Archive for the ‘The Avengers’ Category

The Outside-In Man (Episode 3-22, February 1964).

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I am a staunch defender of John Steed, especially in these early seasons where he’s typically dismissed as manipulative or callous. In general, he’s neither manipulative nor callous, usually acting on what he believes are his best instincts, and keeping his partner (and others) out of immediate danger. Then there’s The Outside-In Man.

The Outside-In Man begins with Steed put in charge of security measures to protect visiting diplomat General Sharp (Philip Anthony), a former British soldier who defected to the enemy country of Abarain and proceeded to become a target for assassination. Now he’s back to do an arms deal with Britain and Steed, despite having been part of a team who fought Sharp’s forces back in the late 50s, has to protect him. Complications arise in the form of Mark Charters (James Maxwell), a recently released prisoner of war originally tasked with assassinating Sharp. He’s captured, tortured by Sharp’s men for years and then suddenly, inexplicably released back to Britain. Steed and his superior officer Quilpie (Ronald Radd) fear that Charters is going to try to complete the mission he failed at and finish off Sharp.

There are so many problems with The Outside-In Man that it’s difficult to decide where to begin. While the initial premise is intriguing, the plot soon gets lost in convolutions that include Steed going dark and refusing to speak with Cathy, Cathy tracking Charters across the English countryside, and the machinations of Sharp’s embassy. The whole thing culminates in a confusing, final act reveal that makes no sense with what has come before, and forces one to wonder if the entire British government are a pack of imbeciles.

Plot issues aside, The Outside-In Man loses points with me for the character of Mark Charters, a sneering, unsympathetic figure who spends most of his time making obscene passes at Quilpie’s secretary. Worse things come when Cathy appears to try and talk him out of assassinating Sharp – not because she cares about Sharp’s life, but because she doesn’t want to see Charters back in prison. Charters proceeds to first make fun of her and then threaten her, finally forcing her out of the room at gunpoint. Why Cathy cares what happens to this man is beyond me. Meanwhile, Steed is giving his own performance of manipulation and meanness, ignoring Cathy’s questions and trying to order her about while keeping her entirely in the dark. It’s one of the few times that I wonder why Cathy continued to stick it out with Steed.

There are points of interest in this mess, however. The scenes in Quilpie’s headquarters at a butcher’s are humorous, especially when Cathy is brought in. Her disdain for the secret organization that she nonetheless works for becomes evident, and I quite sympathize with her this time. But those moments are few and far between, and there are very few scenes with the typical Steed and Cathy banter that make this season otherwise so enjoyable.

The Outside-In Man does manage to evoke strong emotions – the only character I find halfway sympathetic is Cathy herself. Frankly, given the ending of this episode, I hope she locked Steed out of her apartment for a few days.

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Despite my initial and rather violent reaction to the first volume of Big Finish’s Avengers adaptations The Lost Episodes, after some further convincing from fellow Avengers aficionados, I decided that it might be worth it to give the series a second chance. So I buckled down, swallowed my bile, and set out to listen to Volume 2 of the series, with the strong hope that I might something within it that would change my hatred to love. I cannot say that I found it, but at least my hatred is somewhat tempered and nuanced.

The Lost Episodes: Volume 2 begins with one of my favorite scripts Ashes to Roses. Steed (Julian Wadham) goes mostly solo on this one, supported in his endeavors by Dr. Keel’s assistant Carol (Lucy Briggs-Owen). Together they infiltrate a hair salon that’s home to murderers, arsonists, and interchangeable young women with interchangeable voices. Carol proves to be an able assistant – a sort of early-years combination of Venus Smith and Cathy Gale – going off on her own without Steed or Keel’s permission. There are some neat little exchanges and, despite the melodrama of the hair salon, it’s a generally diverting episode. Keel only makes an appearance to wag his finger at Steed and patronize Carol, but despite this, it’s Carol who gets to do the most, helping Steed catch the baddies and even disobeying his orders to keep out of it.

