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.
The Danger Makers
It’s another wacky go-around for Steed and Mrs. Peel, as they start to investigate a series of mysterious accidents befalling decorated military officers. Unlike what we’re used to, these accidents are not clever cover-ups for murders, but rather the result of a spate of dangerous thrill-seeking daredevil stunts by these highly trained men–free-climbing tall buildings, or reckless driving with motorcycles, that sort of thing. The investigation of this leads to the discovery of a secret society of these thrill seekers. But to make them actually villainous and not just stupid, they are willing to kill their own if they “turn chicken”.
The episode works well thanks to its novel set up, and to its small discussions about the problems inherent in a soldier’s mentality combined with civilized society. There’s some dark imagery along the way, including a bit where I thought at first that Major Robertson was somehow being forced to commit suicide–it turns out he was tempting fate with a game of Russian Roulette, which is less disturbing, but only slightly so. The game of chicken he plays with hand grenades later on is also pretty intense. It all gives Robertson a slightly different feel than most of the show’s antagonists.
Of course this isn’t serious drama, so eventually it all gives way to some nonsense about stealing the Crown Jewels, and by extension, the whole monarchy itself. This is all revealed right after the episode’s most memorable sequence, in which Emma feigns trying to join the Danger Makers by passing an insane test which involved navigating two sets of parallel see-saws with her arms strapped to rings which she must maneuver around electrified rods. It’s ludicrous, and surely would kill 99% of the people who would attempt such a thing, but not our Emma Peel!
After that we find out that the mastermind behind all this was really the only viable suspect, being Long, the psychiatrist who had acted like Steed’s ally earlier. He’s a far traditional and boring villain than Robertson was, and he’s got a loopy notion of sending all suicidal thrill-seekers to pull off his robbery. It’s all winds up being a bunch of daft fluff which results in Long being killed by the trap that Emma survived. But it’s saved by a pretty gripping scene where Steed avoids execution by turning Robertson’s need for risk against him
The episode was directed by Charles Crichton, who has appeared in these comments before. He also directed and co-wrote A Fish Called Wanda. Moray Watson, who plays Peters, appeared in Black Orchid, a short Fifth Doctor story of Doctor Who.
A Touch of Brimstone
This is a bit of a notorious episode of The Avengers. If you look up images from it, you get all sorts of dodgy images of Diana Rigg dressed as the “Queen of Sin”, a persona she is forced to take by the episode’s villains. So I went to the episode a bit hesitant–I don’t really feel the need to expose myself to a whole bunch of extra sensualized material for the sake of an old TV show. But thankfully, it was a pretty contained sequence that had Emma dressed up like that, and the worst of things were fairly simple to bypass if you’re inclined to do so.
The whole episode is about Steed and Emma infiltrating a secret society (the second in two episodes!) dedicated to hedonism and pleasure, and also to blowing up the government. This is depicted by multiple scenes of fake carousing-filled orgies, which are just sort of embarrassing to see (although of course much less painful than the equivalent scenes would be in today’s less restrictive television climate. This all culminates in Emma being put on display as I mentioned, but thankfully neither she nor Steed seem anything but disgusted and unimpressed by it all.
If you can get past all that, there are some good scenes in the episode. Specifically, Steed has a very well-staged and extended sword duel with one of the villains during the climactic sequence. And of course, it’s gratifying to see finally Emma smack down these all the idiot guys in the secret club. But best of all is the sequence where Steed is forced to prove himself by moving a pea before it can be sliced with a deadly axe. The scene is gripping and Steed’s solution is inspired.
Peter Wyngarde does a good job playing John Cartney, the main villain of the story–he’s famous as Jason King in Department S, and seems born to play a creepy Lothario. It’s just too bad that he ends up dying by mistake, essentially, when he accidentally activates a trapdoor in his attempt to kill Emma. Wyngarde also appeared in the Fifth Doctor story from Doctor Who, Planet of Fire. He was also Number Two in Checkmate, an episode of The Prisoner.
Colin Jeavons plays Darcy–I remember him as Max Quordlepleen (the host at Milliways) from an episode of the TV version of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He also appeared in The Underwater Menace, a Second Doctor episode of Doctor Who. Carol Cleveland is Sara–she’s certainly best known as a regular part of the ensemble in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Robert Cawdron played Horace–he was also on Doctor Who, in the Third Doctor story, Ambassadors of Death.
Jeremy Young appeared in the very first time traveling Doctor Who adventure with the First Doctor, as a caveman. He was also in another First Doctor story called Mission to the Unknown, amusingly without the First Doctor actually in it. Here, he plays Willy Frant. Meanwhile, Steve Plytas–who plays Kartovski–appeared in The Tenth Planet, the last First Doctor story of Doctor Who.
Finally, Alf Joint plays “Big Man” (as opposed to “Huge Man” who is played by Bill Reed). He did stunts for lots of productions, including Superman the Movie, Return of the Jedi, Goldfinger, and the Seventh Doctor story Battlefield, a serial in Doctor Who. He also appeared as an actor in Doctor Who, playing an uncredited “Heavy” in one episode of The Ambassadors of Death, the same Third Doctor story as Robert Cawdron, above.
What the Butler Saw
Sometimes I’m not sure if it’s that I’m not fully paying attention, but I often feel like the actual plots of The Avengers episodes don’t fully hold together, and that instead the show gets by on its style and charm. With What the Butler Saw, it seems to me that things do hold together well, and that the episode is quite a tight little mystery, even if it’s all typically far-fetched.
Right off the bat, the show establishes a mystery–someone is leaking secrets from the War Office, and it’s down to three guys–senior leaders in the army, the navy and the air force. And then, there’s something weird going on with butlers, as is evident by both the title and the plot. But how it all works together is not clear for some time. And I was legitimately surprised to realize that Hemmings wasn’t the main villain–the episode did a great job with misdirection there. There are a number of clues nicely planted in the story that don’t fully make sense until later–one wonders, for example, why the double-agent barber would share secrets with Steed when one of the people he suspects is sitting right next to them, but by the end we realize that the barber was wrong in his guess and thus didn’t realize his enemy was right in front of him. Of course when that end comes it’s not difficult to figure out who the head of this operation is–there simply aren’t any other suspects left. But it’s still fun getting there.
Fun, and silly of course. There is a lot of fairly ridiculous things going on, from Steed’s succession of disguise mustaches at the start, with his aliases of Red, White and Blue, to Emma’s supreme confidence with Group Captain Miles, to Miles’ “seduction mode” button, to Benson’s trolley with its retractable knives, to the Committee for Eastern Europe meeting inside a plastic bag, to Steed & Peel’s victory coming thanks to the ingenuity of the dotty Major General Goddard…it just sort of goes on and on. But this is an episode where the story itself holds up strongly enough to maintain interest.
Plus, there’s also this cool shot with Steed’s face reflected in the bottom of an iron. Good stuff.
I think for the firs time there isn’t anyone associated with Doctor Who in this episode, nor anyone who has done work in anything I’m familiar with. But I did like Thorley Walters performance as Hemmings–I thought he was quite an interesting villain until the story revealed he wasn’t the villain. Oh well, he was still good.