A dark British science fiction television show which aired on the BBC from 1978 to 1981, with 13 episodes in each season. The series presents an ongoing plot which today is commonly referred to as a "story arc" (where some episodes advance the overall direction of the series, and some are just for fun). The show was the brainchild of Terry Nation, longtime writer for Doctor Who. Legend has it that, needing something to pitch and having no ideas, he pitched the story to a BBC executive by rattling the plot for the first few episodes off the top of his head. Indeed, Nation wound up penning the show's entire first season and a total of 19 episodes altogether (out of a grand total of 52).

Disclaimer Before I go any further, I should declare my bias for this show. While it bears some of the hallmarks of shlocky 1970s British sci-fi, Blake's 7 is, for my money, the best drama ever broadcast on television. Notice that I say "drama" and not "sci-fi." I say this because the overall plot, character development, and writing are so good as to push the relatively amateurish production design elements into a distant background.

The General Story A group of criminals, armed with advanced technology, wage a guerrilla war against the totalitarian "Federation," the favored control tactic of which is using drugs on the populace to eliminate dissent.

THE SOMEWHAT LESS GENERAL STORY

Genesis Blake, a charismatic resistance leader, is to be sent to a prison planet on trumped-up charges involving (scarily enough) mentions of "children." In transit, he meets various shady characters, including Avon (a computer genius convicted of bank fraud), Jenna (an attractive smuggler), Vila (a small-time crook and short con operator), and Gan (a gentle giant who accidentally killed someone). Together, they manage to commandeer a drifting alien spacecraft of tremendous power, run by a computer named "Zen." They christen the ship the Liberator and (after some coaxing from Blake and stopping to pick up Cally {a telepathic rebel}), go off to mess with the Federation.

First Season After a tense struggle for leadership, Avon reluctantly agrees to follow Blake, and the rest are rather more easily convinced. The Federation, represented by Servalan (thoroughly hot--despite a rather butch haircut--and thoroughly evil), dispatches Travis (Blake's nemesis) to capture Blake and the Liberator. The Liberator's speed and weaponry make this a difficult task, and the group manage to make their presence felt, if (as yet) only on a small scale. Along the way they encounter a dying computer designer named Ensor who bequeaths to Blake his (later) life's work: ORAC, a rather irascible computer that has the massive advantage of being able to tap into any computer, anywhere, and at a moment's notice. ORAC says a big "hello" to his new shipmates by predicting (though his computational strength) the apparent destruction of the Liberator. CREW DEATHS: None yet, but wait...

Second Season After an opening episode in which we see that ORAC's prediction actually involves the destruction of Liberator's sister ship (along with the alien culture that constructed these craft), Blake and his crew decide to make an attack against Earth in order to destroy the Federation's central command and control complex, appropriately called "Control." They succeed, only to find that it is a decoy designed to draw resistance attention away from the actual control center, which has been so long hidden that knowledge of its location is scarce even within the Federation. Gan is lost in the assault. The actual control complex, Star One, is eventually pinpointed as a planet on the edge of the galaxy, located near a massive minefield. The Liberator crew destroy Star One, only to find that the minefield was holding back a large invasion fleet from Andromeda. The aliens stand poised to sweep in and destroy. CREW DEATHS: Gan; but the real action starts when Avon encounters the brother of his lost love, (Anna Grant). This starts to warp his mind.

Third Season Chaos reigns amid the aliens' attack. The Liberator crew join with the Federation forces to stem the tide, but their ship is severely damaged (a real feat, since the ship is self healing) and must be temporarily abandoned. The crew splits. Avon encounters Dayna, daughter of a weapons engineer, on a nearby planet, and she joins the crew. They return to the Liberator, only to find that 1) Blake and Jenna are missing and 2) the ship has been boarded and claimed by Tarrant, a Federation deserter and expert pilot. Avon asserts himself as commander, and Tarrant (very reluctantly) assumes a subordinate role. The Federation, in an upheaval after the invasion, sees Servalan rise to the presidency. A development of great note takes place in the excellent eighth episode of the season, "Rumours of Death," where we learn that Avon's soul mate Anna Grant is not dead, and has in fact been a Federation agent all along. She claims to have let him go all those ages ago because of her love for him, but then proceeds to pull a gun on Avon. He dutifully shoots her. Anyway, Servalan meanwhile continues the pursuit of the Liberator crew, eventually luring the ship to the artificial planet Terminal with promises of finding long-lost Blake. Avon secretly takes the bait, much to the displeasure of the rest of the crew. The Liberator is fatally injured in an acid nebula, the crew find themselves trapped on Terminal, Blake is nowhere to be found, Servalan takes the Liberator (unaware of its damage), and the ship promptly explodes as she tries to drive it. CREW DEATHS: Zen and Servalan (? She runs to the teleport room), though Blake and Jenna are still unaccounted for. Cally dies in the opening minute of...

