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.
Never, Never Say Die
Steed meets a dead man
Emma fights a corpse
One doesn’t watch through a whole lot of episodes of The Avengers without becoming aware of a lot of formula elements–a familiar routine that many episodes abide by. One of those is that there is usually a murder by the end of the pre-credit scene. Then, after Steed and Mrs. Peel start investigating, there are often about two more murders before they really get anywhere in figuring out what is going on. However, in Never, Never Say Die there aren’t any murders for quite a while. Instead, there are some near misses and a bunch of radios gets destroyed, but nobody actually dies until over 30 minutes into the story.
What there is instead is movie legend Christopher Lee lurching around menacing all manner of people, aping some of the monster movies he’s most famous for. I got a little worried after a while that Christopher Lee wasn’t going to do anything but lumber about to repetitive monster music, but fortunately the story went further than that with a plot about robot duplicates with intentions of infiltrating humanity.
Interestingly enough, these aren’t Cybernauts, who will actually be making a return appearance later this season (and in fact, also cameo in this episode in the form of the scary movie Emma is watching at the start–it’s actually a clip from the previous season’s episode, The Cybernauts). Cybernauts were just humanoid machines, with no hint of free will. These robots seem to have fully developed personalities. It’s an idea ripe for extensive story development which doesn’t take place here. Instead, the episode’s conclusion, while wrapping up the plot, leaves us with all sorts of questions that go unexplored: what did the original scientist (unsubtly named Dr. Frank N. Stone!) actually intend with his creations? To what degree do the robots have genuine free will? And how would robot duplicates of Steed and Peel actually have functioned?
So it’s an interesting episode, but not as great as it could have been.
Christopher Lee plays Professor Stone. Where do you start with Christopher Lee? In latter years he was Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequel films. Before that he was the villain in the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun. He was also Sherlock Holmes a few times, and, perhaps most famously, Dracula. I was familiar with Christopher Lee going into this episode, of course, but I never realized how big of a guy he was before. Apparently he was over 6′ 5″! “A towering presence, in every sense,” my friend commented to me.
Jeremy Young (Dr. Penrose) has appeared in The Avengers before, and also appeared in Doctor Who, in both An Unearthly Child and Mission to the Unknown with the First Doctor. He was also in The Tripods, a young audience science fiction show that I watched, and was based on a book series I’d read. Christopher Benjamin (Whittle) has also appeared in The Avengers before, and was in two Doctor Who stories–Inferno (with the Third Doctor) and Talons of Weng-Chiang (with the Fourth Doctor), in which he played the popular character Henry Gordon Jago, who later got his own series of audio dramas from Big Finish. He also appeared in a modern Doctor Who episode–The Unicorn and the Wasp with the 10th Doctor. He also played Sir William Lucas in the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice.
Alan Chuntz (Selby) has got uncredited appearances in 10 Doctor Who serials, and one credited appearance, as Chauffeur in one episode of The Seeds of Doom with the Fourth Doctor.
Steed catches a falling star
Emma makes a movies
In another shake-up from the usual formula, the “Mrs. Peel, we’re needed,” scene in Epic is subverted–Steed shows up to deliver the message to Emma but finds instead that she’s already on her way out of the house, having been summoned by an anonymous phone call. This turns out to be for a covert screen test being taken some of The Avengers loopiest villains–a film director and a couple of actors who are bizarrely obsessed with making an elaborate “snuff film”, featuring Emma being terrorized in a variety of different historical settings.
Nothing about this makes any sense, of course. There’s no real rationale for why any of these people would actually want something like this, and if they did, there’s no way that Z.Z. von Schnerk could actually get a worthwhile film by running around out of sight behind all the sets with a camera. And, given that they hadn’t fully decided to “cast” Mrs. Peel in their project, it’s a bit odd that they went ahead and killed the Steed look-alike at the start. But, if you are willing to put your brain on hold for its running time, it’s still a fun episode to watch.
There are some funny set pieces, including the fake wall that Emma puts her hand through. And the whole wedding / funeral bit is even pretty creepy, with its silent priest and slow-motion confetti. I like the bit where Emma is kidnapped, and Steed knocking the piano down on the villain’s arm was also a good move. And there is a clever transition affected by panning over the “Meanwhile, back at the ranch…” prop sign, as well as funny little bit where Emma briefly takes on the role of the MGM lion and roars in the middle of a logo!
The guest characters are silly but memorable. Peter Wyngarde plays something like a dozen “movie” characters who interact with Mrs. Peel, as well as Stewart Kirby the actor himself. I liked the tired quality that he brought to the moments between the film-within-a-film’s main scenes. Kenneth J. Warren’s Z.Z. von Schnerk is pretty annoying, but still memorable. And Emma Peel herself shows a satisfying blend of disinterest and butt-kicking in the ways she responds to bad guys–Diana Rigg is as always cool to watch.
