The Avengers: Series 6, Episode 13 – They Keep Killing Steed

Norman Jones and Ray McAnally

 

Improbable and fluffy, They Keep Killing Steed is a prime screenplay by showrunner and writer Brian Clemens, and a clear sign that the series is entirely back on track with a plot pivoting on the ideas of doubles – a classic Clemens trope.

The fluidly cinematic Robert Fuest does directorial duty in a plot that leans heavily on Patrick Macnee – he plays at least four, possibly five Steeds, created to undo a peace conference by substituting the real thing with one of the obviously dodgy fakes.

Tara King, meanwhile, gets a “double” plot of her own, when she’s co-opted by himbo babe-magnet billionaire Baron Von Curt (Ian Ogilvy) to act as his decoy wife to deter the lollymouthed pussy posse who assail him wherever he goes.

But rewinding to the beginning, the entire idea is summed up in a neat opening sequence – two men in a bunker release a third man from a mask. It looks, but does not sound, like Steed: “Dispensable,” they conclude, and kill him immediately.

We cut to Mother, organising the security on the peace conference from a lake, accompanied by silent strapping blonde Rhonda, and then quickly to the real Steed and Tara King, at a crummy hotel (you can almost smell the damp) where the peace conference is to take place. And then to Ray McAnally and Norman Jones as Arcos and Zerson, names and accents indicative of bad-guy status.

 

One of the fake Steeds
The real Steed… or is it?

 

In that loquacious way that villains have, McAnally’s Arcos lays out the plan – kidnap Steed, replace him with one of the copies, sabotage the peace conference. And so it plays out, until the real Steed – who has in the intervening period been picked up by a bogus taxi, knocked out and is now prisoner at the subterranean facility rather than dead in a ditch somewhere – breaks free, uses the same tech to copy the face of one of his captors and makes his escape…

The stage is now set for one of those Clemens dances between real and fake as the plot spins towards its climax.

It’s a good story and well told, hang the improbability, with Clemens at certain points deliberately withholding information that would make things a lot clearer but less enjoyable.

As for Tara and her “stand in” scenario as a billionaire’s beard – no, the Baron isn’t gay but it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that that’s what Clemens might have originally have had in mind – it’s also a neat story but has absolutely no connection to Steed’s “double” plot.

In an attempt to yoke the two together, Clemens has the Baron suddenly making an appearance at the peace conference, for reasons which make no sense – he has no security clearance unless just the fact of being very rich, a baron and blond is enough. There’s a touch of the “hey, it’s The Avengers” shrugging justification here which is the price (I suspect) Clemens thought was worth paying for a scenario that gets a lot in to its 50 minutes of self-contained plot.

Bernard Horsfall – one of those TV actors who never stopped working – is drafted in as a spy sidekick to Tara King at the conference and McAnally – pronounced Mack-an-alley rather than Muck-anally (just an FYI) – is reliably malevolent as Arcos.

An episode that relies on everyone knowing where their marks are and hitting them when required, it’s a slick return to Avengers form.

 

 

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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

 

 

 

 

 

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

The creature attacks Emma Peel

 

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.