Big Finish Review: Blake's 7 - Crossfire Part 1

Blake’s 7 was, and has remained, one of the TV series that defines the term ‘cult classic’.  It could look, at a distance, like the dowdier cousin of Doctor Who; created by Dalek kingpin Terry Nation and produced, during its 1978-81 run on the BBC , by a revolving door of staff largely poached from the then-current incarnation of the older show. But Blake’s 7 had a core of innovative steel that contrasted fascinatingly with its often flaky, somewhat camp studio-bound surface.

The original cast of Blake’s 7 in 1979: David Jackson, Paul Darrow, Jan Chappell, Gareth Thomas, Sally Knyvette, Michael Keating (photo: BBC)
Nation’s format focuses on rebel Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas), who gathers together a bunch of down-and-out followers in a seemingly doomed quest to overthrow the omnipotent Terran Federation in a hellishly repressive, Orwellian far-future which looks like the dark mirror of the galactic utopia presided over by Gene Roddenberry’s similarly-named Federation in Star Trek.  Despite the quirky twist that the rebels’ best and only weapon against their oppressors is the terrifyingly advanced and sentient alien spaceship (‘the Liberator’) they chance into inhabiting, it’s a fairly standard setup for an SF adventure series. But Blake’s 7 quickly became far more than its premise suggests.

The Liberator (photo: BBC)
It was the first such series to build an ongoing narrative arc into its threat-of-the-week format, with characters growing and changing, actions often having unexpected long-term consequences, and seasons that built to shocking cliff-hangers; it anticipated Babylon 5 and the Battlestar Galactica reboot by decades.  The series’ constant dialogue doctor Chris Boucher ensured that the character interactions were laced with a certain political astuteness, hard-nosed reality and a seasoning of comedy which was always more acidic than the broader wackiness often practised by the more kid-friendly Doctor Who.

These qualities were particularly evident in the barbed exchanges between Blake and his far more pragmatic ersatz lieutenant Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow), who remained distrustful of Blake’s idealism and always seemed to have one eye on taking the Liberator for himself.  Needless to say, the show’s narrative scope and visual ambition easily outstripped the capabilities of Television Centre on a Z Cars budget, but this gives the whole thing an air of slight desperation which feels appropriate to the surely-doomed enterprise of the Liberator crew.

It’s in the third TV series (or ‘Season C’ as it is referred to by the fans) that this desperation began to get particularly, fascinatingly acute, as Avon was ironically forced to take control of the ship, and the series, after Blake went ‘missing presumed alive’ in a space battle (Gareth Thomas having left the show to join the RSC).  And it’s within this season that Big Finish’s latest box-set of Blake’s 7 audio adventures, available exclusively from the Big Finish site until November 30th and on general release thereafter, takes place.

The cast of Blake’s 7 Season C (1980): Steven Pacey, Michael Keating, Jacqueline Pearce, Paul Darrow, Jan Chappell, Josette Simon (photo: BBC)

The Synopsis

Four new brand-new full-cast Blake's 7 adventures set during the TV series' third season

1 Paradise Lost by Steve Lyons

Erewhon was a legendary vacation planet - until it was ravaged by acid storms. A new friend brings the Liberator crew here, their objective: to assassinate an old enemy. But what they find beneath Erewhon’s surface will plunge the galaxy into turmoil.

2 True Believers by Simon Clark

A mysterious voice forces Cally to a barren world where barbarians threaten a beleaguered city. There, Cally joins a dangerous quest to the Singing Grave, encountering evil of immense ferocity and power.

3 Resurgence by Mark Wright

A distress signal lures the Liberator to an uncharted world, where the ship’s systems come under attack from an outside influence. Avon and the crew face a spectre of the past that could destroy their hopes for the future.

4 Fearless by David Bryher

A criminal scheme threatens the balance of power in the Federation, and Vila's skills offer the best hope of containing the chaos. Bolstered by Cally's telepathy, he leaps into action - but when Servalan arrives on the scene, the situation quickly spirals out of control... 


The Review

This review is spoiler-free.

Big Finish has now been producing audio dramas based on Blake’s 7 for six years, but they arrived somewhat late to the party.  During the early 2000s, when it was establishing itself with early releases based on Doctor Who, The Tomorrow People, Earthsearch and others, the company would often employ former Blake’s 7 rebels like Thomas, Sally Knyvette (Jenna), David Jackson (Gan) and Michael Keating (Vila), but were unable to mount an actual Blake’s 7 drama because the rights were then controlled by B7 Media, who were intent on launching ultimately abortive TV and audio ‘reimaginings’ of the series.  By the time, in 2011, B7 agreed to BF producing ‘classic series audios’, Jackson and Peter Tuddenham (who voiced the two sentient computers aboard the Liberator) had both died, effectively limiting the characters who could be featured in the audios, and there was a sense that, perhaps, the series had missed its moment.

Nevertheless, the Blake’s 7 range has consistently been one of the strongest and most robustly entertaining produced by Big Finish, while feeling utterly of a piece with its TV inspiration.  Earlier releases got around the absence of key actors in imaginative ways, often (in The Liberator Chronicles) by telling stories from the viewpoint of just one of the regular characters, or by elevating a one-off character to a temporary lead whose perspective would shed a new light on the established crew. The existing, beloved characters were deepened, not compromised, by these new angles.

In 2015, the company released Series Two of Blake’s 7: The Classic Audio Adventures, set, like Crossfire, during Season C but having to deal with the enforced absence one of the regulars that season introduced, orphaned weapons expert Dayna Mellanby (original actress Josette Simon being very much alive – you may have seen her on the big screen this summer in Wonder Woman – but amicably unwilling to participate in the audios).  The series ingeniously resorted to a plot in which Dayna had mysteriously vanished, importing in her place the TV guest character of Del Grant (Tom Chadbon), who joined the crew to help search for her.

However, the sad death last year of Gareth Thomas, Blake himself, means that from this point, Big Finish must locate its dramas in the largely Thomas-free, Dayna-inflected Seasons C and D, and therefore the ‘missing Dayna’ gambit was clearly only going to work for a limited time.  But having reassured fans with their fidelity to the original series’ concept and characters, Big Finish has now grown confident enough to contemplate recasting iconic roles (an attitude that is recently evident in its Doctor Who ranges too).  Although the producers might still think twice about replacing Thomas, the more recent Blake’s 7 audios have brought in Alastair Lock to fill Tuddenham’s roles of the twin computers Zen and Orac, and Yasmin Bannerman (cementing her position as probably the UK’s leading black female SF actor following roles in Red Dwarf, Torchwood and both TV and audio Doctor Who) to take over from Simon.

Both actors are superb – it’s clear from the extras on the previous box-set, The Spoils of War, that Bannerman, who watched Blake’s 7 on TV as a child and hero-worshipped Simon’s Dayna, absolutely relishes playing the character.  When recasting key roles in an established ensemble, what’s important isn’t so much that the incoming actors imitate their predecessors, but that the chemistry that has been established between they and the other characters is maintained.  That’s certainly the case here, with the newcomers fitting in perfectly alongside Darrow, Keating, Jan Chappell’s telepathic Cally, and Steven Pacey’s sardonic Tarrant – and on top of that, Lock and Bannerman are just vocally close enough to Tuddenham and Simon that life aboard the Liberator, Season C-style, feels much the same (and just as enjoyable) as ever it was.

Now I’ll admit that was a pretty long preamble for a review.  But The Digital Fix has rarely covered Blake’s 7 in the past, and it’s one series about which there’s always a lot to say (which I think is one of the reasons that its cult status has never dwindled over the years).  And I wanted to get the context out of the way, because Crossfire Part 1 is the first of a new series, the subsequent instalments of which I hope I’ll also be reviewing.  And it looks to be a series that will really deserve praise.

What’s daring about Crossfire is that its three boxsets will comprise a twelve-episode ‘season-within-a-season’ of adventures set between Season C’s twelfth episode, Deathwatch, and its thirteenth, Terminal.  After the first two TV seasons, in which Blake’s group had fought a running battle with the Federation, only to be forced to join with them to fight the bigger threat of an alien invasion of the galaxy (a battle which decimated the Federation but also caused the loss of Blake and Jenna), Season C had seen a shift in format.  Avon and the remaining rebels struggled for survival (and purpose) and the desperate remnants of the Federation became dangerously resurgent under the leadership of its new President, Blake’s old nemesis Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce).

Coming at the end of this season, Terminal was originally intended as the finale of the whole show (Season D was an afterthought) and, despite the series displaying some impressive moves the following year, the episode still feels final: it’s the last episode written by Nation; the last to feature the Liberator (Season D featuring a less-interesting replacement ship, Scorpio); it brings back Thomas as Blake; and sees the apparent death of Servalan.  Crossfire represents a whole new arc building right up to the end of the Liberator’s story, developing plot threads that were hinted at but not fully developed in the TV season.  It has the potential to be an epic.  And Part 1 gets it off to a good start.

