‘You don’t know who I am?’
When I started this blog, I felt I should be clear to the reader that I had chosen to blog about Blake’s 7, even though I was a lifelong Doctor Who fan. Looking back it almost felt like a bit of an apology. I didn’t want to give the impression that Blake’s 7 – the series, was something that couldn’t be discussed on it’s own without a ton of references to its fellow BBC companion, even though the two shows naturally have a myriad of connections together – shared cast and crew, written and production contexts.
But after some deliberation, I remembered that this was not some kind of academic analysis, nor critical reader. This was a blog. Full of opinion, and personal judgement largely from the heart – the untempered experience of watching Blake’s 7. And being a blog, I didn’t want to bury the fact that I am a Doctor Who fan too – it’s in my DNA. So I made the decision to come clean early on – these writings would be full of references to Who. But it would also make reference to other British fantasy programming that existed in the time frame that Blake’s 7 was broadcast.
So for this viewer, to talk about Blake’s 7 is to talk about the televisual landscape of the time – and as someone who has always taken an interest in that kind of thing, it is inevitable that comparisons will be made.
With that in mind, one of my early blog posts in this collection focused on season 15 of Doctor Who (1977-78) – a unfairly maligned season that I have a lot of time for, and one that I feel most mirrors Blake’s 7 – for all the best reasons. The connections had been established, and ‘contact had been made’ – but I was waiting to blog a specific episode to explore the nature of how these two dramas exist in my mind.
It’s episodes like ‘City at the Edge of the World’ that has given me a chance to explore this. Like some kind of race memory. On one hand it stands out a uniquely Blake’s 7 episode, demonstrating a versatility to the format, and bringing out the wonderful focus on relationships, that, for my money, wasn’t at the heart of Doctor Who’s expedition. But on the flip side, this episode contains a Who connection that far transcends the numerous contributors of both programmes – it features a Doctor Who himself. When I watched this for the first time in the 1990’s this episode had that added anticipation built in, and left me focusing more on the guest star, rather than of the episode itself. This is a pity, as this story is brilliant.
But hopefully time has made me a less fickle creature (possibly…probably) so this episode was perhaps one that had some kind of underlying test attributed to it. Can I shake off the Who trappings, and simply enjoy this as an episode of Blake’s 7.
Lets find out.
This being a Vere Lorrimer episode, we open with some spectacular self plagaism, in this case a shot for shot reuse of the beginning of ‘Hostage’, complete with a subtly different arrangement of Dudley Simpson’s in-the-vastness-of space score.
But whereas ‘Hostage’ was quiet, this episode starts with a confrontation, as Tarrant harangues Vila into doing his bidding.
‘I can toss you off this ship.’ (Snigger.)
Tarrant’s power of persuasion is clearly very different to Blake’s, who would use his emotional intelligence to get his way, but here we are witness to the playground bully. But this is not just about comparing these two contrasting characters, it’s also about how the crew deal with the conflict between them. It is clear that obtaining these crystals are a priority, so I wondered how it got to the point where Tarrant took the lead in making this happen. It made me wonder why the rest of the crew were so passive in standing up to Tarrant’s methods. In my eyes it not just Tarrant whose behaviour is questionable here – Avon, Cally and Dayna are guilty of not doing enough. Perhaps that is a symptom of the Liberator without a true leader – it’s every person for themselves.
These considerations are soon forgotten thanks to one of my favourite two hander between Avon and Orac – ‘Well?’ ‘Well is not a question.’ A gag that is maintained through the series run.
So Tarrant is threatening Villa, and Avon is threatening Tarrant. They clearly haven’t had a good laugh in ages. Actually, Avon’s defense of Vila, felt as much a battle between the trusting old guard verses the getting-to-know-you new guard, as much as being solely about Vila himself.
None the less the deal has been done, and it’s time for Cally to teleport down accompanied by a familiar musical motif (more of this later.)
Third season Cally often strikes me a being quite disengaged character – it’s like she has lost some of her fire. Perhaps it’s a conscious decision by Jan Chappell? Look at the moment she walks into the teleport area for the first time. Later in this episode she will find some of her spark, but there’s just something that has disappeared in this new Blakeless universe.
