Roj Blake is persuaded to attend an illegal political meeting outside city bounds. He meets political activists who claim that he once worked with them in the resistance movement. He cannot recall these events because he was captured and brainwashed by the authorities. The meeting place is raided by Federation troops and the dissidents are shot. Blake, who left the gathering early, is picked up as he slips back into the city. Afraid to execute a once well-known leader, the authorities frame him on a child-molestation charge and condemn him to transportation to their `Devil's Island', Cygnus Alpha.
In prison, he meets Jenna Stannis, a smuggler and pilot, and Vila Restal, a compulsive thief. Later, on board the prison ship London, they encounter Kerr Avon, convicted of attempting to defraud the banking system of five million credits, and Olag Gan, sentenced for murder.
Halfway to Cygnus Alpha, the prison ship London happens across two mysterious fleets engaged in battle. While the crew are taking avoiding action, Blake and the others attempt to seize the ship but are foiled by the first officer. Soon after, the London crew discover a huge spaceship of unknown origin abandoned and drifting but undamaged. Two men are killed mysteriously when they attempt to salvage this rich prize. The first officer orders Blake, Jenna and Avon aboard to investigate. Blake overcomes the defence system operated by Zen, the ship's master computer, and Jenna pilots the prize in a successful breakaway. Christening their ship "Liberator", they trail London to Cygnus Alpha and rescue Vila and Gan. Shortly afterwards, on their first anti-Federation mission, they are joined by Cally, a telepathic resistance fighter from Auron. The band begins a guerilla campaign against the Federation and its Supreme Commander, Servalan.
Blake's chief purpose is to overthrow the Federation government, rescue the distressed (Mission to Destiny, Project Avalon), frustrate the schemes of the corrupt authorities (Weapon, Bounty) and seek allies in the struggle (Bounty, Shadow, Volcano). This aim is seldom lost sight of for long and it gives the drama a cohesion generally lacking in other science fiction series, with their five-year exploration missions, etc. Since the crew are not picked military personnel but mostly escaped convicts who landed in this predicament as a direct result of their own activities, much can be made of the interplay of their personalities. Their past history, particularly Avon's, can be elaborated upon and examined for clues to their behaviour and motivation. They are not subject to military discipline, they do not owe Blake obedience, he needs their skills (pilot, safebreaker, electronics genius) and he must come to terms with their strongly individual characteristics, including varying degrees of cynicism. The group, in fact, resembles the loosely associated buccaneer crews of the 17th and 18th century Caribbean.
There is a strong vein of piracy running through the whole series. The salvaged Liberator contains a strongroom full of treasure whose origin and purpose is never explained; the Ortega is crippled by one of its crew, so that confederates can overtake and plunder it; another pirate captures Liberator, intending to sell it to the authorities; Tarrant proposes to hijack a Federation shipment of precious Kairopan crystals; the ship is lured onto the rocks (The Web) by siren songs; and ever in the background, the Navy, scouring the seven seas for them. So the story can be seen as a sophisticated and sometimes rather sombre amalgam of the two classic swashbuckling Hollywood dramas, Robin Hood and Captain Blood, light-hearted cinematic evocations which were in their turn based on archetypal folk heroes, with a possible real-life origin. These archetypes, filtered through our own recent experiences of oppression, resistance and political turmoil, seasoned with cynicism and pessimism, emerge as the heroes of today.
A reminder of Fritz Lang's Metropolis occurs when Travis (Stephen Greif) with his black-gloved artificial hand confronts the robot double of the resistance leader Avalon (Julia Vidler) which he has had created to spread a plague virus among the crew of the Liberator, just as Rotwang (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) with his black-gloved artificial hand faces the robot double of the worker's leader Maria (Brigitte Helm) which he has created to spread dissension among the inhabitants of the labourer's underworld. Both Maria and Avalon conduct their meetings in caves and both are seen strapped to a stretcher while being electronically scanned for the data to program their mechanical alter egos.
