Blake’s 7: Lucifer by Paul Darrow

The closing scene of the last ever episode of the British television series Blake’s 7 was so shocking that it forever imprinted itself on my nine-year-old brain back in 1981. Be warned, this review contains spoilers, but my guess is, if you’re interested in the new Blake’s 7 novels, then you’ve already watched the series. In the dramatic finale, Blake finally comes back into the picture after being absent for the best part of two seasons, only to be shot dead by Avon in a tragic misunderstanding. Literally seconds later, the Federation troops arrive and gun down every member of Avon’s crew: Vila, Tarrant, Dayna and Soolin. The series concludes with Avon standing over Blake’s body, gun in hand, surrounded by troopers, all with their blasters held really. Avon raises his weapon, smiles. Credits roll over the sound of blasters. It was almost Shakespearean. When the series was eventually released on videotape in the early 1990s, I had forgotten so much about it, including many of the main characters. But I could never forget Avon and that final scene.

Imagine my delight when I learn, in 2012, that Big Finish are planning to publish brand new Blake’s 7 novels. Even better, one of them is written by the very actor who played Avon: Paul Darrow. Lucifer is set in two different time periods. One of these tells the story of how Avon escaped death in the final episode. The other is set twenty years later.

First, let’s talk about how Darrow tackles the escape. I was glad that the author stuck to the idea that his crewmates really are stone cold dead. Some fans have speculated that they were merely stunned, since there was no blood. But those are clearly Federation blasters going off, and they’ve never had a stun setting. Avon gets away in the only manner I’ve ever been able to imagine him getting away; the scene is interupped by intuders. Predictable, but necessary. However, what is truly disconcerting is the manner in which Avon leaves without a single acknowledgement of his fallen comrades. I don’t think he even glances at the bodies. We know that Avon is emotionally disconnected and borderline sociopathic. Even so, I expected something. Maybe not grief, but just something. If anything, it was the perfect moment to reflect on the illusion of invincibility. But no, Avon just moves forward with his usual bravado.

At least fifty percent of the novel concerns itself with Federation politics. Servalan is there, along with a complement of new characters, none of whom come in contact with Avon. There seem to be two stories, told in tandem, which only intersect peripherally. One is the restructuring of the Federation after it is decimated by enemies that attack from something called the “Beyond”. The other is Avon trying to get off a planet. The Avon story is fairly simplistic. After surviving Gauda Prime, Avon is deposited on an earthlike planet, where he is marooned for two decades and makes a couple of friends. When the Federation gets wind of his presence, he plays cat and mouse with them until he can steal one of their ships. Avon then heads back to Gauda Prime and fetches Orac. Most of the political stuff in the background struck me as highly irrelevant. It’s possible, I suppose, that it will be developed further in Darrow’s next book (Lucifer is the first in a planned trilogy).

With any space opera, you have to suspend disbelief to an extent. We don’t worry about weapons that make sounds in space, or spacecraft that have artifical gravity. But there is a limit. When I said Avon was marooned on a planet, I was being too kind. It’s actually something the author calls an “island planet” (see the book jacket illustration). A fragment of a larger planet that somehow “fell away” but retained full gravity, atmosphere, and population.

The politics are also a little unconvincing. Somehow, on Earth there exists a Chinese empire called Eastern Earth. I find it hard to believe that the Terran Federation can’t take control of a rogue nation on their home turf when they’ve taken ownership of countless planets throughout the galaxy. Another bizarre inclusion was the continual references to present-day weaponry, such as napalm and machine guns. It was a strange choice for the author to make and it causes the novel to feel inauthentic as a Blake’s 7 story.

The Avon character is written convincingly, but lacks a lot of the dry humour he came out with in the series. I don’t think we can blame Darrow for that, since the humour was usually centred around mocking the now deceased Vila. Sadly, when Avon and Orac finally get together, the exchange is unconvincing. When Avon says, “I’ll be damned,” Orac replies, “You were damned a long time ago.” This is simply not a sentiment that I can picture the computer ever making.

