Review by Ian McArdell
The Clone Masters once again takes a step away from the Liberator, providing another angle on The Worlds of Blake’s 7. Despite being framed as a spin-off, it actually stars two Blake’s 7 regulars, Sally Knyvette (Jenna) and Jan Chappell (Cally), and well as the recurring menace(s) of Travis in two aspects, as played by Brian Croucher and Stephen Greif.
The titular Clone Masters featured onscreen in Series B’s Weapon and were involved in one of Servalan’s many schemes providing two duplicates of Blake. Despite their brief appearance, and a later namecheck, the idea was impactful enough to pose many questions and hint at a complex society. Created by script editor Chris Boucher, the world he built in a few lines are enough for writer Tim Foley to run with and develop a clever and thought-provoking tale.
We begin with Separation which sees Jenna seemingly ensnared in the plans of a former criminal associate turned psycho-strategist named Hinton. Together she and Cally head to a remote world, with the telepath troubled at the suggestion of another child of Auron, impossibly named Lara K. What they find there is a lone amnesiac survivor of a scientific research mission, built around a crashed spaceship. With the base smashed up, a grisly mystery unfolds that seemingly links to the Clone Masters.
Introducing the concepts, this first episode also pairs Jenna and Cally together for an off-ship adventure. It works brilliantly, allowing both to show their strengths; Jenna is ruthlessly competent while Cally is more instinctual, Together, they are formidable!
With events set in motion, The Rule of Life jumps us back in time to follow the second iteration of Space Commander Travis (Brian Croucher). With the Queen of the Clone Masters dead, and a conclave beginning to select a new leader, representatives from various worlds have arrived. Travis is ostensibly present on behalf of the Federation but, naturally, he has his own agenda: he has chosen to demand a clone of himself – who better?
The creation of a clone-Travis, played by the Series A actor Stephen Grief, is the fan-pleasing masterstroke at the heart of this story. While it would have doubtless been enjoyable with two Brian Crouchers, the opportunity to hear the two, quite different Travises interact creates something very special. With his levels of paranoia, we surely know that an alliance is doomed! As the tale develops, we also dig into the dark, sometimes repulsive secrets of this fundamentalist clone race and their living city.
Finally, The Conclave sees Cally arrive to resolve the mystery of Lara K. Posing as a visitor, she soon finds herself fighting for survival alongside the most unlikely of ally.
The Clone Masters feels like more familiar ground than Avalon did, like an off-Liberator side adventure with other members of the crew mentioned in passing. Tim Foley, who has also worked across both the Torchwood and Doctor Who ranges, does a brilliant job of extrapolating that Boucher world building into a whole civilisation. While he does not bring any of his more unusual perspectives, such as second-person narration to the story, there’s certainly a familiar grotesque element at play (don’t ask where all the male Clone Masters are) and a terrific sense of scale.
This is a particularly good tale for Jan Chappell. In dual roles she delivers two well-differentiated performances as the familiar Cally and unfamiliar Lara K. Of course, it’s not the first time she has played another of Cally’s clone sisters, and Children of Auron is referenced in the Extras.
Director Lisa Bowerman surrounds the regulars with an impressive guest cast: Abigail Thaw amuses as the scheming Hinton, while Richenda Carey brings ample gravitas to her role as the ancient Clone Master Shar. There is top notch sound design and music from Jamie Robertson too – I particularly loved the theme, a spiritual sister to the Blake’s 7 main titles
The Clone Masters masterfully slots into a hole in established Blake’s 7 continuity and that is tremendously satisfying. Equally, it loses nothing if you don’t know where events are headed. It also drops a number of threads to be developed elsewhere. With two other boxsets announced, Bayban the Butcher and The Terra Nostra, it will be fascinating to hear how and where these elements are picked up.
In short, I highly recommend The Clone Masters as an intriguing dive into an aspect of Blake’s 7 that the television show simply didn’t have time for. Also, it redresses the balance by giving both Cally and Jenna some well-deserved action away from the Liberator – and who can argue with two Travises?
Check out the rest of our Big Finish reviews!