Avon, Blake's 7: Devil's Advocate
In a behind the scenes interview for one of the latest Blake's 7 audio releases Devil's Advocate, Big Finish producer Cavan Scott remarks that there has been a conscious effort to steer away from plotlines this year that feature Federation-type politics. The thinking was that BF had already done numerous storylines of that ilk and the politics of the period in which this micro-season of B7 adventures is set (the third season of the original TV series) had itself moved on, following the events of the Intergalactic War at the end of series two.
Of course, what Scott forgets is that it was Federation machinations that made B7 such a memorable, provocative TV program in the first place. Unlike other TV series of its era, B7 was not afraid to tell hardcore SF/realpolitik morality tales which explored the main characters' heroism and flaws and the impact their exploits would have on the political system they were trying to overturn. Indeed, the TV series illustrated time and again that Blake's rebellion was not without real consequences. Not only did members of the Seven die throughout the life of the series, so did a number of other good people encountered along the way. And unlike many other SF and fantasy sagas since (which are notorious for resurrecting characters), there was no way back. B7 was almost the Game of Thrones of its time!
Therefore, the return to Federation-style machinations and politics in the final two instalments of this micro-season is a welcome development. Devil's Advocate and Truth and Lies round out and (for the most part) satisfactorily tie up the loose "Search for Dayna" story arc with antagonists and scenarios that encapsulate Federation politics. They are certainly an improvement on the more fantasy-driven middle chapters Mindset and Ghost Ship.
Devil's Advocate marks the return of the Federation's enigmatic yet debonair President (Hugh Fraser), who was last seen in the concluding two-parter to the preceding micro-season of B7 plays. Fraser's character was the stand-out adversary of those instalments, providing a calculating, composed counterpoint to B7's regular baddies in the ruthless yet impatient Servalan and the reckless, obtuse Travis. I expressed at the time my hope that the character would return for future instalments.
In the wake of the Intergalactic War, the still anonymous President (we still don't know his full identity) is now as much an outlaw as the Liberator crew members, but still retains hope that he will eventually re-seize power from Servalan. With the help of his assistant Pelora (Simone Lahbib), he reaches out to none other than Tarrant (Steven Pacey) for help in his quest to restore his power. So prompts a debate amongst the Liberator crew that can be traced back to the events of the previous micro-series finale Caged - would Blake really have precipitated the collapse of the Federation if he had assassinated the President, or would he simply have opened the door for another tyrant to assume control (as Servalan inevitably did)? And should the Liberator crew under Avon's (Paul Darrow) leadership now entertain the moral dilemma of aligning themselves with one of the most abhorrent figures in the Federation in a bid to topple Servalan?
With the exception of Avon, whose mystique has gone largely untouched, this micro-series of B7 tales has focused on specific members of the crew, notably Cally (Jan Chappell) and Vila (Michael Keating). Devil's Advocate puts Tarrant in the limelight, providing us with a back story that was never hinted at on television.
When we first met Tarrant in the B7 episodes Aftermath and Powerplay in 1980, he was revealed to be a Federation space pilot who had turned to smuggling and was on the Federation's "most wanted" list. Devil's Advocate suggests an entirely different back story for Tarrant, which while not specifically contradictory or implausible, does seem somewhat contrived for the purpose of Steve Lyons' plot. As if Tarrant's former lover Pelora tracking him down on the Nebula Interplanetary Way Station isn't coincidence enough ...
Nevertheless, whether it's coincidence or contrivance, Steven Pacey delivers one of his finest performances as Tarrant as he takes on the "devil's advocate" role of the story, asserting that the Liberator crew has lost sight of its long term objective and should now embrace the chance "to build something rather than just tearing it down". Tarrant is at his most persuasive and idealistic but his flaws are all too evident - as Avon alludes, he is a romantic at heart, keen to play the hero and behave impulsively, particularly (as Vila points out) when a woman figures in the picture!
Pacey's performance is virtually rivalled by Tom Chadbon as Del Grant. While Tarrant argues the merits of aligning with the President, Chadbon delivers an impassioned, fanatical portrayal of Grant that is an impressive reversal on the character's more laidback, reasonable demeanour. Of course, just as Tarrant has his flaws, Grant's almost prove fatal, thanks to his over-zealous pursuit for justice and the grief and betrayal he harbours for the death of his sister (and Avon's lover) Anna. Grant has been underused in this micro-series to date and Chadbon, like Pacey, finally gets the opportunity to stand out.
Hugh Fraser, of course, again upstages all of the regular characters with an almost warm, amiable, charismatic and composed performance that hides the President's calculating, ruthless and paranoid side. Despite being deposed by Servalan, the character has lost none of his arrogance and ambition, and it is implied heavily by the conclusion of the story that his hubris may in fact lead to his downfall. Certainly, the character does not seem as omnipresent as hinted in last year's finale Caged (when it was revealed the President engaged clones to, as Cally alleges, do his dirty work). Of course, I suspect the President's fate is not that clear-cut and that we haven't seen the last of him ... And given how impressive Fraser has been in this part over the last two years, it would be a shame not to keep the character around.
Kramer's incompetence, though, is unfortunately the only twist in a serial that provides a rather flat, predictable conclusion to the "Search for Dayna" storyline. Perhaps this is partly because the reason for Dayna Mellanby jumping ship and striking out on her own was hinted at as early as this micro-series' third instalment Mindset - that Dayna's mother Karine Melanby (Beverly Hill) had survived the massacre of her father's resistance movement. The President mischievously drops further hints in Devil's Advocate that he also knew Karine, implying that she is a Federation agent, but in the final wash-up, Karine's true nature proves to be a damp squib. Beverly Hill tries her best as Dayna's mother, delivering a compassionate, poignant portrayal, but ultimately her presence in the serial fails to give this second micro-series the memorable send-off that it needs. Indeed, Avon and Vila's closing remarks truly illustrate just how run of the mill Truth and Lies is as an episode.
I queried at the start of this micro-series how the writers were going to skirt around Dayna's absence, given the original actor Josette Simon is not interested in reprising the character. To his credit, Truth and Lies author Justin Richards provides a plausible enough scenario to set up Dayna's reunion with the Liberator crew but given this micro-series contains subtle hints for storylines that are likely to be explored in a third full cast audio series, it would seem to me inevitable that Dayna will have to be in that series and the character will have to be recast (on the strength of her performance as Dayna's mother, perhaps Hill deserves to play Karine's daughter!).
I must admit to also being disappointed with the under-utilisation of Tom Chadbon as Del Grant throughout this micro-series. With the exceptions of Truth and Lies and Fortuitas (which are very good ensemble pieces for the whole cast) and Devil's Advocate (where Chadbon gives his character some teeth), Grant has for the most part played second fiddle to the other TV series regulars. No doubt there are still further stories to be told about Grant's exploits on the Liberator before (in continuity with the TV series) the writers send him off to pasture. It can only be hoped the character is done some justice before that inevitable send-off occurs.
As all regular BF listeners would expect, the sound quality of these audios continues to be exceptional, feeding the imagination and provoking a larger than life visualisation of each serial, despite the relatively small ensemble cast (usually the seven regular characters plus two or three more guest stars). A special mention also goes to the director in BF regular Lisa Bowerman whose performance as the tannoy announcer on the Nebula transit station adds some black humour to some quite tense moments in the first half of Devil's Advocate. "In the event that weapons are discharged, please lie flat on the ground to ensure your personal safety!" Bowerman's tannoy announcer says when Federation troopers start indiscriminately firing on passengers!
Devil's Advocate is by far the best of the last two instalments and certainly the pick of this second micro-series of B7 plays. While this series as a whole has been enjoyable in parts, the first full cast audio series still remains the superior of the two. Despite Cavan Scott's reluctance to focus on Federation politics and hi-jinks, it is clear that the superior serials, in line with the original TV series that inspired them, are the ones steeped in space opera, not fantasy. The audio serials should stay true to their roots and it can be but hoped that in the next micro-series, we see not only more Federation machinations but also Jacqueline Pearce's triumphant return as Servalan as well.