Posts Tagged ‘The New Avengers’

There’s no sign of an interesting critical dispute when it comes to Brian Clemens’ The Gladiators: everyone seems to agree that this episode is an ugly piece of junk, the worst of the Canadian shows, which are themselves the worst episodes of The New Avengers. Naturally I was immediately very fond of it when I first saw it, over thirty years ago: it was one of the handful of episodes I permanently kept on VHS (at the time I had no idea it was so reviled). Something about its combination of absurd martial arts fetishism and forced whimsy just connected with teenage-me, I suppose.

Anyway: the story goes thusly. The main villain is one Karl Sminsky, who is played by Louis Zorich – the only actor to appear in both Fiddler on the Roof and Gamera the Invincible, in case you were wondering. Highly trained to the point where he’s probably technically a supervillain, Sminsky is sent off to Canada with his equally deadly henchmen to teach some of the local miscreants his special tricks. These include punching holes in sheet steel, repelling blades, and deflecting automatic gunfire with his bare hands. (The episode makes extensive use of music cues and sound effects from Last of the Cybernauts..??, adding to the impression the bad guys are basically living weapons.)

Fortunately for Steed and the others, Sminsky and his men are rather stronger on causing mayhem than doing so covertly, as they leave a trail of slaughtered agents and civilians in their wake – fans of Canadian cinema and 1960s boxing may spot George Chuvalo, sometime opponent of Muhammad Ali and bit-part player in Cronenberg’s version of The Fly, as a victim. (Forward planning doesn’t seem to be a particular strength, either: the training camp they establish doesn’t have any knives, so Sminsky sends one of his minions down to the local store to buy a dozen or so, clearly neglecting to remind him not to kill anyone on the way.) It’s another episode with the main characters in reactive mode almost all the way through, and watching it now you can almost sense they are all less than impressed with the material. Macnee does his best with a little comedy scene where the local ambassador for the Other Side – the script rather obviously goes to some lengths to avoid explicitly stating that Sminsky is from the Soviet Union – turns out to be practically smitten with him, while Gareth Hunt achieves a little moment of charm with Gambit’s evident delight at getting to turn on the blues and twos in the police car he commandeers.

It’s not quite the case that any episode with Steed pulling a gun on someone has terminal problems, but…

But on the whole I can see why it gets so much flak: it is unusually violent and bloody, for a New Avengers episode anyway. My understanding is that Brian Clemens was on a different continent when these episodes were made, tied up in pre-production for The Professionals, and tried to get his name taken off the credits; I can understand why – there’s something terribly earnest about the macho nonsense at the heart of this episode. It’s grim and silly at the same time. The concluding battle between the leads and the Russian gladiators is reasonably well-done, but watching it again the presence of so many easily-breakable fittings around Canadian intelligence HQ is rather obvious, and the script does require us to believe that a man who can deflect bullets and punch through walls is defeated by Steed hitting him with an umbrella. I expect I need to make more of an effort to dislike this episode.

You can see why Clemens attempted to disown the Canadian shows; apart from The Gladiators all of the others were written by Dennis Spooner, which of course includes the last of the quartet, Emily. This isn’t a dreadful episode, but you do get a definite sense of a production at the end of its tether – in his autobiography Patrick Macnee recalls Joanna Lumley walking off the site of a location, declaring she would never return (she did), and it wouldn’t surprise me if it had happened during this show.

The episode opens with a long and not particularly interesting foot chase around Ontario between Purdey and some thugs; she has been working undercover, got herself captured, and managed to escape. It has been a fairly fruitless assignment as she has no information on the identity of a particularly cunning enemy agent known, imaginatively, as the Fox, except for the fact he’s going to receive a pay-off soon and she knows who the courier is going to be. Apart from Steed and Gambit, there are two guest characters in the room as she reveals this, which I thought was marginally clever scripting (New Avengers logic dictates that the Fox will be revealed as an established guest character), but not long after there’s a sort of narrative shrug-and-sigh and the villain’s identity is revealed to the audience without much fanfare.

Anyway, the Fox gives Steed and Gambit the slip, but not before leaving his palm-print on the roof of a vintage car, nicknamed Emily. It’s up to our heroes to get the car back to the city for a forensic examination, avoiding the Fox, his agents, and the police (it’s a bit of a motif in Spooner’s scripts that the Canadian police are comic stooges) on the way.

Well, it’s a collection of very whimsical and easy-going interludes, nearly all of them gently comic, and fairly agreeable if you like that kind of thing – the tonal shift after The Gladiators is almost enough to give a person whiplash, though. Perhaps the weirdest thing about it is also the most notable – by some quirk of scheduling, this episode apparently got the highest audience figures of any episode of either The New Avengers or The Avengers. I’m tempted to say it’s one of the least typical as well, but as well have learned, the original series in particular was a dazzlingly protean creation.

That’s less true of the sequel show, which we have reached the end of now. One of the somewhat dismaying things about revisiting The New Avengers in full has been realising just how badly the quality drops off in the second series, particularly when it comes to the foreign-made episodes. I’ve always had really fond memories of this series, and when watching the occasional episode over the years and finding it a bit disappointing, I could console myself with the thought that there were other, better episodes I’d watch another time. Now I realise that shows like Target!, Last of the Cybernauts…??, and Sleeper are pretty close to peak New Avengers. But even if it never approaches the quality of its parent show, the first series at least is consistently imaginative and entertaining.

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The New Avengers was originally touted as having ‘the highest production values in the world’, which possibly seems vaguely amusing to the modern viewer. Nevertheless, the producers were clearly committed to making a slick and lavish series, which (perhaps inevitably) meant that they were running out of money towards the end of the second season. Up stepped a Canadian co-producer, happy to get involved, albeit with the proviso that the resulting episodes showcase some of the delights of the most northern of North American nations.

Initially at least, the results seem vaguely agreeable, although Dennis Spooner’s Complex opens with a scene which is arguably a cheat: a man on top of a skyscraper initially appears to be taking a sniper shot at someone coming out of a building a good mile or two away – but it’s not actually a rifle, it’s some sort of super-long-range Polaroid camera. Quite why he is doing this – and arguably pointing the camera the wrong way anyway – is never really dwelt on.

It is all part of a plot to expose top Other Side agent Scapina, who is being extravagantly praised by his or her handlers. But word of the photo reaches them and an intercept is ordered, to take place in Britain. Why the photo is being flown all the way to the UK when Scapina is known to be based in Canada is one of those mysteries the answer to which is only known to co-production lawyers and accountants. Well, of course the courier is shot, but hangs in there long enough to tell Steed, Purdey and Gambit that Scapina is in the photo.

So of course they all fly off to Toronto to try and negotiate for information as to Scapina’s real identity. Could it be Steed’s old friend Paul (Cec Linder, best known for playing Felix Leiter in Goldfinger)? Or could the lengthy dwelling on the computerised security system in the office building where their Canadian counterparts are based somehow be relevant to the plot?

Well, in the end it’s an idea we’ve seen done before on the original show: it turns out that Canadian intelligence gave the job of designing their HQ to a card-carrying member of the Other Side’s ruling party (played by an actor with the resplendent name of Gerald Crack), and the whole place is an artificially-intelligent death-trap which has been cheerfully sending classified information to its handlers for God knows how long, to say nothing of ordering or manufacturing hits on anyone who suspects the truth. This is supposedly the big plot twist, but the episode is written and directed in such a way as to ensure that the viewer is well ahead of the main characters.

