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.
The See-Through Man
Steed makes a bomb –
Emma is put to sleep!
The See-Through Man has the misfortune of featuring Brodny, the haplessly stupid foreign agent who had previously shown up in Two’s a Crowd. He was silly then but seems ever worse now with a a lot of time given to his broadly comical antics. The diverting plot involves the villains attempting to convince the British government to take seriously the idea of a formula that can turn people invisible, as a distraction and waste of resources. But the idea is so obviously implausible that it takes a nitwit like Brodny to play the dupe who believes it. If the show had gone to the effort of seriously trying to convince Steed or Emma of this scientific breakthrough, than it might have been more compelling.
Of course, part of the problem is just the limitations of television special effects in those days. The movements of props and so on which is supposed to be indicating someone moving invisibly is just never really believable–everything looks as if it’s been awkwardly manipulated on wires. Of course, if one is able to suspend ones disbelief beyond these problems, then people’s astonishment is more understandable.
In spite of these difficulties, I quite liked the performance of Roy Kinnear as Professor Quilby, one of many quirky oddballs to run into the main characters on The Avengers. At first I thought that Steed was allowing him to accidentally kill himself with an explosive at the end of their first encounter, but he turned out to just become slightly disheveled, kind of like a character in a Bugs Bunny cartoon (that is, until his inevitable murder later on).
Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg bring their usual charming selves to the proceedings, in spite of the story’s clunks, and there are some especially enjoyable moments as Emma escapes from Brodny and beats up one of the thugs. But it’s not enough to keep me from being perfectly relaxed when the whole things comes to an end and we can move on to the following episode.
John Nettleton plays Sir Andrew Ford–he appeared alongside the Seventh Doctor in the Doctor Who story, Ghost Light. Warren Mitchell returns for his second and last appearance in the series as Brodny, who had first debuted in Two’s a Crowd.
The Bird Who Knew Too Much
Steed fancies pigeons
Emma gets the bird
The Bird Who Knew Too Much is a big step up from The See-Through Man thanks to a lot of witty scenes with Steed and Emma, both with each other and with the usual assortment of eccentric side characters. Highlights include a funny line about losing a needle in a haystack, and Emma nonchalantly asking Steed, who has just survived an attempted assassination using a bomb, “And apart from that, what sort of day have you had?” It’s also cute to see Steed romancing young Samantha Slade and being mistaken for a model by the photographer Tom Savage. Emma modeling heavy agricultural equipment as she’s draped in a huge flag is also good fun, as well as her interaction with the bird-expert Professor Jordan.
Even the villains are an amusing, particularly the assassins Verret and Robin, even if their murderous ways are at times unnecessarily convoluted. Apparently, if you are pursuing a victim across some tall scaffolding, the thing to do is grab a wrench and climb up some scaffolding way ahead of them and loosen a pipe so that when they lean on it, it will fall loose and they will plunge to their death. Also, the fortunately develop a concern for having an alibi for the first time when they are about to kill Emma, leading them to construct an elaborate death trap for her which Steed fortunately happens to circumvent.
And all this wit and quirkiness is effective decoration for a reasonably gripping mystery plot. Even though Captain Crusoe’s identity is fairly obvious early on, the question of what exactly people are trying to do with the birds remains a puzzle for much longer. At first I thought it was all about the way they were being equipped to take aerial photographs, but eventually that gives way to zanier (and altogether more fitting for The Avengers) explanation involving a parrot being trained to verbally deliver national secrets.
There is a great scene of Emma taking down one of the villains as he is attempting to kill her by sniper rifle. It includes a little bit of unconvincing stunt work in the actual fight on a platform over a swimming pool, although that is followed up by a very impressive dive into the water. This gives way to Emma interrogating the would-be murderer while she has her ankles locked around the guy’s neck and is busy drying her own hair.
Frankly, it makes her look awesome. She also does a fun little dance-kick move when she knocks a door down later on.
Ilona Rogers plays Samantha Slade–she was in a Doctor Who story from its first season, The Sensorites. Kenneth Cope (Tom Savage) appears alongside the Fourth Doctor in the Doctor Who story Warrior’s Gate.
John Lee (Mark Pearson) played Alydon in the First Doctor Doctor Who story The Daleks introduced the arch-nemesis. Meanwhile, Michael Coles (Verret) featured as Ganatus in the theatrical film that was based on the same story, Dr. Who and the Daleks, starring Peter Cushing.
John Wood (Twitter) was Professor Falken in the movie War Games, which was a hit from of my childhood.
The Winged Avenger
Steed goes bird watching
Emma does a comic strip
For the second time in a row, the plot focuses heavily on birds, although in this case, they aren’t real birds (albeit specially trained ones) but a guy dressed in a big bird suit who climbs up walls and then talons people to death. Yes, the craziness of The Avengers, where no means of murder is too strange to be taken off the table! At least this time, the bad guy is actually crazy. He’s not committing elaborate espionage, he’s not trying to convince someone that some unlikely technology is real, he’s not trying to get ahead in business or killing off agents who have cottoned onto his little plan (not mostly). He’s just nuts.
Actually, it takes a while before the show reveals just who is responsible. By the time it does, there have been a full five murders, which is a bit more than usual. Three are businessman that the insane comic book artist, who fancies himself to be his own creation, deems to be unworthy of life thanks to their unscrupulous ways. The fourth is a shmoe who discovers his secret and tries to blackmail him (a sure-fire way of getting murdered, second only to calling Steed or Peel with offers of meeting them in odd places to share critical information). The last murder prior to the reveal is the artist’s own model, whose death seems to serve no purpose at all except for the fact that Steed and Emma just identified him as a suspect. Actually, more than one person dies after they are identified by our heroes as suspects. I’d say that makes Steed and Emma the most suspicious of all!
All kidding aside, The Winged Avenger is quite a good episode. Nearly every supporting character has got that amusing quirkiness about them, which makes all their appearances a lot of fun to watch. There are some clever uses of the story’s comic book imagery, which panels anticipating things in real life (it reminds of me of something from Heroes) and some neat visual transitions between the illustrations and the related live action shots. And the story involves an especially zany fight between Mrs. Peel and the villain upside down on the ceiling (as both characters are wearing special boots that facilitate this).
Best of all is a bit of metatextual humor in the story’s climax. Fighting the villain while he is suspended from the ceiling, Steed grabs a series of oversized comic book drawings to hit him with. They all happen to be ones that are fully taken up by sound effects…”Pow!” “Splat!” and so on. The accompanying music is very similar to the fight theme from the TV series Batman, which was popular at the time. The reference is obvious, but also quite funny.
One last thing–at one point Emma fully dives over a hedge and effortlessly goes straight into role, and is back on her feet instantl. That seems almost super-human!
Neil Hallett (Arnie Packer) was in the Doctor Who story Time-Lash, featuring the Sixth Doctor. Colin Jeavons (Stanton) was in K-9 and Company, the Doctor Who spinoff starring Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith. He was also Max Quordlepleen in the TV version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Donald Pickering appeared in Doctor Who in three different stories–The Keys of Marinus with the First Doctor, The Faceless Ones with the Second Doctor, and Time and the Rani with the Seventh Doctor.