Blake’s 7: Origins, a new collection of seven premium hardback novelisations from Big Finish, is an impressive feat, adapting every episode of Blake’s 7’s first series into novel form.
Chris Farnell, author of the explosive Fermi’s Progress novellas, Knock, Knock Who’s There? The Doctor Who Joke Book, and more articles and interviews than you can shake a shakey-looking prop at, spoke to editor Peter Anghelides and writers Paul Cornell, James Goss, and Una McCormack about novelising a 1978 television show that is still terrifyingly relevant forty-five years later.
Blake’s 7 changed everything. If you’ve enjoyed Firefly, Farscape, Battlestar Galactica, Guardians of the Galaxy, and perhaps most of all, Andor, then you owe a debt to Terry Nation’s grim space opera. When Blake’s 7 first came out, it was into a world where TV spaceships were typically crewed by heroic, square-jawed pioneers of American hegemony. Meanwhile, at the cinema, we were seeing plucky underdogs heroically saving princesses and fighting the evil Empire in a starry-eyed remake of Vietnam where the U.S. could be the good guys.
Into this media universe, Blake’s 7 brought a band of miserable British fuck-ups forced to work together to fight not as plucky underdogs, but in an actual losing battle. A smuggler, an unscrupulous hacker, a cowardly thief, an absolute unit with a brain-controlling chip in his head, an alien telepath, and a computer who was a complete dick, all led by Blake, whose drive and certainty might have been admirable in a more heroic universe.
The show is, to modern eyes, frankly bizarre. On the one hand, it gives us the flawed protagonists, fraught interpersonal tensions, and morally grey, highly serialized storytelling that is the hallmark of modern television. On the other hand, it gives us wildly outdated gender roles, special effects that wouldn’t look out of place on The Mighty Boosh, and a grasp of the science and scale of space that sees words like ‘Galaxy’ used interchangeably with ‘Street’.
So when Big Finish decided to bring out a series of novelisations of Blake’s 7’s first series, it faced a choice. Did it try to update these stories, or faithfully recreate them as they might have been adapted in 1978?
For Paul Cornell, the author of the novel that encompasses Blake’s 7’s pilot, ‘The Way Back’, and its second episode, ‘Spacefall’, there was no choice at all.
‘Oh, I definitely wrote this as a book written now. I’ve got my sf head on, and, as you’ll see from various references I drop, I have a clear idea of how we’d get to this future from today, not from the 1970s,’ he says, pointing out that when the series aired, the most common vision of future tyranny was a Communist one.
While it is unmistakable Blake’s 7, it is a world where gaming and reality shows and illegally run, secret internets explicitly exist. There is also something distinctively post-Brexit about the dystopian dome city Blake starts out in, with classic ‘British humour’ letting people think they are speaking truth to power while actively upholding it. Meanwhile, additions such as art exhibits featuring glass cubes with starving dissidents inside feel like Iain M. Banks in one of his darker moods as much as anything from the TV series.
This is true across the Blake’s 7: Origins boxed set, which sees each of the first series episodes adapted by authors Paul Cornell, Marc Platt, Gary Russell, Jacqueline Rayner, Steve Cole, Una McCormack, and James Goss.
‘What I wanted to do was give a fresh take on the episodes working up some of the spaces, while still delivering what the reader would enjoy and recognise as familiar,’ says Una McCormack, the author of the novelisations of ‘Bounty’ and ‘Deliverance’. ‘I give a fair amount of space to some of the Federation troopers guarding Sarkoff, who should feel like a typical Bob Holmes or Chris Boucher double act. And I was able to spend some time back on Earth with Marryatt’s wife and children, whose fate isn’t tied up on screen. I’m hoping that the book feels like a mixture of old and new.’
Cornell also set himself the challenge of establishing some physics for Blake’s 7’s spaceflight.
