Blake’s 7: Mission to Destiny (1978)

Screenshot 2018-01-13 18.35.01

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Liberator crew find a spaceship called the Ortega, whose inhabitants are unconscious… It soon becomes clear there’s been a murder aboard.

Series A, episode 7. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Pennant Roberts. Originally broadcast: 13 February 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* When the Liberator encounters a spaceship called the Ortega, Blake (7) teleports aboard, taking Avon and Cally with him, to see why it’s circling the same area of space. They find crewmembers passed out in various rooms and deduce that the air supply has been poisoned; then a dead body is discovered. When the crew wakes up, Blake takes charge and tries to work out what happened. He soon learns that the ship is on a mission of mercy: they must deliver a vital energy reserve to their home planet in time for a new agricultural cycle. Seeing how the ship is damaged, Blake offers to deliver the reserve in the Liberator and leaves Avon and Cally behind as collateral.
* Avon (6) assesses the damage to the Ortega when he arrives with Blake and Cally. He deduces that it’s been sabotaged and now can’t travel at light speed – which is a major problem for the crew’s mission. After Blake has left with the energy reserve, Avon stays behind to help with the repairs – though he admits it’s less to do with sympathy for the crew’s plight and more because he can’t stand an unsolved mystery. To that end, he becomes a space-age Hercule Poirot and starts investigating the murder; he even has grandstanding scenes where he lays out his theories to the assembled suspects. (Although, Hercule Poirot never punched the murderer in the face and then said he enjoyed it.)
* Cally (4) is the one who finds a dead body when she, Blake and Avon first search the Ortega. It’s really not her day in that regard: she later finds a second corpse down in the storage compartments. She also stays behind when Blake leaves and uses the opportunity to do some snooping on the murder suspects.
* Jenna (7), Vila (7), Gan (6) and obviously Zen (5) all stay on the Liberator throughout the episode. Once Blake returns from the Ortega, they head off for the planet Destiny to deliver the MacGuffin. Halfway there, however, they realise its box is empty so have to return sharpish.

Best bit: Blake pitches his idea to the crew of the Ortega: he’ll take their precious cargo to Destiny while Avon and Cally stay behind to help with repairs. Cally adds, “We will regard ourselves as hostages against Blake’s return.” Avon looks askance and deadpans: “Why, thank you, Cally. What a clever idea.” She telepathically tells him, “Blake will return,” and he says out loud, “You can bet your life on it. In fact, you’ve just bet both our lives on it.”

Worst bit: The Liberator-based stuff in the second half of the episode – Blake, Jenna, Vila and Gan travelling through an asteroid field – is inconsequential filler.

Review: This is a fun, self-contained episode built on Agatha Christie clichés: a murder mystery, a small, defined group of suspects, an enclosed environment, cryptic clues, and observant, insightful detectives. The suspects are middle-management types aboard a spaceship stocked with 1970s office furniture, but they’re distinctive enough to make the puzzle engaging. Blake bosses the first half of the episode, then once he’s left the stage Avon dominates the second half. Prophetic, that.

Eight homing-beam transmitters out of 10

Next episode: Duel

Advertisements

Blake’s 7: Seek-Locate-Destroy (1978)

Screenshot 2018-01-07 16.59.58

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A mission to steal a Federation cypher machine results in the loss of one of Blake’s team. Then a space commander is tasked with hunting him down…