The first episode, Paradise Lost, is written by Steve Lyons, a writer whose career has included lots of SF spin-off fiction and a few bitingly satirical mock-reference books on cult television such as the hilarious (and hilariously insular) Completely Useless Encyclopaedia series.  He’s therefore highly qualified to deliver both high-concept drama and caustic put-downs.

Relations between the crew are ruffled by the arrival aboard the Liberator of Elana Winterhaven (fiercely incarnated by Clare Vousden).  She’s a vengeful former employee of the Federation who used to manage the ‘pleasure planet’ of Erewhon (spot the reference in the name), spurred on to her own Blake-style idealistic crusade against what’s left of the Federation by the disgust she felt at the indolent high-ups who used to frequent her establishment.  She has the potential to become the new leader of the group – an impression reinforced by Vousden’s obsessive charisma – but Avon, typically, has his suspicions (voiced by Darrow with his undiminished, inimitably cutting drawl).

The entire cast are given good material as the crew descend on Erewhon to follow Winterhaven’s lead that Servalan is in hiding on the planet, there are several tense confrontations (notably with Erewhon’s acidic atmosphere) and effective twists. Like all the best Blake’s 7 episodes it has at least one laugh-out-loud moment (here being Tarrant’s description of the required procedure to take your foot off a landmine).  It’s exciting, punchy, and a hugely entertaining start to the 'season'.

True Believers is markedly different in tone, being a solo adventure for Chappell’s Cally.  Written by justly-lauded horror author Simon Clark (Blood Crazy, Nailed by the Heart), who also writes for Survivors (Big Finish’s other series based on a mid-1970s Terry Nation show), it initially feels more like an episode of that series than of Blake’s 7, with the lone Cally separated from the Liberator and getting to know the inhabitants of a post-apocalyptic community.

The TV episodes that diverted from the ongoing narrative of the fight against the Federation to explore an SF-concept-of-the-week were always the less interesting instalments, at least for me, so I was predisposed to dislike this episode, but in truth it has many strengths.  Clark’s story – in which Cally is telepathically compelled, apparently by a deity, to help a group of religious humans besieged by savage indigenous creatures on an abandoned colony planet – largely plays as an entertaining fantasy yarn complete with prophecies and hideous creatures.  But its use of religion as a key theme links to the series’ wider treatment of authority and control in a surprising and imaginative way, which I won’t give away here.

The focus on Cally gives the character better material than was generally the case in the TV show, and Chappell responds with a really terrific performance.  This combined with Clark’s natural flair for vividly described horror lends several sequences – such as Cally’s enforced encounters with the God-like entity’s mind control and with a monstrous, vampiric ‘slug-mite’ – a genuinely uncomfortable, visceral impact.  Overall True Believers feels like a diversion from the main flow of the box set, but it’s strongly performed and remains intriguing and enjoyable throughout.

The remaining two episodes adhere to the TV show’s preference for blunt one-word titles.  Mark Wright’s Resurgence is another action-packed ensemble piece.  Wright, also an actor, has really served his time and risen through the ranks at Big Finish since playing bit-parts in its earliest releases, through to co-penning several acclaimed entries in both the Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 ranges with Cavan Scott, and here writing solo.  His story sees the Liberator fall prey to a force which traps Vila, Cally and Tarrant aboard the ship whilst Avon and Dayna are marooned on a nearby space station.

The script is an impressive piece, both fun, menacing and suspenseful, that really feels like Blake’s 7 Series C.  All of the Liberator characters are well-characterised, with Pacey again shining as he delivers Tarrant’s gung-heroics, and Wright makes an intriguing double-act by pairing Avon with Dayna – something that was rarely done on television.  To say more might risk spoiling things, however.

The sound design and music (by Simon Power, Luke Pietnik and Nigel Fairs) deserve special mention here.  It is excellent on every episode, but particularly adds to the excitement of Resurgence, doing a great job of conjuring some epic space-opera visuals.  There is a launch sequence accompanied almost lyrically by a horn solo which cannot help but gladden the heart of any Blake’s 7 fan, so reminiscent is it of the work of the TV show’s original composer, the late Dudley Simpson.

Finally, Fearless is written by David Bryher, who has been a longtime contributor to Big Finish and to writing on cult television, credited until recently under his real name David Bailey.  Fearless focuses on Vila and Cally and, like many Vila-centric stories, is pretty much a comedy – but one that, on this occasion, grows increasingly tense.

