The Fear Merchants
"The Fear Merchants" is an episode that isn't really well liked by most fans. I can understand that opinion, but I think that there's some classic moments being overlooked, here. Let's begin with the good, shall we?
First of all, the villains are superlative. Patrick Cargill as the ever-efficient Pemberton is great, and Garfield Morgan as the slow-talking Gilbert is also good. Dr. Voss is a little weaker, but this trio certainly makes good villains for The Avengers. One of my favorite villain moments of the series is when Pemberton explains that the "fear of death" can make a man do anything.
Their scheme is quietly realistic—knock out ceramics competitors of one Jeremy Raven, class-A idiot. While it bends logic that each competitor has one paralyzing fear (some are more plausible than others—Meadows and Crawley, for instance), it leads to some interesting scenes. The speed terror that Crawley (Andrew Keir) undergoes has superb direction and we are convinced that Crawley is terrified of speed.
The performances are quietly effective—no real standouts, but good work by all. Brian Wilde (who resembles George Sanders) is good as Raven, although too old for the part of a young business tycoon. He can simulate terror well, however. The other tycoons have little else to do, but do their parts well.
Other components of the show come together nicely. There is a suspenseful fight between Steed and Gilbert in a construction pit (which could use better music). The slightly annoying musical stinger, which is even worse in "The Hidden Tiger", as it mixes the annoying trumpet theme from "The Winged Avenger," is put to acceptable effect, at best in the already-mentioned Crawley scene.
So what's the problem? The answer is easy: the end. Everything is set up, but it appears that Levene wrote himself into some sort of a corner. Pemberton proves to be afraid of the dark, which Steed correctly—and inexplicably—guesses. While I enjoy Cargill's transformation from a smug killer to a whimpering fool and back to a smug killer, this is a tragic breaking of every writer's law in the book. There has been no clue that Pemberton is afraid of the dark throughout the entire episode. Those expecting action or suspense at the end are sadly mistaken.
A major criticism of fans is that the villains have a weak motive—eliminate ceramics manufacturers. That's missing the point—does Primble have any bigger motive in "From Venus With Love"? Major Vazin in "The See-Through Man"? Burton in "The Forget-Me Knot"? I consider these villains slightly realistic ones—they're making a living, which could be illegal. No biggie, they think.
So, all in all, a darn good episode for three quarters of the way, but heavily bogged down by a stinker of a ending. When else has that happened before? Hmm... "The See-Through Man" (non-Brodny scenes, anyway), "Escape in Time" (not heavily, just some silliness that doesn't quite work), "The Living Dead" (ick), and "Return of the Cybernauts" (too silly) all fit that pattern. Of course, other episodes, such as "The Bird Who Knew Too Much" and "Death's Door" are enlivened by terrific climaxes. You take 'em as you get 'em.
The Fear Merchants
I can't for the life of me understand why folks don't like this one. It has such style. And Patrick Cargill is one of my favorites. He always seems to appear in stories that the fans don't seem to like. He suffers the same fate in his turn as Number 2 in The Prisoner story, "Hammer Into Anvil." Many Prisoner fans don't like that one, either, but it's one of my favorites. Also ironic is that Cargill plays a sadistic bully in both stories, and like all true bullies he uses cruelty as a shield to hide his own insecurities. A tried and true, maybe even hackneyed device, but Cargill plays it well enough to hold my interest.
I think some miss the point of "The Fear Merchants." It isn't the target of the terror campaign, but the campaign itself, that's the point. All of our villains are sadists; it's their gleeful sadism that drives the story. And it's the sadism that creates the atmosphere and the style which makes this such a delicious episode. That the victims and the client for the BEB are all ubiquitous ceramic tycoons is not the point. This story is a study in measured evil. Phobia is a subject few of us talk about openly, even in casual conversation, for fear of tipping one's hand and revealing that "dark balloon" we keep so well hidden. In this story, it's explored with a touch of humor in a non-threatening manner (unless of course you suffer one of the phobias touched upon in the plot).
In addition to Cargill's performance, I also like Annette Carell as the icy cool Dr. Voss: "With modern psychiatric techniques..." She sounds somewhat like the female equivalent of Dr. Strangelove. The Steed and Emma exchanges are also priceless. I like the one in the car the most. And I love Steed as the perfect little self-important bureaucrat... "The Prime Minister agrees with me," indeed!
The character with the chink in his armor is probably obtuse Jeremy Raven, played by Brian Wilde. Though youngish, Wilde clearly doesn't look like a "youthful" executive, or someone too young to run a business. Maybe it was a prejudice at the time this episode was filmed that CEOs and their ilk should look gray-haired and crabby like Mr. Crawley. More damning, though, Jeremy really doesn't seem very ruthless, not even in business. He can't even talk a good game. He just sort of sits there. If you want to point to a flaw in the story, then I guess you could say it was the Jeremy character. A truly ruthless tycoon would have lent the story greater verisimilitude.
Overall, though, I think it's a fun story to watch, not a classic, but entertaining. The BEB folks and Steed and Emma keep it flowing well, despite the Raven character. 2.5 Bowlers.
The Fear Merchants
Plot: Good. Scaring business competitors out of their wits makes sense, but it is lucky for the BEB that all the company executives had major phobias. I'm with David about what the BEB got out of it all; fifty percent of the company's initial growth profit just doesn't seem to be enough for all the trouble they are going to. Also, why would they threaten to tell the media or press about Raven's ruthless business doings, since that would only be showing their bloodstained hands?
Humour: OK. A rather humourless episode. The only enjoyable comedic moment is the tag.
Direction: Excellent. Wonderful dizzying shots of the stadium in the introduction. Also, when Gordon White was attacked by the bird, it reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. This episode did have a little Hitchcockian feel to it.
Acting: Very Good. Patrick Cargill excellently delivers his usual sinister performance. Brian Wilde does well as Raven, although I did raise an eyebrow when Steed called him "young."
Music: Very Good. Good music with which to start off the color season.
Tag: Very Good. The only real laugh of this episode. Steed's fear of running out of champagne! A truly definitive Avengers moment.
Miscellaneous: Two actors from this episode are alumni of The Prisoner: Patrick Cargill and Anette Carell. Oh, and if I were in Emma's shoes, I would have lied on the questionnaire.
Overall Rating: 7/10
Dial a Deadly Number
This is not one of the strongest episodes (can there really have been that many British businessmen with actual phobias?)—I am a big fan of Patrick Cargill, though—but it does raise one interesting point: It's an early example of the willingness of people to allow invasions of privacy by anyone with a clipboard and a business card. As alluded to by both Mr. White and Mrs. Peel, the questions asked on the market research questionnaire go well beyond any legitimate point, but it never seriously occurs to anyone to refuse to answer any of the questions.
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