D04 – STARDRIVE (and a bit about what it is like to blog about Blake’s 7.)

‘Talk amongst yourselves, this could take some time’

I’m a quarter of my way through my journey of watching Blake’s 7.  I have watched 13 episodes from across all four series.

When I started, I knew an awful lot more about Blake’s 7 than I did about blogging.  But it has been a really interesting thing to undertake.  So before I venture into the discussion of ‘Stardrive’ I thought that I would like to reflect on what it is like to blog, and be a blogger.

My original plan was to create a podcast, having recently listened to ‘Shake and Blake’ by  Dave Probert and Ian Wilson.  Podcasting felt like the natural medium to blabber away about what was in my head.  But the time consuming nature of it, and the commitment to recording them at a set time made me bulk at the idea – not to mention that I really couldn’t find anyone to argue and bounce ideas off.

So the idea of a blog took over, and the decision came quite quickly.  I made a series of quick fire, and some might say slap dash decisions.
(1) What should the blog be called?
I decided on ‘Watching Blake’s 7’ as that is what I was doing.
(2) What should I be focusing on?
The things I notice, or noticed and simply documenting it before the slip from my mind.
(3) How should I go about it?
I decided to watch the episode out of order, to appreciate them on their own merit, rather than constricted by the story arc.
(4) Where should I start?
I decided to start with the last episode I watched for the very first time (if that makes any sense.)  So ‘Volcano’ was the first one to be reviewed.

So what have I discovered so far?

(1) The way I write is very much conversational in nature.  I write as I speak.  My wife (who is far more intelligent and ‘correct’ in the use of English language) took a look at my first post and suggested a series of corrections that are no doubt the right ones to make, but somehow lost the translation of what I was trying to say in my mind.  So, dear reader, I’m sure you’ll overlook those frequent moments where my use of English lets me down.  I’m not a writer, but boy can I waffle on!

(2) It’s a good idea to watch the episode and get as many notes down without pausing the episode.  In fact, the review for this blog post – ‘Stardrive’ was a case where I repeatedly paused the episode, and whilst I wrote more, it made me lose concentration, meaning that I needed to re-watch large sequences of already repetitive material!

(3) Aiming for a one week turnaround of blog posts is impossible.  Work, family, life – all adds up to no time at all.  10 days is more realistic, but still tricky to achieve.

(4) The blog posts I enjoyed working on the most, were for episodes that I either hadn’t seen for a long time, or for ones that I didn’t enjoy too much.  Step forward ‘Assassin.’  I decided to really give these episodes another chance, and even where I have not found the love, it has been nice to give it as much attention as possible.

(5) Don’t try to stick to a uniform style.  After a few posts, I realised I was taking more notice to the intricacies of the set design, which resulted in the creation of small Photoshop montages of the colour schemes/scenic detail of the sets.  This then resulted in me going back through some of the previous episodes to add a scheme to them as well.  Mostly.

(6) Enjoy the process of trying to find answers to tricky questions.  For example, who designed various typefaces and sofas seen in the series.  What else has Guy Hussan (the robot in ‘Volcano’) appeared in?  And for a forthcoming post, what is that dome that the bounty hunters emerge from in ‘Powerplay’ (Stop press – something that is being hotly debated on the ‘Blake’s 7 locations‘ facebook group!)

There are plenty of things that I have noticed along the way.

(1) There are themes I really want to talk about which relate to the series as a whole, but I am holding back in case I hit upon a new perspective as I go through this process.  I want to be surprised during this journey, as I have watched these episodes many times over the years.

(2) It’s really made me think about how I share this with Blake’s 7 communities out there.  I seemed to have settled into a little pattern, which starts with the nice folk on the ‘Horizon’ website and ends with a post on my own ‘Watching Blake’s 7’ facebook page.  And along the way, through the various facebook groups, and online forums it’s been really nice to talk with people about something which has been generally quite a solitary experience.

