Seasons 1 & 2 Ranked – Worst to Best
I didn’t get around to providing a worst-to-best ranking of the first three seasons when I revisited through them, so this is to remedy that. Obviously, there’s a slim surviving selection from Season One, but I opted not to include it with Two. Both represent a show gradually finding its direction, first with the pairing of Keel and Steed, the gradual evolution of the latter from mysterious hard guy to the laidback toff we know, and then the patchy partnering with King and Venus before the groundwork for The Avengers‘ best-known format is established with Cathy. In this capacity, a handful of classic episodes point the way for the show’s high-water mark to come.
Girl on a Trapeze
No Steed in the first Avengers complete episode in existence, which is a mark against it right off the bat, but there are compensations to be found in Dr Keel’s circus trip – it’s full of communists! – mostly in the form of Howard Gorney’s cold-ridden superintendent.
The first episode. Well, twenty minutes of it. So it’s difficult to give it a fair appraisal. It certainly doesn’t have the feel of a legend in the making, as other openers of some other legendary series do, but it does effectively set up Keel’s mission statement.
Tunnel of Fear
Recently recovered, and while there’s not a Steed to be seen in what survives of the above two outings, he’s in abundance here, going undercover at a circus fairground with variable success (Macnee’s not quite in his element). More notable for its domestic strife subplot than the brainwashing and spying.
Steed, in a bowler, up against a criminal gang. That’s more like it. Strong performances from Willoughby Goddard as their boss, the Deacon, and Philip Locke as a cocker-nee henchman, and wittier, tighter and pacier than the other surviving first season entries.
Man in the Mirror
A risible hoodwinking set-up – Steed gets Venus to take some photos at an amusement arcade and she just happens to photograph the guy he’s hoping she’ll snap – only adds to the view that his some-time partner is a dozy as they come. The episode doesn’t get any better from there.
Conspiracy of Silence
Notable for Steed’s infamy amongst the criminal fraternity being the antagonists’ focus – the Italian Mafia send some clown to kill him – but little else. A conspiracy of snores.
Traitor in Zebra
Someone is passing on information from the titular naval base, but if all the ingredients are there, including a more than solid cast, it ends up very uninspired.
Dr King’s last appearance is another that ought to be better than it actually, is, with Steed under suspicion for passing on secrets while simultaneously assigned to protect the French UN negotiator.
Death on the Rocks
Steed and Cathy infiltrate a diamond smuggling ring; the best bit is the death-by-plaster-of-Paris-face-pack teaser.
The season finale deserves points for basing a plotline on ambergris smuggling; Steed gets some witty lines but the teleplay itself is a dissatisfying mismatch of fashion and boxing.
Mission to Montreal
The season opener, this finds Steed and the newly employed Dr King trying to recover some stolen microfilm on a ship bound for Canada; the focus is mostly on the lacklustre interplay between King and an Italian movie star, although Steed scores in his steward’s guise.
A Chorus of Frogs
Another ship-bound (well, yacht-bound) plot for Venus’ final appearance, as they investigate dying divers; the whys and wherefores fail to engage, but Eric Pohlman is memorable as the vessel’s host.
The Removal Men
Steed pretends to be an assassin, so has to only pretend to kill a French film star. Venus sings. Serviceable, but lacking a spark. Notable for One Ten wasting no time getting his hands all over the French totty.
Steed and Venus enter the world of Balkan presidents and wrestling, a heady combination; some good moments, and Philip Madoc is on fine form as the president’s brother-in-law, but too much in-ring combat.
Box of Tricks
One that throws in intriguing elements – con men, secrets-snatching and stage magicians – but ultimately collapses beneath the weight of unbelievable plotting. Steed poses as a masseur and a hypochondriac, and Venus does some singing. I know, the latter’s a surprise.
A low-key murder at the pottery – Cathy’s writing a book on ceramics – is more soap than thriller, with strong performances from Paul Eddington and James Bree, the latter as a sad older man obsessed with the business’ frivolous young lovely.
Dead on Course
Nothing to do with the fairway – that would be Season Four’s The Thirteenth Hole – but replete with elements one might expect from later series entries: an isolated village, nuns with machine guns and a scheme to cause plane crashes.
Blackman comes on board and displays instant chemistry with Macnee. Steed must pose as a diplomatic courier while director Jonathan Alwyn has his work cut out for him hopping across South America in a TV studio.
Cathy invests in a dodgy gun manufacturer, but it’s Ronald Radd as a proto-Gordon Gekko (only more sympathetic) who lifts an otherwise so-so episode.
Six Hands Across the Table
More dubious business dealings, this time in the shipping trade, with flirtations for Cathy and another good part for Philip Madoc. The title’s the most evocative aspect of the episode, though.
The Golden Eggs
Much more classically spy-like, this, with the objective a deadly virus. Cathy shows off her dazzling scientific knowledge (of course) and Peter Arne again (see No. 2 on this list) delivers the goods as the clockwork-loving bad guy.
School for Traitors
That rare (as in sole) quality Venus Smith episode, a university-set outing (see also the later, superior A Sense of History) as Steed investigates a blackmail ring. Notable for several of the victims acting surprisingly rationally in the face of ruin.
Steed and Cathy chasing a flask of Chinese rocket fuel at Marseilles airport and arousing security’s suspicions very quickly, with the proceedings enlivened by competing factions.
The Big Thinker
A scene stealing Anthony Booth in a plot concerning the sabotage of the titular super computer. The card sharp subplot feels superfluous but is nevertheless engaging.
Infiltration of a syndicate of international criminals – a solid fall-back plotline during the early years – finds Cathy incarcerated in order to stage a breakout and join a crew about to pull a heist; the gang are memorably cast, and writers Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke ensure the proceedings are serviced with a tight structure.
The White Dwarf
More Mac Hulke, providing an unlikely – at this stage in the show’s history, at any rate – doomsday scenario of a white dwarf re-entering the solar system. But then, given that it is this early in the show, you wouldn’t be wrong for thinking that’s not really what’s going on. Amusing incidentals include Steed studying the Boys’ Book of Astronomy and an eccentrically run Cornish guesthouse.
Death of a Great Dane
Don’t let the inferior Season 5 remake put you off, which diminishes a first-rate Roger Marshall teleplay involving the fate of a bed-ridden businessman’s fortune; fine performances from Frederick Jaeger and the peerless John Laurie.
The Mauritius Penny
Another enjoyable Dicks and Hulke teleplay, on the surface (and title) relating to the less than scintillating subject of stamp collecting, it concerns, in nascent form – here, with overtly fascistic trappings – a plot by Richard Vernon and Alfred Burke to create a “new Britain”.
A bit of a one-off this, with genuinely supernatural happenings, meaning it’s a no-no for some Avengers fans (at least, you’d be hard-pressed to explain the events entirely rationally). But the affected diabolical streak is as winning as the later A Touch of Brimstone‘s and Peter Arne is superb as the head of the black-magic circle that Cathy – naturally, knowing all about the dark arts – must join.
Mr Teddy Bear
There have been a few Avengers episodes where the leads are assigned to kill each other, and Cathy arranges a hit on Steed in this one, courtesy of the titular assassin who takes jobs via his talking bear. It’s very witty – from the pen of Martin Woodhouse – and Bernard Goldman takes full advantage of one of the series’ very best villain parts.