Monday, 11 March 2013

A1 The Way Back

EPISODE: A1 The Way Back
BROADCAST: 02/01/1978
WRITTEN BY: Terry Nation
DIRECTOR: Michael E. Briant
SCRIPT EDITOR: Chris Boucher
PRODUCER: David Maloney
DVD: Blake's 7 - Series 1

"I can't remember!"

Terran Federation citizen Roj Blake meets his friend Ravella having fasted from food & water for 24 hours on her instructions. She takes him outside the city and explains that the populace is controlled by drugs in the water and food. She takes him to meet rebel leader Bran Foster who in turn explains to Blake that he was a resistance leader until he was betrayed, caught and brainwashed and that his family & fellow rebels were taken off planet and executed. Foster addresses a meeting of rebels but it's stormed by troopers who massacre everyone present except Blake who is taken back to the city and charged with offences against minors. He is convicted and sentenced to life on Cygnus Alpha, but accuses the prosecution of inventing the charges before being thrown into a cell with thief Villa Restel and pilot Jenna Stannis. Blake's defence attorney, Tel Varron, investigates Blake's accusations and goes to review records of Blake's case and discovers the evidence from the child witnesses is suspect. Blake implicates Dev Tarrant, a man he saw at the meeting, in the massacre. Varron and his wife venture outside the city and find evidence of the massacre as Blake and his fellow prisoners are taken off Earth hours earlier than scheduled. Varron & his wife are found outside the city by Dev Tarrant & a number of guards and are shot & killed.

The world this episode represents is a totalitarian regime closely observing their population - the first shot in the entire series is a security camera a rarity except in department stores when this was made but commonplace now. The people they're watching are kept drugged and docile. It's more political thriller than anything else, but oddly enough less than two months previously Doctor Who has run The Sunmakers which also features a drugged population. It's stark, bleak and in places quite nasty as unarmed civilians get massacred and Blake is effectively had up in court on trumped up child abuse charges. There's nothing else quite like it in the entirety of the series and yet it's essential scene setting. This is what everyday life is like in the Terran Federation, a term mentioned just once, and you need to see that to understand what those involved are rebelling against.

In fact the only really recognisable things in it are Blake & the Federation Troopers. The two other main cast members we see are effectively just cameos and only one of the rest of the characters ever reappears in the show. Four of the main cast are missing from the episode, indeed it's the only one in the entire run that neither Paul Darrow or Peter Tuddenham are in. Neither of the show's main villains are in it (they won't show up till the 6th episode) and the show's famed spaceship is nowhere to be seen. With latter knowledge of the show this is something of a shock.....

.... and it was with later knowledge that I first approached this episode. I was too young to watch it when it was first on (7ish on Monday nights when I wasn't quite 5) and didn't watch the show until the fourth season by which time much had changed. My first exposure to this episode was through Blake's 7: the Beginning when it was released on VHS in 1990..... but then it was a brief exposure as this episode is shredded down to about 10 minutes on that video release. By the time I saw it in full, a year later on the first episodic release I'd seen all the compilation episodes from the first year of the series and the episode seemed to drag and take ages to get to the point. Now I see it as painting a much larger picture for the series to be based on.

An odd thought: The Federation troopers here look like a cross between the TV and Film versions of the Robomen from Doctor Who's Dalek Invasion of Earth?

Before we go any further I have to say that it's hard not to see Blake's 7 through a Doctor Who filter. Yes, I'm a Doctor Who fan who spent the best part of two years watching every episode of the original series. But both series are made by the BBC, virtually all the major players behind the scenes at Blake's 7 have had some experience with Doctor Who. A large number of the cast have featured in both shows so accept they'll be constant reference to Doctor Who as we go through....

I'm going to play this one a little differently to the Doctor Who Blog and the Star Fleet one I did in that I'm going to watch the episodes weekly. A 50 minute episode per day + write up is too hard to do which is partially why new series Doctor Who has yet to be blogged on!

Blake's 7 was the creation of Terry Nation, the famed creator of the Daleks for Doctor Who. After writing their stories in the 1960s he'd gone to work for ITC writing for many of their television series including The Saint, The Baron, The Champions, Department S, The Persuaders! & The Protectors. Lured back to the BBC he'd produced a Dalek story per year between 1973 and 1975 before indulging his love of viruses and the post apocalyptic in Survivors. When that came to an end in 1977 he was asked to pitch new ideas to the BBC and they took him up on "The Dirty Dozen in space". To produce the series was long term Doctor Who Director David Maloney who had previously worked on two of Nation's stories Planet of the Daleks and Genesis of the Daleks. To script edit the series the BBC hired Chris Boucher who'd just completed 3 Doctor Who stories in quick succession: Face of Evil, Robots of Death and Image of the Fendahl. It's been speculated that the Blake's 7 appointment may have put paid to Boucher succeeding Robert Holmes in the Doctor Who Script Editor's chair. Boucher will only be dealing with one writer for the first year he's in the job as Terry Nation writes all 13 scripts for this first series. Blake's 7: The Merchandise Guide interviews Boucher who says Maloney originally offered the script editor's job to Bob Holmes but he turned it down because he didn't want to work with Terry Nation again! Veteran Doctor Who incidental music composer Dudley Simpson provides the theme music here and the incidental music for all bar one of the series 52 episodes. Another Doctor Who veteran is brought in to direct Michael E. Briant who'd handled Colony in Space, The Sea Devils, The Green Death, Nation's Death to the Daleks, Revenge of the Cybermen & Boucher's The Robots of Death. He'll be back for The Web, Project Avalon & Deliverance all in this first year.

