What’s The Topic? Blakes 7
Blakes 7 (or is it Blake’s 7? No.) is a British science-fiction series that ran from 1978 until 1981 on the BBC. Although not especially well known in the U.S. and often lumped in with the pile of the many, many, many sci-fi series that got knocked out in the 70’s it is nevertheless one of the more influential and well worth exploring. Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine, Firefly and, especially, Farscape owe a huge debt to its serialized storytelling, dark edge and focus on character, as well as its extreme pessimism. It was created on the spur of the moment in a pitch meeting by TV writer Terry Nation – best known as the creator of Doctor Who’s Daleks back in 1963, but also an absurdly prolific TV writer on both sides of the Atlantic – who described it as “the Dirty Dozen in space”. From exceedingly modest beginnings it went on to critical acclaim but suffered from an absolutely miniscule budget which often couldn’t keep pace with the inventiveness of the concept or scripts.
Blakes 7 went into production replacing detective show Softly, Softly but sadly retained its budget, despite sci-fi being obviously more expensive to produce than a generic detective piece. The show plots the escapades of a small band of freedom fighters/terrorists who attempt to resist and overthrow the fascist Federation in their purloined ship, the Liberator (and, in the final season, Scorpio). Led by the falsely-accused but idealistically motivated Blake and consisting largely of self-interested, untrustworthy, and dubious characters and others strays picked up along the way the group fight the Federation, each other, and the occasional random space monster for good measure. It’s a show that’s been described as the “anti Star Trek” and it’s a label that it lives up to in many ways. In the same way that the original Star Trek is, while looking forward, unavoidably 60’s so Blakes 7 is unavoidably 70’s, both to its benefit and detriment. The show ended in December 1981 with what was, at the time, a hugely controversial final episode which… ah, but we’ll get to that a little later on. The legacy of Blakes 7 continues to resonate, and it is very much The Little Show That Cound. And, in fact, did.
Television just doesn’t get made like this any more. It’s a sort of Rep Theature Sci-Fi that died out in the… oh, let’s say mid-80’s and that means that stylistcially it has that so-very-BBC feel about it. There are plenty of eqivilents in terms of it’s production – mid 70’s Doctor Who is an obvious touch-point, although for the more litereary, I, Claudis, is also produced in a very similar style. Generally speaking for studio work there is a three-camera setup, with the “fourth wall” being where the cameras are and the actors playing towards them, as if on stage. Yeah that’s just Not A Thing any more. The acting at times very much plays into that style, and there’s a whole murderers row of British character actors who turn up to give their all in the name of inexpensive sci-fi (ohh look, it’s Brian Blessed! Ah, Michael Gough’s in this one! Julian Glover? Really? And so on). And of course there’s that budget, or rather the lack thereof. The 70’s. Big hair. Wobbly scenery. Some of the least expensive special effects ever to make it to screen. Especially to a generation used to CGI effects and slick, fast-paced editing that can make the show seem clunky and slow, though it’s also one of its charms. And despite some of those limitations there’s some great design work on display (the Liberator, for one), and Matt Irvine, the chief special effects guru behind the scenes, deserves a unspeakably huge amount of credit for being able to get so much out of so little money, even when it’s obvious where the shortfalls are. Yet the characters and the situations always ring true, and the final episode shows just what a difference a great final episode can make to a show – no Lost or Battlestar Galactica controversy here, and the last episode is one of the great triumphs of the show. To get a handle on the show, it’s best to start with the characters, which means a quick list of the most important…
Blake: A political dissident, Blake is (prior to the first episode) is arrested by the state for fermenting rebellion and forced to undergo brainwashing which turns him into a model citizen. When his conditioning breaks down after meeting up with his former allies during the course of the first episode, Blake is frame from a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to a lifetime of exile on the penal colony Cygnus Alpha. He escapes, along with the rest of the Liberator crew, and vows to fight back against the Federation, which he does for two seasons before being written out and returning only for the season 3 and season 4 final episodes (though the latter is his very best performance in the role).
Avon: A cynical, bitter man, Avon was sentenced for attempting to steal money from the Federation banking system. The very definition of an anti-hero, Avon’s character arc is the most developed of all the Blakes 7 characters, going from unapologetic self-interest through acceptance, understanding, trust and finally, in the fourth season, what amounts to a complete psychotic breakdown. He’s honestly one of the most compelling characters ever to reach a television screen.
Servalan: The Supreme Commander, then eventually Madam President, of the Terran Federation, brought memorably and vividly to life by Jacqueline Pearce. Servalan is a calculating politician, viciously cruel, utterly intolerant of others failure and yet easily able to manipulate almost anyone with her sexuality. Her relative youth compared to her senior status shows just what a hollow shell the Federation is becoming. She also has the most amazing wardrobe of any space queen imaginable.
Travis: Blakes nemesis. He survives two season, two lead actors (Stephen Grief played him in Season One and is replaced by Brian Croucher in Season Two), one Supreme Commander and any number of questionable eye-patches. He’s killed after giving up on Servalan, then the Federation, then humanity as he betrays his entire species in an act of attempted genocide.
Zen/Orac: Zen is the Liberator’s on-board computer. This being the 1970’s all computers must by law have personalities of their own, and in this case it’s a rather stuck-up accountant, pleasingly avoiding the cutesy approach that might have been more obvious (especially given the then-recent release of Star Wars). Orac, a large perspex box filled with the very best in 1979-vintage BBC lightbulbs, is a snippy little bitch of a super-computer, bequeathed to Our Heros when they attempt to rescue its creator, Ensor, at the end of the first season. Both are voiced by Peter Tuddenham (who also voiced Slave in the final season. Funny, but I don’t think you’d get a computer with that name these days).
Vila: Thief, lock-pick and sarcastic one-line delivery system, Vila’s abject cowardice provides some degree of contrast to Blake’s unbending political convictions and Avon’s selfishly motivated survival. The only character to appear in all 52 episodes, Vila is also a drunk (especially by the time the fourth season rolls around) yet never quite as stupid as he allows people to believe he is.
Cally: A telepath from the planet Auron, Cally is exiled form her own people for standing up and fighting rather than maintaining state-sanctioned neutrality. The only one of Blake’s initial crew not to have been sentenced as a prisoner, she is in the process of attacking a Federation outpost when she encounters the crew. Distant, vulnerable to being taken over mentally by other telepathic creatures, she nevertheless has a warmer, possibly romantic, interest in Avon. Possibly.
The Liberator: Fine, not a character per se, but the ship used to wage war against the Federation, and of alien origin. It is found, abandoned and floating in space while Blake is being transported to Cygnus Alpha, boarded, and taken control of. Substantially more sophisticated than anything the Federation has, it gives Blake’s crew a distinct but not unlimited advantage. It uniquely possesses a teleport, and though extremely advanced, is not by any means all-powerful.
Entry Point: Season Two, Episode One “Redemption”
The first season of Blakes 7 was written in its entirety by Terry Nation and it shows, for both good and ill. It means that the episodes all come together with a consistent voice, but it’s equally clear by the end of season one that he’s exhausted himself with the huge struggle of penning so much material. There are a few terrific episodes in there, and the very first episode is actually great – fast-paced, succinct, and brutally effective in showing just how ruthless the Federation are and what lengths they will go to. But a lot of the season meanders round without any clear or obvious idea of where it’s going. Season One introduces a few crucial elements – Blake’s situation, the Liberator, Servalan and Travis – but that lack of direction prevents it from really coming into focus. Season Two introduces two critical elements – two half-season long arcs (the search for Central Control, and the search for Star One), and other writers to inject fresh ideas. The most important of those was Chris Boucher, a Doctor Who veteran who was the script editor for the whole of the four season run but who only began to write episodes in the second season and went on to become the de facto showrunner .
The first episode of Season Ttwo (written by Nation) allows a basic restating of the shows setup, as the Liberator is recaptured by its original builders, the System. Once the ship is re-acquired, the nature of The System mirrors that of the Federation – oppressed slaves are kept under strict, Orwellian control by a state that cares neither for their freedom nor their life. In resisting the state and freeing the slaves, Blake also destroys The System (which pretty much speaks for itself as a political statement). Benefitting from a dramatic end-of-season cliffhanger (Orac predicts the Liberator’s destruction, which is successfully resolved entirely without cheating), some great location and stunt-work, “Redemption” also takes its time to allow each character space to breathe. Blake is allowed to be idealistic, but we also see where his ideals can lead and the lives sacrificed to achieve what he desires. Avon is allowed to grow just a little more, and the first signs of the warmth between him and Cally are beginning to emerge. Vila gets to open a few doors. Orac gets to save the day and be entirely smug about it. They’re small moments for each character but they all add up to a much greater hole. The momentum of the show is re-established, the direction the season will take is found and everything from hereon out will just get better and better.
