It has often been said that the main difference between American and British TV science fiction programmes is their attitude to authority. American heroes tend to be part of a government organisation; Star Trek is the American navy without water, Quantum Leap a government research project, Star Gate a military project. Even Star Wars is the previous legitimate government attempting to regain power. And what do we have in Britain? Although Quatermass was part of an official project he acted against his superior's orders, Doomwatch had scientists acting against government policy, Doctor Who is on the run from his own people and Blakes 7 are just plain rebels. It must be something in the national psyche that leads the British to be more sceptical of their governments than Americans and leads them to write darker societies into their science fiction.
Let us look at this more closely, taking Blakes 7 as our example, beginning further back with some of the classic books. H.G.Wells gave us his dystopia in "The Time Machine" with the eloi and molocks evolving away from each other, but the obvious starting point for Blakes 7 is George Orwell's "1984". There you have a repressive society with a downtrodden half starved population controlled by propaganda and casual brutality. I think the defining sentences from the book are **"-always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - for ever."** There you have a situation impossible to escape and no normal person thinks of themselves as the one with a foot in the boot, we all think better of ourselves.
Almost everyone is familiar with "1984", even if they have not read the book themselves, the story and its atmosphere is known, Big Brother and Room101 are part of our language (The TV programmes could use the phrases as titles because of their very familiarity.) But we don't have to accuse Terry Nation of copying "1984". The best science fiction has always drawn its strength from history and contemporary concerns. Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy was a conscious echo of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, written as a serial to attract a continuing readership. So, like Orwell, Nation had Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany to provide example.
Nation seems to have had a very pessimistic view of governments in general. He invented the daleks, and you can't get much more authoritarian than them. His series on TV prior to Blakes 7 was "Survivors" in which most of the population died because of a plague bred in a government lab, and ordinary people had to cope as best they could in the aftermath. But then many of his generation do not have good memories of big government and put their trust in friends and neighbours pulling together, we only have to look at what they lived through to understand.
As a child during the war he will have known rationing and shortages. Many people gained a little power over others and revelled in using it, think of Jones (in "Dad's Army) saving the better pieces of meat for more favoured customers and selling the tough bits to women he didn't approve of. After the war there was National Service for all the young men who were too young to have served earlier. Here the scholarship boy and the slow learner, the mummy's boy and the juvenile delinquent, the honest and the wheeler-dealer were thrown together and forced to learn to work as a team, a very similar mix to the crew of the Liberator in fact. Nation knew that if people are forced to live and work together, they will find a way of coping with the situation.
World events during the next twenty five years do nothing to improve ordinary people's view of governments. The Korean war was supposed to save us from communism, but its not obvious how. The Hungarian uprising, in 1956, showed how ruthless government could be if it felt threatened. (And how well the timing fits with Hal Mellanby's friends being massacred, followed by his flight to Sarran with Dayna. Though I doubt he was thinking of this when he wrote the episode Aftermath.) The Easter marches from Aldermaston by CND, the later anti Vietnam war protests and Les Evenements in France, 1968, all showed how little effect on government ordinary people could have. We can imagine Blake and his friends taking part in these events and understand their frustration at being ignored. The Freedom Party had as much chance of succeeding as the Monster Raving Loony Party has of forming the next government in Britain.
The fans of Blakes 7, I believe, are slightly younger than Terry Nation. They are, on the whole, the people who don't remember the war and missed national service. We are the ones who were scared witless by the Cuban missile crisis, we watched on the news as the Berlin wall was built and the Chinese waved their "little red book" in the Cultural Revolution. And so, in our mistrust of those in power, we took Blake to our hearts. Blake was Robin Hood with technology. He stood up for the little man, the people we see ourselves as. We knew it was only a television programme, but the content spoke to our concerns. How could we not respond to such a bunch of characters in such a situation? If the tales of Robin Hood can be passed on for seven hundred years, then Blakes 7 can live on in the minds of those who watched the broadcasts (and videos).
And they do live on in the fans. Most want to know what happens next, and so they write PGP stories. Some are interested in the careers of the actors and develop an interest in the theatre. Others find that the locations provide an excuse for walks and holidays. I tend to wonder how we got from here to there, what changes to our world would give us theirs? The trouble is, it would take very little to give us the Federation. It won't be a military coup, after all Hitler was elected, he merely removed the opposition later. No, it will creep up on us as a merging of files, a more convenient means of paying bills and an improvement in the way we deal with the bureaucracy. From being voluntary it will become compulsory to carry ID and gradually our freedom will be curtailed if we do not maintain vigilance. Our ancestors (grandmothers for some) campaigned for us to have the opportunity to vote for our rulers, we must not waste it. We must think about what is being done to us in our names and look at the politicians' promises. Write to them as an individual, not a petition, vote for ones who show sense, just don't be apathetic. (Sorry, rant over)
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Last changed on 26th of June 2004