“Just stick to the plan”
Season D is a strange beast. Prior to watching it for the first time, I had only watched Blake’s 7 through the four compilation tapes first released by the BBC. The first three seasons had their moment in the sun, so getting my hands on my first episodic VHS tape at Woolworths was quite exciting. I went for ‘Power’ and ‘Traitor’. My first impressions were that the show looked reasonably hi-tech and more like an 1980’s adventure, than a 1970’s one.
Once I watched every story, and opinions fell into place, I started to piece together my initial view of these 13 episodes.
It started brightly. ‘Rescue’ opened the doors to an exciting set-up. It always felt a particularly interesting story, because it was introducing a number of brand new themes and ideas. It also continued the tradition of complex and engaging guest characters. ‘Power’ and ‘Traitor’ also went down well – a couple of stories that were full of things designed to further build up the season. ‘Traitor’ looked a bit cheap, and I couldn’t remember Soolin saying anything, but all in all, everything was going OK.
But then it went wrong. Even on first viewing, ‘Stardrive’ and ‘Animals’ felt like a series of runarounds, with little of the Blake’s 7 wit and charm. I remember watching Dayna beam down to Bucol 2 and looking around her immediate surroundings. What she saw was what I saw – a damp, drab, grey landscape that I had seen a thousand times before. It started to make me question the dynamism of the series.
The quartet of ‘Headhunter’, ‘Assassin’, ‘Games’ and ‘Sand’ were more interesting, and it pointed at an upturn in quality, mainly because various reviews (notably one in DWB) suggested that they were better. I was still quite impressionable in those days!
Then I reached the final quartet of tales. These episodes felt like the stakes were raised as I neared the devastating season finale. There was a certain gravitas about them, which elevated them into the category of a ‘good’ episode.
So all in all, my 16-year-old self rated season D as a distinctly mixed bag, and the run of stories which tested my resolve to remain a Blake’s 7 fan.
As is often the case, I rewatched the entire run the following year. It didn’t improve things. I returned to the earlier series more and more, appreciating the visual aesthetic. Season D lagged behind. The bold shapes and tones of the Liberator had been replaced by a dull, grey look, which was lit very consistently and lacked variety and depth. The portrayal of the characters felt like everything was being taken less seriously than previous seasons too.
The contexts behind this final season didn’t even come into play. My teenage brain saw it very simply indeed. Here’s how it went…
Instead of the majestic Liberator, there was the bland Scorpio.
Instead of conceptual alienness, there was basic looking grey panels.
Instead of the imposing Space Command office, there was the drab ‘Sleer-cruiser’.
Instead of intricate sets of old, there were more beige and balsa designs.
Instead of actors performing with conviction, there was more ‘ham’.
But there was a light at the end of the tunnel. It was a few years later as I started to think more about the overall narrative of Blake’s 7 that I understood that the final four episodes were not only good, they were really quite excellent. These were complex stories, where there was very little margin between success and victory, survival or death.
But it wasn’t quite enough. Before I knew it, the VHS cassette tapes of season D started to gather dust, and, apart from a little dabble when the DVD’s were released, it wasn’t until this blog series that I really took the time to watch these later episodes and really put them under the microscope.
The first thing I want to say about season D, is how it fits in so well with the overall narrative of Blake’s 7. Season A feels like the Spring – the dawn of a rebellion. It’s the hard-working season. Everything and everyone is new. Relationships are emerging, yet very tentative. This means that the crew are slowly sussing each other out, and there is a fascinating wariness of each other – ‘The Web’ springs to mind here. There’s also plenty of material of the crew generally grafting; discovering the ship, fixing, maintenance, and taking that little bit longer to work things out. They even take naps where they can. Some of the characters are prooving to be interesting – even Zen is bordering on the malevolent or misunderstood, until we get to know it better.
Season B feels like the summer. Things are really happening. The crew have shaken off their shackles and are more flamboyant and decorative in appearance. They are familiar with the ship, so we can now explore deeper layers to the characters and wider political themes. Even the production values been to be in full bud.
Season C, is more autumnal in nature. The big event is over, and the crew are roaming. There is more of a feel of isolation in the vastness of space, and more references to the outer darkness or the fringes of the universe – the unknown territory that opens the doors to new adventures. There are more stories about loss and grief, and a greater sense of melancholy and ennui.
This leaves season D as the long drawn out winter. It is literally a battle to keep warm. There is the loss of the security of the Liberator, and the overall dynamic of the group is more close-knit than ever before, even considering Avon’s increasing paranoia. They simply have to survive. Dorian recognised this in ‘Rescue’. The location filming for the season, with the possible exception of ‘Assassin’ and ‘Games’ feels like it is a genuine real life battle to keep warm (pity Juliet Hammond-Hill in ‘Power’) and this makes me think of this season as being at the end of this particular seasonal cycle. Of course after a winter, there needs to be a new spring, and perhaps this is another factor why I feel that ‘Blake’ isn’t the end point of the series, but 45 minutes of pointing to the future, and 5 minutes of where it all goes a bit wrong – which is as Blake’s 7 as it comes. See the review of ‘Blake‘ for more on this.
So when seen in context of a wider narrative, season D feels not only successful, but also essential too. I sometimes wonder what Blake’s 7 – the entire entity – would have felt like had it ended as originally intended on ‘Terminal’. Perhaps it wouldn’t have felt quite as satisfying, as the final climactic point of that series was Avon’s betrayal by Anna Grant. The following episodes simply lacked an overall motivation. I’m not sure the Avon/Grant relationship would have felt like at natural conclusion for the television series overall.
Blake needed to play a real, proper part in the proceedings.
In this respect the ending of season D offers us the best of both worlds – the series and the season. This final series offers a acceptable conclusion to Blake’s 7 overall, without killing it off completely.
But I often wonder whether this final run should work at all. For me, this is the season that happened without having a future in mind. By this I mean, that when the very first script conference or planning meetings were held for the first three seasons, they would have had half an eye on the longer term plan. But season D was a quick fire commission, held hostage by a previously established history that had supposedly been concluded. And this is a fascinating consideration. How do you write a continuing series as new, or as a re-boot, when it was not planned to happen in the first place. A good example of this is the title sequence. Previous title sequences clearly mapped out some of the core themes of Blake’s 7 – namely the battle against the Federation. For all its technical skill, conceptually the season D title sequence feels a bit hesitant, almost as though it wasn’t totally clear what the series was going to be about, or how it might progress. Perhaps the brief handed down to graphic designer Douglas Burd, was something along the lines of “here’s the fourth series of a fast-moving space adventure – go make something from that.”
I reckon that Chris Boucher will have relished this challenge. With Terry Nation ensconced in the United States, it was down to Boucher to suss out the intricacies of the story arc, in next to no time at all. But as Douglas Adams often hinted, the relationship with a deadline can be a complex affair, and can sometimes result in some of the best work. His collaboration with Doctor Who producer Graham Williams on ‘City of Death’ (1979) is a case in point, and surely I’m not the only person who thinks that there is something urgent and exciting about ‘The Invasion of Time’ (1978) due to the fact that Williams and script editor Anthony Read worked pretty much 24 hours a day to simply get it onto the screen at all.
So does season D suffer from a backlash from what came before? It’s interesting how some critical opinion naturally centres around this. And why not? We like to compare, and use comparisons as a measure to define how we feel about things. In my very first post about season 15 of Doctor Who, I threw in an argument that its reputation is a direct result of the perceived quality of the seasons produced by Phillip Hinchcliffe. And there’s other examples too: ‘The Twin Dilemma’ coming after ‘The Caves of Androzani’, or John Wiles coming after Verity Lambert. Whatever the merits of each argument, there’s always a risk that we stop seeing work on its own terms and contexts.
As I have got older I have definitely been guilty of comparing season D to what came before. It’s so easy to fall in love with a ship such as the Liberator, when everything about it is communicated so seductively; the boldness of the interior design, the elegance of the exterior, and how Dudley Simpson’s musical cues make me swoon every time it appears on-screen. Then Scorpio appears. It’s got everything stacked against it. Corrugated metal, cheap looking seats, a computer that has to follow a big brain with marble effect set into a wall, and the biggest obstacle of all – the fact that it simply isn’t the Liberator.
It took me years to work out that comparing it to what went before is pointless. Everything that happens in season D was designed to fit into the overall context of season D, not what has happened before. The ‘glory days’ are gone, and all the security available to our rabble has been taken away from them. I remember thinking the same thing when, after five seasons, Red Dwarf lost its titular ship, leaving the crew stuck onboard the cramped shuttle ‘Starbug’. It didn’t mean that the quality of the series had gone down, but I do remember finding the change a bit of a jolt, and thinking (unfairly) that series six was ‘lesser’ as a result. In Blake’s 7 we are watching a completely different situation for our group to work through. It’s like a new ‘first’ series. In that regard season D makes good, bold and brave decisions. It has to.
