D11 – ORBIT (and a bit about the language of the television studio.)

 

If I was ever given the choice between one or the other, I would always choose television over film.  The difference in style, structure and viewing environment all play a part in how I view a movie in comparison to the style of television production which existed when Blake’s 7 was made.  But I’ve rarely stopped to think exactly why I prefer the medium of TV.

Whenever I watch something, on either the big or small screen, I think of the timeless dilemma that exists – where do you put the money, and how do you make sure the audience sees it?  A feature film is often going to ask that question in the context of putting all of ones eggs into a single basket, namely the feature presentation, usually over 90 minutes long, seen on the big screen, and as a singular entity.   In the televisual landscape – especially one that existed in the cash strapped late 1970’s – the low budget poses a different set of questions; how do we get this on the screen at all?  How do we reach the finishing line?  How do we make sure we invest in a series across its entire production run?

Of course these conundrums are not mutually exclusive to television or film, but the reason I wanted to talk about them here is simply because it is at the core of how I ‘watch’ Blake’s 7 and other screen dramas of the time.

I think I’m drawn to the idea that ‘less is more’, namely the limitations in which the television drama of yesteryear was made.   Although I want to be clear on what I mean by the word ‘limitations’ – I don’t mean this in a negative sense.  On the contrary, I think that working within the boundaries and restrictions of time, budget, and the space that is a television studio can be incredibly positive – a trigger to use ones imagination and creativity more sharply.

Another reason for my preference to the small screen over the big screen, is the idea of a repeat appointment with the same characters, situations and environment over a series of weeks – the result of which is a greater investment in what is happening.

There’s also something about the look and grammar of the kind of television drama that Blake’s 7 belongs to.  In my discussion of ‘Sand‘ I noted the immediacy of videotape – the idea that everything feels more ‘in the moment’.   The shots are closer, the spaces more claustrophobic, the acting more direct and the dialogue more punchy – I’ve always felt more ‘involved’ within television studio drama, and Blake’s 7 is something that encapsulates this beautifully.  It’s the mise-en-scene.  The staging, the feel, the elements of what we see.

Turning this on its head for a moment, I recently re-watched a handful of films directed under the banner of the Dogme95 manifesto.  For those not familiar, this was an agreement between a number of directors who wanted to create filmmaking that was very much in the vision of the directors, not the corporation that backed them.  Elements of the very final paragraph (My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings) matches much of what I love about television drama, but the methods employed to achieve this couldn’t be more different.

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The manifesto says:

  • Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
  • The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot.)
  • The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted.
  • The film must be in color. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera.)
  • Optical work and filters are forbidden.
  • The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
    Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.)
  • Genre movies are not acceptable.
  • The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
  • The director must not be credited.

Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a “work”, as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations.  (1)

It’s an acquired taste, and creates a very realistic and naturalistic feel, even documentary like at times.  But the description of the manifesto got me thinking about the conventions that make up television dramas such as Blake’s 7.  And this led me to ‘Orbit’.

‘Orbit’ is the only episode of Blake’s 7 that doesn’t feature any filming (bar the model effects.)  Its studio bound limitations, and television drama conventions are part and parcel of the episode, and a big part of its critical success.   The acting is grandiose, the lighting expressive and the ‘live’ editing is sharp – the climatic scene onboard the shuttle is perhaps the ultimate small screen moment in all of Blake’s 7.

‘Orbit’ also got me thinking about how the physical space is conveyed within Blake’s 7, and how this helps shape our understanding and connection with the characters, situations and narratives.  And this led me to think more and more about the container that all of this magic take place in – the television studio.

To talk about studio drama is to talk nostalgically – another reason I might be drawn to this form of production technique.  In the case of the BBC, the days of the studio being the primary home for creating worlds, spaces and environments are long gone.  By the 1990’s production techniques were changing, and John Birt’s ‘Producer’s Choice’ was another factor that saw the closure of in-house studios – notably the big studios in Oxford Road in Manchester, Pebble Mill in Birmingham and eventually a good chunk of Television Centre.

