Consider if you will, the pu pu platter. Surely the king of appetizer samplers, it tantalizes, beckoning from the menu and promising the fulfillment of all desires. Sadly, when it arrives, it is anything but. Too many crab rangoons, not enough ribs to go around and the dumplings just a little overcooked. On reflection, it would have been better to choose.
The Spy Collection leaves one with a similar feeling. Weighing in at a whopping 14 discs and clocking in at a daunting 45-plus hours, it’s a surfeit of material, some of it more palatable than others.
The set, assembled by the same folks at A&E who’ve been filling American bellies with a steady diet of BBC programming for the better part of the past decade, contains tasting portions of The Prisoner (1967-68), The Champions (1968-69), The Persuaders! (1971) and The Protectors (1972-74). Chances are the only one you’ve heard of before is The Prisoner, which is sadly the least represented here.
Purporting to be a sort of survey course in British spy television, the first thing that stands out is how ill-fitting some of these selections are for the collection’s intended purpose. Arguably, only The Prisoner’s Number Six and the members of The Champions fit the conventional definition of spies; the former in a decommissioned capacity and the latter as operatives of a shadowy, pan-governmental agency. The players in The Champions and The Persuaders! are more like free agents than secret agents and their inclusion in this collection over, say, Danger Man, The Avengers or even The Saint seems questionable.
From The Persuaders
The most purely entertaining offering is The Persuaders! starring Tony Curtis and Roger Moore as he transitioned from the suavity of his Simon Templar in The Saint to his leather-faced stuffiness as James Bond. Curtis and Moore are both millionaire playboys, one a streetsmart American, the other a veddy British gentleman, paired off by an elderly judge to combat crimes the law for some reason cannot prosecute.
Why Moore’s oafish aristocrat and Curtis’s thuggish American are particularly suited for the task is never made clear, but the combination of the two creates, if not a blockbuster crime-fighting duo, a team-up whose comedy falls between the intentional and unintentional. Moore’s lime green cravats could make Austin Powers blush and the site of Curtis chasing after everything in a skirt is less convincing than his own turn in a dress in Some Like It Hot. The Persuaders! version of camp sits nearer to the 1967 version of Casino Royale than the more recent, but the jokes wear thin after a few episodes, much less the 13 included here.
From The Champions DVD cover
Picking up more on the gadgetry end of the spy tradition is The Champions, featuring a trio of operatives who receive super powers from a mysterious race of what seem to be inscrutable scientifically advanced Asians. Gifted with superhuman strength and psychic powers, the trio works for an international agency whose motives are unclear, often battling Nazis or securing technology that seems quaint in retrospect. While their powers are spotlighted at the beginning of each episode, the source of those powers is never questioned, teased or revealed in the course of the show, and their bland acceptance of their powers, along with their unexplained secrecy about them, is puzzling to the point of distraction.
From The Protectors
The worst of the batch is by far The Protectors, starring The Man from UNCLE himself, Robert Vaughan. The show suffers for its brevity, as the plots of the half-hour long episodes can’t help but feel rushed and almost arbitrary. If the motives of agents in the other shows included are shadowy, the motivation for The Protectors is left utterly in the dark.
Watching the stilted, wooden quality of the performances strangely reminded me of old marionette-based action programs like Thunderbirds and Space 1999. This seemed less strange when I learned that The Protectors’ creator, Gerry Anderson, had also been the pioneer behind Supermarionation. Not many shows could be improved by the addition of puppets, but The Protectors cast almost cries out to be replaced by their bobble-headed counterparts.
While all of these shows have some level of nostalgic value, be it for the costumes, the cars, the locales or the sometimes accidental humor, a large part of what makes them unsatisfying for the modern viewer is their entirely episodic nature. If you go into any of these three shows expecting character or plot development over a series of episodes, you’re likely to come back unhappy. Programs like The Avengers or Danger Man managed to combat this problem with the charisma of their lead characters, but with the possible exception of The Persuaders!, these shows lack the spark to hold a viewer’s interest.
Far and away the best part of the set is The Prisoner. This landmark, mind-bending series starring Patrick McGoohan is set on a mysterious island known as the Village, populated entirely by ex-intelligence operatives designated only by number. McGoohan’s Number Six, often thought to be identical to his character Jack Drake in Danger Man, is subjected to diverse methods of interrogation and psychological torture in order to extract some mysterious bit of information he acquired before his retirement.
A dizzying mix of mind games, action and clever plotting, The Prisoner’s 17-episode run is worthy of a complete viewing and deserving of the devotion it has inspired among fans. As AMC puts the finishing touches on a miniseries remake starring Ian McKellen and James Caviezel, viewers would be better served by passing on this mish-mash of a set, which includes a scant three episodes of The Prisoner along with 15 of other programs, and opt for the entre-sized portion of the legendary spy series, instead.