The Avengers 14 – The Complete Emma Peel Megaset – Who’s Who???, Return of the Cybernauts, Death’s Door

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.

Who’s Who???

Steed goes off the rails
Emma finds her station in life

Who’s Who??? is quite the loopy bit of television, even for The Avengers, but it holds up really well. In one of the series more overt science fiction outings, the bad guys (from ever anonymous “other side”) have developed a machine which transfers people’s consciousnesses from one body to another so that two of their agents (Basil and Lola) can replace Steed and Emma in order to murder a whole bunch of floral-themed agents.

Of course, this provides the novelty of having Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg play different characters for much of the episode. George and Lola are differentiated from our normal heroes not just working for the other side, but by differences in the way they are cultured and mannered (they drink beer and smoke cigars and kiss a lot) which provides for some interesting contrast. Even odder, we get different actors playing Steed and Mrs. Peel–Freddie Jones and Patricia Haines. But it all works–everyone involved does a good job, and Freddie Jones gets one of the episodes best lines as Steed: “What sort of fiend are we dealing with? A man who would bite the end off a cigar is capable of anything.”

And the show is obviously having a lot of fun with the story. At the start, Basil and Lola lure Steed into their trap simply by creating a mystery so strange that he cannot ignore it (they murder a guy, and leave his body to be discovered attached to humongous stilts!) It’s like they’ve been watching The Avengers and know what sort of cases Steed usually deals with. Then the show also adds these really bizarre continuity announcements after what would have been the commercial breaks in the middle, where an announcer attempts to explain to the audience what is going on, but seems to have trouble keeping it straight himself.

In spite of all this oddness, Who’s Who??? is quite a good story for our heroes, and especially Mrs. Peel. She’s the one whose kung fu sets her and Steed free, she’s the one who gets the goods on both Lola and Basil, and she’s the one whose scientific genius enables the heroes to use the machine so easily. I especially enjoyed the bit where she turned the helmet around on Lola. I just would have liked to have seen Emma-in-Lola’s-body doing a bit more Emma-style beating up, but I guess you can’t have everything.

Ultimately, it’s a very silly premise, but a solid episode.

Campbell Singer (Major “B”) was in Doctor Who back in 1966, in the First Doctor story known as The Celestial Toymaker. Malcolm Taylor (Hooper) was in the Second Doctor story The Ice Warriors. Philip Levene (Daffodil) is also the writer of this and a whole bunch of other episodes of The Avengers.

Return of the Cybernauts

Steed pulls some strings
Emma becomes a puppet

Depending on what sources you look at, this is either the start of Season Six of The Avengers, or it’s the continuation of Season Five, except after a gap of approximately five months since the previous episode (although still in the same year). The one change apparent immediately with the new story is the absence of the “Mrs. Peel, we’re needed,” scenes which had been a mainstay of the format since it started airing in color. This is, to my mind, a good thing–I know this show has always been merrily tongue-in-cheek but there was something about those sequences that always struck me as needlessly silly. I prefer getting to our plot just that much quicker.

And that’s especially so with a plot as involved as this one. The reappearance of the Cybernauts is a treat, of course, but the thing that really makes this work is the revenge-plot centered around Peter Cushing’s character, Paul Beresford. Indeed, much of the episode is told from his point of view, once the truth of his connection to the villain of the original Cybernauts story is established. That twist was well delivered, especially after all his flirting with Emma. It’s even a relief even, because up to that point one is worried that Peter Cushing is going to be wasted as one of the story’s hapless victims, rather than its villain. He ends up making of the series’ best antagonists because his thirst for vengeance gives him such a believable motivation–even for not actually killing Steed and Emma, but rather attempting to make them suffer.

The story features some great moments of suspense and gripping storytelling, like when the villains are frantically trying to avoid Steed and Emma seeing the Cybernaut. And the fact that the story starts off mostly with kidnappings rather than murder makes it all the more brutal when the Cybernauts start killing people. Poor Dr. Garnett–he dies pretty brutally, after really trying; he’s genuinely a hero.

Actually, all the supporting characters are well developed. Chadwick, Neville, Garnett and Armstrong are all sufficiently interesting and distinct from each other, which is quite the accomplishment considering they all occupy similar sort of roles in the story. Only the secretary, Rosie, is more caricature than character.

