The Way Back, by Terry Nation
May 23, 2008
review by Martin Odoni of season 1, episode 1
Roj Blake, once a resistance leader, was arrested four years ago by the totalitarian Government of the Terran Federation. Instead of executing Blake, and risking turning him into a martyr, they operated on his brain, erasing all memory of his past and reprogramming him into their idea of a model citizen. Four years on, Blake is contacted by more rebels who take him to an illegal anti-Federation meeting, where he is told of his past. Federation troops arrive on the scene and massacre the gathering; only Blake survives, and he is re-arrested. On realising that Blake’s memory is returning, the Federation convict him on false charges of child molestation, and have him deported from Earth to the prison colony on Cygnus Alpha. While in a transit cell, waiting to board the prison ship London, he meets the thief Vila Restal, and the smuggler pilot Jenna Stannis.
Few television series in history have had the privilege of a more chilling or pessimistic vision to commence their run than Blake’s 7, for The Way Back is a pilot episode that starts off a series by ending all hope. Never mind living life to the fullest, it tells us. Never mind building for a better future. Never mind fighting for freedom, or peace, or prosperity. There’s no point… the Federation is where we are headed.
For a pre-watershed adventure programme – one that doubtless had many people thinking at first that it was simply “more Doctor Who” – it is a startlingly adult and bleak vision of where the future might lead us, and certainly reflects the famed pessimism of its creator, Terry Nation. It has a powerful message about governmental corruption and how the complacency and ignorance of a population allow it to flourish, control of information, and the terrible lengths that a state will go to to keep itself in power when it is sure it will get away with it.
There are a few intellectual flaws – most of them superficial – and some plot contrivances, which prevent the story from being the very greatest episode of them all, as is sometimes claimed for it. But it is still among the best.
The story introduces us to an Earth of the distant future. We don’t know how far into the future it is, but it is clearly well over five hundred years, possibly thousands of years. (Officially, it is set in the third century of the New Calendar, although we are given no indication of which Old Calendar year was the final one.) We can tell quite a bit about the society from the earliest scenes and even from the title sequence. Everyone appears to be sealed in a city constructed as a giant mechanical dome. There are recognisably surveillance cameras on every wall, monitoring the day-to-day movements of the population. A lot of the people are drifting around looking dazed, almost in a stupor. It is noticeable that the corridors of the city are narrow and even somewhat cramped in places; the city was clearly built to make policing the population easier, and perhaps it was because the population has grown too large to govern effectively without stricter controls. There are endless streams of propaganda and high-handed announcements made over the public tannoy, one of many aspects reminiscent of Oceania in Nineteen Eighty-Four; between the tannoy and the cameras, we have a clear implication of telescreens. All-in-all we have a surveillance society of the type that we are already heading uncomfortably close to, given the public CCTV cameras that we see on every wall and street corner. It is a claustrophobic place, both physically and psychologically.
It is also a cultureless place, at least when compared with today. There is constant soothing music playing over the tannoys, and there are occasional sculptures and statues dotted here and there, but other than that the society is a mixture of rather featureless, monotonous architecture and shoddy goods (for instance, even though the clothes worn by the dome dwellers are markedly better than the tatty robes worn by the Outsiders later on, they still look drab and a little flimsy.) The architecture is colourless, the shapes of the statues generally meaningless, and so they inspire little thought in the minds of people who look at them. Keeping independent thought to a minimum is clearly a big priority round here.
Which brings us round to the central character in the story, who is more a victim of thought control than anyone. Roj Blake, when we first meet him, does not come across as a particularly charismatic or impressive figure. He is instead malleable, mild, and sometimes slightly timid. Even though his short temper, which would become so glaringly apparent in future episodes, is in sporadic evidence here, he lacks the fire and zeal of a leader of men, a fact commented on by Bran Foster, a former colleague from his past whom he meets early on at an anti-Government meeting. It is Foster who explains that Blake has a past that has been forcibly hidden from him.
One of the remarkable aspects of the story of Blake is that it is essentially half-told when we join it (indeed we probably only ever see about twenty per cent of his career as a resistance fighter). He learns that he was a major political figure, leader of a prominent opposition group, four years before, but he has no memory of anything he did at that time, thus making his perspective of the events much the same as that of the audience.
It turns out that the Federation captured Blake just as he and Foster were making progress, thanks to treachery within the ranks of the resistance. (This resistance is retconned as being called “The Freedom Party” in the second season episode Voice From The Past.)
The Administration’s whole handling of Blake four years ago is shown to be a most shrewd series of political manouevres. Realising that killing him would martyr him and thus inspire dozens – perhaps hundreds – to rise up in his place, they decided to use him to destroy the credibility of the rebellion. So they performed surgery on his mind, altering his personality and erasing his ideology, replacing it with overtures of loyalty to the Terran Administration. The show-trial of Blake and the public retraction of his beliefs are reminiscent of the humiliations inflicted on dissidents in the Soviet Union, especially in Josef Stalin’s time, but with one important difference; the confession was actually believed by the man making it, as opposed to it being very obviously beaten out of him. This must have made Blake’s sudden choice to support the Administration far more plausible and effective; nothing is more persuasive than sincerity.
The attempts on Ravella’s part to break through the conditioning are ineffective at first. At their previous meeting, she persuaded Blake to go without food or drink for over a day and a half, in order to allow the suppressant drugs to cycle out of his system, but the only effect that has, at least superficially, is to leave him hungry, thirsty, and rather crabby. But then Blake gets to drink some natural water that is not laced with suppressants, and that may have made a crucial difference. The curiosity of these opening scenes is brought down a little by Ravella asking a mindless, redundant question (not the last of the episode, sadly), quite at odds with the aura of cunning she has built up around her; “Doesn’t it bother you that you spend your life in a state of drug-induced tranquility?” If a man is tranquil, by definition, he is not bothered. Only when he hears the story of what happened four years ago, do dormant memories awaken in his mind, and he starts to break through the memory block.
The other people attending the meeting are described as Outsiders. Given how primitively dressed and unkempt they are, and the fact that they live permanently outside the dome, it seems likely that they are outcasts from society. Indications are that the Federation has aspects of a meritocratic system of order; the more talented and intellectual a civilian is, the more freedom and authority he is given. The less talented he is, the more stringently he is policed. We later see that most of the elite minority in the Administration are not subject to suppressant drugs, suggesting that they are near the peak of the pyramid, so to speak. It makes sense, as the higher up the hierarchy they are, the more the decisions they have to make, and the clearer their heads must therefore be. Lower-graded civilians are kept drugged to help maintain order, although presumably the dosage is reduced at times when labours are required from them. (Note that Blake is subject to suppressant drugs as well. In later episodes he is described as an Alpha grade, meaning he is in the top intellectual bracket, but he has a history of rebellion and so loses the privilege of a clear head.) Meanwhile the Outsiders are viewed as the lowest of the low, probably adjudged too ignorant to have any useful function at all, and not even worth the bother of feeding or sheltering. Naturally enough, given this attitude on the Administration’s part, they are cast out of the city to fend for themselves. The dome dwellers are even forbidden contact with them. Those who avoid starving are ideal recruits for rebellion against the state.
Returning to the issue of Foster, his characterisation may appear inconsistent. Initially, he comes across as a fairly streetwise man of knowledge and great experience, one who has seen a lot of bad things happen – hence he became a resistor in the first place – and who has managed to survive in hiding as a wanted man for over four years. Then when the Federation troopers arrive, he appears to be a little naive. He genuinely shows no suspicion that peaceful surrender is not going to save anyone, even though in later episodes Blake, despite trying to recover from a memory block, is fully aware that mass-slaughter of opposition is a standard Federation practise.
