Survivors: Series TwoBookmark and Share

Thursday, 23 July 2015 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
Survivors: Series Two (Credit: Big Finish)
Survivors: Series Two
Written by Ken Bentley, Louise Jameson, and Matt Fitton
Directed by Ken Bentley
Starring: Lucy Fleming , Ian McCulloch, Carolyn Seymour, John Banks, Louise Jameson, Bernard Holley, Tim Treloar, Fiona Sheehan, and Tim Bentinck
Released by Big Finish Productions – June 2015
The second audio series based on Terry Nation’s original series first broadcast in 1975, picks up events immediately following on from the last episode of the first TV series and approximately five weeks after the climax of last year’s first audio series. The audio series runs concurrently with the TV version, successfully allowing original TV characters Greg and Jenny to interact with new characters such as Daniel and Jackie, whose stories are picked up for this second series which exploits the rather generous continuity gap between the end of the first TV series and the start of the second. With most of the first audio series having taken place in the London area, the second returns to the West Country roots of the TV series with stories set mostly in the West of England and Wales. This provides the arc of this boxset with a more satisfyingly contained feel and yet some of the remote locations come across as being very dangerous thanks to some excellent sound design. It is also pleasing that having had the first series written mostly by regular Big Finish contributors this series has allowed two new writers to contribute, which adds a fresh feeling to the proceedings.

The set opens with Dark Rain, the first of two contributions from regular director Ken Bentley, who has a clear grasp on the characters’ voices from having directed the previous series. This cleverly serves to set the scene as we are reintroduced to Daniel and Jackie, the two main protagonists introduced for the first audio series, both sympathetically portrayed by John Banks and Louise Jameson. Simultaneously this story returns to the Grange community of the TV series, bringing with it the proper reintroduction of Carolyn Seymour as Abby Grant, alongside fellow original series actors Ian McCulloch and Lucy Fleming as Greg and Jenny. Having only heard her fleetingly in the first audio series, it is great to have Abby return to a central role in the proceedings as her ongoing search for her missing son forms a crucial part of the arc of this second audio series. The culmination of the A and B plots bring all the regular characters together before sending them off to new adventures whilst also adding Tim Treloar as Russell into the mix.

The second story, Mother’s Courage, features an all-female cast as Abby, Jenny and Jackie continue the journey to look for Peter and find themselves at an all-women community with extremely hostile views about men. They are joined on their way by another new regular, Molly, played very sympathetically by Fiona Sheehan. Sheehan makes a powerful impression in this and the subsequent episodes and will hopefully return although apparently not in series three. This unique episode is extremely well written by Louise Jameson, and provides an opportunity to delve deeper into the views and attitudes of the women survivors.

As a direct contrast, Ken Bentley’s second offering, The Hunted, features the male characters, who are joined by Big Finish and The Archers regular Tim Bentinck as survival expert Irvin Warner. This story really pushes the boundaries of how dark this series is capable of being with some scenes particularly towards the conclusion which are all the more distressing for being on audio. There are also some more pleasant surprises including a very touching scene, played with great sensitivity by John Banks and Tim Treloar.

The scene is neatly set for the finale, Savages by Matt Fitton, which brings together perfectly all the strands from the mini-arc that has run through this boxset. Without wanting to give too much away a special mention must go to Bernard Holley for his key role in the proceedings.

Survivors returns with a third audio series in November, with two further series already confirmed for 2016. On such strong form as this, long may it continue.





Blake's 7 - The Classic Audio Adventures: Vol 1.1 – FracturesBookmark and Share

Saturday, 1 March 2014 - Reviewed by Damian Christie

Blake's 7 - The Classic Audio Adventures: Vol 1.1 - Fractures
Writer: Justin Richards
Director: Ken Bentley
Producer: Big Finish
Released: January 2014
"Five! Did he say five? Five! That's the whole of my left hand! One, two, three, four, five!"

Vila Restal babbles - Blake's 7: Fractures

Regardless of what your favourite TV programme is - eg, Doctor Who, Arrow, Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead - you know that each new season opens with all barrels blazing from the get-go. It's a time-honoured tactic among TV series that's vital to rebuilding the audience after months off-screen. Once the viewers are hooked, the TV programme can afford to be more experimental with later episodes, slowing down the pace, injecting romance or contemplation, or creating an atmosphere of the claustrophobic or psychological. 2012's Asylum of the Daleks, for example, was Doctor Who's answer to delivering a season-opener with impact; it would have been a risk to have started with The Power of Three.

