by Marilyn Burge
Warning: Spoilers for "Taren Capel".
At the end of "Taren Capel", the fourth instalment in the Kaldor City series, the stage was set for a killing frenzy by newly-liberated and unrestrained robots against the City's human inhabitants. "Checkmate", following immediately afterwards, is a very densely written hour of entertainment. It's a departure from the pragmatic style of its predecessors, although the usual and welcome parallels with the role that real-life media plays (and abuses) are present, as are the allusions to the current state of world politics.
"Checkmate" has two main plots which in a way mirror one another, as both deal with manipulation, false appearances, and self-interest masquerading as concern for others. The obliviousness of most characters to ominous events unfolding almost under their noses is totally believable and is a very strong element of the story, adding considerably to its effect. "Checkmate" is further enhanced by realistic minor characters, that contribute to the feeling that it is real people, in a real world, to whom we are listening. The story also contains moments of horror; some scenes with Uvanov's Guard Squad, for example, are particularly harrowing. As in previous stories, none of the characters or institutions is "good" - to an extent everyone is murderous, cold-blooded or indifferent, and anything said is potentially a lie, a bluff or a double-bluff, as facts are withheld or deliberately misrepresented. Yet nearly every character is somehow likeable (we can even feel for the odious Landerchild as he frets about Uvanov's Teflon-like resistance to political mud-slinging). Strong characterisation has always been a feature of this series, and once again performances are excellent throughout.
As disaster looms and the story takes a sinister turn, the presence of the down-to-earth Cotton/Rull double act is very welcome. Trevor Cooper and Brian Croucher continue to work well together, and their scenes are as amusing as ever, although perhaps more fraught than before. Rull in particular maintains his role as the common man, continuing to moan about his salary deductions and to react defensively to remarks about his weight. Rull is not stupid, inefficient or tokenistic, he is simply fat - and one knows that a thin Rull would behave just as badly. Rull grumbles so much that it's easy to forget that he is actually rather privileged by Kaldor City standards - in a world staffed by robots, he is not only employed but in a senior position as Head of Security. His activities are curtailed at the beginning of "Checkmate", giving him plenty of time to think about the behaviour of his Deputy Operations Supervisor. It's difficult to single out the best line or moment of these excellent scenes, although I particularly enjoyed Rull's gloomy disgust when soliloquising on a messy situation, and was impressed by Brian Croucher's portrayal of Cotton's growing inkling that perhaps he's been rumbled.
Paullus, the leader of the Tarenist anti-robot group, has a new confidante who seems determined to lead him into some very dubious situations. When this troublemaker began to say "place your hand...", I let out a groan and, traumatised, sank into the nearest chair. Be warned: this is a truly horrible moment. Despite this obvious unpleasantness, the new influence on Paullus is so great that he even begins to imitate his acquaintance, becoming somewhat raspy and menacing. While this is disturbing in itself, there is also a subtle use of Christian scripture during these scenes which is astutely placed by the writer in a way that makes it most unsettling.
It seems inevitable that Paullus will be led away by men in white coats and asked kindly if he can remember the name of the Firstmaster Chairholder, when he unexpectedly has a completely sane moment in a very touching scene with a nervous colleague. David Collings as Paullus is marvellous throughout the whole story, moving easily through wildly varying moods and states of mind, and making them credible.
Blayes, Paullus's incendiary colleague, is dimly aware that things are changing around her, but her literal mind fails to grasp the situation. She is, for once, way out of her depth. Tracy Russell, of course, isn't out of her depth at all, and conveys the terrorist's mixed feelings, from frustrated panic to vengeful coldness, with the high standard of performance that she has maintained throughout the series. She manages also, against the odds, to keep the hard-as-nails Blayes a fairly sympathetic character.
I was half-expecting a showdown between Blayes and Justina in "Checkmate", as both seem to be involved with the same Security Consultant. I thought Justina was somewhat sidelined in "Taren Capel" (although her nightmares, in hindsight, take on significance), but here she seemingly fulfills her destiny. In only a few lines, Patricia Merrick is outstanding at conveying the bewildered yet compelled state-of-mind experienced by this unfortunate character. Justina's distressed confusion and the thought of what one suspects is to happen to her are equally painful. Later, in Justina's most important scene, Merrick's transcendent performance conjures up images in the mind of the listener I would have thought impossible from an audio production. Among other things, one recalls with a shiver the incident from "Occam's Razor" where Justina is left alone in the bitterly cold wind. This is one of many indications that the plotting of this series is (to borrow a phrase) as tight as a Firstmaster's arse. The production values are outstanding throughout, and this scene surpasses all others. The work of sound genius Alistair Lock, as always, also deserves special mention. Some of the sound effects he uses for this story had my hair standing on end for a week.