This is suspicious, as we have to wonder how he survived and remained uncaptured after Blake’s arrest despite having so little apparent knowledge of how the Federation conducts itself. How did he manage to avoid capture for so long, especially given how easily, suddenly and quickly he gets caught as soon as Blake resurfaces? I’m certainly not suggesting that Foster is consciously in cahoots with the Federation – we know quite explicitly from this very episode that Dev Tarrant is the double-agent (the betrayal four years ago likely being his work too, strongly implicit in the fact that he and Blake met before) – but there are two explanations that come to mind. (And it is perfectly possible that they are both true.)
The first is that Foster may have been the Ayman al-Zawahiri of the Freedom Party. He was possibly the real brains of the outfit, and might even have been using Blake as a figurehead to draw attention away from himself and to do the real dirty work, in much the same way that Zawahiri is the brains of the (utterly misnamed) al-Qaeda ‘network’, and uses Osama bin-Laden as a front. This Machiavellian approach would fit rather well with Ravella and Richie’s zero-compunction for blackmail, and would also explain Foster’s lack of experience in dealing with Federation troops in person.
The second is more insidious, and perhaps more convincing. The suspicion is that Foster may have been unconsciously in cahoots with the Federation, and that he hadn’t avoided arrest after all. What if Tarrant betrayed Foster as well as Blake four years ago, and they were both brainwashed? Foster could then be programmed to act as a provocateur, a recruiting point for potential rebels to gather around and be drawn out of hiding. Then, when enough were assembled in one place, they could be slaughtered swiftly and silently, offering no resistance, at the puppet leader’s instruction.
Whatever the case, Tarrant is an unscrupulous man of a low order, an agent provocateur in his own right. It also has to be said, however grudgingly, that he is very good at his job.
After witnessing the massacre, Blake returns to the city, clearly shaken, but is then arrested. What he has learned from Foster, and the twin-traumas of what he has witnessed and being arrested have brought the memories of what happened to him four years before back to the surface.
The scene with Blake meeting Dr Havant is again very reminiscent of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Winston Smith’s torture and mental manipulation at the hands of O’Brien. Especially similar are the metaphysical arguments about the conflicting natures of perception and reality. Now it is true that high emotions make perception and memory unreliable, but Havant is essentially arguing that, as Blake has had a shock of some kind – which is undoubtedly true – what he perceives to have happened cannot possibly be real, an attitude that has long been at the heart of totalitarian thought.
Indeed, Havant shows himself to be every bit as cynical and callous as anyone on show. Smiling deviously as he manipulates Blake, then showing complete disregard for the Hippocratic oath as he, almost casually, offers to have Blake infected with an incurable disease, as a solution to the problem of having him eliminated without martyring him. The Chief Justice, Ven Glynd (later retconned ‘Arbiter General’ in Voice From The Past), quite rightly rejects this suggestion; Blake’s apparent ‘natural’ death at exactly the time that dissent is on the increase again would be far too convenient a coincidence for opponents to be fooled, and in any case would still provoke sympathy. The decision to smear his name by accusing him of child-molestation is despicable, but it is also clever, and it must be acknowledged that it is arranged with impressive thoroughness. Many aspects of Federation society are visibly inefficient, but not Security, Law-Enforcement, or political dirty tricks. In keeping with most police states in human history, therefore, especially Marxist states like Stalinist Russia and Communist China, where show-trials of political opposition were always a standard tactic of the ruling elite.
Interestingly, it is not made clear yet what the distinction is between the Administration and the Federation, and at this stage the two terms appear interchangeable. (In subsequent episodes we discover that the Administration is merely the civil wing of Government, policing the day-to-day life of the population, while the Federation is the Empire as a whole, also including its military wing, Space Command, and ruled by a governing body called the High Council.) While the lack of an explanation here is not exactly confusing, if the distinction were made clearer it might help clear up several other issues. For one, why is Blake specified as a symbol of opposition to the Administration, and not to the Federation as a whole? Secondly, apart from the wider public, whom exactly are the Administration trying to keep the stitch-up of Blake hidden from? Very few people at all appear privy to what is really happening, even among those high up in the hierarchy.
