It was an event that had been rumoured for years. We all wanted it, but no one could quite bring themselves to believe it. Something that was long, long overdue, something that seemed to hold so much promise that it was perversely inevitable that it would be a disaster.
Yes, I’m finally going to review a non-BBC audio drama.
Summon Bigger Finish
I’ve admired Big Finish Productions from afar for almost a decade now, following their latest developments and announcements with interest, but I’ve never really found the time, money or inclination to become a fully-fledged fan. If you’re not familiar with Big Finish, they’re by far most famous for producing a long-running regular series of Doctor Who audio dramas, set during the show’s original, ‘Classic’ run, featuring pretty much every surviving major cast member from the 60s, 70s and 80s in their original roles. Using that series as their backbone, the company has over the years branched out into resurrecting other vintage cult shows on the airwaves, such as Highlander, Terrahawks, The Avengers, and our subject today, Blake’s 7, picking up awards and almost universal critical acclaim in the process.
And the praise is very definitely deserved: Big Finish’s production values are excellent (better than most BBC dramas), and improving all the time. The scriptwork, at its best, deals with intriguing and inspired science fiction ideas you wouldn’t find anywhere other than at the crossroads between the creativity of the Whoniverse and the potential of radio. At its worst…
Well, I suppose my point is that Big Finish is so prolific that it can’t help but have a ‘worst’. The sheer volume of audio the company produces, with its Doctor Who line alone consisting of a new 100-minute drama every month, plus about five or six spinoff shows operating at a rate of roughly half that at any one time, means certain inevitabilities: the plots start to sound familiar, the cast starts to sound tired, and the whole thing reaches the point where it feels as if they’re making all this stuff because they contractually have to, rather than out of a genuine belief that they are enriching and enhancing the Doctor Who brand by doing so. Plus, of course, there are the story arcs, a built-in block on a new listener buying just any random product because it turns out they have to have listened to about fifty preceding stories from across five different series to understand what this McGuffin is that every keeps going off to ominously whisper about.
So really, it’s linked in to what TV Tropes calls Archive Panic: the overwhelming sense of disorientation and disappointment a casual listener gets upon realising the sheer amount of disposable time and money they’ve got to have in order to catch up with everyone else. Now, I know this was absolutely never Big Finish’s intention, but looked at as a whole, the company’s output smacks of content by the elite, for the elite. Doctor Who for the uber-fan rather than the casual listener.
But for all my cantankerous grumblings, the majority of their produce is of a very high quality, in production terms, which is of course the main thing that matters to an obsessive audio fan like myself. So when news broke almost four years ago that Big Finish had acquired the rights to my other favourite sci-fi show of all time, Blake’s 7, which had been languishing in production limbo for aeons, I was very excited. A whole new range to listen to, one I could begin at the beginning, and an event that was essentially the resurrection of an entire franchise, as opposed to Doctor Who, which always existed in one form or another even when it was off the TV.
…And then it took me over three years to listen to any of it. Whoops. Time, money, usual excuses. Sometimes even I, in a moment of madness, think food is a more important thing to spend my money on than science-fiction products. Anyway, the episode I chose to begin my introduction into the realm of audio B7 was Warship, the line’s first full-cast story, from 2013 (up until then, all episodes had been semi-narrated affairs featuring only two actors).
So, the first ever attempt by Big Finish to essentially create an authentic episode. The obvious choice for me to begin with, really, but it’s also a factor that works against it in a way. There’s the pervading sense throughout Warship’s 60 minute runtime of a production team screaming in your face “Look! Look at us! We’ve got the entire surviving cast in the same studio! And they’re all doing and saying the kind of things their characters used to say and do back in the seventies! Aren’t we great?! Haven’t we done well?! Now come to our conventions.” The plot of Warship is negligible because the plot is irrelevant: the big draw here is in hearing Gareth Thomas (Blake), Paul Darrow (Avon), Sally Knyvette (Jenna), Michael Keating (Vila) and Jan Chappell (Cally) returning to play the crew of the Liberator after all these decades. And, I’m not ashamed to say, it works: I do indeed get a thrill from hearing Avon insult Vila, or Cally use her telepathy. At the same time, though, it’s obvious that this checklist of character tropes and traits from the original series is exactly that: a checklist for writer Peter Anghelides to work his way through, as if we need reassuring that this really is Blake’s 7 we’re listening to. Listened to now, after the novelty has worn off and with over a dozen full-cast audios available to purchase, can Warship stand on its own two feet?
