Blake’s 7

2013_b7 logoSurveillance. A population kept complacent through drugged drinking water. Brainwashing. Execution of political dissidents. Launched in January 1978, concurrent with Tom Baker’s effervescent fourth season of Doctor Who accompanied by Louise Jameson’s crowdpleasing Leela and their robot dog K-9, while ITV had concluded the glossy but wooden run of Gerry Anderson’s Space 1999 and had yet to introduce Sapphire and Steel, Blake’s 7 was atypical British science fiction for that time. The creator was Terry Nation, a contributor to many iconic British television shows of the 1960’s including The Avengers and The Champions, but contrary to their colourful optimism, he is best remembered as the creator of the Daleks and the ecological thriller series Survivors, and it was that darker tone which Blake’s 7 adopted.

“A man who trusts can never be betrayed, only mistaken.” – Cally, Mission to Destiny

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Deep Space Vessel Two, Liberator

When we first met Roj Blake in The Way Back, his memories were suppressed and he was unaware he had been a leader of the Freedom Party or that his family had been murdered until he was approached to once again take up the mantle, but before they could organise, the resistance cell was betrayed. The only survivor of the massacre, following a showtrial with fabricated evidence, Blake was exiled to the prison planet Cygnus Alpha, but en route the transport ship London encountered a derelict alien vessel.

When the crewmembers who first attempted to board were killed, a trio of expendable prisoners were sent: Blake, computer expert Kerr Avon and smuggler Jenna Stannis. It was Blake who saw through the illusion of the alien they found aboard and defeated it, allowing them to seize the vessel and escape. Naming it Liberator, with the aid of Zen, the advanced onboard computer system, they followed to Cygnus Alpha where they rescued two more convicts, the thief Vila Restal and Olag Gan, incarcerated for killing a Federation guard. Recruiting the telepathic Auron guerrilla fighter Cally, whom they encountered preparing a one woman assault on a Federation outpost, the seven needed to operate Liberator were complete.

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Blake and his crew

The cast featured no major names, though all were experienced performers, many of them within genre. Before Blake, Gareth Thomas had played in the sinister Children of the Stones, and two had been in Doctor Who, Michael Keating appearing opposite Tom Baker in The Sun Makers prior to his casting as Vila, and long before Avon Paul Darrow had featured in one of the earliest colour stories, facing The Silurians alongside Jon Pertwee.

“Neutrality or pacifism, it all boils down to the same gutless inanity.” – Kerr Avon to Cally, Children of Auron

Blake and Avon were quickly established as the strongest characters, the antagonistic core of the first two seasons, with Blake’s determined resolution to fight the Federation on all fronts contrasted with Avon’s cynical self preservation. Despite the fifty minute format of the show, the rest of the crew received minimal development, particularly the female characters, though Jenna was able to establish herself as a buffer between Blake and Avon. Becoming a key player in the shipboard powerplay was quite a feat considering the plots often required her to do little more than pilot the ship and look glamorous, both of which Sally Knyvette was able to do effortlessly. Michael Keating’s Vila quickly became comedy relief, a role that allowed him to be popular despite the little development he received; despite initial promise, Jan Chappell’s Cally quickly fell into a routine, and David Jackson’s Gan was never even given the chance.

2013_b7 liberator flight deck

Liberator flight deck

The initial promotional materials for the show made great use of the model and sets which made up Liberator. Designed by Roger Murray-Leach, the exterior hull and interior rooms were stunning and inventive, unlike the conventional spaceship design typical portrayed elsewhere in the show, with a repeated internal hexagonal motif complementing the tripedal external arrangement. Unfortunately, budgetary considerations meant little investment in optical effects past the opening episodes, and the splendidly constructed miniature Liberator was often seen as a photograph moving across a star field in the first season, a measure that was fortunately superceded by the second season.

Avoiding forces that far outnumbered them, Liberator offered many advantages in their fight to free the galaxy from the tyranny of the corrupt government, not only faster than the Federation pursuit vessels and in possession of superior weaponry and defences, but crucially with a working teleport system. While this should have allowed the crew to swiftly escape from danger, dramatic requirement ensured that characters developed an unfortunate habit of dropping their teleport bracelets at inopportune moments with alarming frequency so things didn’t become too easy.

