The story so far: show creator Terry Nation and his loyal script editor sidekick Chris Boucher had managed to shepherd Blake’s 7 through its first season, by the skin of their teeth – Nation having unexpectedly being landed with the task of writing all the episodes, and getting through the deadlines largely by passing his first drafts to Boucher and relying on the latter to punch them up to shape. This resulted in a season which, at its best, has some actually incredible moments, and a few extremely strong episodes. The Way Back, the debut episode, has seared itself into my brain with how powerful it really is, and the season did a great job of establishing its cast (and has the best version of Travis). At the same time, at its worst season 1 Blake’s 7 is clearly struggling to find itself and work out how to do the sort of show it wants to be.
It was good enough to snag a second season for the show, at which point a broader range of writers were drafted in and the overall quality improved. Yes, season 2 has the crap Travis – but it also has the show finding its feet properly, adjusting as it went to cast members’ departures as it went. With everyone’s contracts up for renewal at the end of the season and some cast members intending to leave – including Sally Knyvette, who was finding that she didn’t have that much to do as Jenna, and Gareth Thomas – AKA Blake himself.
Not knowing who’d come back, who’d depart but leave the door open for a potential return, and who would leave forever, Nation crafted the end of the second season around an alien invasion from Andromeda – an invasion with the avowed end of total human extinction. This prompts the Liberator crew to gallantly interpose themselves between the Andromedans and their point of attack – Star One, the Federation’s isolated computer centre – in order to give the Federation time to muster a response, because despite their hated of the Federation the Andromedans were clearly an even bigger threat.
The season ended mere seconds before the eruption of an almighty space battle, which of course was a situation where any character could plausibly end up killed or separated from the others to cover for their actors’ exits. The battle would also allow for an adjustment to the status quo of the series to be made – arguably necessary, if you were going to continue the show without its title character. Would they pull it off? Let’s take a look at season 3 and find out…
Nation kept his contributions to this series to more or less the same level as the previous one, but with a different approach – rather than his three episodes being used to set up each act of the season, instead he wrote two connected episodes to kick off the season and the season finale, which would prove to be his final script for the series.
Aftermath begins with what limited aspects of that space battle they could afford to show without completely blowing the season’s effects budget; it’s actually a bit more than I remembered, and certainly a bit more than you could have expected from earlier seasons. The Liberator ends up badly damaged in the fight, to the point where Zen can no longer keep the life support functions operational, with the teleportation system down, the crew are forced to eject in the life support pods – Blake and Jenna are mentioned as having gotten one offscreen, Cally and Vila another, and Avon and Orac a third.
This offers both a fun episode premise – with the main characters needing to survive on a quasi-medieval world – and a nice opportunity to write out Blake and Jenna in such a way that they could return if their actors chose to come back. (Their escape pod simply ended up falling elsewhere, and for whatever reason they decided not to make contact with the Liberator crew but ended up going their own way – perhaps because Blake trusts Avon to use the Liberator just as he would have, so there’s no point in him sticking around when he could go cultivating other rebel factions elsewhere.)
The removal of these characters isn’t the only shift to the status quo that happens at the start of this season: in the process of repelling the Andromedan invasion, we learn that some 80% of the Federation fleet was destroyed. As Avon points out, when you lose most of your military, it becomes very difficult to maintain a military dictatorship. In addition, in the opening sequence Star One – established in season 2 as being the main Federation computer centre – was destroyed. In short, the Federation begins the season in a state of ongoing collapase, with over half the planets of the galaxy abruptly gaining their independence and the remainder of the Federation rapidly disintegrating.
This development was only important to avoid creating the impression that Blake and his crew had absolutely tossed aside all the progress they’d made by siding with the Federation against the Andromedans – which, whilst a major sacrifice, would have also left the series struggling with a sense of annoying futility. As it stood, the Federation would end up reasserting itself over the next two seasons – but it’s more satisfying if that’s the combined result of Servalan’s successes and the protagonists’ mistakes. In addition, it also sets up one of the major plotlines of this season: Servalan’s attempts to regain her former authority and prestige. After her attempt this episode to seduce Avon into being her right-hand man in establishing a replacement for the Federation fails, Servalan’s long-standing desire to acquire the Liberator develops into a full-fledged obsession, which drives most of her plans for the season.
