Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The Turing Test written by Simon Gurrier and directed by Lisa Bowerman

Blakes’ 7 and I have had a very chequered past. There was a time when the only science fiction I would consider was Doctor Who. There was simply so much of it collect from the TV series to the books that I simply couldn’t countenance anything else getting in the way for about two years. Then as I read fanzines and DWM I started to become aware of Blakes’ 7 and the many things it had in common with Doctor Who (Producers, directors, writers, actors, musician) and so I bit the bullet and got hold of the first season. I was transported into a dark, Orwellian future where Star Trek ideals had been turned on their heads and the heroes were a bunch of outlaws on the run from a corrupt Federation. Or at least I was for two episodes and then I found the rest of the Terry Nation scripted first year a little hard to swallow (a similar problem I had with the sheer weight of JMS scripts in Babylon 5). However there was enough there to capture my interest and the finale promised better things in series two. Which was better – there were still some duds but there was also some real gold in there like Shadow, Gambit and Star One. Series three was even better and easily the most consistent year with the gorgeous Dayna and Tarrant joining the cast, generally more slick production values and series highlight Rumours of Death. Series four took a little while to get going and couldn’t quite get past the fact that the show felt like it had ended at the climax to the last season but soon found its groove with quirky gems such as Gold and Orbit and of course climaxing on one of the most unforgettable endings a TV show ever had, Blake. Overall I found the show intensely enjoyable but after watching it through I put the videos back on the shelf and started watching some gorgeous, expensive American imports like DS9, Buffy and The X-Files. Fast forward ten years I think about giving the series another watch. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It had dated so badly, the pacing was non existent and the acting was extremely variable. Was this the show that had so gripped me when I was a teenager? I didn’t manage to finish season one and then I just caught the odd episode that I knew that was good. The trouble was that although Doctor Who could look similarly dated it had some extremely charismatic central performances, imaginative storytelling and (most importantly) humour to keep it very watchable. I decided to pack them up and sell them on. Clearly this wasn’t a show that was going to get any better over time. That was three years ago and that’s where I was until about two weeks ago, having written off the show as a has-been. I was sitting here thinking what to review next and I suddenly had this unexpected urge to watch Blakes 7! I found The Way Back and Space Fall on YouTube and sat there on a hot afternoon absolutely absorbed  by the two part opener. It reminded me of everything that I fell in love with the show the first time around. The tone was adult and gripping, Gareth Thomas was giving a mighty performance, there was some graphic incident that put it out of Doctor Who’s league and many of the central cast weren’t even introduced in the first episode! It was a show that took risks and won. On the back of that I have now found myself trying to beg Simon to let me buy the DVDs and got myself the Liberator Chronicles. Big Finish has such a good track record at putting a new spin on an old show and with the central cast members on board this was a treasure trove of a series that was waiting for me re-discover…

What’s it about: Avon and Vila visit an isolated outpost where scientists are working on a top-secret project…

Anti-Hero: Paul Darrow is something of a cult legend these days thanks to his unforgettable performance as Kerr Avon. This a man who can overplay a scene to the nth degree and still make it entirely believable and gripping and can stand aside from group scene and do nothing and completely steal it. Avon was dark and delicious, casual and insane, brilliant and sexy. He was a force to be reckoned with and proved that even with the loss of Blake at the end of season two the show could still go on. It had never really been about Blake when Paul Darrow had stolen the show just like Avon always tried to usurp their leader. Avon has studied Melongy’s work in self replicating code and knew she was a force to reckoned with. He already suspected what they would find before they reached the establishment. Rather wonderfully Avon is posing as an android – surely this isn’t a statement on Darrow’s occasionally robotic delivery of dialogue? He states that you don’t have to smile or interact with people and everything becomes statements of logic…Avon does all of those things anyway! He’s the only member of the crew that could possibly think fast enough to convince a group of scientists who are the top of their field that he has a positronic brain. He’s used to drowning out other people and the drone of their thoughts. Avon is quick enough to memorise codes when only catching a glance of them being inputted. Suddenly Avon is seeing everything through 14’s eyes and he learns to appreciate things he had previously ignored. The crew he had lived with for weeks captured her attention and that made him jealous. Avon starts thinking of her his property because he rescued her. He wanted to protect her, he didn’t like the thought of her being put in danger in one of Blake’s mad schemes. Avon cares enough to want to leave the Liberator and hide away with 14. When they leave the scientists to face the wrath of the Federation Villa can see that Avon was punishing them because he felt something for 14 and despised the way they treated her. He was like 14 because he had turned off a part of himself a long time ago. That was how he survived and would continue to do so. He cannot afford the luxury of feeling.

Lovable Thief: Its hard not to like Villa because he is always pushed into things against his will when he would much rather be sipping drinks in some luxury resort away from danger! He’s a brave man when he needs to be but he hides all that behind a front of cowardess and often needs Dutch courage in the form of whatever liquor is to hand. I would never write Villa off as just comic relief but he does perform that function admirably. Villa’s charms makes Avon want to break things but even he has to admit it works on some people. Avon wonders about the competence of this assembled group of scientists if they are all willing to accept Villa as a genius! He hates to admit but he does have scruples but he’s also too much of the thief to resist wanting to steal such a prize as 14 from the Federation.

