The Avengers, before they were Marvel superheroes, were light-hearted 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 Three.
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. There’s no real reason for this except Doctor Who is pretty much my favorite show, and so far there seems an awful lot overlap with The Avengers.e
For whatever reason, the manufacturers of this DVD collection have decided to spread the 51 Emma Peel-featuring episodes over 16 DVD’s (and not 17), so that means that three of the disks have four episodes, instead of three. This is one of those disks–and it’s a crackerjack series of stories which show how diverse and crazy this series could be.
Dial a Deadly Number
We start off with an intriguing episode about a bunch of businessmen who are abruptly dying, it turns out to make their business’ value decrease and thus to help others make big money–a plot reminiscent of the material covered in The Big Short, though I gather the economic processes are different. What’s great about this is how genuinely uncertain we are for so long about who the real villains of the story are. Indeed, before he died, I assumed that Yuill was the big bad of the story. And then I assumed it was Henry Boardman. In a story where eventually it turned out that most of the characters were villains, it was surprising that Boardman turned out to be innocent! Anyway, what this means is that even after Emma has taken out the genius behind the actual mechanics of the murders, there is still plenty of action and drama, which makes for a very satisfying story. Steed even gets to take out the last villain by popping a cork from a wine bottle!
And this comes after a whole lot of well written and sharply performed scenes. We get some great stuff with Steed turning on the charm with a woman, and also clevering ferreting out information from other characters like Ben Jago. There’s a gripping bit of action as Steed dodges being killed by a motorcycle assassin. There’s some well directed suspense with a deadly watch that is supposed to kill Steed, but is instead being used by Steed to terrify and harass his opponents. And there is some great rapid-fire dialogue between Steed and Emma as they discuss the situation over Yuill’s dead body.
But of course the episode’s highlight is a wine tasting contest between Steed and Boardman which is astonishingly well directed and edited. The whole thing is wonderfully staged to be reminiscent of a deadly duel, with the characters pacing away from each other and having their “seconds” standing nearby. Steed has the episode’s best line when he says, “1908…would not be the year. 1909, from the northern end of the vineyard.” There is also one of my favorite shots of the series, where Steed holds up the glass of wine and Emma is just visible through it.
The revelation that the murders are happening via a hidden capillary needle is a little bit of a disappointment–I assumed that the “futuristic” pagers were emitting some sort of radio signal that stopped people’s hearts. If it’s actual needle, even a tiny one, you’d think that the medical examiners would have discovered the evidence of it and cleared up a lot of the mysteries. But there is so much going on that’s intriguing and fun–like the strange fish sculpture, or the crazy way Fitch acts, or Emma showing off her wine knowledge at the end by just reading the label–that the episode’s faults are easily overlooked.
Clifford Evans, who played Henry Boardman, was Number Two on an episode of The Prisoner called Do Not Forsake M, Oh My Darling. John Carson plays Fitch–he co-starred in a film called Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, which I saw a long time ago. He also appeared in a 5th Doctor Doctor Who story called Snakedance. Peter Bowles (John Harvey) is a popular British actor of mostly comedies, including in To the Manor Born, Only When I Laugh, The Bounder, and more. He also appeared in the Doctor Who spinoff, The Sarah Jane Adventures. John Bailey appeared in three Doctor Who serials: The Sensorites, with the First Doctor, The Evil of the Daleks with the Second Doctor, and The Horns of Nimon with the Fourth Doctor.
The episode also gives a mention of the Maquis, French resistance fighters in World War II, whose name would be co-opted by Star Trek many years later to describe another resistance group. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word outside of Star Trek before.
The Man-Eater of Surrey Green
Next up is The Man-Eater of Surrey Green, which is a straight-up science fiction story which features an intelligent, telepathic, carnivorous plant from outer space.
Years ago, I read someone’s commentary of the Doctor Who story The Seeds of Doom, which said that the script, by Robert Banks Stewart, was basically an Avengers script. Now I realize that what they probably meant was that it was this script from The Avengers, as the plot was very similar, just a little more blatantly science fiction-monstery.
Indeed, it’s impressive to me how The Avengers can pull of an episode like this and still make it feel like it’s part of the same series. Somehow, it’s still a light-hearted spy-caper story featuring posh agents exchanging witticisms as they investigate strange goings-on out in the country. The story’s horror doesn’t play all that differently from other story’s that are just about enemy agents or criminal geniuses, even if the bad guys here are all in the thrall of a plant. And it is an intelligent plant, for sure, as it works very deliberately to gather resources it needs to reproduce, and to sabotage the efforts of those who work against it. It’s quite gripping to see Emma fall to its spell, and to see her and Steed really go at it against each other.
Obviously, in 1965 the effects and production values are going to be limited, with the final plant not really being completely convincing. But the episode still gives it its level best to sell the ideas its presenting, and I didn’t find it too hard to suspend my disbelief.
This episode also features quite a lot of people with hearing problems (three), which makes it pretty obvious that that is going to be important to the plot well before it actually does so. One of those characters is Dr. Sheldon, who I liked a lot–she was intelligent and funny. It’s surprising however that she doesn’t scream as the plant is dragging her away–I was glad she ended up surviving.
