“Something funny is going on.”
Let’s talk about the scary things.
Blake’s 7 never struck me as an overtly scary show. Sure there’s a healthy dose of dystopia which is unsettling, but the suspenseful, creepy horror tone isn’t part of the root system of this drama.
Perhaps I don’t remember enough of it as a child. Doctor Who and Sapphire and Steel had the fear factor all sewn up for me. I vividly remember the anticipation of buying the VHS of Doctor Who ‘Inferno’ and looking forward to the tantalizing fear of green mutants running towards the camera atop of gasometers, in film footage reduced in resolution by a NTSC copy, which somehow have it an added distant and unsettling edge. More about this can be found in the blog post about ‘Duel.’
Childhood scares are something I’m quite interested in. So in a moment of self-indulgence (even by my iwn standards), I thought about various things that scared me during my formative years in the early-mid 1980’s.
The result of my self indulgence can be found in a companion blog post here.
I’ve also created a commercial break that captures the adverts that brought out the fear factor, mainly centered around the years following Blake’s 7’s final season. Again I explore the reasons why I find these moments haunting in the aforementioned companion blog post, should you choose to take a look.
So was Blake’s 7 ever ‘behind the sofa?’ Here is a speculative list of what I think might be scary.
Lets start with corridors. Always a space where you are exposed to danger. Perhaps the language of any Doctor Who story involving long corridors and Daleks are the source of this fear. The idea that it us not usually the Dalek that comes around the distant corner at first, but its shadow. So seeing Dayna in the middle of a three-way corridor in Sarcophagus always felt like the worst place to stand – where impending threat could come from any direction.
Similarly Blake getting clobbered in a tunnel in ‘The Way Back’ is quite unsettling. Again there’s something about long bleak corridors that makes this nasty looking. You can run, but you’ll always be in the firing line. Yet here it’s the fact that when he turned a corner, the danger was right in his face and we saw that danger fractionally before he did.
The discovery of the four bodies of the original Star One crew is pretty sinister. It’s all about the eyes, or rather the lack of them, and what lurks behind the door. It’s shot in the classic horror style, from the protagonists perspective.
The heartbeat of Terminal is a simply brilliant sound effect that is made ever more eerie by the fact that it is never fully explained. I’ll talk about this in the review of ‘Terminal’.
The opening scenes of ‘Warlord’ are very unsettling. There’s no doubt that the imagery and soundscape is chilling, but it’s also something about the fact it was shot on film. It’s stark and cold. Even the shopping centre location used is pristine, adding to the clinical feel to the piece. It’s stark in the same way that Public Information Films (PIF’s) about not breaking into electricity sub stations was cold, bleak and therefore scary.
There’s the shot of Pilot Four Zero succumbing to the alien plague in ‘Children of Auron’. It’s all about the mise-en-scene of the shot; the harsh lighting hitting Michael Troughton’s skull like defeated features, the vacant glare, the futile but valiant lean forward to desperately keep control of the ship, the intensity of the soundtrack, and juddering images that magnify the horror that is taking place. It just communicates utter hopelessness, and that is unsettling.
Finally I can’t help but think that I might have found the Blake’s 7 logo fairly sinister too. It’s looms up on us, the music goes all sombre, and the shape and form of the whole thing is bold and imposing. I reckon it would have made an impact. The ‘B7 from hell’.
But this is only speculation. What I do know is that there are certain themes emerging that make, in my mind, something scary. We have plenty of rich imagery and symbolism. We have creative sonic soundscapes, but it’s when things don’t quite fit within their more familiar contexts that intentional fear is created.
Sounds like the episode I’m about to review.
The opening shots are distinctly alien – and the soundscape is rich and layered. It’s one of Blake’s 7’s strengths – thoughtful sound design.
