A 13 – ORAC (and a bit about how to end a season.)

‘We seem to have arrived.’

Ah!  The end of series episode.  By this, I don’t mean the end of everything – I mean how to manage the audiences expectations and hopefully keep them on board until the following year.

It occurred to me that, whilst my first dim memory of Blake’s 7 was of the fourth season title sequence, the actual scene I first remember, was the final moments of ‘Orac’.  This must have been in the late 1980’s.  But I have no recollection of where it appeared.   Could it be a quiz show such as ‘Telly Addicts’ – it was a good bet for seeing a tantalising moment of shows we loved, but in the pre-VHS era were not readily available.  Perhaps it was linked to the appearance of a cast member on a chat show such as ‘Wogan’, ‘Harty’ or other shows that didn’t rely on a surname…er Pebble Mill, anyone?  Or it could have been archival shows such as ‘Windmill’?  I loved that programme.   It was the first time I recall the BBC properly opening up its archives.  For those not in the know, ‘Windmill’ was a mid to late 1980’s show quietly placed on a Sunday lunchtime on BBC2 which featured retrospective material sourced from the BBC’s archives centre on Windmill Road, London.  Whether it actually featured Blake’s 7, I really don’t remember, but I certainly recall seeing Patrick Troughton desperately trying to open the TARDIS door from a clip of ‘The War Games’ – and it opened the door to the possibilities of what was stored in the vaults of the archive.

So the image of a spaceship exploding was firmly planted in my mind, and from there on in, the thought of discovering Blake’s 7 for myself was established.

Watching ‘Orac’ today made me think about the strategies used by writers and production teams to retain the appeal of the show, in preparation for the long months without transmission, and hopefully point the way forward.

Lets take two of Blake’s peers in the realm of late 1970’s British telefantasy.
Doctor Who was well established as an ongoing concern by the time of ‘Orac’ – so the idea of ending the series with any kind of truly defining moment was perhaps not on the radar.  Any endings around this period would have consisted of the departure of someone, either a companion, or the Doctor himself.  It might not have been an ending at all (‘The Talons of Weng Chiang’, or ‘Shada’ – as was the plan.)  On the few occasions that there was a hint of an ongoing narrative (‘The Key to Time’ season) there was an attempt to wrap the narrative elements, but in a quieter, more low key way.  Compare the explosive moments of Orac, with the ‘last laugh’ of ‘The Armageddon Factor’.

‘Sapphire and Steel’ also favoured a subtle approach to series endings.  Whilst it purportedly consisted of 4 seasons, a range of behind the scenes factors resulted in the show being broadcasted in a variety of episode runs, and timeslots.  So each ‘season’ – as far as we can understand it isn’t the radical break in proceedings that other shows are.  ‘Sapphire and Steel’ is different in the sense that the structure of the series differed from Doctor Who – in that single stories might make up an entire run, so each story didn’t need to end strongly to finish off the season.   I don’t believe wrapping anything up was in the mind of P.J Hammond, Anthony Read, or Don Houghton as they delivered their scripts.  However the final episode of the final series (known in some quarters as ‘The Trap’ or simply ‘Assignment 6’) really delivered an end of season ‘punch’ or cliffhanger and put the heroes of the show in very real, and unresolved, danger.  That ‘punch’ turned out to be the end of the entire show, although whether that was the intention at the time is questionable.

The story starts and opens in a roadside service cafe, and the lead characters are menaced by figures from the past, and ghosts from the future.  These aberrations are part of a trap that is sprung for them.  One of them opens a box (a time machine) which reveals the eternity of space.  The final scene is of both Sapphire and Steel trapped in the cafe, surrounded by nothing other than the stars.
It is a memorable and brilliantly directed ending, full of low budget, theatrical excellence.  It uses rich surreal imagery, rather than sophisticated effects and execution, and the final shots of the two heroes drifting in the starscape is memorable.  I have to pay tribute to the scene beforehand, where the ‘Man’ (as he was credited) appears silhouetted within the vegetation outside the cafe.  Reacting faster than Steel, he opens his box first, and reveals perhaps the most terrifying prison of all – an eternity of nothingness.   The man’s partner reveals that ‘This place is nowhere…and it’s forever.’  It is, for this viewer, one of the most haunting moments of British telefantasy.  (For other moments of scare-factor moments, outside of the realms of fantastical drama, my review of ‘Warlord’ will cover this.)