Well, yes, just about, although it’s never going to win any prizes for its original sci-fi concepts. That said, neither would the original TV series, a show that was always more about its character interaction than fantastic spectacle- a formula which theoretically makes a good match for audio’s strengths. And indeed, there’s no faulting Warship’s ambition with regards to its premise: set between Series 2 and 3 of the show (originally broadcast 1979 and 1980), it aims to bridge the gap from one season’s cliffhanger ending, which saw the galaxy about to be invaded by the gelatinous Andromedans, and the next season’s premiere, which picked up in the aftermath of a crippling Pyrrhic victory for humanity and with series leads Blake and Jenna missing in action. It’s a far more memorable concept than to simply set an episode in the middle of series 2 and stage a by-numbers “Blake and the rebels attack a Federation outpost” affair. It’s also one that, by winding itself so tightly around the plots of two thirty-five year old episodes, causes its own problems. Take for example, the final scene of the series 2 finale, ‘Star One’, lovingly recreated word-for-word as Warship’s pre-titles teaser. It’s a gripping, tense scene that most B7 fans, like me, know off by heart. Starting your episode off with a bunch of actors whose advancing years are audibly very obvious try and fail to recreate a scene they last performed when they were half their current age (with Paul Darrow in particular going way, way over the top)… well, it doesn’t create problems, exactly- the first time I heard the scene, I was blown away that they had even attempted it- but it does create nagging doubts that stick in the back of the mind, casting just a flicker of doubt that the cast is still up to the job.
The Magnificent Seven
Ah, yes, the cast. Sally Knyvette and Michael Keating are the actors the years have been kindest to, which makes it a shame that Keating is lumbered with a bastardised, cringeworthy version of his character. Gone is the Vila who would whine and wheedle his way out a difficult situation, but knuckle down and get the job done when the pressure was on- Vila in Warship is a useless, foolish coward who is ultimately responsible for the Liberator’s near destruction at the climax after he allows several sentient bombs to slip past him and target the ship’s systems. Gareth Thomas sounds his age, andis clearly struggling to lose that ‘narrator’ feel from the earlier audios- never once did I feel like I was in the thick of the action with Blake, but at least Thomas’ gravelly, authoritative tones are well suited for world-building, describing the gloomy underground caverns and soaring fleets of spaceships that we need to visualise. Jan Chappell sounds absolutely nothing like she did in the seventies, but is probably putting the most into her performance out of any of them, clearly relishing the chance to be playing Cally again. There are a few wobbles where she struggles with lines written with her younger, clearer tones in mind, but it’s an earnest delivery that puts an underdeveloped character front and centre, one of the major positives of the episode. There’s very little to say about Alastair Lock, replacing the late Peter Tuddenham as the voices of supercomputers Zen and ORAC, other than what a great impersonation job it is- neither ‘character’ really gets anything to do, and ORAC’s famous hacking abilities are as underused here as they were in the show. The final members of the cast are, of course, the unforgettable Paul Darrow as Avon and, in a brief cameo appearance, Jacqueline Pearce as arch (in every sense of the word) villain Servalan, the two characters who even the most casual of viewers can probably still recall so many years later. Surprisingly, though, Darrow and Pearce are the two actors I have least to say about here. That’s not to say they’re not on fine form- indeed, Darrow and Pearce are always on fine form, that’s the problem. These are two actors who have essentially been playing versions of these characters in absolutely every acting job they’ve had since 1980. They became known for their OTT performances back in the original series, spent the latter part of their career cashing in on it, and now they’re stuck back in those original roles with a bunch of actors who are also now chewing the audio scenery… they no longer stand out.
Plotting and Planning
It doesn’t help that Darrow is, surprisingly, given the least to do out of the crew. While Blake and Cally teleport down to investigate a mysterious planetoid called Mageddo (the word ‘Armageddon’ with a few letters knocked off the ends, another subtle innovation from the franchise that brought us ‘space medicine’), and Jenna and Vila climb out onto the hull to dispose of a swarm of alien devices burrowing into the Liberator, Avon is stuck on the flight deck, co-ordinating the battle and grumbling to himself. It’s probably a wise move- any story with Avon front and centre would practically be giving Darrow carte-blanche to steal the show: there’s just something about a leather-clad amoral anti-hero that eclipses all his more conventionally ‘good guy’ co-stars.
