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Starring: Derek Riddell (Roj Blake), Colin Salmon (Kerr Avon), Daniella Nardini (Servalan), Craig Kelly (Commander Travis), Carrie Dobro (Jenna Stannis), Dean Harris (Vila Restal), Owen Aaronovitch (Oleg Gan) and India Fisher (Lora Mezin).
Guest-Starring: Tim Plester (Clinican Havant), Sarah Matravers (Revella), Jonathan Rhodes (Prosecutor), Dominic Cotter (Reporter), Robert Lock (Captain: The London), Daniel J Geduld (Trooper Tanzig), Barbara Joslyn (Sheeva and Computer Voices), Frances Barber (Judge Helga Ramotswe), James Gaddas (Sub-Commander Raiker), Michael Praed (Soris), Nick Brimble (Borchu)
Crew: Ben Aaronovitch (Writer/Script Editor), Alistair Lock (Title and Incidental Music), Simon Moorhead (Executive Producer) and Andrew Mark Sueall (Director). A B7 Production in association with Sci-Fi Channel (UK). Based on the original television series Blake’s 7 created by Terry Nation.
“Take it easy… I hate personal violence, especially when I’m the person.”
The best line in the story, and it’s one they lifted from the original series. Rebel is the first story in a “reimagining” of the Blake’s 7 concept, new audio stories brought online to the Sci-Fi Channel via the B7 Media Company.
Written by Ben Aaronovitch, one of genre TV’s biggest-ever hacks (think Doctor Who: Battlefield) it pits the familiar crew of Blake, Avon, Jenna, Vila and Gan with new character Lora Mezin against Servalan and Travis… all played by a completely new cast. How this would be seen by purists is not the question I have to answer in reviewing it, but how successful it works in and of itself. To that end I’m pleased to report that it’s… okay.
Broken down into twelve chapters with such silly-sounding titles as Hard Target, Enemy of the State and No Surrender, the whole thing lasts around 92 minutes in total. In timing this, however, we must remember that each “chapter” has a spoken introduction and outro, as well as the theme, so that the actual runtime will be significantly shorter. This is important in that events happen so rapidly that we never have the chance to take on board what’s happening before moving on to the next vignette. Aaronovitch seems to have taken the nuts and bolts of the series – the space speeds, the technology, the “killer robots” – while forgetting that the series was about human interaction and political allusion at least as much as it was laser zap guns and space battles.
The story seems to focus too rigidly on the story itself at the expense of genuine characterisation. We only know that the Federation are “evil” because we’re told they are, and Blake is a militant rebel from the outset, not some deluded everyman who discovers their true intentions along with the audience. While this might get things moving a little quicker, it does seem to shave a couple of dimensions off the concept. (Ben Aaronovitch… writing two-dimensional characters and concepts? Who’d have thought it?) There's a mild bit of swearing in there, and Blake's charge of paedophilia is paid lip service to, but we're never really allowed to understand why it's important that Blake is framed, the consequences to him as a person, and so on. Consequently, the paedophile aspect - especially as it is stated in such a blase fashion - feels crass and irrelevant, rather than meaningful and daring as it did in the source material. The frequently and expectedly corny dialogue isn’t helped by the testosterone-fuelled bombast throughout, from the silly overblown theme tune to the slightly wooden Colin Salmon trying to make Avon sound hardcore. It all comes over as a bit ludicrous, whereas the original had the charm of Paul Darrow’s campery and Gareth Thomas’s bitch tits, and the only character to behave in a butch way – Tarrant – was frequently made to look foolish.
The whole thing continues the breakneck pace, never allowing us to get to know any of the characters other than the verbalised character motifs given for them, and it's all presented in some silly 80s action movie dialogue style, the sort of thing that would be hilarious if performed tongue-in-cheek, but sounds incredibly silly when performed straight. It goes without saying that the series is aimed at a new generation, so comparisons are unnecessary. Riddell and Salmon are fine as a different kind of Blake and Avon, but Carrie Dobro’s zany, American Jenna and Dean Harris’s self-conscious “Vila-as-a-Cockney” turn are both deeply irritating.
If there’s praise to be given, it’s that having the cast acting together at once, reading their lines in an open studio, gives a stronger, more cohesive feel than many of the audio productions from Big Finish. Yet I saw a panel on this stuff where some of the cast and production crew talked about their plans for the series, including more sophisticated humour. This “humour” in Aaronovitch’s hands involves characters landing in pig shit and Blake greeting a hail of bullets with “I’ll take that as a no.” It’s corny, old hat and uninspired, and jars badly with the misfiring “hip” style they’ve adopted for the rest of it. But while frequently cheesy and possessing some dud lines, none of it is actually awful, and it’s certainly better than the two audios the original cast did with Barry Letts.
In all, “Rebel” is a listenable first story in a new series, never drags, and leaves you vaguely curious as to what will happen next. However it also never engages on any genuine emotional level and it feels as if Aaronovitch has told a story at the expense of its heart.