This episode starts with a faux live television broadcast. The magnificently-named Colonel Vernon Wayne-Gilley is being interviewed about his globe-trotting adventures. When he is asked his first question he looks a bit confused. You might be too, at this point (please don’t collapse like Vernon, though), because this isn’t the first Season Two episode on the DVD set. So if you’ve got that, you might be wondering why I’m starting with Mr. Teddy Bear. This is one of those television series where the broadcast order of the episodes got messed around with. We’ve seen this happen before in the Junkyard with other series. So Mr. Teddy Bear was actually the seventh that went into production, but was broadcast first originally. Although there is obviously a way to watch these episodes that makes more sense than the broadcast order, I never deviate from broadcast order on first viewing of a series, because I’m keen to share in the first impressions of the series that the viewers experienced at the time, as much as is possible.
The problem with Mr. Teddy Bear being shown first is we are given no introduction to Cathy Gale, and her working relationship with Steed is clearly well-established. In fact, it seems to have already soured somewhat, and there is a definite frisson of anger coming from Cathy during some of their interactions, so it does feel like we’ve missed something. In particular, the amusing conversation when Steed turns up alive after Cathy thought he had been killed has almost a vicious edge to it. Prior to that, Cathy’s reaction to the news of his death is cool as a cucumber, almost to the point of seeming robotic, but Cathy is quite an amazing character. I knew very little about The Avengers prior to watching it, beyond some vague memories of watching a few episodes when I was a child, but one thing I’m vaguely aware of is that it is celebrated as an example of a more positive portrayal of women than 60s television generally achieved. I genuinely do believe that British television was actually pretty good at this in the 60s. For example, if you compare 60s Doctor Who to 60s Star Trek, you’ve got one series that gave us female characters who were nearly always strong, capable women (Barbara the teacher, Vicki who is just amazing in just about every way, Sara the future soldier, modern woman Polly from the swinging 60s, Zoe the astrophysicist, and OK we had better not mention Victoria), and another series that went into soft focus every time another conquest for Kirk appeared on screen. Then we had The Prisoner, with Mary Morris’s fabulous turn as Number Two. So from what I’ve seen, Britain was ahead of the game anyway, but Cathy is about the most positive portrayal of an independent, resourceful woman you could ever hope to see, at least from the evidence of this episode. She is every bit the equal of Steed. In fact, she’s more than the equal of him, because she’s actually better than him at the undercover stuff.
In the first series, from what we can watch of it, Keel tended to do the lion’s share of the undercover stuff. He was a little bit more the James Bond character than Steed, although at times they were both fulfilling that role. Here instead we have Cathy going undercover, going to meet with “Mr Teddy Bear” the contract killer, and taking out a contract on Steed, to try to bring this mysterious criminal out into the open. And she’s amazing at it. She comes across as a woman who is always in control of any situation, completely adaptable and unflappable. Nominally she is subordinate to Steed, but you would hardly know it from their interactions. Their working relationship is every bit the team effort we saw with Steed and Keel.
In the end it doesn’t really matter that we are thrown into the middle of Steed and Cathy’s new working relationship, because it feels like we have known them forever, almost instantly. What a great team. And this happens against the backdrop of our most 007-esque adventure to date, with a rich killer demanding £200,000 to take out Steed, payable in industrial diamonds, while communicating with remote gadgetry via a talking teddy bear. Wonderful stuff. Steed even emulates James Bond by getting his kit off. It also feels like a battle of equals, with Steed very nearly losing his life to a booby trapped telephone.
