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 ...





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

Sunday, 4 March 2018 - Reviewed by Damian Christie

     

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

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

Hahaha! What lurid nonsense!

Kerr Avon, B7: The Way Ahead

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Blake's 7 - The Classic Audio Adventures: Vol 4.1: Crossfire - Part 1Bookmark and Share

Monday, 29 January 2018 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Blake's 7 - The Classic Audio Adventures: Vol 4.1: Crossfire - Part 1 (Credit: Big Finish Production, 2017)Written by Steve Lyons, Simon Clark,
Mark Wright and David Bryher
Directed by John Ainsworth and Nigel Fairs
Big Finish Productions, 2017
Stars: Paul Darrow (Kerr Avon),
Michael Keating (Vila), Jan Chappell (Cally),
Steven Pacey (Tarrant), Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan),
Yasmin Bannerman (Dayna), Alistair Lock (Zen/Orac),
Clare Vousden (Winterhaven), John Green (Mordekain),
Hugh Fraser (The President), Rebecca Grant (Gwen Parker), Walles Hamonde (Gunner Kalvert), Roger Parrott (Mavlek),
Becky Wright (Goddess/Distributor/Curator), Abi Harris (Alta-Six), David Warner (Tavac), Donovan Christian-Carey (Herrick), Rebecca Crankshaw (Zeera), Daniel Collard (Jallen)

“We have to tell the others! We need to be ready!”

“Ready for what?”

“Servalan will do anything to cling onto her throne. We need to be ready for war!”

Cally and Dayna, B7 - Crossfire: Fearless

 

 

Following the successful relaunch of Blake’s 7 on audio, with the excellent Spoils of War boxset, Big Finish wasted little time in late 2017 following it up with the first volume of Crossfire, part of a “season” of 12 new adventures across three boxsets. Unlike Spoils of War, which was an anthology of four tales loosely set throughout the third season of the original TV series, Crossfire is intended to fill the “gap” between that season’s penultimate episode Death-Watch and the climax Terminal. And if you think that that “gap” isn’t ripe for exploitation, well, as Avon (Paul Darrow) himself might say, “Oh, you’ll have to do better than that …”
Crossfire reveals that there is in fact quite a lot of fertile ground that can be covered, drawing not only on the rich content of the original TV series, but also from Big Finish’s own B7 output. The opening episode Paradise Lost sets the theme – and a very high bar – for this lot of tales and subsequent boxsets as an old adversary of the Liberator crew (played again with charisma and panache by Hugh Fraser) triumphantly returns. Newcomers to the B7 range of full cast audio adventures are recommended to listen to earlier instalments (notably the serials Mirror, Cold Fury, Caged and Devil’s Advocate, all available on download from the BF website for as little as £2.99) before they begin listening to this set, as they really establish the political state of play in the Terran Federation.
Paradise Lost is the strongest of this quartet of plays, even though it ceases to be a story in its own right half-way through and becomes the first chapter in an epic, broader political saga. Nevertheless, writer Steve Lyons sets up an air of mystery in the opening minutes and throughout the first half of the play. Vila (Michael Keating) and Cally (Jan Chappell), aided by a zealous Federation dissident Alana Winterhaven (Clare Vousden), materialise on the former tourism and entertainment spot of Erewhon (pronounced “air one”) in a bid to ambush President Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce) who appears (to all intents and purposes) to be on the planet.

However, as the crew’s investigation reveals, the true villain of the piece turns out to be someone quite different yet familiar and equally as dangerous. Avon is subsequently forced to be quite ruthless (in a manner reminiscent of TV episodes Rumours of Death and the finale Blake) to protect his crew and his ship as they are unwillingly dragged into an unstoppable tide of events.
Steve Lyons’ script is also a terrific ensemble piece, as it gives all the regular characters, including Tarrant (Steven Pacey) and Dayna (Yasmin Bannerman), plenty to do within the story, as well as some great dialogue. Dayna ends up having a great verbal stoush with the villain, while Tarrant is introduced to Mordekain (John Green), an embittered former Federation space colonel who bears many of the cybernetic hallmarks and scarred psyche of the late Space Commander Travis without being a complete carbon copy of that character (Lyons carefully foreshadows Mordekain’s introduction through an earlier aside to Travis between Avon and Vila).
Tarrant and Mordekain’s conversation about military honour and duty would be dull in the broader SF genre but, thanks to the high quality of the writing and the strength of Pacey’s and Green’s performances, it is entertaining and fascinating. It’s also undercut by moments of light humour; when Mordekain reveals that he has remotely deactivated a landmine that Tarrant has stepped on during their exchange, Tarrant mutters disappointedly: “Oh! Oh, well, you could have mentioned it sooner! I’ve got cramp in my foot now!”
It’s a little disappointing then, that with such a dramatic, momentous first episode, the rest of the plays in the boxset are largely removed from this story arc. That’s especially when the second entry in the boxset – True Believers – is arguably amongst the worst pieces of drivel to be produced under the B7 banner!

