A05 – THE WEB (and a bit about the planets.)

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“I want an atmosphere and gravity check.”

A while ago I decided to tackle the episode ‘Headhunter‘ by taking a small detail and amplifying it ten-fold.  The small detail was a few seconds of stock footage featuring a dam letting water through.  The results were turned into a compilation of all the stock footage that featured in Blake’s 7, edited together as a tribute to another BBC programme I remember from the 1980’s – ‘The World About Us’ – a long running natural history series screened on BBC2.  As with so many programmes, it was the title sequence that I remember most.

So here we go again.  This time the theme is how planets were created within the Blake’s 7 universe.  By this I’m talking mainly about how the environments, landscapes and geography are realised, rather than too much analysis about the characters, cultures or events that took place on them.

I was reminded of ‘planet building’ by casting my mind back through other telefantasy programmes I grew up with.  It was the 1990’s/early 2000’s that were the most crucial times.  Doctor Who had ceased production, meaning that I was trying to get my fix elsewhere, and I was aware of a greater range of methods for depicting the planetary landscape, meaning I started to work out what I thought effective or ineffective.  The forests and deserts of the Star Wars franchise and the quarries of Doctor Who had given way to the skilful artwork of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the model effects of Red Dwarf, and the computer generated imagery of Babylon 5.

First up in this post Doctor Who landscape was Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Very quickly I found it difficult to believe in its depiction of alien worlds.  I recall the grammar of the series – an establishing shot which was often a hybrid of artwork meets flying vehicles, which would then cut to a studio corridor or space age room which used a subtle (and often pastel) colour scheme.  The regular, and consistent use of computer generated model work, or artwork composited with live action, meant that I forgot which episode was which.  Having grown up on a diet of film and video, I found the muted colour schemes and lack of contrast within the film stock used to be something that failed to connect with me.  It just wasn’t real enough.  But even the teenage cynic in me recognised the artwork was impressive.

Then Babylon 5 came along.  The equally impressive Lightwave sequences were bigged up when the series made its UK debut on Channel 4, and I watched that first episode with great anticipation.  My first impression was the effects shots contained great detail, but again I was strangely unmoved.  I wanted a more physical, and less digital approach to creating landscapes.  I convinced myself that if it wasn’t a real model or filmed footage, then it wasn’t a real planet. Perhaps the reliance of real locations in Doctor Who meant I couldn’t accept any other method.

The first handful of series of Red Dwarf was more towards the style that worked for me.  Like ST:TNG it mixed live action/models with artwork, but perhaps the fact that it didn’t look so consistently ‘slick’ is perhaps what made it appeal.  As with Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, and other series of the time, the unpredictability of the weather, the effort to make the most of the landscape, and other variable factors meant that the planets featured in these episodes were somehow more believable in turn.  The establishing shot at the beginning of ‘Thanks for the Memory’ felt like the spirit of Doctor Who was still there – for a few seconds at least – at a time when it had just stopped being produced.

And my mindset is still stubbornly clinging on to this aesthetic.  It is the ‘natural details’ of a real location that is the key component of planetary design.  I remember my ears pricking up when Radio Times or whatever mentioned that the shot of the spacecraft destroying Big Ben in Doctor Who ‘Aliens of London’ (2005) was a real model.  Sure Blake’s 7 used artwork during its lifespan (‘Moloch’ springs to mind), but to build a planet you have to go and visit places, rather than for it to be solely created in a computer or painting.

So it is time to explore how the cash strapped production teams of Blake’s 7 created an alien world, and what were the techniques they used to make it come alive.  In the spirit of exploration and observation I was reminded of those old BBC programmes for schools and colleges that were broadcast during the day on weekdays.  I would either watch them if I was sick at home, or inevitably, at school, where the battered old television set, and VHS recorder would be wheeled out and we would be treated to ‘Zig Zag’, ‘Scene’ ‘Near and Far’ or ’20th Century History’ (dum, dum-dee, dum, dum.)  Even ITV got a look in from time to time with the eerie titles for ‘Picture Box’.  There was something so earnest about them, and it’s easy to see why they were so wonderfully parodied in the BBC comedy ‘Look Around You.’

