B04 – HORIZON (and a bit about the ‘other’ writers.)

“You can’t return to the past.”

There’s an interview somewhere – as usual I can’t remember where – that features Sally Knyvette discussing how she finally got some good screen time and action towards the end of her time on the show. I’m guessing she was mainly referring to ‘The Keeper’.  She bemoaned the fact that there were ‘other’ writers who perhaps didn’t have such a handle of the show, or didn’t reflect things that had already been established in earlier scripts.   In ‘The Keeper’ Jenna ends up in as uncharacteristic a situation as her character might ever face, but we do get to see Jenna’s strategy, quick thinking and ability to manipulate a situation – the skills I associate with her smuggling days.   And Jacqueline Pearce recalled a similar frustration about how writers scripted “their own ideas of the characters that often bore no resemblance to what they were really about.”  (2)

And it got me thinking about that crucial moment in some series, where those present at the beginning finally hand over writing duties to new writers.  I’m interested in what the impact is of this and what the audience picks up.

There’s a period of Blake’s 7 that I find quite curious.  It’s the episodes that sit between the two Terry Nation tales that make up the first half of the second series.  Nation had such a strong hand in the scripts for the first series but inevitably it was time for other writers to take on the challenge.  So it was quite a jolt to be witness to a different style of writing.  That jolt first hit me in Chris Boucher’s first script – ‘Shadow’ which felt, ultra-political, nuanced, acidic, and a somehow less ‘pulp’ experience – one that required more consideration once the episode had finished.  Cally’s psychic battle also appeared less clear to decipher, leaving me fascinated by what I had just seen.  ‘Weapon’ also felt different from what had gone before.  It felt more ‘talky’ with a slow unpeeling of the manoeuvering between the protagonists.  Nonetheless, these scripts still belonged to a creative talent who, like Nation, would form the nucleus of the show.  So that leaves ‘Horizon’ – the first episode written by ‘new name’ – and one who had not been involved with the show from the very beginning.

I’ve no idea if it exists, but I would have been interested to see how the very first draft script from Allan Prior would have read when it first thwacked down on Chris Boucher’s wooden desk in a (presumably) tiny office somewhere in the depths of the BBC.   I’m imagining there would have been meetings between writer and script editor, and no doubt Prior will have used his experience as a scriptwriter, but considering that he was commissioned around the time the first series was airing, perhaps it was a case of ‘writing in the dark’?

So what of Allan Prior – the first new name to join the ranks?

Performing arts was a part of Prior’s early upbringing.  He once commented – “All writers are denied performers, if think we all would like to act and we would all like to play it out, but instead of doing it that way, we write it down.” And in his Blake’s 7 scripts, he writes for the regular and leading characters pretty well, so when I hear lines like Hower’s “My son, the animal rules you!” in ‘Volcano’, I hear Prior as performer.

Prior’s scripts perhaps straddle the lines between two awkward modes; the ‘boys stories’ that come from tough post-war times (a style of writing that still existed during the time of Blake’s 7 production) and a more forward thinking approach in keeping with the advent of a new decade.    Nonetheless, Prior’s scripts are perhaps some of the most ‘of their time’, along with Ben Steed, James Follet, Rod Beacham, and Trevor Hoyle.  This is not a criticism, but literally a sign of the times.

Prior notes that, as he grew up, he saw a lot of poverty, particularly before the war.   He got his first job as a clerk – a job he stuck out for a short while, before taking a gamble and going it alone in order to write a novel and see if he could find a publisher.   And it’s those observations and stories of isolation, or the ‘David Vs Goliath’ that I see in his work; the native ruler that sits outside the Federation, the ‘old man’ and his daughter that work alone to try to feed the population, the hidden community in the base of a volcanic planet, the society that renounces aggression, and the scientist working in isolation to continue his work.

And whilst Allan Prior isn’t my favourite writer for the series, what he does bring is a consistent idea that the battle is between the outsider and a more established entity – whether that is a society, philosophy, or military force.  And this theme is true to the core of Blake’s 7 itself – the conflict between one man and a larger entity.

