The Master Minds was episode six in series four in transmission terms, but only the second episode that Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee had made together. Hence the not-quite-thereness of their relationship – notice throughout how rarely Rigg actually looks at Steed. By series five the two of them were locked in almost permanent ocular combat.
It’s relevant because this is a classic Rigg-era Avengers episode – it’s all about boffins and mind control – trailing clouds of the Cathy Gale era, when relations between Steed and his sidekick were much more workmanlike, for all Steed’s suggestive banter.
The plot kicks into life when government minister Sir Clive Todd (Laurence Hardy) is caught in flagrante delicte trying to steal secret documents. Arresting him is no use, since he’s a walking automaton with amnesia and is soon in hospital, where a government shrink (Ian MacNaughton, darkly glowering like a youthful John Laurie) will first try and tease open the man’s mind and later, himself hypnotised, will inject him with a lethal toxin.
But before that, a very welcome palate cleanser. This comes in the form of a scene-stealing Georgina Ward, as Davinia Todd, Sir Clive’s daughter, who was on holiday in the South of France but “got bored” and so decided to come home, so impulsively that she’s still wearing her bikini beneath the coat slung casually over her shoulders. The whole posh, bored, entitled rich girl thing nailed in a thumbnail and almost worth watching the whole episode for.
But back to the bad guys – a cabal of clever people, an organisation of eggheads called Ransack, appears to be behind Sir Clive’s misdeeds and Mrs Peel is soon undercover within the organisation, where she also succumbs to the same mind-controlling mantra which will send the gang off to a military base to do something that will imperil the realm.
And that’s about it, in plot terms at least. The “undercover” aspect of The Avengers formula is beginning to pall, but the idea that convocations of brainy chaps cannot be a good thing is relatively under-explored territory for the series.
This “don’t trust brains” trope might have arrived from the US alongside the plot’s driver: brainwashing. Though details about the CIA’s MK Ultra experiments – which had been running since 1953 – wouldn’t start coming to light until the 1970s, dark mutterings about what the Soviets might be up to in the same field were already cultural currency (see both The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and The Ipcress File).
Other things of note: the head of the Ransack organisation, Professor Spencer (Martin Miller) has a faintly German accent, and so is automatically sinister – it’s still only 20 years since the end of the Second World War, after all, in which Steed is meant to have fought.
And talking of fighting, there is some very poorly executed rough stuff at the end of the episode, director Peter Graham Scott not quite dynamic enough with his cameras. Though props to whoever decided that Mrs Peel’s showdown with the “Master Mind” (no spoilers) should take place behind a cinema screen, in silhouette. It’s a neat visual touch, and allows the doubles to do what they do best without constantly having to keep their faces turned away from the camera.
© Steve Morrissey 2019