Late last week, we got the news that Gareth Thomas, who played Roj Blake on the BBC series Blake’s 7, had died. I never met Mr. Thomas, and nor have I seen a great many interviews with him, so I can’t say very much about the man himself, which is my loss. I did watch Blake’s 7, a good bit after it had originally aired I guess, among some of the stuff my local PBS channel would show on weekend afternoons. I don’t think I ever saw any of the episodes more than once, and I’m fairly certain I haven’t seen them all. I’ve still never forgotten it.
Blake’s 7 was a very different sort of show than most of its time, and I think you can see its fingerprints all over many SFF series that came after it. Very basically, the show is set in a time when the galaxy is controlled by a tyrannical human empire, and tells the story of a small group of escaped convicts who set out to overthrow it. So far, nothing exactly off the charts, especially when you consider that it’s essentially Robin Hood in space, with the super fast starship Liberator serving as the Sherwood Forest-y refuge that is always there for the rebels, assuming they can reach it.
Or so it seems. The concept of Blake’s 7 may not sound especially unusual, but boy did they do very different stuff with it, almost right out of the gate. Rather unlike most other SFF shows (and, I guess, shows of other genres) on at the time (think: Star Trek and Doctor Who and the original Battlestar Galactica) where the main characters are all friends and resolutely on each others’ side, the crew of the Liberator are certainly not. Gareth Thomas’ Blake and the other (arguably) main character, Kerr Avon (a treasure of a creation, even if Younger Me was eventually disappointed that everyone had not, in fact, been saying ‘Evan’) don’t even really like each other. They argue, they disagree in terms of what is moral and what is practical, and generally give the impression that they aren’t so much a team as they are stuck with each other. I remember watching the first episode, and waiting for all this to smooth out in some kind of Moment that would create the band of happy comrades that would carry the series onward. It didn’t happen. It never happens. This was amazing.
The show continues to not follow the rules as it goes along. It deals with a lot of morally very grey decisions, and once you’ve watched for a while you never really feel secure in anything, because of the decisions the writers were prepared to have happen. Our heroes screw up. Fairly early on, one of the Seven gets killed. This was entirely unanticipated by Young Me – Bones never gets killed! Even, like, Chekov always gets back to the Enterprise safe. Doctor Who occasionally killed off companions, but usually they got a relatively pleasant exit, and the Doctor himself always has the regeneration get-out-of-death card in his hand. But Gan, the big good-hearted strong guy (there’s that Robin Hood parallel again) just died and there was no SFF magic to undo it and bring him back.
Little did I know what the rest of that series had in store, because by the end of it Blake and another of the Seven go missing and Avon takes control of the Liberator. Again, I was waiting for this to get undone and the status quo restored as most shows would do. Nope. Jenna, the other crew member, is (I believe) never seen again. Blake doesn’t return until the series finale, which I’ll get to in a minute. The Liberator ends up getting destroyed. I mean, can you imagine? Yes, the remains of the Seven do get another ship to tool around in, but on (again) Star Trek if the Enterprise blows up or something happens to the captain (any of them) you know that this is getting undone or fixed relatively quickly. The reveal of Picard as Locutus of Borg was a cool moment, but we were watching Star Trek and you know that shit is getting fixed. Blake’s 7 never gave you that certainty that a comforting status quo would continue on.
And then, there’s that ending. I suppose spoilers are a fairly silly thing to worry about for a ~30 year old show, but I really don’t want to say everything about it in case there’s a chance that you haven’t seen Blake’s 7 and decide you’d like to. (I’m also not very good at summarizing) I will just say that while conventions might lead you to expect that the evil Federation (yeah, they called it that) would be overthrown at the end, that’s not the resolution that you get. Instead you get Kerr Avon in a hail of bullets (well, laser blasts) and fade to black. It probably makes sense as an ending for the story of a insurgent rebellion against a superpower, but I remember sitting there, watching the credits with the gunfire sounds running over them instead of the show theme, and thinking that PBS must have had it wrong and this couldn’t possibly be the last episode. They didn’t. It was. Holy crap.
