The Avengers 8 – the Complete Emma Peel Megaset – The House That Jack Built, A Sense of History, How to Succeed….at Murder, Honey for the Prince

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.

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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.

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The House That Jack Built

I’ve been looking forward to this episode.  I have a vague sense of its existence, although I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen it before.  But it’s a great concept–Emma is lured to a mysterious house which turns out to be an elaborate trap set for her, full dangers and psychedelic torture.  The end result is overall pretty satisfying.

Certainly the imagery of the house itself is quite memorable, with it’s confusing twists and turns and it’s Twlight Zone-like set design and editing.  There is also a relentless throbbing noise on the soundtrack after Emma encounters the central machine which is quite eerie, although also a bit annoying after a while.

The actual story works well enough, with this neat idea of villain out for revenge from beyond the grave not because of anything Emma did as a spy, but because of business decisions she made when she was just growing up.  In this we get way more backstory on Emma then we’ve ever had before:  she was born Emma Knight, the daughter of industrialist Sir John Knight.  After his death she took over the company at aged 21, firing the deranged board member Professor Keller who wanted to replace man with machine.  There’s still nothing about Mr. Peel, however.

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I only wish the episode had pulled out one more twist and revealed that Keller was actually still alive and controlling things.  I think I would have found it more interesting if he was a bit more hypocritical and his “theories” were exposed as the nonsense they were.  Instead, the show makes use of the fugitive character to provide the additional menace when necessary.  It’s fine, but not quite as much a zinger as it could have been.

Diana Rigg’s performance in this story is very strong.  She’s excellent in her irritation at Withers near the beginning, and then brings in the right amount of frazzled and distraught as things continue.  Her voice over as she figure out what is going on doesn’t do the episode any favors, but that’s not the actresses fault.  Right at the end when she and Steed are reunited, both leads take the moment to give each other a look of relief that is one of the best moments of the entire series.  Never before has their legitimate love and concern for one another been more clear.

Griffith Davies (Burton) appeared in a couple of episodes of the Second Doctor Doctor Who story called Evil of the Daleks. Keith Pyott (Pennington) appeared with the First Doctor in the Doctor Who story, The Azteks. 

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A Sense of History

Next up is A Sense of History which might be my favorite episode on the Disk thank to the compelling little mystery it tells about murders at an English university.

One well that The Avengers has gone to a few times in these episodes I’ve watched is the idea of the largely off-screen “Mr. Big” type bad guy who is the real brains behind whatever craziness is going on, and is giving orders to more visible villains of the story.  Usually this is a bit underwhelming because by the time Mr. Big is revealed, there aren’t that many suspects left and it’s not all that surprising.

This time around, the show gives us two main suspects:  Professor Henge, who is so obviously unpleasant that we know it can’t possibly be him, and Professor Acheson, who seems set up to be the somewhat lame “surprise twist” of the story.  As it happens, it’s neither of them!  Instead, it’s Grindley, a university archivist who actually died in the story a lot earlier, or so we thought.  It’s one of the best revelations that the show has pulled off so far, and gives the ending a lot of interest.

This, combined with the show’s usual strengths of clever wit, cool fight scenes (a student tries to ambush Mrs. Peel and gets flipped over his head and into a table for his troubles!) good direction all make for a good installment.  I particularly liked the bit where Steed interrogates Pettit–it’s gripping with its use of tight close ups throughout.

The performances are also good.  I especially liked Patrick Mower as Duboys (the episode’s main villain in terms of screen time).  He’s got a great “slimy” and full of himself feel to him–the sort of guy you love to hate.

Really the only drawback to the story is Emma’s absurdly short shorts that she wears for her Robin Hood costume.  I mean, the appeal is obvious, but it’s just a too much for my tastes.

Nigel Stock, who plays Carlyon, is well known as Dr. Watson in some television Sherlock Holmes adaptations, as well as Cavendish (the surveyor) in The Great Escape.  He also took over the lead role in The Prisoner for one episode (thanks to some science fiction gobbledy-gook) and played Professor Hayter in a Fifth Doctor installment of Doctor Who, called Time-Flight.  John Barron (Henge) was C.J. throughout the run of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.  Robin Phillips (John Pettit) appeared in Doctor Who with the First Doctor in The Keys of Marinus.  John Ringham (Professor Acheson) appeared in Doctor Who three times–twice with the First Doctor–The Azteks and The Smugglers–and once with the Third Doctor–Colony in Space).  Interestingly, he was the main guest starring villain in The Azteks, while Keith Pyott (see above) was the main guest starring friend in the same story.

And finally Jacqueline Pearce (Marianne) appeared on Doctor Who with the Sixth Doctor and the Second Doctor in a story called The Two Doctors–but she’s better known for playing the main recurring villain (Servalan) throughout the science fiction series Blake’s 7.  Weirdly, in this story, it’s a full 38 minutes into the episode before she has any lines, even though she’d been in lots of scenes before that, including scenes where you’d fully expect her to speak.  Indeed, before she finally said, “This just arrived,” I was wondering if she was supposed to be mute!

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How to Succeed….at Murder

Okay…this is a weird, weird episode, even by Avengers standards.  The story is about a secret society of evil secretaries who take assignments from a mysterious boss to become the employees (or at times, the mistresses) of the CEO’s of big companies, get to know their companies so well that nobody else can understand the accounts, and then murder them.  Their motivation is to get rich, of course, but it’s also to bring “Ruination to all men!” as they chant away maniacally at one point, taking revenge for all the sexist injustice that they have had to cope with.

