“I want you to do everything you can to help the man. Our first concern must be to see that he has justice.”
When I think about Blake’s 7 the series, I think of a storyline that runs over 50 episodes, starting with ‘Space Fall’ and finishing with ‘Warlord’. This is bookended with two very distinct standalone episodes at the beginning and the very end. When Blake and the other convicts started their journey to Cygnus Alpha, it felt like the true starting point of a big, epic adventure. And when forced to abandon Xenon Base at the end of that final season, it felt like an end point of a series of adventures – a statement that the rebel unit needed a complete reboot, amidst the rapid expansion of a seemingly unstoppable Federation power.
So yes, these very first and last adventures, whilst connected to the overall narrative, do feel like their own stand alone entities – like pilot episodes. One certainly is, and the other could have been if the BBC had decided to continue with it.
In my review of ‘Blake‘ I noted how that episode feels as much a beginning as a finale. The main reason for this is how it feels that to watch the very first episode so soon after witnessing that final memorable shoot out. So that’s what I did. And once again it is fascinating to contrast the character of Blake from those last camera shots, to the moment he first appears four years earlier. And within minutes, I’ve forgotten all about the events on Gauda Prime. ‘The Way Back’ is also the only moment I get to forget about Avon, because at the very start, on 2nd January 1978, it was all about one man – Roj Blake.
As part of the two posts to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Blake’s 7, I’ve returned to ‘The Way Back’ – a blog post from the early days of this project. It’s not just an update, it is, for the most part, a rewrite in keeping with the style I have arrived at during my more recent posts. It’s given me both a chance to check over what I have written with fresh eyes, and correct some of the many errors in my spelling and grammer…and no doubt create many new mistakes along the way.
Let’s start by looking at those crucial first live action images. I was interested in seeing how Nation opens his previous series Survivors (1975-77). In both ‘The Way Back’ and ‘The Fourth Horseman’ the central character is seen right from the very first scene. And in those first scenes, Nation wastes no time in adding in important details that say something about the world in which the lead characters inhabit. In Survivors, it was a tennis machine. In Blake it’s a surveillance camera. With Abby Grant, it says wealth and privilege, whereas Blake it says oppression and control.
It made me think about the transition from title sequence to first scene. Being the first episode I was expecting something grander, maybe a fade from black, or a slow cross dissolve, and a sweeping establishing shot to make the audience go “wow“. But no. The title caption simply cuts to that first close up of the camera, and pulls out as Blake walks into shot. A camera and Blake. Pretty much everything that is the description of the show is represented in that first shot. This bold creative decision to avoid traditional establishing shots and grand sweeping gestures is something that Blake’s 7 will return to again and again. It says to the audience that we need to keep up with this series, it’s not going to stop and let us catch up with it. Something I’m reminded of in almost every episode.
Other things I noticed about the opening scenes relate to how the first dialogue uttered in the show is in the form of a public service announcement. Some of the finest received pronunciation ever heard in the series! And the musak. Is it Dudley Simpson, or is it Richard Yeoman-Clark? Either way it is an excellent scene builder.
We’re being drip fed intriguing details that can only keep the audience sticking around. Why has Blake gone without food and drink for 36 hours? It’s certainly appropriate that he is a little crabby.
But soon the gleaming white turns into an imposing dark corridor, with some good reverb over the dialogue which gives it a bigger feel. And then the big bad door ominously opens and outside we go.
So what is the hook in those critical opening minutes? It’s summed up by Ravella’s line “So whatever you see tonight, you keep silent about, right?” Like many detective dramas it’s making us complicit with the events that are unfolding. Take some characters we’ve only just met and invite us, the audience, to go on a journey into the night, a journey that probably will not end well. Once we reach our destination, the story can really begin. It doesn’t have to be original for it to work. This is Terry Nation at his finest.
On film we see the trio navigate their way through caged corridors and ladders which reminds me of the overhead shots of dim contestants crawling around ‘The Crystal Maze’ (Channel 4.) There is even the sound of an Owl in the distance, which somehow cuts through the futuristic setting, and suggests to the casual viewer, who perhaps hadn’t picked up their copy of the Radio Times, that maybe we’re on Earth.
Ravella gives us further clues about Blake’s character, in a nicely shot piece of film by a river bank. And then another big heavy door opens, in a scene that reminds me of the wonder of the TARDIS doors opening in Doctor Who.
Ah it’s Robert Beatty from ‘The Tenth Planet’ and many other things. Here is a respected actor and guest star, and all I can think about is how amazing his sideburns are.
But one of the signature moments of the episode takes place, as Foster tells Blake about the past.
The sequence contains plenty of visual flourishes that are a part of the era, such as slow cross-fades between eyes, and mouth, slow camera tracks, crash zooms and jump cuts. It is dynamic, and is representative of a style of visual language that I still love. And it is unsettling too – take the first person perspective of the Federation guards attacking Blake, and the guard around the corner as Blake runs down the long corridor.
