A review by Pat Fenech
Twenty years on... hardly seems likely, or possible, but here we are nonetheless all those years later about to celebrate the Twentieth Anniversary of the original screening of 'Blakes 7' and as we are it does tend to urge the mind to consider just what it is about the series that is so enduringly appealing. Well, I find my mind attempting such - but with very little success. Asked just what it is about this television programme that sets it apart from so many others I have liked, which endears it to me as no other, I find no nice neat summary presents itself in reply. Pressed, my brain shrugs and mutters 'who knows?'
Not prepared to put up with this I insist the brain make a bit more of an effort! Think about it, I urge. So think I have - of the low budget, which shows, of the superficially not terribly remarkable storyline of rebellion against repressive government, conducted by a dysfunctional group of clashing personalities; hardly the stuff from which twenty years of dreaming would follow, and yet... it has. But though I have loved it for those twenty years, even now I cannot explain why in any systematic way. All I can say is that there is just something about it, some serendipitous combination of elements, which created some sort of magic, elements which I cannot define no matter how much I think about it, but which must be there.
What has all this to do with 'The long way back'? Well, it occurs that perhaps it may have been musings along lines such as this which produced the basic concept upon which the whole story - of which 'The long way back' is the second part - is constructed. For it seems to me anyway that in a way the story is based upon a recognition of the fortuitousness of the gathering of just exactly the right elements which when put together would perfectly gel to transform what might have been wholly unremarkable into a phenomenon of enduring worth.
To explain just why such a thought occurs would be to spoil the story, but if you find it intriguing then read the stories - smile - for they are worth the reading and perhaps after you have read both - and if you have denied yourself the pleasure of reading 'The last best hope', forbear denial at once and read it, as you must to fully appreciate its equally exceptional continuation - then perhaps you too may find your mind wondering as mine has about the chances of just the right elements being collected together, at just the right moment, with just the right people, seeming to be altogether too much of a coincidence to be one. As perhaps Melody's did... and wondering she conceived within the realms of her prodigious imagination an explanation which became these two halves of a wholly wonderful story.
I am always somewhat reluctant to write reviews I have to confess. I doubt my tastes in 'Blakes 7' stories are in any way typical. So for the most part I feel somewhat reticent to inflict them upon you all. But I so much admire Melody Clark's writing that for no other reason really than to acknowledge this, and to share my enthusiasm for a story which I have come to love, I have written what is perhaps not so much a review as my appreciation of 'The long way back.'
'The long way back' takes up the story almost immediately after the conclusion of 'The last best hope'. Basically the first story postulates that years after Gauda Prime - which they all managed to survive and put behind them to defeat the Federation - Blake's government, or more specifically Blake's ethos and style of government has fallen foul of the conservative elements left over from Federation days. Blake has had to choose between the welfare of his crew and his government, has chosen his crew and consequently has had to escape from Earth into purposeless exile, all his achievements shattered. During the unfolding of the events which have led to their flight from Earth Blake and Avon have discovered hints that their association may have been of a far longer duration than they had thought and more to provide some sense of purpose than anything else Avon decides to follow up these hints by exploring his past. This takes them to a forsaken planet called Gondoran where once there was a Federation project called Standard Increase, and where once a small boy called Avon was being groomed, amongst others, to become the human equivalent and model for a computer which would have the capability of working as a human brain does. This is the point from which Melody takes up the story and begins to weave a continuation from various seemingly divergent, but ultimately closely linked elements - some taken from the past - the past Blake and Avon had shared but lost - some from the present - the desperate fight they must wage against a religious fanatic conducting a holy war. Eventually the elements begin to converge, past and present combine to create a backdrop against which the climax of the story is played out - a battle, symbolic, magical, but also frighteningly real, which takes place within the characters, between the characters, and ultimately, finally concludes within the eye of infinity; a battle as old as humanity, and as new as squadrons of DSVs pitted against Blake's seven.
It is a wonderful story which I cannot say anything much about without spoiling it. So instead I will enthuse about the elements employed to create it... elements such as writing which is *special*.
Everywhere the writing entrances me with its spell binding imaginativeness and the skill with which the imagination is translated into word, words which are used to challenge the intellect to think... of such things as the concept of self About how the sense of self might deal with the loss of definition through something like mind-wiping. 'What time deprived the intellect of,' Melody suggests memorably, 'the soul kept track of...' 'the details of memory were preserved in a solution of feelings.' While at the same time suggesting a possible solution to one of the talking points about the series - here a plausible, and beautiful, reason why Blake so readily took to rebellion again, despite what had been done to his mind.
