‘Conflict becomes more personal. More exciting’
In my discussion of ‘Bounty’ I pointed out that my experience of watching the 1978 remake of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ was always a semi-conscious one. I would watch it in bed, late at night, and in the sleepy period just before I would nod off. It’s the same with ‘2001: A space odyssey’. It’s not a film where I could take on board its imagery and tone at any other time than late at night. So in keeping with the title and core mission of this blog – I thought it would be a good opportunity to explore when is the optimum time to be ‘watching Blake’s 7’.
I work in education. Like many professions, it’s a tough, demanding and unforgiving sector to work in. Over the years Blake’s 7 has become one of those little bolt holes, where for 50 minutes I can switch off and enjoy the escapades of this not so merry band of rebels and bloodthirsty little maniacs. But this is – in the main – an evening pleasure, best watched as the sun goes down, and you can draw a line under ‘the day’.
My relationship with both Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 in that early 1990’s VHS cassette era was a largely daytime affair. The excitement at being able to see these episodes for the first time meant there was no time to kill. They had to be watched as soon as humanly possible. And then 100 times after that. So watching my favourite science fiction was a regular early morning appointment – as soon as I had finished my paper round – and before the rest of my family had woken up.
But as that early thrill dissipated, and I was less reliant on the family communal video recorder, the true timeslot to watch this spacey drama was established – when it was dark outside. Somehow there is something more immediate and absorbing about watching it at this time.
It could be argued that night time is the perfect time to watch many things – and of course going to the cinema is a darkened affair, but this is not always the case. For example, I’m sure there are many of us who grew up with watching a James Bond movie on ITV at some point during a weekend afternoon. Somehow watching it at night doesn’t do it for me.
Whilst Blake’s 7 is a nighttime rendezvous for me, that doesn’t mean that every episode has a nocturnal association. There are actually two episodes that somehow I would – like James Bond – rather watch during the day.
The first one is ‘Animals’. I’m sure I’m not alone here, but it’s not an episode that captured my imagination on any occasion I watched it – although when I come to review it late on in this series I’m going to give it every chance. But because the vast majority of the action takes place during the daytime on Bucol 2, it feels that it should be watched during the day. Perhaps it’s the association of watching it alongside ‘Stardrive’ – another tale that features action during the day, and pretty much throughout the episode.
And then there is ‘Aftermath’. This is an episode that not only features so much daytime action, but so much filmed material, rather than extended studio sequences. For this reason, it somehow comes across as more cinematic, than say, ‘Star One’ or ‘Volcano’. In fact, baring the occasional filler shot, there is no videotaped material anywhere during the first 10 minutes or so.
Perhaps this is down to the fact that, during these episodes, there are long periods of time spent away from Liberator or Scorpio – environments that always suggests the spaciness of Blake’s 7. This is why the episodes I enjoy watching during the evening are ones that feature the interior of the Liberator predominantly – with ‘Voice From the Past’ topping my list as episode I find most distracting from the pressures of modern day life – for all the right reasons – and a few dubious ones too.
For this fan, Blake’s 7, with these couple of exceptions, is a date with the dark, in keeping with the depiction of outer space – the spacecraft, the planets, and the stars.
Ah yes, the stars. Series 3 starts with an as yet unseen starfield, that is somehow distinctly Blake’s 7 – IE there are tons of them.
With a re-booted show, comes the need for a new title sequence. It’s a mixed bag. Technically speaking the starfields, plasma bolts and the models of both the Liberator and the Federation pursuit ships are very well realised – being shot on what looks like 35mm film, and also inventively lit to give some added depth to the visuals. In keeping with the comic strip elements of the first title sequence, there are some nice graphic touches of the paths that the spacecraft occupy, resulting in a series of yellow and red strips that give the straightforward sequence a bit of a lift. This is where the influence behind the title sequence changes from the need to establish the backstory, to emphasising the action in a comic book style. It reminds me of the opening of the short lived, but memorable ‘Space Sentinals’ cartoon series, an American export, screened by the BBC in the early 1980’s, with its use of ‘trails’ in space, and the not so dissimilar computers onboard which remind me of Zen and Orac, albeit masquerading as a maintenance robot!
