“Finish what we started”
I’m guessing that 50 minutes is still the most popular duration for an episode of a television drama. This must resonate with any Blake’s 7 fan. The term “52 x 50 minute episodes” is certainly ingrained in my mind. While the BBC doesn’t run commercial breaks during its programmes there are overseas channels that do; hence the ‘commercial hour’ which consists of something that is approximately 50 minutes long, including advertising breaks that will take the time slot to an hour.
Doctor Who first experimented with 50 minute episodes back in 1985. I remember watching ‘Revelation of the Daleks’ as a BBC2 repeat back in the early 1990’s; instead of screening the 2 X 50-minute episodes as originally broadcast, it was decided to use the 4 X 25 minute episodes used for overseas markets. The half way point of the original two-part story worked really well, a carving of Colin Baker’s face falling towards the camera, but suddenly the episodes were chopped in half again-gaining two extra cliffhangers.
The additional episode endings, while dramatic, didn’t seem to contain the build up needed to make it a true cliffhanger. But it did get me thinking about how episodes are structured and what happens halfway through them.
I’ve never seen Blake’s 7 with a commerical break, or re-edited for commercial markets, and I’m certainly no expert on scriptwriting but I have a reasonable awareness and great interest of the different types of structure that can be used to tell a story on-screen. These come in different shapes and sizes, but the one I recognise the most is a four-act model:
- Act one is the set up.
- Act two is where obstacles are added to wrong-foot the characters, ending with the furthest point of reaching any kind of resolution of the story.
- Act three is the period where the situation becomes even more difficult.
- Act four is a resolution, which might have come out of act three, or be a natural progression from the events that have built up from the very start.
I wonder if it’s the common four-part Doctor Who story that has made this something I recognise?
But this post is an exploration into what is happening around the halfway point of a 50 minute Blake’s 7 episode. When I use the words ‘mid-point’ or ‘midpoint’ or ‘halfway’ point in this discussion I’m not always referring to story structure, although I’m sure it is usually tied in to that, but more broadly to what happens halfway through a number of Blake’s 7 episodes. As a viewer I’m noticing that there is often a change; a pitch shift, a different look or feel, a switch to something new.
In fact it is ‘The Keeper’ where I first recognised a halfway point. There is a curious scene where Avon and Cally mope around the flight deck and talk about an ‘extra range detector’. On first viewing it felt like pure filler – an exercise in keeping the running time close to what was required. Avon gets up, says a few lines to Cally, and Zen gives some information and then the scene ends.
But on repeated viewings it starts to reveal some interesting things. It’s clearly the moment we reach the second half of the story – the action on the Liberator is finally at an end, and the location filming on the surface of Goth is switching to the inside. The crew are as far away from locating the brain print as it is possible to get. It’s time for something new, this is represented by a new set – the caves ‘down below’. This is the introduction to a new strand of the narrative – a strand that will hold the key to the location of ‘Star One’ and the resolution of the story. While it is the final scene on the flight deck, save for a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ final scene, it serves to set up another level of jeopardy. This is unique to the second half of the episode – the race against time for Blake to find the secret before the inevitable appearance of Federation ships on the Liberator’s detectors.
‘Star One’, also shifts into a new gear half way through. In the first half, Servalan and Durkim have been introduced. Durkim is the mechanism to provide the backstory, and generate exposition as Servalan becomes President of her soon to be ruined empire. Lurena is on the run, and the crew have got issues on their tissues about justifying the attack. But the talking is done, and half way through, Blake, Cally and Avon teleport down to the planet. This moment sets up a chain reaction of events. Travis arrives, is swiftly ambushed by Avon and the action moves into the base, allowing Vila and Jenna to act out a new plot line – the discovery of the alien fleet. But it is also a midpoint of a more symbolic sort, an expression of a key theme of the episode, namely Blake’s fervour. There has been talk of ‘a door’ throughout the episode and arguments about his absolute determination to infiltrate the base. As the trio teleport down, Avon and Cally are thinking rationally, but all Blake can think about is looking for that door. Naturally seconds later the door is revealed, and even if it isn’t marked ‘entrance’, it is certainly the gateway into the next stage of the episode.
