Whilst my interest in televised sci-fi started in 1981, with faint memories of both Doctor Who ‘The Keeper of Traken’ and the Blake’s 7 title sequence used in series D, it wasn’t until a visit to my local library in the mid 1980’s that the real impact of a creative directorial decision on it’s audience really came clear to me.
The book in question was the novelisation of Doctor Who ‘Inferno’. It was the front cover that really struck me. It depicted one of the technicians of a drilling project – a man called Bromley – on top of a circular walkway, mutating into a primordial creature due to a mysterious green goo that various personnel had encountered. The image sent shivers down my spine, and when I finally got a chance to see the televised scene in question I was completely struck by how this sequence, where the Doctor is confronted and pursued by this vicious creature felt so dangerous and urgent through the way it was shot, edited and the integration of image and sound.
And this was all down to the skill of its director – Douglas Camfield.
Camfield was known for military precision, and in the eyes of many, a reputation for considerable directorial flair that he brought to his productions. It is his skill in editing action on film that has always struck me, even more so than his excellent handling of the television studio.
Take the aforementioned scene in ‘Inferno’ where longer shots, eerie piano chords and creative use of the industrial location build an air of suspense and – for those familiar with the story – an air of inevitability that there is something nasty awaiting the Doctor at the top of the gantry. He can only climb upwards, but upwards isn’t the route to safety.
The mutating Bromley makes his appearance accompanied by Camfield’s excellent use of stock music tracks – a skill that he will demonstrate in ‘Duel’. As Bromley advances, and the Doctor retreats, Camfield uses handheld point of view shots to communicate both perspectives of the hunter and the hunted. And as Bromley makes his final attack, Camfield chooses to shoot actor Ian Fairbairn lunging straight into the camera, cutting to a crash zoom of the Doctor, and the final outcome of the confrontation. It’s rapid fire stuff, intricately cut in the edit, and shows off Camfield’s skill in using the characteristics of the location to increase the danger presented on screen.
The tension he created in ‘Inferno’ was mirrored in a similar scene five years later in ‘Terror of the Zygons’ when the Doctor’s companion – Sarah Jane Smith – comes face to face with fellow traveller Harry Sullivan in a barn. At least we think it might be Harry. Camfield’s skill in subverting Harry’s naturally calm nature into a steely menacing glare is achieved with real talent, through the use of shadow, lighting, camera movement, and the positioning of Ian Marter’s face – once again using the confined properties of the location, and conveying a first person perspective that takes us right into the situation.
Take a look at video below, and see for yourself how both scenes compare in the way they use build up menace, then uses rapid fire editing, cutting on action and first person perspective shots to build the tension.
For me there was no better director who could communicate the-heat-of-the-moment danger that was so essential to not only science fiction work, but also to other productions that rely on quick fire action. This is evidenced by an early sequence in ‘The Professionals’ (1978) where a company employee called Ted Miller (also played by Ian Fairbairn – a frequent Camfield collaborator) has his coffee spiked with a hallucinogenic drug, causing him to take one final journey – straight to the ground. Again Camfield’s POV and first person perspective shots are used, and the camera bounces around all over the place surrounding Miller, whilst the classic use of fish eye lens highlights his disorientation.
In Michael Seely’s excellent biography of Camfield, he makes reference to an episode of ‘Danger UXB that he helmed. The episode in question – ‘The Pier’ – contains some suitably dramatic moments, but it is a moment-of-realisation scene involving Ash and his observations about what devices exist under the pier that stands out for me. We start with a dramatic mid shot, using wire in the foreground to give some depth, and with each successive shot we zoom in, as he lights up a cigarette, which becomes a tool to highlight his realisation – and by the final shot we are focussed on one thing – his eyes.
It’s the same with the early scenes of Travis in ‘Duel’ – the motivation of the scene is about emphasising Travis’s vigorous determination and personal obsession in pursuing Blake. Once again Camfield builds the intensity by zooming into Travis with each successive shot, as he relishes the impending kill. Once again the final shot is all about the eyes (or in Travis’s case, the eye.)