“You lead. We don’t take commands.” – Jenna Stannis to Roj Blake, Voice from the Past

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Travis and Servalan

With Terry Nation outlining all thirteen episodes of the first season and final shooting versions drafted by script editor Chris Boucher who had contributed three stories to Doctor Who and later created Star Cops, it allowed him to create and control the whole background of the show, but where there was a need for focus and sustained drama there was often timewasting, scenes concerned with minutiae that serve to pad rather than illuminate, and too often the plots hinged on members of the team allowing themselves to be kidnapped by local primitives or aliens brought on board Liberator; Cally too often the victim of telepathic attack.

Exposition is often heavy, particularly in scenes with Supreme Commander Servalan and Space Commander Travis, dropping reminders of how Travis was injured by Blake or the precise value placed on Orac, though fortunately Jacqueline Pearce was a saving grace and in time became of the greatest assets of the show, effortless in her sophisticated ruthlessness no matter how outrageous or improbable her dialogue. In the first season, Stephen Greif matched her scheming with his sinister silences, she in purest white and he in black leather.

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On the flight deck

The BBC drama department has always operated on a shoestring budget, and the nature of a science fiction show has demands that cannot be met by economical off-the-shelf solutions, so inevitably corners have to be cut in other places. Whereas thirty years later the default alien world of Canadian produced science fiction programming would be rain soaked forest, in Blake’s 7 distant planets would be represented most often by quarries, though with occasional visits to forests (The Web, Duel), scrubland (Moloch, Terminal), caves (Mission to Destiny) or the beach (Orac, Aftermath), but other measures were employed.

“One of these days they are going to leave you. They were almost ready to do it this time. One more death will do it.” – Kerr Avon to Roj Blake, Trial

As with the budget crunch of Star Trek’s second season, the crew would visit planets where the locals had an interest in Earth artefacts and collectibles, such as President Sarkoff in Bounty, but less excusable was the wholesale appropriation of plotlines, even for a band of interplanetary rogues. Duel was a scene by scene retelling of Star Trek’s Arena, Ultraworld was The Changeling told over, Orac talking a computer to death with Vila’s riddles, while Death-Watch was A Taste of Armageddon, two planets at war using more civilised proxies so their populations are not inconvenienced, though the latter at least has the joy of a cocktail party aboard Liberator and Steven Pacey doubling as his own brother Deeta Tarrant.

Relaxing onboard

Relaxing onboard

An atypical structure for an ostensibly episodic drama, the whole of the first season was a continuous story. This was most apparent in the opening three episodes of Blake’s exile from Earth, escape from the transport vessel and the rescue of the rest of the prisoners, and the final two episodes, the quest for Orac and its subsequent recovery, but the standalone episodes also had continuity, even if confined only to brief exchanges of dialogue, setting a course at the conclusion of one episode to arrive there the next, a structure which was intended for each subsequent season.

Voiced by Peter Tuddenham, who also spoke for Zen, the most significant onscreen change in the second season was the presence of Orac on board Liberator, the supercomputer able to tap into any other computer and so able to access information from across the universe. Far from being an asset to the crew, Orac was temperamental, uncooperative, often derisory and sometimes threatening to the crew, though this was in many ways a dramatic necessity; with the power of Orac fully on their side, Blake would have been unstoppable in his goal to overthrow the Federation. Other changes were the departure of David Jackson and that the role of Travis was recast with Brian Croucher, who lacked Stephen Greif’s presence or menace, and also resulted in the character becoming inappropriately Cockney.

“I’m sorry I missed that. It’s the kind of natural stupidity no amount of training could ever hope to match.” – Kerr Avon to Olag Gan, Shadow

Avon and Orac - true love?

Avon and Orac – true love?

The Liberator crew expanded their wardrobe considerably, and the word that best described the new style was billowing. Jenna and Cally, a smuggler and a terrorist, now fought the good fight in evening gowns consisting of layers of veils and drapes, and even Blake’s sleeves puffed up in consternation. Fortunately, that was also the year that Avon moved towards his characteristic studded black leather, though curiously occasionally alternated with silver lamé as though he periodically masqueraded as a weather balloon, a look dubbed “oven ready Avon” by the production team.

Offscreen, a key production change was that Terry Nation and Chris Boucher were no longer the sole writers, joined by another Doctor Who graduate, Robert Holmes, among others. While not a radical departure from format, Boucher’s Shadow was the first indication of the reach of the Federation and the deeper conspiracies they were involved in, here revealed to be the power behind the drug cartel the Terra Nostra.

The System

The System

This idea would unfold through the second season with the false information that leads Blake to the wrong location for Control in Pressure Point, resulting in the death of Gan. A key episode, the good ideas and dialogue in Nation’s script were let down by some terrible performances on the planet’s surface and the unconvincing staging, though it did set the course for the trip to Star One in the second season finale.

