11/04/2012

Blakewatch week 15 - Shadow

The story so far: There are 52 episodes of Blake’s 7 and 52 weeks in the year so a group of us are watching an episode a week, talking about in the pub and this is the result.

This week: Season Two Episode 2- Shadow
(1979) Writer: Chris Boucher / Director: Jonathan Wright - Miller
When Blake’s plan to buy the services of the notorious crime syndicate the Terra Nostra fails, he decides to go to the source of the powerful drug Shadow with which they trade. However the journey brings dangers inside the Liberator as well as on the planet surface.

Cally was unsure about her new hat
This is the first episode not to have direct involvement from Terry Nation and it shows in. Brimming with ideas, Chris Boucher is at risk of pouring too much into a busy episode but pulls it off with aplomb, managing to tie the strands together satisfactorily and still leave time for some action.


After a rather poor model shot of Space City, a space station devoted to pleasure we are introduced to Shadow, a drug with both hallucinogenic and telepathic qualities (users are called “dream heads”) that is controlled by the Terra Nostra. Loosely based on the Mafia, these shady characters sport smart clothes and are prone to double cross each if necessary. By contrast the Shadow addicts we meet are dressed in rags and look decidedly pale. It’s a rather literal visual shorthand that works even if we don’t really discover much about them.

Blake’s plan is to meet up with Largo, an old associate of Jenna’s, to try and use the Terra Nostra against the Federation. In what is a fairly standard scenario for the series; the meet goes wrong but Blake and co are unexpectedly rescued and manage to escape. So far, so standard by Seven.

It’s 20 minutes or so in that the episode starts to twist into unusual positions. Largo is soon despatched, the crew head for the planet where the moon discs, the source of Shadow are located and cultivated. Then when they don their tropical planet whites- looking like Abba circa 1976 – Orac appears to take over the Liberator and somehow gets inside Cally’s head. This adds a distinctly surreal quality to proceedings, in an early version of the white lights and video effects that would, within two years of this episode, come to dominate television and pop videos.

The strangeness continues on the planet surface whose white sands are peppered with the moon discs; coloured stones that move and whisper. By the time Cally manages to break free of evil Orac’s control and dashes around looking like Florence Welsh, matters have taken a fascinatingly odd turn. Unlike some of the first season episodes which betrayed their very earthbound locations, this looks as good a depiction of an alien planet as the BBC ever managed. The key to its success is that it looks weird, not that huge amounts of money was spent.


The secret of the Terra Nostra's power was actually gobstoppers
There are also some great character beats to enjoy; Vila is finally starting to become a believable character instead of a one note cipher, the bubbling enmity mingled with respect that passes between Blake and Avon continues to be a highlight and for once Cally gets something decent to do while kick ass Jenna is back! These crisp exchanges between the crew have become more than simple exposition and can be witty, snarky or even supportive. Sample: As Jenna and Gan clamber around on the planet she says: “It’s enough to fry your eyeballs” to which he responds, “Daintily put” and she replies, “Must be the company I keep.” The dialogue sparks like this throughout raising the quality of the episode considerably.

Between Boucher’s writing and Jonathan Wright- Miller’s direction, matters remain fluid and interesting. Boucher is quick to expand the scenario with an unexpected betrayal courtesy of Hanna (an off the wall performance from Adrienne Burgess) and the revelation that in fact the Federation themselves control the Terra Nostra., there’s the menace in Orac’s behaviour that you would never imagine could be achieved by a voice (Peter Tuddenham excels this week), a box and some visual effects. The camera lingers too long perhaps on the un-convincing Space City exterior but this is the only directorial faux pas.
`Shadow` is one of the best episodes so far and after last week’s less than stellar season two opener, the show is back on track.

Notes
Terra Nostra translates from Latin as “Our Earth”, the name is probably based on Cosa Nostra, the notorious Sicilian Mafia. That translates as the rather more benign sounding “Our Thing”. 

Vernon Dobtcheff plays their Chairman. Born in France in 1934, the actor has enjoyed a career that dates back to the 1950s and is still working today mostly on films in the country of his birth.

Karl Howman who plays Bek became a well known TV actor in the 1980s and 90s starring in Brush Strokes and Mulberry.

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