The rest of Season Two, with only a couple of exceptions (“Horizon”, “Hostage”) is almost universally strong. The following episode (“Shadow”) is Chris Boucher’s first for the show, and among his very best. The episode after that is also by Boucher and if a slight step down, it’s only vey slight. Then comes the big blow of the season. In stark contrast to what was expected of our heros, one of the lead characters is killed off. Saying it in today’s context makes it sound utterly unremarkable, something shows will do to generate a bit of extra publicity, but the shock at the time was altogether different. It would be like killing off Scotty towards the end of Star Trek‘s first season. Shows like this simply didn’t do that. Gan, another member of Blake’s crew who has a brain implant to prevent him killing, is himself killed on a raid on Earth to try and find Central Control, supposedly the seat of the Federations power. Here, we see the real pessimism at the heart of Blakes 7 comes to the fore – he dies for nothing, on an assault led against an empty room. It’s a chilling moment, crushed by a closing door saving his comrades, begging to be left behind because he doesn’t believe himself worth saving. This event triggers the second arc of Season Two, the hunt for Star One and the toll Blake’s fanaticism takes, while still allowing enough space for the show to expand its universe (“Gambit”), give its characters the scope to be fleshed out (“Countdown”), and still round out the season with a satisfying, yet unexpected, conclusion. From thereon out, just progress forward. Season Three has two primary themes running through it, the search for Blake (he’s last heard of being shoved into an off-screen escape pod), and the need to establish a base of operations. The season ends with what was supposed to be the series ending – the Liberator destroyed, the crew marooned, and all hope gone.
Yet a fourth season wsa unexpectedly commissioned, resulting in some back-pedaling. A new ship, Scorpio (every bit as 80’s as the Liberator was 70s) is acquired, but this is a nuts-and-bolts ship, with none of the sophistication of the Liberator. A base is, finally, acquired while at the same time the Federation is undertaking a new drug program to control its population. The through-line of Season Four is the need to establish alliances to fight back against a weakened Federation but this eventually leads to betrayal and… that final episode. In fact, it’s almost impossible to talk about Blakes 7 now without talking about the ending. And if the show has been dark or cynical before, it’s nothing compared to the ending. Everyone dies. Every single one of the lead characters is shot, on screen (and in Blake’s case, among a remarkable amount of blood). All that is except Avon. Surrounded by his fallen comrades encircled by an entire phalanx of faceless Federation troops and having killed Blake by his own hand, the only person he really ever trusted, he stands astride Blakes bloody body and raises his gun. There are three jump-cuts into his face. He smiles, just once, and there is a freeze-frame. There is the sound of shots fired. Then the credits roll. That’s how the show ends – the rebellion is crushed, it fails and everyone dies. The episode was written by Chris Boucher, and broadcast on 21st December 1981, just four days before Christmas (earning Boucher the nickname, “the man who killed Christmas”). For it’s time it was a hugely challenging, entirely unexpected, way to end what had been, despite all its production shortcomings, ended up being a remarkably adult, sophisticated and memorable television show.
There’s no other ending quite like it.
The first episode of Season One is great – smart, political, cynical and pointed. The next couple of episodes, however, very much aren’t. Though important things do happen in them, most siginificantly the selection of Blakes crew and the acquisition of the Liberators, they’re often slow and plodding, and occasionally laughable. Brian Blessed crops up in episode three, bellowing his way through the script like a demented thing, and if you expect that to be a good thing that means you haven’t seen the episode (though he’s by no means the worst thing about it). The rest of the season is an odd bag – there’s space opera shenanigans in “The Web” (the first proper encounter with alien life in the show), showdowns and faceoffs with Travis and Servalan (“Duel”, “Seek-Locate-Destroy”), and a little mini-arc right at the end in the final two episodes, where Avon gets to be a god and rescue and entire people, and Orac is acquired. There’s a few good episodes in there – “Project Avalon” is smartly written, intelligent and twisty, and “Breakdown” manages to make good use of Gan despite him barely being in it, and it’s a great character study of Avon – but there’s a lot of padding to get through. Catch eight episodes (“The Way Back”, “Space Fall” (I suppose – it’s not very good, and often terrible, but the Liberator is introduced), “Time Squad”, “Projects Avalon”, “Breakdown” and “Orac”), and take the rest under advisement. When Season Two arrives and Boucher’s voice becomes the dominant one you’re basically good to go.
It’s also worth mentioning the Big Finish series of Blakes 7 audio plays, which involve the original cast (for the most part) returning to their roles and fleshing out the characters and situations. They are equally as good as the TV show, occasionally stunningly good and some of the best material Big Finish has ever produced. They come very highly recommended and The Liberator Chroniciles also provide a terrific entry point, both to the series and the characters.