Orbit - A Blakes 7 episode analysis

by Gillian F Taylor

One of the most popular Blakes 7 episodes, Orbit combines great humour and remarkable drama. Although self-contained, I believe it contains important pointers towards Blake.
Almost any conversation or survey will show Avon and Vila to be the most popular characters in the series, so any episode which features them together will be popular. Robert Holmes had already written Killer, and Gambit, where their exploits in the casino upstage the serious business of finding Docholli. Both Paul Darrow and Michael Keating liked his work, so as the author who worked best on Avon and Vila, it was fitting that he should drive them apart.
The whole of Orbit works, for many reasons. Egrorian's lab is little different to any of the others featured throughout the series, but the background sound effects make all the difference. Just as Terminal was haunted by the eerie heartbeat sound, so Egrorian's lab hums with strange noises. At this point, Avon and Vila work as a double act. These characters have been together a long time. Neither is unduly surprised or upset by the actions of the other. Indeed, careful direction has both of them moving and standing in exactly the same way. As they enter the lab, both step with the left foot first, moving precisely together. On their second visit, they again stand side by side. Avon has Orac in one hand, as Vila offers Egrorian the data pad. Both are looking in the same direction, with their shoulders at the same angle, as a perfect echo of each other. Both are thinking much the same way too. Both are wary of the whole set-up, and although Vila is swept along by Egrorian's talk, he and Avon wear the same look of disgust as Egrorian tortures Pindar. The visual harmony of these scenes make the ending all the bleaker.
The acting is top-notch all round. Egrorian and Pindar are blackly funny, depicting a love-hate relationship like a twisted version of Avon and Vila. Egrorian's worship of Servalan, his 'Steel Queen', is both pathetic and funny. It is impossible not to feel sorry for someone who has been stuck on Malodaar for ten years, but his bullying and creeping are repulsive. Servalan's predicament at being pawed by Egrorian is sheer joy for the audience.
In contrast, Avon and Vila are relaxed together. Their relationship has changed in this series from previous ones. Avon has always tolerated Vila, seeing him as useful and loyal. In the first two series they have the common bond of being thieves, rather than terrorists, and both like to avoid unnecessary danger, (though for different reasons). In the third series, Tarrant tries to usurp Avon's authority by ordering Vila around; so far as Avon is concerned, that is his privilege, not Tarrant's. Indeed, in Moloch, Tarrant threatens Vila with a gun, only to provoke Vila's sad remark that such a relationship isn't worth it. By the fourth series, Avon and Vila are the only two left from the beginning. They still swap sarcastic comments, but Avon knows that Vila won't run out on him, and would try to stop the others from doing so. He no longer expects Vila to volunteer for dangerous duties, but teases him darkly. In Headhunter, referring to placing the android head on the body, Avon says:
"It will be Vila, or it will be me."
"It'll be you,"
Vila says promptly.
"I thought you'd say that," Avon answers, half-smiling.
Likewise, in Assassin, he teases Vila for his lack of nerve when they teleport down to Domo together. By Orbit, Avon is going even further. He asks Vila if he wants to accompany Tarrant and Dayna down to Malodaar, even though he knows Vila will refuse. When Egrorian insists that Avon makes the trip, Avon delights in picking Vila as his assistant, and repeats his quote about staying safely close to Avon. He finishes with a mocking slap to Vila's face, publicly asserting his dominance over the other man. This would have been out of place in the earlier series. It is a remarkable indication of the changes in both their relationship, and in Avon's character. Even Vila's whining and complaints seem to amuse Avon more than annoy him. It is possible that their sheer familiarity is something for Avon to cling to through all the changes from second to fourth series.
Although Avon is suspicious of Egrorian, he makes no attempt to research his past. This is most unlike Avon, who normally prefers to have as much data as possible before acting. Instead, it is Tarrant who checks out Egrorian's vicious history and makes the connection to Servalan. Why does Avon rush into Egrorian's trap ? Perhaps, like Blake at the end of the second series, Avon cannot afford the time to think things through. Blake had lost Gan, and been fooled by Servalan and Travis (Pressure Point, Voice From the Past). Avon has been through several failures lately, (Terminal, Headhunter, Games), culminating in Gold, where he too is fooled by Servalan. He needs to produce some positive results, which leads first to the attempt to gain the tachyon funnel, then the meeting with the warlords, and finally to finding Blake.