The script often dwells on the tensions between personalities and the heavy toll taken by stress in their fugitive lifestyle. This exhaustion takes the familiar form of misjudgements, psychosomatic ailments and short tempers, plus the temptation to overindulge in stimulants and sedatives (Horizon). Vila is particularly prone to complain of headaches and ask for painkillers, but all the crew have their problems. Cally is the usual dispenser of medical aid, including the yoga exercises featured at the beginning of the Voice from the Past episode.
The opposition are not immune either. Travis's existence becomes an increasing torment to him and he more than once tries to taunt Blake into giving him his quietus. Aware of this angst, Blake refuses and restrains his crew ("That would be a mercy. Are you feeling particularly merciful?"). Servalan appears to cope the best, probably because she controls the most power. After every check, she tries another way, ever hopeful of swatting the gadfly or trapping it in treacle. However, her subordinates have a high casualty rate, shortcomings are seldom forgiven.
Light relief is afforded mainly by the dialogue, banter and bickering being common to both sides. The insubordination of crew members in search of entertainment, such as Vila's illicit expedition to Space City and resulting monumental hangover, or Avon's raid on the Big Wheel casino acts as a safety valve and morale raiser.
The war is conducted intelligently and consistently. Blake embarks on a campaign of maximum disruption for minimum effort. He strikes at a communication centre (Time Squad), the crew steal an advanced decoding device (Seek, Locate, Destroy) and gain information to prevent a Federation takeover on the independent planet, Lindor (Bounty). A chance encounter leads them to Orac (Deliverance). Blake evolves the strategy of destroying the Federation's central control complex, thus bringing about their downfall in the ensuing chaos. After a misdirected strike, Orac is deployed to track the personnel who moved it to its concealed location. These individuals are traced and questioned (Countdown, Gambit, The Keeper).
Inevitably, after the destruction of Star One in the Galactic War, the Federation regroups and begins a campaign of reconquest, starting the cycle again with Avon leading the crew after the loss of Blake and Jenna. As Servalan seeks to rebuild her destabilised empire, she redoubles her efforts to seize the Liberator. It is her ambition to build a fleet that would make her invincible (others have the same idea - Moloch). She attempts to foment war between two neutral confederacies (Death-Watch) in order to step in as their `saviour' after they have inflicted enough damage on each other. She survives one attempt to unseat her (Rumours of Death) thanks to Avon's obsessive quest for private vengeance. Her final plot to capture Liberator is magnificently labyrinthine and would have succeeded but for the unfortunate effects of the enzyme cloud on its hull (Terminal). This time she is away from base too long and she loses the presidency.
Having lost the Liberator, Avon acquires Scorpio and Dorian's secret base on Xenon. From here, he conducts a campaign to prevent the Federation from gaining any technical advantage (Star Drive, Animals, Games). The unsinkable Servalan has taken on the identity of `Commissioner Sleer' and is using a drug, Pylene-50, to pacify and reconquer planets that have seceded from the Federation, whose presidency she is confident of regaining. Avon realises he must find helpers to check this expansion and strives to build an alliance between independent states. The need to find a figurehead leads him back to Blake.
With the possible exception of Gan, the main protagonists have never been married and very few couples appear (Varon and Maja in The Way Back, Sula and Chesku in Rumours of Death). Family life is rarely seen apart from Hal Mellanby and his daughters (Aftermath) and no small children appear at all. Imperfectly controlled genetic experimentation is rife (The Web, Moloch, Animals), cloning is practised under the strict supervision of the Clonemasters (Weapon) and Auron has gone over to artificial bio-replication in its development of telepathy.
Federation mores cover the complete range from the iron integrity of Fleet Warden General Samor (Trial) to the irresponsible duplicity of the irrepressible Belkov (Games). Many of its officers and agents are honestly devoted to their duty, like Lurena at the Star One control centre. Many others serve conscientiously, but with a certain wry scepticism (Major Grenlee, Dr. Bellfriar). Ambitious rats like Ginka (Children of Auron) and Leitz (Traitor) make disastrous attempts to manipulate Servalan in their climb to power.