Blake: Blake had told his fellow ex prisoners that they were free now, that they could bring down the Federation and that they would survive. A convicted terrorist who is ever willing to lead them head first into the next crisis. He has an insufferable love of the grand gesture even when admitting he was wrong.

Cally: A telepath revolutionary from the planet Auron. Jan Chappell has an awful lot to give as an actress (she almost single handedly saved the Doctor Who spin off production Shakedown) but was often kept in the shadows thanks to the more attention grabbing turns of Darrow, Thomas and Keating. I can’t wait for the second batch of Liberator Chronicles because she is narrating a tale of her own and it’s a chance for us to get closer to the most likable crewmember.

Gan: A softly spoken giant who had killed a man. That was about all we learnt across nearly two season on television too such was his curse of non-development. Let’s hope the audios can rectify that.
Standout Performance: It would appear that Paul Darrow is still a force to be reckoned with because he gives a masterful class in narration here that had me completely gripped from beginning to end.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Would the Federation really keep anything of value here? Or was that part of the bluff?’
‘Don’t think Villa, one of us might get hurt.’
‘Better to die free than live as a prisoner…’

Great Ideas: The Liberator is the fastest ship in the galaxy and can outrun Cassini pirates. They heard the first whisper on Destiny after they stopped a planetary disaster and a grateful government told them that the Federation was moving scientists out to the edge of the galaxy. They have set up a rogue facility on the rogue moon of Quentl. I’m so used to listening to Big Finish Doctor Who audios its easy to forget that you have switched shows – the Doctor always turns up places willy nilly not knowing where he is but within this series they are set within one universe and one time period and they have to make provisions every time they arrive someone. In The Turing Test they prove their worth by adding Villa’s likeness to a database of scientists so once he is scanned he was get past their defences. The moment when Avon is taken to a room with a female ‘android’ I suddenly recalled Blakes’ 7’s underlying sexuality. 14 is a valuable piece of equipment that could aid their cause and Villa is a thief and he needs Avon to remind him that she isn’t a woman and that’s what they came here to do. Interesting considering how things work out. If the Federation had machines that looked like humans they could use them as infiltration agents. 14 was the decoy whilst the scientist hide away in shelters, turning away pirates or anybody else who cared to visit. It was a perfect system wherein they are in no danger whatsoever and only a mechanical life is risked. 14 had been built with a chip inside her that limited the distance she could be from the facility and by freeing her from her captors they ultimately shut her down. Blake wants to take her back and find out what they need to do in order to shut the ship down but she is adamant that she isn’t going to return to a life of slavery, pulling a gun on Villa. Villa heads back to the facility and erases their entire database whilst subsequently transferring the data to the Liberator. A tasty little kitty of information for the next venture. What they were doing had all sorts of military potential and they could use it to their advantage.

Audio Landscape: You’ve got to admire Big Finish’s attention to detail and within seconds of The Turing Test you are transported back to the flight deck of the Liberator with the use of the neutron blasters and the electronic warble of Zen.

Musical Cues: Well, well, well its been a long while since I have seen Alistair Lock’s name on a Big Finish release and it pleases me no end to see him back. Halfway through the story and the music kept impressing me so I checked the sleeve for details… It has all the hallmarks that made Lock’s music so important during the very first Doctor Who/Bernice Summerfield releases – its pacy, very easy on the ear, compliments the story and underscores the emotion.

Standout Scene: Avon mentions (practically in passing its so casual – God that man is cool!) that he and Villa had invented the attack by the Cassini pirates in order to escape with 14. Clever, clever bastards.

Notes: Its nice to see some continuity from the television stories added to give this story a placing, taking place after the episode ‘Mission to Destiny’ in season one.

Result: Performed by Paul Darrow with excellent support from Micheal Keating, The Turing Test marks the beginning of Big Finish’s Blakes’ 7 range in about as appetite whetting fashion as possible. Avon and Villa were always the most memorable of characters and separating them from the others proves as enjoyable an experience as ever (who could forget the ending to Orbit?). There’s plenty of fun to be had in Avon pretending to be an automaton but what impressed was the feelings he started to develop for 14 almost imperceptibly. He’s a man who barely has the ability to care so it seems very right that he should develop affection for a machine that cannot. However those who fear that this audio range might be trying to turn the series into a soppy soap opera this is Blakes 7 through and through with the crew running from the Federation, stopping at outposts and trying to gather as much intelligence and resources to help fight their cause. There are moments of dry humour and a couple of lovely twists but what impressed me most was getting inside the head of the coldest man in the galaxy. Avon always was the series most interesting character and Paul Darrow hasn’t lost any of his edge. If this is indicative of the range then sign me up: 8/10

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