Are the actors in this classed as extras because if so, they are very good. A significant performance. I looked up names such as Val Clover, who held down some credited roles including a part in a couple of episodes of the BBC’s Will Shakespeare series of the late 1970’s. If this is the person conducting the ceremony, then hats off to her.
We also have a striking vertical shot – we don’t see many of these shots in Blake’s 7. After 60 seconds of this I’m thinking ‘hang on – this is a bit different.’
One by one mysterious figures appear in the room and do ‘a thing’. With the benefit of hindsight we know it is the five flesh and blood crew members of the Liberator, but I’ve forgotten whether I got that when I watched it for the first time. Another mystery in a scene of mysteries!
The final figure makes his appearance later. A man in black – it is assumed. And the music goes all brooding and moody. Obviously significant.
Big hats off to Elizabeth Parker for another breathy vocally infused soundtrack. She is clearly excited by the creative possibilities this episode is offering so far, it’s no wonder that in every interview I have seen her in, she talks fondly about her time on the series.
I’m imagining this is the moment that effects wizard A.J. Mitchel presses every button possible on the ‘video synthesiser’ – probably something like the EMS Spectre. (2) The mysterious object makes its journey into space, I’m intrigued about what is to come, proving that something one doesn’t need dialogue or obvious screen action. This episode is going to make this ‘intelligent menial’ work for it.
Six minutes in and we finally reach video…sorry I mean the Liberator. But we do this so seamlessly. In Shadow I waxed lyrical about Jonathan Wright Miller’s ability to create distinctive transitions from The Liberator to Cally’s psyche and finally to Space City. Here we shift from the alien world to the mysterious ‘ship’ to Cally’s eye on the Liberator. Here it feels like Myra Deren’s trance film Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). Or like elements of Orson Welles’ celebrated opening of Citizen Kane (1941)
These opening scenes set a distinct tone to the episode. More ‘feminine’, more symbolic. Multi layered. Perhaps about signals rather than simple statements.
The opening scene in Cally’s quarters is simply one of the best scenes in the entirety of Blake’s 7. It’s sensitively played by Darrow and Chappell, but there is something about the pace and the timing of the lines that brings out Cally’s loss and Avon’s underlying concern. If anything, it feels slightly fast paced following on from the opening few minutes of this episode. The two actors are delivering lovely words from the page to the screen.
Ah, a nice long shot of the flight deck! Whenever I watched Blake’s 7 episodically I always noticed the ones that didn’t feature the flight deck; ‘Countdown’, ‘City at the Edge of the World’ etc, and always being happy when I saw it again. And here, in that opening long shot at least, it still looks pretty good considering the clattering and battering it must have received in its third year.
Even the silly details like how long is the corridor that Avon and Cally walk down is noticeable with this set design. In Sarcophagus it is extra long, so I’m guessing there is a need for it to be.
There are a lot of board games in this series – the symbol of not knowing what to do with their time.
Zen’s camera skills are a bit off as the crew try to identify the unidentifiable. But listen to Zen’s first few lines – it sounds like Peter Tuddenham has been bitten by the bug. It’s the croakiest that Zen has sounded so far.
Vila gets to do his ‘Aliens!?’ thing and interestingly it is Tarrant who gets to deliver a very Avon-esque line about his not so glowing experiences with humans. But it is important that Tarrant has that line. In this episode he needs to be seen at the front, whilst Avon leads from the back.
Vila’s observation about “If it were alien, it might not register as life” in relation to Zen’s sensors is quite reasonable, and an interesting variation to his usual wariness of other life forms.
So there is a dilemma. Does the crew go with the asteroid and its precious minerals, or the hypothetical object in space? It shows how bored the crew must have been to so easily decide on the unknown variable. It’s a really nice way of finding a dramatic possibility from the new post Federation universe, where the urgency and immediate threat has gone, and in its place comes the suggested ‘desperation’ to find something exciting to do. And it is one of Tanith Lee’s first great decisions in this story.
Cally appears particularly keen to explore. And that confirms it – Cally is at the heart of this tale.
There is a nice touch by Avon as he deactivates the main screen so he can walk across it in shot, always a little sticking point when directing action on this set.
I really enjoyed the nicely played moment between Avon and Tarrant as Avon excludes him. Again this foreshadows what is to come.
On the mysterious ‘ship’ Avon, Vila and Cally teleport, and odd things are happening. We see the Grande bud lamps again. In fact it all feels a bit ‘Gambit’ with all the tassles and post party ribbons.
It’s getting all three back to the Liberator that is the difficulty. But Cally takes the lead and beams them through. But not before we see genuine anxiety on Avons face, and even then he makes anxiety look cool.
But it’s the debrief in the teleport section that is significant as the inter-crew relations and observations come to the forefront. And this is a key component at the heart of this episode – taking the third season theme of relationships and amplifying it.
There is a big reveal as Cally is seen as one of mysterious figures from the opening scene.
This episode is clearly very different, but it wasn’t until I saw the crew looking so lost, so fatigued that it really struck me. We’ve seen other episodes where the crew are at a loss; the fatigue of ‘Horizon’ or the malaise at the start of ‘Orac’. But here it is a deeply felt loss of energy; directionless and disorienting to us as an audience. We’re so used to our heroes either fighting, or simply fighting on.
And fight they do – well Avon and Tarrant do. This confrontation is particularly snappy, but is brilliantly written playing to the characters traits very nicely. This is not an episode that could have worked earlier in the season. We needed to know as much about the characters psyche for this to work. Placed at episode nine, it does work.
It is Avon’s lines that rise to Tarrant’s impetious challenge, rich in history and failed ambition – and it needs to. We need to be with Avon on this one, he is the one thinking and working out the problem, so his ‘Shut up, Tarrant’ has double impact – attacking him as an individual, but also his impetuousness.
Cally activates the device, and stands alone in the long corridor in a lovely shot, and second half of the episode can now commence.
As the crew sleep, we are treated to something we have never experienced – a bridging scene, consisting of ‘Dayna’s song’, composed by Dudley Simpson and a series of still images. And it is very emotive. Never has the space in Blake’s 7 felt so lonely, so isolated. It is the first real moment where we – the audience – are acutely aware that there is no Federation threat at all. The menace this time comes from within.
This scene also acts as a kind of interlude, and is perhaps the only time in a Blake’s 7 episode where I’m happy to stop, make a cup of tea, and return to something slightly different to what happened before. It’s a great touch, and proof, if it were needed, that Blake’s 7 isn’t simply a ‘boys action series.’
And that something different is a voice. It’s sounds like Cally. But it can’t be. It’s a different energy – literally.
Things are increasingly strange. And as the object disintegrates, drinks trays go flying and Zen goes a bit doolalley I was totally fixed on Michael Keating throughout the entirety of the scene. I love his performance, especially during the times when he has no dialogue in the background. The look of confusion, and narrowing of the brow.
But soon he has a moment in the foreground, as he copes with his fear by acting out a fantasy scenario. It’s another really good character moment.
Elsewhere Dayna gets to show off some distinctive ‘defensive’ poses when she is surprised by Tarrant in the corridor.
And together there is a short but atmospheric moment between the two of them on film. It’s the most alternative Blake’s 7 has ever been.
At this point the lighting for these scenes are noticeably darker, like a slow sunset. We’re entering the midnight hour.
And finally the mysterious figure is revealed.
Tarrant’s “I bet you are” in response to Dayna’s apology suggests the energy is still playing with our heroes. It’s a nice little touch.
And now we reach the flight deck for the showdown.
The alien’s line “I never kill surperfiously…you should bare that in mind” is a chilling line. This is followed by a succession of wonderful lines that show off the poetic imagery that comes from the mind of Tanith Lee, and quite possibly the skill of Chris Boucher’s script editing.