“I am not expendable, I’m not stupid, and I’m not going.” – Kerr Avon to Vila Restal, Horizon

The two second season episodes contributed by Holmes were more suited to a Doctor Who mould rather than Blake’s 7; Killer features a mummified corpse sent to spread a virus (compare this with Sutekh’s “gift of death” from The Pyramids of Mars, scripted by Holmes), and while Gambit could be seen as an attempt to show the decadence and degeneration of those living outside the Federation, it becomes a pantomime of Servalan feeding ludicrous plot exposition to her henchmen, a sad shadow of The Talons of Weng-Chiang, the costumed theatrics that worked in that setting killing the episode.

Servalan plays games

Servalan plays games

The Federation was very much a fallen utopia, and only recently – the capital buildings are spacious and well lit and littered with “art,” usually uncompromisingly hideous, but everyone was repressed and desperate, though in an intellectual manner that hadn’t required them to suffer unduly, a consequence of casting drawn from the BBC’s reserve bank of upper class ladies and gents more typically used for period costume drama, or at a stretch middle class for Play for Today, but not so appropriate for robbers, murderers, terrorists, nor are they particularly effective as aliens or androids.

Examples of this include Avalon, a resistance leader who had supposedly inspired rebellion on over a dozen planets yet who drifts through her scenes without any of the grit or determination to be expected from such a figurehead, or the System, vacuous dollybirds dressed in tinfoil; that episode, the second season opener Redemption, wasted so much time setting up the story it barely had time to tell it when it arrived, the only glimpse of the creators of Liberator a depressing run through a power station, admittedly a change from the gravel pits of the first season.

“To have total control, you must control totally. Both sides of the law.” Roj Blake upon realising the Federation are behind the Terra Nostra, Shadow

Even mad scientists are allowed cleavage

Even mad scientists are allowed cleavage

Conversely, when a strong performance would emerge, such as John Bennett as the defector Coser, creator of the titular Weapon, he was hampered by clumsy dialogue and a batwing collared costume more befitting the Timelords of Gallifrey rather than a beta grade technician. Only the Federation Guards, most often unseen behind their masks, the embodiment of the faceless totalitarian regime of the Federation, were effective in their threat, though not their marksmanship.

Gareth Thomas and Sally Knyvette both chose to leave after two years, and while Thomas appeared as Blake on two further occasions, Jenna was never seen again; Steven Pacey and Josette Simon were introduced as Del Tarrant, a former Federation officer turned rogue and Dayna Mellanby, a weapons expert, and both would remain until the final episode, establishing themselves quickly and with confidence, daring and their own agendas.

Federation Pursuit Ships

Federation Pursuit Ships

With Tarrant in particular a challenge to Avon, forcing him to step up and be the leader he had always denied he wanted to be, for example defending Vila against Tarrant who is openly bullying him in City at the Edge of the World. By the end of the third year the crew showed a loyalty to Avon that probably wouldn’t have been previously expected, and it was in this season he became by far the most interesting and rounded character.

“I will not be President of a ruined empire.” – Servalan, Star One

First mentioned in season two’s Countdown where Avon encounters her brother, the story of Avon’s former lover Anna Grant ran through three episodes, concluding with Rumours of Death, where he discovers that she had not died years before as he had believed but was in fact the double agent who had betrayed him.

The most powerful ship in the galaxy

The most powerful ship in the galaxy

Chris Boucher‘s inventive script opened in atypical fashion without preamble, Avon in a prison cell awaiting the arrival of his torturer, upon whom he quickly turns the tables, followed by a scene of the Liberator crew then hounding their captive, only to be chastised by Cally for their behaviour, pointing out that they are no better than him. We also learned the story of the great bank fraud with which Avon was “was about to undermine confidence in the entire Federation credit system.”

If Avon had any competition for the limelight, it was Servalan. Always self serving but never blind, she made underhanded deals but she did not kill enemies out of spite, only underlings; through the years she had chances with Avon, Vila, Tarrant and many others, and did not take them, though it is likely she would have done so with Blake. In Star One she leaps to defend the Federation, and in Children of Auron she is prepared to sacrifice a planet to preserve her line.