So what of the structure of the season and how it compares (yes, I’m comparing) to other series? When I watch the entire series I tend to see three types of episode.
Firstly, we have the story which builds up a character, situation or establishes a set up for something used within the series – I’m going to call this ‘asset building’. A good example is the first six episodes of season A which naturally sets up ingredients that will serve the series overall; introducing the Federation, Blake, then other crew members, the Liberator, how the crew exist within the ship, and finally the Servalan/Travis combination. The beginnings of the other seasons also fall into this category, with Orac’s skills being established in ‘Redemption’, or how the first three tales of season C establish the new Liberator crew, the new Federation set up and the desire for a base.
Secondly, we have the story which ties into a central story arc, such as Blake Vs Travis, the search for the computer control centre, Servalan’s drive to rebuild the Federation, or Avon gathering resources to continue the fight. Even episodes such as ‘Sand’ could fall into this category, as it finally explores Servalan’s character at this point, continues the ‘Sleer’ subplot and the Scorpio crew chase another something.
Thirdly, we have the stand alone episode, the type of which offers some flexibility when choosing the running order of the season. Think ‘Death-Watch’ or ‘Killer’.
1. Pilot episode
2. Asset building
3. Asset building
4. Asset building
5. Asset building
6. Asset building
7. Stand alone
8. Central series arc
9. Central series arc
10. Stand alone
11. Stand alone
12. Stand alone
13. Central series arc
1. Asset building
2. Central series arc
3. Central series arc
4. Stand alone
5. Central series arc
6. Central series arc
7. Stand alone
8. Stand alone
9. Central series arc
10. Stand alone
11. Central series arc
12. Central series arc
13. Central series arc
1. Asset building
2. Asset building
3. Asset building
4. Stand alone
5. Central series arc
6. Stand alone
7. Central series arc
8. Central series arc
9. Stand alone
10. Stand alone
11. Central series arc
12. Stand alone
13. Stand alone
1. Asset building
2. Asset building
3. Central series arc
4. Central series arc
5. Central series arc
6. Central series arc
7. Stand alone
8. Central series arc
9. Central series arc
10. Central series arc
11. Central series arc
12. Central series arc
13. Pilot episode
There’s an argument that some of these stories could fit into other categories, or more than one, but for me it is season D that feels the most connected in terms of overall concept, particularly following the previous season which had the highest proportion of independent, stand alone adventures.
So where does season D go wrong for me? Could it be in the quality of the stories? There’s a perception that the first half of the run is lacking the quality of the second half. I’m not sure I subscribe to this. In my mind, ‘Rescue’ is a strong opener, ‘Power’ is punchy and fun, ‘Traitor’ is gritty and perfectly reasonable (perhaps that translates a ‘poor’ when considering the reputation of its writer) and ‘Headhunter’ is both thought-provoking and contains plenty of urgency. Out of that early block of recordings it is ‘Stardrive’, ‘Animals’ and ‘Assassin’ that fails to hit the mark for me. But that isn’t enough to call half a series as poor. Maybe the fact that I find both ‘Stardrive’ and ‘Animals’ to be stories that sit right at the bottom of the pile of all 52 episodes, mean this season is contaminated as a result. If so, that’s not a fair way to assess a whole season. Shame on me!
Perhaps the problem is that the big, bold, brave brush strokes that I consider to be the hallmark of a Blake’s 7 episode are happening, but it is within the wider creative decisions that relate to the series, rather than the memorable, and more visible individual moments that happen on-screen. Examples of this include a stripped down aesthetic of the set designs. Take the grey/beige, somewhat wooden feel of Xenon base, the simplicity of Justin’s house, the lousy lair of the Space Rats or the drab surroundings of Servalan’s ship. They’re sparser than before, but this is a bold decision – it fits in nicely with the universe that has been created for this final season – the emphasis is on functional rather than decorative.
It’s a jolt as Blake’s 7 has always had a strong visual dynamic. It is no stranger to the use of recognisable objects within its fictional world; there’s a myriad of designer chairs, the use of a contemporary phone in ‘Deliverance’ and a glitter ball in ‘Ultraworld’, but as much as I love the design, it is the use of the CCTV surveillance system that I always used to see in ‘Boots’ and various department stores in the 1980’s, that really tests this to the limit. (More on this later.)
