Big Finish: DraculaBookmark and Share

Monday, 30 May 2016 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
Dracula (Credit: Big Finish)

Written by Bram Stoker, Dramatised by Jonathan Barnes

Directed by Scott Handcock

Cast: Mark Gatiss (Count Dracula), Deirdre Mullins (Mina Murray), Joseph Kloska (Jonathan Harker), Nigel Betts (Abraham Van Helsing), Rupert Young (John Seward), Alex Jordan (Arthur Holmwood), David Menkin (Quincey P. Morris), Rosanna Miles (Lucy Westenra), Elizabeth Morton (Mary Westenra), Ian Hallard (Renfield), Edward Petherbridge (Mr Swales), Katy Manning (Sister Agatha).

Big Finish Productions – Released May 2016

Listening to this audio adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, this reviewer, who has never read the book, was struck by how familiar so much of the text is and how profoundly it has seeped into contemporary culture. And yet to hear such familiar dialogue as “The children of the night, such sweet music they make” in its proper context shows that this is a story which remains as unsettling as ever despite the many variations which have appeared over the last 119 years, a true classic of the horror genre. Following on from their successful 2014 collaboration on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, writer Jonathan Barnes and Producer/Director Scott Handcock have once again teamed up to produce an adaptation which remains extremely faithful to the original novel with only occasional alterations made to allow for the expediency of the medium of audio drama. The original novels’ format of being presented as a collection of journal extracts and letters lends itself very well to adaptation with any new scenes added by Barnes slotting in so seamlessly that only those extremely familiar with the novel would recognise them.

The cast are all excellent. Mark Gatiss, who has presented programmes talking about his love of the character of Dracula in the novel and of the famous film portrayals of the Count by Lugosi and Lee amongst others, gives a perfectly judged performance which avoids the trap of overacting in the style of Bela Lugosi and instead allows the text to speak for itself in a confident understated manner. Also anyone fearing that this incarnation of the Count will sound like Gatiss’ portrayals of the Master in Sympathy for the Devil or even Mycroft from TV’s Sherlock need not worry as his deep-throated Transylvanian accent renders him almost unrecognisable. Joseph Kloska and Deirdre Mullins are well matched as Jonathan Harker and his betrothed Mina Murray with Mullins being given particular prominence as this adaptation chooses to make Mina much of a lead heroine than some previous versions have chosen to do. Kloska of course gets to narrate much of the famous opening chapters which see Harker arrive as unsuspecting guest of the mysterious Count in the heart of the superstitious horseshoe of the Carpathian region. They are well supported during the subsequent sections by the three suitors of Rosanna Miles’ Lucy Westenra in the form of Dr John Seward (Rupert Young), the Hon. Arthur Holmwood (Alex Jordan), and the brash American Quincey P. Morris played by David Menkin. These three eventually join forces with Nigel Betts’ (again not too overplayed) Professor Van Helsing to form an enjoyable ‘Scooby gang’ of investigators as the curse of the vampire spreads to England’s shores. The remaining cast includes Ian Hallard, who gives a sympathetic portrayal of Renfield, Edward Petherbridge in a brief but enjoyable turn as Mr Swales, and a convincing performance from Katy Manning who is entirely unrecognisable from her usual self as Sister Agatha.

The production is well supported by James Dunlop’s score, especially the discordant opening theme which will surprise on first listening but gains much with repeated hearing. Extracts from the score are included on the extras disc whose cast interview section will be of particular interest to Dracula aficionados.

Overall then, an excellent addition to the Big Finish Classics range which may well encourage listeners to explore Barnes’ contributions to the Big Finish Sherlock Holmes range including the forthcoming release The Sacrifice of Sherlock Holmes. Meanwhile, the Big Finish Classics range will continue next year with an audio version of Nicholas Briggs’ current stage adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.





The Judgement of Sherlock HolmesBookmark and Share

Friday, 20 May 2016 - Reviewed by Ben Breen

The Judgement of Sherlock Holmes (Credit: Big Finish)
The Judgement of Sherlock Holmes
Written By: Jonathan Barnes
Directed By: Ken Bentley

Cast: Nicholas Briggs (Sherlock Holmes/Sherrinford Holmes), Richard Earl (Dr Watson), John Banks (Inspector Lestrade, Colonel Sebastian Moran), Tim Bentinck (Mycroft Holmes), Gemma Whelan (Mary Watson), Jemma Churchill (Helena Eidelmann), Terrence Hardiman (Dr Esau Thorne), Nicholas Chambers (The Reverend Samuel Griffiths), Joannah Tincey (Miss Jessica Hendrick), Dai Tabuchi (Dorje), David Killick (Lord Colney, The Earl of Pettigree)

Published by Big Finish in November 2014
Order from Amazon UK

This review is, almost embarrassingly, a short one.  However, there is a reason for that.  The plot would, I feel, take far too long to summarise to a satisfactory standard so I decided to merely talk on the cast and my overall verdict on the piece.  Moreover, as a reviewer, I had a large amount of enjoyment out of this adventure when I first heard it.  Therefore, I wish to leave that experience for those who wish to listen to this intricate story without knowing too much about it beforehand.

To those who are familiar with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective works, they will know that Sherlock Holmes stories are structured in such a way as to keep you listening intently and on the edge of your seat the whole way through.  Big Finish’s take on this iconic character does exactly that, regardless of whether you have encountered their interpretation before.

After the apparent demise of Sherlock Holmes, Doctor John Watson retires and settles down into a life of ostensible simplicity.  However, after unexpectedly encountering his old friend alive and well, Watson begins to, in part, unpick the pieces of what happened in the time since they last worked together.  However, it gradually becomes clear why Holmes asks his former partner to assist him in taking down the events he chronicles, as the plot wends its way to a dramatic climax.

It is interesting to note that even from the beginning of Watson’s introductory narration there are references to adventures undertaken and plans thwarted that have (to my knowledge at least) not been discussed.  This makes for interesting listening, keeping attention focused on the words even to hear a hint on any of these additional tales, even if no such word comes.  The opening monologue serves as a useful and welcome lead in to the main plotline, establishing the time period and Doctor Watson’s current circumstance.

The plot, though woven through with, what might seem to be, complex and numerous interlinking threads, pulls you along with it, allowing the listener to be taken in by the characters, the auditory landscapes and the spectacle of a story that takes you through the trials and tribulations of Holmes, Watson and various other characters.

All performances to be found in this adventure are confident and well delivered, with Briggs as Holmes and Earl’s Watson having an immediate chemistry from their first interactions, regardless of whether you’ve heard their preceding adventures.  The cast all interact well with each other, with the result feeling almost cinematic in nature and enabling the events to unfold with occasional unanticipated results (a change from the stereotypical and possibly predictable murder mystery that might be associated with Holmes).  The piece, as a whole, interlinks what could be considered as incongruous elements into a story that allows for the listener’s imagination to navigate locations that are, to say the least, at times, unusual.

The score featured in this adventure is second to none, though at points it is slightly too loud (particularly the main theme).  However, even at the points where it is not present, the ambience and sound design make up for the lack of score, building the atmosphere and settings in a realistic manner.  Speaking of the sound design, the landscape is mapped out in a way that makes the world the characters inhabit even more believable, from the carriages and horses to the weather and the elements.

Regardless of whether you’ve heard the Big Finish interpretation of Sherlock Holmes or not, I’d suggest you give this adventure a listen.  The amount of detail and effort that has been put towards replicating the style, atmosphere and characterisation in Doyle’s works is evident, with the company’s own additions and casting choices improving on what might be considered a pre-existing formula.





Star Wars - Episode VII: The Force AwakensBookmark and Share

Saturday, 6 February 2016 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Director: J.J Abrams
Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, J. J. Abrams, Bryan Burk

Written by: Lawrence Kasdan, J. J. Abrams, Michael Arndt


Production Companies: Lucasfilm Ltd + Bad Robot Productions

 

Based on Characters by George Lucas

Distributed by: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures


Released: 18th December, 2015

 

Please Note - Spoilers Feature Throughout The Review.

 

One of the most hyped movies in recent times, The Force Awakens mostly justifies all the hoopla. It also goes to a long way to banish the feelings of aghast dejection that movie goers and sci-fi fans alike had when The Phantom Menace first manifested itself on the big screen.

My biggest concern in the preceding months was that handing over to Disney may not be enough to alleviate the problems that were so apparent with a George Lucas who had far too much creative control compared to the original trilogy. I had heard great things about J.J. Abrams, but had not managed to catch any of the films he helmed. I also was not yet a Star Trek aficionado, so had little idea of the skill Abrams possessed in taking a lot of well known tropes and breathy heady new life into them.

Of course, as anyone who has seen this blockbuster will attest, the plot has been done many times before, and not least in A New Hope. The basic concept of an evil force in the galaxy determined to crush any resistance they encounter, and who do not spare a second thought in destroying any number of planets to achieve the goal of ultimate power is  present and correct here. Having a vital piece of information hidden in a droid is also brought back, but crucially the difference this time is that information only sets up the very end of the film, and is distinct from the customary action climax. Instead, a turncoat in the shape of Stormtrooper FN-2187 - now renamed 'Finn' - is able to offer vital knowledge so as to help the destruction of the weapon.

However, there are many other reminders of the 1977 classic, with some being more solid than others. A beginning on a desert planet where a young person who has been estranged from family yearning for a better life. A hot shot pilot who plays their part in the final battle, and does so without batting an eyelid - even if he risks total destruction. A masked villain who harbours resentment for an old man who has played his part in countless battles. And that aged genial figure quickly becoming both respected and loved by the younger heroes we are introduced to.

 

The arc with Finn is definitely the freshest, and his romance with Rey is engaging. How they spark off one another ends up being rather coy, when compared to the one with Han and Leia from the original trilogy. The film even avoids a predictable pay-off for them, by leaving Finn in a coma-like state. The former warrior of the First Order does get the consolation (if one could call it that) of a peck on his forehead by the lady he so cares for.

Daisy Ridley does wonders with the stretches that introduce her, featuring almost no dialogue. It takes a chirpy, tiny droid to get her into the adventure, but from then on this athletic young woman never looks back. I found myself always engaged by Rey, and she is a very much a 21st century-type female, who just happens to be situated in this 'Galaxy.. Far Far Away'. The range of emotions shown by Ridley is strong, and she combines both the light-hearted banter and the material that verges on melodramatic with aplomb.

Finn is decent in terms of character and acting execution, if perhaps given more than a fair share of mundane material. I wish he had been in a battle or two proper in serving the First Order, and the consequences of those actions only now had caught up with him. Also it would make his handling of some Stormtroopers later on more believable. But all the same, John Boyega is a fine choice for a man who has a heap of emotions, and is trying to figure out his new direction in life.

Despite my age, and the demographic BB-8 is aimed at, I still found this new droid utterly spellbinding, and a crucial part of what made the film enjoyable across its two-hour-plus running time. I thought I would miss the iconic pair of Artoo-Detoo and See-Threepio, but I accept they had a pretty reasonable quotient of material in all six of the prior Star Wars entries. It is still a delight to have them turn up briefly: the golden protocol droid irritated by his patchwork red arm; and the diminutive techno-wizard, (as well as co-pilot to Luke) suddenly whirring to life and completing the much-sought-after map.

 

Turning to the despicable villains now, I was quite impressed by the key antagonist of Kylo Ren, who is enjoyably caught in two minds. He clearly cannot banish the good in him and has some form of a conscience, but also is desperate to project an image and demeanour that is purely antagonistic and malicious. There is that tantalising hope for a good few seconds he will come back with Han, but ultimately he chooses the Dark Side. There is still however not the same ability to let the negativity and hatred infuse him with total power, and that may be one factor why he struggles in the fight with Rey - even accounting for his injury. The inferiority complex regarding how much he matches up to grandfather Darth Vader is also intriguing. The film just gets the balance right, in having a moody, tantrum-prone villain who still has menace and gravitas. I look forward to more screen time with Adam Driver in this pivotal role in later Episodes.

However I have issues with the secondary opposition. To my sensibility, General Hux was a very limp and forced villain. We have witnessed slimy, jobsworth types on the side of the Empire beforehand, and also there have been incompetents like the ill-fated Admiral Ozzell (Michael Sheard) from Episode V. But Domhnall Gleeson is mostly just bluster and glares, and not much else. Normally he is a rock solid dramatic actor, but perhaps he does not fit into this type of movie so well. The gripping build up to the destruction of the New Republic worlds still works, but would have been even more powerful with an actor that conveyed a cold-hearted and detached self, as was the case with Peter Cushing's Grand Moff Tarkin  in the very first film.  

For a big Game Of Thrones follower like myself, I was excited to have Gwendoline Christie now playing a similarly powerful, (but here now) clearly evil warrior. We do not see her Captain Phasma unmasked, however. If she is to indeed return I hope this is remedied. She has a great amplified voice, and we somewhat fear for Finn when she notes his disobedience. Perhaps one or two scenes cut for time with Phasma would have helped make her feel more relevant to the film, if retained after all.

Too little time is spent on Supreme Leader Snoke for me to have an opinion one way or the other. The mystery for now is whether he is indeed as colossal as he appears, or just using a hologram program to try and make up for some form of insecurity. How and why he turned Kylo to the Dark Side must also be expanded upon, as the dialogue given carries very little explanation.

On a clearly positive note though,  I did enjoy the use of the Stormtroopers throughout. Several brief moments were there to show how they were not just killer drones but had a bit of life and humour of their own. The Daniel Craig cameo may well pass over many viewers' heads, but it is still a winning moment, and also an important one as Rey first masters the renowned 'Jedi Mind Trick'.

The snow-covered fight in woods is a beautiful scene, and arguably overshadows all the frenetic action with the Resistance overcoming 'The Weapon' (which makes the previous Death Stars look like small-fry). Kylo Ren is injured, and so relies upon adrenaline as he faces a Rey who is developing Force powers every single passing moment. However, she should still be beatable. What transpires however, is Kylo desperately lashing out, and he is lucky not to perish. But then this first episode of a new trilogy has great plans for future clashes between the two. A convenient fissure that separates the two combatants by a sizeable  distance is perhaps contrived plotting, but also a nice way to add meaning to the usual 'Enemy Base exploding' cliché.

All three of the original trilogy ' triumvirate' are back in the form of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill. The latter two have significant parts to play in the actual plot, but get very limited screen time - particularly in Hamill's case. But this does not hold the film back, and actually works to the benefit of a saga taking on new direction and purpose now that a different crew and distributor is behind it.

I will focus mainly on Ford's Han Solo. He is the cream of the original trilogy ensemble crop for most viewers, but there was all sorts of speculation as to how big a role he would have this time round. The first act takes place in a dizzying rush, before the story gains focus with the arrival of Solo striding onto screen, and still with Chewie (Peter Mayhew) by his side. Though the on-off smuggler looks haggard and worn, he still oozes joi de vivre and has that classic sardonic wit. He quickly bonds with both Rey And Finn, and helps make their story take on another dimension or two. Some speculation has occurred since the film's release that Han and Leia are not only Kylo's parents, but Rey's too.

Certainly it would add more meaning to Han's conclusive death at the hands of the son, who was named 'Ben' after the late Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi. The scene plays out well enough, if also perhaps quite telegraphed. The aforementioned battle in the snow needed a big loss to justify the raw emotion Finn and Rey show in taking their stands against Kylo. I still partly question if Han could have kept a safer distance and tried to persuade Kylo to disarm, but then that is easy to say from the outside. Clearly Han's heart ruled over his head for once and he pays dearly. 

I am totally convinced that this (most likely) final turn for Ford is one that is much better than Return Of Jedi once was. There at times it seemed Indiana Jones was having a guest role in the Star Wars universe. Ford clearly responds well to Abrams' direction, and shows the level of acting chops he acquired in the meantime; not least when he gained an Oscar nomination for Witness. To have the heart of the movie feature Ford is a great way to involve established fans, but also makes the journey for the new characters feel a lot more poignant. And although Han faces the full force of a lightsaber, and his body falls down a massive chasm, this ultimately is a good way to go out for such a swashbuckler. 

Carrie Fisher is in some respects unrecognisable as Princess Leia, as far as looks and voice are concerned. Of course, over three decades have taken their effect on her since Episode VI was released. Fisher has had a very up and down life, but always been a likable Hollywood star, and her presence is most welcome. She manages to infuse the emotions for Han equally well: one moment there is disdain, quickly followed by another moment of long-term love and warmth. She also does well to bond with Ridley with the most meagre of dialogue, and that makes the closing stages of the film stronger. There clearly will be more need for Fisher in Episode VIII on the evidence presented. 

As for Leia's brother, I am delighted to say that the final scene with Luke is a winner. John Williams' backing music fits perfectly as the camera pans round the island where the last of the Jedi has chosen to hide himself on. I half-suspected that the film's title indicated that there is little Luke, but he is still the MacGuffin and so drives the majority of events. His presence is strongly felt in the nightmarish vision Rey has when visiting a part of the temple, and that experience makes the final decision to locate the heroic son of Anakin Skywalker more significant as well.

 

This film is a true must-see for all Star Wars fans, and anyone who likes escapism with vigour, humour and romance. It should create a whole new generation of youngsters spellbound by the Force, the Good versus Evil faceoff,  and the various space battles involving TIE Fighters, X-Wings, and the legendary Millennium Falcon.

Final Score: Four Lightsabers Out Of Five





Blake’s 7: The Liberator Chronicles Vol 11X – RemnantsBookmark and Share

Monday, 23 November 2015 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
B7-Remnants
Written by Simon Guerrier
Directed by Ken Bentley
Big Finish Productions, 2015
Stars: Paul Darrow (Avon), Sally Knyvette (Jenna),
Alistair Lock (Orac)

“It strikes me that Blake would choose this moment to make some rousing speech, to make us feel better about our impending fate.”

“Well?”

“I’m not Blake.”

Avon and Jenna

 

In just the third episode of the Blake’s 7 TV series (Cygnus Alpha) way back in 1978, Jenna Stannis (Sally Knyvette) was tempted, at the urging of Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow), to take the Liberator and abandon Roj Blake on the penal planet below. Avon insisted that Blake was a crusader; under his leadership, they would always be fugitives from the Federation, and his cause would eventually get them killed. Jenna, much to Avon’s chagrin, gave Blake a final chance ...

Simon Guerrier’s script for Remnants, Big Finish’s latest subscriber-only B7 Liberator Chronicles instalment, builds on the initial idea floated in Cygnus Alpha and takes it one step further. As soon as the B7 signature tune fades, the listener, much like Jenna, is thrown straight into the story as a wounded Avon teleports aboard the Liberator. Jenna barely even has a moment to register that their comrades – Blake, Vila, Cally, Gan – are missing before Avon heads for the flight deck of the Liberator and the ship comes under attack from Federation pursuit ships. It is only after Jenna effects their escape that she learns from Avon that Blake and the others are dead, the victims of a heist gone pear-shaped. Jenna is then faced with a difficult choice. Does she stay aboard the Liberator with Avon, as the Federation hunts down the last vestiges of Blake’s rebels, or does she strike it out on her own and at least have the chance of going underground?

Remnants is a great two-hander, one of the better instalments in The Liberator Chronicles after some recent hit-and-miss efforts in Volumes 10 and 11. Perhaps this is because we have two members of the original cast narrating the story rather than Big Finish’s habit of pairing a regular with a guest actor. Paul Darrow is on-song as Avon, possibly at his most devious and crafty in this story (his husky, breathless, almost velvety tones hint that Avon is secretive from the get-go), while Sally Knyvette impresses as Jenna, maintaining calm, self-assurance, courage and even a ruthless streak, as it seems her world comes crashing down around her.

Indeed, what is fascinating in this story is the uneasy relationship that Avon and Jenna share, and how we as the listeners become privy to what they think of each other. We know that they are not by any means close friends and there is no strong bond of trust between them; they are more colleagues with a begrudging respect for the other’s specific talents and skillset (she being a pilot and a smuggler, and he a computer hacker and criminal genius). It is particularly interesting to hear some of Jenna’s thoughts about Avon’s potential for leadership. As far as she is concerned, Avon “wasn’t Blake and never would be. He’d never be the leader of men, the wellspring of revolution”. She doubts he is even vaguely interested in taking up the fight to the Federation in Blake’s absence (even though we know that in the life of the TV series that is precisely what Avon does, albeit not for the idealistic cause that motivates Blake).

It is also clear that there is no likelihood of romance between them either, although there are still pangs of jealousy on Jenna’s part – she is quite repulsed by the idea of Avon chatting up Molybdenum Brown, a female space pirate whom he considers recruiting as the Liberator’s new pilot. Jenna muses: “Avon flirting – no one wants to see that!” Of course, Avon defends his persuasion with all the cool-minded, rational detachment that you would expect of his character: “There’s a trick with most women, I’m sure it’s a trick with men too – if that’s more your line ... You give them your attention and they think you care. I simply wanted information. Would she make a good pilot? Was she likely to double-cross me?”

It is therefore not surprising by the serial’s conclusion that Avon’s logic and pragmatism wins out over Jenna’s emotional, romantic and idealistic traits, and the gulf of mistrust established between them in the story deepens. There is a strong sense of betrayal between Avon and Jenna that Knyvette beautifully conveys when she thunders: “Avon, you gambled with all our lives – and it almost didn’t come off!”

No doubt some listeners will feel that Guerrier’s script also is something of a gamble and a little too confected. The idea (for the most part) holds up – if you don’t think too much about it – and indeed some of the doubts that Jenna expresses at the end of the episode reflect what the listener is also thinking. Nevertheless, Guerrier, the two principal actors, Alistair Lock (briefly) as Orac, director Ken Bentley, sound designer Martin Montague and musician Jamie Robertson manage to deliver an entertaining story that overcomes its production limitations and ups the ante in the imagination.

Remnants is a welcome return to form for the B7 franchise after some indifferent instalments over the last year (both in the full cast audio adventures and The Liberator Chronicles). It’s just a pity that this serial has coincided with the likely cancellation of The Liberator Chronicles (the 12th boxset has been delayed until April 2016) and undisclosed plans by Big Finish for the renewed Blake’s 7 licence next year. Remnants shows that a good two-hander story, coupled with a strong cast and excellent writing, can still rival any chapters of BF’s full cast drama output.

 





Game Of Thrones Season Five - Episodes Nine And TenBookmark and Share

Thursday, 15 October 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek

9) The Dance Of Dragons
10) Mother's Mercy
HBO/ Sky Atlantic - 2015

Once again there are spoilers throughout the article for those yet to view the episodes, or who await their release on DVD and Blu-Ray.

 

And so we come to the last episodes on-screen to date, but they are far from the very last.

With plenty of speculation over what direction the next season will take, it will be a long wait but one that has more material to ruminate over than ever before. Also trying to pinpoint when creator George RR Martin will publish the sixth book in the saga will also be a somewhat tense process for some book readers, but recent news of foreign language translation deadlines would auger well.

These two concluding episodes certainly continue the momentum built up since 'Kill the boy'; a middle segment that overcame early episode weaknesses by planting various seeds, of which many have germinated with good effect.

I will begin my focus on the wonderfully well acted 'super-bitch' Cersei. She has finally got something of a comeuppance after basically being safe from direct threat much of her time in the show. Yes, she did lose Joffrey, and she may well experience the loss of her other two children - if the flashback she had in episode one is accurate - but her administration of the kingdom was always going to be shaky without a figure like Tywin or even Tyrion around. In the short term she put the new Queen and her brother Loras in a very bad place through imprisonment; it only hastened her own period of confinement and humiliation.

And what a further blow to her pride is displayed in Mother's Mercy: a long walk of shame, completely naked in front of a mostly aggressive and embittered crowd of commoners and other citizens of King's Landing, who all have no love for the late King Robert's widow. Lena Headey continues to prove her considerable skill in one of the best roles out of the many this epic show possesses. She did insist on never being naked in the show, and thus we have a brave body double who performed the actual walk in a real life and public setting. This results in small visual glitches if one has the spare time to look for them. It is still one of the great moments on the show, and it remains to be seen just how much Cersei takes away from this. Will she connect with the people and somehow put down the High Sparrow's ascension in status? Or will she just look for the quick and easy path?

Stannis would now appear to be definitively gone - destroyed both in terms of body and soul. Yes, the final shot of Brienne exacting revenge for the murder of his younger brother Renly does not show a beheading, but all the word from the makers and actors would indicate it is indeed the end for him. Whether he will follow a similar fate in the upcoming book The Winds of Winter is still far from certain.

We had at times been tantalising close to liking Stannis despite his lack of empathy and warmth. But the way he ultimately concedes his only heir Shireen - a truly decent person in a dark forbidding world - is horrifying in its intent as much as the manner of the 'sacrifice'. Once the burning alive of the girl apparently helps dispel the sub-zero conditions blocking progress to Winterfell, it is actually the beginning of the end. Stannis' remaining horses are gone, with many of his better fighters in the form of sellswords riding off for better monetary outcomes, and his own wife is a suicide victim; unable to forgive herself for her one surviving child's final moments of pain and fear.

Whilst the culmination of the arc pitting Baratheon against Bolton is done very well, I do have one minor complaint. We do not see Roose in either of these two final episodes, and that is a waste of a brilliant actor in Michael McElhatton. To be fair the character had already behaved knowing he was almost guaranteed the military win - and doubly so against an invasion force without cavalry as it ends up being - but some brief scene showing his reaction to his victory would be welcome. Furthermore the strong scenes with him and Ramsey earlier this season seemed to demand some kind of dramatic pay-off but all we see is more of Ramsey gloating. The despicable (second) husband of Sansa gets a rush of ecstasy killing defenceless men who know their leader is vanquished, and Iwan Rheon is magnetic as always.  Perhaps less character development proportionate to screen time was given to Ramsey though this year, apart from his reactions to being told he was the product of rape; when he himself uses sexual violence on women (and men like Theon).

I was thoroughly gripped by the Theon/Sansa sequences in the season finale. We get teased over whether Sansa will use the cork-screw device as a weapon; (she does not ultimately). Brienne notably prioritises chasing down Stannis over helping out the vulnerable Stark girl. A small excuse was the wintry conditions obscuring the candle lit at the top of the tower, but it would seem one oath just was more self-satisfying than another. The oldest surviving female Stark faces a horrible fate at both Myranda and Ramsey's hands, when confronted on the battlements, but she keeps her composure and her dignity. After viewers were misled as to how resentful 'Reek' really was in earlier episodes this year, and whether he would help his 'sibling' it is very gratifying to see him kill Myranda with a dismissive shove. Her death is as deserved as anyone who has met their maker in the entire show. The ensuing decision of Theon and Sansa to jump many feet down into the snow below is a thrilling 'cliffhanger' which will be resolved come spring 2016.

Rather less strong is the Dorne storyline, at least for now. Episode Nine has some half-decent scenes, but the plot thread involving Ellaria's penance never feels quite right. We have no real reason to believe she will let the Viper's gruesome death be forgotten, even if she can emphasise with Jaime about the stigma of loving someone they should not. 

The Bronn material is enjoyable enough filler. Jerome Flynn never has a bad moment, playing this loveable rogue and I am happy he has survived for now again. The farewell he receives from Tyene - "You need the bad pussy" - is criminally bad though, and one further instance of the show verging into self-parody.

Whatever the dialogue he is given Alexander Siddig is magnetic and authoritative as the hobbled Prince Doran. The now-cancelled Atlantis' loss is very much this far superior program's gain. I also enjoyed what Areo (DeObia Oparei) brought to the story. As under-developed as the character has been, he still had a real presence and makes us believe that the Dornish have many other formidable soldiers.

The brief bonding moment Jaime and biological daughter Myrcella have demonstrates solid acting somehow being enough to overcome a very weak script. Even if Westeros has its deviant customs, the manner in which this ordinary girl declares how she always knew her parents were siblings and that she is proud Jaime is her father just comes off as awkward. It matters little though, in that her sudden death is another blow to the gut. We know by now this show kills of likable characters with a snap of its fingers, but it still resonates. It also potentially will hopefully make this whole storyline come to life next year. Prince Doran will not accept his son's fiancée being assassinated, and the Small Council will be furious that their 'protected' potential heir has met this fate. It will surely lead to a heated argument, ineffective diplomatic efforts and then war. Whether the Sand Snakes will escape blame is also going to be intriguing.

Daenerys has had a very solid season in terms of character growth. True, actor Emilia Clarke really delivered the goods in her first and third seasons, but then the book source material was also at a peak. Khaleesi's ability to (barely) cope with the mammoth task of overseeing a city steeped in history, as Meereen is, has been a fine arc.

Episode Nine has by far the better material for Dany, her associates and her enemies. We get a shocking end for King Hizdahr, already having a brush with death in the middle of the season when just yards from Dany's dragons. Ultimately he is stabbed repeatedly by several Sons of the Harpy (who may or may not have been connected with him in earlier events). The death also is a fine pay-off to a brilliant scene where Hizdahr in put his place both in terms of wit, and also regarding the place where Dany's romantic feelings lay. 

The return of Jorah to Meereen as a slave trying to impress the Queen in mortal combat was very much telegraphed by previous episodes, even if the viewer had not seen any of the major pre-season trailers. Yet it plays out very well, even if we get a 'James Bond cliché' where a lethal opponent gloats and allows the (relative) good guy to turn the tables. The immediate moment after is terrific though. Jorah is not the most stable of people, and is dying slowly of greyscale. So his malicious throwing of a spear at the one person he loves almost would makes sense. As it turns out this action saves her from one Harpy assassin who was poised to strike her, from behind her prized seat in the arena.  

The ensuing 'banding together' of different people from various parts of the world, in the face of great danger is a fine moment in a quite solid episode. The Dance Of Dragons still pales in comparison to its equivalents in seasons one to three, and is ever marginally weaker than the all-action 'The Watchers On The Wall'. As well as the arrival of Drogon fits, after weeks of teasing us over his actions, there are some logic issues. Why do the Harpy assassins all stop to gawp at the incoming creature, when they have space and time to succeed in killing Khaleesi? Why does Drogon decide to be in a sitting position on arrival, and not fly around to attempt avoiding spears thrown at him? 

But such questions do not prevent an exciting final section of the episode turning into  the spectacular; Dany's flight away from Meereen on Drogon's back is both emotionally and thematically fitting. 

Once she is away from Meereen for some screen time in the finale, there is not much to really interest the viewer. She decides to stray from her wounded dragon, which probably would endanger them both, and is consequently captured by some Dothraki; possibly including those that deserted her when she lost her first husband. We are made to speculate that she drops her ring both to appear unmarried, and to help pursuers. Indeed she will have two devoted followers after her - Daario and Jorah. One loves the 'rightful queen' and has her love, the other chases intangibility. How they get on together and what they encounter should be a decent mini-arc of its own next season.

Unfortunately the scene that sets up this rescue mission, and decides who remains to try and bring order to the now-chaotic Meereen is pretty weak. We have to assume a lot. How did the others escape the Sons of the Harpy? What are the citizens' reactions, now a lot of them were slaughtered by the fanatics in the arena? Can anyone really see an exiled, disgraced dwarf being a credible ruler, even if he has some dynastic blood in him. There is too much that is vague, and the seasons having to be ten episodes do cause real problems. An episode in between to establish what the state of play was in Meereen may have worked better, but with so many storylines to juggle elsewhere with their own pressing timeframes, it would have been difficult. It must be emphasised that all the material with Jorah and Tyrion first meeting Dany in the fighting pits, up to the end of the season is original and progresses the Meereen arc substantially further than in the last published book. Arguably the showrunners were going to struggle somewhat with no 'solid' source material to fall back on.

Arya had some terrific arcs from the very beginning of Thrones, but arguably her material is mediocre this year. Certainly Maisie Williams is very capable (and I cannot wait for her imminent guest spot on Doctor Who's two parter this month), but what worked as internal brooding and loose chronology in the books has not quite been as impressive on-screen. The big exception though has been the Meryn Trant arc. We already hated him from the opening seasons, and most recently his blatant lies at Tyrion's trial were further insult to injury. So his final comeuppance at the hands of 'Lanna' is more than justified, as he indulges his appetite for abusing female minors one time too often. The violence is extreme even for this show and feels like it belongs to an Eighties 'video nasty'. We have seen Arya be cold-blooded before with a weapon in her hands, but this is more gruesome than what befell Walder Frey's minions or Polliver. The cutting of Trant's throat even recalls a similar fate for a dying Catelyn at the Red Wedding. 

Arya's ensuing punishment is not a bad twist to the somewhat tedious plot set in the House of Black and White, but Jaqen continues to be overly dull as a character and performance, given his excellence in Season 2. The exposition over the younger Stark girls' choice to defy the clear 'rules' only produces a striking concept, and the actual scene itself is curiously flat. Where Arya goes next year will hopefully be stronger material, and preferably she is involved with the major storylines again.

The Jon Snow arc will be my last point of focus for this review. For the most part this has been the major trump card of the pack Season Five possesses. Kit Harrington has been very strong, and may end up having an illustrious career for years to come His Commander of the Night's Watch alter-ego had many difficult choices to make, and the consequences of what he opted to do in spite of protest play out well in this final pair of episodes.

In Jon's absence during Hardhome, the remaining Night's Watch and their second-in-command Alliser Thorne have only grown more suspicious of the Lord Commander's intentions and methods. His arrival back at the Wall with the survivors of the massacre is almost stopped dead in its tracks. Things only get worse, once he agrees to send his clumsy but wise friend Sam Tarly away to train as a Maester. Jon has no trusted right-hand man left apart from Edd, and his Wildling allies may offer force of arms but only weaken his credibility given the battles between these enemy forces of yesteryear. Even as Jon makes provision to help Stannis - not knowing it is far too late to save the 'King' - he is letting his guard down about his own protection.

The 'Olly-evil-stare' subplot is the one blemish though as Jon's story reaches a bloody and chilling conclusion. If ever a betrayal was telegraphed in big neon glowing letters it was in this show. The boy actor playing Olly gets to look conflicted at giving Jon a stab to the gut, and that moment is in itself reasonable, but the end product is a weak and belaboured demonstration of how trusting someone can be a liability.

The final ignominious demise for Eddard's 'bastard' son may well not be the end, despite being a real downer to end a season of a long-running show (with long 'off-season' periods). We know that Melisandre is at the Wall, probably having used magic to get there faster than normal people would. And we know she is connected with the Brotherhood who brought Beric Dondarrion back to life multiple times. She has every reason to try and help Jon, given all her interactions with him, and now that Stannis is vanquished. Having Davos surviving is also likely to play a role in Jon getting back into the Game. (Even if it does not, having Liam Cunningham still around can only be a positive for the show).

So does this fifth season work overall? And is it worthy of all these Emmy statuettes and high viewing figures? Certainly the earlier visits to the world of Westeros were stronger overall and benefited from better source material. Yet it can be perceived that the show only gets its full dues now, much like The Return of the King's big sweep at the Oscars. Also by keeping the interest of so many people globally around the world, and sparking further debate, it continues to work as an 'event' series. 

But whereas Season Two was previously a relative low point, this season is further inferior. Consequently Hardhome feels like the one true success from beginning to end, with a brace of very watchable but flawed episodes, and one or two episodes that deliver a lot less than they promised. 

The original books had many structural weaknesses at this point, so I commend what has been edited out, altered or postponed (as in the case of the Greyjoys' arc). And sometimes the best shows cannot help having a let down, as is the case here after two very powerful seasons. There is still much to come, and I am far from alone in looking forward to the next development of this fantastic saga.





Blake's 7 - Lucifer: Revelation (Audiobook)Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 3 October 2015 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Blake's 7 - Lucifer: Revelation (Credit: Big Finish Productions, 2015)
Written and performed by Paul Darrow
Directed by Lisa Bowerman
Big Finish Productions, 2015

Avon was a rogue, of course, much older than she and wearily treading the path to dusty death. But there was something about him that was appealing, despite her intuition that he harboured a death wish. His paradoxical ambition for the moment seemed to be to postpone that inevitability for as long as possible. It was his misfortune that so many connived to thwart that ambition. Still, he was proving highly skilled in avoiding the Grim Reaper and enjoyed pitting his wits against enemies both real and imagined ...

Blake’s 7 – Lucifer: Revelation

Ever since those famous climactic moments of Blake’s 7 when Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) furnished that final, ironic smile to the camera, there have probably been more false “Avon sightings” – ie attempts to relaunch authorised and unauthorised versions of B7 set after the end of the TV series –  than Paul Darrow’s personal hero Elvis has enjoyed since his own send-off.

There was the universally panned 1984 novel by Tony Attwood – Blake’s 7 - Afterlife – which asserted that Avon, together with Vila and Orac, survived the showdown on Gauda Prime. In the 1990s, fans-turned-audio producer Magic Bullet Productions postulated their own (and in my humble opinion, best) coda to the B7 TV series called The Logic of Empire by speculating that a reprogrammed Avon eventually lived out his life believing himself to be Roj Blake! In the  ‘00s , Magic Bullet followed up The Logic of Empire with Kaldor City, which saw elements and characters from the Doctor Who and B7 universes overlap. The antagonistic Kaston Iago was a fugitive from the Terran Federation and also bore similarities to our favourite anti-hero ...

These contradictory accounts have often only ever had credence with B7 fans because (in the case of Afterlife) they were either licensed by the BBC or in the unauthorised productions, the parts of Avon/Iago were played by Darrow. However, just to muddy already murky waters, along comes another pretender to the B7 legacy – in the form of Big Finish’s Lucifer trilogy of novels/audiobooks. These too claim to be valid chapters of the B7 canon – largely because they bear the B7 logo on their cover artwork (meaning that they are licensed by B7 Media) and also because they are written by Paul Darrow himself. However, just because something bears the B7 logo or is written and performed by Darrow doesn’t guarantee that it’s any more canonical than the other post-Gauda Prime works I’ve mentioned.

Based on a listening of Darrow’s second book Lucifer: Revelation (I haven’t read the first book in the Lucifer trilogy or listened to the audiobook of the same), there isn’t a tale that seems more removed from the B7 universe or feels outside the spirit of the TV series than this one. Everything about this story just feels “off” – the survivors of the TV series are inconsistently portrayed, the depiction of the technology and vessels in the tale contradict the tech featured in the TV series, and the geopolitics is totally at odds with everything we know about the Federation from the TV series. Yes, you could argue that Darrow is weaving his own spin on the B7 mythology – but if so, then that vision is at the expense of the TV program that inspired the novel/audiobook in the first place!

So what’s wrong with Lucifer: Revelation? The premise itself in the hands of a more seasoned writer would be fascinating. More than two decades after Avon’s crew were slaughtered by Federation troops, the Terran Federation has evolved and its power become more centralised under the ruling Quartet, led by the ruthless Dr Pandora S (a charge of the now late Servalan) and her protégé Gabriella Travis (the unlikely daughter of Blake’s nemesis Space Commander Travis, whom Avon killed in the TV episode Star One). The Quartet, however, has a galactic rival in the Empire of Cathay, a restored Chinese imperial power with ambitions to extend its influence beyond Earth and into regions of space that were once controlled by the Federation. Both powers are hunting Avon and supercomputer Orac, the last survivors of Blake’s original rebellion; even two decades later, Orac remains more advanced than the Quartet’s and Cathay’s own technologies, implying that perhaps the Federation’s successors are in decline. They are certainly running low on fuel reserves, which is the key to their continued expansion into former Federation space. It’s a solid enough idea but if you’re reading or listening to this story and expecting the plot to develop beyond this basic outline, then you’re going to be seriously disappointed. Indeed, Darrow’s fascination with oriental culture is clearly reflected in all his descriptions and characterisations of the Empire of Cathay but otherwise it’s mere window dressing for a shallow and simplistic plot.

Given the lack of plot development, it’s still somewhat surprising that by the end of the book the political situation in the galaxy has changed dramatically, courtesy of a succession of coups and counter-coups, and enough shifting alliances, sex and bloodletting to rival a Game of Thrones episode. But given all of these events actually happen in spite of Avon, not because of him, the lead character seems almost superfluous in what is supposed to be his tale.

Indeed, the story is little more than one grand run-around tale for Avon who spends the bulk of it evading attacks from a family of assassins hired by Gabriella, pirates and smugglers, the extra-terrestrial Greys (who were introduced in the first book), and the forces of the Quartet and the Empire of Cathay. Avon is armed only with his wits, Orac and a quirky spacecraft computer that calls itself George.

Perhaps Darrow thinks that George, in the absence of Vila (or even Scorpio’s computer Slave in the last season of the B7 TV series), is a much needed source of humour. However, all George does is reinforce how out of character Avon is in this story; he proves to be uncharacteristically weary, sentimental and emotional in parts, balking at Orac’s suggestion that he will have to disable George to avoid being tracked by their pursuers (in the TV series, the Avon of old would have passionlessly dismantled George and pieced it back together from scratch, smarter and more efficient than ever). Avon also expresses sentiment when he sets out to rescue resistance fighters Del Grant and Magda Lens, who is one of many brief romantic interests in this book. Again in the TV series, Avon at times showed loyalty and respect for his crew but he was careful to mask his affection for them. As Orac itself observes in the story, this older, wearier Avon isn’t supposed to have feelings, labelling him a “dead man walking”. One of his lovers also notes that he has a death wish (see extract above) but seems in no hurry to hasten his demise. This is perhaps the most interesting new trait we learn about Avon in this novel but it sadly goes unexplored.

Orac’s characterisation is equally confounding; instead of being haughty, matter of fact and concise, Darrow’s version of the machine is enigmatic,  occasionally emotive and even goading (“What are you going to do now, Avon?” it challenges when they are caught in a tight spot at one point). Indeed, the supercomputer also seems to fulfil the part of comic relief vacated by the sorely missed Vila. When Avon proposes raiding an armoury at a Quartet base while the security forces are engaged in an orgy, and asks Orac how he breaks in, Orac uncharacteristically quips: “You want to join the orgy?” This is representative of the humour throughout this book which is for the most part pretty puerile. There are only rare moments where Darrow’s dialogue between his characters is either clever or ironic (when Avon’s ship is pitted against two of Cathay’s Dragon-class warships, one character remarks that Avon might be in for a bit of shock, as “St George only slew one dragon. He would have been reluctant to take on two!”).

The enhanced audiobook format sadly does little to improve the quality of the story. Paul Darrow as ever tries to deliver a vibrant rendition of his book, instilling different moods as befits different characters and scenes but even he seems to struggle with reciting his own stilted writing. While his impersonation of Orac is passable to the late Peter Tuddenham’s portrayal on TV or even Alistair Lock’s interpretation in BF’s regular B7 audios, the portrayals of his other characters, who are mostly one-dimensional, are never anywhere as near as convincing as some of the performances he’s given in The Liberator Chronicles (particularly as the fanatical Father Callus in the recent play Brother). This suggests that as an actor, Darrow is extremely good when presented with someone else’s material but not necessarily his own. Even light music, sound effects and edits by director Lisa Bowerman can do little to enhance the story.

One wonders if Paul Darrow would have had his novels taken up by another publisher if he wasn’t already a longstanding performer for Big Finish across much of its audio output as well as Blake’s 7. Darrow isn’t the first actor to write further stories for a franchise that he appeared in but first and foremost, he’s an actor, not a writer. William Shatner also contributed his name to a range of Star Trek novels in the ‘90s and ‘00s (most of which weren’t particularly very good) but even he had the good sense to conceive the basic storylines and then delegate the task to professional writers to develop his stories (many of whom also had respect for the continuity of the universe they were playing in). There are plenty of professional writers at Big Finish with an in-depth knowledge of the B7 canon, so why couldn’t Darrow have ghost written the Lucifer trilogy as well?

Perhaps I’m being unduly harsh, as Lucifer: Revelation is the middle chapter of a trilogy and I’m making an assessment without having read the first book. All I can say is that this is not a fine example of Paul Darrow’s work (acting or writing) by any measure and it is a truly awful Blake’s 7 novel. It is best dismissed as another one of those post-Gauda Prime “Avon sightings” – you thought you saw Avon serving customers at the local Milliways restaurant but it was just a very poor imitation of the character that B7 fans have admired for more than three decades!

 








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