The Avengers 6.2 – Death’s Door

For the third year running, ABC brought The Avengers in to bat for a show that they axed in December. This time out, it was a western called Custer which ran for 17 weeks opposite Lost in Space on CBS and the mighty The Virginian on NBC. I would say that The Virginian‘s 90-minute format has worked against it in the long term. It wasn’t shown nearly as often in syndicated repeats in the 1970s and 1980s as other westerns and so is largely unknown today by under-fifties, but it was really freaking popular at the time. Neither The Avengers nor Space got particularly great ratings in this slot, and indeed CBS didn’t renew Space after it finished its run.

Weirdly, Lost in Space cruised to its cancellation despite leading in to two of the most popular sitcoms of the day, The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres. The Avengers, meanwhile, was the lead-in to one of the most unusual of the sixties, which, coming from the decade that brought you sitcoms about witches, genies, cavemen, talking horses, talking cars, identical cousins, and families of Addams and Munster, really is saying something. The Second Hundred Years starred Monte Markham as a 33 year-old prospector who was frozen in a glacier in 1900 and thawed out 67 years later, only to find his infant son is now a 67 year-old man. I’ve looked at some bootleg bits of this show on YouTube and it really is an oddly entertaining artifact, but I’m not sure whether ABC was really trying all that hard on Wednesdays with a lineup of The Avengers, this deeply weird sitcom, and a movie of the week.

The American run of Diana Rigg’s last episodes actually began with one produced and shown last in the UK, “Mission… Highly Improbable,” which we’ll get to in June. “Death’s Door” was the second one shown in Britain and the fourth one here. It’s a mess, which is why I’m just sticking with the British transmission order for these! It was written by Philip Levene, and the guest stars include Allan Cuthbertson and a fellow named William Lucas, who often played tough guy parts in the sixties. Not at all a bad episode, although I think our son was a little disappointed that the tag scene this time wasn’t as funny as the last one.

The Avengers 6.1 – Return of the Cybernauts

A quickish word before beginning: the DVDs, along with the books written about The Avengers in the 1980s, and the websites of today, all call the color Diana Rigg stories “season five” and the Linda Thorson stories “season six.” For a while in the 1990s, the pendulum of accurate research pointed the right way: the 24 Rigg stories were produced and transmitted in two separate batches, thus making seven seasons. The Thorson stories were produced in two separate batches and transmitted that way in the US, but shown as one long season in the UK.

Season five is the batch of 16 color episodes that we’ve already seen. These were made between September 1966 and April 1967, and shown between January and May 1967 in both the UK and the US.

Season six is made of the final eight Rigg episodes and the first seven Thorson episodes. These were made between June 1967 and March 1968, with a considerable… let’s call it a hiccup in production during about the last seven weeks of ’67, which we’ll discuss later. In the UK, the first eight of these were shown as the sixth season, from September to November 1967. All fifteen went out as one season in America from January to May 1968. I number them using their first broadcast date, whether in the US or the UK.

Season seven is made of the other 26 Thorson adventures. These were made over the course of a year, from the spring of 1968 to March 1969. The US and UK broadcasts of these both went from September 1968 to May 1969, with the US finishing first and the UK broadcasts including the seven previous Thorson stories dropped in at what seems like random intervals.

Yes, I know you don’t agree, so you don’t have to waste time trying to tell me.

Anyway, so September 1967 came around and The Avengers were back on British television with a big season premiere guest starring Peter Cushing and featuring, like the title says, the return of the Cybernauts, one of the very, very few antagonists to come back for a second engagement in this show. Really, it’s just them, Ambassador Brodny, and a group called Intercrime that nobody remembers.

Cushing plays Paul Beresford, the brother of Michael Gough’s Professor Armstrong from the first Cybernaut story, and he is just brilliant, smooth and debonair in every scene. Watch how Macnee and Rigg afford him the space to be the star villain. They share several scenes together because their characters don’t initially know he’s one of their diabolical masterminds, and they play off him. They’re the guests on The Paul Beresford Show. It’s amazingly good and generous acting to let Cushing lead his scenes.

The story, written by Philip Levene, is huge fun. It’s got lots of great location filming, and the Cybernaut – it’s just the one this time – gets to rampage through several scenes and break lots of people’s necks. Everybody gets great dialogue, and the villain’s deeply sadistic plan had our son extraordinarily worried for Mrs. Peel. He denied it, of course, but he hid his face and curled up in his mom’s lap when things look bleak and Peter Cushing is being incredibly evil at the end. But as much as he enjoyed the Cybernaut’s killer karate chops and the big climactic fight, his absolute favorite moment came in the tag scene, when Steed wires a toaster the wrong way and blasts two slices through Mrs. Peel’s ceiling. Kid laughed like a hyena.

