C11 MOLOCH (and a bit about artwork.)

setmoloch‘What you don’t need you lose.’

There is a shot in Moloch that is somehow very Blake’s 7.  It doesn’t last long, and it certainly isn’t regarded as one of the high points of the series.  I’m talking about the painting of the landscape of  Sardos.   It’s a notable Blake’s 7 effect.  When I say notable, I think it is actually quite a good painting, but there must have been some serious budgetary restrictions to rely on artwork that establishes a planetary surface in a series that, by that time,  was recorded in a very different way.

Oh, and not only that, but they waft some mist across the lens, and zoom in to the details that a painting of this type simply cannot provide.   Considering that later in the episode there is a pretty good model shot, perhaps they could have used that instead?   It’s so ineffective as a recorded shot, that I’m strangely drawn to it, as we haven’t seen this use of 2D effects since the animations of the Liberator flying through space in the first series.

Growing up with Doctor Who for so many years taught me to only appreciate one visual style.  Limited I know, but that’s the way it was.
The rulebook of the visual style goes as thus:
– Live action is shot either in the studio (on videotape) or on location (using film.)
– Chromakey/C.S.O is the usual way to superimpose difference types of material together.  Front and back projection techniques, are usually used for films.
– The visual/model effects are 3D, not 2D art.

So when Blake’s 7 came along in my life, one of the first things I noticed was how peculiar it was to see animation, or graphical art featuring in the series.  I considered it as cheap – an admission that the series somehow cannot prove itself by having everything shot using 3D elements.  I noticed it in the title sequence and especially in the model effects of the first series.  At first this was one of the key distinctions between Doctor Who and Blake’s 7.  But there was something more comic book about Blake.  The opera, the arc whatever you wanted to call it, so the ‘drawings’ seemed apt and I started to accept them more.

But actually it isn’t anything out of the ordinary, and the use of 2D imagery is something that required considerable skill.  Does anyone remember ‘Captain Zep?’

‘Captain Zep – Space Detective’ was a short lived BBC children’s show from the early 1980’s.  Whist I don’t have clear specific recollections of the series, I certainly do remember the visual style – a mix of 2D comic book style integrated with the live action material.  With my cynical eyes today it’s hard to appreciate it, but the fact is, that as a 4 year old at the time, it felt like the future.

In the same vein there was, around the same time of ‘Moloch’, a chance that the comic book ‘Dan Dare’ would be turned into a TV series, thanks to ATV (the ITV franchise based in the Midlands, that was also responsible for ‘Sapphire and Steel.’)  Recently I stumbled across a website that explored the proposed series, and the factors behind it’s cancellation.  What struck me again was the concept art, and the idea that it would be the basis of the visual style of the series – as the press kit noted.

“Combining the best of the new technology in video effects and computer graphics, with the flair of comic book story telling techniques we will create a new “look” for TV: live actors, fully integrated into weird and exotic graphic landscapes, unusual camera angles, vivid colours, split screen techniques and many more: Space cruisers will glide through space, armies of Treens will march on the Therons, and the space ways will be full of strange alien machines.

We will deal visually with the TV screen in the same way we would a comic panel; in terms of action, composition, lighting effects and camera angles.

Ladies and Gentlemen…The world’s first electronic comic.” (1)

But I think the reason that the depiction of Sardos in ‘Moloch’ is such a stand out, is because Blake’s 7 had become what Doctor Who was, a pretty much 3D/photographic experience.  Aside from the odd spaceship superimposed in the studio, perhaps the only time in the late 1970’s that I can recall a 2D image mascaraing as a model shot is in the uber-cheap ‘The Sun Makers’ – arguably the most Blake’s 7 episode of them all.  But even there the artwork was trying to appear like a photographic model.  The trouble was, it simply wasn’t that good.

Whilst the bespoke animated sequences of the Liberator flying through space largely disappeared with the end of series 1, the use of artwork continued, but this time they were part of a model effect, rather than an animation of what would have been a model.

Enter David A. Hardy, celebrated British space artist.  In 1979, Hardy was invited by Mat Irvine – responsible for the model effects of series 2 – to paint a variety of space backgrounds that would provide the backdrop for a range of shots.   Hardy discussed his experience of working on the series.

