The generic sci-fi quarry. Where would we be without it? But where would you look when deciding what a planet might look like? The answer was usually wherever was closest to us. Mars. Or the Moon. Or both. The space race in the 1950’s/60’s cemented the barren rocky environment as the ultimate planetary surface. This is what Walt Disney saw back in the 1950’s, when considering whether mankind could exist on the surface of Mars. (1)
Perhaps the deal was sealed when the first image from the surface of the Moon by Soviet craft Luna 9, was taken in February 1966. (2) Proof, that when we think of other planets, we need to be thinking of barren, unforgiving, rocky landscape.
There was no way back from this.
Blake’s 7 liked quarries. So did Doctor Who. So did Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy. Sapphire and Steel didn’t – apart from a scene on a rooftop, they didn’t even like location filming. For decades the humble quarry was (and to a degree) still is the ideal location to depict the alien landscape. There is something prehistoric, and untapped by mankind – even though that is usually what a quarry isn’t.
But Blake’s 7 needed quarries, perhaps in a way Doctor Who didn’t. For me it’s as through the humble quarry encapsulates the bleak, harsh universe that Blake’s 7 operates in, not the ‘day trip to another planet, and another adventure’ of Doctor Who.
So, because only a blog about Blake’s 7 can do this, and Cygnus Alpha is the episode that marked the debut of the quarry that we all know and love, and for the simple fact that the ‘inner geek’ if knocking at the door again, lets celebrate and marvel at the quarries of the United Kingdom.
The key players.
Springwell Lock Quarry
Seen in Cygnus Alpha, Orac. Also Doctor Who: The Three Doctors, Earthshock.
Characteristics. Pale, crumbly, stoney surface. Some good ridges to traverse. Good for night filming. Nowhere near the sea. A few slips for the regular cast to navigate. (3)
Seen in Time Squad, Deliverance, Hostage, Moloch, Power, and probably not Warlord. Also Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks, The Deadly Assassin.
Characteristics. Perhaps the ultimate (and certainly the most frequently used) sci-fi quarry. Close to London, this one had it all: Paths, slopes, vegetation, flat areas, a big cliff face, and squawking crows. (4) Not only this, but if you are part of the production team of any kind of action/adventure series of the 1960’s/70’s, such as the The Avengers, Department S, The Persuaders, Jason King, The Champions etc, and you needed somewhere where the obligatory car needs to be driven off a cliff, usually with an unconscious character inside it, then you couldn’t go wrong with a little trip to Betchworth. A directors dream!
Binnegar Heath sand pit, Dorset.
Seen in: Shadow, Assassin, and maybe Traitor. Also (within the vicinity) Doctor Who: Destiny of the Daleks, The Caves of Androzani.
Characteristics. Golden sand, and shallow pools create the impression that this is warmer than it probably was. (5) It’s a place where the regulars can unbutton to a sensible degree. Lets hope the filming took place in the summer.
It ain’t Mars. Now where’s that white Jaguar to take me home?
In my discussion of ‘Traitor’ I talked about the importance of the third episode of each season – the one that defines the course of the rest of the series. Big, important moments take place here.
We open with a nice spacey shot, a blue planet and a figure chopping up meat in a desolate landscape. It reminds me of the very final episode. But it looks like Chicken this time, not Rabbit.
And then we have perhaps one of the most gorgeous shots in all of Blake’s 7. If ever there was proof about how film gives depth that video can’t achieve, it’s this moment.
Looking up to the heavens, we return to the scene of ‘Space Fall’ – the London. It’s a lot quieter place, and we are treated to a flashback from the point of view of Laylan – still rubbing his brow with a world weariness reserved for frazzled business executives and jaded managing directors. The flashback is useful at this critical period, as the wider narrative of Blake is forming. It also sent this viewer a clear message that I, after a lifetime of viewing, was not watching ‘Doctor Who.’ This was a proper serial. I wonder if at the time, this was on the minds of the production team? I can imagine it now. Nation, Maloney, Boucher all sat around a table, all seasoned veterans of ‘Who’ discussing how to ensure it is not tagged by critics of the day as the younger sibling of a show that has dominated the BBC landscape.