Brutality is widespread. Travis uses it routinely, but with little enjoyment, others take more pleasure in it. "Women, food and inflicting pain, in no particular order," remarks Servalan to Section Leader Grose on Sardos, "The Fifth Legion always encouraged such virtues," he counters, "they sharpen the spurs of duty."
Federation citizens are strictly graded and controlled with suppressants in the food and atmosphere to induce docility. At least three penal colonies exist for the misfits (Cygnus Alpha, Exbar and Calchos), slavery, mutoid modification and memory erasure are also employed and political prisoners are routinely tortured and subjected to brain-washing techniques. Informers, undercover agents, death squads and interrogators prowl the streets. Even the powerful Terra Nostra criminal organisation is secretly controlled by the President of the Federation.
Independent societies range from fairly normal (Mission to Destiny) to free-for-all gambling establishments like Space City and Freedom City. Some have degenerated into primitive tribalism (Deliverance, The Keeper, Power). The more sophisticated Teal and Vandor confederations have developed elaborately ritualised combats, vicariously shared by the whole population, to settle their border disputes. The builders of the Liberator are as bleakly authoritarian as the worst of the Federation. The inhabitants of Sardos are endeavouring to hide behind a shield generated by their matter transformers, cutting themselves off from the rest of the galaxy.
Most aliens have evil designs, from the unseen presence in Shadow telepathically terrorising Cally, to the full-scale Andromedan invasion (Star One). The Thaarn is attempting to control gravity (Dawn of the Gods), the Intruder merely to re-incarnate herself and regain her paradise (Sarcophagus). The Ultras never explain what they intend to do with all the data they are collecting, but conquest and domination are probably on their agenda as well.
The Federation does seem to be an equal opportunities society on the whole, but feminine values and virtues are seldom represented (except by Cally). The female of the species gets a more active part than usual in science fiction: Jenna, reckless freetrader; Cally, Avalon and Kasabi, resistance fighters; Dayna, weaponry designer; Soolin and Kerrill, gunfighters; the assassins, Carla and Piri; the bounty hunters, Zee and Bar; Sara, ready to kill repeatedly for money; Tara, disposing of her brothers on her way to the throne; the devouring Intruder, battening on the crew; Anna Grant, who has brought treachery to a fine art; and Servalan, every man's nightmare of the Terrible Mother, fascinating and fearsome by turns. Ladies are scarce (Governor Le Grand, Rashel), romantics even scarcer (Meegat). The occasional warm-hearted, motherly woman surfaces (Chenie the barmaid, Nina, wife of Gun-Sar). Some female androids appear, such as the Altas and the robot Avalon. In Duel, we learn that mutoids have been surgically modified as well as having their memories erased ("Memory is an encumbrance, all trace of it is removed and with it all trace of identity").
Male Federation troopers are mainly faceless entities behind their masks, but the occasional one has an opportunity to make an impression (Trooper Par - Trial, Grose - Moloch).
Religion has officially disappeared from the Federation. In answer to a question from Gan, Blake relates that "places of religious assembly" had been demolished several centuries ago (Pressure Point). What remains is unofficial or alien. The cult run by Vargas on Cygnus Alpha is designed to control an unruly population of convicts with superstition, lies and drugs. Belkov exploits the superstitions of the Mecronians (Games). Meegat seems to have a priestly function on Cephlon (Deliverance) for a cult focussed on the ancient rocket silo, similar to the Pacific island aeroplane cults, perhaps. Although Norl, leader of the passive inhabitants of Kezarn has no stated religious function, he too, has a priestly aspect. Religion mostly seems to belong to societies in decline, the rest of the galaxy's inhabitants pay no heed to it. An aura of occultism surrounds the Intruder. Her sarcophagus has cabalistic designs on the floor, where priestesses conduct a ceremony to conjure up visions of robed and masked figures who will play their part in her re-incarnation, terminating in the unbidden appearance of a threatening figure in black.
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