Blake's 7 - The Classic Audio Adventures: Vol 5.2: Restoration - Part 2Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 7 May 2020 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Blake's 7: Restoration - Part 2
Written by Mark Wright, Steve Lyons,
Sophia McDougall & Trevor Baxendale
Stars: Paul Darrow, Michael Keating, Jan Chappell, Steven Pacey, Yasmin Bannerman, Alistair Lock
Produced and directed by John Ainsworth
Big Finish Productions, 2019

"Of the many things that I have come to dislike about Avon, the most aggravating one is that he's usually right!"

 

Del Tarrant, B7 - Restoration: Happy Ever After

 

It will never rank as a seminal highlight of a career that spanned 56 years but Volume 2 of Blake's 7 - Restoration will forever be remembered as one of the last credits of Paul Darrow (aka B7's iconic anti-hero Avon), who died on 3 June, 2019. Indeed, fans ought to be forever grateful that, despite ill-health in his twilight years, Darrow was able to act with such spirit, good humour and enthusiasm.

In late 2014, Darrow developed an aortic aneurysm that unfortunately resulted in the loss of both of his legs. He consequently had to record much of his dialogue as Avon separately of the rest of the cast in a studio close to his home in England's southeast. Yet in the five years up to his death, not only did he carry on the part of Avon with zest (as if nothing had happened), he even wrote a script (Erebus) for B7's Crossfire audio saga. His brain and wit remained as sharp as ever - and so too did his acerbic delivery as Avon. In turn, it is a credit to Big Finish that it has still been able to produce such quality work across different studios - never once did I doubt that the full B7 cast wasn't together for the recordings.

Restoration continues the quest by the Liberator crew to locate the makers of their ship - who may hold the key to restoring it to its former glory. As a result, the failing vessel and its crew return to the 12th sector of the galaxy, once ruled by the seemingly omnipotent System (which Blake and his original gang apparently vanquished in the 1979 TV episode Redemption). As a result, we learn a little more about the three worlds that the System controlled before it went offline (and which were hinted at in Redemption) and what links the System to another seemingly obscure settlement that the Liberator crew visited in the first episode of this 12-part Restoration saga.

The opening instalment of this set - Mark Wright's The New Age - takes the listener to Eloran, the third planet of the former System. This world's denizens, who were once part of the System's slave labour force, are now free of their oppressors and have splintered into diverse communities. One such community is led by a charismatic, technophobic leader in Vulkris (Caroline Pickles). She advocates for a simpler, more agrarian lifestyle and vehemently distrusts the use of any technology, which she blames for their prior enslavement. Temporarily stranded after a teleport energy spike dumps them on Eloran, crew members Vila (Michael Keating) and Dayna (Yasmin Bannerman) enjoy a night with the settlement - and the apparent simplicity of the lifestyle proves very enticing to Vila (although it would probably have not been as tempting or romantic as the life he could have had with Kerril in the TV episode The City at the Edge of the World). However, enter Avon (Darrow) whose contempt for the indigenous population shows no bounds - and makes the rebel crew's members (and the listener) question whether they still stand for something positive in an increasingly dark universe ...

Blake's 7: Restoration - The New AgeThe New Age is in many ways an almost "by the numbers", lacklustre B7 instalment. Aside from the opening scenes of the episode, which are set aboard the derelict remains of Spaceworld, the System's outer space stronghold, not much of note truly happens in the episode. To paraphrase Caroline Pickles in the CD extras, it's a story akin to "throwing away your mobile phone and growing carrots"! Given we're all currently living in isolation, perhaps the eschewing of technology for a simpler existence is more prescient than ever. However, given Wright's other B7 scripts, including Resurgence (which reintroduced the System), have been quite dramatic and action-packed, the change of pace - particularly for an opening instalment in a boxset - doesn't really work for this listener.

Steve Lyons' Happy Ever After is also a peculiar contribution after a number of other cracking scripts that he wrote for the Crossfire saga and Abandon Ship, the concluding chapter of Restoration Vol 1. It's not as slow and uneventful as The New Age, and despite the Federation's absence, there are still plenty of political machinations and double-dealings going on in the medieval-style kingdom of Zareen. However, the world Lyons envisages is in some respects totally at odds with the explanation that was given for the System's origins. In Redemption, it was said the omnipotent computer came into being because of its three warring planets but if Zareen was one of them and isn't much above medieval development, then how could it ever have been involved in a multi-world conflict?

