Prolific and influential television writer Terry Nation is best remembered for two huge achievements. Firstly, in 1963, he dreamed up Doctor Who arch-villains the Daleks - an invention so iconic that they continue to grace our screen to this day. And secondly, 15 years later, Nation created BBC science fiction drama Blake's 7.
Inspired by the tales of Robin Hood, classic Western movies and war films like The Dirty Dozen, as well as real-life political conflicts, Nation devised the story of Roj Blake, a futuristic freedom fighter who is arrested and convicted on false charges. Deported from Earth, Blake escapes his captors and, with a rag-tag team of fellow dissidents and petty criminals, wages a war against the sinister Federation that rules the universe with an iron fist.
Blake's 7: Originally broadcast from January 2, 1978 to December 21, 1981
Cast as Blake, Welsh actor Gareth Thomas perhaps makes for a somewhat unlikely action hero, but so much of what worked perfectly in Blake's 7 was the result of subverting convention. It's a rather odd truth that, despite the show's title, the Blake character actually appears in just over half of the show's episodes. But for the two years that he led the series, Thomas made for a solid and compelling lead as the stoic thorn in the Federation's side.
Still, despite initially playing the lead, Thomas was always under threat of being overshadowed by co-star Paul Darrow, who played the brilliantly sly and cunning thief Kerr Avon. The most unwilling of political radicals, Avon would frequently rile Blake, challenging his authority with a never-ending stream of caustic barbs and thinly veiled insults.
But it's this writer's opinion that Blake's 7 always worked best when Blake and Avon fought side-by-side - neither is quite as effective without the other. In some ways, the two characters represent two extremes of human nature; Blake - self-sacrificing, unflinchingly noble - and Avon - self-serving, borderline narcissistic. When they're together, they're dynamite - the banter that results from their rivalry is fantastically entertaining.
Other characters who served alongside Blake and Avon, and so became part of the eponymous 'Seven', throughout the show's four-year run include glamorous space smuggler Jenna Stannis (Sally Knyvette), gentle giant Olag Gan (David Jackson), alien telepath Cally (Jan Chappell), weapons expert Dayna (Josette Simon), pilot Del Tarrant (Steven Pacey) and gunslinger Soolin (Glynis Barber).
But special mention must go to Michael Keating's Vila Restal - a genius when it comes to thievery, lock-picking and safe-cracking, but an incorrigible buffoon in practically every other way. A coward with a weakness for women and booze, Vila at times almost resembles Blackadder's Baldrick in space, albeit with sharper wits.
Despite his flaws, there's something about Keating's performance that makes the viewer love Vila. Twice during the show's second series, Terry Nation considered killing off the character, only to be dissuaded - Vila only survived series two finale 'Star One' because a recent viewer survey had seen him named the show's second most popular character.
But every hero needs a great villain, and Blake's 7 had a doozy. Going back to 'subverting convention', one of the best decisions Nation and company ever made was to avoid casting the Federation's supreme commander as some gruff, jack-booted male thug...
Instead, actress Jacqueline Pearce was cast as chief baddie Servalan, delivering a sensual, wonderfully heightened performance and creating one of sci-fi television's most truly memorable villains. Servalan was assisted, initially at least, by Travis - a ruthless Federation officer and sworn enemy of Blake who lost his left eye and arm in a previous skirmish with the rebel.
In the 1978 series, Stephen Greif is terrific as Travis - cold, cruel and the perfect nemesis for the noble Blake. It's a shame that Greif's film commitments necessitated a recast by the time series two rolled around - his replacement Brian Croucher's melodramatic, seething take on the Travis character is rather less successful.
When Blake's 7 is discussed, it's often lumped in with the Doctor Who of the same period - Tom Baker's final few years as the Time Lord. This comparison is completely understandable; the two shows at the time shared a similar visual style, as well as many crew members - most obviously Terry Nation, but also script editor Chris Boucher, director and producer David Maloney, musician Dudley Simpson, and more...
But the comparison is also rather inaccurate - in terms of tone, early Blake's 7 and late Tom Baker era Who couldn't be more different. While Blake's 7 may boast the hapless Vila and Avon's cutting remarks, it nevertheless lacks the lightness of touch that's such an important part of Doctor Who - and particularly the Doctor Who of that period.
Again, Nation's series subverted convention and made this grim atmosphere a virtue rather than an issue. Criminals, drugs and death were all rampant in Blake's 7, but perhaps the show's most shockingly dark moment comes in the first episode, in which Blake is falsely accused of child molestation. It's a strong stuff and certainly not the kind of thing you'd expect to see in late '70s Doctor Who.
That said, Blake's 7 is very much a show of two halves. As previously indicated, Gareth Thomas decided to leave the show after series two, leaving Paul Darrow's Avon to takes centre-stage. Also at this point, the show became increasingly camp and fans tend to be divided over which era of the show was more successful. Some lapped up the show's new-found theatricality - chiefly fuelled by Jacqueline Pearce's Servalan - while others yearned for a return to the gritty yarns of yesteryear.
The latter group got their wish with series finale 'Blake' - a tragic tale of misunderstanding. Finally locating the missing Blake on the formerly lawless world Gauda Prime, Avon and crew are reunited with their fearless leader. But a plot by Blake backfires and Avon soon suspects that his old friend has been turned by the Federation...
Avon shoots Blake dead - at the request of Gareth Thomas, who wanted out of the series for good - and moments later, a squad of Federation troops arrive and exterminate the rest of the freedom fighters. Only Avon is left standing - standing over Blake's body, a demented grin on his face, he raises his gun... cue the final credits.
Ironically, this was not intended to be the end for Blake's 7 - though Blake's demise was intended to stick, the 'deaths' of the other characters were supposed to function merely as a between-series cliffhanger....
Which characters survived and which actually perished was to be determined by which actors were willing to return for a fifth series. Alas, it was not to be - the BBC declined to pick the show up for another year. By pure accident, Blake's 7 gave us one of the most memorable TV endings of all time.
Since the grim events of 'Blake' aired on December 21, 1981 (hardly festive!), there have been numerous attempts to revive or remake Blake's 7. The BBC itself produced two radio plays in 1998 and 1999, while a 2006 audio reboot saw Scottish actor Derek Riddell cast as Blake, with Colin Salmon as the wily Avon. Most recently, Big Finish Productions has reunited the original cast for a new series of audio-books.
Perhaps Blake's 7 is ultimately best left untouched - the four original series are available to enjoy on DVD, from the stunning first episode through to the dark finale and every "MAX-imum Power!" in-between. The show was very much a product of its time, but, when all's said and done, it remains an unassailable cult classic.
Were you a Blake's 7 fan? Share your memories of Terry Nation's space opera below!