If The Way Back is one of the greatest starts in the history of television drama, then fifty-one episodes later, Blake is a candidate for the greatest conclusion to any series ever. And while it misses out on being my personal favourite by the tiniest of tiny margins, it is also arguably the greatest episode of Blake's 7. It is a very intelligent but deceptively simple tale analysing the emotional and mental decline of the series' two main characters, and like the series as a whole, it has a very bleak theme running through it about paranoia, and about how fallible human perception is. But it also has an equally chilling counter-theme about how dangerous attempts to off-set that fallibility can be.
Season four does not start too well, it must be said, with just about the entire first half failing to rise above mediocrity, and Stardrive and Animals being particularly bad. But the second half of the season sees things pick up enormously, with stories such as Games, Sand and Gold of a standard comparable with high points in earlier seasons (and even the much over-rated Orbit is worthy).
But it is at its culmination that the season hits its peak, as threads laced throughout of growing despair, failure and moral nihilism are tied up in a truly macabre, chilling and desolate conclusion that confirms the series' status as a perpetual future dystopia. It is a true ending to the series, in a way that the dramatic-but-half-hearted Terminal could not be at the end of season three.
The story opens with a total defeat for the surviving rebels. Their attempt to form an alliance with various independent worlds neighbouring the Federation (in Warlord) has failed, and their base on Xenon has been destroyed through treachery. Avon has decided to search for a figurehead to unite anti-Federation groups behind, and with Orac's help he believes he has found the very man; none other than his former leader, Roj Blake. Blake has been missing for around three years by this point, after the Intergalactic War at the start of season three, and was later presumed killed on the planet Gevron. But Avon has traced him to a planet out on the Federation frontier called Gauda Prime, an agricultural world made up chiefly of forests and farms. As luck would have it, Gauda Prime - or GP as its inhabitants call it - is Soolin's homeworld. So Scorpio and its beleaguered crew depart Xenon, and set off to find Blake.
Soolin and Avon explain to the rest of the crew that GP is an Open planet, which is the term for a Federated world where the Law and all penal codes have been suspended. This is a cynical ploy done to speed up mining; when Soolin was still a child, it was discovered that the planet had enormous valuable mineral reserves below ground. The occupants objected to the Federation moving in to dig up the ground and ruin the environment, and the Law was on their side, so the Federation simply suspended the Law and declared the planet Open. The upside of this was that the materials that the Federation wanted to extract were successfully strip-mined very quickly. The downside was that, firstly, the damage to the eco-system of much of the planet was substantial, and secondly, with no Law or penal code there, GP became a magnet for criminals and other low-life scum of the Galaxy, who knew that they would be beyond the reach of Federation Security there.
Gauda Prime has therefore become a deadly, chaotic hell-hole. Soolin's family were murdered there when she was still very young, and she is more than a little uneasy at the thought of having to go back. Avon then makes an announcement that she finds incredible; the Federation has decided to restore law and order to the planet. GP is crawling with bounty hunters who have been assigned to capture and/or kill as many of the worst criminals and marauders at large there as possible. (And as Tarrant points out later, with Federation prices on the heads of the entire Scorpio crew, a planet awash with bounty hunters sounds like the last place they should be heading.) Avon then makes a further announcement, one that Vila finds incredible; Blake is one of the bounty hunters. It would seem that the great idealist and freedom fighter has taken up killing people for money.
In fact, Blake's reasons for being on Gauda Prime are not entirely clear at this stage, but they do look rather ominous. So does Blake himself when we first see him. He is dressed in shabby, bulky outdoor clothing, and his left eye is heavily scarred, to the point where he can only half-open it. He is unshaven, and looks as if he has been living rough for months. Destitute and scarred, he almost resembles the one-eyed Travis after he turned renegade. The resemblance is both symbolic and ironic, for Travis was a Federation man, who after Duel became a renegade and outlaw, while Blake was for a long time a renegade and outlaw, but now has effectively become a Federation man (or at the very least has become a freelancer that the Federation is prepared to hire on-and-off).
