“Orac, is it true that we have an unsung hero in our midst?”
When I studied my GNVQ Level 3 in Media: Communication and Production back in the mid 1990’s, it was towards the end of tape to tape editing. AVID was on its way. Cameras housed SVHS cassettes and where rested on our shoulders. Viewfinders were black and white. Words like ‘Revox’ and ‘U-matic’ were still banded about, and we got our hands on the lighting. Those heavy and very hot lights. The 2kw ‘Blonds’, the 650w spots, and the 500w ‘Redheads’. We learned to tilt the light upwards when cooling down (heat rises) and control the direction of the beam from the black twisty thing at the back.
Blimey, it’s all coming back now.
We learned about three-point lighting:
Key light as the main lighting source, sometimes mimicking the sun.
Fill light to give the other side of the face a bit of illumination, sometimes used by reflecting light from a bounce board or white wall.
Back light to give depth, and distinguish between foreground and background – often creating a halo of light around the edge of the subject.
And for one afternoon I was elected to be the studio director of a multi camera quiz show for students – a ghastly sub-genre if there ever was one.
I looked up at the lighting rig. The lights looked even bigger. 5kw, 10kw. Whatever they were, it was the most nerve-wracking experience of my life up to that point. And as I walked down from the production gallery, I vowed it would be one I would never repeat.
Thinking back at this student experience, I understood how bland the lighting was. Like many quiz shows of the day it was a case of illumination over any kind of atmosphere.
But it helped me to understand the remarkable skill involved in creating atmospheric lighting, especially when you consider the way studio television drama was produced, with hot, heavy studio lights, arranged on a single overhead grid, mechanically controlled by the press of a button, and with limited time to re-set and re-position. This method is still used in studio television production, but the requirement for a constant change in dramatic lighting styles across a recording block is perhaps lesser – restricted to game shows and comedy series. In some cases the lights are also easier to handle. L.E.D lighting is lightweight, more portable and not remotely hot.
Around this time I was reading various accounts about how the Doctor Who episode ‘Warriors of the Deep’ (1984) was very overlit, and tales about the conflict between directorial creative expression, and the television protocols of the time, where everything was lit generously so that it could be seen clearly on the television sets of the day.
As Roger Murray Leach noted: “Lighting, in the gallery, in the studio, would work their nuts off, trying to get darks in and shadows. And then there were all these guys sitting at the back turning it all up again. There was an acceptance of how bright it needed to be to register on domestic (television) sets.” (1)
Later, I thought about it some more, and decided that if something was lit brightly it didn’t mean that it was automatically poor as a result, and I learned to admire Sea base IV regardless.
And later again, I watched ‘Warriors of the Deep’ with more critical eyes and decided that the reputation that it had suffered from was based mainly around how the main control room set was lit. Yet much of the rest of the base – such as the corridor sections – were often lit very atmospherically, and full of the darks and shadows that Murray-Leach mentioned.
My own experiences and judgements, combined with the complexities and restrictions of studio based drama made me really fascinated by the way television series were lit. Lighting rigs, and grids, mainly from above, seemed like such a difficult method to creatively build atmospheric situations of high drama. And time and time again, I’m drawn to the many excellent examples – see the posts about the Liberator flight deck, and the art of making television in a studio for more. But this time, I would like to celebrate the lighting involved in Blake’s 7, and particularly the efforts of one man – Brian Clemett.
Looking at Clemett’s impressive list of credits from the 1970’s/80’s there is much that catches my eye; The Tripods, The Box of Delights, and even Rentaghost. And around the time Terry Nation was sat at a BBC meeting formulating the idea of a futuristic space opera, Clemett was already getting good practice in lighting Paul Darrow’s features, thanks to his work on ‘The Legend of Robin Hood’ (BBC 1975).
But I want to concentrate on Clemett’s main telefantasy work either side of Blake’s 7, both of which maintained a collaboration with another prominent creative figure – David Maloney .
Together they were responsible for some very atmospheric studio moments in Doctor Who. ‘Planet of Evil’ (1975) wins plaudits for its impressive film work at Ealing studios, with the use of harsh coloured lighting and darkness that really works on celluloid. Unfortunately the perceived wisdom is that the studio scenes are slightly less effective, because they are shot in the electronic studio. I’m not so sure.