(3) That it is nice to know people are reading your work.  Whilst I have not set out to chase ‘viewing figures’ I will happily admit that I quite enjoy seeing how many have read what.  And being a ‘fan’ it’s quite nice to play around with facts and figures.
So in ‘Blake’s 7’ the four episodes that achieved the highest audience were:
Seek Locate Destroy
Orac
Children of Auron
Moloch

And the top 4 blog posts are:
Warlord
Assassin
Redemption
The Way Back

These are significant figures which I can draw one key conclusion from  – that I need to get out more.

But the most prominent thing that I take from this experience so far is just how much I enjoy watching Blake’s 7 – something that I feel comes from the some of the moments that I have written about.

‘This isn’t a slick, stylish universe we are in.  It’s brutal and unforgiving, and the title sequence reminds the audience of this every episode.’

‘The trial sequence is perhaps the only area of the production that feels a bit below par – a typical 1970’s take on the futuristic court room, with cod dialogue, and weird justice procedures involving spheres and solemn exchanges.  Not to dissimilar from the foul Mamadons and the vanquished nibily-pibblies on judgement day in Blackadder’s Christmas future.’

‘I wonder if the writer was under direct instructions to return Tarrant to his natural role as ‘an arse.’

‘It appears that by the time of ‘Moloch’, everyone knew that the series was due to finish completely, but there is something interesting about the idea that Blake’s 7 started on Earth, and ends in the outer darkness, a gazillion miles from home.’

‘And how can anyone not be warmed by the sight of a rotund criminal psychopath running away from a polystyrene rock with his arms flapping in the air like Daffy Duck did in the Looney Tunes cartoons of yesteryear.’

This wonderful drama lurches between intense dramatic tension, to delightful frivolous shenanigans.  And the episode I’m reviewing here, definitely falls into the latter.

EPISODE DISCUSSION.

Once again the curse of the 2 episodes on a VHS tape strikes.  To watch ‘Stardrive’ for the first few times in the 1990’s was to also watch ‘Animals.’  Quite quickly, it dawned on me that these episodes lacked a certain something – in fact they were my least favourites of the range.  As such by the time of the new millennium, they had been largely forgotten.

Fast forward 17 years, and it’s time to take another drive.

We open with the beginning of Hostage, and one of David Hardy’s works of space art, but here dreadfully out of focus.  Worse still, it allows the viewer to see the jarring C.S.O as Scorpio flies over the camera four years after Star Wars.  Luckily Dudley Simpson is on hand with his lovely motif based on the theme tune – this particular version is wonderful.

 

The Federation is name checked pretty early on, in keeping with the the crew’s new found sense of urgency (see Traitor.)

I’m really enjoying the relationship that Avon has with Slave.  It’s something that he originally had with Zen in the first series, until Orac arrived and reduced Zen to the status of the most brilliant, yet shallow computer in science fiction.

Something I’ve noticed about the series four episodes I’ve watched is how we, the audience, are thrown in to the situation through very intricate exposition.  ‘If we want to keep this heap of ironmongery operational, we have to visit Altern Five in order to recover Selsium ore to make fuel crystals. Hitching a ride into the Altern system on that asteroid is the only way we’re going to get past any Federation patrols and within teleport distance of Altern Five. Now if anyone has a better idea, I’d like to hear it.’  That is like a complete synopsis in a single piece of dialogue!  Thanks Avon!
I’m sure it wasn’t this pronounced in earlier episodes from the first three series.  We were guided more gently into the situation without the need for anything to be explained too much.  As the audience, we were able to fill in the holes.

Meanwhile there is a lot of techno baffle, and awkward hitting of marks.  It must be odd for actors to deliver lines stood up yet slightly bent over a control panel as poor Josette Simon is, before Avon commands everyone to sit down.

 

‘There are times where even the most cynical, must trust in luck.’  Oooooh, nice self aware line there!

