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Review: Blake’s 7 Classic Audio Adventures series 1 February 7, 2016

Posted by sjroby in Audio reviews, Blake's 7.
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Mirror coverAfter a few sets of the Liberator Chronicles hybrid audio drama/audiobook approach, Big Finish started its series of full cast audio dramas. Like many old time radio series, it’s TV without the pictures, and without narration. Everything’s driven by dialogue and sound effects.

Unlike the Liberator Chronicles, sold as a series of trilogies, with each story often being a standalone tale, the Classic Audio Adventures were released as single-CD monthly stories, six parts with different titles and authors, but telling one long, serialized story. It surprised me when the first one ended with a cliffhanger, but since I listened to them all over the course of a week or two instead of as they came out it wasn’t hard to remember where I left off from day to day.

This series is set late in series two of the TV series, serving as part of the search for Star One. The storytelling approach is interesting — it ties in with the TV series continuity but also incorporates elements of the Liberator Chronicles stories. I’m not sure whether the Classic or Chronicles stories involving the President of the Federation came first, and I believe Gustav Nyrron first appeared in the Chronicles, but it makes clear that you get more of the whole picture if you’re open to both the more audiobook-like Chronicles style and the Classic radio drama style.

As for the stories themselves, though there’s a very strong arc through the stories, they’re each self-contained enough to work on their own, more or less. Some plot elements are involved in each one. And it’s a pretty good story, especially if you like Brian Croucher’s Travis. All of the cast members have aged, with Gareth Thomas’s voice the least like his TV voice, but Croucher is instantly recognizable. In fact, my one concern — that in a full cast audio I’d have a hard time recognizing who’s who, with the aged voices — turned out to be misplaced. It generally works quite well, even with a new actor doing the Zen and Orac computer voices, and the sound effects work is always good.

The audios do add to the TV series — they tighten up a loose continuity, give it more of a serial feel than it sometimes had, develop characters who didn’t get much screen time, and introduce or reintroduce supporting characters. And without the TV version’s costumes, sets, and special effects, it’s easier to visualize this as the serious space adventure series it tried to be.

Blake’s 7: The Liberator Chronicles January 20, 2016

Posted by sjroby in Blake's 7.
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b7 set1_disc1_the-turing-test

If you’re not familiar with Blake’s 7 and didn’t read the previous post, here it is in a nutshell: Star Trek crossed with Star Wars made by people with Doctor Who connections and Doctor Who budgets in the late 1970s. The heroes are a political prisoner and a group of criminals sent to a prison planet who end up in an abandoned but powerful alien spaceship. They fight the Federation, they sometimes fight among themselves, main characters sometimes die or disappear. Not bad for a show that started in the late 1970s.

Big Finish is a British audio production company that’s been doing new audio adventures based on Doctor Who and other TV series for quite a few years now. Most of the productions are full cast audio, like old time radio shows, where you’re getting basically a TV episode — dialogue, sound effects, music — but no visuals. Others are more like conventional audiobooks, in which someone reads a story. And some are in between.

Big Finish has released eleven Liberator Chronicles box sets. You can get them as actual sets of three CDs each, or buy them as downloads from their website. (I go for the downloads. Great price, no shipping, no clutter.) A typical box set has one story per CD, with one or two actors from the original series cast and a guest star or two. Depending on the story being told, some lean more towards audio drama, some a bit closer to audiobook, with exposition from a character’s viewpoint along with the dialogue. Sometimes the three stories are standalones, sometimes two or three are linked through a situation or guest character.

The main thing is, they’re really good.

Blake’s 7 gets knocked for its special effects and sets (which could be painfully unconvincing even decades ago). They can detract from even the best episodes. That doesn’t happen here. The stories aren’t limited by budget constraints as far as space battles, aliens, futuristic cities, and other elements are concerned. And there are some good writers with experience writing in the Doctor Who and Star Trek universes who know and love Blake’s 7 (including Una McCormack, James Swallow, Steve Lyons, Iain McLaughlin, Cavan Scott, Simon Guerrier, James Goss, and more). Plus, of course, many of the original cast.

People have tried to bring the show back to TV. In an age where you can see hints of it in shows like Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5, and a lot in Farscape and Firefly, it seems like an obvious thing to do. But we’ve already had a few dozen really good new episodes in the form of these audios. They may even be an easier path into the show than the TV episodes. I recommend them highly.

I’m almost done listening to the Liberator Chronicles, though more are planned. In the meantime, fortunately, there’s the second Big Finish range of Blake’s 7 audios, the Classic Audio Adventures, which are full cast dramas rather than the hybrid format used here.  I’m looking forward to them.

(Remind me to chat about the short-lived reboot audio series one of these days.)

A bit more on Blake’s 7 January 17, 2016

Posted by sjroby in Blake's 7.
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I think I first heard about Blake’s 7 when Starlog did a series of articles about it in the 1980s. I found the first novelization and the episode guide and read them and thought, yeah, seems pretty good, I’ll have to see this.

And then I got a chance to see an episode. I didn’t get through much of it. The special effects, sets, costumes, and the other things people often point to… I couldn’t get past them. I tried again a couple of times, to the same effect.

But people kept going on about how good it was. So, one day, I was at a bookstore with a good video selection and I grabbed the VHS tapes with the first two and last two episodes (I already knew how the series ended, more or less). I decided to give the show a proper chance. I was hooked partway through the first episode. It was much darker than I expected. And through the tapes I found I liked a lot of the dialogue and the characters, despite the special effects and sets and whatnot. I ended up buying a lot more videos. And books. And audios.

At its best, Blake’s 7 is Star Trek turned upside down, Star Wars taken seriously. You’ve got a group of rebels against a corrupt, dictatorial Federation. But the rebels aren’t a group of squeaky clean good guys. There’s a political reformer turned revolutionary, a computer hacker, a smuggler, a thief, and other criminals, who manage to escape a penal colony with a powerful alien starship. As they start to fight the Federation they argue over goals, over tactics, over alliances. They aren’t a happy, united family of voyagers. People die. people make bad choices. People walk into traps or see their plans go spectacularly wrong. And then there’s the brutal ending that people still talk and argue about.

If you’re one of the people who can’t watch old TV shows like the original Star Trek or 1963-1989 Doctor Who because of special effects and all that, don’t bother with Blake’s 7. But if you do like those old shows, and you haven’t seen B7, give it a shot. I recommend starting at the beginning. It’s not available on DVD in North America, but it’s not too difficult to find online if you can’t make use of R2 PAL DVDs. Give it a try. And then get ready for the tie-in books and audios. Especially the audios.

On taking things seriously January 17, 2016

Posted by sjroby in Blake's 7, Star Trek.
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As far back as the 1980s I remember people watching the original Star Trek because they were amused by its campy cheesiness. The British TV series Blake’s 7 gets a lot of the same kind of “appreciation.” To be fair, there are certainly moments in each that are either accidentally awful or clearly just taking the proverbial. Take “Turnabout Intruder” or “The Harvest of Kairos.”

But I never cared for that approach. That kind of ironic appreciation, the whole “it’s so bad it’s good” has limited appeal for me. I can see sitting through something like Plan Nine From Outer Space, but several seasons of a TV series? Why put yourself through that?

There’s two sides of the equation, of course — the creator’s intent and the audience’s reaction. I think it’s safe to say that, for the most part, the creators of Star Trek and Blake’s 7 took what they were doing fairly seriously. They did the best they could with the resources at hand, doing what was possible at the time they made their shows. That the world has changed since then is beyond their control. The rerun/video audience is watching outside of the original context and isn’t seeing the show as it would have been received in its time.

So, as far as I’m concerned, if you’re going to invest enough time to watch a whole old TV series, you have to see past the years between you and the show. You have to see past old-fashioned and unconvincing special effects. You have to adjust to the slower pace. You have to engage with it on its own terms and see what is actually going on.

The original Star Trek is not about space battles, fistfights, and Kirk getting it on with all of the women in the galaxy. Those are cliches propagated by people who don’t take the show seriously enough to actually watch all the episodes and see that Kirk is actually a three-dimensional character, and that there’s more moral complexity and thoughtfulness in the show than some people grant it. Yes, you can name obvious counterexamples. But in the context of the whole series, they’re blips. Blake’s 7 is not just about Servalan camping it up or Avon chewing the scenery. The relationships between the characters have a fair amount going on onscreen and hints of more underneath. The show addresses the morality of the characters’ actions, too — they may be trying to be honourable freedom fighters, not terrorists, but there’s no shortage of dead innocents in their trail.

When you take the shows seriously you can see how the characters change, how much depth there is to their personalities, even on these old TV series that didn’t focus as much on those elements as some newer shows do. You can see their fictional universes expand and become more interesting, more able to generate new story ideas. You can understand why people still want to spend time creating or enjoying new stories in those universes without thinking they’re wasting their time doing it.

Review: Blake’s 7: Mediasphere by Kate Orman and Jon Blum September 27, 2015

Posted by sjroby in Blake's 7, Book reviews.
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Mediasphere cover art

Mediasphere by Jon Blum and Kate Orman

Big Finish Productions has done a wonderful job bringing back the cult series Blake’s 7 as audio stories, with its Liberator Chronicles and Classic Audio Adventures lines. It also started a line of new Blake’s 7 novels, but I think it’s reasonable to say those haven’t been quite as satisfying. For one thing, there haven’t been a lot of them; for another, they’ve tended to range from enjoyably competent to appallingly wrongheaded. At the moment, it isn’t clear whether they’ll even be doing any more, and the audio line is going through some changes of its own.

If Mediasphere turns out to be the last B7 novel, which I very much hope is not the case, at least it’s going out on a high. Blum and Orman may be best known for their contributions to Doctor Who, but Blum also coauthored (with Rupert Booth) a Prisoner tie-in novel that feels like a precursor of sorts to this one.

One of the key problems with writing tie-ins to old SF is that you’re working in a superseded future. We may not have spaceships, but we have information and communications technology that tends to be far beyond what TV shows predicted in many respects, and there’s been a lot of social change, too. But it’s possible to balance a faithful approach to the source material with awareness of how the world has changed since the source material was created. Blum’s The Prisoner’s Dilemma was, on the surface, entirely faithful to the original TV series, but it was also very clearly a 21st century take on the show. Likewise, Mediasphere doesn’t make any changes to the core of Blake’s 7; the characters, setting, and technology are entirely consistent with the TV series. Even the idea of a centralized media facility is consistent with TV creations like Star One — the Federation is not big on decentralization. But the idea of a B7 character becoming a contestant in a reality TV show as a way of gaining access to the central media facility is very 21st century. Mediasphere presents a cynical view of the media, with “reality” entertainment broadcasting and “news” propaganda being part of the same machinery. Even at its most meta — Vila working with the writers of a Federation propaganda show that satirizes Blake and his team — the novel keeps its portrayal of the characters believable and consistent with their TV originals, and also keeps the plot moving. It’s a caper novel, a satire, a meta exploration of Blake’s 7 and its characters.

One thing that the book has that the audios don’t: Dayna. Josette Simon hasn’t appeared in any of the audios, but that’s not a problem for the novels. She and Vila are the primary characters in the book, each being well developed and given the chance to do a few things they never did on TV.

Blake’s 7 fans haven’t had a lot of good novels. We haven’t had a lot of novels, period. But this is one of the highlights.