"Phil won't leave his room" - A Doctor Who Production History

No, no and no. The last story of Season 17 is a victim of the strike and it's a FAR bigger headache for the production team than Shada was. They've had to abandon the last Fourth Doctor story. Uh-oh.
 
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Part 11
[This was going to be a guest post, but looking at the way things unfold in the timeline, I think it's better off appearing after this part]

"A couple of comic writers pitched an idea to Chris and me and while some of the stuff in it was too expensive to do, the basic idea of a galaxy conquering Roman Empire appealed to me.

"OK, the bottom line was that Roman costumes and props could be had for far less money than a newly created alien species, but it wasn't just that. The guys who pitched the idea, Pat Mills and John Wagner, worked for 2000AD and that seemed to me a good direction for Doctor Who to be looking in.

"Star Wars was hanging over everything and I knew we couldn't keep pace with it and on another level, we shouldn't have been trying anyway. Star Wars is pure escapism, very American. I thought Doctor Who should be spikier, more satirical and completely British.

"So Chris, John, Pat and I worked out just what was usable in this Roman Empire idea and I got in touch with someone to licence some other characters. This was going to be the last story of the longest serving Doctor. It had to be big!

"And then the strike happened.

"Legend has it the strike started because of a disagreement over the Play School clock and a dispute as to whether it was the responsibility of the props department or the electricians. I say legend has it, because every time I've spoken to a back room boy they say 'There's more to it than that' and then won't say any more. [1]

"Things were like that in the 70s. Unions were powerful and strikes were frequent. Whether it was over a clock on a children's programme or something more sinister the result was, we couldn't finish Iain's last story. We'd done the location work and some of the studio work, but it was unfinished and we couldn't use Television Centre.

"When the strike ended, Doctor Who was not given the same priority as other shows. But the clock was ticking. Iain was leaving so he could play Charlie Endell again for ITV [2]. Eventually, he was going to be too busy for us. We could maybe try and fit in something around the Charles Endell Esq shooting schedule, but it'd be overworking him and he'd have to have a fake beard.

"I came up with a plan. Crawled on hands and knees to the bosses and hoped my plan would be approved and wouldn't cause another strike. We'd finish the story at Pebble Mill [3], some of it in the studio and some of it in the grounds using an OB unit. [4]



"They said OK. PHEW!

"I started Doctor Who in an period of stability and it stayed that way right up until the last story. I left Doctor Who with half my hair torn out, the other half gone white and the beginnings of an ulcer."

- Michael E Briant, DVD Extra, The Iron Legion [5]
__________________

"Michael's sufferring was very far from being in vain. He bought Doctor Who and me a lot of good luck."

- George Gallaccio, DVD Extra, The Iron Legion
__________________

Saturday 6.15 Buck Rogers In The Twenty-Fifth Century (ITV)

The comic strip hero comes to life in London Weekend's new series

- The Week In View, The Observer, August 24th 1980
__________________

6.15 on Saturday. LWT had scheduled Buck Rogers directly against Doctor Who in their latest attempt to break BBC1's hold on the Saturday evening TV schedule. While it did grab some viewers away, the timing wasn't quite right for a move against a TV institution.

- DWM Archive, The Iron Legion, 1997
__________________

"Thanks to Michael's hard work, I was starting my first series as producer with 6 episodes already made. Producers have to be creative with budgets and sometimes management co-operates. What happened was the first story to go out was taken from Season 17's budget and I was free to work with the Season 18 budget I'd negotiated. So I was spending 26 episodes of money on 20 episodes. OK, it wasn't Star Wars level, but I managed to make it look a little more spectacular.

"The BBC managed to give an extra publicity push, because while the cast were hanging around Pebble Mill, they were on hand to pre-record interviews for Pebble Mill At One [6] that could be played the week the story began.

"What was worst of all from LWT's point of view was that Season 18 was starting with Iain's last story. A Doctor's last story helps draw in the curious. The big twist halfway through was that the Daleks were behind the whole thing. That was revealed at the end of episode 3, that meant we gained some viewers for the last 3 episodes of the story. After that was over, well, obviously we had the 5th Doctor's first story. As the series went on, Buck Rogers managed to eat into our ratings a little bit, but by that point, it wasn't going out the same time everywhere anyway."

- George Gallaccio, DVD Extra, The Iron Legion
__________________

"Granada and Yorkshire were now ready to fire back in the North vs South dispute. Buck Rogers had failed to fell Doctor Who. The companies decided to switch it with Metal Mickey in the schedule, putting it out half-an-hour earlier. LWT protested that Buck Rogers had better effects than Doctor Who and was the nearest TV equivalent to Star Wars. The anti-LWT faction shot back, Doctor Who actually had a cast member of Star Wars in the title role. Not a central performer granted, but he was in Star Wars and the BBC weren't going to let anyone forget it."

- Raymond Snoddy, Whatever Happend To Saturday Night, Channel 4, 1995

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__________________

[1] I was looking up things about this strike and I noticed mention of Michael Checkland (BBC controller of planning and resource management at the time, eventually Director General IOTL) saying "There is more to this than you know" here http://tech-ops.co.uk/next/striking-seventies/ so I've left a little question mark over the official cause of the strike

[2] Charlie Endell, the vice lord of Soho in the TV series Budgie (the best TV show ever produced by Verity Lambert, fight me). He was given his own spinoff show IOTL in 1979 and it was a victim of the long ITV strike. Thanks to Doctor Who, that's happening a year later ITTL, giving the show a better chance.

[3] BBC studios in the Midlands. Used for Horror Of Fang Rock IOTL, maybe ITTL as well.

[4] Outside broadcast

[5] Originally pitched as a TV story, it ended up as a comic strip IOTL.

[6] A daytime magazine programme

Next time: If Buck Rogers isn't a big hit in the UK, what is going to happen to that Buck Rogers based burger bar in Glasgow that existed IOTL? Hamish Bland has the answer.
 