Unfortunately for the series as a whole, Julian Wadham manages to instill a generally charming character with his peculiar brand of self-involvement, downright smarminess, and upper-class stupidity. Steed becomes a caricature of an upper class twit with no underlying steel or charm to his personality. His “seduction” of Denise, a vapid young hairdresser in Ashes of Roses, is particularly off-putting in its combination of predatory masculinity and bad pick-up lines. While I suspect Patrick Macnee might have been able to give these lines a knowing lilt (dear God, I hope so), Wadham has such a tenuous grasp on his character that it comes off as an oilier version of James Bond (this should not be surprising, as Wadham is apparently under the impression that Steed was a progenitor to Bond). Wadham further appears to think that the character requires a total lack of variation in his line delivery, with every single sentence trailing off at the end like it lost its way. Why do we care what happens to this man? Why does anyone trust him? What’s more, who cares? It gets to be a hard slog when one half of the team is about as interesting as a plank of slippery wood.

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I wish I could say that Anthony Howell’s Dr. Keel fares a bit better, but when he returns in Please Don’t Feed The Animals, we are treated to yet another one-dimensional character. Here we have Steed and Keel grappling with the leakage of information (a favorite plot in The Avengers early seasons) which has something to do with a strip club and a zoo. I lost interest about halfway through, as I was asked to imagine an adorable monkey/diabolical mastermind without, you know, actually being able to see or hear it. Keel here is inoffensive but uninteresting, stuck in a rather silly plot with even sillier complications. Steed succeeded in making me hate him more, so I simply tuned out most of what he said.

This episode does highlight the problems of a shift in medium, however. It’s not a script that lends itself to radio – there are many fights and scene changes and, surprisingly, hearing men grunting at each other for several minutes adds very little to the experience of an episode. The episode actually begins with a character death, but even then we mostly get some meaningless dialogue the ends with grunting and slapping. Try figuring out what’s going on. I dare you.

The scene shifts are another problem, particularly during one extended sequence that has Keel at the bar of a strip club, Steed in another room of the club, and a group of secondary characters in another room. While this is easy to do on a screen, it’s awfully hard to do on the radio. Distinguishing voices and locations becomes a serious mental exercise. I was confused for much of the sequence (which ends with more slapping and grunting) because the voices overlapped. Plot points were unfortunately lost in this process, though the plot itself was so predictable and dull it didn’t much matter.

It’s actually amazing how very little matters in these episodes. I’m passing over The Radioactive Man because it’s not even an Avengers episode, but a rather trite and unbelievable melodrama.

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Like Please Don’t Feed The Animals, Dance with Death suffers from a surfeit of scene changes and fight sequences that, on the radio, fail to come to much more than confused grunts and short, snippy sentences from interchangeable characters who vanish after speaking one line. The entire first act is taken up with Keel saying things like “Hello. How are you?” and other characters responding with, “Just fine, thanks.” Hardly scintillating dialogue.

It’s a thankless job, really, for Dance with Death takes place in a dance academy and there’s really no way to do dancing in an audio drama. Nor is it a particularly strong script to begin with: a young woman thinks someone is trying to kill her, Steed and Keel try to figure out who it is. That’s pretty much it. The script isn’t helped by a really laughable set of secondary characters, all of whom manage to be both interchangeable and caricaturish.

Meanwhile, Julian Wadham wins this time for not being the most annoying voice. Anthony Howell is right there with him: they both whisper half their dialogue, no matter what the subject, and fail to give any inflection to their conversations. The script has no pop, and they certainly don’t give it any. Even Steed’s flirtation with his dance instructress falls curiously flat. Who let them whisper their lines like they’re a big secret that not even the audience can be let in on? Is this what Big Finish does on a regular basis, or is this series just a spectacular example of failure?

In total honesty, I want to like this series. It seems to be the only opportunity we will ever have to experience the first season of The Avengers, and at the very least it should be a historical curiosity to understand where the show came from. But this is painful. It’s more than painful, actually, it’s offensive, because it is so blithe and self-congratulatory. Congratulations, Big Finish, you’ve made me hate not only my favorite character, but my favorite show. That’s a pretty big achievement.

