There's little point in pretending that Blake's 7 isn't guilty of those things it's most often accused of - the sets wobble, most props look as though they've been cobbled together from washing-up liquid bottles, sticky tape and the contents of a child's modelling box and the special effects are, well, not awfully special. Yet, Blake's 7 is not really about any of that and saying that the series suffers as a result of these stumbles is to miss what makes it special. As with the Doctor Who story The Talons Of Weng Chiang - brilliant in spite of the terrible effects - Blake's 7 is really all about the strength of its principal characters, of the writing anew of a familiar story and of ideas that set for the far future but which have fallen through sooner than expected.
Roj Blake is a law-abiding citizen of the Federation who lives believing that his mother and sister have emigrated off Earth but when a friend, Ravella, takes him outside of the dome in which he lives to meet a leader of the resistance, Foster, Blake sees at first hand the brutality of the authorities. Despite his initial disbelief at Foster telling him that he was once a respected freedom fighter, Blake realises that the treatment given to him by the Federation may mean that Foster was telling the truth. Convicted of child abuse and sentenced to a life in exile on the prison planet Cygnus Alpha, Blake means to return to Earth to take break the Federation and when the prison ship on which he is travelling, the London, finds an abandoned spacecraft, Blake sees the means to make his vengeance possible...
It's become something of a standard response when clunky British sci-fi is compared to its sleeker American cousin but with Blake's 7, the writing really is key to this series. Terry Nation, the creator and chief writer of Blake's 7, had worked on Doctor Who from 1965 onwards and was most famous for coming up with the Daleks, thereby moving that series away from any pretence of being the educational tool for children as BBC bosses had originally hoped it would be. Indeed, the major contribution of Terry Nation and the Daleks was to cross the gap between children and their parents, bringing mums and dads onto or behind the sofa with their kids. With his next series, Survivors, which was filmed between 1975-1977 Nation had few effects to back up his story of a small group of humanity left alive when a virus escapes from a lab, killing almost everyone who contracts it. Nation's writing, therefore, was needed to give the audience a connection with the characters as their world collapsed about them and, although it had existed before, Nation did more than most to popularise talky, story-driven sci-fi. With Blake's 7, begun the year after Survivors ended, Nation's combination of gritty story lines, a main cast of criminals fighting a Federation, but not always successfully, and a willingness to bleakly kill off his main cast ensured the BBC had a serious sci-fi drama that, in its opening episode, saw Roj Blake being accused by the authorities of child abuse to silence his place in the resistance.
But then the sets started to wobble and, much like Doctor Who, outside locations were often no more than quarries, forests or beaches. Constrained by the limited budget afforded to it by the BBC, Blake's 7 began to be compared unfavourably not only to the previous year's Star Wars but even to Star Trek, which had been broadcast in the US and UK a decade earlier. As the series became cultural shorthand for the scrimping of the BBC, Blake's 7 struggled to be taken seriously and has, for the past twenty-five years or so, been a byword for why the UK shouldn't bother with sci-fi, thus robbing many fans of the genre of genuinely well-written television series.
What's immediately obvious when watching this DVD boxset, however, is that the special effects really aren't all that bad. Whilst the movement of the Liberator in space tends to veer from being a perfectly straight line, the interior of the spaceship, particularly the impression given of its great size as well as the character of Zen, is quite impressive - David Maloney admits on the commentary for Space Fall that this set swallowed most of the special effects budget allocated for series one - and the teleport, miniature and combat effects are effective if rudimentary. The audio effects, on the other hand, are typically excellent, as they are on Doctor Who, thanks to the skills picked up within the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop.
Yet it is always the two most important aspects of sci-fi - the writing and the characters - that stand out within Blake's 7. Nation's scripts jump from hokey religion, murder mystery and betrayal to the inability of either side to win a war, either resistance or Federation, but within each script, he keeps pushing the characters forward. Blake, whilst always an idealist, is pushed with every action or decision he takes by Avon, almost his opposite within the small crew of the Liberator. Avon, as played by Paul Darrow, stands out through being given the best dialogue and the most complex personality. With Blake, it's often straightforward as to what action he's going to take - Blake always chooses to hit the Federation as hard as he can given his meagre resources - but Avon is much more difficult to predict, tending to punch lightly for an age at strategic points before hoping that a knockout punch can be delivered but with no guarantee that it will have an effect. Despite often appearing as though he remains on board the Liberator to serve his own interests, Avon resents the Federation almost as much as Blake but would clearly choose a different path towards taking his revenge.
Otherwise, Jenna puts an emotional bond in place around Blake, Avon and herself, Vila brings humour into Blake's 7, particularly when, having identified himself as a saboteur, he asks the Federation guards what he should blow up in the episode Seek Locate Destroy, whereas Gan and Cally are no more than solid support actors even in the stories in which they have key roles.
