The Avengers: The Gravediggers

The Avengers DVD releaseWe have seen creepy undertakers before. We have also seen people emerging from coffins and turning out to be alive when they were supposed to be dead, so at first it seems like the second episode of the third season is some kind of a remake of the second episode of the second season: The Undertakers. It proves to be just one element of a bigger story this time, with The Avengers now apparently a show that throws lots of weird and wonderful ideas together, so we have an episode that features an aerial poking up out of a freshly dug grave, and a fake train ride, with a carriage that moves nowhere but gets shaken around while a screen beside the windows shows a projection of scrolling countryside. All of this is just window dressing for a plot to undermine a radar early detection system, so entertainment value is clearly taking precedence over credibility now. That’s not such a bad thing, because once again this is a lot of fun to watch.

The location for most of the story is The Sir Horace Winslip Hospital for Ailing Railwaymen. Anyone who remembers the era of British history in which this show was made, or has been told much about it by their parents, will probably be aware that matrons sometimes had a reputation for running hospital wards with a rod of iron and could be formidable, strict characters to be feared by the nurses. This makes Emma’s undercover mission this week particularly challenging, pretending to be a nurse and snooping around, while under the watchful eye of Miss Thirlwell:

“No music in your room, no male visitors, no nail varnish, no elaborate hairdos, regulation stockings and in by ten o’clock every night. I’m glad to have you with us, Mrs. Peel. I hope you’ll be happy here.”

Steed doesn’t have much luck either with the dodgy hospital staff, targetted very quickly by their henchman after his speech about the “Footplateman’s Friendly” charitable activities fails to cut any ice. He has more luck with Sir Horace Winslip (Ronald Fraser), a gloriously eccentric character whose wealth is being used for criminal activities without his knowledge. Charming people from the upper echelons of society has always been Steed’s forte. He realises very quickly that Sir Horace is a remarkably rich and generous man, but also incredibly gullible, and it doesn’t help that he is so obsessed with trains that his mind is closed to anything else and it is easy to sweet-talk him by sharing in his obsession.

Apart from his fake train ride experience, which is perhaps not as bizarre as it seems, a sort of precursor to a simulator, Sir Horace also has a miniature railway in the garden. The big finale fight on the train with Emma tied to the railway line is pure Perils of Pauline, and that’s clearly the intention. Nobody is trying to hide it. The sequence is even accompanied by honky-tonk piano music. Whether you like this sequence or feel it goes too far in terms of silliness will be a matter for personal taste. I enjoyed it, but something felt a bit off, and it took me a while to figure out what.

So Emma Peel has clearly been introduced as little more than a carbon copy of Cathy Gale, who was arguably the most significant character on television of all time, in terms of the positive portrayal of women. Cathy was both physically and intellectually brilliant. And yet Emma has played the damsel in distress role for her first two episodes, tied up and rescued by Steed. It feels like a disappointing backwards step, and you can’t get more damsel in distress than a homage to the most iconic representation of that trope of all time: a young woman tied to the railway tracks while a train approaches. In its fourth season this feels like a show that has found its feet and knows exactly how to entertain its viewers, but something seems to have been lost in the process. We’re only two episodes in to the season, so let’s hope that missing element isn’t yet dead and buried.   RP

The view from across the pond:

Well, it’s not quite the quality of last week’s The Town of No Return, but we’re also still miles from last season too.  This borders on the ridiculous with gravediggers putting radar jammers into coffins to knock out the country’s defenses.  First off, the antenna comes out of the ground when sunlight hits it.  Thing is, and thankfully I’ve never been buried alive, but isn’t it dark underground?  So how does the antenna get the signal to emerge?  Call me pragmatic!

So we go through some of the usual plot beats: Steed and Peel get separated and have to investigate things on their own.  Emma helps operate on a non-corpse, then gets caught and is literally tied to train tracks and Steed has to come to her rescue and the case is resolved with a fisticuffs fight scene on the train.  All very predictable.  However, the episode has an eccentric charm to it, made manifest in the character of Sir Horace Winslip (Ronald Fraser).  Winslip isn’t just delightful, he has the best part of the episode dedicated to him and I want to build this in my own home.  (Alas, someone will say no…)   Winslip has a servant who plays the role of conductor.  He himself invites Steed onto his train: a small, motorized room that is designed to look like a train dining car.  Outside, a rotating landscape rolls by and his assistant has to go through no end of trouble to make it all seem authentic.  This includes closing drapes to simulate going into tunnel and, best of all, vigorously rocking the room to give it an authentic feel.  I loved it.  I can’t emphasize enough – this was a highlight scene.

To further enhance what was an otherwise lackluster plot, the sequence with Emma tied to the train tracks features a magnificent use of the piano.  Hallelujah, it wasn’t drums!  But the idea was to emulate the old movies where the damsel is tied to the train tracks.  This episode ends up being an homage to the classic cinema images of a bygone age, and it does it surprisingly well.  Oh, the fight on the miniature train is hilarious in its ridiculousness, but watching one of the villains struggle through was another highlight moment.  I wished they’d focused on his attempt at climbing a fence, because the little bit we did get was tear-inducingly funny.   There’s comedy gold throughout this episode too, like when the doctor is “operating” and asks for “forceps, scalpel… blowtorch!”  But the top scene is the best flip in the history of EVER.  Winslip’s servant is attacking Steed with a hammer and does the most stunning flip I have ever seen.  Watch this episode just for this moment!

This episode is ridiculous; it’s as simple as that, but it’s got character.  It’s wacky and fun and it seems very evident that Macnee and Rigg are having a blast filming it.  Weirdly, I thought by now I’d miss Honor Blackman, who was definitely the reason to watch the last couple of seasons, but Rigg is just as good (and just as knowledgeable) and the stories have been miles more fun.  Maybe Cathy Gale brought a sense of reality, while Emma Peel brings something whimsical.  Whatever the reason, I’m very much enjoying it and looking forward to what they will get up to next!   ML

Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: The Cybernauts

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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