So before you go and fetch your workbooks and pencils, and prepare for the first module requiring you to ‘Look, Look and Look Again’ (an 1980’s BBC Art programme, featuring a fabulous theme tune called ‘Happy Whistler’ by John Fiddy) I draw your attention to the following video that will be used to assist you in your revision.   It attempts to convey the characteristics of the Blake’s 7 planet through the general removal of dialogue, and music (except where necessary) leaving only a sense of the actual atmosphere.  Timings will be highlighted to assist you during the study period, and you are requested to ignore the occasional variable quality of the edited material.

Press ‘PLAY‘ now.

Characteristics of the location

Let’s start with the obvious.  Blake’s 7 like quarries.  And why not?  They’re the perfect barren Martian wasteland, (see Cygnus Alpha for more on this.). But the type of quarry is important.  Would the heat of Zondar and Domo be anywhere near as effective if it wasn’t a sandy desert, would the adventure and action sequences on Mecron 2 be anywhere as exciting if there wasn’t the underground passages, inclines and hideaways available to the director?  Yes, the right kind of quarry can result in high drama, yet on the flip side it can be a poisoned chalice, such as the wide expansive pit featured in ‘Stardrive’ which contains a lack of interesting features, which in turn make the endless running scenes…endless.

But you might be surprised to hear that quarries only make up around a quarter of the episodes featured in televised Blake’s 7.  Some of the most impressive and atmospheric sequences are found elsewhere.  Take woodlands for example.  The tall Alder trees found in Black Park for ‘The Web’ (5m01s) or the Redwoods featured in ‘Blake’ both say the same thing – the most alien type of forest is the one with the long, thin and tall tree, anything else runs the risk of looking too picture postcard.

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But planet building can benefit from looking like it has come from a National Trust brochure.  Take the stately home, thatched cottage and church seen in ‘Rumours of Death’ (2m49s) and ‘Pressure Point’ (2m09s) – it sends a rather eerie message on two levels; firstly it turns these classic, romantic and seemingly idyllic buildings into something more ominous, and secondly it creates a curious juxtaposition of past and future, which makes this viewer question the fictitious timeline presented in the series, namely how far in the future is the third century of the second calendar?  These are not monuments used frivolously.  They are unashamedly there, like a natural part of the Blake’s 7 universe, and are referenced within the dialogue.  That is why our three visits to Earth feel like it’s the most unsettling planet of all.  Suddenly familiar objects of today feel like an anachronism.

There are also trips to shores, beaches and coastline, which in the case of ‘Orac’ (9m50s) is not coastline, but clever use of stock footage and Springwell Lock quarry.  There’s also sand pits, rocky landscape, built architecture, caves and caverns, all of which give their own distinct atmospheres.  Some of these locations seem to be inexorably tied to a particular director, such as Michael E. Briant’s love of Wookey Hole (7m52s) – used also in Doctor Who, and Jonathan Wright Miller’s use of Clearwell Caves (10m22s) – featured in ‘The Jensen Code’ (1973).

It’s clear that economics mean the location is often in the vaguely south-eastern region of the United Kingdom, however the opportunities offered by the season C filming block in Yorkshire/Northumberland throw up some really interesting visual imagery.  The rocky terrain of Chenga (13m29s) is full of nooks and crannies, and gives the director some really interesting shots to play with.  In contrast the hi-tech buildings of Auron also stand out.  The contemporary architecture of Leeds Polytechnic suddenly ceases to be the ‘now’ (in 1980), and for 50 minutes becomes the far future. What I love about watching it almost 40 years since it was recorded, is that I don’t question when it was built at all – it’s simply space age.

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And maybe that’s the reason that the Doctor Who/Blake’s 7 approach to planet building works for me other than other shows – the locations are timeless.  Whether they are natural landscapes, or man-made built environments, there is something unchanged about much of where Blake’s 7 was filmed – even gas works still look the same.  This is opposed to graphical, digital or fine art methods used to create a world, the concept and technology of which has a finite lifespan.

So you have a location.  It’s now time to think about what else is needed to sell the alienness.

Lighting: (natural and artificial.)
Illuminating a location in tungsten light requires some significant care and attention.  Stick some ‘brutes’ or ‘blonds’ out on location and you will be able to floodlight the entire space.  But pick your spots well, and the effect can add real depth.  The colour used in ‘The Keeper’ and ‘Trial’ are good examples of both approaches.  Derek Martinus is not afraid to use lurid colour for both of his alien worlds.  As the planet of spit, featured in ‘Trial’, tears itself apart, Blake is bathed in a red glow, which is as intense as the rumbling soundtrack, while in ‘The Keeper’ he uses pockets of golden light, which makes Goth a distinctive and noxious environment, working nicely with the swathes of gas enveloping the landscape.

