The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 3 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 14 June 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 3 (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by: John Whitney, Geoffrey Bellman, Patrick Campbell, Gerald Verner, Bill Strutton
Adapted by: John Dorney
Directed by: Ken Bentley
Cast
Anthony Howell (Dr Keel), Julian Wadham (John Steed), Lucy Briggs-Owen (Carol Wilson), Dan Starkey (One-Ten), Miranda Raison, Sarah Lark, Geff Francis
Producer: David Richardson
Executive Producers: Jason Haigh-Ellery, Nicholas Briggs
Cover by: Anthony Lamb
Originally Released January 2015

At times, The Avengers feels almost like the work of two separate writing teams, working to very different series guidelines. Earlier boxsets in this Big Finish range included contributions from Brian Clemens himself, who’d go on to be the architect of the more whimsical and witty Avengers of later seasons, and the likes of Donald Tosh, known to Doctor Who fans as of that show’s more humourous writers. But this third set is by a completely different group, one who wholly embrace the original conception of the show as a dark, almost sordid series. It also moves Keel firmly back to centre stage. So much so, in fact, that Steed spends fully half his time running around on Keel’s behalf rather than the other way around.

 

The Springers

Our first story pulls the narrative trick of dropping us straight into an adventure already in progress. Keel is in prison, using his status as a disgraced former doctor to win over the members of a criminal gang. It’s only at visiting time we learn the real situation – Keel’s genuine medical knowledge has left him perfectly placed to work for Steed as a replacement for a jailbird medic Steed has temporarily gotten out of the way. That criminal is suspected to be next in line for an escape route that has mystified the authorities and Keel’s undercover work is designed to expose it.

Despite the novel setup, this is really one of the lesser Avengers episodes, with the secret of the escape route run out of a nearby finishing school for young ladies being rather pedestrian and not really deserving of Steed and Keel’s skills. It tries its best to make up for its slight plot by dialling Steed’s flirtatiousness with every woman to come within twenty feet of him but it fails to lift it out of the ordinary.

 

The Yellow Needle

If Steed’s giant libido can make for innuendo and seductive banter that would likely be seen more as sexual harassment this century, The Yellow Needle is possibly the first Avengers episode that feels like it would be entirely impossible to get made today. But for entirely different reasons.

Continuing the trend of new elements of Keel’s history and skillset randomly popping up out of nowhere, we now learn that he spent a year working in a poorly funded hospital in a desperately poor African country. And, for good measure, became best friends with his mentor – the then doctor and current Prime Minister Sir Wilburforce. Now in the midst of negotiating the nation’s exit from the British Empire he’s the target of assassination attempts and while Keel watches his back in London, Steed sets off to stereotypical Darkest Africa to try and root out the leaders of the conspiracy. It’s Steed’s side of the story that’s the real issue, with witch doctors, death cults, torture and tribal leaders distrustful of democracy.

It’s against a problematic backdrop too, with the divide between ‘good’ Africans who want to maintain close ties with the British Commonwealth and ‘bad’ Africans who want nothing to do with the British anymore. Added to this is a remarkably abrupt ending. I had to re-listen to three times to confirm that, yes, it really ends with Keel in mid-fight to save a victim’s life without ever telling us if he lives or dies or what the conclusion of the independence talks actually were. All in all, it adds up to the first genuinely poor episode Big Finish have yet adapted.

 

Double Danger

One of those episodes which inverts the typical formula of Steed recruiting Keel to a mission, here it’s Keel that finds himself up to his neck in trouble but with the good fortune to know a dashing bowler hatted secret agent who owes him a favour or three. At this stage though, Keel being recruited a gunpoint by a criminal gang to treat a dying man’s wounds feels like a bit of a cliché though we do get the neat moment of Keel sending one gangster off with a list of medicine to retrieve from Carol which includes the mysterious drug “Phonus Equus.” Though that’s mainly because, when Steed does answer Carol’s call we get to hear him dryly note what a terribly clumsy clue it is.

