‘Perhaps we could chew our way out.’
Before we continue with this blog post, I just wanted to put up this picture of Vila on the flight deck, taken during recording of ‘Redemption’. Isn’t it great!
OK – back to business. So we reach series 2. This is where Blake’s 7 hits pay dirt. Of course only a fan can appreciate the irony of this comment. But there is a definite injection of funds in comparison to the first series, and as a result the visual feel to series 2 and 3 feels very different to series 1.
When I started this project I did promise that I wouldn’t delve too deeply into behind the scenes detail, unless it significantly drives the experience of watching Blake’s 7, but it appears that there is much that is worth unpicking, and this is a perfect case in point. It simply can’t be ignored that this is the episode where we first see the effects of a budgetary increase, resulting in a considerable shift in the visual aesthetic of the show. Not that I should notice this as I watch all 52 episodes in a random order. But the inner geek is a powerful beast ready to burst out of the open a bit like the Alien inhabiting John Hurt’s body. To watch Blake’s 7, as a fan, and as someone who has always been interested in mechanics of making a television drama such as this, the production logistics are inextricably linked to the understanding of what we see in screen.
So with the new series and budget increase, we see:
‘Block’ filming, as opposed to ‘strike’ filming. Basically this means that instead of recording all the film material (often on location) separately for each individual episode, the series now records all the location filming for approximately half of the series in one big block, often running for a couple of weeks. What does this mean? In short it means that there is less to set up – the production logistics of arranging six different film shoots are now reduced to one. This means more time and therefore more material shot on film, some of which is shot considerably far away from London. This will be discussed in a separate entry, another time.
Costume. A big change to a more flamboyant approach. Again, for another time. I’ve got only one thing to say here – ‘Blake’s bat wings.’
In terms of visual effects and set design, everything looks…well not necessarily glossier…but certainly more ‘finished’. The Liberator flight deck is a perfect case in point. Everything has had a spit and polish. The illuminated panels behind Cally and Gan’s stations, the control panels either side of Zen, and some metal strips to boot. We now have not 4, but 5 control units in the positions where Avon and Vila usually sit, and that clunky section of the set to the right of the main screen has finally been completed to the standard of the rest of the set. On the downside, a whole section of the horizontal beams that sat high up on the far left hand side of the set have disappeared. It was clearly too complex to retain safely or efficiently, but as a result, the flight deck as lost a little of its cathedral like quality.
I told you the inner geek was strong. Oh yes, there will be separate post highlighting the archeology of this fabulous design by Roger Murray-Leach. Probably around the time of ‘Space Fall.’ Get the magnifying glasses out!
Set wise, the increased budget means we are relying less on one piece of set design being re-used continuously. I’m thinking mainly of the ‘K’ shaped columns that are introduced within the Earth dome in ‘The Way Back’ and are recycled in Space Command headquarters, ‘Project Avalon’ and even as the ‘exposition pod’ that Blake and Avon have a good ole’ natter in at the start of ‘Orac’.
From now on there is sufficient money to make each episode look like it has it’s own bespoke set.
Of course there are, and will always be, elements from other set designs that will be re-used – take ‘Children of Auron’ which basically re-uses the control room/corridor sets from ‘Star One’ – but it’s not as obvious on first glance. Also the fact that episodes are generally made in pairs, with the same director and designers, mean that there are sometimes subtle characteristics that are shared. Take the sparse and basically lit environments of the Spenton-Forster/Mike Porter sets in ‘Weapon’ and ‘Pressure Point’, to the more complex and textured designs and lighting of Wright-Miller/Paul Allen contributions in ‘Shadow’ and ‘Weapon’. Porter’s sets often contain next to no detail in the materials and surfaces, creating an environment that allows blocks of lighting to illuminate the set from behind, as much as on its surface. He also uses split level designs, allowing action to happen high and low. Paul Allen’s sets appear to be the reverse, using more intricate patterns and surfaces that also use back lighting, but is more relent on atmospheric studio lighting to create the finished effect. The structure of the sets also are subtly different in series 2 and 3, with a greater range of textures, lighting and sometimes symmetrical set designs. And in the context of ‘the future according to the BBC’ expect a lot of bold shapes – curves, squares, triangles, and above all, hexagons – yes 1970’s telefantasy likes its hexagons.
