TITLE SEQUENCES (and a bit about assorted starscapes.)

This is a new post for the 40th anniversary, although it contains some material previously published in the posts for ‘Aftermath’ and ‘The Way Back’.

It’s November 1983, and it’s raining outside.  And on a dining room window ledge overlooking the back garden is a copy of a magazine that my Mum and Dad have thought I might like.  It is the Radio Times 20th anniversary celebration of Doctor Who.  For this 5-year-old it was just full of pictures, and really captured my imagination.  In the days before I could get my hands on VHS cassette tapes of the series, it gave me both a sense of what I had never seen before, and an even greater sense that I was missing out on so much.  But the page I turned to again and again was the first double spread, containing screen shots of the title sequences featuring the first five Doctors.  The imagery within really intrigued me, especially the dark, faint mysterious streaks of white light of Patrick Troughton’s sequence.

That single spread was a catalyst for my interest and occasional study into on-screen graphic design during my college and university years.  And here I am now, still fascinated by it.

As a child I used to get a real sense of excitement when the early 1980’s BBC1 globe logo would appear to announce the next episode of Doctor Who.  (Season 21 was the peak of my excitement.)  Then there was that first starburst, and accompanying radiophonic sting created by Peter Howell that gripped me.  And as Peter Davison’s face emerged from the star clusters to a powerful bass line, I was hooked.  As a five year old, there really was no better title sequence.  Looking back it is the perfect successor to Bernard Lodge’s rightly celebrated time tunnel, as it taps into 1980’s design sensibilities of neon lettering and the ‘streaks’ of multiple exposure.  But more on this in a moment.

Perhaps the fascination with the art form that is the title sequence is down to the fact that it is actually a really complicated calculation.  It needs to give the audience a hook – a reason to keep watching, and to encapsulate the modus operandi of the programme it serves.  It needs to be visually striking and also needs to keep an eye on audience expectations and design sensibilities.

The Blake’s 7 title sequence comes at a curious time in the history of title sequences for television and film.  It goes something like this.  In the 1950’s Saul Bass transforms the opening of a film through animated sequences for films directed by Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock.  The Man with the Golden Arm, Vertigo, and Psycho to name but a few.  The art of the title sequence is born.

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The influence of Bass is felt by graphic designers in the UK, including Alan Jeapes, Charles McGhie, and notably (in sci-fi circles) Bernard Lodge, who transforms many television dramas through a series of innovative sequences for shows such as Adam Adamant, Detective and famously the original titles for Doctor Who.

Then, generally speaking, the impact of the title sequence in both film and television was less pronounced until Kyle Cooper’s sophisticated take on the intricacies of a serial killer for David Fincher’s 1996 film Se7en.  This re-energised the art form, and, in turn, influenced the first wave of excellent sequences for HBO dramas such as ‘Six Feet Under’, which was the catalyst for the exciting creative energy we are witness to today.

In 2004 I visited the Kemistry Gallery in London to see ‘Timeframes’ – an exhibition showcasing the pioneering work of Jeapes, McGhie and Lodge (see video above.)  What struck me was the way that the movements of otherwise still imagery could be juxtaposed and sequenced to create the narrative, avoiding the need to rely on elaborate animated sequences.  And it’s this that reminds me of Blake’s 7.  Like the show itself, it can’t rely on sophisticated production techniques, it has to rely on excellent imagery, plotting and narrative building.

Enter Bob Blagden.  An assistant to Alan Jeapes, his big chance came with a re-brand of ‘Top of the Pops’ in 1973.  Using US culture such as jukeboxes, and bringing in a pop art sensibility, he came up with the distinctive circular logo used, on and off, to this day.  In 1977 he took Terry Nation’s concept and turned it into one of the finest television title sequences of the 1970’s.

When I first watched the opening titles for Blake’s 7, following a steady diet of Doctor Who, I initially didn’t like it.  Having grown up the on the sophisticated techniques used in Doctor Who I wasn’t prepared for seeing clearly animated, almost cartoon style visuals on-screen.  What?  Animation doesn’t belong to 1970’s BBC science fiction surely!?   The narrative approach to the Blake’s 7 title sequence also set it apart from Doctor Who, which up until that point used abstract imagery to communicate its core theme – not space, but the unknown.

