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

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

And my father was a real ugly man.

Marty (1955)
(SPOILERS) It might be the very unexceptional good-naturedness of Marty that explains its Best Picture Oscar success. Ernest Borgnine’s Best Actor win is perhaps more immediately understandable, a badge of recognition for versatility, having previously attracted attention for playing iron-wrought bastards. But Marty also took the Palme d’Or, and it’s curious that its artistically-inclined jury fell so heavily for its charms (it was the first American picture to win the award; Lost Weekend won the Grand Prix when that was still the top award).

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…

The world is one big hospice with fresh air.

Doctor Sleep (2019)
(SPOILERS) Doctor Sleep is a much better movie than it probably ought to be. Which is to say, it’s an adaption of a 2013 novel that, by most accounts, was a bit of a dud. That novel was a sequel to The Shining, one of Stephen King’s most beloved works, made into a film that diverged heavily, and in King’s view detrimentally, from the source material. Accordingly, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep also operates as a follow up to the legendary Kubrick film. In which regard, it doesn’t even come close. And yet, judged as its own thing, which can at times be difficult due to the overt referencing, it’s an affecting and often effective tale of personal redemption and facing the – in this case literal – ghosts of one’s past.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012)
The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

It’s like being smothered in beige.

The Good Liar (2019)
(SPOILERS) I probably ought to have twigged, based on the specific setting of The Good Liar that World War II would be involved – ten years ago, rather than the present day, so making the involvement of Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren just about believable – but I really wish it hadn’t been. Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay, adapting Nicholas Searle’s 2016 novel, offers a nifty little conning-the-conman tale that would work much, much better without the ungainly backstory and motivation that impose themselves about halfway through and then get paid off with equal lack of finesse.