A political revolutionary named Roj Blake is convicted and sentenced to life on a prison planet. On the way there, the transport encounters a derelict ship of unknown design, and several crew are killed trying to board it. Blake, and two other prisoners manage to board and commandeer the ship and escape. They pick up several others and go on to fight against the Federation with the fastest ship in the known galaxy.
This show was a BBC production that aired starting in 1978 and had 4 series produced. I chose to lump the first two series together as they they are essentially a single unit without any appreciable change between them. Series 3 and 4 mark large changes, so they will be reviewed at a later time.
The series starts with Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas) meeting with two friends, through whom he finds out that he was a political dissident with such a following that the Federation captured and brainwashed him to get him to denounce his movement. Reluctantly he leaves the city with them to attend a dissident meeting, where he witnesses Federation security officers massacre everyone. On his return he is arrested and convicted on fabricated charges and sentenced to life on Cygnus Alpha.
In the holding area before boarding the prison transport ship, he meets Vila Restal (Michael Keating), a thief and Jenna Stannis (Sally Knyvette), a smuggler and pilot. [Ed: I think Oleg Gan (David Jackson), a murderer was also here – can’t remember at the moment. If not, he was on the transport] They are transferred to the transport ship and leave Earth.
On board they also meet Kerr Avon (devilishly played by Paul Darrow), a computer expert, and several others. During the long flight to Cygnus Alpha, they manage to rebel and take over the ship, but the rebellion is put down. Instead, Blake, Avon, and Jenna are directed to board an derelict ship of unknown design after several crewmen were killed attempting to board it. They manage to defeat the defense system and take control of the ship – with which they run away.
To shorten the initial story up, they travel to Cygnus Alpha and rescue Gan and Vila, and then later pick up the telepathic Auron Cally (Jan Chappell), who all reluctantly follow Blake in fighting against the Federation – so long as doing so suits them.
At the end of the second series, it ends in a cliffhanger with the Liberator joining forces with the Federation to fend off an invasion from outside the galaxy.
The interactions between the characters often reflect an uneasiness and lack of trust. Blake wants to fight the Federation. His only real backers are Cally, who herself was a revolutionary against the Federation but failed in her mission, and Gan. Jenna is supportive but prefers the more profitable role of smuggler. Vila doesn’t want to take any risks (more of a coward), and Avon would rather use ship to become rich – if at the expense of the Federation, that’s fine with him. So they follow Blake as it suits them, but always at the edge of leaving or mutiny, especially when Blake makes unilateral decisions that affect them all.
On the other side of the equation is the corrupt Federation, controlled secretly by the Supreme Commander Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce in a marvelously evil role) and Space Commander Travis (first played by Stephen Greif, later played by Brian Croucher), who has a grudge against Blake.
Central to the story is the ship, which takes the name Liberator. It is faster than anything the Federation has, and more powerful (although not significantly so it seemed). It seemed built as much as a luxury ship as a battleship, with an ornately decorated control room, and even a room full of treasure!
The ship’s computer is named Zen, who can be incredibly knowledgeable but maddeningly reluctant to give information.
The ship is also unique in the known galaxy for having a teleport system, which is tied to wearing a special type of bracelet. No bracelet, no teleport, which they use as a convenient plot device several times.
Towards the end of the first series, the crew pick up a new “member” – the supercomputer Orac (also voiced by Peter Tuddenham aside from the first episode when he appeared). An intelligent computer with vast computing power, he can also be maddening – he seems to find some tasks to menial for his ability. And the first thing he does is predict the apparent destruction of the Liberator (explained in the second series).
The special effects? Well, this is a BBC production. The sets in a lot of cases were remarkable – I’d love a ship with that control room. But space shots seem to alternate between slow model shots and paper cutouts. The supposed fastest ship in the galaxy turns like the QE-II in a harbor. The hand weapons on the Liberator were unique, but also looked like what they were – a Plexiglas rod with some disks and a light bulb in the handle.
Various locations seem to get used repeatedly. They do seem to like shooting in what appears to be some sort of oil or gas refinery.
The stories are of general good quality, although execution could be uneven. Terry Nation was the creator and primary writer, but writing often fell to others when he could not keep up with the production schedule. Rumors also exist that the end of the second series was to have a confrontation with Nation’s best known creations, the Daleks – but we never see the face of the enemy.
The change in actors for Travis was abrubt – not only the facial change, but in costuming – the eye patch shrunk, the uniform changed, and so did the character. Greif presented an overzealous military leader. Croucher presented a more insane, obsessed persona. I personally preferred the former, but Greif became unavailable for the second series necessitating the change.
Of the Liberator’s crew, my favorite was Vila, playing the buffoonish, cowardly character. Michael Keating just seemed to play it incredibly well. Cally was probably my least favorite – I just didn’t seem to see much purpose to the character, other than to fulfill one of the seven slots.
Did I say seven? But there were only six. Well, in the original plan, there were seven crew members, and a few were slightly different. But as usual in a production things change on the way. To most fans Zen became the seventh member (and Blake makes reference to this). When David Jackson left in the second season, Orac became the seventh member.
Overall, this was a good series and is worth watching. Doing so outside the UK may be difficult, unless you can find the VHS tapes (there is a Blake’s 7 section in the Sci Fi TV Store, where you will find them listed and available used and possibly new), or can use the Region 2 DVDs available in the UK. I won’t mention non-legal methods. I myself own a set of the VHS tapes which I am in the process of converting to DVD to preserve them before they deteriorate (thus why I’ve been rewatching them).
Frankly, I wish they would remake this series. I know Paul Darrow has been campaigning for a sequel series that would pick up some years after the first, but a new show with better effects might in fact be best, as the original had limited release outside the UK and 30 years have now passed since it aired. I think the premise is solid enough to be redone, although the anti-establishment theme might be at odds with the more recent patriotic movements.