“Is the scheme feasible?”
13 episodes seems to be the standard length for many series I have watched over the years.
For the duration of its first decade, Doctor Who would run throughout the year, pausing for the summer – a gap of approximately 3 months. The gap allowed its battle weary cast and crew a chance to take a short break before going though the motions all over again. Summer was, and still is, the time where people would watch less television. Therefore the schedulers would prioritise headlining content over the autumn and winter months.
Looking back, a series that ran for around three-quarters of a year sounded so risky. 1960’s Doctor Who became felt like a model of how to try to make a television series without leaving those who made it, not to mention the audience, fatigued. It even pushed repeats during the summer break – battle the Cybermen on the wheel, then tell a story about the Daleks to a new companion, before confronting some dudes with big shoulder pads.
The next milestone would be in 1970, with the arrival of a new Doctor, colour television and a shorter season. Suddenly a ten(ish) month broadcast run would be reduced to six – in this case consisting of 26 x 25 minute episodes. This would roughly equate to a nine month production turnaround.
This applied to Blake’s 7 as well, although it consisted of episodes double the length of Doctor Who. Where a series would have once run for the majority of the year, the reverse was now true – the series would run for roughly three months, helping to avoid audience fatigue, and also allowing it to run seamlessly between the peak time slots of September to Christmas, and from January to March.
It is interesting to note, in recent years there has been a desire from U.S networks and programme makers to shift from series that run for roughly 22 weeks, to the ‘cable’ model (described by some commentators as a ‘UK based’ model) of 13 weeks. In many cases it is seen as the optimum time span of a drama series.
So what impact did the 13 week run have on Blake’s 7?
In season A, we have the set up of the series and the dominant battle between Blake and the Federation/Travis. In season B we see that straightforward battle mutate into an even more personal and political affair. Season C might be the most unconnected series, but there is still an overall plot involving Servalan’s determination to rebuild her ruined empire, and to capture the Liberator. Finally in season D there is the rapid expansion of the Federation threat through the Pylene 50 pacification program. It is an expansion that, by the end, feels like the series has come full circle.
In each of the four seasons, the opening episodes have some obviously important functions. They appear to establish the situation/conflict and attempt to hook the audience, such as introducing Blake and the Federation, solving Orac’s prediction while re-establishing the crew to the audience, depicting the crucial events of the intergalactic war, and finally, the good luck of finding Xenon Base and Scorpio.
Episode two appears to set the key characteristics or ingredients that make up the season, such as introducing the Liberator and giving the lead characters their freedom, establishing Blake’s desire to hurt the Federation, introducing new post-war regular characters while reintroducing the Liberator, and finally, freeing the crew from what is effectively imprisonment on Xenon, while adding Scorpio and Soolin as true additions to the rebel unit.
But it is episode three of each series that is arguably the most crucial of all. It’s the story that sets up the key narratives that the season rests on.
It’s an interesting dilemma for a television producer and script editor. Sometimes the viewing figures will be healthy for the first episode, then shed a few for the second. But the third episode could be seen as the one which defines the rest of the season. Does it hold the audience’s attention? Looking at the viewing figures across the four seasons of Blake’s 7, the answer would appear to be yes.
‘Cygnus Alpha’ has a lot going for it. Firstly it is a strategically good episode for the survival of the series. It’s got a big name guest star, which might have lured a handful of viewers who might not have watched the preceding two episodes, or decided that Blake’s 7 might not be for them. The viewing figures suggest that it worked. I reckon that by the third week, many viewers will have got into the routine of watching it, and the series will retain them until the end of the run.
In terms of the overall story, it has some important plot functions to perform, as the crew are liberated from the prison planet, allowing the ‘flying through the galaxy’ theme of the series to commence. It also introduces one of the most important plot drivers in the entire run, namely the teleport, which opens up all kind of adventures. In short ‘Cygnus Alpha’ introduces a key plot device – ‘free movement’.
Visually, it is a chance for the series to stretch its legs from the confined studio sets of the previous episode, with liberal use of night filming, effective rear projection, and some impressive visual effects on display. The series would rarely use these techniques again. This seems to have been successful as the following episode – ‘Time Squad’ – saw an increased viewing figure on the back of this story.
‘Weapon’ is a very important episode in the second run, as the Federation are properly re-established in the series, and talk moves towards the goal of finding the computer control centre.
