Saturday, February 25, 2012

Blake's 7: Orac

As a full-fledged card carrying lover of all things British television, I should adore Blake’s 7.  This series should be on the regular rotation of television programs that I watch or at least I should go through the entire series once a year. Why is it that I do not really care for it too much? Obviously my first love is Doctor Who. As my love in British television grew, I became hungrier for other British television that had sci-fi influences. My PBS station started to run Blake’s 7 in the late 1980s. I was pretty excited for it especially since it was created by the creator of the Daleks himself, Terry Nation. I watched the first episode, The Way Back, and was left pretty unimpressed by it. So I stuck it out for the next couple of weeks and it just didn’t do anything for me at all. Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t love the series and I don’t hate the series, it’s just there. I have all the episodes because I do think one day, I will watch one that will ignite my interest in the whole series. I’ve seen a handful of episodes. It’s not uncommon for me to watch a series from the beginning, find no interest in it and maybe jump ahead and watch something later on from that series. There have been times when I did that, I find something about the series I connect with and I end up loving it. I have done this for series such as The Simpsons, Men Behaving Badly, and Only Fools and Horses. I am still holding out hope for Blake’s 7. It seems like everyone really digs it except me!

Orac TX: 27/03/78
The whole name of the game for this blog is randomly picking something to watch. This forces me to take something off the shelf that I may not watch that often. This week takes me to the very end of the first series of Blake’s 7. Blake’s 7 came about as there was a need to replace the series Softly, Softly.  The legend goes that Terry Nation came in a pitched the prepared series outline he had written only to have it outright rejected by Ronnie Marsh. Thinking on his feet, he came up with the idea of a ‘Dirty Dozen in Space’ type series which ended up being commissioned. Terry Nation was an ideas man. He had a lot of ideas but wasn’t always great about filling out a script. This very much was the case with Blake’s 7. Also in alignment with his other series Survivors, Nation creates the premise and launches it. Writes heavily, if not all, for the first series and then moves on or has a greatly reduced role. It may sound like this is a criticism but I can assure you that it is far from it. In particular, Survivors, is one of my favourite series of all time and Series One in particular is some of the best television ever made. Same with the claim that Terry Nation would re-use ideas. For Doctor Who, Planet of the Daleks is considered a re-telling of the very first Dalek story. Terrance Dicks has also said that the story outline Nation provided to him for his season 12 Dalek story was a re-hash of an earlier story. Dicks actually tells Nation to come up with something original which leads to Genesis of the Daleks. All of this may be true but I still think these stories are great. Planet of the Daleks is one of my favourite stories. Especially at a time when there were no such things as repeats, I could understand Terry Nation thinking he could re-use a lot of elements from a story made 10 years earlier.  To the ignorant like myself I certainly did not catch on right away. Plus I plan on doing the same thing for this Blog. My next article I need to write for All Creatures Great & Small I plan on taking an old article I wrote about Doctor Who and just switch out character and story names where appropriate. Instead of the Doctor hunted down a corridor by the Daleks, James Harriot will be chased down the countryside by prancing sheep. This stuff writes itself.

Anyway, what about the episode itself? This episode is a continuation from the previous story Deliverance. The crew knew about Orac from their journey to Cephlon where the Jr. Ensor wants to go back to his father on Aristo to give him badly needed medical supplies to keep his father alive. Blake is also aware that there is something called Orac and it is heavily wanted by the Federation. They will pay a lot for it. Ensor Jr. dies and the members of the crew who were down on Cephlon for an extended period of time are teleported back on the Liberator. The problem is that Jenna, Avon, Gan, and Vila now have radiation poisoning. The Liberator does not have the supplies needed to treat them and soon they will die. Blake thinks that Ensor Sr. will have the drugs the crew is looking for. Not only that but Blake has the medical supplies that Ensor will need so a trade could be worked out. Plus Ensor has Orac…..whatever that is.
As The Liberator is en route to Aristo, a couple of travelers have already landed on the planet. Servalan and Travis have already arrived and want Orac. This was something that annoyed me at first. I was annoyed that those two would travel on their own to get Orac but that was before I realized that this trip was not on behalf of the Federation. Because those two characters are power-hungry, they want Orac for themselves. If they get Orac, they can do anything. There are multiple ways to get to Ensor but that doesn’t mean you can get to him. Servalan and Travis opt to go underground to find their way. There are lizard creatures down there who serve as a barrier of sorts. They seem to enjoy the occasional taste of human flesh.
Above the planet, the Liberator is in orbit but has been taken over presumably by Orac. Ensor is very careful about who he has an audience with on the planet. He is very aware of the two Federation people underground and he is aware of the Liberator in orbit. Why Ensor didn’t have Orac paralyze Servalan and Travis’ ship in orbit is anyone’s guess. Anyway, after Ensor is assured that the Liberator only wants to help Ensor, he allows Blake and Cally to teleport down to the planet. There they need to follow strict instructions to get them to meet Ensor. Part of this is to leave their weapons behind.  Luckily Travis and Servalan are allowed to roam with more freedom.
Blake and Cally eventually go below ground and meet up with Ensor who thinks both of them are actual medics who can perform an operation on him rather than just give him medical supplies. After they convince him of who they are, tell him about his son, and get the drugs they need for their crew they convince Ensor to teleport back up to the Liberator with Orac. Just as they are heading back, Servalan and Travis blast their way into the base. Now Blake, Cally, and Ensor are running for their lives. They can’t teleport back to the Liberator from where they are because the defense barrier is still up. Taking down the barrier takes 5 hours for it to disperse.

