Were showrunner Brian Clemens, fellow producer Albert Fennell and the rest of the production team trying to get rid of Linda Thorson? She had been introduced during his brief interregnum by producer John Bryce and when Clemens and Fennell returned, they were stuck with her.
Killer is an episode bursting with agents – who die one after the other and wind up gift-wrapped in plastic – but Thorson’s character Tara King is notably absent, having told Steed in dialogue that protests a bit too much that she is off on holiday and there is nothing he can do about it… so there.
Instead Steed is paired with Lady Diana Forbes-Blakeney – referred to as “Forbes” by the instantly flirtatious Steed and played by the elegant Jennifer Croxton, who behaves throughout like someone who knows she’s stepping on someone else’s toes.
Tony Williamson’s plot sees one agent after another being lured to what looks like a deserted film set (which is what it is – either Elstree or Pinewood) where they are summarily dispatched before winding up shrink-wrapped and as clean as a whistle in a cemetery. No forensic clues for Clarke (Richard Wattis, in trademark bottle-bottom glasses and twittish accent), the agency’s crime scene investigator, to work on – “He’s even had a manicure,” says Clarke to Steed.
The plot runs on that mid/late 1960s staple, psychological torment, with one agent after another “cracking” before meeting his maker, a succession of characters breaking another Avengers rule about keeping the numbers down. The suspicion rears its head that Fennell and Clemens might be putting in the foundations of a new show, one built on the idea of a team of agents (see Mission: Impossible in the US, or Department S here, co-created by Clemens’s old friend Dennis Spooner).
Or, in Croxton, we can see the beginnings of a later TV figure – Purdey in The New Avengers, Croxton being very much in the svelte, slinky Joanna Lumley mould.
Musings to one side, the very Prisoner-like plot follows one agent to his doom, repairs to the cemetery for some explication, then jumps back to the film set where another agent is about to meet his maker. Harry Towb takes a significant role, as does Charles Houston and William Franklyn’s Brinstead is introduced early on.
The running joke – agent arrives on scene, asks Franklyn where “Remak” is, Franklyn looks about conspiratorially – is lost on anyone who doesn’t remember Franklyn as the face and voice of the “Schh… You Know Who” spy-spoof advertising campaign, for Schweppes tonic water, which ran from 1965-1973 and made him a household name.
It’s a case of payback – the Schweppes campaign owed its joky tone at least to The Avengers.
As if the episode didn’t have enough characters in it, there is one Clemens eccentric thrown in for good measure (Michael Ward as the very camp Freddie), who helps Steed home in on the death-dealing nemesis, which turns out – no spoiler here, it’s flagged up early on – to be a computer, Remak standing for Remote Electro-Matic Agent Killer.
A busy episode it may be – Anthony Valentine also turns up, and I haven’t mentioned Mother or Rhonda, who also feature – but the finale is a good one, the artificially intelligent Remak setting Steed a series of challenges to the death. Does Steed win through? Well there are roughly another 16 episodes in this season to go, so… Steed’s brolly, bowler and heavy coat all doing sterling support work here.
Director Cliff Owen’s camera is noticeably tighter on the action than previous directors’, Steed’s bowler is noticeably smaller, sits more jauntily on his head. In fact with Croxton – physically a bit stiff but a passable fighter and a decent actor in an invidious situation – and the multiplicity of characters, there’s a suggestion of a show renewing itself.
All that said, however, Macnee and Thorson are reunited for a smart, bantering epilogue scene that’s one of the best, involving an inflatable liferaft doing what it’s designed to do inside the confines of Steed’s apartment. Perhaps Clemens and Fennell were feeling guilty.
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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