Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Avengers: Man in the Mirror (Venus Smith was an Avengers Girl)

This is perhaps the episode which may be most resonant for many people as showing most fully the nature of the organisation he works for. Previously Steed has met his boss in bars & on beaches, but he clearly has a new boss (One-Six) whom he as clearly doesn't get on with, surely an experience many of us have had when a perfectly good job has been ruined by the appointment of an idiot above us (I'm not bitter & twisted in the slightest, & in case you're wondering she left under a cloud after two grievances & a formal complaint). In this case it is plain that One-Six's priority is his particular way of doing things rather than getting the best out of his agents. Here Steed is shown up as a lone wolf rather than a company man. I like that in the later series this morphs into him being grand old man figure in the organisation, to whom trainees look up. On the other hand I love the way a prostitute hangs around outside the building where the meeting is - I personally wouldn't interpret this as being an agent whose cover is being a prostitute (for example http://www.dissolute.com.au/the-avengers-tv-series/series-2/222-man-in-the-mirror.html). I personally feel that she is actually a prostitute, or at the very least intended to be seen by the viewer as a prostitute rather than a simple cover for the organisation - not forgetting that Steed's character started out much rougher around the edges than he later become. In some series he would probably be sleeping with her - the ambiguity of The Avengers is that he knows her but it's not clear how.
At least in my opinion this insight into Steed's organisation answers a question I have asked elsewhere that is also asked on The Avengers Forever website:
'I am often accused of being too hard on Venus Smith episodes. Well, please explain to me why a young, professional singer allows herself to be so horribly manipulated by Steed�unless she likes having her life threatened for no apparent reason. And unless some details have been left to the imagination, it would appear that her only compensation for her considerable troubles are sugar-daddy-type gifts from a rather lecherous-looking older man!' (http://theavengers.tv/forever/gale1-22.htm)
I feel the answer to this question is found in this episode: watch the men at the briefing when they get up at the end. If you don't spot it, watch it again, then go through the episode noticing the differences in roles between men & women. I can't believe I've never noticed it before. We are so used to thinking that the (unreality-based) Avengers episodes were leaders of women's liberation, spearheaded by Peel & Gale, that we overlook the (slightly more reality-based) early episodes. My point about the briefing is that all the agents in the organisation at this early stage are *men*. I'm sure this is at least more representative of real gender attitudes of the time, if perhaps not the real spy world, than the liberated women & mixed spy classes of the later series.
This explains why Venus is such a passive-little-woman character - that was how women actually had to behave at the time & presumably was at least the mind-set of the writer. I would note, though, that Venus also has an extremely assertive side with men, shown to best advantage in The Decapod. Of course her relationship with Steed is also largely a vehicle for Steed, but again this reflects a subordinate role for women - Jon Rollason got his own shows to himself, remember, while Venus is entertaining & a help to Steed, but no heavyweight, that would only come with Mrs Gale. My thesis is that at this stage the production of The Avengers was still not sure where to take it - fortunately they took it down the Cathy Gale route, so much more in tune with the spirit of the age. I feel if they had gone down the Venus Smith route, the series would have sunk without a trace & not be the cult hit it remains today.
Of course this is where Venus Smith fails as an Avengers girl, in that she is rather the exact opposite of everything the phrase 'Avengers girl' (the use of 'girl' rather than 'woman' is also interesting) brings to mind, not even any leather in sight. I feel this difference is especially apparent in this episode - when she *asks* for her brooch & camera back she looks like a small child - far different again from the brassy character we saw in The Decapod! This aspect of her character is over-egged in the funfair. *Nobody* gets that frightened in a ghost train, any horror they evoke is through shock rather than genuine fear, so this scene takes Venus's childishness just too far.
Plot-wise I would agree with the criticism found elsewhere that the plot is rather tedious, & it isn't always apparent the function the different elements play - the opening scene of the body in the ghost train for example. Personally I remember this episode as a series of disconnected scenes, all of them effective on their own but difficult to think into a harmonious whole in my head. Visually a funfair is one of those things that it's difficult to fail with, although I find the bedroom hostage scene also very effective & memorable. It's a lost episode but a funfair & especially ghost train was used as a setting in the series 1 episode Tunnel of Fear, which is one of the ones I've always wanted to see, but am unlikely ever to be able to. I don't really mind any of the things often criticised in this episode, & feel it's had a bashing it doesn't really deserve. There is little point criticising the relative poverty of the funfair scenery - haven't these people noticed that *all* sets on TV of this age look like that? And I don't mind Venus's singing - I don't think she's off-key, I think it's meant to be folky jazzy singing. I also have a problem that the song about 'I know where I'm going' has me howling with or without gin!
So in conclusion, a Venus Smith episode highlighting her subordinate role as a contrast to the 'other' Avengers girls. I'm aware more & more, watching these episodes with more attention than I normally would, that the writing lacks a consistency in characterisation that later obtained in The Avengers. It is also apparent that the show is finding its way in this series & there are several different possibilities here, but going with the Mrs Gale route, rather than Venus Smith, made the show the cult success it became.
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