We find Blake in a forest clearing, cooking some meat over a campfire, when he encounters a young criminal called Arlen, a woman on the run from bounty hunters who are tracking her after she was accused of a series of murders. Arlen is deeply distrustful of Blake, but she has been on the run for a long time and is starving, so she accepts when he offers her some food. This does not win her trust - nor should it, it is a classic opening gambit of a conman after all - but she is prepared to offer Blake one of her weapons as payment for the meal, showing she is enough at her ease in his company to stick to her principles, even when, as in this case, it is a dangerous principle to uphold. Even so, when taking her leave of him, she will not turn away from him, but backs away slowly, not taking her eyes off him for fear that he might draw the gun on her. This says an awful lot about the nature of life on Gauda Prime. Treachery, bloodshed and death, all without legal redress, are completely rife. No one dares turn their back on anyone else.
As she attempts to leave the clearing, Arlen is ambushed by three bounty hunters. She manages to gun two of them down, but the third one, Tando, injures her with a shot to the leg. Blake takes up the gun Arlen has given him and shoots Tando in the back before he can apply the killing stroke. Arlen warns Blake to get into cover, as she is sure there is a fourth hunter tracking her. Calmly aiming his gun at her, Blake informs her that she is correct, there is a fourth hunter; Blake himself. Arlen is outraged at the way that she has been hoodwinked, but the injury to her leg means she is helpless to fight him or run away. She snarls at him that he is scum, and he responds by revealing his real name. He drags her back to his base, a silo at the heart of the forest, from where bounty hunters are assigned missions and despatched to carry them out.
When Scorpio reaches Gauda Prime orbit, it is attacked by mercenary gunships that, as part of the campaign to restore order, have set up a blockade to prevent gun-runners from shipping weapons onto the planet. The damage caused by the attack is so heavy that Tarrant realises he will have to attempt a crash-landing, but given the speed at which the ship is plummeting through the atmosphere, it is unlikely that anyone aboard will survive. First Vila, Soolin and Dayna, then Avon and Orac abandon ship via the teleport, while Tarrant and Slave make a valiant but largely futile attempt to land Scorpio safely. The ship is wrecked in the landing, and Tarrant suffers serious injuries. On the planet surface, the crew eventually assume that he must have been killed, so they look for somewhere to shelter for the night and recuperate after their recent exertions. But they are wrong. Tarrant is alive.
Blake is still at the silo when he hears news of the freighter crashing, and he decides to investigate. On finding the wreckage of Scorpio, he overhears Slave, using his final reserves of power, speaking to Tarrant, who is unconscious. In particular, he hears the computer using the injured man's name.
When Tarrant finally wakes, he comes under bombardment from an airborne flyer. Blake steps in and shoots down the flyer with his sidearm; clearly flyers are pretty fragile vehicles. While this is happening, Blake explains, somewhat dubiously, that the gun-runners on the flyer are not shooting at Tarrant, but at Blake himself. It seems more likely that they have mistaken Scorpio for a smuggler ship and are trying to kill off any surviving crew in hope of claiming a reward.
Blake finds a teleport bracelet and examines it. Although the resemblance to the bracelets on the Liberator is fleeting, it must be enough to arouse suspicions in his mind. He then performs what appears to be a morality test on Tarrant. He casually leaves a gun next to where the younger man is lying nursing his injuries, and comes up with a rather far-fetched explanation for why the flyer was targeting him. He then chucks a small bag full of precious stones to Tarrant and states that the gun-runners were trying to take them from him. The fact that the gun has been left next to him and the stones so blithely thrown his way is too obvious, and Tarrant knows straight away that he is being tested. Blake wants to see whether Tarrant will pick up the gun - which is surely not really loaded - and try to kill him in order to keep the stones. It would be senseless in Tarrant's current plight to try and attack anyone - he needs help, not riches - but he can tell that the gun is not really loaded anyway. He just throws back the bag of stones with a sneer, and tells Blake in no uncertain terms that he knows what the game is.
Interestingly, neither of the two men show any indication at this stage of knowing who the other is, refusing even to name themselves. They have never met until now of course, as Tarrant only joined the crew of the Liberator shortly after Blake's disappearance at the end of the war. But when pretending to be a Federation Captain in Powerplay, Tarrant did claim that he would recognise Blake straight away if he ever saw him. Equally, given how famous Avon and his crew have become - Keiller was talking in Gold about how they were big news 'on the grapevine', and it was shown in Orbit that even Egrorian had heard all about their exploits while he was in isolation on Malodaar - it seems implausible to suggest that Blake has not heard anything about their deeds, or that he has no idea whom he has found. But they both have to be careful, because they might be mistaken; for all they know, each one could be looking at an enemy agent in disguise.