There is also still some kind of nod to the format of the show, although as the series progresses, I do wonder whether the ‘Liberator Vs Federation’ is actually the core concept of the third series. Any effectiveness of the titles is undermined by the crudely animated ships whooshing up and past the camera in the second half of the sequence. Did the time and money just run out? Probably. That’s showbiz. Graphic designer Douglas Burd was responsible for this sequence, and whilst generally effective, lacks some of the memorable imagery that he was able to bring to some of his other works around this time, such as the use of Matryoshka dolls to convey the identity games of ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ and the ominous impending presence of the alien menace in ‘The Day of the Triffids.’ Perhaps, for a show that has lost its title character, and indeed much of what had existed before, a more symbolic approach might have worked.
Speaking of alien menaces – how do you convey the biggest space battle of all on a BBC budget. 1) You use creative ingenuity, and 2) you employ Vere Lorrimer. Out of all the directors on Blake, I would say that Lorrimer is the most comfortable in taking footage already recorded and use it again with reasonable effectiveness – to the casual viewer at least. For us die hards, we can see where the material has come from. Footage of the Liberator flight deck comes from ‘Redemption’ and ‘Hostage.’ Meanwhile satellites becomes battle cruisers, and drifting non operational ships suddenly become active participants in a universe changing conflict. So we get to enjoy a plethora of shots from ‘Shadow’, ‘Killer’ and ‘Star One’ as the Nova Queen, Space City and Wanderer mark II take the roles of the fleet. Charitably, perhaps we should see it as a half way point celebration – a flashback to some of Blake’s 7’s most dramatic moments. But this is the mongrel of all space battles, as we mix video and film with jarring effect. A full range of lighting effects and explosions are given added visibility with some garish video effects, which somehow look like they have been telecined so many times that the ‘dust and scratches’ is a constituent part of the effect.
The model work here is a mixed bag, but for entirely different reasons than normal. It must have been such a tricky balancing act, trying to juggle the budgets and demands of such a technically hungry drama. But as a member of the audience tuning in for the first episode of a new series, (and in retrospect, understanding the significance of the Intergalactic war) I wasn’t focusing on the action at all, more trying to work out where I had seen almost every shot beforehand, as previous model shots from other episode are reused. Perhaps I need to see it as an example of Soviet Montage theory akin to the Kuleshov effect, where the same footage can be used to create a series of different meanings. On the flipside there are some excellent models involving the life pods being ejected and the unknown spaceship approaching the Liberator. Looking back on it I have mixed feelings about the depiction of the war. On one hand it is so bloomin’ exciting, but I just wish there was a little bit more money in the budget to shoot some new footage. The war is depicted without ever seeing any of the crew, so we are studying the model work more intently than usual. So many times I can gloss over re-used footage and use my imagination, but this time I found it difficult.
So it’s all going on, and the first few minutes are pretty lively, but eventually we reach the first live action (non model shots) of the series as we are introduced to the lifepod area. It’s a great set – it even has a ceiling, and there is something that feels so right, and so ‘Blakeish’ about seeing the camera zoom into a big close up of Vila’s panicked features. I’ve decided that Vila is the best character to be seen in close up (think of that great low angled shot of Vila talking to Blake via the teleport communicators in ‘Voice from the Past’.) The fact that these scenes are shot on film makes the whole thing look really good, although somehow the Liberator interior is so synonymous with video that I find it a shock to see it filmed in any other medium than that.
Another observation abut Vila here. The moment I realised how big a deal this situation was is not through the aforementioned stock footage, or the flames, crashes and bangs, but through the fact that, the always panic striken and anxious Vila finally loses control. Compare the restraint and concentration exercised by Cally, in comparison to Vila’s ‘come on come on hurry up.’ He’s been in so many perilous situations before, but this is the only time in the four series that Vila outwardly loses his composure. You could argue that he loses it in Warlord through resignation, and famously in Orbit – but this is where the panic really takes over and has an outward facing direction.
