The Omega Factor: Series 2 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 16 April 2018 - Reviewed by Callum McKelvie
The Omega Factor: Series 2 (Credit: Big Finish)

Written By: Phil Mulryne, Roy Gill, Louise Jameson, Matt FittonDirected By: Ken Bentley

Cast

Louise Jameson (Dr Anne Reynolds), John Dorney (Adam Dean), Natasha Gerson (Morag), Camilla Power (Dr Jane Wyatt), Alex Tregear (Kate), Alan Cox (James Doyle), Richenda Carey (Sarah Maitland), Gunnar Cauthery (Edward Milton), Hugh Fraser (Anthony Archer), Alan Francis (Alasdair Reiver), Ben Fox (Graham Stocker). Other roles performed by the cast.

Producer David RichardsonScript Editor Matt Fitton

Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

At the end of my review of the Omega Factor series 1, I made something of a bold statement. I remarked that out of Big Finish’s entire output, the Omega Factor was my favourite release of all time. Now there’s two things to bear in mind here. One is that I haven’t managed to listen to EVERY Big Finish release, though I do feel I’ve listened to enough to make a judgement on the high quality of their products. The second is that I’m admittedly something of a horror aficionado and particularly of tales done in the ‘Jamesian’ mode, namely subtle menacing tales of the supernatural. However, those two factors, the sheer genius on display in OF series 1 was awe inspiring. Not only that but the level of care taken in ‘rebooting’ the series, shows appreciation for the original merged with a strong desire to push it into new and terrifying dimensions. Series 2 then had a lot to live up to and it can’t have been an easy task following on from a series that achieved such critical acclaim. Matt Finton and his team of writers, however, have clearly thought incredibly hard about how to continue. Firstly, they involve an element from the original series that was conspicuously missing in series 1- the organisation Omega itself. However. rather than just have them pop up randomly for the finale, they seamlessly weave them throughout the four tales and even link them to unanswered questions in series 1. Their brief mentions in the prior series already established them as a powerful and dangerous threat, even to listeners unfamiliar with the original series. To help this several reoccurring characters are brought in, Edward Milton (Gunnur Cauthery) and Dr Banks (Richenda Carey). Both actors play their respective roles wonderfully and are given ample time to shine. In line with this new element the series also has more of a ‘thriller feel’, involving political elements and embracing the conspiratory nature of Omega.

 

Somnum Sempiternum by Phil Mulryne

The first story by Phil Mulryne demonstrates this, as Department 7 are called in by Doyle to investigate a series of political assassinations. Jameson and Dorney slip effortlessly back into their roles cementing far they’ve grown together as a double act. Alan Cox, as Doyle is given a lot more to do and we get to see him soften a little towards the department, a theme which grows throughout the series. Dr Jane Wyatt who was a villain in the previous series, The Old Gods, returns again played by Camilla Power, who plays the role with the same chilling lack of empathy that made her such a success in the previous set. Sadly she doesn’t really have much to do in the episode bar standard villain actions, ala reporting to her mysterious overlords and having a VERY brief confrontation without heroes. It would have been great to see her have more of a standoff with Jameson and Dorney, but that aside it’s an extremely strong opener.

 

The Changeling- Roy Gill

‘The Changeling’ is by far the stand out story of the set. This episode sees Adam go undercover in a maximum security prison to investigate a series of mysterious deaths surrounding a particularly disturbed inmate, Alistair Reever (Alan Francis). This episode is structured primarily as a mystery, with Dean attempting to work out exactly why Reever committed murder and what forces may be behind it. Due to that fact the less said about this story the better and I urge readers to avoid spoilers as much as possible. However it should be said that the final revelation is utterly devastating and beautifully tragic, Gill having teased the reality slowly but presented enough red herrings so that when the truth hits it hits hard. The Changeling finishes with an element of ambiguity but rather than leave it here this is followed up in later instalments. Whereas one might expect this to damage the stories individual merit, on the contrary it benefits it. These later revelations allow the very personal tragedy on display here to be part of something larger and more sinister, in particular the nature of those events only makes it all the more poignant. A beautiful, haunting masterpiece.

 

Let the Angel Tell Thee- Louise Jameson

Our third tale begins to escalate the events surrounding Omegas plans, despite our heroes still being somewhat oblivious to the danger around them. Most notably this is written by Louise Jameson who once again proves to be one of Big Finish’s strongest assets. Listening to her in interviews one is given the distinct impression that she has a real soft spot for The Omega Factor and her character of Dr Ann Reynolds. In particular, she applauds the decision to set the series thirty years later (which I also commended in my review of the first series) and it’s a decision she utilises to the full her, exploring Ann as an older woman. Jameson’s strong sense of character is so rich that even brief passing moments of dialogue allow a glimpse into aspects of Ann’s life that we haven’t seen before. The story itself may seem like an old cliché, with Omega attempting to dispose of Ann by getting to her through her love life but like the best of this series, that’s merely an excuse for in-depth character exploration. All of the other regulars are great as is the guest cast, (Hugh Fraser) but on the whole, this is a showcase for the supreme talents of Louise Jameson and what a wonderful showcase it is.

