Written by Andrew Smith, Marc Platt, Peter Anghelides“We keep hitting at the Federation but what difference do we make?”
Directed by Jim O'Hanlon, Ken Bentley
“You might be surprised. Ripples spread.”
Blake and Avon, Blake’s 7: Drones
If you’ve read some of my previous Blake’s 7 reviews, then you’ll know I wasn’t enamoured with Fractures, the opening instalment in Big Finish’s latest series of six full-cast audio adventures. I felt it needed to be an action-packed opener, especially if it was to attract curious listeners fresh to the TV series. Instead, we had a play that was less political drama and intrigue and more supernatural thriller, the type of episode that in the old TV series was maligned by fans.
The subsequent plays – Battleground, Drones and Mirror - are more of a return to form. Fractures ended with Orac announcing it had gained intelligence about a Federation program that could intercept Tariel cell transmissions. However, the crew has no idea where this program is and the only name and cryptic clue that is attached to it is “Mikalov”. By the time Battleground starts, Blake and the Liberator have narrowed down the possibilities to one person. The only problem is Mikalov is on the planet Straxis, one of the most fortified strongholds in the Federation. It isn’t long before Blake and the Liberator crew discover why Straxis is so secure and why it is just as dangerous from orbit as it on the surface ...
In structure, the Blake’s 7 TV series was episodic, with self-contained stories from week to week. However, the series was also one of the first to loosely follow what is today generally described by SF and fantasy fans as the “story arc”. The latter half of the second season of B7 saw the crew spending several episodes on a quest for Star One, the Federation’s top secret central control facility, more often than not chasing breadcrumbs that would tie into the next episode. This series of audio adventures takes the same approach, dropping some breadcrumbs of its own which often lead the crew – and the listener - on a merry chase but ultimately bring them closer to their objective.
What is distinctive about Battleground and Drones is that while they are the products of different authors – former Doctor Who TV script writers Andrew Smith and Marc Platt respectively – they are effectively two halves of the one story. Battleground ends on a very exciting cliffhanger which is resolved in Drones and Platt’s tale continues and builds on many of the themes and ideas that Smith introduces in his episode.
Battleground is probably the most “traditional” of the three B7 plays, as the regular characters’ behaviour is pretty consistent with how they act in the TV series. This episode also could very easily have slotted into the program’s first or second seasons – it wouldn’t have taken much effort for a BBC director to have found a suitable location (in all predictability a quarry!) for the Federation’s war games and to have brought in a small yet competent guest cast to play some of the incidental characters. Even the BBC’s visual effects department could have passably pulled off the effects on location, although the model work in the story’s cliffhanger would have been very shoddy! The visual effects in one’s imagination are always so much more impressive!
Drones and Mirror (the latter written by Peter Anghelides) are superior instalments to Battleground essentially because they try, within the constraints and continuity of the original program, to be a little more daring and innovative with their portrayals of the regular characters and props. In Drones, we realise the Liberator is as much a character in its own right as Blake and the crew and is capable of feats that were never even hinted at in the TV series. Whether deliberate or coincidental, the ship takes a familiar cue from its counterpart the Enterprise in Star Trek Into Darkness (if you’ve seen the latter, you’ll know what I mean – otherwise, if you don’t want to guess, take a look at Grant Kempster’s gorgeous cover artwork for Drones!). Indeed, the alien ship’s capabilities are admired and dreaded by members of the crew in equal measure – Avon describes them as “clever”, Jenna on the other hand remarks that these capabilities reveal how little the crew truly know the ship at all.
We already saw in Fractures that the Liberator crew is not rock solid in unity but in these later episodes there are quite a few surprises. Orac proves to be far more devious and manipulative in Drones and Mirror than it ever was on TV and even Jenna and Cally at various points express dissent and break ranks. In the latter half of the program’s second season on television, the two women were (by Jan Chappell and Sally Knyvette’s own admission) reduced to “housewife” status on the Liberator. It’s terrific that the writers have been able to break that mould and show the characters’ independent streaks. In Mirror, Knyvette in particular injects defiance and rebelliousness into the usually amiable Jenna and also has some great scenes where she shows contempt of Orac’s literal-mindedness. Cally also illustrates how much she is the moral compass of the crew, berating Blake when he takes a course of action that makes him as ruthless as arch enemy Travis. The two ladies, however, do still get a bit of a raw deal. In Mirror, they’re both off the Liberator but do end up being split off from the male leads and are consigned to the “B” plot where there are less opportunities for them to be proactive.
