Blake's 7: An Episode by Episode Re-Evaluation

Perpetual Man

Tim James
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After a period of consideration and a wonderful anniversary present from Mrs Perp I’ve decided to settle down and rewatch the classic British SF series Blakes 7.

Originally shown on the good old BBC from 1978 the series was the brainchild of Dalek creator Terry Nation. It is said that while in a meeting with a high up at the Beeb Nation was asked what his next project was going to be and caught flatfooted he made up a proposal on the spot and so it was that the show was born.

The show ran for four seasons, each season having 13 episodes.

It would be easy to say by modern standards that the special effects have suffered with the passage of time, but that would be unfair. They were the butt of many jokes when it was first broadcast, and that included wobbly sets, early use of chroma key backgrounds. But the premise was solid, it was forward thinking in the use of ongoing storylines and has been cited as an influence on such shows as Babylon 5, Firefly and Deep Space 9.

Some of the designs stand out as iconic including the Federation Trooper uniforms and the spaceship Liberator.

The show is fondly remembered by many (except broadcaster Clive James perhaps) and although at the time, when I was but a youngster, it was easy to see Blake and Co as the clean cut heroes, looking back now I’m pretty sure there is a lot more moral ambiguity in place but I’m sure that will come out as I watch the episodes.

For me Monday nights in the late 70's and early 80's was a highlight of the week, with the exception of Saturday nights (Doctor Who) it was the one day of the week that allowed me to escape to a world I loved and fed my imagination like few other things did back then.
 

Perpetual Man

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Episode 1: The Way Back

The opening episode does not view like televisual space opera, instead it feels like a political crime drama. There are strong overtones of Orwell in the running of the Administration and Blake, at least at this stage makes a likeable and engaging hero.

There is also no babysitting or info dumping the details you need seems to come organically with the story. In many ways it is a slow burn of an introduction, slow paced but also only one regular cast member remain the focus of the story.

Gareth Thomas plays the titular Blake and has to carry the episode, and does it well. The supporting cast play well against him and we do get a brief introduction to future regulars Vila (Michael Keating) and Jenna (Sally Knyvette).

Roj Blake is one of many citizens living in a massive dome on Earth, a planet ruled by The Administration (only once is there mention of it being part of the Terran Federation). He lives a seemingly docile but contented existence. It is only after he is convinced to leave the city and go outside that he begins to learn there is more to the society and himself than he believed. He is told that he was once a resistance leader, one of the most effective, but he was betrayed and caught, drugged and brainwashed into disowning the resistance before being returned to society. He was apparently big enough that the Administration felt killing him would only create a martyr.

His re-introduction to the rebel cause is enough for him to become a threat once more and the Administration pulls out all the stops to see him discredited and exiled.

Nation does a good enough job with the script allowing us to see that there are both good and bad people living within the system, but we also get to see that it is the people in power who are the danger and are not afraid to wield their strengths.

Remarkably the episode stands up to the passage of time quite well (not in all ways), probably because it is Earth based and there is very little need for exotic locales and special effects. It is very much a character piece but you can see the low budget throughout. The corridors and rooms looks sterile and flimsy, the door to the outer world looks lightweight and not much of a barrier.

There is one moment where they use a chroma key background which sits badly, especially by modern green screen methods and the model work looks quaint but inferior to Star Trek – a show that was made over ten years earlier.

On the other hand the vast dome of the city looks impressive when seen from outside and the use of real locations for the outside works quite well. The actors’ interaction with the sets and the effects adds to the feeling of the viewer being able to suspend belief and the show carries itself well.

The masked Federation troopers look the part, well designed and threatening although their guns have yet to develop into their later form. There is a hardcore of violence in the show, which includes a massacre and some expedient deaths.

The technology looks dated, perhaps in the late 70’s it looked futuristic but today it looks old. But who could have foreseen the speed at which it progressed?

To start then an excellent episode that lives up to my memories quite nicely and I have not been disappointed.
 

Perpetual Man

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Episode 2: Space Fall

Surprising another strong episode. Set mostly on board the prison ship taking Blake to the penal planet of Cygnus Alpha, it introduced us the a few more members of the eventual cast, namely Olag Gan and Kerr Avon. There is a lot of good development here, maybe slightly clumsy but it is enough for us to really get to know the characters - and to begin to see how Blake ticks now that he is away from the Administration. He still has not recovered his memories, but he is an idealist and is prepared to sacrifice the chance of escape in return for the lives of his fellow prisoners.

Avon is almost the opposite. Cold, practical and in it for himself. At this stage he is prepared to follow Blake as he sees him as the best chance to escape, but it is perfectly clear that once free he is going to go his own way.