Some episodes feel like they are split in two, due to the amount of scenes set onboard the Liberator. The central focus during the first half of ‘Dawn of the Gods’ is the mystery behind whatever is causing the Liberator to drift off course. But this episode very much feels like four acts. The first act ends with what feels like the end of our heroes, as they are sucked into a presumed black hole. The second is spent discovering the new and mysterious ‘nowhere’. The midpoint in this episode, is the moment when the Caliph appears from the darkness, setting up a new threat and conflict in act three, switching between the cells, the Liberator and Groff’s control room. The final act starts with Cally laying down on the big circular bed and focusses on her attempt to outmaneuver the Thaarn.
‘Mission to Destiny’ has established everything we need to know by the time Blake teleports back onto the Liberator. The situation and characters are known to us, and we can start working out who we think the murderer is. The second half of the episode just needs to let the events unfold for Blake on the Liberator, and for Avon and Cally on the Ortega.
Sometimes it is not about how much time is spent on the Liberator, but more about how the ship plays an active part in the conflict. Take ‘The Harvest of Kairos’, where much of the episode is spent on the attempt to capture it from Avon and his crew. Indeed the first time I watched it I felt that the midpoint was the scene where Tarrant and the gang smuggle the crates of Kairopan off the transporter. And in many ways it could be – it’s a standalone situation, shot on film, using a set that is only featured in this one scene. But for me the real midpoint is the moment where Captain Shad arrives with the Liberator teleport bracelet. It’s an unexpected jolt and heralds a change in the balance of power in favour of Servalan and her artisan. The second half of this story will now focus on the attempts by the Liberator crew to survive and ultimately to regain their ship. This must be thanks to the lump of Sopron concealed by Avon in presumably the same place where Dayna conceals her remote control bomb in ‘City at the Edge of the World.’ But lets not go there.
Speaking of Servalan, there is a nice halfway switch in ‘Seek-Locate-Destroy’ where the Supreme Commander takes a break in the institutional squabbling that has dominated the first half of the episode. She looks out into the stars and says “Your time is running out, Blake. Your time and your luck.” It’s not only a suitable break in the proceedings, it is the point where the battle lines have been set. We’ve experienced the not fully successful raid, and the introduction to Servalan and the urgency of capturing Blake. It’s the point where new conflicts are established, such as the Liberator crew starting to think about a rescue, and the introduction to Travis, who stands in their way.
As the Liberator slowly leaves Del-10 in ‘Voice form the Past’, we now reach the point where the rest of the episode can start to unravel, as we witness Servalan’s easy manipulation of Le Grand, and get a better understanding of the plan is that is going to go horribly wrong. The shift in location from the asteroid base to the Liberator flight deck is the moment where things start happening.
Other switches in location happen on the unnamed planet in ‘Duel’, allowing the talking to be over, and the ‘learning’ to happen.
In ‘City at the Edge of the World’, Vila opens the door into a new environment. But it is not just the electric crackling of the disappearing door that marks the midpoint. It is the entire scene, which contains the electronic ‘wolf whistle’, signifying the moment where Vila and Kerril’s attraction becomes closer and more physical, a key driver in the events that play out for the rest of the episode…assuming they don’t die of exhaustion.
As one door opens, another closes. ‘Rescue’ features the door to the launch silo. As it closes, the crew are trapped and a new claustrophobic plot inside Xenon base is established.
There’s an argument that ‘Rescue’ contains two midpoints – the moment where Vila picks up the Federation blaster, and weighs the feeling of security between it, and Dorian’s clip guns. It’s the blaster that will be the key to the resolution.
The halfway point of the preceding episode, ‘Terminal’, is quite subtle – it’s the moment where Avon reaches what looks like a laboratory and discovers Blake’s image on the screen. It’s the shift from intrigue and discovery, to the moment where Servalan’s plan really starts to take shape. In fact, this episode is a series of quick fire successive midpoints that point the way to the second half of the episode; Kostos says “Let it begin“, and as Tarrant and Cally descend the staircase, and we get our last glimpse of Terminal’s landscape, Tarrant says “From here on, it’s downhill all the way“, but even he can’t anticipate quite how downhill things will go.
