A few weeks ago I realised that if I tried watching a Blake’s 7 episode every two days, starting on 10 September, then I will get to the end on this year’s Gauda Prime Day, 21 December. So I’ve been working through the first series, and have just finished it. As it happens I tried a Blake’s 7 rewatch back in 2007–8, and got as far as the end of the first series (and tried again in 2009 but never got past the first episode), so here I’m going to update my previous remarks, linking to each episode on Youtube.
17 May 2007:
Back in January 1978, I was in my last year in primary school, coming up to my eleventh birthday; and Blake’s 7 started, the story of a group of desperate future freedom fighters battling against the evil Federation. I see that there is now a new version being webcast [link has died, but I guess this was the Big Finish version?], and as soon as I can work out how to download these and convert to MP3s for easy listening, I’ll be onto it. (Technical assistance on this gratefully accepted.) (Though they are by Ben Aaronovitch, so not sure how excited I can get.)
Just to say that I have revised my views on Ben Aaronovitch significantly since then.
But meantime I sat down and re-watched the first three TV episodes from 1978. After getting over my shock at how young they all look (all in their 30s, I think, so younger than I am now), I found myself really enjoying it. The first three episodes are a more tightly-linked narrative than the others, as Blake gets together his team and gets control of the alien technology of the Liberator. But they feel very different from each other as well; this is not yer six-part Terry Nation Doctor Who story.
The Way Back: A lot of effort goes into building up a picture of a future Earth which (if I remember correctly) we never actually return to over the next four seasons. (See the director’s reflections on this.)
There are some surprising weaknesses in it — there are longueurs that would be intolerable in today’s Doctor Who, whose episodes are about the same length. One has to ask oneself why, if the Federation holds life so cheap (the body count in this episode must surely be one of the highest for the entire series), they don’t simply kill Blake off as they do so many others. Also the mind-control aspects of the plot, which are potentially very interesting in a Philip K Dick kind of way, are simply left aside by later writers if I remember rightly. But the atmosphere of the repressive government is brilliantly conveyed; these are people that you immediately want to fight against, and you want Blake to fight against them and win.
On one minor plot point: It is difficult to imagine framing someone on paedophilia charges being treated so incidentally in a drama written today. I wonder if Terry Nation got this one from Roger Zelazny’s Today We Choose Faces, published in 1973, where the narrator(s) (one of whose names is Black) do(es) the same thing to a minor character (who turns out to be his/their love interest’s father).
Notes from rewatch on 3 September 2009:
First, the look of it is even better than I remembered. The camera shots through bars, or stairs angled to look like bars, reinforce the claustrophobia. The close-ups on Blake’s eye bring home to us that his perception (and thus ours) has been altered and may not be completely reliable. The silent guards in their masks and black uniforms are very sinister indeed. The shots of Blake’s memory being wiped are effective so it’s not surprising that they get used twice.
Second, the show does a good job of subverting our expectations for what kind of series this is going to be. The very first word from an on-screen character is spoken by former child star Gillian Bailey, who was one of the Double Deckers (if you don’t know, don’t ask). Then we go to the rebel meeting chaired by Robert Beatty, veteran of various screen performances (Who fans will know him as the General in The Tenth Planet). It looks rather as if Bailey and Beatty are going to play central characters in this new series; but they are mercilessly mown down. (A bit like Temmosus of the Thals, with some important differences.)
Then it looks like Blake may be sprung by his lawyer, even though the lawyer and his wife are played by less luminous actors, and we may be moving towards a series with Blake’s new friends Jenna and Vila in space, and Tel and Maja Varon as his agents on earth, Blake somehow operating in between. But the Varons too are killed, off-screen, though we glimpse their twisted corpses.
The Way Back gives us no idea of what sort of show this is going to turn into. The first episode ends with Blake’s permanent deportation from Earth, for crimes he didn’t commit, his only allies killed by the government. It is not a happy ending, but it certainly left my ten-year-old self wanting to watch more back in 1978.
As I noted in 2009, literally the first character to be seen speaking, young rebel Ravella (also the first character to be killed off) is played by Gillian Bailey, who only a few years earlier was Billie on Here Come the Double Deckers!.
I would add that the sexual spark between Blake’s lawyer and his wife, played by Michael Halsey and Pippa Steel, is very convincing. And the scenes of dystopian scrubland outside the future city were filmed in Bray, Berkshire, now in Theresa May’s Maidenhead constituency.
17 May 2007 (again):
Space Fall: I think the least successful of the three, in that it just involves people talking and occasionally fighting on a spaceship, or on two spaceships (once we find out about the Liberator). Having said that, we have a lot of useful introduction — Jenna, Avon and Gan all make their first appearances here (Vila having already been briefly in the previous episode). And we are slightly on tenterhooks as to who is actually going to be a regular character and who isn’t: the unfortunate Nova looks at first like he is going to be one of the Seven, but then gets suffocated by oozing gel.
