“Running the tapes again? Afraid you missed something?”
Recently I was reminded of a scene in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, where the characters comprising the ‘Royal Society for Putting Things On Top Of Other Things’ are “surrounded by film“, a neat reference to the production techniques used to make the programmes of the day.
I’m sure that everyone reading this will know that Blake’s 7, Doctor Who and other series of the era used a mix of film and video work. Film equipment was more portable so it was usually used for scenes shot on location. Once completed, the majority of footage would then be recorded in the television studio on videotape. There is a noticeable difference in the look of both, with quite a jarring effect when cutting from one format to another, such as the final fight on Cygnus Alpha.
But generally speaking I really enjoy the mix of styles. Film work often provides opportunities for some considerable visual flair, using a really nice range of shots and editing in a way that the multi-camera television studio with its three walled sets, and ‘live’ vision mixing cannot achieve. But working within the ‘limitations’ of studio drama is a real skill and an art in its own right, something of which I hope to discuss when I get to ‘Orbit’.
I’m trying to think about when I first noticed the difference between film and video, and I think it must have been watching the dank warehouses of Shad Thames in ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’ (1984) where the wet conditions and the general grimness of the location made it hugely atmospheric to my 5-year-old eyes. Then I blinked, and we had switched to video, and were ‘inside’ – notably various corridors and operation rooms on a spaceship. It was at this point that the images looked like it was ‘live’.
So the formula was established in my mind. Anything outdoors, or on location would be usually shot on film and looked grainy and atmospheric, whilst the ‘inside’ world, would be shot on video and feel very ‘in the moment.’
Then as I got older, I started a paper round and saved up the money for the eventual purchase of a video player. Then came those precious first VHS purchases. I started picking up on the exceptions to the rule. Tom Baker’s first season was the main source of interest here. ‘Robot’ and ‘The Sontaran Experiment’ were solely shot on video, and allowed me to contrast this to the brutal footage of Betchworth Quarry in ‘Genesis of the Daleks.’ It made me realise that the choice of format gave a certain ‘feel’ to the piece.
To this day, ‘Spearhead from Space’ truly feels like an oddity in the entirety of Doctor Who. It’s the closest it will come visually to those television series of the 1960’s and 70’s that were afforded the luxury of film. When Liz Shaw is chauffeured to UNIT HQ for the first time, to Dudley Simpson’s woodwind and trumpet, it feels so much like a movie, and strangely disconcerting as a result.
Sure video has its detractors, but I’m not one of them. There is an immediacy to the format that is quite gripping. ‘The Seeds of Doom’ (1976) uses outside broadcast cameras to shoot all the location material. This means the horror elements of possession that are core to the story actually play second fiddle to the themes of intrigue, business dealings and brutality that make this feel more like a contemporary drama, rather than merely a pastiche of classic film movie conventions.
On a similar theme, ‘The Stones of Blood’ is all about mystery and what is lurking on the moorland. It’s shot on video, which gives it a very distinctive look. Again Dudley Simpson’s music, combined with the tone of the story makes it feel like it belongs on film. But I like the fact it is shot on tape. It make the danger somehow more immediate to our characters, and again gives it a very contemporary feel, more so when you consider that it is the Doctor Who story set on modern-day Earth for around a year.
I can’t imagine a drama such as ‘Survivors’ working on film. When you are following the struggles of a group of regular characters week by week, we need to be there right with them, so it needs a sense of cosiness and immediacy that video offers.
‘The Invasion of Time’ is the exception to the rule, which due to its troubled production needed to switch the conventions just to get the show aired in the first place. Whilst it is odd to see ‘interior’ spaces shot on film, there is also the benefit of some ‘location’ footage being shot on video. All in all, this mish-mash actually makes the budget feel a bit bigger – something of which Doctor Who desperately needed around this time.
So what of Blake’s 7?
As we know, it’s a conventional ratio of film and video, across its 52 episodes. But there is an interesting mix of when it should or could be one or the other. It becomes one of those games that I’m sure some of us will have played in our minds from time to time.
Here are the simple rules. Take a scene from any episode, and based on the general rule of outside = film, and inside = video, imagine what the scene/episode would have felt like had it been shot on the opposing medium.
What if the ‘bunker’ scenes in ‘The Way Back’ had been shot on video instead of film. Perhaps the audience watching the series for the first time might have been fooled into thinking that the BBC has really gone to town in creating a harsh, expansive interior in the studio or a four walled space somewhere. I reckon it would have created an impressive first impression for the audience, and a feeling that this is a ‘bigger budget’ television production.