It’s simple, and plenty of directors use this technique, but it is the timing of Camfield’s use of it that creates the most impact, not to mention his boldness in the way he uses it. I’m struck by his ability to make the camera very much a part of the scene rather than innocent bystander. This is a director not afraid to get the camera ‘right in there’ and use atmospheric lighting and composition to build dramatic intensity.
When I watched ‘Duel’ for the first time on the Blake’s 7 compilation tapes released by the BBC, I always looked forward to this one more than the others, due to the fact that it was directed by my favourite television director at the time. Today, watching ‘Duel’ is not only a chance to enjoy the episode once more, but to keep an extra eye open to how Camfield handles a far future, space adventure setting, something that he didn’t tackle as frequently at this stage of his career.
For the only time in the series history, the title sequence fades to black. The slow fade into the shot of a planet is a sign of a confident direction, giving us a clear signal regarding the tone of this episode – mysterious.
With another long transition, we reach the desolate surface of a barren terrain. We are clearly in the confines of a TV studio, however we see plenty of depth, something that we don’t always get to see in a typical proscenium arch set . Sure we can mock the obviously painted backdrop – but we shouldn’t. This is a director working extra hard to build a world for us, on a budget of tuppence. A key part of the success of these early scenes are down to the lighting, which is both distinctive in its use of colour, but also incredibly disciplined, by not over doing the lightening flashes, and keeping much of the scenery in the shadows.
More overlays, cross fades and colour synthesiser is added to the mix as Isla Blair makes an appearance. However the first lines of dialogue are perhaps too overly mysterious and cliched, breaking the spell somewhat.
‘We must dissipate the power by restoring the balance.’
I’m sorry but I want to get this out in the open from the start – there is much to love about this episode, however I find the way that the mystery is conveyed in an overly cheesy way. I felt that as a teenager too.
Looking at it clinically, we get the gist, and we can fill in the gaps in our own minds. But it is something of a relief when the scene ends, and we cut to the vastness of space and the eerie synethised chord that announces Travis and his pursuit ships.
So here we are, Travis. The solo album. Free from Space Command, he can make his own decisions, and pace across the flight deck in a manner of his own choosing.
A more gentle incidental music track converys the graceful movement of the Liberator, and once on the flght deck a, chance to reacquaint ourselves with the core essence of our characters – Blake and Jenna’s closeness, Vila’s wit, and Avon’s clinical rationalisation.
What I love about this opening scene is the choreography of how our characters move around the flight deck, allowing Camfield to not only create some lovely graceful camera movements, but also some excellent use of depth of field – focussing and defocussing on characters in the foreground and background.
Perhaps Avon is enjoying his status of ‘the bad man’ as he sends Vila off with a self satisfying smugness. ‘Mission to Destiny’ is perhaps the first episode where Avon really gets a chance to stretch his legs in the role, and this follow up is a step up in his ‘Avonness’ – knowing how his attitude is becoming a big part of the success of the series.
Vila puts Blake, Jenna and Gan down onto the surface of the planet, with a thud. Well actually it isn’t a thud at all, but with Dudley Simpson’s absence from this episode (and many other Camfield productions) it is interesting to note how important the descending series of notes that accompany each teleport materialisation are vital in capturing the drama of landing in an unfamiliar location.
I know that it just have been down to logistics, budget, and the sheer number of electronic effects required in these sequences, but as good as the planetary set is, I do wonder how much better it could have been if it was shot on film at Ealing studios. I then remind myself to stop being so blooming’ picky.
Gan starts to doubt his sanity through his limiter implant, in a nice character touch. It’s almost as though now we have a moment to pause in the story, it is a chance to get to know a little more about some of the more neglected characters.
But soon enough, the peace is shattered…and battle commences.
It’s interesting to note how Camfield’s choice of incidental music ramps up the tension on the flight deck in a way that other directors might do differnetly, either though the score that Dudley Simpson offers, or other means. The clattering and grating sounds that rumble behind the action is an excellent choice, and hearing the crews audible sighs of disbelief, and shock as Zen announces their (lack of) options is another touch that ramps things up a bit.