So Prior brings a theme, a certain something to the mix.  But what of the other creatives who came to the party?

Tanith Lee brings stillness and reflection, allowing conflict to arise from the moments of things past.  I find her scripts to be excellent and full of emotion.  Lee enjoyed a luxury that Prior didn’t initially have, namely the benefit of watching transmitted episodes of Blake’s 7 beforehand.  She immediately found a voice in her writing for Blake’s 7 –  the theme of untapped potential.  This was something she noted in an interview in Jonathan Helm’s ‘Scorpio Attack’ fanzine, and is something that I recognise as her ‘thing’. “I had, mostly unconsciously, been aware of other potential aspects in the characters that weren’t being used. Chris Boucher gave me the chance to explore these, or some of them.” (3)

According to Lee, her fruitful discussions with Boucher, even influenced other episodes, such as Boucher exploring a brave side to Vila.   “I was delighted when Chris Boucher developed the notion of mine that I’d discussed with him – an open plot, free for general use – on Vila as Hero. I can’t recall the name of this show (City at the Edge of the World) but it really did make Vila into a hero. The way Chris handled it was both hilarious, touching and convincing.”   For me this is one of Boucher’s great gifts as script editor – an open mind as to the direction of characters and situation.  It helped Blake’s 7 always feel like it was travelling towards a destination, one that never seemed to arrive.

Back on the ground, Ben Steed notably brings a more action orientated mix with some significant gender related themes.  Whilst I find his work dated and difficult to watch at times, I do think that his dialogue is often sharp and snappy, and he brings good pace and action to his episodes.  There’s some intriguing ideas about technology underneath it all, and plenty of entertainment in his three stories – of course the notion of ‘entertainment’ is subjective.

But as for bringing in a certain something in their writing, those are the only three that strike me as a having recognisable characteristics.  There are other writers who have written for Blake’s 7, more than once, and a slew of one-time-only authors in the final season, making it harder to pinpoint signiture styles in their overall work.

There is of course one noticeable omission so far  – Robert Holmes.  But aside from references to Earth history and very colourful characters, his contribution to Blake’s universe is more simple – he just writes really good scripts.   But outside of the Nation/Boucher collaboration, it is Prior, Steed and Tanith Lee, who provide particular characteristics that are easily identifiable to the Blake’s 7 universe, even if in some cases, the final episodes are not universally consistent in terms of quality, and those ‘things’ that Prior and Steed bring, whilst fascinating in itself, are not always high up on the list of what I personally might want to see.

EPISODE DISCUSSION
We open with a little attempt to open the episode with a montage sequence that immediately provides a bit of context/exposition to the episode.  We get to see a Federation ship that looks remarkably like the London from ‘Space Fall’ and we see the rather forlorn features of Vila and Jenna over a starscape and a gentle score.  Like ‘Shadow’ before it, it is a sign of the directors starting to be ever so slightly playful with ‘standard’ montage sequences, and bringing in added cross fades and other transitions into the mix, in order to hint a story.

We soon understand the reason for the forlornness – as Cally will explain – the crew are suffering from space fatigue.  However, as the camera tracks across the Liberator flight deck for the very first time, I can’t help but feel a touch of ‘Acorn Antiques’ as Cally and Blake hold their positions for a unaturally long time before they are cued into the action a little to late.

“Rubbish, I’m alright” – typical boys line from Blake.  Don’t let them see you bleed.

The idea of fatigue is a nice one.  It’s touched upon very gently in ‘Duel’ but it feels right that it should be a thing, especially with the stakes being raised through Blake’s determination to strike hard at the Federation, which is something that has been hinted at in the previous two episodes.   Once again ‘Duel’ pops into my head as I hear the Liberator klaxon announcing a collision course with a Federation freighter, but unlike ‘Duel’ Avon and Cally don’t run around the flight deck like headless chickens.  In fact they barely even move.

What’s the point in being famous, if you can’t get a last-minute booking” – Vila asks.  And he’s right.  Perhaps Freedom City could be a place of sanctuary?

