Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs
Written By: Brian Clemens, Ray Rigby and Richard Harris
Adapted by John Dorney
Directed By: Ken Bentley
Anthony Howell (Dr Keel), Julian Wadham (John Steed), Lucy Briggs-Owen (Carol Wilson), Colin Baker (Dr Tredding), Adrian Lukis (Spicer)
Original Released: January 2014
Series Devised by Sydney Newman
Available to purchase from Amazon UK
The Avengers is an unusual show in that few programmes have evolved so quickly or become so self-referential over the course of its seasons. More than that, with most of the early episodes not just missing but extremely missing – with few to none of the telesnaps, off air recordings and other saving graces that allow Doctor Who fans to at least experience its junked instalments in some form – it’s a case of, arguably, a descent into self-parody where few have seen the ‘self’ being parodied.
So Big Finish are to be saluted for their resurrection of those early missing episodes – episodes potentially unrecognizable as The Avengers to those familiar with, and loving, the existing seasons – and being so faithful to both the letter and the spirit of the original. This dedication shows through in the extras where adapater John Dorney ruefully admits that for most episodes only the camera script, rather than the full original version, survives. Meaning in cases episode endings like "Action Sequence as Discussed" have to had to be interepreted by a mix of faithfulness, imagination and pure luck.
Of the leads, Anthony Howell has the easier job in playing Keel - a character the original version of which few have seen - and grants him a deep earnestness that plays opposite Steed nicely. The more difficult task falls of course to Julian Wadham in playing not only so iconic a character as John Steed, but having to play him initially as a quite different take on the secret agent before transitioning towards the man we know and love. While actors who've played the Doctor are often praised for their mecurial, 'turn on a sixpence' quality of sudden shifts from whimsy to outrage, Macnee's Steed instead changed gears from jovial charm to lethal dangerousness with the smoothness of a performance sports car. Wadham, perhaps wisely, doesn't even attempt to replicate that and instead for the most part a Steed somewhere in the middle - never quite as urbane or as ruthless, but with an element of both present in every line.
If anyone had any doubt about The Avengers beginning as an almost completely different show to the one that gave us cat-suited Emma Peel, killer robots, and an intelligence agency run out of an office on the Number 707 bus to Picadilly Circus, Hot Snow blows them away with its grit and cynicism. A woman is gunned down in the street in front of her fiancé, junkies hang out in the waiting rooms of struck off doctors and slimy low level heroin smugglers search for a missing package of four grand’s worth of ‘snow’. Even an attempt by a middle aged swinger to invite our hero into a group sex session with her and her husband seems seedy and slightly depressing, rather than something to elicit a purr of naughtiness from Steed.
The hero on the receiving end of that indecent proposal, by the way, is Dr. David Keel, not John Steed. Dragged into the shadows of the London underworld by sheer chance when a consignment of heroin is accidentally delivered to the surgery where he works, he’s willing to sacrifice his career in his quest for revenge on those who murdered his fiancée to cover it up. In fact, he’s ambivalent about his own survival so long as he gets his chance to confront the man who pulled the trigger. Steed himself is a shadowy figure, happy to use Keel’s vendetta as leverage to manipulate him for his own agenda. It’s slightly a shame it’s impossible to appreciate Hot Snow, and Steed’s role in it, the way it was originally intended. Steed here is a dangerous, ambiguous figure happily presenting himself as a double agent to both sides but with his real intentions opaque to the viewer in 1961. Much of the tension in Hot Snow’s script is derived from whether Steed is going to betray Keel – he tells the doctor that he’s tricked the smugglers into thinking he’s delivering him to them to kill, and tells the smugglers that he’s tricked Keel into coming to a meeting so they can kill him. In 2018, we know which side he’s on, of course, but the clever edge to the script can still be appreciated.
