I've finished watching the whole of my Blake's 7 DVD collection of Series 1 & 2 (wipes an imaginary tear away from eye). As much as I would love to watch them all over again and bask in the glory of such wonderful cultishness, I realise that there comes a time when it is sensible to move on and discover other enjoyable things.
How does one begin reviewing the greatest, most imaginative science fiction saga ever made for TV? I'm going to try hard not to sound too fawning and worshipful, but it's going to be hard.
Back in 1977, the top brass at the BBC realised that they had a major hit on their hands with Doctor Who (surprising that took so long, seeing as it had been a success since 1963). They decided that there was obviously an audience for TV sci-fi and decided to commission another show. That show was Blake's 7.
As Blake's 7 went into production, there were stories in the media of a new sci-fi film that had been made in the U.S. Not reason enough to worry that it would be any competition in any way, after all, the sci-fi genre has such a broad panolpy of themes and ideas, the film would have to be very similar before anyone might protest about sameness or unoriginality.
That film was Star Wars - a tale of a close knit group of rebel fighters taking on an evil and corrupt galactic empire. The producers, cast and crew of Blake's 7 balked. Why? Because Blake's 7 was the tale of a close knit group of rebel fighters taking on an evil and corrupt galactic empire. Oh dear!
The situation couldn't have been worse. Inevitably, comparisons would be made and the producers worried. How could their small television production on a shoestring budget compete in any way with a big bucks Hollywood sci-fi extravaganza with essentially the same plot? It did not bode well for the future of the show...
However, Blake's 7 went ahead, despite the fears, and was broadcast on BBC1. The show became a major hit with audiences and, at its peak, garnered 10 million viewers. In British television terms, that made the show 24 carat gold! It was also syndicated to several other countries, where it enjoyed cult success.
The main complaint that is levelled at Blake's 7 is its low budget style. Granted, any extra money, (however slight), would no doubt have improved the special effects and made it more believable. In fact, it is obvious Blake's 7 received a cash injection for Series 2 as the sets, costumes and effects are all much more ambitious than the first season, and it is all the better for it.
But to complain about, and then write off, a sci-fi show just because it has a limited budget is a shame and really misses the point of what Blake's 7 is all about. Where the show really hits its stride and becomes a winner is in its use of witty, intelligent, well crafted scripts, serious actors with great ability and plots and storylines that show a superb level of imagination and creativity that put many modern day television fantasy storylines to shame.
Let me say this now, Blake's 7 is bloody brilliant! There is no other way of putting it.
In the first series, the producers and writers could have copped out and just launched straight into the thick of the action. But they didn't. In fact, it is not until the third episode that the team have grouped together and begin to formulate their plans and indeed, takes until around half way through the series before another member joins the team (the alien telepath Cally), and until the last episode until we have the 'seventh' member.
In episode 1 we are introduced to Roj Blake, a former freedom fighter who was captured by the ruling Federation and brainwashed into living a false life in a domed city. It is only when he is told of his life history and true identity by another freedom fighter that his doubts set in and he determines to uncover the truth about his past.
Right from the first episode, we realise how corrupt the Federation is as Blake narrowly misses being massacred by Federation troops at an assembly of rebels in the tunnels outside the city. Blake is captured and is told that he will be sent to the prison colony on a barren planet called Cygnus Alpha.
In epsiode 2, Blake meets those that will form the bulk of his crew - fellow prisoners Avon, Villa, Jenna and Gan. It is while trying to overthrow the crew of the prison transport ship 'London' that they come across a mysterious ship floating abandoned in space and this ultimately becomes the Liberator, the famous iconic spacecraft of Blake's 7.
The series gallops along at a surprisingly exciting pace and it seems like no time before the series concludes after 13 episodes. The culmination being the resolving of the mystery surrounding 'Orac'. 'Orac' is one of the standout episodes of the series, along with 'Seek-Locate-Destroy', 'The Way Back', 'Space Fall', 'Cygnus Alpha' and 'Project Avalon'.
The scripts and writing are just first class. Here was a series that played fast and loose with its audience. What makes it so entertaining is that you just don't know what is going to happen from one episode to the next. The imagination hurtles along at such breakneck speed it's a job to keep up. And the gritty, troubling themes confronted helped to propel Blake's 7 from kitschy, kiddie sci-fi to a serious, political, issue-laden adult drama. They also weren't averse to bumping off characters as and when they felt like it, just to keep the audience on their toes. A cruel approach, as the character dynamic was one of the biggest draws of the series, and the fans hated it whenever a popular character was bumped off.