These worlds were created in the tradition of the theatre – not only in the way sets were constructed and lit, but also how the occupants moved within them.  There’s a great quote from the ‘Spaces of Television’ blog hosted by the University of Reading, that captures the effective and ingenious way in which these environments played such an important part of my viewing experience.

“Another quality of studio drama is its unique ability to convey interiors, especially rooms – suggesting how characters understand themselves through how they inhabit the environment of the rooms that they live and work in.

There are several reasons why studio television achieved this; the electronic nature of videotape meant that the images it recorded – in glowing colours, sharply defined to let viewers make out precise details of the set – were unlike the pictures that the film camera produces. The major television companies, especially the BBC, employed specialised design departments, working to the highest possible standards, applying a wealth of experience to programmes. And the episodic nature of much television fiction trained the viewer to understand characters through the rooms that they saw them in; when we think of Steptoe and Son, or Stan and Hilda Ogden, say, we tend to imagine them in their homes.” (2)

It’s true.  There are elements of the characters of Blake’s 7 that are intrinsically linked to the spaces they inhabited; Avon and Vila sparring against each other in the their respective flight positions, Servalan walking behind her chair or the chairs of her guests in Space Command, Tarrant skipping down steps like he’s a quiz show host, or poor Cally, usually relegated to her seat behind the teleport desk.

There’s also a wonderful resource out there that explores the use of interior space within film – ‘Interiors’.  And it was instrumental in helping me find the mechanism for everything that has been in my head for so long.  It didn’t take long for the shuttle featured in ‘Orbit’ to get this treatment.

So taking this climactic scene as our example, what is the television studio giving us?

Lets start with the way the shots are intercut.  This is a scene that does not require any kind of fancy post-production editing.  This is real, and in the moment.  There is (almost) nowhere to hide.  A great example is the set-up where there are two cameras both fixed on Avon, that both serve completely different purposes.

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The first camera is providing a side on shot of Avon and Orac at the control desk.  The side on angle distances ourselves from Avon’s predicament – we are observers as he tries to find a solution to the crisis.  But right at the moment Orac delivers the answer we cut back to a different camera shot, used throughout the scene – a deep mid shot which allows us to see Avon in the foreground and Vila in the background.  It allows Avon to stare off into middle distance, but the fact that we are directly facing him means that we are no longer observers – we’re absolutely involved in this situation.  And what does Avon do, as the penny drops and he makes his quick decision?  He looks straight into the camera and towards us, the loyal audience that has shared the journey between these two characters for the last four seasons.  Even the camera doesn’t immediately move once the door is shut, it holds its position with Avon to the left of the screen, and tellingly, an empty space on the right, a space once occupied by perhaps his closest accomplice, if there is such a thing.

What multi camera studio drama does is take us right into the moment.  I imagined what this scene would have looked like if it was shot as a film, using single camera filming techniques.  We would be looking at a completely different scene.  Firstly there would be a focus on continuity, which would affect how the on-screen action unfolds, with perhaps a series of very different camera angles around a very different shape of set design.  It would be more cinematic and potentially more elaborate, based on the idea that the camera can go anywhere.  But I would argue that it would lose its impact, as the real power of the situation unfolding in Egrorian’s shuttle is in the fact that it is unfolding ‘live’ – in real time – and the live vision mixing between cameras in the television studio gives this drama a sense of urgency to the point that when the director finally cuts to Vila hiding in the shadows, we’re hiding with him.

This shot of Vila leads me on to the next point, the space of the set design.   The fact that he hides in something that looks nothing bigger than a cupboard is a wonderfully low-budget way of depicting the events, but it’s also completely appropriate.  He has to squeeze in uncomfortably.  Other techniques could have been used for this crucial shot, for example; a long shot with a hint of movement in the distance, or the low light approach like a glimpse of a figure in the shadows.  But ‘Orbit’ goes for the obvious – a tiny space – a box no less.  This is in keeping with the rest of the set design.

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This cramped environment is exaggerated by the decision to light the corridor set in a dark blue hue, even though it doesn’t fit with the lighting scheme for the fight room or the airlock/link that houses the ladder.  This corridor set has one key purpose –  it’s the place where Avon is on the hunt, and at the critical eleventh hour, finds the material dragging the ship down.  Thanks to the lighting, we don’t forget what’s at stake.

