We’ve gone from one kind of magic to another. Last week it was a stage magician with a vanishing cabinet. This week we’re into full on curses and voodoo. You’ve got to feel sorry for poor old Peter Neville, who is little more than a puppet on a string here. He is a clever inventor, who has come up with a new kind of fuel that could benefit the whole human race, so he doesn’t deserve the cruel fate he meets. His only crime, if you can call it that, is to go dabbling in the occult after losing his wife. He’s a tragic figure. When we first see him he is already under the influence of some kind of a curse, although the wallpaper in his room is enough to give anyone a funny turn.
The portrayal of magic in this episode is a little odd. For a start, the writer equates horoscopes and yoga with magic, which probably wouldn’t happen today. But the really odd thing is the way curses, mind control from a distance and voodoo are all shown to be real things that work. When Neville is captured, we even see an apparition of Cosmo in his mirror, accompanied by a strange, shiny special effect. The writer makes some attempt to hedge her bets, with a line about magic working on people who believe in it, but that doesn’t match what we actually see on screen. This is not portrayed as a psychological phenomenon. This is real magic, shown to be a thing that works. Now, there’s nothing particularly wrong with a television show doing that, although the voodoo Cosmo uses on Markel is rather heavy stuff and was surely pushing the boundaries of what could be shown on television in 1963, but this is the first time that The Avengers has become a fantasy, rather than a thriller rooted in the real world. It’s a slightly awkward fit for the show. A sudden leap from one genre to another, which is basically what happens here, can feel like jumping the shark, and it’s certainly not done with the kind of style and excitement that was achieved when the Bond films tried the same trick with Live and Let Die. Instead we get altogether too many interminable scenes of people doing weird dancing, with the camera focussing mainly on a woman lunging around in her knickers.
The episode also suffers from being shifted to a later point in the series, although it was originally planned as Cathy’s introduction. What results is an uneven episode in more ways than one. It still feels a lot like it should be her first story (and would actually have worked much better in its original place), although some scenes were reshot so Steed and Cathy already know each other. The editing is clumsy, illustrating why editing of this nature was generally avoided at the time, i.e. it was very difficult and costly, and didn’t look very good. There was no grading of the picture like we would get nowadays, so the screen suddenly gets brighter when we shift to the older footage, and Cathy’s hair visibly flattens, which is admittedly rather amusing. The picture jumps around something chronic with each transition from old to new footage.
It would be fascinating to see the original cut of this episode, but we can’t do that, so if you instead try to focus on what was trying to be achieved by the original footage (a clue: it’s overexposed, and Cathy’s hair is a bit lifeless) then it’s quite an interesting insight into what would have been the original relationship between Steed and Cathy. Steed is clearly trying to hit on her, but more importantly he hasn’t learnt how capable she is yet. For example, he tries to insist on going to see Cosmo when Cathy is clearly better qualified to do that.
Cathy is amusingly an expert in black magic, just like she was an expert in ceramics last week and an expert in stamps a few weeks ago. I should have been making a list of these. Wasn’t ornithology one of her talents as well? Whatever the script requires her to know about, she just happens to be an expert. Lucky Steed. But he needs to stop hitting on her and start recognising her abilities. In this topsy-turvy season, that character development has already happened. RP
The view from across the pond:
Warlock has one of the most engrossing openers of any episode of The Avengers to date. At least, as far as my memory goes. Sadly, that may not be saying much because while I enjoy this series, I have not been completely captivated by it either. For the most part, I’m middle-of-the-road with it but an episode like this definitely appeals to me largely because I tend towards the macabre and this episode definitely fits the bill.
The start of the episode offers us a weird chanting with a large photo of a man that suddenly cracks and takes on a very grotesque appearance. The music throughout the episode is disturbing and the overlay of a spinning …something… on the screen to represent the hypnotic effect is all very familiar to many horror films of the 60s.
The real victory with this episode is, unsurprisingly, with Cathy Gale. I feel like a broken record saying that but when she flings Steed around you can’t help but realize how great a character she is. At the end, she even tricks the lead baddie, Gallion, and overpowers the cult, once again proving how formidable an agent she really is. But the ironic thing is that the moment that really scored highly for me was the beginning when Steed wondered about how an intelligent man might fall for the lure of psychic phenomena. Cathy explains that it’s not about intelligence but faith. She’s even written a monograph on the subject! I really like Cathy and she adds so much to the series. (And now we can celebrate her birthday since she says it: October 5th 1930, at midnight!)
Steed never seems to come close to Gale. I like him and his ever-present umbrella, but he’s not nearly as good as Cathy. Right at the start, a man is found having had a stroke and a black feather is found in his bed with him. Steed touches it, which felt wrong to me. Wouldn’t the trained secret agent know to be careful with it? Clearly poison could have been administered through it, no? What about when he makes Cathy pay for a drink and tells the server to “keep the change!” It wasn’t his to offer! I was very glad when Gale drove off telling Steed to “…work something out for yourself!”
The episode itself was suitably off-kilter but some of the deaths were strange. It might match the atmosphere of the episode but it was such an odd thing in a series that has, until now, been firmly in the realm of reality. Well, short of machine-gun wielding nuns, I mean! The death of Neville was very odd, and it seems to have been intentional: he died before being struck by Markel. Later Markel dies by voodoo; an unexpected turn of events. Not the expected weapon of choice for a spy series, surely.
This was absolutely my kind of episode, and I would love to see more like this. I felt the chief villain, Cosmo Gallion, was marvelous and unflappable and I’ve said many times that a good hero is made better by a good villain. This one had what it took! I still don’t know if I love the series, as I rarely even understand the motivation of the bad guys, but at least this was a nice turn from the typical spy-thriller stuff we’ve come to expect. And we all know variety is the spice of life. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: The Golden Eggs
It’s remarkable how many TV episodes like this one have dramatized the depressing consequences of someone, like Dr. Daystrom in Star Trek’s The Ultimate Computer or Prof. Sorenson in Dr. Who’s Planet Of Evil, who can either invent or discover something that imaginably should change life for the better, only to somehow fall victim to the dangerously negative side. We all like to think of our science and technology as a potentially good thing for the world. But if it can fall into evil hands, a cautionary note that I took to heart with Continuum City, then from one viewpoint, it might seem a a lot safer to abandon the invention or discovery in the first place. Reading another review earlier today on the film Brainstorm reminded me of how continual this dilemma is. But it only continues because we are driven by positive thinking. After all, anti-matter is very dangerous and yet in Star Trek, if handled responsibly enough, it can power starships. In this sense, I certainly feel sorry for Peter Neville. Thank you both for your reviews.
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