When creator of the Daleks Terry Nation’s Blake’s 7 ran on the BBC, it was an enormous success, achieving ratings that threatened its sole rival in TV sci-fi, Doctor Who. Utilizing many of the same talents from costume designers to actors and even writers, there was some overlap between the two competitive programs, but they were very much different creations.
Whereas Doctor Who was fanciful, Blake’s 7 was political, dangerous and edgy. An adventure series depicting a small group of terrorists striking back at a corrupt Galactic Federation, Blake’s 7 found an audience that was more than happy to cheer for the outcast and rebel in the face of impossible odds.
After four series, the program concluded with a still legendary finale in which the rebels were brutally gunned down by the Federation troops, surprising viewers and Nation himself who had moved on to other projects. Nevertheless, there was always the seed of an idea that the program could return with Blake’s protege and successor, the sly Kerr Avon, at the center of a new revolution. Nation passed away before the mini-series that he and actor Paul Darrow (a household name from his portrayal as the brilliant sociopath Avon), but the idea remained.
With the successful revival of Doctor Who, B7 Productions started work on a massive re-imagining of Blake’s 7. Due to several factors, the program found difficulty getting off the ground, but a remarkable cast was assembled, excellent scripts drafted and the decision made to develop a series of audio dramas to drum up support for the new vision.
Derek Ridell (Doctor Who – Tooth and Claw) plays Roj Blake, an engineer living a quiet life in the far future until one day his programming falls apart and he remembers who he really is and why he was conditioned to forget. A desperate attempt is made to contain and capture him with his nemesis Travis leading a commando raid on his apartment, but Blake has left a surprise for the soldiers who barely escape with their lives. Looking for help from an old colleague, Blake is instead betrayed to the Federation. Put on public trial on trumped up charges of sexual assault involving minors, Blake is shipped off to the penal colony of Cyngus Alpha.
Before he is sentenced, Blake meets with Supreme Commander of the Federation, the cruel and devious Servalan who explains the need to thoroughly discredit the former leader of the rebellion that once threatened the stability of the entire Earth Empire. Blake’s followers once believed that he had sold out and laid down his arms, but this time there is a need to completely shatter his character. Through it all, Blake never drops his sneer of defiance nor does he lose his will to resist.
On the way to the penal colony, the ship’s crew are forced to awaken Blake from his sleeping chamber. They have encountered an alien craft that could prove to be valuable to the Federation, but they cannot leave their own craft. Instead, Blake is expected to take control of the craft and pilot it to the colony for further analysis. Insisting that he will need assistance, Blake is paired up with the feisty pilot Jenna Stanis and the cool and calculating Kerr Avon, computer hacker. The trio manage to take control of the craft and overcome their guards. With a small band of rebels and a strange alien ship at his command, Blake decides to renew the rebellion he had started years ago.
To Avon, setting course for Cygnus Alpha rather than going elsewhere seems like the most idiotic decision Blake could make, but this is the strength of such a decision to the rebel leader. He needs an army of recruits, and what better place to find them then a penal colony? On Cygnus Alpha, Villa, Gan and Soris are finding that the alien world holds many strange and perplexing threats from a planet-wide disease to a tribe of ‘converts’ living a simple primitive lifestyle under the leadership of their ruler.
Villa has always been one of my favorite Blake’s 7 characters and Michael Keating played him so well for four years running that it is difficult to imagine anyone else managing. Voiced by Dean Harris, this Villa sounds decidedly older and crabbier but just as entertaining. The wit and humor of the original Blake’s 7 series is one of the most endearing of its qualities, an aspect that comes across in the dialog most prominently. This is most clearly retained in the character of Villa, a neurotic pickpocket who tries his best to stay out of sight at all times.
By contrast, Gan is a noble and good-hearted giant of a man who looks after Villa as one would a troublesome younger sibling. Ben Aaronovitch’s brother Owen plays the part very well, giving just the right level of sincerity and power to his character. Gan plays the hero several times throughout ‘Rebel’ and nearly dies each time. It’s clear that the world of Blake’s 7 has no place for heroism and rewards it in each instance with a closer brush with death. Nevertheless, Gan remains almost optimistic and cheerful throughout the story even when threatened by a bloodthirsty native monster of Cygnus Alpha.
Blake arrives on the penal colony just as Villa has discovered that there is no sickness and that the entire empire is run on a lie to keep the prisoners in line. Gan thinks little of this and wisely states that it hardly matters since they have nowhere to go… until Blake makes his presence known. Disrupting the kingdom, a revolt erupts that both Gan and Villa narrowly escape by joining Blake’s party. They are almost immediately in danger from the orbiting security robots, but that’s the way it is in Blake’s world.
Meanwhile on Earth, Travis hastily informs Servalan, now promoting to the post of Supreme Commander, of Blake’s escape. Servalan cares little for the news and states that on Earth Blake may be a threat, but in deep space he is no one at all. Travis of course knows that she is wrong but swallows his pride and remains silent.
All of this more or less follows the plot of Terry Nation’s excellent script of the pilot episode, The Way Back. It’s a tricky thing to recreate a masterpiece (I still view the first episode of Blake’s 7 as one of the all time best beginnings of a TV program), but writer Ben Aaronovitch (Doctor Who – Remembrance of the Daleks) does a good job of it. Modernizing not only the plot elements but the tone and pacing proves that Blake’s 7 has what it takes to succeed as a major TV program with relatively few alterations to the source material.
Part of the changes involve the characters who are all played by new actors who are charged with finding new facets to these parts while honoring what has come before. Again, not an easy job. Whereas Gareth Thomas’ rendition of Roj Blake was a brave and determined noble fighter for justice, Ridell’s character is a little rougher and sharper. I’m not taking anything away from Thomas’ acting ability, but frankly I buy Ridell more as the leader of a terrorist strike against the government.
Colin Salmon (Tomorrow Never Dies, Doctor Who – Silence in the Library) has the hardest job at recreating a role that is so closely associated with actor Paul Darrow. From the facial nuances to the purring of dialog, Avon IS Darrow and Darrow IS Avon. From his first line delivery, however, my doubts were put to rest. Salmon is a very well respected actor and has worked on both television and film in many supporting parts, but this could be his best. It’s truly tragic that we are currently restricted to only his voice, but fingers crossed the TV series may be on its way.
Despite the inclusion of a new character, the former Federation Section Leader Mezin (voiced by Doctor Who’s India Fisher), American actress Carrie Dobro who voices Jenna is the most jarring addition to the cast. Once you get over the accent, however, she fits in fine. Fisher is another fine cast member and adds a nice dramatic tension against Riddell’s Blake and Salmon’s Avon.
Released in 2006, there are two other audio adventures; Traitor by Marc Platt (writer of the series 26 Doctor Who adventure Ghostlight) and Liberator by James Swallow (of a scriptwriter of numerous sci-fi legacies from Doctor Who to Warhammer 40,000 to Star Trek to Stargate). In addition to the three-part launching pad of audio adventures are early years adventures centering on specific characters such as Cally, Gan, Villa, Avon and Travis with more on its way.
Currently, the television project of Blake’s 7 remains in limbo, but for fans of this series, the audio adventures are a real treat. If you are a fan of British sci-fi and have never heard of Blake’s 7, this could be the perfect place to start, the beginning of a new age of the rebellion.
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