The Champions – Autokill

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Throughout the series many have tried, but nobody has been able to beat the Champions. Who could? Possibly only another (reprogrammed) Champion ….

The pre-credits sequence opens with a Nemesis agent, George Brading (Richard Owens), returning to HQ. So far so normal, but this doesn’t last as once inside he pulls out a gun and shoots Colonel Coulston (Bruce Boa) multiple times. It’s an orgy of violence that teeters on the ridiculous – the Colonel wobbles but he won’t fall down as Brading continues to fill him full of lead.

Tremayne gets a slap from Brading as he tries to stop his rampage and then a whole phalanx of Nemesis agents get involved. This short scene helps to finally flesh out Nemesis quite agreeably (for once we see that Richard, Craig and Sharron aren’t the only people who work there).

Like the shooting, the fight scene is choregraphed in a hyper-real way and concludes a pulsating pre-credits teaser that promises the audience fifty minutes of high-octane comic strip action.

Post credits, we drop into a faintly swinging party, where Richard and Sharron are handing round the nibbles and alcohol. Richard eyes a pretty girl, but another chap clearly wants her all to himself, so he decides to trip Richard down the stairs (a tad unfriendly that). Thank goodness for Richard’s cat-like acrobatic skills.  Mind you, the way he manages to keep his tray of drinks intact even after a highly athletic somersault is pushing the bounds of credibility somewhat.

As ever, there’s plenty of familiar faces to spot in the episode. Paul Eddington has already turned up in the teaser whilst Harold Innocent appears shortly afterwards.  Innocent is Dr Amis, a Nemesis doctor who favours dark glasses even when inside (well it helps to make him stand out and also hides the nasty bruise on his eye). Since the bruise is never mentioned you have to assume it was a genuine shiner and not applied via make up.

Brian Clemens’ second script for the series has a different tone from most of the series. Along with The Interrogation, it’s an episode where the stakes feel higher than usual (possibly because the series’ regulars are placed under maximum stress).  The only Geneva based story, it’s also of interest for the way that Tremayne is brought more into the centre of the episode.

After the initial orgy of action, the episode settles down for a while as the Champions play detective, doggedly retracting Brading’s steps. But there’s also an ominous feel developing as Klein (Eddington) sets out to target another operative and this time he’s aiming high by selecting Tremayne.

Klein is masquerading as a policeman (Eddington’s accent is interesting). You have to say that Tremayne is a little foolish to go off with him (hasn’t he ever heard about the dangers of accepting lifts from strangers?). Although in his defence, the baddies’ operation is clearly well funded since they’ve been able to take over a building and transform it into a police station. Complete with a pretty young woman holding a vase of flowers (although what she’s doing bringing the flowers out of the charge room is anybody’s guess).

A rogue Tremayne, now that’s a wonderful concept. A pity that the moment when the three Champions are forced to exercise maximum restraint against their boss is so short, but it’s still highly entertaining as stuntmen fling themselves around the office with wild abandon.

It’s nice to see that Sharron is the most forceful of our three leads. Whilst the boys are sitting back and almost admitting defeat, she’s keen to examine each and every angle, secure in the knowledge that Tremayne – now confined to a hospital bed and sinking rapidly – would do everything in his power to help them if the position was reversed.

Eric Pohlmann is Barker, the man behind the scheme to bring Nemesis to its knees.  We never discover why though – as happens often with The Champions, villains operate in a villainous way because that’s what villains do ….

The stakes are raised even higher when Richard falls into enemy hands. Pohlmann is good value as Barker pumps Richard full of drugs and begins to program him. His target? Craig of course.  Goodness knows where Barker was able to get those high quality b&w stills of Richard and Craig though.

The climax of the episode – Richard and Craig go multiple rounds against each other – is considerably more bloody than we’re used to.  Sharron isn’t left out of the action either (although Alexandra Bastedo’s stunt double is painfully obvious at times). I do like the little smile Sharron gives when she holds Richard steady for Craig to administer the knock out blow. Was this as scripted or an acting choice by Bastedo I wonder?

There are a few little things I could quibble about, but since this is the final episode (in Network DVD viewing order anyway) I’ll finish off this 2020 Champions rewatch on the most positive note and award Autokill five out of five.

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The Champions – Desert Journey

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El Hami is a small North African state which has become an important pawn on the international scene thanks to its bountiful supplies of cobalt. The Champions attempt to restore the Bey (Jeremy Brett) to the throne, but he’s reluctant to leave his decadent life in exile. Eventually (thanks to Sharron’s persuasive strong arm) he’s en route back to his people – but there are many dangers to overcome along the way ….

Yes, the story does feature a character called Major Tuat (Tony Cyrus). No sniggering at the back please.

Post credits, Sharron (in a swimsuit – sigh) takes an impressive dive off a high board and then enjoys a lengthy swim underwater. Several pool staff look on admiringly. Well you would, wouldn’t you?

Ooh, Sharron’s getting the pulse racing today – after her swimming antics she then turns up in Tremayne’s office wearing a very foxy outfit (Tremayne, Craig and Richard can only gape whilst the slinky saxophone on the soundtrack hammers the point home).  The reason for Sharron’s garb is obvious – if they can’t bribe the Bay to return, then Sharron will use other methods to persuade him.  Crumbs.

Jeremy Brett as the Bay. Now that’s a piece of casting which catches the eye. We first meet him at a swinging Rome party – it’s an absolute hoot, featuring loads of beautiful people jiving around in a decadent manner (or as decadent as you’d expect to see in an ITC series).

When Sharron turns up the fun really starts and although her role in this story initially seemed to be a sexist one, she acquits herself well – foiling an assassination attempt and duffing up Dave Prowse (anything’s possible when you’re a Champion). Sharron’s proactive day continues when she knocks out the Bay and carries him off. The carrying occurs off camera, which is probably just as well.

There’s a number of familiar faces in this story. Some, like Rudolph Walker, are uncredited, whilst the likes of Reg Lye and Roger Delgado are credited but don’t have terribly interesting roles. Always a pleasure to see Delgado of course, just a pity that he’s not playing a baddy today.

After Sharron gets the Bay aboard a small plane (Craig is piloting) her hair suddenly grows in a very impressive manner. She does look even more gorgeous with long hair, it has to be said.

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Desert Journey features a rather simplistic take on international politics, something which was fairly common in ITC adventure series of this era.  Nemesis seem quite content to organise a regime change in El Hami, no matter what the outcome might be, whilst the notion that once the Bay is restored to power all will be well seems a trifle optimistic.

Some stock location shots are mixed in with the studio desert action. I’m not sure where they came from, but it features three people who resemble Craig, Sharron and the Bay. The woman in the location footage has big hair, so that explains why Sharron has suddenly become so hirsute – presumably they wrote the story around the available footage.

The trek across the desert is quite effective, although fairly low on tension (you know that the Bay isn’t going to get killed mid way through the story). The slow transformation of the Bay – from hedonistic playboy to concerned ruler – works well, with Brett managing to overcome the limitations of the character he’s been given.

When the three stop to take some rest, Craig entertains himself by ogling a belly dancer whilst Sharron looks after the injured Bay (he’s taken a bullet in the shoulder from a sniper). I assume that Craig’s wild enthusiasm at her charms was a Stuart Damon ad-lib.

Desert Journey does drag a little towards the end, but Ian Stuart Black’s sole Champions script is still a good one. Partly thanks to the strong role for Alexandra Bastedo, I’ll give it four out of five.

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The Champions – Happening

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Richard is in Australia, having infiltrated a mysterious group who are doing dodgy things with an atom bomb that’s due to be tested soon. His attempt to round them up doesn’t end well, with the result that he loses his memory. Luckily he eventually comes to his senses, only to realise that he’s sitting right next to the bomb and the clock is (once again) ticking ….

We open in the Simpson Desert, which is apparently comprised of red sand (the ITC studio desert has a much more golden hue though). I rather like the cold opening – Richard confronting a group of baddies in a helicopter – although since he does so in such a smug way you know that something bad is going to happen to him. And so it does – they overpower him and he falls out. Ouch!

