D13 – BLAKE (and a bit about beginnings.)

I’m publishing these words on the 2nd of January 2018 – 40 years to the day that Blake’s 7 first aired on BBC television.  On paper, ‘The Way Back’ would appear to be the most appropriate episode to focus on, but that story has already been told.  So instead of leaving that blog post alone, I chose to revisit it, and give it a good old spit and polish.  This new post can be found here.

Being an anniversary, I wanted to talk about the theme of beginnings.  My review of ‘Weapon‘ explored the different methods of starting a Blake’s 7 production.  But as the majority of people reading this will have experienced all 52 episodes, I was thinking more about the idea of the ‘pilot episode’ – the start of something.  And this led me to the very last episode of televised Blake’s 7.

And while I was reviewing ‘Blake’, there was another thing that I started to think about.   This related to the habits involved when watching Blake’s 7.  It occurred to me that I have always watched it in binges, rather than a weekly event as it would have been viewed on its original broadcast.  I was thinking of the series I have recently watched; House of Cards, House of Lies, Mozart in the Jungle, Borgen.  Series that are often consumed at once.  It’s the way Netflix and Amazon prime us.  Yet it all feels so familiar, because of Blake’s 7.  The serial nature means another episode is never too far away from the one I’m watching currently.  But watching ‘Blake’ always leaves one key question.  When you finally reach the end, what is next?

EPISODE DISCUSSION
As the titles rolled I still can’t quite believe that this is it.

BLAKE
BY
CHRIS BOUCHER

 

 

We open with a mournful score as we see the model footage of Xenon base one last time, before the explosions ring out.  It’s been a good model, and certainly a signature piece for season D.

We’re only 90 seconds in, and so much has happened.  This start of this episode is typical of Blake’s 7 as a whole, in that it doesn’t hang around.

But it is time for the post-mortem.    It’s interesting to see the restrained yet visible reactions from the crew as Slave announces that Xenon base has been completely destroyed, along with any idea of an expanded anti Federation alliance.

In my mind, the biggest moment in this episode happens right here.  Soolin identifies the end of the current fight, but Avon very quickly turns the conversation towards something new, something ahead of everyone.  A future.  A new figurehead.  Even if the decision is rooted in self-preservation, it’s a nice end point to Avon’s slow metamorphosis into Blake himself, over the course of this season.

“But then figureheads aren’t too difficult to come by.  Any idiot can be one.”

He is strongly identified with rebels, you see, and very popular with rabbles. They will follow him, and he will fight to the last drop of their blood.

I love this dialogue.  Boucher drops in big lines like this early on during the Liberator scenes in ‘Star One’ – it tells us that this really is going to be a significant episode.

Soolin finally gets something to chew on.  It’s been coming, but alas it has come a little too late. There are also hints of a personality too, as the always dependable Glynis Barber delivers her lines with urgency, and with a sharp and snappy tone.  This type of characterisation could have been what the crew needed.  With a softer Tarrant, following his season C abrasiveness, an edgy persona could have been Soolin’s natural fit within the drama.

Vila gets the ‘old guard’ line, complete with wonderfully theatrical blocking as the ‘new guard’ – Tarrant, Dayna and Soolin – turn their heads to Vila at the moment of revelation.

The scene ends with a lovely little transition as Avon looks to the left, as Blake appears looking to the right.  Some might say it’s a bit sentimental, but it plays nicely to this style of television production.

And here is Blake after so long.  I remember so clearly watching this for the first time, as I wasn’t that excited when I first saw his scared face for the simple reason that I was too busy admiring Mary Ridge’s direction for her scenes in the forest.  Take how the film stock looks different, the way the light through the trees hits the camera (I’m guessing some kind of filter) and the way she uses natural light to highly atmospheric effect – just look at the light at the bottom of the tree Blake stands at.

But that was then, and today Blake’s reappearance is exciting once more.  His costume is pretty good too.  Bulky, yet flowing.  It somehow harks back to Blake’s previous attire, with huge billowing sleeves.

Regarding Arlen’s gun, I wondered what a space age lottery looks like.

