Judge Mike Pinsky carefully examines this set, which serves as a strong introduction to this British spy programme...I mean, program.
"It's not often a man falls dead in front of the television cameras. The viewers got good value last night."—John Steed, "Mr. Teddy Bear"
In 1961, the BBC premiered a new series with a touch of Ian Fleming's superspy James Bond (and curiously beating the first Bond film Dr. No by a year). The Avengers was the story of Dr. David Keel (Ian Hendry) and his quest to avenge the murder of his wife with the help of secret agent John Steed (Patrick Macnee). Together, this energetic pair investigated and avenged crimes of all sorts. After a season of derring-do, Hendry left the show. Macnee stayed and was paired with Honor Blackman, the tough and resourceful Cathy Gale. After two seasons, Blackman in turn left the show, ironically for a role in Goldfinger. Enter Diana Rigg, as the even tougher and more resourceful Emma Peel. Two seasons later, Diana Rigg left the show as well. Poor Macnee. Enter Linda Thorson as Tara King, the somewhat less tough and—well, you get the picture. We won't even talk about The New Avengers or the dreadful 1998 movie.
Anyway, for all its ups and downs, The Avengers is one of those "cult classics" you always hear about, with a rabid fan base that provides a preexisting market for A&E's release of the series on DVD. But A&E does something a little different with this particular boxed set: in a bid to lure new fans (or casual fans on a budget), they have assembled a "best of" compilation. But is it really the best of The Avengers?
A&E provides six episodes of the series, allegedly selected by Patrick Macnee himself: two with each of his female partners (and skipping the show's first season entirely, since nearly all of it has been lost to time and the poor housekeeping skills of the BBC). An overall introduction by Macnee (the same for both discs) provides a good 4-minute overview of the show for non-experts. Because each of the six episodes is quite different in both tone and production quality, we shall examine then individually.
"Mr. Teddy Bear" (1962): The first episode featuring Honor Blackman as Mrs. Catherine Gale, anthropologist and able spy. Oddly, Mrs. Gale is not introduced to viewers in the story: her relationship with Steed is already established. Mrs. Gale is more of a pupil to Steed than an action heroine in her own right: Steed speaks to her of "homework" and treats her like a willful student. When a government agent is assassinated on live television, Steed starts on the trail of Mr. Teddy Bear, a notorious contract killer, using Mrs. Gale as bait. The episode is low on physical action, but high in snappy dialogue. Clearly, Steed is meant to be a more serious and effective spy here than in later episodes of the series (where the women will more often outshine him) and is even set up as a bit of a sex symbol—watch for the scene where he strips down to his underwear. Bernard Goldman turns in a clever performance as the villain, a ruthless killer with a twisted sense of humor. The cat-and-mouse game between Teddy Bear and Steed makes this episode particularly interesting.
The episode was shot on video and converted to film. There are some scratches, and the screen fills with video-lines for about a minute halfway through, but otherwise this seems in pretty good shape for its age.
"Don't Look Behind You" (1963): By the show's third season (the second with Honor Blackman), the relationship between Steed and Cathy Gale was firmly established. He prattles on a lot about clothes; she stays grim and serious. In this episode, Mrs. Gale goes to visit a fellow expert in medieval lore and finds herself trapped overnight in a spooky house with an assortment of odd characters. There are plenty of gothic references here: medieval décor, a creepy niece (played over the top by Janine Gray), a spooky disembodied voice. But the tone is not overdone and even borders slightly on parody: when an overbearing thug tells Mrs. Gale that the phone line has been cut, he mockingly makes that clichéd "da da da" so prevalent in bad horror movies—then the music track itself intones the same overplayed notes! Honor Blackman gets most of this episode to herself and proves quite up to the task. Pity the producers will not let her defeat the bad guy all by herself and feel the need to send Steed in at the last minute for an all-too-quick rescue.
This is probably the poorest quality episode in the set. The black and white photography is often overexposed and a little blurry. The tone is more of a dull gray than the sharp silver one expects. The sound is a bit tinny. Overall, this is a well-directed episode, but it does not quite click. The acting from the supporting cast is too overdone to be genuinely dramatic; the ending is too abrupt (and Steed's presence here is unnecessary). but it would be almost identically remade two years later in color as "The Joker."
