Information: The Making of Blake’s 7 - The First Two Seasons by Rob Emery

The Making of Blake’s 7 - The First Two Seasons
by Rob Emery

with grateful thanks to Andrew Pixley and Jackie Emery

Blake's 7 was yet another iconic creation of Terry Nation, a prolific writer and creator of The Survivors and of course the Daleks. Nation also contributed to many TV classics of the 1960’s and 70’s including The Champions, The Saint, Department S and Doctor Who. He also spent time as script editor for The Avengers and producer on The Persuaders.
After the success of The Survivors at the BBC, he was asked to submit ideas for another TV series. Nation pitched his idea for a kind of ‘Dirty Dozen in Space’ and the BBC liked it. On Thursday 11th September 1975, Nation was commissioned for a pilot script for Blake's 7, the title of which was Cygnus Alpha. With some minor changes to both plot and the number of main characters, this later became The Way Back, the first televised episode. The Cygnus Alpha title was used later for episode A3.
In Nation’s original proposal the main characters were to be as follows:
Rog (later Roj) Blake: He is 35, good looking. A flash on his overalls says ‘Engineering Division’. Originally Blake was described as being more sensitive and emotional than he finally appeared.
Vila Restal: Right from the start, he was the one with the sense of humour, although the final on-screen version of Vila is much more comic than originally intended. He was described as 35, good looking and athletic.
Jenna Stannis: She was to be a stunningly beautiful woman in her late twenties, very poised and sophisticated. She was a smuggler with her own small rocket.
Arco Trent: A small brooding man, not given much to conversation. He used to be in charge of the weaponry development division. When an arms smuggling operation he and some colleagues were running goes wrong, he takes the rap for it.
Olag Gan: A very powerfully built and morose man.
Kerr Avon: A man in his mid thirties, he is intelligent looking and rather serious.
Brell Klein: See below
Tone Selman: See below
The first thing you might note from this list is that it really was supposed to be Blake and his seven crew members. As the series planning progressed it became apparent that the budget would not stretch to such a large main cast. Arco Trent and Tone Selman became just prisoners on board the London and Klein’s name was recycled for a character in Space Fall.
Early in 1976, the final version of the script was delivered. Nation was then commissioned to write a second script on Friday 4th June. November saw the series get the green light; Nation was asked for another five scripts and Blake’s 7 was go.
By early 1977 it was decided that Blake’s 7 would run initially for 26 episodes, to be split into two seasons of 13 episodes each. Nation was to write all 13 episodes of the first season, which it had already been decided would end on a cliff-hanger. He would also write the first episode of season two, thus resolving the cliff-hanger. Nation was then given the option to write further episodes. The BBC were relying heavily on Nation at this point, because it was thought that the success of the show would probably depend on the public awareness of Nation’s previous work on both Survivors and Doctor Who. The BBC were also taking a gamble on producing a true science fiction programme that would straddle both the children’s and adult market. This was the first true attempt to grab an adult audience for sci-fi as opposed to the usual attitude of writing it off as just a ‘children’s genre’.
It was also in early 1977 that the production team for Blake’s 7 began to take shape, the first member of which was David Maloney who was to be series producer. Soon after, he was joined by script editor Chris Boucher. Boucher had not been Maloney’s first choice; he had wanted Robert Holmes, as the two of them had worked well together on Doctor Who. Holmes however wanted to return to freelance work after finishing as script editor on Doctor Who, and he recommended Boucher as a talented writer who would be ideal for the job. Boucher already had a good track record in comedy as well as writing for sci-fi in the form of Doctor Who. It was in fact Boucher who created the Doctor Who assistant that broke the mould - Leela.
Together Nation, Maloney and Boucher were to shape Nation’s original proposal for Blake’s 7, realising the limitations both time and money would place on the story, and coming up with some new ideas and characters. One of the first major changes to be made was to cut the cast of regulars, as mentioned before - out went Arco, Selman and Klein. It was decided that the ship Blake and crew were to travel on, the Liberator, and the ship’s computer Zen would be included in the head count, as would Blake himself. A new character was also now introduced, that of Cally. The main reason for this was the distinct lack of females on the show, Jenna being the only one thus far. Cally was to be a telepathic alien who had turned tough freedom fighter; she was also to have dark hair in order to contrast with Jenna’s blonde.
