Blake's 7: A Comparative Review
By Helen Reilly
Blake's 7 has been a success story that has spanned a quarter of a century. Although produced on a minuscule budget, it was a show that benefited from some excellent writing and was largely story-and-character driven. This more than compensated for what was lacking in special effects, but even those were something of a miraculous achievement, given what the production team had to work with. The show has maintained its popularity despite very limited reruns and not having been released in full on video until 1993, some 15 years after it first aired.
In the years since it was first broadcast, though, there have been a number of books written about the programme. These works run the gamut from memoirs through programme guides to more serious literary and academic tracts. The most recent of these, Liberation: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Blake's 7 by Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore, is an effort that I enjoyed reading and I believe is very well done. As a result, I thought that it might be both worthwhile and interesting to compare and evaluate the relative contribution of some of these works to the public knowledge and understanding of this enduring series.
I have chosen to concentrate on five books in particular for the following reasons: firstly, all the books have been readily available and widely disseminated, and can still be relatively easily obtained. Secondly, they cover almost the full 25 years since the original transmission, the first being published in 1982 and the last as recently as September 2003, and thirdly, within the five works there are a number of different aims and approaches.
I have divided the books into categories and will compare each work to the other in its own category, and then try to place it in relation to the others. The first contains two books that deal with the making of the programme in a production and logistical sense; Blake's 7: The Inside Story by Joe Nazzaro and Sheelagh Wells (London, Virgin Publishing Ltd., 1997) and The Making of Terry Nation's Blake's 7 by Adrian Rigelsford (London, Boxtree Ltd., 1995). Those in the second category are attempts to understand and analyse the series in terms of plot, character development and intent; A History and Critical Analysis of Blake's 7, the 1978-1981 British Television Space Adventure by John Kenneth Muir (North Carolina, McFarland and Company, 2000) and Liberation: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Blake's 7 by Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore (Surrey, Telos Publishing Ltd., 2003). The final book is Terry Nation's Blake's 7: The Programme Guide by Tony Attwood (London, W. H. Allen and Company, 1987), whose title is self-explanatory and which can be compared to the episode guides or synopses in all the other books.
Let us begin with the first category mentioned above, those works dealing with the hands-on making and production of the show. The first book referred to is Joe Nazzaro and Sheelagh Wells' Blake's 7: The Inside Story. As regards the authors, Joe Nazzaro is a journalist and interviewer with a particular interest in sci-fi, has written books on Star Trek and Red Dwarf, and is a regular magazine contributor. Sheelagh Wells is a makeup artist who was employed for many years by the BBC and worked on Blake's 7 throughout Series C. Prior to that she shared a flat with Gareth Thomas, to whom she was married for a time, so was in a sense involved with the show from the very beginning.
This book benefits greatly from the fact that both the authors are people who know what they are talking about when it comes to Blake's 7. It is divided into ten chapters that each deal with a different aspect of getting the series from idea to screen. Logically enough, Chapter One details the genesis of the series and then the following eight chapters deal with individual aspects. Chapters Two and Seven discuss the original cast and changes to the cast respectively, Chapters Three and Six look at location and studio shooting, Four and Five deal respectively with costume and makeup, Chapter Eight with the fourth, unforeseen, season and Chapter Nine with the final episode, "Blake". Chapter 10 looks briefly at what the various cast members have gone onto post-Blake's 7, and the whole is rounded out with a brief programme guide.
The text is well written and clear showing Nazzaro's obvious journalistic skill, and, despite a bit of repetition in places, is largely well edited with no obvious typographical errors. The writing is peppered with quotations and recollections from an extraordinarily large assortment of the cast and crew, which lend an additional edge to the interest factor, not to mention a certain charm. The inclusion at regular intervals of "Sheelagh's Sector," giving the author's own experiences and thoughts, is a definite bonus. Illustration is lavish, with very good colour and black and white photographs, both publicity shots and more informal shots taken during production. An extremely worthwhile addition to the illustration is the inclusion of reproductions of some of the running sheets, internal correspondence and design drawings for everything from the spaceship models to the costumes.