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Yep, that's definitely an error on my part. Somewhere I should have mentioned the character's name was Audrey Pierce.
 
My Headcanon: Iain Cuthbertson's Fourth Doctor as seen in Season 14's The Masque of Mandragora. The secondary console room only appeared in two stories, as the production team deemed the design to not be dynamic enough. The original design was restored shortly after, but with more atmospheric, low lit lighting.
Cuthbertson.png
 
My head is currently full of the 1985 and it's disorientating to come back to the thread where it's 1980. I keep thinking someone's going to ask me a question and I'm going to give the wrong answer for where the TL is now.
My focus would be release the stuff you have, but always prepare ahead and make sure this TL is correct in your mind, not anyone else's (unless their suggestions help you of course)
 
I have the TL mapped out fully until 1993, which is where I'll probably stop. I've already got a written outline, individual chapter plan and "who's who and when" files to keep that straight. In broader terms, I know where the TL would go until about ~2003, but I'm less certain that would proceed along satisfyingly plausible lines. The problem is when it comes to individual bits of floating info that I think I've revealed, but haven't yet.
 
I have the TL mapped out fully until 1993, which is where I'll probably stop. I've already got a written outline, individual chapter plan and "who's who and when" files to keep that straight. In broader terms, I know where the TL would go until about ~2003, but I'm less certain that would proceed along satisfyingly plausible lines. The problem is when it comes to individual bits of floating info that I think I've revealed, but haven't yet.
IMO, If you are worried about long-term finishing, an possibilty is that you can do up to 1993 and an epilouge of what happens afterwards, if that helps. This way you can avoid any plausiblity issues but still complete this properly.

I must say, however, that it's your graphics that have impressed me most, both here and your Beach Boys TL. Would love to see more of those...
 
Part 12 - Guest Post
(originally published in The List magazine, August 2015)

BLAKE’S PROGRESS

The unlikely story of the high US sci-fi series and the even more unlikely burger bar it inspired 5000 miles away. By Hamish Bland

It’s hard to believe it is now 30 years since the closure of the weirdest, and most unlikely, attempt at a burger franchise — one that obtained near mythical status for those in Glasgow of a certain age.

Blake’s Burger Station, or just Blake’s as it got known locally, was an attempt by Edinburgh businessman Brian Waldman to create a franchise to compete with McDonalds and Wimpy. The iconic shiny logo was a bright spark on the dark, dirty Queen Street of the 1980s.

Opened by Glasgow Provost Michael Kelly, and situated above the iconic Tam Shepherd’s Joke Shop, Blake’s was a rite of passage for every west of Scotland nerd-in-training. The robot dancers, the servers in skimpy silver spandex, the video screens showing space battles surrounded lots of buttons for budding sci-fi adventurers to press.

These days it’s gone, of course, lost in the 1985 fire that gutted the top two floors of the building. What for a generation was THE place to go for burgers became, for the next generation, the nightclub to hit for quality 90s tunes and the chance to see the likes of Paul Gascoigne and Charlie Sheen.

Blake’s has become an urban legend, remembered in Facebook groups and Twitter threads. But what of the show that inspired it?

These days it’s generally remembered as just another cult TV show, regularly seen in appearances in clip shows and ‘do you remember’ type articles on the internet, largely thanks to the notorious casting of one of its stars.

It’s hard to imagine, more than three decades later, how big a deal Blake was when it aired here. A gritty, expensive-looking science fiction series born in the shadow of Star Wars and made by the man behind the Daleks and Gabriel Baine.

This weekend fans of the cult TV series will descend on Glasgow’s Hilton Hotel for the annual Oracon, a two-day convention celebrating the show. Stars from the 80s TV hit will join them, as the show marks its 35th anniversary to talk about how it was made, along with screenings of old episodes.

For fans, it’s an important gathering. For the rest of us, wondering why all these people are wandering up Buchanan Street covered in tinfoil and pointing plastic toy guns at each other, it’s a curious sight.

So here, as they arrive en masse, is the story of how the cult TV show was born — and how it gave rise to a burger bar.

* * *

Star Wars had rewritten the rules. The 1977 release of A New Hope changed the landscape of space opera pretty much forever. After a decade of more cerebral science fiction from 2001 to THX-1138, the big money was in pop bang lovely sci-fi space battles and flashy action.

TV was quick to cash in, with ABC quickest out the blocks. Veteran producer Glen A Larson, the man behind the Six Million Dollar Man and Quincy provided a glossy, expensive sci-fi series called Battlestar Galactica. Nowadays, of course, people are more likely to remember the remake from the 2000s — however the original Galactica was just as hugely popular on both sides of the Atlantic.

But at $1million an episode in 1977 (nearly £3m an episode in today’s money), it was an incredibly expensive show to produce and as ratings dwindled to a quarter of their initial levels, the axe fell after just one series.

Fans were outraged and, it turned out, the timing couldn’t be worse. Letter writing campaigns demanded the show’s return, Larson hit out at a conspiracy trying to sabotage Galactica to boost Mork and Mindy’s viewing figures… and then more tragically, a 15-year-old fan obsessed with the show took their own life at news of the cancellation.

ABC found themselves in an awkward position, Their big Star Wars beater had gone, but its presence in the schedules, and the movie franchise’s ongoing popularity, had inspired the other networks to plough on with their own homespun efforts.

Larson, freed of the Galactica commitments, was overseeing an adaptation of the old Buck Rogers Saturday morning serials for NBC. Rival channel CBS meanwhile were spinning Jason of Star Command out from fifteen minute inserts into a stand alone series. Having shown big space opera could work on TV, ABC was now in danger of being caught out.

With Larson having moved on amid acrimony, and the negative publicity from Edward Seidel’s death, bringing Galactica back wasn’t an option. They needed a new sci-fi series. And fast.

Enter Terry Nation.

