Written by Mark Wright
Produced and directed by John Ainsworth
Big Finish Productions, 2018
Stars: Paul Darrow (Avon), Michael Keating (Vila),
Sally Knyvette (Jenna), Jan Chappell (Cally),
Steven Pacey (Tarrant), Yasmin Bannerman (Dayna),
Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan), Stephen Greif (Travis),
Glynis Barber (Magda), Alistair Lock (Zen/Orac),
Olivia Poulet (Avalon), Kate Brown (Cassandra),
Sam Woodward (Sheltak/Freighter captain), Catherine Bailey (Mutoid/Captain), Fanos Xenofós (Interceptor commander/trooper), and Gareth Thomas (Blake).
‘They were titans of a rebellion that tore the galaxy apart, symbols of hope against tyranny. They had been comrades, blasting through star systems to topple dictators and liberate the oppressed. Some called them terrorists. Many called them heroes …’
Hahaha! What lurid nonsense!
Kerr Avon, B7: The Way Ahead
It’s the 40th anniversary of a science fiction phenomenon – and the latest instalment in this space opera opens on a remote island world where our hero is living his life in seclusion, away from the rest of the galaxy which has feted him (much to his chagrin and reluctance) as a hero and a symbol of the resistance against an evil galactic order. The young woman who persuades him to tell his story is convinced that he’s still a beacon of hope and there is good that he can still do …
No, it’s not the plot for the most recent Star Wars instalment The Last Jedi – although you could be forgiven for thinking it is, especially when the supreme commander’s seat of power is trashed in a brazen rebel attack (while aboard said vessel the key antagonist offers the protagonist a shot at an alliance) …
It’s actually the recent Blake’s 7 serial The Way Ahead, a three-disc special release from Big Finish that celebrates the 40th anniversary of the program’s debut on BBC TV on 2 January, 1978 – approximately seven days after the original Star Wars (aka Episode IV – A New Hope) premiered in UK cinemas.
Star Wars, of course, has just commemorated its own 40th anniversary with a myth-busting tour de force of the second film in its sequel trilogy, much to the consternation of traditionalists. The Way Ahead, despite a few superficial parallels with its big screen counterpart, is perhaps not so daring, largely because the broader B7 saga has already been told. Nevertheless, perhaps those same purists decrying the latest Star Wars installment may find some solace in The Way Ahead, which is a more predictable approach to storytelling by scriptwriter Mark Wright, compared to screenwriter/director Rian Johnson’s more unconventional style with The Last Jedi.
That’s not to say that The Way Ahead is a staple B7 adventure – the two-part story doesn’t shatter the status quo of the B7 universe but Wright dares to tinker around the edges a little, particularly in the second half. It is set across three eras: some time in the first season of the TV program (the first episode Project Aquitar), when Roj Blake (the late Gareth Thomas) is in charge of the Liberator; at some point in the third season (the second episode Dissent), when Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) has taken command of the iconic starship; and at least 20 years after the showdown on Gauda Prime (GP) which ties in with Darrow’s Lucifer trilogy of B7 novels.
The post-GP framing device is probably the only thing that might upset B7 traditionalists, as Darrow’s books would be viewed by some – including this writer – as apocryphal (“lurid nonsense” indeed!). Nevertheless, the telling of the two episodes in a flashback is executed well, thanks to the chemistry of Avon and his lover Magda, played by a mature Glynis Barber (who portrayed crew member and gunslinger Soolin in the TV program’s fourth and final series).
Project Aquitar is the most traditional of the two episodes and encapsulates what the first season of B7 was about – Blake’s feud with his scarred arch nemesis Space Commander Travis (brilliantly reprised by the original actor Stephen Greif). Sadly, with Gareth Thomas has passed on, the character of Blake is relegated to the background, and merely mentioned in despatches (ie Blake and Gan, originally portrayed by the late David Jackson, are manning the Liberator when it is attacked by pursuit ships while the rest of the crew teleport to mining world Lorgan Minor to destroy Travis’s latest scheme). It is up to Sally Knyvette (Jenna) and Darrow to shoulder most of Blake’s dialogue and actions in Thomas’s absence. Indeed, if Project Aquitar had been made for TV, it would have been Blake and Travis trapped in an underground rockfall, not Travis and Jenna. Nevertheless, the dialogue between the pair is fascinating, as they attempt to justify being on opposite sides.
On TV, Knyvette fell into the trap that often befell some Doctor Who companions in the 1970s and 1980s – she went from being an Avengers/Emma Peel-type heroine to being (as Knyvette recalls on the 40th anniversary retrospective on the third disc) “a bit girly and a … sex symbol which is a shame because … I would have liked to have seen the stronger sides of her character coming out”. The one thing Knyvette has relished since BF revived B7 for audio has been to restore (again to paraphrase the actor) integrity, feistiness, and strength to Jenna’s character. Those qualities are most evident when she takes on Travis one on one, mocking him for his incompetence. “I don’t need Blake to rescue me!” Jenna tells Travis while in combat. “I can make an idiot out of you myself!”
