“I’ll prove it with the biggest explosion you’ve ever seen.”
My relationship with a ‘special effect’ is a contradictory affair. Here is how it goes.
It’s 1982. I become a fan of Doctor Who. I am four. I don’t ‘see’ the quality of special effects. When pink stripy candy lines come out of blasters in a subterranean Earth, and later on a space freighter, that is exactly what I see.
Then at the age of five, I watch ‘Return of the Jedi’ on the big screen, at the ABC in Plymouth. It’s my first trip to the cinema, and everything is big, bold, bombastic, and orchestral. I start to understand that my favourite screen experiences have differing amounts of scale, resources and grandness to it. Flying laser beams, illuminated lightsabers and convincing hyperspace starfields impress me no end. Meanwhile, Doctor Who is doing its own modest version of grand, thanks to the shots in ‘Frontios’ (1984) which also captured my imagination.
At this point, I’m still seeing ‘special effects’ as being simply that – an effect. Whether it is a multi million pound film, or a ‘lights-out-at-ten’ television studio drama, I’m at an age where I’m not thinking about how good the effects actually are.
Doctor Who ended in 1989. By this time I was 11 years old. The previous year, images of electricity coming out of a schoolchild’s hand had compared well to the Emperor blasting Luke Skywalker before Darth Vader does his noble bit. It didn’t matter that Return of the Jedi was doing this type of thing years before, as the film was still being shown regularly on ITV, which made it feel ‘current’. So even at this age, I’m still not judging the quality of the effect.
The way Doctor Who gently disappeared from BBC1 felt like an exercise in weaning someone off an addiction. I have a vague recollection of the moment where the penny dropped and I thought that my favourite series might not come back to the screen. But by that time, the BBC videos had started to creep into my life – proof that nature abhors a vacuum.
The period between 1989 – 1991 was particularly fascinating, as it felt like a crossroads of different things. Not only had Doctor Who ended, and the VHS videos arrived, but also I was starting to understand the critical aspects and production demands of making the series. The era of the ‘Archive’ in Doctor Who Magazine had arrived. Andrew Pixley’s work, alongside journals such as In-Vision and the Howe-Stammers-Walker hardback books that had started to pop up, couldn’t have turned up at a better time. I had become one of those teenagers you hear about here and there. While many of my contemporaries were drinking cider behind the bandstand on a freezing cold Friday night, I was in the warm, drunk on the intricacies of how a wave generator could create the hypnotic signal used by the Cybermen. Wild times and places.
Suddenly, I noticed the difference in the quality, approach and technique of particular effects from different eras. Some worked, and some didn’t. Some looked glossy, some looked naff. Some made sense, and some didn’t. But this period really taught me something important – it wasn’t as simple to say that an effect was bad or not. There were a whole host of factors behind the effect. How much time did they have? What about money? Was it shot live or pre recorded? Film or video? Was it new? Was it established?
I started to notice phases and patterns. The journey of a certain type of special effect.
‘Old school’ – mostly dating from the 1960’s. The ability to zap someone or create a forcefield by adopting a ‘whole screen’ approach – IE filling the entire frame with an effect, whether that is Mirrorlon, optical, negative, flare.
‘Second-wave’, which started to creep into the 1970’s. This is where the effect was localised to a particular area, from the Daleks having a ‘ray’ from Genesis of the Daleks (1975) onwards, and the negative effect placed only around the victim – first seen in Destiny of the Daleks (1979). This is all about masks, mattes, and the skill of covering the right portions of the frame with bits of black card and marker pen.
And then – for this viewer at least – there is the ‘third wave’, where the animations creep in, usually created using CGI. 1988 was the moment I went ‘wow’, when in Remembrance of the Daleks, the soldier got zapped. This is the story that made me take note, and while the years bring many advancements, I still place this type of effect in this category today.
And this is just one pathway. There are variations and sub categories – the use of Quantel and paintbox, video synthesisers and C.S.O hokum. Or the advancements from back projections to full-scale CGI worlds.
That period from 1989 – 1991 basically made me think more about what went into the effect, rather than what came out.
In my discussion of ‘Moloch’ I talked about the 2D artwork used in Blake’s 7 and how it took me a bit of time to get used to it. It was just so out of the ordinary, having grown up with model effects. But thinking about it further, I realised that the quality of the drawings, paintings and graphics used were – all in all – pretty good.
