The Great British Blake Off: The 40th Anniversary of Blake’s 7
Forty years ago, at 6:00pm on Tuesday 2nd January 1978, the BBC launched a new science fiction adventure series: “Blake’s 7”. With its prime slot on the New Year Bank Holiday Monday, this certainly wasn’t a low key launch for Terry ‘Creator of the Daleks’ Nation’s latest sci-fi extravaganza and it proved to be quite a hit with the audience, with the first season regularly drawing 10m viewers.
Admittedly, I wasn’t one of those 10m because I was coming up to four at the time. In fact, I’m not even sure that by the time the second season (or, as “Blake’s 7” quirkily has it Season B) rolled around, I was watching it. But by the time Season C started, I was firmly placed in front of the TV. It was an edgy, grown-up treat for this nearly six-year old; a darker, dystopian counterpoint to “Doctor Who”. I watched the series to its bitter end and over subsequent years managed to watch the earlier seasons on reruns and, luxuriously, VHS ‘feature film’ re-edits of episodes.
Despite being saddled with something approaching a quarter of the budget it needed, “Blake’s 7” was a trailblazing sci-fi adventure which proved incredibly influential (“Firefly”, “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and the reimagined “Battlestar Galactica” amongst many others owe something to the series). The production design, especially the Liberator, its interior and its accessories such as guns and teleport bracelets still look amazing and while the special effects are as ropey as BBC effects of the seventies could get, the writing was sharp and complex and decades ahead of its time. The dysfunctional crew relationships, ambiguous morality and embracing of a dark, nihilistic galactic realpolitik gave rise to a remarkable cast of anti-heroes, rivalled only by the seductive, delicious ruthlessness of its primary villain, Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce). The animated opening titles might seem a little quaint but the theme tune – by Dudley Simpson – is one of the great sci-fi theme tunes of all time.
It remains one of my favourite TV shows to this day and to celebrate its 40th Anniversary, I’ve been running “The Great British Blake Off”, a knockout tournament to determine the best episode of “Blake’s 7” according to the voters of Twitter. You can jump down to the end of this post if you want to see who won, but in the meantime, I present to you my ten favourite “Blake’s 7” episodes. They may not be the best the series had to offer, but they’re the ones I love the most.
A3 – “Cygnus Alpha” by Terry Nation
It seems like quite the luxury in a thirteen episode season to use nearly a third of the episodes as a pilot for the series and, in a way, it could be argued that the entire first season is an extended pilot given it’s not until the final episode that Blake’s titular 7 is finally assembled. “Cygnus Alpha” is the first full episode which features the Liberator and introduces Zen (Peter Tuddenham). With Blake (Gareth Thomas), Jenna (Sally Knyvette) and Avon (Paul Darrow) on board, our heroes continue on to the Federation penal colony on Cygnus Alpha, intending to rescue their friends. Their rescue mission is complicated by the presence of a fanatical religious cult on the planet, led by Vargas (Brian Blessed) who controls his followers with drugs. By the end, Blake adds two more to his crew – Vila (Michael Keaton) and Gan (David Jackson) and sets off on his mission to bring down the Federation.
A6 – “Seek-Locate-Destroy” by Terry Nation
In many ways, the pilot episode(s) of “Blake’s 7” promise a series that later episodes never quite deliver on. Blake’s crusade as a rebel leader always feels a little forced and his overall strategic plan seems to be repetitive small strikes against the Federations many, many communications outposts which bear uncanny resemblances to chemical plants. Who knew interstellar communication requires so many pipes and valves? What makes this episode stand out is that we’re first introduced to Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce), one of the series’ best characters and performances. Ruthless, evil and empowered with a potent dark sensuality, she easily eclipses most of the principle cast and virtually every other bad guy the series came up with, especially her barely civilised attack dog Travis (Stephen Grief), later played (utterly appallingly) by Brian Croucher.
B1 – “Redemption” by Terry Nation
The opening episode of Season B sees series creator Terry Nation try to expand the mythology by explaining the origins of the Liberator itself. Picking up from Orac’s cliff-hanger prediction of the ship’s destruction at the end of the previous season, we learn that the ship was designed and built by ‘The System’, an alien computer controlled hive mind race. It’s an interesting sidestep for the series, away from the galactic political rebellion but it’s undermined by the fact The System never reappear in the series again once the valiant crew escape. It broadened the series’ reach though and moved it a shade closer to the exploratory ‘strange new worlds’ approach of “Star Trek” and “Doctor Who”, although the series would always have a weirdly uncomfortable relationship with non-human aliens races.
