The first two-parter since episodes 1 & 2 of series 1 of the original show back in 1961 (and even then, the two episodes had different writers, directors). It’s glacially slow, but it’s not bad. These are the other two French episodes (and they’re certainly an improvement on The Lion and the Unicorn) The scope is broader in other ways – we get to see what’s going on in Moscow, and, flashback further back then ever before. Though it sometimes seems like every episode of this show involves a flashback, it’s usually between a year and a decade; here we go right back to 1945, and to Tibet, as well as to England in 1965 (of which more anon). All this means much less screen time for Steed, Purdey and Gambit, to the detriment of the episode.
The story concerns literal ‘sleepers’. Russian troops, using the secret of longevity discovered in 1945 Tibet, have been hidden all over Europe, and the French lot are accidentally activated. This doesn’t bear thinking about too carefully as it doesn’t really mesh with the intro – where we see youthful looking 20+ year old rabbits and a man who appears to be in his twenties or thirties who is actually over 100 years old. If you want to tell me these Russians who can avoid ageing for 30 years have been hiding in the wilderness, or caves, or even a massive underground city then okay, no questions from me. But if you’re telling me they’ve been hibernating unsupervised until a satellite switches them on, then I want to know: don’t they need food? How can you ensure they get oxygen? How can you be sure no one will stumble on them while they snooze? How can you be sure their hiding place won’t be sold to a developer and turned into a shopping mall?
There’s also a very weird device of age catching up with them – but only several hours post-mortem. Except when it happens even while they’re still alive, when there’s a need to explain what happened to all the prisoners…
Other nitpicks include “oh look, there’s a wall for the freeze frame. It must be time for the titles.” I think I’ve finally got tired of that device. And the incredibly incompetent soldiers who use a lot of ammo shooting up buildings. They basically just stand their, firing at the stonework, without noticing there’s no returning fire. It’s just as well there isn’t because they don’t bother to take cover at all, either. It happens a lot too. The director Yvon Marie Coulais (presumably French?) must have been very keen on this. He also has stray bullets shoot through each of the Steed, Purdey and Gambit’s brandy glasses in the middle of the circular table they are sitting around…
The episode ends rather peters out, then suddenly there’s another bunch of soldiers attacking – in the middle of which, the episode ends. Presumably to provide some kind of cliffhanger. It starts to become apparent why there weren’t more two-part episodes…
But the main thing to talk about with regard to this episode is MRS PEEL! Yes, MRS PEEL is back! Except, she’s not Mrs Peel (huh?) and it’s not really a guest appearance by Diana Rigg but some stock footage.
This almost seems like a good idea at first, as we go to the 1965 flashback in which a rogue sleeping soldier revives and attacks and English village. Steed investigates – though we don’t see his face (it’s harder to hide his face is 12 years older to hide that his voice is). Then he calls Mrs Peel, who we do see, because it’s footage from 1967, so it looks right. (There’s some voice over too, presumably an impressionist.)
Unfortunately, to make it fit, the dialogue is rather lame. Steed calls her, says hey this weird thing happened, we’ll probably never know why, and hangs up. That doesn’t really fit with his MO in those days. He’d have gone to her place, with a ‘Mrs Peel, we’re needed’ trick and the next thing they’d have been on the scene, solving the mystery. Perhaps it’s a pity a piece of footage of the two of them at a similar-looking crime scene couldn’t have been woven in, though the show is so different in style it’s hard to imagine how it could have been blended in.
What’s most peculiar is, back in 1977 reading about more sleeper soldiers reviving, Steed calls Mrs Peel (for no apparent reason) again. This time it’s a different piece of stock footage, but it’s also from 1967 so MRS PEEL LOOKS LIKE SHE HASN”T AGED IN 12 YEARS. Huh? I can see why they might write in a second Mrs Peel encounter if they’d been successful in persuading Diana Rigg to return, like Hendry, for a guest appearance. But to do so in this way, for no reason, and with footage that doesn’t fit the time period, is just odd.
And “I’ve changed my name” she says. She’s not Mrs Peel anymore. Is that why Steed’s phoning her? Because she stopped seeing him when Peter returned, but now he’s gone, or dead. But why would she change her name if widowed – when she didn’t before? Does this mean she’s remarried? I’m sure there’s something obvious here I’m missing, because I just don’t get it.