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

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

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

Cast

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

Producer David RichardsonScript Editor Matt Fitton

Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

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

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

From Beyond- Matt Fitton

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

The Old Gods- Phil Mulryne

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

Legion- Cavan Scott

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

The Hollow Earth- Ken Bentley

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

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





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

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

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

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

Cast

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

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

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

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

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

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





The Time Machine (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

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

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

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

Cast

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

Other parts played by members of the cast.

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

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

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

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

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





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

Sunday, 4 March 2018 - Reviewed by Damian Christie

     

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

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

Hahaha! What lurid nonsense!

Kerr Avon, B7: The Way Ahead

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





The Martian Invasion of Earth (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 1 March 2018 - Reviewed by Callum McKelvie
The Martian Invasion of Earth (Credit: Big Finish)

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

Written By: HG Wells, dramatised by Nicholas BriggsDirected By: Nicholas Briggs

Cast

Richard Armitage (Herbert), Lucy Briggs-Owen (Amy), Hywel Morgan (Curate), Ewan Bailey (Daniel), Richard Derrington (Ogilvy), Helen Goldwyn (Agatha), Christopher Weeks (Edward), Benedict Briggs (Boy), Nicholas Briggs (Martians / First Officer). Other parts played by members of the cast.

Available to order from Amazon UK

The last in Big Finishes series of H.G Welles adaptations, The Martian Invasion of Earth is of course a version of Welles’s magnum opus The War of the Worlds. The story has something of a history on Radio with Wikipedia stating fourteen broadcast versions. Most famously Jeff Wayne created a wonderful musical version starring Richard Burton (later re-recorded with Liam Neeson) and Orson Welles panicked America with his 1938 Halloween broadcast. Admittedly I was intrigued to see how Nick Briggs would handle what he stated was a ‘pet project’, when the story has been done many times and done well. I needn’t of worried however, with Briggs achieving that very rare mix of an adaptation that pushes it’s source material into new and interesting directions, yet allows it to be faithful at the same time. Not only that but he manages to rival the Orson Welles version in how utterly frightening it is.

Richard Armitage stars as Herbert Welles (not the first time one of his unnamed characters finds themselves taking their creators name in an adaptation) and it is partly his wonderful performance as a man struggling to keep it together in the face of a terrifying event that lends the play its horrifying power. By adding an extended role to the narrators wife (more on that below) this version works rather wonderfully as a love story. Briggs shows us how the narrator puts on a front for his wife, showing bravery before silently creeping away and sobbing. Armitage makes these moments truly horrifying and it is with this human factor that the play really succeeds.

The most startling change implemented by Briggs is the extended role he has given to the protagonist’s wife. In the original novel, the character disappears somewhat early on, only to miraculously reappear at the end. The tome is certainly a mail orientated one and our hero meets no significant female characters. Period adaptation or not, Briggs appears determined to make this adaptation current and thankfully that includes a strong and respectful female role. ‘Amy’) as she is called in this version) is played by Lucy Briggs-Owen who gives a powerful performance and has wonderful chemistry with Armitage. Briggs appears to have invested much time in her character, allowing her to become a wonderfully rounded character. At times she feels of the period and beyond it, having much to do and making meaningful decisions. Coupled with Briggs-Owens acting, she’s one of the highlights of this version.

Nick Briggs script also includes several interesting moments of commentary concerning some of the socio-political subtext featured within the novel. This includes interesting moments of discussion concerning colonialism, militarism and religion. At times this is somewhat heavy handed but for the most part it’s effective and certainly allows this version to be current and meaningful.

Ian Meadows provides incredible sound design, helping the audio to fully capture the feel of a full scale onslaught with a very small cast. His version of the Martians war cry, is terrifying, particularly when listened to through headphones and mixed with the sounds of screams.  The soundtrack is similarly effective, a mixture of bizarre sounds and an epic feel adding to the chaotic atmosphere. Unfortunately it is let down by some ‘bombastic’ moments early on that don’t quite fit with the intimate nature of the horror as portrayed in this version. Thankfully these moments are brief and less frequent as the play continues.