Yes, every shot of Blake and Arlen is so good.  It’s beautifully photographed for a low-budget space adventure.  If I was a betting man, I would guess that Vere Lorrimer was thrifty with a number of season D episodes in order to make this one stand out a bit more.

Servalan gets a name check, with Avon’s assessment that lying is as natural as breathing to her.  Perhaps we’re going to see her one last time?   And Cally gets a name check too.  It’s interesting that of all the past characters, she is the one whose loss is felt most keenly.

Avon mentions that he would have left Blake if things had gone to plan.  I don’t buy it.  As long as Avon is a part of the series, all paths lead to Blake.  Orac just proved that.

Quite quickly I decided that I really like Arlen.  Her youthful vigor complements Blake’s more experienced form of arrogance.  And the casting of a very young actor (Sasha Mitchell) really works against Gareth Thomas’ more ‘RSC’ sensibilities.  Even though we know that this isn’t going to end well, they would have made a great pairing, in the tradition of a Robert Holmes double act.    These are really good scenes to re-introduce Blake, because they are not overblown or sentimental.  The familiar characteristics of Blake are not in our faces straight away, they being drip-fed back in very slowly.

The scenes on Scorpio are good too, with plenty of exposition, but delivered through snappy and witty conflicts – the classic Blake’s 7 trait.  Tarrant’s assessment of Avon’s previous failings and the misunderstanding between Vila and Soolin over her dead parents are nicely done.

And then there is Avon’s assessment of the crew – thieves, killers, mercenaries and psychopaths.  After years, fighting and running, this is the end result.  The verdict of the jury.  Another great moment.

Is it me, or does Orac rarely get the seatbelt treatment.  It’s almost like something bad is about to happen.

And it does.  Scorpio is attacked by a couple of space doughnuts.  The crew is quick to assess the situation, but it is Josette Simon who draws the short straw, when she has to say the dreaded ‘reciprocal bearing’ line.  It’s hard to say those words during an intense action scene.  Try it for yourself in front of the mirror during an earthquake, or in the middle of a rugby scrum, or walking down the street in the wind and driving rain….until you are arrested.

In Doctor Who, it was commonplace for the TARDIS crew to be split up early on in the adventure allowing dual storylines to play out.  But in Blake’s 7 it’s always felt more like either a way of establishing which characters were going to feature the most, or an ominous signal.  Along with Avon’s very pronounced ‘GOOD LUCK’ here is the first sense I got that there could be a degree of finality to this episode.

Now we have to audit check the ‘destruction of something big’ scene.
Avon crashes into bits of scenery. CHECK.
Red lighting.  CHECK.
Bit of hydraulic floor that Tarrant slides down.  CHECK.

The Liberator’s destruction in Terminal was so successful that it’s quite right a similar feel is used here.  It’s always a confident sign when a series can homage itself.

Avon beams down with a little cock of the leg.  The last teleportation in televised Blake’s 7.  From Blake’s little stumble on Cygnus Alpha, it’s fitting that the actors maintained a little jolt to indicate they had landed into the unknown.

The ground is very close, sir” – another great line, but it somehow represents the problem with Slave.  On it’s own terms it was quite a nice little character, whose traits allowed for some nice exchanges and comic relief, but few rated it highly, because it came after Zen.  Everyone loved Zen.  I loved Zen.  Even though it did next to nothing once Orac arrived.

And finally, amidst a lot of noise, wind machines and train set models, Scorpio is finally grounded.

But what follows is a prolonged period of silence.  Actually there is no such thing as silence.  Maybe I should call it inactivity.  There is nothing other than the atmosphere of Gauda Prime.  And this moment of stillness sticks around for quite a while.   In my head, it’s the moment between what has come to pass, and a possible new direction for the series.

When Avon finally breaks the stillness, and says “Alright Orac, where is the nearest settlement, and how do I get to it?” It feels like the beginning of a new adventure.  In classic Westerns or adventure films, that always felt like a cue for a new and exciting drama to unfold, usually where the camera tracks over a cliff to reveal a distant town on the horizon.

Now we move into a base on Gauda Prime.  Blake and an associate called Deva discuss the employment roll.  I would have loved to know more about Tando.  The hunter worse than those he hunted.  It would have made a great miniseries.