Addressing the second question, the main explanation is that support from most in the Federation, even many in privileged positions, is dependent on them not having any remotely accurate perception of what it is they are supporting. Blake’s defence counsel is an example of this. Tel Varon is one of many Federation supporters who are honest and idealistic, highlighted by his shock at the thought of corruption in the Administration, which is naive. It shows that loyalty to the Federation and brutality or cynicism don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. His naivety is made all the more stark when he suggests going to the President with the evidence he has uncovered; he just assumes the President will be on the side of justice, for he believes that the Federation is a force for good, therefore he assumes that only good men can rise to the top, and that corruption will be the exception and not the rule. This illusion of the Federation as the embodiment of all that is good and honest in the human spirit is vital to the stability of any nation, and has been used by Governments since the dawn of civilisation to quell opposition.
But there is the further possibility that political intrigue is at play; the Justice Department may have rivals in other branches of the Federation, especially in Space Command, who might be able to use what is happening to undermine the Administration. So the conspiracy is kept very small and very quiet.
Blake’s trial gives the first mention of the society’s full name, “The Terran Federation”. The general rhetoric in the courtroom suggests that corruption among many on show – if there is any outside the conspirators we know of – is largely unconscious. The aphorism, “May justice prevail”, is a little vainglorious and subjective, and possibly one of those slogans that people use when they are not really thinking at all; in other words a clear example of what life in the Federation is all about.
The conduct of the court appears to be an early example of what today we might call ‘Digital Justice’. Everything is done by computer; the compiled evidence is inputed into the computer, the computer makes the judgement, and the computer decides on sentencing. The people involved appear to have little to do that is not ceremonial. The arbiter’s job seems largely to be one of reading out loud what the computer tells her to say. There are no speeches by the lawyers, there are no witnesses making statements to the court, and by extension there is no cross-examination. This is in fact even more plausible today than when the episode was made; lawyers are fashionably seen as society’s parasites and the chief cause of delayed justice. Therefore it is entirely conceivable that were our society to evolve into a hard-line, conformist police state, intolerant of any form of crime and with no time for the niceties of guilt-or-innocence, it would treat speed-of-conviction as far more important than making sure they got the right man. It therefore follows that the role of lawyers would be by-passed as much as possible.
Blake’s stance in court is frankly a little ridiculous. His position is that as he is not guilty he will offer no defence; presumably then, if he were guilty, he would offer a defence. His posture is therefore a little like that of a man who refuses to make dinner as long as there is a cooker in the kitchen, as though he will only take an interest in a task when the circumstances become impossible, and never mind if his disinterest in menial but necessary tasks causes everyone to starve to death. This could almost be seen as a microcosm of his forthcoming fight against the Federation. The demands of such an undertaking are absolutely enormous, the odds overwhelmingly against him, therefore he tries to do it. (Admittedly, he says his refusal to bother with a defence appears to be for the opposite reasons; he sees no point because the evidence against him has been faked so well that anyone attempting to refute it will have one heck of a job on his hands. But then we have to wonder why Blake even bothered with a not guilty plea.)
When passing sentence, the arbiter announces that the justice computer has taken into account, among other details, Blake’s loyalty to the Federation. This again underlines the subjective truism of the society that the Federation is the embodiment of truth and justice; those who are not loyal to the Federation are, ipso facto, less just than those who are, therefore their punishments should be harsher. So it is that Blake, instead of merely being placed in an institution, is sentenced to deportation to the penal colony of Cygnus Alpha, where his smeared name will slowly be forgotten (and by extension, so will the ideas he stands for, or so the Federation hopes).
The dramatic moment at the end when Blake is sedated and collapses on the floor is punctuated by a slightly unconvincing appearance from Tarrant. What is he doing in the court at all? Why is he allowed free reign in the chamber? And above all, why does he decide to step out of hiding into full view of everyone present, including Blake himself, who isn’t yet unconscious? It just seems like a plot-convenience, a way of having Blake know who his enemy is so that when Varon discovers the set-up, his investigation will have more impetus. However, there may be more to it than that.