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gothThe lighting used in Cygnus Alpha (3m39s) is carefully controlled, allowing the distinctive (and never used again) photographic backdrops to work effectively with the close up shots of key characters in the foreground.  These backgrounds work mainly because the lighting matches both the image, and what is in front of it.  But look at the shots of the prisoners feet walking through the misty landscape – sure the mist adds to the effect, but it is the back lighting that creates a really atmospheric look.

Night shooting was expensive, and season A of Blake’s 7 features a surprisingly large proportion of it; the forbidden feel of ‘The Way Back’, (1m43s) the desolation of ‘Cygnus Alpha’ and the moment of retrospection in ‘Duel’ and ‘Hostage’ all benefit from this. But the budget bites back; Graham Williams was forced to scale back location shooting in Doctor Who, albeit pushing the boat out for some nocturnal imagery of the Fendahl in 1977, and Blake’s 7 wouldn’t use night shooting again following the trip to Exbar.

Some atmospheres have added alienness thanks to low light levels.  The mistiness of Horizon, and Exbar in ‘Hostage’ allow for some nice shots, and the aforementioned earthly atmospheres in ‘Pressure Point’ and ‘Rumours of Death’ benefit from dusk type effects to create a similar forbidden feeling established in ‘The Way Back’ – a sense that something bad is about to happen.

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The fading natural light in ‘The Web’ is something all of its own, and by the time the later scenes are filmed it looks like dusk is falling on the planet, in more ways than one.
There are other effective moments; the low sun on ‘Star One’, and the cloudiness of ‘Traitor’ (17m30s) which create a dank trench warfare type feeling perfect for that episode.  Also the fact that Duel is filmed in the autumn adds to the starkness of the forest scenes.  Yes the weather can play a part in the building of drama.  I love how Vila and Servalan’s shenanigans on Sardos do not take place in glorious sunshine, but in a mist covered ground, as befitting a planet full of troopers and convicts.  Somehow it wouldn’t be Blake’s 7 if characters weren’t wearing next to nothing in the freezing cold.

The majority of Blake’s 7 filming needs to take place in broad daylight.  This is where the characteristics of the location come into play as well as the weather.  Take the way the sunlight through the trees creates some beautiful imagery in the early scenes of ‘Blake’.  But on the flip side ‘Shadow’ poses an intriguing question – is it sunny or cloudy?  We know it needs to be sunny, and warm, as befitting a planet with more than one sun, so I can imagine Jonathan Wright Miller rolling his eyes when he read the weather forecast for Dorset on that summer day in 1978.  Sometimes the film is tinted to either enhance or disguise the weather.  In ‘Time Squad’ the cloudy day is obscured by the red tint, making everything feel really warm, whereas a similar effect adds to the atmosphere of Betafarl (21m04s) in ‘Warlord’.

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In the studio, the sequence of Blake walking through towards the base on Asteroid PK118 is often remembered for some interesting visual effects and peculiar imagery, but the final shot of him approaching the doorway contains some really interesting lighting that creates a suspenseful mood.  Dawn of the Gods (15m19s) also uses lighting – or rather a lack of it – to good effect.  Here we see the occasional glimpse of a rock formation which is important in breaking the spell that it is a solely black soundstage at Ealing studios.  In fact this might be the set where pretty much all the money was spent on the floor – based on the effective long shot of Vila below the hatch of the Liberator.  Further episodes in seasons C & D do not rely on atmospheric lighting to depict planetary landscapes – not to any great extent anyway.

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Effects (Physical and artistic.)
So you have the location, and you have thought about the lighting, then it is time to spend some of the BBC budget on planetary effects.  These come in many shapes and sizes.  Let’s start with the perpetual favourite – dry ice.  This is usually used when the weather doesn’t give you the mist required.  I’ve already mentioned Cygnus Alpha’s perpetual night, but ‘Horizon’ (10m05s) uses it beautifully, giving us a series of lovely long shots of the mysterious planet seen when Avon finally teleports down. ‘Trial’ and ‘The Keeper’ use it in a similar way.

