Making its television debut on BBC 1 on 2 January 1978, the night that Star Wars blazed across the cinema screens of London for the first time, Blake's 7 was the BBC and veteran writer/creator Terry Nation's attempt to present to the viewing public a serious home grown science fiction adventure series.
Set in the 'third century of the second calendar', the series presented the grimly depressing central premise of an Earth under the yoke of a near omnipotent, brutally totalitarian government, known as 'The Federation'. Ruthlessly crushing all attempts at individual freedom and creative endeavour, The Federation controlled its populace by means of air and water administered tranquillising drugs, and the immediate elimination of any and all dissidents by means of murder or sentencing them to exile to an off world penal colony for crimes of which they are innocent.
Utilising just such a fabricated charge, in this instance child molestation, a daring move on Nation's part at the time, the Federation dispose of Roj Blake, (Gareth Thomas), former hero and leader of the underground resistance movement. However, Blake manages to start a revolt whilst on the prison ship carrying him and a fresh group of criminals to their life of servitude, ultimately escaping along with a small group of fellow prisoners aboard a technologically advanced, abandoned alien spaceship, which they dub The Liberator. From this point, Nation (co-creator of Doctor Who's most notorious monsters, The Daleks and the sombre, serious post apocalyptic drama series Survivors), began the slow development of the black character and his band of mismatched fellow escapee's into a reworked, futuristic version of Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men, with the Federation cast in the role of King John's tyrannical forces.
The series original seven consisted of Blake, the coldly deadly and self- serving computer genius Kerr Avon, (Paul Darrow, acting initially as a marvellously judged foil and counterpart to the more overtly idealistic Black character), full time thief and accomplished coward Vila Restal, (Michael Keating) the gentle giant 'Little John' character Olag Gan, beautiful smuggler and space pilot Jenna Stannis, Auron telepath Cally, and Zen - the ship's near sentient computer. Over the course of its run, the core cast underwent a number of changes. The character of Blake himself departed when Gareth Thomas opted to pursue other career avenues, to be replaced by the far less charismatic and interesting standard hero character of Mercenary Del Tarrent. The Giant Gan and telepath Cally were both killed off and Jenna left the Liberator, their places were taken by two new female characters, weapons expert Dayna Mellanby and blonde gunslinger Soolin (Glynis Barber, who later starred as one half of the TV detective duo Dempsey and Makepeace). Rounding out the new seven were the non human forms of the smugly superior mini supercomputer, Orac, and following the destruction of the Liberator at the climax of season three, the introduction of the far less imaginatively designed replacement ship Scorpio's obsequious onboard computer, Slave.
With Blake no longer at the head of the outlawed band, Darrow's Avon character emerged as the natural successor to Blake's vacated leadership. Now, with an outright and morally cynical anti-hero in control, the war against the Federation took on a much darker, less noble aspect. This change of direction and character dynamics led to a much more intimate small-scale style of warfare between the two opposing forces, the chief highlight of which grew to be the complexly ambiguous, almost love/hate relationship between Avon and physical embodiment of the Federation, Servalan (an almost wilfully high camp performance from Jacqueline Pearce, which nevertheless demonstrated the character's cold-bloodied insanity to sometimes chilling effect).
Over the course of its four seasons, the series steadily consolidated for itself a large and devoted cult following, despite the fact that with Nation's departure and the loss of the Liberator, the series had seen a steady and unstoppable decline in script quality as the writers slowly lost their grip on the underlying direction which had provided the series with its early bedrock foundation. Despite this, a number of the later episodes were still interestingly written and executed enough to hold the audience's attention, with the final story of the series, entitled simply Blake, arguably one of its strongest, finest and certainly most controversial.
In that final episode, more than ten million viewers watched in disbelief as the heroes they had followed faithfully over the course of four seasons were seemingly cut down in a hail of Federation gunfire, whilst the returning Blake was himself killed by Avon. It was an audacious end to a series, which ultimately failed to live up to its early potential.
Despite the hindrance of a severely limited budget and lack of dramatic focus during its latter seasons, Blake's 7 was capable of offering thought provoking, well executed character driven science fiction drama of genuine quality. And while it wasn't Star Wars, it was entertaining escapist television science fantasy.
Published on November 30th, 2018. Review: Stephen R. Hulse.