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“I am your resentment and distrust, self loathing, insecurity and paranoia.  It was good of you to let me onboard.”

Way back in the halcyon days of my youth, I had the privilege of seeing Paul Darrow at a local convention.

This took place a few years after Blakes 7 had gone off air in the UK, though it had only recently finished airing here in the States – if memory serves, this fell right around 1985.

While I wasn’t aware of any meet and greet sessions, just seeing him hold court was amusing enough, particularly when he showed the grace to suppress (albeit barely) snickering at a real flake of a fan dressed up like Elvira (long before the days of cosplay, mind), who put on a ridiculously affected and quite obviously fake Brit accent for her lengthy questions.  Given the outright laughter from certain portions of the audience at her stumbling efforts to maintain this self-consciously posh affectation, that alone showed a certain level of class and self control quite appropriate for the man who embodied the suave antihero of Kerr Avon.

I also recall him standing out in a particularly eerie episode of Hammer House of Horror called “Guardian of the Abyss” alongside Lovejoy’s lovely Caroline Langrishe.  He even appeared in Doctor Who twice, the first time being way back at the dawn of the Pertwee era, in “Doctor Who and the Silurians”.

On the flipside, he does bear an unfortunate reputation among Whovians for camping it up mercilessly and shamelessly in Sixth Doctor-era episode “Timelash”, in order to revenge himself against Colin Baker doing much the same in the Blakes episode “City at the Edge of the World” a few years prior.  Regardless, I’ve always found Darrow a welcome presence in whatever role I may have stumbled across him portraying.

Similarly, Gareth Thomas took the lead in what is likely the all time greatest of all BBC children’s serials, Children of the Stones, and further took one of the two male leads in the highly amusing sci-fi feminist dystopia of Star Maidens.  He also showed up in a Hammer House of Horror episode (“Visitor from the Grave”) and even made his way to Torchwood (“Ghost Machine”), again bringing an extra veneer of entertainment to each appearance.

Having sat through any number of Dalek stories, Survivors and even installments of series such as the Persuaders and the Linda Thorson-era Avengers, one thing becomes quite apparent.  By far the best thing Nation ever created or laid pen to was Blake’s 7.

While the series title had always been something of a misnomer*, Nation always held to the somewhat spurious assertion that various iterations of the ship’s computer (originally Zen, later Orac and finally Slave on the Liberator’s somewhat sorry replacement, the Scorpio) were the titular member(s) unaccounted for.

*There were only 5 members at the start, with Cally an early addition thereafter.  The cast would vacillate between 5 and 6 members throughout the course of later seasons, as characters mysteriously departed or died off and new ones introduced.

Even so, the very concept of the series was revolutionary in all senses of the word: a ragtag group of both political and actual prisoners who join forces to escape from an oppressively fascistic universal government.

Following (some willingly, some thrown together by necessity) the lead of blindly idealistic (if not singleminded and reckless) opposition figurehead Roj Blake, this crew of white and blue collar lawbreakers embark on a long chase with spots of guerilla warfare and retaliation against their oppressors.

But given the flawed character and often ill fit of the cast and crew, any simpleminded views of black and white, right and wrong become more realistically nuanced, with all moral concerns fading into more of the grey area such concerns actually inhabit in the real world.

While not the first attempt to pull the Liberator out of mothballs, Big Finish has certainly provided what is by far the best to date.   While earlier iterations courtesy of BBC audio did succeed in reuniting a few original cast members, the stories were quite grim and just felt wrong, somehow.  While it was certainly nice to hear some of the cast working together again, this was not the Blakes Seven fans were waiting for.

This time around, we are treated to what amounts to a full cast reunion for the first time since the series original airing.  Gareth Thomas, Paul Darrow, Michael Keating, Sally Knyvette and Jan Chappell are all in tow, and as per what has come to be standard for a Big Finish production, it feels as if they’ve barely been away.

Certainly, there are minor quibbles to note, chief among which is how particularly busy the episode feels at times.  It would appear that this is primarily a result of the (quite understandable) desire to give everyone in the cast equal airtime.

