Skip to main content

Now you're here, you must certainly stay.

The Avengers
4.1: The Town of No Return

The Avengers as most of us know it (but not in colour) arrives fully-fledged in The Town of No Return: glossier, more eccentric, more heightened, camper, more knowing and more playful. It marks the beginning of slumming it film directors coming on board (Roy Ward Baker) and sees Brian Clemens marking out the future template. And the Steed and Mrs Peel relationship is fully established from the off (albeit, this both was and wasn’t the first episode filmed). If the Steed and Cathy Gale chemistry relied on him being impertinently suggestive, Steed and Emma is very much a mutual thing.


One might even construe an almost pre-emptory meta-quality to The Town of No Return, anticipating as it does a welter of strange small villages, unfriendly locals and loveable eccentrics. Terence Alexander’s “Piggy” Warren is his impostor’s perception of an eccentric English flight lieutenant come pub landlord complete with ridiculous moustache, while Jeremy Burnham’s vicar is a bit daft because all vicars are, aren’t they (“I’ve got bats in my belfry, you know”)?


If the episode opens with one of the series’ most indelibly daft and memorable images – a plastic bag comes ashore (very The Prisoner), only to unzip itself and reveal a fully-suited gent who walks up the beach and asks directions for Little Bazeley by the Sea – it also sets out the cart for unforgivingly studio-bound close-ups and inserts, as does the subsequent fencing fight between Steed and Emma, obviously stunt doubles with a patchy voiceover from the stars, and the inevitable day-for-night filming. All this is much more unforgiving on spangly Blu-ray, of course, but such brazen sloppiness is part of the series’ distracting charm – the budgets grow exponentially higher (everything here is more elegant and suave, from the classy titles and iconic new theme to the playful incidental music that makes the repetitive score dumps of the previous era seem coarse and clumsy), but the joins still show.


Steed: Have you ever fancied yourself as a teacher?

Steed and Emma are flirty in their first scene too, with Steed slapping her arse, and again later, after he has his attempts to snoop curtailed (“Isn’t it time you were in bed? You have to be up early tomorrow”). The former has also had his gentility stacked up, if that’s possible, in one of those scenes that tend to make the plot itself incidental to the incidentals, as on the train down to Little Bazeley – to investigate where four agents have been lost – Steed announces “No restaurant, I’m afraid. We’ll just have to rough it” before revealing an endlessly deep carpet bag from which he produces a tea set (“India or China?”), a steaming kettle and a cake holder (“Are you sure you won’t have a marzipan delight?”)


Steed: They don’t exactly seem to welcome visitors.

Because, truth be told, the plot of The Town of No Return is fairly unremarkable once you get past the trappings. It’s a mysterious and deadly village (town), with fake locals and dodgy doings down below. It’s almost an archetypal Avengers plot, which makes it seem a little too familiar. 


Steed and Emma are dissuaded from exiting the pub at night (marching can be heard, the windows are nailed shut, and upon their seeing several patrons exiting with shotguns, Piggy informs Steed and Emma “Just off to do a spot of badger hunting. It’s er, more fun at night”), there’s a church apparently filled with choral voices but which is actually a tape recording (The Time Meddler had the run on that ruse by over a year), and some exposition both good (Steed discovers the real Piggy’s memorial) and lousy (a man lathered in clay announcing “Below, below!” to Emma before passing out).


But there’s a lot of fun being had at key points too. Emma smiles when held at gunpoint, rather than reacting with alarm, as would be traditional elsewhere. When it comes to unveiling the villain’s plot (they plan to take over the country piecemeal, “the next town and then the next and the next and the next”), she adopts the mode of the teacher she is posing as, with Steed sat at a much-too-small school desk. (Speaking of schooling, one has to respect the very blood-thirsty artistic verve of the nowhere-to-be-seen children.)


And in the climactic fight, while Emma has rough and tumble with villains including the head teacher (Juliet Harmer, of Adam Adamant Lives!), Steed is trapped with heavies behind a descending steel door; when it rises again, they’re all in a state of subdued disarray, Steed’s steel-capped bowler having proved devastatingly effective.


Piggy Warren: Jar or two of jolly old splash, what? Ha-ha.

Alexander is having a lot of fun with his silly old major impersonation, while Patrick Newell (The Android Invasion) essays his first of two guest star spots in the show before assuming the regular mantle of Mother. Here he’s the outsider fated to be charged by bloodhounds and found semi-buried on the beach the next morning.


Steed: All this is supposed to go on the horse, you know.

But it’s the effortless rapport between Macnee and Rigg that really sets this opener off so splendidly (this is most likely accounted for by being shot twice; Rigg replaced Elizabeth Shepherd and it was completed some way into the season). There’s Emma’s amused response (“What happened to pussy-footed pussy?”) to Steed’s pronouncements of surreptitious spying skills (“I can move like a cat in carpet slippers”) when he returns empty handed and in turn his to her being tied up in a stable (“Have to cut down on the oats”).


