Project Avalon is one of those first-season episodes that’re what you might call "pleasantly disappointing." On the one hand, it’s better than you remember, which is always nice. On the other hand, it’s still a Terry Nation standard issue all-plot-no-themes action/adventure thing. And it’s all the worse for that because the plot suffers from "idiot setup."
Idiot setup is my term – I get to make up terms – for a plot that works brilliantly if you can only buy the setup, which you unfortunately can’t. Project Avalon is pretty much the textbook example. The story proper has no real holes that I can see (there’re two half-holes that might add up to one on a grumpy day). But the setup just stinks.
Blake has decided to go and link up with Avalon, the leader of some kind of interplanetary resistance movement. So far so good. Avalon lives on caves in a winter planet – Hoth, or Gethen, depending on your taste – which is pointless but kind of a neat atmosphere. But you see, Travis somehow knows (a) that Avalon is on this planet and (b) that Blake will be linking up with her at just this moment, and that’s maybe not so good. But OK, we can let the timing coincidence go for the sake of story.
As we open Travis is meeting in a cave with one of Avalon’s fellow travellers, one who is betraying her. He learns that Blake has already made contact and is preparing to transport Avalon off planet. He muses to his mutoid that this time he will be ready for Blake, and all is going according to plan. The cleverness of that plan will form the basis of the entire entertainment value of this episode, in fact. The mutoid is interestingly NOT instantly recognizeable as Glynis Barber, who will play Soolin (basically Jenna) in Season 4. At least, I didn’t recognize her – I had to have other blogs point it out to me.
Naturally, Travis’ plan involves eventually gunning down all Avalon’s comrades and capturing Avalon, so I’ll just skip to the part where that happens. Travis shows up with his mutoid shock troops in the very cave which the traitor from the opening scene gave him a map to find and executes everyone, including the traitor. We see there’s a homing beacon set up for Blake; Travis leaves it operational. Apparently ambusing Blake is part of the plan?
But this begs the first (beggable) question. There’s a homing beacon that will lead Blake directly to Avalon, but Travis needs a mole in the group to find them?
Anyway, Blake and his crew teleport down to find all the dead bodies scattered about. And, interestingly, no Federation troops lying in ambush. OK, so whatever Travis’ plot is, it doesn’t involve simply killing or kidnapping Blake. Interesting. Jenna, having met Avalon once before, can confirm she’s not in the heap. Which begs the second beggable question: how did Travis know that Jenna would be around to note that? As we’ll soon see, his plan wouldn’t work if Blake teleported down to a heap of bodies, assumed Avalon was among them, and then left to go about his merry business!
Well, there’s one survivor who teams up with the Liberator crew. He helpfully informs them that Avalon is being held in the detention block – therefore, Blake will go bust her out. Looks like Vila needs to teleport down with his "bag of tricks" after all. He does this reluctantly, turning up his thermal suit as high as it will go, and giving Cally and Avon a good laugh in the teleport chamber before they presumably sneak off to bang each other.
Meanwhile, Supreme Commander Servalan has arrived to oversee the project – and also to bring Travis a critical glowing ball. We get to see the thing tested on a prisoner – and it turns out to be a virus capsule. You smash it, it releases a hugely deadly virus that then dissipates in less than a minute – just in time to kill who you want to kill without any collateral damage. Neat. But it lets us beg the third beggable question – which is why Servalan needs to see this tested? She manufactured it to Travis’ specs – wouldn’t whoever she had manufacture it have tested it in exactly the same way (on some prisoner rounded up for the purpose) before delivering it to Travis? I mean, this sort of thing is just sloppy – they could’ve had the same demonstration by having Servalan show it to Travis on VHS or something.
Anyway, Travis has Avalon in a tanning booth, because his evil plan involves sending her to the beach in a hot bikini to play volleyball or something. No, you got me, I’m kidding, it’s actually one of those patented Science Fiction Mind Probe things that will allow Travis to map Avalon’s brain. To what purpose? OHHHH, you’ll see…
Blake. Right. It’s a show called Blakes 7. So let’s check in on Blake.
He’s busy breaking in to the compound. This involves dodging another one of those completely ineffective security robots from Seek-Locate-Destroy that come completely unequipped with radar or long-distance detection mechanisms of any kind or level of sophistication, since just cringing down behind rocks is sufficient to ellude it. Then Vila opens the lock by magic, and they’re in!