"Death at Bargain Prices" (1965): How can you not get a kick out of an episode where Steed is told that "Mrs. Peel is in lady's underwear. I rattled up the stairs three at a time!" Diana Rigg plays Mrs. Emma Peel, physicist and kung-fu fighting superstar. When an agent is murdered investigating Pinter's Department Store, Steed and Mrs. Peel must infiltrate the store to find out why. If Honor Blackman always struggled to play Mrs. Gale as Steed's equal (but was never quite allowed to surpass him by the writers), Diana Rigg effortlessly glides past Steed in scene after scene. There are more "spy movie" trappings in this latest incarnation of The Avengers than in earlier seasons, and this episode has them all: secret rooms, a kidnapped scientist, a megalomaniacal bad guy, and even nuclear blackmail. Smartly directed by Charles Crichton (The Lavender Hill Mob and A Fish Called Wanda), this episode is fast-paced and a bit more theatrical than the Cathy Gale outings, with more moving camera work and dramatic close-ups. Even running down a spiral staircase is made exciting, punctuated by Laurie Johnson's snappy score. And Macnee and Rigg's chemistry pulls it all together. The innuendo seems crisper, and Mrs. Peel always seems to be on top of Steed and the situation—which suits Steed just fine.
With the entrance of Diana Rigg, the show moved from video to film. The result is a warmer, deeper tone to the image. The picture is a little soft in spots (making some of the set clutter hard to discern at times), but overall the transfer is clean and without extensive flaws.
"Too Many Christmas Trees" (1965): Oddly, no color Diana Rigg episodes are included in this set. Instead we get one of the most surreal outings of the series—and that is saying quite a lot. Steed is the big focus here, as he is manipulated by a group of psychics using dreams of Christmas to steal his state secrets. The villains all wear executive type suits, but other than that, nothing particularly distinguishes them. Their personalities and motives are not well developed. Mrs. Peel gets plenty of interesting stuff to do, looking concerned and serious as Steed becomes more and more disconnected. But everything falls apart at the climax, with a badly directed fight sequence among widely spaced funhouse mirrors (how could anybody actually hide in that room?). This could have been a neat episode, but huge plot holes and listless direction by Roy Baker make it less than the sum of its parts. Visually, the transfer looks fine, though a little grainier than the previous Emma Peel episode.
"Look—(stop me if you've heard this one) But There Were These Two Fellers…" (1968): After the departure of Diana Rigg, The Avengers went from tongue-in-cheek to tongue-hanging-out-and-drooling-like-a-sugared-up-imbecile. Plot logic and realism go totally out the window here in a story of killer clowns who bump off board members of a construction business bent on destroying their vaudeville theater. The gags are silly (Steed looks puzzled as a bunch of flowers transforms into bananas, then a sword, then flowers, then a top hat), but somehow it works. Credit director James Hill with saving this particular episode. Effective comedy is really all timing, and this episode is well-timed and edited. A young John Cleese even turns up in a small part as an anal-retentive bureaucrat who maintains an archive of clown faces painted on eggs—a part Cleese was born to play. And the villain of the piece is one of the best: a malicious Punch and Judy puppeteer (John Woodvine) who barks orders through his puppets. Who cares why? It just works. Even the oversaturated, almost bleeding color of the print seems to suit the clownish tone of the episode: everything is just too bright.
Well, everything except the new sidekick. Linda Thorson, as Ms. Tara King. Tara is a dimwit: she holds up four fingers for a list of three and says pluckily, "I can't hold up three; they all seem to bend." And she clearly dotes more on Steed than his previous partners (leaning on him, insisting they go on dates). Who hired this woman to be a secret agent? In one sublimely stupid scene, she is assigned to bodyguard a potential target and spends all her time pointing her gun at him (and waving and fondling it a lot as well—has she never used a gun before?). Then the guy gets killed right in front of her. Then the bad guys capture her. I started yelling at my television set by this point. Quick, Mrs. Peel, you're needed!
"All Done With Mirrors" (1968): I wish I could say that this boxed set ends on a high note. Oh well. Even Patrick Macnee seems down on this episode, using most of his introduction to complain about the silly "Mother" character (Patrick Newell) used in this season as the Avengers' on-screen boss. Even the print seems a bit tired and faded, punched up by A&E with oversaturated color to the point of making the skin tones too yellow.
The plot? Steed is placed under house arrest (which to the British apparently involves poolside parties with swimsuit models) while Tara is sent on a mission alone. Steed and Mother condescendingly joke about this ("a new, intuitive approach" says Mother), obviously forgetting that Cathy Gale and Emma Peel used to get along fine without a man's help. So Tara is paired up with the snotty agent Watney (Dinsdale Landen), who seems to exist solely to make Tara look talented by comparison. No such luck. Maybe it is the fact that she barges through the whole adventure, which involves some inexplicable secret gadget that uses mirrors to commit murder—don't sweat your pretty little head about it, because they never bother to explain it—without any guile or subtlety. Or maybe it is that lime green pantsuit with the white beret that makes it hard to take her seriously as an action hero. Or maybe the fact that she falls straight off a cliff and survives without a scratch ("I fell clear of the rocks," she tells us gamely). Oh, I give up—even Mrs. Peel can't save us now.
Patrick Macnee introduces each episode in the set, in addition to the overall introduction noted earlier. He is warm and generous in his praise for his co-stars and the show's creators. Well, except for hammering the producers for saddling the show with "Mother" in the final season. The introductions are a couple of minutes long each and do not overstay their welcome (a commentary track for each of these episodes would likely be too much). I would have liked to see some interview footage or introductions by Steed's co-stars though. Disc One includes a brief show intro made for American audiences for the 1965 season. Condescendingly, it describes Steed as a "top professional" and Mrs. Peel merely as a "talented amateur." Perhaps this misperception of the show's characters is what led American network executives (who had a good deal of pull on the show's direction in the last couple of seasons) to insist on Linda Thorson as Diana Rigg's replacement. Speaking of Thorson, Disc Two features a promotional film, called "Town Girl," done before she was brought on board The Avengers. For 8 1/2 minutes, Thorson bounces around Hampstead, bicycling, climbing trees, swimming, and generally looking cute—except when she tries to look mature and sophisticated in the interview segments. The print is in great condition (even better than the two episodes included in this set) and goes a long way toward giving the impression that the show's messy final season was not entirely her fault.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I am somewhat puzzled by the selection of episodes in this collection. The packaging states that these are Patrick Macnee's choices for his favorite episodes. If this is the case, I have to question his tastes a bit. I will grant that he seems generous towards his costars, offering each of the women two episodes apiece. Good for him. Unfortunately, in Macnee's effort to find two "best" episodes for each, the failings of The Avengers itself (and this boxed set) becomes all too apparent. "Don't Look Behind You," while it may be one of the more artistic of the Honor Blackman episodes, is not in the best of shape and suffers a bit compared to its virtually identical color remake two years later: "The Joker" with Diana Rigg. But of course, "The Joker" is not included here, probably because Macnee was limited to two Diana Rigg episodes for the sake of balance. Or is it because the Diana Rigg episodes included here are intended to highlight the less serious and more flamboyant tone of the later years of the series, and that episode would seem out of place?
That flamboyance brings us, of course, to the issue of the Linda Thorson years. She tried. Heavens, how she tried. Her enthusiasm for the Tara King character is infectious. But the material she was given to work with was depressingly silly. "Look (Stop Me…)" holds up because its great supporting cast does wonders with comic timing. But imagine a whole season of stuff like this: it becomes tiresome very quickly. Turning the spy genre into farce is all too easy: James Bond had become ridiculous by this point as well—and do not even get me started on the Roger Moore years. By 1968, the theaters and airwaves were glutted with wacky spies. Even if being scheduled opposite Laugh In and Gunsmoke had not killed The Avengers in the ratings and hastened its cancellation, the show was already creatively gasping its last.
So, in short, "Mr. Teddy Bear" is good, even if the Steed/Gale relationship is not well fleshed out. "Don't Look Behind You" has potential, but the print is in bad shape and the overall direction is not as tight as it should be. "Death at Bargain Prices" is great: The Avengers at its best. "Too Many Christmas Trees" could have been much better. And while one of the two Tara King episodes is pretty entertaining (in spite of the Tara King character herself), the other one is positively dreadful, as Steed might say.
Well, 50% is not bad. If you are playing baseball, at least. But I cannot say in good conscience that this two-disc boxed set really represents the best of The Avengers, as it claims. Die-hard fans of the show (who are probably already composing disgruntled emails) will likely already be collecting the regular DVD boxed sets of the show—so you all can pick and choose your own favorite episodes and watch them at your leisure. Love the Linda Thorson season? Prefer only Diana Rigg? You probably do not need this set in any case, since you are already picking up what you want with the regular sets.
But a "best of" set like this is really meant to appeal to newcomers, those who enjoy the show but are not obsessive about collecting every episode. Casual and curious purchasers might surmise that, given that this boxed set is only half as good as it might have been, the show itself is only half as good as the hardcore fans say it is. And that may not be enough to draw new blood to the ranks of Avengers fandom.
The court orders Mr. Steed, and whomever his able and lovely companion is these days, to avenge The Avengers upon Mr. Macnee and A&E. Both do mean well, but as we have all learned from the Ms. Tara King debacle, meaning well just does not cut it when you are promising the best.
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Scales of Justice
• Introductions by Patrick Macnee
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