Audio Review: Big Finish - Blake's 7: The Way Ahead (40th Anniversary Special)


Review by Jackie Emery

Paul Darrow (Avon), Michael Keating (Vila), Sally Knyvette (Jenna), Jan Chappell (Cally), Steven Pacey (Tarrant), Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan), Stephen Greif (Travis), Yasmin Bannerman (Dayna) and Alistair Lock (Zen and Orac)
Glynis Barber (Magda), Olivia Poulet (Avalon), Kate Brown (Cassandra), Sam Woodward (Sheltak / Freighter Captain ), Catherine Bailey (Mutoid/Captain), Fanos Xenofós (Interceptor Commander / Trooper)

Writer: Mark Wright
Sound Design and Music: Simon Power
Cover Art: Lee Johnson
Produced, Directed and Script Edited by John Ainsworth for Big Finish Productions

In April 2017, Horizon was arranging to interview Big Finish's new Blake's 7 producer, John Ainsworth. During our correspondence, he mentioned that Big Finish would be producing a special audio for the 40th Anniversary, and asked what fans would like to hear. With the disclaimer that I couldn't speak for *all* fans, I thought that the general wish would probably be to include as many of the characters as possible. I'm proud to say that he took up the suggestion, and the result is a triumph!

John has pulled off an astonishing feat – producing and directing, in a remarkably short time, an epic two-part, series-spanning, cinematic-sounding audio drama. All the elements are present that are loved in Blakes 7: strong characters, snappy dialogue, action, humour, and especially the grey areas and moral ambiguities of this dystopian series. Setting the stories in Seasons A and C means that we get to hear both pre- and post-Galactic War crews of the Liberator, and although the Season D rights issue meant that Soolin couldn't appear, we do have Glynis Barber making her first return to the series.

The Way Ahead features the rebel leader Avalon, whom we never really got to know in Project Avalon apart from a few hints as to her leadership qualities: she inspired loyalty in her rebels, and was admired by Cally. Writer Mark Wright took those elements and made her a strong and complex character, working together with the Liberator crew in the first story and locking horns with them in the second. Julia Vidler has not been acting for some time, so the part was recast with Olivia Poulet, who does an excellent job of capturing the character we saw on screen and developing her further.

Part 1: Project Aquitar
Set during the first series, some time between Project Avalon and Orac.
Avalon contacts the Liberator to ask for help. The Federation have a new weapon that is being deployed against her rebels with devastating effect...

Mark Wright seems to love his super-weapons, as we've heard before in the award-winning (and highly recommended) The Armageddon Storm. In Project Aquitar, depictions of this new weapon are particularly enhanced by descriptive dialogue and fx that incorporate a familiar sound – a lovely detail from sound designer Simon Power.

All the characters are spot-on; each gets a piece of the action and their moment to shine. Due to the loss of Gareth Thomas, recent Big Finish audios have been set in Season C, so it was delightful to hear Sally Knyvette and Stephen Greif reprise their roles, especially in some cracking scenes of Jenna and Travis together. However, Blake and Gan are inevitably silent presences, and this was an aspect of the audio that didn't really work for me. Although having them on teleport duty meant that Jenna and Cally got more action than usual, Blake being asleep in his cabin during crucial scenes on the flight deck, or deciding to stay on the Liberator while the others teleported down, felt awkward and out of character. We are all too aware of the sad reason why we wouldn't hear him, so perhaps there should have been fewer attempts to explain away his silence?

Part 2: Dissent
Set during the third series, some time around Rumours of Death
After the Galactic War, the Federation is recovering its strength and Servalan is President. However, Avalon is intent on continuing Blake's fight, with the Liberator at the vanguard...

Dissent very much captures the style and tone of Series 3, with Orac, Dayna and Tarrant now on board the Liberator. In some ways, it works better than Project Aquitar, because Gan and Travis are dead and Blake is missing, so they can be spoken about naturally without excuses having to be made for their absence. As before, all the characters get to shine and there are some particularly enjoyable scenes for various crew members with Servalan, who in the first story appears only with Travis.

All the cast – old and new – turn in excellent performances, whether reprising their old roles, creating new ones or stepping into others' shoes. I'm now completely used to hearing Alistair Lock as Zen and Orac, while Yasmin Bannerman continues to play a very convincing Dayna. It's lovely that Jan Chappell's son Sam has a role in each of the episodes, playing one of Avalon's rebels in Project Aquitar and the Freighter Captain in Dissent.

As Big Finish haven't got the rights to Series 4, we knew that Glynis Barber would not be returning as Soolin, but instead as a character called Magda. But who is Magda? Well, now...

It was decided that the framing device to connect the stories would be a post-Gauda Prime scenario in which Magda's gentle but cynical questioning prompts Avon's narration of the events. Glynis Barber is terrific, and there is a real chemistry in their scenes together. I was so thrilled to be hearing her again that it took me a few minutes to realise that the PGP setting was the one created by Paul Darrow in his novel Lucifer, in which Magda is Avon's young lover on the island planet of Gaius 7. In Lucifer, we're also told that Magda's mother, Cassandra, was one of Avalon's rebels, and the character makes a significant appearance as Avalon's second-in-command in Dissent. Fans will have their own views on this, but the framing scenes can be taken at face value in the context of this audio, and no previous knowledge of Lucifer is required.

And the final framing scene is so beautiful and bittersweet that I was moved to tears.

3. Behind the Scenes
The third disc in this collection contains 70 minutes of interviews with the cast and crew, intercut with appropriate clips and amusing out-takes from various Big Finish audios.
The original cast reminisce about making the TV series; how they got their roles, the way they saw their characters. They talk about working on location; the props and the costumes. Meanwhile, the new cast members are bubbling over with enthusiasm at working on Blake's 7. Unusually for an audio, Mat Irvine is among the interviewees, having been invited to bring Orac, guns & bracelets to the studio for the photo shoots. John Ainsworth and Mark Wright talk about creating the story, and warm tributes are paid to those who are no longer with us: David Maloney, Vere Lorrimer, Peter Tuddenham, David Jackson, and, of course Gareth Thomas.

This production contains everything that made B7 so very special, and is a magnificent celebration of the series' 40th Anniversary.

Blake's 7 – The Way Ahead is available on CD and Digital Download, and can be ordered HERE
The full range of Blake's 7 audio dramas and original novels from Big Finish can be found here: Blake's 7 Hub, and are reviewed on Horizon here: Horizon Reviews

Cast photos courtesy of Big Finish
Review originally posted by Travisina on 07 January 2018