S03EP08 – In the aftermath of the conclusion to series 2 and the departure of star Gareth Thomas, BLAKE’S 7 was forced to reinvent itself moving into its third series. It did so over the course of the year’s first three episodes, much in the manner that the series began. In this new era, it would be Avon, the cold-hearted calculating manipulator who would step into the role of the main character. As such, his relationship with recurring enemy Servalan evolved as well: there was a definite attraction-repulsion dance going on, with Avon perceptively noting at one key moment that should he ally himself with Servalan, he’d wind up dead inside of a week. The show also got a spanking new title sequence since Blake himself was all over the original one; it’s reproduced in microcosm at the start of this article.
The Liberator’s crew, re-assembled aboard the ship after having been forced to abandon it after it was badly damaged in the battle with the Andromedans (who disappear completely at this point, all wiped out and forgotten about. Nothing is even made of the fact that they have clearly perfected an inter-galactic drive, which you’d think would be as of much interest to Servalan as the Liberator itself. Maybe she just liked the cut of Avon’s boots.) count among themselves two new members to replace the departed Blake and Jenna. Dayna Mellanby helps Avon to survive when he is stranded on a barbaric planet after leaving the ship, and Del Tarrant is a resistance agent the pair first encounter back on board the Liberator, where he’s posing as a Federation Officer. Tarrant was very much the Commander Riker of BLAKE’S 7, in that he was supposed to echo Blake in the manner that Riker was to have been a new version of James Kirk, but both characters weren’t quite as intense or as much leading man material as those they were emulating. Tarrant became a relatively effective figure on his own eventually, but for most of this third series, he’s a bit annoying. His sparring with Avon over the direction they should take lacks the commitment and gravitas of Blake’s. (There’s no question of why the show wasn’t renamed TARRANT’S 7.) Part of the problem is that the show can’t quite make up its own mind–so in some episodes, Avon and company are attempting to pull heists, or are taking care of old business, in some Servalan and her goons are trying to take the Liberator away from them, and in others they’re trying to interfere in the Federation’s rebuilding efforts. The clear direction of the prior series is lacking. And yet, Series Three has the largest number of really excellent episodes in it of any of the four series. Make of that what you will.
Rumours of Death is quite possibly the best single episode of the entire show. And it’s definitely a story about old business. It aired on February 25, 1980 and it opens with Avon being held in a Federation prison cell on Earth. He’s been there for five days, his identity unknown to his jailers, withstanding everything they’ve done to extract information from them. His steely self-control is so good that the installation has sent for the services of Shrinker, who is the most skilled interrogator in the Federation, and who promises to break Avon. As his first move, Shrinker tells Avon that he is aware of the homing chip that Avon has had implanted in his neck. They’ve been monitoring it for the past five days of his imprisonment–clearly nobody is coming to rescue him. But Avon corrects Shrinker: his friends won’t come while the homing device is transmitting–but now he’s switched it off.
Tarrant and Dayna materialize in the cell behind Shrinker, having teleported in from the Liberator. Avon has been waiting for Shrinker to arrive because this is the man who killed his girlfriend Anna Grant years ago, and Avon has come back for revenge. The crew teleport up to the Liberator with Shrinker, who pleads with them for his life. Cally is appalled by the behavior of the others and wants no part of what is about to go on. “He’s an animal” remarks Tarrant, “Yes, and it’s contagious.” replies Cally. Elsewhere, on the grounds of Servalan’s reconstructed Presidential palace, we meet Councilor Chesku, who walks the grounds with his wife Sula going over the speech he is to give to introduce the President that evening. The inner planets have been pacified and the Federation is intact. But Chesku is shocked when his wife and a pair of Federation guards turn on him and shoot him down. They’re elements of the rebellion who are going to take advantage of Servalan being in attendance for the evening’s ceremony to put an end to her and the renewed Federation.
Avon has himself and Shrinker teleported down into a subsurface cave, where he interrogates the man about Anna Grant, and we learn more about Avon’s past. He had worked out a way of getting around the Federation’s banking controls and had been set to steal an almost unlimited amount of credits when he was wounded by the man supplying him and Anna with the exit visas they would use to escape. Shrinker remembers the case and tells Avon that the Federation’s top agent Bartholomew was on to him from the start. When Avon disappeared after being wounded, all of Avon’s associates were rounded up by Bartholomew. Shrinker tells Avon that Bartholomew must have been the one that killed Anna Grant.
Meanwhile, Servalan makes preparations for her guests back at her estate. But unbeknownst to her, Sula and the resistance fighters have been working their way through the security forces holding the perimeter, knocking them all out one by one. So their strike on the palace is ready, with nothing to stand between them and the President. Back in the cavern, Shrinker has told Avon that he doesn’t know who Batholomew really was, but that Servalan would know–and that he once had a dying man tell him that “Chesku is still–” before perishing. With that, Avon gives Shrinker his gun and then teleports away, leaving the man stranded deep within the Earth with only one way out. Back on board the Liberator, Avon asks ORAC to locate Servalan and to gather information about Chesku.