Then we have the glass shot – first seen in The Way Back.  These blink and you’ll miss it moments are important in making the planet that little bit bigger, and giving us a context that the location footage cannot provide.  The brief moments we see the planet of Fosforon in ‘Killer’ (11m37s) the landscape is dominated by an excellent paining of Q base, which merges beautifully into the real landscape.  Sometimes less is more, as I’m guessing the long shot of the ‘City at the Edge of the World’ is a glass shot – the fact that I can’t quite tell probably means that it is a successful effect.

Slightly less successful is the shot of the suns on Zondar, which don’t quite marry up to the colours of the sand pit, but they still retain enough intrigue to make us look past the shortcomings.  The establishing shot of Helotrix (17m30s) sits out of place with the studio jungle set, which in turn sits out of place with the muddy location filming, but there is a real attempt to make a series of mud banks and cloudy skies as interesting as possible.  And while the least successful artistic depiction of a planetary surface remains the palace on Sardos, featured for a few seconds in ‘Moloch’ the actual painting is fine, but the actual crime is zooming in too heavily on it, a fact that the inclusion of overlayed dry ice cannot hide.

In fact the model work seen in the series is often well matched to the location filming – Sardos once again stands out here, alongside ‘Children of Auron’, which is a good effect…until it also zooms in too closely.

Other physical effects such as the silk in ‘The Web’ or ‘The Harvest of Kairos’ create a very creepy effect.  In fact it’s an excellent alternative to arguably overused dry ice.  It is something distinctly alien and unfamiliar.  The same is true with the plant life of Saurian Major (6m34s), which gives Vila some food for thought, although clearly the budget couldn’t stretch to many of these beasts, making it one of the few times Blake’s 7 created this kind of physical effect.  It reminds me of some of the custom built flora and fauna of Zeta Minor for Doctor Who, which for my money is the other Roger Murray Leach masterpiece alongside the Liberator.

Other naturally occurring objects such as the eggs featured in ‘Trial’ and the range of alien creatures seen across all four seasons give the planets some flavour, and even when the visual effects are not native to the planet, it still brings out a distinctive quality, such as the ‘umbrellas’ on Zondar (1m00s).

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The ‘doors’ to underworld bases hint at either a civilisation or suggest a history to the planet.  The functional concrete feel of ‘The Way Back’, ‘Cygnus Alpha’ and ‘Pressure Point’ provide a nod to the military might of the Federation.   There’s an industrious feel to the type of door way seen in ‘Deliverance’ (8m53s) which suggests the advancements made by Kashell the Wise and his people.  The doorway to ‘Terminal’ is the ‘pimp my ride’ of doorways, and the holographic entrance to the Obsidian base in  ‘Volcano’ stands out because it doesn’t seem to fit in with its surroundings.  And as for the doorways on Xenon base and the Space Rats lair – they are deadly dull.

In fact it’s worth noting that it is season D that seems to be more reliant on the natural characteristics of the location, rather than being enhanced by an array of visual effects.  I’m guessing this is down to the tight budget.

Production techniques.
The use of the camera can help create the atmosphere further.  ‘Time Squad’ uses some low angled shots, making the cliff face look more vast.  Filters are used effectively in this episode, and ‘Warlord’ too – the trick is to keep it subtle, and in both cases they work well.  The eerie tracking shot that opens ‘The Web’ works nicely with the rhythmic sounds of “They must come to us“.  It also looks like the exposure has been reduced, giving an ever so slightly darker feel.   Douglas Camfield films some great material in ‘Duel’, using long distance shots to create some interesting depth of fields.

When a degree of control is required, there is only one real option – trying to make it work in a studio.  While Ealing studios doesn’t count as a natural location, it’s been turned into some excellent planetary environments during its BBC owned lifespan.    There’s very little middle ground on using a studio –  it will work or it won’t.  I felt that the barren landscape in ‘Duel’ worked, (let’s gloss over the CSO bits though) but Vilaworld, Voice from the Past, is where the restrictions of time and resources bite hard.

Sound and music.
You might have noticed an appreciation for the sonic experience of Blake’s 7 in this blog. And it is richly deserved.  None of these planets can work without these elements.  Eerie wind seems to be the most popular, a variety of which accompanies episodes such as ‘Deliverence’, ‘Volcano’ (14m25s) and ‘Traitor’.  The planet Domo sounds like an electronic pitch, but either way the 1970’s sci-fi wind is generally characterised by one thing – it needs to rise and fall gently, otherwise it’s simply not alien.