Regardless of how the BBC treated Blake's 7 - and from Doctor Who to Invasion: Earth, the BBC has rarely appeared sympathetic to sci-fi - the public loved it. The shocking, and still memorable, final episode of the series drew in 10 million viewers and from this season on, Blake's 7 lasted for three further years, during which time major characters left the series, plots remained as much of a mix of complexity and space opera as ever and good and bad were as neatly divided into resistance and Federation in 1981 as they were with the broadcast of this season in 1978. Whilst this DVD release is unlikely to convince anyone that the production is of a much higher value than they might have heard elsewhere - and neither the sets, models nor props are ever as bad as they've been described - anyone new to the series is likely to be surprised at how thoughtful the writing is, meaning that Blake's 7 will be one of the key sci-fi releases of this year.
Listed below are short descriptions of the thirteen episodes included on this release of series one of Blake's 7:
The Way Back (49m08s): The opening episode introduces Roj Blake, who we first see meeting Ravella and leaving the dome for the world outside. Long thought to be a radioactive wasteland, Ravella has Blake drink the water in the river before taking him to meet Foster, a resistance leader who tells Blake they were once friends in the resistance against the Federation before Blake's capture and reprogramming. Foster also tells Blake that his mother and sister, who he thought lived in a frontier world, were killed by the Federation years before. As Blake thinks this over, Foster holds a meeting of the resistance, which ends with a Federation massacre and Blake's arrest. As he protests his innocence, the Federation charge him with child abuse, supported by the testimony of three children, and, with no evidence to the contrary, the Federation exile Blake to Cygnus Alpha, a prison planet. His lawyer, however, sees discrepancies in the case and investigates further but as the ship that will take Blake to Cygnus Alpha, the London, prepares for lift off, the resistance spy murders Blake's lawyer and any hope that Blake had for a reprieve disappears. As the guards on the London tell Blake to take a last look at Earth, Blake tells them, "No, I'm going back!"
Space Fall (52m10s): Onboard the London, Blake and the other prisoner attempt to take control of the ship to prevent it from reaching Cygnus Alpha. As the London passes a space battle, a ship is found floating without power and the crew of the London express an interest in claiming it for the Federation. As Blake, Jenna and Avon become isolated in the London's computer room, the crew of the London begin executing the prisoners, forcing Blake to surrender. Ordering Blake, Jenna and Avon onto the abandoned ship to prepare it for the Federation, the ship's defence system tries to force them back but seeing his opportunity, Blake fights to remain onboard the ship.
Cygnus Alpha (51m51s): Having taken over the abandoned ship, now christened the Liberator, Blake decides to follow the London to Cygnus Alpha to rescue the remaining prisoners. On arriving at the prison planet after the departure of the London, Blake finds that the prisoners are convinced they have a disease that can only be kept in check so long as they remain on the planet and under the control of the high priest Vargas.
Time Squad (51m24s): As Blake sets the Liberator on a course to Saurian Major, where he plans to destroy the Federation's communications grid, Jenna detects a distress signal from a small vessel floating in space. The crew ask Zen for further information on the craft but when he appears to malfunction, Jenna and Blake teleport across and manually bring the ship onboard the Liberator. As Avon, Vila and Blake teleport to the surface of Saurian Major, where they meet Cally, the two occupants of the disabled ship come out of suspended animation and attempt to take over the Liberator.
The Web (49m40s): As Cally hears instructions being sent through space to her, she attacks Blake, the crew and disables the Liberator. As the ship is pulled through space, losing power all the time, it closes in on the source of the transmission and gets caught in a web created by the few remaining members of The lost, a group that had been exiled from Cally's home planet and who have genetically engineered the Decimas in their new home. As the Decimas have now evolved to experience emotion, The Lost are planning on destroying but Blake refuses to help them, meaning that the Liberator could be destroyed within the web.
Seek-Locate-Destroy (51m21s): Opening with the robot that stars in this DVD boxset's 2 Out-takes, A Missing Scene, 1 Robot, 2 Flat Feet And A Blooper, Blake, Gan, Cally and Vila plan to steal a deciphering machine from the Federation but in the explosion set by Blake to hide the theft, Cally is knocked unconscious, left behind on the surface of the plant and is taken prisoner by the Federation, later handed to space commander Travis by Supreme Commander Servalan. Travis has a personal grudge against Blake after he shot Travis years before, destroying his hand and, in using her as bait, Travis plans to trap Blake, his crew and the Liberator.
Mission to Destiny (51m03s): When the Liberator comes upon the Ortega adrift in space, Avon, Blake and Cally teleport over to investigate. On getting there, they find that the crew of the ship is sleeping, the control panel has been destroyed and that a murder has taken place. The crew of the Liberator find that the Ortega was rushing a valuable artifact, a neutrotope, back to their home planet to halt the spread of a disease that is killing out local vegetation. As Blake volunteers to have them use the Liberator to transport the neutrotope, Cally and Avon set about finding the identity of the murderer and the reason for their actions.