It was now time to add a few more names to the list of series personnel - the cast! On Monday May 9th 1977, Maloney saw the first audition for a regular cast member; a young actress called Sally Knyvette. She had been recommended to Maloney by a BBC director called Bill Slater, for her work in Who Pays the Ferryman? She was by no means the only actress considered for the part; in fact by August of the same year, her name had been joined by those of Jane Asher, Sarah Bullen, Jan Chappell, Felicity Dean, Candice Glendenning, Jan Harvey, Julia Vidler and Susan Wooldridge. Sally Knyvette was eventually cast in the part.
By this time, casting sessions for the leading man, Blake, had also taken place. In the running for this role were: Tom Adams, Alun Armstrong, John Castle, Warren Clarke, Maurice Colbourne, Brian Croucher, Paul Darrow, Peter Egan, Norman Eshley, Martin Jarvis, Geoffrey Leesley, Christian Roberts, Malcolm Stoddard, Donald Sumpter and Gareth Thomas. The part was awarded to Gareth Thomas. He was one of the last actors to be auditioned, and was Nation’s choice to play Blake.
Actors considered for Vila were Peter Benson, Forbes Collins, Mike Grady, Michael Keating, Alan Lake and Norman Tipton. Brian Croucher was also noted as a possible for the part of Vila. Michael Keating originally went for the part of Avon and reading the character description of ‘his genius with computers and electronics’ took a pair of glasses along to the audition, hoping to look more like a computer geek! Michael Keating was eventually given the part of Vila, a character he was more comfortable with than the computer genius. He was recommended for the part by director Pennant Roberts, who had worked with Michael Keating on both Doctor Who and Doomwatch.
Pennant Roberts, along with Michael E. Briant and Vere Lorrimer, were hired as directors for the first season of Blake’s 7. The idea was that they would take it in turns to direct an episode. Vere Lorrimer was to stay with the show (later becoming producer) for its entire 4 year run.
Even though they were nowhere near casting the programme the BBC chose June 1977 to announce Blake’s 7 to the public, as a “New and major BBC TV series of Space Adventure”. It also said that the first series would consist of 13 x 50 minute episodes. The press release had details of the main characters (good and bad) as well as details of the technology they would use and the ship they would fly, called ‘The Liberator’. It gave details of the state of the galaxy in the ‘third century of the second calendar’. We were also told for the first time of Space Colonel Travis - which was not a misprint, as he was originally intended to be a Colonel, not a Commander. The character of Travis, although adapted from Nation’s original proposal, was altered by Nation and Maloney. They realised the need for a regular villain, and as with all good villains they needed a way of identifying his nastiness to the audience, hence the creation of the black eye patch and the prosthetic hand with laser gun.
By now David Maloney had already decided that the role of Gan would go to David Jackson, who was an old friend from rep and who had been a regular in Z Cars.
Auditions for Cally took place in July 1977; actresses taking part included: Jan Chappell, Suzan Farmer, Sabina Franklin, Cyd Hayman, Kathryn Leigh Scott, Gennie Nevinson, Hilary Ryan, Frances Tomelty and Jenny Truelove. Jan Chappell was spotted by Maloney when he when to see David Jackson in a play called Fair Slaughter. She was originally considered by Maloney for Jenna before finally being awarded the part of Cally.
The role of Avon was given to Paul Darrow after he originally auditioned for the part of Blake. He was recommended for the part of Avon by Vere Lorrimer, after working together before on Dixon of Dock Green.
Lastly there was the question of who was to play Zen, the seventh member of the crew. As Vere Lorrimer would be directing the episode in which Zen first appears, Cygnus Alpha, the casting decision was his. He finally chose Peter Tuddenham who had sent in a tape of his idea of how the computer might sound. Peter Tuddenham made a point of making the computer sound almost human, which was in sharp contrast to the way computer voices such as the Daleks had been played before.
By the end of August 1977, all the main characters had been cast. The actors had to sign a contract for 26 episodes all on a fixed fee, meaning that if one character became more popular than others then they would not be able to negotiate for higher fees.