With the acquiring of the object in the alien tomb, the halfway point of ‘Sarcophagus’ is the activation and subsequent disintegration of it. This is the key for weird things to start happening, with 90% of the second half of the episode taking place solely on the flight deck. But this episode is also trickier to determine a midpoint, as ‘Dayna’s Song’ is also a contender. It feels like an interlude between two acts, bridging the gap between crew agro, and the alien’s total possession over Cally.
Just as Dayna’s Song feels like an interval, ‘Deliverance’ feels like it has a stand alone scene slap bang in the middle. The action shifts onto Space Command headquarters and Servalan and Travis get plotting. It’s a long five-minute scene, and notable in that they will not been seen again in the episode.
Halfway through Orac, we cut from the explorations on Aristo to an establishing shot of the Liberator and a scene on the teleport bay. Apart from being a break in the action on the ocean planet, this moment sets up the fact that the Blake and Cally’s mission to locate the anti-radiation drugs is now a very pressing race against time. It also turns the endless skulking around underground passageways and corridors into very urgent skulking around passageways and corridors.
In ‘Shadow’, Orac’s telepathic attack on Cally feels like a break in proceedings as the action starts to shift slowly away from Space City and onto Zondar. The scene with Blake and Jenna in the cave on Horizon, also feels very much on its own. Selma is introduced, and with that a new understanding of the cultural make up of the planet. It is the point where Blake is far away from his goal, and where capture now turns to action.
“Warlord” announces its halfway point with the detonations inside Xenon Base. Not only are the crew separated, but there is a dramatic new problem to solve, one of which will result in tragedy – something of which Blake’s 7 does all too well. The explosions also mark a dramatic change of pace in the episode. Suddenly everything is happening, and with Servalan appearing from this halfway moment onwards, the episode feels dramatically different in the final 25 minutes. It marks the moment where the story shifts from potential optimism, the electric clanking of goblets, and teenage hand holding, to desperate tantrums, drunk fist fights and grim survival at all costs.
Sometimes the end of a character or the introduction of a new one, can be the midpoint. In ‘Rumours of Death’, Shrinker’s revelation about Bartholomew results in the end of his business with Avon, and with that the next layer of his detective work. It’s a rather grim way out.
Project Avalon is an interesting one, as there is so much going on in that episode that I didn’t easily notice a midpoint. However the revelation of what the CSO-virus-ball-Phobon-Plague thing can do, is the device that will be crucial to the resolution of the episode. The reaction of Travis is 100% convincing – his “Completely!” being perhaps one of the best halfway moments of Blake’s 7. It communicates the threat that the ball will have on the rest of the episode, while also serving as a marker to a series of new problems to resolve, namely the detection of the pursuit ships by the Liberator, the presence of the security robot, and the infiltration of the base.
Sometimes the object doesn’t immediately present itself, although we’re suspicious. In the half way point of ‘Moloch’ we’re presented with a new set – the room which houses the titular one. It’s not revealed until the end, but its presence looms over proceedings. The introduction of a new set design is often an a point where the episode is about to turn.
Separating the crew.
This is a plot device that feels so much at home on Doctor Who. By this I’m think back to ‘More than 30 years in the TARDIS” documentary, directed by Kevin Davies which if I recall correctly, included Terrance Dicks explaining about how separating the TARDIS crew would allow two separate plots to co-exist during the episode. This was neatly illustrated by Patrick Troughton instructing his crew to “scatter!”
‘Time Squad’ is a good example of this mechanism. Up until the midpoint, the action has generally consisted of an ensemble piece. But halfway through the episode, the action moves onto Saurian Major and allows some of the crew to meet Cally, leaving Jenna and Gan to deal with the capsule on the Liberator. Personally it’s a little injection of pace the episode needs.
‘Pressure Point’ flips this around. There’s a scene where Avon and Vila find themselves alone in the forbidden zone, surveying the time it takes for the defence mechanism to fix itself. It stands out, as it feels like a brief moment outside of where the main action has been taking place in the church, in the cottage and on the Liberator. Seconds later it is the point where they are reunited with Blake and Gan, ready to be an ensemble once more, and make the next moves until we reach the climax of the episode.
