Not another obituary? I’m afraid so – I’ve hit an age where my teenage heroes are departing so frequently that pretty soon every blog I find time to write will be a tribute to one or another of them. But I had been planning to post something about Blake’s 7 anyway, since I’ve mentioned it several times as an inspiration for Railhead and younger readers (and any outside the UK) probably won’t have the foggiest idea what I’m talking about. The sad news that its star Gareth Thomas has died just gives me an additional reason to write this.
Blake’s 7 was first broadcast early in 1978, just around the time that I started to get interested in sci-fi. To eleven-year-old me it felt shockingly grown-up, plunging the viewer into a dystopian future Earth governed by a totalitarian outfit called The Fedaration. The first episode introduced Gareth Thomas’s Blake to the resistance movement, but ended with them being betrayed; all his new friends were slaughtered, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment on a far-flung prison planet. It was all very 1984, I suppose, but I hadn’t encountered 1984 when I was eleven, and Blake’s 7 seemed about the bleakest thing I’d ever seen.
In the second episode, the transport ship carrying Blake to space-Australia encounters a derelict alien starship with an avuncular on-board computer, and Blake and a few others manage to steal it and take off into the wide black yonder to begin a campaign of guerrilla warfare against the Federation. It all sounds a bit Star Wars (although presumably Blake’s Seven was in production at the same time as Star Wars, so the resemblance is coincidental) but it’s far less black-and-white than George Lucas’s universe: Blake’s motives may be pure, but his right-hand man was the duplicitous Avon, a cold-hearted cynic interested only in looking out for himself, and their uneasy alliance was the heart of the show. Around them gathered a team of convicts, cowards and outcasts, forever pursued by the Federation and its sinisterly silky president Servalan (the excellent Jaqueline Pearce, wearing one of the great haircuts of the early ’80s). After a couple of series Blake himself cleared off, and his Seven spent the next few years searching for him, before eventually being reunited in a final episode which managed to be both a bit cheesy and startlingly uncompromising.
As with Doctor Who and Quatermass, the imaginations of the Blake’s 7 writers often outstripped the BBC’s budgets and technology to a degree which was often almost surreal. Powerful alien computers were clearly just old cookers with a few bits of coloured plastic stuck over the hobs; laser blasts and teleporters were represented by primitive video effects, and the usual gravel pits, factories and wobbly sets stood in for distant planets. Watching it now, it seems bizarre – the episode where our heroes arrive at the Fedaration’s galactic communications hub and it turns out to be just a cement works with a wobbly robot on guard outside the chain-link fence feels almost like art. It’s like the scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville where Eddie Constantine drives his Ford Mustang to that far-off world down an inter-sidereal expressway which looks like a road outside Paris. But Godard knew exactly what he was doing, and the the makers of Blake’s 7 were just doing the best they could with resources stretched to breaking point.
Even as a child, I could see how cheap it all was. But (again like Doctor Who and Quatermass) it didn’t matter. The story had me gripped, and when the Liberator was attacked by Fedaration pursuit ships it didn’t bother me that they were all made out of washing-up liquid bottles; I knew what they were meant to be, and the idea was still exciting.
In fact, the very cheapness of the whole thing was inspiring. My dad’s old clockwork 8mm ciné camera had caught my eye at around that time. If I’d been watching only big budget Hollywood films it might not have occurred to me that I could make films of my own, but with shows like Blake’s Seven cheerfully building alien worlds out of perfectly ordinary rubbish tips and country parks it seemed quite feasible that I could achieve something similar. In fact, I couldn’t – twelve years of ropey movies later, when I came up with an idea about a moving city, even I realised that it couldn’t be done in cardboard, so I wrote it as a novel instead. But I’d found out quite a lot about storytelling in those twelve years, and Blake’s Seven was one of the things which helped me on my way.
I’m not usually a fan of remakes and reboots, but Blake’s Seven has always struck me as something that might be worth revisiting with new technology and new ideas. (In a way, of course, it has been – Joss Whedon’s Firefly has a very similar set-up). I’d be quite pleased, I think, if the BBC decided to try a new version, up-dated without too much reverence for the original, like Battlestar Galactica. But it’s a shame that Gareth Thomas won’t be around to do a cameo.
All the information above comes from my nearly-forty-year-old memories, so apologies for any inaccuracies. There’s an official Blake’s 7 website here.