Olag Gan: Gentle Giant or Sex Killer?
By Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore
This article was originally intended for the final, unpublished, issue of Scorpio Attack!, and is printed here with the permission of the zine's owner, Jonathan Helm.
The 1983 edition of Blake's 7: The Programme Guide by Tony Attwood contains on page 124 the following description:
GAN – Native of Zephron. When a Federation guard raped his girlfriend, Gan killed him, was certified insane and had a limiter placed in his head to stop him killing again.
The information for this entry appears to come from “A Quick Guide to Blake's 7,” an information pack compiled, typed up and sent out to fans of the programme by producer David Maloney's production secretary, Judith Smith (see pages 28 to 33 of Scorpio Attack, issue 4). Part of the section on Gan reads as follows:-
GAN Native of Zephron
A gentle giant of a man who watched the Federation murder his family and when he went berserk was certified as violently insane. His treatment included the insertion of a limiter in his brain. This acts on the aggression centre and means that he is incapable of killing ever again.
Now compare the above to what Gan himself actually says in the episode, "Time Squad."
This is the one and only time in the series where Gan talks about his life before meeting up with Blake, and makes any direct reference to the reason why he was transported for life to the penal planet Cygnus Alpha. He does not say that “a Federation guard raped his girlfriend,” or that “the Federation murdered his family.” All this is invention after the fact. However, there is evidence to back up the notion that on some previous occasion Gan “went berserk, was certified as violently insane” and that “his treatment included the insertion of a limiter in his brain.” This is supported by Professor Kayn's comments to Doctor Renor in the episode "Breakdown."
RENOR: Progress to what? Brain implantation?
KAYN: A dangerous psychopath? Certainly. Or would you prefer he'd been executed?
Kayn and Renor may be engaged in an argument, but Kayn would not try to deceive Renor over a point of procedure, and at no instance does Renor try to contradict Kayn's assertion that a citizen of the Federation, who is “certified” a dangerous psychopath, would be fitted with a limiter implant. Even so, this leaves the question, was Gan treated unjustly?
Gan maintains that his treatment was, indeed, unjust, and Jenna is also seen to believe the story he tells her, and shows real sympathy. Jenna would certainly be aware that the Federation is capable of punishing people on false charges, as she not only hears Blake's story about how he was falsely accused, but she had also witnessed Tel Varon from the Justice Department, together with his wife, Maja, talk openly with Blake of a “cover-up,” about how Varon is going to get a holding order to allow Blake to stay on Earth while an investigation takes place, and, just before he leaves, he says to Blake, “listen, I... I'm sorry I didn't believe you.” Which is all powerful and convincing stuff... For Blake, that is. Not for Gan.
Blake represents a serious political threat to the ruling powers, and they stand to gain by manufacturing evidence against him (in his case, allegations of kidnap and child molestation): as Blake puts it, “the Administration has gone to enormous trouble—I mean, they've even put themselves at risk.” Later Varon tells his wife that if the conspiracy against Blake is discovered, then it “could blow the top off the whole Administration.” That's why Varon and his wife are secretly murdered by the security agent Dev Tarrant, and their deaths made to look like a transporter accident. The Administration is scared, and will gladly take the risk of killing one of its judicial staff, if it means their own duplicity remains hidden. However Blake is enough of a political threat to them that they will engage in desperate measures.
For Gan, the situation is completely different. He wasn't political. There was no reason for the Earth Administration to risk faking up or distorting the evidence to get him convicted. The other criminals on the London who we encounter are all guilty of the crimes of which they are accused: Avon did in fact attempt to rob the Federation Banking System, Jenna, although we learn in “Shadow” that she was set up by the Terra Nostra, is indeed a smuggler, and Vila is being sent to Cygnus Alpha because, by his own admission, he is a “compulsive” thief. Vila even mocks Blake when he pleads his innocence, telling him, “we're all victims of a miscarriage of justice,” implying that situations like Blake's are relatively rare. Jenna and Vila, and even Blake, clearly believe that all the people being sent to the prison planet are properly convicted criminals, and Blake himself admits to being guilty of some misdemeanours: “I'm innocent—of what I was charged with anyway,” he says. Vila's remark, “I've had my head adjusted by some of the best in the business. But it just won't stay adjusted,” suggests that psychological conditioning as a form of rehabilitation is standard practice. And yet Gan, who implies that he committed his one and only crime in the face of severe and heart-rending provocation, is promptly certified a “dangerous psychopath,” given an expensive brain implant, and is then sentenced to life on a prison planet, otherwise reserved for hardened felons, habitual criminals and serial pederasts. This makes no sense, unless, of course, Gan is lying.