There are other lighting touches that heighten the suspense, such as when Avon is stood at the top of the ladder, the lighting points up at him.  Suddenly this transforms Avon from computer genius, to deadly hunter.  In contrast, when the door opens into the corridor Avon is silhouetted, creating the same effect.  The focused beam of light on Vila equally turns him from coward to utterly terrified.  The shadows, the sweat and the stare makes it a chilling shot, as it’s so unrepresentative of how Vila usually handles fear.

The decision to depict the set over two levels is a masterstroke in dramatic terms.  It means the area that serves as both airlock and access ladder serves another purpose, it is the dividing line between two spaces.  Firstly we have the flight room, an area of discussion, control or at least positive and purposeful action to help Avon and Vila get out of the mess.  But the space underneath is the place where anything goes.  It’s a hunting ground, and the area where things are ejected into space.  In short it’s the danger zone.
There’s even a ceiling in these sets, which adds to the claustrophobia, and reminds us that no matter whether we look up, down or to the side, it is difficult to hide.

In the television studio, these environments are not split over two levels, but the sections, as seen on-screen, are raised on rostra, similar to the image below, allowing the characters to climb up and down the ladder, but also to create some dramatic camera angles, mainly looking upwards.  On a practical level it’s possibly the only way that a convincing two-shot of Avon and a block of plastic on the floor can be achieved, but it allows some little touches too, such as the subtle decent of the camera on its podium as Avon reaches the bottom of the stairs, which makes his arrival more chilling.

The large cameras used in the television studios of the day meant that portability was a hard-fought battle, but equally this limitation amplifies the theatrical feel of studio based drama, and is something that I’ve always felt translates well on the smaller screen.  So when the camera shakes crudely as Avon grapples with the controls, or there is a slow zoom into Avon’s face as the reality of the situation dawns on him, it feels exaggerated, but wholly appropriate.  The C.S.O (chromakey) is easy to mock, as it is an effect with limited technical sophistication, but unlimited imaginative potential if you are willing to look past the fringing and perspective.

Finally we have the soundtrack.  It could be argued that this falls outside of the television studio.  It is true that the reverberation on Avon’s now chillingly soft-but-not-so-gentle voice could easily be achieved through post-production, and that the deep thumping sound effects when we cut to Vila’s panicked features are part of a separate entity to the live recording, but there is a quality of sound that comes with the treatment of a live studio microphone, which like the medium of video itself, gives an immediacy to proceedings.

There’s an argument that all of the above can be achieved in way or another on film, but there is something about television studio drama in how it engages the viewer with what is happening within a confined space.  In the context of the way television was made at the time there is an energy that film doesn’t capture.   The extensive rehearsal period is a big factor, a chance to work on a scene before going into studio.   David Maloney once described this form of studio production as a bastard between film and the theatre.  And it’s the immersive experience of theatre that is the pull for me – the reminder that what we are seeing is a work of fiction.  As such I’m not naturally drawn to a ‘realistic’ approach to film and television.  If I want that, I’ll often look to real life.  I have a hope that one day this form of television drama will be welcomed back with open arms, as an accepted way of telling a story with confines by using a recording method that is confining.

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So what would the BBC studio based telefantasy manifesto look like.  Here is my tongue in cheek version of it.