Jenna is strong willed and not afraid to stand up for herself, even to the extent of living dangerously.

Vila rapidly begins to show that he is there to offer comic relief, slight of hand and that he is an outright coward.

While Gan seems pleasant, but there is a violence hidden in him. It has often been said that Gan had a limiter implanted in his brain to stop his violent tendencies, but it does not seem to be the case here - to me it looks like something that was done to him later. I'll try and bring it up when I watch episode 4.

The sets on the convict ship are plain and lifeless, but that seems to suit the nature of the transporter. The doors look a bit flimsy, but the space between the compartment and the bulkhead looks suitably claustrophobic. Again much of the technology looks outdated or cobbled together from everyday items, but I just do my best to look past this and marvel at the invention of a cash strapped department.

The most important part of the episode is the introduction of the Liberator, the starship that will become central to the ongoing series. Taken in itself it is still a unique and beautiful design. Knowing that it was going to be a regular feature has allowed a lot more effort to go into it and it shows. The same is true of the interior, giving us the best sets so far in the show. Yes they are still wobbly, but they look good comparatively.

There are three really weak moments as far as things go - when the prison ship accelerates it is as though a firework is shooting out it's tail; the tube connecting the two ships looks bad; and the final scene of the Liberator shooting across a star scape is let down by a bad painting.

Other than that a good solid second step.

Liberator.jpg
 

Perpetual Man

Tim James
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(And,yes, Gan already has the limiter in place at the start, IIRC.)
This is the way I have always seen it portrayed and am happy to go along with it, I only raised the point because it is not mentioned throughout Gan's first appearance in episode 2. In fact there is one scene where he is quite threatening and although he does not do anything (he could well be bluffing) there is a quiet menace about him.

Not got around to Episode 3 yet but I'm pretty sure nothing is said about the Limiter there.

In episode 4 Time Squad (again from memory) The Liberator is attacked by a group of near psychotic group of men who have been kept in suspended animation. In the episode Gan is overpowered and crawls to the rest of the crew, and indicates that he has a limiter in place. To me there is a possibility the Time Squad did it.

I'll be able to see what I think a bit more when I hit the appropriate episodes, although I think it's unlikely I'll see any more before the weekend.
 

Jo Zebedee

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You might have me off checking. :) oh, the hardship... I'll see if I get time. I'll also have a look at a couple of B7 books I have (yes, I'm that sad) and see if they clarify.
 

Perpetual Man

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I have done a quick look and it is a bit obscure something along the lines of 'Gan was at some time given a limiter.'

The main inference and belief seems to be that it was the Federation that did it.
 

The Ace

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I loved the teleport bracelets.

Some time in the first series, Blue Peter showed you how to make your own - by the early third series, all of the originals made by the BBC props department had been broken or lost, so most of the examples you see on screen were cobbled together using the Blue Peter plans.
 

Perpetual Man

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Episode 3: Cygnus Alpha

Although all are strong, this is the strongest of the first three episodes.

After a lot of talk the prisoners at last reach the penal colony of Cygnus Alpha, and while this is going on Blake, Avon and Jenna explore the Liberator.

Cygnus Alpha is well realised, although set in the quarry that is synonymous with both this and Doctor Who it is really effectively used. Shooting by night gives it an eerie feel, making it unrecognisable to its normal appearance, the addition of bubbling pools of steaming water really give a bleak feel, a place you would not want to be exiled to.

Of the regulars, Vila and Gan are present, but a few of the other prisoners are fleshed out and I guess at this early stage, to newcomers there is the feel that they could become regulars. Both Vila and Gan are given chance to grow, with the former really starting to show off his innate cowardliness and nervousness, while the latter comes across as educated, soft-spoken with a dangerous edge. More than once he shows a quiet strength, and is more than a little threatening, in one scene even going as far to say he would rip someones arms and legs off. This is something that ties into the limiter in his head. Being able to do something like that seems to go against the nature of the limiter, but then Gan could be bluffing.


In addition to the cast is a guest appearance by Brian Blessed (Gordon's Alive!!!) and Pamela Salem. Blessed is great as Vargas, high priest of the religion of the prison world, and Salem works well as the Priestess, although the weakest part of the script is the way she falls for Gan, it seems sudden and jarring and could have been developed more, but then time restrictions can work against the plot.

The sets are a bit better than you would expect and the colour palette of greys works really well.

In space Blake discovers some of the tricks his new ship can display, the speed it is capable of, the weaponry, the teleporter and most importantly Zen the ‘computer’ that controls the Liberator.