And this is where Blake’s 7 comes in.  ‘The punch’ is present in every season.  The Liberator exploding, the commencement of the Intergalactic War, the destruction of the Liberator, and the dramatic final moments of the entire series.    It is absolutely the right device for the series, which focused on a story arc to keep the audience hooked, rather than relying on a weekly cliffhanger, a la Who, and to a degree, Sapphire and Steel.  But what is interesting to note is what surrounds the final scene of each season.

Series 1 – there is a build up to the end of the series, but it starts with the episode before.  It’s a mini story arc.  If anything the acquisition of ‘Orac’ points the way forwards.  It is a new character and that makes me feel that this is firmly a series that will return.  The explosion of the Liberator is a new beginning, not an end point.

Series 2 is perhaps the most fully developed cliffhanger of them all in terms of anticipation.  The build up starts at the end of ‘Redemption’ with the reference to a return to Earth. It digs its nails in during ‘Shadow’ where Blake shifts into a more obsessive mode.  We’ve had the false mid-series ‘punch’ during the end of ‘Pressure Point’, but we do finally reach Star One, and the ending is not at all what we expected it to be.  Again, it is far more than that.  It is a beginning.  The start of a war, and a chain of events which will affect the next series of adventures.

Series 3 to me, this is the biggest ‘punch’ of them all.  The biggest single blow to the group we have followed since the very beginning.  It was conceived and written as a final ever episode, and whist Terry Nation has repeatedly stated his reluctance in ever writing something that cannot ever be resurrected, it is clear that whist the heroes are still alive, they have a bleak future ahead.  It is the closest to the final trap sprung in ‘Sapphire and Steel’ – an ending where it feels like game over, but the door isn’t firmly slammed shut, there is still a tiny crack visible.  It is also the total reverse of the previous season.  There is no build up to this episode, it just happens, and we are not remotely prepared for it.

Series 4 is the season that completes Blake’s run on television, and contains a story arc that is more subtly developed than in series 2, but no less impactful.  The Federation are clearly regaining strength,  but having navigated their way through the seemingly break situation on ‘Terminal’ there is a very real possibility that more more adventures could happen, although it might not have felt that way at the time.  (More on this in ‘Blake’.)

EPISODE DISCUSSION
We begin with a farewell to the cardboard animation that has served the first series faithfully (and cheaply.)  In fact there are cameos of the ‘upside down’ Liberator in City at the Edge of the World and Terminal, but from now on, it’s models all the way.  Before we get to that, we will be treated to a couple of the worst ‘holy moly the budget has run out’ cardboard cut out shots of them all as the cardboard cut out Liberator is poorly superimposed over a water painting of Aristo.

We open with Gan.  And, of course, David Jackson once again has a chance to show off his ‘no dialogue’ acting skills.  He really is the best at this in the entire ensemble cast.  He has to be though.  There’s so little to his character.  The acting book says ‘demonstrate you’re feeling a little off colour, and that you are trying to get some perspective on this‘   Jackson’s sideways glance at the window, and subtle grimace gives us everything that we need to know.  If only films were still silent.  He could have made millions.

Then we cut to the end of season flight deck.  I noticed they turned down the lights for this one, to hide some of the deterioration of the set.  But they didn’t fix the sound, as Gareth Thomas merrily treads the hollow rostrums, and manages to elicit a few squeaks along the way.
Then we move to one of the most clunky moments in the episode.  The re-cap.  It’s directed in the way that BBC continuity announcers would tell us the story so far, before an episode starts, along with appropriate picture slides.
Can you imagine it.  ‘And now on BBC1, another episode fighting the Federation with Blake’s 7.  Last week our heroes came to the aid of the crew of a stricken ship.  Teleporting down to the planet, the crew located one of the survivors, a man called Ensor, and although he ultimately succumbs to his injuries, the crew seek to work out the significance of the micro cells he was carrying, and why the Federation is willing to pay so much for something called Orac…’ (cue title sequence.)
We are in the know, only to be told the same thing 2 minutes later! 


