Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Short Take: The Avengers, Season 4, Episode 13: "Too Many Christmas Trees"

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The Avengers TV series embraced surrealist and absurdist elements, but it was never locked into any one use of them. The show was perfectly comfortable playing them for either humor or suspense. “Too Many Christmas Trees” (Season 4, Episode 13) sticks pretty firmly to the latter, but it doesn’t seem to take itself all that seriously--the episode seems to revel in the artifice those elements require. Tony Williamson’s teleplay begins with the show’s hero John Steed (Patrick Macnee) plagued with nightmares filled with Christmas imagery: multiple decorated trees, wrapped presents, and a particularly ghoulish Santa Claus. Most disturbingly, the dreams also anticipate the future. The d├ęcor in the dreams matches that of a weekend-long Christmas retreat Steed and his partner Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) later attend, and Steed also foresees the death of a fellow intelligence agent. His dreams while at the retreat are even more unsettling--one includes his death. Peel suspects something outlandishly sinister is afoot, and she’s of course right. The director, Roy Ward Baker, effectively conveys the unreality of the dream sequences by making them conspicuously theatrical and hyperbolic. The odd rhythm he gives them is heightened by the naturalistic pacing of the other scenes. They are wonderfully bizarre, and they help make the story’s mystery an eerie delight. One is also happy that the show’s trademark humor is very much on display, from the in-joke about Cathy Gale, Peel’s predecessor as Steed’s partner, to the amusing costumes at the Dickens-themed masquerade party at the retreat. (Diana Rigg is the most fetching Oliver Twist one will ever see.) The funniest moment, though, comes at the end, when a secret weapon Steed gives Peel is used in a most anticlimactic way. The episode, which first aired on Christmas Day, 1965, is one of the series’ high points.

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