The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 20: Dead Man’s Treasure): fun and childhood fantasy turn deadly and dangerous

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.

The Wild Wild West (Season 4, Episode 4: The Night of the Sedgewick Curse): clever and intelligent combination of horror and science fiction

Marvin Chomsky, “The Wild Wild West (Season 4, Episode 4: The Night of the Sedgewick Curse)” (1968)

I don’t recall this series from my childhood yet when I heard the theme music in this episode’s opening credits, it seemed very familiar so I assume that it did feature on Australian TV in the late 1960s. Various distinguished gentlemen are disappearing in a hotel in a town and US agents James West (Robert Conrad) and his partner Artemus Ward (Ross Martin) set out to investigate the strange incidents. In the course of his work, West meets a young woman Lavinia Sedgewick (Sharon Acker) who invites him to dinner at the Sedgwick family mansion where he discovers the building is under a mysterious curse that may be linked to the murders and disappearances at the hotel due to its emblem: three knives embedded in a heart.

West is the action-man of the heroic duo while Ward does the brain work, dons the weird disguises and uses his ventriloquist ability to save his skin. Through West’s leg-work which brings him in contact with Lavinia’s grandfather and his spooky physician Dr Maitland (Jay Robinson) and Ward’s own investigation, disguised as a French diplomat staying at the hotel, which puts his life in danger a couple of times, the agents discover a horrible secret: the Sedgewicks suffer from a genetic disease that causes rapid ageing and Dr Maitland is seeking to cure the disease permanently by using the kidnapped men as guinea pigs to test a special serum he has developed. The problem is that while the serum works on animals and stops or slows down the ageing process, it has the opposite effect on humans and when West sees the kidnapped gentlemen in a cell, he is horrified to see they have all been rapidly aged.

This is a clever episode that mixes elements of horror (a haunted house with secret passages and a prison below, an apparently innocent woman harbouring a terrible secret, a bed that impales people dead, a housemaid who seems surly and who might be an ally – or the villain’s assistant) and science fiction (a mad scientist searching for the elixir that gives immortality) in a Western genre and a common TV narrative format: strange things happen to innocent people, two agents are summoned to snoop around and find out what’s going on, one of the agents is captured which leads the other to the villain’s lair, the entire business culminates in and is settled by some punch-ups, the crooks are rounded up and sent to jail and all loose ends are tied satisfactorily. The motivations of the various major characters are explained throughout the episode, the science seems quite plausible (one must remember the action takes place in the nineteenth century when Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was barely understood, let alone all the sciences that the theory as midwife enabled later) and the horrors that Dr Maitland’s nostrum causes are dramatic enough without appearing overdone and campy.

The acting is excellent, Robinson as the creepy and deranged physician and Acker as the desperate Lavinia probably the most outstanding. One notes that a couple of black actors play hotel clerks; this is credible from a historical viewpoint, black men often having been employed as cowboys, farmers, clerks and workers in the American West, but would come as a surprise to most people raised on old Hollywood Westerns where black people hardly ever featured. The music used is a mixture of the conventional orchestra-based soundtrack music of the period and some analog synthesiser tone melodies. The episode does rely on some cheap effects such as repeating thunder noises when a storm rages during the night. Set design and interior details, including those of objects used, look typical of the style and period of the 1870s.

“The Night of the Sedgewick Curse” shows that you can combine far-out science fiction and horror ideas in a plot-line that doesn’t need to be campy or feature wacky characters. The episode’s coda in which Ward attempts to feed West a healthy vegan lunch to prolong his life is comic without being cartoony, the actors playing their dialogue and actions straight. Characters show some sympathy and concern for others, even those others like Lavinia who turns out to be a femme fatale and who suffers tragically.

 

The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 15: The Joker): psychological thriller hints of psychological damage done by Cold War

Sidney Hayers, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 15: The Joker)” (1967)

Oops! As Steed (Patrick Macnee) excitedly races down the staircase to greet Peel (Diana Rigg) at the door, he trips and falls the rest of the way down, injuring his knee. As a result, he is laid up for the weekend, unable to accompany Peel to her weekend rendezvous with bridge-playing fanatic Sir Cavalierusticana – that should have been a dead give-away – who has read her article on applying mathematics to bridge in a magazine and wants to discuss the game with her. While she is away, an army officer (John Stone) calls at Steed’s home to inform him that the dangerous criminal Max Prendergast (Peter Jeffery), whom Steed and Peel put away in jail, has escaped and is hell-bent on seeking revenge against both of them. Later, on discovering that his staircase was booby-trapped to cause him to fall, Steed realises Peel’s life is in danger and frantically tries to track down her whereabouts before Prendergast can exact his revenge against her.

