B03 – WEAPON (and how to start an episode)

One of the things I have noticed watching Blake’s 7, is that there is a certain level of anticipation established, at the very moment the opening brass of the theme tune heralds the beginning of the episode.  There is something that says ‘here we go’, at which point my ears prick up.   I make myself comfortable and – almost unconsciously – ready myself for something that I know I’m going to look forward to.  And this is perhaps the most important moment of what I want to talk about regarding the watching of Blake’s 7 – how do the episodes actually begin?

Until now this is not something that I have ever really considered.  This is perhaps because, following that first rendezvous with the series in the 1990’s, I became quickly familiar with what happened in each episode, and what it was like to experience them.  This means expectations were removed, the power of surprise lost, and the delight in making sense of the unfolding events diminished.

In ‘The Way Back’ I discussed how the title sequence sets the tone for what is to come, but it is the start of an episode that is the most important moment, as – like in many forms of creativity – it has to reach out to the audience, establish their commitment, and keep them watching.

So what is the Blake’s 7 way of starting an episode?  And how does this fit into how television was made at that time?  (2)

‘The silence and the darkness.’
As seen in: Duel.
Ken Loach once described the experience of the very beginning in cinematic terms.  ‘The most valuable thing is the silence and the darkness, and what emerges from the silence and the darkness. That is the most precious moment.’ (1)

Screen Shot 2017-06-11 at 17.10.07Whilst this is a description of the experience of watching something at the cinema, as much as of the content of the those opening frames, there is one episode here that really stands out for me, and that is ‘Duel.’  Douglas Camfield was, and is my favourite director to grace the types of fantasy series that I return to again and again.  I’ve always felt he was one of the most cinematic of directors, who had his own unique eye for shot selection, composition, use of lenses, and the ‘collision’ (as Lev Kuleshov put it) during the editing stage.  No doubt I’ll will talk about him further when I get round to ‘Duel.’  But here, he sets out his stall in the opening moments of the episode.    The blackness that exists between the fading frames of the title sequence, and the opening slow tilt towards the planet, is a departure from the visual language previously established in Blake’s 7.  It says this is going to be (atmospherically) a very different episode of Blake’s 7.  By simply slowing things down, it also tells the audience that this is a planet of mystery and the unknown .  Emphasising the silence and the darkness in a show not noted for being ‘slow’.  It is also a statement of how confident Camfield was of his own abilities.  When we cut to the opening shots on the planetary surface, this considered pace is continued, using slow cross fades, backed up with his customary use of mysterious library music.  It’s brilliant stuff.

The established beginning.
As seen in: Time Squad, Breakdown, Orac, Redemption, Killer, Horizon, Hostage, Voice from the Past, The Keeper, Dawn of the Gods, The Harvest of Kairos, City at the Edge of the World, Ultraworld, Moloch, Terminal, Assassin, Stardrive, Animals, Headhunter, and Orbit

This relates the classic opening of film and television, which has been used in various forms since the beginnings of moving image itself.   This is where we open with an establishing shot – usually an extreme long shot of the environment where the scene will take place in.  From this, we move into a close up of, say, a building.  From this we might go through into a window where, in a room, a key character is doing his or her thing.   This classic style tells us much:  where it was taking place, who the character is, and the organisation of the world. It’s a chance to lead the audience into the space that the episode exists in.
In Blake’s 7 terms, and of television drama of the era, this is often the standard beginning of many episodes, and also of key scenes within those tales.  For the purposes of the categories I have created here, it relates to episodes that begin on the Liberator or Scorpio.  I would argue that it is also the most dull.

‘The Big Bang Beginning’
As seen in Weapon, Volcano, Games, Warlord.

Director Sam Fuller, once famously said: ‘If your first page doesn’t give you a hard on, you should throw the damn thing away.’  Fuller was a director who understood ‘impact,’ famously stating during a scene in the film Peirrot le FouFilm is like a battleground… Love, hate, action, violence, death. In one word, emotion!‘ (3)  For me this is a great summing up of ‘Blake’s 7.’  So inevitably, a starting point of an episode is going to explore these characteristics.