David Maloney noted the limitations of lighting for television. “In multi-camera shooting the lighting designer always had to compromise. You’ve got a general lighting set-up, which has to do for all those shots. But of course that was the only way of getting through the material in time.” (1)
Comparing the two mediums is often going to favour film, with its freedom to light and frame each shot as desired, but I reckon if ‘Planet of Evil had been shot solely on video, then the critical reaction to the studio lighting might be more favourable. Either way I think that it is fantastic work. Clemett breaks down much of the limitations of top down electronic studio lighting by using it in a very controlled way, creating many tense atmospheres. He uses a lot of back lighting to create mood, and the key lighting is toned down. Check out what isn’t illuminated in the ‘black pool’ set, as much as what is. What also strikes me is how the brighter ‘interior’ sets are not simply floodlighted, but often use diffused spot lighting to highlight sections of the doors and walls of the Morestran ship. It is his use of a wide range of lighting effects that characterises the whole story.
‘The Deadly Assassin’ echoes some of ‘Planet of Evil’ through its use of diffused lighting to create a darker misty atmosphere. Once again there is greater use of back lighting to hide the backgrounds, thus making them darker, and with that more infinite. There is also a uniform look to this serial, with most of the sets featuring a deep green glow, creating a darker, more dangerous ambience. Roger Murray-Leach uses reflective surfaces to create a feeling of infinity, but it is the lighting that makes it convincing.
But the difference between these two stories is the overall tone of the story. The planet of Zeta Minor is the primary driver of the events on the ‘Planet of Evil’, and the lighting is all about making sure the landscape looks moody. But the events on Gallifrey is all about what is happening in the moment – the manipulation and interactions between different people. So to ensure we are concentrating on the dealings and conflict between characters, Clemett lights the central sections of some of the sets with focussed spotlights. This builds intensity; illuminating the characters without over illuminating their surroundings.
The two stories Clemett lights under the producership of Graham Williams often feels like brightly lit adventures on first glance. Certainly in comparison to the previous two contributions, they are. However much of the action takes place inside the TARDIS set, which was often lit in such a manner. The same is true of the medical foundation – a clinical, sterile area. However on closer inspection there are many creative touches to be seen. The lighting peeks through gantries on Titan creating some excellent industrial moodiness, and Clemett goes even further with the deep coloured effects inside the Doctor’s head. The corridors of the medical centre are also more atmospheric than we might think, with circular spotlights and darker areas, proving that brilliant white is a rarity on television. I find the collaboration between Clemett, and the very experienced Barry Newbery fascinating, Despite its budgetary limitations, partially caused by overspending the previous season, and a splash of inflation, there is a strong visual aesthetic going on in this story.
The same is true for ‘The Androids of Tara’ (1979) where, when we get into the darker action orientated locations within the story, Clemett really shines. He lights the cave systems and dungeons with small pockets of light, and for the final fight in the castle, uses low-level lighting – contrasting warm oranges reminiscent of a roaring log fire, with the colder blues of a moonlit sky.
When he completed his work on Blake’s 7, Clemett moved with David Maloney to ‘The Day of the Triffids’ (BBC 1981). It’s easy to see why Maloney would want to work the Clemett once more.
Looking at the six episodes today, it feels like a completely different style and approach, but equally creative, moody and atmospheric. Reading some contemporary industry journals relating to lighting for television, it made me re-assess that it wasn’t only the director that the studio lighting designer would collaborate with. At the planning stage before principle recording would commence, it was the producer that the lighting designer would work with in order to establish a wider, overall vision.
This vision is evident in ‘The Day of the Triffids’. When you remove the extended film sequences that comprise much of the series, the studio material is often muted, subtle, and without the harsh shadows and contrasts that can often be seen in this form of television production. It gives ‘Triffids’ a feel all of its own.
But most prominent in the list of his credits was that Clemett was responsible for over three-quarters of all Blake’s 7, including the entirety of seasons A, B and C.
Clemett, was once described by electronic effects wizard A.J.Mitchell as ‘an underrated and absolutely brilliant lighting guy.’ (2). Mitchell noted some of the challenges in successfully lighting actors using the C.S.O/chromakey technique, and why blue was often used as the colour of choice. Conversely, he also noted that Clemett deployed faintly coloured blue gels to bring out the skin tones of actor Josette Simon.
Clemett clearly worked well with the directors to straddle the lines between technical necessity, and creative license. But he also brought a bold, expressive approach – someone who just goes that little extra mile to use colour, shadow and light to bring out the drama. Indeed, the first thing I think of about ‘Ultraworld’ is the lighting. There will be more on this later. But for now, here’s some of what I consider to be his best bits.