A few minutes into the episode there is an interesting C.S.O model shot.  Normally Scorpio is superimposed onto everything else, but here, everything else looks like it has been superimposed onto Scorpio!

Oh no!  A little bit of wall is on fire, against a backdrop of deep sounding dramatic explosions.  The perfect non-collision!

There are some really great lines in these early scenes – something that Blake’s 7 is always so good at.  Slave says ‘I’m very sorry about this, but that WAS the backup system.’ Peter Tuddenham delivers this line brilliantly – actually it is worth aknowledging his comic timing and delivery over the history of Blake’s 7.  Take the two-hander with Avon in ‘Deathwatch’ when putting up the videocast on the main screen.

So ship and rock finally collide for real and there is a brilliant shot of the flight deck with Michael Keating gyrating at odds with the lurching of the camera.  Meanwhile Soolin and Avon are all over the place.  This is something I remember series four for – a lot of swerving and swaying as a Scorpio faces an array of obstacles.

 

Afterwards, Avon is given his slap on the wrist from the rest of the crew.  It’s interesting to compare the more humble approach from Vila ‘but I told you it wouldn’t work‘ to more assertive from Dayna ‘if there IS a next time‘.  It is also fascinating to see Avon genuinely look a bit shocked and sorrowful.

 

Vila has his moment as he staggers in drunk.  Sometimes I find Vila’s decent into drink tiresome, but I really enjoyed his speech here, which runs the gamut from lecherous (towards Soolin) sarcastic (towards Avon) and morbid (towards himself) and then as he lands on his seat, Dudley Simpson throws in a couple of self mocking chimes to emphasise Vila’s nonsense, and Avon’s brilliant riposte ‘That’s one misfortune we don’t have to share.’

But of course, this is one of Vila’s more clever moments, as he both displays intelligence and brilliant self preservation skills.  Although I find ‘the giggling girls’ routine rather ghastly afterwards.  Oh men!

 

In the main drive room Avon and Tarrant get to work, with their er… hi-tech goggles.  I liked the overlay shots on machinery in the foreground – it reminded me of a similar shot at the start of ‘The Web’ as Cally plants the explosive device in the hold.

Around 10 minutes in – the Federation arrive and have clearly invested in their fleet as we welcome the latest mark V cardboard pursuit ships!  Actually thinking about it, it’s been some time since we’ve seen some pursuit ships actually in pursuit.  In fact it might be ‘The Harvest of Kairos’ a whole season ago.    Ah, it all makes sense.  Servalan gave Jarvik the finest and most powerful in her fleet, only for him to destroy them all in order to make it look convincing.  So these cardboard versions are clearly the next best thing!

 

The crew make it back to base with a lovely shot of Scorpio approaching the mountain on Xenon – but of course the budget won’t stretch to the Xenon base sets being erected, so we’re stuck on Scorpio for now.

It’s interesting to note Orac’s conclusions that the Federation are re-establishing their ship building programme ahead of schedule – yet they have lost their top designer.  He probably committed suicide once he saw what Jarvik the construction worker did to his fleet.   Bloody Jarvik.   But it also re-establishes the fact that Orac is a complete pain in the arse, and I was not quite sure as to why the crew just didn’t interrogate Orac further about their ‘amazing lack of observation.’  Also it is odd that they decide to study all of this on Scorpio, and how they take it in turns to do this.  Did they remain together, or apart?   Were they in the crew room or not?  Gawd, this unit would really know how to confuse thy enemy!

 

Dr Plaxton gets her first mention.   To which Vila says ‘Who?’  And with that we’re on our way to Casper…in sector 5.

 


The dialogue in this episode has been pretty cod so far, but I’ve enjoyed the banter, and the crew dynamics – which feel quite punchy and alive.  This was the same with James Follett’s previous entry – ‘Dawn of the Gods’ – where the sparky and spiky relationship between the crew was one of the few redeeming qualities about that episode.    But once we’re down on Casper – the least atmospheric quarry in Blake’s 7 – and we’re treated to old school motors and the like, it’s really difficult to remain charitable.

