Skip to main content

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers
4.3: The Master Minds

The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.


This was only the second Emma Peel episode filmed, but the chemistry – and dialogue – between Steed and Mrs Peel is fully-formed. Picking up a regular pattern, Emma works undercover while Steed assumes the role of the outsider making inquiries. In this one, though, an added twist is that Emma falls under the spell of the brainwashing techniques designed to make members of RANSACK somnambulantly carry out thefts of top secret information (in this case “The possible successor to Polaris. Gone. Snatched. Just like that”). As the shallow like us blog notes, this makes for something of a precursor, tonally, to Doctor Who’s Robot, but it also has something of a Prisoner vibe in the pop visuals staging of the grand climax, the fight between Emma and the architect of the scheme taking place in silhouette against footage of jet tests.


Steed: Behind them there must be a brilliant planner at work.
Mrs Peel: A genius.
Steed: A diabolical mastermind.

The plot mixes elements both obvious and clever. It scores when it’s going for the mysterious – what happened to Sir Clive Todd (Laurence Hardy), with unsettling strings on the soundtrack resonant of Under the Skin as he tries and fails to remember his actions, and Steed following the RANSACK members at night as attend a briefing - less so when it comes to obfuscating the engineers of the plot. There’s never any doubt that RANSACK is behind it all, particularly when Desmond Leeming (Bernard Archard) rocks up conveniently and announces himself – it’s almost as if they want to come under suspicion.


Holly Trent’s identity as the ringleader works to the extent that Patricia Haines plays up the oblivious, but much better in this regard is Ian MacNaughton, giving off something of a ’60s Peter Capaldi vibe as Doctor Fergus Campbell, instantly appearing dubious in manner, then proving to be dubious, then proving to have only been dubious because he was under the influence.


Steed: By the way, what did you manage to straighten out in the navy?
Dr Campbell: The seasick.
Steed: Traces of an incipient inferiority complex. I should watch it.

The very best Avengers are often ones where the guest cast are elevated to equal status with the regulars, and I don’t think The Master Minds, MacNaughton’s role in the first half aside, quite succeeds in that regard. It has to be said, though, Steed and Emma are marvellously accounted for here, and Steed’s verbal sparring with the truculent Campbell, brought in to assess the mental status of Sir Clive (who has committed a robbery under the influence and receive a gunshot to the head for his troubles), is great stuff. Campbell launches into Steed’s levity (“Your facetiousness, Mr Steed, covers an edgy temperament. In fact, I’d say your nerves mostly jangle like a wire in the wind”) and receives a casually effective putdown from the gentleman spy in response (above).


Steed: How was your intelligence quotient?
Mrs Peel: Well above average.
Steed: Better than mine?
Mrs Peel: Roughly the same. But that’s hardly surprising since I also did your paper for you.

And Steed’s flippancy is in good evidence throughout, uncensored in front of his superiors (“Caught with his own portcullis down” he notes of Sir Clive’s predicament), who are shocked to find Todd is a member of another gang, “besides your own gang”. One of the most enjoyable aspects, however, is Steed falling into line as capable but inferior to Emma in many an endeavour. The best instance being his blanching at the thought of taking the RANSACK test, only for it to look as if he passed with flying colours and then the reveal the only reason he did is because Mrs Peel did his test for him.


Mrs Peel: There’ll be another test paper tomorrow.
Steed: Oh dear.
Mrs Peel: Here are the answers.

Even with the answers scrawled on his cuff, Steed manages to fail a later test (“I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius”). Not that he isn’t as quick and sly as ever. His digs at Emma’s Florence Nightingale routine, tending Sir Clive, elicits “I don’t think that should concern you, Mrs Peel. You’re only the nurse here” when she asks about the clues he hopes to find in the residence.


Davinia: I’m going to scream in a moment.
Steed: Oh dear, I hope not.

Elsewhere, he’s in full Leslie Phillips mode, right down to the “Hello!” when confronted by Georgina Ward’s Davinia Todd, arriving home in fur coat and bikini, or a bespectacled boffin (Elizabeth Reber) making eyes at him during a test, or Holly asking him out. His reaction to the sign saying “If you can’t sleep ring for a mistress” needs no additional comment either (RANSACK’s training operations are taking place at a girls’ boarding school), while Emma’s “Here’s your cocoa, and if you’re good, I’ll read you a bedtime story” is alive with playful innuendo. There’s even room for the occasional slapstick moment, as Steed, distracted by Leeming, accidentally shoots an arrow through a window.


The Master Minds isn’t quite as brainy as its characters overall, however; the attempts at discussions by members of RANSACK are a bit suss (“Take a word like yoghurt, for example”), and while the brainwashing technique has the mechanism of substance (“We’re all susceptible. It’s the approach which varies, that’s all”), there’s very little to it when push comes to shove (all it takes is a message heard in one’s sleep, and presto, it’s highly effective for all concerned), but it continues the consistently confident quality of the fourth season with commendable flair.















Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

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…

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…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

I don’t need to be held together, I’m fine just floating through space like Andy.

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)
Or, to give it its full subtitle, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – The Story of Jim Carrey & Andy Kaufman Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton. Carrey’s in a contradictory place just now, on the one hand espousing his commitment to a spiritual path and enlightened/ing state, on the other being sued in respect of his ex-girlfriend’s suicide and accompanying allegations regarding his behaviour. That behaviour – in a professional context – and his place of consciousness are the focus of Jim & Andy, and an oft-repeated mantra (great for motivational speeches) that “I learned that you can fail at what you don’t love, so you may as well do what you love. There’s really no choice to be made”. The results are consequently necessarily contradictory, but always fascinating.

Nothing in the world can stop me now!

Doctor Who The Underwater Menace: Episode Three

Episode Three is pretty much 25 minutes of filler, revolving around a kidnap attempt on Zaroff and Sean encouraging the fish people to engage in industrial action. But, laughable (intentional or otherwise) as the plot mechanics may be, this is never dull. Smith keeps the action zipping along. She has limited space at her disposal, but ensures the action scenes are tightly shot and well-edited. This means that, even when the staging isn’t especially convincing (the crowded market square, all 30 feet of it, the fight between Jamie and Zaroff), it’s a million times better executed than any comparable studio action set piece from the Davison era that isn’t directed by Graeme Harper.

No, by the sky demon! I say no!

Doctor Who The Pirate Planet
I doubt Pennant Roberts, popular as he undoubtedly was with the cast, was anyone’s idea of a great Doctor Who director. Introduced to the show by Philip Hinchliffe – a rare less-than-sterling move – he made a classic story on paper (The Face of Evil) just pretty good, and proceeded to translate Robert Holmes’ satirical The Sun Makers merely functionally. When he returned to the show during the ‘80s, he was responsible for two entirely notorious productions, in qualitative terms. But The Pirate Planet is the story where his slipshod, rickety, make-do approach actually works… most of the time (look at the surviving footage of Shada, where there are long passages of straight narrative, and it’s evident Roberts wasn’t such a good fit). Douglas Adams script is so packed, both with plot and humour, that its energy is inbuilt; there’s no need to rely on a craftsman to imbue tension or pace. There is a caveat, of course: if your idea of Doctor Who requires a straig…

For a special agent, you're not having a very special day, are you?

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
(SPOILERS) Guy Ritchie would evidently have liked to make a Bond film as much as his former producer Matthew Vaughn, and either would undoubtedly add more spark to the franchise than current darling Sam Mendes (lush cinematography or no lush cinematography). While Vaughn brokered his fandom into a patchy but violent and vibrant original earlier this year (Kingsman: The Secret Service) and won considerable box office as a result, Ritchie picked up Steven Soderbergh’s discarded menu items and went with refashioning an existing property, one he had no yearning interest in. Sometimes that shows in the result, but mostly The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a breezy, playful exercise in period spyfare. As such, it’s a shame this looks destined to remain a one-time only outing.

Which isn’t to say there’s necessarily much else left to do with it (one can imagine desperate approaches like throwing them into the ‘70s a la Austin Powers and X-Men), but the amount of fun Ritchi…

You can’t be in England and not know the test score!

The Lady Vanishes (1938)
(SPOILERS) Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate UK-based picture, The Lady Vanishes can be comfortably paired with The 39 Steps as a co-progenitor of his larkier suspense formula (watch these two and then jump to North by Northwest and the through line is immediately obvious). Part of its great blessing is Hitchcock being handed a screenplay by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, latterly directors themselves, and knowing to make the most of the very funny dialogue, including arguably the picture’s greatest gift (well, other than Hitch himself): Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as ultimate English cricket enthusiasts – to the exclusion of all else – Charters and Caldicott.

This place sure isn’t like that one in Austria.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Brawl in Cell Block 99 is most definitely cut from the same cloth as writer-director-co-composer Craig S Zahler’s previous flick Bone Tomahawk: an inexorable, slow-burn suspenser that works equally well as a character drama. That is, when it isn’t revelling in sporadic bursts of ultraviolence, including a finale in a close-quartered pit of hell. If there’s nothing quite as repellent as that scene in Bone Tomahawk, it’s never less than evident that this self-professedchild of Fangoria” loves his grue. He also appears to have a predilection for, to use his own phraseology, less politically correct content.

This is how we do action in Uganda.

Who Killed Captain Alex? (2010)
Uganda’s first action movie”, Who Killed Captain Alex? is a cheerfully ultra-low budget, wholly amateur picture made by Nabwana Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey. It’s the kind of thing you and your mates would make and (rightly) expect no one else to ever watch (aside from a few hundred hits on YouTube). But stick a frequently hilarious running commentary over the top from VJ (video joker) Emme, and it this home-ish move takes on something approaching the spoofy quality of What’s Up Tiger Lilly?