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.

 





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.