Blue- Sycorax Collective (Etcetera Theatre, Camden Fringe)Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 18 August 2018 - Reviewed by Callum McKelvie
Blue - Sycorax Collective (Credit: Blue - Sycorax Collective)
 

Now in its thirteenth year, Camden Fringe has become something of a highlight for any fan of the London theatre scene; on or off the west end. Featuring three-hundred performances across nearly twenty-venues, it’s gained a reputation as an exciting home of inventive and creative theatre. One of these venues is the Etcetera theatre, housed above the Oxford Arms on Camden High Street. A wonderfully intimate space that is known as a home of diverse and original entertainment it’s the home of the London Horror Festival, has been called one of London’s ‘Great pub theatres’ by The Guardian. Perhaps more importantly, it also happens to be one of the founding theatres of the fringe itself. This year one of the performances their housing is ‘Blue’, the first production by ‘Sycorax Collective’ and being the Whovian I am, that name alone immediately had me hooked (yes my mind still goes straight to The Christmas Invasion- Shakespeare reference or not!). Doctor Who referencing company aside, Blue should be of interest to readers of this site as it uses a Science Fiction, fairy tale-esque plot to tell a wonderfully touching story about mental health issues.

Blue is the story of….well ‘Blue’ a young woman who lives on the moon with her pet Lobster ‘Spock’. Using a ‘Cbeebies’ esque voiceover who explains Blue’s life to us, the first half shows Blue as a character who could of stepped right out of a children’s programme in the vein of Mr. Tumble. She spends the day collecting star-dust, fishing and playing with Spock. The genius here though is that even between all the laughs and audience participation, we are immediately made aware that something is not…quite right. Dialogue such as ‘To make the world sparkle and hide the darkness in her mind’ is wonderfully secreted in an otherwise fun and gentle moment. What’s wonderful is that Kim Scopes, who performed the role of Blue, also wrote the piece. It’s clearly a passion project for her and she does herself and her colleagues immensely proud, channelling a range of emotions in a brief space of time. In particular the final five minutes or so is incredibly powerful and Scopes really throws herself into what must have been a very challenging role. Directed by Holli Dillon, the two work wonders together and I imagine they’ll be two to watch out for in the future.

Set design is, due to the nature of the performance and theatre, simple but in its simplicity lies its genius. Blues moon based ‘fort’ fits in with the childish, frivolous world of the story but the surrounding black drapes with tiny glowing lights (representing stars) hint at something darker. Even the stars on the backdrop appear to have been in the shape of a smiley face, further pushing the theme of forced happiness. And the Science Fiction? Well in the plays brief run-time we get to hear the classic Howell version of the Who theme, various Star Trek gags (including a rather brilliant waving joke) and Rock Horror references amongst others. Whilst all this certainly amused me, the real joy was in the poignant way the plays message was delivered. As I left the theatre I heard someone state that for anyone who had ever suffered mental health problems, the piece ‘really got what it felt like’. I think that’s the best compliment any artist can get.





The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 5 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 18 August 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 5 (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by: Dan Starkey, Dennis Spooner, Phil Mulryne, and John Dorney
Adapted by: Rae Leaver
Based on storylines by: Terrence Feely, Geoffrey Bellman, John Whitney and Max Marquis
Directed by: Ken Bentley
Starring:
Anthony Howell (Dr Keel), Julian Wadham (John Steed), Lucy Briggs-Owen (Carol Wilson), Stephen Critchlow (Doctor Jones),Chris Porter (Stefan),Faye Castelow (Carmelita), Alice Haig (Stella Creighton
)Music by: Toby Hrycek-Robinson
Cover Art by: Anthony Lamb
Duration: 240' approx
Originally Released January 2016

Steed and Keel are back for a fifth set of adventures. This time it feels like the show has finally settled into a groove midway between the more fantastical episodes and the dark and brooding crime investigations. In part that may be down to a solid three quarters of this set being based on some of the most lost Avengers stories of all. Only storylines survive from the original production of three of these episodes, resulting in more freedom for the adaptors to build a more consistent tone and characterization into their scripts.

