We continue to veer back and forth between crime dramas and science-fiction, and Man-Eater of Surrey Green is very clearly in the latter category. There are not even any human villains that are not victims of possession themselves; no criminals, just a plant with a brain.
“What you see there are cells. Brain cells. This seed has an embryonic brain.”
It goes without saying that we are obviously very firmly in Day of the Triffids territory, a source of inspiration for many a sci-fi show over the years. It is therefore unsurprising that the solution to the problem will simply be finding a substance that will kill the alien plant, in this case a strong herbicide, so it’s obvious where this story is heading from the start: a battle with killer tendrils and a container of chemicals.
There is plenty to divert us on the way to the predictable climax though. Several top horticulturists get possessed and subsequently eaten, there is a great sequence where curiosity gets the better of a delivery driver, despite men with guns and lookout towers everywhere, and Steed nearly falls victim to a deadly cactus in the posterior. Athene Seyler lights up every scene she appears in as Doctor Sheldon. Her performance chews up the scenery as much as the man-eating plant (there’s a great quip from Emma about the plant only being man-eating, by the way), but this veteran actress certainly knew how to put in a big, likeable performance. She entertains the viewers in a way that is basically theatrical. You certainly aren’t going to feel bored for one second whenever she’s on the screen.
The use of hearing aids (rather unfortunately known as “deaf aids” at the time) to block the telepathic signal from the alien plant is a clever plot development, simply because it is not foolproof. A dead battery nearly costs Doctor Sheldon her life, and Emma losing her device leads to a physical fight between her and Steed, which is quite a moment. It’s a good job Cathy wasn’t still working with Steed for this episode, because he wouldn’t have had a hope against her.
Obviously there were limits to the visual possibilities for a television series trying to portray a giant alien killer beanstalk in 1965. We never get to see the whole, giant plant engulfing the house, which is probably a wise decision as that could really only have been done with an unconvincing model shot at the time. Instead there is a lot of use of shadows to create the impression of movement all around the house, which works well, and other than that just a few quivering giant tendrils manipulated by the crew and some shaky handheld camera work at key moments. There is a lot of reliance on the soundtrack to do the heavy lifting in creating an atmosphere of horror, and that’s where this episode really fails, because the normally-reliable veteran composer Laurie Johnson had a rare bad day at the office for this one. His incidental music is far too intrusive and trying on the ears, and is sometimes mismatched with the action on the screen. For example, at one point Steed, Emma and Doctor Sheldon are exploring a pub with a bit of furniture knocked over, and the music is so loud and dramatic you would think they were face-to-face with a horde of zombies, not some overturned chairs.
In the end, poisonous chemicals triumph over nature, which probably didn’t feel like quite so much of a hollow victory in 1965 as it would today, but Steed is ready to quip his way out of the story with a Bond-like punchline: “I’m a herbicidal maniac.” If the writer was trying to scare us with his tale of an alien beanstalk, he didn’t really succeed, but with Steed and Emma this show can never fail to be fun. RP
The view from across the pond:
WOW, a genuine Science Fiction episode of The Avengers. Color me green with glee. I was enjoying season 4 for the most part – there was a setback 2 weeks ago – but I’ve been impressed so far and this one brought new life to the show. I was waiting desperately for Professor Bernard Quatermass to turn up the moment an “astronaut” was found dead in a field with a dead plant nearby that had the ability to think. Little did I know, this really was the plot. I’ve come to expect such convoluted nonsense from The Avengers that a straight up Day of the Triffids episode felt more believable. Actually, it’s even more Doctor Who than either of the aforementioned classics. There’s a moment early on where Steed asks what a “contraption” is in the corner of a room. I was instantly thinking “oh, it’s Harrison Chase’s organ thingy from The Seeds of Doom”. And then we get The Seeds of Doom complete with a wacky old lady who doesn’t seem bothered by evil chauffeurs being shot in the chest in front of her. The unnamed Krynoid even gets on the roof to crush the building and pulls people off rather disturbingly with its long tendrils. Ok, I’m fairly convinced I know where my favorite Tom Baker story got its origins. I’ll have to check that later…
Meantime, let me be honet: I’m not a huge fan of this show but I committed to watching it through but hints of The Seeds of Doom is definitely going to win some points for me. Writer Philip Levene got a lot right with this story considering he did go all out SF. Had this been some super-spy thing about hypnosis and who knows what, I would have ridiculed it but that says a lot. Isn’t it interesting to think that when they try to play it straight, it’s less believable? I think if the show goes heavy on the outré, I will enjoy it far more than I’ve been up until now.
Having said that, it’s not flawless. Steed fights with Peel over a bottle of herbicide which gets knocked over and stays on its side for ages, gets kicked, flung and straight up poured. Perhaps the plot wasn’t the only Doctor Who-like thing in this? The bottle was clearly made from the same stuff as TARDISes, being substantially bigger on the inside. Then let’s talk about the fight between Steed and Peel for a moment: the plot had 40 minutes of story so they had to pad out at least 10 more minutes before the now-familiar season 4 trope of watching our heroes drive away together. To fill those extra minutes we have a fight sequence with stunt doubles that even William Shatner’s double would be embarrassed about. The Peel double in particular was a riot since it looked far more masculine that Emma ever did. The fight ends with our heroes pretending to be rams and bashing heads until Peel passes out. And it’s a shame because I liked this episode immensely and this was nonsensical. However, let’s talk about the elephant trunk in the room…
I was waiting for the end credits this time for one reason in particular. I wanted to know who scores the music. Laurie Johnson is listed and here’s my suspicion: he’s a music teacher of grade school kids. I looked him up on IMDb so I know the “official story” but I think he took his class of 1st graders into a music shop and said, “have at it” and they went to town making noise. So cacophonous was the music in the episode, which dominates so much of the final act, that I dropped the volume down to less than 50%. You know when the kids are thinking a noise is funny and they make it over and over, like the two characters in Dumb and Dumber? That was the musical score here and it was abysmal. It’s tragic when a great episode could be so spoiled by the music. We saw how great the subtlety of no music was in the climax of Dial a Deadly Number. It made a conceptually weak episode much stronger. This takes a conceptually strong episode and makes it weaker. Laurie Johnson may indeed be the prolific musician that IMDb claims, but I am convinced he was having a day off for this episode. Maybe to tend to his triffids.
Day of the Triffids (1963), Dr. Quatermass (1950’s) or Doctor Who (1977) are all magnificent and this episode is up there. I had no doubt that this influenced the Doctor Who episode, as I mentioned above so I descended into my basement and pulled out that most excellent of Doctor Who reference works, The Discontinuity Guide (Paul Cornell, Martin Day, Keith Topping, 1995) and under Seeds of Doom there is a category called “Roots” (no pun intended). It says this: The Avengers episode The Man-Eater of Surrey Green, the above [which refers to, believe it or not, Day of the Triffids and Quatermass and the Pit] plus a dotty old lady and a villainous chauffeur. It’s always nice to be validated. I just hope no one was validating the score for this one; I don’t want to have to adjust the volume for the rest of the season! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: Two’s a Crowd
Whether it’s Steed and Mrs. Peel fighting each other or Kirk and Spock in Amok Time, the hero-vs-hero fight scenes in our favourite shows earn an obvious excitement for the fans. Just goes to show how a sci-fi episode in The Avengers can particularly stand out.
Thank you both for your reviews.
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