The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 18 – Death’s Door

Spooky mystery figure

 

Closer co-operation between European countries is a good thing, right? That’s the idea driving Death’s Door, an episode with a mind-control theme and a jaunty spy-fi approach to what is essentially an espionage thriller plot.

But before the Europhobes get all steamed up, the co-operation, though never quite spelled out, appears to be more military than economic, more NATO than the EU (Common Market, EEC, EC – choose acronym according to vintage).

I’m going on the various badges and insignia on display at a conference where Sir Andrew Boyd (Clifford Evans) is about to crown his career by leading different European nations into some sort of unified treaty arrangement. He never quite gets there, instead turning tail and fleeing the scene just before his triumphal moment. Conference aborted.

Having mysteriously become psychic (or so he thinks), Sir Andrew apparently fears that he’s going to meet a grisly end at the conference. And when he actually dies at an attempt to reconvene, his deputy Lord Melford (the usually dastardly Allan Cuthbertson) steps in, a title obviously being de rigueur if you’re going to do anything important for your country.

Melford, too, is soon overcome by premonitions while sleeping. Cue a dream sequence in a style we could call Budget Dali – faceless men, giant objects, disembodied voices, portents of death and so on.

 

One Budget Dali dreamscape for Allan Cuthbertson

 

Steed suspects foul play rather than psychic forces. And when Melford recounts elements of his dream to Steed, one of them is the presence in the dream of an Eastern Bloc observer. Steed’s suspicions are reinforced.

Steed can see where this is going as clearly as anyone watching – mindfuckery is at work – and heads off to find out more about the man from behind the Iron Curtain and soon finds himself under fire.

This all leads to one of the most ludicrous but ingenious bits of impromptu counter-attack you’re ever likely to see, as a weaponless Steed (well, it’s not gentlemanly) defends himself against hostile bullets by doing something remarkable with a rock and a sharp stone. I won’t ruin it.

Later, Mrs Peel, too, gets a bit of rough-and-tumble. In a fight scene at her apartment clearly influenced by Adam West-era Batman, Laurie Johnson lays on the “biff” “pow” musical stabs while Mrs Peel does her stuff with an apprehended villain in a sequence too reliant on speeded-up film. Undercranking being one of the silent era’s more tiresome stand-bys.

The whole thing is a plot to wreck the conference, and thereby European unity, hatched behind the Iron Curtain (I’m sure Vladimir Putin would approve).

It’s a jolly enough jaunt, and the surreal excursions are a nice touch by director Sidney Hayers, but Philip Levene’s script (doubtless camped up a bit by producer Brian Clemens) feels as if it’s going through the motions.

However, this was the first episode of Diana Rigg’s final block to be shot (though Return of the Cybernauts was the first to be aired) after production recommenced, and Clemens has taken the opportunity to drop two annoying bits of show furniture – the two line teaser (Steed does this; Emma does that) and the “Mrs Peel we’re needed”.

Hooray.

 

 

 

 

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The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 17 – Return of the Cybernauts

A cybernaut at the door

When the British Film Institute celebrated 50 Years of Emma Peel in 2015, as well as interviewing the venerable Dame Diana Rigg – halfway through her run on Game of Thrones at the time – the BFI screened two episodes of Peel-era Avengers show.

Return of the Cybernauts was one (The House That Jack Built the other), chosen, presumably, because it had a big-name star in the shape of Peter Cushing in its cast, because it was something of a fan favourite and, I’m also guessing, because the production values were more polished than they had been hitherto.

Because the show had been Emmy nominated, the ABC network ordered more, of which this was the first, stumping up enough American cash to give the underpaid Diana Rigg more money (she had threatened to leave). That money is also clearly visible on screen, in the sets, the clothes, the lighting. Everything in Return of the Cybernauts is simply just a bit glossier.

That’s really evident right after the pre-credits sequence. After we’ve been re-introduced to the big, lumbering and seemingly invincible creature first encountered in The Cybernauts, now scything through a door and killing a man with a single blow, we meet impeccably dressed and groomed Steed and Peel having a chummy evening chez Paul Beresford (Cushing), a man who is as suave as he is flirtatious and whose attention to Mrs Peel is clearly unsettling Steed.

What the pair don’t know, but we do once Steed and Peel have left, is that debonair Beresford is the man behind the murderous cybernaut. We later learn he is the brother of the cybernaut’s inventor (Michael Gough who appered in the cybernaut’s original outing and who we see in archive footage) and that he’s out for revenge against Steed and Peel, who he blames for his brother’s death.

In a clear breach of security, Steed and Peel have told Beresford that the case they’re on involves missing scientists. And wouldn’t you know it but Beresford is behind that too. And he has plans to turn the scientists into killing machines expressly targeted at Steed and Peel.

 

Charles Tingwell, Peter Cushing, Fulton Mackay
Cybernaughties Charles Tingwell, Peter Cushing and Fulton Mackay

 

Why bother, when you already have a deadly cybernaut at your disposal? There is no real reason given. It’s just one of many holes in an episode that appears to have simply thrown plot elements together hurriedly and shaken them about.

