Archive for March 10th, 2022

This is the conclusion of my series on the classic BBC sci-fi series Blake’s 7, which ran from 1978-81.  The first part appeared the last week of January, and four other installments on the series’ characters and writing followed in successive weeks.

Blake’s 7 was controversial from the very first episode, which featured an unusually-realistic depiction of how totalitarian states deal with dissent; self-appointed Moral Climate Monitor Mary Whitehouse practically had a cow over it.  And the creators didn’t stop there; for four seasons the show’s creators took risks and violated expectations in a way few broadcast TV shows ever dared.  Major characters were depicted in harsh daylight or even killed off, and that included the titular character at the end of season 2; the last episode of season 3, originally planned to be the last, left the remaining crew stranded on a remote planet when their beloved ship, the Liberator, was destroyed.  And when a BBC executive decided to order one more season, the creators seem to have viewed the surprise renewal as permission to color even further outside of the lines, depicting the heroes’ flaws much more clearly and ending the final episode with a bloodbath.  But two episodes earlier than that, “Orbit” had already thrown caution to the winds to produce one of the most realistic and adult episodes of series television ever aired by broadcast.  It was written by Robert Holmes, who is my all-time favorite Doctor Who writer thanks to his gift for characterization.  The basic plot was borrowed from “The Cold Equations“, one of the greatest sci-fi short stories of all time; Holmes, however, does not merely adapt the already-powerful tale, but instead uses it as a vehicle for portraying not one but two abusive relationships.

The story concerns a renegade scientist named Egrorian, who proposes a deal in which he will give his new super-weapon to Avon and Company in exchange for their supercomputer Orac.  The eccentric, narcissistic, treacherous Egrorian has a very elderly assistant named Pinder; the way Egrorian psychologically dominates and physically abuses him is already uncomfortable before we discover the truth: Pinder is only 28, and was prematurely aged due to radiation in an experiment where he was used as a gunea pig. He was a child prodigy who has been in hiding with Egrorian for ten years, and the homoerotic overtones of their interaction, combined with the abuse and Pinder’s being a teenager at the beginning of their relationship, paint a very dark and nasty picture indeed; I suspect the only way it got past the censors was simply that they were too puritanical to grasp what was going on.  But even that pales in comparison with what happens later:  Egrorian has sabotaged the shuttle on which Avon and Vila will return to their ship by hiding a microscopic quantity of super-dense neutronium on board, making the ship too heavy to achieve orbit with the available fuel.  And when they run out of other  things to dump, Avon goes looking for Vila, whose body mass is just over the critical amount they must shed.  Now, Avon does figure out the problem and  jettisons the neutronium instead; however, that does not change the fact that until he does, he is stalking around the ship with a gun, fully intending to murder his crewmate, who only escapes a grisly fate by hiding.  It would be difficult to count the number of unofficial rules of 20th-century broadcast TV drama this story broke; even in a series which had regularly broken rules for four seasons, it was nothing short of shocking.

Those under 40, whose televisual landcape has always included antiheroes, flawed or even criminal protagonists, and morally and factually ambiguous situations, can scarcely grasp how absolutely new, amazing, and even scandalous Blake’s 7 was, and its last season, in which the full humanity of the characters (with all that entails) was laid bare, was like nothing ever before seen on television.  And in its willingness to blow up audience expectations and transgress sharply-drawn boundaries of its time, like nothing since either.

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