Saturday, December 21, 2013

Film Review: The Avengers, Season 2, Episode 1: "Mr. Teddy Bear"

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The 1960s British TV series The Avengers is one of the most notable examples of spy-fi--the genre of science-fiction-oriented espionage adventure launched by the success of the James Bond films. The series stands out thanks to its breaking so completely with the machismo elements of not only Bond, but virtually every other pop-adventure effort of its day. The male hero, John Steed (Patrick Macnee) was, like Bond, an operative for British intelligence. But with his trademark bowler, umbrella, and impeccably tailored suits, he was also an effete dandy. His female partners, most famously Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman) and Emma Peel (Diana Rigg), were anything but damsels in distress. They were smart, assertive, and more than capable of handling themselves in dangerous situations. They also weren’t the least bit ingratiating towards Steed, and for all his superciliousness, he clearly regarded them as equals.

The series took some time to find its way. Steed’s partner in the opening season was male, and the second season saw him in three pairings: another male operative, a young female novice played by Julie Stevens, and Blackman’s Cathy Gale. Gale was the one who took. She was Steed’s partner in 17 of the second season’s 26 episodes, and then the entire third season. She was replaced in the fourth season by Diana Rigg's Emma Peel.

“Mr. Teddy Bear” (1962) was the second season’s debut episode, and the first aired that featured Blackman. (Some accounts say it was the fourth with her to be filmed.) The plot is fairly simple: Steed and Gale set out to capture an assassin known by little other than his nickname (the story’s title) and his flamboyant methods. The low-budget production values make the episode seem a little quaint. That said, one can’t help but admire the imagination given to the assassin’s gadgetry, such as the tiny mechanical poison bombs he hides in medication capsules, or the talking teddy bear he uses to communicate with clients. The latter is the sort of deliriously surreal bit for which the series became known.

One can’t take one’s eyes off Honor Blackman. The no-nonsense edge she gives Gale plays well off the smirky Steed, and she looks ultra-chic in the (tasteful) black-leather ensemble she wears in the later scenes. Steed’s smug manner makes him the sort of hero whom one enjoys seeing upstaged. It's particularly enjoyable to see him shown up by a less experienced colleague. That and Blackman’s charisma make the episode’s climax, in which Gale’s speed and wits turn the tables on the assassin, a good deal of fun to watch. “Mr. Teddy Bear” is not especially intense, and like most series TV of the day, it’s certainly not profound. But its cleverness and manner are charming, and it leaves one wanting to see more of what the series has to offer.