Even Big Finish is no stranger to this philosophy, as it's shown time and again with many of its mini-trilogies of Doctor Who tales with specific Doctor/companion combinations. So it's surprising that for its first full season of eight full-cast Blake's 7 audio dramas, it has opted for something more like a "mid-season" episode than an adrenaline-fuelled, fist-pumping opener.

Fractures, written by veteran Doctor Who and B7 scribe Justin Richards, marks (in the author's own words) the start of the "extension" to the second season of the Blake's 7 TV series (first broadcast in 1979). Unfortunately, he also seems to have treated this "season within a season" approach too literally. Richards has delivered a story that perhaps could plausibly have been a mid-season episode in B7's second series - but it certainly isn't a story that (to this B7 fan's mind) would have been a worthy one even if it had been produced for the TV series back in the day, and certainly not as a curtain-raiser.

The story starts with an exciting prologue that puts Blake (Gareth Thomas) and the Liberator crew in a stand-off with five Federation pursuit ships commandeered by Space Commander Travis (Brian Croucher). It's the kind of pulsating confrontation that you would expect of a new series-opener and brings back fond memories of early B7 episodes such as Duel that saw a similar confrontation on-screen (albeit with Travis being played by Stephen Greif). In yet another nod to the TV series, the preface even ends with Travis repeating his vow to hunt down Blake to the very end (Croucher recites a speech made more famous by Greif in the character's first episode Seek Locate Destroy).

To escape Travis's grasp, the Liberator retreats to a region of space that is off limits to Federation ships and littered with derelict spacecraft. It is from this point that the proper story begins. The Liberator is suddenly struck by what appears to be a systems crash and members of the crew are inevitably separated and trapped in different sections of the ship. It soon becomes clear that the Liberator has been incapacitated and that one of the crew may be responsible.

In the events that follow, Richards aspires to create a tense psychological mystery. This is achieved through ongoing dialogue between the regular cast members (and no other guest stars) to create suspicion and suspense. Richards has always been adept at making sound an important narrative device in his audio stories (his early Doctor Who serial Whispers of Terror is a great example) and with Fractures he makes the immediacy of the aural experience - with the characters talking to each other across the Liberator's communications channel - critical to the story. Although it becomes patently obvious the longer the story goes on that the Liberator crew are being manipulated, the cast all deliver believable and occasionally intense performances. Furthermore, the actors reprise their roles again as effortlessly as if they've never left them. Thomas is steadfast as Blake, Sally Knyvette cool and calm as Jenna, Jan Chappell inquisitive as Cally, Paul Darrow sardonic and dry as Avon and Michael Keating's Vila as nervously comical as ever.

Unfortunately, the central premise and climax of the story is as clichéd as some of B7's least popular episodes. As a TV series, B7 is most fondly remembered for its epic political and dystopian commentary on the future, not for its occasional and less successful forays into pure or hard science fiction. Fractures unfortunately belongs to the latter, although it would be grossly unfair to say it is as diabolical as The Web, Trial, Sarcophagus or Ultraworld - TV episodes that were endlessly derided by fans for being poorly written and unsuccessfully realised on screen. Nevertheless, the threat in this serial proves to be very generic and rather unimaginative and could belong just as easily in a Doctor Who serial or a Star Trek episode as a B7 one.

The serial ends with the Liberator crew learning information that has ramifications for the next seven instalments of this audio series. To me, this reinforces why Fractures is a weak and disappointing start to what may otherwise be an enthralling and tense saga. Perhaps this episode should have appeared in the middle of this run - certainly, if it had been part of B7's original television run, it would have been a mid-season episode and a forgettable one at that, with little relevance to the overall story arc. Let's hope the next instalment - the dramatic-sounding Battleground – is a major improvement.




The Liberator Chronicles Vol 6 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 24 December 2013 - Reviewed by Damian Christie

Blake’s 7: The Liberator Chronicles, Vol 6
Produced by Big Finish
Written by Peter Anghelides, Steve Lyons, Mark Wright & Cavan Scott
Directed by Ken Bentley
Released: October 2013

... Because that’s how we measure success isn’t it? People like us! By how long we can get away with it! You’re about to learn the same lesson I did ... It doesn’t matter how successful you once were ... Not once it’s over!
Jenna Stannis

It's well over 30 years since the TV series ended and to this day Blake’s 7 fans have debated what happened to the titular character between the second season finale Star One and the program finale Blake. Many theories have been championed in fanzines and unofficial audio adaptations over the decades – and now Big Finish, with an authorised licence to produce B7 adventures, has offered its own take on Blake and Jenna’s whereabouts in the third and fourth series. It also surmises why Avon was in no rush to welcome them back to the bridge of the Liberator.