In the meantime, Peel has arrived at a huge mansion and is being entertained and terrorised in turn by her host’s creepy niece and housekeeper Ola (Sally Nesbitt) and a young man (Ronald Lacey) to soften her up for Prendergast when he comes to deliver the final blow. Can Steed reach her in time before Prendergast does? Can Peel’s nerve hold out against the torments Ola and friend pile upon her? Or will being alone in the mansion with its brooding sinister atmosphere, hallways lined with knights’ armour and bunches of roses, and rooms full of dark shadows, dead people in rocking chairs and things going bump in the night be enough to bring her down?

It’d be unfair to blame Alfred Hitchcock for everything referenced in this and other Avengers episodes: if anything, the portly one should have been demanding more than his fair share of the cut for inspiring this psychological thriller. One might imagine seeing many moments from the Master of Suspense’s past work here: bunches of roses lining the corridors recall the flower shop in “Vertigo”, the haunted house might have come straight out of “Psycho”, the fog from “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog”.  Even Ola provides the obligatory blonde: the twist is that she is an irritating psychopath rather than the heroine. Rigg holds her own as Peel, her expression and body language slowly revealing the character’s increasing nervousness beneath an apparently cool and tough exterior but the episode belongs to Jeffery in the short amount of screen time he has.

This is an excellent character-study episode that showcases Rigg’s ability in portraying a more steely side of her character. It does become slow and a bit repetitive halfway when Peel is forced to run from one room to the next and back again, and the script should have shown more of Steed’s efforts in trying to reach Peel to save her to increase the tension level.

The episode should have ended without its obligatory coda which was unnecessary: it would have been enough for viewers to see Peel’s relief on seeing Steed come to her rescue and her drained reaction is a fine piece of acting.

A Cold War romance with Peel as a honeypot who betrays him is implied in Prendergast’s speech which gives him the necessary motivation for wanting to destroy Peel and for a brief moment we see something of world politics as it was in the 1960s. There is a hint of faded and forgotten history and maybe of the psychological wreckage that the Cold War brought to people like Prendergast and even Peel: he remembers too much of his brief romance with Peel while she remembers nothing of it. (That may be the most chilling aspect of this episode.) It is all the more jarring when she reminds him of the people he has killed but does she not also think that he and she too are victims of a power play far above even them?

The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 6: The Winged Avenger): flighty fantasy let down by tedious and repetitive violence

 Gordon Flemyng and Peter Duffell, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 6: The Winged Avenger)” (1967)

The father-and-son team of stony-hearted corporate vultures at Simon Roberts & Son Publishers has been found mysteriously murdered – clawed to bloodless death, as it were, by a giant eagle – so Steed (Patrick Macnee) and trusty sidekick Peel (Diana Rigg) are immediately on the trail of this bird of prey. Initially an author with a grudge against Simon Roberts pere et fils is suspected of the deed but he’s discounted early on when his assistant is literally scratched out. Chasing more leads and more dead bodies, the intrepid twosome link a comic book studio called Winged Avengers Enterprises which specialises in writing, drawing and producing a comic around a superhero called the Winged Avenger with an inventor called Professor Poole (Jack MacGowan) who is trying to promote his special magnetised boots which allow people to walk up walls and on ceilings.

A homage to comic books and borrowing effects and some of the music from the Batman live-action series that starred Adam West as Batman / Bruce Wayne and which was popular in the mid to late 1960s, this episode is loopier than many others of the season and features as its climactic battle an upside-down fight between Peel and her enemy which viewers can see was originally filmed right way up because of the way the falling chair moves as if being pulled. The transitions between storyboarded cartoons and the live action are an interesting touch and illustrate how the villain Arnie Packer (Neil Hallett) has confused his fantasy world with the real world. On the other hand, the violence is unrealistic – for all the tearing and scratching that occur, there’s no blood shown at all – and the constant repetition of it when the novelty of the killing method wears off makes for a lot of tedium throughout the episode. It’s as if the script is running out of ideas so the fifty minutes allocated to the episode have to be padded up with pointless killing, especially that of Poole and of the actor playing the cartoon character for the storyboard illustrations. An unnecessary scene of a callous businessman shooting pheasants who ends up very dead to the delight of his would-be victims is included to drive very heavily home the point that his eponymous killer is motivated by social justice to pursue and destroy those who would exploit others for their own selfish interests.

