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The Avengers 7.26 – Bizarre

The final episode of The Avengers has more holes in its plot than there are getaway doors in Mr. Happychap’s cemetery, but our son didn’t mind a bit. He chuckled almost all the way through this, shouting “This IS bizarre” with the opening shot of a barefoot woman in a nightdress collapsing in a snowy field and cheering on the final fight at the end, but mostly laughing over Roy Kinnear’s great performance as Mr. Bagpipes Happychap.

Poor Mr. Happychap’s services are being misused by the show’s last diabolical mastermind, Fulton Mackay, who keeps sending Happychap the supposed corpses of rich financiers and then spiriting them away to his underground pleasure palace, stuffed with fruit, wine, and cute girls. Brian Clemens basically rewrote his Adam Adamant Lives! adventure “The Terribly Happy Embalmers” as farce, and had the bad guys actually playing fair with their clients. I’ve honestly never enjoyed this story much at all before this afternoon, but my son’s right. Kinnear really is hilarious. I had a good time watching this with him.

The most bizarre moment, however, actually comes at the end, when Mother breaks the fourth wall and makes the quite indefensible statement to the viewers at home that Steed and Tara would be back. “You can depend on it.” Back in August, shortly after we started watching this final run, I explained the strange circumstances behind ABC’s order of these last 26 episodes. The Avengers spent the 1968-69 season in the bottom five of the Nielsens, mainly because of its competition, but also because by the spring of 1969, the spy craze was dead. It’s why George Lazenby declined to make any more James Bond films after his first one. People often mock Lazenby for that “mistake,” but look around at 1969. Can you blame him? Dean Martin’s entertaining series of Matt Helm movies had ended, and NBC even cancelled Get Smart. Like all the other secret agent stuff of the sixties, this show was yesterday’s news. There’s no way ABC would have ordered more, and the show’s producers had to have known that.

Without ABC’s money, The Avengers couldn’t have continued at the same budget. But it’s just as well it ended when it did. The series was running on fumes and goodwill by the end, and everyone involved needed a nice long break. Seven years would pass before Patrick Macnee would don his bowler hat again for the thunderously good first series of The New Avengers.

We won’t make our readers wait quite seven years to see what would happen next, but we are going to keep The New Avengers on the shelf for a few months while we look at some other things. I think we’ll meet Purdey and Gambit in the summer. Stay tuned!

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The Avengers 7.25 – Pandora

For most of the early to mid-seventies, Brian Clemens was busy writing and producing an incredibly curious anthology series for ATV called Thriller. It’s a weird format of 65-minute episodes. Some of them – not very many, but some – are tremendously good, with twists that rival anything else from The Twilight Zone to a cracking Alan Moore Future Shock, but they are all hampered a little bit by the weird running time. The show was made for quick, cheap sales to ABC, who’d give each episode very, very long “movie of the week” credits and, with twenty minutes of ads, run them in a ninety-minute late-night slot.

What happens in a typical episode of Thriller is that the plot starts immediately, before we really spend any time getting to know the characters. And then the main character, frequently a woman, frequently the lone American in the cast, is stuck in a plot that usually has them kept in the dark by some villain for freaking ever until a darn-near-the-last-minute revelation. With good enough actors, I’m willing to sit still to see the bad guy’s plan through its conclusion and, often, its backfiring. The first episode of Thriller actually stars Linda Thorson, alongside Doomwatch‘s Robert Powell and Get Smart‘s Barbara Feldon. I’d probably watch the three of them read the phone book. Once.

But Thriller doesn’t have a lot of repeat pleasure, and neither does “Pandora,” the next-to-last Avengers episode from the original run, which is practically a pilot for Thriller. I found myself thinking that this could have been so much better with a wild fantasy element. There’s a glimmer of a chance that the criminals in this story have time-traveled to the present day from 1915 to kidnap Tara, but no, it’s far more mundane than that. Also, it requires that Tara be drugged into a stupor so that she’s a completely passive player in the bad guys’ story.

Our son absolutely loathed these villains, one of whom is played by Julian Glover in his umpteenth and final Avengers appearance. “I hope she punches them in the face!” he yelled. Bizarrely, she doesn’t get the chance. Steed arrives at the end, but he doesn’t quite get to make the rescue. It’s the villains’ story, and their greed ensures their destruction.

Robert Fuest makes it look terrific and he lines up his usual fun shots with mirrors and hidden characters, but it’s a very difficult story to watch without wanting to skip to the end. Several Thriller stories are like that, too.

