“Try and do it right this time, Vila.”
As a younger man, I always used to find it tiresome when Blake’s 7 was described as being synonymous with shaky sets and dodgy acting – popular media speak for ‘bad television’. And then I grew up a bit more, and reminded myself where those words were coming from, and what they were setting out to achieve in mainstream television/print – a hook for the reader. As a fan of Blake’s 7, and someone who thinks it is great television in so many ways, what interests me now is where it might fall short of my own expectations as a viewer? I’m going to address acting styles in a couple of posts time. But do the ‘limitations’ of what we actually see – the ‘production values’ inevitably arising from a low-budget – equate to a ‘lesser’ episode of Blake’s 7?
It’s interesting watching Blake’s 7 today, with more knowledge about the production contexts behind the scenes. I understand that season A was a beast. An absolute beast. A season full of overruns, consecutive recording for different episodes and all kinds of scheduling difficulties that wouldn’t have caused much in the way of concern for the police drama that Blake’s 7 inherited its budget and schedules from. Time is money.
So the sets creak and groan, there are occasional fluffed lines which were not able to be re-shot, and there are some obvious re-dressing of sets, such as Servalan’s office as XK72, and the London as the Ortega.
Re-dressed sets are nothing new. In fact they are still commonplace in 21st century Doctor Who. In fact it is a clever way of stretching the budget. If I’m honest, the lack of funds do show a little too obviously in that difficult first season of Blake’s 7. But none-the-less, season A is perhaps the biggest achievement of Blake’s 7 considering the time and money that was available.
With season B & C the budget was upped, and a better way of working was established. For my money, it looked better, and more sturdier. The sets had more texture and sophisticated lighting to draw upon. Re-dressed sets are still there, but it’s less noticeable. And those little delightful moments that we pick up on are still there; the toolbox in ‘Trial’ and when the camera makes a surprise appearance to the extreme right hand side of the screen in ‘Powerplay’ and then again in a virtually identical shot, behind Dayna’s shoulder, in ‘Dawn of the Gods’. It makes me imagine that David Maloney and Desmond McCarthy had a secret pact to see who could get away with the most.
And of course there’s the ‘Docholli coat’ incident in ‘Gambit.’ “No time for take 2 – but I’m sure the audience won’t notice.”
And then there’s season D. The budget is stretched once more, with everything having to be designed from scratch, but there appeared to be more time to plan things and make it work.
It’s demanding television, made using a multi-camera technique that is loved by myself – there is an immediacy and intimacy to the drama unfolding – but perhaps compromises the way the series looks if you’re not buying into this method and want to compare it to a more filmic approach.
A good example of this is ‘Animals’, where in order to avoid an additional location fee for guest star Peter Byrne, a handful of ‘exterior’ scenes were shot in the studio, reminding me of similar pressures that resulted in some rather gruesome CSO shots of the forest in ‘Duel.’
And it’s hard to watch. The jarring cut between the crispness of video, and the grain of film is tough, but it also affects the lighting, and makes me stop concentrating on the performances and dialogue.
From what I have read ‘Animals’ suffered from a hurried and pressured studio recording, with footage that perhaps would normally be left on the cutting room floor having to be retained, as the studio clock ticked towards its 10pm deadline.
There’s a frequently documented situation that arose on the Doctor Who story ‘Terminus’ directed by Mary Ridge, where on this occasion, the 10pm studio deadline was not reached and tensions were running high. I can only wonder that if, up in the production gallery, Ridge (who for my money was a very capable director at least, and at best…just watch ‘Terminal’) was thinking back to the difficulties of ‘Animals’ and wondering to herself “why is history repeating itself?”
Which leads me neatly on to ‘Animals.’
I know of your reputation. I feel for you. Here is a hard-working group of creatives, trying to make television that other people will appreciate.
But time isn’t kind to you, both during and after production. A bit like the difficult circumstances that affected one of Allan Prior’s other episodes – ‘Hostage’. Or as I will refer to it in this blog post ‘Prior’s Hostage.’
And here I am, poised to type words that almost seem inevitable.
