6.14: False Witness
Season Six has found something approaching form over the past four or five episodes. You wouldn’t mistake them for peak-Avengers fare, but they’ve hit a certain groove, especially since Mother has joined as regular. False Witness is a story played mostly straight, and succeeds on those terms, yet its (absurd) premise – a drug that compels the victim to respond to “yes” as “no” and “no” as “yes” and any variations of the same – could easily have been played entirely for laughs. Notably too, it’s another Jeremy Burnham teleplay; he earlier took to the series like a duck to water with You’ll Catch Your Death.
Edgefield: Seems your little bird is reluctant to sing.
The teaser of agent Penman (Peter Jesson) apparently being duped by colleague Melville (Barry Warren, 4.6: Too Many Christmas Trees) into thinking no one is returning as he searches the flat of Lord Edgefield (William Job, 4.12: Man-Eater of Surrey Green) is an effective and intriguing one, since Edgefield’s chauffeur Brayshaw (John Atkinson) shows up and starts taking pot-shots at him (the parking garage looks very like the one from the opening of The Prisoner). This leads to one dead Penman, but not before he’s warned Tara that Melville is a traitor, and given her the microfilm he denies was taken to back this up.
Melville: What did you do that for?
Steed: For services not rendered.
Meville’s traitorousness is perhaps played as a card for too long, since we know he isn’t one, but some of the apparent daftness is undoubtedly delivered on in terms of prospective plot holes, such as not being able to communicate your true meaning in any way (writing, for example). Added to which, not only keeping Melville on the job, but also having him act as lookout again when Steed goes to the flat is asking for trouble.
Charles Crichton does a nifty job with the related action sequences, though, with Steed trapped in the flat when Edgefield and Brayshaw return, only to sidle round and clock the chauffeur before pegging it with the contents of the safe. Subsequently, he takes Melville out to the woods and clocks him one. Very handy punches thrown in this episode, and I’m guessing the, er, punchy timing of these scenes can be put down to Crichton.
Steed: (regarding a bottle of champagne) Plucky, but from the wrong side of the hill.
Edgefield appears to be a master blackmailer but evidence against him, and those testifying against him, is rather falling apart. Notably, Plummer (Michael Lees), who denies he has anything to say against Edgefield when the official interview begins with the lord present. It’s curious that there’s no further interrogation of why he “decided” to renege on his statement, however. Tara visits his flat and manages to let the dog Suzy lap up some drugged milk, which provides something of a steer regarding its effects. She barks repeatedly when no one’s there; we’re told of the “lie drug” that “It neutralises the facility that distinguishes the true from the false” and in her case, she doesn’t appear to need asking to respond with a porky.
Steed: Melville, did you and I work together today?
Mother: It seems we’ve found our problem.
Steed: But not sorted it.
Indeed, the yes/no thing is never entirely ironed out by Burnham. Melville takes a lie detector test, evidently on the milk (what do they do if their target doesn’t do dairy?) and Steed says to him “I asked if you if there was any sign of him. You said no”. Melville replies “I said yes”. If he’s unable to distinguish true from false – in action, this is more about verbalisation than distinguishing, though – so saying the opposite of what he wanted to say (admitting he said no), he’d say yes, but he ought to believe that he said yes (which is why he tells Steed he warned him when they are in the woods), in which case he’d have said no when asked.
Sir Joseph: Lord Edgefield is the most incorrupt, irreproachable to a man in the country. A paragon of virtue!
The judge in the case, Sir Joseph Tarlton (Tony Steedman, 3.20: The Little Wonders, Socrates in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) also succumbs to milk poisoning, courtesy of Dreemykreem Dairies. As in a few other stories, the villains are hiring their services out to clients (5.1: The Fear Merchants), such that Edgefield would rather like to invest in the firm and is told their fees are “Very expensive”.
Sykes: Butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth, Miss King. Or would it? Sloman.
Sykes: Put her in the butter machine.
The Tara plotline in this one is curious. She manages to find the lair of the villains, gets discovered by them – by leader Sykes (John Bennett, 2.1: Mission to Montreal) and assistant Sloman (Dan Meaden) – takes a milky dip with Sloman, escapes, fails to inform Sir Joseph, then Steed due to drinking a good half a pint of the stuff, gives chase when Lane (Rio Fanning, 5.19: Dead Man’s Treasure) delivers a couple of bottles to Steed, does an impressive fall/roll on the road when she fails (courtesy of her stunt double), and then takes it upon herself to return to the dairy and try smashing all the bottles, before getting captured and – hilariously – put into a human-sized butter machine (this coming after last episode’s hourglass).
One has to admire her boundless energy throughout, but nothing about her behaviour is remotely thought out (although, she does at least try to write down what isn’t going on, thus helping Steed to work out that “The milk is harmless” is the reverse of the truth).
Sykes: There you are, you see, damsel seems to revel in her distress.
Indeed, Thorson’s timing in response to questions is very amusing, particularly so when she’s in the butter machine and Steed shows up. By this point, the latter has cleverly drugged the villains’ wine so they aren’t able to communicate very well, even if it’s another example of the plot relying on you to think that everything about what they’re doing rests on the true/false capacity (and since this clearly doesn’t extend to them seeing Steed as suddenly a friend instead of an enemy, it surely has its limits).
The bus setting for Mother’s HQ is probably the classic, so much so, it was repeated in the 1998 movie, and its effectiveness is only added to by evidently being shot entirely on location. Very amusing too is Steed’s portable bus stop and would-be passengers being denied entry.
Steed: That’s for itinerate cats.
As for the coda, Steed’s trying to make use of all that butter Tara was encased in (one of the series’ most cartoonish visual gags): he appears to have been lying to her about how ravishing she looks, but he’s just been winding her up, as the glass of milk on the table isn’t for him. False Witness is a daft episode that largely entertains despite, rather than because of it, being played straight.