The Avengers: Mission To Montreal

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

john-steed-dr-king

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: School for Traitors

School for Traitors (Episode 02-20, February 1963)

steed-venus-traitors

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: 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.