Some things you don’t want to leave up to chance. Whilst all of Blake’s 7 seems to be freely available via YouTube, with no particular effort by the BBC to get it taken down, at the same time I’d wanted a physical copy of the thing just in case all that changed in the immediate future – plus, getting the proper DVDs likely meant better quality than the YouTube copies. Lo and behold, after Christmas HMV went bust (again), and in the midst of the fire sale I was able to get a boxed set of the complete series for a fraction of the usual price.
I’m going to share my thoughts on Blake’s 7 here, and like my mammoth article on Babylon 5 way back when I’m not going to flinch at dropping spoilers. If you’re averse to spoilers for a show which is now over 40 years old, then to be honest I’m not that fussed about your feelings because there’s a statute of limitations on these things, but don’t complain if you read deeper into the article and encounter spoilers.
Other sources of comparatively fresh Blake’s 7 discussion include the excellent podcast Down and Safe, featuring various professional SF authors taking it in episode by episode, but don’t get your hopes up for them to ever actually finish the damn thing – the update schedule got increasingly glacial, until their season 2 wrapup got released nearly a year and a half ago, so I suspect the odds of them actually getting to the end of season 4 are so remote as to be not worth considering. (Dear Down and Safe crew: I love your work but if you don’t want me saying mean things about your schedule, prove me wrong, mamajamas.)
A non-spoilery observation, by the way: as much as American hegemony is problematic, I am really glad that American English has given us this distinction between “series” and “seasons” in talking about television. In British English, it is the case – or at least used to be the case – that “series” was used to mean both “series” (as in the show as a whole) and “season” (as in a particular run of the show), which in retrospect is tremendously awkward because whenever you mentioned a “series finale” it was unclear whether you meant the final episode of a series ever or just the last episode of the latest run. It feels like we’ve had a bit of a sea-change lately, possibly due to the boxed set/Netflix streaming era making it more common to consume TV by the season and so much of the fodder for that coming from America.
So, where do we find ourselves at the start of season 1? Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas) resides in a vast domed city on Earth, hub of the interstellar Terran Federation. After being cajoled by some friends, he agrees to go to a dubious meeting outside the dome, where he’s informed that the whole facade of his life is a sham. Before he was Roj Blake, random nobody, he was Roj Blake, dissident leader – but when the Federation authorities cracked down on his opposition group, they subjected him to extensive brainwashing to force him to forget his past. The meeting taking place is led by some of Blake’s old allies, attempting to piece the resistance back together again – and desperately hoping that Blake can be nudged into remembering his old life and joining them.
Speaking of crackdowns, this particular meeting has the shitty luck to have a mole present, and lo and behold the government forces show up. They abruptly execute everyone present – the fact that the meeting was taking place outside the closely monitored dome ironically making it all too easy for the troops to commit this atrocity without worrying about any sort of complicated cover-up.
Blake got away and made it to the dome – but the authorities soon pick him up. Fabricating false charges against him to discredit him in the eyes of those who still remember his old resistance movement, the Federation has him convicted in a show trial. His sentence is shipped off to a penal colony in the Outer Worlds on the starship London, onboard which he exchanges a bit of banter and makes the beginning of a friendship with two fellow prisoners, the sly thief Vila Restal (Michael Keating) and badass smuggler pilot Jenna Stannis (Sally Knyvette).
Such is the plot of pilot episode The Way Back. Over subsequent episodes, Blake, Jenna, and Vila will make new allies, win their freedom, acquire their own ship, and become the first members of a new guerrilla force battling the depredations of the Federation – a force known to television viewers, but never quite definitively enumerated, as Blake’s 7.
As far as an opening episode for a science-fiction television show goes, few have simultaneously dated as much and yet have retained so much freshness as The Way Back. A lot of the style of it is rooted in that 1970s-1980s style of British TV SF which Darkplace spoofed so well, and the fashion sense involved is downright embarrassing (note: Servalan has not shown up yet, this will all change for the better once she arrives), and yet at the same time the particular dystopia depicted here retains a certain power to it.
