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The Avengers 7.13 – The Morning After

Linda Thorson’s vacation continued into the production of Brian Clemens’ terrific “The Morning After.” She seems to have only been present for a single day’s filming, leaving Steed to carry the story in the company of his prisoner, a quadruple-agent called Merlin. Our heroes and Merlin slept for twenty-four hours after a grenade of sleeping gas went off in their faces. The next day, Tara is still out cold, and Steed and Merlin find the streets of this “middle English town” completely deserted, except for angry troops who instantly convene firing squads to execute any “looters” on sight.

I think this is one of the most interesting episodes of the series. It’s a huge departure from the sort of stories that The Avengers usually tells, but it’s played straight instead of going for spoofs and parodies like, say, “Legacy of Death.” This isn’t a by-the-numbers adventure at all, there are lots of surprises and twists as the story unfolds. It’s shot beautifully. Lots of it is on a backlot, of course, but they did a huge amount of location filming in the town of St. Albans in Hertfordshire, whose residents happily cooperated for a couple of days and left their roads vacant to play the abandoned city. The scenes with Steed and Merlin walking the silent streets are downright eerie. Merlin’s a great character, by the way. It’s a shame he only made this one appearance.

“The Morning After” sports one of the show’s best guest casts. There are three big names that just about everybody in the UK would have recognized when this story first aired in 1968. Merlin is played by Peter Barkworth, who had been one of the stars of the hit drama The Power Game. The brigadier in charge of the evacuation is the legendary Joss Ackland, and a particularly bloodthirsty sergeant is none other than BRIAN BLESSED, who had left the cop show Z Cars after a hundred-some installments a couple of years before and had played Porthos in a couple of Three Musketeers series for the BBC in 1966-67. We’d seen BLESSED in the season five episode “The Superlative Seven,” which had been made between the two Musketeers series. Interestingly, Ackland took over the role of D’Artagnan in the second series from Jeremy Brett. Plus there’s Penelope Horner, who was never a big star, but she made guest appearances in everything in those days.

Our son loved it. The fights and the action and the real sense of danger and mystery kept him intrigued and excited. I’m glad that he enjoyed it so much, so I felt kind of bad telling him we’re going to take a short break from The Avengers and rotate a couple more shows in to keep things fresh. We’ll be back for more at the end of the month, so stay tuned!

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The Avengers 7.12 – Killer

Time hasn’t been kind to “Killer.” Technology has advanced so much that the episode sticks out as nowhere near as timeless as most of The Avengers. Still, it remains a mostly very entertaining episode with a couple of caveats, and it’s clever enough to make me wish that I could have seen it in 1968, before we all knew that you can’t make an evil supercomputer self-destruct the way that TV kept showing us!

Here’s what I dislike the most: Steed’s fellow agents are idiots. Four of them get killed by the mysterious foreign agent Remak, who turns out to be an entire factory programmed to murder anybody who wanders down its corridors. But these agents are so stupid and so gullible that the villains could have found a much easier way than this. It’s no wonder Steed is the top secret agent in Britain if these are his co-workers.

On the other hand, these villains are great. I really enjoy situations where the bad guys have to change direction and improvise. As Steed and his partner, Forbes, get closer, and as they get a surprise visit from a blackmailer who’s onto them, the villains have to change their plans on the fly, and it’s incredibly engaging. Forbes, an agent recently transferred into Steed’s unit from another department, is played by Jennifer Croxton. She’s here because the episode was made while Linda Thorson had a week off, and I quite like her. She provides a nice change of pace. Maybe they could have given Thorson one more week off so we could have had a second Forbes adventure later in the season!

Anyway, while the mystery of Remak would certainly not tax any adult brain in this day and age, “Killer” remains a perfect puzzle for kids. Our son had no idea who Remak could possibly be to arrange all these bizarre killings, and it was a silly reminder of both the last episode of MacGyver we watched, as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark, to see Steed navigate Remak’s corridors of traps. The final revelation was a big surprise to him, and he was really excited by Forbes programming Remak to explode.

Well, “programming” is a bit strong. She just types the command and it obeys. TV writers in this era just had no idea how computers worked, did they?

Another oddball coincidence for anybody who’s counting: in the last episode of The Avengers, Mother has an office full of trendy inflatable furniture. I asked our son, “Do you remember in ‘Terror of the Autons’ how there was that inflatable chair that ate that guy?” And he nodded and said “Yeah!” Well, you know who plays one of the villains this time? Only Harry Towb, the guy who got eaten by that inflatable chair! 186 credits on IMDB, and he’ll always be the guy who got smothered by a black plastic chair to me.

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The Avengers 7.11 – The Rotters

Nobody likes “The Rotters.” It commits the cardinal sin of being boring. It’s Avengers by the numbers, using the same hoary old plot of the baddies killing all the old associates who could possibly identify them and their nefarious plan, and yet our heroes go through the motions like they haven’t experienced this episode many times before. Well, the bad guy schemes to actually destroy the world, which is much more grandiose than this show typically gets, but it’s also pretty stupid. Director Robert Fuest can’t save it, and nor can the admittedly amusing double-act of the posh gentle-henchmen Jerome Willis and Gerald Sim, who could have been deployed to better effect in a different episode instead of being wasted here.

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The Avengers 7.10 – The Interrogators

I’ve always liked “The Interrogators” a lot. It’s just full of deliciously oddball gags used as punctuations for a strong and clever plot that could have been played straight in a more serious or poker-faced espionage show. The best of all of the gags comes when one of the clueless captives comes to the end of his interrogation when the colonel running the supposedly British Intelligence-approved course calls it a day and tells him that he’s passed. The dude tips his jailers. I’ve seen this many times, but I almost stopped breathing tonight.

Unfortunately, this is one of the episodes that our son didn’t enjoy much at all. Things improved toward the end, but he didn’t like how incredibly nasty and mean the villains were acting, even when they were played by familiar actors like Christopher Lee and Neil McCarthy. Glynn Edwards is also one of their gang, who are using bureaucracy, forged passes, and reams of paperwork to convince agents that they’re due for a random course in TOHE: Test of Human Endurance. This is one of those cases where the heroes are several steps behind the villains, and the combination of complexity and cruelty turned him off the adventure. Things only brightened when Steed hops into a waiting helicopter and tells the pilot “Follow that pigeon!”

Incidentally, I didn’t so much mention as strongly imply before, back when Patrick Newell’s character of Mother rejoined the show as a semi-regular character, that Steed and Tara really don’t need a boss figure except in those cases that specifically deal with their organization. This is one of the few that does. The story, by Richard Harris and Brian Clemens, wouldn’t work at all unless Tara was ordered by her superior to take this course. These are really good villains who’ve thought of everything, and fake his authorization. Mother’s base of the week is a flower-filled office accessible only by a pay phone, a little tip of the bowler to the American spy comedy Get Smart.

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The Avengers 7.9 – They Keep Killing Steed

It’s funny how the same episode of The Avengers can present two completely unbelievable and ridiculous scenarios and I process one of them as just part of the anything-can-happen nature of the program and the other as something going wrong with the suspension of disbelief. In “They Keep Killing Steed,” written by Brian Clemens and directed, brilliantly, by Robert Fuest, some villains invent an “instant plastic surgery” that, with the right mold, can change your appearance into anybody else’s. So we’ve got four lookalikes of Steed infiltrating a peace conference at the same time. So far, so good.

But the same show has Mother’s goofiest headquarters yet. It’s at the bottom of a lake. It doesn’t rise to the surface, you have to swim down to it. It’s kind of dumb. Well, so’s the “instant plastic surgery” idea, but I guess because that’s the plot and the business with Mother isn’t, I can excuse one and not the other.

Actually, they were on to a really good idea in “False Witness” to have Mother’s headquarters be a city bus. They should have kept that instead of trying to come up with a new location every time Mother appeared.

