Wednesday, May 13, 2020
The Avengers – The Lost Episodes: The Springers #Fragments
Julian Wadham is John Steed. Anthony Howell is Dr Keel. It’s not The Avengers as you know it. The Springers was broadcast on May 13th 1961 and no longer exists to watch – but as an audio drama, it’s now very satisfying. To break a prison-breaking gang, one Avenger goes undercover deadly seriously while the other goes undercover outrageously. You can guess which. And you can see (or hear) just how The Avengers was on its way…
To Begin With…
“The Avengers is about a man in a bowler hat and a woman who flings men over her shoulders.”…said Patrick Macnee, John Steed. Except that right at the start, it took Mr Macnee a little while to find his bowler, and the lead was another man – Ian Hendry as Dr David Keel. Steed is a shady arm’s-length government agent. Keel is a doctor whose fiancée was murdered by a drugs gang, and who joined up with Steed to avenge her. Together, they fight increasingly weird crime. Early publicity photos, before they’d got the hang of the weirdness, sell the show as mean, moody and chain smoking. This probably didn’t last long, but it’s hard to tell; only three and a third of the first year’s twenty-six episodes survive. For the second year, Ian Hendry leaves, Honor Blackman arrives and television gains a woman lead like no-one ever before, so it’s easy to forget the originals. But now Big Finish have completely remade the first season as audio dramas, so I was able to find out what I was missing: adapted by John Dorney, The Springers opens The Avengers – The Lost Episodes Volume 3), and this is what I thought of it…
The Avengers – The Lost Episodes Volume 3: Anthony Howell intense as Dr Keel; Julian Wadham amused over his shoulder as Steed (with a brolly over his own shoulder to go with his bowler)
“If you are going to handcuff me to a chair, is it too much to ask that it’s a comfortable one? These wicker seats are murder on the back.”
Seeing The Avengers When Hearing The Lost Episodes
You know those perception trick pictures, where some people see a vase and others two faces? I’d always imagined The Avengers’ first year as a completely different show. Gritty, macho, and rather mundane (at least by comparison to what came after). Protection rackets, vice rings, drug deals? All a bit grubby. And sometimes it is. Even on audio, the publicity photos didn’t lie: this story is wreathed in smoke. Several of these Big Finish versions have featured smoking, but here it’s everywhere – from snout inside the nick, to Steed’s fictitious seaman’s pipe being a plot point, to a packet of cigarettes for ‘Dr Fenton’ (in truth Dr Keel) now he’s out, but still locked up and gasping. And yet, the more of Big Finish Lost Episodes I hear, the more I glimpse The Avengers as it will be instead. Patrick Macnee was always the constant through the series on TV, and Julian Wadham is Steed, too. Slightly dull plots are enlivened by sparkling dialogue and suddenly offbeat characters like, say, an undertaker-taxidermist introduced when all you need is anyone with a phone. Some stories leap into technicolour as you listen: Ashes of Roses with its gossip, single entendres and Steed going way beyond louche; Kill the King’s intricate assassination plot and very Avengers creations; most of all, Dead of Winter. I gasped hearing that one – opening on frozen beef, it accelerates into a plot that had it been done at the height of colour Mrs Peel, you’d say, ‘Well, that was pretty ambitious to get away with.’
The Springers is right on the borderline here: the picture keeps changing shape in my head. Serious criminals are being spring from prison, and Dr Keel is put inside as a ringer for crooked Dr Fenton, to be sent down the escape line. The cells are quite gritty, but this end is mostly a bit pedestrian (no kidding). You can sort of see the seeds of Escape In Time (one of the most fabulous Avengers of all), but the actual escape plan isn’t all that exciting or interesting despite Dan Starkey’s One-Ten trying to make it seem important – and does the same screw ‘get clobbered’ every time? Or are they all on the take? One of several shoes that doesn’t drop (like the real Fenton never turning up, an idea followed through later with Mrs Gale in Intercrime).
Then half-way through it does something many later Avengers will (The Hidden Tiger springs to mind) and, having established guest characters and setting, abruptly drops them all for a complete change of faces, places and pace. It’s well-balanced for both the leads – focusing on Keel early on, then having much more fun with more Steed. The plot springs from vicious crooks and Keel threatening each other in their cell to Steed not taking remotely seriously his attempt to infiltrate the Belport College for Young Ladies with a suddenly striking pre-echo of The Avengers to come.
