The Avengers: Immortal Clay

Immortal Clay (02-16, January 1963)

immortal-clay-steed-cathy

I mostly prefer to think of this episode as the one with the Turkish Bath, because that’s pretty much the highlight of the whole thing. Steed and Cathy are once more on the job, this time investigating a man’s death in a pottery that has been developing (maybe) an indestructible clay. The danger is that this will fall into the wrong hands, so Steed’s superior dispatches him to learn everything there is to know about pottery in 24 hours. Meanwhile, Cathy already knows everything.

They enter into a family melodrama of epic proportions. The pottery is run by the Marling brothers, one of whom has a wife who may have been having an affair with the dead man. The other is stuck on Mara, a beauty-pageant runner-up who dreams of marrying rich so that she can become an actress. She’s being pursued by one of the potters, who is so violently jealous that he might kill her, himself or anyone else at a moment’s notice.

The plot within itself is a good one – the idea of an unbreakable ceramic with worldwide implications, the little battles of intrigue going on in the pottery – and might have paid off. Unfortunately, far too much time is spent with the frankly dull secondary characters and not enough with Steed and Cathy. The success or failure of an Avengers episode usually depends on how much time the leads spend in the same space, and this one gives them very little to do together. There’s a good villain in the form of De Groot (Steve Plytas, an early-season doppelganger), but he appears late and does not do much until the end.

I mentioned the Turkish bath scene, though, which provides a few minutes of watching Steed strip off and rub himself down with a towel … which for me is worth the price of admission. There are also one or two scenes between Steed and Mara that have a bit of pop. Cathy is sadly underused, doing little aside from smoking a few cigarettes and glaring at Steed when he makes a pun.  Even this late in the game, the uses of her character seem to elude the writers, who sometimes give her plenty to do and other times push her off to the side in favor of other character development that won’t really matter in the long run.

But there is that Turkish bath…

steed-turkish-bath

The Avengers: Intercrime

Intercrime (Episode 02-15, January 1963). 

steed-cathy-intercrime

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: 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).

death-of-a-great-dane-flirting

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).

steed-cathy-warlock

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: Death On The Rocks

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

cathy-gale-john-steed-marriage

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: 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).

vlcsnap-2013-06-18-17h13m02s174

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.