Blake’s 7 – Sarcophagus

Sarcophagus by Tanith Lee titles

There have been some strange episodes of Blake’s 7 up to this point but Sarcophagus takes the trophy. It’s not unusual for there to be some mystery about where an episode is going but I spent almost the entire of Sarcophagus absolutely baffled. I struggled, got bored and walked away slightly disappointed with the story. Yet I kept thinking about it afterwards and, frustrated, decided to try again.

I liked the episode’s opening shot, which seems to be a blend of painting, model work and CSO. Although I could spot the join in the CSO as the figures moved forwards, this was a good attempt at creating vastness and depth. It reminded me of a similar attempt with the caves in The Keeper, but this was executed much better.

three robed figures in dark alien caves moving towards a sarcophagus

 

There followed around five minutes that set the mood for the episode: what the bloody hell is going on? That is a long time to have no idea what’s happening at the start of a programme – too long. The second time around, I knew I was going to be able to piece it together more as the various figures in different coloured robes appeared. But on that first viewing, all I could think was, ‘This isn’t very Blake’s 7 – can we crack on?’

I was relieved to head off to the Liberator, where it’s been good to have scenes that show the crew in their downtime. I’d previously wondered what they got up to when they weren’t blowing up Federation bases, and now that particular obligation has been ditched Series C does make it seem like they have more free time. Clearly Blake was a slave-driver, yet this is a slightly disappointing future as the only leisure activities on board the Liberator appear to be a variety of board games. Where is the imagination? Had none of these writers seen an Atari? Could they not have wheeled in Space Invaders?

Human aliens

Cally must be fed up with the Liberator’s toy box as she chose to indulge in some melancholy in a darkened room instead. I enjoyed the fact that having seen both Cally and Avon’s characters growing in Series C, this episode shows their friendship developing too.

There have been far more ‘othering’ moments for Cally as the production has finally managed to consistently remember that she’s not just a telepath but also an alien. However, her mourning of Auron is an opportunity to show her similarities to humans.

The thing about homes and places that feel like home is that you might not visit them often, if ever, but there is a reassurance in knowing they are there and you could one day if you wanted to. Having this brief moment to reflect on Cally’s feelings is a nice piece of continuity. I like that this scene doesn’t have to come immediately after Children of Auron as it reflects the reality of grief and regret; it won’t disappear and can resurface on occasion some time afterwards.

 

Cally and Avon standing in Cally's room

It’s a lovely supportive moment between Avon and Cally as he tells her, “Regret is part of being alive. But keep it a small part.” This could only be appropriate from Avon after Rumours of Death – it would have been strange seeing him speak with that emotional intelligence any time before. Cally’s small rebuke – “As you do?” – also provides a rare moment of Avon acknowledging his weaknesses, “demonstrably”.

Tarrant twat alert

I am beginning to feel as though I have a ‘Tarrant, you’re such a twat’ moment almost every episode now. A confrontation is sparked when Tarrant begins interrogating Cally and Avon snaps at him to shut up. Like their earlier private chat, it’s another moment when Avon acts protective towards Cally. But Tarrant has had enough.

Tarrant is given quite a speech about Avon thinking he’d “got it made” – it’s biting because it’s partly true, though nonetheless I hated him for it. I think I dislike him so much because his arrogance is unjustified. Tarrant’s a success based on his own standards, but he’s yet to contribute significantly to Team Liberator.

We’re a democratic ship now, so can we have a vote to get rid of him? Orac’s a pain in the arse but we need Orac, while I think we can cope perfectly fine without Tarrant. Having an ex-Federation officer on board might have offered useful inside information if they were still going after the Federation, but they’re not and the others can pilot the Liberator without him.

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The original crew were bound together and, despite their differences, even Blake and Avon demonstrated loyalty to one another, realising they needed the other’s skills up to a point. I used to half-joke about Avon pushing Blake into an airlock but I really think Tarrant would do it to Avon because he’s such a cocky and impulsive little shit.

In this scene, Avon had the kind of calm exterior that appears more dangerous than all-out rage. I was egging him on to punch Tarrant’s lights out and was disappointed when Dayna stepped in. I didn’t buy Tarrant’s sudden apology – he acted similarly in City at the Edge of the World, apologising to Vila in front of people after earlier threatening to dump him from the Liberator when they were alone. He’s tactful here too as he belittles Avon in front of everyone, yet backs down when he realises no one is behind him.

I couldn’t work Tarrant out before yet now I think he might ultimately have his eyes on the Liberator. If he thinks Avon has a problem in lacking the full loyalty of the crew, he’s got no chance -Tarrant underestimates the others and he seriously underestimates Avon. He thinks Avon is like him and that he is cleverer and stronger than Avon, but while there may have been similarities with the Avon we first met, Avon’s changed slightly – he’s not such a complete sod. He also has experience on his side, plus he’s always had a streak of loyalty, even though he recognises that it can be a weakness.

While Tarrant attempts to manoeuvre towards some power, Avon is emerging as a decent leader. He’s checking in on the emotional wellbeing of his crew and again, as in Children of Auron, he goes with the majority vote for where they should visit. He also steps in, forcing Tarrant to stay on the Liberator so he can keep an eye on Cally.

What the plot?

As the episode moves along with the visit to the alien spaceship, I felt as though I was getting more information, but couldn’t piece anything together. I had no idea what was going on in the opening scenes so had no idea what dangers the crew might encounter when I recognised the craft. It had the tension of the unknown, but I felt like there should have been more.