What if the scenes on the barren rocky planet in ‘Duel’ had been shot on film? Sure I marvel at how good it is considering the limitations of the TV studio, but I do imagine that these scenes could have benefited from a filmic look, making the distant shots of the graveyard even more effective.
‘Project Avalon’ and ‘Horizon’ look great on film, but it’s interesting to think what the impression would have been if the caves were shot on video. Could the atmosphere feel tense in a different way? Equally would ‘Time Squad’ and ‘Redemption’ feel like it had a bigger budget if the ‘interiors’ of Oldbury-on-Severn power station had been shot on video?
Do the filmic elements in ‘Countdown’ benefit from being shot on film? OK, I know there are explosions and water everywhere, so film needed to be used, but would it have given a different effect. This leads me to think about ‘Voice from the Past’, where I like the fact that we see Servalan spring her trap on film. It makes it more psychological, cold and menacing, even if I do wonder what the interior of the Wembley Conference Centre would have looked like on video.
Then we have episodes such as ‘Gambit’ and ‘Children of Auron’ where large sections of ‘interior’ scenes at the replication plant are shot on film. On Auron this kind of feels right, adding to the unsettling, clinical nature of the episode, but I wonder whether Freedom City would have felt like a more contained environment had the material filmed around the Southbank Centre been shot on video. The same is true of ‘Ultraworld’, which I think is an episode that would have completely changed as a result of the filmed location footage in the Camden deep tunnels being switched to videotape. This would have made the entire world feel like a singular space, and removed the jarring cut from one medium to the other. Similarly would the opulent interiors of Residence One in ‘Rumours of Death’ benefited from a clean video look, or would it have felt like an episode of ‘Upstairs Downstairs’?
I reckon Crandor would have looked markedly different had the black void had been shot on video. I think of ‘Warriors’ Gate’ (1981) as to how this could have looked – a tight, claustrophobic and somewhat suffocating environment (if you ignore the CSO fringes.)
In season D there are plenty of examples of where film or video could have been used; the jungle on Helotrix, the short video scenes on Bucol 2, the Zondawl massacre, and the temporary hideout on Gauda Prime. But, like I mentioned earlier, it’s just fun to imagine. With every example mentioned, these decisions were down to the limitations of the production resources available to the crew.
This leaves me with ‘Sand’. An interesting one. When Servalan and her crew first step foot on Virn we see it on film, which fits in with the ‘rules’ of the era – it’s an ‘exterior’ shot. But it’s filmed in the interior of Ealing, instead of a quarry. This is perfect for ‘Sand’ – an episode that is all about atmosphere and unseen danger. It really couldn’t be anything else. By this I’m thinking of other moments such as the surface of Del 10 in ‘Voice from the Past’ and the equally unconvincing environment of Vilaworld in ‘City at the Edge of the World.’
In addition, the filmed set design of Virn also feels very much of its time – the landscape in a studio, rather than attempting everything in a quarry. In sci-fi terms, I’m reminded of other attempts to create a studio based planetary surface on video, such as the prehistoric Earth as seen in the Doctor Who episodes ‘City of Death’ (1979) and ‘Time Flight’ (1982.)
All of this reminded me of two other classic slices of 1980’sness: the Saharan dessert used for the Fry’s Turkish delight advert, and the music video for ‘The Dreaming’ by Kate Bush (both 1982.) The relationship between where the scenery ends, and the background begins is key. The lighting and the use of a gauze is a tool to help mask the join, but the choice of film and video affect how we experience the landscape. In ‘The Dreaming’, complete with ‘Sand’ type laser effects, the use of video make us feel like we are right there with Kate Bush and her performers, Meanwhile the Fry’s advert is shot on film, meaning we are only onlookers, observing the ‘Eastern promise’ that a Turkish Delight offers us. The fascinating photos from Art Director Marc Hill, illustrate the care and attention in which this set was created and lit.
Images (c) Marc Hill. (2)
And on the subject of lighting, Virn feels different to what has gone before in Blake’s 7. It’s really interesting. It’s another example of a distinctly 1980’s aesthetic that has been creeping into this season of Blake’s 7. The whole set up is quite brightly lit, illuminating the cast more directly, and the starscape background looks more stylised than what has gone before – mirroring the space backgrounds seen in the model shots for this final run of episodes.
