“Game” is the first episode following Emma’s departure in “The Forget-Me-Knot.” It’s also one of the more surreal episodes of Season 6, because so much of the episode takes place within dreamscape sets, the use of which I discussed in a previous post. In that post, and in another related discussion, I explored how Mrs Peel acts as Steed’s anchor and how, in her absence, Steed’s world takes on a cast of unreality, and how that unreality plays into the texture of Season 6. It therefore is perhaps fitting that an episode as unreal as “Game” should be Steed’s next adventure after “The Forget-Me Knot.”
In “Game,” a villain (played by Peter Jeffries) who is now going by the name “Monty Bristow” lures one victim after another to his country home, where he drugs them and then puts them into life-size versions of board games, each of which has been created especially for the victim, geared toward some important aspect of the victim’s work.
One victim is a stockbroker with a heart condition: the game he must play involves managing a stock portfolio. If he is successful he will get the medication he needs to stay alive. If he is unsuccessful, he dies. He is unable to keep the stock portfolio’s value where it needs to be, and without his medication his heart gives out.
Henry J Averman finds himself playing for his life in a stockbroker game
A career Army officer must play a game of military strategy. He achieves his objective—to take the hill at the back of the playing field—but loses his life to a live firearm hidden in the cave at top left
And a professor whose life centers on the English language must unscramble a set of letters to make the correct word before he is crushed to death. Feeling the effects both of his recent drugging and the panic of having to perform the task under threat of imminent death, the professor cannot find the answer, and so dies.
Professor Witney tries to find the hidden word as the ceiling descends
Each of these deadly games takes place in a space that seems almost infinite because no walls are visible. Except for the spots that light the playing area, the rest of the space is completely blacked out. These sets aren’t mere dreamscapes: they’re nightmares.
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It turns out that Bristow and all his victims (plus Steed) were in the army together during the war, and that Steed and the victims formed a judicial body that court-martialed Bristow for crimes he had committed. Bristow (who in the episode freely confesses that he absolutely was guilty) never forgave them that insult. Therefore, many years later, after becoming a successful and very wealthy board game designer, he constructs elaborate traps in which to kill them off, one by one.
Steed and Tara are drawn into Bristow’s plot early on, when he sends them a copy of Snakes and Ladders that contains a note telling them to go to a local park. This turns out to be the first clue about the plot, since the victim they find, a man named Clive Dexter, was killed playing a simulacrum of Snakes and Ladders. Then he is dumped in the park, propped up on a swing, holding a handful of puzzle pieces.
The others are found in a similar fashion. Steed and Tara get a note telling them where to look, and when they get there they find the bodies are always on a piece of playground equipment, always with a handful of pieces of the same puzzle.
Steed and Tara make visits to the Jigsaw Master’s store, trying to find out what the picture on the puzzle is, and to get the missing pieces. The Jigsaw Master’s place is a dreamscape set all its own, as I mentioned in an earlier post.
It turns out that the picture on the puzzle is of Bristow’s home. The Jigsaw Master is familiar with it, and so is able to tell Steed how to get there.
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Except for the initial confrontation with Bristow in the normal part of his home, the remainder of Act III takes place in the most elaborate dreamscape set we have seen yet. Steed has been drugged, handcuffed, and placed into his game, called “Super Secret Agent.” Steed’s version of the game requires him to get through a series of obstacles, all of which are keyed towards the kinds of skills a super secret agent like Steed would be expected to have. Each successful passage of an obstacle gives Steed a reward: an object that he needs to get through other parts of the game. In Steed’s game, the stakes are even higher than just the player’s life. Tara has been kidnapped and placed inside a life-sized hourglass into which is pouring a stream of sand. Steed has six minutes to get through the game and rescue her before she is completely buried and suffocates.
But before Steed can get to Tara, he must defeat a “Japanese” wrestler (which gives him the key to the handcuffs he wears); crack a safe before a timing device sets off a bomb (which gains him a gun); solve a logic problem without getting killed (he gets the clip for the gun); crawl through a cage equipped with a guillotine device (to which he sacrifices his bowler but from which he gains bullets); and get past six thugs who stand between him and Tara, with one complication: only one of the rounds in the gun is live. The rest are blanks.
Steed uses his single bullet to pierce the hourglass. That damage plus the pressure of the sand break the glass, and Tara is able to escape. Bristow is livid about this: he considers Steed’s use of the gun to be cheating.
The rest of the fight scene takes place in a dreamscape set made of scaffolding, cages, giant dice suspended from the ceiling, and a green-and-yellow checkerboard backdrop.
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With the exception of the interiors of Steed’s flat and Bristow’s home, and the exterior shots of the parks and the Brigadier’s foxhole, every single set in “Game” is a dreamscape of some kind, divorced from any connection to external reality, either by its outlandish design, as in the Jigsaw Master’s haunt, or by the use of lighting and warehouse-sized interiors that emphasize the unreality and isolation of the game locations. And the set where Steed has to fight for both his life and Tara’s is the most complex dreamscape of them all, containing not only inanimate challenges that Steed must overcome, but monsters in the form of the giant wrestler and six goons.
Bristow pulls his victims into his own demented dream of revenge, one after the other. He doesn’t simply kill them: first he plays with them, literally, and then makes them the victims of their own occupations, just as he uses his own occupation as a game designer to enact his revenge. Bristow thus draws Steed into a nightmare version of his own job. Steed must call on all his skills as an agent: he has to fight, he has to crack a safe, he has to deal with booby traps. However, unlike a case in real life, none of these things is connected to the others and all are designed specifically and solely with Steed’s demise in mind. True, Steed has to deal with deadly traps all the time, but these always occur within a larger context, and they always have some kind of meaning within the progress of a case. In “Game,” the traps are divorced from any context at all. They only exist in their own right. They are the most frightening parts of Steed’s occupation, presented to him one after another, with Tara’s life on the line and a clock ticking down the entire time.
That this nightmare scenario should follow so directly on the heels of “The Forget-Me Knot” and Emma’s departure is telling. Steed’s professional life was so closely intertwined with his personal relationship with Mrs Peel that there really was no distinction between them. Steed’s heart is broken, the partner on whom he relied to keep him grounded and to have his back in each and every case is gone. Fate has toyed with Steed by ripping first Cathy and then Emma out of his life. It seems perversely fitting that he now he has to deal with a madman who literally plays games with his victims before killing them, and that the case he must solve requires him to live out monstrous versions of ordeals like the ones he faces on a daily basis.
Emma is gone. She’s not coming back. Steed is stuck with Tara. And now Bristow has killed off five of his former colleagues and sucked him into his cruel game of revenge.
Steed’s life has, for the moment, become a waking nightmare.