Series A, episode 6. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 6 February 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Blake (6) and his pals teleport down to the planet Centero to steal a device that will allow them to eavesdrop on Federation communications. He again acts like a team leader on a management-training course, coordinating his colleagues and chivvying them along without actually doing much himself. The mission seems to go well, but when they return to the Liberator it becomes clear that Blake didn’t count everyone back in: Cally has been left behind, seemingly killed in the explosion our heroes set to cover their tracks. Later, Blake is shaken further when he learns his old nemesis Travis is still alive.
* Jenna (6) spends the episode aboard the Liberator, manning the teleport machine like some kind of receptionist.
* Vila (6) helps in the mission on Centero, where his lockpicking skills come in very handy. He also gets a comedy moment or three.
* Gan (5) plants the explosives on Centero, then uses his brute strength to detach the cypher machine the team are stealing.
* Cally (3) has a key role in the mission: she keeps watch on the Federation scientists and stormtroopers while the others half-inch the cypher device. However, her prisoners overpower her, she loses her teleport bracelet, and she’s caught in the explosion. Her colleagues assume she’s dead, but she actually survives and is found by the Federation investigator… (Don’t worry: Blake rescues her at the end.)
* Avon (5), being the computer expert, is the one who identifies the cypher machine and then makes use of it back on the Liberator. Conveniently, one of the first secret messages he hears tells him and the others that Blake’s old enemy Travis is on their trail.
* Zen (4) imparts some exposition now and again.
* Supreme Commander Servalan (1) is a Federation bigwig in a position of authority below the unseen president. She’s a relatively young woman who dresses in a Princess Leia-like, all-white frock. Aboard her spinning space station, she’s briefed about Blake; her underlings fear that he’ll become even more powerful if the myths and legends about him continue to spread. So she appoints an officer called Travis to seek, locate and – that’s right – destroy him… Actress Jacqueline Pearce plays against the writing and gives a languid performance. This is clearly a character of enormous power and strength, but she’s not going to rant and rave about it.
* Space Commander Travis (1) has been the subject of an inquiry after he oversaw a civilian massacre. But Servalan is satisfied that the deaths were necessary so appoints him to track down and kill Blake. Travis – a man dressed all in black leather with an eye patch, a robotic hand and a John Wayne walk – was involved in Blake’s pre-amnesia arrest, and the two men clearly hate each other. He’s played by a committed Stephen Greif.

Best bit: On Centero, Vila needs to distract two guards. So he breezes up to them and says with a smile, “Hello there! How are you? Excuse me wandering about your premises, but I wonder if you can help me. I’m an escaped prisoner. I was a thief but recently I’ve become interested in sabotage – in a small way, you understand, nothing too ambitious. I hate vulgarity, don’t you? Anyway, I’ve come to blow something up. What do you think would be most suitable?” Then Blake creeps up behind the guards and whacks them over the head.

Worst bit: The Centero sequence also contains a laughably awful robot sentry – a cheap-looking, juddering, postbox-shaped machine that totters about the power station being used for the location filming.

Review: The mission-of-the-week is a MacGuffin, and neither Cally’s apparent death nor her subsequent return to the Liberator seems to affect her friends that much. Instead, the main purpose of this episode is to introduce two new recurring characters: it’s the series putting faces onto the previously nebulous Federation. There’s also a significant change of tone going on. In episode one, the Federation was represented by cold, cynical, humourless bureaucrats. Now, however, we have Servalan and Travis, two camp, moustache-twirling, pantomime villains. Travis even gets a hammy, maniacal soliloquy at the end of the episode (paraphrase: “I’ll get you, Blakey!”). But at least the pair complete the Robin Hood theme that’s been building across these episodes: Blake is an outlaw on the side of the downtrodden masses; his cohorts include equivalents of Maid Marian, Will Scarlet, Little John and so on; they even dress in green jerkins. Well, now we have King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Seven laseron destroyers out of 10

Next episode: Mission to Destiny

Blake’s 7: The Web (1978)

Screenshot 2017-12-25 20.39.09

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Liberator is ensnared by an enormous cobweb in space…

Series A, episode 5. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Michael E Briant. Originally broadcast: 30 January 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Like the rest of the crew, Jenna (5) has found some more new clothes in the Liberator’s storerooms. This week, she’s sporting a rather fetching burgundy dress with pastel detail on the shoulders. Her main contribution to the plot is a moment when the antagonists psychically take over her body and speak through her, which is a bit hammy.
* When the Liberator’s systems go wrong, Blake (5) assumes that one of Avon’s private research projects has caused the issue. But once it becomes clear that someone on a nearby planet is to blame for the ship being tangled up in an interstellar cobweb (no, really), Blake teleports down to the surface. He finds two strange scientists (who turn out to be from Cally’s planet: small galaxy!) and a race of angry midgets called Decimers. The former created the latter via experimentation but now want the energy resources to wipe them out. This puts Blake in a moral dilemma: unless he helps, the Liberator will forever be trapped.
* Cally (2) only joined the crew last episode, but early on here she’s acting very strangely. She sneaks around, boshes Vila over the head, sabotages the ship… But we soon learn she isn’t herself: the scientists are using her via physic powers to trap the Liberator in the web.
* Zen (3) reports that the ship is suffering from a deliberate malfunction.
* As mentioned, Vila (5) is knocked out cold. But his day improves when he finally gets to use the Liberator’s neutron blasters – something he’s been looking forward to.
* When the craziness begins, Avon (4) deduces that Cally is responsible. Well, she did ask about a vital bit of machinery just before it went on the blink. Not for the first time, the strikingly selfish Avon saves Blake’s life (when a small explosion is triggered in the cargo bay). He later moots to Gan that they could moneytise the Liberator’s advanced technology.
* Gan (4) restrains Cally when she’s under the influence of the bad guys.

Best bit: The Decimers storm the scientists’ base and violently tear them apart. I mean, really violently. You see ripped flesh and gore and bones and everything.

Worst bit: There’s an awful lot of boring procedural dialogue aboard the Liberator. Scenes of the regulars on the flight deck and staring at a viewscreen we can’t see seem to go on and on.

Review: As it was produced at the same time, by some of the same people and in the same building, it’s not surprising that Blake’s 7 shares a lot of similarities with Doctor Who. Both were mostly made on brightly lit studio sets. Both used video for indoor scenes and film for exteriors. Both stuck largely to non-diverse casting choices. The Web, however, feels more like an episode of Space: 1999 – despite the vastness of space, our characters randomly bump into something, are threatened by some out-there sci-fi nonsense, and get caught up in the very boring storyline with drab guest characters. Then just as you’re losing the will to carry on, some poor actor has to play a withered head in a water tank. The first rubbish episode.

Four fully charged flutonic power cells out of 10

Next episode: Seek-Locate-Destroy

Blake’s 7: Time Squad (1978)

Screenshot 2017-12-21 19.01.25

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

En route to a Federation communications installation, the crew of the Liberator stumble across a mysterious space pod containing cryogenically frozen people…

Series A, episode 4. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Pennant Roberts. Originally broadcast: 23 January 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Blake (4) has a plan: the first ‘mission’ for the newly assembled team. He’d clearly rather not discuss it, however, and forces through the idea that they travel to Saurian-Major and destroy a vital Federation communications node.
* Jenna (4) teaches the others how to pilot the Liberator, then after a mystery pod is found floating in space, she teleports aboard it with Blake. In the second half of the episode, she gets a big subplot mostly to herself: the pod’s cryogenically frozen occupants wake up and attack her.
* Avon (3) is vocally cynical and obstructive when Blake pitches his plan to knock out a Federation installation. But he knows that he’s better off aboard the Liberator than on his own so eventually goes along with it. Despite the antihero vibe, Avon even saves Blake and Jenna’s lives when they’re running out of oxygen aboard the pod.
* Zen (2) behaves very strangely, refusing to help and speaking in a fractured manner…
* …so Gan (3) suggests that the computer might have a ‘limiter’ that restricts how much he can help them. Later, Gan admits to Jenna that he killed the man who murdered his partner. He now gets headaches and we see that he has an implant in his head – presumably the same kind of ‘limiter’ he mentioned earlier.
* Vila (4) gets a few droll lines, then is coerced into accompanying Blake and Avon to the planet Saurian-Major, where they encounter…
* Cally (1) is a solo guerrilla fighting the Federation on Saurian-Major. She’s from the planet Auron and can communicate telepathically (though not read people’s thoughts). At the end of the episode, she accepts Blake’s offer to join the Liberator crew, meaning the team is now up to the number promised in the series title (as long as you count Zen, which is the intention). Actress Jan Chappell doesn’t get a massive amount to do in her debut; it’s just an introduction.

Best bit: Investigating the pod, Avon attempts to deduce its purpose. “No sign of any weapons,” he says. “In fact, there isn’t much equipment at all. Either they were headed for a civilised destination where they expected a friendly reception or…” – he grins a fantastic, shit-eating grin – “…we are missing the point entirely.”

Worst bit: The spell-it-out-for-the-viewers chat to clarify the extent of Cally’s telepathic abilities.

Review: There are two plots this week, which don’t especially have anything to do with each other. Sadly, in both cases the set-up promises more than is delivered. Cryogenically frozen people from the past being found and thawed out is an idea that crops up in several science-fiction TV shows: Star Trek (Space Seed, 1967), Star Trek: The Next Generation (The Neutral Zone, 1988), Red Dwarf (Justice, 1991), Babylon 5 (The Long Dark, 1994), and more. The Blake’s 7 take on the concept leads to some good horror-movie-esque scenes of Jenna trapped alone in the cargo hold with the newly awoken people. It’s creepy, well shot, and Dudley Simpson’s incidental music is spot-on. But it’s all a bit superficial because the frozen people are just character-less plot devices. Meanwhile, the action story down on the planet sees Blake, Avon, Vila and new pal Cally complete their mission remarkably easily. At least it gets the show out on location, ticking off Blake’s 7’s two favourite landscapes: a quarry and a power station.

