Blake's 7 - Series Three Review
Space opera belongs, it seems, to pulp fiction, radio or the big screen: it has seldom been tried on television, and Blake's Seven (four series, 1978 to 1981) is really the only one seen on British television. The great sweep of Galactic history, the callous disregard for the fate of entire planets, the fleets and bases, the pseudo-magical gadgets, the computers with the gift of prophecy, the intervention of aliens, the barbarian tribes, the pitiless men, the women with sculptured chins and sculptured bosoms, villains who unerringly decline to kill the heroes when they get the chance because they have a "better plan", the leather, the guns - it's all there. Opera, of course, might mean anything from camp little cabaret numbers in cheap basements to apocalyptic ends of the world on vast stages, and for space opera this is doubly so. Quite a few of these episodes are (whisper it) a bit rubbish. The overall plot meanders, to put it mildly. The dialogue is so macho that testosterone positively runs off the walls. And the acting -
Well. It was escapism on a grand scale, and must have made a welcome break from news bulletins about the winter of discontent. This particular boxed set covers series three; and, as Terry Wogan (a passionate fan) used to say on his radio show, there aren't seven of them and there's nobody in it called Blake. Series 1 had been conceived by another great Terry - Terry Nation, of "inventor of the Daleks" fame, who had been a jobbing writer throughout the 1960s, the boom years of commercial British TV. He wrote for everything from Tony Hancock to the Avengers long before making it big. Those years of hard graft paid off not by making him rich but by making him astute in negotiating contracts. The commercial rights to the Daleks were to bring in serious money in the 1960s and are still a pension for his widow today. Never an employee, by the late 1970s Nation had a stand-off relationship with the BBC: considered an awkward sod, he was nevertheless understood to have the great gift of knowing what would work. In between further Dalek duty, Nation created two successful shows, writing the first season himself and then moving on - acrimoniously, in the case of Survivors; more equivocally here.
Blake's Seven was originally pitched as The Dirty Dozen in space, and that alone made it a breath of fresh air. The casts of the BBC's then-current science fiction - Doomwatch, Moonbase Three, Doctor Who, even Survivors - are goody-goodies: but the Seven are rogues, albeit with no more malice in them than the prison inmates of the contemporary sitcom Porridge. Roj Blake, a model citizen, is an engineer in the domed cities of Earth, capital of the all-encompassing Federation. Contacted by dissidents, he begins to recover memories of a former life in which he led an uprising: but he no sooner breaks through his brain-washing than he is captured again. Following a show trial, he is exiled to the penal planet of Cygnus Alpha. On the way, he recruits - or at least hangs out with - the other convicts: Jenna, girl smuggler; Avon, computer genius turned bank robber; Vila, put-upon artful dodger; Gan, the gentle giant. In what can only be called a stroke of luck they stumble upon the most powerful starship in the Galaxy, the alien-built but now conveniently abandoned Liberator. They meet a telepathic freedom fighter called Cally and are given a testy but omnipotent computer called Orac. (Peter Tuddenham, the voice artist who provides all of the gorgeously hammed-up computer voices for the show, very much deserves to be credited as one of its stars.) There may be only six of them - eight if you count the computers - but they hold all the cards. And so begins their manic crime spree and/or crusade for freedom. Servalan, improbably young Supreme Commander of the Federation, sends her very henchest henchman, Travis, out to get them. When this fails she pouts a lot in a selection of off-the-shoulder outfits.
A typical Blake's Seven three-shot: Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan), Paul Darrow (Avon), Paul Darrow's shoulder-pads. His next line (this is true) is "I'm ready to come up now"
In Series 1, the good guys flee their pursuers and begin striking back - a romantic fantasy in which a totalitarian state somewhat like 1970s Czechoslovakia is faced down by brave individualists. In Series 2, the closest brush with credible drama - not too close - Blake determines to destroy Star One, the Federation central computer. As nobody knows where Star One is, for security purposes, this becomes a quest narrative. But of course they do find it in the end, and have to decide whether to go through with the plan, a terrorist atrocity which will cause the death of billions and make the Galaxy ungovernable. Avon, Blake's rival for control of the Seven, delivers many clear-sighted lines about Blake's fanaticism; and the season ends with a terrific episode by Chris Boucher, an epic climax in which everyone switches sides and the fate of mankind swings in the balance. The last five minutes are awesome.