It’s been a long, long time since I’ve watched ‘Animals’. Probably a good ten years. Even ‘Stardrive’ has had more of a look in. So I have told myself to give it every chance going for it. That’s always the aim. If it still doesn’t deliver, at least you tried. One can’t do more than that.
So here we go.
We open on Scorpio. As with so many model shots, the camerawork shows off Scorpio beautifully, although the constraints of the CSO approach mean the end result is slightly less successful than much of the material from the previous three seasons.
Tarrant and Dayna have a natter about a ‘mad scientist’ friend of Dayna’s. I really thought that Tarrant was moving in on Dayna to give her a shoulder massage. No, it was the chair instead.
We immediately get an impression that Justin educated Dayna, perhaps in more ways than one, judging by an expression than Dayna gives away. The brief reaction shot of Tarrant could suggest jealousy, or might tap into the reactions of the audience trying to work out the Maths. Let’s leave it at that.
Dayna teleports down. I must explain that, by this point of watching these epiosdes for the first time, I was struggling with certain aspects of season D. Aesthetically I missed the visual style of earlier seasons, and I had waded through the chalky bleakness of ’Stardrive’, So when Dayna arrived on Bucol II and took a goooood look at the damp and drab surroundings, it somehow mirrored my own apathy at this point. Even the soundtrack sounded more like cars on a motorway than anything else. I was losing the thrill of characters landing on a new planet and the interest of a new surroundings. This moment represented the nadir of my relationship with Blake’s 7 in those early years of watching it.
We get a glimpse of some kind of animal. It doesn’t look as bad as has been suggested. It’s hairy and horny. The Primords from Doctor Who ‘Inferno’ were hairy. But not horny. Probably.
We wait for Federation pursuit ships for a number of episodes and then, as with ‘Stardrive’, they all come along at once. Perhaps it’s a nice nod to ‘Traitor’ where it is established that the Federations power is slowly regaining – although they still look like crude red blobs on the main screen.
Tarrant says ‘hit it’. Is this the new lingo for season D? But Scorpio takes a knock, and a cardboard pursuit ship flies across the screen with a cheeky Dudley Simpson sting. Perhaps he was underwhelmed as well. This whole scene reminded me of ‘Prior’s Hostage’ – a similar attack at a similar part of the episode.
Tarrant has to beat a hasty retreat, whilst at the same time Dayna guns down a number of hairy beasts on film, and a man guides her to safety, on video. I’m so used to the film/video divide, but here it is somewhat jarring.
In Justin’s lab there we see some interesting things going on, including an animal seemingly underwater. After some creepy pleasantries, Justin makes reference to the ‘galactic war’ being a terrible, terrible mistake. It seems an odd thing to say, and made me wonder whether he knew of the full details. It was a far cry from the heroic reception that Hal gave Avon in ‘Aftermath.’
But Dayna makes her views clear on the work that Justin is carrying out. It’s important that Dayna is seen to be sure of herself – something that had seemed to be receding during this series.
Dayna explains the premise of this season to Justin and the audience. His response is at first plausible – a clear philosophical rationalisation, but then it becomes somewhat suggestive. I’m trying to see the positives in this episode, but I might have to concede defeat.
Changing the scene entirely, it’s time to say hello to Servalan…sorry I mean Commissioner Sleer, for the first time since her almost cameo appearance in ‘Traitor’.
So what’s changed? The ship she commands is a desperately beige affair, crewed by a number of Mutoids – probably. What is that thing Servalan is sitting behind? It looks like it belongs to a chat show. And Servalan’s captain struggles to work out which hand to hold the data in. I have that problem every day at work.
Justin as a character is quite interesting. The scene where he finally explains to Dayna how the base was built and why he continued with his work, is a bit like a Malcolm Hulke character – it’s not so much which side he is on, but the conviction he has in his motives. There’s talk of who these experiments were originally conducted on, and this rather dark premise feels quite at home in Blake’s 7. Still I was left a bit confused by the timeline of the war, assuming this is the same one – Justin mentions 60% losses to the Federation. But it is implied that the work was for the benefit of the war, yet commenced six years before the it started and was abandoned before the it was over. I’m sure there’s a simple explanation I’m missing but I felt the description was a bit clumsy none-the-less.
