Revisiting BLAKE'S 7 - Series A - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Revisiting BLAKE'S 7 - Series A

Tony Fyler has dug out his Blake’s 7 DVDs, and gone right back to the beginning. Come along for the ride.

Blake’s 7 is, no matter how you slice it, a bit of an oddity, inasmuch as it’s never entirely clear what age group the show is aimed at. On the one hand, it’s a dystopia as dark as they come – people are killed, tortured, have their minds and personalities rewritten by the ultimate expression of the State. On the other hand, it’s space opera with deeply naff monsters, sometimes dodgy sets and effects, and every now and then a bit of fabulously camp overacting. So what is it, adult TV or kids programme?
Yes. Yes it is.

Looking back over the first season, or Series A as it’s generally known, one thing becomes clear from the start – there’s a plot in there somewhere, but this is going to be a character-driven show. In this it’s very much a product of its time (the late 70s and early 80s), where the point appears to have been to get episodes out of almost every occurrence, rather than zipping right along. The whole of the first episode is set on Earth (bar the last two minutes), and show us Blake, and the methods of the Federation. Convinced all is fine and dandy in his world, his curiosity allows him to go along to a proscribed political meeting, where a past he’s forgotten he has is revealed to him – and then practically replayed in the slaughter of everyone at the meeting except him by uniformed, faceless goons. See? Dark, dark, dark. Blake runs and is captured – great, so what’s next? A derring-do escape and a fight-back? No, he’s framed as a paedophile by a legal system we see being utterly corrupt. Much of the rest of the episode isn’t even focused on him as he languishes in prison – it shifts to his defender as he investigates the case, and it’s him we follow through… until he and his girlfriend are killed for getting too close to the truth. Clearly then, Federation baaaaad. We meet Jenna and Vila at the end of the episode as the prison ship London takes off for the penal colony, and that’s how it ends – an off-kilter and weirdly slow beginning, but one that’s full of characterisation and side-picking.

Series A continues at this pace for quite some time – Episode 2, Space Fall, takes place entirely in transit to the penal colony, though it deepens our knowledge of the characters who are going to take us forward – we get to know Vila and Jenna rather more, and add Avon, Gan and a handful of other would-be revolutionaries to our mix. Vila impresses with his sleight-of-hand but disappoints under pressure. Certainly Gan the Man Mountain is disappointed, as are the prisoners who are shot dead as a result of Vila’s blunder – yes, it’s still that dark, people get executed in a corridor. There’s superb work here from Glyn Houston as Leylan as the everyday face of the Federation, the man just trying to do his job and do it decently and well, appalled at the more brutal tactics of his first officer – “Mr Artix, have you gone completely mad?” And the episode ends with the reveal and conquering of one of the show’s endearing icons – the Liberator, the ship you could make a credible replica of out of Fairy Liquid bottles and a green plastic ball, and on which Blake, Jenna and Avon find themselves eventually at home, while Gan, Vila and the others sit and rot on board the London.

Episode 3 finally sees us reach Cygnus Alpha, the penal planet. But is it a high-octane smash and grab prison break episode?

No, it takes a stab at organised religion and the lies and coercions it uses to keep the faithful obedient, with Brian Blessed being very ‘Late-70s Blessed’ – in other words, shouting most things, and dropping to barely a whimsical whisper to show quite how mad he really is. Certainly, there is a jailbreak, but a slick affair, this is not – it’s BBC, confused and grubby, and ultimately only Gan and Vila join the newly-christened Liberator against the Federation. And so the crew begins to build – Blake the ideologue. Jenna the pirate seeking some sort of redemption. Vila the cowardly thief, Avon the human computer, and Gan, the mild-mannered muscle. Great…but that’s five. Including Blake. Six if you’re as whimsical as Blake is and include Zen the computer on board the Liberator.

The next episode too is barely about a plot at all. There are elements thrown in – the Time Squad of the title are a bunch of freeze-dried psychos who skulk about attacking Jenna and Gan for a bit before being killed, and there’s a quest to damage a communications facility – but really it’s about picking up Cally, a telepathic alien with a really bad approach to camouflage. She swans about a rocky, generally gravel quarry planet in a bright red two-piece costume and still has the gall to wonder that all her rebellious comrades are dead. Nevertheless, Time Squad is actually a strong introduction for Cally, and she does get one of her best lines almost right off the bat – “I hope you die alone and silent.” There’s something quite venomous and chilling about that, especially coming from a telepath.

In The Web, the wisdom of allowing a telepath on board your hyper-sophisticated but ultimately freshly-nicked ship is thrown into question when Cally gets possessed by a distant psychic force and leads the ship into a space web, only to be freed when Blake and Avon choose the more ostensibly barbarous of a group of cloned creatures, allowing them to turn on their more outwardly civilised compatriots and essentially smash the world to pieces. One thing early Blake’s 7 is not is a complex morality tale.

It only begins to become anything like that in episode 6, Seek-Locate-Destroy (Terry Nation getting paid twice for some Destiny of the Daleks dialogue, clearly). This is when the series really begins to get interesting, as the ultimately faceless State that is the Federation is given not just one face, but two – the psychotically driven Space Commander Travis, monomaniacally keen to rid the cosmos of Blake personally, and his absolute alter ego, the endlessly, psychopathically cool Supreme Commander Servalan, a lifetime-defining role for Jacqueline Pearce. They’re a fantastically odd couple – she, when we first see her, is little more than a high-level bureaucrat, albeit one who has played politics in the kind of corrupt regime the Federation is, and won; he is a career soldier, augmented with cybernetics and thoroughly blinkered, but in his first incarnation, played by Stephen Greif, never stupid. We always believe more in his dangerous brain than in his fallibility in Series A – not something that would be true in later series.

In Seek-Locate-Destroy, he’s all business, capturing Cally after a technically successful raid on Centero, and working at Sherlock speed to decipher an exploded room and what’s missing from the debris. He’s only outwitted here because Blake has learned the lesson that he taught him, and turned up before anyone realised he was anywhere near.

Mission To Destiny, the next episode, is a perfect example of the late-70s, early-80s mindset of the show. Pitched battle for liberty against the State though the concept may be, it takes time out to give us a whole episode which is essentially Murder on the Orient Express in space. No particular Federation activity, just a ship in a holding pattern, and our have-a-go revolutionaries wade in to solve the mystery. It’s a satisfying watch, to be sure, but you can’t help wondering what a production team in the 21st century would make of Series A – The Web is largely unnecessary and moderately tedious, Time Squad is a lot of toing and froing with only the addition of Cally being of note, and Mission To Destiny is a complete diversion, ultimately starring Avon as a kind of slimline Hercule Poirot.

Continue to the second half of Series A - Duel to Orac.

Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

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