By Owen Quinn author of the Time Warriors and Zombie Blues
From 1978 – 1981, British science fiction fans had a delicious alternative to the time travelling antics of the Doctor. And surprisingly it came from the pen of the man who created the Daleks, Terry Nation, who also wrote Survivors about an Earth trying to survive after a virus wipes out most of the population.
Essentially, Nation offered a show which he described as the Dirty Dozen in space and thus Blake’s 7 was born. It became an instant hit with 10 million viewers and made household names of all its stars. Nation had wanted to include the Daleks in the show but this never happened.
For its time, the concept was not the cosy world of the starship Enterprise. Roj Blake (Welsh actor Gareth Thomas) was a political dissendent until the day he was framed for child molestation by the authorities, the all-powerful Federation. Brutalized, he finds himself on a prison ship with a bunch of criminals en route to a prison planet. On their way there they stage a mutiny that fails and suddenly they find a spaceship in their way, a deserted ship of a design completely alien to the Earth.
Blake and two other prisoners – computer genius Avon (Paul Darrow) and smuggler Jenna Sally Kynvette) – are sent abooard because the Federation’s people died soon after entering the ship. Blake manages to commandeer the ship which they christen the Liberator and the war against the Federation begins. Blake is joined by some of his fellow prisoners as a crew which will be completed by the telepathic Cally (Jan Chappell), Orac (voiced first by Derek Farr then Peter Tuddenham) a box like super computer that can be carried about and the Liberator’s own onboard computer Zen (also voiced by Peter Tuddenham). By the end of the first three episodes, the crew was in place and we would engage on a journey that would end on a cliffhanger so huge that it is talked about to this day.
Chris Boucher who created Leela for Doctor Who and wrote the classic Robots of Death, was hired as script editor because, although Nation had written all thirteen episodes of season one which would see a cliffhanger that showed the Liberator exploding and ensured fans return for the second season, he didn’t write great dialogue. And writing all of the first season solo was a hard task for any writer and he cut back for season two, allowing new writers to come aboard.
Although the series lost some of its initial ‘Dirty Dozen in space’ flavour, it remained firmly on good guys and bad guys ground. Although perceived as terrorists, Blake’s gang were the heroes and the baddies were represented by Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce), the ruthless female power god over the Federation and her henchman Travis, a one-eyed villain played by both Brian Croucher and Stephen Greif in different seasons and interestingly enough horror star Ingrid Pitt was considered for the role of Servalan. But as history shows, only Jacqueline could play that role. Sexy, beautiful, speaking eloquent evil, Servalan was as tough as any man on the show. She became an icon as much as the others and is a regular convention circuit attendee. Rounding out the crew were Gan (David Jackson), a man with an implant in his head to control his violence and the cowardly lock picker Vila ( Michael Keating).
Cally was an alien, an Auron and was supposed to have coloured eyes and alien make up to give the series a more sci-fi feel but this was abandoned due to budget. Special effects were handled by the BBC inteam and included Mat Irvine who oversaw many episodes. But the Liberator itself was designed by Roger Murray leach who also did the interior decks. Ian Scoones then added to the details. There was simply nothing like the Liberator on television before. Its unique trident formation made for a visual beauty and it was filled with technology beyond that of the Federation and that made Servalan want it for herself. As well as super speed, Zen the onboard computer took up one wall with its hexagonal design which lit up when he spoke and a hologram-like screen to show exteriors. But the best thing was a teleport in which the characters literally broke apart to the sound effect of a drum symbol to reform on a planet surface in a compressive white line. To use it, a character had to wear a teleport bracelet which Blue Peter then showed viewers how to make their own homemade version (below).
Some of the shots of the ship were actually matte-like drawings which were effective for their time mostly because the design was so classic and stood out among other sci-fi ships.
The show would see Blake and his comrades fighting to being down the Federation which was corrupt and controlled its citizens via drugs in their food. Avon was the thorn in Blake’s side. Avon always worked to his own agenda, only helping if it suited him. He wanted the Liberator and its massive power for himself and he and Blake butted heads on many occasions. The rest of the crew followed Blake but not without question and Vila was the lazy slob of the group which endeared him to both fans and the rest of the crew. Jenna was a strong woman in character but the writing didn’t always portray this. Cally joined Blake with her mental powers coming in handy from time to time. Gan however did very little and come the second season, David Jackson decided he had enough. he once handed the producer a piece of paper with the number 4 written on it. When asked, he told them that was the amount of lines he had in that week’s script. He was killed off in a heroes death, saving his friends in the episode Pressure Point. Orac was an invention that Servalan also wanted but Blake got to first.
At the end of season one Orac predicted the future and showed the crew the destruction of the Liberator but it tuned out that the original aliens that built the ship, The System, want it back and they discover a sister ship which is the one that is destroyed in Orac’s prediction. Aliens were few and far between in the show but they did appear from time to time in episodes such as The Web, Duel, Harvest of Kairos, Animals and Ultraworld.
Season two would see a story arc where Blake sought out Star One, the centre of federation power and highly ultra secret as to its location. When they eventually discover it, they find aliens had duplicated the personnel and are in fact plotting an all out invasion helped by Travis who at this stage has been exiled by Servalan for his constant failures.
The series turns everything on its head as Blake’s 7 and the Liberator are all that stands between the destruction of their civilization, corrupt as it is. In a cliffhanger that wouldn’t have been out of place in Star Trek, the show ended its second season as the alien armada bears down on our heroes and the Federation forces. Think the cliffhanger to Best of Both World’s as Riker says ‘Fire!’ but on a lower budget. The alien fleet looks like it has been put together with washing up bottles, tins, sauce pan lids and anything that has been lying about but it kept viewers gripped. However, with season three both Gareth Thomas and Sally Kynvette decided they had had enough and left the show. Although it retained the title of Blake’s 7, Avon was now the Blake character, achieving what he had wanted from day one but as we would see, Avon wanted Blake back. As the Liberator limps from the battle which saw the aliens repelled, the crew are scattered in life pods and Jenna and Blake are believed dead. The Federation is in tatters and everything has changed.
New characters Dayna (Josette Simon), a black weapons expert who is brought into the conflict when Servalan, who has also survived the battle, murders her father. Del Tarrant ( Steven Pacey) also joins the crew as an ex-federation officer. He would knock heads with Avon just as the latter had done with Blake. By the end of this season Avon falls into a trap by Servalan who lures him to an experimental world Terminal where he believes Blake is being held alive and well. But in a drug-induced vision he sees Blake trapped in a life support machine and it has all been for nothing as Servalan reveals herself. She finally has the Liberator but unknown to her, it has passed through a strange cloud in space which is now dissolving the ship in space. She strands the crew on Terminal and thinks she has won. She orders the engines to full power but the Liberator spectacularly explodes in space and it seemed that was the end of the show.
However, a fourth series was ordered, so the producers and writers had to figure out a new ship and how to get them off Terminal. Only this time, Cally is killed when they spring one of Servalan’s traps.
So in season four we had a new ship, the Scorpio, which had a working teleport and another computer named Slave which fulfilled the same function as Zen. Scorpio did not have the beauty and classic style of the Liberator but it did have a handy underground base in which they find a new hiding place from Servalan who survived the Liberator’s destruction and is now out for them again.
In the first episode, Rescue, a mysterious stranger called Dorian comes to save them and offers them a home in his base. However Dorian tries to feed them to an alien(in reality a recycled Sea Devil from Doctor Who) so he can stay young forever. They manage to kill the beast and destroy Dorian in the process who ages to death before them. His companion, Soolin, played by Dempsey and Makepeace and Emmerdale star Glynis Barber, joins them.
The fourth season was generally lacklustre but the episode, Sand, sees Tarrant and Servalan trapped by living sand and we learn of Servalan’s tragic past. It is a master class in character writing and stands as the best of the season until we reach the final episode, Blake. Wanting closure to the character, Gareth Thomas returns to the series.
We learn Blake is very much alive, scarred but working again against the Federation under the alias of a bounty hunter. When the Scorpio is attacked and crash lands, an injured Tarrant is rescued by Blake who refuses to reveal his identity. We learn Jenna is dead and Avon has tracked Blake to this world. Separated by the crash the crew finally end up face to face with Blake who Tarrant says is responsible for their being here. It’s a Federation trap but not of Blake’s causing. One of his new band of allies is in fact a federation agent and has alerted their forces to their location. Avon is devastated that the man he trusts has betrayed them and he guns Blake down. the sight of Blake’s stomach exploding in a bloody mess is a shocking image as Avon stands, stunned, over his former friend’s body. Federation troops swarm in and one by one our heroes are gunned down in a fantastic slow motion sequence that leaves no doubt they are dead. Avon is left alone over his friend’s body, surrounded by troops. There is no dialogue and the only sound is the alarm. The red lighting dims as Avon looks up, raises his gun and smiles. the screen goes black and the sound of gun shots ring out.
Having fallen out with producer Vere Lorrimer, Jacqueline Pearce was not in the final episodes and how fitting would it have been to have her present to see her enemies slain before her eyes? Executives wanted a fifth series but it never materialized. presumably it would have shown the crew were stunned and not dead but we will never know.
Blake’s 7 stands as a classic show that got the nation talking and the final slaughter is akin to the Great Escape. No one expected them to die and Terry Nation never thought when he created the show that we would still be talking about that ending. Although in a novel it shows Avon is a prisoner in a top security prison and Vila returns, having survived being shot. There have been rumours that the show was to be remade for television, even as late as 2012, but still no sign of confirmation. Big Finish did recast and remade it as audio plays and are currently doing the Liberator Chronicles which sees the old cast return to their roles. But for now, savour the old series; four brilliant years that defied budget and brought to life characters that have stayed with us. A true classic.