The opening acts of the story waver between the laborious and the silly – Spooner comes up with a running gag about Gambit’s repeated run-ins with the Canadian rozzers which isn’t very funny but is at least mildly distracting – before we get to the climax, which features Purdey trapped in the killer building with the others stuck on the outside trying to get in and help her. This is also quite silly, often embarrassingly so – Scapina drops the air pressure, supposedly in an attempt to asphyxiate her, but just ends up sucking her skirt off – which is a shame, as there are signs that this could have been an effective paranoid techno-thriller if the script had been better. Still, while the execution is pedestrian and charmless, at least it has an authentically outlandish premise, even if it is an over-familiar one.

There’s something vaguely familiar about Spooner’s Forward Base, the next episode, too. By all accounts the latter stages of the production of the series were not a very happy experience: there was no money to pay the actors’ wages, and by the time filming moved to Canada Brian Clemens was heavily committed to pre-production on The Professionals and had very little involvement – to the point where he tried to have his name taken off the credits. Certainly there is a definite sense of forced jollity about this episode, an air of whimsy somewhat at odds with a drab-looking production.

Steed is looking for the Forward Base of the title, a secret missile installation under the control of the Other Side which they have somehow managed to establish somewhere too close to friendly territory for comfort. A courier arrives in Canada with a new guidance system component for the base, which the team (Gambit and Purdey are particularly badly dressed this week) and this episode’s sacrificial lamb attempt to keep track of. ‘I work alone!’ shouts their latest ally at every opportunity, which if nothing else is convenient for letting him wander off and get killed mysteriously. The component is eventually retrieved by an enemy agent who… chucks it into Lake Ontario.

This could possibly be fairly intriguing were it not for the fact that the episode has already tipped its hand as to what its gimmick is: the Other Side took advantage of a severe storm in 1969 (the entirely fictitious, so far as I can see, Typhoon Agatha) to insert a giant submarine into Lake Ontario, disguised so that when surfaced it resembles a peninsula on the shore of the lake. A comedy local keeps finding himself either high and dry or floating in the lake when it surfaces or submerges beneath him, birds’ nests are full of fish, and so on. As presented, it’s a silly idea which Spooner attempts to have some fun with: there’s a lot of business with the characters floating around in mechanical swans, some rather droll dialogue, and so on.

It does take its time while the characters figure out what’s happening, and a lot of the incidental plot details feel like filler – an enemy agent is sent to destroy old postcards showing the original coastline, there’s a long sequence about trying to scare someone into running to their contact, and so on. Like most of these foreign-made episodes it is notably short on anything resembling an expensive action sequence. You can tell that Spooner hasn’t lost his touch as a scriptwriter, but the constraints placed on him by the production really do give you the impression that with these two episodes he’s working with one hand tied behind his back.

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The Avengers never really did two-part stories, unless you’re going to count the first and second episodes of the series, which had a continuing storyline. Then again, the very earliest episodes of The Avengers barely count as The Avengers at all, and – seeing as they’re lost – we’ve no way of knowing if they’re any good or not. We are able to look at the final episodes of the series, however, and some would say that in many ways they barely count as The Avengers (or even The New Avengers) either, due to the unusual circumstances of the production. Needless to say, there is a two-parter lurking in there.

My understanding is that The New Avengers came about when Patrick Macnee and Linda Thorson were reunited for a series of champagne commercials made for French TV, and the executive responsible expressed surprise that The Avengers had been out of production for about five years – when Brian Clemens explained they weren’t able to secure production funds, the exec apparently went off and raised the money off his own bat, with the result that The New Avengers was technically an Anglo-French production from the start. Usually, with this kind of international deal, the co-producers are keen to get local talent or locations on the screen (hence the frequency of imported Italian stars in the first year of Space: 1999), although in this case The New Avengers‘ French shoot was held back until the second season, by which point it had been joined by an equally substantial Canadian sortie.

A few French-shot scenes make it into Angels of Death, while there’s a lot of Paris on display in The Lion and the Unicorn – but the bulk of the French shoot seems to have gone towards the aforementioned two-parter, K is for Kill (by Brian Clemens, and regrettably mistitled K is for Killing on the DVD menu screens). One good thing about a two-parter, usually, is that it gives the story some room to breath and scope to develop onto a slightly larger scale than usual. And so it proves here, although most of the scope and scale come from the use of stock footage of Tibet, supposedly in 1945, where a Soviet colonel is investigating the strange faculties of a mysteriously well-preserved monk.

A somewhat inspired interlude follows, as the scene shifts to a quiet English village in 1965. A man dressed as a Russian soldier charges into a meeting of uniformed men and mows them down with his submachinegun, not paying much heed to the fact they are only Salvation Army officers. The Russian then ages to death in the blink of an eye. It’s England, in 1965, there’s been a bizarre murder, so who are you going to call? That’s right, it’s original-series-vintage Steed, complete with Bentley (Macnee keeps his back to the camera throughout this bit) – and even featuring a tiny cameo (courtesy of reused footage) from Diana Rigg as Mrs Peel. In terms of tipping the audience off to the fact that this episode is extra-ambitious, it works quite well.

Back in the present day, another Russian soldier attacks a garage in France, which naturally makes the papers. (Though the episode seems to suggest that Steed takes The Guardian, which I find rather hard to believe – surely he has Times reader written all over him?) Steed gets a phone call from Emma – who has supposedly changed her name by this point, though to what we are not told – pointing out the similarity with the unsolved mystery from a decade earlier. Steed is already on the case and he and the others are heading to France to investigate.

Literally the most exciting photo from this episode I could find.

Brian Clemens is easily a good enough writer to have figured out one of the tricks to writing an effective two-part story for a series like this one: you basically do two closely linked stories, each with its own focus and style. The first part of K is for Kill, The Tiger Awakes, is basically just about what happens when dozens of 1945-vintage Soviet soldiers come out of suspended animation in 1977 France and act in accordance with a plan to… well, it initially seems like they’ve been infiltrated in the event of the Cold War suddenly turning hot, a sort of instant fifth-column, but the second episode confuses matters a bit. Suffice to say it’s not the most involved of plots, with lots of comfortingly affordable action and our heroes not doing a very great deal (Gambit gets another of his big macho moments when he dropkicks someone out of a tree).

Then that Russian colonel from 1945 turns up, having been sent in to shut the whole operation down: the Soviet leadership don’t want to risk a war with the west, and it seems like the resuscitation of the soldiers in France was a mistake. But the colonel sees the opportunity to overthrow the decadent western powers whether it’s what the Kremlin wants or not; the fact his own father is one of the suspended killers may also be a factor. (Frankly, the ages of the two characters aren’t right for the son-is-now-older-than-his-father angle to work, but the episode has got bigger problems.) The Russian ambassador in Paris gets wind of this scheme and runs off to tell Steed, who is of course an old friend of his. This flows over into episode two, where it’s now suggested that the whole point of the suspended-animation army is to cause a third world war at a time of the Russian leadership’s choice. Can our heroes track down the defrosted killers before an international incident takes place?

It’s mostly shot on location, and clearly has a decent budget behind it, and – let’s not forget – it also has a decent Avengers-ish premise to it. But it does feel like the French producers haven’t cottoned onto the fact that the series, even the new one, is supposed to be weird and offbeat and witty: these episodes are written and played very straight, with the exception of a couple of ‘comedy’ scenes involving a rather reactionary waiter in a Paris cafe. That doesn’t keep them from being quite silly and hard to take seriously in the wrong way – there are plenty of moments of wild implausibility and painful coincidence before the story concludes. As in the previous French episode, the characters spend more time sitting around trying to work out what’s happening than they do actually investigating the case. The results are not completely awful, but it’s quite hard to keep yourself interested.

