Split! is the title, as in personality, a mind-control episode co-written by Brian Clemens and the similarly fecund Dennis Spooner. After John Bryce’s trio of episodes, The Invasion of the Earthmen, The Curious Case of the Countless Clues and The Forget-Me-Knot (only the last of which had been seen when this first aired), Split! marks the sudden return of Clemens et al, brought in when the Bryce regime got very behind on production targets.
Reaching for an unused Emma Peel episode and reworking it pronto, Clemens and co also tweaked the opening credits, which are more serious (ironically, since Bryce’s remit was to return the series to the sort of realism it had thrived on when Cathy Gale was Steed’s partner).
Giving strict realism the heave-ho from the outset, Clemens and Spooner get the story underway at a government-run top-secret establishment called the Ministry of Top Secret Information, where an eminent employee (Maurice Good) receives a phone call from someone asking for Boris, tells the caller they must have the wrong number, puts the phone down and then shoots a colleague, his personality having changed completely. Seconds later he’s his old self again and has no idea what he’s done.
We know, don’t we, how this one is going to go – auto-suggestion, trigger word or phrase down the phone, human being turns to deadly killing machine – because this sort of plot has been done to death ever since. However, back then it was fairly new and played right into 1960s ideas about the malleability of the mind and the nature of indoctrination and subliminal suggestion.
On we go, to meet Nigel Davenport as Lord Barnes, boss of the Ministry of Top Secret Information, and his aide Peter Rooke (Julian Glover, nearly 50 years before his outing in Game of Thrones), who guides Steed towards a handwriting expert, Swindin (Christopher Benjamin), prompted by a note written by the accused man which veers wildly in style.
Swindin has a speech impediment known as roticism, a wicked name for a condition that leaves sufferers incapable of pronouncing the letter R properly. And Clemens (it can only be him) amps up the wickedness by giving Swindin a favourite word – “wemarkable”. The same joke would later be used by Michael Palin’s Pontius Pilate in The Life of Brian – “Thwow him woughly to the floor, centuwion…” etc.
Jokes to one side, the graphologist has soon pointed out that the man’s personality seems to have altered drastically, to the extent that his handwriting matches that of a ruthless enemy agent, Boris Kartovsky.
Kartovsky, however, is very dead, or at least he’s meant to be. And since he was shot through the heart by Steed…
What’s going on? Is something a lot grander than auto-suggestion at work? Could Kartovsky’s personality still be viable somewhere, somehow?
All is eventually explained in a plot that is almost formula-written – men in white coats wielding mind-melding technology – but which shows the importance of a decent director and support cast. Roy Ward Baker keeps the action moving, his actors up to pace, with the result that Split! is punchy and bowls along.
The fact that it’s an old Peel episode re-tooled does remind us how different King and Peel are – Tara, while obviously resourceful, is at this stage still a far mousier proposition.
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The imdb refers to this as season seven. I’m saying six, along with most of the fan sites and Wikipedia, and in line with the pretty much definitive Studio Canal box set. The reason why the imdb and others say seven is because they’re taking the final block of eight Emma Peel episodes as a separate season. But since there were only eight episodes in that production block, lumping them together with the 16 episodes of what everyone agrees is season five brings the total up to 24, much closer to the usual Avengers run of about 26 episodes.
© Steve Morrissey 2020