No doubt there’s some detailed study out there that pinpoints the exact moment when children became more influenced by the talking box in the corner of the living room than the books in the family bookcase. Even though I was a voracious reader as a kid, it was TV that formed much of my worldview growing up. I learned about storytelling from an eclectic mix of shows like Star Trek, The Waltons, The Man from Atlantis, Little House on the Prairie – and possibly my all-time favourite, ‘Dirty Dozen in Space’ sci-fi series Blake’s 7.
In a year that some people (okay, my brother) have dubbed the celebrity Rapture, one death went under the radar back in April. It was that of actor Gareth Thomas, who played eponymous hero and reluctant rebel leader Blake in Blake’s 7 (which ran over four series from 1978 to 1981). Ironically, to me as a child Blake was the most grown-up and therefore least interesting character in the show, but Thomas’s passing affected me as it was another piece of childhood brickwork removed. So I set myself the task of rewatching the entire series for the first time since I was an impressionable preteen sitting too close to the telly. Thank heavens for YouTube, which is the viewing equivalent of the Hogwarts Room of Requirement and conveniently had every single episode in all its wobbly-set glory.
For anyone who didn’t grow up watching it – though to be honest, would you read this blog post at all if you weren’t a fan? – Blake’s 7, the brainchild of Dr Who creator Terry Nation, was set in a dystopian universe with shades of George Orwell’s 1984. Seemingly unremarkable Roj Blake is brainwashed by the sinister galaxy-conquering Federation to forget that he was once the leader of a resistance movement. When the memory of his true identity returns to him, he is seen as a threat and is banished to a penal colony on the planet Cygnus Alpha. En route there via a prison ship, he and a group of convicts manage to escape and go on the run, stealing a technologically advanced alien spacecraft (significantly called the Liberator), which enables them to play cat and mouse with their Federation pursuers. Much of the resulting drama comes from the conflict between the thrown-together crew, who are forced to cooperate for survival despite very differing ethics and ideas about how best to use their newfound freedom.
Blake’s 7 was an oddly disconcerting series, shown in a child-friendly time slot yet bleak and cynical in many aspects. Part of its fascination was a tendency to turn everything on its head. I used to watch it in a constant state of anxiety, fearful of the things I might see yet completely gripped. It broke all the TV rules – in particular the reassuring one that main characters couldn’t die. Before the first series was over, one of the original seven, gentle giant Gan, met a shocking death crushed under a steel door while trying to save his companions. It also smashed the idea that the good guys always triumphed. Often, the crew of the Liberator limped away from their encounters lucky to be alive. And anyone in a guest role was usually a goner by the closing credits, Blake and co more often than not leaving a trail of destruction behind them rather than the grateful natives typical of the Star Trek voyages.
Then there was the conflicting morality. Blake was a very traditional hero, a Robin Hood figure determined to destroy the stranglehold of the evil Federation and give the power back to the people. But instead of following him blindly, his crew mates constantly doubted him and challenged him, to a point where he questioned his own crusade and, ultimately, his purpose in life. As a child, I generally accepted the hero figure as the unquestionable star of the show. Yet I found Blake deadly dull, an intergalactic spoil sport. He always wanted to do the right thing – free a slave race here, destroy a military stronghold there – things his companions sensibly argued were likely to get people killed and often did. I was quite happy when he went missing after a cliffhanger ending at the end of season two, not to return until the very final episode of the final series. Revisiting the series as an adult, I can appreciate his values and integrity much more. Age and experience have taught me how hard it can be for a person to stand by their principles when all around them opt for the easy path. Yet the show also depicts the toxicity of the fanatic who endangers others in the name of the greater good. Far from being a boring character, I can now see how complex and tortured Blake was as a creation. And what a wonderful, noble performance given by the late Thomas.
Far more intriguing at the time was Kerr Avon, the most resistant member of Blake’s team, and in many ways his antithesis. Avon was a genius, specifically in the area of computers, with a wealth of pithy one-liners. Charismatic like Blake, and as cold and self-serving as Blake was kind and altruistic, he was constantly balanced on a knife-edge between good and evil. In the latter series, this was tested by his chemistry with Federation leader Servalan, the foxiest space villain of all time and another superb character. A great strength of the entire run – and actor Paul Darrow, despite scenery-chewing of mammoth proportions – was that you were never sure which way Avon was likely to jump. At the time, I found him hilariously witty and debonair. On my revisit, I saw a paunchy, bouffant-haired, self-regarding bully, though undeniably scene-stealing. Funny how things change.
Almost every regular character in the series had their merits and flaws, most of them sketched in shades of grey. Servalan was a charming sociopath who showed an occasional chink in her couture armour. Vila was greedy and cowardly yet endearing, and often spoke with a fool’s wisdom. Jenna and Cally were strong women who held their own against their male counterparts, but gave away little of their personalities. I used to love the fact that Jenna was a pilot and without her expertise at the Liberator’s controls no one was going anywhere (this fact being glossed over in later episodes after actress Sally Knyvette departed the series).
Later crew additions Tarrant and Dayna were less defined, but nonetheless had a balance of qualities – Tarrant was a capable leader in the Blake mould, though he tended towards costly arrogance, while Dayna was a natural warrior and unflinchingly brave. Again, this often led her to recklessness (until some latter episodes where poor scripting inexplicably had her cowering in corners waiting to be rescued by someone manly). Sadly, in the ever-decreasing circles of the final series crew addition Soolin was never particularly fleshed out, though she did have very nice hair.
Watching the show as a kid, I was oblivious to the naff sets, grim outdoor locations (never have quarries been used more intensively) and dodgy props. It didn’t occur to me that the guns resembled light-up curling tongs or power hoses married with fishing rods. Or that the ‘aliens’ were spray painted and dressed in distressed bin bags, looking more like extras from a David Bowie video. I didn’t notice the sometimes ridiculously hammy acting or the often bonkers storylines. I loved everything about it, and looking back, I value it because it gave me a love of layered storytelling where lines are blurred, and motives are open to interpretation, and you aren’t always sure who the good guys are. Because that’s what real life is like, too.
Below is series 1, episode 1 if you fancy a trip down memory lane: