‘Do you think you will see them in your dreams?’
I dread talking about the end of Blake’s 7. I simply never wanted it to end. I cared too much about the Liberator, and I cared too much about the bad fortune and recklessness of our band of rebels who survived its destruction. And it was a slow death throughout the series – the law of diminishing returns.
Yes, it’s something I have tried to avoid over the years. So this is why I’ve decided to tackle it head on, and discuss it earlier on in this blog series.
I started to think about why Blake’s 7 should affect me more than any of the other shows I have followed and enjoyed, and also whether the type of ending had an impact on this.
I put it to the test – I made a list of my 5 favourite television series and made a mental note of how they all ended. (Spoilers ahoy!)
It writes its own rules about endings. It is it’s own unique entity in the television landscape. It has many end points, which give way to a rebirth, and I’m not just talking about regeneration, I’m talking about the change in aesthetics due to the producer / showrunner in charge. And even when it really was decommissioned, it simply faded into the distance. No matter how it was looked at by the late 1980’s management of the BBC, it was too important to end forever. No, Doctor Who will never truly end. In 10 – 20 years the next generation of Doctor Who fans will be in positions of power in the television landscape, and on it will go.
The Thick of It.
Created by Armando Iannucci, this is the ultimate scathing satire of the politics that make up Westminster. A series that successfully made the jump across the pond to become ‘Veep’ – which equally took a satisfying bite into the political landscape there. Throughout, the series main focal point was the ‘director of communications’ Malcolm Tucker (played by Peter Capaldi.) It was never officially stated that the show had ended, although Iannucci noted that it was unlikely to return, now that the real life political landscape was as grotesque as what the series had set out to portray. In many ways there are parallels with Blake’s 7 in the fourth and final series sees the tightening of the noose around the central characters neck, but the ending isn’t truly ‘final’.
House of Lies.
Based on the experiences of Martin Kihn, a U.S. management consultant, this is a series where a group, under the leadership of Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle) seek to get business deals done, and live the life of a big money, big ego, cut throat lifestyle. This show feels like a genuine ending, and on first viewing was something of a surprise to me. But the characters had grown and changed and as they danced into the metaphorical Cuban sunset it felt that there really wasn’t much more to discover. A natural, and optimistic end.
The Larry Sanders Show.
Here the focal point is Garry Shandling. And for me it’s the cleverest comedy of them all. On paper, it’s a sitcom about a fictional talk show called ‘The Larry Sanders Show’. But it blurs the boundaries between what is fictional, and real through the clever mix of film and videotape, use of real life celebrities, and behind the scenes shenanigans. Its final episode plays into this nicely as the (fictional) show is decommissioned, and the core trio of Larry, his sidekick Hank, and producer Artie, reflect on everything that has happened over the years in an empty studio. It’s an ending that stays true to the shows roots, and mirrors the production of the (real life) show. Excellent, and poignant.
And then there is Blake’s 7.
On one hand the final episode feels very much like an end – the proverbial full stop. There is the ‘no way out’ possibility – a confrontation and shoot out between key characters and Federation guards.
Then we have the ‘we’ve been here before’ possibility – a base and spaceship destroyed, stranded on a planet with nothing other than a super computer to hand. Bleak – yes, but this is a hardy unit, who have survived situations like that already.
And then there is the ‘definitely further adventures’ possibility – we don’t see Avon actually die. There are questions as to whether the others actually die too. Orac and Servalan are still around. There’s enough there to set up a fifth series.
For me, ‘Blake’ is a standalone episode where a new era of adventures could either happen or not. It’s almost like a pilot for a potential new series, set largely on a new planet, with a new set of immediate challenges, and long term goals to focus on. It sits slightly apart from the final scene, which feels like it’s own entity. Blake dies, Arlen makes her move, and things just…happen, and then it’s done.
Looking that the endings of these shows, I’m drawn to the fact that it’s not all about the final scene, but it’s all about what happens before.
So why am I not saving this discussion of the end of Blake’s 7 until the blog post about ‘Blake’? The reason is that, for this loyal member of the audience, Blake’s 7 really, properly ends at the beginning of ‘Warlord’.
Guildford, Surrey, United Kingdom. In 1981 ‘The Friary’ shopping centre was opened to the public. But before that, Blake’s 7 secured the opportunity to film in it’s ‘main court’, noted in a contemporary article as being ‘clad in tiles in autumnal colours; the ends of the the floors and escalators sides are to be finished in Canadian white elm. (The) two escalators cross above the ornamental pool. (1) How luxurious!
A 1980 artists impression for the proposed design of ‘The Friary’ shopping centre – setting of Zondawl.