It was concerning when the crew appeared to be having problems with the teleport, yet I assumed it would be a technical problem with the Liberator or Zen – perhaps they had been interfered with? As Avon and Vila were about to be blown up, this was one of the few exciting moments in the episode.

I believed Cally had seen something mysterious on the strange ship and believed it had been there, so I was annoyed that Avon was suspicious and angry. It felt unfair that he didn’t believe her or that he saw her as compromised in some way, and I was glad that he defended her from Tarrant afterwards.

On first viewing, I became bored once the crew were all back on the Liberator – I just couldn’t unpick anything and everything else that happened baffled me even more. In contrast, at this point the second time around, my brain could finally make connections and I was increasingly thrilled that I was actually following things.

Vila the magician’s apprentice

Vila is probably the only character who can have entertaining scenes that are just him talking to himself. I could happily watch far more of Michael Keating on his own.

 

No point in being nervous, Vila – no, there isn’t… Lot of shadows I’ve never noticed before… Hi, Shadows! I suppose that’s all you are, just shadows – don’t think about that – no I won’t think about that…

 

The comedy of Vila trying to reassure himself is a welcome way of offsetting the weirdness of a floating guitar with its neck cut off before Vila starts cutting to and from the magician.

Vila’s magic skills are a suitable addition to the character as it’s easy to see him as a young pickpocket using sleight of hand techniques. Watching the opening scene’s ceremony on my second viewing, the figure in orange robes was the one that enabled me to make the connection between the figures and the characters because I always associate Vila with orange.

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Directing and lighting

The shots that mix back and forth between the crew and the figures are nicely done, with the characters in exactly the same position within the frame, and I like the editing and directing around them.

The figure in black is the last to appear in the ceremony and I regarded him suspiciously as he seemed a potential threat – also being thrown by the tradition of bad guys dressing in black. It meant that when Avon has confronted the alien and we cut to a shot that showed the black-robed figure was Avon, it was a slight surprise.

When the shot then fades to a full one of Avon standing on the flight deck, the camera moves forward and swings around to turn the shot into a medium two-shot with the alien in the background and Avon in the foreground, having turned ever so slightly to face it.

 

These are only two actions, but I think the result is fantastic – it’s unfamiliar visual language in the series and mildly disorientating, so perfectly suits Sarcophagus. Studio drama from this period sometimes has limited shot options and it’s wonderful to see something that stands out.

Throughout the second half of the episode, it’s interesting to see the flight deck from different angles, with the lighting helping us see the familiar set in a different way, even three series in. I think the (lack of) lighting is particularly impactful on the flight deck as it is normally so brightly lit. I’m fond of the red shade used, with just enough light to show what the story needs to – people.

The alien

Although I did spend much of my first viewing baffled, the final ten minutes were gripping as I was drawn in by the conversation between the alien and Avon. It’s a wonderful opportunity for Jan Chappell to portray a completely different character within the show. When this character finally made an appearance, I found it so interesting to watch the change from almighty being to desperate parasite. I loved watching both actors and there is a marvellous impact made in having most of this accompanied only by the background hum of the Liberator.

It’s a reasonable discussion between the two of them when Avon could have been angry, having watched the life draining out of his friend. After his barny with Tarrant, it’s significant that Avon is explicitly depicted as more powerful and knowledgeable, with the alien telling him, “You’re stronger than the rest.” While they were repelled by the alien’s fear-inducing strength, the alien switches tactics for Avon and appeals to different emotions, imploring that it could be just like Cally. It would be easy to make something more of Avon and Cally’s relationship from this episode, but I’m content to just see it as a close friendship, especially as Avon in particular has been shown to have few people he can trust, so values this.

Did we just lose the Liberator…again?

I’ve lost track of how many times the Liberator’s flight deck has been partially blown up to the extent that I’ve stopped worrying about it. On this occasion we saw all its controls destroyed and yet they were repaired fast enough ready to head off swiftly – top work from Avon presumably. Yet by my measures: alien being draining the life out of someone – fine, miraculous fixes to spaceship equipment – R.I.P. verisimilitude.

I remain frustrated that Sarcophagus was such hard work the first time around – I shouldn’t have to watch an episode more than once to understand and enjoy it. It speaks volumes that it includes a scene with Dayna explaining everything to Vila. Yet even on that first watch I was impressed by the visuals and entranced listening to the alien and Avon, plus this blog never even got around to gushing about the superb costumes. I did get so much out of Sarcophagus on that second viewing and it seems like one that will continue to yield more on repeated viewings.

Comments

  1. AndrewP

    This is *still* probably my favourite episode of the series… and your comments do echo my original reactions to seeing it back in 1980 and thinking “What on earth is this?” Revisiting it again and again, I admire the freshness and depth which is brought to it by a writer who was inexperienced with television… and whose inexperience therefore allowed something really different to be created. The direction is also terrific – the increasingly darkened flight deck (and the relief when – like daybreak – the lighting is restored) is wonderful.

    But it’s a good question for a medium which – at the time – was ‘instant art’: does a programme need to work on a single viewing? I mean, I love this still after 40 years, but I was lucky enough to grab the 1981 repeat on Betamax and savour it again and again… and again…

    Thanks for this blog – it’s a continual treat! 🙂

    All the best

    Andrew

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