Dec 25, 2009

DVD Review: Zodiac: The Complete Series

If Roger Marshall, the man often credited with introducing the trademark wit to The Avengers, felt that he still had unfinished business when he left that show (supposedly due to being fed up with Brian Clemens), then Zodiac was his opportunity to finish it. In 1974, Marshall created Zodiac for Thames TV: a hip, current series about a police officer teamed up with an astrologer. To me, the premise didn’t sound very promising at first. It brings to mind any number of dreary, subsequent American shows about police working with all manner of psychics, swamis, mystics and ghost whisperers. Luckily, Zodiac is nothing like those shows. Its premise is a mere jumping-off point, not its raison d’etre. The heart of Zodiac, like The Avengers, is the relationship between two unique and appealing characters: aristocratic male cop David “Grad” Gradley (Anton Rodgers), and beautiful, liberated female astrologer Esther Jones (Anouska Hempel).

Gradley is a very Steed-like upper-class copper (he has to be a working policeman in order to keep his inheritance thanks to a convenient clause in his father’s will). In fact, so long as one can overlook his appalling, standard-issue “Seventies British TV haircut” (when I was little, I used to think those do's had to be part of the joke on Faulty Towers and Are You Being Served?) and his questionable fashion sense (Steed might well go overboard with the cravats–especially in The New Avengers–but he would never show up at Mrs. Peel’s apartment wearing all denim!), Rodgers makes a wholly satisfying Steed surrogate. He shares Patrick Macnee’s seemingly effortless charm, self-effacing good humor and readiness with a witty comeback when verbally sparring with Hempel (who always addresses him as “you arrogant man!”). And Hempel herself, fresh off of her sex siren phase in movies like the entertaining spy farce Tiffany Jones and Russ Meyer’s plantationploitation flick Black Snake, actually makes a totally credible Mrs. Peel stand-in, quickly proving that her acting skills are, in fact, more than the sum of her breasts, and revealing an adeptness at witty banter that she never had the opportunity to demonstrate in her films. The New Zealand-born Hempel (with whom I must confess a minor infatuation ever since first reading her irresistibly exotic name) actually had quite an illustrious spy career, but the roles in which she kept her clothes on were generally (and quite unfairly, as evidenced by Zodiac) marked by their brevity. After appearing as one of the many girls (the Australian one) at Blofeld’s clinic in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, she went on to mostly small roles in Department S, The Persuaders!, The Adventurer and eventually a slightly larger one on Return of the Saint. The scant six episodes of Zodiac make it clear that she should have worked more in the Seventies.

Hempel’s Esther is a suspect in the first episode (“Death of a Crab”), but quickly befriends the urbane gadfly Gradley. It looks at first as if their relationship might be romantic (ala Moonlighting), but the final scene of the episode twists it into a friendship with plenty of sexual tension, ala Steed and Mrs. Peel. Even so, the sparks continue to fly through subsequent episodes, and it’s quite disappointing that the two should-be lovers don’t even come together in the finale. Of course, one has to assume that Marshall intended for the show to go on beyond that point, and understood from his tenure on The Avengers that the tension could propel it much better as an ongoing series than a relationship ever could. Anyway, Esther writes horoscopes and does astrological readings (and, apparently, palmistry) for high-end clients. Judging by her apartment, she seems to make a pretty good living at it. Despite insisting to Gradley when they first meet that “I’m an astrologer, not a spiritualist or a medium,” Esther seems to possess whatever sort of psychic powers any given episode calls for. In one she reads Tarot cards, and she frequently demonstrates hints of second sight. Gradley is an open-minded skeptic, the Scully to her Mulder. He may be skeptical, but he keeps her around long after “Death of a Crab,” and finds her skills useful. That said, it’s interesting to note that none of the episodes actually depend on astrology really working to for the mystery to be solved. Esther is a smart lady, and her deductions could be right for reasons other than the stars. But the show is open-ended enough to please skeptics and believers alike. Besides getting our leads together, “Death of a Crab” is a notable episode for the appearance of a very young–and beardless–John Rhys-Davies, already able to convey effortless authority in his sonorous voice even so early in his career.

Most episodes, in fact, feature notable guest stars. (Or, more often, guest stars who went on to become notable after the series.) Michael Gambon turns up in “The Cool Aquarian” as a ruthless (or is he?) business tycoon. His ruthlessness is quickly demonstrated by his readiness to burn up a rare stamp for which he’s just laid down £30,000. When his aghast lackey points out the value, Gambon says he hasn’t lost £30,000; he’s just made £20,000. There were only two such stamps in the world, and now there iss only one, which he owns, so it’s now worth more. Hm, I’m not sure I buy his logic. Couldn’t he have just hidden the extra and achieved the same effect? Anyway, apparently he’s pretty ruthless. Which is why it seems odd that a kidnapper abducts a teenage girl from a poor family and then sends his ransom note to Gambon’s millionaire businessman. Will such a man part with his beloved cash to save the life of a girl he has no connection to? And why was he the target anyway? That’s what Gradley has to figure out, and once again he turns to Esther for help. Aiding matters, it turns out that Gambon is a client of hers. In fact, it turns out that almost all suspects and victims of crime in all of London are clients of hers, which proves very convenient throughout the series.