Anyway, Blake and Avon have their natter in confession corner.  I can imagine the talkback from the production gallery in the studio.  Vere: ‘Turn the micro cells towards the camera, please Gareth.’ 

‘The verbal supplementary ends.’

Meanwhile the crew, like the sets, are all starting to wobble.
Vila is physically sick, Jenna flollops all over the place, Gan looks pensive, and Avon, ever the star, plays it cool, as much as you can when affected by radiation poisoning.

Meanwhile Blake is unsettled by the events of the previous episode, and seeks to find the answers by examining the footage frame by frame.  24 hours later and he will be doing exactly the same thing, but this time the spacecraft that had exploded will be a lot bigger.  In fact later in this episode, Blake will end up traveling in a lift, again just as he does in ‘Redemption’ – no wonder the it all felt like one story when the ‘Orac’ compilation VHS tape was released.


On the planet Cardboard…sorry I mean Aristo, we finally meet Ensor.  I really liked Derek Farr’s performance in this one.  His mind is delightfully cluttered as the base he has set up for himself.  Loving the bird cage sound thingy.

And then we hear Orac for the first time…it’s funny how it neither sounds like the fussy bank clerk we will get to know, nor Derek Farr, his creator.

The location work for this one is a masterpiece of subterfuge.  The stock footage of the sea, and the sounds of the shore gives Springwell Quarry a vastness that belies its landlocked location.

springwell lock quarry 1949.jpg
Springwell Quarry in 1949 (1)

Watching Servalan in a state of fear is interesting.  It wasn’t until I was familiar with the entirety of Blake’s 7 that I realised that this was the only occasion that she looks genuinely scared.    True panic isn’t something that we see from her at any other point in the series.  Jacqueline Pearce acts in a clever way where she is clearly trying hard to suppress all her fear, and largely succeeding.  But like a young child, she soon snaps out of it, and in fact is at her most action orientated and ‘gung-ho’ when using the map to work out the quickest route to intercept Blake – a map that is a masterpiece compared to the hand drawn by a child of 5 effort, earlier in the episode.


There are some nice little character touches in this episode.
Gan’s ‘I don’t like being on my own’ is a little reminder of his core persona, and back story.

There is a great tactical line from Blake ‘I think he did’ – responding to Ensor wondering if his son know how much he was loved.

Meanwhile Ensor himself is stealing the show.
‘You morons in physical medicine.’
‘Oh come on, speak up!  Which one is the butcher?!’
(Blake) Weapons?  (Ensor) I disapprove of weapons.  (Blake) Yes well I disapprove of dying even more.
And electronic anesthesia?  It’s an interesting concept, a space age advancement of a TENS machine perhaps?

But in Derek Farr’s performance it is the little moments that shine too.  Look at the way he tries to remember where the key is, and the ‘careful, careful, careful’ as Blake puts Orac in the box.   It infectious.  Whenever my 5 year old daughter is involved in something perilous (which as all parents will understand is frequently) I end up saying ‘careful, careful, careful.’ It’s part of the DNA.

And of course there is the cheesy.  When Blake sates that ‘Liberator has one of finest surgical units you’ve ever seen‘ Gareth Thomas is never quite able to deliver these types of lines without considerable smugness.  A similar example is the following year, in ‘Killer’ – ‘You may have have heard of me…my name is Blake’ to which Dr Bellfriar responds beautifully ‘Yes well we’re absent minded scientists. In fact we’ve forgotten your name already.’
Later, Vila looks like he is in his rehearsal clothes when Avon calls for him.  And immediately after that, we have a dreadful scene in the teleport bay where Vila is waiting in the wings waiting for his cue, and Gan unconvincingly says ‘Whats the matter Jenna?’ as he is woken up.
Finally there is the moment in the episode where Blake and Avon are discussing Ensor in the rest room.  It’s a bizarre set up where Thomas has to activate a portable unit that links up to Zen like he is operating a hand puppet.
Now say ‘a gottle of gear.’