They are also used to encourage the imagination to conjure; to conceive of what it might be like to imagine a 'technicolour nightmare by Salvador Dali' and make it a reality; to create a planetscape - Gondoran, a planet burnt beneath a Titan sun. One of the natural elements produced is described thus, "the white foliage of Gondoran ... called Virgin Flora, but it was not the colour of innocence. It was the whiteness of the forsaken of that left by life.' An evocative description, but, it seems to me to be more than that, for with the physical representation Melody is creating an analogy for the events which have occurred on the planet and for those which will occur.
Words which examine and encourage the reader to consider some of the questions of existence common to any time or state; dilemmas such as the worst of results produced by the best of intentions; or idealism untempered by consideration for the individual effect of measures taken for the greater good producing tyranny far more harmful than any it seeks to combat. Also examined are questions such as the nature of love and the dichotomy all human beings are with their variable mixtures of good and bad; and offer many an insightful comment upon society:
Leusip: 'You have chosen to care for others. That doesn't seem so very hard(tough).'
Dayna: 'Soft people do not necessarily care for each other. They are just infinitely polite to each other. They nod in passing ... They ask each other, 'How are you?' when no-one really cares.'
Or, 'Vision can be a sort of blindness... I was young and the young are enamored of panacea.' But for all their broad applicability they are not presented as meaningless generalities but explanations, comments, motivations which are completely relevant to this story and insightful within the context of 'Blakes 7'.
And everywhere words used skillfully to construct a multi-layered story, to suggest meanings within meanings, symbolic and suggestive of one of the main themes of the story - paradox. Everywhere elements reflect other elements - the special capabilities of Avon and Blake mirroring the two computer systems which are a central element of the plot. Another example is Gondoran which is described as having a dark side and a light side. The light side being where Standard Increase was established, where the man that Avon was to become, with all his darkness of spirit, was largely created. The dark side, ruined by humanity made environmental disaster became the realm of an illusion maker and will be where Tarrant is confronted with the dark side of his nature and yet it will also become the place from which the battalions of light will form up to do battle with those of the dark unleashed from the light side. It is intricate, it is clever, it is fascinating and wholly engrossing and enjoyable to read.
And all of this is woven unobtrusively in and about a story which is constructed from a myriad of interesting and diverse elements, so myriad and diverse I can only marvel at the intelligence, the breadth of the imagination and the skill of the pen which combined to set them down in believable detail and slotted them seamlessly into the usually fairly restrictive framework of a story based within the familiar parameters of 'Blakes 7'. Elements as diverse as how evil might recruit its generals and battalions; what the experience might have been like for those who attempted covert dissension within Federation society; what effect certain types of directed education might have upon a developing spirit; the final examination for an apprentice master magician; and the fascinatingly realised examination of the concept of the power of minds in rapport and what might be achieved by such powerful harmony.
And lest you imagine that all of this may detract or distract or neglect 'Blakes 7' be assured it does not. All of it is imagined from within the context we are so familiar with and is essentially an examination of the most complex and interesting of all the aspects of the series, well for me, the relationship between Blake and Avon. It builds upon what we know from the series, to create their pasts, a past they shared then lost. The reason it is lost being the lynchpin of the entire story both past and present.
Not only is the detail of the series used with memorable imaginativeness but Melody also recreates most of the characters in loving detail within scenes which skillfully interplay thought and word and deed to provide fresh insights which add much, well so I thought, and paint wonderfully detailed and true-to-themselves portraits of them all in all their moods and manners.
If you were ambivalent about Tarrant before reading this story, you may find that you have more sympathy for him when you have read the way Melody has constructed some moments in his past and present. If you have ever wondered about Soolin's past, you will find it here imagined in a most thought provoking way as she smiles her 'corrosive smile'; if you ever wondered where Vila learnt his magic tricks and what they might suggest about the sharp mind he likes to hide behind the 'fool that I am' facade then read on ... and if you find the relationship between Blake and Avon fascinating then you will find insights to it, suggested by such moments as:
Blake: 'You will follow me down?' He thought Avon wasn't going to reply, but then just as Blake crossed the threshold a soft sentence followed after him. 'Oh, Blake, don't I always,' it said, as the door slipped closed between them.' Or all that is suggested by a remark of Dayna's about them, 'They are well when they are together.' And find their every gesture and their essence recaptured in descriptions such as,
'He sensed the boy's presence... It was a warm transfusion in the cold, spare room.'