By 15th September, the BBC had put out a new press release about the show. This time we had some of the main cast details, including biographies. We see that Travis is now Space Commander Travis and has a crew of cyborgs on board his pursuit ships. There is also a passing reference to a Supreme Commander Shervalan, and it was a he. It also mentions that there is now a fourth director on board, Douglas Camfield, yet another Doctor Who man.
Behind the scenes, the number of production staff was growing. The latest addition to the team was visual effects designer Ian Scoones, whose previous jobs included working on Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds and, after joining the BBC, Doctor Who. Scoones knew that it would be a difficult job; on the budget of an ordinary drama he had to come up with spaceships, teleport bracelets, endless laser guns etc. He also knew that Blake’s 7 would be competing with the looks and effects of a new sci-fi film just out called Star Wars, which was something that could just not be done on a BBC budget. The other thing that he was not happy with was the space ship Liberator, the design for which had already been sanctioned from in-house designer Roger Murray-Leach. Scoones had himself designed a battle cruiser. Murray-Leach’s design was the more appealing of the two, but only from an aesthetic point of view. From a visual effects point of view it was a nightmare. The first thing that had to be changed was the green ball at the end. In Murray-Leach’s original it was almost egg shaped, which turned out to be incredibly difficult to make, so it was made into a sphere. The other problem was that it was very difficult to mount and ‘fly’; it could only be done from a couple of different angles otherwise the mounting pole would be in shot. Because of this, as well as the original three foot model of the Liberator made by Space Models of Poulton, a smaller one foot model and a forced perspective model were made by Mat Irvine, who was then Scoones’ assistant. When the original Liberator arrived from Space Models it had no detailing or writing on it, so all the detailing panelling etc. was put on by the Visual Effects department.
The first actual shoot for Blake’s 7 was for the episode Time Squad, and took place on Thursday 29th September 1977 at Betchworth Quarry near Reigate in Surrey. The scene filmed was the sequence where Blake and crew meet Cally on Saurian Major. For a full list of recording dates for the first two seasons of Blake’s 7 see the table elsewhere in this piece.
Time Squad, although the first to be filmed, was not chronologically the first episode - that honour went to The Way Back. As a scene setter, The Way Back was excellent because it pulled the audience in immediately to a web of intrigue which unfolded to the audience at the same time as it unfolded to the hero Blake. Blake’s life is turned upside down in a matter of hours, when he finds out that he is not who he thinks he is. He’s been brainwashed by the Federation in order to re-order him into society; he was once a great resistance leader. He witnesses the massacre of all the people he knows and trusts. He is then rearrested by the Federation, and put on trial for crimes he did not commit. His defence attorney finds evidence that proves Blake's innocence, but is killed for his trouble. Blake, now truly alone, is sentenced to the prison planet of Cygnus Alpha. Whilst awaiting the shuttle to take him to Cygnus Alpha, he meets Vila and Jenna for the first time. As time runs out and he realises that his hoped for last minute reprieve is not coming, he must begin to rebuild his life for the second time, with more resolve than ever before. He vows to return to Earth. All that in only the first episode - how could one not tune in next week?
To take a man, our hero, so low and then watch him claw his way back to take revenge on the people who wronged him is not a new story. But this is the first time a science fiction series, (usually the domain of children) had done it in such a gritty manner.
In the second episode, Space Fall, we see a pattern that will be set for the rest of the series. We see Blake try to organise a shipboard rebellion, which fails although it is not entirely Blake’s fault. This little diversion does enable the audience to meet two more crew members, Gan and Avon. After Blake’s rebellion is quashed we find that the shuttle has been buffeted by the effects of a nearby space battle. One of the ships involved in the battle seems to be adrift and unmanned, so three of the shuttle crew are sent to investigate. Two are killed outright and one is driven mad. Not willing to risk any more of his own men, the captain is persuaded to send some prisoners instead - Blake, Jenna and Avon. It seems that this alien ship they have encountered has some sort of psychic defence mechanism that it uses to affect the minds of invaders. Somehow Blake manages to overcome the effects of the mind bender and destroys it. Now that they have possession of the ship, Jenna takes the controls and gets them underway.
Again, this is a good episode, which gives you another piece of the puzzle, i.e. the Liberator. After all, if the hero is to strike back at his tormentors he needs a tool to strike with. We are also introduced to two more crew members, but left wondering about Gan and Vila and just what this new alien ship is capable of?
