As Season Three has progressed, The Avengers has been moving more and more towards bizarre scenarios and unusual, eccentric characters. This episode seems to be something of a breakthrough for that approach, because it is a huge amount of fun. At the start of the episode Cathy has already infiltrated a biker gang, despite being too old for them, but she “got through the age barrier with a ton plus ten”, impressing the others by driving faster than anyone else. That means that she drives further than anyone else when Steed sends them all off on a “point to point” in a very clever attempt to triangulate the source of a jamming signal that is making their motorbikes break down, and then she gets thoroughly teased by Steed when she has to walk back across miles of muddy countryside.
Cathy’s infiltration of the gang is strictly speaking a completely pointless plot development, as is Steed’s triangulation of the jamming device. It’s obvious immediately that the source of the problem is the two old ladies living in the old water mill, who are acting hugely suspiciously, so Cathy’s time would have been better spent finding a way to infiltrate their isolated existence rather than messing around with peculiarly 1960s youths, who play-fight with straws, call older people “daddyo”, and pronounce cycle as “sickle”. But they do add a lot of entertainment to the episode, and instead it’s Steed’s job to gain entry to the water mill in question, posing hilariously as an inspector from the “National Distrust”:
“We don’t trust anybody at all.”
The two old sisters are memorably dotty, “Cyn” and “Myn”, played by Nora Nicholson, who carved out a career playing eccentrics, and Cynthia Peck, who didn’t quite emulate Cathy’s ton plus ten, but managed a ton plus one, living to 101 years old. RIP both of these great old actresses. Cynthia is a female version of the mad scientist trope, normally portrayed as old men with crazy hair. Ermyntrude gets bossed around by her sister, frustrating her by falling for the charms of Steed, who makes her heart flutter. The two of them cover up their dodgy technology by pretending to be witches. Cyn’s device creates “a sort of instant peace”, as Steed amusingly puts it, and the two of them do question their moral right to do that:
“Cyn, do you think we’re very wicked?”
They’re not, of course, and for a while it looks like this is a story with no real villains, until somebody turns up dead. The culprit is blatantly obvious, and is massively signposted by the villain’s grudge about technology doing people out of jobs, which ended his military career. The danger posed by his daughter is also signposted, but in a far more clever and subtle way. The director makes a point of showing Steed walk past a sign that says “an old fox is shy of a trap”, so I was waiting for the point where he would face a trap set by young predator Caroline, who complains of being ogled by the bikers and then stands there ogling Steed. Does the old fox get trapped when his drink is drugged? Of course not, but another old fox is not so shy of his trap, making off with the wrong bit of technology, an explosive mousetrap invented by Cynthia, so the title of the episode becomes the punchline.
Somewhere buried deep in all this weird and wonderful fun is an anti-xenophobia message. When things go wrong, everyone is quick to blame those against whom they are prejudiced, so the nuclear plant gets the blame, and later the barman is quick to suggest witchcraft as the cause of the murder, whereas the Colonel complains about the “young thugs”, who are the least thuggish bunch of hip-wriggling dancers I’ve ever seen. Daddyo, this one was far out. RP
The view from across the pond:
I’ve been so bored of this series lately that I can’t tell if I’m being unduly harsh or if we’re just in repeat performance territory that actually deserves the criticism. This episode felt like a long joke. You know the kind that have a lot of setup and build and build to a great punchline. I just have to ask if 50 minutes of buildup isn’t too much. I have to be honest: I think it is.
The idea is that there’s a nearly magical device that can stop all electronics from working within a given area. Today, that’s not such a crazy piece of tech but in 1961, I imagine EMPs weren’t exactly the talk of the town! “Could you imagine the military applications??” Well, actually, yeah… I can. Although, that’s not the issue I have with it, because if I held that against the writer, I’d have to give Verne a piece of my mind. No, that I can live with, but it’s the ultra-long buildup that just wears on me.
I think Build a Better Mousetrap probably was a good episode if the producers weren’t constricted to 50 minutes which they choose to fill with lots dancing and noisemaking. There’s a scene of the revelers running in circles and two of them playing a sword battle with straws, that is just painfully silly to watch. However, I acknowledge that there’s something clever in the idea that the two old women are up against all the rowdy youngsters that I felt there could make for a good commentary. Cathy even points out that over 20 is “ancient” and over 30 “might as well be dead”, which actually struck a chord with me since one of my good friends shared with me when she was still in her 20’s that when she would turn 30 she would have a “basically dead” birthday party. Not even joking! The elders just want quiet while the younger crowd wants music and motorcycles. Yeah, there’s something there and clearly not much has changed in the world. Alas, it never seems to say anything about it in the end, instead going for something akin to a punchline when the villain ends up stealing, not the high end tech EMP device he wanted but a crazy mousetrap invented by one of the old women. Oh, I won’t lie: I did laugh rather deeply at the end; I even appreciated the crazy look Steed gives Gale, but wow, that took a long time to get to the good bit. But I felt like I’d been wasting away with the entire rest of the episode. We don’t even get a particularly good Cathy Gale moment – we all know that Cathy typically carries most episodes, but not this time around; she’s basically a background player.
The old women have all the trappings of witches too, even threatening to put a curse on the revelers. They have a bubbling cauldron and talk of a village fete. And they try to catch mice and rats in their home but that felt like a tacked-on scene to be funny; little did I know it was going to mean something. It’s impossible not to detect the dichotomy of old vs new; technology vs superstition. But none of that matters in the end because it’s all about a mousetrap. Was writer Brian Clemens trying to say that old outwits new? It was really just the work of one fool who absconds with the odd looking gizmo that wins the day for our heroes. Other than that, we get the standard idiotic fight scenes with that heinously calamitous music that is just terribly jarring, causing at least this viewer to pray the fight scene goes by quickly. It’s amazing too because right around the time I watched this episode, I’d watched a movie called See How They Run (ironically also about a mousetrap – namely, Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap) which was fairly good but the action sequences, even when predictable, are still enjoyable. In The Avengers, the fight sequences are exactly the biggest thing the audience has no use for. Steed and Gale are all you really want, but in the right doses: typically heavy Gale, low Steed. Sadly this episode is all Steed. And I had to ask: when he’s about to be drugged by the femme fatale of the episode, I had no idea why he suspected her of poisoning him. It was out of the blue. Typically Cathy will piece something together while Steed seems to just guess. And that was unsatisfying. I liked that he knew, but what gave it away? Or did I fade out while someone was molesting the drums during a fight scene?
Since the return of Doctor Who in 2005, I’ve seen a steady decline in season lengths. We had 13 episodes reduce to 10 and I was deeply bummed by that. The more, the merrier, I thought. But watching this series from the 60’s, I am stunned that anyone would have tuned in for 26 weeks of this! I have done just enough research to know that the next season is like watching a different show so I hold on because I’m nearly done with season 3, but it has felt interminable. I feel like our work in the Junkyard has indeed built a better mousetrap – I’m the mouse and writing for this series is the trap. I truly hope we can reset it in season 4. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: The Outside-In Man