PAUL GARNER pays tribute to an innovative sci-fi series which gave grim glamour to late Seventies and early Eighties evenings
In the dark winter months at the beginning of 1978 I began to regret signing up as a cub scout. We met on Monday evenings in the school hall, and, thanks to the vagaries of BBC scheduling, that was also when episodes of the brand-new science fiction series, Blake’s 7, were being broadcast. I remember hurrying home from all the ‘dyb-dyb-dybbing’, anxious that I was going to miss the beginning of the latest instalment.
For Doctor Who fans like me, the new series would help to fill the gaps between Saturdays when the TARDIS would whisk us off on another adventure. But if we expected Blake’s 7 to emulate the fantastical whimsy that characterized late-1970s Doctor Who, we were in for a shock. The BBC’s new ‘space opera’ was tonally very different and about to subvert all our cosy assumptions.
Creator Terry Nation claims to have pitched the series to BBC executives as “The Dirty Dozen in space”. Blake’s 7 is set in a dystopian, post-atomic future in which the Terran Federation controls the human population with a combination of drugs, mind control techniques and old-fashioned thuggery. The earth and its colonies are police states, with Stasi-like informers everywhere. Citizens can trust no one and betrayal is the order of the day. In the opening episode, we are introduced to Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas), a man who has been brainwashed and can remember nothing of his previous life as a resistance leader. When his former compatriots help him to break his conditioning they are mercilessly eliminated, and Blake is subjected to a show trial with trumped-up accusations of child molestation. It is hard-edged stuff.
Blake is convicted and sent on a transporter to a prison planet, Cygnus Alpha, but en route organises a rebellion and manages to escape with two of his fellow convicts. Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) is a computer genius and embezzler and Jenna Stannis (Sally Knyvette) is a space pilot and smuggler. Commandeering an abandoned alien ship, the Liberator, with its master computer Zen (Peter Tuddenham), they mount a rescue bid, and on Cygnus Alpha recruit Olag Gan (David Jackson) and Vila Restal (Michael Keating). Vila is a thief and expert lock-breaker, Gan guilty of killing the Federation guard who had raped his girlfriend. Soon they are joined by Cally (Jan Chappell), a telepath from the planet Auron and lone survivor of an anti-Federation guerilla force. Pledging to destroy the Federation, the seven head off into space, hotly pursued by the leader of Space Command, Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce), and her psychopathic henchman, Travis (Stephen Greif in series one, Brian Croucher in series two).
Given this set-up, Blake’s 7 could easily have lapsed into two-dimensionality, but one of the most notable things about it is that nothing is cast in black and white. We are never entirely sure that the ‘good guys’ really are good guys. The Federation is ruthless and brutal, but the rebels are not averse to some ruthlessness and brutality of their own. The body count is unquestionably high whenever Blake’s crew are around, and not just on the Federation side. Blake himself seems fully prepared to risk the lives of others in pursuit of his political ideals, and his quarrelling followers often seem ready to abandon one another to save their own skins. They are at best anti-heroes. The most morally ambiguous of them all is Avon, whose obvious self-interest leads to some tense confrontations with Blake early in the series. Avon is not the kind of man on whom it would be wise to turn your back. Even Vila, for whom Avon shows some grudging affection, is not safe. In the episode Orbit, Avon is ready to throw Vila overboard so their shuttle can overcome the gravitational pull of the planet from which they are making their escape, and his stalking of Vila through the darkened corridors, while his companion cowers terrified in the shadows, is genuinely chilling. Avon’s callousness is also spotlighted in other episodes, such as Stardrive, in which he coldly sacrifices Dr Plaxton, and Rumours of Death, in which he seeks revenge against Shrinker, the man he suspects of murdering Anna Grant, the only woman he ever loved. Shrinker is soon reduced from sadistic torturer to quivering wreck, begging Avon for mercy, in a fantastic performance by guest actor John Bryans. But viewers are left wondering, with the crew of the Liberator, whether Avon is any less monstrous than the man he is punishing.
Later episodes introduce changes to the regular line-up. At the end of series one, Orac, a flashing box of tricks with an irascible personality, is acquired by Blake and his companions from the computer genius Ensor. Midway through the second series Gan dies under falling masonry during a raid on Federation Central Control and at the end of the season Blake and Jenna go missing after bailing from the Liberator during an intergalactic conflict. With Blake’s departure, Avon appoints himself leader, and in the third series the crew is joined by Dayna Mellanby (Josette Simon), the daughter of a fugitive and revolutionary, and Del Tarrant (Steven Pacey), a defector from the Federation’s Space Academy.
At the end of the third series, Avon’s recklessness in the teeth of opposition from his fellow crewmembers leads to the destruction of the Liberator, along with Zen, and the unhappy survivors are trapped by Servalan on the planet Terminal. This was originally intended to be the climactic episode, but late in the day the decision was made to commission a fourth series. By this time the production office had already closed down and there was a scramble to reenlist cast and crew, and get a production line of scripts going, which accounts for much of the unevenness of the first half of series four.
The fourth and final series opens with Cally’s death in a booby trap left by Servalan. Then we are introduced to Soolin (Glynis Barber), an expert gunslinger whose parents had been murdered by hired mercenaries. The rebels acquire a new ship, Scorpio, along with its computer, Slave, and they establish a base from which to launch an offensive against the Federation. Meanwhile, Servalan, who by this time has been deposed as Federation president, takes on a new identity as Commissioner Sleer and resumes her vendetta against Avon and his crew.
