Blake’s 7 S1 E1 – The Way Back

With Sky One's Blake's 7 reboot a way off yet, we revisit the original Terry Nation series. Here's episode 1...

Blake remembering the bad last.

The plot: In the ‘third century of the second calendar’ (cited elsewhere as the 28th century), model citizen Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas) lives a conforming life in the muzak-strewn, highly surveilled curves of one of the Federation domes that now house the population of Earth. Few have ever seen the outside of the dome; venturing there is a criminal offence, and our Roj wouldn’t dream of it.

Blake is asked by two friends, the dissident couple Ravella (Gillian Bailey) and Richie (Alan Butler) to meet him near one of the sealed city exits after a demanding abstention from food and drink. There they explain to Blake that the sustenance their government supplies is laced with sedatives to keep the population ‘pliant’ – and all thoughts of dissent or rebellion at bay.

Unconvinced, Blake nonetheless accompanies them outside the city walls, since he has been promised that he will hear something important about his family. Ravella and Richie escort him to a meeting of out-dwellers and rebels, shocking this model citizen, who is only coerced to remain by blackmail – if he leaves yet, Blake will be implicated in their illegal activities.

Soon Blake is introduced to the elder rebel Bran Foster (American actor Robert Beatty), who informs Blake that his current ‘past’ is a lie; that Blake was once the figurehead and leader of the most effective resistance cell in the Federation; that he was subsequently caught and all memory of his old rebellious ways wiped out, while lists of his collaborators were tortured out of him; that he had been allowed to live a zombie-like existence as a fallen idol – rather than a murdered martyr;

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Foster also tells Blake the news he came to hear –the brother and sister who send Blake friendly viz-tapes every month from their adopted planet were actually murdered by the Federation four years ago, directly after Blake’s trial. The tapes are a sham, as is Blake’s current existence.

No sooner has this bombshell fallen than Federation troops descend and wipe out the entire rebel meeting whilst Blake hides, terrified. Captured as he re-enters the dome, Blake’s fate is more complicated than for the average malfeasant, since he remains a totem of admiration for those who believe that his betrayal was coerced…

The solution is to implant three children with false memories of having been sexually assaulted by Blake, and thus our hero will stand trial not as a dissident, but a paedophile. His stature decimated in the eyes of his admirers, Blake will then be shipped to a Penal Colony on Cygnus Alpha, meeting the fate of his siblings.

He draws little consolation from new cell-mates: the light-fingered and loquacious Vila Restal (Michael Keating) introduces himself by trying to steal Blake’s watch, whereas smuggler Jenna Stannis (Sally Knyvette) makes a canonically cold comment on his plight: “You’d better get used to it – nobody out there gives a damn about you.”

But not so. Blake’s court-appointed lawyer, Varon (Michael Halsey) begins to believe that his client may be innocent, and a visit to the civic records library with his wife Maja (Pippa Steel) confirms it. The government is corrupt at the highest level, and Blake is innocent. Retracing the scene of the rebel massacre, Varon and Maja find the pile of corpses and shoot footage that will change the world. On their return they are shot dead by the rebel double-agent Dev Tarrant (Jeremy Wilkin), actually a notorious Federation security operative.

Blake’s fate is sealed – the prison-ship London takes off for the eight-month journey to the penal colony on Cygnus Alpha… Analysis:The Way Back was first broadcast on 2nd January 1978, and though revisiting Terry Nation’s ‘Robin Hood In Space’ is a pleasant surprise, revealing a show with commitment, integrity, good writing and well-constructed character dynamics, what cannot be recreated is the 1978 audience’s ignorance of how the show would take shape…

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These days, even a ‘Blake’s virgin’ will probably know who the principal protagonists were. Therefore Nation’s shock-tactics in The Way Back– where he introduces us at length to two entirely separate and lovely young rebel couples, only to have the Federation soldiers ruthlessly mow them down – will be rather diminished on a modern viewing.

What remains unaffected is the cynical patina that will define the tone of the series (particularly later on, when pragmatic opportunist Kerr Avon will slowly emerge as the black heart of Blake’s 7). Jenna’s comment on ‘nobody giving a damn’ about Blake is part of the blasted fatalism to which Blake will be set up as the solution – if no-one else will give a damn, then he will, and not just about himself…

A traditional, extended-length establishing episode is eschewed in series 1, as is the instant formulation of the cast and base scenario; Way Back does not feature Gan, Avon or the Liberator (although Avon and Gan are shown to be on board the galley with Blake in the next episode); neither are Servalan or Travis anywhere to be seen, and in fact they will not begin service as the figureheads for Federation evil until episode 6.

Although the series is fundamentally episodic in the Star Trek:TOS mould, part of its appeal is that there is no guarantee of an end-of-episode ‘reset’. The conclusion of any Blake’s 7 episode could find a new regular character on board (Jan Chappell’s telepath, Cally, does not join the team until episode four), a beloved character killed off mid-season (David Jackson’s loveable giant Olag Gan will meet his end in ‘Pressure Point’ in series 2), a core relationship changed forever (and for the worse, when Vila realises how dispensable Avon considers him in series 4’s superb ‘Orbit’) or the eponymous hero shot dead by his oldest friend (the final episode in 1981)! This is not a series that bears much rifle-shuffling by schedulers, but neither is it married to story arcs in the way that Galactica and other modern series tend to be.

Fans of Blake’s 7 who return to the series after a period of some years are likely to be expecting every spaceship to be made out of cardboard and every set to wobble on the slightest footfall, since – like early Doctor Who – production values have risen so much higher in the intervening period.

I wonder if they will be disappointed or delighted to find The Way Back very well shot and with very few SFX howlers. The hanging miniature of the dome is a little out-of-focus in the first shot of Blake and company leaving the city, but this old technique is very effective in later shots, and although the model of the London didn’t quite bear the tracking shot that introduced it, the take-off itself is worthy of Derek Meddings, complete with Gerry Anderson-style hydraulic platform.

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There is the odd structural anomaly in The Way Back: since the Federation is a totalitarian government that hasn’t quite come out of the closet, its political manipulation of Blake is explicable; but if dissident deportees are murdered as soon as they step off the prison ship (as Foster explains when talking of Blake’s murdered brother and sister), why spend eight months – and presumably a fair bit of money – shipping them there in the first place?

However, compared to modern Doctor Who (much as I love it), the plot structure of Blake’s 7 is hermetically sealed, and there’s little need for indulgence. Nation’s totalitarian universe is believable – and sadly recognisable too, since the opening shot is of a CCTV camera…

Nation risked much by having so much exposition in episode 1 of his new venture, and many of the concepts employed were science-fiction staples, with a heavy emphasis on the repressive milieu of Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four and the mind-bending output of Philip K. Dick. But Nation obeyed the ancient adage and has stolen from the best for his technological re-telling of the Robin Hood myth. The sources are well-digested and the result is a unique flavour in the world of television sci-fi, with a wise emphasis on character-driven stories in the face of a swingeing budget.

Next: Space Fall