Saturday, 26 April 2014

Blake's Seven Review: Series A Episode 3 - Cygnus Alpha

Jenna: You wouldn't be trying to get rid of me, would you?
Avon: I have to get rid of Blake first. You're next on my list.

The Story
Blake, Jenna and Avon follow the prison ship London to Cygnus Alpha in their newly acquired ship.  They explore the ship, discovering hand weapons and a teleport facility.  They also encounter the ship's main computer, called Zen.  Zen informs them that the ship has been named 'Liberator' but is reluctant to give them any further details about how it operates.

The Liberator
 Meanwhile the London has deposited it cargo of prisoners, including Vila and Gan, on Cygnus Alpha.  The prisoners encounter a group of what appears to be priests who take them to a medieval looking castle. 

Blake risks the teleport device and goes down to the planet's surface. He meets with the priest's fanatical leader, Vargas who explains that his ancestors, the first prisoners left on the planet, created a religious order so that they could survive.  Each new batch of prisoners become new recruits to the order so he is unwilling to allow Blake to take any of the prisoners away. When Blake refuses to give up the Liberator, Vargas has him tortured and locked up with the other prisoners.

Blake stages a breakout but all the prisoners, other than himself, Vila and Gan are killed.  The three of them teleport back up to the Liberator but discover that Vargas has also teleported up with them.  Vargas tries to take control of the ship but Blake teleports him into deep space where he explodes.

The Seven

Blake: Worked on a government project that looked into the possibility of matter transmission.  It's not clear when he worked on this project: was it before or after his first attempt to rebel against the Federation? The project failed as they were never able to successfully transmit living matter.

Blake is the first to try out the Liberator's teleport device that seems to operate along similar principles to the failed project.  Fortunately for him the teleport works.

Avon: Has personality clashes with both Blake and the ship's computer, Zen.  Isn't able to accept the fact that the computer might have a will of its own although he does acknowledge that the Liberator has an almost organic feel to it, making it seem alive.  He's the first to find the Liberator's 'strong room' that holds uncounted riches.  He tries, unsuccessfully, to persuade Jenna to abandon Blake and leave in the Liberator with him and the treasure.  He also initially attempts to stop Jenna from teleporting Blake and the others back up from the planet at the end of the episode.

Avon also worked on the same matter transmission project as Blake although neither of them were aware of the other (Avon: "Small world.", Blake: "Large project.").

Jenna: Establishes some sort of mental link with Zen when she touches a control panel and brings him on-line for the first time.  The name of the ship, 'Liberator', comes from something that Jenna was thinking when she was in mental contact with Zen.

Jenna is very loyal to Blake and, as the ship's name suggests, she seems to support his ideals.  She gets concerned for his welfare when he's down on the planet's surface and rushes to hug him when he comes back safely.  Although it's not made obvious, there does seem to be a hint of attraction between Jenna and Blake

Vila: Is nervous about venturing out on to the surface of Cygnus Alpha and his attempts to lighten the mood with humour irritates some of his fellow inmates.  As in the previous episode, he sticks closely with the bigger and stronger Gan.  When offered the chance to escape he, not surprisingly sides with Blake and Gan.  In the final fight with the cult members, Vila initially hides under a table, before getting hold of a teleport bracelet.  Later he appears horrified when he (accidentally?) stabs a cult member in the back.

Gan: Seems to be quite protective of Vila, warning the other prisoners to back off.  Takes charge when the prisoners venture out on to the surface of Cygnus Alpha and catches the eye of female cult member, Kara, who later sacrifices herself to save him.  Gan is the first join with Blake when he offers the prisoners a chance to escape Cygnus.

