Blake's 7 Monthly Issues 1-5 (plus Summer Special)
With only the first three or four issues being published when the series was actually on air, Marvel's original Blake's 7 monthly wasn't produced at the most fortuitous of times. It doesn't help matters that the obviously limited photographic resources also stretched mainly to the unpopular fourth season, letters pages frequently asking for information on the original crew. Within two years, the magazine would draw to a close after 23 issues (plus two specials).
I've debated how best to review them here. Obviously lumping them all together wouldn't really do justice to them, or warrant the toll they took on my bank balance through Ebay. Runs of five? Issues 1-11? In the end I settled on coverage that aligned with what I saw as the three main phases of the Magazine: Vila's Gags, Paul Darrow Writes and The Wilderness Years. Vila's Gags covers the first five issues and the summer special, a period when the magazine seemed to struggle to find its core audience. Don't get me wrong - the magazine never became particularly any good (I wasted my cash on Ebay so you don't have to), but when it began it was more infantile than ever.
Vila's Gags is a prime example. For a page each issue, readers would be invited to send in their "space/sci-fi gags" and have them turned into an illustration as well as winning £2. Such side-splitting hilarity was stopped after issue three, ("Vila's Gags is no longer with us - purely as a result of what you told us." - Editor, Issue 4) though the entries for issues 2 and 3 did get reproduced in the Summer Special. This was a magazine that predicted films might be a "floperoo", had an iron-on transfer as a free gift in the first issue, and ran articles with such titles as "Zap! Kam! Poaw! A Sci-Fi Punch Up!"
Suprisingly going against the grain of such childish filler was the comic strip. Normally I tolerate comic strips in magazines at best, largely because they seem out of place. Another problem is that while I have nothing against the medium, TV spin-offs are usually appalling. Thankfully, the one in the monthly isn't half bad, and certainly not worthy of the blunt criticism it repeatedly took in the letters pages. (Incidentally, the letters page was unimaginatively titled "Blake's 7 Points of View"). While it's true that the illustrations of the Scorpio crew could charitably be described as "interpretations" rather than likenesses, they were all well drawn by Ian Williams and had more ambition than might be remembered. Every one here features a space battle with Scorpio and an enemy ship, but they actually showed an Avon even more ruthless than he was in season four. Mission of Mercy (10pp) is, like the first issue as a whole, the worst of the bunch. The crew answers a distress signal only to find a destructive robot inside. ("By the stars that Robotoid's a fearsome creature!"). Things pick up for issue two with the best of this selection, Autona… Planet of Lies! (like the rest of the selection, 8 pages). While a relatively straightforward android replica plot, it does score points by having a randy Vila after women, its plot hinging on alcohol and the lead villain an in-jokey "Wogan". Renegade featured Avon escaping Servalan by teleporting a wanted renegade aboard her ship… except the teleporter hasn't been fixed, and the transmission kills him. Avon, unperturbed, blames it on Tarrant for not fixing it on time. Battle Cruiser seems to extend too far out of the remit, showing Avon ready to blow Soolin and Vila to atoms without compunction. Interception sees Avon again the central figure, this time stealing a device that can place objects in another dimension. Never referred to again in the strip, he uses it here to cold-bloodedly banish some minor enemies. Oddly, despite the increased page count of 12 extra pages, the Summer Special didn't feature any strip material.
Sadly, the same faint praise cannot be extended towards the text stories, which are crammed full of as many pulp literary clichés as you can find. The Avoncentric stories give us ships being blown to smithereens in the inky blackness of space, and people preparing to meet their maker. They're all pretty much of a muchness, though issue three's Vila's Big Score (5pp) is better than average. Credit Transfer (4pp) features in the first issue, and seems to have its tagline of "a moment of boredom turns into exciting adventure!" the wrong way round. Issue two has Queen of the Bankalls (5pp) which is only one letter out as an accurate description; and issue four contains Loop of Death (7pp) which is again slightly better than the norm. Issue five's Blood On His Hands (6pp) is pretty feeble, while worst of the lot is the Summer Special's Mind Over Matter (7pp). Intricate discussion of these stories is not really merited, but it should be noted that this last story features Tarrant asking Avon "What's the hurry? Your pants on fire or something?" Quite.
Actually, the Summer Special is the worst of the lot, proving to be not very special at all. Half an inch taller than the normal issue, with 8 extra pages and a 10 pence increase to 55p, it still manages to contain far less. Nominally it's a "Pictorial Review", though as this is a black and white magazine printed on toilet paper then perhaps it's not the best medium to showcase them. Like the regular issue five, it also suffers from bad printing, meaning that whole faces get obscured in a mud of black ink. For completeness' sake I also ought to mention the A3 colour posters that featured in the middle of each issue. This batch spotlighted Avon, Vila, Tarrant, Servalan, Dayna and, in the Special, the whole Scorpio crew. Full colour, these are actually quite nice, though the photos used of Tarrant and the Scorpio are both out of focus, not to mention the red eye on Vila. To accompany these posters in the regular issues are interviews with the related stars. It's this sort of thing that elevates the monthly to a standard rating. For while they're not exactly in-depth, these reasonably lengthy chats with the leads of the series stand out from the rest of the issues which are pitched towards the young market. There's also chats with some of the technical crew (including Chris Boucher), though pick of them has to be Jacqueline Pearce's extremely candid talk which reveals she played Servalan off the back of a broken heart.
Yet the "kid's comic" allegations keep coming to mind, with such banal filler as "Ask Orac" clogging up the pages. How readers had managed to write in and ask him anything before the first issue was even published in beyond me, but then Orac is said to see future possibilities, so anything's possible. Even more painful were the first two issues featuring an additional text story that turns into a puzzle for the reader to solve! Such Whizzer and Chips style antics give us the single page literary pinnacles of Prisoners of Carpaxia and A Fracture In Time.
I feel that this overview's gone on a little too long for what it is, but then this is The Anorak's Guide I guess. Ultimately, while my heart sank when I first saw these issues, there is some material in there that's worth a quick read. While the monthly never became great, it did adapt quickly. And while Vila's Gags was removed after the third issue, I still count four and five in the same mentality as they're still written for juveniles. Issue five carried an ad that promised a look back to the entire series ("You asked for it… next month it will happen!") and the following issue saw the upturn of the magazine with Paul Darrow becoming a regular columnist. A shaky first five months for the monthly, but it was about to take a necessary step up…