Bookmark and Share Blake's 7 - Devil's Advocate/Truth and Lies

5/28/2015 12:49:00 a.m. - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Damian Christie
 
Blake's 7 - Devil's Advocate (Credit: Big Finish) Written By: Steve Lyons and Justin Richards Directed By: Lisa Bowerman
Stars: Paul Darrow (Kerr Avon), Michael Keating (Vila Restal), Jan Chappell (Cally),Steven Pacey (Del Tarrant), Tom Chadbon (Del Grant), Alistair Lock (Zen/Orac), Hugh Fraser (The President), Simone Lahbib (Pelora), Nigel Carrington (Kramer), Beverly Hill (Karine Mellanby)
"A case of better the devil you know?"

Avon, Blake's 7: Devil's Advocate

In a behind the scenes interview for one of the latest Blake's 7 audio releases Devil's Advocate, Big Finish producer Cavan Scott remarks that there has been a conscious effort to steer away from plotlines this year that feature Federation-type politics. The thinking was that BF had already done numerous storylines of that ilk and the politics of the period in which this micro-season of B7 adventures is set (the third season of the original TV series) had itself moved on, following the events of the Intergalactic War at the end of series two.

Of course, what Scott forgets is that it was Federation machinations that made B7 such a memorable, provocative TV program in the first place. Unlike other TV series of its era, B7 was not afraid to tell hardcore SF/realpolitik morality tales which explored the main characters' heroism and flaws and the impact their exploits would have on the political system they were trying to overturn. Indeed, the TV series illustrated time and again that Blake's rebellion was not without real consequences. Not only did members of the Seven die throughout the life of the series, so did a number of other good people encountered along the way. And unlike many other SF and fantasy sagas since (which are notorious for resurrecting characters), there was no way back. B7 was almost the Game of Thrones of its time!

Therefore, the return to Federation-style machinations and politics in the final two instalments of this micro-season is a welcome development. Devil's Advocate and Truth and Lies round out and (for the most part) satisfactorily tie up the loose "Search for Dayna" story arc with antagonists and scenarios that encapsulate Federation politics. They are certainly an improvement on the more fantasy-driven middle chapters Mindset and Ghost Ship.

Devil's Advocate marks the return of the Federation's enigmatic yet debonair President (Hugh Fraser), who was last seen in the concluding two-parter to the preceding micro-season of B7 plays. Fraser's character was the stand-out adversary of those instalments, providing a calculating, composed counterpoint to B7's regular baddies in the ruthless yet impatient Servalan and the reckless, obtuse Travis. I expressed at the time my hope that the character would return for future instalments.

In the wake of the Intergalactic War, the still anonymous President (we still don't know his full identity) is now as much an outlaw as the Liberator crew members, but still retains hope that he will eventually re-seize power from Servalan. With the help of his assistant Pelora (Simone Lahbib), he reaches out to none other than Tarrant (Steven Pacey) for help in his quest to restore his power. So prompts a debate amongst the Liberator crew that can be traced back to the events of the previous micro-series finale Caged -  would Blake really have precipitated the collapse of the Federation if he had assassinated the President, or would he simply have opened the door for another tyrant to assume control (as Servalan inevitably did)? And should the Liberator crew under Avon's (Paul Darrow) leadership now entertain the moral dilemma of aligning themselves with one of the most abhorrent figures in the Federation in a bid to topple Servalan?

With the exception of Avon, whose mystique has gone largely untouched, this micro-series of B7 tales has focused on specific members of the crew, notably Cally (Jan Chappell) and Vila (Michael Keating). Devil's Advocate puts Tarrant in the limelight, providing us with a back story that was never hinted at on television.

When we first met Tarrant in the B7 episodes Aftermath and Powerplay in 1980, he was revealed to be a Federation space pilot who had turned to smuggling and was on the Federation's "most wanted" list. Devil's Advocate suggests an entirely different back story for Tarrant, which while not specifically contradictory or implausible, does seem somewhat contrived for the purpose of Steve Lyons' plot. As if Tarrant's former lover Pelora tracking him down on the Nebula Interplanetary Way Station isn't coincidence enough ...

Nevertheless, whether it's coincidence or contrivance, Steven Pacey delivers one of his finest performances as Tarrant as he takes on the "devil's advocate" role of the story, asserting that the Liberator crew has lost sight of its long term objective and should now embrace the chance "to build something rather than just tearing it down". Tarrant is at his most persuasive and idealistic but his flaws are all too evident - as Avon alludes, he is a romantic at heart, keen to play the hero and behave impulsively, particularly (as Vila points out) when a woman figures in the picture!

Pacey's performance is virtually rivalled by Tom Chadbon as Del Grant. While Tarrant argues the merits of aligning with the President, Chadbon delivers an impassioned, fanatical portrayal of Grant that is an impressive reversal on the character's more laidback, reasonable demeanour. Of course, just as Tarrant has his flaws, Grant's almost prove fatal, thanks to his over-zealous pursuit for justice and the grief and betrayal he harbours for the death of his sister (and Avon's lover) Anna. Grant has been underused in this micro-series to date and Chadbon, like Pacey, finally gets the opportunity to stand out.

Hugh Fraser, of course, again upstages all of the regular characters with an almost warm, amiable, charismatic and composed performance that hides the President's calculating, ruthless and paranoid side. Despite being deposed by Servalan, the character has lost none of his arrogance and ambition, and it is implied heavily by the conclusion of the story that his hubris may in fact lead to his downfall. Certainly, the character does not seem as omnipresent as hinted in last year's finale Caged (when it was revealed the President engaged clones to, as Cally alleges, do his dirty work). Of course, I suspect the President's fate is not that clear-cut and that we haven't seen the last of him ... And given how impressive Fraser has been in this part over the last two years, it would be a shame not to keep the character around.  

Blake's 7 - Truth and Lies (Credit: Big Finish)
Hubris is also the key tenet of the villain in the finale Truth and Lies. Nigel Carrington's Kramer is revealed to be one of the Federation's psychostrategists, modelled on a similar character played by Scott Fredericks in the 1979 B7 episode Weapon. Carrington also puts in a competent performance as the baddie, although the character is hardly as memorable as the President, Frederick's character Carnell or even Adrian Lukas' performance as another psychostrategist Bracheeni in the B7 Liberator Chronicle Incentive. Nevertheless, the reason for Kramer's failure is without doubt the highlight of the play and even if it doesn't have you laughing out loud (which can be rather embarrassing if you're listening to these audios in public!), it will certainly have you smiling or may be even wincing. At any rate, you won't be disappointed.

Kramer's incompetence, though, is unfortunately the only twist in a serial that provides a rather flat, predictable conclusion to the "Search for Dayna" storyline. Perhaps this is partly because the reason for Dayna Mellanby jumping ship and striking out on her own was hinted at as early as this micro-series' third instalment Mindset - that Dayna's mother Karine Melanby (Beverly Hill) had survived the massacre of her father's resistance movement. The President mischievously drops further hints in Devil's Advocate that he also knew Karine, implying that she is a Federation agent, but in the final wash-up, Karine's true nature proves to be a damp squib. Beverly Hill tries her best as Dayna's mother, delivering a compassionate, poignant portrayal, but ultimately her presence in the serial fails to give this second micro-series the memorable send-off that it needs. Indeed, Avon and Vila's closing remarks truly illustrate just how run of the mill Truth and Lies is as an episode.

I queried at the start of this micro-series how the writers were going to skirt around Dayna's absence, given the original actor Josette Simon is not interested in reprising the character. To his credit, Truth and Lies author Justin Richards provides a plausible enough scenario to set up Dayna's reunion with the Liberator crew but given this micro-series contains subtle hints for storylines that are likely to be explored in a third full cast audio series, it would seem to me inevitable that Dayna will have to be in that series and the character will have to be recast (on the strength of her performance as Dayna's mother, perhaps Hill deserves to play Karine's daughter!).

I must admit to also being disappointed with the under-utilisation of Tom Chadbon as Del Grant throughout this micro-series. With the exceptions of Truth and Lies and Fortuitas (which are very good ensemble pieces for the whole cast) and Devil's Advocate (where Chadbon gives his character some teeth), Grant has for the most part played second fiddle to the other TV series regulars. No doubt there are still further stories to be told about Grant's exploits on the Liberator before (in continuity with the TV series) the writers send him off to pasture. It can only be hoped the character is done some justice before that inevitable send-off occurs.

As all regular BF listeners would expect, the sound quality of these audios continues to be exceptional, feeding the imagination and provoking a larger than life visualisation of each serial, despite the relatively small ensemble cast (usually the seven regular characters plus two or three more guest stars). A special mention also goes to the director in BF regular Lisa Bowerman whose performance as the tannoy announcer on the Nebula transit station adds some black humour to some quite tense moments in the first half of Devil's Advocate. "In the event that weapons are discharged, please lie flat on the ground to ensure your personal safety!" Bowerman's tannoy announcer says when Federation troopers start indiscriminately firing on passengers!

Devil's Advocate is by far the best of the last two instalments and certainly the pick of this second micro-series of B7 plays. While this series as a whole has been enjoyable in parts, the first full cast audio series still remains the superior of the two. Despite Cavan Scott's reluctance to focus on Federation politics and hi-jinks, it is clear that the superior serials, in line with the original TV series that inspired them, are the ones steeped in space opera, not fantasy. The audio serials should stay true to their roots and it can be but hoped that in the next micro-series, we see not only more Federation machinations but also Jacqueline Pearce's triumphant return as Servalan as well. 