Elsewhere in the north of England, the scenes with Vila and the ‘simple, completely unaggressive’ natives show off the skill of a sound recordist. Check that wind out. Kudos to the two extras (Dustin Lord and Derry Jordan.) In those fleeting moments where their long hair revealed their facial features, there was not a moment of emotion. That’s method acting! Typically I looked them up – Lord appears to be a mere footnote, but Jordan pops up from time to time in a few things, almost, but not quite reaching semi regular status in the first series of ‘All Creatures Great and Small.’
Anyway, Vila uses their almost non-existent status to internally rationalise his next move. ‘Alright – you’ve talked me in to it’ – this is both a great line, but also foreshadows the way he works out what to do throughout the rest of the episode.
We’re only a few minutes in and at this point I want to say that this script is fabulous.
A few miles away, Cally fires at some rocks, and ensures the bomb is blown up. In this moment Kezarn looks awfully like Obsidian – namely the patch of ground surrounding the entrance to Hower’s base.
Back on the Liberator, the penny has dropped. Vila has palmed the tracking device. And Tarrant realises his powers of persuasion have backfired. But I still can’t help feel that the rest of the crew are complicit in all of this – they simply didn’t do enough. So the fact that they bicker between themselves, and that Avon and Cally go down to try to sort it out, not only feels like a rescue, but also an admission of guilt. It’s notable that it is the new recruits that are left on the Liberator.
Tarrant identifies the historical relic as the City at the Edge of the World. A place that is full of pallets and painted backdrops, and which is…deserted. I love how in series 3, the amount of pallets used as studio scenery dramatically increases, no doubt thanks to ‘Alien’ (more later.)
There is a flash of light, and we welcome Kerril. She’s a bit stinky apparently. I love this line. And why not? The pitfalls of being on the move all the time. I started to to wonder about the personal hygene of our ‘seven’ – and could only deduce that they always did alright for themselves. Even Avon got to have a bath in “Rescue.’
The remaining key characters are introduced at this stage, and it has to be said that the characterisation is brilliant. In just a few lines of their opening scene – we get a real sense of Sherm, Bayban and Norl. This is Chris Boucher at the peak of his career, delivering a series of fantastic, carefully thought through, and well considered scripts.
Colin Baker is brilliant. Simply brilliant. Every line is delivered with relish. I love his performance – it’s just right for this episode. Baker played a certain time lord at the wrong time for me – Davison was my Doctor and I was miffed when he left. But free of those trappings, I can see what a charismatic and memorable actor he is. His early, more villianous roles, clearly played to his strengths. He ‘mouths’ every line frothing at the ineptitude of others, and projects an erratic, and dangerously impatient criminal.
And the script is just amazing. It feels so alive, as though Boucher was enjoying writing this so much. It’s hard to describe the ‘tone’ of this one – it’s not overtly comic, nor light (when you compare it to the scripts he wrote before and after this episode) but it is very…human. Something that is about how people behave with each other. Relationships, and contrasts. Interactions with people present, and conflicts between people who are not. Take Bayban’s line ‘What do you mean, “after Blake”? I was working my way up that list before he crept out of his creche. WORKING my way up. I didn’t take any political shortcuts.’ It’s fabulous dialogue, and works so well because it’s played against someone else on the other side of the conflict. Bayban V Blake, Vila V the designer, the ‘old’ crew V the ‘new’ crew, Vila V Kerril, Tarrant V the crew, Vila V Sherm, Bayban V Norl – these contrasting character duels drive everything in this episode.
Avon and Cally team up. It’s the first time we’ve seen them working together closely since the later part of series 2. But they complement each other so well. They are both aloof in their own ways – I mentioned Cally’s own brand of detachment earlier, but her less assertive persona allows her to quietly gain the upper hand, when it comes to verbal sparing. ‘Its a pity we’re not as reliable as Zen. ‘But I thought you were.’ Another great line.
