Size / / /

Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Writing
  3. Backbone
  4. Blake
  5. Endnotes

1. Introduction [contents]

This essay was occasioned by the death, on April 13th of this year, of the actor Gareth Thomas. Thomas was most famous for playing Roj Blake, the eponymous protagonist of the landmark BBC science fiction series Blakes 7. While the essay contains elegiac elements, it’s grown into a longer piece on Thomas in a broader sense, Blakes 7, Blake as a character, television and fandom history, and the status of protagonists and politics in genre television today. I hope that scope doesn’t make the piece feel inadequate in its partial function as a tribute: personally, I think context makes it more of one. I hope, conversely, that an obituary isn’t all the piece is. An obituary, like a funeral, is for people who already care about the person in question and who want or need such a thing, whereas I hope a good deal of this discussion is relevant even if you don’t have that relationship with this actor and this particular text; I hope that it works if you’re simply interested in the mechanics of telling good and ethical stories on television. And of course I hope that if you don’t already love the things I love, you can be convinced of their merit. What is criticism, when embarked on as praise, but a small and understandable piece of selfishness—a little, affectionate tyranny?

Right before Thomas’s death, I was sitting in a cafe with former Strange Horizons reviews editor Abigail Nussbaum and one of the current Strange Horizons reviews editors, Aishwarya Subramanian (like having an old priest and a young priest present in case of genre-related exorcisms). At some point we discussed how many properly influential science fiction television programs there had actually been.

As Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic points out, and as the theorist Keguro Macharia recently reminded us on Twitter by reframing the contention, thinking of ideas and writing in terms of paternity can be a loaded and dubious business. Macharia writes, “I have issues with framing anything in terms of generations—I always detect hetero-genealogy at work.” “[T]he word generation is so everywhere that it's difficult to get away from, but it assembles many unlike things into a family.”

Bearing that in mind, when I think about Western SF series that have been influential (all of which have their own ancestries, naturally, as well as descendents), that sit underneath everything we’ve done with SF television since, I get to perhaps ten titles. That few. Now clearly people could fight to the death over the exact composition of such a shortlist, but if we were being honest, I think we might surprise each other with the degree to which (for better or worse, whether we like the titles in question or not) our choices would overlap. And any way you slice it, Blakes 7 (if the title sequence abhors a possessive apostrophe, then goddammit, so do I—though if a quote uses it, I’ve decided (grudgingly) to allow the difference of opinion to stand) absolutely has to be in there.

blake

Blakes 7 has obvious and sometimes self-confessed inheritors (Farscape, Firefly[1]. You could make "some-influence" cases for other big-name SF programs: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; possibly Doctor Who’s proposed, aborted Shalka reboot [2] (Who and Star Trek’s reverse-borrowings are only fair, given that Blakes 7 always had a close relationship with both canons, and a positively incestuous connection to Classic Who); and elements of Buffy. Some would also add Babylon 5, and the new Battlestar. And then there are the legion of less-broadly-successful offerings. Sometimes you can hear the pitch meeting dimly in the background of shows that haven’t fully established their own voices: "It’s like Blakes 7 meets—". 

Blakes 7 is, I think, important in and of itself, but it is also important because its place in this economy of influence (as, again, one of maybe ten major SF media Building Blocks) has caused it to have a long, sometimes concealed or disavowed, afterlife. Essentially, Blakes 7 is still important because it’s still in the room in these sorts of "what is our show going to be like or unlike" discussions—though often not in the ways it ought to be.

Shows that borrow from Blakes 7 tend to want the program’s strong ensemble cast, its criminals-on-the-frontier concept, some of its design chutzpah, its snark, its political preoccupations, and/or its "grim" reputation. "Grim" is here to be pronounced with unseemly relish, as by people who exclusively remember the final episode’s (in)famous closing tableaux, who have forgotten how wonderfully camp the show can be. Horace Walpole, who masterminded the creation of the neo-gothic confectionary-castle Strawberry Hill and wrote the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764), developed a concept of theatrical, atmospheric gloomy-warmy, or “gloomth”: “an emotional and evocative approach to building opposite to the rationality of the classical.” Blakes 7’s camp heart functions something along these lines. The program’s theatricality isn’t a bug, a failure of naturalism, or a breakdown of the dialogue’s Noel-Coward-drawing-room tension. Intentional and un, the show’s camp and self-confidence enable its at times Shakespearean registers (don’t roll your eyes, I straight-up mean this—think about how "Rumors of Death" works. You know what, I’m not even going to make this argument here).

The misguided attempt to replicate Blakes 7’s supposed grimness stands as a synecdoche for a lot of the pitfalls of attempts to use the show as a building block. I can feel, when I’m watching a program with roots in Blakes 7 or its inheritors, familiar strings being pulled with varying degrees of success. But as with "grimness," often what subsequent creators have borrowed isn’t what actually works best about Blakes 7. They shake the silver out onto the carpet and make off with the nice-but-less-valuable cabinet it was kept in. Curiously, people almost universally fail to steal what makes Blakes 7 vital, special and (still) relevant. There are things I wish people would gank. These can be summed up as Writing, Backbone and Blake.

2. Writing [contents]

I understand why (it’s because it’s difficult), but almost no other show, genre or otherwise, is as well-written as Blakes 7. Oh I know there are some clunkers in these scripts (I can’t pull anything that’s gone regrettable out of the fridge without sadly telling it “Yes. That is how I reasoned you would look.” ("Moloch")), but by and large, the show’s consistent script editor and sometime-writer Chris Boucher takes Blakes 7 creator Terry Nation’s basic conceptual skeleton and does to it what Pound did to Eliot’s first draft of “The Waste Land” (except this time no one’s fascist) (except the Federation). And that’s putting it mildly. If you look at Nation’s draft of series two (or series B, if you will—generally, I won’t) episode "Pressure Point" and then at the script as-aired (difficult to do, given that the BBC despises its own institutional legacy and money, and would rather hoist itself on whoever’s leading the Tories this week’s petard than release a good, edited collection of scripts—but not wholly impossible), you can see how richly Boucher has complicated the characters.

 

NATION’S DRAFT:

BLAKE The others have agreed
AVON I thought they would. They’re not over intelligent, but they are loyal. 
BLAKE That leaves you
AVON I've decided
A longish pause.
BLAKE Come on, Avon. Stop playing games. Are you with me?
AVON (mildly) Of course I'm with you. I'm surprised you ever doubted it.
Blake grins.
BLAKE I wasn't too sure. But I'm grateful. Thanks. 
AVON Frankly I don't see how you could do it without me. Your strongest enemy is going to be the defence computers. I'm the only one qualified to tackle them. 
BLAKE I had thought of that. You'd better get your equipment together.
Blake moves away, then turns back, thoughtfully.
BLAKE Why?
AVON (dismissively) I like the challenge.
BLAKE The real reason?
Avon smiles at Blake. A hint of admiration.
AVON You have a shrewdness that sometimes surprises me Blake.
BLAKE I'm just getting used to your double think logic ... Why are you coming with me?
AVON If we succeed and take out Control, the Federation will be at its weakest. More vulnerable than it has been for centuries. The revolt in the outer worlds will grow. On Earth the resistance movements will make an all out attack to destroy the Federation. But they'll need unifying ... they'll need leadership. You'll be the natural choice.
BLAKE That possibility had occurred to me.
AVON Don't be modest, Blake. You are the only one they would all follow. Without you, they'd politic and squabble and miss their chance. You'd have to stay on Earth and command the action. 
BLAKE If there was no other way, then I'd do it. I'd have to do it. 
AVON Of course you would.
BLAKE That still doesn't explain why you're giving me your support. 
AVON With you running the campaign on Earth, somebody has to take charge of all this ....
He gestures around the Liberator.
BLAKE You want the Liberator?
AVON I've been Heir Apparent for too long. If we succeed in destroying Control, then we both get what we want. 
BLAKE It could be you're planning a little too far ahead.
AVON I always have.
BLAKE We'll talk about it again when this is over.
AVON Alright. But sooner or later I'll have my chance Blake. There's no hurry.