With this in mind, season D looks cheaper and more poorly budgeted than before. But I’ve never read any evidence so far to suggest if this is the case, and how much. The case for the prosecution is the sparser detail in the set design, good models hurriedly filmed on video, the fact that the crew only get two outfits each, and that the Liberator is not in it. Even the luck of the draw when it comes to location filming plays a part – bleak, grey, wet weather doesn’t help with the visual appeal, and season D is particularly unlucky when it comes to quarries and drab conditions. But I wonder whether there is actually any decrease in budget. The Liberator set continually ate up money, just to keep it in good order. Season D needed to spend money on a number of new regular sets, not to mention new approaches to model work, and I would guess, increased payments to established cast members as the signed up new contracts. No, I think the cheaper look of the season is as much down to the concept of the 13 episode run, as much as the necessities of production.
Could it be down to a change in acting styles. I’ve discussed Paul Darrow in ‘Rescue’ but there is a distinctly different feel in how some of the cast are approaching the material, and also how they are being directed too. It feels a touch less realistic, more flamboyant and theatrical than normal. I’m not saying it is a bad thing – in fact I am very fond of it – but it certainly is a huge jump from the tone of previous seasons. I often think of the feel of the acting as follows:
– Season A, B, C = Tom Baker in his early seasons.
– Season D = Tom Baker in his later seasons.
These are all things that, one way or another, have shaped my feelings towards this fascinating season, and I have tended to flip-flop between these opinions over the years. However, there is one area that I do think the season lacks, something of which I have never shaken off, and it relates to the regular characters.
Let’s start with the portrayals and the way the characters are sketched. I’ve always felt there is less complexity. The addition of Soolin, adds too little to the mix. She is thinly drawn, with the only proper exploration into her character coming right at the end of the season. She feels too similar to Dayna, who loses much of her impetus in this season. Yet there are plus points; her snide sense of humour and cynicism works well with Avon, and Glynis Barber portrays her skilfully. In fact it would have been interesting had Dorian remained in the series, as the dynamics between the two characters would have been fascinating.
So, Dayna and Vila have lost some of their charm, Tarrant is existing to adopt matinée idol poses, and Servalan’s new storyline – the battle to regain power – is interesting as a concept, but on-screen her interactions with others are usually less sophisticated than before – with the exception of ‘Sand’. It’s like the loss of her position at the top of the Federation has resulted in a loss of the complexities of her personality. Only Avon’s character displays forward momentum, as he unravels further with each story.
The characters are portrayed differently to previous seasons. There is a scene that perhaps represents the nadir of the season – a scene that has turned against its own assets, making them come across as gullible and stupid. The scene in question is in ‘Assassin’, which focusses on a dummy wearing a toupee in a leather jacket. It’s an absurd image, which was the intention I’m sure, but it demeans the regular characters who have been believable due to their sheer determination to survive. Compare this to a similar point in the season before last. At least when Blake and his crew burst into an empty room, it was because of a large-scale clever ploy by the Federation. They were tricked, like millions before them, but at no point did they look stupid. To me, there is one ingredient of Blake’s 7 that is sacrosanct, and that is ‘the seven’ and how the audience believes in them. When you tinker with that, then you’re asking for trouble.
Yet the dummy scene in ‘Assassin’ is fun. And that is another characteristic of this series. There are plenty of little touches that differentiate season D to the other seasons, such as the poses pulled by the crew as they teleport down – they’re more comic book than real. Some indredients feel like a reaction to season C. For example, in the splendour of the Liberator, there wasn’t such an urgent need to explore the dynamics of the crew as a collective. The focus was more on personal vendettas and emotional turmoil. But in this bleak winter, where the focus is on survival as much as building resources to help them have a future, the dynamics of the crew are important. They have no choice but to cooperate. This perhaps explains the thawing of Tarrant’s character and his antagonism with Avon. As Dorian says, they are “bound together by time and pain and the need to survive.”
In fact, one of the most important things about season D might be about our own relationship with the crew. What makes the final shoot out so powerful is not so much that I’ve followed 52 episodes worth of adventures with them, but more that I’ve started to truly care about their survival. In season A I’m working Blake and his crew out, just as they are with each other. In season B, I’m still ‘on their side’ – but Blake’s zeal is called into question on many occasions, meaning I’m debating their whole brand of revolution, just as the season asks us to. With Season C, I’m simply enjoying the adventures. I’m fond of the gang, and glad they are together in the safety of their wonderful starship. But season D is the only season that aks us to consider how we feel about them. And I find myself genuinely caring about of this band of fools. Every time I see them running down the corridor on Xenon base, followed by a body attached to an android head crying out for his computer chum, I’m thinking that I really love this rag-tag bunch of characters, who are bad at making good decisions, but are good at arguing about them at every opportunity.