Watching the location footage reminded me of what good material they got out of traveling a good distance away from London. Gouthwaite Reservoir features predominantly here, and I’m guessing some of the old mines located on Hebden Moor. (1) (2)
Cally comes face to face with a native of Kazaarn, played by Teresa Critchley, who around this time featured in a comedy called ‘The Gaffer’ – where she played an equally brief role, but one that – image wise – was the polar opposite of a ‘simple native.’
Meanwhile Vila, a man who likes to stay out of the limelight, is quietly working on the forcefield, when Kerril makes an appearance. And even the probe makes a kind of wolf whistle noise. Bang! The door is gone! This is the most pivitol scene of the episode – the key moment that moves the story forwards, and the incident that defines the tone of this episode.
And into Narnia we go. OK, so it’s a psychedelic corridor. The sound has a phased quality throughout and the lighting is very lysergic in quality. The designer – Vila’s opponent clearly led a life on the fringes of society.
But there is a sudden change in character traits in this new environment. Vila takes the lead and Kerril suddenly becomes timid, as they explore the labyrinth together.
Back outside, there is a changing of the guard, but what on earth were they doing before Avon’s dud grenade landed in their vicinity? Adjusting each others zips? But it’s another scene that I really enjoy as it mixes Avon’s laconic humour with some nice snarling and gnashing.
I was really interested in Vila’s philosophy – his working out of what is going on based on his reading of the designer of the door. It feels like the perfect method for this character. Blake’s reasoning was largely based on how he could manipulate people to achieve his own aims, Cally’s reasoning was often based on the psyche, Gan’s reasoning was often centered around what was best for the unit as a whole, and Jenna’s reasoning was often based on her own instinct, presumably drawing on her smuggler days. In fact, of all the characters, it is Avon who this reasoning most resembles – not overtly confrontational, but reliant on his own logic and intelligence.
None-the-less, this reasoning leads him on a journey 3000 light years away.
The starship set looks like Pompei or I Claudius. It’s odd when historical meets future (again more of this later, in ‘set design’).
Valentine Dyall’s voice over is another notable moment. It provides an interesting, and much needed back story as to how Vila and Kerril have ended up in this situation. It’s also a reminder of how Blake’s 7, from time to time, is not afraid to slow things right down and tell a story. Take the description of Blake and Travis first meeting in ‘Seek-Locate-Destroy’, or Cally’s tale of the Thaarn in ‘Dawn of the Gods’ – for such a fast moving series, these are confident moments where the writers are not afraid to stop, and trust the audience to listen and take note.
The story reaches its conclusion, and inevitably it’s not good news. So Kerril gets frisky, and we zoom into into the symbolically erotically charged Liberator phallus. I would say this is the sexiest episode of Blake’s 7 so far, and with that a perfect example of season C’s ‘liberation’ – this is the breath of fresh air that Blake’s 7 needed. We’ve had a group of characters who have had two series worth of searing experiences. And with that, we’ve not had so much of a chance to explore their true identities, free of constant danger. Dayna and Tarrant are established as both enthusiastic and impetuous, but it is the old guard that is the main interest here. Avon, is aloof, quietly assured in leading from the back, and Cally is, for my money, a bit less sharp, now that the constant treat of elimination is now reduced. In these earlier episodes of series 3 she often appears, quieter, more reserved and a bit less alert. Although there are the occasional moments where the older Cally rears her head – we’ll come to this in a moment.
But this is Vila’s episode. And he displays the sharpness that has been there in his characterisation all along. Thinking back, there are signs in almost every episode, not to mention the two Robert Holmes penned episodes so far, where his interactions with Avon show off their respective attributes, but it was his questioning of Blake’s class status to Cally in ‘Shadow’ which was the first real moment he really argued his case, even if he didn’t achieve his aim of being teleported to Space City. So he is capable of quick thinking and behind the outward persona, frequent bravery. But here we get a sense of how he thinks. He gets a chance to analyse his decisions by using the ‘designer’ as a third person. He actually takes responsibility for his decisions, and by in large, he gets this right. Perhaps establishing Vila’s considered decision making against a culture of Tarrant’s brash and impetuous mode of decision making is this episodes masterstroke, allowing Vila come come across as an even greater hero. Not to mention the fact that the bully is the real coward, and usually wrong.
Back on Kezarrn the old guard v new guard continues to manifest itself as Tarrant takes Dayna, and Avon takes Cally down different corridors. Whilst Avon and Cally rely on traditional barricades and ray guns, Dayna has a trick up her sleeve…
…well I hope it was her sleeve. I’m not quite sure where she concealed her portable explosive prior to its usage. The resulting explosion is great, but it’s her satisfied look when it does its job that is brilliant. Her impetuous drive to seek danger is still there, even if her character has become a little more shallow since her first episode. My understanding is that this was an early commission, and recorded early on in series C, so the initial promise of her character is still there. Gaudy but effective.
3000 light years away, Vila gets through the other forcefield – and demonstrates why CSO doesn’t work with moving cameras. In Doctor Who – Inferno (1970) there is a memorable climax in episode 6, where the key characters face their doom as a tide of lava surges towards them. The mix of tracking camera work and C.S.O looks clumsy, but is forgiven due to the intensity of the drama. This shot uses a similar method, however without the same urgency, and some sloppy camerawork, the audiences first impression of Vilaworld, is further reduced by this poor technical execution.
I mentioned Cally’s loss of fizz in this series, but I was pleased to see a little moment of grit, as she finally gets to have a bit of a fight – the first time in ages. This is followed up with some taunting of Bayban. ‘The woman who killed Bayban’ and ‘You can do better than that.‘
Meanwhile in Cardboardville – or Homebase or whatever they have decided to call it, Vila takes in the surroundings, whilst the best gunhand Bayban ever had, plops crystals merrily into a pond – like Cally – a far cry from her original depiction.
But night is falling, and the episode is drawing to a close. The city – a travel terminus – is open for business. The inhabitants enter the city. In broad daylight.
So Vila has done it. And a whole civilisation is grateful. I love how Tarrant, and indeed the rest of the crews guilt is still there, as the delight and relief at Vila’s appearance is clear to see. However, there’s at least a couple of minutes still to run in the episode, and it can all go horribly wrong. Vila and Kerril are separated once more and Babe blows everything up with the best facial expression ever, and a pink shaft of a laser beam.
It’s such a well structured episode. Full of fabulous lines and plausible rationale for Vila, and his persona. It’s not often that Vila is painted so well. Perhaps ‘Terminal’ is a case in point. Maybe even ‘Moloch.’
I noticed that this was the episode that I wrote the least notes for – I was too busy enjoying every line. So I watched it again. Re-re-watching Blake’s 7.
It’s also worth celebrating how Vere Lorrimer has such a great sense of casting. Valentine Dyall and Carol Hawkins have had well established careers, but I wanted to pay special note to John J Carney. He played a similar lackey in Doctor Who – ‘The Time Warrior’ (1974) and his slightly stupid, but unwaveringly loyal portrayal is brilliantly pitched, bringing out the comic elements subtly, rather than with a sledgehammer. In fact when commentators describe this as a comic episode, I’m not sure it is. Sure it is funny, but it’s not overtly comic – it’s the cast bring out humourous elements to a joyous script.
But it’s time to go back to my original conundrum. Even now, watching a story which features such a significant figure in the world of British telefantasy – Colin Baker – makes it sometimes difficult to watch the episode as a solely Blake’s 7 experience. His persona, and strong presence loom large over the proceedings. His is a great performance, always theatrical, but never the O.T.T appearance that we have been led to believe. In fact, looking back, I felt the only moment he was over exuberant in his delivery was the very first line ‘You bubble brained idiot. You stupid son of a slime crawler.’ But this is as much down to the lines as much as the performance. I not only enjoyed his performance, but I felt it was pitched really well, playing the role as an over stimulated child – impatient, demanding instant gratification, and prone to irresponsible and dangerous decision making.
But he played Doctor Who. For this viewer, not only did that affect his career afterwards, it retrospectively tainted his pre-Who appearances too. I remember watching the opening scene involving Tarrant and Vila a couple of years ago. A curly haired man, who has recently arrived on the series, is physically and verbally unpleasant to a crew mate who isn’t antagonistic by nature. Does this sound familiar, Who aficionados?
