Liberation: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Blake's 7Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 29 December 2013 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek

Liberation: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Blake's 7
Produced by Telos Publishing Ltd
Written by Alan Stevens, Fiona Moore
Released: September 2003
Blake's 7 is a series which is dear to my heart and which deserves a look from anyone interested in British sci-fi. It ran for four seasons, first airing in early 1978, and concluding in late 1981 with a grim finale that ruined many a youngster's Christmas. The pedigree of authors Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore is strong, with the former being a regular contributor to sci-fi fanzine 'DWB' and also 'Horizon' which was published by the Blake's 7 Appreciation Society, and the latter being a professional anthropologist who had studied in Oxford.

Although the show now seems very dated by its hairstyles, costumes and makeshift special effects it is by and large a quality effort with excellent plots, characterisation and story arcs. Many joke about the deceptive title of Blake's 'Seven', especially as the crew line up changed on several occasions as time went on. There were never 7 total human crewmembers, although computers Zen, Orac and Slave all played their part at different points in time.

Initially the show was designed to focus strongly on Roj Blake who had almost lost everything in his fight for freedom and democracy, as shown in the series opener 'The Way Back'. Blake - played by Gareth Thomas- had been conditioned to forget his days of leading a would-be revolution against the oppressive Earth Federation regime until his life takes a dramatic turn. Heroic characters try to help Blake regain his old identity but at a great cost. A massacre wipes out one potential force due to a double agent's treachery and Blake is discredited with disturbing fake evidence and sentenced to a life on a bleak penal colony. The initial series of 13 episodes - all credited to writer and creator Terry Nation - would depict Blake's efforts to bring down the corrupt Federation and help others in need wherever possible.

A key asset of the show were the strong characters and the actors who played them. As the series progressed other lead roles won the viewers' attention away from the overly heroic Blake. Kerr Avon and Vila Restal - specialising in computer hacking and lock picking respectively - were quick witted opportunists who understood that neither could survive long without the other. Commendably progressive female portrayals came in the form of Jenna Stannis and Cally who were determined and prepared to kill if forced to, but also protective and sympathetic.

Sally Knyvette, portrayed Jenna as a shrewd smuggler able to run rings round men who fell for her charms. Cally, acted by Jan Chappell was an outsider, prepared to fight to the death against the Federation, but estranged from her race of telepaths on Auron who were resolutely neutra. Her special powers sometimes brought hindrance to her crewmates, as malign entities looked to take advantage of her presence on the astral plane.

Rounding off the initial line-up was former killer Gan providing brute force but no lethal capability due to a chip in his head. This crew of five humans and one Auron attempted to bring down the corrupt and wicked Earth Federation but had mixed success in their many efforts.

No one can dispute that by the time season 3 was underway, the show 'Blake's 7' was solidly focused on Kerr Avon. For many fans the loss of Blake did not cause a problem with the show. Yes, Gareth Thomas excelled as an idealist whose fixation on freedom was frequently portrayed as a double edged sword. It was just that Avon projected so much charisma from his very core and usually had the best lines as well. Kerr Avon was selfish and ruthless, but loyal and brave in equal measure and was impossible to turn away from. It helped no end that actor Paul Darrow fitted the role seamlessly. Co-author Stevens favours Avon as his personal favourite protagonist due to this wonderful synergy of script and performance.

Perhaps surprisingly the only actor to feature in all 52 episodes of the show was Michael Keating as Vila. Despite being a unique supporting character his time could have been cut short as the guide at one point mentions when detailing Nation's plans for 'Pressure Point'. However the rather less popular Gan was killed off instead. Keating was a superb 'everyman' presence, pulling off playful, idiotic, world-weary, practical and cowardly all at once without coming across as inconsistent. 'Liberation' has much to say about this inconsistency in Vila owing to different writing styles and production decisions. Keating's own performance gets a seemingly mixed response, one which I respectfully disagree with.

Until episode 6 the Federation was somewhat faceless and nebulous in nature until the arrival of Supreme Commander Servalan and Space Commander Travis, who Blake thought he had killed in his initial years of freedom fighting. Jacqueline Pierce was a late casting choice as Servalan but would go on to be the definitive villain of the entire show. Travis had a chillingly sadistic quality, but later became somewhat dispensable in the grand scheme of things.

For many people Servalan is the most outstanding of the Blake's 7 ensemble, despite -perhaps because of - her presence as a self-serving, ruthless and immoral tyrant. I myself felt Jacqueline Pierce was superb and could make any dialogue given to her shine with seemingly little effort. Indeed co-author Moore likes Servalan best of all the characters, largely on the strength of Pierce's portrayal. It seems scarcely possible to imagine that this iconic adversary was first intended to be just another male foe.

The guide does a great job of setting the scene for the different demands and challenges that each season of Blake's 7 presented.

Season two is perhaps the most interesting in terms of difficulties that took place behind the scenes. Stephen Greif had done a splendid job as Travis in season one, but had found little progress in his character as first hoped for, and opted to quit in favour of a film being produced at the same time. The recast Travis, Brian Croucher had more than a few problems working with director George Spenton Foster and also suffered from a lack of direction at time for his character in the latter half of season two. Yet few viewers though would be left disappointed by the final confrontation between Travis and Blake in the terrific 'Star One' episode.

Other tensions between directors, writers and actors also were apparent. Two key cast members - Thomas and Knyvette opted to leave by the end of the season, and David Jackson's Gan was killed off to bring home a sense of jeopardy to the viewer. Series creator Terry Nation was now not nearly as focused on his 'baby' and had other priorities in the form of a TV movie and a move across to America. A lot of scripts were considered and drafted but hastily replaced. I myself share the authors' evaluation that season two was inconsistent but still strong when it got the elements 'right'.

Despite the strengths of season two's story arc, the production team avoided any return to such format as script coordination was far from practical. As a result much of the running order of season three is somewhat interchangeable with continuity at its least prevalent compared to other seasons. However creativity is employed in this season perhaps more than the other three. Certainly material such as Tanith Lee's eerie 'Sarcophagus' would most likely be passed over in the more formulaic early seasons. Also, season 3 mainly succeeds in revisiting topics from earlier seasons such as powerful aliens with advanced technology, or a noble civilisation looking to emigrate far away across the galaxy, or a mysterious casket housing a dangerous obscure entity.

With Blake gone new characters arrived and in many ways were improvements on those who has trod the bridge of the Liberator before. Tarrant, at least in his first season, was a very determined opponent of Avon's schemes and oozed arrogance and charisma in equal measure. He shared Blake's curly hair but otherwise had a very different set of strengths of weaknesses. Dayna Mellanby was introduced initially in a romantic tryst with Avon but quickly became his protoge instead. She also had special motivation in taking on Servalan who had mercilessly taunted and killed her father Hal. Respective actors Steven Pacey and Josette Simon have gone on to do much good work in television and theatre since their early days on Blake's 7.

The late decision to bring back the show for its fourth season is especially interesting and the guide manages to interweave the logistics headache of a reduced planning and production period into the reviews of the individual episodes.

With the Liberator destroyed a necessarily contrived plot was put together by Boucher where a villain name Dorian saves Avon and his crew from Terminal in the nick of time, but actually wishes to exploit them for their energy and thus cheat death. By defeating him they acquire a weaker ship than the Liberator, called Scorpio that just happens to have teleport facilities and handguns. One distinct change from the first three seasons is that the crew now are officially based on Xenon where they can affect repairs to Scorpio, host resistance meetings and use various resources in Dorian's base and on the planet's surface.

A major casting shakeup took place with Cally being killed off-screen and replaced by the rather less affable Soolin. She initially was introduced as a mysterious aide to Dorian but gradually more details about her violent past were revealed. A young Glynis Barber was not always served well by the scripts but she did a decent enough job and added a touch of glamour to go with some withering put downs. Decisions to go ahead with scripts on the assumption that Jan Chappell would return as Cally let to a big negative impact on the first half of the season and various inconsistencies - not least the dubious back-story of Dayna and former mentor/lover Justin in 'Animals'.

Of course the flawed nature of season 4 allows for much fascinating critique on the first six episodes or so. However starting with 'Assassin' the reviews become fundamentally positive and the final 4 episodes especially impress Stevens and Moore. The critical analysis on this series finale is quite simply excellent. There is a very interesting theory on why things end so tragically between Blake and Avon, which I personally do not share but still give the authors credit for putting forward.

In conclusion I strongly recommend this unofficial guide, which casts light on just why this show of yesteryear still has much to offer viewers even today. The authors show real skill in articulating production details alongside script subtext and onscreen acting, and never lose the attention of the reader.