Set designs for ‘Shadow’ and ‘Horizon’ by Paul Allen
Set designs for ‘Weapon’ and ‘Pressure Point’ by Mike Porter
It’s these little details – the ‘finish’ that is the step up from series 1. The sets have added texture, and colour. Designers are able to add more elements to them, such as ceilings, or hangings (‘City at the Edge of the World’, and ‘Terminal’ spring to mind) and the lighting design allows increased versatility (‘Ultraworld’, is a beneficiary of this.)
But none of this detracts from the achievement of series 1 – creating 13 episodes on the budget of a police drama. No mean feat at all!
In terms of visual effects, we lose the trundling security robots from series 1, and there is an increase of a range of more organic creatures such as the corpse in ‘Killer’, the monster in ‘Weapon’, and Shivan in ‘Voice from the Past’ – OK that last one is a lie. Hopefully.
This is the visual style of the show for the next two years, up until Terminal. Series 4 will re-boot again in every respect, but for the next 26 episodes this is fundamentally how Blake will look.
So how does it compare to other telefantasy shows that were broadcast around the time of ‘Redemption’?
Around this time Doctor Who was screening The Power of Kroll, and the visual effects were a bit creaky. The studio sets for the base on Delta Magna reminded me more of the sparsity of the first series of Blake. The walls really do wobble at times, and are fairly featureless, however, at least in this story a lot of the money has gone into the extensive location filming. With flat studio lighting, and a concerned memo from the BBC management about the production values – there is little atmosphere to be had here. In context of ‘The Key to Time’ series that this belongs to, it is a damp squib (sorry) where other entries of the series contain some interesting production touches – the frosted camera effects of the catacombs on Ribos, the use of C.S.O on Zanak, the day for night filming on videotape on Earth, and more creative use of lighting on both Tara, and Atrios.
Over on ITV, Sapphire and Steel had recently completed their second assignment at an abandoned railway station. With a similar (and equally non existent) budget the visual style was more theatrical, with a range of different lighting techniques, in keeping with the fantastical nature of the series. Using backlight, frontlight, sidelight, use of frosted camera lens, cross fades galore, and a fuller range of camera movements, Sapphire and Steel was able to use the multi-camera television studio in a more expressive way than either Who or Blake, again necessary due to the nature of the series. It’s achieves a sense of claustrophobia and menace in a way that it could not achieve if it had a bigger budget and was shot on film like some of the ITC series of the 1960’s/70’s.
So looking at it as a whole, Blake was able to achieve a more polished visual style than contemporary (and inconsistent) Who at the time, whereas Sapphire really used every facility of the TV studio of the day.
(This shot feels so wrong – check out Avon’s cheeky smile.)
Once again we have a Vere Lorrimer helmed episode, so we open with some nice shots of space to establish that we are…er…in space. They are new shots too. But mercifully they have retained that lovely shot of the Liberator flying past a a number of planets illuminated by a golden sun.
We don’t hang about – there simply isn’t the time. Whereas in the previous episode (Orac) we were treated to a glorified reminder of the preceding episode (Deliverance), this time there is nothing. On paper at least it might have been more prudent to re-cap an episode that is transmitted 9 months after the previous tale, but of course, this is Blake’s 7, a show where nothing is easy.
And it doesn’t take long for the complexities of the Liberator crew to make their presence felt. When Avon says ‘Have you found what you want’ – wow, that really is the ultimate superiority complex!
I really enjoyed those early scenes on the flight deck. The two main protagonists are re-established, and the exposition about what has gone before is more subtly delivered than many other episodes. I’m also liking the darker lighting for those earlier scenes – it makes the Liberator look more expensive. Another subtle touch.
Quite quickly I started to feel that this was like a season 1 entry. Of course the signs are there. Terry Nation is writing it, so there is plenty of adventure to be had, but times change, and I started to think about how season 2 creeps in. With the benefit of knowing the events of the series pan out, I was struck by the way that Avon and Blake work – in a literal sense – the effort they put into things. This really sets up the way series 2 is written. Take those early scenes with Avon and Blake in ‘Redemption’ – they are more important than perhaps first thought. It feels like Blake is doing all the running, but Avon is the only one working smart. We see this again and again during the rest of the series, as Blake’s desire to destroy the Federation reaches pressure point.