For this post, I’ve selected some screen grabs and stuck them in a dark frame. I wanted to use this method to simply direct the eye and hopefully take these images away from the idea that it is a piece of footage. Just for this post I want them to simply be seen for what they are – beautiful still images.
Let’s start at the beginning.
‘The Way Back’ establishes plenty of the tropes of studio drama of the era. The Earth city is white and gleaming upstairs, dark and shadowy downstairs, and coloured for areas of classified information.
But it is a little scene two-thirds of the way through, that briefly takes us out of the established Federation world and into the living quarters of Tel Varon and Maja. As he stands in the background, Varon is back-lit giving us a sense that he is an increasingly integral part of the story. A directional spot light lights the bed, and combined with the side light of a space age bedside lamp, creates the intimacy of their relationship.
It’s very economical and effective – perfect for such a small set. Curiously it doesn’t feel like it naturally belongs in Blake’s 7.
A.J. Mitchell mentions ‘Duel’ as one his favourite Blake’s 7 episodes, noting how director Douglas Camfield created an almost feature film quality to the studio based barren rocky landscape. Clemett uses backlight to create shadows off the scenery.
The changes of lighting in ‘Shadow’ are a bit more subtle. The lighting in the loading bay is toned down allowing Paul Allen’s set designs to be illuminated from behind and a more dank, eerie atmosphere to be achieved. It is how the walls of the sets are illuminated that is key to this look of this story; Largo’s quarters are dimly lit for his crunch talks with the chairman of the Terra Nostra.
Mike Porter’s sets for ‘Weapon’ and ‘Pressure Point’ are bolder, less intricate and dare I say it, cheaper. But it gives Clemett a chance to add depth and colour in the form of spot lights, projections and changes in hue. Suddenly these gleaming white space age interiors contain more visual interest that might be evident on first glance.
Horizon uses subtle red lighting inside Ro’s palace. This works with the Burgundy uniforms and combined with the backlit ‘stained glass windows’ creates an area that feels suitably oppressed.
In ‘Pressure Point’, Clemett lights the single empty room of ‘Control’ in a bland, sterile way. It’s slightly cold and clinical, which perfectly captures the pivotal situation that is unfolding in front of our eyes. Suddenly the familiar look of television studio lighting is removed, and what is left is lighting that stands out on its own.
Even the corridors are nicely lit.
Returning to Servalan’s office at Space Command, this shot from ‘Trial’ perfectly shows that we’re not talking about simple white sets. The coloured lighting previously seen in ‘Weapon’ is retained, but this scene is given added gravitas by the way Servalan is spotlighted and the shadows that are cast long across the studio floor. It’s worth noting that the light is behind the Supreme Commander; this makes the scene feel less like the supposed strategic discussion, and more like a politely dressed interrogation.
‘Countdown’ contains much action, and for the most part is lit fairly conventionally, but frequently there are some nice touches, especially when we are treated to close-ups of the key threat within the episode – Major Provine. Early on we see him in the darkness, illuminated harshly from the side, and later when he turns around in a corridor, bathed in a vivid green light.
Clemett’s lighting can be very subtle. When Vila opens the hatch to the stars in ‘Countdown’ we switch from typical warm (tungsten) studio lighting to a faintly colder blue hue. The overall lighting isn’t dramatically dimmed – it’s more a change in colour, with our imagination doing the rest.
When Docholli reveals that he won’t be able to answer Blake’s question in ‘Gambit’ it is a moment of revelation. But I love that the lighting only subtly illuminates his face. It’s in keeping with the importance of the moment. This is a character who has spent much of his recent life hiding. The lighting suggests this too; there’s a hint of a shadow across part of his face, and the background is the only thing properly illuminated.
Clemett also frequently uses a Gobo; a method of creating shadows, made famous in Film Noir. Unlike that particular genre, it is used more subtly. Take one of the corridors in the Star One complex, which benefits from extra moodiness by using this effect. Interestingly, with a new visual aesethic brought to the screen by ‘Alien’ (1979) it is sometimes the physical scenery that provides the Gobo set up, as illustrated by a scene in ‘City at the Edge of the World’ where the light pokes through the gratings onto the faces of Vila and Kerril.
Season C is the series that shifts from military conquest to affairs of the heart. Blake’s 7 has suddenly become more emotional and unpredictable. The lighting often reflects this. Hal Mellanby’s underwater base contains suitable aquatic effects, and blue/green lighting. And the cave where Dayna tends to Avon feels romantic in the way it is lit.
This is the series where the colour is brought up. ‘Dawn of the Gods’ uses deep purple and a strong back light in the detention cell, as Cally draws everyone around the proverbial camp fire to tell her story.