As dawn approaches, Blake takes Tarrant to his flyer and prepares to fly him back to the silo. Not far away, Avon and the rest of the Scorpio crew, having obtained a flyer of their own from a couple of unfortunate (now dead) bounty hunters they encountered during the night, take off in pursuit. Avon describes the pilot of the other flyer as "our guide", although whether he realises who he is is not clear; he is only the guide because Orac recognised that the flyer was heading for the silo, making him suitable to follow.
Shortly after arriving back at the silo, Blake suddenly seizes Tarrant's gun and aims it at him, declaring to the administrator on duty, a man called Deva, that his latest hunt has been "profitable... even by my standards." He goes on to explain to Deva that Tarrant has a very high Federation price on his head, as do his colleagues, one in particular - by which he clearly means Avon. He also states that he is aware of being pursued on the way in by a second flyer, almost certainly under guidance from Orac. It is now clear that Blake knows only too well who his new prisoner is, and he has merely been behaving towards Tarrant in precisely the way he was behaving towards Arlen earlier; appearing nice early on to win his trust, then drawing a gun on him when he is at his most vulnerable.
Deva summons an armed guard to keep watch on Tarrant while Blake goes to confront Avon; the guard is Arlen! Tarrant suddenly fights her and Blake off and runs through the base, looking for a way out. Arlen offers to shoot him, but Blake stops her. Deva gets angry, complaining that Blake's ways of testing people are going to get someone killed sooner or later.
It soon becomes clear that it was all an act to test Tarrant's allegiance. Blake has become so paranoid about Federation trickery, and their many attempts to infiltrate his resistance groups, that every time he finds a new candidate to join his rebel army, he pretends to be a bounty hunter, supposedly arresting them in order to hand them over to Federation Security. He studies how they respond to this; if they are clearly in fear for their lives, he assumes it will be safe to recruit them and that they have not been 'planted' by the Federation.
When she earlier learned who Blake was, Arlen passed the test because she offered Deva (whom she believed at that point was a Federation Administrator and not a rebel) the information as a bargaining tool for her life. The logic Blake is following is that if she were a Federation spy she would have announced herself as such to Deva, instead of haggling privately for her freedom. Now, by running for his life, Tarrant has passed the test as well.
This is the whole reason why Blake is on Gauda Prime at all. He wishes to build a new army to fight against the Federation, and he knows that criminals will be his best source of recruits - just as they were when he was putting together a crew for the Liberator five years before - because they are already enemies of the establishment.
The rest of the Scorpio crew have arrived and find Tarrant in the silo's main tracking gallery, where he is struggling with a technician. Soolin shoots the technician, and Tarrant announces that he believes Blake is here. Right on cue, Blake walks into the gallery, followed by Arlen, and comes face-to-face with Avon and Vila, who both look slightly shocked at how battered their old leader now looks.
At this point, his voice boiling over with contempt, Tarrant declares to Avon that Blake has sold them out. Avon demands that Blake answer this charge, to which the response is that Tarrant does not understand what is happening, and that the whole thing has been a set-up. Avon misinterprets this as meaning that Blake has set the Scorpio crew up. He raises his rifle and shoots Blake three times in the chest. There is blood everywhere. Blake falls into Avon's arms, then slumps to the floor. He is dead.
Deva runs in warning that Federation troops have entered the base. Then he sees the body on the floor and freezes in shock. Arlen suddenly raises her gun and shoots him down, before commanding the Scorpio crew to put down their weapons. They all do as told, except Avon, who is staring dumb-struck at Blake's dead form, so stunned by his own actions that he ceases to notice anything happening around him. At this point, Arlen announces that she is a Federation officer, and that she is the one who has guided the troops into the base. Blake's test, it seems, was not as watertight as he thought. What follows is a brief, horrific melee.
Firstly, Dayna makes a reckless attempt to retrieve her gun, and Arlen mercilessly shoots her down. Vila responds by knocking Arlen cold, but is then shot in the back by a Federation trooper who has burst into the room. Soolin has gathered her own gun and shoots the trooper, but is then gunned down in turn by another trooper arriving through another door. Tarrant has grabbed a gun and shoots the second trooper, only to be himself shot by a third.