Terry Nation pens his 14th script in a row – but here he seems refreshed. ‘Bounty’, ‘Deliverance’ and ‘Orac’ were all commissioned in late April 1977, it would appear that he had a good six months or so before Redemption was required before the end of the year. The dialogue pops and crackles, and the relationships between the crew appear to be at the forefront. Another thing that I noticed being a Terry Nation script is how all the regulars are written well. This is something that watching the episodes out of order has afforded me – the opportunity to see the inevitable inconsistencies that occur with scripts written by anyone other than Nation and Boucher. This is not so much a criticism, just something that can happen. In the first season, the screen time the crew get varies considerably, but as characters they are always written consistently. And it continues here. Take Gan’s – ‘go, Ill deal with them!’ It’s another example of Gan’s sometimes misguided selflessness, something that will feature in a future episode.
Another thing that is established early on, and throughout, is how the group work very well together. This is perhaps something that is easy to miss during the course of series 1, as everything is so new. In ‘Time Squad’ Gan comments ‘I think we make a good team’, before the obligatory put down from Avon. But here, we don’t need to be told this. We just see it for ourselves. It’s like shorthand. Very little needs to be explained to us now.
I mentioned the adventure of a Terry Nation script. And Redemption is no different. It’s fast paced and moves along a a good pace. This is something that the vast majority of Blake’s 7 episodes achieved. Whereas 50 minutes in many other series feel like a natural home for drama to unfold, in Blake’s 7 it always feels like a challenge, a countdown to get everything in there. There’s is little time for dead wood in a Blake’s 7 tale, and for this viewer is one of the selling points of the show (especially having watched Doctor Who ‘Colony in Space’ beforehand.)
On we go…
The Liberator is attacked by some green laser beams and the crew are knocked out, apart from Blake. I remember watching this episode for the first time as part of the ‘Orac’ compilation tape, and calling in my parents to witness the hilarity of my 15 year old self reveling in the fact that Gareth Thomas not only shouts ‘Vila’, but at the same time unleashes a torrent of cult hero saliva as he does so. I’m sure Christoper Eccleston did the same thing in ‘Dalek’. Now that’s method acting!
Another thing that ‘Redemption’ reminds us is how the crew, no matter which crew it is throughout the 4 seasons, can spark off each other, and how bickering, put downs, and acidity rarely get tiresome. I give you:
VILA: ‘I’ve got this shocking pain right behind the eyes.’
AVON: ‘Have you considered Amputation?’
Actually there is a nice touch a few scenes later, when Jenna hands Vila a drink, and some kind of pill, presumably to ease said shocking pain.
There are even a few surprises thrown in. Later Vila gains entry into the detention cell to rescue Jenna and Avon, who rewards him with a punch in the guts. ‘I’m (pause) sorry Vila.’ Sorry, did I hear that right? Did Avon actually say sorry? Ah, no. He added a pause in between. Not completely convincing. That pause is like a get out of jail card.
The system is depicted as a mix of computer control, and the set up of ‘Lets Get Physical’ by Olivia Newton John. Plenty of stretch Lycra is on display, and at one point even Dudley Simpson seems to be affected when Shelia Ruskin elegantly sits down on a section of Don Chadwick’s fabulous sofa (see the set design section.)
We’ve talked about the male characters a lot so far. So what can we glean from Jenna and Cally. Well, not a lot really. Like Gan, they are in the action for a lot of the time, but somehow they seem a little more muted than usual. Nothing that Cally says sticks out in my mind. But Jenna has a chance to demonstrate her ‘my proud beauty’ acting when she grabs hold of the table lamps and steers the Liberator away from ‘System HQ’. And lets raise a glass to perhaps the best line in the entirely of Blake’s 7 – a show that just can’t sit still, even for a second. Avon and Jenna are waiting in the detention cell, and almost appear very pally at times. But they don’t do idle well…cue Jenna ‘Perhaps we could chew our way out.’ One of the things I love about Blake is some of the little unlikely groupings that are pared together. Vila and Servalan in Moloch, and here Jenna and Avon – their logical thinking and and rational thought complement each other nicely.
Also I love how the Liberator is an living entity, in keeping with the ‘organic’ nature of the design that Avon mentions in Cygnus Alpha. All anti bodies and nervous systems.
It’s worth talking about Peter Tuddenham here, as essentially his workload is doubled. It’s hard not to notice that Orac has had a change of voice. Gone is the stern monotone of Derek Farr’s voice to a more irascible, wispy tone that will be the box of tricks forever more. It’s also worth noting that Zen’s voice has changed from this episode onwards. It’s deeper, and in many episodes there is added reverb to give it an even bigger presence. As impressive as it is, it loses some of it’s crabbiness, and subtle inflections. From now on, it is solely a super duper computer. A good one, but a more shallow creature.