Adrian Rigelsford has worked in a similar vein in his book The Making of Terry Nation's Blake's 7. Where Nazzaro and Wells have discussed filming and production in a general sense, with anecdotes from those involved, Rigelsford has concentrated on the production timeline; who directed what, where and when. Rigelsford has written and co-written a number of books on Doctor Who including Doctor Who: Cybermen with David Banks, and Doctor Who: The Monsters and Doctor Who: The Hinchcliffe Years on his own. He was also scriptwriter on a proposed Doctor Who 30th anniversary special called "The Dark Dimension". The Making of Blake's 7 boasts a glowing forward written by Terry Nation and an extremely impressive list of acknowledgements, which is perhaps somewhat unfortunate. The book on the whole is not very good yet Rigelsford appears to have access to production and script material and, moreover, wrote it after the full four seasons had been released on video. With such information readily available he should have been in a position to produce something at least free of errors in fact and description, which he has not.
The book is divided into four sections that each deal with a different season of the series. Each section has an overview, followed by a detailed listing of the production schedule, and is then completed by a very brief synopsis of each episode. Photographic illustration is generous throughout, with both black and white and colour images being reproduced.
The book's main aim is to give the reader an insight into the nuts and bolts making of the show and as such does not contain any discussion or analysis of plotline or character development. This is just as well, because Rigelsford gives little indication that he knows the programme well enough to have undertaken such a task. What he has done quite well, however, is to present a detailed and meticulous listing of rehearsal, shooting and production schedules, complete with days, dates, locations logistical difficulties and even weather conditions when they had a significant effect on production. The only concern with this is that for a book that purports to be about the making of the series, there is a lamentable lack of information or discussion of the models and special effects used throughout the four seasons.
The episode guide at the end of each section demonstrates Rigelsford's lack of any real knowledge of the programme. There are a number of instances where the simple description of the action is wrong, for example where he has Blake teleporting down with all his crew in "Horizon". What actually happens is that Blake teleports down with Jenna, and is then followed somewhat later by Gan and Vila, later again by Cally on her own, and finally by Avon. While it can be argued that all the crew end up on Horizon, Rigelsford's description is both inaccurate and misleading, not to mention that for them all to have teleported together would have dispensed with Avon's ruminations about whether or not to stay with Blake, a crucial theme throughout the first two seasons. A second example can be found in "Power" where Rigelsford says the crew are captured one-by-one by the Hommiks. This sounds as if the Hommiks are stalking and then picking them off when, in fact, Avon is taken first whilst out searching for Dynamon, and Vila, Dayna and Tarrant are captured together trying to rescue him. Rigelsford either misremembering or misunderstanding some basics of the plotlines compounds these errors. For example, he states that the Liberator projects its name into Jenna's mind when it is clear that Zen takes the name from Jenna's thoughts, and the motive Rigelsford ascribes to Giroc and Sinofar in "Duel" is completely wrong. Here he suggests that Giroc and Sinofar take Blake and Travis in order to learn about the human race. Their motive actually is to teach the two men a lesson about killing and its seductive pleasure. He also seems to think that Ultraworld is simply an alien spaceship, which shows a total lack of comprehension of the basic plotline. The publisher, Boxtree, has done him no favours either in allowing some very slapdash editing that also extends to the photograph captions. Although the book is generously illustrated, and some of the pictures at least were new at time of publication, a very large proportion of them are either poor quality, or simply bad shots. The very unflattering photo of Gareth Thomas on page 30 that makes him look about four feet tall and clubfooted is a prime example. There is also some hopeless confusion in the captioning between set action and off camera shots. For example, the two photographs of Sarkoff and Tyce on pages 23 and 32 are almost identical yet are captioned quite differently.
The second category that I want to look at is that of analysis: the interpretative rather than the descriptive. Here we again have two books with a similar objective and which use a similar format in their approach. Firstly, John Kenneth Muir's book A History and Critical Analysis of Blake's 7, the 1978-1981 British Television Space Adventure. Muir is an American who has written four other books in a similar vein, Exploring Space: 1999: An Episode Guide and Complete History of the Mid-1970s Science Fiction Television Series (1997), Wes Craven: The Art of Horror (1998), An Analytical Guide to Television's Battlestar Galactica (1999) and A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television (1999).
The author describes the series as a "video novel," "part The Magnificent Seven, part Robin Hood" and draws parallels with its antecedents in classic literature, film and television. He has picked up on and discussed the initial story arc, and has obviously given some time and thought to threads that run throughout the series. The book is laid out in five parts. The first deals with the history of the programme including information about actors and writers; this topic, however, was done better by Joe Nazzaro and Sheelagh Wells. Part III, called "Blake's Millions", salutes the many erudite and knowledgeable fans who have a passion for the show, while in Part IV, "Essays", Muir gives his thoughts on topics as diverse as the show's special effects and whether or not it is "anti Star Trek". Here Muir points out that Star Trek gives a utopian vision of the future where scientific and technological advancement have created a society free of hunger, poverty and disease, and where there is total racial and interspecies harmony. The Federation in Star Trek exists to protect and enrich the lives of its citizens. Hardly the vision we see in Blake's 7. Part V, the "Epilogue", proposes a major Hollywood movie as the perfect finale for Blake's 7, which is a notion sure to send shivers down the spine of many a diehard fan. There is a bibliography (which cites publications on a number of different sci-fi series in addition to Blake's 7), a videography, and an index.
Part II contains synopses and discussion of individual episodes, further broken down into seasons A through D. This section is long and reasonably precise, but something of a curate's egg: good in places but not much to say in others. The original transmission date, credits for writer, director and guest cast is given for each episode, along with a synopsis of the plot. Muir then discusses the story arc that existed in the first two seasons, but unfortunately tries to carry this right through into the third and fourth, where the continuity is less strong. His discussion of character development offers little in the way of revelation, and stops short of any in-depth analysis. However, the way in which he has identified themes within the series is good, and the questions that he poses about the morality of Blake's cause were crying out to be asked. He provides good insights into larger topics such as the Federation, although his discussion of the Avon/Servalan dynamic is both shallow and probably misplaced by at least a season, coming as it does towards the end of his analysis of Season D. He also largely confines his examination of sex and power to his essay entitled "Sex on the Liberator," rather than extending it out to the rest of the series. He would have done better to deal with this in specific contexts, for instance those involving Servalan/Jarvik, Avon/Pella or any one of three or four possible pairings in "Orbit". However, the only theme Muir really considers in "The Harvest of Kairos" is "man versus machine," his analysis of "Power" gives it an extremely misogynist slant without analysing it below the surface, and "Orbit" he dismisses as "just weird," missing the point of the story entirely. Muir also makes the occasional mistake in his description of events, such as saying that Blake smashes Sarkoff's entire collection of twentieth century memorabilia, when all Blake actually does is smash one record and threaten to destroy the rest, and overlooks or misinterprets elements of a number of stories, such as "Deliverance", "Orac" and "Orbit". In general, he fails to look beyond the obvious in his analysis.
The writing style is unfortunately extremely pretentious. Perhaps he is writing for a film studies audience, but the use of "lensed," "penned" and "voiced" is irritating to a general reader when "filmed," "written" and "spoken" are far simpler. Additionally, the constant comparison with other shows is both unnecessary and ultimately self-defeating. The editing is mostly good, but still contains the odd typographical error, and Tony Attwood's Terry Nation's Blake's 7: The Programme Guide is missing from the index but referred to in the "Blake's Millions" chapter.
The second interpretive effort, Liberation: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Blake's 7, is an impeccably researched book by Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore. Stevens has contributed his knowledge, writing and editing skills to much that has been published on Blake's 7, Doctor Who and sundry others, and is currently involved with the Blake's 7/Doctor Who spinoff audio series Kaldor City. Fiona Moore is an academic who has written extensively on a wide variety of subjects and is also involved with Kaldor City. The authors of Liberation know their topic intimately, and additionally they have gone back to the original primary scripts and production documents to allow the reader an even greater insight into both the growth of the series and the growth of the characters within it.