“To my people, death is an interim state”
“When she tried to close the door against me, it was emotionally impossible”
“Don’t let a mere two words prevent you from staying alive”
“The girl who sings songs would do well to learn by your example”
These few minutes of dialogue run the risk of not fitting in with the Blake’s 7 high velocity pace, but as I have mentioned in a few other reviews, this is a show that effortlessly slows things right down when it needs to, in order to bring up maximum dramatic impact. The combination of carefully thought through words, sensitive lighting, sound and composition – not to mention the care over the portrayal of the characters make these scenes some of the most absorbing within the whole series.
The stand-off reaches its conclusion and Cally and Avon win the day. But not before the flight deck takes a battering in a way that foreshadows events in a few episodes from now – red lighting and all.
Paul Darrow gets to deliver the clinching line of dialogue “You look so beautiful when you’re angry.” It’s a line that conjures an interesting dichotomy – on one hand it doesn’t feel like it belongs in this episode, yet it is perfect for the Blake’s 7 brand of populist drama.
I wonder if Vila ever felt resentful that Avon was able to obtain the ring that he couldn’t get?
The aliens death scene is wonderfully pitched, and it is a final chance for Jan Chappell to enjoy one last meaty moment before she returns to her place as the rather underused character within the crew. Watch her death scene again, and marvel at how good she is.
The final recap does feel a bit heavy-handed in the way it is explained – perhaps this is a Blake’s 7 characteristic. No show is perfect.
And we get the last lingering shot between Avon and Cally. Of course we do. It’s odd that after such a carefully considered 50 minutes, the bombast of Dudley Simpson’s theme tune score actually feels a little intrusive.
Lets conclude by talking about the three people who are at the centre of this episode.
Tanith Lee is a great find for the series. Clearly someone who has a fondness for the show, she doesn’t let a single character down. And in the third series of a show, she gives various characters a much need re-boot, or extra dimension. I know she will be back.
This could easily fall flat on its face in the hands of an unsympathetic director. Luckily Fiona Cumming directs with real emotional sensitivity, as she did with her other emotional bruiser ‘Rumours of Death’.
The close up of Vila as he encounters the alien for the first time, is not only full of tension but communicates his curiosity too. The shot of Cally, dead centre of the flight deck corridor, creates isolation even in a confined space. Another nice moment is the line up of Tarrant’s face from the image projected into his mind to the reality on the flight deck. The painfully slow disappearance of the alien is also beautifully held, never cutting corners or loosing its nerve.
As a Doctor Who fan as well, I have to thank Tanith Lee for Fiona Cumming’s involvement in the show.
“I was very taken with Tanith Lee. She was new to television and had written the episode Sarcophagus for Blake… which, even though there was a lot that had to be taken out; being an author she did not realise how three lines of description could translate into hours of potential effects work, it proved her as a very talented writer. I sent John Nathan-Turner a tape of the episode, suggesting he might like to use her on Doctor Who. Instead he rang me to ask if I would be interested in doing a show.” (1)
What is really lovely to see is Jan Chappell really coming alive and finding an energy that – perhaps due to her performance or her reading of the character – was starting to fade somewhat from her earlier appearances, which found a line between gusto and a more subtle gentle tone.
The crucial contributions of these three female creatives in a still male orientated televisual industry was, and still is, notable. A fact that I am reminded of this very evening, as I learn of the passing of Paddy Russell – one of the BBC’s first female directors, and someone responsible for two Doctor Who adventures I rate very highly – ‘Invasion of the Dinosours’ and ‘Horror of Fang Rock.’
So we are here. Sarcophagus. A fascinating episode for many reasons. I can understand why opinion is so wide open with this one.
