The US TV series Mission: Impossible was not quite a year old and hadn’t yet aired in the UK when the Avengers episode Mission… Highly Improbable debuted in the UK in November 1967, so Brits wouldn’t have got the joke/reference.
It matters not – apart from the allusive title, there’s nothing else carrying over from the US show to the UK one. Apart, that is, from the high-budget looks. Everything looks like it’s been given two extra runs through the polisher – that’s the effect of American money.
However, even though The Avengers was riding high on both sides of the Atlantic, the spy craze was on the wane. The Robert Culp/Bill Cosby series I Spy and Get Smart, written by Mel Brooks (among others), probably marked the high water mark in 1965 and Mission: Impossible was the last primetime show of that ilk to be commissioned.
We’re at the beginning of the end of days, in other words, and nothing really says that better than the departure of Diana Rigg, off to play James Bond’s wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. This is her last full-on episode before Linda Thorson takes over as Steed’s new sidekick.
Going out with a bang, this episode takes the improbability literally in a scenario all about an incredible shrinking ray that’s been developed by an unworldly scientist (Noel Howlett, something of a go-to actor when it came to unworldliness) but is now being exploited by one of the boffin’s subordinates (Francis Matthews, a go-to man for oily charm).
“Show don’t tell” is the scriptwriter’s watchphrase, something Philip Levene adheres to strictly in his opening scene – white Rolls Royce containing crusty Sir Gerald Bancroft arrives at a Ministry of Defence testing ground, is granted access and before the security man (Nicholas Courtney, later Brigardier Lethbridge Stewart in Doctor Who) can bring up the rear on his motorbike the car has completely disappeared.
Since it’s a mystery, Steed is soon involved and, combing the area where the disappearance happened, finds a “toy” Rolls Royce. He’s unaware it is the missing car in miniature, and as we cut to the undergrowth, a mini Sir Gerald has soon been scooped up in a butterfly net by Chivers (Matthews), an operative in the metal fatigue department, we’re told.
We’re introduced to the good-natured Prof (Howlett) running the place, and his daughter (Jane Merrow), whom Steed stands far too close to (Merrow was another of the names in the frame to replace Diana Rigg), there’s a bit more zapping, more miniaturising, everything is in the realm of the highly improbable.
And then Philip Levene injects a note of realism, in the shape of a demonstration of a new British armoured vehicle, a Saracen impervious to shelling, which is being shown off to a lot of visiting dignitaries, including a Soviet general. Er… right.
The general (who’s also the head of Soviet intelligence, Steed has informed the brass) is in the tradition of Avengers Cold War joke figures most notably embodied by Warren Mitchell in a couple of previous episodes, but is here made vainglorious flesh by Ronald Radd.
Chivers is planning to shrink the Saracen, then take it off the base and sell it to the highest bidder, and it’s only a matter of time before Steed himself – in trying to thwart this dastardly plot – has been shrunk to mini-Steed size, allowing us to see what exactly the budget has been spent on.
Cue several scenes of Steed being dwarfed by household objects like a huge smoking cigar and a massive telephone. And while it’s easy to raise the objection that not everything seems to have been shrunk to the same degree, the production design is impressive.
The shrinking motif can be seen as an allegory for the whole episode – it’s up, it’s down, it’s grounded in reality one second, fantasy the next. What’s more, like James Bond it insists that the Brits are on some sort of equal footing with the Soviets militarily, which is simply fanciful, though talking a good talk could be construed as being as part of a country’s arsenal, I suppose.
Caveats aside, it’s a good episode, high on its own whimsy, with Laurie Johnson’s incidental score featuring lots of music boxes, tubas, harps and xylophones, helping steer it in the high camp destination it’s heading for.
Mrs Peel? Some nice interchanges with Steed – the “Is everything to scale?” banter with his Mini-Me self most notably – but really this is one of those episodes where Steed bears the brunt of the action. If it’s a swansong for Emma you’re after, the previous week’s outing, Murdersville, is what you want.
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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