As for the guest stars this week, that’s Ray McAnally and Norman Jones in the photo above, and isn’t that just an amazing composition? Robert Fuest and his DP, Stephen Dade, were on fire this week. McAnally and Jones play the villains, and they’re really kind of forgettable, honestly. Both had done better work as baddies. Strange Report came up in the comments the other day, and McAnally plays a cult leader in one of my favorite episodes of that show, and Jones, of course, played a very different kind of cult leader as the awesome villain Hieronymous in the Doctor Who serial “The Masque of Mandragora”. One of my favorite character actors, Bernard Horsfall, also has a small role, but the story is really dominated by Ian Ogilvy playing a baron with an awful lot of local girlfriends. Ogilvy’s hair is an unfortunate peroxide blond, but he radiates star potential in every scene, just waiting for ITC to make him the lead in an adventure series. It only took the slowpokes nine years to cast him as Simon Templar in Return of the Saint, but in fairness, Roger Moore was still Templar when this episode was made!

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The Avengers 7.8 – Noon Doomsday (further thoughts)

Something about last night’s episode of The Avengers didn’t sit well with me, and I finally figured out why. In the episode, Steed is unbelievably patronizing to Tara, telling her that she needs to be locked away because the criminals are too dangerous. We saw a hint of this in “All Done With Mirrors,” but that really read more like “Tara’s a junior agent and not ready to lead an assignment,” despite the expected chauvinism displayed by the male characters of the period.

But in “Noon Doomsday,” Steed flat out says that Tara is actually a danger to him. He won’t be able to win a battle against Kafka because he’ll be unfocused and worried about her. That’s hogwash, and deeply poor characterization on the part of the writer, Terry Nation. If Steed’s not treating his partner as an equal when the chips are down, there’s a problem. Insanely, Nation actually returned to this exact same trope about five years later in part four of the Doctor Who story “Planet of the Daleks”, in which Bernard Horsfall’s character chews out his girlfriend, played by Jane How, for somehow placing the male lead in the same tough position. He can’t be a he-man while he’s worried about his pretty young co-star, so the pretty young co-stars should stay out of man’s work.

In “Noon Doomsday,” there’s a reason for it, at least. Because this is a parody of High Noon, Tara is shoehorned into the Grace Kelly role, and Gary Cooper’s marshal was correct – in the film – to tell his young bride this was too dangerous and she’d get them both killed. Bending this scenario to make it fit the structure of High Noon also explains why three of the agents who are recuperating in this remote facility refuse to assist Steed. They represent the cowards in New Mexico who wouldn’t help their marshal against the killers who were riding into town. We can really only excuse either of these huge rips in the fabric of the program’s internal logic – or plain common sense – because this wouldn’t be a parody of High Noon if the three killers were going to come riding into town against a hero who has four people standing up beside him.

So it works within the confines of the hour. It still doesn’t make the chauvinism that Steed displays any less palatable, and if this is where Nation got the idea that resurfaced in “Planet of the Daleks,” then it certainly was a huge mistake.

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The Avengers 7.8 – Noon Doomsday

I have this weird coincidence virus that runs through my life and the character actors that pop in and out of the shows that we watch. Of course I remembered that Anthony Ainley has a small role in Terry Nation’s “Noon Doomsday” – I think that this last run of The Avengers is unique in featuring two Masters as well as the Rani from Doctor Who – but I’d completely forgotten that Peter Halliday is also in it.

See, to give the most recent example, back on Sunday night, when I was fumbling for the name of an attractive actress who should have filled the role of a Mary Astor character in “Legacy of Death”, I came up with Valerie Leon just by glancing at the Hammer films on my shelf. An hour later, Marie and I sat down to watch an episode of Up Pompeii together, which we do every other week or so, and there was Valerie! She was wearing rather less than she did in her teeny part in “George / XR40?,” and I don’t think anybody complained.

And Halliday? Well, there was a funny bit of business on Twitter yesterday, when the actor Frazer Hines, who played Jamie in Doctor Who in the late sixties, identified the jacket that he wore in “The War Games” as being the very same jacket that Peter Halliday had worn a couple of months previously in “The Invasion.” I shared the cute anecdote with my family over dinner, knowing that neither of them cared even a hundredth as much as I do, and the very next British program we watch has Halliday in it.

I love this virus. I hope it never goes away. This cold I’ve had all week can scram, but I love my character actor coincidence virus.

