Sidney Havers, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 20: Dead Man’s Treasure)” (1967)
A courier, mortally wounded, just manages to stumble into Steed’s home and mutter to Steed (Patrick Macnee) scraps of information about some important documents he has hidden in a treasure chest at a manor house before conveniently expiring. In order for Steed and Peel (Diana Rigg) to recover the documents, the courier hands them an invitation to enter a rally hosted by wealthy Formula One aficionado, Sir George Benstead (Arthur Lowe). Whoever wins the rally wins the treasure chest and the money (and documents) inside.
The two enter the rally but each is partnered by another person. Unbeknownst to them, Benstead and the other rally partcipants, the two enemy agents Carl and Alex (Neil McCarthy and Edwin Richfield) who shot the courier have also entered the rally, having found out by eavesdropping on Steed and Peel that the documents they want are in the treasure chest. During the course of the rally, Carl and Alex throw spikes onto the road, putting most of their competitors out of business save for Steed paired with Penny (Valerie van Ost) and Peel paired with Mike (Norman Bowler). Unfortunately for the dastardly duo, the people partnered with Steed and Peel also cheat so any advantage the enemy agents gain is quickly lost.
This is one of the more enjoyable episodes in this season as our heroes have to deal with not just the enemy agents but also mercenary double agent Mike who’s prepared to torture and kill Peel to get the prize money and documents at the end of the rally by strapping her into the racing simulator where he has killed Benstead early on. The plot is very light and has more holes than a piece of Swiss cheese, and the English countryside suffers from the smell of burnt tyres and hot asphalt, squashed hedgehogs and other roadkill, and excess air pollution as rally participants race one another in classic 1960s sports cars and try to dodge the enemy agents’ spikes.
Character is done well through quirks in the plot and in excellent dialogue, the latter particularly in the case of Penny who chats constantly to Steed about all her boyfriends who had the misfortune of dying in freak accidents. She is developed into a ditzy blonde babe who proves to be useful with a weapon when it counts. Even Carl and Alex banter about Peel’s fighting abilities, Peel having taken one of them on in Benstead’s study. Mike is a bit colourless and one sees in him an early prototype for the character of Mike Gambit in the later New Avengers series. The later part of the plot in which Peel is forced to race for her life in the simulator, suffering progressively more painful electric shocks that come close to killing her, demonstrates the character’s steeliness and is very tense as well. The racing simulator with the electric shock deliverer is an excellent plot device used first to show off one character’s eccentricity, another’s amorality and sadism, and a third’s bravery in not revealing the location of the prize and documents in spite of the death that awaits her.
As long as The Avengers stuck to straight spy stories with ingenious plot elements, well-rounded characters and smart dialogue, the series worked well. This episode just manages to get away with the vacuous Penny because she does save Steed’s life and disposes of the enemy agents, and gets to claim the prize money as well. It’s surprising that for all the kudos the series got for its lead female characters in Cathy Gale and Emma Peel, the supporting female characters who appeared were often very one-dimensional stereotypes. Naive women are played as empty-headed bunnies. In addition as Season 5 progresses and the episodes start becoming darker, Peel is subjected to some very unpleasant forms of torture, any one of which would cause major post-traumatic stress disorder in most people. I know the show is not meant to be serious but you sometimes wonder if the producers and script-writers were fully aware of what they were doing. But then, perhaps that’s the point of episodes like “Dead Man’s Treasure”: people may imagine they’re acting out childhood fantasies as did Benstead but such fantasies can be a double-edged sword and what’s fun at one point of time can be dangerous and deadly the next moment.