OK, so it’s best not watched as a tight, self-contained story, but there are still joys to be had. Beyond its exquisite production design, these come mainly from the playing of the cast – Cushing’s almost balletic dash and his quick switch from charm personified to the epitome of evil; a returning Frederick Jaeger as his right hand man; Fulton Mackay (a world away from the upright prison warder Mr Mackay in Porridge) and Charles Tingwell (ham-handed good-natured cop to Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple) as two of the scientists being pressured by Beresford into doing his bidding; and Aimi MacDonald as a sex-mad secretary who tries to chat up the silent-and-deadly cybernaut. Smirk-inducing.

Jolly enough, though the cult status surrounding the cybernaut (clearly a cousin of Dr Who’s cybermen) baffles me – The New Avengers also had a cybernaut episode in 1976, and home-video distributor Network released a raved-over Blu-ray box set containing all three episodes as a package in time for Christmas 2019.

By the way, Cybernauts plural? There’s only one!

 

***

Whether this episode is part of Series 6 or a continuation of Series 5 is moot. I’m going with the convention embraced by StudioCanal’s 2014 boxset and plumping for it being a late entrant to Series 5. It was originally conceived that way.

The imdb prefers to say we’re now in Series 6 (a short one of only eight episodes), while the Avengers Forever site leans towards calling this Series 5 (though it draws a distinction between two distinct production blocks – 5A and 5B).

There’s not much in it either way, but lumping this episode in with Series 5 means all the Emma Peel colour episodes are together, and since Series 5 is often referred to as THE classic series, that’s an advantage.

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

Cuties aka Mignonnes

Fathia Youssouf and cast

 

The day I watched Cuties, 24 September 2020, it had 21,348 votes on the IMBD user ratings. 16,355 of those were one star reviews. And then I remembered that the film been caught up in one of those social media shitstorms, with its distributor the focus of a #CancelNetflix campaign. The overall 2.7/10 rating looked like the result of an orchestrated hit.

The campaign against the film drew support from across the political spectrum, though a trawl of Twitter suggests a lot of its supporters were outraged social conservatives. So much for Cancel Culture (a series of unrelated memes bundled together and then mis-sold as an actual culture) being an unsavoury aspect of the liberal/left (another grouping that doesn’t exist, but let’s not go into that here).

Had any of the voters seen the movie? It’s about a girl (the remarkable Fathia Youssouf as 11-year-old Amy) from a devout Islamic immigrant family who arrives at a new school in Paris, catches sight of precocious dancing dervish Angelica (the equally remarkable Médina El Aidi) – all legs, hair and moves – and busts a gut to be part of Angelica’s Mean Girls-y clique, who are all practising to be in a regional dance competition. Having being grudgingly admitted to the gang, Amy then surprises her hard-won new friends by introducing them to the more lurid end of the dance spectrum, moves Amy learnt from a smartphone she stole off her cousin.

 

Besties, for now: Angelica (Medina El Aidi) and Amy (Fathia Youssouf)

 

It’s a story of a young girl trying to fit in, overdoing it, losing her personal integrity and going off the rails. It’s also the story of a group of young girls trying to be grown up and getting it all wrong. Yes, the girls’ dances are fairly gnarly to start with, and once Amy has worked various twerky, booty-focused, lap-dancy moves into the routine (including that one where you appear to be having sex with the floor) things move into jailbait territory.

The film has two trajectories, and they are expertly intertwined by writer-director Maïmouna Doucouré in her feature debut. Amy’s involves her and her outwardly stoic, inwardly devastated mother (Maïmouna Gueye) coming to terms with the fact that Amy’s Senegalese father is about to take a second wife and will soon be moving her into the family’s small apartment – a special out-of-bounds bedroom has even been set aside for the new bride. On the way to what Amy sees as a violation of her mother and the family home, Amy has her first period and is declared – by mother and auntie (Mbissine Thérèse Diop, star of Black Girl, the groundbreaking Senegalese movie from 1966) – to be “a woman”. You can understand why she’s confused.

The girls, meanwhile, head towards their dance competition, grinding and winding away, eager to be taken seriously as grown-ups though they’re only 11, blundering around in territory they think they understand because they’ve seen sexual material online. But just how naive they are is beautifully caught in a vignette where the girls are playing together and one of them (Esther Gohourou) inflates and plays with a used condom, mistaking it for a balloon.

Does the film feature young girls raunching away like little Lolitas? For sure. Does it suggest this is a good thing? Far from it. In fact Doucouré goes out of her way to underline just how far out of their depth the girls are. If the condom scene hasn’t done it for you, as the girls perform for an actual live audience Doucouré throws in numerous shots of women in the audience reacting negatively.

Girls growing up in a sexualised society is what the film is about. Talk about shooting the messenger.

The hoo-hah has at least got the film noticed. And it deserves to be noticed, not just as a polemic but also as a piece of great film-making. The smart screenplay does not call at the usual way-stations – there is no female genital mutilation, no misogynistic angry imans – the acting is fresh and believable, and the cinematography clean, bright and attractive. Doucouré has avoided the temptation to make things too “street”.

It’s a film about 11-year-old girls, after all, and though the girls are confused this lively, funny and ultimately optimistic film never is. Which is more than you can say for the haters.