And that’s not all. Camfield directs the regulars to run around – fast. This is a step up from the usual gentle canter that is standard in many studio bound set ups. Jan Chappell zips along the flight deck neatly, whilst Paul Darrow – ever the showman – jumps down half the flight of stairs before resuming his favourite place at the force wall button. When I watch this scene I can’t help imagine the potential discussions between Darrow and Camfield that focus on whether it’s half the flight of stairs, or the whole flight. Common sense prevails as Camfield begins the scene in mid jump and Darrow avoids the twisted ankle – well at least until ‘Volcano’ anyway.
As the plasma bolts hit, there is some good ‘throwing themselves about a bit’ acting going on – partular marks for Sally Knyvette. But again Darrow shines, with some neat ‘throwing yourself backwards’ acting – not as easy as it looks!
Out comes the white pen that is seen a lot around this time. I always remember it in televised sporting events or BBC schools programmes. It conjures up images of BBC schools programme ‘Words and Pictures’ – a programme that I will always have fondness for, especially after hearing the drunken roar of an audience at the London Roundhouse, when the recently ‘reformed’ Radiophonic Workshop announced it as the next song they were going to perform.
I digress. The whole tactical council ends with a rather warm intimate embrace between Avon and Blake that serves to highlight Blake’s exasperation at Avon’s coolness. It must be tough to be the title character sometimes – having to be so, so, sensible.
‘There’s nowhere to run Blake!’ Stephen Grief delivers this line with such relish. It’s is perhaps the moment where the extremity of his character is fully revealed to the audience.
If there was any doubt, that is totally erased by the ‘NO!’ he shouts when the notice of evasive action is suggested by his Mutoid.
Now the episode goes all ‘stargate.’
There are a lot of hands to ears, and looking around, but it is the shot of Blake in agony that always used to bring howls of laughter from my parents (who were very fond of Blake’s 7 I must add) – breaking the spell of the agony.
But soon everything calms down, and the crew have some kind of explanation, with a chance for Camfield to deploy some more deep focus pulls of the characters.
Camfield’s eye for shot selection is highlighted when we cut to the static pose of Blake in the foreground, with Travis adopting a menacing stare in the background. There is some nice colour contrasts too, with Blake bathed in green and Travis in a dangerous red.
I must say I did enjoy Patsy Smart’s portrayal as Giroc. Most notably her excitement in Travis’s primal aggression. Perhaps that is a reflection of the feelings of some of the audience and the perennial difficulty in playing the ‘heroic’ character that has to – on the whole – behave himself, as TV heroes often have to.
This is then further emphasised by Blake’s only-funny-to-himself line ’They don’t seem very impressed Travis. Why don’t you try stamping your foot?’ This is met with the proverbial deafening silence and a killer come back from Travis.
The background reasons why the odd couple intervened in the Blake ‘dispute’ are only thinly sketched out. And I found the vagueness and mystery behind it all a little too thickly laid on, and I found myself agreeing with Travis’s exasperated ‘I HAVE told you’.
‘Shall we get on with it!’ Ooo! Shades of Brian Croucher’s portrayal. Perhaps Travis is from London after all!
After a while, we finally reach ‘the forest’ – and the sport can begin. Actually it’s a good science fiction forest, swathed in mist, and covered in autumnal leaves.
As per usual it prompted me to unpack the google maps. The forest in question is Shave Green, a part of the New Forest in Hampshire, with two trees used nearby – one in Suters Cottage for Travis and the Mutoid and another in Hazell Hill, for Jenna and Blake.
Blake is immediately attacked by Giroc. And we see quickly how comfortable Camfield is on film, with a nice array of spins, juddering film effects, and freeze frames.
On the Liberator we watch the crew watching Blake. Cally sounds all mystical as she explains who we are seeing the action through. In contrast, Gan blusters in with ‘Blake’s in trouble!’ Complete with clenched fist. The two characterisations clash in a rather unsubtle way.
On film, Jenna appears, and is talking all hushed and breathy…until one of those little fluffed lines appear. It’s funny how fluffed lines usually appear in the studio, rather than film. Perhaps Camfield was running out of time, but either way it sadly breaks the tension of the scene.