Perhaps never before have we seen the two halves of The Avengers’ personality as a show bump against each other so obviously – as Keel sweats it out in his tense and dramatic situation, and Steed wittily and humourously tracks him down. A scene in which Steed has to interview an old man who’s deaf as a post is terrific fun, and sounds like they had almost as much fun recording it. And Whadham sparkles in those scenes were, as in the previous boxset’s Dance with Death, Steed seems to be treating dealing with ‘ordinary’ criminals as a nice day off. He’s entirely inappropriately delighted, for instance, when a cornered gangster’s moll prepares herself for a visit to the station to stonewall the police and he gets to tell her he was actually thinking of perhaps entombing with some rats for company until she talked.

As is a recurring weakness in these episodes, the secret of this week’s McGuffin (stolen diamonds this time) is too easy to guess and requires the bad guys to be really quite thick, and the conclusion is little more than a fight scene followed by the end title music. But, as usual, it’s hard to care when the journey there is as nice as this.

 

Toy Trap

Probably the darkest story so far in The Avengers, Toy Trap deals with a prostitution ring scooping up teenage girls straight off the bus to London. Seduced first with attention and gifts the young girls joining the toy department of a major store are one by one inducted into the ring. Because after the initial seduction comes a suggestion to have sex for money, just once or twice to help set themselves up in London, then the incriminating photographs, and the blackmail threats to tell their families back home, and finally the iron fist of the pimp in charge of the gang and virtual slavery.

When Keel is tasked by an old friend with keeping a fatherly eye on the friend’s daughter while she establishes herself in London he quickly becomes alarmed by goings on among her circle of friends at the hostel for girls where she’s staying. So once again he calls on Steed for help in an area where Steed really has no official mandate or motive beyond doing a favour to keep one of his best assets sweet.

But the result creates conflict between them unlike anything since Keel was first investigating his fiance’s murder. Steed pursues it as just another case (and one he’s somewhat ambivalent about and wants dealt with quickly rather than neatly) and Keel sees it as a battle to save his surrogate daughter figure from rape. In a range where the resolutions are perhaps the biggest weakness, this leads to one of their best endings, as the two come to actual blows and the Keel/Steed partnership almost ends forever. Indeed, since Big Finish have shown a willingness to fiddle a little with the running order of these episodes, it’s almost a shame Toy Trap wasn’t moved to being the series finale. With only a small bit of tinkering it would have created a dramatic and effective exit for Keel.

 





Blake’s 7 – The Classic Audio Adventures: Series 4.3: Crossfire – Part ThreeBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 6 June 2018 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Blake's 7 - Crossfire - Part 3 (Credit: c/- Big Finish Productions, 2018)Written by Una McCormack, Trevor Baxendale,
Christopher Cooper 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), Alistair Lock (Zen/Orac),
Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan), Hugh Fraser (The President),
John Green (Mordekain), Rebecca Crankshaw (Zeera Vos),
Dan March (Verner), Susie Riddell (Bowkan),
Bruce Alexander (Galon), Malcolm James (Dev),
Charlotte Strevens (Reeva), Peter Aubrey (Kimar),
Steven Pacey (Kervon).


"How badly do you want this civil war to end, Avon?"
"An excellent question! How much are we prepared to risk for peace?"
Zeera Vos and Avon, B7: Crossfire - Death of Empire

 

