The Blake's 7 Super Test

Blake's 7 Super Test
Blake's Legacy
Blake's Progress
Naming Blake
"Avon: A Terrible Novel"?
Birth Of The Federation
The Blake's 7 Formula
To Kill Or To Stun
The Blake's 7 Drinking Game
Blake's Chicken
Blake's Parrott
By What Formula Would One Achieve Blake's 7?

Don't worry, I've not fallen pray to Dr Kapel (y'know, the geek from The Sevenfold Crown) or anything. I'm just taking on board a common argument that people go through whenever they encounter a programme they've never seen before - trying to define it by comparisons with other shows. And also I hope to show why I don't think it works very well.

This tends to be done in a manner of hybridism, and a very dubious formula is developed accordingly - "such-and-such a programme is a lot like this one and also a bit like that one, in fact it's like a cross between the two". The formula of the programme is therefore simplistically put forward as "Programme A + Programme B - (Superficial elements from Programme A + Superficial elements from Programme B) = Programme C". Very weak, but that's the way professional TV critics' minds seem to work, and I've never had much time for them.

One of the more irritating examples of such a formula I saw a few years ago in the Radio Times was for the start of the eighth season of Red Dwarf. It was described in that as "A cross between Star Trek: The Next Generation and Men Behaving Badly." There are several reasons why this argument is unconsidered and inaccurate. Firstly, the reviewer in question seemed blissfully unaware that the pilot episode of Red Dwarf actually predated Men Behaving Badly by around five years. Another is that the far-too-numerous Star Trek serials, far from feeding inspiration to Red Dwarf, appear to spend most of their time stealing ideas from it. A further reason that I could put forward is that Red Dwarf is a tremendous TV series, while Men Behaving Badly and Star Trek are both palpably tedious crap, which - and I don't care what anyone says to me in response - they are, but that's entirely a personal view and for this argument I want to stick to solid facts.

The bottom line is that the description gives an unfair impression to people who may not be familiar with Red Dwarf that it steals ideas from more established shows, when in fact it is at least as well established as either of the others, and it provides far more ideas than it takes. More to the point though, the statement is also simplistic, as it fails to acknowledge the series as a show in its own right.

Now people tend to do similar things with Blake's 7. I've heard all sorts of descriptions for it over the last twenty years or so, "The British Star Trek", "Bargain Basement Star Trek", "A poor man's Star Trek", "A cross between Star Trek and Prisoner Cell Block H judging by the sets"... and on and on and on. Again, it's a habit I loathe.

For one thing, where does this obsession with identifying it as a recycled Star Trek series come from? As far as I can tell, it comes from three things. One, Blake's 7 was undoubtedly put forward by the BBC (though not by Terry Nation we must remember) as a UK answer to Gene Roddenberry's creation. Secondly, the Central Government of Blake's 7 is called a Federation, which even has the Federation emblem from Star Trek as it's badge of allegiance (albeit turned on its side). Thirdly, the spaceship that the story revolves around has a teleport bay that in every important respect is absolutely identical to the transporter-room aboard the Enterprise.

All these arguments are valid, and only very slow idiots, or Blake's 7 fans who are just very good at hopelessly deluding themselves, would not recognise that these ingredients were "borrowed" from Star Trek. But do they automatically make it into simply another Star Trek? Surely not.

The fact that Liberator has a teleport sounds suspicious, but then a number of other sci-fi series had them - see the ones Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect used to escape the destruction of the Earth, or the stuntship crashing into the sun, in The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. No one ever said to Douglas Adams, "Hang on, you stole that idea from Star Trek!!!" never mind implying that Hitch Hiker actually was another Star Trek.

In any case, these details are just window dressing really. They're not fundamental aspects of the programme, and that's demonstrated by taking a look at the countless differences found alongside the similarities.

All right, so the BBC put Blake's 7 forward as a British response to Star Trek. The key word however is "response", because that just means that it might appeal to a similar audience. It most certainly doesn't mean that they'll be the same show. All right, so there's a teleport, but Liberator doesn't look anything like the Enterprise in any other respect. All right, so the Government on Earth is called the Federation, but you'd be completely off your rocker to say that they're the same in any other respect at all - where the Federation in Star Trek is a futuristic Camelot (and is therefore a dreadfully boring place) the Federation in Blake's 7 is the kind of fascist military dictatorship that the real world only just avoided becoming in the 1940's (and could still become). And who gives a toss what the badges look like? Leeds United Football club and the England Rugby Union team both have flowers in their team badges, but no one accuses them of playing the same game.

The similarities between Star Trek and Blake's 7 are shallow. There is little resemblance at all between the series where it really counts, in terms of characterisation and scenario. In terms of scenario, Blake's 7 is an unconventional war story, where Star Trek is a voyage of discovery. (In that respect, by the way, the aforementioned hybrid formula theory could just as easily be applied to Star Trek. It would be very unfair, but you could argue that it's just a cross between, say, Around The World In Eighty Days and Flash Gordon.) And as for characterisation, there are hardly any similarities at all - for instance, if anyone aboard the Enterprise dared to act like Avon did at the end of Stardrive they'd be thrown in the brig for the rest of their lives.