But without sounding like I’m talking about bodily functions, it’s not just about the wind – ‘tinkling’ is a big factor too.  There’s the high-pitched incessant tinkling of Saurian Major, or the subtle tinkling of Zondar.  A planet has to be hot for it to tinkle.  Yes, I really did just write those words.

Planets need to bubble and rumble too.  Cygnus Alpha, Horizon and Goth share this trait, and it directs our attention to the fact that we are not always on the dry, crumbly terrain of a quarry.

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The native inhabitants of the planet usually come with a cost, so it is interesting to hear how the soundtrack is a big part of building planetary life.  This ranges from the occasional and distant screech heard in ‘Terminal’ (16m36s) to the densely laden multi tracked noises on Zil’s planet in ‘Trial’ (10m46s).  One other notable example can be heard in ‘The Harvest of Kairos’, where Elizabeth Parker builds the intensity of the insect life as the episode progresses, adding additional layers of sound, and increasing the levels in turn (here, here, here, and here.)  It’s really carefully produced material, and is a perfect example of how difficult it was to match the quality of the sound, with visual designs that are ambitious, but unfortunately showcase the limitations of the on-screen budget.

Sounds that you can’t quite define also appear to be frequent elements of a planet.  The undefinable noise that defines Chenga, the almost industrial sounds of Crandor, and the breathy sounds of Virn all add much to the environments by posing more questions than answers.  Perhaps the best example of this approach is the phased, electronic sounding heart beat of Terminal, which serves as both a diegetic and non-diegetic sound – a question and a clue.

The musical score often adds much to the ambience.  Douglas Camfield’s choice of stock music gives the barren wasteland in ‘Duel’ (7m22s) real atmosphere.  And when the conflict moves to the forest, an equally mysterious score accompanies the action, suggesting to the audience that we should be as wary as Blake and Jenna should be.  Dudley Simpson’s big bad drums and brassy licks gives a hint of the warrior culture on Goth (11m49s), while a more floaty surreal score gives Virn (18m56s) a sense of the unknown.  These scores often complement the special sounds created by Richard Yeoman-Clark and Elizabeth Parker and feels part of the tapestry of the planet.

Even Earth remains eerie, due to its use of natural sound, but also the subtle noises in the background, such as the bleak sounding wind in ‘Rumours of Death’ and the high pitched radiation grid of Central Control in ‘Pressure Point.’  When the familiar and unfamiliar are juxtaposed it is quite unsettling.

So to conclude, Blake’s 7 relies on a range of craft and skill to create a galaxy of planets.  Forget what has been said in the popular press, it is far more than taking a film crew to a quarry in the Home Counties, it’s a carefully considered combination of audio, visual, artistic and natural details.  It’s about the things that are within the control of the production team, and a few things that are not; the weather, the nearby environment and the obligatory squawking crows of Betchworth Quarry.

I hope you have been making notes about these ‘natural details’.  You may press stop on your video recorder now.

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EPISODE DISCUSSION

As introductions go, the ‘The Web’ is right up there with all of them.  We’ve seen alien planets before, but this one has cobwebs, and what could be giant eggs.  The sound is unsettling right from the start.  We hear the words, but the treatment is hushed, suffocating, and very alien.  But for all the detail, it is the camera movement that is the main area of interest.  It’s at ground level, suggesting something in the bushes and the bracken.  In fact it’s a pretty nifty shot if you watch with a casual eye.

These are the days before steadycam and portability galore.  This type of shot requires teamwork, small but confident strides, and a steady hand.  Hats off to the man responsible for all the film work in that first season, namely film cameraman Ken Willicombe.  I tried to Google him, and understandably the images returned are the results of his endeavours, but thanks to the research shared by the almighty Making Blakes 7 on Twitter, he can be seen in the red coat below.

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Out in the open we see a strange looking building.  It’s got flashing siren lights and looks like the kind of adventure playgrounds that were doing the rounds when I was a child.

There is a slow fade, and inside we are treated to some nice camera moves around a laboratory type environment.  The sound changes, and the source of the whispering is revealed.  More on this later.

It’s actually quite a nicely played sequence, starting from the fringes of the world created for this episode, and slowly into the cause of the conflict within it.

And then we jump right into the heraldic anthem of the Liberator.  It’s interesting that we’re still in the early days of the starship, and in order to communicate quite how vast, and wonderful it is, Dudley is still really going for it with some big, bombastic soundbites.  This one is one of the best.  Compare this with the first appearance of the Liberator in ‘Ultraworld’ or ‘Death Watch’ and you’ll see how it shifts from the uber-magnificent salvation, to a reassuring friend.

