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It's been quite a while since Big Finish actually put out any Blake's 7 content. Since the sad passing of Gareth Thomas, Big Finish has had to try and work around this, and since Josette Simon has decided not to return to Blake's 7, Big Finish were in a tight bind. However, producer John Ainsworth decided to recast Dayna anyway, and continue with full-cast audios set during the third season of the TV show. The Spoils of War is the first box set under the new regime, and, while it does have a couple of issues, it is a decent set, with some fairly good stories and an interesting linking theme. It certainly helps that the recast of Dayna is possibly one of the best things that Big Finish have done with Blake's 7, and promises exciting things for the future.
The first story, Liberation, is set in the immediate aftermath of the TV story Powerplay, and focuses on the character of Dayna. Of course, with the team recasting Dayna, it was quite natural for the first story to focus upon her. Actress Yasmin Bannerman is a natural fit for the character, and she slips into the role effortlessly, taking over where Josette Simon left. In fact, I'd go so far to say that she's much better than Simon herself. Bannerman gives Dayna a much more sympathetic bent than Simon ever did. Sure, you could say that she loses the hardened edge of Simon's portrayal, but I find this version of Dayna more enjoyable to listen to: she's more playful, more fun and more likely to share banter with the other Liberator crew members, something that, in the TV show, always bugged me about the character. And this story is a good showcase for Dayna, with her taking the central lead in a prison break, and inspiring a group of rebels into action. It's a nice fit for Dayna, as she has always been fairly headstrong and it nice how this story bridges the gap between the first two episodes and the later half of the season.
As for the main thrust of the story, well it's not anything we haven't seen or heard from Blake's 7 before. The Liberator crew get caught up in a rebellion on a world the Federation has abandoned, and, while two of the crew help stir up the rebels into action, another two are behind enemy lines, posing as Federation troopers. It's a tried-and-tested set-up, and, while it has been done better elsewhere, it isn't one of the worst versions of this story. Writer Steve Lyons adds a few curve-balls in this story that make it interesting, such as the search for Jenna and dealing with the aftermath of the Galactic War, as well as the tensions that Avon, Cally, and Vila have regarding new crew-members Dayna and Tarrant. It's certainly a snappy piece: it gets straight to the point, and doesn't waste any time. We're dropped straight into the action, and the story doesn't let up until the end of the episode. The ending does feel a little bit anti-climactic, considering the potential dilemmas that the story sets up. It's also a shame that the plot regarding Avon's consideration of whether or not to abandon the rest of the crew isn't given more time, considering where it could have led. That being said, "Liberation" is a decent opener for The Spoils of War set, that helps to re-establish the conflict between the rebellion and the Federation and reintroduces us to the character of Dayna. It may be pretty perfunctory, but it does its job pretty well, and is authentic to the TV series that it hails from.
The second story in the box set, "Outpost," sees Tarrant and Vila sent on a mission to find a store of Federation information from a base that has been abandoned by the Federation due to the Galactic War. While starting with an initially interesting premise, this story sadly fell flat for me, with a twist that doesn't quite work, and an ending that feels uninspired. It's certainly nice to see Tarrant and Vila working together on a mission. It's a team that wasn't really explored in the TV show, so it's nice to see writer Christopher Cooper playing with that dynamic. It is nice to hear that, while the writers have softened the character of Dayna, they've hardened the character of Tarrant. It never really comes across beyond the early part of Season 3 that Tarrant was a mercenary before joining the Liberator crew, so it's nice that the writers of this set pick up upon that history. And it's nice that, in this story, Vila isn't just the comedy coward, but rather a man who is scared, but will still do the right thing, if pushed to it. The dynamic is enhanced further by the strong chemistry between Steven Pacey and Michael Keating, which doesn't seem to have changed at all in the many years since the TV series. Sure, Pacey sounds older than he did in the series, but he recaptures the rhythms of Tarrant's dialogue, but Michael Keating's performance sounds like it has come straight off the set of the final episode, and is one of the finest things about this set.
While Pacey and Keating have a very good dynamic, I'm not so sure about Tracy Wiles as Roska. Sure, it's an interesting twist, giving Vila a Fatal Attraction-inspired girlfriend, but it sadly comes across as cliched and uninspired. It doesn't really add anything to the story, other than some cheap laughs. The rest of the story isn't really that interesting, unfortunately, with Tarrant and Vila engaging in a heist, where the crew are double-crossed, forced to get around security measures and end up losing the very thing they came to get. Sure, it's written with some drive and spirit, and it's absolutely authentic to the TV show. However, I think that is part of the problem with this story, and the box set as a whole. The stories in The Spoils of War seem absolutely determined to fit into the TV show, warts and all. And sure, authenticity to the source material is nice. However, some of the best Blake's 7 audios at Big Finish (Warship, The Armageddon Storm, Three, Spoils) all attempt to build upon the legacy of the TV series, something that this box set really fails to do. And Outpost is the ultimate expression of that: it's ok at passing the time, but it's not the most interesting story, and some of the elements that make it up are very poorly executed. It's a shame, because there is potential here, but it's rather underuterlised in this story.
"Close Enough" is possibly the most interesting story in the set, as it attempts to do something different with the characters of Avon and Cally, as well as building upon the telepathy that was so underutilised in the TV show. The basic plot sees the Liberator crew drawn into a trap by a couple of scientists who are experimenting with telepathic powers. It's an interesting set-up, and when Avon find himself participating in the experiment himself, it leads to him and Cally sharing their darkest secrets, whether they want to or not... The premise of this story is fantastic: particularly considering the fact that this story is set much later in Series 3 than the first two stories, after the earth-shattering events of Children of Auron and Rumours of Death, and so has added emotional weight. Putting Avon and Cally through the wringer like this has a fantastic amount of potential, that it's actually a shame that we don't get more of it. Sure, we get a number of scenes that explore the nature of the telepathic contact the pair are sharing, but it misses perhaps some of the emotional heart of the issue. It's a real shame, considering the possibilities, but it once again comes down to that issue regarding authenticity I mentioned above.
The real heart of the story, however, lies with Paul Darrow and Jan Chappell's performances, which carry the story magnificently. Across the box set, their character conflicts drive the stories really nicely, and both Chappell and Darrow give the stories their all. And, particularly with the material writer Sophia McDougall gives them for "Close Enough," they get the chance to do something really different to the norm, which I always appreciate. It's nice that this story is more grounded in the audio medium than either of the three other stories in the box set as well. Sure, it's nice to have something that sounds just like it could have been broadcast at the time, and, let's face it, Blake's 7's pulp sci-fi trappings often prevent it from being anything too deep (it's not a criticism, it's part of the reason why the show is so successful!), but here, in "Close Enough," we see Blake's 7 attempting to take some mature steps into the audio medium. It's not just one side firing guns at another side until one side is all dead, but something more considered. There's lots of discussion about the effects of the telepathy and Cally's loss of telepathic contact with her people, some of which goes on a little too long for my taste, but provide some interesting material for the characters. It's also nice for a story where we focus upon the character of Cally, that it doesn't end up with her possessed or taken over by an alien force. Sarcophagus will not be topped, so I'm glad this doesn't try to. Overall, "Close Enough" may have a couple of things that prevent it from being as good as it could have been. However, it's still a great story that manages to do something different with Cally and Avon, and makes for a good hour of audio drama.
The final story, "Solus," sees arch-enemy of the Liberator crew, Servalan, brought back into the audios, for the first time in the full-cast audios since the very first full-cast story "Warship." Without a doubt, "Solus" is my favourite story from the box set, as, while not as boundary pushing as "Close Enough," or even as focused and economical as "Liberation," this has such a great idea at its core that I was surprised hadn't been done before in Blake's 7. Summoned by a distress signal, the Liberator is lured to the Solus research station by Servalan, who has an alien device which can implant a copy of her consciousness into Zen and take control of the Liberator. This is a fantastic premise for a Blake's 7 story, as it not only brings Servalan on-board the Liberator (which only ever happened twice in the TV series), but it creates a situation where Servalan is forced to battle against herself. Of course, the copy of Servalan decides that it has no need for the original, and so attempts to kill her, and, by proxy, the Liberator crew as well. It's absolutely the thing you would expect any Servalan to do in that circumstance: leaving the other version alive would put her at a disadvantage. This allows for some fantastic drama, as the two Servalans are pitted against each other in a desperate battle for survival. Writer George Mann milks the situation for all the dramatic potential it's worth, and we get to see not just Servalan up against the wall, but Avon as well.
Jacqueline Pearce gives a fantastic performance in this final episode, as she takes on two subtly different versions of Servalan: the one we expect, and the computer version that takes over Zen. More so than any of the other actors in this box set, it's clear that Pearce can still key back into the character of Servalan really well, and she recreates the same version of the character that she played back in 1980. It's nice as well that Solus features the entire cast in a fairly equal role. Sure, Cally gets pushed to the side a little bit, but that was often the case in the TV series back in the day, and the rest of the cast have plenty to do in the story. It's especially nice considering that the three other plays are mostly focused on one or two characters: both Outpost and Close Enough don't even feature the entire crew, so Solus managing to find stuff for them all to do is vastly appreciated. As mentioned above, Avon is placed in a difficult position, as it's his hubris which leads to the Liberator crew being placed in danger. Sure, he pulls a last minute plan together at the end, but that's only because he's run out of options. Tarrant gets to be the voice of reason, warning about the dangers of bringing Servalan on board, while Vila has to make a sacrifice in order so that the Liberator crew can stop what's going on. Dayna, meanwhile, has to try and resist killing Servalan, as they need her alive. However, she wants to exact revenge for the death of her father, and so Solus puts her into a very difficult position. It's this kind of exciting material that you want, as it shines a light upon the characters, which is when the show is at its strongest. Overall, Solus is a very, very good story that, thanks to its clever core idea, manages to be the most instantly enjoyable in the set. That's helped by some committed performances from the regulars, and an exciting and engaging plot that never lets up, and remains exciting right until the end.
The production throughout the box set is absolutely standout: the guest cast are uniformly fantastic, even if they aren't given the best material to work with. Special plaudits must go to Sara Powell as Rokon in the first story and Charlotte Watson as Imra in the third story, who give committed, fascinating performances that bring their characters to life. The stories are held together wonderfully by John Ainsworth's and Nigel Fairs' direction, which brings out the best performances from the regulars and guest actors. Alistair Lock also once again takes on the roles of Zen and Orac, and, while neither computer get an awful lot to do in these stories, he perfectly recreates the voices that the late Peter Tuddenham used for these characters. And Nigel Fairs' and Luke Pietnik's sound design fills the soundscape excellently, conveying the worlds that the Liberator crew visits wonderfully, and both make sure that you can follow the action throughout. This, coupled with Nigel Fairs' music, makes for a very immersive experience that brings these stories to life.
Overall, while I do have some issues with The Spoils of War, it is a decent box set that features some fun stories that recapture the spirit and tone of the third season of Blake's 7. There's plenty to recommend in this set, even if I wish we could have had some material that was more boundary pushing than that which we actually got. The stories are fun and exciting, and they're all held together with some wonderful production and acting. If Blake's 7 going forward can be a little more daring, while maintaining the quality of this set, then I think I'll be pretty happy. The Spoils of War, however, is a decent starting mark for these new Blake's 7 box sets, and I'm looking forward to more.