 

Back on Scorpio, things are better as Soolin challenges Avon and Tarrant about the plan for Vila and Dayna to be the diversion.  And there is a nice line about Dayna’s ability to handle weaponry, considering her sheltered upbringing.  This is the first scene where Soolin starts to offer a bit more grit in what was a two dimensional character so far.  Soolin is merely dormant, but she is starting to stir…

But it’s Avon who cuts through it all, and Paul Darrow’s line ‘we need the space drive‘ is perfectly delivered – completely devoid of any kind of sentiment.

Plaxon and her assistant Napier are introduced.  It’s a funny dynamic from the start.  Napier just acts like he has lost everything – he looks so defeated.  He accepts Plaxon’s commands with a world weary resignation, but then offers to take the lead in getting the two troublesome Space Rats out of the laboratory…by just asking them to leave.    But he is clearly loyal to her, in his own slightly fearful way.

 

Oh Casper – you are soooo boring to look at.  It must have been so difficult for David Sullivan Proudfoot to find any kind of interesting shots in this landscape in Bedfordshire.  It’s reminds me of the boredom I felt watching the location material from Doctor Who ‘Colony in Space’.  It’s a shame, as Blake’s 7 is one of those shows where I always felt they made the best of the bleak desolate landscape – take the night shooting in ‘Cygnus Alpha’, the red filter in ‘Warlord’ and ‘Time Squad, not to mention the subtle enhancements that create the atmosphere in ‘Shadow.’

 

 

We then cut to the BBC version of debauchery with kissing, and drinking and the eating of whatever space age delicacy is held by that Space Rat.

 

We cut to more running around in the longest shots possible.  Had David Sullivan Proudfoot given up at this point?    I was certainly struggling to hold my attention as I was more interested by the birdsong that exists on Casper, which was quite beautiful.

 

There is a little moment in the scene where Avon reports to Vila that the teleport is out of commission.  He gets up to move on, leaving Tarrant and Soolin behind for a moment.  For me it is a perfect summing up of the groups dynamic in this episode – with the crew being lead by Avon but also having to spend a lot of time just keeping up with him and what he is thinking.  I’m not sure the scene was supposed to depict this, but there was something about Tarrant’s long lingering glance at Avon that made me wonder if he was thinking ‘what is he doing now?’   This is the episode that feels like a marked deterioration in Avon’s ability to truly lead.  It was very different on board the Liberator, where it felt like he was in clearly in charge,  but more in command of the ship, rather than anything else.  Here he is very much the ‘leader’ and perhaps that is not his true calling in life.

We are treated to yet more very very long shots, only livened up by some macho posturing.  This is one of the big changes in acting style between this and other series.  Paul Darrow battled Steven Pacey for macho posturing since they first met, but in this series the stakes are raised and all the regulars, bar Michael Keating join in.  Here we are treated to some fabulous ‘Charlie Angels’ style positioning.  It’s a joy to watch.

 

 

There’s a bit of a fight with Dayna, then back to Avon and co running down some more cliffs.  Then a cutaway scene, and yet more running, and some stopping, and some more running, and some stopping, until finally – FINALLY – they reach the base.

 

The time it takes for the three of them to reach the base feels like an eternity.   This is series 4 – so there is ubiquitous ‘base doors’ integrated into the landscape.  And this is the flimsiest of them all.  The entrance to ‘Star One’ or the lair on Obsidian looked reasonable, but here it feels like it could collapse at any time.

Once in the base, Avon, Tarrant and Soolin continue to posture their way around the hanger, both in long shot, and glorious close up.