And perhaps that’s where the often discussed ‘flamboyance’ of the performances help. Can you imagine what this entire season and final shoot out would have felt like if it was the season C cast involved, complete with the style of performances delivered, and the way that they were directed? Would I care as much about bully boy Tarrant, arrogant Dayna, lost-her-fire Cally, or lost in love Avon? Of course I would, but I think the more exaggerated performances and portrayals of the main cast make me care about them a whole lot more. Tarrant has settled, and is displaying a glimpse of humour. Like Dayna, he enjoys comic book posing. Soolin is emerging in the second half of the season as a wonderfully cynical foil to Avon, whose portrayal is more Clint Eastwood than ever before. Even Vila gets the opportunity to be a world all of his own, in contrast to the rest of the gang. His story pretty much ends hiding in a compartment crying, while Avon soothingly calls him out for execution. This scene wouldn’t be anyhwere near as effective as if they were playing it as though they were in season C. Whether we think it is ‘hammy’ or not, the flamboyance and energy of the performances is an apt representation of the desperate situation the crew have found themselves in, where time and time again, the ‘victory’ is simply getting out of a situation alive. Surely that would make anyone act unnaturally.
So when I look at this shot of the season C cast, and imagine them in the tracking room on the Gauda Prime base, I think I would care, but not quite as much as I do with the how the cast and directors are portraying the regular characters in this final run.
It’s also taken a while for me to work out that there isn’t such as thing as a worst or best season of Blake’s 7. Each 13 episode run serves a different and unique purpose. ‘A’ offers gritty establishing, ‘B’ takes that and builds up political and moral complexities, ‘C’ is the emotional come down and an opportunity to peel away at the characters, and ‘D’ is battle for survival. Tonally, Season D is the series of dichotomies. It is both a climax, and a way ahead. It is cheap looking because it needs to be. It is grim so it needs to be OTT at times to keep the balence right. It’s at times lightweight, yet contains some of the most important moments ever. And finally, it starts like it is following on from the previous season, yet it ends in its own climactic manner.
And as for how I feel about its quality – it is the season that is the most contrasting. It contains some of the highest highs; ‘Gold’, the drug induced massacre on Zondawl, the character of Dorian, Egrorian, Pinder, and a ton of other big brave decisions that flavour the season. There’s some interesting visual touches, some of which work and some don’t. On one hand the Star Wars screen wipes, deployed by director David Sullivant-Proudfoot appear a bit gimmiky, but Viktors Ritelis directs ‘Warlord’ in a way that tests out a ton of visual stylings and conventions. It’s all so brave. In contrast, the lows do stick out really badly; ‘the interstellar space punks, the blandness of ‘Animals’ and the aforementioned dummy in ‘Assassin’.
Yes it was all a rush. You can see why Vere Lorrimer was the chosen one. His producership is also a case of ‘follow that’, after David Maloney’s successful three seasons in charge. In fact, Lorrimer simply continues in the grand tradition of solving a million problems at once. His choice of directors in the first half of the run – Mary Ridge, and David Sullivan-Proudfoot – suggest he was looking for wiser, more experienced heads to lead the cast and crew, in those uncertain first few months. But look at the roll call of directors in the second half. In many cases, these were figures new to being in the hot seat. This mix of experience, and fresh-faced thinking is something of a tradition. Graham Williams is often noted as trying to mix experienced writers with new directors, and vice versa. David Maloney often rotated directors old and new. Lorrimer is thinking strategically about the series as a whole, by re-establishing the run with trusted heads, before letting season D fly off into new unchartered territory. And perhaps this is the difference in perceived quality between the first half of series D and the second half. It’s not that the first half isn’t as good, it’s just a bit more established and conventional. And as for Lorrimer himself? It’s clear that he had a good deal of producer nous to give, as his directorial career reached its twilight stage. In fact the early 1980’s saw increased collaborations with Maloney on ‘When The Boat Comes In’ (Maloney producer, Lorrimer director) and ‘Maelstrom’ (Maloney director, Lorrimer producer.)
