Saturday, 16 January 2016

318 Blake's 7

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.       


No comments:

Post a Comment