D01 – RESCUE (and a bit about the performance.)

“The smallest movement is all it takes…”

One of the most striking differences between ‘Rescue’ and its previous episode is how Paul Darrow is handling the material that he is delivering.  In ‘Terminal’, recorded roughly 12 months before, his Avon is moody, brooding and dangerous through generally subtle acting touches.   In ‘Rescue’ these touches have now become flourishes, as we will explore throughout this review.

In this episode the key character of Dorian is played by Geoffrey Burridge, someone who pops up from time to time in various things I have seen.  I recall reading some reviews of this episode many moons ago, and I was struck by how opinion was split regarding Burridge’s performance.  Some saw it as a charismatic turn, while others felt his histrionics were too… histrionic.

I enjoyed his contribution, but it got me thinking about how I view a performance – something of which is hardly an exact science.  In my review of ‘Aftermath’ I discussed the performance of Cy Grant as Hal Mellanby.  While I acknowledged the fact I was being very uncharitable, I felt that his delivery was at odds with a character that had hidden depths (excuse the pun) combined with a long, complex and traumatic backstory.  Unfair perhaps, but as the ethos of this blog is what I pick up from ‘Watching Blake’s 7‘ then that is what stood out for me.

At this roughly half way point, there is one significant thing I’m discovering as I blog about this series, and it relates to how I view the performances.    I’m finding it increasingly difficult to feel that a performance can actually be ‘poor’, or not up to scratch.  This is especially true of performances that I had previously disliked.

Any review is inevitably going to discuss opinions about the acting, and looking at my own blog posts, it’s something I’ve felt compelled to talk about.   When I started this year-long quest (which of course will take longer than a year) I did tell myself to try to avoid any criticism without really being able to back it up.  However those gut-instinct views still come through the woodwork.  So here I am, thinking whether there is actually such a thing as a bad performance.

Let’s take an example that is mentioned in various reviews – the part of Piri in ‘Assassin’.  (Apologies Caroline Holdaway if you are reading this, but I hope you understand the overall sentiment.)  The character of Piri is deeply irritating, and the performance matches up to this trait.  But Holdaway is clearly responding to the script where Piri is a pathetic individual who is prone to hysterics.  If it is tough to take, it’s because of the writing – deliberate or otherwise.  If she screams in an overly dramatic way at the end, it’s because the director (who I believe let through a number of misplaced, but not necessarily bad performances) decided that this is what was required.   However the portrayal of Piri might be a masterstroke, because her irritating nature immediately aligns the audience with Soolin who vocally expresses her displeasure of Piri, leading us to join her as she solves the puzzle of who Cancer really is.

Frieda Knorr’s portrayal of Governor Le Grand in ‘Voice from the Past’ has also come in for criticism by some, but I feel her pompous, self-righteous persona, complete with heavily enunciated speech fits perfectly with the characteristics of this type of politician.  Would her ‘Skype’ call with Servalan to check the security arrangements of the Atlay summit been anywhere near as delicious a scene if Knorr had toned down her performance?

And if we did go down that route, wouldn’t we be really taking Brian Blessed to task…for being Brian Blessed?

There are some very controlled performances to be found, and these work very well indeed.  The performances of Ronald Lacey and Paul Daneman in ‘Killer’ spring to mind, alongside John Bown’s Durkim in ‘Star One’.  But these also work because they sit within performances that are a bit more extroverted.

But this is not a docudrama nor an exercise in vérité, this is a multi camera television production, with its origins rooted firmly in the world of theatre.  So we need a more overtly ‘acted’ approach where the Ultra “obey without quest-tee-on“, Tarrant descends any staircase as like he is a quiz show host, and Gola cries out for his beloved Jenna as though he is throwing up.

When I reviewed ‘Volcano’ I was struck by how some of the smaller characters come across as a slightly idiosyncratic.  Take the Mutoid, performed by Judy Matheson.  It’s a good performance, and I like the fact that she is taking something very shallow, and giving it a bit of attitude – something for Jacqueline Pearce to play off against.   But when I first watched it, I was wrong footed by the fact she was delivering her lines and motivation in a way that is contrary to what we understand a Mutoid to be – this is clearly a discrepancy in the way it is written, and not in the performance.

And that’s where Paul Darrow’s season D performance fits in for me.  It definitely contains added theatrics, more elaborate body movement, playful tone of voice, and more frequent narrowing of the eyes.  But the jolt is the fact that it’s a departure from the way he performed the Avon of old.  Some have said that it fits in with the mental strain of his character, but I don’t agree.  I think Darrow decided to approach the overall performance differently and deliberately.  And while it sometimes teeters on the brink of being overly theatrical, secretly I love it.

So as I re-watch these episodes, I’m beginning to think there is no such thing as a ‘bad’ performance – merely an uncharitable option of them.  So I’m sorry Cy Grant – “you WERE magnificent!

