– WEEK ONE –
Well, here I am again. It’s time to get out the Blake’s 7. This time I’m not cherry-picking my favorite episodes, or seeking out those ones I want to re-evaluate. No, all that will come in time because now it’s time to prepare for the ups, the downs, the terrible and the sublime as I experience the often scintillating, sometimes baffling and constantly entertaining future history of Blake’s 7. From the start. In order. Episode by episode. Am I excited? Hell to the yeah!
For those not familiar Blake’s 7 is a BBC science fiction programme, first shown on British television in 1978. It ran for four seasons, two of which without the eponymous Blake present. At it’s height it was enjoyed by over 14 million viewers, returning week after week to find out if Blake and his band of misfits would get one over on the evil, tyrannical Federation. As you will soon read, this show soon becomes compulsive.
First a bit of background about my relationship with this little gem of a show. “Oh yay!” I hear you sarcastically say. Really, a bit of background will help.
You see, this isn’t the first time I’ve watched Blake’s 7 in order, from the beginning. The only other time I did that was in my early teens, when it was shown on UK Gold. (The channel now sits alongside Dave and others as part of UK TV network, re-branded simply as GOLD) Back in the mid-nineties, they used to present themed timeslots, like Masterpiece – a three hour slot devoted to vintage prestige programs like I, Claudius and Elizabeth R. One of these themed timeslots was the Vortex, a three-four hours nerd-fest between 9am and 1pm every Sunday.
Typically, the Vortex contained a complete Doctor Who story, together with one episode of Survivors and Blake’s 7. Often peppered with specially filmed introductions with cast and crew from the aforementioned shows, plus specially shot graphics, and one epic trailer showing the best of Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who. For two years, the Vortex was a definite highlight of my week.
It was 1995, I was 13 coming on 14 and Blake’s 7 had been repeated on Gold a few years earlier. My only knowledge of this clearly old show came from the tiny images of official VHS releases, found on the reverse sleeve of a Doctor Who video I owned when I was eight years old. Shortly after buying the tape, my mum opened the plastic case, took out the cassette and peered inside, “Hm,” she said scrutinising the other titles also available from BBC Video. “Blake’s 7. I never liked that.” Ever an inquisitive youngster, I asked her why. “Because it was crap!” she said before laughing hysterically.
My mum’s assertion that Blake’s 7 was, in her words, “crap”, I was still curious about this program. The only time I came close to watching an episode was in December 1991, when a cinema in the center of Bristol decided to hold an event showing genre shows from the 60’s and 70’s – Jason King, Thunderbirds, The Avengers. Knowing a few episodes of Doctor Who were bound to be shown at some point, and on the big cinema screen to boot, my mum bought tickets for the two of us. As we walked to the bus stop to catch the number 75 into town, I asked her what she was hoping to see at the event. “What if they show Blake’s 7?” I asked, fearing the worse for her. “Will you watch it?” She nodded happily. “Yes. Okay.” Then added, “if there’s nothing else on.” Happily for her, mum escaped Blake’s 7 that day.
It was more adverts for Blake’s 7 merch, this time in the back of Doctor Who magazine, together with the enthusiasm of my school friend Benedict that made me think I should give the show a go. He used to watch it with his dad – and he liked it as much as I liked Doctor Who! It must be good. So with the show coming along for a second repeat run, I armed myself with the means to record the first four episodes (this being the mid 90’s this involved buying two 3-hour VHS video tapes) . I was convinced this was my opportunity to see something special unfold for the next 52 weeks but it’s the unfolding series of updates through this later life watch-through that I shall regale you with. I tell you these annoyingly tangential things because memories are bound to resurface, as I begin this space adventure again. I can’t help but cast my mind back to that exciting Sunday in 1995, when UK Gold took us into the Vortex and I boarded the Liberator for the very first time.
SEASON ONE : EPISODE 1 – THE WAY BACK
WE BEGIN, as all beginnings logically must, at the beginning, however, I start this watch-through with a logic-busting confession to make.
Earlier, I mentioned my first watch-through, as Blake’s 7 was broadcast for the second time on satellite TV but, in 2006 and I started another watch-through. For two years, my girlfriend and I gingerly picked our way through a third of the 52 broadcast episodes in approximate order. I omitted certain ones that I knew were weak, or that I didn’t care for, which perhaps surprisingly, included the very episode.
It was a conscious decision to skip over the opening episode. Although excellent in it’s own right, it’s more like a Play of the Week kind of adventure. Regulars Jenna and Vila are introduced during the last ten minutes, but other than that, the episode doesn’t even hint at the type of series to expect. To me, this beginning where the central character is falsely exiled for child molestation jars with what comes after, which is less 1984 and more Dirty Dozen. That the experience was implanted in the minds of three children, just to give the government the evidence it needs to sentence and shame a former symbol of opposition, is strong stuff for those expecting a more lighthearted Doctor Who-type approach. It stands alone. Adult and intense.
