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Posts Tagged ‘The White Dwarf’

I know I have complained about the slight level of confusion that seems to pertain when it comes to the running order of the second season epsiodes of The Avengers, but I suppose this is somewhat understandable given the episodes were transmittedly well out of their production sequence: Warlock was only the fifth episode to be produced, but ended up being held back until late into the season, next to The Golden Eggs, which was broadcast less than a week after it was completed. This wouldn’t ordinarily be noticeable but for a very peculiar quirk of casting: Peter Arne plays the villain in both episodes (they are different characters). Arne is issued with glasses and a false moustache for Golden Eggs, and gives a very different performance, but even so. This sort of thing wouldn’t happen nowadays.

Other parts of the episode remain dismayingly topical. The house of an eminent research biologist is burglarised, but he insists nothing was taken. Steed is not so sure and sends Mrs Gale in to investigate, undercover as a reporter. It soon becomes apparent the scientist is covering something up. Meanwhile, the thief who carried out the robbery, on the orders of ruthless dealer-in-secrets Julius Redfern (Arne), is really not feeling at all well…

It turns up the thief has whipped a couple of golden eggs which were being used to culture a deadly new virus, Verity Prime, which causes respiratory failure in its victims. Needless to say it is up to Steed and Cathy to recover the eggs before something catastrophic happens. (Well, maybe: no internet or DVDs in 1963, when this episode was transmitted, which would have made lockdown an absolute ordeal, but on the other hand Alexander Boris Johnson was still years away from being born, so the government response to a lethal virus outbreak would probably have been more capable and perhaps its members even inclined to respect their own rules.)

Quite heavy stuff in places, or so it seems at the moment. The episode nevertheless isn’t afraid to play certain scenes with a light touch: after the hook scene, it opens with the suggestive image of Steed and Mrs Gale having breakfast together – it turns out her flat is being refurbished (again?) and Steed has agreed to put her up in return for her cooking for him. Later on there’s a scene where she is trying to glue a vase back together while some exposition goes back and forth, and of course the inevitable happens. Arne’s performance is also remarkably arch given the seriousness of the plot.

In the end, this is another solid but slightly atypical episode, a bit more Cathy-centric than usual (Steed is almost completely absent during the climax, vaguely suggesting he was somewhere in the area when Mrs Gale brings this up with him), and with a hard edge to it in places (three characters are killed and their bodies destroyed with thermite to stop the virus spreading). Not bad at all.

Venus Smith comes back for School for Traitors, in which Steed once again displays prophetic powers by inserting her into the locale of his next mission before he’s actually been assigned it (on this occasion his handler is One-Seven – I can only assume Douglas Muir, who plays One-Ten, was busy that week). A student at one of the great old universities of England (Oxford, Cambridge, Hull) commits suicide under slightly suspicious circumstances, especially when there were previously reports that the young man was being blackmailed. Have agents of the Other Side managed to infiltrate the British higher education system?

Well, of course they have, although as this episode aired only a couple of weeks after Kim Philby, one of the notorious Cambridge spies, fled to the Soviet Union, it’s not the most far-fetched of premises. To be honest, the whole episode is rather down-to-earth, maybe even mundane: the various bright young chaps of the university are suborned not through anything especially scandalous but by being persuaded to forge a signature on a cheque. Chief honeytrap is Melissa Stribling, a few years on from Dracula; her partner in crime is Reginald Marsh, who will probably be best remembered as playing Sir Dennis in many episodes of Terry and June. Various people get bumped off but the only memorable bit comes when Venus is sent some caustic face-cream and Steed sticks her head down the sink before she can explain she hasn’t used the stuff. Decent performances, though, I suppose. Venus Smith is obviously no-one’s idea of a classic Avengers girl, but I must confess I find Julie Stevens’ portrayal of her to be rather endearing, even if the musical numbers still drag somewhat.

Malcolm Hulke returns for the next episode, writing alone, and the result is The White Dwarf, another early episode with distinct science fiction overtones – handled quite seriously, too. A distinguished astronomer is murdered while observing the movements of a star – this is the white dwarf of the title (the episode handles the astronomy quite decently). Steed fills Mrs Gale in on the background, which is more momentous than usual: the astronomer had predicted that the small, intensely heavy star would enter the solar system and collide with the sun, dragging the Earth with it. The question is when and if the news should be annnounced to the public and other governments (Britain is the only country aware of the possibility). It must be said that Cathy and Steed are both very matter-of-fact and unmoved by the possibility of impending armageddon, and seem quite happy to press on with investigating the scientist’s murder. (It’s tempting to draw parallels with the BBC’s enjoyably daft 2018 cop show Hard Sun, which had a vaguely similar premise.)

Mrs Gale is packed off to the observatory, where the death has been hushed up to avoid revealing the truth about the dwarf star, and finds the usual mixed bag of suspects, while Steed sticks around in London and works on figuring out who would stand to benefit from a delay in determining whether or not the world is doomed. (It turns out that Steed is so laid back because he’s quietly sure the world will not end, on the grounds that there is no precedent for this happening. Very uncharacteristic woolly thinking, I would say, and at least Mrs Gale does take him to task for his spurious logic.) His investigations eventually lead him to a bunch of tycoons aiming to take advantage of the disturbance in the global stock market that will ensue if the news of impending doom is announced and then rowed back upon…

Again, one is impressed by the composure involved in coming up with such a scheme when everyone (apart from Steed) seems to think there is at least an equal chance that the theory of the approaching death star is correct, but so it goes. You could argue that the episode is built on a slightly flawed premise – there is no tension involved in the question of whether or not the world is ending, because we the viewers know it won’t – but it’s still another episode with a unique flavour to it. Hulke’s left-wing politics are on display in the choice of villains, obviously, but he’s by no means the only writer to have bad guys solely motivated by greed. This one scores points for originality, for well-drawn characters, and for a climax which is – rather unusually – shot on film, on location (though, again, Steed seems a bit out of character as he turns up packing a handgun). Nevertheless, another step towards The-Avengers-as-we-know-and-love-it.

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