Finally, Avon, the only one left standing, snaps out of his reverie to see more troopers flooding into the tracking gallery. They close in on him, all aiming their rifles at him. They have him completely surrounded. Avon has absolutely nowhere to run. There is a look of real despair on his face as he glances down at Blake one last time. He then stands astride of Blake, as though trying to protect him, and slowly raises his gun to aim at the trooper standing directly ahead of him. Avon smiles almost crazily. The credits start to roll just as the sounds of gunfire can be heard...
Thinking back to the first time I saw the slaughter in 1981, I recall going into denial and proclaiming that Avon ducked out of the way, and that he was firing most of the shots that could be heard. I was being irrational of course; in my defence, I was only six years old and I was not quite ready to see something like that. My attitude was born from a mixture of shock and misery that my heroes had all died.
And in the cold light of day, there seems little doubt at all that the entire crew is dead. There may be a slight chance that one or two survived, but the odds are against any of them really. Tarrant, already carrying heavy injuries from Scorpio's crash-landing, appears to have been shot in the head, so his hope of survival is close to zero. Dayna looks finished too. Vila and Soolin may have an outside chance, but no better than that, while Blake is definitely dead; it was in Gareth Thomas' contract that his character would die on his reappearance, and all the blood leaves absolutely no room for doubt. (There are suggestions that it might have been his clone from Weapon, but it is clear for reasons of personality that the man on GP is the real Blake, and in any case there is no explanation for how the clone could have got there, or why Rashel was not.)
All of which leaves Avon. The odds for him are marginally better than they are for any of the others, but only because he happens still to be alive as the credits start to roll and we do not get to see him die; scant reassurance really, as it certainly sounds like a lot of shots are being fired his way, and he has no escape route.
One theory that began circulating not long after the episode aired - and was championed by series creator Terry Nation - was that the guns the Federation troopers were carrying were set for stun. They were certainly a different model from the para-guns/plasma rifles that they usually carry, but there are several reasons why the theory does not sound convincing.
Firstly, it would be quite a cop-out, very much at odds with what happens on-screen.
Secondly, the Federation always slaughters opposition groups, it never takes them prisoners, except more or less inadvertently. (The only other time in the history of the series when they used stun weapons was in Project Avalon in the first season, and that was not in order to take prisoners but as part of an elaborate plan to capture the Liberator.) The series is in fact ending as it began in The Way Back, with a massacre of a resistance group.
Thirdly, the troopers do not shoot Avon as soon as they see him. If their weapons were set for stun, it would only be because they were under orders to take everyone alive. If that were the case here, there would be no reason for them to close in and surround him, or wait for him to shoot one of their number before opening fire themselves; with weapons set to stun, they could simply shoot him at first glance, without any risk of disobeying the order to take him alive. Instead they wait until one of their colleagues is dead before firing back, which makes no sense unless two conditions are met; their weapons would have to be set to kill and the troopers would have to be under secondary orders to take a prisoner or two for questioning - if possible.
Blake's tests were perhaps a little cruel, but he probably could see little alternative other than to use them. His injuries and general bearing show that he has been through merry hell since his disappearance, and his paranoia is now almost total. It seems certain that he has been the victim of many of the Federation's mind-games, and is now unsure of anyone he meets. He told Arlen early on that he can no longer tell who is Federation and who is not, which stands in stark contrast with his attitude on the Liberator, when he more or less trusted all his crew without hesitation. His last words to Avon before the war started were, "For what it is worth, I have always trusted you... from the very beginning." Now it seems he will not trust anyone. Newcomers must be tested in a manner that terrifies them to a cruel degree, and even those he is confident are on his side he will not depend on, hence he insists on conducting the tests himself. "All right, I find it difficult to trust, it's a failing I admit..." Even if his army eventually numbers thousands, he will do all the recruiting himself. It is often said that paranoia is a symptom of arrogance, and this would seem to prove it.
