BIG FINISH: WRITER'S ROUNDTABLE
Thanks to the critical success of the first season of full-cast audio Blake’s 7 plays from Big Finish, we only had a short wait for a second series of brand new adventures for the Liberator crew. The timeline was pushed forward to Series C which offered ample scope for expanding the mythology of Blake’s 7. As well as continuing the ongoing story of Del Grant (Tom Chadbon) joining the crew, the series also focused on the search for a missing crewmember – Dayna Mellanby. After Josette Simon politely declined the opportunity to return as Dayna, the production team very cleverly decided to make her absence a key plot-point.
We caught up with some of the key players at Big Finish to get the inside scoop on this exciting new season of Blake’s 7 adventures.
Succeeding David Richardson as producer on the series is Cavan Scott. With his writing partner Mark Wright, Cavan was responsible for some of the most popular Blake’s 7 releases from Big Finish including The Armageddon Storm, Blake’s Story, Cold Fury and Caged. Trevor Baxendale who also wrote the Blake’s 7 novel, Criminal Intent, wrote the first play in the latest series, Scimitar. Making her Blake’s 7 debut is Big Finish veteran, Jacqueline Rayner, who wrote the third story, Mindset. Iain McLaughlin is another writer with long-standing Big Finish credits, having created the Fifth Doctor’s companion Erimem in Doctor Who: Eye of the Scorpion. Justin Richards has worked on every Blake’s 7 production from Big Finish as Script Editor. After kicking off the last series with Fractures, Justin provided the ‘series finale’ for Series 2, Truth and Lies.
What are the main challenges of working on the Blake's 7 range?
CAVAN: Mainly the logistics of getting such a large cast together. They're all incredibly busy but we manage it, even if the schedule is a bit of a jigsaw puzzle.
IAIN: I think there’s always the challenge of not just writing how you think you remember a show was. You have to go back and study it so you see how it actually was. It was a few years since I’d had the Blake DVDs out so I had a watch of Series C. Oddly I hadn’t remembered Tarrant being quite so much of a bully to Vila. A couple of scenes caught me by surprise. But that gave me something to work with.
Was it always the intention to push the timeline into Series C?
CAVAN: Yes, as soon as I took over the range I knew I wanted to have a run of stories set during Series C, so we could have Tarrant and hopefully Dayna as part of the crew.
Where did the idea for the ‘Search for Dayna’ plot come from?
CAVAN: The idea came from her absence. It was also constructed so that if Josette decided she only wanted to return for one or two episodes then the option would be there. Plus the loose arc gave us a chance to play with some different kinds of stories. We wanted to make sure that we tried different things rather than just sticking with Federation wrangling.
JUSTIN: As it was going to be obvious that we didn't have Dayna in the episodes, it seemed sensible to make that a part of the narrative rather than trying to hide it or gloss over it. So that was our starting point, and from that Cavan and I worked out the overall structure of the series in general terms, and briefed the writers on the sort of episodes we wanted from them.
Do you remember watching Series C on its original broadcast?
CAVAN: Absolutely. In fact it was my introduction to Blake's 7. I only watched the first two series much later when they were released on DVD. For a long time, the Series C crew were my Blake's 7.
JUSTIN: Because of the timing of transmission, on a Monday evening, I only saw occasional episodes of the first two series of Blake's 7 when it was originally shown. But for Series C, I think that was the first one where I was actually able to watch the whole thing. So, yes, I have good and fond memories of that.
TREVOR: Oh yes. I was 13. I loved Blake's 7 to bits, right from The Way Back. It was influential! I made the Blue Peter teleport bracelet too. It's the only Blue Peter make I ever did. It was fabulous - wish I still had it!
JAC: I remember the exact opposite - I know I didn't watch it on broadcast. I was seven and not only was it on past my bedtime; programmes like that just weren't watched in my house. I don't mean they were forbidden, just that they didn't appeal to my parents so we didn't tune in. The only episode of Blake’s 7 I know I definitely saw on broadcast was Warlord - talk about coming in at the last minute! Then I caught up as soon as I could via magazines and books and eventually friends' videos.
IAIN: I watched Blake all the way through its run. It was something my Dad and I watched together. There weren’t too many things he and I watched together but this was one of them.
Did you revisit certain episodes during the writing process?
TREVOR: I'd rewatched the entire series - all 52 episodes - quite recently. But I did watch a few from Series C again: Powerplay, Countdown and Rumours of Death.
IAIN: I rewatched most of Series C. I tended to go back and see certain bits of episodes just to get character reactions and inflections. Vila is the main character in Ghost Ship and indeed in Poison (Liberator Chronicles, Volume 11), the second Blake’s 7 script I wrote. I watched and rewatched a lot of his scenes. Michael Keating is never less than brilliant. I also listened to a lot of the Big Finish plays again to get the mindset for them. I had been writing a historically set murder series and then a noir crime novel so I had to tune my brain in to Blake’s 7.
Do you feel Series C has more ‘continuity gaps’ in which to set new story arcs?
CAVAN: You get the feeling that C happens across a long space of time. Certainly you'd expect the Federation to need time to rebuild itself.
JUSTIN: Possibly. The first series is quite tightly knitted together, but I actually think the other three all give about equal opportunity for inserting new material and going off on mini-arcs within the established narrative.
IAIN: Series C certainly feels more open and spaced than the first two seasons. I think there are enough gaps in those first two to give plenty of scope but Series C has more. If Big Finish can fill those gaps, I will be a happy fan!
What was the thinking behind making Del Grant a new member of the crew?
CAVAN: David Richardson hit upon the idea of having Grant stay onboard during the recording of The Armageddon Storm and so it was always part of the plan to have him as a member of the crew, whether Dayna was there or not.
JUSTIN: Cavan and Mark Wright had used Del quite a lot in their own scripts, and it seemed to fit. We didn't start planning Series C+ until after we knew we wouldn't have Dayna, so slotting Del in was a fairly obvious move. He fulfills a similar function to Dayna within the crew, being a weapons expert.
TREVOR: I was a little surprised, but only in that I hadn't known about it already. Del Grant is such a perfect fit in Blake's 7; it works really well and he's a very sensible, believable addition to the crew. And writing for him was great, because Tom Chadbon's got a lovely, distinctive voice and delivery that makes Grant easy to write for. He's got that sardonic tough guy attitude. It's funny, because initially I thought with Avon, Tarrant and Grant on board the Liberator you've immediately got 3 alpha-males vying for position, although they're all quite different from each other. That's exciting stuff, but I never really had the chance to explore that in Scimitar.
IAIN: I certainly didn’t expect it but an extra body turning up on the Liberator didn’t hugely surprise me. In Doctor Who, Big Finish have expanded that universe by adding companions to all of the Doctors they have apart from the mighty Tom (so far, anyway) and by expanding out with a lot of spin-offs. That gives the show’s universe a lot more meat and a lot more dramatic possibilities, so I wasn’t surprised that they did the same with Blake’s 7. I certainly like the way he works with the crew and the way he shakes up the dynamics and relationships on the ship.
How important is it for the B7 range to develop it’s own mythology?
CAVAN: As long as it remains to the true to the series, I think it's vitally important. It means we can try new things without retreading old ground.
JUSTIN: It's a question of balance, I think. Similarly to Doctor Who, you want to bring back and feature successful characters and elements from the past, but you also need to keep new stuff coming along so the universe doesn't seem to be getting too small. There's room within our own interpretation and extension of Blake's 7 to create new but recurring characters, but we have to be careful not to over use them. This is still the TV Blake's 7 series, but extended rather than something different or new.
IAIN: It’s imperative to take new routes and try new characters and ongoing story strands. You have to expand the universe you’re creating. You have to give it more and make sure what you’re adding complements and adds to what is already there and loved by fans. It adds to the richness. I think you shortchange the audience if you don’t expand things.
How far in advance do you plot a season of adventures? Are there story threads you’re planning to pick up later?
CAVAN: I have all kinds of plans bubbling away. When it comes for Series C, I know how Grant leaves and how Vila’s actions in Secrets (Liberator Chronicles 9) play out. We're certainly playing a long game with those. Don't expect the answers just yet.
JUSTIN: The Liberator Chronicles are fairly one-off, although we do have half an eye on future developments and there are some ongoing threads we cultivate, as it were. For the full cast series, we plan them out completely in advance, as far as the ongoing overall story goes. Once that's done, each author brings his or her own story to tell within that overall framework.
Were you disappointed when Josette Simon turned down the opportunity to return? Did you consider recasting?
CAVAN: I wasn't surprised but would have loved her to play a part. I didn't consider recasting this time, but am considering it for the future.
JUSTIN: I was told we wouldn't have Josette at the same time as I was told we could do the Series C adventures. So I didn't really have a chance to be disappointed - as far as I knew, it was never really a possibility. As far as I'm aware there was no suggestion of recasting. I think that would be difficult to pull off.
TREVOR: It would have been great to have Dayna, but really her being missing provides a marvellous hook for the series - and allows for the inclusion of Del Grant as well.
IAIN: Definitely. She’s a fantastic performer. Whatever her reasons for not being involved, I hope she’ll reconsider one day. I think she would enjoy what Cav, Justin and the writers came up with. But, if she chooses not to, I respect her decision and I know Big Finish will carry on fine without her.
Are you pleased with the reaction to the latest series?
CAVAN: Absolutely! They've been sparking debate among fans. You can't ask for more than that.
JUSTIN: Very pleased. It's good to see that for most people we're getting it right and providing a valid and exciting progression of the original series.
IAIN: I’m always a bit nervous of how people will react to a story. I get very attached to a story and its characters when I’m writing it. You always want a story to be well received and if it’s not... well, a trembling lip and some serious sulking can be involved! In this case, we were putting the sense of a very traditional ghost story into a situation where it might not gel. Blake’s 7 is science fiction not gothic horror. Would the listeners accept the two of them being put together? I’m enormously pleased that the reception to Ghost Ship has been so positive. I wish I could claim all the credit but I can’t. Cav and Justin were heavily involved all through the writing of it, and Lisa and her actors did great work. So did the sound designer, Martin Montague. If the play works, it’s because a lot of people are very good at what they do, although I will happily pilfer all the credit. I’m like that.
Is it difficult to find writers who are familiar with Blake’s 7 and the challenges of writing for audio?
JUSTIN: Big Finish works with so many writers that there's never a shortage. And Blake's 7 is such a popular series that most people are familiar with it. Sometimes a writer doesn't quite get a handle on one or more of the characters, but generally the writers who want to contribute are fans and very familiar with the series.
TREVOR: Cavan Scott emailed me out of the blue and asked me if I'd like to contribute to the next series of full cast Blake's 7 audio plays for Big Finish. God yes. I hadn't actually listened to any of the first series because - in all honesty - it would have been too painful. I was delighted that Big Finish got the license for Blake's 7 but I really, really wanted to be a part of it. I'd written audio plays for Cav before (Highlander and Robin Hood) and I'd enjoyed working with him on those, but they were quite some time ago and I thought my Big Finish scriptwriting days were over. I had already been asked to write a Blake’s 7 novel though (Criminal Intent) and I was working on that when I got asked to do the audio play - so suddenly it was all go for Blake's 7! I've written a few other things but doing Doctor Who and Blake's 7 are definitely the 'dream' jobs.
IAIN: I learned nearly everything I know about writing for audio and radio from working with Gary Russell on my first scripts for Doctor Who at Big Finish. Since then I’ve written a lot of radio for an American producer, Imagination Theater. Some of that is crime thrillers and mysteries but I also do horror for them. Horror has always worked really well in an audio format. You can really build the fear if you can’t see what’s there, if you can’t see what’s happening, if you can’t see what’s coming to get you. Your imagination fills in the gaps and really brings the scares. Horror is brilliant on audio. In general, I love writing audio. I like novels and short stories. My TV experience is limited but I enjoyed that too, but I really like audio. It has scope and scale. It’s my favourite medium to write.
Trevor, you were given the job of kicking off the Search for Dayna arc. Was it tough to handle all the set-up while still telling a compelling main story/were you given a detailed story brief?
TREVOR: I was given the series overview - the search for Dayna - and asked to write the story that kicks it off, which is wonderful for three very good reasons: firstly, it's tremendously exciting to write the 'opener' of any series; secondly, I didn't have to worry about where she'd gone! All I had to do was establish that she was missing and then write an adventure where the remaining crew starts looking for her. Minds immeasurably superior to mine would have to work out what had actually happened to poor old Dayna! And thirdly, the very fact that Dayna is missing provides a terrific spur to the start of the story. The first scene practically wrote itself. Hello? Has anyone seen Dayna? Cripes, she's missing! It's great to have that instant dynamic. The only real brief I had was that I'd have the full cast, and it wouldn't need to concentrate on any one particular character. So it was a straightforward all-round Blake's 7 adventure, establishing the set-up with Del Grant added to the regular crew. Again, that had already been done in one of Cav's Liberator Chronicles so I didn't have to worry about that too much either! The only difficulty was that I was limited to two guest characters. With a large regular cast, you want to make sure everyone has a decent part and plenty of good lines, but it can mean the guest characters get a little 'squeezed'.
Were the writers given details of the over-arching story? Do all the writers work together – or do they only need to know the basics?
TREVOR: I knew roughly - very roughly - the arc, but to be honest I didn't spend too much time ruminating over the rest of it. I waned to find out what happened by actually listening to the finished episodes. All I needed to know was how it started. Those writing the later stories probably had to pay more attention to what had gone before; I didn't have that worry!
JAC: I was asked to feature Cally but steer clear of too much Vila, who would be having his big episode later. I also got to reveal what Dayna was looking for. Apart from that I was given a free hand. Thankfully they were OK with me trying for the fantasy/emotional Tanith Lee vibe which is what really appealed to me. Our run of stories is set directly after Sarcophagus, so there was so much to draw on - although as that also means we were coming after one of the strongest runs in Blake’s 7 history it felt like there was a lot to live up to as well!
IAIN: I was sent a guide with a rundown of what was already planned, what the season arc was, and a line or so saying ‘Vila on his own on the Liberator’. From there I was able to form the story. I think Cav suggested making it scary. From there it was clear it was going to be Vila alone in a haunted house. Then it was a case of working out who the ghosts were, what they were about and how that could fit into a science fiction setting.
JUSTIN: Truth and Lies tells a complete story in itself while also bringing the overall series quest to a conclusion - hopefully a satisfactory one!
How difficult is it to ensure that each character is given enough to do?
CAVAN: We've tried to give each character their own story this series, so everyone gets their time in the limelight. Obviously sometimes you have to shift some characters into the background, but hopefully we've hit the right balance.
JUSTIN: Like the TV series, we cheat! With so many main characters it could be a problem, so for most stories we focus on just a few of the main characters. There are exceptions, where everyone gets involved, and that can be quite a tricky thing to get right.
IAIN: That wasn’t really an issue in Ghost Ship. It was always a Vila story and the rest of the crew on the surface were always the B story in the episode. The interesting thing was to play it out like their story was going to be the main thrust of the narrative and then undermine that by keeping the listener on board the Liberator. It was keeping the audience off balance a bit. However, I did try to make sure that what the rest of the crew did was meaty enough and with plenty for each of them to do. If it had been a story with all of them on the ship it would have been more of a balancing act.
Do you prefer writing for the early crew led by Blake or the Series C line-up?
TREVOR: I love both, but if pushed I would probably have to say the Series C line-up - although, ideally, my dream job for Blake's 7 would be something set in series D. I love the Scorpio and the whole sense of everything coming apart for both our heroes and the Federation.
IAIN: Crews evolve and develop. It would be interesting to write about them early in their time on the Liberator while they’re finding their places. There’s also something about Blake’s moral certainty that makes that an interesting dynamic to get my head around.
Is there a particular character you enjoy writing for?
TREVOR: Avon is lovely to write for because the character is so unique, and Paul Darrow's presence so powerful, that he practically writes himself. But I did enjoy writing for Travis in Criminal Intent. I could write a whole novel just based on Travis. I'd love to do that. I love the way he sees himself so clearly as the hero of the story.
JAC: Cally’s always been my favourite of the female crewmembers. Very cool, controlled, but with such depths. I especially liked being able to explore the aspects of Cally revealed in Sarcophagus. I mean, Cally and Avon - it's just obvious, isn't it? Then to deal with a bit of the aftermath of Children of Auron, getting to go inside her head, literally, that was fun too.
IAIN: Vila. I always got Vila, always understood Vila. When I was a kid, he was the one we all understood. Avon is also a joy because he doesn’t care who he insults. When you take that kind of filter off of a personality you can get some great laughs – you can also use it to build some real drama. I’d like to do a Cally-centric story. She’s fascinating. And I would love to write for Blake.
Will we see adventures set during Series D – and would you like to be involved?
CAVAN: To answer those questions as simply as possible - I hope so and yes please!
TREVOR: Absolutely I would. Preferably the full cast audios or the books! I've got lots of story ideas I'd love to do and I'd feel much more confident about it having already done one of each. Doctor Who is very close to my heart, and it's a giant thing now, so obviously that is terrific to be involved with. But Blake's 7! I never, ever thought there would be more Blake's 7 to enjoy - and being able to contribute to it as well in the way I have is no small thing for me. I'm delighted and very, very lucky to have done both.
JAC: I don't know - obviously it depends if I'm asked! I enjoyed doing this one so much, I don't know if a second bite at the cherry would be as good. That said, I do love Vila and would love to write properly for him, so... hmm.
IAIN: Series D is interesting. I’d love to see that crew explored, and also the development of what’s going on in Avon’s mind through that run. Oh yeah. I’d love to get my teeth into some of that. I’d also be interested in some episodes exploring what Blake has been doing during the time period of S4, but that may just be the fan in me hoping for that.
JUSTIN: You'll just have to wait and see - or rather, wait and hear! But yes, if we do a Series D tie in I'd certainly like to stay involved.
Thank you to Cavan, Justin, Jacqueline, Trevor and Iain for their time and support.
Big Finish's range of Blake’s 7 novels, audiobooks, The Liberator Chronicles and the all cast audios are available at www.bigfinish.com