Bookmark and Share Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: Episode Two - How is Lady Pole?

5/26/2015 04:37:00 p.m. - Reviewed by Chuck Foster

Reviewed by Martin Ruddock
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (ep 2) (Credit: BBC)
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Episode Two
Written by Peter Harness
Directed by Toby Haynes
First transmitted 24th May 2015, BBC One
Following on from last week's impressive debut, the plot thickens in episode two of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and the threads dangled in the first episode begin to entwine. This series continues to impress, with the strong leading performances of Bertie Carvel, Eddie Marsan, and Marc Warren right to the fore. Peter Harness's script and Toby Haynes' direction are both hugely compelling. This is a class act

Anyway, back to the story....

Set several months after Mr Norrell's arrival in London and the resurrection of Lady Pole by the Gentleman, Norrell - at first knocked back by the government, is enjoying himself in the corridors of power, and quite literally making waves against Napoleon's troops. The episode opens with the first of several jaw-wobbling set-pieces, as the spooked French row out towards an armada made entirely from rain - Norrell's handiwork. 

At the same time, Mr Segundus, having talent-spotted Norrell in episode one, is at it again - this time he accidentally finds Jonathan Strange, who has come on somewhat as a magician, but isn't really quite in control yet.

Strange and Norrell finally come face to face. Their dynamic is interesting. Norrell is clearly impressed with the younger, far more deferential Strange, but is also extremely worried about being outstripped by the competition. Strange is a raw talent, but capable of incredible things, like the horses that rise from the sand in a spectacular beach sequence. Norrell is keen to teach him, but is protective over his territory, and his precious library of books. When Strange is selected to go to war, Norrell's greatest discomfort is at Strange ransacking his library to take to the 'dirty' front line.

It seems that as soon as they meet, various outside forces are trying to pull them apart. Mr Drawlight is unimpressed by the newcomer, and sows seeds of dischord with his co-conspirator, Lascelles by suggesting that the magical library contents of the late Duke of Roxburgh could be bid for by Strange at auction. Meanwhile, Arabella Strange soon has reason to distrust Norrell after speaking with Lady Pole, whose disintegration is a large part of the episode. 

Plagued by strange nightmares and feelings of dread, the recently resurrected Lady Pole is the subject of the machinations of the Gentleman, who makes his presence further felt in this episode. He also begins to pull the strings of servant Stephen Black, who is shown a vision of the Gentleman's spooky ball and the plans he has for Lady Pole. He also has an eye for the ladies, setting his sights on Arabella.

These plot elements build up to the climactic auction, where Arabella bids against Norrell for the Duke's library, and the Gentleman is sat next to her, giving Norrell a knowing smile. A storm, in every sense, is coming.

Bookmark and Share Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: Episode One - The Friends of English Magic

5/26/2015 03:35:00 p.m. - Reviewed by Chuck Foster

Reviewed by Martin Ruddock
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (ep 1) (Credit: BBC)
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Episode One
Written by Peter Harness
Directed by Toby Haynes
First transmitted 17th May 2015, BBC One
The BBC, it must be said, really ‘gets’ period drama. It’s always been a cornerstone of Auntie’s output, and intrinsic to her DNA.  In recent years there have been a fair number of stabs at a ‘modern’ take on history-set adventure series, sometimes with a SF or sword and sorcery twist. Some of them designed to fill Doctor Who’s slot when it’s off the air. Some have been a Sunday evening affair. These shows have had varied fortunes, the more adult grit and faint steampunk flavour of The Musketeers works in its favour, but an earnest Robin Hood talking about Ethnic Cleansing? Not so much. Sometimes, the fantastical elements have been jarring. Sometimes they haven’t caught the public’s imagination, like the recently cancelled Atlantis, which tried to marry the same formula to myth and legend like the more successful Merlin.

All of these series have succeeded on some levels, but floundered on others. Robin Hood sagged because it was trying too hard to hammer home social relevance, when it was set in the Twelfth Century and people simply didn't talk that way. The Musketeers does well at the swashbuckling action and stylised depiction of the period, but doesn’t have an SF or magical angle. Merlin mixed various tones but didn’t really hit stride until several series in, when Arthur went from Prince to King and the tone darkened. Atlantis just didn’t catch on.

Based on its first episode, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell might just have finally got it right. It’s early days, and there’s six more episodes to go, but everything seems to be in the right place.

Adapted from Susanna Clarke’s epic novel by recent Doctor Who scribe Peter Harness (the man who gave the Moon a yolk), and helmed by by one of its finest directors, Toby Haynes - this is ambitious stuff. Set against the background of the Napoleonic Wars, it’s the story of a meeting of two very different magicians in an alternative Britain where magic has returned after several hundred years of absence.

Opening up North with a magic circle entirely comprised of people who don’t practice magic, the curious Mr Segundus meets dour, fearful magician Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan) and his manservant Childermass (Enzo Cilenti), and leads his circle (“The most magical men in Yorkshire”) to a spectacular demonstration by Norrell which not only scares them rigid, but contractually obliges them not to practice magic. 

Having eliminated any possible competition, Norrell then relocates to London to offer his services in the war effort, but is quicky knocked back. He soon meets a vivid and scene-stealing cast of characters, menacing street magician Vinculus (Paul Kaye), preening would-be impresario Mr Drawlight (Vincent Franklin), and most fatefully – The Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair (A sinister and impressive-haired Marc Warren, possibly channelling David Bowie's Goblin King from Labyrinth). The Gentleman offers Norrell a bargain, a bargain that will doubtless lead only to bad things. Eddie Marsan gives an excellent, layered performance as Norrell - a gifted user of magic, and a man of some principle, but scared and flawed at the same time.

Meanwhile, likeable fop Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) seeks a purpose in life whilst pining for his best friend’s sister, and is unexpectedly given it when he finds Vinculus under a hedge. The street magician recognises him (and also Norrell, who he's already scared half-witless in London) as one of two magicians named in a prophecy, and sells him some spells. It turns out Jonathan’s a natural. Carvel is great fun as Jonathan, a sort of cross between Withnail and Bertie Wooster. He gets far less screen time than Norrell, and the titular duo don't meet in this first episode, so it remains to be seen whether they have chemistry or not. I have a feeling from preview clips released so far that they'll complement each other nicely.

This is by turns witty, creepy, and visually stunning stuff. The pace is luxurious, and the script crackles with well-observed dialogue from Harness. The supporting cast is superb, with particular props to Cilenti's Childermass, (who looks wearily on the verge of hitting people throughout), Warren's lithe, whispering, malevolent Gentleman, and perhaps most of all - Kaye, who walks a line between sinister and cartoonish, but unsettles through his manic energy, and rants obliquely about a Raven King whilst still sounding believable. 

Haynes was always one of Who's more filmic directors, and he impresses throughout - good with a camera, and with some impressive set pieces up his sleeve - like the creepy arrival of the Gentleman, Vinculus's unsettling tarot card trick, and Norrell's animation of the stone figures that sends a whole magic circle of scared Yorkshiremen packing.

So far so good. Will it catch on with the public? Who knows? Ratings do the talking, but, based on this first episode, this is going to be seven Sunday evenings well-spent.

Bookmark and Share Game Of Thrones Season Five - Episodes One and Two

5/04/2015 12:59:00 a.m. - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
1) The Wars to Come  2) The House Of Black And White HBO/ Sky Atlantic - 2015
Note - This review does contain spoilers, and some discussion of the books' storylines.

"I will bury him. I will mourn for him... [but we will not go to war]"

"The Sand Snakes.. will avenge their father [unlike you].... [let me send Myrcella to Cersei] one finger at a time.."

"I loved my brother and you made him very happy. For that you will always have a place in my heart. But we do not mutilate little girls... Not while I rule"

- Prince Doran Martell arguing with Ellaria Sand.

There has been a lot of talk of Dorne in preceding seasons of the global hit fantasy serial; most notably when a select number of their people showed up led by Oberyn Martell. With the headstrong but charismatic Viper slain so memorably in last season's trial-by-combat, there are some immediate consequences that will shape ensuing events in this new season of the show.

Yet it may surprise many that this entire section of the Westeros map and wider society was at one point considered for the chop. That fate has befallen the potential developments that involved Balon Greyjoy's wider family from the Iron Islands. And other intriguing storylines from the fourth and fifth books in the 'Song of Ice and Fire' series also have been omitted or reshaped into pre-existing characters' arcs.

This is still thoroughly entertaining and engaging TV though. At some point the books were getting so elaborate in scope that even attempting two-thirds of all the storylines and subplots would be impossible. This show must concede that it has certain confines. Just ten episodes fill a season, running at fifty minutes; give or take a slither more, depending on what needs to be achieved on the weekly basis.

'Thrones' has reached a peak thus far in terms of audience reaction and following, with the premiere episode gaining around eight million viewers watching live transmissions in the U.S. But those viewers must have been somewhat surprised by the choice of flashback in the very first scene.