Fourth Season The group manages to steal the ship of an apparent salvager, escapes Terminal, and appropriates the salvager's hidden base and more or less appropriates his mistress, the blonde, curvy, and extremely dangerous Soolin. The salvager is really a long-lived scientist whose ship (the Scorpio, run by the subservient computer "Slave") and base are chock full of neat weapons and gadgets. Armed with a base of operations, the group begins to build an actual armed resistance to the still-weakened but rising Federation. Servalan, it turns out, is not dead, but operating incognito under the guise of Commissioner Sleer to regain her place at the top. But Avon and his rebels continue to be a thorn in her side. Her efforts shatter the growing rebel alliance and compromise the security of the group's hidden base. Avon and company are forced to flee. CREW DEATHS: None...yet.

The Final Episode It should be noted here that, over the course of the final two seasons, Avon (played masterfully by Paul Darrow) begins displaying a laundry list of psychiatric issues, ranging from paranoid schizophrenia to megalomania. He's always together, but you're never sure just when he's going to snap.

Avon has not given up his quest to find Blake and forge a real resistance. With ORAC's help, Blake has been definitively tracked to a remote planet, for which the crew make after abandoning their base. Scorpio is damaged and crash lands on the planet, splitting up the crew and severely injuring Tarrant. Tarrant encounters Blake, who is building a rebel army but using some rather strange recruiting methods which convince Tarrant that Blake has sold out to the Federation. We discover that Jenna is long dead. The crew reunite, and Avon's head goes SNAP when he hears that Blake has sold him out (though he hasn't). Blake's pleas go unheard, and Avon blows him away. Blake collapses in a pool of blood—no cheapy "energy weapons" here. Avon, moved by Blake's last words, "I was waiting for you, Avon," stands in disbelief over the dead body of the man he has spent so much time both squabbling with and searching for. Unfortunately, the Federation has infiltrated Blake's group, and Federation troops pour in, killing Dayna, Tarrant, Soolin, and Vila.

In the final scene, we see Avon—the galaxy's most wanted criminal--surrounded by about 20 Federation troopers, guns raised to Avon's head. He gazes at Blake's lifeless body, raises his own gun, and smiles.

Fade to black over the sounds of about 20 Federation guns firing. CREW DEATHS: Every last damn body, with the possible exception of ORAC. Servalan and the Federation win the day, and in dramatic fashion.

This was, of course, the only way the show could end. No Hollywood bullshit here. Sadly, the BBC aired the show four days before Christmas 1981, and were deluged with calls from distraught and (in some legendary cases) suicidal viewers.

Commentary A lot of people won't like this show. That's cool. But Blake's 7 is so much unlike every other, "grey skies are gonna clear up" sci-fi show out there, and even on this score alone it outclasses hordes of drama shows. The grand ideals of the resistance contrasted with the abject defeat give the show a pallor of hopelessness with great power to move the viewer. And they are, generally, criminals—not political ones—who take the Federation to task, yet we grow to feel for them, even for the enigma that is Avon.

One of Avon's last lines is a favorite of mine. Asked whether they should retire to some place of relative safety, a backwater planet perhaps, Avon replies, "In the end, winning is the only safety." It's an emotion that drives the pathos of the story forward--while you want the characters to be able to stop running, you know that safety is something they can never attain.

9/03 AFTERWORD: While there have been various literary (if that word can be used) attempts to revive the series based on the assumption that some characters were not killed, the action has now taken a somewhat more concrete turn. Paul Darrow, the actor who played Avon, is working with the estate of Terry Nation and a group called the Blake's Seven Enterprise (which owns the rights) to produce a BBC miniseries set some 25 years after the conclusion of the original series. Things are still in an early rights-niggling phase, and no script has been finalized. Indeed, the rights squabbles have become a serious obstactle to the DVD release of the original series. I am of two minds about this project: it is clear that Terry Nation considered a possible furtherance of the series and discussed same with Darrow (suggesting that Avon was the only survivor of the massacre on Gauda Prime), and Darrow seems to have a grip on the literary gravitas of the project. But in my heart, Blake and his seven will always be lying dead on that control room floor. (Edited 090303 to add the sequel stuff and fix some episode timeline issues. Blame my damn bad memory.)

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