Avalon Volume Two (Big Finish Review)

Big Finish has been releasing productions based on Terry Nation’s space adventure Blake’s 7 (BBC TV, 1978-81) since 2012, many of them really rather wonderful.  However, the sad passing in recent years of key actors Gareth Thomas, Jacqueline Pearce and Paul Darrow made a straightforward continuation of the series untenable.  To their imaginative credit, the company’s response has not been to abandon the range but to widen its universe with The Worlds of Blake’s 7, shining the spotlight on characters and concepts from the fringes of the series.  That began this May with the release of Avalon Volume One – apart from a few unbranded attempts, the first-ever Blake’s 7 spin-off series – and here we have its immediate continuation.

In the TV series, Avalon was theoretically a rebel leader with a legend to rival that of Blake (“She has seeded uprisings on a dozen planets”), although she only ever appeared in one episode, with an unexplored backstory and, unlike Blake and his crew, an open-ended destiny.  Her story runs parallel to that of the Liberator crew, with ample opportunity for the involvement of peripheral characters from the TV, and for further exploration of events and themes that were originally skimmed over.  A rich seam of fresh storytelling to be mined, then, and at a time when female-led spinoffs are very much in vogue, this arises more naturally than some.

Volume One was a solid start, detailing Avalon’s time on Earth as a one-woman insurgency, locking horns with the same corrupt administration and the same ruthless infiltrators that caused Blake’s initial downfall.  It introduced Simon Power’s thunderous, Harold Faltermeyer-inflected synthwave theme tune (so rollickingly good, I was soon able to read the word ‘Avalon’ without hearing Roxy Music in my head) and featured a little masterpiece in Gary Russell’s episode Throwback, a near-two-hander focused on an interrogation by TV villain Travis (Stephen Greif).

Olivia Poulet (star of The Thick of It and Big Finish’s version of The Avengers) reprised the title role from earlier Big Finish release Blake’s 7: The Way Ahead, and is a good match for the mostly-forgotten actor Julia Vidler, whose Avalon was as much a plot device as a character in her brief appearance on TV.  Poulet well conveys Avalon’s almost frighteningly ruthless pragmatism; unlike Blake, she’s thoroughly unromantic in her view of her mission to bring down the Federation and doesn’t seem to feel guilt about the innocent lives sacrificed along the way.

The first box-set ended with Avalon leaving Earth, intending to make contact with rebels on the outer Federation worlds and beginning the journey that will lead to her meeting Blake in the TV episode Project Avalon.  Volume Two fills in the adventures along the way…

 

Bayban’s Bounty

Bayban the Berserker (played by a pre-Doctor Who Colin Baker) was a memorable, entertaining adversary in the 1980 TV episode City at the Edge of the World, an epically murderous galactic crime lord given to studded leather outfits, psychotic rages and, most charmingly, misty-eyed reminiscences about his mother (“She called me Bayb”).  Writer Niel Bushnell here speculates that he had a history with Avalon long before his encounter with the Liberator, and Baker – a Big Finish front-ranker, with key roles in almost all the company’s ranges – is naturally on hand to bring the gloriously unpredictable Bayban back to life.

The episode opens with a brilliantly grotesque scene which subverts the listener’s expected sympathies – a scene whose true significance will not be revealed until much later – but the story proper begins with Avalon and her reluctant hanger-on Argo Madison (Cliff Chapman), on the run having fled Earth, picking up a lift from a civilian cruiser at a grotty spaceport.  Its pilot, Noral (Graham Seed), is the former Chief Protector of the planet Elegard, which has recently fallen under Federation control.  Noral is hoping that he can inspire his people to rise up and throw off their oppressors, and wants Avalon’s help in return for transportation.

The catch is that Elegard’s people are deeply religious, and Noral feels that only if he is able to return their ancient and sacred artefact, the Tanis stone, will the people follow him.  And unfortunately, the stone is at present residing in the Federation’s maximum security prison, the Vankberg Vault, an ominous facility run by the icily efficient Winter (Charlotte Strevens).  Avalon has a plan to get inside, but is going to need the help of the only criminal ever known to have escaped Vankberg: the notorious Bayban…

“Free agents, mercenaries, smugglers, thieves – my kind of crowd.”

Avalon presents a more grounded and even more paranoid series of adventures than Blake’s 7 did, delivered with a straighter face.  Lacking Blake’s one big advantage – his super-powerful alien warship – Avalon’s brand of insurgency is more fragile, dependent on a series of shaky alliances and her own ability to see around corners, and this series doesn’t have an equivalent of the frequently hilarious interplay between Blake, Avon and Vila which kept the parent series buoyant.  As such, the inclusion of Bayban brings a welcome dash of flamboyance to proceedings, his gleeful sadism contrasting appealingly with Avalon’s near-permanent poker face, so – despite Baker’s voice having aged into something rather more avuncular than would best suit the character – further appearances are to be hoped for.

Bayban’s Bounty is a gloriously enjoyable romp, Bushnell leavening his action-packed script with a number of interestingly-shaded characters – notably Noral, Winter and Madison – and effective twists.  All this is lent a great sense of movement and tension by Simon Power’s score and sound design – as with Volume One, only the first episode gets a full underscore from him, the other episodes being handled by other composers. It’s a strong start to the box-set and to Avalon’s offworld adventures.

 

Mercenary

(Mild spoiler warning)

Christopher Cooper’s Mercenary is an even stronger episode, whose premise seethes with interpersonal tension.  Avalon and Madison are paying their way through space by doing some casual work for one of Avalon’s previous benefactors, weapons smuggler Corelano (Rachel Atkins).  Then, in return for the supply of munitions to a resistance cell, Corelano reveals that she requires them to complete the “expendable flight crew for a relatively straightforward shipping run”, a four-week round trip on a tiny freighter.

Unfortunately their only crewmate on the mission is to be Dev Tarrant, the slimy ex-Federation agent who previously betrayed both Avalon and Blake, played here as in previous audios by Malcolm James (the late Jeremy Wilkin played him on TV).  As the journey progresses, intrigue mounts and the dialogue crackles with suspicion as the entrapped former enemies try to second-guess each other.  As often in this universe, things are not quite what they seem.

“The security is so slack here, I could’ve opened that door with a pleasant smile.”  “From which of your two faces?”

This episode is a particular showcase for Madison, who has been an interesting support to Avalon since the first box-set.  An Alpha Grade admin worker who became a rebel by misadventure – but who has recently learned that the Federation was responsible for unjustly punishing his parents – Madison sometimes delivers a few Avon-like intellectual put-downs and has a Vila-ish focus on his own survival, but he’s a distinctive character whose relatively privileged previous life with the Federation informs his attitude in a way that causes conflict with almost every rebel he encounters.  His non-friendship with Avalon is consistently sparky, and Cliff Chapman keeps him constantly real.

A theme of this volume is Madison’s disgust at the temporary company which Avalon is prepared to keep in order to realise her long-term goals.  This comes to a head in this episode with the appearance of Dev Tarrant, as Madison struggles with a desire for personal revenge that runs contrary to Avalon’s plans and the cause of the resistance.  The venomous hatred Madison feels is vividly conveyed by Chapman, and James responds by portraying Tarrant’s provocations with a sadistic relish.

 

Heart of Ice

Heart of Ice, written by series script editor Steve Lyons, is the best episode of the set, if not the entire series so far (Volume One’s Throwback would get that award).  It’s a terrific adventure story in itself, but it also leads beautifully into Project Avalon (which, if viewed following listening to the audio, makes for a very satisfying double-bill, the only slight disappointment being that the TV Avalon is so peripheral to the episode that bears her name).  Avalon infiltrates the Federation outpost on Cryonax (the TV show’s unnamed, snow-bound planet here given a suitably Terry Nation-ish moniker) with the intention of stoking rebellion among the oppressed indigenous people, the cave-welling Subterons.  Unfortunately, the sadistic Federation enforcer Space Commander Travis (Stephen Greif – returning from the previous box-set and the TV series) is also present with his shock-troops, preparing the ground for an attempt to entrap Blake.

Hoping to gain access to the captured Subteron leader Charron (Luke Barton), Avalon disguises herself as a Federation trooper and ends up working closely with Travis.  Greif has always been completely brilliant in this role, with a line delivery that’s on just the right side of lip-smacking, and the enmity between Travis and Avalon works as well as it did with Blake.  There’s a wonderful tension as the incognito Avalon is unsure whether he recognises her from their brief previous encounter (in Throwback).  And the stakes are raised considerably by the arrival on the planet of the Federation’s corrupt figurehead (and as such, Avalon’s ultimate nemesis), the never-named President (Hugh Burden playing a character who was frequently referenced but never actually seen in TV Blake’s 7), here to oversee the expected capture of Blake.

“I’m Avalon and I’m here to tell you there is nothing special about you”

To reveal much more would spoil the fun, but there are thrills and spills as Avalon turns the ragtag Subteron rebels into a functioning resistance cell (making a wonderfully unvarnished first address to the rebel assembly), with a dash of realpolitik as it becomes clear that the Subterons care little for the big-picture problem of Federation dominance over the galaxy in comparison to their local difficulties.  There’s also a note of tragedy in the side character of Jorah (Nicholas Day), a relatively harmless Federation official who is caught between the manipulations of Avalon – who is blackmailing him – and the ruthlessness of Travis.  The ending points towards Project Avalon, but also towards further adventures within the continuity of the Blake’s 7 TV series and beyond.  It’s an exciting prospect.

 

Overall, Avalon is a thrill.  This box-set is thoroughly recommendable, although only if you’ve heard Volume One.  The series certainly courts Blake’s 7 fans – every single episode so far features a major character from the parent show, be that Jenna, Travis, Tarrant or Bayban, and one can’t help hoping that other familiar faces will show up sooner or later – but it stands alone and deserves a wider audience among fans of gritty, exciting, dystopian space opera (there’s a certain Battlestar Galactica reboot vibe).

It has a strong centre in Poulet, but it’s not afraid to give the spotlight to guest characters and situations, allowing the titular hero to remain enigmatic.  In fact, Avalon’s own backstory and motivations remain largely mysterious; perhaps this will be revealed in future instalments, but for now the producers are to be congratulated for not burdening her with unnecessary baggage.  To (awkwardly) quote Christian Bale’s Batman, “It is not who I am underneath, but what I do” that defines her, and thanks to Poulet’s commitment, Avalon is engaging and surprising throughout.

Avalon: Volume Two was released in June 2021. It is now on general sale and can be purchased at the Big Finish site here.

 

Extras

The extras are genuinely interesting, featuring interviews with producer/director John Ainsworth, all of the writers, most of the cast, and composers Simon Power and David Roocroft.  Ainsworth is refreshingly frank about how totally the series so far has avoided exploring the character of Avalon herself, seeing this as future potential.  Poulet is genuinely engaged by the scripts and seems to be discovering the character as the listener does (on Volume One she confessed her suspicion that Avalon may in fact be slightly insane, which entirely fits with Blake’s 7 discomfort with its idealist ‘heroes’).

There is a great deal of enthusiasm all round for the material, particularly from Power and Roocroft, who go into detail on the inspiration behind their work on the episodes (the sound design is certainly one of the strongest aspects of the whole release).  As is near-customary in Big Finish’s interview suites, a few interviewees are revealed as long-time fans, and in this case David Sargent’s giddy thrill at being involved (he’s watched Blake’s 7 since the age of 12) is especially charming.

 

Synopsis

Throughout the galaxy, brave people fight for freedom, without the benefit of miraculous alien technology. Avalon has only her wits and her contacts to rely on – but her name will become legend, all the same.

2.1 Bayban’s Bounty by Niel Bushnell

A sacred stone might inspire revolution on a recently subjugated planet – if Avalon can only retrieve it from a high-security prison. She enlists the help of the Vankberg Vault’s only escapee, the madman at the top of the Federation’s Most Wanted list…

2.2 Mercenary by Christopher Cooper

Funding a crusade isn’t easy, and one of Avalon’s debts has just come due. She and Madison undertake a dubious mission, in the company of an even more dubious gun-for-hire, a man who has betrayed them once before…

2.3 Heart of Ice by Steve Lyons

What is the Federation President doing on a frozen backwater world? Avalon is determined to uncover the secret buried in Cryonax’s mines. By the time she realises that Travis is setting a trap, it might just be too late…

 

Cast

Olivia Poulet (Avalon)

Colin Baker (Bayban the Butcher)

Hugh Fraser (The President)

Stephen Greif (Travis)

Luke Barton (Charron)

Rachel Atkins (Corelano )

Cliff Chapman (Madison)

Nicholas Day (Jorah)

Rosie Day (Alixa / Senna )

Malcolm James (Dev Tarrant)

Caroline Lawrie (Bonanne / Mutoid )

John Rayment (Control / Pilot )

David Sargent (Commander / Garson )

Graham Seed (Noral )

Charlotte Strevens (Winter)

 

Credits

Cover Art by Tom Newsom

Director John Ainsworth

Executive Producer Jason Haigh-Ellery Nicholas Briggs

Music by Simon Power Jamie Robertson David Roocroft

Producer John Ainsworth

Script Editor Steve Lyons

Sound Design by Simon Power Jamie Robertson David Roocroft

Written by Niel Bushnell Christopher Cooper Steve Lyons

Theme Music by Simon Power

Based on the format created by Terry Nation

Senior Producer David Richardson

 

 

Suggested Listening

Avalon Volume One

Blake’s 7: The Way Ahead

TD Velasquez is a writer, film fan, author of the blog Life Is About Fiction (@LifeIsAboutFic), and a host on the horror-flavoured British podcast, --And Now The Podcast Starts!! (@AndNowPodcast)

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