The Avengers: The Golden Fleece

The Golden Fleece (Episode 03-11, December 1963).

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Following my rather violent reaction to The Avengers Lost Episodes yesterday, I thought it a good idea to sit down and watch an episode of my favorite series that I actually like. The Golden Fleece, while far from the greatest of the Cathy Gale era, remains one of my favorites.

Steed and Cathy enter the world of international gold smuggling as they connect a Chinese restaurant and an army base with a gold-smuggling ring run through Hong Kong. Their investigation leads them to three army officers working out of a base in Aldershot, where Cathy obtains a position curating the military museum. The convoluted plot also involves an ex-corporal suspected of funneling the ring’s funds to his own pocket, prompting the arrival of Mr. Lo (Robert Lee), who threatens to shut down the whole operation unless he gets his money back.

The Golden Fleece is a well-balanced episode, letting the viewer in on the machinations of the three army officers and their Hong Kong connections as well as Steed and Cathy’s investigation. The excellent supporting cast includes Warren Mitchell, who will later go on to play the amusing Ambassador Brodny in the Emma Peel era. The three officers, in fact, are among the most sympathetic of Avengers villains (if they can really be called that), and it’s difficult not to cheer for them, even when their activities lead to murder.

The most enjoyable part of this episode is the relationship between Steed and Cathy. They appear to have reached an equilibrium of sorts, dining together, going home together, and spending a great deal of their leisure time in each other’s apartments. Cathy arrives at Steed’s flat one morning just to lie down on his tiger skin rug and read a magazine – an indication of their increasing friendship and domestic relationship.  That Steed still persists in manipulating her is a source of friction, as it appears that Cathy would willingly help him anyways.

There’s also a subtle but poignant moment when Cathy, looking around the military museum, notices a type of gun she used to use in Kenya. Major Ruse (Tenniel Evans) remarks that it was used in the Mau Mau uprising and laments the need for “police actions.” While it is never expressly stated in the series, there are several indications that Cathy’s husband was killed in the uprising, and the faraway expression on Cathy’s face bears that out.

All in all, The Golden Fleece combines drama and comedy that on balance make some of the best Avengers episodes true classics.

The Avengers: Brief For Murder

Brief For Murder (Episode 03-01, September 1963)

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Season 3 of The Avengers got off to what can only be described as a unique start. Brief For Murder opens with the public trial of Wescott (Alec Ross), a man charged with selling government secrets to an unidentified recipient known only as Johnno. Wescott gets off due to the brilliant machinations of his solicitor Barbara Kingston (Helen Lindsay) and the Lakin Brothers, Jasper and Miles (John Laurie and Harold Scott). Cathy Gale is on hand for the verdict, and makes it publicly known that she still believes that Wescott is guilty, and that none other than her erstwhile friend John Steed is the mysterious Johnno. Furious at her insinuations, Steed threatens Cathy and then lawyers up with the Lakin Brothers. The brothers, it turns out, have been making a mint by engineering criminal cases to get their client off scot-free. When Steed appears and asks them to help engineer a case so he can murder Cathy, they’re only too happy to oblige.

Brief For Murder side-steps a problem that some later episodes of The Avengers would have: letting the viewer know more than the characters. Instead, a good half of the episode has Steed and Cathy at murderous odds, the purpose behind their apparent hatred of each other kept unclear. The result is one of the more intelligent episodes in Season 3, beginning a character arc of mutual distrust between Steed and Cathy that would have some sort of conclusion in The Nutshell. Although we’re fairly confident that Steed is not actually trying to murder Cathy, just what he’s up to – and how much she knows – remains ambiguous until the third act.

A competent cast reinforces an original and intelligent plot. Aside from the usual pleasure of watching Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman verbally fence, there the added enjoyment of the bizarre and gleeful Lakin Brothers, played by John Laurie and Harold Scott. Laurie is one of the best recurring character actors to appear in The Avengers – he already popped up once in Death of a Great Dane, and would return for the Emma Peel episode A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Station. The Lakin brothers are so excited to be able to work out legal arcana in service of their nefarious clients that they can almost be forgiven the whole criminal thing.  As Steed quips nearing the end, “I’m going to miss them.”

While Brief For Murder never rises to the heights of humor or eloquence that some Season 3 episodes achieve, it’s nevertheless one of the better ones.

The Avengers: The Nutshell

The Nutshell (Episode 03-04, October 1963).

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Directly following the disturbing doppelgänger episode The Man with Two Shadows (read about that one next week), The Nutshell features another development in the Steed and Cathy relationship, straining it almost to the breaking point. The pair are called in to investigate a break-in and possible sale of government information from a secret nuclear bunker called Nutshell. Steed’s odd behavior concerning the investigation begins to worry Cathy, however – especially when it’s discovered that he’s had several meetings with the girl who broke into the facility. Steed is arrested for espionage and imprisoned at Nutshell, where he undergoes torture at the hands of his own security organization.

The Nutshell plunges us deep into the heart of the spy organization that Steed works for, drawing into question his loyalty. Following so close on an episode that ends semi-ambiguously in terms of Steed’s identity and his relationship to Cathy, The Nutshell focuses tightly on the character relationships and what the pair don’t tell each other. Steed is tortured by the very people he has sworn loyalty to and interrogated without trial. At one point, Cathy asks a representative of Nutshell whether they obey the same moral laws as the rest of the world, to which she is given the curt reply that the only crime in Nutshell is endangering security. It’s a murky world, and one which Cathy is evidently not comfortable with. She watches Steed’s torture on closed-circuit cameras, and the acute nature of her own suffering reflects in Blackman’s face.

Steed, meanwhile, further complicates the viewer’s feelings about him. Some strong editing of scenes means that the audience is kept guessing as to his motives. He and Cathy engage in several discussions about their nature of their work, revealing something of Steed’s personal politics and the strain his job puts on him. Unlike James Bond, Steed was never a character who seems superhuman. If anything, he’s more flawed and less sure of himself at times than Bond, but has the makings of a true hero beneath it all. Macnee is always a good comic actor, but here he shows that he can play drama just as well.

The Nutshell represents the best of Season 3 in terms of pacing and performance. There’s barely a misstep – a remarkable feat for an episode of live TV with numerous location changes and complicated sets. The secondary cast, including Avengers regulars John Cater and Patricia Haines, is excellent, as cold and precise a set of bureaucrats as you can ask for. If there’s a single problem with the episode, it’s the somewhat perfunctory conclusion which, following a very intense series of events, feels a little sudden and anti-climactic. However, that’s a small quibble in what is otherwise a superb episode.

 

 

The Avengers: Build A Better Mousetrap

Build a Better Mousetrap (Episode 03-21, February 1964).

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Season 3 of The Avengers begins moving the show farther from its noir roots and into the stranger realm of spy-fi fantasy and pastiche. While Build a Better Mousetrap would not become one of the episodes re-adapted to the candy-colored world of Emma Peel, it does indicate a slight shift in tone for the dynamic duo of Steed and Cathy. There are still the underworld noir elements at play, including the presence of a motorcycle gang, but the characters are broader and the British quirkiness more apparent.

Steed and Cathy head to the English countryside to investigate some strange goings-on in a small English village. A nearby atomic energy plant appears to be causing mechanical failures within the radius of the village, but Steed of course thinks there’s more to it than that. The failures happen to coincide with the presence of a youthful motorcycle gang on the weekends, who have also run afoul of two charming old ladies living in a rebuilt watermill. So, Cathy joins the gang and Steed investigates both the atomic plant and the mill, with predictably bizarre results.

Build a Better Mousetrap trades on a combination of bizarre British character types and audience assumptions about them. The innocent old ladies could be behind the disabling of mechanical devices and the thuggish motorcycle crew might just be having a good time. The secondary characters are well-drawn and enjoyable to watch, from the slightly creepy landlord of the local pub to a former army colonel and his daughter (the latter keeps hitting on Steed in a very strange manner). Things are not all as they seem and misunderstandings between characters increase the stakes. The mystery lies not so much in who causes the mechanical failures (that becomes evident fairly early on), but why and how.

This episode includes some of the best visual jokes in The Avengers, with more than a few scenes that allow our main characters to pop. Steed is amusingly out of place amid the young motorcycle gang, while Cathy, in her leather jacket and boots, fits right in. Cathy enjoys herself at motorcycle rallies and dance parties, while Steed has an entertaining sequence as a representative of the “National Distrust,” insinuating himself into the good graces of the two old ladies. The tight pacing and enjoyable character vignettes keep everything fun and breezy, although there are darker elements at work here too.

An absurd, entertaining piece of television, Build a Better Mousetrap ranks right up there with the top episodes of Season 3.

The Avengers: Mandrake

Mandrake (Episode 03-18, January 1964).

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I had intended to try to keep to the order in which these episodes aired, but I cannot hold my tongue about one of my favorite Avengers episodes.

In Mandrake, Strange things have been going on in the graveyard of Tinby, including the burial of an abnormal number of men who were never in Tinby in their lives. Steed’s interest is piqued with the death of a work colleague and his burial in the same graveyard. Steed and Cathy set about investigating the deaths, which leads them into a seedy world of a two-man Murder Inc., made up of Dr. Macombie (John Le Mesurier) and Roy Hopkins (Philip Locke), who help heirs to organize the murder of prominent men.

Mandrake has so much to recommend it, I don’t know where to begin. The secondary cast elevates the episode – Le Mesurier and Locke are both excellent character actors in their element here (they pop up in earlier and later episodes, making them among the most dependable doppelgängers in the series). The addition of Annette Andre as Judy, a shopgirl who works for Hopkins, provides some of the most charming repartee in the episode. She and Steed develop a quick flirtation with such easy, light chemistry it almost makes one wish that Andre had come back a few more times (she does crop up in a much later episode of spin-off series The New Avengers, but has no scenes with Macnee).

Mandrake also balances its two leads admirably, giving Steed and Cathy plenty to do together and separately. Cathy goes off to interview the vicar of the Tinby church where the murdered men have been buried, while Steed trails Hopkins and flirts with Judy. Steed roughs up the son of his old friend, and Cathy has an exciting graveyard fight with the local gravedigger – a fight which ended with Blackman accidentally knocking out her opponent. While there’s a bit of a dearth of Steed and Cathy banter to be had here, it’s more than made up for by the exchanges between our leads and the secondary characters.

Sharp and tightly written with excellent pacing, Mandrake really stands at the top of the Cathy Gale series, and is arguably one of the best Avengers episodes period.