S01EP01 – The pilot episode of BLAKE’S 7 is one of its best, in part because it is so tonally different from much of what comes after. It’s also an interesting bit of television in that, going into the episode originally, most viewers had no idea what the show was going to be about and who the ongoing cast would be. This allowed the episode to pull off a sucker punch of an ending and to set the stage for the four seasons of adventures that would follow. It first aired in the United Kingdom on January 2, 1978, and its stylish and inscrutable opening, reproduced above, gave one impressions of THE PRISONER.
BLAKE’S 7 was the brainchild of Terry Nation, best remembered as the creator of the Daleks in DOCTOR WHO. The show was pitched as a futuristic version of the Dirty Dozen, with a band of morally-grey freedom fighters taking on a corrupt administration in a dystopian future. Science Fiction was seeing a resurgence in 1978 with the big screen success of STAR WARS–but BLAKE’S 7 was never going to be able to compete on that level. Even as compared with DOCTOR WHO, its budget was minuscule and its props and costumes often laughable. But what made BLAKE’S 7 thrive despite all of these drawbacks were its characters and its storytelling. It is, bar none, the bleakest science fiction series ever aired.
The first shot of this first episode is, appropriately enough, a surveillance camera. The world of the future is a surveillance state, where the population is watched at all times and kept in a compliant stupor through drugs introduced into the food and water supply. Part of this is necessary–everybody lives in massive domed cities since the surface of the Earth was ravaged in earlier wars, making resources scarce and needing to be carefully controlled. On a featureless white concourse we focus in on Roj Blake, the man who will be our protagonist. One of the things that I love about British television is that the standard of beauty is set at a completely different level. You might never see anybody who looks like star Gareth Thomas on American television, especially in this era, but here his thoroughly blue collar sensibility works for him/
Blake has come to meet friends who say they have word of his family on the outer planets. Instead, they’ve conspired to lure Blake here to expose him to some troubling truths. They make their way outside the city’s dome, a capital crime in and of itself–only for Blake to discover that the landscape is green and verdant, the water clean and pure. Making their way to a hidden bunker, his friends bring Blake to an underground resistance meeting run by Bran Foster, who reveals to Blake that four years earlier, Roj himself was the charismatic leader of the rebellion to free the population from the yoke of the Federation. Rather than killing Blake, the administration captured and brainwashed him, making him forget his days of activism and turning him into just another soporific drone. Foster hopes to reawaken Blake’s memories of his true self, as they need him badly if their cause is ever going to succeed.
As the meeting begins, Blake wanders away down a corridor to think about all of the disturbing things he’s just heard. Which is fortunate for him, because the underground has been betrayed by one of their own, and it’s seconds later that Federation storm troopers flood into the complex, annihilating the assembly despite them putting up no active resistance. Blake remains in hiding as this happens, emerging to survey the massacre only after the troopers have left. He makes his way back to the domed city, only to be instantly recaptured once he sets foot inside its heavily monitored walls. It’s back to the brainwashing machines for ol’ Roj. What’s crucial here is that the episode has already introduced a number of characters who seemed as though they were going to be regulars, then casually wiped them all out save for Blake himself. This is the series in a microcosm.
Unwilling to kill Blake and make a martyr of him, and with his memories returning, the Federation instead conspires to create false charges of child molestation against Blake. This involves them using their brainwashing devices on the children in question and implanting those memories in their minds, which is pretty nasty (though it is never shown on screen, thankfully.) The intention here is to discredit Blake and get him sentenced to exile on the Cygnus Alpha penal colony, where he will be swiftly forgotten about. We are introduced to Blake’s defense attorney Tel Varon, whom Blake tells about the massacre of the dissidents. Even Varon doesn’t believe Blake’s innocence, but all Blake wants is to be able to make a statement about the murder of the underground, and he’s a very convincing figure. Blake’s trial goes as you’d expect, and he is found guilty on all charges and disallowed from making his statement. All of this troubles Varon
Blake wakes up after being tranquilized in a holding pen waiting for the prison ship to refuel before it can take the prisoners to Cygnus Alpha. Here, he makes the acquaintance of Vila Restal, a quick-fingered compulsive thief who is an inveterate coward as well (“Other people’s property just comes naturally to me.“), and Jenna Stannis, a pilot and smuggler–or “Free Trader” as she prefers. Like Blake, they too are bound for life imprisonment exiled upon Cygnus Alpha.
In the meantime, Varon is still troubled by the way the trial played out, and so he and his wife Maja head down to Central Records to go over the evidence against Blake again. Bribing the record-keeper for access to documents above his clearance, Varon is able to assemble circumstantial evidence that the child witnesses had all been the subjects of memory-implantation. It’s enough to cause Varon to question Blake further about the location where the massacre took place. Blake’s memories are hazy, but he’s able to provide Varon and Maja with enough detail that they can sneak outside the dome and go see for themselves. But all the while, the clock is ticking down the minutes to Blake’s being shipped out. Varon attempts to get a stay put on Blake’s deportation but quickly comes to realize that his own superior is in on the frame-up. So his only recourse is to get tangible evidence of the Federation’s wrongdoing.
For the last ten minutes, the episode inter-cuts between Blake in his prison cell being transferred onto the prison ship and Tel and Maja investigating outside of the dome. They manage to find the location of the slayings and Veron makes recordings of all of it. But the transport ship’s timetable has been moved up, and Blake is growing increasingly agitated as the moment for lift-off approaches, knowing that he’s meant to have a reprieve coming for him. Veron and Maja have all that they need now to prove their case, and they race back towards the dome to prevent Blake’s deportation.
But they’re too late. With Blake confined in his seat, the shuttle takes off. And as it crests the curvature of the dome, we pan down to find Tel and Maja’s lifeless bodies lying in the grass. They’ve been executed by the spy within the resistance, and no help is coming for Blake. It’s also a neat reversal in that enough time has been spent with them carrying the action that the viewer’s natural assumption was that they were going to be regular characters. This is twice this episode that BLAKE’S 7 has pulled this same trick, and it works in both instances.
As the shuttle continues into space and the Earth recedes into the distance in the window behind him, one of the guards tells Blake, “Take a long look! It’s the last you’ll ever see of it!” And he replies with renewed purpose: “No. I’m coming back.“