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.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station
Steed goes off the rails
Emma finds her station in life
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station is far from the strongest episode of The Avengers, although it does have its moments. It kicks off with a surprising opening, with a fairly standard chase scene giving way to an unexpected death–the pursued killing one of his pursuers. Unfortunately, this little “twist” doesn’t amount to anything in the story, as that guy just gets killed later. It makes the early parts of the episode feel a bit like filler, although it’s still a nice change from a lot of episodes which would fill the same time with a succession of murders.
Nearly every Avengers episode focuses on a new sort of setting, and this time its trains and train stations. That provides a novel series of set pieces for the show to work with, and an interesting mystery related to the mysterious number – 4/7/67 – and the microdots hidden in train tickets, but overall the episode is a little dull. Mrs. Peel is not quite as dynamically fun as we usually like to see her, discovering Steed’s message completely by accident, and struggling quite a bit in her fight scene and requiring quite a bit of assistance from the quirky Mr. Crewe.
Still, John Laurie’s Crewe is a fun character, and it’s interesting to see some familiar faces as the villainous Bride and Groom (see below). So, not a disaster, but not the strongest outing.
Incidentally, if Avengers history is anything like the real world, then the Prime Minister that is nearly killed by the villains (and by Emma as well, actually, albeit accidentally) is Harold Wilson. Apparently neither Steed nor Emma voted for him.
Drewe Henley (the Groom) was Red Leader in the original Star Wars. Isla Blair (the Bride) appeared in the Fifth Doctor Doctor Who story The King’s Demons. She was also in a sit-com that I watched called The Bounder.
Something Nasty in the Nursery
Steed acquires a nanny
Emma shops for toys!
Something Nasty in the Nursery is a bit more colorful of an episode than the last one on the disk, with its imaginative story about people being reduced to a baby-like state. But still, it has a number of familiar beats. Once again, we start off with a zany chase (this time a lady in an electric wheelchair chasing the victim du jour). Just like last time, an older guest star ends up being a hero, as General Wilmot is the one who shoots the main bad guy. And for what feels like the umpteenth time, the villains have got some sort of strange school of British manners which is really a cover-up for a big murder operation.
The scheme is clever but confusing. I enjoyed the surreal nursery imagery, the explanation for the use of a nanny figure in the scheme, and the villain’s clear motivation to discover state secrets. But I wasn’t sure what Nanny Roberts herself actually has to do with anything. I thought it was going to turn out to be some sort of extremely long game where she’d implanted some sort of suggestion in the lives of all these people as babies, but of course that wasn’t it–which maybe is more believable overall but then makes her actual presence a little irrelevant.
I also thought more could have been done with the fact that Mrs. Peel herself becomes affected by the hypnosis. It winds up being an non-issue, and since we know Steed is faking it at the end there’s never really a strong sense of tension in the story (as cute as it is to see Steed pretending to be a dog.)
To end on a positive note, the show gives us two strong “meta-moments” that mean something to us because we know we’re watching a TV show. First, when Steed visits Mr. Martin for the second time, he finds him lying on the ground and we assume he’s been murdered. It’s genuinely surprising when we find out he’s still alive, if even only for the moment. And then finally there’s the closing tag, where Steed and Emma play with a crystal ball and see a summary of the following episode (pretty much every episode, really), with the meaningful instruction: “Watch next week.”
Oh, to really end on a more positive note, there is a really cute bit where Steed uses a tuba to quickly get rid of a bomb in his apartment. That was a lot of fun to see!
Dudley Foster (Mr. Goat), who has appeared on The Avengers before, was in Doctor Who with the Second Doctor in The Space Pirates. Patrick Newell (Sir George Collins) also appeared in The Avengers before, and co-starred as Mother in later series. He was in Doctor Who along the Fourth Doctor, in The Android Invasion. Dennis Chinnery (Dobson) didn’t appear in any other episodes of The Avengers, but he was in three Doctor Who adventures–with the First Doctor in The Chase, the Fourth Doctor in Genesis of the Daleks, and the Sixth Doctor in The Twin Dilemma.
Paul Eddington (Beaumont) was never in Doctor Who, but he did star in Yes, Minister and its sequel, Good Neighbours, and appeared in the first episode of The Prisoner. Penelope Keith co-starred with Eddington in Good Neighbours, and also starred in To the Manor Born. She played Nanny Brown in this story, but ended up appearing only in the credits as it seems all her scenes were cut.
Steed trumps an ace
Emma plays a lone hand
This is an episode with a strong claim to being my favorite episode of The Avengers so far. I thought with Epic we had already had this season’s “Steed-lite” episode, but this episode brings us another one, with Emma being lured away to a house by an old enemy out for revenge. Thus, it’s a lot closer than Epic was to last season’s The House that Jack Built, but even though that episode had its memorable Twilight Zone-style imagery, The Joker is an overall stronger outing, with a more timeless menace.
The credit for this success really needs to be spread around to a lot of people, especially director Sidney Hayers. The script is solic, but the direction, camerawork and production design are outstanding. The house that Emma is lured to is not the stuff of nightmares that we had in The House That Jack Built, but it’s just bizarre enough with it’s oversized playing cards to be genuinely unsettling. The camerawork, especially on the evil Prendergast, is excellent, emphasizing the sense of menace that the disturbed voyeur represents. Indeed, when he finally appears on screen at the end the tension is greatly diminished.
My favorite conceit is the way that Prendergast’s voice seems to constantly come from right behind Emma, an effect achieved entirely by the way the scenes are shot and edited. It is extremely unsettling to see Emma’s constantly spinning around to find the source of the voice that is threatening her, only to have nobody be there. The result is one of the series’ most tense sequences.
Also key to the success of the story is the guest performances, especially from Ronald Lacey and Sally Nesbitt. They play two of the strangest and most deranged-sounding characters that the show has ever offered. It’s down only to Mrs. Peel’s absolute sense of command of her situation that she doesn’t seem especially threatened by either one of them.
Another thing I liked about the episode came out in the confrontation between Emma and Prendergast: the villain’s vendetta is down to feeling betrayed by Emma using her charms to slow down an escape sometime before–to this Emma is able to respond with indignation that he had made a business of betrayal with regards to desperate refugees. The show rarely gave our main characters an opportunity demonstrate heroic sentiments, and so I appreciated them here. I also enjoyed Emma’s retort to Prendergast saying he’d loved her: “That was your weakness.”
The only thing that lets this otherwise excellent episode down is the silliness of seeing the bad guy distracted by a giant playing card waddling toward him (courtesy of Steed), but it’s such a brief moment that one can forgive it.
Peter Jeffrey (Prendergast) has appeared in The Avengers before, and appeared twice in Doctor Who–alongside the Second Doctor in The Macra Terror and alongside the Fourth Doctor in The Androids of Tara. He was also the pursuing Detective Inspector Trout in two Dr. Phibes films from the 1970’s. Ronald Lacey (the Strange Young Man) was Toht from Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well as the President from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.
Onto Disk 14!