The not quite half way point but close enough.
Often the midpoint happens nearer two-thirds into the episode. Around 30 minutes is another common changing point, such as the change of clothes in the teleport bay in ‘Countdown’ as Avon and Del Grant prepare to beam down to another part of Albion. Different attire also marks the moment in ‘Breakdown’ as the Liberator finally reaches XK72 and with this a change of scene as we are introduced to new characters, sets and interactions. The following episode ‘Bounty’ shifts into a new gear at a similar point as the action moves away from the planet occupied by Sarcoff and onto the Liberator. In ‘Redemption’ as the ship is back under control of the system, and ‘Assassin’ bumps off Neebrox after half an hour, removing any doubt about his intentions in the narrative.
‘Death Watch’ has a half time scene like no other. Avon and Servalan meet face to face in the judges hall, and suddenly the tone changes from some subtle humour and quiet reflection to smouldering sexual energy. It’s the closest the series comes to some sexy intercourse. Not even Varon & Maja or Vila and Kerril come close to the energy of this scene. But it is also a tipping point in the storyline, with the first half of the episode focusing on Servalan’s strategy and the crew’s discovery of it, and the second half concentrating on the attempt to defuse it.
Finally ‘Orbit’ reaches its half way point on the shuttle, as Avon and Vila reflect on the first encounter with Egrorian and Pinder, and vice versa. It’s like a half time team talk in a strategy battle of two halves, and perhaps is the most apt midpoint of all 52 episodes.
So there you have it. Blake’s 7 – a series of 104 x 25 minute episodes. Ish.
We open quite gently for a change. In the last few episodes we have been thrown into the action – a desperate battle in a corridor, an oscillation in Blake’s mind, and a disagreement in a bar. But here the title music fades out and there is a moment of quiet before Vila commences the exposition. Quiet moments are rare in Blake’s 7 so it stands out to me.
When I watch this scene I’m drawn to some of the classic characteristics of ‘blocking’; the choreography of the cast, and where they move to and from as they deliver their lines. Other scenes make me notice this, such as how Vila, Dayna and Tarrant surround Shrinker in ‘Rumours of Death’ goading him until Cally calls a halt. But here it’s the way the crew move back and forth – in and out of shot – before we end where we began, with Vila. It’s a nice symmetry to the scene.
Oh, and it’s the last time we’ll see the gun rack In Blake’s 7. Never again will we hear the words “white hot.”
Then we move onto the teleport set. It’s the last time we’ll see it in this season, and it’s looking a bit worse for wear. I’m trying to work out what one of the cream leather seating sections is doing on the green tracer next to the teleport controls. Maybe it’s the place where Vila dozes, while his crew members are shouting at him to be teleported up. Mind you, compare the amount of teleport bracelets seen here, with the previous end of season story – the only conclusion I can think of is that they must have found them all squashed between the cushions.
On Goth, Blake, Vila and Jenna, make their way around an impressive planetary surface. Filming at dusk was a good idea, to give it a little of its own atmosphere, otherwise it might look like a simple re-tread of ‘Horizon’. In fact the location used is not too far away from Clearwell Scowles.
Another thing I noticed is the long shot, where the Goth warriors wait patiently for Blake, Jenna and Vila to walk past them. It’s hard to get a sense of perspective of where they are in relation to each other, we can’t quite make out the details. And I like that. There is something about a location where the audience cannot quite suss out where is where. This uncertainty adds to the drama, as we are none the wiser about where, for example, Vila could or should hide.
On board the Liberator, we are treated to a rather nifty camera shot of Cally operating the controls, at which point the camera tracks back to remind us all of what a cool set design the flight deck is, and thanks to some reverberation on Zen’s voice, how big it feels. It’s rare the set is shot from this angle, but Derek Martinus clearly likes it, as he uses a very similar shot of Cally right at the end of ‘Trial’.