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It’s very hard to find anyone with a good word for the episode Trap (written by Brian Clemens, again). Watching it critically – which is virtually the only way – it’s hard to shake the impression that this is a show which is really creaking around the edges. It opens with this week’s doomed junior agent sneaking into an enemy compound, heavily guarded by Asiatic soldiers with automatic weapons, and overhearing the details of a multimillion-pound drugs delivery being finalised. All this happens a minute or two after he drives past a sign saying ‘Welcome to East Anglia’. In the Diana Rigg episodes, bits of the English countryside turning out to be unlikely foreign outposts was done intentionally, as a gag. Here no-one seems to be aware of the absurdity, which just makes it seem dumb rather than amusing.

Anyway, the doomed agent gets shot, but drives off in his landrover using a homing device to summon Gambit and Purdey. It takes them five hours to track him down (some parts of East Anglia are clearly quite remote), after which he dies within seconds of them finding him. Thoughtful, that. It turns out a major international drugs syndicate is orchestrating a handover in that hotbed of illicit activity, Windsor town centre, and Steed and the others set up an ambush. There to help out, though looking a bit like a thin Wayne Newton, is visiting CIA agent Marty (Stuart Damon). As Marty contributes nothing substantive to the plot beyond getting himself shot dead, rather stupidly, one wonders why they didn’t just save Damon’s fee.

Anyway, Marty gets himself shot dead, rather stupidly, but the courier himself (Vincent Wong, who really is Chinese) soon follows. The drug delivery is a bust! The other members of the syndicate viciously mock their newest member, who is responsible for this fiasco. His name is Soo Choy (Terry Wood, who really, really, is not Chinese, and is doing an inadvisable funny voice too). Because this episode really is about offensive racial stereotypes, Soo Choy decides he can only save face by getting revenge on the trio who caused his failure. So he essentially arranges to have Steed and the others kidnapped and brought to his domain to be executed.

Naturally it doesn’t go to plan, and the plane crashes somewhere on Soo Choy’s estate. It does this with about half the episode left to go, which means – and stop me if I’m going too fast – that half the episode revolves around the lead actors running around in the undergrowth talking about what to do next, while Asian extras wander about trying to look menacing. It is not the most rewarding hour of TV ever released on DVD, is all I am saying.

Should we make a fuss about the fact that this is arguably the second episode to feature Terry Wood in a piece of dubious ethnic miscasting? (I say miscasting as the actor is clearly not of the ethnic background the character is intended to be.) I don’t know. It’s not as if Wood is actually in yellowface, but he’s still in a mandarin costume and his character is a collection of creaky old Oriental stereotypes. I imagine if they could have found a Chinese actor prepared to deliver this stuff it would have seemed just as racist. Because it is racist – while you could argue that the story isn’t intended to be racist, it’s just constructed around a villain who’s a racial stereotype, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s presenting racist ideas without criticising or deconstructing them. There are, regrettably, a few New Avengers (and indeed Avengers) episodes dealing in racist tropes and attitudes; this one is by far the worst in every respect.

Oh dear.

The one thing that might make it all less objectionable and more amusing is the fact that Soo Choy’s lair and the land around it bear a striking resemblance to the location the doomed agent was checking out at the top of the episode. Could all this really be going on in East Anglia too? There’s nothing in the episode to say otherwise (though the intention is clearly that they’ve been flown off somewhere exotic), and it’s no less likely or sillier than anything else that happens in the story. East Anglia gets my vote. Trap does not get my vote: it’s annoyingly stupid and crude.

If nothing else it makes an episode like Hostage look a bit better by comparison. I find I want to say something positive about this particular story, if only because it was the first episode of the series to cross my path, back in (if memory serves) September 1990. (I recorded it overnight, watched the teaser before going out to college the next day, and was left with the freeze-frame of someone being kicked over Purdey’s sofa in my head for about twelve hours.)

Brian Clemens also wrote this distinctly low-concept episode. One of the exasperating things about this series is not just that it’s repetitive, it’s that it’s also infuriatingly variable in places you’d rather it wasn’t. The nature of the organisation or the department that Steed and the others work for seems to change on a virtually weekly basis – the only one of their colleagues who recurs is John Paul as Dr Kendrick, and even he’s in only two first-season episodes (that said, nearly everyone else seems to either get killed or turn out to be a traitor). I suppose it’s the nature of the beast (I recall things being pretty similar on The Professionals, as well) and it only really becomes irritating when you watch a lot of episodes in a row, but even so.

Anyway, Steed’s senior colleague this week, McKay (William Franklyn, third of three), is more credible than most, at least up until the moment he reveals to Steed that there are rumours that – shock horror! – someone within the organisation may in fact be a traitor. Everyone behaves as if this is unthinkable, but of course the savvy viewer is doing some quick mental arithmatic and concluding that in the course of the last season and a half, about a dozen people involved with Steed’s organisation have turned out to be traitors. If someone other than Steed, Gambit or Purdey turns out not to be a traitor, this very nearly qualifies as a major plot twist.

This is setting up a solid if slightly pedestrian plot where Purdey is nabbed by a gang of thugs with adult-entertainment facial hair and imprisoned in a disused funhouse (this would be a reasonable hide-out if it wasn’t also listed as the official home address of the actual traitor). Their plan is to use Purdey as leverage to get Steed to steal some top-secret plans for them – not because they particularly want the actual plans, but because the revelation that Steed is a traitor will destroy the organisation which he is at the heart of.

Overseeing all of this is traitor-of-the-week Spelman, played by Simon Oates (third of three). Oates is usually a rather watchable actor, and he’s not bad here – the fact Spelman clearly knows better than most how Steed’s mind works could have something to do with Oates being one of the tiny handful of non-Macnee actors to professionally play Steed (in the Avengers stage show) – but silly things like Spelman being not a traitor but a Russian infiltrator (Speltelovich, no less) just undercut him.

As I say, it’s workmanlike stuff, lifted partly by some of the guest performances (solid rather than spectacular) and a script that seems to know what it’s doing – themes are introduced and events foreshadowed rather better than usual. One of the highlights of the episode comes when Gambit is ordered to bring Steed in, and the two of them are obliged to face off with one another. The fact that this resolves almost Indiana Jones-style, with Steed simply delivering a colossal kick to the nuts (or so it appears, anyway), is quite funny and very in character – but once again it’s undercutting and sidelining Gambit. No wonder his self-confidence seems so badly shaken by the climax. (It’s an awkward fact that on the Venn diagram of The New Avengers, the overlap between the ‘Really Strong Episode’ circle and the ‘Good Showcase for Gambit’ circle only has Target! in it.)

Anyway, this one wasn’t as bad as I remembered it being – there are much worse second season episodes, and Hostage‘s main crime is that it’s largely constructed out of plot devices and elements we’ve already seen before, sometimes quite recently. But we must face up to the fact that this is already the last of the British-filmed shows – more exotic and peculiar climes await in the last six episodes of the series…

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The memorandum to give Patrick Macnee a more central role is still clearly on the minds of everyone involved in the production of Dennis Spooner’s Medium Rare, an episode which is not quite as tongue-in-cheek as it sounds, but still defiantly whimsical. Yet another one of Steed’s old friends gets bumped off, although the circumstances this time are particularly special. He’s in charging of paying off (in cash) a group of informants supplying tidbits of information, all organised by a senior operative named Wallace (Jon Finch). The top-secret informants all obligingly turn up in person to department HQ, which (not for the first or last time) seems like a distinctly shabby, low-security location. But we are just getting started! It transpires that the group of informants is just a get-rich-quick scheme for Wallace, for they do not actually exist. Every month he just spends a day putting on various false beards and wigs and going in and out of his own building, collecting cash for each of these fake identities. At least one of these people is supposedly a woman, too. Isn’t there a less convoluted method of corruption available to a man in his position?

We’re still not quite started yet, for this has clearly been going on for a while, which only leads one to wonder what the hell is going on with Steed’s friend the paymaster – how has he not been noticing that all the informers he regularly gives money to are the same man (one of his colleagues) in a selection of hats and occasionally in drag? When by some miracle the penny finally drops for him, he chases down the villain and gets pushed off a motorway bridge for his trouble.

Wallace is concerned that Steed will not let the death of this week’s dead old friend go unpunished, and – as he and everyone working in his section appears to be some kind of moron – his fears for his chances may be justified. So he resolves to bump Steed off as well, bringing in Richards, an assassin who describes himself as a ‘brilliant killing machine’, played by Jeremy Wilkin (second of two), another familiar face. In order to avoid things looking suspicious (or more accurately more suspicious, not to mention ridiculous), Wallace and Richards decide to frame Steed as a traitor before faking his suicide..

It’s not the year’s first or last ‘let’s get Steed’ storyline and most of the details are fairly interchangeable with those in the others. The distinguishing wrinkle this time around is that Steed is approached by a young woman who informs him she is receiving information about his situation clairvoyantly – she used to be a fake psychic con-woman, but now believes her insights are on the level. (She is played by Sue Holderness, who is probably best known for her recurring role as Marlene Boyce in a couple of well-known sitcoms.) Steed and the others don’t know what to make of it all, but her information does seem to be on the money…

For me the psychic mystery angle isn’t enough to make a fairly dull and implausible plot shine, and nobody involved seems to be particularly impressed or inspired by it either. Is it worth mentioning The Avengers‘ (and hence also The New Avengers’) somewhat sympathetic approach to psychic phenomena? There’s at least one episode in the 60s where telepathy is treated as an accepted fact, although there’s some wariness on display here: Marlene is whisked off to be tested with the Zener cards to see if her story has any factual basis. Does that mean that Steed’s organisation has a parapsychologist on staff? A peculiar thought.

Another peculiar thought, to the modern mind, is just how slapdash the late-night regional repeat run was, when I first saw this particular series. Nowadays the nature of TV drama is such that you absolutely have to show episodes in a certain order for them to make sense: but my recollection is that when ITV showed The New Avengers in my region in late 1990 and early 1991, the run was something like Hostage, Target!, Last of the Cybernauts..?? …and then proceeded along similarly random lines, with some episodes skipped entirely and the Canadian ones left till the very end.

If nothing else, this did an excellent job of obfuscating the differences between the first and second season, the key one being – it seems to me now – that the second season gets off to a reasonable start before experiencing a major wobble. All the strongest episodes are in the first year; most of the ones with a whiffy reputation are in the second.

Which might lead you to expect me to give the next episode, John Goldsmith’s The Lion and the Unicorn, a bit of a mauling – this is Goldsmith’s only Avengers credit, but then this one feels like an odd outlier anyway. Steed and Purdey (the tendency for Gambit to get sidelined continues) discover that nefarious international man of mystery the Unicorn (Jean Claudio) is planning to assassinate a bishop (Gerald Sim, sixth of six – Sim’s character is referred to as ‘minister’ so his episcopal get-up may just be a misunderstanding by the costume department). Naturally, they stop it, and then pursue the Unicorn back to Paris where they (eventually) apprehend him (Steed just stands around shouting advice while the Unicorn gives Gambit a bloody good hiding).

All is good, until the Unicorn’s own henchmen take a reprisal shot at Steed and end up killing their own boss by mistake. This is potentially very bad news, as Steed’s plan was to use holding the Unicorn as leverage to stop them from causing any more mayhem. Now utter chaos is on the cards, unless Steed can figure out a way to carry out a prisoner exchange when one of the prisoners is dead…

The Lion and the Unicorn was part of the French shoot making up a big chunk of the second season – my recollection is that the other two episodes, the two-part story K is for Kill, are reasonably lavish, with all the active adventurousness you would hope for. The problem with this one is that it seems to have been made with very limited resources – most of it is set in a single (albeit quite expansive) location, with – it feels – fewer speaking parts than usual.

The budget squeeze – if such it is – really becomes apparent when one considers the lack of action in the episode. There’s a decent car chase at the start, but the fight between Gambit and the Unicorn mostly occurs off-camera, and the episode’s big set-piece, such as it is, is another car chase around central Paris between Gambit and one of the henchmen. This thing is quite cleverly edited, but if you look at it carefully it instantly becomes clear that you virtually never see either vehicle moving at speed, and certainly not both together at the same time. You see the results of the car chase – whimsical little effects on passing Parissiennes – but not the chase itself. You’re left thinking you’ve watched a car chase when actually you’ve just seen Gareth Hunt climbing into a three-wheeler van and various vignettes with extras.

Considering the limitations it was made under, The Lion and the Unicorn is reasonably watchable, but it does stick out like a sore thumb compared to the British episodes around it. Nevertheless – does it even need saying? – the foreign-made episodes don’t hold the monopoly on being bad.

Which brings us to Brian Clemens’ Obsession, aka (perhaps) Purdey in Love, and today perhaps most interesting for a quirk of the casting. Get out your Complete Avengers Timeline Wallchart again, for we open in 1970, when Purdey is still in the Royal Ballet (this bygone age is indicated by a variable set of wigs worn by Joanna Lumley – and by variable I mean that in one scene she turns up in a Davey Crockett hat, which I initially thought was a hairpiece). She is also in love with dashing young RAF officer Larry Doomed – sorry, I mean Doomer – who is played by serious actor Martin Shaw. But their romantic idyll is shattered when it turns out Doomer Senior has got on the wrong side of some people in the Middle East and is shot by a firing squad (good job Boris Johnson didn’t intervene on his behalf or he might really have been in trouble).

Well, Larry’s initial attempt at a roaring revenge is foiled when Purdey intervenes, leading them to acrimoniously break up. Back in the present day, the man Larry holds responsible for killing his dad is on an official visit to London, which just happens to coincide with odd events at the airbase where Larry has been stationed and a missile going astray during a demonstration of ordnance.

More of a focus on Joanna Lumley this time, obviously, though Macnee gets the odd good scene. I’m starting to feel a wee bit sorry for Gareth Hunt, though – he’s once again pushed a bit into the background and never really gets his own character-based episode like the other two. I know it’s customary to view Gambit as a bit of an interloper and surplus to requirements, but that’s hardly Hunt’s fault, and he does find his own bit of space to operate in. The story on this occasion is really distinguished only by its occasional silliness and implausibility – an RAF investigator decides to track down the missing missile by heading off into the countryside with a metal detector, and succeeds, while – as someone actually points out – Larry’s determination for there to be no needless deaths in the course of his revenge plan is a bit at odds with a scheme to fire a missile at the Houses of Parliament.

The sentimentality is a bit overdone, and the ending arguably misjudged – Gambit puts a bullet in Larry to save Purdey, when there would surely be something more dramatically significant if the roles were reversed – but Steed’s method of stopping the missile launch has a certain direct logic to it. Even so, the only thing about the episode that makes one perk up and grin is the fact that Doomer’s chief henchman Kilner is played by Lewis Collins. Shaw and Collins get a lot of scenes together, and there’s more than enough dialogue along the lines of ‘we make a good team’ to lead one to suspect that the producers already had something in mind for them. If the well-known animosity between the two actors was a factor on set, it’s certainly not visible in the episode – but then, of course, these two guys are professionals.

