Possibly the most atmospheric, perhaps one of the most essential and certainly the loudest episode of Blake’s 7.
It’s a typical Saturday afternoon, and the rain is slanting down from a blueless grey sky. Typical for us in the UK, anyway. But what could be better than sitting down with some easy lunch and continue with our Blake’s 7 watch-through.
Regular readers will know, my partner Dominique and I are enjoying this watch-through together. These write-ups are uploaded incrementally in order to keep the content on this site as diverse as possible. So, with fresh batteries in the remote, we begin.
This episode opens with some nice shots of Blake’s ship looking like the grand old duke of space, even if the distant stars do look a bit disproportionately large. This time, the ship is on it’s way to planet Cygnus Alpha, where there are some even bigger stars, including Pamela Salem and Brian Blessed (see what I did there. Darn it, I could write links for the One Show!). As a bit of a fan of the big man, Dominique is especially looking forward to this episode. She once saw the former wrestler (and many other occupations) on an episode of Mr and Mrs. Since then, she’s found him not just entertaining, but genuinely unpredictable, bringing energy to otherwise dull productions. Stand up, Phantom Menace, we’re looking at you.
The setup of the show’s main ingredients continues as Blake learns to get to grip with his recently acquired space ship, and perhaps more crucially, learns to get to grips with his unwilling passengers. Although able to claim equal and valid ownership over the ship, cold, logical Avon and pilot-come-smuggler Jenna are very much passengers, victims of Blake’s overbearing personality. Avon wants to make a run for it but the idealist among them wants to rescue their fellow prisoners. Jenna can’t make her mind up. It’s a tense time but luckily for Blake one of the flashier four walls of the flight deck begins to light up in a strange sequence of flashing blocks, and we are introduced to a key ingredient of Blake’s eventual seven.
Every good sci-fi show has a main computer, sometimes it’s the omniscient Alexa-like Next Generation computer, the crazy Hal of 2001 or possibly the senile Holly type from Red Dwarf. Happily, Blake’s 7 eschews the modern sci-fi “virtue” of having characters fly the ship themselves (which often calls on the actors to earnestly deliver teidious melodramatic techno-babble like “aft thrusters failing!” while their chairs are shaken by off-camera stage hands). Thankfully, this ship has Zen. Conceptually artistic, Zen is visualised as a big, brown/gold glass globe that lights up in agreeable Minecraft-esque patches when communicating in its soft but booming voice. Liberator is full of homely aesthetics,with fully integrated sci-fi appliances including Zen, who is built into a wall of the flight deck. Yay!
Yes, Liberator. Blake’s ship is christened thanks to the computer reading Jenna’s mind. And there are more surprises in store. The ship boasts several neat bits of kit, not least some swish looking guns, but perhaps most excitingly, a teleport system! Blake’s immediately keen to test it out. As there’s an even chance the experimental hardwire might distribute the freedom fighter across the surface of Cygnus Alpha in several different pieces, Avon’s also keen for Blake to test it.
Talking of the teleport system, this is where Blake’s 7 often gets unfairly compared to Star Trek. It’s the two series’ main commonality. Of course, there are other similarities. For example, the super space empire is known as the Federation in both shows and follow the crew of a cool spaceship, but these are merely superficial. It is the teleport that is perceived as the most blatant bit of gimmick mimickery. It’s unfair though. Not only has matter transmission been an established scientific theory for decades, it’s also been used up and down the streets of science fiction, ever since the genre was founded. It’s also bloody handy for writers. While some sci-fi shows sometimes let the plot get bogged down during shuttle journeys from A to B, the teleport allows the story to continue briskly on. It’s far too handy an idea to be the sole preserve of one television programme. (Also, Blake’s 7 is about a bunch of criminals becoming heroes, so perhaps it’s fitting that those working behind the scenes were on the thieve too!)
Of course it’s the teleport and Liberator’s exceedingly fast speed that makes it miles better than anything in the Federation’s arsenal, and it’s why Blake is confident he can overthrow the tyrannical empire. All he needs is a crew.
Reeling from the loss of Commander Raker, Artix and Leyland, (from the previous episode) make a nice cameo at the beginning. It’s good to see them and gives us nice feeling of continuity, explicitly linking this episode to the last. This is an exact opposite to the first and second episode, where there was hardly any continuity whatsoever.
The prison ship doesn’t hang about. Vila, Gan and the rest of the convicts are left to fend for themselves on the dark, barren world of Cygnus Alpha. It’s a dark quarry of a world, decorated with the remains of heretics, strung up and left to die.
Vargas, played by Brian Blessed looks like the sort of bloke who might string up a few heretics. It’s a fine turn from Blessed who is the biggest guest star we’ve seen so far. Happily, playing the High Priest of Cygnus Alpha gives him plenty of opportunity to exercise his vocal chords – and television speakers everywhere. He’s good value, though. Vargas isn’t just the demented baddy of the week, he’s a despotic zealot, with a loyal following and a lineage that dates back to the very first batch of Federation prisoners deposited on Cygnus. His pride at the community built up through the religion, invented by his great grandfathers, calls to mind antipodean pride in their ancestors of overcoming huge, almost impossible challenges just to survive, and then to build from nothing in order to thrive. It’s a powerful conceit and Blessed milks it for all he’s worth. I’m glad I put fresh batteries in the remote, though!