 

Awakening- Matt Finton

The final tale in the set brings together all the developing plot threads and also includes a surprise (though not entirely unexpected by this point in the series) Villain. Admittedly as a stand-alone story it does suffer somewhat from having an entire set riding on its back, but how it transforms the two sets into one complete story is what makes it great. For example whilst the reveal of what Omega and our extra-Villain are each up to respectively is certainly interesting but not exactly new or groundbreaking. What does make it stand out is the incredibly clever way in which they tie several episodes across the two series together, transforming simple standalone stories into important aspects of a grand master plan. Whilst the setting of the hospital does at points endanger a small scale feeling to what is essentially a grandiose season finale, the emotional links (primarily Adams previously unseen but much spoken of family being involved) work to make the stakes high. All in all the Awakening delivers what its promised and provides a tense and satisfying conclusion, whilst giving a tantalising hint of what’s to come…

 

With the quality of series 1 so incredibly high, the OF team really had their work cut out in trying to equal it. This work must have been made all the harder by then having to resurrect the previously untouched Omega organisation. The result is not only every bit the equal of the original but a wonderful continuation of an excellent audio series. I made the bold statement in my last review that just after having heard series 1, the OF was my favourite Big Finish series, I stand by it here. A towering achievement that continues to impress.





Blake's 7 - The Classic Audio Adventures - Vol 4.3: Crossfire - Part 2Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 15 April 2018 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Blake's 7 - Crossfire - Part 2 (Credit: c/- Big Finish Productions, 2018)

Written by Trevor Baxendale, Cavan Scott,
Paul Darrow and Steve Lyons

Produced and directed by John Ainsworth

Big Finish Productions, 2018

Stars: Paul Darrow (Avon),
Michael Keating (Vila), Jan Chappell (Cally),
Steven Pacey (Tarrant), Yasmin Bannerman (Dayna),
Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan), Alistair Lock (Zen/Orac),
Hugh Fraser (The President), Trevor Littledale (Maldor),
Imogen Church (Niner), Tam Williams (Jay),
Tania Rodrigues (Captain), Issy Van Randwyck (Eve Adams/Nada), Anthony Townsend (Commander/Robot),
John Green (Mordekain), Toby Longworth (Lockwood),
Kerry Skinner (Zheanne)

We’ve no idea if we’re surrounded by friend or foe. That’s the trouble with civil war – both sides look the same!

Avon, B7 – Crossfire: Shock Troops

At the conclusion to the first boxset in B7’s Crossfire saga, President Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce) became aware that the man she deposed – the former President of the Terran Federation (Hugh Fraser) – was building an army and preparing to move against her. A Federation civil war was inevitable …

In Crossfire – Part Two, the war is in motion, and the Liberator crew are confronted with a dilemma. Do they take a side in the conflict or, as Avon (Paul Darrow) suggests, run disruption against both sides? And what happens when the crew become pawns in the former President’s machinations against Servalan?

This middle part of the Crossfire saga doesn’t disappoint. The four serials are well written and performed, with only the third chapter – Erebus (written by one Paul Darrow) – being the weakest link.

Trevor Baxendale’s Funeral on Kalion is the pick of the set. For the second consecutive play (not counting the recent B7 40th anniversary boxset The Way Ahead), listeners are served up a heist story – after Crossfire - Part One concluded with the episode Fearless. However, where the big reveal in Fearless was a damp squib, the twist in Funeral on Kalion is, for all its simplicity, ingenious.

In the serial, Servalan and her presidential predecessor visit the independent world of Kalion to pay their “respects” to its recently deceased sovereign. Given Kalion’s independence is tolerated by the Federation in exchange for the manufacture of warships for more than 60 per cent of its space fleet, both presidents see an opportunity to exploit the power vacuum and seize control of Kalion’s shipbuilding facilities for themselves. The sovereign’s death also attracts the attention of the Liberator crew, with Avon realising Kalion’s shipyards could be the key (figuratively and literally) to the mutual destruction of the presidents and the downfall of the Federation.

Baxendale’s clever script uses plenty of misdirection to distract not only the three parties vying for Kalion’s control but the listener as well. He also successfully injects plenty of political irony and subtle humour into the narrative. This script marks the first face to face meeting (at least on audio) between Fraser’s nameless President and Pearce’s Servalan, and their dialogue and pithy exchanges are extremely well written and wonderfully performed by the two actors.

The regular cast members are also on song, with Vila’s scepticism about death and funerals being one of the highlights of the play, and conveyed with all the alacrity that you’d expect of Michael Keating:

Vila: It’s all just a racket anyway!

Tarrant: What is? Death?

Dayna: How very existential!

Vila: No, funerals! No one benefits from a funeral – except the undertaker!

However, the standout performance of the play is from Trevor Littledale as Maldor, the late sovereign’s chancellor. Littledale delivers a regal, diplomatic and understated turn that makes you warm to him as a character, little realising that he has a few tricks up his iron sleeve. His reserve also stands out against the extroverted Servalan and the smooth-talking, brown-nosing President. Indeed, this is one of the few B7 episodes where you find yourself rooting not for the Liberator crew but for Maldor and Kalion. Indeed, the conclusion – and the twist – is a masterstroke, and it seems only fitting that Kalion’s destiny is assured.

