NB. The early section of this blog post might be more appreciated by readers with a knowledge of UK television of the 70’s/80’s.
In the excellent spoof comedy ‘Look Around You 2’ Peter Serafinowitz and Robert Popper brilliantly lampoon a classic evenings entertainment on BBC2 in the early 1980’s.
It’s the carefully considered use of stock footage, and the rather detached feeling that I sometimes got from seeing something shot on film, rather than the more immediate video look that gives this an authentic feel.
Contemporary programming such as science and natural history based series such as ‘Horizon’ are referenced, but it was the inclusion of the title sequence from the BBC’s ‘The World About Us’ documentary strand that stood out for me. (More on this in a moment.) It’s one of those rather haunting experiences that can stick out in your mind, especially if you watch it at a certain age.
For the benifit of anyone who isn’t familiar with these BBC programmes, let me provide a description.
The aptly named ‘Horizon’ is a science themed programme which usually consists of a 50 minute episode about a range of scientific and philosophical themes. Starting in the mid 1960’s it has remained a mainstay of BBC2’s factual programming.
‘The World About Us’ also started in the 1960’s on BBC2. But unlike ‘Horizon’ this was a solely filmic experience, commissioned by David Attenborough with a clear purpose to sell colour televisions.
It also used a 50 minute format to straddle a range of natural history and more cultural/societal based observations.
Another reason I’m drawn to them is that they belong to the same era of Blake’s 7 – and the introductions to both of these shows are very much engrained in my psyche – the sequence for ‘The World About Us’ in particular captured my imagination as what appears to be a a spinning, revolving series of rings – like a gyroscope – is filmed and multiplied through a series of film overlays to create a distinct abstract world. This is accompanied by a lilting flute/vibraphone motif, composed by Stuart Crombie – notable in library music circles – that can only come from the era in which it was created.
There was something about the filmic look of these productions that set it firmly into a particular time for me – the early 1980s – when I was starting to notice the television set. And it was the natural history programmes that were slightly intimidating – a bit alien – all because it was shot on film.
In a recent blog post about ‘Gambit‘ I talked about how contemporary architecture can date a production. It’s the same whenever I see ‘stock footage’ appearing in my favourite dramas.
So the script says we need to film footage of a dam opening and water gushing through, but you’ve used up your filming allocation in the middle of a gravel pit in Surrey. That’s where the stock footage suddenly becomes the golden ticket to getting the story completed.
Using stock footage became a natural part of the language of television. Take some of the later epiosdes of Doctor Who – ‘The Invasion’ (1968) where Douglas Camfield saturates the action with tons of material of missile launches, and tracking stations, in an effort to convey global cooperation in the face of the cyber menace.
Global cooperation. There’s a term we don’t see these days.
Blake’s 7 also used a nice collection of material. Whilst the ubicuitous missile launch features in ‘Killer’, there is a wide array of natural or man made phenomina that features throughout the series.
As the making of Blake’s 7 was documented (thank you Andrew Pixley for your Marvel specials) the sources of where the footage can start to be identified. In a very general sense, the words ‘The World About Us’ or ‘Horizon’ appear quite frequently. The fact that both were shot on film, allowed programme makers an almost inexhaustable supply of footage that could borrowed, when the money couldn’t be spent. It nice for me as – like ‘Blake’s 7’ – they belong to an era of television that featured heavily in my childhood…
…and that’s why I don’t see the joins.
We open on Scorpio, with Vila being woken up. He is cranky, and it is Tarrant of all people who gives perspective on this. It’s been a while since we’ve seen some of the little moments of downtime for the crew since they lost the comfort and security of the Liberator. In ‘Death Watch’ we got to see Vila ‘breaking out the booze’, but a lot has passed since then, and now relaxation consists of sleeping in ‘work clothes’. It’s a very different universe now.
I also like the idea that the unit take turns to go on missions. Once again my mind turns back to past times. Under Blake it would be the most appropriate people – although in the case of Jenna and Cally that was not that often.