The Federation officials continue to be utterly horrible, with Leylan, who seems like the nice cop, unable to restrain the nasty Raiker. And the contrast between the functional Federation ship and the alien if dusty Liberator (not yet called that) is effective.
What struck me this time was the weird 1970s image of future tech, which I guess was also true for the first episode but more noticeable here with less plot going on. You have to have big chunky keyboards and flashing lights.
Cygnus Alpha: This is the one where we meet the alien technology of teleportation, that point where Blake’s 7 tried to prove that it was not just aping Star Trek — the visuals were different, the psychological approach to the technology was different, though unfortunately it still worked just exactly the same as the elder version. It memorably features Brian Blessed as Vargas, the leader of the peculiar cult on the eponymous prison planet, which ends with exactly what Avon had predicted happening to him: “I would imagine that they would appear momentarily in space, and then that their atoms would be scattered to the solar winds.”
Again, it’s not clear who is going to be among the 7 until the very last moment — especially since, in fact, we are still not up to our full complement by episode’s end, with only five humans aboard the Liberator (we don’t yet know for sure that Zen counts as one of them).
Oddly enough the teleportation technology is an excuse for a significant exchange between Blake, Avon and Jenna. The two men have just discovered that they both had worked on a project on a similar technology back on earth; Jenna tells them sharply, “I didn’t work on it.” It’s almost a defining moment: the key relationship in the series is between Blake and Avon, and the women are sidelined now and mostly hereafter as well. I have written before about Terry Nation’s women characters, concluding by praising him for the introduction of Soolin in later Blake’s 7 series, but Nick Barlow pointed out that in fact she almost certainly came from someone else.
Here I noted with interest the first of several evil priestesses, played by Pamela Salem, who appeared in Doctor Who twice (and also in The West Wing as the British prime minister).
And the dialogue is getting good as we settle into the format:
Blake: [Blake picks up an alien device on the Liberator] Hand gun?
Avon: It’s a bit elaborate for a toothpick.
Blake: It depends on how elaborate their teeth were.
1 July 2007:
Time Squad: The title of this episode is very peculiar. I suppose it could refer to the alien guards on the captured space pod, but the only sense in which they are a “time squad” is that they are drifting forward in time in suspended animation. It’s even more difficult to make it fit any of the other groups of characters in the story.
However, a lot of this episode is about misdirection of the audience by the writer. At the start, it looks like we are going to settle into a pattern of Blake and team attacking Federation assets à la Resistance fighters of the second world war, and each episode is therefore going to be a raid of the week. But once we have the problems of the pod’s inhabitants running wild about the Liberator, and the sense that the ship itself is powerful but not completely reliable, it looks like this is actually a story about beating off an infiltration on-board while still trying to pull off the mission on the ground. And then there is a further twist, as it turns out that the resistance fighters planetside have been reduced to one telepathic babe.
The episode then resolves in a fairly standard way — alien threat defeated, Federation base blown up as planned — but there have been enough twists getting there that you feel you’ve had your money’s worth. And we now know who the Seven are.
Watching the episodes in quick succession, I was struck by the hint that some time has passed for the characters since Cygnus Alpha; we have moved from the capture and crewing of the Liberator to the notion that the crew have been engaging in routine and successful harassment of the Federation off-screen for ages.
Vila is getting better and better.
Blake: You have to be careful of the plant life around here. Some of it’s carnivorous. Some species even have an intelligence rating.
Vila: That’s a comfort. I should hate to be eaten by something stupid.
The Web: This episode is partly about more back-story for Cally, but I think much more about Blake and to a lesser extent Avon. I saw this first time round in 1978, but had forgotten the detail (possibly lost on me when I was ten) that the evil scientists on the ground are dissidents from Cally’s people. It’s noticeable that the three people who we see being taken over by the baddies’ brain influence are the three women, Cally, Jenna and the female cyborg. I found the crew’s willingness to forgive Cally for sabotaging the ship (even if under mind control) rather too swift. Surely after what happened last episode they should have learnt to be wary of alien interlopers?
But we have lots of Blake here, both ethical!Blake and gay!Blake. Ethical!Blake in his growing realisation of what the situation actually is, and in the end in his refusal to countenance the destruction of the Decimas, even though this means danger for his own crew. (That final scene in the lab, with the Decimas contemptuously trashing the bodies of the cyborgs, is pretty horrific and did linger in my memory for the last thirty years!)
But also gay!Blake in his relationship with Avon — that moment when Avon throws himself at Blake to protect him from the bomb which is about to explode is fantastic — Avon tries to explain it away as an instinctuive reflex — yeah, right, their hands are practically intertwining. And there is practically no body chemistry between the men and the women on the Liberator, apart from Vila’s attempt to chat up mind-controlled Cally — which would probably have been disastrous anyway, as rather than compliment her on her appearance he asks her to compliment him on his!