The first two volumes in the Blake's 7 - Crossfire ​saga have put Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) and the Liberator crew in the middle of a Federation civil war. Avon has been content to run disruption against the factions of President Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce) and her predecessor (Hugh Fraser) whom she usurped during the events of the TV episode Star One.
Nor have the two presidents been interested in recruiting the Liberator to their respective sides. Indeed, in the finale to Volume 4.2, the President and his cybernetically-augmented second-in-command, Space General Mordekain (John Green), framed the Liberator crew for a terrorist attack on a Federation colony - to boost a propaganda campaign that portrayed Servalan as weak on security.
However, as the war escalates and civilian casualties mount, the Liberator crew, with the advice of seemingly omniscient supercomputer Orac (Alistair Lock), realise that if they are going to intervene in the war to hasten its conclusion, they must choose a side - and it's a decision that threatens the fragile stability of the rebel crew ...
The first of the four plays in this set is Una McCormack's Ministry of Truth. This tale continues the propaganda theme from the concluding tale of Vol 4.2 (The Scapegoat), although this time it focuses on the "infotainment" wing of Servalan's regime, whose purpose, to quote dramatist Chella Bowken (Susie Riddell), is to "keep the masses entertained, undereducated and misinformed".
Part of that "infotainment" is the drama series Space Command, chronicling the adventures of a Space Commander (Rebecca Crankshaw) hunting down a terrorist group led by the notorious renegade Kervon (Steven Pacey, hilariously channelling his inner "Gareth Thomas" as the fictional hybrid of Blake/Avon!). As McCormack herself describes Space Command in the CD extras, it's B7 within B7!
A critique by a show of itself implies that Ministry of Truth is satirical. However, while Space Command is indeed a parody, it is secondary to a plot which is quite hard-edged and traditional for a B7 tale. Ministry of Truth is more a "base under siege" instalment than high farce, reminiscent of the Vol 4.1 episode Fearless, which introduced the smuggler Zeera Vos (Crankshaw again). The difference is Vos is acting as an official envoy for Servalan, as she investigates whom aboard the infotainment station has leaked valuable wartime intel to the President's forces. Coincidentally, Avon, Cally (Jan Chappell) and Tarrant (Pacey) teleport aboard the station, in a bid to deal Servalan's Federation a blow in the war.
The series regulars and Crankshaw do a superb job of holding the audience's attention, especially as this story marks the first confrontation between Avon and Vos. Crankshaw is cool and collected as Vos in her dealings with the outlaw leader, while Darrow brings out his inner "bastard" as Avon.
It's difficult to tell if it's McCormack's portrayal of the lead or Darrow's penchant for overactIng (or both!) which make Avon seem more ruthless and paranoid in this serial than he is in the remainder of the boxset. His portrayal is more akin to his series 4 persona than the first three TV seasons, exemplified by his prescient exchange with Cally in the closing moments of the story:


"It's not easy to forgive betrayal, is it, Avon?"
"I'd say it's the unforgivable crime!"


As in Fearless, the twist of the tale isn't as astounding as it could be, with the identity of the traitor confined to two suspects: Bowken and infotainment producer Verner (Dan March). The characters are a great contrast; March's calculating, pragmatic and egocentric producer versus Riddell's naïve, idealistic and sympathetic apprentice. Their scenes are the highlight of McCormack's play, and like the character of Zheanne in the previous play The Scapegoat, they provide some insight into how much Federation citizens are frustrated insiders caught in internecine politics.
In many respects, Verner is as much a "survivor" as Avon prides himself. As he says to Bowken:


"You know my philosophy - keep your head down, do your job, don't worry too much about who's in charge! These generals and presidents and space commanders - they don't care a jot for people like us! [On] the plus side, as long as we keep below the radar, they generally don't bother us! I intend to survive this war - and the best way to do that is to go unnoticed!"