True Believers is notable for using a single member of the regular cast – Cally – in the narrative. Otherwise, it’s a totally forgettable experience. It’s another example of BF attempting to replicate B7’s habit (especially in the third series) of experimenting with more mystical, fantasy-driven episodes from SF and fantasy writers (eg Tanith Lee). Of course, the lesson that BF hasn’t learned from history is that such stories in B7 were ordinary instalments and are largely unpopular with the fanbase 40 years on. Worse, some episodes often tied in with Cally’s telepathy and mental abilities, creating a cliched, cringeworthy trope.
Simon Clark is a renowned SF and horror scribe who has received much acclaim for Night of the Triffids (the authorised sequel to John Wyndham’s original Day of the Triffids, which Clark and BF have also adapted for audio). However, drafting a talent like Clark to write a B7 script is no guarantee of quality. The script is universally awful and, worse, unashamedly pulls the “Cally card”, as our heroine, her mind under assault from a powerful entity, teleports alone to a desolate, former Federation colony, whose human inhabitants are besieged by a horde of the planet’s indigenous natives under the influence of a malign being. (Never mind that in the logic of the story, and the broader context of the TV series, no one aboard the Liberator would just let Cally go off on her own, especially if she was under mental duress.)
Cally befriends a self-appointed high priestess (Rebecca Grant) who claims she can commune with the local goddess, and a young militia man (Walles Hamonde) who is besotted with the priestess. They embark on a quest to the Singing Grave, an ancient monolith of the 2001: A Space Odyssey variety, which also appears to be the source of Cally’s distress (and the malign influence). It doesn’t help that the performances from the guest cast are variable (although Roger Parrot is good as agitator Mavlek), and that even Jan Chappell overacts throughout the play.
There is a line from Cally in the play – “My brain is scorched!” – that sums up perfectly just how painful True Believers is for the listener by its close! Paul Darrow would be especially grateful that his services were not required for this script.
Fortunately, the third and fourth instalments rescue this boxset from being a disaster. Resurgence is a terrific episode, and a great ensemble piece, while Fearless is a Vila-centric episode with a twist.
If Paradise Lost and True Believers respectively could be described as political drama and (bad) fantasy, then Resurgence is just good old-fashioned space opera. It is a sequel to B7 series two opener Redemption and features the “resurgence” of another old foe. While TV series creator Terry Nation would not have envisaged the underlying concept of Resurgence as worthy of further exploration, writer Mark Wright demonstrates in his play the wonderful potential the antagonist had to be a perennial “big bad” – in the spirit of Doctor Who’s Cybermen and Star Trek’s Borg. Wright himself argues in the CD extras that the way the adversary was dispatched in Redemption always seemed a little too easy and convenient (designed to meet the confines of a 50-minute TV episode), and that it makes sense for something of that adversary to survive, and to reassert itself.
Resurgence is, in many respects, a retread of events in Redemption. However, the fact it features the later Liberator crew headed by Avon, and not the original crew lead by Blake, means that characters like Dayna and Tarrant react quite differently and unexpectedly to a threat they are encountering for the first time, as opposed to Avon and Vila, whose familiarity breeds contempt and acquiescence (“Oh! That [spoiler]!” Vila exclaims upon realising the identity of their attacker). Indeed, it is Dayna’s own troubled psyche that proves pivotal in the climax …
The “big bad” is well represented by Abi Harris as Alta-Six, who captures the intonations of her predecessors on TV perfectly. She even develops a catch-cry – “All infarctions will be punished with extreme force!” – that is reminiscent of Cybermen and Borg alike (eg “Resistance is useless! You will be deleted!” or "Resistance is futile! You will be assimilated!”). By the end of this tale, the implication is that the “big bad” endures, despite all the damage wrought by the Liberator crew – and that there may still be remnants of its deep space fleet out there that could respond to its call …
The final instalment – Fearless – is a heist tale. Vila and Cally infiltrate a black market auction, managed by a former colleague of Vila’s – Zeera Vos (Rebecca Crankshaw) – on an abandoned Federation station that is orbiting an unstable neutron star. As if conning the con-artist won’t be enough of a challenge, it’s not long before the Liberator shipmates realise that the other prospective bidder is Servalan …
The biggest twist of this story, however, is with Vila. It would be a spoiler to give away how and why he undergoes such a dramatic change in personality, but gone is the cowardice, the caution and insecurity – the qualities that embody Vila’s fear, as he says early in the tale. Instead, the Vila that arrives with Cally on the space station oozes confidence, arrogance, impatience, assertiveness and even a self-belief in his own animal magnetism! Not only does Vila attempt to make Zeera envious of his suddenly new-found charisma and wealth, he even passes off Cally as his girlfriend! And then in the climactic scenes with Servalan, he not only holds his own against her threats but startles her with some cheeky and suggestive retorts:


Servalan: “Stop talking Vila – right now, or I shall cut out that cowardly tongue of yours!”
Vila: “Oh, I can think of far more pleasing things you could do with my tongue!”
Zeera (in shock): “Vila!”
Servalan (equally as shocked): “I beg your pardon?”


It would have been all too easy for Michael Keating to really camp up his performance as this more brash, haughty and self-assured Vila but to his credit he doesn’t overplay it, particularly in the scenes with Servalan. He plays it straight and entirely convincingly. Strangely, in the CD extras, Keating isn’t even asked what he thinks of this new, super-improved portrayal of his character – which is extremely odd by the BF production team!
As a contrast to Vila, the only “cowardly cutlet” in sight is Zeera’s partner in crime Tano Herrick (Donovan Christian-Carey), a former technician who is on the Federation’s “wanted list” for desertion. His reaction when he realises that one of the bidders is none other than the Federation’s President/Supreme Commander/Empress is to panic:


Herrick: “Why didn’t you tell me about Servalan?”
Zeera (dismissively): “I didn’t think it mattered!”
Herrick: “It’s Servalan – (high pitched whine) Servalan!”
[And later] “Yet … (with even more hysteria) She’s Servalan!”

Ultimately, Herrick’s own fright and dread get the better of him, although if the Vila we’re most familiar with was in the same situation, he would be savvy enough not to panic quite so easily and endanger the lives of so many others in the bargain. It no doubt galls another sidekick – Servalan’s accompanying officer Jallen (Daniel Collard) – that he is the victim of such errant stupidity. As a hardened soldier, he remains loyal to his President and is withering of the Liberator crew, even as Cally shows the utmost compassion to try to save his life.
The only disappointment with Fearless is that for a hustle/heist story, the twist is so mundane as to not count as one. The joy of heist-themed tales is seeing how the major characters end up being heroes or victims of their ploys. In the 1981 B7 TV episode Gold, the twist is that the prize becomes worthless because the Federation changes the goalposts on the protagonists. In Fearless, the prize similarly proves a sham – except the protagonists are completely unaware of that as they flee before the big revelation. Only Servalan learns the truth and by that time she has abandoned her hopes of attaining the elusive prize altogether – although in Zeera, she finds a kindred spirit (Zeera is every bit as nasty and ruthless as Servalan, if not as refined). With the closing minutes of Fearless tying back to Paradise Lost, it’s clear that a new partnership is forged … It will be fascinating to see where it goes and how the rivalry between Vila and Zeera is developed against the larger wartime backdrop.
In all, apart from the dire True Believers (which is best ignored by listeners altogether!), Crossfire – Part 1 is a good start to a loosely connected story arc that promises to shake up the stability of Servalan’s Federation while also testing the resolve of the Liberator’s rebels. Who do they back in the impending conflict? Can they step to one side and hope that the lesser of the two evils wins? Or will they have to make a stand when it’s crunch time? If the quality of Paradise Lost, Resurgence and Fearless is any guide, the rest of the Crossfire saga promises to be suspenseful, entertaining and exciting.





Blake's 7 - The Liberator Chronicles - Volume 11Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 2 September 2015 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Blake's 7 - The Liberator Chronicles - Vol 11Big Finish Productions, 2015
Written by Nigel Fairs,
Iain McLaughlin and Andrew Smith
Directed by Lisa Bowerman and Louise Jameson
Stars: Paul Darrow (Avon), Anthony Howe (Nyrron), Michael Keating (Vila), Samantha Beárt (Jance), Jan Chappell (Cally), John Leeson (Pasco), Louise Jameson (Lorana)
“I’m not a hero. I don’t try to brave – not like Blake. I just want to stay alive. Sometimes, things happen differently than you expect ...”

Vila Restal

Volume 11 of Blake’s 7 – The Liberator Chronicles – the most recent boxset of anthology tales featuring narration from some of the regular cast members from the original TV program – is an interesting juxtaposition of the old and the new. Big Finish has now built up enough of its own continuity within its B7 audio adventures and original novels to confidently expand on its own story threads as well as ideas originally featured on television.