  • Shooting must be done on videotape. Props should be re-used as often as possible across a number of episodes, but this needs to be disguised as much as possible. Sets must be predominantly three walled so that maverick directors can flout these conventions in order to achieve interesting camera shots.  
  • The sound must be crisply recorded and work in conjunction with a melodramatic musical score, and rich sonic experiments. 
  • The camera must be hand-held if your name is Viktors Ritelis.   Otherwise any movement or mobility must be achieved through the use of a camera podium, or mole crane.
  • Big close-ups of the face, accompanied by a crash zoom are encouraged.
  • The lighting must generally be highly illuminated top down lighting.  Special lighting is acceptable, but must be achieved through using lights at floor level.  If a lamp accidentally appears in shot, then the take must be retained to convey a sense of ‘vérité’ – remember the clock is ticking.
  • Optical work and filters are encouraged, these can be a mix of physical effects such as Mirrorlon, or through the use of a video synthesiser.
  • The footage must contain plenty of action, superficial or otherwise.  Murders, weapons, fighting, and space turbulence must be depicted as much as possible.  In the case of a spaceship being buffeted by an unknown force, the lead actor must narrow his or her eyes to convey stoic determination.
  • Overall, we must feel that we are very much ‘in the moment’.  Flashbacks and hallucinations are acceptable, but they must be accompanied by an abstract sonic composition, and tons of electronic video effects.
  • Using genre movies as an influence is acceptable.  There is no such thing as originality.
  • The video format must be one-inch wide tape.
  • The director must be credited, usually last, unless the director is also the producer, in which case the director must be credited as the producer.
  • Finally no taping is permitted to take place after 10pm, except by candlelight, and re-mounts must be both expensive and disruptive, building the case for a greater budget or overall cancellation.

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I see multi camera studio drama as a dormant genre – with the notable exception of a handful of on-going soap operas which require its efficient approach to keep up with demand.  But I’m still hoping that one day its time will come again, and the ‘Acton Hilton’ – wherever it ends up –  will once again be open for bookings.

EPISODE DISCUSSION

I’m typing these words on a train during one of the rare moments a snow storm is sweeping across southern England.  So it is fitting that I write this in the warm about Blake’s 7’s only fully studio bound adventure (bar a touch of model filming.).  This is the Blake that comes in from the cold.

We open from a fade to black – something I’ve not seen since the beginning of ‘Duel’ – and Scorpio reaching the planet Malodar.

It’s -90 degrees out there, so Avon delegates the task in hand to Tarrant and Dayna.  And Vila?  The answer was always going to be in the negative.  “You know I like to stick with you Avon…where it’s safe.”

There’s a great model shot of the surface of the planet, and the base.  It’s beautifully lit.  And lets face it, Blake’s 7 was always good at domes.

The base in question is inhabited by Egrorian and Pinder.  So far in these opening two minutes we have established three sets of double act.  Tarrant/Dayna (foolish enough to go) Avon/Vila (who do as they please) and Egrorian/Pinder (the unknown commodity.)

My eyes immediately started darting across the set, working out all of the ephemera.  Grow boxes, a fax machine, a gyroscope, a birdcage and most of the artefacts that make up the title sequence to ‘The Tomorrow People’.

But straightaway I am hooked, thanks to some gleeful excitement and a well administered smack.  The toddlers are in town.  The terrible twos.   And these two have a real dynamic.  I have to salute the comic timing as Pinder clears the table of food and drink with something that resembles a guilty smile, and Egrorian looks on in disgust.

This opening set up is brilliantly performed.  In between the negotiations and agreement between Avon and Egrorian, there are little moments of chemistry and distraction.  Like any parent will testify, trying to discuss something important is difficult when others are walking away, or playing games, or giving you a second opinion.  So Pinder’s walk off to the board game feels very real.   This is an episode with lots of chemistry between the cast and visual humour to be unpeeled.  But humour can be very, very dangerous.

Paul Darrow is obviously enjoying this hugely.  All his season D theatrics are there, clicking fingers when pointing at someone, suave smiles, and even a little slap on Vila’s face as they, instead of Tarrant and Dayna, end up on Egrorian’s shuttle, and a rendezvous on “Malodaaaarrrrr Command“.  He even does that annoying one-shoulder-down lean that Huw Edwards does on BBC news.

Very early on I’m drawn to Larry Noble’s performance as Pinder.  I must warn you that I’m going to talk about him a lot, such is the brilliance of this performance.  Take the aforementioned moment he wanders off while Egrorian is communicating with Avon.  His initial delight at his own chess move turns to a childlike indignant expression as he mulls on Egrorian’s response.

Vila and Avon suddenly find themselves inside what looks a Victorian bath and inside a massive urinal.  The white tiling is the clincher.  Thank goodness the director had the sense to ensure Avon and Vila were facing us.  Naturally I was curious –  my search history now contains ‘Adamant Urinals’ – Adamant being the patented name for the long lasting fireclay material used to make these beasts!

