Blake’s 7: In Search of a Better Legacy


Beware of synchronicity. No sooner do I mention, in Sunday’s blogpost about Follow the Money, the controversial ending to the final series of Blake’s 7, than the news is released that Gareth Thomas, who played the eponymous Blake, has joined the lists of those to leave us in 2016, aged 71.

Blake’s 7 was a very long time ago, a BBC SF adventure series that ran four seasons and 52 episodes between 1978 and 1981. It’s memory is kept alive by a cult following of the kind we’re all familiar with.  I have never been a Blake’s cultist, but I did watch three series of the show as avidly as I did anything else around the turn of the Eighties, and I went so far as to write to the BBC, complaining about the horrific ending they foisted upon the programme. Blakes 7 was a commercial success, with a healthy and enthusiastic audience, but it was a hit the BBC didn’t want, that they were aghast about, and that they destroyed out of sheer embarrassment.

The series, which was created by Dalek creator Terry Nation, had a fairly basic but uplifting storyline. In the future, a Fascistic Galactic Federation rules a planetary empire with an iron hand. Political dissident Roj Blake has been discredited by fake stories of child-molestation and confined to a labour camp. Circumstances conspire to allow him, together with a motley band of reprobates, to escape with the Liberator, an alien space ship considerably more powerful and, what’s best, faster than anything the Federation can throw at them.

Blake’s 7 set up as interstellar guerrilla fighters, out to bring down the Federation, and its slinky, lounge-about-in-evening-gowns-a-lot President-for-Life-and-Beyond, Servilan (a performance by Jacqueline Pearce that is a manual for serious camp).

The set-up gave the series an open-ended goal with plenty of opportunity for good stories. There was also a strong character element underpinning the series. Blake was the idealistic, visionary leader, but his second-in-command, Avon (Paul Darrow), was the complete pragmatist, out for himself not others, a career criminal, untrustworthy as hell. A case of opposites, constantly circling each other.

Jenna (Sally Knyvette, the show’s hot-shot blonde) was the pilot, an ex-pirate. Vila (Michael Keating) was a cowardly safecracker and locksmith, Gan (David Jackson) was a gentle giant who was brutishly strong and crippled by a violence blocker) and Cally (Jan Chappell) was a telepath. That makes six: the seventh of the 7 was Zen, the ship’s onboard computer, voiced by Peter Tuddenham.

I can’t actually comment about the first series because I didn’t watch it. I was aware of it, of course, and in particular of the entirely justified criticism that it was cheap and nasty looking, its special effects feeble and unconvincing, its sets (and some of the writing) cardboard. This latter was exacerbated by the show coming in the same year as Star Wars, whose SFX budget put the BBC’s to shame. The contrast was inevitable, but too great, and I suspect that the BBC took the criticism to heart.

Nevertheless, Blake’s 7 was a success and was renewed for a second series, starting in the first week of January 1979. This is where I come in.

There were substantial snows over Xmas and New Year that year. I was living and working in Nottingham, but had had nearly a fortnight’s holiday home in Manchester, complete with hi-fi etc retrieved from my East Midlands bedsit. New Year snows meant I had to return by train, with only what I could carry, which did not extend to the hi-fi. Weeks would pass before this could safely be transported from Manchester, during which time my evening entertainment would have to be TV, BBC1 or ITV. I started watching a lot of television I would otherwise have ignored: one of these was Blake’s 7.

Truthfully, I remember little of the series but its final episode. I was fully aware of all the flaws I’ve already alluded to, but I stayed with the series once my hi-fi was back. It helped that this was the period in which my enthusiasm for SF was at its most intense, and besides, Blake’s 7 was, in some respects, a more adult show than Doctor Who, which I had not watched since the days of Patrick Troughton.

The series was still being produced on a very limited budget, and a decision was taken to shave costs a little, but killing off one of the 7. Gan, the least developed, and least complex of the team, was killed by a roof collapsing in an underground corridor, and then there were six, except in the title.

The series ended with an episode title ‘Star One’. The Federation’s central computer controls, which given the lives of millions across its planets, are determined to be on the satellite Star One, which lies in empty, inter-Galactic space. A strike on Star One will cripple the Federation, in every sense, though this will mean death, chaos and destructions for literally millions of people dependent on the smooth functioning of Star One for every aspect of every day life.