And while Blake’s 7 disappeared off our screens before the new decade truly got going, the use of film or video, alongside the creative decisions that come with it, is a tantalising glimpse of how the visual look of the series might have evolved had it continued well into the 1980’s.
(1) Filming of ‘The War of the Worlds’
We open with an atmospheric tracking shot of a planetary landscape. Using the voice over of Keller makes it pretty evocative, giving it a haunting feel to it. The dialogue sounds quite poetic, and leads me to think one thing; this is a novelist talking. Visually the slow forward movement of the camera reveals nothing more than endless barren planetary landscape, making it a never-ending journey to nowhere. The tone of this episode is set quite quickly.
The opening also reminds me of the introduction to another episode – ‘The Web’ – which also creates a memorable atmosphere through a long lingering tracking shot and an unsettling soundscape.
On Servalan’s ship it looks like a right barrel of laughs. I enjoyed the contrast in pose and body language between Reeve who is imposing and macho and Commissioner Sleer, who is still, silent and deep in thought. It’s also a contrast to a more familiar choreography, where Servalan usually circles around in the background, with the male sitting facing the audience in the foreground. Something tells me that this isn’t going to be a harmonious relationship between two Federation personnel. This switch from the norm also suggests that this episode is going to be slightly different than usual.
“Perhaps I like watching old films.” Yep, they’re tired of each other already.
Sleer questions why the tape hadn’t reached the highest authority (namely herself) at the time when they were sent. This echoes a similar note in ‘Animals’ when Sleer interrogates Ardus. It makes me think that the there are two key drivers of the Sleer characterisation; namely her drive to regain power, and also a chance for a proper audit about what has or hasn’t been happening in the levels below presidency. The fact that Servalan is undertaking this mission at all, away from her pacification strategy, suggests her deposal as President might have been the opportunity for a bit of life laundry or therapy, something that appears to be of some importance to her. Perhaps if the Sleer sub plot was developed further, it might have been a nice chance to explore the structure and mechanisations of the Federation, but alas it was not to be, as this episode is the end of Sleer, and with that – it could be argued – the end of Servalan’s story.
Ooo look, a cloudy laser thing! It always reminds me of two things; the opening title sequence of the BBC science series ‘Horizon’ and Roger Daltrey posturing in the middle of ‘The Who’ light show at the end of ‘The Kids are Alright.’
There’s some turbulence acting approaching, including an awkward shot of Sleer and Reeve – it must be tricky to convert bumpy conditions when sat on wheely office chairs.
On a dim, minimal Xenon base set, our crew are debating the continuing theme of this season – plundering the resources that the universe has to offer, before the Federation get their hands on it. It’s such a short scene, it interests me in why the set was constructed at all, after all they chose to spend hours on Scorpio looking at a video of a Space Rat in ‘Stardrive’.
It’s also funny that, in the random order of watching these episodes, I haven’t watched one with Orac in it for some time. So its appearance reminds me of something – I love the wirey sound effect that goes with it – so cheap and low-fi and therefore perfect for the greatest computer in the galaxy.
With Scorpio leaving Xenon, and Servalan and Reeve leaving their ship to start a five mile trek to the base on Virn, the pleasantries are completed. We understand the characters. Chasgo is quiet and workmanlike, his assistant is a nervy type, and Reeve is a complete git.
In keeping with the theme of this post, there is an awkward jump from video to film as the Federation personnel begin their trek.
There’s a landslide and the ship is covered. And Servalan gets dirty, which is a sign that this isn’t going to be a nice cosy episode. I remember watching ‘The Caves of Androzani’ (1984) and knowing that Peter Davison’s Doctor was in real trouble once he had got his costume mucky, thanks to a mud blast. It upped the tension markedly.
I mentioned the switch in standard Blake’s 7 conventions earlier, with Servalan in the foreground instead of the background. 10 minutes into the episode I realised that there is another, where the scenes featuring the regular crew are brief and infrequent, leaving most of the screen time for the other characters and situations to play the dominant role.
As Servalan’s party continue their trek across Virn, I’m reminded how film is capable of glossing over many production limitations.
The pace is deliberately slow, with lingering shots, and slow cross fades. And there is something about Jacqueline Pearce’s portrayal of Servalan. The character looks bored and pensive, like she is just waiting for a certain something to happen. I love the way how she uses the leg of the assistant to help herself up – as always, she will use others to achieve her own ends!
Listen to the soundtrack at this point, namely how Dudley Simpson’s score and Elizabeth Parker’s sonic tones compete or complement each other, depending on your point of view.
