The Champions – The Body Snatchers

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Two journalists stumble across a bizarre research facility in Wales, run by a man called Squires (Bernard Lee). One of the journalists is killed on the spot but the other – Frank Nicholls (J.G. Devlin) – escapes and contacts his friend Richard Barrett. Richard investigates and quickly finds himself in deep trouble ….

We open with yet another highly unconvincing day for night shot (given the vagaries of the British weather, it’s a shame these scenes always seemed to be filmed when the sun was especially bright).

Frank’s a bit of a cold fish. After breaking in, he hears someone approaching but doesn’t think to warn his pal (Frank just nips off a bit sharpish). And isn’t he a bit old for this cloak and dagger stuff anyway?

Post credits, Craig uses his superpowers to free a child who’s got his head trapped in some railings. A handy skill.

The early part of the episode revolves around the mystery of General Patterson who may or may not be dead, but whose body has disappeared (it’s ended up in suspended animation in Squire’s establishment). At first it seems like Patterson will be an important part of the story but it turns out he’s nothing more than a Macguffin.

Why has Richard gone it alone in Wales? It seems pretty pointless, since he leaves an obvious trail which Craig and Sharron follow at Tremayne’s behest.

I was looking forward to the hotel receptionist sporting a nice Welsh accent but no such luck. We later see an uncredited Talfryn Thomas as a garage mechanic though, so that’s some consolation ….

And apparently the only trains running in Wales are steam ones. Well they do look nice.

Devlin gives a good turn as the doomed Frank. Even better is Bernard Lee as Squires (Squires kills Frank in a particularly nasty way – with petrol and some matches). Lee was always an imposing sort of actor and easily dominates every scene he appears in. He might have been battling demons at this point (his issues with alcohol are fairly well known) but was professional enough not to let it interfere with his performance.

Given this is a Terry Nation script it’s possibly not surprising it has some science fiction overtones. But construction wise it’s a slow burn – Richard spends the first half of the episode lurking about whilst Craig and Sharron are several steps behind him. We really want to see Richard and Squires face off, but it takes a long time before that happens.

On the plus side, William Gaunt gets to act mean and moody in a leather jacket before getting frozen for his pains, whilst the presence of Ann Lynn and Philip Locke helps to bolster the cast. I also never say no to a touch of Sharron in fighting mode. It’s also nice to see her cosplaying as the Fifth Doctor.

The plot’s a bit thin but there’s enough going on to award The Body Snatchers three and a half out of five.

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The Champions – The Survivors

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The death of three students in Austria catches the interest of Nemesis.  The locals believe that a nearby lake contains plundered Nazi loot, but when Richard and Craig investigate they find that the trail leads them to a cave and a madman intent on reversing the outcome of WW2 ….

Uh oh, the curse of the dodgy dubbing strikes again. In the opening scene my heart lifted when two very familiar faces – Donald Houston and Bernard Kay – appeared, but once Houston opened his mouth the spell was broken. Clearly it was felt that a German accent was beyond him, so he was given a little “assistance”.

Luckily a young Stephen Yardley was able to manage a credible Austrian accent (he plays one of the three students combing the lake for treasure) although he didn’t make it past the opening credits as Ritcher (Houston) machine-guns him and his two pals to a very sudden death.

Post credits, Sharron demonstrates her skills with a dart at a local village pub. It’s a rather strange little scene though, as it has a set up but then stops before any sort of pay off.

Our three heroes head out to Austria where they run into a shifty hotel keeper, Emil (Kay), who reacts with a start when he spies Sharron’s flippers (she wasn’t wearing them though, just carrying them). Thankfully Kay – always such a watchable actor – was allowed to keep his own voice. He doesn’t have much to do except cast shifty glances at Sharron, Craig and Richard but he still does that rather well.

Donald Houston was an actor I found it slightly harder to warm to. His performances could be quite variable (subtlety was never one of his strengths) so even undubbed he might have come across as a touch hammy (as he does throughout the episode when speaking with another actors voice).

Anyway, since only the boys go scuba diving, why was Sharron carrying their flippers? I have to confess that it would have been nice to see Sharron in a wetsuit ….

Ritchter and Emil are out hunting Richard and Craig by the lake. When Emil reacts in wonder at Richard’s gymnastic abilities (“he must have jumped at least thirty feet”) some suspension of belief is required, as what we see on-screen isn’t quite as impressive. Poor Emil then hits the dust (farewell Bernard Kay, it wasn’t much of a part but it was nice to see you).

A little over sixteen minutes in, there’s a lovely gag which tends to pop up in series of this era from time to time (it also occurred in an episode of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes). The scene opens with a static shot of a snowy mountain range, only for the camera to pull away and reveal that it’s just a photograph at the entrance of the local mines! This has to be a deliberate tease (no doubt the audience would have both noted and appreciated this moment).

You have a love a story featuring ex-Nazis desperately longing to revive their golden years. It was a staple for many years (as late as 1988, the Doctor Who story Silver Nemesis was riffing on this theme) and The Survivors is a textbook example. Today’s prominent guest star, Clifford Evans, has a dual role – the nasty Nazi (Hans Reitz) and his mad brother (Colonel Reitz).

Sharron is sidelined for the early part of the story but springs into action when she karate chops Hans Reitz unconscious. It’s impossible not to notice the way she flings her coat over his head – that’s a handy trick to hide the fact that a stunt double has taken Evans’ place (fair enough though, you can’t really expect a senior actor to go flinging himself around).

Midway through the story it becomes obvious that something is hidden in the caves (which makes the red herring of the murdered students by the lake all the more baffling).  Mind you, that plot point seems quite sensible compared to the revelation that Colonel Reitz has been buried alive in the caves since 1945, growing madder and madder. Although since his uniform is spick and span and he’s clean shaven, he must have very decent washing and laundry facilities down there ….

This is a totally loopy concept, but you can’t help but love Evans’ full-throttle performance (just don’t think about the plot specifics too much). And just when you’re reeling from the revelations contained in a lengthy scene between Sharron and Colonel Reitz, we learn that the Colonel is the “good” German, buried alive by his evil Nazi brother who’s been waiting twenty five years for him and all the other troops also trapped with him to die off, so he can utilise the cache of weapons buried with them.

Crumbs. For the sheer chutzpah it took to create such a plot you have to tip your hat to Donald James. Utterly bonkers it may be, but I’ll give The Survivors an indulgent four out of five.

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The Champions – Project Zero

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A scientist called Dr Travis is shot and killed by the postmaster in a remote Scottish village. Travis was one of a number of notable scientists recruited for the mysterious Project Zero. Run by Dr Voss (Rupert Davies), its ultimate aim seems to be less than friendly – so Richard is ordered to infiltrate the group.  As you might expect, it’s not long before his cover is blown and his life put in great danger ….

My heart skipped a beat when the Nemesis map zoomed in on Scotland, but luckily we didn’t end up in Holy Loch. Deep breath, I don’t think they’ll be any submarines today.

Tony Williamson’s script is another one which seems to be riffing on familiar themes previously seen in The Avengers.  The hapless Travis (John Moore), fleeing from an unseen assailant, reaches the sanctuary of the village post office.  But the seemingly affable postmaster (Nicholas Smith) calmly guns him down in cold blood without a second’s hesitation. This concept of the deadly hiding behind the everyday and mundane is just so Avengers-ish.

Project Zero is an excellent story for spotting familiar faces – beginning with the very familiar face of Nicholas Smith. His Scottish accent is fairly passable, but then he only had a few lines of dialogue.

The post credits superpowers demonstration scene sees Sharron sampling a selection of wines (she’s instantly able to tell which year each wine comes from). Hard to imagine that the old folks in Tibet would have found that skill to be terribly useful, but they passed it on anyway.

Once we get past this spot of fun and games, Geoffrey Chater is the next very recognisable actor to make an appearance. He interrogates a man to death (who was primed with false information about Richard’s scientific qualifications).  I wonder if Nemesis knew that Voss and his associates were quite so ruthless? If they did then it helps to make Nemesis seem quite a sinister organisation (as per The Interrogation).

I like Richard’s disguise – a pair of thick glasses. He has a meeting with Forster (Chater) who recruits him to work on Project Zero. Their organisation is quite smooth – easily able to convince the scientists that it’s a Government sponsored project. Presumably some of them (like Travis) later learn the truth, although it’s not made clear what he discovered.

Nor do we know why Travis’ body was taken back to London and dumped in the street. Surely it would have made more sense (and been much less trouble) to drop it in the nearest Scottish loch?

Chater’s always good value when playing Government types (even faux ones) and a quick appearance by John Horsley doesn’t hurt either as he also always had an instant air of authority.  Jill Curzon (Doctor Who’s niece, Louise) pops up as a stewardess on Richard’s plane to Scotland – when she looms into the frame wearing a gasmask it’s a pleasingly jolting moment.

The big-name guest star was Rupert Davies (forever to be known as Maigret).  He’s pretty good as Voss – seemingly affable, but given what we know about Project Zero the audience is content to wait for the moment when he unveils his true colours (although Voss – like many other Champions baddies – isn’t the most complex of characters).

Project Zero doesn’t really feel like a Champions story to begin with. When Richard is in the process of being recruited by Forster, Craig and Sharron are in a car outside the building, listening in to their conversation via a bug. Why aren’t they using their superpowers?

And when Richard is swallowed up by Project Zero, Tremayne’s only answer is to set Craig and Sharron up as another couple of scientists and send them in after him.  Many other stories would have seen Richard using his powers to contact them first.

I’m also disappointed that when posing as scientists, neither Craig or Sharron pop on a pair of thick glasses. Oh, and the fact that all three succumb to the plane gassing is another oddity – previously we’ve seen them able to shrug off that sort of thing.

But when Richard is rumbled by Voss his special skills do start to come into play. There’s a good moment when Voss – attempting to force Richard to speak by the application of extreme noise – is discomforted to find that he’s not affected at all. The faint smirk given by William Gaunt at this point is a nice touch.

Richard, tagged with an explosive collar, is placed in a tight spot but luckily Craig and Sharron come riding to the rescue.  Sharron gets to retrace Dr Travis’ dash for freedom – right down to meeting the gun-toting postmaster. This time of course, things end rather differently and it’s very pleasing to see her indulging in a spot of fisticuffs for once.

Project Zero does have a few plot loose ends, but they aren’t too serious. Overall, the excellent guest cast (Peter Copley is another strong addition) helps to make the episode a cut above the norm. I’ll give it four out of five.

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The Champions – Reply Box 666

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An GPU agent called Semekin (George Roubieck) is murdered in his Jamaican hotel room. His pocket contains a curious newspaper clipping which reads ‘Wanted: A parrot that speaks Greek. Reply box 666’. Even more curious is the fact that the sixes have been changed to eights. Deciding that this must be a code, Craig travels to Jamaica in order to replace Semekin. And that’s when the trouble really begins ….

I do love the fact that if the brief stock footage clippage of Jamaica at the start of the episode wasn’t quite enough, the incidentals then decide to go into steel band mode – after all, every little helps. A real steel band pops along later just to hammer the point home.

Poor Semekin only manages to lock lips with the very winsome Cleo (Imogen Hassell) for a few seconds before her boyfriend breaks into Semekin’s hotel room and chucks a knife straight at his back. It’s a remarkable piece of marksmanship, although maybe that’s just because the camera angles were slightly askew.

Craig handles today’s superpowers demonstration scene. He’s out in the countryside with a blonde, leggy lovely (who doesn’t look too dissimilar to Sharron – hmm) and proves that finding a wristwatch dropped in the middle of a field is no problem when you’re a Champion.

The newspaper clipping leads Craig to a shop in Jamaica run by Nikko (George Murcell). I don’t know what Murcell’s had slapped on his face (some kind of orange boot polish maybe) but it doesn’t really help to convince that this British actor is actually Greek. Ah well, that sort of thing was par for the course with this era of television (the acting pool being somewhat limited).

If the sight of an orange Nikko is a little off-putting, then Jules (Anton Rodgers) is slightly more palatable – although his moustache can’t help but catch the eye. His silly accent is a bit of a problem too, but then this is a story with several silly accents ….

When I get to the middle of an episode, my thoughts often turn to plotting.  I can accept that Craig’s been sent in to pose as Semekin’s replacement, but why has no thought been given to stopping Semekin’s actual replacement turning up? Because this isn’t done, Craig’s quickly rumbled (and chucked out of an aircraft by Jules for his pains).

What’s rather nice (and unusual) is the fact that Jules is working with Corinne (Nike Arrighi), who proves to be rather more resourceful and cool in a crisis than he is. She’s the one who shoots Craig, takes over control of the plane and orders Jules to dump Craig with immediate effect.  Females in the Champions-verse are rarely so proactive.

This may be an episode which features Craig heavily, but Richard and Sharron aren’t totally ignored. Sharron’s the one who’s able to establish that Craig is somewhere out in the ocean (Richard’s not picking anything up at all – so it was lucky Sharron came along for the ride).

Sharron also proves her worth by pumping Jules for information. Although first Richard tells her to go back to her hotel room and change into something extra slinky before unleashing her feminine wiles on him. Jules is obviously instantly smitten (well, who wouldn’t be?). Their scenes together are slightly torpedoed by Rodger’s French accent though – the more he speaks, the harder it is not to think of Inspector Clouseau.

It takes a long time before the mystery at the heart of the episode (what is Jules searching for?) is revealed. And to be honest it’s not really that interesting or exciting, so we’re left with a faint feeling of anti-climax when the beans are spilled.

But the episode’s not a total write-off.  Sharron’s seduction of Jules is something of a highlight – especially when he gets her back to his hotel room and decides that a kiss would be nice.  As he moves in (and Sharron decides to lay back and think of Nemesis) we cut to a shot of Nikko shovelling food into his mouth.  We then go back to find that Sharron has hypnotised Jules.  Rodgers plays dazed and almost unconscious very well (as we’d see later in his career, he was a fine comic performer).

The irony is that even after all that effort, Jules didn’t tell her anything. So what have we achieved? Absolutely nothing. Still, as padding goes it was rather entertaining.

Craig washes ashore on an island and is discovered by Clive (Linbert Spencer).  Clive then just happens to lead him to the plane which Jules has been searching for. This is a spot of dodgy plotting that’s hard to beat whilst the tiny studio island also requires the viewer to be in a forgiving mode. Clearly Reply Box 666 was something of a cheapie – no location filming and presumably most of the sets taken from stock.

This isn’t the series at its best then, but it’s still entertaining enough, so I’ll give it three and a half out of five.

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The Champions – Full Circle

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An alleged British agent, Paul Westerman (Patrick Allen), has been remanded in prison after breaking into the Colombian embassy in London and photographing a series of secret plans (although the film can’t be found). Craig goes into undercover mode, posing as a fellow inmate, and together the pair escape ….

Sharron is the star of today’s post credits superpowers demonstration. Driving alone down a country lane (although when she stops for a moment, a crewmember’s reflection can be seen) she picks up a couple of male hitchhikers. When they spy her long, shapely legs they clearly think they’ve hit the jackpot, but our Sharron has other ideas.

Nemesis are cast in the role of peacemakers, attempting to heal the rift between Britain and Colombia. That’s nice of them.

Craig, oozing an aura of super cool, quickly befriends Westerman. Stuart Damon seems to relish the chance to play a slightly different role for once, especially when he’s acting alongside Patrick Allen (the man with the unmistakable voice). Allen’s performance is a highlight of the episode. Like many of the characters seen in The Champions, Allen’s only been given a lightly sketched role – but he manages to give each line an air of gravitas.

Another nice turn comes from the always dependable John Nettleton as Booker, the man hired by the Colombians to break Westerman out of jail. I adore his dry delivery of the line “you should take more exercise, it’s good for me” to the very shapely Sarah (Gabrielle Drake).

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It probably won’t escape your notice that during Sarah’s first scene the camera seems fixated on her bottom and legs (she’s enjoying a rigerous workout on an exercise bike at the time). Drake’s presence is some consolation for the fact that Alexandra Bastedo sits most of the episode out.

Sharron’s contribution to the story is negligible. Tremayne sends her to London to liaise with Craig and Richard and after a quick chat with Richard he sends her back to Geneva!

William Gaunt’s Irish accent (he briefly masquerades as an Irish prison padre) is a wonder to behold.

Plotwise, the episode is a bit muddy. If Westerman is such a top agent, it’s slightly hard to believe that he instantly trusts Craig. Surely he would have considered the possibility of a plant being put into his cell?

A good chunk of the episode takes place inside the prison, but there’s the sense that the story can’t really begin until Craig and Westerman escape. But one upside of this is the fact that the story picks up considerable momentum towards the end. This is where Booker takes centre stage as he tortures Craig (who has been misidentified as Westerman) in order to discover the location of the film.

Booker doesn’t seem at all surprised to learn that an American is working for British intelligence. This is another plot weakness (how fortunate that Westerman’s id, which he slips into Craig’s pocket, didn’t have a photograph).  And since Booker earlier asked Sarah to research Westerman’s arrest in the newspapers, we have to assume there were no photos there either.

But the eventual reveal of why Westerman broke into the embassy does feel satisfying and provides a decent conclusion to the episode.

Good performances from Allen and Nettleton (plus Gabrielle Drake managing to make a considerable impression with very limited screentime) all helps to earn this episode a mark of four out of five.

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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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The Champions – Twelve Hours

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Oh dear, we’re back at the Holy Loch submarine base. Let’s take a deep breath and dive, dive, dive.

Sharron and Richard have been given the job of minding an Eastern European President called Drobnic (Henry Gilbert). Together with his wife (played by Viola Keats) they visit the submarine HMS Weatherby, but tragedy strikes when a bomb explodes which sends the sub to the bottom of the loch.

Whilst Sharron attends to the injured Drobnic, Richard – assuming command following the death of the captain – faces delicate decisions of life and death …

Anybody who’s read my Champions reviews to date will know that I’ve struggled with the series’ previous submarine episodes. But I’m fully prepared to approach this one with an open mind (although I have to confess that my heart sunk just a little when the Nemesis map zoomed in on Holy Loch).

We begin in day for night mode, with a group of shifty types doing shifty things. The pre-credits teaser is rather low on excitement, indeed it’s chiefly memorable for some rather obvious dubbing.

Craig takes this week’s superpowers demonstration. It proves that he can walk up thirty flights of stairs very quickly whilst also carrying a large collection of parcels for a pretty young lady. That’s handy.

Into the story proper, it’s not long before a sweet little model submarine finds itself on the bed of the loch. Whilst Richard and Sharron take stock, I find myself wondering exactly why Drobnic’s enemies decided to sabotage the submarine. Surely there must have been easier ways to kill him?

After all, you’d assume that security at Holy Loch would be pretty tight. But obviously not, since the baddies were able (although we’re not given specifics about exactly how they did it) to pop a bomb on the HMS Weatherby without anybody noticing.

Viola Keats goes into full overacting mode as a hysterical Mrs Drobnic confronts Sharron. Luckily Sharron is more than a match for her and sedates the woman before she gets too annoying. Meanwhile, Richard is clashing with a surly chief engineer called Raven (Mike Pratt). Pratt adds a touch of class to the story – it’s Raven’s conflict with Richard and Sharron that provides the episode with a dollop of drama.

Richard’s priority is to keep Drobnic alive. The way he persuades a reluctant Sharron to operate is noteworthy, as are his clashes with Raven and the rest of the crew. Until the operation is complete he won’t allow them to move the sub – naturally enough, the others aren’t too keen to potentially sacrifice their lives just so Drobnic can live.

That Drobnic is dismissively referred to as a “butcher” hints at a complexity the script doesn’t really possesses. The President is only given a handful of lines before the bomb goes off and none of them address his morality or character.

If Drobnic remains undeveloped, then the same goes for his opponents. More could have been done with both sides, but they’re clearly just story elements designed to create the crisis situation.

Twelve Hours lacks the same sort of slowly increasing claustrophobic terror as, say, the UFO episode Subsmash. Even when the air is getting pretty low, Richard and Sharron greet the news with equanimity. No doubt this is due to their superpowers (while the crew are staggering about, barely able to breathe, our heroes hardly break into a sweat) but it does sap the episode of tension.

This also goes for the way that Sharron needs very little persuading before popping on a set of scrubs and going into major surgery mode on Drobnic. Especially since surgery isn’t really a skill of hers.

The best submarine episode of the series so far (admittedly that’s only a low bar to jump over) this one rates a decent score of three out of five.

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