And there’s more from the same era. In Doctor Who there are plenty of shots that require the ingenious mix of live action and artwork; the inertia corridors on Zanak, the expanse of the regeneration chamber on the P7E, and the landscape of wherever the Doctor and the White Guardian first meet.
Some of the early episodes of Blake’s 7 included hand drawn animation, notably the Decima on the receiving end of the electric shock in’ The Web’. It’s impressive, although it shares a connection with a glass painting – the time put in to create it, doesn’t equal the time seen on-screen. Time = money, and after season A has finished, the animations (with the exceptions of some lightening on Virn) disappear completely.
Sometimes old habits die hard, and I will be a total hypocrite, occasionally snorting and guffawing at what I might see on the screen, but quickly I will remember that it’s a miracle that something made it to the point of transmission at all. I tell myself to look past the wobble of the foreground scenery as Alan Lake presses a button and concentrate how the foreground and background marry up so well in episode 1 of ‘Underworld’ and also I tell myself to stop looking for the join between foreground artwork, and studio scenery in stories such as ‘The Ribos Operation’ (1978) and ‘City of Death (1979) and be appreciative of how well they mesh together.
A good example of this is when I read about the battles involved in getting the various laser beams and assorted kerpow’s to the screen in the Doctor Who episode ‘Underworld’ (1978). On screen it is the story where I see a definite upturn in quality (aka precision) in the electronic effects work. Behind the scenes it sounds like a genuine battle. A battle to break new ground by securing a ‘gallery only day’ allowing the team the time and space to make the effects work in post production, and also a battle between technical quality of the videotape and what was acceptable for broadcast, as each successive beam required another drop down in generation, meaning the final quality was right on the boundary of what was acceptable at the time.
Suddenly the battle to achieve the effect was as exciting as the effect itself. A similar story is told in the production of the James Bond film ‘Moonraker’ (1979) as the effects team are continually rewinding the film in the camera to achieve each individual laser beam, while praying that with each successive pass it will all work out, otherwise the whole shot has to be scrapped and started again.
All of these examples come from a concentrated period of time which coincide with the era of Blake’s 7. The Graham Williams era of Doctor Who, saw much innovation in video and optical effects. This coincided with the beginning of Star Wars, and the introduction of new production techniques and technologies, such as the aforementioned gallery only day. Looking back, I find those few years between 1977 to 1981 to be a really exciting time.
Thinking back to those ‘wilderness’ years when Doctor Who was off the screen (but very much alive elsewhere), and when Blake’s 7 took hold of my imagination, I remember thinking that the approach to model work was really fascinating. Each season had a distinct style, and the skill of the model makers and camera crews captured my imagination. It was just as well, as there was little else that grabbed me at that time. The introduction of ‘Babylon 5’ to UK audiences, came with plenty of anticipation. However the computer generated ships totally failed to capture me – I wanted to see the continued evolution of ‘real’ physical effects, like I had started to see in the last four years of Doctor Who. Red Dwarf was the only series that gave me an idea of how the BBC could achieve model work, and by in large I loved it, especially the end of ‘Gunmen of the Apocalypse’ (1993).
With this in mind, I would say there is no such thing as a ‘bad’ special effect, even though I will happily identify if a shot doesn’t work as successfully for me as a viewer. Every effect has a story behind it, and finding out about the creation of them affects my opinion about what I see. If I was going to compare the signature shot of the Liberator as shot by Ian Scoones on 35mm film, with the landscape of Sardos seen fleetingly during ‘Moloch’ I’m going to question whether I should be putting down some perfectly reasonable artwork, shot hurriedly at the end of a day, towards the end of a season, live in the studio, with additional dry ice, and when the money is running out. Suddenly it can’t easily be compared. If anything that particular shot deserves some kudos. Kudos on Sardos.
Models under the microscope.
When I discovered Blake’s 7, my first impression of the model work was how it felt a bit mongrel. There was 2D and 3D material, shots that looked photographic, or hand drawn. There was footage that made the Liberator look yellow, or white, or grey. Oh, and the starfields of Blake’s 7 was the most starry starfields I’d even seen – especially the title sequence. In short it felt very inconsistent. As usual I based this on my perceptions of the model work in Doctor Who.