The best scene is right at the beginning where Simon Roberts is instructing his son on how to sack people in the cruellest, most cold-hearted way possible and Junior turns out to be a chip off the old block when turfing out a loyal employee of the publishing company. Needless to say, the role model is quickly turfed out of the story and this sets off the race to find his killer.

The acting varies with MacGowan almost over-acting his role as the batty boffin bestriding the firmaments of his mansion and looking not a little flitter-mouse himself with his elfin features, and Hallett not quite looking and acting crazed enough as the creator of the Winged Avenger taken over by his child. John Garrie is unconvincing as the Asian man-servant to explorer / adventurer Lexius Cray (Nigel Green) which is a bit strange as the show had used Chinese-British Burt Kwouk in three episodes in the past; the role of man-servant could have been adjusted slightly to be non-Asian.

This was one of two episodes that featured birds as a sinister motif and it’s hard not to think that Alfred Hitchcock (“The Birds”) was not an influence on this episode and on other episodes of the show.

The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 9: The Correct Way to Kill): satire on upper class English culture and mores

Charles Crichton, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 9: The Correct Way to Kill)” (1967)

Soviet agents are being cut down almost as soon as they arrive in Britain and a diplomatic criss between the USSR and the UK is imminent. Who better than Steed (Patrick Macnee) and Peel (Diana Rigg) to entrust with the task of messing up the crime scene, follow leads that go nowhere, visit eccentric individuals and training organisations, and eventually uncover mad schemes hatched by the most unlikely of villains to take over the world and install a Nutski World Order? Our dynamic duo once again follow the well-worn script of trawling through bodies of people done down by seemingly polite City of London bankers (who turn out to be the vanguard of a highly trained and professional assassination squad) in office elevators and even rotating doors. This time Steed is given extra assistance by one Soviet agent Olga (Anna Quayle) and it’s Peel’s turn to feel a little annoyed at this unwelcome intrusion into her and Steed’s tidy partnership.

There’s considerable over-acting from those playing Russians, especially Quayle who plays Olga as a dour KGB agent stereotype fresh out of spy-training school and inclined to interpret everything literally and robotically, and Michael Gough who lays on the thick accent as Nutski, an long-term Soviet agent living in Britain who turns out to have double-crossed his side and the British side. Generally the characters are one-dimensional and Nutski and his lieutenants are presented as power-hungry types. The plot as usual is convoluted and a little tricky, and there are loose ends dangling, with not much depth overall. How on earth Steed and Olga can hide in the S.N.O.B. office and keep opening the door at intervals to watch a fencing training session and not be noticed at all by the instructor or his students is very strange indeed!

The staple cat-fight that climaxes the narrative is a fencing fight between Olga and Peel on one side and Nutski’s men training as spies and assassins in his organisation that masquerades as S.N.O.B. (Sociability, Nobility, Omnipotence, Breeding Inc.) which purports to teach ruffians and common caitiffs how to be Proper English Gentlemen. (Although I’m not sure that part of the training includes wielding umbrellas as foils and sabres and pricking Bulgarian exiles with ricin-injecting tips.)

Upper class English culture is satirised in this episode and the message that politeness, gentility and culture often hide a brutal, savage and amoral mentality and set of values is not lost on this viewer. In such a culture, style is privileged over substance: even the episode title in what it says and the minimal, succinct way it announces itself suggests as much. However clunky Olga appears, she provides a good if wide-eyed vicarious stand-in for audience reactions to goofy British character caricatures and assassinations.

Running umbrella and hat gags and loads of bawdy sexual and anal penetration jokes and double entendres, especially in the episode’s concluding scene, rather ruin this viewer’s experience. The episode itself is a remake of an earlier Avengers episode “The Charmers” with Honor Blackman as Steed’s partner Cathy Gale.

The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 17: The Return of the Cybernauts): mind control is the dominant theme

Robert Day, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 17: The Return of the Cybernauts)” (1967)

One of the more openly science fiction episodes in this season of the TV show, this mixes comedy, horror, action and even a love rival who not only makes Steed (Patrick Macnee) extremely jealous but also turns out to be his foe. Guest star Peter Cushing plays Paul Beresford who inveigles his way into Peel’s affections in order to draw her and Steed into a situation where he can destroy them as revenge for their role in the death of his robotics scientist brother Clement Armstrong in an earlier Avengers episode. Along the way he and Armstrong’s former assistant scientist Benson (Frederick Jaeger) use their Cybernaut machine to pick up and imprison a few scientific and engineering experts to assist the dastardly duo in their scheme to torment and kill Steed and Peel (Diana Rigg).