My overall feeling about season D has to end positively – with the central headline being “there is much more going on beneath the surface.” Lets take the whole Commissioner Sleer subplot as an example. I must confess to finding the whole storyline implausible on the surface. However two things stand out in its defence. Firstly, I will cut the brilliant Chris Boucher some slack – he wasn’t certain that Jacqueline Pearce would be returning to the series. So any flaws in the whole notion of Sleer is forgivable. But the second defence is that – simply put – wonderful things come from it. The real kick-start to the season comes from Avon’s reaction that Servalan is alive. Ann Worrall in her excellent study of Avon suggests his post-Terminal trauma is not the destruction of the Liberator, but the presumed death of Servalan, who not only lied about the ship, but probably lied about Blake’s death too. She left the carrot dangling. This has a profound impact on him and his state of mind. When Servalan is revealed to be alive, Avon’s reaction is telling (“I need to kill her myself“) but there’s so much game playing and deep psychology between the two – even more than season C. Yet this is the season they barely see each other. In this respect, season D offers the audience the chance to imagine and speculate about their relationship, which starts with Avon safe, and Servalan presumed dead, and ends with Servalan on the up, and Avon staring death in the face.
To conclude, season D is the ultimate hit and run season. Commissioned at a moments notice, set-up in a hurry and one that leaves a definite legacy. It’s not my favourite season, but then I’ve changed by mind about that many times over the last 25 years or so. But it is a season that I admire more than any other. It’s the most brave and ruthless in a show that is pretty good at being both.
In my last blog post for this series, I will be talking about abandoning the status quo and always looking forward – how staying still is sometimes my definition of ‘poor’. The legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis famously changed and evolved his sound and approach in his remarkable 50+ year career, from bebop to hip-hop. When asked why he never played ‘the classic ballads’ he is quoted as saying he always wanted to, but he needed to always look forward and not become derivative. As MakingBlakes7 and Decorative Vegetable mentioned in their fabulous discussion of ‘Rescue’, Terry Nation writes ‘Terminal’ in a way that gives the series a chance of a future, in an episode that was intended to be a closing piece. Vila rescues Orac, and there is the survival of the crew, and a base to play with. Within a few minutes, Chris Boucher has got rid of all those options, with Orac inoperative, Cally dead and the base destroyed. What is ahead of him is a blank canvas, the opportunity to shape 13 episodes of excitement, bold thinking, memorable moments, and the feeling of wanting that little bit more.
Going back to the overall discussion of season D, sometimes there is the need for a ton of preparation and leg work in order to get to a certain point. As I mentioned right at the start of this post, I could see that point reached in those final four stories. And now I see there is so much more than that. This is why I want to explore ‘Gold’ – the pinnacle of season D, and quite possibly Blake’s 7 as a whole.
The first shot of ‘Gold’ represents the visual style of season D perfectly, where the skill used to create the visual artefacts is lost in the limited time and production techniques used to bring them to the screen. A pity.
But looking past production difficulties is a natural part of being a fan of any telefantasy of the era. In this case the composition of the Space Princess is beautiful, and somehow reminded me of the rouge beast used in the early series of Red Dwarf (1988 – ).
There’s a lovely slow cross fade to Scorpio. And from this there is a lovely perspective of both ships linking together. Once again, I wish there was a bit more money in the budget to give the sequence a bit of a lift. But hats off – they’re doing the best they can.
Then we go into some close up model work. Again this is pretty impressive, and benefits from not needing to be superimposed over enlarged starscapes.
What follows is, oddly, one of my favourite Blake’s 7 shots. On the Scorpio flight deck, Avon descends the steps towards Vila, and just as you think the first line of dialogue is about to be uttered, Avon smiles broadly at Vila, and then simply walks off. What I love about this shot is I can’t work out if it is Avon being suitably contemptuous of Vila, or recognising his decision to not be involved, or simply a case to two people who have known each other for a long time.
Finally we do reach the first line of dialogue – over two minutes into the episode. Up to this point I would say this is a series that is pretty confident and in its stride. We know the set up and protagonists of the season, so it is time for other storytelling devices to have their time to shine.
Tarrant shouts “Keep awake Vila” as the crew leave Scorpio. Vila says nothing, which up to this point, seems to sum up his character, he has lost a little of his original spark in favour of the maudlin.
On the flip side, the first appearance of Keiller is wonderful. Of course I recognised Roy Kinnear immediately, but the energy he brings to that first scene is the moment where the episode suddenly ignites.
In the scene that follows I’m enjoying Kinnear’s exuberance, against the cold stony personas of Soolin, Dayna and Tarrant. However, as is usually the case in Blake’s 7, Paul Darrow is effortlessly detached, simply looking around, observing and concluding. I’m also doing the same, namely the quality of his neatly brushed hair. The pocket comb that I mentioned in ‘Headhunter’ must be close to hand.
When Keiller asks why they chose Avon and the gang to undertake this audacious 17 billion credit heist, he says “On the grapevine my friend, you’re getting to be big news.” It’s an interesting line. The others look at Avon to see his reaction to what would appear to be an ambiguous comment. Surely they had stopped being big news a long time ago, and are simply the constant thorn in the Federations side.
