Big Finish: FIVE STAR FIVE: JOHN LOVELL THE ZARGON THREAT Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Matthew Kresal joins the team.
Mention the name Gerry Anderson and what comes to mind? The Supermarionation thrills of Thunderbirds and Stingray? The live-action excitement of UFO or Space: 1999? Or other projects such as Into Infinity or the film Journey to the Far Side of the Sun? In a different world, you might think of a 1980 feature film called Five Star Five, a project Anderson and frequent collaborator Tony Barwick scripted in the late 1970s. Alas, due to a sudden and immediate lack of financial backing, it was to go unmade. But now, more than forty years later, readers and listeners can at last enjoy it in the form of Richard James' novelization of the screenplay and its audiobook, Five Star Five: John Lovell and the Zargon Threat.

Described by Anderson's son Jamie on the Big Finish site as his father's "chance to put forward his own version of Star Wars," Five Star Five certainly had the makings of an epic. The peaceful planet of Kestra is under threat from the forces of the militaristic Zargons, who have turned an asteroid they purchased in the Kestra system into a fortress from which to attack them. Kestran Colonel Zana enlists an Earth military hero, John Lovell, for help in an attack on the Zargon stronghold, with the human Lovell recruiting a team to help him take on the task before Kestra has Zargon destruction rained upon it from orbit. A team including a chimp with a degree in military philosophy, a warrior monk, a nearly indestructible robot named Rudy, and a psychic boy with a robot dog.

Also described as "The Magnificent Seven in Space" (a description equally applicable to Roger Corman's Battle Beyond the Stars, released the same year Anderson's movie would have come out), Five Star Five has only the most superficial similarities with Star Wars. What the script resembles is a cross between that famous Western and The Guns of Navarone. Or, indeed, any of the "team on a mission" war movies made throughout this period. All brought together, complete with an Anderson SF twist.

All of which Richard James brings out in turning the Anderson and Barwick script into prose. From its action-packed opening chapter depicting a Zargon raid, James (whose association with Anderson began as an actor on Space Precinct) never lets the pace up. There's plenty of action on display, from space battles to fights and gun battles. All of which are described by James in a visceral, visual style that make it easy to imagine. Indeed, for the space scenes, it's easy to close one's eyes and imagine model shots from the legendary Derek Meddings, in-between working on Roger Moore James Bond films, gracing the screen of the mind's eye.

Of course, action sequences aren't everything. Without good characters, something like Five Star Five would be nothing more than action pieces strung together. Thankfully, James's prose brings out the rich characterizations from Lovell's likable rogue (with some shades of Han Solo, admittedly) to the various members of his team and the villainous Zargons. There's a surprising amount of humor on display, especially in the interactions between Lovell and his companion, the military philosopher chimp Clarence. That said, it's worth remembering the novel's source material comes from the late 1970s. As a result, some of the characterizations (particularly that of warrior monk Sumara) have dated in some respects while James has (as he described in an interview on the official Anderson site) toned down other aspects. Even so, the characters go a long way to making this a fun experience.

As does how well produced this audiobook of the novelization turned out to be. Robbie Stevens, a veteran of both Anderson and Big Finish, proves himself a fine narrator for this piece, bringing a sense of the dramatic to action sequences and an army of voices for the numerous characters. His choices in voicing the characters make it intriguing to consider just who might have played the parts on-screen! Giving him able backing is the ever-reliable Benji Clifford, whose soundscape and music are nothing short of cinematic, giving this potential movie the aural equivalent of widescreen. My only disappointment with this release is the lack of a separate music suite of Clifford's work, though his opening and closing themes make it easy to imagine the title sequences they would have been backing.

There is one challenge in reviewing Five Star Five: John Lovell and the Zargon Threat that I didn't have when reviewing the earlier audiobooks for Into Infinity and Thunderbirds. Namely, because there ultimately was no on-screen incarnation, it's difficult to compare this to a preexisting product. Even without that, it's hard not to think of this as a joyous thrill ride, full of Anderson's high adventure, likable leads, and villains easy to boo. What audience reaction to it would have been in 1980 is impossible to know, but as an audiobook in 2021, it's a few hours of pure escapism that any fan of Anderson's prolific output is likely to enjoy.

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.

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