Friday, December 19, 2008


The New Avengers – Target!

It’s New Avengers night again on BBC4, and if ever there was an episode of The New Avengers to watch, try this one. I don’t mean it’s the best – it certainly isn’t – but if you tune in at 11pm, you’ll find arguably the most memorable of them. There’s a great central conceit of an ordinary street that’s really a target range that shoots back and kills you… Just not in the way you think. On the down side, that visually striking concept’s about all there is to it, but there’s a lot of fun in looking at it. It was even, er, homaged as the opening scene of The Avengers movie ten years ago and, wonderfully, it’s one of the bits they didn’t make a mess of (if you have the movie, look out also, particularly, for bits of The Town of No Return – some carried off decently, some utterly flat – and a complete failure of remaking The House That Jack Built).
“Yes, but it’s the one per cent that kills you.”
Perhaps the only thing that prevents this being the archetypal New Avengers episode is that it’s the last outing for the original titles, a mix of action sequences that’s nowhere near as memorable as the mighty CGI morphing British lion cranked up by mid-’70s supercomputers. If you want a distillation of The Avengers’ and The New Avengers’ later clichés, though, this is terrific. There’s one of the most definitive and postmodern ‘AvengerLand’ settings, with masses of location filming at a location that looks like a real village, but turns out to be as artificial as a film set. The pre-titles sequences opens with an array of British icons: a red telephone box; a London bus stop; a TARDIS… And can that be our heroes shooting at the desperate victims? Well, no, it doesn’t fool you for an instant, but it’s a fabulously bizarre set of images, anyway. Skipping to the end, there’s a particularly good use of ‘the villain killed with his own weapon’, and it’s an unusually good moment for Gambit, too. There’s ‘a traitor in the Department’ – a whole, improbable nest of them. And, above all, that ultimate Tara King and New Avengers cliché of ‘an Agent staggering in and dropping dead’ gets as big an outing here as you could ever want. If their Department was as small as the one in Spooks, Britain would be in crisis.

A Memorable Twist (But More Memorable Than Twisty)

Usually I try not to spoil even the most wafer-thin plot, but it’s really not a hard one to spot. Before even the theme cuts in, we’ve seen an agent on the shooting range that shoots back and then, gosh, dying, followed by (can you guess?) another agent on the shooting range that shoots back and then, gosh, keeling over in freeze-frame in the doctor’s surgery. Most of the direction, incidentally, is great, from a former stuntman, but after thrilling scenes in the village of death, someone falling over next to a doctor is perhaps not the most exciting image to go into the titles with. Still, that’s only a small complaint, and the military music it’s all set to works rather well, too. The main problem is, you can probably work out even from my summary of the opening sequence what the mysterious link between the deaths of top agents might be – and you’ll find it difficult to believe that our heroes, despite mysteriously dying agent number three even ringing them up and telling them “I’m already dead” and their taking mysteriously dying agent number four directly from the scene of the crime, it’s only after mysteriously dying agent number five and towards the end of the episode that our heroes finally realise that there might be something a tiny bit iffy about the firing range fake village. It’s not the most obvious mystery in the history of television (my beloved Richard would probably put in a bid for the second episode of Star Trek: Voyager, which we watched in company and at which he yawned and announced the ‘twist’ after about thirty seconds flat, after which the series never really engaged our interest again), but it has a good stab at it.

The trick is, of course – and look away now if you’ve switched your brain off – that though the agents being tested on the Department’s special firing range are shooting at all the animatronic targets on it, they’re being targeted at the same time, and the little red dots that the dummies fire back are – gasp! – less innocent than they seem. They’re actually just the back end of tiny darts of ice with a tincture of curare, and the entire staff of the firing range appear to be in on it. Although it’s apparently all paid for by the USSR cough, an unnamed rival organisation represented by someone called “Colonel Ilenko”, it’s actually a shining example of private enterprise: the villain came up with this brilliant idea and clearly undercut all the other bidders when the Department’s agents’ training course was outsourced. It does make you wonder about the security services’ security, though.
“The better the agent –”
“The longer he takes to die.”
“And the less likelihood of them ever tracing back to the cause of death.”
All the scenes of agents taking the test are gripping, thanks to athletic actors – the star of the show is, of course, Joanna Lumley’s Purdey, who not only gets 99% on the test (Steed having previously got 100% three times, with an appropriate suspicion of cheating) but demonstrates fantastic reflexes with a pencil – along with vivid direction and such a large, intricate outdoor setting that it doesn’t get too repetitive. While it’s a feast for your eyes, though, you have to turn your brain off, and not just because it takes the team so long to spot the bleedin’ obvious.