The actual plot of each episode (although they do generally come together in a satisfying manner) is pretty much immaterial. The reason to watch the show is for the hugely entertaining, Avengers-like chemistry between the two leads. The banter is better than the cases. And there’s plenty of banter on display–and humor. As Gradley dines with Esther in her apartment in “The Cool Aquarian,” he asks if a bell on her table is just for show. “Of course not,” she says, ringing it. A butler appears out of nowhere and serves the wine. The elaborate pouring ritual goes on for a few minutes, with Gradley just staring agape until he disappears back from whence he came. Pleased with his reaction, Esther finally explains that she’s “borrowing” this butler from some neighbors who went on holiday and wanted to leave him in a good home.

Gradley offers a characteristic (and decidedly Steed-like) comeback, claiming, “You’ll never get rid of him now!”

Esther continues the exchange, explaining that the butler is just dying to polish some silver and adding, hopefully, “You haven’t got any, have you?” It’s all very Avengersy humor, with great repartee between the leads.

Later on, considering his chief’s opinion of him, Gradley declares that “you’re only as good as your last arrest, you know.” Zodiac is full of great lines. If you enjoy the banter on The Avengers, you’ll definitely find something to like here.

Gradley demonstrates even more of his Steedishness in “The Strength of Gemini.” He likes to peep through the telescope on Esther’s rooftop patio (on which she’s prone to lounging around in her bikini top, which I guess was a popular pastime in the Seventies). When the girl he once saw through it yet again proves not to be present, he makes the same exaggerated noise of disappointment that Macnee often did. He also displays Steed’s typical lack of modesty when formulating his plan to catch a con man (Norman Eshley) who’s seducing and taking advantage of well-to-do young women like Jenny Hanley. “It’s very simple,” he declares, realizing that the con man is connected to a flower shop. “Someone personable, like myself, goes in and requests flowers...”

The con man in question gets the women’s birthdays from his accomplice at the flower shop, then writes to Esther and asks her (under a different name each time) to do their birth charts. Then he swoops in, all Eurospy-worthy suave sleaze, and tells them all about themselves based on Esther’s charts. Gradley appears to recognize somewhat of a kindred spirit in the suave trickster, making the man a good nemesis.

“Saturn's Rewards" has a couple of guest stars who will be familiar to spy fans, including Hammerhead villain (and frequent spy show guest star and two-time Rival of Sherlock Holmes) Peter Vaughn and the future Saint himself, Ian Ogilvy. Vaughn plays an MP who witnesses a murder through a window while in the arms of a woman not his wife. Naturally, he doesn’t want to come forward as a witness for fear of compromising himself, but what does he do when he recognizes the man his daughter is dating (Ogilvy) as the very murderer he witnessed? Despite a heavy reliance on coincidence, this is one of the more tightly-plotted episodes, and Ogilvy is entertaining as a mustachioed pimp.

A familiar spy face also turns up in “Sting, Sting Scorpio” as well, and Sandbaggers fans will get a laugh when they recognize that show’s CIA agent Bob Sherman as the guitar-strumming hippie beachcomber with a Byrds haircut, a leopard skin vest and beads(!) who tries to sell Esther some pot. He even sings a song. A terrible, terrible song. It rips off Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” as “Hey, Fortune Teller, draw a card for me...”

Despite the song, this is one of the series' darker episodes, which finds Esther filling in for a murdered friend of hers as a fortune teller in the seaside resort town of Brighton. The friend, an old lady, made an unfortunate prediction to two hotel maids regarding a string of recent hotel robberies. Whether it was actual psychic talent or a lucky guess, that revelation got her killed, and Esther is determined to prove it. Gradley, naturally, takes a holiday and follows her down (after refusing her original entreaties to do so). His vacation wardrobe, it should come as no surprise, contains an article of fashion even worse than the all-denim getup (which also reappears): a shirt with a collar that can only be described as clown-like, at least six inches wide on each side! Together with the ubiquitous cravat, the effect is truly worthy of the big top. The bad guy in this episode is also a future spy guy: Robert Powell, who would later go on to play Richard Hannay in both the 1979 remake of The 39 Steps and the TV series Hannay. Here he sports a very un-Hannay-like–and very Seventies–fro. He’s a Scropio, and one need only watch a few episodes of Zodiac to realize that all Scorpios are bad news. (Sorry, Scorpios!)

“Horns of the Moon” closes the series out with all the same quality we’ve become accostumed to, but as I already mentioned, it is disappointing that there isn’t some sort of romantic conclusion. That main relationship is definitely the main reason to watch Zodiac, and I found it an awfully good reason. I would hazard a guess that most Avengers fans will as well. Fans of the two leads should also be sure to track this one down, as it showcases their talents to better effect than anything else I’ve ever seen either of them in. I was really sad to come to the end of this brief run. The chemistry between Hempel and Rodgers is wonderful (from his charming insouciance to her determined pluckiness), and I would have loved to see more of it. Zodiac is a very pleasant discovery, boasting an intriguing and unique premise, a parade of terrific guest stars and–above all else–that banter. It pulls it all off as a slightly more risque Avengers imitator that more than holds its own. It’s available on a Region 2 DVD from Network as a website exclusive. I wish there were some extras (Marshall is still around and happy to discuss his work; a commentary or two would have been nice), but just being able to see a rarity like this is worthwhile on its own.

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