Some other very good actors are in this story as well. Above, that’s the great Fulton Mackay along with Charles Tingwell, who we remember from the first series of Catweazle, as kidnapped scientists. Noel Coleman and Aimi MacDonald also have small roles. In yet another weird blog acting coincidence, we saw Michael Gough just last night in Young Indiana Jones, and he’s briefly in this story as well with some archive footage as Dr. Armstrong. That villain’s henchman, Benson, returned in this episode. He’s played by Frederick Jaeger, and we’ll see him tomorrow night in Doctor Who.

The Avengers 5.16 – Who’s Who???

The bodyswap episode is a pretty common trope in fantasy TV, as well as some sillier sitcoms, but I contend that The Avengers’ version is the best of all of them. In fairness, it’s very, very slow by contemporary standards. The idea was pretty outre for 1967, and this assumes that nobody in the audience has ever seen anything like this before. On the one hand, I adore the two “important announcements” at the commercial breaks, explaining the setup to viewers just tuning in, but on the other hand, getting there takes forever.

This works because the acting is just so darn good. Freddie Jones and Patricia Haines’ characters, Basil and Lola, are just caricatures, enough for Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg to adopt their mannerisms quickly and have fun doing something new. Everybody loves watching the villain with Mrs. Peel’s face chewing gum while dancing to trendy jazz. Lots of TV shows have done that, but what few have been able to enjoy are actors as good as Jones and Haines playing the leads. They do absolutely perfect imitations of Steed and Mrs. Peel, from their body language to their diction, you never doubt that these two are our heroes.

I love this one because its so fun, but I’m afraid that in my hyperbolic way, I oversold it to our son. I told him that it would knock his socks off, but while he enjoyed this so much that he jumped up and danced in place during the car chase and whooped at the fight scenes, he made sure to show me that his socks did not actually leave his feet. I’ll make sure he knows the next one’s more down to earth.

The Avengers 5.15 – The Joker

“The Joker” is the third of the color Mrs. Peel adventures to be a rewrite of a Cathy Gale story. The original was really among my least favorite from those days, but the rewrite is an amazing change of pace. It’s a dark, grim, and very frightening Hitchcock-style thriller with Mrs. Peel being stalked in a creepy old house by an unpleasant face from her past. But who’s playing the baddie, Ronald Lacey or Peter Jeffrey? I think it’s brilliant, and Diana Rigg is on fire, but I’m glad the show was able to dip in and out of whimsy and not be as intense as this every week!

Our son didn’t enjoy it very much. We asked whether he liked it or if it was too weird. “A hundred thousand and eighty-eight percent too weird,” he said.

I did spot an odd little bit of synchronicity, though. By chance, I watched something else earlier this afternoon that was written by Brian Clemens, an episode of Thriller with John Carson and Joanna Dunham. Both stories have racks of knives hanging in the kitchens of the home where they’re set, and in both stories, dangerous people slowly walk past the knives and run their hands across them.

The Avengers 5.14 – Something Nasty in the Nursery

In a TV series full of great death scenes, Clive Dunn’s murder at the hand of a jack-in-the-box is one of the all-time best. The story, by Philip Levene, is not honestly among my favorites, but I love this moment!

“Something Nasty in the Nursery” was one of the first color Avengers episodes that we’d got our hands on in the mid-eighties. Like “Never, Never Say Die,” everybody we knew got a copy of this one. I was thinking about those video trading days earlier this week and it really was such a strange time. I guess in part because there were so many bootleg outlets churning out allegedly legit copies to legit outlets, it was a show that everybody could pick up an episode here or there for five or ten dollars. In fact, we’d occasionally flip right past tapes of color episodes, thinking we’d come back to them, in the hopes of finding an Honor Blackman tape at Blockbuster or Camelot Music.

I’m not sure why “Something Nasty in the Nursery” entered our orbit so quickly or where I got my first copy of this one. I didn’t see some of the other color Mrs. Peel stories, notably the next two and “You Have Just Been Murdered,” for years and years, but those old days seem so strange from a modern perspective. I’d find somebody who had twenty random Avengers episodes, including four I didn’t have, and I’d have twenty-two of them, including six he needed. I’d offer the fellow three tapes with those six episodes in return for three tapes with the four I needed on two, and maybe a Champions or a Saint on the third. Weird times.