But I digress. The simple fact is that this scene (if you ignore the timeless, unchanged design of the humble escalator) is a chilling end point for our series. In ‘The Way Back’ it was quickly established that here was an administration of great power, that was easily able to ensure the subjugation of it’s people through drug control and heavy handed brutality. Forward two series, and its near collapse was not caused by Blake and his crew, but by the extraordinary events of the intergalactic war. Forward another series, and Servalan…sorry I mean Sleer, initiates the Pylene-50 pacification programme – perhaps the single biggest factor in the rapid expansion of the Federation. It’s the underlying theme of the fourth season. Although this storyline didn’t reach any kind of conclusion at the end of the series, and Servalan was conspicuous by her absence in ‘Blake’ it was really up to this opening scene of ‘Warlord’ to explain to the audience how impossible the situation was becoming. How history was effortlessly repeating itself.
The inability of Avon’s alliance to make any great mark, indicated that the events on Zondawl were the inevitable end point of Blake’s 7. We finish with pretty much the same set up as we saw way back in series 1. This scene is, in other words, Servalan’s victory.
So when I think of the end of Blake’s 7, this is what I imagine.
Avon, surrounded by Federation guards, on Gauda Prime, stands over Blake, raises his gun, and smiles. There is a freeze frame, but importantly no shots, and no credits. It’s not an ending, only the end of that scene. Instead the screen fades into to Zondawl, where the drugged population are being slaughtered for fun. A guard sees the camera, beckons over to another trooper, runs towards us and disables the camera. The screen cuts to black. This violent action is the end of the series. Cue credits.
I’ve edited together a youtube video to explain how I see it.
As Dayna said in ‘Moloch’ ‘We should have killed her when we had the chance.’
…and as Tarrant said in reply ‘Yes, but we didn’t’
Normally in these blog posts, there is a discussion of the episode, and then some notes on the direction and the like. But ‘Warlord’ is such a striking episode, one of the most visually distinctive in the entire run. So a good chunk of the focus of this episode will be on the visual aspects and overall direction. And this is down to one person – Viktors Ritelis.
His is a name that usually conjures up images of working with Douglas Camfield, and trying to win over William Hartnell on the set of ‘Doctor Who’. By the 1970’s he was directing on his own terms, notably working on ‘Secret Army’. By some accounts a formidable director, and a tough taskmaster. Here, he directs with considerable zip and hi-tech gusto. Goblets crackle and sparkle, studio sets actually have four walls, cameras are handheld, Federation guards move around the edges of the of the screen in their own self contained red outlined electronic box, faces merge dreamily with starscapes, there are extreme close ups of eyes, skies are tinted in homage to Bowie’s ‘Ashes to Ashes’ video and words are no more…than words. It’s captivating stuff. It’s the same breath of fresh air that Grahame Harper (another Douglas Camfield associate) would bring to Doctor Who in ‘The Caves of Androzani. In Toby Hadoke’s Who’s Round series, Ritelis explained his approach, with reference to Zukan’s demise.
“I wanted to challenge, and I wanted to kind of do things differently. Look, in those days we had five very very heavy cameras that moved like dinosaurs across the floor. And the story was there was this spaceship and there’s this guy trapped in this spaceship who is calling Cape Canaveral or base or whatever it was, and I thought ‘well we just can’t do a three wall like that’ – the fourth wall is where the camera sits so I said ‘look I need a portable camera’, and everybody threw up their arms in horror and said that portable cameras are for outside use, not for studio. I said, ‘well why not?’ So I persisted, and I finally got a portable camera and I said ‘right I want a four walled set.’ So that’s what happened – they built a four walled set and locked us, locked the cameraman and the actor in the set so the camera and the actor could walk 360 degrees around the set which was quite incredible those days. Now it’s dead simple, you do it every day. Then it was totally new, and people said ‘no you cant do it. Lighting will have a problem sound will have a problem, blah blah blah.’ So I said ‘no they wont.’ And I was absolutely trembling inside you know. Evey chance to fail. But it didn’t fail, it actually succeeded.”
It’s this driven attitude, no doubt due to Camfield’s mentoring that sets this episode apart. But this isn’t to say that Ritelis is a carbon copy. Camfield had a natural eye for action, with dynamic shot composition, and understanding of editing. But if you look at ‘Duel’, as good as it is, it doesn’t feel like he is at home on a far future type serial. His location filming is excellent however. Camfield really thrived on contemporary drama. Take ‘Inferno’ and ‘Terror of the Zygons’, which built tension effortlessly.