Cygnus Alpha sees Blake, Avon and Jenna exploring the Liberator and making contact with Zen, the ship’s master computer. They find the teleport room and the Liberator handguns. Meanwhile, the shuttle has arrived at Cygnus Alpha. Blake devises a plan to rescue the prisoners; he teleports down to the planet and leaves Avon and Jenna on the Liberator. Avon tries to convince Jenna to abandon Blake so that they can take the Liberator, but Jenna refuses. Blake’s plan to rescue all the prisoners goes wrong and only he, Gan, Vila and Vargus (Cygnus Alpha's leader) are teleported aboard. Vargus is teleported into space and dies. Zen then informs the crew that Federation pursuit ships have spotted them. The crew is finally together and their flight from the Federation has finally begun.
What do we have in this episode? Dissension in the ranks, talk of mutiny? Only episode three and the mould has been broken again. Usually a group gets together, everyone is friends and off they go, but not in this case. Terry Nation is once again trying to tell the audience this is something different, not run of the mill. You need to keep watching, because truly anything might happen.
In the fourth episode, Time Squad, whilst staging an attack on a Federation communications centre, Blake bumps into another resistance fighter, the last of her unit. She’s a telepathic alien called Cally, who joins Blake and the crew. We also find out more about Gan and his past, including how he got his limiter and why he cannot kill. At the end of the episode, Cally agrees to join the crew and the team is complete. Blake’s 7 are set to become a lot more than a thorn in the side of the Federation.
Whilst not quite managing to continue the momentum of the first three episodes, Time Squad gives us some interesting background on some of the characters and reminds us that the humans are not the only species in the galaxy. We can also look forward to finding out about Cally and her telepathic powers.
No sooner than she is taken on board the Liberator, Cally tries to sabotage the ship. It runs off course out of control straight into an enormous web. The Web sees a number of interesting ideas that don’t quite come off. Part of this is due to a very poorly created creature called Saymon. It’s an actor’s head stuck on a very silly looking body that looks like a reject from an Action Man™ factory. Because of this, you can never really take seriously any scenes it’s in. This is a shame, because some of the ideas in the episode were way ahead of their time and included the banning of genetic engineering. It also had some very striking moments, such as the shot of the wrecked lab and the two disturbingly realistic charred skeletons, which were quite graphic for the time slot it was shown in. What else does the episode give us? We see the crew working together for the first time. We get the strange situation of Avon saving Blake’s life, although neither of them knows why!
The next episode, Seek-Locate-Destroy, was to introduce two new semi-regulars to the show, Supreme Commander Servalan and Space Commander Travis. Jacqueline Pearce was chosen as Servalan. Nation originally intended it to be a male character; he changed his mind because he thought it would be more powerful if played by a woman. Pearce was not the only one considered for the part, Ingrid Pitt was also short-listed. The part of Travis went to Stephen Greif, who was a friend of Paul Darrow. They met at the BBC while Greif was recording Citizen Smith. Darrow told him he should go for the part of Travis; he did and got it. However, Grief was only to play Travis for the first season; he left and was replaced by Brian Croucher for season two. This episode also saw the aborted attempt to bring an identifiable robot to Blake’s 7, as Nation had done with Doctor Who and the Daleks. The Federation Security Robot turned out to be very difficult to operate and film and so was only seen one more time in Project Avalon. This was also the robot that was used at one of the publicity shoots with Sally Knyvette and Jan Chappell to promote the series.
By this time, both Jan Chappell and Sally Knyvette were voicing annoyance over the way their characters were developing (or lack thereof), and so Nation and Boucher set about redefining them.
Mission to Destiny, whilst generally being seen as an average episode by fans was, in fact, Terry Nation’s favourite of the first season. It was a kind of Avon does Miss Marple affair. The crew of the Liberator find a ship adrift in space; the captain has been murdered and the rest of the crew are unconscious. Avon is left to solve the mystery while Blake dashes off on a mission of mercy.
Duel was an interesting attempt at the classic hunter and the hunted scenario. Blake with Jenna, and Travis with his mutoid are taken to a planet by two aliens and made to fight one another. We find out more about the rather nasty eating habits of mutoids; it turns out they need blood to survive. This episode was Stephen Greif’s favourite.