While ‘Shadow’ sets the tone of more complex political manoeuvring, it presents the Terra Nostra as a faceless entity, which is pretty much a Federation off-shoot. But to be involved in Blake’s 7, we need the Federation to have a face, so this is this episode that puts Servalan in full control of an impotent Travis, slowly introducing his character story, one of which will have a huge impact throughout the season.
While season A establishes Travis as a straightforward Moriarty to Blake’s Sherlock, season B is pretty much the story of the space commander’s slow fall from grace. Everything that happens to him has a lasting impact on Blake, his crew and the universe in which they inhabit. To put it simply, season B is the season where every situation has a consequence and a chain of events. Servalan has put Travis into therapy, leaving him “I don’t know“, which results in him mistrusting her, which results in a strained relationship on Earth, resulting in desperate actions, which kills Gan and puts Servalan’s position on the line, which results in him being placed on a fixed trial, resulting in his escape and fugitive existence, which eventually results in a secret deal with Servalan, which results in an up/down relationship that suits Servalan ever more, which results in a complete loss of shared goals, resulting in a man who has totally lost his identity as a soldier and the loyalty towards the mainstay in his life. All of this leads towards a hatred of all humanity. When he betrays the entire galaxy to the aliens, it is simply the final act in a sequence of events and circumstances that dictate the entire season. For me, Blake plays second fiddle – his increasing determination feels like a sub-plot.
So, while ‘Weapon’ might be – on the surface – a tale of Servalan cosying up to Carnell, crazy Coser and clinical clones, the really important part of the story is how it marks the beginning of the unravelling of Travis. Season B plays the long game. It is the most connected of stories, as much as season C is unconnected. As a result, the viewing figures for season B seem to be the most consistent, with ‘Weapon’ broadly representing season B’s average audience – which is a bit lower, considering that BBC Wales was screening Blake’s 7 at stupid o’clock in the afternoon.
‘Volcano’ is important in that it follows what feels like a two-part mini movie, establishing Avon as a new lead, and dealing with the chaos following the destruction of Star One. In this respect, ‘Volcano’ feels like a first episode, as we begin new plot strands – the search for Blake and a base (a storyline that was quickly dropped), Servalan’s new position as ultimate ruler, and the new characters really getting stuck in. The key ingredients that will feature throughout the season are introduced here. But once again the third episode is responsible for a plot strand that isn’t shouted about by the production team – the desirability of the Liberator.
In the first two seasons, the Liberator is clearly portrayed as a ship that is as much ‘wanted’ by the Federation, as the occupants who control it. But season C feels more like a tale of piracy. Suddenly there are a whole host of characters and life forms who want the Liberator for one reason or another. Servalan is the obvious example. In ‘Volcano’, ‘The Harvest of Kairos’ and ultimately ‘Terminal’ her main strategy is to control the starship. However in ‘Sarcophagus’ the alien sees the ship as a gift and a source of energy. In ‘Ultraworld’ the Ultra’s want the ship as a prize exhibit, while in ‘Moloch’, the titular one sees the Liberator as “A perfect vehicle through which to express myself“. Even in ‘Dawn of the Gods’, the ship has a different kind of desirability – the quantities of Herculanium within its design.
Looking back, the emphasis on the Liberator in the third season feels like the producers were looking at it as a backbone – a constant element, while all the leading characters are in a state of flux.
Finally we have ‘Traitor’ which once again establishes the key ingredients that will characterise the fourth run, following two episodes worth of set up. Let’s explore this particular third episode in more detail.
We open with ‘a not quite sure if it is a model shot or piece of artwork’ shot. It’s clearly filmed, as the camera is juddering around quite a bit. There’s some nice swirly Dudley Simpson music in the background, as we cut to another piece of artwork which shows the surface of Helotrix.
Within the first scene alone, we are given plenty to chew on. Colonel Quute quizzes a civilian called Igin, about the operations of the Helotrix rebel forces. There’s talk of educational institutions that no longer exist, hairdressers, and mockery at how the civilians give themselves military titles such as ‘Star Major’. It’s clearly jealousy for a mere colonel such as Quute, who only has his swanky eye patch to be proud of. Cruicially it also explains the main plan that the rebels have. Establishing this information right at the beginning gives the whole first half of the episode a framework to build around.