Post credits, Richard – cool as a cucumber – is shown demonstrating his super powers by jumping out of a burning building without hurting himself. This is a tad unfortunate as it makes you wonder why he couldn’t do that when he took his helicopter tumble.

Monty Berman always had a good eye. Apparently the fire was a real one that occurred just round the corner from the Borehamwood studios, so a crew was set out to take some shots and pop William Gaunt into the middle of the action.

Richard has gone it alone, not confiding in Tremayne, Craig or Sharron about exactly what he’s up to. Given he’s venturing out to the middle of nowhere that seems a little silly.  Still all three (yes all three) set off to Australia, partly to track him down and partly to observe the bomb test.

This is a bit of a red letter day – Tremayne getting out of the office for once. A pity it hasn’t happened before, and indeed it’s a shame that Anthony Nicholls hasn’t really been used more. Tremayne has generally functioned either as a device for moving the plot along or as comic relief (puzzled time and again by the incredible antics of his three top agents).

Happening doesn’t have a particular large guest cast, but Grant Taylor as General Winters and Michael Gough as Major Joss are both welcome additions.  For me, Taylor will always be the no-nonsense General Henderson in UFO (his General here isn’t a million miles away from his UFO character, albeit a little less grumpy).

Winters is looking forward to the bomb test – it promises to be incredibly powerful, but also ‘clean’ with very little radioactive fallout (this is presented to the audience as a good thing although Tremayne does sound a pessimistic note).

As we’ll see later, the faceless baddies have been doing things to the bomb, with the result that it’s now considerably dirtier than it was before. Odd that there doesn’t seem to be any sort of security around the bomb. That’s a tad careless.

Major Joss is the leader of the black hats, stranded in the desert after his helicopter is damaged. Although it’s not specified, given the accent of his superior (who breaks the news that they’re not going to send another helicopter in to rescue him) it seems that the Russians are behind this dastardly business. Mind you, it’s fair to say that Joss’ boss has the sort of accent that teeters on the edge of parody.

Jack MacGowran may not be a household name, but this Irish-born actor had quite the career (he’s possibly best known for his association with Samuel Beckett). MacGowran might not have been the obvious choice to play Banner B. Banner, an Australian prospector, but he gives an entertaining, if rather odd, performance.

Banner meets up with a still dazed and confused Richard, but their relationship seems fated to be a brief one after Richard succumbs to a snake bite. Richard then telepathically links with Sharron – was she the one responsible for bringing him back to life? It’s a striking scene – Richard in a hastily dug grave, getting covered with sand by Banner, before springing back into life and crawling out ….

Happening is an strange sort of story. The studio desert isn’t terribly convincing and Banner B. Banner apart, the guest roles aren’t very well developed.  Given that it was a Brian Clemens script you do expect a little more, but it’s still very watchable – Richard’s attempt to diffuse the bomb especially – so I’ll give it a rating of three out of five.

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The Champions – The Final Countdown

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Field Marshall Von Splitz (Alan MacNaughtan) is released from prison after twenty five years, but repentance for his war crimes is the last thing on his mind. Still a fanatical Nazi, he immediately sets out to locate an atomic bomb which was jettisoned from a Heinkel during the dying days of WW2. Von Splitz plans to detonate it, thereby triggering a war between East and West. Can the Champions locate the bomb in time? The clock is ticking ….

The way the incidental music swells to highly melodramatic when Von Splitz makes his first appearance gives you an early indication that he’s a wrong ‘un.  The Nazi salutes proffered by Dr Neimann (Wolf Frees), Kruger (Derek Newark) and Heiden (Norman Jones) towards him is another subtle clue.

Actually, subtlety is not really a key part of this episode – you just have to sit back and enjoy the ride whilst not worrying about the plot specifics too much (although that won’t stop me of course).

Post credits, there’s a lengthy sequence of children playing in the snow. All very nice, but where are the Champions? Eventually we see Richard, attempting to dig his truck out of the snow, who dashes over to stop a young child from blowing himself up with a bomb. No, I’ve no idea what the bomb was doing just lying around in the field.

MacNaughtan was an actor of considerable presence. Von Splitz is something of a cliché character – the ice-cold Nazi – but MacNaughtan is still very watchable in the role. Derek Newark is entertainingly over the top when delivering his handful of lines whilst very decent actors like Basil Henson briefly feature (he suffers that most memorable of ITC fates – death by white car hurtling over a cliff for no particular reason). You really can’t grumble about the cast in this one as it’s also nice to see the likes of Morris Perry and Hannah Gordon.

Amazingly, Wolf Eisen (Henson), managed to survive the death crash (at least for a few hours) and so before he pegs out there’s just time for Richard to interrogate him. This seems a little harsh, although Tremayne later tells us that everybody else – the German police, Interpol, etc – has already had a go at him. Quite why Eisen’s ‘accident’ should have generated so many flags with the authorities is a slight mystery.

The notion that that Germans had developed an atomic bomb by the close of WW2 sounds a little far-fetched, but still credible. That it’s ended up lying quite happily in a German lake since 1945, maybe less so. The way the nasty Nazis manage to locate and extract it with embarrassing ease also requires some indulgence on the part of the viewer.

This is a story where the Champions’ superpowers only come into play late on. To begin with Craig, Richard and Sharron are all operating as ordinary detectives – interviewing suspects and doggedly following up clues – whilst  Von Splitz remains several steps ahead of them. The Final Countdown is also one of those Champions episodes which doesn’t feature a lot of quipping from the leads – fair enough, since there’s an atomic bomb floating about it’s probably not the time for merry jests.

A small piece of trivia – I think this is the first time we discover that Tremayne has a secretary (we don’t see her, just hear a disembodied voice on the intercom).

Craig is captured and given a thorough working over by Heiden. After slapping him around for a few minutes, Heiden asks him “who are you? Who are you?” which (thirty five minutes in) were Norman Jones’ first lines. Before then he’d just been called upon to loom menacingly in the background.

Richard rescues Craig (Sharron is forced to stay outside – which seems a little unfair). I love the entertaining punch up between Richard, Craig and the Nazis, even better is the way they both crash through the windows to confront Dr Neimann, who’s standing over the ticking bomb. Stuart Damon seems to go a bit Jimmy Cagney when Craig confronts Neimann.

Richard once again attempts to send Sharron away – is he afraid for her life or is he just a bit of a male chauvinist?

Their superpowers are no use when it comes to defusing the bomb so Craig has to use skill, ingenuity and some syrup. It’s a tense scene which concludes a very decent episode. Although it’s a shame that the Nazis are dealt with rather abruptly (Craig and Richard pulverise them in double-quick time) there’s not too much else to grumble about, so I’ll give this episode four out of five.

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The Champions – Nutcracker

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After a visit to the dentist, Lord Mauncey (David Langton) almost steals a file containing vital defence secrets from a secure Goverment facility. Although unsuccessful, the attempt raises several immediate concerns – such as why the previously upright Mauncey did something so out of character as well as the need for added security.

Major Duncan (William Squire), head of M7, enlists the Champions – asking them to steal the file, thereby proving that the current defence procedures are inadequate. Richard doesn’t take it out of the building, instead he memorises its contents. This then makes him a target ….

As so often, the ultra secret defence establishment we see today is hidden inside an apparently innocuous building – in this case a clothing store (Mauncey gains admittance by purchasing the correct tie!). Luckily, security is more watertight after that – he has to input a complex code on a keypad and then plays a nifty little tune on a keyboard before finally gaining access to the vault.

All of this, plus the fact that after he’s got the file in his hands the shutters come down and he’s gassed, do suggest that security’s fine as it is. But had that been so then we wouldn’t have had much of a story.

Post credits, Craig is a togged up as a cowboy and demonstrates his sharp-shooting skills. He of course comes out on top and can’t help but display a certain air of smugness.

William Squire would later have a lengthy stint in security (as the fourth ‘Hunter’ in Callan).  Duncan is therefore good training for him (the offhand way he says that Mauncey is undergoing interrogation and eventually will tell them the truth hints at the ruthless way the Section also operates).