The script quickly reveals its author – it’s full of colourful terms such as “callow youth” and the “anvil of creation“.  Yep, this is a textbook Robert Holmes script.  Lots of opportunities to roll those R’s and wallow in the splendour of the English language.  It is also – at a surface level – totally absurd.

At this stage I am focusing on the dialogue and the performances.  When Pinder says “Please to make your acquaintance Ma’am” it is amusing, but it is the change in expression on Egrorian’s face that is priceless.

And also when Egrorian pinches Pinder, he grimaces in pain, but also in a way that suggests he knows what is coming and is trying hard to prevent this.  The way these two characters are performed is making me look at the person not speaking the dialogue, instead of the person who is.

The toddler theme strikes again, and they try to clear a place for the two guests.  In fact I’m realising that I’m taking so many screen grabs for this one because the comic timing and physical acting is so precise that I think this might be the closest Blake’s 7 will ever come to a silent comedy.

When Avon says they have killed in the pursuit of liberty, it sounds such an alien thing to hear, as the spirit of Blake continues to occasionally echo.   It remains odd as this is something that Avon has to buy into – with the Federation expanding, the alternative is being dead, although I wonder what the effect would have been had Darrow delivered that line with a touch of irony.

As Egrorian was demonstrating the Tachyon funnel, I was thinking about what an amazing strategist Servalan is.  At the height of her power she is not only building her empire, but is also building an unseen/unofficial one – something that can be used to cement her power further, or come in handy as a contingency.  Losing the presidency would count as a contingency I reckon.

I love the cutaway to the model shot of the base immediately following the destruction of the lunar satellite.  Suddenly it focuses us on the danger within the dome, but the decision to have Egrorian’s voice overlaid over the shot (“Now Avon, what do you say?”) makes his threat magnified ten fold.

When Vila says to an amused Egrorian “I’ll personally nail them to posts and send you the pictures” we cut to Pinder’s concerned expression.  This is the point where I’d like to stop and pay tribute to Larry Noble, who was both an actor and comedian (not mutually exclusive.)   The next time you watch this episode try watching Noble’s performance alone.  He is working like a trooper on this one.  His facial expressions and reactions to the events going on around him are an absolute delight to watch, and he never goes over the top.   This is an episode about the unspoken as much as the spoken.

CHECK MATE!  Pinder wins the game, and we, alongside Avon and Vila, are witness to how their relationship works.  The four shot is a wonderful gamut of emotions and expressions – Egrorian’s glee, Pinder’s agony, Vila’s bemusement, and Avon’s subtle resignation.  Yes, I did say subtle.

Back on the shuttle, Vila is dreaming in great detail, re-establishing some of the themes behind his character since the early days, namely the idea of living forever.  But Avon is cagey, and he is the one we take real notice of.  When he comes to a realisation, he flips his feet off the desk, and the camera zooms in with gusto.  As he says in ‘Powerplay’ – “This is my show“.  Sorry I mean “This is my ship“.

On the base Egrorian gets himself ready for the arrival of “Ma’am”.  I have to take my hat off to John Savident’s performance.  It’s very funny, but occasionally slips towards being a bit over the top.

What I love is the contrast between Servalan’s adoring smile towards the Tachyon funnel, which she caresses suggestively, and her contrasting reaction as Egrorian places her hand on his heart.

I am enjoying the overblown theatrics of this scene, but somehow it sits uncomfortably with Jacqueline Pearce’s performance of Servalan.  It just needs to be a touch more icy, and it would complement John Savident’s grandiose gestures and delivery rather than co-exist with them.  None the less it is very funny, and Servalan’s walk back into the scenery as she escapes the advances of Egrorian is perhaps the highlight of the scene.  I’ve not seen her look this terrified since coming face to face with the creature in the underground passages of Aristo.

Back on Scorpio, Vila explains the story ‘to the girls’ – in perhaps one of the most cringeworthy scenes in season D.  But Tarrant is being semi-clever, in doing some homework with the help of Orac.  I say semi-clever – perhaps he could have revealed that Pinder should not be the age he is before Avon left.