Well all right, you may argue, even if it's not Star Trek, its different ideas are still taken from elsewhere. This is where we get into this formula nonsense, which can be self-defeating, and ironically all the more so the more outside sources it takes inspiration from, rather than less. This is demonstrated by the fact that there are indeed other stories that Blake's 7 can be compared to, and they all have just as valid a claim to be a source as Star Trek does.

The original phrase used to describe Blake's 7 was of course "Robin Hood In Outer Space." And there's a lot to be said for that comparison - they're both about a small band of roguish criminals, always just beyond the reach of the law and fighting to protect the masses from their oppressive rulers. So, going back to our irritating little formula theory, we could try to argue that the formula for Blake's 7 is...

Robin Hood + Star Trek - (superficial bits and bobs from both) = Blake's 7.

The problem is that this misses several important ingredients, foremost of which is tone. Both Robin Hood and Star Trek have a clear tone of morality to them. The good guys are almost always right and they always win, the bad guys are always wrong and are usually left frustrated at the end of a battle. Most importantly, there's always a clear dividing line between both sides. Whoever's on Picard's side is always a goody, whoever fights for the Romulans is always a baddie. In Blake's 7 things are never anything like as simple. Instead the tone is generally ambiguous. While the Federation is undoubtedly evil, it does have a few redeeming qualities - for instance it recognises the genuine value of law and order, and the benefit it brings to all, and thus strives to protect its loyal civilians. After all, there's little point in freedom if the masses are unprotected and therefore are living in constant fear of crime or anarchy. In fact, the Federation's evils seem to stem as much from widescale paranoia as it does from the greed of a corrupt few, whereas in Robin Hood, the Sheriff of Nottingham is corruption all the way. By the same measure, look at the would-be heroes of Blake's 7. While Blake's aims are generally laudable, he does on many occasions display another side of his nature that is less palatable, not least his apparent willingness to sacrifice innocent millions in order to destroy the Federation. And as for his followers, most of them are shameless criminals. They also don't always win, and aren't always right.

So I must ask, where does this ambiguity come from, if it's not original? Some people would add in other sources to explain that away. The Dirty Dozen is a film that some people point to, especially in looking for the source of the anti-heroic qualities in many of Blake's reluctant followers. That I can believe. So is the real formula...

Robin Hood + Star Trek + The Dirty Dozen - (superficial bits and bobs from all three) = Blake's 7?

Well, no. Although they cover most of the characterisation and scenario in a general sense, they miss a lot of closer details. Robin Hood may provide the tyrant oppressor, Star Trek may provide the futurism, space and even some of the technology, and The Dirty Dozen may provide some of the characters, but what about the society, the politics and the strategy of Blake's 7, where do they come from? The Federation is far too large and complex a regime to put alongside King John and his Sheriffs. Its corruption is at times born from rather different motivations than the greed of a simplistic Hollywood-style arch-villain. And certainly the Federation's methods are very different to those found in any of the above stories. Maintaining order by drugging, or even brainwashing, its subjects? Stringent, claustrophobic, intrusive security at every conceivable angle in every conceivable location? All Robin Hood and His Merrie Men had to do was run into the woods and the King's men lost all track of them, but the Federation is everywhere, there is no hiding place anywhere on Earth or its colony planets.

There are two obvious places in which to find what the social and political structure of this dystopic nightmare is based on. The first is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and the second is Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. Both of these novels depict a terrifying possible future (or past from today's perspective I suppose), in which the human race is not merely cared for by the State, but is totally controlled by the State - matching to a tee the philosophy of the Terran Federation.

The state that Winston Smith rebels against in Nineteen Eighty-Four is one that is heavily militarised, and which controls all information fed to its people. Ferociously enforced propaganda and ruthless repercussions for all those who step out of line keep, not just society, but even all patterns of thought, closely under State control. The Federation troopers in Blake's 7 are all very reminiscent of the military forces in Nineteen Eighty-Four, while all the various forms of brutal psychological manipulation and ruthless legal corruption of both of Blake's trials in The Way Back are clearly born from the horrifying reconditioning treatment that Winston is put through after his disobedience is uncovered.

The civilisation governed by Mustapha Mond in Brave New World constantly drugs its population to keep them behaving in the way that society requires of them. Again propaganda and, more rarely, military force play their part, as does cynical use of breeding programs to keep the human race as aesthetically pleasing as possible, and keeping all its people as similar to each other as possible, so conditioning them to see everything as being beautiful and in place, everything fitting a pattern that is so neat and so natural that they never think to question any of it. Not only in The Way Back, but also Spacefall, Traitor and Warlord, we see the Federation lacing food, water and even air supplies to keep entire populations under their thumb.

No two ways about it, the Federation is like an amalgamation of the societies we see in Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four and is undoubtedly modelled in large part on them both. So we can add them into our equation, which now reads...

Robin Hood + Star Trek + The Dirty Dozen + Brave New World + Nineteen Eighty-Four - (superficial bits and bobs from all of them) = Blake's 7.