The significance of the scenes in the lifepod area run the risk of being easily glossed over, due to the breakneck speed that the action happens. But this is the half way point of the series, and the moment where Blake and Jenna (who will still be name checked) are written out of the series. Again, it’s easy to be critical with the benefit of hindsight, but the line ‘Jenna’s gone with Blake’ is such a throwaway, that it really feels that two important characters didn’t have a clear line of departure in the minds of the writers. Perhaps they hoped that they could both be persuaded to return at some point…
So here we have it. Cally, Avon and Vila. The core nucleus of the new series. The moment where the series has acquired an ‘old guard.’
With everything that has gone on it’s time for a bit of flute – the universal musical motif for ‘here’s something that isn’t an fast paced action scene’. We cut to Sarran. And on the coastline we see something out of ‘Silas’. Does anyone remember that?
When casting the leader of a tribal warrior group it’s important to get it right. Lorrimer went for the late Alan Lake, and boy, what a choice! All I want to say about his performance is encapsulated in his first scene, which starts off with a breathy, yet deeply sinister reading of his lines, which slowly turns to crazed, and is rounded off with the most elasticated grimace I can remember in 1970’s televisual drama. It says everything about his attitude, and we know we’re in for a rocky old time whenever we bump into him again.
Oh yes, Alan Lake. Top marks.
Meanwhile Avon is burning up in a sea of quite beautiful oil painting effects. Again I love the fact that this is shot on film. It’s feels very right and real and dangerous.
Then we have a a key moment in my mind. The capsule lands, and there is a welcome pause following the sonic intensity we have witnessed so far. Eventually the door is kicked open and lands on the ground. I have no idea why I think this, but there is something about the way the door is kicked away that just has a kind of…well…attitude to it. Can you imagine if it was Blake who kicked that door open – it would have just plopped to the ground. No this is all about attitude. And it’s a new attitude that is going to take this show into a new direction. The door being kicked open is Avon’s introduction as the lead in this new series, from now on, this is his show.
So what of Avon as the new series lead? Here we’re treated to key confrontations between him and Servalan, establishing a new focus. Look at the pure swagger that he brings. Look at Paul Darrow’s own brand of facial grimace as he fights the Sarran warrior, and observe the way he nonchalantly chucks the knife towards the him at the end. Oh and there is kissing. I remember watching Blake’s 7 for the first time, through the four compilation videos the BBC issued (of which Aftermath is one of the elements) and the big difference I remember between Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who was that there was kissing. To my little eyes, it all felt so grown up. Today, it makes me realise how the tone shifts in this third series, bringing into even more melodrama to the mix, and giving the characters even more interesting relationships and personal interaction, in a way Doctor Who doesn’t.
Yes, this is a clear shift in tone now Blake’s moralising is gone. This is a darker, even less scrupulous landscape than before. All bets are off. With Avon at the helm anything could happen. And indeed it will.
Oh look! It’s Mike Yates and Eddie the Barman from Eastenders! Oh poor Richard Franklin (he of the magnificent grimace) and Michael Melia. They are forever destined to never be the Federation officers they are here, but merely just ‘oh look, it’s what’s his name!’. This scene is also important. It’s the first sign of what universe this series is occupying, as we learn about the Federations ultimate victory, and its significant cost. And the toll rises by another two, as they are slaughtered to death, as Stuart Fell looks almost wistfully on.
Hello Dayna. Great first shot. She was no doubt aiming for his head. Thank heavens she knows what she is doing – it could have been awkward with Avon being bumped off so soon in the proceedings.
At this point it has occurred to me that we’re well over 10 minutes into this episode, and we’ve barely seen anything shot on video. Is this starting to look like an ITC drama? Soon enough we’re into the video studio and Dayna tends to Avon. And immediately kisses him. Again a clear signal of the post Blake, Blake.