SCRIPT AS AIRED, AFTER BOUCHER’S EDITS:

BLAKE The others have decided to go with me.
AVON [smiles] I thought they would. Not very bright, but loyal.
BLAKE That leaves you.
AVON I have thought about it
BLAKE And? [pause] Come on Avon, stop playing games. Are you going to go with me or not?
AVON Well, of course. I am surprised you ever doubted it.
BLAKE Thank you.
AVON Frankly, I don't see how you can do it without me. Your strongest enemies are going to be the defense computers. I am the only one qualified to tackle them.
BLAKE Yes, that had occurred to me. You better start getting kitted up. Do you want to tell me why?
AVON I like the challenge.
BLAKE You don't want to tell me why.
AVON If we succeed, if we destroy Control, the Federation will be at its weakest. It will be more vulnerable than it has been for centuries. The revolt in the Outer Worlds will grow. The resistance movements on Earth will launch an all-out attack to destroy the Federation. They will need unifying. They will need a leader. YOU will be the natural choice.
BLAKE Possibly.
AVON Don't be modest, Blake. You are the only one that they would all follow. You would have no choice. You would have to stay on Earth and organize the revolt.
BLAKE If there's no other way.
AVON There wouldn't be.
BLAKE That still doesn't explain why you're backing me.
AVON With you running the campaign on Earth, somebody has to take charge of all this.
BLAKE [Laughs] You want the Liberator.
AVON [Almost laughs] Exactly. If we succeed, the destruction of Control gives us both what we want.
BLAKE Could be you're planning just a little far ahead.
AVON [Nods] Perhaps. But sooner or later, I will have my chance.
BLAKE There's no hurry.

(transcript from Hermit Library)

Everything Boucher says in interviews about writing in multiple plausible character motivations makes me do that air-kiss hand gesture there’s no proper name for. Look at what he’s done with the dialogue in the scene above. That perfect slide from "why" to "do you want to tell me why?"—from narrative agents saying lines to convey plot material and to precipitate subsequent lines to characters who have each other’s bullshit figured out, but never fully. Blake and Avon’s conversation moves swiftly and fluidly in the edit: they know one another well. The characters build on one another’s ideas and listen fairly intently to each other, as often happens in Boucher’s writing. Scenes after Avon annoys Blake in “Spacefall,” Blake makes a crack back in response. In “Horizon”, Avon broods on Blake’s insult until he finds occasion to spit it back some time later. “Redemption” is chock full of examples of these particular characters’ mutually constituted, reciprocal cleverness, but generally, this is a Boucher hallmark. What Boucher does isn’t just "witty dialogue" floating in some void: it’s good dialogue that constitutes good characters who have good arguments because they have good differences in their perspectives and approaches. It’s dialogue that stems from and then yields up a strong engagement with extensively developed thematic concerns. With this particular edit, we get a Blake who’s dedicated to his political goals and determined to see them through, but who genuinely seems potentially uncomfortable with the prospect of leadership. It’s Boucher and Thomas together who give us a Blake who laughs at Avon’s posturing, provoking a reciprocal laugh from the man who would position himself as his opponent, and a Blake who, stealing the line (from Avon, who’s too neurotic to say it anyway), can round the thing off with an indolent "there’s no hurry." A Blake who, fundamentally, gets the last word.

In general, Boucher’s dialogue sings. A lot of what people love about this show, a lot of what makes it a goddamn landmark, is down to Boucher, who has often claimed (without rebuttal) to have rewritten every line Paul Darrow ever spoke (only in the program, alas—one can’t script-edit life). And the writing is more than just a showcase for banter—Blakes 7 isn’t Gilmore Girls in space. I dig the plot’s concerns, the structures of many of the episodes and, to an extent, even the structures of the seasons. Before the proper development of the SFF television series season plot (as distinct from Who’s insular multi-part stories—all seven episodes of "Doctor Who and the Silurians"/Pertwee Strips Down to a White T-Shirt For No Real Reason, and Darrow Is Also There, for example), before television writing staff even had the power to demand that any episodes beyond the first and last installments of a series be aired in a given order, Blakes 7 offered its multi-episode escape-the-prison-ship/acquire-the-cast and locate-and-destroy-Star-One plots (these ran roughly contemporaneously with another early attempt to deliver an arc: Doctor Who’s "Key to Time") that, due to clever writing, largely hung together despite these limitations. This (and the retrospective framing the conclusions of series three and four provide) makes Blakes 7 and Boucher’s work thereon rather important in terms of the development of media SF storytelling technology.

Boucher didn’t so much "put these arcs in" as use the little leverage he had to impose, via the scant control over the airing process the production team had, a retroactive continuity that delivered additional narrative weight. The series three finale “Terminal” makes series three a different story (a story many male fans hate, in point of fact, but one I both love and think an obvious precipitate of the text). The series four finale “Blake” makes both series four and all of Blakes 7 a different story. Like a word dropped at the end of a long sentence that radically shifts that sentence’s whole meaning, “Blake” causes random events in “Trial,” “Star One,” “Rumors of Death,” “Terminal,” and “Orbit” to jump into a different configuration that leads us here, to a Greek tragedy culmination. Even as the final act of "Blake" was preventable, we suddenly see in the longer narrative both a journey to this point and a kind of signalling that makes the climax feel inescapable, inevitable. And for “Blake” to work and to matter (and I’d argue that the same is true of “Orbit”), we must also believe what “Blake” retrospectively tells us about the whole history of these characters and their relationships. Namely, it insists that its key characters have, underneath situational annoyances and several layers of fronts, cared deeply about each other, “from the very beginning” as it were, and that violations of the trust between them constitute betrayals not just of one another, but of themselves.

Boucher’s interviews regarding his BBC work are salty, hilariously-and-inappropriately-bitter gold. No one told him about the advance of the nouveau-Studio-System PR machine and its associated reconstructed industrial platitudes—or if they did, he could not find a tenth of a shit to give them in recompense for this knowledge. Boucher’s interviews and author’s notes contain fascinating (very honest) discussions of his work and production contexts—I would highly recommend them even to people who don’t know the shows in question and are just interested in television writing, or in writing characters full stop. If Boucher never publishes an “On Writing” sort of affair, it will be a loss to the field. Moreover, I have never been plunged into deeper shade, “One of the particular things I liked about [him] was that he learned the lines and delivered them.” (I don’t even think this is meant to be an insult per se? It’s just incidentally devastating both for the recipient and everyone else around him (who, we must presume, did not learn the lines). Like friendly fire? The man who brought you Avon, ladies and gentlemen.) I feel like Orpheus trying to get Eurydice back, that is how surrounded by shades I am while reading these interviews. 

more blake

I also have trouble understanding how, even with decades of writing dialogue under his belt, Boucher just talks like this, in real time?

Interviewer: I saw the series [Blakes 7] for the first time very recently and was amazed at how well it's stood up to modern appeal. I think it's because they're strong stories with identifiable characters. Yet the main difference between the series and if it was made today is not the effects, but how middle-class it all is. What do you think a gritty, working-class version of Blake's 7 would be like? [A/N I respectfully disagree with many aspects of this question, but moving on.]

Boucher: I have no idea. I really never thought of the show itself in distinct class terms. It did strike me from time to time that television production, film production, and the acting profession were all very much dominated by the middle-classes (so no change there then). And I was mildly surprised to find that, as with most businesses and professions, it was very much a family trade. As to the show, well nothing dates so fast as science fiction (unless it's every other damn thing you can think of) and to offset this it is usually wise to try and make the world of your storytelling as self-contained and self-sufficient as possible. Gritty and working class tends to be location and time specific. I hope that witty dialogue and interesting adventures are classless. Nothing is of course but there's not much wrong with a little hope, is there, even for a working-class lad like me…

I couldn’t sit down and write a character who said that; I could write a whole paper on the rhetorical turns in this one paragraph. Boucher flips and slides like a fish—it’s like if Sir Humphrey Appleby wrote space opera and crime drama (though he certainly isn’t working class—perish the thought).

