I’ve written here in the past about the battle waged between competing PBS Stations in my broadcast area for the pledge money to be garnered from supporters of DOCTOR WHO back in the 1980s. This led to both stations picking up anything within the BBC’s back-catalog of programs that looked as though it might appeal to the same audience, and how I came to see perhaps the most nihilistic television series ever made, BLAKE’S 7
BLAKE’S 7 is sort of the anti-STAR TREK. In the far future, the Earth is at the center of an intergalactic Federation that encompasses dozens of planets. However, this Federation is totalitarian and corrupt, using Orwellian tactics to keep the population in line. Years before, Roj Blake was a dissident and a rebel, but following his capture by the authorities, he was brainwashed and forced to toe the party line. And that’s where the first episode opens up. You can watch it here–and the less you know about it going in, the better it works, so don’t read the next bits until you have:
Amazingly, it takes BLAKE’S 7 three full episodes to set up its regular status quo, and each of those initial episodes is almost nothing like the ones around it in terms of tone and style. It suffers from working with a budget even smaller than that given to DOCTOR WHO, but when it works, it works because of the scripts and the skills of the actors.
In essence, BLAKE’S 7 is a low-rent DIRTY DOZEN, with Blake as the titular leader, waging a guerrilla war against the Federation with the assistance of a half-dozen criminals and reprobates freed from an outer space gulag. They’re pursued by the authorities not so much because Blake is an effective leader whose rebellion might actually succeed, but because they’ve come into possession of the Liberator, an alien spaceship of unknown origins (though we do learn them in the course of the series) that’s technologically superior to anything that the Federation has.
But the thing that people remember most of all about BLAKE’S 7 is that it wasn’t afraid to kill off its cast. This was an era when, if you reported for duty on the Starship Enterprise, the audience could count on the fact that you’d be around on a regular basis. Not so on BLAKE’S 7. At any time, at any moment, your number could come up, and did. For most of its tenure, in fact, the title was a misnomer, as there were fewer than 7 characters aboard the Liberator. In fact, Blake himself vanishes after the second of four seasons, leaving his dark-hearted rival Kerr Avon to become the lead character, a move not unlike killing off Captain Kirk and having the evil mirror universe Spock become the Captain.
The search for Blake occupied the background of the final two seasons, leading to a dark and memorable finale, in which he is found, but due to a series of mistakes and miscommunications, Avon shoots him dead just before the base they’re in is surrounded by Federation Stormtroopers and the entire cast is brutally gunned down.
In BLAKE’S 7, the good guys were the bad guys, and the good guys lose.
Not every episode of BLAKE’S 7 is a gem–most of them are pedestrian in the way that many of the DOCTOR WHO episodes of this period are. But the episodes that pop really pop, and the ever-changing cast is pretty great throughout, once they become comfortable in their roles.