But thinking about it today, I don’t think there is too much difference between the two series. Sophisticated model effects is not what immediately springs to mind when I think of the Phillip Hinchcliffe era, and around the time of Blake’s 7 transmission there is wild variation between the execution of the material as the two shows went head-to-head.
For every Jagaroth ship in season 17 (1979-80) there is the crude videotaped effects of Nightmare on Eden, and The Horns of Nimon.
For every shimmering surreal shot of hyperspace in The Stones of Blood in season 16 (1978-79), there is cardboard cut out of the Marshall’s ship wheezing across the screen.
This leaves season 15 (1977-78). While not perfect (I’m thinking of moments in The Sun Makers), by in large this is the season with the most consistently well executed sequences, particularly the material shot on the expensive 35mm film at Bray studios. The Invisible Enemy is impressive for its scale and ambition, The Invasion of Time uses movement really effectively, and Underworld contains many beautiful moments using light effects, and intricate detail of the P7E, especially as it breaks free of the planet at the end of the story.
Yes, Doctor Who is a mixed bag when it comes to the approach to the model work. But there is a sense, at this crucial time in telefantasy, that the producer and the effect teams are really working hard to try out different ideas that could, just possibly, come in on budget and to a quality that everyone is happy with – even if it is the impossible dream.
The thing that strikes me about the model effects used in Blake’s 7, isn’t so much whether they are effective or not, but more about how they correlate to the production demands of the time in which the series was made.
Let’s take a look.
Production demand in a nutshell:
“Let’s make a space adventure series. (5 minutes later). Ah, we’ve run out of money.”
Lets start with the first season, which straddles the line between outstanding, and hoping they will get away with it. ‘The Way Back’ illustrates the skill of Ian Scoones. Throughout the series there are some highly effective sequences; the signature Liberator, Space Command Headquarters, the web, and the advancing plasma bolts towards the camera. Much of it is really well filmed, and isn’t simply about whether the model is any good. On the flip side there are sequences, presumably not the handiwork of Scoones. These appear to be more hurried, and a desperate attempt to get something on to the screen, spending as little money as possible. Examples include the Liberator’s arrival to various planets in the later episodes. And in the middle of these contrasts, are well drawn animated sequences – carefully crafted, but require me to suspend my disbelief, because I’m not watching a model effect. The production demand is clearly defined by the words “Holy moly – the money has run out“. But this is also quite exciting, as suddenly the ‘luxury’ of model filming is totally out of the window, and it is a case of ‘all hands to the deck’ in the video studio.
A good example of this period is the sabotaged spaceship belonging to Ensor, that starts to fall to Cephlon in ‘Deliverance’. On first viewing I thought this is a fairly unremarkable shot, recorded in the studio. But on viewing one of the rather lovely images recently published by @MakingBlakes7, I’m reminded that to achieve this shot you need a fair few people doing a fair few jobs. You have the physical coordination of the camera operator, the technical knowledge of the inlay person, the understanding of the lighting operator, not to mention the director of that particular shot – whoever that may be. It reminds me that there is a lot more to this shot than meets the eye.
It sounds like there was a tension between Scoones, and the directors who wanted to impose their own style. My opinion is based on using the experts at your disposal – meaning the directors often chose the wrong battle to fight. Some of the resulting models are disappointing when you compare it with what Scoones was able to achieve. But occasionally, a good call is made. An example of this is the choice for the very first shot of the Liberator in ‘Space Fall’. Once again MakingBlakes7 explains that the original choice – a slow glide around the side of the ship, was vetoed in favour of the photographic blow up, that triumphantly advances towards. The original choice was a lovely shot, but although the final image used was possibly a bit cruder in terms of production values, it has far more impact, looking imposing in the same way that a number of Hollywood studio logos are imposing due to the fact the camera is low down, and looking upwards. And how they use a fanfare.
Which leads neatly to another factor in the impact of these models. How effective music can help things along – I talk about this more in my post about Dudley Simpson.
Production demand in a nutshell:
“For goodness sake, make something that looks decent, and isn’t going to eat up the budget in the first episode.“
The frustration that Ian Scoones felt was completely understandable. I do wonder how the series would have looked had he had access to (possibly) a slightly larger pot of cash for season B. Nonetheless Mat Irvine gets a chance to shine, using completely different production techniques that create a very different visual feel. The models for this season look like they are shot more economically, which means less variation and a more consistent look across the entire season run. It has a look of its own – there is an interesting kind of black ‘fringe’ due to the lighting techniques used.
The appearance of the models feels like they belong to the world of aircraft design, and model enthusiasts. This approach feels like an extension of some of the designs from season A. The look of the Federation pursuit ships, the London, and the ship featured in ‘Killer’ and the Ortega, are good examples of this era. When the alien fleet appears in ‘Star One’ and the eye is drawn to hairdryers and other assorted odds and ends, it feels like an attempt to cross the finishing line, even though the money has once again run out. Although it has its detractors, it gets away with it, thanks to the overall magnitude of the episode, the blackness of space, and the fact that it does actually look pretty alien. It’s plain ‘odd’, and ‘odd’ is something that is used to good effect in the next season.
Overall, I would describe season B as the series that settles into a groove.
Production demand in a nutshell:
“We got the previous season in on budget. But is there a way you can you show off what can you do with a slightly different aesthetic?“
On first glance, Season C looks similar to the preceding year, but on closer inspection it has a number of characteristics that set it apart. There appears to be an absence of artwork (with the exception of occasional footage from previous years) while the planets and craft all appear to be models. I don’t really mind the lumps and bumps on the planets, suggesting impossible mountain ranges. It feels like a reminder that we are seeing a model, rather than David Hardy’s rather good planetary artwork seen in season B. The design of the ships appear to have moved away from an ‘airfix’ look, towards something more organic and alien looking. Servalan’s ‘space whale’ is a good example of this.
In fact, this is a season where there is a confidence in the design of these sequences. It’s like so much has been learned in the previous two seasons, that the designers are at the point where interesting little artistic moments can creep into the mix, such as the ‘liquid’ effects as the life capsule makes its escape in ‘Aftermath’, the supposed black hole in ‘Dawn of the Gods’ and the ominous red of the fluid particles in ‘Terminal’. And let’s not forget that the designers can really go to town when needed. A good example is the hospital ship landing to rescue Servalan in ‘Powerplay’, the alien world in ‘Sarcophagus’, the positioning of the camera during the Teal-Star sequence at the beginning of ‘Death-Watch’ and the most impressive set piece of all – the Liberator inside Ultraworld.
Large chunks of season A look like it was filmed on superior 35mm film, meaning some of the scenes look incredible, but personally I feel that season C may be more modest in ‘spectacular’ shots, yet the team is having a great time facing up to the challenges presented by the liberated nature of the scripts.
Production demand in a nutshell:
“What’s changed in the last three years? What other techniques can be used to create model effects…and is it cheap?“
Everything is ripped up and put back together again with season D. This is the season that explores some new production methods – echoing the blue screen techniques used in the television adaptation of ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’, screened in the same year. But unlike that series – which by the BBC’s standards had reasonable time and studio space – the crew on Blake’s 7 are clearly working against quite severe pressure to achieve the best possible result. Once again, I started to think about my initial impressions of these scenes, which I felt lacked the effectiveness of the past. The chromakey didn’t seem to work against the final footage, creating a disconnect between model and background, and often there was a clearly visible electronic halo which suggested that the technique used was a case of necessity – creating quick and cheap model sequences without spending ages in an expensive film studio.
All of this suggests why I think of this season as containing some of the most boldest and demanding sequences of all. The pressure to complete must have been severe, and there are some great moments in there, with some lovely movement. This pressure is clearly demonstrated by the cut out model effects of the Federation pursuit ships seen in ‘Stardrive’. When you compare that material with much of the rest of season D, you can see how well the effects teams actually did. It’s also worth pointing out that the actual Scorpio model is incredibly detailed, adding to its sleek design.
One interesting thing about the model work of season D is how the production techniques make it feel like we’re watching a completely different show. I’ll attempt to explain this. Considering the first three seasons of Blake’s 7 use predominantly filmed models, the universe that the Liberator flew through felt like the same galaxy from ‘The Way Back’ to ‘Terminal’. Yet, when Scorpio arrived, the blown up blurry starfields, which were electronically keyed in, made it feel that we are in a completely different universe altogether – not the one that we had previously inhabited. It’s hard to explain this, but it is simply down to the ‘feel’ of the visuals.