EPISODE DISCUSSION

Oh look!  New titles.  There’s a lot to consider in this blog post, so this element of the series will be covered in another season D entry.  In the meantime here is a wonderful reworking of the sequence by a Basil Funkenstein, who has posted a few other excellent recreations of other title sequences.

And straight in we go.  After 18 months off the screen it is a brave decision to go right into the action, almost as a continuation of the events immediately before it.   No re-caps, and no opportunity to re-establish the location or the situation that we are witness to.  It’s typically Blake’s 7, where there is no time to breathe.  This decision is jarring, but it’s not necessarily a bad one.  The production team presumably knew that its audience would re-join them, and it suggests that there wasn’t any real thinking about trying to build new viewers into a re-booted series.   The first lines suggest the difficulty they are facing, but doesn’t make reference to the wider situation they are in.  And it could be argued that the rest of the episode follows this approach – details of the past are uttered, but the wider context is not.  This is a here and now episode.

Paul Darrow lowers his viewfinder, pauses and shouts “MOVE!”  With the benefit of hindsight this is the first moment where his acting style changes towards a ‘star of the show’ mode.  It’s very theatrical, and self-aware, and a far cry from the Avon of ‘Terminal’ (the episode, not the planet.)

And move they do, as explosive stock footage from ‘Weapon’ appears.  The one where the ground wobbles.  You could argue that it is perfect for Terminal’s terraforming.  It was a good explosion and I can see why they used it again.

Avon gets out the way of an exasperated Dayna.  It says something about his mindset that he chooses to not to pick a fight with her, as opposed to seeing her possibly die in an explosion or at the hands of a creature.  Even in ‘Terminal’ (the episode) he still made arrangements and commands that had, at its heart, the safety of the crew in mind.  But since then an awful lot has just happened.

Dayna marches on and into a path of a lifeform intent on having some close up interaction.  It’s a pretty good prop, and hats off to all concerned in the way it was not only manoeuvred, but carefully shot and edited to not show off any potential shortcomings.

Dayna “Don’t you ever get bored being right”
Avon “Just with the rest of you being wrong.”
Yep, this is definitely a Boucher script.

Hang on – it’s Avon’s folly that has just resulted in the destruction of the Liberator.  They’re a forgiving lot this unit – after what they’ve been through together, surely they can’t fail to care for each other?

My oh my – it looks so cold on location.  Tarrant spends a lot of time on the floor, which is probably the warmest place.

There’s a nice little character moment as Vila rescues Tarrant, and then very cautiously walks back to the entrance of the underground base.  Keating plays it as though he knows Cally is probably dead, but as soon as Cally whispers “Vila“, his instinct is to overcome his fear and run straight in.  It’s like a bond to the original crew – after what they’ve been through together…OK you get the idea.

However Vila is unsuccessful in his rescue.  The base explodes as Cally cries “Blake” which is a very poetic and poignant moment in the whole four series, and gives the audience an entire world of possibilities to think about why she would cry his name out.  Even the explosion is a bit surreal as the long shot of the base and the blast are cross faded into each other in an almost dream like way – quite apt for Cally’s character.

Bye bye Cally – you brought a lot, in an understated way.

The visual aesthetic of season D really kicks in, as we move to a very different style of model effect, with the new spacecraft being superimposed onto a rather over zoomed starscape – I’m guessing a budgetary decision.  If I tug at the strings as to why the resolution of the background is a little iffy, then whole fabric of the universe would collapse, but the ship itself looks really impressive in a completely different way to the Liberator.  The detailing on the model is very visible, and appropriate to the nature of the ship – as we will soon find out.

Inside the ship – Scorpio – we have a very workmanlike interior, a more industrial feel with corrugated metal, and iron and solid materials.  It’s got six seats, and a computer too.  Bonus!  The decision to film the first shot behind a piece of scenery which is situated in the foreground is an excellent touch.  First impressions matter, and it gives the whole set an extra dimension.

The design of Scorpio’s flight deck is an intriguing one to me.  As a set, it’s actually quite impressive in it’s own way, as long as I try not to compare it to the Liberator flight deck.  And it shouldn’t be compared either.  Those days are gone.  This is a very different series now.    But it is difficult.  The Liberator flight deck was such an impressive beast, full of wonder.   This design brings you back to the ground with a thud, but in that respect it does its job very well.

It’s not until the set is used by the five crew that I struggle with the aesthetics more – the seats, the curves of the desks, especially the back row which always looked a bit clunky.  But I do recognise that in terms of the function of the set, it is very appropriate.

We cut to a shot of Terminal.  Well, I’m guessing it’s Terminal, as it was oval before.  Perhaps it’s shot from one of the ends.

