“You wouldn’t mistake me for anyone else.”
Villiany. Boo, hiss, boo!
I have a hazy memory of an interview in an old issue of DreamWatch Bulletin (DWB) where, if I recall correctly, Chris Boucher talks about Jacquenine Pearce’s wonderfully flamboyant persona. He recounts a story involving her attempts to park her car at BBC Television Centre, and an encounter with the attendant at the gate. It goes something like this.
And off Jacqueline goes to be a star in a space adventure. However there are phone calls made to the production gallery, along the lines of “She’ll have to move the car!”
And it’s that flamboyance that makes it on to the screen. It makes Servalan’s villainy ever more delicious.
On screen, the character of Servalan has been much discussed. But watching her first performance in ‘Seek-Locate-Destroy’ is fascinating in itself. It’s clearly a whirlwind of a character, performed in a totally unique manner. Yet her first episode only hints at greater things to come. Being spoilt, idle, vicious. But those suggestions are still very pronounced. Like a rule book of how to be a villain.
The first clue is in her opening moments when she walks behind Rontane and Bercol as they speak. Yep, walking behind someone is a good old-fashioned power-trip type thing to do. Then around 25 minutes into the episode, she tells her receptionist to make Travis wait – the first moment we understand how Servalan ticks.
However it’s not until her next episode ‘Project Avalon’ that she really arrives. She drops her coat onto the floor. That’s the clincher. The moment we understand that she will be a force to be reckoned with. That single action immediately demotes Travis to number two villain, following his moment in the sun during those first two appearances.
As far as villainy goes, Servalan writes the rulebook for Blake’s 7. In ‘Rumours of Death’ she uses a gun to turn a scene into an erotically suggestive moment. In ‘Weapon‘ it’s her hand that caresses Coser’s torso. Oh, and again she is positioned behind these characters, and not face to face.
This is a brand of villainy that is all about psychology and manipulation, as opposed to direct in your face expressions of malevolence. There are few snarls, or sneers. There are hardly any shouts, screams or outward aggression, and I can’t think of any occasions she actually laughs out loud at the misfortune of her victims.
If Servalan is the expression of the Blake’s 7 brand of malevolence, are there are other moments of villainy that stand out for this viewer? To work this out, I simply compiled a list based on things that stuck in my mind over the years.
The sneery relish in how Travis says “won’t be long now” to Cally in ‘Seek-Locate-Destroy.’
The choice of words from Travis to the Doctor, also in ‘Seek-Locate-Destroy.’
The way Kayn puts his feet up, delaying Gan’s vital operation in ‘Breakdown.’
The cruel way Largo whines “all right” as he pushes Hanna away in ‘Shadow.’
The patronising way Provine says “No” to delay the eponymous ‘Countdown.’
The way Klegg introduces himself…to himself in ‘Powerplay.’
The way Baban “will have IT open!” in ‘City at the Edge of the World.’
The crazed way Chel repeatedly says ‘Kill them” in ‘Aftermath.’
The malevolence of the word ‘millions’ uttered in ‘Ultraworld.’
The manic laugh elicited by Belcov, at the start of ‘Games.’
The horrid glee from Atlan, as he forcibly kisses on Dr. Plaxon in ‘Stardrive.’
The unrequited cheek of Egrorian as he tries to seduce Servalan in ‘Orbit.’
The casualness of “Be so good as to pour my guests some wine, Soolin” in ‘Rescue.’
You can see the examples on the video below.
Looking back at the list, what makes these villainous moments, is that they are about signals and psychological behaviour, rather than the glorified depiction of the relish or violence that comes from their actions. They are all coming from the core of the character first, and the evildoing act second. There are plenty of passive aggressive behaviours such as Kayn’s nonchalance in completing Gan’s operation or Travis’ taunting of Cally on Centero.
We also witness villainy that feels like a maladjustment or distorted judgement. The kind of thing that betrays common sense. On paper Egrorian’s little flirt with Servalan via her monitor is very funny, but is also a bit chilling, in that Servalan is the last person you’d want to be displaying that behaviour with. The result? Someone who is both volatile and of questionable sanity.
