Sometimes I think about what level of scrutiny and analysis I should go to in these posts. Surely there is not going to be much interest about the range of grey and beige tones that appear in these episodes. And then I succumb to the ultra geek, time and time again. A while ago I spent some time discussing the evolution of the corridor in Blake’s 7 – clearly something the world was crying out for. What initially started as an appreciation for Jim Clay’s design work took on a life of its own, and have to say I really enjoyed writing about it. But there has been another visual element of Blake’s 7 that I have always had on my radar. So it is time to turn the geek dial up to 11 once more, as I turn my attention to the Liberator flight deck. You have been warned…
As I will discuss later in this post, ‘Space Fall’ is a really clever episode due to the fact that its key function is to set up the moment where Blake, Jenna and Avon walk onto the Liberator for the very first time. After 40ish minutes of grey flats, and ITC control panels, it must have been a startling moment to see a brand new environment, quite unlike anything seen in British telefantasy up to that point. Certainly it pushes the boundaries of conventional studio design – even the construction belies the pitiful budget that Blake’s 7 was given, with Murray-Leach seeking advice and construction outside of the BBC, and coming up with a fibreglass framework that really was ‘value for license fee payers.’
But this post isn’t concerned about how it was made. In keeping with the ‘watching’ element of this blog series, I’m interested in how it looks.
I want to start by saying that I love the flight deck set. I really think it is great. It is one of the best studio designs of its time – certainly good enough to write a blog post about it. It really captured my imagination throughout the three seasons it featured, and as such I wanted this entry to celebrate not the first appearance of the exterior of the Liberator (as wonderful as it is) but the majesty of the interior.
Here are the ingredients that I think make up ‘flight deck thinking.’
The overall concept is a good place to start. I’ve no idea what Roger Murray-Leach was influenced by when he designed it but I’ve always enjoyed looking at projections of the future from a 1960/70’s viewpoint. I remember seeing an exhibition by design group ‘Superstudio’ at the Hayward Gallery in London many moons ago, and was blown away by their infinite grids as a way of challenging consumerist approaches to design – “life without objects“. These were really striking projections of the future that made me think about how we use space – something I think the flight deck uses in a non traditional way, and obviously at a smaller scale than Superstudio were proposing – more on this later. Then there is this illustration by Don Davis, commissioned by NASA in 1972 of what a space colony might look like. (1) There are a cathedral-like elements along with predominant vertical lines that always reminded me of the top section of the Liberator flight deck.
Then there is Fondation Vasarely in France. Completed in 1976, it houses vast works by the artist Victor Vasarely. It is art that makes use of optical illusion, so it tends to be big and abstract. The design consists of 16 hexagonal pods. (2)
The art may make you feel like you have gone back to the 1970s. Its scale, simplicity, and the interactivity of gazing at an optical illusion makes it a fascinating space. Somehow it reminds me of the shape of the flight deck, with the shallow angles that make up the shell of the set. I even remember seeing some of the images in the early days of the internet and thinking that some of the artwork looked like Zen. I subsequently discovered that – like the Liberator itself – it is one concept. By this I mean that the inside and outside are designed by the same person – Vasarely himself.
As noted in the blog post about corridors, there is a healthy nod to the bold shapes that came with post-war modernist design. There is a hint of 1960’s finishing (what I’m going to call the ‘lava lamp’ style lighting either side of Zen) and the looming obsession with future technology that Star Wars was about to launch on the public.
Then we have the finishing. These are the things that give the impression of alienness. And this is really important as it is a flight deck, not a ‘bridge’ – a word that has trappings of the military and makes me think of ‘Star Trek’. The flight deck is more of a description for something that is “conceptually alien” as Avon described it. When we finally get a glimpse of the system that designed it, we understand that this is a well resourced and technically sophisticated power. The marble effects, and cream leather sofas feel are a distinctly 1970’s theme – the idea that, during an era of global economic strain, a luxurious or sumptuous effect could be a perfect antidote to the reality of the times.
The next ingredient that makes up the flight deck is ambition. Look at the scale of it. It’s big, and it’s tall. It takes up a good chunk of the studio. The steps at the rear technically make it a split level set, which increases its presence further.
