Wednesday, 20 April 2016

The Avengers Series 1: Nightmare

True to form, I am starting my consideration of the lost series 1 Avengers episodes with the one of which least remains. There doesn’t seem even to remain a script for this one, so I am very indebted to the reconstruction in Richard Mcginlay, Alan Hayes & Alys Hayes The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes (Electronic Edition: Hidden Tiger, 2014.), a synopsis based on published synopses ‘and other sources’. I do not know whether it has made it into a Big Finish audio version, but doubt it, because their format seems to be recording the remaining script. I am obviously not intending to take issue with any elements of the synopsis, since I was not there 55 years ago to have memories of this episode, and the authors have clearly taken a great deal of care over considering the likely elements of the plot, in their heavily-footnoted text.
Right from the start, we are clearly in a very different Avengers world than most of the episodes I write about here, since Ian Hendry receives top billing for Dr Keel and Steed seems to be the usual shadowy, rather dodgy character he plays throughout this series. I would be wary about projecting anything from later Avengers series onto the fledgling series seen in series 1, but I have always been on the opinion that the elements of the Avengerland we see in later series are already present from the start, at least based on the series 1 and series 2 episodes I have seen, and I would be interested to see whether this pet theory of mine will hold water through this closer examination of series 1 episodes. In the visual language of The Avengers, the fact that this episode begins in a laboratory spells in a rather obvious visual way that the episode is set in a world of knowledge, of learning, and with an undertone of futurism, at least as seen in the available screen cap I have found on the internet (credit to dissolute.com.au for the image). This is contrasted with the rather more sedate and respectable surroundings of Dr Keel’s surgery, which in all the pictures I have seen is very clearly shown as an adapted house decorated in a fairly traditional style and spelling out respectability, solidity and security. Further contrasted again is the shadowy figure of Steed, who doesn’t seem to have a setting at all! He just appears out of nowhere, and to my knowledge it is never made clear at all what authority or position he has, at least until later series. To my mind, the setting, the visual language, and the ‘feel’ of later Avengers series are already present here, just with the exception that they are rather more subdued that than the heavy-handed treatment they would get in the Tara King series. In fact the show’s individuality is also commented on by Cornell et al (I realise that their book is very much criticised by a lot of fans, but I continue to find it valuable as including more analysis than the description which dominates a lot of other books about The Avengers):
‘Early signs that the series was a little different from those around it emerge in this story, with its complex plot concerning a fake MI5 agent and a deadly anaesthetist.’ (Paul Cornell, Martin Day, and Keith Topping: The Avengers Dossier. Virgin Books, London, 1998, p.21)
MI5: the (supposed) setting places this episode automatically in the classic Avengers world of the great and the good, who have an unfortunate habit of either not being whom they seem, or else (as in the case of the anaesthetist) going off the rails completely. It is also not for nothing that the futuristic/domestic settings mentioned above then segue to a chase through seedy Soho. Visually this spells the sort of corruption frequently depicted as infesting the world of the great and the good, in The Avengers.
What comes next in the story is to my mind one of the more extraordinary elements of it. I find it very interesting that Keel telephones Steed for help in the first place, rather than Steed just tending to turn up as he frequently does. While Keel is the lead in this episode, I feel that this reflects the real relationship between them, influenced by the ongoing impact on Keel of having his fiancé murdered in front of him (in Hot Snow) and the way Steed was the only person who would actually help him there. I am reminded of the way Venus Smith greets Steed in later episodes (‘Oh no, not you,’ or words to that effect) since Steed is rather cavalier with Keel’s safety in this episode, to say the least. The plan for Keel to act as the vanished professor is Steed’s and, amazingly, Keel agrees to it. This results in him getting shot, and frankly I would have to say it is his own silly fault for agreeing to Steed’s hare-brained plan, since he clearly should already know that Steed is involved in the seedy underworld, and a much more sensible response to seeing Steed would by Venus Smith’s! Notwithstanding his foolhardiness in getting involved in any plan of Steed’s, this does cast an interesting light on Keel’s character – the fact that a respectable GP is willing just to ditch his practice to follow a shady character into an undercover operation, and also in the process endanger his own life, could be seen as a major plot failure here. However, I would prefer to see it in the light of the sort of unreality seen in many of the Avengers’ plots, and also as an insight into Keel’s character. His personal experience of having his fiancée murdered has clearly made such a difference to his life that it has turned him, literally, into an ‘avenger’, who is prepared to ditch his normal life and safety in defence of the defenceless.
The fact that the ‘baddies’ manage to infiltrate their man into the hospital to pose as an anaesthetist to kill Keel is the material of conspiracy theories through the ages, and once again suggests that this episode poses the problem of corruption among the great and the good. I find unsatisfying, though, the resolution of the story in Professor Braintree having disappeared with amnesia (always a too-easy plot device) brought on by overwork. Once again this brings in the Security elements of the later Avengers series, and obviously Steed was after Professor Braintree because of the importance of his knowledge. The weakness here, of course, is that if he was really that important, surely a better eye should have been kept on him in the first place, however as usual I would maintain the reservation that I am (over-)analysing a TV programme intended to be viewed once only.
So how can I conclude this criticism of a TV show I will never see (and I must just give myself a pat on the back for managing to write a blog post about a TV programme which no longer exists)? I am tantalised by the fact that the synopsis raises more questions than it answers for me. In particular it seems as though the plot *could* be seen as being full of holes if you were looking for them, even while bearing in mind that in the early 60s TV was seen as an ephemeral medium and ITV was always seen as lower-brow than BBC. Once again, an old TV show seems not to stand up well to over-analysis. I am fascinated, however, by the echoes of the later world of the Avengers found in this episode. Such characteristic things as the contrast between different worlds, corruption in high or respectable circles, and a sense of unreality, are already present, although writ small in comparison to later series. Perhaps the most interesting element of this show, though, is the different slant it casts on the early Steed character, who while he is portrayed as some kind of agent of the authorities, behaves in a way which seems to be incredibly irresponsible!

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