‘This is ridiculous.’
Much has been written and said about how films, television series, literature and the like is a product of its time. This could relate to the wider premise, or something that influences a particular story line. Take James Bond – a product of East V West, post WWII politics – and then focus in on one of its films, such as Moonraker (1979) where the direction could have only come from the success of Star Wars, and the increasing comedic, escapist tone is often said to come from audiences requiring something less ‘gritty’ due to post Vietnam war/Watergate weariness. There were many who bemoan this change of tone, away from the ‘authentic’, however the audiences flocked to see it.
Roger Moore on location at Betchworth Quarry. L to R. Paul Darrow, Moore, Steven Pacey, Julia Vidler, Jim Francis, Michael Keating, and…er…director Mary Ridge.
But I’m also interested in how the decisions of what we choose to watch are equally a product of their time. This is very much in my thoughts as I write this. Without wanting to bring too much political discussion into this blog, we’re clearly in a tumultuous period of world history. Television news broadcasts a rich vein of attacks, misery, suffering and injustice. And as audiences, we shake our heads at it all and mutter about the hopelessness of it all. Documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis called it ‘Oh dear-ism.’
This has shaped my choices when watching drama. Right now, crime dramas with human torture and suffering are largely gone. Social drama presented with a realistic edge – also significantly diminished, or rather I choose not to seek it out. Drama that spends too much time wallowing in deep routed emotional conflict – vanished, for now. When my wife asks me whether I fancy watching a film or similar, I’m increasingly drawn to content with a more escapist or theatrical tone.
So here we are, Assassin – on paper at least the type of episode that I want to watch right now.
This is the equivalent of the caper – ‘.’ I think of those films that popped up in the 1970’s/80’s featuring tired old Hollywood stars needing a quick paycheck. Films such as ‘Cannonball Run II.’ Films that looked dated when they were made, and have dated horribly now. They weren’t made with love. They were just lovely to make…probably. In fact I watched this film on television last year, and I watched it through the gaps in my fingers…a bit like I did when I watched Assassin for this blog.
I remember really not enjoying this episode the first time I watched it, and every time thereafter. The habits of watching Blake’s 7 over the years is encapsulated by this episode. One watches it again and again in the those early years, then slowly over time, it disappears from view, with the other more attractive episodes retaining their place in the ‘re-watch’ section. So these blog posts are the most important ones. A chance to renew my acquaintance with a long forgotten episode, and a reminder to myself to give them another chance. To keep an open mind.
It’s a jolt watching this episode after watching a number of episodes from the first three series. It really is the acting that surprises me the most. It’s lost some of its authenticity and turned into something cruder. Something happened between series 3 and 4. It’s like series 4 has it’s own rule book on performances. There will be plenty of examples to draw upon as the series progresses.
Perhaps a contributing factor to this is David Sullivan-Proudfoot. By some accounts, he wasn’t in the best of health by the time he helmed his episodes in the fourth series of Blake’s 7 – in this instance the location footage was directed by Vere Lorrimer. But the rest of the material is in keeping with his other episodes, complete with ‘Star Wars’ style screenwipes, that are very much of their time. Unfortunately for me, his other main characteristic is how the performances in his episodes feel like they are outside of his control (with the possible exception of Traitor, where there are some measured performances to be seen.)
To illustrate what I mean, on the evening I write this blog post, I had just watched Redemption from series 2. In my mind I thought about a typical scene where our heroes are working something out. What pops into my head is a scene on the Liberator flight deck where Zen rejects a replacement unit that Cally installs. Avon deduces that it is the crew that the ship is rejecting. This typical scene is performed with urgency and without theatrics. Then I took the scene in Assassin, where our 5 are on the flight deck, working out Servalan’s message. It’s a completely different show. The dialogue is clunky, and that does not help the performances, which feel like we’ve moved into the ‘Blake’s 7 show.’ Dare I say it, the actors have stopped taking it quite as seriously. The crew take it in turns to have a line, move around in sequence to hit the best camera angles. But – and here’s the big but – I still love it. Yes, I still yearn for the urgency of the first three series, but this is a series nearing the end of its time, so you’ve got to just make the most of it.
