At the start of this episode I thought I had put the disk in for Doctor Who: The War Games by mistake, with the opening shot of General Smythe looking thoughtfully out of the window, but it was actually not Smythe, but another high ranking military officer played by the same actor. Noel Coleman was presumably typecast as that kind of character, but you can’t really blame the directors for choosing him for those kinds of roles because he’s a natural at them. Also a natural at wearing a uniform is “Commander Steed”, who looks great in that navy hat.
“I think it rather suits me, don’t you?”
It does indeed. The Avengers so far has been great at coming up with interesting locations and scenarios, and this time we are at a naval base where there is a traitor in their midst. An innocent young man has been framed and arrested, and his boyfriend is desperate to clear his name. There might be some raised eyes at that comment, but come on, it’s pretty obvious. One thing I’ve found fascinating about watching a lot of television from this era is how prevalent stories of homosexual love are, and that applies on both side of the pond (The Outer Limits does this for two episodes running, quite blatantly). When this episode was made we were still six years prior to the legalisation of homosexuality in the UK, but there were probably just as many stories about gay love in television shows as there are today, if not more. The writers just had to be a bit more subtle about it, but the implication is clear here.
“Crane and I were like brothers. Don’t ask me why.”
Graham is a great character, on a mission to free the man he loves, and it’s a very strong, intense performance from a very young William Gaunt, who Doctor Who fans will recognise as Orcini (Revelation of the Daleks). This episode is another treat for the Who actor spotters, with Richard Leech (Gatherer Hade in The Sun Makers) as one of the villains. Franks is a pretty revolting character, and it’s hard to watch him perving on Cathy, while she accepts his clumsy compliments with her customary dignity. You can tell when things really start to go wrong for Franks because his hair goes untidy. His final showdown with Steed is fabulous. Steed locks him in a room with a bomb, betting on him being able to defuse it. Cathy wants Steed to stop (“You can’t just leave him in there.”) but Steed is incredibly cool headed and has just the right amount of ruthlessness for the job.
“They’re very funny things those bombs, you know. May not kill you. Just mess you about a bit.”
This was a bit of a talky episode, and a lot of that talking is delivered with some very dubious Welsh accents. At least they all stopped short of saying “boyo”, but the accents tend to take a tour of the globe before settling on a bizarre almost-Welsh. It sounds like the Welsh accent would if Wales were a country in the Middle East. The episode also takes a long time to get to the point, but it’s a clever story, with the modus operandi of the traitors very well thought through. I loved the idea of communicating code with darts, and using a dog to deliver a message.
We are nearing the halfway mark of the second season, and it’s just flying by. I think the variety of different settings and storylines has been the big strength of The Avengers so far. This is a marvellously inventive series, and it shows no sign of running out of steam. RP
The view from across the pond…
Ah, Traitor in Zebra is a delightful episode, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. I was a fan of The Prisoner for decades before I sat down to watch this series and of all the episodes I’ve seen so far, I feel this is the most Prisoner-like. In fact, I’d be willing to believe this takes place in the same universe as #6’s world. Sure, the previous episode had hints of it, but this episode bumps up the references.
Commander Steed is investigating a military base where a young fellow named Crane is believed to have revealed secrets to the enemy. (This, because he made a comment that the government could learn a thing or two about efficiency. Imagine how many of us would be traitors here in the US for thinking our government needs life lessons!) Anyway, Steed is on the case to prove the poor chap is innocent. In the process, he meets Rankin. But here’s the thing: Rankin is played by John Sharp, who was a particularly nasty #2 in The Village during the episode A Change of Mind. “Oh,” I hear you say, “but he is killed in this story, and if this took place first, how could that be?” To which I says to you, “Leo McKern!” Those of you who remember Fallout know that he’s killed at the end of Once Upon a Time and brought back for the finale. I think the powers that be in the Village can bring back more than one person, don’t you? Not to mention, this is a perfect idea if you don’t want others to piece together who he is. If Rankin died in The Avengers, no one would be looking for him in The Prisoner! (And do we really know if he died anyway? Steed performs a Dr. McCoy-like evaluation: he’s dead, Cathy. He doesn’t even check for a pulse!) And what about the code used with the dartboard? It might as well have featured in Hammer into Anvil when #6 torments #2 with some meaningless numbers. (Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake!) Ironically the name too might bear some significance. McGoohan starred in another spy movie, and while I hadn’t seen it in years, I remember thinking at the time that his character could just as easily have been #6 in that movie as well. That movie was called Ice Station Zebra.
Sure, all of that is conjecture, but man is it fun to think about. And that’s not all. There’s a certain line, “I have a small piece of unfinished business in the village.” Sure, there are plenty of villages in the world, but could it be that we are dealing with the most famous one from the spy genre? If you’re still reluctant to take my word for it, what about that little “be seeing you” that one of the characters says? I am leaving it to you to decide but I’m hoping for more hints that, even if it was never intended by McGoohan, I will try to piece into the framework of this show. If nothing else, it’ll be a fun excursion into the realm of fantasy!
It’s an enjoyable episode on a number of counts, but for me, by far, it’s the Prisoner connections that got me hooked. I was also delighted to see Noel Coleman as Nash and it took me about 11 seconds to place the Doctor Who episode I recognized him from: Patrick Troughton’s swansong, The War Games. General Smythe hasn’t changed a bit from The Avengers to Doctor Who. And boy howdy, that man has a chin, doesn’t he?!
Steed is always fun to watch but I got a real kick out of watching Cathy throw him down. He offers advice that I don’t know if I would consider sound, but it was funny: “you’re always safe with a pipe smoker!” Of course, that was what made me really think I’d identified the bad guy, so not sure if it was a good line or not, but I still liked it. The best bit, however, was watching Steed risk life and limb on a gamble with a timebomb. It’s moments like that where you realize Steed isn’t a textbook good guy, but actually a really great agent for the good guys. (Daniel Craig’s James Bond might do these things, but The Avengers got there decades earlier!)
This was one of the fastest episodes I’ve seen in a while. I still don’t love the series; it’s good, maybe falling into a high average score, but now and then it moves into a low above average. I’ve not been totally taken by the show, although I am enjoying it, but the idea that this could take place in the world of The Village, even if we rarely see it, is a lure for me to keep going. Between that and a mysterious shadow organization behind the crimes… yes, this series may have a lot of potential yet. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: The Big Thinker