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Posts Tagged ‘The Medicine Men’

That well-known TV face Peter Bowles makes the first of his annual Avengers guest-villain appearances in Martin Woodhouse’s Second Sight, which ultimately turns out to be a bit less weird and interesting than it first appears. An experimental transplant operation is about to take place, with living corneal tissue being harvested from a donor at a Swiss clinic and brought to the UK, where it will be grafted into a blind millionaire named Halvarssen (John Carson). Steed is overseeing the project on behalf of the government, which at least provides him and Cathy with a route into the story, even if one inevitably wonders why this affair falls within the (admittedly vague) remit of Steed’s department.

Various things about the project just don’t add up: why all the rigmarole about transporting the corneas from Switzerland to the UK? Why doesn’t he just go there himself? And, given that these are living corneas, it follows that the donor will be sacrificing their own sight to give Halvarssen the possibility of regaining it (apparently there’s a 30% chance per eye of the transplant taking, though the person saying this turns out to be low moral character and probably should not be trusted). Isn’t there something very ethically dubious going on here?

Well, as you can probably guess, all turns out to be not quite as it first appears, and – as noted – perhaps less interesting. The actual reason for the tissue transport turns out to be the first one you might think of (the plot device involved has turned up in other places since), and the series is back on slightly shaky ground with a trip off to Switzerland for much of the episode (the kind of foreign excursion which was routine in series two but has been much less common this year): rather to Cathy’s annoyance, Steed manages to insert her into the situation in the guise of being some sort of medical and biological expert: something she complains is beyond even her awesome polymathic abilities.

Still, the episode is redeemed by being pacy, with a well-told story for most of its running time (there is perhaps the odd wobble near the end). Some good performances, too: Peter Bowles makes a smooth and plausible main villain, and there’s a well-scripted scene between Steed and Halvarssen, which, amongst other things, sets up another high-quality final ruck, this week featuring a gun battle where one of the participants is blind. Not a truly great episode, but probably above average.

On to The Medicine Men, written by Malcolm Hulke and initially transmitted on the 23rd of November 1963 (I mention this only because most books and articles on vintage TV give the impression that only one programme worth mentioning was shown on this date). Despite the title, this one doesn’t have a doctor in it, but it does concern the pharmaceutical industry, and touches on some reasonably contemporary concerns.

A Chinese woman dies in suspicious circumstances at a Turkish bath in London (what I personally find rather mysterious is why she goes into a steam cabinet wearing such heavy mascara, but that’s by the by). It turns out she was investigating counterfeit medicines being sold in what we would now call the developing world: the packaging and branding of respectable, legitimate companies is being duplicated (or almost duplicated) and the markets flooded with substandard knock-offs. Once again, it initially seems like slightly small potatoes for Steed and Mrs Gale to get involved in, but then again I suppose there is that murder to consider.

Well, it all turns out to involve adulterous shenanigans at the company the episode primarily features, a disreputable ‘action’ painter, Mrs Gale going undercover at the Turkish baths (one carelessly framed shot of Cathy in the shower has Honor Blackman briefly sharing more with the audience than she probably intended), Steed going undercover as an utterly preposterous Icelandic art dealer, complete with fur hat and thick accent, and much more beside. The story does turn out to have some stakes, in a slightly contrived way: the villains’ plan becomes one to create anti-British sentiment in the former colonies by releasing deadly fake medicine in identical packaging to that of British companies. There’s also a lovely moment where Steed finds himself held at gunpoint by a rather over-confident villain. ‘I’m sorry, I couldn’t find one with a silencer,’ smirks the bad guy. ‘That’s all right, I could!’ beams Steed. Pop!

‘That hat’s not a patch on your bowler, Steed.’ (Here all week.)

In the end this is another episode which probably gets a bit too unravelled in the final act, but is redeemed by some of the incidental pleasures I’ve outlined above. We’re at the point now where the by-play between Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman is usually enough of a pleasure to make up for whatever weaknesses the rest of the plot may have: the running joke in this one is about them practising their putting and chip shots while discussing the case, and of course the final punchline to the episode is that Cathy’s handicap is half Steed’s, much to his obvious shock. Lots of fun, regardless of the plot.

Next, Rex Edwards (who I believe is a new name to us) contributes The Grandeur That Was Rome, an episode which apparently led to Honor Blackman receiving a fan letter written entirely in Latin – when Patrick Macnee passed it on to his old Latin tutor (but of course…), it proved to be outrageously pornographic, to the point where they couldn’t contemplate actually showing her the translation. The episode itself perhaps doesn’t live up to the quality of this anecdote, but it’s another one you could certainly imagine appearing (perhaps in somewhat modified form) in season four or five.

Strange crop failures and livestock diseases are afflicting Europe (shades of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves) which leads Steed to the offices of a leading feedstock company – but who could be attempting to bring about widespread famine and the associated social upheaval? The trail eventually leads them to Sir Bruno Luca (Hugh Burden), a millionaire scientist and businessman with a fixation on ancient Rome and who is, as you might be able to guess, as mad as a muskrat. Luca wants to reinstitute the Roman Empire (with himself as Caesar, naturally), and is looking to do so by causing plagues and funding an autocratic political movement.

Well, any episode which concludes with a togate and gladius-wielding Steed taking on the bad guys obviously has things going for it, even if the technical limitations of the video-taped episodes mean this doesn’t have quite the panache or scope of some of the episodes that will come to follow it in the filmed seasons. Hugh Burden is unafraid to be, ahem, expansive in his performance, but much of the plot is relatively down to earth (it feels like there’s a lot of poking about in the offices of feedstock suppliers). Still, the way this episode eschews entirely a conventional espionage or crime-related story in favour of a lunatic mastermind seeking world conquest does mean it feels very much like a harbinger of the more outrageous episodes of the Emma Peel years, and it’s nice to have just a taste of things to come.

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