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Posts Tagged ‘The Avengers’

I can’t let the passing of the great Brian Clemens go without some kind of comment, or indeed a bit of a tribute. Throughout the 60s and 70s, and arguably beyond, Clemens was one of the hidden masters of British TV drama, writing dozens of episodes for many different series, many of which he created himself. As late as the launch of Bugs in 1995, other distinguished writers were attracted to projects simply by the opportunity to work with Clemens. He also did some good work in the cinema, too, writing a couple of fun late-period Hammer horrors (Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde and Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter, the latter of which he directed himself), although the less said about his involvement with Highlander 2: The Quickening the better.

In any case, it is of course The Avengers for which Clemens will be remembered above all else. He wrote the very first and very last episodes of the original run, overseeing its transformation from a gritty crime drama to something utterly eccentric and distinctive in the process, and went on to write many of the episodes of The New Avengers, which brought proceedings back down to earth somewhat. (I suppose one should also mention The Professionals, which on reflection takes The New Avengers format back into realms of slightly absurd grittiness.) Where does one start, faced with such a multitude of riches?

Well, you have to go to mid-period Avengers, of course, with one of the Diana Rigg episodes, and of these perhaps the most notorious, and almost certainly the most influential, is A Touch of Brimstone, originally broadcast in February 1966.

The story opens with, we are assured, the British government thrown into turmoil by a series of bizarre and sinister practical jokes – Russian diplomats are given exploding cigars live on TV, whoopee cushions are snuck into the House of Lords, and so on. (The Avengers quite often resembles a slightly kinky version of the 60s Batman TV show, and never more than here.) On the case are knight-errant-cum-intelligence-hard-man John Steed (Patrick Macnee, of course) and his amateur partner Mrs Peel (Diana Rigg).

As luck would have it, Steed and Mrs Peel don’t have to do a lot of that tedious investigating in order to uncover who’s behind these various outrages, as the first suspect Steed suggests – based on the fact he’s been seen hanging around all the various crime scenes – turns out to be guilty as sin, and perhaps quite literally so. He is John Cleverly Cartney (Peter Wyngarde), an aristocrat with a taste for anarchy, and one of the founders of a revived Hellfire Club. Having only really stirred things up prior to this point, Cartney and his cronies are intent on a much more spectacular coup – once again, perhaps literally so…

Brian Clemens himself would gleefully tell the tale of how A Touch of Brimstone was omitted from the series’ original run, due to the rather pronounced sado-masochistic overtones and cheerfully dwelt-upon debauchery in the latter sections of the episode. (He would also mention that the same US network chiefs who banned the episode on moral grounds organised a private viewing for themselves.) By modern standards the episode is pretty tame stuff, but even to this day one can’t deny a certain frisson when Mrs Peel makes her spiked-heeled-and-collared, corseted appearance as the Queen of Sin (Dame Diana apparently designed this, dare I say it, iconic ensemble herself), and in any case it’s hard to shake the impression that this sort of big set-piece moment is the episode’s raison d’etre – the rest of the plot is frankly pretty thin and spurious.

brimstone

Sorry, this picture is really obligatory when you write about this particular episode.

 

But then again, classic Avengers is all about big set pieces, rather than tight and innovative plotting, not to mention servicing its two leads with some properly beefy material. While it may be Diana Rigg as Mrs Peel who lingers in the memory, most likely for her climactic battles with a man in tights and a whip-cracking Wyngarde, but Steed gets a full-blooded sword-fight and lots of other good stuff too – it hardly needs saying that Macnee takes to dressing and acting like an 18th-century rake like a mallard to a particularly placid pond. Both benefit from James Hill’s direction – Hill knows exactly what this episode’s about, and takes great care to give both his stars reaction beats they can utterly nail.

In short, it doesn’t take itself remotely seriously – the tone of it all is a slightly detached, slightly tongue-in-cheek sardonicism – and while it features none of the full-on SF elements that had started to appear in Avengers scripts by this point, it’s quite clearly not set in the world as we recognise it. And it is supremely entertaining.

And, as I say, influential: somehow this little black-and-white TV episode ended up inspiring an X-Men comics storyline and a bunch of characters who went on to be popular in their own right. I’ve no idea if Brian Clemens ever knew about this, but I expect he did, and I suspect he was highly amused. We shall not see his like again, I suspect. I’ve no idea what happens to us when it’s all over, but if there is anything waiting, I hope he gets the good stuff he deserves. RIP.

