The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 7 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 4 September 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 7 (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by: Ian Potter, Tom Mallaburn, John Dorney
From Scripts by: Terence Feely, John Lucarotti, Lester Powell
Directed by: Ken Bentley
Starring:
Anthony Howell (Dr Keel), Julian Wadham (John Steed), Lucy Briggs-Owen (Carol Wilson), Ramon Tikaram (Saunders), Karina Fernandez (Dr Ampara Alvarez Sandoval),Bettrys Jones (Barbara Anthony), Dan Starkey (One-Ten)
Music by: Toby Hrycek-Robinson
Cover by: Anthony Lamb
Duration: 180' approx
Originally Released January 2017

The trio of stories in the final instalment of Steed and Keel’s adventures are slightly odd choices for such a finale. Many episodes along the way have sidelined one or the other into mere cameos in the other’s story, but here we get an adventure for Steed in which Keel does not appear at all, a completely Steedless outing for Dr. Keel, and only one final team up for our heroes in the very last episode.

 

Dragonsfield

Operating completely solo, without any sidekick whatsoever (not even a one off substitute such as Carlos in Crescent Moon) casts Steed in a surprisingly different light. As does the complete absence of any kind of cover story or clever ruse. The Dragonfield facility- an underground warren of corridors and laboratories – is experiencing unusual problems that smack of sabotage while mysterious coded radio messages from “Zeus” to “Europa” are being intercepted in the area. And Steed is dispatched by his shadowy Department, quite simply and matter of factly, to end the problem by any means necessary.

And them, of course, the murders begin.

It’s fascinating to see an edgier Steed, less full of bonhomie. Presumably it’s the result of not having a partner to show off for, but the net result is that we can believe in Steed as the kind of man who’s done the messy, knuckle bruising work required in his line of work.

There’s a sequence near the end where Steed is threatening the revealed villain of the piece with having his hand pulped beneath a giant cog of machinery unless he gets the information he needs to complete his mission. With Keel at his side, you’d never doubt it was a bluff. Without him, it feels much less certain. The script certainly refuses to give us any such playful moment of relief from the question.

Originally Dragonsfield aired on television as the final episode of series one, so might be seen as a testbed for how well a Keelless second series might work. Instead it shows the importance of that plural “Avengers” mandating a succession of equal partners for him.  Dragonsfield gives us a window into an alternate show simply called “Steed,”and for all its finely tuned mystery and well thought out action, it’s a world better glimpsed than lived in.

 

The Far Distant Dead

The Far Distant Dead, meanwhile, gives us Dr. Keel without his Steed and the result is no less curiously atypical. For one thing, it must have the expansive timeframe of any Avengers episode ever. Over the course of the story Keel founds, builds and fully staffs and equips an entire hospital! He gets into this during what was supposed to be a short holiday to Mexico but when the country is devastated by the second hurricane in as many years he feels obligated and help (well, pretty much take over, in fact) relief efforts in the worst part of the country.

The use of Mexico like this is a distinctly unAvengerish touch. No matter how paper thin the disguise, every vast Eastern European superpower, Western African former British colony, and Caribbean island sidestepped any accusation of direct political commentary or insulting any real nation’s pride by populating it with corrupt Presidents or maniacal death cults. So the choice to depict Mexico, specifically and by name, as a country with only a handful of doctors and in desperate need of Dr.Keel to tell them how to go about their business is a curious one by original writer John Lucarotti.  Though it does form a strange sister episode to his Doctor Who story The Aztecs. But one in which the people of Mexico are rather more happy to accept the interference of the English do-gooder.

Of course, this is still The Avengers so it’s not long before Keel is distracted by a strange spate of apparent food poisonings adding to the country’s woes. Tracing it back to a batch of hydraulic fluid deliberately labelled as olive oil he’s soon punching his way through the chain of command of people responsible all the way to Paris.

As with Dragonsfield, it’s a curious insight into an alternate universe  - here one in which Steed hadn’t taken root in the show’s DNA. The main impression is that it would been devilishly difficult to keep finding ways for Keel to get into trouble every week. It does, however, get bonus points to be a rare Avengers story where there’s some actual Avenging going on.

 

The Deadly Air

Our very, very last story feels like a curiously random finale to end the run of twenty-six episodes on. It feels largely like another day at the office for our heroic duo. Steed is investigating sabotage and murder at yet another government facility. Keel is dragged in for his medical credentials – even though he quite sensibly spends the whole thing pointing out that being a GP in Chelsea has given him barely any more grounding in the science of virology and vaccine development than Steed has. The mystery aspect is a little weak this time – even Steed wistfully admits when unmasking the killer that, after all, all the other suspects had been successfully bumped off by that point, leaving only one solution left.

On television of course, Keel’s last on screen appearance was even more random – the banana insurance scam comedy episode A Change of Bait (presented by Big Finish in Volume 4 of their reconstructions). Thereafter, he simply disappears from the show without fanfare. But as Big Finish have already shown the willingness to rejig the running order, there are more appropriate episodes they could have ended on. Toy Trap, for instance, with its fierce climax of Steed and Keel coming to blows as the latter threatens to quit their friendship in protest at Steed’s sometimes callous approach to collateral damage. Or Kill the King, with its coda of an unusually reflective Steed pondering whether this lifestyle is actually good for Keel and whether the good doctor mightn’t be living a happier life, more able to move on from his fiancee’s death, if Steed stopped calling on him.