Cally has been described as the moral compass of the Liberator crew, and while there are flashes of her scruples in Ministry of Truth, it is best demonstrated in Chappell's passionate portrayal in the second serial Refuge. Having lost her home world to Servalan's machinations (in the TV episode Children of Auron), Cally is not about to abandon war victims when the Liberator encounters a people-smuggling ring orchestrated by Gev Galon (Bruce Alexander), a Federation officer-turned-smuggler and a contemporary of Vila (Michael Keating). Of course, the refugees turn out to be pawns in another scheme, again involving Vos (and by extension Servalan).
While Refuge isn't groundbreaking, Trevor Baxendale's script effectively portrays the war's impact on the so-called "little people" and creates two quandaries for the Liberator crew - whom to back in the conflict and what to do about its humanitarian problem. There are no easy solutions to either problem, and Baxendale writes some great scenes and exchanges between the regulars as the Liberator crew debate the ethics and implications of throwing their lot behind a specific side.
Dayna (Yasmin Bannerman), for example, is loath to provide any support for Servalan, the woman she has vowed to kill for murdering her father. Tarrant is also hardly enamoured with the idea of supporting the former President, his past employer.  Further, Tarrant accuses Avon of having a subconscious "connection" with Servalan that precludes him from taking her out! Tarrant also has another valid point at the serial's end - that as rebels opposed to despotic regimes, it shouldn't be their job to clean up after the warring factions!
Pacey has a great turn as Tarrant in Christopher Cooper's Kith and Kin. Having determined in Refuge that it is time to take a side in the war, the Liberator crew shows little hurry to intervene! Or more accurately, Avon permits Tarrant to follow up a lead by his late brother Deeta (whom Pacey played in the TV episode Death-Watch) on Corrolos, a "retirement village" planet supposedly beyond the Federation sphere of influence.
While Corrolos is largely immune from the events of the civil war, it is clear an earlier conflict - the intergalactic war that bridged series 2 and 3 of B7 - has had an impact on that world's oblivious citizens. One of the inhabitants is Kimar Laratesh (Peter Aubrey) whose wife ended up being sucked into the depths of space while playing a golf tournament!
In the absence of Vila in this tale, Kimar is the light relief, and while Peter Aubrey plays the part well (especially in conveying Kimar's confusion at Tarrant and Cally's news that the colony's administrators haven't been telling the truth), you still get the impression that a potentially great character has been criminally underdeveloped.
For example, Kimar tells the story that his wife called him "Penny" - as in bad penny, or bad luck! It ought to be a nice touch, to help the listener relate better to him. Yet after Kimar tells the story, neither Tarrant nor Cally refer him to by his nickname (making the listener question the purpose of the anecdote!). Nor is any effort made at the conclusion to focus on how Kimar feels when the whole of Corrolos comes crashing down around him - he's presumably meant to process it all by himself after he's bundled off the Liberator onto a long-distance shuttle by an intolerant Avon. It's already taken the poor man 18 months to finally accept that he shouldn't feel so guilty for his wife's demise!
Of course, the fate of Corrolos apparently pales in comparison to the traumas and tribulations of "House Tarrant". While the TV series occasionally focused on the family links of some of the main characters, it's interesting that Big Finish has over the years sought to develop the characters in the audio plays by providing them with (in some instances) contrived backstories that were never even hinted at in the TV series (eg Vila's father is a former Federation governor and high councillor, Avon and his elder brother were members of a neo-fascist, evangelical cult, and Dayna's mother, thought killed in Hal Mellanby's rebellion, is still alive). The Tarrant family history proves to be just as convoluted, as - in what smacks of fanwank - we are introduced to Del Tarrant's other brother who, it is inferred, we've met before - in fact, as early as The Way Back, the very first episode of B7.
Indeed, the connection (by the Tarrant name, which was a cliché of series creator Terry Nation in his B7 and Doctor Who scripts) is tenuous and ambiguous. There's no denying the antagonist is Del Tarrant's brother - it's a more a question of whether the listener accepts the inference that it's the same character that essentially kickstarted Roj Blake's journey and B7 in the first place. Cooper and producer John Ainsworth insist in the CD extras it is - but fans are equally entitled to treat the notion with some hefty spoonfuls of salt!
It is a credit to performer Malcolm James that he provides a three-dimensional backbone to an otherwise two-dimensional character (that was originated on TV by the late Jeremy Wilkin). However, to make Tarrant's brother that character takes artistic licence a little too far and merely attempts to "plug" a continuity "hole" that didn't exist in the first place! It also detracts from the quality of what is (in dramatic terms) a decent tragedy.
Fortunately, Vol 4.3's finale Death of Empire, from a continuity perspective, is a bit more palatable. The story also applies artistic licence to a "gap" in B7 continuity (as referenced in the TV episodes Traitor and Sand) but Steve Lyons, who hinted at the Crossfire story arc as early as his excellent episode Devil's Advocate (Vol 2.5), delivers a cracking and logical conclusion to the saga as the President's forces, tipped off by an informant, close in on Servalan, who is holed up in her palace on the jungle world of Geddon ...
The story - and the outcome of the conflict - plays out as I predicted in my review of Vol 4.2 - although it's never feels like a fait accompli. This chapter is compelling, balancing drama and action with lighter moments, courtesy of humour from Vila and even Zeera in some of her scenes with Servalan (eg "I did not build my imperial palace only to cower beneath it!" Servalan proclaims, to which Zeera counters: "Do you mind if I do?"). All of the protagonists and antagonists are well served by Lyons' script, and as a result, the cast deliver outstanding performances - eg Servalan's larger than life proclamations as "Supreme Empress" (being presidential apparently isn't enough!), the President's sophisticated charm and composure, Avon's dour and sceptical attitude, and Vila's terror of "monster" snakes!
Lyons also revisits the rivalry between Tarrant and Mordekain as they attempt to outwit each other in a game of strategy aboard their respective starships, the Liberator and the Lethal Shadow. John Green clearly relishes his part as the General while Pacey infuses Tarrant with extra obstinacy and anguish in the aftermath of events in Kith and Kin.
In the wash-up (and in true B7 fashion), the Liberator crew find that as much as they want to influence events for the better, they are still very much bystanders in the war - and in internecine Federation politics. Their intervention on Geddon does little to change the outcome, the seeds of which were sewn as far back as the concluding moments of Vol 4.2. Even the identity of Servalan's informant isn't entirely surprising, as it fits within the character's modus operandi to hedge bets both ways.
And so the three-volume, 12-part Crossfire saga comes to a satisfactory conclusion, with this micro-series (much like all four seasons of the TV series that inspired it) ending on a cliffhanger. Overall, the saga has been an ambitious and entertaining run from Big Finish, with some excellent episodes and consistently high auditory experiences throughout.
There have been a few misfires - the terrible Cally one-hander True Believers, the Paul Darrow-scripted Erebus and this volume's Kith and Kin - but for the most part, the episodes have been well written, with a few very clever ideas thrown in for good measure (eg Vila's "devil may care" persona in Fearless, his impersonator in The Scapegoat, the reprogrammed soldiers in Shock Troops and the brilliant blind-siding of both presidents in Funeral on Kalion). The only other criticism one could make (which was itself also true of the TV series) is that the civil war story arc and the characterisations of the regulars are sometimes disjointed. You would expect Dayna to have been psychologically scarred by her experiences in Shock Troops and even Vila to be confused after his turn in Fearless.
As for what BF's next B7 saga holds ... well, it's no doubt all in the name - Restoration (at time of writing, BF has only announced the title, it hasn't nominated a release date or confirmed the cast). With the Federation recovering from intergalactic and civil wars, the Liberator crew will no doubt be a target now that the Federation has been reunified under one leader. As Avon says: "The new regime - the same as the old regime!"
BF may also be raising the stakes a little higher - the "restoration" may well allude to an even greater threat (hinted at in Vol 4.1 episode Resurgence). If so, it may not be long before the revamped Federation begrudgingly calls on the assistance of "the galaxy's most notorious outlaws" once again ...





