The first hint of something in Blake’s 7 beyond politics and space opera arrives in style: Pamela Salem backlit by a looming celestial body. In Cygnus Alpha we get the first meaningful view of a world beyond the Federation and Earth; in keeping with much of Terry Nation’s fictional universe – and the majority of Blake’s 7 – it’s not pretty.
It’s barely a minute into the episode before Avon has pulled a gun on Blake and the power dynamic is instantly evident: Avon blinks first as Blake shrugs off the challenge by simply walking away. It’s not clear whether Blake sees this is a bluff, joke or a test of his mettle – or even an outright threat.
Either way he treats it as if Avon is not serious, though Blake has little reason to doubt his sincerity. Thus begins a two-season power struggle with The Liberator as the prize.
The introduction of Zen immediately begs questions that are never really answered. Is the 28th Century Siri merely a computer, as Avon insists? While he lacks the obvious spite of Orac, Zen certainly bristles at Avon’s disregard, appears to make a telepathic link with Jenna and ‘has a mind of its own’ but this is a path forever left unexplored.
In these early Liberator scenes, particularly in the moment where Blake, Jenna and Avon discuss teleportation mechanics, the difference between the approach of both Gareth Thomas and Paul Darrow to their lines in Blake’s 7 is evident.
Whereas Darrow relishes his lines and wrings everything out of them, Thomas’ delivery is more naturalistic, reflecting how some of the more fluent Shakespearean actors recite the archaic verbiage. It makes for a pleasing combination of styles and invites further readings fo their respective characters.
Having urged Jenna to randomly press buttons in the hope of gaining control over the ship Blake, true to form, immediately tests a supposition about the teleport based on Avon’s ‘educated guesses’ and blunders straight into almost lethal danger, surviving because of more dumb luck when Jenna stabs the correct button on the teleport controls.
Down on Cygnus Alpha the rest of the London’s passenger’s find themselves about to embark on a battle of survival. It’s at this point one of Vila’s lesser-spotted and less pleasant traits is on view, namely his pleasure in the discomfort of other people – as if unnerving others acts as a displacement activity for his own anxiety.
It’s interesting to ponder what the pair might have brought to the dynamic on The Liberator as originally planned by Nation, especially the unpleasant Arco, who clearly has no truck with Blake’s quest. He is at least responsible for Blake’s mask slipping, albeit briefly, when he suggests Blake turn himself over to Vargas and forego his ship.
Returning to the planet, Blake finds an authority figure with whom he can butt heads in the shape of Brian Blessed’s Vargas, who delivers his usual quota of shouting but marries it to a disturbingly sing-songy delivery to create a villain every bit as one-eyed as Blake. Both are on Cygnus Alpha looking to recruit followers; neither is prepared to lose grip on the power they enjoy.
With Blake attempting to secure a crew, Avon and Jenna enjoy an intriguing back and forth on the Liberator. Once again Blake has trusted that Avon won’t simply abandon him, yet another of the opportunities he provides for Avon to leave.
Perhaps more surprisingly Jenna’s faith in Blake isn’t infinite. At one point she actively prompts Avon to discover a room of treasure she knows will appeal to his less noble instincts.
“He can’t win – you know he can’t win,” snarls Avon and it briefly seems Jenna might just prefer to be rich than dead when she demurs to his logic.
Jenna recognises the truth of Avon’s words but she can’t bring herself to decouple from Blake’s crusade. Nevertheless Blake comes perilously close to losing the Liberator at the hands of his two existing crew members, on their way to buy a planet.
Down on Cygnus Alpha the prisoners make desperate bids for a teleport bracelet, a literal audition for entry to Blake’s crew. Add Avon and Jenna and the seven seem complete, but the brutal dispatch of Selman and Arco makes it clear Blake’s 7 is a very different beast from other genre shows.
Despite the many close escapes, two of Blake’s crew are forever denied a happy ending here by choosing the resistance leader over freedom. As Avon intimates to Jenna: “We lose it all”.