Elsewhere the CSO is not as bad as Duel, but then again that’s really saying something, and around 45 mins in we cut to a long shot of the quarry…sorry I mean shoreline, and there is someone in the distance who creeps into shot.  It’s a blink and you’ll miss it moment.


This is one of those episodes where everyone takes forever to do the simplest of things.  Take the final scene on Aristo when Blake doesn’t call to be teleported up, instead he decides to walk away from the entrance, put down Orac, go back and put a stone on the entrance then go back again.  Folk heroes are a very exacting bunch.

And then there is the best line of all. (Blake) ‘Good shot Avon’  (Avon) I was aiming for his head.  The line is great, but Michael Keating’s look towards Avon is priceless.

So we move to that final scene.  And what a scene it is.  It crackles with energy, and quick fire dialogue.  A good contender for a type of scene that might appear on some kind of compilation show, perhaps?

Finally we pay tribute to the first departure in Blake’s 7 – Stephen Greif.  We see his last in vision footage on film.  And it is fun, with the benefit of the knowledge that Greif was unable to perform the studio scenes, to see how the various shots of feet, hands, and  shots through a fish tank were used to disguise this.  And we kind of say goodbye to the first incarnation of Travis in more ways than one.    I’m talking about the point where we see Travis losing his arrogance (we saw a glimpse of this in Deliverance.) Look at his face when Blake says he’ll put a call out to the federation.   This humiliation sets up the more erratic portrayal of the character in series 2 -even if the production team didn’t know that the actor would be returning.    ‘So was Travis mad and evil’?  More evil in series 1 and mad (or maddened) in series 2.  Greif’s performance in the role, was so dangerous, that it will be hard for any actor to follow, so it’s just as well that there will be a considerable shift in the character, not the actor, in series 2.

MUSIC
This one is quite memorable, in that there is no other episode quite like it.  Overall it’s quite sprightly, lively and jaunty.  To accompany the rather odd cluster of planets model shot, we have some jingly jangly synthesised notes at the start.

There are some sprightly staccato motifs for Orac itself.  This usually contains Flute, Piccolo and other higher range instruments such as Xylophone.

More traditionally, check out the moment at around 27 minutes in – the trademark model shot where the camera slowly tracks in towards the Liberator.  It is always scored by the best pieces of music.  (There will be a separate blog post on this in the future.)

SET DESIGN
Not bad, considering.  It’s fairly minimal as can be expected on a series that had such a minimal budget, and a significant overspend.  But as cheap as it looks, it a real credit to producer David Maloney that broadly speaking he was able to allocate the right levels of spending across the entire series.  Of course, in comparison to the opening episode, this closing installment does suffer, but hell, even the corridors have ceilings – always the apex of a glossy production!

A little nod to some of the design classics that are peppered throughout Blake’s 7 – noticeably the recliner that features in the crew quarters – the Cassina LC4 Chaise Longue.  Designed in1928 by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand, this is a very costly piece of furniture which was designed for the occupant to be firmly at the centre of the design, and that everything about the chair, aesthetically and functionality should be with the goal of relaxation at it’s heart.

Screen Shot 2017-10-15 at 14.23.16

HOW TO SELL THIS TO A NON-BELIEVER.
It’s the ultimate low budget sci-fi sell.  Take a box of flashing lights and call it the greatest super computer in the universe.  Anyone working in the sales industry could learn from this.

MY FAVOURITE MOMENT.
Avon’s incredulous glance when Orac starts answering back during the final scene…and the follow up laugh.

THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET.
The ‘rescue party’ scene in the teleport bay.  Messers Lorrimer, Jackson and Keating – hang your heads in shame!

VERDICT IN 10 WORDS EXACTLY.
There is no more money, but somehow everyone keeps going. 

 

 

(1) http://www.britainfromabove.org.uk/image/eaw024872

 

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