Writer Terry Nation talks about “Blake’s 7” and how to write TV adventure series

A few days ago, I posted the introduction to and an extract from my 1978 interview with writer Terry Nation, a former comedy scriptwriter who, as well as creating the Daleks for Doctor Who, created the BBC TV series Blake’s 7 and Survivors.

In this second extract, he talks about Blake’s 7. The interview took place after the first series of Blake’s 7 had been transmitted and before the second series aired,

___________

The first series of Blake’s 7 was widely criticised for having cheap production values.

What can I say?

They looked pretty cheap.

They were. Yes, they were by any standards. I mean, you have to know the current state of the BBC. They were the best we could produce and we have never done less than our best. But, finally, if you want to buy a motor car and you can afford a second-hand 1948 Ford Anglia, that’s what you go after. So yes, OK, to the buff we are not in Star Trek’s class, but we attempted more than Star Trek ever did.

But with no decent budget.

Well, it would have been nice but that wasn’t possible – it wasn’t achievable – so you go with what you’ve got.

The secondary character of Avon seemed to me to be a far more attractive and dominant character than Blake himself.

Aaah. He (Paul Darrow) took hold of the part and made it his own. It could have been a very dull role, but this particular actor took hold of it and gave it much better dimensions than I’d ever put on paper. He is an enormously popular character. He is incredibly popular – and rightly so. He’s a good actor. I think he’s terrific. I enjoy watching him all the time. This is how stars emerge, I suppose: it’s the actor’s doing.

Was Blake’s 7 easier to write than Doctor Who? Presumably because it is longer it is easier to pace.

Yes. Tempo is vital. Years ago a radio producer told me that all of drama is shaped like a ‘W’. You start at a peak, but you can’t ride on that peak all the time because it’s just very boring. Hammer movies are interesting: when they do all their heavy horror sequences, somewhere in there is always the light relief.

You also tend to have two or three sub-plots going on in your series. Not just in Blake’s 7 but also in your Doctor Who stories.

Always. Always. I maintain it’s the only way to write those things and they don’t do it enough. Always my aim in episode one was Split them. Get them all going off in different directions so the moment whatever Doctor Who was doing was getting dull or he was getting to the edge of a precipice or his fingers were slipping, then cut to the other one. Cut to the other one so you’ve got this intercut situation. I think what’s happened to the Doctor Who series now is that they haven’t done that enough. I think they tell one story. They mainline it, following Tom Baker, and there isn’t enough diversion of secondary and tertiary stories. I did that (using sub-plots) in Blake’s 7 all the time.

The central idea of Blake’s 7 is wildly subversive, isn’t it?

Well, the Daleks are Mark 1. The Federation is the Daleks Mark II, if you like.

But the audience is asked to identify with rebels who are going round blowing up official installations – people who might be called terrorists.

In a way, yes, you’re absolutely right. But I disapprove entirely of that kind of political action. That’s why, in the first episode, I made The Federation so beastly and monstrous.

In the Blake’s 7 episode Bounty, starring the Irish actor T.P.McKenna, you had a community which was going to be torn apart by two internal factions fighting each other. The Federation’s plan was to send in a supposed ‘peace-keeping’ force which was, in fact, an occupying army. That sounds like you were thinking of a particular, real, situation. Were you?

Syria. It’s a political device that happens all the time. That’s what was happening at the time with Syria. (The Syrians sent a peace-keeping force into Lebanon.)

You were sneaking in a serious idea. 

Yes. But I guarantee that 99.9% of people in the world who see that show won’t see any political significance at all. Though, God knows, I’ve got to get all those people to relate to some truth, some honour or some dignity somewhere. It is not just people tearing around in spaceships, although that may appear to be what it is.

My Blake is the true figure of good. Do you know the story of the Last Crusade? – I think it’s the Third Crusade.

All these guys set off and they were really going to wipe out these heathens and they got as far as Venice, I think, and ran out of money, ran out of boats and a million other things. And the Venetians said, “Okay, fellahs, listen. There’s a Christian community over there. You’ve got the men and the arms. Go and wipe out that town and we’ll give you the boats.”

So they wiped out the Christian community so that they could get the boats to wipe out the heathen community. It’s that kind of deviousness that I see in The Federation. They have no regard for Man; they have regard only for the mechanics of Man – for that machine. It all works neatly and efficiently. It doesn’t matter what the cost in manpower; it’s the Final Solution. Get rid of the Jews and the world is going to be lovely; get rid of the gypsies and the world is going to be lovely. That metamorphosis doesn’t ever work. Finally somebody has to be on the line that says, “I, at least, am honourable and I believe in my honour.” The awful thing for me would be to find out that honour is the true evil – which would be devastating and destroy my life.

Do you find that people don’t treat you seriously as a writer because you write ‘fantasy’?

Oh, I’m never taken as a serious writer.

That must be frustrating, isn’t it? Not getting credit for hard work.

Well, perhaps. But if you’re a popular entertainer, then that’s the kind of badge you carry, I suppose. I don’t mind that too much. I mean, I have yet to prove that I’ve got something very valid and good to offer. I’ve yet to do that. I think I will, because I’m learning my craft and I’m beginning to get it right now. I think it will come. I’ve always believed I’m a late developer, so I think it’s just taking me longer. My intention always is to entertain because, if I fail to do that, I think I’ve failed to reach an audience. But, within the context of primarily entertaining, I like to say some things that I believe are valid and good and honourable, if you like. I don’t want to use the medium simply for adventure: I’d like to educate. – Oh! I take that word back! – But, all right, having said it and retracted it, you know what I mean.

To intellectually interest?

(Laughs) I wish I’d said that. But, having said it, I would never actually let that be said aloud, in a way. I hope it’s subversive in that sense. What they must see is a good entertainment. If it has an additional value, that’s terrific. That’s really what I would like to achieve.

1 Comment

Filed under Science fiction, Television, Writing

One response to “Writer Terry Nation talks about “Blake’s 7” and how to write TV adventure series

  1. Thank you. Terry Nation was my childhood hero! (Well, him and David Whitaker.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.