Russell T. Davies (who I do love enormously, despite all his faults and all my kvetching) said, very rightly, of Bob Holmes (who was, like Boucher, a Classic Doctor Who and Blakes 7 writer), that “[w]hen the history of television drama comes to be written, Robert Holmes won't be remembered at all because he only wrote genre stuff. And that, I reckon, is a real tragedy.”

I do worry about reputation, even as I wonder whether I ought to. Everything is vagaries: we don’t live in some ideal Mandarin meritocracy. People credit writers with something they didn’t quite do (there is, for example, a lovely bit of bitter honesty from Davies in his The Writer’s Tale on Paul Cornell’s "Human Nature", Davies’s contribution to that script, and the invisible labor of editing). People frequently misremember a program or misunderstand what was good about it, even in this comparative golden age of home-streaming, where you can replay something at will without giving the BBC a kidney in exchange for one part of "The Monster of Peladon" on VHS (or, in Blakes 7’s case, one VHS with four stories edited badly into one incomprehensible "film". Why, BBC? Sweet Jesus, why?). Projects fall through. Boucher’s Star Cops, for example, deserved a far better run than it ever got, despite the fact that it was apparently (according to his again-delicious note in the zine he produced after the show’s cancellation) production hell, and has a theme song that haunts my nightmares (no, it certainly won’t be easy). Who rises to occupy a position in public memory, even niche corners thereof (or even just Gets Gigs), can be circumstantial and arbitrary in the first place, and retconned hugely in the second. What Victorian would have guessed that almost no one would read Trollope anymore?

I’d like everyone to know Boucher is brilliant, but who’s that knowledge for? I mean, I suppose the man himself, to some extent. One wants people who created work one admires to know that their work is appreciated, though mostly I don’t feel a personal need to say it to them, because usually, someone’s done it for me. I remember, though, being horrified when (sometime-Doctor Who) writer Rob Shearman said he didn’t think much of his play “Holy Terror” because it had been so poorly received, when his work is uniformly some of the best stuff Big Finish has come out with. “Jubilee” is such a good meditation on Doctor Who as artifact and empire that I wrote my MA thesis in part on it. The idea that he thought he hadn’t produced something very worth having was one thing. Almost by the nature of the thing, writers often don’t relate to a work as readers do. But the fact that no one had impressed on him that they thought it was worth having was another matter entirely. There is a particular vulnerability to working with limited feedback, for small audiences, even as there are different risks to one’s person and production involved in Being Neil Gaiman.

I suppose more practically, I want people who enjoy, talk about, and make art to know where the good shit is and where the bar should be set. I wish to hell that what people took away from Blakes 7 was not that it’s "gritty" (whatever the shit that actually means), but that, due to its writing, "Trial" is a brilliant, parallel-stranded story about systemic institutional violence, image politics, the indistinguishability of theatre and actual feeling, guilt, sacrifice, anger and loyalty. The conclusion of that episode involves the protagonists doing something immensely clever and proactive—something that arises from their best impulses—but which, unbeknownst to them, via dramatic irony, ends up totally fucking them over. In general Blakes 7 is so good at letting clever people who try hard fail in meaningful ways, sometimes even as a direct result of their cleverness and effort, because trying to do the right thing is probably worthwhile, but it’s confusing and difficult, and good intentions don’t necessarily meet with any reward. (The Marvel Cinematic Universe in particular could improve from getting better at portraying exactly this, if they’re going to keep trying to pin stories on "hubris".) You can’t know all the consequences of your actions: no one has that kind of control. For god’s sake, future writers—steal that.

3. Backbone [contents]

There will never in my lifetime be a remake of Blakes 7, or at least not one that retains anything of what made the show good. This is, at least in part, because of my first point: no one involved in the many and various reboot schemes seems to feel it necessary to try and hire Boucher. (Come on, you wouldn’t even have to admit to wanting or needing him back—you could say some really implausible bullshit about having had his address for a long time and needing a Figurehead, that would work.)

That aside, a remake can’t happen (or it really shouldn’t) because this is a show about terrorism—not like, incidentally. It’s a huge structuring element of the plot, because the central characters (whether or not they signed up to be) are political terrorists. They attack military facilities, sometimes threaten civilians, hijack a ship, and do other things that would be read by an anxious modern US audience as terrorism. If I say "terrorism" three times, an American network executive will appear in the mirror and pull funding (try it at home!). Get "Netflix?" out of your mouth—even your beloved "edgy", "independent" networks would balk. They produce content with fucking and gore that pretends at sedition while reinforcing conservative thinking about the normalcy of sexual assault, the acceptability of military violence, etc. I’m not prudish about this, I’m just bored. Because it’s not fucking seditious, is it? All that is less risky than producing content with a fairly simple, coherent political through-line.

But forget America (oh, let’s). The BBC (the BBC!) barely had the chops to cover the Panama Papers and the Corbyn protests, let alone to produce a program centrally concerned with class, information suppression, and active insurrection. Nor does the BBC currently produce content on this scale that they’re not always-already thinking about repackaging for BBC America. Sad but true: the very, very end of the British Empire is Boris Johnson, Foreign Secretary and ill-advised attempts at interesting US audiences in Doctor Who by shooting scripts featuring Nixon (a president nobody but Checkers the Dog ever thought particularly watchable, and even that was only at dinner time). And all this assumes that Auntie could get the rights to Blakes 7 back from whatever crop of cowboys was holding the bag when she condescended to try (because of course the rights got sold for circus peanuts to a crop of randoms without the experience necessary to professionally produce television or negotiate foreign contract rights: of course they did).

It’s not just terrorism that makes a Blakes 7 remake network poison on both sides of the Atlantic. The first episode features the then-brainwashed protagonist, Roj Blake, being framed by (essentially) Dolores Umbridge for homosexual child molestation. Death, Umbridge and homies conclude, would just make Blake a martyr. They need something else—and what tars a political opponent more effectively than this? It’s an awful, brilliant move. Later episodes of the show look, with varying degrees of effectiveness, at colonialism and cultural assimilation (“Horizon”); the suspicion of people who reproduce differently via cloning ("Weapon", and a casual genocide thereof in "Children of Auron"); IMF-style large-scale economic oppression (and again, the threat of genocide: "Countdown"); the extent to which violence is an acceptable means of opposing tyranny ("Star One"); election fraud ("Bounty"), institutional police brutality (the aforementioned "Trial") etc., etc.

Sometimes these things are only background details: a quick establishing shot so the character drama can take place (blink and you’ll miss the founding problem in "Countdown", while "Horizon" is not Said’s Orientalism, the book on tape). But even in these cases, the background matter of the plot is political in a way I think a modern production team would shy from. Due to the Federation’s semi-broken, intelligence-testing based "meritocracy," class and labor are everywhere in this show. There isn’t an episode where you don’t feel class, and there isn’t an episode where even the characters who come out well by that particular metric don’t show signs of having lived under observation, in fear of an arbitrary and totalitarian state: being exceptional is just another way of attracting the Federation’s terrifying and damaging attention (see the host of runaway scientists the rebels encounter).

Some people say Blakes 7’s politics isn’t foregrounded, but while the narrative’s mostly a picaresque rather than a run of PMQs, I’d argue that politics are actually embedded in the show (which is saddled with, as Boucher observes, the difficult job of presenting far-future governmental and social configurations in a way that isn’t glaringly contemporary, and thus fast-aging and ridiculous). This is a narrative that can’t give you a bit of throw-away backstory regarding cast member Soolin’s homeworld without alluding to a history of colonial abuse.