Duel (51m14s): Space commander Travis is once again close on Blake's heels, chasing the Liberator with three pursuit ships. As the Liberator is forced to defend itself, Blake notices that one of the pursuit ships is not firing and, assuming that this is Travis' ship, sets the Liberator on a collision course. Just before impact, however, two beings on a nearby planet - Sinofar and Giroc - call Blake and Travis through space and onto the surface, where they tell them that they must fight to the death in a hand-to-hand duel. Sinofar allows each to have one member of their crew in support, leaving Blake to choose Jenna and Travis a mutoid, whilst the rest of their crews remain in their ships watching the duel on the planet below.
Project Avalon (52m31s): Knowing that Blake will be seeking out a fellow freedom fighter, Travis takes Avalon prisoner and holds her in a detention cell, giving Blake enough information such that he will come to release her by force. On arriving on the planet where Avalon was last seen, Blake meets Chevner, the only survivor of her resistance group, who leads him into the detention centre to rescue Avalon. Despite the success of the mission, Blake suspects that it was too easy and that it was all a trap set by Travis.
Breakdown (51m23s): As the Liberator enters a meteor storm, Gan's limiter implant malfunctions and he attacks both Jenna and Blake before being tranquillised by the rest of the crew. With Avon suggesting he should be put in restraints, Blake orders Zen to take the Liberator to space station XK-72 to have Gan's limiter repaired, requiring a journey across an area that, according to Zen, has an unidentified danger within it. Deep inside the area, Avon finds a gravitational vortex, knowing that even should they advance beyond this danger, XK-72 may already have alerted the Federation of their arrival.
Bounty (51m57s): Whilst Cally and Blake are on a planet to seek out a deposed president living in exile, an unknown spaceship approaches the Liberator claiming it is in distress. Despite their suspicions, the crew of the Liberator allow the ship to approach, only for its occupants - bounty hunters working for the Federation - to capture the Liberator. As Cally and Blake return to the Liberator with the exiled president, they too are held hostage but find that Jenna has sided with the bounty hunters who are looking to sell the Liberator and its crew to the Federation.
Deliverance (49m12s): As the crew of the Liberator approach a small craft heading through space, they witness an explosion within it but notice that two life-support capsules are ejected from it. Blake tracks the two objects to the surface of Cephlon despite Zen's warning about the levels of radiation on the surface. Avon, Jenna, Vila, and Gan teleport down to look for the two capsules, finding one survivor and taking him back to the Liberator but Jenna gets left behind. Despite missing one crew member, the survivor forces Blake and Cally to take him to see his father, Ensor, who is waiting for the micro power cells he is carrying on the planet Aristo and who will die without them. As Avon, Vila and Gan travel back to Cephlon to find Jenna, the survivor tells Blake about Orac, something the Federation will pay 100 million credits for.
Orac (51m48s): Opening with the events of the previous episode, Blake takes the Liberator to Aristo to deliver the supplies to Ensor that will save his life whilst he also considers who or what Orac is and why the Federation paid 100 million credits for it. On their arrival, hampered by Jenna, Gan, Vila and Avon suffering from radiation poisoning, Blake and Cally teleport down to the planet to meet Ensor and Orac, preferably before Servalan and Travis, who arrived shortly before them.
And this is where this release of Blake's 7 gets interesting. There's no question that Blake's 7 looks better on this DVD release than it ever has - the picture is clean, the colours are great and the jump in quality between the sections recorded on video and those on film, whilst still obvious, is much better handled than it was on the VHS releases.
The problem with this release comes with the layer change, at which point the picture freezes and will remain so until fast-forwarded past the fault. This may not happen on every player - this copy of the boxset was viewed on a Pioneer 636 - but come the layer change on each of the five discs, the picture freezes and even allowing for a minute or two to pass, it will remain frozen. It's a shame that having waited for this release for so long, including its being put back numerous times, that a fault like this still slips through. Most annoyingly of all, the picture freezes at the worst moments, including, on the third disc, the moment when Sinofar tells Blake and Travis that she is of a dead race. This moment should cut into a crack of thunder but just before it does...the picture freezes. Such a shame, BBC.
With the BBC wisely choosing to present Blake's 7 with a stereo soundtrack and not a surround sound remix, this release sounds terrific with a clean audio track that's free of noise and able to recreate the sound of the original effects without any trouble.
