Written by Mark Wright, Steve Lyons,
Sophia McDougall & Trevor Baxendale
Stars: Paul Darrow, Michael Keating, Jan Chappell, Steven Pacey, Yasmin Bannerman, Alistair Lock
Produced and directed by John Ainsworth
Big Finish Productions, 2019
"Of the many things that I have come to dislike about Avon, the most aggravating one is that he's usually right!"
Del Tarrant, B7 - Restoration: Happy Ever After
It will never rank as a seminal highlight of a career that spanned 56 years but Volume 2 of Blake's 7 - Restoration will forever be remembered as one of the last credits of Paul Darrow (aka B7's iconic anti-hero Avon), who died on 3 June, 2019. Indeed, fans ought to be forever grateful that, despite ill-health in his twilight years, Darrow was able to act with such spirit, good humour and enthusiasm.
In late 2014, Darrow developed an aortic aneurysm that unfortunately resulted in the loss of both of his legs. He consequently had to record much of his dialogue as Avon separately of the rest of the cast in a studio close to his home in England's southeast. Yet in the five years up to his death, not only did he carry on the part of Avon with zest (as if nothing had happened), he even wrote a script (Erebus) for B7's Crossfire audio saga. His brain and wit remained as sharp as ever - and so too did his acerbic delivery as Avon. In turn, it is a credit to Big Finish that it has still been able to produce such quality work across different studios - never once did I doubt that the full B7 cast wasn't together for the recordings.
Restoration continues the quest by the Liberator crew to locate the makers of their ship - who may hold the key to restoring it to its former glory. As a result, the failing vessel and its crew return to the 12th sector of the galaxy, once ruled by the seemingly omnipotent System (which Blake and his original gang apparently vanquished in the 1979 TV episode Redemption). As a result, we learn a little more about the three worlds that the System controlled before it went offline (and which were hinted at in Redemption) and what links the System to another seemingly obscure settlement that the Liberator crew visited in the first episode of this 12-part Restoration saga.
The opening instalment of this set - Mark Wright's The New Age - takes the listener to Eloran, the third planet of the former System. This world's denizens, who were once part of the System's slave labour force, are now free of their oppressors and have splintered into diverse communities. One such community is led by a charismatic, technophobic leader in Vulkris (Caroline Pickles). She advocates for a simpler, more agrarian lifestyle and vehemently distrusts the use of any technology, which she blames for their prior enslavement. Temporarily stranded after a teleport energy spike dumps them on Eloran, crew members Vila (Michael Keating) and Dayna (Yasmin Bannerman) enjoy a night with the settlement - and the apparent simplicity of the lifestyle proves very enticing to Vila (although it would probably have not been as tempting or romantic as the life he could have had with Kerril in the TV episode The City at the Edge of the World). However, enter Avon (Darrow) whose contempt for the indigenous population shows no bounds - and makes the rebel crew's members (and the listener) question whether they still stand for something positive in an increasingly dark universe ...
The New Age is in many ways an almost "by the numbers", lacklustre B7 instalment. Aside from the opening scenes of the episode, which are set aboard the derelict remains of Spaceworld, the System's outer space stronghold, not much of note truly happens in the episode. To paraphrase Caroline Pickles in the CD extras, it's a story akin to "throwing away your mobile phone and growing carrots"! Given we're all currently living in isolation, perhaps the eschewing of technology for a simpler existence is more prescient than ever. However, given Wright's other B7 scripts, including Resurgence (which reintroduced the System), have been quite dramatic and action-packed, the change of pace - particularly for an opening instalment in a boxset - doesn't really work for this listener.
Steve Lyons' Happy Ever After is also a peculiar contribution after a number of other cracking scripts that he wrote for the Crossfire saga and Abandon Ship, the concluding chapter of Restoration Vol 1. It's not as slow and uneventful as The New Age, and despite the Federation's absence, there are still plenty of political machinations and double-dealings going on in the medieval-style kingdom of Zareen. However, the world Lyons envisages is in some respects totally at odds with the explanation that was given for the System's origins. In Redemption, it was said the omnipotent computer came into being because of its three warring planets but if Zareen was one of them and isn't much above medieval development, then how could it ever have been involved in a multi-world conflict?
This continuity quibble aside, the story provides an intriguing premise - what would have happened if Tarrant (Steven Pacey) had eloped with a medieval queen and left the Liberator to its demise? In spite of the serial's title, it seems a new life would not necessarily have been any easier or romantic for Tarrant, and (again, much like Vila in City at the Edge of the World) he would still have craved his spacefaring, rebellious life. In fact, it becomes clear that Tarrant manipulates Queen Janylle (Lisa Bond) to uncover Zareen's secrets as much as she does him to forge their union. As a result, because the setting and the tone of the story is very Shakespearean, the performance of the guest cast is regal and flawless. Cliff Chapman, as the conniving Queen's advisor Tyrric, also has a voice not unlike that of a young Paul Darrow. Dare I say it but could Chapman be a worthy successor to the great man himself as Avon in the future?
The "alternate timeline" scenario, which is atypical of B7 - but certainly a common trait of its sunnier side up counterpart Star Trek - provides a fascinating insight into the fates of the Liberator crew, had the events of the TV series not followed their course. It's not quite as ingenious as an earlier Liberator Chronicles instalment (Spoils) but it provides an important lead for the crew - even though Avon flatly rejects the notion that lead is an indirect message from the future.
