Blakes 7 – Breakdown

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Gan’s limiter has malfunctioned and it’s turned him into an uncontrollable psychopath.  Although Blake and the others manage to subdue and sedate him, it’s obvious that he needs urgent medical attention.  After reviewing the various options, Avon mentions to Blake that the nearest facility, XK-72, would be ideal.

Zen refuses to take the Liberator on a direct course (due to unspecified dangers) so Jenna has to pilot the ship without computer assistance in a desperate race against timeBut although they eventually reach their destination, can they they trust the brilliant surgeon Kayn (Julian Glover)?

Poor Gan.  Always something of a third wheel, even this episode (in which he ostensibly takes centre-stage) doesn’t really do him any favours.  The main problem was that he was just too nice and affable.  Blakes 7 thrived on character conflict – you could take any two from the remainder of the crew (Blake, Avon, Vila, Jenna, Cally) and instantly an interesting dynamic would be created.  For example, Blake/Avon, Avon/Vila, Vila/Jenna, Cally/Blake, etc.  But teaming Gan up with anyone else never worked nearly as well because of his status as a friendly everyman.  True, there was a slight edge between him and Avon, but then Avon disliked everybody!

And whilst the others were defined partly by their skills (Blake the organiser, Avon the computer expert, Vila the locksmith, Jenna the pilot, Cally the telepath) Gan had little to offer apart from his strength.  So he was fated to remain a background player, constantly overlooked in favour of the other, more dynamic, crew-members.

It’s therefore ironic that Breakdown – the one episode in which his problems are the main part of the story – doesn’t allow him a great deal of effective screen-time either – he spends the majority of it either unconscious or in a mad rage.  So basically Gan just becomes a piece of malfunctioning machinery which Blake and the others need to fix.

Having said that, he does have one good scene.  Gan is under restraint in the Medical Room (both for his own safety as well as the safety of the others).  Although the limiter is causing him extreme pain, he’s still devious enough to pretend that he’s fine.

CALLY: How are you feeling?
GAN: Tired. Very tired. What’s been happening?
CALLY: You were ill. We’re trying to get to a place where you can receive medical treatment.
GAN: I’m all right. Just that I, I can’t remember. Why am I being held down like this?
CALLY: When the pain was too much for you, you became violent, and we were frightened you might harm yourself.
GAN: I’m sorry, I just can’t remember. I’d like to sit up. Help me, will you, Cally?
CALLY: I think you should stay where you are until we can get help.
GAN: I’m all right. A bit uncomfortable. I’d like to sit up.
CALLY: There is some turbulence. You’re safer where you are.

But Cally does release him and by way of thanks he throttles her.  Although brief, it’s a disturbing moment – not only for the visual image, but also for the questions it raises.  We know that Gan was a convicted murderer – but was that a one-off crime or is the malfunctioning limiter now showing us his true nature?  This would have been a fruitful area to explore in a future story, but alas it was never exploited.

Gan’s opening fight with Blake is good fun and it’s also quite noteworthy as director Vere Lorrimer chooses to shoot it with a hand-held camera.  This style of shooting is commonplace now, but at the time it was quite rare.  It helps to add a little punch to what is otherwise a fairly static episode (that’s unavoidable since the majority of it takes place on the Liberator).

Breakdown was clearly written as a budget-saving show.  Apart from the regular Liberator set, we only see a small office on XK-72 (which looks like Servalan’s office, redressed) and there’s just three guest actors.  But it’s a great consolation that one of them is Julian Glover.  Glover is someone who seems incapable of giving a bad performance and his presence helps to boost the second part of the episode considerably.

Before they reach XK-72, they have to brave the terrors of the unknown.  This is a fairly blatant plot device to slow their journey down and if it works at all it’s because the regulars convince us that they’re in danger.  Although this section of the story does drag a little, there’s the odd dialogue gem, such as –

AVON: Blake, in the unlikely event that we survive this …..
BLAKE: Yes?
AVON: I’m finished. Staying with you requires a degree of stupidity of which I no longer feel capable.
BLAKE: Now you’re just being modest.

The other interesting part of Breakdown is the way in which it shows us where Avon’s loyalties lie.  Blake and Avon discuss various likely places that could treat Gan.  Avon dismisses one and tells Blake that because it’s six hundred hours away “you haven’t anything like that much time.”  It’s a moment that goes unremarked, but the fact Avon says “you” and not “we” helps to highlight that he still sees himself as an outsider – Gan is Blake’s problem, not his.

Later, his loyalty is put to the test when he considers leaving the Liberator and remaining on XK-72.  Whilst visiting the facility, he’s told that Federation pursuit ships are on their way.  He knows he could stay in safety on XK-72 but decides to go back and warn the others.  When he returns he also backs up Vila who’s persuading the reluctant Kayn to begin his operation on Gan (Kayn is the one who’s called for the Federation and earlier declared he had no intention of operating).  Avon’s decision to return to the ship is a key moment, but it’s another character beat that’s underplayed – he’s the only one who knows he had a chance to escape and it’s obvious he won’t share this information with the others.

The operation succeeds, but the bad shooting of the Federation pursuit ships has serious consequences for XK-72 (“say goodbye to one bolt hole” remarks Avon).  Minus points for the final scene featuring all the Liberator crew having a good laugh – partly because these endings are reminiscent of Star Trek (Spock and McCoy clashing, whilst Kirk looks on with a grin) but mostly because it seems a little off, especially since XK-72 is now a smouldering ruin.

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Blakes 7 – Project Avalon

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The Liberator has travelled to an icy, inhospitable planet in order for Blake to make contact with the resistance leader Avalon (Julia Vidler).  Avalon has started resistance movements on a dozen Federation planets and has requested Blake’s help in relocating somewhere safer.

Blake is keen to assist, but when he and Jenna teleport down they find a scene of devastation – clearly the Federation has beaten them to it.  Avalon isn’t amongst the dead though – they learn from the sole survivor, Chevner (David Bailie), that she’s been captured.  So Blake sets out to rescue her, not realising he’s fallen into Travis’ trap …..

Time has obviously moved on since the events of Seek Locate Destroy and Duel and it’s interesting to note how the Federation’s plans have changed.  In Seek Locate Destroy, the apprehension of Blake was their main objective – now it appears that capturing the Liberator is just as important, if not more so.

The notion that there’s been some unseen adventures between Blake and Travis is confirmed when he bitterly mentions to Servalan he’s twice had the chance to destroy Blake, but it would have meant destroying the Liberator as well, so he was forced to disengage.  Servalan concedes this, but in an early display of the same needling relationship they’d enjoy from now on, tells him that whilst she’s defended him, he needs to capture Blake soon or he’ll be replaced (and no doubt his life will be forfeit).

It’s clearly meant to be a surprise that Avalon is female – a mere girl leading a resistance cell! – and this is reinforced by Dudley Simpson’s tinkling piano just before she’s captured by Travis.  Once she’s in his power, she’s reduced to her underwear and strapped into a very uncomfortable-looking machine for a purpose which only becomes clear later on.  Whilst it’s no surprise for a female character to become an objectified figure in a late 1970’s British science fiction series (or indeed any series of this era) it’s still slightly eye-opening.  When Blake found himself in a similar machine, his modesty was rather better preserved!

Whilst Avalon is helpless, Travis tells her that she should be flattered to receive such “special” attention.  She replies that “anyone who opposes the Federation knows what to expect if they get captured. It’s a risk we’re all prepared to take.” It’s a difficult line to deliver and it’s fair to say that Julia Vidler does struggle somewhat in depicting the idealistic young rebel (her delivery tends to stay on something of a monotone).  It’s probably a blessing that later she reappears as an emotionless android – she manages to play this rather more convincingly.

Rather more engaging is Glynis Barber as this week’s Mutoid sidekick.  I’m not sure whether it’s as scripted, or just her performance choice, but Barber’s considerably more assured and confident than Carol Royle’s Mutoid in Duel was.  This works very well –  as she operates more as an equal with Travis in the early part of the episode, rather than living in his shadow.

Director Michael E. Briant had previously filmed in Wookey Hole for the 1975 Doctor Who story Revenge of the Cybermen.  Although the caves are a lot smaller than you might think, it’s still a very good location and makes a nice change from Blakes 7′s default locations (quarries, refineries, nuclear power plants, etc).   This wasn’t the only link to Briant’s previous work on Doctor Who as he cast David Bailie (who had appeared in The Robots of Death) as the doomed Chevner.

Alas, the silly looking robot pops up again.  His first scene is priceless – since he speeds along a such a lick it’s obvious he’s being wheeled on a board.  Indeed, if you freeze frame, there’s a tell-tale flash of the board to confirm this!  Like the Daleks and K9, he was clearly a robot with serious mobility issues.

Gan’s very taken with Avalon (or at least what appears to be Avalon).  His hero-worship (if that’s what it is) does allow David Jackson an entertaining scene towards the end of the episode.  Once it’s become clear that Avalon isn’t all she appears to be, Gan attempts to strangle her – but Avalon’s super-human strength stops him.  I wonder why the limiter didn’t prevent him from hurting her?  Is his implant so clever that it knows what appeared to be Avalon was only an android or is it just a case of selective scripting?

It may come as no surprise to learn that Travis’ rather elaborate plan doesn’t succeed and he finds himself, for the first time but certainly not the last, relieved of his command.  His closing words are a none too subtle hint that he may be down but he’s far from out. “If it takes all my life, I will destroy you, Blake. I will destroy you. I will destroy you.”

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Blakes 7 – Duel

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Round two of the battle between Blake and Travis is interrupted by two mysterious and powerful characters – Sinofar (Isla Blair) and Giroc (Patsy Smart).  Both Blake and Travis are ordered by Sinofar to fight to the death.  Blake isn’t keen – he has no desire to fight for anybody’s amusement – but there’s no alternative. Sinofar also tells them that whilst half the lesson they will learn concerns the death of an enemy, the other relates to the death of a friend.

Blake is given Jenna as a companion, whilst the friendless Travis is accompanied by one of his Mutoid subordinates (played by Carol Royle).  The rest of the Liberator crew watch on helpless as Blake and Travis duel.  The question is, can Blake kill in cold blood?

This has always been a favourite episode of mine and one of the chief reasons is Douglas Camfield’s direction.  Camfield had, by this time, directed more episodes of Doctor Who than anybody else, as well as a host of other series (including The Sweeney).

