The Avengers 7.3 – You’ll Catch Your Death

“You’ll Catch Your Death” is the first script for The Avengers from Jeremy Burnham, who would contribute a few more stories this season. I didn’t think this was great, but I enjoyed it more than I remembered it this time around, which gives me hope for some of Burnham’s other offerings! Notable guests this time: Sylvia Kay, Fulton Mackay, Valentine Dyall, perennial henchman and thug Dudley Sutton, and Roland Culver, who the episode tries tricking us into thinking is the villain. No, it’s not a bad story, really, with some particularly nice location filming, but when it was first screened in America in October of 1968, not many people were watching.

By the time the nineties rolled around, teevee fans had made some assumptions and set some myths in stone. There was a received wisdom about the occasional appearances of British programming on American network television, and a lot of fan myths had taken hold. Some of us were lamenting, for some oddball reason nobody can quite remember anymore, that Red Dwarf or Absolutely Fabulous couldn’t get a deal on a major American network. And we looked back, as best we could, about the history of British TV shows in the US, and we got a lot of things wrong. Like The Avengers being a hit.

The first British-made drama to get a prime-time network run seems to have been Danger Man, although a few other ITC-made shows like Ivanhoe might have made the rounds of first-run syndication before it. In the summer of 1965, CBS bought the first of the one-hour seasons of Danger Man, gave it the spiffy new title Secret Agent, and finally had something decent to program against – of all things – The Lawrence Welk Show on Saturday nights, which had been kicking CBS’s rear.

Secret Agent wasn’t a hit, but it stood its ground, attracted younger viewers, and – this is the key – cost less than anything that might have been made domestically. I wouldn’t say that it opened the floodgates, but the following season, ABC brought over The Baron and The Avengers to fill holes in its schedule in the last five months before the network moved to full color, and there were many other examples over the next few years. NBC networked The Saint after the black and white episodes had been successful in first-run syndication, and gave The Champions a three-month run. It wasn’t just the action-adventure shows, either. Some Marty Feldman material had a network home in America as specials, a chunk of Dean Martin’s variety show was made in the UK, and there was an infamous incident in the mid-seventies where ABC bought the fourth series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and ran the episodes in a late-night slot so severely edited that the Pythons went to court over it and won.

None of these examples came from American network executives wanting to run something prestigious or artistic for the love of brilliant television. They came from American network executives wanting to save a few bucks. In many cases, these runs came about when they looked at the schedule and saw something that they did believe in and wished would thrive getting thrashed by another network. None of these British shows were hits, not even The Avengers. It never ranked in the top 30 shows and it performed worse with every passing season.

The first American batch ran in the dead zone of Monday night at 10. It certainly got some buzz, and a strong cult audience of teens and twentysomethings, enough to justify making a second order as a midseason replacement for the following year. This run – the first 16 color Mrs. Peel stories – ran Friday nights, and placed a distant second or third to the top 20 CBS Friday Night Movies. The third order got completely creamed by The Virginian and, in any other universe, would have been the end of the road for this series, but then something downright weird happened.

CBS’s Gunsmoke had been a big hit for more than a decade. In early 1968, NBC threw a goofy midseason comedy-variety show at it and watched the Nielsen numbers start to skyrocket. Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In became the most talked-about show on TV, the “water cooler” program of its day, and by the end of its three-month run, it was in the top ten as well. This almost never happened in American television. If a show’s in the top ten, then its time slot competition isn’t. It’s extraordinarily rare for competing shows to end up in the top ten together. Laugh-In came back in the fall to huge, anxious audiences and the numbers didn’t slump for years. It finished the 1968-69 season the highest-rated show on TV, and Gunsmoke ranked sixth.

When something like this happens, of course, that means that whatever’s on the other channels opposite these juggernauts is about as far from the top ten as a program can get. ABC’s options against the Scylla of Gunsmoke and the Charybdis of Laugh-In were to either air the least expensive program they could find or go dark and give the time back to its affiliates. And that is the only reason why they ordered 26 more episodes of The Avengers: because buying it from London was a lot cheaper than making 26 episodes of something else in Hollywood.

