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 Living Dead
Steed finds a mine of information
Emma goes underground
The Avengers is almost always built on the idea of a villain coming up with the most outrageous and convoluted methodology that one can dream up, in order to accomplish their goals of murder, espionage, or world domination. Thus, when The Living Dead kicks off with the bizarre manifestation of an apparent ghost, one right away assumes we are in for a bit of a“Scooby-Doo” ending, where the ghost turns out to be a bad guy in disguise trying to scare local people away from a secret of some sort. It thus comes as a unexpected treat when the story subverts that idea–the ghost turns out to be a dust-covered victim of the villains, trying to rouse the village to help.
In another break from the norm, the teaser for the story doesn’t end with a murder. Indeed, the first murder doesn’t happen until well into the story, which is a nice variation. So often these scripts put the first murder as the story’s first event, have the second one happen just after Steed and Mrs. Peel start investigating, and put the third one right after that just as they are beginning to figure out what is going on. The change up here helps to keep things interesting.
Eventually the story brings us to the show’s typical craziness with a giant underground city and a plan to wreak destruction on Britain and then to overwhelm it with foreign agents. It’s a little bit like the first episode in this set, The Town of No Return, but both more outrageous and yet still slightly better thought through (if one can just accept the building of the city and its associated tunnel in the first place). There is the nice surprise that the otherwise charming Mandy (with her humorous sympathy for the plight of ghosts) is actually a villain, and the additional of a legitimately admirable guest character in the long-missing Duke, who though a victim, is not a fool.
The only thing, aside from the obvious, that one really has to object to the episode is why the villains don’t kill Steed or Mrs. Peel. They have ample opportunities, but nobody seems interested to try until the whole business with Steed getting executed. There’s no compelling reason, even by the internal logic of the show, for this to be the case.
Oh well, we accept it though, if only to give us an absolutely outstanding sequence of Steed going before the firing squad. He’s so unflappably mannered through the whole affair that he nearly overwhelms his executioner with nerves. This is coupled with an effective bit where Emma beats up her captors (and demonstrating apparent super-strength when she lifts one up on her shoulders), rifles through a set of keys, and then has to make her way to Steed in time to save him. Even though we know Steed is not going to die, the tension is palpable. It caps off with Emma brutally killing the entire firing squad with a machine gun, a surprising and intense way to wrap up one of the series’ most suspenseful sequences.
Julian Glover (Masgard) was King Richard in Doctor Who twice–a First Doctor adventure called The Crusade, and Count Scarlioni in a Fourth Doctor story called City of Death. He also appeared as the main villain in a James Bond movie (For Your Eyes Only) and an Indiana Jones movie (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). He also appeared in episodes of Blake’s 7, Space 1999, Remington Steele, and all sorts of other things–including another Emma Peel episode of The Avengers (Two’s a Crowd).
Vernon Dobtcheff (Spencer) also appeared in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as well as a James Bond movie (The Spy Who Loved Me) and an episode of Blake’s 7. Plus Doctor Who, of course, in the Second Doctor story The War Games.
Pamela Ann Davy (Mandy) appeared in the Second Doctor’s debut story in Doctor Who—The Power of the Daleks. Jack Woolgar (Kermit) appeared in a Second Doctor story as well, The Web of Fear. Edward Underdown’s (Rupert) last credit is in the Fourth Doctor story Meglos. John Cater (Olliphant) appeared in a First Doctor story called The War Machines.
The Hidden Tiger
Steed hunts a big cat
Emma is badly scratched
The Hidden Tiger brings us one of the crazier mysteries that this series has offered. Multiple gruesome deaths are taking place, where people are being mauled and shredded. What is responsible? Is it a tiger, as one imagines (certainly the title suggests it?) The filming of the episode keeps it a mystery–we only see the extended slow-motion sequences of the victims desperately trying to get away, but to no avail. The pursuer is relentless, able to get to the victim no matter where they hide or how hard they try to escape. What is this murderous beast? The answer, improbable as it may sound, is a housecat.
Or rather lots of housecats, as the villain has developed technology that can drive any housecat into a feral, vicious state. I look at my own cat shortly after watching this episode, and I think…is it true, Soxie? Are you just one radio signal away from turning on me and mauling me to death? Certainly we see the evidence of his killer instinct on a pretty regular basis, and certainly a crazed-Soxie could inflict a bit of damage on a person. But it’s hard to imagine that any domestic cat, no matter how insane, could so soundly overcome fully grown humans in a hand-to-paw battle. But this is The Avengers, where we once had an episode in which people got rained on to death. In that world, killer kitties is completely acceptable.
And like I said, the mystery is well-developed. Around the third or fourth murder, we begin to suspect that it might be cats–like when the attacker somehow gets to Nesbitt in his hunter’s cage. But the idea is so incredulous that it takes us a while to accept it. When we finally do it is with mixed feelings that we see Steed and Emma outwit the villains without ever having to actually fight a cat. Once we know what it is, we want to actually see it, so it’s disappointing that never get to watch Diana Rigg (or her stunt double) karate-chop a feline assailant. But on the other hand, it’s nice to see the villains just get outsmarted, and there is something especially satisfying about seeing Dr. Manx doom himself unnecessarily out of fear (when he kills himself by driving into a tree).
Moments like that are reminiscent of Jurassic Park. Like those films, The Hidden Tiger has a few different scenes of people dying not just because of the vicious animal attack, but because of their own foibles and fears, and in spite of all their efforts to control their environment. In addition to Manx’s death, there is also Nesbitt (mentioned above) and the uselessness of all his hunter’s precautions, and especially the Dr. Erskine getting caught in his own trap helps lead to his demise. I’m not a huge fan of how relentlessly this trope gets used in Jurassic Park, but it was interesting to see here, and nice to see villains fall victim to it as much as the innocents.
There are a lot of deaths in this episode, and most of them go on for a bit too long, with extended sequences of them flailing around in slow motion with all manner of suggestively gruesome sound effects. Like in The Winged Avenger, tattered clothes seems to be 1960’s TV-shorthand for “blood and gore”, but that effect only works well if the glimpses are fleeting. The drawn out scenes here are a lot more transparent, and become tiresome.
Also memorable, and awkward in this episode is pretty much everything that happens when Steed and Mrs. Peel separately visit P.U.R.R.R (Philanthropic Union for the Rescue, Relief and Recuperation of Cats)–all the cat-named characters (Manx, Cheshire, Angora), the oddness of seeing one of them lap up milk from a bottle, and the double-entendre dialogue as both heroes use each other as stand-ins for their fictional cats. This is all part and parcel for an episode of The Avengers, but for some reason this time around it felt more cringe-inducing than normal.
Ronnie Barker (Cheshire) is famous as the co-star and one of the writers of the popular program The Two Ronnies. Frederick Treves (Dawson) appeared in a Doctor Who story with the Fourth Doctor–Meglos. John Moore (Williams) had an uncredited part in an episode of The Myth Makers, a First Doctor story from Doctor Who. Reg Pritchard (Bellamy) appeared in two First Doctor serials, including The Crusade (with Julian Glover, above) and in the anomalous Christmas episode that appeared in the middle of The Daleks’ Masterplan.
One final note–in the “Mrs. Peel, we’re needed” segment at the start of the episode, Steed has left a note for Emma underneath her wallpaper. It’s a moment very reminiscent of Blink on Doctor Who, some 40 years later.
The Correct Way to Kill
Steed changes partners
Emma joins the enemy
The Correct Way to Kill is by far the least memorable episode of The Avengers on this disk, largely because it is the most routine. In spite of the attempt to be quirky with the very mannered murderers, and a finishing school where one learns the most gentlemanly way to hail a cab or to stab somebody in the back (called, amusingly, S.N.O.B.–Sociability, Nobility, Omnipotence, Breeding, Inc), it feels like a weak effort and doesn’t have the inspired lunacy of The Hidden Tiger or The Living Dead.
The real focus of the episode is the “exchange program” of having Steed and Emma team up with foreign counterparts in order to identify a common enemy. Anna Quayle’s Olga is fine enough, but brings neither the charm nor the humor to feel like an adequate replacement for Diane Rigg (but then maybe, that’s a pretty tall order). That could have been all right if they’d used her to somehow dig into Steed’s character or to bring out a deeper level of conflict for him, but nothing like that takes place. Instead she’s simply a competent agent who is a pretty stereotypical Russian (even if her country is never named) who has a lot to learn from Steed but very little to teach him. This makes for the second episode that I’ve seen (after The Girl from Auntie) which paired Steed with a replacement for Mrs. Peel for plot reasons, but which didn’t really help the episode at all.
So all we’re really with here is the image of a bunch of guys with bowlers and umbrellas fighting our heroes, and the twist that Nutski, Olga’s boss and the known spymaster for the foreign power, is actually the villain. Both of these things help to fill out the runtime of the story, but neither is very strong. To make it worse, there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason for Nutski’s modus operandi, even a flimsy one. .
Probably what this episode does best is highlight what really makes an Avengers episode work–it’s the combination of the brazen off-the-wall imagination along with the inimitable chemistry between the leads. With Steed and Emma being kept apart for much of the story, The Correct Way to Kill is short on both, and thus is largely disappointing.
On the other hand, we do get to see that Emma is apparently an expert safe-cracker (on top of everything else) and we get to see her kill the bad guy by throwing a sword into him!
Michael Gough (Nutski) is back–he was a villain in The Cybernauts, an episode from the previous year. He was also Alfred in the four Batman films that kicked off with Tim Burton’s Batman from 1989. On top o that, he appeared in an episode of Blake’s 7, and in two Doctor Who stories–The Celestial Toymaker with the First Doctor, and Arc of Infinity with the Fifth Doctor. Philip Madoc (Ivan) has also appeared in other episodes of The Avengers–four of them, in fact–but none of them featured Emma Peel. He was also in three Doctor Who stories–The Krotons (with the Second Doctor), and The Brain of Morbius and The Power of Kroll (with the Fourth Doctor). Peter Barkworth (Percy) guest starred in The Ice Warriors, a Doctor Who story with the Second Doctor, and also starred in a series called The Price that I watched years ago. Timothy Bateson (Merryweather) appeared in the Fourth Doctor story The Ribos Operation. This is the third episode of five that Oscar-nominated director (A Fish Called Wanda) Charles Crichton filmed.