Your Dosage May Vary

The whole idea is that, with just tiny, melting darts of curare, agents receive such a small dose that it takes days for them to die, and apparently of natural causes – and, because most of the agents on the range are so good, they hardly ever get hit and so receive very few doses. The trouble is, though initially this makes a certain amount of sense, and when (through Gambit’s practical joke going just a touch wrong) one of the villains receives a dozen hits and expires on the spot you can at least see that he’s had a great many more doses than usual, towards the end all the rules seem to be torn up to try and raise the tension. Suddenly, the dosage is all over the place, as one shot can kill you instantly when needed, or not when it isn’t – why else does Gambit have to pass at 100% to get the antidote for Purdey and Steed? And as for the antidote… Well, Colonel Illenko’s been swigging the stuff all day, but when he gets shot, the one dose kills him in seconds. And the dying Bradshaw, the training centre operator who Gambit inadvertently shoots full of curare and who collapses at Gambit’s feet, tells Gambit he’s already dead if Gambit doesn’t go and get him the antidote in Steed’s hat. Now, at this point you’d expect Gambit might guess what was up, but no – anyway, later on he remembers this and goes to find one of the Steed mannequins to look for the bottle of antidote in the bowler. Better late than never, you might think, but on the way, passing through the firing range as they try their best to kill him (now, apparently, instantaneously), he fires at a Steed figure and apologises, then rushes on. But that one’s got a hat, just like all the others. Mike, how do you manage to head straight for the one hat that’s got the bottle in it? Have you read the script? It won’t surprise you to see that the best moment with a Steed’s hat does not, in fact, involve Gambit at all, but a woozy Steed who, staggering along fighting against the poison, feels undressed (ironically, for a celebrity naturist) and takes the dummy’s hat as he goes by.

This is also one of those New Avengers episodes that make Mike Gambit the lead. He’s not bad, exactly, but he does sometimes seem to have stepped out of a crasser series, and he’s easily the least interesting of the three main characters. The climax is largely built around his prowess on the course and his compelling eyes, or so the camera wants to tell us, and it’s an early fetish the series will soon outgrow. The episode as a whole features a great deal of male bonding between Steed and Gambit, racing horses to answer the phone or both being very alpha male over Purdey, which isn’t terribly successful. As I’ve previously written, this all means that Purdey tends to take a back seat – literally, in this case. With three Avengers and Steed made the older one who uses his brain (not much, here) and Gambit the butch one who handles the action, that really doesn’t leave Purdey much to do, so it’s all the more impressive that Joanna Lumley still grabs so much of this episode, even in a lime-green thing that’s just not her colour. But though she’s great on the firing range, her impractical skirts naturally have to be pegged up to show as much thigh as possible, and the script also makes clear she’s there less as a character than as a sex object. As usual, everyone fancies her. Dishy but doomed agent Malcolm Stoddard (you may remember him as a double – or triple? – agent being seduced and stabbed by Servalan in Blake’s 7, or more recently a Zygon on BBC7) is rather good, given that his part consists of little more than ‘drool over Purdey, fire your gun and collapse’, but after Purdey gets her own dose of curare, even her part’s reduced to Steed and Gambit fighting to see who can save her in the most macho way, and someone for the camera to pan up when she’s in her lingerie.

The main villains, at least, are rather fun. Underplayed almost as enjoyably as his Captain Striker in Doctor Who, Keith Barron’s languid entrepreneur Draker runs off with every scene he’s in (rather than Avengers histrionics or Cold War coldness, he seems to have stepped in from the ’80s to focus on the bottom line), aided by Deep Roy, who you may remember as Mr Sin from The Talons of Weng-Chiang or an entire tribe of Tim Burton Oompa-Loompas. Here, to no-one’s surprise, he’s the mute South American pygmy Kloekoe who’s supplied the curare, a device that was hoary in Sherlock Holmes stories, though he gets a great moment on a tricycle and a nicely delivered death scene. Robert Beatty’s Colonel Ilenko is a little strange, with a Russian naturally being played by an American, necessitating some rather forced exposition about his fake identity as “Paul Molloy”, and the marvellous Frederick Jaeger (who, despite being in both 1960s Cybernaut episodes, wasn’t hired for the earlier New Avengers tale The Last of the Cybernauts…??) had his part mostly rained off, replaced by the quite decent Roy Boyd as the one who gets accidentally killed by Gambit.

The members of the Department who aren’t in on the conspiracy, however, are a waste of space. Well, all right, I quite liked Mr Stoddard’s George Myers, but surely the least useful character is John Paul as the world’s most incompetent doctor, certifying people as in disgustingly good health and likely to live until ninety just before they keel over and expire, then calling it natural causes and blaming it on the service. I’m glad Dr Kendrick’s not my GP. Would you not think that a doctor working for a top secret organisation with an improbably high casualty rate would think five fit and healthy agents dying of exactly the same “natural causes” inside of a month, one in front of his eyes, might have something in common besides stress, especially as he’s not diagnosed any stress? Oh, but wait – perhaps he’s not the most useless character, when the (fortunately confined to one scene) guy in charge of Departmental records goes to absurd lengths to try and stop Gambit consulting any, let alone walking off with them. And he’s a comedy effeminate nerd who shouts “rape!” which is a contender for least tasteful moment in any Avengers episode (unfortunately, most of those are in The New Avengers) and makes you quite glad that the ’70s were thirty years ago. Quite apart from that gobsmacking piece of crassness, watching it in 2008 you find yourself wishing that the people in charge of today’s databases would be so desperate not to let anyone peek at them. It’s all a huge relief, then, when Steed goes outside the Department to consult the eccentric Professor Lopez, once a marvellous Pirate Captain in Doctor Who and here a proper Avengers obsessive, living in his own microclimate indoor jungle. Given the danger that Steed’s gone to ask him about, though, wouldn’t you be just a little worried when he absently slaps his neck?

Anyway, it’s all rather fun if rather dim. It’s got a great central idea, though you wish it would have a few other ideas along the way to support it, and it looks terrific. There’s a good spread of actors bounding about, and it even blows up a TARDIS. So, if you want to see one of the few New Avengers episodes that people actually remember, take a look on BBC4 at 11 tonight, and there’s a rather sweet tribute to Oliver Postgate from Charlie Brooker just afterwards…

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