For a Sci-Fi/ Fantasy website with a heavy British influence, there isn’t very much on this network about Blake’s 7, one of the pivotal series in the SF genre which went on to influence many others in the field- notably Babylon 5. Since it’s the fortieth anniversary of the show this year, I’d like to take a moment to remember the show.
But since I’m writing this for the Supernatural section of the site, I can’t really look at the whole show in this article.
Instead, let me look at one particular episode, where the show stops being science fiction for a week and dove straight into fantasy.
If you’re a fan of the show, you know that I’m talking about ‘Sarcophagus’.
Tanith Lee was a fairly successful author by the time that she came to write for B7 in 1980, winning the British Fantasy Award that year for her novel Death’s Master. Blake’s 7 was the only script that she wrote (she returned the following year to write Sand), although one of her stories was the basis for an episode of The Hunger about twenty years later. I understand that she was a fan of the programme before Chris Boucher (the script editor) approached her about writing for it. The result was Sarcophagus, one of the strangest episodes in the show’s run.
Lee’s work is noted for its use of imagery and myth, with themes of eroticism and horror. It’s often described as weird.
Sarcophagus is all of that. Among the rest of the series, it sticks out like a thumb that isn’t just sore but bleeding profusely and covered in unicorn plasters.
Lee was the only woman ever to write for the show on television (and the episode was also directed by Fiona Cumming, one of three women to helm an episode). There are no speaking roles apart from the main cast, and only one set, apart from those on board the Liberator. It starts with a five minute scene, with no dialogue and featuring characters that we have never seen before and will never see again. There’s a brief musical interlude.
It is, as noted, not really science fiction at all, but fantasy dressed up as sci-fi.
The plot, very briefly, is that the Liberator finds a strange ship floating in space. Cally is influenced by an alien presence within it that wants to use her as a blueprint to return itself to life.
One by one, the rest of the crew fall under the creature’s control, adopting a role that it wishes to see within its followers, but Avon resists, relying on Cally’s affection towards him to block the alien from destroying him. Cally frees herself and the creature is deprived of its power source and is destroyed.
Being something of a bottle show, the episode depends on the interactions between the main characters, in particular Avon and Cally, and the scenes between the two, and between Avon and the Alien in Cally’s form, are the episode’s strongest points.
The rapport that has built up between both the actors and the characters is clear. The episode is also a delight for fans who ship the two, with Avon complaining about Cally’s bedroom door being closed at the start and the kiss with the Alien at the end. Avon offers consolation and support to Cally in a way that we never see the man who earlier proudly accepted being called a computer do with any other character. But they make it work.
The other characters are less well served, largely being reduced- explicitly- to archetypes. Vila gets to perform some magic tricks, a continuity nod to previous episodes like ‘Spacefall’ and ‘The Keeper’ and is a natural fit for the ‘Jester’ symbolism. Tarrant and Dayna though, perhaps because they are new this season, are forced into roles that don’t really fit them.
Dayna, introduced explicitly as an expert with all forms of weaponry, is given a brand new and never seen again passion for music while Tarrant is initially shown as headstrong and arrogant, butting heads with Avon, only to be slapped down immediately. Towards the end, he is assigned the role of ‘Protector’ rather than it being given to Dayna. They all get to bicker for half the episode, and then… nothing.
None of them serve any role in the climax, beyond showing that Avon is better than them. No surprise then, that Lee went on to write a novel with a thinly veiled Avon stand-in as protagonist, as he is clearly her favourite part of the show.
And yet this is a highly-regarded episode among fans- or rather, a highly divisive one. Overall, it’s popular, but if you hate it, you really hate it. And I can absolutely understand why.
In my opinion, the weak point is the script. There just isn’t enough happening, and most of our heroes get nothing to do. Three out of five of the main cast are effectively absent for almost half the episode, and the computers are written out abruptly as soon as the plot kicks in. It feels more like an admittedly very good piece of fanfiction, an Avon/ Cally hurt/ comfort piece. The rest of the crew are largely irrelevant or, worse, out of character.
The story itself feels recycled, even though the resolution is mostly new. The idea of Cally falling victim to alien influence is wearing thin by this point in the show, having happened at least three times before – it’s the go-to plot for any episode based around her. ‘Sarcophagus’ handles it better than any of the other occasions, but the fact that it has been done so often before (and in fact would happen again the following week) robs it of its impact.
If ‘Sarcophagus’ had come earlier- say, in place of ‘The Web’ in season one- this would have been the original and all the other instances would be seen as weak imitations. The failure here is that it’s been done before, not that it’s been done better.
And in many ways, it just doesn’t feel like Blake’s 7.
The Federation is never even mentioned, the characters aren’t trying to accomplish a goal, and despite the trappings, the Alien is basically just a ghost, hoping to be reborn. In another setting, it would be called a demon, and nothing would change.
Then there’s that opening scene, of an alien funeral involving various pieces of performance art and no dialogue, or indeed explanation. I remember watching the episode as an eight-year old when it was first shown, and being completely bewildered as to what was going on.
But I can also see why ‘Sarcophagus’ is so well-loved.
The Plus Points
Its saving grace, I think, is the direction. Fiona Cumming makes so much of what she has on hand. The changes to the lighting as the Alien gains power make the Liberator, our home in the show for two and a half years, a threatening and dangerous place. The flickering of lights as Zen’s voice trails away is genuinely emotional. The camera angles shift to a lower viewpoint as we go on.
Most importantly though, Cumming clearly recognises that this is not a normal episode, and rather than trying to make it one, she embraces the strangeness wholeheartedly.
You would never get another episode with that opening. It must have been tempting to try to cut it down and introduce the main cast sooner, to give the audience what they were expecting. The scene with Vila performing to an empty flight deck while hearing a crowd’s applause is at a balance point for the viewer between horror and hilarity, and which side it falls on is much more to do with you as an observer than the scene itself.
The episode works despite the script, not because of it.
The cast work wonders with what is, for most of them, very thin material. But most of the weight of the episode falls to Jan Chappell and Paul Darrow. The climax, with Avon confronting the Alien, could have gone so badly with other actors less comfortable in their roles.
A Good Failure
In short, ‘Sarcophagus’ is what you make of it, either a mythic interpretation of our crew or a strange aberration suffering from a failure to understand what genre it has been placed in.
For myself, it just doesn’t quite work. I can see what Lee was trying to achieve, but perhaps there’s too much of my eight-year old self’s confusion remaining.
Perhaps it was just too grown-up a concept for a child.
But as a grown-up, I can at least look at it as a fascinating, if flawed, experiment. If nothing else, it’s an unforgettable tale in a season with too many forgettable episodes.
Steve works full-time for the NHS and tries not to spend too much of his day plotting out his series of vampire novels. Away from the office, he divides his time between playing games where he is a vampire, playing games where he hunts vampires, and playing with Lego (he has numerous Lego vampires).