Written by Steve Lyons, Christopher Cooper,
Sophia McDougall, George Mann
Produced by John Ainsworth
Stars: Paul Darrow (Avon), Michael Keating (Vila), Jan Chappell (Cally), Steven Pacey (Tarrant), Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan), Yasmin Bannerman (Dayna), Alistair Lock (Zen/Orac), Sara Powell (Rokon), Stephen Boxer (Tarkol), Daniel Collard (Aqulia/Guards), Sophia Hannides (Shuuna), Tracy Wiles (Valance), Keith Drinkel (Kaverin), Charlotte Watson (Imra)
Big Finish Productions, 2017
“You see, it pays to listen to Vila sometimes! I knew Blake before any of the rest of you, you know! This is the voice of hard-earned experience here! That ought to earn me some respect!”
Vila, B7: Liberation
Spoils of War, the first Blake’s 7 full cast drama release from Big Finish in more than two years, is a welcome return to form for this beloved former TV franchise. As a regular reviewer of the B7 audios, I had felt the turnover in output – the release of two micro-series of full cast B7 audio adventures in rapid succession, coupled with regular releases of the narrator-driven The Liberator Chronicles boxsets – had impacted on the high standards of writing and production and a rest would be beneficial.
As it was, this latest boxset experienced numerous delays anyway because of the untimely passing of Gareth Thomas, who played the eponymous title character Roj Blake (this volume was slated to be set during the second season of the original TV series when Blake was in command of the Liberator). As a result, rewrites were performed to more firmly set Spoils of War at various points of the TV program’s third season, following the outcome of the Intergalactic War between the Terran Federation and alien marauders from Andromeda.
All bar one of the regulars from B7’s third series appears in Spoils of War. Paul Darrow (Avon), Michael Keating (Vila), Jan Chappell (Cally), Steven Pacey (Tarrant) and Jacqueline Pearce (the villainous Servalan) reprise their roles almost effortlessly (as if no time has passed at all since the demise of the original TV series). The part of female gunslinger Dayna, however, has been recast. The original actor Josette Simon turned down the opportunity to reprise the character in the previous micro-series of full cast B7 audio plays. Although her guest appearance alongside close friend Paul McGann in the Doctor Who audio adventure The Sontaran Ordeal gave B7 fans some hope that she might change her mind, Simon again declined to take part.
As a result, Yasmin Bannerman (who most recently played Adjudicator Roz Forrester in the Doctor Who novel adaptations) has stepped into Dayna’s role, much to her joy. In the CD extras, Bannerman confesses that she and her older brothers were B7 fans when she was a child and that she admired and adored Simon as Dayna precisely because she was such a positive, inspirational character (at a time when there were few positive portrayals of black actors on TV).
The recasting of Dayna is in some respects a “godsend” for the boxset’s first two writers – Steve Lyons and Christopher Cooper – as it enables them to reintroduce Dayna and Tarrant, as well as give Bannerman a strong entry point. Liberation and Outpost are meant to occur within a short period after TV episode Powerplay, when these characters first joined the Liberator.
As a result, the Dayna we meet in Liberation is a more insubordinate, impetuous character than she was in later TV episodes. Not only is she more inclined to question the authority of other members of the crew (including Vila and Tarrant), she’s not above starting her own little rebellion on the Federation world of Morphennial to free the leader of the local resistance. While Dayna’s “little war” is mostly successful, it’s not without casualties, it puts another member of the Liberator crew at risk, and the prize the local rebels seek is a gross disappointment. Dayna comes out of the experience a more sober character.
At this stage in the program’s timeline, Liberation also outlines just how little trust exists in the revamped Liberator crew. Cally, Vila and Dayna distrust Tarrant because of his former life as a Federation soldier. Vila especially dislikes the changes to the Liberator’s crew, not only because he and Cally still know so little about the newcomers but they’re not even sure about Avon’s trustworthiness. Left behind on the Liberator to his own devices, Avon contemplates the merits (not for the first time!) of abandoning his crew and bailing with the crew’s supercomputer Orac.
Steve Lyons’ script is also a logical starting point for this boxset, considering the Federation is now at its weakest. The recent Intergalactic War has cut off a succession of worlds and bases from the Federation’s umbrella, and law and order on Morphennial has collapsed as the citizens suffer withdrawal symptoms from the pacification drugs and techniques that were glimpsed in the very first TV episode The Way Back. Captain Rokon (Sara Powell), craving of the additional manpower and resources she needs from the Federation, is losing the fight to preserve the peace and quell the anxious population while the de facto rebel leader Tarkol (Steven Boxer) struggles to rally the morale of his ageing, handicapped resistance comrades.
Powell (who impressed as the villainous PA to Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor in the River Song adventure World Enough and Time) plays Rokon as a disillusioned, contemptuous and paranoid soldier. Boxer gives Tarkol a dry humoured portrayal, with flashes of a hardened, ruthless streak that leaves you questioning if Morphennial at the conclusion really is being left in safe hands.
