1 9 7 8 – 1 9 8 1 (UK)
52 x 50 minute episodes
Yes the sets wobbled with tedious regularity – but they did on Doctor Who as well and that’s one of the most popular shows in the world. The consoles also wobbled. So did the shelves, the scenery and the spaceships. And sometimes bits fell off as well.
The cast often fluffed their lines or came in too early or couldn’t get the props to work, and in one episode – ‘Trial’ – a BBC workers toolbox was visible on the set during a scene. In the exterior location scenes, you could often see camera dolly tracks in the dirt!
Making its television debut on BBC 1 on 2 January 1978 – the night that Star Wars blazed across the cinema screens of London for the first time – Blake’s 7 was the BBC’s attempt to present to the viewing public a serious homegrown science fiction adventure series.
Set in the ‘third century of the second calendar’, the series presented the grimly depressing central premise of an Earth under the yoke of a near-omnipotent, brutally totalitarian government, known as The Federation.
Ruthlessly crushing all attempts at individual freedom and creative endeavour, The Federation controlled its populace by means of air and water administered tranquillising drugs, and the immediate elimination of any and all dissidents by means of murder or sentencing them to exile to an off-world penal colony for crimes of which they are innocent.
Utilising just such a fabricated charge (in this instance child molestation – a daring move at the time) The Federation dispose of Roj Blake, (Gareth Thomas), former hero and leader of the underground resistance movement.
Blake manages to start a revolt whilst on the prison ship carrying him and a fresh group of criminals to their life of servitude, ultimately escaping along with a small group of fellow prisoners aboard a technologically advanced, abandoned alien spaceship, which they dub the Liberator.
From this point, writer Terry Nation (co-creator of Doctor Who‘s most notorious monsters, the Daleks and the sombre, serious post-apocalyptic drama series Survivors), began the slow development of the character and his band of mismatched fellow escapee’s into a reworked, futuristic version of Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men, with the Federation cast in the role of King John’s tyrannical forces.
The series’ original seven were Blake, the duplicitous and self-serving hacker and embezzler Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow), full-time thief and accomplished coward Vila Restal (Michael Keating), the gentle giant ‘Little John’ character Olag Gan (David Jackson), beautiful smuggler and space pilot Jenna Stannis (Sally Knyvette), Auron telepath Cally (Jan Chappell), and Zen – the ship’s near-sentient computer.
Over the course of its run, the core cast underwent a number of changes. The character of Blake himself departed when Gareth Thomas opted to pursue other career avenues, to be replaced by the far less charismatic standard hero character of mercenary Del Tarrant (Steven Pacey).
The Giant Gan and telepath Cally were both killed off and Jenna left the Liberator, their places were taken by two new female characters, weapons expert Dayna Mellanby (Josette Simon) and blonde gunslinger Soolin (Glynis Barber, pictured at right).
Rounding out the new team were the non-human forms of the smugly superior mini-supercomputer, Orac, and (following the destruction of the Liberator at the climax of season three) the introduction of the far less imaginatively designed replacement ship Scorpio‘s obsequious onboard computer, Slave.
With Blake no longer at the head of the outlawed band, Darrow’s Avon character emerged as the natural successor to Blake’s vacated leadership.
Now, with a cynical anti-hero in control, the war against The Federation took on a much darker, less noble aspect.
This change of direction led to a much more intimate small-scale style of warfare between the two opposing forces, the chief highlight of which were the complex and ambiguous love/hate relationship between Avon and the physical embodiment of the Federation, Servalan – an almost high camp performance from Jacqueline Pearce, which nevertheless demonstrated the character’s cold-blooded insanity to sometimes chilling effect.
Servalan (pictured at left) put the opera into space-opera with increasingly architectural costumes and a performance that puts all other divas to shame.
A textbook sociopath who would destroy a planet to advance her ambitions and happily use sex as a weapon, she rose through Federation ranks to become President. Sadly her empire collapsed soon after.
She could never work out if she would rather kill or kiss Avon, and spent a lot of time and energy attempting to do both.
Although Terry Nation also departed the series, a number of later episodes were still well written, with the final story of the series, entitled simply ‘Blake’, arguably one of its strongest, finest and certainly most controversial.
In that final episode, more than ten million viewers watched in disbelief as the heroes they had followed faithfully over the course of four years were cut down in a hail of Federation gunfire, whilst the returning Blake was himself killed by Avon.
It was an audacious end to a series, which ultimately failed to live up to its early potential.
Gareth Thomas died in April 2016 from heart failure. Jacqueline Pearce died in September 2018 after being diagnosed with lung cancer. She was 74.
Supreme Cmdr. Servalan
Stephen Greif (1)
Brian Croucher (2)