Written and performed by Paul Darrow
Directed by Lisa Bowerman
Big Finish Productions, 2015
Avon was a rogue, of course, much older than she and wearily treading the path to dusty death. But there was something about him that was appealing, despite her intuition that he harboured a death wish. His paradoxical ambition for the moment seemed to be to postpone that inevitability for as long as possible. It was his misfortune that so many connived to thwart that ambition. Still, he was proving highly skilled in avoiding the Grim Reaper and enjoyed pitting his wits against enemies both real and imagined ...
Blake’s 7 – Lucifer: Revelation
Ever since those famous climactic moments of Blake’s 7 when Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) furnished that final, ironic smile to the camera, there have probably been more false “Avon sightings” – ie attempts to relaunch authorised and unauthorised versions of B7 set after the end of the TV series – than Paul Darrow’s personal hero Elvis has enjoyed since his own send-off.
There was the universally panned 1984 novel by Tony Attwood – Blake’s 7 - Afterlife – which asserted that Avon, together with Vila and Orac, survived the showdown on Gauda Prime. In the 1990s, fans-turned-audio producer Magic Bullet Productions postulated their own (and in my humble opinion, best) coda to the B7 TV series called The Logic of Empire by speculating that a reprogrammed Avon eventually lived out his life believing himself to be Roj Blake! In the ‘00s , Magic Bullet followed up The Logic of Empire with Kaldor City, which saw elements and characters from the Doctor Who and B7 universes overlap. The antagonistic Kaston Iago was a fugitive from the Terran Federation and also bore similarities to our favourite anti-hero ...
These contradictory accounts have often only ever had credence with B7 fans because (in the case of Afterlife) they were either licensed by the BBC or in the unauthorised productions, the parts of Avon/Iago were played by Darrow. However, just to muddy already murky waters, along comes another pretender to the B7 legacy – in the form of Big Finish’s Lucifer trilogy of novels/audiobooks. These too claim to be valid chapters of the B7 canon – largely because they bear the B7 logo on their cover artwork (meaning that they are licensed by B7 Media) and also because they are written by Paul Darrow himself. However, just because something bears the B7 logo or is written and performed by Darrow doesn’t guarantee that it’s any more canonical than the other post-Gauda Prime works I’ve mentioned.
Based on a listening of Darrow’s second book Lucifer: Revelation (I haven’t read the first book in the Lucifer trilogy or listened to the audiobook of the same), there isn’t a tale that seems more removed from the B7 universe or feels outside the spirit of the TV series than this one. Everything about this story just feels “off” – the survivors of the TV series are inconsistently portrayed, the depiction of the technology and vessels in the tale contradict the tech featured in the TV series, and the geopolitics is totally at odds with everything we know about the Federation from the TV series. Yes, you could argue that Darrow is weaving his own spin on the B7 mythology – but if so, then that vision is at the expense of the TV program that inspired the novel/audiobook in the first place!
So what’s wrong with Lucifer: Revelation? The premise itself in the hands of a more seasoned writer would be fascinating. More than two decades after Avon’s crew were slaughtered by Federation troops, the Terran Federation has evolved and its power become more centralised under the ruling Quartet, led by the ruthless Dr Pandora S (a charge of the now late Servalan) and her protégé Gabriella Travis (the unlikely daughter of Blake’s nemesis Space Commander Travis, whom Avon killed in the TV episode Star One). The Quartet, however, has a galactic rival in the Empire of Cathay, a restored Chinese imperial power with ambitions to extend its influence beyond Earth and into regions of space that were once controlled by the Federation. Both powers are hunting Avon and supercomputer Orac, the last survivors of Blake’s original rebellion; even two decades later, Orac remains more advanced than the Quartet’s and Cathay’s own technologies, implying that perhaps the Federation’s successors are in decline. They are certainly running low on fuel reserves, which is the key to their continued expansion into former Federation space. It’s a solid enough idea but if you’re reading or listening to this story and expecting the plot to develop beyond this basic outline, then you’re going to be seriously disappointed. Indeed, Darrow’s fascination with oriental culture is clearly reflected in all his descriptions and characterisations of the Empire of Cathay but otherwise it’s mere window dressing for a shallow and simplistic plot.
Given the lack of plot development, it’s still somewhat surprising that by the end of the book the political situation in the galaxy has changed dramatically, courtesy of a succession of coups and counter-coups, and enough shifting alliances, sex and bloodletting to rival a Game of Thrones episode. But given all of these events actually happen in spite of Avon, not because of him, the lead character seems almost superfluous in what is supposed to be his tale.