Instead, The Deadly Air does its best to cap the series with a plot in which Steed comes rather closer to dying than it usual even for him, leading him to as impassioned a confession of his high regard for Keel and the value he’s placed on their friendship, as he can manage through his stiff upper lip. And a final scene, surely more inspired by Doctor Who’s Survival than anything in The Avengers canon, where Steed and Keel walk off into the sunset, the secret agent twirling his brolly and declaring that there’s still a whole world of mad scientists, enemy agents, and criminal conspirators out there for them to outwit.

“Dr. Keel… We’re needed!”





The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 6 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 24 August 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 6 (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by: Berkley Mather, Ian Potter, John Dorney
Adapted by: Rae Leaver
Based on storylines by: James Mitchell and John Kruse
Directed by: Ken Bentley
Starring:
Anthony Howell (Dr Keel), Julian Wadham (John Steed), Lucy Briggs-Owen (Carol Wilson), Michael Lumsden (The Deacon),John Culshaw (Sir William Bonner),Dan Starkey (One-Ten), Pete Colins (Harry Black)
Music by: Toby Hrycek-Robinson
Cover Art by: Anthony Lamb
Duration: 180' approx
Originally Released July 2016

Big Finish’s exploration deep into the darkest heart of the missing Avengers episodes was always going to be a finite journey. There are, after all, only so many adventures for Steed and Keel to reconstruct.  And so this penultimate boxset sees the usual number of instalments reduced from four to three.

As with Volume Five, we’re also exploring some of the most missing of episodes where only a couple of typed pages of outline – of the type Terry Nation might have delivered to Dennis Spooner’s doorstep before vanishing into the night in his sports car – survive. And ironically this again creates a consistency and characterization the more complete episodes sometimes lacked. It was an inevitable reality of sixties television production that many writers would only have seen a handful of episodes of the show they’d been commissioned for. The difference in having a Steed and Keel crafted by people who’d followed this endeavour all the way through is notable.

 

The Frighteners

One of the key problems in any crime-of-the-week drama is the insertion of the regulars into the case. Some shows make this straightforward by having their leads be police detectives simply assigned to the investigation. Others almost made such a feature of the improbability that, Murder She Wrote style, audiences began to wonder if the lead was actually a serial killer and each episode a meticulous frame job. The Avengers has pinged back and forth from Steed recruiting Keel to help with a mission of national security that he’s been assigned, and Keel begging a return favour from Steed to help some patient or friend in need.

Of the former, The Frighteners is a bit of an oddity. It never quite convinces that “the Department” that Steed works for would trouble itself with a ‘frighteners service’ – a criminal enterprise renting out experts in intimidation and warning beatings. In fact, this particular case of a millionaire attempting to have a lothario gold digger warned off his daughter seems like something Steed would firmly file under “Not My Problem.” It may have worked better with the beaten lothario one of Chelsea doctor Keel’s patients and Steed dragged in that way.

It is, however, wonderfully daft. One of the frighteners gets his neck broken in a fight with Keel and Steed and is then extorted into helping them – led around town as their informant on the threat that they otherwise won’t bring him to the hospital to get his broken neck fixed before his spinal column gets cut by the jagged bone.  And the final resolution is so completely left field that adapter Rae Leaver suggests that it’s the result of someone fluffing their line in the original television recording and then the entire case winging an entirely new ending off the top of their heads.

 

Death on the Slipway

Our second case in this boxset is much more up Steed’s alley. A shipping yard responsible for construction of the Royal Navy’s latest experimental nuclear submarine is suspected of being targeted by the usual Unnamed Eastern European Foreign Superpower. Steed’s assigned to keep an eye on things, undercover as an metallurgist from the Admirality but immediately finds himself helping the police investigate a suspicious death. Very few Avengers stories are whodunnits but present themselves as games of cat and mouse between our heroes and their targets and this is no exception. But it’s an exceptionally satisfying one as we follow the two strands in parallel – Steed following the clues to identify the mole at work on the site, and the foreign agent trying to evade him and his increasingly fraught relationship with the British asset he’s blackmailed into helping him. Steed may be approaching Peak Flirt in these scripts but there’s rarely been the sense of danger and high stakes as is to be found here.

 

Tunnel of Fear

It’s hard to identify exactly what makes Tunnel of Fear so relatively forgettable for an Avengers episode. Whatever the reasons, the end result is a rather by-the-numbers story. It does stand out in featuring one of Steed’s other assets – a wrongly convicted man whom Steed has gotten out of prison in return for infiltrating criminal gangs for him. It’s a wonder Keel isn’t jealous as that’s usually the sort of work he gets landed with. The use of hypnotism feels very weak though, even if it gives Julian Wadham the opportunity to have fun playing Steed’s complete refusal to be hypnotized.

One unique point of interest, though, is that since this audio was released the original TV episode has actually been found. Allowing us a unique opportunity to compare and contrast the story John Dorney had to write almost from scratch to the actual end result.

 

A slimmer volume than most, The Avengers Lost Episode Volume 6 still contains enough drama, action and wit to satisfy any fan of our heroes. With Tunnel of Fear it also provides that rare opportunity for fans to get an insight into how close to the 'real thing' the other reconstructed scripts may have come. That alone makes it an essential purpose for the most devoted.

 





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.





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.