My suspicion is that Tarrant wants Blake to be aware of who betrayed him, and that he may have a grudge against the survivors of the Freedom Party. His limp is very pronounced, and his face is somewhat scarred. Where did these injuries come from? As an agent provocateur working for Federation Security, he must rub shoulders with the enemy on a day-to-day basis, and this is bound to get him into the occasional dangerous scrape. Having infiltrated the Freedom Party, what dangers might he have stumbled into? Did his victims become aware of his treachery before they were captured and massacred, and if so, could they have been the ones who inflicted his injuries?
As we know from the later episode, Seek-Locate-Destroy, Blake himself inflicted terrible injuries on Space Commander Travis during that fateful battle (whose details do seem a little different from Blake’s flashbacks here), for which Travis developed an obsessive personal hatred of him. But perhaps Tarrant was present during the battle, or shortly beforehand, and was injured in the fighting. Or maybe he was injured infiltrating another group, and he now has a general grudge against dissidents. Certainly not as strong as Travis’ grudge of course, but either way, his impulse to gloat at the moment of defeat for the rebellion’s greatest figurehead would be strong.
Blake wakes to find himself in a detention cell with a number of other prisoners awaiting deportation with him. This is another of those things that smacks of a slight contrivance, because deportation of prisoners to distant planets must be expensive – Jenna even says so in the next episode – so the journeys cannot be made that frequently, probably only one every couple of months. And it just so happens that one such journey is coming up just as Blake is arrested? (The signs are that the time from Blake’s arrest to the time of his deportation is around a week.)
While in the cell, Blake encounters Vila Restal and Jenna Stannis for the first time. They are both noticeably different here from how they would come across in subsequent episodes; both of them seem somewhat harsher and more sinister. Vila in particular seems very devious and insinuating, even a little ferretty, stealing Blake’s watch and then making a very oily offer of a handshake when he is caught out. Jenna’s hostility, on the other hand, can perhaps be attributed to her putting up a front with strangers.
Feeling uneasy about what Blake has told him, Varon starts digging for evidence of a mis-trial. He and his wife Maja pick up clues in the public records office, having first had to bribe the man on duty. The disinterested, obstructive attitude of the officer is stereotypical behaviour for an unaccountable civil servant jobsworth, but it still has a loud ring of truth; we’ve all encountered people in public service with at least a tinge of his mentality in our time. (And some of us, if we’re being completely honest with ourselves, are prone to that very mentality on occasion, especially during a bad day at the office.)
Varon’s theory of what really happened to the children Blake is accused of molesting is worked out with impressive speed, especially given his exceptional credulousness up to this point, so perhaps there’s another hint of contrivance to it; one of those premature lines that help move the story along nice and quickly. But however conveniently he reaches the conclusion, it is the correct one, and what he describes is truly horrible, because the Administration is prepared, in order to get their man, even to ruin the lives of defenceless children. The crime is not just the act, but the damage the act does psychologically. The memory of what Blake supposedly did is permanently in the minds of the three children; even if it were ever revealed to them that it was all an illusion, the memory is still impossible to erase, at least without more physical surgery. Therefore, whether the crimes really happened is almost immaterial. The damage is real, and the damage is what counts. In any way that matters, they have been molested, it is just that the man who molested them was not Roj Blake, but Dr Havant.
These scenes are very disturbing, some of the most effective in the history of the series in fact, but some of the chill is lost, stemming from neither Michael Halsey nor Pippa Steel being particularly good at doing morbid intrigue. (In truth, their fruity voices would be better-suited to presenting television programmes for the under-5’s, especially Steel’s excited declaration, “Three unidentified admissions on the date the victims weren’t at school!!!!” which is as unnecessary and kiddie-friendly a piece of exposition as you are likely to find.) An important question is what appears to be a careless loose end left by the Administration; why were the amended school and hospital records not deleted as soon as the treatments were administered to the three children?
