The Computers of Blake’s 7

Blake's 7 logo In most science fiction TV series and films, there have been computers. In some cases, they have just been tools which were used within the context of the story. In others, they have been important characters who enhanced the dynamics of the teams of which they were a part. For example, the computers in Star Trek had voice synthesis and recognition, but they had no character. On the other hand, Blake’s 7 contained three computers which each possessed individual characters. These computers were Zen, Orac and Slave.

In the first season of Blake’s 7, Blake, Vila, Avon, Gan and Jenna were all prisoners on a convict ship that was en-route to Cygnas Alpha, a Federation Prison Planet. During the journey, all four attempted to lead a prisoner take over of the convict ship, but they failed. After the coup attempt had been quashed, the convict ship came across a large, unidentified spacecraft that appeared to be drifting in space. The captain of the convict ship attempted to put a crew on board, so that he could claim the salvage money. However, his crew died mysteriously and therefore he decided to put Avon, Blake and Jenna on board the ship to find out what had happened to his crew. Blake, Avon and Jenna discovered that the drifting ship had an automated defense system and they were able to disable it. Having done this, they took control of the drifting ship and escaped.

The three escapees soon learnt that this was no ordinary ship and boasted an unknown, alien origin. Its technology was far more advanced than anything the Federation had. As Jenna was a trained pilot, she started experimenting with the controls. Her first attempt sent the ship hurtling through countless star systems within seconds. During her second attempt, her hand became “stuck” to a control panel and something started to read her mind. The crew were alarmed when the computer greeted them verbally and Avon demanded that the owner of the voice show himself. A large panel in the wall became illuminated and the crew met Zen for the first time.

Initially Zen’s character was aloof and somewhat unhelpful. For example, this ship appeared to have an operational teleport system, whereas the Federation's attempts with matter transmission had failed. On being asked whether the teleport device would be dangerous for humans to use, Zen answered, “Wisdom must be gathered, it cannot be given,” thus leaving the three to try the teleport device for themselves.

In the episode, “Time Squad”, the crew wished to teleport across to a drifting space capsule. They asked Zen if the atmosphere was breathable, to which he gave the "all clear". However, he began to add a warning, but was cut off half way through. It appeared that either programming, or an outside influence, had held Zen back from giving too much information

In “Bounty”, Blake returned to the ship to find his crew apparently missing. On asking Zen where his crew are, he was told, “Their absence from the flight deck is the only data available.”

The episode that clearly showed that Zen was under the influence of unknown programming was “Breakdown”. Gan became seriously ill and needed immediate surgery. Blake asked Zen for a listing of all planets and space stations that could give the surgery. However, Zen omitted the closest location. On further questioning, the crew learnt that Zen had been programmed to not enter a space zone between the Liberator and the closest location, named XK72. The crew decided to fly on manual control to XK72 after Zen refused to lay in the course and speed for this destination. As the Liberator entered the prohibited space zone, Zen was able to cut off all auxiliary and primary computer controls. Eventually, Avon managed to bypass Zen and bring the auxiliary systems back on line. However, they were already too close to a gravitational vortex and their only option was to fly through it. Fortunately, they survived and Gan received his treatment. Zen restored full computer function once the Liberator had cleared the prohibited zone.

In the very last episode of season one, “Orac”, Blake and his crew went to the aid of Ensor, who had an old mechanical heart pump which needed micro cells. Ensor's son had attempted to transport these micro cells to his father, but his ship had been sabotaged because the Federation did not want Ensor to live. The reason was because Ensor possessed the Orac computer and the Federation wanted to steal it from him. Unfortunately, Blake did not manage to save Ensor, but he did snatch Orac away from under the noses of Servalan and Travis. heads or tails?
The first episode of season 2 was “Redemption”, and this was the first story that features both Orac and Zen. The unknown builders of the Liberator wanted their ship back and they proved that they were not the friendliest of aliens. Firstly, they used neutron blaster strikes to knock out the manual control systems. Then they link with Zen to bring the ship back to Space World, where they intended to execute the crew. Fortunately, before they retook control of the Liberator, Avon managed to instruct Orac to reprogram Zen to return to human command. Orac managed to completely disrupt the programming of Space World, which was basically one large computer system. The Liberator escaped.

