Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Pretty Dangerous Way of Making a Living (Girl on the Trapeze)

location:  Emma Peel Bonus Disc (also available in the 17-disc 2006 Emma Peel Collector’s Megaset but not the 16-disc 2001 Emma Peel Megaset)
airdate:  11 February 1961

[As always:  SPOILERS BELOW.]

A live woman jumps into the river.  Moments later, a dead woman is fished out of it.  But are they the same woman?

This episode, the sixth one broadcast and the first to survive in its entirety, was written by Dennis Spooner, who would later work on such shows as Doctor Who, The Baron, and Remington Steele;  the episode was long believed to have been transmitted live and so never recorded – until a recording showed up in 2001. 

In one respect, “Girl on the Trapeze” is even less like the show that The Avengers would eventually become than “Hot Snow” was:  namely, Steed isn’t even in it.  But in numerous other respects it makes significant advances toward the show’s future:  a) the plot involves international intrigue, not just ordinary crime (the point of the switcheroo is to kill a potential Soviet Bloc defector and smuggle out a hostage in her stead); b) the main setting (a circus) is an attempt at an unusual, visually interesting location (even if, thanks to budgetary constraints, all we really see of the circus is a twitchy clown, a few sad-looking animals in cages, and some brief clips of stock footage); c) the plot events are likewise quirkily strange (women’s bodies, whether living or dead, multiply interchangeably, as #1 is switched for #2, #2 for #3, #3 for #4, and #4 for #1 again); and, most portentously, d) Ian Kendry’s Keel is partnered with a female investigator, Carol Wilson, who despite inheriting the is-she-a-nurse-or-a-receptionist? role from the murdered assistant in “Hot Snow,” happily gets to do more than just get menaced and/or rescued (though she gets to do those things too). 

While Wilson (played by Ingrid Hafner, who had a somewhat similar role opposite Hendry in Police Surgeon, the semi-predecessor to The Avengers) is less of an action hero than her successors, she does get a couple of action-hero moments (the first one is supposed to be a surprise twist, though it takes little imagination to see it coming, particularly if one keeps Chekhov’s Rule in mind).  Keel does behave somewhat patronisingly toward Wilson – but in a way that, as I read those scenes, does not seem to have the show’s endorsement.  The move toward a partnership of equals progresses slowly ....

Until next time, keep the champagne cold and your bowler on!

Friday, December 16, 2011

I’m Afraid the Girl Will Have to Go (Hot Snow)

location:  Emma Peel Bonus Disc (also available in the 17-disc 2006 Emma Peel Collector’s Megaset but not the 16-disc 2001 Emma Peel Megaset)
airdate:  7 January 1961

[I include the Amazon links mainly for informational reasons; you can often find the sets more cheaply elsewhere, for example on eBay.  It is to be hoped that A&E will eventually bring the series back into print.

This is my blog about The Avengers.  If you want my blog about Danger Man / The Prisoner, click here.]

In the early 1960s most British tv shows were shot on videotape rather than film (even as the American market had largely gone over to film, especially for dramatic series aired in prime time).  Video had its disadvantages – it didn’t look as good, and it was (at that time) much more difficult to edit, meaning that shows essentially had to be shot in continuous sequence, almost as though they were live broadcasts (though in a medium that still relied heavily on actually live broadcasts, and where most of the actors came from a theatrical background, this constraint was largely taken in stride). But video also had the important advantage of being significantly less expensive than film – hence its popularity in a Britain still recovering from the postwar austerity of the 50s.

Unfortunately, one of the reasons that videotape was less expensive was that, unlike film, it could be reused.  In a culture of live performance, and in the absence of a home video market (or of technology enabling same), it became standard practice to show an episode once and then tape over it.  As a result, thousands of episodes from this period are lost forever.  (The devastation thereby inflicted on the Hartnell and Troughton eras of Doctor Who is especially well-known.)

The first season of The Avengers was one of the victims of this practice.   A few episodes were actually broadcast live and so never recorded, while most were recorded but then later taped over or otherwise destroyed.  Thus out of 26 episodes, only two (together with the first 15 minutes of a third) survive.  For some reason, these surviving episodes are available (in North America at least) only on the Emma Peel Bonus Disc, despite having absolutely nothing to do with Emma Peel.

Indeed these early episodes are about as far from the familiar Emma Peel era as one can get.  To begin with, the main character is a Dr. David Keel, while Steed gets second billing and no ass-kicking female partner is in sight at all. (Ian Hendry, the actor playing Keel, had played a somewhat similar character in the earlier show Police Surgeon – another victim of reused videotape, as only one episode from that series survives.)  The production values are noticeably lower (the Emma Peel era, filmed rather than taped, would owe its bigger budget and consequently slicker look to the American market), and the shows are more realistic, with none of the surrealism and self-referencing that would later come to characterise the show.

