The Avengers: Mission To Montreal

Mission To Montreal (Episode 02-05, October 1962).


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).


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).


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)


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.

The Avengers: Intercrime

Intercrime (Episode 02-15, January 1963). 


Intercrime marks The Avengers’ foray into a Murder, Inc. style plot. Steed cons Cathy, as usual, into infiltrating a criminal organization. First he gets her arrested, then she switches places with a vicious German assassin. Her assignment is basically to infiltrate the organization, find out what they’re up to, and report back. This being The Avengers, things get complicated quickly and Cathy finds herself in the middle of an attempted coup by Intercrime’s second-in-command. Steed, meanwhile, gets the easy part, chatting up beautiful blondes and trying to avoid being shot in the head by his own partner. 

Intercrime is (I think) the first appearance of Kenneth J. Warren, who will go on to be one of the most recognizable ‘doppelgängers’ in The Avengers (actors who appear in multiple episodes playing different roles). Warren is Felder, one of the leaders of Intercrime, and a deliciously enjoyable, even likable villain. While he might get more to do in his memorable turn as crazed film director Z.Z. von Schnerk in the Emma Peel episode Epic, he’s still interesting to watch. The entire episode, in fact, boasts of good character performances, particularly Julia Arnall as the assassin Hilda Stern.

Macnee and Blackman are, as always, tons of fun. Blackman gets a bit more to do in this episode, putting on a fake German accent, trying to defend the life of a criminal in trouble with Intercrime, and attempting to bluff her way through when the assassin she’s replaced turns up alive and well. Macnee also gets a few good moments as he tries to convince the girlfriend of one of Intercrime’s leaders that she’s in danger, and laying it on thick as Cathy’s supposed attorney. The episode is nicely balanced between the two of them, although it doesn’t do much to showcase their chemistry.

Intercrime falls short of being a favorite episode of mine – there’s not enough humor or Steed/Cathy repartee, but it’s a fun outing, and a slightly more serious/believable plot line.  

The Avengers: Propellant-23

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


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.


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

Steed: If humanly possible.