* * *

Following the end of The Adventures of Gabriel Baine, Nation found himself at a loose end. He did some uncredited work script doctoring on Hollywood movies, and pitched a remake of his 1960s TV series The Baron and a show about a deadly virus wiping out most of the inhabitants of America, both of which got as far as the pilot stage before crashing.

For years, before the success of Gabriel Baine, he had tried shopping around a TV series based on the Daleks, as he — and not the BBC - owned the rights to the famous Doctor Who monsters. It had never gone far — but now ABC needed a hit sci-fi show. Would he be interested in dusting down the ideas and making a new series?

As it turned out, he wasn’t. With Doctor Who doing well on UK TV and the success of Baine, he’d moved on from resurrecting the Daleks in their own show. The logistics of doing the show without the BBC’s involvement were potentially very complicated. And besides, Nation had a better idea.

His pitch, basically, boiled down to Robin Hood in Space. A group of outlaws, led by a wronged man trying to clear his reputation, looking to bring down an evil ruler and their brutal henchman. Like Star Wars, it was a group of young, attractive rebels fighting for justice against the system, but with a harder, grittier edge, informed by the Cold War and politics as much as sci-fi shenanigans.

Originally, Nation had Blake’s Seven in mind for the name of the show — giving it the same kind of vibe as The Magnificent Seven. However, the network were concerned it would be off-putting, confusing viewers about how many shows there’d been.

Instead he stripped it down to five main characters. Blake, the rebel leader. Avon, his deputy. Gann, the muscle. Villa, the cowardly comic relief. Cally, the female psychic and love interest. Supplementing them would be the voice Oracle, the ship’s computer.

Interested, the network commissioned 13 episodes as a mid-season replacement. Leonard Katzman, who’d produced Fantastic Journey for the channel, came on board, juggling his commitment to Dallas with providing a guiding hand to the politics of network TV for Nation.

Jared Martin was the network’s only choice for Blake. He’d received good reviews for his lead role in Fantastic Journey, under Katzman. An intense theatre actor with good looks and a solid CV of TV roles already, the 37-year-old was ticked every box.

Opposite Martin’s Blake would be Avon, the sardonic computer hacker and troublemaker of the group, Nation had originally envisaged the role for Scottish actor Ian McCulloch, whom he’d remembered from an early episode of Gabriel Baine. But a scheduling conflict with a film McCulloch was making in Italy ruled him out.

The network pushed for the character to be more wisecracking than the sardonic wit Nation wrote for Avon in the pilot. With Starsky and Hutch having wrapped, they thought the role would be the perfect fit for Antonio Fargas, seeing him as a Huggy Bear in Space. But Nation resisted, feeling an edge was needed against Blake’s even-handedness. Eventually a compromise was reached — up and coming African American actor Joe Morton was handed the part, in his first major TV drama role.

But it was the casting of another black actor that was seen as the show’s big coup, certainly in terms of publicity at the time.

OJ Simpson was in his final year with the San Francisco 49ers, bringing down the curtain on a legendary sports career. By the late 70s he had already started transitioning into acting, having shown up in productions as diverse as Roots and The Towering Inferno.

A year earlier he had played one of the astronauts in the successful conspiracy drama Capricorn One, which helped cement him in the minds of Nation and Katzman as a potential for Gann, the gentle strongman of the group.

Simpson, for his part, liked the idea of being in a high profile TV series as a chance to show he could make the full-time switch into acting.

“For someone like me, who grew up a football fan, he was the man. It was the Juice, man. He was a star. But he was so good on set. Knew his lines, had charisma for days. He knew his limitations and when the writers worked them out, they worked round him. We all kinda watched out for him. He was fun.”

- Joe Morton, DVD commentary for Blake, episode one (2005 release)

The female lead on the show also became a challenge to cast. With Charlie’s Angels casting nearby for Kate Jackson’s replacement, the studio lot was filled with actresses trying out for both parts.

Nation’s pilot script, depicting the tough, telepathic Cally as more than a match for her male crewmates, had more meat than the usual damsel in distress sci-fi on offer at the time.

“We saw loads of young women for that role. Everyone in Hollywood was interested. You’d see them coming out of the Angels office, crossing the backlot and coming into ours. It was like a beauty pageant. I remember saying to Len, we should have got one of those ticket machines from the supermarket to keep track of them!

“The one that sticks out though was Michelle Pfeiffer. She was excellent. But she was also really young, maybe about 20, 21, and we were worried she was just too young for it. That was probably our only big mistake in casting the show.”

- Terry Nation, interviewed on stage at the Oracle One convention, San Francisco, October 6 1984.

In the end Barbara Bach, who had narrowly missed out to Shelley Hack for the Charlie’s Angels role, was cast — with her recent Bond girl notoriety very much in mind.

Seeking to offset some of the costs of production — although not the $1m an episode Galactica had been, the effects and Simpson’s salary were making the show an expensive project, Nation and his Gabriel Baine producers Metromedia approached the BBC to join the production.

With the BBC on board, casting took on a slightly more international flavour, with Metromedia and ABC looking to add a couple of British actors to the cast, believing it would make marketing the show — and promoting it locally — a lot easier.

Simon McCorkindale, fresh off the plane to Los Angeles after his appearance in the final Quatermass series and looking to make a name for himself in Hollywood, joined the show in the recurring role of Travis, the henchman.

The British involvement also solved up a problem elsewhere in the cast. Initially ABC had wanted Billy Crystal for Vila, but with Crystal still attached to Soap, and being involved in a new live comedy show NBC were launching on Saturdays, he was unavailable. Second choice was a young actor called Steven Guttenberg, who’d shone in the lead role of Billy - an adaptation of a UK comedy show based on the play Billy Liar.

When he turned it down, Nation sounded out Pertwee who suggested they went to the source, and the British actor Jeffrey A Rawle - who’d played Billy on British TV - joined the crew.

Another British voice came on board, although not by design, in the hunt for an actor to play Oracle, the computer on board Blake’s ship. Originally Nation, wanting the computer to sound pompous, suggested Patrick Macnee - having written for him in The Avengers, and knowing he’d be available to do the voiceover work. But ABC blocked the choice, fearing his voice was too associated with the failed Galactica.

“It was Ray Milland who suggested me, apparently. It’s been rather good fun - I just spend a couple of days a month in a voice studio recording my lines. I’ve only met the other actors from the show at parties, but it seems very popular and it gives me time to do other films as well. I’ve made two other movies at the same time I’ve been doing this.”

- Donald Pleasance, Desert Island Discs - Radio 4, April 1980.


Pleasance’s arrival turned Oracle from a pompous character to an increasingly sinister one — for a generation of kids who grew up with the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, hearing the same terrifying voice come out of the speakers on the bridge must have been terrifying, especially in the episode “Breakdown”, when the ship’s systems fail in deep space and Oracle begins counting down how long the crew have left to live.

The final member of the cast to join was the villain. Servalan, the administrator of Earth, was originally written to be a man, but it was Len Katzman’s suggestion to gender flip the show’s Sheriff of Nottingham equivalent.

Stockard Channing, fresh from the set of The Cheap Detective, and People’s Choice award for Grease recently in hand, seemed an odd choice at first. However, the opportunity to play a full-on villain was what appealed, after making her name in mainly comedic roles so far.

The performance would earn her critical acclaim for the depth she brought to what, on paper, could have been a camp and over the top villain.

"Well, you like to think that they're all fully realised because what you're doing is different from what anyone else is seeing. You do a character but how much of it is on film, or how much of it is seen by an audience, is really up to the director, the piece, or the audience. And so, I just do these people. And flesh them out. I think anything else is not my job."

- Stockard Channing, interviewed on playing Servalan in Starburst Magazine, 1989


The show blasted out the traps with its pilot episode, “The Way Back”, on January 13 1980. With Blake being sent to space prison after being framed for murdering his family, he and his fellow outlaws discover a ship drifting in space, and use it to make their escape.

The impressive visual effects, provided by Derek Meddings in England, and stylish direction by veteran Ted Post made the show stand out against the more gaudy opposition, and earning strong reviews from the media.

It was the third highest rated show of the week, and ratings held up, eating away at the audience of Buck Rogers in the process.

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UK audiences got to see it two months later, at 8pm on March 13 1980. With heavy newspaper coverage, and a Radio Times front cover, it drew an almost ten million viewers for its debut.

The arrival of this glossy sci-fi show gave ITV a headache. They’d brought in Buck Rogers to be shown on Saturday nights, hoping to attract the Star Wars loving crowd to LWT’s teatime schedule rather than watching Doctor Who on BBC 1.

But Doctor Who held up against the new competition, and the adventures of Blake and his gang were seen as the cool show to watch compared to the cheesy antics of Buck, Wilma and Twiki, no matter how many covers of Look-In they landed.

Following the first season’s success, ABC ordered a second series — a full 22-episode run, as Blake and crew began to explore the universe. Channing’s performance as Servalan, increasingly likened to British politics' recent near-miss Margaret Thatcher, made her villainous exploits as popular as Martin’s stoic heroism as Blake. The eventual payoff, as the two faced off in the second series finale “Trial”, would prove to be a hit with fans.

But not, it would turn out, with casual viewers.

* * *

A dip in ratings during the second series had rung alarm bells at ABC. Going into the 1981-82 season, they felt the show needed freshened up. A lighter tone, more family friendly, and more humour was what was called for.

Nation and Katzman tried to argue the reverse, pointing out the success of Empire Strikes Back, but the network was unmoved. Nation and Katzman left the show, although they retained co-executive producer credits for the third series, with Leslie Stevens - who had produced Buck Rogers for NBC - brought in instead.

The move had significant ramifications. Attracted to the show because of the serious writing, Martin and Channing also quit. The third season had lost its chief villain and, more worryingly, the character whose name was on the opening credits.

In some ways the approach of the third series can be seen as a neat solution to the behind the scenes problems. The opening episode - "Marooned" - sees the crew waking unconscious on an unknown planet, with Blake missing and the ship damaged. As they try to piece together what happened, it sparks a search for their missing leader.

In reality, though, the show couldn’t go on. Audiences turned off in their droves. Fans expressed anger at the changes. While the quest for Blake at least kept the character in the public eye, Servalan was reported to have died, off screen, in a coup on Earth.

The addition of Kent McCord as a walking, talking robot version of Oracle, and the season’s fourth episode — where the crew find a planet of children and start behaving like kids themselves the longer they stay there — began to alienate viewers used to the more serious previous years.

“How can you have a show where the guy it’s named after isn’t in it any more? It’s just dumb. It’d be like having a cop show continue if the lead guy got transferred to a new precinct.”

- Fan’s letter to Starburst magazine, 1981

The axe, when it came, fell quickly. Eight episodes into the commissioned 22, word arrived that ABC had cancelled them. Three unaired episodes were already in the can, with filming underway on a fourth.

“It was just the most appalling day. I don’t think anyone was really shocked, none of us were particularly happy with the show at that point, but we all got on well. Joey was probably hit hardest. He was trying to rally everyone behind the scenes, with Jared gone. There were tears, people crying everywhere. It was horrible.”

- Jeffrey A Rawle, speaking on The Cult of Blake (BBC Four, 2007)

The decision left the producers in an awkward position. Although ABC’s money was gone, and the show no longer had a US timeslot, it still had a big audience in the UK and elsewhere overseas — most notably in Italy, where Bach’s popularity and regular film work had made the show a surprise hit.

Metromedia scrabbled around and found the money to complete the episode being shot, and one more. This would allow them to wrap up the series, and take the season to 13 episodes in total.

With ABC officially out, Terry Nation was contacted to return and write the closing episode. The resulting story was entitled "Blood", but would quickly be nicknamed "Bloodbath" by fans. The writer made clear what he thought of the changes to the show, with McCord’s robot killed off when the Oracle ship crashes in the cold open.

