What happens on Gauda Prime, stays on Gauda Prime

Blakes 7

What do you do when you want to review something, you know you like it, and yet you cannot express or do not know what you like about it?

The past year I have been watching Blakes 7 on my laptop, a lot. (The name, by the way, ought to be Blake’s 7, but the BBC never bothered to fix it.) With all the TV and film science fiction I could watch, I nevertheless pick Blakes 10 out of 10 times.

And for most of that year I have been wondering: what is it I like so much about this? Especially given that so much of the series stinks. The acting, the props, the plots, it’s all pretty abysmal at times. The good stuff should stick out but it doesn’t seem to.

Blakes 7 is a late 1970s sci-fi TV series with hammy acting, cardboard props and stories with sometimes huge plot holes.

What I like about it:

* The chatty bits. Whether it’s the bad guys or the worse guys, they always have these enlightening strategic discussions before they plunge into the action that are much more interesting than the action itself.

[Federation Space Headquarters. Servalan’s office.]

RONTANE: Which is why the President has asked me to come here personally; to express his own very grave concern over this matter. The destruction of the communications center has far-reaching political consequences. Controllers from some of the Outer Planets, whose loyalty to the Federation is, uh, delicately balanced, have been openly critical of the Administration’s defense system. There are even one or two radical voices that speak of withdrawal from the Federation.

BERCOL: My department has done all in its power to suppress information about Blake and his actions — there is a total blackout on all reports concerning him — but still the stories get out. They spread by word of mouth, by whispers, by rumour; each time the story is told it is elaborated upon. Any damage to the Federation is attributed to Blake. The smallest incident is exaggerated out of all proportion until it becomes a major event. Blake is becoming a legend. His name is a rallying call for malcontents of all persuasions. He must be stopped.

SERVALAN: Gentlemen: I share the President’s grave concern. And I am aware of the danger should Blake become a legend. But let us keep this matter in its correct perspective. It is true that Blake has command of a superb space vehicle, but he is just a man, backed by a handful of criminals, and that is all. He is not invulnerable, nor is he superhuman. He is just a man, who has been extremely lucky to evade capture — so far.

RONTANE: With respect, Supreme Commander, we are aware of the facts. They are simply that with all the resources that the Federation can call upon, this one vulnerable, lucky man is still free to cause havoc.

SERVALAN: You have some criticism of my handling of this matter, Secretary Rontane?

RONTANE: Not at all, I hoped merely to convey the concern shown by the President when he briefed me for this visit.

BERCOL: It would be very helpful to all of us if we knew — if you could indicate what action you will NOW be taking against Blake.

SERVALAN: Very well, Councillor Bercol. You may tell the President that I am appointing a Space Commander to take absolute control of this matter. He will be exclusively concerned to seek, locate, and destroy Blake.

BERCOL: Oh, excellent, excellent.

* I also like the fact that the bridge of Blake’s ship Liberator looks more like a living room than a bridge. They even serve drinks there from time to time. (Apparently Soma & Adrenaline is a popular cocktail.)

* I further like that there is not much hand holding by the story teller. There is a scene in the Firefly movie Serenity—a movie that otherwise reminds me a lot of Blakes—in which the bad guy starts to explain the way of the world to his victim. There is little of that in Blakes, and when it happens events often make it clear that the exposé doesn’t actually explain the way of the world, but is just a character’s opinion.

J.W. Herring expands on this a bit in his contrasting review of Blakes 7 episode Duel and Star Trek TOS episode Arena:

The whole purpose of that ending is nothing more than ethical pornography for the viewer – so that he can pat himself on the back and say “yes, like Captain Kirk, I would have spared the giant aggressive lizard who destroyed Cestus III and Redshirt O’Herlihy and who was trying to kill me too because killing is WRONG. If only, if only the rest of humanity were as advanced as I am.”

Blakes 7 is the best televised science-fiction that has ever been made. That’s just my opinion.

I am afraid none of this is going to convince anybody. Should you download the show from Bittorrent or thereabouts to check it out, be forewarned that the first episode introduces a lot of characters that you won’t see again. That episode exists just to introduce the title character, Roj Blake (Thomas Gareth). In fact the show doesn’t really get underway until the fourth episode

In the Netherlands the Free Record Shop tends to sell the show on DVD for 15 euro per season.