On the flight deck the lights are dimmed.  Everyone seems to be on downtime, apart from Jenna, who due to some interesting reflections from the lights bouncing back up on her face, looks like she has walked on the set of a mysterious horror movie.

And it is the mystery of the Liberator that ‘The Web’ captures nicely.   In fact it might be the last time the ship is portrayed as a place of discovery.  From the next episode onwards, the crew have a good handle on how everything works, and with that, the battle will now be about the Federation.

There’s a lovely glass shot – a matte painting of the machinery of the Liberator which frames the ‘hold’ set previously used in ‘Time Squad nicely.

After recently watching some later episodes, it is interesting to go back to these early, formative stories.  Jenna is played with real attitude, Avon is still investigating the potential of the ship, and Blake…well…Gareth Thomas is still perfecting the art of ‘tired’ acting – one of the hardest things to convincingly portray.

Cally is up to no good.  And why not – after all we’ve only known her for less than an episode, so anything goes.  But as Vila asks what she thinks of the outfit, we enter handheld camera territory which is never a good sign, and sure enough Vila gets a clonk on the head.

As Cally walks off, the music builds again and we briefly hear another lovely soundbite from Dudley Simpson (perhaps the best ‘dee, dee, dah dah’ of them all) alongside a model shot of the Liberator speeding towards us, one which looks familiar, but different.  A one off.

If the ship’s blown up, lofty disinterest won’t save you“.  Top dialogue.  It’s nice to be reminded that not all the great lines are solely reserved for Avon.

And the ship itself is looking nice – well lit, and not much in the way of fingerprints and scratches, but the first signs of wear and tear are already there; the back of the teleport bay wall is not quite joined together, and there are bits of scaffolding poking out of the corners of the flight deck.

Finally Gan is awoken – the last in the queue as always.  His ‘tired’ acting is on a par with Blake.  A score draw I would say.

There’s real tension between the crew too, which I’m enjoying.  It’s bringing out an urgency in the dialogue, which is best represented by Jenna’s “You’re not Cally are you?”  And as Cally is restrained by the crew, there is a really forceful feel to the scene as Jenna lashes out to break the spell, followed by a fairly aggressive hold to the neck by Avon.  Both of them speak their mind to Blake, before Vila comes bumbling in.  This scene always feels extra familiar due to its inclusion in the BBC’s ‘Sounds of the 70’s’ television series.

In my discussion of ‘Breakdown‘ I noted the small but important moments provided by David Jackson as Gan.  This scene contains another – look at his face as he discovers the burns on Cally’s hands.

The snappy crew make their way to the source of a potentially explosive device, and as Avon runs down the corridor, and responds to Jenna’s “We’re all in it, Avon!” The sound drops slightly as though the microphone doesn’t quite pick up the dialogue, which sounds like such a minor detail to talk about, but in Blake’s 7, a series which sounds so good 99% of the time, this little moment sticks out.

As the bomb goes off, we are treated to some lovely acting touches that can only come from this age of television drama; the skid along the floor from Blake, the inability to move away from the bomb once the lights go out, and best of all the fabulous line between Blake and Avon.

Blake: “Thank you. (Pause) Why?”

Avon: “Automatic reaction. I’m as surprised as you are.”

Blake: “I’m not surprised.”

As you may have picked up, I’m a lover of the small details and directorial touches within Blake’s 7.  Perhaps it’s the obsessive compulsive within me.  And I’m a fan of a good transition.  The sequence from Cally’s subconscious, to Space City, and into Largo’s headquarters in ‘Shadow’ is perhaps one of Blake’s 7 best movements, thanks to some inventive screen wipes and distinctive music from Dudley Simpson.  But here we have another.  Once again there is a powerful and dramatic musical motif, full of crash cymbal, and into a lovely fast zoom out from the sky to the base on the unnamed planet.  It’s nicely done.

I mentioned the portrayals inherent in 1970’s telefantasy, and modes of communication between aliens is right up there as standout examples, such as the Alta’s pressing of the disks on their foreheads in ‘Redemption.’  But here we’re treated to the very best.  It’s not just the 90 degree swivel while remaining rigid as Geela and Novara get up from their pool loungers, but also the tender caress of each others right hand cheek, although Novara gently caresses Geela’s breast along the way.