Blake walks off in a lovely shot, which uses lighting to creative effect. And it’s just as well he does walk off…
As the meeting started I was interested in how supporting artists are directed to respond to Foster’s briefing. I was fond of the couple consisting of the woman with a head scarf, and the older thin man with the big beard who nod intermittently. They’ve got “I’m going to be dead soon” written all over them. And of course there the assorted ‘rhubarb rhubarb” as they agree with Foster’s statements. And you can hear Tarrant’s “here here” in the background.
And the cause of this impending doom reveals itself from the shadows – a troupe of black uniformed guards. Blake’s split second decision-making serves himself well, and there is real tension as he holds his nerve in the darkened corner.
The inevitable moment happens, and suddenly everyone is gunned down. It’s quite brutal really, but it does make a statement about the tone of this series. Foster’s death is very direct, but it is the way that Ravella and Richie bite the dust that is touching, not to mention Mrs. Headscarf and Mr. Beard, whose demise is also grim. The other thing that Michael E. Briant does is position the camera low down for that all important close up of the Federation guard firing the first shot. It’s a dramatic and unsettling composition.
And as the voices fall silent and Blake walks through, I’m very aware of the shrill tone in the background of these scenes in the bunkers. It’s an important detail as Briant and his crew build this unforgiving world. When Dudley Simpson’s score finally comes out of the woodwork, as Blake attempts to return back to the city, it is a transition to the next act – a more studio based affair.
This introductory sequence is finally over. And in that 15 minutes or so, I would imagine most of the audience would still be watching. It’s very earnest stuff, very much about creating the right dystopian tone, rather than trying to be spectacular in any way. Good stuff.
In a cell somewhere, a cool, monotonous Dr. Havant tries to work on Blake. There is good direction again, as Michael E Briant uses more cross fades to suggest a psychological approach, and another grating tone can be heard in the background, which builds in intensity as Blake screams “I can’t remember!” These sonic tones are a key factor in creating this raw, clinical, harsh world.
At this point key supporting characters are introduced. Susan Field’s Morag is a somewhat arrogant prosecutor, who is a good foil to the softly spoken Ven Glynd (a very controlled performance by Robert James.) But it is Jeremy Wilkins’ Tarrant who finally reveals his true colours. I’m sure I’m not alone here, but anyone who has ever watched the BBC video ‘The Tom Baker Years’ in the 1990’s will recall Baker’s observation regarding Wilkins lip curling, which meant he was perfect for playing baddies. The trouble is that’s all I see now. Thanks Tom.
The other key character to walk through Ven Glynd’s flappy doors (that do not quite match the whooshing sound effect) is Tel Varon, Blake’s defence lawyer. I immediately warmed to Michael Hasley’s gangly performance, which all full of youthful exuberance. I loved his reaction to Morag’s “If I were you, I’d concentrate on the mitigation” and Morag’s stare in turn. A hint of professional disrespect or mistrust perhaps?
Varon gets to meet with Blake, in a magic booth. Is it uncharitable to say that I find the voice that sounds on the tannoy very…er…distinctive? (Yes, it is uncharitable.) But this is irrelevant. This is the episode that continues to set the tone of Blake’s 7 – IE more adult than Doctor Who. The nature of the false charges is the clearest sign yet.
The trial sequence is perhaps the only area of the production that feels a bit below par – a typical 1970’s take on the futuristic court room, with cod dialogue, and weird justice procedures involving spheres and solemn exchanges. Not to dissimilar from the foul Mamadons and the vanquished nibily-pibblies on judgement day in Blackadder’s Christmas future.
The adult tone manifests itself in the detention centre, as a woman screams hysterically as she is separated from her husband or family member. The screams last for quite a while, and just as I expected the them to fade away into the distance, they don’t. They continue with added reverb, still going as Vila helps himself to Blake’s watch. Then finally it disappears. Again we are left in no doubt that this is a tough environment.
Aside from Blake, we are also introduced to Vila and Jenna. Their characters are nicely established in the small amount of screen time they occupy. Jenna in particular has a nice gritty edge, displaying some almost aggressive physicality towards Blake. Vila, for perhaps the only time ever, almost comes across as a bit dangerous when talking about how his head won’t stay adjusted. They’ll come in to their own later.
But for all the presence of Gareth Thomas as Blake (an excellent leading performance, that really hits its stride once Blake has been captured and detained) this is an episode as much about Tel Varon. Michael Halsey is excellent as the lawyer, who puts in a sensitive performance as he slowly deduces what is really going on. The added intimacy of his relationship with Maja further adds to the shows more adult tone, and distances itself from its BBC sci-fi neighbour.
I also liked Nigel Lambert’s disgruntled, yet slightly malevolent computer operator. Once taken out of his escapist world, there is something in his voice and manner that suggests he isn’t on the side of Varon’s brand of justice. And if nothing else it proves a golden rule of any investigation – don’t discuss your findings in front of a third party.
I only just noticed on this re-re-watch how Vila approaches Jenna, who is watching Blake and Varon discussing the events outside the dome. Jenna instinctively turns around with the feeling that Vila might be about to pick pocket her too.
