Five Hundred Eyes

Blake's 7 - from a cliche

Analysis of series roots in science fiction

Terry Nation, writing the introduction for Target's "Blake's 7 Programme Guide", states that he is unable to tie down the origins of the series, and describes its genesis as a "product of desperation". Nonetheless, Blake's 7 does find its roots in long established science fiction tradition. Thus it must be argued that, in reality, Nation combined several old cliches in the creation, and consequently that the opening episodes of the series carry a vivid sense of deja-vu for any enthusiast of science fiction literature and films.

The main concept behind B7 - that of a group of rebels fighting a cruel Galactic Federation in a spacecraft - is to be found in the area of space opera, a term described by Wilson Tucker as refering to a "hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn spaceship yarn". This definition seems rather harsh, but it needs to be understood that it was meant for the efforts of 1940s/50s writers. It has been argued that perhaps the term "space opera" has now mellowed to mean a "space adventure where action is extravagant", and as such B7 fits well into this mould. Even so, the roots of B7 are to be found in the earlier genres of the space opera, and particularly those which used "fantastic machines with limitless capabilities". It is in this area that one of the basic premises for B7 is found: the Liberator, and later Scorpio, both equipped with their own teleport systems. The teleport system in itself fits into the "limitless capabilities" category, as it gives the crew such a large advantage over their enemies. Perhaps the extent to which the programme came to rely on the teleport is shown by the fact that Orac is able to complete Dorian's work on the concept in 'Power'. This almost certainly is a contrivance, but one which was necessary for the success of Series D.

Spaceships have always been seen as the ultimate fulfilment of an audience's fantasy of power - in fact the ultimate escapism. The spaceship in question here is the Liberator, which is often described as the most powerful ship in the universe. It is faster, stronger, and more resiliant than anything yet built. Servalan is partially motivated by the desire to seize it, and in 'Terminal' goes to obsessive lengths to achieve this. The Liberator fulfils not only the escapist desires of the viewer, but also Blake's hopes of beating the Federation. The chance of him doing so depends entirely on the Liberator. When it has gone, Avon, gradually moving to take on the idealism of Blake, is forced to rely on unsteady alliances. However, the idea behind this super-ship is a very old one, harking back to E.E. Doc Smith's Skylarks, and exploiting the themes of luxury and power in much the same way as Verne had done with Nemo's Nautilus. Throughout the 1950s spaceships were a powerful symbol of escape against cruel tyranny, and the Liberator also harks back to this theme, common in such as Heinlein's 'Citizen of the Galaxy' (1957) and Panshin's 'Rite of Passage' (1963). The great speed of the Liberator (Standard by 12 at maximum level), and later of Scorpio when augmented by the stardrive, is clearly linked to this old clichE. Furthermore, the discovery of Liberator abandoned in space seems rather too convenient and again harks back to previously covered ground. As recently as 1977, Frederick Poul had published his 'Gateway' novel in which the human race stumble on a superb alien craft with resulting access to anywhere in the universe. Arthur C. Clarke's 'Rendezvous with Rama' (1973) features a mystical spacecraft with marvellous powers. Indeed, a link in the naming of the Liberator can be drawn with Star Trek's Enterprise, and there may be other influences to be found from the earlier series. Bearing in mind the relatively contemporary timing of some of these works, it is hard to dismiss any chance of a link. Similar criticism may be levelled at the computers, and especially Orac and later Slave, in B7. Notions of computers being intelligent and having a personality (Orac is insufferably superior and only really respects Avon; Slave is cringing and obsequious) are commonplace. Amongst many examples of this idea are Frank Herbert's 'Destination Void' (1966), in which the computer believes itself to be God, or Simak's 'Shakespeare Planet' (1976). It might be said that Chris Boucher's 1977 Doctor Who adventure, The Face of Evil, is significant in this area - after all, it did start as 'The Day God Went Mad'.

Connected to this by a technological link is the way that B7 avoids the very old concept of revolution against machines. It must be said that this applies only to its basis, as some episodes feature the idea extensively ('Deliverance' and 'Power' are examples). In fact, Nation takes the series more in the opposite direction, as Asimov had done in some earlier work and in his 'Robots' series. Machines constitute a vital component of society. Without the technology on Liberator Blake could not have started his revolt, and it is hard to visualise B7 managing to survive without its dependence on machines at the heart of the society involved.

It is arguable that Blake's 7 owed at least some of its success to the level of realism which existed throughout the series, something which was helped very much by the demonstrated mortality of the crew. This aspect is perhaps surprising since the series takes off rather crudely. So far this article has shown where B7 derived from in science fiction terms. Although it must be said that most science fiction is derivative is some way, B7 is unusually so. The most obvious use of much-used clichE is to be found in the opening episodes - the basic storyline of political criminals being deported to a prison planet from a totalitarian homeworld. The political and social system in B7 can be defined as a "dystopia", the virtual opposite of utopia, and so not drawing on the works of the 19th Century. However, the idea of a far right government in the future is a very popular one (! - Ed.), and especially the concept that can be seen in B7, that of revolution against dystopia. Long before B7 was even dreamt of, this idea had become a staple plot of pulp science fiction, since it offered far more diversity of plot than the utopian ideal. Similarly, the oppressive totalitarian state which maintains its dominance by means of a futuristic technology against technologically advanced rebels is much exploited: writers such as Heinlein, Leiber and Jameson had used the concept in their works.

Blake's 7 originated from a number of derivative and cliched sources. From such a start it might be expected that the series would struggle to assert its own identity. It is to the credit of the production team that not only did the series come to form its own very distinctive identity, even if that did tend to alter slightly from season to season, but also that it succeeded in audience terms.

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