As with ‘Voice from the Past’ Avon and Cally are paired up again. By design or accident these two characters are being seen together a lot more, as though they might be a bridge to the next season.
There’s a killer line from Avon, as the ship supposedly carrying Travis reaches strike range.
Cally: “No indication that he has seen us”
Avon: “Good. I have no objection to shooting him in the back.”
Back on the planet, I’m enjoying the fact the production team didn’t simply go for a natural effect to represent the high levels of noxious gasses on the planet, favouring a more subtle electronic/optical green effect. I love the way that all three characters do their little coughs and splutters right on cue as they pass the camera. It’s far more subtle than Blake, Avon and Gan stopping in the same place to be marked by IMIPAK in ‘Weapon’. But only just.
The warriors of Goth attack, loudly. These are men at the peak of physical perfection, ready to pillage and plunder against their parents wishes – and burp and fart loudly too no doubt.
The fight scene, or rather ‘the struggle’ is a curiously directed scene, mixing action with Vila calling for teleport. But it’s hard to work out why the crew were not that quick in just moving out the way – Vila seems to stand around waiting to be captured.
None the less the highlight is the elegant way that Blake’s head hits the rock, and knocks himself out. It shows that a fraction of a second out in the edit can make all the difference.
In fact all the classic troupes of dim-witted guards are on full display here, namely the art of having a discussion and pointing at the one who is getting away. Also the familiar walking-right-past-the-hunted moment.
And the person is question is Vila, whose bumbling around buys a little time for Blake to get his act together, and start being a hero. But as the camera zooms in on our fearless leader, and he coughs and splutters into the teleport bracelet, I’m thinking one thing – this is a Micky Mouse operation.
“Dee da dee da dee da deele da….” I love that little Dudley Simpson riff. As I have discussed elsewhere.
The Federation ship gets closer on the screen, and there is the grating computer loading sound that will be familiar to anyone who owned a ZX Spectrum back in the 1980’s. Digressing for a moment – mine was a Spectrum +2 – a bit more powerful, but lacking the cutting edge design.
Avon presses the button, there is a faint little noise as he does so, and BANG! It’s another impressive explosion, and it’s no surprise that they linger on it.
At this point I noticed that there is a microphone between the central control panels where Cally is positioned. I’ll notice this in many other episodes now. It’s a sly use of avoiding the boom mic shadows I’m guessing. It’s also a point where I remind myself that I should be paying more attention to the story.
Martinus is chucking in some nice shots; the close up of Blake’s face immediately after he is fired at by the cave entrance, and the high angled shot looking down at the flight positions while Avon has a little mutter to himself.
Blake is beamed back up in the nick of time, to the familiar debrief onboard the Liberator. In fact this is one of the few times in season B that Blake really gets shouty.
Ooooh, there’s some really ropey CSO as Vila and Jenna are led into the underground cave dwellings. The composited model effect almost but doesn’t quite convince, but hats off to the effects teams for ambition – here alone they are using CSO, glass shots, and models. It’s the Neapolitan of shots.
Ahhhh! It’s Bruce Purchase. I loved him in ‘ The Pirate Planet’. The still images of him in early editions of Doctor Who Magazine elevated the Pirate Captain to the top of the list of characters I wanted to see for real, before VHS video finally was within my reach.
And here he is brilliant too. In the very first shot of him, I was watching his eyeline all the way through, as the Fool fails to amuse him. Also I love the way that Purchase and Cengiz Saner time the end of the magic trick to the beats of the musical score. Nice.
Oh Travis. In ’Trial’ I wrote a defence of Brian Croucher’s portrayal. And I also noted that not everything is perfect. And it is this episode, along with ‘Hostage’ where he is misplaced. Perhaps Allan Prior doesn’t quite ‘get’ his character, or isn’t given suggestions of how to write for him. I felt that it was not quite right that he should be in the tents of Goth at all, this unfortunately makes his characterisation feel a bit unnatural as he humours Gola, and laughs hysterically in the process. On this occasion it doesn’t do Brian Croucher any favours, as he (understandably) struggles to make the line “These two I leave to your mercies, oh Charl.” The accompanying turn and point type gesture doesn’t help either.