Cally’s bedroom, first seen in ‘The Harvest of Kairos’ uses vivid greens and reds, which suggests a more alien, or mystical vibe.
The basement of Residence One, featured in ‘Rumours of Death’ uses minimal, focussed lighting, which nicely represents the emotional high stakes at the heart of these scenes.
‘Sarcophagus’ also has a deeply psychological and tragical edge, using deep reds and yellows. These warm tones gives the episode its emotional touch.
The corridors that feature as the convict carrier in ‘Moloch’ and the underbelly of ‘Terminal’ are full of atmosphere. This is achieved by bringing the lighting right down and using the scenery to create interesting lighting effects.
But perhaps my favourite lighting effect of all is a simple one, a purely theatrical technique of flashing a light on and off to convey Max and Deeta Tarrant’s journey via ‘shuttlebus’ in ‘Death-watch’. In the past, whenever anyone (who wasn’t familiar with science fiction of the era) said to me how poor the production values of Blake’s 7 were, certainly in comparison to the present day, I would show them this clip to point out how it was pointless to compare two completely different styles of making television.
As mentioned earlier Clemett wasn’t responsible for all of the lighting – the vast majority of season D was handled by Warwick Fielding, who also did his fair share of Tom Baker Doctor Who. While I think it lacks some of the distinctiveness of old, there are still many interesting moments. The blood-red lighting of ‘Blake’, the floor lighting used in the ruins of Xenon base for ‘Warlord’, the harsh blue side lighting in ‘Rescue’ and the atmospheric scenes set on the Virn base in ‘Sand’.
But there appears to be less variation. Where many scenes in the first three seasons could have been shot using conventional studio lighting, Clemett chose to use more elaborate lighting set ups. With his departure, season D is more conservative.
There is one notable exception – ‘Assassin’, which funnily enough is the one episode not lit by Fielding. And who was responsible for this episode? None other than Brian Clemett.
A good example of the two different approaches is in the way the interior of Servalan’s cruiser is illuminated. In ‘Animals’ it is lit in a fairly conventional way. There are moments in the episode where the lights are dimmed slightly, and the back light dominates, but overall what we are left with is a fairly beige and uninspiring set – a lifeless atmosphere. A good way to compare this is in the following close-ups of Servalan, taken from ‘Animals’ and ‘Assassin’.
Clemett takes the set in ‘Assassin’ and gives it more life and energy. More is made of the overhead tubular scenery, and pointing yellow spotlights across the studio gives the set a bit of a lift. It also provides opportunities to light characters with more depth, allowing a cooler back light to provide some contrast across the face of Jaqueline Pearce.
Elsewhere, the scenes on Cancer’s ship are dark and menacing, using deep greens and reds. The fake Cancer is initially lit in a menacing blue, and all of these touches help hide the deficiencies of the script.
Before I move on to ‘Ultraworld’ I wanted to take one last look at some of these images, and think about the lighting design overall. By taking some of the frames and applying an overlay effect, I’ve toned down the natural ‘bleed’ – the reflection/glare from having lots of lights in a studio. What we have left are pockets of light, which might just direct our eyes to the positioning of the lights, the colour, intensity, the directional control and how they all work together.
It’s not just on videotape that the lighting shines brightly. Check out these images shot on location or away from the electronic studio, using 16mm film. It’s a completely different set of requirements, requiring different skills to achieve the same result – a lovely looking image.
Some commentators have discussed how the production values of Blake’s 7 is better than contemporary Doctor Who, and while I don’t think it is a simple as that (to be discussed in my very last post – when I get there) I do think that Blake’s 7 is a very good-looking show from a visual point of view, and in its first three seasons, benefited from a lighting designer who really understood the limitations and opportunities of the television studio, and was very flexible in expressing mood, atmosphere and drama through using a variety of techniques available to him.
This is a Vere Lorrimer episode, so we open with a succession of space imagery, and musical stings.
Immediately following this, there is a shot of the Liberator in space, and a musical cue that is percussive, synthesised and distinctly Blake’s 7, although it lacks the bombast of old. There is a little flurry of clarinet/bassoon and a flashing light on one of the Liberator’s control panels. This is Blake’s 7 at its most settled. Comfortable. Recognisable. And perhaps lacking a little of the urgency of old.