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The value of this kind of intensive viewing exercise is once again proven as it turns out – rather to my surprise – that I’ve never properly watched Brian Clemens’ Dead Men are Dangerous before. (I’m sure I saw part of it during the mid-90s BBC 2 repeat, but most of it is completely new to me.) It opens with a flashback to (presumably) late 60s Germany, where Steed is on the way to deliver colleague and lifelong friend Mark Crayford to a dangerous mission behind the Iron Curtain. I would have said Steed spent that particular period of his life fighting ridiculous mad scientists in the home counties, not doing this kind of Len Deighton stuff, but the script is the script. (Crayford is played by Clive Revill, who’s a very capable actor – the original Palpatine in The Empire Strikes Back – but ten years younger than Patrick Macnee.) Some slightly on-the-nose dialogue reveals that Crayford has always felt second-best to Steed throughout their friendship, and this bubbles to the surface when Crayford reveals his plan to defect and make a new life for himself in service of the Other Side, supposedly out of Steed’s shadow. Steed obviously can’t permit this and puts a bullet in him (he really is quite out of character in this sequence), but the Other Side spirit him away for treatment.

Enemy medicine has its limits, however, and ten years later Crayford is informed the bullet in his chest will very shortly kill him. So he has himself declared dead and returns to Britain to extract a slow and sadistic revenge on his old friend, destroying his most cherished possessions, attempting to obliterate any record of his achievements, and eventually threatening the people Steed cares about…

Quite heavy and atypical stuff, then, and perhaps it could be read as an attempt to move the series onto a more dramatic footing after some of the sillier moments of the first season. (Such a move clearly doesn’t take, of course.) As something resembling a serious drama, it actually works really well: Macnee is at the heart of the story throughout and gives a strong performance, and in some ways the script is as good a naturalistic character study of Steed as one could wish for (although, given it’s long been established that Steed happily cheats whenever it suits his purposes, one wonders if perennial also-ran Crayford doesn’t have a reason to be so embittered about constantly losing to him).

It actually has a sort of emotional heft to it, which isn’t something you could often say about The New Avengers (or indeed the parent show), and while there’s still a degree of plot contrivance involved it doesn’t overpower the story. Gambit and Purdey both get their moments to shine as well (though that complete timeline is looking even weirder – Gambit is clearly living in a different flat to the first season’s, but claims he moved into the current one four years ago and just hasn’t bothered to unpack yet). Lots of people rate this as being amongst the very best episodes of the series, and I am not going to argue with them in the slightest.

Back to something a bit more traditional in the shape of Brian Clemens and Terence Feely’s Angels of Death – I would imagine Feely handled most of the intelligence tradecraft side of the story, while Clemens swooped in and added the material which feels like a tribute to the classic Philip Levene style of script from nearly a decade earlier. After some brief swanning around in Paris (making that French location shoot really pay for itself), this settles down to another story about an enemy operation to systematically eliminate key figures in the security establishment – but the only clue Steed has is that it somehow involves ‘angels of death’.

Certainly a great many top men have been dropping dead, but all of natural causes – well, they are in a very stressful line of work, after all. It’s up to Steed, Gambit and Purdey to keep working the case until the plot structure dictates they all simultaneously realise what’s going on and head to the enemy lair to put a stop to it.

I am being rather reductive, of course: the episode isn’t quite as obvious as that (though it is still quite obvious in some ways). Heft and drama comes from Steed seeing yet more of his very many close old friends mown down, and bemoaning the mindset required of the work they all do – we get a glimpse of his own formative years in flashback when he is finally put through the enemy wringer and recalls his own training (though the flashbacks are actually only to first-season episodes – gotta economise somehow if you want that French location shoot). Needless to say, the welcome trend of keeping Steed at the heart of the story continues.

The structure of the story should be very familiar to anyone who’s watched a lot of the filmed episodes of the original show: it’s basically a string of murders all using variations on the same gimmick. The premise here is that of a killer health farm, visitors to which (all important government types, of course), rather than being pampered, find themselves drugged, sent into a fake nightclub, and forced to disco-dance with Caroline Munro and Pamela Stephenson until they reach the point of death by exhaustion (as I say, I suspect this may have been part of Clemens’ contribution). Then they are forced to try and escape from an impossible maze, all of which creates such a massive set of stressful associations that merely seeing an image associated with the experience days or weeks later causes them to drop dead of shock. (One wonders sometimes if it wouldn’t be cheaper just to shoot them.)

And the cult-o-meter is off the charts…!

The episode misses a massive trick, if you ask me, by not showing us the moment at which Patrick Macnee struts his funky stuff in the disco, but Caroline Munro is effectively deployed, even if her inevitable fight with Joanna Lumley doesn’t quite live up to your expectations (then again, could it ever). And it is, on some level, another episode which mainly resolves through Gambit turning up with a gun. The only thing that really keeps this from being a story they could have made ten years earlier is the disco-dancing in the fake nightclub, but there’s something to be said for comforting familiarity sometimes.

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It’s probably getting it all a bit backwards to suggest that Dirtier by the Dozen bears a peculiar resemblance to various episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus – one of the things that the original Python shows did was to systematically make the whole look and style of TV in the seventies seem risible by emptying out all the content and replacing it with finely-judged nonsense. Dirtier by the Dozen is also nonsense, but alas not especially well-judged, at least not by Clemens’ usual standards.

It opens with a group of butch men in khaki led by a steely John Castle (in an eye-patch) pretending to be soldiers somewhere abroad (the illusion of a foreign shoot is attempted by waving a tropical plant in front of the camera while jungle noises are edited onto the soundtrack, but it’s still very clear they’re no further afield than Borehamwood or somewhere similar). A cameraman films them surreptitiously then runs off when he is spotted. Meanwhile a British army general (Michael Barrington) drops in for an unannounced spot-check on the 19th Special Commando unit at their barracks, only to find the place almost completely deserted. The one soldier the general and his assistant encounter is insubordinate enough to imprison them both (the squaddie in question is played by Brian Croucher, who amongst other roles in a long career also played Travis the Second in Blake’s 7).

It eventually turns out the 19th Special Commando unit is really is special, as their commander Mad Jack Miller is a genuine nutcase and has been leading his men (the worst scum in the British army – it’s basically a penal regiment, to judge from the descriptions we hear) off to do various bits of fighting in other people’s wars on the quiet, all for a handsome fee. If Miller had attempted this spot of military self-sufficiency in the Thatcher era he would probably have received a commendation for enterprise and creative thinking, but we are still lodged in the late 1970s and so he is just a not particularly interesting or plausible loony.

Nevertheless, film of the 19th moonlighting abroad eventually reaches Gambit, while someone in the army contacts Steed about the missing general (whom Miller has dastardly plans for) – Patrick Macnee gets the best scene of the episode as he and Stephen Moore heroically grapple with expository dialogue in the middle of a battlefield (Steed is of course in full brolly and bowler rig). What follows, for rather longer than it should, feels a bit like one of those interludes in an RPG session where all the players consistently fluff every roll they need to make in order to progress through the narrative – Steed, Gambit, and Purdey basically just wander about going ‘Well, I wonder what this all means,’ without ever seeming to be in danger of finding an answer. Meanwhile, the plot trickles along as one of the soldiers recently back in the country comes down with blue parrot disease (or something similar) and is snuck off to a tropical diseases specialist (in contravention of orders), leading to a commando raid to get him back before the truth is exposed.

