Over ten days, I’m discussing television shows that have made an impact upon me. Today, it’s the dystopian future of TV’s most cynical science fiction show, Blake’s Seven.
Was there ever a TV show that hit so many of my childhood fantasies and yet felt so grown-up at the same time? Doctor Who was fun and scary, but Blake’s Seven felt genuinely dangerous. People died. Main cast members died, and often without warning. The bad guys won– regularly. The good guys were bad guys, very often to each other. For a pre-teen, this was heady, edge-of-the-seat stuff. And the supposed super-baddie was somehow the most attractive, charismatic, persuasive one of the bunch! From the opening episode, in which hero Rog Blake is captured, tortured, brainwashed, beaten, witness to an illegal gathering in which every single attendee is gunned down by Government troops, and sent to a prison planet to die, it was clear that this was not the positive, child-friendly milieu of Doctor Who and other SF shows I was growing up with. This was serious shit.
Later, watching it as an adult, I could appreciate the dystopic vision, the social and cultural messages, and the maturity of the concept. And, despite the wonky sets, the drunken Clothing Department jazz outfits, and the occasional OVERACTING SO THAT EVERYBODY KNOWS I AM IN THE ROOOOOOM, it is a deeply mature work of science fiction drama. Characters do not always make the easy decision. They don’t always behave altruistically. They can be cowards. They can act from enormous self-interest. They abandon team mates. They cut deals with the very forces that are pursuing them. There is a constant sense of oppression, of desperation, and doubt. For all the trappings, this is as serious a drama as Colditz or I, Claudius — lacking the budget, certainly, and the reputational clout, but played as straight and serious as a heart attack, and underpinned by career-best, hypnotic performances from Paul Darrow, Jacqueline Pearce, and Michael Keating.
The show has not aged well, and it takes a certain nostalgic forgiveness to overcome some of the shonkiest shortcomings. But when it mattered, when it first caught hold of me and wormed its way into my heart, this was the most dangerous, thrilling, compulsive show I’d ever seen. It showed me that fantasy could be more than escapism, that it could portray serious social concerns and treat its characters as if they were real people, on real and urgent knife edges. I will always love it for that.