 

So lets talk about a ‘menace to society.’  Cor blimey!  The Space rats are all gangland!  ‘Gook.’  ‘Splat.’  Oh that’s such BBC vocabulary for naughty naughty boys.  It straight away reminded me about how wonderfully solemn the BBC could be when discussing any perceived sub culture that sits outside whatever constitutes mainstream identities.  Take the opening line of this 1977 discussion about Punk and ‘Punk Rock.’   ‘Over the last 12 months Punk Rock became almost a battle-cry in British Society.  For many people it’s a bigger threat to our way of life than Russian Communism or Hyper inflation.’  Big stuff!
It also reminded me of Ben Elton’s brilliant turn as presenter of ‘Nozin’ Around’ – the ‘yoof’ show for ‘yaang people’ featured in ‘The Young Ones’ in 1982.  So yes, the Space Rats are the archetypal contemporary BBC depiction of ‘bad boys.’

 

 

Back to the narrative – Atlan threatens Plaxon in his own unique way, watched on by a helpless Napier.  Again his impassivity is actually quite fascinating, and could have been built further to provide an interesting resolution to the situation they find themselves in.  Alas it wasn’t to be.  Napier would just disappear in a puff of exhaust fumes.

 

So onto Atlan.  He is nasty.  There are repeated hands around the neck, sexual innuendo, and his gun going in a dubious direction when he tells Plaxon she will be dealt with by the Space Rats if she doesn’t continue with modifications to the drive.    All of this adds up to the rather overtly ‘male’ tone that this series seems to go down time and time again (see my review of Assassin, for more on this.)  Blake’s 7 is a series that is so good at wit and words as a weapon, and sharp humour – but here there is none of that, so naturally it sticks out like a sore thumb.  It’s a big disappointment.

 

Ironically it’s Vila and Dayna who come out of this episode better than the others.  I’ve already mentioned Vila’s drunk acting, but now Dayna displays some real quick thinking to make herself appear pally with Plaxton- a ruse that Atlan totally buys.

 

Things finally start to happen, and central to this is a very flimsy door between Atlan and our heroes.  The shot of Tarrant slowly burning the door is  one of the most ‘knowing’ shots of all Blake’s 7 as Steven Pacey puts every ounce of acting ability into looking dashing, handsome and purposeful – it’s like we’ve wandered into a matinee.  ‘I’m ready for my close up now.’

 

On the surface Soolin gets her moment of shooting practice, and the hardware comes out.  Again, it’s all very ‘Colony in Space’, meets ‘Junior Kickstart.’  For those who do not live in the UK, this was a 1980’s BBC competition where ‘yaang people’ would ride on motorbikes, navigating various obstacles to the fastest time – all under the watchful eye of Peter Purves.  It was quite compulsive viewing back in the day, and mostly famous for a clip of a number of Ambulance men coming to the aid of a stricken rider who fell into a pit, only to end up equally stricken – if my memory serves me correctly.

 

All the motors are out on show now, and whilst it would be appropriate to discuss the chase scene as a whole, and make reference to the sped up film used when the third space rat meets his end, the main area of note for me was the nonchalant way Paul Darrow tosses aside the remote device.  It’s a school of acting that he will refine further with a pair of wire cutters in ‘Headhunter.’

 

As the party moves into Scorpio there is some amazing OTT acting from Paul Darrow. Check check check check – alright!  GO!  (Dramatic turn on the spot.)

 

One last time we return to the cardboard cut outs, Dudley Simpson’s synth riffs, and main drive mechanics, just as we did earlier in the episode.   In some ways this is a nice structure to the story – it reminds me of Jon Pertwee’s comings and goings during ‘Inferno’ in the way history repeats itself.

Finally Dr. Plaxton completes the connection, and Avon recognises that one way or another she is doomed.  As Scorpio flies off with ease, there is a lovely little nod to the two notes that end the title music.

And in keeping with the repetitious nature of the story, the episode ends as suddenly as the Photonic drive itself.  It’s although so much of the episode is spent running around doing very little, only for the episode itself to run out of time just as things started to happen!