The Avengers Season One publicity photo, 1961: Patrick Macnee is Steed, Ian Hendry Dr Keel, both in trenchcoats, chain smoking, on London’s mean streets
Julian Wadham Is John Steed. Anthony Howell Is A Very Different Dr Keel
I absolutely love Julian Wadham’s John Steed. I never thought anyone else could be the character, but he won me over in his very first episode. This is absolutely the same person as Patrick Macnee, and yet definitively his own take, too, which is remarkably hard to do. Suave (you might say louche), witty, slightly harder yet rather naughty, he’s a charismatic star lead. Anthony Howell’s Dr Keel has a very different approach, but is just as successful. I’m not sure whether Keel is a harder or an easier role? Steed gets all the best lines but has over a decade of fabulous Mr Macnee to be measured against; Keel is less showy but with Ian Hendry’s part much less well-known, there’s more of an opportunity to make it your own. And unlike Wadham, Howell seems to have made a deliberate choice to do that with an interpretation that’s little like the screen version. Keel has a lot in common with Cathy Gale, especially – unsurprising, given that several of her early scripts were initially written for him and the production team made the magnificent decision not to write them down to a ‘woman’s role – something of her rectitude; Steed is playful and mischievous, but the only rule Cathy breaks is gender. As scripted, Keel is moral to the point of priggish, evolves camaraderie with Steed but doesn’t quite trust him and is rigid where Steed’s mercurial. From what we can see, Hendry plays against the lines with an unexpectedly relaxed performance shot with occasional bursts of anger. Howell leans into the lines instead, not just upright but uptight, intense, even obsessive. He relaxes a bit when doctoring, but with this Keel, despite pangs that he may not be being entirely ethical and resentment that Steed enjoys it, there’s always a kernel at the core of his playing that never lets go of, ‘Bastards like these killed the woman I love’, and he’s driven to keep Avenging her.
There’s a lovely moment for both of them where an exceedingly grumpy convict Keel is called to the prison governor’s office, only to find Steed lounging there swapping old school tie stories. When the doctor snipes to Steed that it’s all right for him because he’s never been inside, he’s airily contradicted and, audibly shocked, tells Steed that one day they’ll have to tell each other about their pasts.
If you think of this as an Avengers story from the point of view of the future series, the prison escapes and the crooks involved in them seem very small-time. But from the point of view of Dr Keel’s Avenging, it really clicks into place. Fenton isn’t just a doctor gone wrong, appealing to Keel’s moral sense, but a drug dealer – which sparked the outrage that set Keel on his mission to begin with. Though he’s given much more to do in the first half, Keel’s most electric moment here is close to the end. Having gone through the pipeline, he’s kept locked up again while the Springers wait to verify his identity: when the doctor channels his actual pissed-off-ness with the situation into naturalistically grabbing a gun and threatening the escape-enablers who’ve become his second-jailers, he gains a very dangerous edge.
Steed, on the other hand, is at his best with a comedy scene, a risk that doesn’t quite come off, and an unexpected woman.
It’s not full-on Avengerland camp, but when Steed arrives at a College For Young Ladies, I held my breath at just how awkwardly 1961 this was going to be only to get something much funnier. Thank goodness! It’s between terms, so rather than perving over ‘kinky’ schoolgirls all but one of the young ladies are out of season (a bit at Matron, inevitably) and the episode’s real eye-opener – while Keel’s banged up, Steed’s brought along a young woman agent for the first time. Melanie gets less agency than I’d like (she seems to enter without introduction and leave without sendoff), but it’s a pretty good part raised to a vivid guest star by Miranda Raison, and her proto-Tara is very much a sign of things to come. She even gets champagne. But, best of all, Steed turns up as a Navy man, hilariously overplaying his cover story of needing somewhere to look after his ‘daughter’ while he’s away, like putting his hound into kennels. Then he introduces himself as “Commander Kennelworthy” and I laughed more than was strictly decent. That’s very Steed. So, later, is his dialogue when tied up, baiting Neame first as “diabolically clever” then taunting him for being a third-rate opponent, trying any angle to get his captor off-guard much as you picture him physically wriggling while he does it.
This is the second of what might be a series of Fragments – not-quite-finished, not-quite-polished (I polished it a bit, but the end dangles), from ideas I’ve written up over time and maybe I’ll share some of them anyway. If you’d like more, please let me know, and if you’d like to help, please ask me, ‘Have you at some point written something intriguing about Story / Series X, and could you post it?’ You might pick one that I can (TS;RM [Too Short; Read More]? Here).
Thursday, May 07, 2020
Why I Want to Publish Fragmentary Ideas, and Asking For Your Help #Fragments
TL;DR – I’ve published something. It’s hard. I’d like to do it again. I’m scared. You can help by suggesting what next. If you’re occasionally interested in my writing, please consider it.
