We recently watched “Gnaws,” where Dennis Spooner came on board with a script for Brian Clemens’ The New Avengers that everybody who saw it as a kid remembers more than any other episode. This was perhaps karmic retribution for “Autokill” eight years earlier, when Clemens came on board Spooner’s show with a script that pulled the rug out from every other installment. It’s the one where Richard and Craig have a brawl and the eyes of every child watching popped out of their heads.
We watched this episode earlier in the evening, since our son had a friend coming by after dinner. Marie was taking a nap and I didn’t want to wake her until we’d finished. So the kid gave her a breathless recap as she blinked the sleep away. “Richard got hypnotized into fighting Craig! It was AMAZING! They were knocking each other all over the place!” It’s quite a fight, that’s true. They get all kinds of battered and bruised like you just didn’t see on television in the late sixties. Our son described it this way: “Sharron held Richard down and then Craig gave him a sandwich. A KNUCKLE SANDWICH!” I vividly remember the shots of Richard’s mouth full of blood from when I first saw this one in 1987 because it’s so shocking.
So “Autokill” really is a memorable experience and overall a fine episode with which to end a show. Paul Eddington plays one of the villains, and he wouldn’t have been out of place in an Avengers. He’s fussy, fastidious, and obsessed with cleanliness. There’s almost a preview of the bloodshed to come when Craig smacks the villain and draws blood and the poor wretch almost passes out from fear that he’ll bleed on his uniform.
Sadly, that was it for The Champions. Like most ITC series, the program was made in the hopes of sales to international television markets, especially an American network sale. NBC picked up the series and gave ten of the installments a run in the summer of 1968. Remember last year when I talked about the roaring success of Laugh-In? Rather than risk overexposure for their surprise new hit, NBC rested it for the summer and ran The Champions in its place.
Unfortunately, The Champions sank without trace fifty-one summers ago, and NBC never bothered to run the other twenty episodes. I once read that this ended up hurting the show’s ability to find independent stations to pick it up. Local channels had purchased a few programs from ITC’s catalog, most notably The Saint, which was shown in enough markets to eventually make NBC interested in buying the two color seasons. But The Champions was tainted by its network failure and not often seen in American syndication. I’m really glad that I picked up Network’s DVD release. It’s got a great documentary about the show that reunites the three stars that I’m going to watch again soon.
One last stupid little anecdote about this episode. The first agent who gets brainwashed and drugged into becoming a killer leaves behind a wife who freaks out and cries while Sharron tries to ask her about the morning he vanished. I recognized her as someone I’d seen freaking out and crying in something else really recently, but couldn’t remember what. I didn’t recognize the name, Rachel Herbert. IMDB set me straight. The other morning, when I popped in the first episode of Lord Peter Wimsey to get a picture of the late Glyn Houston, I rewatched the scene where Herbert, playing Lady Mary, finds her brother standing over her dead fiance and freaks out, crying “Oh God, Gerald, you’ve killed him!” See, I knew I’d seen that freaked out, crying face recently.