WRITING WARSHIP: INTERVIEW WITH PETER ANGHELIDES
Peter Anghelides has a long history with Blake's 7. While the series was still on air, Peter contributed to fanzines such as "Liberator" and "Standard by Seven". He went on to set up a fanzine called "Frontier Worlds" in which he interviewed several people involved in making the series. He is now an author and dramatist best known for his work on various spin-offs related to Doctor Who. In more recent years he has entered the world of Blake's 7 once more with a number of significant contribution to the Big Finish range. His most lauded contribution was the first full-cast audio adventure: "Warship". Peter kindly took the time recently to tell us all about his contribution to the ongoing story of Blake's 7.
Warship was the first full-cast release from Big Finish. How did you get this prestigious gig?
I’d written scripts for the Big Finish Doctor Who ranges previously – full cast, “Companion Chronicles,” and a multi-Doctor story. So I suppose they thought I had the right kind of experience for doing a Blake’s 7 audio. Producer David Richardson knew what a big fan I am of the TV series. He commissioned a “Liberator Chronicles” story from me called “Counterfeit.” And when that turned out well, he approached me about the “mid-season gap.”
The original idea was to have three “Liberator Chronicles” that explained what happened after the TV story “Star One.” That was going to be a box set called “The Galactic War.” I was going to write the concluding story, “What happened to Blake,” Steve Lyons was doing “What happened to Jenna,” and another writer was to do the opening story, “The Galactic War.” There were sort of two reasons that David asked me to do the Blake episode. He thought I’d do a good job on it. Plus it was a sort of in-joke because I had, with my “Frontier Worlds” co-editors, been on-set at BBC Television Centre as a guest of the producer for the recording of the finale episode “Blake,” and so I allegedly knew how Blake had reached Gauda Prime!
Things worked out a bit differently with that box set, and I took on the “Galactic War” story instead. The original author had been keen to do it, but couldn’t fit it into a busy schedule. Which was a shame for them, but turned out rather well for me. The three of us had met up at one of the Big Finish Days to discuss initial ideas – me, Steve and the other person. I remember meeting another author that day, Una McCormack. She’s written Blake’s 7 audios subsequently, but at the time these ones were not announced. I had to bite my lip about what I and the other two authors were plotting. Sorry, Una!
Warship was originally to have been a Liberator Chronicles. How did the story evolve from there?
I’d persuaded David Richardson to let me write the “Galactic War” story instead of “Blake’s Story.” From quite early on, it was agreed that I could include all the main cast – which was unusual for the “Companion Chronicles.” I had written them with a single cast member. And at a GallifreyOne convention panel in Los Angeles, I had feigned outrage at Nigel Fairs when he was explaining how he’d included as many as three of them in one of his scripts. Imagine what a treat it was for me when Big Finish asked me to use five!
I wrote an outline for a Liberator Chronicle, with distinct sections narrated by Blake, Jenna, Avon, Vila and Cally. Andrew Mark Sewell of B7 Media very sagely pointed out that if they were all narrating a section, then we may as well make it a full-cast audio. As it was no longer a “Liberator Chronicles” story, they decided to make it a separate audio release with a second disk of material and a special CD booklet.
An additional bonus was that the original Galactic War trilogy for what became “Liberator Chronicle 6” was now missing a story, and was able to offer them a replacement for that in a story called “Incentive.”
What are the differences in writing a full-cast play compared to writing for the Liberator Chronicles?
The “Liberator Chronicles” focus on a particular subset of the cast, because obviously only one or two characters are speaking their own lines. Or three if you’re Nigel Fairs, obviously.
The stories are still in the spirit of the TV series, but concentrate on specific moments in a story. The TV series sometimes hones in on a particular character or two – for example, Avon and Del Grant in “Countdown” – but there’s always stuff happening with the rest of the main characters elsewhere in the same episode. TV stories gallop along with the dialogue and visuals, whereas a narrated book may cover less story in more words as your characters describe events or locations or people.
With “Companion Chronicles” or “Liberator Chronicles,” you’re also exploiting the specific conventions of a narrated book. You can confine the point of view very narrowly, and pull off some tricks in an audio that you couldn’t on TV – for example, the way I smuggled Travis into my episode “Counterfeit.” You can go even further that that, as James Goss does brilliantly with “Three” in a single conversation between Servalan and Cullen. That sort of thing never happened in the TV series. It rarely happens in any popular drama series – EastEnders occasionally has a two-hander, but in 5,000 episodes has done it for fewer than two dozen half-hour shows.
In a TV full-cast episode, you need to give your main cast members something to do – even if, notoriously, it’s merely sitting by the teleport. But with the audios, you want everyone to be happy. The cast members in the studio should have something interesting to perform, and listeners deserve
an exciting and interesting plot that meaningfully involves their favourite characters.
The latest set of B7 full-cast audios have rather brilliantly exploited the absence of Dayna as a plot
point, rather than making some feeble excuse about why she’s there but not audible. Contrast that, for example, with my story “Incentive,” which gets away with having action involving Cally, Vila and Dayna “off-mic” by concentrating on the key scenes that involve Tarrant and Avon. I was especially
pleased with “Incentive,” because I used the presence of a third character, Bracheeni, in a way that made a “Liberator Chronicles” more like a full-cast audio.
Warship was the first full cast audio play in the Blake’s 7 range. Was this intended to be a one-off?
When I wrote it, we hoped it would do well. Big Finish were trying it out to see if it would succeed, because it meant getting a lot of principal cast members together and that makes it harder have lots of other guest cast. They also wanted to see if it sold well, because it’s obviously more expensive to have that large cast. It was important that the actors enjoyed their experience in studio – for it to be a fun environment with good colleagues and an interesting script with something substantial for each of them to perform. And it had to be a critical success, too, in order to encourage future sales of similar full-cast audios in the range. The e-Book of “Warship” was another way of generating interest for the episode – and fulfilled an ambition of mine to write a novelization. We always hoped it would be more than a one-off, but couldn’t guarantee it. I’m obviously very happy that it worked out so splendidly.
Was it tricky trying to juggle so many main characters and giving them all something to do in Warship?
I always want to give each character something significant to do in a story. On that occasion, I knew
it might be our only chance to do a full-cast audio. I didn’t want to miss the chance to write for each of them. And it was important for this first audio to make each of the actors feel fully involved, too.
My draft of it as a “Liberator Chronicles” story already had narrated sequences for each main character. I even thought I might get away with a short section narrated by Orac at one point. I reasoned that, if Alistair was going to play Zen then I should ask Big Finish if they’d let him do Orac,
too. And when they said yes to that, I asked if I could include Servalan – because I knew that Jacqueline Pearce had agreed to do some of the other “Liberator Chronicles.” Working out her availability, they agreed I could include a short sequence for her, too. If I’d know they’d already
made contact with Brian Croucher, maybe I’d have pushed my luck and asked to include a cameo flashback involving Travis!
Alistair Lock had already played Zen in a 2010 B7 Media story called “Escape Velocity,” because Peter Tuddenham had died three years previously. Alistair was also closely involved with Big Finish
as a sound engineer and musician. So B7Media were happy to let him reprise the role in my story.
Up until that point, if we’d needed Zen to say anything in a “Liberator Chronicles” story, the principal cast member had to do the lines. In the studio for “Counterfeit,” Alistair and I spent some time trying
to explain the correct intonation of “Confirmed” to Gareth Thomas.So, by the time we’d agreed to make “Warship” a full-cast audio, I’d already worked out key things that involved each of the main cast -- Blake and Cally’s investigation of Megiddo, Vila delousing the hull, Jenna’s brave flight into the alien fleet, Avon confronting Blake on the observation deck, Servalan’s attempt to capture the crippled Liberator, and so on. And of course, once I knew I had the entire cast, I also looked for opportunities where they could all interact in the same scene – inevitably, given the storyline, that was on the flight deck.
You’re a big fan of the series. Is this a help or a hindrance when writing for Big Finish?
It’s a bit of both. Personally, I need to feel an enthusiasm for a series, and some sympathy and
interest for its characters, before I agree to write for it. That’s what made it easy to say “yes” when Big Finish invited me to get involved.
I remember the TV series with great affection, and enjoyed having yet another excuse to rewatch
the DVDs. Is suppose a risk when you’re writing about something you know really well is to feel constrained by what’s gone before. Whereas you need to bring something new and interesting to it,
just as the writers of the original TV series did each week. You want to innovate and extend the franchise without disrespecting or ignoring what made you fall in love with it in the first place.
How do you feel the TV series handled the departure of Blake and Jenna?
It made the best of the situation at the time. I imagine they wish they’d called the series something
other than “Blake’s 7” at the outset, though. The original idea was to make Series C more about the hunt to find Jenna and Blake, but that changed once they got into the scripting. On the other hand, it
did give me a good excuse to write “Incentive” as a way of exploring why that had happened. Crayoning outside the lines. I wish they’d mentioned Jenna a bit more. Right up until the finale, I don’t think she even gets as a namecheck in 23 episodes.
Was it tough to handle tie all the dangling threads together while still telling a compelling main story and were you given a detailed story brief?
The brief was quite succinct: explain what happened between the end of “Star One” and the beginning of “Aftermath,” an exciting and compelling explanation of the previously unseen Galactic War. Actually, it was commissioned as “The Galactic War” until I convinced them that “Warship” was
a better title. I thought my alternative identified a central “character” in the series, sounded more like a “Blake’s 7” episode, and located a key location in the episode
How important is it to get the continuity right?
It’s that thing about being a fan again – I want it to be “Blake’s 7,” after all. Big Finish is run by professional actors, writers, directors, producers, script editors, sound engineers and so on who are fans. We love the stuff we work on. That’s as true for “Blake’s 7” as anything. For the past couple of years, I’ve also doing continuity reviews of the novels.