Through the third series, it was Servalan who hunted Avon. After the humiliation on Terminal, he has decided he must hunt her down, both for revenge and for his own safety. To have any chance of success, he must assume active leadership of the group, regardless of his reluctance to take responsibility for their lives. Avon has the qualities of a natural leader, but is consciously reluctant to put himself in such a prominent position. He prefers to go his own way quietly, manipulating from behind the scenes if necessary. The conflict between his need to take charge, and his usual reluctance to do so, lead to the outbusts of temper and general tension increasingly evident in the last series.
When it seems certain the shuttle must crash, Avon's first instinct is to save both of them, and he speaks in the plural.
"We have to jettison every last nut and bolt."
Whether he likes it or not, he has assumed responsibility for Vila's life and he doesn't want to fail. It is not Avon who first sees Vila as disposable, but Orac. Once it is pointed out Avon must chose between his responsibility and self-interest, not to mention any affection for Vila. His baser instincts come out, and Avon chooses self-interest, as Vila knew he would. It is interesting to speculate on how the other crew members would have reacted in Vila's position. Dayna would have refused to believe that Avon would do it, and got shot. Soolin would probably hide and set an ambush for Avon. Tarrant would refuse to hide, but would stand and argue, probably leading to a face to face fight. Avon knows that Vila will hide, and that he hasn't the courage to risk a fight unless he is found. So Avon goes searching for Vila.
There has been much debate about the way Avon calls to Vila on the shuttle. He is certainly unconvincing, and would never fool anyone who knows him as well as Vila does. It would be much more in character to yell imperiously, as he does when he's found the plastic cube. Can Avon act ? From earlier attempts, I'd say it is not one of his skills. His excuses to Tarrant in Powerplay are stiff; his story about being the only survivor of a crash landing on Domo in Assassin is equally flat. Acting requires the ability to play, and to release inner feelings, both of which Avon normally supresses. In Orbit, Avon is far too tense to act well. He wants to survive, but he doesn't really want to kill Vila. While he picks up the gun, he simultaneously warns Vila by his poor acting. Avon is in deep conflict here. When he find the overweight plastic, he immediately reverts to his original choice of saving both of them.
Once aboard Scorpio, Avon once again demonstrates the changes he has gone through. In Sarcophagus he remarked:
"Regret is part of being alive, but keep it a small part."
By the fourth series, Avon can no longer afford to have regrets. He sacrifices Doctor Plaxton in order to save himself and the rest of the crew. When they ask about her, all Avon answers is "who ?" He ruthlessly blanks out her fate. At the end of Orbit he acknowledges something of what has happened, with his comment that he couldn't find Vila to help him shift the block of plastic. However, he meets Vila's stare with no hint of apology. So far as Avon is concerned, the incident is over; he will not think about it again. Just as Blake could not afford to think about the 'many' who would be affected by the destruction of Star One, so Avon cannot think about those who will die (or nearly) in his own crusade. The difference is that Blake was willing to sacrifice unknown people for the sake of the greater good. Avon will sacrifice those he knows, for his own ends.
Avon wouldn't tell the others what happened on the shuttle, but did Vila ? He doesn't seem to have done. He is probably aware that it would break up the group, and he knows they are safer together. It may also be that he regards the incident as being something between Avon and himself. Telling the others would be betraying Avon's secret. Vila may keep the secret to threaten Avon with later.... "Don't send me on this one or I'll tell the others what really happened on the Malodaar shuttle." His silence probably stems from a mixture of causes. While he doesn't make a fuss, the experience affects Vila deeply. It is his nature to need friends, and he regards Avon as one, even knowing his spikey attitude.
Vila also relies mostly on Avon for safety. Tarrant has previously threatened him, as well as being prone to rushing into situations. Neither Dayna nor Soolin are leaders, which is what Vila wants. To be betrayed by the person he needs, likes and trusts most is a shattering experience. Vila is not an aggressive or vengeful person, but this kind of personal hurt is going to linger. The fact that Avon could so deliberately turn on him also brings home to Vila just how much Avon has changed. He will never have so much faith in Avon and his plans again. He had already refused to take an active role in Gold and was proved quite right there. Vila knows he needs Avon to survive, but he is coming to believe that Avon is losing his judgement. Even Avon's attempt to team up with Blake no longer produces the enthusiasm in Vila which it would have done in the third series. After four series of swinging between optimism and fear, Vila has finally become disillusioned.
For me, the way Vila looks at Avon at the end of Orbit is the saddest moment in the whole of Blakes 7. It is truly the end of a beautiful relationship.