But the unsung star of the show has to be Steed’s absolutely gorgeous Dalmatian, who steals every scene, especially when looking straight at the camera like some outrageous fourth wall breaker. Puppy the Great Dane from Series One was great, but I love Freckles the Dalmatian. Keel from Series One was great, but I love Cathy Gale. So far, I’m very happy with how this series has moved on from the last. Freckles should have been at the top of the cast list though. When she looked directly at us, I wanted to reach through the television screen and stroke her head. Breaking the fourth wall so skilfully, she was clearly an actress ahead of her time. RP
The view from across the pond:
I find something interesting in the grotesque. Like the uncanny valley, the grotesque isn’t bad, but it’s somehow wrong. It jars us on a subconscious level. The word itself means distorted and that’s what we are given with Mr. Teddy Bear; everything is distorted. It opens with an on-air interview about to begin with a colonel who suddenly springs out of his chair, then dies on camera. Certainly not something you see every day. Later, as Steed and Gale investigate their respective locales, there are a number of mannequin heads, limbs and a remote controlled teddy bear that speaks, among an assortment of other oddities. Everything about it is an elaborate setup and utterly bizarre. And I really enjoy the setting for this story as well as the crime! It’s totally nonsensical as a method of murder, but it entertains, and ultimately, that’s what we want.
However, the grotesque is not limited to the intentionally distorted. There are other things that flagged in my mind as wrong in a distorted way. Take for instance the murder weapon. A pill that is swallowed; it has a time released spring that kills the victim; a miniature gun with a bullet made of cyanide, if you like, shot off inside the victim’s body. It allows the murderer to be remote while still killing his intended victim. The victim is actually responsible for his own death; very clever indeed. When Steed is getting the scoop on how the Colonel was murdered, the scientist explaining it is showing Steed the very capsule extracted from the man’s insides… with his bare hands. They did say it contained cyanide; I wouldn’t be touching that bare handed for the simple fact that it came out of another person’s gut, but add cyanide to the mix and I’m only touching that in a full hazmat suit! Steed and Gale seem to have a very close relationship as they wrestle in very intimate terms, but even that seems wrong somehow because there’s no preamble to make me think they have any such relationship. Steed himself seems to delight in death; he talks gleefully about how people met their fate, smiling like he’s just watched his favorite team score a goal. And Steed has been a worthy hero in most of these stories, often having the upper hand in the few we’ve seen so far, but in this, it actually looks like the villain gets the drop on him; again, a subversion of expectations. The method of poisoning him is equally bizarre with a tainted receiver on a phone. What confounded me is that Steed actually interacted with the villain who was in his home; did it not dawn on him that maybe he should check the man’s credentials? If that’s not enough, there’s a recording ready to fool Cathy Gale that has a conveniently playable tape, ready to say everything she’ll ask, all in Steed’s voice. (Always nice when you have a pre-recording of your enemy’s voice, where you can predict every question asked so you get the recording in the right order, isn’t it?) And if that’s not enough of the grotesque, let me draw your attention to the music in this episode which is so jarring and mind-rending that I struggled not to run out of the room. (That level of grotesque I do not appreciate and firmly believe the composer should be shot. Or given an explosive pill, if you’d feel better about it!)
“Just do as I say.” Well, one might question how “woke” Steed is when he says this to Cathy Gale, but we can probably forgive him considering the series is a product of its time. These Avengers wouldn’t like to see the wrath of Black Widow if one of those Avengers told her the same thing! Steed isn’t alone though. The villain makes it a point to tell Gale that she would be the first woman he’s killed and he tries not to do that. Clearly he doesn’t want to kill the “unworthy”, or something equally archaic. That said, I do think she would deserve an ignominious demise, as she allows the bad guy to get closer and closer while pointing the gun at him, as if to say “come on, man, I dare you to take this from me.” But regardless of such limitations and 60s attitudes one might expect, the episode is another enjoyable entry into the series and a fun representation of the early spy genre. The episode held my attention from start to finish. Plus, it was also wonderful seeing Michael Robbins again even in such a small role. I looked at him for a solid minute before it hit me: this was Doctor Who’s Richard Mace from The Visitation but for me, my first encounter with him was in The Pink Panther Strikes Again, my favorite entry into the film franchise.
You can also see the influence this series had on The Prisoner as Steed carries his umbrella like a status symbol and not just a convenient tool for English weather. It’s no wonder the #2s of the Village thought it was a symbol of power. I’m afraid I like to travel light and hands-free so I suppose it’s not in my future to be a secret agent, but I begin to think that having an umbrella would make it easier. If nothing else, it’ll be good for a rainy day when one of these episodes fails to keep me entertained. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: Propellant 23