By Alan Stevens And Fiona Moore
Blake's 7 is a late-70s telefantasy programme which contains some of the most sophisticated scripts ever to appear on British television. In spite of this, however, the series continues to be undervalued, even by many who consider themselves its supporters. There is also an undercurrent of rivalry between the fans of Blake's 7 and of Doctor Who which still exists today. This is all the more strange when one considers that many actors and production people had in fact worked on both shows, giving them a strong thematic connection. It cannot be denied that Blake's 7 as a concept has extensive links with Doctor Who, its antecedents stretching back as far as "The Daleks' Master Plan".
One of the things which Blake's 7 shares with Doctor Who at its best is the quality of the scripts and ideas. The Blake's 7 writing team, in keeping with the high standards of British television in the mid-to-late-1970s, pulled off the remarkable feat of reformulating the space-opera genre to appeal to sophisticated as well as unsophisticated audiences; older children could enjoy the comedy and the straightforward action-adventure premise, where literate adults could appreciate the subtle and thoughtful scripting as well as the references to Orwell, Huxley and The Prisoner. Unfortunately, however, Blake's 7 suffered from poor production values and occasionally from regrettable directing. This hamstrung the programme at the time, as many contemporary critics consequently failed to pick up its intelligent and occasionally disturbing messages, and has rendered it inaccessible to many modern-day viewers. An analysis of the Chris Boucher episode "Weapon" (first broadcast on 23rd January 1979) will reveal how, despite the flaws in the programme's appearance and some potentially disastrous behind-the-scenes conflicts, the script compares easily with the best that television had to offer at the time.
The problems with the series are clearly highlighted in the way in which one of its main villains, Space Commander Travis, is treated in this episode. The first actor to play the role, Stephen Greif, had left at the end of the previous series, making "Weapon" the debut episode for his replacement, Brian Croucher. A number of viewers have commented in the past on the disturbing impact of this transformation; however, there is more there to cause problems for the audience than simply the new face.
The change of actors at this point, while understandable in light of the constraints under which the production team were working, in fact undermines one of the central premises of the script. Travis as he appears in "Weapon" is a very aggressive man; he is violent, almost psychopathic in his actions. Rather than stand to attention when in the presence of his superior officer Servalan, he lounges insolently; at one point he seizes Servalan by the throat. It is very easy to attribute this change in character to Croucher's different take on Travis, and indeed some of it does come from the difference in acting styles between the two performers. However, what is interesting is that much of the violence, insolence and near-lunacy has been scripted, including the throat-grab. Even more interestingly, the script in question had been written before Greif's decision to leave the part.
Prior to this story, Greif's performance in the role of Travis had been very disciplined and mannered; even when Servalan is actively working to undermine him (as in the opening of "Deliverance"), his attitude to her has always been one which respected their relative positions in the hierarchy. Had the familiar actor still been in the role, the audience would have witnessed a sea-change from a disciplined officer to an insolent psychopath. A similar effect would have been achieved if Croucher had been established in the role prior to his appearance in "Weapon", as Croucher is more than capable of playing a disciplined, obedient soldier. The problem thus lies not with the change of actors per se, but the coincidence of the change in actors with the change in character.
If one leaves the recasting issue totally to the side, then, we have here a progression from one series to the next. There are references in the script to Travis having visited a "retraining therapist," a sinister euphemism with connotations of forced mental reprogramming rather than of a quiet cup of tea with a shrink. This retraining process is intended to effectively re-mould Travis' personality into a form which suits his superiors' needs better than his current one; this is an interesting echo of the social conditioning process by which Travis, as a young army recruit, would have been moulded into a Federation soldier (see Travis: The Final Act). This time, however, the psycho-conditioning appears to have failed on every level. As a consequence we go from a disciplined, if somewhat obsessive, officer, to someone who is so far gone that he cannot stop himself from killing the duplicate Blake, even though he knows that it is a clone and that the repercussions from destroying such an expensive weapon will be severe.