The flashing light is a ‘pulsar’ – meaning a whole load of things. There is reference to Federation traffic lanes of old, and ominously a reference by Tarrant about the rate that Servalan’s empire is expanding. This single moment is perhaps the only time in the entire series that we get a sense of the scale of the Federation since the intergalactic war. Every previous season C episode featuring Servalan is about strategy and acquisition, but we don’t seem to get a status report about the wider state of the administration, apart from this tantalising comment. It immediately makes me wonder whether the Liberator crew have missed the boat in destroying it forever, or whether they – under Avon’s command – actually gave that much of a damn in the first place.
Vila is laughing. For all the humour that surrounds this character, it’s occurred to me that I’ve never heard him laugh. And it’s just as well, as it feels unnatural and not quite playing up to Michael Keating’s strengths. Luckily it offers a chance for Avon to make a suitable quip, which certainly plays up to Paul Darrow’s.
I’ve also noticed that Zen is using terms like “affirmative” and “That is correct” but little in the way of “confirmed“.
An artificial planet appears on-screen.
Avon is curious. “I wonder what they have to hide?” And in keeping with other curiosities in season C, the scene is set for another adventure.
Vila is going through the entire pack of supermarket own brand Christmas cracker jokes. Cue another amusing reaction from Avon.
In the run up to reaching the planet, the crew decide to have a rest. What a luxury. They even turn out the lights on the flight deck, as Dudley Simpson throws in some lullaby music.
Again, I am reminded of the feeling that this episode is not quite running on all cylinders, or rather it is a very settled production, lacking much in the way of innovation, or risk taking, as the camera zooms in on Cally via glitter ball. This creates some rather unsophisticated lighting effects.
Immediately following this, there is a pleasant flute based musical cue as the Liberator glides past the camera – another indication that nothing is partially urgent.
We get a glimpse of Vila’s bedroom. It’s the stock season C ‘other Liberator room’ – a spit of Cally’s bedroom, the medical bay in ‘Dawn of the Gods’ and the room featured in ‘Powerplay’. The lighting changes in every episode, even if the room doesn’t. By now, it’s a badly creased set.
The voice of Cally is communicating with the Liberator. I love fake voices – they somehow feel like a typically Blake’s 7 trope.
There’s a really interesting scene about if and how they are to rescue Cally. Dayna gets the final say, and the conflict on Avon’s face is a rare moment of being persuaded about something…anything! It could be read as a revealing moment about his relationship and feelings toward Cally.
And into the filmed tunnels they go.
I would have loved it if there were the funds to record the comings and goings on ‘Ultraworld’ on video, rather than film. It would have maintained the ‘interior’ feel of the episode, removing the typical film/video clash.
Avon’s gone all Sherlock. “We are inside a computer.”
And then the dramatic reveal. The three blue figures. I remember seeing them for the first time, and admiring the make up, but thinking that they looked pretty B-movie as a concept.
They all have a nice natter around the dining room table. They seem happy to provide a potted history of Avon and Tarrant, but not of Dayna. Massive sexists.
It’s a long wordy sequence, and full of explanation, but I’m enjoying the tri-play (if that is a thing) between Tarrant, who offers the flippant remarks, Avon who offers the flippant put down of Tarrant, and Dayna who sums it all up flippantly. It’s what passes as wit on board their ship.
The scene finishes with a fantastic close up of one of the Ultra as he says the word “Millions.” That seals it – they are baddies.
Back on the Liberator, Orac is demonstrating an interest in Vila’s “idiotic tintacs.” Later scenes see him adopting a vague Tommy Cooper impression (during the invisible man joke.) This is Blake’s 7 at its most childish. This is not necessarily a criticism, but more an observation. I’m guessing there would have been children watching during the early evening time slot that Blake’s 7 was broadcast, but it seems to stick out from the normal slightly sardonic and mature approach to humour that is a hallmark of the show.
Tarrant demonstrates his typical impetuous characterisation and gives the story a bit of a kick up the arse. As he runs off, seeking to find some kind of solution to getting off the planet, it gives me a chance to stop and think about his character as a whole. In ‘Powerplay’ I mentioned how Steven Pacey does everything he can with a shallow character. Tarrant might be remembered primarily for his antagonism with Avon, but his frequent running away and going with his gut feeling – no matter whether it is wise or not – is a really important mechanism for giving these scripts some additional jeopardy. Blake offered an intellectual and idealistic rivalry to Avon, and the scripts reflected that tension, but Tarrant offers an intriguing conflict purely based on an a need to tackle danger in the face, rather than considered strategy. The result? Storylines that often kick into gear only when Tarrant is reckless or does something active.
