Breakdown (Review)

Breakdown is one of the better examples of the Season One cliche: it’s better than its reputation, but also not as good as it should have been. Since this one deals with some of Blakes 7 more important themes, that’s kind of a shame.

Here’s the story they did tell. Gan is manning the bridge when his limiter fails causing him to turn instantly into a homicidal maniac. It is never entirely clear how much of this is his underlying nature reasserting itself and how much of it is his brain getting scrambled signals from the malfunctioning limiter. What is clear is that they need to restrain him and fast, and so they do. Now they’re left with the problem of how to repair him. Neurosurgery can’t be done by computer instruction – it has to be done by a specialist – and the problem is that there are no non-Federation specialists nearby. Or, actually, almost none. As it turns out, there’s one independent outpost close enough that they just might make it in time to save Gan, but it’s through a region of space that Zen refuses to travel through. He’s been programmed with instructions to avoid it at all costs, and so when Blake orders him to plot a course through he shuts down rather than comply. They’ve flown the ship on manual before, so in theory they can do it now too, but Avon soon realizes that the distance they’re proposing to travel is unprecedented, and that this is a real problem. Zen – the central computer – corrects for all the little ways that the minor systems on the ship get out of sync with each other, and so Zen’s being offline is a thing they can only tolerate for so long. There’s a workaround: Avon could bypass Zen’s order to the maintenance systems to shut down, and they could manually bring that part of the central computer back online, but of course that’s tricky, and Avon isn’t sure he can do it in time. More to the point, he thinks it’s stupid to even try – if they’re going to risk anyone’s life it should be Gan’s alone (by going to one of the further-off outposts) rather than those of the entire crew together. Blake orders him to try anyway, and Avon gets the computers back online just in time for them to figure out what it is that makes this region of space a no-go for Zen: a giant space vagina! Or, erm, at least a swirling giant space red thing with a hole in the middle. A "vortex," or whatever. Naturally, Blake would rather dive right through than squander Gan’s chance, but so ordering inadvertently exposes a rift in the group dynamic:

AVON Blake, in the unlikely event that we survive this –

BLAKE Yes?

AVON I’m finished. Staying with you requires a degree of stupidity of which I no longer feel capable.

BLAKE No, you’re just being modest.

But Blake probably shouldn’t have been so flippant. The only reason we even know the outpost is here (Zen, naturally, didn’t originally report on it) is that Avon keeps a list of places he might jump ship to, and this one happens to be on it. Blake acts as though Avon’s making an idle threat, but when we get to the outpost (which, of course, we do – the vortex isn’t actually dangerous enough to warrant the no-fly order) we learn not only that Avon isn’t, but also that Blake seems to know that.

CALLY Why are you angry with Avon?

BLAKE I’m not.

CALLY You sound as if you are.

BLAKE He has a decision to make. If he wants to stay with us, it’s got to be for his reasons.

CALLY You’ll do nothing to persuade him?

BLAKE Nothing at all.

And in fact, Avon does try to defect – but interestingly not at the expense of the crew. He sells out the Liberator only in revealing to the station master who they really are; part of the condition of his staying on is that Blake and the rest of the crew be allowed to leave unmolested. He won’t help if they’re arrested.

The neurosurgeon turns out to be a Federation partisan, even though he’s working on a neutral station. His assistant, who initially comes off as a total cad in the ham-handed way he hits on Jenna and Cally, turns out to be the moral one, arguing that the need to finish their work and not get involved. Dr. Kayn, however, deliberately delays the operation to give Federation patrol ships he’s alerted time enough to arrive. The coolest scene comes when Blake realizes what’s been happening and delivers a threat to get him back on the job.

BLAKE How soon can you complete?

KAYN Thirty-five minutes.

BLAKE Do it in twenty.

KAYN Or you’ll kill me.

BLAKE Oh, no, no, no. In twenty-five minutes I’m returning you to your station. If you haven’t completed your work –

KAYN Your threats don’t bother me in the least, you know.

BLAKE — I shall destroy your hands. Twenty minutes. (He exits. Avon follows close upon.)

The line is perfectly delivered. Blake knows how to threaten: credibly. Which sort of begs an interesting question about Avon.

Blake gets his operation, of course, and then the Federation crashes their party. Avon declines to defect, even though the station master makes clear that the opportunity is still open, and that turns out to be a good choice as a plasma bolt fired from a Federation ship at the Liberator ends up hitting and destroying the station instead.

The episode then closes in the worse possible way: with all the main characters (except, pointedly, Avon) sharing one of those forced belly laughs that were common as closing scenes in the 70s. It never hurts to have a reminder of the many ways television has improved since then.

