‘What a good idea. We must consider that for general use.’
Every show needs a reboot. In Doctor Who terms, this is usually attributed to a change of producer and/or script editor. John Wiles brought a more adult approach in contrast to Verity Lambert’s more populist tone. Hinchcliffe brought horror and movie elements, where Williams brought a lighter, more literature inspired feel…
With Blake’s 7 it’s slightly harder to categorise where tonal shifts take place, within its shorter lifespan. But there are shifts, and reboots.
I think many will see a shift from series 3 to 4. Most notably the situation the stories take place in, but also a considerable shift in the visual style of the series.
There is clearly a shift in situation and characters between series 2 and 3. Star One is the biggest shock in the Blake universe. But the visual style remains the same.
And there is ‘Shadow.’ A reboot in so many ways. Firstly there is a budgetary shift – more money, which brings more sophisticated design, and less repetition of sets. There is also a change in the feel of the stories and the type of situations encountered.
This is a breath of fresh air as we welcome into the fray…Chris Boucher. Waiting in the wings for 13 episodes, this is the series first major shift in tone. Out goes Terry Nation’s heady brew of pulp and pastiche, and into the maneuverings and subtle mechanisations of ‘the dirty grey areas of your politics.’
This is series 2 – realpolitik – fanaticism – and the infra-structure of the things that are not immediately apparent until later in the series. And of course an 11th hour twist that no-one could possibly see coming, the legacy of which will shape the type of adventure we see in the third season. That’s a long way away, but it starts with ‘Shadow.’
This episode starts with a scene away from the Liberator and our heroes. Nothing new there. Many episodes have started with action away from the ‘Seven’, but this time it feels like the episode is racing away, ahead of the Liberator crew. We see a world explored to the audience right from the start. We get the key backgrounds of the Terra Nostra, we understand what Shadow is. We learn about its effect, and get enough information about Space City to start making judgements. By the time the Liberator glides into view accompanied by Dudley Simpson’s fanfare, it feels like the episode has started without them, and our ‘Seven’ are late for the party. To me, this is part of the reboot. The introduction of comings and goings of Space City, suggest a bigger universe, and more to discover away from the Liberator crew, rather than through their eyes.
This first scene is significant for another reason – the way it is played. A Terry Nation script is full of excitement, jeopardy and baaaaad things, however the performances here are a realistic taste of nastiness and callousness not seen since the first episode. Hanna is distant, Bek flips between rapid fire aggression and matter of fact gloating, and Derek Smith as Largo conveys real callousness in his treatment of Hanna. This is a move away from the theatrical and comic book, and towards a more realistic direction.
Something else I noticed that comes with the arrival of Boucher in this episode, is EVERY character gets key moments to shine.
For the first time this is Blake’s 7 as an ensemble cast, all feeding off each other, all adding to the group dynamic. It’s been one of the perennial problems of the series formula – how to ensure every character gets something meaty to do. Up to this point, in every episode there are characters who have been sidelined to a greater or lesser extent. Gan is an obvious case in point, but lets not also forget, Jenna and Vila in Mission to Destiny, Cally and Avon in Duel, and even Blake to a degree in Deliverance. But not here.
And that’s not all. Each character is given an extra depth. Blake is ever more fanatical and unsympathetic, we see a strength to Jenna in her scenes on Space City, there is Vila’s hedonism and manipulation writ large, and we see Cally not so much possessed, but attacked, and she is terrified, not subdued. Several commentators has bemoaned the regularity of Cally’s possession in many episodes, but this feels different as we get a sense of an attack on her consciousness, rather than the passivity of her other moments of take over. We get additional backstory to Jenna, Vila, and Cally. And finally, Gan is given something that matters, as he challenges Blake on his aims, and perhaps for the first time invites the audience to really start to question Blake’s motivations and judgement. It’s a pivotal moment in the shows history, and one all too easily overlooked. And it doesn’t stop there, as later in the episode Gan is in control of the Liberator. He is written with confidence and with an assertiveness that has rarely been seen. These scenes, along with material for Horizon, is the last time David Jackson would perform in the show, and it’s sad to see that is only at the very end that Gan, as a character, is written in the way he should be, as a vital part of the crew, rather than a bit part player.
As for Blake, this is the episode that marks a shift into a new fanaticism. When I first watched this episode I was struck by the scene where he snaps at the rest of the crew following Cally’s disappearance, it was the first time I felt a real lack of sympathy for someone who, whilst unsympathetic, can often get his way through charm and persuasiveness. But it’s the little moments that strike me too, the impatience to hear out Zen’s full analysis of Shadow, leaving out some significant information that could have lead to a very different story. This zest for getting things done in the moment is a theme that runs through the season. Gareth Thomas shifts his portrayal of Blake skillfully, adopting a more muted, silent-but-determined approach in keeping with his increased single mindedness in defeating the Federation.
Another first is the introduction of an unknown in the director’s chair. Up to this point we have had established names, often ‘Who’ luminaries such as Briant, Roberts, and Camfield. But this time it’s Jonathan Wright Miller. So what do we know of him? As someone who has not immersed himself in Blake’s 7 fandom there might be some interview out there in a forgotten A4 printed fanzine somewhere. But I can’t find one. So he remains an enigma. A name who is so familiar on the credits along with other double barreled crew like Spenton-Foster, yet in this case, unreachable.