The next episode, Project Avalon, was the first to be altered to take into account Sally Knyvette’s feelings about her character. Nation re-wrote it so that Jenna accompanied Blake down to the planet instead of Cally. This episode also saw the last appearance of the Federation Security Robot. The shooting schedules were very tight for the whole of the first season and there just was not enough time to deal with an unruly robot.
Breakdown - this episode kind of backfired. It was originally an attempt to flesh out the character of Gan, but ironically he has less to do than usual, as he spends most of the episode unconscious!
It was at about this point in the production of the first season that the filming schedules got completely out of hand. By January 1978, the main cast were working on four episodes simultaneously with all four directors. In February, Douglas Camfield was offered other TV work and decided to forgo directing what would have been his second episode of Blake’s 7.
Terry Nation delivered the script of Bounty in draft form only. This was due in part to him spending time finalising the two-part cliff-hanger that was to end the season. Director Pennant Roberts and script editor Chris Boucher were left to fill in the gaps in Nation’s draft and turn it into a full episode. Part of this process included creating a daughter for Sarkoff, named Tyce, who was played by Carinthia West.
In Deliverance we begin to see how far Servalan is willing to go to get what she wants. She thinks nothing of blowing people up in order to get her hands on Orac, and she wants Orac so badly because it will help satisfy her greed for power.
Orac is the final episode of the first season, and what a belter! We find the most powerful computer ever created and learn that the Liberator will certainly be destroyed in the near future. Nation is back on form giving us exactly what we had at the beginning of the series, which is the need to know what will happen next. This episode has painful memories for Steven Greif - quite literally, because he had broken his Achilles tendon just before filming. This required another script rewrite so that Travis was only seen from certain angles. Also in this episode we get to finally see Orac the all-powerful. All powerful? It looks like a hi-tech tea chest, but then that was the point, it was meant to look like that. It was, after all, supposed to be a prototype computer that’s main function involved talking to other computers and processing information. All you would need would be a box with some bits in it - no legs, arms, heads etc - these would just be superfluous. The other point to note about this episode was the ridiculously short post-production time available before broadcast. It finished recording in TC6 on Wednesday 15th March. The episode was edited on Friday 17th and Saturday 18th. Music was recorded on Thursday 24th with dubbing done the following day. The episode was finally broadcast on Monday 27th March!
By now, planning for season two was well underway. It was also apparent that the audience would soon get bored with Blake and crew if they were always getting away unscathed, whether their mission was successful or not. David Maloney and Chris Boucher also had to take into account the feelings of some of the cast and crew about how the first season had gone. Sally Knyvette and Jan Chappell were still disappointed with their character development, as well as some of the production values that they were forced to contend with. David Jackson was concerned that Gan still did not have enough narrative.
With all of the above in mind, David Maloney and Chris Boucher took the decision to kill off one of the Liberator crew in season two. They were also to alter substantially the rehearsal and shooting schedules for season two in order to make the production process less of a strain on everyone.
Scripting for season two was also to rely less heavily on Terry Nation and start to introduce some new writers to Blake’s 7. The other change in season two was that there would be a more structured approach to the season. There would be a continuing story thread, one that would ultimately culminate in Blake and the crew finding Star One, the Federation’s central computer complex.
As far as production staff went for season two, there was a little reshuffle in the visual effects department when Ian Scoones was replaced with Mat Irvine, who was then joined by assistants Peter Pegrum and Andy Lazell. Meanwhile, in front of the cameras, Stephen Greif decided to decline the BBC’s offer to play Travis in season two. The two main reasons for this were that he thought that Travis’ character had come about as far as it was going to, and that he had been offered film work that would have clashed with the shooting of season two. It was decided to keep the character of Travis and recast him; the actor finally chosen was Brian Croucher. It was also decided to keep Orac as a regular, so Peter Tuddenham was now asked to do the voice of Oracas well as Zen and other sundry computers and announcements throughout the series run. Peter Tuddenham liked to record Orac’s lines in advance, whilst he preferred to do Zen live in the studio.
By Monday 19th June, the first audience research reports were in and included in the results were the audiences’ rating of each character. Avon came top with Blake just behind. However, as with every popularity competition, someone had to come last and that someone was Gan. It was probably due to these results that the character of Gan was chosen as the one to be killed off in season two.
