January 26th, 2011

Steed and Mrs Peel vs adrenalin-junkie military officers

"The Danger Makers" Dec 12, 1966



Adrenalin junkies in the military. Great. just what we need, thanks ever so much. A secret society of thrill-seekers has gathered in Her Majesty's Army and the RAF. Middle-aged officers (who should know better) play chicken on motorcycles against trucks, try climbing St Paul's, pull reckless stunts in new jets and generally carry on like hormone-crazed teenagers. It's just bad form, you're only supposed to place yourself in dangerous spots in the Army when you're ordered to do.

John Steed and Emma Peel are called in to investigate, and seem to do so in a rather half-hearted way at first, as though they're not taking this assignment all that seriously. Things heat up though, and by the close of the case we find Emma negotiating a very tense initiation ritual while Steed faces a murderous opponent counting to three across a table on which a pistol lies.

The basic premise of the plot is fine. Most of us enjoy a mild scare, if we're assured it won't get out of hand; rollercoaster rides, rappelling, entering the freeway at rush hour. Some folks do get hooked on the adrenalin and go in for extreme sports which frankly seem idiotic to those who don't share their thirst for danger. And like most addictions, thrillseekers get diminishing returns after awhile and have to look for stronger doses. The idea in this story is that a small percentage of men exposed to combat get to like the nerve-wracking fear and anxiety, and find they want more, which in peacetime is not as easy to find. ("Today, Mrs Peel, there just isn't enough war to go around.")

(This idea has been used before in thrillers. Many of the great pulp heroes like Bulldog Drummond, Richard Wentworth, Doc Savage and his gang were all hooked on excitement and action during the Great War. Simon Templar couldn't go more than a week or so without stirring up some peril for himself.)

As our two heroes infiltrate the Danger Makers (headed by someone known only as Apollo), they meet fewer than usual of the unconventional characters which populate the landscape of the Avengers universe. There's Colonel Adams, an elderly ex-WREN (if I've got the terminology correct) who tends a military museum. She's an appealing and slightly lost old woman who seems unaware that the Danger Makers are using the museum to hold their meetings. The other touch of eccentricity is that the sinister Major Robertson has another hobby besides the occasional game of solo Russian roulette; he's interested in phrenology. This leads to a quasi-innocent remark from Steed that Mrs Peel should show the Major her bumps.

As her initiation into the Danger Makers, Emma undergoes a ritual rather more challenging than she had expected. It's the highlight of the episode and a well-done bit of suspense. She has to walk up and then down two succeeding planks on fulcrums (like teeter-totters) while sliding a long hoop on a handle along an overhead wire, one in each hand. But she must not let the hoops make contact or she will suffer fifty thousand volts through her supple little form. Diana Rigg is (as almost always) excellent in these scene. She looks as if she's taking it all with deadly seriousness and is completely convincing.

One thing that I love about her portrayal of the character is that Mrs Peel is brave but not foolhardy; she shows a reasonable amount of alarm and concern when facing risky business but takes a breath and goes ahead anyway. Of course, since she is voluntarily getting herself into Steed's missions, it's clear she has a large dose of thrillseeking herself. In fact, when she gives the Major her spiel about how life is too safe and boring these days, I think Emma's just expressing what she really feels.

Steed himself has two outstanding scenes. One involves his facing the Major across a table on which a pistol lies (Steed solves the situation with more prudence than gallantry) The best moment is a wonderful little bit where he reacts to Emma receiving a box of chocolates as if they might contain a nuclear warhead. Directing her to stand clear, he gingerly unfastens the package and solemnly inspects one of the chocolates. "I thought so. I've seen them before... Whatever you do, don't touch the wrapped ones." Mrs Peel asks why not, and Steed pops one in his mouth. "Cause I like 'em," he replies. It's cheeky moments like these, not necessary to the plot but always a delight, that give THE AVENGERS much of its charm for me.

As an American of the baby boomer generation, I found most of the details shown of British military lore fascinating. The black rose of courage and the four feathers of cowardice I had read about, and it's pleasant to see them appear. Steed rather casually hurling a grenade to strike right on the target others had trouble getting near is a nice touch. It's also interesting how many times our heroes end up battling the bad guys with old-style weapons, in this case swords. As in "Murdersville", Emma provides a startling moment, this time when she literally leaps lengthwise over a table like Daredevil and tackles two men. (Once she decides to fight, she goes for it.) She also has a wonderful expression of mild annoyance when she scrambles out from under that table at one point to find her opponents have run for it.

My one misgiving about this episode is that, when the mastermind calling himself Apollo is revealed, his ultimate scheme is a letdown. Yes, Collapse ) is a big enough caper for straightforward criminals (it was worth Moriarty's attention in a Basil Rathbone's Holmes flick), but it's not quite what I would expect would appeal to these characters. A raid on a summit meeting of gangsters or some sort of landmine obstacle course would be more their style but then, of course we can take this as Apollo just using their psychological problems for his own purposes. Apollo is just the sort of urbane, polished gentleman villain that I remember about THE AVENGERS.