The most striking thing about Gan's story in "Time Squad" is its strong resemblance to events that took place in the previous story, and which were unwitnessed by Jenna. In the episode "Cygnus Alpha," Gan meets a woman called Kara. She clearly finds him attractive, even kissing him during their first encounter. However, she is later accidentally killed whilst shouting an attack warning to Gan. As it happens, the spear meant for him misses and strikes her, and, shortly afterwards, Gan is seen grinning as he drives a spear into a guard who is lying on the floor. Presumably, the same guard, and the same spear, that killed Kara. Now, not only does the similarity of these circumstances cast doubt on Gan's story to Jenna, but it also proves beyond doubt that, contrary to popular misconception (fostered by the abovementioned Programme Guide and “A Quick Guide to Blake's 7”), Gan's limiter does not prevent him from killing at all. But if that's the case, what function does the limiter perform?
Well, as witnessed in "Space Fall," "Cygnus Alpha," "The Web," "Seek-Locate-Destroy," "Project Avalon," "Deliverance," "Redemption," "Shadow" and "Weapon," it certainly doesn't prevent him from fighting with people and even, on occasion, beating them unconscious. It also doesn't prevent Gan from exhibiting behaviour that has put others in fear of life and limb. In "Space Fall," for example, Gan threatens to amputate a guard's hand, and in "Cygnus Alpha," he tells Arco that if he touches Vila again, “I'm going to break your arms and legs off.” It also doesn't prevent him from committing potentially life threatening acts such as sticking explosives to the wall of a Federation base in "Seek-Locate-Destroy." Nevertheless, we do know that the limiter works, because we see it in action during the episode "Time Squad." When Gan appears in the teleport bay and attempts to shoot the guardian who is attacking Jenna, he is seen to physically freeze; even though the man is a clear and present threat to both their lives, Gan cannot press the trigger, and it is finally left to Jenna to save the day. This raises the question of what exactly made the limiter activate at this time, but not on the other occasions when Gan was involved in a life or death battle for survival.
The first clue to how the limiter operates is given by Gan in "Time Squad," where he tells Jenna, “I want to stay alive. And to do that I need people I can rely on. I can't be on my own.” Indeed, whenever Gan is left on his own, as demonstrated in the episode "Orac," the limiter gives him a headache, and he is forced to seek out the company of others. As for Gan's violent behaviour, the limiter will not activate if he is acting with the specific approval of any group he has chosen to side with, or any of that group's individual members.
The limiter also has one further feature. It gives Gan a headache whenever he is alone with a woman for any protracted time. In "Time Squad," Gan's head pains start when he is left on the Liberator with only Jenna for company, and they also start again, a few stories later, when he is assigned to look after Avalon. Indeed, the headaches get worse if that lone woman is then assaulted. This is demonstrated in "Time Squad" when Jenna, searching for Gan in the ship's inner hold, is attacked by a guardian. Even though Gan is not directly involved involved with the assault, the limiter still activates and wracks him with pain. However, there are occasions when the limiter will allow Gan to attack a woman, which is as long as a group member indicates verbally that this other person poses a threat. This is clearly demonstrated in "The Web," when Gan disarms the possessed Cally after Jenna has said to her “you're not Cally, are you,” and in "Project Avalon," where Jenna triggers Gan's attack on the android by urgently saying “Gan, that's not Avalon.”