So in we go.
The whole Domo the 9th, 5 subjects, feels like such a cod way of introducing a hook to base this episode around. It feels like the series is inventing hooks, and then writing the episode around it, rather than writing a good episode where a sophisticated hook can be incorporated, or the hook is subtly built in.
There is plenty to enjoy in this episode – albeit in a guilty way.
Lets start with a key player. Richard Hurndall. I still cant think of him as Neebrox. I can only see the faux ‘First Doctor’ that he is more famous for. There are times I can totally see how John Nathan-Turner saw him as William Hartnell – check out the line ‘What are you up to!?’ So it’s more ‘First Doctor’ than much of his performance in ‘The Five Doctors.’ There is something about the dismal dialogue he is given. Witness him reclining on a sun lounger slipping a drink muttering ‘I do hope they are alright’. I know he was there as a possible red herring, but boy I wish he was left behind.
Watching the detention cell scenes, it reminded me how long the scenes are in this episode. Again, perhaps unfairly, I’m comparing it to similar scenes in earlier series. Perhaps it’s mainly down to the pedestrian direction.
Paul Darrow hams it up in a wonderful way when playing the part of the lost space trekker, who has been searching for food, water, and a warm place. When pared with Vila on Domo, their double act is once again very effective.
But elsewhere there is a notable deterioration in the characterisations of our heroes.
Tarrant is an absolute creep.
Dayna is useless, even when given some minimal action.
Vila has a couple of moments amidst the mindlessness, but otherwise useless.
Even Servalan is stupid. Leaving her communication channel on. Please!
John Wyman is excellent as the faux Cancer. A striking looking gentleman he is everything that his character requires him to be -convincing. Around this time, he appeared as the James Bond henchman in ‘For Your Eyes Only’ – how apt for this blog post.
But this is an episode that is just pure pulp B-movieness. The bidding war starts, Servalan enters the bidding, we go into crash zoom into Avon, and before you know it, someone utters the line ‘my client would like to protest at the irregularity of these proceedings.‘
Later Servalan would like her slave to address her as mistress. Of course she would. As Jacqueline Pearce often says she was ‘a masturbatory fantasy to millions.‘
Meanwhile on Scorpio, Avon also enjoys some time on the series 4 sun loungers, and to coin a phrase as ‘he is at our mercy.’
Later the action shifts to Cancer’s ship. Characters stalk around the spacecraft through a series of cross fades. We haven’t seen a good old cross fade montage like this since Gan’s surgery in ‘Breakdown.’
What happened for this shift in tone. When did Blake’s 7 need to send up every western or sci-fi cliche? It has far more promise. When we see the dummy in the leather jacket and toupee, I had my head in my hands.
Dated even at the time of transmission, the scenes on the planet, are enjoyable to watch, but are signs of a show that has become self indulgent and lost any progressive thought. Despite the whole thing feeling like a ‘Carry On’ movie, with some cliched middle-eastern music, and servants fanning their rulers, Betty Marsden is an absolute riot in her scenes with Servalan. It reminds me of the type of Hollywood film that appeared around this time, that catered for bored actors looking for some self indulgence, and a hefty pay check. Oh yes, I’m looking at you again, ‘Cannonball Run II.’
She plays her role as ‘guest star Betty Marsden’, rather than as Verlis. What I love also is how it feels like Jacqueline Pearce is totally taken along for the ride, and is enjoying her company so much that she has stopped reading her lines as Servalan, and is playing these scenes as Jackie Pearce. The first time I watched this episode 25 odd years ago I remember thinking how this wasn’t Servalan. Time hasn’t changed this. In fact, discovering the Blake’s 7 blooper reel on one the DVD box sets just re-enforces what a great time these two were having.