As a result, two of the serials in this boxset are either loose sequels to earlier instalments in the Liberator Chronicles range or to an actual TV episode. Brother is a follow-up to two earlier audio-only instalments released in 2012, while Escape from Destiny is a sequel to Mission to Destiny, a TV episode from the first season of Blake’s 7 back in 1978. The middle instalment in this boxset – simply called Poison – has no links to other episodes in either the TV or audio series but is a solid tale in its own right.

Brother prominently features Big Finish aficionado Anthony Howe (whose work encompasses Doctor Who, Dorian Gray and The Avengers), reprising the role of Gustav Nyrron, who featured in previous Liberator Chronicles instalments Solitary and Wolf.  Nyrron became a “part-time” member of the Liberator crew after he was the sole survivor of a fire on a Federation colony world. Little did Nyrron know that not only was he actually a clone of a late, esteemed scientist from Cally’s home world of Auron, he had been conditioned to infiltrate and betray Blake and his crew. In Brother, Nyrron is determined to prove that he has broken free of Servalan’s programming and that he can fill the shoes vacated by his progenitor and even rekindle the relationship with the original man’s son. Indeed, Howe does an excellent job in his narration of expressing Nyrron’s pain, anguish and resolve in overcoming his conditioning while also conveying a strong sense of optimism, compassion, justice and dignity against a history of personal atrocities and tragedies.

Howe’s Nyrron is a marked contrast to the dour, pragmatic, cynical and calculating figure of Avon, again played effortlessly by veteran Paul Darrow. What is most interesting about this episode is that it gives Avon a back story which, while not necessarily contradicting what we know about him from the TV series, certainly will raise eyebrows amongst diehard B7 fans. Darrow is impressive in recounting flashbacks of a teenage Avon participating in the nefarious activities of a religious cult obsessed with eugenics. Indeed, Darrow is positively sinister whenever he doubles as Father Gallus, the evangelical leader of the One Pure Race Organisation, capturing the fervour and condemnation in the priest’s oratory against the impure when he addresses his flock. Darrow’s portrayal of Gallus is a highlight of the serial – and of the boxset.

In the second instalment Poison, the Liberator’s resident thief Vila (Michael Keating) goes undercover as a new recruit on a Federation ship purportedly delivering grain to an agrarian colony world. This proves to be a great solo episode for Vila as he behaves a bit like James Bond  – even down to adopting the dramatic sounding pseudonym of Keston Voss and even “getting the girl” – in the form of the ship’s communications officer Jance (Samantha Beárt), who has an agenda of her own.

Vila was never a romantic hero in the B7 TV series, although he certainly did not by any measure lack courage or affection (the 1980 TV episode City at the Edge of the World is a great showcase of what an unlikely romantic hero Vila is). Poison similarly gives Vila the opportunity to be heroic and romantic as he and Jance uncover a Federation conspiracy to steal and enslave a world’s whole mining population, and the payoff for Vila at the story’s climax is bittersweet.

The supporting artiste in this play, Samantha Beárt, is also excellent as Jance and, much like Nyrron in the Liberator Chronicles and Del Grant in the second series of BF’s B7 full cast audio adventures, Jance would make an excellent “part-time” member of the Liberator crew. Based on her performance in Poison, Beárt deserves another showing in a future B7 play or more. (Are you reading this, BF?)

The final instalment Escape from Destiny is the least impressive of the three serials. As mentioned above, this story is a sequel to a TV episode – but certainly not one that could be described as a true classic. In the original Mission to Destiny, the Liberator crew assisted a scientific expedition that was in a race against time to deliver an isotope to its home world Destiny that could solve the planet’s famine. Escape from Destiny explores what happens to the colony after the TV episode, as the Federation lands on its doorstep. However, while the stage is set for a cracking story, the format of the serial means that the final result is very dull.

I’ve complained in previous reviews of B7 and Doctor Who releases that that some full cast dramas should have been character-based Chronicles because they didn’t need full casts, eg the recent B7 audio Ghost Ship, which was Vila-centric and sparingly used the other members of the regular cast. The same argument applies in reverse for Escape from Destiny. With a larger than average number of participants in what is meant to be an intimate type of story with minimal cast, Andrew Smith’s script would surely have been better served as a full cast drama (albeit a lacklustre one!).There are four cast members in Escape from Destiny:  Keating, Jan Chappell (Cally) and Doctor Who alumni John Leeson (reprising his role as Pasco from Mission to Destiny) and Louise Jameson (as Pasco’s wife Lorana), which is surely more than overgenerous for a Liberator Chronicle. One can only assume Leeson’s casting is purely for the novelty factor (he reprises a one-off character he first played in 1978, and not a terribly interesting one at that; in fact his part as the camp Toise in 1979’s Gambit was much more entertaining!). Jameson’s role as Pasco’s insipid wife is also totally wasted on such an accomplished actor; she should have limited her role in this instalment to remaining behind the director’s microphone.

Keating and Chappell would surely have sufficed as the story’s narrators. Keating is serviceable, although after his heroic turn in Poison, Vila has returned to type and is a reluctant player in events. Jan Chappell is also engaging, both as Cally and as a narrator. However, in contrast to Darrow’s excellent portrayal of Father Gallus in Brother and even Keating’s passable interpretation of villainous Federation officer Dariel in this serial, Chappell’s turn as Varon, Destiny’s science minister, with a hammy Russian-style accent is dreadful. It does little to provide any credence to this villainous politician or indeed to the story as a whole.

While the climax to Escape from Destiny is typical of Blake’s 7 (ie good doesn’t always triumph over evil), the story also ends on a sickeningly optimistic note, courtesy of Pasco’s concluding sentiments. I fear this means that this particular story thread may not be over but if you were to ask me which of these three storylines deserve follow-up, then it most definitely isn’t the Destiny one. I’d much rather know what happens to Nyrron or Jance – with no offence intended to either Leeson or Jameson who can only work with the standard of material they are given.

Despite Brother and Poison being the highlights of this particular boxset, Volume 11 of The Liberator Chronicles is sadly well below par of some of the more recent B7 boxsets, including Volumes 8 and 9. Perhaps, coupled with the release of two micro-series of the full cast B7 audio adventures over an 18-month period, it simply has been too much for BF to maintain a high standard of writing and production. If so, then the eight-month gap between the release of Volumes 11 and 12 of The Liberator Chronicles could not be more timely. It hopefully has given the cast and crew time to recharge the batteries and return with more vigour as we draw ever closer to 2016.That’s not to say that this boxset is short of good ideas – it has some interesting concepts in parts, thanks mainly to the world-building undertaken by BF itself to the B7 continuity – but without a decent break, I fear The Liberator Chronicles may quickly run out of steam. That would be disappointing because whilst the old cast members are still willing, B7 fans definitely deserve more Blake’s 7.




Blake's 7 - Devil's Advocate/Truth and LiesBookmark and Share

Thursday, 28 May 2015 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Blake's 7 - Devil's Advocate (Credit: Big Finish) Written By: Steve Lyons and Justin Richards Directed By: Lisa Bowerman
Stars: Paul Darrow (Kerr Avon), Michael Keating (Vila Restal), Jan Chappell (Cally),Steven Pacey (Del Tarrant), Tom Chadbon (Del Grant), Alistair Lock (Zen/Orac), Hugh Fraser (The President), Simone Lahbib (Pelora), Nigel Carrington (Kramer), Beverly Hill (Karine Mellanby)
"A case of better the devil you know?"

Avon, Blake's 7: Devil's Advocate

In a behind the scenes interview for one of the latest Blake's 7 audio releases Devil's Advocate, Big Finish producer Cavan Scott remarks that there has been a conscious effort to steer away from plotlines this year that feature Federation-type politics. The thinking was that BF had already done numerous storylines of that ilk and the politics of the period in which this micro-season of B7 adventures is set (the third season of the original TV series) had itself moved on, following the events of the Intergalactic War at the end of series two.

Of course, what Scott forgets is that it was Federation machinations that made B7 such a memorable, provocative TV program in the first place. Unlike other TV series of its era, B7 was not afraid to tell hardcore SF/realpolitik morality tales which explored the main characters' heroism and flaws and the impact their exploits would have on the political system they were trying to overturn. Indeed, the TV series illustrated time and again that Blake's rebellion was not without real consequences. Not only did members of the Seven die throughout the life of the series, so did a number of other good people encountered along the way. And unlike many other SF and fantasy sagas since (which are notorious for resurrecting characters), there was no way back. B7 was almost the Game of Thrones of its time!

Therefore, the return to Federation-style machinations and politics in the final two instalments of this micro-season is a welcome development. Devil's Advocate and Truth and Lies round out and (for the most part) satisfactorily tie up the loose "Search for Dayna" story arc with antagonists and scenarios that encapsulate Federation politics. They are certainly an improvement on the more fantasy-driven middle chapters Mindset and Ghost Ship.

Devil's Advocate marks the return of the Federation's enigmatic yet debonair President (Hugh Fraser), who was last seen in the concluding two-parter to the preceding micro-season of B7 plays. Fraser's character was the stand-out adversary of those instalments, providing a calculating, composed counterpoint to B7's regular baddies in the ruthless yet impatient Servalan and the reckless, obtuse Travis. I expressed at the time my hope that the character would return for future instalments.

In the wake of the Intergalactic War, the still anonymous President (we still don't know his full identity) is now as much an outlaw as the Liberator crew members, but still retains hope that he will eventually re-seize power from Servalan. With the help of his assistant Pelora (Simone Lahbib), he reaches out to none other than Tarrant (Steven Pacey) for help in his quest to restore his power. So prompts a debate amongst the Liberator crew that can be traced back to the events of the previous micro-series finale Caged -  would Blake really have precipitated the collapse of the Federation if he had assassinated the President, or would he simply have opened the door for another tyrant to assume control (as Servalan inevitably did)? And should the Liberator crew under Avon's (Paul Darrow) leadership now entertain the moral dilemma of aligning themselves with one of the most abhorrent figures in the Federation in a bid to topple Servalan?

With the exception of Avon, whose mystique has gone largely untouched, this micro-series of B7 tales has focused on specific members of the crew, notably Cally (Jan Chappell) and Vila (Michael Keating). Devil's Advocate puts Tarrant in the limelight, providing us with a back story that was never hinted at on television.

When we first met Tarrant in the B7 episodes Aftermath and Powerplay in 1980, he was revealed to be a Federation space pilot who had turned to smuggling and was on the Federation's "most wanted" list. Devil's Advocate suggests an entirely different back story for Tarrant, which while not specifically contradictory or implausible, does seem somewhat contrived for the purpose of Steve Lyons' plot. As if Tarrant's former lover Pelora tracking him down on the Nebula Interplanetary Way Station isn't coincidence enough ...

Nevertheless, whether it's coincidence or contrivance, Steven Pacey delivers one of his finest performances as Tarrant as he takes on the "devil's advocate" role of the story, asserting that the Liberator crew has lost sight of its long term objective and should now embrace the chance "to build something rather than just tearing it down". Tarrant is at his most persuasive and idealistic but his flaws are all too evident - as Avon alludes, he is a romantic at heart, keen to play the hero and behave impulsively, particularly (as Vila points out) when a woman figures in the picture!

Pacey's performance is virtually rivalled by Tom Chadbon as Del Grant. While Tarrant argues the merits of aligning with the President, Chadbon delivers an impassioned, fanatical portrayal of Grant that is an impressive reversal on the character's more laidback, reasonable demeanour. Of course, just as Tarrant has his flaws, Grant's almost prove fatal, thanks to his over-zealous pursuit for justice and the grief and betrayal he harbours for the death of his sister (and Avon's lover) Anna. Grant has been underused in this micro-series to date and Chadbon, like Pacey, finally gets the opportunity to stand out.

Hugh Fraser, of course, again upstages all of the regular characters with an almost warm, amiable, charismatic and composed performance that hides the President's calculating, ruthless and paranoid side. Despite being deposed by Servalan, the character has lost none of his arrogance and ambition, and it is implied heavily by the conclusion of the story that his hubris may in fact lead to his downfall. Certainly, the character does not seem as omnipresent as hinted in last year's finale Caged (when it was revealed the President engaged clones to, as Cally alleges, do his dirty work). Of course, I suspect the President's fate is not that clear-cut and that we haven't seen the last of him ... And given how impressive Fraser has been in this part over the last two years, it would be a shame not to keep the character around.  

Blake's 7 - Truth and Lies (Credit: Big Finish)
Hubris is also the key tenet of the villain in the finale Truth and Lies. Nigel Carrington's Kramer is revealed to be one of the Federation's psychostrategists, modelled on a similar character played by Scott Fredericks in the 1979 B7 episode Weapon. Carrington also puts in a competent performance as the baddie, although the character is hardly as memorable as the President, Frederick's character Carnell or even Adrian Lukas' performance as another psychostrategist Bracheeni in the B7 Liberator Chronicle Incentive. Nevertheless, the reason for Kramer's failure is without doubt the highlight of the play and even if it doesn't have you laughing out loud (which can be rather embarrassing if you're listening to these audios in public!), it will certainly have you smiling or may be even wincing. At any rate, you won't be disappointed.

Kramer's incompetence, though, is unfortunately the only twist in a serial that provides a rather flat, predictable conclusion to the "Search for Dayna" storyline. Perhaps this is partly because the reason for Dayna Mellanby jumping ship and striking out on her own was hinted at as early as this micro-series' third instalment Mindset - that Dayna's mother Karine Melanby (Beverly Hill) had survived the massacre of her father's resistance movement. The President mischievously drops further hints in Devil's Advocate that he also knew Karine, implying that she is a Federation agent, but in the final wash-up, Karine's true nature proves to be a damp squib. Beverly Hill tries her best as Dayna's mother, delivering a compassionate, poignant portrayal, but ultimately her presence in the serial fails to give this second micro-series the memorable send-off that it needs. Indeed, Avon and Vila's closing remarks truly illustrate just how run of the mill Truth and Lies is as an episode.