I’m still loving Servalan’s detached demeanour as she stares into middle distance in almost every scene. She sets her stall out to Reeve. “There is something you should realise. There are no women like me.”
Peter Craze gets his little scene as the unnamed ‘assistant’, and it’s a nice one. The word ‘pig’ feels at home on Blake’s 7 in a way that I can’t hear in pretty much any other sci-fi drama I can think of. His is a small role, but an important one as we understand the threat of the planet through his disposition. The planet is coming alive, I love how the land ‘bubbles’ underneath him before his demise.
Tarrant and Dayna teleport down, while Reeve identifies Servalan’s true identity, and with that, the quiet end of ‘Sleer’ as a name in the series, leaving this plot strand in a kind of stasis.
Reeve makes his mark in other ways too, giving Dayna a gunshot graze to the arm. Back on Scorpio there’s an excellent line about Dayna’s blood not liking the sight of Vila, but it doesn’t feel like the voice of Tanith Lee, more like a Boucher addition.
The sand is advancing, and suddenly the pace of the episode quickens. Tarrant dispatches Reeve, and Servalan finally comes out of her shell. Scorpio gets a buffeting, Orac starts to behave irractically, and Soolin attempts a teleport – all in the space of three minutes. But as Avon says, at the end of it all, we wait.
There’s a great line from Servalan, as she receives the audit trail of reasons why Tarrant would like to kill her. “What fascinating violence” she concludes. In fact the whole scene is great. The episode is awakening from its dormant state, ready to feed.
And what it is feeding on is people, and for me, the psychological energies within – emotions, impulses, instinct.
Little names and echoes of the past creep their way into the mix, such as Tarrant’s brother and Cally. The scene where Servalan confronts the corpse of her former lover is quite powerful.
I can feel the horror conventions creeping in further as Dayna quips “Thunder right on cue.”
I remember when I first saw Vila hunched up on the steps of Scorpio flight deck clutching his drink and rubbing his face. It somehow felt like an exaggerated depiction of his character at this late stage in the series.
Servalan and Tarrant share a dinner date. It’s our first chance to touch base with any of the regular characters since Terminal. Since then the battle has been to simply survive.
We find out that Servalan somehow ended up on a Federation word, following the Liberator’s destruction, and in her unspecified ‘absence’ she was deposed as President. With the Sleer subplot at an end, we do get at least a suggestion that the reason she was not identified as Servalan was because of the ‘purging’ of anyone who might have been associated by her. This highlights the main flaw of the whole subplot. In order to make it believable we needed to know a lot more of the Federation structure and politics of the time, something of which was hinted at during the previous season, and would have been quite fascinating to explore at this stage of rapid expansion.
But this moment is also important as it suggests to me that there is not much more of Servalan’s story to be told. Sure she will continue to rise, but aside from some character notes in ‘Pressure Point’, this is the moment we finally understand the person, and with that, anything more featuring Servalan will be nothing more than her just being there as the villain. But right now it is power that is the drug, and that’s far more interesting. As convoluted as I find the ‘Sleer’ plot to be, I have no doubt of one thing, the she will reign supreme once again.
There’s another lovely moment in the way Avon handles Vila’s drunkenness and attitude to Dayna. Never has the observation that Vila likes Dayna and needs to go and sit down felt so disdainful.
Tarrant works out the power at play, and it is at this moment when I started to think about Sand being vampiric and being able to reason. It sounds so ridiculous, and therefore totally works. Whenever I read cheap shots in non Blake’s 7 related publications or articles about how the series had deteriorated, resorting to storylines about vampire sand, I think it completely miss the point of the episode and the spirit in which the episode was written.
We’re into kissy time, with water, wine (and the usually resulting tears) revealing themselves to be the potential solution.
Boucher comes in with some lovely Vila bashing, with Soolin’s observation of his pulse being very weak, being met with Avon’s wonderful “Well that should go very nicely with the rest of him.”
Avon deduces the same thing that Tarrant has. The things that are best left unspoken about dominant males and herd mentality is very amusing.
There’s a touch of animation, which reminds me of the first season, where it played a big part in the visual style of the series.
Tarrant cannot kill Servalan, and Servalan cannot kill Tarrant. But one thing that she can do, is deftly flick the end of his nose as she draws the gun seductively down his face. Good skills.
And back on Scorpio, Tarrant faces the music, while on the ship Servalan reflects – a final on-screen exploration into her soul.