Zen (Peter Tuddenham)/The Liberator: Zen is the main computer of the alien ship that Blake and his friends have 'acquired'.  He first establishes some sort of mental link with Jenna, presumably to establish whether Jenna, Blake and Avon are hostile, and then informing them that the ship's computers will accept their commands.  He also renames the ship 'Liberator', taken from something that Jenna was thinking. His main 'visual reference point' for crew members is a smooth, circular surface set into one wall of the flight deck.  Small lights flash across the surface when Zen is functioning and a larger rectangular light comes on when Zen speaks, flashing in time with his voice.

Zen seems reluctant to give Blake and his friends too much information about the ship, stating that "wisdom cannot be given, it must be earned."  He also doesn't seem to like Avon.

The Liberator's flight deck contains an armoury holding some unusual looking 'guns'.  Only one gun is allowed to taken by any one person, although this rule is ignored in future episodes.   The ship also has a teleport facility.  A process that the Federation has yet to perfect, the teleport works in much the same way as the transporter from 'Star Trek': those being teleported stand inside a small alcove while someone else works the controls on a nearby console. The main difference is that the individual being teleported must be wearing a teleport bracelet, a flimsy looking device that also contains a communicator.

Mark's Remarks

I read an article in a recent issue of Doctor Who Magazine which said that Terry Nation's main source of inspiration was...Terry Nation. And that's certainly the case here as Nation takes an idea that he'd originally come up with in 1965's 'Daleks Masterplan' (the idea of a prison planet where the prisoners are left to fend for themselves) and expands on it.  Whereas in the Dalek story, the criminals were brutal savages who were barely surviving, here we see what happens when the prisoners are able to form a society.  It's a pretty unappealing society, based on fear and presided over by the shouting beard that is Brian Blessed but, from what little we see of Cygnus Alpha, it's infinitely preferable to dying alone on the surface of the planet.

The main story though concerns Blake trying to recruit a crew for his newly stolen ship. In order to inject a bit of suspense into proceedings, two hitherto unseen prisoners are introduced as potential Liberator crewmembers. To the surprise of probably no one both characters are killed in the climactic battle between prisoners and cult members leaving the already established Vila amd and Gan as the last men standing. Brian Blessed's character, Vargas ends up being teleported into deep space and explodes mid-rant. In space no one can hear you scream - unless you're Brian Blessed.

The other new arrival to the crew is of course Zen, the ship's computer.  Peter Tuddenham's vocals give Zen the air of an no nonsense school teacher, happy to impart knowledge where appropriate but not prepared to tolerate any nonsense from the kids.  His verbal slapping down of Avon in their first encounter is a particular highlight.  Sadly, Zen's character doesn't really much more beyond what's seen here but, despite that, he's still one of my favourite characters in the series.

Jenna doesn't get a whole lot to do in this episode other than change her outfit and have some interesting scenes with Avon, who has quickly established himself as the most interesting member of the crew.  His attempts to persuade Jenna to leave without Blake show just how self-centred and untrustworthy he can be.  Blake's 7 would have been a far duller series without Avon that's for sure and Paul Darrow is clearly enjoying himself in the role.

Overall then, a solid episode, if unspectacular and livened up no end by Brian Blessed. 

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Blake's Seven Review: Series A Episode 2 - Space Fall

Jenna: At least you're still alive.
Blake: No! Not until free men can think and speak. Not until power is back with the honest man.
Avon: Have you ever met an honest man?
Jenna: [glances at Blake] Perhaps.

The Story
Blake is being transported aboard the prison ship London to Cygnus Alpha. Along with a handful of fellow prisoners, Blake begins planning his escape. He, Jenna and fellow prisoner Kerr Avon manage to take control of the ship's main computer, release the rest of the prisoners and hold the ship's crew to ransom.

The rest of the prisoners are soon re-captured and the ship's second-in-command, Sub-Commander Raiker, starts killing them one by one until Blake, Jenna and Avon give themselves up.

In the midst of this, the prison ship comes across a large alien vessel that appears to be drifting.  Believing it to be abandoned, Raiker suggests sending a boarding party over to the alien ship and claiming it for the Federation.  Four crew members are sent over but are attacked and killed by an unseen force.

