13 episodes – the standard model for many series 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, allowing 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, and therefore the schedulers would prioritise prime content that could start during the peek times of September or January – broadly speaking of course.
But this model of making television series ran the risk of leaving those who made it, and the audience fatigued.
The next milestone in UK sci-fi terms, would be in 1970, with the arrival of a new Doctor, colour television and a shorter season. Suddenly a nine month 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 – again broadly speaking. Of course Blake’s 7 consisted of episodes double the length of Doctor Who’s 25 minutes, meaning 13 episode series were commonplace by 1978. Where a series would once have run all year round, bar three months, 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 timeslots of September to Christmas, and from January to March.
It is interesting to notes that 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 (or as some commentators have suggested – a UK based model) of 13 weeks. In many cases it is now seen as the optimum timespan of a drama series.
So what impact did the 13 week run have on Blake’s 7? It is safe to say that in the narrative based approach of Blake’s story arc, there is a distinct thread that runs through each of the four seasons. In series one we have the set up and distinct battle between Blake and the Federation/Travis. In series two we have the increasing desire to destroy the Federation by disabling it’s computer control centre. In series three – the most unconnected series – there is still the desire of Servalan to capture the Liberator and her empire. Finally in series four there is the rapid expansion of the Federation threat through the Pylene 50 pacification program.
In each of the four series, the most pivotal episode would appear to be episode three.
The first episode would appear to establish the situation and attempt to hook the audience – introducing Blake and the Federation, solving Orac’s predictions and re-establishing the crew to the audience, depicting the crucial events of the intergalactic war, and finding Xenon Base/Scorpio.
Episode two appears to set the key characteristics or ingredients that make up the season – introducing the Liberator and giving the key characters their freedom, establishing Blake’s desire to hurt the Federation, introducing new post-war regular characters and regaining the Liberator, and finally securing Scorpio and being joined by Soolin.
But it is episode three of each series that is the episode that sets up the key narratives that the season rests on – the (almost) completion of the ‘seven’, the return of Servalan and Travis with reference to a ‘computer control centre’, the establishment of Servalan’s depleted Federation and desire to capture the Liberator, and finally the introduction of the Federation’s drug control programme and rapid expansion of the administration.
So lets explore this particular third episode…
Watching out of order has made me forget how the model work is being handled in this series. We open with a real model shot, and not some kind of C.S.O overlay that seems to be norm in this series. It’s not bad, actually. The camera is a bit shaky, but there is some good depth to the shot.
Then we cut to a strange hybrid matt/glass/model shot, or whatever you call them. I always except them for what they are – they are clearly drawn, but the fact that they try so hard to blend into the background always makes me forgive the limitations of the process.
So the fourth series 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, in series two. Blake would have been proud of this crew. But then he never was very bright.
Avon says, ‘Vila I wont run!’ Wow – what happened there? Blake is back! But he’s wearing black leather gear, with a ton of studs. It’s quite a jolt to hear and see Avon talking in this way, having not seen this episode for so long. It left me thinking was this a natural thing to expect? One 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, to ensure his skin comes first, he has to act. But this scene just felt lacking in the conviction of Avon’s sudden freedom fighter stance, and perhaps needed a bit more distinction between Avon’s reason for fighting, as opposed to Blake’s.
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.
I’m never quite sure what to make of the script for this one. 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, perhaps not a so much a let down, but maybe a lesser episode? There are good characters, double acts, double crossing and jeopardy. I think there are two reasons for this: one irrational and unavoidable, and the other avoidable in my mind. Firstly the unavoidable. Yes, I’m going to say it. The weather on location. Holmes scripts sizzle, and we are used to lavish situations. Victorian London, Gambling arenas, extravagant planets and situations. Action set on dull, boggy planets are not the usual order of the day. And when they are they are either infrequent. They may be essential to the plot (The Caves of Androzani needs mud) or in a very rare occasions, genuinely dull (The Power of Kroll.) So here we are on Helotrix, and the planet is well written, however the murky, misty filming doesn’t do it any favours. This is a pity because in many other episodes these conditions could have been perfect, and the location itself is a nice variation from the traditional quarry, with its endless banks and mudflats. It’s a strange dichotomy – it suits the brutal conditions of war that is a feature of the script, but being a Robert Holmes script, so somehow I’m trained to expect a more lavish production. I’ve been spoilt. This episode is a victim of his own talent.
