So. The potential remake of Blake's 7 is potentially going to be touted as (and I can't quite believe I'm typing this) an Xbox original series. A step up from a SyFy Original Series? Answers on a postcard, please...
I should be clear, I have absolutely nothing against the idea of a remake of Blake's 7. I love the original but it has – how shall we say – dated somewhat. By which I of course mean that the effects are lousy, the sexual and racial politics are highly suspect and the episode plots seem to be aiming for the full Eye-Spy of sci-fi tropes. Thing is, in spite of all that – and being created by Terry Nation – the show itself is great fun. The cast rise to the challenge of the scripts with much under-acknowledged gusto and imbue the characters with far more life than they have any right to possess based on the written outlines. The result is three parts brilliant and carried the show through four series to the kind of utterly bleak finale that is very, very rare in science fiction and packs all the more wallop for it. To see the same concepts tackled with a capable cast, top-end 21st century writing and an effects budget that stretched beyond two hair-dryers and a second-hand quarry would be amazing and different and should most certainly be done.
The snag, unfortunately, comes with the phrase that has been looming over this project since they announced that it was going again (and that's what, the third time now?): US remake.
I'm not about to lay into the habit of American TV makers of remaking UK shows – we'd be here all week and there are enough examples of why it's not such a hot idea floating around (*cough* Elementary *cough*) that you'll all have your own feelings on the subject. No, what I want to look at is the specific problem that a US remake of Blake's 7 would face in terms of actually doing justice to the source material and producing a top-draw show. You see, there are certain...issues with Blake's 7 when it comes to recent events and trends in global politics in general and America I particular. And really, well, there's no way to put this delicately...
Roj Blake is a terrorist.
He's the hero of the show and he's a terrorist. That's kind of the whole point.
There was a line in one of the press releases about B7 being the story of six criminals and one innocent man. Well, that's billhooks, I'm afraid. Sure, Blake is completely innocent of the sexual assault charges that he's actually convicted of, but the reason the Federation wants rid of him is because he's a dangerous subversive and – yeah, he is. He was plotting an armed rebellion against the – as far as everyone else is concerned and there is actually no evidence to the contrary – legitimate government. Thereafter, when he gets access to a massively powerful starship, he embarks on a campaign of violence against high-profile targets including Federation communication bases (which are shown to be operated by non-combatant technicians) and the central control computer that runs the whole shebang. A computer that not only enables the whole Federation bureaucracy but also manages the environmental systems for hundreds of planets. A computer that, when tampered with, ends up causing millions of deaths. Which is exactly what would have happened if Blake destroyed it. Which he knew when he set out to destroy it.
Everyone voices objections to doing something so extreme, but Blake is so convinced that the Federation must be destroyed that he is prepared to go to any lengths to achieve it. Whether he is right, whether he is doing the right thing and what this makes for him as the 'hero' are central questions that, perhaps in spite of the writing, plague him throughout his character development. His utter obsession with bringing the Federation down is shown to lead to many deaths, not least Gan, one of the original seven. Moreover it is that obsession and the full-blown paranoia that eventually results from it that leads to everyone dying in the end.
Because everyone does die. The rebellion fails. Completely. At the end of the series, the Federation is still there and in fact is in a stronger position than when the show started. Our heroes are dead. And with massive question marks hanging over them as to whether they were heroes at all.
Blake is a 'hero' whose actions and motivations are dubious and that dubiousness permeates the entire show because of it. That is rather the point. Done properly, with a bit of credibility and conviction, and you have a first rate opportunity to seriously explore the possibly mythical freedom fighting/terrorism divide. The core of Blake's 7, ultimately, is 'how far do you go for freedom?' That's the heart of the matter, that question and properly looking at the answer.
Forgive me, but since this whole remake thing started, I've been plagued by visions of how this could be mishandled. Would a US production team play down the terrorist aspect of Blake's character and just assume that he was doing the right thing because he says he wants freedom? That would be A Bad Thing on so many levels, not least because the reasons people turn on their governments and the means they use are big, serious issues that affect the real world in vital and usually tragic ways. To collapse the debate back to a simple 'rebel alliance vs evil empire' set up would be a waste, a shame and an insult, in no particular order.
Ah yes. Goodies vs baddies. Because the Federation are the baddies, aren't they? Jack-boots and all. They're corrupt, they oppress the masses and they kill or 'reprogram' anyone who opposes them. Strike up the Imperial March!
Except there's the tiny point that the 'goodies' are pretty damn far from good. A middle class terrorist having a slow nervous breakdown? A cold, contemptuous fraudster who at every turn advocates turning mercenary or pirate? A disinterested smuggler who can't quite believe in the good fight? A cowardly thief who would far rather be lying down drunk than blowing up stormtroopers? A petty thug and (admittedly seriously provoked) murderer? A deserter? An assassin? These are not good or even nice people and they are shown to be flawed, petty, unpleasant and argumentative right the way through. Again, that's the point. The people who get involved in real, actual rebellions are seldom golden-hearted. They have to be vicious, violent and ruthless and it's pretty certain a lot of them really don't want to be there.
Vila is a coward who wants to run away, who thinks that the 'good fight' will kill them all and that they'd be much better off getting drunk and partying their lives away. Vila is right.
Vila has to be right. The fight has to be hopeless in the long run. Again, that's part of the point. Not that things cannot change, but that a single, small group, no matter how well equipped, cannot force the world to change on its own. In Blake's 7, the Death Star does not get taken down by a single hero and a lucky shot. In Blake's 7, heroism leads to bloodbaths and good people face down in the mud.
Yes, sure, there is a lot of fun quipping and snarking and oddly sweet moments between the crew and yes, they have their good days when they come out on top and the Federation Pursuit Ships go down in flames. But that absolutely has to be underscored by the bleakness of the situation, the slow erosion of the moral high-ground and a fundamental distrust of the cause. That's the kind of story it is and trying to force it into a 'goodies vs baddies' mould – and let's face it, this is the default setting for American sci-fi, even the morally complex stuff – won't work.
Because there are people on both sides. I mean, real people. The stormtroopers have tea breaks and take off their helmets and chat with each other. The freedom fighters shoot them down without hesitation because they want to survive. The head of the evil empire's space forces is an attractive woman with fabulous dress sense and impeccable manners who will smile and take the time to understand her subordinates' concerns before ordering an all out attack on a civilian target. There are politicians and janitors and criminals and genuinely good people who are trying to make a difference peacefully. They fail. But then so do the people who try and do it with guns.
I want to think that a Blake's 7 remake could take these concepts and issues and deal with them in mature, healthy manner. That's how they need to be handled and it's how a lot of modern fiction – American or otherwise – avoids handling them. The opportunity is there to face up to them for once. It's hard-wired into the premise.
I have a hard time believing that an Xbox original series is going to be the forum in which they are faced and used to their full extent. Let's hope they prove me wrong.