You can see the experience that Holmes brings to the show in this first scene. The exposition doesn’t feel too heavily laid on, and he uses little observations from the characters to break up the info-dumping.
I remembering watching this episode for the first time. It was one of the first I watched when the episodic tapes came out. I was very green about Blake’s 7 at that point. I thought Quute was Travis, and this immediately gave this episode the feel of an early season A tale.
Towards the refinery, Hunda and Avandir arrange to have Igin returned to the group in good time. It looks like grim weather wherever they are, but this time it seems to suit the trench warfare feel of the location filming. Apparently this was filmed near where Peter Davison would run around in the mud of Androzani Minor a few years later. I think it is quite an impressive location.
A big shout out to Dudley Simpson’s music once again, as he scores some typically military music, which is different enough to the typical rat-a-tat-tat of the Federation march.
On Scorpio, Avon and Dayna run into shot, ready to receive the news from Orac that the Helots are back in the empire. Straightaway I’m thinking that Avon is sounding very much like Blake. This is the first moment for a long time where Avon has shown actual concern about the Federation.
As Vila points out “They might be knocking at the door in a couple of years.”
Avon says “Vila, I won’t run!” Wow – what happened there? Blake really is back, but he’s wearing black leather gear, and a ton of studs. It’s quite a jolt to hear and see Avon talking in this way. It has left me thinking whether this a natural thing to expect? On one hand, it’s so unlike the Avon we know, yet on the other, perhaps it is logical that Avon is sensing the fall of all these planets to the Federation, and knows that in order to survive and to ensure his skin comes first, he has to act. But this scene just feel lacking in the conviction of Avon’s sudden freedom fighter stance, and perhaps needed a bit more distinction between Avon’s reasons for fighting, as opposed to Blake’s.
And so begins season D proper.
Back on filmic Helorix, Igin meets his end, but not before we cut to a close up of him on video. I fear that the jumping from film to video is going to be a big part of this episode.
It’s a classic device, where we cut between the anxiety on the ground, and the calm strategy in the military base, as Quute orders the death sentence while playing chess.
Igin was the director of Geological Studies at Leidenbrank – once again this is such a good touch from Holmes. It explains why he chose to take on the mission, and also hints at the desperation felt by the rebel unit on Helotrix.
David Sullivan-Proudfoot throws in the occasional voice over from one scene to another such as Avon’s “We have to go to Helotrix” over the shot of Honda with his gun.
Quute and his commanding officer dine. They talk about the Helots and engage in old-fashioned dialogue about days past. But what I’m more interested in is what they are eating. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it looks like Asparagus for Quute and bangers and mash for the General. At times like these I like to imagine a props list for an episode being drawn up:
– Three chairs (modernist)
– Crystal glasses, silver cutlery and fine crockery
– Cigar case
– Cooked Asparagus
– Freshly cooked bangers and mash.
“Yes, no problem. You say this is for a space adventure series?”
And there is talk of the next assignment – the planet Wanta. This is clearly an efficient, quick fire expansion, the kind that the Federation are so good at.
One thing I didn’t understand, is the inclusion of the stock equalisation act. It felt slightly superfluous to the episode – perhaps I’m missing something?
I don’t think about it for long, as Vila indulges in a bit of Tarrant-bashing. You can tell there is a different approach to this series, as Avon almost seems to defend the curly one.
Vila states that “Tarrant has about as much subtlety as a Tarisan Warg Strangler“. It’s the closest to Douglas Adams the series ever got.
Meanwhile it feels that the dynamics of the group are closer than they have been for a long time. Maybe Avon’s sudden lurch into inspiring leadership, as opposed to just being in command, has made the unit stronger. Antagonisms of old appear to have eased as Avon praises brave, young and handsome Tarrant, albeit tongue in cheek. Paul Darrow’s performance at this stage has morphed into a strange new cured ham. What is going on with his hands? And how did the director allow his delivery to be so unrealistic? (More about the direction later.) Having said that, I do like it…a lot. Throughout this series there are many moments I ask myself “wow – is this acting?” I hope I’m not alone in loving every minute of it.
Another thing this episode is doing, is to start working on a new plot line – Scorpio itself. Soolin makes the observation about how it was never designed to engage in battle. Avon’s reply about “short-term boosters” designed to get cargo into orbit, quickly heralds the beginning of a series of modifications that the ship will undergo. For years I just thought it was nonsensical that the production team would make Scorpio as fast as the Liberator, but this scene suggests Avon’s forward thinking, planning and support from Orac. Clearly it is worth trying to find a scientist who has devoted her life to developing a ‘stardrive’. He is thinking of his self-preservation, and suddenly it all seems a little bit more plausible.