I wonder if, at the time, seeing those model effects for the third time in a row, viewers must have thought that this ship and its crew might be key players in the series. But that thought is soon dispelled as Laylan presses his hand on some kind of exposition box, which gives him permission to tell his tale in monochrome, while an equally jaded Artix sends the prisoners on their way in monotone.
So we bid farewell to Leylan and Artix, who get their extra fee. Like Corporal Bell. Like Jaws. I started to wonder about non regular characters who made that extra appearance. I can only think of Bercol and Rontane. But equally, what would it be like if Peter Craze reappeared in ‘Sand’ as the same know it all who featured in ‘Seek Locate Destroy’, or what it would have been like if Kevin Stoney had reprised his role as ‘Joban’ in ‘Animals’?
Something I find really interesting when I watch this back, is how this is an episode where the regular cast are still finding their feet, and are working out how their characters will tick. This is where things are really starting to form. Take Blake – Gareth Thomas switches between hesitant laughter when communicating to Jenna what it was like teleporting down to Cygnus Alpha for the first time, to a very strong received pronunciation when trying out the communicator. ‘TESTING. ONE. TWO. THREE.’ But it is at the end of the episode where we get another taste of Blake’s desire to do something big. Compared to the performance of Brian Blessed (of which we’ll go into detail later) Blake’s attempts to rouse the prisoners into action is very different. More whispered, more spitty, but no less passionate.
Michael Keating is still working out Vila too. During the scenes where the prisoners have just been released and are standing outside of the tunnel, contemplating their future on Cygnus, Keating plays it suave and cocky. And a bit cockney. Listen to the line ‘Lets all stay’ and tell me he hasn’t wandered in from a police drama.
Avon too, is developing. It’s important we see his childish excitement when he discovers the ‘precious things.’ A rare moment of emotion. His insult towards Zen – ‘you electronic moron’ doesn’t contain the level of wit that he develops pretty quickly after this point. However there is a key moment in the teleport section, where it all changes. Blake makes a comment about the risks involved with teleporting ‘which I’m taking!’ Cue Avon’s reaction – all narrow eyes and dispassionate glare. At first I couldn’t work out whether he was being bad ass, or looking at Blake with a unbridled passion. Or both. For me, that was the moment where Paul Darrow realised he should be playing this role like a star.
Jenna is bit more ‘there’ in terms of performance. Like Avon, she is excited by certain things, in this instance, a classic case of 1970’s style ‘getting dolled up for a night out on the town.’ But elsewhere she is the one who has some of the best lines, and final words.
This all leaves Gan as perhaps the most rounded character performance, with the benefit of hindsight. Here he comes out of his shell, following a muted debut in ‘Space Fall’. It starts with the line about breaking Arco’s arm, continues with his reasoned assessment of Blake’s plans (perhaps the most mature scene of the episode) and finally the first real moment of loyalty to Blake’s cause, when he decides to join him in the plan to escape.
So onto the Liberator. It’s time to explore the ship. These early scenes are cleverly written, as Nation never forgets that it’s not just Blake, Stanis, and Avon who are discovering it, but we too must share every surprise, and feel the unease at the ‘conceptually alien’ (as Avon rightfully describes it) technology at its heart. So when we discover the guns, the teleport, the next button that Jenna presses – it is always a step into potential danger.
But lets pause for a moment and think about what happens when Jenna does press the button.
First time around, we see the ship propelled into what can be only described as an exhilarating ride through entire planetary systems. The g-force propels every flappy facial fold into the fore. I wonder how the regulars felt about this sequence. It’s hardly flattering. A year or so later it would be Roger Moore’s turn to be on the receiving end of a big close up whilst his features ripple rapidly when the g-force simulator is sabotaged by Chan in ‘Moonraker’. Oh, and 8 years earlier Pertwee gets the same treatment in ‘The Ambassadors of Death.’ Blimey – the catalogue is all spilling out now!
A magic wall fades away, and we see the gun rack. It’s easy to forget the Liberator guns as we see them in every episode from here on in, but I love the design of them, because they don’t look so much like a bad-ass weapon, but more like an accessory that it would just be deeply unfashionable to be seen without.
And then Avon points the gun at Blake and Jenna. It’s a unnerving moment at first, coming so soon after scenes that show a real level of co-operation between them. But it’s nice to see the tension cut by Blake and Jenna simply walking away from Avon – perhaps the most powerful resolution possible.
So what is going on with Jenna? When she is ‘possessed’ is Zen using her as the means to discover how to communicate with human or non human ‘English speaking’ bipeds? I enjoy the fact that many of the surprises that the Liberator have in store for us, are not always explained or remains a mystery. By end of ‘Terminal’ it still feels like there was so much more about the ship that hadn’t been fully explained. As much as I love the Liberator, and love the fact that it was the mainstay of those first three series – the crew were always passengers.
And of course we say hello to Zen, whose primary defense is avoiding peoples questions. I like Zen. It’s a great computer. It has a character all of its own, matched by a fabulous design. The big brain at the centre of the organism. With brilliant flashing lights and a nice marble effect. Oh yes. What a great ship. Well stylish, them Alta’s.
We also welcome the teleport set. Tons of stuff will happen here over the next few years. Laughter, tears, holdups and takeovers, snoozing, drinking, games of space Monopoly, and the sight of Moloch adorning the floor, looking a bit startled…and definitely dead. It’s the entrance hall. The place where you should take your shoes off before you walk into the house. But you never do.
And what of the teleport effect? You know, when I first watched Blake’s 7, I thought ‘what a hokey effect.’ The swirly bit sounded like a saucer or coin spinning on a table, and the white ‘field’ outline didn’t go down well – it felt like the thing you might see on sports events to highlight something during a slow motion reply. It also never seemed to match where the regulars appeared – at least on film anyway. But then, like many effects, you stop seeing it. And today, dear reader, I love it. It’s simple, distinctive and very Blake’s 7.
This episode marks the debut of Vere Lorrimer, someone who will direct more episodes than any other, and will ultimately produce the final series. Apparently Lorrimer felt that he was stagnating as a director, so he was given Blake’s 7 to do. Quite a challenge! But in every episode he directs, there are some really nice directorial touches. As far as Cygnus is concerned, his use of back projection shots are a really nice idea, and create some lovely looking imagery, using the medium of film to help paper over any cracks. His use of lighting and mist effects really add atmosphere to the planetary surface – check out the shot of the prisoners feet as they walk along the ground, with the mist flying off in all directions. Excellent stuff, and pretty expensive too. I’m guessing a decision was made in this early, critical stage to spend a good chunk of the budget early, and make sure the money is seen on screen. A night shoot with some hefty lighting, smoke generators, and extras, can’t have been cheap, but it would have appeared to be vindicated as the rising viewing figures over the next few episodes suggest.
As far as cutting action on film, this is something that perhaps Lorrimer won’t be as remembered for. There is a scene where Blake has fallen down a steep embankment, with Laran at the top. Three followers get the knives out, look up to Laran, who nods, and cue teleport. The whole scene takes that little bit too long, and doesn’t quite work. In fact it reminded me of a similar scene in ‘Hostage’ (also directed by Lorrimer) where Travis is caught in the net, but it is the delay in the reaction of both Blake and Ushton that renders the action too clunky.
Speaking of film, the final fight sequence is fun, but shifts awkwardly between video and film. And check out the the jump between the two guards at the door – the cut is all too visible. Selman’s death occurs off screen for some reason, but the performances are pretty entertaining, especially Vila’s desperation to get a bracelet on, and quick fire crawling along the floor. Oh, and the priceless look on his face as he stabs one of the followers. Yes Vila, you did do that.
Back on video, there are some nice touches. On the teleport set, there is a shot of the speaker, which is projecting Blake’s voice, and then the camera shifts rapidly to Avon and Jenna, who are literally grappling with the decision to bring him back on board. It’s a tricky camera maneuver, but one that really vamps up the tension.
Not everything goes to plan. It must be difficult trying to perform a scene with prison bars between the characters and the studio cameras, especially when the 10pm ‘lights out’ is looming. As a result the scene with Vila, Gan, Arco and Selman never achieves full glory. With a better position to see where the camera is, it might be the only time in Gan’s period with the show that David Jackson gains screen time at the cost of the others.
