The Avengers: The Medicine Men

The Avengers DVD releaseIn 1961 Sydney Newman created The Avengers for ABC. Two years later he created another long-running series for rival channel BBC. You might have heard of it: Doctor Who. On 23rd November 1963, Doctor Who made it’s debut at 5.15pm on the BBC. Over on rival network ITV, The Avengers episode The Medicine Man was shown later the same evening, written by Malcolm Hulke, who would go on to create the Silurians and the Sea Devils for Doctor Who, and starring future Who alumni Peter Barkworth and Harold Innocent (although the latter’s appearance in Doctor Who would come some 25 years later). Had I been around at the time, I know which series I would have been happier watching on that famous evening in television history, because The Medicine Men is a slow-burner of an episode to say the least.

For the second week running we are tangentially in the world of medicine, this time a pharmaceutical company selling products internationally, which keep getting faked. To combat this problem they have designed new packaging (which the designer for this episode doesn’t seem to have put to much effort into, because it’s just plain lettering) in the hope that they can gain a few months for their products to become firmly established before the fakers catch up, creating a discerning customer base who will accept no imitations. The problem is that somebody has got hold of the new designs already, and is in the process of having 20,000 labels printed.

A mystery surrounding who has leaked a new packaging design isn’t exactly thrilling, and the first half of the episode meanders along, but things start to get more and more complicated and draw in the viewer a lot more towards the end. The stakes are raised considerably when it turns out that there is a lot more in jeopardy here than a company’s profits. The fakers are intending to flood the market with poisonous medicine in a small former British protectorate, to turn the population against the British, so somewhere else gets their oil… or something. Convoluted doesn’t even begin to describe it, and I’m not sure it makes a whole lot of sense. When a product goes wrong, who blames the country of origin rather than the company, and it’s not as if they’ve stuck the union flag all over the packaging?

The interesting bit is figuring out who the traitors are, and there is a genuine surprise near the end, although by and large it’s all reasonably obvious that the answer to the question of who is up to no good is pretty much everyone. It’s about degrees of villainy here. It’s one thing making a bit of extra money off some faked labels, but it’s quite another taking “blood money” for poisoning an entire population. Harold Innocent is great as the amoral ringleader, and I also liked Newton Blick’s turn as deluded old man John Willis, who is frustrating his son by having an affair with a woman who is young enough to be his granddaughter, while leaving all the work to his son Geoffrey (Peter Barkworth).

It’s quite clever how Cathy manoeuvrers herself into a position where she can snoop around the company, and her discovery of a body hanging in a cupboard is an effective surprise moment. Less successful are Steed’s attempts to go undercover as a buyer from Reykjavik. It’s a good job he says where he is from, because his accent veers between Russia, France and Winston Churchill. It’s one of the most bizarre attempts at pretending to be a generic shifty foreigner I’ve ever seen. Cathy is magnificent as ever, of course, winning a fight with her hands tied behind her back and a patch over one eye.

As for the fight between the two television networks on 23rd November 1963, there could actually be two winners here, because a discerning viewer would have enjoyed Doctor Who on the BBC, and then switched over later for The Avengers, although I’m not sure many people would have done that, as it was scheduled against the news on the BBC, the day after the assassination of JFK. If I had to miss one episode of The Avengers, The Medicine Men wouldn’t be a huge loss. For a viewer that evening it must have seemed terribly slow and ordinary, compared to a mysterious blue box in a junkyard. Sydney Newman had worked his magic again.   RP

The view from across the pond:

This series has tried my patience a lot since I started watching it.  There are some really stand out moments, but I’ve lately felt this is the John Steed Show – at least in the mind of star Patrick Macnee.  The thing is, Catherine Gale stands out far more than Steed in most cases.  Even in this episode, she takes the cake at the end but not before Steed gets the best line of the whole series so far.

The story centers around Steed finding out about the death of a young woman in a Turkish spa.  This leads to an investigation that quickly becomes another of The Avengers standard convoluted plots.  There are people producing medicine that is actually poison to get a small island nation to become part of the British Empire.  I grant you this is a nutshell description but selling false pharmaceuticals seems a crazy way to get a nation to become part of the Empire, but let’s just move on; I have so little regard for geo-political nonsense, that trying to dive into that was an effort I didn’t want to bother with. 

I’ll try to sum up what annoyed me about it though.  Father John and Son Geoffrey run a business.  Father is dating a girl 30 years younger than he is.  Son is a bit of a jackass who is very intense (although actually quite fun to watch).  Dad’s girlfriend is modeling for Bad Guy Artist (Frank) who likes to wear dark glasses to pretend he’s Andy Warhol or something.  His idea of art is to have women roll around in paint then throw themselves on canvas.  I can’t imagine how untidy his workshop is.  Son has a secretary who is secretly working for Bad Guy Artist Frank.  So you can see the crisscross that’s happening.  Frank  has connections to the father and son through the model and the secretary.  The secretary secretly listens to her bosses conversations but it’s implied he’s behind the whole operation so why bother if he’s actually running things?  I’ll come back to this in a moment though.  Then at one point, Cathy finds a dead body in the cupboard which is one of those other logic gaps – the closet is 3 feet wide; how does one walk in without seeing a corpse hanging from the light?  It’s one of those surprises designed to end an act that doesn’t really make sense.  This too, I will come back to in a second.

Now even though the obvious villain is about as interesting as watching the paint dry on one of his canvases, Peter Barkworth as Geoffrey Willis is quite good.  At one point he covers John Steed with a gun saying he was unable to find a gun with a silencer.  Steed leads casually against a column and says “What a pity.  I could!”   Hands down, one of the best lines Steed has ever said!  He then takes a shot at Willis and, in standard 60’s fashion, catches him in the wrist.   You know, that most targetable target of the entire human body!   

You’ll have to forgive the quality of the image, but this is the reaction one has to being shot in the wrist.  The more you know…


Cathy also gets to wear an eyepatch in this episode due to a fight, then she’s sent to a modeling agency with the patch on.  I thought the sequence was interesting when Steed told her she’d need “more than eyeshadow to cover that in a couple of hours”. Now, I don’t mean to sound shallow but it made me wonder if something actually happened to Honor Blackman during filming that she actually needed the eyepatch because, why else would that be part of the script?  I would think a new model showing up wearing an eyepatch might put the agency off a bit.  Based on his reaction, he’s not put off, in fact gropes her and tries to kiss her repeatedly and it’s damned uncomfortable viewing.  She eventually is found out, tied up and then still manages to take down the evil secretary.  Steed even compliments her and, in fairness, it’s typically awesomeness of Cathy’s: she manages to both disarm the woman and hold her down by the neck while tied to the chair and wearing the eyepatch.  She absolutely carries this show. 

One thing that actually worked well for the episode however was that the convoluted plot might actually have helped with something.  See, Willis is implied to be the actual brain behind everything because he’s expected to come pay the other bad guys off and doesn’t show up because Steed “wrist shot” him.  Steed then shows up in his place.  But I wondered if that made any sense.  Due to the web of connections, the father would have undoubtedly known something was up with the son.  The dead body found in the cupboard of Willis’s business would have likely uncovered more than it did – after finding it, nothing changed with the operations of the business – and most importantly: what happened to the idea that you don’t crap where you eat??  If you’re an actual bad guy, do you leave a dead body in your business to draw attention to it?  That’s in the Villains Guide books; everyone knows it!  So that was a senseless idea that was there solely to end a chapter in a very unfulfilling way!   And the secretary who listened into Willis’s conversations would surely have known what was going on, but even if she didn’t, HE would have!  He would have known that the woman working for him was working for him both on the books and off.  So by leaving the name of the mastermind out of the conversation, (“We’re working for someone else!”) I had to wonder if, like earlier this season, we might in fact have a “Moriarty” behind things.  I’m still hoping this series surprises me. 

The crazy thing is, I liked this episode.  Not that I think we need the over-complicated schemes but that the characters were very watchable.  The problem I think it suffers from most is not having enough actors to play some parts.  This clearly would have benefitted from a rewrite and a few more people to play other roles, because the close-knit set of baddies all would have been known to one another. 

Maybe I should only watch this at noon when I’m fully awake because I do feel like I must be missing something.  Roger tends to like these episodes, and I sit there thinking about how far we’ve come in television script writing.  Alas, this was November of 1963, so we’re at the time of Doctor Who now and we know how incredible those scripts often were.  Maybe the series will improve when we get into late November… yeah, that’ll happen…  ML

Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: The Grandeur That Was Rome

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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