Long-term fans’ questions about what immediately happened after Star One were partly answered earlier this year in the brilliant full cast release Warship. The sixth volume of B7: The Liberator Chronicles offers us more answers about what may have happened after Warship – and also tantalisingly throws up some questions which challenge our memories of established history. Could Avon and Tarrant have found Jenna and Blake long before the program’s finale? Contrary to what Blake says in the final episode, could Jenna have survived the blockade above Gauda Prime? And did Avon meet with Blake at some other unspecified point in the program’s final season?

All these answers and questions are considered in a trilogy of episodes - Incentive, Jenna’s Story and Blake’s Story – which, in the spirit of earlier Liberator Chronicles, are told from the perspective of at least one protagonist. Incentive cleverly sets up an interrogation of Avon (Paul Darrow) and Tarrant (Stephen Pacey, reprising his role for the first time in a Big Finish B7 adventure) by Federation psychostrategist Bracheeni (Adrian Lukis). Jenna’s Story sees the woman of the hour (Sally Knyvette) seemingly under siege and playing nursemaid to an injured rebel leader Correl (John Banks). And Blake’s Story sets up an unexpected fireside chat between Blake (Gareth Thomas) and Avon.

As is the standard that we’ve come to expect of Big Finish, all three episodes are thoroughly written, convincingly performed and supported by excellent sound effects and incidental music. Incentive is the best of the three episodes and feels the most as if it is happening in “real time”, ie with little expository narrative (although the middle of the story is told in flashback by Avon and Tarrant). Jenna’s Story and Blake’s Story involve more exposition and flashbacks but are less formulaic and more experimental than Incentive which is the closest in structure to a regular B7 episode in the program’s third season.

What is most interesting about the Jenna and Blake instalments is the traumatic journeys, trials and eventual transformations that their characters undergo upon leaving the Liberator. Jenna witnesses the brutal, dehumanising and unjust treatment of refugees by the Federation (a scenario not unlike the way some Western nations treat asylum seekers!) while Blake is again duped by the Federation in a manner reminiscent of his original treatment before the events of the first episode The Way Back. These two instalments emotively reinforce the broad power of the Federation against the fractured cause that Blake and Jenna represent. Blake’s 7 is not and never was Star Wars – the rebellion of the B7 universe lacks unity, purpose, resources and manpower to seriously challenge the Federation. Indeed, it seems B7’s Federation is nowhere near as fragile as Star Wars’ Empire – it will take something extra special to topple the regime, which seems even beyond Blake and the Liberator crew.

Strong characterisation always underpins two- or three-hander plays such as these. The three episodes hold up a mirror to the established protagonists to show us previously unseen facets of their personalities. Bracheeni demonstrates that for all their bluster and bravado, Avon and Tarrant are more loyal and altruistic than they would have everyone believe. Similarly, we see whole new aspects to Jenna and Blake which were barely hinted at in the TV series. Jenna’s Story marks a 360-degree shift in the character who, like Avon, was a pragmatist at the start of the TV series. By the time of her story, Jenna has become as much of an idealist as Blake himself. By contrast, Blake has become more of the pragmatist that Jenna was.

Indeed, while quite dissimilar, the three episodes carry a common theme – that of characters aspiring to be like their heroes and role models but little realising that their perception of these champions rarely lives up to the reality. Bracheeni accuses Avon and Tarrant – “the leader and the pilot” – of needing to prove they are better than the “legendary” Blake and Jenna they begrudgingly admire. Similarly, Jenna holds Blake and the crew of the Liberator in such high esteem that she even tries to build a rebel team in the Liberator crew’s likeness. Ultimately her unshakeable faith and belief in Blake and his cause (little knowing that he has given up on it himself) seals her fate. In turn, Blake draws his strength from his own deep respect for Jenna and Avon – although the blind faith Blake and Avon have in one other proves to be the hallmark of their demise in the final TV episode. Inevitably, all the major characters draw inspiration from each other, even if they are loathe to admit that and even though their admiration of the others is more romanticised than real.

As can be expected, all of the performers in these plays are exceptionally good. Gareth Thomas and Paul Darrow are predictably solid as Blake and Avon respectively, and Stephen Pacey, most likely due to Peter Anghelides’ excellent writing and handle on the character, nails down Tarrant almost perfectly (something that could not be said when he last portrayed the character for BBC Radio in the 1990s, due to poorly written scripts and characterisation). Sally Knyvette again delivers the goods in her solo story. Warship marked something of a renaissance for Jenna and in Jenna’s Story Knyvette again relishes the opportunity to flesh out Jenna and show us just how independent, feisty and resourceful she is. In particular, it is generally assumed by fans that it was Blake’s idea to set up an army on Gauda Prime – writer Steve Lyons ingeniously turns this assumption on its head.

But the best performer of the trilogy is undoubtedly Adrian Lukis as the villainous Bracheeni, a man who proves to be a foil for Avon. Lukis’ voice is captivating and commanding from the outset, rivalling Darrow’s for charm and dry wit, and he conveys a character that is duly cunning and manipulative beneath a veil of humour and amicability. It is a great pity that Bracheeni does not survive the story. As a psychostrategist (similar to Carnell in the TV episode Weapon), Bracheeni would make a great recurring villain for the B7 audio series and partly atone for some of the naff villains that we had to suffer through in the third and fourth series of the TV show!

Volume 6 of The Liberator Chronicles offers an absorbing insight into the lives of the key characters in the B7 saga post-Star One and how they view each other and judge themselves. While the episodes may not completely answer fans’ questions about Blake and Jenna’s whereabouts in the third and fourth seasons or fill in the gaps completely (in fact there is a massive continuity blunder in Blake’s Story*!), they are entertaining and thought-provoking tales that enable us to crawl inside the characters’ heads and appreciate the joy, despair and anguish they feel. Of course, long-term fans will always prefer other versions of the B7 saga that have offered up explanations that are as valid and plausible as this volume (eg how Blake got his scar) but based on the quality of the writing and the performances, The Liberator Chronicles is the superior product. There is potential for Big Finish to continue investigating this hitherto unexplored era of the TV series in future instalments. Give us standalone adventures for Blake and Jenna rather than just the edited highlights, and if the writing and performances are as accomplished as they are in this trilogy, they will be eagerly anticipated by fans.

* Post-script - In Blake’s Story, Blake learns about the destruction of the Liberator before his death is faked by Bruler’s rebels on Jevron. However, in the TV episode Terminal, Servalan reveals to Avon that Blake is dead and she has already attended his funeral on Jevron. She then teleports to the Liberator and it is destroyed. Go figure!




Blake's 7: WarshipBookmark and Share

Monday, 22 April 2013 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Reviewed by Damian Christie

Written by Peter Anghelides
Directed by Ken Bentley
Big Finish Productions
Released: January 2013
Given that over the past 15 years, Big Finish Productions has acquired the rights to do audio spin-offs of a variety of cult SF and fantasy TV programmes – Doctor Who, The Tomorrow People, Robin Hood, Dark Shadows, Highlander, even Stargate SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis – it is a little surprising that it is only in the last year that the company has (finally) acquired the rights to Blake's 7.

Even then, the new adventures of Blake's crew have been largely limited to the first two volumes of The Liberator Chronicles, with some members of the original cast – Gareth Thomas (Blake), Paul Darrow (Avon), Michael Keating (Vila), Jan Chappell (Cally) and Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan) – performing two-hander narratives, either with each other or with another guest actor playing a completely new part. If long-suffering, diehard fans of the original series have wanted full-cast dramas with the Liberator crew (and not simply stories told by one of the crew), then they've had to console themselves with BF's supplementary range of B7 novels (The Forgotten and Archangel, to date).

In January, all that changed with the release of Warship, the first full-cast B7 audio released by Big Finish and the first story since the second series, in 1979, to feature members of the original cast (yes, if you want to be pedantic, there have been other full-cast audio iterations of B7 since the 1990s, produced by BBC Radio, Magic Bullet Productions and B7 Media respectively, but nonetheless, most of those productions could only muster some of the original cast or they recast the characters altogether).

All the aforementioned original actors return for Warship, along with Sally Knyvette reprising her role as feisty smuggler Jenna. Only sound guru Alistair Lock is the "odd one out", ably doubling as the voices of the Liberator's flight computer Zen and the supercilious computer Orac (parts originally played in the TV series by the late Peter Tuddenham; long-time fans of other B7 audio productions, though, will be aware that Lock also played Zen in the short-lived B7 Media audio revival a few years ago).