Brought to Book
If anything, the second episode in the set smacks even more of a road not taken than the first. Trigger man Spicer has moved on to the employment of a new crime family, brought in as a ‘specialist’ to help settle a budding gang war in definitive fashion. Once again Steed (now describing himself as a ‘kind of civil servant … deep undercover’) is primarily interested in destroying both sides but offers the presence of Spicer as an incentive to Keel to be his asset. And once again there’s an edge of possible betrayal in the air. While Keel infiltrates one gang as a ‘mob doctor’ when Steed arranges him to be in the right time and the right place to assist when the gangster soon to be formerly known as ‘Pretty Boy’ has his mouth slashed, Joker style, as an opening shot in the war, Steed is already positioned in the other – planning an attack on the very flat containing Keel and his new chums.It all raises visions of a parallel universe where The Avengers continued as a show as fixed in its structure as The Fugitive – Spicer always moving on, Keel in pursuit to avenge Peggy, Steed succeeding in breaking up the new gang but Spicer escaping… But fortunately, the episode ends, appropriately enough, with Spicer brought to book (albeit in a way that probably wouldn’t pass muster with the modern Crown Prosecution Service) and Keel warily agreeing that Steed can call on him again if the case requires his particular skills.
The Square Root of Evil
Rather than pursuing that alternate reality, the third episode instead does a handbrake turn into something much more familiar. In fact, it’s such a swift turnabout in the show’s format that one can only imagine there must have been some fascinating meeting where it was consciously decided to change the tone and style of the entire series in what’s almost a second pilot, albeit one that assumes knowledge of the two prior episodes. From the classically Avengerish pun of the title – a pun that appears to simply exist for its own sake; as even adaptor John Dorney admits he has no idea what it has to do with the story – to the treatment of Steed as the lead and Keel as his sidekick (a sidekick who only even shows up about halfway through), the dumping of The Rising Sun as Steed’s base of operations (along with, thankfully, the highly dodgy Chinese stereotype of Lily) and of Colin Baker’s Dr. Tredding, who had been set up as a supporting character to worry and fret about Keel, all signal a serious re-think of what the show would be like. Steed’s lascivious manner and tendency to treat deadly danger at least half as seriously as a sane person would, both materialize fully formed here too.What still remains is the fairly unremarkable nature of the criminals they go up against. The heroin smugglers and protection rackets of the first episodes are followed here by a counterfeiting operation being run out of a garage. It also somewhat runs out of steam by the end. Having set up the drama in Steed going undercover in the gang by pretending to be a notorious Irish counterfeiter, under constant danger of exposure, original writer Richard Harris (no, not that one) seeming can’t decide where to bring the story next. So, after a few near misses, Steed is found out and simply punches his way through all the bad guys and across the episode's finish line.
One for the Mortuary
The final story in the set sees the rapid transformation of the show’s format continue apace. Just a few hours of listening on from Dr. Keel being introduced as a relatively fresh young doctor setting up in General Practice to deal with chilblains and dispense vitamins and he’s now the sort of figure to get invited to high level World Health Organization conferences in Geneva. In parallel, Steed is no longer doing anything so gritty or streel level as infiltrating a gang of small time heroin dealers and instead tasked with ensuring a microdot containing the chemical formula for a new world-changing wonder drug reaches the conference. Oh, and the villain du jour is a one eyed man with a sword cane.
It’s a gone a bit… Avengers.
Even a diversion where Keel draws an erroneous conclusion from a clue and winds up having a bizarre conversation at cross purposes with a taxidermist specializing in pet memorials feels like the sort of thing that latter seasons of The Avengers would make a unique selling point of the show. The key thing grounding the show at this stage to the world we began with is that Keel seems somewhat befuddled by just how insane things are getting. In time, The Avengers would become a show where even the local milkman seemed to have a knowingly ironic sense of the pop spy world they live in. For now, it remains the story of an ordinary man moving deeper into an extraordinary world.
A fascinating bit of television archaeology, this set allows us to almost see into Clemens’ brain as he reassess what type of show this could be. In a sense, and appropriately for a show originated by Sydney Newman, this set allows us to see both the original premise and it’s “Dalek moment” when wilder elements began to be added to great success.