Skip to main content

Of all the things I have known myself to be, I never recognised the fool.


Blake's 7
3.8: Rumours of Death


Chris Boucher officially pulls out the quill for the second time this season and again focuses on one of the original crew. Avon is more frequently under the spotlight than any other crewmember, but you usually leave his company with little more than the sound of acid quips and his air of self-preservation. Significant character development is not a priority. Indeed, there’s a case to be made that it would work against his character to try to explore him to any great degree.

Here we see Boucher resolving the back-story laid out in Countdown, a significant enough subject for an episode in itself. But he doesn’t stop there, encompassing the current state of the Federation in an effective and economical manner, providing another solid role for Servalan (and when she is used well you forget that she’s so over-used) and even a revisiting of Federation rank and file supporting characters that served so well in Trial. It’s for good reason that this story is cited as one the jewels in the series’ crown; it barely puts a foot wrong and that’s mostly down to Boucher’s cleverly structured, densely-plotted script.


Director Fiona Cumming had mixed success on Doctor Who (Enlightenment being easily her best work) but her debut for Blake’s 7 is very assured. With a gift of a script, she’d have to actively try to sabotage it, mind. Right from the off we’re not on a sure footing as viewers, always trying to keep up, with at least one character in any scene being way ahead of us. In City at the Edge of the World deals had been made prior to the story proper beginning. Here, Boucher pushes it a step further. Avon is already embroiled in a decidedly intense escapade, and it looks like he’s in the losing position. Cumming only reveals Darrow slowly, the camera panning from his bare feet, curled up in a prison cell. Instantly, then, we have a host of questions and, as these are answered, more will follow as the story progresses. It’s another very talky episode but Blake’s 7has a tendency to do battles of wits extremely well.


The arrival in the cell of Shrinker suggests that Avon has tracked down the prey he mentioned in Children of Auron, but that the tables have been turned on the hunter. Except that Darrow’s playing up the broken man, so we know something must be wrong. The reveal concerning the homing device in Avon’s back, that Shrinker thinks he is one step ahead but he is actually one step behind forms the climax to a riveting scene. And that’s just the episode’s prologue!

Avon: But you misunderstand about the homing device. My friends won’t come while it’s sending. But now I’ve switched it off...

If there’s a problem with the scenes involving Shrinker (John Bryans previously played Senator Bercol twice in the series, and also popped up in The Creature from the Pit) it’s that once he is captured he never shows his mettle, squirming and twisting under Avon’s interrogation. That may well be part of his plan (we discover he’s changed sides twice since the alleged activities that Avon has been hunting him for) but it might have been better to actually see the cunning and danger that he is known for at some point (even Vila warns Avon that he’s more dangerous than he looks).


Darrow really gets his teeth into Avon’s savage single-mindedness.

Avon: Don’t kill him! I’ve waited for him! He’s mine!


The reactions from the rest of the crew range from agreeable to his actions (Tarrant and Dayna) to objecting (a consistent Cally, despite her bruising experience on Auron – nothing is said regarding her sister here, which might seem like a bit of a reset button).  Vila shows surprising empathy for his frequent persecutor and offers Avon a drink twice in this episode, and on both occasions Avon accepts it (he’s only ever refused before).

To some extent, we’re presented here with Avon most directly inheriting the purposefulness and fervour of Blake. The difference is that Avon has no grand designs for peace and equality for all; he doesn’t translate his quest for justice onto any level above the personal. The moral backbone of the crew is Cally whereas in Season Two doubts at the “leader’s” actions were most clearly voiced by Gan (when they’d remembered he had no character to speak of). Into this rearranging of crew boundaries, Tarrant has the least empathy and the most potential for viewing events in black and white terms.

Tarrant: He’s an animal, Cally.
Cally: Yes, and it’s contagious.

Whether Blake would have ensured victory on Earth if he’d stuck around is debatable, but Boucher makes it clear that the Liberator was nowhere to be found when Earth’s failed insurrection took place. We’ve heard various discussions concerning the hard time that the Federation’s been having this season, but now it becomes clear that they have struck back and succeeded. This despite Servalan seeming to have sodded off looking for the Liberator every five minutes.  I like how the relatively directionless state of the crew in the first half of the season is shown as impotence in terms of effective opposition to the Federation.  When they arrive in Servalan’s presidential palace it’s to rescue Avon; someone else is attempting to do the job Blake didn’t finish. Rebellion has been something others engage in post-Star One.

Dayna: What happened to the rebellion? Why is the Earth still controlled by creatures like him?

And the reveal of “jackbooted” troops guarding Servalan’s “grotesque anachronism” of a palace gives off a very effective 1984 vibe; costuming of the future set against architecture of the present day works more interestingly than the endless industrial sites of the first season.


Helpfully, it is High Councillor Chesku and his wife Sula (Lorna Heilbron, who is very good throughout) who answer Dayna’s question; the rabble lacked inspiration, unity and leaders. 


Boucher pulls as sharp a switch on the audience here as he did in the first scene with Avon; quite possibly he overtly intended to parallel the long game planning of Avon with Sula/Anna. It’s unclear how long the two have been married, but the perfunctory way Sula announces, “That’s all over now” before shooting Chesku in the back packs a punch.


Just what Sula’s actual motives are isn’t that clear either; she seems to promote a case for as bloodless a revolution as possible when talking to ginger subordinate Hob at one point, and maybe she has had some sort of change of heart (why not just carry on within the recovering Federation otherwise?). But I’ve assumed more that she is setting herself up to install herself in Servalan’s throne (complete with shortish hair) as head of the “People’s Council”, whatever she may say to the contrary, and the realist approach of the Shrinker’s side-switching may, to some extent, be reflected in her behaviour. The sort of mindset that would fake a marriage and shoot a husband in the back (and later to attempt to kill someone she professed to love) don’t really give great scope for the discovery of conscience.


Sula: Alive, Servalan can order her forces to disarm. Alive, Servalan can announce that she's standing down in favour of the People's Council, which you and the others will lead. Alive, Servalan can hand over power. Dead, she's just one more corpse. Haven't we got enough of those?

There is a question of how the wife of a member of the High Council was never recognised by Avon on a “spacecast” of some Federation gala event, but I’m happy to ignore that in view of the overall dramatic integrity of the piece. This also applies to Del Grant, whom Boucher attempts to cover with a throwaway line of dialogue. Retconning is a dangerous game, although this succeeds in far more compelling a fashion than that of Auron in the previous episode.


The two Federation types we see throughout this episode are on surveillance duty in the palace. Engagingly performed by Donald Douglas as Major Greenlee (Vural in The Sontaran Experiment) and David Haig as Forres (Pangol in the same year’s The Leisure Hive – giving an idea of just how good an actor he is, the performance couldn’t be more different) these two are intricately involved in the attack on the palace. 


The combination of laziness, fear of superiors, desire to go by-the-book and career-mindedness is very believably set out in their interplay. 


As such, even though the success of the overwhelming of the palace is surprisingly resounding, we believe it is feasible due to the recognisable failings of the Federation guards. Forres is impertinent and cocky, Greenlee over-confident through years of routine (as an aside, the freedom fighters attacking a mansion put me a little in mind of Day of the Daleks).


Cumming tries out a trick with the teleportation of Avon and Shrinker into a cave that I don’t think we’ve seen before; following the teleportees, rather than cutting to a different location. A good idea, even if she then has to cut from CSO background to set.


The interrogation itself is superbly performed, despite my misgivings over Shrinker’s general demeanour; we’re with Avon every step of the way, first suspicious that Shrinker may be lying about his lack of involvement in Anna’s interrogation, then wondering how the actual Bartolomew connects with Chesku and Sura. 


Except that we’re also ahead of Avon; we can make the link that Anna is Sura due to Avon’s flashbacks to his time with her. We still don’t quite know how it all connects, though. Just about every line of dialogue packs some weight or interest, from the revelation of Shrinker’s switching of sides as a means of survival to the reappraisal of Avon’s understanding of his status with the Federation (that they were onto him from the start in his credit fraud plan, convinced he was political). 


Best of all is the reuse of the dialogue here in Avon’s scene with Sura at the climax, as realisation dawns. It really is a layered script, and the aforementioned flashbacks allow Boucher to reuse them too when the time of Avon’s great revelation occurs.

Although he retains composure, and completes his quest, the rug has been thoroughly pulled out from under Avon; the one chink in his armour that allowed in trust is revealed to be based on a big lie (whether or not Sura did indeed allow him to escape). It will be interesting to consider how this does or doesn’t affect his behaviour and motivation over the rest of the series.


The fate of Shrinker is a great idea from Boucher. We’re so engrossed in the interrogation that we don’t even think about why it’s taking place in a cave. And leaving him entombed is so much more chilling than shooting him down.


Tarrant: Is it done?
Avon: Yes. But it isn’t finished.
Vila: Wonderful. Who's next on your list? Servalan?
Avon: Orac.
Orac: What is it now?
Avon: Gracious as ever. Orac, I want you to interrogate the Federation Security computers and get me Servalan's present location.
Vila: I was joking, Avon.


This isn’t much of an episode for laugh-out-loud Avon lines, since the stakes are so high for him, but there are a couple of moments.

Dayna: So what are you going to do? Stick a gun in Servalan's ear and say, "Give me Bartolomew or I'll blow the top of your head off"?
Avon: Something like that.
Dayna: And if she doesn’t?
Avon: I’ll blow the top of her head off.



So the final act sees the crew (except for Vila, who stays at the teleport controls drinking, with Orac) enter Servalan’s palace in search for the President. This involves Tarrant performing a particularly naff flourishing bow at one point, just to ensure we remember what a prick he is. Boucher keeps us conscious of the character’s Federation history in his interaction with Grenlee, though.


As for Servalan, she’s had little to do until taken captive by Sura. But chained up in the basement, Pearce is again (with Children of Auron) given good enough material to make up for the crap she had to perform post-Aftermath.  


There’s a nice moment where Tarrant brings home just how affecting this  experience has been for her (as “President of the Terran Federation, Ruler of the High Council, Lord of the Inner and Outer Worlds, High Admiral of the Galactic Fleets, Lord General of the Six Armies, and Defender of the Earth”).


Tarrant: The point is, that a few dozen guerrillas walked in, killed her guards, beat her up, and then chained her up. You want to set her free? Convince her that it didn't happen.
Avon: She's been a prisoner before.
Tarrant: Yes, but in her own palace, on Earth, in what should be the centre of her power?
Avon: is that it? Have you finally lost your nerve? Have you murdered your way to the wall of an underground room?
Servalan: It's an old wall, Avon, it waits. I hope you don't die before you reach it.

Stunning stuff.


And Darrow plays his scene with Sura in predictably impassive manner, but he compels because you want to see whether his facade will crumble.

Sura: Avon. Avon ... Avon! Oh! I was afraid they'd kill you. I heard there was someone with Blake, but I didn't know for sure, and I didn't dare let myself hope. Oh, Avon, Avon. (Kisses him twice). Why didn't you come back for me? What's the matter?
Avon: I didn't come back, because you were dead.


Cumming very effectively lets us in on the cogs and whirrs of Avon’s realisation that Sura/Anna is Bartolomew through marrying her every line with a relatable one from Shrinker. 


It’s also a very smart scene because we don’t want Avon to show his heart. As that last beating part of it calcifies in realisation that he was used, we’re pleased to see it (because he is, after all, one of the ultimate anti-heroes – it just wouldn’t be the same if he went all soppy).

Avon: Of all the things I have known myself to be, I never recognised the fool.


And the final part of the scene, between a now freed (by Avon) and armed Servalan (“Can you convince yourself that that didn't happen, Avon?”) and a morbid Avon, has nearly as much dramatic impact. 


Servalan, vengeful, plans to send Avon’s body back to the Liberator, but is distracted by a handy ginger.


Avon: Servalan was planning on sending you a corpse.
Vila: (Hands him a drink) Corpse reviver?
Avon: (Drinks) But, "The rumours of my death -- "
Tarrant: " -- have been greatly exaggerated."
Avon: Well, slightly exaggerated, anyway.

Thankfully, everyone didn’t fall about laughing this week.


The clear pinnacle of the series so far, courtesy of a watertight script from Boucher that provides the most gripping spotlight on a central character since The Way Back and a much-needed update on all things Federation. If I was to be picky, I’d note that it’s very convenient that Anna happens to be on site when Avon goes looking for Servalan but that coincidence doesn’t impact on the story’s dramatic integrity. It’s notable that the upswing in quality of the season (after a very strong first couple of episodes and then a massive slump) has been on the back of storylines with the three first season crew members as the focus.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You think I contaminated myself, you think I did that?

Silkwood (1983)
Mike Nichol’s film about union activist Karen Silkwood, who died under suspicious circumstances in a car accident in 1974, remains a powerful piece of work; even more so in the wake of Fukushima. If we transpose the microcosm of employees of a nuclear plant, who would rather look the other way in favour of a pay cheque, to the macrocosm of a world dependent on an energy source that could spell our destruction (just don’t think about it and, if you do, be reassured by the pronouncements of “experts” on how safe it all is; and if that doesn’t persuade you be under no illusion that we need this power now, future generations be damned!) it is just as relevant.

We’re going to find that creature they call the Yeti.

The Abominable Snowman (1957)
The Abominable Snowman follows the first two Quatermass serials as the third Hammer adaptation of a Nigel Kneale BBC work. As with those films, Val Guest takes the directorial reins, to mixed results. Hammer staple Peter Cushing repeats his role from The Creature (the title of the original teleplay). The result is worthy in sentiment but unexceptional in dramatic heft. Guest fails to balance Kneale’s idea of essentially sympathetic creatures with the disintegration of the group bent on finding them.

Nevertheless, Kneale’s premise still stands out. The idea that the Yeti is an essentially shy, peaceful, cryptozoological beastie is now commonplace, but Kneale adds a further twist by suggesting that they are a distinct and in some respects more advance parallel branch in the evolution of hominids (the more extravagant notion that they are in some way extra-dimensional is absent, but with the powers thy sport here wouldn’t be such a leap). Cushing’s Rollason is…