In Fractures, cast members literally trade lines mid-sentence, so that no single character manages to deliver more than a portion of a phrase before another picks up where the first left off to complete it.  There’s a story-based rationale for this at the effective denouement of the adventure, but this pattern recurs throughout the entire episode, making things feel far more rushed and cluttered than they should have otherwise.

While it’s only right (and in fact, expected) that everyone get their fair share of floor time, this sort of obsessive drive for equalization seems a tad strange.  After all, it never felt like anyone was being neglected during the show’s original run, despite a far more expansive and laid back approach to dealing with a tightly knit, if not equal in importance and screentime, multi-person cast.

Noticeably missing herein is Jacqueline Pearce’s decadent par excellence Supreme Commander Servalan, who alongside (arguably) Phyllis Logan’s Lady Jane Felsham of Lovejoy fame remains one of the precious few short coiffed women ever to appear onscreen to still exude a strong sensuality and appeal.

Of the few Blakes regulars not present herein, one also misses Josette Simon’s Dayna from the third and fourth seasons (later portrayed by Angela Bruce, best known to Whovians as McCoy era UNIT head Brigadier Bambera, in the aforementioned earlier BBC-produced Blakes Seven audios) and the late David Jackson’s Gan, who was killed off during the course of the second season.  The presence of Jenna and Blake and simultaneous absence of either of these characters (not to mention later joinees Tarrant and Soolin) marks this story as falling somewhere late in the second season time period.

Nonetheless, the mere fact that Big Finish has managed to gather what amounts to the entire surviving original, and let’s be honest, best cast and crew of the Liberator is an impressive feat.   Hell, they even managed to rope in perpetual Blake nemesis Travis (Brian Croucher) for a brief role at the opening, as the initiating factor behind the crew’s subsequent predicament.  With this thorough a roundup of just about everyone involved in the original run, any niggling complaints prove both decidedly minor and somewhat disingenuous by comparison.

The story is classic Blakes 7 through and through.  After yet another assault by Federation renegade Travis, and with the Liberator undergoing emergency repairs, the crew steers into uncharted territory marked as off limits.  A “derelict zone” of shipwrecks dating back to the earliest days of spaceflight, those who enter the forbidden zone seldom if ever exit its clutches…

What a great story! On a certain level this can be read as a simple if cracking sci-fi mystery in the vein of Star Trek or the original Alien, with the mysterious life form that both is and isn’t there teleporting itself from one of the long-derelict vessels onto the Liberator, where it systematically begins to implement its habitual game of divide and conquer…

That said, and in the vein of all the best science fiction, anyone with the slightest bit of savvy can pick up what this one is really about, and how directly it applies to contemporary society.

“What do you want from us?”
“I want you to die.  Very slowly, hating each other.
Blaming each other.
The differences between you growing, as each of you realizes that it’s the others’ fault.”

With a malevolently manipulative, globally minded and corporate funded extreme right wing deliberately setting any conceivable subset of local or international culture, belief system, nation or society against one another as a form of obfuscation, the fomentation of divide and conquer has seldom been utilized so effectively, much less in terms of scale, as a tool of distraction, removal of civil liberties, workplace standard reforms and power grab as it has done in the wake of the post 9/11 “war on terror”.

Substituting the Federation, much less what turns out to be the direct villain of the piece for the NSA, SuperPAC ‘dark money’ puppeteers and/or major media propaganda machine network news outlets has never been quite so obvious or direct a parallel as is clearly applicable herein.

Nor, without being particularly preachy, has the wake up call of the story’s denouement.

Because as the Liberator crew points out, while they see our differences as weakness, our very diversity of background is actually our greatest strength.  Furthermore, it is our strongest and best weapon against the evil these forces of manipulation in the name of short term greed for those in their inner circle of profiteers and an abolition of freedoms, civil liberties and a full century of societal reforms in the name of absolute power so obviously represent.

If only more among us would heed the signs and stand up against the malfeasance being perpetrated against all of us collectively, before it’s far too late to do so.

Moreso than during its initial airing, the Liberator beckons to all of us, as both symbol and example.  Kudos to Big Finish for bringing its cast and crew back together after so long an absence, and long may she run.