The Medicine Men first went out on 23 November 1963, the day after the assassination of President Kennedy in the USA, and on the same night as the first episode of Doctor Who (also created by Avengers creator Sydney Newman). Of course none of this is reflected in the episode, which was made a couple of weeks earlier. Instead it’s a periodic obsession of The Avengers that gets an airing: the state of British industry.
In a plot that’s been chopped up a bit because, I suspect, it was a bit on the boring side, Steed and Gale investigate the murder of a woman in a steam room, a murder which leads them to a vast black market enterprise that’s making cheap copies of British goods and flooding the market with them. This is turned into a story that Steed and Gale might plausibly be involved in with the addition of a pinch of foreign spice – someone is planning to ruin the reputation of the UK by selling poisonous hooky cosmetics with an ostensibly British provenance to an important overseas market – it’s another of those oil-rich Middle Eastern sheikdoms.
Steed and Gale both go undercover – he as a member of the Overseas Exports Board advising a cosmetics company run by Geoffrey Willis (Peter Barkworth), she as a sales efficiency expert, all very in keeping with the Buy British sentiment of productivity-obsessed 1960s Britain. Running as a theme throughout is the notion of a company (and therefore country) that’s being outdone by Johnny Foreigner, by crooked means. Yet the company’s name is Willis-Sopwith, the faint echoes of the Second World War in that name carrying a suggestion that the country is relying on the past too much, giving ground through complacency, and that self-sabotage is a bigger threat than any malign foreigner. Well, that’s my take on Malcolm Hulke’s screenplay.
Over on the other side of town, meanwhile, an artist (Harold Innocent) in a black roll-neck sweater is getting girls to daub themselves in paint and then, action-painting style, press themselves against a canvas. He is somehow worked into the dodgy exports story, though the feeling persists that he’s been bolted on (by Brian Clemens?).
Mind you, it gives Steed a chance to play an Icelandic art dealer, complete in fur coat, Cossack hat, big cigar and a highly implausible accent. It’s all most amusing.
For the most part, though, it’s quite a female-centric episode, starting out with the camera lingering on Mrs Gale’s kinky boots in the introductory shot of her, but also making much of her no-nonsense style. And secretary Miss Dowell (Joy Wood) is also a formidable piece of work.
All in all it’s a bit meh in terms of plot, but you can’t fault Kim Mills’s pacey direction, which keeps the action bowling along as the action cuts from the cosmetics company to the artist’s studio, from Steed to Gale. And there’s a noticeable increase in the frequency of edits. For sure it still has the feel of a largely live shoot, but those early trundling camera days are long gone.
© Steve Morrissey 2019