Skip to main content

Someone began his Christmas celebrations early.

The Avengers
4.6: Too Many Christmas Trees

Festive celebrations take a sinister turn in this fourth season episode, as Steed is haunted by uncannily predictive dreams. It is, of course, a nefarious plot, but less lightweight than many a series’ seasonal indulgence, despite featuring its fare share of gags and meta-referencing.


Most celebrated is the Christmas card Steed receives from Cathy Gale, offering him best wishes for the future (“Oh, how nice of her to remember me”), followed by “What can she be doing in Fort Knox?” Albeit, Too Many Christmas Trees was broadcast 15 months after the release of Goldfinger, in which Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore visited Fort Knox.


More pertinent to the story, in which a man suffers eerie premonitions of the surroundings and guests he is visiting, Mervyn Johns is cast as Brandon Storey, the publisher mastermind (and Santa) behind the scheme to plunder Steed’s brain for top secrets. Johns played the outwardly inconspicuous Walter Craig in horror classic Dead of Night 20 years earlier (spoilers for the film follow). Craig visits a weekend gathering in the country where the guest regale each other with spooky tales and a psychiatrist delivers rational explanations for anything odd. Ultimately, Craig is revealed as the shrink’s strangler, at which he awakes, and a cyclic narrative is shows him embarking for the retreat for the first time.


Slightly less essentially, Johns, here playing a Dickens obsessive, had also appeared in several Dickens adaptations, including A Tale of Two Cities (referenced by Steed’s fancy dress costume) and (the 1951, definitive) Yule tale of dreams and visitations Scrooge (as Bob Cratchit).


Dr Teasel: Clearly he’s on the verge of a complete nervous breakdown.

The mood of Steed’s dream, an expanse of white with Steed rocking his PJs, cardboard cut-out Christmas trees, sinister sleigh music and Santa sporting a grotesquely ill-fitting mask and announcing himself with an ominous “Ho-ho-ho”, vaguely recalls the unreality of another two decades old film, Hitchcock’s Spellbound, with its dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali (the only really good part of it, truth be told). 


Appropriately, Mrs Peel launches into an amusing cod-analysis of why Steed is dreaming the dreams he is dreaming (particularly so, since it is later revealed that she has also been manipulated). She considers it “a simple case of childhood regression, dating back to the time you realised there isn’t a Santa”. To which, a classically cheerful Steed ripostes; “Oh dear. Isn’t there?” Emma’s articles on psychoanalysis are remarked upon by Dr Felix Teasel as “Very good, for the lay public”.


The finale, set in a darkened room of distorting mirrors, in which the villain mistakenly shoots at Emma’s reflection, recalls Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (and presages The Man with the Golden Gun).


Emma: Wake up! You’ve been drugged.
Steed: I haven’t, you know. I poured it all down the sink. There’s enough there to knock out a herd of buffalo.

The general structure, in which scheming types manipulate our hero’s subconscious in an effort to elicit truths from him, would be used again two years later in The Prisoner episode A. B. & C. To better effect, it has to be said (not that Too Many Christmas Trees isn’t a worthy episode in itself). Tony Williamson wrote nine instalments of The Avengers and contributed to a number of ITC serials including The Champions, Jason King and The Persuaders (he also wrote half of Adam Adamant Lives!), but not the Patrick McGoohan series. Both plots feature the hero deducing the villains’ plan, and they are revealed a crucial moment as having faked a lack of control. Steed suspected as soon as entering the house and saw the Christmas trees. Too Many doesn’t have anything in its arsenal as satisfying as Six’s “reveal” of Number Two as the contact, however, resolving itself with a simple unveiling of Storey.


Additionally, some of the elements are rather inelegant; Edwin Richfield’s doubting Thomas Dr Teasel turns out to be on the side of the angels (“Oh, oh the War Office won’t like that” comments Steed after Emma reveals she has knocked him out). So too Emma (who has been suspicious all along) being manipulated to bring Steed to the party, and Steed couldn’t let her know as “You might have given the game away”. When it’s really for the purposes of a neat Steed reveal (her concertedly joining in Steed’s hearty refrain at this point very nearly makes up for it, and is a lovely example of the chemistry between the two stars).


Mrs Peel: Do you believe in telepathy? Supposing a group of people, each of them telepathic, thought as one?
Dr Teasel: Nothing you’ve said to me so far is feasible.

While the whyfors of Steed’s dreams take a while to be laid out, the architects of the scheme are identified fairly early on (Storey aside), and one can’t help feel this might have been sustained for longer. Once we know there are several culprits, some with mixed feelings, there’s slightly less intrigue. Indeed, the explanation for how they engineered this, when it comes, is something of a cheat. Rather than with mirrors, or a pseudo-scientific explanation as in The Prisoner, the truth is extra-sensory. The diabolical masterminds telepathically were invading Steed’s mind, as illustrated by the round table and Janice Crane (Jeanette Sterke) predicting the cards held up by Steed (in what would typically be a magician’s sleight of hand).


Mrs Peel: What kind of nightmare?
Steed: A Christmas nightmare.

Film director Roy Ward Baker stages the proceedings with appropriate flair, from the tree and guillotine dream sequences to the overhead shots of the séance-esque sessions where the villains work on their subject (previously having picked on Steed’s friend Freddie Marshall, whom Steed knew had been giving away secrets; in a sign of the scientific slack granted this one, Freddie “died of a brainstorm”).