Seven paraneutronic generators out of 10

Next episode: The Web

Blake’s 7: Cygnus Alpha (1978)

Screenshot 2017-12-13 20.37.30

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Having escaped, Blake, Avon and Jenna use their new spaceship to travel to Cygnus Alpha, intent on rescuing their colleagues. But a religious cult is ruling the prison planet…

Series A, episode 3. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 16 January 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Blake (3) is being defined as the crusader of the regular cast – a leader of men, an almost messianic figure. Having said that, he’s not *totally* altruistic: he wants to rescue Vila, Gan and the others stranded on Cygnus Alpha not because of their suffering but because he needs a crew for his rebellion against the Federation.
* Having found a firearm aboard their new ship, the Liberator, Avon (2) points it at Blake and Jenna. But they simply shrug the incident off – as Jenna later admits, the fact Avon is clearly out for number one would be unsettling if she thought he didn’t mean it. When Blake later heads down to the planet to look for the others, Avon advocates leaving him behind – especially after finding a fortune stored aboard the Liberator – but Jenna won’t let him. Paul Darrow continues to make his character endlessly interesting: this is a man who doesn’t even push a button in a conventional manner.
* Jenna (3) is biding her time, working out how to pilot the Liberator and operate its controls, while alpha males Blake and Avon take the lead. She also gets a colourful new blouse after finding a storeroom full of clothes.
* Zen (1), voiced by Peter Tuddenham, is the artificial-intelligence programme that runs the Liberator. He knows who Blake, Avon and Jenna are, so computer expert Avon is therefore suspicious of him.
* Vila (3) and Gan (2) arrive on Cygnus Alpha with other prisoners from the London. They’re soon told by the religious cult who act as jailers that they’re now infected with a condition called the Curse of Cygnus, which means they’ll need special medication for the rest of their lives. Thankfully, after Blake has arrived and rescued them, we learn the curse was just a cover story to keep the prisoners in check. Phew!

Best bit: If I were condemned to a lifelong prison sentence on a barren, rocky planet run by religious nutters, I’d still take solace from the fact I’d be near Pamela Salem. She plays Kara, one of the cult, and is extremely attractive.

Worst bit: The super-ship that showed up so conveniently in episode two continues to unashamedly provide our heroes with advantages. When Blake, Avon and Jenna explore the craft, they find complex weapons, an AI computer, a teleport device, a cache of enormous wealth and an ability to travel through space at high speed. Aren’t characters meant to achieve things themselves rather than just randomly be given the upper hand?

Review: For episode three, there’s a nice change of tone. So far, the show has taken place in a cold, colourless, metallic, sci-fi world of totalitarianism. But now we arrive on Cygnus Alpha, which is a windswept, mediaeval world run by a monastic-like cult. Its leader, Vargas, is played by Brian Blessed in a pre-Flash Gordon performance that’s not *quite* as bombastic as those he later indulged in. Enjoyable stuff.

Seven human souls are the only currency (our god is bankrupt without them) out of 10

Next episode: Time Squad

Blake’s 7: Space Fall (1978)

Screenshot 2017-12-09 12.03.52

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Blake, Jenna and Vila are aboard the spaceship London, en route for a prison planet, but Blake is plotting to escape. Then the London comes across another craft drifting in space…

Series A, episode 2. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Pennant Roberts. Originally broadcast: 9 January 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Seeing how he’s being taken to a prison planet, Blake (2) doesn’t waste any time in trying to escape. He recruits Jenna, Vila and others to a plan to seize control the ship, but it only goes half-right: some of the prisoners are caught and the sadistic crew start to murder them until Blake gives himself up. Then the London stumbles across a strange, highly sophisticated and abandoned ship in deep space. The scout party are seemingly killed, so the London’s captain orders Blake, Jenna and Avon to go aboard to see what’s happened. They manage to survive the experience and – didn’t the captain see this coming? – bugger off with the new ship.
* Jenna (2) is not surprised when the sub-commander of the London, Raiker, takes a special interest in her. She’s the only female prisoner… and he’s a prick. But when he hints that he can make her life easier in return for a favour, she whispers an insult into his ear and he slaps her. She looks back defiantly.
* Vila (2) has a key part to play in Blake’s escape plan: distract the naïve guard with magic tricks while the others are doing sneaky-sneaky stuff involving an access panel. He already feels like the comic relief.
* One of the other prisoners aboard the London is computer expert Kerr Avon (1), who initially wants to keep himself to himself but can’t resist showing off his knowledge. We’re told he nearly stole five million credits, but he ‘relied on other people’ and the plan went wrong. Blake eventually persuades him to help with his rebellion, and Avon sneaks into the ship’s access shafts to fiddle with the central computer. Paul Darrow is incredibly watchable, using an acting style that’s total bravado and confidence and commitment.
* Olag Gan (1) is another prisoner. His defining characteristic is ‘big, tall bloke’, which enables him to help the escape attempt by threatening to cut off a guard’s hand. David Jackson doesn’t have much substance to play.

