Blake's 7 Series Review

"Have you betrayed us? Have YOU... betrayed... ME?"

In the late '70s writer Terry Nation, creator of the Daleks and Survivors, went to the BBC with a pitch for a new sci-fi series that he described as "The Dirty Dozen in space". The BBC liked the idea and agreed to finance the series for a run of 13 episodes on the condition that Nation would write all 13. Fueled by ego, and against his better judgement, Nation agreed. And thus Blake’s 7 came into being.

[Warning: Spoilers Ahead]

Set in the distant future, the series follows Roj Blake (Garth Thomas), a freedom fighter who has been brainwashed by the tyrannical Federation into publicly renouncing his former ways. After witnessing a massacre by state troops, he’s framed for child molestation (yes, you read that right) and shipped off to a prison planet. En route Blake soon escapes and takes possession of an advanced alien ship, the Liberator, and begins a one man war against the Federation aided by a motley crew of escaped convicts. Along the way they pick up a telepathic terrorist and the smuggest super-computer in the universe.

Hard to think now, but back in its day Blake’s 7 used to go toe to toe with the ratings titan that is Coronation Street and hold its own. Despite the show’s popularity the budget was virtually microscopic, left over from Z-Cars spin-off series Softly, Softly. Sci-fi made on the budget of a cop show meant the sets were prone to wobble, the spaceships looked like they’d been purchased from the bargain bin at Woolworths and the aliens came in two varieties; rubber and papier-mâché. Oh, and practically every single planet looked like an English quarry. This was the BBC trying to do Star Wars on the same kind of money George Lucas spends to have his beard trimmed. That the series managed to overcome most of those obstacles and become one of the most popular sci-fi series Britain has ever produced is something of a miracle.

Throughout the first series Nation struggled with the tough workload he'd foolishly agreed to. He often relied on script-editor Chris Boucher to pick up the slack. The opening duo, ‘The Way Back’ and ‘Space Fall’, get the series off to a strong start before descending into BRIAN BLESSED!!! shaped shouty madness. When Nation kept the focus on Blake’s struggles against the Federation the show could often transcend its budget limitations and produce something special. But when he started to move away from the central arc you’re subjected to the worst sort of cheesy sci-fi tripe like ‘The Web’ and ‘Breakdown’.


In spite of its many production limitations, one thing Blake’s 7 always had going for it were its characters. Sure, the acting might not have been Bafta worthy, but the crew of the Liberator were a far cry from the bland action figures sci-fi telly usually chucked at us. Thomas didn't really convince as the great revolutionary leader, but he kept Blake down to earth and human as he carefully walked that thin line between noble freedom fighter and fanatical terrorist. Paul Darrow regularly stole the show as cynical, self-serving computer nerd Avon. One of the highlights of the series was always the uneasy love/hate relationship between the noble Blake and the sardonic Avon.

The rest of the seven were a little mixed. Michael Keating was often good fun as Vila, although his Cowardly Lion routine did tend to get tiresome after a while. Jenna (Sally Knyvette) and Cally (Jan Chappell) were rarely allowed many opportunities to escape from the boys' shadows, while Gan (David Jackson) was... just sort of there, to be honest. And did they really need one super computer let alone two? The show fared a little better on the villainy front thanks to Blake's nemesis Travis, played by Stephen Greif in the first series and Brian Croucher in the second, and Jacqueline Pearce’s ruthless Supreme Commander Servalan, the Alexis Carrington of sci-fi villains.


Nation became less involved in the series during the second season. Boucher and producer David Maloney took more creative control and brought in a new team of writers, including Doctor Who legend Robert Holmes, resulting in a stronger season overall. In order to show that the Federation was a force to be reckoned with, Gan was killed off mid-season, something which was shocking at the time because back then main characters, even irrelevant ones, had impenetrable plot armour. The season ended with 'Star One' with Blake destroying the Federation's central control facility, but inadvertently leaving the galaxy open to invasion by aliens from the Andromeda galaxy.

