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.




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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




The Liberator Chronicles: Volume 9Bookmark and Share

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

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

Tavac and Avon, Planetfall


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







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