James Mitchell, Lewis Davidson, Richard Harris, and Eric Paice
John Dorney and Justin Richards
(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
Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs
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 Avengers’ Big 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.