fosforon look at ease in stiff plastic capes like turtle carapaces. The mutoid ladies fare better in sensible uniforms and flowerpot headgear, some of them manage to look pretty and stylish. Geela and Novara wear strange silvery overalls, whose peeling outer surface suggests a snake sloughing its skin.
Bayban and his troop wear Hell's Angel black leather with metal studs (by the time he gets to Terminal, Avon appears to have acquired Bayban's particularly brutal gauntlets). The Terra Nostra at the smoother end of the criminal scale, are elegant in close-fitting high-collared brown velvet.
Other good designs: The Ortega crew's overalls, each in a different colour; Meegat's pretty blue robes and Rashel's elegant black (even with that high collar); Alta1 and Alta2's skin-tight blue leotards. On a prison planet devoid of facilities, Kara reveals a very expensive-looking silk gown when she doffs the monk's habit (Cygnus Alpha).
"The style is Early Maniac" says Vila, who has a sharp eye. Many interiors ignore the basic principles of convenience and practical usage. The Liberator has too many corridors with slippery floors. Although its honeycomb appearance is interesting, the interior does not seem to match up with the exterior. Shouldn't the crew seats have some safety harness? They often seem to need them.
External sets are generally mundane. Industrial premises are pressed into service, some spectacular (Redemption), some rather charmingly decayed (Weapon). Quarries are the great standby for the countryside; the BBC's favourite chalkpit, pleasantly overgrown with buddleia bushes (Deliverance), gravel (Time Squad) or sand (Shadow). Add a few stock shots and some wave noises and hey presto! the seaside (Orac). The desolate flooded pits in Traitor lend a suitably sinister air to the proceedings. Mines (Orac) and caves (Project Avalon, Horizon, Rumours of Death) and woodlands (Duel, The Web) also make their appearance. Star One is represented by Pennine limestones and the exteriors in City at the Edge of the World and Volcano also have a Derbyshire look to them (there are some ancient volcanics in the region). Most external scenes are shot in the wind, frost and snow of an English winter so very few planets have a lush look to them.
The gravemarkers in Duel, humanoid figures raising their arms to the heavens in despair, are splendidly chilling. Sarkoff's Folly in Bounty is an amusing touch ("a typical late Twentieth Century dwelling, set in an authentic Earth garden"), with its ludicrous silver-sprayed interior.
The spacecraft fare rather better. Externally, Liberator is a splendid creation. The interior of the cramped little craft carrying the genetic banks to another world is tellingly claustrophobic, full of menace. Various battered old freighters go about their business, Ortega, London, etc., with shabby furnishings and horrible paint schemes. Servalan's flagship has a distinctly crocodilian look as it swallows the luckless patrol ship at the start of The Children of Auron. In a class of its own is the Intruder's stately sarcophagus with its party decorations. It is rather reminiscent of Cinderella's pumpkin coach externally; a seed-pod about to burst, with catastrophic consequences.
As always, stunts are hampered by the need to keep the cast in good repair, and not to show the younger viewers exactly how to murder someone with their bare hands, thus rendering them generally unconvincing. Too many corpses roll downhill in the well-known stuntman's bounce, and the timing of some shootouts is decidedly lax, better editing might have helped here. Dummies plummeting down cliffs are never convincing. There is a spectacular high dive off a gallery by one of the guards in Redemption.
The music generally utilises a small ensemble and has the merit of not being too electronic. The flavour varies from episode to episode although a few themes (Federation guards) recur. Liberator's fanfare bears a strong resemblance to Wagner's Rheingold motif, undergoing similar transformations, inverting, extending or flattening into a minor distress call. When Vila returns to Liberator after parting with Kerrill (City at the Edge of the World) it warms into a consoling phrase.
There is a nice touch in Orac when Avon is roused from nausea to investigate Blake's delay by distant warning horn calls. A melancholy cello solo accompanies the death of Ensor jr. and references to Marriott (Deliverance), both victims of Servalan's plot to acquire Orac. A jumpy staccato in the piano's lower register refers to the prowling killer aboard the Ortega (Mission to Destiny). Hunting horns resound through the first part of Bounty. In Redemption a theme related to the Federation guards' music, but with a derisive jiggle, accompanies the procession of captive crew and guards led by Alta Two, pointing up her high-heeled oscillating locomotion. A muted, but optimistic march is associated with the Helot freedom fighters in Traitor. The Space Princess and her dopey passengers (Gold) cruise along to the anodyne strains of a particularly effete ragtime.
When the alien artifact in Sarcophagus performs its pre-programmed function and self-destructs, an augmented fourth, the "diabolus in musicus", sounds on the strings above a growling bass; a subtly disconcerting effect. Some of the score's best moments are its most economical; the rattling snaredrum over quiet sustained chords in Death-Watch, gradually crescendoing as the combatants prepare for battle (which is conducted in silence); the unaccompanied heart- thumping drumbeats in Terminal and Rescue. The eerie sighing glissandos heard in Dorian's chamber of horrors probably originate from Bela Bartok's opera Bluebeard's Castle whose subject is also the opening of forbidden rooms (Georges Auric's music for Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast also uses this effect).
Cut-price and riddled with mistakes. Forget them and concentrate on the drama.
The chief glory of the series. Each character, however lowly, is highly articulate and most of them have an advanced vocabulary requiring precise delivery. (Maybe we should except Sherm and Chel.) The language is pithy and economical; Blake's retort "They murdered my past and gave me tranquilised dreams" conveys the monstrous nature of Federation control in one short sentence.
There is a splendid moment in Rumours of Death when Avon finds a battered and bruised Servalan chained to the cellar wall by Sula. "Have you murdered your way to the wall of an underground room?" he asks, almost dismayed, "It's an old wall Avon," she replies "it waits. I hope you don't die before you reach it." Moments later, he does.
"All sweet things have one thing in common" says Soolin, "a tendency to make you sick", and cloying sentimentality is shunned, the action being propelled along with brisk and not always good-natured banter ("What have I done to deserve this?" moans Vila, in a tight corner, "How long a list would you like?" snaps Avon, in equal discomfort). Irony is a favourite tool of the more critical characters (Vila: "Good, terrific. I'm really looking forward to this; danger, excitement, sudden death; I can't wait.")
The general tone is hard-edged and unsparing. Neither side wastes time on excuses or hyperbole. Events are described concisely and schemes are unfolded with gleeful relish, especially by Servalan ("When the Federation finally cleans out this cesspit, I shall have that vulpine degenerate eviscerated with a small and very blunt knife"). The final disastrous rendezvous is presaged by Vila's warning "Sooner or later, we're going to drop into one of these holes in the ground and never come out." and Avon's prophetic response "Sooner or later, everyone does that, Vila."
A great deal of thought goes into analysing the characters and their actions. What makes the series particularly unusual, is the way a character other than hero or villain becomes the pivotal point of the whole drama. The brooding and ambivalent Avon struck a chord with vast numbers of viewers and the amount of network time devoted to this character reflects this fascination, which was obviously felt by script writers as well. A combination of felicitous casting and excellent writing gives this series an unforgettable flavour.
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