By starting my last watch-through with the second episode, Space Fall, I robbed my girlfriend of several important scenes, establishing the nature of the future society we find ourselves in. Dominique has seen this episode in the years since our joint watch through but, as she can’t remember it, she watches with me and from this moment on, she’s in on the ride. This is now a joint re-watch through! (Or a re-re-watch through in my case).
So, the series starts with curly haired Roj Blake as sleep walks his way through a busy domed city in an emerald green velvet tabbard. He soon meets up with a right couple of wrong ‘uns, with BBC accents who show take him outside the city, itself a capital crime. The night air seems clear his mind, which is lucky because he’s brought into contact with a resistance leader, who’s other main job is an exposition machine. He tells a slightly bamboozled Blake about a man he once worked with, a man who once had influence over insurrectionists across the galaxy and led the rebel alliance on Earth. Before the Federation caught him and wiped his mind, before he was turned into a drugged, state-sponsored puppet. His name was Blake.
Perhaps tired from this sudden info dump, Blake wanders off for a well-timed breath of fresh air, because he just about manages to avoid the massacre of the assembled rebels. A good advert for taking regular exercise, if ever there was one.
The Federation guards, black suits and helmets covering their faces surround the unarmed group. Their leader holds his hands up in surrender. Then, he’s unceremoniously shot dead and the rest fall in quick succession. An absolute blood bath, you might say. It’s mature opening for a camp space adventure series but, what this scene does is hammer home the vicious nature of the ruling establishment and the lengths it will routinely go to, in order to quell potential insurrection.
As the only witness to this mass-murder, the administration decide Blake, ever a persistent thorn in their side, must be silenced, before his conditioning breaks down. As several politician types discuss the pros and cons of infecting him with a terminal virus, the danger of turning him into a martyr is too strong. The next best thing? They decide to discredit him entirely. Enter Blake’s tall scruffy-haired lawyer, looking like Mike Gambit in a tabard.
Despite refuting the (false) claims of child molestion, Blake pleads not guilty but offers no defense. The next few scenes play out very quickly, with little or no indication of any amount of time having passed between the politicians deciding to trump up a charge, Blake meeting his lawyer and the trial scene. Blake’s motivation here, is to bring to light the massacre he witnessed, except there’s no mention of it anywhere, and his lawyer doesn’t believe him. It’s a swift and important series of events, under-acted in over-lit sets. It doesn’t convince.
Unlike my 13 year old self, and my modern day counterpart, Dominique enjoys the trial scene. Here, Blake’s lawyer and the prosecuting council (a horrid woman called Morag) present the entirety of their case in glass domes, which is then fed into a central computer. The computer examines the evidence from each side (indicated by each globe lighting up in turn), before making judgment. The sentence of penal exile is handed down to Blake by an arbiter. It’s a brief sequence, lasting all of three minutes. On my first watch, years ago, I found it cheap looking and ridiculous, and I didn’t really understand what was going on. Dominique however found it interestingly plausible that trials would be conducted like this in the future and applauded the imagination shown to do something different. I still hate it.
So half an hour into episode one, we’ve had state-induced child molestation, the brutal gunning down of 20 people, mental torture and corruption in high office. The appearance of Michael Keating as Vila is a welcome bit of warmth and humor, even if he is a thief. He’s got a twinkle in his eye, and he’s not overly upset about being sent to a prison planet.
As his lawyer finally stumbles upon the bodies of the rebels massacred earlier, he realises Blake’s been telling the truth. Thankfully, there’s still time before the ship takes off. Blake is among a large cargo of prisoners shuffling along before taking their seats on the ship. Next comes a moment, the first irksome moment for Dominique, and one with which my 13 year old self would concur because the next time we see Blake’s lawyer, a creepy bloke, who’s been observing everything from a distance all the way through, is now standing over him, a freshly fired gun in his hand. Dom thinks it’s a bit off that the lawyer and his wife were apparently set up to become main characters and then killed off. Modern me, however, quite likes it. It’s grim and it sets the tone for the whole series; it’s all about losing.
So, as the ship takes off and speeds away from Earth, Blake looks back at the world getting smaller and smaller and portentously declares he’ll be going back.
If Blake’s 7, The Way Back is basically the prologue. It doesn’t really hint at what’s to come, but it sets up the corrupt society and features a couple of cameos from future regulars. From the perspective of a prologue, it also hinges on an obscure plot-point in an obscure episode. It’s almost the quintessential post-modern prologue-come-prequel you’ll ever get.
Missing The Way Back doesn’t detracting much from what will follow. For me, it will forever sit alongside Doctor Who’s pilot episode, the first, (Kirk-less) episode of Star Trek and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, all opening installments that are comfortably miss-able.
- Check back here this time next week – 24th January – to read what we make of episode 2: Space Fall
More watch-through shenanigans as we look back on the first 200 episodes of epic, gothic soap opera – Dark Shadows !
Copyright Martin Gregory. 2019.