In the redressed set from ‘Assassin’, Keiller explains the snag. I like it. It’s not straightforward, and requires more than one intervention (computer code, access to the processing plant on Zerok). We also have the question of Keiller himself. He’s so ‘likeable’ there must be more to him than meets the eye. We know this. But Blake’s 7 sometimes surprises us, so we can’t be sure. All in all this episode is starting to be satisfyingly complex, and where there are gaps in the plan (or plot) I feel I am happy to use my imagination.
Inside the vegetable processing plant, Keiller observes two guards, who almost clock him. It’s a neat touch, as we might think he is genuine, but in hindsight, perhaps it is strain of having to work for someone else…
Avon and Soolin teleport down in a classic season D ‘Charlie’s Angels’ type pose. These scenes in the complex feel like a return to season A in the way it feels so industrial. We’ve not had a location of this type since ‘Killer’.
I’m loving how this factory has been ‘dressed’ – by sticking ZVP all over the place!
In the lift the key characters name check Vila, who thinks all of this is a trap. Avon correctly identifies him as “frequently right.”
The alarms go off, and there are explosions. And when the dust settles, Dayna observes the remnants of two dead bodies.
Back on Scorpio, Vila finally gets a line of dialogue. It’s a well-timed moment for him. I’m also really enjoying the expressions on the faces of Dayna and Tarrant when Keiller says he is sorry for the deaths of Avon and Soolin. It’s a little reminder of an overall theme of season D – how close the Scorpio crew are to each other, even if they would never admit it.
“For the sake of our friends. For the sake of our dead friends”
Avon and Soolin announce that they are alive through some of the most wonderful poised-for-action acting and blocking I’ve ever seen in Blake’s 7.
And there’s some good RP from Paul Darrow. “The guns were not standard iss-see-you”
“Someone else is using Keiller to get to us”. The audience shouts “Servalan!” But it really does not matter that we know. The story is good enough to make us want to wait for the reveal.
With the scene onboard Scorpio, and Soolin’s suggestion that they check out the Space Princess, the action is now switching away from Zerok. We’re a third of the way through the episode. Onto Act II.
I’m really loving the revelation that the pleasure cruise is a sham. It’s so typical of the cynical universe that Blake’s 7 has created for itself. The music by Dudley Simpson is lovely, and it’s a nice juxtaposition between its kitchness and the weary communication between traffic control and the pilot of the Space Princess.
I’m really enjoying this episode. The ‘sighing’ doors, the assorted passengers, and most of all, how Tarrant and Soolin are “having a good time”.
The plan appears to be coming together, by hook or by crook.
The Doctor treating Dayna isn’t the drunken half-wit the previous one was, and we get another little note about the universe, specifically how Dayna, judged to be alien, won’t be treated on Earth. It matters not, I’m enjoying Tarrant’s spaced out bluffing.
There’s another conversation held in voice over only, over shots of spacecraft. It’s a particularly Blake’s 7 trope, full of huffs and sighs of deep resignation from weary space captains.
I’m still trying to work out the symptoms that Dayna was experiencing during the heist. Was she simply faking it? Knocking the gun out of Avon’s hand would suggest she wasn’t. In an earlier scene, Keiller explains the drug used. But when is the point where Dayna snaps out of it? It would appear to be a very quick acting treatment, to the point where she is able to get off the makeshift bed and start shooting at people at the click of a finger.
The scene on the airlock between both craft is great for so many reasons; there’s bad-ass Avon, who is enjoying himself too much, some good ‘supporting artist’ acting from the doomed guard, and plenty of tension all around.
We’re into act III, as the action moves towards Beta Five, in the Ark Rough Bennett Complex. It’s sounds like a pub in 1990’s Plymouth.
The transaction is suitably tense, and Beta 5 is nicely realised. Dorset clearly has some high quality alien landscapes on offer.
It’s nice to see Avon and Servalan together on-screen one last time. I think it was a good move to keep them separated as much as possible in this season, allowing other important plots to take precedence.
And there’s this shot. Lovely.
There’s a great line from Tarrant “I’ve never seen currency that size”. And during the post-mortem, there is the chance for discussion of Servalan, and a quip directed at Tarrant.
But as we see Keiller’s dead body, and Servalan’s grin to the sky, we know that, with seconds to go, there is time for one last twist. It’s a great scene in an episode full of great scenes.