Rumoured flashbacks have persisted for a while now, with Ned Stark being amongst those that most tantalised. Charles Dance is named in the premiere's credits, and hoped to see the child version of Cersei interact with her authoritative father. No such luck as Dance is only required to lie in a state of 'rigor mortis', his eyes covered with painted stones. The past memory we do get is still important though, and gives some real context to the Queen's politicking thus far. More specifically it builds on the cat-and-mouse game of wits and plotting between her and Margaery, who has been looking to supplant Cersei as monarch ever since the finale of season two.

As for the man who played his part in King Robert's demise, a lot has changed since he last crept off-screen during the sublime 'Blackwater' episode. Cousin Lancel is now no longer easily cowed by harsh words and dismissive looks, and has a new direction in his life - religion and prudence. His hair is short, and he seems to have a focus and sobriety that would deter even the most powerful of harpies (should such creatures exist in this fantasy realm).  Uncle Kevan is also back, albeit only briefly. He now seems to recognise that he has the power in Casterly Rock, and rightly see's his niece's authority in Small Council meetings as losing solidity. A very good performance from returning Ian Gelder, but one that is brief for plot reasons that make perfect sense, 

And in general King's Landing feels an oddly sterile and empty place nowadays. Even with Tyrion in chains for  much of last year, he still made a massive contribution to proceedings. Now he is missed. King Tommen may  be a likeable lad but he quite frankly lacks either his uncle's or his grandfather's charisma. The absence of  Lady Olenna is somewhat noticeable too, as she was played so well by Diana Rigg. I still can hope that she will  be called in by one of her grandchildren to dispense more brilliant and forthright advice. And of course now  Jaime and Bron have left the city as well, in order to try and rescue Myrcella. As the quoted dialogue shows,  she is far from being safe nowadays.  

However Qyburn (Anton Lesser) has seemingly graduated from a minor character to one having  notable influence. He takes advantage of the latest bungled attempt to return Tyrion's head to Cersei, and there  are some strong indications that someone assumed dead not so long ago, may be under the care of this very  strange 'maester'.  He also now has a seat at the Small Council and that will infuriate Pycelle (Julian Glover  - brilliant in this role). Despite putting on a front of frailty the old Grand Maester is still relatively spry, but he may  have to readjust his game plan if he wants to make a mark in any seasons that follow this one.

So what can we say that is new concerning Tyrion (once again played by top-billed Peter Dinklage)? His departure from the capital in the preceding finale saw him return to being a traveller who must decide which people he meets will aid him and not betray his confidence. For now he must rely on the supremely wily Varys. Their interactions play out almost like a buddy movie; another sign of 'Thrones' transcending its dungeons-and-dragons stereotype label. Both men can produce come-backs without barely mustering any visible effort and the result is TV gold. It also helps that they are both in a beautifully sunny part of Pentos, and free to drink wine and gaze at the Narrow thanks to the hospitality of Varys' associate Illyrio Mopatis. There is also a terrific establishing 'point of view' sequence as Tyrion's tiny box/home is carried around shakily from the ship he escaped on. Lovely direction from Michael Slovis and his team.

But being free to walk and talk again cannot hide the fact that the former Hand of the King is in a dark place mentally and totally unable to forget the way he murdered treacherous lover Shae and bullying father Tywin. How this impacts on Tyrion's actions in later episodes and events to come will be something to anticipate keenly. My only issue with the subplot is that once episode two checks in on these two in their carriage, there is no energy or revelation. It feels a waste of two first-class actors in Dinklage and Conleth Hill.

One cast member who has really grown on the show and continues to do so is Kit Harrington. His Jon Snow character has gathered considerable momentum for some time now. Admittedly he barely registered with me in the second season (with flame-haired Ygritte stealing the show), and was also somewhat handicapped by the Night's Watch scenes being oddly static for much of the original season. 

Nowadays much enticement is generated by having all of Stannis' court and army, plus the nefarious Red Woman. This section of the show is a real treat. Davos is also still firmly at 'King Stannis' side, and being as measured and wise as ever. Liam Cunningham is such a terrific actor who never makes the audience feel they are watching a performance. Most of us surely want him to be around till the final stages of the entire run. Stannis himself is still brusque, dour and lacking in that intangible that all great rulers have. But Stephen Dillane is very good in developing this role and his acting chops are more than sufficient, as various dynamics play out with the surviving Baratheon's family, advisors and those he aims to rule over.

The striking end of Mance Rayder is a good move arguably for the show, even if he was played by a particularly talented actor from a cast that has few weak links. He may have briefly survived season four's finale with some dignity, but his determination was never going to keep him alive for much longer. His hope for the Wildlings to be living south of the Wall was his prime intent, and without concessions - quite  unacceptable to the unflinching Stannis. Jon's actions in sparing Mance a horribly painful death are a further development of his man of action and add more requisite gravitas.

And Jon's heroism and decisiveness in last season's key set piece battle are now bringing dividends. Stannis knows he needs this man very much on his side. Jon eventually is voted in as Lord Commander proper in a snappy, engaging sequence set in Castle Black. Yet the eldest of Ned's surviving sons knows just what a poisoned chalice leadership and authority can be. His reserved response to the vote's outcome ties in strongly with the show's key themes.

On the opposite side of the map is the storyline concerning Queen Danaerys' court, which of course has banished Jorah Mormont. I was far from overwhelmed with the various political intrigues and soap opera romances set in Meeren last year on the show. But maybe things are picking up quickly now, as 'Khaleesi' must make some difficult decisions and risk alienating her devout citizens. Although the Unsullied are an awesome fighting force on a battlefield proper, they are beginning to look a little restricted in more intimate surroundings. One of their number tries to find a substitute mother figure in the shape of a prostitute, and pays for it with his life. Eventually one of Dany's newly installed council takes the law into his own hands and avenges the murdered warrior, and this boldness is punished by a public beheading.

Rather clear parallels are drawn in showing how Stannis' and Danaerys' courts are both alike and unalike simultaneously. Choosing to end back-to-back episodes in similar fashion is ultimately a smart idea, although the second instalment does have a fine coda in the fleeting return of the renegade Drogo. Dany still loves all of her three dragons - the other two remain imprisoned - despite all the devastation and death Drogo in particular has caused.

Moving onto one of the more unpredictable pairings of the show, I will discuss next Littlefinger and Sansa. Further stark deviation from the source material is notable. Sansa clearly trusts Baelish despite all of his ruthlessness and self-serving plotting. He clearly loved her mother and sees her as another in that mould.

It remains open to interpretation just what Brienne achieves in demanding that the elder Stark girl come home, on the wishes of the late Catelyn. The entire section in the tavern does feels forced and indeed far-fetched. Despite being performed and presented well on-screen it seems to ignore the reality of Westeros' scale as a kingdom. The chance meeting with Hotpie that set Brienne on her way to the Eyrie last season felt rather more natural. Luckily the show turns its fortunes around immediately with the strong set piece in the courtyard and neighbouring woods. Brienne's slaying of Littlefinger's lackeys is exciting and pleasing, as is her timely rescue of ever-faithful squire Pod who had struggled to fend for himself  

For now I will leave a proper exploration of Arya's new storyline for next time, but she certainly makes an arrival in Braavos in style, looking ever more like a fully-fledged (if somewhat diminutive) woman. Her determination to gain entry to the eponymous 'House of Black and White' draws the viewer in, and Maisie Williams has lost none of her poise. A lot of things have gone right in this young lady's career. She has proven her range in several TV shows and even a feature film proper in 'The Falling '. I am also sure that all 'Doctor Who' fans will not miss her two episode debut in Series Nine later this year. 

A lot of characters have now been written out, and only a smaller proportion have been introduced but this epic still demands full attention from viewers.  By the same token it is thoroughly re-watchable and never fails to provide a twist or two. As grim as much of it seems, there is plenty of wit and dark humour to prevent even the slowest episodes from feeling like a drag. Must-watch entertainment.

Bookmark and Share Blake's 7 - The Classic Audio Adventures: 2.3 Mindset/2.4 Ghost Ship

4/16/2015 12:16:00 a.m. - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Damian Christie
Blake's 7: Mindset (Credit: Big Finish) Written by Jacqueline Rayner & Iain McLaughlin Directed by Lisa Bowerman Big Finish Productions, 2015 Blake's 7: Ghost Ship (Credit: Big Finish)
“When I first met Vila, he said he planned to live forever ...”

“I believe his precise words were that he planned to live forever or die trying! Let us hope he hasn’t tried too hard!”

Cally and Avon, Blake's 7: Mindset  

As the Liberator crew continue their search for missing crewmate Dayna Mellanby, the middle chapters of Big Finish’s latest series of Blake’s 7 full cast audio dramas head more into the fantasy realm that were the staple of some episodes in the original TV series’ third season (the latter part of which these audio tales are ostensibly set).

Indeed, BF producer Cavan Scott states in the extras for the instalments Mindset and Ghost Ship that there was a conscious effort to revisit the tone of some episodes from that season, such as Tanith Lee’s Sarcophagus, which had a spooky, ethereal quality to them. This is a brave, calculated risk on the BF production team’s part, as the more fantastic episodes of B7’s original run aren’t fondly remembered by fans and some are to this day still scorned by them. While Sarcophagus may be remembered as an exceptional piece of fantasy (I don’t count myself as someone who thinks it’s an especially classic episode), B7 had its share of clangers when it tried this genre as well (eg The Web, Deliverance, Dawn of the Gods, Ultraworld, Rescue). Further, B7 is better remembered for not just its hardcore SF element but also for its realpolitik intrigue and suspense (no self-respecting TV program would want to be fondly remembered for episodes like The Web!).

