On Wednesday, April 13th, fans of vintage British cult TV lost one of that genre’s most distinctive faces and voices, Welsh-born actor Gareth Thomas, who died of heart failure at the age of 71. He’s not as well-known in the States as he really should be, and some of his sci-fi and fantasy TV series are obscure even in the UK. But you may still recognize him as the star of some of the most fascinating exports to have come across the Atlantic.
Star Maidens (1976)
This utterly bizarre one-season wonder was a British/German co-production, chronicling the escape of two male slaves (Pierre Brice and Gareth Thomas) from a harsh, totalitarian, female-dominated society. The 13 episodes of this show are fondly remembered by many who watched it at the time, though through a more modern lens one can’t tell if it’s trying to be a shrewd commentary on gender politics, or a lewd-but-still-TV-safe lowbrow sci-fi romp. Where Adam, Brice’s character, is a square-jawed wonder of stoicism, Thomas plays Shem, a man who is perfectly accustomed to the way of life on his native planet of Medusa, and would actually like to go back there if it wasn’t at the point of a ray gun. Think of Star Maidens as the Lexx of the 1970s, and you’re not too far off from the tone of this show. It’s available on DVD, but only in region 2.
Children Of The Stones (1977)
Shown on the now-extinct HTV regional network in the UK (since absorbed by ITV), Children Of The Stones is a seven-episode exercise in pure creepiness…for kids! The shrieking choral theme music alone can inspire months of nightmares, and it was shot on location at – and used some of the actual local Druid folklore of – a stone circle at Avebury. The origins, mythology, and true purpose of the Stonehenge-like structure are at the heart of the show’s mystery. Thomas plays astrophysicist Adam Brake, who has decided to get away from big city life with his son, Matthew. But it turns out that Matthew has a role to play in the events that are destined to take place in the stone circle. Thomas’ performance helps considerably to sell the sheer creep factor of this show, which was shown in the early 1980s as part of Nickelodeon’s “Third Eye” programming strand. Again, it’s on DVD, but as a PAL region 2 release only.
[Via] Network Distributing
Blake’s 7 (1978-81)
Shown on many an American PBS station as the mid-1980s Doctor Who craze saw the BBC putting some past genre gems back on the market, Blake’s 7 starred Thomas as Roj Blake, an innocuous working stiff in an Orwellian far future who discovers that his mind has been wiped, and he used to be one of the most vocal political agitators opposing the totalitarian Federation. As you might imagine, this discovery revives more than just a little bit of that rebellious feeling, and Blake is soon convicted on trumped-up charges so the Federation has an excuse to ship him off to a prison planet for the rest of his life. But the ship taking him there encounters a gigantic alien spacecraft, and Blake and some of his fellow prisoners are forced by the prison ship’s crew to scout ahead (just in case the alien ship is dangerous). Blake instead turns the tables on his captors, and escapes with a crew made up of fellow convicts, vowing to bring the Federation down. Though remembered chiefly for its campy disco-era costuming, Blake’s 7 was a major inspiration for later space operas such as Babylon 5, and the infighting among Blake’s crew was as hazardous to his health as any threat the Federation could pose. After two years with little in the way of character development or acting challenges, Gareth Thomas left the show, but returned to the now-Blake-less Blake’s 7 for the following two season finales, including a series-ending episode that has never been forgotten by anyone who’s seen it. In 2012, Thomas revived Blake for a series of audio stories released by Big Finish Productions, reuniting the surviving cast of the show’s early years. The entire series has been released on DVD (in region 2, naturally), but has since gone out of print.
[Via] VHS Video Vault
Knights Of God (1987)
Possibly the most obscure show on this list, Knights Of God was less sci-fi and more of an alternate-future-history depicting a totalitarian future Britain ruled by a deranged military leader. Knights then proceeds to rather strangely retell the Arthurian myth in this context, with Thomas starring as a resistance leader (quite a stretch after Blake’s 7!) whose son is the show’s boy-who-would-be-king. Seen here with a bearded Patrick Troughton (the second Doctor Who, in his final TV role before his death), Thomas was part of an absolutely fantastic cast acting out a frequently absurd story. Perhaps due to its politically-charged setting (Knights’ future England is at war with Wales, and its primary villain personally executed the Royal Family), Knights Of God has never been released or rerun in any form; anyone who has copies of it has copies of VHS tapes of the original 1987 broadcast.
Merlin: The Quest Begins (1998)
Directed by frequent-flyer-of-’90s-TV director David Winning, Merlin: The Quest Begins had the happy knack of being syndicated to American TV stations (under the title Merlin: The Magic Begins) at roughly the same time that NBC was heavily promoting its own Merlin miniseries. One could be forgiven for thinking that the two were connected. Thomas co-starred in Merlin: The Quest Begins as Blaze, a mentor who takes young Merlin (ex-Robin Of Sherwood star Jason Connery) under his wing. The rest of the movie serves as Merlin’s origin story, and ropes in a ridiculous number of pop culture references from other sources, such as young Merlin’s temptation to join “the dark side”. Thomas’ solid performance is arguably one of the high points of this whole endeavor, which seemed to try – and fail – to capture the Xena/Hercules audience.
Gareth Thomas was far too busy with other roles to have ever guest starred on Doctor Who, though he liked to amuse convention audiences with tales of filming in British rock quarries (a ubiquitous location for sci-fi series), where – as he liked to tell it – he could walk around a corner and end up face-to-face with Tom Baker and the Doctor Who film crew in the same quarry. But he has lent his voice to Doctor Who audio stories in the 21st century, and finally got some face time in the Who universe via the darker, more adult spinoff series Torchwood. In the show’s third episode, Thomas guest stars as a man hiding a dark secret from decades ago…until an alien artifact let’s Torchwood’s doctor, Owen Harper (Burn Gorman), in on that secret. It’s a character that Thomas has to share with a younger actor who appears in flashbacks, but as usual, he delivers a powerful (and not just a little bit creepy) performance in the time available to him.
Acting (and reacting) believably was Gareth Thomas?? stage-and-screen superpower, and his lengthy list of credits in cult TV shouldn’t be taken as an indicator that his entire career was limited to one genre. He’s appeared in such period pieces as The Citadel, By The Sword Divided, and the BBC’s 1975 miniseries adaptation of How Green Was My Valley, and as recently as 2011 seemed to be set to guest star on nearly every British hospital/medical drama series in recent history. His memorable performances (and his utterly fantastic voice) will live on in his absence.
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