In this case, he finds some more information from Relf, from Probus 4. Well, whatever knowledge he can answer.
Ooops, careful with that memory cylinder.
That’s right, ease it in.
Hooray! Dayna’s explosive bug, makes another appearance, and saves Tarrant’s bacon. And together they run off into the industrial sunset.
Vere Lorrimer is peppering the location work with some lovely shots, such as the shot of the menial advancing in silhouette. And there are other moments that feel familiar, such as the way Avon is overpowered by Relf in exactly the same way he is captured by Ushton in Lorrimer’s ‘Hostage’.
Vila cries “Oh no. Oh, please no.” Again, it doesn’t feel typical of how Vila would react.
Explaining what is happening to Cally, Tarrant asks whether Dayna has ever “seen a lizard suck a birds egg dry?” It’s a signal to me that this script isn’t going to be too high in my list of top Blake’s 7 episodes.
Tarrant and Dayna end up in a store room, commencing a creepy scene involving Relf, who doesn’t appear to recognise anything around him. Lorrimer seems to adopt low angled camera shots throughout this sequence, which gives the whole set up a bit more intensity and unease.
Avon is being put to sleep, via the medium of disco.
On film, we are treated to a new set, a workshop/factory type set up where bodies are fed to ‘the core’.
I love how the menial who switches on the big computer completely fails to hit the ‘on’ button. It is at this point where we first hear Elizabeth Parker’s sound effect for ‘the core.’ It’s one of her best.
One male. One female. It’s time for some sexy shenanigans. It’s an odd moment, in the deepest darkest depths of the episode; the mid section lull before we hit the building climax. So the introduction of an experiment in human bonding feels like a gratuitous attempt to liven things up…
…which is not something that can be levelled at Avon, who at this point nods off.
Tarrant and Dayna discuss terms with the Ultra. It’s standard negotiating, but it does give us the chance to hear some classic received pronunciation as the Ultra explains how they obey “without quest-tee-on“.
Back on board the Liberator, Vila is looking for Orac’s key, but it is the flight deck I am looking at. It looks particularly atmospheric with the lights dimmed and a blue glow added to the mix. It harks back to the very first moment we see it in ‘Space Fall’ and a reminder that its days are numbered.
There’s a big explosion and one of those amusing jolts where actors are required to time their movements with the camera shake. It’s not that badly done.
We get a sense that Orac is working hard for the benefit of the crew, thanks to a rather obvious zoom in on it, a shot that Lorrimer decides to screen twice in quick succession.
This episode contains some nice model work. Earlier I was admiring the pulsating brain, but the scene where Liberator flies into Ultraworld is really very lovely indeed. Blake’s 7 – low on budget, but big on what can be done with it.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that the London in one of the hexagonal pods?
There is a flight between Tarrant, Dayna and the menials which is resolved through some nice shots of Tarrant sliding into action, and some dubious clubbing by a menial.
And then suddenly they all pause, like an older version of Devo or Kraftwerk.
Things are going wrong. And the crew are somehow reunited. And Tarrant matches Cally and Avon with the correct memory cylinder.
We’re into the final minutes, which includes some notable moments. There’s some excellent model work of the core leaking green goo. Later, Tarrant guns down the Ultra – resulting in an interesting and subtle exchange with Avon, and we also have Vila standing in the central pilot control on the Liberator flight deck – it’s always noticeable when someone stands in a position that isn’t their usual space.
There’s also some more bumping to camera movement type action, with the sound of a jet engine roar, but this time it is less successful. This moment once again feels familiar in a Lorrimer type of way, echoing the climax of ‘Redemption’.
Of course we have the death of the sinister Ultra, with flakey make-up. It’s nicely done.
The action doesn’t end with a big loud bang, but with a flickering dying ember. Again, the bombast of old, is missing.
The ending of ‘Ultraworld’ is typical of Blake’s 7 endings. It’s pretty corny and finishes with a laugh. But it’s saved by a small detail – Cally’s smirk on hearing Avon’s complement that isn’t a compliment.
Her smile, and seeing the three of them interact with each other is a fun shared moment between the old guard, the three characters who have been there since the early days.
‘Ultraworld’ is Blake’s 7 being produced with its eyes closed. By this, I’m not being super critical, in fact there’s something quite nice about a series that has settled into its own skin. Blake is long gone, and the Federation is no longer such a threat, so it’s reasonable to expect an episode that feels at ease with itself. There are times when this is exactly what I am looking for in an instalment. Perhaps after a long day when my head is somewhat mashed from the rigours of employment.