Anyway, some other familiar Avengers faces are in the cast this time, including Paul Eddington, Dudley Foster, and Patrick Newell. A guy named Geoffrey Sumner, probably best known from The Army Game, plays a general. In the late nineties, I had a silly website, either on Geocities or the old NEGIA thing in Athens, that pretended to be an episode guide to Professor X / Colonel X, an old Who fan in-joke. I “cast” Sumner as the first Professor X. Funny how I can forget about all the other Professors in favor of work they actually did, but Sumner is forever the William Hartnell analog in a silly fan joke I ran into the ground, and nothing more.

The Avengers 5.13 – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station

“Hard to follow, but fun to watch!” That’s our son’s verdict on this story, which I think is the only episode of The Avengers to go out under a pseudonym. Roger Marshall wrote the original story, Brian Clemens reworked it, and the final credit goes to “Brian Sheriff.” There aren’t too many familiar-to-me faces in the story. John Laurie plays a railroad enthusiast, and Isla Blair is one of the members of the criminal gang.

Since we have next to no experience with inter-city train travel in the southeast US, I’ve always been a little bit interested in stories that feature railway lines and timetables and disused stations. Sure, anybody reading Christie or Sayers’ novels where somebody’s alibi is established by the sound of the tunnel that the 4:50 from Walthamstow enters blowing the horn twice has a considerable advantage over me, but I make do. Of course, our son has even less experience than me. He’s taken the subway in Atlanta a few times, that’s about it. So we had to pause and explain a little more of this than usual. The concept that the ticket collector is punching out a special microdot from counterfeit tickets just sailed over his head.

He was also so confused by the name of the derelict station, Chase Halt, that it didn’t even sound like a place to him. I reminded him that there’s an episode of The Secret Service with a similarly-named station, and of course in his second series, Catweazle lived in an abandoned station called Duck Halt. It turns out that a “halt” is, or was, a very small station with limited service and few amenities, and most of the railways stopped using them in the 1950s, which is why they kept turning up as locations in 1960s and 1970s television. I always like it when we learn something together.

Unless I’m mistaken, “The Correct Way to Kill” was the first episode of The Avengers from its color era where somebody shows up at Steed’s apartment (# 3 Stable Mews) intending to murder him. At least Philip Madoc survived that encounter. Tonight’s might be the first time that the wannabe killer ends up dead himself. That’s going to start happening a lot more frequently!

The Avengers 5.12 – The Superlative Seven

“The Superlative Seven” loses a little of its luster when the story turns into And Then There Were None on a mysterious island, because most of the seven in question act incredibly illogically. It’s still a very fun mystery, and everything getting to the island is fabulous. Seven experts in physical combat have all been invited to a fancy dress party on an airplane, only to learn that they’ve accepted invitations from different people. And then the plane takes off with nobody at the controls.

The episode is best known for its amazing cast, which includes Charlotte Rampling, BRIAN BLESSED, and Donald Sutherland. Sutherland had been doing a lot of work in the UK in the mid-sixties before he became a big-name film star. In another one of those odd coincidences, Marie and I saw him in the last episode of The Saint that we watched together, just last week. Sutherland and John Hollis play the two villains behind the cat-and-mouse game.

Our son really got into this one, and he was completely convinced that Charlotte Rampling’s character was the mystery killer. He enjoyed it tremendously, and was a little disappointed that he was mistaken. In fairness, however, the villains did cheat.

Oh, one last note: our son didn’t know what the word superlative meant. I told him that it meant magnificent.

The Avengers 5.11 – Epic

No program’s perfect. I’ve never enjoyed “Epic,” because it feels like everybody’s in on a joke that they’re hell-bent on running into the ground. Peter Wyngarde’s in it, and he seems to be having fun, at least.

Our son enjoyed it more than I did, although he was a little confused by some of it. He was very excited and worried by the conveyor belt-sawblade climax – an old deathtrap of silent movies that had infuriated him in a Batman episode that had been shown about a year before this – and went upstairs humming Laurie Johnson’s Avengers theme.

The Avengers 5.10 – Never, Never Say Die

Back in the days of VHS tape trading, “Never, Never Say Die” was one that pretty much everybody had, in part because I made certain that everybody I ever ran across had a copy. “Oh, you’ve never seen The Avengers? Hang on, I’ll copy you a tape…”

This must have been a huge thrill for American audiences in 1967. All of the show’s television competitors – The Man From UNCLE, Mission: Impossible, errr… Amos Burke, I guess – could dig into our deep bench of great guest stars, but none of them were getting Christopher Lee.