They quickly go to one of those things that the Death Star also has where you use a microfiche to determine which cell a prisoner is in, and they find out that Avalon is in F2. After a lot of killing and shooting, they break her out. Then there’s a scene of pointless tension where when Blake calls to the Liberator is ISN’T THERE!!! Some Federation pursuit ships managed to drive it away temporarily so that we could have this moment of manufactured tension. Then the robot comes back, and it’s just about to piss fire on them when Avon teleports them back in the nick of time. WHEW!
Actually, that scene wasn’t entirely pointless. First, we get to see Avon leap up and run to the teleport chamber when he realizes they’re in trouble. That’s a nice bit of show-don’t-tell character development. Avon actually does care about Blake, it seems. Second, we get to see Blake yell at Avon when they teleport back up. No, it’s not heroic – Blake more or less accuses Avon of having been "up to something" just shy of using those actual words, even though he’s got to know that it wasn’t really Avon’s fault. But it is very human. When you’ve just come within an inch of your life, you react in exactly this way. Kudos to this show for keeping it all very believably human. It’s really the subtle touches like that that set Blakes 7 off from the crowd.
Back on the bridge, Blake is suspicious that their escape was too easy. So he tests one of the guns they got from a Federation storm trooper (or whatever they’re called) and realizes that it’s more or less firing blanks – it gives an impact without real damage, so make the target feel like he’s being grazed when in fact the gun is harmless. That means one of the two people they teleported up with (Avalon and the guy they met in the cave who helpfully informed them she’d been captured) is a traitor!
Naturally, they leap to the conclusion it’s Chevner. So of course it turns out to be Avalon. Avalon is in fact an android version of herself. So Travis’ clever plan – the titular "Project Avalon" – was to capture Avalon, make a robot that looks like her, trick Blake into rescuing that robot, and then having it relase the virus on the Liberator so that the Federation could capture the Liberator. It’s a very clever plan, and the fact that you totally don’t see it coming is the primary source of this episode’s entertainment value.
But you also see the problem. It’s just hugely implausible that the Federaton has android technology this sophisticated (especially if its security robots are as lame as the model we’ve seen). There are too many points of failure in the plan – up to and including the primary fact that it requires Blake to conveniently show up to stage a prison break exactly when and where Travis wants him to. So, it’s an "idiot setup." I can buy the plot completely, given the setup. What I can’t do is buy the setup. The Federation doesn’t have this level of android technology (certainly not such that it could make one in the short amount of time it did – and we know that time is short because Chevner is still alive when Blake teleports down to the beacon site). Even if it did, Cally should’ve sensed straight away that Avalon was not biological, what with Cally being a telepath. And Travis’ plan is anyway too clever by half: he can’t honestly count on Blake showing up to rescue Avalon if he hasn’t so much as left clues at the site of the massacre as to where she’s gone. For all Travis knows, Blake would just see the pile of bodies at the landing site and immediately teleport away.
Anyway, you know the rest. Blake teleports back down, demands the real Avalon, gets her, and leaves a distraction trap with the android Avalon whereby it drops that virus capsule just in time for Travis to leap forward to catch it and shout something about getting Blake next time. Again, we wonder why Blake doesn’t just kill Travis when he’s got him in his sights. It was implausible enough in Seek-Locate-Destroy when his excuse was that Travis wasn’t even worth it. Now Blake doesn’t even have that excuse. After all, he has to know that too many failures and the Federation will take Travis off the assignment. And even if he doesn’t, Travis has demonstrated just how much he’s worth it by the fact that he very nearly killed everyone on the Liberator this time ’round with an extremely clever plan.
So – bah. Not irredeemably terrible. Certainly better than I remember it. But still woefully short of the show’s glory days that are still ahead of us.
Incidentally, there really can’t be any remaining doubt that George Lucas – or someone on the Star Wars staff – had access to Blakes 7. Elements of this episode just scream it. For example:
- The security robot. Doesn’t it look a lot like the viper probe droid? And it’s about as effective…
- "The Emperor’s coming here?" Servalan is here to oversee "Project Avalon," precisely because it’s a trap for the rebels.
- "Besides, they let us go. It’s the only explanation for the ease of our escape." Blake is Leia in this one, I guess. Except that unlike Leia, he does something about it. Leia was strangely happy for the Empire to track the Falcon back to Yavin.
- Prison block detention center/centre – princess being held in undisclosed cell – heroes blast their way out. Aren’t you a bit short for a Liberator crewmember?
- Ice planet. Minor villain (Travis) obsessed with one member of the rebellion, actual villain (Servalan) more interested in destroying the rebellion.
Alright, so the prison block and "ease of our escape" things actually predate this episode. The rest of it doesn’t. It’s not enough to call plagiarism, but like with Firefly, you’d really feel better about the whole thing if you got a nod now and then.