Today’s the fifteenth anniversary of the Doctor Who story The Long Game, and I’ve said something about it.
Two other anniversaries of sorts have just flown by. I noticed today that it’s now just over a year since I set up a Patreon, which up until now I have been too ashamed even to mention in public, and it’s more than a month since I tried to prod myself into activity by posting a Twitter thread asking whether anyone might be interested in reading peculiar side-fragments when I’m not up to proper reviews.
For all too many reasons I don’t publish much. In my head I love writing huge, sprawling, fabulously comprehensive and toweringly ambitious articles. In actuality the very prospect of them fills me with terror of failure, while writing anything less fills me with acute actual failure (this is a very abbreviated precis and I have to fight the urge to commit to a deep-dive comprehensive article examining all my self-defeating instincts and behaviours that I will reassuringly never finish rather than publishing this). But I can’t stop myself writing. And sometimes, just occasionally, I accidentally manage to finish something by fooling my brain into thinking that it will never see the light of day and then, horror! Stealing itself from my echoing vaults of notes and publishing before I can stop it. But my brain gets wise to this, and even things I write just for myself are rarely quite finished… Just in case.
Last month I had an idea and plunged it into Twitter, shivering and splashing and trying not to drown. My ambition is to write fantastic long articles again. My practical possibility is that I do actually write peculiar side-fragments when I spot something in, say, a Doctor Who episode and examine it far more closely than sensible. These are extraordinarily unlikely ever to become proper articles, still less coherent parts of the reviews that might justify their existence, but, I thought – and then, intimidatingly, asked – should I blog some of them as fragmentary asides? To which a dozen people encouragingly replied, yes! I should (and as many again pressed ‘Like’). Which was lovely. And utterly terrifying, and I hid, and came up with all sorts of things I should just do first. Though, to give myself an excuse that stands up better than most, right now I am coping rather less well with life in general even than usual.
Today it’s the anniversary of The Long Game, and I found myself reading through some of my notes on it over the years, and I thought, you know, it’s really rather good, and some of my notes aren’t bad, and perhaps rather than my usual single cheering On This Day Tweet I might turn them into a thread?
And after I published it, I realised to my surprise that I’d accidentally done what I’d suggested doing a month ago. Not quite, obviously – my thought was to just grab something slightly interesting and publish it without adding context or polishing it up (laudable ideals that would make it more readable in theory while making it never happen in practice). I couldn’t make myself do that this time (gestures helplessly upwards). But – astoundingly – despite all these delaying ‘improvements’, I still wrote the thread, then published here too.
I know! The usual answer is: panicked by the idea of having actually published something, I will curl into a ball gibbering while my brain works out new strategies to prevent this happening again.
But it might just be something different this time.
If you’d like me to share more of these – I’m tempted to call them ‘Lost Toast’, but I’m tagging them ‘Fragments’ for now – there is a way you can help.
I’ve written a lot of this stuff, in countless files. No, really. You have no idea. And one of the most paralysing things for me is just choosing which to go next. What’s any good? What’s almost nearly potentially oh no not really very ready to publish? What might people like to read? What is least likely to make me feeling exposed and stupid when none of it’s any good? And so on. When people say, ‘Don’t second-guess yourself’, I think, second? Who are the lucky people whose reasons for outvoting themselves are only in single (or double, or quintuple) figures?
So, look. I know that you don’t actually know what I’ve written sort-of interesting things about. But take it from me, that makes it much easier for you to choose, not less.
Please – Suggest the Next One
Ask me. Do I have anything worth saying about—? And I just might.
To prompt you in prompting me, I’ve written an awful lot of observations from an awful lot of angles about an awful lot of Doctor Who.
Pick a story. Could be anything from 1963 to 2020. Definitely won’t be everything from 1963 to 2020. The newer it is the more unlikely I’ll have something thought-provoking written down. This is not for lack of enthusiasm (though my deteriorating mental health doesn’t help there) but because the more I’ve watched, read or listened to a story, the more I’ve read other reviews and bounced off them in completely contrary directions, and simply the more decades I’ve had for an idea to simmer, the more likely it is that I’ll have something insightful or entertaining to say. But like all generalisations, that’s only roughly true. So test your luck.
