By the time of his death in 1997, Terry Nation had secured himself a hallowed place among the great names of British television. The writer first started out in the entertainment business working as a comedian; but ended up concentrating his comedy skills on developing material for such comedy luminaries as Peter Sellers, Tony Hancock and Frankie Howard! After moving into TV writing during the Sixties, Nation ensured his name would always mean something to future connoisseurs of cult television when he wrote numerous episodes for popular series' such as "The Saint", and worked as script-editor for many of the super-camp detective shows which seemed to proliferate during that decade: "The Avengers," "The Persuaders," and "The Champions", in particular, stand out on his resume.
This might have been enough in itself -- but Nation's contribution to British Sci-Fi was what really put his name on the map. After writing some scripts for a little-known, 1962 science fiction series called "Out Of This World," Nation was offered a job on a new fantasy-based series aimed at children to be called "Doctor Who." His first story for the show introduced the world to one of the most influential and recognisable screen villains of all time: the Daleks! Although the BBC's Special Effects department deserve a lot of the credit for the success of Doctor Who's most famous foe, Nation's stories incorporated lots of historical nuances and moral themes which added a certain gravitas that many other Who stories from the period were missing. The Daleks for instance, with their chilling creed of racial superiority and regimented militaristic organisation, were based on the Nazis; and their battle-scared home planet of Scaros, with it's mutation-inducing radiation, is surely a result of Nation's childhood which was spent growing up under the shadow of World War 2. In 1975, Nation created the first of his two original Sci-Fi shows. "The Survivors" was a post-apocalyptic tale of people trying to rebuild their communities in the aftermath of a plague which has wiped out 95% of the world's population -- it ran for four series', pulling in audiences of nearly ten million.
Arguably Nation's most memorable achievement though, was his futuristic Sci-Fi adventure series, "Blake's 7" which first hit British screens at seven O' Clock, on Monday, 2nd of January, 1978 (a prime-time slot now completely dominated by idiotic soaps). Not only did Nation create the show, he also wrote every single episode (thirteen in all) of the first series, making sure he had firmly established all of the characters and their universe before handing over the reigns to other writers in later series'. The show follows the exploits of an escaped resistance leader called Roj Blake as he combats a totalitarian galactic regime with the aid of a powerful alien battleship called Liberator, and a crew assembled from criminal misfits. Billed as a sort of "Dirty Dozen" in space, the series initially benefited from "Star Wars" mania, which hit the UK around this period, and quickly gained it large audiences.
"Blake's 7" was aimed at a slightly older audience than "Doctor Who" and placed more emphasis on character interaction and Blake's political struggles than on evil monsters bent on taking over the universe! Although the format of the show combines elements of "Star Wars" (freedom fighters resisting a corrupt Federation) and "Star Trek" (the series follows the weekly adventures of a star-ship crew) it also adds a large dose of traditional British miserableism to the mixture -- as relations between some of the members of the crew remain tense throughout the show's entire run. The contrast with Star Trek's optimism (in all it's incarnations) is particularly telling: Trek offers a vision of hope for human and alien unity, with Earth's Federation representing universal values of freedom and justice; values which are spread and maintained throughout the Universe under the guise of it's mission to explore. "Blake's 7" though, offers only a bleak future -- dominated by the corrupt administration of Earth's Federation. The galaxy has been ruthlessly subjugated by this totalitarian regime, and the resources of the whole galaxy's planet systems sequestered to maintain it. Most of the planets Blake and his crew visit during the series seem to have reverted back to various stages of Earth's prehistory and there is little technological advancement permitted on any of the planets under Federation control. Blake's weekly adventures revolve around he and his crew trying to disrupt the Federation by sabotaging communication centres and the like, while the Federation's Supreme Commander attempts to hunt him down.
Another contrast with the "Star Trek" universe is apparent in the relationships between the main protagonists: in most Trek episodes, any disagreements between the crew are usually resolved with everyone concerned coming to an understanding of the other parties position ("Star Trek: Voyager" and "Enterprise" follow this formula quite often); but the tensions between the crew of the Liberator are a constant theme of the show and if anything are accentuated as the series' progress!
Looking back at this first series over twenty-five years later, it's amazing quite how dark and violent the first few episodes actually are! Nation takes four episodes or so to introduce all of the characters that make up Blake's initial crew; with the first episode spent on introducing us to the character of Blake and sketching out his background. It's quite a slow start, and very unrepresentative of future episodes of the show. A controversy at the time over violence on television lead to the amount of violence being toned down in future episodes.