The action sequences are also well directed, although one isn’t really sure why Chadwick and especially Neville seems to attack the out-of-control Cybernaut at the end. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for it other than to just get them out of the story. Similarly, the creatures attack on Beresford is a little “on the nose” for what’s supposed to be a random event. It’s like everyone is working hard together to wrap things up before the run-time is used up.

Still, it ends up as one of my favorite episodes of the series–overall a good script which gives all its figures clear motivations, establishes an unusual level of continuity in the series, and keeps its story grounded in spite of the fact that it’s about a killer robot. And it ends with Steed accidentally launching toast into the sky! “Shall I butter them, or preserve them for posterity?”

Peter Cushing (Paul Beresford) is a well known horror and science fiction actor with many famous roles under his belt, including several which co-starred with Christopher Lee (who appeared a number of episodes ago in a story that was also about humanoid machines). Amongst his many roles are as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original Star Wars film and as Dr. Who in two big-screen adaptations of the popular TV show–Dr. Who and the Daleks and Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150. He is also well known for playing Sherlock Holmes, Baron Frankenstein and various versions of Professor Van Helsing. It turns out he also played Mr. Darcy in a television version of Pride and Prejudice back in 1952!

Frederick Jaeger (Benson) is back again from the first Cybernauts story. He appeared in Doctor Who in three different stories–The Savages with the First Doctor, and Planet of Evil and The Invisible Enemy, both with the Fourth Doctor. Charles Tingwell, aka Charles “Bud” Tingwell plays Dr. Neville–is also well known to me from the Australian film The Castle. Fulton Mackay (Professor Chadwick) appeared in Doctor Who with the Third Doctor–Doctor Who and the Silurians. Roger Hammond (Russell) was in two Doctor Who stories–The Chase with the First Doctor and Mawdryn Undead with the Fifth Doctor. He was also in an episode of the science fiction show The Tripods. Noel Coleman (Conroy) was in The War Games with the Second Doctor, and also played a Cat Priest in an early episode of Red Dwarf.

Death’s Door

The format of the show makes another slight change, and the little two-liner about Steed and Emma that has been included after the episode title since the season began is dropped.

OK, I have been waiting for this particular episode of The Avengers to surface on my DVD set since I began this exercise. There are a only a couple of episodes of the show that I can actually recall watching from years ago (another one was … History ), but this is the one that was most clear. I thought it was a clever idea then, and i still do now–certain people are being drugged and given a variety of experiences that they believe are dreams. Then those “dreams” are recreated in real life to make the victims believe they are premonitions. All of this is to instill a deep fear in them which will prevent them going through a certain door so that a peace conference hoping to unite Europe will be cancelled.

Like pretty much every Avengers plot, it doesn’t exactly hold up under great scrutiny (even if the villains need to avoid being seen to openly interfere with things, it’s still a pretty convoluted way to go about things). But it’s done with great visual inventiveness by director Sidney Hayers, and there’s a bit more of a methodical pace than we usually get, which serves the mystery fairly well–the realization that Stapley was in the dream is a good one. Although when Steed and Emma go to all the trouble of drugging Lord Melford in order to prove to him what they are saying, that seems like overkill.

Unfortunately, the slower pace and particular focus of the story means there’s a little bit less of that Steed and Emma zing than we’re used to–both in terms of their repartee and in the action scenes. There’s still a satisfying final fight, though, including a cool move by Mrs. Peel. And Steed gets a clever extended bit where he improvises a way to fire a bullet without a gun (although if that guy had really wanted to kill Steed, he should have waited until he was on his way back from the target). And whatever else we miss out on is balanced by good performances from the two main guest stars–both Clifford Evans as Sir Andrew and Allan Cuthbertson as Lord Melford–so it’s all something of a trade off.

As a final note–what on earth is with the strange colored lights outside the hotel room? They are supposed to be street lights, one supposes, but they look really bizarre–almost like they are part of the plot to hypnotize the victims, except that they are so obvious.

William Lucas (Stapley) was in Frontios, a Fifth Doctor Doctor Who story. Peter Thomas (Saunders) was in the First Doctor serial The Savages, in Doctor Who.

Onto Disk 15!


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