NB also lots of classic Terry Nation twists — this is basically a riff on Davros and the Daleks, with the important difference that the Decimas are not in fact evil.
Full marks to the person who spotted this link.
It seemed to me even more jarring this time that Cally, the newest of the crew, is not treated with more suspicion by the others when under mind control. Again, maybe this jumps out more when you are watching the episodes a day or so apart rather than a week apart.
And jeepers, the final scene with the Decimas remains as chilling to 52-year-old me as it was for 10-year-old me.
7 November 2008:
Seek-Locate-Destroy is the one which introduces Blake’s foes Travis and Servalan, in a scene of crackling testosterone. We also get the unexpected bonus of Peter Miles (Nyder in Genesis of the Daleks) as Secretary Rontane, demanding Blake’s head, and some lovely lines from Vila: “Tell him I’ve just worked out a completely new strategy. It’s called running away.” “There isn’t a lock I can’t open — if I’m scared enough.” Nice character bits as they attack the complex in the first half of the episode.
Unfortunately after that first scene with Servalan, Stephen Greif seems to rather lose interest in playing Travis and Terry Nation rather loses interest in giving him anything interesting to do. The core of the plot is promising — Blake risking all to rescue captured Cally — but in the end it is rather disappointing that he simply teleports through the defences that Travis has laboriously set up precisely to prevent him from doing so, and the dramatic punch evaporates.
Poor Cally — it takes ages for the crew to realise that they have left her behind, and it’s not as if it is difficult to count to five.
It is interesting that the Federation already has a rough idea of Liberator’s speed and capabilities, suggesting again that there has been a lot more action off-screen that we have not seen.
Incidentally, both Gareth Thomas and Jacqueline Pearce were in the 1974 BBC David Copperfield (as Murdstone and Rosa Dartle respectively). But he was in the first two episodes and she was in episodes 3–6, so they were not on screen together.
Mission to Destiny is an interesting example of B7 veering into a completely different genre, as essentially a locked-room murder mystery on board a spaceship, with a subplot of Perilous Journey for Blake and the others. Avon solves the mystery and gets one of the best quotes ever. (Cally: “My people have a saying, ‘A man who trusts can never be betrayed, only mistaken.’” Avon: “Life expectancy must be fairly short among your people.”) John Leeson, the Voice of K9, plays one of the spaceship crew whose mutual antagonisms support the plot. We also get a glimpse of life on human planets outside the Federation.
It all works except for the Liberator sub-plot, where the timings (desperate run to the planet Destiny, through the meteor storm, yet somehow back again in time to catch the Destiny crew before the bad guys arrive) just don’t work out. Also it might not have been a bad idea to check that there was something in the box before risking life and limb for it.
This is a very good example of Terry Nation’s approach to an episodic series by having the occasional episode with very little relation to the main narrative, the same sort of spirit that we would later see with Buffy. As far as I remember we get more of this later on. But the answer to the mystery is rather obvious…
As for Duel, it is essentially an interesting variation on the equivalent Star Trek, Frederic Brown and Longyear — most notably, that Blake and Travis get their companions as well to help them. Again, Avon gets the best line (“Blake is sitting up in a tree; Travis is sitting up in another tree. Unless they’re planning to throw nuts at one another, I don’t see much of a fight developing before it gets light.”) Some good special effects especially as Liberator rams Travis’s ship.
As always with this type of story, I am bothered by the fact that we don’t get a good handle on the means and motivation of the god-like aliens. Poor Isla Blair, playing Sinofar, was obviously rather cold. The concept of the Mutoids is good and well explored though.
Just to make the point that Sinofar is another evil priestess (as indeed is Patsy Doyle as Giroc).
Project Avalon works perhaps the best of these four episodes. It is strangely reminiscent of a couple of Terry Nation’s Doctor Who stories — the whole underground lab reached through a cave complex thing from Genesis of the Daleks (and indeed The Daleks), the android doubles from The Android Invasion (and less seriously The Chase) and the super-vicious virus from Death to the Daleks! (and referenced also in Genesis). Here he has boiled some of his own favourite themes together to make a decent drama.
I still don’t like Stephen Greif as Travis, but I did like the changed relationship with Servalan, she now is putting him under pressure to deliver (and I’m not really sure that his assertion that he could have eliminated Blake but for the Federation’s insistence on capturing the Liberator is supported by that we have seen on screen). A lot of fans don’t like Julia Vidler as Avalon but I think she’s OK, both as Avalon herself and the android double. Some decent special effects as well. Vila and his heat suit is hilarious. Even Blake gets a good line (“They probably tried to surrender…). The best of these four. Apart from the stupid robot.