Mindset has been written by long-time BF scribe Jacqueline Rayner – again a deliberate choice by Scott to rekindle the spirit of Sarcophagus through a female writer. It’s a good decision, as Rayner writes for all of the regular characters extremely well, especially Cally (Jan Chappell) who plays a fundamental role in the story. Of course, some long-time B7 fans may still groan at the story’s formula, especially as it involves another Auronar telepath, Reno (Geoffrey Breton). In the TV series, Cally-centric and fantasy episodes (often the one and the same thing) would almost by rote exploit the character’s susceptibility to other telepathic influences, often involving other kin from Auron or villainous god-like telepaths that inspired Auronar culture. BF’s B7 audio series also hasn’t shied away from foisting new Auronar characters upon its listeners either (eg Gustav Nyrron). Fortunately, Rayner delivers a story where Cally is strong and steadfast whilst all of the other crew members are subdued or compromised. Jan Chappell takes full advantage of the opportunity to display Cally’s courage and compassion. Indeed, if it is not for Cally’s heroism, the Liberator crew would not survive at all. Ghost Ship is inspired by the premise of what happens to the unlucky crew member that has to sit on teleport duty for the course of an episode – a task that was all too often foisted upon the female contingent of the crew in the TV series. In this episode, teleport duty falls to Vila (Michael Keating) who subsequently finds himself haunted by mysterious apparitions aboard the Liberator while Avon (Paul Darrow), Cally and the rest of the crew teleport planetside to meet with a crime syndicate that may have information about Dayna. The listener therefore is privy to Vila’s superstitions and worst fears, as Keating virtually carries the narrative solo for a good 20 to 25 minutes.

Unfortunately, it’s still not the most engaging or dramatic sequence in Iain McLaughlin’s script – Vila inadvertently locking himself in a storage room and tripping over crates and other equipment, all while muttering obscenities at himself, makes for as boring listening as it would for dull visuals on TV. Fortunately, in spite of the material he has to work with, Keating’s performance is outstanding - he continues to play Vila effortlessly, with a combination of enthusiasm, customary dry humour and Vila’s propensity to panic.

Both episodes, apart from being heavily fantasy-driven, also play with Vila and Cally’s psychological make-up. Cally, who is one of the last of her people after the tragic events of the TV episode Children of Auron, craves the mental contact and affection that is only possible with another telepath and in Mindset is even momentarily tempted by an offer from Reno that would create a permanent union between them. Vila’s psychology is exploited throughout both episodes for entirely different reasons. In Mindset, Vila is drawn to the planet Karwen because Reno is able to exploit his greed for the fountain of youth. Once he is submerged, Vila is content to be left there because he doesn’t believe he is respected by the crew anyway; when he is revived, Cally urges Avon, Tarrant (Steven Pacey) and Grant (Tom Chadbon) to remind him that he is indeed a valued contributor. In Ghost Ship, it is precisely because of Vila’s reputation for cowardice that he is left behind on the Liberator. However, Vila is, as we see in this story and other B7 releases, more resourceful, clever and courageous than his allies and adversaries give him credit for. Indeed, it becomes clear later in the story that Vila has been left aboard the ship for good reason – precisely because he can be relied upon in a crisis, not necessarily because he is untrustworthy.

Mindset also plays with the view held by long-time B7 fans that there is a romantic connection between Cally and Avon – which is constantly denied by the latter. Indeed, Avon’s apparent coldness and disdain for other members of his crew across both episodes, including for Vila, Tarrant and Dayna (whom he argues he is only intent on recovering because she could, under duress, reveal intelligence about the Liberator and its crew) also hides the doubtless affection he does feel for members of his gang. On the other hand, he also seems happy to play dangerous games with their lives in Ghost Ship – which hardly makes him endearing to his shipmates. Mindset is the better of the two B7 instalments, mainly as Jacqueline Rayner gives all of the main characters decent air time and dialogue and tells a story that could have been plausibly done on TV. Ghost Ship, by comparison, relies too strongly on the audio medium to provide a spooky and (for Vila at least) a claustrophobic feel. It doesn’t quite work as a full cast play precisely because it doesn’t really need a large cast. In fact, the story would have worked more effectively as a Liberator Chronicle, given much of the story is dedicated to Vila’s trials on the ship and the other characters (with the exception of Avon, Orac and Zen) are only present in the first and last quarters of the tale. As a result, Chappell, Pacey and Chadbon are wasted in their roles.

As the middle chapters of this six-part series, Mindset and Ghost Ship are entertaining in parts, with plenty of humorous and eerie moments, coupled with Big Finish’s consistently high production values. However, as fantasy-based tales, they are, like some of the original TV serials that inspired them, lacklustre instalments. As mentioned above, B7’s strengths as a TV series were its hardcore SF/realpolitik morality tales which explored the main characters’ heroism and flaws and the impact their exploits would have on the political system they were trying to overturn. The next instalment in the series – Devil’s Advocate – promises a return to that more traditional format. It will also be interesting to see how the “search for Dayna” story arc develops as it nears its conclusion (after some more hints in Mindset and Ghost Ship) and whether some other hints in Mindset may have an impact in wrapping up this particular series of adventures – or if they will create angst for the crew in a future micro-season of B7 full cast audios.

Bookmark and Share Survivors: Series One

4/10/2015 11:54:00 p.m. - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
Credit: Big Finish Written by Matt Fitton, Jonathan Morris, Andrew Smith, John Dorney Directed by Ken Bentley Starring: Lucy Fleming , Ian McCulloch, John Banks, Louise Jameson, Sinead Keenan, Caroline Langrishe, Adrian Lukis, Chase Masterson, Terry Molloy, and Carolyn Seymour Big Finish Productions – June 2014
Having been a fan of the re-imagined TV version of Survivors which ran between 2008 and 2010 and never actually watched the original 1970s version I ought to have had very few expectations for this boxset except for the fact that upon release last year it garnered many favourable reviews. This series of audio adventures is designed to sit alongside the first series televised in 1975, written by Terry Nation. The first episode, Revelation, by Matt Fitton introduces a host of new characters in a story which vividly brings to life mid-70s Britain with its typewriters and telephones where the computer age has yet to arrive. Listening to a story full of people falling ill and in most cases dying is perhaps not to be recommended if, like this reviewer was at the time, you are feeling unwell and this may perhaps have explained why I didn’t much care for this first episode. Some of the performances such as Terry Molloy as Redgrave work very well but I’m afraid I found the American character Maddie Price (Chase Masterson, who seems to be becoming as ubiquitous to Big Finish as Beth Chalmers) to be rather grating although she did improve in the second episode.

I am however glad that I persevered with this boxset. Exodus by Jonathan Morris introduces Louise Jameson to the proceedings. Her performance as Jackie is a revelation and brings some much needed sympathy to the proceedings. In the meantime, the focus shifts onto the emergence of a colony at Feltham College headed by the sinister former lecturer, James Gillison (brilliantly played throughout by Adrian Lukis). This story also sees the first intersection between the new characters and the original series with a welcome cameo from Lucy Fleming reprising her role as Jenny Richards.

The third episode, Judges by Andrew Smith, moves events on several months from the initial outbreak of the epidemic to a point towards the end of the 1975 series. Opening with a scene featuring three of the original series characters – Greg, Jenny and Abby – it sees Greg and Jenny head towards the outskirts of London to look for supplies. This brings them into the web that has grown around Gillison and his colony in Feltham and thus reunites them with the other new protagonists. As the story progresses the apparent truth that Gillison is increasingly paranoid and clearly believes that his ruthless actions such as judicial murder are justified. The scene is set for a suitably explosive finale.

Esther by John Dorney picks up the story from the end of Judges with all the protagonists finding themselves held in virtual imprisonment within Gillison’s colony. There are some neat twists of characters switching sides but the end result is a satisfying if somewhat grim conclusion to this boxset. Despite some initial misgivings, the second half of the box set was a particularly enjoyable, despite the original series characters inevitably sounding slightly older than they were in 1975. There certainly seems to be a rich seem to be mined of new stories for these characters, even after forty years. I will be looking forward to the second audio series, particularly as this offers the prospect of a more prominent returning role for Carolyn Seymour as Abby Grant.

Bookmark and Share Blake's 7 - The Liberator Chronicles - Vol 10

3/01/2015 08:11:00 p.m. - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Damian Christie
Blake's 7 - The Liberator Chronicles - Vol 10 (Credit: Big Finish)
Velandra / Retribution / Ministry of Peace (Blake's 7: The Classic Audio Adventures)
Written by Steve Lyons, Andrew Smith and Una McCormack
Directed by Lisa Bowerman and Ken Bentley
Big Finish Productions, November 2014


“Unconscious – for the second time in two days! Blake isn’t paying me enough for this! Come to think of it, Blake isn’t paying me at all!”
Avon, Blake’s 7 – The Liberator Chronicles 10.3: Ministry of Peace


In the last year, Big Finish’s Blake’s 7 audio adventures – both the full cast dramatisations and the narrative tales  – have largely occurred in the latter thirds of the TV series’ second and third seasons, both before and after the titular hero departed the Liberator. Volume 10 of The Liberator Chronicles returns listeners to the program’s first season, certainly before the Liberator crew acquired Orac and long before Gan’s death in the second series.

