Mar 31, 2007

Review: Secret Agent aka Danger Man: The Complete Collection

Along with The Avengers, The Prisoner and, to a slightly lesser extent, The Saint, Secret Agent (known in the UK as Danger Man) is a quintessential Sixties British spy show, and one of the very cornerstones of the entire genre. It’s an absolute must-see for any spy fan, and A&E’s new Megaset (not to be confused with their old, more expensive but less-comprehensive and less-mega Megaset) is the best, most economical way to own it. The new Megaset includes all 39 half-hour episodes (originally available in an attractive but pricey set called "Danger Man") and all 47 hour-long adventures (originally packaged by A&E as "Secret Agent.") They’re housed on 18 appealing, single-disc slimcases packed in a compact, satisfyingly hefty cube of a box that takes up considerably less shelf space than the previous Megaset, which only included the hour-long episodes!

Secret Agent/Danger Man stars the great Patrick McGoohan as John Drake. In the half-hour format, Drake works for NATO and has a clipped, Mid-Atlantic American accent; in the re-tooled hour-long program, he’s British and works for MI-6. Although he has occasional recurring bosses, it’s essentially McGoohan’s solo show. Unlike the lighter tone of that other solo staple, The Saint, Secret Agent is a fairly serious espionage show. Drake participates in actual spying (undercover work, intelligence gathering, agent recruitment), doesn’t generally carry a gun, and doesn’t always win. He usually does, but it’s sometimes a bittersweet victory.

Danger Man began 1960, around the same time as The Avengers (which wouldn't come into its own for another year), and before the Bond films. This gave it the rare opportunity to essentially define its own genre, something no other spy series would ever have the chance to do once 007 etched the espionage standards in stone. Of course, the producers (led by Ralph Smart) borrowed from Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, but also from the darker espionage literature of Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham, and from John Le Carre’s nascent Smiley cycle. The series was set in the contemporary political climate of the Cold War, but actual countries were rarely named, replaced by fictional stand-ins. (Castelvara was their go-to South American dictatorship, for instance.)

Just because Drake walked a slightly more realistic beat than Bond doesn’t mean the episodes are action-free. They all pack at least one punch-up, often more, and usually an exciting chase or two. Danger is constant, as Drake is always at risk of being found out when undercover, often behind the Iron Curtain. Drake doesn’t womanize (supposedly at the insistence of the devoutly Catholic McGoohan, who reportedly turned down the Bond role because he didn’t approve of the character’s promiscuity and penchant for violence), but he’s not above leading a woman on and using her for information. His work requires him to constantly misrepresent himself and betray hastily-forged friendships, which takes its toll on him. As a result, Drake is petulant and often at odds with his bosses. It’s not hard to see this character becoming so embittered as to eventually resign... as McGoohan’s unnamed character does in his follow-up series, The Prisoner.

Whether or not The Prisoner’s Number Six is meant to be John Drake is a source of constant, often vehement, debate among fans. McGoohan has stated publicly that they are not the same character, but then, he has to say that, officially, as he and his production company (who made The Prisoner) did not have the rights to the John Drake name. The characters certainly share many traits, including a keen intelligence (which always comes through in McGoohan’s eyes even when Drake is pretending to be someone else), a disregard for authority, and hints of a Holmesian condescending superiority. This latter trait manifests itself most frequently towards Drake’s controllers and the enemy agents who think they can outwit him. Number Two after Number Two (the position had a very high turnover rate) would try to wring the same disregard out of Number Six with varying methods, but little success. Ultimately, whether the Prisoner technically is Drake or not is beside the point. McGoohan’s years spent in the Drake role and the popularity of the character were extra-textual baggage he brought with him to The Prisoner, no matter what. The public’s perception of McGoohan as a spy made it possible for him to provide such little background on Number Six, and enabled him to set the wheels moving so quickly in the first episode, "Arrival," which he began with his character resigning. (The sequence was subsequently summarized the The Prisoner’s main titles every week.) Episodes like "A, B and C" took further advantage of McGoohan’s Secret Agent legacy, and "The Girl Who Was Death" sends it up brilliantly, along with The Avengers and all other Sixties spies.

But while viewing Danger Man informs and enhances viewing The Prisoner (though it’s by no means a pre-requisite), knowledge of The Prisoner is not at all necessary to watch Danger Man. In fact, the latter show’s acknowledged brilliance and justified fame have unfairly obscured the former’s rock-solid reputation. Unlike The Prisoner, Danger Man did not set out to break new ground or deconstruct the genre, but merely to tell great spy stories. And it succeeds as well as–if not better than–ninety percent of the countless other series that have had the same goal. While a few clunkers are inevitable in such a long-running program, the vast majority of episodes are extremely well written, well acted, superbly directed and tightly edited. The show makes better use of its thirty minute format than any other action drama I’ve seen at that length, always managing to tell a full, fast-paced but satisfyingly complete story in its limited time. (Apparently ITC had completely forgotten the trick by the time they got around to The Adventurer!) And it’s a convenient running time; the half-hour episodes (actually running shorter than that) make perfect viewing when you’re just looking for something to put on during dinner or while waiting to go out. Stand-out adventures in this format include "The Sanctuary," "Colonel Rodriguez," and "Time To Kill" (penned by future Avengers mastermind Brian Clemens), in which Drake finds himself handcuffed to an argumentative schoolteacher in an unfriendly nation.

