Audio Review Big Finish: Allies and Enemies (The Worlds of Blake's 7)
- 14 Jan 2023
- 1124 Reads
Review by M1795537OCVirn
Written by: Lizbeth Myles, Simon Guerrier and Jonathan Morris
Cover Artwork: Mark Plastow
Sound Design: Simon Power, Alistair Lock and Naomi Clarke
Music: Simon Power, Alistair Lock and Jamie Robertson
Director: Lisa Bowerman
Producer and Script Editor: Peter Anghelides
Senior Producer: David Richardson
Executive Producers: Nicholas Briggs, Jason Haigh-Ellery for Big Finish Productions
From the start of the rebellion to its brutal conclusion, Arlen has hunted for Roj Blake. Cally fights beside her. Jenna Stannis works for her. Space Commander Travis is her mentor. As she plays each side off against the other, how will Arlen decide who are allies and who are enemies?
Mark Plastow’s cover artwork has an interestingly textured and layered background, which mirrors the way the stories build on each other. I particularly like the cameo of Cally, red-clad and fierce, as she first appears in Time Squad.
This set of three stories sets out to follow Arlen’s mission to track down Blake, which leads her into encounters with several other characters from the TV series. Thus the starting point, for those familiar with how Blake’s 7 works, is the final episode. The timeline of Allies and Enemies, however, goes way back.
I thought it important to point this out now, because it took me a while to sort out the continuity of what was going on. Trying to tie together a lot of ‘ends’ into one whole turns out to be quite difficult.
We have here three similar scenarios, set on various planets where the rebels are fighting the Federation, usually about resources, while being chronically outnumbered and out-gunned. Three well-written stories, with good acting, lots of action and heroic struggling against the odds. Arlen, a Federation Officer acting undercover (mostly), plays a pivotal role in the resolution of all three conflicts, which begin on Saurian Major.
Saurian Major by Lizbeth Myles
Featuring Jan Chappell
“We do the best we can with what we’ve got and we survive…”
Before the Liberator ever arrived on Saurian Major, its people had troubles of their own.
Undercover Federation Officer Arlen arrives there with a mission to ‘infiltrate, investigate and improvise’ among rebels struggling against the Federation takeover of their world. So far, the autonomous cells of resistance have been reasonably successful, but their numbers are few and their resources limited. To make a real difference, they may need to take bigger risks.
Among the rebels is Cally, an Auron with her own reasons for being on Saurian Major. For once, we see Cally in full ‘freedom-fighter’ mode, while her alien telepathy comes in useful not only against the Feds, but also the nasty local plant life.
Encouraged by Arlen, the rebels decide on a dangerous escalation – but where did their intelligence information come from? When things go wrong and Arlen’s true identity is revealed, what will Cally do?
It’s a neat prequel to the TV episode Time Squad, and it was a delight to have Cally’s character written with the strength and ruthlessness fans knew she had, but which was often missing in later episodes. Although at this stage Blake has not yet become enough of a nuisance for the Federation to commission someone to deal with him, we can understand why Arlen, backed by Travis’ interest, would be chosen for that role.
Sound design, in the capable hands of Simon Power, is unobtrusive but effective. He even creates plausible background noises for carnivorous plants! Held notes in musical links between scenes help to build suspense, while in longer pieces the excitement of battle is reflected by a strong drumbeat and loud overlaid harmonies.
No ‘extras’ at the end of this one – see later.
No Name by Simon Guerrier
Featuring Brian Croucher
“There are two kinds of people, the Federation, and everybody else… it’s your choice, it’s always been your choice.”
The consequences of what happened on Saurian Major have forced Arlen to re-think, and to take up an alternative occupation – at least for the time being. Has she lost confidence, or is she in hiding, ready to regroup and come back fighting?
Waiting for the train (a steam train, no less!) she meets someone who claims to be Blake. Apparently that name is well-known, and not only to Arlen. Strangely, our one-time Federation Agent is reluctant to resume her quest. She prefers the quiet life, but unfortunately for her, it’s not going to stay quiet much longer.
Most of Arlen’s neighbours are leaving Vanstone. Is her best option to sell up and clear out? But why is she being offered double what her smallholding is worth? In yet another Western format, with suspicious locals defending their rights against the evil henchmen who want their land, we discover that the local issues turn out to be rather more than local. A second meeting with the man known as Blake leads Arlen to unexpected revelations, and a choice.
It’s hard to place the story in terms of the TV episodes – but it’s clear that by this stage Blake is famous enough to inspire other resistance groups, and for the Federation to want him silenced.
In the short interview thread that follows (don’t worry – more later) writer Simon Guerrier, who has written for other Big Finish Blake’s 7 productions, admits that he did not always follow instructions about Travis, which some fans might find out of order, although this version can be made to fit. Simon’s aim is that when we next watch Arlen in the TV episode Blake, we’ll think of her a little differently because of Vanstone.
The Music Suite that follows is another treat. I recognised Alastair Lock’s work without needing the credits. For me, he expertly reflects the questions and emotions encountered in the text.
At the start the driving ’heartbeat’, familiar from previous pieces, is maintained, and enlivened, first with piercing higher notes and then with warmly melodic lows – mirroring the changes Arlen experiences. The simplicity of the middle passage brings a more thoughtful, perhaps playful mood, while the ending returns to a strong, rhythm-led feel, with an almost jangling motif that echoes the difficulties the story portrays. Well worth a listen.
Sedition by Jonathan Morris
Featuring Sally Knyvette and Stephen Greif
“In my line of work it pays to be paranoid.”
On Solta Minor, where the Federation are extracting valuable resources, another resistance group is fighting back. Whoever controls the operation there will have a monopoly on a vital ingredient in the Federation’s pacification programme.
Jenna Stannis, ‘the best smuggler in the galaxy’ agrees to deliver Arlen’s cargo of weapons to the rebels along with Arlen herself, who claims she is no longer working for the Federation. As soon as she is paid, Jenna is ready to leave, but she has reckoned without the ‘Strategist’.
This turns out to be none other than Travis, who is aiming to fill the power vacuum on Solta Minor himself once the Federation are defeated. The three struggle to come to terms with the situation, since Jenna is certain Blake killed Travis on Star One, while Arlen recognises him as her former mentor, and defends him against Jenna.
What follows are confusions and double-crossings galore, with the local rebels the main losers, as everyone struggles to find a way through. Eventually, the story reaches a resolution of sorts, although few issues are fully resolved.
This tale can clearly be placed in or around Series Four of Blake’s 7, but it also draws on other recent Big Finish productions in their Worlds of Blake’s 7 range.
Naomi Clark’s sound design was not over-stated, and always adds reality to the situation. The music suite that follows feels different to others, being darker, more sombre, almost tentative at times, with a throbbing vibrato that contrasts sharply with the stabbing thrusts of higher notes. These rise unexpectedly from ongoing undercurrents, sounding discordant alarms, all of which works well in the context of the story.
In the interviews that follow, author Jonathan Morris explains that he has recently watched the whole of Blake’s 7 and realised that, in his words, “…it’s not like Doctor Who…” Key to this understanding is the way that Blake’s 7 explores morality by facing the characters with difficult moral choices. The consistency of the Blake’s 7 universe also made it easier to construct worlds and circumstances that fitted the same rules and rationale. Knowing this, I’d be interested to have him write for Blake’s 7 more often.
Members of the cast then add comments on their own characters that I felt should have been explained earlier – it would have added much-needed depth to all three stories to know more about individual motivation and decision-making. Fans love details! For instance, I’d found myself wondering how old Arlen could possibly be in Saurian Major, since she seemed so young in the TV episode Blake, but to hear her confess that she was still at school when she filmed it, only made my problem worse. Great casting, though!
To sum up: I’m not convinced that Arlen’s mission, or Arlen herself, were fully explored or furthered by this set of stories, and at times I found this frustrating. Reflection and relationships are both integral to what makes Blake’s 7 special, but there was little space given to either. It’s an interesting collection, but in my view perhaps not quite as successful as others.
Writing this in the month that Stephen Greif died so unexpectedly, it was bittersweet to hear Sally Knyvette saying how much she had enjoyed working with him, and to hear his comments about adding more humour to Travis had he been able to continue in the role for longer. Thank you, Big Finish, for bringing his magnificent talent and unmistakeable voice back to us in this and other recordings. He will be sadly missed.
Allies and Enemies is available on CD and Download from Big Finish, at pre-order discount prices until the end of January 2023.
The full range of Blake's 7 audios and books from Big Finish can be found HERE
Photos of Jan Chappell, Brian Croucher, Sally Knyvette and Stephen Greif courtesy of Big Finish.