‘In Series 1 the planets seen from space were models, and their limbs (edges) looked very lumpy — meaning that the mountains would have to be about 100 miles high! SFX man Mat Irvine wasn’t happy with these, so asked me to paint some planetary backgrounds which he could film using front axial projection (first used in 2001). He sent me details of the type of world featured in the relevant episode: desert, ocean, jungle, whatever.’ (2)

On a purely personal note – this approach worked for me.  It surely saved a bit of money by not building a 3D backdrop as part of the model effect, and Hardy’s skillful art doesn’t suggest that it is a painting on first viewing.

By series 3, the space scenes were purely models (with the odd exception) so perhaps that’s why the image of Sardos in ‘Moloch’, as good as the painting is, sticks out like a sore thumb.

Main image (c) David A. Hardy/www.astroart.org

EPISODE DISCUSSION

Put your fingers in your ears… I actually quite like this episode, or rather it’s nowhere near as bad as its reputation might suggest.

Being a Vere Lorrimer episode, we typically open with some kind of spacey shot, but this time it’s not of starscapes and nebula, but of Servalan’s space whale, and then the majestic Liberator.  Both on the same trajectory…but to where?

Then we’re on the Liberator flight deck.  Boy, does it look dark in there.  More on this later.  This is a good time to take stock of dynamics of the crew.  We’re in a bit of a limbo in terms of the wider narrative of Blake.  Two key moments in series 3 have passed.  Avon has been betrayed and Cally has lost her home world.  And there doesn’t seem to be any kind of build up to a climax ala the ‘Star One’ arc.  As I will no doubt note when it comes to ‘Ultraworld’ this is Blake’s 7 drifting aimlessly in space…
…waiting for something to happen in the darkness.
…the outer darkness.
…the place where nothing knowingly happens.
So the crew drift wearily on.  And they are bored.  And boring to each other.  I love these early scenes on the flight deck.  They are honest, and niggly and everything else you would expect from people who live out of each others pockets all the time.  Vila vocalises it, and acts like a wired, overtired toddler.  I love that Zen actually interrupts him in mid flow.  It’s such a minor detail in the script, but this is perhaps the most interesting that Zen has been since series 1 – when he was a true character, and not just a super computer.  All of this sets up Cally and Tarrant to deliver the coupe de grace and finally shut Vila up.


It’s also worth reminding ourselves of how the crew bickering allow them to come up with the right decision…or at least some kind of decision.  Again I will talk about this in ‘Ultraworld’ which had a similar problem for the regulars, at exactly the same point in the episode. But it worth noting how they disagree about the ‘obligation’ to find out about what Servalan is up to, but in the end that is what they decide to do.  I’ve always felt that the script has real spark at this point.  When I watch some of the early Peter Davision serials in ‘Doctor Who’ with Adric, Tegan and Nyssa, I’ve always found their bickering to be somewhat laboured, but in Blake it always fizzes and leads to a decision, or a consequence.

It is often interesting when a writer who isn’t a regular contributor to the series scripts dialogue that isn’t necessarily bad, but doesn’t quite fit in with how the character behaves.  Take Avon’s line about how Servalan is ‘taking a refresher course in basic brutality,’ and then very faintly smiles at his own joke.  It just doesn’t feel that Avon would be so self aware of his own sense of humour to laugh at his own joke like that.  It’s such a funny little detail, but when you are the loyal audience, and share the exploits of a group of characters week after week, you kind of notice these things.  It’s a cod line too.

Later in the episode, Vila shows considerable bravery when Tarrant pulls a gun on him.  It’s quite a significant moment.  The next time a gun is pulled on a member of the crew it will be on Tarrant – what goes around, comes around.  I wonder if the writer was under direct instructions to return Tarrant to his natural role as ‘an arse’ where in ‘The Harvest of Kairos’, he was actually quite likeable.

The story moves on to the mystery of the outer darkness, and the Liberator is about to crash into a planet that they cannot see.  I love how remarkably slow they are to take action.  ‘Tarrant!  Full deflection!’  Only then does Tarrant press the special magic ‘change the course’ button, and even then he takes his time doing it.  It’s one of those moments where the multi camera technique of shooting drama in a TV studio doesn’t fit with the urgency of the script.   It is at this point that Vila, sorry I mean Michael Keating, does a fabulous forward roll as he crashes into the rear steps.  Well done that man! (3)

And at that point, for better or for worse, we are in the domain of Ben Steed.

We are introduced to two female characters, wearing rather revealing and figure hugging outfits.  One of them – Poola says, ‘I think I’ve got something.’   I don’t think I would ever have questioned that line if I wasn’t familiar with the gender elements that Steed always brought to the proceedings.

But there is so much of interest in the concepts he presents.   Sardos is a fascinating idea.  A planet of 300 souls who refuted genetic change, and projected what their population would look like 2 millions years ahead is an original idea to me, and the added mystery of the energy field, the advanced technology, and how that technology produces light on the planet, are interesting ideas.  If the episode focused on giving us more backstory about these themes, it could be one of the strongest stories of the season. Instead the script lingers on the aforementioned gender themes.  Take Poola and Chesil.  When I was first introduced to them (and ignoring the tends of the times) my gut reaction is that they were the inhabitants of the planet we are being introduced to, and that the story of Sardos would be told through them. ‘We must have hope’  says Poola.  There is so much in that line to suggest a backstory…but no – we’re left with very little.   On reflection I felt they could have been the two most important characters of the story – the way in for the audience.  However they suffer the ‘terrible crime’ of being female, and because of this, they were either written out quickly (and horribly) or became line feeders the for the more major characters.

The attitude of the fifth legion, as deplorable as it is, is sound enough in narrative terms. Here, Steed does sketch out a good backstory but when placed face to face with the way everything is portrayed in this episode, I had to exhale in resignation.  The scene with Vila, where Doran reveals his unsettling attitude towards woman, is the moment I lost hope of this story being anywhere near a bona fide classic – earlier I had been considering all the possibilities of the universe, but I ended up crash landing into gallow humour towards women.  Later Doran asks ‘What have they done to my pal?’ like some blibbering child, which actually makes him even more dangerous in his infantile volatility.  But are we supposed to feel sympathy for what is a deeply sinister character?

I’m not blaming Steed so much for this.  He wrote what he wrote.  This is the point where the script editing falls down and one of the few moments in the series that Chris Boucher really takes his eye of the ball.  By all accounts this script was a last minute replacement.  Maybe that’s all we need to know.

Out of Steed’s three scripts with gender themes at their core, this is probably the least offensive, but ironically containing the most nastiest moments. It’s an episode with lots of Whhheeyyyyysss!  And ‘Gaw on den’ nudges from the troupers as they choose who is going to get to ‘enjoy’ Poola.

I’ve always felt that when he does put his mind to it, Steed is good at offering backstories.  Whilst lacking a a background for some of the core ideas here, he does sketch major characters well.  Take Doran, as much as I find him annoying, I do acknowledge that he is well written.  ‘In 15 years I’ve never seen the sun’  he says.  This line alone invites the audience to work out what this could mean for his state of mind.

So Steed is capable of good backstory for the major characters, and really fascinating ideas that fail to live up to their expectations.  Dayna holds up the dead mouse, and Avon spends an eternity talking up his theory about what Moloch could be.  I think I’m just about able to understand some of it, and fill in the gaps of what I don’t get, but the problem is I’ve never totally conquered the whole story due to the fact that I’m never able to hold my concentration during that extensive scene in Moloch’s chamber. I just switch off.  No matter how many times I’ve watched it, I never quite make it through.

So what of Steed’s main idea?  Sardos as a concept is potentially huge.  Far more than a single episode could have done justice to.  It made me think of how series 3 could have ended, as by this time it felt that the season wasn’t reaching any kind of conclusion.  Perhaps the last few episodes of the series needed something big that the crew discover in the outer darkness or on Sardos.  This discovery could then lead to either: (1) a build up towards a climax over the next couple of episodes or (2) the discovery is the climax, and the final two episodes could have dealt with the aftermath of this.   For example perhaps Servalan needed to leave with the replicator and create the ultimate army, which perhaps resulted in extreme peril for the Liberator crew.   Yes I can see it now…the outer darkness trilogy.

Don’t get me wrong, an episode is what it is, and I don’t tend to think of other possibilities, but perhaps this episode got me thinking more about what could have happened more than others – surely that’s a complement?   It appears that by the time of ‘Moloch’, everyone knew that the series was due to finish completely, but there is something interesting about the idea that Blake’s 7 started on Earth, and ends in the outer darkness, a gazillion miles from home.

My view is that ‘Moloch’ is an episode of memorable images (for better or for worse) to the detriment of the audience remembering the actual details of the storyline.  For example, I missed the fact that Colonel Astrid is alive and can be released from the tank to lead the Sardoians to a new way of life, because I spent most of my time trying to forget what he looked like inside the tank!   Equally there is the fact that Moloch is cleverer than first thought, and was playing a long game strategy – ‘Servalan was merely the bait to bring you here’ – again I totally missed this, because I was too busy seeing if his teleport bracelet would slip off his wafer thin arm!