Ouch! We’re back into the studio. But it’s a out of focus forest on C.S.O. A very badly composed shot. Once again I’m back to reality – but only for a moment. I’m guessing this is an episode that fell foul of the production difficulties that plagued series A.
The performances are well directed. It’s interesting to watch Jenna in this episode – she seems mistrusting, hyper alert, and every so slightly resentful at Blake or the situation in general as she is chosen to accompany him. It’s easy to forget – knowing as we do how underused Jenna will be in Blake’s 7 – that at the time of broadcast, this presented Jenna’s character in a very different light and gave her a chance to stand out from the crowd.
Blake bounds about all heroically, but also with some real attitude and frustration on location – check out the delivery of the line ‘How do you demonstrate the death of a friend to a man who hasn’t got any?’ The fact that Thomas cut through the wood on the word ‘got‘ is really rather powerful.
Equally the guest cast are handled well. I’ve already mentioned Patsy ‘the ghoul from Weng-Chiang’ Smart, but hats off to Isla Blair and Carol Royle for their handling of – what are on paper – very shallow characters. Royle in particular makes the idea of someone being devoid of identity being quite watchable as she brings her own brand of detachment, and straightforward attention to duty.
An intriguing establishing shot of the forest dwarfed by a giant moon/planet appears, and we reach nightfall. Looking back it is interesting how – for a series that perhaps had the lowest budgets out of all four series of Blake’s 7 – this is the one that featured the most expensive night shoots. And it is worth it, as it allows a break in proceedings, and some further character development, rather than the usual use of the nocturnal environment to ramp up the suspense.
The exchange between Travis and his Mutoid pilot is an intriguing exchange in that it wrong footed me into thinking we were going to get some deeper layers into his psyche. His probing and recognition of her real identity is instantly forgotten when he feels that he is not getting the reaction he wants from her. Grief’s performance gives us flicker of surprise, and perhaps regret about something. But it is fleeting.
It’s quite ‘all knowing’ at this stage of the episode. We’re in the mid point lull – and I’m finding myself sleepily watching the crew sleepily sit through the inactivity of a group of equally sleepily characters…up a tree. None the less, the exchange between Avon and the rest of the crew about throwing nuts and being irrational is killer Terry Nation material…or an equally killer revision by Boucher.
We’re into the morning, and after a lot of prancing around, Jenna is attacked by the Mutoid, in a typically Camfieldesque moment, where he uses his POV shots to highlight the direct confrontation and outcome of their encounter. If there is a scene that echoes Camfield’s ability to shoot and edit scenes with real energy and zip – as explored earlier in this blog post – then this is it.
And from this, we’re into classic Camfield territory, as he finds gaps in trees, and finds a variety of interesting shots from near and far. There is some excellent use of depth of field to create some interesting photography.
And Blake wins. Of course he does. And typically he wins through the use of some moralistic high horse rhetoric. But that’s OK.
So the episode ends with a hint of will they won’t they kiss type thing – Star Trek style. Luckily he doesn’t start kissing the guest star, but that moment of sound judgement is all undone by a ghastly final scene on the Liberator where it’s a mans world, and Jenna needed to show some of her assertive characteristics and give Blake a good kick in the uncharted regions to ‘restore the balance’.
But this is Travis’s tale, and his final scene is far more convincing, with an unforgiving take on the Mutoid’s apparent failure to help him land Blake.
So what did I take from Duel? To be honest , it’s lost a bit of it’s charm as I have got older. The excitement from the fact that it is the typical hero vs nemesis battle has lost its lure, and the whole mystery of the aliens, feels lazily written. It needed more explanation, which might have made me care more about why they were duelling in the first place. But I want to be clear. ‘Duel’ is still good Blake’s 7, but lacks it’s very high status I once held it in.
And why is it good? The reason is the central theme behind this blog post – the direction. Douglas Camfield gives this episode – and the first season as a whole – a creative lift. But what I discovered was that – dodgy CSO aside – the studio work shot on video was really strong, and perhaps even more accomplished than his film work on this occasion – considering the budgetary and scheduling restrictions at this time. This is against the grain of my observations about the strength of his filmic work earlier in this blog post.