B11 – “Gambit” by Robert Holmes
Having treated the season-long ‘Star One’ arc quite unevenly, the season gets back on track in this delightfully surreal and typically sharp dark satire from veteran “Doctor Who” writer Robert Holmes. Unusually balanced, this sees the cast split into an ‘A’ and ‘B’ plot, with Blake’s search for a Federation surgeon who may know the location of Star One sitting alongside Avon, Vila and Orac planning to break the bank at Freedom City’s famous casino. Everyone’s on top form and even the usually wooden and terrible Brian Croucher is actually tolerable. As well as neatly playing to the strengths of the characters, it manages to give the search for Star One a sense of momentum and urgency it had been sorely lacking.
C1 & C2 – “Aftermath” & “Powerplay” by Terry Nation
Following the vastly overambitious (and critically under-resourced) season B finale which saw Star One destroyed, the Federation crippled and the galaxy invaded by an outside alien force, Terry Nation was forced to essentially give the series a soft reboot when stars Gareth Thomas and Sally Knyvette declined to return. Introducing new characters Dayna (Josette Simon) and Tarrant (Steven Pacey), the assumed completion of the anti-Federation crusade and the shake-up of the crew gave the whole series a new dynamic. Maybe it’s because this was the first series I watched but the Season C cast has always been my favourite Blake’s 7 crew. Dayna is an infinitely more interesting character than Jenna and Tarrant is a decent replacement for Blake, although the series wisely allows Avon to step up into the defacto leadership role. This two-part story once again sees the crew reassembling after being scattered, which by this point was becoming one of the series’ hallmarks.
C8 – “Rumours Of Death” by Chris Boucher
In all honesty, I could have made this list solely out of Season C episodes but this Avon-centric episode stands out for typifying the difference in Avon’s approach to commanding the Liberator compared to Blake. There’s still no love for the Federation but the motivations are more personal and Avon’s focus settling old scores, so much so that he’s willing to risk the Liberator by bringing the ship to Earth to hunt down the person he blames for the death of his lover. But there are twists and turns aplenty and the seeds for the series’ eventual ending are sown here as Avon’s reaction to an ancient betrayed ends up having galactic repercussions.
C9 – “Sarcophagus” by Tanith Lee
Trippy, psychedelic and riddled with symbolic explorations of the crew and their relationships. It’s much more like a “Star Trek” episode than anything the series had attempted before and it’s finally the moment when the series puts Tarrant firmly in his place: Avon’s shadow. By this point, Paul Darrow is owning the series as Avon, even as the character’s carefully projected veneer of callous self-interest is wearing perilously thin.
D9 – “Sand” by Tanith Lee
The announcement of a fourth season of “Blake’s 7” took the cast and crew by complete surprise and, having all but dismantled most of the series’ iconic components, Chris Boucher had to jump through several narrative hoops to get the series back on track. Unfortunately the new ship, the Scorpio, and it’s onboard computer Slave were pale imitations of their predecessors. Gone were the expansive, impressive Liberator sets, replaced by a single flight deck which resembled a repurposed Saturday morning kids’ TV show set. There were more cast changes as well, as Jan Chappell opted not to return as Cally, leading to an unsatisfying off-screen death to explain her absence. She was replaced by Glynis Barber as Soolin, who – thanks to this being the last season – never really got the chance to develop as a character. In any event, the series still had the power to deliver some cracking drama, relying ever more on the quality, depth and complexity of its characters and writing to mitigate the clearly shrinking production budget. “Sand” uses a mysterious alien MacGuffin of sentient silicon-based life to strand two characters together, this time choosing Tarrant instead of the more predictable Avon to go head to head with Servalan.
D11 – “Orbit” by Robert Holmes
In his final script for the series, Holmes combines some robust sci-fi ideas, well-conceived characters and an exquisite moral dilemma wrapped in a ticking clock plot that finally gives us the moral confrontation we have been waiting for since almost the beginning of the series. Would Avon really sacrifice his long-suffering friend Vila to save his own life? Avon was always at his best and most interesting when he had been outmanoeuvred and manipulated into a trap. That he would escape and turn the tables was rarely in doubt, but the delight was in seeing how far he’d go in the name of self-preservation.
These are just ten of my favourite episodes from “Blake’s 7” and there are 42 others which I haven’t mentioned which nearly all have something to recommend them. Decades ahead of its time in its writing and characters, it’s a series you’ll frequently need to use your imagination and suspension of disbelief to make allowances for its frugality but if you can look past its production shortcomings, it’s a multi-faceted, thematically complex and mature sci-fi drama brimming with imagination and inventiveness. If I’ve whetted your appetite and you want to read in-depth analyses of the episodes from someone with far more expertise, passion and eloquence for “Blake’s 7” then I highly recommend you check out a blog called “Watching Blake’s 7“.
Over the past few days, Twitter has been voting for their favourite Blake’s 7 episode in a knock-out tournament. After three bruising rounds which saw “Animal” eliminated twice, it finally came down to Season C’s “Rumours Of Death” versus series finale “Blake”. So, without further ado, I’m pleased to announce the winner of The Great British Blake Off was…
“Rumours Of Death”, which is available to stream on Britbox.