Thursday, 1 December 2011


A lovely piece of artwork (illustrator unknown) showing the heroic crew of the starship Liberator. BLAKE'S 7 returns. Images: BBC TV

In these dark and troubled economic days, £750,000 wont get you a lot in the world of modern television programme making. In the US, that figure would barely pay for twenty minutes of one episode of your average glossy TV series like CSI: MIAMI, and even in the UK you could just about get away with making two or three episodes, if your lucky, of a six part series from the proceeds. Heck, Kim Kardashian probably wouldn't get out of bed for a day for less. But, way back in 1977, things were far different-here was a time when an entire thirteen part UK BBC series could be made for £750,000: the result being the first season of the phenomenally popular space adventure drama BLAKE'S 7: conceived by the legendary creator of DOCTOR WHO's fearsome metal meanies- the Daleks, Terry Nation, and a series which has now endured as an iconic and beloved piece of British genre TV for nearly 35 years. So popular its even been a hit overseas, especially in the eighties and early nineties within the United States (of which, amongst its loyal fan base, is a certain Academy Award nominated film and TV writer named J. Michael Straczynski, probably best known for his own magnum opus space series BABYLON 5, created and brought to life in part due to his love of British sci-fi series).

The BLAKE'S 7 Season One cast L-R: Villa (Michael Keating), Cally (Jan Chappell), Blake (Gareth Thomas), Jenna (Sally Knyvette), Avon (Paul Darrow) and Gan (David Jackson). Behind them is the super-computer Zen (voiced by Peter Tuddenham).

And yet, BLAKE'S 7 was never a series that had long been gestating in Nation's mind-the idea for it literally came into being out of a moment of creative ingenuity, nay desperation, during a Summer 1975 meeting with the BBC's then head of drama serials, and only after two other series ideas he had previously concocted had fallen by the wayside. Describing it as "The Dirty Dozen in Space", Nation's new sci-fi series concept was soon found intriguing enough for a commission of a pilot episode, which then eventually became an order for a couple more episodes and then eventually into 1976/1977 as a full series commitment. Nation was always able to write gripping and ingenious boy's own style adventure yarns with interesting characters, and BLAKE'S 7 was no exception, concerning a captured former resistance fighter Roj Blake (played by the commanding and passionate Welsh actor Gareth Thomas) and a motley group of intergalactic convicts en route to a prison penal planet and discovering, then hi-jacking, an abandoned alien space ship- named The Liberator by episode three- and soon using it's sophisticated technologies (including its matriarch like main computer Zen (voiced by Peter Tuddenham)) and superior weapons to wage war against the mighty galaxy spanning dictatorship that is the Federation. Joining Blake on his quest to liberate the drug controlled masses and restore freedom are cowardly but ultra-talented thief Villa Restal (an always likable performance from Michael Keating), the gentle giant Olag Gan (David Jackson), lovely space pilot/smuggler Jenna Stannis (played by the equally lovely Sally Knyvette), a spirited resistance fighter/alien telepath exile from the planet Auron, Cally (Jan Chappell), and, the most popular character of the show: the free thinking, coolly logical, often leader defiant Kerr Avon- the man who almost emptied the coffers of the Federation Banking Cartel- as brilliantly played by Paul Darrow, in an acting role that couldn't be played by anybody else. Soon, after several brave attacks on strategic key points of the Federation's command and control network, the galaxy spanning baddies, scared by the fact that Blake has become a hero to the enslaved peoples under their thumb all over again, have no choice but to initiate a seek-locate-destroy initiative against the ship and its seven members, of which the formidable task is assigned to one of their top, and most ruthless, commanders: the beautiful but deadly commander Servalan (played with relish by Jacqueline Pearce, working from scripts that were originally written for a man) and her equally deadly and loyal space commander Travis (Stephen Greif) who, with his scary eye patch and hand injury turned into a living weapon, already has an old score to settle with Blake...
Blake awaits his trial in The Way Back.
The impressive alien ship: the Liberator.
Avon, Blake and Villa arrive on Saurian Major in Time Squad.
Super babe space pilot Jenna Stannis takes the Liberator bridge controls.

With full creative control over his baby, unlike his previous 1975 series SURVIVORS (which ended up being a personal disaster for its originator by its 1977 conclusion), Nation would find great support and enthusiasm in his new sci-fi vision/continuing drama series mythos from a series of talents who had previously worked with him on, or separately contributed to, some of the best work then seen in the seventies era of the DOCTOR WHO series, including director turned producer David Maloney and incoming young Script Editor Chris Boucher, who would shape the series scripts into something far better than they were when first conceived-adding characterization, detail and focus throughout the series when Nation, due to time pressures and other work commitments as the story process continued, was only able to provide rough drafts/synopsis, especially notable during the first years later episodes that had to be made (and one particular episode of his, titled The Invaders, involving a major role for David Jackson's Gan, fighting an alien doppleganger which had infiltrated the Liberator, would be scrapped (presumably due to time and effects reasons) and eventually re-worked as another episode, Breakdown). 

