Vila Restal, Cold Fury
Although it began with a bit of a misfire (with the opening instalment Fractures), Big Finish’s first micro-season of Blake’s 7 full cast audio dramas has for the most part delivered some strong, exciting storylines. The six episodes have all strongly evoked the spirit of the original TV series, especially of the time frame in which they are set (midway through B7’s second series) yet Big Finish’s stable of writers have not shied away from experimenting with the key characters and even testing the program’s conventions.
We’ve already seen from this “season within a season” that the Liberator is indeed an extraordinary ship, that supercomputer Orac (voiced by Alistair Lock) is more conniving than we’d previously thought and that the relationship between Blake (Gareth Thomas) and his crew is more delicate than was hinted at on TV (yes, Blake and Avon, again portrayed in these audios by Paul Darrow, were by the end of the second season at loggerheads but it was not as evident that Jenna and Cally, played again by Sally Knyvette and Jan Chappell, could be just as rebellious). The stakes for the crew hit standard by ten with the final two instalments Cold Fury and Caged.
In the cliffhanger to the previous instalment Mirror, Vila (Michael Keating) was a captive of Blake’s arch nemesis Space Commander Travis (Brian Croucher). In Cold Fury, the Liberator crew is led to the icy world of Horst Minor in search of their comrade – only to fall into an elaborate trap which sets the scene for a confrontation in Caged between Blake and not just Travis but an unconventional, wily foe in the form of the Terran Federation President.
In the B7 TV series, the Federation President was mentioned in dialogue but never appeared on screen. It was revealed on television that he was the mastermind behind the manufacture of the illicit narcotic Shadow (and therefore controlled both sides of the law absolutely - the Federation and its criminal underground). By season’s end, this mysterious figure was deposed and replaced by Supreme Commander Servalan. With Jacqueline Pearce unable to reprise Servalan in this series of plays, the President, played by Hugh Fraser, finally steps into the limelight and proves to be an excellent foil for Blake and his crew. Fraser’s portrayal as the still anonymous President (we never learn his name) is outstanding – and in turn steals the acting honours from the regular cast.
The President for the most part encapsulates composure in contrast to the ever impatient and zealous Blake and the brutish yet obtuse Travis. On the surface, he is an intelligent, refined man who exudes self-confidence and enjoys the trappings of luxury, including fine wine, food and women. At one point, the President even remarks that “You rebels are just so angsty!” – as if he cannot truly understand why Blake and his crew are waging a campaign of rebellion against him! It is particularly bizarre at one point in Caged to hear the President and Blake debating the merits of the latter’s campaign against the Federation as part of a casual dinner side chat, not exchanging blaster fire at 20 paces – but it reflects an adversary that is completely self-assured and has come to believe in his own invulnerability.
However, even after this two-parter, it is still hard to entirely get a handle on who the President is. It is clear that he is a puppet master and a schemer. What is not so clear is the darker side alluded to in his character – in Cold Fury, it seems the President has no qualms resorting to bloodshed if it will achieve his ends and he also displays bouts of paranoia (granted, there is an explanation for this apparent instability but to reveal that here would be a major plot spoiler!). Also, if the President is so omnipresent (as these episodes suggest), then how does Servalan manage to oust him at all? Nevertheless, you don’t really come away from these episodes with a sense that you know the President any better than Blake and his crew do – and I suspect that is a very deliberate tactic by writers Cavan Scott and Mark Wright. Fraser’s performance is memorable and it would be a pity if Big Finish does not revive the character in future B7 instalments.
The other standout performance in Cold Fury and Caged belongs to Michael Keating as Vila. After Jenna and Cally’s rebellious streaks in Mirror, it is Vila’s turn to surprise. Indeed, his whole loyalty to the crew is thrown into question – and Keating embraces this apparent turnabout in his character with relish, finally dishing it back to his comrades for failing to take him seriously (“Jenna, I’ve wanted to say this for a long time – shut up!”). The exchanges between Vila and Travis in Cold Fury are quite compelling as the jailer manipulates his prisoner through a combination of drugs and persuasion.
What isn’t so convincing, despite Keating’s performance, is Vila’s eventual return to the fold. Cally senses the confusion in Vila’s mind at the start of Caged – but by the end of the serial we are expected to believe that it has all been a complex ruse and that the crew will reluctantly (if not gladly) welcome him home. Scott and Wright in the CD extras at the end of Caged argue that this illustrates how canny Vila is and that B7’s heroes and villains too often underestimate him. Be that as it may, Vila’s behaviour lacks plausibility, especially as it underpins the whole story. Scott and Wright even clumsily try to explain away Vila’s justification by tying it back to events in the B7 Season 1 episode Bounty. Needless to say, that just implies that the events in Big Finish’s dramas are meant to take place in the same universe – but it doesn’t necessarily make Vila’s motives any more credible.
This gripe aside, the two episodes as a whole are impressive, thanks to the performers, sound effects and incidental music which successfully convey the environments portrayed in the stories, eg the howling winds of Horst Minor, transmissions from the Liberator to Federation pursuit ships, the docking of the Liberator in the Federation’s Cage. B7 as a TV series relied more often than not on music, sound effects and the power of well written dialogue to give its limited model effects and dodgy sets and costumes conviction. The program’s format therefore makes it ideal for audio where by the same token it is possible to evoke travels through deep space in the form of communications between vessels and to convey torture and conditioning through defiant dialogue and supporting sound effects – all without being undermined by the accompanying visuals.
As with the earlier instalments in this micro-series, the performances of the cast members, coupled with dialogue, music and sound effects, help to ground Cold Fury and Caged ostensibly in the era in which they are meant to be set. Avon’s taciturn ripostes, Blake’s zeal and fortitude, Orac’s over-inflated sense of self, Jenna’s coolness under pressure, Cally’s comforting tones and Vila’s humour all help to create the illusion that these could be recordings of recently recovered B7 episodes that have gathered dust in the BBC archives.
Cold Fury and Caged provide an entertaining and mostly satisfactory conclusion to Big Finish’s first season of full cast Blake’s 7 audio adventures. Although Big Finish are working within the tight confines of the TV program’s continuity and are planning to set the second series with the Liberator crew post-Star One, I would welcome more opportunities to hear the original cast in future audio adventures – and for a rematch with Hugh Fraser’s Federation President no less.