The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 22 – The Positive Negative Man

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A mad spy-fi story, the sort that made The Avengers the legendary show it is, The Positive Negative Man gets off to a Cybernauts-style start with a big lumbering creature – a man in silver greasepainted face and a metal sleeve on one finger – zapping a scientist (Bill Wallis) as he labours over some boffin-y task.

The man has been thrown clean across the room. This being “the Ministry”, Steed and Peel are soon called in, only to become mired in protocol – do they or do they not have enough security clearance to conduct any sort of investigation, sort of thing.

Tony Williamson’s script tugs in two directions. One is techy – the odd creature and the charge he seems able to store in his body – while the other has fun at the expense of bureaucratic procedure. We learn from Ministry official Cynthia Wentworth-Howe (Caroline Blakiston) that as a Top Hush category of secretary she has the sort of security clearance that outranks all others, apart from Button Lip, a grade almost beyond the aspiration of mortal humans.

And so into battle Steed and Peel go, as much against the dead hand of procedure as the bad guys. First thing they establish, once they’ve satisfied Cynthia that they’re kosher enough to gain access to the dead scientist’s safe, is that all the documents inside have been burnt to ashes, including information on Project 90, a hush-hush experiment now in mothballs.

A red security clearance card
Very important security clearance

So when another scientist (Sandor Elès) associated with Project 90 also gets a zapping from the creature (whose white wellington boots give us a clue as to what’s going on here), Steed and Peel know which line of enquiry to pursue – which is handy because there is no other.

It turns out the Project 90 team was working on “broadcast power”, which is either a charmingly retrospective idea (the brilliant Nikola Tesla worked on it in the 1890s) or remarkably forward looking (we’d now call it wireless charging), depending on your point of view. It should be fertile territory, but the bare-bones straightforwardness of what Williamson does with it – once we learn about Project 90 it’s obvious that somone associated with it is going to be behind the zapping – means there isn’t much of a plot to follow.

Enter Ray McAnally, as a scientist who was thrown off Project 90, and it’s just a question of joining the dots.

Why the greasepaint and wellies? It’s a way of insulating the creature from the charge he carries like some organic capacitor. And once Steed and Peel have twigged what’s afoot, the stage is set for The Avengers’ first big fight finale in rubber boots.

Along the way we’ve had some wacky sound effects, proving that it wasn’t just the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop who knew how to squawk and rumble, and a deliberate pastiche of Batman/Spider-Man incidental fight music by Laurie Johnson.

These spy-fi episodes are what made The Avengers the distinctive show it was. Yet half a century on they don’t have the pure grip that some of the more traditional spy-thriller episodes have. The hypnotic effect of remarkable futuristic tech wears off when the real future catches up.

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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.

© Steve Morrissey 2020

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