The lead character Blake is played by Gareth Thomas a welsh actor who'd made a few television appearances over the last decade including cult shows Star Maidens and Children of the Stones. Jenna Stannis is played by Sally Knyvette an actress with a few television credits to her name including The Sweeney while Vila Restel is played by Michael Keating. Vila's name breaks the series convention of having the men referred to by their surname and the women by their first name. Vila, the thief is frequently used as the comedy relief in the show as emphasised by his opening lines:

Easy! Take it easy! I hate personal violence, especially when I'm the person.
Keating had recently appeared in Doctor Who: The Sunmakers (as mentioned above) which was directed by Pennant Roberts who helms the second episode of this series so I suspect I see Roberts' hand in Keating's casting...... A little peak also reveals Keating in one of Roberts Doomwatch episodes.

Most of the guest cast are familiar to us from Doctor Who tales over the years: Canadian Robert Beatty (Bran Foster) was General Cutler in the Tenth Planet but also appeared in 2001 as Dr. Ralph Halvorsen. Look at the New Avengers episode on his CV - that's some guest cast!. Director Michael Bryant has used Jeremy Wilkin (Dev Tarrant) before as Kellman in the Revenge of the Cybermen but look at his CV: New Avengers again, James Bond The Spy Who Loved Me as Captain Forsyth, 8 episodes of UFO as Skydiver Navigator Lt. Gordon Maxwell, Joe 90, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (30 episodes !) as Captain ochre and other voices plus provided the voice of Virgil Tracy for the second series of Thunderbirds following the departure of the character's original voice actor, David Holliday! Pippa Steel (Maja Varon) is another with UFO on her CV as well as a couple of Hammer Horror Films. Robert James (Ven Glynd) played Lesterson in Doctor who's Power of the Daleks & the High Priest in Masque of Mandragora. Glynd is one of the few returning characters in Blake's 7: he'll be back in B10 Voice from the Past but played by a different actor. Margaret John (Arbiter) was Megan Jones in Fury from the Deep, another show director Michael Bryant worked on this time as an uncredited production assistant. Nigel Lambert (Computer operator) will later appear in DW as Hardin in The Leisure Hive before becoming the narrator of Look Around You. If you've never seen it then BUY IT NOW! Gillian Bailey (Ravella) was a former child actress who'd appeared in Here Come the Double Deckers and has gone on to be Head of Drama at Royal Holloway College. Watching this I was sure I recognised the actor playing Del Varron but couldn't work out who he was..... his name is Michael Halsey. Having appeared in a few UK TV productions from the mid 70s onwards - I can see the final episode of Space 1999: The Dorcans on his CV - he returns to Blake'7 as Zee in Gambit and then has an appearance in the Barry Letts Classic Serial version of a Tale of Two Cities. His CV then goes cold for two year before he reappears working in US Television which is where I've seen him in two episodes of Airwolf: Echoes from the Past (the one where they drop the helicopter out the back of a transport plane) as Peter MacGregor Moore and HX-1 as Dunkirk. (Oddly both episodes feature StJohn Hawke heavily). I can see many other series well known in the UK on his CV like The A Team, Hart to Hart & Magnum so it would appear as the move across the Atlantic was a good one for his career!

Blake's 7 started on 2nd January 1978 just a few days after the UK premier of Star Wars on the 27th December. In many ways it was a matter of the the BBC having a stroke of luck and debuting their new science fiction series at exactly the right moment the Star Wars made sci fi adventure the hot thing.

The Way Back was adapted into book form by Trevor Hoyle along with the flowing four episodes. I can remember seeing a library copy of this book at my friend Ben's house in the early 80s but never being able to get one myself. I eventually bought a copy chap from a sci fi fair in 2003! This episode was cut down to 15 minutes as part of The Beginning, a compilation of the first four episodes of the series first released in 1985 for £25 and then again at a more affordable price of £10 on the 5th March 1990. All 4 Blake's 7 compilation tapes, including the one never released before in the UK were released on the same day: I bought this and Orac in HMV in Richmond on the way home from college. The next day I bought Aftermath and returned Saturday for Duel! An episodic release followed on Monday 7th Jan 1991 paired with the following episode, Space Fall to form Tape 1 and alongside the following 6 episodes all paired off Tape 2 Cygnus Alpha/Time Squad, Tape 3 The Web/Seek-Locate-Destroy & Tape 4 Mission to Destiny/Duel with a DVD release for the whole of season 1 on 01/03/2004.


  1. Tiny bit of DW related context for you which has only just occured to me - this episode was broadcast 5 days before Doctor Who episode 470 Underworld Part One which was broadcast on 07/01/1978.

    1. There is something quite striking about this episodes lack of overt villians. There are no grinning maniacs, or scheming masterminds in "The Way Back". All the people who do terrible things in this episode are just cogs in a vast machine of oppression. This first episode does set up the idea that Blake isn't just opposing some bad people, but that he is up against an institutionally horrible society.

      I go back and watch it now and there are quite a few parts of it that feel like the have gained relevance over the years - the all-pervading surveillance especially.

      Looking forward to following future weeks posts Phil, my Detectors will remain tuned to this space sector.