Blake's 7 - Vol 5.1: Restoration - Part 1
Scott Harrison, Steve Lyons
Produced and directed by John Ainsworth
Stars: Paul Darrow, Michael Keating, Jan Chappell, Steven Pacey, Yasmin Bannerman, Rebecca Crankshaw, Hugh Fraser,
John Green, Olivia Poulet, Ian Brooker, Jonathan Christie
Big Finish Productions, 2019
Vila: I never trusted that computer! I said so, didn’t I? Always acting like we were just irritants to him! His problem is he thinks he’s better than anyone else!
Tarrant: Is that Orac you’re referring to – or Avon?
Cally: Now’s not the time, Tarrant!
Dayna: Well, there may not be a better time. I still don’t believe it though!
Tarrant: That Orac could have turned against us?
Dayna: No, that Vila could have been right about something!
From B7 – Restoration: Abandon Ship
Previously on Blake’s 7 … The galactic civil war is over. Servalan has been deposed as the President of the Terran Federation after a final showdown on Geddon (and thought killed). Her predecessor – the nameless yet charismatic man simply known as the President (Hugh Fraser) – is once again poised to fill the breach. Outflanked and outgunned by the President’s flagship The Lethal Shadow in the climactic battle over Geddon, the Liberator is heavily damaged beyond its ability of self-repair and its crew led by Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) are licking their wounds (both actual and psychological). But that’s (in Avon’s parlance) only “the good news” – the ship is caught in the gravity well of a blue star and seems destined for destruction, with seemingly no other avenue for the crew to escape …
Restoration – the first new B7 boxset for 2019, comprising four hour-long serials – resumes almost exactly from the cliffhanger that closed out the previous saga Crossfire. Naturally, the crew’s quandary is solved – with a deus ex machina that takes its inspiration from Star Trek (the series that B7 creator Terry Nation himself sometimes subconsciously and other times deliberately channelled) – before settling into the first story proper.
Trevor Baxendale’s opening script Damage Control is more of a first chapter in a story arc that covers 12 serials in three boxsets, rather than a solid story in its own right. In fact, as a self-contained entity, it makes for a pretty undramatic piece of storytelling, as the last vestiges of Roj Blake’s rebel group query their loyalties to one other while attempting to revive the fortunes of their battered and failing starship.
Cally (Jan Chappell) becomes a mouthpiece for the Liberator’s artificial intelligence Zen (Alistair Lock), and the manner in which Avon exploits her to obtain the information they need to survive certainly earns the disapproval of Dayna (Yasmin Bannerman). Tarrant (Steven Pacey) is left paranoid, weary and scornful – it’s not just the battle of Geddon that has taken its toll on his professional pride, he is left questioning life in the aftermath of the tragic events that destroyed his family in the episode Kith and Kin (in Crossfire Vol 4.3). When it seems there may be an opportunity to lure him away from the Liberator, he is seriously tempted – much to Cally’s chagrin (in the CD extras, Chappell even remarks that this moment of disloyalty changes her long-term perception of Tarrant’s character, and were she Cally, she’d have him voted off the ship!).
Vila (Michael Keating) continues to be a subject of derision for nearly everyone in the Liberator crew – from Avon (who is typically disdainful of everyone) to Dayna (whose taunts are more playful and teasing than downright rude) to even Cally (who at one point is insulted when Orac [Alistair Lock again] suggests Vila could undertake certain repairs faster than she can!). That said, it becomes clear over the course of the episode that Avon and Orac (in their ruthlessly cold, logical ways) appreciate Vila’s skills and prowess. For instance, Avon suggests (in what is probably about as close as he’ll ever give to a compliment!) that Vila, because of his lockpicking skills, is best equipped to detect and overcome a series of booby traps in a series of underground tunnels. It's a point that actually plays to Vila’s ego just as he is on the verge of slipping into an all-out panic! In many ways, were it not for the various character dynamics that play out in this episode (which Baxendale captures extremely well, particularly in the dialogue), it is doubtful Damage Control as an episode would have much else to recommend it.
Certainly this first instalment poses more questions than answers, which you have to assume will be addressed in later boxsets. What is the significance of the desolate planet that the Liberator seeks out after Geddon? What is so special about the circuit boards that Avon and the crew discover there – and how can they be compatible with the Liberator ’s technology? And are the ape-like creatures the crew encounter (hinted at but also glimpsed on the serial’s cover sleeve, left) also relevant to the bigger picture?
These enigmatic details aside, the oddest aspect of Damage Control is the return of old foe Zeera Vos (Rebecca Crankshaw). Given the character had aligned herself with the President at the end of Crossfire, Zeera’s motivations for pursuing the Liberator seem inconsistent – leading to the suspicion that perhaps Baxendale’s original intention was to employ Servalan as the antagonist (which would make more sense in terms of motivation). Of course, Jacqueline Pearce, who passed away last September, was likely ill at the time of production, and Baxendale had to rewrite accordingly. Crankshaw nonetheless approaches the part with zest and the character’s trademark cynicism. Kudos also to Lock who convincingly plays a dying Mutoid pilot under Zeera’s command!
The Hunted, the second serial in the set, is a departure from regular B7 episodes – and one that, from a visual effects standpoint, could definitely have not been attempted on TV (at least not convincingly). That said, with Avon and Vila commandeering a ship from space pirates to run interference against The Lethal Shadow, the story has more of a “Series 4” feel to it (when the crew changed to the planet hopper Scorpio) than a “Series 3” instalment (this boxset is nominally set towards the end of the program’s third season).