It is the sheer professionalism of the acting on show in Blake's 7 that really propels it into the stratosphere. These are truly great actors, many of whom were taken from the West End stage and/or were trained at RADA. It is not surprising that Blake's 7 has been described as a space opera or 'I,Claudius' in space. What's great is that a lot of time and energy has been taken to develop the characters and how they relate to each other. Blake (Gareth Thomas) becomes by default the leader, although he is counter-balanced by the cynical, logical intelligence of Avon (Paul Darrow).
The rest of the crew are made up gentle giant Gan and the comical Villa. The two feisty females are Cally and Jenna and it is the way in which this team gel and mould to each other that really fuels the drama. At no point do the scriptwriters shy away from confrontations between the characters and sometimes, the bickering, irony and cynicism on display is very true to life and enjoyable to watch, something that a lesser drama would not have touched with a barge pole.
The two main enemies of Blake and his crew are the evil Supreme Commander Servalan and her second-in-command Space Commander Travis. (A different actor played Travis in Series 2 but it really doesn't detract from the pace or momentum, if anything, it adds to the enjoyment to have two different takes on the character).
It was a masterstroke to have a powerful woman play the role of the arch-nemesis in Blake's 7. Servalan is played by the lovely Jacqueline Pearce so feline-like she slinks about the sets like an intergalactic catwoman. I honestly don't see how they could have cast anyone better than Jacqueline for this role. The part would have perhaps suited someone of the calibre of Joan Collins or Kate O'Mara but it was Jacqueline who made it her own. It is perhaps the most arch, playful, roguish and camp performance ever committed to screen and is all the more wonderful for it. It is criminal that Jacqueline is not up there with Dench and the rest of them at the forefront of the UK's top female acting talent.
But then, I can wholeheartedly say this about all of the cast of Blake's 7. Without doubt, these are actors who should have gone on to much bigger and better things, and it is a wonder that at least a handful here aren't major household names now.
As I said earlier, Series 2 is on a more ambitious, grander scale. It's obvious there was a larger budget and there is a renewed sense of confidence in the production after its ratings success. More outlandish and adventurous than Series 1, Series 2 fizzes with some really wacky and downright bizarre storylines, but is perhaps more enjoyable as a result, thanks to the experimental creativity on show and an obvious willingness to take risks. For example, there are episodes that deal with drugs, a trial, a world tearing itself apart, a galactic version of Las Vegas, space vikings and the death of a popular character. Standout episodes are 'Redemption', 'Shadow', 'Pressure Point', 'Trial', the hilariously over-the-top 'Gambit', 'The Keeper' and 'Star One'.
By the series end, the crew are in a race against time with Servalan and Travis to track down the location of Star One where they discover a much greater conspiracy which ultimately threatens them all. And so we are left dangling on this cliffhanger leading into Series 3.
Fortunately, I will not have to wait too long as Series 3 gets its first release on DVD on June 6th. Thanks to DVD, this great series gets a new lease of life and allows a new generation of fans the opportunity to discover Blake's 7 for themselves. (I remember it broadcast on TV the first time, but was too young to appreciate it.)
The extras on the DVD's are very kitsch and dated. But they offer a fascinating insight into the period in which the series was made. On both DVD's we have outtakes, bloopers, trailers for the next series, 3 commentaries per DVD, featurettes on costume design and model making, character introductions and some hilarious clips from children's programmes at the time. The commentaries are probably the most insightful, although it would be nice to have seen a bit more effort made on at least one hour long documentary per series to do real justice to it. The fact that the whole collection has been remastered just improves the clarity of the image and sound no end.
That the show was allowed to fizzle out by the fouth series is the biggest shame. Indeed, true to form, the creators made certain it went out with a bang, ending with a cliffhanger that left the viewers in turmoil. Blake's 7 had a devoted fan base, the success and formula of the series was so perfect it should have gone on to bigger and better things, perhaps in the form of a movie production, in the same way that Star Trek was reinvigorated after its demise.
As time passes, more and more people will look back to the early sci-fi made in the 20th century, from Fritz Lang's seminal Metropolis onward, and rediscover the roots of the genre. It's my belief that Blake's 7 will grow in stature and prominence as a fine example of just what can be achieved in sci-fi and one day, will receive the full credit it deserves as a true classic of the genre.
I also hope that one day someone, somewhere, will have the good sense to make a proper go of bringing back Blake's 7. And when they do, people will be amazed at how the brilliance of the Blake's 7 universe was left to languish, abandoned and neglected for far too long.
In the meantime, I've got this little beauty to look forward to, released June 6th...