What’s also interesting about the portrayal of Jenna in Project Aquitar (and indeed in some of BF’s other portrayals of the character) is how much she believes in Blake and his cause (and how much she maintains that faith after departing the Liberator). When Travis asks why a smuggler would follow a would-be freedom fighter on his “senseless crusade”, Jenna insists that if she “dies today … then I’ll die knowing what I did was right”. She also refutes Travis’s allegation that she is a terrorist with the following reasoning: “The Federation endures through terror, so you tell me who the terrorist is!”
This revolutionary idealism is shared by fellow freedom fighter Avalon (Olivia Poulet), a character that was originally introduced on TV in the 1978 episode Project Avalon and bridges the gap between Project Aquitar and Dissent. The difference between Avalon and Jenna, as well as her crewmates Cally (Jan Chappell) and Vila (Michael Keating), is that they will not fight dirty. When Avalon seizes control of the plot’s “MacGuffin” (which hails back to a bit of dialogue in the third episode of the TV series Cygnus Alpha), she is prepared to strike at Federation troops with the same force that has befallen her comrades on the planet Malanar Delta. It takes Cally’s persuasion to make Avalon (it seems) see the error of her ways.
While Project Aquitar is a traditional, serviceable and enjoyable episode in its own right, Dissent is the strongest, most dynamic installment of The Way Ahead boxset. The listener jumps ahead to B7’s third series as the Liberator crew – minus Blake, Jenna and Gan, and incorporating Tarrant (Stephen Pacey), Dayna (Yasmin Bannerman) and Orac (Alistair Lock) – once again cross paths with Avalon. The events that follow are unexpected (albeit only temporary) but they raise the stakes for both the rebellion and the Federation, now personified by arch nemesis Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce).
Having explored the nobility behind Blake and Jenna’s fight in Project Aquitar – to restore democracy and independence to the galaxy – Wright explores the reality of what that fight has truly achieved by this point in the broader B7 saga. In the third series opener Aftermath, Avon remarked that he hoped Blake “survived long enough to realise he was winning”. In Dissent, it becomes clear that Blake’s victory (if indeed it ever was one) was only temporary and that under Servalan’s leadership, the Federation is rebuilding and becoming more streamlined and deadlier than before. Further, Avalon’s zeal and meddling, far from striking a blow to the heart of this new incarnation of the Federation, will merely harden Servalan’s resolve.
My only criticism about Dissent is the “MacGuffin” (or plot device) which is central to Project Aquitar is barely utilised (being reduced to one scene and a couple of throwaway lines). The manner that Wright deploys it – and then discards it – is far less convincing (are we seriously expected to believe Avalon’s group would really have the brains to assemble another “MacGuffin” patterned on the original?).
That aside, the performances of the returning cast members are outstanding. The dialogue of Greif and Knyvette in Project Aquitar and Darrow and Pearce in Dissent are the highlights of the serial. The other supporting actors – Keating, Chappell, Bannerman, Pacey, Barber, and Lock – are solid performers. Knyvette deserves to do more audio work based on the strength of her performance and perhaps the solution would be a box set about Jenna’s own adventures in the years after she left the Liberator (perhaps following the lines of Jenna’s Story, one of the installments in Volume 6 of The Liberator Chronicles).
It’s also a nonsense that going forward Barber may have to play other guest roles if she wishes to continue doing B7 plays. BF claims it doesn’t have the rights to do B7 stories set during series 4 and therefore can’t use the Soolin character (even though two of the serials in the aforementioned Liberator Chronicles V6 are nominally set during series 3 and 4, Soolin is mentioned by Magda and we even hear the teleport effect used in series 4 at key moments in Project Aquitar). While I can understand that BF feels there is plenty of fertile ground to still explore by keeping its serials rooted in the third series, it is inevitable that the company will eventually want to venture into series 4 territory. If so, then BF should already be opening negotiations with B7 Media for those rights and employing a talented actor like Barber while she’s available.
In conclusion, The Way Ahead is an outstanding release. Wright and the BF production team subtly place plenty of Easter eggs honouring B7 throughout the narrative, largely in dialogue and in sound effects. There’s also a couple of fun, humorous parallel moments in both episodes between the same characters (eg Avon’s responses to Vila’s disappointment at the survival of B7’s antagonists are beautifully written and performed). We also get to hear dialogue and exchanges between the antagonists and protagonists that could almost have been written for the 1979 and 1981 finales Star One and Blake respectively. The play also is more than happy to riff off other SF properties in its dialogue as well (notably Star Wars and Doctor Who) but the most touching Easter egg features the titular character himself – Blake – in the closing moments of Dissent, as we hear a monologue by Gareth Thomas (sadly) for the last time.
As an anniversary tale, The Way Ahead is an enjoyable listen and a worthy celebration of a short-lived yet popular and memorable TV program that through BF’s audio output endures today. B7 will never be as grandiose as Star Wars (nor should it ever try to be) but the enthusiasm of its storytellers and artists remains as undimmed and avid as the small band of rebels that it portrays.