I really love the model work in all four seasons of Blake’s 7. They all tell a story of a battle to achieve greatness, when the odds are stacked against the designers. And I love picking out the little details that make it unique to this series – huge explosions (the destruction of Travis’ ship in ‘The Keeper’ is the biggest bang since the big one, baby), epic expanse (the ‘beauty’ shot of the Liberator) and those little shots where you’re not quite sure whether the effect is intentional (the quick fire shot of the pursuit ship in ‘The Harvest of Kairos’ and many others).
No matter the final result, these effects are an exercise in collaboration, problem solving and an ability to make something out of hardly anything at all. You can stick them side by side with a glossy movie, but in every case, the discovery of how they made it – the blood, sweat and tears – is a part of how I ‘watch’ these innovative sequences, and how excellent they are.
It’s funny how, after watching some later episodes that start with a bit of bombast or mid-action, we kick off with the gentle hum of the Liberators engines, and one of Bob Blagden’s animated 2D sequences.
It’s early days on the fight deck, meaning that we are treated to a range of different hums and whirrs as various buttons are pressed and controls activated. It’s like the very early days of Doctor Who, where the sound of the TARDIS dematerialisation, and other beeps and tones could be heard inside the ship. Both series share common ground, with the noises settling down after a few episodes.
Oh look, there’s a BBC camera to the extreme right of the frame. Only it’s part of the Liberator design, of course.
It’s worth mentioning that this is one of the early studio blocks to feature the flight deck, and while it is noticeable that the section to the left of Vila’s position isn’t yet completed, it is also worth hanging onto how pristine the rest of it looks. The section immediately below Zen and the lava lights isn’t mangled, and the white strips that feature along the crew’s control stations are perfectly aligned. Make the most of it…
The crew successfully operate the ship manually. Everyone is very pleased with themselves, apart from Avon who rightfully cuts through the optimism with a pithy “Well, hooray for us.” Quite right too – we can’t be having this level of gushing praise rearing it’s ugly head in the series.
In ‘Shadow’ I mentioned a certain camera angle often used when Avon and Vila share dialogue with each other from their respective flight positions. It gives the camera operator a nice chance to switch focus between the characters and their put downs. Its first appearance is here. And it gives Avon an early chance to throw in a killer line about following Blake.
I’m enjoying this early scene. It’s giving the crew the chance to argue, snap and clash with each other – always a vital ingredient. Naturally the scene ends with Avon’s brilliant line “I’m sure Blake will manage it somehow“.
Later, Blake is having a little nap. There’s a lot of this kind of thing in the first season. It’s a nice little touch – the crew have gained their new-found freedom, but have to balance vigilance with some downtime. But from the slicker season B, sleeping will be a thing of the past, as nurse Cally takes over.
It’s also time for me to talk about a bit of scenery that I’ve not discussed so far. It’s the control panel that Blake activated once he is woken up by Jenna. While I think it is one of the weaker and cheap looking elements of the flight deck, I’m quite fond of it for two reasons; a) Avon has to walk an awfully long way to activate the force wall every time, and b) it looks like a clavinet or Fender Rhodes electric piano – the sort of thing I expect Ron Mael from the pop group Sparks to sit at and stare at the camera.
The Liberator registers a distress call from a projectile. Blake’s great big bleeding heart of his naturally gives them a temporary home.
Sullen Gan mentions that the erratic Zen could have a limiter. Do you think he is trying to tell us something?
There’s a nice camera angle in the teleport section as Blake and Jenna prepare to teleport across – if only there wasn’t such an obvious view of the balsa wood teleport control desk.
The alien craft is a nicely cramped and wooden sounding set. I quite like it. It’s a nice contrast to the Liberator. In fact it sends a message about the whole era, where the vast scale of Star Wars would be the yardstick that much other sci-fi would aim for. Often, Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who, couldn’t compete in the same way, so it didn’t try to.
Avon takes command as he attempts to link up with the ship. It’s good classic televisual delicateness – like preparing for surgery in the operating theatre.
I quite like the Liberator docking bay. It’s perhaps the only other space, apart from the flight deck, that has a sense of scale. As the seasons go by, we see less in the way of new areas of the ship, so spaces like this remain in my imagination, even towards the end of the third season.
