Eye For Film >> Movies >> Blake's 7 (1978) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
In January 1978, when the entertainment world was still reeling from the impact of the first Star Wars film and studios were desperate to satisfy the public's sudden appetite for space opera, the BBC broadcast the first episode of a new series by Doctor Who alumnus Terry Nation. It couldn't have been further in character from George Lucas' heroic good versus evil tale. With an opening more reminiscent of Brave New World and an ambiguous moral tone throughout, it took popular science fiction into a very dark place but did so with a wit and energy that would make it a longstanding cult favourite.
Though it has individual stories lasting one to three episodes, the four series that make up this production are characterised by their overarching meta plot. This begins with Blake (Gareth Thomas), who believes himself to be an ordinary, respectable citizen of a polite, middle class society until he is shown evidence of mass state brutality and persuaded that he is a former rebel leader whose memory has been erased. Framed for child abuse (a groundbreaking subject for the BBC at the time, though viewers might now see it in a different light), he is sentenced to life on a prison planet but escapes along with some of his fellow passengers - computer hacker and fraudster Avon (Paul Darrow), smuggler Jenna (Sally Knyvette), thief Vila (Michael Keating) and gentle giant Gan (David Jackson). After an encounter with Brian Blessed that sets the tone for the series' more joyously ridiculous moments, they take captured alien ship the Liberator and begin to wage a guerrilla war against the governing Federation. Blake wants to destroy it at any cost, even when it's pointed out that this could cost millions of lives. Avon would rather take the ship and the money it's carrying, and run. As other crew members come and go, the tension ebbs and flows between them, forming the pivot for all the other action.
There is no shortage of other action. As Blake is attacking the Federation, the Federation is hunting him. In particular, this means the leather clad, eyepatch-wearing Space Commander Travis (Stephen Greif, replaced partway through by the less talented Brian Croucher), who has a vendetta against the self-proclaimed resistance leader. His superior, the elegantly dressed, power-hungry and ruthless Supreme Commander Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce) is equally determined to bring the revels to heel, but also wants the Liberator, and has the complicating matter of ongoing flirtation with Avon to deal with - something that gets trickier still when she kills the father of one of their crew members and seduces another. Meanwhile, the Federation is facing extensive internal strife, something that comes to a head at the end of the second series when a external threat emerges that could place the whole galaxy in peril.
The character of the series changes somewhat halfway through, when Blake disappears and Avon's agenda comes to dominate the crew's activities; most fans consider this a change for the worse, but there are still some very good individual episodes, from Chris Boucher's sinister Rumours Of Death to Tanith Lee's properly alien Sand. The sadomasochistic sexuality present throughout becomes more prominent and the humour more camp, whilst the introduction of new crew member Tarrant (Steven Pacey), whom Darrow once described to this reviewer as "taller, braver, better looking - of course we hated him" creates fresh tensions and trust within the crew begins to break down.
Constancy in the series is provided by Vila, who is frequently the subject of bullying but hides an intellect at least the equal of the others, and who is always ready to remind us of the group's humanity. Self-identified crew member Cally (Jan Chappell) complicates the political perspective and introduces telepathy, though she has an unfortunate habit of getting her mind taken over. Then there's Peter Tuddenham providing the voices of three very different computers who were beloved of younger viewers and still have server systems named after them to this day.
Two factors are responsible for most of the criticism the series faces. The first is hammy acting, though this is really a matter of style - the cast move like stage actors (many of the sets would work as well in theatre) and their behaviour also owes something to the radio dramas of the time. It's not what's fashionable now but it's internally consistent. Second is special effects work. Some of this is truly awful, especially in the episode where Blake wanders around a green-lit soundstage with a painted moon in the background pretending that he's on an alien planet, but there's also some terrific model work that stands up very well today (even on much better screens than were imagined when it was made). Of course one has to be prepared to take a certain amount in one's stride, but the drama, the characterisation and the humour are there as reward for those who make that effort - and without such efforts, the bulk of 20th Century genre film and TV would have to be abandoned.
With some themes that have come to seem more pertinent over time, this is a classic programme worth revisiting. Its influence on today's science fiction output has been considerable and there is a great deal in it to enjoy.Reviewed on: 02 Jan 2018