(Screencaps copyright, BBC)
Way back (ha ha) in 2009, I received my first freelance assignment: take over the Blake's 7 story guides and reviews at the Den Of Geek website. While they didn't pay the bills, writing the reviews was still a welcome route into the world of doing something that I actually enjoyed scribbling about. There's only so much you can write about builders merchants and franchising before it goes as stale as month-old bread.
I'm eternally grateful for that first gig – but ye gods, those early attempts at reviewing are cringeworthy. When you're as self-critical as me, reliving the early days of sci-fi reviewing is a painful experience. It's like reading the amateurish ramblings of a Poundstretcher Charlie Brooker.
If you want a good laugh, then the reviews are still at DOG. Read 'em and I'll weep.
So with that in mind, I thought it was high time to revisit the world of Blake's 7 – timely, given that Forces TV are currently repeating all 52 episodes. It's the first time that Blake's 7 has been repeated on telly since 2000, when the Beeb grudgingly made it to the end of Season 1 and then promptly gave up. Another reason is that I came in at the third episode of the Den Of Geek guides/reviews, so I missed out on reviewing the important two set-up tales. I commented that I was the Peter Tuddenham of Den Of Geek, given that Zen also debuts with Cygnus Alpha and stays the course for the rest of the show.
Mind you, I couldn't even get that right, since Tuddenham doesn't appear in Countdown.
Right then. The Way Back.
The episode kicked off Blake's 7 on a cold January Monday in 1978 at 6pm. They say that the past is another country, but in this case, the scheduling difference between 1978 and 2021 is another universe. Given the then recent Mary Whitehouse furore over Doctor Who, it's interesting that an episode with such dark overtones gets a family-friendly timeslot. These days, in a much more sensitive scheduling climate, it's more likely that this episode would be slotted in an 8 or 9pm start time.
While Blake's 7 has much in common with Doctor Who (the majority of the production team, writers, directors, guest actors, etc – not to mention that recognisable late '70s aesthetic style), tonally, it's the polar opposite. The Doctor, for the most part, fights monsters and baddies and wins the day. Compare that to Blake and his chums, who don't always get their happy ending. Many an episode ends on a downbeat or cynical note – and as for the ending... well, that's another story, but needless to say, it's not breaking out the party hats and streamers.
The Way Back is an odd duck as in many ways, it's atypical of what's to come. There are no space opera shenanigans. No Liberator. No snarky computer expert. One of the interesting things about the early days of Blake's 7 is its slow-burn method of establishing the status quo. Blake's down down, deeper and down on his lonesome for the most part in The Way Back with brief cameos from Jenna and Vila. It takes four episodes for the eponymous 7 to be complete.
Through some handy backstory exposition dialogue from Blake's old chum, Bran Foster, we learn that Roj was a prolific rebel against the administration. He had successfully cultivated a sizeable army of followers – to the point where the Federation regarded him as public enemy number one. In true Federation style, their squad of black-clad, masked thugs subjected the poor chap to a course of beatings and brainwashing memory wipe techniques. The end result? A man who shocks his supporters by doing a sudden volte-face to proclaim his devotion and loyalty to a regime that he had previously rebelled against and despised.
The episode revolves around its central character who is trapped in his own personal hell. With his memories wiped, friends and family executed, and put on trial for false dodgy Yewtree-esque offences, Roj is really put through the wringer. The Blake that we meet in The Way Back is a different proposition to the more assured character that he will become. Roj cuts a confused, lonely and vulnerable figure – a victim of the evil and corrupt Federation, and an example of what happens when you attempt to overthrow the system.
Terry Nation infamously created the Daleks, but in some ways, his Federation creation is even more evil than a million exterminating pepperpots. What's so evil about the Federation is their murky ambiguity. While we'll meet many of their representatives over the years, they operate in the shadows – ruthlessly maintaining their power over the state. The slightest whiff of diffidence is swiftly dealt with – whether it's the mass slaughter of Bran Foster and his supporters or the discrediting of Blake. It's a brave move to frame the main hero for crimes “all involving children” in your first episode, but it does, from the outset, establish the Federation as a governing force for pure evil.
A clutch of Federation reps are seen in The Way Back. Ven Glynd, an Arbiter General, who could well be a closet rogue Time Lord, given that he changes his face between this episode and a later reappearance in Voice From The Past. At this point of his life, he's a lying schemer who uses a genial front to masquerade his orchestration of Blake's sham trial. Never trust a man with a greying Beatles moptop fringe.
Up next is Federation mentalist, Dr Havant, who seems to be about two feet taller than his lackeys. Havant uses the power of the mind to convince Blake that the massacre of his supporters and friends was all a psychological illusion. Mind you, he's not successful in achieving this aim, so it's possibly doctor's orders for him. Maybe Ven Glynd will replace him with Uri Geller.