Yet the story, as with Steed’s other episodes, zips along for a reasonably entertaining 50 minutes.  And I would say this of Steed’s scripts, he actually writes some meaty and action orientated episodes, more so than many of the other writers outside of Nation and Boucher.  Even, ‘Power’ which is the weakest of his three still moves along at considerable pace.

In the wider context of the Blake’s 7 narrative ‘Moloch’ continues the theme of disunity within the Federation, and is a nice progression from internal ambition within the ranks, as seen in ‘Children of Auron’ to full scale mutiny here.

The fifth legion itself is an interesting idea, in that different Federation units have their own particular traits.  Take Clegg’s death squad in Powerplay who are notorious for their brutality, the reputation held by Travis, and here – where we see a more decadent ‘work hard play hard’ ethos and a liberal dose of mutiny as successive commanders are stuck down with ‘accidents.’

Amidst the nastiness, I felt like I was looking harder for the lovely little moments.
Around 34 minutes in Avon and Dayna teleport down to rescue Tarrant.  Ending up in a corridor, a door opens, and there is some lovely bi-play between Avon and Dayna about who goes in first.  Subtly done, in an episode not noted for it’s subtlety.    And then there is the ‘Mike and Jackie show.’  The scenes of Vila and Servalan together are hugely enjoyable, putting together two characters that rarely meet, and creating a moment of genuine humour, in an otherwise gritty story.

The other moments I ended up noticing were more the kind of details that play into the hands of the obsessive in us.   There are so many things that I recognised from other episodes.   There is something very comforting about filming at Betchworth Quarry.  I’ve lost count of the number of times the series have filmed here.  But it’s the familiarity of the place that strikes me.  The slope that Blake went up in ‘Hostage’, the distinctive chalk cliff face, the foul or freezing cold weather, the sqawking crows, high heels on gravel. It’s all there.   And there is more.  The fencing last seen on Kairos makes another appearance.  It now has a name.  ‘The Ben Steed fencing.’

Then there is the reveal…  the dome opens up and we see the titular Moloch, I didn’t gaffaw, or shake my head in disbelief.  I just saw it like any other Blake’s 7 creature.  Actually I felt the design of his head was actually quite well considered and a bit Davros-esque.  For risible, I still think Saymon in ‘The Web’ still takes some beating.  Perhaps that’s why I want to try to fly the flag for ‘Moloch’, as some the opinions I have read over the years, seem to suggest it’s a bad episode solely because the design of ‘Moloch’ itself.

 

This leads me on the overall tone of the direction, little of which eases the overt gender characteristics.  The convicts are crudely drawn, with their ‘cockerney’ overtones, and Vila’s final ‘Do them good, they’re a stuck up bunch on Sardos’ line stinks, written because it is apparently how stories can be neatly summed up, with a wave of the hand and spot of frivolity. It comes from the same place as ‘It’s beats work’  in ‘Horizon’, ‘he is himself alright’ in ‘Voice from the Past’ and the final moments of ‘Children of Auron’, but this maybe is the worst line of them all – in the script because it was accepted that this is how many comedies and drama could be wrapped up neatly.
When Clayton Hickman and Gareth Roberts created the youtube video ‘Are You Being Subjugated?’ brilliantly merging the end of 1970’s sit-com ‘Are You Being Served’ with ‘Voice from the Past’ it’s this episode I think of more.  Perhaps it’s the irony of juxtaposing themes of wine, women and inflicting pain against a backdrop of ‘light entertainment.’

Perhaps it could look like this?  (In my head the sitcom is called ‘It’s great to be free’.)

Apparently Vere Lorrimer liked this one the least and ‘Aftermath’ the best – but for anyone who has seen the various outtakes that exist for this story, his trademark enthusiasm is still there.