So whilst Baker’s inclusion impacted on my experience of watching this episode of Blake’s 7, it doesn’t disadvantage it, and it is perfect casting, and that’s good enough for me.
And that is the answer to the question I posed at the start of this post. City at the Edge of the World’ is one of those episodes that has grown up with me. When I first watched it as teenager, I enjoyed it – a lot. In fact I enjoyed it before I had even watched it, knowing that a Doctor Who was in it, playing a really distinctive character. But watching it again at a 39 year old, its Who connections still loom large for me – like I mentioned earlier, it’s my ‘race memory’. But it has also matured into a episode about all kinds of relationships – old and new, man and woman, religion and science, and the here and far. It’s perfectly encapsulates the new, post Federation Blake’s 7 universe. And it is perhaps one of the best episodes – although I wouldn’t want every episode to be like this.
I hope it pleased Michael Keating’s daughter.
Some gentle melodies are scored for the scenes of Vila’s burgeoning relationship and heroism. Naturally these are trumpet led, but there is some light synth notes to back up the lighter, less action orientated overtones of this episode.
But I also want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to one of those little Dudley Simpson moments that crops up in the incidental music frequently. A motif that sometimes plays second fiddle to the teleport stings, Federation marches, and jingles based on the the theme tune. This is the little melody that usually accompanies some kind of action involving the Liberator crew.
It’s one of those little riffs that I’m sure I’ve heard before. And then, like a race memory, it all comes flooding back – just before Travis’s ship is destroyed in ‘The Keeper’, just before Avon laughs ironically in ‘Horizon’ to name but a few. It’s now one of those earworms that I often take with me to the outside world, and in ‘City at the Edge of the World’ we have the difinitive version, as Cally teleports down to Keezarn. Dee-deedle-dee-daa-daaaaa!
As this was recorded around the same time as ‘Aftermath’ it is understandable that it might share some similarities with the season opener – the curved tubular beams are a case in point, not to mention the ceiling which looks suspiciously similar to the circular hanging visible at the back of Hal Mellanby’s undersea quarters – same recording block. Also like ‘Aftermath’ the sets are effectively lit, both sympathetically – masking any budgetary restrictions, and tonally. Whereas ‘Aftermath’ was rendered in a sea of blues and greens, here we see a range of earthy browns and grays. Lights that appear again in Stardrive, and the Jeremy Bear triangular design makes another appearance. Of course, this design will be familiar to many, popping up in ‘The Adventure Game’, ‘The Crystal Maze’, and even in the ‘The Legend of Robin Hood’ – where it’s peculiarity catches my attention more than Paul Darrow’s appearance in the drama. Perhaps the interior designers on Kezarn had a stranglehold on the market, also winning the contract to render Servalan’s office, and XK72. (3)
Elsewhere, ‘City at the Edge of the World’ is notable for it being the first Blake’s 7 episode to usher in a new style of corridor design. In 1979 ‘Alien’ was released. Production designer Roger Christian faithfully realised Ron Cobb’s concept, to create an environment using materials of old bomber aircraft to create a less glossy version of the traditional sci-fi corridor. This corridor will not only be familiar to fans of ‘Red Dwarf’, but it is the more industrial nature of set design that will feature in the third series of ‘Blake’s 7’ – specifically the crates/palettes that are used against the walls. Think of the corridor set in ‘Moloch’, but it is here that the trusty palettes first make their appearance.
HOW TO SELL THIS TO AN UNBELIEVER
As a love story, over the course of 3000 light years…and back again.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
There’s so much to choose from – Bayban’s final close up, and a ton of fabulous one liners. But the one that always makes me chuckle is the way that cold, heartless Avon picks up Vila’s tracker in his hands, and in disbelief, says ‘the stupid idiot.’
THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
Difficult to say, but I have to choose one. So I’m going for Carol Hawkins’s delivery of the line ‘To make sure none of his victims did anything rash like attacking the weakest point of the ship!’ Oh, and also the cosy gathering at the end of all the characters behind Vila as he make’s sense of things – it’s all a bit like those late sixties variety shows where the audience feature behind the singer.
VERDICT IN 10 WORDS EXACTLY
Impeccable guest cast and script – the perfect post Blake, Blake.