As if it weren't hard enough trying to take over a pre-existing character within an established cast, Croucher was faced with the further difficulty of an unsympathetic director. At the time of the recording of "Weapon", the BBC was being hit by industrial action. In response, director George Spenton-Foster declared that he intended to "beat the strike." Why he decided to do this is known only to him, as in many cases a strike can be made to work for, rather than against, the production; extra money, for instance, can be allocated to get a story completed. Instead, Spenton-Foster's action had the reverse effect and the production was rushed through, with lines lost and mistakes left in. Spenton-Foster was also known to be a director who would take sudden likes and dislikes to particular cast members; it is a matter of record that he was not fond of Brian Croucher. The reason for this may well lie in their respective attitudes to acting. Croucher is known to take performances very seriously, in that he likes to be aware of a character's background, rationale and motivations; if this is not apparent from the script, he will ask the director. According to Spenton-Foster's colleagues at the time, he generally regarded actors as "puppets" who should do what they were told. Spenton-Foster was, however, inclined to be more lenient in this attitude with performers whom he liked; his treatment of Croucher is in stark contrast to that of more favoured actors such as Scott Fredericks and Jacqueline Pearce, who were given far more leeway in terms of character interpretation. Thus backstage conflicts have contributed to the character not reaching his full potential.
The direction is also behind many of the other problems with the episode. Spenton-Foster is known for his tendency to go all-out in his productions: sometimes this works, as in the Blake's 7 story "Gambit"; at other times, as here, it simply looks overdone. The costumes in "Weapon" show a heavy Japanese influence (possibly an attempt to reference Kurosawa); however, in order to do something like this well, one needs a much bigger budget than Blake's 7 had to work with at the time, and the result looks rather cheap. The costumes are also frequently at odds with the characters' stated roles; one wonders how a labour-grade bond-slave can engage in manual work when dressed like Ming the Merciless. There is also a rather ill-conceived attempt to carry through the Japanese influence to the action, with the opening scenes being played in a very stylised manner.
Other aspects of the design have also been found wanting. The Clonemasters' citadel is at one point said to be a living entity; there is, however, no suggestion of the organic about the place, it being simply a white set like the many other white sets which figure in late-70s science fiction. As well as through his treatment of the actors, then, Spenton-Foster's attitude to design has caused the story's more subtle themes to all but vanish behind ill-chosen costumes and sets, and overly stilted performances.
It thus seems that potentially clever aspects of characterisation and plotting have been totally lost on the audience, due to a series of unfortunate coincidences coupled with poor direction. Furthermore, these decisions have had other knock-on effects. Firstly, the double blow of having a director who did not like him and the apparent fact that he never had the rationale for his character's actions discussed with him, was one from which Croucher took a long time to recover. More to the point for this episode, however, the poor design and direction also distract from other, more sophisticated aspects of the story, such as the IMIPAK plotline.
It is in the concept of IMIPAK that the major themes of the episode emerge. IMIPAK (which stands for Induced Molecular Instability Projector and Key) is a super-weapon in two parts; the first part, the projector, "marks" an individual, who then goes on living day-to-day until the second part, the key, is triggered, which kills him/her. IMIPAK is therefore a weapon of control; its power is the ability to make others do your bidding, on pain of certain death. This theme of power, control and hierarchy is echoed elsewhere in the story, with Travis rebelling against Servalan's control, Servalan herself resenting having to go cap-in-hand to the (non-Federation) Clonemasters in order to fulfil her plans, and in Carnell's position in the system. However, it is in the case of IMIPAK and its maker that these themes are most explicit.
Appropriately, the designer of IMIPAK is a man with a grudge against the hierarchical nature of the Federation system. As a Beta-grade technician, Coser is assumed not to be intelligent enough to create a weapon of IMIPAK's quality. Anticipating that he will have the credit for his achievement stolen by colleagues who are higher up the social ladder than he is, he steals the weapon, kills everyone else at his workplace (an act no doubt partly motivated by revenge) and escapes in the company of a member of the lowest grade of all, a bond-slave named Rashel.
The "grading" system, which is mentioned here only for the second time (the first comes in the Boucher-scripted "Shadow" which had aired the week before, thus setting the scene for "Weapon"), is a system of control which underlines the whole social structure of the Federation. We never get a complete picture of how the system works, but the implication here and elsewhere is that it is an examination-based "meritocracy"; birth does not (ostensibly) matter in determining one's social classification, but test results do. There, as in similar modern-day systems (the English eleven-plus, for instance), the process can fail individuals, even groups; however, as in their case, the hierarchy is effectively self-policing. Coser may know that he is smarter than his grade classification suggests; however, nobody will believe him, as it begs the question of why, if he is so intelligent, he didn't do better on his exams. Even Coser does not entirely believe it himself; his choice of companion is a bond-slave, so far down the social hierarchy that there is no possibility of her outranking him, and his last desperate statement to Servalan as she prepares to kill him-- "I didn't mean it"-- again suggests that on some level he still doubted his own intelligence.
