Saturday 26 January 2019

Murder, She Wrote, season 1 (1984-5)

Until today I had never actually watched an episode of Murder, She Wrote. I guess I figured it was going to be too folksy and too ingratiatingly cosy for my tastes. On the other hand it is a series with an impressive pedigree. It was created by Richard Levinson and William Link, the men responsible for the two best American mystery series of the 70s, Columbo and Ellery Queen. So maybe Murder, She Wrote might be worth a look after all?

It actually has a very similar feel to Columbo and Ellery Queen. This is murder without the sleaze and without graphic violence. There are no junkies and no hookers in sight. It’s all a million miles from the Mean Streets so beloved of so many film and television producers. This is murder done in an orderly and relatively civilised manner. Which is not to say that it’s necessarily bland or innocuous. Murder is if anything more shocking when it takes place in civilised surroundings (this is something that was known to the writers of the between-wars golden age of detective fiction but it’s been largely forgotten since).

Murder, She Wrote is also, like Columbo and Ellery Queen, very very plot-driven. This is murder as intellectual puzzle. There are going to be clues and they’re not necessarily going to be obvious. You’re going to have to pay attention.

The resemblances between this series and Ellery Queen are very marked. In both cases we have a successful writer of detective fiction who also dabbles in actual crime-solving on an amateur basis. The odd thing is that Ellery Queen (for all its excellence) was a commercial failure and was cancelled after a single season. Murder, She Wrote became one of the biggest hits in television history, running for an incredible twelve seasons. Why one series should fail while another, employing pretty much the same formula, should succeed spectacularly is one of the minor mysteries of pop culture.

The Episodes

The pilot episode was The Murder of Sherlock Holmes. Jessica Fletcher is a busy cheerful widow who lives in a small seaside town in Maine, Cabot Cove. Purely for her own amusement she tried writing a detective novel. Much to her alarm her nephew Grady passed it on to a new York publisher who immediately published it. To her even greater alarm she has fond herself, overnight and completely accidentally a bestselling author. Against her better judgment she is persuaded to undertake a promotional jaunt to New York, in the course of which she attends a costume party, and during this party a man in a Sherlock Holmes costume is murdered. Jessica would never have considered trying to solve the crime herself had the police not insisted on arresting her nephew for the murder.

Deadly Lady involves an accidental drowning at sea, only it might not be a drowning and it might not be accidental and in fact first appearances may be deceptive to an extreme degree. Whatever happened was not what appeared to have happened. What did undeniably happen was that a father went to sea with his four daughters. The four daughters came back; the father didn’t. There are some rather good plot twists in this one. A pretty good episode.

In Birds of a Feather Jessica’s niece has a problem. Her bridegroom-to-be has been doing a drag act in a San Francisco club and now he’s a murder suspect. This is one of those mystery stories in which the victim was hated by everybody and everybody has a motive for the murder. The solution is OK but nothing special. At best a very average episode.

Hooray for Homicide takes Jessica to Hollywood where she’s trying to prevent a movie from being made from one of her books. A low-life producer is trying to turn her mystery story into a sleazy sex saga. Now the producer is dead and since Jessica had a motive for wanting him dead she’s a suspect. But then everybody hated Jerry Lydecker (played by John Saxon in wonderfully extravagant style) and everybody wanted him dead. This is a story in which pretty much all the characters are dismal human beings (this is Hollywood after all) so it’s hard to care very much about their fates. It’s an OK plot and you can have fun spotting the various superannuated second-rank stars in the guest cast.

In It's a Dog's Life Teddy is framed for murder. Teddy is a dog and is extremely wealthy, having just inherited $15 million. There may actually have been two murders and Sawdust was at one time a suspect in the first murder. Sawdust is a horse, although he isn’t wealthy. The Langleys are a rather unpleasant family so it’s easy to believe that any of them could have been capable of murder. Jessica wants to clear her friend Abby who works for the family and had been rather friendly with the now deceased family patriarch. Jessica is convinced Abby is innocent, and she’s convinced Teddy is innocent as well. I’ve probably made this one sound rather silly but it actually boasts quite a clever little plot. In fact it’s the strongest episode so far. Look out for a guest starring performance by former Runaways lead singer Cherie Currie.

