The Champions – Shadow of the Panther

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We’ve already had witchcraft (possibly) in Cornwall so the next logical step no doubt is voodoo (possibly) in Haiti.

A group of international dignitaries are staying at the Kimberley Hotel. Sharron arrives and discovers that some of them are obsessed with a voodoo cabaret act called the Shadow of the Panther. All silly superstitious nonsense no doubt, but when Craig and Richard finally turn up, they discover Sharron in what appears to be a zombie-like state ….

Tony Williamson’s script bears some similarities to Donald James’ The Night People. Not only the superstitious aura that hangs over the episode but also the fact that it opens with Sharron going it alone before the boys turn up. This might just be a coincidence or possibly it was felt that since the formula worked well once it would bear repeating.

The pre-credits sequence tells us straight away that things are going to be odd today. It’s all wonky camera angles and incessant drums as a poor unfortunate runs for his life down a hotel corridor before being frightened to death by something. It’s short – just over a minute – but still effective in creating an ominous atmosphere.

We appear to be cost-cutting with the post-credits superpowers demonstration as Richard, Craig and Sharron are all seen in recycled footage.  Boo!

Sharron knew the dead man – scientist Ralph Charters – and is shocked to discover that his hair turned white just before he died. Fear? Mind you, it does look more like someone caked his hair with dye, which might be a case of sloppy make up (either on the part of the programme or his murderers). That’s a (maybe unintentional) clever little touch.

I do enjoy a bit of solo Sharron. She may lack the wise-cracking style of Craig and Richard but she’s always cool and calm in a crisis. For example, when contacting Tremayne she’s all business and is also easily able to deal with the oily hotel manager Prengo (a nice performance from Zia Mohyeddin).

The most recognisable guest star is Donald Sutherland, no stranger to ITC series of this era. He plays David Crayley, a journalist who discusses the strange goings on with Sharron. His character might exist partly to deliver a large chunk of exposition in a short space of time, but Sutherland’s initial whimsical byplay is still entertaining.

The fact they establish a connection in a very short space of time helps to give the subsequent scene where he appears not to recognise her a little more punch. Has he been zombified? Or is there another explanation?

If you like drums, then this is the episode for you. Some are on the soundtrack but others are highighted as being digetic, which is an interesting little touch.

Since virtually all of the episode takes place inside the hotel, Shadow of the Panther is clearly a bit of a cheapie. But this actually works to the advantage of the story – there’s something rather claustrophobic about being trapped with all those bongos and an ever increasing collection of zombies (a group of big-wigs, Crayley, Sharron).

There’s a few nice late twists (the reveal of the man behind the operation, for example). I also like the scene where Craig tangles with Sharron on the bed (crickey). It’s all good clean fun though – both he and Richard are slightly abashed to discover that Sharron was only pretending to be a brainwashed zombie. Craig’s innocent suggestion that she should come and look at his pillow is a comedy moment dispatched very well by Alexandra Bastedo.

It’s possibly best not to examine the plot specifics too closely. Why are all these influential types coming to this small hotel in Haiti? That’s key to the plan though, as they’re all then brainwashed and sent off to assassinate high ranking members in their own organisations. Hmm, not quite sure I see the logic in that either, even though the script does its best.

Never mind, if you relax and enjoy the ride then there’s plenty to enjoy here. Thanks to being a Sharron heavy episode, I’ll give this it four out of five.

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