Back when Marvel comics superheroes were only on the fringe of pop culture, and not at the heart of it, ITV in the United Kingdom released the fourth season of their whimsical espionage series, The Avengers.
The show had been running since 1961 (two years prior to Marvel’s superhero comic), and starting in 1962, it had co-starred Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, playing a talented amateur who partnered with professional spy John Steed (played by Patrick Macnee) to help protect the world. Cathy Gale was very popular, but when Blackman eventually left the show, her successor became even more widely known, thanks in part to the show being aired in America at that point, which brought in more money and allowed the production to operate at a higher level.
Thus it is that in 1965 we were introduced to Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel–a scientist and martial arts expert who begins to assist Steed on his missions.
I recently managed to get ahold of a DVD collection of Diana Rigg’s Avengers episodes–the “complete Emma Peel megaset”–sixteen disks of the dapper Mr. Steed and the lovely Mrs. Peel as they investigate the weird and dangerous, exchanging witticisms beating up bad guys who threaten England and the world.
I haven’t seen this series for quite some time, so I’m looking forward to this. Disk one, which I finished watching recently, features three episodes, which I thought I’d mention here:
The Town of No Return
Emma Peel debuts, without explanation, practicing fencing in her apartment. She and Steed have a little match which establishes the playfulness in their relationship. The mission in the episode is gripping–Steed and Emma go to a mysterious country town where agents have disappeared, to find that almost nobody is living there, and those that do act highly suspiciously. The explanation is ludicrous, though–it turns that enemy agents (where from is never mentioned) are slowly replacing the people with their own agents. They plan to do this from one town to another until…what? They take over the whole country? It’s over the top, but oh well, that’s the show we’re watching I guess.
The reveal that the vicar is part of the plot is a good one, as is the way he changes personality, and that the choir is a recording. Emma displays a lot of the charm that makes her so appealing in the bit where she quickly takes him down, and then ends up smiling bemusedly as her efforts prove to be in vain. I don’t know about the strange hat she’s wearing in that scene though–maybe it was trendy in 1965.
Some of the fight scenes are awkwardly staged, especially Emma knocking the vicar down the hole. We do get to see that Steed’s bowler has a metal plate which can be weaponized. The episode ends with what I guess was the first “Steed and Emma drive away” sequences, which I believe became a mainstay for the show (I don’t know if the Cathy Gale episodes used such a device, but I doubt it), with the two of them squeezed onto a motor scooter that Emma is driving. Sadly, it’s clearly a rear-projection of the road, and doesn’t really sell the idea that they are actually on the road.
The world of English television actors seems to be a relatively small place, and there are lots of recognizable faces here and in all of these episodes, including many who have shown up over the years on Doctor Who. Patrick Newell plays the doomed Mr. Smallwood–he’d go onto to be the guy who gives Steed his missions in later episodes. He also appeared in Doctor Who with the Fourth Doctor (The Android Invasion). Alan MacNaughton is there as the fake Mark Brandon–I remember him from The Sandbaggers and I always through he looked more like the First Doctor than Richard Hurndall (who played him The Five Doctors did). Robert Brown (Saul) appeared as M in a handful of James Bond films. Terence Alexander (the fake Piggy Warren) guest starred in Doctor Who as well, with the Sixth Doctor (Mark of the Rani). Incidentally, I really like Terence Alexander’s performance as the bartender–he’s a lot of fun to watch.
The Gravediggers starts a bit silly and grows to become truly outlandish by the time it’s over. In this one, evil scientists are burying complicated equipment in various graves that surround a station that tracks incoming missiles which would threaten Britain. Their goal is use this equipment to jam the radar, leaving the country with no way of detecting an enemy attack. The case brings Emma undercover as a nurse, working in the hospital which is really the headquarters of this plot, and it leads Steed to visit the eccetric billionaire who funds the hospital. He is a dedicated train enthusiast, and so we are treated to an extended sequence where he is interviewed by Steed while they participate in a simulated train ride–apparently a feature he has set up for all his visitors, complete with his assistant manually shaking the fake train car to give the impression of movement. All this seems irrelevant at first but eventually we get a climax where the villains have captured Emma and tied her to the train tracks of the billionaires child-sized train, with Steed racing against time to save her from being run over, all in a silent-movie pastiche that probably seemed more witty then than it does now. It’s an inventive plot, but not my favorite episode.
