Last week, writer Philip Levene gave us killer plants. This week he mines another old favourite trope by introducing a double for Steed. It’s a tricky story to get right, and many attempts over the years at a doppelgänger story have hinged on outrageous coincidences. Levene manages not to fall into those kinds of traps, but instead ends up with something that is unusually prosaic for the fourth season of The Avengers, a straight-up spy story.
Two’s a Crowd is not entirely devoid of the weirdness we have come to expect from this season, with toys that deliver messages, bullets and bombs, playing into the theme of nothing being quite what it seems. It’s almost a metafictional moment, intentional or otherwise, to see a disappointing model shot of a plane, and then realise it’s actually supposed to be a model.
Spoiler alert… the same trick (again, intentional or otherwise) is played with Steed’s double. What seems to be visually unconvincing, and an all-too convenient coincidence, is actually integral to the story and it is literally what it appears to be not what we think it’s supposed to represent, just like the model planes. So we see Patrick Macnee as Gordon Webster, looking exactly like Steed but with a fake moustache and the heart sinks a little. I’ll give the writer the benefit of the doubt and assume he was looking for that reaction, in order to make the eventual payoff all the more rewarding.
The clues to what is really going on are all there, but I suspect most viewers probably wouldn’t join the dots, at least not early on. The key piece of information is how much Steed already knows about the sneaky Russian spies, a whole lot more than they seem to know about him. The scene that delivers this important clue so effectively is Steed turning up in a bar with the exact bottle of rare alcohol that the nervous Brodny (Warren Mitchell) has been searching for, to no avail, to satisfy his boss. I can’t claim to have joined the dots especially well myself, although I was leaning towards Gordon Webster being Steed all along, but also hoping that if he wasn’t we would at least get a scene of Macnee fighting himself when the two meet. I am guessing some viewers might have felt robbed of that moment, but in terms of the story what actually happens is clearly a better example of writing than the alternative.
If you are paying attention to the names of the villains, you might figure out the identity of the unseen Psev (although not if you’re paying attention to his file, where his name is misspelt Pzev – an unfortunate mistake because the spelling is important). The answer to that question is a bit of silly fun, but ultimately his identity doesn’t really matter much one way or another.
Despite being a generally well-written story with an intriguing spy plot, something felt lacking here. To some extent, having been conditioned to expect lots of weird and wonderful things happening this season, Two’s a Crowd was perhaps a little too down-to-earth (apart from the planes!), but that’s a matter for personal taste. A bigger problem is the way the writer never quite capitalises on his good ideas. Whether or not the viewers figure out the truth about Gordon Webster is one thing, but what we should really be invested in is the question of whether he will fool Emma or not. The build up to that moment takes up about half the episode, and then the deception lasts all of about two minutes, so it all feels like a lot of fuss for an easily-thwarted scheme. Luckily, the twists and turns that follow do keep things reasonably interesting. Macnee pitches his performance as Gordon just about right, which cannot have been an easy task considering that it can’t have been a straightfoward idea for an actor to get his head around. He had to be different enough from Steed to make us believe it wasn’t him, but not so different that the twist in the tale wouldn’t work. He deals with that by retaining much of Steed’s flippancy and unflappable nature, taking everything in his stride. Maybe he identified that as a key characteristic of Steed that would almost never change, whatever the circumstances. If so, he probably hit upon one of the main reasons the character is so likeable. Even when the foil from a scruffy buttonhole is showing, he has an ever-present suave confidence. In the end, there can only be one John Steed. RP
The view from across the pond:
Well I confess that I was fooled. Two’s a Crowd opens with what is clearly a model airplane about to bomb a building. My thoughts were: “accept the bad effects. Doctor Who was one of my favorite shows growing up and it had terrible effects. They probably couldn’t get footage of a real plane!” To my amazement, the model plane was in fact… a model plane. It was exactly what it looked like, bombing a message to one of the best characters in the episode. What a misdirection! I was utterly fooled and had to applaud a damned strong opener. And then everything goes so over the top, that it was like watching a prototype Austin Powers. Yeah, it’s another of those ridiculously complex plots that are so unnecessary that one has to cringe, but it’s also loads of fun.
For the first time in I don’t know how long, I loved watching Steed. Or more to the point, Patrick Macnee. He plays his standard lascivious Steed but he also plays actor Gordon Webster. The thing is I was so convinced of a ridiculously complicated plot that Steed was playing two parts that by the end I had lost my footing entirely and really can’t say I know for sure how that was supposed to be interpreted. Was there a double that was working for the bad guy, Colonel Psev? Or was Steed playing two parts to perfection? I think the director showing Steed dropping Emma off at the party only to also be in the same building in another room was done to prove there were two people, but there were reasons I doubted it too. But in the end, I really didn’t care. The fact is, this is a delightfully fun episode and since most episodes are so idiotically twisted, I don’t really mind not knowing. This isn’t a show that bears much thinking about.
While Emma doesn’t add a lot to this story, it’s helped along by the various baddies. Anytime I see Julian Glover I ask myself, “what is Scarlioni’s angle?” He’s wonderfully villainous in nearly everything he does. Coupled with the pipe smoking man (a precursor to the X-Files Cigarette Smoking Man but way more fun) and Brodney, this episode hits the right marks. Let’s talk about Brodney. Almost singlehandedly, he wins the episode for me. Based on his name and affiliations, I think he was meant to be Russian, but he sounds way more Italian and his plight is hilarious. He walks into closing doors, gets roped into dopey errands, is tricked by Steed into revealing names, and fails to turn the TV on just when he’s trying to watch something with his cohorts (“are you going to switch it on?”). Warren Mitchel must have had a blast playing the role; I certainly had a blast watching him.
The whole story is around identifying Colonel Psev, but that’s an acronym for the 4 aides he has working with him: Pudeshkin, Shvedloff, Elena, and Vogel. There is no Psev. Like I said: typical Avengers nonsense. Also typical, the music gets invasive, but at least it had the decency to wait 43 minutes and then wrap up quickly. The rest of the music was perfectly timed with the episode and it proves yet again that one shouldn’t abuse the music. A good score can give the episode a really good score, if you take my meaning. Listen to any of Murray Gold’s music in Doctor Who and he certainly knows how to take home the gold… if you see what I mean, again. Speaking of Doctor Who, I felt like this was a precursor to the Peter Davison costume. When fake-Steed is seen wearing a tacky flower in his lapel, Brodney says, “why don’t you put a stick of celery in there as well!” My guess is someone remembered that and 20 years later decided, “hey, the Doctor needs a stick of celery…” and so the legend was born. (Well, that’s how it happened in my book!)
Make no mistake: this is a ridiculous episode – even the title is just there to get Steed to say a line – but it is an absolute blast to watch and for that, I am quite happy with the direction the series is going. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: Too Many Christmas Trees