Given that Mauncey was one of a select group of people to have the correct security clearance to enable him to access the file, asking the Champions – who don’t have this knowledge – to break in does seem slightly pointless. While Richard and Craig glumly discuss how they’re going to break the bank (neither are keen on the job) Sharron nips off to speak to Mauncey. He seems rather taken with her (no doubt the fact that she possesses a very pretty face is the reason why she was chosen for this mission).

Security at M7 doesn’t seem to be that good – considering that Mauncey is later murdered in his cell. Perhaps Duncan needs to stop worrying about the security of his top files and instead concentrate on a root and branch review of the entire department ….

The boys toss a coin to decide who will break into the vault (Richard loses and has to do the job). Sharron is excluded from this, much to her disgust, but you can sort of understand why – given that the ‘password’ involves purchasing a tie.  The break-in scene is a fairly tense one, although it can’t help but feel slightly like padding – now it’s been established that someone is keen to get their hands on these secrets, the story won’t advance until we meet them.

Richard is lifted immediately after leaving the vault. How did the black hats know where he was and what he was doing? Given that we’ve only met one member of M7, this particular mystery doesn’t seem that taxing (Nutcracker is a spy story told in a very linear way).

Right from the pre-credits, it looks obvious that the dentist – Warre (John Franklyn Robbins) – is decidedly dodgy, and although this isn’t confirmed until the close of the story, the reveal therefore won’t come as a surprise.  Warre’s brain-washing techniques are a story element that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in The Avengers.

It’s always nice to see David Langton and William Squire, but both are slightly underused. Nutcracker has all the elements for a top episode but something doesn’t quite click for me – a touch more mystery and a few red herrings might have helped.  The climatic fight is also something of a damp squib as it’s over almost as soon as it begins. And the fact we don’t have a tag scene means that the episode ends rather abruptly after this brief punch-up.

Having said all that though, Nutcracker moves at a decent pace throughout so I’m happy to give it a score of three and a half out of five.

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The Champions – The Gun-Runners

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A cache of Japanese weapons from WW2 are discovered in a Burmese jungle. They’re intercepted by a group of gun-runners who plan to sell them to international arms dealer Hartington (William Franklin). The Champions follow a winding trail which eventually leads them to Africa ….

For once we aren’t using the regular teeny-tiny jungle studio set to stand in for the Burmese jungle. This makes all the difference – being able to see natural light helps to create the illusion that the series has actually gone abroad. Anthony Chinn once again gets a few lines of dialogue but goes uncredited as one of the unfortunate Burmese soldiers machine gunned to death by the gun-runners. There’s no blood though, which makes this sudden orgy of violence a little more palatable.

Sharron (“Intelligent, beautiful”) is the star of this week’s post credits superpowers demonstration. Dressed to kill after a night on the tiles, she moves a car for a couple of drunk chaps. The fact she’s alone hints at her independent nature (although when she turns up at Nemesis HQ, Craig can’t resist leering in her direction).

Our three heroes head out to Burma. Sharron and Richard keep tabs on Hartington, who has a meeting with Nadkarni (a delightfully sweaty Wolfe Morris).  I do rather like Richard’s disguise (a pair of dark glasses) which is nicely inconspicuous when you’re sitting in a restaurant.

Meanwhile Craig talks to the police captain in charge of the case (a slightly hysterical Ric Young). These scenes chug along with a fairly low level of excitement, although William Franklin and David Lodge (as Hartington’s number two, Filmer) are always watchable, if rather underused.

Half way through the story I was still waiting for it to click into gear. More good actors (Guy Deghy, Paul Stassino) pop up, but the plot seems rather small beer.  Surely there must be arms shipments happening all the time, why is this one so special?

So you have to take your entertainment where you can – such as a few nice comic moments for William Gaunt or a highly unconvincing shot of Stuart Damon matted into some Burmese street footage. Things start to pick up when Craig meets Hartington – Craig getting squashed by a packing case directed at him by Filmer is nicely done (as is his athletic escape from the warehouse cellar).

If the audience might possibly be suffering from a faint case of boredom as the episode wears on, then this seems to be mirrored by the Champions (who are now back at Nemesis HQ). When the most exciting thing to happen for a while is the way they all manage to throw their Styrofoam cups into the waste paper bin, you know you’re in trouble ….

Thankfully things are slightly more energised once they head out to Africa. We may be back in the teeny-tiny studio jungle set, but there are compensations – such as a chimpanzee waking across shot or Sharron’s rather attractive jungle-wear.  I’ll dock them a point for another less than impressive matte shot though – those giraffes seem to be wobbling about a bit.

Hartington and his associates have also travelled to Africa but are less fortunate. Their plane crashes, although luckily the weapons are safe (as is Hartington). Mind you it’s impossible not to raise an eyebrow at his massive head bandage which looks rather silly.

Overall this is a fairly undistinguished effort from Dennis Spooner and is worth only a middling two and a half out of five.

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The Champions – The Mission

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Winthrop House Mission, located in deepest Surrey, seems to be just a refuge for vagrants and others down on their luck. Run by Dr Peterson (Anthony Bate), it’s actually the cover for a well oiled organisation – giving criminals a new life via the wonders of plastic surgery. Craig and Sharron masquerade as a couple of crooks requiring new faces but soon Craig learns that Peterson has a horrifying Nazi past …

The pre-credits sequence features nice turns from Harry Towb and Dermot Kelly as a couple of tramps seeking succour at the Misssion. Towb doesn’t last long though as he hits the dust before the credits roll (after poking around in a room where he shouldn’t have gone). His murderers are suitably off-putting – both bandaged up like Invisible Men – which serves as an intriguing teaser.

The three Champions are involved in the post credits superpowers demonstration. All recycled footage alas – Sharron fending off a couple of lecherous hitch-hikers, Richard going athletic in The Dark Island and Craig chasing a runaway van.

Craig – with the aid of a moustache and some faked newspaper reports – poses as an American gangster with Sharron as his suitably attractive bit of stuff. There’s a rare comic moment for Alexandra Bastedo during the scene where Craig speaks to a gaggle of reporters at the airport – as Craig pours out his story, Sharron is preening like a glamour model in the background!

This episode gives all three regulars a chance to ramp up the comedy. Bastedo is great fun as a glamourous gum-chewing moll, Damon slips into gangster mode very easily whilst Gaunt later amuses himself as a tramp (pairing up with Dermot Kelly). Richard’s inadvertent shower soaking also amuses.

I like the way the tone of the episode suddenly darkens after Craig recognises Peterson as a top ranking Nazi from the Dachau concentration camp. It’s a slight shame that this revelation comes to Craig via his superpowers though (possibly he’s memorised the pictures of every Nazi war criminal in the world on the off-chance he might run into them).

It just feels a little too contrived though, maybe discovering Peterson’s past through research would have been the better option. But if you begin to pick holes in the plot then you’d never end – the Champions stumble across Peterson’s operation with embarrassing ease, it’s difficult to believe that watertight gangster covers for Craig and Sharron could be set up so quickly, etc, etc.

Craig’s anger at Peterson’s past dissipates very quickly (his initial response is to forget the mission and simply act as executioner). A little more angst and conflict between Craig and Sharron about whether Peterson should live or die would have ramped up the drama of the episode quite nicely, but since the revelation is glossed over so quickly you wonder why it was raised at all.

Richard poses as a tramp and befriends Hogan (Kelly). Kelly’s excellent comic value even though his part is fairly small. Oh, and it’s remarkable that Richard stumbled across a vagrant who was able to take him back to Winthrop House.

On the plus side, we learn a little about the Champions’ biological makeup. Craig, Sharron and Richard all now share the same rare bloodgroup – which is presented as a major revelation.

Anthony Bate never gave a bad performance and is suitably icy and detached as Peterson. As touched upon before, many Champions villains tend to be fairly two-dimensional, but Bate is able to add a touch of light and shade to what could otherwise have been a rather cliche character.

The tag scene is rather silly – the Champions bring Tremayne back a present (a bottle of Hogan’s incredibly powerful hooch). By the way they all nip off pretty smartish you know exactly what’s going to happen (he’s going to try a sip and spit it out with an expression of disgust). And that’s exactly what happens. Poor Tremayne, his underlings really have no respect for him.

Another very competent script from Donald James, The Mission is worth a score of three and a half out of five.

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