The first episode of Blake's 7 is probably the most unique. It's all about Blake for one; while both Jenna and Vila debut they don't actually get much more work than most of the other supporting characters. It's also entirely set on Earth - only the Season 2 episode "Pressure Point" and Season 3's "Rumours of Death" would actually directly visit the planet again. And finally it actually looks moderately expensive; it's not the most original of observations but the opening episode wouldn't need much work to function as a one-off play.
Terry Nation is not the most subtle of writers but he can spin a format like few others and this might just be his finest hour of television. There's a habit when reviewing Blake to assign a lot of the smart stuff to script editor Chris Boucher and only the negative to Nation but this one was surely mainly his work considering the lead-in. In it he paints a vivid picture of an Orwellian future (all dates were kept indistinct) full of CCTV cameras, covered cities it's forbidden to leave, sedatives in food, ultra-corrupt legislators, brainwashing and memory adjustment. There are some stylish directional touches as well, notably Blake's flashbacks - I've always found the brainwashing machines set against plain black sets to be quite striking, it's a shame this sort of expressionism would gradually disappear from the series.
Most of this centres around Roj Blake (played well by Gareth Thomas, who has the right mix of bulk and intelligence for the role; as much as Paul Darrow wrestled the attention away as the show went on Thomas' ability to be an everyman and a hero at the same time is crucial to the early episodes), a 'corrected' former rebel leader pulled back into the battle against the totalitarian Federation. The extent the Federation go to to avoid the man coming back to his senses gives him a serious weight and Thomas deals well with what could be some cliched scenes. Adding further grit are the fabricated child abuse crimes, which even pre-moral panic was a Hell of a thing for the guy who invented the Daleks to write into a show.
What really makes The Way Back work so well though is the vivid minor characters, from the doomed revolutionaries who rope him in to attending a rebel meeting which turns into a bloodbath to his principled defence lawyer Tel Varon (doomed as well, naturally) and his partner. Just as good are the subtly callous Federation lawyers; my favourite is Susan Field's Morag, who looks like she should be reading What-a-Mess on Jackanory but in an off-handed bored fashion comes up with all the most brutal solutions. Everyone is spot on, even Nigel Lambert's surly computer operator. In amongst all of this Jenna and Vila just come across as well-written characters if you squint. Maybe the latter's pickpocketing skills are highlighted a bit too much for a one-off and Jenna is very friendly for a convicted smuggler awaiting transportation to Cygnus Alpha (perhaps signposting her on/off attraction to Blake) but it doesn't really intrude on the tone.
One of the most striking things to think is that for the next 25 at least episodes nothing seen here would change despite Blake's escapades. It's possible that Servalan's putsch at the end of Season 2 would see some changes to the Federation hierarchy but firstly everyone bar Varon shows themselves to have no moral fibre and secondly there was no sign even in the bustle after Star One was destroyed that the Federation lost any sort of hold on their home base. There's every chance that while Blake and the others were gunned down on Gauda Prime the likes of Dev Tarrant and Alta Morag were still alive and well, killing off the likes of Richie and Ravella with callous ease.
While part of it is the format of the day there's a certain bravery to the lack of closure and vengeance in the narrative. Aside from a dicey attempt to revisit Ven Glynd in Season 2's "Voice from the Past" Blake and the series as a whole is far removed from this sphere of dystopian realpolitik and it leaves you questioning how much good the Liberator crew actually achieve against such a monolith. While it's difficult to put yourselves in the shoes of anyone watching this back in 1978 with no idea of the format of the following 51 episodes the simple killing of the Varons when they seem about ready to save Blake must have been something of a shock thanks to the misdirection of their sizable roles - not to mention our hero being simply shipped out helplessly at the end.
Interestingly Dev was initially meant to broadly be Travis and I'd wager this episode was scripted with this very much in mind (with a couple of set-ups for the character being some sort of personal nemesis for Blake) but I actually like the way he just stands alone here, a real monster operating on Earth. Blake never gets his statement in open court and Dev's double agent status is never exposed. Again it's a format thing - at the time plot arcs in series were still very rare and putting so many of these characters on guest contracts would have been difficult, while much of the season (famously entirely written by Nation) was running on the spot - but it works.
There's a difficulty in correctly praising "The Way Back" without doing down what comes. The rest of Blake's 7 is largely (well, more than half, probably) solid space adventure, strongly driven by characterisation and occasional dabbles in heavyweight politics and as such is largely enjoyable when not written by Allan Prior. But there's definitely a real potential for it to go in a different direction here and every time I see it there's a pang of regret that it didn't maybe play out in a more serious direction.