Varon goes to see Blake and tells him that he now believes his story after all, and that he will get a holding order placed on him. Jenna and Vila overhear the discussion, and their reactions are initially resentful. Hugely optimistically, Vila then becomes hopeful that maybe his own sentence can be suspended with Blake’s help. There is a slight weaselly, ingratiating quality in Vila that is rarely evident in later stories; even if he did have any such influence, which of course he doesn’t, why would Blake wish to put in a good word for someone whose first act on meeting him was to rob him?
Accepting that Varon has raised a reasonable doubt, as a method of avoiding a needless and awkward argument, Glynd bluffs that he will call an investigation into the trial and place a holding order on Blake to postpone his deportation. He then tries a little too hard to convince Varon to go home and get some sleep, knowing that Blake is scheduled to leave before Varon is likely to wake up. But Glynd is also careless in letting slip a mention of the tunnels the massacre took place in without Varon speaking of them first. Could it be that Glynd is testing his protege’s loyalty? That would also explain why the public records were not erased, and why Tarrant made sure that Blake could see him in the courtroom. But it sounds very unlikely, for various reasons.
For one, if Varon’s whole investigation is just a huge set-up, it sounds a ludicrously elaborate and risky way of performing such a test. There really is no way they can control the outcome of it, as he could speak to anyone along the way. There must be safer and less convoluted ways of testing him.
For another, judging by his call to Havant, Glynd is clearly taken by surprise by developments. And it is very unlikely that the call is just for show, as there is no way he can be aware that Varon is eavesdropping outside the door.
Thirdly, why would a test of Varon’s loyalty even be deemed necessary? He has, until this point, been a highly credulous, unquestioning, even naive servant of the state. If his loyalty were wavering in the slightest, would he even risk talking to Glynd about it in the first place?
A bit of chicanery allows Varon and Maja to obtain the clinical records that outline what really happened to the children. There are a couple of more quibbles about this; principally, why does Varon get Maja to ‘announce’ him as Glynd? Glynd didn’t have a secretary announce the previous call a few minutes earlier, so that could have been a give-away. As could the fact that Varon’s voice does not sound that much like Glynd’s, as could the fact that Varon asks the episode’s second really obtuse question;”Are there any clinical records about the matter? Treatment charts, medical notes?” When wouldn’t there be records for major treatment on someone’s brain? Indeed, hospitals keep records of any treatments they administer to any patient, even for just sticking a corn plaster on a graze. It just would not ring true that Glynd, at the head of the whole stitch-up, would ask a question like that, and in the face of all these indicators, it is a little stupid of Dr Havant not to pick up on it. (And even if this whole business is a test of Varon’s loyalty by Glynd, it is clear from the first call that Havant is not in on it.)
That a civilian needs formal permission to go outside, and that Maja has never been beyond the walls, says a lot about how strict the policing of the Federation is. It seems to be a major event even in Varon’s life – from what he says, he appears to have done it once before – and in any case he did not like it, because the outside world is so different from the sort of place he is used to. Interestingly, he, and presumably most of the dome dwellers, have come to view being cooped up in confined spaces as Mankind’s natural state-of-being. An understandable delusion brought on by social conditions, but there really is something horribly poignant about it.
Having said that, any society looking at any other society will find something sooner or later that leads it to say “But that’s terrible!” And we should keep in mind that people of the Federation, assuming they could learn very much about our own time, would probably think it sad that we do not view, say, an atmosphere full of foul-smelling traffic fumes as anything remarkable. The Federation may be a bad place, and we should be grateful we do not live in it, but the comparison should not lead us into mistakenly idealising our own time.
Blake and the other prisoners are finally marched onto the prison ship that will ferry them to Cygnus Alpha. The ship is called the London, a fitting name, as the ship will be the limit of the prisoners’ world for the next eight months, making it another claustrophobic dome city in space. There is yet another moment of dim-witted dialogue as the prisoners are shepherded from cell to ship – not a redundant question this time, but a redundant command – when the guard commander barks, “Single file! With one behind the other.” As opposed to single file with people walking in pairs, presumably?
All this time, Blake despairs of Varon being able to get the holding order. He realises that time is almost up. Jenna tries to reassure him that there is still time, but she probably knows that she is just making soothing noises. In fact, this shows that her attitude to Blake has changed since she listened in on the earlier discussion with Varon, and that underneath the cynical, abrasive exterior, she is a lot more cheerful and broad-minded. She has grown to respect Blake, even to like him, and of course these feelings will deepen in the months to come. For his part, Blake is quickly growing fond of her too, and part of him would probably regret it if the holding order came through, as he would never get to see her again. But at this point, he is so lost in his worries that he misses the order to buckle his seat harness. This leads to him being placed in confinement; he is restrained in his seat in a far stronger harness made of metal struts. It is so tight that it prevents him even from moving his arms.
In truth, looking at the treatment the guards on the London dish out, it has to be said that the prisoners are treated far more lightly than one might expect (certainly compared with what will happen in the next episode). The confinement penalty is not pleasant on the joints, for sure, but it is nothing terribly harsh, and is imposed for failing to follow an instruction that is meant to protect the prisoner from injury in any case. In other words, the prisoners are for the most part treated like the naughty children of exasperated parents.
Eventually, the ship takes off, with Blake still aboard. He stares over his shoulder through the viewport with a desolate expression on his face as he accepts that it is too late; Varon has failed. He does not realise – although it seems likely that he can guess – that this is because Varon and Maja have been murdered by Tarrant while hunting outside the city for more of the vindicating evidence they seek.
As Blake looks back at the sphere of the Earth retreating into the distance behind him, the Guard Commander chooses this moment to taunt him. “Take a long look. That’s the last you’ll ever see of it.”
To this, Blake responds with a declaration that sums up the man that he once was, and that he has found the way back to being again. “No, I’m coming back.” The remark is full of zeal, fire and determination, all of a type that will become very familiar over the next couple of years. It is totally irrational, as the chances of him even finding a way off Cygnus Alpha when he gets there are so remote as to be negligible, but it is also so self-assured, and so outraged by the injustice of his plight, that he has no doubt whatsoever that he is telling the truth. Neither does the audience. And that, of course, is because it is the truth.
Indeed, The Way Back is a story about the truth being allowed to live on in a tiny number of people against overwhelming odds. It is a stunningly dark and chilling vision of how far a state might be prepared to go to drown a truth it finds inconvenient in lies. Some minor plot-holes and a few scrappy bits of dialogue prevent it from being the stand-out episode of Blake’s 7, and the absence of key characters such as Kerr Avon and Servalan mean it lacks the personal charisma that would later emerge. It equally lacks some of the witty interplay that would become such a strength of the series.
But in terms of setting the dystopian scene and tone for the running storyline, it does a profound job. The Federation is established as a ruthless, paranoid, devious, manipulative and brutal machine; there are many, many aspects of it that are foreshadowed by the world we live in today, which makes it all the more disturbing. Watching it, it is impossible not to ask, “Is that where we’re heading?” Probably not anymore, not exactly – the world we are in is too skeptical of big Government and probably too corporate – but we could well be heading somewhere similar; a world of plutocratic oligarchy, rather than bureaucratic oligarchy. But much of it would be the same as we see here.
It also gives a very strong introduction to the central character of the series. It establishes him as a damaged and vulnerable man, invoking enormous sympathy from the audience. But it also shows him having the great strength of will and character needed to find himself, making him a charismatic man and potential hero-figure for the future as well.
Not quite the greatest episode of Blake’s 7, but one of the greatest pilot episodes in the history of television, and a truly remarkable and gripping way for the series to begin.