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The Champions 1.21 – The Body Snatchers

This afternoon, it occurred to me that Terry Nation was apparently writing episodes of The Champions about a year before he took the job of story editing for the Tara King days of The Avengers. Anyway, this is a story that deals with one of the regular obsessions of adventure TV from the sixties and seventies, cryogenics. It’s such a regular obsession that we’ll be seeing it again very, very soon, aggravatingly enough. Nation’s first Avengers script, as a freelancer before he joined the production team, was “Invasion of the Earthmen.” I’ve described that story before as a mishmash of all of Nation’s tropes and traits, and darned if it wasn’t the second script he wrote in 1967 around cryogenics.

Our son protested that the title, “The Body Snatchers,” wasn’t a very appropriate one, and he’s right. Only one body gets snatched. The villain, played by Bernard Lee, has stolen the body of a recently deceased American general who knows where all the missiles are and taken the corpse to a research establishment in northern Wales. In that fanciful way of teevee that glosses over how any of this could medically work, he plans to store the corpse on ice and to sell it to the highest bidder. But if you ignore Dr. Science’s objections, this is a fine action hour with great brawls and stunts, and Bernard Lee is a terrific, bloodthirsty villain. That’s Philip Locke in the photo above as one of the scientists pressganged into helping Lee and his thugs.

Talking of adventure TV from the sixties and seventies, it was the law that anything set in Wales during those decades, even if it was filmed in Elstree, needed to find a part for Talfryn Thomas, no matter how small, and here he is, in just about the smallest part in the thing. As soon as somebody on TV mentions a place like Porthgerwyn or Llanfairfach, you just wait for him to show up.

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The Champions 1.12 – The Fanatics

You know, we’ve talked about Terry Nation and the very dated, sexist aspects of his scripts once or twice before, but this one still irked me a bit. This time, Terry doesn’t have an opportunity to be condescending to any of the women in his cast, because he simply doesn’t include any.

Other than Sharron, there’s not a woman onscreen at all except for a couple of extras right at the very end. The story’s about a gang carrying out high-profile assassinations, and it’s all men killing other men. This is perhaps a little unfair of me to single out Terry Nation – there weren’t any other women in the previous episode of The Champions that we watched, either – but when you spot a trope, you just keep seeing it.

Anyway, our son really enjoyed this one because it was full of exciting scenes and two great fights. Not content with beating the daylights out of two villains in the drawing room, a little later on, Richard kayos three more in the radio room. He liked the second fight better because more bad guys got clobbered.

One of the fellows on the receiving end of Richard’s fists is Gerald Harper, shown above, and Donald Pickering has a small role as well. I am not certain about the actual filming dates for The Champions, but I think that this was probably made in the spring of 1967 (the trees suggest March or April), meaning this would have been shot a few months before the abandoned Avengers episode “The Great Great Britain Crime,” which also featured both Harper and Pickering. The awesome Julian Glover’s here as well, and Richard gets to knock him senseless in both of the fights.

I gave our son a heads-up that he’ll see Donald Pickering again in one week, in the next Doctor Who story that we’ll watch. Pickering will be twenty years older, and yellow, so I’m not betting on him recognizing the guy.

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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 7.21 – 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 7.17 – Take Me to Your Leader

I’ve never much enjoyed Terry Nation’s “Take Me to Your Leader,” possibly because all the wit is crammed into two minutes in the middle of the story. Well, while it isn’t a favorite, it’s not too bad, and Robert Fuest got to work his magic all over London with a larger-than-usual amount of filming on city streets, but it does feel like it needs a break from the narrative, which is our heroes swiping an attache case in a chain from one endless courier after another in one long night. Well, there is a break of sorts, with Mother discussing the situation with a character who wouldn’t have been more obvious as the Secret Master Villain if he had been wearing a T-shirt.

But while our son really enjoyed the constant stream of new characters, several fights, and a specially-trained courier dog, by far the best part of the story is in the middle. It turns out that a dance teacher played by Penelope Keith is actually the minder for a conniving little courier who’s more than susceptible to taking bribes, because a little girl has her future to consider, and a £25 investment would buy an awful lot of lollipops.

She’s a great kid. She probably works out her nefarious schemes on the playground with Wednesday Addams.

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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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