This was apparently director Vere Lorrimer’s favourite episode, singling out the performance of Josette Simon. What a great performance. I think Dayna is brilliant. One of the best characters. Cheeky, cocky, highly intelligent, forthright, witty, and full of youthful arrogance. It’s easy to wax lyrical about the incredible career Josette Simon has had, but her first significant performance on television – in series 3 at least – is fabulous both in terms of acting skill and and character portrayal. Like Dayna, she was clearly a quick learner, and took her craft seriously.
Hello Servalan. Once again the third season credentials are established. We’ve seen Servalan dressed to kill in an inhospitable landscape before, but here it feels like a part of the DNA of this series. Added glamour. Added melodrama. Fabulous darling.
We reach the sea base where you won’t even get your feet wet, and we welcome Hal Mellanby. He and Avon listen to the horse racing and get down to some serious infodumping, whilst the ‘ladies’ talk fashion in the boudoir. That said, I love the scene with Dayna and Servalan – it’s all about barbed insults, subtleties, and subterfuge. Lots of things are going on here. Backstories and backbiting – these are the confrontations of series 3. It’s all about the power of words, rather than the power of brute force. It’s all about getting personal and about stalemate or who gets the final say. Very different to the confrontations of old which were settled largely by a physical act.
Sometimes, and this is a complement – this show veers towards soap opera sensibilities in the way some events are realised. Take the scene where Servalan remembers Hal Mallanby. The zoom in, the realisation, and the name under her breath. It’s every convention of 1970’s television acting ticked off.
Back to Hal. I struggled with Cy Grants performance. ‘Lauren, try the south shore.’ (Points at monitor.) The delivery of the lines feel stilted. The character as written contains a lot of depth, take the scene where he explains about how saw his friends die. It’s similar to Blake’s retelling of how he first encountered Travis in ‘Seek-Locate-Destroy’ and but I think needed a more subtle performance bringing out his background further. Then Lauren appears – bad acting and direction all round. Her outfit, her make up. She runs in addresses her hair and delivers her lines.
Oh dear. Sorry I’m being very uncharitable. I’m never keen to critisise actor’s performances, or direction – but here it just falls below my standard slightly, and fails to convince, just like the Vogon/Fendahl hybrid wearing a judges wig that Avon shoots at during the target practice scene.
This is an episode that is almost forgetting itself. It’s time to check in on the wider plot lines. I love how Avon’s voice echoes through space when he talks to Zen, and we hear the names of the rest of the crew – a reassurance that we are still watching the same show we have followed for the last two seasons.
Servalan is at the top of her game – ‘Oh you are worried’ – that’s a brilliant delivery of a brilliant line. Again we see a new dynamic between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ leads – there would be no chance of that kind of one upmanship in the first two series.
This is an episode where so much of the universe is having to be explained through dialogue and exposition. The destruction of Star One, the fleet, the loss of the crew. But it’s fine. We’re too busy having fun with the new personal dynamics between key characters to worry too much about a insignificant event like the intergalactic war!
Servalan, being Servalan, starts causing trouble. Killing Hal and taking ‘O-rac.’ I found Jacqueline Pearce’s performance most satisfying as she relishes acting out a full range of emotive gestures, from deadly ice stares at Avon, to vicious mocking and sarcasm at practically everyone she encounters.
Our heroes find the opportunity for that important quick change of clothes and it’s time to find Servalan… only to find a dead Lauren. It’s all gone horribly wrong, a reminder that, in this new era of wordplay and one upmanship, it only takes a moment for traditional conflict to have a devastating conclusion.
At this point the episode moves into pure runaround territory. Characters get captured, escape, run around again, and so on, all with some very unsightly weaponry on show. But finally we reach the end move, as the teleport bracelet finally ends up on the right wrist, and all is well, until Avon and Servalan do battle once more.