Thinking about it, the set design feels like a natural progression of the work of Murray-Leach. Starting with the futurism of ‘The Ark in Space’ (1975) his ambition continued to build, with the Panopticon set that featured in ‘The Deadly Assassin’ (1976) feeling like a pre-cursor to the Liberator, with an almost opulent feel to it and one that pushes the boundaries of the television studio and the budget available to him. In fact I recall an idea that Murray-Leach and costume designer James Acheson sought to work collaboratively, even working in the same office to allow them to synergise their design thinking – another example of a singular concept.
The scale of the set plays tricks with us, which leads us to the viewpoint. We’re used to three walled sets with the ‘fourth wall’ being where the audience sits, just like the theatre. Take the TARDIS set design – by 1978 it had settled down into a clear geography, a traditional pattern of door on the left, wall and console straight ahead and scanner screen on the right.
But with Blake, the cameras do not have a fixed point to film the action – quite where the fourth wall actually sits is open to debate. In construction terms there is a clear gap for the camera to gather, but it’s not a big space, and over the three series that it features, there are many different directions the cameras predominantly point at. Sometimes our vantage point is facing the five crew positions straight ahead or from the edge of the main screen. Sometimes we’re looking in completely the opposite way when action happens near the screen and weapon rack. And there is also plenty of dialogue that is shot with the camera positioned in front of Zen, but facing back to the crew positions.
It’s a really clever use of space, allowing the entirety of the set to be used, and also to give the impression that it is even bigger than it already is, which as we know, is pretty big already. The number of ‘focus pull’ shots used by directors on this set show that there were lot of opportunities for lovely images to be created – take the opening dialogue between Blake, Jenna and Cally in ‘Duel.’
All of this is helped by the fact that there is no one single focal point of the design. Zen is one, the sofa is another, there is also the screen, the corridor on the left (as we face the flight positions) and of course the respective flight positions themselves.
Then we have one of the most important ingredients of all – lighting. Now I’m no expert on television studio lighting of the 1970’s, but I have a reasonable working knowledge, and I reckon that much time was spent working out how to effectively light this beast!
The lighting serves two purposes here. One to give it real atmosphere, and a conceptually alien feel, but also to help conceal the battering that the set must have received at the hands of the scenery shifters, visual effects teams, and the cast themselves. Generally speaking, the lighting is dimmed favouring a mysterious atmosphere, as opposed to the flat lighting of the TARDIS interior. The way that the top sections of the set get darker, and are lit with a deep blue tint almost tricks us into thinking the Liberator never has any kind of ceiling. It creates a cathedral-like feel. It’s a clever lighting touch, and one that belies the constraints of a four walled television studio.
So with these ingredients identified, here for your delectation is a potted history of the flight deck – for better and for worse. I must warn you, I’m in full television archaeology mode here, so if these intricacies don’t interest you, I’d just skip to the episode discussion, where I can bore you with the intricacies of ‘Space Fall’ itself.
Season A – The future, on a Softly Softly budget.
Those first shots of the flight deck in ‘Space Fall’ are so impressive, especially in light of the fact that the set hadn’t been fully constructed yet. But it is the controlled lighting that impresses the most, as the studio is bathed in a range of rich colours, something that we will never see again.
‘Cygnus Alpha‘ is also a darker affair, and by the time of ‘Time Squad’ when, half way through the episode, Gan triumphantly runs down the finally completed corridor section missing from those early appearances, we understand that the flight deck is about mystery and discovery, and low-key lighting is a big part of this.
‘The Web’ continues this mysterious theme, but it is ‘Seek-Locate-Destroy‘ where there is a subtle shift. Suddenly with Blake openly attacking the Federation, and the programme format settling, we see a change in lighting, with flight deck becoming brighter, and less mysterious. This is the now the flight deck as ‘home’. We see that the set is predominantly a military grey colour, with splashes of blue lighting giving it some depth, and the key lighting covers the whole set, rather than spotlighting certain areas. Episodes such as ‘Breakdown‘ and ‘Bounty‘ also use this look, and it is the signature look of season B.
Seek-Locate-Destroy, Bounty and others.