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?
But all the tropes are there.
‘Strange how you civilians give yourselves these impressive ranks.’
‘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. For the record ‘dinner’ looks like an odd mix of Asparagus (classy), wine (sophisticated), and… what looks like sausage, mash and beans. (Hmmm.)
Oh and Cigars. Of course.
But enough of the ‘privileged’ – what is happening in the mud of the front line?
Lets talk about Hunda. I’ve got a lot of time for Hunda – 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. 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.
So it is wet, misty and muddy. But up in space, amidst the shiny metal and space age technology, what do we have? Sun loungers. You know what I’m talking about. The Scorpio ‘lets have a nice chat’ furniture. In the Liberator any kind of lounging was subtle presence, or a special treat – 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’ or ‘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 come the sun loungers. And they just don’t work in the situation that is Blake’s 7, and they don’t sit well within the designs of the set design of Scorpio. The Liberator is missed in more ways in one.
A couple of other things I noticed at this point.
One thing I didn’t understand, was the inclusion of the stock equalisation act. It felt slightly superfluous, perhaps I’m missing something?
One thing I very much do understand is Pacification. This is the first time 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. One little nod that I did enjoy, is the difference between different factions of the Federation, as Proctor corrects this term as used by Leitz, to ‘adaptation’ program. The old guard vs the new.
And this little detail indicates a Federation still fighting with itself – something that has been a theme of a number of third series episodes. The double crossing and conflict here is not on the level of Children of Auron – but the double agent, and the different factions playing chess with each other, 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.’
And these 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 any 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 actually a really nice new motivation for the character, something that was needed, and one that plays nicely into Servalan’s devious and duplicitous traits nicely. Perhaps it could have been shaped differently, for example the Sleer elements 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 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. But that’s for a later date.
What else is going on? 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.
We get to hear the plummy tones of Zen again when Proctor talks to his personal computer in his office, and doesn’t the Heleotrix tannoy sound exactly like Orac? Peter Tuddenham is kept a little more busy in this tale than normal.
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 subtle shift in their relationship in this final series.
Meanwhile 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. Or is it the planet Chromakey? It’s like the paradise of Deva Loka in ‘Kinda’ gone horribly wrong.
Back in the world of location filming, the battle is well directed – and full of old costumes from Blakes past. 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.
The set design leaves a lot to be desired. I have to keep telling myself to be kind when talking about set design on a minimal budget, but there are so many occasions where the designers and directors on Blakes 7 overcome these restrictions. The examples that spring to mind are not any of the ‘set piece’ episodes across the four series, but some of the other, perhaps less significant episodes. ‘Moloch’, ‘Deathwatch’, ‘Voice from the Past’, and many from season one 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.
This leads me on to the other, more avoidable reason this episode isn’t all it could be – the 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 Start Wars franchise.
There are other moments that don’t come off, although at least are brave, such as the aforementioned composite shot of the mudflats and mountain range seen early in the episode. But our first glimpse of Servalan is confusing. Why is she even there? What is she actually doing in the middle of a battle?
In short it’s all so dull looking, so lacking in distinctiveness that it feels like it is not living up to the potential of the script.
Another reason are the performances of the characters that Holmes has created. 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 is pretty solid, and the guests are taking it seriously, however perhaps the characters needed a bit more vim. Save for the purposefully disciplined performance of Robert Morris, it feels that this episode is full of portrayals that just lack that extra ‘bite’ a Holmes script needs. Most of the Federation officers are 2D military cut outs, leaving Forbus as the only character whose performance lingers in the memory after the episode has finished.
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 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) where 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 a 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 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.
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
Not the most memorable Holmes, but the perfect third episode.