And with that in mind, the examples that really stick out for me are the ones where the malevolence is expressed in what appears to be clearly normal behaviour to that character. A pathological feel. This sometimes results in chilling nonchalance, or disengagement. I’m thinking of Major Provine’s casual “No!” But also Dorian’s overall charismatic personality, as he offers his guests some wine, and adds the word “really” when telling them they are welcome at the base. This is unnerving and proves that, to be the baddy, you also need to tilt your head back and look down your nose as you deliver your dialogue.
Of course, there are sprinklings of what I consider to be more traditional forms of rabble rousing and nastiness. Chel’s eye rolling and snarling in ‘Aftermath‘ and Bayban’s hissing and cussing are cases in point. But even these feel very instinctual, based on the character make up. Largo is callous, Klegg is focussed, and Atlan is simply excitable.
Blake’s 7 is not simply a tale of good vs evil, like many other dramas of the time. Amidst all the hope to reach a more liberated ideal, its universe is both morally ambiguous and full of varying forms of nasty behaviour. And this is reflected in the way this behaviour is depicted and performed. For all its Federation handguns, neutron blasters, plasma bolts, and drug induced badness, the overall depiction of villainy is more psychological in nature. Like a crime series. It forces the audience to actually think about why people are being bad, rather than just accepting this as a given. Where there is flamboyance, it’s not a pantomime feel, it’s because of this psychological approach. Hidden behind the villainy, are individuals with their own quirks, traits and mannerisms, away from the moustache twirling, shouty, mean and moody approaches of many other dramas, something of which is spoofed nicely in this clip…
We open with a lovely link from the final two notes of the theme tune, onto a neat bit of exposition courtesy of the tannoy announcer. “Attention, please. This is planet Centero communications base control. Routine robot surveillance is now in operation.” It is perhaps the most blatant example of exposition seen in the series at this point, but it is easy to forget that’s a key aim of exposition – to make it more obvious.
And we meet the robot. I understand it has many names in the fan world. I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t well disposed to the robot as a teenager. When your first exposure to Blake’s 7 is the long haul of ‘The Beginning’ VHS tape, I felt I should keep the faith and give ‘Duel’ a chance too. It sounded more exciting and meaty. But I remember that first glimpse of the robot, and thought that this might not be my cup of tea. Luckily I persevered, and that key test was passed. I was going to stick with Blake, no matter how shoddy the robot looked.
It’s easy to simply point the finger at its clunky and smily appearance, but perhaps it’s the sound effect that is equally at fault here, sounding more…digestive in nature. Or like a wind up device. But as the robot does its thing, it occurred to me that I’m incredibly fond of it, like it’s a real standout in the Blake’s 7 universe. I realised that my amusement of it’s cuteness might be the ultimate negative response to its function, but it did make me take notice. In fact, around a similar age, I first watched the television adaptation of ‘The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy’ and, in the haze of a dim and distant past, I recall getting it mixed up with Marvin.
Blake teleports into the world of early Jon Pertwee Doctor Who. Metal piping, steam, ladders and walkways. Oh, and it looks freezing cold.
As the robot unleashes its fiery weapon, I did wonder what the health and safety regulations were for explosive devices and fire risk in industrial complexes.
It’s clearly another cold location, and Gareth Thomas sounds distinctly bunged up. But he’s the star. The show must go on, no matter how congested you are.
On the Liberator, Vila’s reluctance to go down is met by an interesting and rare display of impatience from Gan. It’s a nice little touch, but one that will sadly diminish as the series progresses. In fact, this might be the last time Gan is so ‘motivational’ about getting something done and yet we’re only into the sixth episode.
It was only on this re-watch that I noticed Vere Lorrimer’s clever tactic of filming of the scenes of the outer compound in a particular location, only to then arrive at the gate of the top security section, which is exactly in the same place! It must have reduced the set ups between shots and allowed more time to film as much as possible. He’s proving to be a wily man, that Lorrimer.
After a little dance with the security robot, a locked door, and a bit of jazz flute, Blake and Vila enter the top security section – complete with ‘TOP SECURITY’ serif font that I would expect to see emblazoned on wooden crates containing some kind of hidden cargo, stored inside a goods train in a James Bond movie.
There’s a lovely long shot here that gives the whole world more expanse than there actually is. We have something like six extras marching in formation, but because they are a long way away it feels like more. Also is that a glass shot artwork in the background to give the complex some more distance? It certainly looks so.