The worst aspect of this though is not the high-handedness, but that his tests are fundamentally flawed. Arlen is a Federation officer, but she still passes the test because Blake wrongly assumed when a Federation spy would reveal himself/herself. It seems he did not considered that a spy, who by definition will be an expert in subterfuge, will know better than to assume the man he/she is speaking to is a superior officer just on his say-so. In the end, his tests failed to catch out a real Federation agent, while turning a genuine candidate for recruitment - Tarrant - against him.
Although the episode is called Blake - and indeed it is very fascinating to see what has become of the rebellion's erstwhile leader - the analysis of Avon is every bit as interesting. His behaviour in the final scene underlines a pattern of increasingly erratic moods and amoral conduct that has become more and more pronounced throughout the fourth season, but probably stemming from the moment in Rumours Of Death in the middle of season three when he realised the true identity of the one who betrayed him in the Great Bank Fraud. The process of his mental decline has been exacerbated by events at Terminal; the electronic manipulation of his mind by Servalan, Cally's death, and the destruction of the Liberator, all of which were to a large degree his fault, have changed Avon very deeply. His morality for instance - not exactly a dominant aspect of his character to begin with - has dissipated to a frightening degree; in Stardrive, he sacrificed Dr Plaxton once he had secured possession of the photonic drive, in Orbit, he nearly sacrificed Vila to survive Egrorian's double-cross, and then in Warlord, he sacrificed Zeeona after Xenon Base was destroyed. Here, he happily sets up Soolin, Dayna and Vila, using them as bait in a trap for the two bounty hunters so that he can steal their flyer. (His claim that he had no idea that it was Soolin et al that he was setting up might be true, but it is very hard to believe it; it would be a big coincidence that he just happened to arrive in the same place as them unless he was consciously tracking them.)
Avon has clearly been developing a paranoid stress disorder since the destruction of the Liberator, especially given the far greater vulnerability of Scorpio, and Servalan's frequent - usually successful - attempts to double-cross him. Avon has become ever more uncertain of his own judgement - something he used to have no doubts about whatever - and at times he is quite unsure of what is real and what is not, paralleling Blake's difficulties almost exactly. More pertinently perhaps, he is less and less confident of the allegiance of the people he trusts. His reasoning on Gauda Prime seems to be that if even Anna Grant was prepared to betray him, why should Blake be any different? (It should also be remembered that another old friend, Tynus, betrayed him in Killer in season two.) The situations with Anna and Blake are, after all, very similar. Both of them are people Avon became close to (albeit in different ways) and learned to trust without hesitation. He has also wrongly assumed them both to be dead. Therefore, Avon has started associating absent friends - especially those who have survived unexpectedly - with treachery and deceit.
When Avon demands an explanation, it is noticeable that he takes Tarrant's word over Blake's. Partly it is just easier for Avon to believe that everyone is out to get him as it makes the world seem less complicated (following logic that is contrary to Auron wisdom; he who does not trust can never be betrayed), but we should also keep in mind that Tarrant has been travelling with Avon for about three years by now, and they have been in each other's sight for much of that time. Avon can at least be reasonably confident that Tarrant is not conspiring against him as there is every probability that he would have picked up on it. But he has not seen Blake for almost exactly the same length of time, and with at least part of his mind he must be suspicious of the events on Gevron. Given that Servalan announced so firmly in Terminal that Blake was dead, Avon might have a vague suspicion that they had made some kind of deal e.g. in exchange for information regarding the whereabouts of other rebels, Servalan might have faked Blake's death and announced to Security that there was no further point in hunting him. The whole idea of Blake agreeing to such a treacherous deal is clearly absurd, but then Avon's state-of-mind is far more brittle than it once was. (My own belief is that Blake did fake his death in some way, but it was merely to get the Federation off his back, not as part of some self-serving bargain.)
It is an exaggeration to suggest, as many do, that Avon is mad by the end. He is on a slippery slope beyond doubt, he is unsure about what is real and what is not, but he is not mad as yet. As Paul Darrow is fond of pointing out, early in the episode, Avon smiles about the rest of the crew implicitly thinking of him as a psychopath, and no psychopath will ever smile at the accusation.
