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.

FILTER: - Blake's 7

The Liberator Chronicles Vol 6 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 24 December 2013 - Reviewed by Damian Christie

Blake’s 7: The Liberator Chronicles, Vol 6
Produced by Big Finish
Written by Peter Anghelides, Steve Lyons, Mark Wright & Cavan Scott
Directed by Ken Bentley
Released: October 2013

... Because that’s how we measure success isn’t it? People like us! By how long we can get away with it! You’re about to learn the same lesson I did ... It doesn’t matter how successful you once were ... Not once it’s over!
Jenna Stannis

It's well over 30 years since the TV series ended and to this day Blake’s 7 fans have debated what happened to the titular character between the second season finale Star One and the program finale Blake. Many theories have been championed in fanzines and unofficial audio adaptations over the decades – and now Big Finish, with an authorised licence to produce B7 adventures, has offered its own take on Blake and Jenna’s whereabouts in the third and fourth series. It also surmises why Avon was in no rush to welcome them back to the bridge of the Liberator.

Long-term fans’ questions about what immediately happened after Star One were partly answered earlier this year in the brilliant full cast release Warship. The sixth volume of B7: The Liberator Chronicles offers us more answers about what may have happened after Warship – and also tantalisingly throws up some questions which challenge our memories of established history. Could Avon and Tarrant have found Jenna and Blake long before the program’s finale? Contrary to what Blake says in the final episode, could Jenna have survived the blockade above Gauda Prime? And did Avon meet with Blake at some other unspecified point in the program’s final season?

All these answers and questions are considered in a trilogy of episodes - Incentive, Jenna’s Story and Blake’s Story – which, in the spirit of earlier Liberator Chronicles, are told from the perspective of at least one protagonist. Incentive cleverly sets up an interrogation of Avon (Paul Darrow) and Tarrant (Stephen Pacey, reprising his role for the first time in a Big Finish B7 adventure) by Federation psychostrategist Bracheeni (Adrian Lukis). Jenna’s Story sees the woman of the hour (Sally Knyvette) seemingly under siege and playing nursemaid to an injured rebel leader Correl (John Banks). And Blake’s Story sets up an unexpected fireside chat between Blake (Gareth Thomas) and Avon.

As is the standard that we’ve come to expect of Big Finish, all three episodes are thoroughly written, convincingly performed and supported by excellent sound effects and incidental music. Incentive is the best of the three episodes and feels the most as if it is happening in “real time”, ie with little expository narrative (although the middle of the story is told in flashback by Avon and Tarrant). Jenna’s Story and Blake’s Story involve more exposition and flashbacks but are less formulaic and more experimental than Incentive which is the closest in structure to a regular B7 episode in the program’s third season.

What is most interesting about the Jenna and Blake instalments is the traumatic journeys, trials and eventual transformations that their characters undergo upon leaving the Liberator. Jenna witnesses the brutal, dehumanising and unjust treatment of refugees by the Federation (a scenario not unlike the way some Western nations treat asylum seekers!) while Blake is again duped by the Federation in a manner reminiscent of his original treatment before the events of the first episode The Way Back. These two instalments emotively reinforce the broad power of the Federation against the fractured cause that Blake and Jenna represent. Blake’s 7 is not and never was Star Wars – the rebellion of the B7 universe lacks unity, purpose, resources and manpower to seriously challenge the Federation. Indeed, it seems B7’s Federation is nowhere near as fragile as Star Wars’ Empire – it will take something extra special to topple the regime, which seems even beyond Blake and the Liberator crew.

Strong characterisation always underpins two- or three-hander plays such as these. The three episodes hold up a mirror to the established protagonists to show us previously unseen facets of their personalities. Bracheeni demonstrates that for all their bluster and bravado, Avon and Tarrant are more loyal and altruistic than they would have everyone believe. Similarly, we see whole new aspects to Jenna and Blake which were barely hinted at in the TV series. Jenna’s Story marks a 360-degree shift in the character who, like Avon, was a pragmatist at the start of the TV series. By the time of her story, Jenna has become as much of an idealist as Blake himself. By contrast, Blake has become more of the pragmatist that Jenna was.

Indeed, while quite dissimilar, the three episodes carry a common theme – that of characters aspiring to be like their heroes and role models but little realising that their perception of these champions rarely lives up to the reality. Bracheeni accuses Avon and Tarrant – “the leader and the pilot” – of needing to prove they are better than the “legendary” Blake and Jenna they begrudgingly admire. Similarly, Jenna holds Blake and the crew of the Liberator in such high esteem that she even tries to build a rebel team in the Liberator crew’s likeness. Ultimately her unshakeable faith and belief in Blake and his cause (little knowing that he has given up on it himself) seals her fate. In turn, Blake draws his strength from his own deep respect for Jenna and Avon – although the blind faith Blake and Avon have in one other proves to be the hallmark of their demise in the final TV episode. Inevitably, all the major characters draw inspiration from each other, even if they are loathe to admit that and even though their admiration of the others is more romanticised than real.

As can be expected, all of the performers in these plays are exceptionally good. Gareth Thomas and Paul Darrow are predictably solid as Blake and Avon respectively, and Stephen Pacey, most likely due to Peter Anghelides’ excellent writing and handle on the character, nails down Tarrant almost perfectly (something that could not be said when he last portrayed the character for BBC Radio in the 1990s, due to poorly written scripts and characterisation). Sally Knyvette again delivers the goods in her solo story. Warship marked something of a renaissance for Jenna and in Jenna’s Story Knyvette again relishes the opportunity to flesh out Jenna and show us just how independent, feisty and resourceful she is. In particular, it is generally assumed by fans that it was Blake’s idea to set up an army on Gauda Prime – writer Steve Lyons ingeniously turns this assumption on its head.

But the best performer of the trilogy is undoubtedly Adrian Lukis as the villainous Bracheeni, a man who proves to be a foil for Avon. Lukis’ voice is captivating and commanding from the outset, rivalling Darrow’s for charm and dry wit, and he conveys a character that is duly cunning and manipulative beneath a veil of humour and amicability. It is a great pity that Bracheeni does not survive the story. As a psychostrategist (similar to Carnell in the TV episode Weapon), Bracheeni would make a great recurring villain for the B7 audio series and partly atone for some of the naff villains that we had to suffer through in the third and fourth series of the TV show!

Volume 6 of The Liberator Chronicles offers an absorbing insight into the lives of the key characters in the B7 saga post-Star One and how they view each other and judge themselves. While the episodes may not completely answer fans’ questions about Blake and Jenna’s whereabouts in the third and fourth seasons or fill in the gaps completely (in fact there is a massive continuity blunder in Blake’s Story*!), they are entertaining and thought-provoking tales that enable us to crawl inside the characters’ heads and appreciate the joy, despair and anguish they feel. Of course, long-term fans will always prefer other versions of the B7 saga that have offered up explanations that are as valid and plausible as this volume (eg how Blake got his scar) but based on the quality of the writing and the performances, The Liberator Chronicles is the superior product. There is potential for Big Finish to continue investigating this hitherto unexplored era of the TV series in future instalments. Give us standalone adventures for Blake and Jenna rather than just the edited highlights, and if the writing and performances are as accomplished as they are in this trilogy, they will be eagerly anticipated by fans.

* Post-script - In Blake’s Story, Blake learns about the destruction of the Liberator before his death is faked by Bruler’s rebels on Jevron. However, in the TV episode Terminal, Servalan reveals to Avon that Blake is dead and she has already attended his funeral on Jevron. She then teleports to the Liberator and it is destroyed. Go figure!

FILTER: - Audio Drama - Blake's 7