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Posts Tagged ‘Traitor in Zebra’

People sometimes give The New Avengers some stick for setting a handful of episodes in Canada, which is apparently an intrinsically un-Avengers-esque locale. Well, I might argue that Traitor in Zebra (written by John Gilbert) is equally suspect in this particular department, as it takes Steed and Cathy far from the glamour of the metropolis, or indeed the Home Counties, and sends them to… the North Wales coast.

This is not a normal place to find zebras, let alone ones containing a traitor, but the zebra of the title is HMS Zebra, a Royal Navy base. This particular base is being used to develop and test a brand new tracking system, but every time the assembled crew and boffins have been trying to test it, they find themselves jammed by the Other Side. A young officer is under suspicion of being the traitor (hence that title), but the evidence against him is not great.

Hence Steed’s decision to insert himself and Mrs Gale into the situation, once again working undercover: he has managed to wangle her a job as a lab assistant in the base, helping to create the special crystals which are apparently crucial to the new system (crystallography, ornithology, stamp collecting – is there no end to her talents?), while he turns up – driving a recognisably Steed-ish car for the first time – as Commander Steed, a psychiatrist from the Admiralty.

What ensues is mostly competent espionage-based capering taking place against this rather odd backdrop: as soon as one character starts carefully noting down what position the darts have been left in on the board at the local pub, you know the sort of thing you’re in for. Most of the actual details of the plot are not very memorable, but it does at least have a distinct identity of its own, and there are some well-known faces amongst the guest cast: Noel Coleman plays Zebra‘s captain, William Gaunt plays a young officer whose screws are perhaps wound a touch too tight, and John Sharp (later a Number Two in The Prisoner) is a suspicious local artist and dog-walker. Best guest performance probably comes from Richard Leech as the local newspaper editor, but the one who really shines in this episode is Patrick Macnee, looking very at home in naval uniform, getting some good scenes where he interrogates the suspected traitor, and a genuine hero moment when he has to persuade the real bad guy to defuse the bomb he’s planted to blow up the base. A mid-table episode, but there’s nothing much wrong with that.

Another odd foreshadowing of The New Avengers, and perhaps more generally than that, in The Big Thinker, written by Martin Woodhouse. Rather unusually, the story opens with Cathy arriving at the building housing (or perhaps embodying would be a better word) a highly advanced new supercomputer, Plato (shades of SCAPINA from the New Avengers episode Complex), hoping it can help with some analysis connected to her anthropological work (this woman has so many strings to her bow it’s practically a harp). She is given the standard tour, which is as good a way as any of introducing the guest cast, the best known of which are Tenniel Evans and Anthony Booth (later to become rather better known firstly as Alf Garnett’s son-in-law in Till Death Us Do Part and then as Tony Blair’s father-in-law in Till The Iraq War Do Us Part, a.k.a. real life). Booth is playing Dr Kearns, a mathematical prodigy and general pain in the neck, who is a rather obnoxious guy but too valuable to sack (but only just). Kearns’ bull-at-a-gate attempts to chat up Mrs Gale are halted when a dead body turns up at the heart of the computer complex (we saw him die at the top of the episode, but this is an unusual instance of Cathy finding the story, rather than Steed dragging her into it).

Steed spends most of the story trying to get off to the Middle East, where he has another assignment, but finds himself obliged to stick around as Plato is potentially of vital national importance – as the fastest computer in Britain, it could be used to handle missile interception and other vital tasks, hence the possibility the Other Side is trying to sabotage it. The weak link in the programme seems to be Kearns, who likes to drink and gamble a bit too much (his mathematical prowess gives him an edge when he plays poker, but not an unbeatable one), and Cathy ends up keeping an eye on him…

A decent episode with a good performance from Booth as the abrasive young boffin. To me this is significant as the first episode I’ve seen to even suggest the more science-fictional elements and themes which become a much more prevalent part of the series as time goes by, especially during the Emma Peel series. Here, though, the emphasis is much more on down-to-earth espionage. There’s what seems to be just a subplot (an unusually detailed one) about a cardsharp attempting to get leverage over Kearns, which includes most of the best scenes – at one point he tries to con Mrs Gale out of £500 and gets the shortest of short shrift from her. In the end, though, it could be a bit more tightly scripted than is actually the case. For those keeping track of Steed’s animal companions, he turns up here with another dog, named Sheba. One can’t help wondering why they all disappear over the next couple of series…

There seems to be some confusion over what the actual order of the second season episodes is, as the 50th anniversary DVD box set, Wikipedia, and The Avengers Forever website all list them differently. (This is the sort of thing that really annoys me.) Sticking with (I think) the order of broadcast, the next episode is Leonard Fincham’s Death Dispatch, another extremely generic spy story. Ironically, the sheer physical limitations of these old shows – they couldn’t do anything very convincingly – freed them up, which is why you find them attempting things most modern programmes would be wary of going near: in this case, a globe-trotting international espionage caper starting in the Caribbean (blatant stock footage), then travelling by jet plane (blatant stock footage) to South America (yet more blatant stock footage).

A British courier is murdered in Jamaica, and the intelligence services are baffled, not least because – as far as they know, anyway – he wasn’t carrying any particularly valuable information (not that his killers managed to steal it). One-Ten gives Steed the assignment (once they’ve both finished ogling the bathing beauties in Jamaica) of replacing the dead man and finding out who wants the information and why. Backing him up will be Mrs Gale – this is clearly One-Ten’s decision, which kind of jibes with the general impression that Steed’s partners’ only contact is with him.

Another episode which feels like a holdover from very early on – written as Cathy’s second, apparently, which may be why it feels like the characters aren’t quite right – Mrs Gale is a lot less steely and no-nonsense with Steed on this occasion, while Steed is slightly more of a louche Bond clone (strange to think that this episode was completed several months before Dr No was even released). Certainly he’s at his most cold and ruthless in this episode, which resolves through a massive cop-out: the villain, who’s planning an assassination that will trigger a coup in (I think) Chile is only defeated when his innocent, slightly dim daughter blunders in as he’s about to have Steed and Mrs Gale shot (she plays no other substantive role in the plot). Steed ends up pointing a gun at the teenager’s head, forcing the mastermind to surrender.

The by-play between Macnee and Blackman just about keeps it watchable, and there’s a small but juicy role for Gerald Harper (later to play the title role in the BBC’s answer to The Avengers, Adam Adamant Lives!) as a member of the Foreign Service driven to distraction by Steed’s shenanigans – but this doesn’t really sparkle or give you what you’re hoping for from this series.

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