Our heroes are sat in the freezing cold on a planet with no means of escape, around a fire talking about a dead crew member whilst trying to fix a non functioning super computer.  This is the pits.  The absolute pits.  The worst moment for the rebels in the whole four series.  If they can survive this, then they can survive anything.  The way Avon responds to Cally’s death with a long pause before saying softly ‘Yes, I’m sure’, hints that her death has affected him in a way that the death of Gan, or the disappearance of Blake and Jenna could ever do.  It’s subtle but significant, and whilst I wish Cally’s death could be touched on further, the fact it isn’t is quite powerful in itself.  Like a quiet remembrance rather than raw emotion.

Vila is dressed as he was on Ultraworld, not ‘Terminal’ (the episode.)  He and Dayna are in trouble down a steep cliff face.  It’s a better slope and direction than the infamous Sarah Jane falls down a slope moment in Doctor Who ‘The Five Doctors’ (1983) – but it looks just as cold.

The creature here is one of Blake’s best.  It’s a classic case of reversing the traditional problem.  Namely, how the script makes certain demands, which are cut back in production.  In this case however, Boucher highlights that “seen briefly and cut fast the creature could be very simple and need not move.”  But I wonder whether Vere Lorrimer thought that it was important to give the start of a new series that has been off-air for 18 months some impact, so perhaps he put a little more of the budget on-screen.

The moment when Doran first appears is really well-directed and acted – a cocky mix of bravado and confident shot selection.  His presence is the first sign that things might just slightly be on the up – even the sun appears to be trying to make an appearance on location around this time.

“You know what they say.  No good deed goes unpunished.”  Again, another bit of dialogue written for Paul Darrow’s showman type of performance.  It’s a great line.

And as for Dorian, I felt that Geoffrey Burridge’s delivery is assured and confident.  This is going to be a great character.  Very well cast indeed.

As we finally depart an unstable Terminal, there is a nice forced perspective model shot of Scorpio on the surface.  If I’m not mistaken, this is a new approach to model work, and it is a good one.

Inside Dorian gets to know about the crew.  Actually they’re not a crew of anything anymore, so I’ll use the word unit.  Vila tries his luck with Dayna in a repeat of his advances on her during ‘Death Watch’ – and again his rebuttal is both subtly delivered, but with no doubt that it is a no.

Some unconvincing bumpy action follows and Dorian knocks himself out – apparently.

Some good old-fashioned “check check check” action takes place and Steven Pacey also gives it 110%  with his “lift you scruffy bag of bolts, lift!

And off they go – away from a planet that they won’t look back on with any particular fondness.

Into the next act now, and we get some more clues about this new series, with some impressive model work taking place, as Scorpio arrives on a planet that will feature heavily in the season.

The dialogue so far is pretty sharp and fizzy, and it is good to see that this is still a high priority in terms of the characteristics of the show.  And it is worth noting that Vila now has his hands on the Federation gun left over from the base.  A clever touch.

Dayna gets her character moment as she looks over the new guns.  She’s reasonably snappy in this episode although she has lost some of her cheeky exuberance.  And Avon’s hair is also new.  His side parting has started naturally forming on its own – unless the comb I hinted at in ‘Headhunter‘ has been deployed.

A sliding door opens and we are introduced to both Xenon base, and Soolin.  The base looks a bit beige and balsa wood and Soolin is very ‘received pronunciation.’

A succession of Western lines capture a showdown between Dorian and Avon, and into the depths of the planet we go.   Vila again hangs on to the Federation gun.  It’s worth remembering that out of all the characters, it is Vila who is doing more than his share of keeping the unit alive.  A good days work.

A security door closes and the stand-off lines between the rebels and a fatigued Dorian continue – this is such sharp writing.

And as we move into the show room, sorry I mean ‘ops room’, Soolin gets to show off her reactions.  I love the look on Avon’s face as he is outdrawn.  Tarrant and Dayna offer a prophetic clue into the motivations behind Dorian’s welcome, and Vila drops his gun on the floor in the aid of another drink.  If there is a scene which sets up the rest of the episode, then this is it.

We go into the unknown with another tracking shot with some foreground scenery in view.  There’s also some nice handheld camera work as Dorian descends the staircase which gives the scene an unsettling feel, enhanced by a brilliant atmosphere created by Elizabeth Parker.  Dorian’s apparent ‘attack’ is also very theatrical, but also very real as he contorts in a way that other actors might not think to consider.

Some time has passed, and the last vestiges of the David Maloney era Blake’s 7 have now been shedded, as all the crew now adorn new outfits that will be the ones that feature frequently in this final series.

Tarrant gives Vila another little tap as he convinces him to open the silo door.  Ever the bully.

Rescue is an interesting re-watch because although it feels like I am watching a story that is half way through, in fact we’re nearing its conclusion. There is so much going in such a small and contained environment it is easy to forget where we are within the episode.

