The White Dwarf (Episode 02-21, February 1963)
The Avengers regularly grappled with post-war terrors and Cold War realities, involving spies from vague foreign lands (most of them with Russian accents), double agents working within Great Britain, secret plans, secret weapons, and secret programs. But only seldom did the show look into the farther reaches of space and engage with threats from without rather than within.
The White Dwarf is one exception. Unlike its Space Age successor Man-Eater of Surrey Green – the only episode to introduce the concept of aliens into The Avengers universe – The White Dwarf treats of a far more realistic threat from the outer regions.
Steed and Cathy are tasked with investigating the death of an astronomer who predicted that the end of the world was near when he observed the progress of a “white dwarf.” His theory postulates that within nine months the dwarf would swallow up the sun, and the earth with it. In an effort to keep people calm, the British government has kept the discovery under wraps until it can be verified by a further observation within a few weeks’ time.
While Steed remains at home to “have a good time while there’s still time,” Cathy heads down to the observatory to discover the reasons behind the astronomer’s death. She meets a group of frightened people, none of whom seem to have much of a reason to commit murder – especially if everyone is going to die in a months anyways. Steed embarks on his own investigation at the Ministry, and discovers that several someones have been buying up large shares of stocks, and that one such person is the brother of a Ministry official who just happens to know about the white dwarf.
The White Dwarf is a bizarre story for The Avengers because it seems so dire. It’s difficult to believe that either Steed or Mrs. Gale would be so calm in the face of imminent disaster, even if they don’t really have faith that the prediction about the dwarf is accurate. As a result, the episode suffers from a confusion of tone, with Steed’s cheerful quips seeming ill in keeping with the situation, and the violent deaths of more than one astronomer off-setting any sympathy we might feel for the lesser villains.
Needless to say, the world does not end at the end of The White Dwarf, and thankfully The Avengers did not try to use the same sort of story in any later episodes. While The Avengers sometimes does deal with serious issues, ranging from mad villains and sadists to those who want to cause World War III, the show is at its best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously.