Skip to main content

Imagine a plant that could think... Think!

The Avengers
4.12: Man-Eater of Surrey Green

Most remarked upon for Robert Banks-Stewart having “ripped it off” for 1976 Doctor Who story The Seeds of Doom, although, I’ve never been wholly convinced. Yes, there are significant similarities – an eccentric lady who knows her botany, a wealthy businessman living in a stately home with an affinity for vegetation, an alien plant that takes possession of humans, a very violent henchman and a climax involving a now oversized specimen turning very nasty… Okay, maybe they’re onto something there… – but The Seeds of Doom is really good, while Man-Eater of Surrey Green is just… okay.


Sir Lyle: For all we know, they feel. Perhaps, even think.

And while you’re at it, you might cast your net wider and suggest Robert Holmes was an aficionado of the story, since the “meteorite” (actually a lost astronaut’s ship crashing to Earth) heralding an invasion of the planet is also a large part of Spearhead from Space’s premise. Derek “Ensor/Orac” Farr’s Sir Lyle Petersen is closer to Hibbert than he is Harrison Chase, and he populates his mansion with shop window mannequins for some curious reason. Or even Holmes’ The Time Warrior (alien intelligence snatches and mind-controls scientists for its own nefarious ends). Man-Eater in turn owes a considerable debt to The Quatermass Experiment (Quatermass II was, of course, an influence on several Holmes projects).


Steed: Where does that little beggar come from?
Mrs Peel: Mars.
Steed: Mars?
Mrs Peel: Or even the Moon. Recent photographs show whole areas of vegetation.

The main problem with Man-Eater is that it’s very “straight” and, the spirited performance of Athene Seyler as plant expert Doctor Sheldon aside (although she’s even more fun in Build a Better Mousetrap), none of the characters are very memorable. Which makes its atypicality in The Avengers sphere, more so than the earlier The Cybernauts (also by Philip Levene), closer to doing for science fiction in the show what Warlock did for the supernatural, all the more of a missed opportunity. Man-Eater’s is an unashamedly ‘50s B-movie riff, and Steed and Mrs Peel are more functional than invited to embrace the absurdity of the plot. Of particular note in the poker-faced stakes is that, in The Avengers universe, the Moon is populated with lush foliage, it seems. I suppose at least it isn’t actually an egg. That really would be ridiculous.


Wing Commander Davies: Looks like some sort of mad octopus.
Steed: Well, what was it doing up in the cosmos?

The episode has its roots slightly more under the ground prior to the discovery of the space capsule (“A spaceship lost about a year ago”, 5,000 miles up) and an accompanying (plausibly-designed) expired plant that releases seeds, similar to the common or garden dandelion: “This seed has an embryonic brain. Oh, what a disaster that it was damaged. Imagine a plant that could think... Think!”. We later learn the one that has been rescued and is growing on Sir Lyle’s property (with the help of twenty tonnes of fertiliser) could reach 200 times higher than the Empire State Building and the cover the Earth in a matter of weeks.


Doctor Sheldon: Just imagine the tendrils…
Steed: I’d rather not.
Doctor Sheldon: … racing up for miles.

The plant also has a taste for human flesh, there being only one source of hydrochrome oxidase on the planet (“Yes, this was a man-eating plant. If it had germinated, it would have required us as much as we require green vegetables”. So not at all, if you’re Scottish).


Fortunately, there’s some herbicide – propionic acid – on hand (also The Seeds of Doom’s solution) and the climax is an effective piece of action work from Sidney Havers (his direction of The Cybernauts was also the highlight of that story. Well, aside from John Hollis, naturally) as Steed fails to prevent Doctor Sheldon being dragged off by a tendril while fending off a possessed Mrs Peel (the means of defence against the plant’s sonic signal, hearing aids, isn’t so much heavily signposted in the first scene as beaten around the viewer’s head with a particularly robust root vegetable, leaving them insensible).


Steed: Morning Sunrise. A fully-fledged bloom of delicate russet tints and a haunting bouquet. For you, Mrs Peel.

There are a few noteworthy incidents courtesy of the regulars: Steed looks most uncomfortable at the appetites of Sir Lyle’s Venus flytraps and narrowly escapes a poisonously phallic cactus up the bum.


Mrs Peel rather finally blows away Scorby-like chauffeur Mercer (Joby Blanshard) with a shotgun. Admittedly, he blew someone’s head off earlier, but that’s still a pretty shocking, take-no-prisoners approach. She also gets slapped on the breast by an excited Dr Sheldon, and in response smiles indulgently at her eccentricity.



Sir Lyle: Do you, eh, drink brandy, Mr Steed?
Steed: If you mean, “Am I accustomed to drinking brandy?”, Sir Lyle, the answer is yes. If you mean, “Would I like one now?”, the answer is also yes.


And there’s the occasional witty remark. Emma ripostes "Why not? The plant's only man-eating" when Steed advises her not to lose her hearing aid. Steed, posing as a representative of the Tree Preservation Society, announces to a mannequin, nude but for a garland of leaves, “Come autumn, I hope to see more of you”, enjoys his proffered brandy (“Delicious”). On the debit side, upon demolishing the threat, he informs Mrs Peel “I’m a herbicidal maniac, didn’t you know?” Which is appalling, even for him.


This is the kind of Avengers you’d think was the best ever, if you were seven, so very like The Cybernauts in that regard. Man-Eater of Surrey Green isn’t bad, but it’s quite threadbare, lacking the tension or intrigue exhibited by the better more serious stories or the colourful characterisation of the superior more flamboyant ones. We end with Steed and Mrs Peel on the back of a hay cart discussing a visit to a friend for tea who grows things, including giant creepers that are, fortunately, strictly vegetarian.
















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…

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…

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

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.

It seemed as if I had missed something.

Room 237 (2012)
Stanley Kubrick’s meticulous, obsessive approach towards filmmaking was renowned, so perhaps it should be no surprise to find comparable traits reflected in a section of his worshippers. Legends about the director have taken root (some of them with a factual basis, others bunkum), while the air of secrecy that enshrouded his life and work has duly fostered a range of conspiracy theories. A few of these are aired in Rodney Ascher’s documentary, which indulges five variably coherent advocates of five variably tenuous theories relating to just what The Shining is really all about. Beyond Jack Nicholson turning the crazy up to 11, that is. Ascher has hit on a fascinating subject, one that exposes our capacity to interpret any given information wildly differently according to our disposition. But his execution, which both underlines and undermines the theses of these devotees, leaves something to be desired.

Part of the problem is simply one of production values. The audio tra…

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…

Yes sir, that is how it is happening, all times.

The Owl Service
Episode Two
Huw tells the story of the Mabinogion (“Yes sir, that is how it is happening, all times”). Roger takes on both an investigatory position and a reluctant one (he conceals Alison’s scratch with a plaster, perhaps embarrassed by the carnal passions it implies). And no one seems all that concerned about the vanishing plate designs (although the others think Alison must have done it).

The tensions between the trio have started to mount up. Most effective is the scene where Gwyn confronts Alison. Clad in a bikini, she lies on a sun lounger reading the Mabinogion. As Gwyn angrily sends the book flying, we see quick cuts of her painted face (“You shouldn’t have done that!”) and the sound of fluttering pages/birds as he flees, apparently pursued by something. And then they make up, as if all is fine and it was just a lover’s tiff. Now Roger, wearing, Alison’s sunglasses and with an impassive expression suggesting subdued jealousy, observes them. Roger gets many of the …