The episode also sees the introduction of Dayna Mellanby (Josette Simon), an adventure-hungry and somewhat kill-happy sort who’s spent her time stuck on this backwater world mastering weapons ancient and modern and learning stealth tactics in cat-and-mouse games against the brutal locals. Hailing from Earth originally, being the daughter of a resistance leader and weapons scientist whose movement collapsed much as Blake’s did (Hal Mellanby, played by Cy Grant wearing a sort of precursor to Geordi LaForge’s visor from Star Trek: the Next Generation), she’s not ignorant of technical or political matters either, but – perhaps in part as a safeguard against high technology falling into the hands of the locals – she first shows up wearing a Greek-style chiton and using a bow and arrow, offering an archetypal “civilised Greek hero faces off against barbarian horde” pose.
She’s also the first black actor to join the otherwise pasty-white main cast, and given how past episodes took an especially old-fashioned and stereotypical approach in depicting minority ethnicities and cultures (where they bothered to include them at all). Terry Nation has mentioned that he was consciously trying to be feminist in the depiction of Dayna (or at least feminist by the standards of 1980, which of course was much less nuanced than the present-day discourse by virtue of some four decades of feminist thought having happened since then and now), deliberately ascribing qualities to her like violent aggression and vengefulness and the like which would typically be ascribed to male-characters.
The other new main cast member is Del Tarrant (Steven Pacey, who sounds remarkably like Matt Berry), who gets his proper introduction in Powerplay, also penned by Nation. The name may be familiar – Terry Nation isn’t very imaginative when it comes to names and tends to fall back on a small set of them, and a Del Grant was introduced back in season 2 as a badass revolutionary-for-hire with a grudge against Avon (there’s also a “Dev Tarrant” in episode 1, who acts as a Federation informer, but he’s not explicitly tied to Del at any point and I suspect that Nation had forgotten that he’d used that name for that character at this point).
Del Tarrant, at first, is introduced to us as a slightly aristocratic-sounding Federation officer, having taken command of a squad of troopers who’d boarded the Liberator after the battle against the Andromedans; in the long run he turns out to be cut from the same cloth as Del Grant, being an resistance fighter who’d disguised himself as a Federation officer in order to survive in the wake of the space battle and who uses the sudden arrival of Avon and Dayna on the Liberator as a golden opportunity to off the troopers with him one by one and reveal his true colours to Avon.
Both of these Dels were originally conceived as potential replacements for Blake’s role as team leader to follow Gareth Thomas’ planned exit from the series; neither got the role, though Tarrant would join the main cast and occasionally have little disputes with Avon as to which direction to go in. Avon, however, was pretty unambiguously the team leader for the last two seasons of the show, a role which he seems to have been groomed for from the beginning anyway. I think it was eventually realised that it’d be silly to expect audiences to care more about Tarrant than any of the more established main cast characters (hell, even Dayna has most of an episode’s head start on him), and with Avon being such a popular character and already acting as a leader reasonably frequently they might as well follow the path of least resistance rather on this point rather than trying to force the audience to get behind a new face of the series that they hadn’t had a chance to warm to.
It’s just as well they didn’t try to force viewers to accept Tarrant as the new team leader, because compared to Avon and Blake he’s an incredibly generic and bland figure. After the drama of his initial introduction, his potentially interesting “ex-Federation officer who loses his faith and becomes a resistance fighter during the episode” background turns out to be a lie and is replaced with a ten-a-penny “ex-Federation officer turned resistance fighter who dropped out of the Federation system long ago” background, which is much less interesting.
For those keeping track, with Dayna and Tarrant integrated into the Liberator crew the core character roster is now restored to the requisite seven in Blake’s 7: Avon, Cally, Dayna, Vila, Tarrant, Orac, and Zen.
Allan Prior gives new recruits Dayna and Tarrant a chance to show off what they can do on a mission by making them the initial away team in Volcano, in which they are beamed down to the vicinity of the titular geographic feature on the wold of Obsidian in order to seek an alliance with a pacifist group that resides there. Prior and the rest of the production team clearly saw the episode as an important part of the process of bedding in the new status quo, both in terms of showing us the old, established characters interacting on the Liberator and giving us a better idea of what Tarrant and Dayna offer the group.