He’d gained a well deserved reputation as an excellent director of action (so it’s no surprise that the fight scene in Duel is well staged) but he was also someone who looked to make all of his shots as visually interesting as possible. There’s some good examples in this episode – such as the early scenes on the barren planet of Sinofar and Giroc (it’s something of a challenge to make it look other than it is – a small studio set – but some tight camera angles and lighting effects help to create the illusion of space and depth).

Another major difference with Duel is the lack of Dudley Simpson’s music.  After a falling-out at a party in the mid sixties Camfield had declined to use Simpson from then on, so here the music is drawn from stock.  And much as I love Simpson, it really works to the benefit of the story – indeed, more variety with the composers during Blakes 7‘s run would have been very welcome.

Although the duel between Blake and Travis is the centre of the episode, it takes a while before we reach that point.  Before then, there’s an extended battle between the Liberator and Travis’ fleet of ships.  All of Travis’ crew are Mutoids – emotionless alien creatures who depend on blood for their survival.  They are also highly efficient and this is one of the reasons why Travis is able to bring the Liberator to the brink of defeat.  Blake decides there’s nothing left to do but ram Travis’ ship – but before he can carry out this potentially risky manovure, both he and Travis find themselves plucked off their respective ships.  Sinofar and Giroc explain why and what will happen to them.

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SINOFAR: Our powers grew out of a thousand years of war, out of hate, and fear and the will to survive.
GIROC: We built destruction, weapons that your peoples have not yet dreamed of. Every passing year brought new ways to kill, and throughout the centuries the war raged across our planet.
SINOFAR: With each generation there were fewer of us. The dead vastly outnumbered the living. There was not victory for either side.
BLAKE: How did it end?
GIROC: How? Another development of another weapon. We demanded their surrender, they refused, the weapon was used. Those that we call our enemy were annihilated. TRAVIS: You won, that’s all that matters.
SINOFAR: It wasn’t a victory, only the end of the war. We were left with a planet made barren by radiation. Our children were monsters, or died, or were never born. This, we won.
BLAKE: How many of you are there now?
GIROC: None. We are a dead race.

Isla Blair and Patsy Smart are both impressive – Blair is calm, whilst Smart is mischievous.  True, their main function is to provide a large infodump mid-episode, but there’s a certain poetry to their tale of a dead world.  It’s not an original concept, but in an era when the threat of nuclear attack was still an ever-present concern it must have carried a certain resonance.  Terry Nation had form for this of course (such as the first Dalek story, set on the radiation-soaked planet of Skaro).

After the fairly routine previous episode, Mission to Destiny, Duel is a major step up – especially when it comes to the dialogue.  There’s plenty of memorable lines to be found and one of my favourite exchanges is this one aboard the Liberator.  The others are able to watch Blake and Jenna but can’t do anything to help.  When Avon gets up, Vila asks him if he’s thought of a plan.

AVON: Yes. I’m going to get some sleep.
VILA: How can you sleep with all this happening?
AVON: With all what happening? Blake is sitting up in a tree, Travis is sitting up in another tree. Unless they’re planning to throw nuts at one another, I don’t see much of a fight developing before it gets light.
GAN: You’re never involved, are you Avon? You ever cared for anyone?
VILA: Except yourself?
AVON: I have never understood why it should be necessary to become irrational in order to prove that you care, or, indeed, why it should be necessary to prove it at all.
VILA: Was that an insult or did I miss something?
CALLY (smiling): You missed something.

The next day, Blake and Travis continue to hunt each other down.  Eventually, Blake has Travis at his mercy and prepares to strike the killing blow.  Gan, Cally and Vila (like us, acting as the audience) urge him on, but Avon spots Blake’s hesitation and in another lovely character moment, smiles.  Does he regard Blake’s inability to kill as a strength or a weakness?

Although Blake didn’t kill Travis, he’s won the contest and when he admits that one of the reasons he didn’t kill him was because he would have enjoyed it too much, Sinofar concedes that maybe there’s not a great deal for him to learn.  Duel is very much a vehicle for Gareth Thomas and Stephen Greif, although Paul Darrow does have some good moments, even though he’s absent from the main narrative.

Travis and Servalan tended to be joined at the hip rather, but this episode indicates that he works best on his own – too often Servalan just seems to be there to berate his bungling after he’s left slip another chance to catch Blake (which can’t do anything but seriously weaken his character). The next episode, Project Avalon, is another strong Travis tale – but it would have probably been wise to retire the character after that.  Alas they didn’t, so it’ll be a case of diminishing returns from then on.

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Blakes 7 – Mission to Destiny

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The Liberator’s sensors pick up a ship, Ortega, which is drifting in a circular pattern.  After getting no response from their hailing call, Blake, Avon and Cally teleport over to investigate.  They find the entire crew unconscious, incapacitated by a tranquilising gas called Sono Vapour.  Once roused, Blake and the others question the crew.

Dr Kendall (Barry Jackson) believes that somebody is attempting to steal an energy refactor which they are taking back to their planet, Destiny.  Destiny depends on agriculture for its survival and has been hit hard by a fungal disease.  The energy refactor will eliminate this problem, but without it Destiny is doomed.

The sabotage aboard the ship means that they won’t reach home for five months, so Blake offers to take the refactor in the Liberator (this will only take four days).  The crew agree and Avon and Cally remain behind as hostages.  As the Ortega slowly drifts along, there is another death – and Avon finds himself in the unfamiliar role of detective as he unravels the mystery ….