Screen Shot 2017-06-11 at 17.19.10
Sometimes these beginnings are quite base in nature. The shock, the bang, the collision.
Take the opening of ‘Weapon’ – the explosion is not only a hook to ensnare the audience, but it is also a question.  What is the explosion all about, and why are we seeing it right at the beginning?  The answer is revealed fairly quickly, but referred to throughout the episode.  But by this time we are hooked.  There is no way out.   The episode ‘Countdown’ also features this, through the use of the sound effect of a Federation blaster, which not only heralds the action, but also takes us straight away into a situation which there is no way out.

Straight into the action.
As seen in: The Way Back, Bounty, Shadow, Pressure Point, Rumours of Death, Trial, Countdown, Gambit, Rescue, Gold.
Along similar lines to starting the episode with a bang, or shock.  But here there is no time for the audience to think – we are concentrating on what is happening.  These episodes are notable for not starting with any kind of establishing shot.  In fact many of these open with a line of dialogue that lacks any kind of context – as through we have missed some of the scene.

This kind of beginning is a chance to play with the audience, knowing that they do not know enough about how the episode will act out – the tone, the situation, or, as film critic Tom Sutcliffe put it – its rules of engagement.  Its a moment where a director has a chance to play with their audience, like a cat plays with its kill. And this is an opportunity for the writer/director.  Whilst I have categorised ‘Shadow’ elsewhere, it is worth thinking about how it begins with a harrowing scene on Space City, which sets out a more physiological hard hitting tone, signposting the rest of the episode, but is also is a departure from the frequent device of the audience discovering the ins and outs of the situation alongside the Liberator crew, right from the beginning.  It’s a good few scenes in before we join Blake.

These are the beginnings where it feels like the audience is late to the party, and they have to picks things up quickly.  When I watch episodes such as ‘Pressure Point’ I am at first disconcerted that there is no establishing shot of space or the fact that we are on Earth.  Sure we get clues, with the appearance of a cottage, but this is all a set up for the moment a few minutes later where Blake reveals the destination of the Liberator.   But quickly I forget about the lack of an establishing shot, because this approach is making the audience hyper alert, and therefore paying greater attention to it – and that is a guarantee of the audience committing or investing in the forthcoming experience that the episode can offer.  This is why ‘Countdown’ is so effective as a beginning.  This is a desperate struggle for control, and it is quickly established that the Albion forces have lost, thus setting up the key story line that will unfold for the rest of the story.

Screen Shot 2017-06-11 at 17.24.24

 

Into the unknown.
As seen in: Cygnus Alpha, The Web, Seek-Locate-Destroy, Mission to Destiny, Project Avalon, Deliverance, Star One, Children of Auron, Sarcophagus, Death-watch, Traitor, Sand.
This might sound like a variant of the classic establishing shot, in in some ways it is, but in ‘Blake’s 7’ terms this is all about building intrigue. Take the opening of ‘The Web’ a wonderful single take tracking shot that takes us from a low lying forest, to Saymon’s base.  It is filmed very skillfully, and the mystery and alienness of the forest is enhanced by the eerie whispering of ‘They must come to us.’  In many ways it is identical to the very first scene in Doctor Who (1963) in terms of duration, purpose of soundtrack, and pace of the scene.

Screen Shot 2017-06-11 at 17.13.09

‘Sarcophagus’ also uses this approach, but here following the initial establishing shot, we are treated to not only some obvious questions about what is going on, but also a foreboding, or portent of what is to come during the episode.  And ‘Sand’ too – written by the same author – establishes key questions in the opening monologue that the episode will need to unpack.  Again it is unique in it’s faith in the audience to stick with it, just as was the case with Lovett Bickford’s decision to open his one Doctor Who story ‘The Leisure Hive’ with a long, slow pan along the beach huts on Brighton’s seafront.   The roots of this approach can be traced back far, notably the celebrated one take tracking shot that opens ‘A Touch of Evil’.  Go on watch it again – ideally the restored version, without credits, that was closer to the vision that Orson Wells had for the movie.  He famously quipped ‘Lesser directors might need their names printed in the credits. Great one write their autographs right across the screen.’