And we understand that a representative from the Federation high council is on the way.  It adds real anticipation as to why Blake is involved with this set up.  And just before he sets off to investigate what is happening in Plantation 5, he walks down that little flight of stairs leading to the control room, which always gives me a little shiver.

On video, Vila, Dayna and Soolin find shelter.  Once again it’s worth noting how good the lighting is here.  It disguises a multitude of sins, and also looks really atmospheric too.  There’s a shot in a later scene as Vila steps outside the door, and Mary Ridge achieves something that many other directors, including Ridge herself, have not achieved – a vaguely realistic studio-as-exterior shot.  This is achieved simply through low moody lighting, and close up shots.

There’s a lovely shot of a moon – damn, I missed that one when I was compiling stock footage for ‘Headhunter.’

We finally bid farewell to Slave, but unlike Zen’s demise which really was an end, this is another example of how, more often than not, this episode feels like a new beginning. Once his lights finally go out, something pointing a way ahead appears in its place – and that something is Blake.

We have another long moment of stillness as Vila gamely tries not to nod off.  These long moments of inactivity, really suggests that this isn’t an episode building up to a final climatic moment.  It’s simply marking time, as new opportunities could be around the corner, something suggested in Avon’s plan.

With the darkness comes a change in Darrow’s depiction of Avon.  In these scenes he seems more withdrawn and monosyllabic.  And there is a lovely little stare off between Avon and Vila, that suggests a companionship of old that remains shattered by recent events.  There is something quite sentimental about this moment, as Avon’s look towards Vila is almost wistful.

But back to events happening now, and I loved the idea that the bounty hunter’s computer almost rejected the idea that someone would start a fire to give off heat as “too gross to be correct.”  There’s still laughs to be had.  

Daybreak, and there’s a shot that reminds me of the opening of the television adaptation of The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy.  It hints at Gauda Prime’s agricultural origins.
It’s also the moment that Dudley Simpson’s incidental music finally falls silent.  The remaining 15 minutes will take place without anything at all.

The two curlies have a natter.  Blake immediately recognises a teleport bracelet.  And later on the flyer, he drops in Jenna’s name to test Tarrant.  But is Jenna really dead?  Actually yes, I think she was.  I think it sounded like a natural end for the character, and also Blake’s emotion when he describes how she took a load of gunships with her feels totally genuine.

The flyers have some good space hieroglyphics on the side.  And the gang have their final discussion, and for Dayna and Soolin, their last lines.

So we reach the moment where things start to take a turn for the worse.  Blake plays professional hunter with Tarrant, who escapes without realising Blake’s real aim.  Aside from the implications that this will cause, it’s a very well acted scene, and kudos to Collings, Thomas and Pacey.

Thinking back to when I first watched this episode, I remember the moment that Tarrant was skulking around the base.  It was the first moment that I knew something bad was about to happen.  Watching it again today, it’s a reminder something I have noticed in Mary Ridge’s direction – the aforementioned moments of inactivity, those marking time moments before something else happens.  But this time there is nothing to suggest something new or positive could happen in the future.  In fact the background noises suggest footsteps and distant, and potentially ominous activity.  It’s one last reminder of how good the sound design in Blake’s 7 is.

But the story has suddenly run out.  There’s been a massive misunderstanding, and in this live fast die faster series, we’re about to witness a final moment, in an episode that has not felt final in my mind.

The alarm rings out.  But it feels different to standard and urgent Blake’s 7 type alarms.  This time it feels almost mournful or funerial.  The bell tolls.

Darrow then rather gruesomely guns his wife down.  Even though this is Avon, seeing it happen in cold blood like this is actually quite shocking.

And then Blake steps down that flight of stairs one last time.

Whilst all eyes are fixed on Avon and Blake, it’s Tarrant’s line “He’s sold us, Avon. All of us. Even you.” that struck me.  After all the fighting and conflict, Tarrant’s loyalty to Avon appears to be unwavering.  It felt the most grown up Tarrant’s ever been, and a nice end point to their volatile relationship.

