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: 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.