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.
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 Positive Negative Man
These latter episodes of the Emma Peel-era Avengers have been making a general swerve toward slightly less fantastic, slightly more grounded storytelling. Whether this works or not really depends on your preferences. With The Positive Negative Man, the show takes a bit of a step toward the more fanciful style, without fully diving back in.
The story is about how a bunch of scientists are being murdered by a mysterious assailant who slowly lumbers toward them with his shiny metal-clad finger pointing at them ominously. The guy is painted a bizarre gray color and his finger delivers doses of electric shock of such power that they can shoot people backwards through walls.
Speculatively scientific explanations abound: the guy is super-charged thanks to an experimental process involving broadcasting electrical power and the paint is an insulator designed to protect the user. The plan of course is to kill all the scientists who know about the experiment and then, I guess, to take over the world.
The plot and pacing is all pretty familiar and by the numbers. We even get the old Avengers classic of a guest character calling Steed or Emma to say that they have information but not to actually give it, which is a sure-fire way for someone on this show to get themselves killed. Steed and Emma seem very slow on the uptake aobut the sort of danger they are in all through the story regarding electrically charged objects. There is some tension in the conclusion with the trap that Steed seems to find himself falling into, for which Emma is wrapped up like a microwave dinner as the bait, but it’s all quite cheekily undone by some casual rubber boots–Steed’s protect him from danger and the removal of the murderer’s does him in in the end.
But what makes this otherwise routine story a winner is the sparkling dialogue and character interactions. Most of the best lines are Patrick Macnee’s, whether he’s asking if there aren’t any cleaners with red cards or talking about spraining a wrists playing bridge, or extolling the virtues of the rubber galoshes (“The English gentleman’s best friend–guaranteed to protect you from the vagaries of our climate, and also 25,000 volts,”) there is much fun to be had with the witty quality of everyone’s words.
Caroline Blakiston (Cynthia Wentworth-Howe) has appeared in the show before–she was Mon Mothma in Return of the Jedi! This episode doesn’t have any common cast with Doctor Who–one of the few times that’s been the case.
This is one of many episodes of The Avengers that could never work today, simply by virtue of the existence of cell phones. If Emma simply hadn’t needed to depend on the local telephone operator, everything in the story would have been different. But thank goodness they didn’t, or we might not have had this episode, which is quite unique and fun. It has that classic Avengers outrageousness to it, but with an unusual emotional edge.
This more developed tone comes from the fact that the story features a childhood friend of Emma’s–Paul Croft–and that the adventure comes their way not because of a mission that they are sent on but just because of Paul’s misfortune to retire from the stress of military life to the odd hamlet of Little Storping in the Swuff. There, things are slow and laid back–so much so that people barely notice or care when someone is gunned down in front of them.
It’s a great Emma episode. Steed is actually not in it much, aside from the very beginning and then the last ten minutes or so. It’s up to Emma to keenly observe things like one bad guy’s wristwatch, and another one’s socks, in order to piece together what is really going on. In the end it turns out the whole village is in on the villainy–hiring out the town as a place where people can freely murder their enemies, and count on a population that will either turn the other way or provide false witness when necessary. It’s when Paul is murdered that Emma is unleashed, delivering a savage beatdown on Dr. Haymes the likes of which we rarely see. There is still the same unflappable cool that is a trademark of our heroes, but layered with a take-no-prisoners viciousness that is completely authentic from someone of Emma’s capabilities and situation. And later, she throws a spear into the guy, in one of the most brutal deaths that I’ve seen on the show.
Interestingly, the plot of this episode was very closely copled (presumably unintentionally) in a Mission Impossible episode from a few months later, called The Town. It also involved a town full of bad guys capturing one of the regulars, and even had the same story point of other characters being alerted to the situation via a phone call in which people pretended they were calling someone’s spouse.
John Sharp (Prewitt) appeared in a bunch of episodes of All Creatures Great and Small in the 1970’s as Mr. Biggins, and also played Number Two in one episode of The Prisoner (A Change of Mind). Sheila Fearn (Jenny) was the main character Kevin’s mother in the movie Time Bandits. Eric Flynn (Croft) was in the Second Doctor Doctor Who story The Wheel in Space. Robert Cawdron (Banks) featured in Doctor Who in the Third Doctor story The Ambassadors of Death. Joseph Greig (Higgins) appeared in a First Doctor story from the first season of Doctor Who, The Sensorites. Geoffrey Colville (Jeremy Purser) appeared in The Evil of the Daleks, a Second Doctor story of Doctor Who. Tony Caunter (Miller) appeared in Doctor Who three times: The Crusade (with the First Doctor), Colony in Space (with the Third Doctor), and Enlightenment (with the Fifth Doctor).