This continuity quibble aside, the story provides an intriguing premise - what would have happened if Tarrant (Steven Pacey) had eloped with a medieval queen and left the Liberator to its demise? In spite of the serial's title, it seems a new life would not necessarily have been any easier or romantic for Tarrant, and (again, much like Vila in City at the Edge of the World) he would still have craved his spacefaring, rebellious life. In fact, it becomes clear that Tarrant manipulates Queen Janylle (Lisa Bond) to uncover Zareen's secrets as much as she does him to forge their union. As a result, because the setting and the tone of the story is very Shakespearean, the performance of the guest cast is regal and flawless. Cliff Chapman, as the conniving Queen's advisor Tyrric, also has a voice not unlike that of a young Paul Darrow. Dare I say it but could Chapman be a worthy successor to the great man himself as Avon in the future?

The "alternate timeline" scenario, which is atypical of B7 - but certainly a common trait of its sunnier side up counterpart Star Trek -  provides a fascinating insight into the fates of the Liberator crew, had the events of the TV series not followed their course. It's not quite as ingenious as an earlier Liberator Chronicles instalment (Spoils) but it provides an important lead for the crew - even though Avon flatly rejects the notion that lead is an indirect message from the future.Blake's 7: Restoration - Happy Ever After

The third serial - Sophia McDougall's Siren - is contemporaneous with the events of Happy Ever After, and sees Dayna and Cally (Jan Chappell) visit the unnamed second world where they encounter the more active remnants of another System stronghold. While the presence of the System is more prevalent in this serial than in any other parts of the boxset, it still doesn't quite live up to the promise that was implied in the closure of Restoration Vol 1 or Wright's earlier instalment Resurgence. Nonetheless, there are some nice points of continuity with Resurgence, as Siren explores the psychological impact of Dayna's prior encounter with the System and Alta Six.

The female-centric cast also features some nicely thought out three-dimensional characters. Mida (Catherine Bailey) and Veskar (Phillipe Bosher) are an odd yet sweet couple - an ex-slave and a former System guard respectively, even if the hardened Mida tends to hold back her true feelings for Veskar, with his puppy-like optimism. The Altas (Sophie Bleasdale and Ruth Sillers) also offer points of comparison. Alta Nine (Bleasdale), much like Veskar, marvels at the simplicity of the world through reawakened eyes as she embraces her restored individuality; in contrast, Alta Ten (Sillers), with her emotionless, yet child-like voice, stubbornly holds onto her tenuous link with the System, exposing the vulnerability behind her veneer of cold calculation and determination.

Finally, it takes until the fourth serial but this boxset starts to finally build some much needed momentum with Trevor Baxendale's Hyperion, as clues uncovered in Happy Ever After and Siren lead the Liberator crew to a supposedly independent research station on the cusp of Federation space. It is here that Avon meets Dr Selene Shan (Evie Dawnay), a scientist who has recently explored the remnants of the System. In the course of his discussions with her, Avon realises the Liberator may have fallen under the influence of an insidious third party, thereby tying this saga back to the first instalment of Vol 1 (Baxendale's episode Damage Control).

To add further complications, the scheming tendrils of the Federation - in the form of the visiting Kommissar Krent (Richard Reed) - begin to inveigle themselves in the Liberator's affairs once again. With the President (Hugh Fraser) having voiced his desire back in Vol 1 to restore Federation Central Control, it now seems Dr Shan's exploration of the System may yet offer the Federation the intel it needs to make that a reality. Reed is excellent as the impassioned Kommissar - a man determined to make an impression and please his President, and who eyes off an opportunity for promotion when he realises the Liberator's outlaws are aboard the Hyperion facility.

Dawnay also delivers the right degree of arrogance and impatience as the self-important Shan - but the character's sudden 360-degree turnabout is poorly written and executed by Baxendale and Big Finish. Shan changes from pompous scientist for the bulk of the serial to almost double-crossing femme fatale as the climax to this boxset looms. There are no hints she will turn and there seems even less opportunity in the narrative for her to organise treachery (especially in Avon's presence).

Interestingly, prodBlake's 7: Restoration - Sirenucer John Ainsworth confirms in the CD extras that the original antagonist of the story was meant to be Servalan, with Shan relegated to a lesser role. Following the untimely death of Jacqueline Pearce, the character of Shan has assumed greater importance, and indeed appears in Restoration Vol 3 (implying Servalan's presence would have been even more keenly felt). Interestingly, I suspect Pearce's death had a two-fold impact on Baxendale's writing, as in Damage Control, the character of Zeera Vos also behaved like Servalan.

As an aside, this writer is amused that Baxendale has inserted references to etheric beam emissions into the serial. Etheric beam emissions were first referenced in Doctor Who in Genesis of the Daleks in 1975 and over the years have been name-dropped in Who's various spin-off media. They came back to prominence, though, in 1999 when the Red Nose spoof Curse of the Fatal Death used etheric beam locators to great comedy effect. It therefore is somewhat amusing to hear Darrow and Dawnay engaging in dialogue about etheric beam emissions - in a serious context and completely oblivious to the running joke that Steven Moffat started two decades ago.