Other episodes, such as ‘Cygnus Alpha’ and ‘Seek Locate Destroy’ use this method in a very straightforward way, as simply devices for exposition, such as the very helpful and informative tannoy announcement providing us with key information about the base on Centero.  How very considerate of the Federation!

A variant of this is where the the opening poses a question that the entire episode hangs on.  Take ‘Mission to Destiny’, which fulfills a similar device to ‘The Web’, but the handheld nature and the first person perspective of the scene mean we are witnesses to the murder, and gives us the motivation to work out with the investigators who did it.  It’s a beginning that is commonly used in murder thrillers, from ‘Columbo’ to ‘The Killing’.

Screen Shot 2017-06-11 at 17.31.07

‘Star One’ also asks questions right from the beginning.  Here the disaster is greater, and the detective work is on the shoulders of Durkim, but this time it is we – the audience – who discover the causes of the control complex breakdowns, a universe away from any investigation, and with that, a far greater issue to contend with.

The follow on from the previous episode.
As seen in: Space Fall, Aftermath,  Powerplay, Power, Blake.
This is fairly easy to categorise, because due to the epic narrative and continuing story arc of Blake’s 7, it is inevitable that some episodes will require a simple continuation from what has gone before.  ‘Space Fall’ continues a few moments after the end of ‘The Way Back’ whereas ‘Powerplay,’ re-caps the last moments of ‘Aftermath’ in a way that is reminiscent of black and white era ‘Doctor Who’ – similar but not exact. 

End notes.
There are types of commonly used starting points that Blake’s 7 didn’t use, for example the start-at-the-end device, used in many films, such as the cliff top scene in ‘Quadrophenia’ (1979)  This is the type of beginning that stands up to repeated viewing because this is where there is always more to reveal, because we get to enjoy the mechanics of how we got there. The unpeeling of the layers.

Finally it is worth noting that there are many episodes of this space adventure that fall into more than one of these categories, but when watching Blake’s 7, these are the main characteristics that I picked up on.

EPISODE DISCUSSION

‘Weapon’ opens with a bang, a big bang.  In fact you won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.  It is a pretty good series of explosions actually, and one that will be seen again in a later episode.   But boy do I love how the ground wobbles.

The early dialogue between Coser and Rashel is intriguing.  It’s nice to see other characters snapping with each other, instead of the Liberator crew, and it’s a similar device that was used in Boucher’s previous episode.

 

 

 

And we say hello to Brian Croucher as Travis.  His first ever shot shows a facial expression which suggests not only a new actor, but a new character.  It’s not too dissimilar from Alan Lake’s grimace at the start of ‘Aftermath.’

Then it all gets very awesome.   Smoke starts billowing and there is some majestic organ and then the choir join in.  It’s all very grand and confident, but somehow is at odds with a very very careful Clonemaster Fen descending a flimsy looking staircase.

This scene throws up many questions, and somehow it feels like this is the moment that series 2 really kicks into gear.  Perhaps, at this still relatively early stage in the shows history, the story line doesn’t feel complete unless it involves Servalan and Travis.

 

 

 

So what of Travis?  It’s clear that things have changed on every level. I’m sure I’m not alone here, but the Stephan Grief version of Travis is the one that everyone was introduced to.  So perhaps it is unfair to compare the two.  But inevitable too.  Looking back, my first recollection of Travis mark II was his appearance in ‘Trial’, which for my money, is a pretty good episode for him.  So I’ve not been too badly disposed to this incarnation.  I think it’s safe to say this is not as common a viewpoint across the fan community – from what I have read and heard.  So in another episode I’m going to attempt some kind of defense of series 2 Travis.