The Blake and Avon dynamic is really built upon and they clash more than once – so do Avon and Zen. Jenna too is given some more depth as she is tempted by Avon to ditch Blake and start a new life. (Especially after he discovers the wealth hidden on the ship).

There are some excellent lines, particularly from Avon and it is interesting to see how he backs down when he and Blake clash.

Avon: Before I decided to put my talents to more profitable use -
Jenna: And got arrested.
Avon: I handled the computer analysis for a research project into matter transmission. It was based on a new alloy -
Blake: Aquatar.
Avon: [surprised] That's right.
Blake: Yes, I worked on that project too.
Avon: Small world.
Blake: Large project.

Jenna: I didn't work on it.


Jenna: You wouldn't be trying to get rid of me, would you?

Avon: I have to get rid of Blake first. You're next on my list.
Jenna: That would have been very disarming, if I didn't know that you meant it.


Zen: Wisdom must be gathered, it cannot be given.
Avon: Don't philosophize with me, you electronic moron. Answer the question!
Zen: Zen.
Avon: Zen!
Jenna: I don't think he likes you, somehow.
Avon: I think I may have to reprogram this machine.
Jenna: That still won't make you likeable.
 

Rodders

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Thanks for posting these summaries.

I remember watching a few episodes as a kid, but never got into the series. I love the concept so it might be worth picking this up on DVD. Is it easy to overlook the shoddy sets?
 

Perpetual Man

Tim James
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My pleasure Rodders. I aim to keep watching an posting.

So far the sets have been okay, yes they are a bit flimsy in places, and the special effects are weak, but the early episodes are carried through by the strength of the stories. I think they look worse as time goes on.

It depends how much you are prepared to pay. Each season box set costs a little over £25, so it's over £100 for the lot.

But I got (from Amazon - I guess they still offer it) the Dutch version, the cover is a better cover but all writing is in Dutch and the discs have subtitles on, but turn them off and you have the standard UK releases. So if you don't mind the cover not being in Englsih you get all four seasons in one box set for £26
 

Jo Zebedee

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Thanks for posting these summaries.

I remember watching a few episodes as a kid, but never got into the series. I love the concept so it might be worth picking this up on DVD. Is it easy to overlook the shoddy sets?
It is if you can forgive anything for good characters. :) I see them as part of the charm.
 

Perpetual Man

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Episode 4: Time Squad

After three superb opening episodes the show hits its first weak one. That is not to say that it is without strengths just comparatively speaking it does not meet the high mark set by the previous three.

Having taken the time to learn about the Liberator Blake is determined to strike against the Federation, choosing a major communications network on the planet Sauron Major. Along the way they find a capsule floating in space and discover three men in cryogenic deep freeze. When the teleport malfunctions, in order to save Blake and Jenna they are forced to bring the capsule onboard.

It all goes to pot while Blake, Avon and Vila are on the planet and the sleepers wake, proving to be psychopathic killers who terrorize Jenna and Gan.

Fortunately the day is saved and the Liberator gets a new crew member in the form of Cally (Jan Chapell) an alien telepath from the planet Auron, the last survivor of the resistance.

-the cryogenic men look terrible, from clothes the makeup, even to weapons. I'll even say acting, after one is shot dead you can still see him breathing on the floor.

- Some bad writing. Gan starts talking about limiters - in relation to Zen, but lo and behold ten minutes later we discover than Gan has a limiter. (Incidentally Jo was right he has had the limiter from the start, although it does not specifically say the Federation did it).

- We learn that Zen is prepared to work against the crew if he feels it is in their best interests.

- Vila gets the line of the episode if not the whole run with: "Speak for yourself! I intend to live forever, or die trying!"

- It might seem odd that one space ship with a small crew could inflict damage on a major force like the Federation, but a/ the Federation aren't ready for it initially and b/The Liberator is superior to anything they might have, and the teleport really gives Blake and Co an advantage.

- The special Effects are weak this episode, even comparatively.

- Performances remain strong.

- We get to see Blake's first major attack. It's not implicit but he destroys a vast complex, complete with all the troopers stationed there. It probably means that there were plenty civilian casualties as well.
 

Perpetual Man

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Episode 5 The Web

When things start going wrong with the Liberator, it does not take the crew long to realise that it is Cally, but she is seemingly unaware of what she has done. Soon it is discovered that the ship is on course for a mysterious unexplored planet. Once there it is caught in a kind of space web and cannot escape.

On the planet they discover two scientists who are prepared to help them in return for the Liberator recharging their near depleted energy cells. Unfortunately if they get back their power they will eradicate an artificial race they have been experimenting on, who seem to have developed on their own.

And it seems that the scientists might be little more than puppets themselves.