You have to resist the temptation, though, to be constrained by the TV series. I’ve learned to recognise in myself a fannish desire to “join the dots.” But dot-to-dot is not very creative, nor does it
produce especially interesting pictures. You have to sketch freehand, and sometimes crayon outside the lines.
Some fans grumbled about how Simon Guerrier wrote into one of his “Liberator Chronicles” scripts that the Liberator had an observation deck -- because that had never appeared before. I thought, “So what?” It’s an interesting idea that doesn’t actually contradict the TV series. It’s not like we ever
exhaustively explored the ship on screen. And there were places mentioned maybe once on telly for a plot point, and rarely or never heard of again – the hold we see in “Time Squad,” or the room full of jewels we hear about in “Cygnus Alphas.”
So, why not introduce a gymnasium, or a laboratory, or an observation deck? Besides, it gave me an excuse to extend and develop the observation deck in “Warship” as the ideal location for a key scene between Avon and Blake. Thanks, Simon!
When I write something, I need to decide what’s relevant to the story and what makes it work. I was
particularly conscious of continuity in “Warship.” To take just one example – how long did the war last? The continuity about that is contradictory in the TV series, anyway. The war gets mentioned as late on as “Animals.” I can think of several ways of accounting for how so many of Justin’s pupils were killed during the war – and whether Justin’s Federation scientific warfare team was already in place before the war broke out. There are brief mentions of the war in “Children of Auron” and “Moloch” that don’t give much clue about its duration. But “Volcano” is set on a planet right in the middle of the war zone, and where some of its greatest battles took place. That implies a more extensive conflict.
But the evidence of our eyes in is that the war starts in the final episode of Season B and concludes in the opening episode of Season C. We also see that Avon, Vila and Cally are still wearing exactly the same clothes as they escape from the Liberator in “Aftermath” that they wore on the flight deck at the conclusion of “Star One” – which shows that there’s not a substantial gap between the two episodes. And as it happens, that’s also appropriate for the structure of a full-cast audio episode in the spirit of the original series that connects the two TV stories. Though I also included some sections within the pacing of my episode that allow a bit of wiggle room for fans to make up their own minds a bit.
Did you re-watch the episodes as research?
I don’t need any excuse to rewatch Blake’s 7! But yes, I did do a lot research – and not just the two episodes either side of my story.
Were you happy with the critical reception for Warship?
I was delighted. One of my favourite reviews was someone rating it nine out of ten because they wanted to have a score available if subsequent full-cast audios were even better than this one. (Had
they never seen “This is Spinal Tap”? Go up to 11.)
You went on to write Mirror for the ‘Series B+’ range. Was it tricky fitting your story into the
wider ongoing storyline?
Script editor Justin Richards outlined broadly what the episodes needed to cover, and what key aspects of the overall story had to be in each. Otherwise, it was up to the writers to fit things together. I had the chance to read all the other scripts, and comment on broader “Blake’s 7”
continuity in them. That gave me a good opportunity to ensure my script tied in neatly with them, and offered links from mine into theirs.
The brief for my story suggested a title that I thought gave the game away too much, and I proposed
“Mirror” as a more “Blake’s 7” title -- plus something I could exploit as an ambiguity. When I read one of the earlier scripts, it had some reference to a mirror or mirrors that I thought would pre-empt
the twist in my story, so I haggled with Big Finish to play that down or remove it (without compromising the other script, obviously).
I was keen to include some continuity with the broader Big Finish audio series, which had the additional benefit of giving Jenna motivation for her actions in “Mirror” by involving the character Space Major Kade. You don’t have to know who he is, but it’s a little bonus for fans of the other audios.
I also included a tribute to the original series director and producer Vere Lorrimer. In studio for “Warship,” Michael Keating had joked that we ought to have a planet called Vere, and I thought “why not?” It raised a few affectionate smiles in the studio for “Mirror.”
Do you prefer writing for the Blake led crew or the Series C line-up?
I like it all. The dynamics are different in each, and it’s great fun to write stuff that plays to the strengths and enthusiasms of the different actors. I must confess, though, that it was a particular treat to write that first full-cast audio, and then get a chance to write the first script that Steven Pacey recorded for Big Finish.
Are there particular characters you enjoy writing for?
I’ve been fortunate to have written for so many of them. Vila is great fun. Perhaps that’s because I sit at the back of the director’s booth on recording days and laugh as Michael Keating reads out my jokes in the dialogue.
Maybe it’s odd, but I also enjoy writing dialogue scenes involving Orac. He’s particularly good value in scenes involving Avon, of course. And I even managed to write a dialogue exchange between him and Zen in “Mirror.” Or should that be “it”?
Would you like to write for the range again?
Definitely. I think there’s plenty more to do in the Big Finish “Blake’s 7” universe. New producer Cav Scott is another big fan of the series. I’ve talked to him potential stories and ways that Big Finish “Blake’s 7” can expand. I’d love to explore them further.
Than you to Peter for taking the time to chat with us. You can find out more about his work here: