Growing up as a space-obsessed kids in the 70s and 80s I was used to the fact that, as a girl, I probably wouldn’t get to drive the TARDIS but if I happened to wander into the Federation, not only could I kick some serious fascist overlord ass but I could actually be that fascist overlord, if I so wished – and could put up with the feathers.
Recently I’ve been tweeting my way through the various box sets of the BBC’s seminal 1980s sci fi series Blakes 7. I’m currently halfway through the third series (where things start to get really silly) and most evenings I amuse myself sniping away at the frequently ridiculous costumes and somewhat hammy acting from certain members of the cast but fun as that might may be it’s got me thinking. I’ve been a fan of Blakes 7 since it first aired. I have a higher tolerance for the ludicrous plot twists of the third and fourth series because they were where I came in. When I was a little girl I thought Dana’s combination of cat suits with stilettos was seriously cool and I had a bit of a thing for Tarrant (both characters joined the show for the third series after the show lost two of it’s key characters including the eponymous Blake.) But with each adult viewing (we’ve the whole lot on DVD and it does tend to get yearly showings) I get a further appreciation of what a cracking show it is even at it’s weakest points. I’m increasingly glad that it was there when I was growing up, that it provided me with such strong role models and set the bar for all future space and future set viewing at an impressive height.
Blakes 7 inspired, at least partially, both Babylon 5 and Joss Whedon’s Firefly. It told the story of a motley crew of freedom fighters who were taking a stand against the repressive Federation led by the magnificent uber-bitch Servalan.
The original crew was lead by charismatic leader Roj Blake who ran around the galaxy righting wrongs dressed like a PVC -clad floppy sleeved Robin Hood (courtesy of the sometimes treacherous costume department). Blake had been a resistance leader on earth but had been stung with false pornography charges and sent to a penal colony (even though he never actually got there). Like Firefly our dynamic captain has a female second. Jenna Stannis was basically a female Han Solo minus the wookiee. She was a crack pilot, fearless fighter and a principled smuggler who had walked into her own brand of trouble when she refused to smuggle drugs for the mob. Kerr Avon is the somewhat self-serving hacker who’d got into trouble for a spot of bank robbing and was to spend the rest of the serious smouldering at Servalan and bristling at any rival alpha males including a computer. Olag Gan was the gentle strong man who had been fitted with a chip to help him with his anger management issues. Vila Restal was a super thief, known throughout the Federation and feared by anybody who had locks even though he seems to spend most of the later episodes playing the bumbling fool and token serf (back then the BBC future was very middle class indeed). After meeting on a prison ship this lot met up with alien empath Cally, who was basically a vigilante until she joined Blake’s crew. The seven were completed by the two ships computers – Zen, a Tetris light board with a rather stentorian attitude and everyone’s favourite neon perspex box of flashing lights, Orac. Orac was a computer with a personality problem who regularly refused to do what he was told, so not unlike some of today’s tech then.
Unfortunately after a very gritty, grimy start with hard hitting story lines and frequent industrial settings, the 80s and Margaret Thatcher arrived and everything got a little bit more neon and a lot more silly. Gareth Thomas famously left the part of Blake because he felt the show had become more Science Fantasy than Science Fiction. He was joined by Sally Knyvette who felt that the character of Jenna had been watered down in the second series. She talks about her concerns in this interview. The character of Dayna Mellanby who replaced her, certainly seemed to be more of a pleasure model, despite the character’s credentials as the best weapons manufacture the Federation had ever known. Tarrant, who attempted to slot into the green doublet left by Blake, was a rather petulant pretty boy who kept his silver spoon in his well pressed pocket. A rather unconvincing freedom fighter, since Avon had been providing the pouting arrogance since the start. The last female member of the crew Soolin, actually was a pleasure model with her fighting credentials tacked on as a bit of an after thought.
It’s perhaps odd that a show with such obvious flaws inspires such affection or perhaps it isn’t. Each evening, when I start tweeting the next episode I’m amazed at the response I get. I’m always relieved people get in 140s characters that while I’m sending it up I do so with absolute affection – but I doubt I’d get the same response if I was so rude about Star Wars or Star Trek and I know I don’t when I poke fun at Hammer Films or The Prisoner. Cult movies and TV do get some rather intense fans but with Blakes 7 I’ve yet to encounter any. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a show that people love and love passionately. I loved it so much that when it came to an abrupt end in 1981 I was devastated. I started reading the Radio Times and watching Points of View just to scan for news of a reprieve. It was the first time I’d experienced the cancellation of a favourite show and I took it personally. Over the years, before either show was revived and we were all working purely on childhood memories, I’ve had rows with Doctor Who fans over which was better (I always liked both but you couldn’t say that in these rows). Blakes 7 was the one that people tended to forget back then, or to remember it dismissively as an also ran. Perhaps that’s why the affection for the show you encounter online is so warm. Despite the reliance on depressed industrial landscapes, despite the outrageous costumes, despite the sometimes dodgy portrayal of women and the utter campness of the whole thing, once you love it, you’ll love it for ever more.
When I was a kid I never noticed the fact that the women were styled to appeal to all the boys not to me. I loved the fact that Dayna was a crack shot with the large guns she’d built from scratch, not to mention the fact she could still aim straight while balancing in those strappy silver sandals with the three inch heels. Cally was my hero. I loved that she could calm situations without even raising her gun. Jenna I only discovered once I got the dvds so I can’t say she was a childhood rolemodel but to be honest the deepest impression was left by the series bad guy. Even though you weren’t supposed to like Servalan it was hard not to. The woman is a monster who destroys planets before sitting down to breakfast. She is so far over the top she’s coming down the other side and generally performs her tyranny in full evening dress with perfectly manicured nails and drag queen makeup. Jacqueline Pearce, who’d made various appearances in Hammer Films in the 60s as a wide eyed ingénue, gives the role her all and somehow, despite all the set chewing, flamboyant extravagance, is brilliant.
With Servalan you knew she wasn’t wearing an outfit like this because she was a sexual object, she was wearing it because she wanted to and probably because it unsettled whoever was in the meeting with her. She is the embodiment of an assumption that I always remember seeing in British sci fi growing up that the future would be equal. There would be no barrier to getting the top job as a woman because that argument had already been had. I knew I couldn’t drive the TARDIS because I wasn’t a Timelord but there were no barriers in the Federation. These were women who frequently did the rescuing, who could be in charge, who could do what they wanted. It’s something I’ll go into in more detail in a later post but I remember growing up with no shortage of role models like these. I’m not sure you could say that these days things have got worse but I can’t help feeling that for every Katniss Everdeen or Zoe Washburne there’s a Bella Swan dragging the whole side down. Perhaps it’s because family shows back then couldn’t have cohabiting protagonists back then so strong female characters tended to be shown as single (although that opens up a whole other kettle of worms if you’re going to look at them from a feminist perspective). Like I said – we’ll leave that for another day. Back in my college days I wrote countless essays on feminist views of popular culture. Don’t get me started on the male gaze! But that’s not for today.
Today I just want to sing the praises of the women of Blakes 7 who helped to make the show one of the campest BBC shows outside Come Dancing. I’ll be back on the Twitter when we put on the next episode tweeting at the hashtag #blakes7. If you want to watch along and have the DVDs we’re on Series 3 episode 10. I’m there most evenings between 10 and 11 GMT.