This brings us back to "Time Squad," and the question as to why the limiter paralysed Gan and prevented him from shooting the guardian. The answer is twofold. Firstly, the fact that Jenna was being attacked by her male assailant caused Gan's limiter to painfully cut in and prevent him from committing any violent acts. Secondly, although it seems possible, based on the evidence mentioned above, that the limiter could have been overridden by a verbal command from Jenna, she says nothing throughout the entire fight. Intriguingly, Terry Nation also made the guardians mute, which would suggest that had Jenna's assailant asked for Gan's support, then he may have received it.
Now, considering that the limiter appears to be in control of Gan's mental disorder, it is reasonable to wonder why Gan was still sent to a penal planet for a life term. The answer, however, is made fairly obvious as Season One progresses, in that Gan hasn't been cured by the limiter, but simply contained, and even then, Gan tries to find ways to work around it. For example, in "Time Squad" after he discovers that Jenna has been attacked by one of the guardians, Gan goes down to Hold 5 to investigate, but then purposefully hides himself away, and waits there until Jenna comes looking for him, once again placing her in a position where she can be assulted. In "Seek-Locate-Destroy," Gan leaves Cally alone to look after a group of Federation prisoners, and then plants demolition charges on the wall of the outside corridor; he doesn't return to warn her, or provides any further backup, which causes Cally first to be set upon by the prisoners and then knocked unconscious when the charges detonate. Even after teleporting up to the ship, Gan still fails to inform anyone that Cally is missing, or of the situation he left her in. Similar behaviour from Gan can also be found in "Deliverance". We see Gan, alerted to some possible danger, leave Jenna alone as he walks up and over the crest of a hill, she is then captured by primitives. A few minutes later, when teleported up to the ship, Gan makes no comment on Jenna's marked absence, and when Blake inquires as to her whereabouts, Gan states, “well, she was right behind me when we teleported” (for more examples, see Liberation: the Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Blake's 7).
Still, this behaviour appears mild in comparison to what happens when his limiter stops working in "Breakdown." After throwing Jenna across the flight deck, knocking her unconscious, Gan then attempts to break Blake's neck; it finally taking four crew members and two tranquiliser pads at full strength to subdue him. Later, while under restraint, Gan fakes unconsciousness, and then, when he is left alone withCally, cunningly manipulates her into releasing him. Gan subsequently tries to throttle Cally, while smiling sadistically, and she is only save when the malfunctioning limiter cuts back in, although, once recovered, Gen then goes in search of Avon, attacking both him and the computers he is strongly associated with. Even more disturbing is the fact that Gan's homicidal behaviour works to a pattern. His direct attack on a woman is promptly followed by an equally violent attack on a man, in a bizarre parody of the story he told to Jenna in "Time Squad" and the events surrounding the death of Kara and his killing of the guard on Cygnus Alpha.
The idea of having a secret traitor among a group of adventurers is also, finally, a common one in the sort of popular fiction that Nation was referencing when creating Blake's 7, such as The Guns of Navarone and The Dirty Dozen (both involve betrayal by an individual, with the latter featuring a traitor who is also a murderer and rapist). Indeed, it's a trope Nation himself used repeatedly in his own work, including Blake's 7: as well as "Project Avalan" the murder mystery "Mission to Destiny," he had also planned for the new regular character Captain Del Tarrant to be revealed as a traitor later in Season Three. Many drama series of the 1960s and 70s also heavily featured stories about young women being stalked by apparently friendly figures who intend to rape and/or kill them, and Nation himself included such themes in Survivors and the film he co-wrote with Brian Clements, And Soon the Darkness. In fact, a direct precursor to Gan appears in Nation's 1964 Doctor Who episode “The Snows of Terror,” where a giant trapper called Vasor, when freed from the influence of a planet wide “conscience” machine, reveals himself to be a cunning murderer and potential rapist, although Nation may also have been influenced by the 1972 Doomwatch episode "Hair Trigger" by writer Brian Hayles, that involves use of brain implants to calm the aggressive urges of a violent misogynist and multiple murderer who, when the process fails, attempts to repeat his original crime. It is therefore not unreasonable that Gan, initially at least, was intended to conform to a similar premise.