 

Sigh…
Ive not watched this one for many year before I wrote this.  I decided I wanted to remember Blake’s 7 for the 90% of other episodes that I felt was more representative of the series.

So let’s try to be positive here – what did I discover after all these years?  There was much to enjoy in the first half of the episode on Scorpio.  The crew are on fine form – sparring with each other nicely.  The performances, especially by Darrow are in their own universe, but exceptionally enjoyable.  But once we reach Casper, it all goes downhill.  Whilst it’s important that the crew obtained an important plot device that will now give them a fighting chance against the rapidly expanding Federation, it’s hard to care about an episode where the main thing I took away was what happened to poor old Napier, the birdsong on Casper, and why the final two end notes of the closing theme were slightly different to every other episode.

And I’m sorry to say that the main gift this episode has made me think about, is how writing a blog about Blake’s 7, a show that I have so much time for is really tricky when you reach those stories that you don’t have much time for.  Reading back my notes as I watched this, it made me realise how I was writing the same old things again and again, as that was the action that was occurring on screen.

What it has done is leave me with a slightly more stronger desire to re-watch ‘Animals’ as at least – between Prior’s pen, and Ridge’s realisation – there is a bit more substance to it. At least as far as I remember.  I might be proved wrong.

Casting wise – Peter Sands is not a name I recognised, but his career has ranged from Howards Way, to Magnum P.I no less.  I wanted to wax lyrical about his part as a pirate in an episode of ‘Baywatch’ but it was one of those roles where is face is obscured by a visor, and he doesn’t get to point a gun, and ‘go splat’.  Leonard Kavanagh has also built up a fair list of credits from policemen to judges.  Damien Thomas as Atlan, has had a broad career too, but I was drawn to his appearance and reunion with Glynis Barber in ‘Dempsey and Makepeace’ where he looks so much like Edward De Sousa of ‘Sapphire and Steel’ fame.  And of course Barbara Shelly has enjoyed a long career, and would grace the telefantasy world a couple of years later in ‘Doctor Who – Planet of Fire.’

SET DESIGN
The sets sum up the fourth series aesthetic – IE bland.  Pedestrian design is livened up with ghastly red piping around the edge of the hanger, and the Space Rats ‘lounge’ looks more like ‘flower power’ than ‘punk rock.’  Doors wobble, the lighting is unsympathetic, and everything looks claustrophobic (although that might be a clever detail when depicting the way the Space Rats live.)

setstardrive

But it would be a crime not to talk about the fabulous sofa that makes it’s third appearance in Blake’s 7 – the ‘Terrazza’ sofa by Swiss designer Ubald Klug. In the late 1960’s early 1970’s.  Klug was trained as an interior designer, and had been responsible for many different designs from lights, to cupboards.  But this sofa, which apparently was inspired by piles of sand, is probably very recognisable to science fiction fans.  For me it’s synonymous with Leela bouncing on it in ‘The Robots of Death’.

 

MUSIC SCORE
Dudley throws in some synthesized ‘bingy bongys’ for the suspenseful scenes of Federation ships approaching.  Rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat.  Dung dung dung dung dung dung dung dung dung dung dung dung dahh dahhhh.
Elizabeth Parker’s ‘muzak’ for this reminds me of Freedom City.
Whilst Avon and co stalk about Casper there is lots of bomp bomp bomp-bomp-bomp with clarinet and trumpet.  Fairly sparse – a bit like the landscape.
So, some nice touches all in all.

HOW TO SELL THIS TO AN UNBELIEVER
For motor enthusiasts, who like to see people falling off things, and going ‘splat’.

MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
The difference in how Vila and Dayna tell of Avon after the collision on Scorpio.

THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
When we reach the first scene in the Space Rats base.  I felt this is the lowest the series has gone, up to this point.

VERDICT IN 10 WORDS EXACTLY.
Alas, this episode is one long runaround…that goes nowhere.

 

http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/events/2013/07/27/walk-houghton-regis-quarry

 

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