Jared Martin, by now appearing in Dallas, was persuaded to return for the finale, which sees the crew track down their former leader. Scarred and dying, he confronts Avon, before Travis and his guards ambush them all. The final shot, of a smiling Joe Morton standing over the dead bodies of his comrades and about to be shot himself, remains one of the most iconic images of cult telly.

The result left the remaining production partners satisfied, and Metromedia had a package of 48 episodes it could sell around the world. ABC would eventually show the five episodes it missed out initially. But it stuck them on in summer, opposite the 1982 World Cup, where nobody but die hard fans would see them.

The final series suffered a ratings drop in the UK, but not as severely as in the US - and the extra publicity over the finale ensured the show finished, if not a smash hit, then with its head held high.

The double whammy of Doctor Who’s continuing success as Iain Cuthbertson gave way to Don Henderson, and ITV’s ongoing internal feuding meant, as with the US, Blake had won the battle with Buck Rogers on two continents.

LWT’s commitment to Larson’s show wavered — the second series was shifted from its teatime slot on Saturdays to early afternoon, tucking in before World of Sport.

The cast and crew disbanded. Terry Nation developed cop show The Badge for CBS, which lasted a year before being cancelled, and would go on to write for the original run of Magyver. Jared Martin eventually reunited with Morton for a sequel to War of the Worlds in the late 1980s.

Rawle returned to the UK for a successful career in TV comedy, most notably in Channel 4’s Drop the Dead Donkey where he played a more cowardly version of Vila, while Bach - who’d married Ringo Starr during the making of the third series — made a few more films before largely retiring from acting.

And OJ? Well, we all know that story…

* * *

Which takes us back to the burgers.

Brian Waldman, seeing the popularity of Blake, got in touch with the BBC to try and licence it for his burger franchise. They in turn linked him up with Metromedia, who were surprised at his interest.

But with production finished, they saw it as free money on a show that had ended, and agreed a three year licence for the brand to be used, sending over props and film reels of episodes to be displayed inside the restaurant.

Short sci-fi films featuring the staff of the restaurant and local actors, including the unlikely pairing of Russell Hunter and future That’s Life presenter Kevin Devine, were shot on borrowed equipment on cheaply made sets filmed in storerooms above the restaurant, with the cockpit of a plane at Glasgow Airport used for fire rescue practice standing in for the flight deck of a spaceship.

The combination of city centre location and the hype around the end of the show got the restaurant off to a good start, with people queueing down the staircase to get a table in the early days.

“He was a smart guy, Brian. Very clued up. He’d run restaurants and hotels across the country. Glasgow was the testing ground for the idea. I worked there nine months and as I was getting ready to leave he said they’d agreed a deal for another one in Edinburgh, then one to open the next year in Liverpool. If it hadn’t been for the fire, who knows what would have happened?”

- Jonny Mitchell, general manager of Blake’s Burger Station - interviewed in the Scotsman in 2012

The closure of the restaurant brought an end to the saga of Blake, the space Robin Hood who lit up TV screens around the world for a couple of years. Wrangles over insurance kept the site closed and the licence to use the TV show expired.

Waldman sold off the venue in 1985, which was renovated and became beloved 90s nightclub Archaos, famed for its under-18 nights and celebrity spotting.

But that association with the show meant Glasgow, in the UK at least became an unofficial hub for fans, making pilgrimages to Blake’s until the fire that gutted the building. Occasionally you’ll still see them, the children of folk who watched it at the time, or who have rediscovered it via Netflix and Youtube, standing outside Queen St, pointing at where the entrance used to be.

So if you see crowds of people dressed oddly, and hanging around Tam Shepherd’s this weekend, now you know why.

Hamish Bland doesn't have a bio for me to put here. Glasgow really had a burger bar based on a US TV show, but it was Buck Rogers Burger Station.

Next time: Personnel changes at the top
 
(originally published in The List magazine, August 2015)

BLAKE’S PROGRESS

The unlikely story of the high US sci-fi series and the even more unlikely burger bar it inspired 5000 miles away. By Hamish Bland

It’s hard to believe it is now 30 years since the closure of the weirdest, and most unlikely, attempt at a burger franchise — one that obtained near mythical status for those in Glasgow of a certain age.

Blake’s Burger Station, or just Blake’s as it got known locally, was an attempt by Edinburgh businessman Brian Waldman to create a franchise to compete with McDonalds and Wimpy. The iconic shiny logo was a bright spark on the dark, dirty Queen Street of the 1980s.

Opened by Glasgow Provost Michael Kelly, and situated above the iconic Tam Shepherd’s Joke Shop, Blake’s was a rite of passage for every west of Scotland nerd-in-training. The robot dancers, the servers in skimpy silver spandex, the video screens showing space battles surrounded lots of buttons for budding sci-fi adventurers to press.

These days it’s gone, of course, lost in the 1985 fire that gutted the top two floors of the building. What for a generation was THE place to go for burgers became, for the next generation, the nightclub to hit for quality 90s tunes and the chance to see the likes of Paul Gascoigne and Charlie Sheen.

Blake’s has become an urban legend, remembered in Facebook groups and Twitter threads. But what of the show that inspired it?

These days it’s generally remembered as just another cult TV show, regularly seen in appearances in clip shows and ‘do you remember’ type articles on the internet, largely thanks to the notorious casting of one of its stars.

It’s hard to imagine, more than three decades later, how big a deal Blake was when it aired here. A gritty, expensive-looking science fiction series born in the shadow of Star Wars and made by the man behind the Daleks and Gabriel Baine.

This weekend fans of the cult TV series will descend on Glasgow’s Hilton Hotel for the annual Oracon, a two-day convention celebrating the show. Stars from the 80s TV hit will join them, as the show marks its 35th anniversary to talk about how it was made, along with screenings of old episodes.