The conversation swiftly moves to the presence of a female on the base. A fact that is not lost on Vila – something of which Tarrant enjoys taking advantage of.
The female in question is Lynda Bellingham, sorry I mean Vena, who in a silently smoldering discussion with Paul Darrow, sorry I mean Avon, tells him that she offers a ‘recreational’ relationship with Muller – helping him to relax. Cue a wry smile from Kerr.
We need to understand a little about Muller – so out comes the exposition. We understand that Muller was dedicated to his cause and recently was behaving more frenzied.
We also discover that Ensor was Muller’s first teacher – Blake’s 7 is dipping deeper into it’s own backstory. And at this stage of the series – why not? Roger Parkes has written for the series over the space of 3 years, and has already sketched out the Auron civilisation in series C, so perhaps he is someone who can handle the wider continuity that has stretched across this space adventure.
Muller asks to be teleported directly onto Scorpio. On Xenon base there is a discussion about whether this should happen, although at first I was distracted by Elizabeth Parker’s mood effects for the base. It’s a good effect, sounding like a phased rise and fall of power, but it is mixed awfully high, in the same way that the grating sounds of Servalan’s star cruiser in the previous series often drowned out some of the dialogue.
As Scorpio approaches Pharos, Dudley Simpson’s score sounds awfully like the arrangements used in ‘The Keeper’/’Star One’, with what can only be described as epic swirling harpsicord sounds. Love it.
Tarrant prepares to teleport down by posturing all over the place, and uses the same one liner he used in ‘Terminal’ when suggesting how to avoid any hostile intentions – ‘Duck’. Surely the writers can’t have run out of gags?
On Pharos, Tarrant encounters Muller (who has nice line in little ‘grunts’) and a dead body. But it is the fact that the laboratory uses the same sound effect used on the base on Gauda Prime. It reminded me of those brief quiet moments where Tarrant escaped Blake’s clutches and skulked around before the final act.
Tarrant returns to Scorpio with the box, and Muller pulls apart the studio set in his horror that the box has returned to him. He enunciates like Brian Blessed ‘Send it back…sccchhhend it back!’
Vila takes some much needed decisive action. Poor old Vila – always getting grief for…accidently killing Muller.
I love the way that Avon just turns to Soolin to try to console Bellingham – with nothing more than a glance. ‘It’s not my forte.’
But soon enough he is back to his blunt best ‘Try not to be stupid!’
Back on Pharos, Technician 241, or Technician 24/7 as I have always called him, comes to. He reveals that Muller is there minus his head.
This is the point that the android becomes a core part of the storyline. But perhaps the biggest failing of Parkes script is a lack of context about who or what is the Android actually is? The idea is sound enough, but it lacked a bit more motivation as to why it even existed, and unfortunately that hung through the whole story.
Returning to more familiar territory, Vila hates locked boxes. And there is a thunderstorm, which feels like it belongs to another show entirely. Maybe Rentaghost? Everything is starting to go wrong. Things starts getting weird. Slave starts behaving like a grouch, and the ship is lurching about all over the place.
It’s almost a quarter of an hour in and Dayna finally gets a close up. It’s one of those little things that hangs over the entirety of Blake’s 7 – how to give all the regulars some proper screen time. It’s not something that ever found a balance. And sadly it is Dayna who suffers the most in this series.
Parkes is clearly comfortable with this show, and there are some corking lines on show here. Take Vila’s nice line ‘A little hard work never hurt anyone’ to which Tarrnt responds: ‘How would you know?’
But nature abhors a vacuum, and where Dayna’s role is reduced in this series, Avon’s hair take’s its place in the series 4 pecking order. Here it is looking particularly cared for – a top notch combover. Something happened in the later stages of series 3. Around the time of ‘Rumours of Death’ Avon had the shorter hair of old, but by ‘Death Watch’ his hair is a life form of its own, and one can’t help but feel that in a discreet pocket somewhere in his series 4 hells angels outfit, beneath the black leather, and the studs, is a small, black, plastic comb, ready to face the dangers of the universe.