Lovers and Other Killers marks a definite change in style. This is the first episode to make use of classic suspense techniques with Jessica being put into dangerous and potentially deadly situations in which she is the killer’s target. It’s also the first episode to descend into tiresome psycho killer clichés. I’m not sure that these are good ideas. In fact I’m pretty sure they’re bad ideas. Murder, She Wrote is really not that kind of series.

This episode has an insanely complicated plot which I must confess pretty much lost me. This one is pretty much a complete mess.

Hit, Run and Homicide is about a slightly unusual murder method - murder by driverless car. This episode is positively overloaded with decrepit former Hollywood stars - June Allyson, Van Johnson, Stuart Whitman. Clearly nostalgia was as very major part of the appeal of this series. Which is fine. When a show runs for twelve seasons it’s fair to say that the producers knew exactly what their audience liked. This one has a fairly adequate plot and it continues the trend of putting Jessica in danger. An OK episode.

We're Off to Kill the Wizard goes totally over-the-top, with very pleasing results. Horatio Baldwin, known as Horrible Horatio, is a larger-than-life character who is a very successful creator and operator of theme parks with gruesome horror themes. He is hated by everyone who works for him, and in fact by by everyone who has ever had any contact with him. He manipulates, bullies and blackmails his employees. He tries the same tricks on Jessica. When he is found dead, with a gunshot wound to the head that seems to be self-inflicted, everyone is delighted. It has to be suicide since it took place in a room locked from the inside. But the gunshot wound didn’t kill him and it wasn’t suicide.

This episode has a decent locked-room mystery as its core. It’s perhaps not entirely original in concept but it has a few neat twists and it works. The horror theme park makes a nice setting which is used quite skilfully and Horrible Horatio is certainly a memorably nasty but undeniably colourful murder victim. The tone is light-hearted and outrageous with a bit of an edge to it and it benefits from the absence of the cloying sentimentality and excessive whimsicality that so often afflicts this series. This episode really is enormous fun.

Death Takes a Curtain Call is a rather dull story about defecting Russian ballet dancers and a murdered junior KGB officer. William Conrad’s performance as a cheerful KGB major is the only real highlight of this episode.

Death Casts a Spell is quite unbelievably silly. A celebrated celebrity hypnotist is murdered. There are six eyewitnesses but none of them can remember anything because of a powerful post-hypnotic suggestion. There’s an intriguing idea here but the stuff about hypnosis really is so totally absurd that it might bother some viewers. It doesn’t bother me particularly since I expect any movie or TV show that deals with hypnosis or psychiatry to be totally ridiculous. In fact the more ridiculous the better as far as I’m concerned so I actually liked this one a lot.

Capitol Offense is an interesting but not entirely successful experiment. Jessica is not only investigating murder in Congress, she actually becomes a temporary Congresswoman. Finding a criminal in Washington is easy enough - it’s full of crooks. Which makes finding one specific criminal rather a challenge. An OK episode at best.

The great thing about theatrical mysteries like Broadway Malady is that you have theatre people trying to kill each other and that’s always fun to watch. In this case there’s a faded Hollywood star making a comeback in a Broadway musical in a show also featuring her son and daughter. There’s a shooting that appears to be a mugging gone wrong but Jessica doesn’t believe that for a moment. There are some interesting financial dramas behind the scene. It’s an amusing glimpse into the glamorous but corrupt sordid and vicious world of show business. Quite a good episode.

