Cygnus Alpha

Written by:
Terry Nation
Directed by: Vere Lorrimer
Episode Length: 51’49
Original UK Transmission Date: 16/1/1978
Original UK Ratings: 8.5m
Original UK Chart Position: 54

DVD Availability: Try or Amazon

Starring: Gareth Thomas (Blake), Sally Knyvette (Jenna), Paul Darrow (Avon), Michael Keating (Vila), David Jackson (Gan) and Peter Tuddenham (Zen).

Guest-Starring: Brian Blessed (Vargas), Glyn Owen (Leylan), Norman Tipton (Artix), Pamela Salem (Kara), Robert Russell (Laran), Peter Childs (Arco), David Ryall (Selman) and Leslie Schofield (Raiker; reused footage from Space Fall).

Crew: Christina McMillan (Production Assistant), Sheelagh Rees (Production Unit Manager), Ian Scoones (Visual Effects Designer), Terry Nation (Series Deviser), Ken Willicombe (Film Cameraman), John Murphy (Film Recordist), Martin Sharpe (Film Editor), Bob Blagden (Graphics Designer), Brian Clemett (Studio Lighting), Tony Millier (Studio Sound), Richard Yeoman-Clark (Special Sound), Barbara Lane (Costume Designer), Marianne Ford (Make Up Artist), A.J. Mitchell (Electronic Effects), Dudley Simpson (Music), Peter Brayham (Stunt Co-Ordinator), Chris Boucher (Script Editor), Robert Berk (Designer) and David Maloney (Producer).

Trivia: The episode utilises 12 seconds of treated (black and white) footage from Space Fall as a flight log recap.

David Ryall and Peter Childs (Selman and Arco) were originally intended as part of the seven. However, budgetary restrictions meant they only appeared in this episode, and Jan Chappell (Cally), made up the numbers from the following story, along with various computers.

Look out for the first-ever use of Liberator’s teleporter, which sees Avon use three push buttons instead of the usual levers. Zen also has a lot more light indicators than he would later do in the series.

The ratings of season one climbed rapidly; Avon fans might like to read into the fact that, despite dropping slightly after the first episode, they rose by over a million since his introduction in Space Fall. Coincidence?

Story: Blake and his crew explore the Liberator, locating the ship’s armoury, clothes room, laboratory and a room with “almost as much wealth as the entire Federation banking system.” The ship’s onboard computer, Zen, is also introduced. It can read thoughts and takes the name of the Liberator from Jenna’s mind. After pressing a button on a console, Jenna inadvertently takes the ship into negative hyperspace by crossing the anti-matter interface.
We learn that the light barrier has been broken at this point in history. (Although publicity information suggested the series was set “in the third century of the second calendar” the series never had a specified timeline in the actual episodes. However, the technology clearly puts it in our future). Avon speaks of an Acquitar Project, which saw the transmission of matter as pure energy.
On a rescue mission for the other prisoners of the London ship, Blake is captured by Vargas, the leader of a religion that is populated by the descendants of the first prisoners on Cygnus Alpha. After Blake teleports down to the planet and fails to return, Avon suggests that he and Jenna move on with the riches available on the ship. Jenna actually agrees, but only after they’ve given Blake an hour to return. Blake rescues some of the prisoners, including Vila and Gan, who join the crew. Vargas tries to take over the ship, but is teleported into space and destroyed. Meanwhile, three Federation pursuit ships are already tracking the Liberator…

Speed: This is the first episode to reference the speed the Liberator uses. Blake querulously suggests Zen pilot the ship to Cygnus Alpha at "standard" speed. He ends the episode requesting "maximum speed." The following episode, Time Squad, opens with Blake having learnt more about its workings. There he twice requests "standard by two." Standards by 3-7 are first referenced in The Web, as well as standard by 8.65, standard by 10 and standard by .5. Jenna also references "standard by one half" and "standard by one and one half" in the same story. In Breakdown a magnetic field causes the ship to accelerate, where Blake reasons that they will be out of control if they get up past standard by 20. The same episode also sees them manually take the Liberator up to standard by 12. In Redemption we see the Liberator's "sister ship", which is shown to travel at standard by 14, a speed which logic would suggest the Liberator must also be able to reach. However, Orac is able to scramble "Space Vehicle 1"'s launch systems fairly easily, and the name would suggest a prototype. What confirms this is The Harvest of Kairos, which has Avon confusing Zen's scanners with Sophron ("It reflects a slightly greater image of whatever it is that happens to be scanning it.") This sees Zen detect a maximum speed of standard by 12.203. As this has to be a speed greater than the Liberator's, this is a clear sign that the Liberator's maximum speed is standard by 12.
Space Fall sees the first mention of Time Distort, with the London freighter travelling at "hyperdrive speed time distort five." This is the speed that all the Federation ships travel at, with Time Distort 10 given as the "emergency maximum" in the episode Hostage. The same episode has Blake giving an order to increase speed to standard by 10, which is then logged (it's presumed the speed hadn't changed in the meantime) by the Federation as "time distort 20". Therefore we can assume that standard speed is twice that of the time distortion travel.
As for Scorpio in season four, then very little information is given about the speed it can reach, though with our prior knowledge of freighters (and Vila's assertion of pursuit ships that "at least in the Liberator we could always outrun them") we can assume that the ship can reach around standard by 3-5. Not surprisingly, the most information we get on its speed is in the episode Stardrive. This is the only time its original speed is stated, with Tarrant pilotting it at standard by one. (As this is on an asteroid approach we can also assume this is the minimum speed). The same story sees space choppers fitted with the eponymous "stardrive" and reaching 12.6 in "real time", which is apparently even faster than the time distorting standards achieved by the Liberator. However, as Scorpio is larger than the space choppers, when it's fitted with the star drive, there's no confirmation to suggest that it too can reach 12.6 in real time. One would estimate that the bulk would slow it down, just a little. "maximum speed" is the order of the day, post-Stardrive, the sole isolated log of Scorpio's speed coming from the Federation, who clock it at time distort 12 (standard by 6). However, this is only for its "initial acceleration."
Yet away from the speed comparisons, actually how fast is a "standard"? Very little information is given in this regard. Mission to Destiny sees an objective that Zen claims they will reach in "16.140901 minutes" at standard by four. After being told he has 128 hours of information to digest before they get there, Blake suggests "mark three?" However, Blake's expression isn't entirely serious, so we needn't take this literally and assume that the difference between a standard mark is over 112 minutes. Often we are given the measurement of "spatials" for the distance the Liberator must travel (Voice From The Past citing an asteroid as "0.102 spatials" in diameter) though again this is never confirmed as an exact measurement. The novelisation of Project Avalon suggests "spacial miles" (Which, with his prediliction for prefixing everything with space, would be pure Nation), though this is never stated in the series itself - on screen it could literally be anything...

“The architectural style is early maniac.”

I was initially disappointed with this story after the excellent first two episodes. A stock SF situation of organised religion, combined with spears that can pass through film and into video - not to mention Brian Blessed - left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed.

However, a second glance shows it to be more than a cut above average TV fare. There’s some great location work, surprisingly decent (for Blake’s 7, anyway) model effects, and, most importantly, Vila is on excellent form. I sniggered at his “do you think if we complain they’ll give us a refund?” and just about split my sides at his delivery of the title quote. Of his limerick, though, then what would rhyme with “Cygnus”?

The rest of it isn’t so bad, either. Brian Blessed actually plays well in context (though they can only stop him shouting by teleporting him into space) and the study of the power of religion makes for rewarding repeat viewings. It’s no classic, but it does contain many fine character moments, and Michael Keating is a star.