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Posts Tagged ‘Paul Darrow’

I’m not usually in the habit of doing requests on this blog, but when a plea/request came in for me to do something to mark the recent passing of Gareth Thomas, it seemed entirely reasonable. Thomas was best known, probably, for playing the title role in twenty-eight episodes of Blake’s 7 between 1978 and 1981. I know there’s been quite a bit of Trek content on the blog recently, but permit me one more reference for the time being: the closest thing to a British Star Trek ever made was Blake’s 7.

That said, of course, Trek remains a pop-culture colossus, while Blake has never been much more than a tiddler, comparatively, derided and mocked even while it was being broadcast. It remains a byword for cheap effects, dubious acting, and questionable design choices – to paraphrase the writer Gareth Roberts, not entirely unlike a version of I Claudius which has been rammed from behind by Footballers’ Wives.

If we’re talking about Thomas’ contribution to the series, it seems reasonable to choose a Blake-centric episode, and so I settled on Chris Boucher’s Trial, the sixth episode of the second season. This finds the show in change-of-gear/character study mode – in the previous episode, an ambitious attack on the Central Control complex of the evil Federation went badly pear-shaped, resulting in the demise of ship’s lummox Gan. Wracked with guilt and self-doubt, Blake decides to teleport down to an unnamed planet for a bit of soul-searching, while the rest of the crew of the somewhat-misnamed starship Liberator (it never really liberates anything, just blows things up – Detonator might be a better name) likewise have a chance to think about their situation.

It’s actually a rather long time before we get to all this, however, as the episode is also concerned with the court-martial of Blake’s arch-nemesis Space Commander Travis (these characters were created by Terry Nation, so every job title has ‘Space’ stuck in front of it just to reinforce that this is a sci-fi show we’re watching). This is Travis Mk 2, played by Brian Croucher, who is good at shouting but otherwise not a patch on Travis Mk 1. Complicated political intrigues are afoot as Supreme Commander Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce) wants Travis dead and silent, to keep her own culpability in allowing the Blake situation to get out of control from being revealed. (Just exactly what Travis is on trial for is a little confused, as the precise details differ in the various episodes it is mentioned.)

There is some interesting stuff here and a new perspective on Blake‘s universe, but it doesn’t really give Gareth Thomas a chance to shine as the star, mainly because he’s not in any of these scenes. Back on the Liberator, the crew are – as usual – squabbling, and – also as usual – Avon (Paul Darrow) is getting all the best lines, as a sort of utterly ruthless and self-serving analogue of Spock. Not for the first time, the crew are practically on the verge of flying off and leaving Blake to a sticky end, but decide to stick around – ‘is it that Blake has a genius for leadership, or merely that you have a genius for being led?’ ponders Avon, characteristically.

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However, even this stuff doesn’t give Gareth Thomas much to do in terms of star muscle-flexing, mainly because he’s down on the planet, in a BBC jungle (actually not a bad one). Here he meets a somewhat annoying native from the interpretive-dance school of alien civilisations, and to the palpable confusion of all concerned an actual piece of proper SF breaks out – there’s clearly something very odd about this planet, but Blake and the alien don’t share enough of the same terms of reference to be able to communicate about it (even though they both, inevitably, speak English).

Some to-ing and fro-ing between the three parallel plotlines ensues and while Travis seems destined to be the victim of a fit-up, the crew have worked out that the planet is a single giant organism, complete with vast oceans of spit, a concept striking and unexpected enough to make even the most jaded TV SF fan go ‘Yeucch, that’s disgusting.’ The spit-planet is infested with sentient parasites, one of which is the odd creature Blake has encountered, and does its best to devour and digest them all (the ground occasionally cracks open to reveal vast, slightly-suspect-looking fleshy chasms). Blake figures all this out but still looks odds-on to be digested himself until Avon does something clever with the teleporter and rescues him.

Meanwhile, back at the other plot, Travis has indeed been sentenced to death, but manages to escape and go on the run when the Liberator decides to bring the two storylines together by attacking the station where the trial is being held. The script seems entirely aware of the irony that the attack marking Blake’s return to the battle against the Federation mainly results in saving his arch-enemy, the man who actually killed Gan, it just doesn’t really do anything with the fact. It just sort of plops it in front of the audience and figuratively shrugs. Travis goes on the lam, Blake and the team have recovered their will to win, cue closing credits.

Now, the thing is that Gareth Thomas was an actor with both presence and technique – he’s notably good in a Sherlock Holmes episode with Jeremy Brett, and emerges with as much dignity as anyone from a guest spot on early Torchwood, to say nothing of his work for Big Finish – but you really struggle to notice that just from watching him in Blake’s 7, the show of which he was the ostensible star. The joke is, I suppose, that Blake was so superfluous to requirements that Blake’s 7 ran for twenty-four episodes (nearly half its run, in other words) without him appearing at all. Even in this episode, which starts off supposedly being about Blake’s self-doubt and crisis of conviction, everyone else gets more interesting things to do and much better dialogue. Thomas’ role in the plot is almost entirely expository/procedural – there’s no indication that his experiences on the spit-planet have helped him rediscover his determination to defeat the Federation, he gets no big character moments, no great speeches.

I suppose you could also argue that it’s out of character for a hardened rebel leader like Blake to throw a wobbler just because one member of the crew has died, but then arguably the big problem with Blake is that the character has to serve¬†such different¬†functions he never really coheres into a convincing whole. The character is, effectively, Roger Blake, a name better suited to a chartered accountant or an advertising copywriter than an interstellar insurrectionist, and there is something oddly suburban and non-threatening about Thomas’ performance – the main priority seems to have been to produce a character who could lead a mainstream TV drama without alienating the casual audience. As a result Blake is always a bit bland, certainly compared to some of the supporting cast.

They do try to insert moments suggesting Blake is actually a very hard, ruthless man, sometimes verging on an obsessive fanatic – ‘[help me or] I will destroy your hands,’ is his ultimatum to a reluctant surgeon when one of the crew needs urgent medical attention, while in another episode, he shows no qualms about seizing control of the galactic drugs trade in order to finance his revolution. ‘Won’t that make us pushers?’ wonders gentle Gan. ‘That will make us winners!’ is Blake’s response. But it seems that at this point, such an uncompromising lead character was not something the BBC was compared to consider, and these bits inevitably seem a bit jarring, so polite and unexceptionally heroic is Blake the rest of the time.

You can see why Thomas jumped ship at the end of the second season: when an episode is theoretically about your character having a personal crisis, and yet all you end up doing is wandering around a jungle set with an actress in a body-stocking, exchanging slightly cryptic dialogue with her, it can’t be very rewarding creatively. Blake himself was always one of the least interesting things about Blake’s 7, and this episode is no exception to that. Thomas was a talented performer, who always seems to be doing his best with the material he’s given, but he could definitely be forgiven for hoping to be remembered for the entirety of his body of work, which taken as a whole is impressive. I suspect, however, that people coming primarily to Blake and then discovering his other roles as a consequence is probably the best one could hope for. RIP.

 

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