Friday 8 January 2021

Blake's 7: Star Wars for cynics

When BritBox, a joint venture between the BBC and commercial broadcaster ITV, announced it was adding a classic sci-fi and fantasy collection, many of us hoped Blake's 7 would be included. Indeed, I hadn't seen the beloved cult sci-fi series since the early nineties. BritBox, the exclusive home of all things classic Doctor Who, didn't disappoint.

Blake's 7, from Dalek creator Terry Nation, soon joined the subscription-based streaming service, and I had every intention of binge-viewing. It all started promisingly enough with the realisation I couldn't remember anything at all about season one: noting it drew heavily upon the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker eras of BBC stablemate Doctor Who. But I got distracted over the holiday season by the return of Baby Yoda on Disney+.

Thankfully, Nick Smith, our US-based stellar scribe, is here to save the geek galaxy from my festive fail.

Guest post by Nick Smith

Back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, BBC’s primetime space opera Blake’s 7 was an obvious response to the success of Star Wars. Audiences wanted more spaceships, more aliens, more derring-do. There are many similarities, including rebels (Blake and crew), an evil empire (The Federation), a ruthless, bad-ass villain (Supreme Commander Servalan, played by Jacqueline Pearce) and a funky ship (the Liberator).

With hindsight, Blake's 7 even shares Star Wars’ bleak outcomes, from the tragic life of Anakin Skywalker to the deaths of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Master Yoda et al. But at the time, the BBC was going against the grain, eschewing the glossy optimism of Universal Studios’ Buck Rogers in the 25th Century for more adult, cynical (some might say realistic) might-conquers-all pessimism. It’s Robin Hood in space, where an elegant, indestructible Sherriff of Nottingham has more chance of winning than the outnumbered merry spacemen.

Following the gloomy bent of Survivors, a show about the plucky people who remain after a global pandemic, creator Terry Nation went darker with Blake’s 7. The hero, Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas), is convicted of ‘assault on a minor’ among other ‘moral deviations’ by a dystopian government that has already brainwashed him; the opening titles incorporate his torture. Fun!

Blake’s crew, gathered after escaping from a prison planet, is made up of thieves and murderers. Banding with Blake is no guarantee of survival, and without the lucky break of finding a high-speed alien spaceship, it’s doubtful whether the rebels would have survived for long. Blake’s idealism is sometimes dangerous, other times inspiring. Avon (Paul Darrow) and Vila (Michael Keating) are initially self-centred but they both risk their necks to help their friends.

Blake’s 7’s dark edge is one of the reasons why we’re still talking about it today, 40 years after it wrapped with a killer ending [Christmas 1981 was the stuff of childhood trauma - Ed]. It peels back the idealistic layers of freedom fighting and shows that one man’s rebel alliance is another man’s terrorist group [a theme explored in The Mandalorian - Ed]. Pacifism doesn’t work (as tried in the episode Volcano) and bold heroics can get you killed.

The deaths of beloved characters such as Gan (David Jackson) were shocking at the time of first broadcast, long before Lost and The Walking Dead made such sudden losses commonplace and far less effective. Under Federation rule, no one is safe and that sense of risk is paramount.

The backdrop of galactic politics has been mirrored, and given greater depth, in more recent shows like Babylon 5 and the Battlestar Galactica reboot. The real allure of Blake’s 7, however, is its captivating characters. All of them have entertaining traits; even the waspish Orac and the obsequious Slave are endearing, mostly thanks to Peter Tuddenham’s meticulous voice work. Vila Restal gets the best lines as the cowardly comic relief with a heart of stolen gold. Space Commander Travis (Stephen Greif), the eyepatched Guy of Gisbourne to Blake’s Robin Hood, gets his own story arc.

Kerr Avon is one of the most fascinating protagonists in the history of television. He weighs the odds but sometimes takes risks that put his life in danger or takes a great toll on his friends (especially in the Season 3 closer, Terminus and Season 4’s Blake). He appreciates the irony of his situation, smiling to himself at the futility of fighting the Feds. With his enigmatic grin, he’s a Milky Way Mona Lisa and his performance is a joy to watch.

The show is dated. The hair is permanent. Some of the monsters defy belief (the giant insect in The Harvest Of Kairos is terrible in the wrong sense of the word). The writing is clever and engaging, the situations gripping, with toe-tappingly rhythmic dialogue and a sense of impending doom. But the scripts are seldom as witty or imaginative as Blake’s 7’s televisual bedfellows, Star Trek and Doctor Who.

Despite its production flaws, there’s plenty to make Blake’s 7 worth watching today: the model and prop designs, the themes and visuals (like a giant space brain!), the strong female protagonists and antagonist, and the sheer impetus of Blake’s crusade are all highlights of this very special slice of sci-fi.

What are your memories of watching Blake's 7? Let me know in the comments below.

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