The Avengers: Traitor In Zebra

Traitor In Zebra (Episode 02-11, December 1962)

Steed in Uniform

Traitor In Zebra or, as I like to call it, Steed In Uniform. This episode follows Steed and Cathy as they infiltrate a government facility currently at work on a new satellite tracking system. The system keeps on being jammed, and the Avengers are on hand to ferret out the real traitor. A man has already been arrested for the crime, but Steed’s not certain that he was the one that did it.

Traitor In Zebra is a middling but amusing episode that allows for both Steed and Cathy to step outside of their closed apartments and get to work in a new milieu. There’s an entertaining sequence in the pub, many gratuitous shots of Steed looking truly spectacular in uniform, and some excellent repartee. Macnee and Blackman have hit their stride as partners. Steed and Cathy evidently enjoy each other’s company by now, their earlier conflict turning to good-natured ribbing. Cathy responds to Steed’s insinuations with a well-placed glare, but neither does she seem to feel badly towards him.

I’ve found that I enjoy the Season 2 episodes with Blackman a bit more than the Season 3, when Steed especially begins to iron out his rough edges and the plots grow more and more outlandish. There is a likable noir-ish feeling to Season 2 that all but vanishes later on. Even the rough camerawork and at times stilted dialogue is charming. You can tell when actors miss their queues, contributing more to the sense that the actors embody their characters, and are forced to adapt to changing circumstances. Season 2 might be for the strong-willed Avengers fan, but it’s well-worth a watch, and Traitor in Zebra one of the more enjoyable episodes.

The Avengers: Death of a Great Dane

Death of a Great Dane (Episode 2-08, November 1962).

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Death of a Great Dane bears the distinction of being the first Cathy Gale episode to be later remade with Emma Peel (as The 50,000 Pound Breakfast). The Gale episode is far more hard-boiled, while the candy-coloring of Season 5 takes some of the edge off later on.

It all begins when a man gets into a car crash and the doctors discover 50,000 pounds worth of diamond in his stomach. Steed and Cathy come in to investigate, leading them eventually to a joke shop, a reclusive and ill millionaire named Alexander Litoff and his staff, and the death of one of the millionaire’s Great Danes. There are some highly enjoyable set-pieces: Steed and Cathy at a wine-tasting together, flirting shamelessly (that scene will also be replayed in Dial A Deadly Number, again with Emma Peel); the final sequence between Steed and Litoff’s butler Gregory; a rare domestic sequence of Steed and Cathy listening to music. Steed suspects that there’s something fishy about the millionaire and his staff, and so attempts to sell them back their diamonds, only to get himself deeper into danger.

The villains in this case are, unfortunately, not terribly interesting. In the Emma Peel remake, Litoff’s staff include a simpering sadist and a tough-as-nails female right-hand. In Death of a Great Dane, the villains are overplayed, with the single exception of Litoff’s butler (Leslie French), whose repartee with Steed is among the best parts of the whole episode. There’s also John Laurie as Litoff’s doctor.

But as always, the point comes down to Steed and Cathy and how much fun they’re having together.  And they are having a lot of fun. The episode most clearly delineates the inherent differences between them, the source both of their attraction and their tension. Steed distrusts the millionaire because he suddenly begins giving to charity, while Cathy claims that Steed looks at the world far too cynically. This conflict between Steed’s cynicism and Cathy’s humanitarianism will come up again and again in later episodes, as she begins to hone his rough edges and help to reveal the much more caring man beneath; as he cultivates her intelligence and energy to fight against villains. Their mutual attraction is palpable in several well-played scenes, their flirtations beginning to take on more energy and intensity. Macnee and Blackman are in top form, visibly enjoying themselves from one scene to the next.

There’s an energy and vitality to this season of The Avengers that won’t be quite matched in Season 3, but will come back in force when Steed switches partners and meets Emma Peel. Here the edges are still visible, making the season rougher, meaner and sexier. Death of a Great Dane gives us that edge in force.

The Avengers: Warlock

Warlock (Episode 2-18, January 1963).