Unfortunately, at this point Terry Nation wrested the controls back from Mr Boucher and turned in an episode called "Aftermath" to kick off series 3: the title is telling. It is a perfectly enjoyable episode, to be sure, with some rollocking moments, but it wholly fails to deliver on the promise of what came before. Gareth Thomas, an RSC actor who had been slumming it in largely bad television, had by this point quit as Blake, leaving the character of Avon centre stage. Now Avon is great fun, but he has no real motive to do anything in particular, and this is the problem that series 3 has: the Federation has fallen to pieces, and our heroes - no longer revolutionaries - are reduced to playing tourist in the remnants. That generally means meeting aloof but powerful aliens who take over Cally's mind (think a telepath is an asset to a team of fugitives? Think again). They can go anywhere, and have oodles of cash: so why don't they just retire and enjoy it? This is never explained. In so far as each crew member in turn has a "character" episode, they at least get some therapy, I suppose. Servalan, by now President but with no Travis as a foil - only a series of lacklustre sidekicks - seems equally at a loss: megalomania isn't what it used to be. Series 3 contains a few great episodes and is seldom actually dull, but its shape doesn't work at all. The good news is that in Series 4 our heroes will recover their credentials as power-brokers and get back to some serious overthrowing, or at least try to: and the whole thing will work up to a wonderful episode, again by Chris Boucher, in which almost every line is quoteable. It will all end up uncannily like Act V of Hamlet, duel scene, misunderstandings and all. Go, bid the soldiers shoot.
Dayna (Josette Simon), Tarrant (Stephen Pacey), Vila (Michael Keating) and Cally (Jan Chappell) play space-Monopoly. Which passes the time (though not for the viewer, obviously)
But this is Series 3, the sort of miscellaneous run of episodes you expect when a classic show hits the doldrums. We are joined by two new characters, both played by actors well above the level of the remaining regulars. Josette Simon, as Dayna, manages somehow to rise above the trend of 1970s TV to cast black actors only for their physical attributes (black men are simple giants; black women, exotic concubines), and makes a feisty gunslinger; though it is true that she does a good deal of this acting with her hips, and no more originates plots than any of the other women. Straight out of drama school, without even an Equity card, she manages not to look inexperienced. Today she has become a much-respected actress, of course, and would sooner people not talk quite so much about her big break in show business.
Tarrant (Stephen Pacey) has Avon (Paul Darrow) cornered. See the gravity of the situation etched on their faces, eh?
Stephen Pacey, as Tarrant, is a pretty-boy starship captain with a cut-glass accent, and takes over the essential business of sparring with Avon. Here's a sample. In the following, Tarrant - who has captured the Liberator as part of a Federation prize crew - is, but of course, pointing a gun at Avon. Avon has been pretending to be a lost civilian, but the game is up.
T. Your name is Avon.
A. How did you know?
T. When we first came face to face, I said "what are you doing on my ship?" There were a dozen ways you could have answered, but you said, "Your ship?" ...
A. A stupid lapse of concentration on my part.
T. Oh, don't blame yourself too much.
A. I'll try not to.
T. I imagine you'd been under considerable stress.
A. I had hoped for a more inspiring epitaph.
T. So, having realised you were one of Blake's people, it was simple. You weren't Blake. I would have recognised him.
A. And too intelligent for Vila.
T. It was an even bet.
The actors rattle through this farrago. Though Tarrant is a dull substitute for Blake because he has no mission, Stephen Pacey makes a worthy replacement for Gareth Thomas in the acting department. I've consistently been impressed by Pacey's performances in better material than this, from Terence Rattigan's radio play of "In Praise of Love" at the very start of his career to his excellent rendering of the monologues in Julian Barnes's dramatic novel "Talking it Over". In this show, however, he rubs shoulders with Vila, played amusingly and not quite pointlessly by Michael Keating - everybody loves Vila; I suspect most of the female viewers would sooner have Vila for a husband than either Avon or Tarrant - but above all with Avon, played by Paul Darrow. Let us not mince words: Darrow is an awful, awful, awful actor. I say this as someone who loves his performance to bits. Received wisdom is that he only really went over the top in series 4; but this will not do. When the series 1 DVDs came out, I watched in detached dismay as Mr Darrow capered about the flight deck, banking around corners as he ran, snarled and over-enunciated every line, poised his left hand over his laser gun as if it were a recoil weapon liable to puff out gunpowder, swaggered around doing double-takes, swayed his head when delivering meaty lines, etcetera, etcetera. No, Avon was a caricature right from the start. I emphasise that all of these comments apply to his performance of everyday events: you should see him when the going gets tougher. Or in love scenes. In being-annoyed scenes, he is frequently reminiscent of Rowan Atkinson as Blackadder, especially when dressed in preposterous black outfits: though he never actually says "Fortune vomits on my eiderdown again", that is pretty often his gist.