The title of the episode is a misnomer as there was only one robot used unless we count the humans enslaved by an ingenious mind control device (that can stop their hearts and kill them if they resist) as Cybernauts as well. As is usual with these Avengers episodes which were filmed on tight budgets, there are plot holes that viewers are expected to gloss over, such as how traces of skin dandruff and DNA can be used in creating a tiny nanochip in short order (say, a day or so working 24/7) that can tap into and control people’s brain functioning and thoughts, and also send an electric shock to the heart that literally stops it dead.

It has to be said that very little is done with the lone Cybernaut as something other than a killing machine: the robot could have been usefully employed serving drinks or assisting the three captured experts in designing a mind control gadget. If the robot could speak, one less character could have been used but that would have been Benson. The gadget itself is of more interest than the Cybernaut: small enough to fit into the palm of an adult hand and never straying from Beresford’s home, it nevertheless has an astonishing range of control, reaching as far as Steed’s country mansion which Peel frequents rather too frequently for someone who’s supposed to be Steed’s assistant. Once Peel places Beresford’s bracelet on her wrist, the receptor in the bracelet receives the remote message from the gadget and controls Peel’s behaviour completely. If this episode were to be shown today, I daresay the US Department of Defense would be very interested in a tiny hand-held device that could control people’s thoughts and actions by remote control, transmitting electromagnetic signals to a microchip embedded in the skin of the neck perhaps rather than through a receiver attached to a body part that can be removed or dislodged, and which could also detect thoughts of resistance and either delete them or kill the person if necessary.

The plot follows the familiar template of disappearing people with something in common and whose manner of disappearing is the same if eccentric and fantastic, the cause of which Steed and Peel must investigate and during which investigation they mess up the crime scene. They follow promising leads that take them into various by-ways, not all of which are successful or open to another lead. One of the two (often Peel) ends up being captured by the villain/s which means the other must race to rescue her/him in the nick of time. The template culminates in an all-out fight which ends only when the villains dies or is trapped by one of his (rarely her) signature devices.

At least the acting in “Return of the Cybernauts” is outstanding and there is some real development in the lead characters: the best scenes are ones where Steed is jealous of Beresford’s attentions toward Peel and makes some cutting remarks to her. Peel brushes them off, regarding them as quite amusing. Beresford plays an evil English gentleman to the hilt. Even the captive scientists distinguish themselves: Chadwick (Fulton Mackay), seduced by the money offered him, eagerly does as he’s told by Beresford and Benson while Neville (Charles Tingwell) acts as Chadwick’s foil and conscience. These characters might have struck a chord with a 1960s audience as their behaviour is reminiscent of the ways scientists in Nazi Germany coped with Adolf Hitler’s government and its control of German science: some scientists supported the Third Reich zealously and offered their services to the Nazis without a second thought; others, like Neville, worked for the government in order to control the direction of their science and ensure it wasn’t degraded by the government; still other scientists resisted and were either punished or managed to flee Germany.

A memorable episode but not in the way the producers had intended it to be.

 

The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 3: Escape in Time): the past really is a different country from which there’s no escape

John Krish, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 3: Escape in Time)” (1967)

A particularly memorable episode, “Escape in Time” is premised on the theme of time travel and how one can use it as a form of escape. Most of the time though, time travel occurs in our heads to escape the mundane present, to imagine a more exciting past than what actually existed or to consider a range of future possibilities, usually fun but sometimes more frightening than now. In this episode, a travel agent offers time travel to various corporate crooks and ex-dictators on the run from justice but invariably they get their comeuppance in that ultimate form of time travel: a river, in this case, the Thames River. When a couple of agents are also caught up in this vortex of time, those agents extraordinaire Steed (Patrick Macnee) and Peel (Diana Rigg) are called upon to retrace their predecessors’ steps as it were and themselves are thrown into England’s past. It’s a past with four dead-end itineraries which neither agent is able to get a refund of their deposits back on, and Steed and Peel must battle the travel agent (Peter Bowles) and return to the present (or the future as it were) if they are to take their complaint to the Department of Fair Trading.