As I write about this final scene, I’m trying hard to think about what I thought of it when I saw it as a teenager.  So here goes…

I remember being a bit unconvinced by Paul Darrow’s performance.  Today I find it unnaturalistic but very compelling.  It’s very much in line with his season D performance, and quite unsettling.  Somehow it fits in with such a conflicting, confusing event in Avon’s lifetime.

And then the crew are dispatched one by one.  There’s talk of whether they are dead or not.  The production team mentioned that the slow motion effect creates an air of unreality, and that Blake is the only one seen to be actually killed, via the medium of blood.  But for me, the crew are dead.  All of them.  The slow motion only served to suggest to this teenager that this is the final climactic shoot out.  One that will not be forgotten.

I remember going “Woah” when Blake’s innards travelled outwards.  Blood aside, it’s a good theatrical RSC death with wide eyes, nasal breathing, clinging on to someone else and finally a good old drop to the floor.

Everyone is starting to disappear.  Deva throws himself back into the scenery with great gusto, Tarrant does one final heroic grimace, Blake, Soolin and Vila slump silently, but it is Josette Simon’s expression as she is shot by nasty Arlen that is the most effective expression of death in this sequence.  Death is not glamorous or easy and Dayna’s demise, as she is cradled by Tarrant, feels the most real of them all.

And then the very final moments.  The long lingering shot around Avon is brilliant.  The lowering of the sound effect as we experience one last pause, also brilliant.  And then the final shots, each closer than the one before as Avon gets his final close up.

My teenager self, could only think “what the hell happened there?”  Suddenly it as all over in a flash.  I remember being deep in thought, and then the VHS ejected itself.

‘Blake’ is a curious episode.  It’s difficult to think something as such, when its primary headline is that it’s the last story.  But there were, and still are, little questions in my mind that I can’t quite work out a satisfying answer to.  There is the slight vagueness of the base, suggested by Deva as a place to restore law to Gauda Prime.  Even with a backstory to lend it weight, and the desire for Blake to play the bad guy in order to test each rebel himself, I was left wondering what actually was going to happen once the Federation arrived, and how does it fit in the overall plan of using it as a base to ultimately destroy the Federation?  Perhaps this is the perfect assessment of Roj Blake as a whole – capable of big things, really, really big things, but also someone who can make some really stupid decisions.   But I know he wasn’t playing the bad guy – just look at his face when Klyn tells him that there is too much activity happening outside.  It’s one of real concern, that his plan might be in jeopardy.

Earlier I mentioned Servalan.  Were we going to see her?  I’m guessing many of us will know that this was not to be, and whilst she is most definitely missed in how her character ended on-screen, (Warlord was nothing more than an ineffective cameo) at no point was I thinking about her when watching ‘Blake’, as this is an episode solely about the rebels,  just as it was for the first five episodes before Servalan finally made an appearance in ‘Seek – Locate – Destroy‘.

Another thing that makes ‘Blake’ stand out is that of all the episodes I have watched so far, this is one that feels like it is being played out in real-time.  With the exception of one break from night-to-day, the action unfolds at a pace that suggests a natural chronological order, with the extended periods of ‘inactivity’ helping to cement this.  In the last couple of decades there has been a fashion for ‘live’ television drama, usually to celebrate some kind of milestone.  Hypothetically speaking, if there was one episode of Blake’s 7 that could work using this method it is ‘Blake’.  At times it feels like a live theatrical performance.

Cast wise, there are familiar faces.  Janet Lees Price does what she can with a straightforward role, even if that is defined by being gunned down by her husband.  David Collings delivers a great performance, in a career of great performances.  But it is Sasha Mitchell who is perhaps the most memorable for me.  Her snappy, clipped delivery combined with a youthful intensity makes her a perfect, slightly psychotic Federation trained protegé.