One of the most bullish is the impossibly named Alta Morag. Don't be fooled by the sweet little old dinner lady appearance – this prosecutor has claimed more hapless victims than she's served hot dinners. It's her idea in the first place to discredit Blake, and when the trial reaches the verdict she wants, she gives a grin that is pure smug.
The presence of sneering turncoat Dev Tarrant raises the point of why Terry Nation is obsessed with the name, Tarrant. Over the years, Tel has shown evidence of this strange Tarrant fetish, given that many of his creations have this name – or at least a variant of the name. Nation changes one letter of Dev Tarrant to introduce the more boyishly heroic regular, Del Tarrant. Then, in Doctor Who, there's Jill Tarrant in Death To The Daleks; Taron in Planet Of The Daleks; and Tarron in The Keys Of Marinus. Is Chris Tarrant a secret relative? Did Nation like to go fishing on the banks of the Tarrant river in Dorset? These are questions that demand answers, pronto.
Back to the point. Eagle-eyed viewers of Doctor Who will recognise Jeremy Wilkin from Revenge Of The Cybermen, a man who prodigiously mastered the art of the lip curling sneer. It marks out Wilkin's Dev as an instant bad 'un in The Way Back, a Federation double agent who thinks nothing of selling out Bran Foster to a band of trigger-happy Federation thugs. Part of the bleakness of The Way Back is that such a sneering nasty doesn't get a well-deserved demise. Instead, he's last seen arranging an 'accident' for the two people who could save Blake from a lifetime of Brian Blessed shouting.
One of the strengths of The Way Back is the acting. Like Doctor Who, Blake's 7 could call upon the cream of great character actors to bring a wide range of parts to life. Jeremy Wilkin's expertly studied sneering evil aside, there's Robert Beatty as the briefly reassuring presence of Foster; Robert James (the more superior incarnation of Ven Glynd); Margaret John in stark contrast to Gavin & Stacey's Doris as the ice-cold Arbiter; and the effective double act of Michael Halsey and Pippa Steel as lovers Tel and Maja. Shame they couldn't have survived – they could have starred in their own detective spin-off, investigating the various dastardly machinations of the Federation. They may even have been able to find out just what became of that mad, screaming woman who's brutally dragged past the cells to shriek-filled oblivion.
Actually, all of the guest cast work well, even down to the smaller roles such as Ravella (Gillian Bailey – now a professor at my old university, Royal Holloway) and Ritchie (a non-Cockney Alan Butler who played cab driving Londoner Buller in Doctor Who's Talons Of Weng-Chiang) and Nigel Lambert's lazy computer operator – he's clearly more interested in bopping along to his futuristic iPod. The only weak link is Rodney Figaro's squeakily pompous clerk of the court.
Let's not forget the main players. Jenna and Vila are interesting in that they are portrayed as grittier versions of the regulars that we'll get to know. Michael Keating plays Vila straighter as a sly sneak-thief with little of the cowardly bumbling that he''ll get to display in the future. Ditto Sally Knyvette, whose Jenna takes an almost sadistic delight in telling Blake that “nobody gives a damn about you.”
Gareth Thomas proves that he was a perfect choice to lead the show. While others had been offered the part (such as Donald Sumpter), it's hard to think of anyone else playing Blake. He uses those deep, authoritative tones to run the whole gamut of emotions from quiet defiance, through furious anger at his framing, to a steely determination at the episode's conclusion. The Way Back is a great showcase for Thomas, challenging him to express a wide range of performance styles – he rises to the challenge considerably, and instantly makes the part of Blake his own.
Mention Blake's 7 to your average member of Joe Public, and there's a fair chance that he or she will mention the budget. Newcomers to the show through Forces TV may be taken aback by the more modest visuals. No CGI effects here, folks.
Blake's 7 does, however, have its own unique visual style, and more often than not, hires talented directors to make the most of the resources at their disposal. Michael E Briant is one such director, and proves to be a master at his craft. Briant had risen through the ranks on Doctor Who, with his most recent success story being The Robots Of Death the previous year to The Way Back (although it was repeated shortly before Blake's 7 began on 31st December 1977 and 1st January 1978). He adds real flair to the production, even livening up talky exposition scenes with unusual cross-fades and close-ups of eyes and mouths. One of the most successful examples of overcoming budget limitations is re-using the same set to represent different rooms – it's merely rearranged to portray the court room, the prison cells and even Tel's boudoir of lurve. A less kind eye could point out minor flaws such as the fact that most characters wear those old tabards that kids used to have in PE when playing football or netball or whatever – but old farts like me are more likely to be gripped by Nation's doomy script; the strong characters; and the striking realisation.
More episodes? I'm coming back...