Shock Troops, from Cavan Scott, is the boxset’s obligatory “experimental” episode. With one or two exceptions (notably Kevin Lloyd’s Trooper Par in the episode Trial, in the second season of the original TV series), B7 never really highlighted the men – or women – behind the faceless masks of the Federation’s soldiers. (Indeed, the only women we ever saw in uniform were Servalan and Travis’s Mutoid posse.) For the most part, on TV, Federation soldiers were dehumanised, ruthless thugs and cannon fodder for Blake and his cohorts. Shock Troops is Scott’s attempt to illustrate not only what life is like on the frontline for Federation troops but to show the humanity and virtues of some of them.

The serial is told largely from the viewpoint of Trooper 229R (or “Niner”, played by Imogen Church), and briefly through her colleague 971J (or “Jay”, played by Tam Williams), as their unit seeks to restore law and order on a remote pastoral colony. In addition to being told from Niner’s point of view, the serial also occasionally takes on a video game feel, as we visualise combat scenarios akin to a first person shooter. However, after a rebel attack kills most of the unit’s members, new recruits arrive in the form of service robots and Trooper 817A (or “Alpha”). However, Alpha is no ordinary trooper. It is evident (at least to the listener) that the newcomer is Dayna Mellanby (Yasmin Bannerman), whom the listener assumes is on a covert mission for the Liberator crew.

It’s a credit to Scott (BF’s former B7 range producer) that his narrative style and characters for this serial keep the listener engaged in the first 15 minutes before Dayna materialises and pushes its momentum along. Having in recent years written some spin-off fiction for that other space opera in a “galaxy, far, far away”, Scott has taken a leaf from the pages of Disney’s latest Star Wars trilogy and not only made this squad of Federation troops nameless (designated only by alphanumeric titles) but also heavily inhabited by women (as we see amongst numerous examples in the First Order). As Scott puts it in the CD extras, when it comes to gender, the Federation military is an “equal opportunities death machine”.

Scott, however, also hides in plain sight a revelation about Dayna, Niner, Jay, other members of their squad, and possibly even their commanding officer Captain 492M (Tania Rodrigues), that deserves further exploration in future B7 instalments beyond the Crossfire saga. In some respects, the disclosure (and Avon’s motives in the serial’s concluding moments) are more suited to events in season four of the TV series (and not season three, in which this tale is ostensibly set). It is also disappointing that the events of Shock Troops – and their impact on Dayna as a character – are self-contained and not referenced in the subsequent stories in the set. That said, B7 on TV was equally as guilty of inconsistency in this regard.

Darrow’s Erebus is also guilty of inconsistency, albeit with regards to characterisation of the Liberator crew rather than necessarily story (or program) continuity. The serial itself is a vast improvement on Darrow’s other B7 works, largely (I suspect) because producer John Ainsworth has invested considerable time and effort into ensuring Darrow’s script doesn’t run off-track.

The title of the serial draws its name from an idyllic Earth-like planet that also happens to be the President’s base of operations in the civil war against Servalan, but the plot has little to do with Erebus – nor even the President. Darrow’s script focuses on what is best described as Avon and Orac’s feminine “counterparts” – the seemingly emotionless, cold Federation colonel Eve Adams and her computer Nada (both played by Issy van Randwyck). Adams has a score to settle with Avon and their prior history contradicts the circumstances that led to his incarceration with Blake at the beginning of the TV series (not to mention it strongly implies he had an additional lover to Anna Grant).

In many ways, the story is a cat-and-mouse game between the Liberator crew, Adams and the President but with very little sense of intrigue or ingenuity. Darrow attempts to infuse a lot of humour into his script to substitute for the lack of drama or action but for the most part it falls flat. An exchange between Tarrant and Vila about “cross-dressing” Federation guards almost goes as much over the listener’s head as it does Vila’s! It’s not so much Tarrant as a character being whimsical as Darrow as a writer being infantile! The President’s Noel Coward-like robot aide de camp – with an emphasis on camp! – starts off as mildly amusing but as the story progresses the joke behind it runs very thin. Nevertheless, Anthony Townsend deserves a mention for his dual, vastly different performances as the robotic aide de camp and a butch yet incompetent Federation space commander. Both parts are caricatures but it’s certainly not obvious they’re the same actor!

But what makes this story most disappointing is the portrayal of the regular characters. To his credit, Darrow resists giving Avon all the best lines and the best scenes. However, while he ought to know all the characters well, the dialogue he writes for them just doesn’t sound like any of them. There is also a sense of distrust and bitchiness between the characters, particularly Avon and Cally, that just doesn’t seem warranted in the story and is not portrayed in any of the other serials in this boxset (or indeed in the TV series). “I’m the telepath, Dayna!” Cally almost snaps at one point, when Dayna expresses reservations that Tarrant and Vila may be heading into a trap. Vila also shows a dependence on Tarrant’s heroism that jars with his character. The supporting cast try their best with the script but, as I’ve written elsewhere, Darrow is exceptional when he works with other people’s B7 material, he’s just not necessarily adept at writing his own!

The set’s final instalment The Scapegoat sees the Liberator crew drawn to the Federation world Astra Valadina, a planet (that aside from its weapons manufacturing expertise) is renowned for mesmerising and pacifying its population through mindless entertainment and propaganda on giant video screens. There, Avon and his crew meet with a supposed arms dealer, only to be implicated in a terrorist attack orchestrated by the President and his number two Space Colonel Mordekain (John Green). Key to the deception is a supposed video confession by Vila that the Liberator crew is behind the attack …

Steve Lyons’ script is an excellent conclusion to the set and more in keeping with B7’s penchant for political drama than Erebus. While Trevor Littledale’s Maldor is still the highlight of this set, due credit also goes to BF veteran Toby Longworth in The Scapegoat for his portrayal of conman and method actor Kurt Lockwood who provides a passable impersonation of Vila.

