on 2 December 2013
It's the cause of some surprise to me that this saga isn't accepted as part of the Whoniverse; Terry Nation was, apparently, all in favour of employing the Daleks in the series (the cliffhanger at the end of Series Two seems a logical place!), and I understand that Tom Baker and Paul Darrow shared a wish to turn up in each other's corridors - I only wish they'd done it; would have been sublime.
In fairness, Blake's 7 started off as rather the more serious stab at sci fi, peeling off two of Who's more serious talents - David Maloney and Chris Boucher as producer and script editor respectively - to realise an idea by Terry Nation: 'The Dirty Dozen in Space'.
The first few episodes are reasonably sensible, though it becomes fairly obvious fairly early that the series' spiritual home is space opera, and it heads there at about Standard by Seven.
It has moments of awfulness, and some of these are inexcusable, but when on form, the Seven deliver an exciting and handsome product. The first episode is particularly good, setting up the idea of a Fascist totalitarian Earth government that doses the population with suppressants, drugs their dreams and summarily executes dissidents. One such is Roj Blake who, after seeing his friends gunned down, is arrested, convicted of child abuse, and shipped off to the prison world of Cygnus Alpha (if it were made today, Blake would have to be killed by his fellow prisoners on the way, so the series would be only two episodes long).
En route the prison ship encounters a seemingly abandoned craft, floating in space, and sends Blake and two others over as a salvage crew, but they steal the ship for themselves, rescue two more prisoners , acquire a telepathic alien on yet another planet, and that, together with the ship's talking computer, is the Seven.
There are, broadly speaking, two kind of story; 'shooting stormtroopers' and 'finding something weird'; in some stories they shoot stormtroopers and find something weird as well, so in the next one the story has to fall back on one of the Seven getting weird, just to compensate.
The first series is ostensibly all written by Terry Nation, though in fact he did the first drafts, some of which were quite sketchy, and Chris Boucher had to make them usable. By Episode 11 (Bounty) even Mr Boucher was running out of snappy dialogue and the cast had to make up some of their own lines. Just about any old plot device is thrust into the mix - scientists make life, Gan goes bonkers, whodunit?, heist goes wrong, bad guys get in (more than once), good guy and bad guy in a duel (that is so close to the Star Trek episode 'Arena' that it uses whole chunks of the same dialogue - after all, it wasn't as if either series was ever going to be released on tape for people to buy and watch at home, was it?) but it is good; the scripts occasionally contain the most hackneyed of devices, the design budget is limited, and alien planets rarely approach 'exotic', at least not to start with, but there is such a solid commitment among the cast and production to tell the story as well as possible, and it clearly pays dividends.
The mysterious ship, dubbed The Liberator, is a lovely model, and it was a delightful surprise in 1978 because there'd not been a spaceship in Dr Who, or on anything by Gerry Anderson - or, in fact, in Star Wars - that looked that good. The model work across all four series is lovely - better than some of the stuff on Dr Who (particularly in Nightmare of Eden), even if one alien scoutship is made of two hairdryers glued mouth to mouth.
The politics of the series are basic to the point of crudity; besides the central authority of the Federation there are numerous other worlds, outer systems, rebel alliances, caucuses, dissident power blocks, and these get less coherent/credible as time goes on. It could be argued that one reason the series came to an end was an incapacity on the writers' part to get the good guys' act together.
'Good' for a given value thereof, obviously, since four of the Seven are professional crooks. This works very nicely, and they are all very well played, though Paul Darrow stands out as Avon - though his is the best written part as the principal critic of Gareth Thomas's credibly foursquare Blake.
The bad guys are generally black-clad and rather better styled, and led by the very beautiful Jacqueline Pearce as Servalan (generally in figure-hugging white), elfin, liquid-voiced, infinitely selfish and malevolent, with a crew cut that was really very shocking in 1978; the onanistic fantasy of a whole generation of teenagers, at least those of a certain sexual mien.
