The set-up for this story is an odd chain of events to say the least. The nation’s early warning systems for a nuclear attack are triggered by a deliberate hoax, with the exception of one military base in Cornwall. Our first link in the strange chain is why that leads Steed to be interested in the one that didn’t get set off, rather than focussing on how the others were set off, and in order to investigate he decides to buy a parcel of land from a wider area that is being divided up. That’s our second link in the odd chain. The third is an invitation for Steed to attend a fancy dress party on a train, where he meets rich potential buyers of the other parcels of land, and at that point the story really kicks off properly.
Dressed to Kill was broadcast on 28th December 1963, and the story is tied in nicely with the broadcast date. It’s a post-Christmas episode, with the aftermath of a wild party in Steed’s flat, and the guests at the fancy dress party on the train seeing in the new year at midnight. Then things go wrong for them, stranded at a creepy platform that closed down years ago, with half the train missing. “The horse has bolted”, and it’s a great twist to end the first act, following hot on the heels of another great twist that reveals the conductor to be the perpetrator of the false alarm who we saw at the beginning of the episode.
In true Murder on the Orient Express style, it isn’t long before a dead body is found, and the majority of the story plays out against a backdrop of fear, paranoia, and quite a few stroppy rich folk, acting as entitled as we would expect stroppy rich folk to be. The problem for Steed, and also Cathy who turned up on the train in disguise, is that they are imposters at this party, so it isn’t long before they are the main target of everyone’s suspicions, when their cover story begins to crumble.
Any episode set mainly in one location, with a small group of people, is going to need a cast of characters who can hold our attention. If I just mention that this episode includes the legend that is Leonard Rossiter in fancy dress as Robin Hood, and future Doctor Who companion Anneke Wills dressed in a sexy cat costume, I’m sure you’ll understand that the cast is more than capable of carrying this tightly-focussed story. It isn’t hugely difficult to figure out who the murderer is, simply by a process of elimination, and if you can’t do that, you will probably not be surprised to discover that the villain is dressed as the only historical character who is considered a villain and a loser.
The final showdown is huge fun, with Steed winning a gunfight, dressed in a cowboy costume, and Cathy proving that a pistol is more useful than a bow and arrow. What’s so fun about this episode is the way the writer ties the action into the costumes everyone is wearing. The funniest moment has to be when the villain crashes into the old machine that speaks your weight and tells your fortune on the platform during the fight and sets it off. Its prediction? “You will have a strenuous day ahead.” RP
The view from across the pond:
I have to give it to the series with Dressed to Kill. It’s been a while since I’ve been in any way impressed with this show. Of course, it could be any of a number of winning ingredients that brought me around.
First off, I love costume parties. I don’t get a chance to go to many but they are great fun even when watched through the magic of television. I also really enjoy old trains and much like the Murder on the Orient Express, I enjoy the cramped quarters for a solid mystery. And with a good train story, it’s easy to add the excitement of an abandoned station in the middle of nowhere. Recently I started watching Sapphire and Steel and the second story takes place in an old railway station. I’d say that alone carried me through the story because there’s something alarming about that sort of thing. I think it’s the wrongness of it all: a train station is supposed to be a hub of activity, not a place that isolates people. Combine these qualities and you get a strong episode. Add a cherry on the top in the form of Anneke Wills, and we have a truly enjoyable episode!
I think where the show goes a little wrong is with things like motive. When a villain wants to cause World War III because he wants to be on the winning side, that doesn’t hold up well. The issue really is that The Avengers places Steed in a high government position so he wouldn’t be investigating a simple thing like an inheritance or something so the writers need to come up with a bigger idea, but the idea is too weighty. As soon as the bad guys are dispatched, they wrap the episode but clearly if WWIII was on the table, it wasn’t just 3 baddies in a train car behind it all. So the show still has faults, it just gets away with them better in this story!
Actually, the faults go deeper than a bad motive. Filming was a different thing back then and I imagine no one ever expected to see Steed’s watch as he counted down the last few seconds until midnight. 5…4…3…2…1… Which all suspiciously take place from about 10 seconds past the hour until 15 seconds past. Not a traditional countdown then? And the wild west shootout that leaves one bad guy on the ground? He’s still very clearly breathing. Sure, this could be that he wasn’t killed, but I’m not convinced.
There are a few good lines though, especially around Steed’s handcuff course and his smile course. How could we not appreciate it? And I’ve always found Anneke Wills’ Polly in Doctor Who to be one of the prettiest of the original companions. I had to reword this from the original sentence I’d written but her portrayal as “pussy” was every bit as beautiful as she ever was and with a huge amount of sex appeal.
I’m not convinced we’re onto a good run yet, but that’s because every time I get excited, I’m shot down one or two episodes later, but at least this time I had an hour of total enjoyment watching the exploits of Steed and Gale. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: The White Elephant