This is another strong story for Vila following the previous boxset’s finale Fearless. Lockwood is a great character study in comparison to Vila – he may effectively be Vila’s “biggest fan” (capturing some of Vila’s clumsiness and anxieties, even down to babbling when arrested by Federation guards) but, much like Tano Herrick in Fearless, Lockwood’s fright and dread get the better of him. Vila is at least savvy enough not to panic quite so easily and endanger both their lives. Keating and Longworth are a great combo – the dialogue exchanges between the two are laugh out loud funny, especially when attempts to force the real Vila into a false confession lead to accusations that his “performance” is below par. By comparison, Lockwood claims his performance as Vila is “nuanced” and layered, eg:

Lockwood: Look, does this man look like a ruthless terrorist to you? He’s completely miscast!

Vila: Do you mind? I’ve been playing me all my life!

Lockwood: Which is why your performance is so utterly stale!

In all, the story is a good ensemble piece for the regular characters, as well as the President and Mordekain. While Avon, Dayna and Vila are caught up in the “A” plot, the “B” plot sees Tarrant (Steven Pacey) fighting for survival when he and a pretty pick pocket Zheanne (Kerry Skinner) are trapped in the rubble of the building destroyed in the “terrorist” explosion. While we see a softer, compassionate and selfless side to Tarrant, Zheanne provides an insight into how the average citizen views the Federation with (for the most part) unwavering and unquestioning obedience – even when the evidence presented to them is to the contrary. There is at least some hope for Zheanne at the conclusion, but Tarrant is left to lament the point of fighting for a populace that is so indifferent to the Federation’s manipulation.

Crossfire – Part Two provides some entertaining, and in some instances thought-provoking, chapters to the middle part of what Ainsworth describes as a “trilogy”. Each instalment is solidly performed and produced (as long-term listeners of BF productions would by now expect) and has a significant point of difference. Although the civil war, for the most part, occurs very much in the background of the four tales, there are hints at the end of The Scapegoat that the tide of the battle is starting to turn against Servalan and there may well be a traitor in her midst …

Crossfire – Part Three promises to be a cracking finale – and will no doubt push the envelope for the protagonists as much as the antagonists. As for the “winner”, my money is on Hugh Fraser’s villainous President, but in a universe that is as uncertain as Blake’s 7, there could still be plenty of twists and turns to come …

 

 





The Omega Factor: Series 1 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 7 April 2018 - Reviewed by Callum McKelvie
The Omega Factor: Series 1 (Credit: Big Finish)

Written By: Matt Fitton, Phil Mulryne, Cavan Scott, Ken BentleyDirected By: Ken Bentley

Cast

Louise Jameson (Anne Reynolds / Demon), John Dorney (Adam Dean / James / Volunteer 2), Alan Cox (James Doyle / Beast / Ian Raskin / New Orderly), Sandra Voe (Mary McConnell), Natasha Gerson (Morag), Tracy Wiles (Reverend Lucy Douglas / Angie), Terry Molloy (Edmund Fennick / Malcolm McConnell / Chief Superintendent Malcolm Wade), Camilla Power (Dr Jane Wyatt / Presenter), Kate Bracken (Elinor Gordon / Volunteer 1), Georgie Glen (Wanda Maccrum / Demon), Hilary Maclean (Dr Jacqueline Everson/Samntha Matheson / Demon / Clerk), Derek Hutchinson (Fraser Kirkland / Peter / Orderly 2), Laura Dos Santos (Lorraine Armstong/Jill)

Producer David RichardsonScript Editor Matt Fitton

Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

Lasting for only a single ten-episode series broadcast in 1979 The Omega Factor, is the very definition of a cult TV show. The series told the story of Tom Crane, a journalist who discovers he has psychic powers and becomes involved with Department 7, an organisation that investigated the paranormal and the strange. Attracting negative criticism from Mary Whitehouse, the show was axed before it really had a chance to get going and disappeared into obscurity. Thirty years later, enter Big Finish, who were apparently on the lookout for a more overt ‘Horror’ styled series, picked up the rights and produced the first in a series of box sets continuing the adventures of Department 7. Except they didn’t continue those adventures, well at least not the same Department 7. The genius of Big Finish’s version is that it’s more reboot than continuation. With the majority of their productions they usually continue right where the series left off, with the covers featuring the cast as they were on the screen. However, there was one somewhat major issue; original star James Hazeldine had passed away some years prior. It would have been easy to introduce a copy of his Tom Crane character in all but name, but Big Finish are far more intelligent than that.

Instead, we pick up in the present day with Louise Jameson’s Ann Reynolds now in charge of the department. We experience this through the eyes of Adam Dean (John Dorney), the original Tom Crane characters son. In many ways, this recalls the first series of the rebooted Doctor Who and many of the techniques used there are replicated here. Things are kept simple. The Omega organisation who represented the ‘Big Bad’ are kept absent from this series bar a brief mention and other returning elements are drip fed. The series is then left to concentrate on what it excels at, creating terrifying stories.