All of this clearly was heading for some kind of conclusion, and the fact that Nation was keen that Gan should die during Season Two, in retrospect, seems fairly inevitable. However, although the manner of Gan's death in "Pressure Point" could have been used to reveal the man's true nature to Blake and his crew, and make the subtext running through Season One far more evident, what we actually get is the opposite. Nation has frequently described Gan as being based on Lenny from John Steinbeck's novel Of Mice and Men; a seeming gentle giant who one day kills a young woman, and in turn is killed by his best friend, George. And again, this scenario is remarkably similar to Gan's story about killing the guard who killed his woman, and the events surrounding Kara's death on Cygnus Alpha, only with Gan placing himself in the “George” role. The Gan-as-Lenny premise certainly would have fitted nicely into the events of "Pressure Point." Gan is left behind in the deconsecrated crypt to look after Veron. His limiter fails, he strangles her, and when Blake returns, he kills Gan. Instead, we are presented instead, according to script editor Chris Boucher, with a situation based on the Country song Big Bad John, about a strong man who saved his work colleagues by holding up a cracked roof timber during a mine disaster.
This scenario does, nevertheless, fit better with what had become of Gan's character in the second season. By “Redemption,” Gan had indeed become the “gentle giant” of the group; the subtext described above having disappeared entirely. Why this decision was taken by Nation is not known; it could be that, in the climate of the late 1970s, with the BBC coming under increasing fire from the NVLA, he decided that the storyline was too dark for a family programme, or it could be that he simply lost interest in pursuing such a complex and involved subtext. What we do know is that, from “Redemption” onwards, all references to limiters and to Gan's past simply cease.
A parallel can, in fact, be drawn with the character of Tarrant. Early episodes featuring Tarrant, notably "Powerplay," have an air of ambiguity about them: when we first meet him, the story he provides is overly convoluted and Vila and Avon appear to regard him with some mistrust in "Volcano." All the same, once the idea of having Tarrant as a traitor is dropped, then Tarrant becomes the straightforward, open character with which the audience is most familiar, and any instances of previous scepticism are forgotten. What we have is thus, in the case of Gan, something like a murder mystery in which the author changes their mind partway through as to who the murderer should be; the early clues remain, but then give way to a completely different scenario.
This is further complicated by the actors themselves often not being informed what the writer, or writing team, has in mind for their characters. It is sometimes argued that if Gan was intended to be a murderer, then actor David Jackson would have been told. However, Steven Pacey was also not told about the original scenario of Tarrant as traitor, and numerous other instances litter the history of television (Ivor Danvers, for instance, was not made aware that his character on Howard's Way, Gerald Urquhart, was intended to be a closet homosexual, and yet the novelisation of the first series by its script editor, John Brason, indicates that the writing team had this in mind from a very early stage). Furthermore, Nation had recently been through a very difficult experience with Survivors, in which he had repeatedly crossed swords with producer Terence Dudley over the direction in which both men wanted the series to go, and as a consequence was very uncommunicative with the production team, including Chris Boucher and David Maloney, on his ideas for Blake's 7. David Jackson himself has said, regarding the series, that “you weren't allowed to have a breakdown on what was supposed to be your character,” because the producers believed “it would disconcert the actors if they found out what they were supposed to be," and Chris Boucher has also stated, in a 1992 interview for DWB, that actors “were rarely, if ever, consulted about the development of the overall line of the series, or about any particular episode.” While this may seem surprising in an era of readily-accessible information, or in the context of series such as the reimagined Battlestar Galactica in which the actors have considerably more input into their characters than the actors did on Blake's 7 (and even then, Tricia Helfer was not told that her character Head Six was in fact a messenger from God until the series finale), the fact remains that in British television of the late 1970s, keeping even such a serious character development from the actor who was playing him was an accepted norm.
The character of Gan is, consequently, more interesting for what is not revealed about him than for what is, as reading between the lines not only uncovers a whodunit/murder mystery, but casts light on the nature of television writing and production during one of the medium's most creative and original decades.