Tarrant, in particular, gets a better chance to air his personality than in Powerplay, where of course he spends most of the episode pretending to be a Federation officer, and his arrogant strutting-about prompts the pacifist leader Hower (Michael Gough) to observe that he still has the attitude and mannerisms of a Federation officer – reclaiming some of the more interesting potential aspects of that background from the way they’d been played down towards the end of Powerplay.
Prior even makes sure to make good use of the characters’ backstories, as well as taking the opportunity to take them further. Dayna knows the independent settlement exists here because her father had visited once and was an old friend of it’s leader. (We even get an explanation for the distinctive necklace that Hal wore in Aftermath and Dayna inherited – it’s a symbol of Hal’s graduation from a particular academic institution, prior to him losing faith in the Federation.) Meanwhile Vila shows a bit more of a spine than we’re used to him showing, declaring that his low-grade classification as a citizen was a rating he deliberately purchased from a corrupt official, so as to avoid being assigned duty as a Federation officer – a more dangerous job than he fancied. Prior remembers that Cally is supposed to be a telepath and has her powers be actually useful. Lastly. we also get a good deep insight into how Servalan’s operating these days with several fun scenes aboard her flagship. (She’s inherited Travis’ mutoid lackeys, I see.)
James Follett’s sole episode this season, Dawn of the Gods, is delightfully silly, kicking off with Orac deciding to hijack the Liberator to explore a unique black hole which doesn’t produce Hawking radiation. (Apparently having a gap in his knowledge bugs Orac that much.) This sets up a confrontation between the crew and Thaarn, an ancient entity from the mythology of Cally’s people, which means that Cally gets to have a lot of spotlight time and have her telepathic capabilities put front and centre, and the fact that the entire organic crew gets captured means that Zen and Orac get to handle some intruders solo. Just about the only negative aspect of the ratio is that it’s the moment where it becomes really obvious that they’ve given Tarrant more or less the same style of clothes as Blake, inadvertently emphasising his originally-intended function as Blake stand-in. It’s not exactly a good episode – it adds not much at all to the overall arc of the series and involves more flashy excitement than anything which actually hangs together properly (particularly since Follett seems to have wanted to add a new big bad to the setting via this episode, a gambit which fortunately nobody took him up on).
In The Harvest of Kairos Ben Steed, in his first script for the series, comes to the conclusion that Servalan, despite it flying in the face of all of her characterisation to date, has a submissive streak (or at least a desire to switch once in a while) which requires a tough, square-jawed, violently aggressive man to bring out, provided in this episode in the form of Jarvik (Andrew Burt), a former Federation officer busted down to unranked construction worker status.
Jarvik has contempt for all of Servalan’s computers and plots and analyses and wants to try brute force to take down the Liberator crew (and Tarrant in particular, who Jarvik trained). Ultimately, he’s a cheap-rate Travis, and he doesn’t survive the episode; Servalan seems to get off on being pushed around a bit for once (explicitly asking him to do it again, in keeping with the series’ gentle amping-up of her sexuality), but ultimately she seems to tire of him (as have the audience) and lets him get killed.
Between this and Tarrant pushing people about on the Liberator crew (shoving Cally about in one scene in a particularly rude way), it feels like Steed decided that what Blake’s 7 was crying out for was more tough, dominant, macho men. By the end, Jarvik has been acting in an astonishingly rapey way towards a good cross-section of the cast, which the script presents as being a result of his “primitive” instincts – the implication being that this is the natural state of humans without the meddling tampering of the Federation. (The fact that he’s ultimately beaten by Avon – similarly dominant in stance, yes, but coldly unemotional and rather asexual in his portrayal – isn’t much of a consolation.) Between this unappealing strand and a rather confused subplot involving Avon hatching a get-rich-quick scheme involving some sentient rocks, it’s an episode which tries to do a lot and ends up doing it all in a somewhat hit-and-miss way, rather than concentrating on doing a few things well.
Steed’s other script this season, Moloch, is another Servalan-focused story. One positive thing I will say about Steed is that he seems to have kept in mind that the series would feel aimless without the Liberator crew having some overarching agenda – and obstructing Servalan’s plans to rebuild the Federation is, on the face of it, a good idea.
Unfortunately, it seems Steed still gets off on the idea of men being violently sexually aggressive towards women. Here, the men in question are the Fifth Legion, or the remains thereof – a clutch of Federation troopers who, following the war against the Andromedans, have set themselves up as an occupying force on an unusual planet beyond the edge of the known universe, ruled by a strange entity called Moloch. Steed works in a specific plot point that the Fifth Legion use bullying and rape of women as policy; it seems to work on the idea that shared atrocity helps to break down people’s moral reservations and binds them together – thereby making them more ruthless and vicious troops – and then, once they get a taste for sadism, helps maintain their morale.
This is a nasty plot point which might, if handled carefully, be appropriate for a story specifically exploring themes of gendered violence – as it is, it isn’t really necessary to the story here, which is more about the Legion’s new boss (Section Leader Grose, an aptly-realised depiction of a sadistic bully on the part of actor John Hartley) leveraging the planet’s replicator technology to try and oust Servalan as leader of the slowly-reintegrating Federation.
The most relevant it gets is the part where Vila, having infiltrated a group of new recruits for the Legion, is given the captured Servalan with the expectation that he’ll rape her, which of course instead leads to them working together to escape the Legion; the exact same effect could have arisen if they’d just assigned him to guarding her as his first job. Likewise, the cruelty of the Legion towards the locals (who are all conventially attractive women with perfect makeup and hair and sparkly bodysuits) is more than capably handled by the way the Legion took over their planet, stole their technology, enslaved the few we see and (it’s implied) killed the rest.
We don’t need their heavily-implied rape to convince us that the Legion are baddies at that point, and when Steed as an author writes two scripts in a row where male violence towards women is strongly sexualised it starts to seem like he’d rather be writing Gor: the TV Series than Blake’s 7. What particularly irks me is the way Doran (Davyd Harries), the rather dim-witted Legion recruit who Vila befriends and ends up inadvertently aiding Vila’s infiltration of the Legion, is treated as, at worst, a jolly rascal who we’re meant to root for when he decides to help the rebels and feel sad when he dies (along with the local woman who he seems to have a bit of a romantic spark with)… despite the fact that not only was Doran pretty keen on the whole institutionalised rape thing, he was the one who offered Servalan to Vila to rape, so his support for it extends beyond mere banter into active participation and encouragement.
Also, the actual reveal of who Moloch is and what he looks like is, quite possibly, the silliest thing to ever happen onscreen in Blake’s 7. If the episode wasn’t so quick to toss rape about as a plot point, this would shunt it into the “so bad it’s funny” column instead of the “so bad it’s awful” one.
Roger Parkes makes his once-per-season contribution with Children of Auron, finally providing us with the visit to Cally’s homeworld that we’ve been waiting for since season one. In a substantial improvement over his season two contribution – the rather muddled Voice From the Past – Parkes goes for the throat with a script in which Servalan attacks Auron with a bioweapon in order to create a crisis which will force the Liberator to intervene, as a result of Cally’s telepathic connection to the rest of her people (including her clone-sister Zelda, also played by Jan Chappell).
There’s another motivation for Servalan here – she wants to acquire the cloning technology of Auron, which thanks to the alluded-to destruction of the Clonemasters in the galactic war is now unique. Servalan doesn’t solely want them to get her own surrogate children, mind – with the Federation in the threadbare state it’s currently in, a means of mass-producing a compliant population is doubtless tempting.
Parkes’ script asks Pearce to take Servalan down a tricky tightrope, where on the one hand the script does acknowledge that Servalan as a character has this emotional need that children are fulfilling, but at the same time she doesn’t react to that need in an un-Servalan like way. Holding a planet to hostage for the sake of creating the clones, blowing up the clones when she suspects that one of her subordinates has tampered with them to make them his own offspring, and then murdering both that subordinate and the man who told her about the possibility that this happened is, perhaps, not the most coolly rational way to handle fertility treatment – but it’s extremely Servalan to have her brief flickering of maternal instinct result in a gruesome body count.
On top of that, the episode is a rare example of science fiction dealing with the idea of artificially assisted childbirth – recall that this was broadcast two years after the first successful IVF birth – which treats it not as a source of horror or tyranny a la Brave New World or Nazi eugenics, but instead a potentially valid reproductive method capable of just as much tenderness and nurturing feeling on the part of those working in the field as the traditional biological method.
There’s also a nice little bit of continuity in this episode; Parkes has Avon begin the episode by steering the Liberator towards Earth, on a mission to take revenge on the torturer responsible for the torment and death of Anna Grant – sister of Del Grant and former lover of Avon, whose story was mentioned prominently in Countdown, one of the best episodes of season two.
This sets up Rumours of Death, a Chris Boucher-penned episode which begins with Avon springing his plan to capture that torturer – the detestable Shrinker, played admirably by John Bryans (utterly threatening when he has power over a victim, craven and cowering when others have power over him). In a clever touch, Boucher makes the success of the plan only the start of the themes to be explored by the episode. For one thing, there’s the contempt and bullying with which most of the Liberator crew treat Shrinker – to which only Cally objects.
On the one hand, it’s hard not to see this as a form of natural justice, and completely understandable why our heroes would indulge in this cruelty – even if none of them knew Anna Grant personally, all of them must know people who’ve been destroyed by creatures like Shrinker – but also important to see Cally’s perspective that there is a moral imperative to conduct ourselves better than the Shrinkers of this world, even when it comes to our treatment of Shrinkers. Perhaps Avon understands it a little, as he stages a curious little trial and execution of Shrinker – and actually shows willing to hear him out when Shrinker claims innocence. (This leads us into some fun flashbacks to Avon and Anna’s relationship, with a performance from Lorna Heilbron that, in more ways than one, elevates Anna from being a mere background detail fridged to give an extra dimension to Avon’s background into a fleshed-out, living character in her own right.)
In addition to this, the episode allows Boucher to flesh out what’s happened on Earth in the wake of most of the Federation collapsing. Dayna enunciates the question: why is the Federation still in control on Earth? Where’s the rebellion? (Remember: this is a world where we saw entire armed paramilitary insurgencies in operation during season 2.) This lets us have another delicious taste of the inner workings of Federation politics and the other little rebellions, plots, conspiracies and whatnot that are going on independently of the Liberator crew, much to the enrichment of the series as a whole. (In fact, over the course of an episode a coup almost ousts Servalan from power altogether without the Liberator crew being involved at all – only for the Liberator crew, when they do intervene, to ultimately free Servalan in the wake of some disturbing discoveries.)
Chris Boucher’s other contributions this season are a bit more standalone, but are pretty solid all told. He kicks off City At the Edge of the World with Tarrant horribly bullying Vila – sure, bullying Vila is arguably the national sport of the Liberator, but Tarrant is especially unpleasant about it, pointing out that he could toss Vila off the ship and nobody would lift a finger to stop him. This not only foreshadows a crisis faced by Vila and Avon in the next season, but also provides a nice intro to a delightfully Vila-centred episode, something we’ve never really had so far in the series and which we’re overdue for, as the violent, mercurial robber baron Bayban (Colin “Sixth Doctor” Baker himself, feasting on the scenery magnificently) attempts to hijack Vila’s skills to open what he believes is a fantastic treasure vault.
It’s also a nice effort to underline Tarrant’s distinct personality traits – namely, that he’s kind of a crude bully, to the point where not only Cally but also Avon deeply disapprove of his treatment of Vila (though not enough to actually comfort Vila). Given how harsh Avon has been to Vila in the past (and will be in future), that’s really saying something, even though he has basically Machiavellian reasons to want to keep Vila happy (if he’s too terrified and demoralised to effectively utilise his skills, he’s no use to anyone – though his skills are rare enough to make him more useful to Avon than Tarrant).
Even with Tarrant’s bullying and Colin Baker’s performance putting the “Berserk” in “Bayban the Berserker”, the episode is mostly notable for giving Michael Keating room to breathe in fleshing out Vila as a character, letting him do a really fine job of establishing him as a character with actual depths rather than the comic relief waste of space some writers tended to portray him as.
Another significant Boucher’s contribution this season is Death-Watch, which revolves around a conflict between the worlds of Teal and Vandor which has dragged on for so long that they’ve established a carefully codified process for fighting war against each other – rather than a mutually ruinous total war, they fight their wars as a one-on-one duel to the death in a computer-generated environment. Naturally, such a situation ends up having a massive Big Fight feel to it – bigger than any Muhammad Ali match, bigger than any Wrestlemania – and the fights attract a massive audience and something of a party feel, thanks in part to the Teal and Vandor authorities regarding all visitors as neutral observers under the protection of both parties.
When the news of a new war breaks out, Vila and Avon want to go watch simply for the fun of it, and for the opportunity to relax in an environment where even Servalan can’t openly act against them – and then the entire crew smells a rat when they realise that Servalan has been appointed as referee for the match. The stakes become higher for Tarrant when it turns out that his brother Deeta (played by Steven Pacey wearing a horrible wig and resembling Matt Berry even more than he already does) has been picked as the champion of Teal – and when Deeta bites it, Tarrant suspects foul play, especially since Servalan is lurking about in the audience.
Boucher is on the ball as usual, with his mastery of the characters’ personalities on display, a rather fun sci-fi premise on offer (including a setup where the duellists’ emotions and sensory impressions can be broadcast direct to the minds of the audience), and a careful balancing of incorporating the more overtly sexual plot points this season decided to tease out with the style of the series so far. (Servalan putting the moves on Avon seems like almost like a psychological attack against him, which is almost certainly what it was intended to be.)
Perhaps the oddest story this season is Sarcophagus, written by none other than prolific gothic fantasy author Tanith Lee. The premise is that the Liberator crew finds a strange craft floating in deep space – an ancient sacrophagus pod, jettisoned into space by a poweful psychic civilisation of long-ago. Cally’s involvement in exploring the pod, combined perhaps with her grief over the destruction of Auron by plague, results in a strange interaction between her telepathic abilities and those inherent in one of the tomb goods the crew brings back from the ship, unleashing a powerful latent psychic force – in other words, an alien ghost – which takes Cally’s form as it tries to take full control of the ship.
In other words, this is Tanith Lee doing the best she can within the parameters of the Blake’s 7 universe to tell a Tanith Lee-like story, with all the rich visual imagination you might expect (the episode starts with five or so dialogue-less minutes of a weird alien ritual). This isn’t as incongruous as you might expect: from as far back as the Cygnus Alpha episode in season 1, Blake’s 7 enjoyed taking a gothic turn from time to time, and Lee does a good job of making the most of the cast. Whilst one might expect this to be a Cally-heavy episode, in fact she spends much of it unconscious – with Jan Chappell having the chance to enjoy playing the alien ghost but also blending some of Cally’s personality traits in there (since the ghost is trying to digest Cally’s mind in order to fully manifest).
A particularly nice touch is the way the viewer is confronted with these brief flashes of the regular cast in different settings, dressed in costumes reminiscent of the alien ritualists from the start of the episode, as they end up acting out roles comparable to the servitor entities the alien spirit had in life. Even if Lee’s visual ideas sometime strain the ability of the special effects budget to realise them onscreen, the episode overall is a fun little trip if you’re willing to be patient with it. (Also, Lee outs herself as a shameless Avon/Cally shipper, so if that’s a pairing that especially excites you then this episode will be a treat for you.)
This experiment in letting authors who were, at the time, up-and-coming stars of the British SF/fantasy scene continued with Ultraworld by Trevor Hoyle. Annoyingly, this is another “Cally’s telepathic abilities cause trouble” episode – two of which in a row are, frankly, a bit much. This time, the Liberator finds a big spinny artificial planet and Cally finds herself compelled to pay a visit. Meanwhile, Vila is trying to teach Orac a sense of humour, which translates to him expending a bunch of screen time telling really appalling jokes.