Ritelis on the other hand had a flair for the symbolic, melodramatic and emotional – and in this instance, pushed the limits of TV studio production.
The very opening shots sets out the approach Ritelis will take. Footage of what appears to be an explosion of some kind is interrupted by an electronic countdown. I was never quite sure of the reason behind these establishing shots. It’s like he had decided to simply start with an explosion, in order to get the audiences attention from the start. Nonetheless, these opening frames are a bold and striking visual.
And then we are into the opening situation on Zondawl. It’s easy to sneer that it’s shot in a shopping centre. But it’s really well filmed. The reflections of the gunned down populace in the glass of the escalators is excellent, the use of a electronic box featuring the Federation guards is deeply unsettling, and again is evidence of Ritelis’s desire to try something different. It is very much an early 1980’s effect, bringing up images of David Bowie’s ‘Ashes to Ashes’ video. Elizabeth Parker also provided some unsettling muzak, mainly due to the fine line it treads between being soothing and humane, against being hallucinogenic and darkly manipulative. The only flaw in the sequence is the reflection of what looks like shop mannequins in the glass panels of the escalators. Or maybe they are other drugged and passive citizens of Zondawl. That’s what I like to think anyway.
A little shout out to the man who gets the close up – Salo Gardner, someone who has built quite a good career from smaller parts – featuring in Star Wars (older and newer), Shawn of the Dead, and Black Adder. Apparently he was a labourer who was stuck outside the fence in ‘The Harvest of Kairos’ – but I couldn’t spot him in there.
It is this opening scene that perhaps sums up any kind of fear factor that can be attributed to Blake. Not scary, and not necessary creepy, but unsettling in a politicised way. The treatment of people. The utter hopelessness. In Simon Masters script, he describes the sequence as such: ‘Intended to be part of a conurbation on one of the planets subjugated to Federation drug control, actually somewhere like that soulless amphitheater in the middle of Foundling Court in Bloomsbury.’
Foundling Court, London.
So what of Simon Masters? Looking at his credits, he appears not only as a writer, but also as a script editor for a number of BBC dramas, meaning that he must have a reasonably good grasp of the limitations of studio based drama of the era. And it’s a well structured episode. The action moves along nicely, without it feeling too hurried.
Meanwhile Ritelis, is using all sorts of camera control to create visual impact. Take his use of pull focus, used right at the start to establish Avon’s audience, and later when Dayna and Vila work out what grave peril they face, when entombed in Xenon Base. Dayna says she was ‘never good at maths’ to which Vila sums it up. ‘You don’t have to be, we’re dead.’ The focus makes us hang on every line, by making us focus on the grim facial expressions one at a time.
He takes it a bit further too. Standard set ups that would be filmed at mid-shot level, are either shots recorded from an elevated position or angled upwards, as in the case of the zoom into Tarrant’s face, when it is announced that Zukan’s ship is approaching Xenon. It isn’t the most dramatic call for a zoom in, but somehow it works.
Also he gets the camera tracking in varying different directions, such as when Zukan strides purposefully down the corridor. It’s as though Ritelis really wants to challenge the most mundane of set ups, and give the traditional visual language of studio drama a little nudge.
Taking a different approach to the notion of ‘striking visual imagery’ lets take some time to talk about the members of the alliance.
We have someone who looks like he is dressed in Gallifreyian attire, and a guard from Zanak – the pirate planet. We also have the bloke who played ‘Queeg’ in Red Dwarf and, in case anyone had forgotten, we have Rick James.
Ah Rick James. A man who seems to never have anything positive said about his performances. As someone who was familiar with his portrayal of Cotton in Pertwee’s ‘The Mutants’ I was intrigued as to whether I am missing something. Perhaps I am limited to thinking that in order to be a good actor one must respond to a certain rule book that demands: bold and majestic hand gestures, body movements, and enunciation in a bold, or fluent way. But actually, deep down, there were moments where I really warmed to his performance in ‘The Mutants’ especially when he matter of factly dismissed the conditions of Solos, or lamented the death of his colleague, Stubs. So it’s not all bad.
But here, it’s difficult to be charitable. It’s the same style of acting, quite limited in its range of emotion, both vocally and physically. There also appears to be an unease – check his thumbing of his jewellery, and his quick fire reaction after the line ‘But Chalsa seems to want to make the agreement retroactive.’
I really enjoyed the alliance scenes in a clunky sort of way. Xenon base clearly has employed the services of an announcer to introduce the delegates. There’s a big line from Avon. ‘The federation doesn’t have the army, why else would they embark on drug control. ‘Defeat the drug, and you buy yourselves time.’ Maybe ‘Warlord’ wasn’t the ending after all, and that, by the time of the events of Gauda Prime, there really was still time for the rebels to find a new figurehead and re-group. But I doubt it.