Not a bad episode but the time travel idea is thin and its novelty wears off quickly. Much of the episode is taken up by tricky labyrinthine sequences in which an ex-dictator, then Steed, then Peel negotiate their respective ways through a toy-town to Thyssen Travel using stuffed animals as barter; there is also a later sequence, also done entirely without dialogue, in which Steed zips through the Georgian and the Restoration periods to the Inquisition to rescue Peel whose torture is taking its own sweet time. Although these sequences are nods to Alfred Hitchcock and silent films in being completely free of dialogue, they are very twee and contrived and serve to reinforce the idea that “The Avengers” takes place in a hyper-idealised world within layers of other idealised versions of Britain. Even the periods in which Thyssen claims he can send his customers to are very distorted and concentrated versions of what they really were: the Elizabethan Age as one of extreme religious fanaticism and use of torture, the 1680s as more refined and the 1790s as effete. Most fight sequences between Steed and a series of other villains are silly and overdone and don’t add anything to the plot.

The time travel itself is deconstructed as a scam and the time machine is simply a dizzily coloured corridor made more so with a whiff of sleeping gas given to the traveller. There is plenty of wit but to this reviewer who has seen the episode three times already, the dalliance between Peel and Matthew Thyssen on feminism is tired – Peel is not really all that emancipated, being a so-called amateur spy and in most episodes needing to be rescued by Steed – and the puns on time can be anticipated a mile away. The stand-out acting is by Bowles, playing several roles as the stammering Thyssen and his smooth-talking forebears, with honourable mention going to the actor who plays T Sweeney (ha!) the barber.

The episode has a very distinctive atmosphere with emphasis on bright colours; a slight psychedelic flavour is introduced during the “time travel” shots which are cleverly done with changing camera angles. Objects and set designs gain a lot of significance here with the primitive poker machine that initiates the time travel (who would believe that a simple slot machine could send a person back into the past?) and the various stuffed animals proving a real hoot. The Indian shop-keeper (Imogen Hassall) who gives Steed his instructions and introduces him to a statue of the Hindu elephant god Ganesha is an unexpected surreal touch that owes more to the influence of late ’60s hippie culture on Western society at the time than a prediction of the dominance of Indian subcontinental communities and culture on British society and culture 40 years after the episode was made.

As with other Avengers episodes, “Escape in Time” has many plot holes – the episode never makes clear what happens to all of Thyssen’s customers apart from the ex-dictator and the two agents who infiltrated the Thyssen mansion – and it was done on the cheap so many sets used do look artificial. The episode succeeds in making the artifice its theme: everything that happens here is artificial and the way in which Thyssen draws his victims into his web is also artificial. His “Tudor” mansion is a nineteenth-century country house. Ultimately the message seems to be that there really is no time like the present: escaping into the past is a kind of death sentence.

The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 1: From Venus with Love): investigating the life and death-giving capabilities of futuristic technologies

 Robert Day, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 1: From Venus with Love)” (1967)

This season of the famous British TV show features several episodes with science fiction themes and elements and “From Venus with Love” plays on familiar SF tropes: laser beams as death rays, UFOs and alien invasions from outer space. Investigating a series of mysterious deaths of amateur astronomers, our intrepid friends Steed (Patrick Macnee) and Peel (Diana Rigg) discover they are members of the British Venusian Society, headed by one Venus Brown (Barbara Shelley). The agents follow a number of leads, some of which are dead-ends, and interview a fair few eccentric gentlemen associated with the society.

The episode establishes a narrative for the rest of the season to follow: a series of strange murders in which the modus operandi is the same if rather contrived, which Steed and Peel investigate, usually independently of each other. The two find themselves following the same lead which turns out not to be the obvious: in this case, the British Venusian Society, which the episode teasingly insinuates might be responsible for the deaths, is the innocent party. Fortunately Steed and Peel use their wits and their verbal wit, along with a bit of brawn, to outwit the villain (Jeremy Lloyd) who is not so harmless as he at first appears.

One of the more fun and inventive episodes in the season, “From Venus with Love” does a fair job of interrogating the possibilites of laser technology as a dispenser of death  as well as healer: the murderer works in the medical profession. It’s silly and far-fetched, and the episode doesn’t explain why the murder victims have to be covered in white talcum powder (actually, they’re just meant to be blanched of colour by the laser but the budget didn’t extend towards more sophisticated special effects) but most of the science looks passable if not totally plausible. Viewers have to fill in plot holes with their own imaginations. A humorous scene featuring Jon Pertwee as a retired army officer dictating his memoirs into a tape recorder and recording the appropriate sound effects sets up a potential McGuffin with Ms Brown, who visits him to request more money to support the BVS; the army officer refuses unless he’s allowed to see the society’s accounts as he suspects the money isn’t being used wisely. The viewers are led to believe the BVS might be killing off its members if it can’t shake them down.