From this point on, Zen’s character became more cordial and openly helpful. An example of this was in the episode, “Shadow” where Vila had teleported to Space City with Orac's help. Cally asked Zen where Vila was. Zen advised Cally that Vila had been teleported to Space City by Orac. This was in stark contrast to the earlier episode where Zen would not reveal the location of Blake’s missing crew from the flight deck.

The question is: why did Zen’s character change? There were two possible reasons.

The first was that the Altas (the owners of the Liberator) had known of its location for some time, and were aware that Blake had control of the ship. Therefore, they retained some control over Zen. The human crew could fly the ship and defend it from attack (until such time that the Altas could reclaim the craft), but Blake and his crew were unable to learn too much about their stolen ship.

The second theory was that the writers wished to avoid a clash of characters. Orac was introduced to the crew at the very end of season one. Ensor, who had built Orac, had previously developed the Tarial Cell. All computers in the known universe carried Tarial Cells as these made way for the more advanced computers that now existed. Even Zen used Tarial Cells, which was why Orac could re-program Zen. Orac was a computer with voice synthesis and recognition. What made Orac powerful was that fact that his communication channels could tap into any computer with Tarial Cells and retrieve any information requested. This meant that Blake could read all Federation activity and do even more

Orac had also acquired the personality of his inventor, Ensor, who was an old man who had lived with only his son on a deserted planet for 40 years - and who was somewhat used to having his own way, being cantankerous and eccentric. He did not suffer fools gladly. All these mannerisms were reflected in Orac’s character. Orac was somewhat aloof and reluctant to help with tasks that he felt were menial. This meant that there were two computers aboard the Liberator, with similar characteristics being played by the same actor, Peter Tuddenham. The writers may have used the opportunity in season two to reform Zen into the good, helpful computer while Orac took on Zen’s former role of being reluctant, but useful.

At the end of Season 3, the Liberator was slowly disintegrated as a result of having flown through some ionised particles. These particles were causing metamorphosis of the ship's materials and everything started to erode away - even the computers. In “Terminal”, Zen had a death scene. Vila and Dayna had been left on the ship while Avon and the others were trying to find Blake, who had been missing since the end of the intergalactic war. Avon and the away team were not aware of the ship’s peril and could not communicate with the ship. The auto repair circuits were working at maximum capacity, trying to halt the degradation, but they did not succeed. Vila instructed Zen to cut off all auto repair circuits, concentrating instead all his computer resources on identifying and solving the problem. Unfortunately, time was not on their side and the computer banks started to fail. Zen had to put all his resources into maintenance of the teleport and life-support systems. At this point, Zen announced, “I-I have failed you. I am sorry I have fail....” and died. This was the first time that Zen had ever referred to himself before, leaving the audience with the feeling that they were losing a trustworthy and humble servant.

In Season 4, the crew “acquired” a new ship. Nothing as prestigious as the Liberator, just an old freighter that has some modifications. The previous owner Dorian had been trying to build his own Teleport with the help of the Seska, but they had been giving him the instructions to build something completely different. After Avon and the crew take hold of the ship, Orac and Avon manage to get the Teleport systems operating. Fortunately, Orac had the information from the Liberator computer banks on how Liberator’s Teleport functioned.

On board the Scorpio (their new ship) was a flight computer called Slave. Although Slave’s capabilities were advanced, his character was somewhat different. Slave had been programmed as a humble servant - almost a slave, in fact! It (or he) was forever apologising for his shortcomings and he generally irritated all those on board the Scorpio. This meant that, unlike Zen and Orac, Slave was never accepted by the crew (or audience) as a full crewmember. At the end of Season 4, the Scorpio too was destroyed and Slave had a “death” scene. However, this failed to recapture the emotion of Zen’s death. This again was due to the character of Slave being subservient to all on board the Scorpio, whereas Orac and Zen were equal members of the crew.