2.14: The Big Thinker
With a plot revolving around a super computer, one would be forgiven for thinking we might be due a proto-Proteus, a WOTAN, a Colossus or a Joshua. Instead, The Big Thinker is all about a big performance, and Anthony Booth more than delivers as abrasive, narcissistic, angry young Dr Kearns, plugging the gap where the teleplay falls short on outright intrigue.
Cathy: I see what you mean about the boy wonder… Are you always like this, or haven’t you had breakfast?
Booth has the dubious claim to distinction of playing Sidney Noggett in the Confessions… movies during the ‘70s, but is probably best known as the lefty son in Till Death Us Do Part. Here he fully embraces the plum, scene-stealing part of a young scientist vital to the functioning of Plato, a cryogenically powered computer. Kearns knows his value is intrinsic, so has no compunction in treating his colleagues like dirt (he’s guilty of “rudeness, irresponsibility, a lack of maturity”), except for Cathy, whom he attempts (badly) to charm. He loses interest in her on finding she is married, regains it on learning she is widowed, even slurs her beloved anthropology and loudly drops hints in public as to the top secrets things they are doing (“I’m ballistic, sweetheart. I’m ballistic”).
Martin Woodhouse previously contributed the standout Mr. Teddy Bear to Season Two. The Big Thinker isn’t up to that standard, lacking clear focus, but it is at least distinctive. This was director Kim Mills first of ten episodes, and his work is reasonable, if failing to give a sense that “Plato is this building – the whole building”.
Cathy: Snap! Would you like me to try for an ace? I expect you’ve trimmed the short side for the aces.
Much of the proceedings are preoccupied with the activities of a trio of card sharps, whom Cathy, professedly intent on using the computer to translated dead languages, must put off their game (Kearns is racking up debts with them). Broster (Allan McClelland), Blakelock (Ray Browne) and Clarissa (Penelope Lee) intend to squeeze Kearns once he owes them a shedload, leading to a satisfying scene in which Cathy trumps the sharp, immediately figuring out how he is loading the deck (“Clever, dead clever” responds Broster, moments before Cathy offers a judo chop to his arm and walks out with the winnings).
Steed: Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. The amateurs are still hard at it.
Later, when Bakelock and Clarissa break into her flat to snoop around, she handles them deceptively casually (“Would you like a cup of tea” she asks Clarissa, before the latter flees). They return for thirds (well, Broster and Clarissa), and this time Steed is on hand to put them in their place (“My dear, that is quite ineffective beyond a range of three feet” he advises of Clarissa’s gas gun).
Steed’s very much on the fringes here, overseeing how Cathy does on her own, it seems; he keeps claiming to be off to the Middle East but never actually departs, and playfully irritates Cathy by referring to Kearns as her boyfriend. He also has a new pooch, Freckles having been replaced by Sheba, calls the police under the name Caruthers, and persuades Cathy to cook him a plain omelette. Finally, he lets her keep the five hundred pounds she recovered from the sharps; having near frozen when trapped in the main computer room, Steed suggests “Buy yourself a fur coat. You know, you might have another cold snap”.
The episode features a range of good performances, from Lee and McLelland to Walter Hudd as benign chief scientist Dr Clemens, Marina Martin (Drahvin One in Galaxy Four) as Janet, besotted with the brash boy wonder (Cathy has a scene convincing her she is no threat to her would-be man), and Tenniel Evans (Major Daly in Carnival of Monsters) as Dr Hurst.
Farrow (David Garth, Solicitor Grey in The Highlanders, a Time Lord in Terror of the Autons), a recent addition to the team, immediately comes across as suspiciously genial (he’s using Plato to calculate star velocities?) so it isn’t exactly out of the blue when he’s revealed as the saboteur. Although, his last-minute hack attempt with a crowbar is a rather hasty bodge even for The Avengers. The motive, Steed surmises, is that the computer is best used for missile defence – which certainly is a very common plot motivator – but this isn’t exactly foregrounded. I was also unclear if he was supposed to be connected to the card sharps.
On the face of it, then, this is a more of science-fiction-tinged episode, but it’s actually very down-to-earth; the characters and performances drive The Big Thinker for the most part, and it only really falls down in some of the execution.