Bookmark and Share The Liberator Chronicles: Volume 9

9/29/2014 11:02:00 pm - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Damian Christie

The Liberator Chronicles: Volume 9
Written by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright
Directed by Ken Bentley and Lisa Bowerman
Released by Big Finish Auigust 2014
“Who better to turn to? The man who threatened the entire Federation with the most powerful ship in the sector at his disposal ...”
“You flatter me.”
“I meant Blake!”

Tavac and Avon, Planetfall

The latest volume of The Liberator Chronicles is a precursor to the second audio series of full cast Blake’s 7 audio adventures due to be released by Big Finish, starting in November. After the events of The Armageddon Storm (Volume 3 of The Liberator Chronicles), the Liberator crew – comprising Avon (Paul Darrow), Vila (Michael Keating), Cally (Jan Chappell), Tarrant (Steven Pacey) and Dayna – have acquired a new addition to their ranks in Del Grant (Tom Chadbon).

Whereas previous Liberator Chronicles instalments have been more experimental and character-based than the full cast B7 audios, this trilogy of serials – Defector, Planetfall and Secrets – are closer in structure, style and pace to the full cast serials. The episodes continue to be narrated by key members of the Liberator crew but there are also many scenes acted out by the regular and secondary characters as if the story is a “live” adventure and not one simply being told in flashback. Consequently, the serials do not feel as intimate or as pensive as some previous Chronicles but this joint approach to the narrative means they have dramatic tension. It is no coincidence that this new style of storytelling coincides with the arrival of a new producer on The Liberator Chronicles in Cavan Scott who, along with regular writing partner Mark Wright, has penned this trilogy.

Scott and Wright have made it no secret that the trilogy is inspired by the spy genre, with particular attention to the James Bond franchise. Defector recalls The Living Daylights, Secrets the prologue to Tomorrow Never Dies and Planetfall just about every Bond instalment ever with its casino space station. However, the stories are not straight carbon copies and are still fresh and interesting, containing plenty of twists.

In Defector, the two Dels – Tarrant and Grant – are sent on a covert mission to a Federation world to assassinate a rebel agent gone rogue. While this course of action does not sit comfortably with Tarrant, especially as his namesake in Grant seems to be following his own agenda, what ought to be a “standard job” goes pear-shaped. And just when you think our “heroes” will finally meet their maker (in the form of arch nemesis Servalan), they are as surprised as the listener by what happens next ... Defector proves itself as much The Manchurian Candidate as it is The Living Daylights.

Planetfall is B7’s answer to The Poseidon Adventure. The Liberator receives a call from another fugitive on the run from the Federation with vital intelligence data and Avon and Cally masquerade as a high roller and his mistress on the pleasure station Arcadia to meet with this individual. Once Cally establishes contact with the fugitive, who is revealed to be the former Martian governor and Federation Council member Solvin Tavac (SF genre veteran David Warner), the space station is suddenly racked by explosions and Arcadia begins to break up in orbit around its home world. Avon and Cally must then strive to keep the station afloat and Tavac alive until the Liberator can rescue them whilst also evading another Federation agent on Tavac’s trail. Although the identity of the agent is predictable (in fact, Avon is caught out twice in the TV series by the same ruse!), there are bigger surprises to follow: the identity of the individual behind the destruction of Arcadia and Tavac’s connection to the Liberator. In fact, the story ends on a cliffhanger that will astonish some long time, diehard B7 fans.

Secrets sees Vila, Grant and Tavac visiting an arms bazaar and auction to bid for the data that Tavac has promised Avon. It is inevitably a heist-type story with a few twists but it is also a deeply personal story for Vila and Michael Keating tells it with all of his character’s mockery and dry wit. Needless to say, it would be a spoiler in this review to reveal why the story is so important for Vila but the upshot is that there is more to the Liberator’s resident thief than just (in his own words) “lock, open”. Vila is still more resourceful, clever and courageous than so many allies and adversaries give him credit for – and he surprises even Tavac who has read up on the Liberator’s past and present crew and incorrectly drawn his own conclusions about the thief.

The performers across these plays are all solid. Pacey, Darrow and Chappell, and Keating all impress with their first person accounts while Chadbon charms and bluffs his way through two of the plays as Grant and Warner injects arrogance and pomposity into Tavac. David Warner has always been a fantastic actor, turning in magnificent performances on screen and in voice roles in a career spanning more than 50 years – from Jack the Ripper in the classic Seventies film Time After Time to his multiple roles in Star Trek (particularly as Gul Madred in The Next Generation) and most recently in the Doctor Who episode Cold War and in multiple roles for Big Finish (notably as one of the alternative Doctors in Doctor Who Unbound and as Steel in Sapphire and Steel). In Blake’s 7, he does not disappoint as the duplicitous Tavac and his scenes and exchanges with Vila are profound and powerful. You automatically know that as soon as you see David Warner’s name attached to any production that you are definitely going to get extremely good value for money.

The induction of Del Grant into the Liberator crew also creates fascinating ripples in this trilogy. This one-time character from the TV series (who first appeared in B7’s second season in the episode Countdown in 1979) is important because he is the brother of the woman that Avon once loved (and subsequently killed when he learned she betrayed him). Although the bad blood between Grant and Avon was resolved first in Countdown and then in The Armageddon Storm, it is interesting to observe Tarrant and Vila’s reactions to the newcomer. Tarrant is suspicious of the Liberator’s new “golden boy” and “gun for hire” and by the end of Defector warns Grant to watch his back. Vila similarly expresses his distrust of Grant at the beginning of Secrets, describing him as “a walking timebomb, waiting to explode in Avon’s face”, but by the end of the play, their relationship has developed into one of mutual respect. It will be interesting to see how Grant’s relationship with the crew is portrayed in the forthcoming second full cast B7 series and whether some of the reservations expressed by other members of the crew boil over.

In all, The Liberator Chronicles#9 provides us with three engaging, action-packed plays. While the serials may seem more like straight renditions of B7 episodes and not as clever, inventive or as insightful as some of the more recent instalments in The Liberator Chronicles (eg the episodes President and Spoils), this trilogy nevertheless makes very good use of its characters and places them into some very dangerous places and situations, thanks to the combination of high production qualities and the power of the spoken word.

Bookmark and Share The Liberator Chronicles: Volume 8

8/20/2014 09:38:00 am - Reviewed by Chuck Foster

Reviewed by Damian Christie

The Liberator Chronicles: Volume 8
Written by Simon Guerrier, Marc Platt and James Goss
Directed by Lisa Bowerman and Ken Bentley
Released by Big Finish May 2014
Although Big Finish is now producing full cast audio adventures with the Blake’s 7 cast, it is pleasing that the company has continued with its Liberator Chronicles volumes. These plays offer dedicated listeners more experimental takes on their favourite TV series and in turn more intimate, introspective accounts of the characters than would normally be the case in a full cast audio adventure. While stories utilising only two or three actors and supported by music and sound effects may seem limited to first time listeners, it is impressive how Big Finish time and again manages to produce compelling stories with epic imagination, scope and moral threads.

Volume 8 of The Liberator Chronicles takes a different narrative approach in each of its three stories. President is performed in the present tense in the form of a conversation between Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce) and Secretary Rontane (Peter Miles). Sea of Iron is the closest to a conventional first person narration, although it is mostly told in the past tense by Cally (Jan Chappell) and occasionally by Servalan. Spoils is the most surreal of the three episodes, as Blake (Gareth Thomas) experiences a lurid dream that is administered by the mysterious Dream Makers (played by Jemma Churchill and Dan Starkey). All three tales provide us with new insights into the key characters – both for better and worse.

President is, of course, unique for featuring Servalan and not the Liberator crew at all. When the play opens, it appears the Federation’s Supreme Commander may have finally bitten off more than she can chew. This is Pearce’s moment to shine and she does not disappoint. She is ably supported by SF stalwart Peter Miles as Secretary Rontane, a close acolyte of the Terran Federation’s President. Miles effortlessly reprises the role that he played in two episodes of the original B7 TV series over 35 years ago. Of course, the scenario that author Simon Guerrier paints isn’t as obvious to the listener as it seems and the twist at the conclusion shows that Servalan is almost as masterful a manipulator as Guerrier is! Indeed, this episode works precisely because it beautifully exploits the audio medium. On television, a glance at the scenery of the conversation between Servalan and Rontane would immediately reveal the truth of the matter. On audio, the listener makes deductions from the dialogue and forms a picture in their own mind, both rightly and wrongly.

Although you might expect President to focus on the character recently played by Hugh Fraser in Big Finish’s first series of full cast B7 audio adventures, this is Servalan’s story and only features the title character indirectly. It is revealed that this is the same man who survives an assassination attempt on Mars (first mentioned in the B7 full cast audio Cold Fury) but as with the full cast plays, we only ever get a sketchy description of the President at best. Although Servalan describes him as a wiry, middle-aged man with a penchant for fine food, wine and “pretty young things”, he remains as anonymous and remote as he was in the TV series.

In fact, President focuses more on the internal power struggle in the Federation Council and the political situation across a host of Federation worlds and moons. Although we’re not meant to sympathise with the regime’s inherent brutality, the story gives us some insight into the geopolitical problems the Federation has to contend with, eg rationing, starvation, overpopulation, a failing welfare state, a corrupt bureaucracy – all good reasons why some Federation citizens could identify with the ideals of Blake’s crusade and take up arms. It is clear that the President, Servalan and Rontane have no interest in the people they are meant to serve – they will show the populace they care through a series of well staged PR exercises yet will do nothing to solve society’s ills.