Blake is injured during the attack, leaving Avon in command. Unfortunately, Star One is also a key part of Federation defences against alien attack from across inter-Galactic space and there is an invasion force bearing down on Federation space. A fleet is on its way but cannot arrive in time. Avon has to decide whether to preserve himself and the 7 by cutting and running, or to hold off the invasion in Liberator single-handedly.

It was one classic mother of a cliffhanger ending, years before the cliffhanger series ending was really introduced by Dallas‘s ‘Who Shot JR?’, and it took with me but good. Avon ordered Open Fire, and we hit the theme music and I was waiting for series 3.

This took place without Gareth Thomas and Blake. Thomas had had enough of the series, and wanted out. A mainly serious, stage actor, he resented being typecast as Blake and wanted to escape. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t work.

 

The idea of bringing in a new actor to play Blake was considered but quickly rejected, as was introducing a new leading revolutionary. The third series thus relied upon Avon as leader of the band, introducing two new characters: Tarrant (Stephen Pacey), a renegade Federation pilot and rogue, and weapons expert Deyna (Josette Simon). Blake was missing, believed dead.

After regrouping and returning to Federation, the 7 believed the Federation to be destroyed in fighting off the aliens, but as the series progressed, it became apparent it was rebuilding itself far too quickly, and Avon started acting rather more idealistically.

The series built up to a grandstand ending designed to finish a show that the BBC were anxious now to get rid of. Gareth Thomas, unhappy that Blake’s death had been left so ambiguous in the opening episode, demanded a part in the finale, reappearing in a dream sequence to emphasise that Blake was dead, and that Gareth Thomas wanted to be totally disassociated from him (it was a dream sequence: it didn’t work. It was never going to work).

The Liberator , Zen and Orac (another Tuddenham-voiced supercomputer, with with a serious superego and a snide attitude to ‘his’ colleagues) were destroyed, it was heavily implied that Servilan had been killed, and, all told, everything was done to try to raze the series to the ground.

Except. The fans wanted more. And apparently, a BBC bigwig who hadn’t seen anything of the series but that final episode, ‘Aftermath’, liked it so much he universally announced a fourth series.

Nobody had planned for it. It required constructing a brand new setting. The Liberator was destroyed, the sets broken up and Jan Chappell was dropped, being killed off in the opening episode of series 4.

Which showed all the signs of a series that nobody wanted to do. Week by week, the underlying resentment showed in the contemptuous stories that were presented. Soolin, a gunslinger, played by pretty blonde South African actress Glynis Barber, with her hair brushed severely back, joined the team. Peter Tuddenham had to turn his voice talents to Slave, a creepy, obsequious, very ‘umble onboard computer for the 7’s new vehicle. It was awful.

But nothing was so bad as the final episode.

Word comes through that Blake is alive, and on a certain planet. Avon, almost hypnotically bound to his former rival, leads the band to this planet, intent on handing the reins back over to Blake. Gareth Thomas is back, absolutely determined to get dead this time, no equivocation, no way out, nothing. He has a scar on his forehead that makes his left eye lop-sided, and he’s building a rebel organisation that he wants to hand over to Avon to run, but in the meantime he’s not only going to look sinister, he’s going to act sinister so that everybody is going to think that he’s about the betray Avon.

Very well. The 7’s ship is shot down. Everybody teleports down except Tarrant, who pilots a crash landing, only to get captured by Blake’s men and roughed up to emphasize that this is all well dodgy.

Offscreen, just in case anyone’s counting, Tarrant is told that Blake’s forces used to have a shit-hot pilot called Jenna, only she got killed a couple of months ago (clang of warning bell).

It’s getting very late in the episode. Avon, Vila, Deyna, and Soolin reach the cheap looking control centre. Tarrant joins them, breaking free in time to tell how he’s been beaten up. Avon is aghast. This is not the Blake he knows, has he turned? Blake appears, looking saturnine. Avon accuses him of betrayal.