All of this helps Epic to be watchable, although not one that I can say I genuinely liked. It seems to be a divisive episode, one that people either love or hate. I’m a bit more in the middle, but I tip a bit below the halfway mark. The whole thing is like retread of The House that Jack Built, but waaaaaay sillier.
Peter Wyngarde is back, this time as Stewart Kirby (having last appeared in A Touch of Brimstone). He appeared in Doctor Who in the Fifth Doctor story Planet of Fire, but is better known as playing Jason King in a number of different TV series.
The Superlative Seven
Steed flies to nowhere
Emma does her party piece
Out of all the episodes on this disk, The Superlative Seven comes the closest to being a masterpiece, with its clever concept, impressive guest cast, and effective extended airplane set piece. But the episode makes some critical storytelling blunders in the middle that keep it from being one of the show’s best episodes.
The story opens on Donald Sutherland, of all people, running some sort of training centre for assassins and spies, and hinting ominously to a potential client about a big final test. Then it cuts forward to Steed following a funny invitation to a fancy dress party on a luxury airplane, along with six other guests. It turns out there plane is being flown by remote control, and the group of seven–all experts in different forms of combat–are taken to remote island where their unseen hosts (Sutherland and the client) tell them that one of them is a murderer out to kill the rest. Eerily, whenever anyone dies, their corpse is moved to a room full of coffins.
At first, it’s easy to assume that this is a lie and that they are just on an island full of the assassins from the opening scene, but eventually we discover that it’s true–one of the group is a murderer! Of course we know it’s not Steed, so there’s some good fun trying to guess who the guilty party is. All of the guest characters are defined lightly but clearly, with guest actors like Charlotte Rampling and Brian Blessed included in their number, and before the deaths begin they are all given a decent amount of screen time. The ultimate answer to the story is surprisingly satisfying and sorts out a number of logic questions that up to then one just assumed was part of the normal silliness of the series.
So what is the problem with the story that I mentioned earlier? Simply the fact that once the group is alerted to the danger they are in, they almost immediately opt to split up and try to explore the island. This obviously opens the door up to the first three or so deaths that take place, making that whole section of the story seem overly predictable. It’d have been far cleverer if the group had decided to stay together, but then someone was murdered anyway, leading to a panic that then would have split the group up. Actually, it might have been cleverer still if more of the story, and even some of the murders, had happened while the plane was still in flight!
Still, the fact that the episode eventually gets past that and into some of the more interesting stuff at the end helps to redeem it. And there are lot of other points in its favor as well: Emma’s appearance toward the end of the story is a great surprise. Charlotte Rampling’s Hana Wilde is a character who works very well–much better than Diana Rigg’s last replacement in the prior “Emma-lite” episode (The Girl From Auntie).
Her final face-off with Donald Sutherland’s Jessel is one of the odder sequences I’ve ever seen, but sort of mesmerizing to watch. And the hidden killer, Jason Wade, even gives an interesting clue to his guilt that only occurs to one later when he describes his occupation as hunting and dispatching his targets–others then assume that hes a big-game hunter, but it’s not an idea he introduces.
On the sillier side, there seems to be a guy in “yellow-face” at the start of the episode, which of course has not aged well. Murdering a bull-fighter via a rolling pitchfork thrown from a rolling cart seems like a bit of an unlikely approach to take. And the very ending where Steed and Emma somehow shoot down bottles of wine and accompanying glasses out of the sky is obviously just fluff and nonsense. Still, I enjoyed the episode overall anyway.
Oh…and remembering the disk’s theme of breaking the formula, in this episode “We’re needed” scene, it’s Emma who shows up to deliver the message to Steed rather than vice-versa.
With the guest cast..boy, where does one start? Charlotte Rampling (Hana) is an Oscar nominated actress with a long and varied career. Her appearances include The Verdict, which I only watched this past year, and a mini-series called Restless which I only watched recently.
Donald Sutherland (Jessel) is another long-serving and distinguished actor who has won multiple awards (although he’s never been nominated for an Oscar). I am most familiar with him from the original film MASH (where he played Hawkeye), The Dirty Dozen, Ordinary People, the Hunger Games series, and the lamentably bad Ad Astra.
Brian Blessed (Mark Dayton) also has a long and varied career, with roles in things like The Black Adder, Flash Gordon, Blake’s 7, and a variety of Shakespeare films. In Doctor Who he was King Ycranos in The Trial of a Time Lord, with the Sixth Doctor.
This story also features James Maxwell (Jason Wade), who was in the Doctor Who story Underworld with the Fourth Doctor. And John Hollis (Kanwitch) is back–he was in The Cybernauts in the previous season, is famous for being Lobot in The Empire Strikes Back, and was in The Mutants, a Third Doctor Doctor Who adventure.
Onto Disk Thirteen!