‘In the TV version these are definitely sea-going ships in space, with concussion waves and battles seen up ahead while going faster than the speed of light,’ Cornell points out. ‘This is me seeing Blake’s 7, or at least these first two episodes made into one novel, as relevant to now, as proper SF, with a ton of new worldbuilding (or world reconciling, often) and a 2023 point of view. I’m utterly opposed to nostalgia, I think it’s the waiting room for death, and I wanted to show the strength of this material as a warning that still stands, not as a cosy heirloom.’
A Bigger Universe
This is a vision shared by the editor of the books, Peter Anghelides. Sometimes this meant cleaning up some lazy 1970s stereotypes in the scripts, such as the tendency to describe women as ‘the girl’. But it also meant not being restricted by the confines of a late 70s BBC budget.
‘I hope fans will recognise the stories from what they remember and love about Blake’s 7, and get fresh insights from a 21st-century perspective that still honours the original show,’ Anghelides says.
From the outset, Anghelides encouraged the authors to bring their own perspectives to the work.
‘It has to be fun for the authors, not just a chore regurgitating the TV episodes. I suggested (but didn’t insist) that it’s more compelling to have a point-of-view character in each scene/section, rather than the more distanced light-touch “omniscient third person” of some other novelisations,’ Anghelides recalls. ‘Restricted third person has bags of potential to reveal characters, with the additional fun of unreliable narrators or contradictory points of view, if that was useful.’
It also meant that Anghelides himself was in for some surprises as he saw these adaptations. He suggests that first-person narration might be too alienating and restrictive as a perspective, particularly as the nature of the original stories means no one character is in, or privy to the events of, every scene.
‘Nevertheless, James Goss’s novel does exploit first-person narration in a clever, amusing, and wholly unexpected fashion,’ Anghelides says.
As well as bringing a perhaps more modern perspective to the show, the world of the novelisations is also simply bigger, often literally.
‘Producer David Maloney joked that if a Blake’s 7 script said “They enter a huge room” he crossed that out and wrote “They enter a large room,” and if another script said “They enter a large room” he replaced it with “They enter a small room,’’ says Anghelides. ‘I told the authors not to feel constrained by the TV visuals, and to describe whatever they thought worked if they’d had the money in 1978.’
Even the original scripts the novels are based on speak to a much greater scope than a 1978 TV budget allowed for, however.
‘The absolute joy of Terry Nation’s draft scripts was that he refused – despite all his life experience – to damp down his imagination,’ says James Goss, who wrote the final novels, ‘Orac’ and ‘Redemption’. ‘He’s all about vast alien ruins and enormous artificial planets. He just can’t accept that he’s going to get a quarry and a power station. His mind sprawls with possibilities – a vast laboratory of living trees, a control room full of frozen, gawping figures staring into vast glowing pools. He’s always shooting for the moon, if not the stars beyond, and it’s quite something to try and honour that, while also ensuring that what occurs isn’t a million miles away from what we get on screen.’
From the outset, Anghelides didn’t constrain the writers around the descriptions of characters and set descriptions.
‘Those are easy enough to make consistent, where necessary, during the edit. I let them do their first drafts without being distracted up-front about tedious but essential things like nomenclature or typographical conventions for telepathy that were easy to handle later,’ he says. ‘I didn’t even tell them at the outset who the other writers were, because I wanted authors to be themselves and capture what they thought was the essence of their stories in the show.’
A More Complex Crew
But while the novels bring more visual scope to the Blake’s 7 universe, the real fireworks are still between the characters.
‘The strength of the original show was its plotting and characters – not least because it didn’t have a budget like the original Star Wars (which was brand new in UK cinemas during Blake’s 7 first broadcast),’ Anghelides tells us.
It was the characters that were McCormack’s priority in novelising her episodes. As before, the joy came not just in getting to play with what was portrayed on screen, but in getting to fill in and build on what wasn’t.
‘In many ways, I feel like I’ve been living on board Liberator with that crew for a very long time!’ she says. ‘What I particularly wanted to do was flesh out the relationship between Jenna and Cally. We don’t see anywhere near enough of that on screen, and some of what we do see is a pretty sexist take that Jenna would be instinctively hostile towards Cally. So I wanted to write back against that. Also, I like writing Vila, because he’s surely the person we’d all be in that situation.’