None the less the hurried and disjointed schedule of season A throws up some interesting variations – from the darkness of ‘Mission to Destiny’ to ‘Project Avalon’ where Michael E. Briant lights the set in a way that will never be repeated again. Here we see a range of greys, which make the studio set look less like a fantastical wonderland, and more like a utilitarian battle ship.
In fact the lighting in ‘Project Avalon’ throws up the other story of the Liberator flight deck – how it was taking quite a battering and how there was a need to hide this from the audience if possible – a case of damage limitation. Take a look at the sections either side of Zen’s sensor dome and how the straight lines have now become spaghetti. There seems to be various panels covering up damaged bits around where the lava lights are. This episode demonstrates that there is a fine line between atmospheric lighting, and maintaining production values.
If ‘Project Avalon’ is generally unsuccessful in hiding the battered set, then ‘Orac‘ tries a different approach – turning everything right down and using the ‘barn doors’ (and the directional controls) on the key lights to create a spotlight effect. This illuminates small sections of the set and keeps everything else in the shadows. It’s a more successful attempt for the audibly creaky set, as the series inched closer to the finishing line.
Season B sees the great Liberator refit. There is much that has been improved. The spaghetti mentioned earlier has now been replaced by two silver strips than run above the newly refurbished control panels either side of Zen. The lava lamp section is rebuilt completely, becoming larger and tidier. The four control units that make up Avon and Vila’s positions, have now become five. The control units themselves and the pale strips that run along the bottom of each crew position have been straightened up, and the illuminated panels behind Jenna, Gan and Cally’s stations have now been slightly re-designed, losing their curved ends, and now have rounded corners. Finally the control panel to the right of the main screen is now in line with the rest of the set, rather than looking like ‘the point where the money ran out.’
Still with me?
It’s newer, neater and visually pleasing on the eye, although I would argue that it loses a little of the mystique of the set, in favour of a slightly slicker look, which is fair enough.
The one area that is lost between seasons, is the wall to the left as you look at the crew stations – it’s been simplified, losing some of the marble panelling. The horizontal beams that sit at the top left of the set have disappeared altogether, and are replaced by a black drape. The set loses a bit of its cathedral-like splendour. Maybe it was just one level of complexity that had to be sacrificed in order for an easier life.
And with season B, the lighting is brought up again. So the new, sturdier and slicker set is lit more consistently using the lighting style as seen in ‘Bounty’. There are subtle variations, such as ‘Shadow’ and ‘Horizon’, and the early scenes of ‘Redemption’ but the greys are on full display throughout. Even ‘Star One’ is the polar opposite of ‘Orac’ in how the end-of-season episodes depict a battered set, with ‘Star One’ choosing to illuminate everything, and just about getting away with it, as long as you don’t look too closely.
Season C is where we see – generally speaking – the law of diminishing returns.
Between seasons there has been no great spit and polish, in fact when we see the set again in ‘Powerplay‘ the horizontal beams above the left hand corridor are clearly damaged, and the lighting is dimmed again in order to disguise this.
Powerplay, Volcano, Dawn of the Gods
And this is the main look for most of the first half of the season, before there was a little bit of a repair job for ‘Sarcophagus‘ which naturally corresponds with an increase in lighting once again. But the wear and tear continued with the set being dimmed once again for ‘Ultraworld’ and ‘Moloch’ and by the time we reach ‘Death Watch’ we are back to the end of season darkness, with a good atmospheric result.
There is one last twist. With the exception of the beginning and end scenes, Mary Ridge elects to light the flight deck quite brightly for most of ‘Terminal’. Sure it shows that we are seeing a tired set indeed, but it is a little throw back to earlier and brighter days, and a reminder that I’m going to miss it in the episodes to come.
There is so much more to talk about – the chairs, the angle lamp stands, and the control panel next to the sofas (the only bit that doesn’t work for me), but what makes the flight deck set so good, is that it is both distinctive and memorable. It doesn’t quite fit into the mould of traditional three walled studio design, it has its own design concept, it’s unlike anything else at the time, and above all, it is “conceptually alien.”
‘Space Fall’ holds the distinction of being the first Blake’s 7 episode to go into studio, but for me it feels like the first true episode of the series, mainly because it featured heavily in the BBC compilation tape ‘The Beginning’, whereas ‘The Way Back’ was largely overlooked. Poor Varon.