In the first episode we learn that the Terran Federation keeps the entire population of Earth confined to huge domed cities where food and drink are dosed with "suppressants" to keep insurrection under control. Various dissident groups operate illegally outside the cities, but they are disorganised and offer little hard resistance. Private citizen, Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas) is contacted by one of these illegal groups and, out of curiosity, he goes with two of it's members who take him outside to meet their leader. Blake is told how, several years previously, he had actually been a leader of one of the main resistance groups to the Federation! After being captured, he was brainwashed into renouncing the movement and then had his memory completely erased. Rather than kill him and make him a martyr, the Federation now prefer to use him as an example of a "model" citizen. The rebel leader also tells Blake that his entire family, who Blake believed had settled on one of the outer planets, were, in fact, all executed soon after his capture! At first Blake is unwilling to believe this story, but when he witnesses the massacre of the entire resistance movement by the Federation's masked troopers, the memories of his former life begin to return. The Federation attempt to discredit Blake once more -- this time by framing him for child molestation and shipping him off to a harsh penal colony on the prison planet Cygnus Alpha.
This first episode is perhaps the bleakest of the entire series. It is mainly structured around Blake's defence lawyers (one of which is played by Hammer starlet Pipa Steel) trying to prove that the Federation's administrators have framed him and that the child molestation charges used to do so have been engineered through implantation of false memories in two school children. It's extremely heavy stuff for an early evening Sci-Fi series; and, in fact, after the second episode, these charges are never mentioned again! This first episode introduces us to two of the characters who will later become part of Blake's crew: in a holding cell, waiting to be transported to Cygnus Alpha, Blake meets Jenna Stannis -- a space smuggler (Sally Knyvette) and Villa Restal -- a master thief (Michael Keating). Jenna is the expert pilot Blake will need to fly the Liberator, while Villa's safe cracking skills will often come in handy in some sticky situations. Villa also provides the show with it's comic relief due the character's natural cowardice! He's also often on the receiving end of some of the other characters' cutting wit!
The second episode sees Blake organising a rebellion onboard the transporter ship, "The London" -- which is taking Blake and another batch of prisoners to Cygnus Alpha. Blake enlists the unwilling help of icy computer expert Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) along with Villa, Jenna, and the show's gentle giant, Olag Gan (David Jackson). The attempt to take over the prison transporter fails, but the ship encounters a giant, abandoned alien battle cruiser drifting in space. Recognising that such a powerful ship could be worth millions to the Federation, the London's captain tries to send some of his guards across to investigate it; but all of them meet mysterious deaths! In one last-ditch attempt, the captain sends Blake, Avon and Jenna across since their lives are expendable. It turns out that the ship has an inbuilt defence mechanism which causes suicide-inducing hallucinations controlled by the ship's main computer, Zen. Blake's experience with the Federation's brainwashing techniques enables him to resist long enough to overcome the hallucinations and save Avon and Jenna. The three are then accepted by Zen and they escape in the newly christened Liberator, which turns out to be vastly superior to anything the Federation possesses especially in it's speed. It also includes advanced teleport facilities! Blake realises that he doesn't have to run from the Federation any longer -- he can turn and fight! Episodes three and four involve Blake rescuing Villa and Gan from Cygnus Alpha -- and a dangerous religious cult on the planet -- and enlisting another crew member, Cally (Jan Chappell): a telepathic resistance fighter from the planet Auron, who Blake, Villa and Avon encounter while on a mission to blow up a Federation communications centre.
With the crew now established, the series settles into it's regular weekly format which involves them going on missions to disrupt the Federation while trying to evade capture. Occasional episodes also see Blake and the crew having to deal with some non-Federation related alien threats to their lives. The actual story lines are quite variable in quality, but what always saves the show are the character dynamics among the crew -- which usually provide for the series' best moments! Principally, it's the relationship between Blake and Avon which becomes the core of the show for the first two series.
Blake is a political idealist and is fundamentally ideologically opposed to the Federation, believing that all the planets under the Federation yoke should be independent. His ultimate aim is to destroy it ... or die trying! Avon, meanwhile, is a realist and a pragmatist. He has no love for the repressive Federation, but he believes there is little point trying to fight against the forces of it's powerful empire; with a ship as powerful as the Liberator, the crew could outrun the Federation's pursuit ships for as long as they needed, and the riches on board the ship would ensure that non of them would ever want for anything for the rest of their lives. Avon is also essentially a loner who always maintains an icy air of detachment from the rest of the crew. He's reluctant to entrust his welfare to other people (the personal reasons for this are elaborated more fully in the second series; but basically, an attempt to rob the Federation of a large amount of credits went wrong when Avon was betrayed by a trusted friend) and so would rather not have his life depend on Blake and the group of criminals he has assembled to fight the Federation. On the other hand, he knows that he doesn't have a better chance of survival than that provided by sticking with the Liberator, and there might come a time when Blake is no longer around to manipulate the others into following him! So there is an uneasy truce between Blake and Avon with the other members of the crew caught between the two as they struggle for control of the group. This first series more-or-less paints Blake as the hero and Avon as a kind of anti-hero who may turn against the others to save himself at any moment; but in the second series things become a little less clear cut as Blake's idealism begins to slide towards fanaticism.
