The nightmarish imagery of psychological reconditioning, a bloody massacre and the casual framing of its leading man as a paedophile. That’s quite an opening statement for a show that would never really throw off comparisons – and a timeslot similar – to Doctor Who, but that’s how Blake’s 7 announced itself in The Way Back 40 years ago today.
Blake’s 7 might amount to very little without the heft and drive of its opening episode – a complex set of actions and coincidences set in motion by the attempt to ruin one man and prevent a revolution – but The Way Back sells us an idea of Blake’s 7 we never really see again.
In focussing on the framing of Blake – a lapsed freedom fighter with a murdered past and tranquillised dreams – creator Terry Nation almost gives The Way Back the feel of a self-contained short story; a Play For Today that can be viewed as allegory or straight-forward political thriller. Ray guns, spaceships and AI judiciary may be present but they’re subordinate to a story that is timeless.
Evident in the work done by Michael E Briant – one of the more impressive in-house BBC directors of the time, making good use of rear projection, extreme close-ups, crossfades and crash zooms here – is an effort at world-building that takes its cues from Nation’s script but adds deft touches to further enrich the dome its inhabitants call home.
It’s a set-up from the contemporary hard sci-fi of Mark Adlard, where people are encircled by the physical and metaphysical boundaries of habitation, automation and imagination. The world is white, materials and design coherent, as if deliberately numbing. Even when they realise its corruption, Blake and Tel Varon are both loathe to leave their world.
There are suppressants in the food and water intended to keep people docile and prevent any further insurrection. Doped-up dome inhabitants slouch in single-file, constantly beset by lift muzak and watched over by winking security cameras.
Still there are grace notes here, little flickers that hint of something beneath the surface. Nigel Lambert as the computer operator encountered by Varon and his wife is interrupted in some futuristic grooving and deadpans his way through some resentful jobsworthing.
It’s but a tiny moment of humour in a relentlessly bleak episode, in which Blake is taken from his home, threatened with betrayal by people he thinks are his friends and finds out his family were killed following his own show trial for being a resistance leader.
On the verge of assimilating this information he then witnesses an unprovoked and bloody massacre that proves beyond any doubt that his entire world is a complete fabrication and demonstrates its subjugation under an iron fist of fascism.
What happens next pushes Blake’s 7 into another realm completely. In a scene striking for how ordinary it is, three leaders of the dome casually discuss how best to ruin Blake and eventually alight on trumping up charges of child molestation against him.
It’s moments like this when Blake is rattled, angered or exasperated Gareth Thomas does his best work. The scene where he disbelievingly reads the charges against him – “All involving children!” he remarks disgusted – is a case in point.
Thomas was a fine actor but there’s occasionally the suspicion he’s sleepwalking through Blake’s 7. When he’s called on to deliver a rousing speech, react in fury or spar with Avon he can effortlessly rise to the challenge. But in places he seems to be once removed, as if he can’t quite buy into it in the way a Paul Darrow can.
In places this is problematic – the leading man seemingly detached from proceedings – but it works too. Blake’s apparent diffidence can be read as the messianic self-assurance the character genuinely possesses.
When Blake observes the departing Earth from a porthole in the London he demurs at the suggestion he won’t be returning. Thomas delivers it deadpan, in what may seems an ill-fitting underplaying of the line. But for Blake this is a simple statement of fact: he’s coming back.
All of which invites the reading that at virtually no point in the entire show is Blake sane. In The Way Back his ironclad self-belief easily brings Varon, his wife, Vila – here much more the engaging sociopath than whimsical coward he will become later – and Jenna falling into line behind him, even though they scarcely know him.
There will be plenty more along the way – and it will cost virtually every single one their lives, sacrificed on the wheel of Blake’s blithe quest for vengeance. Blake’s 7 is a story of unfolding madness and inevitable doom for its protagonists; once they enter Blake’s orbit there is no way back for any of them.