Today, with older and wiser eyes, I can’t stress how good this sequence is.  And I understand why.  Terry Nation had a clear idea how the opening should look (I wonder how many writers think about the titles when they write) and while the eventual sequence was very different from Nation’s notes, there is the central theme of surveillance,  which prepares the audience for the drama that is about to unfold over the next 50 minutes.

This feels like a natural progression from Terry Nation’s previous drama series, Survivors (BBC 1975 – 77.)  This sequence opens with a scientist (in fact the producer, Terence Dudley) who drops a phial containing a lethal virus that spreads around the world. This alone establishes the backstory, something of which is not depicted in the series itself.  The narrative unfolds through a well crafted mix of images that highlight the scientist falling ill, overlays of aircraft, transport, and passport stamps that documents the virus’s rapid spread across the planet, and ultimately a suffocating and pessimistic blood-red final shot, clearly echoing the tone of the drama series.  Combined with a powerful theme tune, it’s an outstanding example of storytelling in 30 seconds or so.

So on to Blake.  Accompanied by a brooding, almost mournful music score, we open with an Earth dome – the genesis of the opera that is about to unfold.  We cut to mosaiced imagery of Blake being tortured, and the introduction of a Federation guard firing at the camera.  This is a great shot.  A harshly lit saturated blood-red image against a vivid blue backdrop.   It is pure danger and threat, and an image that sticks in the mind.

With the word ‘ELIMINATE’ and the image of Blake’s face shooting off into the distance, a key part of Blake’s backstory is established as this enemy of the state is banished, seemingly forever.  However there is hope, as the soundtrack turns triumphant and the image of the Liberator travels towards the camera and past it again, rising from the ashes.   The Federation symbol and the almost comic book style lettering suggests an action orientated series, and the space adventure described in the publicity material.  It crowns everything that is great about this sequence.

These titles tell a story that both anticipates what is to come in the first few episodes of the first series, and serves as a reminder of the overall premise in the remainder of season A and B, until the universe changes post ‘Star One’.  The production values highlight the budgetary limitations of the show, but sometimes this can have a beneficial effect, especially the overall comic book style, and the aggressive strobe like rendering of the animation, highlighted during the first half of the sequence, until the eponymous face disappears into the stars.  This isn’t a slick, stylish universe we are in.  It’s brutal and unforgiving, and the title sequence reminds the audience of this every episode.

For the third season, Blake had gone, and although his name was retained, there was a clear argument for a new story to be told.  The animated approach established by Bob Blagden was retained for this 1980 sequence, this time designed by Douglas Burd.

It’s a mixed bag.  Technically speaking the starfields, plasma bolts and the models of both the Liberator and the Federation pursuit ships are very well realised – being shot on what looks like 35mm film, and inventively lit to give some added depth to the visuals.  In keeping with the comic strip elements of the first title sequence, there are some nice graphic touches of the paths that the spacecraft occupy, resulting in a series of yellow and red strips that give the straightforward sequence a bit of a lift.  This is where the influence behind the title sequence changes from the need to establish the backstory, to emphasising the action in a comic book style.  It reminds me of the opening of the short lived, but memorable ‘Space Sentinals’ cartoon series, an American export, screened by the BBC in the early 1980’s, with its use of ‘trails’ in space, and the not so dissimilar computers onboard which remind me of Zen and Orac, albeit masquerading as a maintenance robot!

There is also still some kind of nod to the format of the show, although as the series progresses, I do wonder whether the ‘Liberator Vs Federation’ is actually the core concept of the third series. It must have been harder to work out a satisfying story, now the series has reached the point of stand alone tales, with less of an overall story arc.

