‘I want you to do everything you can to help the man. Our first concern must be to see that he has justice.’
So how do you open a show?
The art of the opening – the title sequence – is a fascinating thing to explore. It serves to both give the audience a hook – a reason to keep watching, and also to encapsulate the modus operandi of the programme it serves.
The Blake’s 7 title sequence comes at a curious time in the history of title sequences for television and film. It goes something like this. In the 1950’s Saul Bass transforms the opening of a film through animated sequences for films directed by Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock. The Man with the Golden Arm, Vertigo, and Psycho to name but a few. The at of the title sequence is born.
His influence is felt by graphic designers in the UK, such as Alan Jeapes, Charles McGhie, and notably Bernard Lodge, who equally transform many television dramas through a series of of innovative sequences for shows such as Adam Adamant, Detective and famously the original titles for Doctor Who.
Then, generally speaking, the impact of the title sequence in both film and television was less pronounced until Kyle Cooper’s sophisticated take on the intricacies of a serial killer for David Finchers 1996 film ‘Se7en’. This re-engergised the art form, and, in turn, influenced the first wave of excellent sequences for HBO dramas such as ‘Six Feet Under’.
In 2004 I visited the Kemistry Gallery in London to see ‘Timeframes’ – an exhibition showcasing the pioneering work of Jeapes, McGhie and Lodge, and what struck me was the way that the movements of otherwise still imagery could be juxtaposed and sequenced to create the narrative, avoiding the need to reply on elaborate animated sequences. And it is this that reminds me of Blake’s 7. Like the show itself, it can’t rely on sophisticated production techniques, it has to rely on excellent imagery, plotting and narrative building.
Enter Bob Blagden. An assistant to Alan Jeapes, his big chance came with a re-brand of ‘Top of the Pops’ in 1973. Using US culture from juke boxes, to a pop art sensibility, he came up with the distinctive circular logo used, on and off, to this day. In 1977 he took Terry Nation’s concept and turned it into one of the finest television title sequences of the 1970’s.
When I first watched the opening titles, following a steady diet of Doctor Who, I initially didn’t like, or perhaps wasn’t prepared for the more narrative style of Blake’s 7, and the shock of seeing clearly animated visuals on screen. What? Animation doesn’t belong to 1970’s BBC science fiction surely!? Today, with older and wiser eyes, I can’t stress how good this sequence is. And I understand why. Terry Nation had a clear idea how the sequence should look (I wonder how many writers think about the the opening, when they write) and whilst the eventual sequence was different from Nation’s notes, there is the central idea of how the themes of surveillance can prepare the audience for the drama that is about to untold for the next 50 minutes.
This feels like a natural progression from Terry Nation’s previous drama series, Survivors (BBC 1975 – 77.) The sequence opens with a scientist (in fact the producer, Terence Dudley) who drops a phial containing a lethal virus that spreads around the world. This alone establishes the backstory, something of which we never experience during each 50 minute episode. The narrative unfolds through a well crafted mix of sequences that highlight the scientist falling ill, overlays of aircraft, transport, and passport stamps that documents the virus’s rapid spread across the planet, and ultimately a suffocating and pessimistic blood red final shot, clearly echoing the tone of the drama series. It’s an outstanding example of storytelling in 30 seconds or so.
The narrative approach to the title sequence also sets it apart from its nearest neighbour – Doctor Who, which up until this point uses abstract imagery to communicate its core theme – not space, but the unknown.
So on to Blake. Accompanied by a brooding, almost mournful music score, we open with an Earth dome, the genesis of the opera that is about to unfold. We cut to mosaiced imagery of Blake being tortured, and the introduction of a Federation guard firing at the camera. This is a great shot. Saturated blood red image against a a vivid blue backdrop, and harshly lit. It is pure danger, and an image that sticks in the mind.
With the word ‘ELIMINATE’ and the image of Blake’s face shooting of to the distance, a key part of Blake’s backstory is established as this enemy of the state is banished, seemingly forever. However there is hope, as the soundtrack turns triumphant and the image of the Liberator passes towards the camera and past it again, rising from the ashes. Yes, there is hope! The Federation symbol and the almost comic book style lettering suggest the space adventure described in the publicity material, and crowns everything that is good about this sequence.
This whole sequence tells a story that both anticipates what is to come in the first few episodes of the first series, and serves as a reminder of the overall premise in the remainder of the episodes up until the universe changes post ‘Star One’. The production values highlight the budgetary limitations of the show, but sometimes this can have a beneficial effect, especially the overall comic book style, and the aggressive strobe like rendering of the animation, highlighted during the first half of the sequence, until the eponymous face disappears into the stars. This isn’t a slick, stylish universe we are in. It’s brutal and unforgiving, and the title sequence reminds the audience of this every episode.
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, from which current events unfold. Terry Nation does a great job in establishing Blake’s backstory, in a way that never feels mawkish, and even more significantly establishes the Terran Federation using quite subtle brush strokes, and without resorting to moustache twirling, or pantomime evilness. It is by far, the most complete depiction of the mechanics of Federation that the series will ever portray, with only ‘Trial’ in series 2 coming anywhere close to rivaling it.
Onto those crucial first images. I was interested in seeing how Nation opens his previous series Survivors (1975-77). In both ‘The Way Back’ and ‘The Forth 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.
So what is the hook? 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 wont 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.
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.
Elsewhere it’s an episode with really rich imagery, and imaginative use of flashback.
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 set around the resistance meeting how effective the lighting is, casting shadows, and darkness where areas need to be dark. The scene where the Federation trouper 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.
Following the massacre, it feels that we are into the second half of the episode as Doctor Havant and Morag conspire with Ven Glynd.
But for all the presence of Gareth Thomas as Blake (an excellent leading performance, that really hits it’s stride once Blake has been captured and detained) this is an episode about Tel Varon. Michael Halsey is excellent as Varon, 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.
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.
Aside from Blake, we are also introduced to Vila and Jenna. Not much to say about their first appearance here, other than their characters are nicely established, and Jenna in particular has a nice gritty edge. They’ll come in to their own later.
There are solid performances all round. But I was taken by how Jeremy Wilkin performs his trademark lip curling as Dev Tarrant, and I also enjoyed Nigel Lambert’s disgruntled, yet slightly malevolent computer operator.
Some great stuff going on here. Director Michael Briant has praised the designer Martin Collins for his ability to re-configure the sets 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. It’s also worth noting the use of the typeface ‘Aquarius’ – used on the opening and closing credits for series 1-3, a suitable 1960s-70s take on the ‘now’.
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 episode. The use of reverberated sound really makes a difference too. 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.
Oh and I love the two little figures who stand in the model work of the prison ship taking off.
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 now now it’s melodic brass, and organ that are the main ingredients here.
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
A bit grim – as much about the people around Blake.
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.’