 

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To start with today, a rare glimpse behind the curtain to where the magic happens. As regular visitors may have noticed, I recently watched the complete Babylon 5 – 110 episodes of the main show, another 13 of the spin-off, plus seven TV movies of various flavours. This ended up taking eight months, and to say this was longer than expected is a bit of an understatement. Still, I enjoyed it, and it filled some of the gap in my life which was left at the conclusion of my Diploma course (as well as arguably being a slightly more worthwhile undertaking, but that’s just the state of my career for you).

And I find I am missing it – not the watching of the DVDs, but the thinking about the episodes and the writing of the blog. I suppose the logical thing to do is just to write more full Doctor Who reviews, but I’m sort of half-way through a project in that department at the moment and I do like to mix things up a bit.

On the other hand, I don’t want to launch into something quite so time-consuming and comprehensive quite so soon (which is not to say that doing the same thing for the original Survivors, in particular, doesn’t appeal), which sort of limits me to doing odd episodes here or there. I suppose the issue I’m grappling with is whether or not to write about every old TV show I watch on DVD, and if not, how to decide? Just the really good ones, or the really unusual ones, or the terrible ones, or what?

Oh well. For the time being I am just going to wait for the spirit to move me, which didn’t happen with the last few episodes of Hammer House of Horror, but did happen with a 1969 episode of The Avengers entitled Love All. This is from the final season of the show, which – so far as I am aware – is somewhat divisive amongst those who really like it. Everyone agrees that the two Diana Rigg seasons are brilliant, iconic TV: the question is whether the final Linda Thorson season is, in places, even better, or just rather disappointing on the whole.

Certainly season 6 is a different animal from any of its predecessors. The format has undergone a bit of a tweak, in that suave superspy Steed is no longer working with an amateur partner, but a fellow professional agent – specifically, Linda Thorson as Tara King (my dad actually prefers Linda Thorson to Diana Rigg, which given her general resemblance to Maggie Gyllenhaal and occasional penchant for thigh-flashing I can sort of understand). Also new on the scene is Steed’s boss, Mother, an obese, wheelchair-bound mastermind plated by Patrick Newell.

The general tone and look of the stories have also changed – the Rigg seasons’ regular excursions into full-on SF seem to have been curtailed, but the imagery of the series has become much more deliberately whimsical and surreal. On some levels the programme is marginally more down to Earth, but in others it’s weirder than ever.

As a result some of the Thorson episodes just come across as silly, thinly-plotted nonsense, but when they’re good, they’re really impressive. Love All is an episode full of interestingly strange ideas and good gags. It also makes more diligent use of that old ‘plain woman takes off glasses and lets down hair and is suddenly stunning’ trope than anything else in the history of the world.

As the story opens, something is afoot in the Missile Defence Department: secrets are being leaked! (Stolen secrets and high-level sleepers and double agents are very standard in The Avengers, so no-one seems inordinately bothered apart from Mother.) It quickly becomes apparent that top department bigwig Sir Rodney is to blame, as he is inadvertantly telling them to his girlfriend (Veronica Strong), who happens to be the department’s cleaning lady. The image of him passionately wooing a very plain woman in an apron with a fag hanging out of the corner of her mouth is funny, and plays to all sorts of cultural stereotypes about posh Englishmen and their fondness for women who clean.

Unfortunately, Sir Rodney is overheard by a security man, and at his girlfriend’s urging shoots him dead, eventually going on the run after a brief interview with Steed. Sir Rodney goes round to the cleaning lady’s house where he meets a stunning dolly-bird claiming to be her niece. Later, the cleaning lady herself emerges and the two drive off together – but she puts a bullet in the hapless civil servant. A remarkable transformation takes place (not all of it on-camera) as a quick tousle of the hair, some make-up and a change of stockings reveals that cleaner and dolly-bird are one and the same person.  Strong really does look very glam in her dolled-up persona; kudos to her for throwing herself into the dismal old drab side of the part as well.

Anyway, a slightly spurious trail of clues lead Steed and Tara to the offices of Casanova Ink, a small publishing house specialising in romantic fiction. Here the show seems to be satirising both Mills and Boon, publisher of thousands of this sort of title, and Barbara Cartland, the notorious romantic novelist who wrote a staggering number of books of this type (over 700, including 23 in one year – she left 160 unpublished manuscripts when she died, the sort of workrate which makes Michael Moorcock look like JD Salinger and me feel like giving up ‘serious’ writing entirely). Running the place is Patsy Rowlands, veteran of several Carry On films, which tonally we’re not a million miles away from here. The gag is that all the romance books are written by a computer, explaining the authors’ astounding productivity (shades of Roald Dahl’s The Great Automatic Grammatizator, published some years prior to this episode being written).

Well, needless to say, it turns out that the genius behind the novel-writing computer (Terence Alexander, playing his third Avengers bad guy in as many seasons) has come up with a way of using ‘microdots’ embedded in books to send subliminal messages that cause the reader to fall helplessly in love with the next person they see. Said microdots are in heavy circulation at the department, and all the top men there are madly in love with the cleaner, allowing him to extract various juicy secrets and sell them to foreign powers.

loveall

Another gritty and demanding Avengers storyline, I think you’ll agree. Well, it gets a bit dicey near the end as the villain manages to make Tara fall in love with him and nearly persuades her to die for love (apparently Patrick Macnee cracked a rib in the scene where he saves her from jumping out of a window). However, once the obligatory poorly-doubled fisticuffs are out of the way, Steed hits upon a cunning ruse – availing himself of about two dozen of the ‘microdots’ (which actually look like watch batteries), he sticks them all over his waistcoat. All the villains promptly fall for him, allowing him to round them up and take them off to the authorities with the greatest of ease.

Well, okay, it’s not deep and it’s not remotely sensible, but it’s a proper story and not just a series of lifts from other places and quirkily stylised set pieces. It hangs together pretty well as a plot (given the standard Avengers conventions), it says some witty things about English culture and society, and in places it’s properly funny. The – er – cognitive dissonance between Veronica Strong’s drab and glam incarnations really is striking: unless you’re in on the gag it’s almost impossible to tell it’s the same person.

But the best performance award probably goes to Patrick Macnee, of course: given a scene where he’s confronted with a gang of beautiful women, all of whom are in love with him, he’s absolutely in his element and soars as only he can. Thorson is pretty good, of course, but it’s Macnee who’s basically carrying the series at this point.  A strong episode all round, then, but is this as good as the best of the Rigg episodes? I’m reluctant to say, not having watched a lot of Rigg recently: I shall have to refresh my memory. Watch this space – or, to choose a more apposite phrase, stay tuned.

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Let us continue our consideration of the career of Peter Cushing with a look at two more guest appearances the great man made on British TV in the 1960s and 1970s. Both of these are in The Avengers, mainly because these are the DVDs I happen to have knocking about the garret (well, one of them is technically in The New Avengers, but let’s not quibble).

Modern audiences may just associate The Avengers with Joss Whedon, a load of Marvel characters, and ten-digit box office returns, but for those of us of a certain age and disposition, that title goes first and foremost to a very peculiar TV thriller series, which started in 1960 as a straightforward detective show before transforming into one of the most stylish and off-the-wall fantasy series ever made – not entirely unlike the Batman TV show of the same period, but with much better performances and a massively higher level of sophistication. Patrick Macnee plays Steed, an adventurer and agent of an unspecified government agency, whose remit is conveniently vague; in the show’s mid-60s heyday his partner is an amateur investigator named Mrs Emma Peel (played, of course, by Diana Rigg). One of the subtle brilliancies of this show is the inversion of the way you’d expect the leads to be characterised: Mrs Peel usually takes things very seriously, while the professional agent Steed appears to be doing this for fun.

Anyway, the episode under consideration is Return of the Cybernauts from 1967, written by Philip Levene and directed by Robert Day. As it opens, the case that Steed and Mrs Peel are supposedly working on is the disappearance of a number of top scientists, but, characteristically, they are not letting this get in the way of a properly refined social life and are in fact enjoying drinks at the house of their friend Paul Beresford (Cushing). Beresford, not to put too fine a point on it, is coming on to Mrs Peel like nobody’s business, which she seems to find quite flattering, even though he is close to being twice her age. Steed appears a bit nonplussed by it all.

The disappearance of another scientist drags the duo away, at which point it is revealed that Beresford is behind the kidnappings, using a hulking robotic proxy (one of the Cybernauts referred to in the title). Soon enough he sits all his abductees down and shows them a tape of the previous season’s episode The Cybernauts, particularly the bit where Steed and Mrs Peel are responsible for the villain’s death – a villain who was secretly, in fact, Beresford’s brother! Now he has assembled this collection of boffins to cook up a suitably diabolical revenge – ‘a rhapsody of suffering’ is what he’s in the market for. However, Steed and Emma are no fools and have already figured out that someone has reactivated the Cybernauts, and they’re closing in on the culprit – taking frequent breaks to enjoy whiskey, claret, and other fine things in life, naturally…

returncybernauts

Well, what follows is a well-directed collection of decent set-pieces strung together by some slightly dubious pretexts – The Avengers regularly makes big asks of its audience, and this episode is no exception. In addition to the idea that a seven foot steel robot in a fedora and sunglasses could wander around the Home Counties karate-chopping everything in its path without being noticed, the episode makes use of a wide variety of fantastical gadgets, from weapons that home in on a person’s ‘unique heartbeat’ to wristwatches that ‘paralyse the will’.

We are well across the border into science fantasy here, but despite what you may be thinking, the Cybernauts do not seem to me to be overtly ripping off the Cybermen of Doctor Who. For one thing, they look and behave quite differently, with the Cybernauts clearly being presented as totally mute robots. Most importantly, the Cybernauts beat the Cybermen to the screen by nearly a year. If anything, I’d say the influence was flowing the other way – not only did The Avengers and other filmed adventure series heavily influence the format of Doctor Who‘s seventh season, but the Autons, on their debut appearance in 1970, strikingly resemble the Cybernauts in a number of ways.

But I digress. This is a fairly atypical Avengers episode in all sorts of ways – this is a series which never really did recurring adversaries, and only rarely had stories specifically about the two leads being threatened. And, on the whole, it’s a fairly ‘straight’ story, with little of the quirkiness or humour you really expect from this show. Perhaps its this which makes some of the more dubious permutations of the plot a little difficult to swallow – and here I’m not even talking about the scene where Beresford has Mrs Peel in his clutches, her free will neutralised, and he proceeds to… help her off with her coat. Is the man not human? Hmm, I’m digressing again.

Nevertheless, it works as a piece of entertainment, not least because it’s Peter Cushing playing the bad guy. He gets some fairly choice dialogue to deliver – the ‘rhapsody of suffering’ line being just one example – but this never really impinges on the air of suave menace he effortlessly projects. This episode is about the villain more than most (he’s a nutcase, but an intelligent nutcase with a very specific agenda) and it’s easy to see why they recruited an actor of Cushing’s calibre for the part.

One gets the sense he was cast in The New Avengers simply because he was a famous film star, however: his episode, The Eagle’s Nest, was the series premiere and they presumably thought Cushing’s presence would help with the publicity. He gets the main guest role, but this story is mainly about establishing the characters, format, and tone.

Made in 1976, Patrick Macnee reprises his role as a slightly more avuncular Steed, while assisting him now are Joanna Lumley as ex-ballerina Purdey and Gareth Hunt as ex-mercenary Mike Gambit. Purdey isn’t really in Mrs Peel’s league, but Lumley makes the best of what she’s given, while Steed still appears to be an eccentric fop but is really a very hard man. Gambit, on the other hand, appears to be a very hard man but is really a bit of a gimp. Hey ho.

Many episodes of The New Avengers open with one of our heroes’ colleagues stumbling upon the evil plan of the villains, getting themselves mortally wounded, and then staggering off (usually to Steed’s house) to conk out after whispering a few cryptic words that will kick off the plot. The Eagle’s Nest doesn’t quite go down this route, but it’s a near thing.

We open with an Englishman being chased across a desolate Scottish landscape by a bunch of the locals: this is not Nigel Farage making another ill-advised trip to canvass north of the border, but an agent whose fishing trip has led to his discovering… aha, that would be telling. In a typical New Avengers gimmick, the bad guys’ weapons are fishing rods whose hooks are coated with jellyfish extract. It is quickly established that the local monks are baddies and the angling spy is soon toast.

However, an impostor passing himself off as the dead man turns up in London at a scientific meeting attended by the eminent scientist Doctor von Claus (Cushing, finally), who’s an expert on cryogenic suspension (not that they used terms like that in mainstream entertainment in 1976). Having resuscitated a frog to wild applause (those wacky scientists), von Claus is kidnapped by the impostor and dragged off to the remote Scottish island where the monks hold sway.

Sure enough, a succession of clues point Steed and his friends in that direction, so off they go – but why have the monks nabbed the doctor in the first place? Well, it transpires that in 1945 one of the last planes out of Berlin before the Russians took the city crashed upon the island, and it has been controlled by these fanatical Nazis and their offspring ever since (not that anyone looks particularly Aryan, if we’re honest). Also on the plane was – yes, you’ve guessed it! – Hitler, who’s been in a coma ever since, and the Nazis would quite like Peter Cushing to revive him just in time for his birthday party. What the plan after that is remains unclear: presumably the hope is that Hitler will lead an all-conquering army carrying fishing rods and jellyfish extract from this remote north Atlantic rock.

eagle

We are well into the dubious realm of Nazi kitsch here – there’s a very funny scene where all the monks whip off their habits to reveal SS uniforms underneath – but, some obvious padding aside, the story hangs together pretty well. It’s clear from the start, though, that having three regulars in an Avengers episode is probably a mistake, as it’s quite difficult to split the story three ways. Gambit doesn’t really get much to do. Purdey, on the other hand, frogmans her way onto the island, reveals a very nice chiffon number under her wetsuit (complete with high-heeled boots), and then gets a couple of mildly kinky scenes where the fishhooks of the villains shred her top layer, forcing her to spend the rest of the episode in a low-cut green wool catsuit (and, to judge from some of the camera angles, not much else).

As I said, Peter Cushing does not perhaps get the material he deserves, as many of his scenes are simply just padding. However, as you might expect, he gives it everything he’s got – it’s so interesting to see how many of the same tics and mannerisms Cushing employs when playing a villain can be subtly tweaked to transform him into a very sympathetic character. Nevertheless, he’s not playing the hero or the villain, and so this episode is always fundamentally about other people. It is silly, it is in questionable taste, and it never quite gets the balance right between comic relief and drama: but then again, it is The New Avengers, so you’d be unwise to expect anything else.

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‘What, not another one? The one with Sean Connery and Uma Thurman was awful…’

My literary advisor’s response to the news of the then-impending release of the big-screen version of The Avengers was, it seems, typical. Sensitive to being tarred with that particular brush, the movie’s distributors have specially retitled it for its UK release, where it seems to be appearing under the monumentally inelegant title Marvel Avengers Assemble, which sounds more like a trade-magazine headline than a proper movie. They can take their new title and stick it; I’ve been referring to this movie as The Avengers for a number of years now and The Avengers it shall remain.

The last-minute decision to rename must have been a bit peeving for Marvel Studios, as this film is the culmination of possibly the longest and most expensive advertising campaign in cinema history. You may remember the first trailer, which appeared in theatres in 2008 under the title Iron Man… oh, all right, I’m exaggerating a bit, but the fact remains that the two Iron Man movies, Captain America, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk all had a definite sense of building towards this moment. This kind of coming together of separate characters and series happens all the time in comics, but it’s a new and bold departure as far as cinema is concerned. All credit to Marvel for giving it a whirl, and even moreso for giving the writer-director gig of a huge movie to someone whose last film didn’t even make its money back in theatres: Joss Whedon.

The story scores highly for its potential to baffle anyone who hasn’t seen all the previous films, but here goes anyway. SHIELD’s attempts to tap the potential of Asgardian power-source the Tesseract hit a snag when the widget opens up a dimensional gate allowing the malevolent Norse god Loki (Tom Hiddlestone) access to the Earthly plane. Pausing to suborn various helpers, he saunters off taking the Tesseract with him. He has struck a deal with belligerent aliens the Chitauri and the conquest of Earth is on the agenda.

This worries SHIELD boss Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), who sets about assembling a team of specialists to sort the problem out. Already on his books are the crackshot Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and superspy Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen), and quick to sign up is chemically-enhanced super-soldier Captain America (Chris Evans – no, UK readers, the other one). Less immediately eager are playboy genius Iron Man (Robert Downey Junior) and brilliant-physicist-stroke-unstoppable-atomic-monster Bruce Banner (not content with doing his usual changing-from-pink-to-green trick, the Hulk has also transformed from Ed Norton to Mark Ruffalo for this outing). Matters are further complicated when Loki’s adoptive brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) takes an understandable interest in his activities…

Before we go any further, I know there’s one question probably burning at the front of your mind – something you feel you absolutely have to know. Okay, I shall tell you: The Avengers doesn’t have a post-credits sequence. You can clear off… well, not as soon as the closing titles start, for you’ll miss a bit revealing the villain of the sequel – or, as I like to think of him, The Hideous Antagonist Next On Screen – but don’t bother hanging around until the end unless you get off on reading the names of special-effects technicians.

Anyway, as a story pitch, it sounds completely insane. It probably is completely insane, but this kind of wild banging-together of different characters and tones is bread-and-butter stuff as far as comic books is concerned. As a film in its own right, The Avengers is probably deeply flawed and fundamentally misconceived: but it’s not a film in its own right, it’s an attempt to do a proper superhero team story, full-scale, on the big screen. And for me it delivers in spades: insane it may be, but it’s also insanely entertaining.

There’s a very particular structure to comics stories where superheroes meet for the first time, and The Avengers adheres to this with admirable fidelity, for the most part. First of all you get the sequences introducing everyone individually and demonstrating what their schtick is, and these are present (mostly). Then, before battle is joined with the actual villain, there is the inevitable misunderstanding and/or clash of egos resulting in the good guys knocking seven bells out of each other at great length. This sort of thing fuels the perpetual ‘Who would win in a fight between…’ debates comic fans love, and The Avengers goes for this with great enthusiasm. The initial barney between Thor and Iron Man is jolly enough, but I was particularly delighted later one when the story finds time for a proper scrap between Thor and the Hulk. Once this is out of the way it’s time for some regrouping and laying in of plot ahead of the final battle.

I was listening to a review of The Cabin in the Woods on the radio where Joss Whedon’s undoubted talents as a writer were under discussion. The point was made that, while it’s all very well to deconstruct genres and play with conventions, would it not be possible for Whedon to simply make a straightforwardly brilliant movie that operated solely in its own right and wasn’t constantly referencing or commenting on something else? Clearly someone hasn’t seen Serenity, but no matter: in many ways The Avengers is that movie. You don’t need to have seen any of the other Marvel Studios films to follow the story here (but, equally impressively, the film feels like it’s significantly moving on the story of all the main characters), and the way in which Whedon builds investment in the story and orchestrates changes of mood is impeccable. He stuffs the thing with quotable dialogue, too – Robert Downey Junior is probably the main beneficiary, as you might expect. As a director Whedon is also impressively ambitious – in the middle of the climax he finds time for a lengthy, ludicrously complex tracking shot that may well become a cliche of this kind of story in the future.

So far as I could tell, there are relatively few comics in-jokes in this movie, but as the whole thing seems designed to delight the fanbase I doubt anyone will be too upset. While this film doesn’t exactly feature a classic Avengers line-up – I suspect the nature of Marvel’s contract with the people who make the X-Men films means that none of the various mutant Avengers can appear, while absent founder-member Giant-Man is, basically, a bit rubbish – the ones who do appear all get their moments to shine, both in terms of action and characterisation.

Personally, after two ultimately unsatisfying solo movies I was particularly delighted with the treatment of the Hulk in this film. Mark Ruffalo is very good as the Banner incarnation of the character, and when he does lose his rag and go green it’s unmistakably and unashamedly the comics version of the Hulk that appears: he jumps around! He roars! He smashes things! He even gets some decent dialogue! I’m not surprised that this film has put the possibility of another Hulk movie back on Marvel’s agenda.

Despite all the good things about The Avengers, I feel compelled to point out a few problems. The action and characterisation and humour are all exemplary, but even given the movie’s lengthy duration they appear to have squeezed out most of the plot. The story is rather straightforward and looking back on it I’m not completely sure I’m sold on some of what happens, in terms of character’s motivations. And while the script does a commendable job of combining the plots of the original Avengers origin from 1964 (disparate heroes join forces to stop Loki) with a storyline from Mark Millar’s Ultimates reimagining of the team (covert agency assembles gang of freaks to combat alien invasion), the Chitauri themselves feel like a rather generic and undeveloped threat, just inserted to provide a gang of mooks for the team to clobber and to provide an appropriately epic threat for the final act.

Churlishness, though. At a time when the likes of Battleship are considered acceptable as a major summer release, the intelligence, humour, and evident love for both its source material and basic storytelling that The Avengers displays throughout is not much less than a tonic for the soul. Marvel Studios can look forward to massive box-office success, Joss Whedon can look forward to his new status as a bona fide major-league player, and we can look forward to the next wave of movies featuring these characters. There’s one other superhero movie coming out this summer that’s carrying a huge burden of expectation (and possibly pitching for a more mature audience, too) but that looks likely to be a rather more sombre and thoughtful affair. In terms of general crowd-pleasing spectacle and sheer entertainment value, The Avengers may be the most successful film of this genre to date.

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…or, possibly, Finding the Character.

So, this is going to be about the way in which the presentation of a certain class of TV character has changed over the last forty to fifty years and what this may tell us about changes in UK culture. As I’m mainly going to talk about British genre shows, particularly action-adventure and SF (the latter is almost invariably a subset of the former), there’s going to be a lot of stuff about Doctor Who and Sherlock (yeah, sorry about that, people who aren’t interested in them) but also some other shows that no-one seems to care about any more (yeah, sorry about that, people who are interested).

What got me thinking along these lines was a discussion about – yes, you guessed it – Sherlock and Doctor Who, wherein a friend of mine argued that the two lead characters were presented in a fundamentally similar way. Regular readers may recall that I have visited this topic before in the not too distant past, and I’m not planning to go over it again here in too much detail. But anyway, as I suggested to my friend, this may well be a bit of an optical illusion inasmuch as this is how all TV action-adventure heroes are presented these days, and it’s only the scarcity of this type of character that’s clouded the issue.

Certainly British action-adventure TV shows are a lot thinner on the ground than they used to be. Casting our minds back to the 1960s, surely the golden age of the genre, we encounter The Saint, The Avengers, Man in a Suitcase, the original Randall and Hopkirk, The Champions, Danger Man, The Prisoner, Adam Adamant Lives and many other less celebrated examples – to say nothing of the early years of Doctor Who (albeit a rather different show in those days) and no fewer than two BBC-produced Sherlock Holmes series (starring Douglas Wilmer and Peter Cushing respectively). Wind on to 2012 and all we really find are Doctor Who, Sherlock, and – still just about current – Primeval. (Oh, and I suppose the grisly Merlin qualifies, but I can never watch more than five minutes at a time without losing my temper and switching over, so I can’t really discuss it in any detail.)

The reasons for the decline in this genre’s presence are, I would suspect, mainly economic: most of the 60s shows I mentioned were made on film and largely shot on location, with lengthy runs – mainly because they were made by ITC with more than half a eye on selling them to the lucrative American market. American sales were what made a lot of these shows viable propositions and the major American networks are a lot less open to foreign product these days – the only British show to get a major network slot since The New Avengers in the late 1970s is Merlin, for reasons I find utterly impossible to work out.

So this may be why this kind of show is no longer such a fixture, but what’s more interesting to me is the change in the way these shows are written. Many years ago on the BBC Doctor Who message board I remember laboriously trying to explain the difference between a plot-driven story and a character-driven story. I think I settled on saying that in a plot-driven story it’s events that dictate the actions of the protagonists, while in a character-driven one it’s the personalities of the protagonists that motivate the events. This probably sounds rather circular – to simplify things still further, I would go on to say that a plot-driven story is primarily about what people do, while a character-driven one is about who they are. This is not to say that plot-driven stories can’t have an interesting cast, or that a character-driven one must be wholly bereft of incident – it’s a question of focus and emphasis.

Looking at The Avengers or Danger Man these days one of the most striking things about them is how little attention is paid to the histories and emotions of the leading characters beyond the strict demands of the plot. The backgrounds of Steed and Drake remain almost entirely vague; we know nothing about their families or any relationships they may have had in the past. None of this matters in an Avengers or Danger Man episode – it’s all about the case or the mission in that particular episode, the leads are there to fulfil a set of plot functions. This is most striking in the case of Mrs Peel (also from The Avengers) – she’s introduced as Mrs Peel in her debut episode, but her exact marital situation is never addressed or even alluded to, until the closing minutes of her final episode in which it is revealed her husband is a test pilot who’s been lost up the Amazon for years.

Stiff upper lips were the order of the day in Ye Good Olde Days.

If The Avengers were being made today, in the modern style, I cannot imagine an episode going by in which Mrs Peel’s angst over her missing spouse is not given a little moment to itself. Whole episodes would no doubt be written wherein she helps to reunite people who have been forcibly separated from their loved ones, concluding with bittersweet moments – no doubt taking place to a piano or power-ballad soundtrack – where she sees the happiness she has brought about but is confronted yet again by her own loneliness. It would, if you ask me, be totally and utterly awful, mawkish, charmless dross – we can perhaps get a slight impression of what it would be like by looking at the New Avengers episode Obsession, a deeply atypical and rather underwhelming outing focussing on Purdey’s unhappy love affair with Martin Shaw’s character.

I can’t begin to imagine how an updated version of Steed would work – but then again, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part a tenth as well as Patrick Macnee, so it’s really an empty question – the same kind of applies to the Prisoner, but it’s interesting how much more conventional and less interesting the central character of the updated version is.

These days it isn’t enough to just be an interesting and engaging screen character who resolves fun and imaginative plots – there seems to be a distinct sense that audiences won’t care about that. Every character these days has to have some kind of emotional baggage, which not only allows us access to their psychological hinterland, but seems to insist we visit it virtually on a weekly basis.

As a case in point let us look at the male leads of Primeval, who have the advantage of being new-minted characters unlike Sherlock Holmes or the Doctor and are thus more amenable to being crafted to fit a specific role. The three guys in question are Nick Cutter, Danny Quinn, and Matt Anderson, and they are the successive male leads in a show which largely revolves around people being chased around by CGI monsters who’ve wandered out of holes in time. They are a scientist, a cop, and a soldier-turned-zookeeper, and yet despite this diversity and the nature of the show they all fit the same template: each of them isn’t just chasing CGI monsters because it’s their job. All of them have Personal Issues involved with loved ones who have got mixed up in the holes-in-time business.

Or, to put it another way, everything these days has a much stronger soap opera element than it did in years gone by. This was one of the main accusations flung at the early Rusty Davies series of Doctor Who, certainly, and while I don’t have a problem with the attention paid to extended family lives of most of the regular characters I do sense and slightly object to an ongoing attempt to load the Doctor down with baggage of various kinds.

Specifically, things which were nicely underplayed and subtextual in the 1963-89 version of the series – the loneliness of the Doctor, the grounding influence of his companions – are dragged out into the centre of episodes. The mostly-implied affection the Doctor shares with his friends is replaced by operatic and overblown excursions into sentimental navel-gazing such as conclude most of the Davies seasons. As you may have sensed, I am not a tremendous fan of this kind of thing – I’m quite capable of having an emotion off my own bat without having it wholly specified by whatever it is I’m reading or watching.

Sherlock Holmes is a character who dates back much further than any other I’ve mentioned so far, hailing from an era when angst was an unknown concept and upper lips remained entirely solid. Presenting him not just in a modern context but in a modern style thus presents a bit of an issue. In my initial discussion on this subject, the point came up that Holmes and the Doctor really do mirror each other – one is a superbeing with human emotions, the other is a normal man with superhuman faculties.

Conan Doyle pays lip service to giving Holmes a few weaknesses – most famously his occasional depressions and his ignorance of many basic facts about astronomy – but most of the time he’s an almost superhumanly accomplished individual – an accomplished musician and highly-skilled martial artist in addition to his prodigious talents as a detective. However this clearly will not do for a modern TV hero and so in Sherlock he is assigned a dreadful personal flaw with which he must contend. It’s interesting that Sherlock has received quite so many plaudits for being utterly faithful to Doyle, when the depiction of Holmes as someone quite so socially incompetent and often downright rude is really not to be found anywhere in the original canon.

Holmes and the Doctor have a number of similarities, to be sure, but these are only emphasised by the fact that both have gone through the modern-genre-TV-baggage-attaching process. Heroes are not allowed to simply be heroes any more, nor are we allowed to work out for ourselves what the deeper elements of their characters might be. It’s not enough for a character to simply be likeable or interesting, we have to be able to Emotionally Invest in them, no matter how absurd that might be in the case of a soldier-turned-zookeeper whose job is to chase prehistoric monsters into holes in time.

Why has this happened? It seems to be a recent phenomenon, though the near-total absence of British action-adventure TV shows between the mid-80s and the mid-00s makes it difficult to be sure. Certainly the leads of Bugs (launched in 1994) are in the old style, as were the central characters in Crime Traveller. This takes us up to 1997, an interesting year inasmuch as the death of Princess Diana provoked scenes of wild emotion on the streets of Britain of an intensity and on a scale which was previously unthinkable.

Certainly in the 15 years since, British culture seems to have become considerably more emotionally articulate, if not in fact emotionally incontinent. Quite outside of the action-adventure TV genre, even the main TV variety shows rely on the ’emotional journey’ of the participants to provide a hook for the audience. Basically, everything has gone very soapy and sentimental at the the expense of reason and wit and restraint.

Once again I suspect my personal preferences may be apparent. I suspect my dislike for the modern Emo-style of genre TV is not solely because I object to cheap and obvious sentimentality but because this has supplanted so many of the elements I really like in the older shows – wit, inventiveness, and so on. Certainly they still exist in the modern shows, which is why Sherlock and Doctor Who remain so watchable for me, but often they seem less important than people’s character arcs and emotional foibles. Maybe the wheel will turn again and they will come back into fashion once more. I hope so, but I’m not holding my breath.

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