The three serials – Velandra, Retribution and Ministry of Peace – carry a common, underlying theme of rebellion. The Liberator either visits or is drawn to worlds which are either actively resisting or whose independence is threatened by the Federation. This loose thread is window dressing for some quite diverse stories, particularly in terms of the styles of narration. Velandra is predominantly told from Blake’s (Gareth Thomas) point of view, coupled with exchanges between him and arch nemesis Travis (reprised by the original – and for many fans the best – actor Stephen Greif). Vila (Michael Keating) recounts the events of Retribution, with Avon (Paul Darrow) playing a substantial role in the story. Ministry of Peace is largely told by Avon, with Darrow doubling for numerous characters and only getting a breather thanks to some interludes involving Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce).

Velandra provides a tantalising glimpse of Blake’s history as a rebel before he was reconditioned and sentenced to exile on Cygnus Alpha. That history is captured in the form of a recurring nightmare that involves a young woman, some cybernetically-augmented wolves and Travis. Steve Lyons’ script seeks to challenge not just Blake’s sanity but also the listener’s logic. By the end of the tale, you are left wondering just how much of Blake’s story is truth and how much of it is delusion. If this were a one-off political thriller, there might be good cause to agree that the protagonist has an overly vivid imagination and that his experiences are an elaborate hoax. However, when you as the listener have extensive knowledge of the larger space opera TV series that this serial is based on, then the question of what is “real” or “true” is a moot point.

Lyons, however, does make the listener think about Blake’s personality type. Given how driven, determined and idealistic he is, could it have been possible that Blake even early in his campaign against the Federation succumbed to paranoia and zeal? It would certainly explain why he was so easily influenced in the episode Voice from the Past (1979) and was also so fanatical at various times in the second season. It could also possibly account for his uncharacteristic behaviour in the TV series’ final episode (Blake, 1981).

Retribution is the weakest and dullest of the three plays. It’s a “by the numbers” B7 episode, typical of mandatory episodes from one season to the next when the protagonists would run into gangs of outlandish criminals like themselves, just without their sense of honour or moral compass. Episodes like Bounty (1978), Shadow (1979), City at the Edge of the World (1980) and Stardrive (1981) all had their fair share of colourful, crazy undesirables who met grisly ends (eg Tarvin, Largo, Bayban, Atlan). In this tale, Vila and Avon are pitted against underground figure Niko Clent (also voiced by Michael Keating) and his accomplice Ragnus Lang (John Banks), a contemporary of Vila’s when he was in juvenile detention. However, given the chief antagonist’s motives for wanting Vila’s head are at best spurious and Vila is already saddled with enough guilt and cowardice to compensate for his criminal lifestyle, then Andrew Smith’s script is a disappointment. Clent is a bland villain, even for a serial with a makeshift cast. Retribution’s one saving grace is, of course, Avon. Darrow is able to make Avon come alive on audio, regardless of the script’s quality, and there is no doubt that even though he isn’t the “star” of this serial, he puts in an authoritative performance that demonstrates Avon’s initiative and skills in the face of danger. The epilogue to the story is more interesting than the actual tale; in the TV series, Avon and Vila were a great “odd couple”, the former’s intellect supplemented by the latter’s talent for larceny, until Avon almost did the unthinkable in the episode Orbit (1981) and pretty much poisoned that “bromance” for good. This tale similarly explores the ramifications when Avon takes affairs into his own hands, robbing Vila of the ability to think for himself. Sadly, it is only a small part of the tale.

Ministry of Peace is undoubtedly the highlight of this latest Liberator Chronicles trilogy. Even though the bulk of the narrative is virtually delivered solo by Darrow, he puts in a superlative and dry-witted storytelling performance. It also helps significantly that Una McCormack’s script is extremely well plotted and contains numerous twists, both in the middle of the story and also at the conclusion. McCormack captures Avon’s personality perfectly, his narrative and dialogue dripping with irony, suspicion and sarcasm in all the right places – and no doubt assisting Darrow’s performance enormously. Jacqueline Pearce is also magnificent as Servalan, featuring in only a limited capacity and even then literally acting on her own, eg the story starts with her barking orders at Space Command and replying to silent, yet predictable, conversations out of our earshot. Later she is portrayed delivering a speech to the Federation Council, ably supported by a soundtrack of at first quarrelling and then cheering politicians.

Ministry of Peace probably bears more resemblance to B7 episodes in later seasons than a first series episode, especially as the conclusion to the play shows the Liberator crew once again being thwarted by a realpolitik outcome, despite their best efforts to support a world seeking its freedom of the Federation. Of course, given Avon himself is more of a pragmatist, a realist and a cynic than the more idealistic and romantic figure of Blake, the conclusion comes as little surprise to him at all.

The Liberator Chronicles#10 is overall a decent addition to the B7 pantheon. While this trilogy probably is not as strong as some of the more recent Liberator Chronicles instalments (eg Spoils, President, Defector), Velandra  and Ministry of Peace are well worth a listen. In any case, all the performers acquit themselves well, and Big Finish’s sound effects and incidental music in all three plays continue to be as faithful to the original TV series as possible.

Bookmark and Share Night of the Triffids

2/22/2015 01:08:00 p.m. - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
The Night of the Triffids (Credit: Big Finish)
Starring: Sam Troughton, Nicola Bryant, Paul Clayton, Geff Francis, John Schwab , Becky Wright,  Toby Longworth, Nigel Carrington,  Helen Goldwyn
Written By: Simon Clark
Sound Design: Martin Montague
Director, Producer and Script Editor: John Ainsworth
Music: Howard Carter
Cover Art: Carlos Castro
Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

Big Finish productions - Released September 2014

“Triffids. The Great Blinding. Together they created the most destructive event in human history. Billions died. Cities fell into ruin, civilization collapsed"

 

This release continues the narrative of 'Day Of The Triffids' 25 years down the line. In a new adaptation of Simon Clark's original novel from 2001, David Masen encounters all forms of danger and intrigue. Whereas his father Bill was the hero of the first story, this revolves around David's life as a fully grown man and his growing realisation of how humanity has been changed in a startlingly bleak manner.

A lot of action and location changes feature, without the narrative ever losing too much focus. The action begins on the Isle of Wight. A small colony of survivors must both combat the diabolical carnivore plants as well as build some kind of substitute civilisation. If things were not grim already then now the Triffids have a new way of  slowing down humanity - night is constant, and daylight looks like it will never return..

Along the way the hero encounters an island where Triffids run amok, but also a wild girl called Kristina, who has been living alone for far too long. Then he falls in with an American scientific expedition consisting of the beautiful zoologist Kerris, as well as Rory Masterfield (a geologist), and Gabriel Deeds (a botanist). Before long events reach fever pitch as an exploration of Manhattan reveals grim breeding camps and barbaric treatment of those women who object to the oppressive regime under General Fielding.

In terms of stars the biggest draw to this release for Doctor Who fans is Nicola Bryant, who is given plenty to do and some more to spare, with three named roles: Kerris, Marni, and Rowena. Her familiar American accent is also present, if subtly different for the sake of character origins. Also, Sam Troughton - son of David, and grandson of the much-missed Patrick - takes centre stage as Masen. He has the major perk of  being both the narrator and the chief protagonist. The key human antagonist Fielding is played with true relish by Paul Clayton; his talents also being used for the much more benign Bill Masen.

Direction from John Ainsworth is difficult to fault, as the tension from one source of danger to another is always fully conveyed to the listener. The revelations about the different sections of humanity which have their own loyalties and ethics is as much of a draw as the various physical perils that Masen faces. Music and sound effects are very impressive and help keep the persistent narration from falling into routine. Martin Montague has devised a very memorable effect for the dreaded Triffid stinger, as well as for some other aggressive life forms that rear their heads late on in the narrative,

Whilst this is one of the darker offerings from Big Finish, this is certainly a positive and shows due faithfulness to John Wyndham's vision and themes. The play's title also refers to the vast majority of society being rendered blind, and whilst disturbing it offers opportunities in the audio medium that are well-executed.

Although a decent enough amount of the human race persist after the landing/invasion of the remorseless Triffids, the society and reality they must negotiate is anything but rosy. There is also enough suggested that the crises facing man are as much of his own making as of such terrifying alien interlopers. Despite much suffering, heartache and disappointment the play does have an arguably optimistic conclusion.

As Clark has so far not produced a continuing entry in the book franchise, there remains the possibility that Big Finish could take the initiative in progressing the story again, as the overall scenario has not been tied up in a neat little bow.

 


 

The documentary section certainly covers the making of the story in very comprehensive detail and allows all the key contributors in the cast to explain their acting choices, e.g using certain accents and the reasons for them having a particular impact. It succeeds in answering most questions the audience may have, although perhaps as a continuing listening experience lacks some of the flow of the main feature. There is also heavy re-cycling of the musical soundtrack as interviewees give sometimes drawn-out answers. Having just the one story and thus limited character development to discuss means this is a notch below the fine Counter-Measures extras, but it is still worth your time.