Outpost, the second serial, continues the notion of the power vacuum in Federation space, as a cry for help from a desperate Federation technician brings Tarrant and a reluctant Vila to an abandoned Federation base overrun by space pirates. This is, by far, the most “fun” of the four serials, as it combines high levels of drama with black comedy. Like Dayna in Liberation, Tarrant’s introduction to Blake’s “glorious revolution” is Vila, whose timidity and distinct lack of heroism hardly fill the new recruit with confidence. Nevertheless, the chemistry between Pacey and Keating is excellent and they make a great double act:
Tarrant: “You don’t strike me as an idealist. Why do you follow Blake – or Avon, for that matter? What are you even doing on the Liberator?
”Vila: “I don’t know! I’ve never stopped to think about it! I don’t really follow Blake – although sometimes I worry that I actually started believing in him – and it’s not like me to believe in anything! As for Avon … Nice fella, if I keep telling myself that ... There is a chance he won’t throw me out the nearest airlock!”
The villain of the piece – “Space Captain” Valance (Tracy Wiles) – is the highlight of the serial. Her scenes with Vila are as amusing and mortifying for the listener as they are for poor Vila himself. While many B7 villains over the life of the TV series were camp, and Valance also fits this mould, she is also calculating and ruthless, as she demonstrates in her interactions with Federation technician Shuuna Rel (Sophia Hannides). Shuuna is herself quite flirtatious and scheming but ultimately her affinity for changing sides at the drop of a hat stretches patience only so far.
Close Enough is set much further into the season, after the events of TV episodes Children of Auron and Rumours of Death (which are referenced in the dialogue). This is possibly the best written of the four instalments, as writer Sophia McDougall gives us a story about telepathy that is – by B7 standards – quite fresh and original (in the TV series, it became staple for the Liberator’s resident telepath Cally to be possessed by some extra-terrestrial or extra-dimensional mental force). Close Enough is a well crafted, interesting piece about how the good purposes of science can be perverted (as are most good things in the Federation) to nefarious ends.
The character of Imra (brilliantly portrayed by Charlotte Watson) reflects the naivety of the impulsive young scientist as she seeks to realise her childhood dreams, seemingly at any cost – and most particularly at the expense of Avon who is placed in a unique, awkward and fatal situation. The ramifications of Imra’s experimentation has been explored superficially in B7 before (notably in the lamentable 1998 radio serial The Sevenfold Crown) but not with the quality and maturity of the writing and performances here.
Solus is a red herring of a title for the final instalment, as it is not about the deep space scientific research station that features in the opening minutes of the tale (and on the CD inlay artwork) at all. The episode continues the theme of mind control from Close Enough but in a wholly different manner. Indeed, the plot device is probably more reminiscent of Star Trek than B7 as Servalan makes an audacious play for control of the Liberator, only for it to backfire on her spectacularly and not only endanger herself and the crew but also threaten the rebellious population of a nearby world that is trying to secede from the Federation (indeed, a Deep Space Nine episode from the 1990s provided a similar scenario, in which the villain, smugly amused by the protagonists’ predicament, was also hoist by his own petard!). Much to their distaste, Tarrant, Vila and Dayna find themselves having to keep Servalan alive so that she can thwart the impending threat to the rebellious Federation colony.
Where Outpost and Close Enough focus on specific members of the Liberator crew (virtually to the exclusion of the other regulars), Solus is a great ensemble piece that strongly gives sufficient “air time” to all the Liberator’s characters (including Alistair Lock’s Orac and Zen), as well as Servalan. There are no other actors in guest capacities in this tale, and as a result the listener can more closely follow and appreciate the regular characters’ dilemmas and race against time to avert disaster. Bannerman in particular encapsulates the anger and resentment Dayna feels towards Servalan (the President did, after all, murder her father in the TV episode Aftermath) and towards Avon (who naturally does not approve of the rendered assistance). Pacey and Keating also have some great dialogue, with Vila performing a heroic gesture that astonishes even Servalan, while Darrow continues to play Avon as cold, calm and collected. Pearce clearly relishes playing Servalan; while her character isn’t as deliciously evil as she could be on TV, Pearce nevertheless has fun tapping into Servalan’s dark humour and playful side.
While the central conceit of Solus works quite effectively, the climactic solution is a weak one that lacks credibility and dispenses with the threat in an arbitrary way. Having convincingly generated a scenario whereby the Liberator crew are boxed into a corner with seemingly no way out, scribe George Mann then must overturn 55 minutes of magnificent work with a band-aid solution in just five minutes.
Servalan’s fate is left open-ended at the conclusion of Solus (there’s no doubt she will return, if only because she was in the TV series after this point in its timeline!). Indeed, it’s interesting to note that all the female antagonists – Servalan, Rokon, Shuuna and Imra – in the conclusions to all four serials inevitably have their comeuppances. Their duplicity, self-centredness and paranoia purportedly make them “bad” people — even though all these qualities exist to varying degrees in the Liberator’s rebels, including Avon (the fact they are all women, I hope, is merely coincidental, otherwise BF’s version of B7 could be straying into the very murky domain of gender politics!). B7 was not a program that was distinctly black and white in its definitions of characters, it was (within reason) a “warts and all” portrayal of a core group of rebels attempting to fight the system from outside of it while still being inextricably tethered to that system.
In all, Spoils of War is a great return to form for the B7 franchise after a couple of lacklustre efforts from BF in 2015. New producer, director and script editor John Ainsworth is off to a great start with this anthology boxset and I look forward to what he can achieve as BF embarks upon an ambitious three-volume linking saga called Crossfire. Strap in, standard by 11!