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Blake’s 7 series 1

January 2, 2014
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Our “heroes”.

One of the things I finally got to over the break was jumping back into Blake’s 7.  I had watched series one awhile back but, every time I wanted to start series two it seemed like something else managed to jump it in the queue.  I’m four episodes away from finishing series two but, thought I would redo my review of series one that I did for my friends Mark and Evelyn Leeper’s fanzine the MT Void.  In this weekly web zine Mark reviews tons of movies and Evelyn reviews tons of books.  It actually started a number of years ago in paper format as the newsletter of the Bell Labs science fiction club.  The latest issue can be found here.  As a final note, I’ve editted this review a bit from the original.

Blake’s 7 is one of the more famous British science fiction television programs.  The show was produced by the BBC in 1978 and written by Terry Nation who is also known for creating the Daleks for Doctor Who as well as the 1975 series Survivors.  Blake’s 7 ran for a total of four series.  The show is a space based adventure series that focuses on a group of escaped criminals from the totalitarian Federation.  The first series stars Gareth Thomas as Roj Blake and Sally Knyvette as Jenna Stannis.

When it comes to British genre television, there are five or six series that are considered the “big” series that every fan should watch.  I’m already intimately familiar with Doctor Who, The Prisoner and the various Quatermass serials but, Blake’s 7’s lack of a major US release has kept me from viewing the series until I was able to work around that.  Being a fan of dystopian fiction I was very much looking forward to checking this show out.

The show is a space based series that takes place in a stellar empire run by an interstellar dictatorship known as the Federation.  The story opens at a “hospital” where Roj Blake, a famous revolutionary, has been reprogrammed for release by the Federation.  Shortly after his release he is witness to a secret anti-government protest that is mercilessly (i.e. no survivors) put down by Federation troops.  Unfortunately, some of the soldiers involved see Blake as he attempts to sneak away.  Blake is rounded up again and this time charged with a number of false crimes to guarantee his internment on a prison planet. 

It is during the process of transport, via prison ship, to the penal colony that Blake’s lot changes.  The prison ship encounters a conflict between two sets of alien warships.  One of the ships survives but has been abandoned and is drifting un-crewed in space.  The crew of the prison ship realize that the alien vessel could have technology new to the Federation and, if they were to successfully salvage it, could improve their position in life (corruption seems rampant within the Federation, which is not terribly surprising within that type of government).  After the first crew members die attempting to board the warship, the officers decide to use the prisoners instead.  Blake, Jenna and another prisoner named Kerr Avon successfully board the ship which has an on-board AI named Zen.  They manage to avoid Zen’s defense systems and reason with it to take the ship for themselves which they ultimately name the Liberator.

The series goes forward with each episode being an individual adventure with a few on going story lines as well.  Blake’s 7 was supposedly inspired a good deal by Star Trek, and this is obvious from the story telling in that there is a definite sort of “reset button” vibe to the show which is strangely at odds with the continuing story lines.  For those unfamiliar with the reset button concept, this means that each episode is a self contained story with all of the characters and their environment returned to normal (i.e. how things were at the beginning) by the end of each episode.  Blake’s 7 does not adhere as strictly to this as Trek but the feeling is definitely there.

I found the characters in the first series to be somewhat varied in quality.  Blake, Villa and especially Avon are very distinct characters whereas Gan and Vila are pretty one dimensional.  One aspect of the characters that was refreshing for me is that they are not really heroes.  They are revolutionaries and criminals and especially in the cases of Avon and Vila, dangerous ones that would probably be imprisoned in any sort of civilized society.

The entire first series was authored by the series creator Terry Nation and, I found the writing to be surprisingly even.  While this is good in that there were no truly poor episodes, except for maybe one, there were also no episodes that I can point to as home runs either.  The one episode I wasn’t happy with was titled Duel and was a swipe of the short story Arena by Frederic Brown.  I hope that Mr. Brown made generous royalty money off of this story as this is the third time I’ve seen it used in a genre tv series, the other two times being Fun and Games in the Outer Limits and, of course, the Star Trek episode of the same name.  The series felt very much like it was trying to be one 13 part story but, I am guessing the reset button effect was used in an attempt to make the show more like Star Trek and, perhaps to further differentiate it from Doctor Who. 

The only really big problem I had with the series was the quality of the visual effects.  I am a long time Doctor Who fan so, dodgy visual effects are not something that generally bother me in a genre television series.   Having said that, I found the visual effects work in series one of Blake’s 7 to be somewhat distracting.  This was airing at the same time as the Key to Time story arc season of Doctor Who so I have a pretty good direct comparison between the two and it’s very clear that the visual effects on Blake’s 7 are a notch below the Doctor Who episodes.  The effects used for the Liberator’s matter transporter I found particularly irritating but, that might just be me.

However, even with this complaint I still found the series to be worth watching.  The whole set-up does require a bit of a leap of faith on the part of the viewer but, it worked for me and, it is certainly a unique entry in space based genre television.  Balke’s 7 is full of really good ideas and while a remake of the series (ala Battlestar Galactica) could work, I think I would instead prefer more of what was recently done with the original Star Trek series where the visual effects are reworked with computer animation to replace some of the original content.  This would preserve the perfectly fine performances while making the series more accessible to modern audiences.  Perhaps such a thing could be done in conjunction with an actual US release of the series.  I’m not sure how frequently I will revisit series one of Blake’s 7 but, I certainly found it interesting enough to make me look forward to the rest of the show.

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