This is an episode that twists and turns, and the final scene is the perfect example. When we see that glorious model shot of the Liberator and the majestic music that always accompanies it, we feel that we’re done and dusted – we can breath a sigh of relief. But again Nation has a twist up his sleeve, and as we see Tarrant for the first time we get a humdinger of a first line, and a rare cliffhanger at the end of an episode.
So ‘Aftermath’ – what did I make of you? In some ways it’s an effective reboot of the show, with plenty to ponder, and much to establish. As mentioned earlier it is quite cinematic in it’s scope, with plenty of location footage. Those early sweeping pans across the Northumberland shoreline are quite effective, and glossy.
However it’s a middle of the road episode for me, as there is something slightly lacking in the runaround nature of the story. Perhaps I should look at it as part of a two-parter with ‘Powerplay’ – in that sense it has an epic quality to it.
Or perhaps ‘Aftermath’ is David Maloney’s ultimate triumph as producer. I can see it now. He’s been given his budget for the series – it’s broadly the same as series 2 (he’s said so himself) and he is thinking this first transmitted episode is going to hit the finances hard. He knows that this one is going to swallow a lot of the location allocation in a remote (by BBC budgeting standards) part of the country. He knows he has to fork out for a new title sequence (animation never comes cheap) and there is a plethora of new cast members to pay, and most importantly of all, he knows that he has to pull the audience into this new post Blake show. The risks are high, and there is a lot riding on this episode. So he is thinking what does he have to cut in order to prevent the costs from spiraling out of control. And he comes to his big decision. The depiction of the intergalactic war. It has to be cheap. And why not? More members of the audience are more likely to make a judgement at the end of an episode rather than after the first two minutes. The war is an exercise in instant gratification. It’ll be quickly forgotten. But the scenes that explore human relationships and power games need to be acted out in half decent atmospheric environments, and the audience needs to feel this. So I take my hat off to you David Maloney. You made the bravest decision to spend next to nothing on the biggest event in Blake’s 7’s universe – all for the greater good.
HOW TO SELL THIS TO A NON BELIEVER.
If you like your sci-fi with liberal brushstrokes of melodrama and interpersonal relationship – then this is the one to start with. It’s also a great example of ‘the show must go on’ – we barely blink and the title character is gone. There is precious little time to look back.
When I watched this episode I remember not enjoying this as much because of the set design of Hal Mellenby’s underwater base. Strange really. I think it was the desk between the camera and the performers – it reminded me of a Blue Peter cookery segment, or the functionality of having a desk for any show featuring a hand puppet. It divides us from the action. Funny observation, I know, but hey, that’s what I thought! Nonetheless the life pod area, and Mellenby’s base is a pretty nicely put together set, given a lift by some excellent underwater lighting effects. Just ignore the dodgy old television set, used as a surveillance monitor.
As is an emerging theme in these blog posts, I want to celebrate some of the design classics featured in the studio sets – this time the ‘Omkstak’ chair from British designer Rodney Kinsman in 1971, and the curves of the round tulip table designed by Finnish-American architect/designer Eero Saarinen.
However given the plethora of Mellanby’s furniture on display I must sadly report that the identification of his sofas remain out of reach.
Nothing particularly special. We have some driving rhythms during the space battle, a touch of flute, and on Sarran, some menacing primitive rhythms. It’s the special sounds that are prominent here. Listen to the first few minutes without seeing the pictures, and marvel at how richly layered the soundtrack is.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENT.
Indulge me. I have two. (1) When Servalan slaps Dayna towards the end of the episode. It’s a classic moment of televisual slappery, where hand doesn’t reach anywhere near face. Mind you, it lacks the sheer hilarity of the Soolin/Piri interface in ‘Assassin.’
(2) The final shot. Not just Paul Darrow’s surprised look towards Tarrant, but also Josette Simon’s stoic stare at Avon. It’s not quite right, but I love it.
Welcome to series 3 – where conflict becomes more personal, and therefore more exciting.