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.
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.
Silent Dust starts out strongly with some dying birds and a fun scene where Steed and Emma are punting along a river, with Emma sporting a funny big “E” monogrammed onto her shirt, and Steed dragging along a bottle of wine for good measure. Most of the story then goes on to show Steed and Peel becoming connected with a cabal of villains who are using a secret pesticide to kill off all the plant life in Dorset (a county in England)–first Dorset, then the world!
It’s a serviceable plot and the episode continues with all the wit and charm that we expect from Steed and Emma, but doesn’t do anything terribly interesting or memorable. In the end, it comes down the villains attempting to kill them both during a big fox hunt, which starts out fun but continues to be a really long sequence of people chasing each other on horses set to strangely jaunty music. It’s full of bits where Emma adjusts her hat to find her optimal look in the middle of the action sequences, and a silly conclusion in which Steed chases after a guy using an anti-hunting protest sign as a weapon. The Avengers has always got a light-hearted silliness, of course, but here it just all becomes too much for me to fully enjoy.
There’s also an extremely random bit in the middle where an unconscious Steed dreams of Emma as an elderly male dentist from the old West. It’s super-random and not connected to anything else going on.
Aubrey Morris plays Quince–he was the Captain of the Golgafrincham “B” Ark in the TV version of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. His character in this episode is choked to death in a most unconvincing manner, unless the villain is a super-strong Chrononaut or something.
Room Without A View
Next up on the disk is Room Without A View, which is an episode with some intriguing ideas but an execution that is ultimately lacking. The problem is not that things are done badly, but they aren’t done sufficiently.
The plot is about a scientist who suddenly returns after having been missing for a few years, largely out of his mind. Steed and Emma trace his movements back to a particular room in a certain hotel that the man stayed at. While they go undercover to figure out what is going on, various other characters fall afoul of the villains at the hotel–one is killed, and another finds himself mysteriously transported to a World War II-era Japanese prison-of-war camp!
Clearly, this is the most interesting part of the plot. We figure people aren’t actually being transported back to World War II, but we still have lots of questions. There’s a bit of a hint to how they are pulling off the illusion, but why? What’s the point? Why go to all that effort? Why put such a thing in a hotel, of all places? None of that is explored, even when Emma herself becomes a victim of the scheme. There is tons of stuff from earlier in the show that could have been reduced to give more time to develop this concept, even if some of that material is not bad–like Steed pretending to be a gourmet named Gourmet, or the twist of their being a second Room 621 in the hotel. It’s especially disappointing since the episode gives some intriguing hints about Steed’s personal connection to a particular prison camp.
Of course, there’s also dopey stuff, like Steed’s fight in a closet, or the fact that the big bad Mr. Chessman is defeated by changing the thermostat, or the goofiness at the end of Steed pulling Emma along in a rickshaw.
On top of that, the show is a bit awkward in its presentation of Asian characters. The effort is clearly there to to be “modern” in the way characters such as Mrs. Wadkins are depicted, but it still leans fairly hard into somewhat stereotypical Asian traits, and the fact that she is played by a clearly non-Asian actress sort of undermines the positive efforts.
Paul Whitsun-Jones (Chessman) appeared in Doctor Who in two serials–The Smugglers (with the First Doctor) and The Mutants (with the Third Doctor). Peter Jeffrey (Varnals) also appeared on Doctor Who twice–The Macra Terror (with the Second Doctor) and The Androids of Tara (with the Fourth Doctor). On the other hand, Philip Latham, who is outstanding in this episode as Carter, only appeared in Doctor Who once, in the 20th anniversary story, The Five Doctors (with the First through the Fifth Doctors). Peter Madden (Dr. Wadkin) does not appear in Doctor Who, but he did play the undertaker on the opening credits of all 17 episodes of The Prisoner!
Vernon Dobtcheff (Pushkin) has an astonishing 363 credited rolls on IMDb.com, and at the time of writing seems to still be alive and acting (he was born in 1934). He has appearances in things like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (as Butler, or maybe a butler, I’m not sure which), The Spy Who Loved Me, Fiddler on the Roof, Blake’s 7, and, you guessed it, Doctor Who, in the Second Doctor story The War Games.
Oddly, Jeanne Roland goes uncredited in the role of Mrs. Wadkins, even though it’s quite a substantial role. Also, for whatever reason, her voice was dubbed.
Small Game for Big Hunters
I was a bit worried going into Small Game for Big Hunters, as soon as it became apparent it was going to deal with a colonial British view of African tribal peoples. We had just seen Room Without A View and its awkward depiction of Asians, it seemed a certainty that this one was going to make me wince as well.
And so it did, a bit, but overall it held up better. The “Kalayans” are limited to being shown either as tribal savages, or, in the case of the secretly civilized Razifi, overwhelmingly English (and not particularly African). But overall the episode works better because the satire against British imperialism is quite well done, as seen in Steed’s response to characters like Colonel Rawlings or Simon Trent. He has some especially cutting remarks to Trent and the ever-present boast of him having killed a bull elephant–if anyone is being pestered by a bull elephant, he says, he’ll be sure to let him know.
The villains’ plan is pretty interesting, but daft. They have bred a whole new type of bug that will put a whole nation to sleep so they can “go back to the way things were” back when the British colonies were in place. But really…if a whole nation was asleep, it’d be quite a difficult task to get in there and set up your imperial infrastructure all around them.
On the whole, though, there are a lot of quite good storytelling moments in the episode. It’s quite shocking when Razifi is murdered, for example, but surprisingly interesting when Steed is able to turn the unfortunate moment to his advantage by using it to get the villains to trust him. It is also a good twist that the big bad of the story is Professor Swain–up until that point he seemed like he was going to be one of The Avengers’ many hapless victims. He’s a good character, and I like his line, “That arouses me to violence.” But the best moment of the episode is when Emma walks right into the midst of the bad guys’ meeting by pretending to be Lala, completing fooling everyone, including the audience.
It all gets a little undone by Steed’s ridiculous Tarzan yell, but overall it’s a solid piece of storytelling.
Bill Fraser (Colonel Rawlings) appeared in Doctor Who with the Fourth Doctor (Meglos) and also in the one and only episode of the earliest Doctor Who spinoff, K-9 & Company. Peter Thomas (Kendrick) also appeared in Doctor Who, with the First Doctor in The Savages.