Then we have some ‘Rhubarb Rhubarb’ whisperings between Blake and Vila, which leads on to one of Vila’s more memorable confrontations with characters in a dangerous situation. As he talks to the guards in a more aristocratic voice (“I hate vulgarity, don’t you?”) it’s easy to question whether this fits in with his character. It’s certainly brave and confidently delivered. But in the end, it works because it’s Vila – the character you expect some form of comic escapism from.
The downside to the scene is the clobbering of the guards. It’s clumsy in the way it is executed and edited, and won’t go down on Vere Lorrimer’s greatest hits tape.
We’re inside the base now, and we are introduced to an uncompromising Richard Yeoman Clark effect for the cipher room. It’s not only grating, but it’s mixed very high up in sound mix. And why not. Cipher rooms ain’t pretty.
The set is clearly the same as the reactor room in ‘Time Squad’ – another nice touch that allows a stretched budget a little more flexibility.
Knowing Blake’s 7 as we do now – all snapping, and back biting and witty repartee amongst the crew, it’s easy to forget there was a time where they were still getting to know each other. And ‘Seek-Locate-Destroy’ is the end of this period. I love the cheesy moment where Blake congratulates Jenna on a teleport well done, cutting back to Jenna with a very self-satisfied face drawing who knows what onto a mini Etch-a-sketch.
Back on Centero, Cally detains the staff inside an IKEA warehouse. And like IKEA, it’s a tense affair with lots of waiting. Endless waiting.
‘Time Squad’ introduced Gan as someone who experiences pain, but tries to hide it. I couldn’t help but think that, in the discussion with Blake about how many explosive charges to set, David Jackson adds a little reference to this, in the form of a little grimace. If so, perhaps it’s a realisation from the actor that in the absence of meaty dialogue, he might have to resort to unspoken cues.
One of those massive computers that feature in every British sci-fi series ever, makes another appearance, this time to block the doorway. There’s nothing that those computers couldn’t do. We then witness more bravery from Vila, as he actually pursues a Federation guard. However he is unsuccessful in preventing the inevitable, and following some more clunky editing, the alarms ring out.
David Jackson gets his close up, as he rips apart the device. Meanwhile Cally is overpowered in the store-room, and more guards run toward the aforementioned sheet of glass that has been painted on. You can just about make out the reflection in the foreground.
Then there’s a fight between Cally and the guard. Perhaps a fight is not quite the word. It’s more a anti-fight, a well-practiced attempt to create as much untidiness and destruction with minimal effort and contact with things. Like how children effortlessly untidy a previously tidied bedroom.
The bombs go off – again these are really quite impressive explosions considering it’s a gas works.
Everyone is beamed back up to the Liberator – apparently. All is well, once Jenna has played mummy to a bickering Avon and Vila.
On the flight deck, Blake asks for a “retaliation status report” – I’m guessing that this will be called something else as the series progresses. Like in anything, it’s just a matter of time before the lingo settles down.
Back at the teleport bay, Avon talks about Zeta 3 particles. Then eventually…finally… they realise that Cally isn’t there. It’s interesting that some of the later episodes in the whole Blake’s 7 run notes the close-knit bond between the unit – Dorian makes clear reference to it, but here? Perhaps it was too early. My teenager self remembers them being a bit dim about this.
We’re almost 20 minutes into the episode, and all is ticking along nicely. We fade into a slow and menacing tracking shot and what looks like a circular space station of some kind, and we reach the moment where, after six episodes, Blake’s 7 truly reaches it starting point. Federation Space Command. Full of nice gleaming whiteness inside.
The first scene is fascinating. Clearly Rontane and Bercol’s function is to give the audience a clear indication of Blake’s menace to the Federation, but watching Servalan throughout Rontane’s first speech is also very interesting – she is clearly listening with one ear, whilst simultaneously working out how to play both of these representatives with her words, and deft body language. Nicely done.
What is also nicely done is that Servalan uses her decision to appoint Travis as a tool to deflect from the traditional one-upmanship that is clearly taking place in this dialogue. The president wants Blake’s head, and Servalan needs to give it, so there is nothing more that can be said. Servalan steers the conversation away from this, by using this contentious decision. It’s a great set up to Travis’ introduction later in the episode.
