Blakes 7: The Way Back
April 26, 2016 3:10 AM - Season 1, Episode 1 - Subscribe

Roj Blake, brainwashed by the Federation, learns of his true identity - a major resistance leader against what appears to be a corrupt society. Unbelieving at first, he is persuaded to attend a rebel's meeting illegally outside the dome... and then things get interesting.

Screened in 1978, two years after Logan's Run, there are some interesting parallels with Domed Cities, corrupt elites and a tightly controlled populations that are drugged to the eyeballs.

The Way Back introduces us to Blake (and later Vila and Jenna – but not Avon, although he was originally in the script as the guy who says: "Take a long look, that's the last you'll ever see of Earth!") and sets up the concept of the Earth-run Federation, it's jack-booted security forces, a justice system controlled by machines, and the oh-so 1970s aesthetic of leather couches, plastic everything and ridiculously over-designed clothes, and, of course, no costume is complete without a tabard.

It sets up a futuristic law and order story and, as we will see, pretty much scraps all of the characters by the end of the episode, so if you were watching in 1978 you'd have almost no idea what kind of show you were getting.

And, unlike Star Trek, B7 pulled no punches early on with paedophilia and killing off what appeared to be major characters.
posted by Mezentian (16 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
My wife has been a huge B7 nerd for much of her life. I've only seen the first handful of episodes, but if MeFi is doing a watch, that will be a fine excuse for me to dig out the episodes and join in!
posted by rmd1023 at 6:31 AM on April 26, 2016

of course, no costume is complete without a tabard.

I've always thought of those garments as smocks, since they look just like the smocks we wore as kids in the 70s doing arts & crafts. And I have long marveled at the B7 vision of our smock-filled future.

Anyway, I'll have more to contribute when I get home.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 12:37 PM on April 26, 2016

So where to start? I first saw B7 in the mid-80s, when my local PBS station used to sometimes show it after Dr. Who (sometimes they showed HHGTTG). I'm not sure if I ever saw the whole series all the way through back then, but what I saw I loved. Anyway, a few years ago I finally broke down after waiting for a US DVD release and bought the region 2 discs. Did a complete re-watch at the time and was surprised how well the show holds up, despite the smocks and wobbly sets.

And yeah, B7 is really the anti-Trek in many ways. But also really for late 70s TV not only does the writing pull no punches in this first episode, but they make the audience do a lot of work that was still fairly atypical for TV writing at the time. Other than the early "your memory was erased" exposition, they don't give the audience a lot of help. I was noticing this time around that the sound design is also very interesting. I think it's when they are in the holding cell waiting to leave for Cygnus Alpha, at one point there was this high pitch whining/ringing sound. At one point I thought it was actually something wrong with my tv. But rather than go with just the standard dramatic foreboding music, this show wants the audience to feel on edge. They want us to be annoyed, to be affected.

Also, smocks.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 6:20 PM on April 26, 2016

A certain voice in me wanted to scream lame lame, but finally good folks died a bad death and the cliff hanger seems likely to be a prisoner revolt in space, did not mind the older sets but a certain woodenness seemed odd, could not tell if it was from the mind control or bad british acting.

Also the long shot of the Death Star seemed oddly prescient.
posted by sammyo at 6:57 PM on April 26, 2016

Well I had forgotten how good the first episode was. It opens with Blake seeming almost annoyed at being invited to something, but he doesn't know what it is, and then they go to the meeting and the guy tells him about the memory erasing stuff. Okay, the memory erasing parts (with Blake running down the tunnel etc) is very cheap 70s sci-fi, but it sorta works in the show. Then the massacre happens, and then there is the amazing shot where the camera is focussed on the dead body and pulls back to reveal all the dead bodies lying there, with Blake walking up slowly. Wow, amazing stuff, so far out for the BBC to show something like that, I don't think you could do it the same justice now. Amazing.

Then Blake is in prison and he breaks the 4th wall and speaks to the audience, but it works to draw us into the conspiracy around him and what has happened, although the echo-ey "remember remember" was a bit naff. And then we see how far the conspiracy goes, and it goes way up. The trial is a mockery of justice, which is pretty much the point, although it did have the feel of 70s TV, with weird music, and not much happening between short bursts of dialogue. And at the end, Blake's nemesis enters....

And having Blake be found guilty of child abuse is way fucking hardcore.

So it goes to the jail, and the first person we see is Jenna, who (imho) knows who Blake is, and eventually well, falls for him. And Villa, so now they are three, and you can see already there is something there in the way Jenna is around Blake. And then the stuff with his lawyer is excellent, again, so anti-Trek, and again, tarrent is there, overseeing more murder. Man this show is vicious. And in the end, it is too late anyway, and Blake, Villa and Jenna leave, with Blake's last line being perfect. The whole thing of sending him to the penal colony on Sygnus Alpha and how he then goes on to meet the others is a nicely orchestrated bit of plotting.