Of course, one of the biggest and trickiest characters to write is Blake himself. While at first glance he appears to be a pretty standard hero protagonist, like everyone in Blake’s 7 if you scratch the surface you will find a much more complex and morally grey character.
Cornell was given the difficult assignment of writing the beginning of his journey, taking him from a placid, brainwashed civilian into the dedicated leader of a resistance cell in the space of two stories.
‘Watching the first episode again, you can see Gareth Thomas trying to reconcile the contradictions in his initial character, and deciding that bold leader figure from moment one is probably the safest way to go, because his lines keep veering in different directions,’ Cornell says. ‘I’ve had the opportunity to get inside his head and make it all clear, and give him a proper character arc across the book.’
The big question, the one that Avon points a finger at throughout the first few series, is whether Blake, for all his traditionally heroic attributes, is actually the right person to lead the crew of the Liberator.
‘The thing I really learned from the scripts that my childhood self would have been terribly shocked by is that Blake is a TERRIBLE leader,’ Goss says. ‘Of course Avon should be in charge. Blake is constantly putting people in danger for no clear reward. It does make you wonder if Avon had been in charge earlier, if they might all have won?’
A Script of Two Halves
A lot of what makes Blake’s 7, its scripts, and the process of adapting them so compelling comes out of the tension between Blake’s 7’s creator, Terry Nation, and its script editor, Chris Boucher.
‘Boucher adds a ton of stuff, and clearly wants everything to be a lot more real and nuanced,’ Cornell says. ‘So I’ve rather added a third layer to what was already there. I do include just about every scene and line in the first two episodes, except one scene where everyone just repeated what they knew, the sort of thing that gets added at the last minute if it looks like a show is running under time. However, I’ve added a lot more around them, and given new context to almost everything.’
Goss adds, ‘What I found so interesting from the scripts was the difference between the first drafts and the Chris Boucher polish. Terry Nation often seems to forget, or be annoyed by, the fact that he has seven characters to serve. Boucher’s revisions ensure that everyone is looked after as best as possible. He’s also a great polisher of lines, tweaking and moving a good insult into a great one.’
Goss points to a line where Vila asks Avon for a cure for his headache, and Boucher changes ‘I’ll put it the top of my list’ to ‘Have you considered amputation?’
The adaptation process was a combination of finding which elements from old drafts of the scripts to bring out, as well as layering on new material and perspectives.
‘The original script for “Bounty” is different from what we see on screen in some interesting ways! It’s much more violent, for one thing; Blake is pretty ruthless at some points, and Sarkoff is a nastier piece of work,’ McCormack says. ‘The Amagons are more alien: I guess that hit budget limitations! There’s some nice scenes between Sarkoff and Tarvin that I was able to work in.’
From the start, everything was on the table for the authors, as Anghelides points out.
‘I briefed the authors that they could use all the scripts we had available – especially Terry Nation’s original drafts and the series briefing document, but also the subsequent rehearsal and filming and camera scripts. Gary Russell even used an effects design drawing as a reference!’ says Anghelides ‘Plus we all have the knowledge from repeatedly watching the final transmitted episodes. Unlike many novelisations, produced before a series or a movie is released, these were written with the benefit of four decades of hindsight!’
With the range of source materials available to the writers, creating the adaptations also became a kind of tour of the history of Blake’s 7’s origins.
‘Several of the draft scripts have aspects we could not use. For example, the original Liberator crew was seven humans plus Blake, and Cally wasn’t one of them,’ Anghelides says. ‘Blake had rescued another three men from captivity (Arco, Klein, and Selman) who then have roles to play in subsequent episodes. Alas for them, our novels leave them behind on the prison planet Cygnus Alpha, just as it happened on the telly.’
However, there are other elements in scenes or dialogue from Terry Nation’s draft scripts that have been used – such as a sequence that Una McCormack incorporated in which President Sarkoff and the Amagon Tarvin discuss motivations which adds a frisson to the finale of ‘Bounty’.