While the Liberator remains trapped it seems that a Federation squadron has located them and is closing in...


Another average episode, where the execution cannot match the ideas. The planet is a forest world and there is some attempt to dress it and make it alien. There are webs everywhere and giant spherical things - basically it's Rover from The Prisoner.

The Decimas, the artificial life forms are probably better than average creations. They're all short, speak in high pitch gibberish and are reminiscent of miniature albino Zygons from Doctor Who. It's not the best makeup, but is certainly good for the time. Also of interest one of the main actors playing a Decima is Deep Roy, who is known for playing all the Oompa-Loompa's in the Tim Burton Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and playing the roll of the small Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

The external dome looks far to flimsy, and the Decimas seem to be going out of their way not to hit when they are meant to be (probably in case it breaks)

Some of the physical action looks unreal - Cally hits Vila.

We get to see the Liberator fire its guns for the first time. It isn't too bad, but when the scientist use their weapon staffs the effect is appalling.

We do learn a bit more about Cally's people, the Aurons. The appearance of one of the renegades in the episode is probably one of the worst special effects in the series.

There is a nice bit of continuity - it looks as though Avon is prepared to feel out the crew to see who might side with him, in this case Gan, who refuses, but gives us a great Avon line. When Gan suggests Blake won't like what is being suggested Avon manages a "He won't be around for ever."

In a solid episode, but nothing special - you can tell Nation was stretched having to write all thirteen episodes of the first season.
 

Perpetual Man

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Episode 6: Seek-Locate-Destroy

Blake leads a raid on a Federation communications outpost on Centero. Although a success, the crew manage to steal - and hide the fact they have stolen - an encryption device, Cally is caught and taken prisoner. Meanwhile the Federation begin to recognise that Blake is a threat, maybe he has a small crew and limited to small things, but it his reputation that will do the damage. With pressure mounting Supreme Commander Servalan commands Space Commander Travis to catch Blake, and a plan is set in motion.

An important episode as in introduces two key players, Travis and more importantly Servalan. Jacqueline Pearce glides across the screen, elegant, seductive and quite threatening.

Travis (Stephen Grief) is a good character, but ill served by the 'tar-patch' across his face, it could have looked better and a rather dubious arm - only because the ring looks so conspicuous.

I can't decide whether the security robot at the start looks weak or not.

One thing I have really noticed is how poor the fight scenes are in these early episodes. It's almost as if the actors are too scared to make it look as though they are making contact.

Blake is starting to get his memories back and we learn that it was Travis who caught him, although he was nearly killed in the process.

When Cally is being interrogated the responses she gives are the same as those she gave Blake in Time Squad.

Interesting how the techniques they use on Cally when torturing her work - she is alien after all.

Some of the technology used looks really dated in this episode.

But as for the story it is a strong episode again, doing what it needs to - introducing the bad guys and making them formidable, showing the Federation's reaction to Blake and Co and the way they are going to deal with it.

Vila gets the best line when he opens a door he said he could not open and Blake queries him on it: "There is no door I cannot open if I am scared enough!"
 

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Working with the Bare Bones of talent
How weird is that...? I'm currently editing an actresses (actress's?) autobiography, and took a break from it to view chrons: She's just said this:

During the 1980´s, I was working constantly in Television, making guest appearances in shows such as Blakes 7 an episode called “City at the Edge of the World” which was great fun playing a baddy along with Colin Baker shooting people and then falling in love with Vila. When I went to see Vere Lorrimer, the director, I thought he was quite barmy. He explained the plot and before I knew it we were acting out scenes in a BBC office, with him diving behind his desk, shooting me with an imaginary gun and making loud noises of explosions. I just loved it but it was really mad. Sometime later got a letter from him telling me that I was voted the best female guest artist in Blakes 7. That was a feather in my cap.

Synchronicity lives!
 

Jo Zebedee

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City at the Edge of the World is a fabulous episode. Near the end, as I recall, and sad as hell. Michael Keating is great in it. And i'm excited because the final one of the original 7 comes into Perp's reviews soon and the episodes introducing him (a certain irrascible computer) are amongst my favs. (I'll just say, too, Anna Grant. I adore Anna Grant.)
 

Perpetual Man

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BM - very interesting indeed, I can probably work out who too.

Jo - Yeah, City is a great episode, it's towards the end of season 3 so a while to go yet.
Unless I get a lot of spare time it's still going to be a few more weeks until we hit Orac, final episode of first season. There is always a little debate about whether Orac is the last of the original 7, or the 8th member necessitating Gan's death. It depends whether you count Zen as a crew-member or not....

Blake, Avon, Vila Jenna, Cally, Gan & Zen
 
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