An opportunistic pirate, Zeera Voss (Rebecca Crankshaw) has salvaged several Federation pursuit ships from the aftermath of the Galactic War and is auctioning them off to the highest bidder.  Vila is the Liberator crew’s best hope to hijack the deal, as he has a prior association with Zeera, but there’s one problem – he’s terrified of her.  So Cally risks performing an ancient Auron mind-link technique which will calm Vila’s fears as long as he is in Cally’s presence.  However, once Cally and Vila arrive on Zeera’s space station, perilously located in orbit around a dying star, things do not go to plan, and the pair are separated…

It’s a terrific setup, not least because the premise allows Michael Keating to flex his considerable comic muscles as the newly-self-confident Vila.  When the Federation arrive, keen to recover their lost ships, and the balming link with Cally is broken, Vila’s natural cowardice comes back with a vengeance and Keating is as effective at communicating distress as he was playing comedy.  Zeera, too, is an intriguing villainess; in fact, directors John Ainsworth and Nigel Fairs and all the writers and actors concerned are to be congratulated that Crossfire Part 1 is populated by so many complex and compelling female characters – as befitting a show which had one of the first strongly female fandoms in SF.  The conclusion is both thrilling and shocking, setting up consequences which will be felt in future episodes.

The Extras

As with many Big Finish box-set releases, a whole extra disc here is given over to behind-the-scenes interviews.  These are always enjoyable to listen to, not least because of the enthusiasm with which those involved clearly approach their work.  Chappell in particularly seems hardly able to contain her joy at the amount that Cally gets to do in these episodes.  The guest cast are audibly thrilled both by the writing of their characters and by the challenging nature of aural sci-fi acting, but none more so than Donovan Christian-Carey (who plays Zeera’s sidekick Herrick) who describes himself as a “fanboy” of Blake’s 7.

Of the off-mic contributors, producer and co-director John Ainsworth is a thoughtful, softly spoken guide to the creative process: he’s only recently inherited the Blake’s 7 range, but he clearly understands what makes the series work.  But the most interesting insights come from Resurgence writer Mark Wright, whose love for the series is amusingly evident, but who has obviously thought deeply about how best to utilize the cast and some of the less-explored ideas of the TV show to make audios which do not just recreate the original series, but strengthen it.

Some final thoughts...

Crossfire Part 1 is a satisfying opener to what promises to be a thrilling new direction for Big Finish’s Blake’s 7 range – in fact, probably the best possible direction for the series.  In talking about the individual episodes I have tried to avoid spoilers, because these stories really do work wonderfully well if you don’t know what’s coming.  But anyone who has read the cast list will know that this box set features appearances by Jacqueline Pearce as Servalan, and Hugh Fraser (Agatha Christie’s Poirot) as The Old President.

It has been one of Big Finish’s best innovations to introduce the smooth vocals of Fraser as a character often referred to but never seen in the TV series – the nameless head of the Terran Federation, deposed by Servalan in an off-screen coup d’etat shortly prior to the Galactic War.  Now the inaccurately-presumed-dead ex-President is back, determined to reclaim his empire and revenge himself upon both Servalan and the Liberator crew.  Meanwhile, Servalan herself is just as determined to consolidate what remains of the Federation into her own personal armada; and Pearce, though her voice has aged more notably than any of the other TV veterans in the cast, has never been more ruthlessly terrifying.

The meaning of the series’ subtitle suddenly becomes clear: a final confrontation seems inevitable – and how Avon and co will survive the crossfire is hard to foresee.  But this box set also contains a direct sequel to a particular TV episode – one that should have been pivotal to the series, but whose potential was thrown away.  Crossfire’s sequel is not only a more effective follow-up, but it hints at possible future ramifications which surely must be explored in the next two box-sets, or not at all.  The triumph of Crossfire Part 1 is that it has effortlessly combined plot threads to open up a whole new chapter of a story we thought had already been told, and done it in thrilling style.

I could not recommend this box-set more to Blake’s 7 fans: it’s exciting, fun, imaginatively conceived, and splendidly acted across the board.  The only real downside is that, as it sits so deep within Blake’s 7 continuity, I can’t really recommend it to anyone unfamiliar with the TV series.  But if you’ve never seen Blake’s 7 and you’re reading this – well, what are you waiting for?  Watch it, and then you can have the thrill of listening to this box-set.

I can’t wait for the next one, and if, after Crossfire is complete, Big Finish can do something similar for the often-wonderful but even-more-underdeveloped narrative of Season D, I might just explode with joy.

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