Justin says “It was justified by the times” – perhaps that is a suitable analogy for this episode. And Dayna’s response “How about now?” seems equally justified. But I can’t help but feel that she gives in to Justin’s explanation a little bit too easily.
We’re almost 20 minutes in, and finally the rest of the crew make an appearance. And it’s a breath of fresh air. Vila enjoys a bit of sparring with Orac, in a scene which reminds me of ’Star One’ – “If I may be permitted to continue.” But it’s the totally impassive look on Avon’s face that is the real moment, a face that communicates to Vila “you will go and do the horrible thing we need to do to fix the ship, but I’m so cool I don’t even need to move a muscle or say a word to communicate this.”
And then I worked it out. Through the series Tarrant is seen to be involved in all the things that Avon feels are unnecessary dangerous, or strategically questionable. But in this scene it is even more than that. Avon is now using Tarrant as a tool to communicate the things that he can’t even be bothered to express facially, or say a word about. That’s really cool. That’s ‘maximum power’ for minimum effort. And there we have it – Avon stands staring at Vila expressionless, as Tarrant does all the hard work, lifting the heavy hatch, and joyously grimacing at Vila’s plight.
Servalan’s persona seems a little less flamboyant and more reserved than at the height of her pomp around the time of season C. But there are some nice moments, such as the “make sure it is a little time” line, and the resulting ‘stoically terrified’ look from Bor.
Justin and Dayna are co-operating more, and are still generally being suggestive. But it’s all so easy for Dayna to be convinced about Justin’s work, and to fall in love with him like there’s a time limit – let say 50 minutes?
We’re 25 minutes in and Ardus, a former member of the intelligence bureau, makes an appearance complete with Auron costume. Kevin Stoney is such a good actor, that the entire scene is one of the highlights of this episode, just as his appearance in ‘Prior’s Hostage’ was the highlight there. Ardus pieces together Sleer’s identity, a fatal error.
Poor Bor – what a day at the office. I hope no one discovered his connection. There’s something I really loved about this performance. Like a rabbit caught in headlights.
Back on Scorpio Vila does his thing, only to go straight back down into the tank again, and we discover that the best of the wine on Xenon base is gone. I like the references to the wine. This is a nice little story arc that is re-visited in ‘Blake’ and is perhaps the ultimate motif of season D’s downwards trajectory. Probably.
There’s a nice model shot of Servalan’s ship on the surface of Bucol II.
Dayna’s argument that she might make contact with Og because he doesn’t associate Dayna with pain is plausible, although perhaps he might associate Dayna with blowing the brains out of his fellow animals.
Oh Og – bless him, he’s quite sweet really, like someone who’s just had a really, really long day at the office. Like Bor.
So Dayna ends up at the bottom of a cliff, and into the hands of the Federation. A fact that is not lost on Avon. Of course it’s a badly weighted dummy. I wonder if it was the same dummy that thrown down the same quarry in ‘Prior’s Hostage.’
Justin retrieves Dayna’s gun on video, and takes a good look at Betchworth Quarry.
Servalan does meany things to Dayna, and quickly realises that there is a deeper emotional connection, that naturally she is going to exploit.
There’s something about this interrogation scene that contrasts season D with the flamboyance of season C. Servalan’s one-to-ones with characters beforehand were often sparky affairs, with a delicious energy, and banter. In this case, Servalan’s questioning is slow, gentle and with an underlying whispered sadistic quality. There’s no music, the set is bland, leaving a rather grim tone to it. It’s nothing like the shouty Travis-Vila interrogation scene that existed in ‘Prior’s Hostage’. Previously I’ve disliked these scenes, again feeling that they represent a loss of the energy that flowed through Blake’s 7 veins, but watching it again I feel this stripped back feel is not necessarily a bad thing, but something that just needs some getting used to, following the high-octane feel of previous years.