Bookmark and Share Blake's 7: The Classic Audio Adventures - Scimitar/Fortuitas

12/29/2014 07:36:00 p.m. - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Damian Christie
Blakes's 7 - Scimitar (Credit: Big Finish)
Scimitar (Blake's 7: The Classic Audio Adventures)
Written By: Trevor Baxendale
Directed By: Lisa Bowerman
Big Finish Productions, November 2014

Blake's 7 - Fortuitas (Credit: Big Finish)
Fortuitas (Blake's 7: The Classic Audio Adventures)
Written By: George Mann
Directed By: Lisa Bowerman
Big Finish Productions, December 2014
After the success of its first series of full cast Blake’s 7 audio plays, featuring all but two of the original actors to make up the Liberator crew, Big Finish has been quick to follow up with a second series, this time set later in the life of the TV series. The second series of six one-hour B7 classic audio adventures primarily features the Liberator crew from the third season of the TV series, set after the events of the Intergalactic War. By this point, Blake and Jenna have moved on and Avon (Paul Darrow) has stepped up as the unofficial leader of the rebel group. He, Vila (Michael Keating) and Cally (Jan Chappell) have been joined by Tarrant (Steven Pacey) and Dayna – “Terran female, attractive but deadly” – who is noticeably missing from this series of audio plays (the original artiste Josette Simon declined the opportunity to reprise her role).

Into the breach steps (according to Avon), “mercenary of the first order” Del Grant (Tom Chadbon), a one-time character from the TV series (he first appeared in B7’s second season in the episode Countdown in 1979) and the brother of the woman that Avon once loved (and subsequently killed when he learned she betrayed him). Grant joined the Liberator crew off-screen in The Armageddon Storm, the third volume of BF’s Liberator Chronicles boxsets, and more recently appeared in the ninth volume which acted as a precursor to this full cast audio series. As a result, this series of audio adventures occurs about a third of the way through the TV program’s third season (for purists, probably in a gap between the episodes Rumours of Death and Sarcophagus), just as the preceding lot of full cast audio dramas were set a third of the way through B7’s second season.

Simon’s absence from the series enables the writers to set up a loose, obvious story arc – one which could be nicknamed (in either jest or sarcasm) “The Search for Dayna”. Just as the previous instalments of BF’s full cast B7 audio plays were littered with “breadcrumbs” that eventually led Blake and his crew into a confrontation with the Federation President, so the opening instalments of this series, Scimitar and Fortuitas, see Avon and his team go in pursuit of their crewmate who has mysteriously struck out on her own.

The first clue the Liberator crew uncover in Scimitar leads them to the Desolation sector, one of the hotspots of the Intergalactic War. There, they discover the titular shipwreck of the story and its secret cargo which has also drawn the interest of a Federation salvage crew, comprising the opportunistic Karlov (Buffy Davis) and her dry-humoured sidekick Drince (Daniel Brennan). The second breadcrumb the crew find in Fortuitas leads the crew to the rundown tourist world Solace. Before long, Tarrant is kidnapped (mild spoiler, in B7’s equivalent of being frozen in carbonite!) and Avon and the rest of the crew have to rescue him, whilst unravelling a deeper mystery and dealing with a bunch of extremist fanatics that very deliberately parody numerous far right political parties in the UK and Europe.

Scimitar is a solid, straightforward example of space opera, with some good moments of humour and tension between the regular characters (Grant to Cally: “Avon’s found a computer he fancies!” “True love!”) and even the Federation salvage crew members (Drince’s reaction when he learns that he is to don the ship’s lone spacesuit and navigate his way through a storm of ship debris and asteroids is conveyed brilliantly through a disbelieving but flat “What?” There is also some good banter between Karlov and Drince once he is out in space: “Just be careful you don’t get a tear in that spacesuit! I don’t have a spare!” “Right, I’ll be sure to look after it for you!”).

While Scimitar is a capable opener to this new series, Fortuitas is the better of the two releases. Fortuitas is very deliberately geared as a detective-style mystery, with Avon and Orac in the roles of Holmes and Watson (although each one clearly considers himself Sherlock!). The only disappointment with this episode is the resolution. It is difficult to explain without giving away major spoilers why it doesn’t quite work. While the true identity of the two-dimensional villain isn’t entirely predictable, it isn’t entirely plausible either and makes one of the incidental characters look like a massive chump, especially when all the evidence points to that person as the mastermind of the whole scheme!

Nevertheless, the build-up of the mystery is well written and performed. Avon, who once admitted to never liking an unsolved mystery (in the TV episode Mission to Destiny), seems an uncharacteristic choice to assist information broker Marl Ranking (Hywel Morgan) in the search for his missing wife (Avon is certainly not as compassionate as Blake), although it becomes quickly clear Avon is motivated by the challenge of deciphering the puzzle. Orac, who is normally confined to the Liberator, is brought planetside by Grant, and provides an excellent foil for Avon in his investigation. There is even a fantastic homage to the Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jnr version of Sherlock Holmes when Orac gives Grant instructions on how to dispatch of some Fortuitas heavies: “I suggest you take the one on the left first with a low punch to the gut ... The other one is coming up behind you! Kick hard and low ... Duck, sidestep to the left, strike with the left elbow, then with the right fist, step back, bring left knee up to face, sharp with both hands ...”

There is no doubt that Alistair Lock, as the voices of both Orac and Zen, clearly enjoys the opportunity to do something different with Orac. While it’s great to hear Lock finally get some recognition and talk about playing these iconic characters in the extras track for Fortuitas, it’s a pity the track is only available as a download for Big Finish subscribers (due to a mastering issue, the extras track was omitted from the CD). You realise how committed Lock is to these roles and in particular to ensuring he gets the late Peter Tuddenham’s original voices absolutely right (incidentally, Lock’s voice work is flawless – his renditions of Orac and Zen sound exactly like their TV counterparts; if there are indeed any subtle differences, then they are barely noticeable). It certainly helps that the writers also create some excellent dialogue for Orac as well.

Lock’s performances, of course, ably complement the regular actors who are on song as usual. Darrow’s Avon, unencumbered by the pesky Blake, chews up the scenery while he gets good support from co-stars Keating, Chappell, Pacey and Chadbon. As is inevitable with an ensemble cast, not enough of the regular characters seem to get enough to do. Vila and Tarrant in particular seem to spend most of the time on the sidelines, either restricted to the Liberator while their other crewmates go on “away missions”, or (in Tarrant’s case) being captured. Nevertheless, the actors seem to enjoy so much being together (if the CD extras are any guide) that they are not troubled by how little they get to do, and there are still some individual moments of brilliance. The “Del double act” in Scimitar, when Tarrant and Grant interrogate a portmaster about Dayna’s whereabouts, is very well written and performed. A cursory but encouraging inspection of the later instalments shows that Vila and Tarrant will get meatier storylines.

What isn’t explored in these first two instalments, as it was in The Liberator Chronicles, is the integration of Grant into the Liberator’s crew. Indeed, it seems the crew have readily accepted him, judging by the Del double act, Cally’s reaction when it appears Grant has perished on the Scimitar and his work as Orac’s courier on Solace. This seems all a little confusing, given that in the recent Liberator Chronicles IX, members of the crew, including Tarrant and Vila showed immense distrust of Grant (Tarrant even threatened to shoot him in the back!). There is, of course, still room to explore Grant’s place in the crew in the next four episodes but there is little of the tension that was hinted at in the lead-in to this series. All the same, it will be fascinating to see what Grant’s ultimate fate is – and whether it will be connected at all to the conclusion of this series.

In all, Scimitar and Fortuitas are a good start to this latest series of B7 audio dramas. Although the premise of the series – “The Search for Dayna” – is a little dubious (why didn’t BF consider recasting Angela Bruce, who had played Dayna in the 1990s B7 radio plays The Sevenfold Crown and The Syndeton Experiment? Bruce has worked for BF in recent years as Doctor Who’s Brigadier Bambera!), the episodes themselves have been enjoyable and entertaining. Whether we actually will see a resolution to the story arc at the end of the six plays will be most interesting. If Dayna is to figure in the final instalment, then either Josette Simon has to make an appearance or at the very least, someone else will have to play her role. How this is executed – and whether it also ties in with Grant’s presence on the Liberator – may underpin just how plausible this series is in B7 lore.

Bookmark and Share The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

12/23/2014 10:14:00 p.m. - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Director: Peter Jackson
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), New Line Cinema, WingNut Films
Released: 12 December 2014


Seven years ago it was announced that Peter Jackson would oversee a revival of the Tolkien cinematic world as a two-part film series, with new director Guillermo del Toro on board. A drawn-out and difficult production path followed with Jackson eventually resuming director duties, and ultimately assembling three films instead of two. With this new film's release the journey through Middle Earth is again concluded. Perhaps what is first notable is just how short it is compared to the other Hobbit films, and indeed the original 'Rings' entries. This however seems appropriate as much of the early exposition and scene setting was done in 'An Unexpected Journey' and 'The Desolation of Smaug'. This film focuses a lot more on all-out action, choosing to embellish greatly on certain passages of the Hobbit novel and almost ignore others. The prior set-up and expansion of various subplots in the earlier films needed closure, with somewhat mixed results achieved here. Ultimately the key for viewers is one of expectation - do they want a strong challenger to multi-Oscar-winner 'Return of the King' or do they want something that works as a fun and mostly undemanding action epic?

One major aspect of 'Desolation' was its choice to have a huge unresolved ending. At the time I was rather unsure if this was wise of the creative team. With Smaug central to that film's plot, it felt logical for his story to be resolved. However the execution of his cruel attack on Lake-town, in which there is little chance of escape for the exposed citizens, is a wonderful set piece. I did wonder if the dragon would get anything to say, as he constitutes an overpowering source of visual terror - leaving the dramatic duties to the humans and elves threatened. Thankfully we do get reminded of Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of supreme villainy. His hubris, arrogance and complete lack of fear manages to come across as rather impressive and menacing. This also ensures that his final fate works resoundingly well; the effect used to show he has been 'extinguished' is perfect. I did find the shoe-horning of Bard's son into the killer arrow climax a bit self-indulgent of the movie, but not jarringly so.

For those wondering if Stephen Fry's slimy Master of Lake-town will get some form of punishment for his lack of morals and flagrant disregard for his people, there is a very satisfying answer. It also serves as a strong modern-day retelling of a classic cautionary tale on greed. Less welcome however is the consequent focus on the Master's surviving servant Alfrid. Jackson has used comic relief well beforehand in his movies, with even some of the Orcs and Goblins being effective, as well as the fascinating Gollum. This annoyingly spineless character, who keeps surviving against the odds, instead provides one lead balloon joke after another. And this does indicate that like its predecessors, this Hobbit film has a somewhat uneven tone to it for much of its running time. Admittedly this is a problem quite common in action cinema, but one that never seemed noticeable with the classic original trilogy.

Thankfully the actual plot is decent. Although films' one and two had somewhat pedestrian middle acts, here I enjoyed the sections that preceded any of the battle sequences. Smaug is gone but trouble persists as the humans, dwarves and elves squabble over the many riches left in Erebor now that its giant custodian is vanquished. The way in which the dwarves virtually barricade themselves, just as Lake-town's refugees side with the Elves against Thorin's small company is really quite suspenseful. This development manages to later flow into the loud battle sequences such that emotional investment pays off and the film is comfortably coherent.

Those wondering if the White Council storyline from the first film ends up going anywhere should be satisfied enough with developments here. There is a rather terrifying moment where Sauron/ The Necromancer is unquestionably revealed to be back, and the reactions of the various elves and wizards is spellbinding. I did dislike the CGI overload of the Ringwraiths, who seem to exist in transitional form like their master. They were a great component of the original trilogy - in 'Fellowship' especially - but feel contrived here and lack their previous menace. It also is very distracting to see Saruman use some kickboxing skills, when his character always relied on sheer power of magical ability and persuasiveness.

I gained great satisfaction from the psychological themes presented by the dwarves being helpless to stop Thorin from falling victim to powerful vanity, narcissism and irrationality. Once again titular Hobbit Bilbo is underused, but at least he is crucial in making sure that the forces of good stop squabbling in time to face the fearsome hordes of the dread Necromancer. Gandalf also plays his mediator part to perfection, the viewer being able to trust in Ian McKellen's gravitas.

Acting from all the returning actors from the original trilogy is indeed strong and assured, and the cast introduced for this trilogy mostly is generally equally strong. Although it is disappointing that Bilbo is sidelined yet again, this does not stop Martin Freeman from being note-perfect, and at least the equal of Ian Holm in the role. Freeman is one actor who has an effortless dimension to his technique but somehow never appears to be lazy in the process. I have also enjoyed the charisma of Richard Armitage's Thorin; making the most of his disturbing character arc, which eventually focused on resounding bravery despite terrifying odds. Luke Evans and Lee Pace really excel in the roles of Bard and Thranduil, with markedly different styles of asserting authority over their respective forces..

I did find the final showdown between chief Orc Azog and Thorin to be a curate's egg. The contrast of a man-o-mano fight with the bewildering battle of five armies is welcome, but it feels rather a mismatch such is Azog's brutal power. Later on the viewer is confused over the extent of Orc biology, with no real foundation to set things up, as a contrived twist sees Thorin letting his guard down to devastating effect. Luckily the final moments - with Bilbo utterly helpless to save the Dwarf king, and their mutual re-affirmation that they are true friends in spite of all their obvious differences - are terrific and avoid the trap of being maudlin.

Less successful though are the final touches to the Legolas/ Tauriel/ Kili love triangle. I got involved more with this new storyline than quite a few Tolkien fans, but had hoped it would build on the bones presented in 'Desolation'. Instead we get a procession of clich├ęs, including a predictable saving of one another's' lives. Kili recieves no kinder a fate in this movie than he did in the source material, and likewise his brother Fili - who surely deserved more of a story arc himself.
There is some glimmer of interest earlier on when Thranduil briefly seems to consider killing Tauriel and even his own son Legolas, but it gets overwhelmed by the multitude of battles and hand-to-hand combats raging on at the same time. Evangeline Lilly still engaged me as the graceful and empathic Tauriel, and Aidan Turner's Kili is serviceable enough. Orlando Bloom is not a bad actor in anyway, but in keeping with the original 'Rings' trilogy Legolas is far more impressive in the heat of battle than he is when stationary and speaking.

The various field battles that justify the film's title constitute entertainment that should stir the heartbeats of any reasonable audience member. There is no chance of really getting worn down as there is so much variety and good choreography distinguishing all the different participants involved in combat. I was waiting with bated breath for the emergence of Beorn in the battle - a character that registered firmly with me when I read the original book when young. Yet he is barely featured in this theatrical cut, which seems a waste. The concept of a shape shifting man/bear is as fascinating now as ever and a complement to the Warg element concept found in TV smash 'Game of Thrones'. More reassuringly, the use of the Eagles is once again magical, as they come in to help conclude the battle in the interests of the forces of good.

And by the time Bilbo and Gandalf do return to the Shire, the film has not taken too long to wrap matters up. It may still seem a bit excessive to some moviegoers, but anyone who recalls the twenty minute 'Rings' ending that broke new ground for all the wrong reasons back in 2003 need not worry about a repeat. A nice bit of continuity features as Bilbo has to deal with an auction of all his possessions left behind - his being assumed dead due to his long absence. There is also an excellent transition back to the older incarnation of Bilbo, and the opening of Fellowship is nostalgically revisited without feeling self-aggrandising.


Overall 'Battle' is a solid enough winter blockbuster, which should satisfy many fans of Middle Earth and the fantasy/action film genre. It may be weakened by being a prequel to a much more compelling and thematically rich story, and furthermore some characters fates are known already. But it is definitely worth seeing, if under the proviso that newcomers should make the effort to see parts one and two first, as there is no time spent on convenient flashbacks or verbal reminders. The biggest question left now is, will there be any new live action films based on JRR Tolkien's universe made in years or decades to come?

Bookmark and Share Tomorrow's Worlds: The Unearthly History of Science-Fiction Episode Four: Time

12/14/2014 03:21:00 a.m. - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Martin Ruddock

Transmitted BBC2, 13th December 2014

BBC2's landmark four part history of Science-Fiction and its influence on culture concludes with a wheezing, groaning noise and a trail of tyre-fire with a journey through Time.

This is a lighter and less focused ride than the previous episodes, but still watchable and highly entertaining, with some interesting turns.

As with episode two (Invasion), we begin with H.G. Wells, and this time Dominic Sandbrook uses The Time Machine and Wells' riffing on his own social concerns as a jumping-off point.

Before long, we jump to a lengthy section on Doctor Who - generously represented by a glut of clips, plus interviews with David Tennant and Steven Moffat. Sandbrook gets to visit the Doctor Who Experience, where he's clearly having a whale of a time. Surprisingly though, the main message here is basically that Doctor Who is great. The time travel juxtaposition stories, the tales of paradox or dilemmas about changing history, even the time-wimey elements of more recent years are passed over in favour of a clips package. It's good to watch for a Who fan, but actually it's slightly jarring when we move on to Back to the Future - again, well explored and thought out, with a Delorean photo opportunity, but it misses out discussing the clever sequel - which is more a deconstruction of the events of the original film, which is a shame.

Things take an abrupt detour about the halfway mark, when all of a sudden we're not talking about time travel any more, but have moved on to dystopian futures, like Metropolis and Blade Runner, via high-rise brutalist architecture and J.G. Ballard. All interesting and thought-provoking stuff with more good talking heads material from Edward James Olmos and Rutger Hauer, but it goes quite off-piste until we return to time travel with Chris Marker's haunting La Jetee, composed of haunting stills, to be remade thirty years later as Twelve Monkeys - and ultimately its spiritual successor Looper.

The theme of being stuck in a single moment rears its head with Groundhog Day - time travel as metaphor for making a difference, writing wrongs, and saving yourself, neatly dovetailing with Quantum Leap, but largely skipping over A Christmas Carol. 

This is a strange oversight, but we do get Donald P. Bellisario's explanation of the germ of the series, an encounter he wished he could have changed with hindsight - his fractious meeting with a Pravda-reading fellow conscript whilst serving in the Marines in the 1950s - one Lee Harvey Oswald.

