Thursday, 18 October 2018
The Champions (1968)
The Champions was perhaps the most ill-fated of all the ITC action adventure series. Timing is everything, and timing proved to be against this series.
The first problem was that the series went into production in early 1967 but after completing 30 episodes it was left on the shelf pending the introduction of colour television in the UK. This was understandable enough. It was a show that needed to be seen in colour. Unfortunately though this meant that by the time The Champions went to air it had already ceased production and ITC had moved on to other projects. No matter how successful the series was there was never going to be a second season. It was in fact reasonably successful, being sold to 60 countries worldwide, but it failed to crack the US market which was what Lew Grade cared about. Holding the series back had other consequences. By the time it hit the airwaves British commercial television had gone through one of its periodic reorganisations and The Champions did not get a co-ordinated national release.
The second timing problem concerned the nature of the program itself. It was in many ways ahead of its time. It was the first British superhero TV series, and in Britain in 1968 a show about three superheroes seemed very strange and very American. British television critics (who were not very fond of ITC’s output in general) were venomous in their condemnation of The Champions. Combining the spy thriller and science fiction genres was just not done.
So The Champions never really had a chance in 1968. Which is a pity since it’s a vastly entertaining series.
The biggest potential weakness of this series was that the superpowers possessed by Sharron, Richard and Craig would make things too easy for them. The trick was to put them in situations where their superpowers will help them but where the audience still feels they are in actual danger. So in The Mission for example Richard is confined underground so his telepathic powers are blocked while Sharron has to submit voluntarily to an operation so she’s unconscious and temporarily out of action.
Department S a year or two later. The Champions however hasn’t really dated much at all in this respect. Craig and Richards usually wear suits which are sharp but basically conservative and they still look good. Sharron’s clothing style is similar - classy but not ultra-fashionable. It’s also noticeable that Sharron invariably wears her hair up, and she seems like the kind of girl who would do that.
The first episode, The Beginning, gives us the backstory and does so very effectively. Three agents of NEMESIS (an international counter-espionage agency) are rescued after a near-fatal plane crash by members of a lost civilisation. Richard Barrett (William Gaunt), Craig Stirling (Stuart Dasmon) and Sharron Macready (Alexandra Bastedo) are restored to health but with added physical and mental powers that make them almost superhuman.
In The Silent Enemy a US nuclear submarine is found with the entire crew dead - all died simultaneously from heart failure. This is one of quite a few episodes that involve submarines and since I love submarine adventures these episodes tend to be special favourites of mine.
In The Mission a Dr Pederson (Anthony Bate) is providing shelter for alcoholics but we soon discover that he’s not exactly doing this for altruistic reasons. And his medical practice is far from altruistic. He gives new faces to criminals on the run, including war criminals. This allows writer Donald James to bring Nazis into the story, Nazis being an incredibly popular subject in 1960s action adventure TV shows.
Colin Blakely is very good as the interrogator. Since drugs are part of his interrogation technique there are some slightly psychedelic touches as Craig starts to hallucinate and also starts to wonder if he’s losing his mind just a little. No action in this one but plenty of tension. A very very good episode.
Project Zero is a top-secret British government defence project. In fact it’s so top-secret the British government has never heard of it, but some of Britain’s top scientists are now working on it. One of the scientists turns up in Scotland, very dead. This is a typical story for this series but a good one with a solid script by Tony Williamson.
In Desert Journey Craig and Sharron have to undertake a perilous trek across the desert, beset by hostile tribesmen, to restore a deposed Arab princeling to his throne. This episode is notable for guest appearances by Jeremy Brett and Roger Delgado.
The Final Countdown is yet another Nazi story. The obsession of 1960s television writers with Nazis was truly embarrrassing. This time the ageing Nazis are trying to find a secret weapon that they misplaced at the end of the war. The secret weapon is an atomic bomb!
Naturally Craig ends up being tortured. If someone was going to be tortured it always seemed to be poor Craig. I guess he seemed more overtly macho than Richard and so we could believe that he could take it, and of course it couldn’t be Sharron getting tortured - not on 60s television. I suppose it’s an entertaining enough story although without any real surprises.
The Gun-Runners is much better, in fact very good indeed. Writer Dennis Spooner unashamedly makes every possible use of the agents’ special powers and after all there’s not much point giving them superpowers if they don’t get to use them. This time they’re investigating gun smuggling in Burma.
The episode Reply Box No. 666 stats promisingly, with a man answering an advertisement seeking a Greek-speaking parrot. Unfortunately parrots, Greek-speaking or otherwise, play no part in the story. Russian agents are searching for something in the Caribbean and whatever it is NEMESIS needs to find it first. A so-so episode.
What if Sharron, Richard and Craig are not the only secret agents out there possessing superpowers? And what if these other agents are not on our side? That’s the situation in The Experiment and it’s a fine exciting story. There are not only bad guys with superpowers but as a bonus there’s a mad scientist as well.
In Ghost Plane an unfriendly nation appears to have a new fighter jet of terrifying capabilities. So formidable is this aircraft that at first the NATO militaries are unwilling even to believe in its existence. But it does exist and NEMESIS has to do something about it. At the moment it’s only as prototype. It’s essential that this fighter should not be allowed to go into production. The plot here seems rather familiar. That’s not all that surprising. There were only a limited number of writers who could be relied upon always to turn in solid usable scripts for this type of program and the demand for scripts was insatiable. Inevitably a good idea was going to be used more than once.
The Iron Man has a surprisingly tongue-in-cheek feel to it. Our three agents have to go undercover to protect deposed South American dictator El Caudillo. Craig is to be the bodyguard, and finds that he spends most of his time dealing with young lades hoping to share El Caudillo’s bed. Richard is to act as chef, a bit tricky since he doesn’t actually know how to cook. Sharron is to be El Caudillo’s secretary. Hers is the most perilous assignment of all - she is in constant danger of having her bottom pinched by El Caudillo. Everyone overacts outrageously. I suspect that writer Philip Broadley thought the basic idea was so hackneyed that the only thing to do was to try to have some fun with it. Or perhaps script editor Dennis Spooner was responsible. Either way it’s definitely a lesser episode but with a few amusing moments.
The Fanatics is a pretty solid Terry Nation story about a criminal organisation specialising in political assassinations although their ambitions actually go much further. Richard has to go undercover as one of their assassins. Gerald Harper has great fun as the diabolical criminal mastermind.
Those Nazis are up to their old tricks again in The Search. The 1960s was an unbelievably busy time for Nazis. This time they’ve hijacked a nuclear submarine with ballistic missiles aboard, with nuclear warheads. Dennis Spooner’s script is pretty much by the numbers but I have a weakness for submarine adventures so I enjoyed it. There’s a surprising playfulness between Craig and Sharron in this episode. In fact at one point Sharron gets somewhat flirtatious.
A Case of Lemmings is a case of a coincidence. Three top Interpol agents have suddenly and totally on the spur of the moment committed suicide. That is just too coincidental to be believed and Tremayne doesn’t believe it. It seems they must have been murdered, but how and why? Craig, Richard and Sharron are sent to France to investigate. They finally find a lead and following it up will require getting close to a top mobster and that will require Sharron to do her sex kitten routine, which she does to good effect. Meanwhile Craig will have to put himself on the line as the next victim. A strong episode.
The Gilded Cage is a neat little tale of multiple double-crosses. Richard is kidnapped and persuaded, by means of what may or may not be a bluff, to break an elaborate cypher. Quite a few people want to know what’s in that cypher and they appear to be all working against each other. Richard probably could escape easily enough but first he has to find out what this whole puzzle is all about. A very good episode.
Autokill by Brian Clemens doesn’t have too many original ideas but then Clemens was always good at taking old ideas and making them seem fresh. Clemens solves the problem of the superpowers by pitting the heroes against each other. This is by far the most violent episode of the entire series and it has to be said that the lengthy fight scenes are exceptionally well handled by director Roy Ward Baker.
The Night People takes Sharron to Cornwall to pursue her interest in historical buildings but she finds herself having to tangle with witches. Richard and Craig meanwhile take an interest in Cornwall’s mineral wealth, particularly its uranium mines. Witchcraft obviously has no connection with uranium, or does it? It also proves to be fortunate that Richard has remembered some of the things Sharron has told him about the architectural quirks of old buildings. A very entertaining episode.
To Trap a Rat is a crime story involving the drug trade, with Sharron going undercover as an addict. This story has a few neat touches and it’s not too bad.
The Champions is a great series. Highly recommended.