Your mission, Claire, should you choose to accept it is to find a way to tie your favourite science-fiction TV series Blake’s 7, to this season of Hallowe’en horror. This message will self-destruct in five, four, three…
Initially, I thought this literally was mission impossible, as Blake’s 7 is such an archetypal ‘hard SF’ show. It has alien species, spaceships, computers, teleportation, and all the other trappings of conventional science fiction. Yet as soon as I enlisted Zen’s help and began to rummage around in my dusty memory banks, I realised there are plenty of elements of horror in Blake’s 7, from jump scares to disease, gore, torture and even supernatural elements like possession.
Here, then, is half a witch’s coven (well, OK, 7) of some of the best Blake’s 7 episodes with different elements of horror. Only one thing left to say – beware of the spoilers!
The Way Back (Series 1 episode 1)
What can be more chilling than the prospect of being brainwashed and having false memories implanted? This is the fate that meets Roj Blake, the former resistance leader reprogrammed by the Federation to become a model citizen. Blake begins to recover his memories of the past, and is horrified to discover he’s living a lie, and that his brother and sister are actually dead, despite still hearing from them regularly. (Sadly, fake news is still going strong in the 28th century…) The Federation then decide to do something jaw-droppingly awful by the standards of even the most sadistic character in a horror film. They implant false memories of paedophilia into three children, who testify against Blake. This leads to his being sentenced to life on prison planet Cygnus Alpha. (I’m not sure a writer would even attempt this storyline in our post #MeToo society, so shocking are the implications. If anyone were to do it it’s probably Charlie Brooker.) The Federation realises it is not enough to kill Blake – he will simply become a martyr; they have to destroy his reputation. Terry Nation, creator of the series and writer of this episode, really knows how to pile on the agony – just when we think that justice and right will prevail, the treacherous Federation once again triumphs at the end. They kill Blake’s courageous legal defenders, Varon and Maja. It is telling that the torture of the brainwashing treatment Blake suffers in this episode reappears as part of the opening credits for the first two series, reminding us of the darkness at the heart of the Federation. Don’t have nightmares, kids! But if you do, just drink this nice sedative drink and the Federation will make all your worries go away…
Timesquad (Series 1 episode 4)
Cards on the table here. I am a wuss. A rabbit. A complete coward when it comes to scary things on TV/film. This next episode, I’m ashamed to say, gave me the absolute heebie-jeebies when I first saw it in 1978, aged 8 or 9. I suspect unless you, dear reader, are also an 8-year-old girl, it is unlikely to have the same effect on you; and laughter, rather than fear, may be your natural response. In this episode Blake and his new comrades Jenna, Avon, Gan and Vila, on board their new spaceship, Liberator, decide to take on board an alien vessel giving out a distress signal. This, perhaps unsurprisingly, proves to be a big mistake… One particular scene [at 25:30] which had me covering my eyes as a child, sees Jenna discover that the cryogenically frozen visitors have woken up. Surprise, surprise – they aren’t wanting to exchange Christmas cards any time soon… The classic (and flawed) horror trope of a disfigured appearance being shorthand for a threatening personality is very much on display here. Towards the end of the episode [around 37:00] Jenna gets another tense scene where she is left to explore the ship on her own, before confronting another of the aliens. There’s something particularly scary about the corridors on spaceships and the way you can’t see round the corners, which Doctor Who also used to exploit! (Here’s my idea for Dragon’s Den, how about putting one of those mirrors people use for reversing out of a driveway, at the end of these corridors? It will be a best-seller!) This episode also sees the introduction of Cally, who is pivotal to several of my choices – her telepathic gift being relevant to fantasy/horror as well as science fiction.
Killer (Series 2 episode 7)
There is something about a spaceship found drifting in space that should set alarm bells ringing, and cause all nearby vehicles to avoid it like the plague… (See what I did there?) Yes, the horror of biological warfare comes to the fore in a great episode from series 2. The Federation on the planet Fosforan have salvaged an ancient ship which Cally senses contains a hostile lifeform, so Blake teleports down to warn them. In a scene which made me hide behind a cushion when I first watched this, the 700 year old corpse of Wardin comes to life during his autopsy, to throttle the pathologist. (Someone warn Emilia Fox!) The corpse is the equivalent of Typhoid Mary, passing on the lethal virus Paratype 926, which makes its victims break out in horrific boils and blisters, before memory loss, fever and death. Here we don’t just see the Federation as a totalitarian regime but realise it is more complex than that, with individuals working for it who are themselves decent people, whose death we can mourn. With typical ruthlessness Avon suggests leaving Fosforan as a death trap for Servalan, but Blake takes the more humane approach of leaving a plague warning to avoid future fatalities. The knowledge that the virus is a genetically engineered disease designed by an alien race to keep humanity in its place, makes this a genuinely chilling episode.