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Warlock is a curious episode. Technically, it was supposed to be the introduction of Cathy Gale, but due to reshuffling in airtimes it wound up coming in the middle of the second series. Steed and Cathy’s first introduction was re-edited to make it appear as though they already knew each other. Nevertheless, I prefer to think of it in light of its original intent.

Warlock hints at some of the weirder aspects of The Avengers that will become more prevalent, particularly in the Emma Peel series. Steed goes to pick up some papers from a scientist, only to discover that the man has slipped into a coma and the papers are nowhere to be found. But it’s a bizarre sort of illness, and Steed quickly learns that it’s linked to an interest in the occult and black magic. This leads him, naturally, to the British Museum, where he meets Cathy Gale and learns a thing or two about the ‘realities’ of the occult. The episode cannily glosses over the supernatural elements with a psychological explanation: if you believe in black magic, you can be affected by it. Cathy joins Steed, finding herself in a black magic circle run by a warlock (Peter Arne), who hires out his services to shadowy figures and has apparently been involved in possessing the scientist.

The plot is flimsy enough, with a bit too much coincidence to make it all worth while. The episode unfortunately fails to follow through on some of the possibilities of a cult, including human sacrifice, bizarre incantations and Cathy’s potential possession by the warlock. Like one or two later episodes, it’s difficult to give credence to the pseudo-psychological explanations, and equally difficult to accept the apparent supernatural power of our neighborhood warlock. The finale, in which Steed has to rescue Cathy from the dastardly clutches of this terrible black magic circle, should have been exciting, but falls flat as well.

Still, Warlock can qualify as a middling episode. Steed and Cathy discover their rapport: Steed is impressed by her audacity in investigating things for herself; Cathy seems attracted to his profession and personal insouciance. There is a lovely little scene where a drunk Steed attempts to entice her up to his apartment to ‘discuss the case.’ Had this aired as the first Cathy episode, Warlock would have provided a lovely little blueprint for their future sparring sessions, as their tension and mutual dislike/attraction leaps off the screen. As it is, the episode falls flat in many ways, but paves the way for later and better incarnations.

“When I find a hunt worth joining, Steed, I like to be in at the kill,” she tells him. And she will be, for the foreseeable future.

The Avengers: The Sell Out

The Sell Out (Episode 2-09, November 1962).

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Most people who know The Avengers at all, know the more famous Diana Rigg/Emma Peel seasons, with perhaps some basic awareness of Honor Blackman/Cathy Gale. But The Avengers started out as a more hard-boiled, harder-edged show, and did not really star Patrick Macnee as John Steed. The first season (now mostly lost) featured Ian Hendry as Dr. David Keel, a doctor whom Steed drags into his plots on a regular basis. Hendry left the show, and Macnee succeeded to the throne as the lead actor in the series. But Hendry’s imprint remained throughout the second season, and you can see the producers trying to establish the same sort of dynamic between Steed and another Doctor, in the shape of Martin King (Jon Rollason).

The Sell Out is one of three Martin King episodes, and has the distinction of being the best. This is hardly cause to celebrate, as the other two are so mind-numbingly boring that even my passionate attraction to Patrick Macnee cannot make up for it. The Sell Out has a markedly different tone to either the Cathy Gale or Venus Smith episodes of the second season, even down to Steed sporting a tan trenchcoat and reporting to vague, shadowy superiors. In fact, it’s one of the few episodes where we actually see that Steed is part of an organization with a hierarchy. He’s ostensibly a member of the Ministry of Defense and has two superiors in season two: One-Ten and One-Twelve, both otherwise nameless entities a la Le Carre or Ian Fleming. That tendency is discarded in later seasons, right up until the sixth with the disastrous introduction of ‘Mother’ as Steed’s superior. But it’s interesting to see them here, even as a testament to how the show was shaped and changed.

The Sell Out follows Steed as he tries to discover who has been sending out confidential information concerning the whereabouts of a French national that Steed has been assigned to protect. Several attempts are made on the man’s life, and Steed is having difficulty knowing who to trust. Enter Dr. King, whom Steed enlists for assistance in keeping the Frenchman safe until ‘certain negotiations’ about a Middle Eastern nation can be concluded.

There is no mystery here, I’m sorry to say. It becomes pretty clear who the traitor is within about five minutes. Jon Rollason as Dr. King is dull as dirt, though I’m not certain if that’s his fault or the fault of a poor script. And yet, having rewatched The Sell Out under some duress, I conclude that my initial appraisal of it might have been unfair. There’s a lot to be said for the episode, and most of goes back to style and *sigh* Patrick Macnee.

Macnee pretty well carries the episode, as he does with most of the ones not featuring Cathy Gale.  For anyone who likes Steed, that’s reason enough to sit through this one. His interactions with One-Twelve are entertaining, particularly as they give the lie to any assumption that Steed is representative of the status quo. He’s almost consistently insubordinate, preferring to do his work in his own time and according to his own judgement, rather than obey a shadowy dictator. Steed’s concern to both complete his assignment and discover the traitor lead him into some shadowy hallways, including a number of questions about his own position within the organization.

This is likewise one of the few episodes that boasts location shots in London, as well as perhaps the only time we see Steed driving a sports car. Steed is much more a hard-boiled agent in this series than in any other, his rough edges not yet smoothed out, and his chicanery and barely curbed violence almost shocking to anyone who only knows him as an elegant Edwardian gentleman. Yet Macnee makes him charming – far more so than I admit I ever liked James Bond – and does not sacrifice his inherent decency. Steed’s a bit of a cynical bastard, but he’s a likable cynical bastard. The entire episode feels like the first draft Le Carre short story, and I’m not certain you can argue against that.

So while The Sell Out is not for a viewer just starting out on The Avengers, it’s an enjoyable little episode for those of us who’ve seen them all.

The Avengers: Death On The Rocks

Death on the Rocks (Episode 2-10, December 1962).

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Death on the Rocks is a highly entertaining episode for two reasons: good writing, and the added value of Steed and Cathy posing as a husband and wife.

For once in this second series, the plot is actually a pretty good one. A ring of diamond smugglers attempt to control diamond trade in London by lethally enforcing their wills against family members of resisting merchants. This naturally means that Steed must pose a man just getting into the diamond trade, and that Cathy must pose as his wife. Hilarity ensues, although I halfway expected Steed to make greater use of the fact that they ‘need to be convincing.’ Ah, well. We will have to wait until series 3 for a Steed/Cathy kiss, I’m afraid.

Meanwhile, Steed’s partner Samuel Ross (Meier Tzelniker), whose wife died at the beginning of the episode, has problems of his own. His daughter Jackie (Toni Gilpin) is dating Nicky (David Sumner), a young jeweler gone bad who is a sort of point man for the smuggling ring. Nicky is what I like to call the ‘overconfident young man’ category; a type that Steed, as resident Alpha male, regularly has to put in his place. And he is an obnoxious, overbearing character, talking big but ultimately a coward. While we do not get a good rough fight between Nicky and Steed, there are a few moments when the older man simply smiles and waves Nicky aside like a particularly obnoxious dog. I’m sorry to say that the entire final fight sequence is somewhat ruined by someone crashing into the camera, visibly rattling it. By the time we get things back into focus, Steed and one of the baddies are on the floor and someone else has fired a gun.

Death on the Rocks rises to the top of the early Gale episodes. Cathy and Steed are equal partners in this one, and seem to be enjoying one another for the most part. There’s an entertaining subplot concerning the redecoration of Cathy’s apartment, although few chances for Honor Blackman to show off her live-television judo skills. But their interplay is marvelous, from Steed carrying Cathy around on his shoulders, to her justified anger when she discovers that he hasn’t been totally honest about the danger of the case. Cathy has not yet become Steed’s regular partner and the rough edges of their relationship still show. I admit that in some way I prefer the intensity of their early relationship, which is softened by the time we get to the end of the Cathy Gale series. Steed’s roughness makes his character incredibly dynamic – a well-dressed and honorable gentleman who will smile and cut your throat. His final words to Cathy seem to take her aback; Steed has begun to prove that he really does care.

The Avengers: The Removal Men

The Removal Men (2-06, November 1962)

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Introducing: Venus Smith!

OK, not quite. Venus Smith first shows up in The Decapod, which I’ll probably cover at some point. But this is my blog and I do what I want!

The Removal Men marks the second episode to feature Venus Smith (Julie Stevens), a nightclub singer and Steed’s other female partner. She appears  a handful of times in the second series, before Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale was a solidified second-in-command. Stevens is a likable enough actress, but the Venus episodes usually give her little to do beyond a few musical numbers and a few damsel-in-distress routines. It’s hard to believe that the same people capable of creating the tough-as-nails Cathy Gale could also create Venus Smith.

The Removal Men follows Steed on vacation of sorts, as he attempts to infiltrate a Murder Inc.-style ring that assassinates high-profile people for money. This is a chance for Steed to do his ‘bad Steed’ impression, first breaking into Jack Dragna’s (Reed de Rouen) flat and locking his wife in the bathroom. Steed is finally hired to murder a French film star (Edina Ronay), but it all goes wrong when Venus happens to recognize him. As is usual with the second series, the plot plays second fiddle to the characters, but the plot here is stronger than many others.

That being said, I’ve warmed far more to the Venus Smith episodes than I did on first viewing. Although Venus can be grating at times, she really is just an innocent who gets caught in the middle of Steed’s machinations. Unlike Tara King, who bears a strong resemblance to her in the final Avengers series, Venus really isn’t a spy and never wanted to be. She’s given more to do in her later episodes, but in this one she’s mostly window-dressing.

Without a strong female counterpart to buoy him, Patrick Macnee bears much of the burden of moving the story along. For those who enjoy Steed at his roughest (and I do), that’s just fine. He’s a fast-talking antihero here; he’s remarkably cool at the climax. This is one of those eps that highlights the hard-boiled nature of the early series – shadowy nightclubs, smoky rooms and grinning villains aplenty.

While not recommended for a first-time viewer, The Removal Men has some really excellent points.

The Avengers: Death Dispatch

Death Dispatch (Episode 2-13, December 1962).

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*I’m going a bit out of order, but eventually will get around to most of the good ones.

The Cathy Gale series can be very spotty on quality. For every truly stellar episode, there are several mediocre ones and at least one or two terrible ones. Thank God for the good ones, though, because when they’re good, they’re very good. Which is where we stand with Death Dispatch.

The plot follows Steed and Cathy investigating the murder of a British courier carrying special dispatches. When the courier is found dead in his Jamaican hotel, Steed heads off with the dispatches in tow and Cathy close behind. I’m still not 100% clear on the importance of the dispatches to the diabolical mastermind behind the murder – something to do with a South American coup – but only rarely does the plot matter in this series.

What does matter is how much fun the entire episode is. Steed lounges onto the screen, flirting with girls by the pool while his superior One-Ten (one of the few appearances of Steed’s superior in the entire show) explains the basic plot. Then enter Cathy Gale, enjoying her Jamaican vacation immensely. There’s a marvelous scene between the pair when Steed invades her hotel room dressed only in a bathrobe. They banter, they flirt, they evidently enjoy each other’s company for the first time in the whole Cathy Gale series. Up until Death Dispatch, Cathy has been a distant, hard-edged and slightly cold character, unimpressed by Steed’s antics but equally unwilling to enter into the fun of espionage. She must have been deficient in vitamin D or something, because her mood obviously improves the second she gets into the sun. She actually seems to be having fun with him.

Death Dispatch also includes some of the best secondary characters to jump into The Avengers. The scene between Steed and the assistant British consul is one the funniest in the entire series. The villains all pop, and the danger Cathy gets into (which she finally does) is tense and well-shot. Steed also has his chance to let some of the darker elements of his character through, as he bludgeons and threatens his way to rescuing Cathy the moment he realizes she’s in danger.

All in all, I would probably recommend Death Dispatch as the place to start with the Cathy Gale series. Although you won’t get the development of Steed and Cathy’s relationship, you will get one of the best, most tightly written and well-acted episodes. This is 60s cool at its finest.