Ok, so this isn’t primarily a post about Firefly vs. Blake’s 7. It’s really about Blake’s 7, and I’m only mentioning Firefly at all because I find it impossible to talk about Blake’s 7 without calling Joss Whedon to task for failing to acknowledge the significant debt Firefly owes it.
Yes, they’re (very) different shows. The characters, plots, themes, setting – it’s all different, and I get that, OK? And yes, Firefly has other influences. I get that too. And yes, Firefly is original enough that I don’t think Whedon needs to worry about having plagiarized anyone. It’s just that … well, many of these other influences get the traditional scifi wink in Firefly, and I don’t see why Blake’s 7 should be the exception. The Forbidden Planet, to take one prominent example, gets credit in Serenity when a shuttle with the designation C57D lands on the planet Miranda. This sort of nod is par-for-the-course in Scifi. As a genre, it’s remarkably forgiving about borrowing ideas (well, except for Harlan Ellison, of course), and it’s just good manners to give your trailblazers a nod, however insider and surreptitious. But I don’t recall seing so much as a single unmistakable reference to Blake’s 7 in Firefly, and that’s unforgivable – because whatever the other influences on Firefly might have been, Blake’s 7 was clearly the strongest.
And don’t try the “Whedon probably doesn’t know what Blake is” line either. He lived in the UK as a student from 1980-82 – when the show was still on the air and drawing as many as 10 million viewers (a fifth of the entire population of the UK) for certain episodes. He’s seen it, and it influenced him – period. The striking parallels between the two shows are not coincidence. In Blake it’s the Federation, in Firefly it’s the Alliance, but what’s in a name? Both shows are about a group of outlaws living on the frontier of a totalitarian society. Both shows feature crews of people whose devotion to the idealistic captain’s cause runs the entire specrtum from loyal to purely self-serving. Both shows use the tension between the differing motivations of the the crewmembers as the main storytelling spring. Both shows pride themselves on their gritty, “realisitc” protrayal of life on the frontier. Both are a bit cynical about the chances for human nature ever improving, technology evolve though it may. Both showcase, rather than dwell on the tragedy of, their main characters’ flaws.
And it’s also true that I like Blake a lot better than Firefly. Mostly this column is about trying to work out why I like Blake at all, really – so a bit of a passing shot at Firefly isn’t out of the question.
I like Firefly, but I have my reservations about it. If I had to put words to it, I would say that it fails on two (highly related) counts. First, genre fiction is all about wish-fulfillment, and I’m not terribly sure what wishes are being fulfilled in Firefly. I admit it also took a bit to sniff it out in Blake, but I think I got it (and it’s that we all want to be Avon – more on that in a minute). The other is – call me old fashioned – that scifi should be about the Sense of Wonder … which Firefly just isn’t.
It’s this second failing that kills it for me. If there’s no “sensawunder,” then there’s no need for something to be scifi. And that’s how I feel about Firefly. It’s a good story, but it doesn’t need to be – and therefore shouldn’t be – science fiction. And that expands nicely into the first reason: if there’s not going to be any wish fulfillment, it doesn’t need to be genre TV of any kind. It should’ve just been a regular drama.
Genre fiction is profoundly escapist. That’s its purpose. And though the (preceived) in-your-face pessimism may obscure the fact for a lot of people, few shows are as escapist as Blake. As genre fiction, it’s a truly rare gem. Wish-fulfillment? Blake has it in spades – and it’s all in the top three reasons people watch the show: (1) Avon, (2) Avon, and (3) Avon.
Blake’s 7 fans all want to be Avon. Although I’m sure Terry Nation didn’t intend it at the outset (actually, he didn’t intend anything at the outset – he’s on record saying that the idea for Blake’s 7 was an off-the-cuff, ad libed dodge at a program planning meeting when he had to give the Beeb executives something), Avon scratches an itch that desperately needed scratching by the late 1970s. Let’s call it the “Spock itch.”
Star Trek was a breakaway success story for a lot of reasons. In hindsight, now that there’s been Star Trek: The Next Generation, we know that Spock wasn’t the main one. But in the late 1970s, I think it was the going theory that he was.
You have to remember that in the 60s there were really only 3 channels in the US. Hard to imagine now, but there it was. Viewers didn’t have a whole lot of choice, and writers weren’t nearly as free to indulge their fantasies. TV resources were limited, so to speak, and so “the General Public” (whoever they are) had to be kept more firmly in mind. Without a lot of shows to choose from, viewers had to express their preferences in terms of elements within shows – and Mr. Spock was notably more popular than the creators probably expected him to be. Apparently, a lot of people found the idea of a purely rational character, a character above the unpredictable whims of emotion, interesting, and they wanted the idea explored more sensitively and thoroughly.