Avon is complemented by Jenna. “Thanks anyway…nice flying” she says. Avon’s long lingering look suggests that, over the bluster, there is a real sense of someone who does care. It’s the same thoughtful pause that almost gives the rest of the crew a chance to join him just before he teleports down to that fateful mission on Terminal.
Gan suggests to Blake that Zen was always on their side. Even via a communicator Gan offers the rational thought.
We’re nearing the halfway point of the episode and it’s time to return to the Saurian Major plot that began this story.
There’s a nice little touch of Gan carefully watching Jenna operate the teleport controls, as she beams down Blake, Avon and Vila. Those observations will come in handy later. As I mentioned in ‘Breakdown‘ it’s the little details that define Gan’s character.
And onto film we go. The first scenes recorded for Blake’s 7. The material shows all the hallmarks of early optimism, and a hint of a budget yet to trickle away. We have an effective red filter, wide and distant shots, and best of all sculpted alien plant life. We won’t get to see much more of that kind of thing.
It’s also interesting to see the difference between those early scenes on location, and the later footage shot in the studio. Michael Keating’s portrayal is the most blatant example. In the studio scenes we have just seen he is clearly settled into the role, but on the chalky escarpments of Betchworth Quarry he is pure Bob Hoskins.
Jenna and Gan have time for a confessional. It’s all a bit emotional for Gan. It’s important though. We need to hear his story and outlook on his fellow crew. It allows us to understand him, even when in the episodes that follow, he often does very little.
In the docking bay, Jenna skulks around and the guardians are waking, with make-up that reminds me of The Green Death. This scene seems to go on for an awfully long time. When Jenna says “There’s no need to hide” it’s clear that there is a need to hide for as long as possible – it’s allowing Terry Nation to get this script of the way quickly and move on the next one.
Nice biting action from Jenna, who survives a wrench thrown at her.
As she runs towards the flight deck Gan is there to greet her, bounding triumphantly down the now completed corridor that was missing from the first half of this episode. And as corridors go, it’s an important one. A lot of things will happen and be said there, such as Blake telling Avon “For what it is worth, I have aways trusted you“, or Cally standing alone while Avon and Tarrant square off, and Servalan ultimately running away from the flight deck at the very end. I suppose it’s more difficult to hold a conversation in the corridor high up at the rear of the set.
Gan’s rational thinking manifests itself again – offering a tempered view as to how the Guardians must be feeling. He’s clearly been working quietly, sussing out how the Liberators medical supplies work and generally being pretty useful. Yep, his days are numbered.
On Saurian Major, Blake appears to be on fire.
When Blake contacts Jenna, the continuity doesn’t really work. He sounds crystal clear – gentle, calm, almost whispering his words. But when we cut to him talking into the communicator on film, he sounds more urgent and alert. It’s a feature of a few episodes, but of this one in particular.
And then a leg kicks Blake down a steep slope. It’s Cally. I remember watching her very first moments on the compilation tape ‘The Beginning’ – that skid down the hill looked so cool, and I thought this is was going to be a character with real aggression.
Listen to how she sounds in her first overdubbed lines. It feels like a totally different character to what we will become more familiar with over the following years.
“May you die alone…and silent” – as first (spoken) lines go, it’s a pretty good introduction.
In fact when she says the line “I do not need to read minds to know that you lie” it’s sounds like Blake is talking to none other than Anna Grant!
Cally offers us her backstory. But soon it’s time for the raid to commence. To destroy until Cally is destroyed, or for Vila to live forever…or die trying.
It’s odd when you recognise bits of the landscape from other sci-fi series. In this case Betchworth Quarry offers us that big chalky cliff face behind Blake. As he and Cally grapple, there is a part of me that senses danger, in case they accidentally trip over a landmine that Harry Sullivan balances carefully with some rocks in ‘Genesis of the Daleks’. I’m guessing that would have made Cally the shortest lived regular in sci-fi history.
Back on the Liberator, Jenna is trying to raise Gan. I love it when we cut to a damaged communicator. “R e p o r t Y o u r L o c a t i o n”
We’re back to endless padding as Jenna once again skulks around to Dudley Simpson’s buzzy, rattlesnake like soundtrack.
She dispatches one of the guardians, while Gan reveals his inability to kill. Forget what I said earlier – he is useless!