But as for ‘Weapon’, I think it’s a great re-introduction.  Blake appears, Travis shoots him dead.  He then goes on to verbally confront Clonemaster Fen, and physically threaten Servalan.  In short this is a dangerous and exciting character who has returned from his re-training therapist in not quite the state anyone would want.  He is volatile, and unpredictable – a fascinating refresh!

The series 2 story arc takes a big leap when, on the Liberator, the crew discuss Blake’s latest plan, and Cally shows off a little bit of her freedom fighter beginnings, something I found harder to take seriously when dressed in evening attire.
There is mention of Blake’s plan to attack Earth, building on a hint in ‘Shadow’ but here it feels like an inevitably.

The banter between the crew is sharp as ever, following the snappiness evident in the previous episode.  But Avon’s questioning of the crew is the perfect set up for Blake’s appearance and line ‘And where better to get them than the Weapons Development Base?‘ – it is after all, his show.

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile Travis is still on the attack – following the hands-to-throat moment with Servalan, he is being, shall we say, being quite candid in his assessment of her decisions.  Ane there is a subtle shift in the tone of their discussion – there’s a hint of past tense ‘You would have — once.’   They’ve known each other for a while now, and Servalan totally understands how to play Travis by using his character and history against him – this adds to an interesting added dimension, which wasn’t as eviden in the first series.

Everyone is getting a bit tired and over familiar with each other.
Blake is snapping with Orac, who is insufferable as ever. Meanwhile Coser and Rashel are also snapping, as are Servalan and Travis.  Only Avon seems to be enjoying his usual biting comments as he asks Vila to ‘justify stupid.’

 

 

 

There are interesting things that I’d like to know more about, such as the planet and culture the Clonemasters inhabit.  Fen describes the room is being grown from a vegetable, but aside from some discussion of their culture, it’s one aspect of the story that I found interesting, but a fuller explanation was always slightly out of reach.

One detail I did like way the way the room changes with mood.  Not only when Fen explained this, but afterwards too.  Also there is a lovely little moment where, later in Servalan’s office, she too adjusts the lighting to suit the mood of what was happening within.  In fact these little nods, are common place across the episode, from the puppet references, to ‘power makes it own rules.

 

 

 

Back on the unnamed planet, Closer and Rashel are still at loggerheads, whilst what reminds me of the models used to depict the loading bays on Space City in ‘Shadow’ act as cube lighting.

 

 

 

I mentioned volatility and snappiness earlier, and it is Servalan who is at her most fascinating in this episode.  The delivery of her lines are more intense, being increasingly impatient and spiky than I have seen her.  Then at the snap of a finger, she moves to a more flirtatious approach, and then by the time the episode ends she is playfully zapping people and sending them to an early grave without a care in the world.  These are quite pronounced character swings/changes in strategy, and hint at quite how power and politics inform her personal characteristics.  Take the scene where is talking to Travis in her office.  She expresses dismay at his lack or perspective, then immediately plays with Travis further, initially feigning disinterest before using the flower as a calculated distraction/insult –  ‘keep me informed.’

 

 

 

The ‘brilliant’ psycho strategist finally makes his appearance.  My first impressions of Carnell were simply how brilliant he is.  It is refreshing to see someone stand up to the supreme commander.  Some characters have ‘I’m going to die before this episode is out’ written across their faces, but not here.  This one is going to live to fight another day.  But boy, talk about the choreography of flirtation!  The blocking of their opening scene is brilliant as Servalan glides around him in a fascinating series of non verbal battles.

 

 

 

I felt that Carnell’s appearance showed up how the re-training of Travis has manifested itself in one key area – he is merely taking orders from Servalan, who herself has lost her ‘bond’ with him. There’s a new man on the scene – for the moment.

 

 

 

But of course there’s a spanner in the works.

 

 

 

And before we know it – apart from one last goodbye, Carnell appears in his final scene, with Servalan’s aide, who inadvertently saves his life.  This scene is nicely handled and I loved the use of colloquialisms – ‘you’re a puppeteer?‘  Even in the far future, there is wit, and subtlety, and un-subtlety.  The final shot of the brilliant psycho strategist sitting alone in Servalan’s office, with his career in ruins, and angry with himself for not collecting his fee, is fabulous – but it wasn’t until watching this episode again that I realised how little Carnell appears.  His presence suggests otherwise.

Back in the dark place, Coser finally gets to use his magic weapon. He invented that death.  I remember watching this for the first time, where I was slightly underwhelmed by the nature of the weapon.  But that changed with this viewing.  There is now something pertinent about the idea that you can kill someone remotely, as whilst watching this episode, my wife was looking at kettles as a replacement for one that had literally just conked out before watching this.  She mentioned ‘i-kettles’ where you can command the kettle to boil some water whilst away from the house, with the promise of a hot water when you arrive.  This was mentioned just as Coser was discussing how you decide when someone is to die, and how that can be done remotely.  It’s one of the very few times that the events of Blake’s 7 feel actually quite close to home – ah the domesticity!  Everyone bangs on about how ‘The Green Death’ was ahead of it’s time – but that is nothing to this!

 

 

 

On the Liberator ‘real’ Blake uncharacteristically zips up his top.  Down on the planet ‘fakey Blakey’ also does his zip up.   Hmmmm, not the most subtle touch.

 

 

 

Blake, Avon and Gan skulk around what looks like relics of the industrial revolution.  I was really disappointed by this location filming – it’s like the direction had made no effort to make this look like anything other than an industrial space within close proximity to London.   It’s also notable that it is the three boys who go down – the first signs of the marginalisation of Jenna and Cally in this series.

And boy, do the boys make it easy for the enemy.  Travis marks the Liberator crew in a wonderful scene where everyone hits their mark precisely in order to get zapped – in other words, they ‘functioned beautifully.’

 

 

 

As mentioned earlier, Servalan is having a merry ole time marking as many people as she can.  I love the noises that guards make as they die – ‘Project Avalon’ set the standard for this kind of thing, during the shoot out as they rescue Avalon.  I can see the directors notes  – ‘make it sound like you are throwing up.’  Nonetheless, her plan is quite good, allowing Blake to teleport and give the order to attempt an escape.

 

 

 

Anyway ‘fakey Blakey’ and Rashel save the day, and the Liberator escapes the mine field with nothing more than superficial damage.

In the last scene, Peter Tuddenham gets a little extra line as Servalan’s receptionist, but it is Carnell who gets the last laugh, and in this blog post full of beginnings, it’s perhaps one of the more memorable endings of Blake’s 7.

 

 

 

I think ‘Weapon’ is quite a clever script – I can see why Chris Boucher is proud of it.  I love the fact in it references some kind of class system, and as every supposedly intelligent character bickers, argues and debates strategy, it is the lowly aide who saves Carnell’s life, and the ‘bond slave’ who is the key to the final outcome.  And there is much to enjoy in what we see.  But something holds it back from being a bona fide classic and this is down to some of the realisation.  The episode lacks a certain fizz, and ironically for an episode that make reference to changes in mood, it comes from a lack of atmosphere.  (see SET DESIGN, and MUSIC SCORE.)  So what of ‘the man in the white suit’  – no not Alex Guinness, but director, George Spenton-Foster.

 

 

 


His was name I immediately recognised from ‘Doctor Who.’  Some commentators have mentioned his more operatic style, but I thought that ‘Image of the Fendahl,’ was generally quite disciplined.  It is ‘The Ribos Operation’ that for me perfectly mixes his slightly flamboyant approach with directorial flair.  His contributions to Blake’s 7 also fluctuate wildly with every episode.  In ‘Weapon’ there are some subtle directorial oddities.  On the Liberator, Avon delivers one line towards Vila (about ‘a question of intelligence’) pauses awkwardly, then delivers the second (‘Blake…‘).  Travis explains the cloning programme as though he is narrating a wildlife documentary.  The design of the Clonemasters room looks like its is made from corrugated cardboard – a far cry from the vegetable that the room was supposedly grown from, and as mentioned earlier, the location filming looks very flat.  And it is this ‘flatness’ that permeates throughout the episode.