Desperate to claim the ship, Raiker sends over Blake, Jenna and Avon to investigate as he considers them expendable.  The three prisoners discover a strange security device on the ship that attempts to first mesmerise and then kill them.  Blake resists the device and destroys it.

With nothing left to stop them, Blake, Jenna and Avon take control of the alien ship and escape, in the process killing Raiker who tries to stop them.  Blake decides to follow the prison ship to Cygnus Alpha so that he can free the rest of the prisoners.    

The Seven

Blake: Seems to be far more sure of himself than in the last episode. His first thought after the prison ship takes off is about best to go about taking the ship over. He seems to naturally take command of the little band of prisoners, making the most of the people and resources that he has and almost succeeds in taking over the ship.

Blake's main concern is with getting back to Earth so that he can destroy the heart of the Federation and ensure that "power is back in the hand of the honest man". Later, when he, Avon and Jenna have taken control of the Liberator, Blake decides to follow the prison ship to Cygnus Alpha, free the other prisoners and then fight back against the Federation.

Avon (Paul Darrow): Possibly the most popular character in the series, Avon makes his first appearance here. Cynical, cold and calculating, he is the antithesis of Blake's impassioned freedom fighter.

Like everyone else, Avon is a prisoner on the London. According to Vila, when it comes to computers, Avon is the number two man in all the Federated worlds. Who is number one? The guy who caught him. Avon would have stolen millions of credits from the Federation banking system had he not been caught.

Avon's expertise makes him an important part in Blake's plan to take over the prison ship. It's Avon's job to take control of the main computer and allow the prisoners to escape. This he does and he's somewhat disappointed when all his hard works comes to nothing after the break out fails.

Along with Blake and Jenna, Avon is sent over to the abandoned alien ship to see if its safe. He helps Jenna to work out how to fly the ship, allowing the three of them to escape. He doesn't seem impressed by Blake's plan to free the other prisoners.

We discover that Avon has, or maybe had, a brother.

Jenna: Jenna is an expert pilot, perhaps not surprising given her smuggling background. She claims that she could fly the prison ship if they can capture it. Later, Blake gives her two minutes to learn how to operate the alien ship which, by all accounts, she manages to do.

She takes an instant dislike to Raiker who singles her out for some 'special attention'.  As the only woman on board it's not hard to work out what he had in mind.  She receives a slap from him when she whispers something in his ear that he takes exception to.

Vila: Can perform basic conjuring tricks which he uses to distract the guard while Blake and the others put their plan to take over the prison ship into operation. He doesn't like confined spaces and says that there's a medical name for it (Jenna: "Cowardice?"). When the takeover is in progress, it's Vila who causes it to fail as he gets confused and drops his gun, allowing the guards to overpower the prisoners. He would have been shot by Raiker had Blake not surrendered.

Gan (David Jackson): A man of few words, Gan is a powerfully built man who has strength to match his size. He backs up Vila while the latter performs his conjuring tricks and later 'persuades' a guard to open a door and let the prisoners out ("Look, we only need your hand. If you want to stay attached to as your told."). He doesn't carry a gun during the breakout but this doesn't seem to hinder him as he's capable of taking two guards down at once barehanded.

Mark's Remarks:  The slow genesis of the series continues with another very good episode. We're introduced to two more of the Seven in Gan and Avon although at this stage it's not clear exactly who, other than Blake, is going to make up our band of heroes.  At one point young fellow prisoner Nova looks like a dead cert to join the gang but ultimately he just ends up dead.

The ill-fated Nova

The crew of the prison ship are interesting and well rounded characters. There's the world- weary Commander Leylan, the eager young Artix and the villain of the piece, Sub-Commander Raiker who bullies everyone around him and is utterly corrupt. One cant help but cheer when he gets his comeuppance.