So how does he handle a ‘space adventure’ at this point in his career? I still think that the futuristic space age drama is not his natural home, but stylistically speaking, it’s an assured and confident direction. In fact his approach to outer space as a setting is to not merely use space as a setting for which action takes place, but to turn space into a ‘thing’ – by this I mean an environment that affects the what is going on within it. Take ‘Terminal – where the reverberation on Tarrant’s voice as he observes that “We must be light years away from any populated planet” helps along the feeling that they are in the middle of nowhere. Certain episodes too, use space to communicate isolation – ‘Sarcophagus’ for example. But it is here that we see how space can be used to build atmosphere for the first time.
Camfield makes space a place that is a eerie and isolating as possible, and it is the sound design that plays a big part in this. Take the first shots of the Liberator – the norm is to create to use the imagery of the Liberator into something triumphant and heraldic, helped along by Dudley Simpson’s music. But here – the electronic sound design creates a slightly isolating feel, as the ship drifts elegantly through the darkness. It’s the same with the pursuit ships. Normally we would hear the rumble of the deep brass notes which instantly signify the march of the Federation – but here it’s a series high frequency tones, and beeps which suggest a more silent, predatory assassin. Not always within detector range, but never far away…
It’s a shame that this was his only contribution.
As mentioned earlier, there is a really good biography out there, published by Miwk about Douglas Camfield. In it, author Michael Seely documents in exhaustive detail the entirety of Douglas’s career. The approach to the book is to be as meticulous in its detail as possible, in keeping with the way Camfield approached his work. It’s well worth a read…
…and then go and watch ‘Duel’ again.
Nicely done here. Some might poke fun out of the polystyrene rocky terrain – but the set design both demonstrates the limitations of the television studio, but also highlights the craft of making it as believable and dramatic as possible. Painted backdrops rarely work in Blake’s 7 and other series, but here they convey the loss of civilisation quite effectively, and the dialogue doesn’t shy away from it either. The lighting is also very effective and sensitive too, with some nice use of colour in a way that is not too garish, and creating some atmospheric shadowy effects.
Travis’s pursuit ship is nicely done. Simple but full of texture. The layout may be very Star Trek, but the lighting says something else. The backlit wall gives a very sophisticated effect that helps suggest a more expensive set than it was. Mind you the monitor screen looks very crudely cut out. If I recall correctly, the monitor screen used in the similar set in ‘Hostage’ is equally ropey, as is the the set. So all in all – nicely done Roger Murray-Leach.
Please see my article about ‘Bounty’ for more information about some of the music tracks selected for this episode. There is no escaping the fact that this, and ‘Gambit,’ is distinctive for not being scored by Dudley Simpson. It continues a pattern of Camfield productions being scored by other composers or stock library tracks. There is the story of a misunderstanding at a dinner party in the 1960’s, (again see the biography for more on this) but it would appear that, on this occasion, the production difficulties of this series prevented him from scoring ‘Duel.’ Listening to some of his Doctor Who episodes, there is evidence that Camfield had a real knack for selecting distinctive musical sources – from the urban menace of Don Harper’s cimbalom in ‘The Invasion (1968) to the eerie and unsettling tones that accompany ‘Inferno’ (1970). His later work is equally memorable, with Geoffrey Burgon’s melodic and often majestic score for ‘Terror of the Zygons’ (1975) and ‘The Seeds of Doom’ (1976) which create another style of contemporary thriller – something that for me is Camfields forte.
It is worth mentioning the woodwind that accompanies the scenes set in the forest. The occasional riffs break through the silence, and distant sound effects to create a suspenseful atmosphere – sometimes less is more.
HOW TO SELL THIS TO A NON-BELIEVER.
As a straightforward sci-fi tale that doesn’t require too much concentration. Just let it wash over you.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENT.
Gan’s ‘Those aren’t ghosts!’
THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET.
Sigh – the end scene on the Liberator – where people are either beautiful or ugly.
VERDICT IN TEN WORDS EXACTLY.
Well directed, although it’s not as good as I remember.
It is all about being 15 and appreciating Isla Blair.