Nobody’s favourite story, Mission from Destiny is a rather dull murder-mystery.  It does boast a decent supporting cast though – Barry Jackson, Stephen Tate, Beth Morris, John Leeson, Brian Capron, Nigel Humphreys, Carl Forgione, Kate Coleridge – most of whom are familiar television faces.  The problem is that most of their characters are only sketchily drawn, so it’s hard to invest a great deal of interest in their fate.

This week’s plot contrivance, which keeps the Liberator crew involved in the plot, is the MacGuffin-like energy refactor.  Without it, it’s hard to imagine Avon sticking around (he admits that “I don’t care if their whole planet turns into a mushroom”).  Although in the next breath he does tell Cally he’s staying because he doesn’t like an unsolved mystery.  This is rather uncharacteristic – until now, Avon has appeared to be motivated mainly by self interest.

Whatever the reason, Avon and Cally begin to investigate the crew.  It’s the first time that Avon and Cally have teamed up and Darrow and Chappell’s interaction helps to lift the episode.  There aren’t that many quotable lines in the story, but I do like this short exchange –

CALLY: My people have a saying, a man who trusts can never be betrayed, only mistaken.
AVON: Life expectancy must be fairly short among your people.

Avon also gets to demonstrate the special way he has with women, when he punches Sara, played by Beth Morris.  “You’d better get her out of here, I really rather enjoyed that.”

Despite the strong supporting cast, most of the performances are perfunctory at best.  Nigel Humphreys and Stephen Tate spend most of the time skulking around in a suspicious manner, John Leeson appears to be friendly and helpful, Beth Morris is hysterical and tearful, whilst the others don’t seem to have any particular personalities at all.

Mission to Destiny reuses the spaceship set from Space Fall, suitably redressed, so it was obviously planned as one of the cheaper series one episodes.  It’s therefore odd that some of the interiors were shot on film at Ealing.  This would be understandable if there were explosions or other effects, but there’s nothing of this type – so it seems an unnecessary expense.

I noted that in The Way Back that Dudley Simpson’s music was on the sparse side, but that’s not an observation that can be made of this episode’s score.  Like most of Simpson’s work on Doctor Who and Blakes 7 around this period, it’s very much a case of Dudley’s Greatest Hits.  Many of the cues are very familiar (it has more than a hint of Spearhead from Space, for example), but since there’s stretches where not much of interest occurs on screen, playing spot the cue does help to pass the time.

Somewhat of a filler episode then, particularly since it’s sandwiched between two key Blake/Travis showdowns.

Blakes 7 – Seek Locate Destroy

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The Liberator crew teleport down to Centero to steal the Federation’s cipher machine.  They achieve this successfully, but Cally is left behind and is apprehended by Federation troopers.  Blake, of course, vows to rescue her, whatever the cost.

Blake’s devotion to his crew will be used by Supreme Commander Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce) and Space Commander Travis (Stephen Greif).  Servalan has been tasked with the job of capturing Blake and she assigns Travis (who has history with him) to carry out the mission.  Using Cally as bait, Travis lures Blake into a trap, where he plans to destroy him …..

Everything changes in Seek Locate Destroy.  Until now, the Federation has provided Blake with rather faceless opposition.  But here, Servalan and Travis are strong, defined characters who will obviously be much more of a challenge to overcome.  And for those who regard Blakes 7 as a sci-fi version of Robin Hood (Blake = Robin, Jenna = Maid Marion, Gan = Little John, etc) the parallels are strengthed by the arrival of Servalan (the Sheriff of Nottingham) and Travis (Sir Guy of Gisbourne).

As with most Robin Hood series, we’ll see how regular returning villains tend to lose their effectiveness over time (due to overexposure).  Of the two, Travis was always going to be harder to write as a continuing character.  When Greif decided to leave at the end of the first series it probably would have been best to create a new character, rather than recast, since there’s only so many times that Travis can be bested by Blake before it becomes monotonous.

But Greif certainly does his best with the material he’s given – he even manages to invest his ripe closing speech with a striking intensity. “Run, Blake. Run. As far and as fast as you like. I’ll find you. You can’t hide from me. I am your death, Blake.”  His replacement in series two, Brian Croucher, was rather less successful unfortunately.

What gives the Blake/Travis conflict extra spice is the history the pair have.  Blake explains to the others exactly what happened.

BLAKE:  The group had arranged to meet in a sub-basement. There were about thirty of us. I was very particular about security. I had our people watch the entrances and exits for a full twenty-four hours before we were supposed to meet. No Federation forces came anywhere near the place. I was absolutely sure that we were safe. That night we were assembled and about to begin, and Travis and his men suddenly appeared from nowhere.

AVON:  Didn’t you post any guards?

BLAKE:  Of course I did. Travis was already there. He’d been hiding in that basement for more than two days. We made no attempt to resist arrest. There was no point, we had no chance. I said to Travis, “We will offer no resistance.” And he just stared at me. And then he ordered his men to open fire. Everybody was diving for cover that wasn’t there. I, I ran, I found myself grappling with a guard, and I managed to get his gun away from him, and then I was hit in the leg. But as I went down, I saw Travis. And I fired. I saw him fall. I was sure I’d killed him.