 

SET DESIGN

setblake

This is an opportunity to talk about Roger Cann, who would appear to be, alongside Ken Ledsham, the primary designer for this final season.  Since Ledsham’s style is fairly recognisable, and is relatively consistent with his designs in seasons B and C, it’s worth noting how Cann approached the back-to-basics feel of this post Liberator era.  And ‘Blake’ is the ultimate expression of his futuristic design ethic – namely big, bold blocky designs with plenty of straight lines and diagonal columns.  You can see it in all his episodes, the vast majority which were collaborations with Mary Ridge.  Scorpio aside, his style reminds me of Mike Porter’s designs for ‘Weapon’ and ‘Pressure Point’ – a bit more sparse than normal, although there is a little more detail to be found in Cann’s designs.  Take the vertical lines that are printed on the peach/terracotta columns, and some of the control panels.  He also borrows from his earlier work.  The circular control station seen on Xenon base, becomes Klyn’s control centre, and the grey seating from the crew room, is seen again in the flyers.  And even further back I’m sure I recognised Ven Glynd’s briefcase of evidence on the wall of the shelter.

But the reason that his designs for ‘Blake’ are noticeable is by comparing his sole contribution to Doctor Who – ‘Nightmare of Eden’.  This was directed by veteran Alan Bromley, and whether this was Bromley’s way or not, it is very overlit.  This results in Cann’s blocks and panels looking a bit stagey.  The jungle of Eden itself is also a mixed affair, with lighting all over the place.  For Cann’s futuristic designs to work, he needs a sympathetic lighting designer and director.    If I can level one area of criticism at Mary Ridge’s direction on season D it is how she handles lighting, but here she and lighting director Warwick Fielding get it spot on.  Take the aforementioned scenes in the deserted shelter.  Her use of a gobo and subtle blues and greens ensure the painted backdrops are not recognisable as such, the backlit control panels in the main tracking room add real texture, and whilst the peach columns do suffer from the white vertical lines being simply spray painted on, they do feel a bit ominous, which is highly effective when bathed in red light during the final shoot out.

And after years of trying to put my finger on what it was I didn’t enjoy about the visual style of season D, it was simply down to the lighting.  If the sets were sparser, and more functional than season B and C, the lighting could have also added much dramatically to the more desperate plight of our heroes.  Instead it looked the wrong side of ‘low budget’.   This is not a slight on Cann, but more about the way television was produced.  In fact he is responsible for period design work that I remember vividly in ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ in the mid 1990’s – something of which I remember opening my eyes to how different times can be depicted.  Cann rightfully won a BAFTA for this work.

MUSIC SCORE
Actually this is quite conventional.  Or perhaps the events on-screen eclipse anything musical.

HOW TO SELL THIS TO AN UNBELIEVER
This one will be of interest to anyone in the business or with an interest in television drama – explain the series, and how it ended.  They wont forget it.

MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
A funny little detail.  David Collings depiction of ‘intrigued’ by placing a clipboard up to his mouth, when Arlen explains she has information about the man who brought her to the base.  I also quite like Tarrant’s “Oh, I must try and work that into the conversation when we meet him.

THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
The flying doughnuts.

VERDICT IN TEN WORDS EXACTLY
And then it just ended. Let’s do it all again.

THE MORNING AFTER…
The morning after the night before, my 39-year-old self was still thinking about this installment.  I was still wondering whether to use ‘Blake’ as the episode of choice to suggest ‘a beginning’ for the 40th anniversary theme.  I mean, hasn’t the end-as-a-beginning theme become a little overused?

But I think it is perfect.

In ‘Warlord‘ I suggested that the real ending of Blake’s 7 was in the sequence on Zondawl, where a seemingly unstoppable Federation rebuilding was manifested in the casual killing of drug induced citizens.  And watching ‘Blake’, I still stand by that feeling.

Instead of being the last episode,’Blake’ feels more like a standalone tale.  With the Xenon Base destroyed, and the current alliance in tatters, it felt that season D had concluded before this story had even started.

But what is it that makes ‘Blake’ feel like a beginning?

Firstly Blake is not an ending in the wider culture of Blake’s 7.  Just as Doctor Who ‘Survival’ (1989) was not an ending.  Both series prove that when the televised episodes ended, it awakened a whole new era of fan fiction, and tons of licensed and unlicensed adventures.  It was the birth of many new things.