A couple of things that struck me were how watchable it is: the casting is good, the acting is decent, everyone takes their role seriously, and Gareth Thomas as Blake is Fantastic, he imbues the character with an air of believability, and vulnerability; strong, yet uncertain. Everything hangs on him and his performance, and he is totally Blake. I am not sure what show sammyo was watching but I thought the acting was fine: it isn't the sort of show that called for over the top or extravagant acting, these people are senior in the Federation, one would expect them to behave a certain way, calm and rational while they set a man up to send him to a penal colony. It is all a bit posho, though, toffs in space as the old joke goes. Partly this is just typical of BBC TV at the time though.

The other thing was that for all that they didn't spend much money in it, some of the sets are pretty cool, the silver hallways with the chevron shaped wall areas look cool, the exit to the city is cool, the domed city from outside is cool. The doors that are just normal doors with 1970s looking round doorknobs which "shh" when they open made me laugh though.

Excellent stuff. Thanks for starting the rewatch. I saw this when it first came on the BBC in 1978, and have loved it ever since.
posted by marienbad at 2:14 PM on April 27, 2016

Haven't rewatched, but saw it firsthand back in the day. One thing that struck me was that in order to frame Blake, they implanted memories of being abused in the "victims." Which really invites all kinds of nasty questions about who the real monsters are.
posted by Bringer Tom at 7:16 PM on April 27, 2016

Oh good lord bog I love Blake's 7. It surely the model upon which so much great TV SF has been based. Its ruthless amoral galaxy was like a hammerblow to this kid raised on Doctor Who's goodnatured scares - we always knew The Doctor would come out on top, but this was so different. And Vila is surely one of the great comic antiheros!

I think it's pretty unfair to lambaste Blake's 7 for dodgy sets and acting - almost every show on television worldwide had production values at this level or worse, and this show set about telling a story that even today would have a hard time getting made - GoT really doesn't have anything on the scheming, double-crossing and carnage that happens here!

And that theme! So much synthesizer glory!

well, that was a lot of exclamation marks...
posted by prismatic7 at 6:45 AM on April 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

On seeing this post yesterday, I watched this episode, and then went on all the way up to episode nine. Blimey, it's a lot better than I remember. I wonder if an aficionado can say whether it's all actually Terry Nation's work or whether Chris Boucher had a lot to do with it (as I know he does in later seasons). I'm basing my prejudice against Nation on the 70s Dr Who he wrote, which tends to be stuck in the early 60s writing-wise (except the one that Douglas Adams rewrote the dialogue for). B7, on the other hand, is fairly snappy dialogue-wise and contains actual characters. The names are pure Nation though, I'll give him that.
posted by Grangousier at 12:31 PM on April 28, 2016

Grangousier: This may interest you: Making Blakes 7 (1 of 3)
posted by marienbad at 8:33 PM on April 28, 2016

I wonder if an aficionado can say whether it's all actually Terry Nation's work or whether Chris Boucher had a lot to do with it (as I know he does in later seasons).

I was wondering this, and I can't remember what the commentary or the Making Of, and I don't have the wherewithall just now, and it's hard to compare Boucher's and Nation's Who scripts (Robots of Death being a classic), but I really can't imagine Nation providing the level of snark on display here, and in later episodes.

That said, his Dalek adventures... lacked a certain something, and I think the fact he tried to wedge the Daleks into B7 at one point does suggest he was lacking in the ideas department.

Except for the fact he did create B7, and I have to believe he was more of a voice tyan we might think.

The names are pure Nation though, I'll give him that.

Del Tarrant and Dev Tarrant are world's apart!
posted by Mezentian at 12:08 AM on April 29, 2016

Well, I've watched almost all of series one, and most of the documentaries. So I can't really comment here, because I've largely forgotten episode one. Still good, though. Curiously, I'm much more forgiving of the terrible effects and so forth than I was in 1978. Or perhaps it's not curious (like the way, when photography became more and more widespread, merely being able to catch a likeness became a much less important thing for a painter to do).

Hopefully check in for threads on later episodes.
posted by Grangousier at 2:08 AM on April 30, 2016

After all this, I didn't even put down my thoughts!

I came to B7 on first run TV many, many decades ago (I can even pinpoint the specific episode in the S2 because of the trauma that it induced, and I was so hooked by Terminal for obvious reasons, and I died because it was two years before they showed S4 here) and didn't see an episode again until '88.