What can I say? I was disappointed. I really wanted this to be great, because I love Darrow’s character in the series. And having seen the actor in interviews and read his autobiography, You’re Him, Aren’t You?, I also really like the man himself. In a sense, I don’t wish to be too hard, because when you’re writing a story that begins at the point where much of what made Blake’s 7 entertaining has just been killed off, you don’t have a lot left to work with. Maybe this was a tale best left untold.

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You’re Him, Aren’t You? by Paul Darrow

Every British person over thirty-five has heard of Blake’s 7. Made in the late 1970s, and running until the early 1980s, comprised of four thirteen-episode seasons, Blake’s 7 was the BBC’s ambitious space opera. This was no Star Trek copycat. Blake’s 7 was about a bunch of escaped convicts who hijack an abandoned super-spaceship and take on the might of a corrupt galactic government. It was aptly described by the series creators as The Dirty Dozen in space. Having the audience root for a pack of thieves, pirates and embezzlers was daring territory for a producer. And it worked. Despite the wobbly sets and poor special effects (the BBC didn’t have the same budget as George Lucas), the nation fell in love with the show. And I would take a guess that this was down to the memorable characters.

After season two was made, something odd happened to the show. Its lead character, Blake (played by Gareth Thomas), left. Rather than cancel the show, the next strongest character, Avon (Paul Darrow), stepped into the leadership role, and Blakeless 7 (no, they didn’t call it that) went on to flourish for a further two seasons. Few will disagree that Avon was the most memorable character in the show. Where Blake was a rather typical selfless zealot, Avon was more interested in self-preservation. He was a cold-hearted realist with a dry wit, living by his own code: he had no problem with thieving, but one thing he never did was break his word. It’s hard to make Avon seem interesting on paper. You’ve got to see the show to know what I mean. When I first revisted Blake’s 7 through the video release that came out in the early 1990s, I had forgotten every character except Blake and Avon.

So this is Paul Darrow’s biography, named after the question he generally gets asked by members of the public when he’s out shopping, meaning, of course, “You’re Avon, aren’t you?” I thought it was odd seeing this biography in print, because I had to ask myself, “What else has Darrow done besides Blake’s 7?” It shows you how little I know. Blake’s 7 may have been his only long-running television role (there are countless shorter ones), but he has a long and varied career in theatre, too.

Darrow’s early years are interesting, particularly a brief stint in military training during his boyhood. Darrow tells the story of how he was placed in the woods overnight with a troop of other boys and a mission to fulfill. He ended up winning by outwitting his superiors … and got disciplined for it!

The least satisfying part of the biography is the sizeable portion taken up with brief accounts of each of Darrow’s roles and all the famous people he has rubbed shoulders with. The author should have asked himself how much of this he expects the reader to remember, because it got a bit like a shopping list after a while.

The Blake’s 7 chapters of the book are, of course, the most enjoyable. He talks about the cast and crew, and gives his own witty guide to each episode in the series (yes, all fifty-two of them).

I really enjoyed reading You’re Him, Aren’t You?, any my only complaint is that I personally wanted to read more about Blake’s 7 and less about theatre. Still, it was an enjoyable insight into an interesting man who has been in my head since I was six years old and shows no sign of leaving. To illustrate: when I was writing my second novel, Chion, there was a scene that simply would not work, because the believability of the character’s extreme actions was stretched to the breaking point. But I couldn’t bear to lose the scene. I tried making my character drunk, but that didn’t work, either. Then I had a brainwave. What if I made him a cold-hearted realist? What if I made him, in essence, Avon? When I rewrote the scene, I knew I had conquered the problem. So, as a little nod to Avon’s help, I named the character Mr. Darrow.

I might one day forget Vila, Cally, Jenna, Gan, and even Blake. But I don’t think I’ll ever forget Avon.