There’s another nice tracking shot as Tarrant and Dayna descend the same circular staircase, and into danger.  “Don’t go into the cellar!”  I cry, echoing a generation of kids in the later series of the BBC children series ‘Rentaghost’.

Back upstairs, Dorian and Avon natter, as he realises that the gun clips have been switched “While I was bathing” – even leading characters need to take a bath.

As we move into the final act, there are so many fascinating questions to be answered.  While this might not be Chris Boucher’s most sophisticated script, by his own exceptionally high standards, it is one of his most enjoyable and satisfying.  When Dorian hints at the properties of the cave using words like ‘appetite’ and ‘vice’ it sets the real tone of this episode, something that sets Blake’s 7 apart from Doctor Who – a focus on the more instinctual and dare I say it grown up elements of the human condition, rather than the more universal nature of Who.  This human condition is central to the episode with any kind of full understanding or explanation of the cave and the creature within it a secondary consideration.

There is another little moment in Paul Darrow’s extra theatrical approach to season D that takes place in this scene.   It’s in the way he delivers the word ‘appetite’ and humours Dorian’s claims.  It’s great, as it mocks the madman, yet we know that the joke is on Avon.

Let’s talk about the gun.  As this episode has continued the Federation blaster not only represents a resolution to the episode, but it also is the link between this new post-Liberator Blake’s 7, and seasons A – C.  Even through this weaponry will still be seen in the series, there is something symbolic about the way that something so familiar provides the answer to an unfamiliar situation.

As the ending takes place and Sea Devil bites the dust, Dorian dies (again) in a very theatrical way, but it is a suitable death in the context of the character.   Some chap called Bruno Tonioli has his moment of stardom and Mary Ridge directs the camera up towards Avon’s a face in a way that mirrors one of the last shots that ends this season.

As Soolin quietly creeps up the steps I felt this was an episode that I appreciated more during this re-watch.  In the past I always experienced it whilst feeling a sense of mourning for the Liberator and Cally, but watching it as a stand alone experience I’m drawn to the colourful and quick fire dialogue, the excellent guest turn by Geoffrey Burridge (his ‘histrionics’ are perfectly pitched for essentially an ‘insane’ character) and how the episode is a bridging episode between ‘then’ and ‘now’ Blake’s 7.   And this is one of the details I have discovered in watching it out of order – I can see these episodes in their own contexts, rather than in the sequential flow of a wider narrative.    This is an episode that had a lot to do: to start a season, to re-boot a show, to introduce a ton of new things, and re-establish the old.  It’s does all of these things successfully enough to suggest the following 12 episodes will be immensely satisfying.

Rob Middleton provides the rough voice of the creature, and as mentioned earlier some bloke from a dance series appears on his back.

MUSIC SCORE
This episode marks the debut of a new arrangement of the closing theme tune.  It’s doesn’t work for me.  It loses its urgency and becomes something that would close a lighter show.   A note too about the incidental music for this series.  There is a subtle shift.  Brassy themes still abound, but there is a particular deep synthy sound that gives this a style all of it’s own.  A good example is the music that accompanies the very first appearance of Scorpio, and the shot of Dorian wandering around alone on the flight deck.  Later in the series we will hear this synth using motifs from the theme tune, as per the previous three series, clearly establishing Scorpio as Liberator replacement.

SET DESIGN

Blake's 7 40th anniversary

Season D is a stripped back affair, and with it a new designer, Roger Cann.  With the loss of the opulent Liberator there is now a design aesthetic that communicates survival and ‘make do’ – take Xenon base for example.  The greys and beige suggest nothing more than concrete and wood, and on closer inspection, it looks like a wood grain effect is visible.  Where the Liberator was fleshed out with alien looking panels, Xenon base is fleshed out with functional ventilation grills.  The diagonal cross sections give a very crude and unappealing aesthetic.  It is so easy to be uncharitable about this design work, and it certainly is the case that I’m not a great fan of this set, but I do recognise that it fulfils its function in the script, and the wider premise of season D.  We have been spoilt.

The interior of Scorpio has been discussed elsewhere in this post, leaving the a cave set as the only design I want to mention.  It is a very functional design, enhanced by sympathetic lighting and dry ice. But what is easy to forget is that it is one of a few sets in the entirety of Blake’s 7 that has some kind of ceiling that requires action to take place.  The logistics of this must have been extra complicated, so the stripped back lighting clearly helps with this.

HOW TO SELL THIS TO A NON BELIEVER?
As one that borrows from Dorian Grey.

MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
Dorian’s “You mean you’re here by choice?”

MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
The purist in me, does struggle with the model shot of ‘Terminal’.

VERDICT IN 10 WORDS EXACTLY
Quite compelling, in a grey and beige sort of way.

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