'Feeling the weight of Roj's steady gaze, the moist brown eyes that gave report on every emotion passing through his heart Leusip could not bear to look upon them, but he could feel their conviction given from Blake's heart, just as the other boy... could convey with one stolid glance the indictment of his mind.'
Or Avon's annoyance at the sound of Blake's voice, 'charged as usual with reasonless urgency,' and Blake's inward description of Avon smiling, 'A smile of pain, and Avon smile.'
Everywhere the writing is captivating, powerful, memorable, creating moments of unforgettable vividness which engulf you in their intensity, such as Avon's thoughts as he faces death; or the moment when a gesture of Blake's suggests quite unequivocally to Avon that Blake loves him, not as just another of the amorphous generality of the universe, but specifically and passionately, or a parting so sad I will never forget it.
To suggest just how strikingly interesting and varied and intelligent the writing to be found in 'The long way back' is you have but to begin it. The first few pages contain an exploration of a profound paradox; the description of the beginnings of disillusionment in a disciple for his teacher; a charming portrait of Blake; an examination of the way evil entices malleable servants; the dilemma of good intentions confronted with the unexpected results of a single-minded pursuit of ideals and the beginnings of the exploration of Melody's conception of what made Avon the way he was - in eight pages of beautiful writing which flows through the establishing of themes so effortlessly, it perhaps suggests without intending to do so, just how effortlessly these elements will integrate as the story unfolds and also suggests forcibly just how good a story this is and how well it is written.
The story as it unfolds is an adventure on an epic scale. The battle of good against evil conducted upon a canvas of marvelous invention- from a Mars orbiting satellite, to an ancient control room among almost sentient machinery, in the minds of Blake and Avon and then through their minds as they, representing intuition and logic, attempt to join their minds to achieve an impossibility. It is conducted in caves with purple rivers, in space against squadrons of Liberators and in the hearts of them all. And woven through it all is a love story of great power and poignancy.
As I said originally this is not so much a review as just my appreciation of this story. I know that there will be those who like 'Blakes 7' fanfiction who will not like this story - for many reasons. But, for myself I think 'The last best hope' and 'The long way back' together are the best 'Blakes 7' story I have ever read. Firmly and lovingly based upon the original they tell the same story in a completely new way, tell the story as it might have been, as I would like to imagine it was. And they tell this story that I like so very much in a way which stimulates my mind and completely engages my emotions, in writing I admire for its intelligence, its creativity and its beauty.
But also now in this year of thinking about why I love 'Blakes 7' they also perhaps suggest an insight into that mystery, at least for me. For they suggest most appealingly that for all the seeming randomness of events, the seeming uncaring face the universe generally presents, that perhaps there might be some force keeping a general eye upon things and sometimes intervening to set things that are completely wrong at least back on the right track, or if you like, that there is a place for hope despite everything. And perhaps that is what I like about 'Blakes 7'? Despite the end, despite all, the mere idea of these people fighting the seemingly hopeless fight is ultimately hopeful. Though this is not a view I expect many fans to share -smile - just as I suspect that some, perhaps many, will not feel as I do about 'The long way back'. But for what it's worth I love it, love them both. It is a wonderful story, wonderfully written, one that I am glad to have had the opportunity to read. At one point in the story Vila recalls an admonition from his childhood which said, 'May your courage be as vast as your imagination.' Having now read these two stories I cannot help but think that Melody's courage, and skill, was more than a match for her imagination - smile -
Visually the zine is pleasingly presented, as Judith Proctor's always are. It is nicely laid out and the type-face is clear and large enough for me to read without difficulty, always a decided plus. It has a beautiful cover, a thoroughly charming portrait of Blake and Avon set into a skillful composite of the main elements of the story.
The interior art by Val Westall everywhere provides visual enhancement to key moments in the story. I particularly liked the one which accompanies one of the scenes which recalls Blake and Avon's shared past, a moment of extreme poignancy which Val has caught very well in the look on Avon's face. The final illustration also charms me very much because I was thoroughly charmed by the conclusion of the story which it represents, but about which I am not going to say one more word in case you feel inclined to read it for yourself.
It is available from Judith and is worth every credit. Its a lovely zine. They both are and as a reasonably new to zine buying fan I can only thank Judith for her commendable efforts to reprint some of the classic 'Blakes 7' stories which otherwise might have been lost forever to the realms of myth and to my eyes -smile -
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