Blake, Avon and Vila (Gareth Thomas, Paul Darrow and Michael Keating respectively) inevitably still get the best moments and the best dialogue across the three plays. In Battleground and Drones, Blake meets two resistance fighters that mirror his best and worst qualities. Abel Garmon (Tim Bentinck) represents Blake’s idealism and selflessness while Bru Renderson (Tim Treloar) represents his thirst for retribution; the difference is that Blake is motivated more by an innate sense of justice (no matter how flawed) for the wrongs the Federation has wrought on him than Renderson who is after outright revenge.
Renderson in Drones also shares another theme with Blake – they are both rebels on the run. Renderson has acquired a convoy on Straxis that enables him and other prisoners to evade the Federation’s war games for a time but inevitably they cannot elude the Federation’s reach. Similarly, Blake also bemoans (see above) that while he and the Liberator crew have made some strikes on the Federation, even with the technology and firepower the Liberator offers, it hasn’t been enough to strike a massive blow for freedom. However, as Avon surprisingly remarks, Blake may well have had more of an impact than he realises, ie he has inspired copycats and malcontents sold on a myth. Certainly, Renderson is grossly disappointed when he realises that Blake and his advanced “battle cruiser” do not live up to the legend that has been exaggerated by other rebel groups (and possibly even by the Federation itself).
Similarly, in Mirror, the characters also confront reflections that expose their flaws. For Vila, it is the fear of being alone, for Blake, the realisation that he may be almost as obsessive and bitter as Travis and for Orac, the possibility that there may be another entity that is equal, if not superior, to itself. Avon’s “mirror” is itself a tantalising omen of the TV program’s final famous moments – and reminds you that even Avon, for all his brilliant intelligence, logic and cool-headedness is still as fallible – indeed, as human – as the rest of his colleagues.
The critical trick to this series’ success – as Thomas, Chappell and Knyvette remark in the documentary extras after each serial – is that the regular characters’ voices have to transcend the ages and persuade the listener to imagine them as they appeared on television over three decades ago. For the most part, coupled with the performances, strong writing and production values, the plays feel as if they belong to the program’s second series. Thomas’ and Darrow’s voices are a little seasoned but they play their roles with such conviction that they are unquestionably Blake and Avon. Michael Keating also brilliantly recaptures Vila’s comical elements and wit, Sally Knyvette hardly sounds like she has aged as Jenna and even though you can tell that Jan Chappell in her interviews sounds older and wiser, she still manages to inject Cally with youth and verve.
With the exception of a cameo in Fractures, Mirror also marks the return of Brian Croucher as disgraced Federation space commander and Blake’s arch nemesis Travis. Croucher’s portrayal in the second season of the TV series has generally been dismissed as camp by long-time B7 fans that preferred the character’s originator Stephen Greif. I am one fan who has always thought Croucher did a commendable job picking up the reins from another performer and in Mirror he doesn’t disappoint. Croucher clearly has enormous fun reprising Travis – probably a little too much. He is every bit as spiteful, calculating, vengeful and flamboyant as he was on television yet he does not detract from being a credible threat. In fact, it is because Travis is so madcap that he is menacing! The contribution of Alistair Lock to these instalments also should not be understated. Apart from providing the sound design and the incidental music (which ably recreates and expands on Dudley Simpson’s classic cues), Lock provides the voices of Zen and Orac. Indeed, Lock’s renditions of the computers’ voices are so convincing (Zen’s booming tones, Orac’s haughtiness) that they are almost indistinguishable from the late Peter Tuddenham’s portrayals on TV. Lock’s depiction of the two computers also helps ground these serials in the spirit of the time in which they are ostensibly set.
Battleground, Drones and Mirror have helped right the good ship Liberator after an indifferent start with opener Fractures. They are B7 as the fans remember them – intelligent, mature, insightful and action-packed episodes that not only test the mettle of the regular characters but also don’t shy away from playing with the program’s conventions and history. With Mirror ending on another cliffhanger and with two more instalments to come – Cold Fury and Caged – I look forward to seeing how this series of full-cast audio adventures is resolved.