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.

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