The third serial - Sophia McDougall's Siren - is contemporaneous with the events of Happy Ever After, and sees Dayna and Cally (Jan Chappell) visit the unnamed second world where they encounter the more active remnants of another System stronghold. While the presence of the System is more prevalent in this serial than in any other parts of the boxset, it still doesn't quite live up to the promise that was implied in the closure of Restoration Vol 1 or Wright's earlier instalment Resurgence. Nonetheless, there are some nice points of continuity with Resurgence, as Siren explores the psychological impact of Dayna's prior encounter with the System and Alta Six.
The female-centric cast also features some nicely thought out three-dimensional characters. Mida (Catherine Bailey) and Veskar (Phillipe Bosher) are an odd yet sweet couple - an ex-slave and a former System guard respectively, even if the hardened Mida tends to hold back her true feelings for Veskar, with his puppy-like optimism. The Altas (Sophie Bleasdale and Ruth Sillers) also offer points of comparison. Alta Nine (Bleasdale), much like Veskar, marvels at the simplicity of the world through reawakened eyes as she embraces her restored individuality; in contrast, Alta Ten (Sillers), with her emotionless, yet child-like voice, stubbornly holds onto her tenuous link with the System, exposing the vulnerability behind her veneer of cold calculation and determination.
Finally, it takes until the fourth serial but this boxset starts to finally build some much needed momentum with Trevor Baxendale's Hyperion, as clues uncovered in Happy Ever After and Siren lead the Liberator crew to a supposedly independent research station on the cusp of Federation space. It is here that Avon meets Dr Selene Shan (Evie Dawnay), a scientist who has recently explored the remnants of the System. In the course of his discussions with her, Avon realises the Liberator may have fallen under the influence of an insidious third party, thereby tying this saga back to the first instalment of Vol 1 (Baxendale's episode Damage Control).
To add further complications, the scheming tendrils of the Federation - in the form of the visiting Kommissar Krent (Richard Reed) - begin to inveigle themselves in the Liberator's affairs once again. With the President (Hugh Fraser) having voiced his desire back in Vol 1 to restore Federation Central Control, it now seems Dr Shan's exploration of the System may yet offer the Federation the intel it needs to make that a reality. Reed is excellent as the impassioned Kommissar - a man determined to make an impression and please his President, and who eyes off an opportunity for promotion when he realises the Liberator's outlaws are aboard the Hyperion facility.
Dawnay also delivers the right degree of arrogance and impatience as the self-important Shan - but the character's sudden 360-degree turnabout is poorly written and executed by Baxendale and Big Finish. Shan changes from pompous scientist for the bulk of the serial to almost double-crossing femme fatale as the climax to this boxset looms. There are no hints she will turn and there seems even less opportunity in the narrative for her to organise treachery (especially in Avon's presence).
Interestingly, producer John Ainsworth confirms in the CD extras that the original antagonist of the story was meant to be Servalan, with Shan relegated to a lesser role. Following the untimely death of Jacqueline Pearce, the character of Shan has assumed greater importance, and indeed appears in Restoration Vol 3 (implying Servalan's presence would have been even more keenly felt). Interestingly, I suspect Pearce's death had a two-fold impact on Baxendale's writing, as in Damage Control, the character of Zeera Vos also behaved like Servalan.
As an aside, this writer is amused that Baxendale has inserted references to etheric beam emissions into the serial. Etheric beam emissions were first referenced in Doctor Who in Genesis of the Daleks in 1975 and over the years have been name-dropped in Who's various spin-off media. They came back to prominence, though, in 1999 when the Red Nose spoof Curse of the Fatal Death used etheric beam locators to great comedy effect. It therefore is somewhat amusing to hear Darrow and Dawnay engaging in dialogue about etheric beam emissions - in a serious context and completely oblivious to the running joke that Steven Moffat started two decades ago.
So where does Restoration Vol 3 go from here? It's uncertain but having correctly tipped that the System would figure in this story arc, I am willing to speculate that Baxendale may yet have devised the foe that the System was fighting when it was forced to abandon the Liberator near Cygnus Alpha, way back in the second TV episode Spacefall. It will be particularly interesting to see how the final boxset works without Avon. Hyperion fortunately rescues what is mostly a lacklustre B7 boxset but the story outlines for Restoration Vol 3 hint that the overall story arc may yet provide a satisfying conclusion.
And given this was Paul Darrow's last Blake's 7 work before his unfortunate death, there is a certain poetry to his signature character's exit in the cliffhanger. At the end of the original B7 TV series in 1981, the character of Avon was the last man standing as elite Federation troopers converged on him. In a cliffhanger-like finish, Avon (and Darrow) beatifically smiled at the camera before the episode cut to the closing credits and echoes of gunfire. The ending was ambiguous, implying that Avon could have died but also may not have met the same fate as his crewmates. Restoration Vol 2 also ends on a cliffhanger, with Avon outmanoeuvred at the last moment and seemingly abandoned as the Liberator, under a malign influence, heads back into Federation space. While, as fans, we know the character of Avon will ultimately survive (Restoration is set in the months leading up to the finale of Series C Terminal), it would nevertheless amuse Darrow greatly that he and Avon should once again bow out in ambiguous fashion - with the character seemingly caught in a no-win position.