Looking Back At BLAKE'S 7 - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At BLAKE'S 7

Tony needs teleport, NOW!
Terry Nation was a writer who bottled lightning more times in his career than many 21st century writers could dream of, and he did it by excavating some very real 20th century fears and wrapping them in science fiction clothing, without ever looking away from the grimness of the common human experience.

Can’t place him? Vaguely know the name, but…?

His most famous creations would exterminate you for such forgetfulness.

Yes, Terry Nation – former joke-writer for Tony Hancock – was the man who, in 1963, gave the world the Daleks in Doctor Who.

They were Nation’s immortal warning against the blinkered thinking of Nazi ideas, especially xenophobia. But having created an eternal avatar of science-fiction evil, Nation was just getting started.

In 1975, he wrote a groundbreaking, almost HG Wells calibre disaster series called Survivors, which showed what the relatively peaceful England of the mid-70s would become should a modern version of the world-scouring pandemic plagues of ages past, like the Black Death or the Spanish Flu, take hold.

Thanks, Terry. Nice one…

And then in 1978, he gave the world another, much grittier warning against the might of the totalitarian state, oddly wrapped up in the trappings of a space western. He gave the world Blake’s 7.
Star Wars (or A New Hope if you prefer), had hit cinemas the year before, and the world was agog for tales of evil science fiction empires and the plucky heroes who resisted them. But Star Wars was always a fairy tale set on a space background – princesses, hero-questing farmboys with pure hearts, mystic space-wizards with magic swords, the bad emperor and his…ahem…dark knight running an empire that’s totemic but never particularly personal. It might blow up your planet, but it would – at least originally – do it from afar with its techno-magical weaponry.

That was very different from what Terry Nation brought to British TV. His vision was a western in space – he even likened it to The Dirty Dozen. His heroes, the ‘Blake’s 7’ of the title, were all criminals. Roj Blake himself (played by Welsh actor Gareth Thomas), was alone in not having committed any crimes beyond political rabble rousing, but within the very first episode, his friends are slaughtered in an ambush by black-uniformed state troops, his lawyer is assassinated, and Blake himself is both personally beaten and tortured, and a trial manufactured which it’s strongly suggested paints him as an abuser of children.

I’ve a feeling we’re not on Tattooine any more, Toto.

Blake’s luck changed when, en route to the prison planet Cygnus Alpha, his transport ship – crammed with crims as it was – encountered a derelict ship of almost ridiculous size, speed and power, a ship like nothing the Terran Federation (the corrupt and authoritarian regime which had ruined Blake’s life) had ever seen. The governor of the ship ordered a boarding party across, and Blake, with a handful of others, succeeded where others had failed. The ship – seemingly for reasons of its own – accepted them. It was re-named the Liberator, and all of a sudden, the Federation’s public enemy number 1 had the fastest ship in the sector - and the biggest guns.
Resistance to totalitarianism had a new set of icons, and for four series, the crew of the Liberator would do battle with both the Federation in its distant form, and in the personal form of two very particular human beings. Servalan, played with masterly ice by Jacqueline Pearce, was at first just the commander of the Federation’s space policing actions, charged with the task of hunting down Blake and capturing the Liberator to use as a kind of Death Star, the flagship in the Federation fleet. She would eventually go far.

Darth Vader to her Emperor though was Space Commander Travis, originally played with grit and gravitas by Steven Greif, and later, with a touch more hysteria by Brian Croucher. Travis and Blake had personal history, and Travis, often callous and regularly unable to control his hate, had sworn to kill the man who had injured him in a previous altercation.

The key difference between Nation’s screaming pepperpots the Daleks and his Federation in Blake’s 7 was humanity. The Daleks had been humanoid once, but their appearance on-screen was very ‘other,’ and as such, very easy to dismiss. They were screaming Nazi children in tanks. They weren’t us.

But Jacqueline Pearce’s Servalan, and in a different way Space Commander Travis, were human right in front of you, and they’d kill you just because they could. Your rights, your society, your freedoms meant nothing to them – only order and power, the supreme, implacable right of the State, and those at its head, to decide the fates of its people. Servalan could smile while she told you this, and murder while she smiled. She was in almost every way a more identifiable and terrifying villain than Star Wars’ Emperor in 1978.
It was…shall we say ‘probably’ a coincidence that Margaret Thatcher had become Leader of the Conservative Party in the UK in 1977 – and would go on to become Prime Minister in 1981 (the year Blake’s 7 ended). But if there’s a motif to Blake’s 7, it’s ‘Don’t trust the State, and don’t trust its people just because they smile and reassure you. They can destroy you in a heartbeat, and they will, and the smile won’t flicker.’