The Gravediggers is written by Malcolm Hulke, who introduced the Silurians and the Sea Devils to Doctor Who. Caroline Blakistson (Miss Thirwell) played Mon Mothma in Return of the Jedi! Wanda Ventham (Nurse Spray) appeared in three separate Doctor Who stories, with the Second Doctor (The Faceless Ones), the Fourth Doctor (The Image of the Fendahl), and the Seventh Doctor (Time and the Rani). Ronald Fraser (Sir Horace) also appears in Doctor Who, with the 7th Doctor (The Happiness Patrol), and Steven Berkoff (Sager) does as well with the 11th Doctor (The Power of Three). Bryan Mosley (Miller) appeared in Doctor Who as well, back in the 1960’s in the story that’s come to be known as The Dalek Masterplan.
After dancing around the edges a bit, The Avengers goes full sci-fi with this famous story, in which a series of shocking murders targets industrialists around the city–a hulking brute, apparently bullet proof, batters down doors and crushes or breaks the neck of its victims, with seemingly nothing able to stop him. Is he just a large and very skilled martial arts expert, or is he something more? Well the episode is called “The Cybernauts”, so we’re pretty sure it’s something more. It turns out that a wheelchair bound industrialist is using powerful and faceless androids (one is named “Roger”) to kill off competition, using special pen that are given to the victims as homing beacons for the killers. Steed unknowingly takes one, and innocently give it to Emma, thus making her a target. In the end, Steed inventively uses the pen to get two androids to fight each other. The episode also features a cool scene where Emma infiltrates a karate dojo, earning respect from an unsympathetic sensei. Diana Rigg plays off these scenes with the poise and style her character is famous for, even if the fight itself is a bit awkward. I’m hoping these stunt scenes improve as we go along, or that I somehow get into the style of it all.
The Avengers always has good dialogue, but Cybernauts is particularly good in this area. There’s also a brief but cute bit of business between the leads where Emma uses a duster to clean off Steed’s shoulders without him realizing it while they are discussing their case. The episode ends, unusually, with Steed sitting in a parked car doing the crossword, while Emma comes to see him briefly in a flashy sports car before driving away again.
The cast of the show is very familiar to Doctor Who fans, and others. Maybe it’s strange that I keep talking about Doctor Who, but if you read around the blog you see that features in my writing quite a bit, so it’s not strange that I’m taking note of these connections.
Anyway, Michael Gough does a great job as the main villain, Dr. Armstrong. He’s appeared on Doctor Who twice–once as the Celestial Toymaker with the First Doctor, once as an evil Time Lord with the Fifth–but he’s more famous to Americans as Alfred in the Michael Keaton / Val Kilmer / George Clooney Batman movies of the 80’s and 90’s. Frederick Jaeger (Benson) guest starred in Doctor Who three times, once with the first Doctor (The Savages) and twice with the Fourth (Planet of Evil and The Invisible Enemy) including as the guy who originally built K9. Bernard Horsfall, who plays the karate expert Jephcott, also appeared on Doctor Who in four serials, with the Second Doctor (The Mind Robber, as the fictional character Gulliver brought to life, and The War Games, as a Time Lord), with the Third Doctor (Planet of the Daleks) and with the Fourth Doctor (The Deadly Assassin, as a Time Lord duped by the Master, whom many fan theories will say is the same guy from The War Games). Katherine Schofield, who goes uncredited but plays Oyuka, the woman Emma beats in the karate face-off, was a major guest star in the first season of Doctor Who, in the serial commonly collected as The Keys of Marinus. Bert Kwouk (Tusamo) also appeared in Doctor Who, with the Fifth Doctor (Four to Doomsday), but is more famous for playing Cato, the manservant and practice combatant of Inspector Clouseau in seven Pink Panther movies. John Hollis, who is memorable as Sensai here, also appeared in Doctor Who, with the Third Doctor (The Mutants), and was an Kryptonian elder in the first two Superman movies (in the first movie, he’s #4, while William Russell–Ian from Doctor Who–was #8). He was also “Lando’s aide”, better known as Lobot, from Empire Strikes Back. Ronald Leigh Hunt (Lambert) appeared in two Doctor Who stories, with the Second Doctor (The Seeds of Death) and the Fourth Doctor (Revenge of the Cybermen). Alone of the credited guest cast, Gordon Whiting (Hammond) doesn’t have any Doctor Who credits.
Go on to Disk Two