For fans, it’s an important gathering. For the rest of us, wondering why all these people are wandering up Buchanan Street covered in tinfoil and pointing plastic toy guns at each other, it’s a curious sight.

So here, as they arrive en masse, is the story of how the cult TV show was born — and how it gave rise to a burger bar.

* * *

Star Wars had rewritten the rules. The 1977 release of A New Hope changed the landscape of space opera pretty much forever. After a decade of more cerebral science fiction from 2001 to THX-1138, the big money was in pop bang lovely sci-fi space battles and flashy action.

TV was quick to cash in, with ABC quickest out the blocks. Veteran producer Glen A Larson, the man behind the Six Million Dollar Man and Quincy provided a glossy, expensive sci-fi series called Battlestar Galactica. Nowadays, of course, people are more likely to remember the remake from the 2000s — however the original Galactica was just as hugely popular on both sides of the Atlantic.

But at $1million an episode in 1977 (nearly £3m an episode in today’s money), it was an incredibly expensive show to produce and as ratings dwindled to a quarter of their initial levels, the axe fell after just one series.

Fans were outraged and, it turned out, the timing couldn’t be worse. Letter writing campaigns demanded the show’s return, Larson hit out at a conspiracy trying to sabotage Galactica to boost Mork and Mindy’s viewing figures… and then more tragically, a 15-year-old fan obsessed with the show took their own life at news of the cancellation.

ABC found themselves in an awkward position, Their big Star Wars beater had gone, but its presence in the schedules, and the movie franchise’s ongoing popularity, had inspired the other networks to plough on with their own homespun efforts.

Larson, freed of the Galactica commitments, was overseeing an adaptation of the old Buck Rogers Saturday morning serials for NBC. Rival channel CBS meanwhile were spinning Jason of Star Command out from fifteen minute inserts into a stand alone series. Having shown big space opera could work on TV, ABC was now in danger of being caught out.

With Larson having moved on amid acrimony, and the negative publicity from Edward Seidel’s death, bringing Galactica back wasn’t an option. They needed a new sci-fi series. And fast.

Enter Terry Nation.

* * *

Following the end of The Adventures of Gabriel Baine, Nation found himself at a loose end. He did some uncredited work script doctoring on Hollywood movies, and pitched a remake of his 1960s TV series The Baron and a show about a deadly virus wiping out most of the inhabitants of America, both of which got as far as the pilot stage before crashing.

For years, before the success of Gabriel Baine, he had tried shopping around a TV series based on the Daleks, as he — and not the BBC - owned the rights to the famous Doctor Who monsters. It had never gone far — but now ABC needed a hit sci-fi show. Would he be interested in dusting down the ideas and making a new series?

As it turned out, he wasn’t. With Doctor Who doing well on UK TV and the success of Baine, he’d moved on from resurrecting the Daleks in their own show. The logistics of doing the show without the BBC’s involvement were potentially very complicated. And besides, Nation had a better idea.

His pitch, basically, boiled down to Robin Hood in Space. A group of outlaws, led by a wronged man trying to clear his reputation, looking to bring down an evil ruler and their brutal henchman. Like Star Wars, it was a group of young, attractive rebels fighting for justice against the system, but with a harder, grittier edge, informed by the Cold War and politics as much as sci-fi shenanigans.

Originally, Nation had Blake’s Seven in mind for the name of the show — giving it the same kind of vibe as The Magnificent Seven. However, the network were concerned it would be off-putting, confusing viewers about how many shows there’d been.

Instead he stripped it down to five main characters. Blake, the rebel leader. Avon, his deputy. Gann, the muscle. Villa, the cowardly comic relief. Cally, the female psychic and love interest. Supplementing them would be the voice Oracle, the ship’s computer.

Interested, the network commissioned 13 episodes as a mid-season replacement. Leonard Katzman, who’d produced Fantastic Journey for the channel, came on board, juggling his commitment to Dallas with providing a guiding hand to the politics of network TV for Nation.

Jared Martin was the network’s only choice for Blake. He’d received good reviews for his lead role in Fantastic Journey, under Katzman. An intense theatre actor with good looks and a solid CV of TV roles already, the 37-year-old was ticked every box.

Opposite Martin’s Blake would be Avon, the sardonic computer hacker and troublemaker of the group, Nation had originally envisaged the role for Scottish actor Ian McCulloch, whom he’d remembered from an early episode of Gabriel Baine. But a scheduling conflict with a film McCulloch was making in Italy ruled him out.

The network pushed for the character to be more wisecracking than the sardonic wit Nation wrote for Avon in the pilot. With Starsky and Hutch having wrapped, they thought the role would be the perfect fit for Antonio Fargas, seeing him as a Huggy Bear in Space. But Nation resisted, feeling an edge was needed against Blake’s even-handedness. Eventually a compromise was reached — up and coming African American actor Joe Morton was handed the part, in his first major TV drama role.

But it was the casting of another black actor that was seen as the show’s big coup, certainly in terms of publicity at the time.

OJ Simpson was in his final year with the San Francisco 49ers, bringing down the curtain on a legendary sports career. By the late 70s he had already started transitioning into acting, having shown up in productions as diverse as Roots and The Towering Inferno.

A year earlier he had played one of the astronauts in the successful conspiracy drama Capricorn One, which helped cement him in the minds of Nation and Katzman as a potential for Gann, the gentle strongman of the group.

Simpson, for his part, liked the idea of being in a high profile TV series as a chance to show he could make the full-time switch into acting.

“For someone like me, who grew up a football fan, he was the man. It was the Juice, man. He was a star. But he was so good on set. Knew his lines, had charisma for days. He knew his limitations and when the writers worked them out, they worked round him. We all kinda watched out for him. He was fun.”

- Joe Morton, DVD commentary for Blake, episode one (2005 release)

The female lead on the show also became a challenge to cast. With Charlie’s Angels casting nearby for Kate Jackson’s replacement, the studio lot was filled with actresses trying out for both parts.

