Sunday, 11 March 2018

TV Review - Blake's 7: S3E08 Rumours of Death

Just as "Children of Auron" explored how Cally came to be fighting on Saurian Major, "Rumours of Death" went into more detail as to how exactly Avon ended up on his way to Cygnus Alpha. Some broad hints have been dropped; Vila and Nova discuss his theft gone wrong in "Spacefall" while "Countdown" revealed that as a consequence of his failure his lover Anna Grant was captured and seemingly killed by the Federation. Avon is plainly Chris Boucher's favourite character so it's no surprise his second script of the year tackles this head on.

You very much get the sense that Avon has been planning away at gaining revenge on her killers for some time before swinging his plan into action, a risky one involving getting taken in by Federation forces so he can get close to Shrinker, the torturer who reputedly killed Anna. You wonder a little why no-one in the chain of process picks up that he's Kerr Avon, wanted rebel, but then this is actually not inconsistent - there's a serious trend in B7 for characters not recognising the crew; with the Federation controlling all media like viz-tapes and word of their deeds likely being spread by word of mouth it's perhaps a case of bureaucracy backfiring - all but the highest echelons of the Federation wouldn't recognise the crew.

The following scenes are typically grey from Boucher, firstly as Avon turns the tables on Shrinker once he knows he has his man then teleports him up to the Liberator. There, while Avon is getting himself sorted, Shrinker is left to the mercy of the crew, with Tarrant, Dayna and Vila circling the man as he simpers and tries to blame orders (top marks for John Bryans in what is a small role, he's convincing as a nasty piece of work and a snivelling little man). For Tarrant this is par and you can see Dayna having little time for secret police either, while Vila has on occasion shown a mild vicious streak when he's totally confident he's safe. Cally calls them on it and I think wrongly or at least unnecessarily; a bit of taunting isn't exactly eye-for-an-eye and the crew at this stage aren't exactly the Avengers with a strict moral code.

Avon then returns and takes Shrinker down to a cave with no escape for an interrogation of his own only to find out Shrinker had nothing to do with Anna's death. His absurd self-satisfied joy at thinking not killing this one particular person (instead being handled by Bartholomew) is some sort of personal lifeline is a great moment and it is rather satisfying that Avon then just leaves him with a gun as a way out after. The whole Shrinker thing isn't particularly subtle but then it perhaps shouldn't be, and the contrast between this cowardly sadist who claims to be just following orders and the two security monitors shown later in the episode who seem to be genuinely alright blokes who just happen to have taken about the only career available in a military dictatorship.

It rapidly becomes clear that Anna escaped death and is now involved with rebels on Earth, operatng under the identity Sula (wife of one of Servalan's key councillors). It's clear that while the Federation still has control over Earth and its' empire it's a lot more shaky than it was pre-war; even ignoring that Sula's a rebel her being able to hold opinions and conversations like she does with Chesku without being disappeared shows an organisation a long way from the first episode; ditto that a guerrilla group can even get close enough to Servalan's residence without being stopped - compare and contrast to the rapid elimination of their spiritual predecessors led by Kasabi in "Pressure Point", who only get as far as they do due to it being part of Servalan's plan.

Which raises the broader question of what exactly Servalan's doing. While there's a certain irony in a military coup being followed by the military getting annihilated this is the only time we see her on Earth all season. At times she's scouting out resources but really she spends far too much of her presidency gadding around in her flagship, effectively doing what she used to make Travis do. Paranoia might make her a bit more hands-down but now she herself has seen and said the Liberator is little direct threat to her why is she putting so much time into chasing the ship down? What is she going to use it for? It's actually a convincing underlining of her megalomania by this stage; all she can see is the next conquest or expansion, she has little passion for actually running the Federation. It's another one of these "if it was made today" things but there's certainly potential for inter-Federation plotting along the lines of the Space Command machinations seen in the first two seasons.

