“I believe his precise words were that he planned to live forever or die trying! Let us hope he hasn’t tried too hard!”
Cally and Avon, Blake’s 7: Mindset
As the Liberator crew continue their search for missing crewmate Dayna Mellanby, the middle chapters of Big Finish’s latest series of Blake’s 7 full cast audio dramas head more into the fantasy realm that were the staple of some episodes in the original TV series’ third season (the latter part of which these audio tales are ostensibly set).
Indeed, BF producer Cavan Scott states in the extras for the instalments Mindset and Ghost Ship that there was a conscious effort to revisit the tone of some episodes from that season, such as Tanith Lee’s Sarcophagus, which had a spooky, ethereal quality to them. This is a brave, calculated risk on the BF production team’s part, as the more fantastic episodes of B7’s original run aren’t fondly remembered by fans and some are to this day still scorned by them. While Sarcophagus may be remembered as an exceptional piece of fantasy (I don’t count myself as someone who thinks it’s an especially classic episode), B7 had its share of clangers when it tried this genre as well (eg The Web, Deliverance, Dawn of the Gods, Ultraworld, Rescue). Further, B7 is better remembered for not just its hardcore SF element but also for its realpolitik intrigue and suspense (no self-respecting TV program would want to be fondly remembered for episodes like The Web!).
Mindset has been written by long-time BF scribe Jacqueline Rayner – again a deliberate choice by Scott to rekindle the spirit of Sarcophagus through a female writer. It’s a good decision, as Rayner writes for all of the regular characters extremely well, especially Cally (Jan Chappell) who plays a fundamental role in the story. Of course, some long-time B7 fans may still groan at the story’s formula, especially as it involves another Auronar telepath, Reno (Geoffrey Breton). In the TV series, Cally-centric and fantasy episodes (often the one and the same thing) would almost by rote exploit the character’s susceptibility to other telepathic influences, often involving other kin from Auron or villainous god-like telepaths that inspired Auronar culture. BF’s B7 audio series also hasn’t shied away from foisting new Auronar characters upon its listeners either (eg Gustav Nyrron). Fortunately, Rayner delivers a story where Cally is strong and steadfast whilst all of the other crew members are subdued or compromised. Jan Chappell takes full advantage of the opportunity to display Cally’s courage and compassion. Indeed, if it is not for Cally’s heroism, the Liberator crew would not survive at all. Ghost Ship is inspired by the premise of what happens to the unlucky crew member that has to sit on teleport duty for the course of an episode – a task that was all too often foisted upon the female contingent of the crew in the TV series. In this episode, teleport duty falls to Vila (Michael Keating) who subsequently finds himself haunted by mysterious apparitions aboard the Liberator while Avon (Paul Darrow), Cally and the rest of the crew teleport planetside to meet with a crime syndicate that may have information about Dayna. The listener therefore is privy to Vila’s superstitions and worst fears, as Keating virtually carries the narrative solo for a good 20 to 25 minutes.
Unfortunately, it’s still not the most engaging or dramatic sequence in Iain McLaughlin’s script – Vila inadvertently locking himself in a storage room and tripping over crates and other equipment, all while muttering obscenities at himself, makes for as boring listening as it would for dull visuals on TV. Fortunately, in spite of the material he has to work with, Keating’s performance is outstanding - he continues to play Vila effortlessly, with a combination of enthusiasm, customary dry humour and Vila’s propensity to panic.
Both episodes, apart from being heavily fantasy-driven, also play with Vila and Cally’s psychological make-up. Cally, who is one of the last of her people after the tragic events of the TV episode Children of Auron, craves the mental contact and affection that is only possible with another telepath and in Mindset is even momentarily tempted by an offer from Reno that would create a permanent union between them. Vila’s psychology is exploited throughout both episodes for entirely different reasons. In Mindset, Vila is drawn to the planet Karwen because Reno is able to exploit his greed for the fountain of youth. Once he is submerged, Vila is content to be left there because he doesn’t believe he is respected by the crew anyway; when he is revived, Cally urges Avon, Tarrant (Steven Pacey) and Grant (Tom Chadbon) to remind him that he is indeed a valued contributor. In Ghost Ship, it is precisely because of Vila’s reputation for cowardice that he is left behind on the Liberator. However, Vila is, as we see in this story and other B7 releases, more resourceful, clever and courageous than his allies and adversaries give him credit for. Indeed, it becomes clear later in the story that Vila has been left aboard the ship for good reason – precisely because he can be relied upon in a crisis, not necessarily because he is untrustworthy.
Mindset also plays with the view held by long-time B7 fans that there is a romantic connection between Cally and Avon – which is constantly denied by the latter. Indeed, Avon’s apparent coldness and disdain for other members of his crew across both episodes, including for Vila, Tarrant and Dayna (whom he argues he is only intent on recovering because she could, under duress, reveal intelligence about the Liberator and its crew) also hides the doubtless affection he does feel for members of his gang. On the other hand, he also seems happy to play dangerous games with their lives in Ghost Ship – which hardly makes him endearing to his shipmates. Mindset is the better of the two B7 instalments, mainly as Jacqueline Rayner gives all of the main characters decent air time and dialogue and tells a story that could have been plausibly done on TV. Ghost Ship, by comparison, relies too strongly on the audio medium to provide a spooky and (for Vila at least) a claustrophobic feel. It doesn’t quite work as a full cast play precisely because it doesn’t really need a large cast. In fact, the story would have worked more effectively as a Liberator Chronicle, given much of the story is dedicated to Vila’s trials on the ship and the other characters (with the exception of Avon, Orac and Zen) are only present in the first and last quarters of the tale. As a result, Chappell, Pacey and Chadbon are wasted in their roles.
As the middle chapters of this six-part series, Mindset and Ghost Ship are entertaining in parts, with plenty of humorous and eerie moments, coupled with Big Finish’s consistently high production values. However, as fantasy-based tales, they are, like some of the original TV serials that inspired them, lacklustre instalments. As mentioned above, B7’s strengths as a TV series were its 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. The next instalment in the series – Devil’s Advocate – promises a return to that more traditional format. It will also be interesting to see how the “search for Dayna” story arc develops as it nears its conclusion (after some more hints in Mindset and Ghost Ship) and whether some other hints in Mindset may have an impact in wrapping up this particular series of adventures – or if they will create angst for the crew in a future micro-season of B7 full cast audios.