We open with a lovely crane shot of the ‘London’ prison ship interior, as we settle on Blake, Jenna, and our first glimpse of Gan. It also occurred to me that, as the ship passes the screen, we also see the Earth and Moon zooming away from us, which is a nice extra layer of model effect.
Inside a shabby flight deck we see some classic “check, check, check” dialogue, ending with a “go confirmation on all systems” – it all sounds very Gerry Anderson.
For once there is some genuinely appropriate shaky set wobble, as the ship goes into hyperdrive and a “High D shift vibration.”
The three crew are a really nice mix of characters. Youthful Artix, gung-ho Raiker and jaded Leylan. Artix gives us some essential exposition and then a nice touch of character, playing the long game in order to get out of “old tubs” like the London. In fact there is nice characterisation all around as there is unspoken tension and issues concerning rank between Leylan who wants an easy life, and Raiker who wants to have a bit more of an adventure.
We get our first shot of Avon, and he is sat on his own. Funny that.
Blake and Leylan get to know each other, with Leslie Schofield demonstrating some good shouty qualities, and with that Blake is released from his confinement, and free to start causing trouble. Away we go….
In their quarters, we start to get tentative first impressions of how Blake’s future crew will interact with each other. Vila is first with the quips, Jenna is the voice of cynicism, and Gan is loitering in the background, presumably trying to keep control of himself. These are all nice little touches, and it is making me – on this repeated viewing – study what is going on more intently than I otherwise would.
And there is more. Jenna makes an impression on Raiker, who leaves his mark on Jenna. I like to think the words whispered into his ear is perhaps the greatest secret in the Blake’s 7 universe.
Watching all of this is Avon. Clearly the ship is full of celebrities. What he is reading is another mystery, but presumably the source of much fan fiction. But it matters not, as Blake walks in with the line “Do you know how those door panels work?” The line could sound throwaway, but intent is clear.
Yes, this is a great scene. There is so much going on. The characterisations are being defined, tensions are being established and the situation they find themselves in is shifting towards something even more dangerous and pressing – with Blake calling out Avon’s idea of tampering with the flight log, allowing the prisoners to be quietly dumped in deep space. But the most important aspect of this scene is the fact that this is the first taste we have of Blake as leader. There’s no fanfare. It’s simply a case of walk through the door, and start asking questions of others.
A quick shout out for the model effects. When I was young I loved the revolving moon that the London passes, and with older eyes I marvel at how smooth the motion of the ship is, and how effective the lighting is.
It’s a funny little set, the London flight deck. The crew are literally on top of each other, and the raised design allows the camera to tilt upwards at the three crew members, drawing the audience right into their situation. It reminds me of General Chellak’s operations room in Peter Davison’s final adventure ‘The Caves of Androzani’ (1984) where Graeme Harper points the camera up into the faces of the military, the Doctor and Peri, ramping up the tension in the process. The handheld camera used by Pennant Roberts in some of these shots adds further to the intensity.
There is some more wonderful techno-gab, and once again it is Artix who delivers it. “About five sub secs on the high D grid.” And in case we didn’t understand, there is some nice Hitch Hikers style animation to illustrate this.
The rust bucket that is the London is really nicely conveyed, with more scenery wobble, the kind you get in pressurised aircraft in flight, but it is the thermos flask and cups falling down that have the greatest impact. It’s not just that they fall down, but the fact there is no device to secure them to anything in the first place!
On film, Blake is making his way through the hull of the ship, with some nice P.O.V handheld footage. It is these little directorial touches that I’m guessing were really important in distancing Blake’s 7 from Doctor Who – stylistically speaking.
Blake has his first one-to-one with Avon – a nice little battle of wills, with a familiar outcome – Avon agrees to do the work that Blake is proposing.
Jenna scoops up some of the sealant which “goes solid in seconds” – I love the idea that she spends the rest of the episode, including passing through the transfer tube with a great big solid mass attached to her hand. Strong look.
So Avon is taking a little too long, and Nova offers to help. Up to this point he has been noticeable in the action, but lacking in any real dialogue. I really like Tom Kelly in this small, but important role. He has a certain quiet determination to be useful that I think, in a parallel universe, would have helped him develop into a nice member of the ‘seven’.