Sea of Iron is a more conventional B7 story than President and probably the “oddball” in this trilogy of audio plays. That isn’t because it’s a radical or odd story, merely it is bookended by two stories with overtly political themes and is more of a typical B7 adventure. Marc Platt’s script focuses predominantly on Cally and her estrangement from her home world of Auron, with some devious shenanigans from Servalan on the side. Although it’s a story ostensibly set in the second season of the TV series (with Blake and Jenna still aboard the Liberator), it could just as easily fit into B7’s later run. Servalan, again performed with relish by Pearce, takes centre stage as the villain in this episode, much as she did in B7’s third and fourth seasons, and the story itself serves as a prequel to the third season episode Children of Auron.

What probably makes Sea of Iron fit in this boxset is the loose theme of betrayal that underscores this trilogy of tales – Cally must wrestle with the truth that her mentor is not the man he once was while the Auron government is also revealed to compromise its strong beliefs of isolation, much to Cally’s horror (it was this isolationist policy, of course, which persuaded Cally to leave her world in the first place).

Spoils is the most intriguing of the three plays. B7 in its TV run never tried stories featuring alternate timelines or parallel universes – scenarios that are a staple of the likes of Doctor Who, Star Trek and even Stargate. While it’s fascinating to take a sneak peak at what could have been or never was, these series have always run the danger of frustrating their audiences if the outcome of a story set in an alternate future negates the very purpose of the story! Fortunately, Spoils author James Goss skilfully assures the listener from the outset that there is a purpose behind the story – to show Blake through a virtual reality dream-like scenario that winning the peace after the fall of the Federation will be more difficult than winning the war. In turn, it is later revealed that it is not just us as the audience that is privy to Blake’s dream but someone else with an agenda ...

All the same, Goss provides us with a fascinating picture of what could have – or would have – happened if Blake and the Liberator crew had succeeded. Like in President, we catch glimpses of a Federation that is so systemically corrupt that no amount of goodwill on the part of any one politician can change it because he/she will always be frustrated or betrayed by other factions. Even though he sets out from the beginning of his presidency to do all the right things and to honour the trust that the Federation’s adoring citizens bestow on him, the task for Blake proves insurmountable – he finds that for every political spot fire he tries to put out, an even bigger one burns brightly in its place. By the end of the play President Blake, both through his own faults and due to external factors, has succumbed to absolute power and become as tyrannical as Servalan or Hugh Fraser’s President.

Gareth Thomas clearly enjoys the opportunity to play an older, wearier and embittered Blake, probably in accordance with his own age today (the conclusion of the play occurs only five years after his apparent victory but it would have been more realistic if it had been set 10, perhaps even 20 years later). Thomas is ably complemented by Dan Starkey (better known as Doctor Who’s Strax!) and Jemma Churchill who portray the mysterious Dream Makers and also double as a host of characters including regulars Avon, Jenna, Cally, Vila and Zen. No doubt for Starkey’s inner fanboy it would be a dream come true to be playing iconic parts like Avon, Vila and Zen. Sadly, as competent as Starkey and Churchill are, I think the narrative would be more convincing if Paul Darrow and Sally Knyvette had played Avon and Jenna respectively and doubled as the Dream Makers and some of the other characters. Starkey and Churchill’s portrayals of Avon and Jenna are horrible caricatures (far from being “jaw-droppingly” accurate as Goss recently told Big Finish’s Vortex magazine). Churchill and Starkey do enough at certain times of the narrative to make you believe they could be Avon and Jenna (or at least the Dream Makers masquerading as them) but otherwise their performances will grate on the listeners who know these characters best.

Nevertheless, the story, the production and the performances produce some powerful images that homage the TV series, particularly in the second half of the play. We see President Blake lead a massacre similar to the one he witnessed in the TV series opener The Way Back. He is then thrust into a final confrontation with Avon and the Liberator which echoes the TV series’ final climactic moments (indeed, I count this as the third time Big Finish have homaged the final moments of the series finale Blake — the B7 audios twice, together with the novel The Forgotten). Unfortunately the surprise twist is spoiled by Churchill’s hammy acting (“Maximum power!”).

The Liberator Chronicles Volume 8 is therefore a mixed bag of stories. President and Spoils are by far the better instalments, with overt political themes (one of B7’s strengths), while Sea of Iron is the weakest link (sadly reiterating a complaint of many long-time B7 fans that Cally-focused stories were often the dullest!). Again, you could construe betrayal as the underlying theme of these stories (it was definitely a recurring theme in the TV series) — that’s certainly the case in President, in the deeply personal revelations for Cally, and in Blake’s reaction to his dream-like experience. The characters in each of the stories learn something new about their place in the universe — and for Blake and Cally in particular, each revelation rocks them to the core of his and her being.

Bookmark and Share The Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes

8/20/2014 08:58:00 am - Reviewed by Chuck Foster

Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen

The Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes
Released by Big Finish
Written by Jonathan Barnes
Directed by Ken Bentley
Released: December 2013
Big Finish’s range of Sherlock Holmes audio dramas which began in 2009 with the releases of adaptations of David Stuart Davies’ stage plays The Last Act and The Death and Life starring Roger Llewellyn, before 2010 saw the audio debut of Nicholas Briggs as Holmes and Richard Earl as Dr Watson in Holmes and the Ripper has seen a mixture of faithful adaptations of Conan Doyle’s stories and new adventures set during the various gaps within the established ‘canon’.

Acclaimed novelist Jonathan Barnes made his Big Finish writing debut with 2012’s The Adventure of the Perfidious Mariner, set during the period of Holmes’ retirement in the aftermath of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912 and prior to his final canonical adventure His Last Bow. Barnes was therefore a natural choice to write this latest offering. The Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes is an ambitious box set of four new adventures set over the course of forty years of the lives of Holmes and Watson.

The opening story The Guttering Candle is set in the summer of 1880 prior to Holmes and Watson’s first meeting relates Holmes’ first encounter with Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard whilst investigating the mystery of a body pulled from the river Thames, whilst simultaneously presenting an account from Watson from his time serving in Afghanistan of an unusual encounter with a wounded young Englishman named Christopher Thrale, very well played by Blake Ritson. The inter-cutting between the two stories is well-handled and both set up events which are paid off later on.

The Adventure of the Gamekeeper’s Folly finds our heroes some fifteen years later, following Holmes' return from exile in The Empty House. It presents an adventure which Watson is clearly unwilling to be sharing as the outcome for Holmes is not entirely satisfactory. It does however pick up several threads from the first story and the central performance by Amy Ewbank as Eliza Hinderclay is a particular highlight.

The third story, The Adventure of the Bermondsey Cutthroats, moves events on to 1903. In The Adventure of the Perfidious Mariner a mention was made of a terrible event which had caused Holmes to retire early despite still being at the height of his deductive powers. This is story of that event and it contains some genuinely surprising twists to the extent that the listener may be deceived into thinking that the ongoing mysteries from the first story have been tied up.

The final adventure, for now at least, The Sowers of Despair, is a dark tale set in 1919. Holmes himself is forced to act as narrator as he has dragged his “faithful Boswell” Dr Watson into danger, seemingly for the last time. Briggs clearly relishes the opportunity to take over from his co-star Earl as narrator, however Barnes’ script remains very much in keeping with Conan Doyle’s style of first person narration. This story sees the welcome return, from The Adventure of the Perfidious Mariner, of the delightfully villainous Tracey Childs as Mrs Curbishley, a worthy adversary about whom many mysteries remain. Having seemed to bring events to a climax in the previous story this is a pleasing finale in which the revelations and surprises as to what has really being going on in the shadows for the last forty years are brought to light and concludes the ongoing mystery with an amusing coda.

Overall, this box set was certainly not an ordeal but rather a delight and this listener will be very much looking forward to the next box set release of four brand new adventures by Barnes, The Judgement of Sherlock Holmes, due in December 2014. This promises to inform us of the mysterious period of Holmes’ life following his apparent death at Reichenbach Falls.

Bookmark and Share Blake’s 7: Cold Fury/Caged

7/30/2014 03:02:00 am - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Damian Christie
Blakes 7 Cold Fury (Credit: Big Finish)
Blakes 7 Caged (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright
Directed by Ken Bentley
Big Finish, 2014
You must think I’m as stupid as I look!
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.

Bookmark and Share Game Of Thrones Season 4 - Episodes Six, Seven and Eight

7/22/2014 11:55:00 pm - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
6 - The Laws of Gods and Men/ 7 - Mockingbird/ 8 - The Mountain and the Viper

''If you want justice you have come to the wrong place'. Tyrion Lannister addressing Prince Oberyn Martell.

Tyrion is caught between a rock and a hard place and events only further decline for the diminutive quipster in these three segments of the epic fantasy adaptation. Outside the confines of King's Landing, quite a few other events play out in the wake of the Battle of Black Water Bay and The Red Wedding; as the denizens of Westeros struggle to adjust.

A lot of ground is covered in episode six, progressing various notable storylines. Since his heavy loss in attempting to capture King's Landing, Stannis Barratheon has been licking his wounds. Now he seeks new provisions and capital via the bank of Braavos (featuring a typically memorable cameo from Mark Gatiss). Having mentioned Braavos before, as well as featuring several characters from there, the show now transports the viewer properly. Another bonus is that loveable rogue Salladhor Saan briefly returns - still as shameless and promiscuous in lifestyle as ever.