Servalan sits in her ship at that weird desk that looks like she is overseeing the Eurovision Song Contest.  And as she switches on the screen we see Egrorian give a little kiss – one of the highlights of this episode for me.

Avon looks ike he playing Tetris, as they return to the base with Orac.  But there is a welcome respite from the humour as both Egrorian and Avon start getting twitchy.  This is something I’m noticing in this Robert Holmes script – how different events happen in parallel for both sides.  While Paul Darrow gets the most memorable line – “She is never far from my thoughts” –  once again it is Larry Noble who leaves the biggest impression – look at his reactions as Egrorian expresses his concerns.  Such a brilliant performance.

There’s another amusing scene.  Orac embarrasses Egrorian with the results of his paper from when he was a graduate.  I think I’m biologically programmed to find those scenes amusing, having grown up with Romana mocking the Doctor about his achievements during his time at Gallifrey Junior High.

Holmes delivers his trademark colourful dialogue.  “And my golden-haired stripling became a silver-haired dotard.”  It’s so far removed from Tanith Lee’s voice the episode before last.

Dayna announces that the shuttle is leaving, to which Tarrant, or should I say Steven Pacey says “Already?  Well I’ll be damned!” in such a cod manner.  It’s such an unexpected delivery.  I wonder whether it was a decision on the part of actor, director or scriptwriter.

It’s not just Servalan who is an expert in contingency plans, Avon too has a nice trick up his sleeve as eventually Orac is revealed to be…not Orac.

Again, look at the images above and below these words, and how Noble is working his socks off even when he doesn’t have any dialogue.

But we’re now reaching a critical moment.  The attempts to make the shuttle reach its escape velocity is reaching crisis point.

How do you spend your last three minutes.  Working like you have never worked before, and making sure that the real Orac is secured to the control desk.

“We must lighten the load somehow.”

But it is here that Holmes delivers his masterstroke – the parallels between what is going on for both sides.  It’s not just that Vila hears Orac telling Avon that Vila weighs 73 kilos, but Pinder also hears that he will not be able to travel with Servalan and Egrorian away from the base.

Also I love the fact that Vila only really hears Orac’s diagnosis, but not Avon’s reaction.  But it’s a sign of how well Vila knows Avon, that in that precious second before the door closes completely, he doesn’t know for sure that Avon will hunt for him, but he knows it is likely, and there’s only one realistic option for him – and that is to hide.  And hide quickly.

As the door closes the pace suddenly changes.  The lighting dims, and the soundtrack takes on a deep doom laden tone.  It’s hide and seek, but this time it’s going to shatter one of the core relationships in Blake’s 7, and another full stop for the rebel group.

I mentioned earlier that from the moment Orac reveals Vila’s weight, Avon affords some precious seconds and a gentle shake of the head to process this information.  But it is inevitable that he will reach for the gun.

As Avon jettisons the plastic, we see Vila emerge from this hideaway.  These shots of him are well judged.  I’ve heard that they were toned down somewhat, from visible weeping.  But we can still see his upset, and that he is truly shattered by what has just happened.  When Vila properly loses his humour, it’s a sign that something terrible has happened.

Avon’s softly spoken acting fits perfectly with his more theatrical and somewhat unsettling portrayal in season D.

For a while I forgot the there were other things happening in the episode.

Servalan decides to leave Egrorian, as a reminder of what might have been, but it is Pinder who delivers his own brand of Quel dommage with a deep bronchial exhale, flooding the base with radiation.  The death scene reminds me of some other classic aging scenes in British telefantasy, such as a couple of Doctor Who moments; Kerensky’s death in ‘City of Death’, and Paul Darrow’s opportunity to finally act out a memorable sci-fi death in ‘Timelash’.

It’s easy to have a bit of a chuckle at this type of scene – and indeed I did – but aside from the silver hair and aged making up (which briefly makes Egrorian look like Slartibartfast), there is something absurdly chilling about the repeated shots of a static skeleton that refuses to fall down – its hand still pressing firmly on the button.

We reach the end of ‘Orbit’ and Avon reminds Vila of his “You know you’re safe with me” line.