Another character who would suffer from overuse is Jacqueline Pearce’s Servalan – plus she would become camper and camper as the series progressed.  She’s quite different here – efficient, charming (when she needs to be) but also capable of barely suppressed fury (when speaking to her old flame Rai who dares to question the appointment of Travis) as well as showing occasional moments of hesitancy.  It’s a controlled performance which works very well.  In this episode we see Servalan the politician, manouvering others to do her bidding.  Later, she’d become more mobile and would appear to run into the Liberator crew nearly every week, which didn’t always work.

Pearce and Greif help to bolster what is a fairly flimsy story – Blake steals the cypher machine, realises Cally has been captured and then rescues her.  The location filming (at Fulham Gasworks) does help matters – Blakes 7 always loved an industrial setting – but several minus points for the rather silly-looking robot.  Sadly it reappears in a later story – presumably (despite appearances) it was expensive to make, so I assume they felt they had to get their monies worth.

It’s difficult to believe that nobody realises Cally hasn’t returned with the others, but given the excitement of the raid it’s just about believable I guess.  Jan Chappell’s fight with the trooper, which results in her losing the teleport bracelet, is rather ineffectual – had it been shot on film there would have been time to cut it together properly, but the unforgiving medium of multi-camera VT simply didn’t allow this (so it’s less a fight, more a series of shoves!).

Afterwards, it’s interesting to see the Federation trooper remove his helmet – to reveal a fairly nondescript looking man.  The masked troopers have a nightmarish and dehumanised appearance, so this moment (whilst understated) helps to show us that the troopers aren’t monsters, they can be just normal people.

A similar point is touched upon later, when Rai (Ian Oliver) expresses to Servalan the disquiet that he and his fellow officers have concerning the reappointment of Travis.  Travis has been suspended after another massacre of unarmed civilians and in Rai’s opinion he should have been dismissed from the service.  Whilst the series in general tends to paint the Federation en-masse as tyrants and killers, here we see Rai presented as a decent and honourable officer, disgusted with the return of a psychopath like Travis.  And the fact he’s not the only one to feel this way about Travis does suggest that maybe the Federation isn’t quite as black as Blake believes.

Although Travis is the centre-point of the story we don’t actually see him until more than half way through the episode.  His first scene in priceless though – to the strains of Dudley Simpson at his most dramatic, Grief strides in, hands on hips, as he confronts Servalan.  He’s already spoken a good few lines before the camera cuts to his face and we see the signs left by his last tussle with Blake.

Any episode is always enlivened by a touch of Peter Miles (at his most cutting here),  He forms a nice double-act with John Bryans and the pair will also return in the series two episode Trial (Bryans also pops up in series three, in a different role, in Rumours of Death).  Ian Cullen (formally a Z Cars regular) is rather wasted as Escon and Peter Craze (brother of Michael) is Prell.

Solid stuff then and it’s obvious that Travis will be back again and again – only death, it seems, will end the feud between him and Blake.

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Blakes 7 – The Web

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Cally, under the control of a mysterious alien, pilots the Liberator to a distant planet where it becomes ensnared in a strange web.  Blake teleports down to the surface, finds more of the web-like substance and meets Geela (Ania Marson) and Novara (Miles Fothergill).  They are under attack from a group of diminutive aliens called the Decimas (as is Blake when he arrives).  But as Blake begins to assess his surroundings, he finds that his sympathies lie more with the Decimas than the distinctly odd Geela and Novara.

Exactly why the two humanoids are on the planet, their relationship with the Decimas, and the involvement of the mysterious Saymon (Richard Beale) are all puzzles that Blake finds he has to solve.

The Web is a story that seems rather out of place in series one (although you could imagine it fitting into series three or four quite easily).  But on the other hand, since the majority of the first series from now on will be dominated by Servalan and Travis, it’s probably not a bad idea to have a couple of non-Federation/pure SF stories.

True, it’s not one to watch in the company of non-fans, as there are various production choices (the Decimas, Saymon, etc) which will no doubt only generate derision.  But digging deeper underneath, there’s a creepy SF story here – which makes a nice change from the Blake versus the Federation yarns.

Cally’s only been onboard the Liberator for a short while and she’s already taken over by a mysterious alien force (this certainly won’t be the last time it’ll happen either).  As previously discussed, it’s easy to spot various plot contrivances that have been put into place in order to shape the drama and Cally’s possession is another.  In Doctor Who, the TARDIS could simply land at random on a planet and then the adventure would begin.  This can’t happen in Blakes 7, so another way had to be found to involve Blake and the others in Saymon’s affairs.

Michael E. Briant’s direction is very effective – the story opens with a nice panning shot of Saymon’s laboratory and the film sequences (recorded at Black Park) have a spooky atmosphere.  Miles Fothergill had previously played the emotionless robot SV7 in the Doctor Who story The Robots of Death, which was clearly good practice for his similar role here.

Richard Beale has a somewhat thankless role.  Saymon’s dialogue (here’s a sample – “They must come. They must. They must. They must come. They must. They must. They must. They must come. They must come. They must. They must. They must come to us” etc) is rather repetitive and his appearance – which should be shocking – can’t help but be rather comical.  Beale’s clearly just poking his head through a wall, so it’s hard to take him seriously.  But he is a very good actor, so he’s still able to make something out of the fairly unpromising hand he’s been dealt.

The dubious morality of genetic engineering is debated and it’s pleasing that there’s no pat, neat solution at the end.  Blake sides with the Decimas, but not everyone share his sympathies.  “These are what you wanted to protect” comments Avon, with Blake retorting that the Decimas are fighting for their lives.  “Who isn’t” counters Avon.