Justin gets drunk and trashes the lab in some classic trashing-the-lab acting. I love the moment he throws the test slides at the wall, only for one of the screens to explode. I’m guessing there was no time for a re-take.
Josette Simon is such a good actor, but there is something missing from the season D Dayna. As mentioned earlier, it is lacking a certain energy. And it is that lack of energy that perhaps renders Simon’s performance as slightly muted in turn. It’s a pity, as this was her only real moment in the series – and even then it wasn’t written for her character originally – the early draft featured Cally. Still the moment she drops the remnants of Justin’s slides is wonderfully dramatic.
Mind you as the scene unfolds, all I could do was look at the door. You know the door I’m talking about. The door that will soon be blown of its hinges in what is the most hilarious scene in all of Blake’s 7.
Servalan gloats. “Your girlfriend let us in”. So catty. That’s more like it.
The Charlie’s Angels rescue party teleport down with Avon wearing a nice comb over. And Soolin gets some dialogue. In this entire episode Soolin gets five lines – and one of those lines consists of one word. I can hear David Jackson chuckling to himself as he watched this.
Then there is the scene.
It starts with the sound of an explosion. Then the camera pans to reveal the door being blown off its hinges, and in comes Avon (who kicks a chair because he can) Soolin and Tarrant, deploying one by one their finest Charlie’s Angels poses (see Stardrive). Avon slips – meaning the ready-for-action poses suddenly become the image of a group of “amateurs” (spoken in the sneery way Largo says “amateurs” in Shadow.). It’s such a cod scene, but I love it. I’m guessing the 10pm deadline meant that Mary Ridge just had to swallow her pride.
There’s only a few minutes left of this episode, and I’m thinking how are they going to fit everything in?
Servalan wants a quick resume from Justin, who is able to contact the crew and attempt a rescue.
Ooo – a theres nice bit of scenery depicting the underside of the spaceship. So that’s where the budget went.
Justin gets his desserts, and Og is caught in the crossfire. As the camera tracks upwards, the nastiness of the whole episode reaches its conclusion.
It’s quite a bleak end. Many times we’ve witnessed Blake’s 7 finishing a difficult episode with some kind of resolution that isn’t overly bleak. Even ‘Pressure Point’ affords a few seconds of mournful reflection and a symbolic final image. But here the time just runs out in full bleakness.
When I finished watching this, it occurred to me that ‘Animals’ wasn’t ‘bad’ per se. If anything, its crime is being so joyless – something that is not to easy to pin down. Blake’s 7 is clearly no stranger to being dystopian, and residing over grim situations, but at its heart is a joie de vivre that translates through its characterisation, snappy energy, and witty repartee. But not here. The dubious character of Justin is deeply unsympathetic – which in itself isn’t the crime, but when the main guest star is playing someone who lacks any empathy from the audience, everything around him is going to suffer. There are plenty of ‘grim’ episodes of Blake’s 7, such as ‘Terminal’ – but there is an action, and a fizz to the dialogue that makes it captivating. The dialogue here is crude and at other times merely functional. Even when there are attempts to lighten the mood, such as Vila’s suffering at the hands of the rest of the crew, it is reasonably amusing, but the humour lacks the sophisticated bite that Blake’s 7 is capable of. Allan Prior’s episodes have been a mixed bag, but I don’t believe he’s a poor writer at all, just not the most sophisticated one when it comes to Blake’s 7. ‘Horizon’ contained some really interesting moments regarding the dynamics of the crew, and ‘The Keeper’ contains some strong characterisation. But none of his episodes contain much in the way of subtlety. The episode this reminds me of is ‘Hostage’ or should I say ‘Priors’ Hostage’ – the Kevin Stoney scene, the dated man/woman dynamic, lone figures on a quiet planet, and the use of Betchworth Quarry etc… But ‘Hostage’, for all its many faults is still enjoyable in a Looney Tunes sort of way, and contains enough lighter moments to make it quite watchable. I’ll talk about Prior another time.
