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Original Title: The Decapod
The president of a Balkan Republic is menaced by a masked assassin. Although Steed is sent to augment the visiting dignitary's security detail, his bodyguards are murdered one by one.
The only interesting point about this black-and-white episode of 'The Avengers' is that it offers one of the handful of appearances by singer-actress Julie Stevens as Venus Smith.
Nightclub performer Smith was one of a rotation of partners provided for debonair secret John Steed (Patrick Macnee) during the 1963 season. Given the role's limitations, 'partner' may be an overstatement.
First the good news: despite the primitive production values of these taped episodes, this one looks crisp and clear. Director Don Leaver does what he can to keep the action moving, and makes the necessary fakery seem palatable.
And although the audio quality on the A&E sets released in the US in often poor, coping with the originals' poor microphone placement and poor sound recording, it's generally adequate here. In particular, in the limited confines of a nightclub set, Stevens' vocal numbers come across quite well. She has a lovely voice. If the very mildly jazzy Brit pop is unmemorable, it's also inoffensive.
As always, Macnee does well by his partners. The Steed of this era is still a bit untrustworthy, a bad-boy secret agent despite his social polish. He manipulates Venus Smith into helping him penetrate the embassy of the 'Balkan Republic' after a young woman is found dead in an 'accident.' Of course, this is The Avengers, where people seldom die accidentally, or naturally.
The real villain is screenwriter Eric Paice, who makes Venus seem uncommonly dense. She goes to the embassy convinced that visiting leader Yakob Borb (Paul Stassino) is an impresario who will help her career. Instead, he eventually asks her to run off to Las Vegas with him.
Stevens is a glamorous blonde of the type preferred by Avengers producers. But while pretty, she's delicately built and her character is not sharp. Stevens has none of the physical skills possessed by Honor Blackman, the more formidable blonde playing alternative partner Cathy Gale. And Stevens is only a bit more curvaceous than boyish Diana Rigg, who eventually would become Steed's foil. In brawn or brains, Venus Smith doesn't seem like she'd ever be much help to Steedin a tight spot.
But there's not really much of a mystery to unravel here, and what plot there is remains primitive in style and substance. Hard-working Welsh actor Philip Madoc, for some reason frequently cast as an Eastern European, is the 'Balkan' ambassador. He does not trust Borb's Western playboy tendencies. One might think Borb would simply have the ambassador recalled, but not in the drought-stricken mind of Eric Paice.
Instead, there's a good deal of going-on about Borb, a not-at-all-disguised Tito, seeking 'bribes' from both East and West in order to maintain the Republic's neutrality, and devoting the money to his own use. The Brits were apparently still put out about their monarchist favorites losing out in Yugoslavia during World War II _ although there were fewer complaints when Tito's Partizans were providing them with midnight landing strips and covering fire.
Of course, Tito lived high on the hog compared to the average Yugoslav, with virtual palaces and fancy cars. But the handful of openly neutral countries in the Cold War _ aside from Switzerland _ had to be very careful indeed not to swallowed or turned into cannon fodder by the ravenous competing blocs.
Post 9/11, the mid-80s plot device of brave Afghan mujahedeen battling vicious Rooskies turns the otherwise entertaining James Bond movie 'The Living Daylights' into a cringe-fest. By so tying his underpopulated, underwritten script to similarly dated political claptrap, Paice makes this episode very thin gruel.
Wrestling provides Paice's other plot point here, but there are so few suspects that the identity of the murderous masked mauler is painfully obvious. Politics aside, wrestling looks insincere enough without subjecting it to the stylized fight scenes of mid-1960s television. The only amusing thing is how quickly Macnee gets out of the way during the ultimate sequence in the ring.
Series television is a difficult form, and even a show as generally inventive as 'The Avengers' stumbled occasionally. In 'The Decapod,' it stumbles badly.
Coming after several Cathy Gale episodes, "THE DECAPOD" is a real oddball. International security meets pop music meets professional wrestling (how'd THAT get in here?). It starts off with a clearly NAKED woman taking a shower (what is this, Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO?) who, of course, is murdered by the time the story title appears on screen.
This time around, Steed is involved looking into security at a foreign embassy, where you have a very shady ambassador (Philip Madoc, who I'll always remember as the VERY mad scientist in the DOCTOR WHO story "The Brain of Morbius") and a well-known "playboy" whose job it is to negotiate a huge loan of cash (Paul Stassino, no doubt best known as the double-crossing SPECTRE pilot in THUNDERBALL). In the long run, the plot reveals itself to be very simple, but looking at it as it unravels, it SEEMS a lot more confusing than it is. It just doesn't seem to follow the normal plot structure of this show, especially when the pro wrestling angle comes into it.
Steed pulls a "Napoleon Solo" in this story, "recruiting" a innocent outsider, nightclub singer Venus Smith, to help him get information from inside the embassy. But U.N.C.L.E. was always upfront with people when they did this-- they knew what they were getting into. Steed proves himself an absolute CAD here (in the best/worst George Sanders tradition) by CONNING Venus into thinking she's auditioning for a possible singing tour of the Balkans. Perhaps with better writing, this could have come off as genuinely funny. Instead, it's mostly awkward, as both she and the playboy diplomat keep talking at cross-purposes, neither quite sure what's going on with the other. She even briefly becomes worried that she might wind up in someone's "harem".
What makes it worth sitting thru is Julie Stevens as Venus. She's a "character"! While not an "action" girl by any means, she's got as much attitude in some scenes as Cathy Gale-- maybe more! (In this, she actually reminds me a bit of ANOTHER "Smith"-- Sarah Jane.) The playboy, Yakob Borb, manages to be SO charming, she finds herself starting to care for him rather quickly (and it appears it's mutual), but she doesn't hesitate when it comes to grilling him for details about why he set up a date and then stood her up (especially when a MURDER takes place where they were supposed to meet). I also found it funny when she says to one of Yakob's bodyguards, "HEEL, boy!"
By the end of the story, we find out the ambassador is not the obvious villain we thought he was, Steed gets involved in a brief wrestling match (with Patrick Macnee doing his own stunt-work!) and Venus is angrily telling Steed, "Well DON'T do it again!" "As if I would..." he replies... but by the look on his face, you can see, he's ALREADY considering doing just that! (It's amazing she didn't clobber him in a later episode.)
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