But alas it is not to be, as Nova gets the shaving foam treatment. But boy what a scene! Pennant Roberts sticks the camera right into his face, and Kelly lets rip some great terrified acting. Not a nice way to go.
Blake and co are playing the waiting game. I just love the way that Vila decides – quite rightly – to nonchalantly sit down in his chair whilst waiting for Avon to do clever things.
But Avon is in trouble. Luckily he knows how to fight dirty. I remember watching the compilation tape and enjoying the moment he boxes the ears of the technician – another subtle distinction between Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who. And then when the first episodic VHS tape came out it had mysteriously vanished. I didn’t realise at first, but I remember thinking there’s something missing…a missing something. (Sorry I turned into Travis there.)
After the mouth gouging and ear boxing, the doors are all open, and it’s time to enjoy the contest, and Harry Fielder’s terrified acting face.
As I’m sure you will have noticed, there are lovely little touches galore in this episode. For example, Raikers’s “Tell the old man what is happening“, Avon’s polite but firm request to Jenna when her legs block the access he needs, and Raiker’s smirk when Dainer reveals the death toll to the internally grimacing Leylan.
We reach the big “free men can think and speak” scene between Blake, Jenna and Avon, which says a lot about their characters, but to be honest I’m noticing so many other little details about this episode, that these ‘meaty’ scenes are playing second fiddle.
The rebellion falls to pieces thanks to ‘Vee-la‘ and we end up with an unpleasant Raiker strategy. This is the moment that I knew he wasn’t the father of Jonny Briggs.
There are even more little moments to enjoy – Raiker breaks the fourth wall as he says he has “something I want you to see“. There’s Laylan’s brilliant eye roll as Raiker sticks a fist in Blake’s guts, and his subsequent “have you gone completely mad?” And finally we have Avon’s first really sardonic moment as he chides Blake over the failed rebellion.
The battle inside is seemingly over. But the remnants of an altogether different battle outside is about to play a bigger part.
So wait for it…
The moment is coming…
Look up to the scanner…
DAA DAA DAHHHH!!!!
How cool is that first shot of the Liberator? The camera looking up to an imposing object, with a fanfare, just like many a Hollywood film company logo. It’s a wonderful moment.
Out comes the transfer tube and attaches itself to the starship. The first two crew members to board – Wallace and Teague – don’t make it to the end of the episode. The tension created by only hearing the voice of Teague has real impact.
And then comes Krell, whose voice is strangely calming and assured. I reckon he was a proper romantic behind the Federation trappings. A lover of art. A kindly man.
After all the suspense, we finally reach the moment the Liberator is boarded.
The effectiveness of the first scene on the flight deck is set up by the visual feel of the entire episode – cheap, flimsy, old and grey. It’s the perfect lead in for that first glorious glass shot, where the colour scheme changes completely, and the following shot – a lingering camera track as we see the flight stations for the first time. The way the studio is lit is a massive shift from the functionality of the London to the wonder and possibility of the Liberator. It’s like we have moved into an entirely different production altogether. Another great moment.
And there is more greatness to come as the three prisoners are attacked by the Liberator defence mechanism. The sound design, the harrowing imagery and the distorted video effects really make the scene a stand out in the series – again very adult.
The other thing about the flight deck set, is how new it all looks. Everything is pristine. Even the cream strips around the four ‘blocks’ that make up each station are perfectly aligned. Probably the only time in the series history where this will be the case. First impressions matter, and this show home is looking very nice indeed.
Back to reality, and Raiker is making his own bid for liberation. And he achieves it, thanks to the activation of the ship and the freezing vacuum of space. It’s a very good death, both dramatically and through the technical execution – perhaps one of the most ‘big budget’ shots of all time.
As the credits rolled, I must say I have seen this episode in a totally new light – literally.
‘Space Fall’ is an episode of small details, all of which contribute to the greater whole. It is no doubt an important episode, and for years I have seen it as such, but its significance to the wider story arc has left me blind to all the little moments that happen over the 50 minutes. Technical moments, dramatic moments, visual moments, and character touches.
