Deeply Silly Space Series or Heroic Poem?

A Review of John Kenneth Muir's A History and Critical Analysis of Blake's 7, the 1978-1981 British Television Space Adventure.

Reviewed By Ann Basart

"The thing that amazes me the most is how different people are in their appreciation of Blake's 7 . What makes the series attractive, why do you go back to it, how do you enjoy it ultimately what is that ever-elusive signifier that this one given name with its possessive suffix and single numeral stands for in your mind? Everyone has his/her own answers to these questions. Some of them have been really surprising, some inspirational, practically all of them entertaining. Kai Karmanheimo, writing in the B7 conversation bulletin-board Lysator.

The Guardian recently characterized Blake's 7 as "A deeply silly space series about seven freedom fighters." Taking an opposite tack is John Kenneth Muir's diligent History and Critical Analysis of Blake's 7. Muir, a dogged analogist, sees the show not only as "a futuristic . . . translation of classical literary, film, and television traditions," but also as an "anti-Star-Trek " show (because it's "realistic and gritty" rather than "idealistic"); sci-fi TV's first video novel; an heroic poem; a trilogy; a novel in chapters; a story-arc; equal parts Robin Hood and _The Magnificent Seven_; and a "cosmic parallel to Earth's ancient history."

Blake's 7 was "the cultiest of British cult sci-fi serials of the 1970s . . . one watched by 10 million viewers at its peak, an enormous number for a space opera," according to Cult TV: The Essential Critical Guide (by Jon E. Lewis and Penny Stemple; London: Pavilion, 1993). Today, almost twenty years after the final episode was broadcast, B7 still attracts numerous fans (through TV rebroadcasts, video sales, books and magazines, and Internet sites). Many of these fans hold widely divergent views of the series and its meanings, and Muir's opinions will doubtless be debated by the more articulate among them.

Blake's 7 was not an optimistic science-fiction TV series. Muir describes the characters as a "desperate, fatalistic and determinedly pragmatic band" and finds the "pieced-together sets a perfect metaphor for a rotting Federation unable to sustain itself." As for the general tenor of the story, "the series is savage in its treatment of beloved characters and icons. Its Machiavellian nature perfectly fits the tenor of the resistance premise." Cult TV said, "It was not only in its proclivity for dispensing with major characters that Blake's 7 played with conventions. It also eschewed moral blacks and whites." Neil Faulkner (on Lysator) wrote: ". . . a downbeat, austere, slightly shabby ambience . . . made a welcome change from more typical high-gloss visions of the future. It suggested a civilisation that had over-reached itself, passed its peak, embarked on a long, slow slide into eclipse. This only served to add a further layer of bleakness over the setting."

Muir organizes his book into chapters on the history of the series, the individual episodes, fandom, and the conventions of the genre (an amusing section). He also appends notes, a bibliography, a videography, and an index. Much of the "Origins and History" section, which gives the background of actors and writers as well as the history of the show, can be gleaned from Blake's 7: The Inside Story , by Joe Nazzart and Sheelagh Wells (Virgin Publishing, 1998).

The fandom section, "Blake's Millions," looks briefly at fan clubs, conventions, videos, comics, books, and audio tapes, with a nod toward the Lysator Archives, Judith Proctor, and Neil Faulkner. A concluding section, "Essays," combines, rather idiosyncratically, Muir's thoughts on "SF TV's first video novel"; "Futuristic Robin Hood Myth"; "Dirty Dozen in space"; "The Anti-Star Trek "; "Sex on the Liberator"; and "Special effects [and] cinema- tography."

The bibliography, which cites books and periodicals separately, does not include Tony Attwood's _Terry Nation's Blakes 7: The Programme Guide_ (2nd ed., Virgin Books, 1994), although the "Blake's Millions" section does. Many of the books cited here deal with other series, such as Star Trek or Doctor Who .

The long section devoted to individual episodes forms the heart of the book. Organized rather like David J. Howe's Doctor Who: The Television Companion (BBC Productions), it provides the following information for each episode: writer, director, and date first aired; a synopsis of the plot; a list of the guest cast; and a lengthy (one-and-a-half to three-page) commentary. Here the reader will find the meat of the work: Muir's comments on character development, plot contour, the history of the federation, moral issues, science-fiction concepts, visual effects, cinematography, and other subjects.

Physically, Muir's book is utilitarian: no dust jacket, few photos and none in color, a sturdy library binding. (Oddly enough, most of the illustrations are from outside the series such as Paul Darrow in "Hammer's House of Horrors.") On the whole, the editing is clean, but some typos ("Guada Prime," "Villa") creep in from time to time.

