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…

Espionage isn’t a game, it’s a war.

The Avengers 3.3: The Nutshell
Philip Chambers first teleplay (of two) for the series, and Raymond Menmuir’s second (also of two) as director, The Nutshell is an effective little whodunit in which Steed (again) poses as a bad guy, and Cathy (again) appears to be at loggerheads with him. The difference here is how sustained the pretence is, though; we aren’t actually in on the details until the end, and the whole scenario is played decidedly straight.

Set mostly in a bunker (the Nutshell of the title), quarter of a mile underground and providing protection for the “all the best people” (civil servants bunk on level 43; Steed usually gets off at the 18th) in the event of a thermo-nuclear onslaught, the setting is something of a misdirection, since it is also a convenient place to store national security archives, known as Big Ben (Bilateral Infiltration Great Britain, Europe and North America). Big Ben has been stolen. Or rather, the microfilm with details of all known double agents on bot…

This is no time for puns! Even good ones.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014)
Perhaps I've done DreamWorks Animation (SKG, Inc., etc.) a slight injustice. The studio has been content to run an assembly line of pop culture raiding, broad-brush properties and so-so sequels almost since its inception, but the cracks in their method have begun to show more overtly in recent years. They’ve been looking tired, and too many of their movies haven’t done the business they would have liked. Yet both their 2014 deliveries, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Mr. Peabody & Sherman, take their standard approach but manage to add something more. Dragon 2 has a lot of heart, which one couldn’t really say about Peabody (it’s more sincere elements feel grafted on, and largely unnecessary). Peabody, however, is witty, inventive and pacey, abounding with sight gags and clever asides while offering a time travel plotline that doesn’t talk down to its family audience.

I haven’t seen the The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, from which Mr. Peabody & Sh…

Ah yes, the legendary 007 wit, or at least half of it.

The World is Not Enough (1999)
(SPOILERS) The last Bond film of the 20th century unfortunately continues the downward trend of the Brosnan era, which had looked so promising after the reinvigorated approach to Goldeneye. The World is Not Enough’s screenplay posseses a number of strong elements (from the now ever present Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, and a sophomore Bruce Feirstein), some of which have been recycled in the Craig era, but they’ve been mashed together with ill-fitting standard Bond tropes that puncture any would-be substance (Bond’s last line before the new millennium is one Roger Moore would have relished). And while a structure that stop-starts doesn’t help the overall momentum any, nor does the listlessness of drama director Michael Apted, such that when the sporadic bursts of action do arrive there’s no disguising the joins between first and second unit, any prospect of thrills evidently unsalvageable in the edit.

Taking its cues from the curtailed media satire of Tomorr…

I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s a Wonderful Life is an unassailable classic, held up as an embodiment of true spirit of Christmas and a testament to all that is good and decent and indomitable in humanity. It deserves its status, even awash with unabashed sentimentality that, for once, actually seems fitting. But, with the reams of plaudits aimed at Frank Capra’s most enduring film, it is also worth playing devil’s advocate for a moment or two. One can construe a number of not nearly so life-affirming undercurrents lurking within it, both intentional and unintentional on the part of its director. And what better time to Grinch-up such a picture than when bathed in the warmth of a yuletide glow?

The film was famously not a financial success on initial release, as is the case with a number of now hallowed movies, its reputation burgeoning during television screenings throughout the 1970s. Nevertheless, It’s a Wonderful Life garnered a brace of Oscar nominations including Best Picture and…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

Perhaps I am dead. Perhaps we’re both dead. And this is some kind of hell.

The Avengers 5.7: The Living Dead
The Living Dead occupies such archetypal Avengers territory that it feels like it must have been a more common plotline than it was; a small town is the cover for invasion/infiltration, with clandestine forces gathering underground. Its most obvious antecedent is The Town of No Return, and certain common elements would later resurface in Invasion of the Earthmen. This is a lot broader than Town, however, the studio-bound nature making it something of a cosy "haunted house" yarn, Scooby Doo style.

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…

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 if I tell you to un-punch someone, what you do then?

Incredibles 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Incredibles 2 may not be as fresh as the first outing – indeed, certain elements of its plotting border on the retread – but it's equally, if not more, inventive as a piece of animation, and proof that, whatever his shortcomings may be philosophically, Brad Bird is a consummately talented director. This is a movie that is consistently very funny, and which is as thrilling as your average MCU affair, but like Finding Dory, you may understandably end up wondering if it shouldn't have revolved around something a little more substantial to justify that fifteen-year gap in reaching the screen.