Nation’s pilot script, depicting the tough, telepathic Cally as more than a match for her male crewmates, had more meat than the usual damsel in distress sci-fi on offer at the time.

“We saw loads of young women for that role. Everyone in Hollywood was interested. You’d see them coming out of the Angels office, crossing the backlot and coming into ours. It was like a beauty pageant. I remember saying to Len, we should have got one of those ticket machines from the supermarket to keep track of them!

“The one that sticks out though was Michelle Pfeiffer. She was excellent. But she was also really young, maybe about 20, 21, and we were worried she was just too young for it. That was probably our only big mistake in casting the show.”

- Terry Nation, interviewed on stage at the Oracle One convention, San Francisco, October 6 1984.

In the end Barbara Bach, who had narrowly missed out to Shelley Hack for the Charlie’s Angels role, was cast — with her recent Bond girl notoriety very much in mind.

Seeking to offset some of the costs of production — although not the $1m an episode Galactica had been, the effects and Simpson’s salary were making the show an expensive project, Nation and his Gabriel Baine producers Metromedia approached the BBC to join the production.

With the BBC on board, casting took on a slightly more international flavour, with Metromedia and ABC looking to add a couple of British actors to the cast, believing it would make marketing the show — and promoting it locally — a lot easier.

Simon McCorkindale, fresh off the plane to Los Angeles after his appearance in the final Quatermass series and looking to make a name for himself in Hollywood, joined the show in the recurring role of Travis, the henchman.

The British involvement also solved up a problem elsewhere in the cast. Initially ABC had wanted Billy Crystal for Vila, but with Crystal still attached to Soap, and being involved in a new live comedy show NBC were launching on Saturdays, he was unavailable. Second choice was a young actor called Steven Guttenberg, who’d shone in the lead role of Billy - an adaptation of a UK comedy show based on the play Billy Liar.

When he turned it down, Nation sounded out Pertwee who suggested they went to the source, and the British actor Jeffrey A Rawle - who’d played Billy on British TV - joined the crew.

Another British voice came on board, although not by design, in the hunt for an actor to play Oracle, the computer on board Blake’s ship. Originally Nation, wanting the computer to sound pompous, suggested Patrick Macnee - having written for him in The Avengers, and knowing he’d be available to do the voiceover work. But ABC blocked the choice, fearing his voice was too associated with the failed Galactica.

“It was Ray Milland who suggested me, apparently. It’s been rather good fun - I just spend a couple of days a month in a voice studio recording my lines. I’ve only met the other actors from the show at parties, but it seems very popular and it gives me time to do other films as well. I’ve made two other movies at the same time I’ve been doing this.”

- Donald Pleasance, Desert Island Discs - Radio 4, April 1980.

Pleasance’s arrival turned Oracle from a pompous character to an increasingly sinister one — for a generation of kids who grew up with the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, hearing the same terrifying voice come out of the speakers on the bridge must have been terrifying, especially in the episode “Breakdown”, when the ship’s systems fail in deep space and Oracle begins counting down how long the crew have left to live.

The final member of the cast to join was the villain. Servalan, the administrator of Earth, was originally written to be a man, but it was Len Katzman’s suggestion to gender flip the show’s Sheriff of Nottingham equivalent.

Stockard Channing, fresh from the set of The Cheap Detective, and People’s Choice award for Grease recently in hand, seemed an odd choice at first. However, the opportunity to play a full-on villain was what appealed, after making her name in mainly comedic roles so far.

The performance would earn her critical acclaim for the depth she brought to what, on paper, could have been a camp and over the top villain.

"Well, you like to think that they're all fully realised because what you're doing is different from what anyone else is seeing. You do a character but how much of it is on film, or how much of it is seen by an audience, is really up to the director, the piece, or the audience. And so, I just do these people. And flesh them out. I think anything else is not my job."

- Stockard Channing, interviewed on playing Servalan in Starburst Magazine, 1989

The show blasted out the traps with its pilot episode, “The Way Back”, on January 13 1980. With Blake being sent to space prison after being framed for murdering his family, he and his fellow outlaws discover a ship drifting in space, and use it to make their escape.

The impressive visual effects, provided by Derek Meddings in England, and stylish direction by veteran Ted Post made the show stand out against the more gaudy opposition, and earning strong reviews from the media.

It was the third highest rated show of the week, and ratings held up, eating away at the audience of Buck Rogers in the process.

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UK audiences got to see it two months later, at 8pm on March 13 1980. With heavy newspaper coverage, and a Radio Times front cover, it drew an almost ten million viewers for its debut.

The arrival of this glossy sci-fi show gave ITV a headache. They’d brought in Buck Rogers to be shown on Saturday nights, hoping to attract the Star Wars loving crowd to LWT’s teatime schedule rather than watching Doctor Who on BBC 1.

But Doctor Who held up against the new competition, and the adventures of Blake and his gang were seen as the cool show to watch compared to the cheesy antics of Buck, Wilma and Twiki, no matter how many covers of Look-In they landed.

Following the first season’s success, ABC ordered a second series — a full 22-episode run, as Blake and crew began to explore the universe. Channing’s performance as Servalan, increasingly likened to British politics' recent near-miss Margaret Thatcher, made her villainous exploits as popular as Martin’s stoic heroism as Blake. The eventual payoff, as the two faced off in the second series finale “Trial”, would prove to be a hit with fans.

But not, it would turn out, with casual viewers.

* * *

A dip in ratings during the second series had rung alarm bells at ABC. Going into the 1981-82 season, they felt the show needed freshened up. A lighter tone, more family friendly, and more humour was what was called for.

Nation and Katzman tried to argue the reverse, pointing out the success of Empire Strikes Back, but the network was unmoved. Nation and Katzman left the show, although they retained co-executive producer credits for the third series, with Leslie Stevens - who had produced Buck Rogers for NBC - brought in instead.

The move had significant ramifications. Attracted to the show because of the serious writing, Martin and Channing also quit. The third season had lost its chief villain and, more worryingly, the character whose name was on the opening credits.