Murder to a Jazz Beat takes Jessica to New Orleans where a jazz musician dies suddenly  but Jessica happens to be on hand and thanks to the research she did on one of her novels she recognises the symptoms of death due to an obscure South American poison, but how was the poison administered? To appreciate this episode you probably need to like jazz. I don’t like jazz very much at all and I found it to be at best a middling sort of episode.

My Johnny Lies Over the Ocean takes Jessica to sea, on a cruise with her niece who has been in a mental hospital after her husband’s suicide. It seems that someone definitely means to do harm to her niece. The photographic clue is quite cute.

This is the latest in a whole run of episodes that have taken Jessica away from Cabot Cove and plunged her into very different worlds. I can certainly understand the reasoning behind this. It just wouldn’t be credible for so many murders to take place in one tiny town in Maine. Unfortunately it’s the episodes set in Cabot Cove that work best.

Paint Me a Murder is one of those classic murder mysteries in which the range of suspects is rigidly limited. The murder takes place on the island owned by renowned artist Diego Santana (Cesar Romero) and access to the island is so difficult that the murderer has to be one of the guests at Diego’s birthday party. Now to be honest I’d have been quite happy  if the killer had decided to kill everyone on the island but you can’t have everything. In any case, even if the characters are truly appalling people, this is an enjoyable episode with some old favourite murder mystery tropes (such as exotic murder weapons).

Tough Guys Don't Die is what might have happened had Jessica Fletcher and Sam Spade worked a case together. A private detective named Miles is murdered. Of course Sam Spade’s murdered partner in The Maltese Falcon was named Miles. This murdered PI was working on three important cases, including one in which his client was Jessica Fletcher (it was research for her next novel). His partner Harry McGrath (Jerry Orbach) knows that the code of the private eye is that when your partner gets murdered you have to do something. That’s the code that is laid down in The Maltese Falcon. Jessica wants to find the killer as well although she’s wanting him to face a court rather than the rough justice laid down by the code of the private eye.

This is an episode that could easily have come to grief but while Jessica Fletcher and Harry McGrath come from different detective story universes and they comprise the most ill-assorted crime-fighting team that could possibly be imagined they somehow manage to work together and the script somehow manages to work and what could have been a trainwreck ends up being very entertaining television.

Sudden Death is a football mystery. As a non-American I find American football to be completely incomprehensible but luckily you don’t really need to know anything about the game to watch this episode. Jessica inherits part-ownership of a football team. There are some nasty power plays going on and everybody wants to buy Jessica’s share even if they have to pay her four times what it’s worth. Of course that just makes her stubbornly determined to hang on to her share. It’s an OK story.

Footnote to Murder is another episode in which the victim and all the suspects are rather unpleasant people. They’re mostly writers, and the murder takes place against the background of a literary awards gathering. There’s murder but there’s also the matter of a vanished manuscript which may or may not be the final masterpiece of a great writer. There’s also an Assistant D.A. whose craving for publicity is matched only by his incompetence. The interest in this story comes from the fact that every single character is a spectacularly awful human being so since it’s impossible to care about any of them you can just concentrate on the plot, and fortunately the plot is pretty good. And it’s a rather amusing episode.

Jessica and Sheriff Amos Tupper are off to Portland where Jessica is to give a speech but the bus trip proves to be more dangerous than usual in Murder Takes the Bus. Naturally there’s a storm, naturally the roads are washed out, and naturally the passengers are stranded in a remote diner. And naturally the phone lines are down so they’re cut off entirely from the outside world. And oh yes, one of the passengers has been murdered. So it’s a collection of clichés but that’s OK because that’s what this episode is supposed to be. It’s a collection of clichés but it’s neatly executed and it’s lots of fun.

Armed Response is a medical murder mystery. While in Texas to testify in a court case Jessica is slightly injured at the airport. She discovers that the local hospital is a seething hotbed of intrigue with the tyrannical Dr Sam ruling with an iron fist while the junior doctors busy themselves with plots. It’s not at all surprising that it ends in murder. Luckily the cop assigned to investigate is smart enough to ask for Jessica’s help. The plot relies on unbreakable alibis and it works pretty neatly.