Anyway these are mere words. And no more than that. Because that is not what this episode is about. This is an episode about visuals. And technology. It’s up there with ‘Shadow’ as one of the most visually nippy episodes in the shows run.
Without this blog turning into the very enjoyable ‘Adventures with the Wife and Blake’ – my other half watched this one with me. She is a fashion blogger. She took one look at Zeeona, and straight away identified her style. ‘On trend top knot, with mermaid chalk dyed hair (pale pink)’
Eh? I replied.
‘I’m talking about her hair.’
‘Toyah’ – I said.
‘Sia’ – she said.
She might have won that argument. Well possibly. I was too busy trying to work out whether I had seen Dean Harris (Finn) in ‘Grange Hill’ back in the 1990’s.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the alliance is cemented with the clanking of goblets that create sparks. Again it’s a bonkers creative touch, but a brilliant one. I wonder if it was in the script, or if it was another of Ritelis’s creative embellishments.
I mentioned ‘Shadow’ earlier – Soolin and Zeeona are talking in a room that looks so much like Space City, with similar background muzak. This scene reveals a bit more about Soolin, but it’s too little too late. However she does get a killer line, that says a lot more about her – ‘Could explain it…I suppose’ uttered in relation as to why Zukan would try to gain respectability by aligning himself with Avon and his team. Also there’s what looks like Servalan’s screen from ‘Star One’ still displaying an endless loop of stock images.
It occurred to me that Avon’s desire to save his skin…sorry, I mean make the alliance work, is really pronounced. Take the scene where Avon, Tarrant and Zukan talk about setting up the installation. Avon commands to Tarrant ‘Tomorrow…you go! Now who is being hasty?
Ritelis also revels in a sense of melodrama akin to some of the classic matinees of the 30s, 40’s and 50’s. I plucked one out at random. ‘Prison’ (1949) which uses shots superimposed onto others, vignettes, and pull focus in the same way as Ritelis does.
Check out the extreme close up of Zeeona’s eyes when she talks with Tarrant. Then we see them embracing with bad CSO and a green spinny thing, and then the most melodramatic shot in the episode – teary Zeeona merged with the stars.
And there’s more great visual moments. I love the shot of Scorpio leaving the base. I wish we saw a little more of that in the series. But what really makes it work as a sequence is the preceding, and super melodramatic track into Tarrant, with the extras running around behind him.
The episode also contains lots of nice little character moments that suggest something about the rebels as a whole. Take Soolin, who is starting to openly disobey Avon – a nice touch of how the unit still is comprised on unique identities. She also gets some of the great lines, such as when she comments about Zeeona to Tarrant ‘She deserves better than just you for company.’ But Tarrant is blinded by love, oblivious to the consequences. Result? Avon barges Tarrant out the way because Avon is being so Blake like, for the benefit of them all. Vila is generally keeping out of Avon’s way following the events of the last episode, and Dayna is a bit two dimensional really. Having recently watched a number of third season episodes, it’s a bit of a shock to see what seems to be a bit of a decline in her character, becoming someone who generally stands around saying lines, whereas she bought a real energy, and sass to her first series in the role. Perhaps Dayna’s only real highlight is when she gets the creeps when Zukan expresses how he misses the darkness, but again I wonder if the Dayna of old would have had a more reactive response to his issues…like give him a tissue.
This weeks Darrow acting masterclass comes when he delivers the line ‘If it comes to a choice between the alliance and Zukan’s revenge, don’t think that I won’t sacrifice you’ (pronounced ‘yuu’, with added pointy finger.)
But it’s quickly forgotten as I’m drawn to the jumpsuits that have been designed especially for this episode. The unbuttoned look. What actually are the outfits they are wearing?
The episode reaches its crisis point. The bombs goes off.
From this there is a fabulous collection of close up shots of Dayna, Tarrant and Vila and Zeeona. Blake’s 7 has never used such a carefully composed collection of reaction shots. I think they are great.
Avon and Soolin have been cut off from Xenon base, and are stuck on film – Betafarl. These planetary scenes are well shot, using some nice filters to give it a more alien hue. They like their pink! For some reason though, there is a rather bizarre shot or two recorded in the studio on videotape. It jarrs horribly with the rest of the footage.
Meanwhile Servalan has made sure there is no happy ending for Zukan. One moment you’re enjoying some nourishment from a space age drink container, and then your second in command is ejected. It’s a great death scene for Finn, and again shows that Ritelis wanted to make the most of the technology of the time, as Finn’s facial features are stretched into infinity.