The romantic, yearning side of time travel is addressed briefly with The Time-Traveller's Wife, but we're soon back with Doctor Who - as Sandbrook concludes by meditating on the Doctor's relationships with his human companions and the emotional price of this. As Neil Gaiman aptly remarks, for the Doctor it's deferred bereavement just becoming friends with him.

Despite this heavy concept, we end on a note of childlike excitement, with Sandbrook on the set of Peter Davison's TARDIS, pointing out that if you could time travel - you would. With a press of a button, the central column rises, and he's gone.

Tomorrow's Worlds has been a real highlight. Occasionally it's wandered slightly off-book with some of the material used, but that's forgivable when you have four episodes of this quality, with such good interviewees and such a motherlode of archive footage so ably strung together into compelling stories by the excellent Sandbrook. Here's to tomorrow.

Bookmark and Share Tomorrow's Worlds: The Unearthly History of Science Fiction Episode Three - Robots

12/07/2014 04:48:00 p.m. - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Martin Ruddock

Transmitted BBC2, 6th December 2014

In the third of a strong run of themed documentaries that have so far examined Space and Invasion, this week, Tomorrow's Worlds takes on Robots.

Starting off in Oxford, Dominic Sandbrook pores over the original manuscript of Frankenstein, arguing convincingly that it is the first true Science-Fiction novel, and highlighting the original, oft-forgotten subtitle of Mary Shelley's tale - The Modern Prometheus.

Frankenstein is a very early manifestation of a fear of where exactly scientific hubris could lead man, should he try to play god. Society develops an interest in robots, of which Victor Frankenstein's intelligent, yet tortured creature is a clear ancestor - but yet, argues Sandbrook, our techno-fear has never quite left us, particularly when we anthropomorphise robots. The bottom line is that we don't really trust them, especially when they mimic our behaviour and try and be like us, a theme he comes back to later on.

As with the previous episodes, Sandbrook engagingly draws some neat lines and parallels, detouring away from the prevailing image of the evil killer robots for a while, he looks at the good ones. He moves neatly through Asimov's Laws of Robotics and Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet to reach the cute, non-humanoid Hewie, Dewie, and Lewie from Silent Running, and their famous successors R2-D2 and C-3PO. Threepio is humanoid, (and owes a clear, acknowledged debt to the iconic Maria from Fritz Lang's Metropolis) but Artoo of course is not, it's the humanised performances of Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker that lends the droids their unthreatening, likeable character in the same way that Arnold Schwarzenegger's remorseless, cold-as-ice Terminator characterises the classic killer robot. Daniels smilingly speaks of a meeting with roboticists in which he points out that they don't know what it's like to be a machine and he does, but this is an actor's sense of hype more than anything else. Nobody could ever really know.

Sandbrook moves from here back to more familiarly dystopian territory, to the man-machine hybrid of the aforementioned Terminator, but more importantly the faceless, automated threat of Skynet, which had much in common with Ronald Reagan's infamous 'Star Wars' orbital defence system. The possibility of machine turning on man when man does something that doesn't fit with programming or 'the mission' is illustrated by the still-chilling sequence in 2001 where HAL politely tells Dave Bowman that he's sorry, he can't open the pod bay doors.

The promethean theme of Frankenstein returns with Spielberg's AI, where a robot child tries to be loved, and to be human, with the human-infiltrating Cylons of Battlestar Galactica, and most compellingly, with the Creature's punk grandson - Blade Runner's Roy Batty.

Sandbrook moves seamlessly from machines trying to be men to men becoming machines, first in passing where he points out the dubious morality in essentially trying to lobotomise Alex in A Clockwork Orange, and then more fully when he looks at everyone's favourite tragic spare part surgery enthusiasts, the Cybermen. David Tennant and Neil Gaiman pop up to discuss their enduring appeal, illustrated by clips from Tomb of the Cybermen and their 2006 revival under Russell T. Davies. The clips from Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel aren't the best illustration of the Cybermen's chilling body horror, but time slots are limited, and there is a huge amount of ground to cover here, which Sandbrook does expertly. The haunted, reticent Six Million Dollar Man and Paul Verhoeven's savage satire Robocop are both referenced as a not-so far gone example of where Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis's nightmare vision of repairing ourselves could lead. Interestingly, Star Trek's famous Borg, a similarly chilling premise based on assimilation and absolute conformity, don't get a look in.

The contributors are excellent value throughout, John Landis, Douglas Trumbull, Peter Weller, Paul Verhoeven, Keir Dullea, Gale Ann Hurd, a scarily grown-up Haley Joel Osment, Brian Aldiss, a thoughtful Edward James Olmos and Ron Moore, and best of all, a twinkling Rutger Hauer, who reprises his wonderful "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe..." speech from Blade Runner.

Things only drift a little off-piste at the end, when we move to William Gibson's coining of the concept of cyberspace in Neuromancer and segue into the VR world of The Matrix. Relevant? Yes. Robots? Not so much. Also, Tron rather unfairly misses out on the party here, a much earlier version of a virtual world and man versus machine - less edgy, but still pioneering.

Nevertheless, minor quibbles aside, this is still an excellent, thoughtful hour of television. The full series probably deserves a director's cut of sorts, trying to cover such a lot of ground coherently in an hour timeslot is always going to be a headache. Sandbrook signs off neatly by suggesting that we are still not entirely comfortable with creation, and that's why these stories keep on coming.

Next week: Time. Or was that last week?

Bookmark and Share Tomorrow's Worlds: The Unearthly History of Science Fiction Episode Two - Space

12/01/2014 12:43:00 a.m. - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Martin Ruddock

Transmitted BBC2, 29th November 2014

After a strong opening instalment delving into man's exploration of space, BBC2's excellent documentary series brings us back down to Earth with a thoughtful examination of one of Sci-Fi's favourite party tricks - the alien invasion.

Starting off strolling through a field in Surrey, Dominic Sandbrook weaves together a compelling tale of how man's hopes and fears have informed tales of invasion ever since the height of the British Empire, when H.G. Wells put pen to paper to create the godfather of all alien invasions - The War of the Worlds. Sandbrook points out War of the Worlds' origins in late-Victorian fiction, the aliens replacing French and German invaders in 'What If' tales that dared to imagine if the empire fell to its european neighbours.

He also looks at how Wells' tale has been famously recast and relocated over the years from its original, less flashy setting - taken to New York by Orson Welles on the radio, to Los Angeles by George Pal, and lastly, in true 1990s 'more is more' fashion - given a bombastic global makeover by Roland Emmerich for Independence Day. Many of these riffs on the original story, Sandbrook points out, are coloured by growing public unease at current events of the time - the rise of fascism in 30's Europe, and 'Reds under the bed' in McCarthyite America. The Pal version of 'Worlds' created a huge ripple, and arrived between two films offering similarly paranoid competition - The Thing From Another World, and Invasion of the Bodysnatchers - both concerned with the fear of enemies in our midst.

Back in Blighty, Sandbrook posits that homegrown competition such as Village of the Damned draws as much on juvenile delinquency and the new phenomenon of the teenager as it does on alien incursion. By this time, Sci-Fi has become big business, and captures the public's imagination in the jet age. The BBC launches Nigel Kneale's Quatermass serials in the same year as Pal's hit version of War of the Worlds, and by the time of Quatermass and the Pit five years later, ten million viewers are tuning into Kneale's sophisticated meditation on how mankind could have been cultivated by aliens throughout history.

With Sci-Fi now firmly part of the mainstream by 1964, our old friends the Daleks trundle into view, with special attention played to Doctor Who's first alien invasion blockbuster, The Dalek Invasion of Earth - coinciding nicely with the story's 50th anniversary. The Daleks-as-Nazis comparison and the profound effect of WWII on Terry Nation are fleetingly explored, but we move on rapidly to Steven Moffat, David Tennant, and a still crop-haired Karen Gillan basically discussing what great and greatly-designed bad guys the Daleks are. Unfortunately the 'modern' Dalek clips are mainly of the underwhelming Supreme Dalek from The Stolen Earth/Journey's End, which is one of the least impressive versions that the modern show has offered up.

From here, the remit of this episode broadens considerably, but almost overreaches itself by trying to fit too much into a limited runtime; taking in the peaceful first contact of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the child's-eye view of E.T., the apartheid allegory of District 9, the all-out paranoia of John Carpenter's remake of The Thing, Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion wizardry, and the horrific A-Bomb-inspired origins of Godzilla.

Sandbrook finds something of value worth discussing in each, and the talking heads are great value, but the tail-end of the episode feels slightly rushed due to so much being squeezed in. Obviously, Earth invasion stories are plentiful, but Alien Nation features whilst the landmark V bafflingly doesn't, - and the amount of time allocated to Men in Black and the slightly tenuous inclusion of Jurassic Park means that The X-Files gets surprisingly short shrift.

Nevertheless, this is still a fine watch, full of great footage and top-class talking heads (Richard Dreyfuss, John Carpenter, Neil Gaiman, Chris Carter, Roland Emmerich, the aforementioned Tennant, Moffat, and Gillan, plus effects gurus Phil Tippett and Doug Trumbull), all thoughtfully stitched together by Sandbrook, who gives weight and context to what could be simply a clip show in lesser hands. Next stop: Robots.