To the producers’ credit, they never gave up. The show was only being made at all because ABC was paying most of the production cost, but they kept working on delivering a quality product for all the other territories that were buying it. As I’m sure we’ll see, this last year certainly will have some fumbles, but also a few examples of stretching the format, trying new things, and getting away from the regular situation of oddball deaths at the hands of diabolical masterminds. Of course, that’s really all that this particular episode is, but there are some very off-kilter stories ahead.

Postscript: As I was writing this, after watching an episode about lethal common cold germs, our son had such a sneezing fit that his security blanket had to go straight into the wash. First I ever heard of catching a cold from watching a TV show about catching a cold.

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Doctor Who: The Horns of Nimon (parts three and four)

I owe “Death to the Daleks” an apology. This one’s worse.

The kid really enjoyed it, though. He got a little frustrated during episode three, because he couldn’t understand what the Nimon was planning. I think it’s more that he thought the show had explained all the details and he missed them. Reassured that none of us knew what the silly minotaur-dude was planning, he settled back in and had a ball. He thought it was very exciting and loved the gunfights in episode four. Of course, it ends with a big explosion, and those are always satisfying for him. And there, I think, is where I will leave it. I’ll let you know in 2038 whether it’s improved any.

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Doctor Who: The Horns of Nimon (parts one and two)

Hoo, boy. “The Horns of Nimon” really is a mess. The story goes that with Douglas Adams working hard on writing the final six episodes of the season himself, he turned to his predecessor as script editor, Anthony Read, to give him four workable episodes which wouldn’t require very much of his attention. Apparently, Adams had less involvement with “Nimon” than any of the other serials that year, although I’ve always thought that the character of the co-pilot, with his catchphrase “Weakling scum!”, is a close cousin of that Vogon guard in Hitch-Hiker’s Guide who enjoys shouting “Resistance is useless!”

The co-pilot also gets to shout “Don’t play the fool with me!” That’s the second time in two stories. Somebody should really pay attention to letting the bad guys speak in those silly cliches.

Honestly, it’s bad, but it’s not as bad as either its reputation or as bad as I remember it. The stars are having fun, and so’s the famous actor playing the main villain, Graham Crowden. As with the other “middle” shows of this season, they’re having fun at the expense of the drama, but it’s the sort of fun that kids eat up. This one has a monster so ridiculous that it didn’t give Mr. Timid here even a hint of a fright. He thinks all these villains are being “too mean,” but he says it’s entertaining.

Plus, Lalla Ward just plain looks amazing in that fox hunt outfit. I know you can barely notice her in that picture above, what with that extra behind her stealing the frame by looking hypnotized, but it really is a terrific costume.

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Agent Carter 2.2 – A View in the Dark

I’m not kidding; I absolutely love the speed of this show. There’s a lot to be said for the more careful and deliberate plotting of a sixties show like The Avengers, but so much happens in an hour of this series. It’s not like I’m completely unaware of contemporary TV, even though I haven’t watched all that many shows over the last eight or nine years, but this program’s pace is exhilarating. When it does slow down for a quiet middle-of-the-episode bit of character development, it feels like we’ve already watched a full hour.

The pace, however, kind of left our son a little bit behind tonight. We had to try and recap all the various players and what we think their motivations are. Everything is centered around the super-scientific macguffin at Isodyne Energy. It’s not a symbiote, like I thought last time, but something they’re calling “zero matter” which was left behind after an atomic energy test ripped a hole in space. By the end of this adventure, Carter’s scientist informant, played by Reggie Allen, has disappeared after an explosion at the lab, and Whitney Frost, who evidently wanted to steal and sell it, is left with a livid, alien-looking black scar on her forehead. She may have to wear a gold mask to cover that.

Other than the nebulous “explain what I just watched,” the other, specific, thing we had to explain was what Daniel Sousa’s girlfriend meant when she talked about a bear claw she’d picked up for him. I wonder whether Koch’s Bakery downtown makes those. Kid deserves a good bear claw.

