The Avengers, before they were Marvel superheroes, were light-hearted tongue-in-cheek spies on British TV. Dapper agent John Steed, played by Patrick Macnee, had numerous partners over the show’s run, but the most famous of these was scientific genius and martial arts expert Mrs. Emma Peel, played by Diana Rigg.
Thanks to Christmas, I recently picked up The Complete Emma Peel Megaset DVD collection, including all of her episodes over a couple of seasons, starting in 1965, and I’m commenting my way through him. Today, we’re doing Disk Two.
Now, in addition to commenting on the episodes, I’m’ also mentioning the notable (for me) writers and guest cast, particularly when they’ve been involved in Doctor Who. Doctor Who is pretty much my favorite show, and so far there seems an awful lot overlap with The Avengers.e
Death at Bargain Prices
As this episode begins, one briefly wonders if it’s going to be about giant killer toy animals at a department store, but this this is quickly revealed to be just an animal shaking because a guy with a gun is standing behind it–far more mundane than it appears at first. The truth is still pretty out there, though, as it turns out that a whole lot of crazy is in fact going on. A wheelchaired madman (the second one in two episodes) has turned an entire department store into a nuclear bomb set to devastate London. In addition to providing real threat, it gives Emma a chance to remind us all that she’s also a scientist. The department store makes for a great set piece for the episode, and the guest cast is suitably fun, including the head of security and the lecherous employee who is making a play for Emma. There’s an extended fight scene at the end that is a lot of fun, although it includes a goofy bit where Steed distracts a bunch of bad guys with a gun that appears to shoot ping-pong balls. It also contains a strange bit where Emma distracts a guy by snapping her fingers and then fights with a slightly stranger posture than normal.
The episode is directed by Charles Crichton, who later was nominated for an Oscar for directing A Fish Called Wanda. Andre Morell, who plays Horatio Kane, appeared in lots of things, including the movie Ben-Hur, and in a few episodes of Doctor Who in the story collectively known as The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve, from the era of the First Doctor. T.P. McKenna (Wentworth) was in the Seventh Doctor story The Greatest Show of the Galaxy, and also played Skimpole in the 1985 production of Belak House. George Selway (Massey) appears in the Second Doctor story The Faceless Ones. John Cater was in the First Doctor story The War Machines. Peter Howell (Professor Popple) had a small part in the Third Doctor story The Mutants.
Finally, speaking of all the Doctor Who connections–there are two Dalek toys in the science fiction toy section of the store that Mrs. Peel is working in!
Atmosphere and set design are the name of the game in this odd little thriller, which opens with Steed and Mrs. Peel already undercover in a Scottish castle where a mysterious death has occurred. There are musty hallways, hints of bagpipe-playing ghosts and cruel machines of torture all throughout the story. In spite of all that, the actual threat is oddly bland–some baddies are using submarine-based technology to disrupt the local fish population, in order to drive up prices and cause problems for the country. It’s implied right from the beginning that one of two cousins is from the local family is responsible, and the episode has a lot of fun keeping us guessing as to which one it is (and finally settles it when one of them fully impales another one with a huge knife). The story has a lot of odd gaps in logic–there’s a cool scene where Emma fully beats up one guy and gets beaten up by another, but then the story just goes with her cover story continuing to work, even though clearly the bad guys know something is up with her. Similarly, attempts are made on Steed’s life by such nonsensical methods as slowly (and loudly) dropping the top half of a bed on top of a lower half. It’s all very silly, but the impressive set design of Castle De’ath itself and some cool fight scenes (Emma shoots both a dead deer’s eye and a bad guy with a crossbow).
Gordon Jackson (Ian) is famous for playing Hudson on Upstairs, Downstairs, and was also a major character in The Great Escape. James Copeland (Roberton) appeared in the Second Doctor story, The Krotons. John Lucarotti, who wrote the episode, also wrote three stories for Doctor Who, all historical adventures with the First Doctor: Marco Polo, The Aztecs (one of my favorites) and The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve.
The Master Minds
There’s a lot to like in The Master Minds, including the sort of loopy plot we come to expect from this show, in which a country club full of geniuses are all hypnotized to brainstorm solutions for how to commit complex crimes of espionage. Emma Peel’s genius is highlighted–she’s definitely meant to be smarter than Steed–and helps to provide the best line of dialogue (when she talks about the the results of their IQ tests, she says about Steed’s score that it is, “Roughly the same but that’s hardly surprising since I also did your papers for you.”) There’s a lot of silliness with Emma bouncing on a trampoline like a toddler, and there’s an extremely surreal bit while she fights the big bad of the story behind a rear-projection screen which is showing military footage that begins to run backward.
But for all this typically outrageous material, The Master Minds actually has a harder espionage vibe going on than any other episode of the show I’ve watched. Steed, for the most part, is far more grave and serious than we usually see him. His scenes with the psychiatrist Dr. Campbell are a particular highlight, and demonstrate an intensity we don’t often get to see. In the midst of the levity, this darker tone maintains through the story, especially with the bit where it appears that Emma is about to kill Steed (even though that turns out to be a ruse).
One thing that wasn’t as strong about the episode as it could have been was the whole mystery of the big bad’s identity. While it was a neat idea to make it a surprise, ultimately there’s neither enough time given to setting it up, nor enough development after it’s revealed to make it legitimately interesting. That’s a pity, because of so far there hasn’t been a “main” female villain before–this time we get one, but by the time we discover it, she’s unconscious.
Incidentally, this episode is more overtly sexualized than any of the other ones I’ve watched so far. Steed has a bit of a fight–based on a misunderstanding–with a woman who flashes her bikini under her jacket, who ultimately has almost no bearing on the plot. And similarly, at the show’s start, there’s an overtly suggestive “body shot” of Emma wearing some slinky number that is for nobody’s benefit but the audience (nobody is even looking at her at this moment). I’m hoping we don’t have to navigate through too much of this in the future.
Ian MacNaughton plays Dr. Fergus Campbell–he’s famous as the producer of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Bernard Archard (Desmond Leeming) appeared in two Doctor Who serials–one with the Second Doctor (The Power of the Daleks) and one with the Fourth (Pyramids of Mars, where he was memorable as Marcus Scarman). Robert Banks Stewart is the writer of the episode–he also wrote two Fourth Doctor serials on Doctor Who—Terror of the Zygons and The Seeds of Death. They are, frankly, two of the best.