It’s not always easy to discern signs of true quality in vintage British TV. If you have sought out a DVD box-set some 70s or 80s classic, chances are that an obfuscating fog of nostalgia already hangs over it for you; as soon as that familiar title theme fires up, you can feel the decades falling away, and it’s a lot cheaper than Botox.
Vintage UK television sci-fi has an extra layer of rationalisation to navigate, since it takes some working out whether a show whose production values are laughable now looked quite as risible back when it was first broadcast.
In the case of Blake’s 7, I can assure you that it looked just as dodgy in 1977 as it does now: spaceships made (literally) out of washing-up bottles and hairdryers; endlessly re-cycled special effects shots (even when the content of the shots was at odds with that week’s plot); sets garnished with aluminium trim that was clearly tacked on in lengths from a roll; and pre-Quantel video effects that jar and take you effortlessly out of the narrative.
There are mitigating circumstances: long-time Doctor Who director Paul Maloney, engaged in 1977 as the producer for Dalek creator Terry Nation’s new BBC sci-fi show about ‘Robin Hood in space’, was informed very close to initial production that Blake’s 7 would not receive a penny more of the budget than the show it was replacing, Softly Softly – Task Force.
Task Force was a cop show with undemanding standing sets, conventional non-period costume requirements and a location schedule that seldom took the programme-makers far beyond the confines of Shepherd’s Bush.
With the money used to make this earth-bound product, Maloney and his crew were to create future worlds, giant starships and space stations, interstellar battles, exotic weapons and instrumentation…and to throw in an entirely new planet or locale on a weekly basis, Star Trek-style. Blake’s 7 had even less budget than the legendarily spit-and-sawdust Doctor Who, and it was going to need a lot of charm to survive being so badly dressed.
Luckily the show quickly found it, with eccentric and against-the-grain villains such as the seductive but utterly evil Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce), who plied her dastardly trade in a series of elegant evening gowns and a No.3 skinhead haircut. At her side was the leather-clad S&M attack dog Travis (Stephen Grief – see our interview here), determined to get a rematch with old foe Blake, since their previous encounter (in the pre-history of the Blake’s 7 narrative) cost him an eye and the odd limb.
So much for the Sheriff of Nottingham. Over in the hero’s camp, the Robin Hood metaphor was taking even more interesting shape, with David Jackson’s gentle giant Gan standing in for Little John, Blake (Gareth Thomas) as boring old goodytwoshoes Robin, Jenna Stannis (Sally Knyvette) as a bolshy and glamorous Maid Marian, and the cowardly joker Vila (Michael Keating) as the Friar-Tuck-style fool of the ensemble.
The genius of the piece set in when Nation decided to mix gospel imagery (always a temptation in science-fiction, as the Wachowski brothers can attest) with the Robin Hood mythology, and set potential Judas cipher Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) amongst these virtuous spirits.
Avon remained with the crew for his own pragmatic motives, veering between bravery and loyalty to his ‘temporary’ associates and ruthless ambition, the latter delivered with a Bond-style aplomb that made for great conflict in the confines of the Liberator – and great drama (for more about the brilliance of Avon and Darrow, see Jamie Hailstone’s salute to Avon).
A show with a distrusting anti-establishment message and a very cynical point of view had fertile ground to grow in the mid-70s. The punk movement was rejecting the canards of English culture embodied in excitement over the silver Jubilee, the agitprop movement was rife, strikes and dissent were everywhere, a series of ineffectual governments had driven the best talent out of the country with usurious tax policies…and if that wasn’t enough, it was arguably the golden age of BBC drama, where Auntie was most disposed to accede to the anti-establishment mood of 70s Hollywood by giving directors their head – if accompanied with a vanishingly small budget!
So I do wonder in this age of both increasing dissent and great conformity, whether this is quite the moment for Sky One’s reboot of the Blake saga. In a way, the timing couldn’t be better…
The very first shot of the first episode of the original first series is a close-up of a CCTV camera so small that it may have been a reach even for a sci-fi show, but now a very familiar sight that hangs from every lamp-post in this, the most surveilled society in the world.
The current lack of trust in our political overlords has resulted in just the kind of propaganda wars that The Way Back (E01 S01) deals with. Even the media obsession with paedophiles appears in that first episode, as former federation dissident Roj Blake recovers his brainwashed memories and is immediately framed as a child-molester by authorities fearful that he may return to his old ways. The federation is painted as an injust and self-serving society interested in maintaining and extending its control over the citizenry with secret brutality and public spin…
So the background societal miasma is arguably stronger now than it was first time round in 1977. But one can reasonably wonder just how much of an anti-establishment statement an establishment titan like Rupert Murdoch is willing to make, and if the series can possibly fare well away from the underfunded but relatively independent BBC hothouse.
Certainly there is a great deal of superficial and popular sci-fi gloss to skim out of the original series for Blake 2.0 – better SFX (we can hope…?), better battles, costumes and sets. An upgrade for Zen and Orac. And guns that look slightly less like curling tongs.
Yet the Sky One demographic and method risks to genericise the odd-ball characters amongst the reconstituted cast, bog down the principals in endlessly convoluted love stories that were far less intrusive as intriguing hints in the original series, and overcompensate every which way for the chauvinism of the seventies version. If so, my advice is: make a new show instead.
The lucrative retro-pound is the only incentive for Sky One to remake Blake’s 7 instead of inventing a new galactic empire for a new bunch of rebels to rail against. So, Sky, if you want us elder geeks out there in your new federation, you may have to try harder than usual (clue: the casting of Avon is critical…).
Martin writes his (mostly) sci-fi column every Friday at Den Of Geek.