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

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

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

 

The Springers

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

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

 

The Yellow Needle

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

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

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

 

Double Danger

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

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

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

 

Toy Trap

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

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

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

 





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

Wednesday, 6 June 2018 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Blake's 7 - Crossfire - Part 3 (Credit: c/- Big Finish Productions, 2018)Written by Una McCormack, Trevor Baxendale,
Christopher Cooper and Steve Lyons

Produced and directed by John Ainsworth
Big Finish Productions, 2018

Stars: Paul Darrow (Avon), Michael Keating (Vila),
Jan Chappell (Cally), Steven Pacey (Tarrant),
Yasmin Bannerman (Dayna), Alistair Lock (Zen/Orac),
Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan), Hugh Fraser (The President),
John Green (Mordekain), Rebecca Crankshaw (Zeera Vos),
Dan March (Verner), Susie Riddell (Bowkan),
Bruce Alexander (Galon), Malcolm James (Dev),
Charlotte Strevens (Reeva), Peter Aubrey (Kimar),
Steven Pacey (Kervon).


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

 

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


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


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


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


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





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

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

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

Cast

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

Producer David RichardsonScript Editor Matt Fitton

Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

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

 

Somnum Sempiternum by Phil Mulryne

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

 

The Changeling- Roy Gill

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

 

Let the Angel Tell Thee- Louise Jameson

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

 

Awakening- Matt Finton

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

 

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





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.