 

Nightmare

The first of these, Nightmare, has been worked up from Terence Feely’s scant outline by the multi-talented Dan Starkey. Known to Doctor Who fans as the Sontaran butler Strax, he also appears in these episodes as Steed’s boss One-Ten and various other parts. But for Nightmare he sits behind the scenes and crafts an almost original tale of a missing scientist and Keel adopting the missing man’s identity to smoke our his abductors. It’s a story which nicely merges two sides – the nightmarish effects of the pscychoactive drugs Keel unwittingly gets exposed to, and the finely ratcheted tension when a doctor involved in the conspiracy finds Keel at his hospital’s A&E.

Starkey does a fine job with a potentially difficult task – working with fixed plot points without, perhaps, the supporting plot gubbins that made them make sense and having to put his own supports in place. Certainly, a bit where the villains essentially post themselves to Keel in a package feels like something Feely had now lost reasons for. Overall, though, Starkey’s created a perfect blend of modern storytelling standards and the old school Avengers spirit. If he did his own, completely original, Avengers scripts in the future it would be no bad thing.

 

Girl on the Trapeze

You’d be mistaken for thinking Girl on the Trapeze was a similar case, but here is the only instalment in this set where adaptor Rae Leaver had Dennis Spooner’s complete script to work from. It’s an atypical story from Spooner, who was always one of sixties Doctor Who’s most ironical and witty writers. But there’s little levity or humour here, in a story that begins with Keel witnessing a young woman throwing herself from a bridge into the Thames, and follows on into a Soviet plot where teenage girls are being drugged up to the eyeballs and smuggled across Europe. Well, I say ‘Soviet’, but of course in typical Avengers fashion the exact identity of the superpower to the east of Europe with its vast, and ruthless, intelligence apparatus goes unnamed. Presumably ABC were worried about getting letters of complaint from the Soviet Ambassador if they said the obvious out loud, which seems positively charming to modern eyes.

Nevertheless, the general tone is very much of the Spy Who Came in from the Cold mode and sits nicely in the Avengers canon as one of the rare stories to deal with spycraft and counter-espionage with the same grittiness as the crime stories about heroin and prostitution.

 

Crescent Moon

Phil Mulryne’s Crescent Moon deserves a lot of credit for its authenticity when it must have been tempting to expand it. Another case where only an outline remains of the original, Mulryne keeps the Caribbean island setting restricted to what the show could actually have accomplished. So there are lots of scenes indoors, where you could imagine the location being nodded to by a ceiling fan and wooden shuttered windows, and the exterior scenes full of back projection and a couple of bushes on a set.

Where Mulryne possibly does take advantage is in easing back on the slight edge of Imperialist nationalism that’s shaded previous jaunts by Steed abroad. Yes, we’re again in a former British colony, and, yes, we’re again in a situation where the ‘good’ local leader (ie the one friendly to British interests) needs help fighting off the machinations of the ‘bad’ local (ie the one who wants the British kept out). But there feels like a better balance at play here and all the characters have their own agendas and motives beyond national stereotypes. It also helps that Steed is treating it all like a jolly holiday rather than, as on previous adventures, actively trying to leverage some nation into signing away its resources.

 

Diamond Cut Diamond

I’m trying to imagine what Steed actor Julian Wadham’s face looked like when he opened this script and saw that Steed adopts a broad Australian accent for much of it, but I’d say it was a picture. In fact, is was probably an echo of whatever passed over Patrick Macnee’s features opening the original, now lost, script.

Fortunately, subtlety doesn’t seem to be the intention here and setting vocals on “Putta notha shrimp onda barbie,” seems perfectly in character for what Steed would actually do while going undercover as a womanizing (of course) Australian air steward with a history of unproven accusations of smuggling. Balanced against this, though, is some of starkest and best acting Wadham has been called upon to do. Finding himself blackmailed for killing a woman in a drink driving hit and run, Steed’s blacked out memory means he can’t be sure if it’s also a frame job or if he actually has killed someone. His raw horror and angst at the possibility makes for an usually, and satisfyingly vulnerable Steed beyond the flippancy and wit he usually shows the world.

 

Volume Five is possibly one of the strongest Avengers sets so far due to the comparative free hand the adaptors have been given by fate. Ironically that’s likely due to the tonal inconsistencies of the original show from week to week being ironed out to create a vision that feels more like The Avengers that lives in our memories than the actual show often did. With relatively loose continuity between all these sets, you could do worse than make this one your first purchase in the Lost Episodes range.