As money is scattered in the air, the reaction from Avon really does sell the whole idea that he is unravelling. To me, this is Servalan’s last great victory. Although she plays a reasonably big role in ‘Orbit’, and ‘Warlord’ features a last understated appearance, it is the end of ‘Gold’ that would have been a nice end point, as we see her win though her tactical skill. I would never want to see her lose.
I really, really like Gold. The taste of it, the smell of it, the texture…. (Sorry, wrong franchise.)
But this is the point where everything that season D has been working towards finally comes to fruition. And it’s worth it. The first nine episodes have each brought something to the mix; new situations, set ups, characters, dynamics, and creative touches. Even ‘Sand’ at episode nine, is still building the overall story, giving us closure on the ‘Sleer’ persona, and where Servalan – the person – stands at this point in time. ‘Sand’ felt like the end of her story, with ‘Gold being a coda. Her final appearences after this point do not really add anything more to her character.
All of this preparation feels pretty liberating, as ‘Gold’ is an episode that is confident and having fun thanks to everything that has been created before it. We know that Servalan will be behind this plot. And the writer knows that we know this. So it becomes unimportant. What is important is the journey up to the point where the transaction is made on Beta 5.
The downside to ‘Gold’ is a genuine regret that Blake’s 7 didn’t have the support for another season at least, at this episode really points at a style of adventure that is rare, the one where what happens throughout the episode is at the mercy of wider events in the universe. ‘Star One’ is the episode that springs to mind in this regard, where Blake can do what he likes, but whatever he does will have a bigger consequence, due to the invasion of the alien fleet. The wider event of ‘Gold’ was used by Servalan herself, making good use of fact that Zerok has ceded to the Federation.
‘Gold’ really does have something for everyone; complex plans, chases, explosions, a kick-ass final twist and gratuitous shots of bottoms in this episode.
There’s men’s bottoms and women’s bottoms…
Bottoms, bottoms, bottoms…
…I’ll get the bromide.
Brian Lighthill’s direction gives the season another fresh feel, following on from what Vivienne Cousins gave two episodes before this. The camera often moves with our heroes rather than simply observing them – take the early scene where the crew walk onboard the Space Princess for the first time. I’m also drawn to little touches, such as Dayna and Tarrant almost walking into the camera. There’s out of focus shots used as a transition between Zerok and Scorpio, and lots of inventive angles used on location in the complex.
Lighthill isn’t afraid to highlight comic touches, as he will also demonstrate in the following ‘Orbit’. But these never feel gratuitous. Keiller’s “I’ll explain everything” in his first scene is a nice example of how the comedy gives characters and situation a lift.
The cast of ‘Gold’ includes some chap called Roy Kinnear, whose main claim to fame was as the narrator of BBC children classic ‘Bertha’. Elsewhere we have Anthony Brown who has a ton of credits to sift through. Dinah May later married Gunn-Sar in Channel 4’s Brookside. Captain Kennedy will be familiar to Doctor Who fans as Norman Hartley – the Sergeant at the Henlow Downs Bunker, fighting off the Cybermen.
There’s a big number of supporting artists in this one. It was fun to play spot the extra.
But the list was too great for my tired brain, so I gave up, and looked for the Dorset locations that this episode was filmed at. The Ryvita factory still stands today.
Big brassy/synth licks begin the episode, but I’m becoming interested in what Dudley Simpson does once the opening score has done its job, and we launch into the main action. In this case we are treated to some deep tenor notes using bassoon/clarinet. It’s suitably menacing as the mercenaries get to work.
During the tense scenes involving the black gold in the hold, there are sparse percussive motifs, similar to anticipatory moments in ‘Death-Watch’.
Finally there’s the wonderful lift music used onboard the Space Princess. It’s a real earworm.
I’m enjoying some of the recognisable 20th century artefacts used in this episode. There’s the photocopier used by Avon, the Boots camera, litter bin on the Zerok plant, the telephone surround. There’s lockers and airplane meal trays. And lets not forget the roasting tins in the hold. The only thing that is a genuine let down is the flat lighting in this series overall – it highlights these items a little too much.
But my favourite artefact is the ‘Photo-scan’ closed circuit camera, the sort I always used to see in ‘Boots’ or various department stores up and down the country back in the 1980’s.
HOW TO SELL THIS TO AN UNBELIEVER.
Anyone with an interest in heist movies will enjoy this.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
So many. But it has to be Avon’s last laugh.
THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
It’s not a moment so much, – it’s the roasting tins.
VERDICT IN 10 WORDS EXACTLY
I love it when a plan comes together. Or not.