Anyway, as for the actual content of “Noon Doomsday,” it’s pretty good! T.P. McKenna’s also in it, and Tara gets to do all kinds of fighting and investigating while Steed and a bunch of other wounded agents are convalescing in a remote top-security nursing home called Department S, which is cute. A new ITC adventure series by that name had only just gone into production about two months before they made this. We’ll be watching Department S a couple of years from now, so stick around with us for that.

And if our son enjoys Department S half as much as he enjoyed this episode, it’ll be a winner. He just about exploded with tension as Tara rushes to climb up out of a dangerous situation before the fellow she clobbered comes to his senses, and he loved the cat-and-mouse finale, with Tara battling three criminals. I thought it was a fun one, but he liked it even more than I did. “That was great,” he said in summary.

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The Avengers 7.7 – Legacy of Death

Earlier today, we showed our son The Maltese Falcon and watched in sympathy as he squirmed and struggled to make sense of it. Tonight, we showed him Terry Nation’s “Legacy of Death” and he got it. It took him a minute, but when two of the delightfully absurd number of villains introduce themselves as Sydney Street and Humbert Green, he shouted “Wait a minute! Like Greenstreet!” I was pleased as it all fell into place.

So back in late 1967, during John Bryce’s aborted turn producing a few episodes of The Avengers, he’d reached out to Terry Nation to contribute “Invasion of the Earthmen”. Nation was a hot property then; he’d written so many great episodes of The Saint that, decades later, Roger Moore was still singing Nation’s praises on the commentary tracks he did for the DVDs. So Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell, once they got back in charge, put Nation on the payroll as the script editor for the batch they were making. Nation wrote five additional episodes while wearing this hat. “Legacy of Death” was the second of these five, and they all suggest that while Nation was perfectly content to edit stories in the Avengers template about baffling murders committed by diabolical masterminds, he wasn’t interested in actually writing any of them himself. (“Noon Doomsday,” the next episode [in the order these were first shown in the UK], was the first of Nation’s five 1968 scripts to be filmed, and we’ll look at it Thursday night.)

I find “Legacy of Death” only mildly frustrating for what Nation didn’t do. The story is completely delightful despite my one reservation. Steed accepts a bizarre bequest of a curious dagger, only to have an endless stream of desperate, gun-toting fortune hunters start pestering him for it. And there lies the story’s only flaw. There isn’t a femme fatale among them. Now, Stratford Johns and Ronald Lacey are absolutely hilarious in their broad caricatures of Greenstreet and Lorre, and anybody who doesn’t lose a lung laughing when the Baron von Orlak and Winkler introduce themselves must have a problem with their funny bone. But the episode would be even better if some gorgeous woman kickstarted the adventure in the Mary Astor part. It wasn’t like England wasn’t swimming in beautiful actresses in 1968. They had Valerie Leon on set a couple of episodes previously behind a surgical mask – that’s right, the nincompoops hid Valerie Leon behind a mask – and somebody should have asked her to come back to knock on Steed’s door instead of bringing in Tutte Lemkow as Old Gorky.

Oh, and speaking of the episode where you could barely see Valerie Leon, that one – “Poor George / XR40” – featured Stratford Johns’ co-star from Softly Softly, Frank Windsor, as one of the villains. I wonder whether the press people in the UK thought to point this out, that both of the stars of the country’s top cop show were appearing in The Avengers in the same month. Anyway, joining Johns and Ronald Lacey, there’s the usual gang of great and recognizable faces, including Richard Hurndall, John Hollis, and the awesome Ferdy Mayne as the Baron von Orlak.

The end result, well, it would be even better with a treacherous woman somewhere in it, but it remains my favorite episode of this series because it’s so ridiculously fun and over the top. Not the best episode by any means, but my favorite by miles. I can’t watch the disheveled and bedraggled Stratford Johns sweating buckets as he recites his giant paragraphs of dialogue without guffawing, and I completely lose it every time that “inferior sort of assassin” tries to leap at Steed and Tara and faceplants on the cement instead. Most comedies just don’t have this kind of staying power and repeat value, but “Legacy of Death” is absolute, unadulterated fun from start to finish.

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