In Murder at the Oasis a particularly loathsome show business type gets murdered. Security at his house was so tight it had to be someone from within his own household. This story makes use of a particular plot device that I always dislike and that I personally feel never comes off convincingly. And it’s perhaps just a bit of a cheat. This episode is in my view a bit of a dud.

There’s trouble down on the ranch in Funeral at Fifty-Mile. A rancher has just died and his will contains a major surprise. He’s left his daughter with nothing and he’s left everything to a man he despised. There’s plenty of ill feeling and angst and pretty soon there’s murder as well. Sheriff Potts is a nice guy be he’s never investigated a murder before, because in these parts of Wyoming folks just don’t murder each other. If the sheriff could be persuaded to leave everything to Jessica there’d be no problem but he tries to solve the case himself, which of course will leave Jessica ending up having to do it all herself anyway. It’s quite a fun dirty-work-at-the-crossroads kind of story.

Final Thoughts

Some of my fears regarding this series were certainly realised. It does try way too hard for folksiness, Jessica is excessively loveable and charming to the point of becoming slightly irritating at times, there is a tendency to wallow in sentimentality. There’s also a little too much whimsy.

Angela Lansbury on the other hand overacts outrageously but somehow she manages to get away with it.

On the plus side there are some pretty decent mystery plots. And despite the tendency to overdo things this show does have a certain genuine charm. And the good episodes are very good. It’s very lightweight but that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be - harmless entertainment but well-made and at its best quite well-written.

I don’t think it’s an entirely successful series but it did run for twelve years so obviously there were an awful lot of people who disagreed with me.

I’m still happy to give it a recommended rating.

Sunday 20 January 2019

Racket Squad (1951-53)

Racket Squad was an American cop series dealing with various cons and the way the police handle such crimes. It ran for 98 episodes from 1951 to 1953.

Reed Hadley played Captain John Braddock of the Racket Squad and also introduced and narrated each episode. At the end we’d be treated to a lecture on the dangers of con-men. The narration gives the series an awkward feel. Presumably it was intended to give a semi-documentary feel.

It was made on the cheap, there are very few sets and the acting is not always top of the line.

The most interesting thing about it is the detailed explanations of the workings of the various cons and that’s a good reason to watch the show if you’re interested in such subjects (I find them to be quite fascinating).

Racket Squad is in the public domain and had had some spotty poor-quality DVD releases of a limited number of episodes. Eight episodes are included in the Mill Creek TV Detectives 150 episode set and they’re the only episodes I’ve seen although others are available on DVD.

Heaven for Sale deals with phoney spiritualists. The spook racket was still a big deal in the early 50s. In this case an old man is conned out of a diamond bracelet by a fake medium who claims to have contacted his deceased daughter. This is a fairly clunky episode made worse by intrusive and irritating voiceover that tells us things we can plainly see. Not a good episode at all.

The Case of the Hearse Chaser is better. This time the racket is checking the obituaries and then persuading the families of the deceased to pay money for goods supposedly ordered by the deceased. In this case it’s a portrait. Not a great episode but not too bad.

In Kite High an undertaker is the victim of kiting which is a racket involving cheques. In this case it also involves gambling and a pretty girl, which are pretty useful aids if you want to separate a mark from his money. This is an OK episode but would have been much improved by some more focus on the actual investigation.

The Bill of Sale Racket features a couple of con artists with an ingenious way of buying up gas stations without ever having to pay for them. This story features a rather unlikely shootout ending (con-men aren’t known for indulging in such shenanigans with guns) - I guess it was figured that the series needed to be spiced up with a bit of action.

Desperate Money is about an elderly tailor who becomes a victim of a loan shark. The strength of this series is the ingenious nature of the cons so this by comparison is a very straightforward tale. This makes the stilted quality that characterises the series rather more obvious.