I eyeroll perhaps too often at the self-congratulatory way we discuss current "prestige television"; at the quite narrow, artificial and contingent histories such a classification constructs without announcing as much. Yet I do think at least some of my eye-rolling is deserved, because I can’t think of a modern SF program (or almost any modern program) that casually cares about politics this much; of a program that has (for all Blakes 7’s intentionally scatty, leave-room-for-the-next-writer world building) as much of a coherent political vision as Blakes 7 does; that handles these subject so easily—as though ignoring this material would be the stranger, more unnatural move. Not to judge Firefly entirely on these grounds (and not ignoring that program’s comparative brevity), but that show, often held up as a high water mark re: a program giving a shit about how power functions in its universe, does not care like Blakes 7 cares. [3]

So in summary, if there is a remake based off what some fanboys dimly remember about this show ("gritty," "wasn’t that Avon a badass nerdgod?" "Servalan was a fittie," (okay, that last is true, but in terms of What Fanboys Remember, note that this is, like Star Trek, a program with a huge historic female fandom that will, as with the multiple Blakes 7 audio series, presumably not be remembered at all by the people involved in any reboot effort)) and what a major production operation is willing to finance, it will almost certainly end up looking something like the threatened but fortunately never actualized Syfy reboot. In an early press release about that near miss, we learned that Syfy’s Blake was an ex-soldier with a Tragic Lost Motivation-Wife called Rachel, described simply as "Beautiful. Deceased." Literally. [4] It’s like Jarvik wrote this précis. If a major remake ever happens (and unfortunately it may well: though as I said, it almost doesn’t matter, because a remake like that would probably functionally cease to be Blakes 7—to what extent is Star Trek Into Darkness still Star Trek?), I expect it will be an atrocity with grittiness but no actual grit, a thing with no heart and no courage. Nu!B7, I hate you already

B7 logo

4. Blake [contents]

This point is in part the precipitate of the previous two. Some alchemy of Terry Nation’s framework for a British Star Trek, Boucher’s rewriting of Nation’s scripts, and Gareth Thomas’s charismatic performance produced a frankly phenomenal protagonist in Roj Blake. I’m hard-pressed to think of a better one in SFF television, and Blake hasn’t even that many peers.

A major political leader exiled from Earth, for the first two series of the show Blake is stuck wrangling a Dickensian lot of skilled, variously criminally-inclined nonbelievers (and Cally). Trying to manage Vila, Avon, and Gan is a little like attempting to lead Micawber, Sydney Carton, [5] and one of the stable, deeply nice but somewhat interchangeable wholesome Kit Nubbles types (yes, that’s his name—god, I’m really sorry about Dickens). (Don’t take that the wrong way though, I will stan for Gan until the cows come home and Avon does unspeakable things to their hides.) Fortunately for Blake, Cally and Jenna are a bit too poised, active, and sensible to be Dickens Women, who are usually:

A. hardcore working women I 100% want to be friends with,

B. wetter than drowned Ophelia, or

C. brilliant, and mad as shit. [6]

But unfortunately for Blake, this slight respite doesn’t seem to help him that much. As Nicole Vifian wrote in a 1995 APA essay on Blake’s skillset, “Blake seems to have a natural talent for leadership. Part of his leadership ability is his vision; he really believes in what he is trying to accomplish...We know that Blake was the founder of the Freedom Party, and was considered a big enough threat to the Federation that it was worth it to them to not martyr him twice, and to go to extreme lengths to discredit and disable him. His influence must have been powerful and wide. . . Blake also inspires personal loyalty.”

Blake manages to scrape his miscreants together by virtue of his passion, good humor, and intelligence. As I suggested earlier, Boucher writes intelligence particularly well. He doesn’t announce his characters’ genius in that supremely irritating, fetishized Sherlock way, barring the hilariously Holmesian introduction of Avon as the second most dangerous man in London/on the London, the “number two [computer technician] in all the Federated worlds”—what, was there an agrégation? Sadly, I expect this is why so many people who acknowledge that Avon is brilliant also think Blake is an idiot—because Blake never explicitly announced that he wasn’t, with a little number attached. Instead Boucher generally shows people bringing knowledge(s) to a situation and then lets them argue, figure things out and make good jokes. Some of his characters are clearly exceptionally clever, but if anything, what Boucher is bad at is writing anyone failing to bring something to the table. His background comedy guards (people who should be extras, in other words) are sharp enough to cut [7]. There are worse faults to have.

Blake isn’t an idiot. Neither is he purely genial. He’s deeply traumatized by awful experiences, including torture inflicted on him by the government he opposes and the related losses of his family, friends and former life. Abigail Nussbaum’s critique of the way X Men: First Class deploys trauma points out how rare it is in film, especially genre film, that someone’s anger isn’t presented as simply a problem to be entirely dispensed with: a threat to the peaceable, integrationist impulses of the untraumatized people around them, whose responses are de facto less aberrational, more appropriate (and thus, though it goes unsaid, their experiences must also be more valuable and legitimate). This represents the artistic triumph of a sort of complacent liberalism that claims it’s with the downtrodden but actually doesn’t like their protest methods (MLK would never have disrupted traffic!), etc. In contrast, Blakes 7 allows its protagonist to be damaged. It allows him to be a survivor in a way that doesn’t wholly define him, or negate his ability to care deeply about things and people.

Although I would stress this less than some critics, Blake is angry: capable of slipping quickly into cold or explosive moral outrage, fury with himself, and frustration with his circumstances and allies. You could make a strong case for any of the Houses, but Blake might well be a deadly earnest social justice Slytherin—"these cunning folk use any means to achieve their ends." [8] Understandable, and possibly no bad thing. When the other side’s capable of eliminating whole inconvenient populations (and quite willing to push the button), and when the "major, and I mean major, leaflet campaign" political party that you led back on Earth has already been massacred (twice), your options for non-violent resistance narrow somewhat. But for all this, the show doesn’t foreclose Blake’s idealism. It’s always interested in, and is constantly negotiating, his moral concerns. Should you get involved with a drug-pushing crime syndicate, if no better allies are going and your common enemy is worse? There isn’t an easy answer, and the narrative admits as much.

As Vifian pointed out, Blake relies on very strong people skills. It’s interesting to see this ability depicted as a crucial strength, particularly given that television and filmic landscapes are currently awash with antisocial Lone STEM Geniuses: the sort of people who boringly describe themselves as Not Team Players, or insist that they did not come to this reality show to make friends, as though doing so is a common and recognized means of accomplishing that end (I hope you’re now imagining Avon on various reality shows, and I hope that’s great for you). Blake both makes strategic choices about how to interact with the comrades who, over the course of two seasons, become his friends, and genuinely cares about them (because of course the two aren’t mutually exclusive, and it’s nice to see a narrative admit that). And Blake is really funny—he’s not just a straight man for Vila to be quasi-Falstaffian at, or for Avon to sneer in response to. Strangely the fact that Blake is funny is something people miss when watching the show, but seriously: count the good lines and deliveries. Blake’s compelling at his worst and at his best—when he’s making an awful decision or being unfair and when he’s doing something deeply clever or particularly kind. Let me tell you as someone who’s tried: Blake is difficult to write well. If you don’t think so, you’d probably do a rubbish job. Or you’re literally Chris Boucher. Or Suzan Lovett.

You may well like a chosen side character better, but Blake is not an optional extra. He’s the title character for a reason, and it’s not just Nation’s semi-abandoned Boy’s Adventure structure (which you can still see the ghost of in the BBC’s children’s annuals and Blue Peter spots for a program in which, let’s remember, our heroic lead is framed for child molestation. Presumably they thought children wouldn’t understand that…). Blake’s complexity and his sheer presence are both fundamental to this story working. He’s half of the two-protagonist structure (and never the weaker half), and the moral core of the piece even when he’s absent. As I’ve suggested, his two brief appearances at the end of series three [9] and four shape those seasons, and ultimately the program.

By series four, Terry Nation had left Blakes 7 for America. We can thus genuinely turn to Boucher for information about what would have happened had the show been unexpectedly renewed for a fifth series, as it was unexpectedly renewed for a fourth, given that Boucher was very much in the driving seat at that point. He tells us that if there had been a series five, that too would have been shaped by Blake, despite (and because of) his death in the series four finale:

“What I would have suggested, and what I would have tried to do, depending of course on Paul's reaction, would have been to make Avon over into a hero, and make over his personality as well, so that he would have become Blake. In effect recreating what he'd destroyed, and if you really wanted to play games with it, Avon would now actually be called Blake, for some specific reason or other.”

