These days we’d get a handy “Previously on Blake’s 7” recap for us to skip when we block-watch the boxset on Netflix but this is 1970’s television, so instead, we pick up exactly where we left off, with Blake confined to his chair for failing to respond to an order and stating his intention to get back to Earth. Spoiler alert: by the episode’s end, he’ll be well on his way. Sort of.
It’s becoming tradition to start with a little confession. Dominique and I watched episode two just a couple of days after the debut episode, The Way Back, but this write up has taken a little while longer to appear. I apologise for this but, rest assured, there will be no more large gaps.
It’s late Sunday afternoon, and as I’ve written elsewhere (Escaping the Sunday afternoon blues), a total sci-fi nerd-fest is one of the ways Dominique we like to while away the last hours of the weekend.
As with the Way Back, we’re introduced to a lot of characters who look like they might become one of the eponymous seven. Among the large group of prisoners on board the London there’s friendly giant, Gan, cold computer expert Avon and a nervous looking chap called Nova, who’s so awkward it’s obvious he’s going to bite the dust early on.
The prison ship has a far more interesting crew. Captain Leyland and his officers remind me of the inmates of Slade prison (from Porridge); There’s inexperienced youngster Artix, full of book-ish ambition and naive charm, he’s Godper to Leyland’s Fletcher, not only his youthful appearance, but his mis-placed devotion. Our grizzled captain displays similarities to a certain Norman Stanley, such as his pronounced crustiness world-weary resignation and his efforts to protect his young colleague from the nastier facts of life. First Officer Raker, played to perfection by Leslie Schofield, brings to mind a similarly fearsome prison officer, and just like H.M. Slade’s Mr McKay, he has no regard for the inmates in his care. Of course, unlike McKay, Raker is the product of the harsh Terran Administration system. There are moments of quiet mercy, such as when he releases Blake from his chair confinement but, but later we see his mercenary side, which becomes more pronounced the longer Jenna resists his temptations.
Above: Sadistic Raker (Leslie Schofield), Commander Leyland (Glyn Owen) and Artix (Norman Tipton)
Blake and his new chums forego the suppressant-laced culinary delights enjoyed by their comrades, instead choosing to mount a bid for freedom, via control of the ship. Soon the nervous one has succumb to a sci-fi tradition of being the least convincing actor to be killed off first. The loss of one green equity member aside, Blake’s audacious plan goes without a hitch, that is until Vila accidentally surrenders his gun to a guard. Oh Vila.
Just as he’s about to seize control of the ship, Blake’s moment of triumph is ruined by the appearance of Raker on a monitor, and he’s not raving about the theft of Mr. Baraclough’s bi-cycle. Instead, he’s a hapless got a bunch of drugged-up prisoners lined up in the rec room, and is about to do something Slade prison’s Mr. McKay could only dream of; shoot one prisoner every minute until Blake surrenders, or, until he runs out of prisoners.
Now, we see the first marked difference between Blake and Avon. The former cannot allow the atrocity continue. As his colleagues begin to fall, the cold genius urges Blake to ignore it, and continue with the take over. To Avon’s utter disgust, Blake quickly surrenders.
This really is the only link between episodes one and two of this show. When we see the prisoners lined up in front of Raker there is a direct line through to that earlier installment. We know the administration won’t mind if he guns the lot of ’em down, which heightens the drama quite considerably. A potent reminder of the kind of empire the Federation has built, and why Blake can’t stomach it.
We’re about halfway in and so far there’s been lots of action and lots of character but again, this is where my decision to omit the first episode from a previous watch-through seems justified, as there is no reference at all to the harsh establishment that was set up in that earlier story. The prisoners seen here seem to be treated quite well, on the whole. Although suppressed by drugs in their food, their facilities seem adequate and clean. The Federation is even going to the cost of a long haul deep space flight to a far distant penal colony, instead of just executing them outright or dumping them in space.
Other parts of the previous episode not expanded upon or mentioned, are the rebel massacre, Blake’s former life as a resistance leader and the false charges made against him. He never finds out his lawyer and his wife were murdered trying to prove his innocence. This would be less irritating if it felt like this was an intentional side-step but it actually fills like a bit of a cheat, like Terry Nation was more interested in introducing the staple elements of the show quickly, rather than continue the very gradual and intense build-up of the first episode.
Spacefall is notably lighter and less intense than the Way Back, and this feels like a deliberate and sensible approach. The grim tone of the previous episode would have been hard to maintain, and somewhat depressing for the audience (a trap Survivors I think fell into during it’s early days). The dark elements are still present here, not least in the person of the sadistic Raker, but there are moments of light, establishing Vila as the show’s main comedic ingredient. He really doesn’t seem to be overly upset about being exiled to a prison planet. Just an occupational hazard, as Norman Stanley might say.
The BBC Visual Effects team were criminally under-funded for Blake’s 7. A science fiction show assigned the same budget as an ordinary police drama, but despite the cost-savings, the model of the Liberator is a masterpiece in miniature. Reportedly difficult to light and made on the wrong scale (Liberator often looked almost as big as the planet it was orbiting), it is the absolute epitome of spacecraft deluxe. Blake’s acquisition of the alien craft, with the help of Avon and Jenna, is contrived but utterly enjoyable.
Thanks to their failed attempt at taking over the ship, the trio are now considered expendable – canon fodder for an exploratory mission onto the grand derelict, floating aimlessly along the prison ship’s flight path. It’s dangerous, and Leyland has already lost three crewman in an attempt to capture it.
The reveal of the Liberator’s flight deck is an iconic moment in the series. Dom and I are in agreement, it’s a gorgeous bit of design work, and the interior does justice to the elaborate excess of the ship’s exterior too.
Of course, now established as our main protagonists, Blake and his friends easily overcome the mental assault that killed Leyland’s crewmen. A first for the show occurs shortly after. Blake orders Liberator to move away from it’s docked position with the prison ship which closes the adjoining door, just as his nemesis is about to reach Liberator via the docking tube attached to both shops. The model shot of Raker falling into space is quite good but it’s slightly surprising to see our hero take a life and then shrug it off. It’s not the first time we’ll see this.
“So now we’re free,” says Avon wearily. Perhaps echoing the sentiment of a writer who’s worked hard to reunite his characters with their freedom, and now has to figure out what the hell he’s going to do with them. “Cygnus Alpha,” says Blake. A writer needs a direction, and as luck would have it, Blake’s ship needs a crew. Lay in a course.
Our mission: Blake’s 7. In Order. From the start. It begins here.
More watch-through shenanigans as we look back on the first 200 episodes of epic, gothic soap opera – Dark Shadows !
Copyright Martin Gregory 2019