Ian Hendry has left, Patrick Macnee has been bumped up to star and Honor Blackman has been drafted in as a sidekick who’s not just a pretty face. But there’s more than just those cosmetic differences – if they are just that – going on. In the opener for series two, it’s clear things have gone just a tiny bit self-referential too and that The Avengers is beginning to push against not just the envelope of its own founding principles, but also against those of television.
The self-referentiality comes in the opening scene, set in a TV studio where a notable traveller and writer is about to be interviewed in some highbrow arts show (by genuine TV face Tim Brinton). But instead of speaking, the imperially-moustached Colonel Wayne-Gilley dies dramatically on air, eyes bulging, leaping upwards before falling to the ground where a camera swings down to watch him hit the floor. But is it the camera shooting the TV show that’s followed him down, or is it the camera shooting this episode of The Avengers, or are they the same thing?
That, and the arrival of the jokey episode title – Mr Teddy Bear – indicate we’re really in new territory. No more small beer. The case is high-profile, for starters, the killer is of international renown, and the method – cyanide pills activated by a tiny clockwork mechanism inside the capsule – arcane. We’re also introduced to Steed’s organisation, in the shape of One Ten (Douglas Muir), a desk-bound boss with whom much exposition is dealt with in short order. Damn useful these desk-bound bosses, as the Bond series would find out with its own version – M.
“Anyway, Steed, get him. That’s as near an order as I can make it,” One Ten says to Steed, slightly mysteriously – is he his boss or isn’t he? And off Steed heads, back home, where we meet Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), smoking a cigarette in a holder and trading banter as Steed lays out his plan to ensnare the assassin Mr Bear by getting Gale to pose as a woman who wants to buy Mr Bear’s services – to kill Steed.
There’s a lot more spy stuff – disembodied voices down the phone, meeting in exotic locations, surveillance by camera, pursuit by person or persons unknown – but most notable of all is the fact that the villain remains hidden the entire time. We know whodunit but we’re not quite sure what he looks like, another enduring Avengers theme.
And Steed and Cathy Gale. Do they live together? What is the exact nature of their relationship? It has the same prickly wham-bam quality that Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd would later borrow for Moonlighting, or William Powell and Myrna Loy had in The Thin Man.
Teasing. Conceptually a very important idea in this series.
© Steve Morrissey 2017