Anyway, they deflect by standard by one half, or whatever,  and Blake suddenly gets one of those second winds I get when my daughter is quiet enough to actually let me have a momentary afternoon nap. He leaps into gear wondering why the freighter is travelling out this far.

Prior (or Boucher) delivers the first really nice bit of dialogue as the crew receive numerous amounts of “negative information” from Zen.
Vila’s “Well that was a whole load of nothing” is a lovely, dry summation.

Meanwhile Gan is getting little to do, as normal.  In fact he doesn’t even appear until four and a half minutes in.  But when he does, it’s a nice little scene, as he learns how to do teleport duty.  Gan never strikes me as a character that deals well with doing nothing, so this feels right.  Also the touch of Orac playing schoolmaster feels like the crews punishment towards the perspex box of lights, after it behaved like a complete arse in ‘Shadow.’  The highlight for me is David Jackson’s transition from broad smile towards Cally, to a suddenly chastised expression.

Things are about to be agitated somewhat, as the freighter passes some kind of defence barrier, something of which the Liberator travels through with some suitably Ashes to Ashes type visuals and industrial audio frequencies from Richard Yeoman Clark.  But the star of the scene here is once again David Jackson.  Perhaps realising that this might be his only golden moment, he provides some good anguished acting, but it’s the added cross eyed expression that is the cherry on top.

Vila gets his fix, and the decision is made to teleport down to the planet of negative information.  I really like the way Blake brushes aside Cally’s offer to go down with him even though she is one of his more trusted followers.   It can only be Jenna who can go with him, but ironically this is not about trust – it’s about Avon being less likely to do a runner without a pilot.

On the teleport bay, Blake reveals his reasons for wanting to go a recce.  It’s interesting to see a little moment of exasperation when he says “I’m tired of running” to Jenna.  I wish we saw more frustration in addition to the aloof determination that is the characteristic of second series Blake.   Mind you, it is interesting that Blake’s desire to get at least one planet behind him will be echoed in Allan Prior’s ‘Volcano’, even if in that episode, it doesn’t quite fit the story arc.

As Avon walks in on Blake’s line about the possibility of the computer genius finally doing a runner, it was satisfying to see Jenna’s reaction and subsequent grimace.  However the money shot would have been the reaction of a leader such as Blake – how does he deal with being ‘rumbled?  It’s not often we see something like that.  Unfortunately we don’t get to see it.  Nonetheless, it’s a nice scene that goes right back to the core of the conflict in Blake’s 7.

The planetary surface is pretty good, with filming taking place at Clearwell Scowles.  Jonathan Wright Miller has clearly gone for a whole load of dry ice, and it works, creating an almost suffocating atmosphere. (1)

On the surface, Blake does another one of his annoying ‘Come on’s‘ to Jenna.  Chop chop!

We are then introduced to the ruler of Horizon – Ro, who is resplendent in his maroon uniform.  It’s a lovely set that he inhabits.  More on this later.

Ro gently orders that Blake and Jenna are immobilised, which they are with ease – although we never see Blake fall.  Interesting that.

It’s an interesting atmosphere that is built up from the very first moment Ro walks into shot.  No music, a gentle pace, subtle ambient sounds, and a gentle delivery.  The last shot of the scene – a lovely glass shot, suggests a well-ordered society and power base, and without the usual shouting and adrenalin fuelled action, actually feels quite menacing.  It’s as though the director is really thinking about the depiction of this society.

Back on the Liberator, Vila is intoxicated, and clashes with a cranky Avon, whose reasoning clashes with a sentient Cally.  It’s another nice scene, and one that is refreshing due to the absence of Blake.  The result is that they are all a little bit lost – and that means added bitchiness.  So it is up to Gan to take control of the situation, which he does quite nicely, delivering a real bit of screen presence when he asks Vila about whether he would want Cally to go down in his place.  She’s only a telepath, you know!

And as for Avon – he’s not expendable, he’s got stupid, and he’s not going.

Blake and Jenna are placed on some kind of uncomfortable looking thing that I would see in some bleak ‘Scandi’ noir crime drama.  I bet after each take, Thomas and Knyvette would be left with some skin imprints from that thing.

