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…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

Romulan ale should be illegal.

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
(SPOILERS) Out of the ST:NG movies, Star Trek: Nemesis seems to provoke the most outrage among fans, the reasons mostly appearing to boil down to continuity and character work. In the case of the former, while I can appreciate the beef, I’m not enough of an aficionado to get too worked up. In the case of the latter, well, the less of the strained inter-relationships between this bunch that make it to the screen, the better (director Stuart Baird reportedly cut more than fifty minutes from the picture, most of it relating to underscoring the crew, leading to a quip by Stewart that while an Actor’s Cut would include the excised footage, a Director’s one would probably be even shorter). Even being largely unswayed by such concerns, though, Nemesis isn’t very good. It wants to hit the same kind of dramatic high notes as The Wrath of Khan (naturally, it’s always bloody Khan) but repeatedly drifts into an out-of-tune dirge.

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

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…

By Jove, the natives are restless tonight.

The Avengers 4.17: Small Game for Big Hunters
I wonder if Death at Bargain Prices’ camping scene, suggestive of an exotic clime but based in a department store, was an inspiration for Small Game For Big Hunters’ more protracted excursion to the African country of Kalaya… in Hertfordshire. Gerry O’Hara, in his second of two episodes for the show again delivers on the atmosphere, making the most of Philip Levene’s teleplay.

Two hundred thousand pounds, for this outstanding example of British pulchritude and learning.

The Avengers 4.18: The Girl From Auntie
I’ve mentioned that a few of these episodes have changed in my appreciation since I last watched the series, and The Girl from Auntie constitutes a very pronounced uptick. Indeed, I don’t know how I failed to rate highly the estimable Liz Fraser filling in for Diana Rigg – mostly absent, on holiday –for the proceedings (taking a not dissimilar amateur impostor-cum-sidekick role to Fenella Fielding in the earlier The Charmers). I could watch Fraser all day, and it’s only a shame this was her single appearance in the show.

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

Cally. Help us, Cally. Help Auron.

Blake's 7 3.7: Children of Auron

Roger Parkes goes a considerable way towards redeeming himself for the slop that was Voice from the Past with his second script for the series, and newcomer Andrew Morgan shows promise as a director that never really fulfilled itself in his work on Doctor Who (but was evident in Knights of God, the 1987 TV series featuring Gareth Thomas).

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 …