The Way Back

Written by:
Terry Nation
Directed by: Michael E. Briant
Episode Length: 49.04
Original UK Transmission Date: 2/1/1978
Original UK Ratings: 7.4m
Original UK Chart Position: 72

DVD Availability: Try or Amazon

Starring: Gareth Thomas (Blake).

Guest-Starring: Sally Knyvette (Jenna), Michael Keating (Vila), Robert Beatty (Bran Foster), Robert James (Glynd), Jeremy Wilkin (Tarrant), Michael Halsey (Varon), Pippa Steel (Maja), Gillian Bailey (Ravella), Alan Butler (Richie), Margaret John (Arbiter), Peter Williams (Dr. Havant), Susan Field (Alta Morag), Rodney Figaro (Clerk of Court), Nigel Lambert (Computer Operator) and Garry McDermott (Guard).

Crew: Victor Mallett (Production Assistant), Sheelagh Rees (Production Unit Manager), Terry Nation (Series Deviser), Ken Willicombe (Film Cameraman), Bill Meekums (Film Recordist), M.A.C. Adams (Film Editor), Bob Blagden (Graphics Designer), Brian Clemett (Studio Lighting), Clive Gifford (Studio Sound), Richard Yeoman-Clark (Special Sound), Barbara Lane (Costume Designer), Eileen Marr/Marianne Ford (Make Up Artists), Ian Scoones (Visual Effects Designer), Dudley Simpson (Music), Chris Boucher (Script Editor), Martin Collins (Designer) and David Maloney (Producer).

Although strictly speaking stars of the show, Michael Keating and Sally Knyvette’s involvement in this episode amount to introductory cameos that last for less than five minutes of screentime.

A novelisation based on the first four episodes was written by Trevor Hoyle and released as “Blake’s 7”.

Tarrant is a particular favourite name for Terry Nation. Not only did he use it in other SF scripts (Joy Harrison plays a character with the name in Doctor Who’s Death to the Daleks) but also in Blake’s 7, too. Note the extreme similarity between the security traitor played by Jeremy Wilkin (Dev Tarrant) and the regular character Nation created for season three (Del Tarrant).

The use of characters’ names in the series is also curious. All of the male characters call each other by their surnames. (While calling him Blake may sound cool, his name is actually Roj; and even when dying Olag Gan is still referred to as Gan, never his first name). Yet the female characters are always referred to by their first names. Only exception to this rule is Vila Restal, who is always referred to as Vila. Is this an attempt by the series to make us see Vila as a more feminine character than the others? Or am I just reading into a coincidence? Hey, this is the Anorak’s Guide after all…

Story: Roj Blake learns from resistance members that he was the leader of a resistance group against the Federation administration. All food and drink is treated with suppressants, water has been recycled “a thousands times” and the administration keep the populace in a state of drug-induced tranquillity. As a result, Blake has gone without food and drink for thirty hours, and ventures outside - a forbidden area - with the resistance.
With his memories still hazy, they inform him that he was captured, placed into intensive therapy and his mind was erased, with new memories planted. Blake appealed to everyone to support the administration and said he’d been misguided. The Federation “allowed” his captured followers to emigrate to the outer worlds, where they were executed on arrival.
Blake has a brother and sister who settled on Zeton Five, one of the outer planets, and gets Del Richie Viz tapes off them “a couple of times a year”. However, one of the resistance members informs him that he was on Zeton Five “a few months ago” and that his brother and sister were executed over four years ago, just after Blake’s trial - the tapes he has been receiving are fakes.
Blake returns to the colony, where a traitor, Dev Tarrant, has arranged for him to be captured and placed on trial. Charged with fabricated crimes, “all involving children”, he is given a life sentence on the penal colony of Cygnus Alpha, under the crimes’ “category nine” rating. However, when his defence counsel detect inconsistencies in the evidence, they start to believe Blake has been framed, and they set about proving his innocence. However, they are killed by Dev Tarrant, and Blake is shipped off on route to Cygnus Alpha, with the words, “I’m coming back.”

Blake: Several of the crimes Blake is framed with can be seen, and include: 4/ML582/MIN Incite Corrupt Acts; 5/ML582/MIN Corrupt Acts; 6/CR326/PER Kidnapping; 7 CR193/PER Assault; 8 CR193/PER Intent To Injure; 9 CR193/PER Cause Actual Injury; 10 CR333/SEC Resist Arrest; 11 ML100/DEV Moral Deviation.

Vila/Jenna: Blake meets Vila Restal and Jenna Stannis (though Jenna’s surname isn’t revealed until the following episode) in a transit cell awaiting deportation to Cygnus Alpha. Vila is a compulsive thief, while Jenna is a smuggler who has been trading round the near worlds.

“Reality is a dangerous concept.”

The Way Back is, quite simply, my favourite episode of Blake’s 7. That’s not to say that the fifty-one episodes that followed were a let-down, or that I don’t enjoy the repartee and back-biting that characterise the other stories, but nothing matched The Way Back’s grittiness and sense of subversion.

This isn’t just subversive in the way it casts doubt over political situations - it’s also subversive in SF terms, too. For while the series is often described - sometimes by the stars themselves - as “bargain basement Star Trek” it actually perverts Trek’s message by having the galaxy-spanning Federation presented as fascist conquerors. Particularly notable is that the insignia of Trek’s Federation is reproduced here, except turned to the far right. With its spy cameras, mental control and paranoid conspiracies this is even Prisoneresque at times. (Blake, like No.6, even runs like a girl). Is this really the same Terry Nation who once gave us “I’m qualified in space medicine”?

Yet while the adult feel of Blake’s 7 became gradually watered down, here it’s out in full force. What other prime-time family series would have dared have the hero framed as a child molester? And in the current climate, would such a programme be made?

It’s still pretty cheap, like most of Blake. The titles are vaguely tacky stop motion images of cameras combined with a lacklustre cartoon, and this is the sort of show where off-camera crashes can be heard almost as often as you can see boom mike shadows. (In particular, listen out for 17’54 minutes in, anorak fans!) The location filming, particularly the holocaust-riffing massacre, works extremely well, and it is nice to see Michael Keating, if only for fleeting glimpses. Jenna’s flirting with Blake is perhaps a little overdone, but generally her and Vila’s introduction is successful. Acting-wise, only Sally Field really disappoints, with Gareth Thomas a superb, if unlikely lead.

If this was a one-off play then I’m sure it would still be highly regarded. Absolutely first-class science fiction television.