Servalan’s line “he has no time for the dirty grey areas of your politics” is brilliant. Literally minutes into our first proper understanding of the higher echelons of the Federation, we now understand that there are tensions within. Tensions that will slowly grow over the next two series. That’s one of Terry Nation’s master strokes.
Some sombre music heralds a nice scene between Blake and a forthright Jenna, whose words affect Blake and builds a deeper connection between the two of them. If anything I would have loved to see more of this from Jenna over the two seasons. For me, she needed to be Blake’s judge and jury. It would have made her character stronger, and in turn highlighted Blake’s decision-making further, giving it more prominence and also giving Jenna the chance be seen as less secondary to Blake. A win-win.
Back on the satellite, and next into the office is Rai. He is described as an old friend, but check out Servalan’s knowing ‘yes’ and smile when Rai says he values their friendship a great deal. However the conversation soon turns frosty. Once again it is interesting to see how Servalan responds to Rai’s misgivings – she is clearly affected, but very quickly delivers her non-negotiable response. It’s an important character moment. This is turning into a busy day at the office.
And on that note, the next person into the office is Travis. I love the moment between Rai’s departure and the space commander storming in. It’s a small but notable opportunity to see Servalan with her guard slightly down – a very rare occurrence in the four seasons.
Despite Vere Lorrimer’s slightly clumsy day at the gas works, his reveal of Travis is excellent, with his face not being revealed right at the start. We need to hear his voice first. And when we do see him, Stephen Grief’s “Depend on it” is a memorable introduction and a clear motivation. It’s all we need to know really.
Jenna isolates the Federation signal beam with the greatest sound effect ever. Weeeee-eeee-ooooo-uuummmm-weeeee-eeeee. And we get a nice little zoom into a sweaty Blake as he realises that Travis is still alive. I enjoyed this little moment. It’s raw and not cosy.
There’s a nice scene between Prell and Travis that give us a sense of how Travis operates…and how Prell struggles to operate a weird ‘do I put it to my mouth or ear’ type communicator.
Pow! Travis’s next big line. “Her luck ran out when she didn’t die.” I can imagine that, after six weeks, there will be pockets of the audience who would be itching for some really nasty villainy. Raiker had a sadistic streak, and Vagus was determined, but here, Travis displays real nastiness as he shows complete disregard for another persons life. And as we witness Travis looking through pictures of Blake on the space station, we realise one thing – he is an obsessive, like Blake. An advocate of total war.
This is an episode of back stories – the tensions between Servalan and the president, old friends, and now the tale of how Blake and Travis met. But the way these previous narratives all connect drive the pace of this episode nicely. It is rattling along at a good pace. And it has got space age paper cups with silver tape around it too. Clearly the budget wouldn’t stretch to a Thermos flask.
The dialogue is pretty memorable too. Travis is getting the best material. As well he should – it’s his episode. I loved the moment when he replaces the word “property” to “concern” of the interrogation division.
With ten minutes to go we reach the final strand in the story as Travis sends a message that Blake will intercept. The rendezvous is set.
And with that we reach a little montage sequence, as the preparations are made at the communications centre. In my post of ‘Sarcophagus‘ I noticed a mid-point ‘interlude’. This sequence feels similar.
Inside a moodily lit room, Travis discusses the plan with the base commander. I love the CSO shot of technicians doing what technicians do – something about detecting Molecular Shifts in some 1970’s laboratory. Production values aside, it is a notable little cut, and adds a little bit of verisimilitude to it, like we’re dropping into a documentary.
But soon we return to the wonderful melodrama. Greif’s delivery of the line “I hope you’re not too uncomfortable…won’t be long now” is wonderfully sneery, and self-assured.
So what of Stephan Grief’s performance? It’s rightly lauded. It’s full of presence, but as touched upon during this blog post, it’s rare for him to play the part as a out-and-out villain. He is simply a very focussed and determined individual, and that is dangerous. That is very dangerous.