Back at the Presidential palace, Sula and her rebels make their move. It’s a spectacular invasion, with lots of good use of practical effects and stuntwork to make everything seem believable. The attack is a rout–Sula and her team has already taken out most of the outer defenses, leaving only those few guards inside the building loyal to Servalan. As they break down the door to her chamber, Sulu comes face-to-face with Servalan, who asks her, “I take it these creatures belong to you?” “That’s right, Madame President“, replies Sula, “And they want you to resign.” In point of fact, Sula’s men want her to kill Servalan, but she works to try to convince them that Servalan will be of more use to them in disarming the Federation alive than dead.
Back on board the Liberator, Avon impatiently waits for the optimal time to stage an attempted incursion into Servalan’s palace which ORAC has computed for him. He seethes, hearing snippets of Shrinker’s words and imagining Anna having been swooped up, imprisoned, tortured and killed because of him. As the appointed time arrives, Tarrant, Dayna and Cally show up in the Teleport room and tell Avon that they’ve decided to go with him. “We’ve talked about it and discovered we care what happens to you“, Cally tells Avon. “Within reason, of course.” quips Tarrant. “We’re as surprised about it as you are!” continues Dayna. Avon protests, but rather than allowing the optimal moment to slip past him, he acquiesces and allows the others to accompany him to the surface.
And so finally, 35 minutes into the episode, the two plot threads finally converge. Arriving on the grounds, the Liberator team discovers the dead bodies of the fallen Federation guards and realizes that they’ve stumbled into the middle of something. They make their way into the residence where they can hear the argument between Sula and her men going on in another room. A wounded Federation security man leads them into the wine cellar, where Servalan has been imprisoned. She at first believes that this attack on her palace has been Avon’s doing, but even when he offers to free her in exchange for the information he’s after, she is strangely subdued. Tarrant tells Avon that having been humiliated in this fashion in what should be the center of her power, Servalan is broken. “Is that it, have you finally lost your nerve? Have you murdered your way to the wall of an underground room?” Avon asks her. “It’s an old wall, Avon, it waits. I hope you don’t die before you reach it.” she replies.
Avon and Tarrant continue to probe Servalan, and when Tarrant mentions that Avon is looking for Bartholomew because he murdered Anna Grant, she breaks out in a smile and agrees to tell them everything they want to know. Upstairs, Cally and Dayna are keeping watch as the meeting of the rebels breaks up. Sula has convinced her cohorts that Servalan can be of more use to them alive and she heads down into the wine cellar to retrieve their captive. But as she enters the room, Tarrant gets the drop on her from behind. A moment later, Avon steps out of the shadows. “Hello, Anna.” he says.
For anybody reading through this review, this reveal is relatively obvious, but I absolutely love the ballsyness with which the production team plays it. The same actress is playing Anna and Sula, of course, and while she’s made up and lit differently, there’s really no hiding that. And yet ,the fact that the episode never addresses this, never even tips towards it in any way makes the reveal still work, and pack an emotional wallop. It’s an impossible ask that should not work on screen at all, and yet it completely does, in part because of the convincingness of the performances.
Anna puts on a game face, telling Avon that she thought he was dead, that she’d heard rumors about an Avon being with Blake but that she couldn’t allow herself to hope. But Avon can’t even bring himself to look her in the eye. “How did you get away, Anna, that last day, the day I got myself shot. How did you get away?“She tells him that her husband Chesku protected her, but it was really Avon that she loved. “He wasn’t Bartholomew, was he?” asks Avon, the light dawning, and Servalan confirms his suspicions: “Not even Chesku knew who Bartholomew was. But you do, Avon, don’t you?” Anna reaches for a concealed weapon, and Avon reflexively turns and guns her down. She was, of course, not only Sula but Bartholomew as well.
“It wasn‘t all lies“, Anna says with her last breath, “I let you go, my love.” Avon rises. “Oh no, you never let me go. You never did.” Paul Darrow, who plays Avon, is really excellent throughout this entire episode. Avon, now as broken as Servalan by this revelation, removes his teleport bracelet. “Can you convince yourself that that didn’t happen, Avon? ” asks Servalan, parroting Tarrant’s words from earlier in the scene. Upstairs, Federation forces have responded to a distress signal and the palace is surrounded. Teleporting out is the only escape for the Liberator crew. But in this instance, Vila acts too quickly, and Tarrant, Cally and Dayna are brought up without Avon, and with the outbound coordinates still set at their arrival point outside the house. So Avon is left alone with Servalan and with her forces converging on his position.
Servalan stands over Avon, having retrieved Anna’s gun. “You really think I care?” Avon asks her. She tells him to put his teleport bracelet back on and radio the Liberator for transport–she intends to shoot him and allow them to teleport up his dead body. (Or at least that’s what she tells him here. But Servalan has a history of never quite being able to carry through on her threats where Avon is concerned.) But fortunately, Sula’s confederate picks this moment to enter the room and distract Servalan for the crucial second–and then Avon is gone. “Servalan was planning on sending you a corpse. But the rumors of my death–” says Avon as he reappears in the Liberator’s teleport chamber. “Have been greatly exaggerated?” offers Tarrant. “Well, slightly exaggerated anyway.” replies Avon, and the episode closes out.