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The Champions 1.4 – The Experiment

Tony Williamson’s “The Experiment” is one of the few episodes of The Champions to pit our three heroes against worthy adversaries. This was kind of the way of things in the sixties and seventies. Regular readers will recall that I would occasionally bemoan how most episodes of, say, The Six Million Dollar Man and the like would concern themselves more with counterfeiters in turtlenecks instead of having proper robot enemies and Bigfoot more often. So it is with The Champions, typically. These are good and entertaining spy stories, but the characters’ superhuman abilities just give them an occasional edge, and some very satisfying stunts, rather than a focus for the plot.

But in “The Experiment,” they run up against a quartet of characters whose reaction speed and fighting techniques have been artificially augmented. Remarkably, the villains in charge of the operation have been reading between the lines of the various secret agency secret reports and have figured out that Richard, Craig, and Sharron have superhuman skills and lure Sharron into their scheme under the guise of an experiment so they can study her speed and reaction first-hand. Their own boss never figures that out. So it builds to an exciting climax and a very good final fight scene that had our son hopping. It’s a really entertaining episode, probably my favorite of the fourteen that I originally had back in the tape trading days. More on that in a later post.

I’ve always thought that a great guest cast can elevate a good story, and this one’s just full of familiar faces. One of ITC’s regular Americans-at-Elstree, David Bauer, is the main villain, and he also has Robert James and Allan Cuthbertson in his employ. Jonathan Burn and none-more-posh Caroline Blakiston are two of the rival superhumans, and Nicholas Courtney has a small role as a doctor. There’s also a very familiar setting. Marie often says that she doesn’t recognize actors the way that I do, but she has an eye for places, and when Richard and Craig drive through the small village of Aldbury, she immediately spotted it as the location of a pair of Avengers episodes. Aldbury, Schmaldbury, everybody knows that town is Little Storping In-The-Swuff!

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The Champions 1.3 – Reply Box No 666

Tonight’s episode of The Champions was written by Philip Broadley, who had also written several episodes of ITC’s The Saint. Between that show and Danger Man, everybody at that production company got a lot of experience pretending that the backlot and the forests surrounding the studios at Elstree were every environment on the planet. Stock footage helped. Simon Templar was always vacationing in Montego Bay or someplace and the establishing shots sold the illusion that Roger Moore was really there.

They almost pulled it off with this Caribbean-set story. Unfortunately, there’s a massive difference between the circular leaves of the real trees encroaching on the real boat with the camera, and the big, plastic, triangular palm fronds that the stagehands are slapping against the fake boat where the actors are!

I kid, but this is a pretty fun story about our heroes stepping in to follow in the footsteps of a dead enemy agent. Our son had a surprising amount of trouble following it, though. He said that he enjoyed it, but he had lots of questions. The enemy spies never really announced their plans to the camera in the way of typical teevee bad guys, so the audience gets to piece the story together along with the heroes. Even Sharron’s super-hypnosis isn’t any help, because the villain she snares has his cover story too hard-wired into his subconscious!

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The Champions 1.2 – The Invisible Man

It’s been cold and wet and dreary all day in southeast Tennessee, a perfect Sunday to sit around and watch movies. So our son and I watched Black Panther, went out to lunch, went to see The Lego Movie 2*, which was very tedious, and then he built a sofa fort and watched Thor: Ragnarok again. That movie’s another example of what I was talking about in the previous entry about some of these Marvel films not holding up the second time around, which is why I didn’t write a post about it.

So an episode of The Champions is naturally going to be the least of the four in the eyes of a seven year-old, but he watched it with the same quiet appreciation and consideration that he’s given other shows in this genre, which encourages me. There aren’t many big set pieces in this story other than a great fight scene about halfway through. In the convoluted way of villains in this kind of program, Peter Wyngarde plays a baddie who surgically implants a tiny device in his target’s ear to convince him that there’s an invisible man watching his every move. Writer Donald James had to bluff past a lot of coincidences in the backstory for this plot to work, but honestly the only reason the plot works at all is because Peter Wyngarde is playing the villain. The heroes seem almost superfluous.

And speaking of superfluous… William Gaunt and Alexandra Bastedo don’t have very much to do in this story. One reason these ITC agent shows had teams of three was so they could film multiple episodes almost on top of each other and keep costs down. It still seems kind of odd that they’d show one with Stuart Damon taking about 80% of the screen time as just the second episode.

*In an effort to keep things a little interesting, I did suggest that we see this movie another day and go see the one-off screening of a new animated film from Japan with the remarkable name of I Want to Eat Your Pancreas instead. Of course he picked Lego, but I tried.

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The Champions 1.1 – The Beginning

During the 1960s and early 1970s, the ITC studio experimented with a few “international-friendly” formats to sell their shows around the world. The Champions featured a familiar grouping of secret agents: an American, an Englishman, and the posh, nebulously European woman. Or, as The Preventers, one of the funniest half-hours of television ever made, would put it a quarter-century later, “vaguely foreign.”

The Champions was created by Monty Berman and Dennis Spooner and produced in 1968. The 30 episodes were written by many of the same veterans who worked on most of Britain’s adventure TV shows of the day, and it starred Stuart Damon, William Gaunt, and Alexandra Bastedo as agents of a UN-affiliated agency called Nemesis based in Geneva. There were lots of these kinds of shows in the late sixties, but The Champions had a twist that really set it apart, and which I didn’t tell my family about: these secret agents have super powers.

In Dennis Spooner’s “The Beginning,” our heroes’ getaway plane crashes somewhere in the Himalayas after heisting a bacterial weapon from a Chinese laboratory. Days later, they wake up, their wounds healed and their minds and bodies improved somehow. They have fleeting memories of a secret city, ancient mystics, and technology far beyond our own. There was a lot of this in the sixties, and the old man flatly looks like he walked right out of a Steve Ditko-drawn issue of Strange Tales. So, with telepathy, enhanced senses, heightened reflexes, and super strength, our heroes overpower the soldiers sent to capture them and wonder how they’ll keep their powers a secret while serving the greater good. Guest stars in this installment include Joseph Furst, just to keep all the stuff in Geneva appreciably international, and Burt Kwouk and Anthony Chinn, who ITC had on speed dial whenever they needed Chinese soldiers.

I really enjoyed watching our son realize where this was going. Except I fumbled a little. I hinted that this would be a show kind of like The Avengers and Adam Adamant Lives!, forgetting that when you say Avengers to this kid, he immediately thinks of those other, lesser Avengers and all their movies and Lego sets. So he was expecting super heroes, and wondered what was up with these normal humans and all the machine guns! But he liked it, and it did have a fine little fight at the end, and I hope he continues to enjoy it.

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