Producer John Ainsworth states submarine dramas were the inspiration for The Hunted (an analogy that is also described of the classic Star Trek episode Balance of Terror), although the general concept is also highly evocative of the classic asteroid sequence in The Empire Strikes Back (as Vila quips, Avon tries out the pirate ship’s weapons on some “innocent asteroids”!). The intrigue of the episode (like Balance of Terror) is the “cat and mouse” game played between the protagonists and antagonists – the Federation President and his deputy General Mordekain (John Green) – who don’t physically interact but nevertheless attempt to out-think and outflank each other.
The President’s motives in this episode are thought-provoking, especially in light of the overall title/theme of this boxset – Restoration. We assume the title mainly refers to our heroes’ efforts to resurrect the Liberator but it also could equally apply to the Federation itself, which – having been weakened by the destruction of Star One, the Intergalactic War and Crossfire’s galactic civil war in quick succession – is now in the process of reunification.
By the end of the original B7 TV series, the Federation seemed almost as strong as it had before Blake’s crusade began. The Restoration saga may well “fill in the dots” in explaining how the Federation was able to re-establish its influence in a short space of time (and certainly more quickly than Avon and his cohorts anticipated). Indeed, the answer may well lie in some important dialogue between the President and Mordekain late into the story …
The third serial Figurehead also delves into Federation politics, as Cally and Tarrant enter an uneasy alliance with Zeera (whose presence in this serial is justified, compared to Damage Control) to curb bloodshed and violence on a Federation colony that has been hijacked by extremist rebels. The Liberator crew wouldn’t normally bat an eyelid at such chaos, if it weren’t for the fact the rebels are seemingly being led by freedom fighter Avalon (Olivia Poulet), whom we first met in the TV episode Project Avalon in 1978 and revisited in the B7 40th anniversary set The Way Ahead last year. Needless to say, Avalon must be a totally inept rebel. To be caught, drugged and duplicated the first time around is plain unfortunate. To have it happen all over again is surely pure incompetence!
It’s interesting to note from Ainsworth’s comments in the CD extras that originally Avalon’s part in the serial was proposed for Blake, although that idea was abandoned because it would have been difficult to convey the character without any dialogue. Nevertheless, it would have been a bolder move than bringing back the uninspiring Avalon. Yes, Gareth Thomas is no longer alive, but Pacey proved in the final Crossfire set that he wasn’t above channelling his inner “Blake” – either he or even comedian Jon Culshaw would have been excellent choices to do a light impersonation that would have not been disrespectful to the deceased Thomas or the part of Blake.
In a case of revisionist history, the story also implies (in what is obviously one of the elements that wasn’t omitted from the original proposal) that Blake was captured by the Federation in his first stint as Freedom Party leader on Earth because he fell in love with an undercover Federation agent. While this seems consistent with the Federation’s motives for identifying and eliminating possible troublemakers (after all, Avon was similarly duped), it is an obscure factoid that would have best been omitted from a tale which even some of the actors admit they had a hard time understanding. It’s hard to pinpoint if the agent specifically mentioned by name was meant to appear in the story (if Blake had featured) or may appear later in the Restoration saga. It’s also unclear if there is further mileage in the Federation’s elite Infiltration Elimination unit whose members are such masters of disguise it seems they can be physically modified to resemble trusted allies. Scott Harrison’s script offers up some interesting ideas but fails to be an engaging and provocative storyline.
Conversely, the final instalment Abandon Ship is an outstanding script by Steve Lyons. Unlike Figurehead, which is a “by the numbers” piece, Abandon Ship truly does something bold, astonishing and ingenious with one of the Liberator crew (no spoilers). Indeed, perhaps the title of the serial really should have been “Survival Imperative”, as the Liberator crew learn that the ship has apparently only sufficient power left to sustain three crew members; two of the others will have to leave. As a result, the characters question their places aboard the Liberator and contemplate possible futures without it. Only Cally maintains the faith, not only because she is an optimist by nature but because she regards the crew as the closest thing she has to a family after the destruction of Auron.
Lyon’s tightly plotted script works well precisely because it is mostly set aboard the Liberator and focuses on the six principal cast members (including Orac). He perfectly captures the tension and the dry humour that would resonate amongst characters that are stranded in their situation. My only criticism about Abandon Ship is Avon’s motivations towards the end of the script. Having been supplied with all the data and stimuli he needs to make an informed decision, his subsequent course of action is quite bewildering. It’s not out of character for Avon to look after his own self-preservation but given there is still a high probability of survival, not to mention keeping the ship and the band together (so to speak), what he does next seems counter-productive to his own well- being!
Restoration is a solid return for the B7 audio series after an extended break (we had to wait eight months between Crossfire Part 3 and Restoration Part 1). While the stories in this set have not necessarily been as well written or as memorable as some of the instalments in the Crossfire saga (the standout is Abandon Ship), there is a sense of a gradual build-up and a long-term strategy. Big Finish’s production values remain virtually flawless, and the well written, snappy dialogue between the regular cast is wonderfully performed by the artistes, particularly the veterans of the original TV series. The exchanges between the Liberator’s crew members, particularly Avon and Vila, always make for entertaining listening!
The boxset concludes with another hint that the so-called ‘restoration’ of the title may be that of an old foe that will threaten not just the Liberator crew but the Federation as well. As the Liberator heads out into the unknown regions of the galaxy, it can only be a matter of time before the ship, with its crew of wayward rebels, meets its maker …