 

 

 

Cast wise, we have Graham Simpson – who a year or two earlier, was the first victim of the Fendahl.  Following his saving of Coser’s life, he set up a travel business, and then ended up as the chairman of Watford football club no less!  Of course, we also have Scott Fredericks – another ‘Image of the Fendahl’ connection.  It’s almost as though the same director was on board!  Elsewhere we have Candace Glendenning, notable for appearances in a number horror flicks, and the striking looking Kathleen Byron as Fen, who enjoyed a long career on stage and screen.

 

 

 

The location filming – at Rutherford Laboratories in Harwell Oxfordshire, is also recognisable to Doctor Who fans, as the location for ‘The Android Invasion.’  The photo on the right is the location as it is today.  As you will see from the other photo taken in 1972, the buildings used in that serial are on the left hand side of the image.  I can only assume Blake, Coser and co made their way through disused areas irritatingly out of shot.

 

 

 

MUSIC SCORE
There are plenty of similarities to ‘Image of the Fendahl’ – so I wonder whether Spenton-Foster had his hand in this one.   The episode is notable for a reduction in the amount of music scored, meaning it is one of the quieter entries.  But what there is, is pretty memorable.  There is plenty of grand majestic organ, and choral chanting.  But unlike ‘Fendahl’ this chanting is not electronic in nature, but is very real.  It builds and builds until at one point the notes struck by the choristers threaten to lapse into parody, just as Elmer Bernstein’s sweeping romantic music motif used in several scenes of ‘Airplane’ (skip to around 7mins into the link below.)  By this I’m not saying it isn’t performed anything other than professionally, but more that it is a bit overly grandiose for the scene in question.

There are other rather clunky monophonic synthesized melodies that accompany the action on the unnamed planet, and some nice spacey effects that accompany the infrequent model shots of the Liberator in orbit.

Another manifestation of the episodes quietness is a toning down of any atmospheres.  The hum of the Liberators engines, for the dialogue on the flight deck, are quite faint, meaning the scenes lose a bit of urgency and atmosphere.  The range of ambient sounds in Servalan’s office is there at the start, (‘Mysterioso‘ by Rochard Yeoman Clark) but this disappears, and the scenes in the disused rooms inhabited by Coser and Rashel lack anything at all.  It serves as a reminder of how important background ‘mood effects’ are.

SET DESIGN
Watching this on DVD it easy to forget how sometimes it can show off some of the details that perhaps the designers and visual effect departments might not be so happy about – such as the joins of the canvas, or the warped facias in the chamber ‘grown’ by the Clonemasters.  Mike Porter’s sets, as noted in the review of ‘Redemption’ are deliberately minimalist in nature, lacking much in the way of texture or detail.  He gets a chance at modifying Servalan’s office on Space Command.  Here he gets rid of the ‘K’ shaped columns that were a feature of many series 1 corridors and rooms, and replaces this with a more simplistic vertical design, with a more prominent door with rounded corners (a bit Ken Ledsham) that presumably took less time to put up in the studio.  Oh and the new chair/desk.  Actually I’m not a fan of the design.  It’s definitely distinctive and futuristic looking, but look more like the type of desk a talk show host would sit at.  But at least the triangular design – apparently created for Doctor Who by Jeremy Bear in ‘The Mutants’ (1972) – is retained on the walls.

setweapon

HOW TO SELL THIS TO AN UNBELIEVER
As the ultimate strategy – that went wrong.

MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
Carnell’s parting shot to Servalan.

MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
Gan’s gung ho ‘Let’s go get him’.

VERDICT IN TEN WORDS EXACTLY
Short on visual flair, but big on the right moves.

 

 

 

(1) Sutcliffe, T. (2000) Watching.  Faber and Faber. London.
(2) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SVwFQpxqbGI
(3) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPXV_Tm6iIw
(4) http://www.chilton-computing.org.uk/acl/technology/building/p011.htm

 

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