The book is broken into four main sections, one per season. Each section begins with a full production listing and an essay detailing the outside factors influencing each season and how they affected it, along with an overview of the authors' thoughts and conclusions drawn from the individual episodes. Some excellent black and white photographs, taken both at the time of production along with some more recent images, illustrate these introductory pieces and are quite effective in creating a feel for the series. A brief synopsis of the plotline of each episode, with details of both credited and uncredited cast and crew follows, along with a meticulous deconstruction and analysis in terms of story arc, plot and character. The references to the literary and artistic antecedents and influences on the writing is both detailed and enlightening, without being overdone, as is the case with Muir. The discussion on the logistics of production is somewhat less detailed than that given by Sheelagh Wells and Joe Nazzaro, but this is not the central premise of the book, and is instead there to assist in understanding aspects of the writing and characterisation that arose out of practical necessity.
Unlike Muir, the authors of Liberation work thoroughly and carefully through the move from story arc in the first two seasons to the more stand-alone and self-contained episodes in seasons C and D, detailing the various reasons for this change. Again unlike Muir, they take an intricate and long-term look not only at the development of the characters, but the various strategies they use to interact. The threads which the authors pick up are clear and can be easily followed from one episode or series to the next. The discussion of sex, sexism and sexuality is well done and relevant and Stevens and Moore's take on the episodes "The Harvest of Kairos", "Power" and "Orbit" make for an interesting comparison to Muir's. Where Muir sees the first story as a tale of "man versus machine," with the sex issue very much a sideline, Liberation brings gender relations to the fore as the main premise of the plotline. "Power" Muir sees as an exercise in misogyny, whereas Stevens and Moore view it as a sophisticated take on gender relations and prejudice. Muir writes "Orbit" off as cynical, campy and weird, and whilst Stevens and Moore agree that it is cynical, they have also identified a heavy subtext that addresses such issues as amorality, sexuality and the sex/power relationship.
Liberation also proposes a couple of new theses, specifically to do with the characters of Avon and Gan. The authors take a slightly different look at some of Avon's behaviour towards women and the reasons for it. It is interesting to compare Muir's thoughts on the Avon/Anna relationship to those of Stevens and Moore. Muir attributes revenge as Avon's prime motivation in searching out Anna Grant. Stevens and Moore, however, pick up on a thread which they have been running through previous episode discussions, that Avon will turn violent against any woman who threatens or tries to manipulate him, and suggest something quite different; a latent suspicion of her betrayal. Liberation also proposes and supports an alternate theory concerning Gan, namely that he was an especially dangerous and violent criminal, hence the need for the limiter; this is very different to Muir's Gan, whom he describes as "the nicest and most sympathetic of the Liberator crew." The other thing that Stevens and Moore have done considerably better than Muir is to discuss where not only the plotlines fall down but also where the acting, costuming and special effects do not quite come together, and where they do.
The book is indexed both by title and by name, and contains two appendices. The first appendix gives a brief synopsis and review of a number of other related works including Paul Darrow's book Avon: A Terrible Aspect, the two BBC radio plays The Sevenfold Crown and The Syndeton Experiment, and Tony Attwood's Afterlife. The second gives synopses of projects the authors have had some involvement in, along with Chris Boucher's Doctor Who spinoff novel Corpse Marker. The writing style of Stevens and Moore is evocative and scholarly, but this is in no way designed as an academic text and the style suits the subject matter well; the book is accessible and very readable. The editing is largely clean but a few minor errors do exist such as the interchangeable use of the letters "s" and "z" in words such as "characterisation."
The last book that I want to look at is Terry Nation's Blake's 7: The Programme Guide by Tony Attwood. Attwood's book was first published in 1982, with a second, amended, edition appearing in 1994. Attwood is a writer who produced a follow-up Blake's 7 novel, Afterlife (1984), picking up the story where the final episode finished.