You’re also quite likely to find I’ve gone into depth on aspects of – off the top of my head (and by ha ha ha no means comprehensive) – other TV, films and books I know I’ve written observations about, from only a couple to very many, including:
- Blake’s 7
- The Avengers
- JRR Tolkien
- James Bond
- Douglas Hill’s Last Legionary
- Thomas Covenant
- Sapphire & Steel
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
And far, more than I can mention right now. Even, occasionally, Miss Marple, Shakespeare and other greats of which, frankly, I know very little but which won’t stop me. Oh. Help. I’ve suddenly fallen into masculinity.
Seriously, I am petrified and I know that it will be hard for me to push myself, but this is the most likely way to get myself to publish anything. Suggestions, requests and a bit of hand-holding really might help. Please comment, email or tweet and I will try to appreciate it.
And if you’re wondering how I managed to write this? I was turning the Twitter thread on The Long Game into an article, and this is the couple of paragraphs of brief explanatory notes. No, it is.
The Next Ones – Published #Fragments
I carried on writing more of them, after all. Here they are (so far):
Doctor Who – The Long Game and Why It’s Better Than You Remember
In the future, fascists and media hostility to immigrants have turned society on itself, crushed asking questions and made life crap. Imagine. It’s funny, scary, clever, political. And yet no-one loves it very much. How ‘the best’ gets in the way.
The Avengers – The Lost Episodes: The Springers
Steed has such an appalling cover name I laughed like a hyena, how early Avengers can seem like an optical illusion, and the biggest difference between TV and Big Finish Dr Keels (it’s not the beard).
Doctor Who – The Savages: SJW Since 1966
Doctor Who has always been political, yet media and some fans explode it’s now ‘ruined’ by ‘suddenly’ turning Social Justice Warrior. Back in 1966, the Doctor upset a bunch of fans who just didn’t get it, condemned an unequal society, and gave the villain a piece of his mind.
Doctor Who – The Long Game and Why It’s Better Than You Remember #Fragments
Doctor Who – The Long Game was first broadcast fifteen years ago tonight. In the future, fascists and media hostility to immigrants have turned society on itself, crushed asking questions and made life crap. Imagine. Russell T Davies writes; Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper star; Simon Pegg, Anna Maxwell-Martin, Christine Adams and Tamsin Greig guest. It’s funny, scary, clever, political. And no-one loves it very much.
This started off as a Twitter thread earlier today, which I’ve collated and polished and expanded here into something not quite an article, more than a set of Tweets, but it’s much the same idea: why I love a story that isn’t ‘the best’, and what’s got in the way of loving this story, including ‘the best’.
Doctor Who in 2005 was the great return to TV. It was fresh and new and different. But it was much more than that – Series One, Season Twenty-Seven, The Trip of a Lifetime, whatever you want to call it – was absolutely fantastic. For me, it’s one of the greatest Doctor Who seasons ever made. If I were to rank all thirty-eight in order, it would be very near the top (I say ‘If’ to distance myself from the fact that that’s what I do, and I love to do it, and for the record, it’s at number three). Heralded by the most fantastic trailer I’ve ever seen, opening with the perfect introduction, brightly optimistic yet steeped in death, I adore it.
The Long Game is part of that season, so why doesn’t it get more love? This is the least-loved story in one of Doctor Who’s most marvellous years.
…Which answers itself, really. We make lists, and relative positions don’t do it any favours. Ranking ‘the best’ means there must be a worst!
I confess I tend to rank it lower than the rest of the season, too. But this season is fantastic. It’s not just that the pressure of making a list forces us to think of the least as much less than it deserves; for me, this Doctor Who season is terrific for its joy, for its thematic power, for its look, for its leads – for so many reasons, but one reason is its (ahem, relative) rarity in having many highs yet no lows at all. Looking at my really, really big list of all 297 TV Doctor Who adventures, this one still makes the top half, and for me stories well below the top half are brilliant, too. So the habit of thinking ‘But which story this year is the designated crap one?’ has long warped people’s view of The Long Game.
I’ve got another theory as well.
Every other Ninth Doctor story glows gorgeously. Beyond even the design and the travels in time and space, the whole season looks like nothing else on TV. For just this one story, the director turns down the filter on the lens and it looks a bit ordinary. Is that why, subconsciously, people don’t warm to it?
This takes a risk with being a deliberate let-down (and even having the Doctor say so): the off-the-Pegg familiar clothes, the burgers, the everyone-only-humans… After glamorous, glorious The End of the World, it’s disappointing to go into the future and find it’s only like now. But it’s too easy to be too busy saying ‘This is a bit rubbish’ to realise that’s the clue.
I love how the episode outright has people say ‘This is a clue!’ several times – most strikingly when Rose, like Arthur Dent, spots something crucial in the temperature that the blasé long-time traveller didn’t list – to distract us from the whole story being just that. It’s a story in itself, but it’s one big clue.