Muir is good at catching details, such as the opening montages; cinematography (e.g., a "spectacular tracking shot" here, a camera "placed behind a backless steel staircase" there); special effects ("wind-up flying saucers with little flashing lights," "handguns that have been likened to hair-curling irons"); re-use of props from other series. He also discusses actors; for example, the two Travises: "Brian Croucher's Travis takes quite a bit of getting used to. He is not the sardonic, multi-faceted Travis [whom] Steven Greif developed so expertly late in the first season. On the contrary, this Travis is a raving attack-dog who has little or no impulse control . . . " (p.81)

Muir occasionally asks some tantalizing questions: in "Shadow," for example, "The invading alien . . . remains a mystery. Who is it?. . . Where is he from? . . . Is he evil or just desperate?" (p. 80). In "Weapon," is the Blake clone at the end a decent creature "because it is imbued with the clonemaster's reverence for life, or because, genetically, Roj Blake is just predisposed to be a good' person? This could have the crux of an enormously entertaining and thought-provoking tale, but it is given short shrift . . . " (p. 81)

Muir's tying together of themes and threads within the series is a great strength of the book. Here, for example, are his comments on "Star One," with references to other episodes:

From its very inception, Blake's 7 was a cosmic parallel to Earth's ancient history. The Federation, a futuristic Rome, is rotting from the inside with weak and corrupt leaders ("Shadow") and labyrinthine conspiracies ("The Way Back"). Federation infrastructures are collapsing ("Space Fall"), and further setbacks ("Time Squad," "Seek-Locate-Destroy") are crippling the Empire. Then, at this critical juncture, the star-spanning Federation is challenged by an internal revolt from a Spartacus-like character, Blake, and further internal turmoil is stirred up. The Series B finale, "Star One," extends the historical analogy to its logical conclusion. As the Federation and Blake clash again, an outside force, akin to the German Barbarians who sacked Rome, takes advantage of the Milky Way's problems. Thus "Star One" is a turning point in both Blake's 7 's universe and its history. It is revealed that, far from being a force of freedom, Blake has unknowingly conspired to destroy mankind. By stinging the Federation so badly at communications outposts, weapons facilities, and finally Star One, he has actually set the stage for the subjugation of his own species by an aggressive alien culture. It is an astonishing resolution to the second series, and one that finds the heroic Blake doing what would have seemed impossible in any other episode: joining forces with the oppressive Federation to destroy the external threat. . . . There are questions, for once, about Blake's quest. (pp. 98-100)

However, although his commentaries often provide good discussions of larger topics (and helpful cross-references to other episodes relating to those topics), the reader must go through each commentary to find, pick up, and follow a thread. For example, a discussion of the developing relationship between Servalan and Avon is to be found under "Orbit"; a discussion of the Federation (as we have seen) is under "Star One"; the nature of Zen, Orac, and Slave is examined under "Games." But there are no index entries for such topics, so the reader can't go directly to those threads. Although episode titles, names of actors and other people, and titles of television series and movies are listed there, no names of characters or concepts are to be found in the index.

Muir's writing style somewhat lackluster and repetitive is marred by occasional pretentious language and overwriting: Scenes aren't filmed, they are "lensed." Episodes aren't written, they are "penned." Peter Tuddenham doesn't speak the part of Zen, he "voices" it. Stories don't further plot elements, they "enunciate" them. As a result we find such hard-to-chew sentences as "The chases are lensed alternately in tight closeups, numerous quick cuts and impressive establishing shots showing the magnitude of Space World. " (p. 76)

As a writer who has compiled similar books on Dr. Who, Battlestar Galactica, and Space 1999 , Muir is (perhaps all-too) conversant with TV shows such as Star Trek, Survivors, Outer Limits, and The X-Files, not to mention sci-fi films. His incessant comparisons became, for this reviewer, an annoying tic. For example, "The Way Back" reminds Muir of Orwell's 1984 , Kafka's Trial , and Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner , and he finds in it "a courtroom drama worthy of Perry Mason ." Or, "Blake's 7's second series offers some rather bizarre variations on popular films. The Mafia angle in Shadow' is a reflection of The Godfather . Voice from the Past' is a futuristic version of The Manchurian Candidate . . .' (p. 73)

He also wastes far too much space on trivia, such as noting other appearances of cast members:

Cygnus Alpha' is intricately linked with Mission of the Darians' not only in its negative conclusions about organized religion, but through a casting choice. Robert Russell, who plays the disciple Laran, appeared in Space: 1999 's Mission of the Darians' as Neman's servant, Hadin. He was eventually paired with a beautiful woman (Joan Collins) who also served Neman. Russell's character in Cygnus Alpha' is also paired with a disciple named Kara (Pamela Salem). (p. 43-44)

or comparing B7 episodes with other shows:

Vengeful, superpowered aliens . . . have been the fodder of televised sci-fi since the early days of the medium. A troop of egotistical Greek god-beings forced Kirk, Spock and McCoy to perform bad song-and-dance routines in Plato's Stepchildren,' a third-season Star Trek episode. (p. 121, in a discussion of "Sarcophagus")

Will the reader who wants to know more about Blake's 7 really care?