On the subject of Betchworth Quarry, the other reason as to why this episode doesn’t fall in my top 51 episodes of Blake’s 7 is the visual appearance of it. Season D has a bland aesthetic. I understand this. It is post-Liberator. It is functional. Full of beige and grey. And that’s a good and brave creative decision. The trouble is it’s beige and grey, and super cheap, and there’s no sparking dialogue to help things tick along. The film footage was clearly shot on a wet, damp day in Surrey – again not a crime, but it’s situated in a mercifully short period where Blake’s 7 loses its fizz, creating a feeling of ordinariness. The exteriors-as-video scenes are clearly a result of time/budget, but it’s jarring and tough to watch, and it’s sooo slow. This isn’t the root cause of ‘Animals’ reputation, but it is a symptom of it. Like ‘Stardrive’ – these are the two episodes of Blake’s 7 I enjoy the least, but perversely the ones I have thought about the most in these blog posts.
It’s really tough writing these words. These are creative people who have a track record of making things we like; Mary Ridge, Vere Lorrimer, and the regular cast. These are people who were clearly working so quickly, against insurmountable odds, with the 10pm studio lights out looming. I really wanted to find a new perspective on this episode, in the hope that I could re-assess it. However the reverse has happened, I’ve found a new perspective as to why I’ve avoided it for so long – it’s not poorly made, it’s joyless. When the bit you enjoy most contains an accidental slip from Paul Darrow, you know this is going to be a long ride.
But I will watch it again sometime in the future. There’s no episode of Blake’s 7 that deserves not to be seen, and behind it all, there’s some interesting themes; the post Federation landscape, the impact of the war, and the very morally dubious policies that are attached to it.
The gift of ‘Animals’ is it’s helped me work out the theme of the blog post – are the moments where a production falls short a justified way of saying it is not so good Blake? And the answer is no – generally speaking. It’s made me understand that ‘lesser’ Blake’s 7, is nothing to do with what happens during production, as ‘Animals’ ably demonstrates. Its fate was sealed when it arrived into the hands of Mary Ridge. The energy and spirit were already lacking, and the circumstances around the production only magnified this.
Peter Bryne’s presence is usually the most notable aspect of the casting here, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that whilst Max Harvey and William Lindsay are generally wasted here, they both had more substantial roles in early 1980’s Doctor Who; Harvey as Cardinal Zorac in ‘Arc of Infinity’, and Lindsay as Zargo in ‘State of Decay’.
I’m writing this in the days after Dudley Simpson’s passing. So it feels a bit odd to be saying that this is an episode where his presence keeps things ticking along, without anything being particularly memorable. One interesting little motif that reappears is the two-note riff that accompanied the Liberator passing through the fluid particles in ‘Terminal’ – something of which immediately signifies impending danger. There’s also some twangy synth notes for the ducking and the swerving of Scorpio and pursuit ships in space, some umm-pah-pah’s for Servalan’s ship, and some gentle tones for Dayna’s therapy.
Difficult to be objective here, as the set designs simply are just not my cup of tea. There are two key sets here; Justin’s lab, and Servalan’s ship. Justin’s lab is a bit of a boys bedroom, with clean socks, pants and shirts in the drawer, junior microscope, chemistry set and television screen. Yes, it looks cheap, but again it’s the lack of anything striking visually that make me slightly disinterested. Oh, and the rear door – the one that Avon barges through is a bit ‘balsa’.
Meanwhile Servalan’s cruiser is more interesting visually, but here the tone is wrong. It’s all a bit ‘bling.’ Take the golden trims around the podium she sits at, and the red leather seating. The configuration of the control unit faces away from the camera, towards the rear of the set. This echoes her previous star cruiser set used in season C. But again the layout just looks somewhat odd, and reminds me more of a social club than a ship. And it’s full of beige, and dark brown, and is responsible for what I find to be unengaging visual feel of season D. Sorry.
HOW TO SELL THIS TO AN UNBELIEVER?
You can’t. Therefore the non-believer will probably like it. To your dismay.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
It’s the Darrow slip. No contest.
THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET.
The very first shot of Justin flapping his arm.
VERDICT IN TEN WORDS EXACTLY
There has to be a last place in the polls.