Then the long-awaited reappearance of Yara features as she attempts rescuing Theon/Reek from his captors. However she is simply too late to connect with any remnants of the brother she once knew - he denounces her as a mirage and so she leaves empty handed. There is a rather curious moment where a bare-chested Ramsey turns his back on Yara and threatens to unleash his wild dogs. It strains credibility and indeed overall the set-piece is rather redundant.

Across the Narrow Sea we catch up with the latest challenges facing Daenerys as she tries to preside over her subjects in Meereen. She must accept that her dragons are regarded as being loose cannons and even her crucifixions of the seemingly malicious slave-masters is not met with universal acclaim.

Before Tyrion can face his long-dreaded trial some interesting political machinations appear on-screen first. Varys, who has been inactive for much of the season, tells Oberyn how his lack of romantic desires - even pre-castration - allowed him to focus on bettering himself in the wider scheme of things. Then there is a small council scene featuring Tywin, Pycelle, Mace Tyrell, and Cersei - along with Varys and Oberyn. Welcome mention is made of Daenerys, and also of the Hound being a rogue element since Blackwater. There is also a reminder of Jorah spying on his Khaleesi for the late King Robert which becomes important eventually.

At last former 'Hand' Tyrion is brought into the courtroom bound in chains but appearing to not be one to meekly accept a sad demise. He is formally charged with regicide and must accept his own father is doing his best to make the trial damning for him. Nonetheless he cross-examines Ser Meryn on his evidence but is told to maintain silence by Tywin. Later on he requests just the one question of Varys concerning a conversation they had. The answer perhaps is a rather neutral one but Tyrion can't blame the eunuch for looking out for his own interests first. However the testimony of Tyrion's unhinged sister Cersei certainly is ominous. Tyrion is portrayed as malicious in his method of defending King's Landing from Stannis' forces. The actual facts cannot be disputed. He placed Joffrey at the vanguard of the city's defence - having previously told the Queen Regent that her 'joy will turn to ashes in [her] mouth'. Of course we all know how boisterously Tyrion's nephew declared his intentions of cutting Stannis down personally, but that is glossed over.

There appears some hope for Tyrion when before final proceedings he has Jaime visit his cell with a potential compromise: Jaime will leave the Kings-Guard and resume his status as heir to Tywin, and in return Tyrion can be granted banishment to the Wall for admitting his 'guilt'. However, what seemed like an 'out' for the defendant is dashed to the rocks when Shae of all people sells him out - and also demeans their truly heartfelt romance.

This leads to possibly the best ever speech in a show full of quotable material. Peter Dinklage has not been called upon to do his very best work more recently, but the brazen confession of 'being a dwarf' and declaring his right to trial by combat is truly majestic. Fans of the show are all too sympathetic with Tyrion for brilliantly outwitting Stannis in combat and can only smile when he unleashes a terrific insult towards the city's inhabitants wishing that they perished after all.


'Mockingbird' is the very best episode all-round this season; featuring first-rate acting and character development.

Tyrion receives a trio of significant visitors who each care for him to some degree: his older brother, then Bronn and finally the effervescent Prince Oberyn. This is his time of greatest need for someone to lift his spirits and these scenes are very intimate and moving for such an epic fantasy show, 'Thrones' doesn't always require money to be put up on the screen for it to cast its spell on the audience.

It is clearly established that despite their firm friendship Bronn ultimately sees the status quo as a Lannister providing him money (and a title) for personal protection. In that regard Tyrion has never taken a risk that compares enough to facing the Mountain. Despite this disappointing and inevitable confirmation, there are no grudges between the two. However were Tyrion to survives into season five there is a sense that these two characters have come to a parting of the ways.

Cersei -typically immoral - forces peasants to try and fight the Mountain to the death with the odds firmly stacked against them. He is a remorseless titan who cannot be brought down with conventional swords or punches, and effortlessly rips the smaller men with his blade. Gregor has been recast twice now but still is an imposing figure that will prove difficult to best to 'prove' Tyrion's innocence. Thus when Oberyn tells Tyrion of his own sense of loss and how he seeks retribution for Gregor' Clegane's murder of Elia Martell and her children the audience is thoroughly spell-bound by the determination of a clear underdog who just oozes personality.

There is a fine section featuring Brienne and Podrick as they continue to bond together. They meet Hot Pie - who previously travelled with Arya Stark - and happens to mention his friend when being told of the search for Sansa Lannister. Brienne has not forgotten her promise to the late Catelyn, who wanted both daughters to come 'home.' A little later on the duo are back to following the trail and there is good character development as Pod's more practical and analytical qualities emerge. He identifies the Eyrie stronghold as the likely place Arya would head and Sansa may also be finding refuge in.

Indeed the Littlefinger/Sansa storyline is developed strongly once again and another relative/ally of the Stark household is silenced forever. Excellent visual work showcases Robin Arryn, Sansa Lannister and Littlefinger congregating in the snowy Eyrie courtyard. Despite having to grow up fast since her betrothal to Joffrey, Sansa still has a childish side to her as she constructs a striking 'snow-castle'. There is a hint of stability in Robin as he enquires about his cousin's handiwork.. until the spoilt and maniacal persona takes full force. He spits out all his dark obsessions about killing people he dislikes through the 'Moon Door' and proceeds to obliterate the snow-castle before stomping off.

Almost immediately Littlefinger provides his brand of comfort'. He kisses Sansa full-on knowing that Lysa is bound to see him, and is rather creepy - more so having called out the word 'children' moments earlier. Littlefinger is one of the smarter villains of the show; he can be as influential as even the most shrewd monarch or regent, despite his lowly roots. Yet he also avoid the spotlight and can stand back as major events envelop the relevant areas of the globe.

In the event it is Lysa that falls prey to the Eyrie's most rapid method of reaching 'ground level'. Littlefinger has secured his position of Lord by marrying and bedding her and now can actually enjoy himself. The climax to 'Mockingbird' features Littlefinger step into the fray as Lysa accuses Sansa of going after her man and threatens her with the full meaning of falling outside. Baelish first reassures Lysa that all is well in their marriage, before crushing her ego by declaring he only ever loved Catelyn. The final push of Lady Arryn to her certain death is treated as a mere formality, and no doubt many viewers cannot help a feeling of 'Schadenfreude'.

The Hound/Arya 'teamup' continues to be supremely enjoyable. Once again longer term continuity is relevant as Rorge and Biter - former prisoners of Yoren - resurface with malicious intent. Sandor Clegane suffers a neck wound, but is still more than a match for his assailant Biter - breaking that neck clean through. Rorge is not the first grown man to underestimate Arya, and pays the price for cruel threat made some time ago; facing the 'pointy end' of Needle. These events are engaging and also make the earlier episode's Small Council meeting doubly effective. Clegane faces steeper odds of living on as a renegade. He doesn't help matters by refusing to have his neck wound cauterised by Arya - such is his vanity.


The eighth installment is somewhat weaker independently. Certain subplots have little relevance overall, and I will not mention them here. Nonetheless the payoff for all the talky scenes is more than satisfying enough. The fallout of Lysa's death is well handed as Sansa places her trust in Baelish and makes him out to be an unwilling witness to Lysa's 'suicide'. Three important nobles with ties to Lysa hold an inquest into what exactly happened, they being Yohn Royce, Anya Waynwood and Vance Corbray. Strong acting helps make these scenes work, as in lesser hands things would feel rather stagey. Littlefinger is the person who gets 'grilled' but Sansa expertly defends him by blending some truth with a selective portrayal of Lysa's irrationality. Now it is obvious that Sansa is a willing player of the game, and will seek further advice from Littlefinger.

The effect of Lysa's 'suicide' also leads to a moment of humour when the younger Stark daughter laughs at the bad luck of hearing of her aunt's death before she and Clegane could claim refuge. Rather oddly it would appear that the two sisters are to miss meeting each other - an echo of the Bran/ Jon Snow 'near-misses'. Then a rather eyebrow-raising moment features Sansa casting aside her dowdy and innocent image by dressing in black clothes that are borderline-risqué, yet complement Baelish's attire as they walk down some steps together.

Although Theon Greyjoy fell down a slippery slope making redemption near-impossible the saga has made him into a tragic and pitiful protagonist with a major part left to play. The systematic emasculation - in all senses - of last year has paved the way for a shell of a man who is now an agent of the vicious Boltons. Dark humour sees Theon imploring his fellow Iron Islanders to surrender peacefully from their base of Moat Cailin. Of course there is no mercy from sociopath Ramsey and the bastard of Roose gleefully reminds Theon of 'tradition' as he pokes one of the dead flayed soldiers in the chest.

For those viewers that grew to like Ygritte as she bonded with Jon and later spared him from fatal harm, recent events have perhaps portrayed her as rather cold-blooded. Again chaos ensues as the workers and clients of a brothel/ pub are attacked by her core group of Wildlings and the Thenns. Nonetheless Ygritte shows spares a single mother and baby. We of course know these two survivors - they are Gilly and the infant she conceived with Craster. Sam's carelessness in depositing his female friend will not be punished on this occasion and one wonders where next Gilly will reappear.

Although I have mixed feelings about the Daenerys storyline I will praise the long-running dynamic between her and Jorah. Despite all Mormont's best efforts in trying to get her to reciprocate his feelings for her, he will always simply be an 'uncle figure'. But now comeuppance for lying to her has arrived, with a pardon-scroll from the late Robert Barretheon reaching Meereen - and Selmy has intercepted it first. Barristan Selmy allows Jorah to prepare for the inevitable by giving him notice of the truth being divulged to Dany. In the event the queen chooses to banish Mormont instead of executing him. The sequence as he departs the city into the unknown is suitably disheartening, not least because Iain Glen is a classy actor.
As Jaime comes to see Tyrion potentially one last time, the younger of the brothers reveals his regret in making his rather impulsive decision. Although Oberyn has a just cause and a reputation for fighting smart and decisively the odds seem poor. Then a rather unexpected conversation ensues where the brothers' late relative Orson is mentioned - unsurprisingly he was yet another sadist who smashed beetles for fun. This conversation threatens to slow the episode down, yet it demonstrates the show's willingness to portray the unusual bond between two very different Lannisters.

Martell prepares himself for the deadly fight, rather bizarrely choosing to wear minimal armour, eschew a helmet, and take a good gulp of wine. Tyrion is petrified and yet the opening events would seem to point to an 'innocent' verdict. The well-staged fight simplifies the original book-version somewhat but works perfectly for television - with good reaction shots of those either supporting 'Viper' or 'Mountain'. Just as it seems that the ogreish Mountain is beaten, 'Game of Thrones' reminds us that likeable and/or charismatic characters are still mortal. By standing alongside his fallen and impaled opponent, the 'Viper' allows himself to be brought down suddenly and lose his teeth and eyes before having his head crushed in a horrendous manner. To add further dismay, Clegane makes it clear that he knew who Oberyn was after all and that he enjoyed committing rape and murder. Although the Mountain is close to death himself, Oberyn perished first. Tyrion is now facing imminent execution - but the camera lingers on Jaime looking thoughtful, perhaps hinting at another way out...

The final two episodes of the show will continue to feature the myriad other storylines - including the Bran subplot which has been put to one side for a while now. Having now seemingly played out the bulk of major developments in King's Landing this very impressive epic now has a sizeable task on its hands to do something with the Wildlings/Night's Watch plot thread which has brewed steadily for over two series now. Based on the consistent quality of the eight episodes in this current run, I think I am not alone in being confident about the execution.

Bookmark and Share In The Flesh Season Two Episodes 3-6

7/02/2014 12:12:00 am - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Tom Buxton
In spite of the various risks involved with extending the length of its run second time around, In the Flesh still managed to flourish during the opening two instalments of its second full season. There’s no denying that Dominic Mitchell’s screenplays for these initial episodes lacked some of the spark and wit demonstrated by his contributions to Season One, yet promise was still clearly exhibited by the remarkable performances of the central cast and the increasingly prominent plot arc regarding the First Risen and the looming influence of exterior forces such as the Undead Prophet (though he’s still curiously absent from a physical perspective by the end of the series) on Roarton.

Did the four concluding outings of the fantasy drama which aired on May 18th, May 25th, June 1st and June 8th provide a thrilling send-off for what could be argued as one of the most anticipated runs of fantasy drama this year, or did they merely fulfil our hopes to the same disheartening extent as the England team ‘achieved’ recently at the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, leaving the show in a purgatorial state in the midst of BBC Three’s impending digitalization akin to Roy Hodgson’s managerial contract? It’s high time that we find out the truth…

Written by Dominic Mitchell
Directed by Jonny Campbell
Produced by Ann Harrison Baxter
Broadcast on BBC Three 18th May 2014
Episode Three

Or “the one where Kieran suddenly acts upon his unspoken romantic attraction towards Simon” (oh, and spoiler alert, if you hadn’t already guessed).

For obvious reasons (not least that the season’s tone took an unexpectedly abrupt turn for the better as a result), many viewers will have left the instalment which marked the halfway point of Season Two with only the memory of Kieran and Simon’s commencement of a hidden sexual relationship behind the back of the latter’s soon-to-be fiancée. This reviewer hopes that, in a day and age where our society should and largely does strive to promote and maintain equal rights for all regardless of their sexuality, the impact of this latest personal revelation came as a shock more as a result of the lack of foregrounding in Episodes 1 and 2 (indeed, watching both instalments over again, there’s very little evidence in the screenplay or the direction of direct foreshadowing of this moment) rather than any hostility towards the nature of the coupling for the vast majority of viewers. More importantly, however, Mitchell did successfully prove in the latter half of the run that this wasn’t a game-changing scene which he had thrown in for the sake of adding further controversy and/or credibility to a series which has often been overlooked due to the universal recognition of its competitors such as Game of Thrones (by far its most prominent rival this Spring).

For Mitchell to divert the viewer’s attention almost totally away from the show’s regular protagonist for the majority of Episode 3’s running time was naturally just as risky a move as the end-of-episode cliff-hanger, if not moreso, yet as has been the case with so many other choices enacted by its writer, directors and cast members, In the Flesh only benefits from the audacity of his latest narrative. Over the course of the hour or so we spend in the company of himself and his brilliantly realized family, Freddie Preston (Bryan Parry) is converted from a lacklustre background player to a compelling protagonist in his own right, partly thanks to Parry’s realistic portrayal of a resurrected young adult struggling to cope with witnessing his ex-girlfriend in the midst of her having found a romantic substitute (in the guise of none other than An Adventure in Space and Time’s Sacha Dhawan, who’s on top form here) but largely thanks to Jim O’Hanlon’s superb direction of the refreshingly intimate domestic set-pieces which occur as anti-PDS tensions reach an all-time high for several citizens of Roarton. If these elements of this surprisingly standalone piece of drama had fallen short of the benchmark set by previous instalments, Episode 3 could quite easily have been the weakest entry of Season Two, but since they go so far as to match and top much of the series’ prior output, the episode ultimately ends up as one of the highlights of the show’s output so far.

Written by Fintan Ryan
Directed by Damon Thomas
Produced by John Rushton
Broadcast on BBC Three 25th May 2014
Episode Four

Or “the one where Kieren loses his temper at a family dinner”.

Credit should be given where it’s due to both Dominic Mitchell and stars Luke Newberry and Steve Cooper for successfully drawing out the ongoing story arc of Kieren and Steve Walker’s ever-turbulent character dynamic over the course of not one, but one and a half seasons before bringing it to a satisfying climax (of sorts, anyway). Whilst it wasn’t a major shock to witness Kieren lashing out (with good reason, we might add) at his father and his sister for laughing at the troublesome Gary’s accounts of his zombie-hunting days and subsequently begrudging their respective brother and son for offering up a similarly earnest retrospective on his time as a crazed PDS sufferer, the sense of the inevitability of their confrontation was so tangible that the scene in which it occurred will doubtless be remembered as utterly exhilarating despite (or thanks to) its intimacy, with Simon’s gradual comprehension of Kieren’s supposed status as the First Risen only strengthening the dramatic impact of the sequence overall.

An enduring strength of In the Flesh is its confidence in prioritizing more subtle moments of drama than action- or horror-themed set-pieces, presumably out of respect to those cinematic fantastical productions which possess a larger budget to provide the latter generic tropes in full force on the big-screen. Rarely has this approach worked to its detriment, and indeed, the lingering medium close-up shot of an all-too-clearly degraded undead prostitute who seems to contemplate her harrowing life choices shortly before hooking up once more with town counsellor Philip represents a fine example of an instance in which the programme has become empowered by its smaller moments rather than restrained in any way, shape or form by them. The more that Mitchell places emphasis on sequences such as these rather than simply broadening the naturally dense mythology of the show, the more he reminds this reviewer of the series’ potential to go far should it be offered a third lease of life on BBC One, BBC Two or the iPlayer-esque revised version of BBC Three in the not too distant future.

Written by Dominic Mitchell
Directed by Alice Troughton
Produced by John Rushton
Broadcast on BBC Three 1st June 2014
Episode Five

Or “the one where Amy begins to regain human qualities in a rain-soaked shelter”.

Considering that the show’s original trio of scripts were laden with shocking moments, Season Two has been comparatively light on major revelations regarding its central players, with one substantial exception to the rule – that of Amy’s supposed transformation from a charming PDS temptress to a charming human temptress, albeit one whose influence upon her newfound peers is remarkably short-lived as a result of the events of the run’s finale. Not since last year either has Emily Bevan contributed (or been offered the opportunity to contribute in terms of screen-time) such a spellbinding performance as she does in the penultimate chapter of the 2014 series, nor has her character received such a notable development in the trajectory of her arc since her inception. Mitchell and company would be absolute fools to leave Bevan behind come Season Three, and something tells me that the final moments of both Episodes 5 and 6 will hold the key to the exposition of why and how Amy strides back across the valley of death into the land of the living for a second time.

As rare as it is for up-and-coming dramas such as this one to attempt to mimic literary greats in their initial screenplays, this reviewer couldn’t help but notice that the mock trial sequence in which Kieren is accused of a crime he could not possibly have committed by local counsellors in a school’s sports hall mirrored King Lear in all but the tragic implications upon the protagonist’s ongoing character arc (and given Mitchell’s evident capacity for killing off beloved constructs, I wouldn’t go so far as to even put Kieren’s eventual permanent demise past him). Just as Lear and the Fool seem to fully comprehend the hilariously ludicrous nature of their interrogation of a wooden chair named ‘Gonerill’, so too do Kieren and his family appear to know how absurd the accusations which are laid before the former are, only for Steve to ignore the evidence and to join the rally of Roarton citizens demanding for his son’s return to a laborious PDS clinic outside of their town’s boundaries.

In a similar vein to many other ongoing, multi-season dramas, I’d wager that the penultimate episode of Season Two is in fact superior to the instalment which brings proceedings to a climax, its supremely subversive revelations regarding its main characters and its potential allusions to literary classics ensuring that events in Roarton couldn’t possibly be any more captivating eight hours in.

Written by Dominic Mitchell
Directed by Alice Troughton
Produced by John Rushton
Broadcast on BBC Three 8th June 2014
Episode Six

Or “the one where Amy dies and everything changes”.

Now, get out of that one! Evidently taking notes from Russell T Davies, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ Doctor Who and Sherlock scripts, Mitchell masterminds an ambitious balancing act of resolving key narrative threads and laying fundamental foundations for the potential arc and structure of Season Three in Episode 6, and for the most part, the overall pay-off for the 300,000-strong viewership is immensely rewarding, even if the script can hardly be said to work efficiently as a dramatic entity in isolation. As I’ve said already, there’s virtually no doubt in this reviewer’s mind that Amy will appear in some form or another if and when the series is resurrected (get it?) for a third run, but that semi-foreknowledge doesn’t take away the gravitas of her (temporary or otherwise) departure here or any of the other climactic sequences which come to pass before the credits roll on Season Two.

By the very nature of its death-ridden genre, the show’s tone has generally resembled that of a dystopian narrative in its overriding negativity and pessimism surrounding human nature and our tendency to reduce those individuals who we don’t fully understand to the state of Grendel-esque ‘Other’ creatures with next to no genuine civil rights within society. With that being said, Episode 6 is very much an instalment which thrives on its tonal contrasts, mainly due to its opening with an uncharacteristically jovial sequence depicting two of Amy’s PDS-treating doctors discussing their potentially beneficial plans for the character in a roadside café to the backdrop of the Christian hymn “Morning Has Broken”. Just as Amy’s weirdly charming crazy golf tournament with Philip briefly dispelled many of the displayed tensions present in an earlier instalment this season, so too does this moment (amongst others) enable Mitchell to inject a little humour (however brief or contradictory to the overall tone of the episode) into his screenplay. That “Morning Has Broken” is played again later in the episode even allows it to take on the guise of a recurring aural motif, signalling the dawn of a new day in Roarton and, with Amy’s potential emergence as the First Risen (though this particular revelation is poorly handled so far as accessibility, with Bevan and Mitchell only really necessarily clarifying the matter after the episode’s broadcast), perhaps a future period of tranquillity where humans and PDS patients (who themselves may one day revert to their original human state) can live in harmony without trying to slaughter one another every other day.

The future doesn’t seem so bright for Roarton’s current MP Maxine Martin, though, since the character was essentially reduced to the role of a murderous psychopath this time around, bringing five weeks of careful scheming to an oddly abrupt climax as she revealed (again, somewhat uncharacteristically) the true motivation behind her arrival in the town. Of all the new character arcs established in this formidable second run, Maxine’s has been by far the weakest, and it’s thus fitting that the resolution to this long-dangling plot thread comes as just as much of a sudden and tonally inconsistent shift as the construct’s introductory scenes did way back in Episode 1. In future, Mitchell might well be advised to stick to the current residents of Roarton rather than newcomers, since barring Simon, the head writer seems to be far more assertive (when it comes to substantial emotive developments) when utilizing the central players of the original season to enhanced dramatic effect.

That said, to conclude on a somewhat condescending note would be remiss and do a severe injustice to the immensely talented production team behind this ever-ambitious drama. In the Flesh may still lack the blockbuster-riffing bombast of Game of Thrones and the kid-friendly humour of BBC One’s Atlantis, but that hasn’t stopped its second season from equalling both of those beloved TV fantasy franchises in terms of both scale and merits. Improvements can still most certainly be implemented between now and Season Three (as I mentioned in my original review of Episode 1, “a lot can change in a year”!), of course, but Dominic Mitchell, the cast and the crew should all be extremely proud of their achievements, especially in light of BBC Three’s current (rather apt) purgatorial situation. Fittingly for a programme which thrives on its basic premise of human resurrection, In the Flesh has never felt more alive than it does here, and to that end, the BBC might as well consign themselves to an early grave should they elect to start axing such compelling and relevant dramas as this one.

Bookmark and Share Blake’s 7: The Classic Audio Adventures: Vols 1.2-1.4

6/11/2014 12:53:00 am - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Damian Christie

Written by Andrew Smith, Marc Platt, Peter Anghelides
Directed by Jim O'Hanlon, Ken Bentley
Big Finish
“We keep hitting at the Federation but what difference do we make?”

“You might be surprised. Ripples spread.”

Blake and Avon, Blake’s 7: Drones

If you’ve read some of my previous Blake’s 7 reviews, then you’ll know I wasn’t enamoured with Fractures, the opening instalment in Big Finish’s latest series of six full-cast audio adventures. I felt it needed to be an action-packed opener, especially if it was to attract curious listeners fresh to the TV series. Instead, we had a play that was less political drama and intrigue and more supernatural thriller, the type of episode that in the old TV series was maligned by fans.

The subsequent plays – Battleground, Drones and Mirror - are more of a return to form. Fractures ended with Orac announcing it had gained intelligence about a Federation program that could intercept Tariel cell transmissions. However, the crew has no idea where this program is and the only name and cryptic clue that is attached to it is “Mikalov”. By the time Battleground starts, Blake and the Liberator have narrowed down the possibilities to one person. The only problem is Mikalov is on the planet Straxis, one of the most fortified strongholds in the Federation. It isn’t long before Blake and the Liberator crew discover why Straxis is so secure and why it is just as dangerous from orbit as it on the surface ...

In structure, the Blake’s 7 TV series was episodic, with self-contained stories from week to week. However, the series was also one of the first to loosely follow what is today generally described by SF and fantasy fans as the “story arc”. The latter half of the second season of B7 saw the crew spending several episodes on a quest for Star One, the Federation’s top secret central control facility, more often than not chasing breadcrumbs that would tie into the next episode. This series of audio adventures takes the same approach, dropping some breadcrumbs of its own which often lead the crew – and the listener - on a merry chase but ultimately bring them closer to their objective.

What is distinctive about Battleground and Drones is that while they are the products of different authors – former Doctor Who TV script writers Andrew Smith and Marc Platt respectively – they are effectively two halves of the one story. Battleground ends on a very exciting cliffhanger which is resolved in Drones and Platt’s tale continues and builds on many of the themes and ideas that Smith introduces in his episode.

Battleground is probably the most “traditional” of the three B7 plays, as the regular characters’ behaviour is pretty consistent with how they act in the TV series. This episode also could very easily have slotted into the program’s first or second seasons – it wouldn’t have taken much effort for a BBC director to have found a suitable location (in all predictability a quarry!) for the Federation’s war games and to have brought in a small yet competent guest cast to play some of the incidental characters. Even the BBC’s visual effects department could have passably pulled off the effects on location, although the model work in the story’s cliffhanger would have been very shoddy! The visual effects in one’s imagination are always so much more impressive!

Drones and Mirror (the latter written by Peter Anghelides) are superior instalments to Battleground essentially because they try, within the constraints and continuity of the original program, to be a little more daring and innovative with their portrayals of the regular characters and props. In Drones, we realise the Liberator is as much a character in its own right as Blake and the crew and is capable of feats that were never even hinted at in the TV series. Whether deliberate or coincidental, the ship takes a familiar cue from its counterpart the Enterprise in Star Trek Into Darkness (if you’ve seen the latter, you’ll know what I mean – otherwise, if you don’t want to guess, take a look at Grant Kempster’s gorgeous cover artwork for Drones!). Indeed, the alien ship’s capabilities are admired and dreaded by members of the crew in equal measure – Avon describes them as “clever”, Jenna on the other hand remarks that these capabilities reveal how little the crew truly know the ship at all.

We already saw in Fractures that the Liberator crew is not rock solid in unity but in these later episodes there are quite a few surprises. Orac proves to be far more devious and manipulative in Drones and Mirror than it ever was on TV and even Jenna and Cally at various points express dissent and break ranks. In the latter half of the program’s second season on television, the two women were (by Jan Chappell and Sally Knyvette’s own admission) reduced to “housewife” status on the Liberator. It’s terrific that the writers have been able to break that mould and show the characters’ independent streaks. In Mirror, Knyvette in particular injects defiance and rebelliousness into the usually amiable Jenna and also has some great scenes where she shows contempt of Orac’s literal-mindedness. Cally also illustrates how much she is the moral compass of the crew, berating Blake when he takes a course of action that makes him as ruthless as arch enemy Travis. The two ladies, however, do still get a bit of a raw deal. In Mirror, they’re both off the Liberator but do end up being split off from the male leads and are consigned to the “B” plot where there are less opportunities for them to be proactive.

Blake, Avon and Vila (Gareth Thomas, Paul Darrow and Michael Keating respectively) inevitably still get the best moments and the best dialogue across the three plays. In Battleground and Drones, Blake meets two resistance fighters that mirror his best and worst qualities. Abel Garmon (Tim Bentinck) represents Blake’s idealism and selflessness while Bru Renderson (Tim Treloar) represents his thirst for retribution; the difference is that Blake is motivated more by an innate sense of justice (no matter how flawed) for the wrongs the Federation has wrought on him than Renderson who is after outright revenge.

Renderson in Drones also shares another theme with Blake – they are both rebels on the run. Renderson has acquired a convoy on Straxis that enables him and other prisoners to evade the Federation’s war games for a time but inevitably they cannot elude the Federation’s reach. Similarly, Blake also bemoans (see above) that while he and the Liberator crew have made some strikes on the Federation, even with the technology and firepower the Liberator offers, it hasn’t been enough to strike a massive blow for freedom. However, as Avon surprisingly remarks, Blake may well have had more of an impact than he realises, ie he has inspired copycats and malcontents sold on a myth. Certainly, Renderson is grossly disappointed when he realises that Blake and his advanced “battle cruiser” do not live up to the legend that has been exaggerated by other rebel groups (and possibly even by the Federation itself).

Similarly, in Mirror, the characters also confront reflections that expose their flaws. For Vila, it is the fear of being alone, for Blake, the realisation that he may be almost as obsessive and bitter as Travis and for Orac, the possibility that there may be another entity that is equal, if not superior, to itself. Avon’s “mirror” is itself a tantalising omen of the TV program’s final famous moments – and reminds you that even Avon, for all his brilliant intelligence, logic and cool-headedness is still as fallible – indeed, as human – as the rest of his colleagues.

The critical trick to this series’ success – as Thomas, Chappell and Knyvette remark in the documentary extras after each serial – is that the regular characters’ voices have to transcend the ages and persuade the listener to imagine them as they appeared on television over three decades ago. For the most part, coupled with the performances, strong writing and production values, the plays feel as if they belong to the program’s second series. Thomas’ and Darrow’s voices are a little seasoned but they play their roles with such conviction that they are unquestionably Blake and Avon. Michael Keating also brilliantly recaptures Vila’s comical elements and wit, Sally Knyvette hardly sounds like she has aged as Jenna and even though you can tell that Jan Chappell in her interviews sounds older and wiser, she still manages to inject Cally with youth and verve.

With the exception of a cameo in Fractures, Mirror also marks the return of Brian Croucher as disgraced Federation space commander and Blake’s arch nemesis Travis. Croucher’s portrayal in the second season of the TV series has generally been dismissed as camp by long-time B7 fans that preferred the character’s originator Stephen Greif. I am one fan who has always thought Croucher did a commendable job picking up the reins from another performer and in Mirror he doesn’t disappoint. Croucher clearly has enormous fun reprising Travis – probably a little too much. He is every bit as spiteful, calculating, vengeful and flamboyant as he was on television yet he does not detract from being a credible threat. In fact, it is because Travis is so madcap that he is menacing! The contribution of Alistair Lock to these instalments also should not be understated. Apart from providing the sound design and the incidental music (which ably recreates and expands on Dudley Simpson’s classic cues), Lock provides the voices of Zen and Orac. Indeed, Lock’s renditions of the computers’ voices are so convincing (Zen’s booming tones, Orac’s haughtiness) that they are almost indistinguishable from the late Peter Tuddenham’s portrayals on TV. Lock’s depiction of the two computers also helps ground these serials in the spirit of the time in which they are ostensibly set.

Battleground, Drones and Mirror have helped right the good ship Liberator after an indifferent start with opener Fractures. They are B7 as the fans remember them – intelligent, mature, insightful and action-packed episodes that not only test the mettle of the regular characters but also don’t shy away from playing with the program’s conventions and history. With Mirror ending on another cliffhanger and with two more instalments to come – Cold Fury and Caged – I look forward to seeing how this series of full-cast audio adventures is resolved.

Bookmark and Share Game of Thrones - Season 4 - Part 4

5/24/2014 08:30:00 am - Reviewed by Chuck Foster

Reviewed by Martin Hudecek

4 - Oathkeeper 5 - First of His Name

Following the 'Purple Wedding', the ramifications are felt by many players in this top-notch medieval fantasy fare. Elsewhere in Westeros, other developments and older plot lines from years gone by are thrown into the mix. Whilst the show meets expectations on a consistent basis it is also able to conjure up surprises - even for the most ardent devotee of the written works of G.R.R. Martin. Although perhaps neither of these particular episodes are world beaters there is much to take on board and reflect upon.

Jon Snow is given a lot to do this time round - despite the malicious interference of superiors Janos Slynt and Alliser Thorne. Kit Harrington is improving his portrayal significantly and Jon has grown considerably as a result of being the 'insider' amongst the Wildling antagonists. Locke is given further development and shows a rather more charming, if ultimately manipulative side. Experienced actor Noah Taylor excels as Bolton's minion; whilst possibly a sociopath and sadist he can still pretend his reason for being at the Wall was down to a relatively small crime. The viewer can but wonder what Locke really did in his past given his true dark nature.

Although Jon seems to have a different set of problems to last season, it seems those with power like Thorne regard him as a nuisance at best. Consequently there is strong dramatic tension as Jon appears to be going on a suicide mission to Crasters Keep with the explicit goal of stopping Mance finding out key information from the estranged Nights Watch. Jon eventually musters a respectable group but there is the caveat that Locke is tagging along and clearly has his own agenda.

Bran Stark and his party were given the short end of the stick last season with few really effective scenes. This current run however has done a nice job of mixing supernatural elements that Jojen can assist Bran in mastering, with the danger that may come from Wilding hordes or from the thugs that hold Craster's Keep. The changes with Sam telling Jon about Bran's mission may upset some of the book purists, although not myself. I would agree that leaving Gilly in proximity to the Wildings who have crossed over southward is inexplicable but it is a good way to balance the kind, educated Sam with the boyish bumbler making rash decisions.

There has been a lot of other re-arranging done by the show-runners, so in addition to Jon, Daenaerys is given some material which took place somewhat later on in the original timelines. I continue to regard the 'Mother of Dragons' as a protagonist from another show, and Clarke's brand of acting is relatively theatrical. Some compensation comes in the development that Dany and her court now know of Joffrey's death. What initially appears an opportune time to retake King's Landing is actually a reminder that Khaleesi must deal with the 'here and now'; rather less welcome news arrives of Yunkai and Astapor regressing back to slaver cities.

Indeed Dany seems to be in control of events around her as much as at any point since her very first appearance, There is no cruel brother to treat her as a bargaining chip, nor fickle alpha-male Dothraki. She has a greater band of warriors and advisors and need not place confidence in duplicitous and ruthless tricksters as she did in Qarth. She doesn't need to bargain or plan risky night-time attacks as she did when acquiring the previous slaver cities. She seems to be someone born to rule - despite being originally third-in-line. The main tension is based on her decision to trust either/both of Jorah and Daario - each man loves her but has shown signs of not being truly dependable; especially in the case of Jorah who even now could still be reporting back to Varys.

Arguably the defining image of the Meereen sections presented is Dany's decree that the deposed slave masters of Meeren be nailed to a cross and left to die slowly to avenge the slave children she witnessed on her journey previously. Despite plot twists aplenty the viewer never doubts that the Mother of Dragons is someone who 'walks the walk'. Overall there is a definite up-turn in making the Khaleesi story line work as effectively as it did in Season One, although I personally do not prize it as the very best component of any given episode.

These episodes' most obvious sources of tension and excitement centre around the character of Karl and his fellow traitors, who maintain an atmosphere of sadism at the late Craster's stronghold. Karl continues to be played ably by Burn Gorman- a dependable actor in various genres - even if he is somewhat of a caricature in both script and performance. There is some nice black humour with Gorman tempting fate by saying he has remained undefeated in a fight since he was nine. Under his rule the women who suffered previously at Craster's hand are treated no better - possibly even worse. There is even a glimpse of Commander Mormont's broken skull being used to dispense some red wine - a clever reminder of the sad and violent fate that Jorah's father suffered.

Once events culminate at Craster's Keep in the final moments of 'First of His Name', it is richly satisfying that one of the female victims helps Jon in overcoming Karl. Perhaps the grotesque death suffered by the renegade is rather more worthy of a horror film - even if on-screen violence is usually justified in the show. Of at least equal controversy is the graphic depiction of how imprisoned women are being raped. Yet by the time the dust has settled there is an excellent moment of empowerment where Jon wisely concedes that these female survivors will now make their own proactive way in the cruel realms of the North.

Locke also has a very violent death which certainly surprised me in coming at this point in time. Hodor is horrified to see his hands bloodied - the result of Bran using his Warg powers to avoid being carried away to certain doom. This also works as a strong moment showing how tough Bran really is - even bearing in mind the battles fought by his older brothers and late father. Even more unexpected is the brand-new material featuring a White Walker converting one of the male babies banished from the Keep into one of its own kind. Whether this intermittent story line will be picked up by season end is no doubt a deliberate mystery thrown into the mix by the showrunners.

King's Landing continues to provide much of the meat of the show. There is an amusing but purposeful bedside visit made by Margaery Tyrell to imminently crowned Tommen. Whilst he is clearly too young to consummate a relationship just yet, it is obvious that Margaery is someone he trusts and likes. The viewer know just how manipulative and yet warm the Tyrell noble is, and should take note that she herself is acting on the and the wishes of grandmother (and supreme game-player) Olenna - who is now moving back to Highgarden.

Once Tommen is crowned proper there is a smart litle scene where Margaery seems to redress the balance of power between her and Queen Regent Cersei, Some may recall the stern threat in the last season over the younger woman's wish to be 'sisters'. For now Cersei is rather less threatening, appreciating the value of allies in these troubled times.
This approach is also demonstrated when Cersei later on decides to be liberally affable and diplomatic when meeting with Oberyn Martell. The Red Viper of Dorne is not given the most compelling of material in comparison to beforehand, but it is clear that he is making the most of his position of influence in being around the royal court. The reminder of middle child Myrcella being relatively 'safe' in Dorne is also a welcome counterpoint to other scenes involving the innocent in these episodes.

Episode Four's title 'Oathkeeper' points out the touching moment where Jaime passes on the sword that Tywin gave to him recently. This is an excellent scene for those who have bonded with Jaime over the course of Season Three - a fine counterpoint to his description of saving the capital from wildfire and the 'Mad King. As Brienne and Pod ride off in search for Sansa, Tyrion is conspicious by his absence. In fact the 'Imp' has but the one scene in 'Oathkeeper' where he is all too aware of the less than judicious court proceedings he can expect to be subjected to very soon, and how his sister is putting emotion above all other thoughts with the goal of silencing him once and for all.

As serious, disturbing and plot-heavy as the show is, there are still some very enjoyable lighter moments. Pod and Brienne have both been improved markedly in television format; providing some distinctive moments of modesty and valour. However when put together, it would appear that Brienne now is demonstrating a sense of superiority - owing to Pod's awkwardness. Once they have spent some time together on the road, there is a lovely moment where Brienne realises that Tyrion owes his life to the quick-thinking, surprisingy powerful squire during the chaos that was 'the battlle of Blackwater'.

The Hound/Arya sections which worked well last time round, is perhaps lacking in real direction. There is no real changes to their status quo except for the addition of Beric and Thoros on her 'kill list' - owing to their siding with Melisandre Syrio Forel is praised to the heavens by Arya (in a call-back to season one), that unsurprisingly features Sandor showing little admiration for a man who trusts his life to a wooden sword. One feels that a confrontation must come between this odd couple, and of course the show has a strong theme of alliances not being bound to last.

On the other hand, Arya's sister Sansa is given some rather strong material - with actress Sophie Turner continuing to improve her range. The audience is made to think that the older Stark girl will at some point become more proactive. Perhaps there is some degree of capability and decisiveness which so clearly exudes from Arya, but up to now the machinations of the Lannisters have been too strong. Her brave defiance of jealous Aunt Lysa accusing her of being sexually active despite her truthful denials is a fine scene which is played just right. The confirmation that Jon Arryn was killed by his wife Lysa at the behest of Baelish, and that the Lannisters took the blame is done in a low-key manner but is ample reward for viewers left scratching their heads since 2011.

Demented Lysa, and her son Robin - unseen since the middle of the opening season - are such memorable grotesques that viewers will be almost transported back to those proceedings as if the had happened recently. Furthermore the sequences with just Littlefinger and his 'ward' talking to each other are well done in both these episodes. Clearly the wife of Tyrion is wondering whether she has leapt from the frying pan into the fire. The viewer however is confident that Littlefinger prizes Sansa above anyone else as an asset, so even if he doesn't have her own interests at heart, he would never let harm come to her.

Watched together these episodes complement one another nicely and set up some potentially intriguing story lines for later on. On an individual basis they are rather routine by the show's lofty standards, with episode Five being static and talky - if necessary in terms of exposition. The books may be more complex but this is still a very dense show with a lot going on at once.

The program continues to make the majority of rival evening fare look pedestrian and routine, although it clearly expects loyalty from viewers dating back to events in the very earliest episodes. There are many elements of the show that have been retained after judicious adaptation of very dense source literature and they for the most part come across crystal-clear to the viewership. Some television shows cynically play out the same old formulas and rest on their laurels. 'Game of Thrones' takes chances and rewards loyalty and emotional investment in the actions of its characters.

Bookmark and Share In The Flesh - Series 2 - Episode 2

5/18/2014 02:12:00 am - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Tom Buxton

Written by Dominic Mitchell
Directed by Jim O'Hanlon
Produced by John Rushton
Broadcast on BBC Three, 11th May 2014
In increasing the episode count of their second season twofold, the In the Flesh writing team must have realised early on in the drafting process that the expansion would come at the cost of the more concise, tightly-woven narrative which made their original run such an instant success with its viewership. As pleasant as it is to be following the exploits of Kieran and the gang in Roarton for a further six hours, it’s simultaneously difficult to deny that some of the inevitable negative ramifications of the enhanced running time are beginning to come to light two weeks in, and coming to such a realization after having praised Season One to the high heavens (and beyond, given the death-transcending nature of the supernatural genre) was a melancholic moment for this reviewer.

Where should the blame lie for the gradual yet unequivocally notable drop in quality, then? Perhaps the metaphorical finger should be thrust in the direction of Dominic Mitchell, whose handling of the character who was seemingly intended to take centre-stage in his second script of the run is underwhelming to say the very least. Much as Harriet Cains visibly does her utmost to enrich her portrayal of Jem Walker during the additional screen time she is afforded this time around, the structure of Mitchell’s screenplay is such that her construct’s overall role in proceedings from a causal perspective (barring the episode’s tonally consistent yet somehow jarring climactic moments) is minimal.

Far from enabling progress for her previously compelling character arc, the vast majority of Cains’ dialogue depicts Jem as a walking cliché, whereby she appears to drop all loyalties towards her sibling at the moment she gains attention at school and in doing so reverts herself (albeit inadvertently) to a uncharacteristically shallow self-representation. As ever, Cains sells this transformation perfectly (indeed, we’ve yet to encounter a performer who isn’t ideally suited to their designated role on the show), but Mitchell can’t be forgiven for descending into well-trodden territory when the show-runner has generally maintained a subversive, refreshingly innovative approach to his script-writing in the past.

Such a fundamental shortcoming as this would be far easier to overlook if it represented the only structural and representational misstep of the season so far, but sadly, Episode 2’s issues don’t end there. Wunmi Mosaku’s troublesome MP Maxine Martin, for instance, may well be one of the most blatant structurally-subservient plot devices we’ve come across in recent years – rather than presenting any signs of becoming a layered and engaging construct who’ll take the series into unexpected territory (and lord knows, In the Flesh could benefit hugely from taking a walk on the wild side in weeks ahead if its creators hope to see it back on the air come Spring 2015), Maxine currently exists solely to place obstacles in Kieran’s path so as to ensure that the viewer can no longer question the protagonist’s motives for staying put in Roarton. Much as Mitchell would have us maintain the illusion that her presence ups the stakes for PDS-sufferers and in doing so moves us towards a more cinematic rendition of his supernatural conflict, the illusion itself will soon become a mere translucent shroud if she continues to simply antagonise the village’s reborn residents rather than contributing to the ongoing narrative in any meaningful manner.

It’s not all bad news, though. Whilst the seeds which are being sewn for the season’s climax are taking that much longer to bloom (this reviewer sincerely hopes that Emmett J Scanlan’s Simon will find new linguistic variations on his recurring assertion that to have “rise[n] in Roarton” is to somehow be “special”, else his character will grow old rapidly), they’re most certainly receiving a nutritional dose of water each week in order to ensure their eventual growth, with Jem’s startling act of manslaughter in the episode’s closing moments sure to have captivating moral consequences for both her own psyche (as if it wasn’t already fractured enough) and the Walker family overall. That the sequence depicting Kieran’s entry into an undead-exclusive rave was handled brilliantly by director Jim O’Hanlon didn’t hurt either, since the sight of the oft-socially inept character standing at the centre of a gathering which at once resembled both a Rocky Horror Picture Show-themed do and a standard student-laden club on a Friday night was amongst the most striking images of the night.

We’re left with an uneven instalment of tonally sketchy drama, one which likely marks the series’ weakest instalment so far. For the sake of the programme’s future, whether it be on live TV, a digitized BBC Three service or otherwise, this had better well mark the low-point of Season Two as well, since with just four instalments remaining until the already-slim viewership’s attention shifts elsewhere for the remainder of the year, Mitchell’s once-seemingly infallible series cannot afford to waste any more time in pushing forward its currently creatively dented narrative further than ever before, lest the critical tide turn out of its favour and rob the show of what credibility it still clings onto (the BBC evidently have faith based on their extensive marketing campaign, but Ripper Street and The Paradise are both fine examples of the studio’s not-so-occasionally rash approach to evaluating the need for further seasons). In the Flesh inhabits an industry in which a ‘kill or be killed’ mantra decides the victors and the fallen, after all, and if it continues on its currently underwhelming trajectory, Mitchell may begin to find his fans empathising with Roarton’s PDS-opposers in questioning the need for it to rise from the symbolic grave of its twelve-month hiatus in the first place.

