Thursday, October 05, 2006

 

The Avengers – Man-Eater of Surrey Green

At last Steed and Emma return to BBC4 – tonight at 7.10, or tomorrow at 11.30. It’s an unusually science-fiction-styled episode, as they face off against a carnivorous alien plant that’s growing to giant size, and controlling the minds of the local horticulturalists to accomplish this fiendish design. If you think it sounds like the later Doctor Who story The Seeds of Doom ripped it off shamelessly, you won’t be far wrong. It’s not stunning but not bad, with Athene Seyler’s batty plant expert particularly worth the money and Steed winning extra-special beastliness points for how he beats the plant…
Steed kills a climber – Emma becomes a vegetable
On the face of it this isn’t quite a usual episode of The Avengers, if there can be such a thing, and, yes, the giant plant from outer space has a lot to do with it. With that, the way it’s brought back to Earth by a doomed astronaut and so many humans falling under its spell at a secret establishment that kills observers, it’s difficult not to suspect this is attempting to spoof The Quatermass Experiment. The trouble is, once they’d come up with that idea they plainly didn’t know where to go with it; it’s rather less amusing than most other Avengers, with the killer cactus on Steed’s car seat the only bit that made me smile – well, at least before Steed comes up with his caddish way to defeat the plant, of which Cornelltoppingday’s The Avengers Dossier says, “Bastard!” I just hope, for his sake, that Emma doesn’t hear how he did it. Quatermass rather implies something intelligent and challenging, but this ends up rather more B-Movie. So is the way to resist the alien’s telepathic control; we hear a strange oscillating note as it exerts its influence, and initially it seems that deafness is the answer. Later, though, it appears that deaf people can still ‘hear’ the control signal, and that to resist you actually need the magic scientific properties of a transistor stuck in your ear. Hmm. I suspect this is the only Avengers episode to feature three people who just happen to wear hearing aids, and it does rather stand out that they’re only there because the plot requires it – you know when one appears before the title that it’s going to be ‘Chekhov’s hearing aid’. It only reminded me of a deaf friend who’s very fond of The Avengers, and how cross he was when this particular series was released on DVD without subtitles (so, should you ever be writing to a DVD manufacturer, do remind them to put the things on).

The other unusual element that’s usually overlooked here is how romantic a lot of it is, and how little protection romance affords against hideous death. It’s surprisingly rare to have people gently ‘courting’ (rather than ostentatiously flirting) in The Avengers, but the first people we see are young lovebird horticulturalists Laura and Alan, set amongst their flowers, but they have just one scene where everything’s rosy together. Though much of the plot is driven by Alan’s desperation to get Laura back when she mysteriously wanders off (despite, it must be said, neither of the actors really setting the world alight) and in most fiction you’d expect them to be joyfully reunited at the end, both in fact die in peculiarly pitiless ways, one of them ‘off’. It’s a bit grim. On the other hand, there’s a particularly good characterisation of Steed and Emma, with more than a few romantic overtones there. He’s first seen looking surprisingly good in a polo-neck, offering her a rose he’s grown, Morning Sunrise. She’s cutting.
“I sense a bribe… What nasty situation have you got me into this time? …Ah! The missing horticulturalists.”
There’s an awfully sweet closing scene, too, as they exit in a very blissed-out way on the back of a haycart.

The 1976 Doctor Who story The Seeds of Doom is often said to draw heavily on this, and… Well, obviously, it does. It’s written by Robert Banks Stewart, who also wrote a couple of Avengers episodes in this very same black and white Mrs Peel period, and in it, too, a seed pod from space grows to giant size over a leading horticulturalist’s mansion, our heroes are helped by the military and an eccentric older lady, and the chauffeur doesn’t doff his cap politely. The Doctor and Sarah are even said to be more like Steed and Emma than usual, written as more tough, hard-quipping and even amoral. Despite all that, don’t take people’s word for it when they say ‘…and therefore The Seeds of Doom is like an episode of The Avengers’. The feel of it is quite different, thanks to both the script and the director: it’s far more grim in tone, with a far more macho style than you’d get in The Avengers (or in any other Doctor Who), built on emotion and horror that goes back not to Surrey Green, but the original Quatermass.

Some Avengers fans are put off it by the science fiction elements, and though I don’t think they’re pulled off particularly well – the inadequate special effects of thrusting vines, Mrs Peel spouting so much scientific hokum here that she’s undermined by you starting to wonder if every time she seems so assured and expert she’s really just making it all up (vegetation on the Moon, indeed) – it’s the way the whole thing’s done that lets it down for me. Pretty much all the guest actors are rather dull, in particular the world’s most boring RAF man, though the exception is Athene Seyler’s marvellously batty plant expert Dr Sheldon, who’s an absolute scream:
“And think of the tendrils!”
This isn’t a bad episode, but rather too much just isn’t quite good enough. There are some splendid moments of direction, such as the high shots from the plant’s-eye-view or the sudden darkness as the mansion is covered by vines, but too much of it is rather pedestrian. Much of the music is recycled from other episodes, with most of it that’s new being an ill-advised tuba motif that sounds organic but in a more risible than sinister way; it’s never re-used. The quips are sparse and generally below par (a “herbicidal maniac.” Please). Emma keeps being put in rather frumpy outfits that don’t succeed in making her look businesslike, though her leather dungarees for the climax look a lot better than they sound (Steed, I should say, has that rather natty Edwardian huntsman look again). And suspicious horticulturalist Sir Lyle Peterson initially appears behind the disappearances, and might as well wear a sign saying ‘I’m a maniac’ through his trying-too-hard-to-be-strange mansion with its ivy-covered dollybird mannequins (albeit leading to one of Steed’s few funny quips in this one) with their ‘pretty hair’ – “Yes, real, too,” at which even Steed looks slightly ill. By mid-way, though, he’s established to be under the plant’s control, and while we hear that all the innocent horticulturalists he’s brought under its spell are gruesomely consumed by it, he survives and avoids any comeuppance, despite having evidently been a rather unpleasant character even before the plant got its roots into him.

On the bright side, the climax is otherwise very satisfying, with a splendid if slightly overextended fight between Steed and a possessed Emma; he even gets to throw her over his shoulder, and it’s appropriate that neither ‘win’ but that it’s finished by accident, as their heads knock together and she’s knocked out. And before Steed’s aforementioned shocking solution, there’s some less comic mayhem in the form of his chopping at vines with a machete, and possibly the most violent moment in The Avengers, when the chauffeur is blown away by a shotgun. In the end, though, it’s really rather a mundane episode. I know that sounds a little strange, but very little of the story on screen really grabs your attention: it’s much more memorable for ‘being a bit sci-fi’ than for its actual content. Still, the lead characters are much more interesting than The Outsiders

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