Indeed, the story is little more than one grand run-around tale for Avon who spends the bulk of it evading attacks from a family of assassins hired by Gabriella, pirates and smugglers, the extra-terrestrial Greys (who were introduced in the first book), and the forces of the Quartet and the Empire of Cathay. Avon is armed only with his wits, Orac and a quirky spacecraft computer that calls itself George.
Perhaps Darrow thinks that George, in the absence of Vila (or even Scorpio’s computer Slave in the last season of the B7 TV series), is a much needed source of humour. However, all George does is reinforce how out of character Avon is in this story; he proves to be uncharacteristically weary, sentimental and emotional in parts, balking at Orac’s suggestion that he will have to disable George to avoid being tracked by their pursuers (in the TV series, the Avon of old would have passionlessly dismantled George and pieced it back together from scratch, smarter and more efficient than ever). Avon also expresses sentiment when he sets out to rescue resistance fighters Del Grant and Magda Lens, who is one of many brief romantic interests in this book. Again in the TV series, Avon at times showed loyalty and respect for his crew but he was careful to mask his affection for them. As Orac itself observes in the story, this older, wearier Avon isn’t supposed to have feelings, labelling him a “dead man walking”. One of his lovers also notes that he has a death wish (see extract above) but seems in no hurry to hasten his demise. This is perhaps the most interesting new trait we learn about Avon in this novel but it sadly goes unexplored.
Orac’s characterisation is equally confounding; instead of being haughty, matter of fact and concise, Darrow’s version of the machine is enigmatic, occasionally emotive and even goading (“What are you going to do now, Avon?” it challenges when they are caught in a tight spot at one point). Indeed, the supercomputer also seems to fulfil the part of comic relief vacated by the sorely missed Vila. When Avon proposes raiding an armoury at a Quartet base while the security forces are engaged in an orgy, and asks Orac how he breaks in, Orac uncharacteristically quips: “You want to join the orgy?” This is representative of the humour throughout this book which is for the most part pretty puerile. There are only rare moments where Darrow’s dialogue between his characters is either clever or ironic (when Avon’s ship is pitted against two of Cathay’s Dragon-class warships, one character remarks that Avon might be in for a bit of shock, as “St George only slew one dragon. He would have been reluctant to take on two!”).
The enhanced audiobook format sadly does little to improve the quality of the story. Paul Darrow as ever tries to deliver a vibrant rendition of his book, instilling different moods as befits different characters and scenes but even he seems to struggle with reciting his own stilted writing. While his impersonation of Orac is passable to the late Peter Tuddenham’s portrayal on TV or even Alistair Lock’s interpretation in BF’s regular B7 audios, the portrayals of his other characters, who are mostly one-dimensional, are never anywhere as near as convincing as some of the performances he’s given in The Liberator Chronicles (particularly as the fanatical Father Callus in the recent play Brother). This suggests that as an actor, Darrow is extremely good when presented with someone else’s material but not necessarily his own. Even light music, sound effects and edits by director Lisa Bowerman can do little to enhance the story.
One wonders if Paul Darrow would have had his novels taken up by another publisher if he wasn’t already a longstanding performer for Big Finish across much of its audio output as well as Blake’s 7. Darrow isn’t the first actor to write further stories for a franchise that he appeared in but first and foremost, he’s an actor, not a writer. William Shatner also contributed his name to a range of Star Trek novels in the ‘90s and ‘00s (most of which weren’t particularly very good) but even he had the good sense to conceive the basic storylines and then delegate the task to professional writers to develop his stories (many of whom also had respect for the continuity of the universe they were playing in). There are plenty of professional writers at Big Finish with an in-depth knowledge of the B7 canon, so why couldn’t Darrow have ghost written the Lucifer trilogy as well?
Perhaps I’m being unduly harsh, as Lucifer: Revelation is the middle chapter of a trilogy and I’m making an assessment without having read the first book. All I can say is that this is not a fine example of Paul Darrow’s work (acting or writing) by any measure and it is a truly awful Blake’s 7 novel. It is best dismissed as another one of those post-Gauda Prime “Avon sightings” – you thought you saw Avon serving customers at the local Milliways restaurant but it was just a very poor imitation of the character that B7 fans have admired for more than three decades!