Despite the fact that the series was made on a very tight budget, it's clear that a lot of time, effort has put into the design of the alien ship, both internally and externally. The ship is huge, clearly dwarfing the prison ship. Inside and out, the ship is aesthetically pleasing and that alone is enough to distinguish it from the sparse and functional Federation vessel.

Of the regular cast, it's Paul Darrow's Avon who steals the show and gets many of the best lines.  Blake also gets some good moments, particularly in his impassioned speech about destroying the Federation.  On the downside, David Jackson as new recruit, Gan, is rather poorly served.  He doesn't get a whole lot to do other than being Vila's wingman and threatening to pull someone's hand off.  Sadly, this is something that happens quite a bit throughout the series.  Vila's character also seems to undergo something of change here.  In the first episode I found him to be somewhat unsettling and a little creepy.  Here he becomes the bumbling fool who drops his gun in the middle of the breakout and is very lucky not to get himself shot by Raiker.

These minor character issues aside, this is a very good episode and, like the first episode, not really indicative of what we would see in the rest of the series.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Blake's Seven Review: Series A Episode 1: The Way Back

"There were many activist groups. But the only one that really meant anything was led by Roj Blake"

The Story
Roj Blake lives in a huge domed, city on Earth. Like much of the rest of the population, his food and drink is dosed with suppressants to keep him in a drug-induced stupor.  He meets up with two friends who persuade him to stop eating the tainted food before taking him outside the City for an illegal meeting of opposition to controlling Federation administration of Earth.

At the meeting, Blake meets Bran Foster, a man he doesn't recognise but who claims to know him. Foster explains to him that the two of them had once led a a large opposition group against the Federation before Blake was captured and had his mind wiped. He asks Blake to rejoin them.

While Blake ponders this, the meeting is invaded by a squad of Federation soldiers who kill everyone except Blake. He is taken in for questioning but, although he claims to know nothing, the head of the Federation Justice Department, Van Glynd, decides that it would e best if Blake 'disappeared'. He arranges for false charges of child molestation to be made against Blake. Despite his defence attorney's best efforts, Blake is sentenced to spend the rest of his life on a penal colony.

In the holding cells, Blake meets smuggler Jenna Stanis and thief Vila Restal for the first time. The prisoners board the prison ship and, as it lifts off, Blake vows that he'll get back to Earth.

The Seven:

Blake (Gareth Thomas): Blake is sceptical of his friends' s claims that all his food and drink has been drugged in order to keep him docile. He's also reluctant to go outside the City walls as to do so is a 'Category Four crime'. Nevertheless, he does agree to do so as he's told that he'll meet someone who can tell he something about his family.

Blake reveals that he has a brother and a sister who settled on one of the outer planets. This appears to be his only family. Bran Foster, the man he goes outside the City to meet, tells Blake that both his brother and sister and dead and that correspondence Blake received from them was faked.

Foster goes on to reveal that, after his capture, Blake was mentally conditioned to turn on his fellow rebels. Then once the rebel threat was crushed, Blake was conditioned again to forget any involvement he may have had with the rebels. Foster now wants Blake to rejoin the rebels, who are once again ready to strike.

Foster's words do seem to have an effect as, throughout the episode, Blake begins to regain the hidden memories about his past life. His witnessing of the brutal massacre of Foster and the other rebels at the hands of Federation guards probably also helps to trigger some of those memories.

He's still seen as a threat by the Federation administration who cannot simply execute him as he would be seen as a martyr by the rebels. This is why they end up concocting a false charge of child molestation and use it to get Blake sentenced to deportation to the prison planet of Cygnus Alpha.

Jenna (Sally Knyvette): She first meets Blake as they are waiting in the holding cells to board the prison ship to Cygnus Alpha. She calls herself a 'free trader', although Vila prefers to call her a smuggler. He also considers. Jenna something of a celebrity.  She appears to be the only woman prisoner (this is confirmed in the next episode) and, shortly before boarding the prison ship to Cygnus Alpha, she confesses to Blake that she's afraid of what's going to happen.