The acting is good if rather arch and the action takes place in a rather closed and idealised world of Britain where everyone is upper class and appears unfailingly polite and co-operative, superficially at least. Of course the reality is that such civility masks a very real and sinister malevolence, made all the more so by the extreme contrast between genteel civility at one end of the spectrum of human behaviour and genuine sadism and brutality at the other. Films and even TV shows like “The Avengers” give but just a sanitised peep-hole into the violent and brutal world of real-life corporate espionage.

The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 2: The Fear Merchants): psychological thriller satirises business culture’s use of psychology

Gordon Flemyng, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 2: The Fear Merchants)”  (1967)

Even though I was a tiny bairn when “The Avengers” was first broadcast on Australian TV back in the 1960s, I have always been a sucker for this iconic British TV spy series starring Patrick Macnee since I discovered it years later as a university undegraduate. In particular the episodes of Season 5 have been favourites for their combination of eccentric characters and plots with science fiction elements, though the underlying messages are usually lowbrow and quite conservative. There is some historical value in these episodes as they capture part of the spirit of a New Britain, youthful and optimistic, ready for a major social revolution that might fell outdated social, economic and political structures and attitudes – and which people in the Britain of today, disillusioned with their institutions that have proven corrupt and incapable of change and delivering  justice, might look back on with wistful hope and wonder.

Written by Philip Levene, “The Fear Merchants” is a cute psychological thriller in which the use of psychology and psychological methods by businesses to gain the edge over their competitors, win customers and increase profits is satirised to an extreme. Agents John Steed (Macnee) and Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) are called to investigate a series of odd assaults on several businessmen in which they suffer panic attacks caused by some unusual catalyst: in one man’s case, a mouse; in another’s, a sinister bird; in a third case, agoraphobia. These men are all linked: they are competitors of one J Raven who has engaged the services of a psychological consulting firm to help him win more market share at the expense of his competition. It transpires that the directors of the firm use sadistic psychological torture techniques based on finding the competitors’ personal fears (which they presumably discovered by conducting questionnaires and surveys) and turning these weaknesses against their hapless owners. Fortunately they don’t die (which would be usual in a TV spy series) but they are left incapacitated and it’s up to our heroes to trace the trail of evidence together with witness statements to the villains whom they must sort out in a climactic fight.

The plot follows the formula of a series of strange occurrences with a surreal modus operandi used by the perpetrator, Steed and Peel working out the connections and following leads that open up, Peel being captured, Steed arriving to rescue her and a big cat-fight at the end in which the villains are done away with in style. The acting is rather stylised and dialogue can be very twee and sometimes turns on noticeably lowbrow puns. Set design is simple but its very understated style suggests quality and more expense than the episode’s tight budget allowed. There are many plot holes and the fight scene in the quarry strains credulity but the viewer is assumed to fill in necessary gaps with his/her imagination. The whole episode is played for equal parts fun and seriousness; its ambience lacks freshness and spontaneity and the actors appear to know that they’re playing out a familiar routine.

Ultimately the episode isn’t to be taken too seriously but it does raise some dark questions about how companies use and abuse psychology (particularly Freudian psychology) in the quest for customers, market share and long-term profits and whether firms consider the lasting consequences psychological techniques might have on customers and customers’ perceptions of them. The history of corporations’ use of Freudian psychology to uncover people’s desires, fears and weaknesses and use these weak spots against the public since Edward Bernays realised he could put Uncle Sigmund Freud’s findings and methods to use in the business world (and later in American foreign policy against Guatemala by persuading Americans to believe that small country was a nest of nasty Soviet / Communist agents itching to take over the US) is sordid indeed. Moreover Bernays’s methods were later taken up by governments and intelligence agencies such as the CIA and the National Endowment for Democracy to sway people into supporting causes and agendas that were not necessarily in the public interest. Even today, politicians, agencies, the press and other organisations use combinations of propaganda and psychological persuasion to convince people to turn against victims of corporate or government crimes and believe the victims are terrorists, criminals or just plain anti-Semitic, or to hide wrongdoing that’s occurring on a massive scale which, if known, would enrage the public so much that the governments and corporations responsible would end up in the garbage bin of history.