One thing Prior does do very well, is make subtle references to previous episodes. Blake’s killer line “No one knows we’re here. Unless you alerted them” is a brilliant put down of Avon. For ages I thought it might solely relate to Avon’s trigger happy destruction of Travis’s ship, but now I’m convinced it’s an attack on Avon’s decision to alert the Federation about Travis’s whereabouts in ‘Hostage.’ Prior brings up the Blake/Avon antagonism nicely in his three episodes of the season.
On Goth, Servalan is being Servalan – all grapes and a hand blaster. But again I’m drawn to how inconsistently Travis is being drawn. The last time we saw him (which can’t have been that long ago) it appeared that he and Servalan were persona non grata. But now he has shed his Clint Eastwood attire of Freedom City for what looks like a Federation outfit. In fact he appears to be freely communicating with Federation ships via an impressive mobile phone that would make the most 1980’s ‘yuppie’ turn around in amazement. Size does matter after all. But it comes to nothing as Travis’s attempt to engage in pillow talk with the supreme commander seems to work until he brings power sharing into the mix, at which point she puts him down very coolly indeed.
I’m also wondering at what point Travis found the brain print, and with that the location. I have a hunch that he knows during this scene. Why else did he suggest three long hours to make good with Servalan’s pursuit ship? For all its flaws, I did enjoy this scene between Servalan and Travis – their chemistry is still strong, and they have become a married couple. But like the Liberator gun rack, it’s a another final farewell, as this is their very last scene together.
Avon and Cally argue, as history repeats itself. Oh the irony of not blasting a Federation ship, when Travis was actually on board. And off he goes, ready for another showdown…
As Travis departs, we welcome Rod. Or “Rrud”. Rod meet Roj. Roj meet Rod. I quite liked him – good laugh, no noticeable fillings, and an amazing brassy belt.
Jenna is starting to finally get her teeth into some actual action for the first time since…forever. Gola wins an arm wrestle, complete with off camera applause that is very reminiscent of light entertainment/topical show that cannot afford an audience, using what sounds like the backstage crew instead. Jenna starts the long road to gaining his trust.
I love Gola’s treatment of Vila. In the BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers it looks ike the physical comedy inflicted on Fawlty and Manuel is very real – take Polly’s slaps during his hysteria when the hotel is on fire.
And here it feels like Bruce Purchase is happily dishing out his own kind of physicality, whether Michael Keating liked it or not. And what about the kick that sends Cengiz Saner flying down the steps. I thought it was both impressive and quite brutal. Clearly Purchase comes from the same school of acting as John Cleese.
We’re half way through the episode, and as mentioned earlier in this review we are starting to get a sense of the episode changing. Travis is gone already. A new (or should I say very elderly) element is about to be added to the story. To bridge these changes there is a scene of pure filler, that establishes that there is an extra range detector (possibly a result of Avon’s guilt) but predominantly establishes that Cally is good at looking into middle distance, and Avon likes playing with his balls. This is a Derek Martinus episode after all. The action on the Liberator is done. From now on it’s down to what happens on Goth.
And what is happening on Goth is hijinks involving Blake, Rod and the bad-ass guards. The film quality is a bit ropey on this one, by this I mean a bit blurred, like a 525-line Jon Pertwee Doctor Who. But there is a lovely shot looking up at Blake on a tree trunk, with dusk falling behind him.
In the caves, Blake discovers an old man in a prison, and Tara makes Jenna go cross-eyed, giving Elizabeth Parker the perfect opportunity to go to town with one of her breathy sound effects.
This is where I’d like to point out actor Cengiz Saner who jumps on the body of Gola’s victim as it is dragged away, using his staff like a paddle, and then jumps up to toast Gola’s victory, and ‘test’ the wine. It’s good quick fire physical acting. It’s a great performance throughout.
I absolutely loved Jenna’s exasperated look towards Vila when on the receiving end of Gola’s views about the female of the species.
Arthur Hewlett actually looks older here than he does almost a decade later when he appears in ‘Terror of the Vervoids. Aside from being a good actor, he’s got a nose to die for.
