Herewith the continuation of my series examining confluences between two 1960s British television programs: The Champions and The Avengers. For the basics about The Champions, follow this link to the initial blog.
The Champions: Richard Barrett, Craig Sterling, and Sharron Macready
Case Study #2: Master-Minding the Panther’s Nutcracker
the master minds: written by robert banks stewart; julian wintle, producer; uk release date 6 november 1965
shadow of the panther: written by tony williamson; monty berman, producer; uk release date 15 january 1969
nutcracker: written by philip broadley; monty berman, producer; uk release date 2 april 1969
LOG LINE: A highly placed public servant breaks into a super-secure vault and attempts to take top-secret documents. He accidentally trips an alarm and is caught in the act. He can’t explain his actions because he has been brainwashed.
The beginning of the Avengers Season 4 “Master Minds”? or of the Champions “Nutcracker”?
And the answer is …
I love quizzes. Let’s try another one.
LOG LINE: Intelligent, highly placed people go to a place for a vacation, but their holiday site has been transformed into a brainwashing operation, in which the people are mentally conditioned to do the bidding of a criminal master mind. Our hero infiltrates the site and discovers that they are immune to the brainwashing and exposes the plot with the help of their partner(s).
The premise of “The Master Minds” or of “Shadow of the Panther”?
If you guessed that the answer is “both,” well, then, you are entitled to do a happy dance.
Yep. “The Master Minds” actually finds itself being echoed in not one but two Champions episodes. Let’s look at the Avengers episode first, and then the two Champions ones, in turn.
♦ ♦ ♦
the master minds
“The Master Minds” begins with three men dressed as Horse Guards standing inside some kind of a secure vault. Two younger men are making photos of documents they find there while the another, older man gathers more files from an adjoining room. The third man gets a stack of files to bring to his colleagues, but he drops them, setting off the alarm. A portcullis falls, separating the third man from the other two. One of the younger men orders the other to shoot the older man.
Later we find out that the older of the “Horse Guards” was, in fact, Sir Clive Todd, and that he has no memory of having gotten into the vault or why he did it in the first place. He doesn’t even remember his own name. (Unsurprising, since the baddies shot him in the head.) When the villains get wind of Steed and Emma’s interest in the case, and that Sir Clive might have started talking, they order his murder, compelling the psychiatrist assigned to the case to give him a lethal injection. The psychiatrist acknowledges having done the deed, but can’t explain why he did it.
The trail of clues leads to a special club for geniuses, who are taking a kind of group holiday at a school that is currently in recess, where they can talk with other intelligent people and take exams and do the kinds of things geniuses do. Emma and Steed infiltrate the program, she by getting hired on as an administrator, he by pretending to be a genius. What they don’t know is that the school’s PA system has been rigged to play subliminal messages when the guests are asleep, hypnotizing them into going to the gymnasium to brainstorm about how to break into various secure areas and steal materiel or information.
Steed follows the hypnotized geniuses but arrives too late: the door is locked.
Steed was annoyed by the constant stream of music playing in his room, so he unplugged the speaker. Mrs Peel, on the other hand, did not. She initially is hypnotized like the others, and participates in a raid on a Navy installation, of which she remembers nothing in the morning. The next time there’s a meeting in the gym, Steed tries to pretend being hypnotized like the others, but his absence from the first meeting was noticed, and his subsequent behavior makes the bad guys suspicious. Once Steed figures out how the hypnosis is achieved, he unplugs Emma’s radio, too, freeing her from the bad guys’ control. But the baddies call another meeting, at which they give orders that Steed should be killed. Mrs Peel volunteers to do it, but of course it’s a sham: she has only been pretending to still be in thrall to the baddies. The villains rumble to the fact that Steed and Mrs Peel are agents bent on stopping them, and a donnybrook ensues from which Steed and Mrs Peel emerge victorious.
♦ ♦ ♦
In the Champions episode “Nutcracker,” Lord Mauncey goes through the elaborate protocol for getting access to a highly restricted vault where important NATO secrets are kept. He tries to leave with something called “the F File,” but the vault entrance is booby-trapped to prevent anyone stealing anything. He is felled by knockout gas and taken to prison.
How to get into the F-File vault: 1. go to the tailor, who is also a British secret agent; 2. order green ties with a unicorn on them; 3. take the lift that doubles as a dressing room; 4. make a pattern with lights; 5. play a tune on the keyboard; 6. set a bunch of combination dials; 7. take the file; 8. get zapped with knockout gas when you try to leave
It turns out that Lord Mauncey remembers going into the vault of his own volition and taking the file, but he has no idea why he did it. After he talks to Sharron about what happened, he is killed by one of the master mind’s operators, who is himself murdered in turn.
We already saw how Lord Mauncey got into the vault, which has an access protocol so baroque it would have worked well in an Avengers episode, too. Now it’s Richard Barrett’s turn. The Champions have been hired by Mr Duncan, the man in charge of the vault, to find out why Mauncey tried to take the F File, and also to test the security of the vault. They are warned that if they manage to get past the failsafe that caught Lord Mauncey, there is another that is programmed to kill. Richard goes through the vault entry protocol, and finds the file, but instead of trying to take the physical document back with him, he uses his super-memory to memorize the contents.
When Richard leaves the tailor’s, he is followed by Craig in a separate car. But they’re not alone. The men who murdered the guy who killed Lord Mauncey are following them, too, disguised as police officers. They manage to get their car in between Richard’s and Craig’s, whereupon they release a bunch of caltrops that puncture Craig’s tires. When Richard pulls over and stops his car in response to the police car’s siren, the fake police corner him at gunpoint, knock him out, and take him to the master mind’s lair: a dentist’s office.
It turns out that the dentist has been using a form of subliminal hypnotic suggestion that he administers through a tape recorder and the lights in his exam room to get both Lord Mauncey and Mr Duncan to do his bidding. He tries it on Richard, but he is protected by his super-abilities; it doesn’t work. Before the dentist can try anything else or hurt Richard, Craig charges in to the rescue. Richard hears the fight start in the waiting room, so he leaps out of the chair and gets to work on the dentist and his other assistant. Together Richard and Craig defeat the baddies.
The idea of subliminal hypnotic suggestion in “Nutcracker” and “The Master Minds” is also important to the Champions episode called “Shadow of the Panther,” which we’ll explore in the next section.
♦ ♦ ♦
shadow of the panther
In “Shadow of the Panther,” Sharron Macready discovers that a criminal master mind has been brainwashing VIP guests a swanky resort hotel in Haiti. The preferred victims are politicians and high-powered scientists. Following a magic show by an illusionist called “Damballa,” some of the guests go to a hidden room on the ninth floor of the hotel, where they are subjected to subliminal messages and ultrasonics that hypnotize them, giving them orders to assassinate various people. The guests have no memory of this and they don’t realize that they’ve been brainwashed.
Richard Barrett and Craig Sterling arrive at the hotel. When first Sharron passes them in the hotel foyer without so much as looking at them and then ignores Richard when he tries to buy her a drink in the hotel bar during Damballa’s magic show, Richard and Craig become very concerned. Sharron leaves with the other zombified guests after the show. She goes to Damballa’s temple, where she participates in a group brainwashing session. Sharron is immune to the brainwashing because of her special powers, but she plays along and pretends to be under Damballa’s spell like the rest. During this session, she learns that one of Damballa’s targets is her boss, Mr Tremayne.
Concerned by her behavior, Craig and Richard follow her to the temple where the hypnosis happens. The open the door a crack and peer inside. Then they try to contact Sharron telepathically. She hears them, but instead of responding to them directly, she tells Damballa that Richard and Craig are there, and that they are agents from Nemesis. Richard and Craig take this as evidence that she really is part of the plot, that she has been brainwashed too, but when they ambush her later, they learn that it was all an act. She explains what the plot is about, and tells them that since the villains already know everything about them, anyway, her giving Richard and Craig’s names was intended to be a warning for them to be on their toes. Then Sharron reminds her partners in no uncertain terms that this is her case, not theirs, and that she needs to continue to play along if they want to stop the villains.
After talking to Richard and Craig, Sharron goes back to her own room. But a bit later, the sound of drums is piped through the hotel. The zombie guests are being summoned to the temple, this time to receive orders to kill Richard and Craig. As they file out of the temple, they pick up swords, knives, and other weapons. Then the guests go looking for Richard and Craig, who play a game of cat and mouse with them throughout the hotel: they don’t want to hurt any of the zombies, who don’t know what they’re doing. Meanwhile Sharron tries to smash the equipment that’s keeping the guests brainwashed.
Sharron is caught by the master mind, but she manages to escape her bonds and turn the tables on him: he dies from the poison gas he had originally intended for her, while she uses her superpowers to hold her breath long enough to escape the poisoned room. Sharron goes into the control room and destroys the equipment. Once that stops working, the guests are freed from its influence.
The case is solved, and the Champions have won the day yet again.
common points among master minds, nutcracker, and shadow of the panther
- use of hypnotism/subliminal messaging/ultrasonics as a form of mind control
- compromise of intelligent people who are made to commit crimes without their knowledge
- brainwashed people watch movies/slideshows together as a group as part of the process of giving them their marching orders
- people caught committing the crimes are killed by the bad guys to stop them talking
- a secret agent investigating the problem finds self immune to the brainwashing
and a nutty aside:
In the Season 3 episode “The Nutshell,” Steed is also tasked with making sure the security in a top-secret vault is working properly, but that’s about the only point of contact with “Nutcracker.”