Blake’s 7: Avalon: Volume Two – Starring Olivia Poulet, Cliff Chapman & Colin Baker, Written by Steve Lyons, Niel Bushnell & Christopher Cooper & Directed by John Ainsworth (Big Finish)
The first volume of Avalon stories was firmly rooted on Earth, showing the hard work of a resistance group at the very heart of the Federation. As such, while every Blake’s 7 knows she’s eventually heading to a meeting with the Liberator crew in the TV episode Project Avalon, it was fascinating to at least hear some of the exploits that made her worthy of Federation interest.
This second set takes her off-world, and comes up against a problem that Blake’s 7 occasionally tangled with themselves: the fact that there’s no such thing as an entirely clean revolution. Along the way to a brighter cosmos, you’re going to have to do deals with and work alongside people you otherwise wouldn’t spit at across a crowded bar.
We ended the first set with Avalon (Olivia Poulet) and her new sidekick Madison (Cliff Chapman), a man with a quite extraordinary memory and a staggeringly low threshold for discomfort, leaving Earth both to stay alive, hide out, and make a bigger difference on other worlds.
In the first story of this second set, they find themselves working alongside a frank psychotic who will be familiar to fans: Bayban the Butcher, played on screen in his pre-Doctor Who days by Colin Baker. He returns to give us more from the curly-headed rageaholic with mummy issues in Bayban’s Bounty, by Niel Bushnell.
The story is a little complicated, and involves Avalon and Madison in search of a particular MacGuffin, and Bayban in search of his not-exactly-but-near-as-dammit dead mother. The interests of both groups coincide in a raid on the Vankberg Vault – a seemingly almost inescapable repository of goodies – and Bushnell achieves something which perhaps was never fully managed on screen, making us believe that Bayban is much more than a shouty cretin.
In defence of City At The Edge Of The World, the story in which he originally appeared, he pretty much NEEDED to be a shouty cretin in that story, he was the fury that motivated Villa to do his best work. Here, Colin Baker gives him something of the same shouty madness (with perhaps just a little righteous Sixth Doctor seeping in here and there), but delivered in a script which shows WHY Bayban was so infernally dangerous as to have worked his way up the Federation’s most wanted list. A staggeringly skilful pilot, brave to the point of psychopathy in pursuit of his goals, and with an indomitable sense of self-will, he strides through the galaxy knowing that he will survive this day and that you, if you cross him, very probably will not. This is probably going a step too far, but if there’s exploration going on into how to spin off additional life from the Blake’s 7 franchise at Big Finish, then at least a couple of box sets of, say, “Bayban’s War” would be very welcome – he’s that sort of enigmatic terror, and could certain anchor a series.
By comparison to this larger-than-life-and-twice-as-bloody nightmare of a man, it’s true that Avalon begins to look both sane and reasonable. But then of course, she does partner up with this man while their goals are aligned, so arguably, the question is who’s the bigger psychopath. Their joint attack on the Vankberg Vault – from which Bayban is the only escapee in history – is everything you could hope it would be: loud, brash, clever, and at least mostly successful. But that question of who’s the bigger psychopath is certainly something that preys on Madison’s mind in this set. He admires what Avalon is trying to do, but feels less and less at ease with the lengths to which she’s willing to go to in order to achieve it.
That’s a disagreement that comes to a head in the second story, Mercenary, by Christopher Cooper.
If an army marches on its stomach, then a rebellion fights by doing shady deals with unscrupulous arms dealers. Avalon has done, it seems, many such deals, several of which were with the arms dealer Coralano (Rachel Atkins). Now, before Avalon can get any more of the guns she needs to pursue her private war, Coralano wants repaying. With money far too tight, Avalon accepts a job instead, and before either of them know what’s what, Avalon and Madison are trapped on a ship together with the last – or at least, last-but-one – person in the galaxy they want to see.
Where Bayban’s Bounty is a full-on, full-colour heist movie with a central maniac, Mercenary is much more of a tense thriller, where to lose concentration for a moment might be to end up dead. As such, it strings your nerves out good and tight before it explodes in a way that was probably inevitable, but still forces Avalon and Madison to a crisis point. Madison, in fairness to him, has always had a spiky, unpredictable edge to him, and in Mercenary, Christopher Cooper and Cliff Chapman together push him over the brink, not of his comfort zone – he hasn’t been in his comfort zone since he got involved with Avalon – but of his ability to make the kind of compromises Avalon feels happy to make.
With backstabbing, double-crossing, plots and counterplots, the tension builds up and up until the story can only break, and life for Avalon and Madison will never be quite the same again. The comparison between the first two stories is that while Bayban’s Bounty is all about frenetic energy (brought by Bayban) and against-the-odds heist action, in Mercenary, the energy is strung out and jittery, three people on a spaceship who don’t and shouldn’t trust each other, each watching every move the others make. It makes for a taut listen, but one where you find yourself forgetting to breathe, waiting, waiting, waaaaaitng for the other shoe to drop. And when it does, it’s like a sudden breathing out and an “I KNEW IT!” moment in one, meaning you get a burst of satisfaction after all the anticipation – Christopher Cooper paying off his audience for their attention like a good ’un.
Episode 3 of the set, Heart of Ice, by Steve Lyons feels – well, there’s no other way to put this, it feels a little sad.
Not sad in the storytelling – in the storytelling, it’s a belter, with Avalon arriving on Cryonax, an ice planet, and helping to lead the people in a revolt. But sad because we’re THERE already.
Cryonax is a new name for a planet which didn’t have a name on-screen – the ice planet on which Project Avalon is based. And while Steve Lyons delivers a cracking script, with a population looking for a leader and Avalon almost reluctantly getting drawn into their struggle, then making hard decisions her troops initially question, it feels like we’ve jumped over a lot more adventures she could have had before getting to this point.
Now, two things are of course true. Firstly, there might well be scope for a set of Cryonax-based adventures between this release and Project Avalon. There’s also scope for some post-Blake Avalon stories. So there’s not necessarily any reason to think the Avalon audios really end here.
And secondly, if the set HADN’T brought Avalon to Cryonax, and then for whatever reason no additional third set was produced, fans would complain that the series hadn’t brought her full circle to where we came in with her on-screen.
The only issue with which is that we still, after two box sets, don’t feel like we know an awful lot ABOUT Avalon. We’ve now heard her in action, and we’re beginning to get an idea about her ruthlessness, dedication, skill, and willingness to do the necessary thing to achieve her goals – even if the necessary thing is unpleasant or potentially lethal. We’ve heard how she can both inspire loyalty, achieve targets, and even scare the living hell out of those closest to her with how far she’s willing to go and how hard she’s willing to strike. But about the character herself, we still know comparatively little.
There’s a sense in which that’s understandable – leaders often need to keep their personality on a tight rein, and even Blake was far more about actions than motivations. But at least with Blake we got his origin story, and across the course of the show, we got similar nuggets about all or most of the Liberator crew. Avalon entered the picture fully formed in Project Avalon, and after two box sets, she’s still both as fully formed and as enigmatic as she was in that episode.
Overall then, Avalon, Volume 2 delivers all the way down the line on storytelling, gives three very different mood-pieces, and advances our understanding of Avalon’s timeline leading to Project Avalon. There are three absolute belting adventure stories here, any one of which would be worth the price of admission. Getting Colin Baker back as Bayban is both a stroke of genius and borderline fan-service (but still – more, please! Yours sincerely, The Fans). Showing the impact of her actions on Avalon’s relationship with Madison feels brave, but also true to the spirit of Blake’s 7. And giving Avalon a hardcore battle to fight before the end really shows the mettle of the leader she can be.
If there’s surprise and sadness at having got her to Cryonax quite so quickly, it’s a marker of how much more potential feels left in the character in the voice of Olivia Poulet. Here’s hoping there’s more Avalon in the future, because it feels like a series that could run and run. Tony Fyler