It’s still a good sequence, even it lacks the complexity and storytelling of the first title.  Any effectiveness of the titles is undermined by the crudely animated ships whooshing up and past the camera in the second half of the sequence.   Did the time and money just run out?  Probably.  That’s showbiz.  Graphic designer Douglas Burd was responsible for this sequence, and whilst generally effective, lacks some of the memorable imagery that he was able to bring to some of his other works around this time, such as the use of Matryoshka dolls to convey the identity games of ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ and the ominous impending presence of the alien menace in ‘The Day of the Triffids.’  Perhaps, for a show that has lost its title character, and indeed much of what had existed before, a more symbolic approach might have worked?

For the fourth and final, unexpected series, Douglas Burd finally got the chance of a proper re-boot, visually speaking.  This time the visuals do not come to us, we go towards them.  The point of view perspective is a nice touch, and perhaps subconsciously suggests more a sense of threat and the need to keep moving, akin to the computer ‘space battle’ games that were starting to arrive on the market around this time.  The illuminated visual display re-enforces this, and reminds me of the animated sequences featured in the 1981 BBC adaptation of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ – the title sequence of which was also designed by Douglas Burd.

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Doug Burd’s acetates for season D title sequence. (Courtesy of ‘The Prop Gallery.)

The hand drawn animation of the previous sequences are now a thing of the past, and in its place is a simple concept as the camera tracks past a planetary surface, and does some kind of orbital three-point turn, before a dark and slight foreboding planet travels away into the distance.

At this point there is a nod to the previous logo, as we are witness to a flash of light, and some graphical touches that suggest a Federation badge, but appears to be designed specifically for the new logo which uses very stylised typeface.  In fact this logo is very much a case of ‘style over substance.’  Usually this term is suggested as a criticism, but here I would say that the production values are pretty good, and it does a fair, and mostly harmless job at suggesting the tone and content of the series.  Perhaps there is an argument that there could have been a more ambitious approach in relating to the season D set up,  but we’re now well and truly into the era of the 1980’s, where how things look is paramount, and achieving a good look equates to something impactful.

Another element that is interesting to me, is the use of Dieter Steffmann’s ‘Tobago’ typeface for the episode captions and closing credits.  It’s intriguing in that it fits within a futuristic setting, yet it is ever so slightly gothic in its appearance.  Its predecessor ‘Aquarius’ used in seasons A-C felt futuristic and modern at the point it was designed. (See ‘The Way Back‘ for more on this.)

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As mentioned at the start, Blake’s 7 sits within a curious time for television title sequence design.  In fact, thinking about the concepts of the three title sequences during the lifespan of Blake’s 7, I’m reminded of another BBC series broadcast during the same period – hence it’s inclusion in this post.  I’m referring to ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’, a long running BBC music show of the 1970’s/80’s, a series fondly remembered for its rich archive of performances, and also occasionally lampooned for its laid back presentational style.  Another highly regarded graphic designer, Roger Ferrin, designed the sequence in 1971.  Like Doctor Who, it makes little reference to the obvious.  Where ‘Who’ was devoid of stars and planets and recognisable imagery, ‘OGWT’ removed familiar references to musicality in favour of a more spiritual and symbolic approach, perhaps in keeping with the enigmatic title of the show.  And the sequence contained more stars than the entirety of 60s/70’s Doctor Who!

But the narrative, or whatever it is that we pick up on, somehow reminds me of the first Blake’s 7 title sequence.  There is definitely some kind of story unfolding.  A figure literally rises from the flames, and in a sea of stars the outline of the ‘starkicker’ as it is known literally kicks a star, at which point the title of the show appears.  And just like the first Blake’s 7 sequence, it’s full of memorable imagery, which is likely to stick in the mind of the audience.  Which it did.

In 1983, Roger Ferrin finally returned to the sequence that had run successfully for 12 years.  His job was to give it a refresh away from the slightly psychedelic and spiritual late 1960’s/early 1970’s and towards at more snappy 1980’s aesthetic.  It makes me think of a computer game.  Cue streaks of light, lasers, and atmospheric model shots as the camera passes through some kind of rocky terrain with what looks like speakers, and other means of carrying sound waves.  Again, it is all very ‘Hitchhikers’ in its aesthetic.