We also start to get a sense of the key guest characters that make up this episode.  Ro is ‘reasonable’ but at this early stage my attention was taken by the subtle conflict between the Kommissar and his assistant.  The background context to the planet – the falling quotas, and Ro’s uncooperative nature are nicely referenced as the assistant Komissar tries to stand his ground.

Vila and Gan teleport down as Blake and Jenna are tortured by another one of Richard Yeoman Clarke’s shrill tones.  I can picture him in his corner of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, gleefully chuckling away, muttering “I’ll get them with this one.

I loved Blake’s line “I was a late developer” in response to the Kommissar’s observation that resistors are usually dectected in infancy.  There’s a nice little touch as the assistant Kommissar ‘guides’ Ro out of the way as he wakens Jenna.  Professional tensions indeed.

Vila and Gan get the blow pipe treatment.  I do enjoy these characters together very much.   I very much loved the way Michael Keating collapses, and David Jackson gets to show off his trademark snarling as Gan gets the buy one get one free treatment.

Blake attempts to reason with Ro, and we get a hint that it is not just ‘primitives’ working down at the mine.  This section might be one of the highlights of the episode, in a very subtle way.  We get a backstory for Ro, and a reminder of Blake’s story, even it was off-screen event from an on-screen story.  We also get little hints of a previous culture, and a name – ‘Silmareno’.  With the benefit of hindsight, and viewing Prior’s other episodes, this might be the meatiest dialogue that he provides for the series as a whole.

As the crew are sent to the mines, we meet Selma, who explains a bit more.  But it is  Blake who plays Daddy, and takes charge of the Porridge bowl.  These scenes were filmed at the nearby Clearwell Caves, and it’s highly atmospheric, just as it was when the same locations were used for the children sci-fi drama ‘The Changes’ – filmed a few years earlier.

Back at the palace, the two Kommissars discuss the fate of Vila and Gan.  Cue the wonderful line from Vila “Work?‘  Nicely delivered.

I’m really enjoying Cally’s senses working overtime in her scenes with Avon, which are used to good effect as she beams down and gets captured, but not before she gives Ro some real food for thought.

We’re then treated to another very wordy and slow-paced scene between the Federation personnel.   And it seems that this is a characteristic of the episode.  It does straddle the line between being a bit too wordy and slow-moving, but it just about gets away with it, as behind this dialogue is some good character material, from the unease of the assistant, to the conflict between Ro and the Kommissar.

And then we reach the crunch.  Will Avon run?  It’s a nice low angled intense shot of  Orac and himself as he starts to come to his conclusion…

…Until he reaches the flight deck and hears news of an approaching Federation fleet.  His ironic laugh is probably the highlight of the episode, and there is a nice segway, where Dudley Simpson scores three motifs linking Avon on the flight deck, the shot of the planet, and Avon in the Teleport bay.   It’s similar to Wright-Miller’s segway from Cally’s subconsciousness, to Space City, to Largo discussing his plan with the Chairman in ‘Shadow.’  I like these little directorial touches.  As you may have guessed.

Screen Shot 2018-01-14 at 14.21.21

Back on Horizon, Ro says one thing too many, and there’s a nod and a wink between Komissars, as they plot his fate.

There are some more lovely atmospheric shots of the planet as Avon teleports down to save the day, and looks cool while he is doing it.  Paul Darrow once recounted a tale about filming in the Forest of Dean, and how the director discussed a scene with him.  The scene involved teleporting down, shooting the guards, and saving the day.  Darrow naturally pointed out that Avon wouldn’t wait for them to turn around, he would simply shoot them in the back.  Cue a hesitant look from the director, who goes with Darrow’s suggestion.  I’m guessing it was this scene he was talking about.

We also get to see the most flesh in the whole four series of Blake’s 7.  What?!  Our heroes have actual bodies?!

So the scene is set for the end.  Ro learns that the Kommissar is prepared to kill him, and he dons his traditional attire, and dispatches the Kommissar with little huff, but a with a big puff.