I queried at the start of this micro-series how the writers were going to skirt around Dayna's absence, given the original actor Josette Simon is not interested in reprising the character. To his credit, Truth and Lies author Justin Richards provides a plausible enough scenario to set up Dayna's reunion with the Liberator crew but given this micro-series contains subtle hints for storylines that are likely to be explored in a third full cast audio series, it would seem to me inevitable that Dayna will have to be in that series and the character will have to be recast (on the strength of her performance as Dayna's mother, perhaps Hill deserves to play Karine's daughter!).

I must admit to also being disappointed with the under-utilisation of Tom Chadbon as Del Grant throughout this micro-series. With the exceptions of Truth and Lies and Fortuitas (which are very good ensemble pieces for the whole cast) and Devil's Advocate (where Chadbon gives his character some teeth), Grant has for the most part played second fiddle to the other TV series regulars. No doubt there are still further stories to be told about Grant's exploits on the Liberator before (in continuity with the TV series) the writers send him off to pasture. It can only be hoped the character is done some justice before that inevitable send-off occurs.

As all regular BF listeners would expect, the sound quality of these audios continues to be exceptional, feeding the imagination and provoking a larger than life visualisation of each serial, despite the relatively small ensemble cast (usually the seven regular characters plus two or three more guest stars). A special mention also goes to the director in BF regular Lisa Bowerman whose performance as the tannoy announcer on the Nebula transit station adds some black humour to some quite tense moments in the first half of Devil's Advocate. "In the event that weapons are discharged, please lie flat on the ground to ensure your personal safety!" Bowerman's tannoy announcer says when Federation troopers start indiscriminately firing on passengers!

Devil's Advocate is by far the best of the last two instalments and certainly the pick of this second micro-series of B7 plays. While this series as a whole has been enjoyable in parts, the first full cast audio series still remains the superior of the two. Despite Cavan Scott's reluctance to focus on Federation politics and hi-jinks, it is clear that the superior serials, in line with the original TV series that inspired them, are the ones steeped in space opera, not fantasy. The audio serials should stay true to their roots and it can be but hoped that in the next micro-series, we see not only more Federation machinations but also Jacqueline Pearce's triumphant return as Servalan as well. 




Blake's 7 - The Classic Audio Adventures: 2.3 Mindset/2.4 Ghost ShipBookmark and Share

Thursday, 16 April 2015 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Blake's 7: Mindset (Credit: Big Finish) Written by Jacqueline Rayner & Iain McLaughlin Directed by Lisa Bowerman Big Finish Productions, 2015 Blake's 7: Ghost Ship (Credit: Big Finish)
“When I first met Vila, he said he planned to live forever ...”

“I believe his precise words were that he planned to live forever or die trying! Let us hope he hasn’t tried too hard!”

Cally and Avon, Blake's 7: Mindset  

As the Liberator crew continue their search for missing crewmate Dayna Mellanby, the middle chapters of Big Finish’s latest series of Blake’s 7 full cast audio dramas head more into the fantasy realm that were the staple of some episodes in the original TV series’ third season (the latter part of which these audio tales are ostensibly set).

Indeed, BF producer Cavan Scott states in the extras for the instalments Mindset and Ghost Ship that there was a conscious effort to revisit the tone of some episodes from that season, such as Tanith Lee’s Sarcophagus, which had a spooky, ethereal quality to them. This is a brave, calculated risk on the BF production team’s part, as the more fantastic episodes of B7’s original run aren’t fondly remembered by fans and some are to this day still scorned by them. While Sarcophagus may be remembered as an exceptional piece of fantasy (I don’t count myself as someone who thinks it’s an especially classic episode), B7 had its share of clangers when it tried this genre as well (eg The Web, Deliverance, Dawn of the Gods, Ultraworld, Rescue). Further, B7 is better remembered for not just its hardcore SF element but also for its realpolitik intrigue and suspense (no self-respecting TV program would want to be fondly remembered for episodes like The Web!).

