Gareth Thomas, who died last week at the age of 71, was a familiar name to fans of British sci-fi, predominantly for playing the title role in Blake’s 7. Terry Nation’s series, which ran from 1978-81, was a stablemate of Doctor Who and there were many people (both in front of and behind the camera) besides Nation who worked on both shows. Thomas’s direct involvement in the worlds of Doctor Who would come later in his career but when both series were in production a plan was hatched for the Doctor and Blake to exchange an on-screen greeting as they passed on a corridor, each going about their business as they tackled their respective foes. The idea, dreamed up by Thomas in cahoots with Tom Baker (I like to think it was over a beer in the BBC club), was vetoed by bosses.
Thomas had a long and distinguished television and stage career, receiving two BAFTA nominations and performing in acclaimed roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company, but he was probably aware that he would always be best remembered by the public as Blake, the idealistic freedom fighter who fought a brave but ultimately doomed battle against the authoritarian Federation in a series which presented a bleak future of state control, surveillance, and oppression.
Blake’s 7 is a programme with a familiar look and feel to anyone who has seen episodes of Doctor Who produced in the same era, which is unsurprising when you consider the key people who oversaw the show. Long-time Doctor Who director David Maloney was producer for the first three series, Chris Boucher was script editor for the entire run, Robert Holmes wrote four episodes, Dudley Simpson composed the theme and incidental music, and Matt Irvine and the rest of the BBC’s team provided the special effects.
Although it may have had much in common with the BBC’s oldest sci-fi series, Blake’s 7 always had a strong identity of its own and was a darker, less whimsical show than the Doctor Who of the late 1970s. Blake’s group of rebels, made up of criminals who seized a powerful alien vessel (the beautifully designed Liberator) as they were being transported to a prison colony, were thwarted as often as they succeeded. Loyalties were betrayed, key characters died, and Blake was often seen to fail. Thomas’s portrayal of a driven, stubborn leader who sometimes bordered on fanaticism in his aim to overthrow the Federation whatever the cost was one of the series’ main strengths.
Gareth Thomas made the most of the role but, while he may have been the one with his character’s name in the title, it was his co-stars who had the more interesting parts for actors to get their teeth into. Paul Darrow’s Avon was a self-centred anti-hero who one always felt would be happy to abandon Blake’s noble mission when the time was right. Servalan, the supreme commander of the Federation played by Jacqueline Pearce, was a genuinely ground-breaking character in the still male-dominated world of TV villains at the time.
Keen to return to stage acting and reportedly frustrated that the BBC would not entertain his request to be allowed to direct episodes, Thomas left the programme after two series. Blake’s 7 went on without him but his presence was always felt, both in the title and in the remaining crew’s efforts to track Blake down. Thomas returned in appearances in the final episodes of both the third and fourth series, the latter in the programme’s stunning conclusion in which a tragic misunderstanding by Avon led to disaster, just at the moment he finally caught up with his old ally.
The bleak, dramatic final episode was seen by around 10 million viewers but horrified the show’s fans who, just a couple of days before Christmas 1981, had to come to terms the violent end to the series. Terry Nation, who had no involvement with the programme by this time, was said to be unhappy but the show’s ending has since been held up as a bold example of how to conclude a series in a starkly memorable way.
Thomas never really left the part behind, however – Blake’s 7 maintained an active and enduring fandom and he made regular convention appearances in subsequent decades. When Big Finish obtained the licence to produce audios based on the show he reprised his role in both The Liberator Chronicles and full cast adventures ranges. He made numerous other Big Finish appearances: as regular character Kalendorf in the Dalek Empire series, as Tamworth in Paul McGann’s Big Finish debut Storm Warning, and as Astaroth Morax in Fourth Doctor story Last of the Colophon. Another link-up with Doctor Who came with the role of Ed Morgan in Ghost Machine in the first series of Torchwood.
Gareth Thomas was so much more than Blake (his personal favourite television role was in Morgan’s Boy for the BBC in 1984) but never gave the impression that the part was in any way beneath him. One of the most moving aspects of the reaction to his death has been the tributes from fans on social media and forums, many of whom have recounted tales of how good-humoured and generous he was with his time at conventions.
If you’ve never discovered Blake’s 7, don’t let its reputation for iffy effects and shoulder pads put you off. As with all sci-fi, some aspects of the programme’s design are rooted in the era it was made but much of the model work is top-notch. The drama’s characters and relationships were often complex and the tone of the futuristic setting was distinctly dark and uncomfortable (in the first episode Blake is framed for child abuse – a remarkably bold storyline for an early evening BBC1 drama). Its central premise posed the question of where the line between terrorist and freedom fighter should be drawn, and how citizens should respond when faced with oppression – issues which remain hugely relevant today, and it’s no wonder that the show is often spoken of as a prime candidate for a revival.
What are your memories of Gareth Thomas? Share them in the comments below.