Now look here, Baldrick...
Jacqueline Pearce pretty well glories in her badness as Servalan, too, and yet that is the genius of it, because I have a feeling that the whole thing would have fallen flat if acted by - how can I put this? - actors: so perhaps Pearce and Darrow deserve a good review, really, for having found the right note. Certainly the guest stars, notably Colin Baker, valiantly played down to their level. At any rate exchanges like the one above are enormous fun, which is very much the secret of the show, although the visuals certainly help - the Liberator's spaceship model is superb, and the huge flight-deck set is one of the most ambitious ever built in the BBC's great TC1 studio. (Though it does show signs of wear and tear if you look carefully: by series 3, it had been erected and dismantled too many times.)
Paul Darrow acts
And when it worked, it really worked. The best episodes - "The Harvest of Kairos", "Rumours of Death", "Death Watch" - work up to some fabulously silly peaks of dialogue. If Graham Norton ever presents 100 Campest TV Moments, you'll be seeing those clips again. But to quote them here would be to take them unfairly out of context, a context in which they are less absurd. Let me instead single out two writers who seem to me the best thing about this box of discs. The first is an obvious choice: Chris Boucher, whose work I have praised already. A young outsider who had come into the BBC by writing two excellent Doctor Who scripts, but who benefited greatly from being equally interested in detective stories and Westerns, Boucher script-edited Blake's Seven throughout its run. As such, he sometimes got the grand plot episodes, and then he really went to town. But more often he ended up writing character pieces for actors who were otherwise underused. His scripts are full of ideas, give a sense of overflowing their 50-minute canvas, and often open with events already under way.
Characteristic of Boucher's talent is his gift for the "information dump" scenes - so vital to sci-fi stories, yet so difficult to carry off, because they force the characters to tell each other what they know perfectly well already, as if a character from "EastEnders" were to get up in the pub one day and explain what the London Underground is. Boucher likes to do this with two-hander scenes, introducing two new characters, always in contrasting pairs, and who need not ever be seen again. "Death Watch", for instance, has a complicated hypothesis because it involves two civilisations which fight their wars by proxy according to some curious rules: Boucher gets all this across with not one but two pairs of characters - Tarrant's brother, who has to fight, and a non-combatant diplomatic envoy who looks after him; they haven't met before. And a telecast commentator and his producer: these two have clearly been annoying each other for years. Both scenes are funny and well executed. Boucher never wrote a dull page, and his are the best-constructed episodes, markedly better than Terry Nation's own, and in a different league altogether from the motley crew of episode-writers who pad out the series - James Follett, Allan Prior, Ben Steed, Trevor Hoyle.
But I would also like to say something about Tanith Lee, better known as a writer of fantasy novels, but who turned in two rather good episodes of Blake's Seven, one in each of series 3 and 4. The only writer to credibly throw together the characters in any way which teases out their relationships - there is no sex in Blake's Seven, really, for after all what is love compared to a really ace spaceship? - Lee contributes a piece called "Sarcophagus". This comes as close as we ever come to solving one of the great enigmas of Blake's Seven: are Avon and Cally shagging, or what? They get a kiss in this episode but, of course, one of them is possessed at the time so it doesn't count. Tanith Lee gets away with such cliches by framing them in a rather sophisticated episode. It opens with a mimed ritual taking place millions of years ago that runs six minutes of screen time without dialogue. It is frequently interrupted with suggestions that everything we see has been predestined, and that the mime was a clue to the outcome. Though I don't want to use the ghastly phrase "a woman's touch" - a surprising number of women worked on Blake's Seven, certainly by 1970s TV standards - Tanith Lee wrote two scripts giving the show both unexpected emotion and inventive visuals.
I will say nothing about the final episode of series 3, "Terminal", because it is so surprising. I watched it again, and the trick worked again.
Bad guys (away strip) - red; good guys - white
Blake's Seven has not enjoyed retirement very much of late. Throughout the 1980s the American convention circuit was kind, and BBC Video put out a complete run of 26 tapes - an unheard-of practice in pre-DVD days. But then it all began to go wrong. Two BBC radio plays by Barry Letts (the wrong choice) were, to differing degrees, fiascos. The rights to the series appear to have gone through convoluted dealings, disputes as to their ownership have, it is said, arisen, as have differing opinions over the true wishes of Terry Nation, his agent and his widow. Websites with extravagant movie posters; logos; open letters; companies with names like "B7 Enterprises". Paul Darrow's attempts to remake the series appear never to have emerged from development hell: I give him credit for sincerity and suspect from his various writings that he is a nice guy, riding for a fall. Unless I have gone completely mad, the last press release I saw hinted at exercising the animation rights to the show - remaking it all as a cartoon. At any rate this run of DVD releases has been delayed, and perhaps also denuded (whatever happened to the documentary we used to hear about?), by goings-on which we shall probably never get to the bottom of. It's unfortunate, therefore, that the natural afterlife for a 70s sci-fi show - being remade on audio by Big Finish, like Doctor Who, the Tomorrow People and Sapphire and Steel - seems unavailable.
