Right from the start this episode had my attention, with a courtyard full of Roman statues and ivy growing around the walls. It’s a great setting for a story, but then I do have to admit that I share Sir Bruno Luca’s fascination with Roman art and architecture. I certainly don’t share his sad dream of the Roman Empire existing once more, and I’m not sure Sir Bruno entirely believed in his own weird ambitions either. I’ll explain.
Sir Bruno is a fascinating character with an outrageous scheme to hold the world to ransom by creating a plague and keeping control of the antidote until he is made Emperor of the World. He wants to recreate the Roman Empire, complete with togas and orgies, and himself as the new Julius Caesar. But I don’t believe for one minute that he thinks he will succeed, and the evidence for that is the character of Marcus.
When Sir Bruno invites Marcus into his home it seems like a ridiculous thing to do. You can tell he’s a maniac by the way he eats grapes for a start, chomping a mouthful out of the bunch as if he’s taking a bite out of an apple. But he immediately starts flirting with Sir Bruno’s girlfriend (and supposedly future Empress) and is obviously going to be trouble, and yet Sir Bruno invites probably the shiftiest person he’s ever met to come and live with him. The reason for this, I think, is that Sir Bruno knows deep down that his plan is absurd, and the only way he can play out his Caesar fantasy is to live the Shakespeare play. His coronation is a pathetic and silly affair, all togas and speeches in front of a handful of similarly deluded weirdos. When Marcus fulfils his part in the story and becomes Brutus, Sir Bruno plays along as if he’s taking part in the play, except the knife is real. He lives his dream of being Julius Caesar in the only way he really can, by embodying the end of that story and recreating his death.
Although this is all fairly obvious for an attentive viewer, it did actually need to be stated rather than implied, but I think that doesn’t happen because the writer is half hoping to make a credible threat out of Sir Bruno, for the sake of the drama. Is Sir Bruno a dangerous enemy for Steed and Cathy, or is he a strange obsessive with a death wish? Writer Rex Edwards tries to make him a bit of both, and that creates a problem with the resolution, because the Roman Empire didn’t end when Caesar died, and there are plenty of the cultists left alive and a deadly poison still available for them to use, plus an untested antidote that might not work at all. We are probably supposed to assume there will be a mopping up exercise, but it never quite feels like the threat has been removed and the plot resolved, and I think this is a problem with the formula that is developing here. The Avengers is becoming a series that centres around comic book villains with crackpot schemes, who are without exception defeated during a big punch up at the end. The writers seem to think that the fight to end the episode is sufficient to communicate to the viewer that the bad guys have been defeated, but I think that disrespects the viewers, assuming we will be satisfied by the death of the pantomime villain and won’t stop to think about the consequences of his actions during the previous 50 minutes. It also creates another problem. Constructing a story that is all about establishing a crackpot scheme and then resolving it with a big fight places all the dramatic emphasis on a minute or two of fighting, and the majority of the previous 50 minutes is inevitably going to feel padded. That’s what’s starting to happen regularly to The Avengers. We’re already getting spoon-fed our dastardly baddies and punch-ups like addicts being plied with our weekly fix, but we are kept waiting to get it, and when the episode finally delivers it is unsatisfying because it’s the opposite of engaging the viewer’s brain. Biff! Pow! Job done. I was vaguely aware that popular opinion has it that The Avengers really comes into its own when it settles into a pattern of larger-than-life villains with madcap schemes. Now that transition is happening, I’m yet to be convinced that it’s an improvement on what we’ve seen so far. Like Sir Bruno’s view of Rome, it’s all a bit superficial. RP
The view from across the pond:
Ok so this one is a doozy.
Doctor Who was the first show where I’d ever seen the actor Hugh Burden. He played an Auton named Channing in Jon Pertwee’s debut episode in 1970. He is perfectly cast as an Auton because he doesn’t look entirely human. In The Grandeur that was Rome, he’s a nutjob who thinks he’s Caesar. Personal tidbit: I have a hard time finding hats that fit me; my head is too damned large. Wish that guaranteed a bigger brain, but what can you do? I don’t know if it’s his hairdo or just the actual shape of the man’s head, but I suspect Burden never found hats to fit him. His cranium is enormous, yet he comes up with a truly wacky plan that just proves my point: having a larger cranium does not guarantee a larger brain. Moriarty suggested the same when he first met Sherlock Holmes. He wants to create a new Roman empire and rule the world as its new leader. To do this, he’ll hold the world ransom for “one million dollars…” (whoops, sorry, wrong movie!) …for the cure to the Black Death. Convoluted much? Remember, this is The Avengers, after all.
Ok, so maybe it would have helped had he read Shakespeare first so he’d know the outcome was always going to be an Ides of March demise, betrayed by his right hand man who also was in love with his wife, but that’s not even the real issue here. Sure, a wackadoo in power is nothing new; look at recent history! But it was the people who followed him that got me… ok, well, yeah, I see the problem with my own thinking there, but what was the campaign slogan? “Watch Caligula and if you like that movie, that’s what life will be like with me as the leader!” The only issue is that Caligula didn’t come out until 1979, so his campaign slogan would have been woefully underwhelming! Then to see grown men and women dressing as if they were the rejected extras for Doctor Who’s The Romans was even more of a leap of logic. Yes, I’m sure we all appreciate a good bacchanalia and would be happy to have a ruler who offers us such pleasures, but are people really likely to get so into the roleplaying game that is the foundation of this misadventure? People calling one another by newly appointed Roman names and using phrases from ancient times (like “pigs walking backwards”)? Hey, I can suspend disbelief with the best of them but this one was a bridge too far.
The idea of using germ warfare and the black plague was admittedly a scary one and definitely a surprise to hear them plotting in such modern terms but I would be lying if I said I didn’t spend half the episode starring off into the middle distance like a distracted Michael Sheen in Staged. Our hero, John Steed is just not as good as Cathy Gale, although for the first time, I was really impressed with that ubiquitous umbrella. I also understand now why he never wants to lose it: it’s got a blade in the handle! Of course, an 18” blade is of little use against a 3 foot sword, but hey, this is Steed and Gale. Give us a good fight scene at the end, and it doesn’t matter, because it will be over in a moments after a cacophony of random drum beats followed by a rapid ending that barely wraps anything up, and the episode will be over. Tada! Great.
In fairness to Steed, when Cathy was held captive, he was quick to fight and he does it well although even with a blade in its body, I don’t know how good umbrellas are as fighting weapons. I might have to try that out. Cathy never really had one of her “awesome moments” but that’s ok. She still wins my vote for best character in this series. Although, with only 2 to choose from, that’s not a big victory.
Overall season 3 has been trying my patience to various degrees, but this one went totally off the rails. I think the writers were the ones walking backwards with this episode! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: The Golden Fleece