Star Trek Prometheus - Fire With Fire (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 14 July 2018 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
Star Trek Prometheus (Credit: Big Finish)

Written By: Bernd Perplies & Christian Humberg

Read by Alec Newman

Released by Big Finish July 2018

Continuity is a tricky mistress.  On the one hand, I am a fan of sprawling continuities with lots of nooks and crannies to explore, and it is fun when those dots connect in fun and creative ways.  My fandom of both Doctor Who and Star Trek of evidence of this.  On the other hand, when writers get bogged down in the continuity of a franchise, it can become tedious really quick.  And there lies the major flaw of Star Trek Prometheus

The first half of this book is nothing but nods to continuity, what little plot there is in the first half is essentially the same bits of information being repeated over and over.  There was an attack, members of one race seem to be taking credit for the act, but they don't have the tech to pull it off.  It could be some other group but there is no evidence to suggest that so far.  I think that cycle of information repeated itself for about 4 chapters.  Just the same info being regurgitated to a different character. 

But in those early chapters that isn't what is important.  What is important is references!  We get a ton in the first half, and it becomes tiresome pretty quick. The novel isn't particularly interested in introducing us to the cast of characters on the Prometheus, and even when they do we have a Chief Engineer named Kirk.  And she is Captain Kirk's Grand Niece.  Give me a break.  But don't worry, he comes Alexander Rhozhenko! Miles O’Brien and Nog! And Spock for no real reason!  And Ezri Dax is a Captain.  Why does Trek's spinoff material require that all main cast members eventually be promoted to Captain or Admiral or beyond?  Ezri Dax was a Counselor with no real ambition for command.  And since they make mention that the fleet is depleted because of multiple recent wars and conflicts...why would all these characters end up being Captains?  There can't be enough ships!

While Deep Space 9 is quite probably my favorite Trek series, I do wish that Trek didn't keep resorting to War arcs in all of it's media.  Exploring a longterm arc about War is what set DS9 apart.  But now it just seems like all anyone is interested in doing with Trek.  It seems that the books have been doing that for some time, and even the latest Trek TV series, Discovery, took a crack at it.  I miss sci-fi concepts and exploration in Trek!

At any rate, there is actually an interesting story hidden underneath all the continuity porn.  There was a terrorist attack, and the book works a bit like a mystery about unravelling who was behind it all. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t actually solve it.  The novel itself ends abruptly, then leads into an epilogue which only serves as set up for the second book.  It is wholly unsatisfying, and it left me rather annoyed, especially as the book had turned a corner for me and stopped being so full of itself about celebrating the minutiae of the continuity, but actually about something deeper.  And then the book just ends with "buy another one to find out how this ends!"

I do wonder what the endgame is for Big Finish.  Do they plan to continue making more Trek stuff?  Is this a dry run to prove they can successfully handle the franchise?  As the Prometheus books were originally published in Germany, and were original to a specific company...did they only get the rights to do these three novels and that is it? As it is this isn't a particularly launching point for them.  It has little crossover appeal, and only really can satisfy mega-Trekkies who love continuity and references. And not just a ton of references to the old shows and movies, but this requires a ton of homework of the novel universe as well. It is not an easy jump on point for newcomers, and if Big Finish has any plans to continue with Trek, using this to show they can sell the property has a major roadblock.  And while their Doctor Who knowledge is top notch...as a fan there were nerdy nit-picky things that were mispronounced here and there, and it took down there Trek-cred, making one wonder if they should really take on this property.  I think they really could do some cool stuff, but nothing on par with Doctor Who.  They just couldn't wrangle the casts in the same way. 

This is a hard one to recommend.  Once it gets past the references to all sorts of Trek lore, it has the makings of a decent mystery story that is contemporary and intriguing...but it doesn't have an ending, and it doesn't stand on it's own in any way.  It requires tons of homework just to fully grasp what has been going in the Federation since Deep Space 9 and Voyager went off the air...and you clearly need the follow-up books to even get the full picture of what the Prometheus is about. 