And there is a nice little twist that Prior brings at this crucial scene.  Blake, now in a nice clean shirt, harangues Avon about calculating the teleport co-ordinates quickly as there is not much time.  When Avon completes this task, Blake’s says “about time” – only for himself to delay Avon’s urgent request that Blake returns to the Liberator before the Federation ships arrive.

And of course there’s Blake’s acidic response to Avon’s “More last-minute heroics?
I thought that was your strong suit.”  It’s funny that this is an episode which focusses on Avon’s character and decision-making, the fact that he has the power to make things happen.   But this is still Blake’s series, and it is he who gets the last say.  Avon’s realisation of Blake’s tactics “If we’d got underway, they would have changed course” pretty much silences Avon and gives Blake’s victory…for now.

There are parallels here with ‘Shadow’, which also depicts some more gritty tension and snapping between the crew than normal.

I’m struggling to sum up ‘Horizon’.   I understand there are some who are not well disposed to it, but I don’t think it’s a bad episode.  There’s something a bit muted about it all.  By this I don’t mean the fact that the crew are fatigued, more that it is a very measured episode, delivered at a measured pace.  This is not a hallmark of poor quality, but perhaps an indication that everything is ever so slightly hesitant script wise.  It helps that Allan Prior does deliver some purposeful dialogue, and is able to give some of the overall themes/situations a nice twist during the episodes.  It’s definitely his best story, although perhaps that was always going to be the case, having discussed ‘Animals’ not long before this.  Maybe its minor shortcomings are simply a case of what I talked about earlier in this blog post – giving a new writer a chance to write for the series, something of which would need to have happened at some point.  It would have been a learning curve for everyone on the show, and perhaps the next big challenge following the setting up of everything in season A.

As a final thought, at the very end of the episode, Gan says “I mean, just sitting there” – my understanding is that this was David Jackson’s last contribution to Blake’s 7 – his death scene having been completed beforehand.  I just want to salute him, and say, that while there will be plenty more Gan to enjoy before I finish this blog series, I think he did a brilliant job with his underused character.  His was one of the hardest jobs in Blake’s 7.  Again parallels can be made with this episode and ‘Shadow’, where Jackson gets some of his best screen time and material that puts him in the foreground, rather than in the background – the questioning of Blake’s motives in ‘Shadow’ and the aforementioned scenes in the teleport bay in this story.  Yes, I think it is time to explore Jackson’s contribution in a bit more detail…

I want to take a little time out to discuss the director of this episode, and ‘Shadow’ – Jonathan Wright-Miller.  Trying to find anything about him is tricky, as there appears to be no interviews or testimonies that I can find.  It looks like he was a younger director, in his thirties, and was bought in by David Maloney as a freelancer – which is a good move from the producer, to break up the established approach by veterans such as George Spenton-Foster.  By the look of it he has spent a lot of his later career directing soap operas – good bread and butter – both here in the UK and for RTE in Ireland.  But it’s his pre-Blake’s 7 career that is more interesting – a mix of grown up drama, and little known but fondly remembered children’s dramas for ITV.  Of these, ‘The Danedyke Mystery’ (1979) demonstrated his ability for good casting, and ‘The Jensen Code’ (1973) – script edited by a pre Doctor Who Philip Hinchcliffe, and featuring Brian Croucher – not only highlights his long-standing collaboration with actor Karl Howman (Bek from ‘Shadow’) but also his familiarity with the caves at Clearwell, the location used for the mining in this episode.

Wright-Miller directs ‘Horizon’ maturely.  The whole depiction of the planet, through tribal motifs, set design and location footage is really satisfying – it’s almost documentary like in the way it is realised, and the measured pace perhaps adds to this.  It’s difficult to compare with his other episode ‘Shadow’ which was at time uncompromising, visceral, and a bit new wave.  Here the feel is very different.  Perhaps it lacks a little bit more bite that could have made the episode a touch more interesting.  But overall I have really enjoyed his contributions, and would have happily chosen him to direct a few more, instead of George Spenton-Foster.  In fact I wonder what the psychological ‘Voice From the Past’ would have been like if Wright-Miller had directed, offering a more contemporary approach, as opposed to Spenton-Foster’s more flamboyant stylings.