The complaints that everyone makes about this episode are right on point. It was Gan’s big opportunity to be an actual character, and instead the writers pissed it away by having him either restrained or raving in the few scenes he really appears in. I don’t much like Gan, but he’s a potentially interesting character with an even more interesting effect on the group dynamic. It would’ve been a much better show if they’d found a way to make him relevant. Since his is the first of the many titual "breakdowns," it’s also a bit vexing that it’s so total. We can’t really imagine that Gan is a raving lunatic without his limiter. For one thing, homicidal maniacs aren’t actually like that in general. For another, even if that were the case with Gan in particular they would hardly call it a "limiter." The implication of the name is that it controls (or dampens) select impulses that Gan has – presumably similar in principle to how the Ludovico technique works in A Clockwork Orange. We don’t really imagine that it completely alters his personality. Which rasies very interesting – and disturbing – questions about just how much of a friend Gan actually is. He seems like one, but at some level he really can’t be. Avon seems to know this – and Gan is the only one on the crew who makes no real effort to hide his dislike of Avon – and everyone else must know it on some level too, but they choose to ignore it. A charitable view of that final cliched belly laugh scene would read it that way: if the scene looks fake then because it is. This is Blake and his crew pretending they’re a happy family when they’re not – and Avon’s absence is conspicuous. But unfortunately, that scene probably wasn’t really meant that way, and the truth is that this question is raised by the structure of the episode more than the dialogue. No one seems to be actually struggling with what Gan’s limiter implies about him, and that’s a real letdown.

However true the complaints, there’s a lot of good here too, though. For one, let’s just go ahead and acknowledge that once again Blakes 7 seems well ahead of its time in guessing where technology will go. In the late 1970s, there weren’t computers sophisticated enough for the problem Avon describes (with balancing the complexity of the inter-operating systems on the ship). And indeed, the science fiction (television) of the day didn’t really anticipate this. Star Trek‘s computers were all silly literal and single-minded, routinely tricked by simple logic conundrums into blowing themselves up. Blake gets it right, though: we now have automobiles that depend on onboard computers to keep them humming for exactly this reason, to say nothing of global satellite networks and the like. The problem they face is now routine.

For another, this is a really interesting look at the entropy of systems and how it can work. By the end of the episode, the status quo ante has been restored, but this isn’t the vaunted Star Trek reset button. Rather than everyone the crew encountered being made better off, the story leaves everyone they touched much worse off (dead, actually). And the crew itself isn’t exactly back where it started. The point’s been hammered home that Gan is a ticking time bomb, and the extent to which Avon is serious about leaving has been made … clear? "More credible," let’s put it that way. The separation between the rest of the crew and Avon has increased.

But the most interesting part of this episode – and the thing that really redeems it – is that question of just how serious Avon was about leaving. He really did make the offer to Farron (the stationmaster of the outpost), and yet there’s something very unconvincing about the whole exercise. Ariana at hermit.org puts it this way:

Although events — Kayn’s betrayal in particular — conspired to scupper Avon’s deal with Farron, it would be interesting to speculate whether Avon would have gone through with it if everything went smoothly. That would depend on whether one views the attempt as a sincere desire for a new life, or some posturing to prove a point to Blake. My personal theory is that Avon is a bit of a Prima Donna. Either way, he clearly does care enough about his colleagues to reject Farron’s compromise proposal if it means abandoning the Liberator crew to their deaths. So much for his professed determination to be a loner.

That’s pretty much how I feel about it too. The whole thing rings a bit false. It is more like a spoiled child threatening to run away than it is a serious effort to leave. In a serious effort to leave, Avon would’ve spared himself that zinger about no longer feeling capable of the level of stupidity required to remain on board. He would’ve just left. He seems to need Blake to worry about him – and Blake, for his part, seems to understand that Avon needs to work through this tantrum. Blake isn’t exactly calling Avon’s bluff – he seems genuinely upset that Avon might possibly leave, and he certainly doesn’t completely rule out the possibility Avon will go through with it – but he’s not giving in to the tantrum either. Blake knows that, on balance, odds are Avon is staying, and he further knows that pressuring Avon into staying will only make the situation worse. Blake seems to understand that while Avon isn’t a natural fit for this crew, circumstances have dealt him a hand where he has no better options. Avon fully commiting to the cause is the inevitable eventuality, but it’s a long way from here to there, and so how we get there is more important than deciding that’s where we’re going. This is a level of character sophistication you rarely see on any show, and as good as never see on shows like this one. Blakes 7 isn’t number one at character development, but in its best moments it’s certainly in the elite in how it handles group dynamics. This one could’ve been better on that front with regard to Gan – but in terms of Avon and Blake’s implicit power struggle, they nailed it.

So – it’s the Season One Curse. This one isn’t as good as it could and should have been, but it’s a lot better than you’ve likely been told.

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