The Avengers: Propellant-23

Propellant-23 (Episode 2-02, October 1962)

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Oh boy. Let’s talk about Propellant-23. On second thought, let’s not. I’m sorry to say that it is one of the weaker entries in the Cathy Gale episodes. It has such promise too.

The whole thing begins with Steed planning to meet a courier getting off a plane in France. Even Steed doesn’t know what the guy is carrying, but it’s so important that several other rival agents are after it too. The courier is murdered (of course) and Steed finds himself  trying to infiltrate French customs in order to secure the courier’s briefcase and whatever is in it. Cathy meanwhile hangs out in a car outside the airport, ruminating on how she managed to get involved with a secret agent.

A Steed-heavy episode. Patrick Macnee appears to be on some kind of stimulant for the first half, talking a mile a minute, getting into fistfights, and lying his way into and out of trouble. For those that only know Steed from the Emma Peel series, where he’s far calmer and smoother, Propellant 23 is good fun for an introduction to Steed’s more manic side. There’s also a great set of character actors running around the place, including Geoffrey Palmer (you may know him from the BBC series As Time Goes By) to Catherine Woodville (Macnee’s second wife, don’t get me started on her). The French officials are all amusing, and somewhat make up for the rather thin plot.

There are also some great Steed/Cathy moments, both out in the car as they flirt (or Steed does) and a slightly inexplicable scene in a lingerie shop, where we learn that Steed likes shopping for lingerie and Cathy thinks that black is ‘a bit obvious.’ Propellant-23 builds their relationship nicely. Cathy is a humanist, concerned about her charity work, while Steed obviously does not understand her dedication to helping people. He hasn’t yet begun to learn either, although they quite obviously like and loathe each other in equal measure.

Despite its occasional good points, Propellant-23 does not measure up to some of the far more interesting and well-made Cathy Gale eps. Live television strikes again, with actors going up on their lines and a few scenes that are just confusing, I think because someone lost their script. The final fight in a bakery could have been cool but for weak writing and a rather flailing form of fighting that seems more like amateur theatrics. Steed’s manic style of talking in this one gets grating after awhile, as does his apparent incompetence from beginning to end. He does not usually fuck up this spectacularly. Cathy likewise seems cold, even mean at times, which is the side of her character that annoys me the most. Later episodes in this season will better meld their personalities, and give them something to do together. It’s far more fun when they’re bickering, but not at odds with each other.

BEST LINE:

Cathy: Do you always take your calls in a lingerie department?

Steed: If humanly possible.

The Avengers: The Mauritius Penny

The Mauritius Penny (Episode 2-07, November 1962)

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The Mauritius Penny did not start at the top of my favorite Cathy Gale episodes, but has recently worked its way up there. Here’s why.

The episode has Steed and Cathy investigating the seemingly pointless murder of the owner of a stamp shop…and uncovering a fascist conspiracy in the process. As usual with the Cathy Gale episodes, the plot is a little nonsensical, with holes a-plenty. But the actors roll right over the holes by speaking very quickly, exchanging charming banter and a few kickass judo moves.

Cathy Gale often comes in second to Emma Peel in fan favorites. Although the Emma Peel series is better written and more uniform in quality – due largely to a higher budget and the switch from live television to film – I think that Cathy is sometimes underrated. She’s one of the first female badasses to grace television screens. Like Mrs. Peel, Cathy has an almost endless array of talents that include judo, gunplay, anthropology and just about any other scientific endeavor the show demands of her. Cathy cuts through some of Steed’s bullshit, calling him out on his casual misogyny and blatant manipulation of others. She humanizes Steed by declining to idolize him (a problem which pops up in the Tara King era). He, meanwhile, visibly enjoys the verbal and physical sparring.

The Mauritius Penny is a prime example of the pair working together. There are some moments of entertaining exchange between them, and it’s evident that they’re coming to trust and understand one another. Steed does not miss out on a few opportunities to check Cathy out, while Cathy seems a little more amenable to his advances.  Steed and Emma Peel achieve a symbiosis in their relationship, while Steed and Cathy are almost perpetually at odds. It means there’s some pretty exciting sexual chemistry at times.

At the beginning of the episode, Steed inexplicably decides to don horn-rimmed glasses as part of his disguise as a philatelist (stamp collector), which makes for some entertaining facial expressions from Patrick Macnee. There are excellent secondary characters moving in and out of the scenes, from the earnest delivery man to Lord Matterley (Richard Vernon, who you may recognize from A Hard Day’s Night). They serve to flesh out a slightly thin script. Then there’s the scene in the dentist’s office, which owes much to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too MuchThe Avengers is a very cinematically literate show.

The climax of the episode, where Cathy and Steed succeed in infiltrating a fascist organization, makes for some seriously entertaining viewing. It also serves to highlight the position that the pair occupy as heroes, as the camera draws back to reveal two people standing against an entire organization.

The Mauritius Penny stands as one of the better Cathy Gale episodes – tense without being overblown, well-acted and utterly enjoyable from start to finish.

The Avengers: Mr. Teddy Bear

I get really easily and wildly obsessed with things.  Case in point: my current adoration for the TV show The Avengers.  There are few TV shows from the 1960s that so easily and effortlessly marry entertainment, feminism and badass spy-fi plots. So, because this is my blog and I do what I want, I’m gonna start posting brief reviews of episodes as I watch, or re-watch, them.

If you want to get a basic idea of the outline of the show, the Wikipedia page gives a great overview.

Let’s begin at the (kind of) beginning with the first episode to introduce Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), the first tough female partner of secret agent extraordinaire John Steed (Patrick Macnee).

MR. TEDDY BEAR (Episode 2-01, September 1962).

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Steed and Cathy face off against a villain known as Mr. Teddy Bear – and he’s not particularly soft or cuddly.  He’s an assassin for hire, murdering people with some pretty clever booby-traps.  The set-up? Cathy will pretend to take out a contract on Steed’s life in order to draw Mr. Bear out into the open.  The plan backfires and Steed ends up dead.  Kind of.  Not really.  He does get badly burnt, though.

For the first episode with Cathy – Steed had already been paired with a male partner for the entire first season, which is now lost to us except in script form – this one features some entertaining exchanges between the two.  From their first verbal sparring session as Steed debriefs Cathy, to their actual sparring sessions as Steed tries to debrief her in a different way, the set-up of the relationship of the two characters is what makes the episode pop.  And it needs a pop, because the camera work is low-budget and the sets quite obviously cardboard.  Already you can see where The Avengers exceeds many shows of its day – the quality of the actors is superb and the chemistry between Macnee and Blackman is sexual without quite crossing the line.  Steed’s established as a bit of a letch who nonetheless already has a dawning respect for his female partner. And Cathy … well, Cathy’s a badass, insulting her official superior, calling out an assassin, and generally expressing disapprobation when Steed survives the murder attempt.

So while the best part of this episode is Steed and Cathy, the writing is also quite excellent.  Mr. Teddy Bear is an admirable and creepy villain, while Steed’s posturing and overconfidence is nicely matched by Cathy’s quiet resolve.  If you must start somewhere with The Avengers, start here.