Even the fairly distinct camps of what can broadly be termed Blakes 7 affirmational and transformative media fandom have at times been wildly wrong about Blake, and in interestingly contradictory ways, although one has to assume that both camps must have paid more attention to this show than your average bear. It’s been argued that Blake is a prig and a bore, an idiot and a one-note goody-goody who isn’t as fun as Avon. There again, he’s a vicious manipulator; he’d readily commit sexual assault if the whim took him. Or perhaps he’s a dangerous mass-murdering ideologue—a sort of Welsh Stalin. "Recurring Themes in Blakes 7 Fan Fiction," compiled circa 1993, noted that too often:

“Blake is [presented as]: 1) a sentimental sap; 2) too dumb to find his ass with both hands; (1 and 2 are sometimes combined) or 3) so devious, scheming, hypocritical, and manipulative that Machiavelli was apparently writing about him in "The Prince." Blake is also obsessed with Star One to a much greater extent than in the series. IMO, he isn't any of these. Writers (and not just fan writers) seem to have a much tougher time getting Blake "right" than they have with Avon.”

The fact that people can dislike Blake for such disparate reasons is itself fascinating in terms of how readings and consensuses develop, and how far from straightforward the relationship between a text and its reception can be, even when the object under discussion is readily available. To be fair, fandom (and transformative fandom in particular) had the excuse, for some time, of a highly irregular transmission process which involved very limited access to the actual episodes. This is extensively explained in Enterprising Women, a deeply uneven but useful early study of fandom. (That, incidentally, was my introduction model: erratic episodes on snowy third-hand VHS circa fifteen, at the hands of a friend who was a second-generation Avon/Vila true believer. Ah well, I don’t agree with my mother about anything, either.) As I mentioned earlier, three bizarre compilation tapes, which I would argue actually give you quite misleading ideas about characterization, had been available in the UK since 1985, and a fourth came out in Australia in 1986. Again, these tapes mashed three or four episodes into 90 minute "films," skipping over major plot points to do so. Blakes 7 was finally released properly on VHS in 1991 (whether you could get ahold of it and afford the run was another matter). By the time the availability of the material began to improve, the transformative fandom for Blakes 7 (and similarly positioned canons) had already inherited the mixed patrimony (matrimony, honestly, given who was doing the writing) of a critical and artistic tradition developed during an era of limited access. Figuring out exactly how fandom arrived at this degree of extreme communal cognitive dissonance regarding stupid/evil Blake (like Kate Beaton’s Watsons) would involve tracking this development of ideas and delving into the similar case of Terrible Zine-Era Kirk and Blessed Saint Spock, and we haven’t the time (“I understand—with the time slot. On the internet.”). What we can take from the multitude and contradictory readings is that Blake is complicated enough to host these interpretations.

So why doesn’t everyone who remembers this program remember how Blake worked in it, given that this is crucial to the basic functioning of the narrative? Several reasons, I think. Memory and reputation (as Blakes 7 is constantly at pains to remind us) are the most malleable things in the world. People forget, or never understood in the first place, exactly how stories work. Even stories they liked. They remember nuanced things as one-note; they misremember and repackage en masse due to circumstances and for ideological reasons. Star Trek’s Kirk is a thousand times kinder and more interesting than our mass hallucination of him as Futurama’s Zapp Brannigan. We are forever remembering complex things as treacley, for reasons of our own, like Wilde sneering at how sentimental the death scene of Little Nell was in Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop (a death we never actually see, the after-effects of which are chilling: a pathetic, dying man with extreme dementia refusing to relinquish a beloved child’s corpse) in a floundering fit of Fuck You, Dad (I hate to agree with Harold Bloom, but his Anxiety of Influence reading is here somewhat inescapable).

Part of why people don’t often offer up protagonists as well-constructed as Blake is is that "heroes" are intrinsically difficult (in genre television formats perhaps particularly so). Not to single out an inheritor, but Farscape, very much in the tradition of Blakes 7 (and consciously so), falls very flat here. A lot of things happen to John Crichton, but in and of himself, he is not particularly interesting. The narrative pressure of protagonism can both flatten a character and render an audience unsympathetic to him or her: the protagonist bears a degree of responsibility for character distortions imposed by the mechanical demands of the narrative that Snarky Seconds aren’t often asked to carry.

It doesn’t help that some bungled idea of the protagonist as Identification Figure often results in stories being told about a blank canvas with, perhaps, interesting friends. In order to appeal to "everyone", these "blank canvases" are generally conventionally attractive, straight white men with no burdensome opinions or personality characteristics, as though television were a medieval morality play. (The wholly unsupported things this assumes about current and potential average audience members hardly need to be articulated—what’s interesting is that in some ways, even as we’re noisier now about our commitment to diversity and providing rich roles for women etc., we actually seem to be tacking more towards a certain standard of "marketable safety". Are we actually less awash in this Everyman sort of protagonist, "nowadays"? [10] Are our efforts to produce "strong female characters" all talk?  Is Clara Oswald, decades on, as much of a person as Jo Grant? I really—don’t think so? Again, I call shenanigans on the big lie of Prestige Television: Our Glorious Golden Age.) Sure, Blake’s a white guy, but he’s not a blank canvas even when he is mind-wiped to be a blank canvas. Episode One, "The Way Back", features Blake making a nuisance of himself about a massacre he’s just witnessed, because even a heavily drugged and brainwashed Blake refuses to understand keeping his head down as a concept.

As I said earlier, remembering something complex as treacle is quite a common bad habit. Take, for example, the much-maligned-in-memory SFF classic It’s A Wonderful Life. Actually, come with me on this—Blake is a lot like Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey. Thomas has Stewart’s warmth and presence, and Blake has George Bailey’s frustration, determination, anger on behalf of others and his own thwarted ambitions, vulnerability, deep and at times toxic sense of duty, intelligence, sense of fun (good humor clouded over by circumstance, like Harriet Vane lamenting her lost ability to talk piffle), and abiding, unbreakable heart. Last Christmas, someone didn’t get It’s A Wonderful Life and, rather than clutching this secret shame to his bosom, tried to tell me the film was just about some schmuck accepting his shitty lot in life like a chump. The opiner is a very nice man, but in that moment, glaring at him over the cocoa-dusted rim of an Overpriced Seasonal Beverage, I wanted to ban him from movies, because what is the point of him seeing them if this is all he takes away? There are things I will stake my critical everything (such as it is) on, and it’s shit like the value of readerly care and attention, of nuance in reading as in writing, on earth as it is in heaven, and of good characters. George Bailey is as key to the success of It’s A Wonderful Life as Blake is to the eponymous program.

Gareth Thomas’s warmth and presence are likewise key to Blake’s success as a character. Thomas was an exceptional performer, in this role and other respects. He was undeniably very good at his job. Sometimes I doubt myself on this, because I’m not properly a theatre critic and because I like him so much, but no—I have not gotten through six years of London theatre and five obscenely busy Fringes without learning how to tell Haman from Mordecai. Thomas seems to me inherently watchable. A short clip of his Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet while he was at RADA makes me wish the whole thing were available [A/N as of revision, my girlfriend found it for me!]. I have, in a move that must have been tragically obvious, pestered the appropriate people about his RSC 1979 Twelfth Night (Orsino—“In particular, Gareth Thomas's Orsino and Kate Nicholls's Olivia were faulted for indulging in hyperbolic emotion. J. C. Trewin asserted that "we know that Orsino and Olivia are given to excess, but it was long since they had been acted with more resolute and superfluous vigour." But frankly, the implied rejection of the droopy lovesick fop characterization sounds like an interesting Orsino to me.), only to be thwarted by how, to quote the archivist, their plays “generally started being filmed in the early 1980s.” The American Library of Congress has an audio recording (for some reason?), but I have not gotten that desperate. Yet.

Per the Scotsman, "[b]orn in Aberystwyth, Wales, and originally a Welsh-speaker, Thomas' childhood saw him raised across the United Kingdom [...]. He was privately educated at the King's School in Canterbury and progressed to Oxford University to study English and History, but he left after a year to study acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) in London."