Man with Two Shadows (Episode 3-03, October 1963).

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Man with Two Shadows represents the first Avengers attempt at a “doppelgänger” episode – they will repeat the performance in Season 4’s Two’s a Crowd, Season 6’s They Keep Killing Steed, and The New Avengers’ Faces. But Man with Two Shadows stands as the best use of the often-overused trope, and also the most disturbing.

The episode opens with the interrogation of Peter Borowski (Terence Lodge), an agent who has apparently been brainwashed and implanted with multiple personalities. In a disturbing sequence, Steed effectively beats and tortures Borowski, finally discovering the existence of a plot to replace certain key members of the British government with doppelgängers. Tracing some of Borowski’s movements, as well as the disappearance of Gordon, an eminent government scientist, Steed and Cathy stumble onto a holiday camp where the villains have been funneling their doppelgängers into regular life. As they delve deeper into the investigation, they also discover that one of the replacements might be Steed himself.

There are any number of excellent elements to this uneven episode. Terence Lodge gives a brief but virtuosic performance as the mad Borowski, his mania both terrifying and pathetic in a scene that deeply complicates the audience’s feelings about Steed (his own superior can’t stand to watch the agent beating Borowski). Paul Whitsun-Jones is equally bizarre as Steed’s superior Charles, a rather disgusting and morally questionable member of the Ministry. But the doppelgänger plot itself is somewhat thin: much time is spent on proving whether or not Gordon is the “real” Gordon, something of which the audience is already aware. Sections of the plot are elided over, giving the episode a disconnected feeling, as though some needed details and character development have been left out. It’s hard to feel sympathy for Judy, the girl whom the doppelgänger Gordon finds himself involved with, when her character is so single-note.

Man with Two Shadows does manage to twist the Steed and Cathy relationship to a degree that we might wonder if they ever manage to trust each other again. Steed reveals that he has in fact been captured and interrogated by the very people who drove Borowski mad; later, his very personality will come into question when his doppelgänger arrives to kill and replace him. Cathy remains in the dark, uncertain about whether to trust Steed, uncertain if he even IS Steed. The results are disconcerting, made more so if one notes that this episode aired right before The Nutshell, where Steed might (or might not) be a traitor. The partners have never been divided so deeply as they are here, and there is a distressing sense that not only do they fail to trust each other, they don’t even know each other.

The levels of moral ambiguity fail to resolve in Man with Two Shadows, leaving us with a sense of violation at a rather unsatisfying conclusion. While everyone in the cast give remarkable performances, there is something deeply unpleasant at the core of this episode. Sympathies are divided and remain divided, loyalties are drawn into question without resolution. While far better in tone and script than the later doppelgänger attempts, Man with Two Shadows still mostly succeeds in making you dislike everyone involved. In a show that typically trades on the charm and interplay between its leads, there is very little to enjoy here.

Dressed to Kill (Episode 03-14, December 1963)

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Dressed to Kill is The Avengers meet Agatha Christie, with some very mixed results. The plot revolves around a train trip on New Year’s Eve, with numerous guests, one of whom is a nefarious villain. The episode begins with Steed explaining to Cathy that World War III very nearly broke out the night before, when all the country’s early warning stations received word of a nuclear attack. The alarm proved false, but the government needs to know how and why the signal was sent. To solve the mystery, Steed joins a New Year’s fancy dress party on board a train. The guests share one thing in common: they all have options on plots of land in Cornwall, coincidentally close to the only early warning station that did not receive the false signal. When the train is diverted to an abandoned station and the guests begin dying off, Steed has to grapple with suspicions against him while trying to ferret out the killer.

Dressed to Kill has much to recommend it. The majority of the episode is occupied with the train journey and the guests at the party, all of whom do a credible job at appearing villainous and innocent in equal measure. The plot itself is sinister and the cinematography atmospheric and among the best The Avengers ever accomplished, with hardly a misstep in sight. Things pick up even more when stowaway Cathy pops up on the scene, providing one very entertaining scene as our heroes try to pick a pair of handcuffs.