I’ve written a bunch of times here about how, these days, I like a happy ending, and that’s true. But I think I’ve also said that you can write bleak, difficult stories and do them well and have them work well for readers or viewers, and even though the mood of Blake’s 7 isn’t the kind of story I would write these days, I think it is a great example of grimness done right. Tough things happen to the characters, but you never get the sense that it’s gratuitous, it’s a consequence of the very full-contact game they happen to be playing. The characters are wonderfully complex and flawed and not all lovable Good Guys, but they also all give you a reason to like them on some level and to care about what happens to them. You eventually realize that selfish, scheming, untrusting Avon on some level talks a good game about not giving a damn about anyone other than himself but that the truth is more nuanced than that, underneath. These are not typically heroic characters, not even Gareth Thomas’ Blake, but the writers remembered to make them people that we still want to follow around as see what happens to them.
I should say one other thing about Blake’s 7 while I’m talking about it, although this entry is getting pretty darned long. The BBC, at this time, was making exciting shows like this, and Doctor Who, with budgets of about a buck ninety five an episode, and admittedly they sometimes look it, in terms of the sets and special effects. Alien worlds often come down to ‘this set of corridors’ or ‘shot outdoors in a quarry again’. Costumes and props and sets get reused and recycled between episodes and even between shows – the helmets that Blake’s 7’s Federation jackbooted thugs wear showed up on a later episode of Doctor Who, for example.
I was recently watching an old episode of Doctor Who in which the Doctor and Sarah Jane are wandering through the TARDIS, and the walls are very clearly rather hastily painted wood. There’s no way they’re anything else. You can see the brush strokes in the grey paint. Another episode from not too much later in the series has a character infected with a horrible alien space disease, and when this is revealed he turns around to show off an arm wrapped in green-dyed bubble wrap. You recognize it right away. This is the key moment where either you can be a fan of shows like this, or you can’t.
Now some people can’t handle this; they see the shoestring effects and either can’t stop laughing (which is not an entirely unjustifiable reaction) or dismiss the shows as garbage (which I would argue is). It never bothered me, and I’m not entirely sure why. I mean, yes, I didn’t have the modern CGI and amazing effects that even network TV shows get to compare it to, at that point, but even so, bubble wrap is still bubble wrap, and it never bothered me. There was the dramatic music sting, the reaction of the other characters, and this guy acting his pants off that something awful was happening to him, and I just followed along.
I think that this is because SFF stories are always asking you to use your imagination. It’s part of the deal, isn’t it? No matter how well they dress it up, the writers and actors are still asking you to believe that they’re on an alien planet when they’re in a forest in BC, that the prop in their hands is an arcane relic, and that the guy in a weird suit is an unimaginable horror. You either buy that, and get into the story, or you don’t. Sometimes it seems to me creators of movies and TV and books forget this, and worry too much about the effects and the world building when they don’t have a good story, or good characters, yet.
I think that when the writing is good, the characters and plot are compelling, you can get your viewers or readers to buy in to whatever strange and fantastic concepts you’re trying to sell them on, and if the writing is no good, it won’t work, detailed description or amazing effects notwithstanding. I think this connects back to what I was talking about with the idea of how much world building you need – I will not be thinking ‘Gosh, I’m not sure I believe the economic base of this society is sustainable’ if you’ve given me a great story. I will not be thinking ‘well, I don’t think you could build a device that would do that’ if the device was built by an awesome character using their device to do something rad. Just like I wasn’t thinking ‘dang, that’s just bubble wrap’ during that episode of Doctor Who. The story was good, I was in, and I was fine with the narrative that the poor guy had a terrible space disease. Let’s go.
Even more tenuously, I wonder if this goes back to playing games with your friends as little kids. No-one really had a ray gun, we either had something plastic or a piece of wood that you painted up. We had cardboard box spaceships, maybe with some foil on there. The back yard was an alien planet. The HQ of Earth Defence Command was the garage, or the tool shed, and no-one said that it looked fake because we were busy imagining. I think shows that are done well in terms of writing and the actors’ performances get us Busy Imagining again and then the effects almost don’t matter so much. I mean, if you had bubble wrap on your arm in your back yard space games, you totally had a space disease.
So, to wrap things up for this week, I want to thank Gareth Thomas and everyone who was involved in Blake’s 7 for giving me a great show that changed a lot of my expectations about how TV shows and fiction might work, and certainly had my imagination running full speed. You had me Busy Imagining, and I’m not sure that’s something I can ever say ‘thank you’ enough for.
Now I should probably get Busy Writing, which of course also involves being Busy Imagining.
I gotta have something happen in a quarry.
Thanks for reading.