That largely comes down to the antagonists here. Whilst the villains of later episodes of the series will tend to be more colourful and melodramatic, here Blake’s fate is engineered by a trio of affable civil servants, treating the matter like it’s no more emotionally stirring than, say, a particularly awkward planning permission dispute or something as mundane as that.
The smooth, institutionally-supported way in which they stitch everything up is chilling, and I would actually go to bat to say that the scene in which they discuss how they’re going to deal with the matter is one of the most important scenes in Blake’s 7, and is specifically the most important scene when it comes to establishing the nature of the Federation. Whilst particular villains like Servalan will become prominent later, this scene sets the precedent that this is not a dictatorship with all loyalty directed to one single individual, so much as it’s a matter of autocratic civil servants destroying people for the sake of perpetuating an establishment which exists solely to perpetuate its own existence.
This tells us some truly frightening things about the Federation. The first is that it is an institution, not an individual (or even a conspiracy of individuals), and therefore is incredibly difficult to destroy; end one enemy, and another will step up to take their place. The second is that, as a society which exists for no purpose except to perpetuate itself, it’s a direction which our world could very easily evolve in – for what purpose does any government or society or culture actually exist, save for the purpose of perpetuating its existence?
Take a look at the Federation here. It doesn’t seem like the upper reaches of society actually have an enormously more luxurious time of it than the lower reaches, so it’s not like they are perpetuating a massive wealth disparity or anything like that. Most of the atrocities they do are committed against people who are trying to disrupt the smooth running of the system; most of those disrupting the system seem to be upset that they didn’t get to choose who runs the system, rather than having any particularly different vision of how the system should work. The only substantive shift in social organisation mandated in The Way Back by the rebels is for the Outer Planets to declare independence from Earth; their plan to do this involves sabotage to tighten up the food supply and bring down a famine. Charming.
The political universe of Blake’s 7 effectively unfolds in an era where ideology has died; democratic elections here would not necessarily result in any particular different outcomes, because there’s no real indication that there are any real competing visions on how society is to be structured. Blake and his colleagues rebel against the Federation for the sake of an ill-defined freedom; the gears of the Federation largely grind on for the sake of keeping the lights on and everyone fed. The freedom the rebels seek seems, at times, to be nothing more than the freedom of the individual to perish rather than to submit to the indignities necessary for mass survival in this era, or at most the freedom to force the system to play “fair” rather than inventing evidence and operating in a basically corrupt manner.
About that: one thing which has only become more shocking as time goes by since the episode first aired is the solution that trio of civil servants I mention arrive at when it comes to smearing Blake. It boils down to them brainwashing a bunch of children so that they would think Blake had abused them, so not only are they using child rape accusations as a means of getting at Blake, but they are also effectively abusing the children themselves by implanting them with memories of abuse which seem so real it’s as though they actually were molested. It’s this, perhaps, which solidifies the case that the Federation – or, at least, the corrupt lot currently in charge of the Federation – are the baddies in this equation, because they are willing to go to that extreme to convict someone.
Some may worry about a “don’t listen to victims” message coming out here. Modern audiences should bear in mind that what we have here isn’t a #MeToo situation where an abuse victim actively steps forward to tell their story – it’s more in line with the infamous “Satanic ritual abuse” scare of the 1980s, as inspired by Michelle Remembers, in which people – often children – were cajoled by therapists with agendas into claiming to remember all sorts of incidents which demonstrably, objectively, verifiably did not happen, much as David Icke and others exploited people like Arizona Wilder who later admitted that they were making things up.
Here I suspect Nation was in part inspired by the totalitarian regimes of the 1970s – take, for instance, the Soviet Union’s abuse of psychiatry, right down to the invention of entire new categories of psychiatric illness – for the sake of discrediting political prisoners. Nonetheless, Nation’s prediction of the weaponising of false abuse allegations – and the way that such incidents only makes it harder to get the word out about real incidents – is pretty unnerving when you consider that the cottage industry in inducing false memories of Satanic abuse wouldn’t take off until years after the show’s 1978 debut, and can all too easily happen again. (It’s frankly lucky that nobody’s turned to hypnotherapists to manufacture some fake victims for Pizzagate.)