Dressed to Kill has its problems, though. It is difficult to imagine a more annoying set of secondary characters, such that it’s almost a relief when they begin dying off. Among the worst are William Cavendish (Leonard Rossiter), dressed as Robin Hood, who makes it a point to be loud, venal, and insulting to everyone; and Jane/”Pussy Cat” (Anneke Wills), an insipid model character there to give the writers an excuse to make bad pussy and dumb blonde jokes. Her character in particular reinforces the fact that while The Avengers might have been very ahead of the times in female representation, it could still do sexism with the best of them.

The plot of Dressed to Kill likewise has a number of holes if considered for too long, with a denouement that feels both speedy and bit too pat. I could think of at least two other solutions to the mystery that would have been far more interesting, but alas, it was not to be. What is more, some of the early sequences on the train have so much dialogue going on at once – not to mention ambient noise – that it’s virtually impossible to catch what individual characters are saying, or if it’s even important.

Dressed to Kill rests very squarely on Macnee’s shoulders, and luckily he’s more than happy to oblige, playing his “gentleman of leisure” character to the hilt and evidently enjoying sporting a cowboy hat and six-shooter (In fact, Macnee played a few cowboys in his short Hollywood career). When Blackman reappears dressed as a Highwaywoman, events pick up and the episode saves itself.

Dressed to Kill would later be remade as the vastly inferior The Superlative Seven in Season 5. The original, for all its difficulties, is the better episode and remains one of the best examples of what The Avengers could do with limited budget and only three cameras.

The Grandeur That Was Rome (Episode 03-10, November 1963).

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The Avengers typically conjures up some impressive plots: diabolical masterminds with delusions of grandeur abound, some of them with a pretty good idea and a desire to rule the world. The Grandeur That Was Rome and its villain Sir Bruno Luca (Hugh Burden) should be among the finest examples of early insanity in a show that would eventually feature man-eating plants from the Moon. It’s unfortunate, therefore, that a good idea turns out to be so poorly done.

The basic plot is this: Sir Bruno, a feed manufacturer with an obsessive love for Ancient Rome, decides that he’s going to take over the world and turn it into a new Roman Empire, with himself as Caesar. To accomplish this, he enlists the help of Marcus (John Flint) to drum up trouble abroad when the grain he manufactures begins killing off livestock and tainting crops. But Bruno’s plans run even deeper and more diabolical than that, as Steed and Cathy step into the picture to stop the madman and save the world.

This has all the hallmarks of a really great episode: an obsessive madman, a credible and deadly plot, and plenty of togas. How, then, does it manage to fall so precariously short? For starters, the episode spends far too much time on the sneering villains and far too little time with our intrepid heroes. While Hugh Burden’s Sir Bruno is an excellent bad guy, it eventually becomes difficult to stomach his obvious delusions. His right-hand man Marcus and consort Octavia (Colette Wilde) are even less interesting, posturing to a degree that is boring rather than chilling.

When Steed and Cathy do put in an appearance, things begin to pick up. While we have precious little of Cathy’s judo to enjoy, there are some charming scenes of repartee between the pair. One might have hoped for some even greater excitement with the final act Bacchanalia at Sir Bruno’s house, but (as with the later Emma Peel episode A Touch of Brimstone) the censorship requirements of 1960s television put a damper on things. There is the joy of seeing Steed in a toga – not to mention Cathy’s reaction – but unfortunately that does not make for more than a few seconds of justifiable fun.

The Grandeur That Was Rome is an episode that I earnestly wish had been remade later in the series, when money and a better crew of writers might have been able to turn it into something truly weird and delightful. As it is, there are only a few scenes to really justify its existence.

The White Elephant (03-15, January 1964).

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Steed and Cathy grapple with ivory smugglers and big game hunters in The White Elephant, making it the only episode that utilizes Cathy’s past as a big game hunter in Africa as an important plot element. It’s unfortunate that The White Elephant fails to gain momentum, because it has all the hallmarks of a good episode.