And on the subject of Orac, it is a refreshing change to see the a nod to its original selling point, as it taps into other systems to help solve the issue of making Scorpio fast enough to handle Federation pursuit ships. The scene where it justifies its decision not to research the problem itself shows a ‘banter’ between it and Avon that I think is a nice shift in their relationship in this final series.
Let’s not forget the space loungers. You know what I’m talking about. The Scorpio ‘lets have a nice chat’ furniture. In the Liberator any kind of lounging was subtly done, or a special treat – such as a rest room integral to the plot of ‘Voice from the Past’, or some recliners so the crew could have a civilised conversation in ‘Orac’ and ‘Project Avalon.’ But the days of the Liberator are gone, and with it the cream cushions of the flight deck sofa. I can understand the problem. How can you have a good old chat on a space craft without resorting to awkwardly trying to face each other on seating that always points to the front? So out comes the chaise lounge. But they just don’t work within the set design of Scorpio. The Liberator is missed in more ways in one.
So what is happening in the mud of the front line?
Hunda briefing the troops. Holmes is scripting dialogue that sounds like he knows about war. It makes me think once again about how a number of writers of Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who will have experienced the second world war, and understand the military.
Lets talk about Hunda. I’ve got a lot of time for him – Robert Morris plays his part with a quiet resignation and conscience. It’s a really disciplined performance from an actor who I felt brought real sensitivity to the role of a blood and guts Major. At no point did I ever forget that we was, at heart, a civilian first. When Hunda announces he is swimming under the reactor he delivers the line, “I doubt they thought of that” with not a sneering arrogance, but more a gentle wistful nature. There’s the faint sadness when he says, with a slight hesitation “We don’t take prisoners”. Later when talking about swimming underwater, he responds to the doubt of his comrades, with the line “I think I can.” – again gently delivered, in fact almost whispered – but no less powerful.
Oh, and I love his sports bag too. I once had one like that. Kept my plimsolls and P.E kit in it for Wednesday at school.
We’re just over a quarter of the way through. It’s time to add a couple of new ingredients to the story. In the high chamber of Helotrix, there is the first appearance of President elect Proctor, a native Helot who has been on the Federation’s books for years, and Leitz, who we will learn more about later.
Oh, and there is also mention of Commissioner Sleer. Highly regarded apparently.
We once again hear about ‘Pacification’. This is the first episode where the word is mentioned and it very much is a prominent theme of this series, and the one that is the key to everything that happens for the rest of the life span of this drama. We discover that Sleer is responsible for it, that it has helped advance the General’s programme of conquest, and that there is a Federation headquarters. I wonder whether it is Residence One on Earth, or was that too much tied to the identity of Servalan?
Hunda is going for it under the reactor. It’s a pretty effective sequence, well-lit on film, with plenty of steam and bubbles thrown in for good measure.
There is a model effect of Scorpio orbiting Helotrix. It’s a nice sequence, although it suffers from the keying issues that means the final results of the season D model work is not quite as effective as the previous three. But as the camera slowly tracks into the ship, we see the excuisite detail of the model itself, and for that reason it reminds me of the ‘beauty’ shot of the Liberator of old.
Slave mentions ‘miles’ instead of ‘spacials’. This is a new Blake’s 7. There’s also some nice mistrust between Tarrant and Avon, and the return of what I call the ‘disco inferno’ teleport effect.
They land onto the studio floor of Helotrix. (More about this later.)
Dayna says “I knew I should have bought my nightclothes” Which results in a slightly suggestive “hmmm” from Tarrant. Still chummy then.
The characters are pretty well sketched out. Practor, might only appear in a few scenes, but we get a nice sense of his history, and resulting pedantry.
Servalan appears! But it would appear that it is a test from Leitz to see if Practor recognises her. He does, so it’s only a matter of time before he gets it.
Peter Tuddenham is kept a little more busy in this tale than normal – doesn’t the Heleotrix tannoy sound exactly like Orac?
Hunda meets Dayna and Tarrant, while in the world of location filming, the battle takes place. It is well directed, with some inventive camera shots, and a full-blooded approach to falling onto the ground. It’s full of old costumes from the past, so it was fun to play spot the outfit. It is around this time that Doctor Who started plundering its history to create sequences featuring old faces and foes – perhaps this is the Blake’s 7 equivalent of a JN-T era flashback.
Tarrant and Dayna are unable to take a call from the office, leaving Vila to quip that Blake would have been very proud of Avon, who speaks ill of the (possibly) dead – that’s more like it, Kerr.
Tuddenham strikes again, as we get to hear the plummy tones of Zen when Practor talks to his personal computer in his office.
Practor is a goner. Who could it possibly be?
There’s more clothing fun, as Tarrant ends up dressing as season B Avon, and Dayna dresses as Vinni from ‘Death-Watch’.
And Leitz makes another appearance, as information is exchanged. The question is, with a third of the episode still to run, what information is useful, and what could be a hinderance?
Orac is up to its old tricks. Again, it is nice to see it tap easily into other systems. I like how it shakes the Federation officers about a bit, meaning that we’re moving into the final phase of the episode, as Leitz reveals his hand to the General.
As we venture into the final quarter of the episode, the laboratory is revealed, and Forbus – the inventor of Pylene 50. He mentions a poison he was exposed to – Tincture of Pyrellic. It’s such a Holmesian sounding element.
Things are starting to pick up. Intercepted messages, Tarrant disobeying orders, and Avon having to make a critical call, with a great line – “If I’m wrong you can say “I told you so”, provided you speak loudly and quickly.”
The monorail tunnel is blown up in another impressive Blake’s 7 explosion.
Into the final battle we go, only it’s not quite clear what is actually happening. I’m not sure whether Hunda, Quute and the general are dead, and why Servalan was even there at all, especially when it appears to be her against a whole load of people.
Tarrant and Dayna deliver the news that Servalan is still alive, giving Paul Darrow the perfect opportunity for a squinty close up. I enjoyed the fact that Tarrant and Dayna are the nominated duo for teleportation in this episode. We haven’t really seen them as a couple since the so called bonding ceremony in ‘Ultraworld.’ They still work well together. Both confident, slightly irritating, and gung ho. Check out the striking action poses deployed by Tarrant during the studio scenes of fighting on the surface of Helotrix. It’s like the paradise of Deva Loka in ‘Kinda’ gone horribly wrong.
It’s also nice to see Servalan back again, as she dispatches Forbus and Leitz using cold-blooded aggression and seductive (and equally cold-blooded) charm. The most delicious part of it is a small but important detail – the way she holds the weird poison thing. All her attitude is there in her fingertips.
And in an episode full of Avon not running away, I really enjoyed Tarrant’s “You’re just running away from the truth” when discussing Servalan’s survival.
Watching this episode again has once again made me question my views of the writer and his contribution to Blake’s 7. Perhaps the fact that this has the name ‘Robert Holmes’ on it is more of a hindrance than a help in this case. His scripts for Who and (up to this point) for Blake have been his typical hallmark of quality, with well drawn situations and characters, many of whom have a good backstory to help them along, and a healthy dose of Earth history to frame everything together – take the garrison in ‘Killer’ and the regency themes in ‘Gambit.’ So why does this feel like, not a so much a let down, but maybe a lesser episode? There are good characters, double acts, double-crossing and jeopardy.
‘Traitor’ is really intricate in its dialogue, in its historical detail, in its power games, and in its timing. Broadly speaking, I think it is cleverly thought through, and meshes together necessary ingredients of the wider series to tell a story. Around this time Holmes appeared to be increasingly penning stories that required various elements from the production team; the biggest monster even seen (The Power of Kroll), The Key to Time (The Ribos Operation) and a couple of years later, an aborted attempt to gather ‘The Five Doctors’. Here he does a remarkable job. Perhaps the complex interactions between the different plot strands make this – on paper – one of the better Blake’s 7 episodes. But then again, perhaps its intricacy is its downfall, meaning that it lacks the big, bold strokes that Blake’s 7 often needs. It’s a strange dichotomy – this is a carefully thought through depiction of the brutal conditions of war, but being a Robert Holmes script, so somehow I’m trained to expect it to boil over with its lavishness and boldness – Victorian London, gambling arenas, extravagant planets, larger than life characters and situations.