Anyway back to the fiction…
Some commentators bemoan the performance of Caroline Holdaway, (now an interior designer) but I think that is unfair, at least for the most part. The dialogue between Cancer and Servalan at the end is hugely enjoyable, and in that brief moment we get a glimpse of Holdway’s real performance. Perfectly fine. It really isn’t the fault of her as an actor. It is the direction that is at fault. It is the direction that could have prevented the ghastly screams when she is bitten, and could have reigned in the hysterical victim of her ‘pre-reveal’ scenes. Basically she is the victim of the wider fault of this episodes – a lack of control. Everyone suffers from it. We see it in Stardrive, but here it is at its most painful.
This is the episode where Soolin, in effect, ‘starts’ – her knowledge of Domo suggests a little of her life pre-Avon, and it is here were we finally see not only some of the characters potential, but how Vere Lorrimer understood how Glynis Barber delivers ‘flip-lines’ with her sardonic edge.
(Referring to Piri crying.) ‘Avon, what is that terrible noise?’
‘What, after our friends little goodwill message?’
‘There are two classic ways of dealing with an hysterical woman. You didn’t really expect me to kiss her did you?’
The writers followed suit, and from now on, Soolin becomes something vaguely interesting, rather than the non entity we saw beforehand.
But then this little ray of light is extinguished as Soolin decides to sit down to ‘have a think’ on the spaceship. She positions herself oh-so-carefully to ensure the crab has the perfect opportunity to give her a nip. Dreadful direction.
But this is just an awful episode full of ‘shivering like an old woman’, ‘putting the colour back into those pretty cheeks’ and helpless little child’s’ – it’s like Ben Steed is script editor. There’s even a sneaky ‘bitch’ in it! Holy hairdo!
Food trays from airlines, foil reflective stripes and a bizarre three seater control unit that not only inhibits any dramatic shot composition and blocking, but actually creates a strange and awkward stage where characters have to sit awkwardly and deliver lines to other characters at 270degree angles, or sit passively as though they are waiting for a take! It looks so cheap. So often Blake’s 7 has turned a blind eye to it’s low budgetness and overcome this through good characterisation, plot and effective theatrical direction. But not this time. Not by a long way.
Dudley Simpson shines when scoring suspenseful scenes, such as fakey Cancer (complete with rattlesnake motif) stalking his prey, with established use of muted trumpet, clarinet and marimba. It sounds like Elizabeth Parker has given the score a bit of a lift with some electronic backing.
To conclude, it’s hard to like this episode. I really wanted to re-discover it as new, after it not being on my radar for many many years. However time has been unkind to it, and my hope of a dramatic turnaround is in shreds. I really dislike what has happened to this wonderful show. This is the most sexist episode of Blake, based on the ‘sweetness’ of women, and the ‘stupidity’ of men. Ben Steed’s episodes at least fell back on some interesting themes about technology, and, in Moloch, at least the maltreatment of women is portrayed as something that isn’t good. But here, the stereotypical characteristics and the positioning of men and women are too ingrained. Take Servalan’s final line.
‘It’s just a universe without Avon and Tarrant, will take a certain amount of getting used to.’
Oh, it’s a man’s man’s man’s world.
And certainly it’s most pulp and tasteless. I mentioned the Roger Moore Bond era – when Avon delivers the final ‘I think your friend is feeling the pinch’ – well that is the coup de grace.
Take a look at the scene when Cancer has Avon tied down to the bench at the end. Look at his eyes. He is not coolly assessing what has just happened…he is nodding off.
HOW TO SELL THIS TO A NON-BELIEVER.
Where could I possibly start? This could be a perfect episode to convince the whole world to watch Blake’s 7 for all the wrong reasons.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENT.
Soolin’s slap, and Piri’s death scene. Yes, I know this isn’t a hallmark of quality. But I love it.
THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET.
Piri. Not so much the performance, but the correlation between her character…and her attire.
VERDICT IN 10 WORDS EXACTLY.
I think we need to have a few drinks first.