Monday, October 14, 2013

Blake's Eleven

Every eleven years, just like clockwork, I get the terrible urge to go back and watch every episode of Blake's 7 all over again.

Eleven years is just enough time to forget a lot of the fine details, but still follow most of the story. I barely watch any episodes outside that eleven-year cycle, but each time it comes around, it's irresistible.

And each time I see something new in this silly little television show.

Blake's 7 was a British science-fiction series from the late seventies, with dedicated people trying to create Star Wars spectacle with a budget of five quid and the fumes from an oily rag. They did their best.

It's the story of a bunch of freedom fighters battling against the terrible grip of an intergalactic federation and it's just as infinitely cheesy as it sounds, but it was also bleak, thoughtful and – occasionally- very clever and moving. It had some superb acting, backed up by rock solid characterisation and unexpectedly grim fates for some beloved characters.

It only lasted four years, but managed to survive the loss of the title character for half that time. It's well-remembered for its final ending of total carnage, which more than makes up for some of the other terrible episodes that came towards the end. There have been several attempts to get the concept back onto screens over the decades, but none of them have actually happened, although there have been some groovy audio adventures in the past few years.

I don't care if they never bring it back. I just keep coming back to those original episodes, over and over and over again.

It all starts when I'm only about five years old and I glimpse bits of the show on TV. It's a lot scarier than Doctor Who, which I've already fallen for, and the tiny bits I see are weirdly disturbing, and while the details are lost, I can still remember the discomfort.

I can also still remember a dream I had at that age: I'm on Servalan's command ship, surrounded by Mutoid pilots, and the ship has lost power and is falling through space forever, and it's not going to stop, and we go so fast the crew burst into fire, but they turn into bright, burning angels who rescue me from the endlessly-falling spaceship.

Looking back, this is a surprisingly deep dream for a little kid to have, which may be why it stuck in my head for all this time. The other thing that stuck in my head was a wary respect for this crappy British science-fiction nonsense.

I still feel oddly uncomfortable thinking about Blake's 7 when I fall for it again, 11 years later. Now I'm 16 and it's the very early nineties and Blake's 7 might be just about the uncoolest thing on the planet, but I find the first few episodes in a local video rental place, and it's got me again.

There is a lot of cringing at its inherent cheesiness, but it's also suitably miserable and bleak for a gloomy sixteen-year-old. There are tiny sparks of hope in Blake's 7, but they're always crushed beneath a leather fascist boot. Blake and his chums keep battling on, but they're fighting an enemy that is too strong and powerful, and while they win their fair share of skirmishes, they ultimately lose.

All that cynical misery reaches its climax in the very last episode, but it's not the bit where all the main characters are callously gunned down that is so bleak, it's the appearance of Blake, and the fact that he has been broken, just ground down by the struggle, until he is barely a man.

The entire show was built on the idea of this man who is willing to stand up to the corrupt system, and bring it down. But the Blake in the final episode has given up on all that revolution nonsense, and is alone in the cold, cold universe. Without his friends beside him, he has fallen into cynical misery, and when he is finally shot down, it's more of a mercy than anything else.

I'm still half-convinced it was actually the Blake clone, who wandered off earlier in the series, but the point remains the same. And as supremely uncool as Blake's 7 was when I was sixteen, it was just another sign that this really was a pointless, random and nihilistic universe.

It took me a couple of years to see all of the episodes this time around, because the final ones weren't on videotape and I had to wait until they ended up on late night TV, and by the time we reached the end again, I had a much more positive outlook on life, but it was still thrilling to see how grim it was.

Eleven years later and Blake is back, playing on TV in some ironic time slot, and I start watching it again and fall for it all over.

Now I'm 27 and far away from the teenage nihilist I once was, and while all the misery is still cool as fuck, it's the humanistic angle, and the relationship between the characters, that appeals the most.

They might not have been able to afford the spectacle, but that just gave the creators more space to lavish attention on the characterisation, until you get to the lump-in-the-throat moment where Blake tells Avon that he always trusted him, right from the beginning, just as they face certain death, and it is genuinely powerful.

It's also frequently funny. Avon always has a sharp quip, and Vila's unbeatable self-preservation skills are matched only by his cowardly retorts. The relationship between these two men is also fascinating, because they are friends and comrades, and Avon will wipe out a planet to save Vila, but will not hesitate for a second to sacrifice him if it will save his own skin.

There are all sorts of meaty moments like this in Blake's 7 when I come to it in 2002, and I churn through the entire series on DVD in a matter of weeks.

Now I'm 38, and I finally get around to buying the series on DVD. It's taken so long because it's ridiculously expensive in this part of the world, which is all kinds of ironic, because it really looks cheap as hell.

The lovely wife watches a bit of an episode for the very first time, and she can't get past the cardboard sets and extraordinarily crappy special effects, but I've got through the first season again in less than a week, and I don't care about how cheap it looks. I never really care. Complaining about that is like going to a play at a theatre and complaining that the sets don't look realistic there. It just doesn't matter, not when the stories are still that strong.

And I still love the creepy mutoids (and their inner-self angels), and the dark cynicism and the sheer humanity, just like I did in the past. But it's more than that.

I love those broad, sweeping storytelling strokes, but I also love the tiny touches each time I come back, even if I forget most of them every eleven years. I love the way Travis says "I WILL kill you, Blake," and the way Servalan slinks across the screen, and the hard, rigid designs of the various spaceships.

It's a treasure trove of small delights, right down to the sound design, like the tiny musical sting that accompanies every single teleportation shot, or the groovy noise that accompanies Orac when he pops into life, or the dour, sour voices of all the computers in the series.

It's the smallest things that are the most attractive about Blake's 7, not the big space saga aspect. They're the little touches that I forget every time, and are always a delightful reminder, just like they've always been, and will be again, in another eleven year's time.

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