Interestingly I see parallels with his most recent Doctor Who scripts either side of it, both of which are set on dull, boggy planets. This might be essential to the plot (‘The Caves of Androzani’ needs mud) where as both Androzani and ‘The Power of Kroll’ contain the oppressor and the oppressed, and double crosses galore.
None of the characters are larger than life, and the situations depicted in the episode are about graft, rather than sparking dialogue. The result is that the performances of the characters that Holmes has created are by in large muted. Now I must point out that I don’t feel that there is any poor acting in this story, in fact I feel the cast are pretty solid, and the guests are taking it seriously, however it feels that this episode is full of portrayals that just lack that extra ‘bite’ that a Holmes script needs. Most of the Federation officers are 2D military cut outs, leaving Forbus and Hunda as the only characters whose performance lingers in the memory after the episode has finished.
But what we do get are themes very typical of Holmes – the colonial touches and reference to Earth history. Even the original title ‘A Land Fit for Helots’ feels like a war time movie that you might expect John Mills to star in. Perhaps this is the episode’s saving grace?
And war-time characteristics are there.
– “Strange how you civilians give yourselves these impressive ranks.” (Played mockingly.)
– ‘Where exactly is Wanta sir?’ (Played with a stiff upper lip.)
– The military playing chess casually when unleashing hell all around them…then eating dinner following the completion of the attack.
Crucially this episode also gives the Federation considerable depth. In fact the administration might not have been so complex since ‘Star One’. One little nod that I did enjoy, is the difference between different factions of the Federation, as Practor corrects Leitz, describing Sleer’s ‘pacification’ programme to ‘adaptation’ programme. The old guard vs the new.
This little detail indicates a Federation still fighting with itself – something that has been a theme of a number of season B and C episodes. Here, the double-crossing and conflict is not on the level of ‘Children of Auron’, but the inclusion of a double-double agent, and the different factions, shows a lack of togetherness. A good example of this is the General’s line “I suppose Leitz wants a medal after all of this.”
So the fourth season commences for real. We’re back in outer space, and within a few minutes we have re-established ourselves with the original premise of the series – the battle against the old foe. It’s an odd feeling, as the last time we were really occupied with the Terran Federation as a credible threat, was when Blake was leading his crew to ‘Star One’. Blake would have been proud of this crew. But then he never was very bright.
The tensions within Federation ranks can only be window dressing to one thing – the reveal that fooled no one. Servalan. Sleer. Whatever. Many have complained about the whole premise of Sleer, including Jacqueline Pearce herself, and there are some key elements that stretch credibility, such as how would anyone not notice who she was?
However, there is something about the idea of a new identity, and the battle to rise up the ranks and regain power, that is a really nice new motivation for the character. It is something that was needed, and one that plays nicely into Servalan’s devious and duplicitous traits.
Perhaps it could have been shaped differently. For example, Sleer could have been retained but with more focus on how she was working in an untraceable, covert, and above all invisible way. Someone who pulls the strings, but is never seen by her peers. Almost goddess like. If there is one character who could have done this, it was her. As good as Pearce’s performance is in this episode, the idea is simply not enough. There is also a lack of conviction. The Sleer sub plot disappears, or certainly eases off as we move into the second half of the season, although as mentioned earlier in this review, the Pylene 50 strategy permeates throughout the season, and I would argue gives her the ultimate victory in the series.
On reflection, I’m somewhat confused about what I actually think of this script. Perhaps if I forget that it was written by Robert Holmes, and ignore his usual characteristics as a writer, this might be right up there.
There’s a good cast in this one. George Lee (Igin) pops up in Jon Pertwee’s first Doctor Who story, while David Quilter (The Tracer) appears a good 38 years later. You can take your pick for the credits that have been enjoyed by Cyril Appleton (Sgt. Hask) and John Quentin (Practor).
From Baywatch to Boon, Neil Dickson is still performing today, as is Nick Brimble (General). Edgar Wreford’s performance comes towards the end of a long career, that included ‘The Avengers.’ And as for Robert Morris (Hunda), his television career seems to disappear in the early 1990’s.
Onto the director. The first time I watched this, I suggested that the episode wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be, due to the uninspired direction. “David Sullivan Proudfoot is a new name to the series, and I’m not really sure what he brings to the proceedings, apart from a series of crude low budget screen wipes, a la the Star Wars franchise.”
Watching it again, I’m still not enamoured of the direction, but there is a lot more that is interesting, than perhaps I previous thought.