‘Orbit’ is a definite highlight of the final season of Blake’s 7 – it’s theatrical, lively, full of rich dialogue, full-blooded characters, and very funny.  The claustrophobic atmospheres – Scorpio, the shuttle, the base and even Servalan’s tiny set in the corner of the studio, perfectly encapsulates this style of television studio drama.

However, it’s not the best episode of this run.  There were times that the flamboyance of the performances crossed the line, and I was thinking more about the acting styles, than the characters themselves.  It made me think about how different the performances felt from ‘Horror of Fang Rock’ – Doctor Who’s answer to claustrophobia.  On the lighthouse was a lead actor who didn’t want to be working at Pebble Mill, a co-star trying to keep the peace, and a group of cast members who were working hard on their stoic characterisations.  It was an exercise in restraint, whereas in ‘Orbit’, the party is in full flow.  Most of the time this works, but occasionally I stopped believing what I was seeing.

But it doesn’t really matter, as ‘Orbit’ is a microcosm of all that is great about the process of studio based television drama – stick people inside a confined environment and great drama will happen.

John Savident is well known to UK audiences, and his performance is excellent.  A couple of years ago, I’m sure I saw Larry Noble in what looked like a 1980’s American film, in a scene set in a small apartment.  I think he was playing a Dad.  It looked reasonably big budget, and appeared serious in tone. However, IMDB doesn’t list anything that suggests what it might be.  It’s definitely not Monty Python, so I’ll put up a picture of him in ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ – which is the default setting when I can’t find anything more relevant.

SET DESIGN
Not only is this story claustrophobic but it plays with our perception of space too.  I think this is down to the huge ceiling that is the main feature of Egrorian’s base.  It makes the whole room feel bigger than it actually is.
On the shuttle, it is interesting to see the ‘Alien’ palettes make a return appearance.

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Chair wise, we see a return of the Vertebra chair system (see ‘Sand‘), but aside from the rather generic cream swivel chairs that Agrarian and Pinder sit on, my attention was drawn to the chrome and glass shelving as seen at the back of the set, which looks like a knock off of the B136 Tubular Steel Shelving Unit by the German designer A.Guyot for Thonet, who are famous for their tubular, curved corners, and functional lines.  O yes.

MUSIC SCORE
We hear some suspenseful string arpeggios and the usual brass and synths.  There is lovely passage of music from Dudley Simpson that accompanies Scorpio right at the end – a melodic moment that is in sharp contrast with what has just taken place.  It’s worth noting that Simpson isn’t a part of that shuttle scene, its special sounds all the way.

 

HOW TO SELL THIS TO AN UNBELIEVER.
You won’t need to.  The characters are so boldly drawn that it’s not something that can be easily ignored.

MY FAVOURITE MOMENT.
So many, but I’m going for the very first hysterical laugh from Egrorian and Pinder – it tells us much about this episode.

THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET.
Vila relaying the experiences to Dayna and Soolin.  No one comes good out of that scene.

VERDICT IN 10 WORDS EXACTLY.
The episode where we’re stuck right in there with them.

 

(1) http://www.dogme95.dk/the-vow-of-chastity/
(2) http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/spaces-of-television/2014/02/06/dead-of-night-the-exorcism-bbc-1972/
Further reading.
https://forgottentelevisiondrama.wordpress.com/2016/05/20/dramatic-spaces-the-imaginative-world-of-the-tv-studio-dead-of-night-the-exorcism-bbc-1972/
https://forgottentelevisiondrama.wordpress.com/2016/04/08/glance-gesture-and-inference-in-hunters-walk-itvatv-1973-76-acting-for-multi-camera-popular-drama-in-the-1970s/
Additional picture credits
http://emilioambasz.com/furniture/vertebra-seating-system
http://www.pebblemill.org
http://modernist-society.org/news-mcr/2017/8/5/bbc-new-broadcasting-house

 

One thought on “D11 – ORBIT (and a bit about the language of the television studio.)

  1. Pingback: C10 – ULTRAWORLD (and a bit about the lighting of Blake’s 7) – WATCHING BLAKE'S 7

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