Meanwhile things are still weird. Orac starts offering ‘gratitious advice’ – resulting in a fabulous facial reaction from Avon, and with that Tarrant and Vila are placed in quarantine.
We are then treated to some good old fashioned technobabbe, a click of Avon’s fingers, a bit of BBC basic and the worlds slowest 5 second countdown, courtesy of the BBC Microcomputer, which was released roughly around the time ‘Headhunter’ was transmitted.
It is perhaps the only countdown that feels like it was designed to fill out an episode. Perhaps they could have stuck to a good old fashioned chase scene instead.
Oh dear. Things have now gone very sour. Avon has a real crisis on his hands. But it is an interesting character moment, as his instinct and his logic is to save the crew, as he delivers ‘RESTORE THE TELEPORT’ in an uncharacteristic rage.
Some dodgy space suits appear – with Dayna’s helmet particually loose – but it is merely continuing a tradition of flappy helmets, like when Blake gives the thumbs up to be teleported down to Del 10 in ‘Voice form the Past.’
Its nice to see a little bit more of Xenon base. Although it’s still so boring to look at, but in the post Liberator age, it’s home, and we (or rather they) should be greatful that it is there. Although as the episode went on, I did start to wonder whether the crew ever made a return to the cave inhabited by Dorian’s creature.
Unfortunately for the crew, they are not alone on the base – android Muller has teleported down. Let the fun begin.
Soolin is starting to show some promise as a character. She is still thinly sketched, but is now showing a bit more presence. ‘Stardrive’ started to show her character off a bit, but it is now that she is starting to getting some meaty scenes, showing off her ice cool persona effectively. In fact, it is in her relationship with the logical Orac that shows her dry sense of humour most effectively, all too easily subverting Orac’s observations.
Orac – ‘Human is giving way to cybernetics.’
Soolin – ‘Nothing lasts forever‘
It’s quite a nice little relationship really, and perhaps the most distinct one that Orac will have with anyone. Soolin believes Orac, and conceiles it until (hopefully) the ‘intruder’ can be dispatched.
Back on Scorpio Avon has collected the mysterious box and brings it down. Returning to the base, I really enjoyed Dayna’s ‘dont touch me’ flick to Avon as he checks on her. It’s a little nod to how much time has passed, and how much has happened from the warmth and curiousity of when she kissed Avon in ‘Aftermath.’
Again I’m drawn to the limitations of the decor on Xenon base. I’m seeing the balsa wood on door all too clearly.
At this point I’d quite forgotten that that Bellingham’s Vena character is still alive. But she soon gets her deserts, as the Android starts going on the rampage. At this point there is a brilliant moment where it blasts the gun out of Avons hand before disinteregrating (the gun, not Avon’s hand.) The look of surprise on Paul Darrow’s face is wonderful, (he’s not pulled that face since Orac introduced himself at the end of series A) but the subsequent, almost philosophical look and elegant hand gesture is the best kind of acting I have ever seen. It’s wonderful. No one else could perform such a wonderful pose, and facial expression.
Not long after we have another wondering moment of acting – a more conventional depiction – as Vila hides in a cupboard. It’s brilliantly performed by Keating. In fact this episode gives Vila’s characterisation, and Keating’s acting a nice opportunity to have a little lift, after a few episodes which has started to see his character stagnate somewhat.
Dayna is having a bit more fun, for a short while, as she blows up Muller…on film.
But he returns to life minus his head. Or rather the real Mullers head is blown to bits…and we return to the world of video.
The androids head is discovered in the box, with circitary restraints to prevent anti social behaviour. Ahhh, so things are clearer now, although I’m distracted by the abnormally tall body of Muller, which is a bit unfortunate.
But here is where I found the main difficulty in this episode – I didn’t quite get the real motivation of the android. I understood that Muller hadn’t actually completed the model. Perhaps Muller wasn’t as clever he is made out to be. At least that answers Avons earlier ‘who is the cleverest’ question he pondered early in the episdoe.