Thomas got BAFTA nominations in 1972 and 1986 for Stocker’s Copper and Morgan’s Boy, respectively. [11] Thomas was riveting and dark as Murdstone in David Copperfield: the production is unhappy in its lead child actor, but Thomas is fairly definitive in his role. He was even fun in the abysmal camp sex farce Star Maidens (which I do not recommend: even I didn’t think it was fun enough to bother with for more than a few episodes, and I lick camp off the floor). And of course Thomas was engaging as the father in the British children’s SFF classic Children of the Stones, The Other Thing He Is Famous For, which, as wikipedia will tell you, “is today considered a landmark in quality children's drama and has been called "the scariest programme ever made for children"." 

He’s an actor I can never stop watching, even in a minor part, simply due to the way he inhabits space and delivers lines. That sounds phatic, but how else should I say that I cannot watch him act without feeling interested and pleased? That sense of presence made him good at playing characters that exert charisma in various forms, from the creepy draw of his Murdstone to the genial pint-with-me pull of his character in Sutherland’s Law.

True, Thomas has let me down a few times (a bad, bad Hamlet, and the awful Knights of God miniseries, which also wasted poor Patrick Troughton), but only when the production as a whole has collapsed. And in circumstances such as that, who can say what’s happened? You don’t ask good beef to stay nice in a stew that’s gone to shit (or at least you’re not confused if it doesn’t).

blake4

As with Boucher, Thomas’s reputation as a performer has perhaps been more dependent on breaks and circumstances than on some absolute notion of Genius Expressed. Thomas was a bit too early to pull a David Tennant—to parley his success in a popular genre program into a host of appealing stage opportunities. He got back in with Trevor Nunn and "moved up" in the RSC based on having shown, via Blakes 7, that he could handle lead roles. [12] But Thomas’s having been Blake doesn’t seem to have worked as a draw like Tennant’s having been the Doctor does: if anything, I think that review of his Orsino I quoted could represent an upwelling of disapproval at Thomas’ having been on the telly (rather than Rep) and coming back to do Real Theatre, especially in anything other than Received House Style. The shadow of Blake may well have been a detriment to Thomas’s critical reception—to me, the criticism comes off as possibly inflected by medium-and-genre-snobbery.

It’s ironic, but the developmental work these early megafandoms did to establish the possibility for actors to cross over between genre roles like these and high-profile, serious drama parts (Patrick Stewart comes to mind, in terms of the subsequent wave of both SF programming and normalization) is probably part of what enables Tennant, Cumberbatch, et al., in part by virtue of their being popular in shows with major fandoms, to fall into the sort of roles Thomas sought with indifferent success. It’s certainly not always about such leads’ pure acting chops and rightness for the parts in question—Tom Hiddleston is all wrong for Hal, and you and I and god know it. (Though Tennant was revelatory in Hamlet and great in Much Ado—not so much his Richard II. For now the RSC’s sunk into him: / in audible pentameter he speaks.) Convention organizer and zine publisher Judith Proctor [13] noted in an email that “[i]'m sure [typecasting] hampered his theatre options for many years. It's worth remembering that in pre-internet days there were fewer options for publicising theatre work with well-known TV actors. You'd get far fewer fans making the journey than you would now. It's possible that this may have allowed a snobbish attitude to prevail. I remember that Gareth got a fair bit of theatre work in Dundee when he moved to Scotland (I saw him several times at Dundee Rep), but work in London promptly dried up. He would have been willing to travel to work, but as far as London was concerned, he'd dropped off the horizon.”

Perhaps I’m wrong there, but I think possibly Peter Davison can be in Gypsy now because he’s survived the era of stigma (and of everyone assuming you were Off Market because the BBC might be using you), and that in 1982, the sort of off-season stage work Davison would have been able to do was a panto. (Probably still produced by John Nathan-Turner.)

Personally, I think Thomas was often (not was, in some absolute sense—what the hell’s was, or is? Who can we hold to a standard of unvarying performance, airless perfection? Surely that’s not even the point of acting, which is by its nature subjective and mutable?) as good as the departed Rickman and the still-on-the-platform (knock on wood) Patrick Stewart, actors whose work likewise crosses the SFF and hyper-serious-drama threshold.

Proctor found Thomas’s live work particularly compelling. “All we did with Gareth was to give him Shakespeare and let him sit on the edge of the stage. It might have been Hamlet's soliloquy—I forget. All I remember now is that lines that had always sounded like nonsense suddenly made perfect sense. He had a voice, that without even sounding loud, somehow carried right to the back of the hall with no need for a microphone. He didn't rant or rave, but every word had meaning. I'm not sure if he even needed to glance at the words (though I recall him putting on glasses, so he must have had a quick scan to start with). He was mesmerising. You could have heard a pin drop in that hall. He was the part. It made sense, it was real. By God, that man could act—and he genuinely loved Shakespeare. [...] I saw Gareth doing Shakespeare, but only once in Dundee as Toby Belch, but it wasn't a patch on those few minutes at Redemption. I so wish I had seem him do King Lear. [...] [I]t was a perfect moment of understanding what a real actor could do completely cold. A large part of that audience would not have been Shakespeare fans, yet he had them in the palm of his hand.”

Thomas didn’t really seem to get Blake—at least not in interviews he gave long after the fact (he seems to have fallen into the "Blake was a goody-goody" camp rather than the Machiavelli camp, if you want to know). But actors are never reliable on this point, and frankly we should stop asking them about their characters as though they wrote or were them. An actor’s reception of their own work is bound up in popular and critical reception and biography, distorted by time and distance. Shatner probably thinks he was wretched as Kirk, now, because people have said it enough—though any attentive viewing of the program that looks to like, if looking liking move, would give you quite a good impression of his work there. This is especially true considering the somewhat different performative moment. Recall that Olivier’s Richard III was recorded in 1955, and that Star Trek: TOS came out eleven years later. We always talk about Kirk as if we wanted exactly the same things out of performance in 1966 as we do right now, and as if the grimdark "naturalism" of The Wire isn’t itself a style, and one that’s going to look like ass to some short-memoried punks in 2040. Actors certainly aren’t unfiltered final arbiters on characters they’ve played, any more than any given Romeo owns the role absolutely. It isn’t their job to be: critical interpretation’s a distinct and only somewhat overlapping skillset.

Of course, that’s not to say that any writer isn’t similarly afflicted by the extent to which their work is involved with their self-perception and self-presentation. I also have some sympathy with Chrissie Poulter’s point, as delivered in her paper at the 2014 Queens of Crime conference, that, for example, actor David Suchet, via a long process of embodiment, has a kind of authority over Poirot as a character that is significant and unique. But, in general, almost no one is less able to speak critically about a character at a narrative level than the actor who originated that character, who is and is not said character in key ways. That’s probably truer the less competition for "ownership" of a role there is. This is almost due to the nature of the work—you would and wouldn’t unreservedly trust someone to analyze their own behavior, for example: no one’s closer to the subject, but by the same account, no one is less objective about it. I know Gareth Thomas didn’t re-watch his own performance often (he physically could not do so for years, because of the aforementioned VHS situation), and although he wasn’t able to fully escape talking about the role (not least because he attended numerous show-related conventions throughout his post-Blake life), after a while he probably didn’t remember why he made any of the artistic choices he made (do you remember why you did something at work ten years ago?), let alone what the character was like.