So, I missed The Way Back until it was released on VHS in the late 1990s. An accident of fate means I saw this one, and the video store never got in the rest, so it wasn't until 2010 that I saw the show all the way through, and I consider it one of the greatest SF shows ever.

It has its faults, but it's pretty darn tight, and at least initially the sets aren't that crap, and since I grew up with Ian Scoones' and Matt Irvine's model work, I can handle the kitbashed SFX.

What amazed me with TWB is how it is unlike many pilots before or since.

If you watched this, you've be given whiplash at the tonal differences between the first four episodes. It's smart, silly and dark at various times, and I think the BBC was extremely brave to commission it at the time (I think the same kind of madness is behind shows like Orphan Black as well).

I love the '70s retrofuturism, the knock-off Stormtroopers, the smocks (seriously, these costumes are ridiculous and overly complicated, but they work as clothes better than, say, the contemporary Buck Rodgers, which was mostly a pile of crap in retrospect).

And it's a brave little show that spends how many episodes actually getting The Seven together on their ill-defined crusade to be thorns in the side of the Federation.

And they're terrorists at a time when the UK was deeply enmeshed in "The Troubles". Can you imagine them doing that now?
posted by Mezentian at 3:08 AM on May 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I wonder if an aficionado can say whether it's all actually Terry Nation's work or whether Chris Boucher had a lot to do with it (as I know he does in later seasons).

If you look at Nation's earlier, pre-B7, non-Dr. Who projects like The Survivors (from 1975- I've only seen half of the 1st series/season myself, and those were all written by Nation, and IIRC, there were at least three), you can see that he seems to write the vast majority of the earlier scripts, and then backs off a bit and becomes a more of a 'guiding hand' to the later scripts by other writers. However, that may be a problematic example, because it seems there was some creative differences, and Nation was not involved in the last two series of the show.

This seems to work for him, because it allows him to clearly establish the world, characters, tone, and the mechanics of the story in a way that gives the other writers not only the rules and boundaries, but gives them the resources the writers need to explore and play with ideas and characters without 'breaking the machine.' However, I have to admit that this is a bit of an idealized, rose-tinted description, as it has been said that after Nation completed the first series, he was having a difficult time with finding ideas on his own for the second series and onward, and Boucher spent a lot more time in the driver's seat. Even with the difficulties Nation was having, the work he did in the first series and the episodes he wrote in later seasons certainly worked as I described and kept the show from running off the rails.

I can't be too hard on Nation for all that, though. He appears to have learned a lot from the problems he encountered with the latter half of The Survivors. My memory may be foggy, but whatever tension there was between Nation and Boucher, he was able to manage the situation well enough that it did not result in him leaving the show, as he did with The Survivors, and most importantly, the very unforgiving nature of the show that made no character's future guaranteed combined with dealing with real-life complications such as Gareth Thomas leaving the show after series 2 helped to outwardly conceal most of the slight, but noticeable changes in the writing styles from the viewers (with one big exception, mentioned below), as it just seemed to be part of the story. Something else to consider is the rather cautionary tale (and still a recent memory at that time) of what can happen to someone when they attempt to write and control everything about their creation - just look at what happened to Patrick McGoohan. He may have created The Prisoner, that is in my opinion is one of the best things that has ever been on television, but the process nearly destroyed him and his sanity, gave him a reputation as a single-minded, quickly became a megalomaniacal tyrant on and off the set, sent Leo McKern to the hospital with either a nervous breakdown or a heart attack while filming the last episodes, and then was hounded out of his own country by his own fans. Given that extreme, being able to find some sort of balance when dealing with others that are involved in one's creation is nothing to scoff at.

What is that big exception? There is one episode that sticks out like a sore thumb in comparison to all the other episodes, and is the one episode out of the 52 that I tend to skip over - Duel. If you've seen it, it bears a striking resemblance to the Star Trek episode "Arena," with a bit of "The Savage Curtain" thrown in. When I first saw it, I thought it seemed like a eye-rolling copy of a TOS episode, that felt hastily written and shoehorned in as one of the few 'stand alone' episodes in the series. It was only decades later that I learned both are based on a 1944 short story called Arena. However, even though I was wrong about its source, the ongoing narrative of B7 made it feel much more out of place than when it was used for Star Trek, which aside from a few exceptions with returning characters (the Harcourt Fenton Mudd ones, for example), can be easily watched in any order. Duel is an episode that doesn't fit, unduly exaggerates the good/evil aspects of Blake and Travis, and overall lacks the nuance, interaction and assortment of ambiguously moral nature of the characters and situations that are present in the rest of the series.

