Wednesday, September 10, 2008

"Blake's 7" & the anti-Anti-Hero

"I have never understood why it should be necessary to become
irrational in order to prove that you care, or indeed why it should be
necessary to prove it at all."

Blake's 7, which ran on BBC1 from 1978 to 1981, was a groundbreaking science fiction show noted for stepping outside the normal narrative bounds of a television serial. The story of Blake, a political dissident, and his crew of ex-criminals on board a stolen alien ship, the Liberator, was sold to the network by Doctor Who writer and Dalek creator Terry Nation as "The Dirty Dozen" in space. The eponymous and stereotypical hero Roj Blake leaves the show half way through its run. Several of Blake's crew are killed off during the series. The character Servalan, played by Jacqueline Pearce, a glamorous dominatrix who rises to the rank of Supreme Commander and President of the Terran Foundation, literally steals the show (her character had been meant to appear in only one episode) becoming one of the best loved of all science fiction villains. And, significantly, the show is known for the character of Kerr Avon, played and developed by Paul Darrow, a computer expert and apparent lone wolf who comes to lead the Liberator's crew after Blake leaves the show.

Blake's 7 has been described as dark, cynical, amoral, and in effect, the anti-Star Trek. This reputation results in part from the over-the-top portrayal of Servalan by Jacqueline Pearce and in part from the death of members of the crew and many of the people whom they love and with whom they come in contact. But the main reason for this anti-heroic evaluation of the show lies in the rise of Kerr Avon, the brains of Blake's outfit, whom he replaces as the leader of the Liberator's crew in the third season. One reviewer says of Avon that "even though he is callous, and apparently without morals, he is still likable."

From the web:

"There's very few men that I would admit to loving as a heterosexual man. But I love Paul Darrow. I love this guy."
-blackshogun77

"Avon is one of the few characters from TV sci-fi that actually really suggests what a person from a technological future might be like."
-thregar


What are these morals which Avon supposedly lacks? Darrow explains that in order for one to have such an adventure show as Blake's 7, one has to have a "heroic" main character – one who is willing and even eager to put him self at risk to save others, whether from the evil oppressor, or, in the case of that oppressor, from himself. Being originally the second in command, the character of Avon was free to step outside that mold, serving as a check and a foil on Blake's willingness to sacrifice himself and the crew any time anyone needs help. In the episode Mission to Destiny, the Liberator's crew stumble upon a ship stopped dead in space, its crew, on a mission to save a planet from a plague, having been drugged and one of the crewmen murdered. Blake offers to ferry their vital cargo to the homeworld to stop the plague while volunteering to leave Avon behind to effect repairs. Avon quips that he doesn't care if the plague wipes out the planet – he's interested in solving the murder mystery as an intellectual challenge. In the episode The Keeper, Avon comes upon and destroys the ship of a Federation agent who has sworn to kill Blake and his crew. Blowing up the spacecraft with its crew unawares, he is criticized by a shipmate as having taken the easy way – to which he rationally asks, should he have given them a sporting chance? Every episode features this conflict between Avon and the rest of the crew, with him urging prudence and ruthlessness while they engage in na├»ve "chivalrous" acts.

Avon's long term goal is security from the pursuing agents of the malevolent Terran Federation. He tells Blake that the price of his cooperation is ultimate possession of the Liberator – the means to his security – once Blake's central mission to destroy the Federation's control center Star One has been accomplished. Avon is not driven by whim, self-sacrifice, fear or a desire to destroy. He values his own life and safety, and tries to act as much as possible on his own terms. He is not immoral. His actions are principled and value based – his principles and his values are simply not those of the crusading Blake and his followers.

Avon's self interested motivation does not lead to the dissolution of the story once Blake leaves the crew. Rather, instead of the writers having the convenience of a "hero" who actively seeks danger, they have a protagonist whom they have to put in dangerous situations to see how he will escape. This move from a fantasy type conflict where the hero seeks danger to a realistic conflict where the hero has to face a danger that finds him leads to better writing, not worse. Blake's leaving the show is the best thing that happens to it, moving it from a fairy tale of knights on quests to an adult drama with conflict between a self-aware hero and an enemy that would hound him until he is dead.

Much of the last two seasons revolves around the interactions between Servalan and Avon. Servalan is bright and ruthless. She pursues power as a means to control a universe she ultimately fears. She attempts to make alliance with and to seduce Avon, playing the femmefatale to a tee. But she is damaged goods, and Avon knows it. He does see her in some ways as his equal, and this allows the writers to maintain a witty sexual tension that gives the show suspense and zest. But, in the episode Orac, when offered the chance of alliance with the temptation of a kiss, he embracesServalan only to grab her by the neck and throw her to the ground saying "Partnership? I'd be dead within a weak!"

Paul Darrow is an unusual thing in entertainment, an actor who not only thinks he has better ideas than a shows writers, but one who actually does. Darrow had been involved, after three decades, with a plan to reprise the show with himself as the only returning character. It is unfortunate that due to creative differences this fell threw. Luckily, Darrow speaks at length on the show in this recent three-part interview, available onYouTube:



Here is a compilation of Avon's finest moments:



A full list of episodes is available at Wikipedia. Most of the episodes are available in five installments of ten minutes each at YouTube.

This essay was originally posted at Radicals for Happiness

2 comments:

Joe Maurone said...

Hi, Ted, thanks for sharing your article with us!

Just curious, as I'm not so familiar with British sci-fi, but the setting of Blake's 7 sounds similar to Firefly. Was Firefly based somewhat on Blake's 7?

I'm glad you introduced the concept of the "anti-hero" to the forum. It's an interest of mine based on my interest in the Trickster archetype and Nietzsche's "transvaluation of values." I wonder if the term "anti-hero" is a misnomer when applied to some of these characters, who really are heroes, but challenge "conventional" morality.

Thanks again!

Ted Keer said...

I have not watched Firefly (I could never see it straight from the beginning) so I can't say. But watch the excellent interview with Paul Darrow. When asked about a reprise of Blake's 7, he says it's already been done - and mentions Firelfly.

I am a huge fan of Farscape, and its similarity to Blake's 7 is quite obvious.