This is the sort of thing that, even at this point, can be very easily resolved. All Blake has to do is to say that he hasn’t betrayed Avon and that he’s been waiting to recruit him. But Blake does not do this. He is taking part in a bad script in a shite drama, and will only make allusive statements that reinforce Avon’s paranoia and, to my considerable shock and dismay, the still-stunned Avon shoots Blake in the stomach, killing him (this time! this time! thought Gareth Thomas).

Everybody’s standing around in shock at this revolting development, which is when a squad of black-helmeted Starship Troopers (sorry, Federation Troopers: this is not a Hot Gossip video though it would be better for all concerned if it was) march in and hold everybody up at gunpoint.

This is a massive disaster. Uncharacteristically, the coward Vila karate chops a guard, retrieves his gun with marvelous efficiency, pausing to say sorry, and swings round with it. He is promptly shot at point-blank range in slow motion. This sparks everybody else but Avon into action. Each in turn takes a shot before being mown down in slow motion. You don’t see any blood or anything, so at a pinch, someone could claim with their tongue very deep in their cheek that they’re not actually dead, but hey, come on, we are not THAT stupid.

Everybody’s down except Avon. Now, he stops looking down, takes in the situation, which is everybody dead and half a dozen guns pointing at his head at a range of no more than six inches, in a complete circle. So: no way out then.

Avon grins a sardonic grin and raises his gun. The screen goes black. We hear a motherlode of guns going off.

No. No, no, no, no, no, no as many times as you like. This has been a crappy series, but this ending is as wrong as it could possibly get, heavy-handed, blatant. It is Douglas Adams at the end of Mostly Harmless, sick to death of what he’s writing and determined to make it that he can never be required to do this again. It is an utter disaster.

Let me step back a little. In Film 78, Barry Norman had highly praised the Claude Goretta film, La Dentelliere (The Lacemaker), featuring the lovely Isabelle Huppert in her first starring role. A couple of months later, living in Nottingham, it was on at the local Film Theatre, and I invited a young lady with whom I worked, and of whom I was somewhat enamoured, to come and see it with me. The film, an absolute masterpiece, is about the first (and by implication only) love affair of a young Parisian girl, and it ends with the girl destroyed, emotionally and mentally, by an experience beyond her understanding.

Leaving the cinema for a drink, my companion asked me if I preferred happy or sad endings.

It was a question I’d never asked of myself before but it took only a few seconds to come up with a third answer that was much more complex: I told her that I prefer right endings.

It would have been absurdly simple to give The Lacemaker a happy ending, but it would have destroyed the film. It would have been completely false, untrue, cheap, sentimental. Blake’s 7‘s ending was the same reversed.

This wasn’t a great show by any means. It was decent space opera, meant ultimately to be enjoyable and uplifting. The rebels win, no matter the size of the odds against, no matter how improbably: they win. The genre demands it, the show in all its aspects demands it. The goodies win. Not the baddies. The baddies don’t win, they don’t triumph utterly, they don’t close off hope entirely.

In their urge to make sure that they could never be required to bring back a series that serious sources laughed at (Clive James: ‘Classically bad’), the BBC stapled onto Blake’s 7 an ending that defied the ethos of the series and its genre. They gave in to the bad guys. It stunk then, and it stinks now, thirty five years later.

In writing this post, I have relied solely upon my unresearched memories of the series, which will no doubt attract the wrath of Blake’s 7 fans. A cursory glance at the Wikipedia entry for the series reads like a hagiography, praising it for all manner of gritty and realistic elements, influenced by a variety of serious films and real-life circumstances, and being multi-layered in a way that I’m bound to say I don’t remember.

But the point of this piece is to recall again that egregiously bad ending, shot through with contempt for the fans, no different from the later attitude the BBC showed to its long-standing success, Last of the Summer Wine. To get rid of the series, the BBC were prepared to crush the rebel spirit in in a show that, if it didn’t have the rebel spirit to espouse, had nothing. It was an artistic disaster of an magnitude I’ve never seen elsewhere, and what’s worse is that it was not the product of honest and earnest incompetence, but contempt, shame and artistic abdication.

Gareth Thomas, a decent honest actor, deserved a far better legacy.

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