So where does Restoration Vol 3 go from here? It's uncertain but having correctly tipped that the System would figure in this story arc, I am willing to speculate that Baxendale may yet have devised the foe that the System was fighting when it Blake's 7: Restoration - Hyperionwas forced to abandon the Liberator near Cygnus Alpha, way back in the second TV episode Spacefall. It will be particularly interesting to see how the final boxset works without Avon. Hyperion fortunately rescues what is mostly a lacklustre B7 boxset but the story outlines for Restoration Vol 3 hint that the overall story arc may yet provide a satisfying conclusion.

And given this was Paul Darrow's last Blake's 7 work before his unfortunate death, there is a certain poetry to his signature character's exit in the cliffhanger. At the end of the original B7 TV series in 1981, the character of Avon was the last man standing as elite Federation troopers converged on him. In a cliffhanger-like finish, Avon (and Darrow) beatifically smiled at the camera before the episode cut to the closing credits and echoes of gunfire. The ending was ambiguous, implying that Avon could have died but also may not have met the same fate as his crewmates. Restoration Vol 2 also ends on a cliffhanger, with Avon outmanoeuvred at the last moment and seemingly abandoned as the Liberator, under a malign influence, heads back into Federation space. While, as fans, we know the character of Avon will ultimately survive (Restoration is set in the months leading up to the finale of Series C Terminal), it would nevertheless amuse Darrow greatly that he and Avon should once again bow out in ambiguous fashion - with the character seemingly caught in a no-win position.

 

 





Blake's 7 - Vol 5.1: Restoration - Part 1Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 28 March 2019 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Blake's 7 - Restoration - Part 1Written by Trevor Baxendale, Iain McLaughlin,
Scott Harrison, Steve Lyons
Produced and directed by John Ainsworth
Stars: Paul Darrow, Michael Keating, Jan Chappell, Steven Pacey, Yasmin Bannerman, Rebecca Crankshaw, Hugh Fraser,
John Green, Olivia Poulet, Ian Brooker, Jonathan Christie
Big Finish Productions, 2019

Vila: I never trusted that computer! I said so, didn’t I? Always acting like we were just irritants to him! His problem is he thinks he’s better than anyone else!

Tarrant: Is that Orac you’re referring to – or Avon?

Cally: Now’s not the time, Tarrant!

Dayna: Well, there may not be a better time. I still don’t believe it though!

Tarrant: That Orac could have turned against us?

Dayna: No, that Vila could have been right about something!

From B7 – Restoration: Abandon Ship

 

Previously on Blake’s 7 … The galactic civil war is over. Servalan has been deposed as the President of the Terran Federation after a final showdown on Geddon (and thought killed). Her predecessor – the nameless yet charismatic man simply known as the President (Hugh Fraser) – is once again poised to fill the breach. Outflanked and outgunned by the President’s flagship The Lethal Shadow in the climactic battle over Geddon, the Liberator is heavily damaged beyond its ability of self-repair and its crew led by Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) are licking their wounds (both actual and psychological). But that’s (in Avon’s parlance) only “the good news” – the ship is caught in the gravity well of a blue star and seems destined for destruction, with seemingly no other avenue for the crew to escape …

Restoration – the first new B7 boxset for 2019, comprising four hour-long serials – resumes almost exactly from the cliffhanger that closed out the previous saga Crossfire. Naturally, the crew’s quandary is solved – with a deus ex machina that takes its inspiration from Star Trek (the series that B7 creator Terry Nation himself sometimes subconsciously and other times deliberately channelled) – before settling into the first story proper.

Trevor Baxendale’s opening script Damage Control is more of a first chapter in a story arc that covers 12 serials in three boxsets, rather than a solid story in its own right. In fact, as a self-contained entity, it makes for a pretty undramatic piece of storytelling, as the last vestiges of Roj Blake’s rebel group query their loyalties to one other while attempting to revive the fortunes of their battered and failing starship.

Cally (Jan Chappell) becomes a mouthpiece for the Liberator’s artificial intelligence Zen (Alistair Lock), and the manner in which Avon exploits her to obtain the information they need to survive certainly earns the disapproval of Dayna (Yasmin Bannerman). Tarrant (Steven Pacey) is left paranoid, weary and scornful – it’s not just the battle of Geddon that has taken its toll on his professional pride, he is left questioning life in the aftermath of the tragic events that destroyed his family in the episode Kith and Kin (in Crossfire Vol 4.3). When it seems there may be an opportunity to lure him away from the Liberator, he is seriously tempted – much to Cally’s chagrin (in the CD extras, Chappell even remarks that this moment of disloyalty changes her long-term perception of Tarrant’s character, and were she Cally, she’d have him voted off the ship!).