“Trust is only dangerous when you have to rely on it.” Kerr Avon to Anna Grant, Rumours of Death

Planetfall

Planetfall

In particular, the relationship between Servalan and Avon became more complex, but her failure to eliminate them despite their continued entanglement spoke of either a lack of competence or an ulterior motive, though she did have major victories, such as the fourth season story Gold, where the planet Zerok ceded to the Federation and handed over their banking system. As Soolin said, “We risked our lives to make Servalan rich.”

Stories from new writers included fantasy writer Tanith Lee’s Sarcophagus, a bizarre pantomime bottle show with no guests and no new sets other than one alien ship, and James Follett’s Dawn of the Gods, an examination of the danger that the curiosity of Orac posed to the crew, disregarding the safety of the crew to satisfy itself; Follett had explored similar themes with the Guardian Angels of the Starship Challenger in his radio play Earthsearch.

Servalan and Avon, best of enemies

Servalan and Avon, best of enemies

That episode opened with Orac beating the crew at a variation of Monopoly in what was to become a feature of the season, with food and games introduced to glimpses into the “off duty” life of the crew to make the ship more like a home, and also saw Vila manoeuvred into a spacesuit to perform external repairs to the ship for the reason that he is adept at opening locks and had demonstrated a knowledge of the problem at hand; this would be echoed in Follett’s fourth season script Stardrive, when Vila feigns drunkenness to avoiding being co-opted into performing similar repairs on Scorpio.

“For what it is worth, I have always trusted you. Right from the very beginning.” – Roj Blake to Kerr Avon, Star One

Despite Avon taking command, the absence of Blake was acknowledged, with occasional rumours of where he might be, and that hunt would lead directly to the third season finale, Terminal, the last script written by Nation. Conceived as the bleak conclusion of the show, it was leavened only by the fact that the crew had survived, as reflected in Avon’s final ironic smile. The production team disbanded and the standing sets had been spectacularly destroyed onscreen when a decision made on the day of broadcast brought the crew back together, though without Jan Chappell’s Cally.

Scorpio

Scorpio

David Maloney, who had produced the first three seasons, was involved in the BBC production of John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids, so Vere Lorrimer, who had directed many episodes in the preceding seasons, assumed the role. Significantly, Terry Nation’s involvement was minimal, though Chris Boucher, Robert Holmes, Tanith Lee and James Follett would all continue to write.

Glynis Barber, who had played a mutoid in the first season episode Project Avalon, joined as the gunslinger Soolin, introduced in the season opener Rescue which also introduced Scorpio, the modified Mark IV Wanderer class planet-hopper that would succeed Liberator, its onboard computer Slave, again voiced by Peter Tuddenham, and the planet Xenon which would act as a permanent base of operations for the crew. These obligations were set against a thin plot that openly stole from Oscar Wilde, even to the point of naming the villain Dorian; at least Animals had the dignity to not name the mad geneticist Doctor Moreau.

“Does Blake have a genius for leadership or do you have a genius for being led?” – Kerr Avon, Trial

The crew of Scorpio

The crew of Scorpio

Following on from the functional and derivative opener, the fourth season too often fell into retreads of previous ideas, the plans of the crew defeated at the last moment, the improbably hands-on schemes of Servalan, supposedly dead and masquerading under the name Commissioner Sleer, increasingly outlandish, the repeated missed opportunities to finally rid the universe of each other becoming ridiculous. Despite this, the performances of the main cast, Darrow in particular, were among their best ever, confident and comfortable in their roles and exploring their universe with more nuance and humour than ever before.

Creating Scorpio, both interior and exterior and an all new bank of model shots as stock footage from previous years could no longer be used was a major cost, and the budget conscious flight control room was a flatly lit single deck as opposed to Liberator’s multi level design, with some of the panelling repurposed from the BBC’s production of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that had broadcast earlier in 1981. While Liberator had been alien and visually unique, Scorpio was as utilitarian and uninspired as its humble freighter origin suggested, but the expenditure bit into other aspects of production with the whole season suffering as a result.

Scorpio flight deck

Scorpio flight deck

Other changes included a new logo and opening credits reflecting the new style of the show though retaining the original opening theme, unfortunately replaced over the end titles with an inappropriate lounge version which seemed intended to segue the show into the light entertainment department where Doctor Who was suffering under the grip of then producer John Nathan-Turner.

“He is strongly identified with rebels, you see. And very popular with rabbles. They will follow him and he will fight to the last drop of their blood.” – Kerr Avon on Roj Blake, Blake

In fact, Blake’s 7 composer Dudley Simpson had been served in the same capacity on Doctor Who for over fifteen years, and the aural similarity between the two series, otherwise vastly different in style, meant that other than the opening theme Blake’s 7 never established a unique and identifiable musical style.

