6.21: The Morning After
This one seems to get something of a mixed reaction, which rather surprises me. Along with the not-dissimilar-in-premise 4.15: The Hour That Never Was, it was one of the highlights of my first-run Avengers experience, and revisiting the series stands up even better than its Season Four counterpart. Much of that is down to John Hough’s superb location work and sure feel for suspense, but Brian Clemens also ensures the plot maintains a sense of mystery, while the odd couple/ Midnight Run/ The Defiant Ones handcuffed pairing of Macnee and Peter Barkworth (1.22: Kill the King, 3.16: The Medicine Men, 5.9: The Correct Way to Kill) is an absolute treat.
Tara: He’s a double agent?
Steed: Quadruple, would be nearer the mark.
Steed and Tara ensnare Barkworth’s Jimmy Merlin (great name) as he attempts to sell them a nerve gas agent he’s just purloined from the Ministry for TSI (“You mean you were going to sell the exclusive rights to as many buyers as possible?” Steed asks him later). However, Merlin knocks them out with a nerve gas capsule, which he also succumbs to before he can escape; waking a day later, Steed finds the entire town deserted (shades of Invasion of the Dinosaurs, and The Quiet Earth) and drags the protesting, handcuffed Merlin with him to investigate.
I can’t help thinking that leaving Tara to sleep it off was the least wise of possible choices, but as canny as Steed is in various respects here, he also shows himself liable to blinkeredness; it takes him quite a while to come round to the position that foul play is afoot (“I would probably have been sent to the area anyway” he suggests at one point), and even longer to accept at that Brigadier Hansing (Joss Ackland) is involved.
Merlin: Perhaps they all went to the Moon.
The cat and mouse on the streets is played for maximum effectiveness, avoiding the thuggish Sergeant Hearn (Brian Blessed, 5.12: The Superlative Seven) and his men, who show what they’re capable of early on when they execute “looter” Cartney (Jonathan Scott), actually a man from the Nuclear Fission Committee. There’s a particularly well-staged altercation in the bank, as Hearn is held captive and the squad are ordered to drop their guns, enabling Steed and Merlin to escape.
Jenny: You mean they actually shot someone? Here in a little English town?
Steed: Well, there is a state of emergency.
Quite how reporters Jenny (Penelope Horner) and Yates (Philip Dunbar) have managed to do a much better job of remaining undetected than Steed and Merlin, driving around in a TV van oblivious to the mortal peril they’re in, slightly undermines the overall dramatic tension of the piece, but for a series that has never exactly built itself around edge-of-the-seat thrills, this one maintains that element remarkably consistently.
Yates: Well, it’s incredible that you don’t know. The whole world knows.
Steed: Well, I hate the whole world having us at a disadvantage.
The reporting duo provide the official half of the story: that the Eastern Hemisphere Trade Commission Building, which was vacated nearly two years before, has been discovered to house an atomic bomb, the culprit unclear since twenty countries occupied it. It was found by pure fluke, as Hansing was on manoeuvres in the area and detected radioactivity.
This falls apart as Merlin recognises Major Parsons (Donald Douglas, Vural in The Sontaran Experiment, Grenlee in Rumours of Death) as Gregor Parminsky (“He’s an eastern agent. A cutthroat. A pirate. A mercenary”), but Steed still thinks they need to warn Hansard, even though he admits “I thought that the situation was becoming more straightforward”. The discovery of trucks filled with four platoons of nuclear shock troops drugged and unconscious rather dampens this notion.
Hearn: It’s the machine part that really gets him.
To get the truth of the matter, Blessed is thankfully on hand to uncork a bottle and turn into an exposition machine. The plan is to plant a bomb, not defuse one, and then demand a ransom of £40m once the residents have been reinstalled, to be paid in fifteen minutes (they already know how long it took to complete an evacuation). Hansing’s motivation is pride, bitterness and anger at being told he’s going to be replaced, “made redundant by a machine. That’s a lot for a man to swallow”.
Hearn: Your friend wasn’t very brave.
Steed: He’s a big disappointment to me.
It’s a clumsily introduced scene, but Blessed pulls it off with typical gusto (he has much more of a presence in the episode than Ackland). It’s a scene that also concludes amusingly, as a now awake Tara tackles Hearn but both end up asleep (again in her case) when Merlin returns and lobs a capsule at the sergeant.
Merlin: Oh Steed, let me off the hook. I’m too young to die.
Steed: You’re over twenty-one.
Merlin: If I were eighty, I’d still feel the same.
What really elevates this episode, though, is the banter/reluctant camaraderie between Steed and Merlin, the latter looking for an excuse to leave, the former humouring his ward only so much. Steed spends much of the time rigidly unmoved regarding Merlin’s culpability (“The situation changes nothing”: “That’s what I admire about you. Your flexibility”), having brought a gun along that Tara notes isn’t like him.
Steed: I thought we’d seen the last of you.
Merlin: Well, I couldn’t do that. Bad for business. You’d spread it around that I was unreliable.
But when Merlin does get the chance to abscond, he has second thoughts. As Steed notes, Jimmy’s reasoning isn’t entirely valid (if he ends up dead, no one will be able to impugn Merlin’s name) and it leads to a lovely end sequence where, as per Midnight Run, the captor sets the captive free (“Goodbye, Jimmy. Do try and keep out of trouble”).
Hansing: From what I gather, they roam the streets with complete impunity!
Brian Clemens has fashioned a winner all over here, one where he smartly draws attention to the plot holes (Hansing above) and has numerous amusing lines dished out (“Professionals! Instead, I’m surrounded by rank amateurs!”) The coda is a bit clumsy, given the preceding quality (Jimmy has been up to his old tricks, stealing a box of luminous dust – the “empty” box Steed has just opened), but you can forgive that in an episode where, by dint of scripts rather than lead chemistry, the final season has pulled ahead of its predecessor.