The boxed sets of series 1 and 2 were overpriced and ungenerous; 13 episodes spread over five discs rather than four for no reason other than to make the whole thing more deluxe, apparently. Series 3 is a little better. It continues to have a lame and irritating animated menu - why should anybody suppose that I want to see a bad CGI imitation of the series at all, let alone that I want to see it so much that I need all of my menu options disabled? But the additions are not quite so meagre, the special features not quite so unspecial, the participants not quite so marginal, and it all feels as if the DVD releases may finally be getting their act together.
"Blake's Bloops" - not, as the menu claims, "Blake's Bloopers" - is a short BBC-Christmas-Party reel (3 minutes), and charming it is too: the space scene when somebody drops one of the strings holding the Liberator up is extremely funny. Stuart Fell, stalwart stunt-man - he was in more or less every Doctor Who of the 70s, most notoriously as the phallic plenipotentiary from Alpha Centauri - gets his own little interview (15 minutes). He speaks of the importance of keeping his face hidden, so that they could go on employing him week after week: so successful was he at this that I didn't recognise him at all. Next up is Sheelagh Wells, make-up supremo and partner at the time of Gareth Thomas (13 minutes). These featurettes seem to have been inherited from some previous project - the caption "interviewed in 2002" floats by - but I'm not complaining. A July 1979 making-of clip from the news magazine Nationwide (6 minutes) shows us location footage from Yorkshire, and is the usual BBC self-congratulatory stuff, but Michael Keating and producer David Maloney give amusing clips to camera. A trailer for the series 4 DVDs (3 minutes) is, so far as I can see, wholly without point, but its makers evidently believe it to be funny to watch, having confused this with being funny to make. The same goes for two uninteresting clip reels of Tarrant and Dayna (4 minutes each), and the textual episode synopses similarly convey nothing worthwhile.
On the other hand we do get Stephen Pacey's audition tape (another 15 minutes), and this is interesting because it shows scenes from "Powerplay" rehearsed in unedited form. The sequence I quoted above, for instance, is functional but missing all of its badinage - which tells us something about what Nation wrote, and what Boucher edited in afterwards. When Avon said he was "too intelligent for Vila", Tarrant originally replied "Exactly." If this does not seem to you interesting, we are talking about the wrong boxed set. Or as Avon would say: we are TALKING about the WRONG boxed set.
Go on, Paul. Steal the scene. You know you want to. You've got the gloves. Grab the camera if you have to. Swagger upstage, commandeer a console, look savagely impassive while the other actors hopelessly throw lines over your shoulder. Remember, it's your closeup
The three commentaries are better news - Darrow, Thomas, Maloney and Boucher make far more relevant contributors than those heard from on earlier series. They still meander and contain plenty of dead air; worse, the actors, whose profession is the avoidance of dead air, will say almost anything to keep the conversation going - typically by pretending not to know something in order to keep the conversation going. Actor A: So the Liberator was just a model. Actor B: Really? It wasn't a real spaceship? Actor A: No, it wouldn't have fitted into Television Centre. Actor B: Darling! ...etc.
(Left) The packaging. (Right) A tally of the number of times Jacqueline Pearce says "Darling!" on her commentary track. Half-marks for "Sweetheart!"
I have been trying to work out how to end this review. Episodes of Star Trek used to wind up with Bones making an unfunny joke, Spock saying "I fail to see what is amusing, Doctor", and a clarinet-player giving us a little sprig of whimsy in lieu of an audience laugh-track. Episodes of Blake's Seven have a similar tendency to conclude on a lame joke and forced laughter from the crew. These are every bit as painful when you know they are coming. And yet there is really is no episode of Blake's Seven which does not end with you thinking, well, that was fun. It is important to make clear that, internally, the programme takes itself deadly seriously. It would be unwatchable if it did not. While adult viewers might find themselves reaching for words like "yarn" or "romp", it belongs in the drama department, not the comedy-drama department.
I was going to add something profound there, but couldn't think of anything. Series 3 is like that.