The box of the title does not actually refer to the magician’s cabinet that appears frequently throughout this episode, and it’s a good job that it doesn’t, because it’s just about the most boring old magic trick ever, and keeps getting repeated. Just how often does the magician want to do that trick? It’s fun the first time, with a dead body falling out of it, although I suppose I really shouldn’t call that “fun”, but when that happens again you have to wonder why he keeps going with the same trick. You would have thought the police would have had a word in his ear and said “look, mate, it’s time to learn a different trick.”
The actual “box of tricks” is a box of con tricks, used by a charlatan not-doctor. Anyone with half a brain would see through his spiel immediately, when he says his box containing an assortment of minerals will cure anything. At one point he even talks about radiation. The funniest thing is that he says the box must not be opened by anyone apart from himself, which allows him to hide something inside that is definitely not there to cure a patient, but it’s a plan that is very obviously doomed to failure, because if you tell somebody not to open something, the first thing they will usually do is open it. Human nature.
Cathy is taking a week off again, and Venus is back… except she isn’t, quite. Somebody else who looks like Venus and has the same name features this week, but it definitely isn’t the Venus we are familiar with, unless she has bumped her head and woken up with a whole new personality. The DVD has an introduction from Julie Stevens, who explains that a new producer came in and decided he wanted a different kind of character for Venus, and instead of recasting or creating a new character just told Stevens to play the role differently. She describes the result as “an entirely new Venus, who is just the same,” but only the first part of that sentence is correct. She isn’t the same at all.
I quite liked the old Venus, but the new one grated on my nerves right from the start. She is far too bubbly and it’s the first time The Avengers has given us a stereotypical girly screamer as an assistant for Steed. It’s also a dreadful performance from Stevens, but it’s not her fault whatsoever. She was being asked to do something completely unnatural and silly, and the end result is predictably… unnatural and silly. It’s not a good personality transplant. Can we have the old Venus back, please?
To give Stevens her due, she did what she was told and committed herself to the new version of the character, even carrying over the irritating, quirky, bubbliness to her two song performances. I love her singing voice, which is just effortless, but cheesy doesn’t even begin to describe her stage presence this week. I normally love a fourth wall break, but when she was singing “let yourself go” direct to the camera, I was just thinking “no thanks”… although I am tempted to have a go at that 60s dancing when nobody is looking. From what I can see you rotate your hips around and swing your arms back and forth. I might be able to manage that particular iteration of dad dancing.
As you can see, my mind was wandering a bit, and that’s not because this is a bad story in particular. It’s because it’s two good stories stuck together, but you can see the join. The magician stuff is actually quite creepy at times, especially when Venus goes wandering around among the props backstage. The charlatan doctor spying on his patients is also a good story, but the two ideas are sort of cobbled together without much continuity between them, as if the writer got fed up with his first story and threw in a second idea as well. I had high hopes for this when I saw that Peter Ling was one of the writers, but sadly there wasn’t a clockwork soldier to be seen. Instead there were two boxes… but not much in the way of tricks. RP
The view from across the pond:
I figured out what bothers me with the sound in these episodes. It’s a little thing that I’ve been talking about with a few work colleagues. The three of us were discussing how hard it is to distinguish words in noisy environments. It’s not that the three of us in question are deaf, contrary to the way I’m often made to feel, but that with other sounds happening in the area, our respective brains have a hard time establishing what’s being said. Box of Tricks opens with a jaunty little ditty played while people are talking in a club, and I’ll be damned if I got 10% of the words. Personal problem, I know! It’s absolutely exacerbated by a high end surround sound system that creates more noise but it’s damnably frustrating and takes me out of the episode.
Luckily this episode is very visual which is ironic for an episode in which sound, particularly of the recorded variety, plays such a huge role. Our happy singer, Venus Smith is back and sporting a new haircut that looked fantastic on her. I didn’t realize what a very attractive young lady she was until this episode. I also had to laugh when she sees Steed enter the club; she made a face that said she knew things had just taken a turn! The episode opens with a disappearing act, which may be referring to the titular Box of Tricks, wherein the person who goes in doesn’t come out alive. Now, cleverly, the title could also apply to the box given to the General that contains “special radioactive properties” to heal him. I question just how bad British Intelligence is if they accept the word of any medical man and just allow any old “box of tricks” into top secret discussion. “No no, old chap, I say, it’s just a pine scented box to make the negotiations more enjoyable. Ignore the man inside it…”
Besides the audio on these, I also have to say that Steed just isn’t as much fun to watch as Cathy Gale. The final battle has him come running in to fight two men as if he’s Bruce Lee. The first one nearly overpowers him while the second struggles to get his gun out of a pocket which he then steadfastly refuses to use on the hero. He eventually does decide to shoot at Steed but seemingly mistakes a spider on the ceiling for the target. I almost wonder if they actors were afraid the guns might be real and avoided ever aiming at one another as a result. The finished product looks absolutely terrible, but a bit of suspension of disbelief covers a lot of ground. (Doctor Who fan, you understand!)
While there are things I dislike, I utterly loved Venus in this episode. When asked to be the magicians assistant, she asks, “no one’s got a reason to murder me, have they?” No, Venus, anyone who wants to murder you will have a lot to answer for. She’s so loveable! Then at the end, she talks 90 miles an hour (or should that be kilometers?) as she tries to figure out the plot. And I actually loved the scene between the general and Steed. Steed is told to come clean about his assignment, and there’s a casual understanding between the two men that is just top notch.
Overall, the episode is like its title – tricky. I liked the episode overall, but found there were a number of little nits to pick. (Not the least of which was that magic box, that had a very evident door in the back of it!) Half the time, I’ve no idea what the villains are trying to achieve, but they just seem to be out for villainy’s sake with each story. Then again, didn’t Moriarty finance some odd dealings in the Sherlock Holmes cannon? Who am I to judge? If it works for Sherlock, it can work for The Avengers. Tricky, though they may be… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: Warlock
When magicians are involved in an episode of a series like The Avengers, or Columbo where it will happen twice and the first occasion with Jack Cassidy guest starring again, it may test the audience in a way that was subjectively appealing for its time. Certainly for Doctor Who’s Li H’sen Chang in The Talons Of Weng Chiang. Of course it’s one’s own belief or disbelief in magic that affects how it holds up. The best example for me from the last century was the magician in Terror Train, played by David Copperfield himself. It takes films like The Prestige nowadays as a deconstruction for all the illusionist characters to make us rethink a lot. So it’s even more interesting to look back on TV episodes like Box Of Tricks and appreciate their originally best impacts. Thank you both for your reviews.
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