The other major character who comes to have more and more of a role in future series' is The Supreme Commander Of Federation Space Forces: Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce). It was an "interesting" decision to cast the series' main representative of a harsh, repressive totalitarian regime with perhaps, the sexiest woman on British television at that time! Jacqueline Pearce (previously best-known to genre fans for her roles in two Hammer films: "Plague Of Zombie" and "The Reptile") only appears in a few episodes of the first series but each one is certainly memorable! Episode six: "Seek-Locate-Destroy" introduces us to the most ruthless woman in the Galaxy -- who is prepared to go to any lengths to stop Blake's heroics making him a legend. To that end, she appoints an enemy from Blake's past: Space Commander Travis (Stephen Greif) to seek him out and destroy him! Travis is meant to be a kind of Darth Vader figure but it is Servalan who creates the biggest impression with her few scenes. By series four, Travis was gone while Servalan was appearing in almost every episode!
Pierce, Darrow and Keating actually hold the series together when some of the stories get a bit thin -- more so than the character of Blake which doesn't give Gareth Thomas much scope in the first series, since he is written mainly as a two-dimensional hero figure. Only now and then are there glimpses of the more complex character who emerges in series two. Jacqueline Pearce combines sexiness with evil in a way which must have confused more than a few adolescents at a very formative age; while Darrow has a lot of fun with the character of Avon, giving him the opportunity to play a good guy with a bad guy's demeanour. Keating, meanwhile (the only series regular to appear in every single episode of the show) gets most of the wittiest lines; his character, Villa, is probably the most sympathetic character in the show.
All four series' have been available on VHS for some time but this DVD box set of the first thirteen episodes that make up series one, present the episodes in newly re-mastered transfers which give their image quality a clarity it has probably never enjoyed since the episodes were first broadcast. Like almost all BBC drama in the past, the series was filmed with a combination of studio-recorded video tape and 16-mm film. The videotaped segments have faired relatively well over the years but the filmed parts are sometimes rather grainy and suffer from minor print damage -- but there is nothing too distracting. The audio is the original mono track, but it now sounds bolder and crisper than it ever did on VHS!
The extras range from the pointless to the trivial, but amusing:
2 outtakes, a missing scene, 1 robot, 2 flat feet and a blooper -- this is a short video piece narrated by Jan Chappell and featuring contributions from director, Vere Lorrimer and actor, Stephen Greif which includes alternative and longer versions of scenes from the series, and some amusing outtakes which didn't quite come off and so were cut out. Finally, we get to see Stephen Greif as Travis having a little trouble with one of the BBC's lightweight props!
Episode Synopsis:13 summaries of each episode -- What's the point of that? You've just watched them!
Character Introductions: collections of clips from the first series providing an introduction to each character -- again, pointless, but mildly amusing!
Blue Peter Feature: Lesley Judd Makes A Liberator Teleport Bracelet -- a nostalgia piece that will take most viewers back to their childhood. At least this clip looks like it has also been remastered. It looks as good as the series itself! You also get to see Peter Pervis teleporting into the studio!
Series Two Trailer: A specially made taster for the upcoming Series 2 box set.
Also included are three commentary tracks. First of all it's slightly disappointing that their are only three commentaries for the whole series, but it's also a disappointment that there is no contribution from Paul Darrow (who, out of all the cast, has been more involved with preserving the memory of the series than, perhaps, anyone else) or most of the directors from the series. Episode 2, "Spacefall," does include a contribution from producer (and director) David Maloney as well as actors, Michael Keating and Sally Knyvette and this is by far the best commentary track of the three. Maloney reminds us (as if we couldn't see the evidence on screen for ourselves!) of the tight budget and tighter schedule the series was made on, and Michael Keating has good recall of making the series and a few amusing anecdotes to tell. Knyvette also makes a fair contribution to the track although most of the time she is just commenting on the on-screen action.
The second commentary track is for one of the best episodes from the series, "Seek-Locate-Destroy," but unfortunately it is rather dull. Actors Michael Keating, Stephen Grief and Jacqueline Pearce come together to reminisce but unfortunately, only Keating shows any memory or even any real interest in the show. Keating does his best but there are lots of long pauses and most of the comments from Pierce and Grief are of the "what-a-wonderful-performance-you-gave-darling" variety!
The third features Pierce and Grief along with Sally Knyvette commentating on Episode Nine: "Project Avalon". What a meeting of minds this one is! To put it bluntly, both of these last two commentary tracks are in desperate need of moderation from someone who can actual remember or has researched the show! Obviously the series was made a long time ago and the memories of most of the actors could do with refreshing (although Michael Keating does seem to have amazing recall and quite a fondness for the series).
The first series is probably the most consistent of all four -- although some of the best episodes occur in later series'. Obviously, the low budget will make it look rather camp to newer viewers; the entire special effects budget had been used up by episode 2, famously leaving the producers with a £50 per episode special effects budget for the rest of the series! The same shots of the Liberator passing through space get used over and over in different episodes, and lack of funds mean that a lot of them are just unconvincing two-dimensional graphics! It's quite easy to laugh at the unsophisticated, home-made props, and unconvincing fight scenes, but it doesn't actually look as bad as I feared -- and the great character writing and acting still shines through as well as it ever did. This box set is a must for fans of British Sci-Fi and cult tv.