More to the point, while Avon may be the victim of delusions, they are not products of his imagination as such. It is more that his conclusions are frequently mistaken, and that, because of the nervous stress he is under, he acts without making sure that his initial impressions are correct. His misjudgements, even when gunning down Blake, are not actual madness as they are still based on the known facts. They are also misjudgements anyone could make in the same position (although whether their response would be the same is quite a separate matter). He does not just dream up absurd explanations off the top of his head and then believe them with unshakeable conviction, as a real madman would. Instead he makes a cursory but accurate examination of the details and draws his conclusions, but without making certain he has as many of the facts as possible; in the past, he would make certain. His actions are also noticeably more violent than they used to be. He thus shows signs of a deepening personality disorder, one that could well lead to psychosis, but he is not there yet.
The other central characters have good outings too, with the possible exception of Dayna, who once again resumes her accepted role of 'smartmouth-gun-toting-female-who-throws-unhelpful-remarks-of-savage-irony-into-other-people's-conversations', and the definite exception of Servalan, who does not make an appearance at all. We learn as much about Soolin as at any time in her brief run on the show, Tarrant is very much at the heart of the story from the moment of arrival on Gauda Prime, and Vila, although not getting a great deal to do, gets some very good lines, especially, "Let's get the dignified hell out of here!" and, "The state the roof's in, it's the same as spending the night in the open."
The aforementioned absence of Servalan is perhaps a surprise, and Jacqueline Pearce was famously quite disgruntled at not getting a proper send-off, but the decision to leave her out was quite correct. It was felt by the production team that Servalan had been overused throughout the fourth season, which she had, and that many of her appearances were completely superfluous, which they were; her involvement in the episodes Traitor, Gold, Orbit, Warlord, and arguably even Games were totally unnecessary, had little to do with the storyline, and undermined the presence of the guest villains in each case, villains who were quite strong enough characters in their own right.
Writer Chris Boucher even felt that sufficient surprise could be achieved in a negative way by not having Servalan show up at the last minute, in spite of numerous hints throughout about the expected arrival on GP of a Federation representative, naturally leading the audience to assume it would be her. Such a familiar 'revelation' was undoubtedly best avoided, especially as, yet again, the story really did not need Servalan at all. In itself, a final confrontation between her and Avon or Blake might have been interesting, but it seems fitting that the Federation should bow out as it came in; a sinister, ruthless, more-or-less faceless tyranny. Who needs Servalan?
The episode does tie up one other loose end though; the fate of the other long-time absentee from the original Liberator crew, Jenna Stannis. We only get second hand information rather than a cameo from Sally Knyvette, but Blake reveals to Tarrant that Jenna was on Gauda Prime at some point in the last three years as well, where she was operating as another smuggler. According to his story, she died when trying to get past the blockade, hitting self-destruct rather than letting herself be captured and handed over to the Federation. The bludgeoning fury with which Blake relates the story suggests he believes every word of it, although it might just have been another part of his test of Tarrant's allegiance. There certainly is a serious logic issue otherwise, namely how Blake could possibly have known that she hit the self-destruct? She could hardly tell him about it afterwards, could she?
The impact of Blake was resounding, not only on the series, but on the country; it sent roughly one sixth of the British population into shock when it was first shown in 1981, and a lot of people had a much bleaker festive season than usual because of it; it was just four days before Christmas! It brought the series to a spectacular and very decisive end, one that confirmed the dystopic future it portrayed as being total. In this future, the good guys, such as they are, do not win in the end. Instead, pessimism and authoritarianism reign, just as they have from the outset, and every attempt Blake would ever make to defeat the Federation - be it at the head of the Freedom Party, as Commander of the Liberator, or as head of an army on Gauda Prime - would prove futile. As Jenna said back in Spacefall early in the first season, Avon could die contented, knowing that he was right.
It is quite possible of course that he was not. Blake's failures were quite consistent and overwhelming, his successes few and very minor, but it would be wrong to assume his total defeat was inevitable. Had he been less blinkered at critical moments, and less prone to judging circumstances with his heart rather than his head e.g. when things started going wrong in Pressure Point, and had he found more followers who were as committed to his ideals as he was, he might have met with real success. But in the end, he did still lose, and the bleakness of that defeat, the manner in which it happened, and the funereal atmosphere as the final act was played out, were all stunning to behold.
Blake is therefore some of the most powerful drama the series ever produced, as well as a rare example of a long-running television show offering up a real conclusion at its end, instead of a tentative anti-climax.
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