Although he has clearly watched the series with an attentive eye, Muir does make a few blunders. He does not mention Avon's striking arrogance and anger in "Redemption," and his commentary on "Deliverance" ignores the subplot about Ensor's son, which ties to Orac and is important in the thread. He says that in "Bounty," "when Sarkoff refuses to go with him, [Blake] . . . systematically smashes each collectible in Sarkoff's collection" (p. 66). But here's what really happens:

BLAKE: [Removes the record from the Victrola and smashes it, then picks up the butterfly collection ] All of it. Piece by piece. [Makes as if to drop it ]

SARKOFF: No! No, please! All right. All right. All right, I'll come.

Muir is good at catching the show's ambiguities: The first two seasons, he says, "presented two main characters of differing philosophies. Sometimes Avon was right, sometimes Blake was right. Or, delightfully, sometimes they were both wrong. Or even better, sometimes they both perceived they were right" (p. 101).

Later we discover, surprisingly, that Muir finds Avon, not Blake, to be the main character throughout. Although the two men complement one another ("Avon and Blake are reflections of a single leader; they need each other to command effectively"), the final episode "suggests that Blake was never the lead character of [Terry] Nation's video epic after all. The novel's thrust all along was apparently to show how its true lead character, Avon, came under the tutelage of a great leader, rejected that time of instruction and learning, and in . . . his final moment, came to realize that he was very wrong to reject those philosophies. Blake's 7 is Avon's story of growth and failure. . . ." (p. 161)

The ending of the last episode, "Blake," has caused controversy since its initial broadcast, generating much discussion among fans. Why does Avon shoot Blake? Why does he smile? Here is what Muir has to say:

"When Avon smiles at the conclusion of Blake,' he is amused because he is the butt of a cosmic joke. Avon, the one who trusts nobody, will die because he should have trusted Blake. . . . Avon's last act is completely heroic and idealistic. He protects Blake's body from the storm troopers, and realizes that Blake's way was the only way. He learns that the only way to win is with ideals, honor and ideas, not with rationality and cold logic. With a last smile, Avon does the only stupid but noble act of his life. Surrounded, he brings up his gun. . . A lone character learns, adapts, and changes for the better in a single, explosive moment." (pp.161, 176)


Here are some comments by members of the Lysator list:

"Avon, stressed to the breaking point after the combined events from Terminal' on, cannot cope with Blake's evasive answer to his question, and kills him." Betsy Ramsay

"It is precisely because of the changes which occur in [Blake] over the seasons of Blakes 7 that he is killed by Avon. [Blake's] lack of trust, his unclear communication and his secretive manner with Tarrant, who he knew was with Avon, all contribute to his death." Jenni-Alison

"Avon's smirk at the end: there are lots of interpretations around, but I'd go with the one that [says] he knew his fate finally was settled and that they wouldn't catch him alive. Tanja Kinkel

"And why does Avon raise the gun and smile? The way I see it, the man has lost just about everything during the last twenty-four hours; he's just realised that he's made perhaps the biggest mistake in his life by killing Blake. Standing there surrounded by troopers, I think he realises the inevitability of his own death. It will either take place later with the ultimate humiliation of the Federation dictating the moment and the method of his death, or it will take place right here and now, on his own volition and at his chosen moment. Raising the gun is a symbol of defiance (taking Blake's place as the one defying the Federation), but it's also meant to provoke the troopers. Kai Karmanheimo

My greatest disappointment is that Muir attempts no long-term tracing of character development. I've found more depth in the Lysator list discussions than here (although those, of necessity, are episodic and discontinuous). Nevertheless, Muir's book will be of interest to Blake's 7 fans (it is, after all, dense with information), although I could wish that Kai Karmanheimo or Pat Patera or Neil Faulkner or Judith Proctor or another articulate member of the Lysator list had written this book instead.

* John Kenneth Muir. _A History and Critical Analysis of Blake's 7, the 1978-1981 British Television Space Adventure._ McFarland and Co. (Box 611, Jefferson, North Carolina 28640, USA): 2000. Cloth, vi+217p. ISBN 0-7864-0600-3.

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