Tanith Lee wrote the script for the 1980 Sarcophagus, a third season episode of Terry Nation’s Blake’s 7. Before I talk about the episode, let me explain Blake’s 7.
Blake’s 7 was a British science fiction television program. It was broadcast on BBC1 from 1978 to 1981. Unlike Star Trek, in which the Federation was supposed to be a force for good in the galaxy, Blake’s 7’s Federation is explicitly dystopian and oppressive. It may not be coincidental that B7’s Federation uses a symbol that is essentially the Trek Federation’s Starfleet symbol turned on its side1.
The episode opens with a lengthy funerary ceremony, during which odd images are shown (their significance will become clear only later). At the end of the ceremony, the entire structure in which the rites were held is shot off into deepest space.
Many centuries later…
The eponymous Blake of Blake’s 7 is gone, perhaps dead, leaving cold, amoral Avon as the captain of the Liberator.
On its way to intercept a potentially valuable asteroid, the Liberator encounters an enigmatic derelict. Avon is immediately suspicious. What are the odds that two space craft, one apparently without power, should happen to cross paths? Space is, after all, famously large. In the end, he is persuaded by the other members of the crew—the ship’s AI Zen, supercilious supercomputer Orac, psionic alien Cally, timid thief Vila, weapons expert Dayna, and pilot/prime-candidate-to-go-out-the-airlock-as-soon-as-Avon-is-sure-there-are-no-witnesses Tarrant—to explore the alien craft.
Because he does not trust Tarrant, Avon leaves Tarrant and Dayna on the Liberator. He, Vila (too cowardly to turn on Avon), and Cally (the closest to a friend Avon can have) will explore the alien vessel.
What they find is an empty and ancient ship, enshrining the corpse of an unidentified alien. They also manage to find the ancient safeguard that protects the space-sarcophagus from desecration. The ancient mechanisms are considerate enough to be obviously ticking down toward some fatal event and inconsiderate enough to interfere with ship-to-ship teleportation. Avon, Vila, and Cally escape back to the Liberator barely in the nick of time.
But there is a complication. Three left to explore the alien vessel but four returned to the Liberator….
Modern viewers will notice the special effects are limited by a) a bare-bones budget and b) the backward technology of the 1970s, an age when people still thought digital watches were cool.
A major difference between Star Trek and Blake’s 7 is that whereas the crew of the Enterprise basically liked and trusted each other, the same was not true of the crew of the Liberator. Blake and his collection of anti-heroes were allies but not friends. Nor were they always sure that the others were dependable allies. In season three, Avon commands the Liberator but is frequently challenged by Tarrant. While inconvenient for Avon, crew conflict was plot gold for the writers.
Each crew member had a specialty. Cally was the ship’s telepath. This was something of a mixed blessing: telepathy only works between telepaths (so she was no good for mind-reading non-telepaths) and her ability to enter into other people’s minds meant that it was easier for … things … to find their way into Cally. Which they did with fair frequency, I gather.
There’s a reliable rule of thumb in science fiction and fantasy: no good ever comes of investigating tombs. This episode is no exception: the Liberator’s crew finds itself facing off against what amounts to a technological god, a god who is determined to enslave or kill them all. This should be in the manual, if it isn’t already: always avoid or blow up alien tombs!
Blake’s 7 is a dark and gritty amusement for the most part. This episode assures us that what awaits sentient beings after death is so unpleasant that the returning alien will do almost anything to avoid another death. Almost anything; it never occurs to her to befriend the foolish humans who happened across her remains. That is a major error.
Excepting the unfortunate musical interlude, this was a decent enough episode. I don’t think it’s a great starting point for Blake’s 7; I prefer a more methodical approach, one that starts with buying (or renting) the complete collection. I don’t think it is available in Region One.
1: One amusing fan wank is that Star Trek and Blake’s 7 are set in the same universe, just told from different points of view: Trek is from the point of view of the rulers while Blake’s is from the point of view of the ruled. You can make a better case that it takes place in a poorly documented era of Doctor Who.