As this was his final episode as director, I studied Lorrimer’s directorial style more keenly than otherwise I would have.  It is interesting to see that, although he had directed more episodes than others by far,  there was still many interesting touches he brings to the proceedings.  He mentioned in interview that he moved onto Blake’s 7 by Ronnie Marsh (head of whatever) from a crime drama, as he wanted a change, and whilst cast and crew would appear to remember him fondly, he did bring a good level of creativity to the proceedings.  Throughout the series, Lorrimer uses some inventive camera angles, and some nice production techniques to extenuate the drama, or simply to hide shortcomings.  In ‘Moloch’, he lights the Liberator flight deck sensitively, bringing down the lighting a little, particularly in the opening scene, which both gives a sense of deep space, but also the fact that the fight deck, after three long years, was probably looking a little battered and bruised.  But it doesn’t show.  He also clearly likes Betchworth Quarry, and it’s resident crows, and some of the scenes swathed in mist are quite effective.

Casting wise, it’s hit and miss.  There are some relatively decent names.  Sabina Franklyn, John Hartley, and Mark Sheridan all put in solid if unspectacular performances, but Dayvd Harries gives in effect the same performance as Major Shapp in Doctor Who ‘The Armageddon Factor’ the previous year, by pushing a rather juvenile take on the character.

SET DESIGN
So how does it all look?

setmoloch
Firstly it is very Ken Ledsham.  In fact there so much of this reminds me of his designs for ‘Gambit.’  Grose and Lector’s dining hall contains the same shape and feel as the main casino on Freedom City.  And the tassles and drapes suggest a decadent party in keeping with the ethos of the Fifth Legion, but in such a dark episode I do wonder why it is there.  Elsewhere the same is true of the hexagonal/octagonal elements that are visible in Moloch’s chamber.  Also, as with Gambit, he uses mirrors and reflective surfaces to give the impression that things are bigger than they actually are – check out the corridors. But the real success here is how the lighting really lifts the cost of the set design.  A good example is how cool the corridor looks on the military transporter – very Alien, and uses a gobo to give it real ‘noir’ depth.  Tarrant’s side of the corridor is dark blue, which hides a multitude of sins, and there is a lovely shot of Chesil looking through a green tinged window, which contrasts nicely with the red of the tracking room.  Of course, red and green always go nicely together.  Finally nothing appears overlit, so creates a spacey effect in keeping with the ‘outer darkness.’

MUSIC
There’s some nice moments in here.  Servalan’s arrival on Sardos is heralded by a kind of seductive feel using oboe or bassoon.  And the best Liberator model shot of all, the one we have seen many times in various episodes (around 11 minutes in) is accompanied by some of the loveliest music Dudley has written.  In fact this episode just serves to remind me how brilliant Simpson is writing music based on the Blake’s 7 theme – check out the opening shots, where Servalan’s ‘space Whale’ starcruiser glides into view with lumpy deep brass and military rhythms, swiftly contrasted by the sophisticated and stylish synth that suits the majesty of the Liberator.

So ‘Moloch’ isn’t pretty, or pleasant.  But it isn’t trying to be.  It is not an avenue I want to see in Blake’s 7 go in, as the gender stereotypes date horribly.  But it doesn’t glamourise the behaviour (mostly) and does present it as a bad thing.  For sexism, try ‘Assassin’ in series 4.  For me it is nadir of this aspect of this cultural element of 1970’s television.

Perhaps the curse that is associated with ‘Moloch’ is the problem with how many people view 1970’s sci fi – you can have a good painting of a planet, or the surface of a planet, or you can create a reasonably good ‘puppet’ – but place it in the wrong context – the recording of a live action fantasy series shot hurriedly in a television studio and no matter how skillful the artwork, or how carefully sculpted the the mask, it’s always running the risk of being seen as poor.   And when you look at it that way, you run the risk of ignoring the often fascinating ideas at the heart of an episode.

So that is the real curse of Ben Steed.  The ideas are there, but we have been distracted.

HOW TO SELL THIS TO A NON-BELIEVER.
As a historical relic.  The depiction of gender politics in the 1970’s.  A chance to reflect on how we live in more enlightened times…then only to realise that actually, we don’t.

MY FAVOURITE MOMENT.
Avon’s ‘obligation?’

THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET.
Not the reveal of Moloch, but the scene involving Chesil and the blubbering Doran when he spots Vila on the monitor in the tracking room.

VERDICT IN 10 WORDS EXACTLY.
I’m a hypocrite, I couldn’t stop looking at Chesil’s bottom.

(1) http://cinetropolis.net/the-great-unmade-dan-dare/
(2) Interview with the author.  2017
(3) Recently I read an excellent blog called archivetvmusings.wordpress.com which also happens to use the phrase ‘Well done that man!’ when describing Vils’a gymnastics.  Great minds think alike – I’m keeping it in.)
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