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The Avengers 7.2 – Super Secret Cypher Snatch

Halfway through Tony Williamson’s “Super Secret Cypher Snatch,” the stuntmen put on one of my all-time favorite car chase scenes, albeit a criminally short one. The villains are in a window cleaning van with a long ladder and go after Steed, who’s driving an open-top 1920s Rolls Royce. The stunt team excelled themselves at several points in this story, including some terrific fights and a barely-connected-to-the-plot teaser pre-credits scene in which one fellow jumps off a motorbike to tackle another dude while a helicopter hovers over them, but that bit with the Rolls is my favorite. That’s terrific driving, speeding right on the lead car’s rear bumper while bringing a ladder down on its driver.

I’ve always liked this episode, in part because the guest cast is, as always, just so terrific. Recognizable faces this time: Allan Cuthbertson, Ivor Dean, Donald Gee, Simon Oates, and Nicholas Smith. Although Ivor Dean kind of lets everybody down by forgetting to hold his breath when he’s supposed to be playing a corpse. But it’s also just a fine story, structured well enough to give the audience plenty of clues how the villains are breaking into a top-security establishment while we wait for the heroes to figure it out.

Also this time: it’s the return of Patrick Newell as Mother, who we met in “The Forget-Me-Knot.” I think here’s one point where The Avengers starts to fumble. Steed and his associate do not need a boss. Back in the videotape days, Steed occasionally reported to a character called One-Ten, played by Douglas Muir in five episodes. Another boss figure, Charles, appeared twice in season three. Steed reports to a colonel by telephone once in season four, and there was Major B, head of “the floral network,” in “Who’s Who???” For the most part, these characters only appeared when there was one of those very rare plots that dealt specifically with Steed’s organization. That’s the case when we first met Mother.

Unfortunately, we can blame the American network for Mother becoming a semi-regular. He appears in 19 of the last 26 episodes. Some muckity-mucks at ABC apparently decided that they really liked the character in “The Forget-Me-Knot” and asked the producers to keep him around as a semi-regular. Since ABC had, against expectations, renewed the series for a full run, I guess that humoring them and hiring Newell was the least the producers could do!

About those expectations… I’m a little overdue in talking about this here, but the renewal of this show really was unexpected. Next time, I’ll talk about the nearly unique set of circumstances that led to these 26 episodes being made at all… and why everybody kind of knew up front that they’d be the last episodes they’d make for quite some time.

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Doctor Who: Nightmare of Eden (parts three and four)

It’s not often that the climax of a Doctor Who undermines everything to quite the degree this one does. On the one hand, it’s kind of nice to have a Bob Baker script that doesn’t fall apart after episode one. This one waits until the fourth. But even before we get there, we have to contend with the Mandrels, who don’t rank on anybody’s list of favorite Who beasts. Some newspaper critic back in ’79 called them refugees from The Muppet Show, and he’s right. Tom Baker could have played this scene with Sweetums and Doglion, plus a laugh track, and it wouldn’t have looked any sillier.

Then there’s one of Tom’s most ill-advised ad-libs. You get used to Tom overacting and doing whatever he wants for a laugh in this period of the show, because it usually works at least a little. And so we get to the infamous incident where, offscreen, he’s being attacked by a Mandrel and bellows “My fingers, my arms… my everything!” and emerges with his clothes in tatters. It did get a big smile from our seven year-old son, who enjoyed the mayhem, but it completely undermined the simple moment just ninety-some seconds later when he just quietly says “Go away” to the villain. You can’t play the same page as both a pantomime and as a serious drama. The bigger will always overpower the smaller, which helps to explain why this story is so poorly regarded.

The villain doesn’t help matters much. I’m not sure whether it’s Lewis Fiander’s silly attempt at a German accent or his silly Roger McGuinn granny glasses that undermines the character more.

I think you can see a little more of Douglas Adams in this serial than in the previous one. The concept of two spaceships warping into each other and occupying the same space is a pleasantly high-SF idea, and the two customs officers who start complicating the story at the end of part two are bureaucracy-obsessed cousins of Shooty and Bang-Bang from Hitch-Hiker’s Guide. (They’re also the spiritual ancestors of the Caretakers in the 1987 serial “Paradise Towers,” I think.)

But credit where it’s due: this was Bob Baker’s last contribution to Doctor Who after writing or co-writing eight serials over ten seasons. Among other credits after this, he co-created Into the Labyrinth for HTV and wrote a few episodes of the long-running cop show Bergerac before finding his biggest success as writer for the Wallace & Gromit films.

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Doctor Who: Nightmare of Eden (parts one and two)

Sometime in the second half of 1984, I convinced my parents to drop my younger brother and me in downtown Atlanta for my first con, one of those Creation shows that were common at the time. We spent a few hours drooling over comic books that we couldn’t afford and several more hours in one of the video rooms. They showed “Nightmare of Eden” to a packed house. It had aired on WGTV locally a few months previously, so I’d seen it before. It was my first Doctor Who repeat. And the audience loved it. They treated the monsters seriously and they laughed at the Doctor’s jokes. When David Daker’s character tells the Doctor that the company that the Doctor claims to represent went bankrupt twenty years ago, the Doctor instantly says “Well, I wondered why I hadn’t been paid,” and the room just exploded with laughter.

Our son also really likes it, apart from the scary monsters, which are only briefly glimpsed in the first two episodes. There’s a lot to like so far. The down sides are pretty minor. I think the worst offense is that, not content with letting a “Have a care, Doctor!” slip through in the last story, our beloved script editor allowed a “Don’t play the fool with me” this time, but we’ll live.

Behind the scenes, “Nightmare of Eden” was written by Bob Baker. It’s his only solo Who script after co-writing eight serials with Dave Martin. It was partially directed by Alan Bromly, an older BBC veteran who was approaching the end of a long career, but he actually quit midway through one of the recording sessions and the producer, Graham Williams, had to actually step in and finish it himself, probably growling that what he really wanted to do three years previously was produce a nice, safe cop show without one crisis after another like he was forced to manage on Doctor Who. Apparently he was already thinking of quitting, and this troubled production was the final straw. More on those troubles next time.

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The Last Unicorn (1982)

As we continue our occasional dips into eighties fantasy films, this afternoon we watched a celebrated animated film with a large fan base. The Last Unicorn is based on Peter S. Beagle’s very popular novel. I use these qualifiers because this is one of those movies that many, many people enjoy a whole lot more than my son and I did. We squirmed all through the exasperating thing.

Last year, we watched a Rankin/Bass film from the seventies called The Last Dinosaur. I noted then that Rankin/Bass had a long association with a variety of Japanese studios. There’s probably a really fascinating series of blog posts to be written – by people who know this stuff better than I do! – about these international co-productions, and The Last Unicorn is one of these. It was animated by a studio called Topcraft, which might have been the company that Rankin/Bass went with most often on their films and TV specials. Topcraft also collaborated with several other animation houses on all kinds of cartoons that you’ve seen like Gatchaman, Maya the Bee, and the Macross movie, though they folded in the mid-eighties.

I guess elements of this film are nicely animated, and I liked the character and setting designs, but I was constantly distracted by the intrusive music, the incredibly poor editing, and the godawful sound mix, which I understand has been addressed in more recent transfers of the movie. My wife picked up a copy of this a very long time ago and was a little disappointed that her fellas didn’t share her enjoyment of it.

There’s a little more to like, including terrific performances by Angela Lansbury and Christopher Lee as villains, and the instantly-recognizable Paul Frees and Don Messick in smaller roles, but the movie starts with the double whammy of this godawful title theme, a dentist’s office dirge by the then-popular adult contemporary act America, and an endless opening scene where a deliberately annoying butterfly deflects all of the unicorn’s questions with song fragments and silly wordplay. I was fed up with this movie by the eight minute mark.

Our son lasted longer than I did, but when they get to King Haggard’s castle, the momentum this movie had just deflates. It’s interminable. He got up and wandered to the other sofa. “This is very boring,” he sighed. I hoped Paul Frees’s character would come back from wherever he teleported himself to. No, instead there was a love song. The worst, the sappiest love song ever. The climax picked things up, but couldn’t save it. It’s a decent enough story, so hopefully when his mother reads Beagle’s novel to him down the line – or when he permits her to read it to him – he’ll enjoy it a lot more.

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