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!

The Avengers 6.13 – Get-A-Way!

I was mentioning last time out how we got used to some pretty beat-up prints of the Tara King episodes, and were always glad when the A&E network showed one that was an upgrade. With that in mind, “Get-A-Way!” looks particularly sublime compared to the old print that they used. Since the story is actually kind of repetitive, it’s one that I shrugged about and didn’t revisit very much. It’s nice to see it with fresh eyes, and looking so excellent.

Our son really enjoyed this one, and was full of ideas about how the three prisoners, enemy agents being detained by the most incompetent guards in Britain, were vanishing. I was underwhelmed by Philip Levene using the hoary old plot of two of Steed’s oldest friends being targeted, but I enjoyed seeing the guest stars Peter Bowles, Neil Hallett, and Andrew Keir.

The Avengers 6.11 – The Curious Case of the Countless Clues

Almost at the same time that the producers were making “The Forget-Me-Knot”, they were also working on Philip Levene’s “The Curious Case of the Countless Clues,” and I noticed that Linda Thorson is only in scenes that are set in Tara King’s apartment. It does seem a little odd that they’d sideline the new character so early in her tenure, and so I hypothesize, ahead of the facts, that they may have had one crew shooting Diana Rigg’s material on one set while a second was filming Thorson’s. Is that a reasonable deduction?

There’s a heck of a good cast in this story. Peter Jones, who would later be the immortal voice of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, plays a… well, Steed never actually gets around to telling us who Sir Arthur Doyle is, just that he likes to pretend to be Sherlock Holmes. Our villains are a gang of blackmailers named Erle, Stanley, and Gardner, played by the very familiar faces of Anthony Bate, Tony Selby, and Kenneth Cope. It looks like Cope began work on Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) about five months after making this episode.

Edward de Souza, who was in just about everything in the sixties and seventies, is one of the blackmailers’ victims, and his sister is a former – slash – occasional girlfriend of Steed’s, played by Tracey Reed, who had so memorably played General Turgidson’s secretary, as well as “Miss Foreign Affairs,” in Dr. Strangelove. Incidentally, rather driving home the point that British adventure film and TV was so much a man’s world in the sixties, other than the sidelined Thorson, Tracey Reed is the only actress in both this episode and in Strangelove.

But having said that, while Tara looks to be so incredibly sidelined that she appears helpless with a broken ankle in this episode, and this is emphasized by the decision to spend time with her desperately trying to lock the doors of her apartment, I like how she’s more than able to defend herself in the end. She fights off and apparently kills one of the villains. Steed rushes to rescue her, but he isn’t needed. Good choice! It was fine for he and Mrs. Peel to rescue each other regularly, but the audience still has to see Tara as competent on her own at this stage.

Our son was pleased with this one. It is a straightforward adventure with a clear scheme, hissable villains, and a few good fights. Certainly not as pleasing to him as those other, lesser Avengers, but I’m glad he enjoyed it all the same.

The Avengers 6.8 – Mission… Highly Improbable

Who can resist a shrink ray episode, particularly one with a guest cast as wonderful as this one? Philip Levene’s “Mission… Highly Improbable” is a fun little break from the Avengers norm, because the villain is pretty far from a diabolical mastermind. He’s a scientist who’s improvising the whole time. Since the old fellow in charge of his department has developed a shrink ray, using government money that he shouldn’t have, the baddie is looking to sell it, and since he’s just as corrupt as an intelligence officer from “the other side,” they seem to have some big plans to discuss.

You know, I just realized this episode might have been even more fun if they had brought back Warren Mitchell’s character of Ambassador Brodny instead of this fellow. Never mind, it’s delightful all the same. Our son had an early case of squirminess, but he settled down very quickly once he realized what was happening in this story and really enjoyed the terrific sets, the wonderful reaction shots from actors spotting the shrunken characters, the fights, and the great little comeuppance for the scheming villains.

Making this an even more entertaining episode than the usual high standard for this series, darn near every one of the players is a very recognizable face from the period. Anybody who enjoys British television from the sixties and seventies will enjoy seeing Nicholas Courtney, Richard Leech, Francis Matthews, Jane Merrow, Ronald Radd, and Kevin Stoney, among others, in this one. Courtney gets one of the most delightfully gruesome deaths of anybody in The Avengers, which is saying something.

Jane Merrow, curiously enough, would apparently be back at the Associated British Corporation’s offices very soon after this was filmed to audition for the role of Mrs. Peel’s replacement. Nailing down precise dates has always been a little more difficult for The Avengers than the meticulously-documented Doctor Who, but it appears that “Mission… Highly Improbable” was completed in September 1967, and Linda Thorson’s first episode as Tara King was completed two months later, and I’m not sure how many actresses that John Bryce screen tested and auditioned before choosing Thorson, but time wasn’t on his side. More on that next time.

“Mission… Highly Improbable” was the last of eight episodes screened as The Avengers’ sixth season in Britain, but it was the first one to air in the batch of fifteen that ABC started showing in January 1968. Next time out, as we’ll see in a couple of days, everything would change.

The Avengers 6.5 – You Have Just Been Murdered

Not a great deal to blog about this afternoon. Like I hinted at last time, Philip Levene’s “You Have Just Been Murdered” is a fairly down-to-earth story about a gang of blackmailers. It’s done with style and wit and very good performances, and would probably have been equally entertaining had any other sixties adventure show tackled it. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing in the story is Simon Oates’ remarkably peroxide hair.

Overnight, I had a lengthy bout of insomnia, got impatient and rewatched a favorite, forthcoming adventure again. I hadn’t realized before that the team came back to this location about nine months later to shoot the Tara King “fields of armor” title sequence, and Linda Thorson runs across the same bridge where Diana Rigg, hiding in the water underneath it, emerged to beat up a couple of thugs in this story. I double-checked at Avengerland, where so many British TV filming locations are documented, and the area around the bridge was used in at least nineteen other Avengers stories, plus more than a dozen other films and TV series. Well, when you build a film studio just down the road from such a nice and attractive bridge, you expect that everybody will take advantage of it, don’t you?

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 5.14 – 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 5.10 – 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 5.8 – 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.