The series also greatly benefited in its early episodes from the superior design work of the talented Roger Murray Leach, a previous DOCTOR WHO designer with a big career in film ahead of him, who created the superb interior sets for the Liberator -namely the flight deck, corridors and teleport chamber, as well as the alien vessels ground breaking and highly iconic three pronged exterior. Model work for those early episodes (some of which was often re-used throughout the first three seasons) was also of a high quality from film and TV special effects artist Ian Scoones, whilst graphic designer/artist Bob Blagden provided important animation for selected adventures and did the shows intriguing and memorable series main titles. Music for the series came from the reliable Australian composer Dudley Simpson, who again had regularly worked on WHO, and provided it and BLAKE with some of its best and noteworthy themes.

The series super bitch villainess: Servalan, as played by Jacqueline Pearce.


As the complex, intensive and often exhaustive pre-production and filming began in late 1977 and continued into 1978 (including guest stars the likes of Pamela Salem, Brian Blessed, Julian Glover, Isla Blair and T.P. McKenna), with three talented regular directors setting the all-important look and tone for the shows crucial first year- Pennant Roberts, Vere Lorrimer and Michael Briant- the series would eventually premiere as part of the BBC's new year January 1978 season, literally transmitting on the Monday holiday night that the epic first STAR WARS movie finally arrived in selected cinemas across the UK, of which the TV corporation, already aware of the upcoming George Lucas special effects extravaganza from the previous summer's special press screenings, did its best to generate as much interest/buzz as possible for their series on the back of the coat-tails of the venerable new sci-fi movie hit. Thankfully, the series makers hard work would quickly pay off, as BLAKE'S 7 opened up to a strong Monday night audience of 7 million people tuning in to see its premiere episode: THE WAY BACK. Here was a series that people obviously saw a lot of potential in, as its ratings subsequently grew week after week, and resulting in the series, airing in the time and date slot of the now finished SOFTLY, SOFTLY police series, quickly being commissioned for a second season alongside some new ambitious script ideas from an ecstatic Terry Nation.

But more on that for another time...


THE WAY BACK (opening episode) 

Roj Blake re-discovers his past life from Bran Foster (Robert Beatty) in The Way Back.

Recovering from years of brainwashing and control techniques administered on him by the evil Federation, ex-resistance fighter/leader Roj Blake, after finally re-discovering his amnesiac past thanks to an eventually massacred group of Earth liberationists, is captured and falsely sentenced to exile on the remote prison planet Cygnus Alpha. But Blake, ever defiant, vows that he will one day return to Earth and destroy the heart of his and the universe's enslavers...

The opening story's overall tone may have very little to do with the spirit of the rest of the season to come, but this crucial, at times hard-hitting first episode of BLAKE is an intelligent, well made and sometimes uneasy and adult scene setter, with a great central performance from Gareth Thomas.

SPACE FALL (Episode Two) 

Avon and Jenna help Blake lead a prisoner revolt in Space Fall.

As their journey to Cygnus Alpha on the transport vessel London continues, Blake and his new prisoner comrades plan to hi-jack the ship. Their plan ultimately fails but hope is in sight when a mysterious and abandoned alien space ship, the likes of which has never been seen before, is discovered in a nearby sector of space. Unwilling to risk any more lives of the small command staff in probing the defenses of the protected alien vessel, the London's captain decides to use Blake, Jenna and Avon as the main boarding party...

Another great episode as the series early serial-based story nature memorably continues, with strong guest performances from Leslie Schofield as the cruel transport sub-commander Raiker, and the late Glyn Owen as the career way sided and world weary Commander Leylan.

CYGNUS ALPHA (Episode Three) 

Gan falls under the spell of the charm and beauty of  Kara (Pamela Salem) in Cygnus Alpha.

Now possessing one of the greatest spaceships ever seen, Blake, Jenna and Avon need additional crew to help them fly the ship and use its impressive technology. And who better to recruit than the now stranded prisoners of the London, now newly landed on the remote penal world of Cygnus Alpha, a colony of devils led by the insane religious fanatic Vargas (played with menace by an almost reserved Brian Blessed). Blake soon learns that his task in getting the men won't be as easy as first thought when he discovers they have been deliberately infected with a special kind of sickness...

TIME SQUAD (Episode Four) 

Cally makes her first appearance, ambushing Blake, in Time Squad.