This re-watch confirmed my previous feeling toward ‘Sand’. It’s an episode that I admire more than I ‘enjoy’ – by this I mean it has a different kind of balance between action/adventure and more considered content that is the make up of my Blake’s 7 watching experience. To watch it I have to be in more specific mood, or frame of mind. But in terms of admiration for it, it right up there. It commands respect in that it’s well written and sensitively directed, and to really appreciate it, you have to be truly involved, a bit like having the sand in there with you in the room. In this sense it perfectly mirrors the theme and content of the episode itself.
It contains the most interesting idea (in a sea of interesting ideas) that Tanith Lee contributed to the series, although I don’t feel that its structure works as well as ‘Sarcophagus’ in the hurried 50 minute time slot, as the pace fluctuates, making some sections of the episode a bit quick-fire and direct in terms of explanation.
And thanks to the story of Pearce and Pacey being neighbours, I can no longer see a houseboat for what it is. To see a houseboat is to think of Blake’s 7, as much as seeing a sink plunger is to see a Dalek.
It’s nicely directed, especially the filmed scenes, and the pace that Vivienne Cousins plays the drama is suited to the concepts behind Tanith Lee’s script – again it is commanding you to think and feel, rather than simply be witness to it. Earlier I talked about how the choice between film and video affects the ‘feel’ of the piece, and never is that more the case here. Cousins filmed the surfaces of Virn on film, and that was an important decision, as the alienation and threat would not have been conveyed as effectively if it was on video. Equally when Servalan and Tarrant snuggle up together, in the warm, we are right there with them thanks to the immediacy of the video look. Not only was the choice of film and video a convention of the times, here it feels like an artistic decision.
There’s a great guest cast in this one. Stephen Yardley is most famous for the 1980’s BBC drama ‘Howard’s Way’, but will be recognisable for a couple of roles in ‘Doctor Who’ too, as will Daniel Hill, who has recently been turned into animated form for ‘Shada’. Jonathan David, appeared on Telos in the mid-1980’s, battling against Cybermen, while Peter Craze and Michael Gaunt have appeared elsewhere in Blake’s 7, with Craze playing the plaything of Travis on Centero, and Gaunt appearing on-screen as Dr. Bax, before succumbing to a ‘Killer’ plague on Fosforon.
In addition to the familiar name of Ken Ledsham, we have Eric Walmsley, who worked alongside Vivienne Cousins on both of her Blake’s 7 episodes. I’m guessing that Walmsley, who also designed ‘The Keeper’, handles the studio work, with Ken Ledsham working at Ealing studios on the impressive Virn set.
Here the Federation ship looks like a re-dressed version or Servalan’s cruiser that features in ‘Animals’ and ‘Assassin’. This time the layout is flipped around, with a yellow background, and what looks like a variant of the Federation logo. The base on Virn looks like it includes the hollowed out unit that was Gambit in ‘Games’ alongside some familiar control banks from other episodes. They’re perfectly acceptable sets, without being particularly memorable. It’s the Virn set, with its movement within, and the dry ice effects that are memorable.
Typically I was drawn to bit of chair spotting, and I discovered that the aforementioned wheely chairs that feature on the Federation ship are part of a celebrated ergonimic design – the Vertebra Chair System, circa 1976, designed by Emilio Ambasz and Giancarlo Piretti. It was described as “the first automatically adjustable office chair, designed to respond and adapt to the movements of the user’s body and provide comfort and support.” (3). I’m sure it glided across the studio floor quite nicely too.
I had to concede defeat in my attempts to identify the brown leather sofas seen on the Virn base, and that, ladies and gentleman, is the biggest disappointment of ‘Sand’ for me. Not a bad result as disappointments go.
Fairly standard season D synths and brass for the ship scenes,. There’s a touch of clarinet for the scenes with Servalan and Tarrant. The overall score is more subdued and less invasive than in other episodes. It is Elizabeth Parker’s background scores that stick in the mind here.
HOW TO SELL THIS TO AN UNBELIEVER
Anyone with an interest in vampiric horror will naturally be drawn to this. And 1980’s music videos.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
The dominant hi-jinks between Avon, Soolin and Dayna on Scorpio.
THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
The grumpy teenager style walking away from Tarrant, giving him evils, at the end of the episode.
VERDICT IN TEN WORDS EXACTLY
Mature, thoughtful and emotional. Visually it’s the most 1980’s looking.