But going back to a key theme of this blog post, it’s the studio lighting that stands out. For years I just assumed the corridors and convict quarters of the London were lit in a flat, over illuminated way. But look at the image of Blake and Jenna below, and marvel at how the lighting adds real depth to the set design, casting lingering shadows, and menacing gradients on the walls. And also look at the two shot of Leylan in the foreground and Raiker, who is in the darkness at the back.
To be honest, I’ve never been a fan of Pennant Roberts as director in his four Blake’s 7 episodes. I’ve just found them looking somehow cheaper than his compatriots and lacking visual flair. And for all these years I have included ‘Space Fall’ in this. Sure it has some big, big moments, but I’ve never been able to get past the perceived cheapness. But watching it this time, and with less of a casual eye, I think that this might, just conceivably, be one of the most well directed episodes in the entire run. His shot selection is inspired, from Avon opening the hatch into the computer room, to the handheld work on the London flight deck. His handing of the performances is wonderful, from the dynamics of the London crew, to the impassioned moments from Blake and Avon. There’s the slick way he depicts the shabbiness of the London, allowing the moment we first board the Liberator to be a truly magnificent event, and around it all are some really notable creative touches – the psychological attack on the Liberator, the intensity in the ducts of the ship, and the way the space battle is presented to us. There’s handheld, there’s high angle, low angle, nice perspective shots and tasty film work. It’s finally time for me to give Roberts the credit he is due. He was first up in the studio, and did a great job. The cheapness is a concept, not a failing.
There’s a pretty tasty cast in this one. Norman ‘Underworld’ Tipton will be familiar to Doctor Who fans, I think he was an underrated actor, whose career petered out – on screen at least – a few years later. Glyn ‘The Power of Kroll’ Owen will probably be most recognisable for his leading role in ‘Howard’s Way’ and Leslie ‘The Face of Evil’ Schofield will forever a familiar face of my childhood thanks to BBC children drama ‘Jonny Briggs’.
As for the minor roles, David Hayward seems to have enjoyed a good taste of 1990’s US television, while Brett Forrest pops up in, yes you guessed it ‘The Face of Evil’, as did Tom Kelly, who is probably better known as a Vardan in ‘The Invasion of Time’ as well as his chilling turn in ‘Sapphire and Steel’. If you ever get a chance, check out the excellent interview he gave as part of Toby Hadoke’s ‘Whosround’ series, which includes a brilliant tale about the directorial style of Pennant Roberts. There are plenty of other names to explore, but I would be here all day, so I wanted to just say that Avon’s brother (David Bache) was a Cyberman in ‘Earthshock’ and Jenna’s mother (Juliette James) is now enjoying a continued career in America.
If ever there was a set design that celebrates all the different shades of grey (apparently there are 50) it is the London. The corridors are tight and claustrophobic – an excellent design decision, and again the polar opposite of the Liberator. As for the fixtures and fittings, there is a great website out there called ‘Starring the Computer’ which tells me where I thought I recognised some of the control panels, namely the ICT 1301 transistor computer, which in the end was not what I was thinking of! (3)
Elsewhere there is a nice mix of corrugated panels, and that curved control unit that Artix sits at, that has appeared in probably every ITC series set in space. There are also other scenic design elements that look familiar from stock. (4)
This feels like Dudley Simpson has properly arrived to the party. We have some nice percussive moments for the prison ship, and a nice ominous ‘Jaws’ like theme just before Raiker shouts “SAY IT!’ There’s some suitably ominous synth as the prisoners walk across the transfer tube, and some deep woodwind and vibraphone for the scenes of Avon skulking around. I notice that these types of instruments are usually wheeled out for film scenes.
The score as the trio first walk onto the Liberator is etched into my brain, something of which I am not complaining about, as it perfectly captures the amazement of the characters as they take in their new environment.
Finally a little shout out for the first appearance of the little riff that usually accompanies some Liberator based action – it appears over the quick shot of Laylan looking pensive, just before we see the spectacular flight deck for the first time.
HOW TO SELL THIS TO AN UNBELIEVER
As the episode where you can distribute most of the budget to the last 10 minutes without losing any impact.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
Liberator flight deck. Can you tell?
THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
I’m being a bit picky, but the scene where Vila drops his gun and the rebellion is quashed. It’s a bit clunky.
VERDICT IN TEN WORDS EXACTLY
I knew it was good. A re-watch confirms its greatness.