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The Avengers 7.24 – Take-Over

I have to say that our son has taken to The Avengers far more than I first thought. I did worry that he was a little young at first, but he’s really enjoyed the show a lot. There have been a few exceptions, but none have aggravated and frustrated him anywhere near as much as Terry Nation’s “Take-Over.” I think Nation might have been inspired by the 1967 film Wait Until Dark, but honestly, just about the entire genre of “home invasion” horror films came after this, so I think it’s really ahead of its time, and very atypically unpleasant for The Avengers.

Worse still, Steed gets a more serious injury than I think we’ve ever seen before. He was shot once in season four, but he never spent an entire day unconscious in the forest, feeling the wound like he does in this episode. Even when he occasionally gets clobbered, Steed typically remains superhuman. Here, he suffers. Our kid didn’t start growling, but he really, really didn’t enjoy this one.

Honestly, I’m not much of a fan of this one either, but I have an irrational soft spot for it for a dumb reason. When A&E was running the Tara King stories in the early 1990s, unlike their very nice prints of the Mrs. Peel years, they had a big batch of old, zoomed-in 16mm prints to work from. I remember “Take-Over” being one of maybe three that came from a fresh source and it looked so good. It does feature some marvelous cat-and-mouse dialogue between Steed and the main villain. He’s played by Tom Adams, who had found international B-movie fame as super-agent Charles Vine in a trio of 007 cash-ins, and who we’ll see again in Doctor Who in about a month. Garfield Morgan takes another turn as one of the henchmen.

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The Avengers 7.23 – Requiem

Spoiler alert: When is a hospital not a hospital? When the villains are trying to get information from one of our heroes.

Like many episodes of The Avengers, time has blunted the “surprise” of “Requiem.” This is a plot that has been done many, many times since 1969. In fact, Terry Nation evidently enjoyed script-editing Brian Clemens’ story so much that he plundered elements of this hour as an episode of The Persuaders! about two years later, only it’s Roger Moore who wakes up in the fake hospital there instead of Linda Thorson. At least our heroine has the fine actor John Paul, a few months away from starring in Doomwatch, as her fake doctor.

Anyway, while this is again a story that won’t confound people who’ve watched much television already, our son took it all at face value, and when Tara starts realizing something was funny, he sat up straight and just had his little seven year-old mind blown. And he had such a hard time putting the pieces together at first. “There’s a hospital above Steed’s apartment?!” he bellowed. Seconds later, he added “Oh! Em! Gee! It’s a FAKE!” As always, it’s much more fun to see something like this through the eyes of a child.

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The Avengers 7.22 – My Wildest Dream

Hooray, Linda Thorson’s back to her spring 1968 hairstyle tonight… because weirdly, this was one of the first stories made for the final production run, if not the very first, but for some reason it was held back in both the UK and US until nearly the end of the series. It first aired in America in January 1969 and in various ITV regions in Britain three months after that.

I’ve never read why it was kept on the shelf for so long. It was director Robert Fuest’s first episode of the show, working from a Philip Levene script, and it’s visually thrilling, inventive, and clever. The script’s not at all bad, and I love how we’re given new surprises about the villains at regular intervals. Familiar faces Peter Vaughan and Philip Madoc have good parts… it’s a fine episode of The Avengers, and deserved to be shown off earlier. It’s not as though the producers could possibly have been able to predict that they’d need an episode this good to bring a little spice to the program’s final run of ten or so subpar hours.

Following our discussion two nights ago about recurring villains, I asked our son whether one of the reasons he enjoys The Avengers is that the bad guys never come back to bother our heroes, and he emphatically agreed. Except for the Cybernauts, I added. “Yeah, but those are robots, and they ALWAYS come back,” he grumbled. But overall he enjoyed this one quite a bit.

His mother added that tonight’s episode also had some very good fight scenes and he agreed. Linda Thorson and Tom Kempinksi, and their doubles, have a downright brutal one in a room filled with colored glass in small frames. You can tell that they made this one before deciding that Tara King is an expert fighter, because she tries desperately to escape, rather than beat her opponent. The Tara of “Take Me to Your Leader” would have stood her ground and clobbered the guy!

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The Avengers 7.21 – Thingumajig

A little-known fact about the final season of The Avengers is that they attempted to more effectively counter-program against Laugh-In on NBC by sending thieves to beautiful downtown Burbank to steal all of Jo Anne Worley’s clothes. You bet your bippy they did!

But seriously, we resume our look at The Avengers with the show’s final six episodes, and one which I’d never actually seen before tonight. If you think I’m eccentric, silly, and nitpicky in middle age, you should have known me in my twenties. I briefly went through this long phase where I deliberately didn’t watch one episode of every show I enjoyed, so that I’d have something to watch later on down the line, on a rainy day. Well, it’s rained in Tennessee all blasted week, so here we are with Terry Nation’s “Thingumajig,” and it was not really worth the thirty year wait.

