Review by Ian McArdell
After their successful return in box set format last July, for The Spoils of War, this latest release for the Blake’s 7 – The Classic Audio Adventures range initiates a fresh run of twelve stories under the umbrella title of Crossfire which is proposed as a new sub-season of stories, set within Series C.
Paradise Lost by Steve Lyons
The opener brings the Liberator to the paradise planet of Erewhon. Once the playground of the Federation’s elite, this world of pleasure is now lost to sand storms and acid rain, much to Vila’s disappointment. The crew arrive at the behest of Winerhaven (Claire Vousden), a disgruntled former employee who has offered them a tantalising opportunity; the chance to kill President Servalan. While the rest are easily persuaded, Avon remains staunchly sceptic of Winterhaven who he soon sizes as a zealot. He also has concerns about the power vacuum that Servalan’s removal might create.
With his name on the credits, it is hardly a spoiler to mention the return of Hugh Fraser‘s former Federation President, who he plays to duplicitous perfection with his silky tones. Fraser is perhaps best known for his television role as Poriot’s Hastings. Setting out his stall and introducing his legion of resurrected, partially cybernetic troops, we are promised a showdown with the usurper Servalan – as well as with the crew of the Liberator.
Steve Lyon’s story has plenty of work to do, with a necessary focus on this resurgent threat as it sets up the Crossfire story. While it does, there is plenty of drama to be had in an unusual and evocative setting; with Danya held prisoner and the others working to rescue her. It also pairs Avon (Paul Darrow) with Winterhaven; reminding us how ruthless he can be, handling a potential rival for the loyalty of the crew in lieu of Blake.
Next up, save for framing scenes, is a solo mission for Cally (Jan Chappell). Following a distressing telepathic summons, Cally finds herself on a primitive former Federation colony world where the city is surrounded by scaly alien barbarian hordes.
With some insight into unpleasant local politics, we are introduced to the storekeeper Malvek who keeps a tight hand on meagre supplies. He also maintains a healthy dislike for a cult of religious worshipers who have sprung up, following the god Electra. As Cally treks to uncover the heart of the mystery at “the sleeping grave” with these true believers, she finds herself in the midst of a tricky love triangle – albeit due to the side effect of a leaky neuronic weapon – and at the mercy of a demanding deity.
Horror writer Simon Clark, who has written for Big Finish’s Survivors range and adapted his own The Night of the Triffids, provides a strong tale, with plenty of action and ample scenes of creepy telepathic action, all sold through some immersive sound design. I really appreciated the level of detail in the creation of this world; particularly in the characters of Malvek, who is grasping, manipulative and out for what he can get, and in Gwen and Kalvert; the true believers of the title.
When the Liberator comes under attack from an unknown signal, it is soon clear that the threat is one that cannot be ignored; the incongruous sound of the ever-calm Zen with a stutter signifies the seriousness. Picking up on the events of the Series B opener Redemption is a solid idea, as the resolution of that episode came fast and the ideas behind it were certainly ripe for further exploration. As a computer controlled civilisation, with the technology to build a ship as impressive as the Liberator, it seems logical that “The System” would have created multiple levels of redundancy despite their repeated assertions of infallibility.
Meeting this threat through the eyes of Danya (Yasmin Bannerman) works well, she was not part of the Liberator’s crew for the first encounter and the tragedies in her recent past make her ideal to be seduced by their lure. There is almost a note of Doctor Who’s Cybermen to them; in the offer of release from painful emotions. Before the action begins, writer Mark Wright treats us to some crew downtime. While Vila, Cally and Tarrant play Cosmopoly; which sounds like tremendous fun if any game-makers are reading, there is some superb character work for the other two; Dayna refines her weaponry and obsesses over shooting Servalan to avenge her father, while Avon maintains his usual level of paranoia.
Of the four tales here, this is the one which gives most for Zen and Orac to do. Both are, as ever, ably performed by Alastair Lock who gets to take the latter to new places towards the end of the tale. With just a single member of guest cast, Abi Harris represents The System here with a terrific performance as the impassive Alta-Six.
With the middle two episodes appearing to steer clear of the main Crossfire story, although either may still have bearing in retrospect, this release rounds out with a brilliant Vila and Cally tale. In a strong set, it is a clear favourite and as the writer David Bryher comments in the CD extras, an idea that the television series might have played with, granting Vila the gift of courage for a single story.
Working with Cally, and despite his misgivings, Vila is bolstered by a telepathic link which tempers his fear so that he can enter negotiations for a batch of former Federation pursuit ships that have fallen into criminal hands. The criminal in question is Zeera Vos (Rebecca Crankshaw), a former ally of Vila and, of course, the other party bidding for the ships is none other than Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce) herself. Michael Keating clearly relishes the chance to play this altered take on Vila and the result is hilarious, with the now fearless thief transformed into a potentially reckless monster and lothario. The scenes where he flirts with Servalan are priceless! The conclusion, which brings Servalan up to speed on her new nemesis and sees her recruit a new ally definitely whet my appetite for the next batch of stories.
With two full-cast tales, and two more personal missions, Jan Chappell’s Cally has been well used here and I have enjoyed the further exploration of her telepathic powers. Presumably, the twelve story sequence will allow others to have their day in the sun too. In terms of casting it feels as though producer John Ainsworth has, for want of a better term, cast the net a little wider than some of the other Big Finish ranges and that is all to the good as the characters all sound fresh and distinctive.
Across the set, the sound design and music is once again exemplary. Resurgence in particular stood out for providing some excellent explosions and sent me scurrying back to my DVD boxset for a rewatch. Working within their creative restrictions, carving out a space for their own season of tales seems like an astute move for Big Finish. While we know, or at least assume that we know, the outcome of this Presidential clash, it offers a strong backbone of escalating tensions to hang stories on. Personally, I cannot wait to hear Hugh Fraser and Jacqueline Pearce in a head to head!
For the moment though, I will duck for cover while we wait for Crossfire Part 2 in January, and give this set 8 spacials out of 10.