Meanwhile back on the base we reach the scene where Vila and Tarrant try to dig themselves out. Vila really loses it ‘we haven’t got four days’ – it’s actually quite shocking to see Vila finally lose control, as he, even in the gravest of situations, can usually use humour to communicate his anxieties. But here, his reaction is both panic and resignation. Its the moment where I really felt that the end was approaching, and there was really no way out. For Vila there is only one solution. Alcohol.
So lets talk about Tarrant. There is a shift in his character here. He’s more gung-ho than normal, however outside of the nauseating ‘two young kids in love’ thing, he is actively trying to get things done in this episode, and take responsibility where he can. He threatens to attack Zukan’s ship if he doesn’t identify himself, he deduces the various problems facing the crew and the stricken Xenon base, and is the only one actively leading the near impossible attempt to dig their way out. Often it is so easy to feel unsympathetic towards his character, but when he goes to clobber the drunken Vila, I couldn’t help but sympathise with him. These scenes were actually quite difficult to watch, knowing what is to come. The group have survived the intergalactic war, the destruction of the Liberator, and escaped Terminal. By hook or by crook they have steadfastly stuck together. But now they are entombed in a suffocating environment and it’s all going horribly horribly wrong. It’s a real unwinding of the cohesiveness of the unit. Only Zeeona helps to keep things together. Sometimes people listen to the guest.
Back on Scorpio, Avon gets all Sherlock. Boy doesn’t he love those lines that include the words ‘push’ and ‘suck’. But the escape route does feel a little bit ‘easy’ – oh there was access to clean air all along.
Zukan loses his mind and sees Zeeona and then for the very last time, Servalan. These last scenes of Jacqueline Pearce feel like a coda. Her last real appearance was in ‘Orbit’, where she projects her typical energy, playing off John Savident beautifully. But somehow she seems a bit muted here, and unusually doesn’t quite look herself. Perhaps she couldn’t hide her upset that this was the end. However she does leave one last tantalising question. Like Dayna, where and how does she conceal her explosive devices?
And then we move into handheld territory on a four walled set. Ritelis’s masterstroke. It’s a shame that in this era of Star Wars much of the audience might turn a blind eye to these innovations, however in the context of television studio drama of the time, they’re massive. Cue some big acting from Roy Boyd. And Zukan dies with a big bang, and a big crash zoom for Zeeona.
Watching the resulting scenes back on Scorpio, I was left wondering whether Paul Darrow was actually drunk? I was trying to find the line between Avon’s legendary detachment, and…well… comatose. Perhaps it is better to read in to the fact that Avon knows the alliance is over, and the battle is lost. It’s time to find a new figurehead. It’s the moment where Avon finally gives up.
‘I’ll be perfectly alright’ Zeeona says. My wife says ‘oh so shes going to die then.’
Again Ritelis finds a moment to shine once more. Look at the transition from Zeeona playing with the device to Tarrant’s walk away from the camera.
And of course she does die, and Dayna gets the last line, which somehow sums up the general decline in fortune that our motley crew have had to put up with over the last 24 hours or so.
At the end of it all, this episode is scary, in the way that it feels like the darker forces of the universe are closing in on our little group. From the expansion of Federation as seen in a shopping centre in Guildford, to the entrapment in the confines of Xenon base, there is very little space left in which to find any kind of relative safety.
This is a great episode.
Vibraphone and violins for the tender sequences of Tarrant and Zeeona. Very Federation type music for the sequence on Betafarl, but a laboured bom-pa-pa rhythm sucks out some of the intensity. As mentioned earlier, there is a great score accompanying the footage on Zondawl.
Paul Allen makes a return, following his work on ‘Shadow’ and ‘Horizon’ in series 2. In fact some of his Space City designs make a reappearance here, and the freight bay has a good sense of scale. Zukan’s ship is the main interest here though, using some distinctive bold lines, and shapes, which are all backlit. Somehow though, the overall visual aesthetic of series 4 (which is not very good) still sticks out here.
HOW TO SELL THIS TO A NON BELIEVER?
It’s a style guide – the early 1980’s in a nutshell.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
Too many to mention, but I’m going to have to go for the sequence when the bombs go off in Xenon Base.
MY LEAST FAVOURITE MOMENT
Kissy kissy love fest with Tarrant and Zeeona. Let’s hold hands down the corridor.
VERDICT IN 10 WORDS EXACTLY.
Zukan, you helped this show to end, but with style.
(1) Drapers record. August 16th 1980.