The System is a classic con, relying on the mark’s greed and on the natural human tendency to believe what we want to believe. It’s a gambling system and it’s worked by a very old trick.

His Brother's Keeper is about a charity scam and it’s one of the better episodes. It has a stronger plot and some genuine dramatic tension.

Take a Little, Leave a Little involves a phoney oil well racket. The con itself is, like all good cons, not very original. But in this case the execution of the con is a work of art. As in several other episodes the plot is a bit sketchy when it comes to the actual police investigation. It’s still a good episode.

Racket Squad is mostly going to appeal to people who already have a taste for 50s cop shows and don’t mind the fact that it looks like it was churned out very quickly and very cheaply. Most 50s cop shows were made like that. Some, like Dragnet, still manage to achieve a certain distinctive style (and I’m actually quite a fan of 1950s American TV crime shows). Racket Squad by comparison just looks cheap.

On the other hand if you’re fascinated by confidence tricksters then this series is like a televisual encyclopaedia on the subject.

Probably not a series you’d bother buying but if you have any of the various public domain DVD sets that includes a few episodes then it has some curiosity value.

Saturday 12 January 2019

Barnaby Jones season 1 (1973)

Barnaby Jones started life as a spin-off from the very successful Cannon private eye TV series. Barnaby Jones would go on to be a massive hit, running for no less than eight seasons.

Buddy Ebsen was already a household name thanks to The Beverly Hillbillies which ended its long run in 1971. By that time Ebsen was well into his sixties but his career was far from over. Barnaby’s daughter-in-law Betty acts as his secretary and confidant. She’s played, and played pretty well, by Lee Meriwether.

The first episode of Barnaby Jones, Requiem for a Son, seems at first like it’s an episode of Cannon. Frank Cannon is preparing one of his gourmet meals when he gets a phone call from a friend who is also in the private detective business, a guy by the name of Hal Jones. Jones is in trouble and wants to talk to Cannon, Cannon tells him to come to his apartment, Jones doesn’t show up. The next morning Cannon finds out his friend has been murdered. He gets the news from Hal’s father, Barnaby. Now we find out about Barnaby Jones. He’s a private eye as well, but retired. His son had taken over the business. Now Barnaby is out of retirement and he intends to track down his son’s murderer, with some help from Cannon.

Barnaby is no spring chicken but he’s tough physically and mentally. He’s tough, but it’s his own distinctive brand of toughness. He doesn’t touch alcohol but he does enjoy a cold glass of milk. He also has a degree in forensic science and has his own little forensics laboratory - very convenient when you want some answers about a clue but you don’t want  the answers to come from the police.

Barnaby Jones slots into what you could call the gimmick detective category which enjoyed quite a vogue in the late 60s and early 70s. There was Ironside, the wheelchair-bound detective. There was Longstreet, the blind detective. There was Cannon, the fat detective. And then came Barnaby Jones, the old detective. Unfortunately apart from that gimmick Barnaby Jones is very much a routine private eye series, with some rather pedestrian scripts. On the plus side, like all Quinn Martin’s shows, it boasts high production values and it’s very polished and very well-made. Buddy Ebsen is excellent. What I particularly like about his performance is that he doesn’t try too hard to make Jones a loveable old codger but he also doesn’t try too hard to make him a crusty old curmudgeon. Jones comes across as a fairly likeable guy but one who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

Lee Meriwether doesn’t get a whole lot to do. She is pretty good though and she and Buddy Ebsen make a good team.

The Episode Guide
To Catch a Dead Man is a very very Columbo-like episode. It not only follows the Columbo formula, it has very much the Columbo feel as well. It opens with a rich man, Philip Carlyle, committing a murder that is clearly intended to cover his own disappearance. He then changes his appearance and pops up in the sleepy little town of Lake Tomac California under the name Fred A. Williams. Barnaby is employed by the murdered man’s girlfriend and he follows the trail to Lake Tomac where we are treated to a Columbo-like battle of wits between Barnaby and the killer, with Barnaby doing the exaggerated folksy schtick to persuade the killer to underestimate him. The killer is played by William Shatner and he’s a typical Columbo murderer - rich, clever, ruthless and arrogant but with an over-confidence that might well bring him undone. There’s nothing wrong with the story, in fact it’s quite hood, it’s just uncannily Columbo-like.