The bonus features included on this DVD release are described as follows:
Out Takes (7m08s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo): Titled 2 Out-takes, A Missing Scene, 1 Robot, 2 Flat Feet And A Blooper, this bonus feature sees all of the above summarised in one place. During the digital remastering, a number of out-takes were discovered, which are included here against where they would originally have been or how the sequences were presented in the broadcast versions:
- Conversation between Blake and Jenna during Duel
- Soliloquy from Travis during Seek Locate Destroy
- Seek Locate Destroy also included Vila's first deliberate shooting of a Federation guard, which was edited as an unwanted reflection in a pane of glass spoiled the sequence
- Also from Seek Locate Destroy was a robot that was, even by Blake's 7 standards, a rubbish special effect, footage of which is included here
- During the filming of Orac, Stephen Greif, who played Travis, had an accident whilst playing squash and so a rather flat-footed extra was used to ensure filming continued. The effect, however, is far from what was intended and was clearly never used.
- The one blooper in the set is of Travis accidentally destroying a piece of equipment, which you may well have already seen introduced by Dennis Nordern's chuckling some late night on ITV1
Episode Synopses: As would be expected from the title, this features paragraph-length summaries of all thirteen episodes of Blake's 7's first series.
Blue Peter (7m54s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo): First broadcast on 23 February 1978, this sees Lesley Judd - whose outfit features not one natural fibre - showing how amateur prop makers can have their very own teleport bracelet. The idea for making these appears to have come from the number of letters received by the series' producer David Maloney asking how to make the bracelet. Lesley actually holds up all the letters and having expected her to say, "...and these are only a small number of many", it's a little surprising to see that letters from no more than six viewers were able to influence this spot of kiddie DIY on Blue Peter. Lesley has a fair crack at making the bracelet, despite needing to say, "And this is quite a tricky bit" as some silver sticky tape escapes across the plastic from a Robinson's juice bottle and the extra closes in a sterling manner as Peter Purves teleports onto the Blue Peter couch possibly before urging us to send in bottle tops, coal dust, spent bullet casings and rubber bands to raise money for new lifeboats.
Character Introductions: In short summaries created from footage taken the series, each character is introduced within the series:
- Roj Blake (2m22s)
- Jenna Stannis (2m20s)
- Kerr Avon (2m58s)
- Cally (2m16s)
- Vila Restal (2m36s)
- Olag Gan (3m11s)
- Zen (2m25s)
- Travis (3m10s)
- Servalan (3m01s)
It would have been more enjoyable had the original cast contributed to these extras but in the case of Avon and Vila, the scenes chosen have all the best lines delivered by or to their characters during this first season of Blake's 7. There is also the option to Play All and the menu screen for this extra will take you to the DVD credits.
Series 2 Trailer (2m35s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo): Even during these two-and-a-half minutes, it's clear that the BBC had boosted the budget for season two of Blake's 7 with better effects, costumes and sets all evident in this trailer. Sadly, Stephen Greif was replaced by Brian Croucher to play Travis, making the character less of a threat, and a couple of the deaths in season two are hinted at but as it ends, like season one, with footage showing the destruction of the Liberator, can we please have the season two DVD set without the wait we endured for this one?
Commentary On Space Fall: Michael Keating (Vila), Sally Knyvette (Jenna) and David Maloney, the series' producer, provide a commentary for the second episode of the series and, whilst they're never particularly informative, they've got enough to say such that gaps and lengthy pauses are few. Michael Keating does his best to keep the commentary going but there's a certain embarrassment as David Maloney persists in commenting on how attractive Sally Knyvette was/is, despite her attempts to play this down.
Commentary On Seek Locate Destroy: Michael Keating, Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan) and Stephen Greif (Travis) have recorded a commentary on the first episode in the series in which Servalan and Travis star. As with the commentary on Space Fall, Michael Keating works hard to keep the commentary going but neither Stephen Greif nor Jacqueline Pearce are that talkative, with the latter having an annoying habit of saying no more than, "Darling!" as Keating and Greif recall problems with the filming of the series.
Commentary On Project Avalon:Sally Knyvette, Jacqueline Pearce and Stephen Greif offer the best commentary of the three on the boxset, beginning with them singing the theme song, arguing whether Glynis Barber appears in the episode - she does, meaning Stephen Greif is correct, although she does take over from Sally Knyvette in season three as Soolin - and moving on to talking about Servalan's outfits and her relationship with Travis. There are still periods of silence, more so than in the other commentaries, but when Kynvette and Greif do get around to talking, they're entertaining and fairly irreverent about the series.
I'm such a fan of this series that I even got around to buying up a few of the old VHS releases - not the full-length releases but the two-hour edits of three separate episodes - so I've waited for this release since it was first announced and through several delays. Not even watching the repeats of Blake's 7 before Doctor Who on UK Gold is comparable to watching this season in a complete run and with a fully remastered picture.
Were it not for the glitch on the layer change and the low number of commentaries, this would be almost a perfect release of the first season of Blake's 7 but even with these problems, it still manages to get so close.