Reviewed: Big Finish’s Blake’s 7 – The Way Ahead (40th Anniversary Special)

It’s been a good 40-odd years since Blake’s 7 exploded (in terms of BBC special effects, I guess we might want to reshape that imagery to “fizzled loudly”) on to our screens. The show, call it Robin Hood in Space, or the true “Mirror Mirror” of Star Trek, is largely considered Doctor Who’s sister show, for its cross-pollination of talent, both in front and behind the screens. Be it the actors (Paul Darrow (Timelash; Doctor Who and the Silurians), Micheal Keating (The Sun Makers), Jacqueline Pearce (The Two Doctors), its crew (writers, Robert Holmes, scribe of The Talons of Weng-Chiang and more), Terry Nation – many, many Dalek stories –  and Face of Evil‘s Chris Boucher, music (Dudley Simpson), directors (Michael E. Briant, David Maloney), or Doctors Colin Baker (guest stars in City at the Edge of the World) and Richard Hurndall (guest stars in Assassin). It’s a show with big, big Doctor Who connections. In fact, there have even been crossovers through Robots of Death and the Blake’s 7 episode, Weapon (thanks to Chris Boucher). Doctor Who writer, Lance Parkin even found a spot to wedge Blake’s 7 into Doctor Who canon (see his book AHistory).

As you can see, it has a big kinship with Doctor Who, and as such, a celebration is something Doctor Who fans should be wary off – and those who have not seen nor heard of it, don their sleuth hats and investigate.

For a show that finished in 1981, we have been very fortunate the last few years that Big Finish picked up the license and has had the time to find its feet for the 40th. Blake’s 7 has seen small pocket revivals over the years, from questionable tie-in epilogues (Tony Atwood’s novel, Afterlife), BBC audios (Barry Letts questionable stand-alone plays), some very good fan-work (see Alan Steven’s play, Logic of the Empire, starring Paul Darrow and Jacqueline Pearce), and even a short reboot, with a re-cast and occasional revisit (Michael Keating came back to play Villa). That’s before we look at works by actor Paul Darrow, who has written about his character Avon before and during Big Finish’s era. 

So, compared not just to the show, but these constant re-iterations, sequels, and revisits to the original television series, what can we say about Big Finish’s 40th anniversary offering? 

I’ve been following the Big Finish Blake’s 7 range with semi-regular efficiency. They shift, as with the Doctor Who range, from being one/two people narrated tales, to full-cast. Both are effective, as in the Who range, and compared to prior official Blake’s 7 audios and novels (I’m really talking about the Barry Letts BBC audios and Afterlife I’m afraid), they have found the “logic” of the universe; they feel, to use that fan-horror of a word, “in canon”. The Way Ahead is really no different. 

The story is in two parts; two separate adventures. The first is a celebration of the Season 1 ensemble of Blake’s 7, with a full-cast tale including the talents of Stephen Grief and Sally Knyvette. The second tale celebrates the Season 3 line-up, with Steven Pacey and newly cast Dayna, Yasmin Bannerman (The End of the World). Michael Keating, Paul Darrow, Jan Chappell, and Jacqueline Pearce bridge the eras, with Alistair Lock playing replacement for the late Peter Tuddenham as Zen and Orac. To complete this celebration, we have the return of Glynis Barber (Soolin) to Blake’s 7, though, with rights to Season 4 out of bounds to Big Finish, her return comes in the form of Magda, a character who connects the tales with Avon through retrospective flashbacks.

Writer, Mark Wright delivers a well-constructed story, enjoying an exploration of some of the minor aspects of Blake’s 7 lore (where did Project Aquitar end up? What happened to Federation Space HQ?) without becoming embroiled in continuity. To my personal pleasure (and maybe a rankle to some), is the inclusion of some elements from Paul Darrow’s Lucifer book trilogy that documents Avon’s legacy post-series. This series was published through Big Finish, and adds an interesting component to The Way Ahead. For those who had issues with those novels, as with all fictional ontologies, you take from it what you like. The fact that Magda and Avon exist in this Blake’s 7 continuity, doesn’t mean you must transpose all aspects of the novels into the Big Finish audio range. For me, their inclusion becomes a solid story-device to explore the legacy of the main characters and feels very at home in this story. 

The biggest tension for the listener, and the source of mainly one-line comments on Facebook and such ilk, are the voices of the cast. Yes, shockingly, we once again must concede that older actors don’t always sound quite the same as their younger counterparts. Not in all cases. David Graham has a great talent at shifting his voice from old to young, and in this cast Michael Keating’s Vila is spot on, be that by good fortune of a solid larynx, or some deft actor talent that escapes me. However, you will have to accept some of the cast don’t naturally retain their familiar cadence. However, for me, this is what makes such celebrations so exciting; you are not simply celebrating the story of Blake’s 7, the heart of the product, you are celebrating the productions, the brains of the show, so to speak. Hearing Stephen Grief reprise Travis is a pleasure, an appreciation of that fusion between fiction and actuality; the person personifying the writing. That’s a special moment, knowing these actors who brought the written page to life, are back again, united in that creative process once more. As you listen to The Way Ahead, that tension constantly plays out, between celebrating the legacy of the story and celebrating the legacy of the production. It’s a wonderful thing, all packaged neatly by the Big Finish power-house.

Any issues? No, not really. Some of Tarrant’s motivations appear a little confused, and then, simply justified, but it doesn’t hamper story nor performance. Barber does a great job as Magda, and Avon, who – like Tom Baker’s Doctor – appears difficult for some writers to get right, is got right, so to speak.  

Along said the double-length story, there’s a large section for interviews to complete the package which is well worth a listen for the sake of celebration. Hearing Barber talk about being on set and the follies of youth, is a reminder just how much time has passed.

Speak to me in the early 1990s (which then seemed so long since Blake’s 7, and yet now seems so close to its demise) and I’d never have imagined that we’d ever get a return to the universe, full cast, and with such understanding of the show, but as with Doctor Who, the show has found its home again in British cult culture. I would really recommend donning a party hat and jumping straight into this celebration.

Blake’s 7: The Way Ahead is out now from Big Finish, priced £14.99 on CD or £12.99 as a download.