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

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

If you never do anything, you never become anyone.

An Education (2009)
Carey Mulligan deserves all the attention she received for her central performance, and the depiction of the ‘60s is commendably subdued. I worried there was going to be a full-blown music montage sequence at the climax that undid all the good work, but thankfully it was fairly low key. 

Alfred Molina and Olivia Williams are especially strong in the supporting roles, and it's fortunate for credibility’s sake that that Orlando Bloom had to drop out and Dominic Cooper replaced him.
***1/2

Can you close off your feelings so you don’t get crippled by the moral ambiguity of your violent actions?

Spider-Man Worst to Best

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

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…

What, you're going to walk in there like it's the commie Disneyland or something?

Stranger Things 3 (2019)
(SPOILERS) It’s very clear by this point that Stranger Things isn’t going to serve up any surprises. It’s operating according to a strict formula, one requiring the opening of the portal to the Upside Down every season and an attendant demagorgon derivative threat to leak through, only to be stymied at the last moment by our valorous team. It’s an ‘80s sequel cycle through and through, and if you’re happy with it functioning exclusively on that level, complete with a sometimes overpowering (over)dose of nostalgia references, this latest season will likely strike you as just the ticket.

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.

How can you have time when it clearly has you?

Dark  Season 2
(SPOILERS) I’m not intending to dig into Dark zealously, as its plotting is so labyrinthine, it would take forever and a day, and I’d just end up babbling incoherently (so what’s new). But it’s worth commenting on, as it’s one of the few Netflix shows I’ve seen that feels entirely rigorous and disciplined – avoiding the flab and looseness that too often seems part and parcel of a service expressly avoiding traditional ratings models – as it delivers its self-appointed weighty themes and big ideas. And Dark’s weighty themes and big ideas really are weighty and big, albeit simultaneously often really frustrating. It came as no surprise to learn of the showrunners’ overriding fixation on determinism at work in the multi-generational, multiple time period-spanning events within the German town of Winden, but I was intrigued regarding their structural approach, based on clearly knowing the end game of their characters, rather than needing to reference (as they put it) Post-It…

Doesn't work out, I'll send her home in body bag.

Anna (2019)
(SPOILERS) I’m sure one could construe pertinent parallels between the various allegations and predilections that have surfaced at various points relating to Luc Besson, both over the years and very recently, and the subject matter of his movies, be it by way of a layered confessional or artistic “atonement” in the form of (often ingenue) women rising up against their abusers/employers. In the case of Anna, however, I just think he saw Atomic Blonde and got jealous. I’ll have me some of that, though Luc. Only, while he brought more than sufficient action to the table, he omitted two vital ingredients: strong lead casting and a kick-ass soundtrack.

Spider-Man with his hand in the cookie jar! Whoever brings me that photo gets a job.

Spider-Man 3 (2007)
(SPOILERS) Spider-Man 3 is a mess. That much most can agree on that much. And I think few – Jonathan Ross being one of them – would claim it’s the best of the Raimi trilogy. But it’s also a movie that has taken an overly harsh beating. In some cases, this a consequence of negative reaction to its most inspired elements – it would be a similar story with Iron Man Three a few years later – and in others, it’s a reflection of an overstuffed narrative pudding – so much so that screenwriter Alvin Sargent considered splitting the movie into two. In respect of the latter, elements were forced on director Sam Raimi, and these cumulative disagreements would eventually lead him to exit the series (it would take another three years before his involvement in Spider-Man 4 officially ended). There’s a lot of chaff in the movie, but there’s also a lot of goodness here, always providing you aren’t gluten intolerant.