The programme guide advertises itself as "The Definitive Handbook to the BBC TV Series." If nothing else it is certainly comprehensive. It begins with an introduction by Terry Nation, followed by a prologue stating basically what Blake's 7 was, and what the original aims of the BBC were for the show: to be a "serious space futures serial." There follows a credit list of the regular cast, and an episode-by-episode listing of the original transmission date, and acknowledgements for director and for the guest actors. The book is subsequently divided into four sections. The first, "The Writers," gives a brief biography of each of the authors who submitted scripts for the programme, which is a succinct, and effective way of introducing and backgrounding the series; "The Stories" contains a synopsis of each of the episodes straight through from A:1 to D:13; "In Their Own Words" attempts a brief character analysis through quotations from the characters of Blake, Avon and Vila, with Travis and Servalan added in the second edition, and "The Index" contains references to the characters, places, events and so forth mentioned in the series. The index is followed by five interviews with people closely involved with the show, Vere Lorrimer, Chris Boucher, Paul Darrow, Michael Keating and Peter Tuddenham, and there are a number of interesting and good quality black and white photographs placed centrally in the book.
The episode guide, the meat of the book, is thorough and gives a straight, no-nonsense account of the storyline, without attempting to analyse either plot or character development. The first edition contains a number of errors, many of which have been rectified in the second, although some still exist along with a few additional ones. The five interviews are an interesting and worthy addition, the choice of interviewees being quite judicious. They give some additional insight into the various aspects of the show, including production and direction, writing and the on-camera role. Darrow and Keating's personal perspective on their characters is also well worth noting. The text is well written in a sharp, punchy style and is largely free of typographical errors and other editing problems. The photographic illustration consists mostly of good-quality stills from the programme, along with a couple of promotional shots, which help to give a feel for the series.
It is worth comparing Attwood's programme guide with the guides in the other books. All the books contain details of writer, director, cast and crew, and original transmission date. Liberation also lists all uncredited cast members and production personnel. In terms of story synopsis, Nazzaro and Wells give a single sentence only per episode, concise but accurate; Rigelsford's guide consists of one or two sentences and is often wrong, the strength of his book lying elsewhere; both Muir, and Stevens and Moore, give a paragraph per episode with no glaring errors in either and Attwood contains a number of errors in both the first and second editions. Only Atwood contains an encyclopaedic index to the series.
To summarise, I have looked at five books that attempt to give some insight into one of the Britain's most enduring television series. Joe Nazzaro and Sheelagh Wells, and Adrian Rigelsford, have written from the perspective of the actual production of the show. The strength of Rigelsford's book lies purely in his meticulous detailing of production schedules. Nazzaro and Wells, on the other hand, have produced a wonderful book that, although not perfect, can confidently be taken as having details correct, and unless one has a particular interest or need for the nitty-gritty of the production timeline, is by far the preferable text. John Kenneth Muir, and Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore, have written analytical works about the series. Both books are well done, however Stevens and Moore are sticklers for accuracy and have watched the programme with a very keen eye, as well as having the advantage of returning to a lot of the primary material. Their analysis is far more thoroughly considered than that of Muir, who mostly opts for the very obvious, and they also offer a couple of new theses. Liberation is also the only one of the five books to list the uncredited cast and crew. Tony Attwood's programme guide, although not altogether free of errors, is improved in its second edition, but contains only very brief production details. It is the only book, however, to include an extremely comprehensive encyclopaedic index.
All the books contribute to the understanding of Blake's 7 in one way or another. The ideal combination would probably be Nazzaro and Wells as it is an insiders view and beautifully illustrated, Stevens and Moore for their comprehensive description and analysis, and Attwood as a handy reference. If I had to choose one only, I would suggest that Liberation: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Blake's 7 is the most informative overall, but I say that with apology to Nazzaro and Wells as theirs is a wonderful book but more narrowly focussed.