Jonathan Wright-Miller

Wright-Miller also brings some good visual flourishes to his two episodes, his collaboration with designer Paul Allen and the way he lights his footage spring to mind. However after watching ‘Horizon’ it occurred to me that he was responsible for some of the best guest casting in the entirety of Blake’s 7.  ‘Shadow’ offers us names such as Karl Howman, Vernon Dobbchef, and Adrienne Burgess, and here we have other well cast names; William Squire delivers a suitably plummy performance.  At the beginning of 1979 Squire had BBC telefantasy in the palm of his hand, also appearing in Doctor Who ‘The Armageddon Factor’ as ‘The Shadow’.

Souad Faress has enjoyed a career that has spanned from ‘The Archers’ to ‘Game of Thrones’, and featured alongside Elizabeth Sladen in ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures.’  Speaking of which, Brian Miller has enjoyed a long career, and enjoyed a happy marriage to Sladen, popping up a few times in Doctor Who in his own right.  I think his performance was really well judged.  It’s a difficult role, but behind his measured and dispassionate delivery, you can see his character really thinking about things.
Paul Haley has popped up from various series from time to time.  But my main observation is that he has a pretty good voice for a guard.

But it is Darien Angadi who deserves the plaudits in this episode.  Angadi’s story is a sad tale.  Moving from singing to acting, he made a pretty good name for himself as a member of the RSC, and appearing in television roles such as ‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘I Claudius’.  The few accounts I have read about his life suggest he was a young man who displayed both talent and sensitivity in his work.  This is something that has struck me in his performances I have seen – ‘Will Shakespeare’ (BBC 1978) being one that sticks in my mind, alongside this appearance as ‘Ro’.   The ruler of Horizon comes across frequently conflicted and deep in thought.  When I really stop to think about the way actors try to get into the deeper recesses of their on-screen characters in Blake’s 7, Angadi might well be one of the best, always maintaining subtlety.   But it appears that he set very high standards of himself, something of which contributed to depression, and ultimately suicide, a couple of years after his appearance in Blake’s 7.

MUSIC SCORE
Relatively conventional, although there are some distinctive moments.  Dudley’s interrogation riff before Sima is interrogated uses woodwind to create a feeling that something unpleasant is about to happen.  There is also the twangy synthesiser that is used during the scene where Avon is alone on the flight deck, that uses a familiar riff that pops up from time to time.

SET DESIGN

setbhorizon
This episode, alongside ‘Shadow’ contains some of the best set design for the entire series.  The creator in question is Paul Allen, an experienced designer who had also worked on Doctor Who a number of times, most recently responsible for some of the excellent lighthouse sets for ‘Horror of Fang Rock’.  In his season B work for Blake’s 7, Allen’s design contain much texture, and works in the hands of an equally enthusiastic director, being lit very effectively.  The palace set appears much larger due to the expanse of darkly illuminated areas.  The back-lit colour, and the details on some of the furniture suggests some of the history and culture of the planet, and the impact that Federation rule has had on it.

Screen Shot 2018-01-05 at 22.13.36

Paul Allen

Mind you the purist in me was drawn to the fact that the rear of the teleport set has two banks of corridor to walk down, instead of the usual one.  This is something of which I’m sure prompted a sack load of letters to the BBC’s ‘Points of View’.

HOW TO SELL THIS TO AN UNBELIEVER
The closest Blake’s 7 will get to a study of the British Empire, and colonialism in general.

MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
The “negative information” scene.

THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
Selma being tortured.

VERDICT IN TEN WORDS EXACTLY
Right in the middle between experienced writer and newbie director.

 

(1) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puzzlewood#/media/File:Puzzlewood_(Andy_Dingley).jpg
http://greengablesmork.com/?page_id=44
(2) Starlog magazine, issue 121
(3) https://www.scorpioattack.com/single-post/2016/11/27/SAND-TANITH-LEE-INTERVIEW (accessed Jan 18)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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