Although Coser resents the power structure of the Federation, he is unable to prevent himself from thinking in the same terms. He insists that Rashel not call him "sir," and reveals in a speech that he does not only dislike the word because it shows her to be a slave, but because he himself has had to call others "sir," and endure their patronising attitudes (significantly, the Clone Blake also calls Travis "sir," and Travis later underestimates its abilities due to its ostensibly servile behaviour). At the same time, however, Coser also resents it when Rashel shows any sign of un-bond-slave-like independence. Particularly telling is the scene in which a noise is heard outside; after a brief argument in which he believes it to be some kind of threat to them and she insists that it is only a rat, she picks up a lamp and heads out of the room, effectively showing that she intends to prove him wrong, regardless of their respective ranks. At this action, he pulls her back through the door and threatens to kill her if she disobeys him again. In the same scene, when she mentions that a disobedient bond-slave could be "modified" (a phrase, which should send a chill down the spine of the viewer), he does not even acknowledge that she has basic human rights over her own body. This also highlights Coser's hypocrisy: for all he goes on about the injustices he has faced, he never acknowledges that her plight is far worse than his. In the end, Coser dies apologising; Rashel, however, having learned the nature of power and freedom, is rude to her superiors as she is dragged out.
Rashel's progress throughout the story thus gives us virtually the sole glimmering that there is a way out of this system. Initially, Rashel goes with Coser, not out of love (she shows no affection for him), nor out of a sense of rebelliousness (which she does not display until later in the story), but apparently simply because he, a higher grade, has ordered her to. Later, however, she suggests that the original inhabitants of the installation deserted it "because they were free." At this point she has a partial understanding of the nature of freedom; she sees it here as the ability to do what one wants, without fear of reprisal. At the story's climax, she commits the ultimate act of disobedience in "marking" Servalan and Travis and taking possession of the IMIPAK key; in doing so, she has in some ways enslaved them. The end of the story sees her with a more mature concept of freedom; she is confined to the planet and agrees to share it with the Clone Blake, but she is free to do as she likes with it, and their relationship is one of mutual respect, even of love, rather than of power and reprisal. In the final analysis, only Rashel and Carnell have broken free of the system; however, Rashel is the only one who truly breaks free, as Carnell's final words-- "I have lost my reputation, my career, the respect of my peers"-- suggest that Carnell is thinking not in terms of love, but still of power, and therefore is simply doing what he desires rather than thinking in terms of personal development.
Carnell, finally, also reflects the themes of power and hierarchy of the story, but in a different way. He is said to be a "psychostrategist"; one who is able to use the study of human behaviour to predict, and even influence, its patterns. As such, Carnell has an obvious antecedent in such individuals as Edward Bernays, inventor of the field of public relations, who advised numerous American governments of the 1930s through to the 1950s in the use of psychological manipulation in political dealings. In "Weapon", however, Carnell appears to take on a greater role than simply that of advising on the best course of action under the circumstances. He has not only read the script, but he is writing it; he is the author of Blake, Travis and Servalan's actions. By suggesting to Servalan a scenario in which Travis would unwittingly kill himself along with Blake, Avon and Gan, Carnell has come up with the solution to Servalan's predicament with regard to being politically incapable of firing Travis and yet finding him too dangerous to use. Carnell is visibly capable of, and willing to, use every psychological weapon at his disposal to achieve his ends (apparently with considerable success); while his scenes with Servalan are incredibly sexually charged, he also briefly "cruises" the young officer with the report (an action which actor Scott Fredericks deliberately placed in the scene), suggesting that for him, flirtation and sex are ways of getting what he wants from people. Carnell thus seems to the viewer to be more intelligent than the other characters, perhaps even one removed from the scene in an almost authorial way.