But Varon is too good at his job, and with that his days are numbered. It did make me wonder at how he felt that he could achieve justice against the entire justice department. The fact that he was considering going to the president himself suggests how the administration is able to conduct a well orchestrated manipulation of the entire population, including those handling law and order.
The tape camera gathers its recordings. But it is Tarrant who gets to enjoy one last sneer over the prone bodies of Varon and Maja. This is a villain that gets to see another day, which is also a good tonal decision that makes a stand about how this series will depict morality. But I really wished he met a sticky end himself. He even walks through the bodies of husband and wife as one last symbol of nastiness.
As the prison ship lifts off, I enjoyed the detail of the two little figures who stand in the model work.
The episode ends with Blake looking at the image of the Earth, and with the benefit of having watched the series subsequently, there is added resonance when 17 episodes later, he really does come back. As Jenna utters “it’s been a long time.
Opening episodes are a curious beast. Doctor Who opened with a self-contained episode, which feels divorced from the rest of the series. ‘The Way Back’ is the same.
It is in fact a story all about the past, which is the driver for the current events unfolding. Terry Nation does a great job in establishing Blake’s backstory, in a way that never feels mawkish. More significantly, he establishes the Terran Federation using quite subtle brush strokes, and without resorting to moustache twirling or pantomime evilness. It’s all about systematic order, and faceless efficiency. It is by far, the most complete depiction of the mechanics of Federation that the series will ever portray, with only ‘Trial’ in season B coming anywhere close to rivaling it.
It’s also an episode with really rich imagery, and imaginative use of flashback thanks to the directorial touches of Michael E.Briant. Although I do have a confession. As good as it is, I’m glad Blake’s 7 shifts tonally once the Liberator appears. I’m not sure I’d want every episode to be like this.
A first episode needs an outstanding location, and Eastlays Quarry (initially a stone mine, which became an ammunition store, and now a wine depot) is an excellent choice. It is neither futuristic, nor historical, and creates a harsh, dangerous terrain. It is worth noting in those early scenes during the resistance meeting, quite how effective the lighting is, casting shadows and darkness where areas need to be dark. The scene where the Federation trooper stares into the dark hideaway that Blake was sheltering is as tense as it comes. Cold, dank corridors allow for some dramatic photography, from long crash zooms, to well composed tracking shots that make good use of the pillars and posts that the location provides.
Big cast list on this one, with lots of faces I recognise from the ‘other show’. But as usual I want to highlight a couple of the lesser mentioned names, such as Gary McDermott who gives some attitude to the guard featured in the later quarter of the episode, and for the vocal talents and lung capacity of Beryl Nesbitt who quite rightfully is credited as ‘Screaming Woman Prisoner.’ She pops up again in a nocturnal scene in ‘The Day of the Triffids’ (1981).
There some great stuff going on here. Director Michael E. Briant has praised the designer Martin Collins (also notable for his contribution to ‘The Tripods’) for his ability to re-configure set designs to create a much bigger world than the action demands. The ‘K’ shaped pillars are used as corridors, courtrooms, and a computer centre economically, yet giving the episode a real sense of vastness, something of which we don’t see again. Take the area that is used for Varon’s initial meeting with Blake. With some changes in lighting, it is transformed into the transit cell where Blake meets Jenna, Vila and the screaming prisoner. These ‘K’ shaped pillars will be the mainstay of this season.
We get to see the Terrazza sofa (see ‘Stardrive’), some nice BBC modern sculpture via the medium of Polystyrene and what looks like some kind of urinal in front of Blake in the courtroom.
I’ve heard other stories about how the entire budget for the series was blown in the first episode. Whatever the truth, the scale of the series has rarely felt bigger than this first story. The use of reverberated sound really makes a difference too. Screaming aside, listen to the scenes where Blake first encounters Vila, and how both the reverb, and the background clanks and bangs create a space more vast than the typical boundaries of a studio at BBC television centre.
It’s also worth noting the use of the typeface ‘Aquarius’ – used on the sets, and the opening and closing credits for seasons A to C – a suitable 1960s-70s take on the ‘now’.
Musically speaking this is a traditional Dudley Simpson score, made more notable by the fact that there are no musical cues taken from the theme tune, something of which will only be introduced when we see the Liberator for the first time. So for now it’s melodic brass and organ that are the main ingredients here, although there are some quirkier synthesised moments in the courtroom. Compared to many other episodes of Blake’s 7, the music plays a back seat here, and it would appear that less music is composed for this episode than many others. In fact I might be right in thinking that the first 15 minutes of ‘The Way Back’ and last 15 minutes of ‘Blake’ is devoid of Dudley Simpson’s orchestra. There is far too much else going on.
HOW TO SELL THIS TO A NON_BELIEVER?
It’s the first episode of a successful sci-fi drama. Give it a try.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
Blake’s “You’ve done a brilliant job!”
THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
Morag’s self-satisfied glance in the courtroom.
VERDICT IN 10 WORDS EXACTLY
Grim and gritty – as much about the people around Blake.