The Avengers: The Big Thinker

The Big Thinker (Episode 02-12, December 1962)


Like Emma Peel after her, Cathy Gale gets a few opportunities to strike out on her own, largely sans a male counterpart. The first such episode is actually Bullseye, which I will get to reviewing one of these days. The Big Thinker is another. I’ll go right ahead and admit that I’m reviewing it instead of Bullseye because it’s a far more enjoyable episode.

The Big Thinker sees Cathy investigating the goings-on at a missile defense computer facility where the main computer “Plato” is being sabotaged. There are a number of suspects, but the main one is resident mathematical genius/total douchebag Dr. James Kearns (Antony Booth), who knows Plato inside and out. Cathy cultivates Kearns’s friendship, even down to going out with him once or twice, in order to discover if he’s the one sabotaging Plato, and why.

The episode belongs to Honor Blackman and, unlike the rather turgid Bullseye, she makes it work. Scenes of bamfery abound, from Cathy handling a few card sharps like a pro to icily tearing down Kearns’s advances with a mere roll of her eyes. She’s helped along by Kearns himself, who’s played with a strong personality (even if he is in the ‘annoying young man’ category). Steed, meanwhile, hangs out in the background, popping up every so often to trade a few sarcastic jibes with Cathy, and dashing in when the going gets really tough.

Although this episode is light on the Steed/Cathy repartee, there are a few moments that exhibit the development of the characters’ relationship. There are shades of jealousy in Steed’s reaction to Kearns – he even shows up in Cathy’s apartment late at night to ‘protect’ her. Another scene highlights the increasing domesticity of Steed and Cathy’s relationship when he attempts cooking an omelette at her apartment. These scenes lend a sense of fun to the episode, and begin to draw out the interesting friendship and tension the characterizes the two main characters. While it’s a matter of conjecture if Steed and Cathy ever crossed the line from friends to lovers, they certainly share some strong sexual tension.

While The Big Thinker wins no awards for clarity – I got halfway through the episode before realizing that I wasn’t entirely clear why anyone would want to sabotage Plato in the first place – it’s a quirky little entry with some fun performances. It’s also a chance to be reminded that while Emma Peel solidified the notion of the intelligent, capable female agent, it was Dr. Catherine Gale that started the ball rolling. 

The Avengers: Mission To Montreal

Mission To Montreal (Episode 02-05, October 1962).


The Avengers is full of what-if production scenarios. What if Honor Blackman had remained on the show? What if Diana Rigg never left? What if Ian Hendry had not decided to move on after the first season? The latter is perhaps a question Avengers fans seldom ask, as all that remains of Hendry’s stint on the series are three episodes, one of them incomplete (and the bulk of the shooting scripts). But Hendry and Macnee were the original Avengers, and in fact Steed played second-fiddle to Hendry’s Dr. David Keel.

The question of Hendry comes up because of Mission to Montreal, and Hendry’s attempted replacement Dr. Martin King, played by Jon Rollason. The King episodes were scripted for Ian Hendry and underwent little alteration (unlike the Cathy Gale episodes, which obviously had to accommodate the fact that she was a female anthropologist). Maybe Hendry would have made better mileage out of Mission to Montreal,  but with Rollason having to hold the audience’s attention for a good twenty minutes of the episode, it’s rather rough going.

Dr. King travels via steamship to Montreal in attendance on a lovely actress who may or may not be involved with the death of her stand-in, and the smuggling of stolen microfilm plans. The first twenty minutes of the episode are occupied with King and Carla Berotti (early-season doppelgänger Patricia English) making eyes at each other. Carla already a husband, though, as we discover early on – he’s a crew member on the ship, and it seems that he’s the one who got her involved in these nefarious shenanigans. Steed pops up halfway through the episode posing as a steward (and making fun of Dr. King’s dressing gown).

Although there’s something to be said for the setting and intrigue in this episode, the dialogue is turgid, and the pacing hardly worth comment. Rollason has little charisma on his own; his flirtations with Carla are neither interesting nor particularly sexy. While I might be able to see Ian Hendry pulling this one off, it’s a disservice to Rollason to make him carry his first episode.

There are amusing moments, though. Steed and King have a friendly interplay that might have served them well had King’s character been given room to develop. A few sequences, including a party in Carla’s room and the murder of a drunk contain real suspense. By and large, though, this is one of The Avengers most boring episodes. Thank God for Cathy Gale.

The Avengers: The Decapod

The Decapod (Episode 02-03, October 1962).


The Decapod introduces the world to Miss Venus Smith (Julie Stevens), who will change a great deal over the course of the six episodes she appears in (most notably getting a haircut and acting more and more like a teenager). Here she assists (to use the term loosely) Steed in hunting down a masked assassin out to get Yakob Borb (Paul Stassino), the leader of a Balkan Republic in Britain for trade negotiations. This leads both Steed and Venus into the odd world of amateur wrestling when one of Borb’s bodyguards is murdered in the ring by the mysterious Decapod.

The Decapod represents this season’s first proper descent into the underworld. Venus works at a London nightclub that Steed frequents. He manipulates her into becoming Borb’s secretary (after his first one is murdered) by telling her that Borb wants to sponsor a singing tour. While Venus seems a bit too naive to be believed, she as yet has no reason not to trust Steed, who is at his fast-talking, charming best.  Their relationship is a tad unclear, and will become less so as Julie Stevens’ tenure with The Avengers goes on. This episodes implies a sexual relationship, or at least flirtation, with Steed making very free with the innuendo (and the cards down Venus’s cleavage).

The Decapod is actually a strong episode, despite featuring one of Steed’s most lackluster partners. The wrestling sequences entertain, as does Paul Stassino’s smarmy performance as Borb. Because of the constrictions of live television, most of the actors do their own stunts – including, it seems, Patrick Macnee, who gets thrown about in the wrestling ring quite a bit. Because Venus is so apparently weak and naive, however, it’s difficult to feel anything other than anger with Steed when he effectively prostitutes her to Borb (without telling her). There’s no doubt that, however much danger he puts his partners into, Steed always manages to get them out just in the nick of time. Still, the hardened, manipulative edges of Steed’s character is more on display here than in almost any other episode.

Victim (1961)


Basil Dearden’s Victim, from 1961, was one of the first British-made films to deal openly and explicitly with (male) homosexuality, and the serious prejudices faced by gay men in the United Kingdom. Couched as a potboiler mystery of sorts, Victim follows successful barrister Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde), a closeted homosexual who becomes involved with the police following the suicide of a young man with whom he had a romantic (but asexual) relationship.  The source of “Boy” Barratt’s suicide are several photographs of him and Farr sent to him by a blackmailer who demands payment in exchange for the photographs. Discovering that a number of gay men have received similar demands, Farr decides that he’s going to discover who the blackmailer is. The film is complicated by Britain’s anti-homosexuality law, which criminalized homosexual acts between men. This meant that any man found “guilty” of homosexuality could be sent to prison. The blackmailer of the film has, in effect, the law on his or her side.

In Farr’s journey to discover the blackmailer, he comes into contact with a spread of the social classes, all of them containing men forced to live double lives. The film exposes the complicated feelings of both men and women about a taboo subject. Farr is closeted and married, his wife (Sylvia Syms) aware of his homosexuality but hurt when she discovers that he fell in love with Barratt. Her reaction is entirely natural, her love for her husband very real; she seems more betrayed by the fact that he desired someone else than by the fact that the someone else was a man. Nor is his love for her made light of – he does care for her, and is as concerned for her future as he is for his own.


As Farr discovers more and more men, some of his own acquaintance, who are being blackmailed, the perversions of the law against homosexuality are revealed. None of the men are willing to go to the police for a multitude of reasons, most of them coming down to fear of arrest and imprisonment. One older man remarks that he has been to prison four times for homosexual acts, and that he will not go back; if that means he has to pay to keep the blackmailer silent, then he will. Fear permeates the film, these men forced to live double lives in denial of their desires.

The standout performance of the film belongs to Bogarde as a man who has lived a life suppressing his most basic desires (there’s an implication that Farr has never actually had sex with men). Farr is not altruistic, and his unwillingness to communicate with the police means that more people are hurt. Farr’s bravery in potentially sacrificing his career and his liberty to bring the blackmailers to justice is further complicated when we learn that the incriminating photographs are not so incriminating – they could not have stood up in court as proof of a homosexual relationship. His pursuit of the case is a way of expatiating his guilt for ultimately rejecting Barratt, not to mention the role he accidentally played in the young man’s suicide.

If the film fails anywhere it is in the too explicit treatment of homosexuality. By daring to discuss the matter openly, it at times sacrifices subtlety, especially in the minor characters. The denouement feels somewhat forced, the revelation of the blackmailer a little too simple in terms of motive.

In the end, Victim remains a distressingly topical film. The homophobia expressed by some of the characters feels all too current when one considers that this was a film made 50 years ago. It was influential in raising discussion of homosexuality in Britain – and probably helped to take down the law that made it illegal. Although some aspects appear dated, Victim remains a powerful and moving look into the cruelty of a culture that requires people to repress a fundamental part of their being, or risk exclusion, ridicule, and even violence.

The Avengers: Box of Tricks

Box of Tricks (Episode 02-17, January 1963).


Well, you can’t win them all. While it is a mistake to expect too much from Venus Smith episodes, almost every other episode from her limited run at least has a reasonable plot. This one is so far-fetched, and so apparently dependent on strange coincidence, that I don’t really know what to do with it.

Box of Tricks asks the question: what is the relationship between the death of a magician’s assistant and the apparent leakage of a number of state secrets? Perfectly legitimate question, if there was actually an answer to it. But halfway through the episode the story abandons a somewhat interesting murder mystery to focus on the machinations of a faith healer and his relationship to a high-ranking General’s daughter. The solution to that part of the case is obvious from the beginning, so why it takes Steed and Venus another thirty minutes to figure it all out is anyone’s guess.

But as with even the most risible episodes of The Avengers, this one does have its good points. Steed gives a credible and entertaining performance as a hypochondriac millionaire, while Venus seems to be getting into her role as a secret agent’s girl Friday. The repartee between the pair actually improves, though how Steed figures into Venus’s life is still unclear (he seems to have acted as her agent once or twice, but how he got into that business we shall never know). The noir tone of the nightclub scenes harkens to The Avengers crime drama roots, with Steed putting the moves on some of the girls (or them putting the moves on him). Steed’s hard edges are still there, his character rougher and his ability to traverse the social classes without rumpling his tie make some moments quite enjoyable. The noir quality is actually the most surprising element of these early episodes, especially as we’re used to thinking of The Avengers as a campy spy-fi show. It started as something quite different.

As with most of the Venus Smith episodes, this one is strictly for the die-hard fans. The uninspired plot plods along to a strong if not surprising denouement. While far from a BAD piece of 1960s TV, it isn’t exactly brilliant.