What the team behind Star Trek failed to appreciate is what interests and vanities Mr. Spock probably appealed to. They responded with trite, sentimental stories about how “logic isn’t everything” and “wisdom comes from emotion” and “you can’t supress your feelings forever.” It was a virtual telethon of bad cliches. And that’s exactly what people didn’t want to hear. Star Trek must’ve seemed phony to audiences on a number of counts – but most especially during episodes like The Galileo Seven, when Mr. Spock commands an ill-fated shuttle mission (it crash-lands), makes all the right logical decisions, which of course turn out to be “wrong,” and only an “irrational” act of desperation at the end saves the day. It was a remarkable cheat as an episode. Watch it again and you’ll find that Spock’s decisions are indeed the correct ones, and it’s really the crew’s unwillingness to follow his orders that exacerbates their problem past the point where it can be solved. And Spock’s “irrational” act of desperation (that finally earns the crew’s admiration) at the end is anything but: their circumstances are already hopeless, so burning the rest of their fuel in a signal flare rather than staying in a hopeless orbit for another hour makes sense. The cheat is that Spock is never allowed to claim credit for any of this. The end of the episode shows him being taunted as usual for “accidentally displaying emotion,” and he, of course, refusing to “own up to it.” In a rational universe, the surviving members of the shuttle crew would’ve been cited for insubordination and everyone taught a good lesson in trusting your wits rather than indulging in sentimentality during desperate life
-or-death situations. Dr. McCoy would’ve been the butt of Kirk’s joke, rather than Mr. Spock.
But even if it wasn’t always this blatant, Spock fans felt let down throughout the series that their hero wasn’t allowed to be ruthlessly rational. We could constantly sense the heavy hand of the writers coming in to “fix” things, and the overall feeling was that Mr. Spock was a straw man for people who wanted to excuse, rather than examine, the extent to which sentimentality rules their lives. What if we had someone who really was all-logic-all-the-time?
Enter Kerr Avon.
It’s been said many times before – because it’s true – that Blake’s 7 is “the anti-trek.” I’ll cite John Kenneth Muir here, but you’ll hear it almost anywhere. It’s hard not to look at the show’s format (and its air dates) and come away with the conclusion that Chris Boucher and Terry Nation were deliberately inverting Trek.
Fair enough: Trek desperately needed inverting. It was fun while it lasted, but it eventually rang phony, and someone needed to call it out for this. Not just on the strawman treatment of Mr. Spock, but also on the boyscout morality. It’s one thing to have heroes that people can look up to. That’s a key ingredient in space opera, really – one that Blake arguably lacked, even. But it’s quite another thing when your heroes constantly have to do things that just seem needlessly sacrificial and silly in order to live up to their own inhumanly vaunted ideals. This problem only got worse with Next Generation, of course, but it was present enough in the original. After one too many sacrifices for aliens we don’t give a shit about, you stop admiring and start wondering whether there’s something wrong with the moral values being showcased themselves.
Like Star Trek writers before them, Blake writers quickly found that their homegrown Mr. Spock was popular out of proportion to the rest of the show. The difference – to their credit – is that they let it happen. John Kenneth Muir has argued that the series finale – which ends on a shot of one of Avon’s slow, grim smiles – means that Avon was the main character all along. I don’t know about “all along,” but certainly he was by the time the series ended.
Dayna’s quip about Avon, quoted above, isn’t quite true. Avon’s heart isn’t “pure” stone, but it’s close enough. Avon is what Mr. Spock should have been: ruthless, unrelenting rationality – a man who can look any situation coldly in the eye and see it for what it is. Of course, Avon is a criminal and Mr. Spock an officer, so the similarity can only ever have gone so far. But the selling point about Avon for me was always that “intelligent, rational” was more prominent than “self-serving criminal.” Avon is widely misunderstood, in fact. He’s rarely overtly malicious (and NEVER evil) – and ever less so as the show goes on in fact. His motives are believable: he isn’t deliberately out to hurt anyone (least of all the people with whom he shares living quarters and who keep him safe!), but neither does he let anyone come between him and his goals. In “me-or-him” situations – which, let’s face it, are legion in actual rebellions – Avon’s choice is always an unflinching “me.” Who can fault him for that?
Many people cite Blake‘s moral greyness (“ambiguity” is a word frequently found in reviews) as the drawing point for them, and there’s no doubt that has a lot to do with it. We got tired of Star Trek‘s self-defeating, unrealistic preachiness (and we’re more tired of it now than we were in the 70s: the newer series only made it worse). But I wonder if the moral greyness will continue to be a draw once Star Trek fades away (IF it ever fades away, I should say). Moral ambiguity is a dependent value, really. But Avon’s ruthless rationality is not.
Any person of better-than-average intelligence will have felt held back at some point in his life. And this feeling is at its most frustrating when it’s people we care about doing the holding back – when we have to wait for our friends and family to catch up, as it were. Of course we wouldn’t trade them for the world – which is naturally why it’s so frustrating. But that’s what fantasy is good for. If we can’t actually live without friends and family, we can at least indulge in a little dreaming about what it might be like. And if we can’t actually live by wits alone, we can watch Avon do it for us.
The frontier setting is what makes it all possible. It’s hard to believe in a purely rational entity living in a normal neighborhood, after all. And while I guess we don’t need a space opera setting for a character like Avon, I’m willing to bet that the pure rationality fantasy he fulfills is stronger in space opera fans than in fans of most other genres. Since it’s wish-fulfillment, it should be genre-fiction of some kind he shows up in; space opera is the most likely choice.
Blake has its share of “sensawunder,” of course. It’s not a space opera for nothing (like, oh, gee, say, FIREFLY). And I do occasionally read about people who list Avon as their least favorite character on the show – saw an example on a Facebook group last night, in fact. But I think I speak for the majority of fans when I say that for me it is a show about Avon first, last and middle – because Avon is someone I’ve always had a sneaking desire to be. What makes the show great is that Avon doesn’t love me – and I can’t tell you how long I was waiting to find a hero that didn’t.
(There was, by the way, a Blake’s 7 answer to the Galileo Seven. At the time of writing, it’s here on YouTube. Enjoy!)