The early part of the story takes place on the Liberator, which allows everybody to enjoy some more character development.  It then becomes more of Blake’s story as he meets Geela, Novara and Saymon.

Highlights of the first part of the episode include the controlled Cally knocking Vila out, which happens just after he asks her what she thinks of his new outfit.  My opinion?  Not very good.  Also of note is the scene between Cally and Avon.  She’s still under the control of Saymon at the time (although Avon doesn’t realise this until later) and there’s an intimacy to her words which clearly rattles the cold, logical Avon.  It’s one of the few times thus far that we’ve seen him wrong-footed, so it’s a nice character moment.  Jenna’s possessed acting is also interesting, shall we say …..

The Web probably isn’t a particularly highly regarded episode, but it’s certainly not without merit and is a step-up from the tedious run-around antics of Time Squad.

Blakes 7 – Time Squad

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The Liberator is en-route for Saurian Major.  Blake explains that it’s home to the Federation’s transceiver complex.  “It’s a vital nerve centre in the Federation space control system. Destroy that, and you blind, deafen and silence them.”

On the way, they stop to pick up a capsule which contains several people in deep cryogenic sleep.  Jenna and Gan remain on-board as their visitors slowly return to life, whilst Blake, Avon and Vila teleport down to the planet.  The three of them meet Cally (Jan Chappell) – the last surviving member of Saurian Major’s resistance group.  She guides them into the complex whilst Gan and Jenna tussle with the now very awake and very deadly aliens ……

Time Squad opens with Blake asserting his authority over the others.  He unilaterally decides to attack Saurian Major and expects the others to follow him, although he does say that anybody is able to opt out at any time, which he obviously considers closes the debate.

Nobody decides to leave, so for the present they all seem content.  Jenna, as we’ve seen, might be happy to remain because of her growing relationship with Blake – there’s further small examples of this during the episode (in addition to the fact that she seems very put out when Cally joins the crew!).  Vila seems to go with the flow, whilst Gan later admits that he can’t be on his own – he has to be around people he can trust (although the reasons for this aren’t immediately clear).  And Avon, by far Blake’s staunchest critic, remains on the sidelines, tossing the occasional barbed comment Blake’s way.

As previously touched upon, because Blakes 7 has such an abundance of technological wonders (and there are more in this episode, such as the device which instantly mends Jenna’s broken arm) ways have to be found to limit their effectiveness – lest the dramatic tension of the stories are completely eroded.

There’s two direct examples in Time Squad – and indeed, the word “limiter” is mentioned in both cases.  The first occurs when the Liberator encounters the floating projectile – it seems clear that Zen senses it contains danger, but can’t or won’t directly state this.  For dramatic purposes this makes sense – had he told them it contained several homicidal lunatics who were programmed to destroy all life, it’s a fair bet they would have left it where it was!

But it doesn’t make any logical sense for Zen to have this limit placed upon him (by, presumably, the Liberator‘s creator).  It just feels like slightly clumsy plotting, as is the fact that nobody seems to take the slightest heed to Zen’s strange behavour anyway.  You would have assumed that someone would have twigged that maybe the sleepers were bad news (a look at their faces should have been proof enough).

The second limiter has been placed in Gan’s head.  I assume this was done after he was convicted of murder, since it means he can no longer take a life.  His inability to kill will have serious consequences when the sleepers are running amok – although it didn’t seem to be a problem in the previous few episodes, where he was happy enough to crack any number of heads together.  Why couldn’t Gan aim to disable, rather than kill?  Again, this feels like a plot contrivance – in order to make him less effective (and place Jenna in direct peril) a way had to be found to neuter him.

With Gan below par, this leaves Jenna at the mercy of the aliens.  Whilst it’s true that the concept of a woman stalked by several stronger men is a familiar, if not very progressive, trope, it does at least allow Sally Knyvette a decent amount of screen-time.  In later episodes she would become progressively marginalised, ending up as little more than the teleport operator.  The Blake/Avon/Vila combination seemed to be the most appealing for many of the writers, which unfortunately meant that Jenna and Cally had very little to do at times.  In Time Squad though, she’s able to carry part of the narrative by herself.  Jenna may be frightened, but she’s also resourceful and independent.

Whilst Gan and Jenna have their hands full aboard the Liberator, Blake and the others teleport down to Saurian Major (which you may not be surprised to learn is a quarry) and meet Cally.  She will prove to be an asset – as she’s a hardened fighter and someone who’s just as fanatical, if not more so, than Blake.

Blake says he needs Cally’s help to infiltrate the complex, but it’s hard to see why, since they appear to just stroll in with no trouble at all.  This is more than a little bizarre – if this really is a top-security installation, how are they able to reach their goal without anybody challenging them?  It’s just too easy and therefore there’s no tension to these sequences.  And though Blake tells us that the transceiver complex is a vital piece of Federation hardware, its destruction doesn’t seem to make any difference to the Federation’s ability to hunt the Liberator down in later episodes.

Since this part of the plot isn’t very effective (and the lumbering sleepers plotine drags on as well) it’s fair to say that the crew interactions are the main pleasures to be taken from Time Squad.  Everybody gets some space to develop their characters – especially Gan, as we learn some of his back-story (which unfortunately is never touched on again).  Vila continues to wisecrack.  When told that some of the plant-life on Saurian Major has an intelligence rating, he says “that’s a comfort. I should hate to be eaten by something stupid.”

