Friday, 3 January 2014

The Champions: The Ghost Plane

I was hoping to begin on The Champions with one of the less-outlandish episodes, but when I noticed last night that Steed's books from his Stable Mews flat make an appearance (in Dr Newman's room in Cambridge, amongst other leather-bound books, they're the ones with the red & black band) in this episode, I knew I had to start with this one. The Champions is one of those ITC series, like Department S, that had both British & American stars, with a view to appealing to American audiences.
It's also another late-sixties series with bizarre touches: in this case the bizarre touch is the super powers the three protagonists have been given in the Himalayas. My personal opinion is that this makes them relative lightweights in the 1960s television stable, despite some strong scripts, because it is a step too far into weirdness. The success of The Avengers, in contrast, lies in playing a pastiche of the spy genre & British society, completely dead-pan, while not allowing reality to come into contact with it.
On the other hand, The Champions 'reads' at this length of time as a camp relic of late sixties ridiculousness, what Austin Powers should have been, if you like. This is the series's success, it doesn't try not to overdo it, in fact there's hardly an episode where there isn't some mad genius trying to steal Nazi gold, take over the world, what have you.
This episode is no exception. It's not a bad plot to start off with - a plane is sighted which theoretically could not possibly exist, at least until the evidence that it exists is uncovered, along with the evidence that just such an aeroplane has previously been on the drawing board. Thus far it could be any spy/espionage show.
At this point in the plot the protagonists would (& indeed do) investigate how the knowledge has got out. The weakness in this episode is in the Nemesis agents getting a lead by psychically or remote viewing the record at Nemesis of the person involved. Their boss cannot understand how they have done this, & frankly it gives them too easy a break-through, plot-wise. The psychic powers as a way to guiding your colleagues into saving you from the freezer is also too easy. A plot weakness, unrelated to psychic powers, is that it is obvious way too early who the villains are.
So it fairly completely fails in the Spy-fi stakes, & also in the espionage stakes, yet it's not a piece of television that I wouldn't want to see again. I don't think the bizarre aspects are enough to explain this, they're more plot holes here, & I think it's important to approach this series on the whole as one that won't take too much examination. I think the reason I like it is that it's a jolly sixties romp, it *feels* like the sixties series I like, it's overdone, taken totally seriously by the actors despite being ridiculous, the scenery suggests the scenes while firmly remaining a set. The illustration of the doors of the refrigeration company is a prime example. Another difference between this series & The Avengers is the use of library footage: in the convention of the time The Champions indicates globe-trotting, & expensive locations by obvious library footage, avoiding the Avengerland feeling of a closed world. Whether or not this is a mistake must be up to the viewer, as I've commented before I don't mind it myself & there aren't such massive changes in colour-values in this episode.
So it is perhaps best approached as a high camp 60s retro show. And how retro: red China ('behind the bamboo curtain' isn't a phrase you hear every day) as the enemy makes it seem terribly dated, but it's important to remember how the world was divided up into 'them' & 'us' in those days.
I have a question about what it would have been like for one of The Champions: their job as Nemesis agents would be difficult enough in all ways, they cope remarkably well with also having super powers! Given that there are just the three of them to unpack what's happening, they cope remarkably equitably with this remarkable gift they've been given!
------------------

No comments: