Blake’s 7 series 3 episode 8 – Rumours of death

Turns out that Avon might have once had a heart to be broken...

Dayna and Tarrant getting ready for another vigorous bicker on the bridge.

THE PLOT Having been imprisoned for five days, Avon is on the wrong side of the man he thinks was responsible for his lover Anna Grant’s death. Shrinker (John Bryans) enters the cell, armed with a  laser probe, demanding that Avon tells him who and where his friends are. Avon has switched a homing signal in his neck off, meaning that Dayna and Tarrant can now teleport down. They beam into the cell and overpower a shocked Shrinker, leaving him at the mercy of Avon as they all return to the Liberator. Once on board, Avon goes to get cleaned up, leaving Shrinker with a vengeful Tarrant, Vila and Dayna, who wonders why Earth is still populated by Federation thugs.

On Earth, Chesku (Peter Clay) and his wife Sula (Lorna Heilbron) are making for Residence One, a plush building that belongs to Servalan. Chesku is rehearsing a speech that he is to give on behalf of Servalan. However, during Chesku’s pompous ramblings, two Federation troopers show up – in fact, they are rebels in league with Sula, who shoot Chesku dead – the first phase of Sula’s plan is complete.

The next part is to jam a security camera, which alerts one of the Federation guards Forres (David Haig). His boss, Grenlee (Donald Douglas) isn’t impressed when it apparently turns out that a squirrel was building a nest in the transmitter. In fact, the guard is one of Sula’s men, Balon (Philip Bloomfield). The second phase of her plan begins in two hours.

Avon and Shrinker teleport down to a deserted cave, where Avon shows his former torturer a huge picture of Anna. Shrinker doesn’t recognise her, and doesn’t recognise her name either. He does, however, remember who Avon is, and remembers that he was once the great bank fraud.

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Shrinker tells Avon that Bartolomew was running him – Bartolomew was the best agent in Central Security. Convinced that Avon was political, Central Security allowed Bartolomew to stay close to Avon and let him run. Shrinker adds that once Bartolomew lost sight of Avon, all his contacts were pulled in. Shrinker is adamant that he doesn’t know who Bartolomew was because they were the top agent in Central Security. He does, however, tell Avon that he questioned a dying controller about Bartolomew, and all the controller said was “Councillor Chesku is still…” before dying.

Avon leaves a protesting Shrinker in the cave, teleporting back up to the Liberator. The next person on his list is Servalan, and he demands her present location from Orac.

Sula gets one of her rebels to pose as Chesku as the others follow her. They manage to break into Residence One, kill Forres and wound Grenlee. Sula herself breaks into Servalan’s quarters where her guards attack her and overpower her. One of the rebels, Hob (David Gillies) demands that Servalan be killed but Sula, despite having no regard for the president, says that alive, Servalan can order her forces to disarm and step down as leader. Hob eventually agrees, as Sula prepares to talk to her troops in the banqueting hall.

Avon prepares to teleport down, having been recommended by Orac to teleport down at dusk, the weakest time for humans, and outside the perimiter of the Residence. Tarrant, Cally and Dayna join him, offering their help. They manage to enter the residence after overpowering Federation guards. Avon and Tarrant find the wounded Grenlee and force him to tell them where Servalan is. The dying man tells them to go below to the cellar – when they get there, they find Servalan chained up. Avon demands to know who Bartolomew is, and a slightly surprised Servalan offers to tell Avon everything in return for her freedom.

Before he can, Sula enters the cellar. To Avon’s disbelief, Sula is actually Anna, and stands there dazed as his former lover rushes over to hug him. With Shrinker’s words ringing in his head, Avon asks Anna how she got away. Anna says that she ran to her husband, and Avon gradually realises that in fact, Anna was Bartolomew. Anna goes for her gun, but Avon shoots her first. Cradling his former lover in his arms, Avon says that he never let Anna go as she dies.

Troopers are after the Liberator crew, but Vila foolishly teleports them up before they can help Avon escape too. Frantically resetting the co-ordinates, Cally says that they can pick Avon up in two minutes. A devastated Avon puts on his teleport bracelet as Servalan prepares to shoot him. However, Hob’s entrance spoils her plan and she shoots him instead as Avon is teleported out. Avon gratefully downs a drink, claiming that the rumours of his death have been slightly exaggerated…    

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ANALYSIS Love and relationships never go down well in Blake’s 7. A Valentine’s Day meal would probably end up with the plates smashed and food on the walls. A date would probably end up in a shootout. And if that’s not bad enough, the Liberator crew don’t really pick their partners well. Just ask Avon, whose former girlfriend turns out to be more two-faced than the current run of losers in the Big Brother house.

Rumours Of Death follows on from the preceding season’s Countdown, in which Avon met Del Grant, the brother of his old lover, Anna, presumed dead. Obviously that encounter was preying on Avon’s mind, as he spends the middle of season three hunting for her apparent killer. However, as with most Blake’s 7 episodes, nothing is what it seems, and it turns out – to Avon’s horror – that Anna was actually the mysterious Bartolomew, and never actually bit the bullet as he thought.

We’ve never seen Avon this broken before, and all told, Paul Darrow turns in one of his best ever performances – full of bitter, vengeful rage one minute and then quiet, numb disbelief the next. It’s arguable that this is where Avon’s later descent into paranoia and madness takes root, as the one woman he thought he could trust, has in fact, betrayed him. As we’ll see, most of the people he encounters from now on all seem to be as double crossing, all paving the way for Blake to make a fatal final mistake.

It’s an interesting tack to take, showing Sula and flashbacks of Anna at the same time. The viewer knows that they’re the same woman somehow, but in what way? Chris Boucher sustains the mystery very well indeed, and Lorna Heilbron is excellent as Sula/Anna, on her own personal mission to overthrow the Federation – most likely out of guilt for her former actions.

Boucher’s script is one of the best, not only of the season, but of the whole series. It’s a taut, finely crafted piece that’s full of rich dialogue and unconventional patterns. We haven’t had the use of flashbacks since The Way Back, and Avon’s frequent reminiscing slots very well into the action unfolding on the screen. Likewise, the way in which the story begins slam bang into the action without any instant explanation as to what an unshaven Avon is doing in the cell is very effective. However, it’s left to the viewer to work out what’s going on, and overall, Rumours Of Death is intelligent, challenging TV that never belittles the viewer by spelling out what’s happening in big, bold letters.

Fiona Cumming’s direction is perfect for Boucher’s script. She skilfully handles the action with effective flashbacks from Avon’s POV (slightly distorted by the fish eye lens), and keeps the action moving at breakneck speed. Normally, Cumming’s Doctor Who assignments tended to be lyrical fantasises such as Castrovalva, Snakedance and Enlightenment (as well as the next Blake’s 7 episode, Sarcophagus), but here, she proves herself to be just as adept at the complex mystery thriller.

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If there’s only one criticism that can be made, it’s that the Grenlee/Forres double act feels forced. Not so much Morecambe and Wise, more Little and Large. Boucher’s apparently been trying to do what his mentor Robert Holmes did by introducing the comedy double act. But despite the best efforts of Donald Douglas and a young David Haig, the dialogue just seems a bit stilted and tries a bit too hard to be funny.

Nevertheless, the rest of the production is flawless. The character of Shrinker is a good one. John Bryans manages to be totally different from his previous role as Bercol and provides a vicious but ultimately cowardly take on the role. The contrast between his initial threats of burning out Avon’s eyes and his later cowardly pleas to Avon is very well handled. The regulars do admittedly take more of a back seat to Avon, but all the actors do well as usual. A fantastic episode overall, intelligent and well reasoned, and one of the best in the series.  

Check out our review of season 3 episode 7 here.

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