More prosaically, the political machinations that we know and love are present in "Checkmate". Firstmaster Landerchild has a meeting with a founding family chum, which is reminiscent of the scene in Life of Brian, "what have the Romans ever done for us?", as he struggles to extract anything but praise for Uvanov from his enthusiastic colleague, a part nicely played by Peter Halliday, known for his occasional appearances in Doctor Who and his many other roles in a career that has spanned five decades. Peter Miles' performance as Landerchild is an understated masterpiece. He makes his character suitably unpleasant, yet (very faintly) endearing, and we are never allowed to forget that Landerchild has a bitter, personal grudge against the lower-class but more successful Uvanov. I hope Miles likes playing creepy authoritarian characters as much as we relish listening to his faultless performances.
Firstmaster Chairholder Uvanov is on his best form, bawling out abusive remarks about Landerchild even before the opening theme. No-one else could roll out Uvanov's favourite swear word as ferociously as Russell Hunter. It really is a thrill to hear this veteran performer reprise the part of Uvanov once more, and Hunter clearly enjoyed the role. His portrayal of Uvanov's grim satisfaction at having his longstanding paranoia justified is particularly delightful. When forced to defend his behaviour to his peers, Uvanov expertly manipulates the Company Board members en masse. His address to the Board is so strongly delivered by Hunter that it wrenches the attention of the listener away from the utterly unguessable conclusion to the other plot which is beckoning irresistibly around the next corner.
Iago, by this time, has developed and implemented an approach to the robot problem which is both simple and ingenious. In the process he has a very unevenly matched confrontation with a News Producer - a good performance from MJTV's Mark J. Thompson who proceeds very credibly from unwise bravado to quivering panic. This scene also contains a wonderful moment with newsreader Danl Packard who is, of course, played by Doctor Who icon Nicholas Courtney. While there is a lot more to this actor than the Brigadier, this is probably what most of us know him as, and it's pleasing to hear him play a character that breaks out of the mould, where he is able to loosen his stiff upper lip.
Iago's robot strategy is impressive, but his arrogant dismissal of the insights of another character is reckless. Had he been less precipitate, he might have avoided a frightening dilemma which confronts him as the story very satisfyingly and majestically comes full circle. It seems that a moral vacuum is not as safe a place as it appears, and that, for Iago at least, Hell is definitely other people. Modern films, overloaded as they often are with special effects and relentless activity, can cause us to take a superficial approach to entertainment. The intricacy of Kaldor City, and of this scene in particular, compels us to rediscover the ability to listen and concentrate.
Interestingly, the issue of Iago's identity (which has been tantalisingly unclear since his very first appearance) arises again in "Checkmate". Writer Alan Stevens scatters clues pointing in both directions: Iago's modification of a robot seems familiar, but the remarks of a character who knows true identities suggest otherwise. It's particularly agreeable to hear Iago caustically remark "well, now", as the phrase and the delivery are familiar to many listeners. Also, it has always seemed likely that the name of this scheming assassin is no coincidence, and this is explicitly confirmed when Kaldor City's Iago is given one of the last lines of his Othello namesake. Perhaps, with this link established, it is significant that Shakespeare's Iago remarks, in the first scene of the play, "I am not what I am". As usual, we have conflicting possibilities and the chance to make up our own minds.
In a way, the entire story stands or falls on Paul Darrow's performance in the closing moments. This scene, centered on Iago, is where various elements of "Checkmate" meet and mesh in him. Any misstep or careless reading of the part could have cast a jarring note back over the entire story. But of course Darrow again demonstrates the attention to detail, thoughtful interpretation and acting skill that made Avon's rise and fall through four seasons of Blake's 7 so riveting and extraordinary. His performance is masterful as he takes Iago through a range of emotions including curiosity, cynicism, anger, determination, exhaustion, shock and resignation. He somehow manages to sound simultaneously dazed and alert, even while we are waiting uneasily for Iago's mask to slip. This is remarkable: very well done, and very disturbing.
Alan Stevens and his colleagues have produced a layered and complex series, which is consistently entertaining and, towards the end especially, has considerable emotional impact. Also, for many of us, it helps to justify and maintain our interest in (or obsession with) Doctor Who and Blake's 7, as we see aspects of those productions mature into the current era in this series, with its adult themes and presentation. This is not to imply that the television programmes were juvenile, simply that they were products of their time, as this series is a product of its time, continuing and expanding the previous traditions while also being original and unique. "Checkmate" in particular will stay with me for a long time.
POSTSCRIPT: On a final note, I would like to thank Magic Bullet Productions for giving Russell Hunter the opportunity to recreate the character of Uvanov in what turned out to be the last years of his life. It's clear he was delighted to revisit the part, as were his fans delighted and grateful to hear him play Uvanov again.