Blake/Jenna/Cally is an intriguing triangle which was never really developed in the series (although I’m sure there’s plenty of fan-fic out there, should you wish to find it).  We’ve seen Blake and Jenna develop a closeness and also observed how she seems put out to see Cally join the crew.  It’s hard to imagine anything romantic developing between Blake and Cally, but their fanatical nature makes them two of a kind.

Blakes 7 – Cygnus Alpha

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Once Blake, Avon and Jenna have learnt a little about the new spaceship they’ve “acquired” (and also tangled with the mysterious super-computer Zen) they set a course for the prison planet Cygnus Alpha.  Once there, Blake is keen to free as many of the prisoners as he can – he needs a crew to start fighting the Federation.  But the charismatic ruler of Cygnus Alpha, Vargas (Brian Blessed), needs new recruits to serve his god and he isn’t going to give them up without a fight …..

Cygnus Alpha is a story of two halves.  Later we explore Cygnus Alpha and Vargas’ weird religion, but to begin with we follow Blake, Avon and Jenna as they start to evaluate the Liberator and slowly begin to understand its capabilities.  Blake remarks that the design is alien – it certainly doesn’t appear to be of Federation origin.  In story terms of course, it’s handy for Blake’s small group to have such an advanced ship – otherwise their battle against the Federation would have been rather brief.

If you accept this as a dramatic requirement, then you also have to turn a blind eye to the fact that the Liberator has a well stocked arsenal of weapons and a teleport system which means they never have to land the ship, handy that!  At this point, they can only remove one gun each (“single function isomorphic response” as Avon puts it) although this is a convention that’s later blithely ignored.

The teleport system is the closest link to Star Trek – and as in the American series it’s a device that is frankly just too useful.  The ability to teleport anybody out of danger at any time is a problem, so during the course of the series we’ll see various ways used to limit its power.  Sometimes the Liberator will be forced to leave teleport range (because of incoming Federation ships) and on other occasions, like here, the loss of a teleport bracelet will prevent a quick escape.

One oddity in this story is that at the end there appears to be two teleport areas.  We see Blake, Vila and Gan appear in the usual one and then Vargas seems to materalise in another teleport area on the opposite side.  Although it’s possible this is just a bad piece of editing, since this secondary teleport area (if that’s what it is) is never used again.

Shortly after finding the guns they encounter Zen (voiced by Peter Tuddenham) for the first time.  As he’s got such a clear personality it’s no surprise that Blake later claims him as one of the seven.  But as the following exchange illustrates, Zen has boundaries that he’s not prepared to cross.

BLAKE: Zen, how does the teleport system work?
AVON: Would its function be injurious to our species? Have you the necessary data?
ZEN: Wisdom must be gathered, it cannot be given.
AVON: Don’t philosophise with me you electronic moron. Answer the question.

Zen doesn’t answer Avon’s question which infuriates him no end.  Avon vows to reprogram the computer, but it’s probable that he’s met his match.

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Down on the surface of Cygnus Alpha things are grim – as might be expected of a penal planet it’s a pretty bleak environment.  There is a smidgen of civilisation though – led by Vargas and Kara (Pamela Salem).  They, and the others, worship their god in a quasi-medieval setting.  New prisoners (or as Kara refers to them “new souls for the faith”) are therefore always welcome – though it may not come as a surprise that Vila’s far from keen.  When Gan spies a building, he asks Vila what he thinks.  “The architectural style is early maniac” he responds.

Apart from Gan and Vila, we see a couple of new prisoners – Arco (Peter Childs) and Selman (David Ryall).  Well, I say new, but they must have been aboard the London, so we have to assume they were always just out of shot in the previous episode. Either of these actors would have livened up Blake’s crew (I certainly would have taken Arco over Gan).

Whilst Blake’s recruiting members for the cause on Cygnus Alpha, Jenna faces a moral dilemma aboard the Liberator.  She’s discovered a room with untold riches, which certainly appeals to Avon.  He’s keen to take the money and run as he tells her that Blake would “look upon all this as just one more weapon to use against the Federation. And he can’t win. You know he can’t win. What do you want to be, rich or dead?  We might never have this opportunity again.”

Jenna agrees, although she decides to wait for an hour to see if Blake contacts the ship.  But when it comes to the crunch she can’t leave him – and neither, it appears, can Avon.  Why Avon doesn’t jump ship at the next available port with as much wealth as he can carry?.  Could it be that he too is beginning to believe in Blake’s crusade?  It seems improbable, but Avon’s motivations aren’t always easy to read (compared with how transparent Blake is) so it’s hard to say for sure.

The surface of Cygnus Alpha might only be a quarry, but the location benefits from extensive night shooting, atmospheric dry ice and some decent matte effects.  The interiors are more conventional and look like they could have been drawn from stock, but are reasonably solid.

Just two episodes after the nihilistic opener, we’re into something totally different here. Cygnus Alpha is much more conventional adventure series fare – complete with an over-the-top villain in Vargas. Brian Blessed could do this sort of performance in his sleep (possibly he did!) and whilst he’s undeniably a powerful actor, it’s hard to take Vargas very seriously as we know it’s only Brian Blessed dialing it up to eleven.