En route to destroy a vital communications control centre on Saurian Major, the Liberator picks up a small derelict vessel containing humanoid beings in suspended animation. As their unthawing begins, and Blake, Villa and Avon join forces with an alien telepath, Cally, to fulfill their mission, the sleepers are soon revealed as dangerous warriors intent on guarding and enhancing their protected genetic brood capsules. With Olag Gan seriously injured, and the limiter device in his head preventing him from killing anyone, Jenna, with only her hand weapon to use, is soon on her own against an aggressive new foe within the darkened hallways and flight deck of the Liberator...

Though there's nothing new at about this episodes sci-fi premise, TIME SQUAD is still a fun episode, which now sees the full team of BLAKE'S 7 assembled and ready to fight the Federation...

THE WEB (Episode Five)

Blake and Avon encounter the alien Decimas in The Web.

Their ship caught in a mysterious energy web over an alien planet, the Liberator crew is caught in a power struggle between a dying alien and its two servants and the small but violent Decima creatures that have evolved from their cruel and horrific experimentation's. An intriguing sci-fi story that veers away from the main Blake versus the Federation storyline, backed up with some intriguing visuals, memorable alien creatures (developed by make-up genius John Friedlander) and atmospheric direction from Michael E. Briant.


Blake encounters his old enemy Travis (Stephen Greif) in Seek-Locate-Destroy.

Destroying the important communications area on Centero, and secretly stealing one of the Federation's top communication devices in the process, Cally is unfortunately caught by Servalan and Travis, who then concoct an ambitious trap to snare Blake and their ultimate desire: the Liberator!


Avon becomes a detective in Mission to Destiny.

Answering a distress call, Avon and Cally have to solve the mystery of a dead space pilot on a ship whose crew is on an important mission to save their planet from ecological disaster. A fun Agatha Christie-style story set within a sci-fi concept, of which Avon, after thumping one of the soon discovered villains, delivers one of the best lines ever for a TV series character (watch it and you'll see!)

DUEL (Episode Eight)

Jenna is captured by a blood thirsty Mutoid (Carol Royle) in Duel.

Herded into orbit over a supposedly dead world, Travis launches a surprise attack on the Liberator, but he and Blake soon find themselves ambushed by a powerful race, presumed dead from an eons ago war, which sentences them to a personal duel to the death, that will decide the outcomes of their respective sides.

Though its an obvious and blatant re-telling of yet another classic science fiction story/idea, DUEL works regardless due to the skillful and stylish direction of film and TV series veteran director Douglas Camfield (sadly his one and only directorial work for the series-literally filling in on the show when another episode and its assigned director fell through) and also thanks to the conviction of its main series actors and guest stars. Backed up with fine guest star performances from Isla Blair and Patsy Rowland as the main alien observers, Stephen Greif is also excellent as Travis, as is his supporting star Carol Royle as the almost vampire-like female Mutoid who serves him in his quest to kill Blake and Jenna.

Jan Chappell and Sally Knyvette pose for a BBC photo call with one of the Federation robots appearing in the episode PROJECT AVALON. 


Travelling to an ice world to meet with a fellow Resistance leader, the female known as Avalon, Blake soon discovers that she has been captured and mounts a daring rescue mission, unaware that Travis has an ingenious trap ready to spring that no one will see coming before its too late...

One of the series very best episodes, with a strong story, with a great twist, that well showcases the heroes and villains of the series. There's also some first rate studio based action for its time.

Travis and Servalan make new plans to capture Blake and his crew.

ORAC (Episode Thirteen-Season Finale)

Famed scientist in hiding Ensor (Derek Farr) is dying, but not before completing the mysterious new device, which he has named ORAC. ORAC's created purpose is a mystery, but one thing is for sure: it's a device of such great importance that whoever owns it can shift the balance of power for their own means-for good or for evil- and which now sees in a race against the clock to acquire it by Blake and Servalan. A mission of which neither side can afford to fail, and where winner takes all!

Despite a few weak episodes towards the end of the run-primarily down to script problems when a story had to be dropped and a new tale from Nation was quickly written to replace it- as well as a few more tales needing heavy expansion from Chris Boucher when the series creators original first drafts proved to be merely expanded storylines, the series ends on a creative strong note with ORAC, and with an intriguing cliff-hanger (a continuing aspect/tradition of the next three years to come) as the new device/addition to the Liberator crew predicts their eventual demise: the ship exploding in the depths of space!

All four seasons of BLAKE'S 7 are available on DVD from 2ENTERTAIN.

Check out the BIG FINISH website for news on the brand new upcoming series of audio BLAKE'S 7 adventures set during season one (pictured above), as well as a new original fiction book range, here: Big Finish - Blake's 7 CD Box Set 1

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