Although there is another element missing I'm afraid. Yes, it carries on. You may be wondering where this will all end - which is the overall point I'm trying to make as a matter of fact - but just bare with me a little longer.

The ambition of the Terran Federation is more aggressive than the central regime in any of the above. It's an Imperial power that has a great desire to rule the entire human race, and as such it tends to treat those worlds that are not under its jurisdiction as targets. It will invade and conquer those that it can suppress easily. Others, as evidenced in Bounty and Death-Watch, it will attempt to destabilise through infiltration and political machination, before peacefully taking over control of them. This does not appear to be true in any of the above. In Brave New World it does not appear that there is anything left in the world that is worth the bother of conquering, in Nineteen Eighty-Four it is unclear whether the Government of Oceania has any serious external ambitions (even though it does fight a continuous war against Eastasia and Eurasia), Robin Hood is set in an era when the old Plantagenet dynasty was losing its French territories and didn't have the strength to even think about winning them back, and Star Trek and The Dirty Dozen appear to be about the struggles of benevolent regimes, who by definition would have no such ambitions. That's how the USA likes to portray itself anyway...

Therefore this aggessive ambition, this Imperialist doctrine, does not appear to have its roots in any of the parameters of the formula as it stands. So where does it come from? It could be Star Wars perhaps, where the Galactic Empire was so overtly militarised that it appeared to have no purpose other than to conquer. Indeed, there are numerous other parallels between Star Wars and Blake's 7, not least the overall scenario i.e. small band of rebels fighting to bring down a vast, oppressive, spacegoing Empire. On a minor note, we can also see clear signs in the last season of Blake's 7 that the basic shape of Scorpio is heavily influenced by the Millennium Falcon and the Star Destroyers from Star Wars.

The problem with trying to include Star Wars in the formula of course is that, in one of those eerie little coincidences, it was created simultaneously with Blake's 7, or near as damn it. But as the earliest concept work for Star Wars dates back to 1973, it is possible that Terry Nation heard details from it while he was writing the first season of Blake's 7. It's unlikely, but for the purposes of this argument, let's assume he did. The formula now reads...

Robin Hood + Star Trek + The Dirty Dozen + Brave New World + Nineteen Eighty-Four + Star Wars - (superficial bits and bobs from all of them) = Blake's 7.

Are you getting the idea I'm driving at yet? This formula is, as I'm sure you've noticed, getting ridiculously big, and there's no reason to assume that it should stop there. We could add in Paul Darrow's references to Clint Eastwood films for his portrayal of Avon, the clear influence of Dune on episodes like The Harvest of Kairos or Sand, the arrogance of Orac and his consequent resemblance to the computer from 2001: A Space Oddysey (I forget its name), or even Marvin the Paranoid Android in a strange way, but it would be to no avail, as the credibility of the argument is being destroyed by the accumulation of its own evidence. While it is beyond dispute that Blake's 7 has drawn ideas from many of the above, there is so little taken in each case that, on its own, not one of them could claim to be Blake's 7's real source. Therefore you have to start including the others and mix them all together to try and pin down a source. In the end this also doesn't work, because by the time you've got as far as we have here i.e. six different sources (if not more), and many of these sources incredibly remote from each other (Robin Hood and Nineteen Eighty-Four? Not exactly peas in a pod are they?) the outcome of them is itself bound to be something fairly remote from any of them.

And this is the thing. There really is nothing quite like Blake's 7. Oh sure, there are series that have similarities. Looking at the modern era, Farscape, when I could bring myself to watch it without passing out through suffocating boredom, appeared to be a very badly written rip-off of Blake's 7, at least conceptually. But it is not the same, no other story is the same, and that is what counts.

Whatever the case, the formula is now useless for the purpose for which it was developed, as, in attempting to become accurate, it has become far too large and unwieldy for anyone to follow it. If someone comes up to you and says, "I've heard about this TV programme called Blake's 7, could you tell me about it?" your reply will be of little use to him if it goes something on the lines of, "Oh it's a sort of cross between Robin Hood, Star Trek, The Dirty Dozen, Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Star Wars, the complete works of Clint Eastwood, Dune, 2001: A Space Oddysey and The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy." Even if he knows all of these, he'll have lost track about a third of the way through the list. And yet if they're not all in there, the list is inaccurate...

So Blake's 7 is not what any formula says it is, at least not in a way that is worth the bother of reciting. It would, in any case, attempt to bracket the show in terms of these other stories, and not acknowledging what it became, what it created for itself, and what made it different. No, it is not "Robin Hood + Star Trek + The Dirty Dozen + Brave New World + Nineteen Eighty-Four + Star Wars - (superficial bits and bobs from all of them)".

It is simply Blake's 7, a series in its own right. If you absolutely insist on having a formula, try Blake + Avon + Jenna + Vila + Cally + Gan + Zen + Orac = Blake's 7. That is the only formula needed to achieve it, and, as the series itself proved without any difficulty, most of the time it didn't even need that.

Click here to view Betty Ragan's Guide to Blake's 7, including a method of establishing whether you've been spending too much time watching the show...