Season three saw the series undergo something of a metamorphosis. Thomas and Knyvette decided not to return, leaving Blake's 7 without its title character and central driving force. Blake and Jenna's absence was explained by having them disappear after the crew's battle with the Andromedan aliens. Josette Simon and Steven Pacey joined the cast as Dayna and Del while Avon became the group's new leader, paving the way for Darrow to dominate the show with his increasingly hammy acting.

With Blake MIA, the freedom fighter angle was also gradually toned down in favour of campy space opera resulting in episodes like 'City at the Edge of the World' where a pre-Doctor Who Colin Baker gives a masterclass in scenery chewing. The season ended with 'Terminal', Nation's final script for the series, which featured the apparent death of Servalan and the destruction of the Liberator. The cast and crew thought that season three would be the show's last. By the time 'Terminal' was broadcast in 1980, the show's production office had closed and the cast and crew had all gone their separate ways. They were surprised when, during the closing credits, the continuity announcer declared that Blake's 7 would return the following year. Bill Cotton, the Head of BBC Television, was so impressed with the finale when he watched it at home that he quickly telephoned BBC Presentation and instructed that an announcement be made during the end credits that the series would return.


At this point Nation was now working in America and had virtually no involvement with the series. Boucher took over as the show's main writer while Vere Lorrimer replaced Maloney as producer. The entire cast returned with the exception of Jan Chappell leading to Cally dying off-screen in the season's first episode. She was replaced by Glynis Barber as the bland Soolin. With the Liberator in pieces, the crew picked up a new spacecraft ship, the Scorpio, which came with its own sentient computer, Slave. You'd have to search far and wide to find a fan who thinks season four was the show's best. If I'm brutally honest it is one of the worst seasons of television I have ever seen, but it was all worth it (even dreck like 'Animals') just for that final episode. 

A strong contender for the most downbeat season finale ever made, 'Blake' saw Thomas return as the missing Blake only for him to be killed by Avon after he (mistakenly) believes his former leader has betrayed him. Federation troops then storm the place and gun everyone down, although it was done in such a way that, if the BBC announced another surprise renewal, it would've been revealed that they were only stunned. But that didn't happen. And so Blake's 7 ended on a suitable bleak note with the bad guys utterly victorious and everyone we knew and cared about (and Soolin) dead on the floor. All except for Avon. Standing over Blake's bloody body, Federation troops all around, their guns pointed right at him, the sole remaining rebel smiled and raised his gun. Cut to credits and the sound of gunfire.

And they showed this at Christmas.


Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011. More Mark Greig.

2 comments:

Tim said...


Thanks for the review, Mark.

Despite all the (totally accurate) shortcomings you describe, it was still a formative and massively influential show for my tween self.
My best mate and I would lovingly and enthusiastically reenact scenes from that week's installment in the playground (I was always Avon - who'd want to be Blake?)

'Terminal' remains my favourite ep and would have been a fitting ending to the show.
But then along came series 4 ...

JB said...

Michael Keating is the MVP of the protagonists for me, he always makes Vila watchable and the relationship between Vila and Avon is fascinating. For all that Avon will make withering remarks about Vila, it comes across that he’s the only one Avon can depend on absolutely and by the final season the last tie back to the early days of their rebellion aboard the Liberator. If it weren’t for Vila and his lock picking skills, the crew would be dead many times over. Vila is also the character who acts like any of us would in his situation. While the others take quickly to life as rebels, Vila is more like to show interest in protecting his own skin and not a fan of Blake’s increasingly drastic plans.

The Space Fall podcast is following the show episode by episode, picking them apart and giving really interesting opinions. They’re about halfway through season 2 at the moment.

A huge shout out to the fallen cast members in recent years. Gareth Thomas, Jacqueline Pearce and Paul Darrow. Gave so much to the show and made us invest our time and interest in their characters.