Warship is by far the best B7 audio that Big Finish has produced so far. As first-rate and as innovative as Big Finish is at doing two-hander plays, there is no substitute for a full-cast drama. Fuelled by one's own listening imagination, the solid writing by self-professed B7 fan Peter Anghelides, the zest of the original cast and Lock's sound design and incidental music (which recaptures the flavour of original composer Dudley Simpson), Warship is the closest thing we've had to a B7 TV episode in more than 30 years.

The "authenticity" of the story is further helped by its placement in the B7 canon. It neatly bridges the "gap", so to speak, between the second and third TV series. The second one ended on a cliffhanger, with the Liberator acting as the first line of defence against an extra-terrestrial invasion from outside Federation space. When the show resumed, the invasion had been repelled, the Federation had lost more than half of its forces in the war, and the Liberator crew was forced to temporarily abandon ship. Most importantly, the third series began with the loss of its titular character, with Blake going AWOL with little explanation (Thomas having departed the series) and Avon taking charge of the Liberator. Warship goes part of the way to explaining what happened in the interim.

To his credit, Anghelides doesn't just provide a filler between seasons. While it is a logical sequel or companion to second series finale Star One, he introduces enough new, fresh elements into the narrative to make it engaging and exciting while still keeping the writing tight. Warship has all the hallmarks of a studiobound B7 episode (the major setpiece being the Liberator itself), with the action played out mainly between the core characters. Anghelides, though, doesn't shy away from giving the story a celestial, expansive feel and his climax is of such Hollywood blockbuster-style proportions that it would have been well beyond the scope of a TV episode. (Well, the climax could – and probably would - have been attempted on TV but the result would have been decidedly shaky on a 1970s budget! Then again, I suspect even that may be a knowing wink on Anghelides' part!)

However, what makes Warship so successful is how much it feels like a B7 episode in its own right – and that would not have been possible without the inclusion of the original cast. Blake's 7 was so successful on TV because of its strong characterisation and ultimately it is the characters that bring the story to life.

It is a delight to hear all of the principal actors back in their roles and playing off each other. Anghelides can write all the clever one-liners he wants – but if Darrow and Keating, for example, aren't there to execute the delivery, then the battle is half-lost. This is something that is most noticeable in Big Finish's B7 novels – the wordplay between the characters is so flat in places that you realise just how integral the original actors are to making the lines sound right. Similarly, when B7 Media relaunched B7 a few years ago for audio with the characters recast, it was obvious – painfully so! – just how much the original actors had made the parts their own (for example, in the revamped version, Avon was portrayed by Colin Salmon, who did his best with that part but ultimately wasn't a patch on Darrow's acerbic wit).

The repartee between the characters in Warship is worthy of the original series, whether it be exchanges between Blake and Avon, Avon and Vila, Vila and Jenna, or even Cally and Servalan. Anghelides' dialogue, delivered perfectly by the cast, recaptures the dynamic of the original Liberator crew on TV. Although their voices may have become more seasoned with age, Thomas, Darrow, and Keating re-create their roles effortlessly and in turn reprise their on-screen chemistry – the Blake/Avon rivalry and the Avon/Vila double act – as if three decades have not elapsed at all. Even Cally and Jenna, who by the end of the second series had reverted to "housewife status" on the Liberator, get to say some of the best lines and earn their own slices of the action. In Warship, Knyvette and Chappell get the chance for redemption and take it with a vengeance (indeed, both actors discuss their relief at being given something positive to do in the supplementary documentary disc in this release). Although her part in the story is relatively minor, Pearce clearly relishes her lines as Servalan. Even in the face of mutually assured destruction, the listener is reminded of just how duplicitous and cunning Servalan was on TV. As mentioned earlier, Lock also does a creditable job as the ship's computers, recreating Orac's haughtiness - "Kindly do not interrupt while I am enumerating the possibilities!" – and Zen's bombastic, yet precise tones – "That information is not available."

Warship is a magnificent return to form for the Blake's 7 franchise; it has been well worth the wait after a couple of indifferent efforts on audio in a period spanning 17 years and some early workman-like efforts by Big Finish's Liberator Chronicles. Although Big Finish's immediate plans are to do a few more volumes of The Liberator Chronicles over the next 18 months, hopefully the positive reception that Warship has received since its release will convince BF that full-cast B7 audio dramas are the way of the future. There is really no reason why BF cannot follow its successful Doctor Who template of creating "event" box sets, such as the recent Dark Eyes and UNIT: Dominion. It's what the fans obviously want, but no doubt Cally's old Auron saying rings true here too: "Before you desire, you should deserve!" We'll obviously need to pledge our support with our purses first if we are to deserve at least one more full-cast narrative with the original B7 crew.







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