As for the Liberator crew, Blake was initially joined by three fellow prisoners: Jenna Stannis (Sally Knyvette), pilot and smuggler with a dry sense of humour and a need for a cause she could believe in; Olag Gan (David Jackson), a man mountain who once murdered someone, and was tamed by a chip in his head; and Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow), an ice-hearted computer genius who had tried to steal a planetful of credits from the Federation’s banking system, and been betrayed by the one thing he couldn’t control – other people.

Once the Liberator was free and clear, they would be joined by Villa Restal (Michael Keating), a coward and a thief in equal measure, with a weaselly intelligence that kept him alive, and Cally (Jen Chappell), an alien telepathic guerrilla fighter.

Between them, they and the Liberator (with its 70s Siri-style computer, known as Zen (and voiced by Peter Tuddenham) would fight back against Federation totalitarianism, their combination of talents never disguising the human tensions on board. Avon in particular was no-one’s revolutionary, and frequently challenged Blake’s crusade against the machine. Avon and Villa together were odd couple gold, Blake and Jenna often talked like old soldiers on the wrong side of the law. While initially, Blake’s 7 was a science-fiction western, it relatively quickly added in the dynamic of the relationships between the crew, their interplay and dialogue often hooking viewers as much as the quest to destroy the Federation’s latest super-weapon.

And while we’re talking about super-weapons, it’s worth mentioning that the odds were stacked. Not only did Blake and his crew have the fastest ship in the sector, with the best weapons, it also had a technology the Federation couldn’t match. It had individual teleport capabilities – arguably borrowed straight from Star Trek, but certain a great time-saver in the plot week after week.

And eventually, Blake and his crew had Orac.
Orac? In form, a Perspex box of twinkly fairy lights. In voice, Peter Tuddenham again, this time much more uppity and superior. In function – more or less the computer hacker’s ultimate tool. It could intercept communications channels, talk to other computers across the gulf of space, persuade them to do things… Orac not only predicted the coming of the space internet, it predicted the machine hackers would use to attack it.

In 1978.

We did say Terry Nation bottled lightning…

Blake’s 7 rarely if ever talked down to its audience – it presented an antidote to the likes of Star Trek with its beneficent human Federation, and it ensured its heroes were never particularly sickly-sweet or overly likeable.

It also never shied away from the cost of rebellion against the powers of the State. Both Gan and Cally would pay the ultimate price for their revolutionary activities, but in one of the oddest moves in TV history, after two series, Gareth Thomas – the Blake in Blake’s 7, remember? – decided to leave the show, and Sally Knyvette bowed out too.

Rather than cancel the show, two new crewmembers were brought in: Del Tarrant, a cocky ex-Federation pilot out for payback, placed by Steven Pacey, and Dayna Mellanby (Josette Simon), a young weapons designer with more fire than restraint in her makeup. After Cally died in Series 3, she too was replaced by self-assured sharp-shooter Soolin, played by Glynis Barber.

Even the Liberator itself would not survive into the final series – it was replaced by the much more standard-issue spaceship Scorpio, though few of the Liberator’s special advantages were ultimately lost.

If it sounds like Blake’s 7 was always looking for a shark to jump after the first two series, that’s a little unfair, but the adventures of the crew took on a distinctly different edge when Blake’s 7 lost Blake, the good man going to war for a cause, and Avon, the rational, practical, unsentimental pragmatist took the helm. Over the course of the last two series, Avon actor Paul Darrow said that Avon was developing into more and more of an isolated sociopath. Avon wanted the Federation finished just so he could find some place in the cosmos where he wouldn’t forever be hunted for the impact that Blake’s crusade had made.
Seriously, Blake’s 7 was rarely space wizards, honourable farmboys and wholesome princesses. Funny robots, sure, but in terms of the rest of its make-up, its grimness and grit were off the charts.

Sadly of course, they were off the charts on a 1970s BBC budget, so there were times when the monsters looked silly rather than threatening (Harvest of Kairos, we’re looking at you). But in the scripts – supplied by a host of 1970s British sci-fi greats, not just by Terry Nation – and in the absolute quality of the performances from the revolutionaries, the Federation forces, and a whole host of humanoid villains of the week, Blake’s 7 arguably beat the space-pants off all comers, British or American in the pre-Next Generation era of Trek.

If you wanted proof of Blake’s 7’s grit and grimness, you could do worse than watch the final episode. Just as the first episode dealt with betrayal, fake news engineered by the State and the suppression of resistance to a tranquilised existence, the final episode was shocking when it was broadcast, seeming to end Avon’s journey into paranoic isolation with an ultimate act of personal betrayal that neither he nor the audience could cope with. It’s powerful stuff, and it’s delivered in such a way as to end the show on a note of powerful, horrifying, wonderful ambiguity.

Blake’s 7 is not for the faint-hearted. But give it a try and ignore the occasional ropey monster, and what you’ll find is space western at its finest, underscored by phenomenal acting, and a message of anti-authoritarianism that still has relevance today.

Watch Blake's 7 today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony 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". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. 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 FylerWrites.co.uk

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