Blake's 7 - Restoration - Part 1 - Damage ControlVila (Michael Keating) continues to be a subject of derision for nearly everyone in the Liberator crew – from Avon (who is typically disdainful of everyone) to Dayna (whose taunts are more playful and teasing than downright rude) to even Cally (who at one point is insulted when Orac [Alistair Lock again] suggests Vila could undertake certain repairs faster than she can!). That said, it becomes clear over the course of the episode that Avon and Orac (in their ruthlessly cold, logical ways) appreciate Vila’s skills and prowess. For instance, Avon suggests (in what is probably about as close as he’ll ever give to a compliment!) that Vila, because of his lockpicking skills, is best equipped to detect and overcome a series of booby traps in a series of underground tunnels. It's a point that actually plays to Vila’s ego just as he is on the verge of slipping into an all-out panic! In many ways, were it not for the various character dynamics that play out in this episode (which Baxendale captures extremely well, particularly in the dialogue), it is doubtful Damage Control as an episode would have much else to recommend it.

Certainly this first instalment poses more questions than answers, which you have to assume will be addressed in later boxsets. What is the significance of the desolate planet that the Liberator seeks out after Geddon? What is so special about the circuit boards that Avon and the crew discover there – and how can they be compatible with the Liberator ’s technology? And are the ape-like creatures the crew encounter (hinted at but also glimpsed on the serial’s cover sleeve, left) also relevant to the bigger picture?

These enigmatic details aside, the oddest aspect of Damage Control is the return of old foe Zeera Vos (Rebecca Crankshaw). Given the character had aligned herself with the President at the end of Crossfire, Zeera’s motivations for pursuing the Liberator seem inconsistent – leading to the suspicion that perhaps Baxendale’s original intention was to employ Servalan as the antagonist (which would make more sense in terms of motivation). Of course, Jacqueline Pearce, who passed away last September, was likely ill at the time of production, and Baxendale had to rewrite accordingly. Crankshaw nonetheless approaches the part with zest and the character’s trademark cynicism. Kudos also to Lock who convincingly plays a dying Mutoid pilot under Zeera’s command!

The Hunted, the second serial in the set, is a departure from regular B7 episodes – and one that, from a visual effects standpoint, could definitely have not been attempted on TV (at least not convincingly). That said, with Avon and Vila commandeering a ship from space pirates to run interference against The Lethal Shadow, the story has more of a “Series 4” feel to it (when the crew changed to the planet hopper Scorpio) than a “Series 3” instalment (this boxset is nominally set towards the end of the program’s third season).Blake's 7 - Restoration - Part 1 - The Hunted

Producer John Ainsworth states submarine dramas were the inspiration for The Hunted (an analogy that is also described of the classic Star Trek episode Balance of Terror), although the general concept is also highly evocative of the classic asteroid sequence in The Empire Strikes Back (as Vila quips, Avon tries out the pirate ship’s weapons on some “innocent asteroids”!). The intrigue of the episode (like Balance of Terror) is the “cat and mouse” game played between the protagonists and antagonists – the Federation President and his deputy General Mordekain (John Green) – who don’t physically interact but nevertheless attempt to out-think and outflank each other.

The President’s motives in this episode are thought-provoking, especially in light of the overall title/theme of this boxset – Restoration. We assume the title mainly refers to our heroes’ efforts to resurrect the Liberator but it also could equally apply to the Federation itself, which – having been weakened by the destruction of Star One, the Intergalactic War and Crossfire’s galactic civil war in quick succession – is now in the process of reunification.

By the end of the original B7 TV series, the Federation seemed almost as strong as it had before Blake’s crusade began. The Restoration saga may well “fill in the dots” in explaining how the Federation was able to re-establish its influence in a short space of time (and certainly more quickly than Avon and his cohorts anticipated). Indeed, the answer may well lie in some important dialogue between the President and Mordekain late into the story …

The third serial Figurehead also delves into Federation politics, as Cally and Tarrant enter an uneasy alliance with Zeera (whose presence in this serial is justified, compared to Damage Control) to curb bloodshed and violence on a Federation colony that has been hijacked by extremist rebels. The Liberator crew wouldn’t normally bat an eyelid at such chaos, if it weren’t for the fact the rebels are seemingly being led by freedom fighter Avalon (Olivia Poulet), whom we first met in the TV episode Project Avalon in 1978 and revisited in the B7 40th anniversary set The Way Ahead last year. Needless to say, Avalon must be a totally inept rebel. To be caught, drugged and duplicated the first time around is plain unfortunate. To have it happen all over again is surely pure incompetence!