Best bit: The combination of Blake and Avon is fantastic straight off the bat. The clash of the two characters’ attitudes – and the two actors’ performances – creates a fascinating dynamic. Puritanical Blake says power should be back with the honest man. ‘Have you ever met an honest man?’ quips the cynical Avon.

Worst bit: Yes, this series was made in the inflation-heavy 1970s. Yes, the BBC is a cost-effective public-service broadcaster. Yes, tastes and expectations change over time. But nevertheless the studio sets of the London are really, really crummy. Drab, flat, grey walls and bodged-looking fixtures. It’s easy to see why Blake’s 7 has so often been ridiculed for looking cheap.

Review: A fine episode that again focuses on the lead character but also expands the cast of regulars. Blake quickly becomes the leader of the prisoners, but not through violence or intimidation or resources or because his name’s in the show’s title. It’s because of his powers of persuasion. He issues orders and plans strategies, while the others – Jenna, Vila, Avon – fall into line because he’s talking sense. It’s good writing and smart acting. The London, meanwhile, is crewed by guest actors from the Tom Baker era of Doctor Who (Glyn Owen from The Power of Kroll, Norman Tipton from Underworld and Leslie Schofield from The Face of Evil). One of them, Raiker (Schofield), is clearly a nasty piece of work who considers sexual abuse then murders prisoners for sadistic fun. Just in case you were still in any doubt, this is another indicator that Blake’s 7 is not a cosy, safe sci-fi romp. It’s dangerous and cruel, and that makes it interesting and unpredictable. This is such an enjoyable episode, in fact, that you forgive it the *enormous* deus ex machina of a super-ship landing in our heroes’ laps just when they need to escape.

Eight hull punctures out of 10

Next episode: Cygnus Alpha

Blake’s 7: The Way Back (1978)

Screenshot 2017-12-09 11.57.58

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Earth, the far future. Citizen Roj Blake learns of the authorities’ use of brainwashing, drugs and murder to keep the population under control…

Series A, episode 1. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Michael E Briant. Originally broadcast: 2 January 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Roj Blake (1) is living in a drab, soulless, fascist, dystopian, enclosed city cut off from the outside world when he’s approached by members of a resistance movement. They tell him he’s been brainwashed – he used to be a rebel leader but the state forced him to confess his ‘crimes’ and then wiped his memories. When he’s then caught with the resistance, Blake is arrested and framed on kiddie-fiddling charges (amongst other things). Found guilty after a trial that lasts less than three minutes, he’s loaded onto a spaceship bound for a prison planet… Actor Gareth Thomas is great throughout: you see his character believably transform from naïve bloke to forthright Blake.
* While waiting to board the transport ship, Blake is put in a holding cell with a compulsive thief called Vila Restal (1), who swipes his watch but is otherwise unthreatening. Michael Keating is a lot of fun in his one scene, playing the part with a twinkle in his eye.
* Another prisoner is the smuggler Jenna (1). Sally Knyvette plays her cool and seen-in-it-all-before, then gets a moment or two when the character admits she’s scared.

Best bit: In the scene of Blake being interrogated by an official after his arrest, the vision mixer crossfades between close-ups of the two men. The official is calm and stock-still, while Blake has his head in his hands and is jittery. It’s a striking image.

Worst bit: The title-sequence logo doesn’t have an apostrophe in the word Blake’s! Christ, that’s going to irritate me each and every episode.

Review: The first image we see is a CCTV camera keeping watch over the oppressed citizenry of a fascist state. Later, the police murder innocent people and lawyers fabricate evidence. Blake’s 7, it seems on the basis of this opening episode, is not going to be a laugh-a-minute experience. The tone is cynical, cold and humourless, and the drama seems more like a self-contained morality play than the pilot of a sci-fi adventure show. But it really works. The script has a fantastic sense of foreboding and the dread builds and builds. Blake’s fate seems cruelly inevitable, even if his lawyer (Tel Varon, played by Michael Halsey like he’s the lead character) is a decent guy with a conscience. And the fictional world is convincing and feels like it stretches out beyond the events we see. A very strong start.

Nine judgement machines out of 10

Next episode: Space Fall