The Avengers: Conspiracy of Silence

Conspiracy of Silence (Episode 02-23, March 1963).

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Circus clowns! The Mafia! Assassination attempts! Knife-throwing! This episode should have it all. So why doesn’t it quite come off?

Conspiracy of Silence starts off well. Circus clown Carlo must assassinate Steed or face dire consequences from the Mafia’s envoy. The assassination attempt fails (as it would) and Steed sends Cathy to hang out at a local circus in a bid to locate the assassin who failed to kill him. There Cathy finds herself (once more) in the midst of family drama, as the wife of the circus clown cum assassin apparently has no idea where her husband is. Meanwhile the Mafia man hangs around in the hopes of finding Carlo and forcing him to do the job.

The drama here takes a front seat to the actual plot, with Cathy trying to be sympathetic to everyone involved. The wife fends off advances from the Ringmaster, the Mafia man threatens loudly, and the various clowns and performers are all suspect in helping to keep Carlo under wraps. Unfortunately this seems to mean that a lot of nothing happens for most of the runtime, with the best action packing into the last ten minutes or so. Carlo is a somewhat sympathetic antagonist, caught between having to commit a horrific crime or be sent back to Italy, where the Mafia will do away with him. Yet I found it difficult to feel any real sympathy for a whiny and weepy character, or his oft-hysterical wife.

What Conspiracy of Silence has, though, are two excellent scenes between Steed and Cathy, highlighting their inherent differences and the development of their characters. When Steed appears at the circus to discuss Cathy’s findings, they stand at odds with each other: Steed wants to force Carlos into the open, while Cathy tries to convince him that it’s better to offer Carlos a deal rather than frightening him. Steed accuses her of idealism, she accuses him of cynicism, and the whole thing ends with Steed shaking his fists and storming off. It’s a dynamic little scene, complemented by the later sequence in which Cathy hears two gunshots and believes that Steed has been murdered. When she discovers that he survived, the pain on her face is real – her fear of losing him shows the chinks in her otherwise impenetrable emotional armor. It’s a brief moment, but it ends the episode with a strange poignancy for The Avengers. Cathy has truly begun to care about Steed, even though she doesn’t want to show it. 

At the end of the day, though, Conspiracy of Silence is one of the lesser episodes, despite a setting that offered many opportunities for some campy fun.

The Avengers: Man In The Mirror

Man in the Mirror (Episode 02-22, February 1963).

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With Cathy Gale saving the world from exploding stars, what is there for Venus Smith to do except wander an amusement park? Venus returns in her penultimate episode Man in the Mirror to assist Steed in proving that a cipher expert who recently committed suicide might not actually be dead.

The impetus for the investigation comes when Venus wanders the amusement park where the man committed suicide and happens to snap a picture of him in a funhouse mirror – several days after he’s supposed to be dead. This is enough to launch her and Steed into the weird world of the amusement park, where they discover family drama, people held hostage, and a possible treacherous plot in the offing.

Steed’s superiors make a few appearances during the second and third seasons of The Avengers (and thankfully disappear for the entire Mrs. Peel series). This time Steed finds himself somewhat at odd with his boss, who accuses him in the opening scenes of being a lone wolf, declining to play by the rules. It’s a neat little scene, and highlights what makes Steed so likable in the early seasons – while he might dress the part of a traditionalist, he’s quite far from it.

Venus, meanwhile, has fully transitioned into a teenager. When Steed brings her back to the amusement park, she’s carrying a teddy bear and chewing on a candy-apple. The dynamic between them has ceased to carry any possible sexual implications – Steed not only towers over her physically, but she’s apparently regressed from a twenty-year-old to a seventeen year old. Her continued naiveté about Steed’s profession remains inexplicable – this is the fifth time he’s involved her in a case, and a fifth time that she’s gotten in too deep.

The uncertainty of Venus’s character might very well be what got her eliminated from The Avengers altogether. There’s no ambiguity between Steed and Cathy on a professional level – she’s well aware of his job, and he never tries to fool her about it. Yet Venus goes between having a competent understanding of Steed’s work, and an apparent ignorance that seems laughable this late in the game. The youth/age dynamic (which will unfortunately reappear in the much later Tara King season) means that there’s little chance for parity between them – Venus is far too much of a child to be a proper partner.

There are some enjoyable moments in Man in the Mirror, however. The villains capture Venus at the climax, revealing one or two salient details about their plot that on first viewing quite surprised me. Steed’s dedication to protecting her is quite sweet, even if he does always get her into trouble in the first place. While it’s a far cry from my favorite Venus Smith episode, Man in the Mirror can make for a diverting 50 minutes.

The Avengers: The White Dwarf

The White Dwarf (Episode 02-21, February 1963)

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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.

The Avengers: The Golden Eggs

The Golden Eggs (Episode 02-19, February 1963).

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With Dr. Martin King out of the way and Venus Smith still struggling to decide how old she is, Dr. Catherine Gale returned once more for The Golden Eggs. A scientist’s laboratory is broken into, the results published in the headlines. Although Dr. Ashe (Donald Eccles), an expert in diseases, claims that nothing has been stolen, Steed suspects something and dispatches Cathy to discover what’s going on. It turns out that the burglar did indeed get away with the loot: two ‘golden’ eggs containing a deadly virus. The audience learns what’s happening before Steed and Cathy do, meeting one villain (Peter Arne) obsessed with clockwork and his diabolical partners. The pair have to find the eggs before the baddies do, or risk unleashing the virus on England.

The Golden Eggs has all the makings of a stellar early-season episode. The episode opens (properly) on Steed and Cathy having breakfast together as they discuss the case; though we are of course assured that Cathy is only staying in Steed’s apartment temporarily and Steed is living in a hotel. The few scenes of repartee between them are the best parts of the episode, from Steed returning to his flat to shave, brush his teeth, and shatter a piece of pottery, to Cathy’s proper messiness and Steed’s horror at her inability to keep the refrigerator stocked. Cathy’s deep sympathy with the wife of the burglar, her fanagling of Dr. Ashe, and entertaining fight with one of the baddies shows off her character to great effect. It’s no wonder that Cathy won out and became Steed’s sole partner in season three.

But The Golden Eggs falls short in the villain realm, a pretty amazing feat given that the villain Julius Redferne bears all the marks of a James Bond baddie and is played by the deliciously snarky Peter Arne. Yet somehow the whole does not hang together, with Arne going up on his lines more than once (problems of live TV) and one of his two assistants changing sides in the middle of it all. The final fight comes off somewhat truncated, with Steed conspicuously absent from the action (he just sort of wanders off at the end of one scene and we don’t see him again until the end).

Watching these early seasons, I’ve come to realize that The Avengers is not terribly well written as a rule. The best episodes depend on the charm and dedication of the actors, both lead and secondary, and fall to pieces if anyone is not quite on point. While the plots sometimes have pop, it’s all on the shoulders of our heroes to make us believe them.

The Avengers: Dead On Course

Dead on Course (Episode 02-14, December 1962).

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In the third and final Dr. Martin King episode Dead On Course, we take a sojourn out of England and head for Ireland. Steed is sent to the Emerald Isle to investigate a plane crash and the disappearance of some bank consignments that happened to be on board. He drags Dr. King along, presumably because Cathy Gale does not have a medical degree (although what I wouldn’t have given to see what Cathy made of this one).

The crux of the script involves a plane crashing apparently off-course, the last in a series of mysterious plane crashes. The multiple dead are taken to a nearby nunnery. There’s a survivor, though: a severely concussed air hostess who might know what’s been happening to the planes. Things are further complicated when Steed discovers that the co-pilot is not numbered among the dead. Bizarre goings on at the local pub, the local airfield, and the local nunnery are all wrapped up in a somewhat confusing script.

Dead On Course is one of the more complex episodes to come out of the second season. It doesn’t much matter what’s actually happening, of course: there are villains with Irish accents, nefarious shenanigans, and Steed flying a plane. It seems safe to presume that this episode is a leave-over from the hard-boiled, more dramatic first season of The Avengers, as it bears little resemblance to some of the weirder-themed episodes featuring Cathy Gale or Venus Smith. Although death tolls in this series are sometimes surprisingly high, this one brings us up close and personal with at least one murder, not to mention the aftermath of a massive air crash. Steed gets very violent with one villain which, while justified, is shocking to those who have only seen him as the bowler-hatted English gentleman.

There’s not a great deal to recommend about Dead On Course, unless you’re a completist (or a Steedophile like myself). It’s a middling little drama with little flair until the end. There is the enjoyable performance of Donal Donnelly as the apparently simple pub worker Vincent O’Brien, but beyond that you might as well skip it. Even nuns with guns cannot make this more than slightly interesting. Good-bye, Dr. King. You probably deserved better.

The Avengers: The Big Thinker

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

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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).

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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).

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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.

The Avengers: Box of Tricks

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

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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.

The Avengers: School for Traitors

School for Traitors (Episode 02-20, February 1963)

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Of the handful of Avengers episodes with Venus Smith, School for Traitors I suppose is one of the better entries. This is unfortunately not saying much, as Venus has the distinction of being one of the duller partners to occupy space beside Steed. However, at least in this episode she demonstrates a modicum of competence.

The plot finds Steed at a university following the suicide of a man he went to school with. Miss Smith is on hand in some sort of singing capacity; I’m not entirely sure why she’s performing jazz numbers in a university quad, but at least we don’t have to suffer through more than snippets of songs. Posing as a literary scholar (one of Steed’s many wish-fulfillment covers), Steed uncovers a sinister espionage ring blackmailing students into nefarious activities.

As per usual with these early episodes, this one is decidedly spotty. The bright spots are Melissa Stribling as Claire Summers, a vicious femme fatale if ever there was one, and John Standing as undergraduate Ted East. The rest of the twists and turns are largely predictable when they’re not totally unbelievable – it’s difficult to imagine that any of these undergrads or lecturers would be so easily duped into committing crimes.

I make fun of Venus Smith, but she’s actually not annoying in School for Traitors. There are some lovely little bits with Steed that highlight Venus beginning to get into the fun of being a secret agent. Patrick Macnee is as enjoyable as ever, a breezy and dangerous gentleman often seen without his iconic bowler and brolly in these early episodes. The repartee is easy between him and Venus, but there’s little of that crackling tension that will characterize his relationships with Cathy Gale and Emma Peel. Venus is far too much of a little kid playing spy to be taken seriously.

One of the elements I’ve come to like about the early Avengers episodes is the low-tech nature of live television. The actors do their own stunts, which in itself can be impressive, and there’s the added excitement of the occasional mistaken line or ad-lib. In one memorable scene, Julie Stevens goes up on her lines in introducing Steed and Macnee takes over with a smile, covering for her and interjecting some of his own humor. It’s been said that Macnee created Steed almost from scratch, and School for Traitors highlights how much of his personality he injects into the character.

So while most Venus Smith episodes are strictly for those dedicated Avengers fans, School for Traitors remains one that I return to from time to time. It’s just good fun.