Hoyle seems to have a grasp of the broad outline of the characters, but is too in love with his post-singularity AI plot to really give them much room to breathe, his script deploying fat slabs of dry exposition which feel like a lot even by the standards of the series, and when the action actually kicks off even though the stakes are theoretically high, the actual action seems rather stilted and disconnected. (It feels like there may be an issue with the direction here too, except this was directed by Vere Lorrimer, who’s usually better than this.)
The entire episode builds up to a scene where Tarrant and Dayna bang in order to fill the gap in Ultraworld’s memory banks relating to how human beings bang – but given that the memory banks are largely filled with information transferred from kidnapped individual’s brains, it seems absurdly implausible that this information would be missing, so Hoyle is violating the premises of his own story for the sake of a titillating section. (He does at least conclude the scene by remembering – rarely among the writers – that Dayna is a crack weapons scientist who’s full of inventions, which she uses to effect an escape from the Ultraworld denizens’ clutches.) Just about the only good thing about the episode is that it inspired the best Orb song title.
Part of the issue with this season is that with the Federation having largely collapsed and the Liberator crew lacking Blake’s focus, they end up spending a lot of the season bimbling about randomly investigating stuff because they are interested, or on the off-chance that it’ll get them some kind of profit; there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of an overarching agenda here the way the search for Star One helped tie the second half of season 2 together (or, for that matter, the step-by-step introduction of the characters and the gelling of the party as a unit tied much of season 1 together). That being the case, Terry Nation is obliged to pull a significant agenda for Avon out of thin air to provide the basis for Terminal, the season finale and Nation’s final story for Blake’s 7.
In fact, it was expected by the production team that Terminal would be the final Blake’s 7 story full stop, since they were not expecting the series to be renewed after this. However, the season did better expected, this episode in particular, with over ten million viewers tuning in – among them BBC executive Bill Cotton, who enjoyed the story so much he telephoned into work and ordered that the continuity announcer inform viewers that the show would return for a new series at a later date.
This sprang a bit of an ambush on the production team, who genuinely had no idea that Cotton was going to do this; as such, some of the decisions Nation makes during this episode pose creative problems for season four, playing into the somewhat different feel of that season. I’ll get into most of that in the final article in this series, but one thing worth noting is that this episode involves the destruction of the Liberator as a result it inadvertently flying through a cloud of space-enzymes which its systems are incapable of dealing with, causing it to literally rot from the inside – a grim turn of events even for a comparatively grim TV show for its era, heralding some of the darkness of the coming season. (The matte painting shot of the decaying exterior of the ship looks like something out of an early Games Workshop effort.)
This means, of course, that as of the end of the season the titular Blake’s 7 are back down to 6 – Avon, Cally, Dayna, Vila, Tarrant, and Orac – due to Zen perishing with the Liberator. This would not be the only shakeup to the cast – because everyone had finished up their commitments to the show, getting everyone back when they’d already been looking at other jobs was a bit of a nightmare and not 100% successful, but we’ll get to that later.
Further issues include an apparently inescapable deathtrap for Servalan at the end of the episode (due in part to her and her goons being astonishingly unobservant when they show up on the Liberator and it’s blatantly turning to slime – though at least they establish her survival as being remotely possible, since she runs for the teleporters once things go to shit), and the episode jumping the gun on the schtick of Blake, the real series finale at the end of next season. See, here as well as there, we have the return of Blake to the show for a one-off appearance to give the whole thing a send-off, although at least this time around it’s a fake-out with a fakey Blakey, and actually with this aspect there’s some nice foreshadowing here of the outcome of that episode. (Take, for instance, Avon’s passing mention that he feels on some level that his death and Blake’s are linked in some fashion…)
In addition, it’s nice to get Nation’s vision of how the story ends as well as Chris Boucher’s (since he’d take over the showrunner role for season 4 and write its finale), particularly in terms of the aspects of the show he considered important. The weird planet of Terminal allows Nation to leverage in a throwaway point about humanity possibly being on the road to debasement or destruction if it does not tamp down its more aggressive instincts – a drum Nation had been banging at least since he Servalan’s quest to capture the Liberator for herself leads to disaster for her. Avon’s manipulative approach almost leads to disaster for him, were it not for a scam pulled off by the rest of the crew.
