❉ Revisiting the fourth and final series of Blakes 7, which began on Monday 28th September 1981 at 7.20pm.
“Blakes 7’s fourth series in retrospect has a somewhat mixed reputation. Some of the stories have been less than well received… But the standard of the writing was arguably high. If nothing else, they were entertaining. Apart from a couple of low impact stories, the stories were usually fast paced, tightly constructed, brimming with excellent dialogue and ideas. Some episodes were simply stunning, such as Robert Holmes’ Orbit where Avon’s instinct for survival was pushed to the limit.”
I had a big problem with Blake’s 7 as it began its fourth and final series in September 1981. It was opposite Coronation Street on ITV as it had done in previous years (although not in 1979). My older brother had developed a taste for the sedate soap opera, and I was left to watch merely the first and last ten minutes of Blake’s 7 while everybody else at school would be able to watch the whole darn thing and talk about the next day. And no, we did not have a video nor a second TV. My subsequent impressions of the series were subsequently coloured by this disembowelling of a programme which I quite liked but not as much as Doctor Who. I can remember one friend in a class picking his nose whilst quoting a line from a gun-toting Space Rat in Star Drive: ‘This goes bang, and you go splatt.’
The fourth series in retrospect has a somewhat mixed reputation. On the face of it you can understand why. It was probably the series that should never have happened following the destruction of the Liberator and apparent death of the antagonist Servalan in the superb close to the third series, Terminal. The ship was now replaced by the Scorpio – a lovely model design but the sets in the studio seemed less than inspired, even if the craft was supposed to be nothing as alien or magnificent as the Liberator. In fact, the whole design effort of the series seemed frankly dull and uninspired and without the colourful lighting that made previous locations visually interesting.
The Federation had obviously called in a designer to refresh their brand, and their spaceships, costumes and even make up was somewhat uniformed and stylised. They also had a fine line in early computer graphics which must have seemed so hi-tech in 1981. The regulars on Blake’s 7 stuck to their costumes at all costs with the odd variation. Shots of spaceships in flight were marred by a strange halo effect, that’s if they weren’t using red blobs as distant spaceships. As for what Dudley Simpson did to the theme tune which closed each episode… Well, he ain’t no Geoff Love.
Some of the stories have been less than well received. Having watched the infamous episode Animals for the first time in almost thirty years, I have to say it wasn’t half as bad as reputation suggests, but I probably watched it with less of a critical eye than I might have done. I knew what to expect. At the time, it was just another episode of Blake’s 7, except with “that bloke from Dixon of Dock Green” Peter Byrne guest starring as an unlikely love interest for Dayna, and Avon brutally kicking over a chair. The week before Star Drive featured the appalling Space Rats – but it had a cracking opening where their new spaceship proves to be as useless as it appears for skulduggery, and a memorable ending where Avon demonstrates his pragmatism to lethal effect.
But the standard of the writing was arguably high. If nothing else, they were entertaining. Apart from a couple of low impact stories like the above, the stories were usually fast paced, tightly constructed, brimming with excellent dialogue and ideas. Some episodes were simply stunning, such as Robert Holmes’ Orbit where Avon’s instinct for survival was pushed to the limit. I probably like the ones few others do, such as Power or Traitor, which is simply another absorbing Robert Holmes script, just given some indifferent direction (amidst the good stuff) at times, and genuinely very wobbly sets. But episodes like Rescue, Games, and Gold were highly enjoyable.
If you want to see Blake’s 7 meet Scooby-Doo (thanks Alex for pointing that out in 1993), then Headhunter is the one for you – a headless robot chases the gang around the corridors of Xenon base calling for Orac only to be defeated at the bridge by the haunted mill. If you wanted to see Tarrant snog Servalan, Sands was the episode for you, another excellent Tanith Lee character study within claustrophobic settings, and a chance for ‘the dominant male’ Avon to demonstrate his cleverness. Even the extraordinarily camp Assassin is memorable for its scene where Avon and Tarrant square up for a fight.
Where the series marks a tonal difference from before was how Avon and Servalan were characterised, both of whom were kept well apart by script editor Chris Boucher as their relationship was frankly getting bizarre during the third series. We were previously used to Paul Darrow’s Avon being cold, manipulative, outwardly uncaring, and he seemed to go through the third series quite happily without Blake as the figurehead getting him into scrapes. He was happy with his own projects whilst safe and pampered onboard the Liberator, occasionally allowing himself to be drawn into adventures on the behest of young stud space captain Tarrant and the conscience of the crew, the now deceased Cally.