By the end of the story, Blake has been able to rescue Vila and Gan, so his band of brothers has got slightly bigger. It still seems that they’re very few to be thinking about launching an all-out attack on the Galactic Federation, but for a true fanatic like Blake that’s not something that’s going to bother him.

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Blakes 7 – Spacefall

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Blake and the rest of the prisoners have started their eight-month journey to the prison planet Cygnus Alpha on the ship London.  Blake doesn’t waste any time in attempting to work out a way to take control of the ship – but he’ll need the co-operation of Avon (Paul Darrow).  Whilst Blake and the others plot, they have to contend with the sadistic second-in-command Raiker (Leslie Scofield) who places little value on any of their lives.  After an aborted attempt to hijack the ship, the appearance of a highly advanced and apparently abandoned spaceship seems to offer an escape route ……

One of the interesting things about watching Spacefall for the first time is pondering who will survive to join Blake on his crusade.  Since Vila and Jenna were introduced in the previous episode, it’s a fair bet that they’ll make the cut.  And from his opening appearance it’s quite clear that Avon is going to be a significant character.  He’s an expert in his field – computers – and is easily able to explain to Blake how the security doors operate.  “It’s simple enough. All authorised personnel have their palm prints filed in the computer. The blue sensor plate reads the print. If it conforms, the computer opens the door.”

Later Blake asks him if he could open all the doors on the ship.  Avon, who we’ll soon discover is never one to suffer from false modesty, tells him that “I could open every door, blind all the scanners, knock out the security overrides, and control the computer. Control the computer and you control the ship.”

Even this early on there’s a nice bite to the scenes between Thomas and Darrow.  Avon’s highly dismissive of the small group of people that Blake has been able to recruit – Vila, Jenna, Gan (David Jackson) and Nova (Tom Kelly).  “You’ve got an army of five, Blake. Five and HIM!”  The “him” is Vila – even the short time that Avon and Vila have spent together seems to have been enough for Avon to have formed a healthy loathing of him!  Although it’s true this is rather negated later on when he realises just how talented Vila is at opening any kind of locked door or security system.

So what of the other two potential recruits to Blakes 7 – Gan and Nova?  It’s quite a while into the episode before we hear Gan speak, until then it’s quite possible to imagine he’s just another non-speaking extra (like the majority of the prisoners).  Nova seems quite a personable chap, but he doesn’t last very long.  He suffers a rather grim fate – trapped in the ship’s infrastructure during a meteorite attack, he’s suffocated by the sealing foam triggered to repair the breaches to the ships hull.

Thanks to Avon’s efforts, Blake is able to take control of the ship – but can he keep control?  Glyn Owen gives a wonderfully weary performance as the London‘s commander, Leylan.  He’s a fair man who doesn’t want any trouble, unlike his subordinate Raiker who’s happy to kill off the prisoners at thirty second intervals until Blake, Jenna and Avon give themselves up.

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Blake, of course, sees no alternative but to surrender – whilst Avon naturally takes the opposite view and later makes this point very forcefully to Blake.  “What a fiasco. You could take over the ship, you said, if I did my bit. Well, I did my bit, and what happened? Your troops bumble around looking for someone to surrender to, and when they’ve succeeded, you follow suit.”

Before they surrender, Blake, Avon and Jenna discuss what they’ll do if they manage to escape. Blake tells them he wants to return to Earth and explains why.

BLAKE:  They butchered my family, my friends. They murdered my past and gave me tranquilized dreams.
JENNA:  At least you’re still alive.
BLAKE:  No! Not until free men can think and speak. Not until power is back with the honest man.
AVON:  Have you ever met an honest man?
JENNA:  [Glances at Blake] Perhaps.
AVON:  Listen to me. Wealth is the only reality. And the only way to obtain wealth is to take it away from somebody else. Wake up, Blake! You may not be tranquilized any longer, but you’re still dreaming.
JENNA:  Maybe some dreams are worth having.
AVON:  You don’t really believe that.
JENNA: No, but I’d like to.

Blake wants to fight and nothing will stop him.  Avon lacks Blake’s idealism and simply wants a quiet life, once he’s stolen enough money to live comfortably.  Jenna doesn’t share Blake’s views, but there’s something in what he says which strikes a chord in her.

After Blake and his friends are recaptured, it does seem like they’ve blown their only chance.  But all this changes when a fantastically advanced spaceship drifts alongside the London.  The first appearance of the Liberator in space (complete with Dudley Simpson’s fanfare) is an impressive moment.  And the first scene on the Liberator‘s flight deck is another moment of wonder – especially after the bleak, utilitarian decor of the London.

After only one of the ship’s crew sent over to explore the strange ship comes back (and he appears to be quite mad) it’s decided by Raiker and Leylan to send Blake, Avon and Jenna over to explore.  Yes, it’s probably not the wisest move to send the three of them over to the ship unsupervised.

How were Blake, Avon and Jenna able to survive the ship’s defences which killed the others?  Blake was the only one of the three who was able to realise that the images created were an illusion – maybe his recent traumas and the retention of his suppressed memories had something to do with it?

Whatever the reason, they were able to survive and take control of the ship.  And with a ship like that they could go anywhere in the Universe – but Blake wants to head to Cygnus Alpha.  He plans to free the other prisoners – once he’s done that he’ll have a full crew and can really start fighting back.

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Blakes 7 – The Way Back

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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.

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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.

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