Mindset has been written by long-time BF scribe Jacqueline Rayner – again a deliberate choice by Scott to rekindle the spirit of Sarcophagus through a female writer. It’s a good decision, as Rayner writes for all of the regular characters extremely well, especially Cally (Jan Chappell) who plays a fundamental role in the story. Of course, some long-time B7 fans may still groan at the story’s formula, especially as it involves another Auronar telepath, Reno (Geoffrey Breton). In the TV series, Cally-centric and fantasy episodes (often the one and the same thing) would almost by rote exploit the character’s susceptibility to other telepathic influences, often involving other kin from Auron or villainous god-like telepaths that inspired Auronar culture. BF’s B7 audio series also hasn’t shied away from foisting new Auronar characters upon its listeners either (eg Gustav Nyrron). Fortunately, Rayner delivers a story where Cally is strong and steadfast whilst all of the other crew members are subdued or compromised. Jan Chappell takes full advantage of the opportunity to display Cally’s courage and compassion. Indeed, if it is not for Cally’s heroism, the Liberator crew would not survive at all. Ghost Ship is inspired by the premise of what happens to the unlucky crew member that has to sit on teleport duty for the course of an episode – a task that was all too often foisted upon the female contingent of the crew in the TV series. In this episode, teleport duty falls to Vila (Michael Keating) who subsequently finds himself haunted by mysterious apparitions aboard the Liberator while Avon (Paul Darrow), Cally and the rest of the crew teleport planetside to meet with a crime syndicate that may have information about Dayna. The listener therefore is privy to Vila’s superstitions and worst fears, as Keating virtually carries the narrative solo for a good 20 to 25 minutes.

Unfortunately, it’s still not the most engaging or dramatic sequence in Iain McLaughlin’s script – Vila inadvertently locking himself in a storage room and tripping over crates and other equipment, all while muttering obscenities at himself, makes for as boring listening as it would for dull visuals on TV. Fortunately, in spite of the material he has to work with, Keating’s performance is outstanding - he continues to play Vila effortlessly, with a combination of enthusiasm, customary dry humour and Vila’s propensity to panic.

Both episodes, apart from being heavily fantasy-driven, also play with Vila and Cally’s psychological make-up. Cally, who is one of the last of her people after the tragic events of the TV episode Children of Auron, craves the mental contact and affection that is only possible with another telepath and in Mindset is even momentarily tempted by an offer from Reno that would create a permanent union between them. Vila’s psychology is exploited throughout both episodes for entirely different reasons. In Mindset, Vila is drawn to the planet Karwen because Reno is able to exploit his greed for the fountain of youth. Once he is submerged, Vila is content to be left there because he doesn’t believe he is respected by the crew anyway; when he is revived, Cally urges Avon, Tarrant (Steven Pacey) and Grant (Tom Chadbon) to remind him that he is indeed a valued contributor. In Ghost Ship, it is precisely because of Vila’s reputation for cowardice that he is left behind on the Liberator. However, Vila is, as we see in this story and other B7 releases, more resourceful, clever and courageous than his allies and adversaries give him credit for. Indeed, it becomes clear later in the story that Vila has been left aboard the ship for good reason – precisely because he can be relied upon in a crisis, not necessarily because he is untrustworthy.

Mindset also plays with the view held by long-time B7 fans that there is a romantic connection between Cally and Avon – which is constantly denied by the latter. Indeed, Avon’s apparent coldness and disdain for other members of his crew across both episodes, including for Vila, Tarrant and Dayna (whom he argues he is only intent on recovering because she could, under duress, reveal intelligence about the Liberator and its crew) also hides the doubtless affection he does feel for members of his gang. On the other hand, he also seems happy to play dangerous games with their lives in Ghost Ship – which hardly makes him endearing to his shipmates. Mindset is the better of the two B7 instalments, mainly as Jacqueline Rayner gives all of the main characters decent air time and dialogue and tells a story that could have been plausibly done on TV. Ghost Ship, by comparison, relies too strongly on the audio medium to provide a spooky and (for Vila at least) a claustrophobic feel. It doesn’t quite work as a full cast play precisely because it doesn’t really need a large cast. In fact, the story would have worked more effectively as a Liberator Chronicle, given much of the story is dedicated to Vila’s trials on the ship and the other characters (with the exception of Avon, Orac and Zen) are only present in the first and last quarters of the tale. As a result, Chappell, Pacey and Chadbon are wasted in their roles.

As the middle chapters of this six-part series, Mindset and Ghost Ship are entertaining in parts, with plenty of humorous and eerie moments, coupled with Big Finish’s consistently high production values. However, as fantasy-based tales, they are, like some of the original TV serials that inspired them, lacklustre instalments. As mentioned above, B7’s strengths as a TV series were its hardcore SF/realpolitik morality tales which explored the main characters’ heroism and flaws and the impact their exploits would have on the political system they were trying to overturn. The next instalment in the series – Devil’s Advocate – promises a return to that more traditional format. It will also be interesting to see how the “search for Dayna” story arc develops as it nears its conclusion (after some more hints in Mindset and Ghost Ship) and whether some other hints in Mindset may have an impact in wrapping up this particular series of adventures – or if they will create angst for the crew in a future micro-season of B7 full cast audios.