Inevitably there are nods to the previous series. When the Alta’s board – it is just Blake Avon and Jenna – just as it was at the very beginning. And just like when they first stepped foot on the Liberator, the lights are dimmed…and everything looks a little ominous. I was just expecting Zen defense mechanism to activate.
Oh that ending. OK – lets be honest, endings are something that Blake’s 7 isn’t so good at – as I’m sure I’ll discuss at some point, but there is something so cringy about the way that Gareth Thomas was made to stare up at the main screen, no doubt dreaming of all the adventures and possibilities that await him and us. Eugh!
Vere Lorrimer returns as the sole directorial survivor from series 1. Still full of energy, he brings some nice directorial touches – the camera tracking Blake, Jenna and Avon as they are marched along the power station…I mean space complex, the use of handheld camera for the early battle station scenes, and some tense moments with the vacuum hose. In the world of domestic bliss, we’ve all had tense moments with a vacuum hose!
When the Liberator first glides into view the music is full of reverb, suggesting a vastness of space that hitherto hadn’t been realised. It’s a subtle touch that suggests more than just a budget increase for this series, the team behind the episode have a confidence to think bigger too. The incidental music reflects the pace of the episode – at one point we hear something akin to the fast motion spinny thing we used to see in the Batman TV series of the 1960’s. Elsewhere, metallic synths complete with woodwind background riffs, this is especially notable as the Liberator docks into the Space world. Also a great riff – the federation march.
Good set design in this one. It’s all about the Liberator aesthetics. So we have metalic surfaces, bold protruding vertical lines, hexagonal motifs etc. But of course, it more glamorous, so it is whiter than the Liberator.
It’s worth celebrating the jewel in the crown of the System’s elegant and efficient environment – the modular seating created by American designer Don Chadwick in 1974. We’ve seen it time and time again in various sci-fi series, due to it’s unique modern design. ‘It consists of five independent modules, one of which is rectangular while the other four are wedge-shaped. Any number of these modules can be fitted together to make an endless sofa.’ (1) Featuring in ‘Destiny of the Daleks’ nine months later, I would guess that this was perfect for endless re-use in the television studio, where successive episodes, and sets, would require endless configurations.
As previously noted the Liberator flight deck has had a spit and polish – see separate entry, only for it to take a battering immediately. I can see why Roger Murray Leach aged rapidly during his time on the show, and didn’t return.
A little nod to a new room within the Liberator ‘Sub control 4’ – clearly the most spectacular of all the sub control rooms – it’s always nice to see a little more of the interior of the Liberator. I always felt we never saw that much, considering the grand scale of the ship. But of course it is down to budget, as we will see this exact room, re-dressed, with some loungers thrown in, to become the rest room in ‘Voice from the Past’ later in the series. As Gan goes off to check the other sub control rooms, I wonder what they look like. Probably exactly the same. Bloomin’ repetitive efficiency.
It is worth noting the set dressing for the location filming. It make me think how on earth do you dress a power station? I may be wrong, but it looks like there are two approaches, (1) stick coloured tape along walkways and gantries, and (2) create grey wall units consisting of rows and rows of squares – like acoustic dampeners.. It’s as far future as it is possible to get when the 2nd century of the new calendar meets 1979.
HOW WOULD YOU SELL THIS TO A NON-BELIEVER?
Actually this is a good episode to introduce someone to the series for the first time. Sometimes it’s nice to have an episode up your sleeve where a series is running at full pelt. Sometimes an unbeliever doesn’t want to start at the beginning, but they want to discover it for themselves. A bit like I would use ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ to introduce a Doctor Who fan – they don’t need to know the full backstory, just get them straight into the action.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
As mentioned, it has to be Jenna’s – ‘Maybe we could chew our way out.’
THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
As also mentioned, Blake’s look up to the screen right at the very end. Naff.
VERDICT IN 10 WORDS EXACTLY.
Even without the Federation, this still packs a real punch.
So that’s ‘Redemption’ – the tick box audit of an episode – a chance to remind the audience of what Blake’s 7 consists of, and how much of it is so good. Punchy lines, crew dynamics and personal relationships, and of course, ‘space adventure’ – it’s the DNA of the show, but now it’s time for the show to evolve, and go a little deeper, and it’s the rest of series 2 that delivers this in spades.
Terry, you can step down now…for a bit.
(1) http://www.art-directory.info/design/don-chadwick-1936/ accessed April 2017.