“You have a reputation for straightforward mayhem that’s second to none!”
It’s a well known part of Doctor Who lore that Colin Baker owes his casting as the Sixth Doctor to his attendance at Assistant Floor Manager Lynn Richards’ wedding reception. Such was his sparkling ability to keep the guests (who also included Peter Davison, Sarah Sutton, and Eric Saward in the Doctor Who contingent) entertained, John Nathan-Turner came away from the event with his mind made up that he had found the next Doctor.
But it would be unsurprising if, whilst making his mind up about his decision, Doctor Who’s producer had taken a look at the tape of City At The Edge Of The World, an episode from the third series of BBC sci-fi series Blakes 7 in which Baker had guest starred just a few years previously.
If he did, he would have seen Baker deliver a trademark larger-than-life performance as galactic criminal Bayban the Butcher (or Berseker if you prefer), a man whose considerable ego and heightened sense of his own worth are not a million miles away from that of the version of the Doctor he would go on to create. It’s a timely moment to warn you that this article contains spoilers for the episode but then you have had, y’know, nearly 40 years to watch it…
City At The Edge Of The World is often described as Blakes 7’s take on the romance genre but it could also be viewed as one of the series’ caper episodes in the tradition of Gambit (which features the memorable sight of John Leeson dressed as a kind of pre-revolutionary French aristocrat in space) in the previous series or Sand (guest starring Roy Kinnear) in the fourth and final run. For my money, it’s this playful side to the drama, rather than the somewhat unconvincing love story, which marks the episode out.
The story sees Vila (Michael Keating, whose role in The Sunmakers in 1977 had led to director Pennant Roberts recommending him to series producer, David Maloney for Blakes 7), the Liberator crew’s resident thief and safe-breaker, sent as part of a deal to the planet Keezarn. Unfortunately for him, he falls into the clutches of Bayban the Butcher, a notorious and unpredictable criminal who wants his help to open a sealed door which, according to Bayban and his gang, leads to treasures beyond imagination. Valentine “Black Guardian” Dyall’s Norl, the mystical leader of the planet’s inhabitants, is giving only cryptic clues as to what lies within…
It’s a strong set-up for a story which sees writer, Chris Boucher, script editor throughout Blakes 7’s run (and who Who fans will know from serials like The Robots of Death and Image of the Fendahl), create some great comic moments and excellent dialogue, ably realised by Keating and Baker. Michael Keating is able to step into the limelight usually occupied by his co-stars and shows that he is more than up to the task. Witness the early scene where he has a very one-sided discussion with his silent guides or the moment when he has to overcome his fear and convince Bayban to reveal all he knows about what’s behind the door.
As the story develops, a romance blossoms between Vila and Kerril, a female member of Bayban’s gang who, it has to be said, makes a rather unbelievable transition from bad-ass killer to dewy-eyed lover in no time at all. This being Blakes 7, there’s ultimately no future for them as a couple although Kerril does make it out alive (which is more than can be said for just about anyone else who makes the mistake of falling for one of the crew in the entire run of the series) and Vila’s reasoning for not accompanying her to the paradise city of the title – that there would be nothing to steal there – is nicely in tune with his character.
Sadly, Bayban rather disappears from view once the love story gets going, but he does still have his moment of death-or-glory when Avon and the other crew members come to Vila’s rescue. Baker must surely have relished his character’s scene-stealing fate, blown up by a laser cannon, and is undoubtedly having the time of his life throughout, eating up the scenery whilst somehow staying just the right side of going so completely OTT he reaches Andromeda. Paul Darrow (Avon in Blakes 7) would later joke that his equally ripe performance as Tekker in Timelash alongside Colin Baker’s Doctor was his way of repaying the favour…
City At The Edge Of The World is, as you’d expect, included on the recently released Blakes 7: The Complete Collection box set. Read our guide to why you should watch the series here!