I don’t normally look at the uncredited cast members of an episode, but in this case William Gossling plays a Villager–he was also an uncredited Villager (the same Villager maybe?!) in The Daemons with the Third Doctor in Doctor Who, and had another uncredited role in The Tenth Planet with the First Doctor. Les Conrad is also an uncredited Villager, and has also appeared uncredited in Doctor Who: in The Massacre (with the First Doctor), The Space Pirates and The War Games (the Second Doctor), Doctor Who and the Silurians, The Ambassadors of Death, Terror of the Autons, and The Mind of Evil (the Third Doctor), Genesis of the Daleks (the Fourth Doctor) and The Twin Dilemma (the Sixth Doctor).
But what I really noticed is that the uncredited role of “Assassin in Sunglasses” was none other than Gareth Thomas, who would later play the title role in Blake’s 7! He’s looking pretty young here–he’d have been about 22 years old!
It’s funny to me that while it was the previous episode whose plot resembled a Mission Impossible episode (which admittedly, came later), it’s this one that borrows the title, in the tradition of The Girl from AUNTIE, From Venus with Love, and The Superlative Seven. Other than the title, there’s not much that the episode actually has to do with Mission Impossible.
Whatever realism the back half of this last Avengers season was developing is pretty much tossed away–or rather shrunk with a laser beam and then washed down a drain with a firehose. Steed and Emma deal with a missing government official which starts off as an intriguing mystery before quickly revealing that the guy was hit by a shrinking beam and then caught in a butterfly net. It’s a silly idea but presented to the audience literally and with great clarity, so there’s no doubt about what is happening. Indeed as the episode continues, there are extensive scenes of a miniaturized Steed and Emma (though not both together) climbing over oversized props in order to try to survive and outwit their enemies.
And it must be said that the visualization of these scenes is surprisingly convincing. I mean, you know they are oversized props, so it’s not convincing like it is watching Ant-Man in the modern day, but there is obviously a lot of thought given to how these scenes are shot. The miniaturized visuals are mostly done in long-shots, and primarily at the same angles that the sets or props would be seen if they were normal size. As a result, Emma running around in a shrunken state on a desk looks visually a lot like if you were taking a shot of a normal desk. It helps the audience take the the admittedly absurd premise seriously for the length of the episode.
Less effective is the comically silly foreign military man, Commander Schaeffer, who is definitely there to make Britain’s enemies look like buffoons. Still, he fulfills a necessary role, and he is balanced out in coolness points by having Doctor Who’s Nicholas Courtney on hand. Courtney has one of the first lines of the episode, and immediately his commanding voice cuts through. It’s just too bad that he dies so early on.
A couple of trivia points: one of the guards that Emma beats up is reading the novels of Jane Austen when we see him! And at one point, Emma steps out of a car that she is driving, and it is so low to the ground that one wonders if it has shrunk.
Jane Merrow (Susan) was one of the main guest stars in a memorable episode of The Prisoner called The Schizoid Man. Francis Matthews (Chivers) was the voice of Captain Scarlet on Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. Richard Leed was in Doctor Who, in the Fourth Doctor story The Sunmakers. Denny Powell, aka Dinny Powell (Karl) has some uncredited Doctor Who roles and stunt work, in The Ambassadors of Death, Terror of the Autons, and The Curse of Peladon (with the Third Doctor) and Genesis of the Daleks (with the Fourth Doctor).
Nicholas Courtney plays Gifford, the poor shmoe who gets washed down the drain a third of the way into the story. As mentioned, was a beloved figure on Doctor Who, having played Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart alongside the Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Seventh Doctors in 23 different stories, including The Invasion (with the Second Doctor). He also played the role in The Sarah Jane Adventures, and appeared in Doctor Who in another role with the First Doctor in The Daleks’ Masterplan. Also appearing in both The Daleks’ Masterplan and The Invasion was Kevin Stoney (Sir Gerald–the other victim of the shrinking ray). He also appeared in Revenge of the Cybermen (with the Fourth Doctor).
