B is for Blake’s 7 – The Way Back

Blake’s 7 is something I have been planning to look into for years but I didn’t actually know much about it – a BBC science-fiction series with a bunch of people on a spaceship. Was it just going to be a duller, dryer, version of Red Dwarf? I’d first come across it in the pages of Doctor Who Magazine, where it frequently appeared under actors’ ‘other television appearances’.

I must admit that I had low expectations. I thought it might resemble everything subpar about 1980s’ Doctor Who. Overall, I expected low production values, average writing, acting and nothing particularly impressive.

Back In Time For TV is a series of articles I have written for Transdiffusion in which I spend a week following the schedules of each year, starting in 1960. When I reached 1978, BBC1 was broadcasting series 1 of Blake’s 7 so it seemed the perfect opportunity to dip my toe in the sterile atmosphere. I enjoyed the episode; the plot was interesting, some scenes had me gripped, and in the context of the 1970s I was excited to see some special effects on screen. There were a lot of characters and a single episode wasn’t enough time to get to know them all, but I’d detected some tension between Blake and another man – I was curious to discover if there was more to it.

The Way Back
Blake: the unlikely rebel

I’d expected the first episode to whizz us along, getting Blake and his seven together and into space! Instead, we are led down something of a false trail as our leading man Blake heads off to meet with some dissenters who have news of his family that live on one of the outer worlds. It’s a bit of a con as they are actually holding a meeting to encourage rebellion against the Federation – the government of, it seems, the entire planet.

With Blake the only character from this episode set to become a regular, it makes sense that most of our time is spent with him. The episode also does a lot of worldbuilding and I was intrigued by this as I think it’s a wonderfully despicable world that I’m going to love seeing more from.

The Federation is positioned in a bad light from the opening scenes of the episode when we learn that they drug the food and water with suppressants. Blake scoffs at this suggestion, which in fairness seems like a reasonable response to casually being told that your government is drugging the entire population. However, if a great big dome over the city isn’t enough to convince you that the government wants to keep you under control, the fact it’s illegal to talk to anyone from outside surely should be. I’m willing to give Blake some leeway though, as we are told he was part of the rebels but after being betrayed and captured, he was brainwashed and his memories altered to forget that life and eschew his beliefs.

Blake tries to get his head around the information that his family is dead and he’s being asked to become a figurehead for a newly-enthused anti-Federation movement. While he’s mulling this over, some Federation guards show up and massacre everyone else. Blake can do nothing but hide and listen to everyone dying. After the people try to surrender, the looks on their faces as they are each cold-bloodedly shot is close to surprise. I’m shocked and impressed that the show has murdered at least 20 people only 15 minutes into the first episode!

After Blake is captured the Federation decide they can’t execute him as it would make him a martyr, so instead they fit him up on various charges, all related to children. It’s never explicitly said – there are words like ‘corruption’ and ‘assault’ – but it’s pretty clear from the reaction on Blake’s face alone that they are making him look like a child abuser. That is enough to put even the most committed government rebel off joining him.

The trial involves the prosecution and defence putting their evidence, which seems to consist of glass orbs, on a machine that weighs up both before handing down an objective judgement. I’m taken back by how swift this happens as I’d expected a proper show trial with witnesses. It’s all in the orbs though and the event is over in minutes. Blake doesn’t stand a chance and doesn’t even get the opportunity to say anything.

By the end of the first episode, Blake is a prisoner on a ship, heading off to Cygnus Alpha, a penal colony. We are teased that there might be a last minute reprieve as Blake’s solicitor does some digging and discovers the pile of bodies – apparently Federation clean-up squads aren’t as efficient as the justice system. But there is no happy ending for the good guy. The solicitor and his partner have been followed and we don’t even see their deaths – just their bloodied bodies. It’s a depressing outlook as the Federation appears this all-knowing, all-powerful, corrupt and impenetrable ruler.

The episode spends a lot of time with characters who are one-offs, and several end up dead. Blake has been loaded onto the ship with his fellow convicted criminals, a couple of whom he met in a holding cell. But surely our do-gooder hero isn’t going to team up with the likes of these reprobates? Jenna is a smuggler and he only ended up speaking to another one, Vila, because he was robbing Blake while he slept!

Blake comes across as such a quiet, reasoned fellow that I initially find it incredibly hard to believe that this same man had a rebellious youth. He seems like an ordinary fellow, content to go with the flow usually, who has got himself caught in something, which does at least make me feel sorry for him being convicted and receiving such a harsh sentence. Although I suppose it is only harsh because we know Blake is innocent – most people would consider lifelong banishment to a penal colony a reasonable, perhaps even lenient punishment for child abuse. I’m trying to keep in mind the mind altering he’s undergone but am struggling to believe his personality could have changed so much.

Blake’s 7 has already gone up in my estimations. I am really taken by the background of this world and the ruthlessness of the Federation. I completely forgot about my keenness to get Blake’s gang together as I enjoyed the world-building and there was plenty else to keep me gripped.

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