With the death of Blake’s 7 actor Gareth Thomas it’s time to strap on your transporter bracelets to The Liberator and THAT ending for ‘Robin Hood in space’.
Such was the basic premise of Blake’s 7 back in 1978, and that idea was pitch perfect for one of the most beloved TV series of the last 40 years. Always seen as something of Doctor Who’s younger sibling, it springing from the mind of Who-alumnus, Terry Nation, for many it was never held in as high regard or as beloved. But, for me, I probably loved it even more than the fellow in the blue box.
You can see the similarities to Sherwood’s finest with its original character set-up, with Gareth Thomas headlining as Roj Blake, who leads a rebellion against a tyrannical regime (hey, even in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Norman Soldiers were likened to Nazis). More ‘Marauding’ than ‘Merry Men’ his reluctant heroic crew, perhaps sharing as much with the likes of The Dirty Dozen and The Magnificent Seven as much as with those from the trees of Nottingham.
We are then introduced to corrupt computer genius, Avon, (Paul Darrow), essentially Will Scarlett, a man who you wouldn’t trust as far as you could throw him, even if he was classed as your friend, but you would far rather he be your friend than your enemy. Avon quickly become the show’s favourite, with his sardonic wit and no nonsense behaviour, he had the same appeal as the likes of Han Solo.
Master thief, Vila, steps up as your Much the Millers Son, as he is essentially the light-hearted comedian who is something of a coward. Avon and Vila were the perfect foils for one another and have the zingiest dialogue this side of the galaxy that is still as crisp and clever to this day
Gan, is clearly the Little John of proceedings with his mighty frame and heart, but I’m not quite sure how a smart arse computer, Zen, fits into it all Merry Man wise, um, Friar Tuck…well he is at least the voice of reason and calm. The rest of the original crew were made up of Jenna, a smuggler, and Cally, a telepath, and these feisty, gung-ho women were clearly reminiscent, in their fighting spirit, of Maid Marian. After all, you have to remember that this was the late 70s and that women did as much of the rescuing as well as the being rescued.
The ship, The Liberator, a wondrous design whose Corgi model once bestowed my birthday cake as a child, which was a brilliant backward-looking design with its (Lincoln) green bubble at its rear, so my hats off to you Matt Irvine for a ship that even outclasses the Millennium Falcon for being so ugly and impractical – Einstein would have a fit on the Physics front – that it is a thing of beauty.
If Blake and his crew represent Robin Hood and his Merry Men, then the Federation forces, personified in the obsessive, psychopathic Space Commander Travis, complete with eye patch, and his superior, the ruthless Supreme Commander, Servalan, represent Sir Guy of Gisbourne and the Sheriff of Nottingham, respectively. You only have to look at the mid 80s rebirth of Robin of Sherwood on ITV, and latterly, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, to see how similar the working relationship between Servalan and Travis was to that of the Sheriff and his lapdog.
The show was quite revolutionary in terms of structure – the arcing plot is ahead of its time, something seen as commonplace in the likes of the Battlestar Galactica reboot – and characterisation. It also features a surprisingly cynical world view with a healthy dash of dystopia and dash of moral ambiguity, this is no Star Wars black and white – which premiered in the UK the same year the show was launched – instead there are massive grey areas in the ensemble cast, like we see in everything from 24 to Lost and The Walking Dead, people who aren’t just the well-rounded, good-looking good guys of programmes like, say the original Star Trek.
It may have had its peak and troughs throughout its four-year series, not to mention cast changes galore and Blake jumping ship come the end of series two, but it had a fantastic concept, multiple major character deaths and perhaps the finest ending of any TV show past, present or future, an ending from which Planet of the Apes writers would find hard to get out of, an ending that gave my chin carpet burns from the force it struck the floor, an ending that had the balls to kill off the entire remaining cast and still have Avon going out (or did he?) in the coolest TV moment of my life.
Not bad, essentially being a kids tea time programme and taking in political intrigue and terrorism (remember the IRA were still out in force) and harrowing deaths of beloved characters. The sets may have wobbled and it was probably filmed in one too many quarries, but hey that is BBC budgets at that time for you, but the writing still holds true and is pretty blistering stuff most of the time, clearly helped in part with many of the main actors being RSC trained.
Thomas came back for that last episode having left after series two and he claimed never to have watched an episode. That’s a shame and a real loss, despite its somewhat dodgy sets and special effects it had some great Orwellian dystopia which meant that it was well-ahead of its time, especially in that time slot. And, story wise it still really shines today and remains relevant with terror and political intrigue riding high in the headlines and a major staple of TV drama, the rebooted ‘gritty’ Battlestar Galactica was of course dubbed ‘The West Wing in space’.
And these unjust times of political unrest and times of terror Blake et al would fit in perfectly. Stories about anti-government dissidents and corrupt, totalitarian governments never seem to go out of fashion (it’s no coincidence that the series villain was a woman – just as Thatcher came into power), and surely that’s doubly true of this era of terrorism.
Crucially, it had drama and conflict in spades, and most of this came from within the crew, especially between Blake and Avon or Avon and Vila, which was full of crisp, foil-bag fresh dialogue that even JJ Abrams or Joss Whedon would be proud to have scribed today.
Although it has been resurrected as an audio drama, getting a new lease of life in a series of audio adventures which has attracted a whole host of talent from Bond and genre fave, Colin Salmon as Kerr Avon and guest stars from Ashes to Ashes’ Keeley Hawes and new Sherlock Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch.
Like the Who audio adventures it has also lured back cast members from the original series, Michael Keating and Jan Chappell, all of which shows there is still plenty of talent and interest in the project.
It keeps threatening to return to screens with aborted attempts from Sky and the Syfy Channel in recent years. With the return of Star Wars to the big screen and another Star Trek series in the offing, as well as on the big screen, we are in the same alignment as when Blake’s 7 first materialised on our screens.
And after all in this world niche audiences for The Walking Dead and original dramas produced for the likes of Amazon, with The Man in the High Castle, and Netflix, with House of Cards, or Sky Atlantic with Fortitude, then there is nothing to stop the return of The Liberator and its crew.
Who knows, perhaps the real life death of Roj Blake, from heart failure and not shot by Avon, could be the right catalyst for his rebirth. Roj Blake is dead, long live Roj Blake?
As Zen may have stated: “Probability of reboot, 80%.”