As I put the DVD away I did wonder what would happen if this was the penultimate episode of season C. It felts like a late series episode. A coda. A summing up of the characters. An end point. By shuffling the episode order around, I imagined how the later half of the series could focus on the emotional disintegration of the crew – leading to the events of ‘Terminal’. By this point all the characters would have had bad things happen to them. I like the idea that the characters are lost. Cally has already died – take her attitude in her cabin following the loss of her entire world, compared to her attitude when she had lost almost everything on Saurian Major. Vila and Dayna are bored, and have lost people close to them. Tarrant is simply trying to keep himself occupied in the light of the death of his brother, but failing, so he challenges Avon further. And Avon is not so much lost, but simply stuck on his own, as Avon usually is. This decay could have nicely lead into the events of ‘Terminal.’
But why is this one of the episodes not high up on my list to review? I think I’ve worked out the answer.
When I started writing this blog, there were many episodes I was itching to tackle. Some more notable than others. There were some of the less impactful tales. The ones that don’t often end up at the top of many a list, or poll; Volcano, Moloch, Stardrive. And then there are the oft talked about episodes. Star One, Duel, Rumours of Death, Blake, and…Sarcophagus. This is an episode with plenty of exposure, no doubt helped by it’s inclusion in the ‘Aftermath’ compilation tape issued by the BBC before every episode was released in episodic form.
At the beginning of this post I talked about how sometimes things can be unsettling simply because they do not fit into the conventions of an established genre/norm. Episodes that ‘break the mould’ are commonplace in many a drama, and plenty of long running telefantasy shows. It’s easy to see why. You have an established format, and a standard way of telling the story, so it’s only natural that the things need to be shaken up a bit from time to time. This often manifests itself in something either surreal, or non-linear in it’s narrative.
And whilst ‘Sarcophagus’ definitely fits into these moulds, it doesn’t feel like a stand alone, or curio. It’s all about the characters. By taking their traits we explore the nature of relationships and interactions of the group, and this is important for the series at this stage.
It’s also an episode that takes our understanding of the characters and makes us work for our understanding. I’ve always been struck my how Blake’s 7 gives us such wide scope to interpret what is going on, and this episode demonstrates that perfectly, in a similar way that ‘Sapphire and Steel’ engaged its audience through explaining very little. We’re creative enough to fill in gaps for ourselves…we’re ‘intelligent menials’ after all.
The approach is ‘music as characterisation’ in this one. I noticed that Dudley Simpson goes for a somewhat operatic or melodramatic approach to the score here. Tarrant’s theme is suitably bombastic and commanding, whilst Vila’s is both clumsy and bumbling. Avon’s foreboding score sounds like it’s has come straight out of a dark thriller and Cally’s mysticism is ‘full of Eastern promise’ (for those who know of the UK television advert.). Whilst the score is quite charming in its own way, although I still find myself somewhat ‘institutionalised’ by the typical Blake’s 7 approach to incidental music – so this still takes some getting used to.
Finally we have the motif that accompanies Dayna. Her theme is a nice collaboration with Tanith Lee, although I have to say that even after all these years, the sound of the space ‘harp’ still grates badly. May we never know the configuration of settings that Simpson used on his trusty Yamaha synthesiser.
Of course, the vast majority of the action takes place on the Liberator, so there are minor modifications and subtle repairs to the flight deck – which probably used up a good chunk of the budget. It’s like maintaining a property. It’s often the little things that cost the most. Elsewhere the other set is the alien tomb, which is very Ken Ledsham – all curved corners, black drapes, and various tinsel and streamers. The distinctive triangular motif is really evident on the vertical shot of the ceremony.
HOW TO SELL THIS TO A NON-BELIEVER
For those who are not keen on Blake’s 7 – the series. See if this gets them into it. There’s nothing to lose.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
The shout out by Vila in the tomb that prompts Avon to say “We may have tripped a few wires.” It’s just a nicely timed little moment.
MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
The sound of the space harp.
VERDICT IN 10 WORDS EXACTLY
A fascinating study of character and dynamics. Ignore the harp.
(1) In-Vision Issue 55 CMS publishing.