There’s a fun side plot here to eat the rest of the episode time, in which Blake’s defence attorney Tel Varon (Michael Halsey) and Tel’s wife Maja (Pippa Steel) do some sleuthing and discover evidence that the children really were brainwashed, and that Blake really was telling the truth – only to be unceremoniously killed just as they piece the puzzle together. Even when you know this sideline is coming to nothing (and contextually, it’s obvious that it isn’t going to amount to anything, otherwise there won’t be a show to speak of), it’s a really effective one and you genuinely get a feeling that the Varons could have succeeded and have become major players in the series as a result – except that’s just not how the cookie crumbled in the end.
The episode is strewn with some proto-cyberpunk moments – networked computers are a big deal in this future, there’s a character bopping away at one point to a VR walkman – and for much of the rest of the series it would take little dips into cyberpunk here and there. For instance, in the second episode, Space Fall, we’re introduced to the character of Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) – eventually to become the second most important character in the series next to Blake himself – as a genius computer hacker. Blake’s 7‘s most important cyberpunk credential, I’d say, is that it pits its protagonists against the powers that be as underdogs fighting the power, and technology is this tool either for them to turn the tables on them or a method of control depending on the hands its in; it’s this political appreciation of technology and its interface with class which older generations of SF often overlook.
The introduction of Avon is perhaps the most important thing that happens in Space Fall. Other important things happen there too – we also meet Oleg Gan (David Jackson), destined to be the “gentle giant” of Blake’s group, and crucially Blake, Jenna and Avon are able to slip the clutches of the London and take control of the Liberator – a starship of alien design, apparently abandoned in space after a battle between unknown powers, whose astonishing capabilities will in future episodes allow Blake and his team to really take the fight to the Federation.
The Liberator, in fact, is of crucial importance because it’s the first significant injection of adventure, of whimsy, of the fantastical into the show – it’s a big mystery when it shows up, and whilst some answers to eventually arise, it never quite feels like something which is wholly explained. The manner of its arrival, as a participant in a space battle which the London only picks up from astonishing distances away from distant sensor signals and the occasional disruptive shockwave, immediately suggests that there is more to the universe than the drab world of the Federation; its warmly glowing features and eccentric, colourful design offer a striking counterpart both to the drab industrial functionality of the London and the sterilised, whitewashed world of the domed cities we saw last episode. (The fact that its control desks are a little… er… wobbly – and not in a cool, intentional way – we just have to forgive.)
Nonetheless, it’s Avon’s introduction which is so crucial here. Avon is perhaps the most important member of the core party next to Blake, to the point where when Blake was absent for the latter two series of the show due to Gareth Thomas dropping out of the series, Avon ultimately took over as team leader and main protagonist. Indeed, in some respects Avon’s story is actually much more interesting than Blake’s is over the course of the entire series; after his initial wobbles in The Way Back, Blake’s character arc is overall somewhat smoother than Avon’s long, troubled journey from the materialistic, self-centred pragmatist we see here to the idealistic revolutionary leader that he becomes – in part through Blake’s influence, in part through the influence of the rest of the crew.
The intense friendship-rivalry between them makes Blake and Avon two of the most iconic frenemies in all television science fiction, putting Spock and Dr McCoy to shame, and what’s interesting about Space Fall is how the chemistry between the two characters almost instantaneously clicks into place; Darrow and Thomas give perhaps the best performance in the episode (and maybe even the first quarter of the season) during the mutiny sequence in which Blake, Jenna and Avon are besieged in the computer room of the London, and the two of them end up setting out their initial philosophical starting points of idealism versus pragmatism.
On some level, in fact, it seems like even Blake recognises that he lives in an era when ideals and ideology are abandoned concepts – and that perhaps what he is fighting for is the very basic intellectual freedom within which ideals can begin to take form in the first place. Avon, for his part, seems to take the view that politics is ultimately about nothing more than the distribution of power, that you can’t have a society without power, and that ultimately if other people aren’t ruthless enough to take opportunities when they present themselves it’s on them.