In the end Purdey turns up at the squaddies’ local and charms them all into nearly revealing their illicit activities (the mad colonel turns up and prevents this), while the regiment gets a new ADC in the form of one Major Gambit, a man with a dismal disciplinary record of his own. As I say, it’s largely nonsense – perhaps Clemens’ energies were flagging this close to the end of the season – and not particularly funny or imaginative nonsense. Perhaps the most striking thing about the episode is the astonishing supporting cast of familiar faces it has been blessed with – apart from the names I’ve already mentioned, there’s an early role for Alun Armstrong as the man whose mate has blue parrot disease, and an uncredited appearance by John (Boycie) Challis as another member of the regiment. It still doesn’t save an episode with a lot of military hardware on display but a distinctly squishy script.

Something remarkable is on the cards as we turn our attention to Sleeper, another Clemens script: your correspondent revising a previously-given opinion. I previously indicated that this tale of bandits using magic knockout gas to rob a sleeping London was a bit too outrageous to really work. Well… again, young nephew didn’t have a problem with it at all (this was the last of the episodes we watched together), and while the plot is basically just a load of contrivances and set-pieces strung together, it’s done with such style and confidence, and such attention to detail (both naturalistic and offbeat) that the story really works. It even functions as a sort of kinder, gentler take on the ‘dead London’ story-type so often found in British SF (see also Day of the Triffids, Survivors, 28 Days Later, and so on). Perhaps a bit heavy on the chicka-chicka-rumbra-dumbra music, but not to the point where it becomes a real problem. A very watchable episode; by no means one of the weakest of the series.

The first season wraps up with a reasonable episode, in the form of Three-Handed Game, another Spooner and Clemens collaboration: whether it is more or less implausible than their previous team-up Faces is probably a matter of personal taste. Steed has come up with a method of safely transferring long and valuable documents by splitting them into three chunks of unintelligible gibberish (one chunk has the first word of every three, the next the second of every three, etc), each of which is memorised by someone with perfect photographic recall. The couriers can’t make sense of the info, and nor can anyone else unless they can identify all three members of ‘the Triumvirate’. It all sounds fine until a sinister-looking South American villain named Juventor appears on the scene (played by Stephen Greif, who has always had a nice line in vaguely exotic-looking heavies – he is probably best remembered for playing Travis the First in Blake’s 7. Yes, I know, you wait ages for a Travis to come along and then they both show up in the same post).

Yes, that’s what his other eye really looks like.

Juventor has got his hands on a brain-draining machine which allows him to extract anything he fancies from the brain of a victim and then transfer it into that of another. He demonstrates this by kidnapping a tap dancer and then transplanting his terpsichorean virtuosity into the incredulous ambassador of a shady foreign power, just to prove it works. The ambassador (Terry Wood) seems to enjoy being able to tap dance much more than he ever did being a suspicious foreigner, but agrees to buy the brain-drainer for an astronomical sum, if Juventor first uses it to extract the secrets of the Triumvirate…

The oddball spin given the episode is that by this point Steed and the others are already closing in on Juventor in his base, leading him to take extreme (and not quite believable) measures: he uses the machine on himself and transplants the totality of his personality and memories into the kidnapped tap dancer, leaving only a dead husk behind (and saddling himself with the problem that his new legs just won’t quit tapping). Quite disregarding the fact that he appears to have stumbled onto a practical, though crude, method of achieving actual immortality, Juventor presses on with his plan to get rich by knocking off the Triumvirate, while our heroes are left to ponder just what’s going on and why they keep hearing someone tap dancing…

It’s… okay. There’s nothing actually wrong with it, per se, but it’s a very strange coming together of a rather grim and serious story (numerous people are left as vegetables by the brain-drainer) and a very twee and laboured approach to the material – too many things are just wildly implausible or contrived (such as the silly tap-dancing fight at the end). Someone who didn’t understand how The Avengers works would complain that the mind-transfer gadget seen here is clearly much less advanced than the one in use nearly a decade earlier in the episode Who’s Who?, but not me, obviously. I hadn’t watched this one in about a quarter of a century and don’t feel this was a particular mistake. There were worse episodes to end the season on (the best episodes of which I would probably suggest are Cat Among the Pigeons and Target!), and as a whole this is still a relatively consistent and solidly entertaining set of shows – all credit due to Clemens, Spooner and the main cast.

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As we have observed, The New Avengers is not a show which is afraid to revisit concepts and storylines from the parent shows – up to and including doing a direct sequel, of sorts, to an episode from nearly a decade earlier. So for it to take another run at the notion of influential figures being replaced by enemy duplicates (previously utilised in The Man with Two Shadows and They Keep Killing Steed) is not really a surprise. The unexpected thing about Faces (a collaboration between Dennis Spooner and Brian Clemens, though I wouldn’t like to guess who did which bit) is that it should be quite so ramshackle as a piece of writing.

The premise is as follows: two tramps played by Richard Leech (fourth of four) and Edward Petherbridge are settling down to a dinner of barbecued rabbit one night when they spy a Rolls Royce cruising by – and in the back is a man who is the spitting image of one of them! Either they are providentially close to his home, or very fast on their feet, because when Leech’s double decides to take a dip in his private pool they are on the scene to put an arrow in him (Petherbridge, like many tramps, is a crack archer) so his down-and-out double can replace him.

It gets even more ridiculous: having adopted this new identity less than a minute earlier, Leech is entirely untroubled when Steed turns up, greeting him with a genial ‘Hello, John!’ How does he know Steed’s name? It’s vaguely alluded to that Leech’s character has fallen on hard times from a fairly elevated position, but there’s no suggestion he actually knew Steed in his earlier life, nor does Steed indicate he knew someone who was a lookalike for the man Leech has replaced (though, as noted, he has previously met three different duplicates of him, along with six duplicates of Edwin Richfield, four Peter Bowleses and Julian Glovers, two Peter Cushings and Christopher Lees, etc).

Anyway, from this frankly wobbly beginning we are invited to believe that the lust for power and influence seizes the two tramps, and they recruit a disgraced plastic surgeon to run a mission for the needy in London. The homeless population is apparently bursting with duplicates of the rich and powerful, whom they proceed to spend five years substituting for their originals.

Buying the premise is probably the most demanding thing about watching Faces, because it really does require you to put your disbelief in a iron death-grip. If you can put all this to one side, the episode is not unrewarding – Patrick Macnee gets some good material as an unusually driven Steed (though we meet yet another of his never-heard-of-before best friends who is basically just there to die), and there is some clever plotting – working independently of each other, Gambit and Purdey both infiltrate the mission undercover and (obviously) are recruited to replace themselves. (Given the episode is arguably making some kind of comment about class divisions and the resulting institutionalised envy in British society, there’s also a curious little scene where Steed gently but firmly puts Gambit in his place for not coming from the ‘right’ background – he has the temerity to turn up to a clay-pigeon shooting contest with a pump-action shotgun, for instance. It’s mildly done, but Steed seems quite in earnest.)

The result borders on farce, albeit with a few genuinely serious moments, but it’s well-enough played to make up for a lot, and at least it seems aware of its own ridiculousness (it concludes with Macnee near-as-dammit breaking the fourth wall and quipping to the audience). Well-enough to make up for the outrageous implausibility of the premise? Probably not, for me, but your mileage may differ, of course.

Something much more agreeably bonkers rocks up next in the form of Spooner’s Gnaws, which also has a rather familiar feel to it – it’s supposedly another riff on the central idea of the same writer’s Thunderbirds episode Attack of the Alligators, but an awful lot of sci-fi B-movies could also end up charged with inspiring the story.

Kicking the story off on this occasion are the activities of two avaricious government research scientists, Thornton (Julian Holloway) and Carter (Peter Cellier), who plan to steal a load of top-secret research materials and set up in the private sector, working on ways to grow giant tomatoes. As you would. This they manage to do, even after Thornton (who is a proper mad scientist) kills the agent routinely tailing him: the fact Thornton is never under suspicion suggests the dead man was really shoddy at his admin, although this in itself probably doesn’t mean he deserved to die. Anyway, off they go into the wide world of private enterprise, where it’s much easier to overlook little incidents like Carter accidentally pouring half a vial of atomic growth hormone down the sink…

At this point there’s another one of those awkward narrative jumps as we leap forward to the anniversary of Mr Bad Admin’s death – I don’t expect anyone’s ever attempted to write a definitive New Avengers timeline, but it would be an odd-looking beast with (presumably) up to a dozen episodes ‘nested’ inside Last of the Cybernauts..?? and Gnaws, both of which take place over more than a year.

Anyway, twelve months on, Thornton and Carter are happily growing giant solanaceae, and everyone but Gambit and Purdey seem to have forgotten about the mysterious murder of the bad admin man. Steed’s concern is with very odd seismographic readings under London – it’s almost as if something very large is moving around in the sewers…

Gambit is sent into the (reasonably clean, dry, and well-lit) tunnels to investigate, and turns up various oddities – Steed’s initial thought was that the Other Side were up to something involving subterranean bugging, but he runs into one of their security men (Jeremy Young, fourth of four) who has exactly the same idea (the Other Side have their own seismographs, it seems). He also meets a maintenance man (Keith Alexander, a supporting artist in a couple of Gerry Anderson projects) who complains that someone has been dragging enormous sacks of grain into the sewer – normally this would attract every rat in the network, but they are surprisingly thin on the ground…

A moody little squeaker. (Or maybe not so little.)

Well, the actually number of rats in the sewers may have been dramatically reduced, but by bodyweight the rat population is still in very good shape, because – as I’m sure you’ve figured out – Carter and Thornton’s atomic growth hormone has found its way into one rat in particular, which is now the size of a van and nibbling its way through everything in its path, including maintenance workers, tramps, and anyone else in an area adjacent to a sewer access point. Late 1976 and early 1977 was truly a blissful time to be alive if you were into this sort of thing, as – a few weeks after Gnaws first aired (this was effectively The New Avengers‘ Christmas episode) – Dr Who also did a story where a sewer full of giant rats was a key plot point. The poorness of the BBC rat costume is often criticised, but at least they took a swing at putting the actual rat in-frame with the leading actors. Gnaws‘ approach is to film a real rat on model sets and rely on slick editing for the rest of it, but I’m still not sure it completely works.

As you might expect, this is a somewhat polarising episode – I’m not sure anyone really loves it, but there are certainly some people who absolutely hate it. I agree it has its issues – it can’t seem to decide whether to be a spoof or a pastiche of 50s monster B-movies, and as a result the tone fluctuates constantly between self-mocking goofiness and genuine horror (I watched Gnaws again for the purposes of this piece not long after Behemoth the Sea Monster, and was a little surprised to find it had earned its own entry in The Illustrated Dinosaur Movie Guide, where it got a respectable two-and-a-half out of five brontosauruses – but then again the same book gives both On the Town and Bringing Up Baby five out of five, and they don’t even have monsters in them). Also, any episode of The New Avengers which basically resolves by Gambit arriving with an enormous gun has got serious foundational problems.

But on the other hand, it does have a certain kind of goofy charm to it, there are some nice performances, and the fight between Jeremy Young and Joanna Lumley is upper-bracket stuff. Possibly most importantly, this was one of the episodes I watched with young nephew not long ago, and this was probably the one he enjoyed the most – certainly he got the most absorbed by it, at several points showing a distinct desire to hide behind the sofa (decor choices prevented this from really being an option). Saying that Gnaws really succeeds as a piece of mildly scary children’s TV is an odd thing to say about an episode featuring a violent opening murder and six men being killed and in some cases devoured by a giant rat, but it’s some sort of success. In any case, I find it impossible to genuinely dislike the episode.

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One of those genuinely gritty and realistic New Avengers episodes we have heard so much about but so rarely seen shows up in the form of To Catch a Rat, not written by either of the show’s main scribes but Terence Feely. It opens with a flashback to Germany in 1960, where British agent Irwin Gunner (Ian Hendry) is laying a trap for a mole within the organisation. It doesn’t quite come off, but he still manages to put a bullet in the traitor’s leg. Gunner’s cover is as a trapeze artist (possibly inspired by Hendry’s own circus background, which also informed the first-season Avengers episode Girl on the Trapeze) and, rather unfortunately, the man whose job it is to catch Gunner, Cledge (Barry Jackson), is in league with the mole. Gunner plunges to the ground, suffering serious injuries and amnesia.

Nevertheless, he somehow makes his way back to Britain (his banged-up body turns up on a ship for some reason) and ends up in a nursing home for the perpetually confused – until, sixteen or seventeen years later, a random bump on the head makes his memories come back. Gunner is determined to expose the mole, but still isn’t sure which of his old colleagues he is – the leg wound is the only clue.

Nevertheless, he is still trying to make radio contact, using outdated call-signs and other protocols, which is how Steed and the others come into the story. What ensues is basically them trying to find Gunner, while Gunner tries to find the traitor, and the traitor and his minions try to get to him first. It’s not quite as much of a runaround as that probably makes it sound, but it is notable as the first episode that doesn’t easily lend itself to a ‘this is the episode where…’ summarisation, unless you go for ‘this is the one where Ian Hendry comes back’, which doesn’t tell you much about the plot but at least communicates the main point of interest for long-term watchers of the show.

Those long-term watchers are often wont to regret the fact that Hendry isn’t playing David Keel, which from a certain perspective would have been the logical thing to do with him. Then again, maybe the script was written first, or Hendry refused to countenance the idea, or the producers made the reasonable decision that the majority of The New Avengers‘ audience wouldn’t have been familiar with the first season of the parent show. Apart from depriving the fans of their little thrill, the only problem with casting Hendry as Gunner is that he’s a slightly unhinged character with an odd accent, neither of which really play to Hendry’s natural strengths as an actor. I can imagine him being equally good in, say, Edward Judd’s role (this episode is a bonanza for British movie stars of a certain vintage). Judd is also quite as good as you might expect given his work elsewhere.

This time it’s both Steed and Gambit who get pushed into the background just a little bit, and it surely is a huge missed opportunity that Patrick Macnee and Ian Hendry only get one very short scene together. It’s a push to call To Catch a Rat a flat-out bad episode, but it feels a little flat and unimaginative compared to what the series has already done.

Another low-concept runaround happens along in the form of Brian Clemens’ The Tale of the Big Why, which is basically a fun-in-the-countryside romp with a slightly harder edge than would have been the case in the 60s (I’m put in mind of the Rigg episode Dead Man’s Treasure, which would also have been a decent title for this one). It also sees the inauguration of the animated title sequence where the figures of the lead trio eventually morph into a slightly jingoistic Union Jack-hued British lion.

A man named Brandon (frequent heavy George A Cooper, third of three) is due to be released from prison after a lengthy sentence for spying; he has been trying to make a deal all this time, claiming he has something valuable to trade with. Everyone naturally wants to know what it is; Steed has Gambit inserted into the prison as Brandon’s cellmate but doesn’t learn much. Also on the trail are a couple of nasty pieces of work known as Roach and Poole (Roach is played by Gary Waldhorn, an actor best remembered as stuffy authority figures in various sitcoms, but an effective villain here) – there is a bit of fluff about them being Russian agents who have gone native – ‘Capitalism rubs off’ says Roach – but this hardly informs the plot.

