I guess I’m a sucker for anything with a train in it, but even allowing for that this is a rather wonderful episode – with a diabolical scheme and proper eccentrics; it wouldn’t seem to out of place in the show’s heyday, a season earlier. There’s an excellent chase in the opening, a new function of Steed’s umbrella is revealed and John Laurie is back in his best role yet, as a cowardly but loveable train buff (who lives in a signal box and dreams of buying a mainline terminus). Isla Blair also guest stars.
The writer, Brian Sheriff, is actually Roger Marshall (writer of many of the finest Avengers episodes as well as The Girl From Auntie) together with Brian Clemens who did an extensive rewrite of the original script.
Unlike previous trains in The Avengers, where motive power has been (at the very least implied to be) steam, all the trains in this are electric, the lines (mostly) having catenary wire. This lends the episode the grimmer, more modern aesthetic, as in The Fear Merchants, although ironically this makes it feel more dated. (Meanwhile, Chase Halt is a lot less modern, with gaslights…)
Steed’s umbrella has an audio recorder in at. At this point I’m starting to wonder whether he has different umbrellas, and he’s very good at anticipating which one he might need on any given assignment, or whether it is one umbrella, with a camera, audio recorder etc., essentially the functionality of an iPhone and a sword stick combined, with an impressive handle driven UI…
The trick with the train stopping at the abandoned Chase Halt, done up with Norborough name plates, is lifted straight from Dressed to Kill. It’s one aspect that didn’t make it into the remake, and it’s a nifty idea so worth reusing, although in this context it’s not clear why only the agent being targeted alights, and not a bunch of other commuters…
Steed gets taken out of the action early, in this, which gives Emma the chance to track him down and rescue him, which is refreshing (and an addition by Clemens). In turn, John Laurie’s character gets to rescue Emma from falling out of a fast moving train (“My dear Mrs Peel. It’s terribly dangerous, you know, to lean out of a train – while it’s in motion.”). He also gets one of the best visual gags – helping Emma covertly search the carriages, he ducks into a compartment to hide from the opposition, and sits on a lady who is knitting. Brilliantly, she has no reaction to this whatsoever.
The plot has some holes (What reason is there for Durbridge to have been tapped out using the tapping code? How does a ticket inspector influence the formation of the train?) And there’s no really need, either dramatically or in terms of story logic for the on-board control room/villains lair (and where does all that steam come from in the final fight…?)
Oh, and this is an episode that breaks the policeman rule: there’s one seen by the PM’s coach, which seems quite appropriate.
But any flaws are easy to forgive in an episode that is this much fun (and which there’s a fight in which Emma is threatened with a fork). The tag scene is a hoot, too, when the PM comes to thank Steed and Emma: “Did you vote for him? Let’s pretend we’re out.” (Incidentally, this version of Emma’s flat is shown to be on an upper floor, unlike the version of her flat at the start of this series).
Subtitle: Steed goes off the rails. Emma finds her station in life.
We’re needed: the message is delivered on a toy train.