From Beyond- Matt Fitton

Matt Fittons series opener presents a simple supernatural tale of an old psychic woman believing her long-dead brother to be haunting her. Original it may not be but effective it is and for the first half this element is kept mostly in the background, allowing Fitton to instead concentrate on character development. From the off, John Dorney’s Adam Dean comes across as an entirely likeable and fully rounded character. Having had some experience in this area myself, I particularly liked that the decision was made to have him working in a care home. The real genius is that this isn’t simple character signposting (‘look he’s a caring guy!’) but comes up later in the plot, with him noticing warning signs that have gone unseen by Jameson’s Dr Reynolds. Speaking of Jameson, she slips back into her character effortlessly but this older, stronger Reynolds provides a great foil for Dorney’s Dean and creates some wonderful character moments.

The Old Gods- Phil Mulryne

Easily one of the strongest in the entire set, The Old Gods, presents a wonderfully creepy tale of a spiritual centre attempting to help people who suffer from electrosensitivity hiding a dark secret. Terry Molloy provides a wonderfully chilling turn as Edmund Fennick, somewhat reminiscent of Cyril Luckham’s Edward Drexil in the original series. One particular scene in which he confronts Lousie Jameson stands out for it’s sly menace and he’s helped in the creep factor by Camilla Power as the cold Dr Jane Wyatt. Whilst the ending perhaps could have benefitted from a little more subtlety, rather than the overt supernatural manifestation we are instead given, it doesn’t affect what is a brilliant story.

Legion- Cavan Scott

Notable for featuring the return of Morag (Natasha Gerson), Legion is sadly the weakest in this particular series. That doesn’t of course mean it’s a bad tale, far from it, particularly when the quality here is so high. However the multitude of voices used to depict the titular ‘legion’ of Demons is somewhat overpowering and makes for an uncomfortable listening experience, I wasn’t always sure which character was speaking. There’s also not many twists are turns to be had, Department 7 go looking for Morag, find her, end the supernatural happenings surrounding her and then leave. An entertaining listen but one which pales compared to the other excellence on display.

The Hollow Earth- Ken Bentley

Truly terrifying are the only words that can be used to describe Ken Bentley’s superb finale. Taking place within a church and featuring something trying to break through to our world, The Hollow Earth is a claustrophobic masterpiece and certainly one to be listened to with the lights on. One particular scene (in which a Vicar goes somewhere she defiantly shouldn’t go!) caused me to actually press pause just so I could recover and calm down. The supporting cast are as always wonderful with Tracey Wiles giving a wonderful performance as the aforementioned Vicar. As an odd aside it features a number of similarities to the 2013 film The Borderlands, a superb little horror film that any fan of the genre should check out.

I was going to open with this but I thought I’d build up to it rather than open with what is a pretty bold statement. The Omega Factor is my favourite Big Finish production. Period. A wonderfully evocative set of stories that manages to be brave, terrifying and four hours of well-developed and well-acted characters. A must have for horror fans.





The Island of Dr Moreau (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 31 March 2018 - Reviewed by Callum McKelvie
The Island of Dr Moreau (Credit: Big Finish)

Producer David RichardsonScript Editor Matt FittonExecutive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

Written By: HG Wells, dramatised by Ken BentleyDirected By: Ken Bentley

Cast

Ronald Pickup (Doctor Moreau), John Heffernan (Edward Prendick), Enzo Cilenti(Montgomery), David Shaw-Parker (Captain/ Constans), John Banks (Mate-LV/ M'Ling/ Satyr-Man), Tim Bentinck (Helmar/ Captain John Davies/ Ape-Man), Daniel Goode (Seaman/ Mate-I, Dog-Man).

Now this was the biggie. The Island of Dr Moreau, is my favorite H.G Welles novel and easily the adaptation out of this entire series that I was looking forward to the most. After being astounded by The Martian Invasion of Earth, which was then blown out of the water by The Time Machine, I became convinced that Big Finish could do no wrong with these adaptations. Biting the bullet, I decided to test this theory and see if their version of, in my mind Welles masterpiece, lived up to these expectations. Needless to say, The Island of Dr Moreau, is another sure-fire hit in what is doubtless one of best series put out by Big Finish in recent years.

Like Time Machine and Martian Invasion, Moreau sticks rigorously close to its source material. The novel tells the story of Edward Prendick (John Hefferman) a castaway after a shipwreck, who’s picked up by another boat containing Dr Montgomery (Enzo Cilenti). Montgomery is heading to an Island on which lives the mysterious Dr Moreau (Robert Pickup, recently seen in cinemas in Darkest Hour) and after a misunderstanding, Prendick ends up there also. When there he discovers that Moreau has been conducting experiments through vivisection, turning animals into man-like creatures. These ‘Beast-men’ are contained by strict laws which attempt to hold back their animalistic nature. However, Prendick’s arrival sets off unforeseen events and soon catastrophe looms for all on the island…

I said in my review of Martian Invasion, how generally terrifying that adaptation was, and although the interpretation of the Morlocks within The Time Machine, was somewhat lacking it had equally horrific moments. Moreau is easily the most ‘horror’ of all of Welles works, written as a pamphlet against vivisection. Thus this audio features large amounts of body-horror, with detailed descriptions by Hefferman of the inside of Moreau’s workshop. Truth be told the descriptions are not that extreme, but the constant emphasis on blood and the scars on Moreau’s creatures is powerful and leaves the impression of an incredibly graphic tale. Ken Bentley’s adaptation has expertly weaved this horror throughout the entire piece but his crowning achievement is the sequence in which Moreau explains his work and motivations to Prendick. The dialogue in this sequence is utterly chilling and what’s more, like the previous examples, the historical political subtext so important to Welles work is once again inherent here. As stated, Moreau was originally written as a pamphlet against vivisection and (unlike several film adaptations) the means through which Moreau conducts his experiments is still through vivisection and not updated to genetics or any other form of modern science.  This works particularly well and the horror with which Welles viewed this particular form of biology is inherent in this audio play. Thus, although comparisons can certainly be drawn, Moreau is not a god-like figure- but a scientific meddler who conducts his work without a care for the creatures he makes.

The cast is- as always- exceptional. These Welles adaptations have attracted some talent who are not usually drawn to the more ‘cult’ orientated material that Big Finish usually puts out, but who seems well at home in their ‘classics’ label. None more so than Robert Pickup, who at first comes across as a somewhat kindly Moreau but later transforms into an utterly chilling and inhuman monster. The aforementioned speech he gives about the nature of his work is the golden moment of the entire play, a testament to Pickups superb performance. Hefferman similarly gives an excellent performance, managing to allow his character to come across as somewhat unhinged. This presents a different level to the piece, leaving the audience to wonder whether perhaps his bizarre story is true- or simply the fantasies of a madman. Enzo Cilenti gets some particularly juicy moments and at points comes across as more villainous than Moreau.

All in all, The Island of Dr Moreau is another success story in what is quickly becoming the best thing to come out of the classics range.





The Time Machine (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 26 March 2018 - Reviewed by Callum McKelvie
The Time Machine (Credit: Big Finish)

Producer David RichardsonScript Editor Nicholas BriggsExecutive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

Written By: HG Wells, dramatised by Marc PlattDirected By: Ken Bentley

Cast

Ben Miles (The Time Traveller), Nicholas Rowe (Mr Wells), Anjella Mackintosh(Uweena), Nicholas Asbury (Mr Filby), James Joyce (Mr Pollock), Hywel Morgan(Morlock Leader), Christopher Naylor (Mr Naylor).

Other parts played by members of the cast.

My second venture into Big Finish’s range of H.G Welles adaptations tackles his first novel, 1895’s The Time Machine. Welles story of a man who invents a time machine and travels into a horrifying vision of the future is a tale that should be familiar to many a Whovian as its influence upon our beloved show is beyond vast. That said, it’s not a particularly easy tale to adapt, given that the narrative occurs primarily in the first person with the unnamed ‘Time Traveller’, retelling his story to a group of friends in London. The future world unto which our hero finds himself is not one that allows easy dialogue scenes, as the two species he encounters cannot communicate with him. Big Finish has adapted the original novels narrative style, and what results is something akin to their earlier ‘Companion Chronicles’, with Ben Miles time traveler retelling his tale and other voice actors providing the sounds of the Eloi and Morlocks.

An audio drama in this style then relies heavily on the actor delivering it. Admittedly Ben Miles is not an individual I am particularly familiar with, but I am delighted he'll be playing the brooding Callan in BFs upcoming release because here he is fantastic. Throughout the course of the two hours, Miles goes through a variety of emotions, often with no one but himself to bounce off. Not only that, but the nature of Welles 1895 novel means that he is often required to break with the story for sections of discussion regarding such subjects as the class system. Reams of philosophical debate and huge chunks of descriptive dialogue are, with Miles skilled tongue, transformed into mesmerising or terrifying depictions of a future gone horrifyingly wrong.

One of the great joys of this version of The Time Machine (and the same can be said for The Martian Invasion of Earth though I failed to mention it in my review) is how much the script revels in its Victorian heritage. Unlike, for example, the 1960 film adaptation (which by the way is still my preferred version away from the novel) this drama doesn’t attempt to update its source material by having trips to events that are to us history but to Welles in 1895, was the future. Not only that but this version sticks rigorously to Welles central theme of class conflict, that is the cause of the development of the Eloi and the Morlocks. So no trips to WW1 here, no world war III sequences and nuclear holocausts. Not only then is it exceptionally close to its source material, but the entire atmosphere of the piece reeks of 19th-century fantasy. Indeed one can imagine that, were the technology around, that a contemporary audio version would have a similar tone. A wonderful score (which includes frightening electronic pieces for the travelers arrival into the future and a beautiful theme for our hero) perfectly captures the wonder present in Welles story, that has been so expertly transported to this version.

Which of course brings me to the sound design. In a production like this one can imagine it’s an incredibly hard thing to do after all the soundscape conjured up by the Big Finish team has to stop this piece appearing like a talking book. It must reflect what Miles is saying and compliment it and whilst not dominating the proceedings. Admittedly whilst on the whole, I thought they did a stellar job, there were a few choices which I felt were somewhat uninspired. The sound effects used for the Morlocks, which are made incredibly Simian in this version (I mean just look at the cover) are particularly ape-like and in my opinion a little too much. The Morlocks are on paper, truly terrifying creatures and although there is the reasoning within the plot (Darwinism in reverse) to make them Simian, having them screech like monkeys and nothing else is far from frightening. Perhaps if the ape-like noises had been enhanced somewhat the effect might have been better but as it stands it feels like a missed opportunity. Sadly the same can be said for some of the Eloi sound effects, which come across as intensely irritating and can have an impact on the drama when we’re supposed to care about them.

All in all, however, The Time Machine stands as a marvelous achievement and another great entry in Big Finish’s adaptations of H.G Welles. In fact next to the 1960 film, it might be my favourite version of the novel.





Blake's 7: The Classic Audio Adventures - The Way AheadBookmark and Share

Sunday, 4 March 2018 - Reviewed by Damian Christie

     

Written by Mark Wright
Produced and directed by John Ainsworth
Big Finish Productions, 2018
Stars: Paul Darrow (Avon), Michael Keating (Vila),
Sally Knyvette (Jenna), Jan Chappell (Cally),
Steven Pacey (Tarrant), Yasmin Bannerman (Dayna),
Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan), Stephen Greif (Travis),
Glynis Barber (Magda), Alistair Lock (Zen/Orac),
Olivia Poulet (Avalon), Kate Brown (Cassandra),
Sam Woodward (Sheltak/Freighter captain), Catherine Bailey (Mutoid/Captain), Fanos Xenofós (Interceptor commander/trooper), and Gareth Thomas (Blake).

‘They were titans of a rebellion that tore the galaxy apart, symbols of hope against tyranny. They had been comrades, blasting through star systems to topple dictators and liberate the oppressed. Some called them terrorists. Many called them heroes …’

Hahaha! What lurid nonsense!

Kerr Avon, B7: The Way Ahead

 

It’s the 40th anniversary of a science fiction phenomenon – and the latest instalment in this space opera opens on a remote island world where our hero is living his life in seclusion, away from the rest of the galaxy which has feted him (much to his chagrin and reluctance) as a hero and a symbol of the resistance against an evil galactic order. The young woman who persuades him to tell his story is convinced that he’s still a beacon of hope and there is good that he can still do …

No, it’s not the plot for the most recent Star Wars instalment The Last Jedi – although you could be forgiven for thinking it is, especially when the supreme commander’s seat of power is trashed in a brazen rebel attack (while aboard said vessel the key antagonist offers the protagonist a shot at an alliance) …

It’s actually the recent Blake’s 7 serial The Way Ahead, a three-disc special release from Big Finish that celebrates the 40th anniversary of the program’s debut on BBC TV on 2 January, 1978 – approximately seven days after the original Star Wars (aka Episode IV – A New Hope) premiered in UK cinemas.

Star Wars, of course, has just commemorated its own 40th anniversary with a myth-busting tour de force of the second film in its sequel trilogy, much to the consternation of traditionalists. The Way Ahead, despite a few superficial parallels with its big screen counterpart, is perhaps not so daring, largely because the broader B7 saga has already been told. Nevertheless, perhaps those same purists decrying the latest Star Wars installment may find some solace in The Way Ahead, which is a more predictable approach to storytelling by scriptwriter Mark Wright, compared to screenwriter/director Rian Johnson’s more unconventional style with The Last Jedi.

That’s not to say that The Way Ahead is a staple B7 adventure – the two-part story doesn’t shatter the status quo of the B7 universe but Wright dares to tinker around the edges a little, particularly in the second half. It is set across three eras: some time in the first season of the TV program (the first episode Project Aquitar), when Roj Blake (the late Gareth Thomas) is in charge of the Liberator; at some point in the third season (the second episode Dissent), when Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) has taken command of the iconic starship; and at least 20 years after the showdown on Gauda Prime (GP) which ties in with Darrow’s Lucifer trilogy of B7 novels.

The post-GP framing device is probably the only thing that might upset B7 traditionalists, as Darrow’s books would be viewed by some – including this writer – as apocryphal (“lurid nonsense” indeed!). Nevertheless, the telling of the two episodes in a flashback is executed well, thanks to the chemistry of Avon and his lover Magda, played by a mature Glynis Barber (who portrayed crew member and gunslinger Soolin in the TV program’s fourth and final series).

Blake's 7 - Project Aquitar (Credit: c/- Big Finish Productions, 2018)Project Aquitar is the most traditional of the two episodes and encapsulates what the first season of B7 was about – Blake’s feud with his scarred arch nemesis Space Commander Travis (brilliantly reprised by the original actor Stephen Greif). Sadly, with Gareth Thomas has passed on, the character of Blake is relegated to the background, and merely mentioned in despatches (ie Blake and Gan, originally portrayed by the late David Jackson, are manning the Liberator when it is attacked by pursuit ships while the rest of the crew teleport to mining world Lorgan Minor to destroy Travis’s latest scheme). It is up to Sally Knyvette (Jenna) and Darrow to shoulder most of Blake’s dialogue and actions in Thomas’s absence. Indeed, if Project Aquitar had been made for TV, it would have been Blake and Travis trapped in an underground rockfall, not Travis and Jenna. Nevertheless, the dialogue between the pair is fascinating, as they attempt to justify being on opposite sides.

On TV, Knyvette fell into the trap that often befell some Doctor Who companions in the 1970s and 1980s – she went from being an Avengers/Emma Peel-type heroine to being (as Knyvette recalls on the 40th anniversary retrospective on the third disc) “a bit girly and a … sex symbol which is a shame because … I would have liked to have seen the stronger sides of her character coming out”. The one thing Knyvette has relished since BF revived B7 for audio has been to restore (again to paraphrase the actor) integrity, feistiness, and strength to Jenna’s character. Those qualities are most evident when she takes on Travis one on one, mocking him for his incompetence. “I don’t need Blake to rescue me!” Jenna tells Travis while in combat. “I can make an idiot out of you myself!”

