Blakes 7 was certainly a programme of its time. For example, some of the topics covered in The Way Back (Blake’s arrest on trumped-up child abuse charges) and his ongoing crusade against the federation during the first two series (which resulted in casualties too numerous to mention) would surely be highly problematic for modern television executives. Given this, you might have assumed that The Way Back was broadcast in a post-watershed slot, but this wasn’t the case – it went out at 6.00 pm on the 2nd of January 1978. Truly, it was a different era.
Were Blake and his associates freedom fighters or terrorists? That depends which side of the fence you’re on, which is one of the reasons why the series remains fascinating today. Blake (largely) remained unswerving in his convictions and most of the others – Jenna, Vila, Gan, Cally – were content, to a greater or lesser extent, to follow his lead. Avon was always his most outspoken critic, although ironically he could also be the one who’s the most supportive when it comes to the crunch. These interlocking character dynamics help to explain the continuing appeal of Blakes 7.
Although Britain in the 1970’s had suffered numerous terrorist attacks from the IRA, there still seemed to be something romantic about foreign terrorists. This would explain why Chris Boucher, when penning his Doctor Who script The Face of Evil, named Leela after the Palestinian terrorist Leila Khaled. Boucher would also later admit that the activities of various South African revolutionaries inspired his work on Blakes 7.
All thirteen scripts of series one of Blakes 7 were penned by series creator Terry Nation. It’s often been suggested that Nation’s draft scripts were fairly short, meaning that script editor Chris Boucher had to work intensively on them in order to bring them up to scratch. Although the precise truth of this is hard to establish for certain, it’s easy to assume that The Way Back, given its importance as the series opener, was mostly the work of Nation and it’s the later scripts that would have had more Boucher input.
The Way Back has an unsettling dystopian atmosphere. At the start, Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas) appears to be an average sort of person – but it quickly becomes clear that the last few years of his life has been nothing but a sham. A trip outside the Domed community (which is strictly forbidden) leads to a meeting with Bran Foster (Robert Beatty). Foster is able to break the bitter truth to Blake.
Four years ago, there was a good deal of discontent with the Administration. There were many activist groups. But the only one that really meant anything was led by Roj Blake. You and I worked together. We were outlawed and hunted. But we had supporters and we were making progress. Then someone betrayed us, I still don’t know who. You were captured. So were most of our followers. They could have killed you. But that would have given the cause a martyr. So instead they put you into intensive therapy. They erased areas of your mind, they implanted new ideas. They literally took your mind to pieces and rebuilt it. And when they’d finished, they put you up and you confessed. You said you’d been “misguided”. You appealed to everyone to support the Administration, hound out the traitors. Oh, they did a good job on you. You were very convincing. And then they took you back and erased even that.
One major problem with the episode is the way that all of Blake’s suppressed memories seem to come back shortly after Foster speaks to him. Given the time and effort taken by the Administration to reprogram him, it’s rather bizarre that somebody telling him the truth can seemingly reverse all of their treatments (although it is mentioned that a sudden shock could cause Blake to regain the areas of his mind that were previously blocked). It would have been more dramatically satisfying for Blake to slowly recover his memories over the course of the first series, but I assume it was felt that they needed a resolute (and not confused) central character in place by the end of episode one.
Foster and his friends have been betrayed by Dev Tarrant (Jeremy Wilkin) and everybody, except Blake, is massacred. This early example of the ruthlessness of the Administration provides Blake with yet another reason to fight. The outside sequences, all shot on film, are nicely directed by Michael E. Briant – especially the moment when Blake returns to the meeting place and finds dozens of lifeless bodies strewn about the floor in a haphazard fashion. This scene is also notable for the lack of music underscoring what we see – the picture (and the stark silence) speaks for itself.
We’ve already learnt that Blake wasn’t killed four years ago because the Administration feared his death would turn him into a martyr. This is presumably also why his life is spared now (although if we accept this, can we also accept that Foster and all the others were completely dispensable?). This time they don’t decide to brainwash him, instead he’s arrested on charges of child abuse – which is a much more insidious way to discredit and silence him.
Of course, if the Administration wanted to be sure of an easy conviction, why didn’t they brainwash Blake into believing he’d committed the crimes, in the same way that the children had been conditioned? It also seems a bit lax to have given Blake an honest man as his defender. Varon (Michael Hasley) is persuaded, after Blake’s urgings, that he may be telling the truth after all – but it’s all to no avail as both he and his wife are quietly disposed of.
Although we never see the children and the crimes are only mentioned in passing, the whole notion (as well as the probability they’ve been implanted with false memories) is a chilling one. But despite Blake’s conviction, which you’d assume the Administration would have broadcast fully, I can’t recall a single person that Blake later meets who ever mentions the case. As a piece of propaganda it therefore seems to have failed totally. Surely somebody would have believed it?
With Blake now a convinced criminal, he faces a eight-month journey to the penal planet Cygnus Alpha. Before lift-off, he meets several other prisoners – Vila (Michael Keating) and Jenna (Sally Knyvette). As the ship blasts off, Blake takes a last despairing look at the Earth and vows to return …..
The Way Back is an effective opener. Gareth Thomas manages to make an immediate impression as Blake, although it won’t be until the following episode, where we meet Avon, that the dynamic for the first few series is firmly established. There’s some very decent model shots, especially of Blake and the others leaving the Dome, and a number of familiar faces (Robert Beatty, Robert James) in supporting roles. It is slightly concerning that even this early on some of the sets look fairly tatty – my favourite are the doors which have a “swoosh” sound effect put on them. This is to sell the illusion that they’re somehow more sophisticated than the bog-standard doors they actually are. Naturally, this doesn’t work!
Sally Knyvette and Micheal Keating only have a limited amount of screen time, but both impress with the little they have to do. Knyvette is presented as a tough and bitter character, but we’ll come to see that she does possess a heart – and will take a very definite shine to Blake (this becomes even more obvious when Cally joins the crew!). As the series progressed Vila would become more of a comic figure, but here he’s rather sinister and unsettling – it’s a pity that this characterisation didn’t last for longer.