Blake's 7 - Restoration - Part 1 - FigureheadIt’s interesting to note from Ainsworth’s comments in the CD extras that originally Avalon’s part in the serial was proposed for Blake, although that idea was abandoned because it would have been difficult to convey the character without any dialogue. Nevertheless, it would have been a bolder move than bringing back the uninspiring Avalon. Yes, Gareth Thomas is no longer alive, but Pacey proved in the final Crossfire set that he wasn’t above channelling his inner “Blake” – either he or even comedian Jon Culshaw would have been excellent choices to do a light impersonation that would have not been disrespectful to the deceased Thomas or the part of Blake.

In a case of revisionist history, the story also implies (in what is obviously one of the elements that wasn’t omitted from the original proposal) that Blake was captured by the Federation in his first stint as Freedom Party leader on Earth because he fell in love with an undercover Federation agent. While this seems consistent with the Federation’s motives for identifying and eliminating possible troublemakers (after all, Avon was similarly duped), it is an obscure factoid that would have best been omitted from a tale which even some of the actors admit they had a hard time understanding. It’s hard to pinpoint if the agent specifically mentioned by name was meant to appear in the story (if Blake had featured) or may appear later in the Restoration saga. It’s also unclear if there is further mileage in the Federation’s elite Infiltration Elimination unit whose members are such masters of disguise it seems they can be physically modified to resemble trusted allies. Scott Harrison’s script offers up some interesting ideas but fails to be an engaging and provocative storyline.

Conversely, the final instalment Abandon Ship is an outstanding script by Steve Lyons. Unlike Figurehead, which is a “by the numbers” piece, Abandon Ship truly does something bold, astonishing and ingenious with one of the Liberator crew (no spoilers). Indeed, perhaps the title of the serial really should have been “Survival Imperative”, as the Liberator crew learn that the ship has apparently only sufficient power left to sustain three crew members; two of the others will have to leave. As a result, the characters question their places aboard the Liberator and contemplate possible futures without it. Only Cally maintains the faith, not only because she is an optimist by nature but because she regards the crew as the closest thing she has to a family after the destruction of Auron.Blake's 7 - Restoration - Part 1 - Abandon Ship

Lyon’s tightly plotted script works well precisely because it is mostly set aboard the Liberator and focuses on the six principal cast members (including Orac). He perfectly captures the tension and the dry humour that would resonate amongst characters that are stranded in their situation. My only criticism about Abandon Ship is Avon’s motivations towards the end of the script. Having been supplied with all the data and stimuli he needs to make an informed decision, his subsequent course of action is quite bewildering. It’s not out of character for Avon to look after his own self-preservation but given there is still a high probability of survival, not to mention keeping the ship and the band together (so to speak), what he does next seems counter-productive to his own well- being!

Restoration is a solid return for the B7 audio series after an extended break (we had to wait eight months between Crossfire Part 3 and Restoration Part 1). While the stories in this set have not necessarily been as well written or as memorable as some of the instalments in the Crossfire saga (the standout is Abandon Ship), there is a sense of a gradual build-up and a long-term strategy. Big Finish’s production values remain virtually flawless, and the well written, snappy dialogue between the regular cast is wonderfully performed by the artistes, particularly the veterans of the original TV series. The exchanges between the Liberator’s crew members, particularly Avon and Vila, always make for entertaining listening!

The boxset concludes with another hint that the so-called ‘restoration’ of the title may be that of an old foe that will threaten not just the Liberator crew but the Federation as well. As the Liberator heads out into the unknown regions of the galaxy, it can only be a matter of time before the ship, with its crew of wayward rebels, meets its maker …





Star Trek: Prometheus - In the Heart of Chaos (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 16 January 2019 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
Star Trek: Prometheus - In the Heart of Chaos (Credit: Big Finish)

Written By: Bernd Perplies & Christian Humberg

Read by Alec Newman

Released by Big Finish December 2018

Star Trek Prometheus is an ultimately fruitless endeavour.  I felt the first book focused way too much time and attention in back references and a tedious amount of attention to details I felt were unimportant.  The second book won me over, it felt like it had a real story after all, and that the first books overlong set up and an endless parade of references and past characters were just a fluke. But here we are at the end...and a new parade of references and past characters get trotted out as well.  Any interesting story there was feels relegated to the last few chapters, giving us a decent conclusion, but not one worth wading through all the garbage to get to it.

When you spend an entire chapter devoted to the disgraced engineer from a first season episode of The Next Generation, and just when you can't be bored enough with that Wesley Crusher shows up out of thin air to once more play the role and savior of the day by providing the answers we need just in the nick of time...you know you've got major problems. It is distracting to get a recap of a random episode of TNG from 30 years ago.  It is distracting from the actual story of the book and feels like a lazy way to find an answer to a problem. 

This book meanders for far too long, with our main characters seemingly doing very little to affect the story for many chapters, and then the answer is suddenly dropped in their lap by a forgotten engineer and an ethereal Wesley Crusher.  It's weird.  You also get the Chief Engineer Jenna Kirk musing about her ancestor and how he would deal with these situations...and it just made me actually yell at an audiobook and say "give me a break and move on!"  There was no reason for this character to be related to James T. Kirk other than hoping we will applaud them for making pointless continuity connections.  