So let’s talk about Saymon.  During my occasional glances of fan reviews of this episode over the years, I’ve heard some muttering about the quality of this prop, and that it is the root of all that is wrong with ‘The Web’.  Personally I don’t see it that way, as if I did judge any episode on the quality of its main alien life form, I’d be throwing aside a good 25% of all of Blake’s 7.   So I’ll gloss over its shortcomings as an effect – I think we can all see that everyone was doing their best with the money usually used for something like a police chase in ‘Softly Softly: Taskforce’, and simply point out that for years I imagined the tank as the prototype version of the cocktail bar as seen in Del Boy’s flat in Peckham.  In fact it’s the perfect fusion of Saymon and the cream leather interior of the Liberator flight deck.

Avon and Gan are having a natter.
It’s slow.  You should appreciate that problem” – Ouch!  Avon is on form today.
But the moment where Gan witnesses the magic regenerative properties of the Liberator is my favourite bit.  It’s a reminder that Gan is sometimes the closest thing we have to audience identification – we discover things as he does.

I love Avon’s prophetic line about Blake.  “There will come a time where he won’t be making the decisions.

Into the web they go.  Blake asks Vila to set a course that will take the Liberator directly away from the centre of whatever is dragging the ship down.  Cue a not very reassuring “Right” from Vila.

But this is soon forgotten as we zoom into Jenna’s hand, and another test of an actor’s mettle – to convincingly play the possessed.  Oh, and to lip synch to the possessor.  Like feigning tiredness, it’s no easy feat, and to be fair, Sally Knyvette does a pretty good job of it.  Sure our attention will be drawn to the wide eyes and funny voice, but the matching up of the dialogue is spot on.

Vila gets another command.  This time it’s one that he relishes – a chance to use the neutron blasters for the first time.  But the glee is short lived thanks to Blake’s warning that it might blow everything up.  Cue a brilliant look from Michael Keating, and when he presses the button, a nice closing of the eyes.

The only option is to go down to the planet, where we finally get a glimpse of the natives – the Decimas.  Again it would appear that opinion is divided on whether they are a successful realisation.  I think they are pretty good, considering the make up and costuming must have eaten up a good chunk of the budge.  It’s something unsustainable in the long term – in the same way that blasting out of the web was unsustainable for the Liberator.  I guess it was probably the equivalent of Terence Rigby’s entire fee for ‘Softly Softly: Taskforce.’

The very first scenes featuring the creatures are directed in an interesting way.  The first attack is straight at the camera, and the scene cuts with a slight reverberation of their shouts, which create an air of mystery.  Later when Blake witnesses another attack from behind the window, Michael E. Briant goes for a close up of their sad eyes, which again from my perspective creates just about the right amount of empathy to make me want them to rise up against their oppressors!

Quick Avon update.  What a cool, arrogant wonderful bastard.  He’s happy to gently shove Gan out the way, voice his concerns directly at Cally, indulge in a bit of bi-play with Blake before teleporting him down, and best of all, sit back with a dispassionate weariness as Gan walks off to keep on eye on Cally.

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The location footage is really nice in this episode.  I’ve talked about the realisation of the planet, but there is also a quality to the film stock used, the shadows and contrast created by the sunlight, and the depth of the image thanks to the trees and fauna stretching off into the distance.

A Decima injures Blake’s hand in a well edited little sequence.  But the tables are turned as Novara appears and electrocutes one in a blaze of sonic crackles and impressive animation.  It’s interesting how often animation is used in the first series, and how quickly it appears to be discarded as a time consuming and therefore expensive special effect – probably the equivalent of the fee for Peter Childs in that final series of ‘Softly Softly: Taskforce.’

Blake’s hand is needing some treatment and some kind of mysterious thing is put on it to make it better.  I’m quite enjoying these alien touches.

Looking for more information I typed in “enzyme culture” into Google.  I stopped trying to find out more, as I enjoyed the resulting image search which featured a ton of graphs and scientific data, and sticking out beautifully like a sore thumb (or hand) was Blake and his enzyme thing.

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Quickly, it is established that Blake is prepared to support the oppressed Decimas.  It’s an important character note, and one that will be adopted to create all kinds of conflict in the series.  As Avon would say, “that great big bleeding heart of his…

Following a long chatty section of the episode between Blake, Geela and Novara, we finally get to meet Saymon, who has not spoken with his lips in a long time – probably not the greatest chat up line.   It’s funny how he says he says “I am a corporate identity“, these days that suggests something else entirely.

This extended passage of dialogue is the point where my concentration is waning.  But eventually we shift to the forest, and a rendezvous with Avon.  The hushed discussion between the two is great.  Avon counteracts Blake’s perspective, but also recognises that in order for a quicker escape he needs to go along with him.

Another little animation appears on Avon’s hand – probably the cost of a minor character in that final series of ‘Softly Softly: Taskforce.’

Back in the base, the cells are placed into the power device, and the Decimas make their final attack.  It’s a nice satisfying smash up – a bit like The Damned on the ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’, only more tuneful.   My particular highlight is the moment where the skull is used for a game of football.  But I must be honest, when the scene ends I was grateful as the high pitch screams were starting to make my ears bleed.

There’s a glow and the web is cleared, with Blake and Avon having a bit of an argument about the human condition.  “You can’t separate living creatures. Being alive involves them together.”  It’s a nice philosophical ending to a generally philosophical tale.

‘The Web’ is one of those episodes that straddle the great and the not so good.  I can’t fault the dynamics of the Liberator crew in this one.  There’s a tension and snappiness that mirrors the grumpy scene in ‘Shadow’.  Everyone is still sussing everything and everyone out and as a result the energy is fiery.  Many aspects of the production are excellent, from the planetary surface, to the dimly lit and moody Liberator scenes.  There are moments of great bi-play such as Avon and Blake, Avon and Gan, Jenna and Vila. But on the flip side the pace of the episode drags horribly in the middle, and while I’m happy to gloss over the logic of Saymon’s plan to lure the Liberator crew in to gain the power cells, it’s the energy of the episode in that crucial middle section that causes this story to hover just above the relegation zone.  My overarching feel about ‘The Web’ is how it feels like the last episode of the first run of Blake’s 7 – the number of stories that set up the series, explore the dynamic of the crew and discover their newly acquired ship.  From the next episode and beyond, it will all be about the battle against the Federation, with a few stand alone stories thrown in.

Richard Beale will be familiar to Doctor Who fans as the Minister of Ecology in ‘The Green Death’ (1973) and Miles Fothergill as SV7 in ‘The Robots of Death’ (1977.).   British/Polish actor Ania Marson was the unknown to me, but looking at her credits she is still actively performing to this day.  Everyone gives a good performance.

As for the Decimas, Deep Roy will be familiar to many, but Marcus Powell also gets a moment in the limelight through his appearance as the Thaarn in ‘Dawn of the Gods’ and according to wookiepedia was romantically linked to fellow Decima Gilda Cohen around the time of filming of ‘The Web’.

 

SET DESIGN
Martin Collins returns to the series, following his collaboration with Michael E. Briant for ‘The Way Back’.  Here however, the budget is tiny, as opposed to merely ‘small’.  His use of diagonal lines and strong shapes still feature (check out the windows to the base) but has to use taut sheeting for various walls, alongside coloured lighting to give the designs a bit of a lift.  All in all, he does well with what he has to play with.

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MUSIC SCORE
There’s some notable motifs from Dudley Simpson.  His early fanfares for the Liberator are lovely – full of power and wonderment.  Elsewhere he uses crunchy synth, and an instrument that has always stood out for me – the Vibraslap.  I first heard its rattlesnake type noise near the beginning of ‘The Low Spark of the High Heeled Boys’ by Traffic (1971) and I was surprised to find that by the time ‘The Web’ was produced, it had only been in existence for just over a decade.

HOW TO SELL THIS TO AN UNBELIEVER
As the one with the Ewoks in the forest, but before Ewoks were invented.

MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
The score accompanying the opening shots of the Liberator.
THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
It’s the moment I did forget – the extended exposition half way through the episode.
VERDICT IN TEN WORDS EXACTLY
Big on crew characterisation, and planetary landscape.  Small on creatures.
FURTHER READING AND PICTURE CREDITS
http://www.broadcastforschools.co.uk/site/Look,_Look_and_Look_Again
http://www.tvcream.co.uk/telly/schools-and-colleges/programmes-for-schools-and-colleges/
twitter.com/TobyHadoke/status/609257139010445312
http://babylon5.wikia.com
http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Marcus_Powell

 

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