It’s these sorts of character interactions which made Blake’s 7 groundbreaking for its time and still fresh and enjoyable today, even when it’s at its most imitative. Take the third episode, Cygnus Alpha, in which Blake, Jenna, and Avon make the acquaintance of the Liberator‘s AI control computer, Zen (voiced by Peter Tuddenham), discover the ship’s teleportation system, and embark on a rescue mission to try and recover the remaining prisoners from the Federation prison colony the London was taking them to. The complication is that the descendants of the original prisoners have created a tyrannical cult, which rules over the world from a creepy, medieval, Hammer Horror-esque fortress… in the end, only Gan and Vila are rescued from the terrible hands of Brian Blessed.
Now, aside from the specific Blake’s 7 continuity details there, that’s basically a Star Trek episode: a band of space explorers beam down to a planet which bears no small resemblance to a quarry, they meet a culture where someone’s been playing God, the scam ultimately comes crashing down and a moral about the amassing of power through religious dogma is provided. The episode is spiced up largely by two things which strikingly set it apart from Roddenberry-era Trek.
The first is the evident mistrust between the protagonists. As well as Jenna and Avon arguing about whether to just ditch Blake on the planet and run off with the ship, you also have Blake, after his first brief expedition to the planet’s surface, outright failing to fill in the others about the cult of cloaked stabbity bois he ran into during his scouting trip. Whilst the former is predictable enough, the latter seemed odd to me on first viewing, but on further analysis it reveals a particularly troubling aspect of Blake’s leadership style.
Think it through: why would Blake not mention those dudes? Assuming we haven’t got a full-blown Memento thing going on, it’s because he didn’t want Avon and Jenna to know about them. Why would he not want them to know? So that they have no basis to quibble with him when he claims that his return trip to collect the prisoners will be easy. Blake knows that Jenna and Avon are more risk-averse than he is, and will be wary of sending him down – even with one of the Liberator‘s laser weapons – to take on an entire cult of murdercreeps. So he high-handedly holds back information so as to manufacture their consent without giving them knowledge of the risk they’re consenting to.
This starts a pattern of away teams and bridge crew on Blake’s 7 bullshitting each other; Jenna fails to appraise Blake of a security situation onboard the Liberator in the following episode, presumably because she didn’t want the away team to abandon their mission (although really, in this case it’s incredibly pointless of her to withhold the information and the only apparent reason she does it is to ensure the episode’s subplots can continue on their predetermined course). It also starts a pattern of Blake deciding he knows best and socially manipulating the crew into going along with it, which also happens towards the start of the next episode when he unilaterally declares what the next mission is going to be – a character flaw which suggests that he’s not as respectful of personal freedom and choice as he likes to claim to be.
The other thing setting this episode apart from so much original series Trek is the dank, spooky medieval atmosphere of the low-tech society depicted. When Trek went for low-tech worlds it tended to draw more on classical civilisations like ancient Greece and Rome – I suspect partly because the 1960s fashion for sword and sandal movies made getting the sets for such nice and easy, but it also made for a happy, colourful luxurious take on the past, not a vision of the past as a filth-ridden realm of Gothic hideousness. This willingness to include anachronistically elderly aesthetics into the setting is a big part of British SF of the 1970s and 1980s; 2000 AD did it a lot of the time, and of course Warhammer 40,000 is more or less entirely built on it.
Of course, the season isn’t all wine and roses. After three particularly strong episodes, Blake’s 7 delivers its first clunker of an episode in the form of Time Squad, an episode whose title seems to have been produced by a random space opera episode name generator since there is absolutely nothing in it which you could reasonably describe as a “Time Squad”. Blake, Avon and Vila pop down to a planet to blow up a data processing complex; along the way, they meet and recruit telepathic freedom fighter Cally (Jan Chappell), whose introduction finally rounds out the “seven” in Blake’s 7 if you count them as Vila, Gan, Jenna, Avon, Zen, Cally, and Blake himself. Meanwhile, Jenna and Gan end up having trouble with some frozen aliens that the crew picked up on the way to the data centre – trouble which only happens because they pointlessly withhold information from the away team – and Gan is revealed to have been installed with a brain chip which won’t let him kill people.
It’s two limp plots with little to do with each other, pointlessly smushed together for the sake of making a full episode; neither plot helps out the other very much and Terry Nation could have perhaps done with junking the “frozen aliens” plot and adding more depth to the data centre raid. In particular, it would have been nice if at some point in this episode Cally had actually done something to earn the utterly pointless mistrust that Jenna directs at her towards the end of the episode. I guess the idea is that women are catty and don’t like having other ladies around competing for the attention of all the cute boys onboard ship or something equally appalling or risible like that; either way, the initial chemistry between the two isn’t a strong point for the series or for Terry Nation’s writing.
If Time Squad was a bit aimless, The Web is an astonishing mess. It comes across as a half-baked Doctor Who script, cannibalised and repurposed by Nation to fill a gap in the Blake’s 7 slate. You have weird science, rubber-suited monsters, yet another Terry Nation dystopia based on genetic manipulation, and so on and so forth. Perhaps the biggest thing which makes it feel like a recycled Who script is all the wheel-spinning and time-wasting at the start of the episode that serves no purpose beyond boxing the Liberator into a corner where Blake has to teleport down to the planet and Doctor it up for a while – a section which, of course, wouldn’t be needed in Who itself because “the TARDIS and its crew show up somewhere randomly” is a perfectly cromulent Who opening, whereas “the Liberator and its crew show up somewhere” demands a bit more justification.
Risibly, this justification involves Cally – the very episode after her debut – being telepathically hijacked via her psychic capabilities in order to sabotage the ship. This is yet another of that infuriating SF trope in which a woman in the cast is given psychic powers by the author as a means of giving her a distinctive ability which makes her stand out from the rest of the ensemble cast – only for that ability, which in the hands of a man would be a badass superpower, ends up being more of a liability than an actual help over the course of the series. (Darkplace spoofed this magnificently by having Liz Asher be established as having psychic powers in episode 1, have them run out of control in episode 2, and then largely having her powers forgotten about for the rest of the series.)
Oh, and it also includes a giant goofy space web which represents one of the silliest special effects I’ve ever seen in a space opera. (There’s bad-on-purpose Mystery Science Theater 3000 model shots that look better.)
The season gets back on track – and the series as a whole makes an important course correction – with Seek-Locate-Destroy, which introduces two important nemeses for Blake and his crew. The first and most important of these is Supreme Commander Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce). Despite her fancy rank, Servalan is not the ultimate leader of the Federation but seems to be in charge of at least a chunk of its security apparatus; in the political discussions she has with other Federation figures there’s reference to a President who’s quite worried about what’s going on.
Nonetheless, for the rest of the series Servalan will be the main face of Blake’s Federation foes, and Pearce cuts a magnificent figure in the process of doing so. Capable of shifting gears from flirtatious to frosty in a second and with a fashion sense which begins in the Jadisian and only gets more enthralling as the series goes on, she’s basically space opera’s answer to the White Witch of Narnia. She adds a welcome touch of glamour and camp to the otherwise dreary aesthetic of the Federation, but never at the cost of undermining her status as an authority figure. She might be dressed to the nines, but it’s for the sake of projecting power, not cheap titillation; of course, for some of us that makes her all the more appealing to our filthier instincts, but the series never takes the low road and has her overtly go full space dominatrix.
It does, occasionally, skirt the line, especially when she’s ordering around black leather jumpsuited fascist Space Commander Travis (played in this season by Stephen Grief). Travis is the one who originally caught Blake prior to his brainwashing – but at the cost of hideous injuries, repaired with cybernetics which he’s deliberately kept functional rather than cosmetically appealing so that they can act as constant reminders of his grudge against Blake.
Whereas Servalan is a figure in total control of her emotions, Travis is a vibrating mass of rage who’s only barely on the leash; before he makes his entrance, we’re told repeatedly that he’s a ruthless fiend who’s considered to be excessively kill-happy even by many of his peers in the Federation. As played by Grief, he’s an excellent foil for Blake.
Whilst the episode is mostly based around the introduction of these major characters, there’s also some significant development on the side of the main cast. In particular, the opening act shows how the gang have now cooked up some really smart strategies to use with their teleportation bracelets. For instance, because they can put someone down first in the general vicinity of their target and then send the rest of the attack team down to a more precise location later, they can send their sneakiest members (Blake and Vila, usually) down first before deploying the cavalry – and because they can teleport away they never need to come up with a sensible extraction plan, allowing them to use the standard tabletop RPG party’s plan of “sneak our way in, fight our way out” and effectively skip the “fight our way out” part.
There’s a mild snafu, however, in which Cally – a mere episode after her psychic abilities end up creating a liability – ends up getting captured and used as bait in a trap (and, unless I missed something, doesn’t use her telepathic abilities once in the episode), and the team don’t notice for ages. Whilst it might be believable for the away team members to not immediately notice that Jenna hadn’t come back with them, Jenna, who was operating the teleport controls, would surely have noticed near-immediately that Cally hasn’t come back – but doesn’t mention anything until Blake and the others realise Cally is missing. Oh, Jenna, you backstabbing snake!
Cally finally gets a chance to show some competence in Mission To Destiny – an interestingly structured episode in which, whilst Blake and the rest of the crew hustle vital supplies to the titular colony world of Destiny, Cally and Avon stay behind on the damaged ship which had been carrying it (restricted to sublight speeds due to sabotage) to deal with a fun little murder mystery. The murder mystery is by far the most interesting subplot, but is sabotaged by the lack of time assigned to it, whereas the courier B-plot is rather underbaked; the episode would have been better served had the fetch quest taken place entirely offstage so that the murder mystery aspects could have been concentrated on and tuned up.
Part of the issue with a series whose concept is “Blake’s 7” is that seven is quite a lot of protagonists; having the odd episode concentrating on the interactions of two or three of them at a time helps that a lot, and having teased out the idea by this point that different crew members can be assigned to the A-plot and B-plot on an episode, the series would throw in some more successful episodes along these lines in the future.
An even less successful take on the same schtick is Duel, in which a space battle between the Liberator and Travis’s pursuit ships is witnessed and intervened in by two powerful witches – the only remnants of a powerful civilisation which exterminated itself in war. Feeling inclined to a bit of heavy-handed moralising, the witches teleport Blake and Jenna into a forest, where they must face down Travis and one of his mutoid agents (Carol Royle).
There’s several problems with this episode. The first is that it starts out in a really interesting environment – the dark, bizarre ruins of the witches’ culture – only to transfer most of its action to a generic forest, like the budget for the really cool set ran out and they had to go LARP out the rest of the episode. The second is that there isn’t really a B-plot to keep the rest of the characters occupied, and a perfect means of avoiding the need to cut back to them occasionally to show them not accomplishing anything (the stasis beam that the ships are caught in could quite happily have frozen them in time).
Another issue is that Blake and Jenna don’t seem to have much of a chemistry. This could be down to Jenna being a somewhat underdeveloped character, of course, but then again Nation was able to give her and Avon more of an interesting interaction than those between Blake and Jenna here.
That said, they do seem positively buzzing in comparison to the interactions between Travis and his lead mutoid (Carol Royle). The revelation that mutoids are emotionless amnesiac brainwashed super-cyborg vampires who need to regularly drink blood to power themselves is fun, but the hints that the lead mutoid is a woman that Travis lusted after once and then had turned into a mutoid out of spite fails to land entirely, largely because the mutoid in question seems entirely unaffected by any of these hints and largely content with her lot in life, just as programmed. Nation and team would eventually come to the conclusion that Travis needed to be teamed up with Servalan if they wanted him to have interesting banter with someone, since Servalan was the only Federation character Travis had a modicum of chemistry with.
Servalan makes a welcome return in Project Avalon, in which she shows up to witness the last phases of Travis’ ambitious project to ensnare Blake – using mutoids, brainwashing staff, biowarfare, and all the best toys of the Federation, along with a crucial prisoner: the titular Avalon (Julia Vidler), a fellow firebrand who independently of Blake has kicked off rebellions on dozens of other planets. The existence of characters like Avalon is a useful reminder that Blake and his crew are not the sum total of the resistance; the episode overall really teases out the best of the series, with the A-plot involving Blake and his crew’s heists to free Avalon and the B-plot involving the internal politics of the Federation; generally, the heist/politics combination is where Blake’s 7 shines.
Nation abandons the A-plot/B-plot structure momentarily on Breakdown, which is more of a linear series of A-plots, each of which is characterised by a significant cast member being uncooperative with the others. Gan’s limiter (the existence of which Nation has suddenly remembered) is playing up, and as a result he’s undergoing red-hot neurological hell and going kill-happy as a result. Then Zen gets pissy about navigating the Liberator through their most direct route to help, and the crew has to handle all sorts of business based off that, and Avon finds the processing so annoying that when the ship reaches its destination – a neutral research space station – he declares his intent to quit the crew, only to hastily change his mind when the space station turns out to be completely dysfunctional.
The problem with the episode is that by far the most interesting crisis in it (Avon’s decision to leave) and the most interesting concept in it (the neutral space station that pays its way through freelance research) are both compressed to the point where they can’t properly be explored, due to all of the busywork in the earlier phases in the episode eating up time. The conflict between elite brain surgeon Kayn (Julian Glover) and pen-pushing administrator Farren (Ian Thompson) ends up escalating to murder so absurdly quickly that it’s almost funny.
Another episode which botches its conclusion is Bounty. For much of its run the episode is really good, focusing on Blake and Cally’s bid to persuade the deposed President Sarkoff (T.P. McKenna), former leader of Lindor, to return to that planet to prevent a Federation-backed takeover. The second part of the episode throws in the complication: whilst the away team were off looking for Sarkoff, the Liberator was taken over by the bounty hunter Tarvin (Marc Zuber), an old flame of Jenna’s. The main problem with this subplot isn’t the basic concept, which is solid, but in the way that Tarvin and his people are dressed like extras from Laurence of Arabia and their entire culture is discussed like they’re a bunch of ne’er-do-well smugglers. On the one hand, yay for diversity in the cast; on the other hand, boo to that diversity coming about in the form of crude racial stereotypes. (The side order of sexual threat towards Jenna from Tarvin is equally unwelcome.)
One thing which makes Blake’s 7 stand out is that, even though the mid-season 1 episodes (once they get the Liberator and core crew together) might seem like they’re self-contained episodes and the show’s one of those standard “status quo is restored to normal each episode” setups, the series actually had substantially more continuity going on than you’d necessarily appreciate on an initial watch.
Deliverance, the penultimate episode of season 1, actually works in a lot of examples of this. When we last saw Travis, he was destined for some sort of disciplinary action for fucking up the hunt for Blake; when he shows up here to discuss Servalan’s plans with her, he’s suitably chastised. When Gan and the rest of the away team are about to get into a fight, Gan reminds everyone that his neural limiter will restrict the extent to which he can break out the whoop-ass. When the away team encounters an unlaunched spaceship intended to carry the genetic heritage of a dying world to a new home, they compare the idea to the probe they discovered in Time Squad – a particularly impressive feat, given that there’s very little specifically memorable about that episode. (Example: I even forgot that it’s the episode where Cally shows up until now.)
As well as sprinkling itself with references to past continuity, Deliverance is also setting up the next episode, Orac – “Orac” being a mysterious name of an object or person that the Federation is willing to expend a lot of effort to get their hands on. (Indeed, the extent of Servalan’s involvement in Deliverance is to explain to Travis how she’s working a little double-cross to win Orac for the Federation without shelling out the enormous – but not unjustified – asking price.) In fact, Deliverance and Orac could almost, but not quite, be considered a two-part episode; the reason I don’t consider them a true two-parter is that more or less all the subplots of each episode are resolved within each particular episode, aside from the overall Orac plot.
This little experiment here, I suspect helped lay the groundwork for the approach which Nation and his co-writers (yes, he’d finally get a team of co-writers) would end up taking with season 2, wherein the season had a number of long-running themes tying its episodes together – the most prominent being Blake’s search for the Federation’s main computer control centre. (Don’t giggle – this was pre-cloud, plus having multiple geographically distinct backup control centres would diffuse power and the Federation is very much about centralisation.)