Secondly the tone of the episode doesn’t suggest an end.  It’s so easy for last episodes to feel nostalgic, mawkish or sentimental, but there is none of this in ‘Blake’, certainly not in the same way that ‘Logopolis’ is for Tom Baker’s Doctor.  None-the-less ‘Blake’ is a very atmospherically realised piece. Everything about this storyline is about the new, or future.  Any references to the past are merely that, references. This is perhaps one of the factors as to why Blake and Avon meet only at the very end.  Even up to the point where Blake and Tarrant are talking in the corridor it feels like the episode is carrying merrily on, but in reality these are only a few more minutes of televised Blake’s 7 to air.  The crew have been stuck in worse situations – stranded on a freezing terraforming planet with Liberator destroyed and a non functioning computer and with no hope of rescue, shelter, or food.  But ‘Blake’ feels like there could be a new set of adventures looming, if only there hadn’t been that misunderstanding.

Where there are hints of finality in this episode, they don’t feel imminent.  In the Gauda Prime base, Blake and Diva talk about everyone having their time, and later Vila says “One of these day we’re going to drop into the ground and never come out.”  Cue Avon’s reply “Sooner or later everyone does that”.  There is also a sense of full circle, that by the end of the series the Federation is a relatively powerful force once more, the number of guards that pop up in the final two episodes hint at this, and there is a strange sense of de ja vu as an army of Federation guards surround a small group of people – just as it did during the massacre in the very first episode.

The shoot out feels more like an inconvenience, thwarting not only ‘the Seven’ but also what could have led to a new series of televised adventures.  Even if it was written in the knowledge that there probably wasn’t going to be a new series, Boucher gives the series a future.  Gauda Prime feels like a planet in the middle of great change, and with more stories to tell.  Mind you it’s a shame that Tando bit the dust.  He could have added some real comedy value.

Thirdly, we have the shoot out itself. While it is climatic, it’s not a complete end point.    Although the first time I watched it, it did feel final. Blake is dead.  Vila, Dayna, Soolin and Tarrant are also dead. But with every successive viewing, more possibilities open themselves.    Orac is operational, and Avon is alive, no matter what the gunfire over the closing credits might suggest. Servalan is alive, but is far from secure within the federation.  This itself gives options for other power games and relationships, something of which Blake’s 7 is very good at.  Other characters old and new are ready for us to meet.  There were and are so many possibilities.  It’s great.  

Finally there is one big beginning, the one that relates to my original question at the beginning of this blog post.

When I first set up this blog, I decided to call it ‘Watching Blake’s 7’.  The reason was simple.  I wanted to examine everything that I picked up on as a viewer of the broadcast episodes after so many years.   And whilst I have decided to watch these stories in a random order, to hopefully get a perspective of them in their own right, ‘Blake’ is not a signal of an end, but the start of a new chapter – one that for years consisted of ejecting the tape, inserting ‘The Way Back’, and pressing play on my VHS player.  I would be immediately transported to a domed city on Earth, to be witness to a character called Blake being encouraged outside.  And that is one of the joys of Blake’s 7 – there’s always something new to discover on repeated viewing.  Within a couple of minutes into the action on Earth, the events on Gauda Prime were forgotten.   This ties in with the way many people consume television today, in binges.   In that regard, Blake’s 7 never really ends.  And that is the main reason for blogging about ‘The Way Back’ and ‘Blake’ for the 40th anniversary – the experience of watching one is connected to watching the other.

Blake’s 7 was, and still is a fantastic live fast, die young series.  The televised adventures were never destined to see old bones, no matter how much I hoped it would.  But the wider ending does feel reasonably, if not completely satisfying.  It’s a forward thinking 45 minutes…with anonther 5 minutes where in that moment, it just all went horribly, horribly wrong.

snp00159

4 thoughts on “D13 – BLAKE (and a bit about beginnings.)

  1. Another great review. This was a shocking piece of television and one that still packs a punch after all this time. I would say it was in my top 5 favourite episodes of the show along with “Rescue” “Sand” “Duel” and “Sarcophagus.” I’m certainly looking forward to watching all 52 episodes again and maybe review them for my own blog. Keep these going; I enjoy reading these detailed overviews.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I will do. In fact, I think you followed my blog last May because I had done a review on “The Way Back.” I wasn’t personally happy with my initial reviews (I only got to Cygnus Alpha) but I feel I’m a much better writer now.

    Liked by 1 person

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