My rating: 4.5 stars
****1/2

4 responses to “What happens on Gauda Prime, stays on Gauda Prime”

  1. Reinder says:

    A possible explanation: what you like about Blake’s Seven is its Britishness. I don’t mean the accents or the grammar, but the attitudes. Like Doctor Who, of which it is arguably a spin-off*), and Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, itself arguably a spin-off of Doctor Who, Blake’s Seven embodies British attitudes that resonate with you in ways that the attitudes in American series do not.

    Specifically:

    You are doomed.
    You are not special. You are a very naughty boy.
    You can’t do. You can, however, make do (this applies both to the stories themselves as to the conditions in which they were created).
    And if we stick together and keep a stiff upper lip, someone might just take a shine to us and we just might make it.
    Oops, nope, we’re still doomed. Sorry!

    *) Even though the Doctor does not exist in Blake’s Seven’s world. This is why everybody dies.

  2. Branko Collin says:

    The overall Britishness of it all may be a factor, but it doesn’t strike me as a deciding one. Indeed, the Britishness I like is what Eddie Izzard calls “people opening doors“—a sort of contemplative drama (the talky bits that I referred to above).

    Also, I don’t particularly like Dr. Who, despite the obvious family lines.

    The protagonists of Blakes’ (with the exception of Vila, but he is just a cynic) don’t know they are doomed. They honestly try, but it is nature pushing them back constantly. Stiff upper lips are also remarkably absent. I remember a couple of bad guys engaging in sipping tea with bullets whizzing around their ears—the soldiers in Season 4 episode Traitor, to be specific. The whole idea of the stiff upper lip is one of a thin layer of extremely opaque veneer on top of animal instincts, but the crew of the Liberator and later the Scorpio would typically resort to fight or flight, without dressing it up. (Dayna sometimes philosophises about the nobleness of war, but that seems to be just her kink.)

  3. Reinder says:

    Oh, I didn’t mean that the characters express those attitudes directly, oh no, that would be crass. But it’s quite clear to the viewers almost from the start that the characters we’re supposed to be sympathising with are not in any way special, they’re not particularly heroic, and they haven’t got a chance in hell of winning whatever it is they’re trying to win, and therefore they do not in fact win. Contrast this with practically every American SF series ever made, in which there is always some sort of exceptionalism, which causes the humans to come out on top even by right they should not.

  4. brankl says:

    Comedy seems to get away with that crassness. Are You Being Served, “It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum”, MASH and Dad’s Army all have characters who openly express the “oops, we’re doomed after all” attitude. The obvious explanation being that the Brits looked at their dwindling empire and wrote that sense of loss into almost all of their drama.

    In the case of Dad’s Army that’s extra super plus ironic, because on the surface that show deals with what the British did in WW II, and in reality they kicked ass there.

    A litmus test for me is the Firefly movie, Serenity. It is obvious that Joss Whedon must have watched Blakes at some point in his life, because the similarities are both deep and superficial. Serenity opens in almost the same way as the first episodes of Blakes: first we are introduced to the goodness that is the Federation, only for the Federation to be shown as a nightmarish pit of corruption for outliers (a theme that was perhaps more topical in the 1970s than the 2000s).

    Where the two part ways is in characterization. Whedon wants us to know that the River character is one of the good guys. Even in the utopian Federation a teacher bullies her with passive aggressiveness. The result is that both the minor and the major character become flat and therefore uninteresting. (River’s redeeming characteristic is that she turns out to be a homicidal maniac—rather strong medicine for a problem that should not have been there in the first place.)

    Blake, on the other hand, is shown as a passive aggressive git from the get-go. You may not like him very much, but you dislike the Federation even more. If we are supposed to sympathise with him, it is not because of him but because it could have been us. (He is funnily enough therefore also much more believable as a leader, as everyone of us knows leaders who ram through decisions with passive aggression.)

    The major advantage for the writers of Blakes is that they could let the characters drive the narrative. That, I feel, is more important than the Britishness of it all.

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