The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 4 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 6 July 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 4 (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by: James Mitchell, Lewis Davidson, Richard Harris, and Eric Paice
Adapted by: John Dorney and Justin Richards
Directed by: Ken Bentley
Starring:
Anthony Howell (Dr Keel), Julian Wadham (John Steed), Lucy Briggs-Owen (Carol Wilson), Dan Starkey (One-Ten), Adrian Lukis (Major Harrington), Elizabeth Morton (Stella Preston),  Karina Fernandez (Margarita)
Producer David Richardson
Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs
Music: Toby Hrycek-Robinson
Cover Art: Anthony Lamb
Duration: 4hrs
Originally Released June 2015 

This fourth volume of Steed and Keel’s adventures paddles more in the dark crime drama end of The Avengers pool before suddenly veering into wild fantasy towards the end.

 

Kill the King

In many ways a re-tread of last time’s The Yellow Needle, we again have a foreign leader (this time from an oil rich far eastern country rather than a newly independent former colony in Africa) being subject to repeated assassination attempts. Again it creates headaches for his security detail that he doesn’t care much about his own safety, and again there’s a tight deadline for an important treaty some forces in his own country don’t want signed. And unfortunaely again there’s a slight non-ending where we never even find out if the treaty is signed.

Where it distinguishes itself is in the tone set by original scriptwriter James Mitchell, who went on to create Callan, itself subject to a Big Finish revival these days. As indicated his later work, Mitchell has a much more cynical view of spy work than the average Avengers writer. Here that shows through in plot elements like Steed not genuinely giving a damn about King Tenuphon’s life or the oil he controls, but simply fearing demotion or worse if he fails in this high profile assignment. Tenuphon himself is a mean, arrogant man that Steed disdains, while the old boys network within British Intelligence coming in for the same scorn that Callan brimmed over with.

Mitchell also presents a rather more rounded and human version of Steed and Keel. He’s one of the few Avengers writers to remember Keel’s murdered fiancé too. Though it’s in what amounts to little more than a cameo for the good doctor (Ian Hendry clearly being on holiday the week this was originally filmed). Even Steed comes as close as he can to speaking of concern and caring for Keel, and pondering if working with Steed is what’s best for Keel, even if it’s to Steed’s advantage.

 

A Change of Bait

A Change of Bait is the first of these adaptations where I’m not entirely sure the originally intended tone has been captured. The combination of the story description of minor villain Potts having a very bad day, and the surviving telesnaps of the panicked performance of John Bailey (who’d later go on to play Victoria’s father in Evil of the Daleks) as Potts, makes it sound like the TV episode was a format busting comedy episode.  Instead the audio is very much a standard crime drama and while all the plot beats remain the same little is done to play up the more fanciful elements.

After all, this is a plot in which Carol’s landlord (given to having fainting fits in response to bad news) slightly accidentally ends up the owner of an entire cargo ship of bananas and the race to get them offloaded and up the length of England before they turn black. And it involves Steed doing his best impression of Peter Sellars in I’m Alright Jack and bamboozling dock workers with a bunch of pseudo-union jargon. It just feels like it’s meant to be played more ironically than it is here, where it all seems as serious as their cases about prostitution rings and heroin dealers.

It does get a huge thumbs up, however, for featuring an actual ending – rather than simply a punch up or Steed more or less shrugging that the details of wrapping up the case will be handled later. In fact, it’s a rather elegant bit of confidence trickery from Steed that winds things up in a nice sting ending.

 

Hunt the Man Down

Hunt the Man Down, meanwhile, is another rare case in terms of the challenges in adapting it. The original TV episode is lost. Very lost. Totally lost. In a case that should make Doctor Who fans consider just how lucky they are, there is no video, audio, or even script surviving from this instalment of The Avengers. You could argue that this gave Justin Richards, coming aboard The AvengersBig Finish team with this release, more freedom. But the Behind the Scenes extras give a window into just how hard he worked to make the script he worked up from the surviving single page synopsis as loyal as possible to the original TV show. Right down to calculating how much location filming they could have afforded and restricting the number of outdoors scenes accordingly. Similarly, Richards takes care that the length of any given scene kept to those typical of the time.

