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?
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.
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.