A top astronomer dies before the opening credits in The White Dwarf, the 21st episode broadcast in series 2 of The Avengers. Turns out that a large astral body might be heading towards Earth and if it does in fact arrive, we’re all toast. And Professor Richter was the only man who knew absolutely for sure whether it was coming this way or not. Who would want such a man dead?
It’s a good sci-fi premise which sees The Avengers edging further into the world they would eventually dominate – the esoteric.
And off we go to some science facility in Cornwall, Mrs Gale undercover as usual, as Dr Gale, checking into the local small hotel where all the boffins live, a vegan, no-drinking, no-smoking establishment that’s more 21st century than 1960s Britain.
Back in London we discover who exactly stood to gain from the scientist’s death, a couple of shifty stock market dealers named Barker and Johnson (George A Cooper, Bill Nagy) who are using information leaked from a government source – the brother of Johnson – to make a market killing.
There are lots of nice touches in Malcolm Hulke’s script. It’s human frailty rather than Ayn Rand-style government-is-bad conspiracy that’s at the heart of the dastardliness. Put another way, an over-fondness for money, aka cupidity, a word that seems to have dropped entirely out of daily use in the modern world, surprise surprise.
Another curlicue is Miss Tregarth, the vegan B&B landlady, all shitty service and high expectations of her guests, a brilliant study of British manners anticipating Fawlty Towers and played to the hilt by Constance Chapman.
The influence of Quatermass – Nigel Kneale’s massive popular, critically respected sci-fi creation which was to the 1950s what Doctor Who was to the 1960s – is evident in the amount of scientific chit-chat bandied between various boffins. But there’s no bogging down when it comes to action. Both Mrs Gale and Mr Steed have breakthroughs, but they come as a result of decisive moments of action – for instance, at one point Steed, posing as a stockbroker, breezes into the office of leaky government scientist Henry Johnson (Peter Copley) and asks him straight out if the world is about to end.
The elements are falling into place: fanciful government departments, unhinged schemers, a fair bit of tech, lots of blithe banter. If it all comes to too hasty a conclusion with – a standard Avengers ta-daa – a gunfight, much fun has been had along the way.
For students of 1960s manners, there’s also a nice scene in which Steed knocks up a meal, Ipcress File-style, the swinging bachelor showing he’s capable in the kitchen as well as any other room you might care to mention. Check out the wooden salad bowl, very Habitat, another sign that the grip of 1950s austerity is being loosened.
© Steve Morrissey 2018