In Sunday: Doomsday someone is threatening to kill Barnaby. Of course we know it’s some crazy guy who’s just out of prison and who blames Barnaby for sending him there. Of course Barnaby also knows that it has to be some ex-con wanting revenge. So this is an episode that is not exactly scoring any points for originality. It’s executed well enough and there’s a clever touch at the end but otherwise it’s pretty routine.

The Murdering Class takes Jones to an exclusive boys’ school where the headmistress’s brother has met a violent death which has been made to look like an accident. The title is interesting since apart from it obvious meaning it seems to have some definite class overtones, with evil WASPs being the murdering class. An interesting episode.

In Perchance to Kill Barnaby is hired to find a teenaged runaway. The girl and her boyfriend are suspects in a murder but Barnaby doesn’t find the evidence to be overly persuasive, even if they are hippies. Barnaby is more interested in the victim’s business partner, and he’s especially interested in a white suit. A routine story but it’s OK.

Barnaby Jones has been in the game a long time but in The Loose Connection he suffers the embarrassment of being set up as a drug courier. The most interesting thing about this story is that we see that Barnaby is fallible. He makes not jut one but two big mistakes. A reasonably solid episode.

Writer Harry Doyle disappears in Murder in the Doll's House and Barnaby’s job is to find him, but we know from the first scene of the episode that Harry isn’t going to be found. This one features a strong guest cast including Jack Cassidy (always fun when he turned up as a sinister crazy in detective series) and Anne Francis. Harry had been spending some time in his home town and Barnaby starts to think that the answer to his disappearance may lie in the past, in a tragic accident six years earlier. It’s another solid enjoyable episode.

In Sing a Song of Murder a pop singer meets an untimely end and his business managers decide this could be an opportunity for them rather than a disaster. They have a plan. It’s a crazy plan but if it works it means lots of money. Meanwhile Barnaby has been hired to find the girl who was with the pop star on his unlucky last night on earth. Barnaby solves this case with forensic science which gives it bonus points. A pretty good episode.

See Some Evil... Do Some Evil starts of course with a murder. As usual we know the identity of the killer right from the start and we know the killer’s major secret as well. What we don’t know is why Stan Lambert he would want to kill Henry Warren. In fact we have no idea why anyone would have wanted to kill him. Barnaby picks up a couple of neat (and subtle) little clues in this story. And the trap he lays for the killer is quite clever. A very entertaining episode. It also has Roddy McDowall being sinister which earns it bonus points.

Murder-Go-Round presents Barnaby with a case that doesn’t sound too promising. A man visiting the little town of Parker Junction is killed by a hit-run driver. His wife gets it into her head that there was more to it. And it turns out there’s a whole lot more to it. Buddy Ebsen is the best thing about Barnaby Jones and he’s in particularly good form in this one, giving an amused and almost playful performance. A good episode.

To Denise, with Love and Murder is about a man who marries an older woman for her money. It works out for him as you might expect it to do. He starts an affair with a younger woman, she wants him to marry her, his wife finds out and it all gets very complicated and unpleasant. And ends in murder. It seems straightforward but everyone, including Barnaby,  jumps to the wrong conclusion. It’s not dazzlingly original but it’s well executed.

In A Little Glory, a Little Death a has-been Hollywood star has become involved in something very shady and he’s been very indiscreet about it and now he has a witness to deal with, a very inconvenient witness. Barnaby is hired by a young actress whose mother, also an actress, has disappeared having been last seen at a party at the home of that faded Hollywood star. The main twist is a rather hackneyed plot device that rarely works convincingly. A very pedestrian episode.

Twenty Million Alibis is obviously a story that hinges on an alibi. A reformed jewel thief turned author can’t possibly have committed a daring robbery because at the time he was on national television, and although six minutes are unaccounted for he couldn’t possibly have carried out the robbery, but he did. It’s up to Barnaby to break the unbreakable alibi. A fairly enjoyable story.

Final Thoughts
I mentioned Columbo earlier. This series does mostly follow the Columbo inverted detective story structure. We see the murder at the beginning and we know the murderer’s entity. The interest comes from seeing how Barnaby will arrive at the correct solution.

Columbo did it better of course. The scripts for Barnaby Jones are just not as strong or as consistent.

Barnaby Jones was however a huge hit, running for no less than eight seasons, so obviously audiences liked it more than I did. That’s not to say I disliked it. Not at all. It’s rather lightweight and it’s not exactly ground-breaking but it’s decent harmless entertainment.

Barnaby Jones is available on DVD pretty much everywhere. The first season of course was only thirteen episodes.

Worth a look.

Friday 4 January 2019

The Avengers - five Tara King episodes

Some thoughts on several miscellaneous Tara King episodes of The Avengers.

Love All
Love All (written by Jeremy Burnham) takes a basic idea, a security leak within the highest levels of Whitehall, that The Avengers had done over and over again but it takes that idea and adds some wonderful twists to it and develops it with an enormous amount of style and wit. The result is one of the best of the Tara King episodes.

This is an episode in which nobody wants to take Tara’s theory about the security leak seriously. She thinks it’s all about love, that love is the only explanation for the particular kinds of odd behaviour that senior civil servants are suddenly displaying. Steed and Mother both scoff at Tara’s theory but it turns out that she was right. But this is not just another story of powerful men being caught in a honey trap by a glamorous lady spy. In this case they’re trapped by the most unglamorous female you could possibly imagine, a frumpy cleaning lady.

How the scheme works is pretty clever. There are lots of other clever ideas as well - the automated romance novels are a lovely touch.

This is one of the Tara episodes that compares very favourably to the best episodes of the Emma Peel era.

My Wildest Dream
My Wildest Dream has everything you want in an Avengers episode. Philip Levene provides a witty clever script about men who commit murders in their dreams only they’re not dreaming. There’s  a superb guest starring performance by Peter Vaughan as an evil psychiatrist, plus there’s the always wonderful Philip Madoc as one of the sleep killers. As a bonus there’s a delightful comic performance by Edward Fox as al elegant young man-about-town who is besotted with Tara.

There’s plenty of great visual style with the observation ward set being especially good. There’s plenty of action, with Tara getting an absolute corker of a fight scene (and it’s really quite a brutal and realistic fight). Steed and Tara both get plenty to do in this episode. Robert Fuest’s direction is lively and imaginative.

There are some nice unexpected plot twists. And you have to love the idea of an aggresso-therapist. This is one of the best Tara episodes, and Linda Thorson was really starting to hit her stride and get a handle on her character.

On the whole as very fine episode.

In Pandora (scripted by Brian Clemens) Tara visits an antique shop and that’s the last thing she remembers until she wakes up in a strange house. She is wearing an Edwardian dress and her hair is done in Edwardian style. According to the morning paper it is the year 1915 and everybody is calling her Pandora.

Steed is rather concerned as Tara failed to show up for a luncheon engagement and there are some puzzling circumstances to her non-appearance. The key to finding her may be  the Fierce Rabbit. The Fierce Rabbit agrees, but has his own agenda.

This was Linda Thorson’s favourite episode, which is not altogether surprising since she gets to play a woman on the edge of madness. There are some great supporting players. Julian Glover gives a nicely twisted performance while John Laurie (a truly wonderful character actor) has fun as the Fierce Rabbit.

Director Robert Fuest throws in some suitably disconcerting camera angles but he doesn’t go overboard with the hallucinogenic stuff. It’s effectively moody and there’s an atmosphere of unhealthy obsession. The sting in the tail is rather neat as well. This is a pretty good episode.

Homicide and Old Lace
Homicide and Old Lace is almost universally regarded as the worst ever episode of The Avengers.

This episode has an interesting history. The departure of Diana Rigg coincided with a change of producer. John Bryce took over but after a handful of episodes had been filmed he was dumped and Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell were hurriedly recalled to duty. The question was what to do with the material that had been shot under Bryce’s supervision. Clemens took parts of one of these unaired episodes, The Great Great Britain Crime, combined them with some new material and some material from earlier Emma Peel episodes and added a framing story and the result was Homicide and Old Lace.

Malcolm Hulke and Terrence Dicks are the credited writers but Brian Clemens added so much new material that he has to take much of the blame for the results.

It opens with Mother’s aunts surprising him on his birthday. They persuade him to tell them a real-life story. So he proceeds to tell them a tall tale of an outrageous crime. John Bryce’s intention as producer had been to return The Avengers to something much closer to the gritty realism of the very first season, and so one assumes that The Great Great Britain Crime was intended to have that gritty realistic feel to it. But as recounted by Mother it’s pure outrageous melodrama and totally fanciful and in fact quite silly.

Patrick Newell’s telling of the story is quite amusing, and the hyper-critical running commentary on the tale by the aunts has its funny moments. It does have one major thing going for it - Gerald Harper’s delightful performance as the dedicated but bungling security chief Colonel Corf.

On the whole though it ends up being a bit of a mess, although it is mildly amusing and not quite as awful as its appalling reputation might lead you to expect.

The Rotters
Written by Dave Freeman The Rotters starts with the murder of a government forestries expert and we then get one of the more bizarre scenes involving Mother. It became one of the major recurring jokes of this era of The Avengers that whenever Mother had to brief Steed and Tara it would always be in an outlandish setting. Sometimes these interludes were quite inspired. Sometimes (as in this case) they were just seriously weird, but they were usually at least mildly amusing.

Which brings us to the subject of Mother. In the earlier seasons we never saw Steed’s bosses. It was always implied that only Steed had contact with his superiors, and that his partners (David Keel, Venus Smith, Mrs Gale and Mrs Peel) were agents that Steed had recruited on his own initiative and that he was allowed to run them as he saw fit. That changed in the Tara King era. Steed and Tara were both clearly professional secret agents and the character of Mother was introduced as the spymaster figure. Not everyone thought this was a good idea but on balance I think it worked. Tara obviously had a different status compared to Steed’s earlier partners, she was a professional rather than a gifted amateur and the spymaster figure helped to emphasise that. Patrick Newell was always delightful and Mother and his silent assistant Rhonda added an extra dash of surrealism.

In any case, getting back to The Rotters, there’s a diabolical plot here and it really does revolve round wood. Wood rot can be a remarkably rapid phenomenon. It can be practically instantaneous. This can be remarkably useful, but not necessarily in a good way. In fact dry rot might well be the key to world domination (or at least it might be if you’re a crazy person). It’s a ludicrous premise but it works.

A good episode of The Avengers requires some oddball guest characters. The Rotters has that. In fact it has an amazing number of eccentric characters. It requires a reasonably imaginative villain or villains. The Rotters has that as well. The central idea doesn’t have to be wildly original but it does have to be offbeat. In this case it’s offbeat and it’s fairly original. The Rotters gets bonus points there. Most of all it has to be executed with energy and style and this episode scores there as well. It gets extra bonus points for two killers with impeccable manners and good taste.

So there we have it. Five Tara King episodes chosen totally at random. Four of them either excellent or at the very least extremely good (My Wildest Dream, The Rotters, Love All, Pandora) and one stinker that still has some mildly amusing moments (Homicide and Old Lace).