I think Wright Miller’s direction is a fresh breath. And a badly needed one. By this I don’t mean that the direction on Blake’s 7 has been uninspired or formulaic, but there comes a point where the visual style of the show requires a little nudge. Video wipes, composite images, and inventive camera angles especially the space city are used to good effect. Apparently Chris Boucher wrote the entrapment of Cally based on a suggestion from electronic effects wizard A.J. Mitchell, who claimed that he could achieve a long shot of Cally, and finish with a zoom right into her eye. The final result is testament to that collaboration.
A moment that illustrates this is how Wright-Miller effectively conveys a seamless transition from Cally’s mind to Largo’s office in Space City using efficient camera trickery and well timed musical cues. It’s a technique that he re-uses effectively in Horizon, from Avon’s ironic laughter on the flight deck, to the next moment in the teleport bay. It’s a pity that this progressive approach took a step back in the next episode.
He cuts action a lot faster too, and in a way that doesn’t speed things up, but more moves things on. Take the scene where Largo gets the upper hand of the crew, calls in the enforcer, rounds everyone up, and throws in a sneaky aside for good measure! It’s a great fusion of tempo, and cut together with punchy musical motifs. ‘A pro keeps it simple.’
He does it again later, when Avon and Gan make their way back into Largo’s quarters and Blake overpowers him. It’s quite subtle on first viewing, but it is definitely a sign of a new director, early on in his career, trying to give things a little bit more zip.
I have a lot of time for this episode. In fact it might be one of my favorites. I remember watching this one with my Dad, who also as a lot of time for Blake’s 7. His first words were, ‘that was a bit of a confusing one,’ but I remember he said that thoughtfully, as though what is really meant is that it is not a cosy experience. It requires concentration, and consideration, and is a more involved experience. It requires an understanding of many things we don’t see on screen, such as the background of the Terra Nostra, and it’s infrastructure, rather than relying on an understanding of what we see on screen. Compare this to Gambit. Freedom City is fully realised – its vibe, its internal workings. It is the thing that helps make the plot unfold. In ‘Shadow’ however, Space City plays second fiddle. It is as a place, sketched well but it is simply an environment where the plot unfolds, and not so much the driver of it.
The downside for me is the ending. It’s overlong and a bit reliant on extended discussion to explain what went on (a similar failing of the third series episode ‘Sarcophagus.’ But considering the fascinating concepts on display here in this episode, I’m happy to go along with the ride.
Sometimes when I watch an episode I’m often comparing it to other series within the fantasy genre. Unfair perhaps, but that’s how I have enjoyed Who and Blake together over the years. Many is the time when I’ve compared a Blake to a previously watched Who. However on this occasion, I watched a Who, and ended up comparing it to Blake. The story in question was ‘Nightmare of Eden.’ OK, there’s an obvious link, in terms of the depiction of drug abuse. Whilst in both shows drugs are portrayed as bad, it’s the attitudes in the two universes that strike me, compare the Doctor’s reactions to those dealing with Zaroxin, to Avon’s ‘she was dying anyway’ and it just reminds you of how the two programmes were light years away from each other at the time.
There are good performances all round here. It’s not easy to play the ‘addict’ and Karl Bowman and Adrienne Burgess plays the part without resorting to too much in the way of cliche. A little note for the calm nonchalance displayed by Vernon Dobtcheff as the ‘Chairman.’ A couple of years earlier he was having his neck bitten by Richard Kiel’s ‘Jaws’ in a Bond film, so perhaps we can call this ‘his promotion.’ A little mention for Archie Tew’s impassive performance as Largo’s enforcer, a far cry from his current role as life coach…or is it?
It’s funny how matte shots are designed to make the visible frame appear larger, well Zonda and its suns are depicted in a way that make the planet feel more enclosed. Still the next time we’re confronted with a significant matte shot in the series 3 episode ‘Children of Auron’ we face the destruction caused by a giant fly!
The set design is excellent here, with interesting cuboid forms and patterns within Space City. And a hint of ceiling! In some ways it’s quite minimal, with the coloured podiums that Largo sits on, but there is definite detail in there. One of Paul Allen’s best contributions to the show, and one that will be re-used in ‘Warlord’ in series 4.
Musically, the Liberator first appears with an assured, confident swagger from Dudley Simpson. This is the Blake’s 7 theme not as bombastic, or as an ‘announcement’ but as an established theme. Perhaps now Terry Nation is taking a back seat, everything else, including the music, is settling too.
Incidental music is part of the DNA of this episode, giving it an uneasy atmosphere. The dreamlike and eerie background to Space City is as much of an example of world building as the cues used in ‘Duel.’ It’s both memorable and distinctive. It was even given it’s own title – ‘Background Music on Space City’ and ran for almost 11 minutes. There is also some mysterious vibraphone leaden music for the telepathic scenes for Cally. Meanwhile Richard Yeoman-Clark provides perhaps his most delicate work, a foreshadowing of the more ethereal and organic sounds created by his successor Elizabeth Parker, whose contribution would commence in a few episode from now (in production order.)
HOW TO SELL THIS TO A NON BELIEVER?
White linen and big hair, compete with cloth sac addict wear.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
The transition from Cally’s mind to Space City, Avon’s ‘Next please.’ And any scene where Gan questions Blake’s strategy.
THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
Peety. Stupid Peety.
VERDICT IN 10 WORDS EXACTLY.
This is the first episode to really make me think.
So this is one of my favorites. Welcome Chris Boucher, it’s nice to finally see what you can do, and welcome Jonathan Wright Miller and series 2 proper!