Musings on "Terminal"

By Helen Reilly

Illusion. What is real, how do we define it, label it and represent it? An Art History lecturer I once had told me that an artist never paints what he sees but rather what he knows to be there. Therefore his representation is an illusion on many levels. The viewer is looking not at what the artist saw but what he perceived and the viewer's 'looking' is equally subjective. This idea is something that usually invites the tag 'post-modern' and unfortunately the term is used rather too often without any real understanding of what it actually means. However, illusion, reality, allegory and appropriation are hallmarks of postmodernism (and post structuralism) and 'Terminal' contains them all on a number of levels. It is a profound and lovely piece of writing actually, and played out wonderfully well.

If we are going to think of 'Terminal' as post-modern it is necessary to first define the term clearly and precisely. Postmodernism has regularly been used to describe two different things, firstly as an allusion to the debate about contemporary culture and the changing nature of western society, and secondly to refer to the deconstructualist postmodernism encapsulated in the writings of, particularly, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault, collectively called 'post structuralism' 'Terminal' fulfils both these criteria, but most specifically, I think, the latter.

Post-structuralism is ultimately derived from the writings of Ferdinand Saussure and applied linguistic concepts to objects and activities other than the verbal language. Thus in post structuralist thought less importance is placed on the referent in the real world, for example a person, than on the meaning available from its representation by a sign. The sign is made up of a 'signifier', for example a word, colour or image and a 'signified,' a concept or meaning, and exists within a structure or 'text' such as a poem, painting or episode of Blake's 7. These are composed of other signs, all recognisable by their differences from one another and signifying by virtue of their particular combination. The relationship between the signifier and the signified as well as between the sign and its referent, is totally arbitrary, determined by cultural and historical convention. The end process of this evolution is that the text becomes 'decentred' not only from its referent but also from its subject, that is, the artist. This has the effect of shifting the source of meaning from the artist and his intentions to the text. As a result the individual artist becomes less the producer of language or art than its product, and the work or text less an expression of the individual mind than a product of certain shared systems of signification. The text, then seems to be more the consequence of the commonly available language used to produce it than an expression of originality on the part of the artist. This leaves meaning to emerge from whatever the viewer may make of the work's subtext rather than by any intention imposed by the artist himself.

'Terminal' is densely packed with significations and allegories. Firstly there is Blake. Blake in 'Terminal' is less important as himself than as what his reappearance symbolises. Avon is now pursuing Blake with much the same zeal as he did Anna Grant, and for very similar reasons. Blake of course, like Anna, proves to be an illusion. Avon, knowing that as an illusion Blake cannot have betrayed him, can now hold to the ideal he has created in his mind, which is as illusory as any other image of Blake. Blake is always an illusion on more than one level for the viewer. Roj Blake of course is the eponymous fictitious character of a television drama, and in 'Terminal' does not exist in the realm of fiction either.

The Liberator is the obvious symbol of freedom. Freedom from the Federation and freedom of choice within the crew. Both Blake and later Avon present their crew with fait accomplis for their own purposes on various occasions, belying the apparent democracy on board. Freedom is symbolically destroyed with the destruction of the Liberator and the death of Zen, the computer's name also holding a symbolism of its own. Zen is based around the notions of personal awareness, and 'dependent arising', that is, that all actions are interconnected, and Zen always gave the crew so much help but no more, and at times none at all, forcing them to their own awareness of their actions and their outcomes.

There are three breaches of the fourth wall in 'Terminal'. Firstly there is the exchange between Tarrant and Avon 'Not up to your usual standard.' 'Yes, well I'm tired', secondly, Avon's line: 'I have also recorded a full explanation of everything I am doing... The only thing missing is the end', and thirdly, Kostos's 'We must keep the continuity right". These breaches remind the viewer of the layers of reality (illusion?) in what they are viewing, pointing up the fact the whole thing is, in fact, a construct and does not actually exist on any level but appears to exist on many.

The title of the episode is itself ambiguous and illusory. Terminal could be a finishing point, but equally it can be the starting point of a journey and the same terminal can be both start and finish: The ouroboros, the snake with his tail in his mouth, the prototype of the vicious circle, who has become one with himself.

Terry Nation here has used his work, and his actors have interpreted it in such a way as to cast doubt on all classical notions of truth, reality, and knowledge, and also question all modes of representing them, be they verbal, visual, or abstract.

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Last changed on 16th of December 2003