It reminds me of the season C titles for Blake’s 7 in that it was only used in one series, designed to give the brand a bit of a refresh by necessity, and in the fact that it is reasonably good, but not as successful in my eyes as the original.  In the case of ‘OGWT’ the production values of the sequence veer from brilliant (the craggy cavern, and some of the streaks of light) to the ‘already dated’ (the ploppy pan pipe synthesised theme music, jittery animation of the rock texture, and the ‘computerised’ text – which ‘Hitchhikers’ had already nailed perfectly years before.)

And then there are comparisons to the concluding Blake’s 7 title sequence in the way that the third and final Whistle Test introduction wipes the slate clean, and brings in something completely new.

By 1984, the words ‘Old’ and ‘Grey’ had been removed from the ‘Whistle Test’ brand – the producers perhaps worried that the audience will see the show as exactly that, in a post punk environment where other series were proving to be stiffer competition, such as Chanel 4’s ‘The Tube’.  So in came a new stylised studio set for perhaps the first time.  This was full of 1980’s imagery; chic venetian blinds, postmodern marble columns and black leather sofas (see ‘The Page of Fear‘ for more about this form of 1980’s iconography.) As a result, graphic designer Martin Foster came in and created a sequence centered around a snappily dressed mannequin, complete with sunglasses, who is surrounded by lasers, Polaroid cameras and other contemporary themes.  This sequence is cut to an extensive re-working of the Whistle Test theme ‘Stone Fox Chase’ created by Dave Stewart from UK pop duo Eurythmics.

Like the season D titles for Blake’s 7, this really is a case of style first, and content second.   In the case of Whistle Test, the sequence as much represents the business behind the music industry, as much as the previous sequences represented something more symbolic and innocent.  With Blake’s 7 I felt that its final sequence removed the 2D animated sequences and moved towards a more realistic depiction of space and the stars – the ‘Star Wars’ slickness finally catching up with the series.  The style is a key consideration in both these sequences, but it is worth noting that the content is pretty good and appropriate for the era, and in both cases it represents a final flourish for the respective series.

So this is the story of the title sequence in the era of Blake’s 7 and The Old Grey Whistle Test. A perfect snapshot of the shift in style that happened between the the late 1970’s and the first few years of the 1980’s.  At first there was the need to tell a good story using distinctive imagery, then create a follow-up sequence due to circumstances of time and changes in format, and then finally work out a totally new approach emphasising the style and tastes of the 1980’s, with a move away from metaphoric imagery to tell a story, to more ‘slick’ production values.  And returning to the thrill of the starbursts and clusters of Peter Davison’s Doctor Who titles, this is why I thought Sid Sutton’s ‘starfield’ titles were the perfect successor to Bernard Lodge’s more abstract approach – more literal, very direct, but equally as super-duper exciting to watch, especially if you are a child.

Thinking back to the first few frames of Blake’s 7 in January 1978, I think that Bob Blagden’s creative output is one of the last hurrahs of the 1970’s era of title sequence design for television.  Even as the sequence was aired, the changes I have hinted at, relating to design sensibilities, tastes and emerging technologies were already happening.  A good barometer is Pat Gavin’s work for ‘The South Bank Show’ (ITV 1978) which also used traditional animated methods, but as the 1980’s kicked in, we see a stylistic shift through the increasing use of the bad-ass ‘scanimate’ video synthesiser, motion controlled camera work and the initial steps of the famed ‘Quantel Paintbox.’  There is also the inclusion of the epitome of early to mid 1980’s design aesthetics: ‘Tron’ like computer grids, bursts of light, and lasers, all of which are referenced nicely through a number of sequences I remember clearly, namely the BBC schools programme ‘Zig Zag’ and the sinister build up and climax to the Channel 4 documentary strand ‘Equinox’.  Very quickly, the production techniques behind the first Blake’s 7 title sequence were a thing of yesterday, but the way the story is told in those 40 seconds is timeless.

http://www.thepropgallery.com/season-4-title-sequence-acetates
https://themorrisonstudio.com/blog/2013/05/08/bob-blagden-designer-of-the-totp-logo (1) (accessed March 2017)
http://www.marksimonson.com/notebook/view/industrial-art-methods-december-1972 (2) (accessed March 2017)

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