He throws in some nice camera shots, such as the focus pull close-up of Servalan’s blaster as she kills Practor, and some lovely shots throughout the location filming. Like a number of directors, he appears very comfortable in the medium of film. There’s another lovely moment where, following the battle on the mud flats, he slows everything right down, and holds onto a long, lingering shot of a lone trooper advancing on a communicator belonging to a dead figure, and eventually blasts it to pieces.
There are some touches that are brave at least, such as the aforementioned composite shot of the mudflats and mountain range seen early in the episode.
Unfortunately there are other moments that don’t come off, most of which seem to occur in the studio. Our first glimpse of Servalan is confusing. Why is she even there? What is she actually doing in the middle of a battle?
Blake’s 7 is no stranger to the jarring quality between video and film. Over the years I’ve kind of gone blind to it. But ‘Traitor’ slaps me right in the face with the contrast. The main issue is the light levels between the location material and the ‘dusk’ quality of the studio interiors.
This leads me onto…
The set design leaves a lot to be desired. I have to keep telling myself to be kind when talking about creating worlds on a minimal budget, but there are so many occasions where the designers and directors on Blake’s 7 overcome these restrictions. The examples that spring to mind include ‘Moloch’, ‘Death-Watch’, ‘Voice from the Past’, and many from season A. They all overcome considerable budgetary limitations to create a reasonably well designed environment for the stories to unfold. However ‘Traitor’, like ‘Dawn of the Gods’ before that, fails to find that extra element that helps us suspend our disbelief.
Most of the money appears to have been spent on the presidential suite, leaving black flats, and an array of cheap neon lighting in the tracking room, using what looks like the control panels, last seen on Auron, and a dreadful jungle set on Helotrix, that is badly lit and fails to match up to the film scenes to the point where we actually stop watching the storyline, and notice the production design.
Actually the jungle isn’t dreadful as a set, but the lack of connection between film and video is its Achilles heel.
Chairs were a disappointment. They look like imitations. For example the chairs featured in the tracking room look like an imitation of the Swiss Tubular Tub Chair From Zougoise Victoria. But all in all they are not quite the design classics I was hoping for…or my searches proved futile. Of course there are other chairs that are more familiar, such as the Le Corbusier Cassina LC4 (see Orac) and Don Chadwick’s modular ‘Slipper’ chair (see ‘Redemption’) but when you’re trying to break new ground in the world of interior design, this is a frustrating episode. I don’t think I will ever recover.
Sometimes an unfair test of the impact of the incidental music in Blake’s 7 is about whether you can hum or whistle it. A bit like the origins of the title of BBC2’s late night music show of the 1970’s/80’s – ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ – where the doormen of Tin Pan Ally (the old greys) were asked to listen to a potential new song. If they could subsequently whistle the melody, the record company knew they were on to a potential hit.
With this in mind, the military music that accompanies the location footage is very distinctive, with an optimistic melodic motif, punctuated by typical staccato drum patterns. Easy to remember.
Elsewhere there is plenty of Timpani and woodwind for the suspenseful will-he-make-it underwater sequences. In fact there is plenty of pensive music, often using the circular shaky bead thing. Ah, the Cabasa shaker! Yes Dudley likes his Cabasa shaker.
So it’s very much a case of ‘less is more’ in this one, with the exception of the swirly synthesised music for Scorpio. It’s interesting to note how the incidental music evolves in the post-Liberator era. For any shot involving Scorpio, the melodies have changed slightly. It’s still got elements of the theme tune, and is close enough to remind us that it is still Blake’s 7 – for better or for worse.
The ultra geek in me was delighted to note the return of the little musical motif that has peppered it’s way throughout all four season of Blake’s 7. I previously discussed it in ‘City at the Edge of the World’ and since this video was made, I noticed that it can also be heard in the moments before we see the Liberator flight deck for the first time in ‘Space Fall’ and here, when the painting of Servalan is revealed for the first time in Practor’s quarters. I must update the video one day.
HOW TO SELL THIS TO A NON BELIEVER?
If you like films like ‘The Four Feathers’ and ‘Zulu’ this is the one for you.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
Vila’s Tarsian Warg Strangler.
THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
Dayna turning her back to the person who is attacking her.
VERDICT IN 10 WORDS EXACTLY
The jury is out on Holmes, and his third episode.