The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 2Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 3 May 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 2 (Credit: Big Finish)

Written By: Peter Ling, Dennis Spooner and Fred Edge
Adapted by: John Dorney
Directed By: Ken Bentley

Cast
Anthony Howell (Dr Keel), Julian Wadham (John Steed), Lucy Briggs-Owen (Carol Wilson), Terry Molloy (Jacques Beronne/Cafe Owner/Barman), Martin Hutson (Felgate/Porter/Clerk), John Banks (Marko Ogrin/Peter Somers/Policeman), Jacqueline King (Mrs Marne),Rachel Atkins (Olive Berrone), Richard Franklin (Inspector Tudor), Richard Hope (Kollakis/Sleeping Car Attendant), Dan Starkey (Phillip Anthony/Trevor Price/One-Ten/Watchman/Tough)

Producer David Richardson
Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

As Big Finish’s recreation of the missing, believed wiped, episodes of The Avengers’ first season continues into its second volume it provides almost a mirror image of the progression seen in the first boxset. While the original batch of adventures are hardcore crime dramas into which a steadily increasing sense of the strange and avant-garde is injected, the four which follow are high concept spy fun which occasionally veers into more gritty corners as if one or two writers on the staff missed the memo.

 

Ashes of Roses

One of the interesting developments of this box set is its willingness to play with the Keel/Steed formula. In this episode Keel takes a backseat to his own secretary, as its supporting cast member Carol (Lucy Briggs-Owen) whose help Steed is eager to recruit. It does feel comically unlikely that Keel is so cynical that things will go as smoothly as Steed promises, and keenly aware of how many near-death experiences Steed has led him into but still ultimately adopts an attitude of ‘oh, go on then,’ when Carol basically pleads to be let have an adventure of her own. This time out Steed’s been assigned to chase down a professional arsonist who left a dead victim in his wake at his last fire and his best lead is the exclusive hairdressers that potentially the next target. If using Carol as his ‘woman on the inside’ is a throw-forward to the plot of about half the Mrs. Peel stories, Ashes of Roses is distinct in that Carol’s lack of guile and weak explanations mean she effectively has “I AM A SPY” on her forehead and a target on her back from the moment she arrives. As is usually the case in these early stories, it all climaxes strictly to the formula (one part Hercule Poirot drawing-room explanation, one part Harry Hill “FIIIIIIIIGHT!”) but is livened up by a bit of business with an escape by train.