There’s only 10 minutes to go, and we finally get round to the main event, the penetration of a classic BBC sci-fi trope, the industrial complex. It’s that one in Bristol used for ‘Redemption’, ‘Killer, and – in Doctor Who – ‘The Hand of Fear’ (1976). We know this is a big moment, as Dudley Simpson has got his bongos out.
Bob Hoskins gets to open the door, while we’re treated to a particularly excellent shot of Avon narrowing his eyes while he observes Vila at work.
The alarms ring out.
Jenna has one last battle with an alien who sports very fine facial hair. Like one of the great Russian composers – I’m going to go for Mussorgsky.
Luckily Gan is able to distract for a moment, allowing Jenna to blast Mussorgsky into fantasia..
Look at them both. Looks like a good night out was had by all.
Things are heating up in the complex.
Jenna disappears to disconnect the power supply from the alien ship, while Olag Gan is informed by Zen that there is yet another alien. Another chance to repeat the same action again and again.
Gan is able to bring up the rest of the crew. And look at the close up of the buttons as Gan’s hand activates the teleport – Avon’s stickers from Cygnus Alpha is still there. Now that’s continuity!
The reactor reaches critical, and there is a white out. I thought that would be the end of the episode….but no. There is still one last dreary scene of Jenna in the docking bay. Luckily Blake is on hand to help the final guardian receive a fatal blast of power, which leads neatly to the explosions on Saurian Major.
I spoke too soon. Look at Gan’s flight position behind Avon’s head. One of the units is falling off already.
The ending contains some nice little moments, such as Jenna’s wary comment about bringing aliens on board, and her disgust at Blake’s decision to dump the alien craft in space. But this is Blake’s 7, a brilliant series that has a talent for cod but fondly remembered episode endings. This time around it is a reference to what constitutes the ‘Seven’ and general all round BBC hilarity.
As the credits appeared I was deeply moved…by the horrid remixing of the theme tune. What on Earth were they thinking? Decades later, and countless letters to ‘Points of View’, I’m still disgusted.
When I watched ‘Time Squad’ for the first time, it was the final section of the ‘The Beginning’ cassette tape. Looking back at the way that compilation was edited, it would appear that ‘Time Squad’ was one of the least edited segments. Which is ironic, because it was towards the end that I felt that this tape was beginning to sag.
The way Blake’s 7 begins is quite fascinating in that it takes its time. There is a clear decision made that this is an epic adventure – a series which is designed to hold a loyal audience and give them an ongoing narrative tale. With that in mind, one of the most fascinating conflicts is how to ensure the audience is hooked and see this as a long game series, without resorting to cramming in too much content – a case of too much too young.
Perhaps there is an unspoken demand that sci-fi needs to be punchy, quick fire and action packed, when comparing it to contemporary drama series of the era. For example I rarely hear the word ‘pace’ being discussed in non sci-fi dramas such as ‘Survivors’ or ‘Secret Army’. And yet the opening episodes of Blake’s 7 feel like they are paced like a more traditional, or historical, drama. Even today I still find this notable and brave. On the few occasions I’ve spoken to other people who are tempted to try out Blake’s 7, I seem to default to something like “you’ll love it, but stick with it, as it takes a while to kick into gear“. On reflection this sounds either dismissive of those opening episodes, or like an apology. But each episode up to and including episode six, feels like the series establishing itself slowly, and giving the rest of the series the best possible framework to build upon.
‘Time Squad’ is a great example of this approach. It is slowly unpeeling more and more about the series. Cally completes the line up, the scale of the Federation infrastructure is referenced through the communication centre, and the dynamics of the crew continue to evolve. It’s doing this slowly, and carefully.
On paper this looks great. The details are there, and there is some interesting dialogue. Cally is given proper time to explain her backstory, Blake and Avon have the their notions of loyalty tested, and we discover more about the Liberator and Zen. And it ends with both a bang, and an ending that is an ethical dilemma. The trouble is that – seen in the context of a 50 minute episode – the pace on this occasion is way too slow. The structure of the episode doesn’t do it any favours.
Part of me was thinking that maybe this is an episode that slows things down following the high-octane events on Cygnus Alpha. The trouble with that argument is that third episode moved along at a steady pace itself, without even breaking into a sweat.
So, it’s the length of the opening scenes in ‘Time Squad’ that trouble me.