This episode was made in February 1967 and shown about five weeks later. Lee was phenomenally busy then making movies for Hammer and Amicus and whoever it was that made the Fu Manchu films. And sure, Rasputin the Mad Monk wasn’t breaking box office records or anything, but the young audiences who were loving his Dracula, his Frankenstein’s Monster, his Rasputin, and I suppose his Fu Manchu definitely tuned in to The Avengers that week. The show was already the coolest thing on Friday nights; this fun homage to all of Lee’s famous film work just cemented it. When he came back to play a different character in 1969, they gave him a chance to stretch a little bit more than they did here!

Also starring this time, there’s Jeremy Young in a nice, meaty part as Professor Frank N. Stone’s assistant, along with Christopher Benjamin and John Junkin in small roles. The script is by Philip Levene, and while there are certainly better and funnier episodes of the show, I found that this was a very good starter episode for newcomers. It hooked several of my friends in the eighties.

The episode also gave me a chance to introduce our son to the brain teaser about what’s on television in all the fictional worlds of television shows. Seinfeld once did a series about a potential TV series “about nothing” for the character of Jerry to play, but that still didn’t answer the question of what NBC would have been showing Thursdays at 9 if Jerry, George, and Elaine tuned in one evening. Doctor Who fandom used to have a long-running gag about the BBC of the Doctor’s world having a Saturday evening serial called either Professor X or Colonel X, following the successful Nightshade stories of the 1950s. But because Steed and Mrs. Peel play by their own rules, the show that occupies The Avengers‘ timeslot in their world is… The Avengers! How else to explain Mrs. Peel starting the story by sitting back in her living room to watch “The Cybernauts” from season four?

The Avengers 5.9 – The Correct Way to Kill

In the early days of color TV, producers would often remake black and white episodes. It showed a little bit of foresight – in time, many channels would stop running black and white TV – but it sometimes felt like a cheat. I think that Bewitched and Gunsmoke may hold the booby prize for most color remakes. With The Avengers, it made a little sense. The three videotaped seasons were not shown in America for many years, so the audience never had the chance to see “The Charmers,” which had used a largely similar script as this a few years before.

“The Charmers” is witty, but “The Correct Way to Kill,” Brian Clemens’ rewrite, is completely hilarious. It’s one of my all-time favorites, just full of sight gags and double entendres. Steed’s partner for much of the episode is Comrade Olga Volowski, played by Anna Quayle, while Mrs. Peel is briefly teamed with another agent from “the other side” played by Philip Madoc.

The plot is hilariously, or perhaps uncomfortably, topical. Some third party, their agents dressed as London “city gents,” is murdering foreign agents on British soil. Steed is outraged, in his unflappable way. Surely “the other side” would have the decency to recall their agents and kill them at home instead of doing it in Britain! Maybe in the sixties, Comrade Steed. These days, agents from “the other side” drop dead in London every month or so.

Anyway, Clemens just has a hoot with Olga’s dialogue as she tries to understand Steed’s decadent, subtle ways, while Mrs. Peel learns the hard way that a little cheating in espionage, even when there’s meant to be a truce, is to be expected. The episode’s full of great familiar faces like Terence Alexander, Peter Barkworth, Michael Gough, and Joanna Jones, and it climaxes with a downright amazing swordfight. It’s a great, great episode, and if you’ve never seen it, you should check it out.

The Avengers 5.8 – The Hidden Tiger

Mood affects enjoyment so much, and a bad mood can knock even a favorite thing down six or seven notches. My “favorite” example is an visit about a decade ago to Dave Poe’s BBQ in Marietta GA. It’s one of my ten or eleven favorite Atlanta-area barbecue places, and the sibling squabbling of my two oldest kids ruined the meal so much that I didn’t bother returning for at least three years.

Last night, I was preoccupied with some business as we watched Philip Levene’s “The Hidden Tiger,” which is one of everybody’s favorite color Avengers episodes. I’ve loved it since the first time I saw it, maybe thirty years ago, and because it was the wrong darn night to watch a great episode of television, it all fell flat to me. Bah. We should have postponed everything and tried again later.

On the other hand, our son really enjoyed the story and says that it’s also one of his favorites, so I’m glad he got the chance to see it as soon as possible. I like the way there’s such an effective shift in tone about halfway through. It’s a played-straight hunt for a large wild animal for about twenty minutes, and then it becomes a whimsical investigation into three criminals with cat names, Mr. Cheshire, Miss Angora, and Dr. Manx, played by Ronnie Barker, Gabrielle Drake, and Lyndon Brook. I think our son appreciated some villains who weren’t at all scary. I know he really loved Mr. Cheshire’s silly habit of drinking milk by lapping it gently with his tongue! Add in some awful puns and lots of cats roaming the corridors of the PURRR organization, and you’ve got a silly hour that kids are guaranteed to enjoy more than any grouchy grownups on the sofa.