Mission... Highly Improbable
This is without a doubt one of the silliest episodes of the series. I think it's even sillier than "The Winged Avenger." However, it is generally handled very well and thus quite enjoyable.
Chivers gave one shivers. It was creepy seeing the glee in his eye as he put Sir Gerald Bancroft in a box then stuffed him in the rubbish bin; or when he washed poor Brigadier Lethbri... uh, Gen. Gifford down the floor drain. His was probably the only really serious character in the story, and Francis Matthews did a good job of it. Ronald Radd's General Shaffer was also a good character. He had that obtuse quality that all Russian spies seem to have on Avengers, but without being a flaming idiot like overly broad Brodsky. Thus his character comes off as eccentric but believable. I love it when he sums up Chivers to his face: "thoroughly corruptible."
The special effects are wonderful. And the dollhouse musical score accentuated the sets and the story very nicely. Mrs. Peel in Wonderland! I thought Macnee and Rigg didn't take this episode overly seriously (to say the least), but they had fun with it without ditching their characters. Ever unflappable, my favorite Steed line comes when he explains to Mrs. Peel what had happened to him: "Professor Rushton invented this infernal machine that shrinks things. "Infernal"... gotta love it!
There are a few bumps which keep me from giving it top marks—for instance, when Mrs. Peel puts Steed in the gazebo, she stands there completely unnoticed by Chivers or Shaffer, even though she's in plain view. Yeah, right. There are a few others "oops" like that in the story which were obviously dashed over simply to keep the story moving. But that's alright. The episode remains charming and delightful overall. A pleasant fairy tale.
Three and a half bowlers.
Mission... Highly Improbable
I recently bought the Emma Peel mega DVD set and I attacked it with high expectations. Having only seen a few episode beforehand, I knew I was in for a treat. Just yesterday I watched "Mission... Highly Improbable," thus finishing off the run of fifty Emma episodes. I am sure I'm not the only fan who wished they could have ended on a higher note.
Mission... Highly Silly is more like it. While it was great fun to watch a shrunken Sir Paul McCartney run around on Help, it was less enjoyable watching Steed and later Mrs. Peel do the very same. Bruce Springsteen has a song called "One Step Up and Two Steps Back," and I believe this best describes this episode. I keep waiting for something to happen. But once the pieces were set into motion, it was really by-the-book-stuff. Look! Steed is shrunken! Let's get him set straight! Now look! Mrs. Peel has shrunk! Let's set her straight! Look! The bad guys are shrunken let's... oh, ah, let's not get them straight.
If you have ever watched Saturday Night Live, where they take a cute idea and drag the sketch out for ten minutes, then you know what I'm talking about. Sure the "special effects" were neat, but this episode was a major disappointment. And so it ends not with a bang, but a whimper.
It's not just "Mission" which disappoints. In fact, many of the color series simply fell flat in comparison to the black and white episodes. I don't know if my expectations were too high going into the color series, or maybe I'm too tough a critic.
What's the deal with the color series? Am I the only one who felt like much of the time the writers were simply going through the motions? They gave us a time machine that wasn't and an invisible potion that wasn't. Here, they delivered a shrink ray that really existed. And all I could think of was — why couldn't they have come up with something better? Tried just a little bit harder.
"Mission" is the kind of episode which fans seem to say "has some cute scenes and some great dialogue between Steed and Peel." Look, there's absolutely no denying that they were an excellent team. My God, the very best. But I want more out of my Avengers than cute scenes.
I want "Too Many Christmas Trees." I want "A Touch of Brimstone." And yes, I want "Epic." I want episodes that have great plots, nasty villains and cute scenes and some great dialogue between Steed and Peel. To me, too many of the color episodes fall flat. While it's true that I like my Avengers with a "harder edge," this isn't to say I don't like them silly, too. "The Girl from Auntie" is a pure comedy, and I love it. I like 'em slightly darker and I like 'em silly, too. What I don't like is lousy.
Watching "The Superlative Seven" for the first time, I was really excited. Now here was something I could really sink my teeth into. Let's play Seven Little Indians. I'm all for it. And while there were other color episodes which equally got me jazzed, for the most part I wasn't moved.
I'm done now. With the exception of "The Forget-Me-Knot," I've seen 'em all. Someday very soon I'll wanna watch them again. Avenge crimes and all that. (Love that chessboard opening.) I'll throw one in my DVD and get lost in another world were it's always 1965 and 1966 and well, 1967, too. I'll start with the black and whites and wish they were all this good. This fresh. This consistent.
Mission... Highly Improbable
Plot: Good. Sure the idea of shrinking objects is highly improbable, but it's fun. One plot hole I can see: how did Emma get on that desk and off of it? Jumping would have killed her, so I suppose she had a mini-jetpack.
Humour: OK. "Tell me, Steed, is everything to scale?" Mini-Steed was a laugh.
Direction: Very Good. Nice work on the miniature Steed and Emma scenes.
Acting: Very Good. Francis Matthews, Noel Howlett, Jane Merrow, and Ronald Radd did well.
Tag: Good. That reminded me of the little umbrellas you sometimes get in cocktails.
Miscellaneous: I liked the action sequences with Mini-Steed. Shaffer was very similar to Brodny from "Two's a Crowd" and "The See-Through Man." I'm sure glad the episode subtitle was not "Steed is shrunk by a mad scientist/Emma enlarges him." Oh! the double entendres abound.
Overall Rating: 7/10
Mission... Highly Improbable
Here now, getting a bit silly, aren't we? I don't quite know why such a wave of goofiness swept over popular culture in between, say 1965 and 1968. Maybe it had something to do with the hordes of Baby Boomers not being able to take their parents' entertainment all that seriously, or a defensive reaction to the grimness of the Viet Nam war. Or most likely, it was all the massive amounts of pot and acid people were using at the time (both in the audience and in the studios). For whatever reason, just compare From Russia with Love to You Only Live Twice, or the first season of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. with the third. Or (God help us) Batman. This goofiness tsunami affected The Avengers as well. Maybe the mood's roots were in essential British cheekiness, come to think of it. (Think of A Hard Day's Night and Help!) The black and white episodes starring Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg were always spoofs after all, with a strong underpinning of suspense and danger to give the satire some depth. But the color season increasingly went mad (or "camp," a concept I never liked) and swung much more toward surreal comedy.
Where was I? Oh, yes. "Mission... Highly Improbable" is certainly fun to watch, but it is quite silly. There had been some genuine science fiction as far back as the telepathic alien plant in "Man-Eater of Surrey Green," but most episodes featuring the seemingly impossible turned out to be hoaxes at the end. (The Doc Savage or Scooby-Doo formula.) This time around, there's no rationalizing. When Steed and Emma are shrunk down to a few inches tall, it's not revealed that they were instead drugged and woke up in a set with giant fake props - nope, they really are Tom Thumb-sized and interacting with the normal world.
The menace this time is a reducing ray, serendipitously developed by a Professor Rushton
while working for the Ministry of
To avoid embarrassing questions, Rushton's partner Dr Chivers uses the snazzy ray gun to shrink the official down to doll size (along with the man's Rolls-Royce). The official hides in the weeds by the side of the road, understandably taken aback by this unusual experience, and Dr Chivers scoops him up with a butterfly net. Later, we see Chivers dropping a small box containing the unfortunate man (who is still alive and calling for help) in a trashcan. Another man who learns too much about these shenanigans is also reduced in size by Chivers and hosed down a grate in a moderately frightening scene. (There's no green-screen effects used and certainly no CGI at this point in history, just well-made props and high camera angles, which works just fine.)
It's soon clear that Professor Rushton is your typical eccentric, idealistic genius. He is yet another elderly codger with a stunning young daughter and no wive in sight; I think someone really needs to investigate all these widowed scientists and gorgeous daughters, there's something dodgy about it all! (The daughter is played by the quite attractive Jane Merrow, who makes a neat bookend standing next to Diana Rigg.) Chivers, on the other hand, is the ambitious and cold-blooded real villain who has been pressuring Rushton to develop the reducing device. (With his black turtleneck, sport jacket and horn-ribbed glasses, he's an up-to-date 1967-looking mastermind.)
Chivers has his own devious scheme in mind, which involves shrinking the new "Saracen" armored vehicle with its indestructible plate and selling it to a delegation of an East European nation. (Oh hell, they're Russians, alright? And the leader is probably head of Soviet Intelligence, why beat around the bush at this late date?)
As it happens, Steed was nearby at the time and hid inside the Saracen, with the result that he is now six inches high rather than six feet. Things get increasingly far-fetched. I absolutely love Diana Rigg's underplayed amazement as (while tied to a chair one final time), she looks down to see the miniaturized Steed cheerfully standing on a desktop. Perhaps a few years of Avengers-style antics has opened them both to such things, but our heroes take the startling developments in stride. After Mrs Peel playfully asks Steed, "Tell me, Steed, is everything to scale?", he replies with a priceless chuckle.
Later on, as she manages to sneak the wee Steed into a miniaturized gazebo which is to be re-enlarged as a demonstration ("I'm not sure I shouldn't keep you this way"), Emma is spotted by the enemy while standing around carelessly in plain sight. Now it's her turn to find herself unexpectedly the size of a Barbie (how I lost one hundred and twenty pounds in half a second, details in this issue), and she gets her own chance to sneak about unseen and rescue Steed. Only fair.
When Mrs Peel is restored to her original state, she anxiously asks Steed if she looks quite normal. She turns about for inspection and while Steed reassures her that she's fine, I would have liked to see him remark, "Well, your behind's much larger," just to rag a bit. He's far too well-bred for that, of course.
There are the usual clever touches to the dialogue I've come to expect. Meeting the KGB head, who is posing as a general, Steed notices his Crimean War medal and compliments on how good he looks for his age. I like Steed's description of the shrinking ray as "some sort of infernal machine," a grand old phrase from the days of bomb-throwing Anarchists. It's wonderful how well Steed and Emma work together when one is reduced to a few inches high, as though they've practiced for just such a predicament; Steed crawls under a door to catch the key so he can slide it back to Mrs Peel, who then escapes. (It's nice that the guard on duty is reading Jane Austen. Emma is a classic and so appropriate.) I have to say that being jabbed in the ankle by Steed with that wicked-looking fountain pen would be painful.
Mrs Peel's famous fight scenes are at their best when she is using workable throws and holds, as her constant use of hand-edge chops to the neck or chest is not too convincing. Maybe if the choreographer had shown Diana Rigg some elbow strikes or palm thrusts, the fights would have more variety and come off better. On the other hand, it's believable that she is not invincible and has her hands full when confronting a beefy thug who is ready for her.
I rather like both the more serious Avengers episodes and the wackier ones, and don't see a need to choose either approach. Maybe it comes from many years of reading slam-bang pulp stories, where continuity is not as high a priority as making you keep turning the pages, but I can enjoy both types of episode in their turn.
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