Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Classic TV Flashback: Blake's 7 (1978)

Blake's 7
Debut: January 2, 1978
Created by Terry Nation
Starring: Gareth Thomas, Sally Knyvette, Michael Keating, Steven Pacey, Paul Darrow, David Jackson, Peter Tuddenham, Jan Chappell, Jacqueline Pearce, Stephen Greif, Brian Croucher, Josette Simon, Glynis Barber
Synopsis: A rebel leads a group of convicts and outcasts in a struggle against the totalitarian Terran Federation.

Trey: Blake's 7 ran for four 13 episode "series" on BBC1. It was created by Terry Nation, known for his work on Doctor Who (he was the creator of the Daleks), who also wrote the entire 1st series. We watched the first episode "The Way Back" on YouTube. We're introduced to former resistance leader Roj Blake who had been mindwiped, but after an attempt by old comrades to bring him back to the cause, witnesses a massacre and is subsequently framed for a series of fictional crimes by the totalitarian Federation and sent to a prison colony.

I'd seen this episode before, but it was decades ago on a public TV funding drive. I think it's ripe for a re-imagining a la Battlestar Galactica. It already had the grit so there would be no need to add it! With the re-ascendance of Star Wars and the arrival of Guardians of the Galaxy style bombastic space fantasy, maybe it's time is actually past?

Jason: As I understand, the series makes a pronounced tonal shift into the fantastic following this dark, serious opener. 

Trey: Well, from what I've seen, it definitely goes more space opera, but I think it stays roughly Deep Space Nine level of darkness. Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. We should talk about the actual episode! 

Jason: We owe Roj Blake that much.

Trey: Its visuals (both in terms of design and casting) and its music give strong Dr. Who vibes, of course. Its story, though, reminds me more of dystopian science fiction films of the 70s, things like Soylent Green, THX-1138, or Logan's Run. It also made me think a lot about the recent Andor.

Jason: As regards the visuals, one must go in with an understanding of the BBC's standards of the day. The budget is as austere as the world depicted and TV technology is limited. The subject matter of this premiere episode is well-suited to these limitations. 

I agree that this episode was very much in this pre-Star Wars mold, with a dash of Nineteen Eighty-Four and a pinch of Phillip K. Dick. We are not really given much of a clue as to what's to follow in the narrative, but this grim bummer of a tale works well. The heaps of bodies piling up throughout its narrative arc make the stakes seem real. 

Trey: Gareth Thomas doesn't seem to have to look for an American lead (maybe the closest American equivalent would be Elliott Gould who did get leading roles in the 70s, though) but he seems believable in this position.

Jason: He's no Don Johnson or Phillip Michael Thomas (see last week's post)! And the drab concrete-and-steel world he inhabits under the influence of stultifying mind-control drugs is about as far from dreamy, cocaine-fueled 80s Miami as one can get. I've only seen him in this, so far as I recall, but his performance is very good. The rest of the cast deliver solid performances and do well with the material. I'd say this is the most intentionally mature work I've seen from screenwriter Nation, lacking any and all of the whimsy and slight goofiness of his Dr. Who work. 
Trey: I like the very 70s, post-Watergate subplot of the idealistic public defender and his partner whose idealism leads them to be crushed by the system. It's not the sort of thing most space opera-ish shows give you!

Jason: The public defender subplot was one of the few outright surprises of the episode, and perhaps worth not spoiling* for any readers who have not seen this episode! 

My verdict: a well-done and appropriately grim take on the dystopian hell-world of tomorrow that remains watchable and tense throughout its run.

Trey: I agree. I wish this was a series available on physical media. I would pick it up.

*SPOILER ALERT! Seeing the crumpled bodies of the public defender and his associate came as a bit of a shock! Against any reasonable hope, I expected them to be ongoing characters!

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