A fine supporting cast has been assembled, although the performers are generally rather more impressive than their characters. Edwin Richfield had previously appeared in The Girl on the Trapeze(and his notable appearances include two Doctor Whos, The Owl Service, and The Strange World of Gurney Slade). Robert James (as Jenkins) showed up in Hot Snow, the very first Avengers, as well as playing Lesterson in the first Patrick Troughton Doctor Who, The Power of the Daleks. On the Dickens front, he played Newman Noggs in Nicholas Nickelby a decade later. Alex Scott (Martin Trasker) has Our Mutual Friend and Martin Chuzzlewit on his Dickens score card while Barry Warren (Jeremy Wade) has none, although his fancy dress is – suitably, given his fate – Marley’s Ghost.


Steed: It’s a bit uncomfortable, isn’t it? Someone poking around in one’s innermost thoughts.(Looking up) Mmmm. And you can put that in your crystal ball.

Macnee had, of course, like Mervyn Johns, appeared in the Alastair Sim Scrooge, as young Jacob Marley. No A Tale of Two Cities, alas, as that would be a very tidy costuming reference. Rigg, who appears rather fetchingly as Oliver Twist (“My word, you have filled out!”), went on to appear as Lady Dedlock in the BBC’s acclaimed 1985 Bleak House


Amid the usual fighting and dodging skills, she has an artful little bit of business adjusting her bowtie, and the rapport between the two co-stars, complete with light innuendo, is a reminder of why theirs is the most-celebrated Avengers partnership. Reading out Christmas cards (“Who is ‘boofums’?”), to speculation of intent (“Is he still after your first editions?” Steed asks Emma of Jeremy Wade), to four poster beds (Emma has always fancied herself in one; “So have I” says Steed, before clarifying “I mean, I have, too”)


The send-off gag is set up earlier in the episode, as Emma ponders why Steed doesn’t get rid of the Bentley (I’m sure Macnee would have loved to), to which he replies “The quality of a lady’s performance is measured not by her years” In the final scene they have a horse and trap, complete with Prancer and some judiciously-placed mistletoe. A seasonal outing that doesn’t eschew plot for indulgence, Too Many Christmas Trees might not be top tier Avengers, although it was one of Macnee’s favourites, but it’s a fine example of Steed and Mrs Peel at play in what many regard as the best season of the show.














Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

You must find the keys for me!

Doctor Who The Keys of Marinus
Most of the criticisms levelled at The Keys of Marinus over the past 50 years have been fair play, and yet it’s a story I return to as one of the more effortlessly watchable of the Hartnell era. Consequently, the one complaint I can’t really countenance is that it’s boring. While many a foray during this fledgling period drags its heels, even ones of undeniable quality in other areas, Marinus’ shifting soils and weekly adventures-in-miniature sustain interest, however inelegant the actual construction of those narratives may be. The quest premise also makes it a winner; it’s a format I have little resistance to, even when manifested, as here, in an often overtly budget-stricken manner.

Doctor Who has dabbled with the search structure elsewhere, most notably across The Key to Time season, and ultimately Marinus’ mission is even more of a MacGuffin than in that sextology, a means to string together what would otherwise be vignettes to little overall coherence…

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

Nobody trusts anybody now. We’re all very tired.

The Thing (1982)
(SPOILERS) The Thing has been thesis fodder for years, as much so as any given pre-1990 Cronenberg movie, and has popularly been seen as a metaphor for AIDS and even climate change. Now, of course, provided we’re still in a world where film is studied in the aftermath and we haven’t ball been assimilated in one form or another, such staples are sure to be scrubbed away by an inundation of bids to apply the Coronavirus to any given text (much in the way Trump has been popularly overwritten onto any particular invidious fictional figure you care to mention in the most tedious shorthand). And sure, there’s fertile ground here, with rampant paranoia and social distancing being practised among those in Outpost 31 (the “virus” can even be passed on by pets). That flexibility, however, is the key to the picture’s longevity and effectiveness; ultimately, it is not the nature of the threat (as undeniably and iconically gruey and Lovecraftian as it is), but rather the response of…

Oh man, they wronged you. Why they gotta be like that? You exude a cosmic darkness.

Mandy (2018)
(SPOILERS) Sometimes you're left scratching your head over a movie, wondering what it was about it that had others rapturously raving while you were left shrugging. I at least saw the cult appeal of Panos Cosmatos’ previous picture, Beyond the Black Rainbow, which inexorably drew the viewer in with a clinically psychedelic allure before going unceremoniously off the boil with a botched slasher third act. Mandy, though, has been pronounced one of the best of the year, with a great unhinged Nic Cage performance front and centre – I can half agree with the latter point – but it's further evidence of a talented filmmaker slave to a disconcertingly unfulfilling obsession with retro-fashioning early '80s horror iconography.

It always seems a bit abstract, doesn’t it? Other people dying.

Game of Thrones Season Six
(SPOILERS) The most distracting thing about Season Six of Game of Thrones (and I’ve begun writing this at the end of the seventh episode, The Broken Man) is how breakneck its pace is, and how worryingly – only relatively, mind – upbeat it’s become. Suddenly, characters are meeting and joining forces, not necessarily mired in pits of despair but actually moving towards positive, attainable goals, even if those goals are ultimately doomed (depending on the party concerned). It feels, in a sense, that liberated from George R R Martin’s text, producers are going full-throttle, and you half-wonder if they’re using up too much plot and revelation too quickly, and will run out before the next two seasons are up. Then, I’m naturally wary of these things, well remembering how Babylon 5 suffered from packing all its goods into Season Four and was then given an ultimately wasted final season reprieve.

I’ve started this paragraph at the end of the eighth episode, No One (t…