Blake’s experiment with teleport went so well, he is now desperate to win over his fellow prisoners. Unfortunately, they’ve been told they’re suffering from a deadly sickness, the “curse of Cygnus”. Curiously, it’s disease that can only be controlled by drugs in the possession of the High Priest. In return, the convicts must pray, give thanks, and basically fall in line, if they want to survive. Now, there’s an interesting thing going on here, but unfortunately, the viewer is distracted by some top-notch gurning from Gareth Thomas. Blake confronts the sorry sight of his fellow convicts as they writhe on the floor of their cell, feeling sorry for themselves. Perhaps buoyed by the support of his loyal stalwarts, Vila and Gan, Blake shouts and stomps, hisses and spits at the cowardly custardly-ness he sees before him. But Blake, and by extension the viewer, is missing a really important point here. These prisoners have just come from a society in which they are fed suppressants and pacified daily. Then, they got on a spaceship for three months where again, they’re pacified with drugs in their food and water. It’s not only natural, but entirely expected that they’d be so easily dominated by the high priests. Perhaps it’s their lack of defiance and willing subservience that rattles him but it’s curiously underexplored. The Federation have no apparent influence over the society that’s sprung up on Cygnus Alpha but as a way of maintaining complete and systematic control, even over the lawless, it’s awfully neat.
There’s a rare instance of all elements pulling together under a one theme this week. Conversion, of one type or another runs through this episode. Vargas sees Liberator in the skies and decides it is the means to spread his religion to to other planets. He undergoes a transformation from a contented, if despotic ruler of a small colony to a power-mad obsessive intent on spreading his fakery throughout the galaxy. Through fear of dying from the so-called Curse of Cygnus, the convicts from the prison ship become converts to Vargas’ religion. They are controlled through fear but this also mirrors Jenna’s fear, as she too is converted to a cause – Blake’s. Gan and Vila are similar converts, it is only Avon who stands as the only one having failed to undergo any kind of transition. He doubts Blake and the effect his idealism will have. “Blake’s a crusader,” he tells Jenna. “He can’t win. You know he can’t win”. Prophetic words?
In the last two episodes we’ve been introduced to characters that look poised to become regulars. Last time we met Avon, Jenna, Gan, the crew of the prison ship who included the awkward bloke that got killed off early. In Cygnus Alpha, we meet a convict named Arco (named after the safety wear shop?) who stands out as characterful. We also meet a priestess who keeps smiling and in Gan’s direction every five minutes. We’re clearly meant to guess if they’re going to be regular characters in this show, but as with some of the characters in the previous episodes, like the lawyer and his wife in the first, we know they are not all destined to survive. Arco gets throttled to death and the priestess ends up with a spear in her belly. Thing is, I don’t think this bate and switch, introducing ill-fated possible regulars is really a conscious act from the writers. It’s just because this programme is called Blake’s 7 – we’re constantly trying to guess in these early episodes which characters will survive long enough to become part of the eponymous seven.
With ten or so of the prisoners willing to join him, Blake’s soon sprung them from their cell and left the others to their fate. All he has to do now is get the teleport bracelets back from Vargas. Already we can see these teleport bracelets becoming a right pain in the weeks to come. Sure enough, a showdown ensues, with Blake’s followers making a mad scramble for the bracelets. We both wonder who’s going to make it.
Only Avon and Jenna seem like a safe bet to be in for the long haul. Even a room on the Liberator, literally stuffed full of cash and jewels, isn’t enough to persuade the former smuggler to run off with him. Ouch! But her hard exterior belies a soft heart. As dishy as Avon is, and as tempting as life-long wealth may be, she just can’t bring herself to leave Blake on Cygnus, destined to endure an endless series of shouting matches with Brian Blessed. When she forces Avon to press the teleport switch, she’s relieved to have Blake back. We both give eachother a knowing look as they give eachother a big, chaste hug. She’s less than chuffed to be joined by Vila and Gan, though nobody is pleased to see Vargas, who managed to snatch up one of the teleport bracelets.
I can’t have been the only sadistic maniac in the audience who wondered what would happen if someone was teleported into space. Not only do we get told early on in the series what would happen, happily we also get to see it. Vargas backs on to the teleport pad, and one flick of a sci-fi switch later and he’s deposited into the vacuum of space, the only place where Brian Blessed can’t be heard.
Yes, it’s Vila and Gan that came through it all. They’ve survived revolution, mutiny, armed guards, despotic zealots, spears – you name it. Now, they’re front and centre, taking their places on the flight deck of the Liberator.
Has Blake’s crew of seven finally been assembled? Every viewer must do this; count each character on their fingers and realise that there’s five regular characters, including the computer, plus Blake. Well that’s five. Blake’s 5. Eh? So Blake is one of the seven. Okay. So it’s Blake’s 6. That doesn’t make sense. So does the ship count as a member of tue crew? It doesn’t matter anyway, we can tell Avon’s a baddy. We wonder how long he’s going to stick around. He’s not up for this crusading lark. As he rightly says, Blake’s an idealist and will see everything on board the Liberator, including the crew, as just another weapon to use against the Federation.
“State course and speed,” says Zen. “Earth,” says Blake. They’re on their way home. Or are they? Somehow we don’t think things are going to be that simple. Things are just getting interesting.
Copyright Martin Gregory 2019