Vila (Michael Keating): Like Jenna, he meets Blake in the holding cells for the prison ship. He's a thief, "compulsive I'm afraid", and the first thing we see is steal Blake's watch.  He has apparently had his head adjusted by some of the best experts in an attempt to remove his compulsion. All attempts have failed hence he is being sent to Cygnus Alpha.

Vila is something of a coward. When Vila thinks Blake is going to attack him for stealing his watch, he maintains that he was just looking after it for him as "the place is full of thieves."

Mark's Remarks:

Blake's Seven has a bit of a reputation for being somewhat campy and over the top.  Whilst that night be true of certain episodes, it's certainly not an accusation that can be levelled at this episode or indeed much of the first season. Indeed, 'The Way Back' is probably about as bleak as the series gets. There are scenes of people in a drug induced stupor, scenes of mental torture and a surprisingly brutal massacre - and that's just in the first ten minutes or so. And it doesn't get much lighter than that in the rest of the episode.

Blake is our way into this strange new futuristic world. The notion of him having had his brain altered so that he has no idea of who he really is the perfect excuse for Terry Nation to give us the background to the series and to the character of Blake without it seeming too much like an info dump.

The Federation are quickly shown to be thoroughly evil and corrupt, first with the aforementioned massacre and then with the way in which their Justice Department attempts to remove Blake by framing him for child molestation. Their methods make it easy to sympathise with Blake and the other rebels.

And the Federation are powerful. Blake is helpless against its might, being unable to offer up any defence to the false accusations made against him and the only people who believe him are ruthlessly killed. So, not for the first time in this series, the bad guys win. Blake's helplessness in this episode shows why he can't fight the Federation alone.

From an acting point of view, Gareth Thomas carries the episode as Blake. It's not hard to see why Blake was seen as something of a figurehead amongst the rebels but he's not some one-dimensional square-jawed hero. He's also confused and vulnerable and Thomas does a good job of portraying that side of the character. Only two of the other regulars appear here and they're both sidelined by Blake's story. My favourite is Michael Keating's Vila. He gets some of the best lines and it's interesting that here Vila comes across as somewhat shifty and untrustworthy, a side of him that will be less noticeable as the series progresses.

Overall this is a very good opening episode.  It sets up the series well, while at the same time being fairly atypical of the series as a whole.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Blake's7 Review: Series A Introduction

Blake's Seven first appeared on British TV screens on the 2nd January 1978. Although definitely not a spin-off of Doctor Who, the two shows do have some similarities: both were made by the BBC on very tight budgets, both shared creative and behind-the-scenes personnel and both had curly haired leading men.

But that's where the similarities end. Whereas Doctor Who at this time was becoming more light-hearted and comedic, Blake's Seven was aiming at the opposite end of the spectrum. Set in a bleak, dystopian future, the series sees a small group of criminals turned freedom fighters waging a war on the mighty yet oppressive Galactic Federation. They are led by political troublemaker Roj Blake and have at their disposal a powerful, stolen alien spaceship that is superior to anything the Federation has.
Although the series occasionally strayed into camp territory (it can be hard to take a group of intergalactic terrorists seriously when they look like they're about to head out to the disco) the series still managed to produce some gripping drama. The crew were in constant danger and no one was invulnerable. The spectre of Death constantly hung over the crew and, before the series ended, he would swing his scythe more than once.

The Series A crew (left to right): Vila, Cally, Blake, Jenna, Avon, Gan with Zen in the background

I've decided to re-watch and review the entire series and hope to post a new review every week, but don't hold me to that. We begin, appropriately, at Series A (the series' in Blake's Seven were always lettered rather than numbered) where Blake gathers his crew and begins his campaign against the Federation.

Season A Episodes:

The Way Back 

Space Fall

Cygnus Alpha

Time Squad

The Web


Mission to Destiny


Project Avalon