In addition, the away team consists of most of the Seven aside from Blake himself, Cally, and Zen – and it’s notable that Avon takes the lead here (in part setting up a subplot where he’s mistaken for a God – and unlike the goody-two-shoes protagonists of many space adventure stories, smugly basks in the adulation). This probably wasn’t an intentional bit of foreshadowing of the significance Avon would take on in later seasons – but equally, it certainly seems like Nation had an idea early on that Avon had some leadership abilities which his loner tendencies and cynicism had kept obscured, and which could come out in some form or another over the span of the series – and indeed, he proactively takes on a leadership role himself towards the end of the next episode when it seems essential to do so.
The season finale itself, Orac, is one of the best episodes of the series. With the away team from the previous episode suffering from radiation sickness incurred during that expedition, Blake and Cally have to convey crucial power cells to rogue scientist Ensor (Derek Farr) to save his life, in the hope that his facility would have the anti-radiation drugs needed to save the rest of the crew’s life. This saves most of the scenes which would otherwise be dedicated to the sick characters (who spend much of the episode trying to sleep it off) to covering a real delight: Travis and Servalan on their own away team mission to beat them to Orac. This is the first away team mission we see Servalan on, and naturally she looks fabulous doing it; a moment of panic when attacked by an honest to goodness Deep One is overcome quickly, and she actually turns out to be more level-headed in a crisis situation than Travis under most circumstances.
As for Orac itself (voiced by Farr in this episode before Peter Tuddenham took over the role for the rest of the series), it turns out to be a sort of Internet in a box – a supercomputer AI which is capable of remotely accessing any computer which contains a certain type of chip invented by Ensor. And since chips running along those principles are ubiquitous throughout the galaxy, this means Orac can access astonishing amounts of information – and basically do a lot of the computer hacking which was Avon’s niche before he seemingly stepped up to fully accept the second-in-command role this episode.
(This, incidentally, means that the core members of Blake’s 7 are now complete, if we work on the basis that Blake doesn’t count: the 7 are Zen, Orac, Jenna, Cally, Avon, Gan and Vila.)
As I alluded to earlier, this would be the only season where Terry Nation ended up writing all of the episodes; for the remaining seasons, various writers would step up to contribute to the scripts, and indeed in the fourth and final season Nation would be essentially uninvolved. Having a free run of it for this season gave Nation the space he needed to try out ideas, figure out what did and didn’t work, and eventually refine the format; the season has its clunkier episodes as a result, but the one-two hit of Deliverance and Orac at the end showcases the series at its very best. The second season would find Nation and his authorial collaborators stepping up to apply the lessons to one more season, dialling up the emphasis on continuity and making some extremely bold writing decisions before a momentous change in circumstances forced a significant rethink of the formula for season 3.
For the purposes of this review, I’m going to round out each essay by breaking down the season’s episodes into three categories: the good, the bad, and the funny. Good is self-explanatory; bad episodes are just kind of boring and not-fun; funny episodes are bad episodes which hit just the right combination of camp and ineptitude to be amusing. For a truncated watch of the series, you could stick to the good, skip most of the bad, and only watch the funny ones if you fancy them; I’ll annotate below if a bad or funny episode has a sufficiently crucial bit of continuity in it that it can’t be avoided, working on the basis that whilst small plot details are fine to miss out on, you won’t want to miss episodes where major characters are introduced or leave.
Good: The Way Back, Space Fall, Cygnus Alpha, Seek-Locate-Destroy, Project Avalon, Deliverance, Orac
Bad: Time Squad*, Mission to Destiny, Duel, Breakdown, Bounty
Funny: The Web
* Unskippable due to continuity; Time Squad is the one where Cally shows up.
The above breakdown means we’re looking at a hit/miss ratio which is a bit over 50% – in fact, had one more episode dropped down from the “good” category then the season would have been more miss than hit. But when Blake’s 7 hits, it goes for the gut…