In some ways the approach of the third series can be seen as a neat solution to the behind the scenes problems. The opening episode - "Marooned" - sees the crew waking unconscious on an unknown planet, with Blake missing and the ship damaged. As they try to piece together what happened, it sparks a search for their missing leader.

In reality, though, the show couldn’t go on. Audiences turned off in their droves. Fans expressed anger at the changes. While the quest for Blake at least kept the character in the public eye, Servalan was reported to have died, off screen, in a coup on Earth.

The addition of Kent McCord as a walking, talking robot version of Oracle, and the season’s fourth episode — where the crew find a planet of children and start behaving like kids themselves the longer they stay there — began to alienate viewers used to the more serious previous years.

“How can you have a show where the guy it’s named after isn’t in it any more? It’s just dumb. It’d be like having a cop show continue if the lead guy got transferred to a new precinct.”

- Fan’s letter to Starburst magazine, 1981

The axe, when it came, fell quickly. Eight episodes into the commissioned 22, word arrived that ABC had cancelled them. Three unaired episodes were already in the can, with filming underway on a fourth.

“It was just the most appalling day. I don’t think anyone was really shocked, none of us were particularly happy with the show at that point, but we all got on well. Joey was probably hit hardest. He was trying to rally everyone behind the scenes, with Jared gone. There were tears, people crying everywhere. It was horrible.”

- Jeffrey A Rawle, speaking on The Cult of Blake (BBC Four, 2007)

The decision left the producers in an awkward position. Although ABC’s money was gone, and the show no longer had a US timeslot, it still had a big audience in the UK and elsewhere overseas — most notably in Italy, where Bach’s popularity and regular film work had made the show a surprise hit.

Metromedia scrabbled around and found the money to complete the episode being shot, and one more. This would allow them to wrap up the series, and take the season to 13 episodes in total.

With ABC officially out, Terry Nation was contacted to return and write the closing episode. The resulting story was entitled "Blood", but would quickly be nicknamed "Bloodbath" by fans. The writer made clear what he thought of the changes to the show, with McCord’s robot killed off when the Oracle ship crashes in the cold open.

Jared Martin, by now appearing in Dallas, was persuaded to return for the finale, which sees the crew track down their former leader. Scarred and dying, he confronts Avon, before Travis and his guards ambush them all. The final shot, of a smiling Joe Morton standing over the dead bodies of his comrades and about to be shot himself, remains one of the most iconic images of cult telly.

The result left the remaining production partners satisfied, and Metromedia had a package of 48 episodes it could sell around the world. ABC would eventually show the five episodes it missed out initially. But it stuck them on in summer, opposite the 1982 World Cup, where nobody but die hard fans would see them.

The final series suffered a ratings drop in the UK, but not as severely as in the US - and the extra publicity over the finale ensured the show finished, if not a smash hit, then with its head held high.

The double whammy of Doctor Who’s continuing success as Iain Cuthbertson gave way to Don Henderson, and ITV’s ongoing internal feuding meant, as with the US, Blake had won the battle with Buck Rogers on two continents.

LWT’s commitment to Larson’s show wavered — the second series was shifted from its teatime slot on Saturdays to early afternoon, tucking in before World of Sport.

The cast and crew disbanded. Terry Nation developed cop show The Badge for CBS, which lasted a year before being cancelled, and would go on to write for the original run of Magyver. Jared Martin eventually reunited with Morton for a sequel to War of the Worlds in the late 1980s.

Rawle returned to the UK for a successful career in TV comedy, most notably in Channel 4’s Drop the Dead Donkey where he played a more cowardly version of Vila, while Bach - who’d married Ringo Starr during the making of the third series — made a few more films before largely retiring from acting.

And OJ? Well, we all know that story…

* * *

Which takes us back to the burgers.

Brian Waldman, seeing the popularity of Blake, got in touch with the BBC to try and licence it for his burger franchise. They in turn linked him up with Metromedia, who were surprised at his interest.

But with production finished, they saw it as free money on a show that had ended, and agreed a three year licence for the brand to be used, sending over props and film reels of episodes to be displayed inside the restaurant.

Short sci-fi films featuring the staff of the restaurant and local actors, including the unlikely pairing of Russell Hunter and future That’s Life presenter Kevin Devine, were shot on borrowed equipment on cheaply made sets filmed in storerooms above the restaurant, with the cockpit of a plane at Glasgow Airport used for fire rescue practice standing in for the flight deck of a spaceship.

The combination of city centre location and the hype around the end of the show got the restaurant off to a good start, with people queueing down the staircase to get a table in the early days.

“He was a smart guy, Brian. Very clued up. He’d run restaurants and hotels across the country. Glasgow was the testing ground for the idea. I worked there nine months and as I was getting ready to leave he said they’d agreed a deal for another one in Edinburgh, then one to open the next year in Liverpool. If it hadn’t been for the fire, who knows what would have happened?”

- Jonny Mitchell, general manager of Blake’s Burger Station - interviewed in the Scotsman in 2012

The closure of the restaurant brought an end to the saga of Blake, the space Robin Hood who lit up TV screens around the world for a couple of years. Wrangles over insurance kept the site closed and the licence to use the TV show expired.

Waldman sold off the venue in 1985, which was renovated and became beloved 90s nightclub Archaos, famed for its under-18 nights and celebrity spotting.

But that association with the show meant Glasgow, in the UK at least became an unofficial hub for fans, making pilgrimages to Blake’s until the fire that gutted the building. Occasionally you’ll still see them, the children of folk who watched it at the time, or who have rediscovered it via Netflix and Youtube, standing outside Queen St, pointing at where the entrance used to be.

So if you see crowds of people dressed oddly, and hanging around Tam Shepherd’s this weekend, now you know why.

Hamish Bland doesn't have a bio for me to put here. Glasgow really had a burger bar based on a US TV show, but it was Buck Rogers Burger Station.

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