❉ Writer Michael Seely looks back on his childhood memories of Blake’s 7, first broadcast 40 years ago today.
The first episode of Blake’s 7 went out on January 2nd, 1978, forty years ago. I often wondered why I could never remember anything from the first series other than that first, bleak episode, The Way Back. The bits I recall featured spookily masked guards, surrounding a group of rag-tag tunnel dwellers. A noble speech delivered by their leader, interrupted mid-flow as he is shot down along with the rest of them. It was a horrible scene. Body impacts, but no blood, just on the bodies afterwards. Years later, I discovered the episode had an earlier than usual time slot at 6pm, a good hour and a half than would be usual, and I was a trifle young to be allowed to stay up beyond 7.20pm. Might make me a terrorist.
If the first episode was anything to go by, it was not a series for my tender eyes. Two heroines would be dead before fifty minutes was out, they were obviously not going to be one of the seven. Writer and creator Terry Nation was nothing but equal in dishing out death. I imagine these days for such a grim spectacle to be shown during the Christmas period would be met with squeals of ‘where’s the tinsel?’ or ‘ooh, isn’t it dark?’ The revolutionary who couldn’t remember his past was falsely convicted on child abuse allegations, but that was television back in the 1970s, hard and masculine. The world was going through one of its cyclical periods of international instability in the Middle East, terrorism, hijackings, vicious dictatorships and the Cold War, all still rumbling on. The news was great fun to watch!
I missed out on the formation of the Seven, the discovery of the comfortable spaceship, the terrorism – er… freedom fighting, the unleashing of Space Commander Travis and his mutoid soldiers, Servalan and her developing archness, but, somehow, I knew enough to recognise a compilation of the last two episodes as it was repeated at the end of the year. It was a bleak tale of a dying man giving away his super-computer. This oracle promptly predicted the destruction of their beautiful spaceship. I remember Avon throwing away the key to this machine as a way of fixing the prediction, but it blew up all the same, a fantastic ending, or cliff-hanger as it turned out to be.
Ah yes, I loved explosions, and to begin with the second series was full of them! I suspect it was my mother being out improving her English at evening classes that allowed my father to bend the rules. I was graciously permitted to stay up ten minutes after my bedtime to watch, providing I did not become a terrorist, nor join a death squad in my teenage years. I could not provide that guarantee since the opening episode, Redemption, showed explosions galore, some played in half speed or in reverse. A great episode, I thought, almost as good as Doctor Who… As the series progressed, the explosions became less frequent. A man in a chair, exploding in a shower of sparks was hardly as good as spaceships exploding. Perhaps it was the lack of strong images above and beyond the Liberator which may explain why I have few memories of the second series. The cast certainly did not register, except for Travis, but he did cut a memorable figure. I was young enough to wonder why every planet they visited had tolerable, earth-like conditions. Can’t they visit somewhere a bit spectacular? No, although the chalk pit used in Hostage is a favourite, but that’s due to the winter’s sun giving Exbar that nice, bleak feel.
There was one episode I could not watch. Pressure Point went out much later than usual because of some political programme, or at least that is my memory. The next morning over breakfast, the news of Gan’s death was gravely broken to me. ‘Who’s Gan?’ I asked. I quite liked Avon, especially the way he said the word ‘explosion.’ I wondered if my school could be made to explode.
When the series returned for its third run in 1980, it was the first time there wasn’t a lacklustre ten weeks of Doctor Who to accompany it. The cancellation of Shada had seen to that. Blake’s 7 filled in the gap, and after a strong start, it didn’t seem to know what to do anymore. Most weeks centred around somebody, usually Servalan wanting the Liberator. Scholars have built careers trying to unpick just how many wars had been breaking out since Servalan’s coup, which she launched a coup at the end of the previous series at the same time some aliens tried to eradicate humanity. Talking of aliens, there were more of them than usual. There was the small bald Thaarn who uniquely survived. A new enemy, declared Avon. Thankfully, he didn’t, and neither did the bald, grey civil servants called the Ultra who made the two new cast members make pornography.
It wasn’t a good year to be related to any of the crew. New member Dayna had the decency to have her family die before she joined the crew. Tarrant had to wait until nearly the end of the season before his brother got shot down by a gunslinger. Avon shot his girlfriend when she turned out to have been a convoluted plot device. This act apparently turned Avon into a sex symbol. I was only disappointed she wasn’t blown up, which is what happened to Servalan’s babies.
The biggest shock of the series came right at the end. The Liberator fell apart and exploded, having been eaten away by a foul looking fungus. I was drawing the Liberator minus one limb for weeks afterwards in therapy. We also heard the news of Blake’s death, and witnessed the possible end of Servalan, going down with the Liberator. A gloriously nihilistic end to the series.
The series returned for its final run in September 1981. I was unable to see anything more than its first or last ten minutes. Why? My brother had taken a liking to Coronation Street. Although my right to watch Doctor Who went unchallenged, that privilege did not extend to Blake’s 7. What I saw I disliked. The new spaceship was poor, and what a surprise, it had teleport. The production values seemed to have plummeted (those sets, those costumes). Nowadays, I admire the tightly plotted scripts despite the usual clichés (hide your teleport bracelets! Wear them on your ankles!)
I managed to watch a couple of episodes all the way through, but the appeal had gone. It seemed to be a much nastier programme. This week’s guest star usually ended up dead by the end of the episode. The crew didn’t like each other, and Avon was a hopeless leader who took hours falling to the ground when he is knocked out. Why were they still with him! AND WHAT THE HELL HAVE THEY DONE TO THE CLOSING MUSIC!!! The programme seemed like an imitation of Blake’s 7, although in fairness, it was Mark 2.
I only got to watch the final episode all the way through on its repeat, and see what lead up to the moment they all to ended up in a nice orderly pile, cut down in the Gauda Prime of their lives.
Funnily enough, the lure of Blake’s 7 never left me, and when I discovered Tony Attwood’s Afterlife novel in February 1986, sitting alongside the Target novelisations in my favourite Norwich store, I had to have it. It’s not popular with the fans, but it is with me. I thought he captured Avon and Vila perfectly. I wanted to see the series again, particularly the earlier ones like Gambit, which I eventually did thanks to local fans and their pirated Dutch TV videos.
Happy birthday, Blake’s 7. I do not want the series resurrected. Create something new, as Terry Nation did in 1978. Something we can remember in forty years’ time. In our domes. Tranquilised. Or living in tunnels. And you won’t catch me being a rebel. We all know what happens to them.
❉ Michael Seely’s biography of director Douglas Camfield was published by Miwk Publishing in May 2017. Click here to order.