The Avengers: Dead on Course

The Avengers DVD releaseThis is Dr King’s third and final appearance in The Avengers and he leaves without fanfare and without having made much of an impression. That’s a shame because his first appearance was excellent, and Jon Rollason is capable of far better than the flat performance he puts in here, but he is not helped much by a script that does little with him other than use him as a fairly bland sidekick to Steed, who gets to have all the fun. It is Steed who gets to infuriate the airport staff, winding up a very tedious investigator who deserves all the baiting Steed gives him. It is also Steed who gets most of the interaction with the memorable characters in the pub. Poor Dr King, in contrast, makes his greatest contribution to the story by trying to get a silent nun to talk:

“All I want to know is one thing: who killed her?”

Give her a pen and a piece of paper! Play charades! King is such a straight-laced character that he desperately needs a bit of absurdity or high drama, but instead it’s a performance that’s nearly all on one level. But even Steed is eclipsed this week by one unforgettable performance: Donal Donnelly as Vincent. He is just hilarious, and such a nice chap that you really warm to him. Steed builds up a strong rapport with him, becoming his drinking buddy, and the funniest moment of the episode is when Steed is trying to get Vincent to spill the beans and Vincent says he was sworn to silence on his mother’s grave…

“How much would it take to break a promise?”
“Well now, sir, seeing as how my mother isn’t exactly dead yet…”

It’s an old joke, but it still made me laugh out loud. Actually, scratch that. It’s the second funniest moment of the episode. The funniest is unintentional humour, when the Mother Superior produces a machine gun from her habit.

Vincent is such a likeable character that the twist in the tale is a total shocker. I loved that everything was a big conspiracy with just about everyone involved in one way or another, not always in ways that were easily guessable. The story was actually a really good one this week, with planes being drawn off course to crash, so that the valuable baggage could be stolen, although it could have done with a bit more acknowledgement of the terrible death toll involved in a crime like that. We are made aware of the deaths, but what was needed here was for some of the characters to be much more affected by that. The villains are all far too lacking in a conscience and therefore don’t come across as real people. It would have been useful to see at least some of the culprits grappling with their conscience at committing a massacre for the sake of money, or perhaps King could have stopped being a stuffed shirt just for one second to get a bit shaken up by having to inspect dozens of dead bodies, anything to make the point that this is actually something really nasty that Steed and King have uncovered this week. The closest we come is Steed’s line about “the wreckage of 38 people”, which is a turn of phrase that has some impact.

Interestingly, this is one of the most-viewed episodes of The Avengers on first broadcast, and was watched by more people than any other episode from the second season. If that has anything to do with the quality of the episode then it’s probably because the idea is so interesting. On paper this sounds like a great story, but the execution of the idea is sloppy. In particular, the final moments are horribly rushed and clumsy, and the direction in general is a bit on the wobbly side. This is made even worse nowadays as the print of this episode seems to have suffered more damage than any other episode I have watched so far, with the picture frequently breaking up or jumping around, and an ever-present hair or something on the right of the screen. But I can’t complain too much. Where do you look nowadays on television to find larger-than-life characters like Vincent and the pub landlord Michael Joyce, or a bloke dressed up as a nun, or a Mother Superior wielding a machine gun? This is 60s entertainment at its liveliest and most inventive.

So it’s a fond farewell to Dr King, who showed so much promise to start with, but probably ended up deserving to be the avenger nobody much remembers.   RP

The view from across the pond:

Surely this is a first.  I don’t know how many shows pre-1960 had nuns wielding machine guns, but I am certain this has to be the original appearance!  If not, it sure is a fun one!  And what a great battle too, made even more impressive by taking place in a good Irish catholic convent.  I wish I could write with the Irish accent that I’m hearing in my head; it would make for a much better review.

As if that’s not enough, Vincent O’Brien is a great character, utterly likable in all the most innocent ways that only a good Irish lad could really pull off… until the writer, Eric Paice, threw a spanner in the works and made him a bad guy.  Why would they do that?  I confess, I saw it coming, but I’m getting thoroughly ahead of myself.  This is an episode that opens with one of the least convincing aircraft crashes I’ve ever seen before starting an investigation into what happened.  Overall, this creates a good mystery while Steed and Dr. Martin King work to figure out what happened.  King gets involved with the nuns who have taken a vow of silence (leading to at least one funny moment with Steed) and Steed becomes drinking partners with the aforementioned Vincent.  (I especially loved when Vincent swore he would not say anything “on his mother’s grave”, then Steed offers him money at which point Vincent thinks better of it: “seein’ how my mother isn’t actually dead yet…”)

The cast really makes this show watchable; more than the plots.  I actually find they always get a bit muddled, really.  I think they try to be James Bond-esque with twists and turns but I don’t find them engrossing enough and I am positive the audio would be better if I were not using a high end surround system while viewing.  While they get somewhat convoluted, the characters come to life to such an extent that I still care about what’s going on.  This is a case in point for writers to learn from: give us good characters and we may be invested enough to care about them regardless of the story.  I don’t think the inverse is true.  A good story with terrible characters isn’t one I can get invested in the way I can with the reverse.  So this series wins by the strength of the characters.   Steed is reckless in many ways but he’s always fun to watch.  He puts himself and others in harm’s way in the hopes of uncovering what’s going on and has to succeed or the series would have ended ages ago.  Still, when he does it, it’s always a major gamble!  He’s a cool customer though and shines especially brightly when Cathy Gale isn’t around.  Gale outshines him consistently, but an episode with the nasally Dr. King really makes him the star of the show!  I don’t dislike King, but he really never captures the stage the way Steed and Gale do (barring one rather fantastic tackle a few episodes back)

I consistently try to picture what it was like to watch this at the time it aired, when only a few channels existed.  I am certain it would have been something to look forward to.  For me, it rarely strikes all the right chords, but this episode had some fun moments and I can sum them up in a handful of images: machine-gun wielding nun, good Irish boy Vincent and defeating a nun by blowing her up!  I’ll say this for it: it does catch me off-guard a lot.  Maybe getting Cathy back, hopefully in the next episode, I’ll feel differently.  ML

Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: Intercrime

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on junkyard.blog. Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com. Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Reviews, Television and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Avengers: Dead on Course

  1. scifimike70 says:

    It’s so astonishing to think about what TV viewing opportunities were like long before all the tech, from VCRs to digital cable access, that makes it all more convenient now. Consequently it makes a lot of old shows like The Avengers all the more fascinating indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

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