‘I saw no reason why the writers shouldn’t add new material of their own that provides backstory or side-story, so long as we didn’t get 5,000 words about Professor Ensor’s doomed teenage romance before he was inspired to create Orac, or wade through a detailed history of brain-limiter technology down the ages,’ Anghelides says.
McCormack jumped at the change to expand on some of the areas of her episodes, from female characters who were compelling, if underwritten, to the backgrounds of entire planets.
‘Two things attracted me to these episodes. First of all, there were a couple of interesting female characters that I thought could do with expansion. Tyce, of course, but also Meegat. We only really see her falling at Avon’s feet, with no real sense of her interior life. I thought that would be interesting to explore and make real,’ McCormack tells us. ‘The second thing that attracted me to these episodes was that both worlds – Lindor and Cephlon – were more or less blank spaces. So I was going to be free to do some expansion and world-building there, and in different ways. Lindor, presumably, is an advanced planet, whereas Cephlon is post-collapse. I particularly enjoyed thinking through what Meegat’s life must be like: who are the people she lives with, what keeps them together, how do they relate to the scavenger population outside their base, and so on.’
As Anghelides says, ‘The authors have each brought illuminating new insights and ideas, such as Jacqueline Rayner’s background for the Ortega crew, as well as tidying up some continuity inconsistencies between episodes.’
Indeed, as fans have pointed out for decades, there is plenty to tidy up.
‘It’s hard not to resist trying to nip and tuck and tidy after the event. For instance, the script of “Redemption” seeds the downfall of the Liberator’s creators much more clearly, so that was easy to follow,’ Goss says. ‘Where I did depart was in trying to solve things that annoyed me, but in a way that didn’t feel intrusive. Why is Ensor’s son also called Ensor? Why do people the Liberator crew meet briefly nobly sacrifice themselves?’
The only major restriction on the authors was that they were told not to reveal anything from future stories in their own novel – so Paul Cornell’s novel alludes to the effects of Gan having a limiter, but the limiter itself isn’t mentioned until it first appears in Marc Platt’s story, and the backstory about Gan’s partner isn’t revealed until Steve Cole’s book.
‘I also frowned on overt “throw-forward” things to future TV series, though we have some amusing hints and allusions that the cognoscenti will no doubt spot,’ Anghelides says.
But for all the filling in blanks and tying up loose ends the authors engaged in, perhaps what was most surprising was how much of the story of Blake’s 7 was baked in from the very beginning.
‘There’s a clash between the heroic, hopeful ending of these scripts and the eventual end of the series. But what I really, really enjoyed when looking at the scripts is discovering that Terry Nation was seeding it all. He really was a master of micro-aggression, and he never lets his characters forget an insult,’ Goss says. ‘It’s all building up nicely by the time you reach these episodes, and the fire is excellently stoked by Chris Boucher.’
The end result is a series of books that are undeniably Blake’s 7, the product of Terry Nation and Chris Boucher’s work all those years ago. But at the same time, it is a story for 2023. It is a story about oppression, and the different, not always obvious ways it can be wielded. It is a story about the ways people can convince themselves they are fighting power while only helping to provide it with a pretext – whether that’s the terrorists whose actions ‘provoke’ violent retaliation, or the supposedly liberal judge that gives the government a fig leaf of respectability.
‘I’m hugely proud of the end product,’ Cornell says. ‘I think this box set makes Season A crackle with new energy, and I’m delighted to have written a novelisation that’s really Blake’s 7 and really me and really sf at the same time.’
Goss agrees, ‘Oh, I absolutely loved doing this. I started rewatching just my episodes, and by the end of the following week I’d rewatched every episode. It’s just such an achievement.’ ∎
Chris Farnell is a freelance writer and the author of Fermi’s Progress, an anthology, a Doctor Who-themed joke book, and some supplementary RPG material. He likes constructing vast, world-encompassing meta-theories built on bits of throwaway dialogue in his favourite TV shows, and thinking far too deeply about the logic and mechanics of fictional time travel. You can find more of his nonsense at chrisfarnell.com.
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