With no Liberator and the Federation becoming a more potent threat, Avon suddenly decided to butch it up and become the undisputed leader of his little gang, giving Paul Darrow a chance to emulate his favourite Hollywood stars. He even had a new hairdo, a propensity for dramatic and stylised grand standing, and every time he was knocked unconscious (three times in Power alone) would take at least half an hour to fall to the floor. Meanwhile his arch enemy and sexual fetish, Servalan, once the Supreme Empress of the Terran Federation was now deposed, presumed dead, bizarrely masquerading as a space commissioner called Sleer, killing off anyone who recognised her. Which surely must have been the whole Federation, unless television was outlawed during the second calendar.
Blake’s former group behaved more like gangsters pulling heists, stealing gold, scamming mad scientists, all designed to fund and equip their fight against a rapidly expanding Federation. They tried to acquire brilliant brains to help the fight from their newly acquired Xenon base, but this usually ended in their deaths. The penultimate episode, Warlord, saw the base host a conference to gain allies against the Federation, and yes, they are betrayed, the base destroyed, and another love interest for a member of the cast is dead at the end of the fifty minutes.
That their schemes usually failed or turned out to be a trap set by Servalan, gave the series a fatalistic air. You could usually guarantee that this week’s guest star would end up dead, so when it was announced that Gareth Thomas would return as Blake for the final episode, were we really surprised by what happened to him? Perhaps. But we didn’t expect Avon to be the one to shoot him three times! We most certainly did not expect the rest of the Seven to join him on the floor in slow motion (surely a tribute to Avon’s graceful descents during the series).* The whole point of that final episode was to get the entire cast inside that room on Gauda Prime and for a shoot out to finish the series. Or was it a cliff hanger for a fifth series? The BBC announcer was ominously quiet during the credits… Can you imagine the uproar social media would have hosted had such a thing been available at the time?
For the record, there wasn’t much mourning at school the next morning for the apparent end of Blake’s 7, just surprise it ended like it did, with all of them going down. I distinctly remember Dayna getting shot and thinking, ‘Ah well, she’s dead.’ Then, hang on! Vila too? But Blake’s 7 was like that. People died, including the regulars. No one ran off to get married. Never mind, Doctor Who would be back in a few weeks’ time, and a special Christmas spin-off called K9 and Company.
Was Avon killed? We never saw his final fall. It would probably have required an extra episode to complete. I am a fan of Tony Attwood’s 1986 follow up novel Afterlife even though no one else particularly likes it. It revived my interest in the programme. He captured the characters very well, but what the plot was about I had no idea at the time, and I still don’t. I am glad that television never revived Blake’s 7 since revivals do not always have a good success rate, and seldom compare favourably to the original. How can they? Blake’s 7 emerged from a decade where terrorism or freedom-fighting or revolutions seemed to be a depressingly weekly event in the news. It is better to do something new.
* During my research for my book ‘Directed by Douglas Camfield,’ I was in touch with the series sound supervisor Trevor Webster who told me those explosions you hear during the final shoot out were initially dubbed on as a joke, but Mary Ridge liked them and kept them in. The script suggested the Federation solders were originally supposed to use explosives to blast their way into that air traffic control room, so that explained that. A new and improved edition of that book is available from Fantom Publishing, but that story is not in there, nor the anecdote about how they made the sound of the pterodactyl flying for Doctor Who ‘Invasion of the Dinosaur’ (an umbrella apparently).
❉ A longstanding contributor to We Are Cult, writer Michael Seely’s biography of Douglas Camfield, ‘Directed by Douglas Camfield’, is available from Fantom Publishing and he has also contributed a chapter to a new edition of Barry Letts’ autobiography ‘Who and I’ also available from Fantom Publishing
❉ Follow Making Blake’s 7 on Twitter – detailing the production of Blake’s 7 in painstaking detail on an episode-by-episode basis: @MakingBlakes7
❉ Follow Maximum Power: A Blake’s 7 Podcast on Twitter: @MaximumPowerPod
❉ Follow Blakes 7 Annual 1982 on Twitter: @cult_edge
❉ Screen captures taken from Blakes7bot – tweet the Bot on Twitter: @blakes7bot