 

Please Don’t Feed the Animals

As you might guess from the title, this is most definitely one of the stories on the forward edge of The Avengers’ evolution, with a plot that could have been adapted to almost any era, right up to the days of Tara King, by adjusting the mix of silliness and drama accordingly. From the clanking typewriter of Dennis Spooner, always one of early Doctor Who's must fun and gifted writers, what grounds it firmly in Series One territory is the entry point of civil servants being caught with their pants down, quite literally, in honey traps with prostitutes and then being blackmailed into handing over first cash, and then state secrets. What suggests the series to come is the use of a private zoo run by a typically Avengerish eccentric as the handing over point, and the hapless victims being disposed of via crocodile once they’ve reached the end of their usefulness.  As with most of these stories were essentially introduced to the villains at the start, but there’s an additional level of ‘whodunnit’ at work here – though with so few suspects, you’d be hard-pressed not to guess the solution. But the real joy is the banter between Steed and the zoo owner as the two big personalities try to out-eccentric-Englishman each other. Splendid fun.

 

The Radioactive Man

Doctor Who fans are well aware of the necessity of the punishing 1960s filming schedule meaning a need for regular time off for the series regulars, but simultaneously a never-ending treadmill that leaves no gap in the schedule for it. In this case, even in my mind’s eye listening to the audio, it’s hard not to imagine Steed’s handful of very brief appearances featuring a sudden jump from videotape to pre-recorded film inserts – while Patrick Macnee no doubt surrounded himself with a bevy of adoring ladies while on holiday on the south coast of France. Instead, Keel moves further centre stage than he has since Hot Snow and gains his own sidekick in the form of no nonsense Inspector Tudor (played by the wonderfully distinctive voice of Richard Franklin, formerly Captain Mike Yates of UNIT). If the emphasis on Keel is a throwback to the start of the season, so it the plot. Okay, so it features a ‘radioactive man’ of sorts, but the case of an illegal immigrant, accidentally exposed to radiation at a hospital, and who goes on the run when spooked by the authorities’ desperate race against time to save his life, would barely be outside the mandate of Z-Cars.  It is however, very well done, and radioactive man Marko’s fear and anxiety, matched by Keel’s increasingly stress and determination to find him, makes for some genuine tension. Marko’s burgeoning romance with his landlady Mary too presents us with some of the most real, unironic, emotion found anywhere in the show’s canon.

 

Dance with Death

A story that bounces us almost all the way back to the start of the season, this is firmly an adventure for Keel, in which Steed plays a firmly supporting role. The long lost Dr. Tredding even gets a mention! It also reflects the sort of low seediness of the earliest episodes, with women getting electrocuted in the bath with heaters, and much of the episode touring the suspects with motives as mundane as wanting to seize control of her half of a dance school. Steed only shows up at all in the latter third of the tale, and then seems to treat the whole thing as a jolly holiday from his more important and stressful work. By the point he’s caught in a hotel, boring a hole in the door to an adjoining bathroom (“there’s a girl in the bath, you see”) he’s clearly having the time of his life. Dragged into things by a Keel frustrated by the lack of action by the regular police, our bowler hatted agent quite rightly points out that Keel’s supposed to be at his beck and call, not the other way round. And in a neat, but distinctly unAvengerish, touch of realism he notes the restriction that he can’t act with the usual blank cheque of authority to do whatever he deems necessary to crack the case. It’s both slightly unfortunate, though, and a testament to how well Julian Wadham has settled in to the role, that this is the first time for ages that as a listener you find yourselves wishing we still had Patrick Macnee’s interpretations of these scenes.

 

All in all, Volume 2 illustrates just how far we’ve come in a short space of time. Underlined by how even as the plots ping and pong back and forward between two genres, Steed is now distinctly Steed in both.

 





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.