Rumours of Death features Blake 7‘s most effective cold opening. Avon is a prisoner of the Federation and he’s in a pretty bad way. Unshaven and in pain, he’s been a captive for five days and during that time he’s proven to be rather uncooperative. He’s visited in his cell by the Federation’s top torturer, Shrinker (John Bryans) who is determined to get the truth out of him – one way or another.
Set-wise, this opening section is simply staged. Avon’s cell is bare and we never venture any further into the Federation detention block. But the illusion that Avon isn’t the only prisoner is effectively created by the off-camera screams of another poor unfortunate. And as Shrinker brandishes a laser probe it seems likely that Avon will also be screaming soon. Director Fiona Cumming chooses to keep the camera angle in this scene quite low – with Avon seated on the bed and Shrinker standing over him it helps to create the impression of the Federation man’s dominance. A simple trick (like the off-camera screams) but nonetheless effective.
The attentive viewer wouldn’t have been fooled by Avon’s plight for too long. It now becomes clear why he mentioned Shrinker in the previous episode (he’d told the rest of the crew that Shrinker was the key to understanding why Anna Grant, the woman he loved, died). So when Shrinker appears here it’s clear that Avon’s plan is in full swing. That he was prepared to withstand days of torture (it’s never explicitly stated what happened to him, but it clearly wasn’t pleasant) in order to lure Shrinker to his cell speaks volumes. Whether for good or bad is debatable though. Avon’s always been a driven, single-minded character, but the events of this episode seem to clearly indicate his future, tragic path – the loss of the Liberator, his inability to ever trust again and the cataclysmic events on Gauda Prime.
When Tarrant and Dayna teleport into the cell and take Avon and Shrinker back to the Liberator it’s remarkable how quickly Shrinker devolves into a whimpering, pathetic character. The cliche that he was only a man who followed orders is aired, but there’s a faint sense of unreality about his total collapse. Yes, it’s reasonable to assume that such a man would be powerless when stripped of his authority, but it might have played better had he kept a faint air of defiance.
The reactions of Tarrant, Dayna and Vila are noteworthy. They surround the cowering Shrinker and goad him, causing a disgusted Cally to snap at them. That Shrinker’s a mass-murderer is unquestionable and Tarrant tells her that he’s nothing more than an animal. “Yes, and it’s contagious, isn’t it?” responds Cally. With series three of Blakes 7 having largely abandoned the freedom fighter/terrorist attacks of the first two series, this brief exchange taps into some of the more interesting character moments from previous stories like Star One. Shrinker is a monster, but if they behave like him can they claim to be any better?
Whilst this part of the plot is bubbling along nicely, we jump to Earth. Sula (Lorna Helibron) and Chesku (Peter Clay) are two high-ranking officials in the Federation (and are also married). Chesku is clearly a man with a great regard for his own oratorical skills and gives his wife a demonstration of part of a speech he plans to deliver later. “The rabble which sought to challenge the established order lacked our inspiration, our unity, our leadership. They are crushed. Earth and the Inner Planets are once again united. Gentlemen, I give you a toast. Our inspiration, our unity, our leader: President Servalan.”
Sula responds that “I’m sure Servalan will be delighted. She is, after all, a tasteless megalomaniac.” The faintly off-key nature of the episode continues after two Federation troopers turn up and, on Sula’s orders, shoot Chesku dead. Peter Clay’s death (all flailing arms as he crashes into a bush) isn’t the most impressive, but never mind. It helps to set up the events for the rest of the episode as it looks as if a palace revolution is taking place. The power-struggles within the Federation following the war with the aliens is certainly something that could have been developed more during series three. As it was, Servalan seemed to spend far too much time tussling with Avon and the others instead of attempting to secure her position.
Things get even stranger when Avon starts to question Shrinker. Avon shows him a picture of Anna Grant, but he claims he doesn’t know her. “I’ve killed hundreds and remembered them all, all of them, every last whining traitor. And there wasn’t one that died without telling me what I wanted to know. Not one.” We then flashback to scenes of Anna in bed with Avon. It’s maybe not immediately clear, but this is the same woman who now calls herself Sula. In Space Fall we were told that Avon was nearly responsible for the greatest banking fraud in Federation history, but Shrinker now tells him that he was monitored right from the start (he was under the observation of an agent called Bartolomew from Central Security). It’s another small moment which helps to emphasise that Avon’s not as infallible as he might appear.
Avon leaves Shrinker a prisoner in a cave with no escape and a gun for company. Avon promised him a way out and this is it (“It’s a better deal than you gave any of your victims”). With Shrinker’s information, he now decides to set course for Earth to confront Servalan and demand that she reveal the identity of Bartolomew. This is the weakest part of the script – that Avon would decide to return to Earth seems foolhardy enough but that he chooses to do so on the same day that Anna/Sula decides to take out Servalan is one coincidence too many.
Greenlee (Donald Douglas) and Forres (David Haig) are two career officers who are on security duty at the lavish country house that serves as Servalan’s headquarters. It seems that Chris Boucher took a leaf out of Robert Holmes’ book as Greenlee and Forres act as detached narrators for the first half of the episode – they help to fill in the blanks of what we’re seeing. Although unlike most Holmesian double-acts they don’t make it to the end as they’re both mown down by Sula’s men. The palace revolution is far from bloodless, but it’s comprehensive.
Jacqueline Pearce doesn’t have a great deal of screentime in this episode, but that’s not really a criticism. Servalan’s been something of an overexposed character (especially during series three to date) so Rumours of Death works well by keeping her as more of a background character. But her scene with Avon towards the end (she’s chained up in the cellar, helpless) is another key Avon/Servalan meeting that has no doubt launched a thousand fan-fics.
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.
That Avon is prepared to set Servalan free when Sula and others are close to destroying her power forever is intriguing (it looks as if everything that Blake fought for is within their grasp). This is open to interpretation though. Is Sula keen to replace her (as suggested earlier on) or does she really support the notion of a People’s Council? If it’s the latter, then it’s ironic that Sula has been fighting for the same things that the Liberator crew did for so long.
It’ll come as no surprise that Anna = Sula = Bartolomew or that Avon kills her. So Anna was a fiction who only existed for Avon. But Sula’s dying words seem to suggest that she genuinely did love Avon. But in the hall of mirrors that’s Rumours of Death can we believe her this time?
This is clearly a great vehicle for Paul Darrow, who makes the most of the material. There’s a few niggles (for example, Servalan is taken prisoner rather too easily and if Anna Grant never existed who was the man who claimed to be her brother in the series two episode Countdown?) but overall this is a classy episode.