However, like Wile E. Coyote, his plan goes up in smoke, thanks to the strategy Terry Nation established earlier in the episode. The ending contains a nice line by Blake about his reason for not killing Travis. This is something that re-occurs throughout Blake’s 7. After all these years of wondering why didn’t Blake just kill him, I’ve started to come around to his thinking. It actually it makes sense – if it’s not Travis, it’ll just be someone else. “You don’t matter enough to kill, Travis.” Perhaps the problem with these end scenes are twofold; they are somewhat throwaway, and Blake has to turn super-smug to deliver the final humiliation.
As Blake and Cally depart, we hear a little anguished cry from Travis which I thought was hilarious. It’s not just Servalan who is having a bad day in the office.
The supporting cast is very…supporting in this one. Out of them all, Peter Craze gets the best screen time, and more of a look-in than his later appearance in ‘Sand’. Apart from his attempts to work out the communicator, it’s quite a nice performance. I particularly loved the moment he discovers which item Blake stole, and sends his message to Space Command like he’s in for the biggest promotion ever, although he’s not even likely to get any kind of thank you from Travis. Elsewhere Ian Cullen, of Doctor Who ‘The Aztecs’ fame, gets a surprisingly small role as the base commander. Ian Oliver and Astley Jones pop up from time to time in other series of the era, but for my money Blake’s 7 is where they will be most noticed.
And of course this episode features Peter Miles and John Bryans, who will pop up again in Blake’s 7. But I also wanted to note Frank Maher, stuntman of many cult television series and films, who gets proper face time as he gives us a glimpse of the man behind the Federation helmet.
Despite the clumsy editing, the location scenes will remain something I’m fond of, as these are the moments that I started to think that I might actually enjoy this series, when I watched it for the first time all those years ago. And every time I see the gas works appearing in ‘The Professionals’ or ‘Sweeny!’ it reminds of the specific televisual era of which Blake’s 7 belongs to.
I really enjoyed this episode. It uses back stories to drive the narrative, rather than to simply add colour. The pay off at the end is quite satisfying too, even if it is not the most sophisticated episode of them all. But it doesn’t need to be. There’s more than enough content and new characters to keep us amused.
There’s some nice music here. Moments that will stick in the mind. I love the score that accompanies Vila’s opening of the ‘top security’ gates. It perfectly captures the swagger of the thief, without losing the drama. Here, we have what sounds like Harpsichord, Vibraphone and Flute. And then he have the rhythmic march of Space Command. A series of deep brassy notes that will be synonymous with the ‘dark side.’ The equally military type music that sounds during the interlude on Centero takes this theme further. This is a great Dudley Simpson score.
Based on his frequent contribution to whatever Monty Python thew at him in the early 1970’s, production designer Robert Berk, is clearly a versatile pair of hands. In this episode, many of his set designs are functional or re-dressed versions of what have gone before. His main contribution is the interior of the hostage room on Centero, using a familiar cubed surface (see ‘Gambit‘) and also Space Command, using Jeremy Bear’s famous triangular patterns seen on many telefantasy series of the era. Like many designs, they look very good on film. These are economical sets that are helped by some sympathetic lighting. He also re-uses the “K’ shaped columns that are a mainstay of season A, alongside Blake’s ‘torture chamber’ from ‘The Way Back‘. I also noticed Travis using Laylan’s ‘Battleships’ device that he used to send a message from the London to central control.
Functional then, but these designs are effective for the episode. Berk has a good eye for bringing in items created elsewhere. I’m uncertain if Servalan’s desk is original, but it looks great. Joe Colombo’s famous chair “Eldra”, which was named after his wife, features for the first time in Blake’s 7. Designed in 1963, the chair was part of Colombo’s futuristic style, experimenting and using innovative production methods and materials. Whilst the chair will be most famous to science fiction fans, it is worth noting some of his later work which followed an integrated approach, bringing together kitchens, beds, dining and so on into one single unit – making it fascinating as a concept, a good prediction of the future, and interesting to look at.
HOW TO SELL THIS TO AN UNBELIEVER?
It’s where Blake’s 7 moves into full gear. Like turning the amplifier to 11. The impatient non-believer would do well to start here, if you doubt they would buy into Blake’s 7.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
The little cry, elicited by Travis, when Blake and Cally teleport back to the Liberator.
THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET.
Probably the fight between Cally and the guard.
VERDICT IN TEN WORDS EXACTLY
It’s got Servalan. It’s got Travis. We’re up and running.