The Avengers: The Big Thinker

The Avengers DVD releaseWe start with a slow pan around an impressive studio set, and I don’t blame the director for that. He was probably very pleased with the designer’s work for this one and wanted to show off what he had to work with, a two-layer set with a super computer. Looking back at representations of computers on television in the 60s, you’ve got to laugh really, haven’t you. I’ve seen a few of them now, in shows such as Doctor Who and A for Andromeda, and they are always huge affairs, normally with spinning tapes and flashing lights, but Plato is even more bizarre and amusing, with massive tangles of wires, and a giant pipe with… well, I think it was supposed to be some kind of coolant. That was actually the one area where the designer failed to do a convincing job, because that pipe looks like a gentle breeze would bring it crashing down, or at least break the link.

The story this week revolves around a mysterious saboteur. I found it quite confusing as to why anyone wanted to sabotage the project, or how exactly each person involved fitted into the picture, but I think that was because the episode’s main focus was elsewhere. This is very much a character piece for a flawed genius: Dr James Kearns, played by future father-in-law to the Prime Minister, Antony Booth. I fret about who my daughter might end up bringing home when she grows up, but console myself that whoever it turns out to be, it can’t possibly be as bad as that.

Kearns is a fascinating character, a master of his craft with an extraordinary brain, but a deeply flawed personality. He is horrendously arrogant, and pride comes before a fall. He shows off when playing cards, winning lots of money, while the real sharks hover in the background, ready to pounce when the game gets into the realms of serious money and Kearns drinks enough to derail his card counting talents. It does little to dent his self-confidence, and when his boss attempts to sack him and he refuses to leave, he does actually have a point. As much as he comes across as an absolute pig, there is nobody else working on the project who could step into his shoes. It’s a bit frustrating to watch, because it shows how it’s not only the nice people who are born with the greatest talents. Nasty people are born gifted as well, and Kearns certainly has a rotten personality. He is horribly sexist, coming up with lines such as “I want to have a word with my bird” (Cathy is nothing of the sort), and worst of all this horrible little tirade:

“She should be at home in someone’s bed, not pushing buttons here. No, she could get together with that anthropology bird and talk knitting.”

So in other words, women are only good for sex and knitting, in Kearns’s world view. The interesting thing is that he is clearly shown to be a pig. These aren’t simply 60s values. His opinions are enormously out of step with those of everyone else in his life, and his boss is quick to defend his female colleague and ask him to leave when he gets too disrespectful. This is just as clear an indication as the ass-kicking Cathy that attitudes towards women were already going through some positive changes. Kearns’s behaviour is clearly shown to be unacceptable.

Speaking of the ass-kicking Cathy, she gets a couple of fights this week, the first of which is an easy win, and the second lasts all of about two seconds. Steed pops in to check up on her occasionally, but she rarely needs his help. I get the feeling he hangs around her because he wants to, rather than anything much to do with his work, or rather he wants to protect her in a different way. Just look how he turns up at her flat late at night, to make sure Kearns doesn’t have his wicked way with her. Later in the episode, Steed tries, and fails, to cook for Cathy, and she has to take over; they now seem to have a comfortable relationship with each other, almost like an old married couple. I think any speculation about what they might or might not get up to behind closed doors misses the point about Steed and Cathy, and I hope that line is never crossed, because as it stands this is a beautiful portrayal of a friendship of equals, and one of mutual respect, with more than a little teasing. It comes across as something very real.

The pacing this week was once again a little slow, but there were plenty of standout moments to bring the episode to life. The computer being switched off and then keeping going was actually quite frightening, a bit like those moments in horror films where the plug gets pulled out of a radio or television or something and it makes no difference. Cathy exposing Broster as a cheat and taking back her money was a great moment of humiliating the villain. Best of all, we end with Cathy cuddling one of Steed’s rotation of gorgeous dogs, Sheba. If I watch too much of this show I’m going to be tempted to get a dog myself… or maybe a giant computer with a big pipe full of dry ice to cool it. Actually, I think I’ll pass.   RP

The view from across the pond…

I had to laugh when the title of this episode came up on screen.  We open with a scientist working in a lab of some sort, right out of a 60’s Doctor Who episode, when a gas leak occurs.  We know nothing of the nature of the leak but what we do see is that the scientist goes right up to it and breathes in the gases while trying to fix the problem.  He collapses and the title shows up: The Big Thinker.  And all I could think was: sure wasn’t that dude!  But that was about where my mockery of the episode ended.  After that, we had a story that struck me as very forward thinking.  Supercomputers, cryogenics, and AI are all things I make the foolish assumption are more modern discoveries, but that’s not the case and this episode does a good job reminding me of that.  The story is about a supercomputer named Plato, part of a missile defense system, that may or may not be the victim of sabotage.  Death… or is it murder… ensues and Cathy and Steed are on the case.  Cathy gets her information from some local card sharks too!

Now, I don’t know how likely it would be that playing cards would help reveal who is behind the sabotage and murder at the center, as I don’t think those two worlds generally mix, but I bought into it completely and I know it’s sold to me through Cathy Gale who is, hands down, the best part of the show.   Steed is certainly good, but he can’t rise out of Cathy’s shadow, even with his seemingly endless supply of cute dogs.  He has his moments, no doubt, like when he sneaks up on the bad guys with his umbrella and then treats everything so confidently that you have to admire him, but Cathy just seems to always out-perform him.  First she wins back her £500 from the card shark, which was a punch-the-air moment on its own, then she gets the drop on two people invading her flat.  But not just that; when she walks in, it appears only one person is in the room, but Cathy first surprises him, then knocks him down, then beats him up again when he attacks her from behind.  Cathy is great fun to watch and I’m convinced Honor Blackman must have loved playing the character.  We wouldn’t see such a capable woman on our TVs today, let alone back then!  (Ok, I’m exaggerating, but she’s outstanding!)  There’s even a moment where she’s going to see Kearns.  Janet, who has a crush on Kearns, is feeling like Cathy is winning his heart.  Cathy deftly defuses that and as she leaves saying “You coming?” which brings a smile to Janet’s face.  She made the woman feel secure and I applauded her for it.  And by God, she cooks better than Steed too.  (I also found it a curious thing that Cathy always goes by Mrs. Gale and we get a trickle of information that her husband died some years ago on their farm in Africa.  This is either an elaborate backstory for a spy or that part is actually a part of her character, because we’ve heard plenty of her discussions about Africa and the farm, but this was the first time I recalled hearing her say what happened to her husband.  Either way, I love these slow drips of information we get about Cathy.)

As much as I really enjoyed this episode, and believe me, I did, there are some things that got under my skin.  I know it’s the 60’s and boy genius Kearns has no filter or concept of being polite but I didn’t like that “women have an extra layer of fat” comment as if to say Cathy would be ok with the cold a little longer than he would.  News flash: 4 degrees Kelvin, which we’re told the temperature has to be kept at for the computer systems, isn’t something a person can tolerate.  That equates to -450 degrees in Fahrenheit, -260 Celsius.  Sorry pal, no extra layer of fat was helping either of you.  He also spouts the line about Janet that “she should be at home in someone’s bed”.  Wow, and you still have a full set of teeth?  Or are those dentures?  Surely dentures were around in the 60s.  Speaking of 60’s, it must have been common for doctors to diagnose people at a glance. Having recently re-watched classic Star Trek, I felt like the medical doctor who evaluates Farrow was a student of Doctor McCoy (or a grandfather).  His “he’s dead” might have been accurate, but it felt like it was very quickly diagnosed with no attempt to save the man.  And isn’t the phone Steed uses to call for help the same one that had the line cut earlier?  I guess, considering how important it would be to have that phone available, it probably got fixed right away.

The episode surprised me too because Farrow appears to succeed in his sabotage attempts.  He dies of electrocution from his actions, but he does actually foil the use of Plato.  Maybe it’s a temporary setback only but it amazed me that the episode ended with that.  For the epilogue, Steed finally gets to go on his trip to the Middle East and we have what appears to be a happy ending even though the two technically have failed.  Well, I guess they did identify the criminals, but that missile defense is still out of commission.  Maybe I’m thinking about too deeply on the subject.  Sometimes it pays to think small.  ML

Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: Death Dispatch

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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1 Response to The Avengers: The Big Thinker

  1. scifimike70 says:

    It’s always amazing how many things in 60s television might seem in retrospect compared to how things, certainly in SF and action-adventure shows, have progressed since. HAL and Colossus are the cornerstones for how super computer roles would be treated more seriously over time. Even with the light-hearted computer roles like K-9 and Kitt, they could be more personalized to where some older TV shows, even those that wouldn’t be made today, would still be looked back upon in the best light.

    The Avengers for the particularly adventurous 60s may not have been laughable back then. With the memories of 60s shows that one may grow up with, speaking from my own experience, it’s an effortless ability to look upon a 60s show after many years and appreciate certain elements much more. So introducing our kids to more 60s shows and films at an early age can be healthy and it’s quite fair to still warn them about stuff that might put them off. But The Avengers is special as an adventure show where specific allowances could be made and especially thanks to the wisdom of Sydney Newman.

    Thanks for your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

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