Monday 31st July saw the start of filming for season two for the episode Redemption.
Redemption saw the outcome of the season one cliff-hanger. It also explains the origins of the Liberator and tell us a bit about who built it. Orac comes into his own, saving the day by blowing up the Liberator’s sister ship the DSV1, thereby fulfilling his prophesy of a Liberator type ship being destroyed.
Shadow shows us that it is not just alien telepath Cally who can be taken over by alien intelligences, but also Orac. This episode does with Orac what Redemption did with the Liberator; it tells the audience not to have too much faith in the seemingly superior technology that Blake and his crew possess, as it is not as invulnerable as it first appears.
Chris Boucher wrote the next episode, Weapon, which has a number of excellent ideas and characters. The prime examples are the Clonemasters and the psycho strategists. It is a great shame that these ideas were not expanded upon in later episodes, although they have been exploited to great effect in some fan fiction that has been written since.
Horizon - nice little story this. It shows that our heroes are as human as the rest of us, because they are suffering from fatigue after all their run-ins with the Federation. Not only that, but we see Blake succeeding in what he set out to do in season one, and that is release people from the tyranny of the Federation. It leaves you with a feel good factor that will be ripped out from under you in the next episode.
Not until the very last episode of season four will the audience get such an emotional upset as they do from Pressure Point. This landmark episode is famous for two things: the first is Servalan and Travis getting the better of Blake by fooling him into thinking he had found the Federation’s central computer complex, but mainly for the killing off of one of the Liberator crew, Gan. David Jackson’s character had some poignant words for Blake as he is crushed under the collapsing concrete, telling his companion to leave him, as he is not worth dying for. The audience is left thinking ‘hang on, this is not how it ends, they always say that but get rescued, don’t they?’ Well, no, not in this case. Yet again, Terry Nation has pulled the unexpected out of the bag and made you sit up and take notice. It is unfortunate that even with David Maloney’s valiant attempts to make the recording schedules less rushed, Gan’s death scene had to be filmed with only about five minutes of studio time remaining.
In Trial we see Servalan turn on Travis and put him on trial for his life. Meanwhile, Blake and crew have to come to terms with the death of Gan, for which Blake directly blames himself.
Robert Holmes, by now a freelance writer, was commissioned to write Killer. It was the first of two episodes he was to write for season two, the second being the classic episode Gambit.
The initial location filming for Hostage was marred after Duncan Lamont, who was playing the part of Ushton was taken ill. Sad to say, shortly afterwards Duncan Lamont passed away. This left a problem, should the character be recast or should the episode be abandoned altogether? The decision was taken to recast the character of Ushton with actor John Abineri and refilm Ushton’s sequences.
Countdown is another script from Terry Nation. In this episode we find out some very interesting information, not only about the Federation computer complex but also about Avon’s past. In the original script, the cyber-surgeon was called Doc Holliday, which changed to Doc Holli and in the final script it became Docholli.
In Voice from the Past the character of Governor Le Grand was originally supposed to be male.
The episode Gambit was the second script from Robert Holmes; it was also the script that suffered from the heaviest editing from original draft to final screen version. Some of this was due to the rather adult nature of some of the conversations between Jenna and Cally, who had infiltrated Freedom City in the guise of two ladies of the night.
The Keeper places the final piece in the puzzle for Blake by giving him the precise location of Star One. This story was not the original one that had been planned, which was to have been the first of a two-part story penned by Terry Nation in which both Jenna and Vila would have been killed off. Because of other commitments, Terry Nation was not able to deliver and so Allan Prior was commissioned to write something original instead.
Star One was the climactic episode of season two, this time written by Chris Boucher and not Terry Nation. In this episode we see Travis meet his end. It had been generally decided that the character of Travis had gone as far as he could and so he was killed off. This was also the last episode in which we would see Jenna and Blake as regulars. The reason Sally Knyvette chose not to renew her contract was because she was still not happy with the development of her character and she also wanted more time to devote to the study of her masters degree. She never returned to the series. Gareth Thomas had been offered a contract with the Royal Shakespeare Company, which he wanted to take. However, Gareth was not to leave the show entirely; he did return twice more to play Blake.
Yet more changes were to be made to the format of Blake’s 7 before its third season was to go into production. The explanation for these will be in the second part of this article.