First viewed : 2 January 1978
This is another all time favourite. With anticipation building for the release of Star Wars , I was already buying ( for a short time ) 2000 AD and science fiction novels and tuning back into Dr Who before the first episode The Way Back was screened in January 1978. Blake's 7 was the creation of Dalek creator Terry Nation who was granted a 13 part series although his suggestion that the Dalek's feature in it was rejected. Instead the villain was The Federation a totalitarian government - more of the left than the right though this not explicitly stated - that repressed its citizens and murdered them when they got uppity about it.
In the first episode Blake ( Gareth Thomas ) a docile citizen is persuaded by a work colleague Ravella ( Gillian Bailey from Here Come The Double Deckers though I didn't recognise her ) to abstain from food and then venture into an off-limits area on the promise of finding out something about his missing family. He is brought into a secret assembly of dissidents and introduced to a man called Foster who reveals that they were actually comrades in a guerilla movement fighting the Federation who have subsequently brainwashed and drugged him into pacifically accepting the status quo and by the by murdered his family too. A befuddled Blake wanders away to collect his thoughts and so narrowly avoids a massacre of the entire gathering, including Foster and Ravella, by Federation troops, orchestrated by a double agent called Tarrant. Apprehended as he returns to the city the Feds arrange a show trial where Blake is found guilty of paedophilia and sentenced to life in a penal colony at the far end of the empire. Tarrant arranges the murder of Blake's defence lawyer and his wife when they get too close to the truth and the prison ship takes off . Blake , memory now fully restored, vows to return.
I can't remember any other first episode which had a comparable effect on me and it seemed a very long week waiting for episode 2. I was overwhelmed by the bleakness of it. In particular the death of pretty young Ravella ( Bailey was only 22 ), impassively blasted in the abdomen by an anonymous masked trooper just following orders, shocked me more than anything in Target or Secret Army ( I acknowledge there may have been an early sexual response in there ).
Blake's 7 was consistently surprising and the first unexpected twist was that the events of the first episode were immediately forgotten within the series. Apart from Jenna and Vila who are briefly introduced towards the end of the episode, none of the characters reappear or are even mentioned again. I longed for Blake to return to Earth and avenge Ravella's murder by taking out the treacherous Tarrant but when the latter's name was used for a completely different character at the start of the third series I had to accept that wasn't going to happen.
The Way Back set the tone for the rest of the series. There was none of Star Trek's Peace Corps optimism here. Instead of Kirk's insufferable moralising, you had Blake's glassy-eyed fanaticism, determined to bring the Federation down whatever the cost in human life . None of the band he mustered over the next three episodes were people you'd particularly want as friends. Gorgeous blonde Jenna ( Sally Knyvette) had the smug invulnerability of the gangster's moll. Cynical computer genius Avon ( Paul Darrow) was ruthless and self-seeking. Career criminal Vila ( Michael Keating ) was a lecherous coward. Androgynous alien telepath Cally ( Jan Chappell who vied with Legs and Co's Lulu for the title of most flat-chested woman on seventies TV ) had the icy hauteur of the superior species ( though this was softened as the series progressed ). Loyal lunkhead Gan ( David Jackson ) didn't really fit the frame and was killed off halfway through the second series.
In the sixth episode two regular Federation antagonists were introduced. The army's Supreme Commander was Servalan, a short-haired psychopath played with relish by Hammer alumnus Jacqueline Pearce . She was after power for its own sake and was so sadistic that later attempts to humanise her just didn't ring true. Her principal agent was a space commander Travis ( Stephen Grief then Brian Croucher ) , out for revenge after being maimed by Blake in an earlier encounter. He was brutal but at least had a residual sense of loyalty and some concern for his crews. In the second series he becomes as hacked off with the Federation as Blake but chooses to let some nasty aliens in to destroy it rather than join the outlaws. The other Federation characters were generally venal and infinitely corruptible but occasionally allowed humane characteristics such as the prison ship's captain Leylan who unwittingly facilitated Blake's escape by sending him on to an abandoned space craft.
This turns out to be more technologically advanced than anything in the Federation fleet , particularly the teleportation system, and allows Blake and his crew to remain one step ahead of them. The Liberator was operated by the benign Zen, the first of three computer-characters all voiced by Peter Tuddenham who made up the titular seven.
Once all this was established the stories generally became a cat and mouse game with the outlaws seeking out new technology which could give them a decisive advantage, usually in direct competition with Servalan wanting the same thing for her own nefarious purposes. These were though interspersed with a number of standalone episodes which didn't feature the Federation at all but developed the theme of moral ambiguity that ran through the whole series. Genuinely decent people in the series could only be found in the guest stars and usually met with the ultimate punishment for their foolishness. In episode 10 a space station bolt-hole staffed almost entirely by benign, unaligned doctors was blown to smithereens.
The crew's biggest triumph, in the last episode of the first series was capturing Orac, a super-computer who was basically the internet in a plastic box. Although he was often the agent of their salvation in subsequent episodes , his first contribution was to show them a vision of the apparent destruction of the Liberator as a suitable cliffhanger for the end of the first series.
Season Two followed on much the same lines although Nation's involvement was much reduced with ten of the thirteen episodes written by others. At the end of it Travis was finally killed, though by Avon not Blake, and the crew ended up fighting with the Federation against the invading aliens.
Change was forced on the third season as both Thomas and Knyvette chose to quit and so Blake's 7 no longer featured Blake apart from a couple of guest appearances in the final episodes of the subsequent series. However it became more popular without him as Avon, always the more interesting character, had to take on his mantle having spent most of the previous two series looking for a way out of the struggle. Their replacements were the aforementioned Tarrant ( Stephen Pacey ) taking over Jenna's role as pilot, an arrogant bully and cold-blooded murderer to boot, and Dayna ( Josette Simon ) a headstrong young weaponry expert after Servalan's blood for the murder of her father in the opening episode.
The quality of the writing did become a bit variable. Blake and Jenna's separation from the rest of the crew was not satisfactorily explained and episode 6 , Rumours of Death , was the low point of the series, a messy resolution to Avon's back story in which the crew , including the supposedly blood-crazed Dayna unaccountably released Servalan when she was at their mercy. The series ended with the apparent Pyrrhic triumph of Servalan , now President of the Federation after a coup , who lured the crew to a planet called Terminal with a hologram of Blake and abandoned them there while she commandeered the Liberator.
Unbeknown to her the ship was on the point of destruction and she was apparently killed ( with Zen ) while the crew faced a bleak future on an inhospitable planet alone with some hostile degenerated humans.
That was supposed to be the end of the series but BBC Controller Bill Cotton unilaterally announced a fourth season to the surprise of cast and crew. Chappell didn't want to be in it and was killed off ( unseen ) in the opening episode. She was replaced by the much sexier Soolin ( Glynis Barber ) a laconic mercenary. Season Four was written quite hastily ( without Nation who was now in Hollywood ) and that did show . The opening episode in which the crew ( minus Cally ) are rescued by a sinister salvage man named Dorian was largely based on The Picture of Dorian Gray and Soolin only appeared as an afterthought in the following episode. Dorian's apparent immortality allowed him to equip his routine carrier Scorpio with improbably advanced features so that it became roughly equivalent to the Liberator with a computer, Slave, who had the personality of Uriah Heap. Servalan, had equally improbably survived the Liberator's implosion , but been deposed in her absence and now operated under an alias Sleer and so the struggle continued. This was the central weak point of the whole season ; once they knew Sleer's identity, why didn't they just expose her and let the new guys in charge eliminate their mortal enemy ?
The final episode, broadcast just before Christmas 1981, saw Avon leading the crew to a remote planet called Gauda Prime where Blake is masquerading as a bounty hunter. Scorpio was attacked and destroyed on approach and the crew scattered. When they eventually re-congregated Tarrant believed that Blake had betrayed them ( it was actually his companion a Federation double agent ) and so Avon killed him, triggering an ambush by Federation troops ( not led by Servalan ; Pearce was reportedly outraged that Servalan didn't appear in the finale ) who polished them off . And so the series ended as it began, with a massacre. At least this time they were armed.
It's intensely aggravating to find Blake's Seven featuring on the likes of It Was Alright in the Seventies where they round up some half-educated , twentysomething, no-marks to jeer and guffaw at the not-so-special effects and primitive computer graphics . That's because they only had your parents licence money to spend , you morons ! Blake's 7 never set out to dazzle you with technical wizardry - the "creeping carpet" monster in The Harvest of Kairos is so bad it's classic - its strengths lay in the inventiveness of the storylines , the strong characterisations and the interplay between the regular cast. Avon's withering putdowns of the hapless but indispensable Vila, the latter's mordant fourth wall-tickling reflections on their plight, Cally's moral qualms and Avon's alpha male rivalry, first with Blake then Tarrant were all brilliantly written and performed by a capable cast.
Nonetheless Blake's 7 was coruscatingly grim. Even the insanely clever Avon could never find an escape from the unrelenting toil of endless fight-or-flight decision-making. That's why he's smiling as the troops close in for the kill in the final shot. Only death can release you from all this. Blake's 7 was very much a product of its time ; all three Joy Division albums were released during its run and would have made a great soundtrack to the series .
Conversely Blake's 7 's lifespan was roughly coterminous with the happiest period of my life. Perhaps that allowed me to indulge in some gloom tourism and if it had been shown at some other time I'd have found its pessimism indigestible.
Although I watched the first episode alone I persuaded my mum and sister to tune in for the next and they were quickly just as hooked. My sister took a particular shine to Paul Darrow and I think has an autographed publicity card somewhere. As she's quite likely to read this I won't say any more.
In the subsequent years I was disappointed that, despite the popularity of the series , its stars, having given me so much pleasure , didn't seem able to capitalise on it. Thomas, who seemed to age drastically once the series finished, returned to the theatre with occasional guest star roles in things like Casualty where my mum would invariably recognise him before I did. We'll meet Darrow again soon in a period drama but he too remains a jobbing actor who does a lot of voice over work; I last saw him in Hollyoaks which is very sad. Pearce was no spring chicken so Servalan was her last sexy role but she continued working as a character actress; after a brush with cancer but now lives in retirement in South Africa. Keating, whose comic timing was excellent, has been criminally under-employed since; I don't think I've seen him since a nothing role as a security officer in Yes Minister though I believe he's been in Eastenders as a vicar. Pacey, too took up the cloth in an ITV sitcom whose name I've forgotten but has since carved out a niche narrating audiobooks. Knyvette, who went to university after leaving the show, had a regular role as Joe Sugden's wife in Emmerdale Farm for a time and has since appeared briefly in other soaps. Chappell remains a jobbing actor on stage and screen ( I spotted her in Reilly:Ace of Spies ) as were Jackson and Tuddenham until their deaths in 2005 and 2007 respectively.
The younger women actually did best. I saw Simon, less than a year after the series finished as one of the witches in a rather rum production of the Scottish play at Stratford and is a highly regarded stage actress who received an OBE in 2000. Barber is the only one who's better remembered for a different TV role, as the female star of Dempsey and Makepeace and she also appeared in the titular role of Jane in the BBC adaptation of the wartime cartoon. She too has had a stint in Emmerdale and amongst other film roles appeared in the 1983 remake of The Wicked Lady where she insisted on a body double rather than have her boobies fondled by Oliver Tobias.