That last point there touches on perhaps the major emotional arc of the episode. It starts out with Avon taking the ship on a mission without letting the rest of the crew even know he’s up to something – let alone giving them much of a choice about it. This is precisely the sort of thing he used to get upset at Blake for doing, but Avon is of course substantially more ruthless about it. In his own broken, kind of abusive way, he’s freezing out the other characters because he knows that either he’s really on the way to find Blake – but will have to face tremendous danger to get him out of peril – or the messages he’s been getting purporting to be from Blake are in fact from Servalan, because it’s exactly her style to do that sort of shit, and he doesn’t want to lead the others into a trap. As it turns out, the best way to protect everyone is to keep them in the loop after all – and whilst all of Avon’s plotting comes to naught in the end, it turns out those who have affection for him sort it all out anyway. That’s the sort of moral that Nation – and British TV sci-fi writers in general – tended to have a big soft spot for.
So, what to make of the season as a whole? Well, let’s take a look at the episodes based on the sort of breakdown I’ve done in the previous articles in this series between episodes which are generally good, episodes which are bad but not in a fun way, and episodes which are bad but cheesy enough to be amusing.
Good: Aftermath, Powerplay, Volcano, City At the Edge of the World, Children of Auron, Rumours of Death, Sarcophagus, Death-Watch, Terminal
Bad: The Harvest of Kairos, Ultraworld, Moloch
Funny: Dawn of the Gods
On the fact of it, that’s pretty good; a substantially better ratio of good episodes to janky ones than the first season, and a level of consistency on a par with season 2 – particularly when you consider that two of the bad episodes this season are bad largely because of the quirks of new writer Ben Steed, and when you consider that some of the less-than-good episodes in season 2 can’t be skipped without missing important plot developments whilst the same isn’t true of any of the episodes on this season.
However, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Whilst season 3 is a collection of pretty good episodes, it has to be said that whilst they manage get over the “good” hurdle fairly easily, but it’s rare that it really manages to go from “good” to “great”, and for me a big part of that is the lack of ongoing stakes. The reason that none of the “bad” or “funny” episodes are particularly unskippable is that most of them are basically self-contained, as are the “good” episodes. Aside from the first couple of episodes introducing Dayna, there’s an unfortunate lack of ongoing plot threads this season, and the action of the episodes all seem rather siloed off from each other. In Children of Auron Cally’s culture experiences an extinction-level event which leaves a small group of survivors behind to effectively start over from scratch on a new homeworld; she’s fine by next episode. In a previous season that would have been a majorly character-defining moment.
A major exception is Chris Boucher’s Rumours of Death, which tries to grasp the question of just what exactly is going on with the Federation right now, and also ties in to some of the stuff we learned about Avon’s past last season. Boucher, as script editor, was in a position to seed the groundwork for his own story in other episodes Children of Auron starts off with the Liberator following up the intelligence which kicks off the action of that episode, only to be diverted to Auron by a distress call. It is a slight shame he was not able to do a more extensive job of tying the episodes together in this respect.
With Blake’s ongoing crusade against the Federation providing an ongoing driving force behind the series, it always felt like seasons 1 and 2 were going somewhere. It’s no surprise, then, that this season the writers seem to have felt a little lost, in part because it feels like they have much less of a clear idea of how much of the Federation is still functional, and to what extent “the Federation” is just Servalan and her hangers-on. With the Federation in an indeterminate state, the whole “rebels against a tyrannical state” angle that was so key to the series feels like it was undermined a bit – several episodes seem to be written assuming that the Liberator is just peaceably swanning about the galaxy seeking their fortune, for instance.
Terry Nation would leave the series at this point, a Hollywood screenwriting job calling him, but Chris Boucher was able to step up from his previous role as script editor into a more fully-fledged showrunner role which he would share with Vere Lorrimer, season 4 producer and a regular director on the show. In preparation for the next season, Lorrimer ran some ideas for season 4 past Nation and got his broad approval. And one of the first moves Boucher and Lorrimer made, thank goodness, was to recentre the conflict against the Federation and reiterate that the Blake’s 7 team were, first and foremost, revolutionaries – though this would now be a revolution fought not with Blake’s tactics, but with Avon’s…