Bookmark and Share Game of Thrones - Season 4 - Parts 1-3

5/08/2014 02:45:00 am - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
1 - Two Swords 2- The Lion and The Rose 3 - Breaker of Chains

This HBO production is one of the highest rated shows on the TV channels it graces on both sides of the Atlantic with a remarkable IMDB rating and lavish DVD/ blu-ray box sets that sell by the shed load. By now 'Game of Thrones' is well and truly embedded in popular culture. There is much to treasure: believable dialogue furthering story lines and deepening characters, well-choreographed sword fights, stunning locations,elaborate sets and costumes, convincing CGI in the form of three young dragons that are Danaerys Targaryen's trump-card, terrific music and punchy direction, and silky smooth editing. Even the opening title sequence, which tests patience by running for two minutes with a vast map being zoomed in and out of as dozens of names quickly flash by, somehow comes off impressively.
This show is the worthiest of adaptations of a remarkable set of novels whose readership in yesteryear was committed but still niche compared to the more mainstream big hitters put out by publishers. Yet in the wake of the show's great success, creator George RR Martin has enjoyed a far greater impact in specialist bookshops, high street shops, online, and on electronic devices. Quite deservedly too, as this keen reader can attest. But how is the adaptation faring in the here and now?

After a strong third season with one of the most devastating set pieces to startle viewer - namely 'The Red Wedding' - the hope was that at least the same consistency and confidence would be maintained. In fact the early signs are showing that season one may lose the crown of best overall season in about two months time. These opening entries are assured, fluid, full of incident and clever dialogue, and have a company of established actors totally making the most of their varied roles in the affairs of Westeros. The pre-credits sequence that opens the actual events of season four is sinister and yet oddly graceful. Tywin Lannister grimly reforges Ned Stark's long sword 'Ice' into two new swords which contain precious Valyrian Steel. Despite being a hand short compared to this time last year, favourite child Jaime is one recipient of the new weapons.

Sean Bean may have only starred in nine episodes of the entire show, but his gallant alter-ego Ned has not been forgotten. Indeed the Stark children - with betrayed Robb the exception - are alive and trying their best to make the most of their precarious situations. The various child and adult actors that play this generation of Starks all continue to build on their prior good work. I particularly welcome the portrayal of Jon Snow from Kit Harrington after a bland show in season two and a respectable effort last year, that nonetheless was overshadowed by romantic interest Ygritte. A wonderful scene where he confronts Alliser Thorne and Janos Slynt is both intense and amusing - partly due to the welcome inclusion of the savvy exile Maester Aemon. Jon has quickly grown into a man during his time away from Castle Black and seemingly will make some strides up the chain of command before long.

Arya continues to 'bond' with fellow black sheep The Hound. Their pairing during 2013's later episodes continues to work here - the actors are clearly having a ball. Maisie Williams is a gem of a performer, whose expression and range are first-rate. Rory McCann as the Hound is also improving as time goes on. His stare down of weasel Polliver in the brilliant closing scene of episode one is particularly good. The coda of 'Two Swords' is a study in both suspense and pay-off, rewarding long-term viewers who make an effort to remember the more minor characters. There is a rather dark side now to Arya - which did not entirely get translated when season two was adapting her Harranhal adventures. After the cataclysmic 'Red Wedding' this girl is as ruthless as anyone, knowing that her bigger adversaries underestimate her at their grave peril. Come episode three, there is a rather more light-hearted scene where Arya and Clegane seek shelter with a father and daughter, and seem to be putting on an effort to look chummy with each other. This however is quickly negated by Clegane eventually riding off with Arya - and the last remaining money that their temporary hosts had been saving. There is an inevitability that these two companions can only be a team for so long before one betrays the other. Loyalty rarely lasts in the land of Westeros.

Joffrey is played well by Jack Gleason once again. The young king is somewhat deluded in believing that he actually has the power he wanted, now Robb is dead and Stannis is nowhere in sight. He states that the 'war is over' and also seemingly was convinced by Tywin that the news of Daenerys' dragons is is of little consequence. With Margaery now his bride, things then rapidly take a turn for the worse for Joffrey. The closing image of 'The Lion and the Rose' is a truly powerful one, and is surprisingly mirrored in the opening frames of the following episode. Tyrion (the incomprable Peter Dinklage) is the one caught 'red-handed', with wine the apparent method of dispatch. All the clashes with Joffrey over previous seasons have made this turn of events more powerful. Two major examples include Tyrion's brilliant monologue just before the use of wildfire in the Blackwater battle,and then there was the tense yet amusing confrontation during Tyrion's own marriage banquet. Though he is prime suspect in Joffrey's murder, anyone with common sense could point out that this smart man would not openly kill the boy king and dawdle patiently for the guards to escort him to a dark cell. But most viewers have become used to the absence of rationality in this brutal medieval; world. Tyrion most likely will lack the allies he requires, as he awaits trial and probable punishment. In fact he is commendably loyal to his squire Podrick, and selflessly insists that the youngster leave King's Landing for his own safety.

The scheming of Tywin - who has been exemplary in the role of King's Hand -continues unabated. Charles Dance puts in a predictably strong turn, as the elder Lannister bolsters his hold over the monarchy, and simultaneously educates his younger grandson about rulers of Westeros in previous times. Newly crowned Tommen, who did not even have a minute of screen time last year, has grown up three times faster than one would expect. This is a small concern however and Dean-Charles Chapman has enough basic acting experience behind him to at least put on a respectable display in the company of Dance.

The Tyrells' ambitions also continue in much the same vein as before. Season three brought in Diana Rigg as Olenna - she of the amusing cynicism and precise manipulation. In these installments,the veteran Tyrell is still pulling strings despite the outward appearance of frailty. Also Natalie Dormer's Margaery is a very interesting portrayal that builds on a reasonable but unspectacular character from the books. She clearly enjoys connecting with the great King's Landing populace and seemingly this interaction is somewhat heart-felt. Naturally she also wants to be 'The Queen' and displace Cersei from her seat of power. With the vicious Joffrey no longer a participant, there is now a period where once again the widowed Margaery has to put out feelers for the next in line to the throne. She may be youthful, but is also an experienced player in the 'Game'.

There are some new movers and shakers this season in the form of Dorne's dignitary Oberyn Martell. He is a quick-thinking, assured, if rather ribald man. He also has an alluring paramour in the form of Ellaria Sand. Their relationship - along with some extras lacking items of clothing - is rather unconventional even for this show, but the actors are always engaging and blend with the established company very smoothly. My very first reaction to Pedro Pascal's Oberyn was a little wary as he seemed to be all accent and energy, but by episode two's tense feast sequences I was more than convinced he had the right blend of gusto and gravitas after all.

Roose Bolton played his part in redefining the political map of the realm last season as he oversaw the final moments of Robb and Catelyn. He has but a few moments confined to the second episode, where he asserts authority over his twisted and evil bastard son Ramsey. Also making a return is the Alfie Allen as the pitifuleunuch Theon - alias 'Reek'. I have mixed feelings over the show spelling out the fate of the treacherous Greyjoy during season three, when some mystery would have been effective at this point in proceedings. Having said that, the sequence where Reek stumbles behind his 'master' in the woods during the hunt of a defenceless woman is incredibly well-done, and reminded me of the best scene of the movie 'Moonraker'. Also an exciting new plot line has been set up for coming episodes as Locke - who is a character specially created for the show - is sent up to the Wall/Far North to deal with Jon Snow and retrieve his younger half-brothers Bran and Rickon. Although I despised Locke for his treatment of Brienne and a mellowing Jaime last year, I do admit the actor showed skill in making the two-bit warrior compelling and hope he will provide some more dramatic moments.

What of Littlefinger - truly a selfish and self-serving player in the game? Despite a notable absence in the final few episodes of 2013, he is back with a vengeance in the 'Breaker of Chains' episode. And still seemingly with two swirling moustaches. Petyr Baelish continues to exert more influence in the scheme of things than pompous figures like Joffrey, Stannis, and (for now at least) Danaerys. Over the years Aidan Gill's variable accent has sometimes distracted from an otherwise strong portrayal. However Gill still enlivens any scene he is in. His pet project Sansa Stark learnt little of the game, despite being based in King's Landing for the vast majority of the show's run. By the looks of things she will soon be equally hapless wherever Littlefinger plans on taking her next.

There is some concern thought that such a confident production team have struck themselves in the foot because of one loose decision in episode three. Jaime and Cersei's resumption of conjugal relations is scripted, shot and acted in a rather unpalatable manner. Jaime forces his sister down despite her protestations and offers no comfort. Cersei could in theory threaten Jaime with prison, banishment to the Wall or even death but even so her subjugation does not feel anywhere near consensual. A lot of long-time readers criticized this sequence and those who saw Jaime evolve in Season Three are also aggrieved. Given how he apparently developed in the company of the gallant Brienne, this feels like either a backwards step or a very badly misjudged attempt to provoke reaction.

A more commendable production choice is the recasting of Daario in the Meereen sections. Michiel Huisman is far more subtle whilst still being effortlessly charismatic. Emilia Clarke and Iain Glen as Ser Jorah continue to make a fine pairing of determination and prudence, as the Targaryen queen and her chief adviser look to make gain further influence in these lands. There still is little urgency though in comparison to how the other protagonists connect with those many miles away from them. The sequences away from Westeros almost could belong to a rival TV show of the same genre. And in all honesty I had the same problem in the original Martin text. Hopefully come the end of the actual series, this will be rectified somewhat, and Danaerys will have fully played her part - be it victorious or otherwise.

On the basis of this opening batch of thrills, spills and chills, 'Thrones' is still must-watch TV. It provides viewers with stories of political scheming, battles and plots, mysticism, exotic locations, and a host of characters that all are trying to survive. Refreshing the shades of grey are as much in evidence as ever - and the viewer can but wait impatiently to see what sort of deeds the characters will be involved in come future instalments.