Whoever Shot Poor George Oblique Stroke XR40? isn’t just a great title, it’s an announcement that the classic Avengers team – Fennell and Clemens – are back in the driving seat.
This was the second episode they turned out after taking back control of the series from John Bryce and it’s clear there’s an obvious determination to demonstrate that everything is back as it should be.
Most noticeably, this means Tara King is snappier, posher, archer and tougher – it’s Emma Peel in all but name – and Patrick Macnee responds accordingly with line readings that are zippier than we’ve got used to in this final series.
What Whoever Shot Poor George Oblique Stroke XR40? isn’t – as an episode title at least – is a very good setup to a plot punchline. Because no matter how highly you score on the IQ ratings, it’s pretty obvious that victim George is not a man but a computer (or “computor”, as it’s spelled here, old school). The question, once that gigantic non-reveal has been got out of the way, is whodunit?
Even that isn’t particularly the point. What Tony Williamson’s script is trying to do is run a few computer anthropomorphism jokes past us, a good year or so before Stanley Kubrick did the same with HAL 2000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Steed and King are called in after a saboteur breaks into the Ministry of Technology – Cybernetic and Computor Division – and shoots George, a computer with AI capabilities.
The injuries look terminal (boom tish) but just in case there’s a chance George can be saved, a futuristic computer physician Dr Ardmore (Anthony Nicholls) is called in and, rather than just switching George off and on again, decides he needs to operate.
Cue a number of sight gags in which George is treated as if he were a human on the slab, and Dr Ardmore goes through the “swab”, “suction” routine, while the anaesthetist gives progress reports – “He’s hanging on” etc.
All very amusing. Perhaps more amusing is the crusty old cove who’s meant to have created this electronic marvel, one Sir Wilfred Pelley (Clifford Evans), an aged aristocrat attended by his own manservant, played by Dennis Price. Price had been the co-star of Ealing comedy classic Kind Hearts and Coronets but he was also a dab hand at butlers – he played Jeeves in the 1965 series The World of Wooster. Surely he’s too esteemed an actor to be in a role so minor.
Judy Parfitt – in her third Avengers appearance – is also worth keeping in the frame if you’re looking for arch villains, as is Frank Windsor, at the time one of the most famous faces on British TV thanks to the Z Cars cop series, and it’s harder-edged spin-off, Softly Softly.
It’s a great cast, in other words, and a lovely central conceit – the computer that’s treated as if it were human – though the entire effect is charming rather than devastating, perhaps because what we get to see of the computer’s much vaunted intelligence actually seems a bit twee.
Nice to see Linda Thorson being treated as an independent operative in her own right, not just as Steed’s right-hand woman. And she even gets some action. The series seems back on track.
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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