And at last we arrive at the end of Emma Peel’s era on The Avengers. Although in some ways, it really ended one episode earlier, which was actually shot as part of Diana Rigg’s last season on the show. In contrast, The Forget-Me-Knot was actually filmed as part of the next year’s set of episodes, featuring Linda Thorson as newcomer Tara King.
Accounts differ as to how exactly the episode came to be, but whatever the case it’s clear that Diana Rigg’s role is pretty limited. She’s around and she gets to beat some people up, but most of the time Emma (and almost everyone, really) is confused and sort of silly–the episode treats its gimmick of a drug that gives people amnesia as basically making sort of intoxicated. With all of this layered onto a pretty ho-hum plot (I’m not even clear what the bad guy was actually up to) it’s a pretty disappointing episode to say goodbye to Emma with–less a satisfying finale for her character then a slow, disappointing fade-out–although I like the bit where she is saying “He loves me / He loves me not” as she smashes bottles.
The exception of course is the stinger scene at the end, where Emma’s husband Mr. Peel returns from years of being lost in the jungle. Emma and Steed’s farewell is sweet and touching and legitimately emotional, including such elements as Steed actually calling Mrs. Peel by her first name, Emma encountering Tara in the stairway, and Peter Peel being revealed to be the spitting image of Steed. It’s a nice moment that has nothing to do with the story–in fact, it could have been the ending of any episode and worked just as well, except for the fact that Steed’s nonsensical “Rah boom de-ay!” at meeting Tara is a bit of a callback to her earlier appearance.
(However, that said, it’s not a perfect scene–Steed telling Mother over the phone that he “knows his taste” in a potential replacement for Emma is kind of icky sounding today. And Emma telling Tara how to stir Steed’s tea is just daft–that wasn’t part of Steed and Emma’s relationship at all.)
Tara King completely fails to impress in her first appearance, making one wish that maybe someone like Charlotte Rampling (from The Superlative Seven) was the new co-star instead. She’s comes across here like a silly school girl with a crush–a huge step down from Emma (or from Cathy Gale, for that matter). The one moment that I thought was a perfect set-up for Tara to really show her stuff–when the last bad guy is running past her–gets resolved not by having her beat him up, but by having her knock him out with her handbag. The reveal that it has a brick in it is funny but not the kind of cool that we are looking for in Steed’s new partner. I don’t really remember any of the Tara King episodes (and they are not on my DVD set) but the impression that one gets here is that the show is going in directions I’m less interested in.
Actually, there are a bunch of elements with this episode that show the series is going in some new directions. In addition to Tara’s introduction (and the revised ending credits), there is a lot more exploration of Steed’s actual work, including a headquarters, training, and lots of other agents–up until this point it’s always been kept really oblique. And most obviously, Steed gained a boss: Patrick Newell’s “Mother,” who fits the show’s quirky style but seems like would be a distraction from the show I enjoyed watching, rather than enhancement.
Now like I said, I haven’t seen the Tara King episodes, at least not that I remember, so I can’t actually comment on them. But the stuff that is set up in this episode doesn’t pique my interest at all. (Although, I thought it was funny when Steed basically neck-pinched Tara.)
Patrick Newell debuts here as Mother. He had appeared in the first Emma Peel episode, The Town of No Return, and in Doctor Who in the Fourth Doctor story The Android Invasion. Jeremy Young (George Burton) has also appeared in The Avengers before (here and here), and was in two Doctor Who stories in the First Doctor era: the original story An Unearthly Child and in the one part Mission to the Unknown (which didn’t actually have the Doctor in it). Alan Lake (Karl) played was in Doctor Who, in the Fourth Doctor story Underworld. Douglas Sheldon (Brad) was in the First Doctor Doctor Who story The Daleks’ Masterplan, as Kirksen, the criminal whose actions led to the death of companion Katarina. John Lee (Dr. Soames) was Alydon in the original Dalek story of Doctor Who, generally known as The Daleks, with the First Doctor.
The Avengers – The Complete Emma Peel Megaset
Patrick Macnee as John Steed
(6 February 1922 – 25 June 2015)
Diana Rigg as Emma Peel
(20 July 1938 – 10 September 2020)