Sunday, 3 November 2013

The Avengers: Season 6 Episode 10 Noon Doomsday

First broadcast (UK) 27th November 1968
This is one of the series 6 Avengers episodes by Terry Nation that are pastiches of famous films, in this case High Noon, in which a town marshall is forced to take on a gang of killers by himself. I'm going to admit that I can't sit through Westerns, so I haven't actually seen High Noon. This synopsis draws on the film's Wikipedia page. The town's longterm marshall has turned in his badge after marrying a Quaker, but the townsfolk hear that a criminal he has brought to justice is coming back to town to seek revenge. The marshall is the only real target of the criminal, but the other twonsfolk prepare to leave in fear of what he may do to them. The marshall reclaims his badge and goes back to the town, despite the entreaties of various people as they leave, to face his opponent. Ultimately he is totally unassisted in the showdown, until his wife abandons her pacifist beliefs to go back and support him.
The Avengers episode borrows the main feature of the plot and also uses many of the film's cinematic devices: the action takes place in real time, and it also borrows the film's slow build up to the ultimate show down. Interestingly this Western film that the Avengers pastiches is a rather unusual as a Western and was criiticised by audiences on its release: it does not feature many of the classic features of Western films but relies more heavily on depictions of emotional and moral dialogue. Ironically these are exactly the aspects that the Avengers episode picks up and runs with; rather than being an Avengers episode based on a chase or a definite problem to be solved, such as Take Me To Your Leader, it becomes a fable about reliance, heroism and weakness. I am particularly interested by the different light in which it paints Mother: my interpretation is that this episode paints Mother as a flawed character, instead of his usual blustering that he is surrounded by incompetence (e.g. in Killer and Super Secret Cypher Snatch), when he is usually proved right, in this episode he makes a colossal mistake while relaxing in Steed's flat.
The High Noon reference is made abundantly clear at the by Steed's enemy Kafka's sidekicks arriving at an abandoned railway station near Department S where Steed is convalescing, on horseback. The intention to kill John Steed at 12 noon is announced. Mother is meanwhile having his collection of telephones unpacked in Steed's flat by Rhonda. He comments that what he values most about her is her complete noiselessness. Already Mother is pictured in the pursuit or admiration of pleasure - he asks Rhonda to silence the phones - rather than duty. When the phone does ring and it is Tara King, Mother is his normal cantankerous self - Tara even comments that she knows he doesn't sound like Steed because he sounds tetchy and irritable. He tells Tara that he is staying in Steed's flat while his own chambers - chambers trumping apartment, the word used for Steed's - are being repaired, all the time admiring the contents of Steed's drinks cabinet. He arranges for Tara to go to visit Steed at Department S, threatening her that if she is a half second early or late she will die. At the end he picks up one of Steed's decanters with evident pleasure in his face.
Tara goes to Department S in a black taxi, contrasting her as the city girl to the 'cowboys'' arrival on horseback. Mother picks up the phone and receives news of an escaped criminal. His security countdown for Tara to enter Department S is counted on the drinks he has lined up on the desk in front of him. Throughout this sequence Mother is pictured as a man with heavy responsiblities who is nonetheless equally heavily in search of pleasure. The various security measures around Department S, as well as the fact they have been turned off for Tara to enter, are made clear as she enters, and are reactivated and tested when she is inside. Mother's pursuit of pleasure is mirrored by the fact that Tara takes Steed a bottle of champagne as a present, disguised in a bunch of flowers, and which Tara describes as 'grapes'. It is also significant that it is the contents of Steed's drinks cabinet that Mother is drinking, although Mother and Steed are pictured as quite different characters in this episode.
Steed comments that the head of security at Department S is a nice man - surely Steed-speak indicative of high worth - and asks Tara what is more vulnerable than a wounded agent, making explicit the value placed on these men by the elaborate security measures put in place to protect them.
The head of security rightly feels a bit jumpy because the defences have been let down. The doctor insists to him that there is nothing to worry about, actually because of the defences in place. In this section of the episode both the doctor and another convalescent agent comment appreciatively on Tara King's presence.
While Steed and Tara are talking the head of secruity is quite literally strung up by persons unseen. Steed tells Tara that his wound was caused by an accident while chasing a suspected saboteur - it is down played as falling through a cucmber frame but nonetheless Steed has been injured in the line of duty - he is selfless and a hero.
Steed and Tara notice there is something wrong, when they find the phone doesn't work. Tara finds the head of security missing, and his emergency radio transmitter smashed. Steed looks worried, clearly suspecting that there is something wrong within Department S. The location for the baddies can be somewhat ambivalent in the Avengers: ultimately the representatives of the establishment win and preserve the status quo, but since this episode has a theme of ambivalent characters, it is only fitting that there should be a traitor within the one place in which the convalescent agents should be safe. This ambivalence is immediately reinforced when a sinister-looking French agent with an eye patch prevents Tara from wandering into the mine field. Steed asks one of the doctors whether there is a spare key to the defence system, aware that the agents are effectually prevented from getting about by the loss of the head of security.
The scene returns to Mother commenting favourably on Steed's cellar. He is told by phone that Kafka has escaped. And this is where he makes his colossal error, by assuming that by virtue of being at Department S Steed is safe: 'Good thing he happens to be in the only place where no-one can get at him'. Steed is aware that Kafka has escaped by an opera ticket for seven years before sent him. The other agents express their fear of Kafka. Tara makes the same mistake as Mother: assuming that nobody can get in because the defence system is still operational. It is clear that they have lost control of the defences and there is a traitor in the department.
Tara exerts herself to protect Steed from the enemy within the camp. It is plain that she is not an ambivalent character, her motivation is clearly to put Steed first throughout the episode, in fact she really comes into her own as a character in this episode: sometimes she can seem to be almost in Steed's shadow. The criticism of the choice of Thorson to play King - that she was too young and it placed quite a different dynamic on her relationship with STeed over that of the other Avengers girls - is to my mind true. It remains similar here, Steed is the thinker, but flawed by virtue of being injured. He also stresses to Tara that she cannot rely on the other agents to help, for the simple reason that they are all hors de combat in one way or another. Tara appeals at length to the convalescent agents to help, but none will, except, ironically, one who is very heavily bandaged and who at great cost to himself does what he can from his bed pushed over to the window of his bedroom. He actually hears Tara being refused, calls her in and offers to help although it is not clear that he would be able to do much. He is ultimately the hero by dropping a vase out of the window at the apposite moment. Steed knows that he would volunteer: Steed both values him and this shows Steed's worth in personality assessment.
It is only after this that Mother realises, while he is busy drinking, that the Department S line os out of order. He puts out a general alert for Kafka. He refers to a Colonel who again makes the same mistake of reassuring Mother by saying that the systems are all operational. This reliance of Mother on faulty evidence is in complete contrast to his usual self: in Take Me To Your Leader, he is very clear that he must be considered the prime suspect since the evidence suggests it.
Steed tries to lock away Tara to protect her from also being killed, again indicative of value and protection, and she stops him doing this by knocking him out with the champagne bottle she brought. By this 'wrong' act she makes herself available to protect Steed, turning an apparently wrong action into the right thing to do. There is a subtext here of inverting what is normally 'right', and the people who are sitting on their laurels by relying on the faulty security - Kafka actually enters the department by helicopter, against which it is totally unprotected - as being wrong and thus leaving Steed vulnerable to attack.
'It's only a girl': the baddies' words on seeing Tara. She is clearly the hero of this episode, and this repeats the theme of people being hoodwinked by their own assumptions. Ultimately Tara conducts the whole showdown essentially single-handed, aided only by the wounded agent distracting Kafka's henchman at the right moment, until Steed kills Kafka himself with a weapon concealed in his stick.
While on the whole the Western thing doesn't really do it for me, it is useful in this episode because of the element of ambivalence it introduces into the characters, which are actually developed by it. The relationship between Steed and Tara develops, since he develops a new level of dependence on her and she develops a well-earned sense of success. I do feel though that this development could have been done with a similar plot without the Western overtones and trimmings.
The focus on the complexity of human motivation and temporary or permanent weaknesses in people's characters may obscure the relatively simple identification of 'the enemy' in this one. The enemy is clearly the Eastern Bloc - making this very much of its Cold War era. The Establishment - although ruled by the flawed character of Mother - is stable and a rock of security. It is not, though, solely England and the English that are the goodies, demonstrated by the fact that Tara is saved from the mine field by a French agent. He refuses to help, giving as his reason that it is of no benefit to his country, but in the context of this episode that only places him in the same stable as the other enemies who won't help. The name of Kafka for the enemy places him firmly on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
But why base this episode on High Noon? Well why not! Much of the point of The Avengers is that it isn't real. There is never blood, it depicts an England that is is never quite as it was in reality, the sixties were surely not that Avengers-esque for most people. This is one of the aspects that allows the Avengers not really to scream 'dated' in the way that, say, Randall and Hopkirk does, because it set itself in a world that didn't ever really exist. And that, to me is seriously good television.

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