It’s to Richards’ credit then that this sounds so thoroughly authentic and doesn’t stick out at all on this boxset. It’s a nice little tale of cross, double cross and triple cross, with Steed, Keel and Carol trying to insert a little quadruple cross of their own. All in pursuit of a hidden stash of stolen money. It plays with the trope of the decent career criminal in conflict with out of control maniacs – but never losing sight of the fact a criminal is still a criminal.

 

Dead of Winter

It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that this is The Avengers’ take on They Saved Hitler’s Brain, but it’s not that much of an exaggeration either. When the frozen corpse of an escaped Nazi turns up hidden inside a beef carcass being shipped from South America, it creates a bewildering mystery for Steed. It also gives Dr. Keel the opportunity to show off his German as he infiltrates a group of former Nazis plotting the rise of the Fourth Reich. (As usual, when in doubt The Avengers gives Keel some previously unrevealed skill to justify Steed’s need for him).

It’s only the conviction with which is everything is played that stops this from being an episode that would fit in perfectly in the colour era. With (distinctly half formed) plans to wipe out all life on Earth in a nuclear apocalypse while the Nazis wait out the radiation in a fridge. It’s all delightfully daft and also shows off Steed’s more comedic side. This most Bondian of stories start in typical Bondian style, Steed having to console his newest conquest, a Contessa no less, that he has to go as his country needs him. While later he also has to negotiate, for the second time in this set, with union workers at the docks for their help. It’s a world away from the grim civil servant fed up with the seediness of his assignment in Kill the King.

 

These Lost Episodes releases have always had a bit of a split personality. There’s little here for those that like their Avengers light and witty, but the one story that does fit that mould is so bizarre it might be irresistible.

 





Star Cops: Mother Earth: Part 1 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 14 June 2018 - Reviewed by Callum McKelvie
Star Cops: Mother Earth (Credit: Big Finish)

Written By: Andrew Smith, Ian Potter, Christopher Hatherall, Guy AdamsDirected By: Helen Goldwyn

Cast

David Calder (Nathan Spring / Box), Trevor Cooper (Colin Devis), Linda Newton (Pal Kenzy), Rakhee Thakrar (Priya Basu), Philip Olivier (Paul Bailey), Andrew Secombe (Brian Lincoln), Ewan Bailey (Martin Collyer), Nimmy March (Shayla Moss), Delroy Atkinson (Charles Hardin), Zora Bishop (Armina Hamid), Mandi Symonds (Caroline / Mother Earth), Tim Scragg (Ashton / Hughes), Amerjit Deu (Rez Varughese / Gish), Gabrielle Glaister (Joanne Stack / Janine), George Asprey (Alby Royle / Steven Moore), Andy Snowball (Danny Neal / Pan-Pacific President), Sophie-Louise Dann (Simone Babin). Other parts played by members of the cast.

Purchase from Amazon UK

Like a majority of more recent Big Finish releases, Star Cops starts with a bombastic theme tune, a far cry from the cheesy 80’s pop song that accompanied it during it’s original television run. One of the benefits Big Finish has with this release however is that probably very few people can remember the original series. Only managing one season, this reviewer must confess to having little-to-no prior knowledge and binge watching a few classic episodes to get the feel for what BF were going for. Having seen that and now heard this, it makes one wonder if BF’s intent was to try and do an ‘Omega Factor’, taking a short lived TV property and trying to fill a gap in the genres their audios currently cover. So instead of horror with a sci-fi twist, in this case its crime but with a sci-fi twist. Whereas the original series felt more like episodes of The Bill in space, this feels far more contemporary with the four stories linked by a growing threat from a terrorist organisation. Several members of the original cast are back but joined by new characters, giving a fresh angle for new listeners.

One of our Cops is Missing- Andrew Smith

This opening story puts a lot of the main plot pieces for the rest of the ‘series arc’ in place, as well as re-introducing old characters and introducing new ones. Not an easy thing to do. So it’s not really a surprise that what results is rather less than perfect. The problem is an awful lot is going on, too much in fact. The character of Paul Bailey, played by the always excellent Phillip Olivier, is incognito until the end sequence, which gives him a darker edge shamefully ignored in other stories. Considering this is his introductory story it’s an odd choice, particularly when another character who’s only in this story is given a lot more air time. The cast is all superb, with David Calder and Trevor Cooper slipping effortlessly back into character and new comers Rakhee Thakrar and the aforementioned Olivier, giving likeable, if not at this stage fully rounded characters. Ultimately though it’s something of a let-down and one really one wonders if perhaps the larger ongoing plot should have been left until later.