I had completely forgotten ever watching this episode before, but again I rather enjoyed it. It was also fun to recognise the Wookey Hole caves from Revenge of the Cybermen and David Bailie from The Robots of Death (which Pamela Salem was also in). I totally failed to recognise Glynis Barber as the main Mutoid, despite the fact that she becomes the regular character Soolin in future series.
23 November 2008:
Breakdown — The one about Gan’s limiter breaking down (hence the title). The first half is a bit silly, with David Jackson doing manic grunting and throwing the rest of them around while yet another dangerous sector of space must be crossed; the second half is really rather good, with the two tensions of 1) is the surgery going to work and 2) is Avon going to defect from the crew. Julian Glover is brilliant as nasty genius surgeon Kayn, and Avon is at his most sinister, with the Avon/Blake relationship at its worst. Also we have the comic relief of Kayn’s sexist assistant: “I love girls with a sense of humour” — to which Jenna replies, “Yes, I can see where that would be an advantage.” But I must say this isn’t the one I would show someone to get them into the series.
Blake’s 7 really isn’t that good at convincing plots about space threats. Why on earth does Zen shut down and refuse to be helpful? It makes no sense, and then there is no follow-up from the rest of the crew to try and make sure it doesn’t happen again. So for all they know, Zen will just shut down again the next time they face a severe threat. Not very satisfactory.
But Julian Glover is tremendous.
On rewatching, I thought the first half was dramatically quite strong, apart from the fact that the guards are very very stupid indeed as well as being poor shots. The location is lovely though — the Waterloo Tower in Quex Park. And for once Cally gets to use her telepathic skills.
NB that the two main villainous robed guys are both played by actors who were born in India. Yep, the first visible non-white characters in the whole of Blake’s 7 are thieves and collaborators, who hit on Jenna.
Deliverance — This is much more like it. Here the two stories are 1) Avon finds himself the subject of a prophecy saving a lost race, also subject to the worship of the charming Meegat; and 2) Ensor junior hijacks the Liberator in an attempt to save his father, as the result of an unusually evil plot by Servalan which even has Travis blinking. Avon, having been a potential turncoat two episodes previously, is now forced to discover some nobility of character by circumstances, and duly does so (Vila to Avon: “Counting yourself, that makes two people who think you’re wonderful”. Poor Cally continues her descent into uselessness, being mere canon-fodder for Ensor junior’s hostage-taking. Jenna, captured by savages, does rather better.
Just to note that Meegat is yet another priestess, though not actually evil, played by Suzan Farmer who I don’t think I have seen in anything else, but she was married to Ian McShane until her death in 2017. I did wonder about the ecosystem on her planet. The Primitives appear to have no women.
Speaking of women, it’s unfortunate that Cally and Jenna end up being peril monkeys here.
Orac — The season ends with one of its strongest stories. With Deliverance, it’s the first properly linked pair of stories since the very start of the season; all the crew who went down-planet last week falling ill with radiation sickness this week. It depends on a rather odd distribution of medicines (Ensor doesn’t have what he needs, but does have what the Liberator folks need) but once you swallow that, it’s tense and well-paced. I was mildly puzzled by the way in which Servalan and Travis didn’t quite seem in phase once we switched to the studio scenes, and it turns out that Stephen Greif was injured and couldn’t do them; in which case I think they handled it well.
Did anyone else think that Derek Farr as Ensor was very much channelling William Hartnell’s Doctor? More on this below.
The final cliff-hanger — Orac’s prediction that the Liberator would be destroyed — kept us all guessing for a year; was that the prediction on the screen, or was that what had actually happened?
I had forgotten that Orac does not actually say that the Liberator will be destroyed — the line is “space vehicle will be destroyed” and then what looks like the Liberator blowing up.
I was really struck by Vere Lorrimer’s skill in persuading us that a quarry in Rickmansworth is an alien seaside, by use of stock pictures and sound effects of waves rolling in. I think the lizard-thing is the first actual alien non-human monster we have had too; there are plenty of human monsters in the Blake’s 7 universe.
My conclusion after all of this is that anyone who wants to appreciate Terry Nation’s work in Blake’s 7 also needs to see his early Doctor Who serial, The Keys of Marinus. The six 25-minute episodes are essentuially five distinct stories, the last being a two-parter, in which the regulars are sent to different environments for the adventure of the week. Several of them — the murder mystery, the chilly environment, the bottled brains — have fairly direct parallels in B7, but I’m more struck by the underlying concept of subjecting your team to different stresses and seeing what it brings out of them — Nation wasn’t actually terribly good at this, but the thought was there. One thing he manages in B7 which he didn’t do so often in Who was humour. Well, we’ll see if the new Survivors is any cop.
I never got around to the new Survivors, but am glad to be back with Blake’s 7.