The Syndeton Experiment

Written by:
Barry Letts
Directed by: Brian Lighthill
Episode Length: 63'02
Original UK Transmission Date: 10/4/1999
Availability: Try Amazon

Starring: Paul Darrow (Avon), Michael Keating (Vila), Steven Pacey (Tarrant), Angela Bruce (Dayna), Paula Wilcox (Soolin) and Peter Tuddenham (Slave/Orac).

Guest-Starring: Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan), Judy Cornwell (Gaskia), Peter Jeffrey (Doctor Rossum) and Graham Padden (Vledka).

Crew: Dudley Simpson (Original Signature), Jeff Mearns (Incidental Music), Terry Nation (Series Deviser) and Brian Lighthill (Producer).

Trivia: The Syndeton Experiment was produced in Surroundsound and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as part of their The Saturday Play slot. It was originally scheduled for 19/12/1998, explaining why you might see this date listed as its original broadcast date in some listings out there.

Some members of the cast played additional, uncredited, minor roles. For example, Peter Tuddenham was Klysak, Michael Keating was a guide and Angela Bruce was a Federation Officer...

The original CD release of the story was broken down into fourteen "tracks": The Syndeton Experiment (3'51); It's Going To Take Us Half The Night (4'26); Who Is It? (3'00); They're All Three Asleep (4'22); Do You Mind? (4'47); But No Guns (4'47); My Dear Boy (4'15); Do You Have To? (5'54); Commander? (6'55); That's Some City (5'20); My Plans Are Complete (3'45); He Certainly Seems... (3'49); There You Are (4'09) and What Have You Done? (3'42). Its rerelease in 2004 as a boxset with The Sevenfold Crown saw no titles used.

Story: On a stores trip, Avon, Tarrant and Vila are drinking in Black City while Soolin and Dayna load carbohydrate blocks aboard Scorpio. Vila, drunk, reveals to an undercover Federation agent that they're heading to Syndexia.
Madame Gaskia, the dictator of Syndexia for seventeen years, has achieved prominence within the Federation. The key to her success is by holding almost a monopoly on the supply of Syndeton. She knew Avon many years ago when she owned the club the "Purple Nightingale" and betrayed him to the Federation "18...19" years ago, where Avon barely escaped with his life. (It's implied that this was a difference occasion to his capture that saw him sentenced to Cygnus Alpha in the TV series). In order to obtain power, and a little revenge against Gaskia, Avon suggests they stage a coup and wrest control of the Syndeton.
They encounter a Planetary Defence Orbiter around the planet, which Avon bypasses by claiming to be Freighter Pompy, registration code "PJX557552". However, Servalan has been following them since Vila let slip where they were headed in Black City. She temporarily captures Tarrant, and implants a nanochip into his hypothalamus in order to control him. Under her mental command, Tarrant forces Scorpio to travel to co-ordinates 7720 6294 8462 6133 to the planet Capica. There Servalan plans to use Tarrant to locate the missing scientist Dr. Rossum, the inventor of the nanochip. Servalan fears landing on the planet Capica herself as reports show it to be radioactive. However, being forced to land there, the Scorpio crew finds that a belt of ion radiation surrounds the planet at 37 kilometres above the surface, and stops at 32 kilometres - the actual surface is perfectly safe. There, having knocked Tarrant unconscious and tied him up for their own safety, they travel to meet Dr. Rossum.
When they finally locate Dr. Rossum he's an elderly man with a weak heart who has become insane, believing himself to be a saviour. He has been transferring the minds of the populace into "nanobots", three-armed, three-legged purple androids with superior mental capacity. His ultimate aim is to place himself in control of them all, in a chief nanobot. However, with Tarrant awake and free once more, Servalan learns through him that Capica is safe and lands with some troopers. There she commanders the nanobot technology and sets about making herself one with the whole of creation. However, her mind not being primed for such a task, her vanity and greed, fuelled by Avon, create a positive feedback, apparently killing her. Avon tells Rossum that his ideas were incorrect, and the "minds" he transferred to his nanobots were only copies, the "dead" bodies he burnt still alive. Realising he has committed genocide and unwittingly murdered nearly two million people, Rossum dies, leaving the Scorpio crew to take off, pondering whether or not Servalan is still alive…

Avon: Avon claims to have been "kicked out of the Academy." His ill-feeling towards Tarrant is also in evidence, as he cites Del's "habitual arrogance." Like he's one to talk…

Vila: Of Vila's drunkenness, Dayna notes "it's the longest he's stayed on the wagon yet."

Scorpio: Scorpio has a personnel shuttle.

Syndeton: Syndeton is an elemental isotope, atomic weight 279. It is one of the rare group of elements that exist simultaneously in the space-time continuum of the universe, as well as the void of hyperspace. When activated by an electromagnetic oscillation of appropriate frequency and aptitude it will provide a bridge for craft to pass through normal space and into hyperspace. Doctor Rossum's research also discovered that by placing a Syndeton molecule in a nanochip, tuned to the frequency of another brain, a person could control another's actions, and see through their eyes. However, this only works if the two beings involved are in the same continuum - if one were in hyperspace and the other in normal space-time then the connection would break.

Speed: Servalan claims she can achieve "Time Distort 18" (Standard by 9), which is nearly twice that of the Federation maximum established in the TV series. (Time Distort 10). However, this is possibly due to the presence of Syndeton. Her assumption that it's twice that of Scorpio's speed could also be due to her not knowing about the Scorpio's Stardrive at this stage. Finally, Tarrant requests "Time Distort 10" on board the Scorpio (Standard by 5), though this is not specified as the maximum speed. It seems a little odd Tarrant requesting a Time Distort rather than a Standard, but then he is under the mental control of Servalan when he does so…

"It's not everybody who gets to celebrate his own resurrection."

You know, I wasn't expecting to, but I really quite enjoyed this. Barry Letts was behind two fairly dire Doctor Who audio tales in 1993 and '96, and so the signs weren't good. On top of that I also have an in-built distrust of TV shows on the radio, though Blake's 7 transfers remarkably well to the medium, and the sound is excellent. I guess Blake wasn't a show you watched for the visuals anyway, was it?

Two major flaws usually run through audio conversions: fannishness and a jarring need to add bad language and sexual content where there previously wasn't any. Just listen to Big Finish's Who stories for further evidence of this. However, these elements are largely absent here. Having an unpronounceable title doesn't bode well, and the "planet of the Cybermen" plot might not have the same edge as its TV counterpart, but generally it's good fun. If this was a Doctor Who audio then the fans would demand an exact chronological dateline, so its absence must too be commended. An unofficial guide would have it pegged down as after Stardrive (and The Sevenfold Crown) yet before Animals. And as Blake was a fairly adult show anyway (though Vila's farting, belching and wee gags are a little off-beam), then the mild bad language ("sod" and "bitch") doesn't really matter. Perhaps the only incident that does jar is the "I've got a good mind to stick it in your guts, you bastard!" line, though it's very well delivered by Angela Bruce.

Talking of the cast then Paul Darrow sounds like he's had half a bottle of scotch (great performance though), while Steven Pacey has the deep voice he was asked to put on originally in the series and now sounds nothing like Tarrant at all. As Slave and Orac sound more like Clive Dunn ("You're giving the poor old codger a nervous breakdown."), then it's left to Michael Keating to sound exactly like the Vila we always knew. Of the recasts, then Paula Wilcox is a passable Soolin, who never had a character anyway, though expecting us to believe the gruff, working class Liverpudlian Angela is the high-pitched, well-spoken Josette Simon is stretching the point. Surely they didn't cast her as Dayna just because she's black? It's on radio, for God's sake! (And, hate to be picky, but why does she pronounce Orac as "Oh-rack" and not "Ore-ack" like everyone else?) Jacqueline Pearce is a little older, and well into the send-up (unlike Darrow, who commendably plays it straight), though is likeable as ever. And the wonderful Peter Jeffrey gives a very Richard Vernon-like take on his role, with particular delight given to his line of "Today is the day I shall become a very God!!... would you like some toasted cheese?"

As for Barry Letts's script, then he does have a tendency to write unwieldy, slightly crass dialogue that sounds out of character, and this is no exception. "You'd better get your rollers on, the Feds are in town, Servalan's lot" is probably the worst, especially when delivered by the bint out of Man About The House. Mind you, "whimpering, like a bunch of mutant mongrels from the backstreet gutters of Balakson" is dire in anyone's book. Except Barry Letts's, it seems. The exposition, as to be expected for a non-visual medium, can be heavy-handed ("They've all got three legs... and three arms too." "Why are they that purple colour?"), though Blake was always high on that kind of thing anyway so it scarcely seems to matter.

Finally, innuendo-wise then Tarrant's "What can I do with one hand? And you could always keep out of reach", along with Servalan's final moans have to go in the book. The Syndeton Experiment perhaps lacks the bite, depth or slight political edge of the series proper. With Letts an ex-producer of Doctor Who then the plot is perhaps more suited to that particular series. And it won't change the world. But it's pleasant enough, really quite entertaining, and, as it's supposed to be part of the season four cycle, then it's better than five of its peers.