Sarcophagus

Written by:
Tanith Lee
Directed by: Fiona Cumming
Episode Length: 51'47
Original UK Transmission Date: 3/3/1980
Original UK Ratings: 9.9m
Original UK Chart Position: 22

DVD Availability: Try sendit.com
DVD Availability: Not yet released - check back later for pre-order details

Starring: Paul Darrow (Avon), Jan Chappell (Cally), Michael Keating (Vila), Steven Pacey (Tarrant), Josette Simon (Dayna) and Peter Tuddenham (Orac/Zen).

Crew: Max Faulkner (Fight Co-Ordinator), Edwina Craze (Production Assistant), Sheelagh Rees (Production Unit Manager), Shuna Young (Director's Assistant), Antony Root (Assistant Floor Manager), Peter Chapman (Film Cameraman), Ian Sansom (Film Recordist), Sheila S. Tomlinson (Film Editor), Brian Clemett (Studio Lighting), Malcolm Johnson (Studio Sound), Elizabeth Parker (Special Sound), Steve Drewett/Jim Francis (Visual Effects Designers), A.J. Mitchell (Electronic Effects), Doug Burd (Graphic Designer), Dee Robson (Costume Designer), Sheelagh J. Wells (Make-Up Artist), Dudley Simpson (Music), Terry Nation (Series Deviser), Chris Boucher (Script Editor), Gerry Scott (Designer) and David Maloney (Producer).

Trivia: Along with Moloch, this was the episode with the highest chart position on original UK transmission. On a season-by-season basis, then season three had the highest chart positions, averaging at 32. The first season was someway behind, at an average of 45, with season four at 73. The lowest ranked season in terms of chart position was season two, which averaged 78th position in the audience charts.

This is the only episode not to officially feature any guest cast; though guest actors do appear in uncredited, unspeaking roles during the opening six minutes: Sandra Arabian, Celestine Carroll, Martine Cherrell, Val Clover, Karen Cooper, Barbie Denham and Wendy Smith.

Story: Cally has spent ten hours alone in her quarters, pondering over Auron (see Children of Auron). Avon comes in to comfort her, and to ask her to the bridge. While on the bridge, they learn Zen has detected an alien vessel. Avon, Vila and Cally beam along, bringing back an artefact with them. Bringing back the artefact causes Cally to be possessed by an entity from "a world that would take more than your lifetime to reach", who wishes to control the ship. The entity claims "death is an interim state" and "I've waited centuries to think and feel as she does." However, while using psi powers to attack the crew, the creature finds she cannot destroy Avon as she has a mental link with Cally and "Cally liked you."

Avon: The opening scenes again show some genuine affection between Avon and Cally, he even touching her arm reassuringly.

Tarrant: The underlying conflict between Avon and Tarrant finally reaches boiling point after Avon tells him to shut up, and they nearly come to blows. After Tarrant has told Avon what a failure he is, he asks him, "do you want to forget I said all that?" "It wasn't particularly memorable," comes Avon's reply.

Vila: The creature that possesses Cally notes of Vila: "He has a very high IQ and yet he acts like an imbecile."


Viewpoint:
"I shouldn't like to spend the rest of my life here."
"Don't worry, it wouldn't be a long one."


No other episode has left me in such a conflicted mood when it came to deciding its final score. There's no way you can say Sarcophagus is only "average", it's too special for that. In many ways, it's so terrible that it's a two, yet in other ways it displays the brilliance of a four. It's almost a microcosm of the season as a whole, as it combines the insightfully brilliant with the tastelessly laughable to disconcerting effect.

Fans go wild about the episode as it was written by a "proper" SF author, Tanith Lee, who had written ten novels before this. Her second script, season four's Sand, was a corker, yet this is a mix of the decent and the indulgent. First of all, this is the Avon/Cally episode to fuel a thousand fanfics. An entity that can't kill Avon because she's merged with Cally and Cally loves him. A touch of the arm, a stolen glance, a caring side underneath his psychosis. Add to this the long-awaited eruption between Avon and Tarrant and you've got some first-class scenes, as well as the observation that Josette Simon's glands are on notable display. There are also many, many witty lines, such as Vila's quip after Cally claims she fired at her reflection: "You can take modesty too far, you know."

However, some of the lines are clanky, notably Tarrant's (maybe it's the way he doesn't tell 'em?), with "you should learn self defence" a feeble rejoinder to Vila's "my head's killing me." The idea of a Cally possessed story might seem like cliché, though in fairness it's actually only been done - including here - four times, significantly less than the ship moving out of teleport range or someone saying "clear the neutron blasters for firing." The episode is a bit too ethereal and fantasy-based for my liking, though if you'd been commissioned to write for a series about a group of space travellers being advised by the power of Zen you'd think it was about hippies, wouldn't you?

On the other hand, some of it is indulgent toss. How many people switched off after an opening six minutes of silent hippies performing parlour tricks*? And apologies to lovers of "filk" but to actually see a song in a SF show fills me with horror. 21'45m in we get still photos of the Liberator, overlaid with Josette Simon singing "Dayna's Song". It's twee, cheesy and just plain incongruous in genre TV. (Though secretly I quite liked it). And Vila performing magic tricks to shadows with dubbed-on applause is excruciating. Having psychological dreams revealing the inner psyche of the crew (such as Vila as the Fool) is intriguing, and doubtlessly gets kudos from Lee's literary SF bent. Yet it's also self-serving masturbation, an experiment rendered flawed by being translated into television ethics.

In the end, what finally tipped my decision - on this occasion, at any rate - was the final look that Avon and Cally give to one another. A four it is then.


* While there are seven uncredited extras in this piece, the opening scene was actually performed by the regular cast in masks. Filmed at Ealing, they play apparitions of themselves, a portentous rendering of their later roles on the ship. This is, of course, the entire point of the scene, though I was so thick I never realised. I am a big dozy old Hector!