On the flip side, this makes ‘Ultraworld’ an episode to avoid when I want my Blake’s 7 to be urgent, visceral, and full nerve shredding danger.
This, along with ‘Moloch’ is the final bank of episodes helmed by Vere Lorrimer, and it’s reasonably directed, but it lacks some of the energy of old. Lorrimer has been not only a faithful servant of the show, but an important one too. I was thinking about all the directors and he is the one who has taken on many of the most crucial tales, providing the most balanced mix of all the ingredients that make up a quintessential 50 minutes of Blake’s 7. So while these final two episodes lack some of the fizz of old, the scripts don’t help.
And as for the script, Trevor Hoyle’s tale isn’t bad at all, but it lacks a bit of the Blake’s 7 bite. It’s an unremarkable mix of good vs bad, studio vs film, and regular character tetchiness. It throws up some distinctive imagery, but somehow it doesn’t feel like a true distillation of the best elements that make up a Blake’s 7; it’s too straightforward and lacks complexity. Take the aforementioned ‘bonding’ scene. Usually Blake’s 7 is really good at sex – there’s flirting, snogging, and several characters use their sexuality to manipulate and as a power tool. But here, it’s just a bonding ceremony. It’s an amusing scene, but very shallow. Elsewhere, Vila’s nonsense feels too light to be plausible, and the pace is a little skewed, with extended scenes, a lack of witty repartee, a higher proportion of run around/get captured ad infinitum. Cally is hideously wasted, and the worst thing about this is that this relates to when she is actually on-screen. She has to act unconscious in most of her scenes, not getting much in the way of lines when she has the chance. A good example is when Dayna checks up on her as they make their escape from the planet towards the end. Avon is also sidelined, although that’s fair enough. It does at least give Dayna and Tarrant a chance to lead, as they did during ‘Volcano’. The guest characters lack any depth, which I understand is the whole point of the situation, but again demonstrates that this script is a perfectly reasonable story, but not a Blake’s 7 one.
It’s not terrible by any means, but all in all this episode is an unremarkable mix of runaround, and b-movie aliens.
So let’s assume that Blake’s 7 finished, as intended, at the end of season C.
‘Ultraworld’ feels like the episode that sits away in the edges of the Blake’s 7 universe, a place where the action is less urgent, where you can make as much noise and commotion as you like but no one will hear you, and where the environment makes its own rules. In this regard both ‘Ultraworld’ and ‘Moloch’ share this feeling. It’s a strange place to be, on the fringes of the galaxy. It’s like the series had reached it’s climax with the shattering ‘Rumours of Death’, and the final five stories are where the crew really are drifting on the edge, with no purpose, and no thematic story arc to play with. ‘Sarcophagus’ is a collective crew hangover following the loss inherent in the previous three stories. ‘Sarcophagus’, ‘Ultraworld’ and ‘Moloch’ are driven initially from curiosity and boredom. ‘Death-Watch’ uses a holiday as a flimsy excuse for adventure, leaving ‘Terminal’ as a story that offers no external threat – only the treat from within its primary crew member.
It’s fascinating, because it feels so removed from what we are used to with Blake’s 7 – a series which has always had a forward progression from ‘The Way Back’ to ‘Rumours of Death’. And at this point everyone – actors, writers and production team were preparing Blake’s 7 to reach its final act. But this time it’s not going to finish with a story arc to end all story arcs, and a climactic showdown, it’s going to simply slip into a series of stories all of which have their own particular feel. In this regard this is Blake’s 7 at its most liberated.
Lets start by mentioning the familiar surroundings of the Camden Deep Level Tunnels in London.
Recognisable from its use in 1970’s Doctor Who and Survivors, these tunnels are now used as an archival storage space, and access to the public is forbidden. Finding contemporary images of the tunnels isn’t the easiest of jobs, but there is some good subterranean research out there, and a glimpse of the tunnels from the 2004 horror film ‘Creep’.
While Camden is a no go, it is possible to visit the tunnels in Clapham to get a sense of this type of environment.
