Review by Ian McArdell
Avalon Volume 1 launches Big Finish’s new range exploring ‘The Worlds of Blakes 7’. With the sad passing of key cast members rendering full-cast dramas with the Liberator crew untenable, this spin-off range aims to broaden the storytelling universe. Focussing on other characters and situations, other battles against the Federation, it still allows for some of the original cast to feature, essentially as guest stars. In this first boxset, Sally Knyvette and Stephen Greif reprise their roles as Jenna Stannis and Travis respectively.
A fellow rebel leader, the titular Avalon was only encountered once on screen when she was used in a scheme to ensnare Blake. Originally played by Julia Vidler, she was recreated for audio by Olivia Poulet for the 40th Anniversary story The Way Ahead, before going on to guest in the recent Restoration series too. When we first met her, Avalon had garnered a reputation for instigating rebellion on multiple worlds, but this story picks up with her arrival on Earth…
As established onscreen in Project Avalon, Jenna was the only member of Blake’s crew to have previously met Avalon. Here, writer Steve Lyons gives us that encounter in a story which deftly weaves around the events of the onscreen Blake’s 7 opener, The Way Back.
Smuggled to Earth by Jenna, Avalon arrives not long after most of her allies have been massacred by Federation security. Her contact is the resourceful Fay (Becky Wright); a teenager who ekes out an existence amid the pipes and ducting of the habitation dome. Seeking to make an impact, Avalon first has to successfully negotiate entry to the Dome – and avoid the attentions of a petty and vengeful Federation officer; who holds a grudge against their pilot.
Terra Firma does a great job of reintroducing us to Earth and reminds us of what our heroes are up against. Not that Jenna can truly be counted as a hero yet; this is the Liberator’s pilot in her former life as a free trader of some repute, one who needs convincing to support any cause other than her own. Cleverly, the narrative delivers Jenna to her destiny on the London; bound for Cygnus Alpha, at its conclusion.
Alongside Avalon, Jenna and the sparky Fay, we enjoyed the character of Krask; a hard-bitten fellow smuggler with attitude, played with gusto by Nicholas Asbury, who is eventually inspired to the cause.
Avalon takes a background role in the second tale, which focusses on a young man from the public records office who becomes embroiled in her plans. The story is told primarily in flashback, through an interrogation by the ruthless Space Commander Travis. His subject, Argo Madison (Cliff Chapman), is a fascinating creation whose neurodiversity makes him not only extremely well suited to his job, but also a valuable rebel asset to boot.
Writer Gary Russell pens a cleverly constructed tale which shows Travis at his best, in a battle of wits with a surprisingly resilient opponent. The layers are pulled back as we hear of Madison’s trips outside the dome and how he is sucked into Avalon’s world, while at the same time we learn a little more about Travis too. For me, it is the strongest of the three stories here and, we hope, not the last Blake’s 7 story we will hear from Gary Russell (best known for his numerous contributions to Doctor Who in multiple formats.)
As ever, Stephen Greif’s forceful, charmless villainy is a treat to listen too, and he is ably supported by Dawn Murphy as the eager to please Dag.
The story continues with Avalon keen to make a bold statement that will raise the rebels profile, a strike that will get them noticed and bring allies to their cause. However, there is a traitor within their ranks – one whose identity will come as no surprise to any Blake’s 7 fan: Dev Tarrant. Reprising the role he took on for Kith and Kin, though at an earlier point, Malcolm James’s duplicitous security officer takes another crack at quelling rebellion on Earth.
Writer Trevor Baxendale draws this volume to a close with a high stakes tale of espionage that showcases Avalon’s ruthless streak. We loved the introduction of the grizzly Weston (Jon Edgley-Bond) and the terrifically antagonistic relationship struck up between him and his unwilling guest Madison.
Terry Nation conceived a whole society on Earth for Blake to rebel against in The Way Back, before leaving much of it behind in favour of a grand space opera. This first Avalon boxset explores that oppressive system, with its grades of citizens, propaganda and drugged food supplies.
Across the three episodes, three different sound designers create this world – full of unnerving public address announcements, jackbooted guards and computer terminals. It all feels like a natural extension of what was briefly depicted onscreen. This spin-off does have its own theme though, distinctly different from Dudley Simpson’s hum-worthy anthem, and full of 80s sounding synthesisers. At first it felt a little generic, but on reflection, it is probably quite of its time. Perhaps it’s a grower? Whether it will be just for Avalon, or for all the upcoming Worlds boxsets, about Babyan the Butcher, The Clone Masters and the Terra Nostra, remains to be seen.
Without the boon of discovered alien technology, Avalon’s rebellion is tougher and grittier than Blake’s – she is doing this the hard way. There’s no teleport or force wall, it is all about the craft with fake ids and sympathetic contacts in the corrupt administration. However, at the end of three stories, Avalon herself frustratingly remains an enigma (and from her original appearance she was fundamentally a blank slate). Driven and uncompromising, she is prepared to inflict suffering on countless Federation citizens to wake them up, but there is no indication of where her revolutionary zeal comes from? Contrasted with Roj Blake, Avalon is hardly as compelling a character, despite an earnest performance from Olivia Poulet.
I hope the second volume offers more in this regard and to be fair, director/producer John Ainsworth acknowledges that Avalon’s backstory is a bit of a mystery in the Extras. I found it tough to root for her and was more interested in the fate of Argo Madison. Sucked into this rebellion unwillingly, he is terrifically engaging: Cliff Chapman’s performance is by turns, petulant and endearing and I can’t wait to hear how Madison survives in a hostile universe.
The Avalon series reeks of potential, offering a fascinating view askew on the Blake’s 7 universe and this first volume is a great start.
Avalon Volume 1 is available on CD and download from Big Finish.
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