Tranquillity and other illusions- Ian Potter

Easily a highlight of the set, this one gives a lot of focus to the always wonderful Trevor Cooper. What results is an interesting (if admittedly obvious) mystery, with a lot of laugh out loud comic moments. Unlike the first story, Mother Earth’s presence here doesn’t seem superfluous to events and their threat begins to become palpable. The one negative is that a lot of the characters relationships are tested here, making decisions which as a listener we are informed are not the best idea, only for them to go nowhere or have no consequences.

Lockdown- Christopher Hatherhall

The only earthbound story sees a riff on such classic films as The Towering Inferno and Die Hard. Unfortunately the story is nowhere near as action packed as those two films and at points the obvious ‘riffing’ gets a little too closer (in one sequence a line from Die Hard is uttered in almost the exact same circumstances). Whilst the lack of action is disappointing, the mystery is somewhat interesting and at least Hatherhall is trying to play with his villains motivations and not making Mother Earth the obvious culprit.

The Thousand Ton Bomb- Guy Adams

Wow- well at least the set goes out with a bang (pun intended). Adams presents us with a gritty, menacing and genuinely intense finale that blows all the previous stories out the water. Phillip Olivier is given some really fabulous dialogue and he doesn’t disappoint, finally rounding his character out just that little bit more. There’s a genuine undertone of grittiness to this one that works wonders and it’s a shame that the other stories could not be up to this standard.

Admittedly I feel I’ve been a little unfairly negative towards ‘Star Cops’. On the whole I did enjoy listening to it and it’s certainly an interesting addition to the Big Finish cannon. Unfortunately just a lot of the stories felt half-baked and needed something more to round them out. Recommended for fans of the original series, but it will be interesting to see where Big Finish take this next.





The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 3 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 14 June 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 3 (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by: John Whitney, Geoffrey Bellman, Patrick Campbell, Gerald Verner, Bill Strutton
Adapted by: John Dorney
Directed by: Ken Bentley
Cast
Anthony Howell (Dr Keel), Julian Wadham (John Steed), Lucy Briggs-Owen (Carol Wilson), Dan Starkey (One-Ten), Miranda Raison, Sarah Lark, Geff Francis
Producer: David Richardson
Executive Producers: Jason Haigh-Ellery, Nicholas Briggs
Cover by: Anthony Lamb
Originally Released January 2015

At times, The Avengers feels almost like the work of two separate writing teams, working to very different series guidelines. Earlier boxsets in this Big Finish range included contributions from Brian Clemens himself, who’d go on to be the architect of the more whimsical and witty Avengers of later seasons, and the likes of Donald Tosh, known to Doctor Who fans as of that show’s more humourous writers. But this third set is by a completely different group, one who wholly embrace the original conception of the show as a dark, almost sordid series. It also moves Keel firmly back to centre stage. So much so, in fact, that Steed spends fully half his time running around on Keel’s behalf rather than the other way around.

 

The Springers

Our first story pulls the narrative trick of dropping us straight into an adventure already in progress. Keel is in prison, using his status as a disgraced former doctor to win over the members of a criminal gang. It’s only at visiting time we learn the real situation – Keel’s genuine medical knowledge has left him perfectly placed to work for Steed as a replacement for a jailbird medic Steed has temporarily gotten out of the way. That criminal is suspected to be next in line for an escape route that has mystified the authorities and Keel’s undercover work is designed to expose it.

Despite the novel setup, this is really one of the lesser Avengers episodes, with the secret of the escape route run out of a nearby finishing school for young ladies being rather pedestrian and not really deserving of Steed and Keel’s skills. It tries its best to make up for its slight plot by dialling Steed’s flirtatiousness with every woman to come within twenty feet of him but it fails to lift it out of the ordinary.

 

The Yellow Needle

If Steed’s giant libido can make for innuendo and seductive banter that would likely be seen more as sexual harassment this century, The Yellow Needle is possibly the first Avengers episode that feels like it would be entirely impossible to get made today. But for entirely different reasons.