Just as 'Sula' and Chesku can talk freely so can Grenlee and Forres, an amiable pair of Boucher squaddies watching the security cameras at Servalan's presidential palace. Ably performed, they get a couple of lengthy scenes which give them well-rounded characters - they could be doing this job in a shopping centre - and it's a surprise when they're suddenly dealt with by the rebel assault, which adds to the shock of the moment. The Liberator crew blunder into the middle of this as Bartholomew is linked to Servalan and it's actually enough of a monumental B7 fuck-up to allow the coincidence of it all. Boucher especially is a master in pulling off this kind of worst-possible-timing - the raid on Star One at the precise moment of an alien invasion is another, while the final episode basically runs on the principle. And what would Blake say to see them all sneaking past fellow rebels in order to pursue a goal? Is it that without him they're meaningless to other causes?

It's nice that the rest of the crew join in Avon's away mission, though, and they all get to show some stops. Tarrant's cocky little distraction is a great moment showing his more dashing side; he kind of needed this one to stop him just being a complete arsehole, and it's a nice contrast when he shows some compassion for the mortally injured Grenlee after Avon stupidly wrestles him around. This is one of Paul Darrow's best showings too; it's another curious parallel to "Pressure Point" that he has Blake-esque tunnel vision, only his obsession is revenge rather than Control. His clipped responses to Tarrant are especially praiseworthy, while the scene in the palace's basement with a chained-up Servalan is superb. Jacqueline Pearce follows up "Children of Auron" with another fine showing; her entering shock the moment she's slapped around by Sula's rebels is a breathtaking moment which gives her a lot more sympathy than she deserves (greatly aided by the bold decision to giver her a badly bruised shoulder and a huge gash on her cheek, once again blurring the lines - it's quite clear she's been knocked around more than strictly necessary by the guys who are meant to be the goodies). It's a great little performance, especially the shaky fingers grasping at Avon when he pulls her to her feet. She's had her legs kicked out from under her so badly that Avon threatening her is almost reassuring.

It all goes to pot of course when Avon meets Sula and recognises her as Anna, almost immediately twigging she's Bartholomew and was all along. It's again typically fucked up for Boucher and the character that not for the last time he feels forced to shoot someone who he gives a shit about. You wonder how much exactly she cared for him; her dying words seem convincing but qualified and it might just be the training showing; how much of her is Anna and how genuine her actions are Sula are is left up to viewer expectation - Shrinker earlier suggests a lot of fanatical Federation personnel switched sides in the early stages of the rebellion and switched back when it was defeated, while she could just be making a personal power grab. Of course, it does raise a continuity question - if Anna Grant is just an identity used by Bartholomew to get at Avon, how does she have a brother? A fair theory is that the real Anna Grant was eliminated and replaced after her last meeting with Del, and we've seen the Federation's ability to fake this sort of thing (Blake receiving vis-tapes from his family despite them being murdered). It works the same way Shrinker doesn't recognise Avon. 

There's then time for a brilliant scene between Avon and Servalan; even knowing she's Bartholomew and whether her feelings for him are genuine for him or not he's devastated, even taking his bracelet off, and he seems utterly indifferent when Servalan - back in business now she feels in control, or is at least against someone who's just had an even bigger gut-punch - threatens him. He seems to gather himself up by the time another cosmic coincidence (the arrival of Hob, sub-ably portrayed by David Gilles - it's nasty to single people out for speech impediments but his flawed delivery makes him the only bum note in the episode) spares him, but considering this has been his driving force for some time, most likely since the departure of Blake gave him the freedom to pursue a vendetta, you have to wonder how much the whole episode affects Avon's psyche. And into the bargain the crew are basically responsible for the failure of the attempted rebel coup, freeing the President and killing 'Sula'.

It's a brutal one, right up there with the famous cliffhangers, though there's a run of dry humour through it to prevent it being outright depressing. It's a hugely complex episode that accurately summarises the flawed nature of basically everyone in the entire B7 universe while at the same time being exciting and unexpected. The best? It's certainly in the top five and it's the sort of bitter brilliance that I'm thinking of when I laud the third season. Possibly the best last line of any episode too.

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