For Vere Lorrimer’s final block of episodes, Ken Ledsham provides the design on film, but it is the work of Jan Spoczynski that I find particularly interesting. Looking at photographs for his studio designs for both ‘Ultraworld’ and ‘Moloch’, I notice that his work appears to rely on particular lighting styles to create an effective result. Both the main sets in these episodes contain interesting hi-tech detail, but what really stands out is that it is darkly lit – the type of set up where you really can see coloured illuminations on an array of control panels. ‘Moloch’ uses deep reds and greens to create a futuristic world. He also uses mirrors, and coloured lights bouncing off reflective surfaces. ‘Ultraworld’ uses all of the lighting effects I mentioned earlier in this post – gobos in the store room, reds, greens, and blues in the background. There’s use of diffused light, directional lighting and other techniques that disguises budgetary shortcomings and accentuates others. There’s also a lot of back lighting, where pin points of light shine through gaps in the set walls and ceilings. I’m guessing that ‘Alien’ would have been an influence – perhaps Spoczynski had seen this film at this point.
There appears to be some elements cannibalized from Lorrimer’s earlier season C offering ‘City at the Edge of the World’. The store room is a re-dressed set that Vila and Kerril found themselves on. And there are similar tubular motifs that feature in the Keezarn corridors and rooms. The room where Cally and Avon sleep doubles up as the Tarrant/Dayna boudoir, in a neat bit of budgetary saving.
In fact there are recognisable elements of Spoczynski’s set choices work in his lone Doctor Who outing ‘Snakedance’ (1983) which uses many of the set dressings for the store room.
It’s taken me a while to work this out, but I think that ‘Ultraworld’ might be one of the most stylish episodes of Blake’s 7 in terms of set design, as much as lighting. The vast expanse of the planet features as a backdrop, but unlike ‘City at the Edge of the World’ – where the endless corridor is too brightly lit to disguise the fact that it is artwork on a wall – it is both lit effectively, and there is an additional set design feature positioned in front of this artwork that disguises it just enough.
As a foot note, there as a floor stool/seat that features in the episode. It also can be glimpsed in other Blake’s 7 episodes, such as in the background of Servalan’s office in ‘Trial’ and in the mortuary observation room in ‘Killer’. Alas I can’t make out whether it is a piece of contemporary design, or something designed by the BBC. Elsewhere, the Eames office chair, discussed in ‘Project Avalon‘ makes another appearance in Vila’s quarters.
On to the cast.
Peter Richards appeared on-screen from time to time in the 1970’s and 80’s, notably in Squadron (1982). Peter is the lead Ultra who says “Millions“.
Ian Barritt has enjoyed a long career, popping up in Doctor Who in ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’. Ian plays the Ultra who has a little bit of hair.
Finally the late Stephen Jenn had a career that straddled Shakespeare and ‘Nightmare on Eden’ (1979). Stephen Jenn plays the Ultra who crushes a teleport bracelet while telling Avon that he will not be able to resist sleep.
Finally, Ronald Govey, features in a ton of stuff, including The Avengers.
There’s some other familiar names in supporting roles, but I’m looking out for the menials on film. Hugh Cecil, appears later in his career as Hugh in ‘The Armando Iannucci Shows’. Norman Gay (the one who judo chops Tarrant) has quite a distinguished film career, especially when it comes to anything directed by Stanley Kubrick. Tex Fuller, has appeared from Citizen Smith, to The Goodies.
As mentioned earlier, this is a score that lacks the bombast of old, but that’s not a criticism. This is a spacey story set on the fringes of the universe, so the music feels a little less in your face, and a bit more distant. There are customary splashes of synth, brass, woodwind and crash cymbal. But there are also some lovely little cues such as the motif just before the scene in Vila’s quarters, and another one when Vila is pacing anxiously up and down the flight deck on his own. For the scenes of possession, there are repeated taps on a ride cymbal, a splash of reverb, and a smidge of bassoon – something that will have pleased Synthesizer Patel from ‘Look Around You’ no end.
HOW TO SELL THIS TO AN UNBELIEVER
Actually this might be one of the most accessible episodes of Blake’s 7 for a casual viewer. The imagery is distinctive, and the storytelling is simple. There’s no need to know much about the crew, only that there are two sides, and I think people would get involved quite easily. Whether this is the episode you would want people to take notice of is another question.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
The Ultra’s “Millions”. Delivered in wonderful close up.
THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
Vila’s “Pleeeeaaaasssseee, nooooo.”
VERDICT IN 10 WORDS EXACTLY.
Take a simple runaround, and add a splash of Redemption,
(1) Doctor Who – Planet of Evil DVD release. ‘A Darker Side’ BBC Worldwide.
(2) DWM issue 188 July 1992.
Brian Clement picture – photo courtesy of Diane Gies / Horizon. Thanks to Diane, Jac and Horizon for searching!
Thanks to MakingBlakes7 on Twitter, for so much, but also the production paperwork featuring Brian Clemett’s credit.