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.
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.
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.