On the other hand, while if I’d watched this by myself, I’d have noted Iain Cuthbertson and Edward Burnham, as well as Linda Thorson’s godawful clothes, and figured this was more evidence that whatever program Terry Nation actually wanted to write, it wasn’t The Avengers. This one’s about a strange, unknown thing creeping around an archaeological dig underneath a late-eleventh century church that kills people with electrical blasts. It’s not a bad hour of television, just an awfully dry one, without any of that Avengers sparkle.

But our kid just loved it. He wondered desperately what the thingumajig was, and was alternately hiding behind the sofa in mild fright or, fists clenched, on the floor in front of us enjoying the thrill as Tara battles a thingumajig in her flat. Sometimes Terry Nation judged his comedy perfectly for younger viewers. There’s this one quirky eccentric in the story who sweats profusely, has a bad cold, and is always cramming snuff up his nostrils. I’d have said the guy wasn’t even remotely funny, but our son chuckled all the time he was onscreen, and just howled with laughter when he accidentally destroys a cake that Tara’s made. So maybe watch this one with a kid; that seems to be for whom it was made!

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The Avengers 7.20 – Homicide and Old Lace

A couple of oddball coincidences tonight: that’s the star of Adam Adamant Lives!, Gerald Harper, in color tonight as one of the guest stars in tonight’s episode of The Avengers. It also features the late Edward Brayshaw as one of the villains, and today (October 18) would have been his 85th birthday. Both of these fine actors, not to mention Donald Pickering, another notable name, had the misfortune of appearing in what’s by miles the worst episode of this show.

To recap, toward the end of 1967, John Bryce had been assigned to produce The Avengers, and under his watch, three episodes were at least started: “Invasion of the Earthmen”, “Invitation to a Killing,” which became “Have Guns – Will Haggle”, and a story written by Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks. It was called “The Great Great Britain Crime” and featured the return of an organization previously seen in season two’s “Intercrime.”

“The Great Great Britain Crime” was judged to be too far gone, too much of a lost cause, to save even with reshoots. But with deadlines looming, poor decisions were made, and, more than a year later, a good chunk of the episode was repurposed. “Homicide and Old Lace” is that most unfortunate beast: a clip show. There are fights and shootouts from five or six other color Avengers episodes, and the story is given an intrusive and very, very annoying framing sequence. Mother is recounting the adventure to two elderly aunts, who constantly interrupt and interject and ask questions and recap everything we’ve seen before.

It’s painful to watch. Even with only about twenty-five or so minutes of visuals from “Crime” to play with, the producers undermined even those by having Mother narrate over some the footage, obscuring the original dialogue. There’s inappropriate “Perils of Pauline” music, and even at least one comedy sound effect. At places, this doesn’t seem desperate so much as vindictive, like Brian Clemens decided to stick the knife in for Bryce daring to work on his show.

There’s a pace and look and, in particular, a color scheme that’s unique to what we can see of “The Great Great Britain Crime” and “Invitation to a Killing.” I’m fascinated by the road that the Associated British Corporation didn’t take. I wish these two episodes existed in full so we could compare them to the transmitted versions. I’m certain that “The Great Great Britain Crime” was lousy; nothing that was used here convinces me otherwise, but at the same time, I’m equally certain that there’s no way in the universe that the original production was anywhere as tedious and aggravating as “Homicide and Old Lace.” Sadly, the originals are believed to have been destroyed all those years ago.

And we’ll end on that sour note for now, and put The Avengers back on the shelf for a few weeks to keep things fresh. We’ll return to this series in November for the final six episodes of its original run, but stay tuned! There’s lots more to watch and talk about!

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The Avengers 7.19 – Who Was That Man I Saw You With?

As we get closer to the end of The Avengers, there’s a definite feeling of the wind leaving the sails. Jeremy Burnham’s “Who Was That Man I Saw You With?” isn’t really bad, but it’s just an ordinary espionage story that could have played on any other spy program. We’ve been here before, during the tail end of the Mrs. Peel years, but those adventures mostly still had that distinctive Avengers sparkle and wit, even if the villains weren’t grandiose or weird. This is just by-the-numbers, and a little dull. The very likable Alan MacNaughtan has a small role, but I found myself wishing he had played one of several other parts.

On the other hand, these villains absolutely infuriated our son. The plot this time is that some enemy agents are piling up circumstantial evidence to frame Tara as being in league with somebody from the other side. The more the evidence mounts, and the more Mother believes it, the angrier our son became, and as the bad guys gloated, he growled, furious and unhappy. Being reminded that Tara will get out of this didn’t quell the fury.

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