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I just found out that the classic British space opera show Blake’s 7 is coming to the streaming service BritBox — the first time, to my knowledge, that it’s been available to watch legally in the United States since the heyday of British science fiction on PBS. I tweeted in excitement, and expected three or four people to half-heartedly like my tweet — but I was blown away by the enthusiastic response. Turns out I’m not the only one who freaking adores this show.
Why should you care about Blake’s 7? The show was groundbreaking in many ways, including a heavily serialized storyline at a time when most shows were strictly episodic. It also has severely flawed characters, who make very unsympathetic choices while remaining fundamentally lovable. It’s no exaggeration to say that without Blake’s 7, we might not have gotten Babylon 5, Firefly or Deep Space 9, or at least they might not have been quite the same.
What is Blake’s 7 about? It’s the story of an idealistic revolutionary named Roj Blake, who gets brainwashed by a totalitarian regime, and then shipped off to a prison planet when the brainwashing fails. Blake somewhat miraculously manages to steal an advanced alien spacecraft and teams up with some of the criminals who are being shipped to the prison planet with him. They mount a campaign to fight back against the oppressive galactic Federation. Basically, a dark mirror image of Star Trek.
The breakout character of Blake’s 7 is Avon, a computer hacker who is relentlessly cynical and only out for himself — until he slowly starts to reveal greater complexity. One entertaining thing, in the first two seasons of the show, is to watch Blake going to extreme lengths to make sure that Avon is never left alone on board their ship, the Liberator — because Blake knows that Avon will probably steal the ship and leave him for dead. The relationship between Blake and Avon inspired a ton of slash fic (homoerotic fanfiction) back in the day, perhaps rivaling Kirk and Spock. And their relationship is, in many ways, the backbone of the show, continuing to shape it even when Blake is absent.
The other breakout character is Servalan, the villain who gets introduced halfway through the first season and quickly starts taking up more space, thanks to Jacqueline Pearce’s exuberant performance. A high-femme sadist who casually murders anyone who gets in her way, Servalan has a nervous energy behind her cat-who-ate-the-cream smirk that is impossible to look away from. And she always has the best fashions.
At its best, especially in season two, Blake’s 7 deals with huge (and still relevant) themes about the nature of resistance, and just how far we should be willing to go to fight against oppressive regimes. The first season sets up a dynamic in which Blake is a pure-at-heart idealist, who drags his mostly venal crew into fighting for the love of freedom and democracy. But the longer Blake fights against the evil Federation, the more complicated this picture becomes. Without giving any huge spoilers, Blake becomes more and more willing to cut corners, endanger his own crew somewhat recklessly, and even inflict mass casualties, in pursuit of his worthy goal.
And here’s a good place to mention that season one of Blake’s 7 is a bit of a mixed bag, to put it mildly. Creator Terry Nation, who had created the Daleks for Doctor Who, wrote every single episode of the first season. In practice, this means that Nation wrote a bunch of scripts in a great hurry, and it was left to the script editor, Chris Boucher, to turn them into something filmable. Boucher did his best with what he was given, and the results are often brilliant but frequently a little half-baked. If the name “Chris Boucher” sounds familiar, he also wrote a few of the best Doctor Who stories, notably “Robots of Death,” and went on to create the little known but somewhat underrated show Star Cops. In season one of Blake’s 7, you can see Nation taking a bit of a step back, allowing Boucher and a host of other writers to step up and contribute.
No shade to Terry Nation, but the fact that so much of the dialogue in Blake’s 7 is so unbelievably quotable is probably mostly down to Boucher. Doctor Who fans will be familiar with the phenomenon whereby Nation wrote very quickly, and it was up to Terrance Dicks or Robert Holmes (or, back in the day, David Whitaker or Dennis Spooner) to make his stories really sing. Where Nation really excelled was in coming up with off-the-wall story ideas and twisty adventure plots.
The legendary fantasy author Tanith Lee wrote two episodes of Blake’s 7 in seasons three and four. She later wrote a fantasy novel called Kill the Dead, which is about a thinly-disguised Avon and company. A number of scripts also hailed from Holmes, along with The Prisoner writer Roger Parkes.
So here are some suggestions for getting into Blake’s 7.
1) Ignore the terrible VFX. There’s just no way around it: Blake’s 7 has some of the worst VFX ever committed to screen, even by the standards of British TV at the time. VFX designers who worked on both Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 report, somewhat ruefully, that they were given a fraction of the budget for Blake’s that they had gotten for Who. And yet, they sometimes pulled off some pretty amazing world building with the resources they had. A few random Blake’s 7 costumes and props turned up years later in 1980s Doctor Who. Because waste not, want not.
2) Feel free to skip large chunks of the first season. As I mentioned above, Terry Nation wrote 13 television scripts in a very short time, and then Chris Boucher rewrote them in an even shorter time. In fact, the first episode of Blake’s 7 feels like it belongs to a very different show, and can probably be skipped. Episode two serves as a very good introduction to the character of Blake, and also starts to introduce the rest of the show’s cast. (Among other things, the pilot introduces the idea that Blake has been framed as a child-molester, something the show rightly ignores in every episode afterwards.) My favorite episodes of season one are:
The tail end of season one introduces a supercomputer named Orac who becomes part of the crew, but the actual episodes aren’t particularly great, I’m afraid.
3) Season 2 is worth binge watching. Yes, it has some of that 1970s television pacing that is so hard to watch nowadays. And yes, the season opener twists itself into knots to pay off a shock-and-awe cliffhanger from the end of the first season. But overall, season two is one of the best arcs in genre television history. Starting with Blake trying to make a deal with drug kingpins to get resources to fight the Federation, and ending with Blake being willing to inflict unthinkable harm in order to win. The final conversation between Blake and Avon, in “Star One,” never fails to make the hairs stick up on the back of my neck — particularly coming after everything that’s happened between them over the course of the season. (The only season two episode I would absolutely skip is “Voice from the Past,” which feels like it’s trying to pay off some forgotten plot threads from the pilot.)
Season three, meanwhile, contains several of the best episodes of the series overall, even though it’s somewhat less serialized and some of the thematic richness is subsumed. For my money, the single best episode of the entire show is “Rumors of Death,” in which Avon finally catches up with the Federation operative who tortured and killed the woman he loved. And let’s just say Avon is not at all prepared for what he finds. (My other favorite episodes are the one-two punch of “Pressure Point” and “Trial,” In which Blake and Travis are both put to the test in surprising ways.)
There have been a few attempts to revive Blake’s 7 over the years, including a Sky-One continuation in the U.K., and a reboot for Syfy. My feeling is that it would be a really tough nut to crack. There are plenty of shows on television now that are as dark as Blake’s 7, but few that combine that darkness with the humor and friendly chemistry that this cast has. By the time Avon contemplates doing something truly unspeakable to another one of the show’s heroes in the brilliant season four episode “Orbit,” we’ve grown to love these people and their relationships to the point where it’s genuinely shocking.
Like a lot of pop culture created by folks who lived through World War II (as Terry Nation did), Blake’s 7 has a complex relationship to its dystopian themes, leavened by a lot of gallows humor and (at times) actual sweetness. I don’t know if it would be possible to create characters quite like Blake, Avon and Servalan today.
I mentioned above that my writing advice book, Never Say You Can’t Survive, is finally out next week. And I’ve got a couple of events coming up! On Aug 17, I’ll be in conversation with Maggie Tokuda Hall at Green Apple Books on the Park — you can attend in person, or via Zoom. The following day, August 18, I’ll be in conversation with Charles Yu for Porter Square Books (via Crowdcast).