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

Sunday, 1 March 2015 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Blake's 7 - The Liberator Chronicles - Vol 10 (Credit: Big Finish)
Velandra / Retribution / Ministry of Peace (Blake's 7: The Classic Audio Adventures)
Written by Steve Lyons, Andrew Smith and Una McCormack
Directed by Lisa Bowerman and Ken Bentley
Big Finish Productions, November 2014


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

Monday, 29 December 2014 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Blakes's 7 - Scimitar (Credit: Big Finish)
Scimitar (Blake's 7: The Classic Audio Adventures)
Written By: Trevor Baxendale
Directed By: Lisa Bowerman
Big Finish Productions, November 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




The Liberator Chronicles: Volume 9Bookmark and Share

Monday, 29 September 2014 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Reviewed by Damian Christie

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

Tavac and Avon, Planetfall


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




The Liberator Chronicles: Volume 8Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 20 August 2014 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Reviewed by Damian Christie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Blake’s 7: Cold Fury/CagedBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 30 July 2014 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Reviewed by Damian Christie
Blakes 7 Cold Fury (Credit: Big Finish)
Blakes 7 Caged (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright
Directed by Ken Bentley
Big Finish, 2014
You must think I’m as stupid as I look!
Vila Restal, Cold Fury

Although it began with a bit of a misfire (with the opening instalment Fractures), Big Finish’s first micro-season of Blake’s 7 full cast audio dramas has for the most part delivered some strong, exciting storylines. The six episodes have all strongly evoked the spirit of the original TV series, especially of the time frame in which they are set (midway through B7’s second series) yet Big Finish’s stable of writers have not shied away from experimenting with the key characters and even testing the program’s conventions.

We’ve already seen from this “season within a season” that the Liberator is indeed an extraordinary ship, that supercomputer Orac (voiced by Alistair Lock) is more conniving than we’d previously thought and that the relationship between Blake (Gareth Thomas) and his crew is more delicate than was hinted at on TV (yes, Blake and Avon, again portrayed in these audios by Paul Darrow, were by the end of the second season at loggerheads but it was not as evident that Jenna and Cally, played again by Sally Knyvette and Jan Chappell, could be just as rebellious). The stakes for the crew hit standard by ten with the final two instalments Cold Fury and Caged.

In the cliffhanger to the previous instalment Mirror, Vila (Michael Keating) was a captive of Blake’s arch nemesis Space Commander Travis (Brian Croucher). In Cold Fury, the Liberator crew is led to the icy world of Horst Minor in search of their comrade – only to fall into an elaborate trap which sets the scene for a confrontation in Caged between Blake and not just Travis but an unconventional, wily foe in the form of the Terran Federation President.

In the B7 TV series, the Federation President was mentioned in dialogue but never appeared on screen. It was revealed on television that he was the mastermind behind the manufacture of the illicit narcotic Shadow (and therefore controlled both sides of the law absolutely - the Federation and its criminal underground). By season’s end, this mysterious figure was deposed and replaced by Supreme Commander Servalan. With Jacqueline Pearce unable to reprise Servalan in this series of plays, the President, played by Hugh Fraser, finally steps into the limelight and proves to be an excellent foil for Blake and his crew. Fraser’s portrayal as the still anonymous President (we never learn his name) is outstanding – and in turn steals the acting honours from the regular cast.

The President for the most part encapsulates composure in contrast to the ever impatient and zealous Blake and the brutish yet obtuse Travis. On the surface, he is an intelligent, refined man who exudes self-confidence and enjoys the trappings of luxury, including fine wine, food and women. At one point, the President even remarks that “You rebels are just so angsty!” – as if he cannot truly understand why Blake and his crew are waging a campaign of rebellion against him! It is particularly bizarre at one point in Caged to hear the President and Blake debating the merits of the latter’s campaign against the Federation as part of a casual dinner side chat, not exchanging blaster fire at 20 paces – but it reflects an adversary that is completely self-assured and has come to believe in his own invulnerability.

However, even after this two-parter, it is still hard to entirely get a handle on who the President is. It is clear that he is a puppet master and a schemer. What is not so clear is the darker side alluded to in his character – in Cold Fury, it seems the President has no qualms resorting to bloodshed if it will achieve his ends and he also displays bouts of paranoia (granted, there is an explanation for this apparent instability but to reveal that here would be a major plot spoiler!). Also, if the President is so omnipresent (as these episodes suggest), then how does Servalan manage to oust him at all? Nevertheless, you don’t really come away from these episodes with a sense that you know the President any better than Blake and his crew do – and I suspect that is a very deliberate tactic by writers Cavan Scott and Mark Wright. Fraser’s performance is memorable and it would be a pity if Big Finish does not revive the character in future B7 instalments.

The other standout performance in Cold Fury and Caged belongs to Michael Keating as Vila. After Jenna and Cally’s rebellious streaks in Mirror, it is Vila’s turn to surprise. Indeed, his whole loyalty to the crew is thrown into question – and Keating embraces this apparent turnabout in his character with relish, finally dishing it back to his comrades for failing to take him seriously (“Jenna, I’ve wanted to say this for a long time – shut up!”). The exchanges between Vila and Travis in Cold Fury are quite compelling as the jailer manipulates his prisoner through a combination of drugs and persuasion.

What isn’t so convincing, despite Keating’s performance, is Vila’s eventual return to the fold. Cally senses the confusion in Vila’s mind at the start of Caged – but by the end of the serial we are expected to believe that it has all been a complex ruse and that the crew will reluctantly (if not gladly) welcome him home. Scott and Wright in the CD extras at the end of Caged argue that this illustrates how canny Vila is and that B7’s heroes and villains too often underestimate him. Be that as it may, Vila’s behaviour lacks plausibility, especially as it underpins the whole story. Scott and Wright even clumsily try to explain away Vila’s justification by tying it back to events in the B7 Season 1 episode Bounty. Needless to say, that just implies that the events in Big Finish’s dramas are meant to take place in the same universe – but it doesn’t necessarily make Vila’s motives any more credible.

This gripe aside, the two episodes as a whole are impressive, thanks to the performers, sound effects and incidental music which successfully convey the environments portrayed in the stories, eg the howling winds of Horst Minor, transmissions from the Liberator to Federation pursuit ships, the docking of the Liberator in the Federation’s Cage. B7 as a TV series relied more often than not on music, sound effects and the power of well written dialogue to give its limited model effects and dodgy sets and costumes conviction. The program’s format therefore makes it ideal for audio where by the same token it is possible to evoke travels through deep space in the form of communications between vessels and to convey torture and conditioning through defiant dialogue and supporting sound effects – all without being undermined by the accompanying visuals.

As with the earlier instalments in this micro-series, the performances of the cast members, coupled with dialogue, music and sound effects, help to ground Cold Fury and Caged ostensibly in the era in which they are meant to be set. Avon’s taciturn ripostes, Blake’s zeal and fortitude, Orac’s over-inflated sense of self, Jenna’s coolness under pressure, Cally’s comforting tones and Vila’s humour all help to create the illusion that these could be recordings of recently recovered B7 episodes that have gathered dust in the BBC archives.

Cold Fury and Caged provide an entertaining and mostly satisfactory conclusion to Big Finish’s first season of full cast Blake’s 7 audio adventures. Although Big Finish are working within the tight confines of the TV program’s continuity and are planning to set the second series with the Liberator crew post-Star One, I would welcome more opportunities to hear the original cast in future audio adventures – and for a rematch with Hugh Fraser’s Federation President no less.




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

Wednesday, 11 June 2014 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Reviewed by Damian Christie


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

“You might be surprised. Ripples spread.”


Blake and Avon, Blake’s 7: Drones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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