Dividing the other four main characters across two subplots does help to keep the story moving, but it also clearly reveals where the padding is heaviest in Anghelides’ script when you reach the end and find that one party has done all the legwork in keeping the plot moving while the other is basically still back where they started. Vila and Jenna’s hull excursion certainly gives Sally Knyvette plenty of good moments, particularly after her teleportation onto one of the Andromedan craft (you’ve always got to admire an actor who holds their own against a gurgling sound effect). The idea of a spaceship that splits into a thousand tiny independent robots is also a good one, even if the concept is never exactly sold over audio. But this subplot never does anything to move the plot or characters forward, its only purpose being to get Liberator into such a damaged state as to necessitate abandoning ship at the cliffhanger ending (more on that later). As I’ve already said, it does a total disservice to Vila’s character, and, more criminally, does nothing to expand the B7 universe.
The Blake/Cally subplot, on the other hand, at least hints at an ambition to explore a galaxy that could only ever be hinted at on a 70s BBC budget. The simple idea that, while the action of the series 2 finale was unfolding on Star One, there was another artificial planetoid with an ever darker secret orbiting the same star, symbolises the idea of revisiting an old cult show brilliantly: it brings a sense of ominous uncertainty to one of the very pillars of the franchise, and it says, in as big and bold and explosive a way as possible: for everything you thought you knew about Blake’s 7, there’s something exciting and unknown that was always there, just out of sight… lurking. The scenes on Mageddo also mean a step up in the production values from the exercise in recreating familiar sound effects and musical cues that the Liberator scenes become. The sound of vast battle-fleets in the skies above the planetoid, their weapons blasting and their engines burning just on the cusp of the atmosphere is one of the most evocative effects I’ve ever heard in a sci-fi, made all the more exhilarating because it never gets mentioned in dialogue once. The scenes in the spooky centre of the planetoid sound great, too, and the idea of a base manned by people in deep suspended animation who can trigger a self-destruct for the entire world if they sense danger is suitably creepy, even if it doesn’t make a lick of sense (it’s never explained why a computer couldn’t do this job, except that a computer would have meant the producers wouldn’t have got to put together that cool soundscape where Cally tries to make telepathic contact).
And now, the Conclusion
The greatest difficulty I have in summing up this audio is that I have no idea how a non-fan would react to it. In practical terms, that’s not an issue: Big Finish caters exclusively for fans, so why would someone who’s never watched an episode of B7 be listening to Warship at all? The problem is that whether or not it’s a good experience for the fans doesn’t necessarily translate into whether or not it’s a good piece of audio drama, period. As a fan, the greatest problem I have is in the lengths it goes to for its beginning and end to match up exactly to the series end and beginning it is set between. Over the years, fans have taken great pleasure in hypothesising that the Human-Andromedan War lasted months, a great conflict that ravaged the Milky Way. Big Finish now wants us to believe it was a short skirmish that lasted an hour. As such, Warship feels depressingly small-scale for such an ‘event’ story. The ‘War’ of the title is conspicuous by its absence. Add to that a lack of character interaction outside of rehashing the same philosophical debates raised in the episode it supposedly immediately follows (if there was a chance to defeat your enemies for good, but a slightly slimmer chance that billions of innocents would suffer because of it, would you take the opportunity?), and Warship feels very little like the grand new beginning it has proved to be.
It’s a shame, because I wouldn’t for a second claim that anyone involved in the writing or production of the episode has done a bad job. What I will say is that Warship is exactly what I expected it to be, for all the good and bad that comes with that statement. The sound design is top-notch, and there’s a distinct relish to all the performances- not a single member of the cast seems to be taking their return to stardom for granted in the way that certain members of the Doctor Who cast seem to have started to do after 15 years of making these audios. At the same time, it’s Blake’s 7 by numbers- bar certain elements of the premise, it’s very much a bog-standard episode, as if Big Finish is making sure they can still do that before they try anything more exciting. Warship is a drama with a lot of promise, but it’s a promise to be kept for another day.