Dawn of the Gods (Series 3 episode 4)
I have included this episode because although it is only marginally scary – probably the most frightening section being the bit where the crew go through a black hole and we see a weird close-up of Tarrant’s eye [at 11:52] – it does, unusually for Blake’s 7, explore supernatural themes. Having survived the black hole, the crew land the Liberator on an artificial world called Crandor, ruled by the Thaarn. This is a mad god exiled by the other gods, whom Cally learnt of as a child on Auron. The scenes where Cally is being wooed by the persuasive Thaarn show the vulnerability inherent in her telepathic powers. This unfortunately is undercut by the final reveal of the Thaarn as a tiny hyperintelligent bald dwarf, in a move reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz. I know this episode is strange and many people won’t like it, but I actually really enjoy some aspects of it, such as Zen’s built-in defence mechanism [at 39:45] which is so effective, you have to wonder why it’s not used more frequently.
Sarcophagus (Series 3 episode 9)
This is probably one of my least favourite episodes of Blake’s 7 but I feel it has to be included in any survey of the supernatural and horror elements of this show. Written by fantasy author Tanith Lee, this episode once again puts Cally’s telepathic powers at the forefront. As before, danger comes in the shape of a mysterious alien ship. The crew fail to learn from all the other times this has worked out badly, and Avon, Vila and Cally teleport onto the vessel. Arrival on the ship, which appears to be a tomb in space, sets off the self-destruct sequence and only Cally’s presence saves the three of them from being killed. Back on the Liberator she activates a strange egg-like device and allows herself to becomes possessed by the spirit of a long-dead alien queen. This is shown as a reaction to her grief at the loss of her people in the previous episode, the superlative Children of Auron. It is a toss-up whether the scariest part of this episode is Cally’s wig, Dayna’s singing, or Tarrant in a turban. Avon comes to the rescue (by kissing Cally, natch) and Cally’s loyalty to her fellow crewmates – or to Avon, at least – is reaffirmed.
Rescue (Series 4 episode 1)
This episode brings us into the arena of monsters and strange creatures. The first of these is a large snake-like creature that Vila and Dayna encounter at the foot of a steep ravine. They owe their lives to the intervention of the charming pilot and scrap metal merchant, Dorian, who I find has an uncanny resemblance to Martin Fry of ABC. (No? Just me?) Ah Dorian. Has anyone ever had a more apt name? Like Oscar Wilde’s character, Dorian is not the charming man he first seems to be… Back at Xenon base, [at 29:50] we see Dorian, looking haggard and decades older, struggle down a flight of stairs into a strange, misty, echoing cave where he speaks with an unseen creature. He promises to give the creature Avon and friends, for an unknown purpose, but we can guess it’s not going to be a trip to the seaside… Later in the episode, a much younger-looking Dorian explains his secret of youthfulness – no, not Botox. He is actually two hundred years old but the ‘gestalt’ creature in the underground cave has absorbed all his sins and vices, enabling him to stay young forever. Dorian’s piercing screams as his former friend, the creature, is killed by Avon would make an impressive ring-tone for any horror fan’s phone [at 47:54].
Headhunter (Series 4 episode 6)
If you only have time to watch one episode on this list, please let it be this one. Headhunter truly is the stuff of nightmares, and to this day I can’t watch it without needing a shot of valium to cope with the most nail-biting moments. The ‘big bad’ in this episode is a killer robot, who, like Frankenstein’s creature, has turned upon his scientist creator, Muller. Gruesomely, the robot has cut off Muller’s head and put it in place of its own, to disguise its true identity. (Perhaps it watched Face Off once too often…) When found out, the robot kills Muller’s girlfriend, and goes on the rampage, looking for the computer Orac, with whom he wishes to be united to create the perfect being. There follows an incredibly tense chase sequence, with Avon and the gang luring the robot into a trap, while the robot relentlessly follows them booming out ‘Where is Orac?’ [at 34:30 for example]. The robot’s pursuit is reminiscent of The Terminator, although I saw Headhunter many years before the latter. All of us, I would guess, have a primal fear of being chased, and of falling over during the chase, scrabbling to get back up, heart pounding… Where’s that valium?
There I will leave my all too brief survey of horror in Blake’s 7 – I’m sure I’ve left out some great examples in other episodes so please feel free to share your favourites in the comments below.