For fans of the novel, they really can’t go wrong with this version. Alongside Jeff Wayne’s musical and Orson Welles 1938 version, this has to be one of the best adaptations of the novel. Nicholas Briggs really has outdone himself and along with superb performances from Richard Armitage and Lucy Briggs-Owen create a masterpiece and one of Big Finishes best.  





The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 1Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 24 February 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 1 (Credit: Big Finish) Producer David Richardson

Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

Written By: Brian Clemens, Ray Rigby and Richard Harris
Adapted by John Dorney
Directed By: Ken Bentley
Cast
Anthony Howell (Dr Keel), Julian Wadham (John Steed), Lucy Briggs-Owen (Carol Wilson), Colin Baker (Dr Tredding), Adrian Lukis (Spicer)
Original Released: January 2014
Series Devised by Sydney Newman

Available to purchase from Amazon UK

The Avengers is an unusual show in that few programmes have evolved so quickly or become so self-referential over the course of its seasons. More than that, with most of the early episodes not just missing but extremely missing – with few to none of the telesnaps, off air recordings and other saving graces that allow Doctor Who fans to at least experience its junked instalments in some form – it’s a case of, arguably, a descent into self-parody where few have seen the ‘self’ being parodied.

So Big Finish are to be saluted for their resurrection of those early missing episodes – episodes potentially unrecognizable as The Avengers to those familiar with, and loving, the existing seasons – and being so faithful to both the letter and the spirit of the original. This dedication shows through in the extras where adapater John Dorney ruefully admits that for most episodes only the camera script, rather than the full original version, survives. Meaning in cases episode endings like "Action Sequence as Discussed" have to had to be interepreted by a mix of faithfulness, imagination and pure luck.

Of the leads, Anthony Howell has the easier job in playing Keel - a character the original version of which few have seen - and grants him a deep earnestness that plays opposite Steed nicely. The more difficult task falls of course to Julian Wadham in playing not only so iconic a character as John Steed, but having to play him initially as a quite different take on the secret agent before transitioning towards the man we know and love. While actors who've played the Doctor are often praised for their mecurial, 'turn on a sixpence' quality of sudden shifts from whimsy to outrage, Macnee's Steed instead changed gears from jovial charm to lethal dangerousness with the smoothness of a performance sports car. Wadham, perhaps wisely, doesn't even attempt to replicate that and instead for the most part a Steed somewhere in the middle - never quite as urbane or as ruthless, but with an element of both present in every line.

 

Hot Snow

If anyone had any doubt about The Avengers beginning as an almost completely different show to the one that gave us cat-suited Emma Peel, killer robots, and an intelligence agency run out of an office on the Number 707 bus to Picadilly Circus, Hot Snow blows them away with its grit and cynicism. A woman is gunned down in the street in front of her fiancé, junkies hang out in the waiting rooms of struck off doctors and slimy low level heroin smugglers search for a missing package of four grand’s worth of ‘snow’. Even an attempt by a middle aged swinger to invite our hero into a group sex session with her and her husband seems seedy and slightly depressing, rather than something to elicit a purr of naughtiness from Steed.

The hero on the receiving end of that indecent proposal, by the way, is Dr. David Keel, not John Steed. Dragged into the shadows of the London underworld by sheer chance when a consignment of heroin is accidentally delivered to the surgery where he works, he’s willing to sacrifice his career in his quest for revenge on those who murdered his fiancée to cover it up. In fact, he’s ambivalent about his own survival so long as he gets his chance to confront the man who pulled the trigger. Steed himself is a shadowy figure, happy to use Keel’s vendetta as leverage to manipulate him for his own agenda. It’s slightly a shame it’s impossible to appreciate Hot Snow, and Steed’s role in it, the way it was originally intended. Steed here is a dangerous, ambiguous figure happily presenting himself as a double agent to both sides but with his real intentions opaque to the viewer in 1961. Much of the tension in Hot Snow’s script is derived from whether Steed is going to betray Keel – he tells the doctor that he’s tricked the smugglers into thinking he’s delivering him to them to kill, and tells the smugglers that he’s tricked Keel into coming to a meeting so they can kill him. In 2018, we know which side he’s on, of course, but the clever edge to the script can still be appreciated.

 

Brought to Book

If anything, the second episode in the set smacks even more of a road not taken than the first. Trigger man Spicer has moved on to the employment of a new crime family, brought in as a ‘specialist’ to help settle a budding gang war in definitive fashion. Once again Steed (now describing himself as a ‘kind of civil servant … deep undercover’) is primarily interested in destroying both sides but offers the presence of Spicer as an incentive to Keel to be his asset. And once again there’s an edge of possible betrayal in the air. While Keel infiltrates one gang as a ‘mob doctor’ when Steed arranges him to be in the right time and the right place to assist when the gangster soon to be formerly known as ‘Pretty Boy’ has his mouth slashed, Joker style, as an opening shot in the war, Steed is already positioned in the other – planning an attack on the very flat containing Keel and his new chums.It all raises visions of a parallel universe where The Avengers continued as a show as fixed in its structure as The Fugitive – Spicer always moving on, Keel in pursuit to avenge Peggy, Steed succeeding in breaking up the new gang but Spicer escaping… But fortunately, the episode ends, appropriately enough, with Spicer brought to book (albeit in a way that probably wouldn’t pass muster with the modern Crown Prosecution Service) and Keel warily agreeing that Steed can call on him again if the case requires his particular skills.

 

The Square Root of Evil

Rather than pursuing that alternate reality, the third episode instead does a handbrake turn into something much more familiar. In fact, it’s such a swift turnabout in the show’s format that one can only imagine there must have been some fascinating meeting where it was consciously decided to change the tone and style of the entire series in what’s almost a second pilot, albeit one that assumes knowledge of the two prior episodes. From the classically Avengerish pun of the title – a pun that appears to simply exist for its own sake; as even adaptor John Dorney admits he has no idea what it has to do with the story – to the treatment of Steed as the lead and Keel as his sidekick (a sidekick who only even shows up about halfway through), the dumping of The Rising Sun as Steed’s base of operations (along with, thankfully, the highly dodgy Chinese stereotype of Lily) and of Colin Baker’s Dr. Tredding, who had been set up as a supporting character to worry and fret about Keel, all signal a serious re-think of what the show would be like. Steed’s lascivious manner and tendency to treat deadly danger at least half as seriously as a sane person would, both materialize fully formed here too.What still remains is the fairly unremarkable nature of the criminals they go up against. The heroin smugglers and protection rackets of the first episodes are followed here by a counterfeiting operation being run out of a garage. It also somewhat runs out of steam by the end. Having set up the drama in Steed going undercover in the gang by pretending to be a notorious Irish counterfeiter, under constant danger of exposure, original writer Richard Harris (no, not that one) seeming can’t decide where to bring the story next. So, after a few near misses, Steed is found out and simply punches his way through all the bad guys and across the episode's finish line.

 

One for the Mortuary

The final story in the set sees the rapid transformation of the show’s format continue apace. Just a few hours of listening on from Dr. Keel being introduced as a relatively fresh young doctor setting up in General Practice to deal with chilblains and dispense vitamins and he’s now the sort of figure to get invited to high level World Health Organization conferences in Geneva. In parallel, Steed is no longer doing anything so gritty or streel level as infiltrating a gang of small time heroin dealers and instead tasked with ensuring a microdot containing the chemical formula for a new world-changing wonder drug reaches the conference. Oh, and the villain du jour is a one eyed man with a sword cane.

It’s a gone a bit… Avengers.

Even a diversion where Keel draws an erroneous conclusion from a clue and winds up having a bizarre conversation at cross purposes with a taxidermist specializing in pet memorials feels like the sort of thing that latter seasons of The Avengers would make a unique selling point of the show. The key thing grounding the show at this stage to the world we began with is that Keel seems somewhat befuddled by just how insane things are getting.   In time, The Avengers would become a show where even the local milkman seemed to have a knowingly ironic sense of the pop spy world they live in. For now, it remains the story of an ordinary man moving deeper into an extraordinary world.

 

A fascinating bit of television archaeology, this set allows us to almost see into Clemens’ brain as he reassess what type of show this could be. In a sense, and appropriately for a show originated by Sydney Newman, this set allows us to see both the original premise and it’s “Dalek moment” when wilder elements began to be added to great success.