The crew escape in a lovely moment where the android tosses aside stretchers in a fit.
As our heroes run off down the corridor, it struck me what ramshakle situations this bunch get into, but boy do they have a real knack for surviving. It’s a little moment that reminds me to forget the drama and the predicament they are in, but remember how fond of this bunch I am.
So a plan is hatched. Falling water will create eletricity for a power surge which can disable the android long enough to fit the restrainer. Nice touch in that human created natural power sources could save the day and defeat technological advances. Almost a bit Ben Steed in its philosophy.
Avon climbs a pylon, and tosses the cutters in a way that should be imortalised as one of the great moments in television acting, cementing Paul Darrow as one of the great tossing aside wire cutters actors of his generation.
Tarrant and Dayna break into a room in a much more poised and elegant way than Soolin, Tarrant and Avon did in Animals. But not as fun.
Back on the series 4 spiral staircase, Soolin and Orac are still engaging in some wonderful foreplay.
Orac – ‘Join us, Soolin. We can fulfill your every desire.’
Soolin – ‘You wouldn’t know where to start.’
The aforementioned stock footage makes an appearance.
The gang lure the android to the bridge and and – after a lot of faffing around – Avon is able to get the androids helmet on.
The rest of the crew see sense, and blow up the android for good – much to Avon’s dismay. Its interesting how the group will go their own way against Avon’s wishes.
For once there is a nice end, as Orac gets the last word over Avon. It’s an ending that fits in with the theme of the episode nicely.
All in all – I enjoyed this. I think I sometimes unfairly compare the series to the Liberator era, rather than enjoying it on its own merits. And perhaps that is the problem with series 4. It’s one of the few episodes where everyone gets a moment to shine, and even though Dayna suffers from a slightly diminished role, at least she has some moments where her character comes through well enough. I think Roger Parkes uses his knowledge of the series and the characters to create something that is very much about the many, and not the few.
The supporting cast play this well. Sometimes it’s nice to watch an episode and not have a clue who anyone is. John Westbrook enjoyed a career on stage, screen and radio, while the only notable name – Linda Bellingham – enjoyed a sucessful career in the UK. The smaller roles are played without too much fuss – based on his showreel, Douglas Fielding seems to have appeared in or around the police force, and Lesley Nunnerley has enjoyed a long career back to the 1950’s. And then there is Nick Joseph, whose appearences in Star Wars, James Bond and Doctor Who earns him a lifetime of cult conventions and signings. Oh and he appeared in Animals – but you can’t have it all.
This is the mid way point in the fluctuating series 4. It’s a bit grey, and I still can’t come to terms with the fact our heroes cannot lounge around on the Liberator’s cream sofas and discuss what they are going to go, but there are enough character moments and runaround to make this a more satisfying adventure, than if I concentrated solely on the wider premise of the episode. As the credits rolled I briefly hoped that this series might be on the up. And then I remembered that the next episode was one I have reviewed elsewhere in this blog. Oh well.
Nothing to out of the ordinary here. Big on the timpani and brass as usual, alongside the customary series 4 synthesised sounds for Scorpio in flight. There is the use of a rather eerie chord for the android skulking around, and some lighter percussive sounds when on the surface of Xenon.
Xenon base is so bland, that the episode is pretty unmemorable from a set design point of view. The generator room, and the lab on Pharos offer a little variety, but nothing that really catches the eye.
It is worth mentioning a classic space age font at appears both on the control panels of Pharos, and the medical units on Xenon Base. ‘Countdown’ is the font, designed by Colin Brignall, a British designer and art director born in 1940. It pops up in quite a few places.
HOW TO SELL THIS TO AN UNBELIEVER
As the episode with Lynda Bellingham in it.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
Avon’s disintegrating gun moment.
THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
The early moments of seeing an actor without a head wandering around. It’s just takes some getting used to.
VERDICT IN TEN WORDS EXACTLY
Whilst it doesn’t fulfil my every desire, it certainly tries.