Derek Farr (Sir Lyle Petersen) played the creator of Orac (and was the voice of Orac) for one episode of Blake’s 7.
Two’s a Crowd
Two’s a Crowd had me guessing for quite a while–does Steed have an identical twin double, or is it just Steed pulling a double-cross? I assumed it was Steed at first, but after a while I began to doubt myself–maybe this guy Gordon Webster really was a different character. In the end, Steed is pulling double duty, all as a scheme to confirm the identify of enemy mastermind, Colonel Psev.
As the episode was underway, I entertained a different theory about what was going on, which was that Steed was doubling as Gordon Webster, and that Emma was in on it. She was pretending to be confused as part of a maneuver against Steed’s ever-present friend Major Carson, who I thought might turn out to be the real Colonel Psev. Even if that wasn’t true, the actual story and the way that it all played out was still fun. The revelation that there is no Psev–that he’s just a fiction created by his four deputies to throw off attention–is not exactly unguessable, but still quite effective.
The episode has a funny opening when the bomb you are expecting turns out to be a miniature with a simple message etched onto it. This is our introduction to the character Brodny, who gets a lot of attention in this story, though he sort of vanishes for the last act. He actually appears again in the series, in another Emma Peel episode, so I guess we’ll get to that at some point.
Steed as Webster’s fashion act with the bikini girls was probably supposed to be ridiculous at the time, but today it’s the sort of things you’d probably never see on TV, with him pinching the woman’s bottom–even if it was suppose to be part of an act.
Emma Peel is, as we know, frequently awesome, but I particularly loved the bit where she sets herself free from being held prisoner and takes out her guard. There’s also a fun Mission: Impossible style moment at the end when Steed reveals his scheme and the villains realize they’ve been had. And there are a couple of lines which proved to be a bit metafictional in the future: one time Steed says if he had a twin he’s sure mother would have mentioned it, which becomes funny when it’s later revealed that his spymaster boss is code-named “Mother”. And at another point, Brodny says the fake-Steed (as far as he knows) may as well be wearing a stick of celery on his lapel, which later became a trademark of the Fifth Doctor on Doctor Who
Wolfe Morris (Pudeshkin) appeared in Doctor Who, as Padmasambhava in a Second Doctor story, The Abominable Snowman. Amusingly, he also appeared in a 1957 movie called The Abominable Snowman. Julian Glover (Vogel) is a well known actor who has appeared in Doctor Who twice, once in the First Doctor story The Crusades, and then later with the Fourth Doctor in City of Death. He was also the main villain in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (who chose poorly when it came to the Holy Grail), the main villain of the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only, and an Imperial officer who led the AT-AT attack at the start of The Empire Strikes Back. John Bluthal (Ivenko) was the guy who was trying to sell statues of the leaning tower of Pisa in Superman III.
Too Many Christmas Trees
Finally, we come to this episode which presents itself as a psychological thriller with Steed’s bizarre surreal and prescient dreams, but emerges as a supernatural thriller when it turns out that there really are a group of psychics using their powers to mind-control Steed, and also Mrs. Peel, into doing what they want. Like the alien plant a couple of episodes up, it’s a slightly strange fit for the show (or maybe it just isn’t what I expected), but it still works because of the incredible chemistry between Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg as the two leads.
Because this episode is largely about Steed struggling with his dreams and clarity of mind, we get see a side to Emma that is not normally highlighted. While she and Steed always have a friendly, playful relationship, here there is genuine concern and tenderness in manner. Sometimes Steed has shown touches of this because of Emma being in danger, but this is the first time that I’ve seen the reverse be true. The legitimate friendship that we see is welcome, and I hope something that will be picked up on again in the future. The ending, with Steed holding the mistletoe over Emma, hints at all sorts of possibilities between them.
There is also plenty of wit and action. The scene where Steed and Emma open up Christmas cards is particularly funny, and of course notable for feature a shout-out to Cathy Gale, Steed’s previous partner. Steed wonders what she is doing in Fort Knox–this is clearly a reference to the movie Goldfinger, which is what actress Honor Blackman did after leaving The Avengers. But, after that little Easter Egg, the scene has maybe my favorite line of dialogue, which is just Emma saying with semi-ridicule, “Who…is Boofums?”
The episode continues to hold up well when we get to the house where the main action takes place. There’s an amusing assortment of characters on hand, including a very creepy butler, and a guy from Mrs. Peel’s past who I think is the only person I’ve heard call her “Emma”. Emma has lots of great fighting moments, and the image of the creepy Santa dying in the mirror is really something else.
Edwin Richfield (Dr. Felix Teasel) appeared twice in Doctor Who–with the Third Doctor in The Sea Devils, and with the Sixth Doctor in The Twin Dilemma. Robert James (Jenkins) appeared in Doctor Who three times–with the Second Doctor in The Power of the Daleks, with the Third Doctor in The Daemons (albeit uncredited) and with the Fourth Doctor in Masque of Mandragora. He also guest-starred in the first episode of Blake’s Seven.