The trouble all begins with the disappearance of a white elephant named Snowy from “Noah’s Ark,” a clearing-ground for imported animals run by Noah Marshall (Godfrey Quigley). The animals are captured by Noah’s team of hunters, and then run through the Ark on their way to zoos and “private collectors” across Britain and Europe. But Steed suspects that Noah’s Ark is also a front for smuggled ivory from illegally slaughtered elephants. Cathy joins up as a new hunter while Steed starts tracing possible co-conspirators, leading him to a gun merchant’s and, more amusingly, a ironworks specializing in cages and restraints.

The White Elephant goes through a lot of bending and twisting to make everything work out, once more introducing the “young lovers” motif that makes so many episodes from the video seasons so very boring. These lovers are not terribly sympathetic: secretary Brenda (Judy Parfitt) and hunter Lew Conniston (Scott Forbes) are among the least likable of the bunch. Their nasty little problems drag down some scenes that might otherwise pop, and unfortunately they take up more than their allotted space. The time spent with secondary characters takes away from the main plot, but it also continues to highlight the somewhat questionable activities of…pretty much everyone. While the importation of captured animals must have been more common in 1964, it leaves a bad taste in 2015 – especially as we watch a final fight waged around animals who look somewhat terrified by the whole ordeal.

Still, there are certainly high points in The White Elephant. We have Cathy telling one baddie that he “surely does not need a gun to kill a woman” (answer: yeah, he does), while Steed has a marvelous time purchasing restraints. Our two heroes seem to be enjoying each other’s company for the majority of the episode, playing chess and looking over Steed’s bondage purchases with open interest. If the rest of the plot was as interesting as their relationship, The White Elephant would be one of the best of the season. As it is, it’s not quite a bad episode, but is also nothing to write home about.

The Gilded Cage (Episode 03-07, November 1963).

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As The Avengers moved into its third season, the series hit a stride that produced some of its all-around best episodes. Still tied down by the necessities of live videotaping, the writers and directors tried to expand their repertoire to involve more locations and more complex plots. Among the best of Season 3 is The Gilded Cage, an episode that eerily foreshadows Honor Blackman’s later foray into the gold trade.

The Gilded Cage has Cathy posing as a gold bullion expert employed at a secret vault that stores millions of pounds worth of gold bars. She and Steed attempt to draw millionaire criminal  J.P. Spagge (Patrick Magee) out of retirement using a brilliantly planned robbery (conceived by Cathy) as bait. Things do not  go as planned, resulting in Cathy’s arrest for Spagge’s murder. All is not as it seems, however, and Cathy soon finds herself in the company of some nefarious (but charming) criminals, led by Abe Benham (Edric Connor), while Steed tries to figure out just what the hell is going on.

The Gilded Cage has two things going for it: excellent plotting with numerous but explicable twists and turns, and a very strong supporting cast. Edric Connor’s performance as Abe Benham is notable – he’s a charming crook, likable and good-humored, with an undercurrent of ruthlessness that perfectly matches Cathy’s. He’s also one of the only black actors to have a major role in an Avengers episode, happily giving the lie to Brian Clemens’s unfortunate pronouncement that there are no black people in that world. Abe and Cathy have a powerful, amusing chemistry together that makes one almost wonder if Cathy wouldn’t like to chuck in the whole “law and order” thing and have a go at being a criminal mastermind.

The plot of this episode demands a number of location changes and some pretty complicated blocking, most of which comes off without a hitch. The greatest failure in the episode is that lack of Steed and Cathy banter – they’re separated within the first fifteen minutes, and remain separated right until the end. But both get to have their fun: Cathy with Abe and the boys, and Steed as a rather inept crook nonetheless admired by Spagge’s butler Fleming (Norman Campbell). Listen carefully as Fleming delineates Steed’s wardrobe, where he got it, and how much he paid for it: it’s a beautiful litany of male sartorial appreciation.

The Gilded Cage is a high point of Season 3, right up there with The WringerThe Nutshell, and Don’t Look Behind You. The Avengers would be cleaner in the future, but you can’t get much better than this.