Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Blake's 7: The Way Back

“Reality is a dangerous concept.”

It feels a bit weird reviewing something that’s not related to Doctor Who, sort of. Although of course it’s made by much the same people, and is a welcome return to watching some older television, which gives me more things to comment on. I watched Blake’s 7 before about five or six years ago, but only got a few episodes into Series Three. I’m quite excited this time round: lots of old-fashioned fun, lots of links to Who, and a chance to take the mickey out of Terry Nation’s clichés once again!

Let’s begin with the obligatory comments on the theme tune (legendary!) and title sequence (er… it’s embarrassingly obvious that starfield is just a matte painting, isn’t it? Even by 1978 standards). But we then immediately establish the moon with a few seconds focusing on a CCTV camera before we pan out. I know I’m always going on about CCTV cameras in old telly always symbolising the most awful extremes of totalitarianism (good job we’ll never have them on every street corner, eh?) but it’s never been more true than here. This opening shot foreshadows so much of the theme and mood of the episode, most obviously in that it’s effectively telling the viewer that they’re about to see a story about a totalitarian 1984-style state.

The 1984 parallels start early. We’re introduced to Roj Blake as an anonymous, quiescent drone, effectively lobotomised by the suppressants that the “Administration” puts in people’s food. Presumably the drab décor contributes to this as well- but wait, this is 1970s studio-based telly, isn’t it? We’re back to that curious 1970s vision of the future, all grey corridors and dull clothing, waiting for Blade Runner to come along and give screen sci-fi a kick up the aesthetic.

Blake is persuaded by a couple of rebel types to venture outside with them, something which is of course forbidden. This is not the last time there’s a clear debt to literary sci-fi; I can think of more than one Isaac Asimov novel in the Foundation series alone with such a scene.

Blake is introduced to Foster, played by Robert Beatty off of Doctor Who and the Tenth Planet. Foster, who is incidentally the only character who doesn’t sound as though he’s been to RADA, delivers an awful amount of exposition before getting killed. It seems that four years ago Blake’s relatives, who he believes to be sending him videos from the planet Ziegler Five, a thinly veiled Siberian gulag, were in fact executed four years ago after his own trial. The authorities have ensured that he no longer remembers leading a big rebellion before being caught and subjected to psychiatric treatment- this reminds me very much of the similar practices in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, contemporary in 1978, in which dissidents were put into mental hospitals and officially said to be insane. And Blake’s show trial is awfully reminiscent of Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. These echoes are fascinating; I think they stand for a hell of a lot more than just the fact this was made during the Cold War. I tend to think of early Blake’s 7 as a prime example of the dystopian British sci-fi of the post-war decades, with J.G. Ballard and 2000 AD also being examples, along with Orwell, obviously. It’s as though this country’s wartime experiences of Nazism, of never being invaded but of Nazi controlled territory being visible from the south coast and of constant fear of invasion, led to a fear of Nazi tyranny which remained a fear of the unknown, a fear untempered by real experience. There’s a particular British paranoia and fascination with totalitarianism which transfers to Communism after 1945. Terry Nation’s Doctor Who scripts are also full of this sort of thing.

Oh, and on the subject of Nation, we have a character called Dev Tarrant. That’ll be our first Terry Nation cliché for this series, then. I’ll be maintaining a tally sheet, just as with his Doctor Who stuff.

One of the most effective parts of this episode is immediately after the rebels are all massacred, having just tried to peacefully surrender. We hear several seconds of silence as Blake looks upon their corpses, bringing home to us the shock of the moment and the cruel, arbitrary power of an unaccountable State. Blake is then quickly arrested, and experiences, er, flashbacks of the flashbacks we’ve already seen. This is powerful stuff. Nation can’t do dialogue, perhaps, or characterisation with any depth, but he sure as hell can do ideas. The scene between Blake and the shrink, who makes it clear that it is the all-powerful State, and not the individual, that defines “reality”, is deeply affecting television.

And the State’s solution to Blake is the most appalling example of this; Blake is presented with trumped-up charges of sexually abusing children and packed off to some gulag in an outer-space Siberia. Worst of all, the children have been implanted with false yet vivid memories, meaning the authorities are in effect child rapists themselves. Horrifying, and not a subject you would ever see on television in such a way now. Still, it’s odd, here and later, that Blake is not treated by others as a “nonce”; he acknowledges himself that mud sticks. I assume the charges are not widely believed.

The courtroom scene is interesting in that two sealed packages of evidence are weighed by computer- very totalitarian indeed. Blake is, of course, convicted, and arrives in a cell where we quickly meet a thief called Vila and an ice maiden called Jenna. Jenna, interestingly, soon thaws under Blake’s charms and confesses to him that she feels scared, hinting at the potentially very unpleasant fate of a woman living among male criminals and at the mercy of male prison officers.

We have an interestingly long strand in which Blake’s defence lawyer, a decent chap, and his equally nice girlfriend, become convinced of Blake’s evidence and slowly uncover the truth, including a scene with an amusingly low-tech computer which needs a bloke to operate it for some reason. As soon as they discover too much, they are “disappeared” by an uncaring and all-powerful State. For Blake, on his way to Cygnus Alpha, what hope can there possibly be?

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