I didn’t know Thomas, not even in the casual convention-going sense. I don’t like meeting actors. I mean, my sister’s one and I can hardly escape the acquaintance, and I’ve directed and acted in minor productions, but that feels quite a different thing from meeting An Actor in the context of a convention or what have you. Seeing actors in their unnatural habitat gives me the uncanny feeling of meeting someone I know well, but who doesn’t know me at all. Worse, that person’s insides have been scraped out. "Kirk" or what have you’s been replaced with another person, who doesn’t look like you’re used to seeing them—even as the individual in front of you may well retain a lot of the intonations and gestures you’re familiar with. It’s like your local getting gutted so a Wetherspoons can be put in. I cannot really understand why people want to experience this, unless they just want to say "thanks" and go (the "tell Rob Shearman he is good" experience), or had some burning questions about the decline of British repertory theatre only Gareth Thomas could answer. When I worked at a god-awful tea house in Richmond, I lived in terror of running into people in the Waitrose, of Peter Davison’s lurking in the produce section. I feared that if we both went for the same aubergine, I would freeze as if petrified and react so badly that, in my terror, I probably would blurt out a question about his composing the theme to Button Moon

That said, people who did meet Thomas seem to have enjoyed the experience immensely. Proctor, for example, said that “Gareth was a dear. Julia and I (and a few other friends) had long passed the point of discussing anything to do with B7 with him. Gareth had interests ranging through archaeology, literature, etc., and was always interesting to talk to/debate with. We loved him like a favourite uncle.” Thomas was always good with fandom, and it is no small thing to manage to avoid embarrassing yourself or being ungenerous for whole decades. I never expect to pull off such a feat.

blake biting

This was especially difficult because Blakes 7 became one of the small clutch of early media megafandoms, serving as a sort of test case for the development of the phenomenon. If you like Western SF television produced after circa-1982, or are in media fandom, then for good and for ill, you’ve inherrited structures from programs and fannish materials you may never have seen. If you’re off reading some Finn/Poe ABO, then to some extent the fandoms for Blakes 7, The Professionals and say five other things (again, not with the full lists and the inevitable arguments, oy) are, inescapably, your great grandmothers. You do not need to have met them to have inherited their weird laughs or propensity to psoriasis. These zine-era megafandoms (small in production volume and number of participants by modern standards, but with now unparalleled relative market saturation) established a ton of practices and sit at the bottom of several traditions. (Though there are also a lot of competing influences and trajectories knocking about. I also by no means want to discount the observations of fan studies scholars such as Rukmini Pande, who points out that overly-streamlined, self-congratulatory and singular narratives of the history of media fandom that would, under the guise of “fandom history,” frame fandom as an untroubled progressive safe space (while naturalizing and validating its undue focus on the white male subject) can further marginalize already excluded non-white and especially non-"developed world" fans. Again we come back to Macharia’s point about the dangers of thinking in terms of hetero-genealogies.)

The nature of this "early-megafandom" status meant that the territory was fairly unexplored. No one had the experience to navigate the PR questions involved. This was an era in which the BBC gave official management of the Doctor Who fanclub (and given Dalekmania, this was no minor property to them even then) to a literal keen child who wrote in asking whether there was such a thing. Compared to the well-oiled machine that is a Comicon appearance today, the situation of early-megafandoms involved less money, less distance, and less insulation between the players: factors that magnified the opportunities for things to Get Weird (and weird they accordingly got). This was a lot of uncertain, shifting terrain to navigate, and Thomas managed, with consistent credit to himself. (If he had a bout of awfulness, I do not know about it. And that is all I can ask.)

As, I think, does Blake, all things considered. Blake often wins the show’s arguments, using whatever tools come to hand. He charms people, bullies them and relentlessly appeals to their better natures, letting them choose to do what they already know is right in a narrative world that is realistic about how limited one’s opportunities for meaningful choice can be. Blake is powered by an unrelenting sense that justice must be sought after and the world made good, that nothing is more imperative. He needs and values his close associates, but he couldn’t love his friends half so well loved he not honor more.  

One of the cleverest things Blake does (like that tired line about the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled being to convince the world that he didn't exist) is, where necessary, to win without fanfare. Viewers and other characters alike sometimes don’t realize that Blake’s less cutting line (compared, for example, to Avon’s quotable zinger) was often the better joke, the winning point. Like the veteran political organizer he is (or like an experienced spouse), Blake knows the virtue of tactical "yes, dear." People do end up doing what Blake wants. Because again, under the bitching, the others usually do think he’s right: they must, or they’d either bugger off or organize a work stoppage (a proper strike action—Blake would be so proud of them).

Blake’s allowed to win the argument of the series as a whole: that the only safety lies in successful political resistance. Avon explicitly says as much in the final episode, as though it was his idea all along (alas, that Blake didn’t get to see this about-face/Avon having to grudgingly sing Blake’s part in his absence). In an era in which conservatism owns practicality as a concept [14], this argument is crucial. Blake, rather than his intellectual opponent Avon, is the character with the actual foresight and pragmatism. Blake is the one who has always intuitively understood what even his best frenemy/devil’s advocate/the show’s self-proclaimed champion of self-interest/the local loveable emotionally-stunted bullshitmonger is ultimately going to have to cop to.

In Blakes 7’s second episode (which in many respects serves as the thesis for the whole program, containing within it the seeds of almost every major character development of the coming years), Avon accuses Blake of not understanding the difference between dreams and reality. He’s wrong. He’s shown to be wrong about this in this very episode, and shown to be wrong about it in the series overall. Accused of a name-blackening crime and stripped of his memories, Blake understands the mutable nature of image and event better than Avon (who is, as he and we will find out in two series’ time, laboring under severe misapprehensions on these very grounds about one of the very few people he trusts, and possibly about the very events which have landed him on this prison ship).

Blake’s snapped response to Avon’s accusation is absolutely matter of fact. You can see in the next few lines a condensed, economical argument about equality of opportunity that relies on Blake’s having few illusions about how the world works:

BLAKE: Yes, well, you asked me what I was going to do and I've told you. What you do is up to yourselves.

AVON: Right. A new identity, a job in the Federation Banking System. Three months with their computers, I could lift a hundred million credits and nobody would know where they went. Then let anyone try and touch me.

BLAKE: And the rest?

AVON: Have the same chance as I have.

BLAKE: You don't really believe that.

Blake proceeds to understand the hell out of the exchange between vision and action, transmuting one into the other by almost getting them off the prison ship, then actually doing so, and then destroying their new ship’s dangerous illusion-based anti-intruder device. You could say the second opportunity to escape was all luck, but Blake’s like a Napoleonic general: lucky. And where he isn’t, he makes his own.

Ultimately, this sort of argument is what’s incredibly important about Blake, who demonstrates the practicality and virtue of giving a fuck even when caring is passé, embarrassing, or seemingly not to your advantage. Even or especially when you’ve been deeply hurt. The show illustrates how much work it is to figure out what to do to try and be good—the sheer bloody labor of activism, of being the one who has to organize this shit and make these calls. Blake’s ambivalence as a character is deeply resonant. The reason we don’t have that many Blakeish protagonists in media is because we’re reliant for them on film, television, etc. created by ever-increasingly powerful and ornate capitalist structures that don’t really want you to ask Blakeish questions. That sounds like a conspiracy theory, or like I’m over-selling this bit of media, but it’s quite matter of fact, isn’t it?

You can’t market a show about terrorists; you can’t have a personable and appealing protagonist who thinks that something that sounds a lot like an SFnal embellishment on current Greek (et al.) austerity measures is reasonable cause for insurrection ("Countdown"). You can spew up the confused, nothingy ideology of The Dark Knight Rises. That, and it’s hard bloody work creating a character like Blake. Not everyone can write like Boucher, and in losing Thomas, we have lost something rather rare and grand. Though I suppose it’s nice to have had it in the first place.

That, then, is where I want your memory: on precisely what occurred, and why it was awful and wonderful, rather than on a lazy, hazy, unedifying and dull cliché, the Little Nell’s death that never was—weren’t there Lycra catsuits, didn’t the sets wobble? Oh, who fucking cares? Why do we waste what good things we have like that? And yet I know why—all the reasons, really, and the ways they mount into something big enough to crush. It’s hard not to know them. I see ways out (as articulated above—assuming, of course, that I have all the answers, or indeed any of them), but I don’t necessarily see the will to take them, or structural opportunities for doing so. This isn’t mad nostalgia for a time slightly before I was even born (who, other than the MPs who voted in May, could romanticize Milk Snatcher, other than as a living Dahl villain?)—more an enervating awareness that our current period of conflict ought almost to feel hopeful: these upheavals like a cultural moment in which so many things might change radically for the better (for if we stand to lose everything, oughtn’t that to mean that we stand, equally, to win it?). It doesn't. It does not feel like that. And this is, after all, an elegy: a poem about loss. Not just of Thomas, but of the possibility of doing what this show did. There are thoughts it is difficult to think now, as there are things it is difficult to feel. This is a story I don’t think we will tell again for a while.