In the end, I think Prometheus needed to be cut down from three books to just one. They needed trimming, a LOT of trimming.  You could easily take the basic set up in the first book, make it into a prologue and a couple of chapters, then use the bulk of the second book's development, and then cut out all the wasted time and fat in this final book and conclude it.  It didn't need to drag on and on for three full novels when they clearly had a story for one.

I was initially excited by the idea of Big Finish tackling some Star Trek.  But I'm not sure that it works.  Big Finish is best when they have a property being written and produced by big fans of said property. Their Doctor who work is amazing because the company was literally founded with the goal of getting that license.  I think this was less of a goal and more of happenstance.  They managed to get the license to produce basic audiobooks of a trilogy of Trek books, which were originally written in German by a European Publisher.  These books seem like a bit of an oddity in Trek novels.  Their rights were held by someone other than the usual US Publisher.  And the fact that the audiobooks feature the occasional weird pronunciations of standard Trek iconography, just makes me think the franchise doesn't quite fit into Big Finish's wheelhouse. 

While the final chapters give a decent wrap up to the trilogy, the rest of the book just feels like it is wasting time to get to those final chapters. I can't really recommend this book or this series in the end.





The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 7 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 4 September 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 7 (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by: Ian Potter, Tom Mallaburn, John Dorney
From Scripts by: Terence Feely, John Lucarotti, Lester Powell
Directed by: Ken Bentley
Starring:
Anthony Howell (Dr Keel), Julian Wadham (John Steed), Lucy Briggs-Owen (Carol Wilson), Ramon Tikaram (Saunders), Karina Fernandez (Dr Ampara Alvarez Sandoval),Bettrys Jones (Barbara Anthony), Dan Starkey (One-Ten)
Music by: Toby Hrycek-Robinson
Cover by: Anthony Lamb
Duration: 180' approx
Originally Released January 2017

The trio of stories in the final instalment of Steed and Keel’s adventures are slightly odd choices for such a finale. Many episodes along the way have sidelined one or the other into mere cameos in the other’s story, but here we get an adventure for Steed in which Keel does not appear at all, a completely Steedless outing for Dr. Keel, and only one final team up for our heroes in the very last episode.

 

Dragonsfield

Operating completely solo, without any sidekick whatsoever (not even a one off substitute such as Carlos in Crescent Moon) casts Steed in a surprisingly different light. As does the complete absence of any kind of cover story or clever ruse. The Dragonfield facility- an underground warren of corridors and laboratories – is experiencing unusual problems that smack of sabotage while mysterious coded radio messages from “Zeus” to “Europa” are being intercepted in the area. And Steed is dispatched by his shadowy Department, quite simply and matter of factly, to end the problem by any means necessary.

And them, of course, the murders begin.

It’s fascinating to see an edgier Steed, less full of bonhomie. Presumably it’s the result of not having a partner to show off for, but the net result is that we can believe in Steed as the kind of man who’s done the messy, knuckle bruising work required in his line of work.

There’s a sequence near the end where Steed is threatening the revealed villain of the piece with having his hand pulped beneath a giant cog of machinery unless he gets the information he needs to complete his mission. With Keel at his side, you’d never doubt it was a bluff. Without him, it feels much less certain. The script certainly refuses to give us any such playful moment of relief from the question.

Originally Dragonsfield aired on television as the final episode of series one, so might be seen as a testbed for how well a Keelless second series might work. Instead it shows the importance of that plural “Avengers” mandating a succession of equal partners for him.  Dragonsfield gives us a window into an alternate show simply called “Steed,”and for all its finely tuned mystery and well thought out action, it’s a world better glimpsed than lived in.

 

The Far Distant Dead

The Far Distant Dead, meanwhile, gives us Dr. Keel without his Steed and the result is no less curiously atypical. For one thing, it must have the expansive timeframe of any Avengers episode ever. Over the course of the story Keel founds, builds and fully staffs and equips an entire hospital! He gets into this during what was supposed to be a short holiday to Mexico but when the country is devastated by the second hurricane in as many years he feels obligated and help (well, pretty much take over, in fact) relief efforts in the worst part of the country.

The use of Mexico like this is a distinctly unAvengerish touch. No matter how paper thin the disguise, every vast Eastern European superpower, Western African former British colony, and Caribbean island sidestepped any accusation of direct political commentary or insulting any real nation’s pride by populating it with corrupt Presidents or maniacal death cults. So the choice to depict Mexico, specifically and by name, as a country with only a handful of doctors and in desperate need of Dr.Keel to tell them how to go about their business is a curious one by original writer John Lucarotti.  Though it does form a strange sister episode to his Doctor Who story The Aztecs. But one in which the people of Mexico are rather more happy to accept the interference of the English do-gooder.

Of course, this is still The Avengers so it’s not long before Keel is distracted by a strange spate of apparent food poisonings adding to the country’s woes. Tracing it back to a batch of hydraulic fluid deliberately labelled as olive oil he’s soon punching his way through the chain of command of people responsible all the way to Paris.

As with Dragonsfield, it’s a curious insight into an alternate universe  - here one in which Steed hadn’t taken root in the show’s DNA. The main impression is that it would been devilishly difficult to keep finding ways for Keel to get into trouble every week. It does, however, get bonus points to be a rare Avengers story where there’s some actual Avenging going on.

 

The Deadly Air

Our very, very last story feels like a curiously random finale to end the run of twenty-six episodes on. It feels largely like another day at the office for our heroic duo. Steed is investigating sabotage and murder at yet another government facility. Keel is dragged in for his medical credentials – even though he quite sensibly spends the whole thing pointing out that being a GP in Chelsea has given him barely any more grounding in the science of virology and vaccine development than Steed has. The mystery aspect is a little weak this time – even Steed wistfully admits when unmasking the killer that, after all, all the other suspects had been successfully bumped off by that point, leaving only one solution left.

On television of course, Keel’s last on screen appearance was even more random – the banana insurance scam comedy episode A Change of Bait (presented by Big Finish in Volume 4 of their reconstructions). Thereafter, he simply disappears from the show without fanfare. But as Big Finish have already shown the willingness to rejig the running order, there are more appropriate episodes they could have ended on. Toy Trap, for instance, with its fierce climax of Steed and Keel coming to blows as the latter threatens to quit their friendship in protest at Steed’s sometimes callous approach to collateral damage. Or Kill the King, with its coda of an unusually reflective Steed pondering whether this lifestyle is actually good for Keel and whether the good doctor mightn’t be living a happier life, more able to move on from his fiancee’s death, if Steed stopped calling on him.

Instead, The Deadly Air does its best to cap the series with a plot in which Steed comes rather closer to dying than it usual even for him, leading him to as impassioned a confession of his high regard for Keel and the value he’s placed on their friendship, as he can manage through his stiff upper lip. And a final scene, surely more inspired by Doctor Who’s Survival than anything in The Avengers canon, where Steed and Keel walk off into the sunset, the secret agent twirling his brolly and declaring that there’s still a whole world of mad scientists, enemy agents, and criminal conspirators out there for them to outwit.

“Dr. Keel… We’re needed!”





The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 6 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 24 August 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 6 (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by: Berkley Mather, Ian Potter, John Dorney
Adapted by: Rae Leaver
Based on storylines by: James Mitchell and John Kruse
Directed by: Ken Bentley
Starring:
Anthony Howell (Dr Keel), Julian Wadham (John Steed), Lucy Briggs-Owen (Carol Wilson), Michael Lumsden (The Deacon),John Culshaw (Sir William Bonner),Dan Starkey (One-Ten), Pete Colins (Harry Black)
Music by: Toby Hrycek-Robinson
Cover Art by: Anthony Lamb
Duration: 180' approx
Originally Released July 2016

Big Finish’s exploration deep into the darkest heart of the missing Avengers episodes was always going to be a finite journey. There are, after all, only so many adventures for Steed and Keel to reconstruct.  And so this penultimate boxset sees the usual number of instalments reduced from four to three.

As with Volume Five, we’re also exploring some of the most missing of episodes where only a couple of typed pages of outline – of the type Terry Nation might have delivered to Dennis Spooner’s doorstep before vanishing into the night in his sports car – survive. And ironically this again creates a consistency and characterization the more complete episodes sometimes lacked. It was an inevitable reality of sixties television production that many writers would only have seen a handful of episodes of the show they’d been commissioned for. The difference in having a Steed and Keel crafted by people who’d followed this endeavour all the way through is notable.

 

The Frighteners

One of the key problems in any crime-of-the-week drama is the insertion of the regulars into the case. Some shows make this straightforward by having their leads be police detectives simply assigned to the investigation. Others almost made such a feature of the improbability that, Murder She Wrote style, audiences began to wonder if the lead was actually a serial killer and each episode a meticulous frame job. The Avengers has pinged back and forth from Steed recruiting Keel to help with a mission of national security that he’s been assigned, and Keel begging a return favour from Steed to help some patient or friend in need.

Of the former, The Frighteners is a bit of an oddity. It never quite convinces that “the Department” that Steed works for would trouble itself with a ‘frighteners service’ – a criminal enterprise renting out experts in intimidation and warning beatings. In fact, this particular case of a millionaire attempting to have a lothario gold digger warned off his daughter seems like something Steed would firmly file under “Not My Problem.” It may have worked better with the beaten lothario one of Chelsea doctor Keel’s patients and Steed dragged in that way.

It is, however, wonderfully daft. One of the frighteners gets his neck broken in a fight with Keel and Steed and is then extorted into helping them – led around town as their informant on the threat that they otherwise won’t bring him to the hospital to get his broken neck fixed before his spinal column gets cut by the jagged bone.  And the final resolution is so completely left field that adapter Rae Leaver suggests that it’s the result of someone fluffing their line in the original television recording and then the entire case winging an entirely new ending off the top of their heads.

 

Death on the Slipway

Our second case in this boxset is much more up Steed’s alley. A shipping yard responsible for construction of the Royal Navy’s latest experimental nuclear submarine is suspected of being targeted by the usual Unnamed Eastern European Foreign Superpower. Steed’s assigned to keep an eye on things, undercover as an metallurgist from the Admirality but immediately finds himself helping the police investigate a suspicious death. Very few Avengers stories are whodunnits but present themselves as games of cat and mouse between our heroes and their targets and this is no exception. But it’s an exceptionally satisfying one as we follow the two strands in parallel – Steed following the clues to identify the mole at work on the site, and the foreign agent trying to evade him and his increasingly fraught relationship with the British asset he’s blackmailed into helping him. Steed may be approaching Peak Flirt in these scripts but there’s rarely been the sense of danger and high stakes as is to be found here.

 

Tunnel of Fear

It’s hard to identify exactly what makes Tunnel of Fear so relatively forgettable for an Avengers episode. Whatever the reasons, the end result is a rather by-the-numbers story. It does stand out in featuring one of Steed’s other assets – a wrongly convicted man whom Steed has gotten out of prison in return for infiltrating criminal gangs for him. It’s a wonder Keel isn’t jealous as that’s usually the sort of work he gets landed with. The use of hypnotism feels very weak though, even if it gives Julian Wadham the opportunity to have fun playing Steed’s complete refusal to be hypnotized.

One unique point of interest, though, is that since this audio was released the original TV episode has actually been found. Allowing us a unique opportunity to compare and contrast the story John Dorney had to write almost from scratch to the actual end result.

 

A slimmer volume than most, The Avengers Lost Episode Volume 6 still contains enough drama, action and wit to satisfy any fan of our heroes. With Tunnel of Fear it also provides that rare opportunity for fans to get an insight into how close to the 'real thing' the other reconstructed scripts may have come. That alone makes it an essential purpose for the most devoted.

 





Star Trek Prometheus - The Root of All Rage (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 19 August 2018 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
Star Trek Prometheus - 2: The Root Of All Rage (Credit: Big Finish)

Written By: Bernd Perplies & Christian Humberg

Read by Alec Newman

Released by Big Finish July 2018

I had been pretty disappointed in the first Star Trek Prometheus audiobook, Fire With Fire.  It felt like a lot of wasted time before finally starting to get into an interesting story and mystery...and then it just ends and leaves you waiting for the next book.  So I went into The Root of All Rage expecting it to be more continuity and back references, and a real lack of anything fresh...but luckily, that nugget of mystery and story prevailed, and this second entry in the Prometheus tale builds wonderfully, and actually becomes a fresh new story.  And though it still doesn't have a complete ending, the cliffhanging tease in this story is more satisfying than the end of the first book had been.

While the references and returning characters from Trek lore aren't completely missing, they aren't as overwhelming as they had been in that first book.  Sure, Lwaxana Troi and Picard make an appearance in this one, and there are references to past episodes and characters, but the actual story of the Prometheus and the new characters are all expanded on in far greater detail.  The mystery of what is going on in this region of space and why the once peaceful race has turned to fanatical terrorism begins to unravel...and I found myself far more engrossed in the story this time.

I will admit I was a tad disappointed that the big reveal that the being that may be causing all the havoc might be a reference to a single episode of the Original Series...but they left it open enough and added a more interesting major detail that left me quite interested to see it all end.

This second book turned me around on the series.  The first book spent too much time showing off it's Trek history knowledge, but this one spends that same time building it's own characters and story.  Instead of referencing other Trek works, it adds to the vast Trek lore.  And that is a good thing.There are still some issues. I still don't think this series is accessible to newcomers.  If they could skip all the reference garbage from the first book and pair it down, then launch into the story of the second book, it might actually work as a fun new jumping on point.

Beyond that there is still the issue of Star Trek phrases being mispronounced, which is not terrible, but it does leave the audiobook feeling like slightly less Big Finish love was poured into it than some of their other ranges.  Still…story-wise this is a vast improvement on the first book, and I am actually quite interested to hear the conclusion in December.  It may not be great for newcomers, and big Trek fans may be annoyed with some of the mangled Trek words, but there is a good story at the heart of this book.