Anyway, Brandon leaves prison, clearly having some kind of a plan to capitalise on the mysterious leverage he possesses, pursued by all the interested parties (Purdey doesn’t seem to have entirely grasped the concept of undercover work, as she is wearing a jumpsuit with her name written on the back). This doesn’t stop Roach and Poole from ambushing and killing him – but there’s no sign of the package he previously retrieved. Where has has it gone, and – more importantly – what’s in the box?

Once again, I feel this episode misses the strong ‘the one where…’ hook that the most memorable instalments possess, but it looks great, is very nicely directed, and has an interestingly twisty-turny narrative to it. You do have to cut the story some slack: Steed and the others know quite early on that Roach and Poole killed Brandon, and are now shadowing them, but do absolutely nothing about this simply because the structure of the episode demands events unfold this way. And it does allow for some decent set-pieces: the bad guys attack Steed in his lovely home, and Steed avoids being blasted by Poole’s shotgun by the simple expedient of sticking his armoured bowler over the end of the barrel (the backblast sends the villain flying). It’s not good for the hat, though – ‘He should see a phrenologist,’ says Gambit. ‘He needs a phrenologist like a hole in the head,’ counters Purdey. (I feel I haven’t acknowledged how consistently good the repartee between the three regulars is on this show, both in terms of the writing and their performance of it.)

It’s entertaining stuff, but – as is the case with the previous episode – I’m not just watching The New Avengers for rolling countrysides and twisty plotting and the three stars being witty; I’m also here for the borderline fantasy and SF elements which were present in the earlier episodes of the season. These more ‘realistic’ episodes always pale in comparison to them, for me.

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It’s entirely possible I haven’t watched The Midas Touch since the last time The New Avengers was on terrestrial TV; it’s certainly not one of the episodes I would automatically reach for as an example of the series at its best. Why this should be is all in the carpentry of the story, I would suggest: the premise is a decent one and there are some nice touches, but the core of the episode is somehow not quite sound.

The plot proper gets underway with a squad of armed men searching some wasteland near London, under the command of this week’s villain, Professor Turner (David Swift, second of two). They are watched with some concern by a tramp (John Carson, fourth of four) whom has already been established as a burnt-out former colleague of Steed’s (this is done in a very nicely written and played scene between Carson and Patrick Macnee). The gag is that the heavily-armed and cautious bad guys are actually searching for a cute little white bunny – the further gag is that when the little critter nips one of the soldiers on the hand while being picked up, Turner has the man shot on the spot.

Off in another part of the story, Steed and his partners have received word that emissaries are on their way to London to negotiate for the services of someone or something known as Midas, for which substantial sums will be changing hands. They apprehend one of the envoys after an attempt is made on his life; he is played by Ronald Lacey (third of three), which would be fine were he not meant to be from Hong Kong. Lacey’s attempt at a Chinese accent – he sounds like a bad Peter Lorre impression – just makes a really awkward element of the plot even worse.

Oh well. With the Chinese off the scene the field is wide open for someone else to hire Midas, who is of course Professor Turner’s creation: Turner is an expert in bacteriological warfare, late of ‘Pilton Down’, and has hit upon the idea of making someone who is an asymptomatic carrier of every deadly disease known to man – just touching Midas’ skin results in a rapid and painful death (‘They died of everything!’ cries a bizarrely-accented Chris Tranchell, playing a doctor examining some of Midas’ victims). But who is Midas’ target and how can they stop him?

Well, the idea of the assassin as a sort of pandemic on two legs is an arresting one, but it obviously doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny (at least not as a precision weapon – even Midas’ own handlers have to wear a 70s version of a hazmat suit around him). Nor does much of the rest of the plot, which is convoluted without being especially interesting and heavily reliant on coincidence (Steed’s old friend just happening to stumble across Turner’s plan, for instance). On the other hand, this is something of a showcase for the stunt team (some good car chases and running around – lots of the action shots from the first series’ opening credits come from this episode) and there are some witty moments (Gambit and Purdey casually discuss John Huston movies in the middle of a hot pursuit). On the other other hand, there’s all the stuff with the non-Asian Chinese casting and yet more tacky moments with people lusting after Purdey. In the end I suppose it just about passes muster, but it does feel like a central gimmick in search of a better plot.

Someone else finally gets their name on a New Avengers script next, in the person of Dennis Spooner and the shape of Cat Amongst the Pigeons. The facts that this is possibly the best episode yet and that Spooner is, in my opinion, one of the great underrated geniuses of British fantasy TV may not be unrelated – though the fact it seems to be consciously trying to emulate the style of a Philip Levene script from the old show may have something to do with it, too. It opens with a pet shop owner hearing an eerie whistle, which is closely followed by the mysterious disappearance of all his bird stock. Elsewhere, this week’s doomed-colleague-of-the-trio is trying to call in a plan to assassinate one Hugh Rydercroft (Basil Dignam, second of two), a senior figure at the Ministry of Ecology. He hears the same mysterious whistle and next he is jumping off a cliff to escape… something. (At least he doesn’t actually die, but he’s too injured to spill the beans.)

Steed and the others double-check Rydercroft’s travel precautions, much to the annoyance of his own security people, and eventually let him fly off on a trip to Europe, piloting his own plane. But at the appointed time something happens and the plane falls out of the sky for no immediately apparent reason. But the wreckage is festooned with feathers and a guest character with something to prove finds a bird ring from a nearby sanctuary, which he promptly goes off to investigate alone without telling anyone else. Will he survive to the closing credits? Or even the last ad break? (Hint: no.)

Once it is revealed that Rydercroft and a few colleagues have been working on a plan to savagely cull bird numbers (doesn’t sound very ecological to me, but I digress), old hands will probably be able to write the rest of the episode for themselves. A bird fancier and former magician named Zarcardi (a great role for Vladek Sheybal, probably best known for playing SPECTRE’s strategic genius in From Russia With Love) is trying to stop the plan using his uncanny ability to control birds with a special flute: he can cause bird-strikes, sneak birds of prey into people’s offices and cars, call down ravenous flocks to peck people to death, and so on. Needless to say someone makes a reference to The Birds at one point.

To be honest, the mid-section of the episode unravels into a collection of set-pieces rather than a developing plot, but they are such good set-pieces: directed like a horror movie, with good work from the bird trainers (though it’s obvious on subsequent viewings the actual number of birds involved is minimal) and some good performances from the guest cast: Peter Copley (third of three) is one of the scientists, Hugh Walters plays a nervous crash investigator, and the great Kevin Stoney (second of two) doesn’t get enough to do as a creepy plot-expositor who’s been blinded by (we presume) a bird attack. It follows the structure of a classic Levene script very closely, even concluding with a reprise of the ‘Pussy Galore!’ gag from The Hidden Tiger (perhaps its most obvious antecedent). It’s not surprising that this is an episode which bears comparison with the original series.

The same is true of Target!, which I originally wrote about towards the end of 2014: it’s the one where the robot firing range has been suborned by enemy agents. What can I add at this point? Well, only a few things: research now indicates it is quite unlikely that the police box in this episode is the one from the Dalek movies. Also, in an attempt to drag my young nephew away from brain-rotting YouTube videos, we ended up watching a handful of episodes of The New Avengers together, including this one. I am happy to say he seemed to find it entertaining and engaging. Also, when you watch these episodes in order it is quite obvious that most of the action sequences are being given to Joanna Lumley and Gareth Hunt (perhaps understandably, given Macnee was in his mid-fifties at the time) – Gambit getting the hero role and saving the day isn’t quite as incongruous in context.

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