 

5. Endnotes [contents]

1. Whedon disclaims the influence, actually. “Even his love of British television didn't extend to science fiction. "Never watched any British sci-fi," Joss says. "People were always talking to me about [Blake's7, Red Dwarf, even Doctor Who, and I just never watched them. I watched one episode of Doctor Who and I was like, 'Did they film that in my basement?' because it looked cheesy." His series aimed to be anything but.” 

Aside from being a weak complaint (especially from a man who must hope you will never come to find Buffy’s production values cheesy), this is like that time Virgina Woolf claimed to have been totally uninfluenced by Freud, despite she and her husband’s Hogarth Press publishing English translations of his work and Freud’s daughter coming over for dinner. This is like that time Freud claimed to have remained vigilantly ignorant of Nietzsche, despite like, everything. Note io9’s use of “[Blake’s7”. Whedon, then, actually called it “B7”, the affectionate fannish nickname. This quote then had to be edited so that a general audience unfamiliar with the text could understand him.

Whedon and another author wrote Firefly’s second episode, "The Train Job", in a feverish two-day period (the sort of breakneck stint that really makes your influences and your id rear up). To quote the show’s wiki, “Jayne's line after shooting Crow in the leg, "I was aiming for his head," later used by Nathan Fillion in Castle, is lifted from the 1977 [A/N: sic] -81 British sci-fi series Blake's 7, which was on while Whedon was living in the UK. That line itself is a mis-quote from The Magnificent Seven, where the original line was "I was aiming for his horse." Both characters who say it are even unwell and drugged at the time, and I’d argue that this is not the first occasion on which Whedon’s work (either by his hand or another’s) has shaken down Avon specifically for both his role in the narrative and his snark.

Sure, a TV show is a complex multi-authorial text, and sure, Whedon could have been influenced by Blakes 7 indirectly via, for example, Farscape, or the SFnal zeitgeist generally: the aforementioned "people" who were "always talking" about the obvious ur-text for his work to or around Whedon. But I am unconvinced by Whedon’s claims of purity, and cannot help but view them in light of Whedon’s self-conscious positioning of himself as an Auteur, and the (related) existence of Whedon Studies. The later owes much to timing: Whedon was lucky, in terms of his posterity, to arrive at a particular moment in the development of media studies and, to a degree, in the rise of the Thinkpiece Industrial Complex. Let’s put it this way: there are scads of acafan collections on Whedon, and not one such volume on Bob Holmes. This is not because Whedon is better (or even more culturally influential) by a factor of scads. [return]

2. There is a serial, yes, but in an AU, this might well have been the start of New Who proper.[return]

3. Yes, Blakes 7 could do better on race. (What’s with that too quick, awkward comment about racial politics and colonization in "Traitor"? That needed more space to breathe.) But it does make a good faith effort with Dayna and poor Hal Mellanby, and we’d need a whole distinct essay to enter into the Weng Chiang "Talons of Equity Cards in the late 70s" debate. It’s also worth pointing out that Boucher’s subsequent show, Star Cops (1987), features an ensemble cast that includes two white English male characters, a white Australian lesbian, a black American man and a Japanese woman, and that this cast interacts with a still-more diverse range of characters. Space, in Boucher’s near future, is thoroughly multicultural, and issues of nationality, race, gender and orientation are foregrounded as sources of tension in an intersectional manner. That’d be remarkable for a show coming out now, but for 1987 it was bloody astounding.[return]

4. Is this not the funniest fucking shit? I will laugh like a drain right up until it happens. Like with "Missy." [return]

5. Or Bella Wilfer, or an unholy fusion of Steerforth and Uriah Heep—Avon’s a lot of Dickens characters.[return]

6. I mean maybe Cally could be Kate Nickleby, if you really wanted. Luckily Blake peaces out before he has to deal with Tarrant’s best Nicholas Nickleby (except, of course, for the duration of their awkward "post-divorce father-son car ride" in "Blake".) [return]

7. An exchange from "Rumors of Death":

FORRES Some days are better than others, sir. They say that where I come from, sir.

GRENLEE Loudly, I imagine, on the day you left.

FORRES My mother cried when I left. Thought she'd never see me again.

GRENLEE Cries easily, your mother, does she?

FORRES No, not really, sir. But I owed her money, you see. [return]

8. Incidentally, Horatio Hornblower and Star Trek: The Original Series’ Kirk are both Slytherins: I will go to the mat on this one. [return]

9.  Oh, don’t be pedantic, you know what I mean.[return]

10. Especially in terms of percentages, and taking into account how much the media landscape has changed to allow for niche programming. [return]

11. Among her many, many organizational contributions to the fandom (though she’s also a talented writer), Judith Proctor’s thorough listing of Thomas’s roles is invaluable, and I would recommend that someone doing academic work on constructions of Welshness in British television over time take a look at her handy index of the accents Thomas used for various roles—though that does sound like something you were probably relying on EU funding for, so you’re a bit fucked now, aren’t you? [return]

12. Brian Croucher recalls: “We were standing at the bar with our pints of lager and Gareth said, "Look! There's Trevor Nunn over there." Then Gareth told me that before he had started Blake's 7 he was at the RSC, playing very small parts, almost spear carrying. Anyway, at the end of each season you got to meet the director. So Gareth said to Trevor Nunn, "I want to play bigger parts," and Trevor replied, "There aren't any bigger parts in next year's season for you. You either stay doing what you are, or you go off and you play bigger parts in rep and then you come back to it." So Gareth then said to me, "I'm going to go over to him," so he went off and said to Trevor, "Hello, I'm playing Blake in Blake's 7. I've done what you said, can I come back to the RSC?" And he did, and he went back and he was in Twelfth Night.” [return]

13. Who, by the way, I don’t remember ever having been asked to be fan guest of honor anywhere, which is a massive oversight on someone’s part. [return]

14. Currently, we have collectively come to believe that, somehow, the utter nihilism of current conservative visions, which refuse to acknowledge now-inevitable, already-in-progress catastrophic climate change, even as they refuse to acknowledge vast social injustices, proclaiming that such injustices have always existed and are inevitable (no—like everything, they are dynamic historical and situational contingencies, and as to their inevitability—based on what evidence?), is totally sensible and objective, rather than a vast ideological edifice. [return]




Erin Horáková is a southern American writer who lives in London. She's working towards her literature PhD, which focuses on how charm evolves over time.
3 comments on “Boucher, Backbone and Blake – the legacy of Blakes 7”

Thank you so much for this really interesting - and readable - discussion of Blake's 7 and the character and nature of Blake himself.
Readable is very importatn - so many essays about potentially/factually fascinating subjects are almost impossible to read, due to dryness, grandiosity and a vast number of other things I can't think of just now.
Thanks again.

Natasha

This is possibly one of the best essays on B7 -- and on Blake in particular -- that I've ever read. Thank you so much!

Rolf the Swede

Thanks for a great essay!

As for the Tarrant kiss: "that air-kiss hand gesture there’s no proper name for", may I suggest a work-around? What Tarrant is doing is what we might call an "appreciation kiss", or a "gourmet kiss". I'm sure it's not standard english, but it might do until we find out what is. What say we try to make it standard english? The gourmet kiss!

Here is my reasoning for this. There seem to be several sorts of "pretend" kisses.

air-kiss: Pouting with your lips as if you were kissing, often also making a little "smack" sound, to represent the act of kissing.

hand-blown kiss: Touching your fingertips to your lips, and then either using your hand to "throw" the kiss to somebody, or holding out your hand, making a gentle puff of air with your mouth, blowing away the kiss.

the "Tarrant" kiss: Here you are not actually "kissing" somebody, but rather "kissing the concept". Touching your fingertips to your lips, and then more or less ostentatively pushing your hand out again, making a smacking sound with your mouth. It's done to show appreciation of really good food, or of anything else which is an exquisite performance or quality.

Therefore we could call this kiss the "appreciation blown kiss", or "gourmet blown kiss", probably shortened to "appreciation kiss"/"gourmet kiss".

Personally I would like to call this kiss the "appreciative digital-bilabial inhalation smack", but I have been told that were I to do so, I should surely hang. Ah well...

cheers/Rolf the Swede

 

%d bloggers like this: