New episodes of some of your favorite television shows from the 1960s and 1970s are happening! Such is the case with “Space: 1999,” “Doctor Who,” “Dark Shadows,” and “The Avengers,” the subject of this review. The caveat is that they are appearing as audio plays, produced by UK-based Big Finish Productions. Released last summer, “The Avengers: Steed and Tara King, The Comic Strip Adventures, Vol. 5” features audio adaptations of contemporaneous comic strips based on the James Bond-style British spy television series of the 1960s. These audio dramas combine the fast-pasted action that we remember from the television shows with the expansiveness of the comic books.
…the fast-pasted action that we remember from the television shows with the expansiveness of the comic books.
In an unusual story called “How Does Your Garden Grow,” lush jungle vegetation is springing up in England, especially on British military bases. Master spies John Steed and Tara King are called out to an investigation which will bring them to an eccentric farmer, a World War II female pilot, and giant caterpillars, dandelions, and daffodils. This story is notable for the sound effects of planes, as well as giant caterpillars nibbling away, occasionally on humans. Although based on a comic strip of “The Avengers” written in the 1960s, perhaps the story has a thing or two to tell us today as humans attempt to tamper with nature.
The story is equal parts off-beat and engaging, featuring excellent performances by Julian Wadham (as Steed) and Emily Woodward (as Tara). The performers suggest, but do not try to imitate directly, Patrick Macnee and Linda Thorson, the original television stars. The new Steed and King are especially adept at drawing out the dry (and sometimes broad) humor of the scripts.
Listeners partial to history may enjoy the episode “A Very Civil War,” which deals with Civil War reenactments—but the civil war being reenacted is not the American Civil War between the Blue and the Gray but rather the English Civil War between Cavaliers (the Court of Charles I) and Roundheads (the Puritan-dominated Parliament). Surprisingly, this has all to do with a counterfeiting scheme to defraud the Bank of England. It is a very culturally-aware script, with references ranging from American “action painter” Jackson Pollock to Restoration King Charles II’s orders to remove buildings quickly in London in order to stop the spread of the Great Fire of 1666. The episode also has many humorous moments, as when Tara uses vintage wine bottles as weapons (“This will give you a hangover in the morning!”) Smashing!
Science fiction aficionados might enjoy “Whatever Next?” Aliens “from the other side of the Milky Way” claim they have arrived to save humanity, and indeed they help prevent a meteorite from striking earth. To do so, they contact UFO expert Jones, a scientist widely regarded as a crackpot. Yet are these aliens as helpful as they claim to be? If so, why are they blasting their way through a British government ministry? The episode has both spies and wit in equal measures, with East Bloc Ambassador Brody and Natalia filling a sort of Boris-and-Natasha role audiences might remember from “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.” “Take me to your leader,” Tara King, reversing roles, tells one of the aliens after chasing a UFO across the skies of London. An interview by Samuel Clemens (not, in this case, Mark Twain) notes this adventure comes from a comic book in which Steed and Miss King fly to another planet, but, the story’s audio drama adapters wanted it to be more earth-centric. Yet, as Mr. Clemens notes, it still “deals with aliens, time travel, and future predictions.” As usual in the audio series, we notice theatrical references: “William Tell couldn’t have done better!” Tara says of an on-the-mark shot, referencing Friedrich Schiller’s play of the master Swiss marksman. This story, with its sci-fi bent, reminds us that Big Finish Productions also produces “Doctor Who,” “Torchwood,” and “Space: 1991,” continuing other retro-future audio adventures of beloved science fiction TV series of the past.
The outstanding fourth episode of the collection is “Mother’s Day.” This is not about the special Sunday in May, but rather a story revolving around Steed and Miss King’s spy-master boss, Mother. Mother—a code word concealing the man’s true identity—has been invited back to the elite school of his youth on his holiday, which turns out to be a sports day for his school. The problem is during the sports activities, there seem to be repeated attempts on Mother’s life which are narrow misses, and this arouses the suspicions of the ever-wary John Steed and Tara King. There is some interesting social commentary in “Mother’s Day,” as at one point Mother cheerfully and disturbingly recounts how he and some of the others would bully others in a manner reminiscent of the villains of “Tom Brown’s School Days.”
A special delight of this episode is the presence of Linda Thorson, who starred as Tara King in the original television series. Here she gives a tour-de-force performance in two roles—one as Mother’s over-solicitous Aunt Gertrude and the other as a Russian refugee from the October Revolution. It is wonderful to hear the former “Avengers” star expertly play two roles with obvious relish, some fifty years after appearing on the original television show.
“The Avengers: Steed and Tara King, The Comic Strip Adventures, Vol. 5” is highly recommended for hours of exciting audio entertainment and for evoking memories of those of us who grew up with television series such as “The Avengers.” These performances can be ordered here.