Also the final teleport sequence is a bit of a mess, with Blessed and the others all seemingly arriving on board the Liberator in different spaces, and doesn’t quite fit the environment that has been established. Mind you I’m guessing that the novice viewer watching this for the first time in 1978 wouldn’t have given it another thought.
So what of the terrible trio? Vargas, Kara and Laran.
Pamela Salem gives a solid performance as her character takes a shine to Gan, in a way that no one was perhaps anticipating. It just happens. ‘I am the servant of your god…Kneel.’ (Kiss.) I was expecting Gan to say ‘Shouldn’t we get to know each other first?’
The key to Salem’s performance is her voice, which she uses to project her calmer, and more sympathetic character. It’s a voice that has served her well during her career.
Robert Russell gives a good performance as Laran. He is perhaps the ultimate actor for looking great when it comes to low angled shots. He uses his eyes to good effect, especially in the opening. He also plays it in an understated way – which roughly translates into potential homicidal. It’s easy to see why he spent most of his career playing ‘heavyweights.’ It’s nice that there is a tiny backstory about his desire for further recognition. This is fair enough – the opportunities for a better salary and own car parking space on a penal colony must be fairly remote.
So, on to the big one. The big voice. Brian Blessed. Everything is big and bold. See when Brian Blessed crunches up the teleport bracelets? In my head, that’s what happened during the rehearsal, when he didn’t like the dialogue he was given.
The trouble is that it’s Brian Blessed, and this prevents any kind of judgement about whether his performance is any good or not.
This is actually a bit of a shame, as the scene where he talks about the history of the faith and the rise and fall of the community, is reasonably well written. In the hands of Blessed there is considerable anguish at the way everything fell apart, but as a viewer I wasn’t paying full attention to his upset, but more to the booming and hissing enunciation, and forceful hand gestures. Again it disguises what is underneath. A year before he appeared in ‘Survivors’ playing ‘Brod’ – a character who has ample opportunity to rant and bellow throughout, however it’s the quieter scenes that actually draw attention to his character more. Maybe that’s the secret of Blessed. Shout and bellow all you like, so the audience really listens to you when you are quiet.
The ‘almost seven’ David Ryall, and Peter Childs play their parts well – Arco could have been an interesting antagonist within the regular crew.
And a little shout out to Clifford Diggins. The Terry Walsh of Blake’s 7 (well, at least for this episode.) He doubled for Gareth Thomas in some of the fight scenes. Another string to the bow in a career that saw him do regular cameo work for others, including The Avengers, and doubling for Roger Moore in some of his Bond movies. I always love watching the choreography of television flight scenes that, due to the double not wanting to be too visible, never quite goes all the way.
Things become a bit ’50 shades’, when the camera reveals what awaits non believers. I hope that was a genuine groan of pain I heard from Blake off camera. Cue schoolboy sniggering at lines like ‘The ring of truth’ and ‘Only from this hand comes life’. (I’m so sorry.)
Moving swiftly on… What else did I notice?
Blake’s 7 is good at using anachronisms within a future setting. Take the church and cottage in ‘Pressure Point’, the stately home in ‘Rumours of Death’ and Sarcoff’s collection in ‘Bounty’. But here we have the best one of all. Amidst the hi-tech push button technology of the teleport unit, Avon marks what he hopes is the correct sequence using page re-enforcement stickers, the kind you get in W.H.Smiths or similar. And why not? Surely hole punched paper exists in the third century of the second calendar?
Vargas sports a nice pair of white trainers, and clearly hoards a good stash of Trebor extra strong mints. Along with the candles, it’s the only thing that is a bright white within all the shades of grey of the temple.
I enjoyed the fact that for the first two occasions, Blake stumbles on the surface of Cygnus. Practice makes perfect.
It’s also worth noting that that this episode is the debut for many of the model shots that we will be very familiar with over the next three seasons. But we can talk about that on another occasion. But my absolute favorite moment of watching this episode of Blake’s 7 was when my wife misheard the line ‘GET THE BRACELETS!’ She thought she heard Gareth Thomas uttering the immortal line ‘GET THE BREAD STICKS!’
As Brian Blessed is scattered (noisily) into the solar winds, our episode concludes back on the flight deck. Well, most of the flight deck, as clearly time and man hours have run out, leaving a great big painted backdrop on the far left hand side of the set. It’s clearly a quick fix, but boy, what a shoddy job.