What’s also interesting about the portrayal of Jenna in Project Aquitar (and indeed in some of BF’s other portrayals of the character) is how much she believes in Blake and his cause (and how much she maintains that faith after departing the Liberator). When Travis asks why a smuggler would follow a would-be freedom fighter on his “senseless crusade”, Jenna insists that if she “dies today … then I’ll die knowing what I did was right”. She also refutes Travis’s allegation that she is a terrorist with the following reasoning: “The Federation endures through terror, so you tell me who the terrorist is!”

This revolutionary idealism is shared by fellow freedom fighter Avalon (Olivia Poulet), a character that was originally introduced on TV in the 1978 episode Project Avalon and bridges the gap between Project Aquitar and Dissent. The difference between Avalon and Jenna, as well as her crewmates Cally (Jan Chappell) and Vila (Michael Keating), is that they will not fight dirty. When Avalon seizes control of the plot’s “MacGuffin” (which hails back to a bit of dialogue in the third episode of the TV series Cygnus Alpha), she is prepared to strike at Federation troops with the same force that has befallen her comrades on the planet Malanar Delta. It takes Cally’s persuasion to make Avalon (it seems) see the error of her ways.

While Project Aquitar is a traditional, serviceable and enjoyable episode in its own right, Dissent is the strongest, most dynamic installment of The Way Ahead boxset. The listener jumps ahead to B7’s third series as the Liberator crew – minus Blake, Jenna and Gan, and incorporating Tarrant (Stephen Pacey), Dayna (Yasmin Bannerman) and Orac (Alistair Lock) – once again cross paths with Avalon. The events that follow are unexpected (albeit only temporary) but they raise the stakes for both the rebellion and the Federation, now personified by arch nemesis Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce).

Having explored the nobility behind Blake and Jenna’s fight in Project Aquitar – to restore democracy and independence to the galaxy – Wright explores the reality of what that fight has truly achieved by this point in the broader B7 saga. In the third series opener Aftermath, Avon remarked that he hoped Blake “survived long enough to realise he was winning”. In Dissent, it becomes clear that Blake’s victory (if indeed it ever was one) was only temporary and that under Servalan’s leadership, the Federation is rebuilding and becoming more streamlined and deadlier than before. Further, Avalon’s zeal and meddling, far from striking a blow to the heart of this new incarnation of the Federation, will merely harden Servalan’s resolve.

Blake's 7 - Dissent (Credit: c/- Big Finish Productions, 2018)My only criticism about Dissent is the “MacGuffin” (or plot device) which is central to Project Aquitar is barely utilised (being reduced to one scene and a couple of throwaway lines). The manner that Wright deploys it – and then discards it – is far less convincing (are we seriously expected to believe Avalon’s group would really have the brains to assemble another “MacGuffin” patterned on the original?).

That aside, the performances of the returning cast members are outstanding. The dialogue of Greif and Knyvette in Project Aquitar and Darrow and Pearce in Dissent are the highlights of the serial. The other supporting actors – Keating, Chappell, Bannerman, Pacey, Barber, and Lock – are solid performers. Knyvette deserves to do more audio work based on the strength of her performance and perhaps the solution would be a box set about Jenna’s own adventures in the years after she left the Liberator (perhaps following the lines of Jenna’s Story, one of the installments in Volume 6 of The Liberator Chronicles).

It’s also a nonsense that going forward Barber may have to play other guest roles if she wishes to continue doing B7 plays. BF claims it doesn’t have the rights to do B7 stories set during series 4 and therefore can’t use the Soolin character (even though two of the serials in the aforementioned Liberator Chronicles V6 are nominally set during series 3 and 4, Soolin is mentioned by Magda and we even hear the teleport effect used in series 4 at key moments in Project Aquitar). While I can understand that BF feels there is plenty of fertile ground to still explore by keeping its serials rooted in the third series, it is inevitable that the company will eventually want to venture into series 4 territory. If so, then BF should already be opening negotiations with B7 Media for those rights and employing a talented actor like Barber while she’s available.

In conclusion, The Way Ahead is an outstanding release. Wright and the BF production team subtly place plenty of Easter eggs honouring B7 throughout the narrative, largely in dialogue and in sound effects. There’s also a couple of fun, humorous parallel moments in both episodes between the same characters (eg Avon’s responses to Vila’s disappointment at the survival of B7’s antagonists are beautifully written and performed). We also get to hear dialogue and exchanges between the antagonists and protagonists that could almost have been written for the 1979 and 1981 finales Star One and Blake respectively. The play also is more than happy to riff off other SF properties in its dialogue as well (notably Star Wars and Doctor Who) but the most touching Easter egg features the titular character himself – Blake – in the closing moments of Dissent, as we hear a monologue by Gareth Thomas (sadly) for the last time.

As an anniversary tale, The Way Ahead is an enjoyable listen and a worthy celebration of a short-lived yet popular and memorable TV program that through BF’s audio output endures today. B7 will never be as grandiose as Star Wars (nor should it ever try to be) but the enthusiasm of its storytellers and artists remains as undimmed and avid as the small band of rebels that it portrays.