And then there’s the advent of the (admittedly variable) larky, whacky coda scene, invariably involving doubling or back projection, and here finding them on a scooter, Steed holding on to Emma, as it recedes into the distance. The Town of No Return isn’t the best of Season Four by a long chalk, but it’s very much the shape of things to come.


















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…

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…

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…

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

What I have tried to show you is the inevitability of history. What must be, must be.

The Avengers 2.24: A Sense of History
Another gem, A Sense of History features one of the series’ very best villains in Patrick Mower’s belligerent, sneering student Duboys. Steed and Mrs Peel arrive at St Bode’s College investigating murder most cloistered, and the author of a politically sensitive theoretical document, in Martin Woodhouse’s final, and best, teleplay for the show (other notables include Mr. Teddy Bear and The Wringer).

Are you drinking the water?

A Cure for Wellness (2016)
(SPOILERS) Well, this is far more suited to Dane DeHaan’s slightly suspect shiftiness than ludicrously attempting to turn him into an outright action hero (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets). It’s not, though, equal to director Gore Verbinski’s abilities. One of Hollywood’s great visualists but seemingly languishing without a clear path since he was cast adrift from collaborating with Johnny Depp, unfortunately, he must cop most of the blame for A Cure for Wellness, since it was his idea.

There’s a whiff of Shutter Island’s pulp psychodrama tonally, as DeHaan’s unscrupulous finance company executive Lockhart is sent to a Swiss health spa to fetch back a board member vital to pressing ahead with a merger. No sooner has he reached the alpine wellness centre, resplendent in the grounds of historic castle with a dark past, than he’s involved in a car accident, leaving him with a leg in a cast and “encouragement” to recuperate on site, taking the waters …

Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.

Star Trek (2009)
(SPOILERS) If JJ Abrams’ taking up the torch of the original Star Wars trilogy had been as supremely satisfying as his Star Trek reboot, I’d have very little beef with it. True, they both fall victim to some incredibly ropey plotting, but where Star Trek scores, making it an enormously rewatchable movie, is that it gets its characters right – which isn’t to suggest it’s getting The Original Series characters right, but it’s giving us compelling new iterations of them – and sends them on emotional journeys that satisfy. If the third act is somewhat rote, its achievements up to that point put it comfortably in the top rank of Trek movies.

This here's a bottomless pit, baby. Two-and-a-half miles straight down.

The Abyss (1989)
(SPOILERS) By the time The Abyss was released in late summer ’89, I was a card carrying James Cameron fanboy (not a term was in such common use then, thankfully). Such devotion would only truly fade once True Lies revealed the stark, unadulterated truth of his filmmaking foibles. Consequently, I was an ardent Abyss apologist, railing at suggestions of its flaws. I loved the action, found the love story affecting, and admired the general conceit. So, when the Special Edition arrived in 1993, with its Day the Earth Stood Still-invoking global tsunami reinserted, I was more than happy to embrace it as a now-fully-revealed masterpiece.

I still see the Special Edition as significantly better than the release version (whatever quality concerns swore Cameron off the effects initially, CGI had advanced sufficiently by that point;certainly, the only underwhelming aspect is the surfaced alien craft, which was deemed suitable for the theatrical release), both dramatically and them…

You just keep on drilling, sir, and we'll keep on killing.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)
(SPOILERS) The drubbing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk received really wasn’t unfair. I can’t even offer it the “brave experiment” consolation on the basis of its use of a different frame rate – not evident in itself on 24fps Blu ray, but the neutering effect of the actual compositions is, and quite tellingly in places – since the material itself is so lacking. It’s yet another misguided (to be generous to its motives) War on Terror movie, and one that manages to be both formulaic and at times fatuous in its presentation.

The irony is that Ang Lee, who wanted Billy Lynn to feel immersive and realistic, has made a movie where nothing seems real. Jean-Christophe Castelli’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel is careful to tread heavily on every war movie cliché it can muster – and Vietnam War movie cliché at that – as it follows Billy Lynn (British actor Joe Alwyn) and his unit (“Bravo Squad”) on a media blitz celebrating their heroism in 2004 Iraq …

Don't give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up.

Dark Star (1974)
(SPOILERS) Is Dark Star more a John Carpenter film or more a Dan O’Bannon one? Until the mid ‘80s it might have seemed atypical of either of them, since they had both subsequently eschewed comedy in favour of horror (or thriller). And then they made Big Trouble in Little China and Return of the Living Dead respectively, and you’d have been none-the-wiser again. I think it’s probably fair to suggest it was a more personal film to O’Bannon, who took its commercial failure harder, and Carpenter certainly didn’t relish the tension their creative collaboration brought (“a duel of control” as he put it), as he elected not to work with his co-writer/ actor/ editor/ production designer/ special effects supervisor again. Which is a shame, as, while no one is ever going to label Dark Star a masterpiece, their meeting of minds resulted in one of the decade’s most enduring cult classics, and for all that they may have dismissed it/ seen only its negatives since, one of the best mo…