The picture we get of Carnell's basic methodology, however, causes some problems with this scenario. A psychostrategist, we learn, has to take every human and environmental factor involved in a particular strategy into consideration. Carnell was supplied with data, biographical and otherwise, on everyone and everything involved; this data is apparently sufficiently detailed for him to predict that the Liberator crew will adopt Blake's escape plan over Avon's more sensible one. In the case of Coser, who is of course the key to the whole plan, the information would have been similarly exhaustive; Carnell is able to predict with reasonable certainty the time at which Coser will leave the weapons lab, the fact that he will fake his own death in doing so, and the point at which he will have descended sufficiently into madness for the arrival of the Clone Blake to seem unremarkable to him. If Carnell's information on Coser's actions and personality is this detailed, and his powers of interpretation this finely honed, then why does Carnell make a single key mistake: that of failing to predict that Coser would take with him a bond-slave?
Rashel, as we have already noted, is the main element in the foiling of Servalan's ambitions. The fact that the people supplying the information to Carnell failed to give him any data on her-- or mention her absence from the weapons lab-- means, firstly, that Carnell is operating on the assumption that Coser is acting alone and has no one with him on the planet, and secondly, that Carnell cannot predict the impact which Rashel's presence and psychological mindset will have on the strategy in play. This is all the more serious when one considers that not only does Rashel ultimately take charge of the situation at the end of the story, but she also appears to have somehow precipitated Coser's initial breakdown (early on, Carnell notes that Coser's departure happened sooner than expected; while we never find out exactly what caused it, Rashel is the only random element in the picture). While it is understandable for the Federation officials to overlook her presence-given that, following on from the discussion above about Federation hierarchy, they would neither consider her worth gathering data on, nor would they consider that Coser, a Beta-grade, would have anything to do with her-- it is more puzzling in the case of Carnell. Why, if Carnell is so omniscient, does he not only neglect to take her presence into account, but also fail to realise that his informants would not consider her important, and ask them specifically for information on bond-slaves?
The answer to the question can be deduced by referring back to the story's themes of hierarchy, and the unquestioning acceptance of it. For all his abilities and his apparent superiority, Carnell is as much a product of the system as any of the other Federation (and ex-Federation) characters. Carnell is of the Federation: unlike the Clonemasters (whose actions, interestingly, are not unadjacent to the foiling of Carnell's plan), Carnell comes to Servalan's office rather than she coming to see him; he speaks of the value (or lack of value) of careers, money and respect; he plays chess. Carnell can thus no more totally divorce himself from the ingrained attitudes of the Federation than Coser can. For all Carnell appears to consider himself superior to his fellow citizens, he shares their unspoken beliefs about society; this arrogant ignorance is ultimately the downfall of both Carnell's plan and Carnell himself.
Carnell's arrogance, and failure to realise this, also influences his actions in other, possibly dangerous ways. One of the most problematic aspects of "Weapon" is the fact that someone as intelligent and as attuned to human behavioural patterns as Carnell is willing to let someone as dangerous as Servalan have possession of something as powerful as IMIPAK. Even if he has no consideration for anyone's safety other than his own, one would think that he would at least recognise the potential risk to himself. If he had intended Servalan's actions to fail-- namely, if he had deliberately overlooked Rashel's presence-- that would be one thing, but the fact that he speaks the line "and my second mistake was not asking for my fee in advance" after the officer with the report has left the room suggests that the fact of her presence genuinely did not occur to him, and therefore that he was actually trying to obtain IMIPAK for Servalan. Again, Carnell's arrogant beliefs about his own superiority are his downfall; he may be able to manipulate the actions of others, but he fails to acknowledge the potential consequences of his actions for himself and others.
The Carnell subplot thus may appear at first glance to hinge on a set of rather ridiculous assumptions and incredible errors on the part of the psychostrategist. However, it is in fact a clever comment on the power of society to shape the attitudes of its members, even those intelligent and educated enough to know better. While he may see and present himself as superior to others in terms of predicting human behaviour, Carnell is ultimately defeated, not only by his inability to step outside the Federation system, but by the fact that he has deluded himself into thinking that he is capable of doing so.
For all the poor design and behind-the-scenes friction, then, "Weapon" tells a complex tale of dominance, power and control which is as relevant to our time as to the late 1970s. In the characters of Travis, Coser and Carnell we see not only the weaknesses of Blake's 7, but also its strengths: intelligent, witty storytelling in a deceptively unassuming guise.
Effects copyright Andy Hopkinson
With thanks to Maureen Marrs