Continuing the trend of new elements of Keel’s history and skillset randomly popping up out of nowhere, we now learn that he spent a year working in a poorly funded hospital in a desperately poor African country. And, for good measure, became best friends with his mentor – the then doctor and current Prime Minister Sir Wilburforce. Now in the midst of negotiating the nation’s exit from the British Empire he’s the target of assassination attempts and while Keel watches his back in London, Steed sets off to stereotypical Darkest Africa to try and root out the leaders of the conspiracy. It’s Steed’s side of the story that’s the real issue, with witch doctors, death cults, torture and tribal leaders distrustful of democracy.

It’s against a problematic backdrop too, with the divide between ‘good’ Africans who want to maintain close ties with the British Commonwealth and ‘bad’ Africans who want nothing to do with the British anymore. Added to this is a remarkably abrupt ending. I had to re-listen to three times to confirm that, yes, it really ends with Keel in mid-fight to save a victim’s life without ever telling us if he lives or dies or what the conclusion of the independence talks actually were. All in all, it adds up to the first genuinely poor episode Big Finish have yet adapted.

 

Double Danger

One of those episodes which inverts the typical formula of Steed recruiting Keel to a mission, here it’s Keel that finds himself up to his neck in trouble but with the good fortune to know a dashing bowler hatted secret agent who owes him a favour or three. At this stage though, Keel being recruited a gunpoint by a criminal gang to treat a dying man’s wounds feels like a bit of a cliché though we do get the neat moment of Keel sending one gangster off with a list of medicine to retrieve from Carol which includes the mysterious drug “Phonus Equus.” Though that’s mainly because, when Steed does answer Carol’s call we get to hear him dryly note what a terribly clumsy clue it is.

Perhaps never before have we seen the two halves of The Avengers’ personality as a show bump against each other so obviously – as Keel sweats it out in his tense and dramatic situation, and Steed wittily and humourously tracks him down. A scene in which Steed has to interview an old man who’s deaf as a post is terrific fun, and sounds like they had almost as much fun recording it. And Whadham sparkles in those scenes were, as in the previous boxset’s Dance with Death, Steed seems to be treating dealing with ‘ordinary’ criminals as a nice day off. He’s entirely inappropriately delighted, for instance, when a cornered gangster’s moll prepares herself for a visit to the station to stonewall the police and he gets to tell her he was actually thinking of perhaps entombing with some rats for company until she talked.

As is a recurring weakness in these episodes, the secret of this week’s McGuffin (stolen diamonds this time) is too easy to guess and requires the bad guys to be really quite thick, and the conclusion is little more than a fight scene followed by the end title music. But, as usual, it’s hard to care when the journey there is as nice as this.

 

Toy Trap

Probably the darkest story so far in The Avengers, Toy Trap deals with a prostitution ring scooping up teenage girls straight off the bus to London. Seduced first with attention and gifts the young girls joining the toy department of a major store are one by one inducted into the ring. Because after the initial seduction comes a suggestion to have sex for money, just once or twice to help set themselves up in London, then the incriminating photographs, and the blackmail threats to tell their families back home, and finally the iron fist of the pimp in charge of the gang and virtual slavery.

When Keel is tasked by an old friend with keeping a fatherly eye on the friend’s daughter while she establishes herself in London he quickly becomes alarmed by goings on among her circle of friends at the hostel for girls where she’s staying. So once again he calls on Steed for help in an area where Steed really has no official mandate or motive beyond doing a favour to keep one of his best assets sweet.

But the result creates conflict between them unlike anything since Keel was first investigating his fiance’s murder. Steed pursues it as just another case (and one he’s somewhat ambivalent about and wants dealt with quickly rather than neatly) and Keel sees it as a battle to save his surrogate daughter figure from rape. In a range where the resolutions are perhaps the biggest weakness, this leads to one of their best endings, as the two come to actual blows and the Keel/Steed partnership almost ends forever. Indeed, since Big Finish have shown a willingness to fiddle a little with the running order of these episodes, it’s almost a shame Toy Trap wasn’t moved to being the series finale. With only a small bit of tinkering it would have created a dramatic and effective exit for Keel.