Jenna and Goth play what looks like a very space age game for the tents of Goth – it’ll be seen again in Children of Auron. Jackie Pearce steals the scene here, and gets some brilliant lines. But her appearance is the catalyst for Vila’s dismissal “down below”.
Jenna is manipulating the situation nicely, and soon Vila is back up. I’m guessing by the time ‘The Keeper’ was conceived Sally Knyvette has long since decided to leave, but there’s something warming about knowing that she had one last opportunity to show off her all too frequently marginalised character, and also how in real life Knyvette found a connection with Bruce Purchase, who offered support in her post Blake’s 7 direction, away from acting.
Vila has a few opportunities to use his intelligence. His ring and string trick, complete with “a break above, or a Blake below” is nicely timed.
All this tooing and froing is pure padding. I’m working harder to maintain my concentration at this point. When Jenna finds no print on the Charl, it’s a reminder that we need to move towards the resolution of the episode.
It’s time for a showdown. And Tara gets to use the word “proficide” – somehow I think that is such a Blake’s 7 type word, and triggers images of a snarling Alan Lake on a Northumberland coast. This final flight to the death is full of chains, spikes and roast chicken. And I love the choreography of it. It’s part fight, and part making it look like a fight, as both Rod and Gola try their hardest to clear the table of food and drink.
In fact, this is the point where I imagined Peter Greenway sitting down after a hard days filming only to stumble across this episode, eventually regurgitating Purchase’s performance, Knyvette’s seductive persona, the violence, and the gluttony in ‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover’. Stranger things have happened.
Gola lives. For about a second. But not before we hear a rather nasty death sound from Rod. It’s a nice pay off to a running theme of the episode – always check the drink before you consume it. Boucher and Prior take their eye off the ball briefly as Blake and Vila says the line “What, that old man?” twice in quick succession.
But the final victory is Tara’s. She can now cackle to her heart’s content 24/7 – her 40-a-day laughter echoing in her subterranean kingdom.
The death of the old man is nicely played. Derek Martinus is not afraid to stall the dialogue in favour of the death song. The waiting is worth it, as eventually Blake gets the information he finally requires, and Elizabeth Parker re-uses the same ’trigger signal’ sound effect used in ‘Voice from the Past’.
There is one last dreadful CSO shot and one last wonderful Blake’s 7 type camera lurch before we go, with luck, to Star One.
I writing this in May – the time of the Eurovision Song Contest. ‘The Keeper’ is the closest Blake’s 7 comes to it. It’s got it all; music, big hair, semi naked men, big drums, a long-haired vision of beauty, an old woman in the background, traditional instruments, grandiose costumes, long lingering stares, baked bread, explosions, leaping warriors and lots of dry ice. And even when it lacks specific ingredients it still comes close; for example, it doesn’t have a man in hamster wheel, but it does have a man locked up in a rat infested dungeon – on a BBC budget.
But is ‘The Keeper’ any good?
It’s a tricky question to answer, as it straddles the lines between being an important episode, and a variable one. Its importance in the story arc means it has to stand up to repeated viewing, and there is much that is entertaining about it; Gola and the fool, the Avon/Cally bi-play, Jenna and Vila’s quick thinking and skills.
But it also sags at times. By the time I reached the midpoint, and the scenes on the Liberator flight deck had reached an end, I found my attention flagging, as fools came and went, and the action switched back and forth between the throne room and the cells. When Rod, finally challenged Gola to the final duel, it was more a sense of relief than excitement, and the repeated line “What, that old man?” suggests that perhaps the production team had their eye more on the difficult final episode. So in this respect ‘The Keeper’ feels like the poorer cousin of the episodes that surround it.
I was trying to work out what I thought of the direction, and that proved tricky as well. Derek Martinus is one of those directors who is well-respected in Doctor Who circles, and his other Blake’s 7 offering is excellent. In the end though I decided his direction was ‘fine’. The world he builds is fully developed, and the cultural touches are vivid, yet within it, there are things that are perhaps a little bit…dull?
Perhaps one of those elements is Blake himself. Thinking back to the previous episode, Blake is even more muted than he is in much of season B, where his screen time is sometimes reduced, and the other characters, both regular and guests, are more in the limelight. ‘The Keeper’ follows this pattern. Sure, Blake bounces back and forth from the Liberator and Goth, making friends with Rod along the way, but to think of ‘The Keeper’ is to think of Vila, Jenna, Gola and Tara, characters that either have more screen time or are more ‘colourful’. This is Blake’s 7 without its big bleeding heart, and unlike ‘Gambit’, which has enough going to keep us interested, this episode needs him badly.
Derek Martinus put together a pretty tasty cast for this one. Bruce Purchase played Othello in 1971, and practiced by shouting his lines to the sea in Cornwall. I like to imagine that he did the same thing before his roles as the Pirate Captain and Gola – bellowing into some building site near Acton.
Freda Jackson had, by this time, been somewhat typecast in ‘old crone’ roles, but enjoyed a successful career, and I was to list all of Shaun Curry’s credits we would be here for ever. The same is true of Arthur Hewlett, who had a remarkable ‘older man’ look from fairly early on in his acting days. I’ll always remember him as getting it in the neck from a Vervoid in Doctor Who, a death scene at greatly affected me back in my childhood.
Physicality is key to this episode, so we welcome input from Stuart Fell and ‘Big’ Ron Tarr from EastEnders. There’s also a whole host of guards and supporting actors to identify. Eileen Brady appears in other series from around this time. Regular Blake’s 7 extras, including Ridgwell Hawkes and Steve Kelly feature, and it was fascinating to discover the brothers Powell, namely Dinny and Nosher – stuntmen extraordinaire. I loved reading about how Nosher, in his days as a doorman, ejected Orson Welles for breaking wind, and sent the Kray Twins packing for not being properly dressed. But the most essential contribution comes from Cengiz Saner, who was an actor, performer, dancer, and director. A multi talented creative, he worked with the Grand Union Orchestra in his later life. Like I said earlier in this review I really admire his performance as the fool who knows everything and nothing.
This is the first episode designed by Eric Walmsley, who will pop up again for ‘Games’ and ‘Sand’. The sets are full of texture, props and detail. Note the neat use of the same tent for Tala’s skull room and Servalan’s grape store. It’s a simple case of dressing the set differently, from the tapestry and fruit where Servalan nibbles away, to the dark grey candlelit affair where Tala resides.
Up above we have some nice fabric for the roof of the tents, which creates a diffused effect when lit. And down below there are some harsh coloured lighting which works nicely with the Peladon style cave walls – I’m guessing there is a standard moulding in the scenic catalogue for this.
Big Eurovision drums pound away for the early scenes on Goth, and the whole score is augmented by some rather shrill synthesiser. About 10 minutes in we get some good use of car springs too. We also get a little reminder of a familiar motif when Travis’s ship appears on-screen.
Another notable element of the soundtrack is the inclusion of ‘Dance Pavane’ by Skaila Kanga, a noted Harpist. Her Wikipedia page reads like a who’s who of popular music of the last 50 years.
The main thing I noticed about this score is how Dudley finds what I consider to be the ultimate Blake’s 7 synthesised tone – like a million harpsichords playing at the same time. Out of all the sounds that his trusty Yamaha EX-42 delivers across the four seasons, it is this sound that sticks out in my mind the most. It makes the space scenes feel more epic, and expansive, and it’s the same tone he will also use in the season finale, one that is especially notable in those final scenes as the Liberator makes its slow move towards the Andromedian fleet. This sound connects both episodes together as season B reaches its climax.
HOW TO SELL THIS TO AN UNBELIEVER
You can sell this to Doctor Who fan’s as it’s got Bruce Purchase in it, and you can sell it to a Game of Thrones/Vikings fan as an example of how warriors were depicted in the late 1970’s – far more shouty when they are not actually shouting.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
The fool at his best as Gola’s victim is dragged out of the throne room.
THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
The fight scene between Vila, Jenna and the guards.
VERDICT IN 10 WORDS EXACTLY
Big hair, big voices and every type of laughter possible.
Power Supply for Sinclair ZX Spectrum +2 (Grey)