Forty years on, Blake’s 7 remains loved by many, though it is difficult to regard it as high art. It has a reputation, not wholly undeserved, for looking cheap, though it must be remembered that it was made in the unionized days of the late 1970s, when budgets were stretched by rampant inflation and there was an ever-present threat of strike action bringing a halt to production. The clichés about dodgy special effects, wonky sets and quarries masquerading as alien worlds are clichés for a reason, and the constraints that faced the production team are often all too evident in what appeared on screen. Despite this, the series has a loyal fan following and conventions continue to be held annually, sadly with a dwindling number of original cast and crew as the years pass.
Inevitably, comparisons are made between Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who, though in reality the two programmes are very different. Blake’s 7 is darker, grittier and more clearly written for an older audience. There are references to sex, drugs and alcohol in Blake’s 7 that would never have been allowed in classic Who. Blake’s 7 is also much less reliant on aliens and monsters, preferring to concentrate on human drama and action. On the few occasions when Blake’s 7 does venture into monster territory the results are less than satisfying, object lessons in how ambition cannot always triumph over practicalities. Director Vere Lorrimer wisely keeps the Phibians lurking in the shadows in Orac, teasing the viewer with occasional glimpses of claw or tail, but on other occasions the programme makers are less circumspect, and, unfortunately, the giant insect in The Harvest of Kairos possesses all the menace of a pantomime horse and the climax of Moloch is rather spoiled by a laughable monocular glove puppet.
However, the play’s the thing, and the great strengths of Blake’s 7 are in characterization and story. The regulars turn in some magnificent performances, even if, at times, a certain amount of scenery-chewing is indulged. Paul Darrow’s Avon is beautifully crafted, dark, self-centred and cynical, with a nice line in sardonic asides, such as when he says of Tarrant that he “is brave, young and handsome; three reasons not to like him”. Michael Keating brings great humanity to his portrayal of Vila, whose cowardice and complaining could have been irritating in the hands of a lesser actor. Yes, Vila is often employed as comic relief (there are lighter moments, even in Blake’s 7), but he is not stupid, on one occasion feigning drunkenness so that he could pass on to his crewmates the solution to an intractable problem while making sure he didn’t have to endanger himself by dealing with it. From the outset, Jacqueline Pearce’s Servalan is deliciously sadistic and scheming, and one can’t help relishing her performance even when it goes over the top. Finally, special mention should be given to Peter Tuddenham, who manages to invest all the series’ computers with distinct personalities, from the detached logicality of Zen to the fussy obtuseness of Orac and the Uriah Heep-like obsequiousness of Slave.
There were some notable guest appearances too, including Roy Kinnear as the bumbling, avaricious security officer of a passenger liner in Gold, Aubrey Woods as a corrupt and flamboyant casino owner in Gambit, and Julian Glover as an unpleasant neurosurgeon and Federation informer in Breakdown. As in any long-running series, the scriptwriting hits highs and lows, but Blake’s 7 delivers many stand-out episodes and even the most mediocre often contain memorable lines.
Among my favourites are City at the Edge of the World, in which Vila almost gets the girl and we meet Bayban the Butcher (Colin Baker in pre-Doctor Who days), Terminal, a well-crafted and pacey episode, with a heartbeat soundtrack that sets a funereal tone, and Sand, in which Tarrant and Servalan are thrown together in unlikely fashion on a planet with a very strange and threatening lifeform. Nor are the scriptwriters above the shameless plundering of plotlines from classic fantasy literature, especially in the fourth series which gives us episodes based on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (Rescue) and H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau (Animals). Even Headhunter trespasses into the domain of Frankenstein, with its lumbering android grotesquely wearing the decapitated head of its creator.
Blake’s 7 ran from 1978 to 1981. Looking back now, one is struck by how unremittingly bleak it all was. Every series ended in some kind of catastrophe, and there was never any guarantee our heroes would even survive. In the final series, we witness Avon’s slow descent into paranoia and madness, culminating in the shocking denouement on the frontier planet of Gauda Prime. For more than two years, viewers had eagerly anticipated Blake’s return, but when he does finally reappear it is not the glad reunion for which we had hoped. Blake, battered and world-weary, stands once again face-to-face with Avon, only for his old comrade to shoot him in the stomach at point-blank range, under the tragic misapprehension that Blake has betrayed him. What follows is one of the most shocking endings to any television series, with all the Scorpio crew except Avon being gunned down in slow motion by jack-booted Federation soldiers. As Avon stands over the bloody corpse of Blake, with the guards closing in around him, he raises his gun and smiles. And that’s where the curtain falls, the closing credits breaking in with another volley of shots. There is no happy ending. The ‘good guys’ don’t always win.
Of course, fans of the programme have been endlessly inventive in coming up with scenarios in which their favourite characters survived or the story continued. Sequels have been written, new episodes recorded for radio, and there have been rumours for years about a television revival, although a reboot seems as far away as ever. But I can’t help feeling that the ending we got was the right one. The rebellion is ultimately a failure. The Federation is still in control, even expanding after the setback of the Andromedan war. And Servalan, who mysteriously makes no appearance in the finale, is presumably still out there and plotting her route back to power. It’s bleak, but anything more hopeful would rob Blake’s 7 of its soul.
PAUL GARNER is a researcher, speaker and writer based in the Cambridgeshire Fens. His interests include the natural sciences, Christian theology, classic TV sci-fi and fantasy, British folklore, and the ghost stories of M. R. James. He is also a dancer with the Devil’s Dyke Morris Men