Federation guards

Federation guards

While the third season finale had been intended to be an ambiguous finale, there could be no uncertainty about the episode that finally did close the series. On 21st December 1981 Blake was broadcast, with no prior indication of how the story would unfold; unlike modern television, where spoiling surprises is almost an industry sport, the eight million viewers who tuned in that Monday night were in no way prepared for the long anticipated reunion between Avon and Blake to turn to bloodshed.

Their base on Xenon discovered by the Federation, Avon destroyed it and led the crew to Gauda Prime where he believed he may have finally located Blake, but Scorpio was attacked en route and crashed, irreparably damaged. Tricked by a Federation spy and convinced it was Blake who had betrayed them, Avon shot Blake, who died in his arms.

“However much you like to pretend you’re a loner, you’re not really. We depend on each other; I wouldn’t be alive now if it wasn’t for you, and I’m sure that’s true of everybody else. So why not trust us?” – Dayna Mellanby to Kerr Avon, Terminal

Looking for allies and safe haven

Looking for allies and safe haven

The trap closing, Federation guards flooded in, and one by one, Dayna, Vila, Soolin and Tarrant were shot down, leaving only Avon, standing over the bodies of his former comrades and friends. As the screen faded and the titles rolled, the sound of Federation guns echoed in the ears of a shocked and uncomprehending audience.

After the conclusion of the show, both Paul Darrow and Jacqueline Pearce appeared in the later years of the original run of Doctor Who, he opposite Colin Baker in Timelash, she a year later opposite both Colin Baker and Patrick Troughton in his final appearance in The Two Doctors; Colin Baker had himself once appeared in the third season Blake‘s 7 episode City at the Edge of the World. Glynis Barber enjoyed the highest profile following the show, starring with her future husband Michael Brandon in the title roles of Dempsey and Makepeace. Many years later Gareth Thomas appeared in the first season of Torchwood, in the episode Ghost Machine.

Have you betrayed me?

Have you betrayed me?

Blake’s 7 itself hosted many familiar faces throughout its run, such as T P McKenna in Bounty and William Squire in Horizon, well remembered as the KGB agent Richmond and the longest serving Hunter in Callan, and the penal colony on Cygnus Alpha was run by a characteristically exuberant Brian Blessed; on first seeing his castle, Vila appropriately comments “The architectural style is early megalomaniac.”

“I have never understood why it should be necessary to become irrational in order to prove that you care, or, indeed, why it should be necessary to prove it at all – Kerr Avon, Duel

Further guests included Michael Gough in Volcano, Michael Sheard in Powerplay, Roy Kinnear in Gold, Richard Hurndall, who played the first Doctor in The Five Doctors, in Assassin, Valentine Dyall, Doctor Who’s Black Guardian, in City on the Edge of the World and Barbara Shelley, “The First Leading Lady Of British Horror,” in Stardrive.

2013_B7_S4surrounded

Surrounded

In retrospect, the overriding feel of Blake’s 7 is one of great ambition and intention marred by missed opportunity and poor planning and communication. Each season was planned with an arc, but delayed and sometimes abandoned scripts meant progress was erratic, with rewrites imposed sometimes because it was felt that a story was not working or because they had been written for a show that had subsequently changed direction.

Cast members rotated out when they felt they were given little opportunity to develop, yet their replacements were given no better material to work with, and beyond the principal sets of Liberator and Scorpio, the endemic parsimony of the production was always obvious onscreen.

“When Avon holds out the hand of friendship, watch his other hand. That’s the one with the hammer.” – Vila Restal, Killer

The last stand

The last stand

In the thirty years since series ended, there have been repeated attempts to return the show to television, either as a continuation or as a remake, from Terry Nation before his death, by Paul Darrow, by the company Blake’s 7 Enterprises and Sky One, though none have succeeded.

Instead, the show has endured in the form of radio plays and audio dramas, many featuring original cast members, though the most recent hope of a television revival by the US SyFy channel is still a possibility, and certainly if it reflects the same dedication to storytelling and challenging preconceptions of the genre as they brought to Battlestar Galactica it has the potential to be as exciting now as it was when Liberator first took flight.

“I could never stand heroes. Blake takes risks to help other people. Sometimes people he doesn’t even know. One day that great big bleeding heart of his will get us all killed.” – Kerr Avon, Killer

All four seasons of Blake’s 7 are available on DVD

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