At the end Blake looks into middle distance. It won’t be the first time he looks off into the stars at the end of a story.
There is some nice snare drum action when Blake is being pursued, and some ominous bubbling synth notes as Vila lauds ‘God’s taste in women’ – which reminds me of the unsettling music that they used to scare children in the those Public Information Films of the 1970’s, or this advert for Andrex toilet paper in 1982. Like this moment with Vila, I can’t understand why a serious sounding collection of notes would accompany something more whimsical.
For the rest of the time the score is fairly traditional Simpson. One little motif that does stick out is a two note synth lick (not the two notes at the end of the title music) that often accompanies shots of space, and the Liberator. It’s a nice spacey sound, that points towards the style of soundtrack that will accompany shots of the Liberator throughout the next three series.
Of course, with the introduction of the teleport, we are introduced to Dudley’s teleport motif – a collection of descending notes in a variety of different variations. Following this, once they are ‘down and safe’, Dudley chucks in a couple of sparse notes that often subtly tell the viewer to look around, or understand that they are down safely, but they are not necessarily safe. It’s a clever motif, and that’s why it is largely unchanged between now, and Terminal.
On the subject of the soundtrack, I enjoyed the sounds of the prisoners moans as they are stricken by the curse of Cygnus, but I couldn’t work out whether they were recorded live in the studio, or they fished out one of the BBC’s sound effect vinyl records. They do sound a bit dubbed over. In fact looking at the track listings for the BBC’s collection, I’m sure the assorted creaking doors, and footsteps will have been taken from stock.
What we do know that that suitable chanting from stock library sources can be heard in this episode. This was taken from an LP called ‘Choral Masters.’
And you can hear the ‘clean’ version here.
I’m going to talk about how brilliant Roger Murray Leach’s design for the Liberator is on another occasion. But here we are treated to a less advanced age. It’s typical TV style religious trappings, but it’s reasonably put together. There’s a nicely lit corridor, main hall, and some nice visual touches that brings everything together. It’s an episode designed by Robert Berk, (who had worked with Roger Murray Leach during the late 1960’s on Marty Feldman’s comedy show) and he does a pretty good job. It’s interesting how you see more of the set when it is shot on film, but if anything, the studio lighting is more sympathetic for the scenes shot on video.
Vila’s ‘The architectural style is early maniac.‘
MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET.
Blake’s faux laughter when he returned to the Liberator after his first experience on Cygnus Alpha.
VERDICT IN 10 WORDS EXACTLY.
You would be wiiissseeee to turn volume down at times.
So that was Cygnus Alpha. An important episode. But did I enjoy it? Somehow, I found it slightly harder to sit through this one. It’s odd – it’s reasonably well directed, full of atmosphere, and contains some really important moments and introduces some new things that are integral to the series. But, after a lot of thought, I worked out what it was that niggled at me, why it dragged more than other episodes. This is due to ‘The Beginning’ – the VHS compilation released by the BBC in the late 1980’s. In my head it had a running time of 8 hours. The first third of the tape kept me interested as Blake met the resistance on Earth, was put on trial, placed on a prison ship, escaped and discovered the Liberator. But by the time the adventure reached Cygnus, I was finding my attention waning slightly. Perhaps I needed to pace myself better, or perhaps the compilation tapes could not have been released at all.
This episode is really a series of ‘what ifs.’ Those ‘closing door’ moments that defined the series. What if Avon and Jenna had flown off into the sunset. What would have happened if the teleport hadn’t worked, or user error dictated a very different series altogether? What if Arco and Selman had survived the final fight and become part of the Liberator crew?
As I ejected the DVD, I wondered whether teleportation was actually possible? Well, for now, I’ll never know as long as the answer is found in horrid newspaper articles, and websites that spread a simple article over 5 separate pages. I couldn’t be bothered finding out after 60 seconds of trying. I think that’s because I already knew the answer, thanks to Blake’s bravery…
Now that’s leading by example.
(1) Disneyland – 4.12 – Mars and Beyond https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iEg7dF5rg8Y
(4) Top photos – (c) Hywel Williams http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/22383