In those later years, the show would develop a highly stylised format, and all elements that might remind the viewers (i.e. white middle-class viewers, presumably) too much of gritty reality were officially prohibited to the scriptwriters.  The list of prohibitions would famously range from the repugnant (no black characters) to the baffling (no uniformed policemen).  (The fact that two of Steed’s first partners would be an actress named Blackman and a character named Dr. Martin King – both white of course – is a strange irony.)  Two of the chief elements of this first episode – drug use, and female murder victims – would likewise be excluded, the first implicitly and the second explicitly.  (If the title “Hot Snow” had shown up during the Emma Peel era, it would almost certainly have been a reference to a diabolical weather-control plot, not a drug reference.)

“Hot Snow” begins with what looks eerily like a scene from the opening sequence of The Prisoner, with an ominous black car pulling up beside a building in a London street.  A man emerges and breaks into the building, which turns out to house the office of two doctors – our Dr. Keel and his senior partner, Dr. Tredding – and an assistant, Peggy Stephens, who works for both and is engaged to Keel.  (It was unclear to me whether Stephens was simply a receptionist or also a nurse.  Katherine Woodville, the actress who played Stephens, would later make the mistake of marrying Macnee.)  The burglar is after a shipment of drugs that was accidentally delivered to this address; unable to retrieve it, but learning that Stephens remembers the man who delivered it, he reports back to his gang and they decide to kill Stephens so that she’ll be unable to identify the deliverer once the package is identified as drugs.  (The gang is an interesting set of characters – a thug, a nervous wimp, and a dandy who frequents jewelry shops, all reporting by telephone to a criminal mastermind of whom we see only the hands, holding and petting a dog.  This is often supposed to be a Blofeld reference, but that is chronologically impossible; “Hot Snow” came first.)  Keel and Stephens meet to pick out an engagement ring, a drive-by shooter picks Stephens off , and she collapses in Keel’s arms, dead.

And there it ends, for “Hot Snow” is the episode I mentioned of which only the first fifteen minutes survive.  Fifteen Steed-less minutes, I should add; Patrick Macnee’s first scene as Steed has been lost. 

We do know roughly what happens next.  In the course of investigating his fiancée’s death, Keel runs across Steed, who is investigating the same gang in his capacity as government agent.  Steed inveigles Keel into a plot to infiltrate the drug gangs.  By the end of the second episode (entirely lost), the murderers have been brought to justice, Peggy’s murder has been avenged (hence the name of the show, which makes sense for the first two episodes but never again), and Steed and Keel have agreed to work together from time to time in the future.

(Keel – like Cathy Gale after him, and Emma Peel after her – would not be working for Steed or his (never named) organisation; Steed’s partners were all, in the words of the later American intro, “talented amateurs,” i.e. unpaid freelancers.  And although we would occasionally meet Steed’s code-named superior, until the Tara King years Steed would often appear to be working entirely on his own authority.)

Given that The Avengers would later be famous for its indomitable heroines, it’s notable that the show’s first female character, though evidently intelligent and assertive (indeed the gang members comment that she’s no fool), is an utterly passive victim killed off in the first act – in effect, a “woman in the fridge,” that is, a female character who exists only to be killed as a plot device to motivate the hero.  Things would get better.

It’s frustrating that we can’t see the beginnings of Macnee’s characterisation of Steed.  Macnee has frequently commented on the singularly uninformative direction the script gave him for his first appearance – “Steed stands there” – and how it gave him the freedom to shape the character as he liked.  Hendry’s insistence that he and Macnee should attempt to add more dimensionality to their episodes than was explicit in the scripts was something that Macnee would continue with his subsequent co-stars.

Although the suave and urbane wit which would characterise the show at its height is not much on display in “Hot Snow,” the lost portion of the episode did apparently contain the following exchange:
KEEL:  How did you get in?
STEED: Through the window.  My apologies.
KEEL:  Please don’t mention it.
(Reported in Patrick Macnee, The Avengers and Me, p. 20.)

Until next time, keep the champagne cold and your bowler on!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

All the Bodies We’ve Had In the Past

The 1960s and 1970s in British television were a golden age for science fiction shows like Doctor Who, spy shows like Danger Man, and shows like The Prisoner that combined elements of both. The latter description covers The Avengers as well; but The Avengers differs from the other shows just mentioned in a crucial particular:  while dvds of Danger ManThe Prisoner, and Doctor Who remain in print, dvds of The Avengers do not — in North America, at least — and so have become absurdly expensive rarities. (This is especially puzzling because in North America The Avengers has traditionally been the best known and most popular of the lot.)  That’s a shame, since this delightful show deserves to enjoy the same kind of resurgence as its cousins.

Most of us probably associate The Avengers with the iconic duo of Patrick Macnee as John Steed and Diana Rigg as Emma Peel.  It’s easy to forget that Steed was not originally the male lead, and that Peel was Steed’s partner for just two seasons out of six (or out of eight, if we count The New Avengers).  Nevertheless, the Emma Peel years are justly regarded as representing the show at its height – not just because Peel is the audience’s favourite among Steed’s partners (though partly for that reason of course), but also because it was in the Emma Peel years that the show most fully achieved its distinctive tone and feel.  (It’s also true that the pre-Peel episodes did not play widely outside Britain.)  The surrealism, self-referentiality, metatextual parody, and ironic distancing that characterised The Avengers at its height would hardly have been foreseen by viewers of the earliest episodes.

(Just to be clear, this show has no connection to the later Marvel comic book and now movie franchise The Avengers, apart from the fact that both titles seem ill-chosen; in each case the protagonists’ chief concern seems to be prevention and defense rather than retribution.)

The Avengers was the brainchild of producer Sydney Newman, who would go on two years later to develop Doctor Who.  (So yes, two of Britain’s most iconic shows were dreamt up by a Canadian!)  But just as Doctor Who drifted a bit from Newman’s original vision (for example, his strict no-space-monsters policy was, shall we say, not always rigorously adhered to), so did The Avengers, beginning as a realistic crime thriller and then gradually transmogrifying into something quite different.

It’s sometimes said that The Avengers started off as a drama and then became a comedy.  I don’t think “comedy” is quite the right term for what the show became; but it’s easily mistaken for a comedy, because a) it is quite funny, and b) it comments on and subverts genre conventions.  Neither of these features would be sufficient on its own to get the show labeled a comedy, but when the two are combined, the category of “spoof” naturally suggests itself.  But while the show does frequently spoof the spy and sf genres, I still maintain that a spoof is not what The Avengers primarily is, because the goal is not so much laughs as a total spectacle, and the message is not “how funny these people are!” but “how utterly cool they are!”

Notice how in this opening credits sequence it’s obvious that the characters (not just the actors) are quite consciously constructing and performing their identities; and the freedom and exuberance with which they carry off their acts of style and self-definition is far more a focus of the show than the actual details of plot:

The Avengers parodies not just other shows but itself; and here I don’t mean “self-parody” in the usual sense where a show’s or artist’s later work parodies their earlier work. On the contrary, what’s being parodied is often the very conditions of the show itself. Just two examples: thanks to broadcast standards, the characters couldn’t be falling into bed every few minutes à la James Bond; but rather than switching to the opposite extreme of, say, Danger Man, where it’s clear that no sex is ever going to happen, the teasing ambiguity of the flirtation and innuendo between the two leads in The Avengers – is their relation romantic/sexual or not? – simply thematises the very prohibition on addressing that question that was imposed on the show. Another example: the weird fighting style the characters use is not just an adaptation to, but (methinks) a kind of mockery of, the broadcast-standards prohibition on people actually getting punched.

The following clip is a nice introduction to the style and character dynamics of the show, even though, as pure spoof with no vestige of realism, it’s not representative of the show. That’s because it’s not actually from the regular show; rather, it’s a standalone promo for the show’s first season in colour. (The “punchline” seems more Bondy than Steedy, I have to say.)

Even in this pure comedy skit, what’s being parodied and commented on is not just the conventions of the spy genre or of this show in particular, but specifically the show’s very tendency to parody and comment on those conventions.  Since what the skit is parodying is the show’s own tendency toward self-parody, the skit is in effect a continuation and intensification of, rather than an external comment on, its object.  

(If I were a German philosopher I would probably say something like:  
Here the subject and object of the Idea are one ... for whereas in Nature the intelligent unity has its objectivity perfect but externalized, this self-externalization has been nullified and the unity in that way been made one and the same with itself.
But don’t worry, I’ll resist.)

My aim in creating this blog (a separate project from my regular blog) is to blog my way through all the (surviving) Avengers episodes, from 1961 to 1969, as well as the revived version of the show in 1976-1977.  (I suppose I’ll have to say something about the wretched 1998 film as well, though that post will make a sad ending to the project.) There are more episodes I haven’t seen than ones I have, so this will be in large part new territory for me.  In addition to being a science fiction geek, I’m both a professional philosopher and an individualist anarchist, and my commentaries will no doubt be affected by all three perspectives.

I make no promises as to the frequency of updates.