Little does Blake or Cally know that Travis and Servalan go a different way to head them off at the point they can all teleport back to their ships. Maybe the smartest computer ever in the universe, Orac, could chime in and make some suggestion. Nope….not a peep from him.  It makes no difference. Ensor dies because of lack of medical attention. When Cally and Blake make it up to the surface they are met by Servalan and Travis who want Orac and now have the ability to kill Blake. Suddenly out of nowhere, Avon and Vila turn up. Avon shoots Travis in the hand. As Avon quips, “I was aiming for the head.”

Back on board the Liberator, Orac is not making friends but now at least he speaks. He doesn’t answer questions very clearly but does make a prediction. The Liberator will be destroyed.
The episode itself wasn’t too bad. Apart from Travis and Servalan able to get into Ensor’s fortress so easily, it is little wonder why someone hadn’t done anything like that sooner. Also the end of the episode with the crew sitting around criticizing Orac felt like it diminished the impact of how powerful we were told Orac was. Also, there wasn’t much urgency for the dying crew on the Liberator. In fact apart from some sweat on their foreheads, you would have hardly known anything was wrong with them. There was zero tension or any feeling that there was a real race against time. Yet, there was three separate plot points that were a race against time: Avon, Jenna, Vila, and Gan dying on the Liberator, Ensor dying on the planet desperately needing medical attention, and at the end Blake, Cally and Ensor trying to get back to a spot on Aristo where they can be teleported back to the Liberator. To me, there seemed to be no real urgency on any of these points. One thing I did like was the opening shot of the Liberator flying through space. It was not a traditional model shot. It was more simple animation. Both the ship and the space were illustrated rather than a model with a black background. It kind of gave it a comic book look which was stylized. To me, it didn’t look cheap. I know that has been done through out the series.

I think part of my problem with Blake’s 7 is that a lot of the cast don’t really fit the characters that they play. I know that this is travesty to die hard Blake’s 7 fans so please continue reading. Please note all of this is my humble opinion.  I know how the series end. The Blake we get at the end of the series seems much more in line with the type of character I could imagine leading this group. Avon is an interesting character. He actually evolves as a character especially after Blake leaves. Villa is perfect. I think Gan is awful; there is nothing dangerous about him at all. Cally and Jenna are easily replaced and forgotten. I think in this episode in particular. On the other side of it, I think Jacqueline Pearce is inspired as Servalan. She is wonderful without being over the top. This version of Travis is also amazing. Sadly this is the last episode with Stephen Greif as Travis. I thought he played it very well.
Like most of the BBC output in the late 1970s, this episode is sourced from 2” video tape. I have heard there is a point of contention among fans of this series because there was no restoration work done on this series like Doctor Who for the DVD releases. It sounds like things got complicated surrounding getting this series out including ditching a 4 part retrospective making of by Kevin Davies. That is a shame as he has a real talent for putting programs like this together and it would have been a lot of fun to watch. Now watching this episode I think the picture looked great. The video was very strong and to me looked like it had been put through a DVNR. In fact, look at the extra on this disc (Disc 5) of Blue Peter and it doesn’t look quite as good. A side note about that DVD extra. Am I the only one who doesn’t think Lesley Judd or the Blue Peter team came up with a cheap way of making those teleport bracelets and in fact that is the real way they made the bracelets for the actual show? One thing I did notice is that for the episode on the DVD, the sound was really hot. It was too loud and it seemed like no matter how much I turned it down, it was still over modulating out of my speakers. It also doesn’t help that for the theme music Dudley chose to go with continual non-stop cymbals which were starting to give me a head ache! Did I imagine that many years ago, maybe as many as 10 to 12 that BFS Entertainment were planning on releasing or did release this series on DVD in the US? It seemed to have been years before the BBC release and if I am not mistaken they were going to put the whole series on a ridiculously small amount of discs. I want to say something like 4 discs or something.  Am I dreaming this? If you remember, let me know. I can’t find mention of this anywhere.

The Hyatt Regency O'Hare
In another article I wrote from a few years ago, I mentioned how much I associate the holiday Thanksgiving with Doctor Who. This was because the anniversary was usually around or over that weekend. Also back in the day I would travel to Chicago every Thanksgiving for the Visions convention. As much as I associate Doctor Who with Thanksgiving, I have to associate Blake’s 7 with Visions. Every year there was a good collection of actors who attended plus there were so many cross-overs in front of the camera and behind the scenes from multiple series, you could always get your money’s worth with some of these people. I have so many memories of Friday and Saturday nights at the Hyatt O’Hare which was always darkly lit at night running into these actors or having a drink with them. I remember in the second floor by the restaurant, Jacqueline Pearce was nearly hit by a potted plant that someone must have accidentally nudged some floors up. The center of the hotel was completely open and it was balconies along all sides. It was opulent, gorgeous, and to me it was where serious fans of these series would converge in those days. This place and the convention was a hold over for the Spirit of Light conventions in the 1980s. Anyway back to Ms. Pearce. It barely missed her. I have no idea how many floors it traveled down (could have been as many as 12) but thankfully it did not hit her. Who knows how seriously it could have harmed her. I don’t go to Chicago for conventions any more but I do have a Doctor Who marathon the Friday after Thanksgiving every year. Maybe this year that needs to change and give another series a chance for old time’s sake. Maybe this year I need to have a Blake’s 7 marathon! What do you think?
Next week: I take a look at something I wanted to savor like a fine-wine. I have been waiting for the right time to watch it and now is that time. Over the next four weeks I will be watching and writing about To Play the King with Ian Richardson. The first installment, The House of Cards, is one of the best television programs of all time. I have not seen To Play the King so I am coming to this completely new. I can’t wait and next week I will explain why I took such a long hiatus between The House of Cards and To Play the King.
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Dave G said...

Wow, Blake's 7. What can I say? I do enjoy it, probably more than I should, since many of the episodes are slower than needed and I really don't like several of the characters. Still, I think it has more pluses than minuses and overall have to give it a thumbs-up.

That being said, you also say you wish you could have seen the 4 part Making Of extras. Well, the first three parts were made but not included on the dvd sets, the fourth part was in production but was not able to be completed. I have seen the three parts and enjoy them - they really should have been included as dvd extrasm but those darn pesky rightsholders Blakes 7 Enterprises are/were to blame.

Anyway, Vila is the man!

Michael Fett said...

Ive only seen the first episode of this series off the VHS. I put the show on the back burner to collect Doctor Who because DW was just more interesting, but I have always been curious to give this show another try. On a side note Greg the Missing Episode Whisperer I have heard rumors they are checking for the missing two episodes of Ice Warriors in Germany Missing Episodes seem to come up when you write articles about them.

Greg said...

I've heard about the German look for The Ice Warriors. I don't know I guess we'll see.
Unfortunately, there is some guy who is currently on the boards who is convinced that The Web of Fear had been found and refuses to take no for an answer. Even from the folks who would know better than anyone else. It's a funny old world.

Michael Fett said...

Yeah Sierra Leone or somewhere like that. The building if they were not destroyed was destroyed itself during the Sierra Leone Civil War. Now I don't know the complete details, but a 99.9999999 they were destroyed before then anyways and if not the chances and I don't know the full details of them how the building was destroyed, but the chances of them being destroyed if they still existed from the previous percentage would of been 99.99999999999. That guy is funny.

Greg said...

Yeah it sucks about the possible episodes in Sierra Leone but as British television goes, we are the lucky when it comes to Doctor Who.
Who knows what might still be out there to find!

Dave G said...

Just re-reading some old articles and found these comments rather interesting given semi-recent events.