When the series expanded to an hour (and began airing in America as Secret Agent, whose famous Johnny Rivers theme song accompanies the US title sequence included as a bonus feature on these discs), it adapted easily to the new length. These episodes never feel flabby; instead they use the extra running time to create more complex plots and develop Drake’s character more fully. "Yesterday’s Enemies" is one of the very best examples of what could potentially make Drake become disillusioned with his business, and could on its own make a fitting prequel to The Prisoner. Drake looks into a network of double-agents set up by a disgruntled former colleague, and the tragic consequences of his investigation sicken him. The episode shows the toll that the spy business takes on the families of those involved. It's a moving piece of television, very much of the "depressing spy story" sub-genre later perfected by The Sandbaggers.

"A Room In the Basement," on the other hand, in which Drake goes rogue to rescue a fellow agent after diplomatic channels fail, could be a prototype for a very different type of spy show. With plenty of deception, intrigue, action and breaking and entering, it could have easily been remade as an Alias. It's to Danger Man's credit that the series can pull off both of these radically different types of episode without seeming schizophrenic. Another teriffic entry, "Fair Exchange" finds a happy medium between the two ends of the spectrum in a great tale of East German border-crossing.

"Don’t Nail Him Yet" is a particularly exemplary episode, and one of the series’ finest moments. In order to trap a suspected spy, Drake learns his habits and creates a character he thinks he’ll respond to, then expertly befriends the man. His quarry, Denis Rawson (John Fraser) is not presented as a "bad guy," but as a decent, lonely man who’s been compromised, and he earns the audience’s sympathies. (This same set-up, and the inevitable complications and moral quandaries which follow, also forms the basis for the best episodes of MI-5/Spooks.) When Drake’s superiors become anxious to make an arrest, he’s forced to speed up his strategy, hoping to learn who Rawson is reporting to. This episode contains good, realistic characters, intelligent drama, fascinating tradecraft (Drake and a somewhat resentful Special Branch detective tail the suspicious Rawson as he attempts to evade them with a circuitous route in a lengthy, Hitchcockian sequence), and bursts of thrilling action (including a car colliding with a plane!). All this and the sort of slightly melancholy conclusion Secret Agent episodes often end with. If you’re Netflicking and just want a taste of the show, "Don’t Nail Him Yet" is as good a taste as you’ll find.

Unfortunately, the next episode on that disc, "The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove," is a rare failure, but an interesting one. It’s atypical for the series, with an unsure, possibly drugged Drake never fully aware of his own circumstances, and touches of surrealism more associated with The Avengers (particularly "Death’s Door") and perfected in The Prisoner. For these reasons alone it’s worth watching (especially for fans of McGoohan’s other series), as well as for Desmond "Q" Llewellyn in a fairly substantial role.

The final two hour-long episodes are in color (and were cobbled together into a movie called Koroshi for release in Europe), but are not among the series’ strongest. Nonetheless, it’s good to see Drake in color for once, and makes for a nice bridge into The Prisoner. (In fact, when McGoohan fell behind on his production schedule on that show, the color episodes of Secret Agent filled the timeslot.) These episodes are both set in Asia, and contain some nice, colorful shots of Tokyo and other Eastern landmarks. Whether this footage was taken by a second unit for the show or came from ITC’s stock footage library I’m not sure, but due to the quality I’d actually lean toward the former.

This Megaset contains the same discs as the individual collections, with the same transfers and the same extras. The transfers are generally quite good, and since Danger Man was always shot on film (as opposed to videotape, like the early Avengers episodes), picture is uniformly clear and crisp and there are no sound problems. All of that is definitely a rare treat for fans of British television from that era, since we’re used to the unavoidable muddy dialogue and bleary image from those videotaped Avengers. The extras are thin, as they usually are on A&E’s TV releases. Each disc of the hour-long episodes contains a still gallery, a brief McGoohan bio, and the aforementioned American titles, using the Johnny Rivers song instead of Edwin Astley’s "Highwire" theme from the British versions.

McGoohan is consistently excellent, a pleasure to watch, and nearly all the episode are worth seeing again and again, so Secret Agent aka Danger Man undoubtedly belongs in every serious spy fan’s collection. If you don’t have any of the previous releases, this new Megaset is definitely the way to go. It may be pricey, but it’s a bargain compared to buying all the sets on their own! Even if you already have some of the sets, it may still turn out cheaper to buy this box than continue building your collection one expensive piece at a time, and it definitely saves shelf space. Highly recommended.

2 comments:

doublenoughtspy said...

Actually, Drake worked for M9 in the hour long series, not MI6.

A curious fact: the real MI9 was focused on survival, evasion, and escape for prisoners during WW2.

Foreshadowing the Prisoner? That would be telling!

Nice review of the series, BTW. It really did blaze the trail and it is sad how few people just know the theme song.

Tanner said...

Thanks for the correction, Doublenoughtspy! I was using "MI-6" to generally mean British Intelligence, but I should have checked my facts. It's interesting that even though everyone knew what MI-6 was in the early Sixties, producers still had to pretend like it was a secret and use alternatives. In Dr. No you can see Bernard Lee's lips say "MI-6" even though it's redubbed as "MI-7."