Duel is a great example of the dangers of suddenly introducing ridiculously powerful characters in a story as a way to force a certain plot and context in a one-off episode, and by doing so ruin it. Suddenly changing the rules of the game like that is just disruptive and no fun to me. "Oh, so now we're stopping time and reading everyone's mind and then magically transmitting the show to the crew stuck on the ship? Where's the excitement in that? Either they all live or all die in the end, and considering we've still got 5 more episodes in the first series left, I think we know how this is going down. What's the point?" Every other death in the run of the show was sudden and unexpected, but this episode's godlike manipulator removes any chance at being even mildly surprised.

However, it's possible to do it successfully, as TNG demonstrated with Q - not perfectly at first, but they did reasonably well enough and were able to develop him into an enjoyable presence one could look forward to every now and then.

This is my first post in the purple, and one concerning one of my favorite shows of all time, and here I am walking in and trashing an episode. It is only because the rest of the series works so well, and that one fails so badly, and I've never really had the chance to finally get that off my chest amongst people who know the show that I've kind of come out swinging. No swings were directed at anyone here, especially Grangousier - I guess I kind of got a bit carried away there.

Now, finally with all that negativity out of my system, I can relax and talk about the cool stuff. Honestly, I'm way more mellow than this enormously long-winded comment may make me appear.
posted by chambers at 9:00 PM on May 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

Fantastic comment, chambers. Now you've got that out of your system, what did you think of the episode?
posted by marienbad at 7:59 AM on May 4, 2016

Now you've got that out of your system, what did you think of the episode?

Note: Spoiler warning, just in case

What I love most about The Way Back is how it cleverly uses pacing to do two things - one that's obvious, and the other that remains hidden until the end of the episode.

The obvious one is that Nation starts the story from a very small point, and takes his time with setting the scene and characters. He's in absolutely in no rush to get to some sort of 'SPACE ACTION THRILL RIDE' in order to hook the audience and draw them in, as many SF shows (or most programs involving action/adventure/drama) traditionally would. Even with the surprisingly large budget he was given, he was well aware that he couldn't really wow an audience with SFX that has recently had their minds blown by Star Wars. Instead fast-paced action full of lasers and explosions, he does the opposite and begins with a slightly confused guy in a hallway meeting up with people who know far more than him, and take him on an illegal midnight stroll. So now we've got some intrigue to help make his new friend's dialog feel natural, and not just the sudden appearance of Ms. Exposition and Mr. Plot Point for the benefit of the viewer. Later on, the episode evolves into something of a dystopian thriller/courtroom drama combination. One might expect at this point to have at least some viewers asking "Space lawyers? I thought there was going to be galactic rebellion and space pew-pew, not a legal procedural show?", but rather than it being irritating, it has you interested and intrigued - "Where is this going?" The dystopian elements of the story are not the grandiose images of control and power a la Nazi Germany, but ones that are far more practical and disturbing displays of power - surveillance cameras everywhere, a population sedated by drugs in the food and water just enough to keep them docile, informants, and bureaucratic scheming that is very aware of the power of public perception and uses it to its advantage. The enemy is not some evil, jackbooted 'other' - the jackboots in this case are worn by everyday people - lawyers, middle-management types, and civil servants - in addition to the guys in the black outfits with the guns and jackboots. Nation uses the pacing speed to allow you to notice them on your own more often than he directly points them out and says "See? Dystopia!"

The other part of this - the 'hidden' pacing strategy is what seals the deal of the potential greatness of the show, and firmly sets the tone for the series. Throughout the episode, we've been introduced to a great deal of characters and gotten to know them a bit, and Blake's continued confinement leads you to believe some form of escape has to happen before the end of the show. We wait for that moment, just as Blake does. Nation has written it so that you don't feel you've been told to root for Blake, but that you have learned enough that you really want him to either be vindicated or escape.

And as the last minutes of the episode count down, you realize that the bad guys have won. There is no escape, no last minute reprieve or daring escape. Characters you spent an hour getting to know are dead in a field, the evidence destroyed and the event covered up. The concept of 'hope' gets it's teeth knocked out, and then its kicked in the stomach for mumbling. Odds are you didn't expect that to happen, but now you have to see what happens next because, like Blake, you're not going to let them get away with that.

TL;DR: One of Nation's best talents is about drawing you in so that you want to be involved, rather than just expecting to make you care.
posted by chambers at 10:05 AM on May 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

Survivors is a nice idea.... but lacks in characters.
So, it's the Walking Dead.
'B7 has characters out the whaaazooo.
posted by Mezentian at 6:31 AM on May 5, 2016

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