The unseen villains hate aliens; they can alter time; the moral is ‘ask questions’. Once, a Doctor Who story called asking questions “The Human Factor” – in contrast to…
For me one of the biggest questions for the Liberal Democrats [keep reading, this is less of a swerve than it seems] is where to put the emphasis between two often complimentary, sometimes rival ideals when the party needs both but can only lead on one – call them moderate and Liberal, kindness and fighter, love and liberty, ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ and ‘Stand up to bullies.’
Doctor Who inspired my politics, as so much else of my life, so I tend to think of Doctor Who’s politics in a similar way. Pretty much the series’ founding moral is to pit itself against fascism, but even when stories raise difficult questions, its default tends more towards ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ 2005 Doctor Who is striking in that it often looks the audience uncomfortably in the face instead. Perhaps it’s braver in this year than once it knows it’s a success because knowing this might be your only chance to make a difference makes you burn brighter than when you’re doing comfortably and don’t want to lose what you have.
The Long Game starkly tells us that blaming immigrants, enforcing conformity and asking no questions moulds a meaner, smaller, stagnant society.
So this message is sharper – and it’s not just a message, but a clue: who in the whole series is most famous for hating aliens?
This is very much part 2 of Dalek: Adam becomes Van Statten In Space, exploiting rather than exploring wonders; beginning and ending, to the point, with the TARDIS; the very rich are very bad.
Though of course, this week, the Daleks aren’t behind it all.
[Looks to camera]
This is also Russell T Davies’s answer to Genesis. No – not ‘of the Daleks’. The other one.
Eve has been offered knowledge, then with it she’s discovered things for herself and generously wants to share.
Adam wants to steal everything, won’t take responsibility and blames someone else when it all goes wrong.
Adam is thrown out of paradise.
And the gods above don’t want you asking questions, which is why they’re wrong.
The Doctor’s companions really didn’t use to faint all the time, but I enjoy the shorthand:
‘This is not the Doctor Who you expected’ – the only one who faints is a man;
‘Adam’s fall’ – before viewers can ask ‘Shouldn’t his name be in the titles?’, with brutal economy Russell’s already shown us why not.
A dystopian future with Anna Maxwell-Martin as one of “The Freedom Fifteen”!
Which makes me smile, because now I imagine her starring in ‘Enid Blyton’s Blake’s 7’.
Plus Simon Pegg and the Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrajassic Maxaraddenfoe (but you can call him Max).
I’d loved every episode of this fresh new series (still do, and possibly even more than I did in 2005). I didn’t need it to be old-style Doctor Who… But this enormously entertaining week I found out I was still a sucker for a cackling, scenery-chewing villain with a beard.
The Doctor’s pointed
“Don’t you even ask?”will never date in a story which, in its broader swipes at the media with ‘Max’ in charge, couldn’t be any more ’80s if there was a giant blancmange, living on the ceiling.
“Why should I?”
“You’re a journalist!”
…I’ll get my coat.
One of the crucial themes here is that you shouldn’t just trust what you’ve been told; go out and find the answers for yourself. Almost the first line sets up in three words the story’s moral, the clue to what’s gone wrong, and even the closing gag: “Open your mind.” Even the Doctor comes a cropper with history he ‘knows’ – he assumes this period will have intellectual curiosity, fine cuisine and different cultures. He’s expecting BBC4, and gets Bad Fox.
A final thought on Season Twenty-Seven, and something a shock-reveal on Floor 500 made me realise first time round: from Autons as plastic cadavers to Gelth wraiths to Slitheen wearing literal body-suits to a Dalek coming back from the greatest slaughter in history, this season’s been full of the living dead – and this time, dead men do nothing but tell tales (and pull your leg). No wonder the Doctor’s got massive survivor’s guilt.
The Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrajassic Maxaraddenfoe, a huge maw roaring down from the ceiling
This is the first of what might be a series of Fragments – not-quite-finished, not-quite-polished, but I’ve written up ideas over time and maybe I’ll share some of them anyway. If you’d like more, please let me know, and if you’d like to help, please ask me, ‘Have you at some point written something intriguing about Story X, and could you post it?’ You might pick one that I can (TS;RM [Too Short; Read More]? Here).
And a small thank you to the lovely Brendan @brandybongos, who is making Fifteen Years Later YouTube videos for this season and – as well as their being delightful and insightful – by asking for people to write in with comments, inspired me to go back and look at what I’d thought over the years about The Long Game.