Her principal instrument of power was Space Commander Travis, initially Stephen Grief in leather, latterly Brian Croucher in plastic, a man with a pathological hatred of Blake, an eye-patch and a cybernetic arm with a gun in it. Travis was generally supported by his crack troops of choice - Mutoids - cyborgs in (fairly) silly hats and black leather (again), generally played by attractive young actresses, principally because putting a man in a mutoid outfit always made him look a bit fay.
The standard Federation guard uniform was a wonderfully serviceable Belstaff motorcycle suit with added insignia and bandolier and a helmet that looked like a gas mask. Apparently it was a role sought after by some really quite successful actors, just because the outfits were so damned cool yet utterly anonymous, though quite a lot of them in fact appear to have been played by Pat Gorman.
Since it was television drama at a time when all of it was run like rep theatre, it features the 'company' faces: John Savident (twice), Peter Miles (twice), John Bryans (thrice), Julian Glover, David Collings, Brian Blessed (even madder than usual), Roy Kinnear, Aubrey Woods, Colin Baker (hilarious), Patsy Smart, Valentine Dyall, Richard Hurndall, Betty Marsden, Vernon Dobtcheff, Kevin Lloyd, John Bennet, Paul Daneman (masterful), Ronald Lacey...
Since there's so little political thinking (Fascists are bad, Fascists with zap guns are even badder...), any over-reaching story arc comes, very simply, from the constraints of TV production; Series One demands a cliffhanger, therefore Orac, that means there's eight of them rather than seven, so one of them has to go and Gan is the least interesting. The rest of Series Two demands something to hold it together, hence the search for Star One, and then the Andromedans invade. Then Gareth Thomas and Sally Knyvette leave, so get replaced by Steven Pacey and Josette Simon. They plan to kill the programme at the end of Series Three, but the head of serials is watching it on the telly at home and decides there has to be a Series Four, but David Maloney has gone and Vere Lorrimer takes over, and - since the Liberator has been blown up - we have to have a new space ship, the much less impressive Scorpio, which looks like a flying door wedge (and it's got a really stupid computer), and Jan Chappel has bailed out, so gets replaced by former Mutoid, Glynis Barber. By the end of Series Four they are in need of an even bigger cliffhanger so all of the Seven get shot (except Avon); they *could* all be stunned, but since there's no more programme, we have to assume that they all got killed. At least one correspondent to the Radio Times complained, not without some justification, 'Why does evil always have to win?'
The first season is great fun, if a touch patchy, the second rather better and more consistent, the third less good, and the fourth often poor. The replacement of achingly virtuous Blake with the objectionable, bullying Tarrant robs the series of one half of its heart, while replacing the Liberator with the Scorpio takes the other. The worst examples might be the episodes Breakdown, Mission to Destiny, Sarcophagus, Animals, Stardrive, Ultraworld (and its sibling, Dawn of the Gods), and that bollocks with the two tribes; one all male, one all female. Robert Holmes pens the incomprehensible story 'Traitor'.
Happily the good outweighs the bad, my own favourites being 'The Way Back', 'Project Avalon', pretty much all of Series Two (though Trial is outstanding), 'Harvest of Kiaros', 'Assassin'. Scott Fredericks plays a fiendishly smooth psychostrategist in Weapon; Aubrey Woods plays a gloriously camp gangster in Gambit.
Generally it's very well written and, in places, eminently quotable, with any number of pithy and incisive homilies on power and its application. Servalan and Avon supplying the choicest cuts.
The greatest failing of Blake's 7 is, literally, that the Seven fail, meaning that the series ultimately fails too. Having set up the dystopia of the Terran Federation, and the hope that bad people can be redeemed by changing the galaxy, it demonstrates fairly clearly that they cannot, that greed, cruelty, cowardice and stupidity can at least stand together, while kindness, courage and good sense cannot. The right-wing wins because the left simply cannot get it's act together - a pattern that is only too familiar.