And rarely have we had such a large group of psychotics in one episode.  This isn’t just a single bad guy, or a group of hired thugs, but a whole lot of disgruntled women who are willing and happy to blow up, strangle, shoot, poison or otherwise dispose of these guys with their bare hands.  It’s definitely some of the most brutally filmed deaths that we’ve had in the series, with the camera a couple of times focusing on the murderers exerting all their effort to crush the life out of a victim.

However, right into this potentially “ultra-feminist” comment about women taking control of their lives, you’ve got this contrary stuff like Steed defeating his would-be assassin by tickling her into submission, or Emma seeming to hide behind Steed, or the mastermind turning out actually to be a man.  It all results in a confusing mess of tones, even though there are still of course some fun scenes and stylish moments.  Thematically, maybe it would have been better if it had been Emma who ultimately exposed and defeated Henry, rather than Steed–contrasting her model of female strength against the lunacy of the secretaries.

All this doesn’t even touch upon the show’s strangest element, which is of course the reveal that largely unseen presence that is giving the secretaries their orders is actually an extremely creepy looking ventriloquist’s doll.  I was watching the episode pretty late at night, and so when that thing suddenly showed up it definitely gave me a bit of a chill.

Jerome Willis (Joshua Rudge) was a main guest star in a Third Doctor adventure of Doctor Who called The Green Death.  Christopher Benjamin (Hooter) appeared in two Doctor Who serials–Inferno with the Third Doctor and The Talons of Weng-Chiang with the Fourth Doctor (in which he played Henry Gordon Jago, a character who has reappeared in a bunch of Big Finish audios, including here.)  He also played Sir William Lucas in the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice.  David Garth (Barton) was a Kryptonian Elder in the abysmal Superman IV:  The Quest for Peace, and appeared in Doctor Who with the Second Doctor (The Highlanders) and the Third Doctor (Terror of the Autons–in which he played a Time Lord).

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Honey for the Prince

Anytime that we’ve see The Avengers deal with other cultures or even races so far, it ends up being pretty awkward, and Honey for the Prince is no exception.  In this case, it’s Middle Easterners who get the attention, with a whole riff on Aladdin’s lamp going on, and a lot of time spent on Steed getting to know the crown prince of an unnamed country, who indulges in all sorts of stereotypical protocol as long as his Grand Vizier is around, but who once alone turns into a cricket-loving party boy.  The Grand Vizier himself is a obsequious and lecherous creep, while the Prince is surrounded by a literal harem of veiled wives (apparently 320 of them who are on a duty roster!).  This all results in Emma having to do a sultry dance so she can be “bought” by the Prince and get into the harem, where the villain has laid a trap to kill the prince.

On the other end of things, the bad guys have gone to all the trouble of sourcing their murderous strategy from guy who develops and provides elaborate fantasies for people (whom they kill) and also an order for gallons of honey that they need for that plot from another guy (whom they also kill).  So it’s the typical Avengers overblown nonsense.

Just as typically, though, there is a lot of cool, witty and stylish stuff to keep the episode engaging.  There’s a particularly funny gag about Steed trying to deal with the dead bodies that keep showing up in apartment.  Ron Moody is very good as the fantasy-provider Hopkirk.  And the villains are particularly loathsome, making it all the more gratifying to see them get beat up.  Emma is especially cool beating up Vincent and then knocking over two burly guards for the Prince.

A final note is from near the beginning of the show–there’s an extended sequence of Steed and Emma frolicking along as they come home from a party or something that is shot with no dialogue.  It’s really fun and perhaps more than any other scene makes them look like a romantic couple.

George Pastell (Arkadi) appeared in The Tomb of the Cybermen, a Second Doctor story in Doctor Who.  Jon Laurimore (Ronny Westcott) appeared in The Masque of Mandragora, a Fourth Doctor adventure in Doctor Who.  Reg Pritchard (Postman) appeared in two First Doctor Doctor Who adventures–The Crusade and The Daleks’ MasterplanIn the latter, he appeared only in a fairly disconnected “Christmas” episode, which is notable as the first episode of the series that was ever scrapped by the BBC.  Carmen Dene (Eurasian Girl) appears uncredited in Goldfinger as “Purple Bikini Girl Near Pool”.  Charles Rayford appears here uncredited as Napoleon–he was uncredited as a scientist in the Fourth Doctor Doctor Who adventure, Genesis of the Daleks.

Peter Diamond (Bernie) was a prolific stuntman who worked on, and thus appeared in, all three films in the original Star Wars trilogy, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II, Highlander, A View to a Kill, and a lot more, including Doctor Who.  On Doctor Who, he was a fight arranger for episodes that were part of several stories:  First Doctor adventures The Daleks, The Dalek Invasion of the Earth, The Romans, The Space Museum, and The Chase; Second Doctor adventures The Evil of the Daleks and The War Games, and Third Doctor adventure The Daemons.  On top of that, he appeared as an actor in The Highlanders, The Ice Warriors, and The Enemy of the World, all with the Second Doctor.

Richard Graydon (George Reed) also did stunts on a bunch of films, including Batman (1989), Ladyhawke, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Willow, the first Star Wars, and a whole bunch of the James Bond films featuring Sean Connery, George Lazenby and Roger Moore.  He also was an actor in a small part in the film Shooting Fish that I quite like.

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