Guest Essays
Page 5 of 14

THE SUPERLATIVE SEVEN versus DRESSED TO KILL

In other articles I've referred to the recycling of stories, particularly by Brian Clemens. Clemens is notorious for reusing plots and plot devices from the Cathy Gale series for the Emma Peel series. What is interesting are the results. It is not so much an issue of one version being superior to another; there does not seem to be an overwhelming consensus as to which version of an episode is better. The more notable observations are that 1) the end products are very distinct from each other, despite the recycling, and 2) neither version is without flaws that are different for each respective incarnation.

While the obvious choice to pick would be "Don't Look Behind You" and "The Joker," I feel a more interesting one would be comparing "Dressed to Kill" and "The Superlative Seven." Here, Clemens applied the same basic gimmick of kidnapping seven people, including Steed, at a fancy dress affair for some diabolical purpose, but created radically different stories.

First, there is the basic plot device. However the two stories are regarded, it is clear that the kidnapping scheme is better suited for "The Superlative Seven." The purpose of the scheme in "Dressed to Kill" is to facilitate the villain's plan to buy the plots of land. Bringing the people together makes it easier to prevent them from doing so; the primary objective is to delay and not murder. However, the plan itself is not necessary to accomplish this, merely more convenient. In the Peel episode, the goal is to kill targets to help pull off a confidence game. Therefore, such an elaborate ploy is required and fits more logically with the villains' overall plans.

Next, examining the actual unfolding of the stories, the Gale show comes across with much richer plotting. The Peel episode, aside from one or two twists, is very straightforward in its development. The course of events are simple and at times predictable, albeit well-executed in the final product. The story does, unlike Clemens' other efforts, fit well into the Peel style of plots. There is an air of stylized fantasy to the episode, with the emphasis on mood and suspense. There is also a deliberateness that is not present in its counterpart. Note that Clemens clues you in to the identity of the villain from the beginning. Every one of the victims, except the killer, is wearing a costume that is related in some way to their skill or profession. The killer's outfit still hints at his true nature and secret. This more successful transition is obviously due to the fact that Clemens did not do a rewrite as he did for the other scripts; he instead reworked a gimmick for a different story.

The Gale episode doesn't really have any greater number of twists, but it moves in a far less predictable fashion, and the script has much more texture to the scenes. Surprisingly, it is also a little lighter in feel and atmosphere, and has more comedy. This is particularly so considering this is the more "realistic" story. However, the script has far more logistical flaws to it. The kidnapping plan is flawed in its execution. The villain, despite being intelligent and having fairly good resources, takes some foolish and unnecessary risks. As stated earlier, bringing everyone together isn't necessary. By doing so, it is obvious the reason for the plan would come out. If he had targeted them separately, he could have avoided his motives being discovered. However, even if bringing them together was unavoidable, why didn't he just drug everyone right away? Since he wanted to avoid killing them, that would have been the most sensible and practical step to take. He could have then taken them to an unknown locale or each to a separate one. Note that the Highwaywoman is eventually drugged, but that really makes limited sense since there was no other attempt to incapacitate the others. The only purpose it served was to allow Mrs. Gale to take her place.

That brings us to the other major plot error. It seems unbelievable that Mrs. Gale would be able to fool any of them. While the two are both blonde and have similar builds, the real Highwaywoman already had ample opportunity to converse with the other victims and without her mask on. With her huskier voice, Cathy should have at least aroused some suspicion and, once they unmasked her, they should have realized she was a fake.

There are additional smaller errors. Why should Steed be evasive that he works for the government? It makes perfect sense for him to behave that way in the Peel story, but not in this case. While he doesn't have to say he's a spy, he certainly doesn't need to be so secretive. It only makes him look suspicious. There is also the case where he tells Cathy he knows the invitation was a fake. The scene is incorrectly written; he should have already told her, ergo the reason for her presence. The dialogue should have been structured to refer to this revelation as something mentioned earlier off camera.

In fairness, "Superlative Seven" is not free of inconsistencies either. The premise of luring a group of people with distinct physical skills to test an assassin is an interesting one. However, one of the test subjects selected is a bullfighter. Granted, it is a profession that takes skill and a great deal of courage, but how does it present any test to the killer's abilities? In fact, that specific murder comes off as absurd. Then there is the revelation about the killer's secret: Emma is the one who unveils it, yet it is clear she would not have had time to figure out the answer. She would not even have known about the conundrum of the killer coming back.

Finally we come to the characters. In the Gale script, Clemens makes the effort to flesh them out as much as possible in the allotted time. The highlight of this effort is Anneke Wilks' character of Pussycat. Besides being a source of flirtatious comedy, we get a good sense of the kind of person she is. The same thing can be said of the others, to a lesser extent. The most notable element is the intelligence and perception of these people: they collectively figure out what is going on and why. It is not a case of one person necessarily taking charge; they collectively devise good strategies to deal with their predicament and flush out the imposter. More importantly is how they caveat and interject each other's reasoning. It is done not from a basis of fear or hysteria but from sound, rational thinking. This is perfectly exemplified by them first locking up Steed and Mrs. Gale, then reconsidering the guilty party is someone else.

The Peel script does not have the same depth of character development. Whether the motive was to keep the story more in-line with the non-realistic world of the Peel series, or perhaps devote more time to the individual murders and the action, these characters are written in a two-dimensional fashion. Not to say that they are necessarily wooden, but rather they are not fully fleshed out individuals as in the other story. They are designed more as archetypes or concepts than people. Even Charlotte Rambling's Mrs. Wilde, the largest role written, comes across as abstract. Curiously, this group acts far less intelligently and sensibly. Knowing full well there is someone out to kill them, they nonetheless separate to search the island. This action alone makes them easy prey. And no attempts are made to examine the premises. It would have been smarter and safer to break up into groups of three, with Steed remaining behind to check out the house.

This comparison underscores the oddity of Brian Clemens' recycling efforts. It can be observed that, in the remade versions, certain aspects come off as superior to the original, but then other aspects are clearly inferior. This is also apparent in "The Joker" and "The Correct Way To Kill," where alterations done to the original both strengthen and weaken the story, yet why this occurred is unclear and unobvious; the shifting from a more realistic setting to one more fantasy-based does not seem sufficient explanation for these mixed results.

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Page last modified: 5 May 2017.

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