Liberator scene 1 – 03m53s
Liberator scene 2 – 02m08s
Liberator scene 3 – 01m33s
From the start of the episode, we’ve spent almost 9 minutes on the flight deck alone.
From this point until half way through the episode, things pick up slightly. The crew discover the ship, beam down to Saurian Major and there are some important character moments. However 25 minutes in, everything slows right down again.
The scene with Jenna on the hold takes another 4 minutes, followed by some action on Saurian Major, followed by another 4 minutes of skulking about on the Liberator.
It’s 10 minutes to go before Blake, Avon, Vila and Cally finally begin the exciting bit of infiltrating the communications centre, but by that time the episode has lost me a bit. By the time the guardian has Jenna and Gan at his mercy in the teleport section, I’m wishing he would put them out of their misery.
Of course there are other episodes throughout the four seasons of Blake’s 7 that are slower paced, or measured in their timings – ‘Sarcophagus’ and ‘Sand’ spring to mind, but in those cases that is a key part of how the story is told. Sadly, the inherent conflict at the heart of ‘Time Squad’ isn’t the fictional drama, but whether the actual episode can sustain itself across 50 minutes, something of which is exceptionally rare in Blake’s 7.
The location work shows some pizzazz. Betchworth Quarry is well used, with red filter, and inventive camera angles. And Oldbury Power Station near Bristol, into its 10th year of operation, provides the Federation base. Recently it has ceased operation, and thanks to a bit of digging, there was a chance to take a final look at the structure.
There’s the turbine hall seen from the opposite angle.
And into one of the reactor halls. Again probably from the opposite angle.
The space between the two reactors. Here, the camera would have travelled away from us, down the left side of the recent photo.
Small cast in this one.
Tony Smart (the one who has a go at Jenna in the hold) is a famed stunt co-ordinator and horse trainer.
Mark McBride (the one who goes for Jenna and Gan in the teleport section, and also gets bitten by Jenna) also has a ton of stunt credits to his name, and is justifiably proud of his moustache.
Frank Henson, who like the other two, is a stunt arranger, appeared at some point in the Star Wars trilogy from the 1970’s – 80’s.
Dudley Simpson’s music is sparser than normal, with some high-pitched synth and other electronic notes which actually sound plucked, like the opening isolated notes used in the theme tune for ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.’ Most of the music is heard during the cutaway shots (usually model work) that separates the scenes. For the suspenseful sequences involving the guardians, he gets out the Cabasa shaker, a touch of reverberated jazz flute, and another grating synth tone that I associate with season 15 of Doctor Who.
Roger Murray-Leach was responsible for this one. I’m guessing during the production, we was spending a fair amount of time sorting out the teething troubles posed by the incomplete Liberator set. This leaves the hold, the Guardian’s ship, and the reactor room.
Perhaps the hold is the most impressive set of them all. ‘Time Squad’ is – after three relatively expensive episodes – one with more of an eye on the budget. Therefore the Liberator hold has to convey great expanse without incurring great expense. There’s a lot of black drapes, but Murray-Leach is thinking about where the minimal scenery will be seen in order to give it scale, so there are some horizontal beams up high, and some control boards against a wall (which will be seen again in ‘The Web’). The exterior of the guardian’s ship breaks the set up, and ensures our eyes explore the whole space.
Considering this will have taken up a good chunk of the studio, the remaining sets are small and functional, and will be used in future episodes. The interior of the capsule, will be used again in ‘Deliverance’ and is suitably cramped. On Saurian Major there is a corridor and reactor room – the shells of which will be seen again in ‘Seek-Locate-Destroy’ and echo every so slightly the bold hexagonal feel of the ark in Tom Baker’s ‘The Ark in Space’ (1975). Simple and functional, as you would expect of a Federation centre.
HOW TO SELL THIS TO AN UNBELIEVER
Tricky. Maybe fans of nuclear power stations and alien fauna might appreciate this. Otherwise, it’s one that is a bridge to better things.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
Jenna’s rabid expression when she bites the guardian.
THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
Actually, I’m quite fond of this. It’s Blake’s “Why didn’t he warn us?” when talking about Zen in the spaceship. It’s hard to be energised when you are crouching at an angle.
VERDICT IN TEN WORDS EXACTLY
Too much padding, too little in the way of chairs.