Review by Ian McArdell
Following three Earthbound tales, this second volume sees Avalon (Olivia Poulet) and her reluctant ally Argo Madison (Cliff Chapman) escape to the stars. While I found plenty to enjoy in the first set, notably the exploration of Earth’s society as glimpsed in Blake’s 7’s first episode, I found the central character of Avalon underdeveloped; despite her famous name we came away knowing precious little about her, save for a ruthless determination to destroy the oppressive Federation system.
First up, Colin Baker reprises his role as Bayban, first encountered and spoilers, seemingly killed off, onscreen in Series C’s City at the Edge of the World. Set before that story, we meet his famous and oft-quoted mother. After a breakout from the high security Vankberg prison, in which Bayban escapes and mother doesn’t, she is subjected to a gruesome fate by the sadistic governor Winters.
With Avalon keen to break back in, on the trail of a religious artefact (which might just spark a revolution), she enlists Bayban’s help. After a little persuasion, he is more than happy for an opportunity to wreak some revenge!
Writer Niel Bushnell has penned a crazy heist, as the protagonists go undercover as a repair crew. This mismatched team have wildly conflicting styles, with Avalon’s stealth approach repeatedly endangered by Bayban’s brute force tactics. Matters are further complicated by Madison too, who distrusts their other ally, the god-fearing Noral (Graham Seed).
Bayban was a famously ‘big’ performance, memorable despite minimal screen time. He has lost none of his power here and while given far more to do, Colin Baker remains hilariously, scenery-chewing over-the-top; Bayban constantly refers to himself in the third person with a never-ending carousel of ‘B’ epithets. We also loved the concept of “the filigree”, a sort of intergalactic LinkedIn for rebels and anti-Federation malcontents to get in touch with each other.
Providing the character with a purpose, this is an entertaining romp which also appears to serve as a primer for Bayban’s own forthcoming boxset, due in December.
Christopher Cooper’s story finds Avalon strapped for cash – revolution is a costly business. In order to fund her latest scheme, she hires herself (and Madison) out to former business associate Corelano (Rachel Atkins). Unfortunately for our heroes, Corelano also has the duplicitous former Federation Security agent Dev Tarrant (Malcolm James) on the payroll. Tense scenes ensure as this unhappy trio undertake a lengthy journey, crewing a small shuttle. I loved the trading of sarcastic barbs between them, while the devious Dev got under the skin of Madison in the nastiest of ways – needling him about the death of his parents and undermining his confidence. Naturally, we always suspect Dev is going to betray the pair, it is just a matter of when and how.
Funny as well as tense, this is a great story which delivered a rather unexpected ending for Madison. I also enjoyed the way Jamie Robertson’s score picked up on the lighter, more comic moments in the script.
Heart of Ice
The boxset concludes with a story that delivers Avalon back to where we first met her on screen. Covertly entering a base on an icy world, she is caught within the machinations of Travis as he attempts to ensnare Blake.
Steve Lyons’ tale showcases both Avalon’s mercenary tendencies and her opportunism. She blackmails a Federation Lieutenant, thanks to an early career indiscretion, to gain free passage and then access to the base. He also reminds us that she is prepared to kill in cold blood to achieve her aims, with a prize no less than the Federation President in her sights. The story also demonstrates how similar the tactics both Travis and Avalon use are, with the former even calling her out on it.
Bringing a touch of class, Hugh Fraser’s urbane President shares scenes with Travis (Stephen Greif). Used to hearing the character play against Servalan, it was fascinating to hear Travis so deferential. I’d love some more of this! As the story concludes, it also ties up neatly with Project Avalon, as well as finally gives the chilly planet a name – Cryonax – something Terry Nation’s original script failed to do!
Across the three stories, Olivia Poulet’s Avalon makes for a charismatic lead who is sufficiently different from Blake to keep things interesting. Paired with her apprehensive accomplice Madison, pitched perfectly by Cliff Chapman, these adventures offer a fresh angle on resistance to the Federation.
However, I did feel that there was an inherent lack of threat for the principals throughout. Travis, the President, Bayban, Dev Tarrant and even Avalon herself – all of these characters have previously defined ends. While understandable for the original cast, slotting in Liberator adventures between televised stories, there must surely be more scope to ratchet up the tension in a spin-off.
Returning to an earlier point, should there be a further volume of Avalon’s adventures – and I really hope there is – I would like to learn about her past and her motivations. To be fair, director/producer John Ainsworth acknowledges this in the Extras and suggests it could be addressed in the future, with stories taking place post-Project Avalon.
Minor grumbles aside, the series has been a successful proof of concept, proving there is plenty of scope to tell stories in this universe away from the Liberator and her crew. Produced to Big Finish’s usual exemplary standards, there is plenty to enjoy here.
So what’s next for Blake’s 7 at Big Finish? Three further Worlds boxsets have been confirmed for release between now and January 2021. The aforementioned Babyan the Butcher, as well as The Clone Masters (promising Cally, Jenna and two versions of Travis!), and The Terra Nostra. Each comes with an accompanying audiobook – and there’s one due in July 2021 too – Tim Gambrell’s The Palluma Project, read by Sally Knyvette.
Avalon Volume 2 is available on CD and download from Big Finish.
Order from Forbidden Planet
Check out the rest of our Big Finish reviews!